part 1 | part 2 | part 3
sunday, september 23 & monday, september 24
Day 0 & Day 1: Arrive in Athens, airport to hotel transfers included.
Your Balkan's adventure starts in the ancient Greek city of Athens. Upon arrival into Athens airport (ATH), you'll be met by one of our representatives who will then transfer you to your hotel. The rest of the day is then free for you to settle in, relax after your flight, and have a look around the area independently before meeting the group and starting the first sightseeing tours tomorrow morning.
OVERNIGHT : Athens hotel
so this trip started out... yeah. overview is i left at 11am sunday to seatac, was delayed 1.5h to vancouver, got to vancouver during boarding, made it to munich, found my athens flight canceled, rebooked through venice adding a fourth flight & two more hours in the air, was delayed another hour leaving to venice, got to venice during boarding, finally arrived to athens to find they'd utterly lost my luggage, spent a damned hour waiting in line to report my bag missing, & then found no transport waiting for me 'cause he'd fucked off when i wasn't out with the rest of the correctly-luggaged passengers. after two international phone calls to the tour company & twenty-six hours of travel, i made it to the hotel, washed my panties in the sink with bar soap, then had to call at&t for a half hour because no texts were coming through despite paying too much for their international plan, & they had to open a ticket to their engineering team. what a great trip this is already!!!
the less-shit details worth mentioning from the above: i could have driven to vancouver by the time i got there by plane; the german staff on the flight to munich referred to themselves as "we are the responsible people on board" & i was glad someone was willing to take up that mantle; i sat next to a cool girl named kayla on the ten hour munich flight & we became plane friends; kayla found the plastic credit-card like thing a sim card comes in, covered in german & chinese writing, & i got her to write on it, "if you're reading this, you've found the first clue!"; there was a fearful older lady passenger who i helped relax by using my Powers of Sarcasm and Nihilism, & she grabbed my hand mid-flight & told me i actually helped her; our plane had two outside cameras & i took some video of the pretty clouds showing on the downward one; it was an overnight flight & some asshole was playing a tablet game at full volume that had sounds of breaking glass as the combo sound - i narc'd him out & got a flight attendant to MAKE IT STOP...ish; they gave me a ten euro voucher for free food for the canceled flight, without my having to ask; they stamped my passport in munich due to the transfer, though i didn't have to go back through security so...idk?; there was oddly little security at venice too, & i'm pretty sure i could have sneaked onto a plane from the street; the fourth plane to athens gave me another middle seat (i checked in & was approved for two windows on the three original flights, but actually got an aisle & a middle & a cancel), but the third in the row didn't show up, so i finally got my window; aegean airlines gave me a box meal that promised "every day we select and offer you fresh greek products" & featured a lemon pie thing with an expiration date two weeks prior (i tried it anyhow & it was fine, so i presume it has european dating, lulz. regardless, it wasn't very good); i rode on four or six trams, i can't quite remember but that was too many trams; one of the trams featured a husband & wife having an incredibly private conversation rather loudly in english, & i presume they didn't think anyone around them spoke it, which is just stupid since everyone does (& hey, if you two ever read this: lady, your husband is an idiot but kind, whereas you are an absolute twat. please divorce); athens airport has booze advertised in every direction you look, even the floor & ceilings; a greek diesel ad weirded me out with its tagline (see below); my first greek musical experience was listening to "africa" on the cab radio while the cabbie texted while driving while doing 95km/h in a 60. PARTY!
at least i'd packed my pillow in my carry-on, so i had that minor comfort.
oh, & the bathroom at the hotel had the tiniest tub i've ever seen.
music: ugly casanova, "hotcha girls" (alternate version)
tuesday, september 25
Day 2 : A city tour of Athens
We start our Greek adventure with a city tour through its capital city of Athens. Our first stop is at the Panathenaic Stadium - the only stadium on the planet crafted completely out of marble. It was also used to host the very first Modern Olympics in 1896. We continue our journey through Athens with a visit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian's Arch, the Parliament buildings and the memorial to the Unknown Soldier. We'll also visit the Academy, the University, the National Library and Constitution Square. Also on the agenda today is a visit to the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion and the Parthenon - which is dedicated to goddess Athena Parthenos - the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage and warfare. Built in 438 BC, this towering temple sits on a hill which overlooking Athens.
