Travel: Greece

Greece: Athens – So hot, it’s on fire

While we were up on the hill of the Acropolis on Thursday over looking the city of Athens, I remember commenting on the clouds over the nearby mountain range, rain was scheduled for later that night, “Those clouds are really trying hard to get over here” I started wondering if there was some local weather phenomena that would explain the clouds keeping out of the apparent basin the city lies in surrounded by peaks. Maybe a strong wind off of the Aegean.

As we were in the taxi heading toward the airport later that day. I again commented on how strange the clouds were. They seemed to be originating from a mountain top, like a volcanic eruption. The clouds thick and casting an odd color as the sun struck the sides. They looked like eerily brown towering thunderheads, “Great, that’s when we’ll get some strong storm, right as our flight is scheduled to take off at 9:00 pm!”

As the plane ascended into the sky, beside the strange cloud bank, we saw the source. Glowing orange below us in the dusk, flaring up, a large forest fire. An estimated 6.000 acres burned as of Friday.

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Greece: Athens – Acropolis and other thoughts

Deb with the ParthenonIt’s marginally less obscenely hot today, before we leave for our flight, we needed to make it to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. No archaeologists on strike today, up we went.

The Propylaia (the main entrance) and The Parthenon are both undergoing extensive restoration work, only small portions are not surrounded by scaffolding, maybe some day we will revisit the sites once the work has been completed. A project of Perikles, the complex of temples was built starting in the 5th century B.C. The Parthenon is a temple built and dedicated to the goddess Athena and over the centuries has been utilized as a church, a mosque and even housed weapons as an arsenal through various invasions. Even with the amount of damage it has sustained, it still remains the symbol and pride of Athens.

Deb with the ParthenonWhile Mark was working in the early afternoon, I also made my pilgrimage to buy some yarn made in Greece to add to my “knitting scarves as souvenirs” project. Walking by one of the many tiny Byzantine churches, around the corner and parallel to the Ermou Street clothes shopping is a long street full of textile shops, largely bolts and bolts of fabric. I initially asked at the hotel desk where to find such a shop. I didn’t want to wander aimlessly in the oppressive heat. She asked me how many and what colors I was thinking, “when you come back, we’ll have yarn for you!” stymied I explained, “No, no! I like to go look at the yarn myself!”

I’m starting to have a back log, snowy white fluff from Finland, soft blues from Spain and now a chunky wool of ochers and terra cotta. Scarves are quick (relatively), I’ll catch up!

Byzantine Church in the middle of Ermou StreetI did have a good bit of down time in the hotel escaping from the heat and sun, but even this time was spent reading about Greek life. I brought along with me It’s All Greek To Me by John Mole. Two English ex-pats who came to living in Greece for work and then decided to buy a home there, this place where they were the happiest they’ve ever been. He takes us through all the details as he buys essentially an abandoned goat shack in the 1970’s and remodels it into a home where they have lived for the past 30 years. Interspersed through his own story he includes tidbits of Greek history, mythology, culture and language. I learned quite a bit about traditional village life, Greek life philosophy, the haggling mentality, their love of their own food and identity. And even through the changes in modern society they managed to create a piece of their own Arcadia. It was a fun read made more real and relevant as it was contextualized within my own experience.

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Greece: Athens – Royal Gardens, Temple of Zues, Lykavittos Hill

Detail of inlaid stone around fountainWith a freshly soaking wet head I ventured outside on this marginally cooler day to see a few outdoor sites. Next to the Parliament building is the forty acre National Gardens. I went in the morning and spent a couple hours there. For one, it was at least twenty degrees cooler within the gardens than the rest of the city. Athens has few trees along roads or in squares. A cool breeze actually came out of any of the areas that had significant numbers of trees and greenery. So I didn’t mind staying there for as long as I did.

The turtle hiding among the flowers bolted as I approachedIt isn’t an organized botanical garden per se. It is a park riddled with meandering paths, pools and fountains. The fountains had intricately inlaid stones around them. The park was created in the 1840’s and was landscaped by Friedrich Schmidt, a Prussian horticulturist, who traveled the world looking for rare plants. It’s not the same park as it once was, but was a wonderful place for respite from the sun and heat.

