Most of us have a dream destination, a place we have always wished to visit and experience. It could be inspired by that childhood novel, or that beautiful picture you loved, or a vivid description narrated by a friend or an article read up online. This is exactly what Greece has been to me all these years, doubly inspired by my curiosity about the Greek history and a contemporary Bollywood melody.
As I stepped out of the station with silent trepidation, having no prior information about the city and absolutely no plan at hand, it was my GPS and a city map that proved to be my guide for the next 6hours. As the general perception goes, prices in Eastern Europe are more alluring than Western Europe and so is the case in Sofia, where you can have a fulfilling meal in less than a couple of euros.
The city manifests an overwhelming Soviet influence and some knowledge of the Cyrillic script could be very handy. Majority of the tourist spots can be comfortably covered on foot and I was simply fortuitous to find myself in the company of a fellow Russian–Indian traveller. This encounter interestingly transformed my trip into understanding more about Russian culture and my failed attempts at deciphering the script, at almost every landmark we stopped by.
Having visited quite a few museums and cathedrals on my trips to the other European countries, I had grown increasingly wary of them and rather chose to engage myself in absorbing the architecture and the landmarks of this youthful city. With a couple of hours to spare for my next train, I indulged myself in shopping at some of the open air markets in the city. There are marvellous paintings by the local artists available at pretty affordable prices. From travel books to artefacts and trinkets, there are plenty of items to collect as souvenirs!
Though an often overlooked tourist destination, one can experience the scenic Balkan mountains and the serene traditional villages. But alas, my itinerary did not quite permit that.
Greece has a lot to offer, in terms of its rich history, architecture, exotic beaches and luxurious cruises and to top it all, a vibrant and happening night life. Eurail passes are not particularly useful in Greece as most of the commute involves travelling by buses or ferry, where the pass does not fetch any discounts. The weather is extremely crucial and do check the forecasts before planning because the rains could wreak havoc with your beach plans.
My exploration started early in the morning with Delphi, a religious sanctuary dedicated to Apollo and Athena. The bus-ride from Athens took a little over 3hours. The archaeological sites of Delphi are located along the slopes of a mountain with a breath-taking view of the valley beneath. Over the next few hours, I was enamoured by architectural finesse at the archaeological site, which included the temple of Apollo, treasuries, stadiums and theatres. Legend has it that Greeks considered Delphi to be the centre of the world, and the spot is earmarked by the crossing of two eagles, sent in opposite directions of the world. The walk through the elegant chambers of the Delphi museum was pretty fascinating, especially since it narrates the Greek folklore with impeccable lucidity.
I booked myself a ferry for Paros for the next morning. Online bookings are available seasonally; hence I resorted to purchasing them at the dock itself. The journey from Athens to Paros took about 8 hours. As the ferry neared Paros, a land painted white and blue emerged in the far horizon. My accommodation was an exquisitely beautiful duplex in a silent neighbourhood close to the beach and well furnished with music and books. A walk through the paved streets in the late afternoon left me mesmerized by the simplicity of the classic Cycladic architecture that this traditional Greek island exhibited- marked by flowered houses, narrow, winding lanes, meticulously designed blue-domed cathedrals and an occasional windmill. The pristine beaches were the highlight for me, with the crystal clear waters along stretches of sparkling golden sand that provide a multitude of options for relaxing on the beach as well as adventure sports. I chose a rather tranquil and relatively less populated destination, close to the main port. It was lined with small restaurants that offered an array of sumptuous seafood and cafes which showcased desserts that I simply could not resist but savour. Bars and night-clubs are aplenty and the party scene is unparalleled in the peak tourism season.
My next stop was the place I was most excited to visit: Santorini. It is one of the most visited Aegean islands and has direct flights from the mainland, besides the ferry. My tour of the island started with Oia cliff, the northern part of the island. The sunset in the Aegean waters, against the glamourous hues of the skyline was an enthralling sight. Next I headed to Fira, one of the commercial areas, which provides a multiple of eateries and shopping options coupled with a spectacular view of the caldera. I thoroughly enjoyed sampling the local cuisine at a small restaurant, especially the seafood.
Santorini flaunts having three types of sandy beaches-white, black and red. I started with Perissa, the black beach lined with numerous tavernas, cafes and bars to fit all budgets. My exploration of the beaches next took me to the red beach, quite close to Akrotiri village. It was sundown by the time I reached and the precarious climb on the cliff in the strong winds, where the only source of illumination was the mere cell phone lights is an experience that will remain etched in my memory. Moreover, the island offers a thriving night life and wineries, boat tours, etc. I culminated my sojourn by relaxing at a local bar, before boarding the ferry back to Athens.
Athens, one of the oldest cities of Europe with a conspicuously cosmopolitan soul, houses some of the most ancient sites of mankind. It would be good idea to start the day with a free walking tour of the city-it can be a brilliant crash course if you find yourself at a loss with regard to Greek history. The Acropolis citadel, with the Parthenon perched at the zenith provides a splendid panoramic view of the city. Though the entry is free for students of the European Union, international student cards are not accepted. The city has numerous historical and archaeological sites, contemporary art museums and cathedrals to keep one busy by the day. There is so much to cover that I found myself racing against time by evening, since these tourist spots close by 6pm.
The metropolis got all enthused and lively in the evenings with gorgeously lit fountains, music reverberating in the air coupled with intermittent performers and of course, delicious food stalls to tickle the taste buds that go easy on pockets as well! My personal favourites being the Monastiraki flea market owing to the insane shopping I engrossed myself in and the Plaka, an area sprawling with food, street music, florists and tourist shops. The view of the Parthenon under lights in the evenings is simply exquisite. On the last evening, I pampered myself with the most tempting desserts, long walks in the shadows of the Acropolis and shared a tune with the street musicians.
If you are a gourmand, Greece will never disappoint you with its wide range of desserts and sea food. I loved the gyros (in fact it was my meal on most occasions), souvlaki and moussaka and have tasted unarguably, the yummiest crepes as compared to anywhere in Europe. Depending on the time and budget, one can also plan trips to some of the other Greek islands.
Well, I should close this rather long post by saying that trip has been nothing short of a dream come true for me and Greece has left me with an unceasing desire to come back and spend more days in this land of art, history and food!