In the Footsteps of Annie Peck

Travelers’ Tales Solas Bronze Medal

“Rome may be eternal, but Greece is perennial. Once seen, it is never forgotten and the desire to revisit it never abates.” Annie Peck

Hurtling waves crash against the hull of the ferry as pellets of snow hit my window. I am on the ferry heading from Athens to Santorini, Greece for my fiftieth birthday. It is a nine hour voyage and I haven’t eaten a single thing. The wild weather has my stomach churning as the boat sways and shudders. My husband Tor, an old sailor, is not fazed and enjoys a pita filled with lamb, feta cheese and olives for lunch. Had I not been sea-sick I would have joined him hungrily.

I had imagined warm, blue, calm seas like in the photographs displayed on the bulkhead of the ferry. As a child I had a poster of the white-washed buildings and windmills of Santorini on my bedroom wall. I dreamed of visiting these far-off islands and other exotic regions of the world, that I read about in National Geographic or exploration books. As a child I visualized walking the narrow passageways between the white-washed buildings, seeing the blue domed churches, ancient windmills, and experiencing the slow pace of Greek island life. I wanted to be a scientist and adventurer. Finally, in middle age my dream to see Greece and the world (I had recently visited the Himalaya and the Sahara) was becoming a reality.

While flying over the snow-covered Alps and the crater-looking potholes in the karst Dinaric Alps of the Balkans, enroute to Athens, I think of Annie Peck. Part of the reason we are going to Greece is that I have been on a quest to visit the important places in the life of Annie Smith Peck. While researching a topic for my master’s degree I ran across her name and decided to focus on her for my thesis. Although at the time I had not been many places, I was always reading about explorers for inspiration, and dreamed of one day being an adventurer like Annie.

Annie Peck was one of the first American female mountaineers (she was from Providence, Rhode Island). Before gaining mountaineering fame she was one of the first female archeologists and attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in 1885-86.

She had seen the Alps on her way from Germany (where she studied music) to Greece and became enthralled with lofty peaks, although it was another ten years before she climbed the Matterhorn in 1895, one of the first women to do so. She was 45 years old when she climbed the Matterhorn! Like me, she was a late bloomer and her famous climbs in the high Andes were done in her 50s and 60s. She is widely known for her first ascents of the north peak of Mount Huascarán, as well as several of Mount Coropuna’s summits, in Peru.

I had also traveled from Germany, where I live, to Greece, albeit on an airplane. Annie would have been envious, as she traveled by train, however, she was a promoter of air travel and at age 82, in 1932, flew around South America to show how easy it was to travel by air. She was the first person to do so on commercial planes. She wrote a book about her experiences called Flying Over South America: 20,000 miles by Air.

I visualize Peck sailing from Trieste through the Ionian Islands in a long flowing dress of the times and her hair pinned up in a bun. Like me, she was seasick.


It is snowing and blizzard-like in Santorini. Standing on a cliff, looking out to the white-capped sea, the gale winds pelt my exposed face. I revel in the crazy weather. Locals tell us they haven’t seen snow in eight years. The island is deserted except for a few American tourists, a lone bookseller from Brooklyn, and groups of Chinese celebrating their New Year holiday. In my imagination I thought I was going on a relaxing trip to sunbath on white sand beaches and watch stunning sunsets. This celebratory trip has turned in to a real adventure and I couldn’t be happier.

Getting chilled, we head back down the narrow streets of Oia, at the north tip of the crescent-shaped island of Santorini. Tor had read that the most beautiful sunsets in the world are in Oia. We pass dogs looking for scraps, a few cats, and gift shops and summer homes boarded up for the winter. Some hardy-looking men, with leathery skin, clean the white-washed buildings for the coming tourist season and load weary donkeys with cement and sand to carry to the work sites. We retreat into our cave-like accommodation nestled on a cliff looking out to the other islands of this extinct volcano.

Tor and I become friends with our Greek waiter at the only tavern open in Oia. A middle-aged man with dark hair and a shady smile welcomes us as old friends each time we visit. The server’s elderly father sits in the corner and watches everyone, while his mother stokes the small wood-burning stove in the middle of the room, with wood from old furniture. We attempt to warm up by the fire with a jug of the local wine and moussaka and lamb. The cold wind blows through the cracks in the windows of what is normally an open-air sitting area in the summer.

