Athens hit me with an impression that no other city has in a while the long-lasting kind I still have from Cairo or Istanbul. But Athens is raw, and young, and vibrant. It has an entirely different energy, a mix of the prestige you get from being a famed European city (colonialism and popular history, woo) and the chill (*chill*) of being in the Mediterranean and beachy and all that. I get the sense that people just hang around and have a good time, all the time. Greeks are just tan and eating well and having a good time. Minus that economic crisis.
I was eager to learn Greek in the short time that I had there, and locals were more than ecstatic to add on to my vocab (a repertoire I could count on my fingers). In no time I was throwing out my Καλημέραs and ευχαριστώs and παρακαλώs. A waiter serving me moussaka in the countryside of Greece taught me to add on poli to efharisto. I actually started learning Greek on my own, or attempting to, last summer. I thought we were going to Greece then (we didn’t end up going anywhere), and so with all my free time I delved pretty deep into Greek grammar and everything. I still have the Greek keyboard on my computer today.
I think Athens also hit me hard because of the lack of expectations I had, or the difference between what I thought Athens would be and what it ended up being. Athens is kind of cast aside, and stuffed in that historical old city category.It’s not all ancient Greek temples and mythological remnants – although a lot of it is – and it’s not all *typically* pleasing, aesthetically. It’s full of graffiti and drab square housing, nothing like whatever we imagine a European city to be. But it ends up enchanting you with the carefreeness it exudes, at the perfect midpoint of having yourself too together (think: anywhere in Germany) and being a full on mess (think: Cairo, and all of its dust).
Also won’t forget to mention the pharmacist that hit me with a life-changing face wash. I was sick for our first day in Athens and honestly more sunburn than human (from Crete) and my parents went out to buy meds and some other stuff I forgot to bring, and because I’m always breaking out, asked the pharmacist for to recommend something and he gave the Bioderma sebium cleanser. And I’m now on my third bottle. He also recommended us Vichy post-sunburn cream and it cured my burns in no time.
And so I stand by my title when I say I want to live in this city one day. If I’m talking realistically, as in how will I find a job, Greece is one of the first stops for one part of the global refugee crisis, and there are tons of NGOs on the ground and internationally that do work here. This winter, I might actually go on a service trip that does just that and helps refugees in Athens.
My Greek friend told me the other day that Cretans are crazy. “You’ll notice if you ever, like, talk to one,” she told me. As our first stop in Greece, I have to say I couldn’t tell the difference, but I did get the sense from our first taxi drive who drove so haphazardly we I thought we’d fly off the edge of the hills overlooking the Mediterranean.
Crete is Greece’s largest island, marked by historical landmarks like the ruins of the Minaon civilization, and often overshadowed by its touristy counterparts, Santorini and Mykonos. Crete is easily as far from what you’d picture of Greece based on Instagram thank you’d think (as is the rest of Greece, and Athens especially).
The day we arrived, Crete was recovering from a sweep of wildfires that had killed dozens of people. We flew in on a red-eye from Shanghai, through a transfer at Abu Dhabi, before taking the shakiest Sky Express flight to Crete. We flew from Shanghai to Athens via Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airlines. I got to listen to the fusha playing over the Etihad speakers and was forced to eat the weird mixture of Chinese ramen noodles and a ham sandwich they fed us.
I came down with something on the flight, and so I spent that first great (great) day withering in bed while my parents strolled around the city. Our hotel was perched in the middle of one of Heraklion’s many winding hills, in the center of the capital city with everything important within walking distance, but because I was sick, we took a cab, fixed the price, and had the driver drive us too all of the important sites.
We ended up choosing three cities to visit in Crete: Heraklion, where we were staying, and then Rethymno, and Chania, both reachable by a single train that costs a few euros. In simplicity, Heraklion is a port city, Rethymno was marked by a fortress overlooking the city, and Chania has the most beautiful, bustling boardwalk I’ve ever seen.
On this fateful day I decided to forget to put on sunscreen and agree to an hour-long walk at noon. And so today, five months later, I still tan lines from the dress I wore that day. On our walk up to the Fortezza of Rethymno I saw no less than 5 groups of already-burnt Italian grandmas sunbathing in tube floats. The fortress was built by Venetians, conquered by the Ottomans, and then obliterated in World War II (except for a few buildings. It was essentially patches of dead grass surrounded by old walls.
We had a quick lunch at a mom-and-pop shop and explored its colorful winding streets.
Chania (pronounced kheni-YA, not chaneeya, not khaniya, because of the accent on the a in Greek), It might have something to do with the fact that we got there at sunset. We made our way through dozens of shops and maitre-ds shouting “ni hao” at us to get to to the promenade. With the backdrop of the Mediterranean sunset and the Chanian lighthouse in the distance, we made our way around the half-circle of shops and buildings, watched fishermen fish, and children dip their toes in the water. We sat down to dinner at a restaurant facing the water and I can tell you there’s no better sight.
We circled our back to Heraklion on the last day to see the historical sites in the capital. At Knossos Palace, we saw the ruins of the Minoan civilization (where the Minotaur legend comes from, who lived in the Labyrinth that King Minos created), which was later absorbed by the Mycenaean civilization. In the palace you’ll find the first working toilet, used by a queen at one point. The rest of the excavations can be found in the Heraklion Archaelogical Museum.
My two biggest takeaways from Crete: Chania, as with the other places, is a must-see in Greece, and that the chicken I had at the Aquila Atlantis Hotel is the juiciest chicken I’ve ever had, hands-down.