Magical Greece

I scheduled in about five days to make the journey between Thessaloniki and Lesvos, so I could see some of the sights that Greece has to offer before heading to my volunteer placement.

img_8996.jpgRock formation at Meteora

My first stop was Meteora, a large rock formation that hosts a bunch of monasteries and nunneries built atop the rocks, which was absolutely incredible.

I spent two nights at a hostel in the town of Kalambaka, just below the rocks, and hiked from there to the various monasteries.

IMG_8682Monastery of the Holy Trinity

The first day, I set out after my arrival to explore what I could before dark. I hiked for an hour or two going up, up, up and eventually came to the above view – the first monastery on top of a huge rock.

I learned that monks have been living a secluded life here since the 11th century, when they started inhabiting caves in these rocks. The monasteries were built a few hundred years later, and at that time, the only way up was to climb a rope ladder that the monks at the top would lower or to be hauled up in a large human net, both of which could break when the ropes got too weak. Talk about a leap of faith.


Nowadays there are hiking trails and a big paved road that go from Kalambaka to most of the monasteries. Getting to some from the road still requires some climbing of stairs, but most can be accessed easily by car.

I was kind of disappointed to find the proximity of the road when I had hiked all the way up from the back, feeling pretty spiritual about the long journey on foot to discover these holy places that were so remote. Then I rounded a corner and saw a tour bus heading towards me on this nice road and I thought “oh no…”


But I kept hiking, ignoring the road and the cars passing, and I visited all of the monasteries easily in the two days I had. Walking to each one was definitely the best way to do it for me, though it’s nice the road is there for people who aren’t physically able to do the hike.

IMG_8719St. Stephanos Nunnery behind me

The weather was clear and perfect for hiking – not too hot and not too cold. And because it is the low season for tourism in Greece, there weren’t many other people around, so I could take my time in all the best spots.

IMG_8836Meteora feels like a thin place to me: a place where the space between God and earth is diminished.

Thin places don’t have to be religious places, and honestly, before this trip, the places I experienced as thin were rarely of the religious sort.

I first discovered a thin place in Uganda, in a rural school my study abroad program visited, where hundreds of smiling, uniform-clad children ran around joyously. When I got home, I found another thin place when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Boston where weary, cold people sat at round tables and encouraged each other over a meager meal. Then I moved to Benin and experienced even more thin places: the dirt road where I would run each morning and see my neighbors heading to their fields as the dew glistened on the crops growing next to the road; a tiny mud church with a straw roof in the middle of nowhere where we stopped to vaccinate the children against polio one day on our way to another village. Then of course I discovered the Sahara Desert in Morocco, a magnificent and sweeping thin place.

And in Meteora, I swear I could feel the presence of the monks and nuns at each monastery/nunnery. It was like a kind, loving spirit in the air and it was beautiful. I am so glad I visited this place.


When it came time to leave Kalambaka to go to Delphi, there were only two options for the train – either 5:30am or 5:30pm. And because the train didn’t go directly to Delphi but rather to Livadia nearby, where I would have to get a bus to Delphi, I figured the sensible option was to take the morning train, though I am NOT a 5:30am kind of person. I avoid that time of day if at all possible.

The 5:30am train turned out to be the most magical transportation experience of my life.


The first hour was in the dark, and then we had to transfer and wait in the cold for a while for the next train as the sun rose. I fell asleep almost immediately upon boarding the second train, and when I awoke, we were high up in the most gorgeous mountains, bathed in a beautiful early morning light.

My face was glued to the window as I took in the blanket of dark green that covered the mountainside, and the sun peeking over one mountain and illuminating the snow-capped peaks of the others. There were wispy clouds suspended in midair, tinted red and yellow by the sun, standing out brilliantly against the bright blue sky. Below, groups of sheep and goats huddled under tin-roofed structures on the mountainside.

Each time we passed through a tunnel, there would be a new valley, or a new perspective on the same valley. There were farmlands in a checkerboard pattern, bright green squares next to dark brown, with villages nestled into the corners and small orchards dotting the plains.

A flock of birds glided around in the open air of the valley and then soared under one of the metal bridges the train had just gone over.

It was truly magical. I tried to take several pictures, but each time, all that came out was my own reflection in the train window. I guess it was destined to be a memory that I have to keep in my mind, not on camera.

IMG_8666Out another train window

Once I got to Livadia, I was so thankful that I chose the early train, because the bus to Delphi proved to be elusive. This particular bus does not depart from the bus station, for some reason, but from an unmarked bus stop near the edge of town. It took me more than two hours of traipsing back and forth across the town carrying my bag and asking random Greek people if they knew where the bus to Delphi was before I finally found the bus stop.

