Travel

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Day 36: A Journey’s End.

Waking up in an airport is a strange feeling. Those compulsions I usually have when catching flights were strangely absent since we were already checked in, been through security enough times and, if we were lucky, our terminal would be a 5 minute walk from where we were. Still I didn’t leave much to chance, giving us a full hour before the flight was set to board. Talking to the receptionist as we were checking out we were informed that we just needed to take a short train ride to get to our gate, the time we had more than sufficient to get there. Satisfied we made our way down and, surprisingly, didn’t need to ask anyone else about how to get where we needed to go.

Maybe it was just the random wing of the airport we arrived in yesterday. Who knows.

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I grabbed a coffee and my wife a coconut water, hoping that something light could quell the rumblings in her stomach. We sat down in the gate area, figuring we’d while away the remaining hour before boarding by reading or otherwise entertaining ourselves. To our surprise they started boarding people not too long later although as it turns out it was something of a two stage boarding process. First we’d have to go downstairs to go through another security check, one where they’d rifle through our carry on bags. They, of course, found the duty free in mine and informed me that they needed to put it in a box and would also need my boarding pass. Confused but not wanting to make a scene I handed them both over and kept a keen eye on the guy who had made off with them. As it turns out this is just the process for any duty free that contains alcohol coming out of Dubai and instead of it being handed to you when you exit the craft it comes out with your checked luggage. I guess all airports have their foibles.

We boarded on the plane, the glorious Qantas A380-800, which I had hoped would provide a better flight experience than some of the other jets we’d been on so far. Whilst the set pitches were a little better the uber-reclining chairs did make it a little awkward to get in and out. My wife did secure her favourite window seat position however, this being a 3 abreast seating configuration, meant I had to pester the poor woman beside me every time my wife wanted to get up. Overall it wasn’t too bad but it has made me wonder if paying the additional for premium economy might’ve been worth it for this trip.

Our flight was delayed due to a computer issue on the flight controller’s end which led to a backlog of flights that needed to be cleared before we could go. After we got going I looked at our tickets back to Canberra and realised that there was likely no way in hell we’d make the connection. I’ve been in this position before however and Qantas has always done right by me. I told my wife much the same and we both agreed to not worry about it until we landed.

Arriving in Australia as a citizen is by far my favourite airport experience, the automated systems streamlining you through all the way to your baggage. The longest part about the whole endeavour is the walk to get to the passport control gate. It did take some time for our luggage to arrive however, something that was exacerbated by the fact that we waited to see if our duty free would come through. As it turns out the duty free from Dubai does not come out with your checked luggage, it gets routed through to oversized luggage. After finding this out from a fellow bleary eyed traveller I wandered over to the oversized luggage section only to find various bits of luggage strewn around randomly, including a few duty free boxes. After figuring out that no one was actually claiming anything I went up to the two remaining boxes and searched for mine. Then I simply walked away with them.

Great system guys, really.

Walking over to the Qantas domestic transfer desk we were greeted with a massive line, one that was moving relatively quickly however. Walking up to the check-in counter we mentioned our flight being delayed and not 2 minutes later were we booked on the next flight down and our bags checked, no questions asked. After the experience I’ve had on some other airlines in similar situations it’s things like this that remind me way I sometimes pay a premium to fly with Qantas as they really do take a whole bunch of worry out of the equation.

The flight back was short and uneventful, the lovely modern Boeing 717 getting us there smoothly and swiftly. Indeed it’s the first one of these such flights where I haven’t felt dreadfully ill right at the end; the usual DASH-8 rattling my bones and my head until they both feel like jelly. My wife said she might try to snooze on the cab ride home although then remembered the usual state of Canberra cabs. So instead we got ourselves an Uber and found the awesome express pick up location that’s in the Canberra airport car park. We were picked up by a lovely older German fellow who had some lively banjo music playing.

Shortly we found ourselves back home and noted all the work my mum had been doing to the place while we were away. New flowers were planted in some of our pots, the roses trimmed, the interior of the house cleaned. the entry way decorated with a welcome home banner and balloons and, to our delight, the heater running. We started the process of unpacking and re-entering the lives we left behind 5 weeks ago, the pile of mail (both physical and electronic) requiring attention. The rest of the day blurs out from there, spent mostly in a semi-surreal daze.

