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Travel Lifestyle

The Hidden Pilgrimage

Travel is an interesting creature. It is always changing. There are always surprises around every corner. Travel can humble even the hardest of hearts and uplift the lowest of spirits. Sometimes when we travel, we don’t always know why a particular adventure has drawn us to it. In fact, it can sometimes seem like we discover the reason why we are on a trip while it unfolds. I happened to find myself in just this situation while taking a classic Mediterranean cruise. Little did I know, I had just stumbled on a hidden pilgrimage.

orange and gray tunnel painting
Photo by tyler hendy on Pexels.com

Istanbul To Athens

My mother and I were off on a great, relaxing cruise that would highlight the Eastern Mediterranean. We were excited about the itinerary that would take us to quite a few ancient sites. We arrived in Istanbul and would make our way through Turkey and Greece aboard a Regent Cruise ship. It was all very fancy and growing up with Greek connections made it that much more exciting. With ports like Philippi and Ephesus, there was no doubt that I would be calling on my Catholic roots to help me make sense of it all. For the record, I consider myself a cultural Catholic. I don’t always go to church but I’m very tuned in to the culture and traditions of my faith. In other words, I’m not a nun but can hang with the sisters.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

The Saints

In the Mediterranean, St. Paul seems to pop up everywhere. As one of the most travelled apostles, it’s no surprise. He spent a tremendous amount of time spreading the word of Jesus all along the coast line. Paul, Peter, and James all move around the Med and leave their mark in plenty of locales. I had heard these stories my whole life but, as a traveler, there is no substitution for actually putting your feet in the same spot that biblical history occurred. In fact, each port of call seemed to bring more and more connection to the very core of my faith. Let me share some of them.

Ephesus and Mary

Our tour bus wound around and snaked up the side of the mountain that towered over the ancient ruins of Ephesus in the Summer heat. We were headed for the top where the House of The Blessed Mother sits. I was not looking forward to being an inch closer to the sun but, Mary holds a special place for me. We walked a few yards from the bus into a grove of trees and the temperature in the shade was welcome.

There, in front of us, was Mary’s modest home where she lived after Jesus ascended. Here, in the care of John as Jesus had asked, she lived out her years. It was a magical place and it seemed as if a peace like no other fell over the small grove on the top of the mountain. Just then, a little kitty came to greet us as if to say, “yes, you understand, this is a little paradise!”

Down in the valley, the ruins of the ancient city stand tall and proud as it to say, “see how well we did?” The library of Celsius was a masterpiece and we meander our way toward the amphitheater. Here, Paul was supposed to speak to the locals about all he had learned from Jesus. But the vendors who sold little statues of Artemis, did not want to lose any business. They put up quite the fuss about this so called speaker of the word and Paul changed tactics and wrote a letter instead. That letter. A letter from Paul to the Ephesians. As I stood in the place that this letter was read to eventual boos from the crowd, I couldn’t help being overwhelmed.

Phillipi and St. Lydia

The port of Kevala in Northern Greece is the jumping off point for Philippi- as in, “a letter from Paul to the Philippians”. Here, one of the most important moments of Christianity that you never heard of occurred. Paul, moving north from Turkey, met a woman named Lydia. She was a well to do merchant who sold purple material. Paul told her about his time with Jesus and Lydia became quite the believer. Here, in a cool stream by her house, Lydia became the first European to be baptized.

As we pulled up to the tiny but stunning baptistry that sits adjacent to the very stream that Paul and Lydia shared that sacrament, we again felt that feeling of peace and contentment. In the 106 degree heat, we pulled off our shoes and sat on the banks. Our feet in the cool stream, was sat remembering the quiet moment when Paul helped Lydia find her Christianity. Magical.

Acropolis and St. Paul

Our last port was Piraeus. Homebase for anyone wanting to explore Athens. And at the top of the list for most is the Acropolis. The hill that holds the proud Parthenon is a mecca for so many. However, in addition to climbing up to the top, there is another stop for pilgrims: a rock. This three story rock was where the judges of ancient Athenian culture passed down rulings. It was here that Paul faced his critics and defended the resurrection of Christ.

