Back in Barcelona. Back to blogging?

I’m in Barcelona.    In fact, I’m back in Barcelona after nearly a year.    I arrived  here at the end of August 2012 and embarked on an 8-month journey that I lovingly referred to as my mid-life crisis.

Since first landing here almost exactly 12 months  ago,  I’ve  travelled to Portugal, Andorra, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Egypt, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia.   It was the trip of a lifetime.    My goal, when I first started out, was to keep an active blog about the trip.   Friends have been telling me for years that I should write about my travels.     Since I had started this blog in January of last year on my road trip across the US southwest, I had no excuse not to write about all my experiences.   The URL was there and the intent was there.   A few entries were made, but my foray into blogging didn’t last long.

There were so many posts I meant to write.   I wanted to write about the amazing yoga retreat I attended on Nisyros in Greece.   I had full intentions on writing a day by day rundown of my eye-opening experience visiting the wonders of Ancient Greece.   After a life changing 9 day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, I couldn’t wait to share my experience.   I planned to put together a video diary featuring the wonderful people I met along the way – both locals and fellow travelers.

But I didn’t.       I kept a journal (most of the time), and I religiously posted photos to my private Facebook page, but the blog just seemed like to much work to maintain.  It takes time to come up with the perfectly written blog post.  Choosing and uploading photos out of thousands can take an entire afternoon.      And would it be worth it?  Who would be reading my blog?   Would there even anyone out there to appreciate all my effort?

Now, a year later, I wish I had taken the time.    I would have appreciated my own effort.    Being back in the city where I started my journey, I can’t help but reflect on the last 12 months.    I would love to go back and reread my blog posts, even if no one else had read them in the first place.   I was so concerned about trying to write the perfect blog for an audience that I didn’t even know if it existed, that I forgot who I was actually writing for – me.   There’s no such thing as the perfect blog post.  These were my stories.     They certainly weren’t perfect, but they were mine.    Having the blog entries would have helped keep the stories alive in my mind.   I have my memories, but they fade over time.

Since finishing my trip at the end of April of 2013 I’ve been lucky enough to embark on a new career that also takes me around the world.  In the last few months work has taken me to Alaska and up the entire Norwegian coast line (even further north than the Arctic Circle).   I’ve been to Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Portugal, and here I am, back in Spain.   And more travel awaits over the next five months.  A lot more travel.

So again I have the goal.  To blog about my experiences as I travel this wonderful world.       I’m writing for me, but if you’re reading, leave a comment.   I’d like to know if there’s an audience out there.   If there is, maybe I’ll start writing for you. 🙂

 

back in barcelona

Back in Barcelona!

 

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Why Kathmandu Became Kathman-don’t

Before I left for this trip I was having a discussion about my upcoming travel plans with a Vancouver taxi driver.  I listed off the European countries I was going to hit, mentioned the tour of Egypt and then said “and I’ll be finishing it off with 3-6 months in Nepal”.     “Nepal?  Why did you choose Nepal?”  he asked.   My response:  “I didn’t.  It chose me.”

The story of how I decided to come to Nepal is a long one, one that involves a random sign posted in a shop and a series of emails back and forth with an organization based here.   When I arrived to the Kathmandu airport on October 30, I purchased my 90 day visa for $100 and set off to the accommodation that was awaiting me.   My *plan*  was to take advantage of the opportunity that brought me here; I would live and work in Kathmandu for three months.  I would then extend my visa for another few months so that I could travel the country.

Nothing against the organization that I was to work for, but things didn’t exactly go to plan.    It’s neither their fault nor mine, but there was miscommunication of what the expectations were on both ends.    After only a few days I was ready to call it quits.   This was disappointing to me to say the least.    I had to give it a little longer before throwing in the towel.  After all, I’d come to the opposite side of the world.

Something else that I had not counted on was my dislike for Kathmandu.   I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was not it.  For starters the city is incredibly smoggy.  More so than any other city I’ve been to.  From the cars to the dust, I felt as though my lungs were black after only a few days.   It’s no wonder that most locals wear facemasks on a daily basis.

My office and my accommodation were a five-minute walk from one another, which would be an ideal commute, but the neighbourhood I was in had very little to offer.   It was certainly a very chaotic neighbourhood, one which was a cultural (shock) experience to say the least, but with nothing really to see for blocks on end other than local shops and one small temple, it didn’t hold its foreign appeal for very long.