I’m still processing a lot of thoughts from that day, and the ones that have followed it, so I’ll leave it there for now. Look for a wrap post in the coming days where I’ll sum everything up and talk about what I think this trip means now that it’s done.

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Day 35: So Long, Europe.

Even the European summer sun did not dare to peek above the clouds when we arose, our 6:30AM start time necessitating us being ready numerous hours before. The bittersweet emotions that plagued our departure the day previous were no present here, replaced with a simple stoicism of getting on with the business of returning home. Today won’t see us back home however; this is just the first leg of a journey that will take us to Dubai. It will however take the entire day from us, our final stop not coming until some 16 hours after our we awoke.

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After walking nearly the entire length of Athens airport we finally found our check-in counter, flocked by the handful of other brave inviduals who rose as early as we. It was in this line we came across a fellow Australian, a young man from Sydney who was also concluding his near 5 week tour of Europe with a last hurrah in Greece. Strangely his journey included many places we had been to as well, including Zurich and Berlin, although he had the advantage of relatives over here to show him the best places to go. He posed the question that so many had already: “So worked out where to for next year”. To be sure it’s an exciting prospect although I’m not sure if a tour of this magnitude is warranted every year.

I have, however, resigned to travel a little more often than I have of late.

All checked-in we walked around to find a light breakfast before we made our way to the departure gates. It was here that I finally had a coffee that I’d describe as passable as nearly everywhere I went couldn’t seem to scrounge up anything that compares to back home. This is probably due to me taking my morning coffee in the hotels were staying at, most of them using those god awful automated machines, but even the few I had had elsewhere were disappointing. Fully caffinated I was ready to face the horror of airport security, but not before making a quick shopping stop.

I had been looking for a particular item ever since I saw it in Ikos Oceania. It was, of course, at an extremely exorbitant price and a quick search revealed I could most likely get it duty free for a fraction of the cost. Thankfully the first shop past the boarding pass check had it, spotted by my wife in no time at all. They also had what has become my favourite part of Greek cuisine: Halva. With that sorted we were quick through security and at the gate, ready for our flight out to Zurich.

We arrived at Zurich 2 hours later to an airport that I will long hold up as the example of how airports should be done. It was clean, ultra-modern and incredibly well thought out. Not once did I have to ask anyone where anything was (this is important for later) as there was either a sign or information post in eye-shot from whereever I was. My wife and I had a lovely stroll through many of the shops, remembering Switerzlands strange obsession with cows (seriously there was a €600 cow bell in one of the stores), and enjoying a light meal before making our way to our departure gate.

Our plane to Dubai was an unusual configuration, one that allowed my wife and to both have our preferred seating options (she the window, myself the isle). Most widebody craft typically have 3 seats on the sides which precludes this although my wife has been pretty fortunate for most of this trip. This made the trip over go quickly, even though we were without our in-flight entertainment for the first hour or so.

Then we entered Dubai International Airport.

It is a behemoth of a place, dwarfing even what I remember of Bangkok airport when I flew through there once for work. Taking my usual approach of “what would a dumb tourist do” failed completely here as there were no signs pointing to the in-airport hotel which were to stay in tonight. Asking various airport staff usually got us a single direction: “yes this way”, “just take this elevator then go through security”, something which made me think that no one really knew where it was. After catching 2 trains, 1 bus and going through 3 different security points we eventually found the hotel.

Well not the right hotel as it turns out, there’s in fact 2 of them. Sigh.

I must have been oozing frustration at that point (although honestly I thought I was being a rather cool customer at the time) because whilst they first said they didn’t have a room for us, and asking us to pay $65 to upgrade, we were given a junior suite room for no charge at all. It was a decent room although I do wonder if anyone who was staying there would make use of any of the additional facilities the “suite” included in the relatively short time you’d be there for. As it was the included massage chair didn’t really function as advertised (much to my wife’s dismay) and the extra lounge area wasn’t fully curtained off, meaning light from the airport leaked into the room at all times.
Regardless we made the most of it, grabbing some fast food from down stairs and revelling in the fact that this was the first hotel room we’d stayed in this trip to have Discovery channel. We set our alarm for a much more leisurely time, hoping that our departure gate wasn’t in another terminal.

Tomorrow we’ll make our final journey back home. I’m excited to get back home although less so about the time it will take. Hopefully it will go quickly and all I’ll have left to do is revel in the memories of this trip.

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Day 34: A Tale of Two Airports.

That surreal feeling, the one you get when you know when you’re doing something for the last time, began to sink in swiftly after we got up. The same breakfast that we’d enjoyed day after day came with a side helping of melancholy; the gorgeous ocean views only serving as a reminder of what we’d be leaving behind. Still, as always, it was enjoyable. A brief respite before we’d leave this place leaving only the memories of the time that felt all too short. Dawdling back to our hotel room we started the process of packing everything up, making sure we hadn’t left anything behind.

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We got a call from reception, our transfer company wondering if it was ok for them to show up 10 minutes early. This posed no issue for us, since by the time we had everything backed it was almost time to go anyway, so we let them know that was fine. Soon afterwards a man in a golf buggy came down to pick us up from our room, saving us the 5 minute uphill journey back to reception with our now heavy luggage in tow. It was then I realised that I had only seen one other set of people making this same journey, everyone seemingly staying for longer than us or somehow being whisked away without anyone noticing.

The drive back was uneventful, the same countryside rolling by as when we had arrived here 6 days prior. Our driver this time around reiterated what our previous one had: we should hire a car and drive around, Thessaloniki is worth exploring and we needed to come back to Greece and explore its many sights. I’m sure these are the same lines that are repeated by many numerous times over but in the post-holiday glow you can’t help but feel the attraction of them. There’s always another place you have to explore.
We arrived tragically early at the airport; so much so that the Ryanair check-in counter was bereft of any staff who could take our luggage. This was part us leaving early and part our driver being very efficient at his job, getting us to the airport in record time. Without much to do we found ourselves some seats in eye shot of the check-in counter and whiled away the time with books and free airport Internet.

About 2 hours before our flight the Ryanair check-in people appeared and with them a long line of people who had been milling about for some time. Seasoned travellers will know Ryanair for being one of the cheapest fares you can get, that is if you can abide by all their rules and not run afoul of something that they will charge you for. When I was booking this I had no choice, unfortunately, and the extras I bought (including our checked-in baggage) ended up doubling the price of the ticket. Worse still reading some of the fare rules led me to believe that my suitcase would violate both the weight and dimensions rules, a potential €100 affair. Thankfully though we checked our luggage in with no dramas, the exorbitant price I had paid many months ago being enough to appease the Ryanair fare gods.

The flight was both amazing and completely ordinary. I was amazed at all the things that Ryanair has done in order to drive their fares down to as low as humanly possible. The seats were packed in so tight there was barely a hair’s width between my legs and the person’s seat in front of me, likely meaning they could squish in an additional row at the back. They also didn’t recline, nor did they have a seat pocket in front of them. The safety instructions were attached to the seat in front of me and the overhead luggage compartments looked like they had been developed with slot in advertising in mind. Truly it was a marvel to behold but woe betide anyone who flies with them for longer than a couple of hours.

We arrived at Athens airport a little over an hour later and made our way over to the Sofitel Athens hotel for our short, single night stay. After what we’d had experienced in Greece anything would’ve been a step down but this felt like a drop worthy of a continental shelf status. Still all we needed it was for sleep so we unpacked a few things for the night before heading out to find some dinner.

All the restaurants in the hotel were overpriced garbage, charging €35 for a buffet dinner. Disgusted we headed back over to the airport where we managed to sort out some decently priced grub along with some delightful almond truffles, all for half the price of what one buffet would have cost us. Retiring to our room we enjoyed our simple dinner over a few shows before turning in for the night, hoping to catch enough sleep before our 4:00AM start the next morning.

Tomorrow we begin our journey home in earnest, making for Dubai before our real long haul flight back to Australia. It almost seems fitting that the end to our trip should be this long, the finale to something so long and grande requiring its own epic to close off the journey. I’m certainly not looking forward to it, I think we spend some 32 hours out of the next 48 in planes, but that does mean that there’s still a few instalments left in this travel log before I close it off. They might not be the most exciting, indeed I’m sure I’ll be lamenting whatever small slight may happen to me along the way, but it will definitely give me time to reflect on the journey and it what it all means that it will be done.

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Day 33: One Last Night in Paradise.

