Adventures in Crete

Where does one begin to describe an island as beautiful as Crete? Each time I think I have seen the most beautiful views, sights, and churches Greece has to offer, I’m surprised by something equally as stunning just around the corner.

Crete is hardly “just around the corner,” to be fair.

History professor John Karavas described it to us as “the Texas of Greece”. Like Texans, Cretans consider themselves first and foremost a resident of their state, but have also been known to describe themselves as “more Greek than Greeks”. Cretans are known for their hospitality and for their cuisine.

We arrived on Wednesday morning after a somewhat rough ferry crossing, at 6:30.  Our first stop was the site of Knossos.IMG_9033 IMG_9026

Unfortunately, I was dead tired and feeling slightly sick from the ferry, so I don’t feel as though I fully benefitted from seeing this site first. However, it was incredible to be there alongside our trip leader, Steve Diamant, who is a well-respected archaeologist here in Greece. When we first arrived, it was cool and the site was nearly empty. It very quickly warmed up and dozens of tour groups arrived, making the experience difficult to enjoy. That being said, Knossos was absolutely gorgeous and I’m so glad I got to see it.

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Shortly after seeing Knossos, we arrived in Heraklion, which would be our home base for the next two days. Right away, we found a cafe to sit down and enjoy a cappuccino freddo and a crepe and then we set out to explore at a nearby flea market before meeting back at the Archaeological Museum. Before our tour, a preservationist came to speak with us and tell us about his job, which was very exciting for me as I’m considering a career in museums, and then Professor Diamant led us through some of the most important artifacts.IMG_9076 The Phaistos Disc–a mysterious untranslated piece of writing. None of these symbols appear anywhere else.

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Giant double-headed axes used for ritualistic purposes (?)

That night, I went to dinner with my roommate Emily and our friend Carolyn. Our go-to for cheap, authentic food in Athens is a taverna, so we decided to try the same in Heraklion. We found a place off of the main street in an area that seemed less touristy…10444551_10204873585427274_2590387677449675623_n

…and we were not disappointed. As usual, we ordered several appetizers and split the bill between us. For around 5 euros each, we piled our plates with bread, feta, calamari, stuffed grape leaves and seasoned pork. At the end of the night, the server brought out a little bottle of raki (which, as it turns out, I am not a fan of–mostly because I can’t stand licorice, but I am developing a tolerance for it) and loukoumades with ice cream on the house (I didn’t take a picture because I was already in a food coma at that point). It turns out that this is a very common experience in Crete–at least at tavernas and traditional restaurants. We experienced wonderful hospitality at each taverna we ate at.

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On Thursday and Friday, we visited smaller sites, including Phaistos (which I enjoyed more than Knossos), this burial site and a couple of sites that aren’t open to the public. I really liked the smaller sites because we could climb on the walls and get close up to the features Professor Diamant pointed out. It was an incredible experience to walk on and touch stones where civilizations flourished 5,000 years ago.

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The scenery in Crete is absolutely stunning, and while traipsing around taking notes out in the sun my tan evened out a little. I’m slowly but surely approaching a Greekish skin tone.

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Again, one of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting a monastery. This time we visited the Arkadi Monastery, where in an act of resistance against the Turks, a group of soldiers and civilians blew themselves up. The Cretans have always shown a great deal of resistance towards foreign occupation, and this story moved me very much.

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It’s hard to imagine now, when Crete is such a beautiful and peaceful place, but I got chills standing in the gunpowder magazine thinking about that day.IMG_9222

As I was taking this picture of one of the dozens of cats at the monastery, I was approached by a one-armed, toothless woman wearing a long, black dress. At first I didn’t know how to react, so I smiled and continued taking pictures of the cats. But I had clearly misjudged the situation and the woman continued to approach me and cradled my face in her one hand. I was a little freaked out at this point and she asked in Greek where I was from. I told her America and she started to laugh then asked over and over where my parents were. I tried to tell her I was a student studying abroad but I’m not sure if my Greek is that bad (likely) or if she couldn’t understand why I was there alone (also likely) but it was creepy to stand in a place where hundreds of people had died at once and listen to an old woman saying, “Mama? Baba?” over and over. Luckily, someone else from my program came by and I told the old woman, “Sygnomi,” and walked away. When I got back to the bus my friends joked that I had met a ghost, but all joking aside, I could have believed it in that moment.