Going out and exploring the town in the evenings was not an option, as there was a house curfew of 8:00pm.    Break the curfew and you have to find alternate accommodation.  So if I wanted to stay out after dinner, I’d need a hotel.    So for my first 4 days in the country of Nepal, all I saw was a two block radius, back and forth from a house down a dirt path, over a main roadway with an insane amount of traffic, down another dirt path to get to the office.   It may only have been four days, but it felt like four weeks.  I was already feeling as though I was missing out on so many things.  What kind of three months would this be?  Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt the city has a lot to offer.  I just had not had a chance to appreciate any of it.

By my first weekend in town I desperately needed a change of scenery so I stayed two nights in the backpacker district of Thamel.  While not exactly a local cultural experience, it did provide me an opportunity to wander around at my own free will, eat when and where I wanted and treat myself to a massage.

After my second week at the job I was sorry to say I had had enough.  If I go into detail it will sound like I’m complaining, which I don’t want to do, but it was bad enough that I just couldn’t be there any more.   Not at all the working environment I had hoped for.   And not the place that I wanted to waste away a perfectly good 90-day visa for a far off country like Nepal.   I felt like a quitter and wrote several emails to friends back home about my dilemma.  The solution ultimately was an easy one.  If I wanted to be happy, I needed to leave.      With a heavy heart and a torn-to-shreds work ethic I let the office know my decision.  They understood and we were able to come to an alternate agreement, so I am still involved with them, just in another capacity – one which does not need me to stay in Kathmandu for three months.

The next  day was a complete change of pace.  Having free time during the day I was now able to go and explore what else Kathmandu had to offer, namely the valley on the outskirts of town.  Just a mere few kilometers from town, in a town called Chobar, my friends and I were able to escape the smog, see nature and appreciate the beauty that is Nepal.

Without knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we did an underground cave tour of South Asia’s longest caves.   This was not a walking tour, but we actually had to crawl on our bellies through some of the smallest spaces I have ever seen.  This was not the time to be afraid of small spaces or have a panic attack.

Feeling motivated that Nepal had so much to offer other than chaotic Kathmandu, I booked my passage out of the city. Knowing that I was about to go and explore the rest of the country, I had a new appreciation for the city, now that I was about to leave.   I visited Swayambhunath, one of the most amazing temples that I have ever seen, and the Garden of Dreams – an oasis in the middle of the city.

I have no doubt that I’ll be back to Kathmandu.  In fact, I can almost guarantee it.  But first I have the country of Nepal to explore.  First on the agenda:  A trek through the mountains.  Stay tuned…

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What a Wonderful (third) World

I’ve been in Nepal for just under 2 weeks, and though it’s my first time in this country, there are certain third-world travel characteristics that are always present regardless of which 3rd world country I happen to be in.

Signs you are travelling in a 3rd world country:

  1. You always have toilet paper  in your purse.
  2. Bowel movements is a perfectly acceptable conversation topic with people you’ve known for 2  hours.
  3. You justify any purchase simply by converting into dollars.
  4. Things that were a novelty  at first – drinking soft drinks out of a plastic bag, stray dogs everywhere, cows in the middle of traffic, 6 people on one motorbike –  suddenly seem normal.
  5. Your western wardrobe is slowly replaced by locally made clothing including bright colored pants  and Buddha t-shirts.
  6. You brush your teeth with  bottled water. Or at least you do for the first week. Eventually the tap water doesn’t seem so bad.
  7. “Clean” becomes “Clean enough” and then “It’ll do” and eventually “Whatever”. This applies to the clothes you wear and the bathrooms you visit.
  8. You never wash your hands with soap. You’re lucky to even wash your hands.
  9. Hot showers are something to get incredibly excited about.
  10. Rinsing a plate off with cold water is an acceptable form of doing dishes.
  11. You have some sort of  play-on-words sickness– Delhi belly, Katmandu-flu
  12. You bargin for everything  and eventually lose sight over the fact that you’re standing your ground  on a price that translates to less than 50 cents.
  13. You search for menu items  that are the least likely to make you sick.
  14. Personal space takes on a  new meaning as you travel in a vehicle built for 4 at home with at least 8 other people.
  15. You start to speak English  as a foreign language – “I go now” “I come back later” “Is ok?”

Have you travelled in a 3rd country? Is there anything I’ve missed?

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When in Serbia, Eat as the Serbs Do

I went to Novi Sad, Serbia to visit a friend of mine.  It was my first time in this country and I enjoyed staying with a local who was able to not only act as my translator, but also my guide, making sure I saw a proper mix of tourist attractions and local haunts.

