A glimpse of Greece

Athens

Every journey needs a point to start. Flight connections and the wish to incorporate a Greek island into our trip made ours the city of Athens, the – some would argue chaotic – capital of Greece. We spent the better part of the day walking around the old districts of Plaka and Monastiraki sneaking into tiny roads, abandoned buildings turned into art galleries and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the top of Areopagus hill, both the Acropolis and the rooftops of the city well in sight. For a few short moments, I thought about how it would be different had I opted for Ancient Greek classes (instead of French) back at high school when I was 14.

Our afternoon was a tiny glimpse into a place which holds a vast heritage of European history and culture but also can’t hide the country’s struggle in the wake of the recent financial crisis. The next day we headed to a place where all of that is much less obvious: the Greek islands.

Skiathos

Skiathos is a short connection from Athens and it happened to be my first flight sitting against the direction we were heading. The first row was facing to the rear of the airplane making it a unique and unusual flying experience, at least with a bit of extra leg space. The journey also marked the beginning of a common theme on our flights and ferry rides in Greece: Booking tickets together doesn’t necessarily mean you’re seated next to the person you booked with. Not at all!

The approach on Skiathos offered stunning views of the island and coast below. In fact, the 1.6 km-long runway starts and ends just barely off the ocean which makes it a favourite among plane-spotters from all around the world, some call it the European Sint Marteen. We had a couple of hours to catch a ferry so we decided to walk to Xanemos beach in the north for a first taste of the Mediterranean sea. Could’ve taken a cab, could’ve made more effort to store our bags somewhere but we didn’t mind. We carried our backpacks and I rolled my trolley along empty streets and gravel roads, music blasting from my girlfriend’s phone like the excitement from my face, all the way around the airport to the beach.

Xanemos probably can’t be found on any list of the most beautiful beaches in Greece (as if we would mind) but it’s still a beauty, a first glimpse of what was about to await us the next day and I thoroughly enjoyed washing off any stress or discomfort the last couple of weeks before the trip might have caused. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a landlocked country but the experience of the ocean still has a huge impact on me, time and time again. The feeling of sand or rocks beneath my feet, the salty water on my skin and the calming effect of just sitting on the shore watching the waves roll in.

Once in a while, the silence was interrupted by a plane arriving or departing on the runway which started on a little hill just behind the beach. I didn’t mind, it was fascinating. The real treat, however, came on the way back past the airport to the ferry station. Close to Amaretto bar signs warn visitors about the dangers of jet engines and low-flying planes. It feels like if you stood up on the wall just outside the airport you could reach the plane with your hands. DON’T! Call it a big “boy”’s fascination for technology and “big toys” but I find it wildly fascinating to see and experience these wonders of engineering up close.

A few sweaty minutes later we arrived in the town of Skiathos just in time for a quick snack before catching the boat to Skopelos.

Skopelos

Sometimes you have an exact idea about what places you want to visit and how you expect them to look, feel, smell and be like. Other times it’s rather vague. A quaint Greek island with “white and blue-coloured houses” was the image we had started with, triggered mostly by the movie “Mamma Mia” my girlfriend had watched a few years back (and we both re-watched in a hilarious Skype movie night in “preparation” for our trip). Again, I realised how many people visit my hometown for “The Sound of Music” and I’m a bit concerned if this movie is all that fuels their expectations. We went back and forth looking into different islands, in the end, we picked Skopelos hoping it wouldn’t be a big “Mamma Mia” tourist trap. It wasn’t. Of course, the film is part of the island’s tourism and there were the expected “Mamma Mia” sightseeing tours but it merely felt like a side-note to us. Skopelos has a lot going for itself, the beaches were amazing and the hills seemed like a perfect place for some serious mountain biking (we abstained). The houses of the old town were the picture-perfect realisation of how most of us would envision a Greek island village. After all, there is a reason it was chosen as the location for a Hollywood movie. We spent most of our second day between Kastani and Milia beach, swimming in (and diving into) the bluest waters I’ve ever seen, practising my boulder skills on the rocky cliffs, exploring a little cave close to the beach and enjoying one of the most beautiful sunsets so far. We chilled with some beers and ice-cream, the only visitors at the beach restaurant before taking one of the last buses back to town. We sat on the street watching the street musicians play. Night-life looked promising but after a long day in the sun we headed back, somehow managed to find our accommodation in the dark of the night and fell into a deep sleep.

The next day after breakfast we went out to explore the town of Skopelos and soon found ourselves emerged in a maze of beautifully designed white buildings perfectly blending into the landscape. We rambled through narrow roads, blue colouring perfectly embracing the traditional style (and national colour) of Greece, upwards to the Anatolḗ restaurant. A zillion photos and wonderful impressions later, we reluctantly headed back down and waved Skopelos good-bye from a ferry towards Thessaloniki. Each of us from different parts of the boat because seating us next to each other would’ve been to easy for the ferry operator. For the next couple of hours, we were left alone with our thoughts and music reminiscing about a short, way too short, visit to the Greek islands. I found an onboard-magazine, researching islands for a future trip not knowing if and when it will happen.

Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki marked the beginning of the “too bad this is only a layover destination”-part of our journey. I climbed part of the city wall for an epic sunset view before we strolled up to the castle and found a tavern for another, final, feast of delicious Greek food. With a sense of melancholy to leave this country behind but lots of excitement about the road trip ahead, we headed to the train station early the next morning. A quick breakfast later we boarded a bus which would take us north to Skopje, into a country, while still in Greece, you better don’t call Macedonia.