Aegina is an island in the middle of the Saronic Gulf. It is rarely mentioned, if at all, in the history books, and didn’t play a crucial role in the Peloponnesian Wars or the development of democracy, architecture, or a unique school of philosophy. And yet, like every other part of Greece, it has its own history, its own charms, and its own interesting features.
One of those features is the ruins of the Sanctuary of Aphaia, shown in the photos above and below. In Greek mythology, Aphaia was a nymph whose devotees believed was the daughter of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. So far as historians and archaeologists can determine, she was worshipped in only one place: Aegina. Why she was worshipped here, and only here, is lost in the mists of time, but she must have been considered important, because her sanctuary was carefully situated on top of a prominent promontory, visible from the seas as you approach the island. From the grounds of the Sanctuary, you have a commanding view in any direction.
The temple to Aphaia was built around 500 B.C. and is considered a classic example of Doric architecture. It is in remarkably good shape for a structure that is more than 2500 years old and has been exposed to the elements for 25 centuries.
Still, the passage of time has had its impact. So far as we know, there are no longer any priests or Aphaia, or any acolytes, or any worshippers to light a votive candle at her temple. At some point, there must have been a last priest, attending to the temple and witnessing a dwindling number of worshippers who left offerings and prayed for the nymph’s intervention. Did the last followers of Aphaia know they were part of a dying religion? We’ll never know, but that thought makes the visit to the Temple of Aphaia a wistful experience.
This area of Greece is all about the sea. Aegina, as an island, is of course focused on the waterfront, but the craggy coastline of the mainland, the other Saronic Islands, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula means there are seaside towns pretty much everywhere. It’s a beautiful part of the world, with its deep blue water and mountainous backdrops.
The proximity to water means you’ll get some of the finest seafood anywhere in this part of Greece. The grilled octopus, in particular, is terrific—tender and succulent, without the rubbery texture you often find with octopus stateside. You also see lots of different boats on the water, like this hydrofoil boat skimming past our ferry.
We’ve has some wonderful meals on our trip to Turkey and Greece, and last night was no exception. On our last night on Aegina, we ate a late dinner at a seaside restaurant called Aepndes. I was in the mood for something different, yet familiar, too, and after carefully scrutinizing the menu I ended up selecting pastitsio—a traditional Greek dish that is a kind of comfort food.
Pastitsio can be made in many ways, and often is served as a kind of lasagna. The Aepndes version is cooked in a clay pot with long rustic macaroni, finely diced meat, and bechamel, covered with a cheesy crust. It was excellent, and just what I was hoping for when I ordered. Accompanied by the curious herd of neighborhood cats, with some good Cabernet and a surprise serving of limoncello for an after-dinner drink, we had a wonderful meal. Pastitsio helped to make our last day on Aegina a very fine day, indeed.
Yesterday we secured a rental car and drove through the crowded, narrow streets of Athens to its ferry terminal. Athens has a very busy port area, with tour boats, ferries, and cruise liners all in evidence in the port. We drove the car onto the ship Antigone of the Saronic Ferries line. You drive into the bottom of the boat, turn so your car is facing the front, and park, then head upstairs to the general seating area. Our destination was the island of Aegina, one of the Saronic Islands in the Saronic Gulf.
Our ride on the Antigone was quite pleasant. There was plenty of seating, and the ferry had a very nice concession area that sold all kinds of intriguing Eurozone snacks, as well as different coffees. We tried a box of digestive biscuits, which tasted like a whole wheat Girl Scout cookie, and a cappuccino. I can attest that the staff of the Antigone serves an excellent cappuccino, which tasted quite good in the salty air.
