Posts Tagged ‘europe’

Strangest aspects of Europe’s bathrooms

August 11th, 2018

Stockholm
My Airbnb’s bathroom in Stockholm
 

For those of us used to North American bathrooms there are many oddities about European bathrooms that tend to stick out. I don’t mean to scare anyone away from making a trip to Europe but there are some aspects to be aware of in advance. These are mere observations from my own travels, the list is by no means exhaustive.
 

Shower wands

Most showers in Europe have a “wand,” or a shower head attached to a hose. There’s often a place to clamp this to take a hands-free shower, though the freedom of the wand can be useful to clean hard to reach areas.

It can also make a giant mess if you’re not used to showering with these things. Try not to spray the entire bathroom with water.
 

Really small showers

Shower stalls in Europe seem to vary between the size of a phone booth (if you remember those) to the size of a bathtub. For the most part you’ll be dealing with the phone booth showers. If you’re lucky there will be shower walls, if you’re not so lucky you’ll have a tiny curtain wrapped around you.

Some older bathrooms don’t have a shower enclosure at all. It’s just you naked in the corner of a bathroom spraying yourself with water.
 

Shower rope/chain

Some hotels have a rope or chain in the shower that you should pull in the event of an emergency, such as if you slipped and hit your head. If it’s not an emergency though, don’t touch it.

Newer hotel bathrooms usually don’t have these, and in older hotels… who knows if the thing still works?
 

Central drain

Most European bathrooms have a drain in the bathroom floor. This can be an advantage if you spill something, the sink or toilet overflows, etc. In some cases the shower drains into here as well — or even the sink. Look closely at the photo above for an example of a drain that does all three.

If you get the floor all wet showering it may take a while for the water to reach the central drain, so be careful not to slip in the meantime.
 

Hot water switch

In private home bathrooms (friend’s places, Airbnb apartments, etc.) the hot water heater isn’t intended to be run all day. Instead there will be a switch — usually a circuit breaker — that activates the hot water heater. If you can’t get hot water you probably need to ask where to find this switch.

Remember to flip the switch off when you’re done as energy is expensive in Europe.
 

Mysterious knobs on the wall

Hotel bathrooms in particular often have a pair of hot and cold knobs on the wall that don’t appear connected to anything. I think these are shut off valves? Whatever they do, leave them alone.
 

Toilet flushing mechanisms

There are so many different types of European toilets I could probably make a long blog post just about how to flush them, but I’ll break it down quickly here:

  • Toilets with a tank above your head. You’ll either have to push a button on the tank or pull a chain to flush these. Shorter people and children may have trouble with these.
  • Tanks on the toilet with a metal circle featuring a larger button and a crescent button. These are two options, you push the crescent shape for a small flush and the larger button for a bigger flush. Save water and only use what you need.
  • A rectangle on the wall. This is common in newer bathrooms where the tank is hidden in the wall (Europeans love hiding stuff in walls.) Just like above there are two buttons; one for a big flush and one for a small one. In public bathrooms the big plastic buttons are occasionally broken off by vandals, but you can still flush them by tapping the exposed levers.

 

Ancient toilets

If you’re in a very old European building the toilet may just be a hole in the floor. It’s easy for men to pee in, but for all other purposes you’ll need to assume a squatting position as there is no seat. These aren’t commonplace though on rare occasions you might still find one in a restaurant or bar. Typically these are flushed by pulling a chain.
 

Standalone bidets

Those used to traveling in modern Asian cities (or working at Google) will be familiar with bidet toilet seats, but some European bathrooms have standalone bidets. These look like a cross between a sink and a toilet.

Part of the reason these are common in some parts of Europe is because…
 

Small garbage cans for toilet paper

Old sewer systems can’t necessarily handle toilet paper. This is true worldwide though in Europe the state of the sewers varies wildly from one place to the next.

