Greece

So pals, some of you may have noticed from my insta posts from the 6 (and an adorable video my mom posted of me and the cutest dog in the world) that I’m back in Canada. I thought about making a giant post with my life update and then also my marathon and vacation in Greece, but I decided against that, because Greece deserves its own post, and I’ll hit you with a life update shortly on this week.

So, Greece! I was there primarily to run the Athens marathon, so my first few days in Greece were not as active as I normally am when travelling. I actually arrived the night of my 26th birthday, so I went to a Michelin star restaurant, obviously (with the Canadian dollar in its state, you really have to take advantage of EU countries that aren’t as ridiculously expensive – Netherlands, I’m looking at you). So that was an incredible food experience, and a great start to the constant eating that was my time in Greece (when I wasn’t running). But, other than eating, I managed to hit the major Athens highlights.

Mount Lycabettus and the Acropolis at sunset. I seriously was conserving my strength – I ended up going up Lycabettus by taking the cable car… I judge people harshly for using cable cars to get up mountains.

Walking to the top of the Acropolis.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, originally built in 161 CE. Its roof was destroyed in 267, and the stage was restored in the 1950s to allow for modern concerts to be held there (among others, it was the venue for the 1973 Miss Universe pageant).

Temple of Athena Nike – built roughly around 420BCE. The cult of Athena Nike worshipped Athena relative to victory – particularly important venue to visit pre-race!

Exploring the top of the Acropolis

The Erecthion, with the Porch of the Caryatids (Maidens), built between 420 and 405 BCE. Very important religious structure in Ancient Greece – the temple is essentially a shrine to Athena’s victory over Poseidon in claiming the city of Athens. One of the original caryatids was removed from the porch by Lord Elgin to decorate his mansion in Scotland.

Parthenon – completed in 432 BCE as a temple to Athena, it was primarily used as the city’s treasury. It has since been used as a Christian Church (during the 500s) and as a mosque (during the 1400s).

View of the Acropolis and the Church of the Holy Apostles (1000CE) from the Ancient Agora. The Agora was a central spot in Ancient Greek city-states for athletic, artistic, political, and spiritual life.

Little Greek cat checking out the Acropolis.

Temple of the Olympian Zeus, constructed in the 6th century BCE.

Again, important temple to visit pre-race!

View of the Acropolis from Mount Lycabettus – clearly, sunrise would yield a better light.

So, beyond the ruins and the delicious food, Athens is not the most attractive city. Obviously if you go to Greece, you need to see the history there, and there is something spectacular about seeing the Acropolis lit up at night, but I would recommend seeking out other parts of the country – obviously the islands, but also, Northern Greece was fantastic, and Thessaloniki was a super cool city. But more on that, after I talk about running for an essay.

Look at all these happy people!

So. Running a marathon. It’s a thing. Honestly, it was a very cool experience, and I’m so glad I did it. I started training specifically for this in June (I was already in pretty good shape and running fairly frequently before June, I would advise more time if you’re just starting out), and I took it pretty seriously – I was running three days a week with a running group, twice on my own, and one day of cross training. Honestly, the training is terrible. It takes up so much time of your life. I would go on vacations and go run through the different cities, which, though a really cool way of exploring various cities, is a hassle. I had friends come to visit and I forced physical activity and early nights upon them (which is not the worst influence). So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who went for runs/bike rides with me, and who listened to me go on and on about running and food and shoes and tights and all the annoying things that you cared absolutely nothing about. Having support during this endeavour was so tremendously helpful, and your well wishes throughout the process and on race day were appreciated so much more than you know.

Fist pump for my friends!

The race itself was insanely challenging, and I’m not gonna lie, considering it was my first marathon and the level of difficulty… I kind of crushed it, finishing in 4:28:04. People have asked me if I’m happy with this time, and I have such difficulty responding to that – it’s an amazing time, for a first marathon, on that course. But, because I’m insanely competitive with myself, I always want to do better, and there’s part of me that wishes I had pushed myself harder on the day to get down to a sub 4 hour 20 minute time. But, I keep trying to remind myself it was more important that I finish comfortably enough to be able to function and continue enjoying my holiday in Greece.

