Athens Part I

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Audio Transcript: Athens Part I

The ferry sucked, it smelled bad, I got one hour of sleep and was thrilled to get off when we pulled into port about 15 minutes before dawn. I could go on for a number of lines… but for the sanity of all involved…We disembarked, looked at our guide book and then set out in to the pre-dawn gloom. When you arrive in Athens by boat, you actually land at the port city of Piraeus, which is a 15 minutes metro ride outside of the city. To that end our first objective was to find the metro stop. Unfortunately, we misread our location on the map, failed to ask for directions and walked for about 15 minutes in the wrong direction through some incredibly shady, desolate areas around the docks before turning around and getting pointed in the right direction. Marginally surprised that we had not gotten mugged…we pushed on to the metro following several sets of confusing and poorly given directions before eventually stumbling upon it. We scratched our heads, figured out how to buy our 1-way tickets and jumped on a tram hoping it was going the right way. Whomever was in charge of making the city tourist friendly failed fairly badly. Parts are decent, but most of it is a confusing, poorly marked disaster.

We eventually found our way to the hostel, checked in and quickly collapsed into a long nap. When we eventually woke up and dragged ourselves out of bed it was almost noon. We introduced ourselves to our new roommates…an American couple from Colorado…then set out to explore the town. Eager to take things easy we spent several hours wandering aimlessly and taking in the sights. We found a few bookstores and restocked on reading material for downtime during our stay and in preparation for our flights back to the states. We scrounged up some food then headed back for another nap and a wash up.

When we finally awoke we ate a nice dinner, then made our way to a nearby hostel which dominates the traveler scene in the city and has a cheaply priced bar. We grabbed a few drinks, met some people and then eventually headed out at 11:30 when the bar closed with a large group of Philipinos and one of the off-duty barmen to an irish pub. Later we hit a night club where in typical form, with the help of a few of the Philipino girls, we took to the dance floor and got the club on it’s feet. We danced until 2. As we were resting one of the bartenders told us if we were not going to order a drink from him right at that moment that we couldn’t sit at the barstools. Pissed off we left him a two cent tip and left. We were effectively responsible for the dance floor being busy and probably most of the business that had stayed as a result /shrug. We wandered around a bit, exploring the packed, grungy bar scene before eventually making our way back to the hostel in a controlled-semi-lost sort of meander. As I reflect on it, it’s really pretty surprising the only conflict we have had was the one incident in Naples. The shady streets, with steel storefronts pulled down, covered in grit and graffiti were definitely a bit intimidating in places…areas that just seem made for trouble. Perhaps it’s luck or perhaps it’s presence. Who knows!

The next morning we woke up and decided to dedicate the day to the archeological museum. After catching the metro we wandered around the area before eventually making our way into the museum which unfortunately closed at 3:00. We managed to get there by noon and dedicated the next 3 hours to exploring the statues, frescoes, artifacts and vases from Ancient Greece. It’s truly an incredible experience. In Europe there are two museums that you need to see. Once you’ve seen those, the rest are icing on the cake but more local flavor than necessity. The British Museum is one (mainly because they stole everything important from everywhere) and the Athens museum (mostly because they got almost all of it back from the British, lol).

The artwork is incredible, the famous pieces (Athena, Poseidon, Pan and Artemis, Agamemnon’s mask etc.) were all captivating. I think my favorite is without a doubt the statue of Artemis and Pan though it’s so hard to pick a favorite. The level of detail, animation and the beauty that comes through in most of the Greek statuary and art is incredible. It’s a shame it would harm the artwork to touch it, as I’ve always found that things like statuary seem to be better appreciated when explored with multiple senses. It brings out the life in them and perhaps anchors the experience making it seem more real, instead of a surreal moment looking at what your mind tells you must just be another photograph.

In addition to the famous pieces, several that really stood out that were slightly less common: Beautiful bird/dragonesque heads made out of bronze and oxidized a blue-green, a 3-4 foot tall vase with a gorgeous Greek war helmet in black relief with a tan background, a set of beautiful daggers and a remarkable near-black bronze face.

The heads had initially been placed on some sort of large container, their falco-dragonesque features were somewhat square with curved beaks and heavy eyebrows. The image is one that captivated me, and I think I’ll look into tweaking and using at a later date for some sort of emblem or project. Perhaps as a logo for my various projects or personal website? Hard to say.