If you occasionally forget and flush a few pieces of toilet paper it’s no big deal, but if you don’t know about this and try to flush a lot you’re in for a world of trouble. Those garbage cans are there for a reason — and they need to be taken out regularly.

Always ask if you can flush toilet paper before using the bathroom.
 

Horrible smells

Dirty toilet paper aside if you look under the sink in any American bathroom, you’ll see a U-shaped pipe connected to the drain. This is called a “trap” because it traps a small amount of water, which prevents bad smelling sewer air from wafting into the bathroom.

In Europe these are often not present which leads to bathrooms that smell not just like a sewer, but like an old sewer. You’ll want to keep the bathroom door closed at all times if this is the case.
 

Washing machine in the bathroom

Again on the theme of private home bathrooms if there’s a washing machine in the home it’s most likely located in the bathroom. Washing your clothes in the bathroom makes some sense, but if it’s a foul smelling bathroom you may want to consider alternatives.

Don’t expect to find a dryer at all — Europeans tend to hang dry their clothes. Look for a rack in the home to hang your damp clothes on. Running an extra spin cycle in the washer can help dry out your clothes too.
 

Public pay toilets

Public bathrooms in Europe often charge money. Some take coins, others take credit cards. You’ll find these everywhere from standalone restrooms in public plazas to train stations.

Bathrooms in cafes and restaurants are usually free if you make a purchase so try to strategize bathroom breaks while you’re out.

Oh and PLEASE don’t just pee on the sidewalk to avoid pay toilets. The locals will hate you, and if enough people do this they’ll develop a (legitimate) grudge against tourists.
 

Pissoirs

It’s sexist in a way, but if you’re a guy and not concerned about washing your hands you can often find a free urinal-like toilet. Sometimes these are drains in the ground, they may be temporary structures, other times they look like a sink without a faucet. The name says it all — it’s a place to piss.
 

Unclean tap water

Most of Europe has excellent tap water but that’s not true everywhere. On Greek islands for example you shouldn’t even use the tap water to brush your teeth. Always ask if you’re unsure. One sign that the water may not be clean is when the hotel includes free bottled water.

Outdoor art in Oslo

July 25th, 2018

Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

On my first night in Oslo I wandered the streets of Grünerløkka looking for a relaxing place to eat, then to find some groceries. Along the way I kept stopping to snap photos of the street art painted on the sides of buildings. These weren’t always off in the alleys but often on streets with pedestrians and streetcars passing by.

Thinking about it in retrospect I didn’t see much street art while visiting Hydra and Stockholm. Street art doesn’t go with the crumbling brick and stucco wall aesthetic of Greek islands, but what’s going on with Stockholm? I know there are places where to find street art but you have to head pretty far outside the main city to find it. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time for such excursions.

Athens street art is its own story, which I wrote about during my visit last year. Go read that if you’re interested.

 
Oslo
 

While heading back to the apartment with a bag of groceries I happened to walk through a small park. In that park I spotted a sculpture of a young woman clutching her belly. This got me thinking — why do we tend to think of outdoor murals as “street art,” but not outdoor sculptures? Art museums often feature both paintings and sculptures, so if street art is simply outdoor art without an admission fee, shouldn’t this description include sculptures as well as paintings?

I don’t mean to make this out to be a profound idea, but I kept coming back to it as I visited (or stumbled upon) Oslo’s outdoor art.
 

World War II memorials

 
Oslo
 

On a hill overlooking Oslo’s waterfront and a stone’s throw from city hall is a statue of American president FDR. Why? According to a tour guide Norway was criticized during World War II for falling to Nazi occupation despite initial Allied military support. This criticism felt unwarranted by Norwegians who fought the occupation, so when FDR took to the airwaves to commend the Norwegian resistance movement he earned the respect of Norway.

It’s worth noting the statue depicts FDR as the disabled man he was, sitting in a chair rather than standing, but doesn’t directly comment on this particular pose.