Olympian Temple of ZeusThere were woodpeckers everywhere, just as many as the pigeons. I thought there was a strangely large bird under the leaves of a patch of purple flowers, until I noticed that it was actually a turtle. A speedy turtle that took off as I approached, but not before I could give him a little photo shoot!

On the far side of the National Gardens is the Olympiann Temple of Zues. It is the largest temple in Greece, even larger that the Parthenon. Construction began in the 6th century B.C. but was not completed until 650 years later. Only 15 of the original 104 columns remain, but there is enough of the temple left that you really get a sense for the enormous size and scale of the temple.

Fallen column of Olympian Temple of Zeus

In the evening Mark and I headed on over to Lykavittos Hill. At 910 feet it’s the highest point inside the city of Athens. The ancient belief was that it was the rock destined to become the Acropolis citadel, accidentally dropped by Athena. We rode the funicular which was like the inclines in Pittsburgh, but in a tunnel, I would have thought it would have been out in the open for the views on the ride.

Mark on the very edge of Lykavittos HillOnce to the top we enjoyed the panoramic views of the city, we could see the Aegean Sea off behind the Acropolis. There is a small monastery and bell tower on top of the hill as well. We enjoyed a lovely (and a refreshingly really non-Greek) dinner at the terraced restaurant on the hill. I had the Sole served with an orange glaze and almonds with a bitter greens salad with pomegranate. We shared a dessert involving flambeed tomatoes and strawberries served with a mango and green pepper sorbet.

Deb on Lykavittos HillWith the funicular on running every half and hour near midnight, we decided to walk down the hill. Even in the relative coolness of the evening air, it was a rough hike down, if we stopped moving, that gave the still air enough time to remind us how hot we were.

Most the of the dirt path on the way down wasn’t lit aside from what light from the moon. It was one of those quiet and private moments Mark and I get to share, with no one else in sight. Hiking down the highest hill in Athens at midnight. Midnight! The metro stops at midnight! We were a couple miles away from the hotel, but slogged through the heat and fell asleep the moment our heads hit the air conditioned hotel pillows.

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Greece: Athens – Natural History Museum and The Tomatoes

In my continuing effort to do things indoors during the hottest part of the day, I hoped on the metro and went 12 km north to Kifissia, where the Natural History Museum and Gaia Center are located. I didn’t have a map of the area and was trusting the knowledge and small map the hotel concierge drew for me. Of course this map had absolutely no bearing to reality. I couldn’t find the streets, the metro stop was nowhere near the museum as I had be led to believe. Thus began a desperate attempt to get there. Outside the city center, not as many people are fluent English speakers. Fortunately I had a book with me that had the name of the museum spelled out in Greek so at least I could point.

After a number of odd conversations where I noticed I started speaking with a very strange accent, long story shorter, I found the museum. Well, I thought I found the museum. I found the Gaia Center, which was a miniature science museum focused on environmental issues with all exhibits in Greek. I was ushered through some dark corridors into the actual Natural History museum hidden around the corner.

I like to visit natural history museums in other countries simply to see the exhibits with the local flora and fauna. Which this museum had. It was small but well presented. It was unclear whether photography was permitted, I only snapped a few shots. I particularly like this fascinating quote from Aristotle that adorned the wall of the bug room:
Aristotles' quote on insects

The metro passes by Irini, where loads of arenas and fields were built for the Olympics. It was like approaching Wembley with it’s white arch and suspension lines. But it was completely vacant and had a deserted feel, I just wonder if this complex gets used for anything or how often.

Just a small observation, this city has packs feral dogs and cats.

I have to say, I have never eaten so many tomatoes in such a small period of time. I am love love loving the Greek salads here. Each one I’ve had have probably comprised of five tomatoes along with diced cucumber and slivers of red onion and a giant slab of feta, feta like I’ve never had feta before, oh my god is it good here. Drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano. Oh so good, I need to make salads like that when we get back!