Today was our last full day here at Ikos Oceania, a bittersweet moment for us both. On the one hand it feels like we’ve been here for almost the entire holiday, this being the longest we’ve spent in any one location. But like all holidays it feels like we’ve been fast-forwarded up to this point, implanted with the memories of the days that have gone by. We had only one goal today: to go back to the town of Nea Moudania to look for a store that we could buy a few things from.

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We didn’t get around to doing that until mid-afternoon however, spending our morning in the usual fashion: breakfast, beach and then slowly deciding what should be next on our hit list. We went up to reception to ask about the shuttle service into the town (so we wouldn’t have to walk or worry about the bikes getting stolen) only to find out it would stop running not 10 minutes from when we arrived. This also coincided with many of the shops closing as well, although for what reason I couldn’t be sure.

Defeated we started to walk back down to our room but decided on the way to walk down there anyway. Lucky we did too as it turns out that most of the shops were still open, especially the few that we wanted to visit. We didn’t find what we were looking for though, unfortunately, but it was a good walk there regardless. We then made our way back home and again went our separate ways to read and nap.

The afternoon was spent in the usual fashion: spending some time at the indoor pool to cool off before hitting up the sauna and the heated chairs. We’d taken to bringing our books along with us making the time speed along even faster. Indeed this was the first time we had to be told that the place would be closing. In hindsight it was good that it did close then or else we would’ve likely missed our dinner appointment that night.

Our last dinner was spent at the Italian restaurant, the last of the four on-site places à la carte restaurants. Our meals were fantastic, the small portions being deceptively filling especially when they were combined with the nice Chianti I had selected. Tired and full we headed back to our hotel room, slowly drifting off into the night.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the end. Originally I had intended to stay for 7 nights here however after we got the flights sorted I noticed the heinous time out of Athens: 6:30AM. This necessitated us spending a night at the airport so we didn’t have to get up at some other wordly time in order to make it. So tomorrow we’ll likely enjoy our last breakfast, head to Thessaloniki and then spend the night in the Athens airport hotel. After there we start our journey back home and a return to normalcy.

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Day 32: I Could Get Used to This.

The days are beginning to blur into each other; a combination of good food and a steady stream of alcohol putting a lovely haze over the day’s activities. Things are starting to become…routine, as if this is the life we had always led and would continue to do so until long into the future. That’s not the case of course but it was interesting to note just how quickly my mind shifted into that mode of thinking. It’s probably the first time since I started blogging this journey that I’m struggling to come up with a good explanation for what we did early in the day apart from “food, beach and a nap or two in there somewhere”.

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We did try to get ourselves some of the stand up paddle boards so we could meander around the ocean for a while. However we were told that we’d need to pay €20 for a lesson before they’d allow us to use them. After that however we’d be free to use them every day we were staying there, something which would’ve been useful to know early on. Instead we got ourselves one of the (free) canoes and paddled around for a while, although the lack of any destination meant that the 20 minute time limit they gave us didn’t feel like much of a constraint.

I then retired back to the hotel room, the heat starting to get to me. My wife stayed down on the beach, wanting to enjoy the ocean and open air. I believe we both read our books for some time until we fell asleep, waking some time before dinner. We ended up going back to the sauna area but I avoided the steam room this time around, not wanting a repeat of a previous night’s sinus debacle. We relaxed on the heated chairs until about an hour before our dinner appointment which we’d struggled to get a reservation at until this night.

It was easy to see why when we they got there; the restaurant was about half the size of the others. This was also the only time we were seated indoors as well, every other restaurant being able to seat us outside to enjoy the sunset and glorious night sea breeze. The meal was great, even if their interpretation of classic Asian dishes was a little off center (the dish pictured is Bulgogi Beef, although I’d class it as beef with bulgogi sauce). The cheeky waiter even ordered an additional desert for us, saying we didn’t know what we were missing out on, and to his credit it was the best of the lot. He did, however, neglect to get the bottle of wine sent down to our room successfully although I think it may have just ended up in the staff collection.

We finished off the night as we usually did: cuddling up with the laptop to watch Netflix whilst we slowly drifted off to sleep. Once again I’m sure tomorrow will be little different from today although I have planned to see if I can find a certain shop to get one of my family members a certain gift.

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Day 31: Adrift Without a Care.