Aegina is close to Athens, so the ferry ride is a short one–all told, probably about an hour and a half. That time passed quickly, because there was a lot to see. Our ferry chugged past a line of big container ships anchored in the Saronic Gulf, apparently waiting for their turn to enter the main port of Athens. We also enjoyed the surrounding scenery. The Saronic Gulf is enclosed by an upside down horseshoe of mountainous land, which is visible everywhere you look, with Athens located on the right hand side of the horseshoe. Aegina is found smack dab in the middle of the Gulf, which makes for some nice vistas of the island, with the mountains of the surrounding countryside in the background.
The water of the Saronic Gulf is beautiful as well–a deep blue that glistened and glittered in the bright sunshine. As our ferry approached Aegina and swung around the small lighthouse at the island’s tip, we were joined by an increasing number of seagulls. They screeched their seagull cries and seemed to enjoy drafting up and down and side to side in the backwash of the ferry and the air currents created by its passage.
There were some sailboats out on the water, in addition to the ferries and container ships. Their passage lent a serene air to the pretty scene as we headed toward the main dock in Aegina, the principal town on the island. As we pulled into the berth and drove away from the ferry, the seagulls turned and headed back out to the Saronic Gulf to find some new boat to accompany.
At the foot of the Acropolis you will the Areopagus, an ancient rocky outcropping that used to be the meeting spot of the Athenian council during classical times. Now, it is a place for visitors to the Acropolis to climb to the top then sit, lounge, check their phones, and take a selfie. From the vantage point of the rock you can enjoy a nice view of the Acropolis to one side, as seen in the photo above, and a view of the Temple of Hephaestus and the Greek agora to the other, as seen in the photo below. Unfortunately, many of the visitors also smoke, and the top of the rock is covered in cigarette butts in some areas. It’s an embarrassing testament to modern sensibilities that people would casually litter on the top of a place that played a prominent role in ancient Greek governance.
Incidentally, according to our guide you aren’t supposed to smoke atop the Acropolis, or in the Agora, or anywhere in the area, and our guide wasn’t shy about calling out the smokers she saw. Some of them ignored her and some put out their cigarettes quickly, but the sea of butts we saw atop the Areopagus demonstrated that a lot of visitors don’t give a crap about the smoking prohibition, or littering.
From the Areopagus you follow a narrow downhill trail. The pathway leads you past some musical performers playing for contributions, and then through the middle of a restaurant seating area, with tables wedged into each side of the pathway, requiring you to dodge waiters carrying trays of food and drinks. Obviously, the Greeks make use of every square inch of space in Athens! Ultimately, you emerge into a more open area, where you can see the ruins of the Roman forum, to one side, as shown in the photo below.
Our destination, however, was the old Greek agora, found at the base of the Acropolis. The agora is home to a wide avenue, shown below, that used to be the road followed by the processions of the faithful who journeyed up to the top of the Acropolis for important celebrations. There isn’t much left of the agora itself, but there is an interesting museum that provides some useful information about the daily lives, practices, and coinage of the ancient Greeks.
Our primary destination in the agora was the Temple of Hephaestus. It is one of the best preserved Greek temples in existence and, unlike the Parthenon, has all of its columns, its interior rooms, and some of its roof. The temple survived because it was converted to a Christian church in the seventh century AD, and later served other purposes.
As the photo above reflects, the Temple of Hephaestus would have towered over the Greek agora, which is fitting for a temple dedicated to the god of blacksmiths, metalworkers, sculptors, carpenters, and other craftsmen, who would have been plying their trades in the agora. Hephaestus obviously was a good who saw the value in commerce.
The Temple of Hephaestus is remarkably well preserved for a structure that is more than 2,000 years old. It’s graceful lines and proportions are a wistful reminder of how the Parthenon must have looked at one point in its history.
You can walk entirely around the Temple of Hephaestus and admire it from different vantage points. From the rear, you can look all the way through the structure to the front and get a sense of how the ancient Greeks designed their temples. If you like classical architecture, the Temple of Hephaestus is definitely worth a visit.
