I’m a teacher of classics. Eureka. I’ve never set foot in the lands I teach about, the lands Homer evokes. I’m recently divorced – so nothing, or rather no one, is stopping me – and there’s one of those long school holidays around the corner, so rather than moping and ‘preparing’ I book a flight, rustle up my (meagre) savings – I’’ll have to survive on a shoestring – and am off.
An inauspicious start: the plane was delayed, and it’s nearly midnight when I land. I can’t really afford taxis, but there’s no choice: it’s too late to be messing about. “€15,” he says, which when I get out has become €25, and now he no longer speaks English. Anyway, he’s dropped me off at a hostel and they’ve a bunk, so ça va. But what’s this? Those five girls from the plane I’d wanted to speak to – but been too nervous to – being dropped off in their own taxi. I could’ve jumped in with them and saved some money, and spoken to them. Dommage…
I wake up and look down from my bunk: the dormitory’s full of girls. Where’d they come from? It’d been empty when I’d retired. Anyway, off to the port to catch a hydrofoil. Everyone’s coming this way, to the islands, but it’s the mainland for me, the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of democracy, western philosophy, literature, and theatre, and the Olympic Games.
Piraeus comes into view across that wine-dark sea, once the prototype harbour, now…anyway, I head straight to Pláka, a.k.a. Athens’ Old Town, and after asking at various hostels I finally get into one. I’m in with a Korean and an Australian – the latter a veteran youth hosteller – but I’m soon in the bar with the Transylvanian Anne-Marie pouring me a cold one and Nikita teaching me Scopa, before Kenny from County Westmeathe joins us for a hand, two years into his travels and only three countries away from the full European set. This is what travelling is about, and why you have to travel alone.
The next day it’s the Parthenon. What’s that? Entrance to every cultural site in Greece is free for E.U. students? Goodie: I’ve just started a master’s. A souvlaki-pita – my first of many – and then back to the hostel bar where I’m drinking with Anne-Marie’s boss Perry when Joel – a traveller very much in the DiCaprio-from-The-Beach mould with a headband and no way home – joins us, before a team of us go hunting for another bar, a jazz club – a proper one too, one in which you can still smoke inside – where we hit the Campari and hot Tsipouro hard.
Bed at 5am. Check out’s 7am. I get a knock at 11am and am told to get out. I’d promised to meet up with the ‘team’ but I’m heading for a bus. Having missed the first one (having waited at the wrong stop), I catch the second, but not knowing where to alight get to the end of the line. I’m dropped off on the way back but have now missed my connection, so have to wait around for a few hours.
6pm, and I arrive at Delphi where, to my surprise, an hotelier is waiting at the bus stop for prospective customers, like me. “€20.” he says. “Sounds good to me,” say I, when I remember that Greece is in the thick of a financial crisis. Not bad for tourists, it occurs to me, thinking back to the free-entrances-to-every-cultural-site-in-Greece thing, but then I feel bad, especially when I come to realise that tourists are staying away and making matters worse, and places like Delphi are dead. “At least there’s a certain ambiance,” I say to the French couple I’m soon drinking with…
Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, the navel of the world and seat of the Pythia. But never mind all that, I’d left the windows open and mosquitoes are everywhere. Darn. But anyway, what a place this is, one of those must-see places – like Sidi Bou Said – with its views and ruins, the Tholos especially…
I pass Trikala, going over mountaintops, along the narrowest and most precipitous of ‘roads’ – if that’s what you can call them – with cows wandering across, and in and out of little villages. I don’t know how good the driver is, but he spends a lot of time talking…
Kalabaka. English speakers scarce now, the temperature soaring – it’s 8pm and 37 degrees – and my money’s running low already. All those cheap beers and €1 souvlaki-pitas start to add up, especially when you don’t start off with much. Anyway, I stumble across Taylor and Adam from Florida who point me in the direction of a hostel, but when I get there no one’s around, despite there being a key in the door. A few old men are drinking outside the bar next door so I have a beer with them, though we can’t really communicate, and then move on. Several hostels later – all open but empty – I find one, before meeting back up with Taylor and Adam who, it transpires, have only just met too and are tonight celebrating Taylor’s 21st. In fact, they’ve come out of their way here so Taylor can meet back up with some girl, only to be stood up. We have a few beers at the fountain and then hit the clubs, but are then thrown out for taking our own beer in, so we get some cans and sit off in the park again.
Having promised to meet up with them the next day, I’m off to Meteora instead, that magical place where monasteries are perched on top of tall pillars of rock. I walk there, which is pretty far, in the blazing heat – I didn’t get up so early after the night before – and then haul myself up the Great Meteoron, which is quite a job in itself. “Hello there.” a couple of travellers say to me. They’d seen me at Delphi, they say, though I can’t place them.