On my first afternoon there, my host asked me what I wanted to have for lunch.   My reply?  “Serbian food”.       I had no idea what that would include and when he took me to an authentic local restaurant I told him that I would try anything once.  After all, isn’t that part of the travel experience?

The meal started off average enough with a bowl of soup.

First course: wine, soup, and beets.

After the soup, that’s when things got interesting.   I was told the next course would be a bean stew.   Fantastic.  What I wasn’t told was what else would be in the stew.

What’s that in my bean stew?

Oh that would be pig’s feet.

That’s right.  Pig’s feet.   I’m not vegetarian, but I did have a hard time with this.   But I did stick to my guns about trying everything once.  It is a local dish after all.  For a country that has suffered through war and strife, there’s no reason they wouldn’t eat pig’s feet.  Why throw away perfectly good meat?  Nothing goes to waste.  Nothing.  I’d soon find out more about that.  Anyways, pig’s feet.  Tastes like bacon.  Really fatty bacon.

I don’t know if I was full or if I’d lost my appetite, but when the next course appeared, I was no longer feeling as confident in my dining decision.

Fries, mashed potatoes, and what else?

Sitting there on the table in front of me, was a plate full of pig’s brains.    I wasn’t kidding when I said they really don’t waste anything.   Psyching myself up to eat brains was not an easy task.   I’m obviously not as adventurous as I thought.   When the tiny morsel of brain finally did cross my lips, all I noticed was the texture.  I don’t think there’s a word in the English language to describe it.   Yes there is.  It felt like I had a mouth full of brains.   As for the taste, I barely noticed.  Texture trumped everything.

Fried Pig Brain

My friend said that in order to enjoy the brains I needed to cover it in lemon juice, salt and tartar sauce.  Oh.    Did this mean I needed to have more?  Yes, yes it did, and after covering another morsel in the above mentioned condiments I tried again.  It did taste better, but nothing could take the texture away.       I had tried it twice.  That was enough for me.

I really couldn’t eat another bite, but I didn’t want brains to be the last thing I had, so when dessert was offered, I jumped at it.     Fortunately dessert was as simple as a chocolate crepe.

Now this is more like it.

The following day there was still apparently more local food for me to sample, so we went to another authentic restaurant.    Having slept off my meal from the day prior, I was once again feeling brave enough to eat whatever what was put in front of me.

We started with a shot of herb liquor.  So far, so good.

“Pelinkovac”

Then came the meat.  Lots of meat.   We had two different entrees so that we could share.  One would have been enough.  These portions were enormous.  Plus the food was incredibly heavy.

“Cevapi sa kajmakom”

On one plate we had sausages.   When I asked what kind of meat was in the sausages, the answer was ‘mixed’.   What interested me more than the sausages themselves was the two white scoops sitting atop the pile.  This is made by collecting the fatty film that sits atop cooked milk.

The other plate had more meat.   This was the national schnitzel dish, which was huge.  The size (and shape I suppose)  has earned this dish the nickname Man’s Pride, Woman’s Desire.   I’m not joking.

“Karadjordjeva snicla”

There was no way I could eat dessert after this meal, so instead we went for a walk in the woods.     It was either that or fall into a Serbian food coma.

My foray into Serbian eating impressed my host and earned me the right to consider myself an honorary Serbian.  Now where can I get a salad?

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Gondola in Venice – Tourist Trap or Worth the Hype?

The first time I went to Venice I was 7 years old.  The story my parents tell me is that they wanted to take me on a gondola ride, but I didn’t want to go.

They say I was afraid that the gondola would tip over;  there was not enough room for us to go under the low bridges.     I was scared I’d fall into a canal.   Apparently there were tears.

In order to ease my worry, the gondolier put his hat on me and that was enough to convince me.   Well, that and my parents bribed me with a toy.

Fast forward 33 years.    When it was decided that my Italian itinerary would include a stop in the city of canals, I  wondered if my time in Venice should include a gondola cruise.   A little bit of research online quickly made me decide against it.   Every review I read said not to bother – it’s too expensive, the trip is too short, it’s a tourist trap.  That’s the problem with online reviews – everyone is a critic.

In any case, by the time we arrived in Venice, I was already over the idea of reliving my seven-year old self’s adventure.

My travelling companions on the other hand, really wanted to go, so I figured if they went, I would go too.

