Sometimes, the best trips are the unexpected ones.
I squirmed to find an extra inch of space in the cramped Tupolev’s seat as we flewover what was then a crumbling Yugoslavia.
It was a surprisingly clear, starry, and peaceful late December night. I watched the terrain below, seeing no signs of the violence that was rocking the area at that time.
Though my view was good, I imagined that the view from the glass nose up front, a holdover from Soviet bomber designs, must have presented an even more impressive star-filled sky.
On a whim, to clear my head of the cobwebs from my earlier months in Poland described in Christmas Shadows in Post-Communist Poland, I chose to celebrate a new year and a new outlook.
My entire plan: fly to Greece and spend about a week there.
First was the long train ride out of Szczecin: truly like something out of Dr. Zhivago. Thick ice enveloped the cars as the train traversed wide expanses of white landscape.
Lifting off of a runway at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport early that evening, the flight path took us over parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Arrival in Athens
It wasn’t too long before the jumble of lights that is Athens was beneath us and, soon, the wheels touched down on the pavement in Athens.
After a confusing banter with taxi drivers to determine who would take me, it was off to a small, old hotel in the heart of the city.
In no time, I was looking down on the crowded street from my open balcony.
The next morning, I bought a Greek fisherman’s sweater because it was colder than normal, and headed out.
‘Glad I did. I needed it that whole trip.
You might call it τύχη, pronounced tihi: the Greek word for luck or good fortune.
Meandering through Athens
For me, one of the best transportation modes when just exploring other countries has always been walking. Often, I choose it over other methods.
It’s convenient because you don’t have to work out the transportation details.
It’s interesting because you can find unexpected new things, meet people, and head in completely different directions than what you’d planned originally.
And, the view’s a lot different than from a car, bus, or train.
By doing this, I’ve watched a wedding in Japan, found the wall where the Brothers Grimm supposedly wrote their stories in Germany, tasted kugelhopf in the Alsace, met more great and unique characters than I can remember, and had many other impromptu experiences.
An obvious note of caution: wandering around in places you don’t know can get you into some serious trouble, which I’ve encountered as well.
Make sure to find out about the area, avoid potential problems, let people know where you’re going, and go with others.
Seeing the Acropolis
Greece is probably not the place to visit if you need absolutely everything orderly and predictable.
I thought that wandering Athens was exciting and packed with ancient history and modern chaos. These days, I’m sure, that chaos is focused on an economy on life support, but the same incredible energy of everyday life that the Greeks exhibited then probably still stands out.
The typical archeological visit is to the Acropolis, which I found to be fascinating to explore for a day; however, there are many other places to see as well: museums, historic sites, entertainment, food-the list is extensive.
I showed up at the breathtaking architecture of the Acropolis early in the day and am glad I did. Fewer people made the walk very personal.
The key building is the Parthenon: temple of Athena. Completed in 438 BCE, it is said to be the most perfect Doric (simple, elegant columns) temple ever built.
I’m told it’s an excellent example of the incredibly advanced architectural knowledge employed at the time. Its columns bulge very slightly because straight lines can appear concave.
Also, the columns are not spaced exactly the same: an effect that helps give the illusion of more “life” to the building.
In addition to the Parthenon and other structures on the rise, there are many important sites on the south slope including the Odeion of Pericles where musical contests and rehearsals occurred, the sanctuary and theatre of Dionysos, the healing place known as the Asklepieion, and the Odeion of Herodes Atticus where theatrical and musical performances continue to this day.
Many people don’t know that there are actually many acropoleis in Greece, but the one that towers over Athens is the preeminent one.
Another less well-known fact is that it was the site of Panathenaic Games that supposedly rivaled the Olympic Games.
The history of this archeological site encompasses far more than the few lines in this article and is worth a little reading to anyone with interest.
Travel to Mykonos
New Year’s Eve was approaching, and my choice was to try to spend it on the island of Mykonos.
A train took me on a gritty, ultra-urban, busker-packed tour from Athens to the port city of Piraeus and a ship that gathered and deposited passengers along part of the Greek mainland coast and islands.
Viewing the large and small habitations and rough coast from that large ship was fantastic.
Eventually, I spotted the Cyclades Islands and Mykonos with its artistically swoop-sailed windmills on a hilltop.
Named after Apollo’s grandson and the location in Greek mythology of the battle between Zeus and the Titans, this ancient Ionian port that developed into a small town with white buildings and gorgeous aquamarine water looked like a good spot to start a new year.
I’d thought that I might thaw out from the Polish winter but, as luck would have it, a cold snap continued. No matter. I had a new sweater and a new place to see.
In the summer, Mykonos is hopping with action. However, at least that New Year’s Eve, it was pretty quiet. Too quiet.
Where was a place to stay?
Luckily, I happened to find a fellow who ran a small pension. The price was right and the room small but all that was needed.
New Year’s Eve
Once again, τύχη was on my side. The town was pretty much closed down with nothing to do; however, in the small salon of the pension were compact tables at which some people were playing cards and drinking ouzo.
It was explained to me that a person’s success or failure in card games on New Year’s Eve is supposed to show you how the coming year will turn out for you.
I did ok so, whether the superstition was true or not, I figured that couldn’t hurt.
The ship was supposed to stop at Mykonos again the next day, but there were delays. Several days of delays.
Plus, it never really did warm up. Eventually, however, I was able to get off the island and make it back to my work in Poland.
Was it fun? Yes. Were there hassles? Yes. Would I do it again?
With a little τύχη, you bet I would.
In two weeks: Meeting Pancho Villa’s Widow and Seeking Villa’s Treasure
© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved
References and Image Credits:
(3) World Atlas
(6) Wikiepdia – Panathenaea
(7) Wikipedia – Mykonos
(8) York Schools
(9) Greek Travel
(10) Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits via Compfight cc
(11) Éole via Compfight cc
(12) ragingwire via Compfight cc
(13) Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc