This was a wonderful week. Why? Because Helen, Nadia and I booked an impulsive trip to Greece!
For me, Greece (Ελλάδα in Greek) has always been one of those “far away” desirable places to visit. I didn’t think I would get to travel to the place of 227 inhabited islands (apparently over 6,000 in total!!), even during my time here on exchange. After coming back from Croatia, though, I was determined to go to another sunny destination where I could go sailing.
Yes, sailing! My first experience with sailing was at YMCA Camp Elphinstone, where I went for summer camp [almost] every year for 10 years. We would sail on Lasers and Hobie Cats, and it was so incredibly exhilarating every time we had the opportunity to sail. I absolutely love it, and I miss it a lot. It’s an expensive hobby, but once day when I become rich, I will buy a Laser and go sailing in the summertime around Vancouver. 8)
Helen, Nadia and I got together and booked everything on Oct 24…. for an Oct 29 departure. Our itinerary: Athens for one night, Agios Nikolaos (Crete) for two nights. It’s generally kind of expensive to get around the Greek islands, so we opted for a loooong itinerary with flight connections and overnight ferries in order to save some money. Although the trip was tiring, it was all worth it! Our adrenaline pushed us along.
Our first stop was Athens, where we stayed in the AthenStyle Hostel. Overall, the living quarters weren’t as nice as we would have liked (entered the 12-bed mixed dorm, which smelled like wet towels; showers had low water pressure), but the rooftop bar made up for it. You could see the Acropolis shining in all its glory from the rooftop bar – really really cool.
The next morning, we went on a free walking tour in downtown Athens. We saw the original stadium of the first modern Olympics in 1896, the national guards at the Presidential Mansion, the National Gardens, the “tomb of the unknown soldier”, and more.
An interesting thing happened to us during the walking tour. We joined this walking tour on recommendation from the hostel, and because it was free. However, not long into it, a random woman came up to the group and said to the guide, “Hello, is this a walking tour?” To which the guide replied, “Yes!”, perhaps thinking that this random woman wanted to join. But then… the random woman pulled out some kind of badge and said “The police are coming. It’s people like you who take away business from us, registered and official tour guides. I have all the documentation here *pulls out some papers*. You see, everyone *speaking to the group*, this is why our country is in such bad condition. *back to the guide* You better stop this, the police are coming”. You could see the expression on our cheery guide’s face change: “Excuse me, please leave us alone now.” And our guide led us away to a different area. We were all thinking UMMMM… AWKWARD…… And I felt a bit conflicted because I didn’t know what to believe. Thoughts going through my head at the time: Was the random lady right? Is our guide really part of some kind of big problem in Greece? What should we do now? Should we leave the free tour? Why would our hostel recommend this free walking tour?? Well… in the end, none of us left our guide. As innocent tourists, we didn’t know how to react in this situation. Since none of us knew really what to do, we just continued with the free tour. In hindsight, maybe we should have left, but all in all…. the tour was nice. [I’m still conflicted and a bit confused].
After the free walking tour, we went to the Acropolis, an ancient citadel which contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historical significance. Before entering the actual fortress area, we went to this lookout point where you could see a good portion of Athens.
There is a LOT of construction in Athens for preserving the ancient buildings (there has been for centuries). In recent years they’ve been using a whiter marble, contrasted against the existing yellow-beige marble in order to differentiate between the reconstructed and original parts.
The Acropolis consists of many ancient buildings, and is listed as the preeminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list of monuments. We saw it all, but some notable structures are the Theatre of Dionysus (used for festivals in honour of the god Dionysus) and the Parthenon (templed dedicated to the goddess Athena).
After a day of sightseeing, we prepared for our long trip to the Greek island of Crete, with Agios Nikolaos being our final destination. First, we took an overnight ferry from Piraeus (port in Athens) to Heraklion (port in Crete), a 9-hour journey. From Heraklion, we took a 1-hr bus to Agios Nikolaos.
I’d chosen Agios Nikolaos because I found a company in this little town that still had sailing as an available activity, called Pelagos Dive Centre. Let me tell you a bit about traveling to the Greek islands in the winter…… it ain’t easy! The high-season for tourism is in the summer months, with the off-peak season being April-June or September-early October. We weren’t just going to Greece during the off-season… it was more like the dead season. Ferry and transportation is very limited, most hotels and restaurants are closed…. it was difficult to find places to stay and methods of getting from place to place. In the end, it all worked out, but if I could do it again I would have definitely gone back in September. For one, I probably would’ve been able to go to Santorini (one of the most breathtaking places in the world I’ve heard), but I couldn’t this time because ferry service to Santorini ended the week before our arrival in Greece.