The days have taken on a different cadence. The time once spent on planning and scheduling activities now spent appreciating food, wine and impressive coast of the Aegean Sea. I have lost most of my ambition to do any of the activities on offer, instead whiling the hours away with my face hidden behind my Kindle, my wife doing the same. It’s certainly not the same kind of experience we had back at Turtle Island but all the same have I found myself wanting to do not much more than sit down and watch the hours tick away.

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We headed out to the main pool area to check it out. We spent a few minutes there but after a short swim felt our time was probably best spent down at the beach. There’s no surf to speak of here so after milling about in the water, admiring the small sand fish that swamped our ankles, we headed back to our beach umbrella. Feeling the heat of the early afternoon sun starting to cook us we headed back to the room to clean up before heading to one of the restaurants for lunch.

Disappointingly it was basically the same buffet as we’d had at one of the others a day or two prior. It’s still good food, especially when its accompanied with as much beer as you could want, but a little variety wouldn’t go astray. Afterwards my wife returned to the beach to read her book whilst I holed myself up in the hotel room, eager to escape the unrelenting heat that soaked everything it touched.

From there the hours ticked away, some of them spent in a book others with my head resting unceremoniously on the cushion I was using to prop up my kindle. When the sun started to make its way below the horizon I thought I’d better go find my wife to make sure we could make our dinner reservation. Coincidentally I bumped into her on the way down to the beach, the resort staff only kicking her out as they were setting up beach front dinners for a few couples.

Our dinner at the French restaurant here was just as good as the previous experience we’d had at the Greek one. I choosing steamed mussels and a rack of lamb, my wife the cod croquettes and the beef bourguignon. I was halfway out of the restaurant with the unfinished bottle of red in my hands when the staff spotted me, only to give me a sly wink and a thumbs up as I made off to our room.

I will be surprised if tomorrow is much different.

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Day 30: Let’s Go Ride Bikes!

Waking up seems to be the hardest thing to do here, especially with nearly anything you could want a mere phone call away. We persevered however, managing to make breakfast at the leisurely time of 10AM. My wife really only had one goal for the day: ride her first bike in Europe, something that had gone unrequited the whole trip. So once we were fed and happy we went up to the equipment hire shed and procured ourselves 2 bikes to take on an adventure. The shed operator let us know of a few attractions nearby that we could cycle too and so we headed out to the first of them.

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The town of Nea Moudania was reminiscent of other rural coastal towns I’d been in before. Cafes lining the beach, odd shops dotted along behind them and from there a mix of residential and other commercial buildings. It did have a rather large harbor however and I’d hazard a guess that that’s where it derives the bulk of its income. At the top of one of its hills lies the church, a massive monument that towers over much of the region. We didn’t go inside, since they neglected to give us bike locks, but it was an impressive structure to see in such a small town. Satisfied we decided to head back down the other way.

It was a similar story as we made our way up north with cafes and residential buildings hugging the coast. We took a detour through the various apartment blocks to see if there was any shops we wanted to look in but it was mostly just small supermarkets. Again the poverty that Greece is struggling with was evident with numerous abandoned structures and others in varying states of disrepair. Still many of the cafes and bars along the coast seem to be doing an alright trade, surprising given their proximity to our resort.

The ride there and back had been relatively easy, thanks to the rather small changes in elevation, however the ride back up to the top of the resort quick took all our remaining energy away. The shop operator expressed his disbelief that we’d managed to make it to both of his suggestions in the time we’d be gone, saying it’d take him just as long to get to one. Turns out we hadn’t made it to his other suggestion: a small village that was a few more kilometers away from where we’d turned around. Ah well, we can always try again another time,

We then went down to the beach to cool off and try our hand at rock stacking again (it’s surprisingly relaxing). As the hours ticked away I mentioned that we should probably head back to get lunch but my wife suggested we just get something down there. Calling over one of the attendants we ordered ourselves a few drinks and some food. The drinks came quickly, necessitating that I get another beer (oh the horror), but the food took quite a while to make its way to us. Still its hard to complain when you’re lounging on a sun chair next to a lovely beach.

I then made my way back up to the room to spend an hour or two reading while my wife stayed at the beach. This proved to be something of a fools errand, the carbs and beer hitting me with a food coma of epic proportions. I think I managed a single chapter before my wife returned, my kindle lying in my lap when she knocked on the door. We then returned to the indoor pool and sauna area, spending an hour or so relaxing before we made our way to dinner.

