Tag Archives: History

Travel Guide: Athens and Delphi

Don’t spend much time in Athens, they said. There’s not much to see there, they said.

But I loved Athens and wish we’d been able to stay longer! Then again, I studied history in university and taught history until last year so I’m a little bit biased. We were also in Athens in October when it was far emptier of people than it would be during high tourist season. The temperature was also quite cool, which was nice coming from Singapore.

Upon arriving from Santorini late in the afternoon, we headed straight for the Acropolis. It was a beautiful sunny day and the sun cast long shadows on the stone. We entered the Acropolis at 4:15pm and were escorted out when it closed at 6. That’s the one downside to traveling in the offseason – limited hours for many sites and museums. But nearly two hours was enough time, especially because of how empty it was! Many of our photos had no other people in them!

We were already excited on our way up . . .

and then we just stood at stared at Parthenon and ruins around it.

The Erechtheion is really interesting because the statues are copies (the originals are in the museum) in the condition of the excavated originals. so I didn’t actually know until visiting the museum later.

I was also excited to see the Temple of Athena Nike because I remembered studying it in art history in university.

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The view from the highest point in Athens (the literal translation of Acropolis is “high city”) was incredible, too.

And we had to sit in the stadium before we left!

Then we visited the Acropolis Museum, home of most of the original statues and artifacts. The floor is glass so we could see the site excavation, which was really neat.

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The coolest part of the museum was the top floor, lined with three walls of windows looking out to the Acropolis, housing the original sculptures and frieze from the Parthenon laid out in the dimensions of the actual building.

In terms of its vibe, Athens feels a bit gritty and rough around the edges, like its residents have something to say that only they can understand. And there are amazing views of the Acropolis all around the city.

There are cool hidden gems that I wish we’d had more time to explore and pretty awesome graffiti that seemed a bit more like vandalism than street art.

Athens has a number of neighborhoods full of restaurants and cafés, which is another reason to come back. We saw a few areas that looked really interesting from the windows of our bus ride to Delphi (more below) but spent our evenings in Plaka where we were staying. There was plenty of deliciousness there, including the best ice cream I’ve ever had, so next time I’ll have to see what’s elsewhere, too. And I haven’t had ice cream since.

We were staying basically across the street from Hadrian’s Arch . . .

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. . . which is located right next to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, we could only peek through the gates because closing time in the offseason is earlier than was we read online.

The morning of our only full day in Athens, we took a free walking tour with an incredibly knowledgeable guide who literally walked us through the history of Greece from ancient through modern times. (I even made an account on TripAdvisor to write Michael a review when he said that’s how the company determines who gets tours.) It was very cold that day so we looked for sunny spots to stand in at each place we stopped.

We visited Hadrian’s Library . . .

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. . . Monastiraki Square and flea market . . .

. . . and the Roman Agora.

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For lunch, Michael recommended Bairaktaris Taverna in Monastiraki. It was great and definitely the most local of our meals. And what an experience! The restaurant was large and crowded with tables covered in green-and-white checked cloths. There were large framed photos on the walls and beams leading up to the ceiling of people enjoying their food. At least two walls contained a wide variety of Christian art and the kitchen itself seemed to exist on one long counter at the back where we were sitting and another counter towards the front that may have also been operating a takeaway window. There were tables outside, as well. And to top it off, a three-man band was playing Greek folk songs and a very elderly man, possibly the owner, clapped along every so often. The place has been around since 1879 and it felt like we’d walked into a large family party.

I made the mistake of smiling twice at a line cook, once when I heard him singing and once when I saw him turn a mixing bowl into a drum, and after our gruff yet warm server brought us dessert and mastika on the house, he sent over a plate of lamb kebabs. Adorable, but I’m a vegetarian. (And I instantly had visions of having to break that to him on our third date.) What a country.

After our tour, we continued to follow Michael’s recommendations and went back to visit the Ancient Agora. We started in the museum, which had some interesting artifacts from the site and then walked around. It is really so cool to wander through something so old.