On recommendation from Pelagos Dive Centre, we stayed at Mirabella Apartments. It was really reasonably priced due to it being off-season. It was a wonderful place! Definitely nicer than our hostel in Athens. It had a “countryside hotel” feeling to it – it was authentic, not too fancied up like a big-city hotel would be. After a 10+ hour journey, we were so happy to arrive in Agios Nikolaos with decent weather and a beautiful view.
After settling in, we ventured down to Pelagos Dive Centre with the intention of going sailing. However, when we got there, we were told that there was no wind and that sailing wouldn’t be an option that day. I was so disappointed. The main reason for coming to Greece was to sail. For weeks I’d been imagining the moment where I could let loose on the Mediterranean and fly through the water, wind in my hair. I felt a bit defeated.
BUT we were lucky because we could still do a few other activities before Pelagos officially closed for the season. So after a brief minute of sulking quietly to myself, I decided it was time to get over the whole sailing idea and move on to something else. We had a few options: stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, boating… In the end, we decided on boating. Surprisingly, we were allowed to go without a license, without boat-driving experience, and life jackets weren’t mandatory (safety alert, I know!)… buuuuut we were feeling adventurous and thought we should take advantage of this opportunity.
It was fairly overcast during our boat ride, with spots of sun here and there. It was pretty windy and a bit cold, but I think it was still around 14-16 degrees.
Then it started raining. Hard. We’d stopped the boat and were relaxing, when rain started coming down. Before long, it was raining enough to be a bother, so we ventured back to the shore. We got soaked!
When we got back, Stefan and Kathryn (married couple who started Pelagos Dive Centre) were so warm and welcoming. We were pretty wet and cold from the boat ride, so they comforted us with hot tea, biscuits, homemade cake…. and they let us sit and relax with them! Later on, some of their friends came over and they had an unplanned, impromptu dinner (apparently a very Greek thing to do). They encouraged us to stay for dinner, where they served marinated olives, deli meats, salad, bread, lentil soup… we even got to try some homemade raki. We truly felt like part of their family, and I felt so warm inside (figuratively and literally from the hot tea). Definitely the most authentic cultural experience I’ve had during my travels so far. Disclaimer: this was probably a special opportunity we had, since it was the off-season and we were the only customers that day. Don’t expect a homecooked meal in the high season! Nonetheless, I would definitely recommend Pelagos Dive Centre for those of you who might travel to Agios Nikolaos one day.
The following day, we slept in and hung out on the beach before we had to leave Agios Nikolaos for our journey home. Although the weather wasn’t the greatest (overcast, drizzling), we still felt relaxed and carefree.
On the Greek language: the Greeks were involved in some of the earliest discoveries in science, physics, astronomy, etc. This is reflected today by the notation we learn in many of our modern courses in science, math, etc. For example, Δ or delta, means “change in”. Σ or sigma, means “the sum of”. α or alpha and β or beta, have been used in financial theory formulas (holla to my Finance majors using the CAPM). Not to mention the Greek system, where fraternities and sororities have names like AΦ (Alpha Phi), AΓΔ (Alpha Gamma Delta), BΘΠ (Beta Theta Pi), ΣX (Sigma Chi), etc. These “symbols” are part of our every day lives at university, but what I realized when arriving in Greece was that these are just normal letters of the alphabet. Δ just means “capital D”, Σ just means “capital S”, α just means “lower-case A). It was kind of mindblowing actually. Since I know a fair amount of letters in the Greek alphabet, I realized I could actually read some of the street signs and menus just by sounding it out. Thank goodness I’ve been paying attention in my math & science classes, and that I’m aware of the Greek system’s presence on campus!
Speaking of restaurants, we ate soooo much good food in Greece. We tried to order traditional Greek dishes, such as dolmades (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice/meat), moussaka (baked casserole “lasagna meets shepherd’s pie” dish), taramosalata (fish roe dip), gyros (pita stuffed with meat and veggies), baklava (super sweet pastry), and yes, even greek salad, tzatziki, and greek yogurt. It was all so delicious, and affordable too. Here’s just a snapshot of what we ate:
On our way home, we had a 19-hr layover in Rome. We only had a few hours to actually see the city, so we did none other than have dinner and dessert. Which was also delicious.
Okay, writing that last part made me really hungry.