Last day, Athens

07.09.2013. Day 88.

I found my feet once again in Athens, where I spent one last night at the familiar hostel, drinking that last free shot of ouzo before ending the day with a few pints shared with other nameless travellers at the hostel bar. I was due for Istanbul the next day, my transit point before flying off back to Singapore. The 3 months sabbatical has come to an end.

Some of the most memorable things:

– Spending 2 weeks as a volunteer at the farms of Mount Pleasant and Bryn Pedol. I am humbled by the experience and the sheer hard work of farmers, and truly grateful to have met such wonderful and inspiring people in Austin and Zoe who treated me with the greatest hospitality. I wish for the opportunity to meet them again in my life.

– Climbing Pen Y Fan and Snowdon, the 2 tallest peaks of Wales

– Witnessing the Adratic coasts of Croatia, Montenegro and  Albania, as well as the Ioanian and Aegean waters of Greece. Some of these places are incredibly touristy, but the views are just out of the world.

– Travelling across the Balkans and began to form my personal ‘favourites’. The stories of Bosnia and Herzegovina touched me deeply, and Albania by its virtue of being so ‘roughed’ and ‘untouched’ gave me my best travel experiences. These are 2 of my favourite countries.

– Boarding a fully packed overnight 8 hours train from Brasov to Constanta, Romania with the expectation of it being a sleeper train, which of course as it turned out, wasn’t. While boarding a bus at Constanta, I was almost pick pocketed. I try to see each country I visit with an open mind, but Romania simply didn’t do too much for me.

– Entering the incredibly friendly Kosovo, before learning that its legal status as a ‘country’ has been contended by many others, including my own. I met some brilliant locals here who showed me to local liquor (Raki), and a fellow couchsurfer even brought me along to meet his friends. We spent the night at some of the coolest night spots, including an active train station turned bar at night. It was random, weird and brilliant. I can’t remember making my way back to my accommodation quite alright!

– The hilarity of bumping into the same people multiple times at different places. There was this fellow British lone traveller whom I met at least 4 times in Prishtina, Tirana, Berat and Gjirokaster. His was a story quite inspiring, of how he was working and saving hard at work, before being deceived by his boss and decided it wasn’t worth it and off he went travelling the world with his life savings. Mine, by contrast ‘Oh, I have 3 months between work and I just enjoy traveling alone‘ is far less. Despite multiple encounters, we made it a point to not travel together and see how many more times our paths will cross.

– Attempting to have my hair cut with absolutely no language ability at Skopje and Gjirokaster. At the latter, I made the local barber scribble prices on my note pad and it showed 2- 400 and 500 Albanian Leks. I opted for the former which resulted in me leaving the barber with a bald head. I didn’t have to have another hair cut after that

– In 90 days I did not make use of a single ride of taxi or GPS to make my way to anywhere. It is a very proud record.

The 3 months journey was long and at times, lonely and tiring, but when driven by the insatiable thirst to see more of this marvelous world, it was always exhilarating and harrowing.

Who knows when will be the next time I can do something like that again?

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Day 84: Naxos

03.09.2013 In the spirit of “island- hopping”, I was inclined to visit at least 2 islands on the Aegean sea. In the empty hostel in Trikala, I spent an unexpectedly long period of time planning my route. The Aegean islands, while geographically close, are not exactly the easiest to navigate around. Some islands have their own airports, while others don’t. The most convenient mode of transport, cruises, also do not run on certain routes.

Naxos, an island which I read online to be fairly similar to Paros, was not my preferred option. But as it is the most straight forward point of entry to connect me from Paros to Santorini, pragmatism prevailed. The actual logistics of finding a cruise was fuss free and very enjoyable, costing a good 10 Euros, and about an hour in duration. The massive ship has an air conditioned interior as well as several outdoor decks, the latter I spent most time in, basking in the glorious summer sun.

The island itself is terrific. Less quaint than Paros, Naxos is busier, but also larger in both size and scope. Its beaches are stunning.

These are some of the pictures I took…

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Day 82: Paros

01.09.2013. The promise of Paros begun before I boarded the plane from Athens, Greece. Counting myself, there was a mere 12 passengers on this short flight (just across my boarding gate was the flight to Santorini; it was fully booked). The first of the 3 Aegean islands I visited was by no means the most spectacular, nor is it really the ‘must-see’; but perhaps by virtue of these very facts, it was also the most relaxed, and most ‘real’. I liked this tiny island the most.