We asked around about the going rate.  It seemed to come with the standard answer of 80 Euros for a round trip journey of approximately 20-40 minutes.   While this is hardly cheap, it didn’t seem completely unreasonable, so it was decided that we would go for it.

The following morning we set off to find a gondolier.   We had a plan of attack – we were going to get a discount, and we were not going to agree to being dropped off in the same place we started.

Like every other hotel in town, we were near one of the smaller canals and it didn’t take long to find a gondolier who was willing to take us out.

From the onset the price was fixed at 80 Euros for a 2 kilometer journey.  Though we tried, there was no negotiating.  We attempted to get a discount to 60 Euros, we tried to lock him into a length of time and not just a distance, we tried to get him to agree taking us from point A to point B instead of a round trip.  No, nope, nu-uh.   Everything was set in stone, though he did say that ordinarily it’s 80 Euros for 4 people, but he would do it for the five of us.        We agreed and climbed into our narrow ride.

As it turned out, going on the gondola was one of the best experiences I had in Venice.

Our gondolier was not just our ‘captain’, but he was also a tour guide, pointing out all sights along the way and giving us all sorts of information about Venice.  He was eager to answer any questions we had about life in this city built on the water.   He showed us everything from Casanova’s house to the bridge Madonna danced under in her 1984 Like a Virgin video.   He even sang a little bit to us, much to my delight.

Our 2 km ride took approximately  ½ hour but it was definite bang for buck.  We went through several of the smaller canals, under the tiny bridges, and even spent a good 10 minutes on the Grand Canal.

Granted, going on the gondola  may be a *touristy* thing to do, but it is also rich in tradition.  Our gondolier was a 5th generation gondolier.   His father’s great grandfather started the family lineage of this career choice and he proudly follows suit today.    As far as I’m concerned, that far outweighs the tourist trap element of it.

At the end of our journey we all kicked in 18 Euros, covering the cost of the journey plus a decent tip.  It was well worth it.   My advice is this – if you want to take a gondola ride, don’t listen to the critics.    I’m glad I didn’t.

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Saying Goodbye to Greece

As we approached the Departures door of the Athens airport, I stopped briefly to take one last breath of Greek air.  I continued through the airport door and immediately tears sprang to my eyes.  This country touched my heart and soul in so many ways.  My connection and attraction to the land, the people, the food, the culture and the hospitality was stronger than I ever could have imagined.   I wiped the tears from my eyes,  and knew that whatever force that was preventing me from wanting to leave, would also be the same one to ensure that I return to this wonderful land again in the near future.

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It’s All Greek (Salad) to Me

One of the highlights of Greece?  Greek salad every day, with every meal.   It’s just better here!

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Is it a dream or is it Mykonos?

When a place is too beautiful for words to describe, let the photos speak 1000s…

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Hanging With The Oracle ~ A Day At Delphi

As soon as I had decided that I would be going to Greece on my travels I knew that a day trip from Athens to Delphi was definitely something that I would be taking advantage of.

When it comes to Ancient Greek history Delphi is very important as it was once believed to be the center of the Universe. The story goes that Zeus released two eagles to the sky and they were both to circle the earth in opposite directions. Where they met would be the center of the world.  They met in Delphi and there is a rock there to signify this location.

To get to Delphi I had 2 options – take an organized tour or take a bus.  There were certainly pros and cons to both but I preferred to take a bus and go there on my own. This way I could see the sight at my own pace just as I had at the Acropolis a couple days prior.  Unfortunately, according to all the research I did, it didn’t seem to be very easy to go by bus.      Not only was the bus station apparently really difficult to find, (even more so in the dark early morning), but the morning departures are at 7:30am and 10:30am and there’s no reserving seats, but rather first come first serve.  Show up too late for the popular 7:30am departure and you’re stuck waiting 3 hours until the next one.  The same applies for the return –  if the last bus back to Athens at 6:30pm is full and you’re not on it you’re forced to spend the night.   Believe me when I say I’m all for going it on my own, but for a one day excursion this seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.

So I decided to do a tour.   I booked with Adrianos which has an office in the Plaka. They were offering a full day Delphi tour for 76 Euros through G.O. Tours. The brochure price is 91 Euros so this was a considerable discount.   There was an option to add 10 Euros for lunch, but I decided against it.

