“You vacation to tire the body and rest the soul,” said our taxi driver during the ride from the Athens airport to our hotel. I wasn’t expecting a mere cab driver to hold such philosophical wisdom, but he continued to prove me wrong as he lectured my family and me on the population of the Greek capital (5 million, about half of the entire country itself) and on the city-state’s brief history spanning about 4,000 years of recorded history.
This was my first glimpse of Greece, a country that most of my knowledge of had come from campus frat parties and a brief obsession with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. My second glimpse of the country came from the food: kalamata olives, feta cheese, baked aubergine, and saccharine baklava. (I’d recommend Café Avissinia or, as indicated on the restaurant sign, ΚΑΦΕ ΑΒΥΣΗΝΙΑ, if you ever find yourself in the birthplace of democracy. We ate there twice!). The food of Greece is much like its people – warm and familiar. Citizens are not merely friendly; they treat you like family, joking with you, recommending traditional dishes and holding conversations for hours on end. At one restaurant, a post-dinner dessert of Greek yogurt with honey was gracefully delivered to our table compliments of the chef!
Although my family did spend a good
portion of our time in museums – the Acropolis Museum is small enough to see in a few hours, while the National Archaeological Museum is a bit denser – I found that Greece is best absorbed if one takes in the outdoor surroundings. The famous Acropolis is not to be missed. Situated on a high plateau, the Acropolis houses the Parthenon. To be in the presence of such a grand historical undertaking is truly astounding. The panoramic view of Athens (you can even see a sliver of the sea!) doesn’t hurt either. We hiked up at dawn and it was magical to watch the sun rise above the wide Doric columns, casting shadows on the ancient ruins.
Another memorable moment was a walk in the rain at Osios Loukas – a secluded monastery about 50 miles west of Athens. Located in an isolated mountain village, the monastery is built in the Byzantine style – gold work, small candlelit spaces and a central dome. In a dark side chapel we met a short, balding Greek man with round spectacles and a patterned sweater – a visitor as well – who explained in Greeklish the historical significance of Hosios Loukas: to house the preserved relics of Loukas the Hermit, a famous Greek saint not to be confused with the Saint Luke of New Testament-fame.
As a working monastery, Hosios Loukas is still home for a few monks whom we spied in traditional, black garb walking around the religious complex. As we were still in Greece, it was impossible to leave without making a few friends. We met a sweet shopkeeper who gave us hot chocolate and almond cake and even posed for a photograph with us. We also befriended four beautiful dogs that walked us back to our car on our way out.
Greece is a country of contradictions. The architectural ruins are built on a grand scale – ionic columns tower over tourists, the Attican mountain range looms in the near distance, the glorious remnants of one of the greatest civilizations are overwhelming in the most positive sense of the word. Yet what one remembers most are the smaller, everyday incidents – Greek folk songs in an empty restaurant, children playing soccer on a slippery plaza, crackling thunder heard from the safety of a church, a dark, terrifying drive through small mountain towns at night, a rainy walk through Delfi and the wise words of an ordinary taxi driver.
Image source: Addy Bhasin, The Daily Californian