Croatia: Zagreb (Oct. 5-7)

We drove from Plitvice to a nearby village called Rastoke, which is known for its mills and waterfalls – many of the homes and stores there are built on top of the water. We were pretty hungry by this time since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we grabbed pizza and lasagna from a restaurant there. We then set out to make the final two-hour stretch to Zagreb.

Getting to Zagreb from Split was pretty easy – signs mark the entire way there. Finding the airbnb apartment we had rented, however, was no easy feat. Once in the city, we had to turn the data on my phone to use the maps. After a series of one-way streets and maybe ten turns, Stuart was driving behind a tram on the road when the road ended and we were driving on gravel.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” I said. I wasn’t paying attention before and had no idea how we ended up on the gravel. I shortly realized we were driving on the train tracks.

“Oh my god. Oh my god what are we doing?”

“Brennan – it’s okay,” Shaunagh said, realizing I was probably not making things any better.

Another tram drove past us, the driver looking shocked at our presence, and we noticed a platform of leering passengers waiting for the tram shortly ahead to our right. Stuart tried to pull up over the median, but our wheel got stuck, which made the situation increasingly tense. None of us said anything. After finally pulling off the high curb, Stuart drove forward on the tracks until we reached the grassy part of the median, where we were finally able to get over and back onto the road and off the tracks.

Most of us burst into laughter the minute we got onto the road.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

We arrived at our airbnb quite late, realizing it was not as close to the city center as we originally thought. We were pretty tired from the long day, so we weren’t up long before going to sleep.

The next morning, the four of us headed into the city center of Zagreb for lunch, eating at a fantastic restaurant called Mundoaka Streetfood. I had a cappuccino while I waited for their sandwich specialty (it was incredible) and ended up having two desserts, a carrot cake muffin and a poppy seed and pear tart, because the food was so good. I would return by myself the next afternoon before my flight to London.

After lunch, we met up with some friends I met in Ios, Australians named Josh and Jess, who had come from Split the day before as well, also stopping at Plitvice. I would later meet up with them in more cities, making them some of the main traveling companions of my trip. One of Shaunagh’s companions had been working in a hostel in Zagreb and met us after lunch as well, taking us around the city center and to Dolac Market, where I got six clementines for less than 50 cents.

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After wandering the city, the entire group went to the grocery store so we could have a rare home cooked meal when we got back to the apartment. I would be making sweet chili stir fry, although they didn’t have a lot of my typical ingredients. We bought chicken, corn, three kinds of peppers, onion and zucchini as well as some cheese, olives, biscuits and wine to snack on.

Back at the apartment, we started sipping wine and I started cooking the vegetables. When they were done, I pulled a large, cone-shaped mixing bowl out of the cupboard, criticizing the pointed design of the bowl that could not stand up straight. Why on earth did they think it was a good idea to design a bowl like this? I had to put the pointed bottom in a mug to keep it upright, and it wasn’t until after I’d put the sauced-up vegetables in the bowl that one of my friends pointed up at the ceiling.

“That bowl looks a lot like those light fixtures…”

(LOL)

Our guests left shortly after dinner (which was great), and my three companions planned their next stop, a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. I already had a flight booked to London the next day, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was pretty jealous that they would have two more nights together, and it confirmed one of the great lessons of solo traveling – plan as little as possible whenever possible.

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Croatia: Plitvice Lakes National Park (Oct. 5)

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

Mid-sized waterfall at Plitvice Lakes

After Sail Croatia ended, six of our group booked a hostel together for one last night in Split. I met up with two of my Australian friends, Jess and Josh, for coffee and wifi, as I’d gone a week without reliable connection to the real world, and then headed back to the hostel to meet back up with the group.

While we spent most of the day napping and relaxing after the long week, we did go out to eat at a highly recommended restaurant called Fife with cheap seafood. The black cuttlefish risotto (which Shaunagh made fun of my American pronunciation of) and the fried squid rings were highlights of the meal.

Shaunagh and me

Shaunagh and me

We went to bed early that night and the next morning, four of us said goodbye to the others and picked up a car we had hired for the day and night for only €50 between the four of us. Stuart, an Australian who had never driven on the right side of the road (but knew how to drive a stick and had his license on him) would be driving for the day.