 
Oslo
 

On the topic of WWII there’s a sculpture near Oslo S featuring a hammer smashing something on a stone slab. What’s the hammer smashing? It seems the artist made it intentionally difficult to view, let alone photograph.

The simple answer is the hammer is destroying a swastika. The more complicated answer; as you approach the shiny metal swastika, you’ll see your own face reflected in the mirror-like surface. What is this piece saying? Hopefully it’s quite obvious.
 

Sorry if that got depressing; let’s move on to some lighter works.
 

Ekeberg Park

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

I took a streetcar to Ekeberg Park, a wooded hillside park that doesn’t seem to have caught on (yet?) with the tourist crowd much. Most of the people I saw in the park were clearly locals jogging or walking their dogs. There’s also a restaurant near the entrance which seemed pretty busy, and a lookout with a nice view of the city.

The park is best known as the place that inspired The Scream. One evening in the late nineteenth century Edvard Munch was taking a stroll through the park with some friends, and the sunset turned the sky a particularly vivid red hue. Munch interpreted what he felt was a scream from nature through the paintings (there are more than one.)

Over the past few years the park added various sculptures from different artists, ranging from more conceptual pieces to classic figures of humans. Some sculptures didn’t look like much during my visit, but outdoor sculptures can take on a very different context depending on the lighting or weather.
 

Blå

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

If you follow the river south from the Mathallen food hall there’s a bar and nightclub called Blå. You know you’re in the right place when you see walls covered in murals and various outdoor sculptures, including a giant chandelier dangling over an alley. During the day it’s a relatively quiet bar with a patio under the trees, at night it transitions into a music venue with everything from DJs to live music including jazz and hip hop.

The murals vary a lot in both style and quality, which makes sense when you consider there’s an art school campus a couple blocks away.
 

The Waterfront

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Back in the day Oslo’s waterfront was an industrial neighborhood. But as in so many other blue collar parts of town around the world, the waterfront became luxury housing, upscale restaurants, tourist friendly museums, and picnic areas. The area around the Astrup Fearnley Museum is littered with sculptures to check out while enjoying coffee and ice cream from nearby vendors.
 

Royal Palace

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

I don’t know if this is a regular thing, but the Royal Palace gardens had a small temporary outdoor exhibition of sculptures. These were more pop-art crowd pleasers than typical outdoor art in Oslo — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, it took some waiting to get clear shots of these as people waited around for their turn to snap photos.

Individuals and groups of all ages wanted photos of themselves under the rainbow, or selfies with the faceless puppeteer. Much like the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream, perhaps this type of photo-friendly sculpture represents some hitherto unnamed future of participatory art. Who’s to say?
 

Frogner Park

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Though the name is a little confusing, the infamous Frogner Park is the same thing as Vigeland Sculpture Park. The park is covered in sculptures by artist Gustav Vigeland as well as grass, gardens, and water features.

The sculptures are largely nude human forms in both metal and concrete. Some of them seem more serious than others, with the guy fighting off babies as the best known statue of the park’s more comical artistic stance.

During my visit I saw groups of tourists eagerly take their shoes and socks off to wade around in the water and take photos of one another. Scandinavians typically take their shoes off when entering a home, so I’d imagine this is pretty disgusting to the locals.

The park is a promenade extending from the entrance over to the phallic sculpture of human bodies tangled together at the other end. Several sculptures are hidden down non-obvious passages, such as the baby balanced on its head which is located in a dead-end under a bridge.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

And then there was this mysterious sculpture. While it wasn’t originally intended to be a sculpture the phone company added a plaque to commemorate it as though it were one. After taking photos of the old phone booth a group of teen girls appeared behind me, waiting for their turn.

As I walked away I noticed one of them picked up the receiver and tried to make a call while the others used their smartphones to take pictures.
 

