3 days in and around Saranda

After my fairly good overnight bus experience I went straight to sleep at the hostel and woke up a few hours later to the smell of crêpes! Had some (free) breakfast, got the scoop about Saranda and decided on a beach day for day 1 in Albania. Hostel guests got free loungers and umbrellas at the beach club across the street so I just went there for the day. The ocean was warm, the sun was hot and I spent the whole day there reading and swimming.

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Sunset view from the hostel balcony

In the evening I did a little writing and met another girl, Chelsea, who was doing the same and we decided to go for dinner together to get some Albanian food then called it a night.

The next morning I decided to make a day trip to Butrint archeological site and Ksamil beach. I hopped on one of the sweatiest and busiest busses of my entire life for about an hour and arrived at Butrint with my sanity hanging by a thread. But it was worth it, Butrint was beautiful and breezy. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the not too busy site (compared to the Acropolis 3 days earlier it was practically empty) and took lots of photos. The site is part archeological site and part natural reserve which makes for a bit of a wild experience. It’s part swamp, totally overgrown everywhere. I really didn’t have many expectations of Albania but this was not even close to anything I’d have thought it would be like. A part of the ruins were a mosaic tiled floor, unfortunately covered in sand for my visit but why they cover it is really interesting. For a few weeks a year it is uncovered for archeologists to do restoration work and so people can see it but the rest of the time it is covered with sand to protect it from the changing water levels in the area and the sand keeps the water from seeping in and ruining it.

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Also, a little fun fact, Butrint is so close to Greece that you can get Greek cell service! So if you’ve got a EU sim you’re in luck for the day because my phone stayed on Greek service almost all the way back to Saranda!

I got back on the bus from hell and decided to stop is Ksamil for lunch and a swim. (Sidenote: I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned this at all in my blog yet, but everywhere I want was scorching hot, like 35c plus humidity on the daily. I don’t think there was a day on this trip until it (spoiler!) rained in Sarajevo, and even then it wasn’t cool enough for a sweater.)  I had a classic lunch, peach iced tea and a chicken souvlaki, then walked to find the beach. Well I found the beach and it was packed with people! Also, important to know about Albania (and Montenegro), most of the beaches are private so you’ll need to rent a chair in most places. I decided that it wasn’t worth it to spend close to 8€ on a sunbed when I could just go back to the beach by my hostel and get a sunbed for free. So I hopped in for a dip to cool down and made my way back to the hell bus to finish my one hour journey back to Saranda.

In the evening I was hanging around the hostel and found a couple of new friends and my friend from the night before to go for dinner with. Funny thing, we all got so into chatting and making dinner plans that it took all the way until we were sitting down at the restaurant to realize we didn’t know eachothers names, we had a good laugh about that. We had a great and cheap dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in Saranda right on the beach. Eating out in Albania is CHEAP, we ate very well and had wine and it was definitely under 10€ per person. Afterward we decided to check out the nightlife a little bit, unfortunately it wasn’t very fun, we were VERY underdressed, and the ice cream shop we saw before dinner was closed when we walked back to the hostel! Great night with new friends though, decided to cut my trip short and make my way north to Montenegro with one of the gals I met, Emma, so the next day would be my last in Saranda.

On my third and final day in Saranda I went on another day trip, this time to Gjirokaster with Chelsea. We needed to catch a different kind of bus today, not the city bus, and boy was it an experience. We went to the place we were told to go to by our hostel and looked for a van that said Gjirokaster in the window, we found it and it was leaving soon so we hopped in to find that there wasn’t enough seats… so the driver popped up a stool to put in the aisle for one of us to sit on, luckily a kind Albanian man offered to sit on instead so we could both have seats! The drive took us through the beautiful hilly countryside and there was a little traffic jam with some horses on the road. It took about 2 hours to get there and our driver told us what time we could meet him if we wanted to come back with him instead of walking all the way down to the main bus station. The first thing we did was wander into a bunker tour without realizing it and it was super cool (literally and figuratively, it was nice and cold inside and super interesting). It was Hoxha’s cold war tunnel/bunker specifically for military and government officials that ran beneath the entirety of Gjirokaster’s castle. Next, we walked up top to the visit the castle. It was interested to see the safety standards at tourist attractions throughout the Balkan peninsula, very different from western standards, hold onto your kids because there are no guard rails! There was an interesting and well signed museum exhibit because Gjirokaster is actually an UNESCO world heritage site so they received funding for the exhibit. It was really interesting to learn about the history of the region from ancient times through to the Cold War. The castle was mostly used as a prison through the communist years and there were some pretty creepy hallways that we stumbled upon.

