The Road to Sounio and Temple of Poseidon

Glen went to the conference on Tuesday morning while I stayed in the apartment catching up on some work. It’s both a positive and a negative that as a freelancer you can work from anywhere. He returned at lunch time with the other radiologists and we went for lunch at a local fish restaurant. We then collected the car and set off on our second road trip.

Vouliagmeni Lake

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About half an hour out of Athens (if there’s no traffic), you’ll find Vouliagmeni Lake. It’s a lake carved out of the mountain and set back a little from the coast. It’s fed from sea water and an underwater thermal spring. To capitalise on this unique natural feature, it’s been turned into a ‘spa’.

We paid our €12 and claimed a table underneath an umbrella and went for a swim. The sign said the water was between 26°C and 28°C but it didn’t feel as warm as that going in. It was a bit like being in a saltwater pool, the water only tasting slightly of salt.

Another unique feature of the lake are the schools of tiny fish that swim around, waiting for anything to stand still long enough so they can attack it and strip it of dead skin. This resulted in many, many squeals as their little mouths rapidly suck away at your flesh like a ticklish massage.

After a swim and a fish-pedicure, we continued on our way.

Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon

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About an hour farther up the road are the town of Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, an impressive ruin that dominates the landscape from the land and the sea. We stopped to get a photo from the opposite side of the bay before going around, parking and exploring the site.

We went down before we went up, seeing ruins of the walls and settlements. I saw a long green lizard while we were later treated to the sight of an adult bird corralling (and trying to defend) its brood of six chicks. We watched them for a while as they peeped away and tried to climb a wall.

We reached the top of the hill and walked around the temple. I was impressed with the number of columns still standing (or the number that had been restored). The weather was perfect and I got some great shots (Glen and I doing our traditional #lickingthings photos).

It was well worth the trip out to see and I was glad I’d chosen to drive rather than hire a driver. Felt we were free to do what we wanted. We left at about 5 something and headed back into Athens.

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Mount Lycabettus

As we had the car we decided to check out Mount Lycabettus in Athens, also known as ‘the other big hill’. Getting back into Athens-traffic was not pleasant, especially when I had to drive down narrow streets lined with parked cars. I got us fairly high up the hill before we had to get out and climb the rest of the way. (There is a funicular from the other side to the bottom of the hill.)

Our first view of the Acropolis and Athens was impressive and we oohed and aahed over it. We then repeated this the higher up the hill we climbed. The only downside was a slight haze over the city but in the gradually fading light, it was a real treat. Athens just goes on forever.

At the top of the hill is a restaurant that’s apparently expensive (I didn’t look) but instead of eating there, we head back to the car and I drove us to the Gazi district. We settled into a Greek restaurant (well, they’re all Greek as they’re in Greece but you get what I mean) called Frog Island and ordered lots of different things.

It was all delicious. Alison was coming to join us so we had the problem of deciding whether to leave things for her (and risk it being cold when she arrived) or gorging ourselves (and destroying the evidence) so she could order something fresh. In the end we were too full to finish it all so Michael made up a plate for her. We waddled out sometime around 9pm, dropped the car back at the parking garage and went home. Another successful day in Greece complete.

Mulberries of Delphi

On Monday, Glen, Anna and I went on a roadtrip to Delphi. Rather than join a tour group or hire a driver, I rented a car and decided I’d drive us the 2.5 hours up there. I was a little anxious about driving in Greece, expecting the drivers to be as crazy as the Italians, but I put on my big boy pants and we went anyway.

Getting out of Athens was the hardest part. We left at about 9am, going through busy streets without a GPS. Glen had downloaded the map onto his phone which was lucky and we then took a tense 45 minutes to get out of Athens and on to the freeway. I was mostly worried about the (helmet-free) motorcyclists who zip in between the cars, concerned that I’d inexplicably turn into them and squash them between me and the next car. Thankfully, this did not happen.

Drivers mostly kept to their lanes so the traffic wasn’t like India or Bali where it’s just one big amorphous blob of cars. However, the space between one car and the next is fairly fluid so no one minded when I merged across three lanes of traffic so I could go down the correct exit. What surprised me was how infrequently people use their horns. There’s little impatient tooting going on and people seem generally relaxed (as long as you’re not slow in the fast lane).