We attempted to make reservations at one of the restaurants for dinner but they were all booked and so we headed back to the main buffet. The offerings there are always good, including their large wine list. They didn’t have the one I wanted but they had a similar region and style. Our waiter also got a little aggressive with serving it, telling me “You think I don’t see?”, pointing to the meager effort I had made in draining the bottle before pouring me a huge glass. I finished it of course, although that did make the walk home a lot harder than it needed to be.

On the way back my wife grabbed a DVD from their library to watch whilst I roamed around the resort, taking a few photos (one of which adorns this post). I was probably an hour or so late, the usual intense pink and orange hues dimmed significantly now that the sun had dropped below the horizon. I’ll likely try again tomorrow as the colors are quite spectacular and worthy of being captured.

I’ll hazard a guess tomorrow will bring more of the same, although I might avoid the bikes for a bit. Whilst it turns out that you never really forget how to ride it does seem your ass can forget and mine is none too happy about what I put it through.

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Day 29: How Time Flies.

Our suite might be in a prime position for uninterrupted ocean views, being in the closest building to the beach, but that does mean our trek up to the restaurants is something of an uphill battle. It was late in the morning as we made our way up to the breakfast buffet, a veritable feast of all kinds of foods and drinks. As we walked there was a constant din of children playing in the background; the reviews about this place being great for families seemingly taken to heart by many. After a leisurely breakfast we decided to make our way down to the beach to take in the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea.

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We pottered around in the water for a bit, just enjoying the cool it provided. Around us were numerous other people enjoying (or trying to) other activities like paddle boating, stand up boarding or wind surfing. Once we’d had our fill of splashing around we decided to get some snorkeling gear to have a look around under the surface, something that proved to be much harder than you think it would be. Suffice to say we’ve figured out that most of the staff only really know their area and if you need to find something out you’re better placed asking reception.

The next hour was spent swimming around and checking out the marine life that makes its home here. Whilst there were no massive coral reefs or anything within a reasonable swimming distance I was surprised at the amount of sea creatures we were able to find. Once it became apparent that our sun screen was beginning to wear off we headed back into shore. We then spent far too long collecting various rocks from the beach (it’s a mixture of sand and pebbles) and then making rock stacks out of them.

It was highly relaxing though.

It was at this point, after we’d rinsed off back home and had a chance to relax a little, we checked the time only to find out that we had mere minutes before all the restaurants wouldn’t be serving lunch anymore. So we quickly dashed off to the closest restaurant and, thankfully, managed to secure a table. It was another buffet although with more French style dishes rather than the Greek of the main restaurant we’d been visiting. Once we’d had our fill we walked back to our suite and whiled away a few more hours reading, drinking and napping.

Not wanting to miss out on the sauna/spa again we made for it at 6PM, hoping to get a couple of hours of relaxation in before our dinner reservation that night. The sauna was pretty much as you’d expect however the steam room was far cooler than the one we’d used back at the Polar Bear Club. I wasn’t complaining about this though as that one was almost torturous when compared to this. What really set this one apart though was this kind of shower tunnel that walked you through different kinds of rinses, each of them getting slightly colder as you went through. They also had one of those Swedish Dousing Buckets in a separate room, a truly invigorating experience. To cap it off we sat in these heated reclined chairs for a good 45 minutes, the oh-so-right temperature being a perfect way to relax sore back muscles.

Our dinner was at the Greek restaurant and consisted of local seafood, Greek cuisine and a lovely Spanish Merlot. The sun was still setting for the majority of our meal, providing us with a lovely backdrop to cap off the day. It was after this we retired for the night, full and wonderfully tired.

I’m sure tomorrow will be much the same.

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Day 28: Ciao Roma, Χαίρετε Greece.

Back when I planned this trip I tried to make all travel days as leisurely as possible. The reality of modern flight however doesn’t always accommodate that, especially if you only rely on Google maps to get your travel information. So today we were saddled with a not-too-early flight time of 10:50AM but, of course, actually catching that flight meant losing at least 3 hours before it. So it is how we found ourselves this day, the alarm blaring early in the morning, signalling it was time for us to depart what had been our favorite city so far and make for our second to final destination: Ikos Oceania in Nea Moudania, Greece.

