Week 8 in Europe: Spring Break Part 1 – Greece
This week in Europe: I head off to Athens, Greece for the first half of my spring break trip.
Spring break started a bit early for me, since my last class of the week was on Thursday morning, so I could leave as soon as that was over. By noon, my roommate and I were heading to the main train station to board a train to Rome, where our flight was out of. While eating lunch on a random platform of the station, a train pulled in right next to us. When the time was getting close to our departure, we walked back to the departure display to see which track our train was leaving from. After a few hectic seconds, we realized it had been the train that was in front of us this whole time. We grabbed our bags and started walking, when the conductors were signaling for any final passengers, because it was about to leave. Long story short, we made it by about 5 seconds. A connection at the Rome Terminal brought us to the airport, and by 9 pm, we had landed outside of Athens. Because of the 2004 Olympics, the subway system got a major upgrade, and a new airport was built outside of the city. This made navigation into the center fairly easy, and by 11 pm, we had arrived at our hotel. It was a long day, and there were ten more days to come.
What’s the first thing you do when in Athens, see the Acropolis of course. The Acropolis is where the Parthenon is located, as well as the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike. Fortunately for us, almost all of the monument sites and museum here were free for students, so that saved us a lot of money. On our way up, we passed by an amphitheater, called the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (on the right). Once we got to the top, there was a crowd of several hundred young kids, probably on some school trip. That didn’t stop us from savoring the sights and views. The weather was perfect too; not a cloud in the sky, and in the upper 70’s. As usual, the Parthenon had scaffolding and construction equipment on it, as it seems ever monument we’ve seen so far has been having some kind of work done on it.
Before sunset, my roommate and I hiked up to Filopapou Hill, which is one of several in Athens, which can be thought of as an island in an urbanized sea. It provided 360 degree views of the city, while allowing you to escape from the noisy city around you. We came up here again in a few days, so I’ll talk about that later.
Saturday – Day 3: Panathenaic Stadium, New Acropolis Museum & Sunset Hike over Athens
After an early breakfast, we headed over to the Panathenaic Stadium. It was built in 566 BC, and held the first modern Olympics in 1896. Off to one side of the stadium, was a tunnel that ran up to a room full of Olympic torches from every past summer and winter Olympic Games. By lunch we had made our way over to the New Acropolis Museum, which had opened in 2009. The entire building is elevated on pillars, with an archaeological site below, which can be seen through glass panels in the floor, or outside by the entrance. While there’s a huge collection of artifacts inside, I think the building was more exciting than the stuff inside.
Since the views from Filopapou Hill had been so spectacular the day before, we were going to hike up to see the sunset today. It was partly cloudy for most of the evening, so the colors from the sun were mostly faded on the horizon, but seeing the city transform from day to night from this vantage point was worth it.
Day 4 was devoted to visiting the ruins Ancient Corinth, another archaeological site with a surviving temple. Since we had already been visiting ancient ruins for the past few days, they start to all seem the same after a while. For lunch, I ordered a pita-type dish, which is shown on the right. A Gyro, which is similar to this, is a typical Greek dish. We found a place right next to the New Acropolis Museum that sold Gyros, and we went there twice, since they were so good, and cheap too!
Although the ruins hadn’t been particularly interesting, the day was only half over. The main spectacle was going up to Acrocorinth, a medieval fortress located up on a rocky mountain above the city. From the center of the town up to the fortress, it was about a 3 mile walk. It didn’t seem that bad when planning the route out, but the hot sun combined with no shade, but it uncomfortable to say the least. When we got up to the top, we realized that it closed at 5 pm, and it was 4, so we better make the most of the 1 hour we have. The views from up here were amazing. To the north was the new city of Corinth and beyond that was the Gulf of Corinth. From the top, you could look south, and see the winding highway snake its way through the green valleys.
This place had been continually occupied from archaic times up until the early 19th century. Thinking about this made me realize that our hike up must have not been so bad, considering the same was done on roads or paths that were not as smooth as the road we were walking up, and animals or people would no doubt have to haul up supplies from the town below to restock the fortress up here, no matter what the weather conditions were.
The hike down wasn’t as bad as going up, because the sun was going down, and the breeze had picked up. We even took a shortcut through some farmer’s fields, which ended at a pen of goats down by the road. A taxi ride back to the train station got us there a minute too late, missing the train, and we had to wait another 50 minutes to catch the next one. All in all, the day was filled with hectic traveling around, but the trip up to Acrocorinth made it all seem worth it.
Monday – Day 5: Lycabetus Hill
Luckily, day 5 was less intense than the previous day. We woke up late, and it was cloudy, so the motivation to get out and see the city wasn’t that high. Another one of the big hills in Athens was on our list today. Called Lycabetus Hill, it was off to the northeast of the Acropolis, and the highest point had an observation terrace and restaurant. There was also a tram that ran through a tunnel in the mountain, connecting the base to the summit. Once we had walked past the maze of paths and stairways that ran from the observation area to the tram, a small doorway led us out to the back of the restaurant, where a winding path led down to a parking lot and amphitheater on the other side of the hill.
When we got over to the amphitheater, is was completely closed off and surrounded by barbed wire fences, as if there was something else being protected at this spot. We wandered alongside the closed off area and made it up to the 2nd peak of the hill, which was just a huge rock. We went up as far as we dared, and posed for some shots. To me, this place seemed like something out of a video game. Barbed-wire fences and graffiti surround you, while a break in the fence suggests you have to continue up to reach the very top. In the image below, I’m sitting at the highest point we climbed up to. You could have kept climbing up towards the top right of the photo, but there was a cliff only a few feet away on the other side of this ridge.
Today’s agenda was another day trip, to the nearby island of Aegina. I had bought the ferry tickets the night before, and had planned to arrive on the east coast of the island, so that we could hike up to the Temple of Aphaea. But when we got off the boat, the harbor looked much different than the images I had seen the night before. After consulting a map, we realized we were on the opposite side of the island; now what. We saw some ruins down the shoreline, so we headed in that direction. As it turned out, today was a national holiday, so the site was closed. We then turned the corner, and started walking inland, seeing what random places we’d go by. After an hour or so of walking in the hot sun, I made the call to return back to the coast and grab some lunch. Just like the last place we had eaten lunch, a cat would wander up to our table and watch us eat, hoping to get some food. At this place, our visitor even managed to bring a friend along. The rest of the afternoon as spent walking along the coast, taking in the sights and sounds of the ocean, and enjoying the relative peace away from life back in Florence.
On the subway ride back to the hotel, we decided to continue on to see the Olympic Park towards the end of the line. A few of the venues are still used occasionally, but many of the structures are abandoned, with high fences keeping out the general public. When we walked all the way around one of the indoor swimming buildings, a gate along the fence was open, so we walked up and around one side, which led us to a dead-end, across from where we before. I opted to climb around and over the support beams, since there was no way I was walking back.
Wednesday – Day 7: Travel
In the morning, we visited a contemporary art and war museum before heading back to the hotel to collect our bags, and get to the airport for our afternoon flight. By evening, we were being driven to my roommate’s relative’s house in the outskirts of Berlin, where we’d be staying while we explored Berlin. A warm home-cooked meal awaited us shortly after we arrived, and then we headed off to bed for another full day of site seeing the next day.