As much as I enjoyed mainland Greece, the lure of the country had always lie in its many islands. From Corfu on the Ioanian sea, my journey had been an eastern pursuit towards the other flank of the country- the incredible Aegean sea, taking pit stops at where I fancied.

From Trikala, I will be taking a bus to the Greek capital city of Athens, spend a night there, before flying to Paros. Naxos, the largest Aegean island, should then be an easy ferry ride away; and with it being centrally located, I should be able to catch another boat to the famed Santorini. From Santorini, I will return to Athens by plane, spend one final night there before heading back home to Singapore. With the number of days left (and unfortunately, my travel funds) dwindling, the last leg of my 90 days trip was decidedly more planned and precise.

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Arriving at the tiny Paros airport with my huge haversack and a plane full of holiday makers I felt out of place. Taxi drivers waiting at the entrance were waved off ceremoniously as I had opted for the cheaper (and more interesting) option of a public bus. Running at very limited services, it arrived only an hour later. But I was in Greece, so there was no rush.

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The views from the bus ride, as we made our way towards Parikia, the only town in the island, was remarkable. The prominent Cycladic architecture, with its whimsical curves and shapes, and its white and blue facade, may seem well belonged in a Disneyland. With just one night, I explored most of this tiny island, from the bustling main town of Parikia to charming villages such as Lefkes. Chrissi Akti, or ‘Golden Beach’-so aptly named in English, is perhaps Paros’ most delightful, and was by far the best beach I visited amongst these islands.

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Forget Greece’s economic troubles; I think I can live there.

Day 80: Trikala

30.08.2013. As the local bus that I boarded at Kalambaka turned towards a stretch of long and winding dusty road, images of the quaint village life began to be displaced by scenes of dramatic and bizarrely-shaped rock pillars, positioned around the region so haphazardly it seemed as if they had been ‘dropped’ from the skies. The initial chatter, noise and sounds of excitement from the passengers were replaced with silence, interrupted intermittently by the sound of camera shutter. We had arrived at the ancient monastery site of Meteora, and it had left everyone awestruck.

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From Corfu I made several pit stops. First, a ferry to the port town of Igoumenitsa, followed by a bus to the city of Ioannina, where I stayed a night; and that was before I continued my journey to Trikala, where I used as the base town for exploring Meteora. Ioannina and Trikala are off the tourist track, and perhaps precisely because of that, were the most ‘Greek’ cities I have been- the legendary relaxed Greek way of life on full displays. I had my best Greek salads, Souvlakis, Gyros and Frappes here. They were the perfect breaks.

I first heard about Meteora from a friend at work, whom I shared my idea of a Balkans trip with. He knew the country well. Oh you are heading to Greece? You should check out Meteora!

Meteora is the name of an area of rock formations in central mainland Greece most remarkable for its blend of natural beauty and religious importance. Hundreds of years ago, this was an important site resided by hermit monks. Six notable Byzantine churches were built, each one of them spectacular. Built on top of the seemingly impossible areas that are these rock pillars, it was men’s singular effort to conquer the unconquerable, the truest testament of his devotion to religion.

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These days, we have the benefit of roads and well paved stairs. It had frustrated me to see loads of vehicles dropping tourists from one monastery to another, who snapped some pictures, and left the site. Meteora, while huge, should be explored on foot. If not to have a brief experience of the ancient monks, walking on the public footpaths reveals some of the most commanding views of this area. Besides the initial bus trip which brought me up to the highest point, I hiked the entire region, taking me a good part of 5- 6 satisfying hours.

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As I left Trikala, it soon dawned one me that I had completed day 80 of this backpacking trip. When it ends, quite soon it will, and when I am to recollect on some of the most inspiring things I have seen, the images of Meteora’s stunning rocks and monasteries may well be the first that pops up.

Day 77: Corfu

27.08.2013. Greece is to be the last country for this 3 months backpacking trip. Turkey and Israel had to be drop from my plan, which on hindsight was simply too ambitious. The ‘Middle East’ Lonely Planet guide in my rucksack, the only travel guide I foolishly carried, shall remain unused. But I am sure there is another time for it.

