The Metalworkers

I tend to associate ancient Greek art with marble sculpture that depicts the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. If you share that perception, a visit to the National Archeological Museum in Athens will quickly disabuse you of that notion. We visited the museum on our last day in Athens and were struck by the beauty, and especially the variety, of the artwork on display from the ancient Greeks and the even more ancient civilizations that preceded them The museum shows that, for millennia, the Greeks and their forebears were proficient in producing fabulous artwork not only in marble, but also using gold, bronze, pottery, painting, and tilework. The museum’s collection is overwhelming and leads to the inescapable conclusion that these were extraordinarily gifted artistic cultures.

The museum begins with a rich display of pieces from the Mycenaean civilization and related cultures, which existed about a thousand years before the classical Greek period in Athens and helped to provide the basis for Homer’s epic poems. The collection shows that the Mycenaeans were especially skilled in metalwork–specifically, with gold. The very first display case you see upon entering is shown in the first photo, above, and includes the famed “Mask of Agamemnon,” seen in the upper right of the photo, that was discovered through excavations by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s. The display of Mycenaean artifacts shows that the artists not only were skilled at making golden death masks for the wealthy and powerful, but also jewelry and other objects. The detail of the pieces is amazing–all the more so when you consider that the Mycenaean civilization collapsed in about 1200 B.C., more than 3,000 years ago.

The collection also displays some exceptional statuary in bronze, with pieces that show that the ancient Greeks, following in the footsteps of the Mycenaeans, also were masters of depicting the human form in metal. Perfectly preserved pieces like the ones above and below reveal that the ancient Greeks achieved a graceful realism that equals, if not exceeds, the efforts of Michelangelo and other skilled sculptors of the Renaissance period.

If you are not familiar with the ancient Greeks’ bronze statuary, that’s probably because not much of it survived. Marble pieces can endure the elements, but more importantly they cannot be recycled, whereas bronze statuary can be melted down and recast into other objects–like swords, or cannons. The fact that these wonderful pieces survived at all is due entirely to discovery of ancient shipwrecks. Some of those wrecks were of vessels that were transporting statuary and other artwork to their intended destinations when the ships went down and the pieces were preserved by the cold water for millennia, until they were rediscovered. I’ve never before thought of being grateful for a shipwreck, but now I am.

The ancient artists also were skilled in depicting actual individuals, not just characters from epic myths. Two of the more striking pieces in the National Archaeological Museum collection are busts of unknown individuals which also were retrieved from shipwrecks. Given the careful rendering that these busts reflect, I suspect that they aptly and accurately captured the sorrowful, deferential glance of the man above and the grizzled and demanding countenance of the man below.

Another amazing piece received from a shipwreck is this bronze depiction of a boy riding a charging horse. This piece was enormous and showed incredible realism and attention to detail, from the physiology of the horse to the posture and appearance of the boy who was in the midst of an exciting ride. When you enter the room where this piece is featured, you feel an urge to get out of the way so that the horse and boy could gallop right on past you into the next gallery.

Of all of the metalwork pieces in the museum, my favorite was this colossal rendering, shown below, of what the museum curators believe to be Zeus, king of the gods, with left hand outstretched and right hand poised to launch one of his famous thunderbolts. The thunderbolt has regrettably been lost, but the ancient artist has perfectly captured the posture that would have been used in hurling an object, and the sense that the focused, striding Zeus has been captured in mid-motion. With magnificent depictions like this–and others that have been lost to time–is it any wonder that the ancients revered Zeus as king of the gods?

There are a lot of museums in Athens, but the National Archeological Museum is a must-see items for any visitor. Going to the museum was a fitting capstone for a wonderful trip to Greece.

Sailing The Saronic

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.

Areopagus, The Two Agoras, And The Temple Of Hephaestus

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.

Sunset Over The Saronic

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.

The Acropolis Museum

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.

Cycle Town

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.

Athenian Ale

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.

History Below, History Above

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.

Athens On The Cumberland

IMG_3578Our travels through Nashville yesterday took us past Centennial Park, and as we looked over we saw . . . the Parthenon.

Yes, in the middle of Centennial Park there is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, the crown jewel of the Acropolis in ancient Athens.  The Nashville replica is supposed to be complete and accurate in every detail, including the statue of Athena inside.  The Nashville Parthenon also houses an art museum.

I didn’t go inside to see Athena — the presence of groups of schoolkids seemed to promise a less than pleasant experience for a hefty $6 price tag — but I did walk around the structure, which is being refurbished.  It’s a pretty cool thing to find in the middle of an American city.

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey to Palermo

Traveling is never as easy as you think it will be. While planning my trip on my laptop at home, I imagined that my journey from Athens to Palermo, Sicily, would consist of a night on a ferry and two moderately long train rides. I expected it to take about a day. Instead, it took more than two days – the longest duration of travel I’ve endured in my life.