After spending the first part of our trip in the large cities of Istanbul and Athens, we’ve opted for a change of pace. We rented a car, hopped onto a ferry, and headed out into the Saronic Gulf and the Saronic Islands. Our destination was Aegena (pronounced EGG-in-uh), an island close to Athens.
Aegina has a totally different vibe than hectic Athens. It’s a quiet and laid back place, like islands always are. And it’s got another attribute common to all islands: great sunsets.
After spending the morning at the Acropolis Museum, we stopped at one of the many restaurants surrounding the museum for lunch, then met up with our guide. Elena. With Elena leading the way, we then the long climb up to the top of the sacred rock. It is an interesting climb, with many things to see along the way–like the Roman theater that was built into the side of the outcropping, shown in the photo above. It is still being used for performances during the summer months.
The climb to the top of the Acropolis is a workout. According to the health app on my phone, it is equivalent to climbing 19 flights of stairs and involves taking thousands of steps. There is no avoiding the workout, because the only way to get to the top is through leg power. There are no elevators or trams or tour buses that can whisk you to your destination far above. We aren’t talking shallow steps, either, as the photo above suggests.
If you are planning a visit to the Acropolis, there are some essential items you’ll want to bring. First, pack some comfortable shoes with thick soles that have a bit of grip to them, because you will be pounding the stone pavement on the way up, at the top, and on the way down. The grip aspect is crucial, because the stones have been worn smooth by the feet of millions of visitors, and are slippery even in dry conditions, like yesterday. The ancient Greeks may have trudged to the top in sandals, but I would recommend a good set of sneakers for the modern visitor. Second, bring a hat to protect against the bright sunshine, although you’ll need to be quick to hold on to it in the occasional gusts of wind that can be found at the top. Our guide specifically cautioned us not to be chasing after any windblown headwear, which apparently is a common cause of injuries at the top of the Acropolis. And third, bring water. With the bright sunshine, the vertical climb, and the breeze, you’ll want some refreshment.
The first thing you see as you reach the top is a small temple dedicated to the goddesses Athena and Nike. It is a beautiful example of Greek architecture and, like all of the structures on the Acropolis, has been significantly restored. The second thing you see is an extraordinary view of the surrounding countryside. It’s not hard to see why the Acropolis was a sacred space; it provides a commanding view in every direction of the compass. Your Acropolis workout and your stair climbing accomplishment is already paying dividends.
After you round the temple of Athena and Nike, you pass through the remains of the entranceway to the Acropolis, seen in the photo above. The top of the Acropolis is largely flat, with a few small outcroppings, and the ground in some areas is littered with stones that once were pedestals or part of the buildings. The archaeologists are still trying to figure out where all of the stone go, and what they were used for. Regrettably, it’s like trying to complete a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. .
As pass beyond the entrance gate, you see to your left the Erechtheion, a temple dedicated to Poseidon and Athena. The Erechtheion is shown in the photos above and below and is separated from the Parthenon by a field of stones and the central walkway of the Acropolis. The Erechtheion is the home of the famous Caryatids–the maidens holding up the antechamber seen in the photo above. The Caryatids are replicas, with the originals being housed in the Acropolis Museum. Obviously, the structure has been significantly damaged and has been restored to the point that you can get a sense of what must have once been a graceful temple for the faithful.
The back story for why there is a temple to both Poseidon and Athena is that the two gods competed for the favor of the province of Attica, where Athens is located. Poseidon supposedly struck his trident on a rock and brought forth gushing salt water. Athena, on the other hand, gave the people the first olive tree. The people decided they liked the olive tree better than the salt water, and Athena prevailed in the contest, leading the citizens to name their town after her.
