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Studying classics in Athens, cheap study abroad in Greece
By: Tara Kolden (justin) 2012.01.06

During a semester of studying classics in Athens, my roommate and I set aside a weekend in February to venture out of the city and off the mainland. We took a series of night buses westward and caught a ferry to Corfu, where we hoped to enjoy a peaceful exploration of the island without the crowds of tourists that flock there in the warmer months. We couldn't stop congratulating ourselves; the weather was balmy and pleasant, and the island was practically deserted. So far, flying by the seat of our pants seemed to be paying off.

We soon discovered that we weren't so lucky when it came to sleeping by the seat of our pants. To cut costs returning to the Greek mainland, we took another night bus to sleep on during the drive. Apparently, the bus that shuttled us homeward was not as efficient as the one that had gotten us to the Corfu ferry, and at midnight we were dumped off on the outskirts of Patras, a city we knew very little about. There was no connecting bus to Athens until the following afternoon, so we had no choice but to look for a place to spend the night. We hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to an inexpensive hotel we picked from our guidebook. I knew we had a problem when the driver shook his head. At the same time, my friend pointed out the window.

"Did you see that?"

A man in a sumptuous feather boa pranced by the window. With him was a woman dressed like a parrot.

"No reservations?" asked the taxi driver. "No rooms. Hotels all full. Apokreo."

My friend stared open-mouthed out the window as a passel of priests stumbled past - by the look of them, drunk - and I got out my pocket dictionary. "We've got trouble," I told her. "It's Carnival."

Only a classics student could live in Greece and forget about Carnival. I had been so wrapped up in my ancient curriculum, I had unwittingly overlooked the biggest party on the modern calendar. I thought of our idyllic holiday in empty Corfu - empty because everyone inclined to travel on this particular weekend had descended on Patras, the traditional hub of the celebration. Reality set in when a paint-smeared man wearing a loincloth started banging on the roof of our taxi. He flashed us an enormous grin before being swallowed up in the growing crowds of partygoers we were passing on our way into the heart of the city.

"No rooms at all?" my friend exclaimed. The taxi driver's face was grim.

"Isn't there somewhere you can think of?" I asked him. "We have no place to stay for the night. We're catching a bus tomorrow."

"I know one place," he mumbled. "Maybe."

It was nearly one o'clock in the morning, but when we pulled up outside a small hotel, all of its lights - like all the lights in the city - were ablaze.

"Ask inside," the driver told us. "Maybe you will have luck."

A solitary man sat frowning at the reception desk. He began shaking his head even before we had opened our mouths.

"Ochi. No. We are all full."

My friend and I looked at our heavy backpacks and contemplated the possibility of surviving the all-night party outside with our belongings remaining intact. "Please," I told him. "We don't have anywhere else to go."

He appeared to size us up. "I have a room, but you don't want it."

I wondered if this was the prelude to a bartering session. After the haggling I had done with vendors in the Plaka, Athens's market district, I was ready for him. "Yes, we do."

"A single," he said. "Only one bed."

"We'll take it."

He shrugged and led us down the corridor past several identical doors. He stopped in front of one and fumbled for the key.

"You don't - "

"Yes," I told him. "We want the room."

He opened the door, and whatever it was the man wanted us to avoid, nothing seemed out of order except the light, which didn't come on when he reached inside and flipped the switch.

"Okay?" he asked.

"It's fine," I said, taking the key.

"I give you discount." Without further explanation, he returned to the reception desk. My friend and I crept cautiously into the darkness. Something else was wrong, and it wasn't just the light. Inside the dim little room, I felt like I had stepped into a crowd. Strange shapes jostled against me from every direction, and something tickled my hands as I felt my way around the room. The dim light from the hallway illuminated our predicament - we were surrounded by helium balloons.

Chagrin soon turned to delight as we realized the absurdity of the situation. It was impossible to stand fully upright, so we crouched there in the semi-darkness and looked at the balloons. They shifted to accommodate us, and we found that the overhead light was not broken but merely blocked by a luminous herd of floating foil shapes. There were dolphins and rocking horses, giant Tweety Birds, Tasmanian Devils, and a legion of Disney cartoon characters, including a shiny, smiling Hercules. From the floor to the ceiling, the room was completely filled with balloons, including a jungle of ribbons that hung down and trailed across the floor.

We swam through the balloons, batting them back and forth, to locate the bed. It was impossible to see whether the room contained any other amenities - by crawling through the ribbons I was able to find a small sink, but it was too crowded with balloons to be of much use. There might have been a window somewhere, but we never saw it.

That night we slept beneath a canopy of smiling faces. I woke up to find Hercules bobbing above me; right behind him followed a crowd of Dalmatians. My friend and I dressed quickly and gathered our things, careful to shut the door behind us when we left, lest we unleash a stampede of balloons into the corridor. The same unsympathetic man was waiting for us at the reception desk when we checked out. I expected some sort of acknowledgement from him, now that we knew what he was hiding in that room down the hall, but he said nothing. The discount he gave us was minimal - he didn't even offer us a balloon.

Since our bus to Athens didn't leave until noon, we were free to roam through Patras. The revelry we had witnessed the night before had bloomed into a colossal celebration. We joined in the commotion by buying ourselves funny hats and prancing along with a raucous parade that snaked its way through the streets. All morning, I scanned the balloon vendors, wondering which one had stashed his supply in our little hotel room.

I never got the name of that hotel, and I don't know that I would recognize it if I saw it again. Like Carnival, it came to life in those strange hours after midnight, and probably returned to normalcy just as quickly as the festivities began. It was neither the cheapest nor the most comfortable night we spent while traveling through Greece, but it was certainly one of the most memorable. I have only one regret - not asking for Hercules.

Photos by Lonely Planet Images/Tara Kolden

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