The day before leaving Athens, I learned that no train goes directly from there to Patras, due to cuts made by the bankrupt Greek government. To travel between the two cities by train requires a few transfers. Despite this, I decided to take a train rather than a bus, thanks to bad memories from a Greyhound trip I took a few years ago. I activated my Eurail pass and got a ticket. At the time of my train’s departure, however, two trains arrived on opposite sides of the platform, and not knowing which one I was supposed to take (my ticket didn’t specify), I went back into the station and reserved a bus ticket for a few hours later (thanks to my Eurail pass, all the tickets were free). I was worried that I would miss the ferry, but the actually-very-comfortable bus ride took only three hours, getting me to Patras with time to spare.

The ferry arrived in Bari at 11 AM, two and a half hours later than it was supposed to. After finding the train station there, I learned that Bari is not a well-connected city in the Italian train network. The earliest I could get to Palermo was 10:40 AM the next morning, after taking an intercity train to Bonaventi, a regional train all the way up to Naples, and, finally, another intercity train to Palermo. I had a reservation at a hostel in Palermo for that night, so this news frustrated me. Instead of sleeping on a mattress, I had to spend my night sitting down in a tiny compartment with four other guys. We all agreed to lay our feet on the seats across from us, and the guy across from me, who looked like Kurt Vonnegut, put his pillow on my foot.

The journey wasn’t all disappointment and frustration, though. While traveling from Bonaventi to Naples, a group of Italian girls practiced their English with me. Before getting off the train, they gave me a memento to remember them by: a bracelet with images of Mary and Jesus. They asked for a memento from me, so I gave them the book I had just finished. Later, they friended me on facebook.

On the train to Palermo I was in the same car as a fellow American backpacker and recent college graduate named Bryanna. Her trip thus far was remarkably similar to mine: she started in Istanbul, went to Athens, spent time on a Greek island (Corfu), and was heading to Palermo. She decided to upgrade to a sleeper car, but we pledged to be friends in Palermo.

My trip also included the “pleasure” of a two and a half hour layover in Naples. As soon as I walked out of the train station there, I could tell that the city had major problems. There were mountains of garbage everywhere (according to Bryanna, there’s some sort of dispute over who should clean it up), and the buildings – which are actually beautiful, architecturally – were smeared with graffiti. The traffic around the Piazza Garibaldi was ferocious, even by Italian standards. Someone needs to clean up that city.

Bryanna decided to stay at the same hostel as me because she didn’t have a reservation anywhere. After arriving in Palermo, we spent four hours finding the place, which was on the outskirts of the city. We misunderstood the woman at the information desk outside the station; when she said the hostel was an hour-long bus ride away, we thought she said it was an hour-long walk away, so we tried to walk there, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city. A few sweaty hours later, we realized our mistake. After making many inquiries and committing many more errors, we found the right bus. We arrived at the hostel in the early afternoon.

Yet, we got there during siesta time, so we couldn’t get through the gate. While we were waiting, a big group of Italian high schoolers arrived. When the gates opened, they ditched us in line at the check-in desk, in true Italian fashion (I will outline the good qualities of the Italians in a later post).

I learned some lessons from this travel experience. First: leave plenty of flexibility in your travel schedule to allow yourself to make mistakes. I thought I had left myself flexibility, but it was not nearly enough. Second: stay a long time in each place you visit – I suggest a week – rather than moving around a lot, to avoid the stress of traveling altogether. You get a deeper experience in each city that way, anyways.

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

A view of Piraeus (Athens' port) from my ferry to Santorini.

I spent a lot of my time in Santorini thinking about the weather, or more precisely, trying to reconcile myself with it. I decided that the best way to describe the weather there was “rude.” The low temperatures and lack of sunshine were tolerable, but I found the constant wind offensive. Whenever I left my room, it felt like someone was pushing against me.

I stayed at Santorini Breeze Studios in Perissa, a small town on the island. Frankly, Perissa isn’t very charming. Most of its buildings are stand-alone stucco hostels haphazardly built along winding, often unpaved roads. Many of the buildings are not finished, showing exposed concrete and steel wires. There’s a small main street with a few bakeries and supermarkets and ATV rental stores.

I arrived in Santorini near the end of the off season, so there was almost no one around. Perissa seemed like a ghost town, especially with the wind, which created a constant background noise of rustling leaves and banging doors. For most of my stay, I was one of only three guests at my hostel, and I was the only guest on the last night. However, I would rather be in Santorini during this time than during the on season, when, from what I’ve heard, the island is packed with American tourists taking excursions from their cruise ships.