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I recovered just fine at the beach.IMG_9283

On Saturday, we spent our final few hours in Chania, where we had spent the night. I wish I had had more time to see what the city had to offer because I enjoyed seaside strolls, popping in and out of all the little stores and wandering around the back streets and finding quirky corners. But, unfortunately, our ferry left at 8 that evening and we had to say goodbye to Crete. I have no doubt that I will return to this beautiful island again someday.

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Tales from the Island of Andros

I truly believe that the island of Andros is a little bit magical. I’m a rational person, but the way myth mingles with history in Greece is absolutely enchanting. We no longer live in a world where Greek gods and goddesses rule over our lives, but on Andros their influence lingers in the earth and the air.

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We arrived after a sunrise ferry ride from Athens. We were lucky to be accompanied by Leda, a Modern Greek teacher at CYA married to a man from Andros. In typical Greek fashion, Leda knows everyone and their cousins. She opened doors for us on the trip I would have never thought to even peek behind.

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Andros has some of the clearest and calmest water I have ever seen. The beach was our first stop after disembarking the ferry and stopping for a breakfast of cheese pies and spinach pies (τυρόπιτα and σπανακόπιτα). I watched fish swim around my feet and enjoyed the feeling of smooth rocks and soft sand.IMG_8947

I felt like a siren luring sailors out of the Aegean to the rocks.Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset The hidden beaches Leda took us to were absolutely stunning. Andros is different from other islands in the Kyklades in that it has lush vegetation and natural springs. One side of the island is barren and dry, and then suddenly we drove over a mountain and everything was green. The water was warm enough to wade right in, but cool enough to be refreshing after a long walk.IMG_8848You can’t look at that sea and tell me mermaids don’t exist.

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The natural springs are apparently a source of neighborhood arguments about what belongs to who, but we enjoyed taking a long drink of water after hiking and climbing many, many stairs. (I have a feeling I’ll never escape the stairs in this country). We ate at a taverna that used this spring to chill a watermelon for our dessert. The feta we ate came from local goats–we probably saw the very goats that helped produce it as we walked through the mountains. Halfway through our meal, while the sun was still shining, a raincloud burst over our heads and soaked our tablecloths and napkins. Luckily, most of the food was covered in olive oil, so the rain rolled right off of it and landed in little pools on our plates. It was surreal to be sitting in a friendly little restaurant in the mountains, in the midst of a sunshower with a view of the sea. We poured a libation of white wine to Zeus and the rain soon stopped.

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Our hotel, run of course by a friend of Leda’s, doubled as a farm with olive orchards, chickens, and goats. IMG_8933 2

Ducks and swans float in the waters all over the island. Also cats are everywhere, but somehow I didn’t get any good pictures of them. They’re very friendly and add to the feeling that the flora and fauna are just as integral to the character of the island as the people.

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In fact, we learned the myth of the cypress tree while wandering the archaeological museum in Chora. A young beautiful boy named Cyparissus lived on the island of Chios. The god Apollo loved this boy very much, and as a gift, gave him an equally beautiful stag. The boy and stag hunted together, and one day the boy accidentally killed the stag. He was so overwhelmed by grief that as he stood weeping over the body of his companion, Apollo took pity on him and turned him into the cypress tree, promising that he would be a symbol of grief forever. To this day in Greece, cypress trees are always planted next to cemeteries.
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The natural wonders of Andros aren’t all above the surface–we spent an evening exploring Cave Foros. I had to look away when our guide pointed out the large, six-legged, spider-like creatures that live underground. My love for animals does not extend to the realm of Hades, I guess. Other than that, it was a beautiful cave with huge stalagmites and stalactites and natural pools.

