Athens – Aegina Island: A Magical Journey

Day 1 – 17 AUG 2017: Welcoming View, Museums, Vouliagmeni Lake & Tourist Squares:

My first flight, my first adventure, my first experience like nothing else before.

Everything was new for me. I was so excited yet a little bit stressed for my first trip ever and my first time flying.

It all started on Wednesday night, actually it was Thursday around midnight of 17 AUG 2017, that we gathered my cousins and I at the airport. I was a little bit tired because I was working all day, it was a long tiring day, even at night at home, so I did not sleep not even a little bit.

After a smooth check-in (because we already did it on line), we headed to the General Security for passing. There was a long line even though the time was late, around 2.00 AM. After almost 45 minutes, we headed to the passport check point. The staff were serious but a smile and a nice word always bring positive vibes. After all the procedure was done in around one hour and half, we headed to the duty free. The duty free was not so big as space, we were hanging around and talking while waiting for our whole group of cousins and friends to meet there. We were 7 persons excited to begin this adventure.

One of my cousins already took the charge for planning our itinerary at destination. My heart was beating so fast with several confusing emotions: happiness, excitement & anxious at the same time. I was a little bit scared of the plane, that was what I thought I would be. So as a precaution, I reserved a window seat for my phobia.

At around 3.30 AM they opened the gate of the plane for us to be seated. And thank God, we were so close to the exit door so we had very goods seating, wide seating, to be comfortable, again as a first time traveler these details were important for me. I was holding a book with me to keep me busy during the flight. We took some pictures as a mark for starting this journey.

Then the moment I was waiting for was about to start. The plane started moving and my heart was jumping. It was moving slowly around the ground field then it stopped. The engine started to make this noise preparing to depart and the plane moved quickly and then that was it, just in a heartbeat it took off.

We passed over Beirut and the suburbs, then over the North hills, and in about few moments we were above the sea. The lights were dim but I started reading to keep my mind busy. And as soon as were safe in the dark sky, the lights went back on and the seatbelt lights went off. I looked from my window, we were flying ! I looked around people, all were sleeping or trying to, but I couldn’t.

I was looking from the window from time to time, and although it was dark, when we were passing over the islands I was seeing the lights on creating a magical scenery, something I only saw in pictures but never live. I wanted to capture the moment but we were on a high level above them that I could not take clear pictures from a narrow closed window.

After almost 2 hours, we reached our destination. We were getting closer and closer to the ground. It was a marvelous view yet I was praying since all people who got to travel always tell that the most difficult part in flying is the take off and the landing. But I have to say that the captain was so good that we landed smoothly and without any turbulence or difficulty. And I always thought that only in Lebanon when the plane lands people start clapping their hands, but when the plane stopped people were clapping happy, well I guess most probably they were Lebanese.

Finally, Athens Airport! A quick procedure was done after we went out to call for a taxi. It was about 45 minutes away driving to our hotel. On the road I was looking through the window thinking that I was actually here, finally I did it, finally I traveled. At that moment, it did not matter where I was, it was rather about the fact. The driver was friendly enough to talk about some of his country heritage and where to go visit until we arrived. It was still early, around 8.00 AM so we could not check-in yet. But they were friendly enough to give us one room from 3 since it was already empty.

The receptionist informed us about the breakfast room, pool, gym, dinner room and all we needed to know about, then he guided us about best road to take, metro stations from the hotel and of course a map for easier way to find anything we need. Then we headed up to the room where we put our luggage, them headed back down to go and begin our journey and also eat.

We were walking around the area, small streets and corners, here are some fancy stores, here some fancy shops, and there was also a minimarket close which is was good for buying water and some snacks. All were closed except for the minimarket since it was still early. We continued our walk until we reached the highway where across the street was the metro station of Syntagma square, from where it was our departure point later and for the few days to come.

