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Cape Sounio

Greece 2006

April 13, 2006 – Thursday – Cape Sounio – Temple of Poseidon

Paul picks me up at 8am for our pre-arranged tour to Cape Sounio to see the Temple of Poseidon. We drive along the Saronic Gulf coastal road through Glyfadha (close to Athens), Vouliagmeni (posh resorts), as well as Lagonisi and Anavyssos (beachfront towns).

The Temple of Poseidon site (€4 admission) is the southern most point of land for the isthmus where Athens is located, jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Even with the various stops for photos we made along the way, we arrive at 10am. The morning light is near perfect, so I get a nice dark blue sky to contrast with the temple’s marble columns. Needless to say, this site is dramatic. The temple is located at the top of the headland, which has steep cliffs to the sea hundreds of metres below. Spring flowers are in full bloom, and there is a fresh breeze blowing. I take advantage of the sparse crowds and photograph the temple and headlands from every angle.

Aerial video used with permission: Tasos Fotakis – DroneWorks

I opt to return to Athens along the same coast road we just took because the alternative is to drive back down the middle of Mesoyia. Along the way Paul is called by one of his drivers to tell him there are three protests in full swing in Athens. He said he had parked the bus and was between police tear gas and the protesters Molotov cocktails! We change our plans, and divert to Markopoulo and drive on the expressway by the new airport to see the new Olympic Stadium.

Paul and his Mercedes taxi in front of Olympic Stadium
Paul and his Mercedes taxi in front of Olympic Stadium

Paul drops me off at the Irini metro station, since he won’t be able to drive into central Athens while the protests are on. I get back to Omonia station downtown within 15 minutes, and walk the few blocks back to the apartment. No sign of any protests.

I withdraw Euros from a bank machine, so I can pay Paul for the two airport transfers, the full day tour to Corinth and the Peloponnese sites, and the half day tour to Cape Sounio. I’m very happy with Paul’s services, and although a significant expense, it is much cheaper as compared to the bus tours our group took in Italy.

I have a nap before going out to dinner at 8pm. Ayah again for my last dinner in Athens: Roca salad and rabbit in lemon sauce with roast potatoes and rice. The rabbit is delicious, but has small bones. They serve me a little dessert gratis: a small square pudding with citrus peal, currents and dusted with cinnamon.

Except for the odd beggar, nobody is alone in Athens. Folks are socializing in cafés, on the street, or having energetic conversations on their cellphones while they walk in the city or take the metro. Speaking of which, virtually everyone has a cellphone here. I passed one guy today sitting in the same seat in a café outside my apartment three times – at about 1pm, again at 4pm, and finally at 8pm!

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Athens – day 6

Greece 2006

April 12, 2006 – Wednesday – Athens – Roman Forum, Tower of the Winds, Monastiraki, Lykavitos Hill, Benaki Museum

I set my alarm for 7am, and I’m out the door shortly after 8am. I am at the Acropolis entrance when it opens and want to see the Acropolis Museum. The only problem is the ticket I have can only be used once for the Acropolis itself!

The Tower of the Winds
The Tower of the Winds

I am disappointed, but there is more to see using my combination ticket, so I walk down to the Roman Forum. The Tower of the Winds is of particular interest to me, especially after hearing the talk on sundials at the RASC Victoria Centre a few months ago. The Tower of the Winds holds special significance since it is a sundial, a compass, a weather vane, and a water clock. The tower was built in the first century AD by Andronikos of Kyrrhos, a Syrian astronomer.

Funicular train - Lykavitos Hill
Funicular train – Lykavitos Hill

I wander around Monastiraki for a short while, however it is mainly a shopping district and restaurants, so it is of little interest to me. I take the metro Blue Line to Syndagma, the closest station to Lykavitos Hill, which is my next target. The funicular train takes people to the top of the hill for €4.50 (return). There are also stairs to the top of the hill for those so inclined (pun intended). There are wonderful unobstructed views of the whole of Athens from the top. There is also an (expensive) restaurant and a small chapel dedicated to St. George.

Benaki Museum
Benaki Museum

I take the funicular train back down the hill, then walk back to the Benaki Museum (€6 admission – no photography).