The vase (wrong name perhaps?) was a larger version of how I always picture Greek vases…Slightly wider in the middle, it was black except for the tan area surrounding the side view of an intricately detailed, artistically plumed war helmet.

The daggers were stunning. There were 3 with blades that had turned into gnarly rusted out blue pieces of metal, but, the inlaid engraving on the blades was still visible, unlike the rest of the blades it had not rusted – so I presume it was silver. The imagery on the blades depicted lions battling, sea animals and soldiers. The style was intricate with a realistic leaning. It romanticized the animals portraying them slightly blockier than life which ended up being profoundly flattering. There was also an amazing jade dagger on display. The tip of the blade was gone, however, the lower half of the blade and the hilt were still intact. The thin, deep green jade blade was fascinating and perfectly accented by the gorgeous pommel.

The face was interesting. It was about the size of a soccer ball with a gnarly beard that flowed into wild and slightly curly hair. The face was that of an old man and may have been Zeus or Poseidon. In addition to a powerful example of bronze statuary, it was made all that much more impressive by the eye. On the dark metal the eyes were inlaid in ivory with jet black pupils creating a piercing, penetrating gaze that not only followed you but felt almost alive. It was amazing…deep white orbs that sucked you in and transported you back thousands of years to a different time and place.

With tired feet, exhausted eyes and a sore back I eventually met Lander outside of the museum and from there we wandered and explored for another hour or two before finding a cheap internet cafe to get caught up on some things. After a mandatory nap we set out again and met up with some randoms as well as a few of the girls we had met the night before. We had a quiet evening at the hostel bar and a small lounge down the street dodging the rain as long as possible.

Which brings me to today – it’s been a beautiful one. After last night’s rain we half expected the day to be a oppressive and cloudy. When we first woke up a bit after 8, it was. Not in the mood to fight the weather we went back to bed and as it worked out, by 10 when we checked again the rain was gone and quickly replaced by a cloudless blue sky. We had heard a rumor that all of the museums were free – so eager to take advantage of the reduced (free) admission we set off to the Acropolis. Before long we found ourselves passing by the amphitheater and minding our way up a slippery marble path toward the Acropolis. After a few minutes walk through old olive trees whose bases were surrounded by thick sheets of dark green clovers and grass we reached the Acropolis, walked in unimpeded and began to explore.

Unfortunately, most of the Parthenon was surrounded by a latticework of pipes and scaffolding. They do renovation which replaces old structural improvements with modern marble instead of iron bars. If not for the well-preserved temples we had seen in Paestum Italy (of all places ehh?) we would have been a bit disappointed. Because of the rain there was almost no smog and we were presented with a beautiful 360 degree view of the city as it sprawls out and away in every direction. From the mountains to the port, we could see it all. While the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding the other main structure (the Erectheum I think – the one with the female caryatids) was in beautiful shape. It was the highlight of the trip up to the Acropolis. The figures were stunning, the backdrop gorgeous and the building they are attached to was also really impressive. As we walked around it, several of the old windows framed the sky and cityscape in the valley around us.

After taking in the Acropolis we made our way down into the ruins in the large park around the base of the mountain. There we found a small museum in a long re-constructed forum-like building as well as a small temple building in near immaculate shape. As we wandered through the area we also paused briefly at a tiny ancient church built in the classic style. Though scarcely the size of a house it was beautiful and sandwiched between a palm tree and old olive tree. After stopping for a photo we continued our wandering through the ruins and eventually made our way down into the flea market.

We had waited to explore the market hoping to maximize the experience. While the daily flea market area is massive, on Sundays it overflows onto nearby streets and is supplemented by anyone and everyone with a blanket and something to sell. Where the regular vendors tend to be overpriced and a bit more organized, the Sunday warriors are vastly different. Most have a sheet with random things literally dumped out of boxes into mounds. From pounds of old notes, coins and phonecards to beautiful old watches, jewelry, clothing – we even saw old motherboards piled in one spot. It’s a boiling mass of humanity and chock full of incredible things.

As we walked along exploring I found several items I had been looking for. Two of which I was able to purchase for 10 and 15 Euro respectively and which I later price-checked very similar objects at more established vendors for 75 and 150 euros respectively. We explored, saw tons of wonderful things and found a few more small items before grabbing lunch, making our way back to the hostel for a nap, pausing to spend a Euro on a bag full of beautifully ripened tangerines that came apart in our hands as we peeled them. Back at the hostel we napped briefly before heading down to the internet cafe where I’m writing this e-mail. From here we will hit up the hostel bar again and see where the night takes us.