We arrived early the day after we disembarked to get a head start on the heat and crowds. After enjoying the splendor of the Parthenon and the Carytids of ancient times, we made our way downstream against the morning rush and climbed the metal staircase that led to the top of the Areopagus. Here, Paul made it clear that he was on Team Jesus. He spoke eloquently to the judges who didn’t quite buy the whole thing but at least didn’t order his death! Not much is on the top of the rock but a sign to tell you a quick history and the feeling that you are stepping onto literal history. Just wow!

Lesson Learned

Our cruise was over and I walked away with an amazing experience that history found in books is all around us in real life when you are willing to look. While my path had me stepping into the stories of Christianity, there are plenty of moments regardless of the faith or interest you may have. More importantly, a traveler’s first experience with these kinds of magical moments allows future travel to have those magical memories too! As I continued to travel after this cruise, I found myself adding experiences to my pilgrimage. I’ve included some of them here.

The Vatican and St. Peter

By far, one of the most iconic pilgrimages for anyone in the Christian world is the Vatican. As Paul traveled, Peter on the other hand, went to Rome to face the Emperor and all of his might. He, along with others, was eventually crucified on Vatican Hill. Years later, Constantine legalized Christianity and Vatican Hill became the epicenter of the Catholic world. While the cathedral is amazing and the museums are world class, it is the religious significance of the Vatican that gives you the goosebumps.

Jesus said to Peter ” You are Peter, you are my rock and upon this rock I will build my church”. So powerful. It only holds true that underneath those words in latin painted by the incomparable Michelangelo, lies the bones of the very St. Peter Jesus spoke to. You can visit his crypt beneath the church by arranging to be part of a tour of just a dozen people per visit. By planning and booking months in advance through the Office of the Scavi, you can have that incredible moment to see Peter, the Rock. After, climb the dome to see those letters from the great artistic master up close for the full experience.

Auschwitz and St. Maximillian Kolbe

In another corner of Europe is a fascinating story of courage and sacrifice. While the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, is most notorious for the final solution: the rounding up and killing of anyone who wasn’t Hitler’s ideal. While the Jewish population was the primary population that was targeted, quite a few other groups found themselves as part of the Auschwitz population. Among them was Father Max.

The humble priest wore the same rags as the others, and witnessed all of the horrors of the camp. His story is singled out because he begged to change places with a man who had a wife and children. The man was set to be starved to death in basement of cell block 11. He died from this sacrifice and the man, years later, attended his canonization at the Vatican. a miracle indeed.

The cell is still there and many who pay their respects at Auschwitz stumble upon his story rather than go to just see the shrine in the basement. A true hidden pilgrimage!

Look For The Moments That Speak To You.

Travel is such a fickle thing. One moment it tires you and yet another exhilarates you beyond your expectations. Travel excites, informs and brings peace. I am thankful for it everyday: even when I have no idea that I’m experiencing something life changing. It happens to us all the time. Don’t believe me? Check out the amazing David Suchet (most famous for his portrayal of Christie’s Poirot) on his journey to unexpected pilgrimage.

Pilgrimages can happen to anyone. It may seem like they only stand out to a select few but, with an open mindset, every corner of the world offers a pilgrimage of sorts. Regardless of your faith (or for that matter non-faith) a spiritual adventure could be the next amazing experience in your passport!

Travel Dreaming

Athens, A First Visit To An Icon

In ancient times, the goddess Athena looked after Athens as the patroness of the city. The small but mighty city crowned with the Acropolis has been the longest continuously inhabited capitol in Europe. It has seen its glory ebb and flow over not just centuries but millennia. So, what is it about this vacation magnet that keeps travelers coming back over and over again? What makes travel to Athens so appealing?

Greek church domes in blue.
Beautiful blue domes dot a mid century modern cityscape.

First Impressions

At first glance, Athens is not the prettiest city you’ve ever seen. With about half of Greece’s population residing in and around Athens, the overall urban sprawl of the place is staggering. Driving through the streets, I find myself asking why Athenians don’t see the overall decline of the area around them. Then, I realize, they are too busy living life. For Athens can be only defined by its people and they are- what’s the word I’m looking for? Kallos.