After a 30 minute struggle with the Bluetooth, we were finally able to connect my phone to the music and turned up the tunes. Our plan was to drive to Zagreb, making an extended stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Plitvice Lakes National Park and the “Old Mill Village” Rastoke.

The group

The group

Without getting lost (seriously), we drove out of Croatia’s coastal sun and into a grey fog that hanged over the country that sat past the mountains separating the coast from the mainland. The difference in the weather was stark and surprised us after driving through a long tunnel under the mountains. I was not aware of it at the time, but the tunnel marked my goodbye to summer and greeted me with autumn at its end.

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Starting out the hike at Plitvice Lakes

Under the melancholy sky, we arrived at the Plitvice lakes around 12:45, donning sweaters, jackets and jeans for the first time in weeks (I’ve since worn my one pair of jeans every day). We bought tickets that were never checked and made our way into the park, not fully prepared for the stunning landscape we would be exploring for the next four hours.

To truly describe the lakes would be impossible; photos and words will never capture the feeling of being there. We were maybe 20 minutes in when we came to the consensus that it was the most beautiful place we had ever been. Waterfalls were everywhere you turned. The lakes range from small to large and are arranged in cascades, making them spill over into one another from dozens of angles. There’s a wooden log trail/bridge spanning throughout the entire park, somehow seamlessly integrated into the park and making the area still feel somewhat untouched (aside from the large amount of visitors). The trail often rests just inches above the water, other times even half an inch under the water. We guessed that the area must maintain a pretty constant water level.

The path

The path

There is one part of small, connected lakes spilling into each other that essentially make one long waterfall, and much of this area was closed off because the trail was partially submerged. Most of Plitvice’s visitors, including us, did not follow the rule and passed under the rope– how could we skip over the most stunning part of the park? The “closed off” area turned out to be a bit of an obstacle course, balancing on the rock-lined side of dirt paths and jumping between logs. We were headed for a site on the map marked “big waterfall,” and it was at first unclear to me whether it was just the series of descending small waterfalls that made the big one.

Big Waterfall

The “Big Waterfall”

It was not. To my right, the small waterfalls let out into a waterfall a bit larger than the others we had seen. It was wide and impressive, and I reveled in the completion of a journey we thought might be hindered by closed trails. We walked a bit farther to get a better look when I glanced to my left and realized I was completely wrong about the “big waterfall.” To my left was a waterfall four times larger than what I thought it was, water rolling down the sharp incline at times and free falling at others. My mouth dropped two inches. I felt so lucky to be there, looking at something so beautiful and strong. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Shaunagh

Sail Croatia (Sept. 27-Oct. 4)

Overlooking the island of Hvar

Overlooking the island of Hvar

It seems no easy task to write about the definite highlight of my trip – 12 days in Croatia sailing across the coast and to the islands and driving inland to the Plitvice Lakes National Park and to Croatia’s biggest city, Zagreb. It’s rare that I find myself able to get such an in-depth look into a country, but Croatia was definitely the place to do it.

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

Me and Shaunagh in Hvar

I started my time in Croatia with a weeklong sailing trip through Sail Croatia, which happened to be doing a two-for-one promotion on my trip. I had originally learned about the sailing trips through an Irish girl I had met in Budapest named Shaunagh, and we had loosely planned on going together from then on. When I told her it would be $600 total for both of us, it was pretty much a done deal, and she booked a complicated flight from Morocco to Croatia (I myself had to spend a night in Belgrade, Serbia to make it there from Greece without shelling out $500 for a direct one).

Arriving in Trstenik

Arriving in Trstenik

The first day on the boat really set the pace for the week, with most of the people on the ship getting out the beers as soon as we set sail. There was a really nice deck on the top that we would all lay out on in the mornings when we sailed (or really motored – they weren’t actually sail boats), often having drinks or working on our tans. Yes, I do still have a nice bronze glow going on and it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. Aside from Shaunagh and me, the group was largely Australian, with a few Kiwis (New Zealanders) and South Africans, and two other Americans would join the boat a couple of days late. Although the trips are known for being a lot of 18-21 year olds, our boat had an older range, with most people being in their mid-twenties and up to 30.

Stopping for a swim

Stopping for a swim

It would be hard not to describe Sail Croatia as a booze cruise. Our days were spent lounging around the boat, exploring cities like Dubrovnik or doing excursions like an island buggy tour (really exciting) and white water rafting (reeeeeeeaaally cold, but also exciting). Our nights, however, almost always revolved around having some “bevs,” whether throwing a party on the boat or going to a bar (some of the islands were quieter and didn’t have much of a nightlife, other places were closed due to the season winding down).