Across the walking path from the Erechtheion is the mighty Parthenon, shown below. This huge and majestic building once housed a towering image of Athena, as well as a treasury of gifts left for the goddess and items used in ceremonies. Now it is literally a shell of its former self, but it remains an awesome, awe-inspiring sight. This is a building that makes a lasting impression, having been built 2,500 years ago and surviving wars, invasions, fires, bombings, and intentional destruction and removal of its art and treasures. The Parthenon established a form of classical architecture that became a model adopted by the Romans and other civilizations, down to the modern day. How many federal buildings in the United States owe a debt to the Parthenon, with its soaring columns, pedestals, and pediments?
The Parthenon is undergoing constant care and renovation. Parts of it are surrounded by scaffolding and supports, in other parts–like the white areas in the columns shown in the photo above–missing pieces have been filled in by reconstructed areas. As with so many of the ancient buildings, we can only get a glimpse of what once was, but that glimpse is satisfying and edifying nevertheless. As you walk around the Parthenon, it’s impossible not to think of the philosophers and travelers who have trod the rocky surface before you, and the countless generations of visitors who similarly have stared slack-jawed at this colossal work of art and architecture.
There are other things to see from the top of the Acropolis, too. The photo below shows the remains of a Greek theater that once graced the hillside on the south side of the Acropolis. It is believed to be the oldest surviving Greek theater in the world.
On the south side of the Acropolis you also can see the remains of the Temple of Zeus, located a short distance to the east of the Greek theater. The photo below shows, in the left hand corner, the arch that was the entranceway to the temple, as well as a few of the surviving columns of what must have once been a huge tribute to the Kind of the Gods.
Looking to the south also gives you a view of one of the many hills found in Athens–in this case, a hill topped with a monument to a philosopher, according to our guide–and the Saronic Sea and some of the Saronic Islands beyond. Since Athens often was attacked by sea, it’s not hard to see how the Acropolis served a defensive purpose as well as a sacred one.
On the north side of the Acropolis is a huge outcropping that was used as a political gathering spot in ancient Athens, and now is a popular place for people to sit and stare up at the temples. The north side also offers a bird’s-eye view of the temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of ,the forge who gave the gift of fire to humans. It is show along the left edge of the photo below. To the right of the temple are the grounds of the old Athens agora, the commercial area that was the heart of activity in the city. The photo below also gives you a sense of how the Acropolis and its surrounding are an oasis in a huge, sprawling city.
With the tour of the top of the Acropolis and its breathtaking views completed, it is time to bring the Acropolis workout to an end. That means passing back through the entrance gate and walking by the temple of Athena and Nike and then moving down those steps you climbed on your way up. It is important to be careful of your footing, because the smooth stones can be treacherous. On the downward trek, gravity is our friend, but care must be exercised. According to our guide, many a visitor, still idly thinking of what they have seen, has taken a tumble on the way down.
Yesterday morning we visited the Acropolis Museum. Located at the foot of the Acropolis, and affording a view of the sacred rock and its buildings as shown in the photo above, the Acropolis Museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and artwork from the Acropolis and the homes at its base—like the portrait of a priest shown above.
The amount of sculpture associated with the Acropolis that is part of the museum’s collection is staggering. You can rent an audio guide, take a guided tour as part of a group, or go it alone. We chose the latter option. Fortunately, there are excellent and informative placards at every item in the collection, with information in Greek and English—so the visitor know that the sculpture above on the right is of Dionysos, holding a theatrical mask, perched on the shoulder of Popposilenos, his tutor. The collection is roughly grouped by era, with larger placards providing information about Athens’ history during that particular era. There also is an excellent short film that tells the story of the unique architecture of the famous Parthenon, the primary surviving building atop the Acropolis, and the depredations it suffered over the years at the hands of Romans, Christians, the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks, and the British. It is a sad story of how a magnificent structure was not treated with the respect and care it deserved. Thanks to the mistreatment, we must make do with appreciation of only fragments, and be left to imagine what the scene must have looked like when the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the related statuary and sculpture were at their height.