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A highlight of the trip for me was visiting a monastery high up in the mountains overlooking Chora and the sea.  This monastery was built around 900 c.e. and used to house 200-300 monks. It now houses one monk, but he’s very friendly. He offers food to anyone who visits, and is apparently well known around the whole island for his spaghetti with tomato sauce. We tasted his almond cookies, which were also excellent.

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If you visit Greece, take the time to visit a monastery. Coming from a non-religious person, it was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip, and the monk treated us very kindly on our visit.

IMG_8953Another highlight was the Olive Museum of the Cyclades. The owner is a delightful old man who lives in a centuries-old, restored village house with authentic olive-oil producing tools to show us how it was done. His wife also cooked us olive-related things from local olive orchards. In return, we taught him how to take a selfie.

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Sardines from about 100 yards away from the restaurant we were sitting at.

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Ice cream in Korthio. This was described by Leda as the best ice cream she’d had in her life. It did not disappoint.

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Saying goodbye to the hotel and Chora and coming back to hectic Athens was difficult, but as I write (actually, as I wait for the pictures in this post to upload) I’m packing to leave for Crete in about an hour. I’ll be back with plenty more stories (hopefully involving the Minotaur) in about a week! Meanwhile check out this video a friend of mine made of the trip.

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New Habits

“Is it cold outside?”

“It’s 80 and raining.”

“I’ll take a jacket.”


 

These are the conversations I find myself having. As an Ohioan, I never imagined a day when 80ºF with rain would be jacket weather. But last night, as I was heading out to have dinner at the program president’s house, I found myself under those exact circumstances.  Before leaving home, I wondered what kinds of surprises Greece had in store for me.  I haven’t been disappointed so far.  While adapting to this new culture, I’ve found myself making changes that I could not have predicted at all.

Wearing a jacket in 80º weather

Wearing a jacket in 80º weather

Some changes are small: getting or making a coffee every morning has been a routine of mine since my senior year of high school.  But the Greeks do coffee differently: they have an obsession with instant coffee.  At first I was skeptical.  My skepticism did not last long.  If you’ve never tried a Greek frappé or cappuccino freddo, you’re missing out on life.  I quickly adapted my daily routine to enjoy a shaken, foamy frappé or a cold, refreshing cappuccino freddo.

Homemade cappuccino freddo

Frappé from one of my new favorites, Postocafé

Also concerning beverages, I’ve never been a huge juice person, but after picking up some unusual (for me) flavors at the supermarket on my first day, I’m hooked on peach juice and sour cherry juice.  Who knew that sour cherries made the most delicious flavor?  I consistently have 2-3 containers of juice in the fridge.

The Greeks live life at a slower pace, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get a workout: every day walking between school and my apartment requires me to climb over 100 stairs.  You would think that would deter me from going out to explore and therefore run into even more stairs, but you would be underestimating my curiosity.  Despite being an enemy to physical exercise, I love walking around my neighborhood and finding new corners.  The other day, Emily and I walked to the acropolis on a break between classes (because really, why not? It’s right there!) and, despite the heat and humidity, we started the climb to the top.  We didn’t quite make it–we took the road less traveled which, as it turns out, doesn’t go all the way to the top–but the view was well worth the climb.

While strengthening my legs has its benefits, it also means I usually come back to the apartment smelling like downtown Athens, which is not pleasant.  Our apartment requires that in order to take a hot shower, you flip a switch to heat the water for around 30 minutes before hopping in.  Usually, I can’t wait that long, so I’ve embraced the cold shower.  Trust me, if you come to Athens in the summer, you’ll get on board too.  It feels heavenly to wash the grime of the city off, and I’ve taken to daily or twice daily cold showers while I’ve been here.

As an introvert, I’ve sometimes struggled in situations where I don’t know anyone.  Luckily in Athens, there are lots of cats to keep me company when I don’t feel like talking. (But in seriousness, parents, don’t worry, I’ve met plenty of new people 🙂 ) The stray cats around the neighborhood are very friendly, most likely because the little old ladies in our apartment feed them.

