As I stepped off the airplane into the cold confines of John F. Kennedy International Airport, I received a text message from my father that would jumpstart my winter break. Without any warning, my father and mother had scheduled a family vacation to Greece! So, five days after landing in New York City, I was off again, this time to the rainy foothills of Athens and Mount Olympus.
I have always had a strong interest in history, especially the ancient empires of Greece and Rome. During the spring semester of my freshman year, I took a course in Roman History, Classics 151, and loved it. From reading Virgil’s Aeneid to discussing Julius Caesar’s rise to power, I delved deep into the nuances of the Roman empire and its people.
While Greece was not the hub of the Roman Empire (that would be Rome), many of the lessons I learned in Classics 151 applied to the Greek civilization. Styles of architecture adopted by the Romans, such as the Ionic and Doric columns that guard our nation’s capitol building, were created by the Greeks. The Greek form of democracy, first pioneered in Athens, laid the foundation for the Roman senate and plebian council, key components of the famed Roman government. Over the course of many centuries, the Greeks built and developed magnificent city states, and I was at the center of it all.
Once grounded in Athens, the exploration began. On the first day of the vacation, my family and I travelled to the oracle at Delphi, the oracle that gave the ominous prophecy in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. An hour outside of a modern city, I walked through ruins of a race track, vaults, and huge temples, the largest to Athena. Despite being exposed to the elements, the ruins were miraculously preserved and demonstrated the Greeks’ reverence to the gods. Back in the city, the ruins of the Parthenon were even more impressive. Built atop the stone fortress of the Acropolis, one of Athens’ tall hills, the Parthenon was mind-blogging. With an area that took up probably two-thirds of a football field, the Parthenon was an engineering marvel, with two layers of columns supporting a massive roof. The floor of the Parthenon itself was sloped to match the contour of the hill underneath, making it necessary for the Greek builders and engineers to gently slope and angle the support columns to create the allusion of straightness. And to think the Parthenon was built over 2000 years ago.
After a few days in Athens, my family flew to northern Greece and into the heart of the nation’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. Adjacent to a natural harbor, Thessaloniki is a bustling port city with a vibrant downtown, sprinkled with lively coffee shops and restaurants. But before exploring the city and its food, my family adventured 90 minutes southwest of the city, to the mythological home of the gods, Mount Olympus. As we hiked in the foothills of the mountain, it was easy to see why the ancient Greeks thought the mountain was divine. The mountain soared into the sky, standing out among the surrounding low-lying olive and pomegranate orchards. The mountain’s twin peaks were shrouded in fog, and snow covered the expanse of the mountain, despite the mildly warm temperature. That day, the low rumble of thunder echoed through the mountain and its valleys, and a light drizzle fell on us as we climbed higher into Olympus’ domain. If we had hiked any higher, my family might have reached Zeus’ throne itself!
The city of Thessaloniki contained its own cultural appeal, one more modern than Athens or Mount Olympus. Home to the Balkan Peninsula’s largest university, Thessaloniki University, the city has a large population of young people from all across Europe, and I often enjoyed walking the streets of the city and merely people watching. After sightseeing in the morning, my family would stop at a small cafe for lunch and spend two hours at the meal, just looking around and taking in the sights and sounds of the city. Other than the bread, which was the best bread I have ever tasted, my favorite part of Thessaloniki was the mixture of old and modern culture. Among the busy streets and central market, I could study the city’s ancient Roman baths or its array of churches and mosques built during the Byzantine and Ottoman reigns, respectively.
This summer, I will be participating in the Viterbi School of Engineering’s Summer Overseas program, which will be held in Rome. After spending winter break in Greece, I could not be more excited to explore Rome and to immerse myself in its culture. When I am not studying for classes, I will be sure to venture throughout the capital of the ancient Roman empire and compare its splendor to the ruins of ancient Greece. After taking on both Greece and Rome, I can truly say I came, I saw, and I conquered.