Time to continue the adventure…until tomorrow!

Scotland

It’s about 11:00PM Sunday evening here – and I’m just winding down from an incredible 3 day tour of the Isle of Skye and Scottish highlands. After arriving and meeting a few of the guys in my sleeping area we hit up the town and explored a bit.

Day 1: The first night a group of 4 of us formed up and headed down to the local Three sisters Pub which has a large outside area and was showing the Scotland-France soccer game. The pub was packed and the energy level was insane – after a lot of back and forth Scotland eventually scored which resulted in an explosion of activity and excitement…everyone was jumping up and down and shaking things, pints, and pint glasses fell to the ground left and right, and the whole crowd was jumping up and down in excitement. After things settled down a bit Scotland eventually won, 1 zip which led to another round of celebration. From there we explored a few other pubs, met a number of other travelers and eventually found our way back to the Hostel.

Day 2: I woke up fairly early, did some wash, got settled and set out to explore the town with Chris – one of the guys from the night before. We started with a 3 hour free walking tour of the city, which covered history, and was just a great general intro to the city. Edinburgh is really incredible, because as a capital city – it’s incredibly small and has a fantastic historic/old town. In addition to the old town and tenement buildings, the closest part of the new town was all built in the Victorian era at the same time on a master planned design. So it has an incredible classical uniformity, beautifully laid out pedestrian and motor oriented areas and a great standard look. When the tour ended we explored the city proper a bit, found a market, the bus station, the train station, and a number of other random stops before returning to the hostel, cooking dinner, socializing with a few randoms in the kitchen, then taking a quick snooz. About 10:00 we woke up and made our way down to what I hoped was going to be an active Salsa club. Unfortunately, it was a standard night and the turnout was poor – i’ll try again Monday (which is a designated salsa night). After leaving the salsa club – pretty much upon entry we walked around a bit more and sampled a few other random pubs. Unfortunately, while Edinburgh has a ton of natural beauty, it’s missing natural beauties. About to give up and call it a night, we stumbled into an odd Cafe/bar that had a great local crowd and was full of attractive, friendly girls. After an hour or two we called it a night – both having early mornings.

Day 3: I decided to do a 3 day Isle of Skye/Highland Tour to really get a good taste. The tour consisted of 10 people. Myself, Simon (our Driver/Tour Guide, 2 other Americans, A Tasmanian, A Hungarian, 3 People from Taiwan and 2 Germans. From Edinburgh we made our way straight into the country side. Our first stop was the castle where Mary Queen of Scots was born for coffee/tea and to introduce ourselves. From there we made our way to a historic battle field where Simon shared a mixture of folklore and history with us. After the battle field we meandered through the lowland country side – which included a brief stop to feed/see a harry island cow (had to throw tater and carrot slices at the fat thing to get it to come visit/eat some more). When we crossed into the highlands we made a quick stop to look at the country side/rolling mountains/talk about peat at which time Simon also pulled a bottle of single malt Scotch Whiskey from his pocket and explained what made it special, before teaching us a traditional toast and then passing the bottle around. The bottle of scotch followed us throughout the trip and served as a fun little tradition whenever we had stops that were exposed, especially cold, or rural and significant.

After our introduction to the Highlands we continued on making a few other stops to explore lochs, glens, or take pictures. Eventually we arrived at the valley of Glencoe made famous in songs and folk lore that recalls the massacre that occurred there. The place itself is incredible. A riveting valley with rich waterfalls and steep, graceful walls all around you. We parked and walked the 1/4 of a mile or so down to the river where we paused for more lore/history before making the way back up to the bus. When I get photos up – this is definitely one set you need to see. From Glencoe we continued along our way making a few other stops and eventually coming to a reconstructed version of an old castle. The castle sat out on a small island and was connected by a bridge. Rebuilt to spec in the early 1900s it was incredibly picturesque. As the sun set, and the golden rays of dusk started to reach out and embrace the castle we took a few photos, shivered from the cold northern wind and piled back in the bus. From there we had one final brief stop at a super market to pick up food for the evening and headed to the hostel. All the while the sunset was one of the most incredibly and gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen. In fact, it was so incredible, as we wound down a 1 lane rural road we stopped to just take it in for about 15 minutes (the whole sunset lasted a good hour).

We reached the hostel which was a great little place, then started cooking – as part of the tour we all paid an additional £35 which included lodging, breakfast, and dinner. We BBQd Ribs, Hamburger, Sausage, and Chicken before all heading to the local (tiny) pub to meet some of the locals and reflect on the day.