Greek Evzones, soldiers who ceremonially guard the tomb.
Iconic Evzones change the guard at Hellenic Republic’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Go on Sunday morning for the full ceremonial change.

Plan Strategically

Athens is big. So big, in fact, it’s hard to envision covering it all in one trip. Most visitors (Xenos) focus on the area in and around the Plaka or old town. Making your home base in this area makes the most geographical sense as it makes probably 80% of your itinerary walkable. While some may say that this is the most “touristy” area of the city, there are plenty of options for everyone’s taste. If you do choose another neighborhood, be sure that you have transportation options easily available.

A Greek orthodox church in the plaka.
One of the Plaka’s charming Orthodox churches.

Eat Absolutely Everything

If there is one thing that makes me look forward to Athens it’s knowing a fresh cucumber and tomato salad waiting for me. Let me be clear: my first meal in Greece will always be a salad with a fresh tomato that tastes like a tomato! In fact, the last time I was in Athens, I was reading an article at breakfast that was about GMO free regions within the EU. And who is on that list? Greece! No wonder the food still tastes like food! Just like any other country, there are familiar dishes like gyros and souvlaki as well as dishes you may not have heard of like keftedes and pilafi. Hear me now! Eat it all!!!!!

Food in the Plaka
A table full of meze.
Hermion in the Plaka
My mom at Hermion with our lifelong friend Costa.
Food in the Plaka
Summertime means zucchini!

I’d love to give you a perfectly vetted list of authentic restaurants but, in all honesty, I’ve never had a bad meal in The Plaka. Instead, try Hermion for a quiet meal and Kazakos Pantelis for the rooftop view that tucks you right in under the Acropolis.

RoofTop 360 Restaurant
RoofTop 360 with our good friend Stavros, the proprietor and lead jeweler at Dimos.
The Plaka Steps
The iconic Plaka steps that are full of amazing views and restaurants.

The Central Market

Getting your head around the food choices in Athens can be a bit overwhelming. There are distinct differences between the touristy menu and the typical Greek menu especially in the Plaka. A great way to learn more about Greek food is to visit the central market. With two distinct parts devoted to meat and seafood on one side and fresh produce on the other, you can get a true sense of what makes Greek cuisine so yummy. Getting there first thing in the morning gives you a sense of the energy that it takes to get Greece’s menus out to her customers every day.

Central market
Open arms from a local fish monger.
Central market
Olive-palooza!
Central market
All smiles at the butcher’s stall.

The Plaka’s Treasure

Browsing through the Plaka’s generous supply of stores will keep you busy for days. There are plenty of amazing shops to check out. While touristy t-shirt shops will always be a staple, there are plenty of gems to be found. Some of the legacies that you will find deep in the Plaka include Jewelry Stores that specialize in Byzantine styles. I highly recommend Dimos Jewelry You will find owner, Stavros, making great quality pieces that truly reflect that Byzantine style that made the Plaka’s first jewelers so famous. Another incredible jeweler named Tom (Thassos in Greek) can be found at Old Orient Jewelry. While the name is a bit deceiving, make no mistake, its history is well founded in the treasures you find down at the National Archaeological Museum.

Tom and my mom talk jewelry
Tom and my mom talk jewelry and catch up on their 35 year friendship.
Plaka jewelry
One of Tom’s new masterpieces.
A Greek Orthodox priest peers in to Dimos while my mom checks out Stavros’ new creations.

I’m Worried Someone’s Watching Me

It’s not your imagination! You are being watched by thousands upon thousands of evil eyes. Don’t let the name fool you, evil eyes are an old superstition meant to keep evil away. You’ll find them on absolutely everything from soap to pillows. Join in the fun, everyone buys them and has them in their house. I always look for the most creative ones to enjoy. If you are still worried, check out the beads that are strung to look like over sized bracelets. These worry beads are another Greek staple that’s well worth the enjoyment.

Evil Eyes
Pillows with the Evil Eye motif in a store on Adrianou Street.
Evil Eyes
Helen’s store is full of Evil Eye jewelry to ward off any evil spirits.
Adrianou Street
Adrianou Street holds store after store of Greek souvenirs.