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Greece: Athens – Kerameikos, Archeology Museum

Kerameikos, 12th century B.C. burial groundsStrategy for the day: make sure to wet my head before going outside. This turned out to be an excellent strategy for keeping “cool.” I mean, I was still sweating buckets in the 100+ degree weather, guzzling gallons of water. But the evaporative cooling effect helped immensely from feeling as if I was going to succumb to heat stroke.

My plan was to spend the bulk of the mid day sun indoors at a museum. I hopped on the metro, there were only three lines which made for another pleasantly uncomplicated underground experience as opposed to London, and headed for The National Archeology Museum. Little did I know that the museum wasn’t technically on it’s summer hours yet. Which meant the museum didn’t open until 1pm on Mondays. It was 9:30 and rapidly getting sweltering out.

I weighed my options, returned to the hotel to re-soak my head (and my sandals), loaded up on bottled water and huffed on over to Kerameikos the burial grounds of ancient Greece that had been used since the 12th century B.C. Monuments lining the Sacred Way, so called because it was the route followed by the solemn processions from the city to the sanctuary of the mysteries at Eleusis. (photo soon)

DSC_1368Ancient steles, the funerary slabs carved in relief with elaborate scenes depicting the deceased were scattered about the grounds. A particularly touching one illustrates a grandmother and her grandchild who died on the same day, the stele of Ampharete:

“Here I hold my daughter’s child, the beloved one, which I used to hold on my knees when, living, we beheld the rays of the sun, and now, dead, I hold the dead child”

(I’ll post more on this site once the photos are up)

Detail of AphroditeAfter an hour or so of baking in the hot sun I absorbed some AC over a lunch of Greek salad and chicken and potatoes roasted with lemon and oregano. The restaurants operate differently for lunch. The hostess seated me with a menu, opened it up and pointedly told me, “we only have chicken or stuffed tomatoes, not any of this, only chicken or tomatoes.” From our other lunch experience at a traditional taverna, it seems only a couple of items are prepared for lunch, you go look at them and pick out which one you want. Menu’s are irrelevant for lunch.

Trio of amphoraFinally, after lunch I made it to the National Archeology Museum. Here is the repository for the original artifacts, statues, steles, columns, bronzes and pottery from the myriad of archaeological sites of Greece. As with all the sites and artifacts I visit, it’s rather awe inspiring to be immersed in so much history. To think of the millions of lives and countless generations and beliefs these places and things bear witness to. It’s impressive. (more thoughts on this later…)

We had plans to join a few people Mark was working with for a late dinner, I insisted on getting something lite around 6pm to tide me over. Another Greek salad and some kefthedes, meatballs spiced with mint and oregano did the trick.

Our Greek hosts haggled and debated about which restaurant to go to, perusing menus, sitting at one but then actually going to another a block or two away with a better view and better menu. Rather like how Mark and I are indecisive and picky at the same time when trying to find a place to eat.

Detail of lekythosThey ordered many dishes for us to try, small whole fish, stuffed peppers, prawns with a heavy cheese and tomato based sauce, stuffed zucchini with a lemon bechamel-like sauce. Traditional dishes. Dishes I have never seen or would come to my mind in my experience of what is “Greek Food” in the U.S. There is plenty of seafood, squid and the like and much more lemon, oregano and mint in most dishes than I would have thought. And of course, my third Greek salad for the day and more tasty tzatziki.

We had and had some eye opening and fascinating discussions about the current state of Greece as a country (again, everyone speaks English in Europe) and since entering the E.U. It’s still a very poor nation and the transition to using the Euro has been difficult. Employment, education, housing, comparing to the London housing market, views and aspects of a society we wouldn’t necessary perceive merely as tourists.

Ouzo was the drink of choice. Served over ice and diluted with water, the ouzo becomes a cloudy milky white from the anise seed oil crystallizing. I despise all things anise or licorice and dared not take a sip. Our hosts commented on how tourists don’t drink ouzo the right way, it’s like grappa or raki in it’s turpentine nastiness when not served with water and ice.

We ended up staying out till 3 am after moving to a different venue away from the heart of Psyrri where we consumed far too many drinks and rounds of shots of a melon liqueur to toasts of our English, “Cheers!” and Greek, “Ya Mas!” (to our health!)