Looking over King's Landing!

Peaking out at King’s Landing!

A highlight of the trip, we spent a day wandering through the walled city of Dubrovnik, AKA King’s Landing in Game of Thrones and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I used my student card (even though it’s expired…) to get a cheap ticket to walk on the walls of the city, which I highly recommend. We tried to find Sansa’s garden to no avail, but we saw many places where we were sure different scenes of the show took place. Pretty much the entire afternoon was spent talking about Game of Thrones.

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

Revelin Club in Dubrovnik

After our afternoon wandering the city, we had a little party on the boat before heading to a couple bars in Dubrovnik – Skybar and Revelin. I have a Yoncé tank that I wear as pajamas and underneath my button-down shirts (I did start this trip at a Beyoncé concert), and at one point in Skybar, “Crazy in Love” came on and I ended up in my tank with a stage and a little crowd… The rest of the night was a blast, although a Kiwi tried to fight me over a hat I was wearing, which I timidly declined.

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Flaming Jäger Bomb Dominoes in a bar in Hvar

Another highlight was on an island called Mljet, which has a national park where you can hike, bike and rent kayaks. I rented a kayak for an hour and explored the peaceful saltwater lake on the island before heading out on a long hike with the two American guys on my boat. We hiked for an hour before we realized there were no operating water taxis or ferryboats and that we would have to walk all the way back. Maybe five minutes into walking, a car drove down the narrow bike/pedestrian/car path and on a whim I stuck out my thumb. The driver pulled over, and after some miscommunication (he didn’t speak English), we figured he was telling us we could come in and we did. We motioned for him to let us out before he turned off the path we were taking, still leaving us a 30 minute walk but saving us considerable time and giving me my first experience hitchhiking, if the brief ride counts. A couple friends of mine have actually hitchhiked from London all the way to Croatia.

Beach

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Statue of St. Peter and the view of Makarska

The excursions I mentioned earlier, buggy riding and rafting, were not free but were a good excuse to do something other than lounge around during the day. The buggy driving was really exciting – Shaunagh and I shared one, though I drove, and basically the entire drive was spent accumulating dust in my eyes even though I had sunglasses on. We drove pretty fast around the island, and it was even a bit scary sometimes. The buggies didn’t have power steering, so you had to really pull at the wheel to go anywhere. The rafting was a longer experience, about three hours on the rafts, and the weather had drastically changed to cloudy and cool the day before. Definitely the coldest experience of my trip, but it was really fun and we got completely soaked and had a great guide.

Pirate Party

Pirate Party on the boat

The trip was absolutely made by the people on the boat, who were all really fun and all got along really well, especially Shaunagh. This was the first time for me to meet up with a fellow traveler, and our friendship definitely cemented in our time together on the boat. The best part about traveling with fellow travelers is that we understand going solo and don’t have to be attached at the hip – some days I was keen to get exploring in a city while she wanted to relax on the boat for a bit, and it was perfect that way. But it was nice always having her to come home to.

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Next time: Shaunagh and I rent a car with two other friends after Sail Croatia and drive to Plitvice Lakes and Zagreb.

The Town You’ll Keep Coming Back To

The town of Plakias from above

The town of Plakias from above

If you’re taking a trip down to the Greek Islands but looking for something a little different than the gorgeous geometric architecture and the barren, brush-filled hills of the smaller islands, the small coastal town of Plakias on the southern side of the massive island Crete is worth the trip past the Cyclades.

Plakias is affectionately known as “the town you’ll keep coming back to,” and aptly so – its often-older clientele (maybe only older because I visited during the end-of-season) will tell you it’s their 15th or even 20th summer on the island. You’ll find most of these eccentric regulars at the Youth Hostel Plakias, which is the “southernmost hostel in Europe” and attracts those clients you may consider young at heart. While the crowd is older than your typical backpacker hostel, the hostel creates a community that seamlessly integrates generations of new visitors to Plakias.

