In planning our trip to Europe, Patrick and I wanted to get the most out of our experiences. Instead of flying into Frankfurt a few days before classes started, we elected to travel to the places that we may only get to see once in our lives. Our flight took us to Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, where we successfully navigated the 15 million person city (almost twice the size of NYC). We didn’t know any Turkish, we weren’t familiar with the culture, and generally had no idea what we were doing. This proved to be the most enlightening part of the adventure because of the steep learning curve. We quickly became acclimated to the heat, the nagging shopkeepers, and the chaotic traffic. Looking back, I am glad we started our trip in such an exotic location because after you find your way around Istanbul, Rome and Athens seem far less imposing.
We stayed in a great hostel with a fantastic location. In fact, we may have been spoiled a bit in that we got our best accommodations for the first leg of our journey. Second Home Hostel is located very close to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, as well as the wharf area and the Bosphorous. We went to these ancient locations on foot and were able to see many of the sights this historic city has to offer. We enjoyed the native dishes and spent time with the Turkish managers as well as travelers of all ages and nationalities in the common room of our hostel. After 4 days in the former capital of the known world, it was time to move on to the birthplace of democracy, Athens. Patrick and I outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
We were able to take an overnight train from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, Greece. After staying there for a few hours, we elected to go straight to Athens even though our reservations didn’t start until the following day. Upon arriving in Athens, we went to Hostel Aphrodite and asked if they had any space for us. They said the only place they could put us was on the outside balcony for â‚¬9. Not wanting to surrender a sure place to sleep, we decided to stay in sleeping bags on the tile porch. It was nice; the city lights were dim and the warm air was dry and perfect for sleeping. That is, until about 3 am when the air conditioner’s water seeped into my mattress, soaking the entire upper half of my body. I had to move all my belongings in the middle of the night and lay my sleeping bag out to dry the next day. Once we checked in and got a bed, we loved Hostel Aphrodite. Despite its quirks, we really enjoyed our stay there. That was mostly due to the in-house bar/bartender. The bar, which was located in the basement, offers a free welcome shot of Ouzo (a traditional Greek schnapps) to every new guest. There was automatically a sense of community that was created, and this, coupled with its eclectic patrons made for some very interesting evenings.
When in Athens, we saw all the historic sights, the Acropolis, the Temple to Olympian Zeus along with various ruins from a myriad of different empires. Here we are throwing up Lâ€™s outside the Parthenon.We spent an afternoon on the beach, and climbed the highest point in the city at night. Lycabettus hill overlooks Athens and stands 277 meters high. There is an Orthodox church at its precipice and it has a restaurant that provides stunning views of the city and all its sights. After the descent, Patrick and I managed to get lost. Thanks to the walking tour we took the previous day, however, we were able to navigate back to the hostel via landmarks.
Patrick is a runner. He has run in the Louisville marathon, is slated to run against world record holders in Berlin on September 20th, and has his eyes on Boston. His passion for running and my appreciation for Greek mythology meant that we had to make a trip to Marathon. According to a combination of ancient writings and modern folklore, a battle was won by the Greeks against the Persians near the town of Marathon. To tell of the news, one man named Phidippides (or Philippides, based on who you believe) ran the distance from the battlefield to the Athenian court to tell of the victory. Upon telling of the great battle, he promptly died from exhaustion. This legend has given birth to the race that forces so many athletes to push their bodies to the limit to endure the grueling 26.2 miles. It would only follow that we should make the trek out to the Greek countryside. When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was that nobody was around. Shops were closed for an excessive lunch break, and the people we did see only spoke Greek and looked at us funny. We navigated the town by trial and error, and when the temperature is pushing 100 degrees, that is not the best process. But finally, we wandered upon the stone that marked the starting point for the first marathon race in history. It was in a worn-down Olympic stadium that had the pathetic torch to match. But we felt gratified once we stood before that granite slab with the bronze plate that marked the spot where the Olympic Games were revived and marks the starting point of the race that commemorates one man’s determination and devotion to country and cause. This was a great experience for Patrick, who has an almost religious connection with running.
Probably my best experience in Athens, however, was going to visit Pantelis Mellissinos. He is a third generation sandal maker and his shop is an unassuming store in one of the side streets in Monistiraki Square. His Father, Stavros, was a famous poet and transliterated the Rubaiyat into Greek. Despite their family’s success, they still lead humble lives as sandalmakers because they believe that art truly manifests itself when one is where they are supposed to be in life. I bought a pair of sandals that were custom-fitted and also bought a pair for my friend. Mine were the same that John Lennon bought when he visited Stavros, and the pair that I bought per the request of my friend were called “The Aristotle,” coincidentally named not only for the famous philosopher, but also for the wealthy Greek magnate and future husband of Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis. In talking to Pantellis, I discovered that he was a very grounded individual despite his fame, and he even studied at a school in Ohio near my hometown. It is these experiences that make an international trip truly unique. Anyone can throw down some money and get a ride on a tour bus, take some pictures and buy a t-shirt, but doing the things that you can only capture in that moment will be what you most remember. After 4 nights in Athens, it was now time to begin our journey to Rome.