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We had a delicious traditional Albanian lunch of qifqi (fried rice balls) and a salad that looked remarkably like a greek salad. Then we met our van and went back to Saranda to spend the rest of the afternoon at the beach! We made a mandatory stop for ice cream on the walk from the bus station to the hostel and it was just as good as it looked the night before when we walked by before dinner, and so cheap! Our two other friends from the night before, Emma and Scott, had got a great spot at the beach (one of the big fancy sunbeds with white fluttery curtains) so we joined them and drank cocktails and swam until sunset!

I was pretty happy to leave Saranda a day earlier than planned. It was a great base for a lot of cool sites but the city itself isn’t too exciting. Next, early morning bus to Tirana!

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Athens to Saranda by bus – a survival guide

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I couldn’t find much information online about the bus from Athens to Saranda other than there was one and what square to go to in Athens to purchase a ticket. Unfortunately there isn’t much more information about where to get tickets that I can share. Just go to the Metaxourgeio metro stop, exit to the square and cross to the far side. There will be signs in the travel agent windows saying which cities they sell tickets to and look for Saranda (tickets to Tirana and maybe Berat are also available in this square along with a lot of other Balkan peninsula destinations). The travel agent will either sell you a ticket or tell you to go around the corner to the bus station where you can definitely purchase a ticket and then you will also know where to catch the bus. I purchased my ticket at the bus station a few days ahead of time for 25€ but I met people who showed up at the station at 7:30pm and were able to buy a ticket. Both the 8am and 8pm departures were the same price and they had both buses every day during the peak season and occasionally extra buses when needed.

Before departure the driver looked at my ticket, asked if I had any luggage and how many bags and that was it. We left Athens on time at 8pm. We stopped about every 2-2.5 hours for a snack/bathroom stop and picked up people in a couple of cities along the way. I think there was a long stop but luckily I managed to sleep for about 4 hours from 11-3. We reached the border at Kakavia at 3am and joined the line. At about 3:30am we’d left Greece and the EU. This part was a little stressful because no one on my bus spoke English, all Greek and Albanian. We had to get off the bus to go through customs to leave Greece and I somehow ended up being the last person to go through! When I got back on the bus it started moving immediately before I’d even got in my seat! We moved on up to the next line to wait to enter Albania. At 4am the Albanian border police took everyone’s passports/ID cards and inspected the luggage compartments. 10 minutes later they returned with ID cards and passports but be warned that they bring them in batches! Mine was in the second batch and the bus was moving before I got mine back, I was ready to cause a scene if it wasn’t there! Then we were on our way at 4:15am Greek time. But Albania is on Central European Time, so we gained an hour at the border! So now it’s technically 3:15am again and the bus makes a few stops on the way to Saranda and we arrive at the bus station about 4:30am. Taxis only take Albanian lek and I only had euros so I walked 20 minutes to my hostel without much issue and went straight to sleep! They were expecting me because I emailed ahead of time but I arrived a little earlier than anticipated and there was still someone there to let me in!

 

Survival Guide:

Bring headphones and earplugs! There will be music (too loud for an overnight bus, Greek/Albanian radio) on the bus and it will keep you from sleeping. I also like to have an eye mask and I put a scarf over my head so I’m not disturbed by either the main lights or my seatmate turning on their reading light (or using their phone at full brightness for hours, how did his phone not die?!).  

A neck pillow or pillow of some sort. The seats on my bus didn’t recline and sounds like it’s a rarity on other buses on this route. Prepare accordingly!

My bus had AC but apparently that’s also hit or miss so dress in layers and prepare to be sweaty.  

There are snack stops but definitely bring your own food just in case, I only got off the bus at one stop and it was a basic service station.

I would definitely recommend doing this route at night, I’m sure it’s super beautiful but 9-11 hours on a bus during the day is a huge waste of a day in my books and it really wasn’t too bad. Remember to ask your accommodation in Saranda about paying for an extra night so you can go straight to your room when you arrive at 4am! My hostel was only 10€ a night so it was totally worth it and I was able to sleep for a few hours and then get a nice start on my day.