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Greece: Athens – It’s really freakin’ hot

I wanted to mention, so I don’t look like a complete wuss, that when I say it’s hot, it’s really hot:

Don't go outside

(I should also mention that CNN is giving the highest forecast for today, the BBC is saying only a chilly 102!)

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Greece: Athens – Acropolis Strike, Psyrri

Deb on Areopagos HillApparently, archaeologists can go on strike and close down places like the Acropolis. And apparently, they decided to do this only for today when we walked up the hill to see it.

Ah well, it’s unbelievably hot here and I was nearly going to pass out once we reached the Areopagos Hill. Where the mythological trial of Ares where he was acquitted of murdering the son of Poseidon. We were treated to some spectacular views of the city from there as well as a touch of heat stroke.

We retreated to the hotel to wait out the mid day sun and took a nap. A nap in Greece is far more exotic than laying around on our couch at home :)

Mark in the streets of PsyrriBefore a second retreat to the cool air of the hotel we walked around Psyrri, just outside our door it’s an area of town with narrow streets lined with restaurants and shops. In the morning the lanes were packed with flea market merchants selling their wares on the “sidewalks” (although the streets were about as wide as a sidewalk).

We went to the Taverna Tou Psyrri and fumbled our way through ordering lunch. I had an odd stuffed tomato dish yemista, baked and filled with rice, vegetables and seasoned with mint. It was a minty warm tomato. With yummy tzatziki on the side, thick greek yogurt with slivers of cucumber and garlic.

Amazing gelatto shop in PsyrriWe made sure to stop at the gellato shop. It recently opened for the day so the piles of gellato were mostly untouched and looked deliciously divine and decorated with toppings. We went for the panacotta flavor and were not disappointed.

(I just might stay on top of my entries this way, coming in out of the heat to blog (even though I decided not to bring my laptop this trip and need to use Mark’s), although the addition of photos will have to wait. Or not.)

Mark with Hadrian's ArchIn the evening we wandered through the Plaka, this is the historic ancient heart of Athens. More narrow winding maze like roads packed with shops for clothing, pottery, metal works, leather crafts (i.e. sandals galore). Not as much a flea market feel that is in Psyrri and there was certainly more residential housing above these shops.

We wandered by Hadrian’s Arch, the arch built to separate that of “old” Athens from the new in 131 A.D. We peered in through the gates at the Olympian Temple of Zeus, a site I’ll soon visit. Our walk took us in front of the Greek Parliament building and the busy Syntagma Square and down along Ermou Street, a central clothes shopping street.

Outdoor "air conditioning"We stopped to people watch at a taverna under the ever present “outdoor air conditioning” This comprised of fans blowing at high speeds accompanied by a fine mist of water spraying from them. It was quite effective, we didn’t sit there and get soaked or anything. The air was too dry for that. It just made the ambient air quality within ten feet of the building so much more pleasant.

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Greece: Athens – First night

Our plane was a little late so we didn’t get in until later than we thought. Fortunately for us the Greeks, like the Spaniards, like to have very late dinners. We walked around the immediate area near our hotel, realizing that we could very easily get lost in it’s labyrinth of narrow and winding roads, one of us should really be paying close attention for getting back to the hotel.

The Parthenon at night from Lykavittos HillThe streets were alive with people and merchants. Once the sun goes down and the air is bearable again, so many more people come out. The streets of older parts of the city, like Psyrri where our hotel was, are populated with jewelers and painters trying to push their wares.

We found a restaurant at the base of the Acropolis hill. The Parthenon and Nike Temple to Athena were lit brightly. The Acropolis comprising the skyline of Athens like a beacon that could be seen for miles around. We ate souvlaki, the Greek answer to fast food consisting of skewered and grilled pieces of meat seasoned with lemon and oregano and arni sto fourno me patates a lamb stew with potatoes also cooked with lemon and oregano.

With the Acropolis glowing above us and plates of traditional food in front of us, so many wonderful sights, sounds and smells, this was a perfect introduction to Athens.

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The next chapter: Athens

As the adventure continues, we head out the door for Athens, Greece. Mark will be working, but the plus side, our hotel is within walking distance of the Acropolis and the Parthenon.

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