Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Greece - Athens and the Acropolis

July 27-30

Hello everyone!

The final stop of the latest European tour was a destination that I have been keen to explore for a while. A city that has influenced languages and culture around the world, and is still regularly in the news, albeit for very different reasons. One of the oldest and original super-cities of the world: Athens.

It is common knowledge that Greece is steeped in ancient history, and many ideas that are fundamental to Western society today were developed in Athens. The first notions of democracy, and listening to the will of the people, were established here. Though it is true that ‘people’ who could vote excluded women and non-Athenian citizens, and those who could vote actually had to vote rather than exercise a right to abstain, it showed that allowing the decision of many to become the final decision could work practically as well as in theory. This is just one example of how Athens’ history and influence can still be seen today.

The most spectacular sight that still remains from the ancient era sits dominantly atop the Acropolis hill in the heart of the city. The Parthenon can be seen from much of central Athens, and acts as a reminder of the influence the city used to exert on Greece and beyond. The reason that it was constructed on the top taps into the spiritual and mythical side of the age; birds would never fly over the rock, making it seem special. A short hike leads you up this hill to the majestic, crumbling wonder of the world that was erected here.

The Parthenon was actually in decent shape until a war with the Venetians in 1687. The Greeks decided to store their gunpowder and explosives in the monument. You can imagine, and see, the damage caused when a Venetian bomb landed upon the building. It has changed over the years, from a temple to a tourist attraction via church and mosque, and it currently undertaking a painstaking restoration process. One unfortunate side effect of this project is the cranes which prove to be quite an eyesore and distraction at the top.

The Parthenon is by no means the only major historical site still visible in Athens; indeed, the city is a hotbed of historical ruins and spiritual sites. It is home to the ancient and Roman agoras, which were the market areas and trading hotspots. Every location has a story behind it, which I learnt about on an entertaining walking tour of the city.

Amongst the temples and pillars is the Panathinaiko Stadium, where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896. They were a world away from the global and commercial operation that represents the Olympic movement today. Only 10-15 countries took part (records can’t prove the claims of certain countries), women were not allowed to compete, and they only participated in nine sporting disciplines.

The Greeks apparently approached this event with a degree of arrogance. My tour guide cheekily informed us that the Americans swept the board owing to their magical theory…of training. Only one Greek athlete actually won a gold medal in 1896, Spyridon Louis winning the marathon. His trophy is shown below, and can be found in the impressive Acropolis Museum. That long-distance race, one I would like to do in the next couple of years, is derived from Greek history and the legendary tale of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message to not give in to Persian forces that were soon to arrive, as the Athenians had defeated them 26.2 miles away. Louis’ achievement is recognised by the national stadium, hosting the 2004 Olympic Games, being named in his honour.

 This provides me with a nice link to talk about modern Greece. A country, and a capital, in crisis, according to the international news outlets. The problems are well-documented. Unemployment of 27.6% as of May 2013, with the rate for Greeks aged 15 to 24 at a staggering 64.9%. Public debt of 305.3 billion euros, or 160.5% of GDP. An 11% drop in real wages according to a recent study. An angry public regularly protesting against what they see are injustices resulting from bad governmental decisions.

The question really is whether this is visible as you stroll through the historical centre of the city, and whether it is enough to scare away potential visitors. There is clear evidence that Athens is a city that has been struggling, from the sheer volume of graffiti and protest posters to the mass of boarded-up buildings that used to thrive as shops. Yet there were no protests during my time in the Greek capital, and people that I saw seemed more positive than one would expect given the dystopian statistics portrayed above.

What Athens is doing is promoting its tourism and using its history to attract people, and therefore money, towards Greece. There are benefits to visiting this metropolis home to over 3.5 million aside from the obvious cultural profit. Athens is cheaper than other major European cities, particularly its Roman counterpart. Food is cheap – souvlaki, spiced meat on a stick, is rarely more than a euro. The metro is one of the best legacies left by the 2004 Olympics.

I was pleasantly surprised with Athens. It is a bubbly and active city with more to see and do than would initially be expected. It possesses some stunning views, particularly from the top of Lycabettus Hill, and an aura of grandeur and former glory. Greece’s sorry financial predicament should not put anyone off visiting Athens – it is certainly worth your time and much-needed euros.

Love you all


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Ridiculously super awesome European adventure – Greece and the gauntlet

July 19-26

Driving around Europe is immensely fun and rewarding. It can, however, be a bit stressful. Though on the road for the best part of three weeks, there hadn’t been too much time to relax. We thus hopped on a plane from Munich and headed south to the Greek island of Zakynthos for some R&R.

It may be obvious from the volume of blogs that I write, but I struggle if I am forced to stay in one place for an extended period of time. I get restless. A week without much communication with the outside world is thus not my top pick for a holiday. This time, however, I knew that I had no need to worry about boredom. This wasn’t a usual holiday. It was a family holiday…yet not my family…

This was eloquently put to me as ‘the gauntlet’. A week with Hannah’s family with no means of escape, and no way of watching the cricket. A week of ridicule and banter would surely ensue and break me down to the point at which I would rather be venomised by the numerous spiders, snakes and insects we walked past than endure another breakfast.