Keep your expectations low and you’ll be OK. Travelling by bus in Europe is generally not too bad but when travelling in the Balkan region don’t expect anything to happen when or how it should but have faith that you will arrive, in one piece, at your destination!

 

(Photo of the sunset from the Hairy Lemon Hostel balcony)

Delphi

I returned to Athens after my trip to the islands and had a day and a half before my bus to Albania. I decided to take the full day and head on a day trip to the Ancient Oracle of Delphi. After the Akropolis, Delphi was my most highly anticipated ancient site to visit.

I arrived from the ferry the night before my big day trip and treated myself to some dessert from Lukumades, donut holes with honey, nuts and frozen yogurt. They gave me 2 spoons like I was going to share it, LOL. Solo traveler perks, no sharing desserts! After that I went up to the acropolis to shoot some golden hour pictures and they came out beautifully! 😍

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For my last day I woke up at 5:45am to head to Delphi. Luckily I’d been given the whole scoop on where to take the bus and how to get the tickets so what could have been a very tricky morning went very smoothly! (Thanks David, if you read this!)

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The bus was about 3 hours through the mountains, absolutely stunning. And even more stunning (hard to believe) was Delphi. The site is very well preserved and the setting is just magical. In Ancient Greece the site was a religious sanctuary for the God Apollo and was home to the Oracle of Apollo which gave prophecies to both individuals and city-states seeking guidance. You can feel that there is some very old energy here.  Unfortunately no prophecies for me this time. 

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Across the street is the Temple to Athena which is particularly beautiful, the colouring of the marble on the remaining columns is really something. 

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Note to students expecting a free ticket! They do not take ISIC cards, the only archaeological site in Greece that doesn’t take them! Luckily the woman at the gate to the site was very nice and I showed my enrollment email and she gave me the ticket.

The whole site and museum took about 3 hours to visit, 4 hours would have been better but I had a bus to catch!

Later that night I caught the overnight bus to Albania but that deserves it’s very own blog post!

Paros

Paros is an absolute DREAM. It’s everything you want in a Greek Island. Beautiful, full of white and blue buildings, cobbled streets, and pink flowers EVERYWHERE; delicious food; friendly people; gorgeous sunsets; and picture perfect views.

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I arrived in Paros in the late afternoon, checked into my hostel that was more like a budget hotel than a hostel (no community vibes, dorms were 2 bedroom hotel suites with a kitchenette and bathroom), then went to watch the sunset in the harbour and got an early night.

For my first day in Paros I wanted to go to the beach! So I caught the bus to Naousa. I walked around the town for a little while, exploring the picturesque white washed town with the blue roofed churches and blue doors and covered in the little pink flowers! Just how you always think of the Greek islands.

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I grabbed a quick souvlaki pita and went back to the bus stop to go to Kolympethres Beach, known for its cool rock formations. The beach was beautiful! The water was warm and so clear and blue! Picture perfect, luckily met a couple of Aussie girls who took some photos for me and we took turns watching each others things while we swam.

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After a couple hours in the sun I needed some shade so I went catch the bus back into town, unfortunately missed it… so I had a Greek salad at the restaurant beside the bus stop and sat on their patio with a beautiful view!

The next day I wanted to go to Antiparos. There were a couple options to get there, a bus then ferry or the more expensive ferry from Parikia (the town I was staying in). I decided that the couple extra euros to save up to an hour of time was well worth it so I took the ferry for 5€ each way. Antiparos town is such a dreamy little place. Once you’re out of the first couple blocks by the port it is EMPTY! Just you and the white washed houses, pink flowers, blue accents, an instagrammers dream come true! So of course I took out my camera and got some beautiful shots of the town and even a pretty nice self timer selfie. As always, I got a souvlaki pita and decided to eat it at the beach. Only the main part of the beach was even a little bit busy! So few people, it was lovely! After eating and reading for a while I walked along the edge of the beach to take a look at some of the little coves, they were like little private beaches! A little tricky to climb down to but I bet totally worth while.

