One of our reasons for visiting Athens was because, for the longest time I have wanted to see the famous Acropolis and Parthenon and so catching glimpses of it on our arrival in the city had been really exciting.
Our first full day coincided with winter solstice, the longest night, and the day that the seasons turn to take us back to summer. At home in the UK this is a big day for me/my family, we celebrate solstice with time out in nature and usually a get together with friends where we eat nice food, do some arts and crafts and burn a yule log. I had been a little worried that being away from those friends on this day would be tough.
We had explored the area around our apartment a little, seen some Christmas displays and done some shopping to stock the kitchen etc for our stay when we decided we'd take the advice of our host and take a walk to a place called Lycabettus Hill. He'd told us that you would find the best views of the city from up there and that if we aimed for sunset it would be even more worth the hike. Even better he said, it's free to visit.
Lycabettus Hill is a popular tourist spot as well as being somewhere Athenians go to hang out with friends and drink a few cans of their favourite tipple. It is said that is was created when the goddess Athena accidentally dropped a huge rock in the middle of the city and has been home to many myths and stories over the years. The name means "path of wolves" and it is said that wolf packs once roamed the forests around the bottom of the hill.
The hill itself was only a 15 minute walk from where we were staying so off we set. Many people advise tourists to get a taxi most of the way up and then climb the steps at the end, but we like to explore and are not scared of a little walking so set off on foot.
There are many trails up the side of the hill, some paved and easily passable and some taking you through pretty woodland areas, of course we ended up taking a slight wrong turn and had to scrabble up the last bit of wooded land to find the paved steps to the top, but hey, getting a little lost and a little muddy is all part of the experience isn't it!
Where the paved steps start, about half way up the hill, is a little church and there we came across a film crew setting up for something, which meant it was really busy as we emerged from the trees: lots of people, lots of motorbikes, cables across the floor and two huge trailers blocking the way. Because of this we were paying more attention to them and not on what was around us.
As we made our way past them and onto the hill climb I finally looked out at the view and literally stopped dead in my tracks.
Once above the tree line the views are simply incredible. Uninterrupted vistas across the city. Where we stood we could see the modern Olympic stadium off to our left, the Lykavettos ampitheatre to our right, and there, slap bang in the middle: The Acropolis.
I don't exactly know when it started but I noticed tears were streaming from my eyes, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. It was definitely partly because of years waiting to be in this spot. But there was something else, something indescribable, something visceral, inside me. I felt an overwhelming feeling that this was where I was meant to be. It felt right.
The boys had run ahead along the winding path and steps that take you higher, so I tried to keep up with them but couldn't stop myself from pausing every few steps to take in the view, and every time I did the tears came again.
Kris was right there by my side, he didn't need to say anything, I couldn't have answered him even if he had spoken but it was so comforting having him, and the boys, close by.
Eventually the path flattens out and you can go no higher. I was distracted slightly by the gorgeous church of St George (Agios Georgios) that sits right at the top and then I turned around to the grandest view of all.
There were a few people standing around, pointing out which sites they could see and taking photos, my family were busily doing the same but for me, all sounds disappeared and I was once again captivated by the Acropolis in the distance. The tears came once more and I felt my whole body quivering. I had to sit down and remember to breathe, scared that I might faint if I didn't get control of myself.
Jake came to my side and was giving me a cuddle "it's OK mum" he said, "you can cry" (what a wonder that boy is). In front of us was a woman with two children, she spotted my dishevelled state and in broken English said "it's beautiful isn't it, speaks to your heart" and although I couldn't answer her, could only cry and nod, she was exactly right.
Eventually I composed myself and joined the other tourists taking photos and wandering around the summit seeing all the hill has to offer. As well as the 360 degree views, there is the church and a couple of cafes/restaurants you can spend time in. But for us, just being there was enough. (This family photo of us was taken by the woman who had been kind to me earlier and I also took some of her and her children. I always try to offer to help take photos of families at places like this, partly because I know how much I appreciate a "proper" photo sometimes instead of the all to familiar "Selfie").
Before we finished our time there I went into the chapel. If you know me, or follow my social media pages you may have heard me speak about not being a religious person but that I definitely feel a spiritual connection with certain places and with nature and how I appreciate the fact that chapels, mosques and churches all provide a welcome and needed centre for people's beliefs.
It was solemnly quiet inside, a lady, there as caretaker, smiled a welcome as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. There were ornate pictures and furniture all around and some candles flickering off to one side. It was peaceful, tranquil, the perfect place to collect your thoughts and thank whoever, or whatever you feel is right.
But that thankfulness lead to the tears falling once more. I dropped a few coins in the collection box, nodded a thank you to the staff and hurried off to the safety of my family again.
By that point the solstice sun had started to dip towards the horizon, and although it was a cloudy day, we were treated to a gorgeous light display as the late afternoon rays cut through the cloud onto the city. We all sat together watching the light show and feeling very happy to be there.
The boys then started to get a little restless so I reluctantly agreed it was time to head back down. As we started back on to the steps I realised the other emotion that I'd been struggling to pinpoint. It was pride. I began to think about my Dad (he passed away in 2006) and about how he used to tell me that he wanted me and my brother to see the world. I thought about how proud he would be that I was there, and I thought about how proud I was of Kris and I for making this a reality.
Have you ever had a moment like that? Where everything feels just right, like you can sense that any hardship, any low point, any doubt has all been worth it because it's been leading you here? If you have then maybe you can identify with how I was feeling. If you haven't I maybe sound a little unhinged but I want these blog posts to be honest and so here I am.
As we made our way back down the hill into the busy streets of the city again I couldn't help but feel changed somehow by our experience. I wonder if that's why this hill remains such a popular place to visit, because the views from the top, the way the city unfolds in front of you leaves people feeling different, feeling thankful. Maybe that's the draw of a place like this.
Whatever had happened there I'll never forget it and it was a wonderful way to start our adventure in the Greek capital and I'm looking forwards to sharing the rest with you.