Well, in a parallel universe that may have happened. As it was, the most poignant mockery was made just about within the first hour of arriving at the tiny airport. We were whisked off onto a rented boat and driven around to the northern side of the island. It was here that everybody else quickly realised my inability to dive. The Polish driver described my dive as like one of a toad. One of my objectives for the week became to learn to dive. The video at the bottom will show you if I was successful.

Zakynthos, more commonly known amongst the 18-30 crowd as Zante, is an island to the west of the Greek heartland. The area we stayed in was very much a place where the 18-30 crowd don’t go: the quieter side of town. We were in a villa high above the sea, within binocular range of where Prince Edward was staying. Like I said, not your usual 18-30 zone. The drink-yourself-to-the-abyss pat of Zakynthos is a town on the south side called Laganas. Put an ‘S’ in front of that and you’ll discover our rather low opinion of the place, and that we avoided it.

The members of Hannah’s family who owned the villa also had a boat called Barbara. Unfortunately, she was out of action for the majority of our stay, but we did rent a boat for another morning. The temperature of the sea fluctuated mildly, but was never uncomfortable. Some areas were shallow enough for us to mess around on the surprisingly rare sand-filled bed, yet others were darkly deep within metres of the rocky shoreline.

The advantage of having a boat at your disposal is that you have the freedom to travel to any part of an island’s coastline and explore areas that one may not otherwise find. One such example took us to a cafĂ© further south from the port. The calamari was fresh, tender and delicious: probably the best I’ve ever had.

Though I spent a lot of the week relaxing in the shade, I was able to expend plenty of energy running, swimming and playing tennis to prevent from becoming fidgety. Running up and down the steep hills is brutal in the intense heat offered on Zakynthos, even in the early morning. On one such run I lost my bearings and ended up quite far inland, much to the amusement of those in the villa.

By the time final full day had snuck up on us Barbara had been fully mended and was ready to take us on our final boating excursion. Lots of jumping and diving – the toad turned into a prince eventually – into the deep blue sea.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable week in Zakynthos. My first experience of Greece was probably unique amongst people of my age, but I am certainly not complaining. I also now know why people invest so much money into buying boats. ‘The gauntlet’ was very much survived and was nowhere near as bad as certain people had suggested, and was entertaining throughout.

Love you all


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ridiculously super awesome European driving adventure – The micro-states of Liechtenstein and San Marino

July 11, 15

In an earlier edition I wrote about the notion of travelling and what constitutes having ‘been’ to and experienced in a country. My belief is that you have to experience a major part of a country’s heritage or culture, or spend time in a local environment for a period of time longer than your lunch, in order to tick it off your list. These philosophies were challenged by two places – countries – we visited during the Italian Surprise adventure.

On the way down to Perugia we stopped in Liechtenstein. It so easily could be another region of Switzerland. However, I’m sure saying that would be as offensive to them as suggesting to me that Wales is just an extension of England.

We drove almost head-to-toe through Liechtenstein. It didn’t take long. 26km at its longest, this principality. The capital, Vaduz, cannot be classed as anything other than a village. So why does it exist? Why do people come here?

Well, it is home to a royal family, currently headed by Prince Hans-Adam II. It is famous for…them. They live in a castle overlooking the valley in which Vaduz resides. And stamps. A stamp museum, as well as the paintings of stamps on the pedestrianised main street, highlights this. And…umm…that it is one of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world! All the countries surrounding Liechtenstein are also landlocked. Bonus point if you can name the other country…

It’s Uzbekistan, if you want to impress your friends. A pamphlet from the tourist office could have helped me out here, if I hadn’t have lost it. It listed five – FIVE – reasons to visit Liechtenstein. One was to do with winter, the others…probably about stamps. I can imagine philatelists queuing in their droves to get their kicks here. I would say the main one is actually looking at the stunning Alpine mountains looming so closely over the principality. Mountains that probably belong to Austria and Switzerland.

In spite of the mockery, I liked Liechtenstein. It seemed very clean, very relaxed, very…Swiss. And in the same vein, the other micro-state we went to is very…Italian.

The Republic of San Marino. Third smallest country in the whole wide world. So atrocious at football that I’m sure many semi-professionals have considered getting citizenship so they can play in the World Cup (qualifiers, and lose 8-0 every time). A place that seems absolutely no different to Italy aside from the flag and the number plate. But again, don’t tell them that.

In spite of being engulfed by Italy, San Marino is actually quite difficult to reach, simply because it’s so high. The country of roughly 32,000 citizens is located up the steepest of hills. Atop the mound lies a castle, some souvenir shops often selling trinkets which say ITALIA on them, and a rather special view of the landscape surrounding it. Not much else.

We spent roughly two hours exploring each of these countries, by car and by foot. I said before that I didn’t think I had really experienced Mexico as I had only been there for…two hours. The problem is that these places are so small; it is probably as long as you actually need to see and do everything that they have to offer. There isn’t much uniqueness about them, and the harsh reality is that if they weren’t recognised as countries I don’t think many people would visit them.

Yet the fact remains that Liechtenstein and San Marino are their own, self-governing entities, and are perfectly entitled to be treated with just as much respect as any other state. Though I wouldn’t say you should travel from far and wide to flock to them (difficult anyway, as neither has an airport), they’re certainly worth exploring if you are in the vicinity. You could also see if you really are good enough for that San Marino football team…

Love you all