I notice police paddy wagons parked in the side streets, and there is a protest happening across the street at the side of the Parliament. I quickly duck inside and the woman who sold me the admission said they were all crying a half hour ago, since the riot police had used tear gas.

Gold wreath of sprigs of myrtle, Hellenistic Period - Benaki Museum postcard
Gold wreath of sprigs of myrtle, Hellenistic Period

This museum’s artifacts are mainly the result of bequests from private collections by wealthy Greeks. The quality of the artifacts is noticeably better, having less restoration, and the museum also offers a very diverse collection, which they cycle through displays.

The Benaki Museum consists of several sites. This one contains the Museum of Greek Culture, where ancient finds are on the main floor, and modern (to about 1900) Greek artifacts, textiles, and art are on the upper floors. I didn’t find liturgical vestments, gospels, historical letters and notes and other paper and parchment in any other museums. This is fascinating material. There is also a huge collection of jewellery, Greek costumes and folk artifacts (for those who are interested).

After returning to my apartment, finding Internet access is the next thing on the list. I go to an Internet cafe 4 blocks down Solomou which charges €1.50/hr. Warning: all the Internet cafes in Athens are smoky!

Interior of Xapas restaurant - Athens
Interior of Xapas restaurant

I go to Xapas, Methonis 58 for dinner this evening. I have pork simmered in a nice sauce with rice, and a Greek salad sans cucumbers. Cost was €15. The tomatoes the restaurants use here in Athens are so lovely and sweet – no doubt fully vine-ripened, unlike the horrible tomatoes we have available in Canada.

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Athens – day 5

Greece 2006

April 11, 2006 – Tuesday – Athens – Olympieion, Zapion & National Archaeological Museum

I sleep in this morning, but by 10am I’m on the move, taking the metro from Omonia to Akropoli Station again, but this time I am heading for the Olympieion, the site of Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I initially walk in the wrong direction and end up in the Koukaki district at Syngrou-Fix metro station, but soon find my way back.

Hadrian's Arch
Hadrian’s Arch

Hadrian’s Arch is located outside the fence around the Temple of Olympian Zeus, right on very busy Syngrou Ave. It is very impressive in size, but has limited decoration. Admission to the Temple of Olympian Zeus is part of the €12 combination ticket I purchased for the Acropolis. It is a huge temple, but there are only 15 marble columns left standing out of the original 104. The rest of this site is mostly rubble, however the remains of the Roman Bath is interesting – worth a look.

I cross the street to see the Zapion and the National Garden. The Zapion and surrounding fountain, gardens and restaurant is impressive, however the National Garden is mundane. I try to visit the recommended Benaki Museum, however it is closed on Tuesdays. I obviously didn’t read my guidebook carefully enough!

Presidential Guards at the Hellenic Parliament
Presidential Guards

The Hellenic Parliament is across the street from Syntagma Square, and is an easy 10 minute walk from the Benaki Museum. The Presidential Guards wear ceremonial dress, including big puffies on their shoes! The real guards to the Parliamentary precinct (which is closed to the public) are armed police. Since the Benaki Museum is closed, I take the metro from Syntagma to Omonia Stations, and revisit the National Archaeological Museum.

Gold death-mask, known as the 'mask of Agamemnon'
Gold death-mask, known as the ‘mask of Agamemnon’

When I first visited this Museum on Saturday, it closed before I could see the showpiece gold artifacts recovered from Mycenae. This time I spend a full two hours viewing this important gallery. I see the famous funerary Mask of Agamemnon, as well as many other superb artifacts (many made of gold). The side gallery showcasing Cycladic art was a surprise, since these are pre-Mycenaen. I believe this civilization was one of the first to form after man moved out of caves!

I must confess I’m not a fan of history, however visiting all these ancient sites in Greece and seeing so many fascinating artifacts brings ancient civilizations alive. I can understand why thousands of Greek schoolchildren visit these sites and museums every day.

Athens Metro ticket machine
Athens Metro ticket machine

I have used the Athens metro to get to some of the local sites. It is inexpensive, safe, and easy to use. I would recommend visitors to the city make use of this form of transportation wherever you can. You must purchase a ticket, then validate it as you walk to the train platforms. If you get caught dodging the fare, you risk an on-the-spot fine of forty times the fare, so remember to buy and validate those tickets.

