My brief encounter with Athens

"I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal." One of the best things about travel is the people you meet along the way. I ended up in Athens by accident – I hadn’t planned on visiting the Greek capital on this particular trip. But when my new Greek Australian friend Alexia invited me to visit, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and before you know it I was touching down in one of the world’s most celebrated cities.

I flew to Athens from Lyon via Zurich. To say it was an adventure is an understatement. It was the longest flight across Europe I had done by myself, involving a rather tight changeover at Zurich Airport. I barely slept the night before, and was up at 4am to get to the airport. Little did I know the day would unfold to be one of the most memorable of my entire six months abroad.

I landed in Athens to find the whole city was on strike. All public transport was stopped (as far as I could gather, not speaking a word of Greek). Alexia’s clear instructions were rendered useless: go out of airport, turn right, catch X96 bus to the port of Pireaus. With no bus and limited time, I found myself in the back of a taxi, placing all of my trust in a short, balding Greek man with a bright smile.

My first encounter with Athens was short-lived but it is seared in my memory. My mission upon arrival was to make my way to the port and catch a ferry to the island of Aegina, where I would spend a few blissful nights with the Demetriou family. I expected the journey to be colourful, but couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for the combination of adrenalin and fear that was to come.

Fast cars and Greek men

The taxi ride between Athens Airport and Pireaus was possibly the scariest and most expensive hour of my life. But it was also the most exhilarating. For those of you who don’t know me well, I’m a bit of a wuss. I try to avoid putting myself in scary situations. I hate anything even slightly adventurous, from gymnastics to ski-biscuiting. And I definitely do not like fast cars. So as this taxi driver was speeding along the motorway at 120km/hr, while simultaneously talking on a cellphone, smoking, and TURNING AROUND to look at me as he spoke enthusiastically in Greek, I thought to myself: “I could die in a taxi in Athens”.

Did I mention he didn’t indicate? None of the cars seemed to. They just kind of weaved around each other, all driving at crazy speeds, none of them even looking in the right direction. I honestly do not know how driving in Athens works, but somehow it does. Any person driving safely would probably be squashed in a matter of seconds.

I felt vulnerable, scared and sensational. I had a huge grin on my face and my skin was tingling. It was one of those “am I really doing this?” moments, where everything feels surreal. Arriving in Athens forced me outside of my comfort zone, and reminded me that you can’t always play it safe. And that sometimes just rolling with the punches is the best way to travel.

Obviously I arrived at the port of Pireaus alive and well, albeit sweating profusely. The crazy taxi driver got out of his car and showed me to the ticket stand, then gave me a weird hug goodbye and lingered awkwardly. Was I meant to tip him more than the giant tip I’d already given him? Hug him back? I shouted thank you in a slightly manic voice a few times and he finally walked away.

As I sat down on the ferry and looked out over the sparkling sea, I felt an immense wave of relief. I had survived my first encounter with Athens. The city seemed like a big, scary, hungry hole waiting to swallow me up (or splat me on the side of the road in a taxi), but I was already in love.

Round 2 – late nights and Greek coffee

After a few blissful nights in Aegina, where life is good and the sun is always shining, Alexia, Minna and I made our way back to Athens. I was a little wary of this big bad city and sad to leave the calm paradise of Aegina, but in the end I warmed to the capital.

We stayed with Alexia’s friend Zoe. Staying with a local always makes a huge difference. Zoe showed us all the places that you just wouldn’t know to look for as a tourist. We drank Greek coffee at 9pm in a cute street of what looked like lively bars only everyone was still drinking coffee, before grabbing dinner at this dodgy little kebab shop with hideous décor. Wherever we were, it felt edgy and slightly dirty, but at the same time incredibly vibrant.

We did make time for some traditional tourist spots, like watching the change of the guards at parliament and visiting the Acropolis. But it is the balmy winter evenings sipping coffee in the dark that I remember with the most fondness. I enjoyed getting to know some Greeks. They have an infectious, welcoming, easy-going nature, but at the same time are often deeply traditionalist. Their roots run deep.

The political landscape is turbulent, and I sensed apprehension and weariness in many people, but at the same time an irrepressible joy and love for the land around them. The Greeks I met were fiercely proud of their homeland and eager to share their stories and experiences with newcomers. I hope I will visit again one day.

All-in-all? Athens is not to be missed

I’m not going to sugar coat it: Athens is a challenging city. It’s often dirty and dusty and slightly intimidating. You have to know where you’re going or be prepared to stumble across some confronting sights. And you will be surrounded by other tourists, all trying to see the same things, all battling the heat and the crowds and the dodgy food stalls.

But I would recommend it to anyone. Sometimes the best trips are the least comfortable, because they make your senses come alive and open your eyes to new ideas. Athens is ancient, but you’ll leave the city feeling new.