It’s been ten years since I lived in a Greece for few months, in the country’s second largest city of Thessaloniki. When I recently had the chance to visit the country again, I agreed right away! Visiting a place after so many years is like a time machine.
The ten years that have passed, haven’t been easy for Greece, and we have compared the state our countries are in with the Greek friends numerous times. Greeks say my country, Latvia, was doing better and even with the high levels unemployment and the real estate bubble bursting it was nothing in comparison to dire Greek situation. Latvia was often showed as the poster-child on how one should come out of crisis, and Greeks didn’t like it being rubbed in their faces.
Memories and Current Situation
From 2007 Greece is embedded in my memory as a bright country with noone being indifferent. Loud protests, strikes, gatherings when a football team wins and the very particular Greek nightclubs where you hear something like local music and most of the money is spent on alcohol and flower plates for the performers (yes, to be showered in). But many things I experienced in Greece made me understand that my mentality is not used to this life and I would love to visit again as a tourist, but never to live there. Have there been changes in the past ten years?
The first thing I noticed was the lack of strays. Some of the strongest memories from Greece are of numerous packs of dogs running around the city, digging holes in the parks, accompanying you on the narrow streets and rubbing against your legs. Also, the fact that one needs to put their feet on the ground very carefully not to spoil their fancy shoes. Much like Stephen Clarke described France in the book A Year in Merde. This time I don’t see a single stray and walking is just walking, no need to look out for “landmines”. Also streets are much cleaner in general and even in hot weather I don’t get a whiff of garbage.
10 years ago there was a certain atmosphere of taking it slow in Greece. Getting an Internet connection in the flat took three weeks (“the guy will come tomorrow”), everything would be closed in the middle of the day, even the tiny street-side shops selling cigarettes and magazines, and most of the life happened after midnight. Going at home at 3 am was something kids would do, real parties wouldn’t finish until morning! Smoke was everywhere. Not just the never ending forest fires, but also cigarette smoke. Greeks are still among the most smoking nations in the EU, but going out it didn’t seem so full of smoke as before, as even the rules were strict before but the enforcement was lagging.
People still seem to not to worry about anything at all and taking their time. I notice a lady peeling beans on the bus stop while waiting for the bus to come. Why not?
Despite the numerous press articles about the refugee crisis in Greece, at least in Athens I didn’t see a anyone resembling a refugee during the day. To be honest, there are definitely less of North African refugees at this time, as in 2007 every street corned had a guy selling counterfeit purses.
If you have never been to Athens, this section might help you with the tips! Since Athens metro has expanded, I believe it really is the best way to move around, as rush hour can be quite intense. A ticket costs 1.40eur and it is valid for 90 minutes. Many metro stations are beautiful works of art as well.
The main place to visit is the Acropolis, which won’t come cheap. Entry ticket is 20 eur (for students & seniors from EU and during the winter there is a discount of 10 eur), and if you are thirsty at the entrance before the climb, a small bottle of water will cost you 3 euros. There are water fountains at the top though so at least you can refill your bottle for the way back. Try to visit as early as possible, as this really is the top attraction! When visiting in 2007, someone told me a story that every morning the staff dumps gravel at the site for all those tourists taking a piece as a souvenir. Must have been just a story, as this time I saw a guard making someone empty their pockets and leave all the stones where they belong!
A good way to see the Acropolis is from the nearby hills, but this time I didn’t dare to go there for sunrise on my own as I was travelling alone. Instead I opted for sunset view of the monument from the Hilton Athens rooftop bar Galaxy, where you can really have a tasty meal – the picture below is the view and scroll down for the picture for tasty sushi I had there!
Visiting Acropolis for me was a weird experience this time. Since I have so many pictures of the locations and so little pictures of me in those, I decided to ask a passing guy to take a picture of me with my camera. Turned out he is from India and he wanted a picture with me in return. Then his friend also joined me and wanted a picture. I moved away from them but turned out there was a whole group of them, and they started following me around, asking for more pictures and when I refused, just started taking pictures of me. Moments like these makes we wonder how do all the solo travelers handle it out there!
When I visited Acropolis in 2007, the Archaeology museum was closed for renovation and I was sad I couldn’t see all of the famous artifacts. This time I had the chance to visit the new Acropolis museum where you can see numerous exhibits from the excavations at the site, listen to an audio-guide or inconspicuously join a guided tour. The entrance fee is 5 euros and you can spend a few hours looking at the exhibits. Take into consideration that path to see the exhibit is supposed to be taken clockwise for it to make sense (of course, I went against the crowd and soon realized the order didn’t make sense). There is a cafe on the second floor of the building but it seemed expensive for the level of the food here -10 euros for salad and 15 for a really shabby looking second dish.