Then there were another two hours of waiting while bus after bus came by, none of them apparently going to Delphi. But when I finally boarded the correct bus, it only took about 45 minutes to drive partway up Mt. Parnassus to the town.

IMG_9052The town of Delphi from above at sunset

Delphi was another incredible place. Full of history and ancient ruins, being there was a powerful reminder of so much humanity that has preceded us. Delphi is most famous for being home to the Pythia, the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo, also known as the Oracle of Delphi. People would come from all over to consult with her, and her counsel probably influenced some major decisions that changed the course of history.

IMG_9034Temple of Athena at Delphi

Though I usually enjoy missing out on the crowds and spending less money by visiting places in the off season, I think Delphi may have been the exception to that rule. It was so quiet and deserted that it was almost spooky. I could walk through most of the town without seeing another person or hearing sounds of life anywhere. I ate dinner in empty restaurants both nights I was there, and though the food (and the service) was amazing, it was a bit disconcerting.

Incidentally, I learned that the Oracle of Delphi was never available for consultation in the wintertime, so apparently Delphi is just a place that is meant to be visited in warmer weather. Good to know!


Some of the sites were also not open to visit while I was there because it was the off-season, like the gymnasium, pictured above. Considering that I was pretty sore and tired from all the hiking I did in Meteora, it didn’t bother me too much to miss out on more walking, but I didn’t realize before I arrived that I wouldn’t have the option to visit all the sites.

Still, I feel like I was able to experience the meaning of the place and definitely able to see its magnificent beauty.



I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city, in early January. My arrival coincided with the Greek Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. This meant that I got to celebrate Christmas yet again on my first day here!

IMG_8314Coffee cup on January 6

By chance, on my first morning, I stumbled upon the Orthodox Christmas tradition of a bunch men in Speedos diving into ice cold water to retrieve a crucifix that has been blessed by a priest. The man who gets the cross is supposed to have good luck for the coming year.

It was quite the event, judging by the number of people who crowded along the waterfront to watch.


The young men boarded a big ship, took lots of selfies of themselves as they prepared to dive, and a fleet of small rescue boats floated nearby, with medics and lifeguards ready to jump in if needed. Some of the elite of Thessaloniki watched from a yacht near the coast.

There was almost an hour of buildup and the action was over in about a minute. One minute they were on the boat, then very suddenly all the men were flailing about in the water. Just as suddenly, someone got the cross and everyone was clambering back on to the boats.

After the swimming event, the priest gave a blessing in the street and then there was a small parade as he made his way to a nearby church, escorted by the Greek military. The giant bells on the church were clanging and Greek women were shoving to get a chance to kiss the cross that the priest had blessed and I let myself get swept along with the crowd and absorb their joy.


It was a wonderful first day and after my Greek Epiphany experience, I wandered around, trying to get a feel for this new place.


Whereas Tirana felt like it was on its way up as a city, Thessaloniki definitely feels like it had its glory days already and is in a decline. It’s a beautiful city, in the way that old things are beautiful, and also in the way that discord and honesty has beauty. The people are very welcoming and friendly, but you can see that Greece’s economic crisis has impacted them greatly.

IMG_8600All over the city, there are high-end shops with prices marked way down

The city is built on a steep hill, with the remnants of an ancient Byzantine wall at the top and layers of houses and apartments cascading downwards. At the bottom of the hill is the Aegean Sea and the city’s most famous monument, the White Tower.


Interestingly, the city is covered in graffiti. And I don’t say “covered” lightly. Truly, most buildings are marked in some way Even in the most upscale part of town, you see this street artwork.


Everywhere in the city, you see ancient ruins and historically significant items. In fact, the government has been trying to build a metro system for more than 10 years (right now the public transit in the city is limited to buses), but each time they try to dig for it, they uncover more ruins. One Greek woman from Athens who stayed in our hostel said that when someone suggests something you never want to do, it has become a running joke to say,

“Oh yes, we’ll do that as soon as Thessaloniki gets its metro.”

IMG_8468One such site below the city, glimpsed through a wire fence

My favorite part of Thessaloniki is the waterfront.

This has been recently upgraded and features broad sidewalks bordering the water with places to sit and some modern sculptures alongside the ancient ones. The local people use this space a lot, and on weekends and evenings the area is full of Greek people out enjoying the water and vendors selling koulouria (a thin, bagel-type item covered in sesame seeds) and other pastries.

It is also a great place for running, and I got back into a solid running routine here. This was good and necessary to offset my other Thessaloniki pastime, which was sampling the baklava from a different bakery every day!


But the most meaningful part of my stay in Thessaloniki was that I had the opportunity to facilitate an English-learning conversation course for a group of men who are political refugees from Turkey. It was an honor to get to work with them.