Course map. Please note the elevation change – the course is essentially uphill from kilometre 10 to kilometre 31, with the kilometres between 25 and 31 being on a 3% grade. It’s arguably the toughest uphill climb of any of the major marathons.

The history of the course, is obviously, the COOLEST EVER. I don’t know if I’m just like a huge Olympic nerd (ok, I know I am, shout-out to my undergrad thesis supervisor/fellow treeplanter/amazing professor Charlene for making me that way), but the amount of people that I’ve had to explain the significance of this course to baffled me. Which, it shouldn’t, I spend an excessive amount of time thinking about the Olympics and its history; so, to the uninitiated, this course was that of the original marathon. As in, I ran the race that started it all, which dates back to 490 BCE. So yeah, for someone who literally loves the Olympics more than any other sporting event (despite my misgivings with the institutions of it, but that’s for another day), this experience really was the coolest thing ever.

I’m not gonna lie to you, I have no idea who I’m waving at here. I met an older Canadian gentleman around kilometre 30 and started crying because I was so overwhelmed with emotion and was so happy to see something familiar.

The course, as I said, is super old, starts in Marathon, and ends in Athens. The legend is that, after the battle at Marathon village, the soldier Pheidippides ran to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Pheidippides arrived in Athens, shouted “Niki!” (victory) …and died. I know, it’s a downer of an ending for him. The course was also used during the 2004 Olympics, so to get to run on a course graced by Olympic athletes… I literally have no words.

The course finishes in the Pananthenaic Stadium, which (more insanely exciting Olympic trivia) is the site that hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s also the only stadium made entirely of marble and is the oldest in the world, dating back to 140.

Pananthenaic Staidum on race day.

The fans were also the best ever. A lot of the race wasn’t all that awesome scenically, but this race is a huge thing to the Greek people, so in the towns we ran through, everyone was along the road cheering us on, and during areas that were less inhabited, random Greek farmers were standing on the sidelines handing out olive branches and yelling bravo. People would also look up your name on your bib and start yelling your name if you started struggling. I also mentioned the Canadian guy I met; I also met some other guy who was running his first marathon, and we had about 5km together where we just made sure the other kept going. Very supportive group of people, and having people like that really makes the experience of the race so incredible.

People have often asked me how you talk when you run a marathon – honestly, it’s not that bad if you’re well-trained. The goal is not to sprint for 42.195km, and especially with it being my first race, I wasn’t going to go out and end up collapsing at kilometre 15 (and trust, people were. The forecast was for 17 degrees and cloud coverage, we ended up getting 21 degrees by 9am and full sunshine). But mentally and physically, I was very prepared for this. I have a weird sense of disappointment, because I feel like it should have been worse (which is also some of the driving sentiment behind me wishing I had pushed myself harder and gotten a better time).

Anyways, bottom line, awesome experience and I’m overall proud of myself.

Got my hardware.

Post race, I did feel quite worse for wear – they were offering free massages but they were 500m in the opposite direction of my apartment, so I decided to just walk back there (and by walk, I mean shuffle/hobble). Once I got there, I laid down in the bed, DISGUSTINGLY SWEATY, and I wish someone had captured on video the grace in which I removed my clothing while lying in bed. It was a lot of noises and peeling and snake shimmying. Super attractive, obviously. I then slept for a while and woke up with the hunger of a thousand beasts, so I managed a shower and crawled my way to the closest tavern, ordered an entire block of saganaki, a giant souvlaki wrap, fries, and a litre of beer. They asked me if I had run that day. I don’t know what gave it away.

The following day I headed up to northern Greece. It was another early day – my train left at 8.00 and arrived in Meteora at 13.30. I honestly had been so focused on my race that I didn’t prepare all that much for the rest of my time in Greece, so I really had no idea what I was going to see in Meteora, other than that travel blogs highly recommended going, and that it was beautiful.

Those travel blogs – on point.

It’s amazing. Literally translated, the name “Meteora” means ‘middle of the skies’ and is one of the largest and most important Greek Orthodox monastery complexes. There are six monasteries built on natural rock pillars, and it looks like that… so you should probably go sometime in your life.