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Unlike the last flight we caught this one was far less stressful with everything from the taxi to check-in to getting to the flight going along with relative ease. We did have an odd moment when we realized both our seats were the same and saw that we’d both been given boarding passes for my wife. That and the fact that luggage wasn’t included in our ticket cost, something which cost us a cool €80 to remedy. Still both flights went by smoothly with the notable exception of our landing in Athens which was a lot bumpier than the prevailing winds would have suggested.

After getting mixed reports about how much a taxi would set us back to the resort I decided to book a transfer using an online company that had good reviews. After we got out of the airport we were greeted by a smiling man holding an iPad up high with my name displayed on it. He took my wife’s bags, showed us to the car and even gave us bottled water before we started our journey over. On the way he gave us a brief overview of the area of Thessaloniki. It was interesting to hear the parallels between here and back home, both places sharing a vibrant coffee culture and a large student population. He also pointed out Mount Olympus which is across the narrow sea from us although it was cloaked in haze to be much more than an outline.

What struck me however was the visible signs of poverty that were apparent nearly everywhere. At least half of the buildings had visible signs of disrepair, both residential and commercial. I’d estimate a good 20% of them were straight out abandoned as well, many of them covered in graffiti. This is, of course, due to Greece’s economy being in a downward spiral ever since the Global Financial Crisis hit back in 2008, it’s large debt levels and lack of control over its monetary policy slashing its GDP by an astonishing 25% over the past 8 years. This has left around 30% of the population in poverty, the numbers looking far worse for the younger generations. I didn’t have the heart to ask our driver about how the greater economic situation in Greece was affecting things here; it seemed like a question that would only bring sadness to us both.

We arrived not too long afterwards at our resort and were immediately greeted by some incredibly chipper people who showed us inside. Whilst it might not have been on the level of Turtle Island (nothing can really beat walking off, or if you’re my wife carried off by the staff, a sea plane onto a private island) it was still an order of magnitude above what we’d experienced anywhere so far. Our room might not be extravagant but the views are unbeatable and the included mini bar is a very nice touch.

After we got settled in we both thought it would be good to grab something to eat, the airplane food not satisfying either of us. It was 6:30PM however, just when dinner service was starting. So we resolved ourselves to have our first dinner right then and a second one, ordered from the room service menu, later on in the evening. The first dinner was a lovely buffet that included both local and foreign cuisine, a wide selection of wines and, my wife’s favorite, a well stocked desert bar full of various cheeses. Once we were full and happy we took a tour of the facilities, impressed with the breadth and scale of the resort.

We then retired to our room for the remainder of the night, myself indulging in a nice Chilean red they brought to our room and my wife in a hot chocolate. It was a very nice way to end a day of travel.

What happens tomorrow will be anyone’s guess. There’s a lot to do here, far more than any resort I’ve ever been to, but we’re in no rush to do anything. One thing is certain however: we’ll be eating and drinking our way through everything that this place has to offer.

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Day 27: The Vatican.

I sat in our bed, tapping away at my phone. The night before we agreed to meet for breakfast or brunch somewhere before heading out to the Vatican, thinking it’d be easier than trying to meet up at our destination. We hadn’t, however, agreed on a place to meet and so we were shooting messages back and forth trying to figure out where to go. As it turned out our travelling companions were doing the same, yesterday’s exertion taking as much of a toll on them as it did us. We soon agreed on a place to go and a time to meet, giving us all enough time to get ready in a most leisurely fashion.

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Our breakfast place was a trendy little spot, hidden well away from the main thoroughfare of Rome. The breakfast was generous for the price even if the coffee was still not up to the standard that I’d expect back home. Once we were done we realized we still had a decent amount of time before we were scheduled to get into the Vatican so we started looking for other things to do to fill the time. As it turns out there’s a (relatively) small castle along the way and so we decided to walk over rather than catching a cab as we’d previously planned to.

If yesterday was hot today was a dry sauna, the sun unrelenting in its quest to cook the outer layers of our skin. This was only exacerbated by the lack of any kind of breeze, even when we were close to the canal or anywhere else you’d expect at least a mild wind to take the edge off. Within eye-shot of the Vatican we quickly ducked into a small restaurant for a quick drink and to cool off, burning a few more minutes before our arrival time at the Vatican. My wife and I both got what amounted to a mint slushie that was so powerful it felt like I had just brushed my teeth for hours afterwards.