The island is the remnant of the volcano Thera that exploded between 1600 and 1500 BC and was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history, believed to be over four times as strong as Krakatoa and which caused a major tsunami. Legends tell that the ancient Minoan culture that disappeared soon after the eruption was the mythical people of the utopian Atlantis. The Minoans were a democratic, peaceful culture who were replaced by the warring tribes of our history.

Braving the harsh cold winds, after the snow has passed, we hike up the hill to the ruins of the village of Thera; the site sits on the plateau at the southern end of the crescent. I stare down at the black sandy beach, fertile plains and steep road, imagining warriors astride horses using this same road so long ago.

“Visualize the hustle and bustle of this village in the third century BC, near its height. Maybe you would have been the cartographer and I would have been a seafaring warrior.” Tor tells me excitedly.

“Or maybe you would have been the city’s philosopher, and I would have been the astronomer! Maybe we would have been lovers.”

I enthusiastically respond, as I am a star gazer and Tor has a degree in philosophy. We close our eyes and I dream of toga-clad people, the Dorians, bustling about.

We are the only visitors to the ruins, which adds to our imagination. The city looks as if it had been well-planned, with partial walls and tumbled pillars of theatres, bathhouses, worship places, and residential areas. This is a landscape that inspires dreams and fantasies.

The last day on Oia, we finally have clear weather and see the famous sunset, as well as the swallows (the symbol of the island), which are the sign of new beginnings- appropriate for my new life with Tor, adventuring, and turning fifty.


In Athens, finally with a sunny day, I visit the American School of Classical Studies to learn more about Annie. Peck was the first woman to be admitted to the school three years after it was founded in 1882. She held both a B.A. and M.A. degree in Greek from the University of Michigan and taught at Purdue University. Although famous for her mountaineering exploits and exploration in Latin America, Peck was already listed in the 1893, A Woman of the Century: Leading American Women from all Walks of Life as an, “Educator, musician, profound classical scholar and distinguished archaeologist.”

The school is located at the bottom of Lycabettus Hill, once on the outskirts of the city, but now it blends in to the city and is a twenty minute walk from the historic Plaka. The hill is the tallest point in Athens, at 908 feet. A gruff guard takes my passport number and allows me to wander in the Gennadius Library (opened in 1922) before my appointment with a researcher I had arranged. While I visit the school, Tor, always on a quest for gourmet food, scopes out tavernas around town.

Several students are deep in thought as I peruse the Greek language books, Ottoman paintings, and historic maps in the smallish building with a second floor wrap-around open area. A pile of periodicals sits on the librarian’s desk.

At the appointed time I go across the street and Natalia, a researcher, greets me and shows me around the other older building. She brings out historic photographs of the school. “The school moved from a house near Hadrian’s Gate, at 40 Adrianou Street to the current location.” She informs me. This was soon after Peck studied there. However, Peck visited this new location in 1896 on her later trip to Europe to climb the Matterhorn and Annie wrote an article about the school on that trip which Natalia gives me.

As Natalia shows me the facility, I contemplate Peck in Loring Hall of the library (built in 1895 a year before she visited) and reading the historic Greek books. Peck was fluent in seven languages and an intellectual. The school continues to expand; a new excavation lab was built in 1992 and an auditorium in 2005. “The goals of the school are to educate and excavate.” Natalia informs me.

In Peck’s day there were only six students, today there are approximately 35 students. They come to study for a year as part of various PhD programs in the United States and Canada in the classics, archeology or art history. They study for two years and can go on archeological excavations their second year. Natalia points out photographs of men on donkeys in Peck’s time, the mode of transportation to archeological sites during Annie’s era.

Peck would have been proud to see the school has continued from her time and expanded. She wrote on her visit in 1896, “Though our school is young, we may yet congratulate ourselves that it has gained a credible standing and has made achievements which are of value to the world and confer distinction upon the entire country.”

My quest is now to visit the original site of the American School. I pass a regiment of soldiers, known as Evzones, who guard the presidential palace and parliament. They are marching in formation, each carrying a rifle in one hand. The men don black puffy ‘dresses,’ white tights, black tassels tied around below the knee, shoes with large black pom-poms, and red berets, as they throw one leg straight up in the air, and then another. Two of the Evzones guard the grounds around the clock and tourists attempt to distract them from looking straight ahead, to no avail.

