Travel – and the worldview expansion it brings – is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. I’m not talking about your standard ‘fly and flop’ resort vacation. That kind of travel only recharges the batteries. I’m talking about meaningful travel – the kind where you live like a local, collect experiences over things, allow your wandering heart to explore, face and conquer your fears, and generally suck out all the marrow of life.
The Greeks know a thing or two about sucking the marrow out of life. After all, the philosophy of hedonism was born in Greece, and centuries later, its people carry on the tradition of pursuing pleasure even as the Greek economy crumbles. Steeped in ancient history, blessed with natural beauty and a temperate climate, and brimming with adventure, Greece and its islands were a natural choice when I began planning a mother-daughter summer trip before McKenzie, my eldest, heads off to university in Halifax this fall.
We started the first leg of our 10-day Greek odyssey in the ancient city of Athens, a heady mix of history and edge. While my history-loving heart could have explored the riches of Athens for days, my daughters and I praised the gods that we had only a single day and night in the city. Athens was caught in the merciless grip of an oppressive heat wave when we arrived, with temperatures soaring to 46 °F (114 °F). There is no escaping a heat that suffocating.
I’d booked an Acropolis tour with Context Travel, an organization that employs Ph.D. and MA-level academics and researchers as guides for small group and private tours designed for the intellectually curious traveller in Europe, Asia, and North/South America. I’m very discriminating about tours – I’m not a snap-photo-and-move-on kind of traveller, and I detest rigid itineraries. I prefer deep travel, exploring on my own or with guides for whom their work is a calling, not a paycheque. This kind of tourism allows you to slow down, dig deeper, ask questions, and fully surrender to the experience.
To say that I was looking forward to sharing this unique experience with my girls would be an understatement. Unfortunately, the sun-scorched stones of the city’s crumbling ruins screamed a bit too loudly in protest that day, and our tour was cancelled before we’d landed at 9 am.
So we sweated our way to Athens’ historic centre – Plaka – a neighbourhood at the eastern side of the Acropolis, with labyrinthine streets dotted with homes and shops that tell a rich, patchwork tale of the city’s Turkish occupation and the Neoclassical period. Since we wanted to live like locals on our journey, I’d booked us flats through Airbnb in each of our stops – Athens, Santorini, and Mykonos.
As we waited for the keys to our flat, my girls discovered the delights of the frappe, a hallmark of outdoor Greek coffee culture. A frothy and heady blend of coffee, sugar, water, and ice, the frappe is the morning drink of choice for Greeks – especially in the summer months. It was ambrosia to my travel-weary 18-year-old and 13-year-old as we melted even in the shade of the café’s outdoor patio.
Finally, our home was ready for us. We dragged our suitcases up the winding stone stairs that led to a small blue gate, and our little cave flat carved into the cliffs at the base of the Acropolis hill. We stepped into the courtyard, and but for the modern bicycle nestled inside, might have thought we’d stepped back in time.This flat could not have been better situated. Step out and down the winding stone stairs, and you’re in the heart of Plaka, steps from Syntagma Square and the scenic Anafiotika neighbourhood. Walk up and to the left, and you’re on the uphill climb to the Acropolis.
Canadians are a hardy bunch, and there was no way we were going to let a heat wave oppress our thirst for ancient history. So soon after we settled and stopped for a quick bite at Paul (one of my favourite patisseries), we started our ascent to the Parthenon, perched on its rocky outcrop and presiding over the city as it has for millennia. Even from outside the gates, the Parthenon is a sight to behold. With the wind whistling through the ancient columns, my fanciful heart could almost hear the whispers of history. This ancient citadel and its monuments have survived for nearly 25 centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations. I stood there, awestruck, in the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre, and modern freedoms like expression and speech, with my imagination and curiosity burning bright as twin flames in the pit of my adventuring soul. My kids were a little less fanciful and a lot more heat-exhausted than I, so we soon clambered down to Monastiraki Square to plot our next move.
Hoping for a break from the heat, we headed to the rooftop patio at A for Athens. Alas, no fans or air conditioning, which meant that the icy cool liquids we poured into our bodies came right back out again as sweat. The panoramic views of the Parthenon and Athens more than made up for it.
No visit to Athens is complete without a stop at Melissinos – The Poet, sandalmaker to the stars since 1920, where you can have a custom-fitted pair of Athenian leather sandals expertly crafted for you while you wait. Jackie O, Sophia Loren, The Beatles, and Sarah Jessica Parker have all sat on the jumbled menagerie of mismatched chairs crammed into the tiny workshop tucked away at 2 Agias Theklas Street. We visited the family-run Melissinos on our only day in Athens, with this as our only consumer mission in Greece.
We felt a frisson of excitment, even jammed together with six other customers in the oppressive afternoon heat. While we sweatily awaited our turn, we glanced around the shop, all available surfaces covered with a dizzying array of handmade leather sandals, books, bags, art, photos, press clippings, and letters from the world’s glitterati. The craftsmanship, timeless designs, attention to detail, and personalized service are bar none. There are poor facsimiles of Melissinos’ designs throughout the Greek isles, but once you have the real thing, all others pale in comparison. For €45 a pair, these are a forever pair of sandals, and the experience makes them priceless.
After a sleepless overnight flight and a jam-packed day of exploring, McKenzie and Kaiya wanted nothing more than to relax in the air-conditioned oasis of our little flat. I’d pushed them fairly hard for our first day, and they’d rallied remarkably well, so I walked them back and headed out to explore our neighbourhood. I love wandering directionless in a foreign country. It’s one of my favourite ways to ease myself into the rhythm of local life. I walked for hours that afternoon, resisting several charming pleas from shopkeepers to peruse their wares, snapping photos, people watching, and drinking it all in like a fine wine to be savoured.
McKenzie’s Greek-born English teacher, Ms. Mitten (amazing name for a teacher, no?) had given her pages of recommendations for our stays in Athens, Santorini, and Mykonos, which we followed like a guidebook written by a friend. We wanted traditional meze for our first night in Greece, and decided to try Tzitzikas kai Mermigas, a taverna that uses the raw produce of the Greek countryside as the basis of its culinary philosophy. We feasted like Greek gods on tzatziki, Greek salad, dolmadakia, and pork, then headed next door to La Greche, a gelateria that combines traditional Italian ingredients with the flavours of Greece: Corinthian raisins, Cretan anthotiro, lemons from Argos, oranges from Lakonia and figs from Kalamata.
We had a 7 am flight to Santorini the next day, so we finally surrendered to jet lag and heat exhaustion, retiring to the flat we’d fallen in love with and fervently wished we’d had more time in. And so ended one epic day in one epic city.
Stay tuned for the next installment in my Mother-Daughter Greek Odysssey series, Leg 2: Santorini.