Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lykavittos Hill

Lykavittos Hill, or Lycabettus, one of the seven official hills of Athens, is said to have the best view of the city and the sea beyond. It is the highest point in Athens, at 300 meters above sea level. One afternoon, we decided to make the trek up there to see the sunset.

The hill itself takes about 30 minutes to hike up from the neighborhood below, and there are paths and then stairs. It's a bit of a workout but nothing too difficult, especially since there are multiple viewpoints to take a break, complete with benches.

An interesting detail are the signatures carved into the cacti leaves along the paths. 

The top of the hill has a number of facilities, including a viewing platform, a little church, and a restaurant. The restaurant is actually quite nice, with great views over the city, and it has great falafel sandwiches that are cheap if you get takeaway. There are also a few individual vendors that sell drinks and snacks.

From the top of the hill you can see Athens from all angles, and the city spreads out before you in a beautiful white lattice of streets and buildings.

When the sun starts to set, all the visitors crowd around the platform, so make sure to stake out a spot for yourself.

In the distance, you can glimpse the famous Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, shining in the light.

I zoomed in to get a better view. It's amazing how the sea blends into the pastel colors of the sky, and you can't really tell where one ends and the other begins. The view was really magical.

Seeing a city from above really aids in my understanding of how it is laid out, and how the different neighborhoods relate to and connect with each other. Because I am a visual thinker, I like having the cityscape laid out before me. I highly recommend hiking up this hill; it's not too strenuous of a journey, and there is also a railway that takes visitors up if you'd rather not exert yourself. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Vibrant Streets of Athens

One of my favorite activities while in Athens was simply wandering around the streets, up and down the alleyways. There were very few grand boulevards or wide avenues, and this was fantastic to me. Every corner led to a mystery - eclectic bookshops, smokey cafes, crumbling ruins.  

Athens is full of crisscrossing narrow alleyways. The residential neighborhoods contain historic buildings with pale, pastel facades, intricately wrung iron balconies, and delicate vines and flowers. These idyllic sights are juxtaposed with colorful graffiti of varying degrees of artistic technique, seemingly indiscriminate in their placement. A gorgeous centuries-old church is as good as a crumbling stonewall in a parking lot.

It was only after visiting Rome that I realized that Athens is a bit more run-down and smaller in scale compared to some of the other grand capitals of Europe. It's a different sort of beauty - a raw, gritty, worn, and unpretentious charm pervades the city. This is the real Athens, very little of it molded or curated especially for tourists - and I like it.

Somehow, it's all the more gorgeous and satisfying to know that all of this is built for itself, not for the eyes of others or the glossy covers of travel brochures.

Graffiti was everywhere - homes, street signs, businesses, churches, offices. There were amazing murals and smart designs right next to crude language and messy scrawls. Though sometimes the street art seemed to take away from the beautiful buildings, they also added an interesting layer of color and political commentary to the built environment.

Athens is also quite a hilly city, as there are seven major hills within the metropolitan area, so the changes in elevation added another interesting visual dimension. The metro stations are a bit more far apart than some other cities I've visited, which makes walking a great choice of transportation.

Of course, walking is the best way to see a city in my opinion. Only through walking do you get the glimpses of the everyday, the little details that make up the lives of the people around you, like the cats stretching in the patch of sunlight, the old neighbors chatting over a cup of coffee, and the heavenly smell of fresh bread drifting from the local bakery. Even in the chill of late February, there was also something interesting happening in the streets. 

Greek Eats

I have finally finished my one month travels in Europe, and there is so much to share. First, I traveled to Athens, the beautiful capital of Greece. Food-wise, I was pleasantly surprised that though I was a budget traveller, I was able to eat quite well in this country.

The most affordable, filling "fast food," is souvlaki. Souvlaki is basically roasted or grilled meat wrapped up in a warm, soft pita. There is pork, lamb, and chicken varieties. Other fillings include tomatoes, lettuce, yogurt sauce, and sometimes herbs. Souvlaki commonly costs around 2 euros, and the quality can vary vastly.

The souvlaki in the photo below had french fries added into the mix!

The best souvlaki that we tried was at a small family establishment called "O Kostas." This hole-in-the-wall is a out of the way from the Acropolis area, and it looks quite plain from the outside, but looks are deceiving in this case. This shop exclusively makes souvlaki, and have done so for about 50 years. Inside is a tiny room with a counter, a small grill and toppings bar, and two bar stools.

This souvlaki was the best! The pita bread was soft and warm, the meat was tender, the tomatoes so fresh, and the fresh herbs added a nice flavor punch. The price is comparable to any other shop, 2.20 euros for one. We went back again just to experience this amazing food. The owners were really friendly, and we could see how successful the little shop was, with the continuous line of locals throughout the whole lunch period.

Another cheap eat we saw everywhere was a sesame bagel/pretzel crossover called koulouri in Greek. These are deliciously chewy and seedy - they make a nice snack with some tea or coffee. 

Most of the meals that we had involved some form of grilled meat, bread or potatoes, and salad. Greek food is simple, wholesome, and relatively healthy. There is plenty of olives, feta, lemon, and olive oil - all part of a healthy Mediterranean diet.  

The small plates of meat skewers are pretty cheap. At many restaurants, even in the tourist areas, they were 1.5-2 euros for a meat skewer and some bread on the side. Two of these could be a light meal for a person.

At local neighborhood sit-down restaurant, dishes cost between 4 and 9 euros. Most prices include tax, and some restaurants charge for water while others provide it for free. 

I had to try a Greek salad, and here they use way more feta cheese than I've ever seen. The salads commonly come with huge slabs of salty, savory feta. The salads usually cost around 5 euros, and they were certainly large, meant to serve as a side for multiple people. 

I also ate copious amounts of Greek yogurt, obviously. I love that creamy, rich yogurt, and in Greece I found that dairy and fresh-baked bread was much cheaper than in the U.S., and certainly than in Asia. Overall, the food is surprisingly affordable for Europe, especially if you buy food from grocery stores to make your own breakfast.