We then found ourselves in front of the National Garden where we enjoyed the peace and quiet and the greenery. Obviously, it was a place where people can take their morning walk, or afternoon break or a family break or even just sitting back at one of the benches for some read or self-moment time. It was big and beautiful. And reminded me somehow of Alice in Wonderland when she met the Cat in the woods. I took of course pictures while walking and enjoying the calm inside nature. Then we stopped by a pastry where we had a delicious breakfast and dessert then headed back to the hotel for some rest before beginning the plan of the day.

The hotel was not considered as a centrally located although it was about just 10 minutes walking from the metro station and around 20 minutes walking from the city center. And the fact that it was situated at the beginning of a hill, it made later the way back a little bit tiring after spending long day of walking and sightseeing. But the view was breathtaking, overlooking the whole city and the Parthenon, which made it an enjoyable stay.

Some of us headed for a small nap, some of us, including me, headed to the roof top where the pool is. It was too early to go swim, it was not opened yet, but we could lay down on the long chairs for a nap. But I could not sleep, I was enjoying the view and of course snapping some pictures. At around 11.00 AM, we were all checked-in and we decided to begin our first day.

Our plan for the day included first museums. It was not with difficulties that we located first the National History Museum, thanks to our wonderful cousin who did well her job in planning. The museum covers artifacts from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans) to 1940 including pieces from the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Among the highlights is the bed and sword of Lord Byron who fought and died in the war. Major historical figures are highlighted like the first Greek King, King Otto and King George as well as major historical events like the Balkan Wars, Greek Revolution and the Greek Italian War (1940). Among the artifacts on display are traditional costumes, memorabilia, flags, furniture, medals and personal items which belonged to historical figures.

Then we headed to the Archaeological Museum. The National Archaeological Museum of Athens is the largest archaeological museum in Greece and one of the most important museums in the world devoted to ancient Greek art. It was founded at the end of the 19th century to house and protect antiquities from all over Greece, thus displaying their historical, cultural and artistic value.

After visiting these 2 important museums, we went to Syntagma Square for taking the metro to Monastiraki area. It was my first time taking the metro. I was a little bit nervous since am a claustrophobic person. But actually I enjoyed the riding. It was less than a minute underground that we reached our stop. I was excited.

Although we had a schedule for this region, but since we were a little bit behind, we decided to take the tram to reach Vouliagmeni Lake. The tram was another first time to ride for me. Since it was a peak time, it was full of people. So we had to stand for about half an hour we were seated. The lake was about 45 minutes away from where we were.

When we reached it, we spent about an hour or so there. The lake is located in the heart of the Athenian Riviera, a hidden treasure of Attica’s nature. Situated on an idyllic landscape, this rare geological phenomenon is waiting to be discovered. The lake’s brackish waters which are continuously replenished both by the sea and the underground thermal springs offer a natural and unique thermal spa experience. Swimming at the Lake is a holistic experience all-year round. The water’s healing properties and the stable temperature, combined with the benefits swimming offers to the body and soul, promise a unique leisure activity. The Lake’s water gushes from springs 50 to 100 meters deep and have a temperature ranging between 22 to 29 degrees Celsius throughout the year. Even more the small fish called Garra Rufa, also known as Doctor Fish or Spa Fish, indigenous and natural inhabitants of the Lake, promises visitors a unique peeling experience. I really enjoyed swimming in the lake in a way that all my exhaustion of lack of sleep, walking, standing and the fact that we were lost at some point, all this faded away.

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It was around 6.30 PM that we decided to get going to the Temple of Poseidon. But unfortunately, some of the receptionists working at the lake told us that we could not make it, since it is around one hour from the lake and we can’t catch the last bus going back from the Temple to Monastiraki. So we had to skip it although we were excited to see the sunset from there, which was told to be an exceptional scenery.

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So we headed back to Monastiraki, by bus this time, a little bit disappointed, however the sea view was a consolation. We wanted to go to Gazi area for our dinner break, but some Egyptian resident heard us talking and advised to go to Monastiraki as it is more convenient as a tourist place and more enjoyable. So we took his advise and once arrived, we found a long line of seated restaurants on the streets, so we picked a traditional one and sat outdoor. The area was crowded at this time of day and you can find tourists, families and friends gathered all around the square enjoying the end of the day. The dinner/lunch was delicious, I had some local wine too which was great.