This is the tour description text directly from the brochure:

Drive through the fertile plain of Beotia, crossing the towns of Thebes connected with the tragedy of King Oedipus – Levadia and Arachova (short stop on the way back). Arrive at Delphi, the center of the Ancient World. On the slopes of Mount Parnassus, in a landscape of unparalleled beauty and majesty, lie the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo Pythios. Visit the Treasury of the Anthenians, the Temple of Apollo and the Museum containing such modern masterpieces of Ancient Greek sculpture as the bronze Charioteer and the famous athlete Aghias. Lunch in the modern village of Delphi, return to Athens via the same route.

It sounded pretty good to me.  As I was booking my ticket for the following morning I was told that I would be picked up at my hotel.  However once the reservation was made and paid for, I was instead told that I had to meet at a hotel approximately 3 blocks from my hotel. Not a big deal, but based on what happened when I got picked up, I feel like I should have been given a choice.

I was told to be at the other hotel at 7:50am for pick up.   The next morning I was there by 7:45am, and to their credit they were right on time.   Had I been late, I would have missed the bus.  I was immediately impressed when I stepped aboard the bus. – wide seats with lots of legroom. We drove to a couple more hotels for pick up and then ended up downtown at Syndagma Square, and there we sat. And sat. And sat. After 15 minutes an agent came aboard the bus and asked which tour I was doing. I told him Delphi and he instructed I get off the bus and transfer to the grey bus at the front of the queue. That’s when I realized that parked in front of us were 5 other tour buses.

I made my way to the other bus as instructed,  and when I boarded I was disappointed to see that this bus was nowhere near the caliber of the bus I had just been on. I sat and waited on this bus for 15 minutes before the tour guide finally boarded.  We were officially on our way at 8:45am, nearly an hour after I had been picked up at a hotel that was not mine. Had I been given a choice of being picked up at 7:50 or meeting the tour at the Square at 8:40am  I would have likely chosen the latter.  Small detail.

The drive out to Delphi was to take 3 hours and our guide Angela told us we’d be stopping after 2 hours for a coffee break. The ride to the first stop was uneventful. She gave a little bit of commentary about the area, but I soon fell asleep.

The coffee break was at a restaurant/gift shop specifically geared towards tour buses. Serving overpriced drinks and  selling expensive knick knacks, it was also here where Angela ran into some of her tour guide buddies. It was from them she learned that it was raining out at Delphi.

I was not prepared for rain.  I’d dressed for the only weather that I’d seen in Athens since I arrived, which was hot and sunny. Shorts and sandals was probably not the best choice for today it turned out. My only saving grace was that my long sleeved t-shirt (which I’d put on only because I’d left the hotel while it was still dark out, and therefore a little chilly,) had a hood. This cotton hood would save me from the rain. How bad could it be?

As we continued the drive toward Delphi the rain started to come down, and instantly I started to regret my decision to come on this tour. I had spent the equivalent of $100 to walk around in the rain. I knew though that if I had decided to do this on my own, I’d still be walking around in the rain, but I’d have gone to much more effort to do so. I’m a firm believer in “I’d rather regret the things I did, than the things I didn’t”, and even though it was a little (or a lot) soggy out, I would have been mad at myself if I didn’t go.

As we pulled into the Delphi ruins site, I could hardly see out the bus window because it was so foggy.  Angela told us the story of Delphi while we were still on the bus, to save us from unnecessarily standing out in the rain. She then told us to grab our umbrellas and make our way off the bus. One look around at the other passengers and I realized that I was not the only one without an umbrella. One woman asked if the tour company was providing them. Our tour guides’ response? We should have bought one back at the rest stop.  Well, that’s brilliant advice 60 minutes too late.

One person asked if they had to get off the bus. We were offered the option to go for a walk to see the ruins in the rain, or to go directly to the museum. Miss the ruins because of a little rain? Not an option. I was the first one off the bus, with my cotton hood pulled over my head.

We went up to the entrance gate and stood waiting in the rain while Angela bought our tickets. This is probably something she could have done while we were still waiting on a dry bus, but either way, I was getting soaked.

As we made our way up the Sacred Way, the rain did start to clear.   As I approached the ancient city of Delphi a haze fell upon us, and because of the site’s dramatic location amongst cliffs and trees, it was incredibly mystical.

We walked past the pillars that once made the columns of the treasuries before reaching the Treasury of the Athenians that is still largely intact.   Angela provided us with historical commentary along the way, and happily it did stop raining.

