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Greece Lightnin’, Turkish Thunder: A Spring Break to Remember

Greece Lightnin’, Turkish Thunder: A Spring Break to Remember

At long last, here’s an account of my biggest adventure this semester – my spring break excursion to Greece and Turkey. I’ll try to keep it brief!

Led by the dean of academics (“Sander”) and SLA Mitch, I and 43 other students hopped on a plane to northern Greece. We spent the first two nights in a 5-star resort hotel called Cavo Olympo, nestled between the foot of mount Olympus and the Aegean Sea. Unfortunately, the fog was so thick that I never once actually saw Mount Olympus. Friday evening, we checked into the hotel, freshened up, and ordered milkshakes from the bar before going out for a delicious group dinner at a restaurant called Gastrodomio.

We were supposed to hike up Mount Olympus on Saturday, but unfortunately, incessant rain changed those plans. Instead, we visited Greek ruins and a museum that housed intricate mosaics, the oldest organ ever found, and fascinating sculptures of Greek gods and goddesses. Constantinos, our amiable tour guide who strongly resembled John Lovitz, kept us captivated with stories from Greek mythology. Afterward, we hiked up to a castle on top of a cliff. In the ruins of one of the castle’s chapels, I spotted human remains!

View from my castle

Then we had lunch – lamb and fries – in a Greek tavern on top of a mountain. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see anything out of the window. We were actually enveloped in a cloud. In the afternoon, during our down time, we returned to the hotel and many of us enjoyed the steam room, the sauna and the pool. That night, we were set loose in the small town of Litohoro. Gabrielle, Melanie, Katherine and I headed straight to the first gyro place we could find. They were delicious as expected (and cheap!).

My first Greek gyro

We sat in the gyro-ria playing a Disney guessing game, waiting until an acceptable time to explore the nightlife. It turns out there really wasn’t much nightlife to explore. We ended up in a bar full of hip youths, and felt very old and out of place. It didn’t help that we made fools of ourselves in the language department. When the bartender asked in a thick accent if we were ready to order, I thought he had asked where were we from. I responded happily, “Chicago!” He just stared at me for a long, awkward moment before repeating himself. Melanie had a similarly embarrassing interaction while we were ordering, so we left shortly afterward and found a lounge where we fit in better and had large mugs of decadent hot chocolate.

On Sunday, we took a road trip to Thessaloniki, stopping at museums and the tomb of Phillip II along the way. The first night in Thessaloniki, we went to a cocktail bar to celebrate Maureen’s birthday and played a game called “What are the Odds?” which is basically a glorified version of Truth or Dare that only involves ridiculous dares. While we were romping around the city, the stray dogs would follow us around because they thought we were a pack. One of the highlights of Thessaloniki was climbing to the top of the White Tower, a famous landmark from ancient Greece that was once a mark of suffering and devastation but has become a symbol of hope. Later, we went to Blue Cup Coffee, which had a cozy atmosphere and yummy drink options. I got some sort of strawberry and vanilla coffee concoction.

The White Tower of Thessaloniki

The next day we set out for the town of Xanthi. In the morning, we saw the Jewish Historical Museum of Thessaloniki where we learned the tragic suffering that Greek Jews endured during the Holocaust, and also learned about the role of Greece in World War II. The sun finally came out later in the day, just in time for us to wander through the ruins where St. Paul was once imprisoned. We stopped along the coast in Kavala for a pre-dinner, where I ordered Taziki (as usual) and a small fish appetizer. We had our last group dinner in Greece that night. It was the most divine culinary experience. First, bread was brought to the table. My friends and I were eating some when Ioanna, who was our guide for the trip, came over to us and said, “Don’t eat the bread. There’s a lot of food coming.” I mentally scoffed and thought she had no idea how hungry I was. But as usual, Ioanna was right. For a solid hour and a half, food just didn’t stop coming. We were always rushing to finish one thing before the waiters brought out another. It was almost overwhelming but my taste buds have never been so happy. For the rest of my life I’ll be dreaming about that meal: the lamb, taziki, fries, salad and countless cheese-filled appetizers. Ioanna also gave us Greek names during dinner – you can call me Agaliki.