I headed back to Paros by return ferry and went to the local beach for a swim and to relax for the afternoon. I stayed until sunset which was beautiful! Everyone says Oia sunsets are the best but it’s so busy that I think Paros sunsets were nicer.

For my final morning in Paros I went for a delicious cappuccino freddo and donut before getting on my ferry back to Athens.

Santorini

Since I only had a day and a half in Santorini I decided to make the most and go on the all day boat trip for only 35€. The hostel organized the whole thing so it was super easy to sign up and go! I stayed at Youth Hostel Anna in Perissa Beach. It was a little far out from Oia and Thira but much cheaper and the beach is beautiful!

We were picked up from the hostel at 9:30am and wouldn’t return until 10:30pm.

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Everyone on the boat seemed to be in their own little groups so looked like I’d be flying solo today! First up on the boat trip was the active Volcano which we hiked up for a panoramic view of all of the Caldera. You could see how the island would have been round before the Minoan eruption. The volcano erupted with the force of 2000 atomic bombs and ash and debris were found as far away as Iceland! The global temperature dropped 4°C at this time.

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Next stop was the sulfuric hot springs on the next island over in the Caldera. There is something so much better about swimming in the sea when you get to jump in off a boat!

Now was time for our lunch stop on Thirasia island which is completely just a tourist stop… The restaurants didn’t look great and were quite overpriced so I decided to have a souvlaki and a beer at the gyro shop. Turned out to be a great choice because I met two girls from Toronto! We bonded over the cute cats trying to eat our gyros and our need for an ice cream. We decided to go for a swim together before going back on our boats and then meet up at the port in Oia to explore before sunset. We were on the same tour but different boats so it worked out great!DSC00733

We wandered the beautiful streets of Oia, petting all the animals and taking all the photos before stopping for a little dinner at Roka, delicious food! I had the stuffed peppers.DSC00741DSC00756

After dinner one of the girls gave me some tips for shooting the sunset on my camera since she had the same one so I got some beautiful shots!DSC00767

The next day, my last day in Santorini, I wanted to visit ancient Akrotiri and the red beach before my midday ferry. Akrotiri was such an interesting site! A Minoan settlement flattened 3 times by earthquakes and abandoned just before the Minoan eruption. They had incredibly advanced buildings and evening indoor plumbing. All of this before the 17 century BCE! The Minoan’s are an incredibly fascinating civilization and now, even more than before if that’s possible, I can’t wait to visit Crete (hopefully next summer, fingers crossed)!DSC00805DSC00810DSC00815 

Afterwards I took a quick look at the Red Beach but didn’t hike all the way down and hopped on the bus back to the hostel for my shuttle to the ferry. The hostel organized it and it turned out I was the only one so the driver (one of the staff’s dad) even stopped at a bakery so I could get lunch for the ferry. Once again I took the Blue Star ferry ($$$ ISIC discount!) and this time only 4 hours to Paros.  

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Athens to Santorini

After talking to a friend back home the day before I was a little worried about my ferry journey to Santorini so I arrived nice and early to get a good seat. Well, when I arrived I realized I had an assigned seat in the Air Seats lounge, and these are not your basic airplane seats they were like business class airplane seats! No smoking inside allowed anywhere on the ship so no worries about that either. For 22.50€ I was very impressed! The 7.5 hour journey went very quickly. I spent most of my time journalling, looking out the window, and listening to music. I decided to sit outside for the last section of the trip from Naxos to Santorini and that was lovely! BC ferries could take some notes! Great trip.

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I stayed at Youth Hostel Anna in Perissa Beach, on the opposite side of the island from Thira and Oia. The hostel provided a shuttle from the port for free which was fantastic! Made life so much easier. The port is literally at the bottom of a cliff so getting a bus would have been a real treat. After dropping off my things in my room(4 bed dorm with an ensuite, not too shabby for 16€ on Santorini) I went straight to the beach! Swam in the wonderfully warm Aegean Sea as the sun was setting at the black sand beach in Perissa.

Day 2 in Athens

Today was jam packed with history, culture, fantastic food, and great company. If there was a beach it would be the perfect travel combo, or any day combo.

A note on the locations, everywhere I went was super walkable EXCEPT for my hostel. If you go to Athens choose a centrally located hostel/hotel (near Monastiraki) even if it costs a little bit more, you’ll be much happier there than further out where the neighborhoods can get a little sketchy at night. I ended up taking a taxi back to my hostel two of my three nights in Athens and that 10€ could have been put to a closer hostel. Now onto my day!