It was smooth sailing once we left the city. The speed limit was 100–120kmh on the freeways, with an interesting feature being the two centre lanes at the highest speed and then the next two lanes being 20kmh slower. However, everyone regularly does 20kmh over the speed limit. It was quite something to be going 140.

Orchomenos

We made it to our first stop along the scenic – yet faster – route in a town called Orchomenos. Google made us go down a few back streets to get to where we wanted to go but we finally made it. We stopped at a monastery which has a famous icon of the Virgin Mary Who Stopped The Tanks. It was closed.

Over the road were the ruins of a theatre and tholos tomb, which we paid €2 to get into and look around. We located different sculpture body parts – a leg, a torso, a head – though I don’t think we found any arms or hands. After half an hour in Orchomenos we got back in the car and set off to our second stop.

Livadia

The guide-description I had for this town said:

At first glance Livadia doesn’t seem like much but if you go into the old town in the center, it’s one of the most beautiful town centers in Greece with its old water mills and waterfalls.

The section we drove into was definitely not beautiful but we managed to find a tight parking space and headed into what we hoped was the old town centre, following the route of the river upstream.

When we finally found the right spot, we weren’t disappointed. It was so picturesque with clear running water, water mills, stone bridges and green leafy trees. It was well worth the stop. We walked up to the top edge of town where the river is left natural, and then stopped for lunch in this idyllic setting.

There are also some archaeological ruins (another oracle was stationed here) and a castle but I was conscious of time and wanted to get to Delphi. We found the car – momentarily worried we couldn’t locate it again – and then picked our way through the narrow and scary streets of Livadia before we zoomed off along the freeway again.

We hit the mountains and the winding mountain roads which, for me, were fun. Glen did not share my enthusiasm for them. We also went through a town called Arahova which is built into the side of the mountain and is reminiscent of Cinqueterre. It’s a ski town…not a bad spot.

Delphi

I can’t believe I was considering not making the trip out here. What a waste of a trip to Greece that would have been. We arrived in Delphi at about 3, bought our tickets and went into the Museum of Delphi (which closed at 5). It displayed lots of archaeological findings from the Delphi site, displayed on plinths and in cabinets in various rooms. Sphinx, a statue of Antinous, a bronze charioteer and lots of gold offerings. I was worn out from the driving so my brain rebelled at taking in too much.

We then hit the site itself, walking up the side of the mountain and looking over the ruins. It’s a shame you can’t enter the Temple of Apollo – where the oracle is said to have been housed – but c’est la vie. We got our photos up and down the hill, a beautiful vista from the top looking down at the theatre, the temple and then the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia in the distance.

One of the best parts of the climb up the hill was the raiding of the mulberry trees, first going up and then going down again. I’ve NEVER had mulberries that tasted that good before. The only downside was the we could only reach a few of them, meanwhile the branches out of reach were laden with ripe fruit. Our hands were stained by the end of it but we washed them in the drinking mountain. Mulberries, who knew?

Delphi: go for the oracle, stay for the mulberries.

After Delphi-proper, we got in the car and drove down to the ruins of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. This one’s open to the public and free of charge. The ruins of the tholos in the centre is what I originally thought was the oracle of Delphi. Not so apparently. We wandered around in the heat, taking our photos and then got back in the car to drive home.

Back to Athens

The sun was still well and truly in the sky but it was about 6pm when we left and based on the last few night’s I figured I’d be asleep at the wheel by 8 so we needed to hurry. We took a slightly longer route on the way back to Athens, going along country roads and seeing a different part of the countryside. I also saw four police cars at various intervals, an unwelcome sight after speeding so much all day. They paid me no attention, however.

Traffic in Athens was bordering on the insane when we arrived back in the city. Some of the streets aren’t well marked so it looked like I was going to go down a one-way street (wouldn’t be the first time for the day) but eventually made it nearer our accommodation.

The concert at the stadium was due to start at 9 so every man and his dog was in the area (we’re a few doors down) and they were taking up all available parking space. In the end we parked in the 24-hour car park, expecting to be hit with an exorbitant fee but 24 hours only cost €15 so it was a bargain. They also parked the car for us.

