I have a special love for Greece and all things Greek.
Growing up, Greece was never specifically on my radar to visit but back then I was just a simple teenager with a simple goal of seeing the whole wide world.
Not in my wildest dreams did I think Greece would be the first country I would visit on my own sans parents. It was my first grown up trip in 1997. I had just turned twenty and it was for Spring Break too! Most college students wanted warmer holidays but this island girl wanted something different and thanks to my Greek-American roommate at the time, we ended up in colder Athens in time for Greek Independence Day.
Google wasn’t as readily available then so I knew nothing about Athens except that Maria was my guide, she was bad at directions but spoke the language. There was no efficient train system in Athens then and limited tourist information compared to what they have today. On that trip I discovered my love for gyros and Nescafé Frappes, ate lamb for the very first time, tasted fresh goat’s milk, spat it out and swore I would never drink it again, partied Greek style till the wee hours of the morning, drank 0uzo all day with old folks who spoke no English; I even rode my first scooter on the island and learnt never to stuff myself with fried calamari before getting on a ferry (let’s just say it took years before I tasted calamari again!). They still used the Drachma too so I felt like I was rich converting my US dollars.
It was my first real non-English speaking country and I survived (even when Maria and I got lost at night walking back to our hotel). Athens wowed the naive twenty year old island girl in me. Athens gave me the raw experience; beautiful with its history, architecture and an insight into all that the Greeks contributed to the world. Athens in 1997 prepared me for my future travels as a young female traveller.
Fast forward to 2008 when I would visit again for my best friend’s wedding in the peak sweltering Summer heat.
And as a vegetarian too! I’m smiling here remembering the warm freshly baked pita bread and Greek salads that tasted oh so delicious on that trip.
But Athens had changed in 2008.
There was a different vibe. Lots in good ways too and mostly since the Olympics happened. The infrastructure of the city changed completely. There was one sad train line prior, and now the metro in Athens is amazing (for Greek standards and mines too). The tram from central Athens to the south of Athens didn’t exist; now it is one of the pride and joy of Athenians. There are more trees, less stray animals, more parks, fancy cafés and Starbucks had arrived in the city (I still prefer the heart racing Nescafé Frappes).
The museums had all been upgraded and my highlight – how well preserved the excavations sights that were discovered during the building of the train system at each of the train stations were, making them a free museum in itself.
Fast forward to Fall 2014 when I would visit for TBEX, a travel blogging conference.
The culinary food scene has exploded in Athens with more international and fusion flavours. There are more foreign chains; fast food especially. And I swear there’s a Starbucks on every corner. When we were there in 1997 there was not even one (I still prefer my Nescafé Frappes though).
The negative aspect of more homelessness, more illegal foreigners and crime has gone up. Parking, which was always a problem, has increased tenfold. As has traffic.
Despite the culinary scene evolving over the years, the economic issues have resulted in many small mom and pop stores shutting down and blocks of streets that had food traffic are deserted now. The locals seem a mix of more bitter and guarded especially in light of the current ongoing crisis. But the gyros were still incredibly delicious, the Acropolis still stood out and the newly opened Acropolis Museum was a treat to explore.
Athens has officially become a proper European capital, with the good and the bad since my first visit. But despite the bad, I can’t forget the good.
Today Greece may be in chaos mode and clouded by negativity and anger but Athens is still a beautiful city waiting to be explored. It remains safe for tourists like me and you to visit. And having experienced on this latest trip the initiatives of many Greeks to reinvent local products and flavours we so famously love around the world, I can’t wait to visit again.
The historical aspect, the many well preserved museums, a must visit to the Acropolis each and every time, remind me why this city is so incredible. Being there makes me want to channel my inner Greek. The Greeks have stood the test of time over the centuries and despite the current economic mess, they will rise again. And I will be back for more ouzo, gyros, Greek salads and Nescafé Frappes, infused olive oils, wines from the islands, organic flavoured feta cheese and so much more.
Afterall I have a special love for Greece and all things Greek.
That will never change.