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Turkey and Greece, 2000
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Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
The Plan of Our Trip

In April and May we toured Greece and Turkey. The trip lasted one month. For this trip we had no bicycles. We went everywhere by bus, boat, train, and plane.

We split our time about half and half between the countries: we spent two weeks in Turkey and a little more than that in Greece.

Our sightseeing plan was fourfold. First, we wanted to see ancient ruins and archaeological sites. Second, we wanted to visit the more notable Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques in the region. Third, we wanted to go to some of the older towns and villages in Greece, with the particular aim of seeing some of the varied styles of vernacular architecture. Fourth, we wanted to take in the metropoli of Athens and Istanbul, to experience what they are like.

Tower of the Winds, Athens Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
Athens and the Mainland

We made our entrance and exit at Athens. We spent four days there at the beginning of our trip and one day at the end, staying both times at a small hotel in Plaka, the old Turkish quarter of the city. The district is close to most of the ancient ruins and Byzantine churches in Athens. The ruins of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, built in the Roman imperial period, were just two blocks from our hotel.

Among Athens' ancient sites the Acropolis, with its Classical-era temples, is, of course, the touristic highlight. Our favorite ancient building, however, was the Tower of the Winds. This Hellenistic structure is located in the Roman Forum, has an octagonal plan and was originally designed to house a water-clock.

We made a partly successful effort to see Byzantine churches in Athens. We saw three: Agii Theodori, the Kapnikarea, and Agios Eleftherios, also known as the Little Metropolitan since it was once the cathedral of Athens. These are all really tiny, as Athens was just a provincial backwater in Byzantine times. They are also little visited and, as a consequence, not generally open. Or perhaps cause and effect are the reverse. In any case, we were only able to see the interior of only one of them, the Little Metropolitan, and that only because it was being cleaned at the time.

Delphi Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
Athens isn't a city known for its charm: it's mostly drab and modern. But it does have some neighborhoods with real character, either because of their architecture or population. Among the former are Plaka and, especially, Anafiotiki. Anafiotiki is the district at the very upper part of Plaka, along the northeast slope of the acropolis. Its boxy, white-washed houses reflect the origin of their builders -- workmen from Anafi, an island in the Cyclades. The neighborhood itself is named after that island. The neighborhood of Omonias, on the other hand, is completely without architectural interest, but has a very interesting collection of immigrant communities. We ate at Kurdish and Nigerian restaurants in this district, and saw shops run by Chinese immigrants, too.

We also used Athens as a base for day-trips to two nearby sites, Sounion and Aegina. Each is the site of an ancient temple; the one at Sounion was dedicated to Poseidon and the one on the island of Aegina to Aphaia. The site at Sounion is particularly spectacular, as it is located atop a cliff on a cape looking over the Aegean Sea. The temple at Aegina is somewhat better preserved and almost as scenic; it is located on a hill a couple of kilometers from the east coast of the island, with a view of the sea in the distance

While visiting Aegina we sampled the local seafood, too. We found a little taverna on the first street back from the waterfront in Aegina town, where the boats from Athens come in. The atmosphere was great. The place was full of local people chatting and drinking and passing the time away. It's not like that in summer, no doubt. But it's what the Greek islands are like in early April, before the tide of tourists. As for the food -- well, it was simply the best calimari and smelt we've ever had. They must have been plucked out of the sea just minutes before they hit the grill. Delicious!

After Athens, we spent four days seeing a few other places on the Greek mainland. We began with Delphi, the site of the ancient sanctuary. The ruins there are something of a disappointment, as they are very scanty, though one can still get a sense of how the complex must have looked once in this spectacular setting.

Agia Sophia, Mistras Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
From Delphi we moved on to the Peloponnese, the peninsula south of the Gulf of Corinth. We saw three places there: Epidauros, Mistras, and Nafplio. The theatre at Epidauros is a superb and well-preserved artefact of the ancient world, as well as an endless source of amusement: all the tour groups that come through put on some sort of demonstration of its acoustical perfection. We heard an a capella choir, a reading from Aeschylus, and several performances of the usual ritual of coin-dropping, paper-crumpling, and match-striking.

Mistras has the remnants of a sizable medieval city. The whole site rests on a hillside overlooking the lush plains near Sparta. A dozen or so of the churches remain intact, and a large palace still stands, too, though its roof has been lost. The rest lies in ruins.

Nafplio has the look and feel of an Italian Renaissance town, which is exactly what it is. The buildings and squares in its center date back over 400 years, to an era when Venice ruled the Peloponnese. Even two hundred years of subsequent Turkish rule did not alter its essential character.

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