To get up to the monasteries, it’s easiest to drive (there are roads now making them all accessible). But if you like hiking/can’t afford a rental car/don’t realize what a terrible idea that is the day after running a marathon, you can hike to all the monasteries. It’s roughly 8km with a 650m ascent, but the ascent is essentially done in one quick steep bit, so the majority of it is fairly flat walking.

That initial ascent though.

The area around Meteora has been inhabited for roughly 50,000 years, and the presence of monks dates back to the 9th century. Initially, the monks lived in caves and fissures in the rocks, occasionally at altitudes of 550m, which allowed them to live a pretty solitary life. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a monastic state developed in the area, and in the mid-14th century, the first monastery was built on top of the rocks. It was only accessible by a ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.

Roussanou Monastery – another popular way of getting into the monasteries (be it goods or people) was to be hauled up in a rope net. The ropes were replaced only “when the Lord let them break,” so… kind of rolling the dice getting up there. Of the six remaining monasteries, two are run by nuns rather than monks – Roussanou is one of the two.

I, unfortunately, did not get to visit the interior of any of these monasteries. It’s hard to find current information regarding when to visit, and the monasteries are subject to close as their inhabitants see fit. So I was informed by an official tour guide that they would be open until 17.00, by the official Meteora map that they would be open until 16.00, and upon my arrival at the largest monastery at 15.00, was told that they were just closing. I only had the one day to explore, so not getting to see the interior was disappointing, and if you ever go and have time on your side, try to schedule at least two days to explore! The exterior views were definitely worth the trip though, so in the end, I’m happy with what I saw, and to have an excuse to go back again.

Roussanou in the bottom left, Varlaam in the top right.

Apologies for the bad lighting, because this one (Holy Trinity) is super cool, and was used during the final scenes of the 1981 James Bond flick, For Your Eyes Only. It was built in 1475, and you need to take a cable car to get across into it (note, I will not judge people for taking this cable car as opposed to scaling the walls of the rock pillar).

Hiking back down into Kalmbaka

Olive grove at the base of the pillars

Sunset over Kalambaka

Dusk over Kalambaka

Twilight in Kastraki (there are two villages at the base of the monasteries, Kalambaka, which is larger and has train service, and Kastraki, which is smaller but literally at the foot of the rocks, and is only 2km from the Kalambaka train station. I stayed in Kastraki).

I had another early morning the following day – I had toyed with the idea of taking the train to Dion and wandering around the foot of Mount Olympus on my way to Thessaloniki, but was starting to feel a bit tired (shockingly) so I decided to just head straight to Thessaloniki. I arrived around noon, wandered along the pier for a bit, ate probably the best grilled eggplant I’ve ever had, and then fell asleep at 16.30 and slept until 7.30 the following morning (may have been a sign from my body that the day after a marathon, you shouldn’t do an 8km hike. Noted, body).

Pre-coma views of the White Tower in Thessaloniki.

White Tower – today’s version was reconstructed in the 12th century by the Ottomans to replace a Byzantine fortification – during the Ottoman rule, it was a prison where many executions were carried out (the walls inside weren’t all that white at the time. The tower was only whitewashed – inside and out – after the Greeks gained control in 1912).

Since I was up early enough, I decided to head up to the Byzantine Walls and Trigoniou Tower to see the views of the city.

Views of Thessaloniki with Mount Olympus in the distance, and the old Byzantine walls (dating back to 390) in the bottom left corner.

Byzantine Walls in Ano Poli (the old quarter of Thessaloniki)

There are also a few old ruins up there, but honestly, they’re kind of just average – interesting enough to look at, but Thessaloniki isn’t a city to visit just for ruins (not to say there are no ruins worth seeing there, but I wouldn’t make them the highlight of the city). There are definitely cool spots for ruins outside Thessaloniki that are worth day trips (it’s Alexander the Great country – I unfortunately didn’t get to visit due to lack of time, but again, another excuse to go back), but I thought the city itself offered enough on its own vibe that I didn’t need ruins to get a feel for its history – it was enough just to enjoy the restaurants, the historical buildings, and overall vibe.

Thessaloniki vibes in the old Turkish quarter

Street art vibes in the student quarter of Thessaloniki

I honestly just enjoyed walking around the city. It’s so cool because it’s such an old history with a rich history (I’ve always been fascinated by the Byzantine empire – the history, the art, the blending of cultures, the tiles, the buildings, etc.), and walking through Thessaloniki, all you do is stumble upon various UNESCO heritage sites.

