I’ve found on my travels that wandering—taking that extra step—usually pays off.
Greece was no exception.
Tuck that map into your back pocket, turn down some twisting alleyways, follow hand-drawn signs—and your gut. Venture back to that picturesque spot at dusk for different light—even if your feet protest every step of the way. Walk into that restaurant whose menu terrifies and excites you in equal parts.
You may never be here again and even if you are lucky enough to come back, you may return with limitations—mobility issues, a stomach that isn’t as strong as it used to be, children…
To quote the hit 1998 Disney Channel Original Movie, Johnny Tsunami: “Go big or go home.”
And it sure as hell isn’t time to go home.
I’m on Santorini. Dad and I have just parked in Pyrgos—a relatively off the beaten track village whose medieval architecture rises up on a hill overlooking the entire island. It’s right around high noon and the sun is beating down relentlessly on layered whitewashed buildings and sparkling blue church domes. I’ve got sweat on my brow, I kind of need to pee, and my stomach is growling. But it’s not time for lunch just yet; it’s time for some ‘sploring.
I leave dad at a shaded café table and start off up a narrow, winding staircase. I gain elevation, passing souvenir shops with cats dozing in their shadows.
Soon I start seeing signs for “kasteli”—the remains of a Venetian castle that once dominated the island from this hill—written on the pavement in what looks like chalk.
I climb higher and higher, making my way slowly up toward the sun. I’m out of the main part of town now. It shows—paint is crumbling, walls are eroding, scraggly weeds are poking up between stones.
A whitewashed staircase hugging the side of a building catches my eye. It looks private, like access was once forbidden, but there is no sign or rope barring my passage, so I put my foot on the first step. And then I’m on the roof. Of a church.
I descend and keep going. Fifteen minutes later and I’m on my third church roof. How many times have unholy feet like mine made this same discovery?
It doesn’t matter because right now I’m on top of the world—white buildings roll down the hill to my right like foam on the crest of a wave. On my left, the ashy volcanic terrain descends away from the caldera toward the open Aegean.
I try to capture this fleeting moment, but it’s gone before I start back down the stairs. I step inside this last church—cool like well water—where I leave an offering and light a scrawny, hand-dipped candle as thanks.
I’m in Athens. It’s nearing the end of my first day here and I’ve climbed the Acropolis with thronging tour groups and wandered through the Greek Agora. I made it out just in time for the officials to close up the site at 3 p.m., which has apparently become common practice even though my guide book promised me the main attractions would be open until 6 p.m.
I wander through the Plaka district and do some light shopping before heading toward Hadrian’s Library in the Roman Agora nearby. I’m reduced to snapping photos of fragmented columns through the bars. The same story—that darned 3 p.m. closing time.
History repeats at Hadrian’s Arch and the nearby Olympieion. So much for this combined ticket to Athens’ “archaeological park.” Crumbling ruins embedded in this dilapidated modern city.
I resolve to make my way back to the hotel. Walking up the pedestrian street flanking the Acropolis, I see the sign for the Theater of Dionysus—another one of the sites included in my ticket. I walk up to the ticket booth and there’s someone inside! The site is miraculously still open! I flash my ticket and I’m in. I climb up the side of Greece’s most ancient theater and sit where, thousands of years ago, spectators watched debut performances of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. I breathe in the history and the dust.
I continue west along the southern slope of the hill, my map of the site promising ruins of minor temples and other pieces of stone—all evidence of the cult devoted to the god of wine and theater. I notice that I’m following signs that read “Acropoli.” Reasoning that there must be a site exit nearer the entrance to the sacred hill, I continue along as the path gets increasingly steeper.
I reach a ticket booth and waltz through, assuming it’s the exit. The guard calls me back and demands to see my ticket. I produce it, she glances at it, nods, and waves me through. And there’s the Temple of Athena Nike and here’s the Propylaea. I’ve somehow made it back in for a repeat viewing. All I have to do is climb once more up the slippery marble.
The site is all but deserted and the light is perfect. It’s the time of day when the cats slink out of their hiding places. The Parthenon seems to glow from within, lit by the setting sun. And all I can think is “jackpot.”
Nope. It’s still not time to go home.