 

I’ve also been getting a kick out of staring.  In the U.S., it’s considered rude to stare and one would look away if caught staring.  Here, that is not the case.  Staring is not only socially acceptable, most people will continue to make eye contact if you catch them.  It doesn’t feel threatening, and I’ve enjoyed the fact that if someone looks interesting to me, they won’t feel weird if I stare at them.

One of my favorite people-watching spots, Urban Cafe on Eratosthenous street.

One of my favorite people-watching spots, Urban Cafe on Eratosthenous street.

As I’m wrapping up my first week of classes (!) I’ll leave you with one more story.  I’ve really enjoyed my history class on the Hellenistic period so far, and found myself writing down the strangest stories told by my professor, a Greek who knows many legends about the Aegean.  If you find yourself on a boat in the Greek islands (and hopefully you will), you may be approached by a mermaid asking for news about Alexander the Great.  The correct response is that he is alive and well, unless you want your boat to capsize.  Getting used to classes here is an adjustment, but with stories like this, I think I’ll manage to enjoy myself.

Trip to Agistri

Yesterday, my roommates and I woke up early to catch the ferry to the island of Agistri. I hadn’t planned on traveling outside of Athens my first weekend here, but I’m glad I did because it was the perfect day!

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On the ferry, we met a few Greeks who were very friendly. We practiced our Greek by asking a young (~4 year old) boy what his name was. He giggled and answered “Stavros!” and then continued to play with us throughout the trip. Emily and I also met a young Syrian woman living in Sweden and visiting her mother in Greece. She was very helpful and gave us tips about using the ferry and visiting islands. It was also interesting to chat with her about politics and history–I really appreciated her perspective on Greece and Europe, as it was one I hadn’t heard much about before.

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As we approached the island, we realized that most of the other people on the ferry were Greek, and we high-fived ourselves for finding an island that Athenians liked. It was fairly uncrowded and while it was tourist-friendly, we found that there were many quiet residential corners to explore.

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We spent most of the day in the water and sunbathing on the beach, but also took some time to wander through the little town, eat gelato, and get coffee (7:30 is an early wake up time, even for the beach! We needed it)

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Clouds started gathering around 5:00 and by 5:15 it started to rain in our little paradise. Luckily, there was a 5:30 ferry back to Athens and we grabbed tickets to head back home. We all fell asleep on the ride.

Lest any of you think this all sounds too perfect, we all came home with sunburns as souvenirs and nearly lost our lives at the hands of a maniac taxi driver. But I will say, yesterday was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.

First Week

I’ve been in Athens for 5 days now (so not quite a week, but orientation is officially over!) and I have been loving every moment. I live in the Pangrati (Παγκράτι) neighborhood on a pedestrian street and it is wonderful. My walk to the Academic Center takes about 10 minutes and looks like this:

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I have five roommates, who are so much fun to hang out with. We’ve been getting to know each other and we have all cried laughing together and shared several meals.

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We ate gyros for our first dinner at a restaurant called Smile in Plaka. It was obviously a very tourist-friendly area, so maybe it wasn’t super authentic, but it was fun.

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On Wednesday, we went to the Academic Center in the evening for souvlaki and traditional dancing. Also in the picture are our friend Carolyn and our director of housing and catering, Popi.

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On our first full day in Athens, my roommate Rachel and I explored the neighborhood a little and bought an orange pepper plant (because we wanted flowers but don’t have any vases) and found a coffee shop. We were happy to find that everyone in our neighborhood seems to be friendly and genuinely wants to make our experience in Greece a good one. At the coffee shop, our waiter gave us half price (and has continued to do so every time we’ve ordered from him, which is to say every day) and has helped us with vocabulary. When we walk in with food from other bakeries or the grocery store, he always teaches us the word for what we’re eating. I’ve also learned to order a frappé with one sugar, which is my new favorite drink. It’s instant coffee mixed with sugar in hot water and then shaken with ice. A layer of foam rises to the top while the cold coffee sinks to the bottom. It’s the perfect treat for hot days in Athens and our waiter only charges us one euro for what I estimate to be a coffee the size of a Starbucks grande.