We trudged over towards what I now know was Saint Peter’s Square and not the entrance to the Vatican itself. Musing over the various signs we eventually found one that pointed around the corner but were still not sure where we needed to go. This is when we made the mistake of asking one the “tour guides” to help us who then proceeded to sell us all sorts of stories about when and where we could get in. Initially he told us we couldn’t get in without a guide, then that we’d need to upgrade our tickets to get into the basilica and, once he was done trying to bamboozle us more finally settled on the low low price of €20 per person (he originally said €10) for a full tour. Of course this all turned out to be false, if you reserve tickets on the Vatican website you get everything you have to pay for and the basilica is free for all, but at least his directions to the entrance were good.

The museums of the Vatican are almost incomprehensible in their scale with works in them dating back over 2000 years. The arrays of sculptures and busts to the numerous works of the painter Michelangelo that adorn numerous rooms of the Vatican are just a small fraction of what their archives contain. It’s quite overwhelming to be honest, especially when you find yourself in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, but definitely worth investing some time to go through it all and appreciate the history that is here (even if you don’t agree with the church itself, like me).

After our walk through of the Vatican Museum was complete we headed out again to make our way into Saint Peter’s Basilica. Like the numerous churches we’ve visited on this trip its scale is incomprehensible at first, especially given the time at which it was built. This one however was adorned by numerous more lavish embellishments than I had seen in others, with the center altar a massive tower looming over all who came to peer at it. We saw numerous groups of nuns making the pilgramage as well as what I can assume were church groups all gathered in prayer. For me, as someone who appreciates the architecture of such places, it was still very much worth the visit although, once again, I’m sure much of the awe that others were seeing was lost on me.

It was at this point that my feet decided to remind me we’d been walking for almost 6 hours straight and it was time to find a place to sit down for a spell. We found a bustling place nearby to sit down for a light “first dinner” so I could rest up before we decided on what to do next. We eventually settled on heading over to the Pantheon which, whilst a little out of the way if we were going back home, wasn’t too far away from our current position. After trying several times to get (and pay) the bill, we got on our way, my feet finally feeling normal again.

The Pantheon was very similar to the one we’d visited in France although its history was vastly different. Originally a Pagan monument it was forcibly converted to Christianity some time after its initial construction. Construction which, interestingly, was done without the aid of scaffolding. This meant that the bricks were laid by skilled rock cilmbers, a dizzying prospect given just how high the roof was.

After wandering semi-aimlessly for an hour or so we decided to head back to a street we’d seen filled with restaurants that looked appealing. Settling on a place that had its wood fired oven prominently displayed at the front we were soon served by an incredibly enthusiastic waiter to whom English was likely a third language. Still we managed to order and my dish, beef stewed in a sauce called barolo, reminded me of the stews my dad makes back at home. It was a fitting last meal with our friends, all of us satisfied and happy at the end of a long day.

On the way home we bid our friends farewell, knowing that we’d be seeing them again back home in no short order. My wife and I took the long route home, taking in our last night in Rome and fondly remembering the events of the past couple days. It was at this point I wanted to get some little souvenirs to remember these days by, grabbing a few of the cheap plastic replicas of the monuments we had visited. Sure I could get better elsewhere, but it’s these kinds of heat of the moment things that make things like this worth more than their sticker value.

Tomorrow we begin the final stage of our trip and, hopefully, the pinnacle of it: 6 nights at an all inclusive resort in Greece. This is what was missing from our last holiday some 6 years ago, a final week where our time is our own and all our wants are taken care of. It is my hope that this will give us the rest we need to come back to our normal lives rejuvenated rather than exhausted, the fresh perspective we’ve gained on this trip cemented by a week of not having to think.

Indeed last night I mentioned to my wife about how I’d realized I’d forgotten the “normal” feeling that I had at the start of this trip. It’s hard to explain (although I’m sure German or some other language has a word for it) but it’s the notion of what the routine at home is meant to feel like. When we returned from the USA I had this feeling that everything had returned to was foreign, like a vague memory of a life that someone else had led. I’m getting the same feelings now, the idea of what’s normal back home feeling like another life that I led even though I’ve barely been gone a month. It was disconcerting last time however now it’s enjoyable as it means I will have a new perspective when I finally return home and, if I’m lucky, a new appreciation for all that I have.