An Odyssey Across Greece

Nov 3, 2017

by Joseph Biondi '19
Edited for content and length

Arrival in Athens 

Waking up in a new time zone is not something we were accustomed to, however when we gazed upon the scenic coastlines of Greece, we all felt the excitement we had when we first signed up for this expedition many months ago. Our day began seven hours ahead of our normal schedule in Athens, Greece. As quickly as possible, we all gathered our luggage and began the walk outside to our first taste of this foreign land. 

We were quickly introduced to a man who would show us many new and different customs, our tour guide Theo. Theo began by introducing himself and giving us some background information; his childhood in the United States and eventual move to his now home country of Greece. A short bus ride away from our first hotel, everyone couldn’t wait to step off the bus and begin our day in Athens.

Pulling up to the Congo Palace Hotel, we dropped off our baggage and looked around Athens. Everything was uncharted territory. A common first purchase was a cup of Greek coffee, offered at many shops around the city. After a long day of travel and an early morning, this helped jumpstart the day ahead of us.  Our first taste of Greek cuisine was served in the hotel restaurant, this lunch featured a variety of choices including pork, pasta, and a mainstay at each meal, spanakopita; a pie made of cheese, spinach, and pastry. As we concluded our first Greek meal, we were given some free time to explore our surroundings including the area shops and beach before our trip to Corinth.

The theater in Delphi near the temple of Apollo. You can see two people at the bottom to imagine how big the theater is.

Corinth Canal

As we prepared for afternoon in Corinth, we loaded back on the bus and rode to the port and main attraction, the Corinth Canal. This canal connects the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. The creation of the canal was a very long process passed down by many leaders and was fully completed in 1183. Now it serves as a narrow passage way through the Isthmus of Corinth, but its main service is as a tourist attraction. The canal itself is gorgeous from all angles and offers a great photo opportunity. A few students decided to take advantage of a unique opportunity offered at the canal. The students who felt up to the challenge signed up and bungee jumped down the intimidating drop.

Post Canal exploration, we drove to a nearby beach town for some fresh seafood. We decided on Paolo’s Fresh Fish and the menu included many choices of fish, served in a traditional Greek way. All fish was served on the bone, and pan fried. It was a learning experience for some to fillet your own dinner as you eat it. Popular choices were the dorado, red snapper, and even smaller bait fish. Appetizers include tzatziki, a sauce used for dip and topping, and saganaki, a popular fried cheese dish. After the first long day we headed back to the hotel and prepared for our next day’s adventures.

Panathenaic Stadium

First on our itinerary the next day was visiting the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. This included the incredible marble stadium, the site of the Panathenaic games, which were held to honor the goddess Athena. Made entirely of marble, the stadium featured a winner’s podium which we all took advantage of for pictures, and a traditional track, which a few students took a lap around. Inside was a museum displaying many Olympic torches and posters for each country that held the games. Views from the top row of the stadium gaze upon the entire structure, and with some imagination you can imagine cheering on a race between Olympians a few thousand years ago.

Bike Tour

Gyro stands and gelato shops lined the streets of the square, and we grabbed a quick bite to eat before we departed. We began our bike tour passing by many shops and restaurants before we arrived to historical sites. Led by two tour guides, we first stopped at an area known as Kerameikos. This spot was originally a location for pottery, and the name translates to ceramics. This area included a cemetery with some of the ancient walls still standing.

We continued on by the square, which included a large collection of shops and the Athens Flea market. Souvenirs included sculptures of ancient Greek buildings and handmade jewelry featuring the Greek Evil Eye, a Mati. The jewelry included this eye to help ward off evil curses. Halfway through the bike tour, we took a coffee break where we were served juices and a waffle with hazelnut spread Merenda, which is very similar to Nutella. This snack helped us relax after an hour of biking and enjoy the scenery.

As we finished our tour, we rode back to the original site and grabbed a quick gelato before heading off to our community service event. We broke up into two groups for our community service; I went off with a group to the Smile of a Child Organization, where we helped create nametags for children, who collect stickers on their tags. The organization focuses on helping to improve the rights of children and to ensure they are being supported if their families are enduring troubles.