Tiny chapel in the middle of an apartment block.

Larger Orthodox church along a busy Thessaloniki street.

The interior of the churches are so cool to see – I visited the Osios David, which was founded in the late 5th century, and contains a mosaic of the Vision of Ezekial (it’s super rare because it depicts Jesus without a beard in a much more androgynous form, and is insanely well preserved). The mosaic was hidden during the 8th and 9th centuries under lambskin to save it from the iconoclasts (people who were destroying Christian and religious icons), and then was plastered over when the church was turned into a mosque. It was then forgotten until the 1920s, when an Egyptian Orthodox monk had a vision telling him to go to the church. When he arrived, an earthquake shattered the plaster, revealing the mosaic to the monk… who promptly died (another downer of an ending). But, not only are the insides awesome, just about every mosque/church in Thessaloniki had a courtyard where you could hang out and relax.

The courtyard outside the Ossios David (no pictures allowed inside!)

The Agia Sophia in Thessaloniki – present structure was erected in the 8th century, and modeled on the church of the same name in then-Constantinople. It was converted into a cathedral in the 13th century, to a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottomans captured the city, and reconverted into a church upon the liberation of the city in the 1900s.

Inside the Agia Sophia

Inside the Church of Panagia Acheiropoietos – one of Thessaloniki’s earliest churches, with bricks and mosaics dating back to 450.

Layers of floor mosaics inside the Church of Panagia Acheiropoietos from the 2-4th centuries, when a Roman Bath existed instead of a church.

One ancient ruin I was impressed by was the Arch of Galerius, which is right downtown Thessaloniki. The arch was built in 299 to celebrate the victory of the Caesar Galerius over the Persians.

The reliefs on the arch. Stop and reflect on the fact that this art was created roughly 1700 years ago. 1700. Years. Ago. Look at how well-preserved it is! And how elaborately detailed the figures are! Isn’t that awesome? And I mean awesome in the literal meaning of the world, as in full of awe/awe inspiring. Seriously. Think about how old that is.

More reliefs on the arch, including a battle scene between Galerius and the Sassanid Shah Narses (the Persian King whom Galerius defeated), in the middle panel.

But, as I said earlier, the ruins and churches weren’t the highlight of Thessaloniki for me. The food was amazing, the temperature was perfect (it was 24 and people kept asking me if I was too cold and wanted to eat inside…), and there was a lot going on! I went for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and was able to get tickets to a couple movies (one of which, I accidentally slept through during my coma). But the Greek film I saw was so phenomenally shot, and really elicited an emotional response. It’s called Ursa Minor, and if you can get your hands on a version with English subtitles, I would highly recommend it.

56th TIFF sign at the harbour

I also spent about five hours my last night in Thessaloniki drinking wine, reading my book, and watching the sunset, which was probably one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time.

Once you’ve finished sitting and thinking about how amazing it is that we live in a world with man-made creations that pre-date our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’, go and spend an evening watching the sunset, and come to the conclusion that whatever we do as humans will never be as beautiful as what we can find in nature.

Sunsets over the Thermaic Gulf, with the peak of Mount Olympus on the horizon.

Thermaic Gulf

Fisherman looking out over the Thermaic Gulf with Mount Olympus in the background at dusk

Isn’t it amazing that literally EVERY DAY you could watch something this beautiful, and yet everyone in the world takes it for granted? I couldn’t remember the last time I just sat and spent hours watching the sunset – I think the last time was when I was in the Kgalagadi park in South Africa, more than two years ago (I fully realize what an obnoxious sentence that was). But seriously, regardless of where you are, it’s worth taking time to sit and do nothing but appreciate nature. Even though I love cities, I find it incredibly grounding and comforting to experience nature and to wonder in all the things that just occur in this world through the interaction of particles. Being a scientist must be so exciting.

Greek sky on fire.

But all that seems like forever ago, since it’s now snowing in London (cannot wait to get out of this weather again!). That’s all for now, and I’ll be informing you on my next move shortly (the blog will stay alive and hopefully I’ll be able to return to posting with greater frequency!)

Namaste, friends.

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