I wander the streets until I find the correct address and gaze up at the historic house, now boarded up and covered in graffiti, and look across the street at Hadrian’s gate and the Temple of Zeus with its towering pillars. Natalia had told me that the few students back then had lived in the school building.

I daydream of Annie looking up now and then from her studies out her window, to contemplate history. Maybe she thought of Hadrian, the Roman emperor who had the gate built, or the people who built the Temple of Zeus, that took 700 years to complete, beginning in the 6th century BC. Fourteen of the original 105 pillars still stand at this largest temple in Greece.

Annie wrote: “Opposite Hadrian’s Gate, a few Corinthian columns of the enormous temple of Olympian Zeus still stand in picturesque splendor. But not on these does the eye linger long, for there in the center of the picture sill rises the grand old Acropolis, where the columns of the matchless Parthenon, the graceful Erechtheion, and the stately Propylaea add pathetic beauty to the scene.”


“I am a humanist and who could not leave the earth without one more glimpse of the Parthenon.” Annie Peck.

The Acropolis (or the sacred plateau where the Parthenon and other temple ruins sits) was the spiritual place for Annie. Even though she had climbed mountains and fell in love with South America, her roots in archeology still ran strong and her last trip before she died was to visit the Acropolis (at age 85).

Only a few other people have made their way to the top of the plateau that the Parthenon (temple to Athena) sits atop, on this cold partly-cloudy afternoon. Dogs recline in repose on these ancient steps. With the silence and lack of crowds, I feel as if nothing has changed- it is a timeless landscape- and I am transported back to the 1880s, or 1935 when Annie visited the Acropolis for the last time.

The Acropolis was also known as Cecropia, after the legendary serpent-man, Cecrops, the first king of Athens. Acropolis means ‘upper city’ or ‘edge city.’ Legend has it that Poseidon and Athena had a contest to see who would be the patron of Athens. Poseidon brought forth a spring, and Athena touched the ground with her spear and an olive tree grew there. Athena won, and the site became holy.

As I climbed the steps to the Propylaea (completed in 432 AD), I thought of Peck struggling and breathless to get to the top and see the Parthenon building, as she wrote about as an old woman. The Parthenon was built as tribute to Greek victories over the Persians, took nine years to complete, and was completed in 438 BC. Later, the Turks stored ammo there and the Venetians blew it up, yet many pillars still remain.

I think of Annie as a young woman visiting the Acropolis while studying at the school. I look out at Mount Hymettus (famous for its honey) and Mount Pentelicus, both of which Annie had climbed. I can see her bounding up these small peaks in her long dresses.

She wrote: “Hymettus…..a little more than 3000 feet above the sea…. Is a desolate mountain, with round, soft outlines and dull gray tints. These, at sunset, give place to those delicate hues which still entitle the city to the epithet, ‘violet-wreathed,’ so long ago bestowed.”

Annie continued, “To the northeast is Mount Pentelicus, whence came, and still comes, the far-famed Pentelic marble which contributed so much to the adornment of ancient Athens. It is the finest statuary marble in the world, and the mountain still contains material for twenty Parthenons.”

Our last night of our trip, we listen to Greek music and devour local dishes, such as grilled mushrooms, fish cooked in capers, and drink ouzo at a tavern that was founded in 1879. It is easy for me to imagine Annie eating, chatting in Greek, and dancing to the sound of the bouzouki with fellow students and locals here in this timeless establishment just blocks from where she lived. She never married, and I wonder if she had a Greek lover.

She wrote about Athens: “What delight merely to live and breathe amid such scenes, the beauty of which appeals not to the eye alone but to the intellect and imagination as well! We cease to wonder at the perfect taste and subtle intellect displayed by the ancient Athenians.”

As I sit on the plane, flying home, I have a final glimpse of the Acropolis and I think of Annie and her sacred beacon she had to return to before she died. The Parthenon inspired her, as she inspired me. I have paid tribute to her by visiting her sacred place.

Dreams are ageless. Fifty years old now, I am moving onward to the best years of my life, exploring and living the life I always imagined.

Siffy Torkildson