Of all of the statuary and sculpture at the Acropolis Museum, my favorite was the exhibit of the Caryatids, seen in the photo below—the female figures who once held up part of the Erechtheion, a temple to Poseidon and Athena on the Acropolis. An accompanying video shows how they were painstakingly cleaned using a laser and other modern technology. They give a glimpse of what a wonderful place the Acropolis must have been in its heyday. I would recommend the Acropolis Museum as a good way to prepare for the visit to the Acropolis itself.
Athens, like many European towns, is awash in motorcycles and scooters. They are seeming everywhere, at any time. If you are getting ready to cross the street, or even to take a casual stroll down a purely pedestrian walkway, keep your ears tuned for the trademark revving of an engine, and then a motorized cycle weaving through the walkers. They pay no attention to stop signs, or red lights, or pedestrian only zones.
I’m convinced the real reason Athenian motorcycle riders wear helmets is that they don’t want to be recognized when they are flouting traffic laws.
It’s been hot in Athens, much hotter than in Istanbul. Accordingly, after walking around yesterday trying to find a reasonably priced hat that could shield against the sun’s glaring rays, we decided it was time to stop for refreshment. Fortunately, Athens is loaded with streetside pubs and restaurants, and we stopped at a random place to cool down.
I realized quickly that a beer was in order. My throat felt dry and dusty, and it needed a good washing. The circumstances therefore called for a cold adult beverage brewed from grains and hops. Our friendly water strongly recommended a beer called Mythos. Who could resist ordering a bear that conjured memories of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, and of course Athena, for whom Athens is named? So, I ordered the Mythos, and found it to be an entirely potable lager, happily served very cold. And even though it was warm in Athens, I quaffed the entire glass before the beer reached room temperature.
As an veteran reader of this blog knows, I like trying different, local beers. Mythos was pretty good. It didn’t make me think Olympian thoughts, but it definitely wet my whistle on a warm, desiccated day in Athens.
We arrived yesterday in Athens. We were sad to leave Istanbul behind—it was a great place, and a real revelation. I would recommend Istanbul to anyone, and hope to come back again one day.
Athens is a pretty place, with a more diverse, urban feel. You also need to watch your step, because there is history below and above. The history below is found in the many excavations, most of which are below ground. The history above is the Acropolis, which towers over the city. You can turn a random corner in the central city and see a view like the one below. it’s amazing.
Turkey is in the midst of an election campaign. The incumbent, Tayyip Erdogan, has held the Turkish Presidency for 20 years; he faces a challenge from Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The race will be decided by a run-off vote tomorrow.
I don’t know who will win, but I do know this: the two candidates aren’t shy about posting their faces and their campaign slogans anywhere and everywhere. Erdogan’s campaign put up a colossal bedsheet poster above one of the streets near the Grand Bazaar that billowed in the breeze like a living thing, whereas both candidates took advantage of the heavy foot traffic near the Galata Tower to get some free publicity for their campaigns. Not being able to read Turkish, I’m not sure what the campaign themes are, but I’m guessing that the incumbent focuses on “experience” and the challenger promises “change.” (According to Google, “soz” in Turkish means “promise.”)
Of course, as tourists we have no insight into who might win. We didn’t bring up politics with anyone, but we did hear some grousing about inflation being an issue in Turkey. It also isn’t clear whether people feel strongly about the outcome. We did see a street brawl where one Turk knocked another Turk to the ground before they were separated and began shouting (apparent) insults at each other, but we didn’t know whether politics was the cause of the dispute or whether it was just your standard Turkish tussle in a male-dominated culture.
Istanbul has a famous Grand Bazaar shopping area. We paid a visit and found a buzzing, humming retail world on steroids.