The man in the flower shop where we bought the peppers was also very friendly. We wanted something bright for our apartment, so he wrapped up our plant in bright pink paper and tied it with a silver bow. We told him we’re students from America and he only charged us 3 euros for the plant, taught us some numbers, and pointed out a restaurant for us to try. Similarly, in a bakery down the road, roommate Emily and I picked up breakfast for our apartment, and the lady behind the counter taught us the names of the pastries and tossed in a τυρόπιτα (cheese pie) for free.

We found people who work at stores and restaurants in touristy areas to be a little more pushy and aggressive, but generally Greeks seem to want to share their culture and are happy to talk with us students for a few minutes and give us deals if we ask. We’ve also been taking survival Greek courses throughout orientation, and it’s nice to be able to wake up in the morning and order breakfast and coffee and Greek before even going to class. The Athenians have been very patient with us!

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Our neighborhood is very quiet and, as I mentioned before our apartment is on a pedestrian street. I’d heard about stray dogs in Athens, but our little corner is very popular with cats. This might have something to do with the fact that the little old ladies in our apartment leave out cat food and dishes of water on the steps. The cats are friendly and well-fed, and in the afternoon when it gets really hot, they all lounge around on the cool stone and let us pet them as much as we want.

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This is our street, θεοφραστου. Sometimes motorcycles or scooters park at the bottom of the stairs, but it’s really nice to live in a quiet area with no traffic. Another really cute Greek custom I’ve noticed is that young children (under 3 or 4) seem to spend the day with their grandfathers, so all over the neighborhood, grandpas walk around hand-in-hand with toddlers, often with an ice cream or pastry in their hand.

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Speaking of food. Oh my god. Besides pastries, souvlaki and gyros, which are amazing, we’ve been eating good. We all went to a taverna dinner on Wednesday with professors and other students in the program and ate mostly appetizers: bread and fava beans and tzatziki sauce and Greek salad with feta and fried zucchini. When the waiter brought out the meat and watermelon, I had to loosen my belt a little to make room.

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We’ve been walking around a lot too, so hopefully that will balance out the amount of food we’ve been eating. (The 100+ stairs between the apartment and the Academic Center won’t hurt either.) This is the Zappeion, where the Greek congress convenes. My roommate and Emily and I walked here through the National Garden yesterday after orientation. It is stunning. We thought this was Syntagma Square, but apparently the building there is even bigger and more stunning, so we’ll hunt that out later this week.

We wandered inside the building to look around and somehow ended up in the central courtyard. It was so beautiful, but we only got to look for about 10 seconds before a woman came up to us and started speaking Greek, to which I replied, “Yes,” because I’ve heard that’s a good response to some things. Then she asked me in English if I worked in congress and I said no, so she said we had to leave because we weren’t actually allowed inside, and especially not when congress is in session (which apparently it was). Oops.

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Finally, we went to see the Temple of Zeus, a short walk away from the Zappeion. We showed our ICOMOS cards and got in for free, which was wonderful. I love living in a place where I can explore not only a new culture, but a rich history within a few blocks of where I’m living. This weekend my roommates and I are thinking about going to an island and next week I’ll be in Andros. I’m very excited to explore these areas that are easy to access now and continue to learn about this beautiful country.

 

 

 

 

Arrived!

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Just a quick update to say I’m here! My apartment is pretty nice and my room is looking somewhat room-like now that I’ve unpacked. I’ve slept 1.5 hours in the past day and a half and it’s just past noon (naps are happening soon). My neighborhood looks really fun and walkable, but I will of course report back once I’ve actually walked in it.

I sat next to a really nice Athenian man on the plane, and he was very excited to share some of his favorite places with me. He was happy to hear I’m a history student and we talked about the benefits of a liberal arts education. As a former philosophy major now working as a doctor for the U.S. Department of Health, he encouraged studying broadly and made me feel better about future job prospects!

Now to finish the check-in process and collapse for a while before dinner 🙂