Then we walked around a little bit, there was souvenirs shops where some of us stopped by for buying. After that we went back to the hotel, we took a little rest then went down again for walking around in the area. At Syntagma square, people were gathered around for walking or watching performances by people on the streets. We also got to see the city at night, and when it was around 11.30 PM we went back walking to the hotel. I could not be at that moment more than happy to see the bed. I slept like a baby I could tell.

Day 2 – 18 AUG 2017: Archaeological Day:

Our second day began with a breakfast at the hotel with a marvelous view. It was a wide range of international breakfast so delicious that each one of us filled twice or more their plates. And also, because we had a long day ahead and our next lunch break should be late to catch as much sites as possible while they are open. At around 9.00-9.30 AM we headed to Syntagma square for the metro ride to Monastiraki to begin our archaeological visit.

We stood in the line to buy our combo ticket to visit several sites and headed up first to our first attraction. On the southern slope of the Acropolis the pedestrian street of Dionysiou Areopagitou is the site of two ancient performance venues – the Dionysos Theatre and the Odeion Theatre of Herodes Atticus. The Odeion Theatre of Herodes Atticus is named after the man who financed its construction around 160-174AD. The Piraeus limestone structure was covered with marble and had a cedar wood roof. The 81-meter-wide semi-circle of audience seats (cavea) appears to have been cut out of the surrounding natural rock and could at one-time seat 5,500. The audience looks onto the orchestra (the floor in front of the stage where the chorus would stand) and onto the stage. Behind the stage is a three-store high skene, a 28-meter-high building with arched niches where statues once stood. The highest point of the surviving structure reaches the 2nd floor. The 4 century BC was constructed on the site of an earlier theatre where the original Theatre of Dionysos performances of famous classical Greek dramas were performed. Thus, it is considered the birthplace of European theatre. Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had their premiers here.  Festivals honoring the god Dionysus would have been held here. The theatre is not as well preserved as the Odeion but has greater cultural significance. At one time the theatre could seat 17,000 spectators in an auditorium of 64 rows of stone seats, of which 20 rows have survived. Unfortunately, it has been covered over with earth through the years. The theatre would have had a wooden roof which was probably destroyed by fire. Alterations to the theatre were made through the different eras including the addition of 67 thrones around the perimeter of the orchestra for dignitaries in the Hellenistic period. During the Roman period a new stage was built, and the orchestra was paved.

We continued up to reach the Acropolis. Athens’ top must-see attraction and a UNESCO site is the Acropolis, High City or Sacred Rock, a hill overlooking the city and home to the most recognizable symbol of the city, the Parthenon. The Acropolis has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and has been used as both a religious cult site and a residential area. Most Greek cities were built around a central hill or mound as it made a good-look out point and place to retreat in the event of an attack. From the Acropolis you can look out to sea and down onto the city, the remains of the ancient Agora and the Plaka which hugs the foot of the hill. The Parthenon was the central and largest of the Acropolis temples and was dedicated to Athena, it had rich decoration, statues, friezes and art work by the greatest artists of the time. In ancient times the Acropolis was the venue for the annual Athenian Festival of Panathenaia. When Athens was invaded by the Persians in 480BC the Acropolis and its monuments were destroyed. Under Pericles the Acropolis structures were rebuilt starting in 448BC. The 5 century structures we see today were made from Pentelic marble. The Acropolis and its ancient structures (particularly the Parthenon) represent the pinnacle of Greek civilization, philosophy and art. Among the complex of archaeological discoveries on the Acropolis four main structures stand out: the Parthenon; the Propylaea; the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. We entered the site through the Beule Gate and then pass through the Propylaia. Propylaea (monumental gateways) stand at the entrance to the site. The Temple of Apteros Nike stood on the ramparts protecting the entrance to the inner sanctuary. The Temple of Athena Nike or Athena of Victory is an Ionic temple dating back to 424BC and is the oldest temple on the Acropolis. It is best known for the frieze on the Nike Parapet. The temple has a four-columned colonnaded portico at the back and front with closed walls on the sides. The Erechtheion is the tomb of Erechtheus, one of the early kings of Athens. The Erechtheion has beautiful carvings and Caryatids holding up the porch ceiling. Caryatids are sculptured figures of women used instead of columns. Note where Poseidon struck the ceiling and floor and made a spring flow out in his contest with Athena to decide who the city would be named after. Next to the tomb stands an olive tree which Athena planted in response. The Parthenon is the main ancient structure on the Acropolis, a hill in the center of Athens. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the symbol of Athens and the most famous of the surviving structures from the world of ancient Greece. The building was originally built in honor of the goddess Athena, the city’s patron. The Temple of Athena the Virgin (is the Greek word for virgin) was built following the Persian Wars in Parthenon thanks of the city’s victory. It was built on the site of an earlier temple which the Persians had destroyed. As rulers and occupiers changed the temple was used for different purposes including as a church, a mosque and a fortress.

We headed down then to reach Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora. The Agora or “gathering place” was the heart of ancient Athens. The paths led us through the ancient ruins. The best preserved of the ancient structures are the Hephaisteion Temple and the Stoa of Attalos, an ancient shopping center. The Agora was the social and political center of the city. Among the buildings which stood here there were the law courts, public toilets which could seat 68 people at a time, stores and Temples. The Tower of Winds (Horologion) is a well preserved 1st century BC time piece comprised of a water-powered clock, sundials, compass and topped with a weather vane. It is an octagonal tower constructed in 48BC; it reaches 12 meters high and has a thick base with three steps. The tower bears relief sculptures depicting the eight gods of the winds.

We continued our way till we reached Kanellopoulos Museum, including objects dating from Pre-historic to modern times, highlighting the diachronic nature and continuity of Greek art. Then headed back to the starting point where we took a rest at one of the street’s coffee-bar for a one-liter glass of local beer break facing a remarkable chocolate market “Hensel & Gretel”. Then we walked through the Pandrossou Market Street for souvenirs buying time. And we went back to our hotel to drop off the things we bought.

Some of us were already tired of walking, so they decided to stay at the hotel for a while lunch time arrives. So, I went down again with the rest to continue our visit. First, we went to the National Garden as a second time visit for some more pictures, then went straight to the Temple Of Olympian Zeus.

The temple of Zeus Olympios was the largest in ancient Greece. It was only in the 2nd century AD under Hadrian that the structure was completed and dedicated to Zeus Olympios. The temple is thought to have been damaged in an earthquake during the medieval period and later disassembled for building materials. The original dimensions were 96 meters by 40 meters. Fifteen of the original 104 columns remain standing. The columns are 17.25 meters and with a diameter of 2 meters. One more column lies on the ground. Originally the columns would have surrounded an inner chamber where massive statues would have stood. The marble used to build the temple was brought from Mount Pentelus.

Then we reached Hadrian’s Arch. This triumphal arch was erected in the 2nd century AD in honor of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The arch was constructed spanning an ancient road which led from the ancient city center where the Agra and Acropolis stand to the Olympieion and southeast Athens. The western side of the arch bears the inscription: “This is Athens, the ancient/old city of Theseus”. On the eastern side an inscription states: “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus”. The inscriptions could signify that the arch was built on the line which divided old Athens to the west from Hadrian’s new Athens (Hadrianoupolis) to the southeast. The inscriptions could also be interpreted as proclaiming Hadrian as the new hero of all of Athens, replacing Theseus. The Pentelic marble arch stands 18 meters high, is 12.5 meters wide and 2.3 meters deep. On top of the arch opening are pilasters of Corinthian rhythm. The arch or gate way was not originally part of a wall but during the Turkish occupation in the 18th century it was incorporated as one of the seven gates in the defensive walls against Albanian invaders.

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Then we continued our walk till we reached the Panathenaic Stadium. This stadium was originally built in 330-321BC to host the Panathenaic Games. The festival was held every four years and was part of a huge festival in honor of the Goddess Athena. The spectators sat on the slopes surrounding the stadium while dignitaries had wooden seats. Under Roman rule Herodes Atticus had the stadium renovated in 140AD. The seats were covered with marble giving the stadium a new name “kallimarmaro” or beautifully marbled. The stadium was also enlarged during the Roman renovations and could seat about 50,000 spectators. The stadium dimensions were expanded to 204 meters by 83 meters. It was only in the 19th century when the stadium was restored and renovated to prepare it to host the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The seats were covered with new marble, this time white marble from Mount Penteli. It is the only stadium in the world built entirely with marble. The renovations were funded by George Averoff whose statue now stands at the entrance to the stadium. In 1906 the Intercalated Games were held in the stadium and in 1968 the FIBA European Cup Winner’s Cup Final was held here in front of an audience of 60,000. The stadium underwent another facelift in 2004 to host the Olympic Games archery tournament and to be the finishing point of the Marathon. Today the stadium is a multi-purpose sports venue; it retains the ancient hair-pin shape design of ancient stadiums rather than the more circular shape of modern stadiums. At its peak the stadium could seat 80,000 in the audience but today it can accommodate 45,000 spectators. The stadium is used for music concerts, sporting events and to welcome home victorious Greek sports teams. The stadium appears on the Greek €100 collectors’ coin and was featured on the Olympic Games medal for the Beijing and London Olympics.

Due to exhaustion we were feeling, we decided not to enter the stadium, just snap some photos from outside and took a seat on stairs close to it for while then continued to Mets area for our lunch break. We found a traditional rooftop restaurant behind the stadium where the rest of the group met us there. we enjoyed our meal with some local wine and ouzo. After almost 2 hours of the time, we decided to continue our evening at some local pub. We found one similar to the ones we have back at home, not too much loudly. We spent another couple of hours there, where I had great glass of sangria. And because we were so tired, we ordered a taxi back way to the hotel close to midnight and slept while waiting excitedly for the next day to arrive and enjoy the sun and sea side of Greece.

Day 3 – 19 AUG 2017: Aegina Island & Plaka Night Life:

The strangest thing I discovered about myself, is that in trips, I love waking up early to benefit from every single minute of my day, because nothing matters at that time except the moment. After having our mega breakfast at the hotel buffet, we agreed to meet up at the lobby at exactly 9.30 AM. But as predicted, we were late by 15 minutes. And that was ok, well sort of. Because we had to take the metro for a drive of 40 minutes till we reach the port of Piraeus. Once there, we started jogging to the nearest agency and buy boat to go to Aegina Island. We had only 2 minutes left before the boat took off, so we started running down the streets and luckily, we made it at the very last minute. When remembering this accident, I laugh, but at the time, we were all stressed out afraid not to catch the boat.

But we made it! The boat started moving at 10.30 AM. We had about one hour of sailing until we reach the island. I was of course excited and enjoying the trip, the breeze of the sea, the sun, the wind, the birds, everything. I can say that this journey was all about new experiences and adventures, I got to try almost all kind of transport means: the plane, the metro, the tram and the boat.

At around 11.30, we arrived at Aegina. My cousin has the entire day planned, but since there was some stress among the group, we decided to only visit one place and then go straight to the shores to enjoy swimming and relaxing.