I still enjoyed my time in Santorini, thanks to another positive hostel experience. The hostel was run by Mike, an American who moved from Detroit to Santorini to run it right before the 2004 Olympics. I’d say he made a smart move. Mike was your typical easygoing island guy, like Jimmy Buffett. His hostel usually isn’t open this time of year, but he forgot to mark it as closed on, so when he started getting reservations he figured he might as well keep it open.

My first two nights on the island, I shared a room with two Australian guys named Daniel and Nick. They were supposed to leave for Crete the day I arrived, but the winds were so strong that no ferries could leave the island. They spent the rest of their stay watching BBC News, and one day they bought a steak and cooked it. On their last night, we got really excited because one of them saw an advertisement for Braveheart on the local channel. The ad was in Greek, but he thought it said that Braveheart was showing at 9 that night. The idea of watching an entertaining movie in English while laying in our beds seemed a magnificent luxury to us, but when 9 came around Braveheart did not air. Instead, the channel showed a city council meaning. We were horribly disappointed.

Ancient Thera

On my first day, I hiked up a mountain to see the ruins of the ancient city of Thera, struggling against winds that sometimes seemed about to topple me over. I was impressed by the ruins; other than those of Pompeii, they were the most intact ruins of an ancient town I’ve seen. They were especially impressive because of their high altitude. With the wind stinging my face, I kept thinking, “how could people live up here?” But if I visited the ruins in better weather I would probably have been thinking “what a beautiful place for a town.”

The next day, Mike drove me to Fira, a pretty town that sits on the edge of a cliff. According to Mike, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a house there after it served as the location for a scene in one of the Tomb Raider movies. The sun courteously decided to shine that afternoon, complementing the town’s blue and white color scheme. I hiked to a rock outcropping to take some pictures, and a few stray dogs followed me.


I flew back to Athens the next evening, but before I left I made sure to drink a few Mythos beers on the black volcanic beaches in Perissa while listening to the new Kanye West album.

It felt great returning to the Pagration Youth Hostel in Athens and seeing familiar faces there. Although I managed to have a decent time in Santorini, I wished I had stayed with the gang at the hostel. I spent one more full day there, which I mostly spent figuring out a way to get to Patras in time for my ferry to Italy. I found the time to visit the National Archeological Museum, however, which displays lots of prehistoric artifacts and Mycenean pottery and art, as well as a large collection of ancient Greek sculpture. Their collection includes the famous Mask of Agamemnon.

To my surprise, the museum had an entire room devoted to art and pottery from ancient Thera, which was founded as part of the Minoan civilization that originated on Crete. Entire wall paintings remain intact from an ancient palace there. The paintings, usually of nature scenes, are colorful and abstract, reminding me of the paintings of Henri Rousseau.

A Theran wall painting.

I also found time to have a few final Mythoses and conversations with my friends at the hostel. When I left on Saturday morning, I felt depressed. I had spent so much time in Athens that I sort of had a life there. I tried to alleviate my sadness by turning it into a hope that I would have similarly happy experiences in the cities to come.

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

On the bus ride from the airport to downtown Athens, I admired the bright Greek countryside, which reminded me of west Texas. Then we entered Athens and the landscape changed to that of a dense, chaotic city. Now that I’ve been here a week, it’s hard for me to believe that such a calm environment is only a few miles away.

A typical street in Athens.

Athens makes Istanbul look like a tranquil Midwestern suburb. Apart from the Acropolis and a few parks scattered here and there, the city is packed with three-to-seven-story apartment buildings. There are no gaps in the buildings to see landmarks through, so it’s easy to get lost. The sidewalks are so thin that you often have to walk on the edge of the street to avoid people. Cars are parked bumper-to-bumper along the curb, sometimes in two layers, and usually blocking crosswalks. The traffic is merciless; on my first day, I witnessed a car accident, and I was almost hit while crossing the street yesterday, though I was obeying the walk signal. Speaking of walk signals, there’s no flashing transition between “walk” and “don’t walk”, which has caused me a lot of consternation. Yet, despite these annoyances, or maybe because of them, Athens comes off as a happy, pleasant city.

The ubiquitous apartment buildings obviously weren’t designed with much concern for their appearance, but I think they help give Athens its happy vibe. They are usually covered in stucco painted eggshell white or a light pastel color, which makes Athens bright and glimmering in the sunshine. There are balconies on every floor that are overflowing with plants and often have clothes drying in them. I like how the presence of so many people has turned these bland, utilitarian structures into ones that are visually buzzing with human life.

While traveling from Istanbul to Athens, I became worried, wondering, “what if Istanbul was an unusually good experience? What if there happened to be people I got along with in my hostel there, but now I’ll be with people I don’t jive with?” However, I liked my hostel in Athens more than the one in Istanbul, and I became better friends with my fellow guests. I stayed at the Pagration Youth Hostel in the Pagrati district, about a half hour walk from the Acropolis.

