The Balkans – Passing Through Greece

I’ve always had a fascination with Greece. It started, perhaps with how math uses so many Greek alphabets or how, it’s always been a nerdy source of giggles that Pythagoras (yes, he of the theorems) had a full cult going on back in the day. Oh, we’d laugh – are religious classes called angle management classes? Har har har har.

My first long backpacking trip to Europe was also around the time of Grexit. Trains were halted and the news seemed to report general chaos. I would have loved to spend a couple of weeks or months in Greece but ended up in archaeology summer school in Transylvania instead.  This time round, I didn’t quite intend to travel in Greece at all since I didn’t want to rush through the main attractions but I couldn’t quite bear to just pass by without at least getting a glimpse of the history I spent my teenage years reading about.

I started out wandering the streets of Thessaloniki. I had somehow thought of Greece as being more European than it is. I like how neighborhoods are built in clusters around ancient artifacts (and this seems to be a strong feature in much of the Balkans).

I must admit I was a little spoilt by Thessaloniki. It feels decidedly less city-like than Athens and is very much more affordable too. Good eats can be had for about 3 Euros and the city was a little less organized for tourists than Athens is – which I REALLY enjoyed. I stayed in a hostel off the side of a side road a kilometer away from the heart of town and it never felt dodgy.

From Thessaloniki, I made my way to Meteora, home of the famous monastaries set on high rocky cliffs.

The cliffs of Meteora

If I weren’t travelling alone in Greece, I’d have rented a car. Bus and trains are neither regular nor frequent and they’re not exactly cheap too. I chose to fly into Athens and then catch a connecting flight to Thessaloniki, travelling through north before flying from Sofia back into Athens. As a consequence of that and the fact that it was rainy season, my Greek experience was planned around Thessaloniki, Meteora and the Acropolis in Athens.

If ancient places of worship looked like this, it made perfect sense why religion was so appealing because this has to be as close to heaven as one can get. I arrived late in the afternoon and had intended to rest for the day before spending the next day scurrying around the cliff tops but I was a little too fresh to be sitting in a cafe somewhere surfing Facebook or whatever it is that people do on Wifi.

The different monasteries have different days off and closing times but they’re all open on Saturdays. However, they do close very early at about 4 in the afternoon so it’s best to find out what you can visit beforehand if you want to look at the interiors. I do think that the precarious positioning of each building and the landscape are the main draws to the area. After the first 2 sites where I paid to enter the (small) monasteries manned by grumpy ticket issuers who have probably seen the worst of tourists and have no special wish to be polite to anyone, I spent the rest of the evening wandering the roads and paths.

Meteora was a nice setup for my return to Athens weeks later. I had originally intended to travel from Athens, into Delphi and then to Meteora by public transport but it seemed (and was later verified) that it wasn’t quite as easy as that given the infrequent transport options. I’m quite happy with how the trip turned out because the long flight, then trekking through Meteora, left me pretty worn for the next day. I think I definitely appreciated Athens a lot more with the time in between to process the sights of Meteora in my head.

Like everyone else, I’ve seen the Acropolis in books and magazines. It looks breathtaking. I honestly wouldn’t know what to think about it if I were an ancient Greek and my countrymen were building such splendors. The Acropolis in real life is more majestic than in pictures.

Now, I’ve seen the scale of humans to buildings. Every single photograph with humans in it shows you the scale of those pillars. Yet, being there and starring into the sky as the pillars in front of you stretch forever, is a different experience altogether. The bright and bleaching Mediterranean afternoon light and the harsh shadows cast on the carved out shapes in the marble had a strangely comic book feel. I think I understand exactly why the Asterix comics are drawn as they are.

I got to visit the Agora and the rest of the more prominent (to tourists) attractions in the heart of Athens before they closed for the day (at 3pm or something crazy early like that). It’s not terrible though since it continued raining after. I think I’ll definitely want to return to Greece and spend a little longer than the few days I’ve had. Til then though, I’ll just look at these pictures.