Youth Hostel Plakias

Youth Hostel Plakias

Youth Hostel Plakias is run by a Bavarian-born, long-haired man named Uli who lived in Berlin before taking over the hostel (and presumably during the winter off-season). I would learn from a talkative regular named Martin (an older Brit who has been visiting the island once or twice a year for 14 years) that Uli is the third manager of the hostel. Its original manager was “no hospitality professional” but ran the place impeccably for 30 years before his retirement. Only a week after his last day, the beloved manager was carrying a supply of wooden planks on his scooter when he crashed and slipped into a coma for a year before passing away. The hostel would have been his life for the three decades of summers before, requiring work from morning till night with no days off.

The original manager left the place in the hands of a professional – an Australian who would run Youth Hostel Plakias for only two years before abruptly quitting. The owner, who does not participate in the daily affairs of the hostel, ended up contacting Uli, a hostel regular, who has run the place ever since. While some of its frequents felt envy that they were not contacted about running the hostel (it’s likely that many of them would have loved to take over), everyone agrees that Uli has done his job well – I found him welcoming and informative, trusting and kind.

Hanging out in the hostel (with a surprise guest in the background)

Mirjam, Felix, me and our new Australian friend Krista (with a surprise guest in the background)

At only €10 a night (€9 in the slower months), Youth Hostel Plakias holds a charm and comfort that cannot be matched for the price. Set in an olive grove, there are hammocks strung up between the trees, 8-bed bungalows for the tenants and an enclosed outdoor bathing and toilet facility. The main room and reception opens into a covered patio, always bustling with an outgoing, welcoming group of tenants. In addition to the older regulars, a few young seasonal workers hang out at the hostel, new friends coming in and out of the town like a revolving door and those who return to work another season seeing familiar faces each year.

Hanging out at YH Plakias

Hanging out at YH Plakias

I befriended one of the seasonal workers, a late-twenties Australian whose uncle lives on the island, who told me about the Plakias alumni’s tendency to try to “out-Plakias” each other. The area holds a wealth of secret hiking paths and beaches, monasteries and other wonders for its visitors to explore and fall in love with, and the regulars often brag about their knowledge of the area. A boisterous American woman from Virginia named Amy told me she loves to “take newbies on adventures” around the island in her rented car. Martin, mentioned earlier, loves to tell the first-timers Plakias lore. He had overheard myself and my companions, a German couple named Felix and Mirjam whom I had been traveling with since Ios, talking on the bus down to the town and greeted us on our first night: “I guessed you would be staying at the hostel and was so excited on the bus to know it was your first time here!

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

Uli, or maybe the managers before him, has a map up on the wall of reception with many of the island’s activities and step-by-step (though sometimes confusing) directions on how to get there (the island isn’t known for named roads, and you will likely be traveling through olive groves and fences to get where you want to go). On our first day, Felix and Mirjam and I headed to the hostel-favorite “One Rock Beach.” It was a 45-minute walk from the hostel, and we were warned that, “if you make the wrong turn, the walk is two hours, and no one ever makes it there on their first try.” After a collaborative effort, our group was able to find the beach without problem, making the correct choice at the six-way intersection and appropriately breaking into a resort to get through to the beach (that’s where the two hour detour could have began).

Admiring the view

Admiring the view

One Rock Beach is relatively private – you have to scamper down some rocks to get down to the nude-friendly, pebbly beach with a large rock sticking out in the middle of the water (hence “One Rock”). The waves get quite large between the cliffs lining the side of the beach and crystal-clear water, and on our first day, a playful group of naked 60-somethings held a photo-shoot in the waves, clawing like kittens and rolling around on their backs.

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After climbing one of the waterfalls on the river walk

After a long afternoon at the beach, we headed back to celebrate one of the seasonal worker’s birthdays with the entire hostel at a local restaurant (unfortunately I don’t know its name) that arranged our food and drinks for a flat fee. It was one of the best meals of my time in Greece – the saganaki, trio of dips and beet salad appetizers stealing the show from the main courses.

My favorite activity of the week was a four-hour “River Walk,” a trek uphill literally inside the river (more like a large creek) that runs through the island. Although one of the girls with us complained about the lack of a real path – “I can’t believe they recommend this! You actually have to walk in the river!” – the rest of the group thoroughly enjoyed the challenging climbs up the waterfalls and delicate walking in flip-flops over sometimes-slippery rocks. The creek is well shaded and the water cool, keeping you consistently refreshed, unlike the island’s less strenuous walks in a sun that harsher here than in the rest of Greece (not that the rest of Greece lacks in sunshine). The trek gets harder as it goes, and many of the climbs were a challenge for the shorter travelers in our group. The end of the hike leaves you at a main road on top of the hill, where you can reward your efforts at a taverna with lovely food (the ice cream and homemade baklava were a favorite) and a panoramic view of the town below. The walk was the perfect adventure in the midst of a week of relaxation in the islands.

