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.

Aegina: Greece’s best-kept secret?

"It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world." When it comes to a holiday in the Greek islands, one hears a lot about Santorini and Mykonos. But just a short ferry ride away from the bustling city of Athens lies a magical retreat: Aegina Island.

Famous for pistachio nuts and dotted with beautiful beaches, Aegina is a great destination if you’re short on time but want to get a feel for island life.

I spent a few nights there in January thanks to the kind hospitality of a close friend. I’m so glad that I met Alexia Demetriou. She’s nice, hilarious and one of the most genuine people I know. She also happens to have an amazing house in the heart of Aegina with sea views from every window.

Was our friendship fate or what?

I fell in love with Aegina as soon as I stepped off the ferry. Having come from bustling Athens, arriving in Aegina felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world.

The heart of Aegina Island: the small yet vibrant town centre

As I stayed with Alexia and her family, I had the luxury of enjoying an authentic Greek experience. If you visit Aegina I would encourage you to avoid the resorts and hotels, and instead find a small, authentic Bed and Breakfast. That way you will catch a glimpse of what life is really like for many locals.

The highlight of my stay had to be the food. In Greece, the whole day revolves around food, especially the main meal of the day: lunch. Alexia’s grandmother – known affectionately as YaYa – would begin cooking lunch before she’d even had breakfast. I remember waking up to a pot of pumpkin soup bubbling away on the stove and thinking, I have to wait until this afternoon before I can devour that?

I can remember the smell as if it were yesterday. All of the produce was fresh. Whole onions and garlic and huge chunks of pumpkin simmered for hours to capture the flavours, before YaYa mixed all of the ingredients together to form a soup.

But a traditional Greek lunch couldn’t possibly be only a delicious homemade pumpkin soup. Come midday, the table was laid with bread, olives, wine, octopus (surprisingly tasty) and my personal favourite, Tzatziki – a natural yoghurt dip infused with cucumber and plenty of garlic. I could eat it by the spoonful. I can see why the Greeks have siestas – after a meal like that, all you want to do is curl up in the sun and snooze.

Afternoons were time for relaxing, the perfect lifestyle for someone like me who can’t concentrate past 3pm. We’d play cards, sleep, read, go for a walk, go for coffee. I imagine every day feels a bit like a holiday when you live on a Greek Island.

Other food highlights included homemade baklavas (pastry dripping in butter and sugar, oh so good), the simple yet perfect Greek salad, fried cheese (sounds disgusting but is actually mouth-watering), freshly smoked tuna, Greek-style kebab (warm flat-bread with fries inside!) and lightly salted calamari with lemon juice. Some of the food in Greece is high in fat and sugar, but the diet is based on plenty of fruits and vegetables. When you eat fried cheese with a giant green salad, you can somehow convince yourself it’s good for you (although I’m not sure my hips would agree!)

When I wasn’t eating, I was exploring Aegina. It’s a stunning little island and the people are lovely. It seemed like every second person we ran into was related to Alexia! Greek families really are big and complicated. I think it’s fantastic – I don’t know many of my second cousins or great-aunts, but in Greece family ties are always cherished.

I found the island had something for everyone. Whether you are into pondering life over coffee, shopping, lying on the beach, hiking, visiting ancient artefacts or sipping cocktails by the pool, you will find Aegina more than meets your needs. If you find yourself craving a bit of downtime after a few busy days in Athens, Aegina is the perfect place to unwind.