Back at my apartment, I catch up on my journal and rest for awhile before going out to dinner around 7:45pm. Ayah again for dinner: Roca salad and stuffed pork with roast potatoes. I planned to have Gemista tonight, but they didn’t have it. The pork was very tasty though. It’s 8:30pm and the restaurant is empty. Greeks certainly eat late!

Tomorrow I plan to get to the Acropolis as close to opening time (8am) as possible, and see the Acropolis Museum. Then I’ll walk to the Roman Forum and see the Tower of the Winds. So no sleeping in tomorrow morning…I’ll set my alarm for 7am.

I’m going to have to confirm my Alitalia flights from Athens to Milan and Milan to Toronto and Victoria either tomorrow or Thursday. Hopefully I can confirm online.

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Acropolis & Ancient Agora

Greece 2006

April 10, 2006 – Monday – Athens, Greece

I take the Metro from Omonia Square to the Acropolis (€12 admission). Unfortunately I don’t arrive until 9:45am (it opens at 8am), so I get to join the crush of the crowds of bus tours and Greek school children who are swarming over the Parthenon, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike. The crowds weren’t quite as bad around the Erechtheion (Old Temple) and Odeion of Herdes Atticus (Herodion) theatre.

View of the Ancient Agora from the Pantheon
View of the Ancient Agora from the Pantheon

Once I take a few photos and leave the summit of the Acropolis, the crowds thin and it is downright tranquil as I walk down the Panathenic Way to the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Hephaistos. I also visit the beautiful Holy Apostles 11th century Byzantine church, which has some wonderful fresco fragments inside. I’ll return to the Acropolis again – either at the 8am opening time, or late in the afternoon when the crowds are less. I still want to see the Dionysos theatre and the Acropolis Museum.

Xapas Taverna

I try a new restaurant tonight – Xapas, 58 Methonis, dining alone from 7:30-8:30pm. All their entrees seemed to be vegetarian, so I had Spinach Pie and Greek Salad, which were both excellent. Cost was €12.50. Last night I noticed that their customers arrived earlier, because when I walked by on my way home, they were jam-packed with a bunch of 20-somethings by 7:30pm, with some playing musical instruments.

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Corinth isthmus & Peloponnese peninsula

Greece 2006

April 9, 2006 – Sunday – Circle Tour – Corinth isthmus & Peloponnese peninsula

Today is a full day tour with Paul, since getting to these sites without a car is difficult. Paul picks me up at 8am and we head out of Athens.

Corinth Canal

Bridges over the Corinth Canal with a ship passing through
Bridges over the Corinth Canal with a ship passing through

First stop is the north end of the Corinth Canal between the Aegean Sea and the Gulf of Corinth. It is obviously a very strategic waterway, since it eliminates sailing around the very large Peloponnese peninsula. Nero started the canal in 66 A.D., and used slaves and prisoners to dig 3.3km of the 6.3km total distance before having to abandon the project when he was arrested in Rome. The canal project wasn’t restarted again until 1882, and completed in 1893, paid for by the Greek government but built by private contractors. Sinking bridges at either end accommodate local traffic, however the expressway and other major roads go over top.

Ancient Corinth & Acrocorinth

Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth with Acrocorinth in the distance
Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth with Acrocorinth in the distance

Next is Ancient Corinth (€6 admission). There are lots of interesting ruins here and a decent museum. The Temple of Apollo’s pillars dominate the Agora site, but the Lechaion Road, Fountain of Peirene and basilica offer a glimpse into daily life under Greek, Tyrant, and Roman rule. Aerial video

Acrocorinth is visible from this site, located 565m above the ancient city. Paul drives up the mountain to the first gate, and then I climb the steep and rocky roads through the three gates built by various occupiers of this strategic fortress. I can’t face the 4 km climb to the top where the Acropolis is located.