The beginning of the river walk

The beginning of the river walk

Climbing in flip flops and water shoes is not easy...

Climbing in flip flops and water shoes is not easy…

Other highlights of Plakias include the local grapes you can buy from truck beds parked around the town, which are almost always just picked that day and generally about €1-2 for a kilo (which I could finish in a matter of hours), the wood fired pizza at the restaurant Kri Kri (get the farmer’s pizza – a vegetarian’s dream) and even the bus ride from Rethymno (sit on the same side as the driver for views of the gorge and to keep yourself out of the sun, per Uli’s instructions in an email sent after my booking). You can hike to a nearby monastery or explore other beaches on the southern side of Crete – activities I was unable to do in my short time there.

Natural shower under a cold waterfall during the river walk

Natural shower under a cold waterfall during the river walk

I found Plakias to be my favorite destination in Greece, with something for the adventurer in me and for the weary traveler in me who just wanted to sleep on the beach (which I managed to do for four hours one too-hot afternoon). I hear it is highly worth checking out the rest of Crete, but in my limited time there I wanted to take some time to get to know Plakias rather than just run around trying to see everything.

And yes, I do hope to return.

Ios (Sept. 18-20)

The main beach in Ios

The main beach in Ios

My hostel Francesco’s sent a van for me and a few other young travelers coming in on two ferries getting in at the same time, allowing me to make friends in the hostel instantly. We put away our things and promptly headed for the beach, where we would spend hours sunbathing and swimming in the refreshing, high-visibility water. The group was made up of a number of Australians, two Germans and two Americans. A few of the group went to play volleyball, but I was too lethargic to do much more than splash around in the water or soak up the rays.

We left the beach to grab large glasses of sweet sangria at a cool bar called Harmony next to the water, where we were joined by some young vacationers from France, French Algeria, Belgium and Italy. We all wanted to experience Ios’s famed nightlife, so we left for our hostels and planned to meet in the main area of town at 11:30. The majority of our group took a long hike up to our hostel, drinking beer on the way. The sky here has excellent visibility, and the stars literally lit our way.

The view from our hostel

The view from our hostel

After some pre-drinking at the hostel, we met up with our new friends and headed for a self-created pub-crawl on the island’s only going out street. There were definitely people at the bars, but you could tell it was only a fraction of what you would see during the peak season. I enjoyed being there in the off-season, where you weren’t packed in everywhere and things are way cheaper. I think most of the bars were closing for the winter after the weekend.

Renting a van for the day turned into quite the adventure!

Renting a van for the day turned into quite the adventure!

We all slept in a bit that morning and set off for the beach around 3 pm after a short afternoon at the pool. The group had shrunk to eight – two duos from Australia, a couple from Germany and myself and another solo traveler from England. Two girls from Australia stopped to check out the prices to rent ATVs, learning that their licenses wouldn’t work for the island. On a whim, we decided to check out the price to rent a van that would fit our group, and at €50 between eight of us, we decided it was worth renting. The eight of us crammed in (technically there was only room for seven, but there was a gap between the two seats in the back) and set out for a trip around the hills of the island.

Exploring the island

Exploring the island

Although the main town of Ios is quite residential and touristy, the rest of the island is totally empty and desolate. The other-worldly landscape is covered with tall hills and small shrubbery that doesn’t need much water to survive, every once in a while dotted with abandoned white churches, alien in their shape and isolation. We drove to Homer’s grave (yes – that Homer), which was not really anything special, and turned down a dirt road that we thought led to one of the island’s nicer, more private beaches.

Group album cover

Group album cover

It’s a good time to note that the old, tan Fiat van struggled up every incline on the main paved roads of the island, pulled down with the weight of eight people. The manual acceleration often struggled to set, the car made clicking noises when it accelerated and the breaks always felt a little precarious. We had to lean forward in our seats whenever we wanted to go up to help place some weight closer to the front-powered wheels. You may correctly imagine that turning down the dirt road would turn into a terrifying, exciting, Disney-World-esque ride that did not end in a nice beach but instead ended in turning around at a fork with two equally-impossible inclines for the car. We struggled up every hill, the wheels spinning out on the dirt and gravel, but we made it out in one piece. We were mostly silent, but we were all having fun regardless.