Back to Trikala to catch a connection to Patras, there where Saint Andrew met his martyrdom. Again the bus ride – which seems the way to get around – is treacherous, so fast around the corners of those mountain passes, but we’re soon across the Rio-Antirrio Bridge. The hostel’s dreadful: it stinks of urine, is crumbling away, there’s no keys, not even any sheets, and it’s actually rather sinister, with various undesirables lurking around, so I take myself to the marina for a couple of cans.
Bus to Pyrgos, being told to take my feet off the seat, before transferring to Olympia, the site, of course, of the ancient Olympic Games. It’s just like Delphi, quiet and empty. “Pay before you leave.” the hosteller tells me. I’m in with a couple of Poles, and after a few beers are joined by a couple of French lasses and a Californian called Lisa. We go out for some dreadful Retsina, only to find ourselves locked out upon our return. Round the back, we climb up onto a terrace – the inhabitants of the apartment it belongs to looking on in shock – and then into an empty one from where we can pull down a rusty old ladder and get onto our balcony on the top floor. Fortunately we had left that door unlocked. Only now does the owner emerge. All our banging at the front door hadn’t woken him, but this had. He throws my wine away before storming off. There’s no way I’m paying him that €11 now.
Next morning I’m up with the lark and creeping under his counter. At the bus stop I find Lisa. She’d done the same. We head to to Corinth where we get into a campsite. I don’t have a tent, but she does. We take ourselves around Ancient Corinth, along streets that Saint Paul had once walked, but my boots are killing me and I jump straight into the sea, before enjoying a beer at the beach bar as the sun sets in the west.
To Nemea, where Hercules had slain that lion and that other part of the PanHellenic Games had taken place, and then Golden Mycenae, through its Lion Gate and into Agamemnon’s stronghold.
Then onto mighty-walled Tiryns – another place Schliemann had excavated – as I read the Iliad, and then Epidaurus and its theatre where, despite it holding up to 14,000 spectators, you can hear a coin being dropped in its very centre, from wherever you’re sat. Othello is on tonight, but I give that a miss and head back to Athens. I’ve managed to give Lisa the slip, who I haven’t forgiven and who was beginning to annoy me too, pedantically saying everything in a Greek accent, but now I’ve a José alongside me who just doesn’t shut up.
Back in the same hostel, and the ‘team’ are still there, wondering where I’d gotten to. Playing some pool, I’m 1-1 with a local when he offers me a decider for €10, whereupon, of course, he starts to batter me, immediately potting every ball, apart from, importantly, the ninth, which I sink and thereby take the €10, which will come in rather handy, I think.
Little trip to Sounion the next day, where Byron had once engraved his name – as he had at Château de Chillon – another must-see site.
The day after the museum, to see the golden Mask of Agamemnon – lifted from Golden Mycenae – but much of it is closed because of a strike so I hitch a lift to Marathon, from where Pheidippides had run to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians.
That night I meet the Venetians Gianni and Giulia, with her wonderful flaming hair who comes into the bar like a whirlwind, and we talk Jane Eyre, Dante, and Bocelli. These two I will meet up with in years to come. Perry has a late bar for some French last night, so the shots come out, three each per round, before it is me who is behind the bar and those French girls dancing on it.
Then Eleusis – of the Mysteries fame – a very difficult place to get to and, getting there, the ancient site is closed anyway. Back at the hostel my new pal Austen – another chap from last night – has the worst ever hangover. It transpires he was arrested the other day too, for breaking into somewhere, and in fact he seems utterly crazy, and a Maths teacher at that.
Finally back to Santorini, otherwise known as Thera, or Atlantis even. I head to Perissa with its blue-topped white houses and wander over the black sand, swim in that wine-dark sea, and help myself to a beer and a gyros before going to crash, only to find those five girls from my first night there. I must say, “Hello.” to them, I think to myself, but never do.
The last day. Up to Old Thera I go, ‘scaling a mountain’ with a sheer drop behind me and barely a footpath in front, the wind howling all around, but what a view on top, as planes fly in just past my head. Here I hear someone explaining that we’re in the year 2010 because Jesus died in the year 0, and I feel obliged to correct him, as I had that time at the Great Pyramid of Giza when I heard someone going through the Wonders of the World, starting with the Grand Canyon…
The airport’s tiny and chaotic, I’ve no money and the flight’s delayed again, but not to worry. I’ve banked so many memories, friendships, and beers, none of which will ever be forgotten.