Anna’s colleagues went to the stadium for the concert but we went for dinner at Macro Provato instead, which was just down the road. We had an enjoyable and simple meal – anchovies and meatballs to start, followed by salmon and salad for Anna and I, and chicken for Glen. Good food. We then head home and were in bed by 10. Exhausted but content.

Athens and the Acropolis: Day Two

We woke up on Sunday morning to the sound of rain. By the looks of things it had rained all night and wasn’t showing any sign of slowing down. Our plans to see the Acropolis with Anna were looking in jeopardy. Regardless, Anna came to our apartment and we caught up before deciding we’d take a taxi to the Acropolis Museum and wait out the rain.

When we got in the taxi I didn’t check that he had his meter on. I couldn’t even see the meter. So when he dropped us the three minutes down the road and he asked for €5, I handed it over. I think we all thought that was reasonable enough. At the end of the day when we caught a taxi home and it took about 15 minutes, the total came to €5.50. Now that was a bargain. Anyway, I digress…

Acropolis Museum

Every tourist in Athens had the same idea to escape the rain in the Acropolis Museum. We joined the queue for security and then the queue for the tickets and set off for a bit of culture and learning. Thankfully Anna was of the same mindset as us in that we were happy with passive learning. That is, if the learning came to us, we’d take it in. If not, then we’d find the restaurant.

We wandered through the galleries, picking up bits and pieces from a tour guide who was leading a group. I learned that being naked in the gymnasium was a sign of high status. We also learned that there seemed little rhyme or reason as to why you could take photos in most galleries but not the first, despite there being no demarcation to tell you so.

Inside were lots of statues, urns, sculptures, columns etc, and minimal signage (although when there were information boards they were in big chunks of text…not that conducive to processing). Our favourite gallery, however, was on the top floor where they have replicated the size and shape of the top of the Parthenon and placed around the sides copies and fragments of the friezes that were on the Parthenon. Meanwhile, this window-lined gallery had a fantastic view of the Acropolis. This was a masterful piece of interpretation and by far the highlight of the museum.

Having reached the top of the museum and seen ‘everything’, we rewarded ourselves with lunch in the restaurant, again with a superb view of the Parthenon out the window. We’ve started to notice a pattern with food service that, when you’ve finished your meal, it’s nearly impossible to get someone to bring the check. And then, when they finally do, it takes another eternity to pay. Anna put it down to them not wanting us to leave so the tables would look full. Whatever it is, it’s frustrating.

The Acropolis and More

The rain had abated by the time we got outside so we walked to the Acropolis, bought our ticket and ascended the hill with the rest of the horde. It’s an impressive collection of statues, columns, temples and rocks on the ground. We navigated around the crowds and took our photos, looked out across Athens and considered how interesting it would be to have immersive interpretation going on up there, for example, a sacrifice to Athena or priests selling votives. I guess they don’t need to add more considering how many people go just to see it and the view.

We navigated around the crowds and took our photos, looked out across Athens and considered how interesting it would be to have immersive interpretation going on up there, for example, a sacrifice to Athena or priests selling votives. I guess they don’t need to add more considering how many people go just to see it and the view.

The Parthenon is under construction as part of renovation and restoration works so one side is covered in scaffolding and blocked with a crane. It would really be something if they were able to restore it to the level where you could walk through the temple itself. Then you’d really get an idea of the scale of the thing. The old temple of Athena, the smaller one next to it, is mostly there but again, off-limits.

We wandered down from the top of the hill along the southern slope, seeing more ruins, before popping out down the bottom to go walking through Plaka. We covered much the same route that we’d travelled the day before, again stopping, looking in shops and buying things. We also stopped at a restaurant near Hadrian’s Library and had meze and Aperol spritz.

Despite our screaming legs, we continued our march to check out more of the sites. We’d paid for a combo ticket (€30) which gave us entry to the Acropolis and a bunch of other temples and ruins. We hit the Roman Agora first but were unable to enter as it had suddenly become 5 pm and it had closed. We walked on, going to the Stoa and the Ancient Agora of Athens.