Sunset from the Paleokastro

Sunset from the Paleokastro

After making it back up the paved hill (which was also difficult), we headed for one of the island’s beaches for a little bit. We were the only ones there. It wasn’t as nice as the more frequently visited beach we had visited the day before, and the wind started to blow sharp sand into our face, so we headed out for the Paleokastro, Byzantine-era castle ruins sitting up on a hill overlooking the Eastern coast of the island. We spent maybe an hour there watching the sunset, though it was scarily windy, and taking some group pictures, hoping that the cameras on self-timer wouldn’t blow off their posts and off down the steep, rocky hill. As it was getting dark, we headed back to the main town to get gas and park the car.

Crazy wind on top of Ios's hills

Crazy wind on top of Ios’s hills

After parking, we headed to dinner at a recommended restaurant called The Nest after changing clothes at the hostel, cramming family style into a smaller table so we could be closer to each other and spending a very European three hours talking about everything from our travels to our home cultures to the availability of air conditioning in our countries.

We all woke up early on what would be most of our last day in Ios. We decided to try our luck at getting a tour of one of the two local goat cheese factories, driving back up the hills and past a bunch of bell-toting goats walking in a line down the road. We were turned away from the first factory – the factory was small and couldn’t let us in for hygienic reasons. We struggled to communicate with a Greek-speaking man at the second factory, just around the corner from the first, and all he could say was come back tomorrow. We thought that we conveyed that we wouldn’t be on the island the next day, at which point he pointed to my watch and said, “one o’clock.” We figured that meant come back at 1, so we went and chilled out for nearly two hours on another beach, mostly alone. When we drove back to the factory, the gate was closed. We tried yelling for someone to no avail and ended up stopping at a grocery store to buy some local cheese, bread and olives presumably from the mainland.

Saying goodbye to the van that almost killed us

Saying goodbye to the van that almost killed us

We had a nice sit down lunch of the snacks from the store, €1.70 each, and the cheese and olives were fresh and extremely tasty. I took a shower outside in my swim trunks, my second outdoor shower of the weekend, as the showers in the bathroom were pretty dire. Can’t complain though – showering in the warm sun is pretty wonderful. Four of us headed to the port shortly after, myself and the German couple headed for Crete and our two Australian friends headed for Santorini.

Solo Dates in Santorini (Sept. 17-18)

Picturesque is an understatement.

Picturesque is an understatement.

After some intense napping and “Mad Men” watching, I stepped off my seven-hour ferry into Santorini at 3:30 pm, getting lost and sweaty carrying my bags before arriving at my hostel an hour later. I had limited time on the island, leaving for Ios the next day at 1:30, so I rushed out of my hostel and straight to the black sand beach in the area of the island called Perissa. I spent two luxurious hours on the pebbly black sand with a piña colada in one hand and music playing through my headphones. I think I needed the solo time and even managed to get in a little obnoxious Facetime with the wifi from a nearby bar – I won’t say I didn’t pose with my drink and sunglasses with the tide strategically in the background awaiting connection.

Black sand beach in Perissa

Black sand beach in Perissa

I had to wait an hour for the bus back to Fira, the part of the island where I was staying, and ended up sharing a taxi-van (I actually think it was just some local dude trying to get some money) with three girls from London and a newlywed American couple on their honeymoon (so cute). I got back to my hostel and grabbed a €2 souvlaki, which would become a pattern in my time in Greece considering their high fullness-to-cheapness ratio, before exploring Fira. There were some nice views and very touristy shops, which makes sense because the islands are basically designed for tourists, which there were maybe a billion of. There were a few cruises parked around, and not to sound judgmental (but it’s going to), the kind of Americans who do all-inclusive packages and resorts and other easy-for-American trips are more likely (but not all are like this of course) to be the annoying ones.