As we came up around the bend we reached the Altar of Apollo and the Temple of Apollo.  This is what I had come to see.  This was the exact place that the story of the Pythian Oracle comes from.  According to legend the Oracle would utter prophecies on behalf of the God Apollo.  Ancient Greeks would come here with offerings and ask questions about their futures and their destinies.  The answers that the Oracle would provide was the basis of decisions on everything from love to war.    Set up there with a view of the olive trees and the sea it is a wonderful testament to how history and mythology mixed together in this one location.    I had read about this before coming and was looking forward to hearing more of the story.

Anglea, my guide, however was not onboard with the legend.  While she did mention the ancient belief, she was very quick to point out that there was in fact no Oracle, and it was just a ruse set up by priests as a way to fool people into bringing offerings thinking that they would receive advice from the all knowing Oracle.    Maybe so, but did she have to crush the idea of an Oracle so quickly?

At this stage Angela announced that we had free time to explore the sight and then we were to meet back on the bus 15 minutes later in order to head toward the museum.  It is also right around this time that it started to rain again.   I quickly ascended the slope that lead to the theater and the stadium, taking care not to let my camera get too wet from the beating down rain.    By the time I was making my way back to the bus it was pouring once again and for this reason alone, 15 minutes of free time was more than plenty.  Had it been a nice day, I would definitely have felt that the time was far too rushed.

Once everyone was back on board we drove 5 minutes over to the Delphi Museum where we had a quick guided visit.  Within the museum walls there are many artifacts that were saved from the Delphi sight during escavation.  While not a big collection it is impressive.

The next stop would be the town of Delphi for lunch.    Everyone  on the bus had taken the lunch option except for me.  I was given the option to join them at the restaurant or have free time on my own.  I chose free time.      After being dropped off in town and told what time to meet the bus I wandered around only to find that there’s not much to the actual town of Delphi.  With a population of only 2000, they thrive on being a ruins sight and not much else.  With the exception of a few souvenir stores there wasn’t much to see.   Oh, and it was still raining.   I found a coffee shop and decided to spend the rest of my free time warming up in there.    The owner was delightful, the coffee delicious and the baked feta cheese pastry, to die for.        When I met up with the rest of the tour group I was told that I had been smart to skip the lunch as what they received in the restaurant as part of their tour was (and I quote) “Gross”.

We started the drive back towards Athens stopping along route in the adorable town of Arachova.    We parked directly in front of a carpet / tshirt store where we were told to go inside for a presentation on carpet making.   It was more of a ‘buy this’ presentation.  I chose to wander out the door and up the street for a bit of a mini sightseeing tour of the town itself.  The driver of the bus discouraged me from going, saying that I needed to stay in the store.  My guess is the driver and guide get commission from any sales made.  I chose to walk regardless, and again, despite the rain, I’m glad I did.

The rest of the trip back to Athens was fairly uneventful but unlucky for me I ended up being the last person dropped off, so I was on the bus an hour longer than I needed to be.  Had I known that, I would have jumped off at the first hotel and walked.

At the end of the day I was glad that I had taken the tour, though had it been a nice day, I would have felt as though it was too rushed.  I was thankful that I had had the opportunity to see the ruins of Delphi, but should I ever return to Greece I won’t bother visiting the site again.

It was  days later, after I got back from my excursion that I realized that I had not seen one of the ruins that Delphi is known for, the one that appears in most photographs of the site.  The Sanctuary of Athena Pronea only has 3 columns remaining and is one of the most photographed.

And I missed it because we didn’t walk over to it because of the rain. Hmmm, I guess I have to go back after all. See you next time Oracle.

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2 days in Athens ~ Embracing my Inner Greek Goddess

I have been wanting to visit Greece for as long as I can remember.   In fact, one of the travel posters that I had on my wall as a teenager was of the Acropolis.   Now, finally, at the age of 40 my dream of seeing this ancient monument was going to come to fruition.

My flight arrived from Barcelona at 3:30pm.    I had a hotel booked in the city centre in the neighbourhood of Psiri.    According to  the hotel website I could take the metro from the airport to  Monastiraki station and it would be a 10 minute walk from there.    I love cities that have the metro  line linked directly to the airport.  It’s  a quick, convenient and inexpensive option to get downtown.  Knowing that a taxi would have cost at least 50 Euros, there was no reason not to take public transport.

I bought my metro ticket from the booth for 8 Euros and noted that the blue line from the airport goes directly to the stop I wanted.   So convenient!      An hour later,  I disembarked the subway car and went up the escalator.  There were multiple exits and I had no idea which one to take in order to lead me to the street I was looking for.  I picked an exit at random and as  I walked out onto the street and looked to my left  my heart skipped a beat.