It hasn’t been in the news as often lately, but Greece is still the landing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees each year.

There are many people living here who are seeking asylum – a legal status that will allow them to resettle in a new country because it is unsafe for them to return to their home country.

The group I worked with already had a pretty high English level, so we mostly practiced conversation – the most difficult part of learning any language. I taught them some idioms in English, like about the silver lining to a cloud and about crossing a bridge when you come to it (which it turns out, there is a similar idiom in Turkish – basically, don’t roll up your pants to cross the river before you get to the water). I also got to help with a women’s group that my friend facilitates and met some lovely women that way, two of whom graciously invited me to dinner at their houses even though they are refugees and new to the country.

IMG_8590I can’t tell you how amazing it was to eat home-cooked food after so many months on the road, eating out or eating cereal all the time!

I think we often want to think of people who are in a position of needing help as somehow fundamentally different from “us.” It’s an unconscious tendency to distance oneself, partly to protect ourselves from the idea of “that could be me.”

The thing that was so humbling working with these folks is that they are exactly like the people I know in the United States.

They are educated, they are informed, they are concerned about the world and their place in it. They are people who had high-level careers in Turkey, as educators and academics and engineers. Then suddenly their government turned against them because of their political beliefs, and their passports and assets were frozen, their jobs dismissed, and some were imprisoned. They had to flee for the safety of their families and now have to start all over again in this new country.

As I got to know them, I kept thinking, “wow, this could be me if I was born in a different country.” It’s just that America, despite its [many] shortcomings, is still based on freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of the press; this all means that we cannot be punished for our political beliefs like these people were. The things we take for granted…

In my last week in Thessaloniki, I also connected with a large refugee assistance agency called Help Refugees. They are a British organization that acts as an umbrella, assisting lots of different agencies who work with refugees with funding and volunteers. It was a very informative experience, and I learned a lot. (Like, for instance, there are about 10,000 refugees currently in northern Greece, about half of whom are still in camps and half of whom have moved into housing.)

IMG_8593Map of all the refugee camps in Northern Greece

The work I did was remarkably similar to what I used to coordinate in my former job at HOPE, and it was fun and different to be on the other side – not coordinating but doing the small tasks that it takes to keep an organization like that running.


I spent a day helping in the giant Help Refugees warehouse, which receives donations from all over and provides supplies to more than 20 refugee camps and refugee centers in the area, and several days helping in the Soul Food kitchen, which is a low-budget operation that prepares lunch and dinner for hundreds of refugees each day. Some of the food is distributed through a community center and some of it is packaged for an outreach service that reminded me so much of HOPE outreach.


These experiences were so fulfilling (even though my hands smelled like onions for days after chopping pounds and pounds of them!).

This also reminded me that I wanted to volunteer on one of the Greek islands during this trip, to help with the new refugees who are just arriving on boats. So I went online and sent in an application to volunteer on Lesvos with an agency called Refugee Rescue, and I was accepted to help on their land crew for a few weeks. So I am starting that work this weekend – will certainly keep you updated on that experience!

The journey to Greece

So I was in a café in Tirana, Albania and I had decided I wanted to go to Greece.

IMG_8272Albanian café

I pulled out my phone and asked the nice Albanian barista who spoke no English to connect me to the WiFi. I looked at my maps app and saw there was a town in Macedonia called Ohrid that looked like it was on the way to Greece from Tirana. A quick google search on Ohrid turned up some gorgeous pictures and reviews from other travelers saying that it was a pleasant place to visit. They said you could get there from Tirana easily, and it looked simple enough to get to Thessaloniki after that. Done. I walked to the bus station and bought a ticket for the next day.

The bus ride through the rural parts of Albania was a little more like what I expected from Albania. it was a dreary day, not exactly raining, but misting as we traversed dark tunnels through the small Albanian mountains and passed by small, crumbling houses in poor rural communities. I definitely had a case of what my friend Rachel calls “bus depression” – the unmoored, melancholy feeling you can have when leaving one place and heading to a new one on a bus.

The border crossing into Macedonia was much more intense than the one into Albania.

First of all, the border is basically on top of a mountain, so it was snow-covered and freezing and felt quite dramatic. We drove through a customs booth where they collected our passports. Then the bus pulled into this large concrete structure that was like a mix of a giant garage and a mechanic’s bay.

We were instructed to get off the bus, collect our bags from the storage area and form a line. Then a very stern Macedonian customs official went from person to person, asking us to open our bags so he could inspect the contents. Eventually everyone got back on the bus and we continued on into Macedonia.