The Stoa, although restored, is impressive. A two-storey building with lots of columns, the effect of the light and shadow is stunning. We then cut across more ruins, up a hill and then to the Temple of Hephaistos which had excellent views across and up to the Acropolis. Well worth the trek.

Dead legs by this stage we cut through the tourist restaurants, again ending up near where we were the day before near Monastiraki Square, and caught a taxi home. Anna went to check-in to her accommodation and a few hours later we set off for food. Again, crossing territory we’d been over before, we hit a neighbourhood bar/pizzeria called Colibri. Glen and Anna had pasta while I had chicken and salad (GREEN THINGS! YAY!). We were falling asleep at the table by 8:30. Anna’s work colleague arrived but we said our farewells and stumbled home and to bed.

A packed day! Delphi on Monday.

Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii

On a friend’s recommendation we booked a private car to drive us to Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii with our own tour guide at the two ruins. Despite the fee, we thought this was a good choice after our train ride the day before and how long it would take to get to all the sites, a near impossibility if we wanted to do them properly.

The driver – Igor – picked us up at 9am and we joined the insane traffic, adding yet another car to the road, as we drove around narrow and winding streets, catching glimpses of seaside towns. It was indeed picturesque.

Vesuvio

Our first stop was Vesuvio, approximately an hour and a bit away from Sorrento. The road up the mountain wound around and around, so much that I had to stop reading or else I’d be ill by the time we got to the top.

Igor dropped us at the start of the trail and then drove off. Unfortunately, he’d neglected to drop us off at the ticket office about 300m back down the road. Without the ticket we weren’t going anywhere. So we trudged down, bought our €10 per person ticket, and then set off properly.

Within about ten metres the side of my left calf started cramping. And then the other side. I was not getting up the volcano very fast at all. Nevertheless, I made it after we went up the criss-cross path and then to a rest stop where we could join a guided tour.

The tour wasn’t so much a guided tour as a 2-minute chat standing still. And it turns out that much of the information he gave us was incorrect. For example, I was surprised to hear that Vesuvius wasn’t the volcano that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum but rather the volcano next to us which was called Mount Somma. This was in fact wrong and Mount Somma had erupted tens of thousands of years before 79AD and was now extinct.
Vesuvius, however, is alive and well. It’s last ‘little’ eruption was in the 40s. Another is due sometime soon and it’s predicted to wipe out a lot of the surrounding area. Visit Napoli while you can.

After the non-guided tour, we walked half the perimeter of the volcano, taking pictures along the way. It’s not as wide as Sierra Negra in the Galapagos but it’s got more cache for sure. There was really only one place with the gases come out, but lots of little lava lizards running around.

We spent about an hour and 45 minutes all up getting up there, walking around and then down again, and our driver was waiting for us when we got down so we could zoom off to Herculaneum. With it being just about midday I was ready for some lunch but we pushed on through.

Ercolano

Our guide, Andrea, met us at Herculaneum and then took us inside to see the ruins and learn a bit about them for two hours. Herculaneum was left a bit more intact after the eruption so there are two and three stories buildings still standing. Unfortunately only about 25% of the site is excavated and the rest lies under the ‘ugly’ (the guide’s words) new town of Ercolano.

What struck me was how much it got covered – it’s about 10 or 20 metres down – and the sea came in a lot closer. We were in fact standing at the edge of what was once the shoreline. This was also where about 300 bodies had been discovered. Andrea’s theory is that when the earthquake hit, the people remembered the earthquake from 17 years prior, and headed to the ocean to avoid the buildings collapsing on them.

There they slept but when the eruption came the gas was so hot – about 400°C – it killed them instantly. The children and the women at the back of these cave-like structures, the men in the middle, the slaves at the front. The skeletons we saw were reconstructions but they’re in the positions the originals were found in. It all looks terrifying.

We wandered through the city with Andrea pointing out different features such as water pipe systems, the gymnasium, baths, fast food shops and other ancient things. I asked where Hercules was represented, considering it’s a town named after him, and he showed us a few things.