Cooking Lesson

Our final stop of the day was a traditional Greek restaurant for a cooking lesson, where we could cook and eat our own meals. We learned about the key ingredients used in Greek cuisine: mint, parsley, thyme, leeks, green onion, and grape leaves. We were instructed on how to prepare our meals and then began cooking. Our menu included dolma, a Greek dish featuring stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki, Greek salad, and spicy meatballs. While we made our food, the restaurant also had prepared spanakopita and pork knuckle for us.

Thira, Santorini

We boarded our plane to Santorini, where we would be spending three days. After a quick 25-minute flight, we landed on the island and rode to the Aegean Plaza Hotel. Upon arriving, we gazed at the famous white buildings of Santorini.

The city of Thira.

After a day of lying out by the pool and walking on the black sand beaches of Santorini, we loaded onto our bus for an evening in the city of Thira. The white rooftops peeked out over the hills as we walked up to Thira. We broke up and explored the shops and restaurants overlooking the sea. The shops were filled with jewelry, religious artifacts, and many forms of volcanic rock. The volcanic rock comes from the many volcanic eruptions Santorini has had over the years.

Dinner featured many different choices featuring souvlaki, a Greek skewer with vegetables and either pork or chicken. Adjusting to the food was not very difficult; most of the ingredients used in Greece are similar to what we eat here, just served differently. Chicken and pork are often the mainstays of the protein with fresh fish filling out the menu. Bread is brought out but often without butter, and instead they use olive oil and tzatziki on the bread.

Boat Tour to Caldera

Halfway through our trip, with a packed itinerary still ahead of us, we began our ride to the Old Port of Santorini. From there we departed by boat for our guided tour of the volcanic remains of Caldera. The active volcano offered many different views of the main island and some great hiking trails. We went up to the top planted and took our chances to get a picture. As we continued to the far side, you could see steam rising through the cracks, which reminded us all this was a live volcano.

As we walked back to the boat, our tour guide let us all know our next stop included a hot spring where we could cool off in the water. As we docked the boat, we all jumped off the side and swam over to the springs. The initial water was cold, but when we reached the springs you could feel an occasional pool of warm water.

Thirassia

Next stop on our boat tour was the small island of Thirassia, located right along the volcanic path. This is where we stopped for lunch at one of the many seafood stops. Menus included squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and more. Wanting to try as much as we could, we passed around plates of octopus souvlaki, seafood salads, and fried fish. After finishing, we explored the small boardwalk, filled with restaurants and few shops. The water was as clear as I have ever seen as you could see straight down to the sand when you stepped in.

Oia

As we headed to our last stop of the day, everything we had imagined Greece would look like was right before our eyes on the island of Oia. White and blue houses lined the side of the cliff and they appeared to pop out at us. Before taking the long walk up to the top, we continued along the beach to a famous local cliff jumping spot. We swam over and took our turns diving in the crystal-clear sea and enjoying the vast mountain views. As we dried off and continued up, some students chose to pay the five euro for a donkey ride to the top.

The waters of Kamara.

Arriving up at the top, we gazed upon the white houses and saw how they were built into the side of the cliff. Each house is dug out and built from a cave structure that already existed in the rock. This is where we watched the sunset. We all set up cameras and cell phones to record time lapses of the sun disappearing behind the horizon. As we found our spot, we sat back, relaxed, and watched the day wind down.

Akrotiri

The final day in Santorini, we travelled to another volcano remain, Akrotiri. Set up similarly to what we know as Pompeii, the site is still very much uncovered, and what is visible has taken over 50 years just to scratch the surface of what else may be laying under all the ash and remains. We explored around and even walked ground level with a few of the buildings that have been excavated. Amazingly enough, full pieces of pottery have been found without much damage; ash fully coated the pieces and protected them over time. No bodies were ever found, so they believe enough time was given for the inhabitants of the island to properly evacuate. However, there is a chance under all the ash that has yet to be excavated, there may be some remnants of the bodies that perished.

Monolithos Beach

For lunch we travelled back to the beaches around our hotel for a Greek family style meal. Platters of tzatziki and fried tomatoes disappeared from the tables as quickly as they were given to us. We were offered chicken, lamb, and pork with sides of Greek salad. After a bowl of ice cream, we thanked our servers and walked from our chairs to the beach, where we relaxed for the rest of the afternoon before heading back to Athens for the rest of our trip. The beach featured many different shops where we bought souvenirs to bring back home. One of the famous beaches in Greece, Monolithos Beach offers unique black sand which we were all not very accustomed to.