Started the day with a cappuccino freddo, my new morning essential, then met up with a new friend to go to the Acropolis. We realized after standing in line for an hour in the sun that we could have gone to ANY of the other ancient sites to get the ticket and skip the line… hindsight 20/20! Anyway, we survived the line in the sun and headed on up! Combined tickets to the Acropolis and the other ancient sites in Athens are free for EU students (yay for technically going to UPComillas!), 20€ for non-EU students, and 40€ regular price. DSC00611

I thought the entrance through the Panathenic Gate was one of the most impressive parts of the whole complex, even though it was super busy, because it’s the only part where you can really walk through one of the buildings on the site and really feel what it could have been like to be here in the height of Ancient Athens. I let my imagination run wild thinking about how it would have been. Many photos and almost two hours later we took a lunch break at the same souvlaki shop from the day before near the Acropoli metro.

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After lunch seemed like the right time for a stroll so we wandered through the picturesque neighborhood of Anafiotika which is a little slice of the islands in the city! Then we went to the Psyri neighborhood for coffee at Tailor Made Microroastery and Cocktail Bar. This was hands down the best coffee I’ve ever had in my life. It was magnificent. Life changing coffee. It was a flat white freddo which is a lovely drink but the real treat was their espresso blend, fruity and sour, wonderful. Next we continued wandering through Psyri on the hunt for desserts and found them at Nancy’s Sweet Home. Now one of the perks of being a solo traveler is not having to share desserts, so two solo travelers equals two desserts. We split the baklava and the house specialty which was like a shredded phyllo with honey and nuts and ice cream. Both delicious but I think the house specialty was the best one!  DSC00667DSC00664

Now the Ancient Greek archaeological tour continues! Up next was Keramikos, Ancient Athens’ most extensive cemetery. We couldn’t quite understand what all of it was because it wasn’t all cemetery. There was a road running through, many buildings and other things. On the site there were part of the walls surrounding Ancient Athens and ruins of the gate used by pilgrims to the city. There wasn’t a lot of information on site so it was quite difficult to recognize all the parts. Nonetheless very interesting to walk around, although VERY hot.

Next, the Ancient Greek Agora. Now this was a very cool (not temp, still smoking hot) site, very interesting, well preserved, and an excellent museum. It was basically like walking around an ancient shopping mall. The museum portion was an accurately restored version of what one of the buildings would have been and that made it really easy and interesting to picture what it would have been like. On the way to, and at, the Agora I managed to start a habit that I would keep up for the rest of my trip… petting all the cats. There are so many cute cats and kittens that just wanted to be my best friend everywhere I went in Greece (and in the rest of the Balkans, but mostly Greece).

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The last ancient site of the day I visited on my own, the Panathenic Stadium and it was unfortunately not free and not really worth the fee. So I took a few pictures from the outside.  

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After freshening up and charging my phone I headed out for another rooftop happy hour and sunset at Athens backpackers (this time with a couple free drinks because they now think I’m staying here haha). After drinks was dinner at a place recommended by a woman from my Spanish class, Seychelles. We didn’t have a reservation and it wasn’t looking good but there was a no show so we got a table right away! Really great restaurant, fantastic food, slightly dodgy location, but overall an absolute win! After dinner we went to Six d.o.g.s for a drink. We walked by earlier in the day and it looked super cool but this has got to be the most beautiful garden patio I’ve ever seen! It was like straight out of a midsummer night’s dream and way more incredible at night. Unfortunately no photos because my phone takes garbage nighttime pics and I didn’t have my camera for the evening but trust me it was beautiful (or don’t trust me and just click the link and see for yourself). The drinks were a little pricey but not compared to big city prices and you definitely pay for the ambiance which is totally worth it. Who doesn’t love sitting under fairy lights in a hidden garden sipping a delicious cocktail; the perfect way to cap off a wonderful day in Athens.

(Click here to read about my first day in Athens.)