The best place to get your evil eye swag is at Helen’s which is just in front of Hermion. Check out this old school shop for all kinds of fun stuff to bring home and share. I’ve gone year after year and always have a great time visiting the owner. For more modern inceptions of the evil eye, check out the shops along Adrianou Street.

Plaka shopping
Our great friend Helen in her flagship store.

The Acropolis

While not the crowning achievement of the Ancient Greeks, the Acropolis is certainly the most famous of all the marble piles. Tackling a visit to the City on the Hill can be quite daunting without a little preparation. There are three distinct places to visit to take in the whole story: The Acropolis, The Agora, and The New Museum.

Parthenon
In front of the Parthenon (that’s the building) at the Acropolis (that’s the hill top complex) as it continues its never ending restoration.

Honestly, I don’t think that there is any right way or correct order in which to visit the sites. The museum does a great job telling the age old story. Then again, the Agora does a fabulous job of explaining ancient daily life. Of course, the climb is so iconic that you may not want to wait. See what I mean?

Know the Controversy

If there was one thing to make sure you know before going to Acropolis, it would be the story of the Parthenon Marbles. Known also as the Elgin Marbles, this group of friezes from the Acropolis. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Way back in 1801, Lord Elgin asked the ruling Ottoman government if he could have his pick of the ruins on top of the Acropolis. The government said okay and he took what he wanted including 75 meters of the frieze. That seemed to be the end of it. Fast forward to post WWII Greece.

The Acropolis Museum
Sitting on the overlay at the entrance of the museum where ancient ruins continue to be discovered.
Acropolis Museum
An active archaeological site, the museum continues to learn about the daily lives of ancient ancestors.

The modern and current government feels that the marbles were taken under incorrect circumstances and would like them returned. England is not a fan of this idea since the marbles take center stage in London. There are many twists and turns in this story and it is well worth researching. It will also explain the empty floor at the Acropolis Museum.

Night time with the Acropolis
Night time falls over the Plaka and the Acropolis.

Make The Climb

It’s hot and dry in Athens during the Summer but don’t let that deter you from planting your feet high above the modern skyline. Here, at the top of one of the seven hills (just like Rome) that surround Athens. Stop. Take it all in. Take in this crowning glory of ancient times. Walk around the Parthenon and examine the massive columns. Envision that great goddess Athena in all her glory filling the space inside. Study the intricate copies of the Caryatids that have held up the porch of the Erechtheion opposite the temple. Check in with the restoration projects to see how they are holding back the erosion of time. It’s an overwhelming moment for any traveler.

Acropolis gate
Climbing up through the gates of the Acropolis.

Last, walk out to the Greek flag. Here, learn the story of Konstantinos Koukidis and why he is so important to modern Greece. Be sure to also view the amphitheater and the main gate to get a full feel of what this hilltop must have been like in its prime. I would say that climbing to the top is a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s the Summer heat that will do you in more than the hike.

Caryatids
The graceful Caryatids. and yes, even with all of the visitors, you can still get moments to take amazing pictures.

On your way down, be sure to seek out a moment to climb the stairs to the rock where St. Paul talked to the Athenians. As in “a letter from St. Paul to the Athenians”. Yes, those passages in the Bible happen right at the foot of Athena’s home turf. Whether you are interested in religion or not, the stop is an interesting one to pause and think of time in terms centuries and millenia. It’s just astounding.

St. Paul's site
Standing in the Saint’s footsteps…I am humbled.

Get Out Of Town!

Athens is full of amazing sites and treasures. Just ride the subway to see that even when you are getting from point A to point B, you will run in to museum quality antiquities. Between the Evzones and stunning churches, and even a hilltop observatory, Athens has plenty to keep any traveler busy. I know it’s tempting to check as many museums as possible off your list and if that’s your thing, check away! But, if you are like most, you are probably wanting to balance ancient ruins with bougainvillea covered tavernas that overlook dreamy sea views.

Plaka shopping.
My mom and I shop in an olive wood store in the Plaka. Check out the clear floor which enables you to see ancient ruins.