Special Olympics Soccer

Back in Athens, we continued our itinerary. As a trip based around athletics, trip leader Drew Howard scheduled us to play soccer with a Special Olympics organization in Greece. We were introduced to the players and coach and began to warm up kicking, stretching, and kicking the ball around with the team. A team that included multiple members of the Greek National Special Olympics soccer team, we witnessed some great play and shared many smiles with the members of the team. This is a memory we will carry with us, since it was a great opportunity to reach out to the community through sports, something I have a strong passion for.

Athens Tour

The beach of Thirassia.

We started with a more in-depth tour of Athens. We began by walking up the marble steps to one of the highest points in the city standing between multiple ancient structures. The Parthenon and the Temple of Nike were the two sites I found most interesting. The story of Nike, which translates to victory, has many cultural ties to our lives due to the multinational brand. The Parthenon is an amazing structure which has withstood the test of time to stand tall. Standing up on this hill top gave one of the best views of the whole trip, gazing over Athens in all directions.

Heading down to the square, we had time for lunch and shopping. Travelling in a large group, restaurant owners flooded the narrow streets looking for the chance to serve us, gathering as much business as they could. Rounding out the day we checked into the Acropolis Museum where we learned about the many archaeological sites of Athens. Many computer monitors helped show how these structures would have appeared in the ancient times.

Temple of Apollo

This last day was packed with historical sites that included the Temple of Apollo and many structures surrounding it. After a quick tour in the museum, we were guided through the rugged steps of the mountain. We were instructed not to stop until we reached the top; the views would be better there. Once we reached the top, in front of us stood the stadium used for races over many years.

Descending, we looked at the theater, which was built to face out so those who were watching the show could glance out to the distance. This theater seated just under 5,000 spectators and often held plays chronicling the gods. It’s amazing to see all these buildings so high up in the mountains. It makes you appreciate how much time and effort it took to not only build but to maintain the structures. The hike up was not one I would want to make every day.

Arachova

Our final stop was the very quaint village of Arachova. We had time to explore and find a place to eat before meeting our bus driver at the end of the town. We started walking through the narrow streets, stopping in the shops along the way purchasing bottles of olive oil and other Greek delicacies to bring back home. The restaurant we decided on included a menu with a variety of meals, not just the traditional gyro and skewers. Spread across our table were plates of wild boar, veal chops, and even rooster. One of the strangest things to us as tourists, when we asked for refills on water, the waiter walked over to this waterfall which appeared to come out of the side of the mountain, and he filled up our pitchers with the flowing water. Having tasted tap and well water before, this was still a surprise to me seeing how they refilled the water. The village, which serves as a location for many ski resorts, is wide open when you get to the end, and many of the houses look up at the mountain range. To me, I received a different vibe in the village from other stops we made. It was quieter than Santorini and Athens, a nice relaxing destination to end a memorable trip.

Traditional Greek Dinner

The Erechtheion in Athens.

Our last meal was chosen by our guide, Theo. The restaurant was one that was influenced by a region of Greece where he now resides. It was within walking distance of our hotel and after arriving back from Delphi we all dressed up and walked over to our reservation. Theo is from Thessaloniki and this restaurant served dishes he is familiar with. We were served the familiar tzatziki and salad. Servers also brought out saganaki, the fried cheese dish, and meat pies. Our main course included a wide variety of pork, chicken, and sausages.

Served family style, we all did our best to finish what was brought to us, which in the end resulted in many empty dishes. Dessert included a tiramisu like cake and chocolate fudge filled with nuts. Food is one of the best ways to learn about a country’s culture and through our week I feel as if I learned a great deal about Greece through the many different foods I experienced.

Wrap Up

This was my first time abroad, like many of the other students. I made sure to bring my camera and adequate luggage, but other than that did not know exactly what to expect. The flights were hard to prepare for and the time zone change took time to adjust to. Signing up for the trip initially was an exciting process, since I was travelling with my lacrosse teammates and we knew it would be a memorable time. Drew Howard and Kara Reber both led and organized a great itinerary covering the many historical and cultural landmarks of Greece, and along with tour guide Theo Maleas speaking for the group, we not only learned a lot about the beautiful country of Greece, but we were able to experience it.