 

What’s to come

Just a little update:

Over the course of my 5 week trip I wrote a short novels’ worth of stories and snippets of information about my trip but I don’t think it’s quite worthy of daily blog posts; especially since the daily content slipped in a few places and it would be incredibly time consuming to create now and probably not very relevant! So I’ve decided to change up the format I’ll be posting. I’ll be sharing city and country specific guides based around what I did and what I’d recommend from my experience in each place. So these will be coming over the next few weeks!

Just Go!

I was having a chat with one of my lovely roommates yesterday and she said to me that she never thought she could travel solo but after talking with me about my trip she felt inspired and might be ready to give it a try and she thought if I shared how I feel about solo travel there are probably many more people like her who might just be convinced:

So to everyone who thinks they could never solo travel; you are strong enough, you are brave enough, you are confident enough, and you can do it! If you’re scared to be alone travelling solo isn’t about being alone. If my trip is anything like most you’ll probably never be alone! And the times when you are you will cherish because they’re for you and you alone to take in that moment, that place, that view, and that feeling. Like attracts like and travelling alone makes you your best self so you’ll only attract the best people. It can be hard, but it will be worth it!

I’m a major advocate for solo travel not just for women, for everyone. It changes you for the best, you’ll learn so much about people, about new places, and about yourself. You connect with people so much faster when you travel, everyone is more vulnerable and you can skip over the BS and get straight into real and honest conversations.

You can go into your trip seeking anything you want, maybe some clarity about your life or yourself or maybe  just an escape. I thought I’d get ideas and clarity about the next step in my career and I’m not sure I’m any closer! But my mind and my heart are full of information and ideas and I wouldn’t have it any other way and I can thank the many people I met on my travels for that.

There’s something wonderful and magical about travelling alone, the confidence you feel knowing that you alone are responsible for each day and each accomplishment. So stop waiting for your friend, partner, or sibling to join you and book the ticket! It’ll be worth it, I promise.

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Day 1: Athens

I arrived in Athens just as the sun was starting to rise over the Aegean, what a beautiful view! After disembarking i went straight to catch the bus into the city, it cost 6€ to get into the city centre, unfortunately traffic was so awful I just hopped off at a metro station and took the metro the rest of the way to the hostel. After dropping my things at my hostel at about 8:30am (the area left quite a bit to be desired…. Not as good as the ratings led me to believe, especially at night as I’d later discover) I wandered to get a little breakfast and coffee before my free walking tour at 10. The iced coffee here is sooo good! Cappuccino freddo, sweetened espresso over ice with a little milk and a lot of foam, mmm delish. Note to Spain, step up your iced coffee game!

The walking tour I picked was Athens free walking tour and it met at the National Library. The first person I met was from Vancouver, she even went to UVIC! What a coincidence (she would be the first of many Canadian’s I’d be meet on this trip, is everyone from Canada visiting Greece right now?) Our guide was Eva and she was fantastic. It was incredible seeing history, the origins of modern philosophy and democracy, come to life. Everything about being in Greece so far has been like bucket list dreams come true! Walking around and knowing that people like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle walked these same paths made the long hours spent reading and analyzing Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics worthwhile. We visited the site of the first ever parliament and the very cool microphone technique, if you speak at a particular point on the wall it amplifies! My political nerd self loved every minute of it! Plus the views of the Acropolis were stunning from all angles.

After the tour a few people from the tour decided to go for lunch and I had my first of many souvlaki wraps of the trip! Delish! And they put french fries in too, stroke of genius seriously, and only 2,40€! Probably my favourite fast food meal ever, or maybe I was just reeeeally hungry. I’d say it’s 50/50.

After lunch I teamed up with a new friend from the walking tour to visit the Acropolis Museum. And it was free! EU students get free entry to all the Ancient sites in Greece but I wasn’t sure about the museum so that was a great surprise! Really nice museum and, as Eva recommended, the video being screened on the top floor was quite good. By the end of the short movie I was pretty ready for a nap (thanks Aegean airlines for the nasty short red eye flights from all over Europe!), so i headed back to my hostel for a snooze.

Once I felt like a human again (sleep, shower, non-sweaty clothing, all the essentials) I headed back out for rooftop happy hour and dinner with a group from the walking tour plus a couple of locals! We went to an authentic taverna in Psyri and at some delicious food and then learned how to do some Greek folk dances! So much fun!! What a great first day in Athens.

Dusk at the rooftop bar.

Acropolis views on the walking tour.