Joe climbing the cobblestone road to the third Acrocorinth gate
Joe climbing the cobblestone road to the third Acrocorinth gate

Aerial video used with permission: Tasos Fotakis – DroneWorks

Mycenae

Next stop is Mycenae and the Treasure of Atreus (€8 admission). Perhaps this is the most interesting site I see today, although it is less dramatic visually. Mycenae (and other ancient sites in the area) were inhabited by advanced civilizations hundreds of years before Christ (BC), proving that the tales told by Homer were based on fact. Mycenae is located on a low hill, and the Treasure of Atreus is located in a beehive shaped structure nearby. Actually, the treasures are now located in Athens at the National Archaeological Museum. The gold masks are a must see when you visit the Museum.

Grave Circle A - Mycenae
Grave Circle A – Mycenae

Palamidhi Fortress & Nafplio

Palamidhi Castle walls and gun emplacements with Argos Bay behind
Palamidhi Castle walls and gun emplacements with Argos Bay

There are 900 steps to climb up to the Palamidhi Fortress from the pretty coastal town of Nafplio, however I opt to drive up (€6 admission). Palamidhi Fortress overlooks the town below, and the Bourtzi Fortress on Ayiou Theodhorou islet in Argos Bay. This is perhaps the most impressive fortress I’ve ever visited. It is perched on a steep hill, and the views are breathtaking. Like Acrocorinth, strenuous climbing is involved in exploring the site!

Epidaurus

Ancient outdoor amphitheatre of Epidaurus
Ancient outdoor amphitheatre of Epidaurus

Ancient Epidaurus, Theatre – (€6 admisson) – This ancient outdoor theatre is still used today to stage performances. It is not as large or as well decorated as the theatres we saw in Libya at Leptis Magna and Sabrata, however it is an impressive theatre nonetheless, and apparently has perfect acoustics. It dates to the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, and is part of a larger complex of buildings, including a sanitarium.

Return to Athens

Expressway from Corinth to Athens, twin tunnels

It has been a long day, but very productive and rewarding, since I experienced so many ancient sites, thanks to Paul’s intimate knowledge. I go to the Ayah restaurant again this evening for dinner, and have chicken and rice with Rocket salad – excellent!

Greek restaurants will dress most salads with oil and vinegar before serving unless you catch them first. As well, olive oil is poured on almost all main courses.

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Leptis Magna

2006 Total Solar Eclipse – Libya

March 26, 2006 – Sunday – Leptis Magna, Libya

Today, on our second full day in Libya, we travel to the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, 120km east of Tripoli.

It looks like Fatid (from Numidia Tours) will be our tour leader throughout our stay in Libya, and again, we also have a member of the Tourist Police on board. Part way to Leptis Magna we pass through a check point, and papers are given to the officials before we proceed.

Like Sabrata, Leptis Magna is a huge ancient city located on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a much bigger city than Sabrata. There is a huge arch at the entrance to the city erected by Septimus Severus, who was the emperor of the Roman Empire for several years, and who was a resident of the city at the time. There is a huge theatre, impressive roads, a harbour, and temples galore.

On the return trip back to Tripoli we pass through two more checkpoints. As we travel in Libya over the coming days, we become used to these check points. It appears Libyan citizens are not free to travel their country unless they have good reason to do so. I expect if their papers are not in order, they will be turned around and sent back at these check points.

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Sabratha

2006 Total Solar Eclipse – Libya

March 25, 2006 – Saturday – Sabratha, Libya

Today on our first full day in Libya, we travel to the ancient Roman city of Sabratha, about 80km west of Tripoli.

Sabratha’s golden age can be traced to the era when four Roman emperors reigned: Antonius Pius (AD 138-61), Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (AD 161-80), Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (AD 180-92), and finally Septimus Severus (Ad 193-211).

Sabratha was part of the Phoenician, Greek and Roman empires, among others. The first thing you see as you walk through the gates is the Sabratha Theatre to your right across a meadow, with glimpses of the blue Mediterranean Sea behind it. This theatre is without a doubt the most impressive Roman stone theatre to be found anywhere, including the theatre in the sister city of Leptis Magna. It has been beautifully restored, and the location close to the shoreline of the Mediterranean sets off the beautiful stonework. Theatrical productions continue to be staged here today, and I can understand why, since acoustics are impeccable in Roman-designed theatres.

Despite everyone expecting to feel our jet-lag from our long flights the day before, we did very well covering this huge site. I really didn’t appreciate the scale of this ancient coastal city.