Everything else

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

What amazed me about Oslo’s outdoor art was how it’s everywhere — from big sculpture parks to small alleys, there’s something for everyone to find whether you set out to do so or are simply wandering from point A to point B. From the big colorful murals to the surprisingly clean statues (where’s all the bird poop?!) the outdoor urban landscape of Oslo is almost like an open air museum.

Aside from Frogner Park or what you may see on a guided tour, the majority of the outdoor art isn’t mentioned anywhere on the internet. I’m not sure it needs to be; part of the fun is spotting it on your own while spending time in Oslo.

Oslo expeditions

July 22nd, 2018

My five days in Oslo were packed and I still left with the impression there was much more to see. When my flight home got delayed I was annoyed because there were still a few hours to go out and see the museums I’d missed — let alone a ferry trip I’d meant to take to the islands — but not quite enough time to do any of those. In a way it was Stockholm all over again: I should have booked a couple more days. Ah well, better to err on the side of taking off before you’ve seen it all and get bored I suppose.

Since I went on fewer tours than I did in Stockholm I’ll go into each tour individually, though I’m saving all the outdoor art segments for the next post.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

Free Tour Oslo City

This free (donation requested) tour hits many tourist friendly destinations. Starting at the tiger statue outside Oslo S, it heads to a view of the Opera House, up to the main square of Christiania/New Oslo, over to the fortress, to the waterfront, City Hall, and finally to parliament. That list isn’t comprehensive but covers the gist of it.

Opening hours permitting the tour goes inside Oslo’s City Hall. While the building doesn’t look like much from the outside the interior has wall to wall murals covering various art deco styles. Sculptures in the courtyard outside built into the walls have typical arts and crafts designs.

The tour doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of Oslo’s history during its occupation by Nazi Germany. A number of plaques on the ground written in Norwegian have a person’s name and the word “Auschwitz” — you can easily guess what that means. After the tour guide pointed these out I began spotting them all over Oslo.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

After the tour ended I wandered back to check out the Opera House firsthand. Or maybe “firstfoot” would be a more appropriate term as the exterior of the building is an enormous sloping plaza. It’s currently surrounded by neighborhood construction on two sides — and water on two others — but you can still visit via a small bridge. While the outdoor space is always open, the indoor lobby and restaurant have posted hours.

I’m told the Opera House plaza can get very slippery during the winter. During the summer the white exterior is almost blinding to look at. Either way you need to watch your step due to the uneven surface. Seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen, or at least that’s how it would end up in the US.

 
Oslo
 

At my host’s suggestion I visited the botanical garden. No tour here, just a serene and impeccably maintained garden filled with exotic plants. It’s a perfect spot away from the crowds to sit around and sip a cold coffee on a hot summer day — you can bring your own or visit the cafe in the middle of the garden.

It’s free to visit but they have a donation box for those inclined to contribute.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

The Culinary City Walk

This food tour is from the same company that runs the food tour I went on in Stockholm. Oddly, while waiting at the meeting point for the tour guide to show up I was mistaken both for the tour guide and for a participant in a nearby Pokemon Go event.

The first proper stop on the tour was Mathallen, a hip modern food hall built into an old industrial brick building. This stop introduced me to Norwegian brown cheese, a caramelized dairy product (not technically cheese) often eaten at breakfast with waffles or crepes. Personally I though it was fine, though some find it quite divisive.

We took a long winding stroll to reach our next destination on the waterfront. As an aside I spotted a taco truck parked by the streetcar stop on the waterfront, which I went back to later on my own. The tacos were surprisingly good, and I had a lime Jarritos to go with it. Little taste of “home” as it were.

Anyway, back to the tour. We went to a seafood-focused restaurant on the waterfront called Rorbua where we were served a large sampler platter. Mine was all seafood, but the meat eaters in the group were served some rather exotic meats including whale and reindeer (sorry, Rudolph.) Not everyone seemed to have the stomach for eating whale. As far as seafood the trout and shrimp were particularly tasty.

