Athens-Istanbul (10d, $800)

Athens-Istanbul (10d, $800)

My plans of funding European grad school with Canadian employment continued this past Christmas season, where I returned home for 5 weeks to catch up financially and rest a bit before returning to school in Greece.

My time in Canada was exceptionally busy: working three very intensive weeks in Vancouver and then spending the next two weeks immersed in chores and paperwork in Hamilton, with an awesome surprise Christmas skate orchestrated by my sisters in Toronto and a last-minute Gzowski Club reunion with Kac and Tom in Waterloo thrown in for good measure. It was simply fantastic seeing all my friends and family after such a long time away.

After a whirlwind of a Christmas “break” I returned to Greece to complete all my assignments and to cap off my first term as a grad student. It felt good, so good, to have half of the most intensive part of my studies behind me. It felt even better to have gotten through not only financially unscathed but also ready to face the rest of the year without busting the bank, even though this meant missing Christmas with the family for the first time in my life.

Toronto with friends

Aside: I remember reading a general consensus online where one of the top travel careers named was massage, both for its freedom and financial stability. Having been living my life this way since the late 00s, I can confirm that yep, if you want to travel and not scrape the barrel to make ends meet, check out massage therapy as a potential career. Especially if you’re willing to put in 2 years to become a registered therapist in a regulated province. It’ll take 2-3 years before you figure out your routine after school but, once you do, you’ll be set.

So a few weeks after returning to Greece, my sister came to visit and we did Athens for four days and Istanbul for three, separated by day trips to Thessaloniki and to my hometown of Trikala along the way.

Prices below are in dollars, lira, and euros, with the following conversions: $1.00 CAD = $0.90 USD = ₺2.00 TYR = €0.65 EUR.

Athens, Attica Zoo, and the Temple of Poseidon

Athens was remarkable, as always, with its Free City Tour being a highlight. A friend from my program, Nikita, joined us for this leg of the trip. It was simply fantastic having her along — she did her research and knew exactly what to see in Athens. At her behest, a full day was dedicated to seeing Attica Zoo (third largest bird collection in the world!) and the famed temple of Poseidon on the tip of Cape Sounion, where Lord Byron allegedly carved his name into stone.

We left early for the zoo. The whole Athens-Attica trip was done using local transit — a combination of train and bus, and involved close to an hour of transfer time between the two. We arrived at the zoo in the late morning and stayed for 4-5 hours, easily. The biggest highlight was certainly the vast array of stock, well, in stock, and just how close you could get to the animals. An escaped meerkat even latched on to our party for a few minutes! Entrance fees were around €10, but this was a 50%-off special Nikita had found. For an extra €4 we went to see the dolphin show, but this paled to shows like Niagara Falls’ Marineland or Vancouver’s Aquarium.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

From there we took a taxi to get to the Cape — significantly more expensive, but also the only option. We were lucky to arrive at the temple right between the departure of a Japanese tour bus and the arrival of an Indian one, giving us close to two hours to romp the grounds virtually unencumbered.

This temple is definitely a must-see for anyone in Athens for more than a day. You can scamper up and down the cliff side, exploring the numerous little caves and coves that dot where the hill meets the Aegean. Bonus: you can catch an intercity bus to get back to Athens for just €6, and they leave every two hours.

Upon returning to Athens, we saw the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square, crept up to the base of the Acropolis (note: the Acropolis is the hill, the Parthenon is the temple up top), and tried eating the bitter oranges that fall from the trees all over the city (don’t do it — not the same thing as an actual orange!).

While in Athens we stayed at the Neos Olympos for €9/night each (including breakfast!). Off-season prices, probably. This has to be my favourite Athenian hostel because it is cheap and is just a five minute walk from Larissa Station, the main hub for both inter- and intracity trains. All told, we spent something on the order of €100 for three days and two nights in Athens, including all the attractions above. A great deal! We would have likely spent closer to €150 were it not for the fact that Nikita and I had student IDs. Attractions like any of the temples or museums in Greece cost around €3-5 entry each, something that is half-off if you’re a student and completely waived if you’re studying in Greece.


The route

Following Athens, we took the train up to Trikala where I needed to be for school. Mags took this time off to rest and recover from her jet lag. One night here followed by my seminar the next day, and then back on the road again, this time to Thessaloniki where we had a night booked with a great CouchSurfing friend. Luckily, on the way it hit me that I’d forgotten my passport which translated to more bus time for me.

We stayed one night in Thessaloniki where I caught a nasty bug after falling asleep close to 2AM. Six hours later I was on the bus heading home to retrieve my passport. I returned to Thessaloniki at 5PM, only €25 poorer (thank you student ID!) but definitely much worse for wear. We grabbed a coffee with some friends, packed up, and headed out for Istanbul that night. I was dying at this point: I had a fever, the chills, and was really fatigued. I knew it wasn’t anything serious; I just needed to rest and maybe some hot tea, and 24 hours on the road out of a possible 36 certainly didn’t help.

By some miracle we survived the 10h, €45 bus ride without incident and I was on the road to recovery when we arrived at our destination. Taking the night bus was a great idea and highly recommended, especially if you’re not sick: you save money on lodgings and you save time that can be better spent sight-seeing. Visas are calculated in USD but you can pay in euros or Turkish lira as well: Canadians pay $60, Americans and Poles $20. You can take care of this online but if you’re taking a bus in, you may as well pay in person as this is what everyone will be doing anyway.