There, above the city was the Acropolis.  Could it be?   Was it that easy to stumble upon?      I stood in shock and awe for a few minutes before realizing that I still needed to get my bearings and find my hotel.   I consulted my map, figured out where I was and set off.  As it turned out, seeing the Acropolis from the metro station made things incredibly easy as I knew I had to walk in the opposite direction to get to where I was heading.    Ten minutes later  I was checking into the Evripides Hotel which I had pre booked on hotels.com for only $40  per night.  The reviews had warned that while the hotel was a steal for the price, the neighbourhood was  on the sketchy side.    If graffiti everywhere means sketchy, then I suppose that’s what it was, but during my time there I always felt safe.

When I arrived at the hotel, the manager greeted me by name, gave me an overview of the hotel facilities and gave me a map and lots of advice.  It was a very warm welcome.  This was only the beginning of the Greek hospitality that I would soon grow to love. I quickly dropped my bags in my room, and set out to find some food and go exploring.      The Psiri neighbourhood I was staying in was only a few blocks from the main shopping thoroughfare of  Ermou, a pedestrian only street with more clothing and shoe stores than one girl could possibly visit in one day.

At the end of the street is Syntagma Square, which is home to the Greek Parliament, and has also been sight to many protests over the past two years.   It would seem that this day was no different.  The entire Filellinon Street was packed with people.  This is not a pedestrian street by any means, but in this case it was so packed with people cars could absolutely not get through.   The crowd was mainly men including, many in army and navy uniforms.     Riot police were standing by, but it was all very peaceful.

I had a quick bite to eat, bought some roasted almonds from a street vendor and decided to end my first day in Athens enjoying a drink and the view from my hotel’s roof top patio.

Brew with a View

Acropolis by Night.

The next morning I woke up very early with only one mission for the day:  To visit the Acropolis and to see as much as possible.   Big mission.  The sun was shining and the sky was a perfect shade of blue when I left the hotel at 8:00am.   My hotel provided a very impressive complimentary breakfast buffet so I was full, fueled and ready to explore ancient Greece.  The walk from the hotel to the Agora entrance of the ruins took under 15 minutes.  Here I bought my entrance ticket for 12 Euros and made my way in.  My heart slowed right down as I walked around the grounds.

Site map of the Agora. See the Acropolis looming overhead.

In Ancient times, the agora was a large public square northwest of the sacred hill of the Acropolis.   The open square was gradually surrounded by temples, administrative buildings and fountain houses.    The Ancient Agora of Athens was the heart of public life.  It was a gathering place, as well as the home to the seat of administrative officials.  It was a religious centre and also a place where theatrical, musical and sporting events took place.    It was a commercial centre, but most of all, it was the ideal place to view the procession of the Great Panathenaic during the festival of the goddess of the city.

Between the view of the Parthenon high above me, and the tranquility of the site I was exploring, it was an incredible experience.  As I had arrived shortly after they opened it was very quiet.  In fact, I had the entire site to myself for at least half an hour.  I wandered amongst the ruins, slowly taking it all in, trying to imagine what life here would have been like  thousands of years ago.

When I reached the Temple of Hephaestus I almost felt as though I’d travelled back in time.   This temple is the most well-preserved  temple in the Greek world,  standing close to as it did during Ancient times.   It has all its columns and pediments in tact, and even has most of its original roof.   As I walked around the base and looked in through the columns, I could almost hear the voices of those who once walked here before me.

 

As the mid morning crowds slowly started to make their way to the Agora, I started to make my way uphill towards the top of the Acropolis.    Along the way I passed the caves of  Zeus and Apollo, two of the most important Gods in Greek mythology.

When I made it to the top, the view that I’d been looking forward to for so many years awaited me.  No matter how many photos I’d seen of it, or even the fact that I’d already seen it from a distance  could prepare me how overwhelming it would be to finally stand atop the Acropolis and gaze at the Pantheon.     Goosebumps, heart skipping a beat, hairs standing on end – all the clichés applied.

For the next couple hours I divided my time between wandering around while taking in the magnificent ruins from every angle, and just sitting in once spot and appreciating the magnitude of it all.  It’s really remarkable that these ruins are thousands of years old and have stood the test of time.

Acropolis is translated from Greek as “high city”.  Of course, this is due to its high position on the hill overlooking the city below.  Often, the Acropolis is thought to be one building, but in reality the Acropolis is home to many ruins, all making this a site well worth visiting.     Perhaps the most well-known ruin  is the Pantheon, but equally as stunning are the Temple of Athena Nike honoring the Goddess of Victory, and the  Propylaea, which serves as the entrance to the Acropolis.