OVERNIGHT : Athens hotel
i woke around 5am local time to some kind of alarm or off-hook phone or something that was just bzzt-bzzt-bzzt every single second. i watched more of the new season of bojack horseman while waiting for the noise to stop, or to be sleepy enough to ignore it better. i was able to nap for another hour at 7am, & was then awakened by the street cop directing traffic directly outside my window despite being on the eighteenth floor. i was relieved to find that my sink-washed panties were fully dry, & i went down to breakfast. i felt shitty in yesterday's five-airports-of-filth clothes, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, off i went to breakfast. i tried but didn't like most of what they had on offer - the yogurt was too strong for me & the sausages were mealy & gross, a lot of the rest was clearly mass-produced stuff like those mini chocolate croissants i've seen in tons of hotels - but they had a fruit salad that had been marinating in mint, & i had some mixed cereal & mixed juice with it. i went back to my room until our meet-up time at 9:30am.
in the lobby alone at 9:25, i was starting to get concerned, until a dude walked in & called my name. turned out he wasn't our guide, but Kinesis clearly wished he were... he said everyone was at the coffeehouse next door where our guide was buying them coffee. i started to follow him, paused & commented that horror stories start this way, but figured i wouldn't have to worry about my luggage if he murdered me! (nah, he had called my full name off the itinerary, & that was secure enough for me.) i met the group - just nine of us, & all pretty friendly folks - & warned them that if i smell it's because i'm stuck in five-airport clothes. they laughed & empathized. i met our guide, jovo, originally from macedonia, & he was an attentive/engaging/kind as the other guides i've had on tours like these.
we boarded our small but well-appointed van, & met up with penelope, our local guide. she told us bunches about athens, including that it's the oldest city in europe, since 5000BC, & has never been abandoned in all that time. she pointed out a cool sculpture made of four tons of glass & iron, & i photographed some foreign graffiti (always cooler than local tags). motorbikes drove on the sidewalks there, right past pedestrians, & cars/bikes/people all got extremely close to each other when crossing streets or making turns. (i rage at drivers in seattle for entering an intersection while i'm still in the crosswalk, but that's the culture there; since "it's cool, let's all go" was so obviously the culture in athens, i wasn't at all bothered by the same behavior. & it was nice to Not Be Bothered. to be fair, though, athens drivers are used to doing that, whereas seattle drivers are not, so i'm probably way more likely to be hit in seattle than athens.) penelope said greeks believe that if you're respecting your body & your feelings, then you're taking care of your soul. sounds about right.
our first stop was quick at the original olympic stadium, then a couple hours at the acropolis museum. penelope walked us through it. i took some photos where i could, but most of the rooms disallowed photography, or you'd get photos of all dat greek ass, 'cause every male statue had a pretty spectacular boot. penelope told us a lot about a medusa statue, & i made jokes while moving my dreadlocks like snakes. we passed a female statue that penelope told us was a cheaper one, because the face was "grotesque" & details weren't very well done. i countered that the model just told everyone it was the sculptor's fault, & that the ugliness was accurate. XD of course i liked the horses, but my favorite sculpture was of athena holding snakes! (i couldn't photograph it, but you can see it here.) right around then is when my phone started receiving texts again - thanks athena! the main floors of the 3-storey acropolis museum were clear plexiglas, so it was neat to look allll the way down to the pieces of parthenon columns you can see under the entranceway floor. my last note is of the elevator limit - i'm always amused by what other countries consider an "average human size", as the elevators i see around america are, like, 4000lb/12 people, & this one was 1275kg/17 people, which puts the average at 165lb.
heading back to the van, jovo bought me a bottle of blueberry juice (he insisted since i didn't have coffee with them - i don't drink caffeine). it was good, but far too sweet. we then drove to the nearby acropolis entrance where i once again used my ancient student ID card to great effect (thank you, broward college, for letting me take one math class in 2003 or so & rewarding me with a student ID sans expiration date) - student tickets were half of the 20€ others spent. :D we walked through olive trees up the steps & the slippery-assed marble of the acropolis to visit with the parthenon, athena's old temple, & many other columnar things, several of which were being renovated on a 30-year timeline. the wind was crazy & i was being buffeted around pretty well, but i kept my footing & it was an exceptionally lovely temperature all together, so that was nice.