IMG_8301Ohrid, Macedonia

Ohrid is not far from the border and is quite beautiful, with the feel of a small town that attracts huge numbers of tourists in the summer. There are many cobblestone streets and cute little shops and restaurants. It borders a giant lake and is surrounded by mountains, which creates a very striking image.

IMG_8303Local beer for one at a restaurant in Ohrid

I took myself to dinner at a restaurant on the lake, which was gorgeous and actually quite reasonably priced. It did get a bit chilly — it had snowed that morning and though it had melted by the afternoon, it still wasn’t warm. The waitress kept asking me if I wanted to go inside, but the view was so beautiful that I declined, saying I wasn’t cold. She must have known I was lying, because she brought me a blanket a few minutes later.

IMG_8307Sunset in Ohrid

Unfortunately the hostel I stayed at was awful: the owner was out of town and the friend he had asked to watch over things while he was gone seemed to wish that he was somewhere else as well. When I first arrived, I actually thought it was closed, because it took about 5 minutes of ringing the bell and waiting and my taxi driver pounding on the door before someone answered. Only one room was heated and it wasn’t the one that had the beds in it. I spent an unpleasant night there and decided it was time to move on.

I had done a bit of research on how I could get to Greece from there but I’ve found that usually asking the hostel staff is the best method for gaining up-to-date information. So when the guy working there told me, “oh yes, no problem, you can get to Thessaloniki from here easily. Just take a shared taxi to Bitola, then there are buses every hour from there to Thessaloniki,” I set off to follow his instructions. He said it should cost about 15 euros (about $20) for the whole trip.

A few hours later, I found myself standing in a deserted bus station in Bitola, being told that there were no buses from there to Greece.

Seriously?? What a nightmare.

“You can go to Skopje (the capital of Macedonia, a few hours north), and then go from there to Greece,” the woman working at the desk told me.

Back outside, the driver of the shared taxi I took from Ohrid said he would take me to the border and then I could get another ride from there to Thessaloniki. I didn’t like that idea too much, imagining myself standing on top of that mountain where the border with Albania was, trying to talk my way into a passing bus or taxi. And would there be any passing? I didn’t know, and wasn’t in the mood to trust another stranger about travel advice.

The taxi drivers from that town were also vying for my business. They said one of them could take me to Phlorinas, a transportation hub in northern Greece, from which there were definitely buses to Thessaloniki. However, they said the price would be 30 euros, on top of which I would have to pay for a bus afterwards.

It doesn’t sound like a ton of money, but the way I am able to travel for such a long time on a limited budget is by keeping my costs very low – staying at the cheapest hostels, flying on budget airlines, buying groceries instead of eating out all the time, walking instead of taking buses or taxis, etc. This trip was threatening to completely blow my transit budget for no good reason.

I wasn’t sure I even had enough cash on me. I was stressed and angry.

I explained to the taxi drivers what I had been told about buses to Thessaloniki and the price and they just laughed.

“That’s completely not true,” they said. “That person had no idea what they were talking about.”


I stood there, staring at the empty bus station and at the taxi drivers and the lack of other travelers who could possibly be going in my direction and want to share a taxi, wondering what to do.

I think the drivers were a bit perplexed with me. We didn’t have much language in common – one spoke some English, another some French, and the others just Macedonian or Greek.

But they made small talk, trying to put me at ease, and asked where I was from. When I said I was from the US, a fatherly gentleman said he had a daughter about my age that lived in the US, in Colorado! I asked where, and he showed me an address in Aurora, just a few minutes from where I was living last year in south Denver. Bizarre coincidence.

For some reason that made me feel a little better and I also realized that I had very little choice. It was already mid-afternoon and if I went to Skopje, I would spend nearly the same money and wouldn’t get to Greece until nighttime. I always try to avoid arriving in a new city late at night, especially when I’m by myself. So I agreed to let the fatherly man drive me to Phlorinas.

We chatted in halting English the surprisingly short distance to Phlorinas and he walked me into the bus station and made sure I got a (surprisingly expensive) ticket to Thessaloniki before he left. Nice guy, and I never would have met him if my plan had gone the way I thought it would.

Sitting on the bus, I was dismayed at how much of my money I had parted with that day, but as I wrote in my journal that evening, “even with everything that went wrong, I still made it here, and it was okay.”

It was a good travel lesson – even when nothing goes right, things usually still work out if you can just remain calm and go with the flow. I’m a person who likes to have a plan, so this is not always easy for me (OK, it’s never easy for me), but it’s true. Flexibility is essential in travel, and I’m trying to embrace it more.

And Thessaloniki turned out to be a lovely place, where I stayed for a month. More on that in the next post… For now, here’s a picture of the Aegean Sea from Thessaloniki.