A few background points about the Grand Bazaar. First, if you’re expecting anything like the sad world of virtually deserted U.S. malls, think again: in Turkey, the retail world is doing very well, from all appearances. The Grand Bazaar was bustling and jammed with shoppers, merchandise, and salesmen. Second, I use the word “salesmen” advisedly, because 99.9 percent of the people working at the Grand Bazaar are men. Even in shops that sell items specifically geared toward a female audience, like head scarves, the workers are men. And third, expect the salesmen to be outgoing in their approach to sales. You can’t really stop anywhere without someone walking up to you, trying to engage you in conversation, and get you to come into your shop. If you hear “Sir! Are you American? Where are you from” expect to spend at least a few minutes talking to the salesman and explaining why you don’t need a rug. And if you are in the market for what they are selling, be prepared to haggle on the price and listen to the full sales pitch.
The Grand Bazaar isn’t just about selling retail goods, either. You see men carrying platters of food, or swinging trays of steaming hot tea, weaving their way through the dense throngs of people. I couldn’t figure out how you got the food or the tea, because there were no food or tea storefronts that I saw. It may just be that if you sit down, someone comes up and offers you the opportunity to order.
The Grand Bazaar is huge, and a kind of maze. There are dozens of different sections, and there really is no way to figure out where you are going and where you have been other than leaving a trail of bread crumbs, or linking your phone and using a GPS feature to find other people in your party. The Grand Bazaar reminded me of a casino, in that there was no way to see outside or know what time it was. When you visit, you may as well just reconcile yourself to wandering aimlessly, dealing with the polite yet insistent salesmen, and doing some window shopping.
And speaking of window shopping, the Grand Bazaar offers just about everything you could imagine. Beautiful rugs and scarves seem to be the dominant products, but you can also find watches, antiques, leather goods, electronics, clothing, shoes, and candy and other sweets. You also see products that you just don’t see sold in the States anymore–like high-end ashtrays that cater to a culture where smoking is still commonplace. And when we finally found our way out of the Grand Bazaar, we saw a sign for another interesting product: “high quality cheap socks.” To the Turks, there is no inconsistency in that description.
One of the interesting things about Turkey is the language, which is wholly foreign to an English speaker. It doesn’t even have the vague familiarity or common cultural or linguistic touchstones of the Romance languages, like French, which have some words and speech patterns that are common to English. When you hear people speak it, or see it written, you often have no idea what is being communicated.
Of course, when you walk around a city like Istanbul, there usually will be visual clues that help in the interpretation effort. Words on maps are presumably the names of places, for example, and words on advertisements for products are probably descriptive adjectives about how great the shampoo or the cell phone service is. But sometimes there is an ambiguity to the visual clues that makes you wonder, as with the photo above. If you look solely at the pose, drawing upon an American upbringing, you think that this guy could be a lawyer, a car salesman, or a politician–but maybe in Turkey he is something else entirely.
Yesterday we went to see the Blue Mosque. Located directly across from the Hagia Sofia, from which it is separated by a plaza and a fountain, the Blue Mosque is an extraordinarily beautiful structure. All mosques have a graceful appearance, thanks to their domes and minarets, but the Blue Mosque—with multiple domes and six minarets—is in a class by itself. It’s a must-see item for any visitor to Istanbul.
The interior of the Blue Mosque is even more spectacular than the exterior. It gets its name from the blue tiles on its walls and its blue stained glass windows, which together give the interior a decidedly blue cast. With the tranquil blue colors and its soaring ceilings, the Blue Mosque is a hushed oasis of serenity in a hustling international city.
Part of the Blue Mosque interior is cordoned off; visitors must stay behind a rope while the faithful can enter to enjoy some space and a peaceful place to perform their devotions.
The open, peaceful section of the mosque is in sharp contrast with the visitors’ section, which was jammed with people as shown in the photo below. Even in the midst of the crush of humanity, however, it was impossible not to be touched by the beauty of this special place.
The Blue Mosque is also a popular spot at night, when it is fully lighted and rises above surrounding trees. When we visited last night, the walkways and seating areas were packed, and everyone was looking for the best spot for a photo. The Blue Mosque is probably one of the most photographed places in the world, and it is not hard to see why.