back at the hotel, we tipped penelope & said goodbye, & eight of us walked off to find food. jovo had told me that everywhere is good, & indeed we found a place with tasty gyros (despite once again finding a foreign menu using comic sans). they didn't offer lamb, only chicken or pork, so i had a chicken gyro with some excellent tzatziki. the waiter was super cool & talked to us about how he wanted to visit new york. we gave him tips on finding cheap flights, & he brought us little sample cups of the thick-ass lemon yogurt they make in-house with crumbled cookies underneath - basically a rustic but lish-friendly cheesecake. what a sweetheart.
the group decided to take public transit to the flea market, but i was too tired to walk more & definitely didn't want to shop with slowpokes, so i went back to the hotel alone. on the way, i found a local sour cherry soda (it tasted exactly like eating pie cherries, & i liked it a lot) & some gen z mentos (uhh they have weird social cues on them? see pics). i relaxed in the hotel room, checked the lost baggage website for the thousandth time (still completely AWOL!), hand-washed my panties again, & went to bed.
wednesday, september 26
Day 3 : From Athens to Meteora
After spending some time in Athens, we'll make our way to Meteora - one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Home to six mountaintop monasteries, a trip to Meteora gives you the opportunity to take in the beautiful combination of nature's beauty together with history, architecture and man's desire to connect with the divine. We'll spend the rest of the evening at the traditional Greek village of Kalambaka, which serves as the gateway to Meteora. Found at the foothills of the towering Meteora rocks, Kalambaka's narrow cobblestone streets and traditional houses are picture perfect.
OVERNIGHT : Kalambaka hotel
i was still wiping parthenon dust out of my eyes when i blinked awake at seven am. i checked my phone to find more activity than normal: a missed call & a couple of texts from a five-digit number. the texts stated first, that my bag had been found, & second, that it had been delivered. :O i called down to reception & they confirmed the news! i said i'd be right down for it... then realized that would require dressing in five-airport clothes that were now three days old, & i was in a friggin' hotel, duh. i called back & asked them to send it up, & they [slowly] did so. i reveled in wearing fresh clothes & using tweezers & q-tips & all the stupid little amenities that i thought i'd have to scrounge at pharmacies. (after a bag is missing for 24 hours, the airline lets you start expensing $40/day in necessities like clothes & toiletries. i guess some would enjoy shopping with free money, but i suuuper didn't want to be stuck in ill-fitting tourist shirts or have to use odd-brand products that might upset my skin.)
i took the tiniest elevator downstairs - the elevators had a footprint of no more than 3'x4'. there were eight of them, so you never had to wait too long, but couldn't necessarily fit your friends with you. in the lobby, everyone took turns rejoicing over my luggage being un-lost, then we boarded the van for our drive across greece to meteora.
jovo mentioned that, though it wasn't on the itinerary, we were going to drive through bosnia! i didn't know if we'd spend enough time there to qualify for a GMT addition & a location sticker on the big map hanging on my wall, but of course i thought that hitting a secret fifth country would be fucking cool. others had mixed reactions, mostly asking, "isn't it known as war-torn bosnia?" & such, but i wasn't worried.
before we entered the morning traffic, jovo asked us to check our passports. we were all good to go except for Hopeful Zone (thus named, in part, because she'd been certain i'd get my bag back in time, & i was SO glad to be wrong), who couldn't remember where she put hers. after some frantic searching & minor unloading of cargo, she found it in a secret zipper pocket in her suitcase, & re-boarded the van shouting, "i'm goin' to bosnia!" after we all laughed at Hopeful Zone's enthusiasm overshadowing her own concerns, i showed her the travel belt i use - it has several secure pockets, one of which perfectly fits two passports, & doesn't EVER leave my body on tour except when i'm in a hotel room or storing it in a hotel safe. she took the bait & asked me to keep hers for her, & i accepted, to everyone's snarky delight.
i took photos of the aegean sea & enjoyed the albanian music our driver was playing - it sounded a lot like what they play at my favorite moroccan restaurant in seattle, & i enjoyed it. (i never caught our driver's proper name - jovo said we can call him beckham, as in david, & implied we wouldn't be able to pronounce his proper name correctly. considering most of the group was calling jovo "jojo" or "gio" or "hovo" instead of "yovo", i couldn't argue. so i'll just refer to him as beckham.) we had to stop on the drive, as there's some kind of limiter system on the van that forces a 45-minute rest for the driver, with big fines for noncompliance. the only thing for ages was a gas station, so we went in & i bought another cherry juice (this one a juice, not a soda, & had a photo of bing cherries on it, so i figured it'd be sweeter (it was!)) & some cinnamon mentos gum. (i also gawked at the horrifying cigarette packaging, which i'm finding is common all over the world.) we left before 45 minutes was up, & had to pull over again about 20 minutes later to run out the rest of the timer. (i don't know why they tried to cheat it...?) to entertain the group, i taught them the best car game ever, "don't get me started". you pick someone in the group & assign them a subject, about which they then have to do an angry rant, then they give a new subject to the next person, & so on. i told Bobbsey her rant was on kittens, & she got well into it after a slow start of, "don't get me started about kittens! they're just so... small!" - which, really, was still pretty funny.