Day 4: (The Isle of Skye) – The day was a blustery, cloudy, rainy day – one quite different than the day before. We left our main packs at the hostel (we’d return there again for the evening after making a circuit of skye) and piled into the van. The first 30 minutes or so was pretty quiet as everyone suffered through their respective hangovers and tried to figure out what exactly had happened the night before – but then shortly after that we all got back into touring mode. A good 20 minutes took us to the main bridge from the mainland into Skye and another 10 minutes later we stopped at a lookout that sat across from a huge, majestic, bald, sweeping mountain. At the foot of the mountain and all around us there were – what looked a bit like large ant hills made in the peat. There Simon told us about the folklore that claimed that each was a Fairy den and how the locals avoided harvesting peat from them out of respect. As the weather continued to deteriorate we piled back into the car and made our way further up the coast. After a few other fun stops for local lore, history, or fun photo shoots we came to a set of high cliffs that reminded me of a miniature version of the cliffs of moehr (Moore?) in Ireland – except, unlike those cliffs a waterfall shot out and off the down one side, spilling crystal blue water out and down the 200 or so feet to the rocky cliffs below. On the other end of the lookout we could see the sheer cliffs as they plunged into the sea.

We left the cliffs and made our way to one of the old ruler’s former castle. The castle was perched majestically on the side of a cliff overlooking a bay, with a large island. The spot we stopped initially gave us a great vantage point while Simon told us a bit of the history. From there though, several of us decided to brave the rain and howling winds and make the 10-15 minute walk the long way to the castle. It was well worth it. After arriving at the castle and exploring it briefly the others (who had stayed in the van and come around to walk out a shorter – straight but less interesting path) arrived as well. Hunkered down in a corner overlooking the bay Simon again recounted more of the Castle’s quirky history. As we made our way back down to the van we had to cross a stretch of exposed coastline. The wind was so fierce that you could lean halfway into it. The sheer power of it inflated your cheeks and stole the breath from your lungs as the soft rain stung your face. It was incredible! The energy, power and crispness. The castle behind us, cliff to the side of us, beautiful gray torn ocean out past us and highlands in front of us.

Drenched, cold, and excited we continued on a short way where we elected to stop at a small goods shop. Where we picked up sandwiches, hot pies, and drinks – before heading down to the coast where teh waves were crashing in. Huddled in the van we pulled up onto the dock and faced out into the wind and the bay while we ate our meals and watched the wind blow the rain past us. The sea and sky merged into one gray, glorious entity as the waves came crashing in onto the black rocks dotted with orange seaweed and kelp. After finishing lunch we continued along our way and eventually came to stop at a beautiful waterfall near the road. Behind the waterfall as a majestic backdrop was an incredible stone formation that looked like a spear or spire sticking up from the mountain. Again after a few photos, a lot of water, wind and rain, and a few people slipping and sliding on the wet grass/hill we paused with the waterfall crashing down beside us to listen to Simon recount the story of an old man (who later became the stone spire) and the brownie he helped.

From there we continued along the way – almost all 1 lane roads – surrounded by hundreds of waterfalls, awe inspiring highland mountains, beautiful lochs, and peat covered in blooming heather (a beautiful red/purple low bush) to what Simon called the fairy Glen. The glen was a beautiful little area with a climbable spire – about 100 feet up that offered an incredible view of the valley, loch etc. Just visible through the mist and fog across the valley were huge waterfalls. Meanwhile in the glen there were sheep everywhere, wild ferns, peat, old treas covered in green moss, small streams and a gorgeous waterfall. We explored the glen for a good 40 minutes. It reminded me of some of the opening scenes in the Lord of the Rings/the parts around Rivendell – only it was real, the rain was still falling but more of a light mist and with just a bit of wind.

From there we continued along and stopped for goods and a snack at one of the larger towns on Skye. We checked out an interesting Himalayan bizarre they were having, i grabbed some chips (fries) and then we headed home.

I’ve left bits out, and I’ll try and follow up when I have better internet access – needless to say though – it was incredible.

Day 5: The return – I’m out of time now but it was also a great day. Mixed weather we stopped at Loch Ness, an incredible canyon where there was a beautiful waterfall with jumping salmon and moss covered trees, the last battlefield ever fought on British soil and a quick scenic stop. I’ll have to continue later as I’m out of time. Hope to get photos up soon!