Before we get to this amazing recipe for some of the best street food out there, we wanted to tell you how we discovered that the simple, yet noble gyro (pronounced YEE-roh) saved us on one of the most brutal travel days of our lives.
Back in 2003, we embarked on a 3 month long wedding trip that would take us from Amsterdam to Istanbul and back again. Along the way, we encountered some amazing street food – in fact, we highly recommend that you try some of the many options for hot, freshly made street bites that you’ll find on your own travels. Street food tells you a lot about how the locals like to eat!
Fast forwarding to Greece, possibly our favourite country to visit in Europe. We had already been in the country for about a week, and had come through the northeast from Turkey to a town called Alexandroupolis. We were going to make our way down to Crete via Athens – catching a ferry to Crete is easy enough from Piraeus, the major port area at the ancient city’s southern coast. The train from Alexandroupolis to Athens was leaving at 2am, and was not going to roll in to Athens until 4pm the next day. Not wanting to take any chances wrestling for a comfortable seat for our 14 hour journey, we booked a sleeper berth at the station the day before.
Since we had to check out of our hotel at 10am on the day our train was to leave, that meant we would have to carry our bags around all day, and keep ourselves awake until our 2am departure time. This seemed like no big problem – we played cards by the ocean, sat in a few little cafes and enjoyed some Greek coffee and Nutella-filled pastries. All was well for our long day of waiting.
At 1:30am, we were informed that our train was actually leaving from a different station, and that our 2am departure was for the bus that would take us there. No problem, we thought. As our little green bus rolled down the road for about 30 minutes towards the outskirts of town, we were starting to get sleepy. But again, no worries. We had a sleeper bunk waiting for us, and we knew we would get a decent night’s rest on our journey, waking up to the rolling hills of central Greece when the sun rose.
Yes. That was the plan.
If you’ve ever taken a train in Greece, you probably know what I’m about to tell you.
Upon arriving at the departure station, there was a crowd of at least 300 people waiting to get on the train. We weren’t so much in the station, but rather we were waiting in a dark field beside the ancient looking train while the staff seemed to ensure everything was in order (?). As soon as those doors opened, it was every man, woman, and child for his or herself. All 300 of us clamoured as fast as we could o to the train – tickets and passes seemed to be a non-issue here. Amidst all the pushing and shoving, we located the sleeper cars and found what we thought was our assigned berth. Minutes later, a uniformed gentleman appeared to check our tickets – the train was beginning to roll out of the station, and we were looking forward to getting into our bunks and bedding down for the night, so we were glad to see him.
He took one look at our tickets and informed us as best he could in simple Greek that we were in the wrong car, and that we needed to proceed to the third-class seats immediately. So much for booking ahead of time and paying extra for a good night’s sleep.
As we, in our tired and confused state, made our way through the crowds, the train picked up speed and headed off to it’s destination. Had the train not been moving so quickly, we may have opted to hop off. The seats were not only all full, but it was barely standing room only on our grossly overcrowded and oversold train. Of course, things like this happen, and having travelled through many less than organized countries before, we shrugged it off and decided that our fate was set – we were going to have to stand for our 14 hour journey, awake and uncomfortable, on a train where there wasn’t even enough room to fall over. Believe it or not, the train stopped in Thessaloniki to pick up even MORE passengers. It was truly amazing.
To say that we were exhausted by the time we reached Athens is a ridiculous understatement. All night and all day long, we had battled pushy grandmothers insisting on using us as makeshift seats, smokers who lit cigarettes in confined spaces who then fell asleep with the burning embers in their hands – and eventually on their clothes, and many equally frustrated Greeks who would look at us and shrug when we asked where the bathrooms were (we weren’t certain if that was an indication that they didn’t know where they were, or that they didn’t know how we assumed we were going to get to them, since there wasn’t even room to turn around on the train).
At around 5pm the next day, exhausted as we were from being awake since 9am the previous morning, we arrived in Athens. We still had about an hour long journey on the subway to get to the port city of Piraeus, so we slogged on, backpacks, boots, and all.
By the time we reached the port, we had resolved that we would invest in some first-class tickets on the 10 hour ferry ride to Crete’s port of Iraklio. We needed a shower and a good night’s sleep, and our ferry wasn’t leaving until 10pm, so we were going to be up a little longer, bringing us to a nice round 36 hours without sleep of any kind. If we were to take even one step further, we needed FOOD. This is where the blessed gyro comes in.
After buying our first class ferry tickets from a very nice gentleman who laughed at our story about the train and concurred that we had experienced a pretty typical journey from the northern part of the country, the search for food was next on our list. Our ticket provider told us that there was a great gyro stand just outside his office, and we were out the door before he even finished his sentence.
The smell of slow roasted lamb and fresh garlic and cucumber filled us with so much joy that we almost cried. We each ordered 2 gyros, dropped our backpacks right there in front of the little smoky cart, and absolutely devoured them. The soft pita, the savoury yogurt, the tender meat and fresh, crisp veggies – we had never tasted anything so heavenly in our entire lives.
We experienced absolute nirvana that evening in Piraeus. After cementing the gyro in our memories as a delicious respite from travel torture, we found our ferry, fell face first in to our fancy cabin (after getting some strange looks from the staff, who wondered who we might have stolen our tickets from – to be fair, we looked pretty rough after all that) and fell asleep as our boat sailed from mainland Greece to Crete through the night. Had it not been one of the worst travel experiences we had this far, it may not have turned out to be one of the best.