Monday, December 10, 2012

Trip to Greece

Hey everyone!  We hope everyone had a great weekend.  We sure did!  We found out a couple of weeks ago that we were going to have this past weekend completely off since we had a little break in our game schedule.  Once we got that information, Jen and I immediately started searching for places that we could travel to for 3 days.  Europe has several very cheap airlines so we narrowed down our options based on which airline had cheap flights on the days we were free.  After lots of research, we decided to go to Thessaloniki, Greece.  One of the main reasons that we chose to go here was because we wanted to walk in the footsteps of St. Paul.  He preached in Thessaloniki, and also in Philippi (a nearby city).  Not to mention, there are 3 books of the Bible addressed to the citizens of those two cities.  We thought it would be fascinating to get to see these places firsthand.  

Neither of us had ever been to Greece before so this was an exciting trip.  Early Friday morning, we got picked up in Arad and drove to Budapest, Hungary to catch our flight.  Everything went very smoothly, and before we knew it, we were in Thessaloniki.  We took a bus into the center of the city and then went about finding our hostel.  We met some very nice people along the way who helped to point us in the right direction.  Once we checked in and dropped off our stuff, we headed back out to explore and find some food.  

We walked through some narrow little streets and eventually made it down to the water.  Thessaloniki is built right along the Thermaic gulf, and there is a nice walking/biking path that goes right along the water.  We made it there in time to see the sun setting, and it was gorgeous.  The only bad part about this day was that we were quite unprepared for how cold it was.  Jen, in particular, was pretty miserable.  The breeze coming off the water was pretty chilly so we picked up our pace a little.  Once we decided that we had had about as much cold as we could take, we headed to find a warm restaurant to have some dinner.  We found a cute little pizza place which turned out to be delicious!  After dinner, we speed walked back to our hostel to try to warm up and get a good night's sleep.

We woke up early the next morning to go to Mass because it was a holy day of obligation (the Immaculate Conception).  Fittingly, the closest Catholic church to our hostel was the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception :-)  When we arrived at the church, the doors were locked.  There was a woman and her two children outside so we decided to ask them if they knew what was going on.  The woman spoke very good English and told us later that evening, the bishop was going to be celebrating Mass, and most people were probably going to attend that Mass.  She told us to go and ask the priest to come and say Mass for us.  About ten minutes later, the priest came down and unlocked the basement chapel for Mass.  It was really amazing to hear Mass in Greek.  It was interesting to hear some Greek words that we were already familiar with.  After Mass, we were talking to the woman again, and we found out that she was from Slovakia.  We love Slovaks :-)  She gave us a little information about the city but told us that we should talk to the priest because he probably knew more.  We ended up talking to him for about fifteen minutes, and he gave us a lot of information about Thessaloniki and also about Philippi, another city that we were planning on going to see.  

Next up, we headed to the main bus station to buy our tickets to Kavala (and eventually to Philippi).  This is where things got a bit interesting.  The bus tickets were a little more expensive than we had expected which was not a problem in itself.  The problem was that they did not accept credit cards.  As we were planning this trip, we paid for most of the big expenses before we even left (bus, plane, hostel).  We brought about 60 Euros, 50 US dollars, and a credit card.  We figured that we would really only use the cash for food.  Well, it turns out that almost no restaurants accept credit cards in Thessaloniki.  Plus, since it was a holiday, no exchange places were open.  We were momentarily bummed, thinking that we weren't going to be able to go to Philippi, but then, we came up with a plan.  The previous day, we had bought some groceries at Carrefour, a grocery store.  My credit card had worked fine there.  So, we decided to go back there and find someone who would allow us to buy their groceries with the credit card in exchange for cash.  We got turned down a couple of times and were pretty close to giving up when another woman walked in the store.  For some reason, I just had a good feeling about her :-)  I explained the situation, and she said she would be happy to help us.  I told her to take her time shopping, and we would be waiting near the front of the store.  We were probably looking pretty sketchy since we kept approaching random people, and we weren't doing any shopping...we could see the security guards keeping a close eye on us.  At one point, Jen approached someone who worked at the store to explain our situation just so that they knew we weren't trying to steal something :-)  Finally, the woman finished shopping.  We checked out without any problems.  The woman paid us in Euros, and then we helped her carry her groceries to her apartment.  All in all, our plan worked out great :-)

Now that we had money, we headed back to the bus station to buy our tickets to go to Philippi.  The bus ride was about two hours long, but the drive was beautiful.  Greece is a really pretty country.  We took the opportunity to read Paul's letters to the Thessalonians and to the Philippians.  It is so incredible to see the historical roots of our faith!  When we arrived in Kavala, we changed buses to go to Philippi.  We asked some people on the bus to help us figure out which stop to get off at so that we could see the ancient part of the city.  They did exactly what we asked - it just turns out that where we got dropped off was pretty much in the middle of nowhere...and it was raining :-)  All throughout the planning process, we figured that there would be people around to answer questions and things like that.  We were wrong.  There was literally not a person in sight.  So, we began exploring by ourselves.  Luckily, we had done some research before we left so we had a general idea of what to expect and what to look for. It was very interesting.  We spent about 4 hours exploring, and then we waited to catch the bus back to Kavala and then ultimately back to Thessaloniki.