Watching the sunrise in Oia

Watching the sunrise in Oia

I met some people in the hostel that night who would be traveling with me to Ios the next day, but I had to go up early (6 am) so I could go to the most picturesque part of the island, Oia, the next morning. Not sleeping much has been a major pattern in my trip, especially lately. I asked the guy working at the hostel about getting there early, and he kept saying I needed to go at 1 in the afternoon when “everyone goes there.” I told him I was leaving at 1 and he just kept saying that it was better to go in the afternoon and that it would be empty at that time in the morning, which ended up being the worst advice ever (that I didn’t take, obviously).

The view from breakfast

The view from breakfast

I got up at 6 and caught the 6:50 bus to Oia, which was totally empty aside from some wedding photoshoots going on. It was incredibly peaceful and quiet, and the views on the cliffs were stunning. The architecture on the islands is almost alien – white and blue and symmetrical and very geometric – but sitting on the cliffs against the coast and the rising sun makes them glisten in a way that makes any amateur photo look like a postcard. After exploring for a bit, I sat down at a restaurant called Floga (highly recommended for breakfast) with a view for breakfast and a latte, much of the time spent as the restaurant’s only patron. My Greek omelet (feta and tomatoes) was perfect, and I skipped the early bus just so I could sit and look at everything for a little longer. The solo time was again well-deserved and needed. Finally I made it onto the bus as about a dozen tour busses pulled up carrying more elderly American couples than you could find anywhere. Later, a girl would show me photos of Oia at sunset filled like a football game with people, and this is the off-season. I’ll take a peaceful morning sunrise over overflowing crowds anytime.

Ancient Athens (Sept. 15-17)

The Acropolis

The Acropolis 

After going on a solo dinner date (pita and tzatziki, a stuffed tomato, a zucchini patty and moussaka) and making a few friends during my first night in Athens, I woke up semi-refreshed (reminder: I went to bed at 6:30 am on my last night in Bulgaria) and joined my eighth walking tour of the trip through my hostel. We hit up most of the main sites of Athens – mostly ruins of the ancient city – and stopped at an open square for our break, where I bought a kilo of green grapes for €1 and a souvlaki. They were the best grapes I’d ever had (a phrase Europeans like to make fun of us Americans for saying, but it’s true), freshly-picked and perfectly sweet and tangy and juicy, and I ate pretty much the entire kilo over the last hour and a half of the tour, sharing some of them with a few of my new friends from the tour.

Great view of the Acropolis

Great view of the Acropolis

We ended our tour outside of the Acropolis Museum, but my group opted to grab a meal with each other before heading in. We found a small, off-the-path family-owned restaurant whose friendly owner gave us a few free bites. We shared all of our plates and barely spent any money on all of it, a traveler’s success. I would be eating nothing but Greek food for days and days, but this was not a bad thing.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

After lunch, we stopped at the Acropolis Museum for about an hour to get some background on the Acropolis. The museum has gathered most of the old sculptures that were looted from the Acropolis, but I didn’t realize this until watching a film at the very end of the museum that explained the history and architecture. We sat down for coffee at the museum, where some little kids ran chased each other around and around and forced a memorable frown on one of the waitresses. It started raining, so we paid our bill and ran home under the awnings of the main street of Athens. We would meet again when the rain had stopped.

Watching the sun set from the Acropolis

Watching the sunset from the Acropolis

At about 6:30 in a cloud and rain-free sky, we all met back up and headed up to the Acropolis to watch the sun set. We took a lot of pictures and got yelled at a few times – once for sitting on the ledge, once for taking a jumping photo (not my idea but it turned out cute) and once because it was time to leave. The views of the sunset were stunning, and the Acropolis was impressive after our short history lesson at the museum.

Greek militia taking down the flag

Greek militia taking down the flag

We headed from our sunset viewing to another delicious Greek dinner at some Trip Advisor recommended restaurant. The Trip Advisor stickers are generally pretty reliable signs of a good stop, and we again split all of our food – meatballs with the most incredible tomato sauce, saganaki (fried cheese), Greek salad (which does not include lettuce and tastes much better that way – the tomatoes in this area of the world are ridiculously good), vegetable pies (more like egg rolls), stuffed mushrooms, wine (of course) and probably more things that I don’t remember. It was a great meal with a great group and only cost €9 per person to split everything. After, the group went shopping while two of us headed for ice cream and back to the hostel, getting massively lost on the way. I went to sleep early, having to wake up at 5 in the morning to catch my ferry to Santorini. It was a struggle to find a ferry, and I had to change some of my original route and hostel plans to get out of Athens and get to the islands.