Monday, February 23, 2015

Voyages de Février: Milan, Athens, Santorini

My two week February vacation has come and gone, but I was able to make the most of it and travel! Fair warning: this post is definitely 3-in-1 because I have so much to share... but that's what happens after you explore two new countries!

Milan, Italy

Jessica and I started off our trip by taking a train from Lyon to spend a weekend in Milan-- my first trip into Italy! The ride there went through the Alps which were especially beautiful because it had just snowed an unusual amount within the previous day or so. When we arrived that first night we decided to take it easy at the hotel and plan for what we wanted to do over the next two days. In our efforts to plan, we discovered that Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" painting was housed in a church in Milan-- it immediately went to the top of our list of things to see.

Unfortunately, I woke up the next morning with what was the start of a serious double ear infection, with fever, on top of a pretty horrible head cold. I swear, I am constantly sick in France and I have NO clue why... but that's beside the point. I popped some Advil and a decongestant and we were off to explore Milan! We made our way down from our somewhat faraway hotel, through Parc Sempione which houses a beautiful old castle, and into the center of the city.

The tourist map of Milan we had was completely useless in helping us find the Last Supper, as it marked it next to the Parc Sempione when in reality it was nowhere near it. So we asked a few different people where we could find this small church, but no one was really able to give us any answers. Then we overheard two girls ask for directions to a church and may or may not have decided to follow them on their way to what we thought would be the same church. It wasn't. However, doing that did lead us to the Duomo which is an absolutely stunning church that is well worth a visit. We went inside and explored a bit before finally asking a woman at a church kiosk for correct directions to the Last Supper-- and we were on our way again.

The Duomo in Milan
Sadly, after all this searching we got to the actual church and found out that the tickets were all sold out... for the next two months. Supposedly, the Italian government actually dictates that only 25 people can see the painting every 15 minutes and they only sell tickets up to two months in advance. So we left feeling pretty disappointed, but decided to make our way to a neighborhood of Milan that was supposed to have beautiful canals. When we got to what was supposed to be the neighborhood, the canals were not visible due to construction. Apparently, Milan is the chosen city for the World Fair which begins in May and lasts until October-- so most of the city and sights were under major construction.

By far our favorite neighborhood was Brera, which had been recommended to me by one of my best friends, Sarah, who had lived in Milan last year. The buildings had more color there, the streets were more pedestrian based, and there was just an artsy charm I couldn't even begin to truly explain, so I've put pictures below instead. From Milan, we took an EasyJet flight for 40 euros to Athens. I am still getting over the fact that it only cost me 40 euros to get to Athens-- why can't travel be this cheap in the U.S.?!

Athens, Greece

On Monday, we flew into Athens and spent the rest of the half day at our hotel. Poor Jessica started to get sick with a really sore throat, while I could barely hear and was in major pain no matter what I did-- we were falling apart. We opted to rest up and feel better for the next day so that we could explore and enjoy Athens!

Looking and feeling cold at the Parthenon!
That next morning we headed to the Acropolis, which we were right next to, and ended up paying a little for a guided tour. It was already a windy and somewhat rainy day, but by the time we made it all the way up to the Parthenon it began to snow-- which is pretty rare there. The entire Acropolis is constantly under construction in order to preserve the ruins, especially the Parthenon. Our guide explained to us that any of the white marble we saw in the Parthenon was the newer addition and that given time, they would yellow like the rest of the ancient pieces. The Acropolis can be seen from nearly anywhere in Athens because buildings are not allowed to exceed 12 stories. We walked around and snapped pictures from every angle we could before we decided it was just too cold to remain on the top of the hill and we headed home.

Sadly, at this point my illness really began to affect my enjoyment of the trip. Up to this point I had been taking an absurd amount of Advil to try and stay ahead of the pain and whatever fever I had that day. But after two nights of waking up in pain and then having a fever again after seeing the Acropolis, I finally gave into the idea of going to a doctor for treatment. Of course, this was easier said than done, which is the whole reason I had put it off in the first place.

Jessica graciously offered to accompany me on this little adventure, for which I am eternally thankful because I was already at my breaking point, so she was the sane and rational person in the duo. We ended up deciding to head to the nearest hospital for their emergency room.

Fun fact? Not all emergency rooms in Greece are open all the time. In fact, the one we first went to was closed and none of the people we talked to, except finally the security guard, could tell us what hospital would HAVE an open ER. Finally, we ended up at an open ER where I only had to give my name and my symptoms before they sent me up to a waiting area. There was no system in place to mark the order in which patients arrived, so I just remembered the people who came after me and I knew that I should be seen before them. After at least an hour it was my turn and I entered the exam room and explained my symptoms, was examined, and prescribed a round of antibiotics.