One was a hydra statue-cum-fountain, another the ‘dumbo ears’ Hercules on a public water trough, and another of a fresco on a wall. Each time, before we saw another one, he called us ‘fans of Hercules’ which was starting to sound like a euphemism.

Herculaneum was also less visited than Pompeii so we didn’t have to battle the crowds too much. I really enjoyed this small site, especially as much more of it was intact. Andrea sounded very disheartened that so much of it was still underground but it looks like they’re digging tunnels underneath the town to uncover more.

Pompeii via Pizza

When we finished, I said I needed food or else I wasn’t going to last a two-hour tour around Pompeii. This prompted a rather tense discussion between our guide and our driver. When asked what we wanted, we just said something quick like pizza so we zoomed off.

The driver took us to one of the entrances of Pompeii where there was a roadside pizza restaurant where a friend of his works. We wolfed down our large pizzas and then got back in the car to be taken to the other entrance to Pompeii where our guide had wanted us to go. There were food places there and it would have been better for the driver to have done what the guide asked but he was young and arrogant and knew best.

This created tension between the two and also made us a little later than intended. The guide was visibly annoyed with the way that things had turned out and probably thought we were going to complain to the company.

He brought it up twice before we could really get going. Nevertheless we got our full two hours worth, probably more, and I think that was more to stick it to the driver than anything. I’m sure there were words later, especially as Andrea had been with the company for 17 years.

Anyway, we moved on.

The first thing we saw were a selection of the bodies they’d extracted. These were kept in two semi-circular sealed glass rooms. They were in their death poses, one of a child and mother, another of someone covering their face to keep the gases out. Some we could even see their skulls and teeth. Unlike Herculaneum, where death had been swift, in Pompeii it had been slow and agonising. It was a sobering start to the tour.

Pompeii looked different from when I saw it 16 years ago. Then it had been overrun with vines and weeds and I think a lot of cats or dogs. Now it was almost sterile in its restoration. The city had been just about flattened from the eruption so the buildings weren’t as tall as those we saw in Herculaneum.

As with Herculaneum, I was surprised at how brightly all the walls and floors had been decorated. It seemed odd to think of it being so colourful because now we see so many bland representations but really the place must have shone.

We went into a number of buildings, check out a lot of mosaics and frescoes, graffiti, a brothel (including the penis carving on the road that acted as a signpost to the brothel), and gardens. Some of the gardens had been restored and were growing plants that had once grown there (they’d done soil tests etc). There were lots of pomegranate and quince trees, all bearing fruit, all rotting on the ground.

We checked out the amphitheatre and then the arena as well as the large gymnasium. Inside the gymnasium were large solid concrete structures in the ground. They were to represent the sycamore trees that had once grown there. When they were destroyed they were about 100 years old. The size is staggering. Also in this area we saw carbonised food – lentils, beans, peach stones, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and bread.

We had visited at the perfect time of the day as it was getting closer to 5pm, the sun was getting lower, it was cool, the crowds had thinned. And after about two hours, we were ready to head home.

Andrea took us back to the entrance, we said our goodbyes, and then Igor drove us back to Sorrento through the insane traffic. Again we got to see the towns hugging the cliffs and it was indeed beautiful, and a welcome distraction from the cars. Not for the first time I was very glad I had decided not to drive in Italy.

Fancy-pants Dinner

I was ready to eat by 7:30pm even if Glen was still a little full from our late lunch. Perhaps my stomach has expanded on this trip. I’ll get it stapled when we return. I decided we’d go to Il Buco, a Michelin-star restaurant in Sorrento. I rang and was lucky to get a reservation for 8pm for the two of us.

We strode into town, got a little lost trying to find the place, and then took our seats. We ordered the fish tasting menu, which came with six courses plus a couple of small extras throughout. I also ordered the matched wine.

The food was delicious and the portions, though small, were an adequate size. Glen got full a lot quicker than and struggled on a couple of course. I managed to wolf mine down, aided by the large glasses of wine they served. I couldn’t finish two of them and at the end was rolling drunk and had begun to feel woozy.

After the three-hour meal, we wandered (stumbled?) back to the hotel and climbed into bed, staying awake long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to be ill and then went to sleep.