Arriving in Greece I have made several mistakes. First, its geography is not the simplest to navigate, with hundreds of islands spanning the Ionian and Aegean seas flanking the almost triangular-shaped mainland. It requires the type of careful planning and ruthless cherry-picking, hardly the sort of free spirited and last minute travelling I do. Second, I have allowed myself just 2 weeks, which is simply not enough for a country so endlessly fascinating. Third, the final flight back to Singapore has been booked. I have a deadline now.

Sacrifices had to be made. First to go was Delphi, the historic site where ancient Greeks believed to be the centre of the Earth. Also to be strike off from my list were Mount Athos, a famous monastery site; and Monemvassia, a Byzantine town sometimes also known as the Gibraltar of Greece. Countless other places had to be dropped for sake of time and practicality.

The rough itinerary was formed. I will begin with the biggest island on the Ionian Sea (Corfu), travel across mainland Greece through Meteora and Athens, stopping at some lesser known towns, before spending the rest of my days island-hopping in the Aegean sea. Put simply, the route would be from west to east.

Corfu is one of the largest island in Greece, and definitely one of its most touristy. Arriving from Albania the contrast could not have been starker- its port is fully Wifi-enabled; most people speak English; and buses come with seat belts and air conditioning that actually work. The adventurous days of the Balkans, despite just 30 minutes across the straits away, had quickly became a distant memory.

Kerkyra is the only town on the island, and is where the main bulk of its tourism and commercialism merge, the latter established by the presence of a MacDonald’s joint. Though the views will be shared with many other tourists, Kerkyra is an elegant town, with many beautiful Venetian architecture characteristic of cities and towns in the Dalmatian coast region.

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Near Kerkyra is the tiny isles of Pontikonisi, or ‘Mouse Island’, named for its peculiar shape. A beautiful sight, it is one of Corfu’s most famous.

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Despite its size, Corfu is said to be the greenest of the Greek islands. This is most apparent as one travels inward the island away from the coast, with columns of trees lining up the roadside. Such views greeted me as I made my way to Paleokastritsa, a village located north west of the island with the most beautiful beaches and spectacular cliffs.

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If the rest of Greece is the big ticket performance I hope to close this journey, then Corfu has been its most tantalising curtain opening act.

Day 75: Sarandë

25.08.2013. It was raining, quite unusual in the Balkans at this time of the year, and the streets in the old quarters began to lit up, though no match for the sheer darkness that had begun to envelop the city. The furgon ride from Berat was long and almost arduous, but the inspiring views of the beautiful country had more than made up for the lack of road comfort.

I found myself a quiet corner in the Sofia restaurant, strangely empty at 8 o’clock, forming a stark contrast to the string of bustling cafes just across the street. Men on stools were chatting and arguing and ultimately laughing away, accompanied by ubiquitous cups of espresso, unperturbed by the seeping rainwater. It was the perfect place to observe life, my favourite thing to do. As the waiter approached, the lights in the restaurant went out. With a smile and a shrug, he returned with a candle and a light stick before taking my orders. Well, what can we do?

This is Albania, a country that seemed lacking in so many regards, but for that very fact, became so endearing for me. I had found great tolerance in this country.

I was in Gjirokastër, the city which had produced two famous sons- Enver Hoxha, the tyrant dictator who had ruled the country for many years; and Ismail Kadare, Albania’s world famous writer. This fact encapsulates the country rather well. To the foreigners, the unfamiliarity may be abrasive, but once that friction wears off, there is something almost poetic about it.

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Gjirokastër is another ancient Ottoman city not too dissimilar from Berat, and was another place I looked forward to visiting. Unlike Berat however, whose splendour laid out open even for the laziest of viewers; Gjirokastër requires a little bit more patience, tempting visitors to turn one more corner, or climb just another cobbled slope for wanting of its most secret and inspired views. The sight of white washed Ottoman houses perched uncharacteristically on the rolling hills is truly breathtaking. It was impossible for me to pick a favourite.

When I head south to Sarandë and surrendered myself to the beautiful Ionian beaches in Ksamil village, the mysterious ancient ruins of Butrint, or even casting my eyes on the enchanting blue waters of the Syri i Kalter, I knew that the magic of Albania had seeped away as surely as mass tourism had encroached.

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And it was time to move on.