The reason we only spent one full day in Athens was because we wanted to visit Delphi, which was a wonderful day trip. Along the three-hour drive through Mount Parnassus and its environs, our tour guide, Effie, told us in English and French about the city of Athens, pointed out geographic areas of interest, and talked about the lifestyle in the small towns we passed.

When we arrived in Delphi, Effie provided a fascinating history of the oracle and Ancient Greek politics and explained architectural and archaeological features, as well as changes to the site over time.

Effie took us through the Delphi Archaeological Museum, as well. While I could have spent more time there it was good to learn from someone with deeper knowledge than what was written on wall placards.

We stopped for a late lunch at a taverna with beautiful views of the mountains . . .

. . . and then spent a few minutes in the ski town (yes, the only one in Greece) of Arachova.

Then next morning, before we were ready, it was time to go. And we agreed that we’d have to come back.

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Travel Guide: Ghent and Bruges

Perhaps it’s fitting that my last solo travel day in Europe before meeting my brother was also my favorite solo travel day. I started my trip in the Netherlands in Leiden and The Hague and then spent a day in Brussels. By day four, I had fallen into a comfortable rhythm of walking around, reading and writing in cafés, and eating wherever and whenever I felt like it. I did remarkably little thinking about anything in particular and didn’t listen to or follow the news at all during my week away. In regular life, my days start with NPR; when I travel, I’m much more attuned to the physical experience of being somewhere else and mentally try to do the same thing.

I left my Airbnb in Brussels early in the morning, before the cafés nearby were open for breakfast. I had some raisins and almonds in my bag and figured I’d eat when I got to Ghent (which happened before any cafés were open for breakfast). I took the metro to the train station and bought a ticket for Bruges, which is where I planned to spend the afternoon. Bruges is about an hour northwest of Brussels and Ghent is almost exactly between them.

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It was bright and sunny when I arrived in Ghent. I grabbed a map from the tourist information desk and fell in love upon reaching the lobby of the train station.

With its cobblestone roads and architecture dating from the twelfth century, Ghent was like going back in time to a world of castles, knights, and fairy tales (and war, famine, and disease, but I wasn’t thinking about that). Since reading a map is not my forte and I don’t travel with cellular data, I employed the time-tested strategy for travelers arriving in medieval cities – head for the tallest building (most likely a church). But as this is the modern world, I met an Argentinian traveler who gave me a piece of chocolate, a map of Bruges for later, and showed me where Google said we were. He headed off to a join a tour group and I wandered through Ghent with a smile on my face. The words, I’m going to move here tattooed themselves on my brain.

Ghent was just beautiful and I would have loved to spend more time there and would definitely recommend if you’re planning to go.

I oriented myself around the Belfry . . .

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. . . stared up at St. Bavo’s Cathedral . . .

. . . watched the wind whip the flags of City Hall . . .

. . . and just stood for a while in front of the old post office. . . .

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I went inside a chocolate shop advertising cups of hot chocolate and purchased one for takeaway. The clouds were back and I was chilly but I wanted to spend as much time exploring Ghent as I could. My hot chocolate came with a real piece of chocolate shaped like a dragon. (You know that feeling when all you want to do is giggle and perhaps do a cartwheel in sheer delight? That’s the feeling I had eating my dark chocolate dragon in a medieval Belgian city. That and, I’m going to move here.)

I crossed a bridge to get a better view of St. Michael’s Church . . .

. . . and spotted some street art that really intrigued me. In addition to being a beautiful medieval city with real castles that I missed and must go back to see, Ghent is also known for a cool street art scene. Most of the art is located in more residential areas and outside the old city center, so I wasn’t able to see as much of it as I would have liked. Yet another reason to go back!

I’d planned on about half a day in Ghent so I took my time walking back to the train station and took a circuitous route through more modern parts of the city where people actually live. Completely by accident, I found the best cup of coffee I had all week (and really, a darn good cup of coffee) in a café with a menu only in Dutch. (Filter coffee is rare enough in Europe that Café Labath was the second Google hit when I searched “filter coffee in Ghent” while writing this because I couldn’t remember where I was.) Another reason I’m moving to Ghent.