I’m going to be honest here: though Istanbul is indeed a world-class city with much history and culture peeking at you from around every corner, our main goal in visiting was mainly checking off two more “countries” in our race. If you look closely at the official list, Turkey counts as two states if you cover both its European (East Thrace) and Asian sides (Anatolia, aka Asia Minor). And Istanbul is at the heart of this division, with the Bosphorus Strait dividing Europe from Asia running right through it. And we did it!

Arriving in Istanbul, Mags booked a hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet, or the Old City, using her points card. Though I wanted to go to our second CouchSurfing appointment, as planned initially, I quickly conceded that the hotel would be a much better idea given my condition. And good thing we did this too. We got fleeced by a taxi driver for €25 to make the 5km trek from Taksim (the centre of the “New City”) to where we were staying, but we were in no condition to haggle the price (it was surprising how few people spoke English in that city). We showed up at the hotel where I happily got ripped off again, this time €30 for an early check-in fee but, again, I had no options. I spent that whole day in bed while Mags went out on the town to be offered carpets for $4,000 at the Grand Bazaar. For such a price, she was adamant the carpets should fly.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

The next day was fun. We visited the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Obelisk of Theodosius, took the ferry to the Asian side (₺3, 20m), and saw whirling dervishes perform their ritual, trance-like worship (₺45 + coffee/meal if you’re so inclined). Not being a huge fan of museums and crowds and other things typically touristy, the best part of this day was by far our impromptu shopping escapade in Üsküdar.

Getting to Asia was simple: a short walk from our hotel brought us to the port at Eminönü, from where we caught the ferry to Üsküdar on the Asian side. Walking 5 minutes into the city we came upon a huge market with great prices: €100 got me two sweaters, two dress shirts, and two pairs of pants. What a deal! Food was plentiful and cheap here as well — future Turkey visits will likely include much more exploration on the Asian side instead of expensive, tourist-packed East Thrace.

Yep, even here.

Our final day was a bit of a rush: finished packing, I went for a traditional Turkish bath (₺50) before being whisked off by our airport shuttle (₺30). We decided it a better idea to pay the €80 to fly back to Athens (2h) rather than pay around the same and spend 15h taking the train/bus back. A note on this: if you are flying out of Istanbul be sure which airport you choose. There is one on the European side (Atatürk) and one in Asia (Sabiha Gökçen). Shuttles are quite cheap regardless of airport but may take more time if you have to cross the Bosphorus Strait, especially during rush hour.

A bit more ink must be spilled regarding my hamam experience. It was amazing! I should have gone there everyday for at least 2-3 hours. As it was, the hour I was able to sneak in just before my flight was perfect, if a bit rushed. You show up and are given a locked change room in which to get undressed and leave your things. Then you go into the sauna, where you spend 1-2 hours unwinding. This time is perforated with trips to little cubicles where you cool down with cold water from a font. Then, when you’re ready, you find your masseur — usually a big, burly, mustachioed man who looks like he was once in the circus — and he washes you with a scrub cloth, then lathers you up with soap, which you then wash, and then he follows this all with a deep massage. All of this is performed on a hard marble surface, but you don’t even feel the rock because you are so relaxed and the treatment is pretty intense. This ritual, as far as I could tell, is only available for men. The strangest thing about this is — as with all of the Old World — how this ritual is tucked in between the ordinary: the hamam is usually a small building pressed in on one side by the likes of, say, a police station, on the other by a shawarma grill or post office.

All told, expenses getting to, living in, and leaving Istanbul from Athens amounted to $600 each. An expensive 3-day trip, but worth it for all that we did there.

Istanbul at dusk


The flight from Istanbul to Athens was uneventful, except for the high turbulence I’ve come to expect when flying low over islands. We spent one last night at the Neos Olympos and went for dinner in the Plaka district again, a place a friend had taken us to when my sister first arrived. Best food I’ve found in Athens so far, and sufficiently far away from touristy places like Monastiraki or Syntagma so you can expect many locals and much better prices. If you’re inclined towards vegetarian fare, your only options in the whole city are Rosebud and Avocado, the latter right downtown and surrounded by sushi bars.

Things I learned

Ten days and around $800 spent in the end. This would have been at least double if I had flown in from Canada. Lots of adventures, a few surprises, and another two states knocked off the TCC list. Here are the pearls of wisdom gleaned this time around.

First, I am going to work hard never to miss important holidays with the family again. It was financially necessary this past winter, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but not being home for Christmas really sucked.

Next, relating to this most recent trip in particular, it’s good to pepper day-stops along a journey with many destinations. This saved us when I forgot my passport. It’s also wildly important to have a cell phone while traveling: mine broke but we were able to make some much-needed changes in plans thanks to Mags’ having hers on hand. It’s also important to research where you’re going thoroughly beforehand, as Nikita did, and future trips should be marked by much more time spent getting to know a place and relaxing and less time in a travel rush, even if this is just between cities. Ten days for four cities — two of them world-class capitals in two countries across two continents… this was a bit ambitious. And planning: planning takes a lot more time than you think. Future trips should be planned thoroughly weeks in advance, with a minimum of one week allotted to basic planning and a second week set aside to take care of any straggling details. There are always surprises!

Updated TCC count: 14 with Turkey highlighted

Would I go back to Turkey? Yes, but not in a heartbeat. And I would probably go back with more money and time (10-14 days feels about right), and would avoid the European side and the capital, instead opting for deeper forays into Anatolia to revisit the great food and shopping experiences I had there this trip.

Next up: Cardiff, Oxford, and Edinburgh. Next week. Wow, that really came quickly. This will raise my TCC count up to 17, finally edging my sister out of the lead spot!

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