Sometimes the best made plans are better unmade – at least, that was our experience through the next leg of our journey. Instead of booking a direct flight to Athens, we decided to go with a cheaper option that included an overnight stay in Belgrade, Serbia. I really had no idea what to expect from Serbia. Since I hadn’t heard much about it, I did feel a little apprehensive; but once we arrived my apprehension turned to amazement. Not only was Belgrade a beautiful city, it was also extremely cheap for us as Canadians. This caused great excitement for the next six hours as we explored the city’s highlights from our centrally-located AirBnB. (Want to try AirBnB for your own vacation? Use our referral here and receive a discount on your travels!)
Even in heat that was pushing thirty-five degrees, it was a delight to walk streets filled with small shops and incredible foods. For two dollars, we shared a slice of pizza that Tyson claims was the size of Sexsmith, soon followed by 30-cent popsicles as we walked on through the city. Monuments of men with mustachios abounded, which pleased Tyson to no end. There were also buildings, parks, water fountains, and many other works of art to admire; one street was decorated with mosaics of colourful animals along its entire length. The highlight, however, was reaching the fortress of Kalemegdan, which overlooks the cityscape and the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. From this vantage point we enjoyed yet another scenic sunset before heading back to the apartment through a street overflowing with flowery restaurants where live bands played music and artisan booths displayed their wares. One seller gave me a small handmade heart of red clay; others gave us free samples of cider and cigarettes (though we declined the latter). After purchasing some delicious sandwiches and dessert at a 24-hour deli for under five dollars, we returned to our apartment and played a few games of foosball before retiring to bed, reminiscent of an unexpectedly wonderful day.
The next day we flew over Mount Olympus and descended into Athens. Prior to our arrival, there was a lot of hype surrounding the economic crisis in Greece. Since I’m not well-versed with that sort of thing, I won’t try to explain the situation except to say that all the banks were closed due to the country’s financial debt. As tourists, we were a little worried at first, but once in Athens we personally found that there wasn’t much cause for concern with regards to our travels. The locals seemed content and were very friendly, and besides the free public transportation (which happened to be a bonus for us backpackers) and the lineups at the ATMs, everything appeared relatively normal. Since it was already late afternoon once we’d settled in our apartment, we went in search of supper and ended up with enough leftovers for breakfast the next morning. The waiter even sent us home with freshly made chocolate-covered donuts, deliciously reminiscent of timbits, alongside a mountain of sliced watermelon as a complementary dessert.
Despite feeling as though we might melt into a puddle of liquefied human being in the heat of the following day (not to mention for the duration of the rest of our stay), we walked the city and had an incredible time. Ducking into a small shop called Pantopolion advertising a Greek food tasting for €12 each, we experienced the most heavenly lunch of our lives. We had everything from smoked eggplant salad, creamy tzaziki, twice-baked bread, fresh feta cheese and a platter of meats, Santorini wine, an aperitif of sweet mastiha spirit, and my absolute favorite: handmade Greek yogurt for dessert, topped with out-of-this-world rose petal jam. By the time we were finished, we were practically bursting at the seams – and we had leftovers to boot. This was by far the best 12 euros we’d ever spent. Do not miss Pantopolion in the Monastiraki flea market if you’re ever in Athens! Of course, next on the docket was the Acropolis. As mentioned, the heat was killer during our walk up the hill, but once at the top we were able to appreciate the Parthenon (in spite of all the scaffolding – an unfortunate reality in tourism) as well as the panorama of the city below. Later on, we finished the day at the beach, cooling ourselves off in the Aegean sea.
Since we hadn’t set any real plans for Greece past Athens, we booked a last-minute tour of the mainland’s classical sites for our remaining four days. Had we stayed within reach of Athens as we’d initially thought, I think I would have felt that our experience of Greece was somewhat incomplete; however, after visiting some of the most incredible places throughout the country, I can safely say that I am anything but disappointed. As there is all too much to describe about our tour in full detail, I will mention the points of interest and try (keyword: try) to keep it short!
MAP OF TOUR
On our first day, we drove across the Corinth Canal before exploring the Epidaurus amphitheater (dating back to the 4th century B.C.) and its museum. Next, we ate lunch in the lovely town of Nafplion, admiring the colorful streets and the fortress on the hill from a distance. A visit to the ruins of Mycenae followed. Dating back beyond 1300 B.C., our tour guide explained that Mycenae was the earliest fortification and first civilization to have been established in Europe. A highlight was walking into the Treasure of Atreus, an ancient and enormous circular tomb meant for the burial of kings. The display of tools and equipment in the museum emphasized the civilization’s advancement – though I must say that as an obstetrics nurse, the gynecological pieces from 1300 B.C. were especially cringe-worthy! After driving through the Arcadian mountains we arrived in Olympia, staying overnight in our first hotel of the trip. There, we enjoyed a swim in the pool, traditional Greek dancing, some delicious moussaka, a walk through the town, and a tasty Greek coffee the very next morning to send us on our way.
We started our second day on the ancient site of Olympia from which the Olympic Games originate. The best bit was running across the first Olympic track, as we had plenty to laugh about regarding our collective athletic prowess. We then walked through the ruins and saw the temple of Zeus, where a statue of the Greek god once stood as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. We also saw the location where the Olympic flame is lit before all the Games begin. After the bus had driven us across the Rio-Antirrio bridge, we stopped for lunch and got to dip our feet in the Ionian Sea. The evening concluded with our arrival in the stunning hillside town of Delphi, appreciating unbeatable views of the hills, the ocean, and the 1.2 million olive trees in the valley below our hotel. That night there was also a lightning storm, and the spectacle it provided was – dare I say it – incredibly striking from our vantage point. (Okay, I promise I’m finished with the lightning puns!)
We found ourselves hiking through the archaeological site of ancient Delphi the following morning; complete with amphitheatre, stadium, temples, and of course a museum brimming with ancient treasures found at the site. We then stopped in a remarkable little town called Arachova, which is basically built into the side of a cliff, before continuing onward again. The battlefield of Thermopylae where Leonides and the famous 300 Spartans fought and died against the Persians in 480 B.C. was next. We then settled in our last hotel, swimming in the best pool yet before heading out to walk the town of Kalambaka late into the night with a few others from our tour.
Our last full day in Greece began with a visit to the 15th-century Meteora monasteries sitting precariously on top of massive stone pinnacles – one of the most unique and indescribable sights we’ve seen to date. This spot has also been the dramatic location of film sets for movies such as James Bond and Batman Begins. Originally, the only access to the buildings atop the rocks was through giant net baskets that had to be winched up from the ground below. These monasteries were so incredible to behold, both from the outside and from within. During our final drive, we passed Lake Marathon with its one-of-a-kind marble dam, and arrived safely back in Athens. Our AirBnB that night was in a quiet neighborhood where we enjoyed an evening stroll in search of dinner, finding delicious Greek pittas to commemorate our last night in the country.
And with that I’ll finish, since – surprise, surprise! – this post really wasn’t much shorter than usual.
From my wandering heart to yours,