I step off the bus, and Athens immediately hits me in the face.
The noise of traffic, made of roaring car engines and stabbing horns, is a physical sensation I can feel all the way from my knees to my throat.
Tourists in Monastiraki Square
Everybody on the street is shouting, because that’s the only way to make yourself heard. A kiosk selling gyros, a Greek fast food that’s easily confused with a kebab, wafts delicious, greasy aromas in my directions, making me hungry and queasy at the same time.
A few feet away, fake handbags are laid out on rows of white blanket, and their owners nervously look up and down the street, ready to flee if a policeman’s uniform comes into view. Everyone’s in a rush, and for half a minute I’m swept along by the crowd, before being spat out into a shop doorway.
It’s bewildering and chaotic – and utterly unlike the Athens I was expecting. Pick up a standard textbook of Classical history and turn to Greece (“birthplace of democracy”), and it’s all soaring columns, gentlemen in pristine togas, and peaceful ruins set in perfect isolation against a cloudless summer sky.
Yes, I knew I wasn’t going to get that version of one of the most famous cities in the world, but the reality floored me. Athens is a thoroughly modern city, a London of the Eastern Mediterranean, with a major noise pollution problem. It’s a city planner’s nightmare, it often looks in need of a good clean
And I loved every minute of it.
A couple of years after this trip, I got chatting to a well-travelled friend. We saw eye to eye on most things, so I mentioned my love of Athens, presuming he’d share it.
The ancient theatre under the Acropolis in Athens
“Oh, that place? Never again. It was AWFUL.”
The aspects of Greece’s capital city that I found excitingly challenging – the West meets East feel, the ceaseless assault on the senses, the chaotic sprawl of makeshift shops and streets around the central market – were exactly the things that turned my friend off.
So, who’s right here? Whose opinion would you trust enough to base your own travels upon?
Back to Greece. A few days out from Athens, my ferry docks at Heraklion, the largest city on the Greek island of Crete, and I stagger down the gangplank. Through general British cluelessness when it comes to protecting my skin from the sun, I’m spectacularly burned, my face like a shiny, overripe tomato, and the rest of me already starting to blister.
My hotel was a couple of kilometers away. But I was an adventurer, ready for my next challenge. No sweat. It wasn’t far! I could walk it.
I waved away the single taxi in sight, hauled my rucksack onto my back – and almost passed out as a couple of feet of blistered skin parted ways from the rest of my shoulders.
Koules fortress in Heraklion, Greece
I could talk about the following two days in lurid detail – the two agonizing hours it took me to get to that hotel, the indescribable misery when I first stepped into the shower, the 24-hour fever I fell into, staying in my room the whole time, drinking gallons of water and drifting in and out of consciousness – and the sheer relief when my temperature finally dropped and I knew I was going to be ok.
If you’d asked me that day what Heraklion was like, my language would have been as colourful as my shoulders.
But a week later, I passed through Heraklion again, on my way out of Crete. It was a lovely sunny morning, so I wandered through its streets, seeing the sights and enjoying the shade and my dripping ice cream, but realising I didn’t have anywhere near enough time to explore properly.
On a fine day with nothing else going on in your life, Heraklion has a lot to offer you.
In this respect, it’s exactly and precisely the same as anywhere else in the world.
When you’re preparing for a trip, have you ever looked at online reviews of your destination? There’s a good chance you have, because the internet is powered by them.
Take the 1.5 billion dollar industry built around TripAdvisor, used by hundreds of millions of people every year. Technically it’s a booking engine for trips, but everyone knows it for the reviews.
Santorini in Greece
How would I review my experience of Heraklion based on these two very different days?
Maybe I’d pick an average between these two extremes, from “I KNEW I should have stayed in England and spent that money on a new laptop, this is the WORST experience of my LIFE” all the way to “seems a nice place! I only had a few hours. There’s a great ice cream shop near the fort though.”
I wouldn’t be winning any travel writing awards for this approach – and I’m not actually saying anything useful about the place at all, because I’m reviewing it, not exploring it.
Fact is, you can’t really review anywhere. There is always something more to learn about a place, always a new facet to life there that’s denied to you one day and unfolding before your eyes the next.
You could spend your life anywhere in the world and still find something to surprise you – which is the essence of seeing through a professional traveler’s eyes, someone who refuses to stick easy labels on anything – including any involving one to five stars.
The best you can do is review your experience of it, which is a different thing entirely. That’s your story. Stories are why we travel, because we’re inspired by other people’s, and because we’re hunting for our own.
But nobody – not TripAdvisor, not a travel guide, not the news media, not your best friend – can tell you the story you’re going to have out there.
The Parthenon in Athens
Would you love modern Athens or hate it? Or anywhere else in the world? There really is no way of finding out except getting in a car, or a plane, or a bus, or a late-night ferry where all the seats up on deck are cold bare metal and when you lean against them your sunburnt back SHRIEKS in agony….
Then you’ll arrive – and you’ll know for sure. And I guarantee it’ll be a great story.