After we ate, most of us went out together for a final adventure in Greece. We witnessed Ioanna using her Goddess magic when she led us to a bar and later demanded that an employee escort us to the cool club down the street. At the club, Gabrielle and I had fun getting to know our bus driver, Costas. He didn’t speak great English, but we talked about his career. Most of the time, we stood at a table in awkward silence due to the language barrier and ridiculously loud music. When we were ready to leave, we had to find our way back to the hotel on our own. Melanie asked two young people sitting outside the club for directions, and they kindly offered to walk us. We learned that their names were Nick and Katerina. Katerina had the most beautiful curly Greek hair. Nick taught us a foul word in Greek. We made it back to the hotel safely.

The first thing on our agenda the next day was a wine tasting in the Greek countryside. Ioanna taught us how to properly taste and evaluate wine like true connoisseurs. We spent the rest of the day on the bus, headed for Turkey. When we arrived in Istanbul, we went straight the Orient Express for dinner. The food wasn’t anything special, but the atmosphere was really interesting – I felt like I could be in an Agatha Christie novel. The waiters wore conductor outfits and brought the drinks out on carts designed to look like trains. The next day, we visited the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia. The Blue Mosque was beautifully decorated with geometric patterns and rich drapery, and we took off our shoes and wore hijabs while inside. While in the Ayasofia, we could faintly hear the call to prayer, which was an ethereal and moving experience. I learned from our Turkish tour guide, Koko, that the call to prayer is sung by in harmony by one person from each mosque in the city.

5 Blue Mosque (above) and Ayasofia (below)

Gabrielle, Melanie, Katherine and I had lunch in a restaurant with a beautiful view. I had Heinz ketchup for the first time in months – I nearly cried because I’ve missed it so much. Then we explored a palace that overlooked the Golden Horn, where I saw an ornate clock exhibit as well as ancient weaponry. That night, Mel and Gab and I walked down the main strip near Taksim square, and found a small café-like restaurant where we could hear live Turkish music. We tried Turkish delight, a sweet, gummy-like treat, and smoked melon-flavored hookah afterwards to fully soak up the culture.

The next day, we went to a church with beautiful mosaics and then took a cruise down the Golden Horn. While drinking Turkish tea, I listened to Ioanna talk about the peace walk she took from Athens to Istanbul. It was so inspiring – she told us she believed that if she kept a clean mind and spirit, no harm would come to her. She asked us about our dreams while we looked out across the water at Asia. When we came ashore, we went to the Spice Market and then had yet another delicious lunch at a place Ioanna recommended.

Cruise on the Golden Horn


In our down time, we drank more tea and played chess at a café near Taksim. I almost got run over by a tram (watch out for those if you ever visit Istanbul). We went out with Turkish students that night, a meeting arranged by Ioanna. We talked with them about the Turkish education system and what they think of Americans. They took us to a kebab place and then to a bar where we danced to 80s/90s Turkish hits. Then we went to another pub where they played a lot of classics – most memorably, they played “I will survive.” When we were walking home at nearly 2 a.m., Starbucks was still open. It was glorious. I was home.

The next day was filled with shopping at the Grand Bazaar. Bartering was stressful at times, but I bought gifts for people back home and adopted a terrible British accent while doing so. The sheer size of the Bazaar was incredible. It would have been easy to get lost among the thousands of stands selling scarves, spices, dishes, trinkets, and nearly everything else under the sun. We had our last dinner as a group that night at a restaurant called Feraye. I had the honor of sitting next to SLA Mitch and learning about his favorite places to travel. Everyone got up to dance (including Sander, Ioanna, Mitch, and Costas) before our dinner had even arrived. I enjoyed the appetizers the most, but for the main course, I ate a fish that still had a face. After dinner, a few of us went to a club called IQ. We went crazy when the DJ played “Fireball” (the JFRC calcio theme song) and danced the night away.

The next morning, I went to the Turkish baths with a group of girls from school. We stripped almost completely naked to be scrubbed down and washed by large, motherly Turkish women. It was indeed awkward at first, but I appreciated the way the body wasn’t treated as a taboo, sexual object to be ashamed of. It was a relaxing, eye-opening way to finish off spring break.

On the bus back to JFRC, Sander gave a long speech full of inspirational musings about the trip and the rest of our lives, such as, “I hope it gets inside you, you get a feeling, and it gets in your heart.” Another gem was, “You go left, you go right, you go straight ahead.” He had everyone on the bus either laughing or crying as he talked about how we had all become a family.

Me, Ioanna, and Gabrielle at the airport

Stay tuned for my post about Barcelona! Ciao belle!

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