I was friendly with some people I met in Istanbul, having lots of interesting conversations, but I never truly became friends with them. In Athens, I developed close friendships with most of the guys who shared my six-bed dorm room – friendships of the inside-joke, get-acquainted-with-each-others’-foibles, fill-a-certain-role-in-the-group variety.

The first guy I met was Chris, and 18-year-old from Bath, England, who is traveling around Europe and the Middle East before starting college, or uni as he calls it. He left for Egypt yesterday. Also in the room was Tery, nicknamed Tery the Lion. Tery is a balding, middle-aged Greek who is rather funny. Halfway through the week, I was looking at a bulletin board in the TV room with old pictures of former guests hanging out in the hostel, and I noticed that Tery was in many of the pictures, even though they appeared to be many years old. It reminded me of the end of the Shining, when the camera zooms in on a picture of a party from a hundred years ago with Jack Nicholson in it and you realize his character was a ghost that haunted the hotel. However, the explanation for Tery’s presence in the photos was more prosaic. He travels around Greece all year for his job, which involves distributing pamphlets or something, and he always stays at the Pagration hostel while in Athens, so he has been there many times over the years.

I shared a bunk with an Austrian dude named Clarence who is riding a motorcycle from his hometown to India, traveling through Saudi Arabia to get there. He left for Turkey in the middle of the week. There was also Paul, a former Navy man. In a series of debates we had over my stay, Paul gradually revealed his bizarre belief system. Despite being American, he labels himself a Monarchist. He has a fanatic love for the British monarchy, especially Henry VIII. If you say anything bad about a British monarch, he stares intensely into your eyes and tells you you’re committing treason. Last night we all went to a bar and Paul bought everyone Ouzo, a vile form of alcohol that tastes like black licorice and is responsible for the hangover I’m nursing right now.

The Pagration hostel is much nicer than the one I stayed in in Istanbul; if I rewrote my post about Istanbul now, I would probably give a harsher opinion of that hostel. The management at Pagration would never force me into a worse room than I reserved, like they did at my hostel in Istanbul. There are noise restrictions that make sleeping more pleasant. Like Athens itself, the hostel has a dense human presence. There are pictures, posters, and handmade signs everywhere. It is a tradition for guests to write their favorite quotes on masking tape (such as “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans – John Lennon”) and stick it to the wall of the kitchen.

However, the hostel doesn’t offer free breakfast, there’s no computer, and you have to pay fifty cents for hot water in the shower, which particularly irks me. The hot water only lasts seven minutes – not quite long enough for a comfortable shower, in my opinion. Trust me, you do not want the hot water to stop unexpectedly. I didn’t have a fifty cent coin when I arrived, so I used the cold water for the first shower. The water was so cold that I could only bring myself to wash my hair and my armpits with it, and it gave me brain freeze.

A few days into my stay, I learned that you can buy a delicious gyro – juicy chunks of chicken or pork in a pita, with tomatoes, lettuce, french fries, onions, and whatever the gyro sauce is – for only 1.5-2 euros. I’ve been eating at least one gyro a day ever since. It sure feels good to have one of those gyros in your stomach.

The Parthenon on the acropolis.

The first sight I visited was the acropolis. Despite all the abuse the Parthenon has endured over the years from neglect and invading Turks, it is still awesome in the original sense of the word. Most of it has collapsed, but it still appears firm due to its thick, bulging columns. Unfortunately, the acropolis was crowded with tourists, although I went on a weekday. It was impossible to walk a few yards without walking into someone’s picture. I tried to sit on the outskirts so I could contemplate what I was seeing, but someone came up to ask if I could take their picture. So instead I contemplated the fact that people take too many pictures. It seemed to me that many of the people at the acropolis that day saw it mostly on their cameras’ digital screens. I noticed lots of people filming videos of the buildings, zooming in on details. What is the point of doing this? You can find detailed pictures of those buildings on the internet.

The next day I went to the recently opened Acropolis Museum, which is in a beautiful, sleek modern building. Inside, there was a great collection of ancient Greek pottery and sculpture from prehistoric days to the late Roman empire, including many that were formerly in the Parthenon. The museum was cleverly designed to offer views of the nearby acropolis, so that you could glance at it while reading about it. I would recommend going to this museum before the acropolis, because it gives you a good understanding of its history and the purposes of the buildings.

The view from the hill of Lycabettus.

Yesterday, I was walking around the city when I decided to see if it was possible to climb a steep hill a half mile away from the acropolis. Indeed, there was a trail going to the top, and when I arrived there I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen of a city. Athens sprawls for miles in every direction, stopped only by the sea and the mountains, and it seems to consist of the same dense white apartment buildings all the way to the end. Yet, the acropolis still occupies a prominent place in the midst of all the modern buildings.

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul