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