As I was there in September,  it was no longer peak season, but not quite yet into low season so there were still a number of tour groups that made their way through – mostly from the cruise ships.  Here’s where I had a big advantage having gone on my own.   I could simply wait out the crowds as they did not stay long.  A group would descend upon the site, take photos of one another and then leave 20 minutes later.  If an area was too crowded for me, I found somewhere else and simply waited.  Eventually the crowd would leave and the site would feel deserted again.  Well, at least until the next group showed up.

After hours of wandering, listening to the wind, and feeling the hot sun beat down on me, I decided to make my way down to modern-day Athens.      I came down the opposite side of the slope which I’d gone up, so when I hit street level, I was in a neighbourhood new to me.  I took the side streets from there which eventually lead me to the heavily touristy Plaka neighbourhood, full of restaurants and souvenir shops.    After a bite to eat, I wandered around town, taking in ruins at what seemed to be at every turn.    And always, high above me, I could see the Acropolis.  It was  a bit surreal.

Worshiping Zeus? I don’t think this is what the Ancient Greeks had in mind.

Ruins everywhere

That evening for dinner I returned to the Plaka and made my way through the maze of streets, passing restaurant patio after restaurant patio, all of which were full.  Yet the touts continued to hold out their menus and invited me to come inside and ‘have a look’.    I finally chose a place which was essentially empty.  My decision to sit down was met with much delight from the manager who then proceeded to wait on me hand and foot.    By the time I left the restaurant his patio was as full as the others I’d passed by earlier.   He  told me that this was because my beauty had drawn the crowd, and as a thank you for bringing him business, he gave me a complimentary dessert.   Good for the belly and for the ego!

The next morning I decided to make my way over to Athens highest peak – Mount Lycabettus, also known as Mount Lykavittos.    At 277 meters  above sea level, the hill is the highest point in the city that surrounds it.      I started my accent up the steep streets that lead to the base of the beginning of the hike.  On oneof the small side streets I stumbled upon an open air fruit market.    This was a delight for all the senses.   The vendors were all yelling at the top of their lungs, presumably about their offers.       From fruits and vegetables, fish, flowers and olives, everything was available.      Noticing that I was taking photos, one vendor asked me where I was from.  When I replied Canada, he bestowed a large bag of grapes to me and simply said “Welcome to Greece.”  Again, amazing hospitality!   For the record, these were the best grapes I’d ever had!

Now armed with a delicious healthy snack, I continued my trek uphill.   It was a tree-lined path for the most part and quite steep.  Suddenly, as  I rounded a corner, there was a clearing and I gasped.  I had a unobsturcted view of downtown Athens, and in the centre of it all was the Acropolis.  This vantage really allowed me to see how high the Acropolis sits above the city.

As I continued up hill the climb was getting increasingly difficult, but the scenery was unbelievable.  Once I made it to the top, I had a  view of nearly 360 degrees of the entire sprawling metropolis of Athens.  Until this moment I had not realized how big the city actually is.    As the top of the hill there is a restaurant and a church.  There’s also a theatre nearby that I walked over to, but there was nothing happening, and from there the view is entirely obstructed.

Chapel of St. George, located at the summit

After spending some time up top and soaking in the view, I made my way back down the mountain on the other side, so that when I reached the base I was in an unfamiliar suburban area.  I love getting lost in cities like that.  I end up seeing things I never would have seen otherwise.  I walked by a school yard full of playing children and saw a group of old men at a cafe playing cards.  Everyday Athens life.  Priceless.

The rest of the day consisted of booking a trip to Delphi, shopping for sandals in the Plaka (an endless task seeing that there are dozens of shops that sell nothing but leather sandals), enjoying Greek cuisine on a patio, and people watching while enjoying a glass of wine.    While these were certainly not my only 2 days in Athens, they were the first two and were definitely a highlight of my stay.  They also happen to be the reason I’ve moved the city of Athens to my top 10 list of favorite European cities!

I have no Greek blood in me.  At least not to my knowledge.  My parents can both trace their roots back pretty far, and no where is there any mention of Greece.  Yet somehow, I had an amazing connection with this city, almost feeling as though I’ve been here before.    Maybe that’s why I was so happy to spend so much time up atop the Acropolis.   Maybe I used to call it home.

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