When we arrived back in Thessaloniki, we had no Euros and a credit card that was virtually useless, but we were hungry!  We tried to go back to Carrefour, but it was closed.  We asked a couple of people if they would trade us Euros for US dollars (since they could exchange it back on a different day when the exchange places were open)...that plan didn't work.  After walking around to different restaurants for an hour and finding out that none of them would take credit cards, we decided to go back to the same pizza place that we had eaten at the night before.  The owner of the restaurant had seemed very friendly so we thought it was worth a chance.  We explained our situation and asked if we could pay in US dollars...and he said yes!  We ordered one pizza for dinner and another pizza to go so that we would have something to eat for lunch the next day.  We were so thankful!

The next morning, we went back to Mass at the Cathedral.  Mass was beautiful, as always.  Afterwards, we were walking around just looking at the church, and an old, retired priest approached Jen and asked her where she was from.  When she explained that we were Americans just visiting for a few days, he told us to follow him.  He took us to the parish hall where they were having tea, coffee, and Greek breakfast pastries.  It was great.  People were very friendly to us, and we enjoyed getting to meet some of the locals.  

After this, we went back to our hostel to pack up our stuff and check out.  We still had a couple of hours left before we had to go to the airport, so we made one last swing around the city to see a few of the things that we hadn't seen yet.  Before we knew it, it was time to go.  Without any problems, we made it to the airport and headed back to Budapest.

We arrived in Budapest around 5:15, but due to some rather interesting events (our driver was late to pick us up, we waited in a parking lot for about 3 hours, the roads were covered in snow, etc.), we didn't make it back to Arad until about 1:15 am.

We had a great trip!  We are so thankful that we had these days off, and it was amazing to get to do something so fun with the time!  

Ryanair is a cheap European airline.  In order to offer such cheap fares, they have a lot of very strict rules, and you can pretty much be sure that you will be somewhat isolated from the main airport.  Here we are walking to our gate...a little tent outside :-)

Our hostel

Being the super cheap travelers that we are, we were prepared with sandwiches :-)

After changing our clothes, we headed back out to see the city.

We walked past the Catholic church on our way just to make sure that we would be able to find it the next morning.

Cute little restaurant - we went to Cinque Terre, Italy a few months ago...gorgeous place

Pedestrian street lined with restaurants

In front of the Thermaic Gulf

She looks like she is enjoying the weather, but it was actually freezing :-)

Walking along the water

They had lots of activities going on while we were there - a carnival, a Christmas market with an ice skating rink, etc.

Jen in front of the White Tower

The White Tower is sort of the symbol of Thessaloniki

The pizza was great!

In the basement chapel where we went to Mass on Saturday

Going to catch the bus to the main bus station

Making our way to Carrefour after finding out that we didn't have enough money to pay for our bus tickets :)

The Church of Agia Sofia - It was built in the 7th century, and it is a scale model of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Waiting in Carrefour - looking sketchy

These little "chapels" were all over the city

About to get on the bus to go to Kavala

View from the bus

Jen looking a bit worried after our bus just dropped us off in Philippi - it was rainy and there were no people around

The city is almost entirely ruins so you have to use your imagination quite a bit

The pillars in the distance used to be a basilica

In Acts 16, we read about St. Lydia, a woman in Philippi who heard St. Paul preach and wanted to be baptized.  She was the first Christian woman in Europe.  

Another chapel

The place where St. Lydia was baptized by St. Paul.  Acts 16:14-15 says, "And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple in the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened.  And the Lord opened her heart to be receptive to what Paul was saying.  And when she had been baptized, with her household, she pleaded with us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, enter into my house and lodge there." And she convinced us."

This church that was built on the site of St. Lydia's baptism

Waiting for our bus...freezing!

Back to the same pizza place because he was willing to let us pay in US dollars...and because it was delicious :-)

After Mass on Sunday

I took this picture for my Dad...I thought he might appreciate it :-)

Jen wanted this picture taken for my Dad, too.  She said, "Get ready to eat a lot of kebabs!" :-)

The Church of Saint Demetrious, the patron saint of Thessaloniki

Relics of St. Demetrious

Inside the church.  The church was originally built in 313 but was destroyed several times by fires.  It was also converted into a mosque at one point when the Ottomans took over the city.

In front of the Roman Forum of Thessaloniki

Aristotelous Square

Waiting for the bus back to the airport