Visiting in summer means that the greenery of the city won’t be as green as it could be. But there is a nice place to walk in, the National Gardens. They used to be called the Royal Gardens and were commissioned by the Queen Amalia in 1883. Unfortunately, for many plants the climate was too harsh and the garden didn’t turn out as nice as it was expected. I wouldn’t compare it to the manicured gardens of Western Europe, but it is still nice. You can feed ducks here (most avid feeders were a group of nuns the day I visited!), see some turtles and there is also a small zoo.
Since I was visiting for just a few days, I didn’t have time to visit the islands properly. Visiting Santorini in 2007 was definitely one of those moments that set me on the path of writing a blog about travels and I wanted to see more of that. The islands have their charm, and I really, really wanted to visit at least one, turns out, you can manage it, as there are cruises to various islands not far from Athens.
The cruise ship is not as modern as those by Hellenic Seaways. Depending on where you buy the ticket, it can be around 90 euros per person. It is several stories tall and I go upstairs to have a better view. There I meet a German girl who is travelling alone and was initially planning to visit Istanbul but decided to change her itinerary due to the recent events. We talk for a while but it’s not very comfortable on the deck, as it’s very windy, raining, and from time to time the plastic cover of the roof caves in and delivers a bucket’s worth of water on someone’s head. We decide to move to lower decks. The only ones who stay are a group of men from India, who have their own music that they dance to. Men dance with other men, as customary in India. Memories of the visit to India come back to me!
When we dock at the first island Hydra, at least it isn’t raining anymore and it’s already 11am. We have spent nearly three hours on the way. The Hellenic Seaways catamaran leaving the port foams up the water and we get a glimpse of what kind of color would it be if not the gray weather. The island is full of tiny little streets, white houses and vines tangling the corners. Charming little place to be!
There are only about two thousand inhabitants on the island and there are no motorized vehicles apart from garbage trucks. So first thing we see is donkeys! The island is a little Mediterranean gem – numerous cosy cafes, tiny shops to buy Greek salad spices, cotton shirts and fish bone shaped earrings. You also see photogenic cats from time to time, much like in Santorini. Most people only come for an hour or two until the next ferry but there are a few places to spend the night as well.
When I get to the second island, Poros, the sky is starting to clear up and a typical Mediterranean scenery unfolds – red roofs, cypresses and tiny cars. Of course there is an ice-cream parlor where you can try 46 different kinds of ice-cream!
The main attraction here is the Clock tower where you get to see the bay, color of the sky mixing with the color of the water. Poros also has a few beaches and has a much bigger number of people staying overnight. Right next to the ferry there are fish and someone catches one. Unfortunately, we are on a tight schedule here, free time here is bare 40 minutes, then it’s time for lunch and departure to the final island.
Aegina is located just 27 km away from Athens and many Athenians have summer houses there. This island used to be extremely important in Greek history, as this was the first city state that issued coins in Europe! It was also an important port and competed with Athens in all aspects. The main attraction here is the Aphae temple which was build 500 BC on the previous temple ruins. This is the only place where the goddess Aphae is worshiped. Archaeological excavations have uncovered figurines that indicate this worship site to be used at least from 14 BC. Interestingly this temple is one of the three sites composing a triangle, the other two are the Parthenon in Athens and Poseidon temple in Suonion.
There is also one modern place of worship on the island, sacred site of the St.Nectarius, the last of the Greek Orthodox saints who died in 1921 and was proclaimed a saint in the sixties. Many pilgrims come here on the November 9th, the name day of Nectarius and Nectarias.
Greece is definitely the place to visit for historic sites, but for me it is also time for regular discoveries, such as finding out how pistachios grow! Aegina island is famous for the plantations and you can buy a lot of pistachios here. A tiny bag costs 3.50 eur, three go for 10. But the best treat for a hot day is freshly made pistachio ice-cream. A little bowl costs 2 eur, but it’s incredibly tasty!
The ten years have done some good for Greece. It’s much cleaner, more in order and there are significantly more tourists than I remember! Perhaps its because other accessible warm locations are more dangerous now. More visitors seems to have left an impact in prices, especially on food. There are also many more souvenir shops in the city and attractions catered to tourists.
My heart is in the islands! So if you get a chance to visit Athens, book a few days for the islands! Greece is a nice place to come looking for warm weather and I did enjoy my evening outdoor swims in Hilton outdoor pool very much, despite it being September!