Day Tripping in Greece
Business travel to Greece? Tough job but somebody had to do it. We left during fourth of July weekend 2015 and had a few extra days to experience Greece before the conference. Epic time to be in Athens, with the EU referendum up for a vote!
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We took a Thursday morning flight from the U.S. east coast, with a significant layover in Toronto before the 10 hour flight to Athens. We arrived in Greece early Friday morning, checking in at the Athens Hilton before noon. My husband was only spending the weekend in Greece, so we made the most of our short site-seeing time! We hit the ground running on Friday and did not let up until his flight Monday morning. In that short time span, we appreciated Poseidon's Aegean Sea view, toured 3 islands by ferry, consulted the Oracle at Delphi (she said "yes, maybe"), visited every major site in Athens, ate a year's worth of olive oil, and witnessed the OXI/NAI demonstrations in Syntagma Square. THAT's how you speed-travel!!
Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon
During check-in, we immediately signed up for Friday's afternoon bus tour to Cape Sounio, just a couple of hours drive along the beautiful Saronic Gulf coast. The sea air (and 50 mph+ winds) were invigorating! Growing up, I thought that I would be an anthropologist or archaeologist (kids are much wiser about their true nature than adults). Visiting archaic grecian ruins has always been on my bucket list, so standing in front of Poseidon's Temple contemplating 2000+ years of human endeavor, religious practices, and ritual was a dream come true! Cape Sounio provides a panoramic view of the sparkling aqua-marine blues and greens of the Aegean Sea, from Kea to Peloponnese. The temple was built in 44 B.C., with Doric (plain) columns. Because of the salty sea air and high winds, the ruins continue to erode. To restore ruins while maintaining authenticity, 70% of the structure needs to remain (otherwise, the "restoration" is actually a "reproduction"). Poseidon's Temple is beyond restoration, so I felt privileged to imagine its former glory and consider its legacy.
Ferry Cruise to Hydra, Poros, Aegina
Saturday, early morning. We arose, showered (I think), and greeted the tour guide in the hotel lobby. Greece's #1 economic product is tourism and they have it down to a science! By 9:00 am, we were on-board the ferry, listening to live Greek tunes and considering the viability of ouzo for breakfast. It's quite a long boat ride to the first destination, Hydra! We read, napped, ate, and ogled our fellow European travelers for several hours before finally disembarking on terra firma at Hydra...but the wait was worth it! This is the Greece in magazines and travel guides! Hydra is best explored on foot or donkey (no cars on this island). We've experienced the smell of donkey pee in the Grand Canyon, so we chose to hoof it ourselves. From the port, everywhere is "up", with rewarding views that are truly stunning! We spent about 2 hours in Hydra, which included a toe dip in the sea. The ferry then headed to Poros, about an hour from Hydra. If I ever move to Greece to write a novel, Poros will be my home. It's the smallest of the three islands we toured and felt calm and artsy. Aegina was our final island stop on this tour. We arrived around 3:00 p.m. Much bigger than the other two islands, Aegina feels "lived in". We chose an optional bus tour to the Temple of Athena, stopping briefly at the Byzantine Church of Saint Nectarios on the way back to the port. This side-tour was very much worth the extra $25/person! Our tour guide was informative and I learned a lot in two a half hours about the island, Greek mythology, Byzantine times, and pistachios. Our ferry set return sail to Athens around 5:30 and we were docked by 7:30 pm.
Consulting the Oracle at Delphi
We were up again early Sunday morning, this time headed for Delphi by bus. Leaving the coast and traveling inland, the terrain change is remarkable. Farmland dominates the broad flat valley plains on the outskirts of Athens. Rolling hills transition to soaring mountains as the bus passes through Arachova Village, approaching Delphi and Mt. Parnassus. In classical Greek times, Delphi was considered the center of the universe. With a soaring backdrop like Mt. Parnassus and a commanding view of the hills and valleys of the Greek countryside, it's hard not to be awed and inspired here. Gaia, goddess of the earth (and, technically, all other Greek gods and goddesses), was first worshipped here before the Mycenaean period (Bronze Age, 1600-1100 B.C.). As Gaia's family tree (and man's creative storytelling) grew, other goddesses and gods fell in and out of vogue. Apollo, Zeus's son, was the last lucky mythic god to reign before Roman Byzantium sensibility took over (duh, there's only one god!), at which point there was an attempt to transform the place into a Christian church during Constantine's rule. It's a fascinating place and the more you read about it, the less you actually know...kind of like consulting the Oracle herself, known for such proclamations as "know thyself", "nothing in excess", and "if you go to war, a great empire will fall".
Sites of Athens
In between ferry and bus tours, we found plenty of time to explore Athens. Athens (formerly known as Attica) is home to about 5 million Greeks, a quarter of the country's population. At its epicenter near the Parliament at Syntagma Square, most major sites are within about a 3 mile radius and easily walkable and metro-accessible. The Plaka is the oldest part of Athens and a great place to eat, shop, drink (Bretto's distillery!) -- and get hassled by gypsies and immigrants of questionable legal status. The Plaka is just below the Acropolis, upon which sets the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The museum at the base of the Acropolis has models showing the evolution of the prominent outcrop over time, dating back to the Neolithic era. Well worth the entrance fee, just to see the models! Also in the vicinity of the Plaka are the Temple of Zeus, Hadrian's Library, and the all-marble Panhellenic stadium, which has been the site of athletic games as far back as 500 B.C.
From the Panhellenic stadium, a short 10 minute through the National Gardens takes you right to Syntagma Square and the Parliament building. With the country's European Union fate in jeopardy during July of 2015, Syntagma Square was ground zero for all those in favor of voting "OXI" (no) to austerity measures. Less exciting was the "NAI" (yes) rallies at the Panhellenic stadium. It was clear on Friday which way the public was going to vote. The OXI's had it!
Monday morning, we walked (hiked) about a mile from the Hilton to the base of Mount Lycabettus. The panoramic views from the top of Athen's highest hill are jaw-dropping. There is a tram that transports people from its base, up through the mountain, to its peak...or you can walk up. Either way, do not miss this bird's eye vantage of every ancient site in Athens. It's spectacular! While in Athens, we stayed at the Hilton. I really enjoyed this hotel. The amenities are top notch (pool, fitness center, spa) and the nightly sunset show from the rooftop restaurant is the perfect way to end each day.