I have to say I was shocked at the overall condition of the hospital, it was very run down and didn't feel entirely clean. It was then that I began to appreciate how lucky we are in the U.S. to have the hospitals we do. As I left the exam room, I turned to Jessica and asked, "Where do I pay? No one mentioned anything." So we went back to the reception area and asked and then told I didn't have to pay... and I didn't argue with that!

Our second day in Athens, we started by going to the Acropolis Museum to see some of the sculptures that had been removed from the actual Acropolis due to acid rain. There were endless artifacts to see and it was really incredible to be in the midst of thousands of years worth of history that had been so well preserved! We went walking around Athens afterwards and you can really feel the history around every corner. I was amazed that many of the underground metro stops even feature ruins and displays of artifacts.

We eventually made our way through a few neighborhoods to arrive at the Ancient Agora. This was absolutely my favorite spot in Athens. The Ancient Agora is now featured as a large park with little trails leading you to various ruins and statues, and it really was incredible.  What made it even better was the sun finally decided to make an appearance and it truly brightened our day in every way-- it's crazy how everything changes when there is a little bit of sun! On the way home, we stopped by the Temple of Zeus since it was right around the corner from our hotel. Luckily, the sun was still shining and we enjoyed walking around the park.
Temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora. The Acropolis is of in the distance. 
To end our stay in Athens, we went to a hotel restaurant, A for Athens, that featured stunning views of the city below the Acropolis. While it is true that it has amazing views, we were disappointed because the normally open deck was enclosed by windows for the winter. Greece is one of the few countries I have been to that still allows smoking INSIDE the restaurant-- that was an interesting surprise, to say the least. We were lucky enough to get a table next to the window view of the Acropolis where we were able to catch the sun going down.

Santorini, Greece

In order to head to Santorini, we had booked tickets on an 8 hour ferry boat ride. We had mentally prepared for the possibility that the journey would be uncomfortable, possibly in an open air boat-- essentially something similar to taking a boat to Alcatraz or Mackinac Island. We. Were. Wrong.  Not only was it not a ferry boat-- it was essentially a cruise ship. So, we were happily surprised to be riding in style and comfort all the way to Santorini.

We stayed in Fira, which is the most populated part of the island and is pretty central to everywhere else you might want to go. However, since we were traveling there during the off season, a large amount of the stores and restaurants were closed. This was made even more evident when took a bus to Oia which is at the northern tip of the island-- 99% of everything there was closed, no exaggeration.

We walked all along that little town and it truly was a ghost town. In some ways, this was really nice because we didn't have to fight with other tourists for the pictures we wanted to take. In other ways, it made things more difficult because there really wasn't anywhere else to go once we had walked all around.  We had found one open hotel in Oia, a Best Western of course, and asked the woman there if she knew of any open restaurants-- she gave us three options for the whole area, if that tells you anything. Luckily, we did find food and were able to warm up before heading back to the hotel.

Santorini is definitely best described as breathtaking... in more than one sense. Obviously, it has absolutely stunning views, which I am sure are even more wonderful in the summer. In addition to this, though, it is definitely a maze of stairways, uneven cobblestone, and nothing is handicap accessible. I can't imagine really young kids or the elderly faring well exploring the island, but it was great for us to slowly walk around and explore... while getting some decent cardio.

Instead of going on the ferry again, we decided to take a flight back to Athens in order to catch our flight back to Paris. Santorini's airport is by far the smallest I have ever been to. We stood in line to put our checked bags through an x-ray machine and when the guy finally came over it was a quick process. We made our way to the other side of the lobby to wait in line to go through the metal detectors and what not. Guess who was running that section of security? The same guy! We found this pretty funny because we couldn't have even imagined that before coming to that particular airport. We eventually boarded our plane from the only terminal they had and spent the rest of Valentine's day traveling back to France... And with that, our February trip was over!

My favorite picture of the trip. There are a lot of strays in Santorini, but thankfully the locals seem to set out food.
Before arriving in Italy and Greece, I was worried that the language barrier would be a huge issue, but I was pleasantly surprised that almost all of the people we encountered spoke an impressive amount of English. It really put us more at ease. English really is the go-to language when traveling, even if it's as a second language, but of course people do truly appreciate when you make an effort to say hello or thank you in their language.

Despite experiencing more wintry weather than we had expected and being incredibly sick the entire time, I am so glad I had a chance to visit these countries, even just for a bit. It definitely wasn't long enough to satisfy my interest in them, but I know I'll be making an effort to get back somewhere down the road!

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