The sun came out as I neared the station and Ghent became even more enchanting!

The sun stayed out (though it would again retreat) as I arrived in Bruges where I’d spend the rest of the day. Bruges is larger than Ghent and definitely the more tourist-trafficked of the two. But the canals are just lovely.

As usual, I headed for a tall building. This one was the local Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) and it housed a Michelangelo Madonna and Child sculpture. It’s relatively rare for Michelangelo’s work to be outside of Italy and I was really excited to see it.

Taking a boat along the canals to see the city by water is a common activity in Bruges, but I’d rather walk than wait in long lines. (I also used to work on a canal tour boat so there’s not much going for me in terms of novelty.) I followed the canals to Burg Square with its ornate buildings . . .

. . . and then walked to Market Square, which is definitely the big attraction of Bruges. I got some frites waited out the rain, thinking about the time, effort, and money it takes to build building like the ones I’d been seeing all week.

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Definitely my favorite activity in Bruges was climbing to the top of the Belfry, Bruges’ tallest building. I waited in line for over an hour to do it, an hour during which wind and rain made me a little doubtful. But I had a book to read and I can wait around pretty much anywhere with a book. (Except an airport. I despise being stuck in airports.) The staircase has 366 very narrow, twisty steps and I could immediately understand why everyone must be down by 6pm.

Afterwards, I sat down for my first real meal of the day, got a waffle around the corner and, because it was raining again, a visit to a wine bar that served me one of the most unique beers I’ve ever had. I asked for something local, as I always do, and the bartender suggested a beer brewed by a Bruges newscaster and his wife, who owns a coffee shop down the road. Doesn’t get more local than that! A regular customer (who is in the food industry and has worked all over the world) and I chatted about his children in international school, where he finds the best meals, and the merits of natural or synthetic wine corks.

The rain had stopped when I decided I should head back to the train station and back to Brussels. But before I left, Bruges gave me a rainbow. It was a beautiful end to a day that I think was life changing. I’d never been to Belgium until the day before and I am now certain that I will be back.

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What makes a man?

“Alexander Hamilton,” my friend declared after listening through Act Two of the musical, “was not a good man.”

Well. That depends. If we’re judging the measure of a man by his faithfulness to his wife then no, Alexander Hamilton was not a good man. And neither were Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, nor Albert Einstein. All of whom, I would argue, are key figures in building the world we live in today and who did more good than anything else. But to say they were not good men because of marital transgressions seems to unfairly dilute and discolor their legacies as individuals who built a world.

Yet, my friend’s comment leaves me wondering: What makes a man? What makes a woman? More importantly, what makes a good man or woman?

Is a good man one who puts his family or his wife first? To me, that sounds like a good father or a good husband.

Then, what is a good man?

Is a good man someone who puts work, money, and providing before everything else? To me, that sounds like an employee or employer, a breadwinner, a producer.

And I continue to wonder, what is a good man?

Is a good man someone who has ideals, stands for them, writes them, shouts them from the rooftops? That could be an orator. That could be a leader.

It seems to me that all of these characteristics comprise the entirety of a man, just as they also comprise what makes a woman.

So what is it about people who stray, who are unfaithful, who seek a plurality of relationships of varying types and intensities that puts them in the “not good” category?

I wonder about that.

And I wonder about the other categories that we all fall into. I’m an educator, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I’m a runner, a yogi. Once upon a time, I was a dancer, a singer, a girlfriend. Do any of those things make me a “good” woman? What is a good woman? Is a good woman different from a good man?

And so back to, what makes a good man?

I’d argue that we need a social conversation about our goals for the people that we are developing, the people that we are creating. I’d argue that what makes a good man or a good woman can be discussed as simply, what makes a good person? 

We want people who care about other people. We want people who work for sustainable worlds built on justice, happiness, security, and increased well-being for all. We want people who care about those around them and who are willing to put others first and do what is right for the good of the whole. That seems to me less about being a good man or good woman and more about simply being a good human.

What makes a good man? What makes a good woman? That depends on who you ask.

What makes a good human, at least as far as I’m concerned, is the much more important question.