If that’s your idea of fun, head south to catch the ferry to Hydra. This little, traffic free island has all the charm you can take. Enjoy the people watching and browse the little shops. Greece will not leave you wanting in the souvenir department. Most of all, pull up a chair. Order a drink and something delicious. Relax. Enjoy. You’re in Greece!

Donkeys on Hydra
Rush hour on Hydra.

Another amazing side trip is to set your sights north toward a town called Meteora. World renown for it’s monasteries that are sky high, this little corner of the world is quite magical. Tour one of the monasteries and then enjoy the little downtown tavernas in the evening. This is a side of Greece that rarely get seen by the first time visitor.

offering candles
Offer up a candle anywhere in Greece.

If you plan to include the Greek Islands in your travels, check out our amazing post about seeing them here!

Where We Went: Travel To Athens

Greek interactive map
Travel Think Tank

Lost Treasure, Notre Dame: One Year Later

A cross shines through the cinders at Notre Dame
The wooden ceiling in ashes on the floor of Notre Dame

On the one year anniversary of the fire at Notre Dame, here are a few of my thoughts from those trying days….

Thinking Back…

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the last 48 hours. How tragic they have been! Our Lady or Notre Dame has been watching the world change since 1163. It has been witness to celebration and tragedy in equal measure. It has seen war and revolution, religious demand and secularism. As the news unfolded, I think we all slowly realized that this was going to be more than just an isolated fire. The true scope of the fire was evident as the beloved spire of 1852 toppled into the flames. Questions of protecting priceless papers, relics and art were now on everyone’s mind. So, how did the world react?

Well, quite decently it seems. Experts along with world leaders each came forward with condolences and messages of hope for Notre Dame’s future. As president Duda spoke to the mourning public and particularly Parisians, the embers were still glowing as money and donations started to come in. Fellow French billionaires came together and have already donated €700 million. Further, the public has the opportunity to donate to rebuild. While money, especially in this day and age is needed, what about the artisans who will be invaluable to a project that can perhaps take 20 years or more?

Time will tell

You may think that 20 years is a long time but considering that Notre Dame took 200 years to put together the first time around, 20 years seems more like a drop in the bucket. Some have come forward with donations of a different kind. Orchestra superstar, Andre Rieu, has pledged the scaffolding from one of his previous concerts to get things going. It may seem like nothing but check out the 700 tons he is offering.

Further, the Polish prime minister has stated that his country is ready to help. That might seem odd at first glance but if you think about it, who else in Europe knows how to rise from the ashes better than the poles? Not very many. And if structures like the UNESCO world heritage site, The Church of Peace, is any example, the Polish might be just the partner the French will need. Check out the story here. So impressive!

Rebuilding Notre Dame…

As the early plans for rebuilding start taking shape, others came forward with words to put balm on the fresh wounds. From the travel world, Rick Steves surfaced on CNN from Rome and did an eloquent job of framing Notre Dame’s place in European History. While His Eminance, Timothy Cardinal Dolan represented the Church with grace. Click on the pictures to hear their hopeful words.

Rick Steves' thoughts about Notre Dame

Cardinal Dolan's thoughts about Notre Dame

Probably the most inspirational story to come out of the whole tragedy is that of Father Jean-Marc Fournier. This fire brigade chaplain led the rescue of relics and artwork inside the sanctuary. He, along with others, created a human chain to save as much as they could. This came after news that, just 5 days ago, all of the statues on the central spire had been removed for restoration.

The Fire Department chaplain

The Future…

However, the future of Notre Dame plays out in the upcoming months and years, one thing is for sure. While it’s timbers may be reduced to ashes, the love for this icon of history and culture will get it through this next chapter. In fact, when you think of the so many other icons of the past like The Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the great colossus of Rome that didn’t make it through the march of time and history, Notre Dame may just wind up becoming quite the Phoenix. So, let’s plan on meeting up in central Paris in a couple of years. I’ll be there and so will Our Lady, you can count on that. Resurget ex favilla et phoenix!

Envisioning Notre Dame

For more travel inspiration in France, check out the Parisian neighbor, Normandy. Looking for great resources for your kids? Check out our great list of books for young travelers! As always, you can continue your global journey on our home page by clicking here!