We took taxis that drove us to the Temple of Aphaia. It is located within a sanctuary complex dedicated to the goddess Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina, which lies in the Saronic Gulf. Formerly known as the Temple of Jupiter Panhellenius, the great Doric temple is now recognized as dedicated to the mother-goddess Aphaia. It was a favorite of the neoclassical and romantic artists such as J. M. W. Turner. It stands on a c. 160 m peak on the eastern side of the island approximately 13 km east by road from the main port. Aphaia was a Greek goddess who was worshipped exclusively at this sanctuary. The extant temple of c. 500 BC was built over the remains of an earlier temple of c. 570 BC, which was destroyed by fire c. 510 BC. The elements of this destroyed temple were buried in the infill for the larger, flat terrace of the later temple, and are thus well preserved. Abundant traces of paint remain on many of these buried fragments. There may have been another temple in the 7th century BC, also located on the same site, but it is thought to have been much smaller and simpler in terms of both plan and execution. Significant quantities of Late Bronze Age figurines have been discovered at the site, including proportionally large numbers of female figurines (kourotrophoi), indicating – perhaps – that cult activity at the site was continuous from the 14th century BC, suggesting a Minoan connection for the cult. The last temple is of an unusual plan and is also significant for its pedimented sculptures, which are thought to illustrate the change from Archaic to Early Classical technique. These sculptures are on display in the Glyptothek of Munich, with a number of fragments located in the museums at Aegina and on the site itself.

Then came the time to go for a swim. We had to go down from the top of the hill where we were till the bottom where the sea. And instead of taking taxi, or the main road, we decided to hike it down. It was with some difficulty that we reached the bottom. And honestly I was a little worried, because at some points I could not any trail for the road, and I was not wearing the convenient shoes at all. But eventually after almost hand an hour, we started seeing some houses and the sea. We finally reached Agia Marina.

We picked a fish restaurant that seemed so nice. And as soon as we settled down, we went straight to the amazing clear water for a swim. I can say that all the tiredness and stress were forgotten in a simple jump in the water. We enjoyed the lunch and the view was heaven.

At around 4.00 PM, we ordered a taxi to take us back to the port, where we had some time to explore and eat some yogurt ice cream. Then at around 5.30 PM we hopped on the boat for sailing back to Piraeus and from there to our hotel, where a couple of us took exceptional sunset pictures from our hotel.

At night, we agreed to go spent a nice evening with late dinner at one of the restaurants at Plaka. It was a very busy area with people all around enjoying the nice weather outdoors. The lights and music were given an enchanted ambiance. We sat at a traditional restaurant on the roof, it was not crowded, but there was traditional music playing around us, so we had a charming dinner enjoying the view of the Acropolis lighted above us. It was an amazing evening, at least I did enjoy it, a great ending to our trip that was about to finish the next day.

Day 4 – 20 AUG 2017: Antio Sas Athina:

On the last day of our stay at Athens, some of us preferred to stay at the hotel to relax or enjoy the beautiful view from the pool area. Me, instead, I preferred to go with a couple of us to see the changing of guards event and visirt a couple of more sites we could not catch before.

The Changing of the Guard is performed by Evzones (presidential guards) in traditional Greek costume as they watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Changing of the Guard takes place on the hour every hour but the best time to see it is at 11:00 on a Sunday when the guards where more elaborate costumes and there is more pomp and ceremony. It happens at the Parliament building area just across the Syntagma Square.

Then we took the metro to Monsatiraki, when we visited the Hadrian’s Library, which only ruins were left of it. Then we headed to Kerameikos: the oldest and largest Attic cemetery extended outside the walls on the Noth-west outskirts of ancient Athens. The site is dominated by stately tombs with sculptural masterpieces. The Demosion Sema (public cemetery) is a site for the burial of prominent war casualties, was in the same area. From Kerameikos you can see also the external view of Agia Triada church.

When we finished, we walked around Gazi area then headed back to the metro station going back to Syntagma square. We met there with the rest of us to go to the airport for returning to our home. A kind Lebanese citizen advised us to take the bus which will let us straight to the airport with less cost. He showed us the road. It was nice and kind of him. When we reached the airport, we checked-in and waited for the gate to open to get seated for our return flight.

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And this is how this lovely journey ended. We arrived home at around 6.30 PM leaving behind an amazing adventure. I always heard people who travels saying that once you start you can’t stop. And this is totally true. It is strange how you start planning a new adventure as soon as you end up the old one. And this is what I did. Until the next new journey!

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