most of us napped on the drive, waking when jovo showed us the mountains of meteora - they appear as a woman laying on her back. (i couldn't get a photo from the van, but it was pretty cool.) i joked with jovo, & he tugged one of my dreadlocks. i threatened to pull his hair back - he's mostly bald - & he laughed & hugged me, like he does every time i give him shit. that's my kind of guy. XD finally we started seeing the monasteries we'd driven to meteora to see - we took a long, winding road slightly uphill, & there they were, six of them, perched among the mountains & built directly into the rock. awesome.
we climbed a great number of stone steps to the varlaam monastery, where our host christos met us. he was cute & quiet, so i immediately began flirting with him. he kept making eye contact & enjoying the attention; i somehow doubt greek men are accustomed to aggressive women (& really, no one is accustomed to this one). there was a big pile of cloth at the entrance, & we thought they were headwraps, but nope - they were simple wrap skirts. any female not already in a skirt had to put one on (over our clothes was fine). there were some mutterings of sexism, but it was fine by me because it was chilly AF up there & i was glad for the extra layer. inside, christos told us all about the 16th century paintings & carvings & everything we saw, though we weren't allowed to take photos in most of the rooms. there were full-body portraits of saints that started about waist-high - christos said they were painted that way to show the saints were closer to god, which was much better than my theory that they thought they were better than the rest of us. X) some of the paintings were pretty brutal, depicting the end of days & all - i saw a horse dragging a saint, a saint getting strung up by his feet, a huge monster with demons in its mouth - very metal shit. (sadly, the gift shop didn't sell those prints - missed opportunity, friends!)
on to saint stephen's holy monastery next, where twenty or so nuns lived full-time. they had some hardcore paintings, too - i especially liked the big red leviathan, the beheaded saints, & one dude getting his skin peeled off. (they're not fucking around, man!) christos spoke about the incense being burnt, & noted that jesus was brought incense by the "three wizards". i grinned & asked him about that - apparently the translation is correct, that greeks use the word "wizard" for "wise", but the subtext is definitely different from "wizard" in english. (still couldn't help picturing hermione bringing myrrh to baby jesus, though.) also on display were some books from 1498 & a parchment from 6th century greece that was kept pressed between two thick sheets of plexi.
on the way out, we stopped at a vantage point with huge rocks that were extremely satisfying to climb on - lots of texture & traction, no sharp edges, & i went all the way out to the point. i appreciated the complete lack of guardrail, & got one of the girls to take a photo of me standing on the edge (as i am wont to do). christos translated some greek graffiti for me: something about a revolution for our brothers. we said goodbye to him after that, with tips, & some of the girls were hugging him, so i did, too - he gave me a subtly-extended hug with his hand on the back of my head, then said quietly, "i hope to see you in my dreams." le sigh, i should've brought a bigger piece of luggage. XD i told him to let me know if he ever wants to visit seattle, & off we drove to dinner.
the polyzos restaurant was, according to jovo, the only good place around, but it was very enjoyable. i had the lamb kleftiko, stewed with vegetables in parchment paper, & it was lovely & tender. Hopeful Zone here earned the other half of her name - since we all skipped lunch together, she hadn't eaten anything but popcorn & a dramamine since breakfast, & the half a beer she had before our dinner arrived made her spacey as hell. fortunately, she was delightful whether or not she quite understood what side of the planet she was on. XD
the group decided to walk around the small town of kalambaka before calling it a night, but i passed in favor of not overtaxing my body. Kinesis was mildly bitchy about his hotel room that he said was little more than a closet, then laughed when he saw i was booked next door. i thought mine was quite adequate... he let me see his room &, well, he was right - he had a single bed & the space was just big enough for it. i think he was a bit jealous of my double bed & more floor (not a ton, but my room wasn't near-claustrophobic like his), but i certainly wasn't going to offer to swap. :)
i internetted the basics since the hotel wifi didn't reach beyond reception, then wrote, read a while, & slept.