After we booked deck space on an Adriatic ferry, we took a train to the port city of Patras. This allowed us some wonderful views of the Greek coast with its crystal clear waters. When we arrived, we had to negotiate with the clerk to change our ticket to that day, because the agent in Athens booked our tickets for the following day. Fortunately, this proved to not be a problem and an hour later we were putting the Hellenic landscape behind us with nothing but dark blue before us. When you book a second class ticket on a ferry, you do not get a cabin, or really an assigned seat for that matter. So for the first part of the ride, we spent time on the boat’s heli-pad, talking with people from all over the world. We happened to meet two girls from Portugal. Nina and Mariana were also headed for Rome, so we agreed to travel together until they had to go to Switzerland. We spent most of the night in one of the boat’s lounge areas but we also ventured outside occasionally. The cool breeze coming from the sea was refreshing. But then it got late. And cold. Since it is a 14 hour trip, we had to find a place to sleep at some point during the night. We managed to find a semi-dark spot on the floor of the boat’s theater. When we awoke, we were in what has to be the nicest Italian port city, Bari.
In Bari, we booked our train to Rome, but it didn’t leave for a few hours so we managed to spend most of the day at its man-made beach. Once we were sufficiently sunburnt and sand-covered, it was time to make our way to Rome. In Rome we had the luxury of a private room at a comparably reasonable price at Hostel Ciao Bella. It was located on Via Quattro Fontaine, very close to many of Rome’s landmarks. We spent our days touring the Colosseum and the other innumerable landmarks. The social aspect of Rome is not lacking, either. Upon recommendation from other seasoned travelers, the four of us decided to attend a sophisticated soirÃ©e of sorts: Pub Crawl Roma. This was a great way to see the city and enjoy the company of other young people.
Despite being out very late, the next day we awoke around 7 am and were in St. Peter’s Square by 8:30. This was the most absolutely awe-inspiring sight I have ever been able to witness. The history and beauty that are emblazoned everywhere within its confines make Vatican City my favorite square mile in all over Europe. To see the devotion of generations of the world’s greatest architects and artists amalgamated into such a triumphant symbol of faith and beauty was unbelievable. We had the opportunity to attend mass inside the Basilica. Between the tourists bustling by trying to see the priceless masterpieces and relics and the indecipherable Italian liturgy, an unusual amount of tranquility came over me during the Mass. Being a Roman Catholic, it felt good to see the place that shaped so many modern religions and governments. The lasting impact of the Church can be symbolized by an Obelisk that stands in the middle of St. Peterâ€™s Square . It was built in Egypt in the 13th century BC and was brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD and became the centerpiece for Nero’s infamous circus, which was located very near to the current Vatican site. Because of this location, the obelisk witnessed the deaths of thousands, including that of St. Peter himself. Nicknamed “The Witness,” it now stands a testament to all those who have lost their lives as a result of religious persecution.
The following day, we had to return to the Vatican to see the museum. In my opinion, the Vatican Museum is more impressive that the Louvre in Paris. It contains so many historic paintings and sculptures by Raphael, Michelangelo, and countless others. The Sistine Chapel is within its confines and is every bit as magnificent as I had been told. The summation of the museums collections are mind boggling. An interesting statistic: The Vatican museums are over 9 miles long, and it is said that if you spent only 1 minute admiring each painting it would take you 4 years to complete the circuit.
After spending 4 days in Rome that went entirely too fast, it was now time to move on to Florence.
Florence is a beautiful city that is known for its architecture and culture. We stayed at a summer hostel run by Poles. It was called Bling Bling. We were only able to spend a day and a half in Florence and about 45 minutes in Pisa. We had to be on the train from Pisa to Genoa to connect to Milan so that we could get to Germany the following day. As a result, Patrick and I trekked about a mile across the city with 35lb backpacks, battling stifling heat. We underestimated the distance and were forced to turn back before we could catch a glimpse of the only thing Pisa has to offer. Luckily, we caught our train and were on our way to Milan.
After a few minor setbacks finding connecting trains, we arrived in Milan without great incident. We then boarded a night train that was slated to take us to Frankfurt, where we would then go on to Wiesbaden, and finally Oestrich-Winkel. Unfortunately, I sent my Eurail Pass through the wash in Florence…so it was pretty mangled once I salvaged it. Apparently, the Italians didn’t mind the torn paper and the missing information. But it turns out the German conductors are much less forgiving. I was awakened at 5 am when we arrived in Frankfurt to a mustachioed German man whose limited English vocabulary conveniently included the phrases, “I don’t know what this is, but this is not a ticket!” and, “You must PAY!” After some confusion followed by arguing which quickly devolved into pleading, I had to pay for the full cost of the ticket, â‚¬124… Willkommen aus Deutschland, right?
But the point is, we made it to Germany and we had our own place to sleep that night… right?