Unlike the Stockholm tour where we ended on coffee, the food tour in Oslo ended at a bar with a beer tasting. Seemed a little early for beer, but most of us went along with it. All of it was brewed in Norway yet in traditional British styles. The only one that stood out to me was an IPA that had a more subtle hoppiness than the in-your-face styles we tend to have at home in California.

As we departed the tour feeling a little tired from all the food and beer, a bunch of protestors marched outside the bar towards city hall as if it jolt us awake on cue. I think they were protesting against the imprisonment of an East Turkestan independence advocate, though the connection to Oslo’s city politics (if any) was entirely lost on me.

 
Oslo
 

Discover the Charming Westside of Oslo

Here we have it: the first tour on this trip that was a total bust. Maybe the online info is just outdated, but the guide never showed up.

Since I hadn’t paid in advance there wasn’t much to be mad about, just a little annoyed that I’d brought 200 NOK in payment. The tour was supposed to start near the royal palace (see above photo) so I just wandered around the gardens for a little while. The gardens are open to the public and pretty popular with tourists; palace grounds include a small park, a duck pond, and oddly enough a beehive. There’s probably a joke about a queen bee in there somewhere.

The palace gardens were hosting a small temporary sculpture exhibit I found amusing, which got me thinking — the tour was supposed to end at the Frogner Park sculpture garden, so why not just head over there? After all it’s not like the sun was going to set.

So I hoped on a streetcar and visited Frogner Park. Would have been nice to have a tour guide, but the evening itself wasn’t a total failure. I’ll go into all the sculptures in the next post.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Hipster Oslo (Grünerløkka)

I wanted someone to take me around the neighborhood where I was staying and discovered this tour almost at the last minute. A young family had signed up for the tour even more at the last minute than I did, moments after the guide showed up.

I highly recommend this one — it’s inexpensive, goes into great detail, takes you to many historical spots in the area, and the guide was practically a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. If you want an off the beaten path tour of Oslo, this is it.

The tour was so long I’ll just stick to the highlights. It starts off in the labor union square on the edge of the neighborhood, passes by a former bathhouse, then snakes through a few streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, before hitting the campus of a world renowned art university and along the river, highlighting a couple of waterfalls.

Continuing up a hill we passed a hip outdoor area lined with street art (also in the next post, I promise) followed by a steep street lined with some of the oldest surviving wood buildings in Oslo. Going around a corner or two we went through a cemetery where many famous locals were buried, including Edvard Munch.

All the famous individuals buried there had QR codes next to their graves in case you wanted to look up their obituaries. Someone had left a handmade book at Munch’s grave of their own sketches of Munch’s famous paintings, including The Scream. It reminded me of a quote from the show Westworld — “Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died; they simply became music.” There’s a certain truth in this idea.

Passing through the cemetery we were supposed to go through a church but it was closed due to construction. Instead we detoured around a communal garden and ended the tour at the Mathallen food hall.

As we parted ways I pulled the 200 NOK note out of my pocket I had leftover from the no-show tour and handed it to the guide as a tip — a 100% tip. She was clearly surprised, but it was my last full day in Norway. I enjoyed the tour and had no interest in bringing Norwegian currency back with me. Hopefully big tips aren’t considered insulting or anything.

 
Oslo
 

Once again back at Mathallen I was hungry and ready to try something new. After washing up at the bathrooms in the basement I sat down at a Spanish food stall serving pintxos. Much like traditional Scandinavian cuisine, pintxos are open face sandwiches with various toppings. Or kind of like avocado toast back home… hmmm, who else would grab lunch at a place like this in Oslo?

The guy next to me kept trying to order in barely passable Spanish. I couldn’t help snickering when the employees replied in English. At some point he turned to me and said “Hey, where you from?”
“San Francisco.”
“Oh? Me too! What neighborhood?”
“The Mission. You?”
“Twin Peaks,” he replied.

We got to chatting a little before we both left separately… and then we both wound up in line at Tim Wendelboe, an espresso shop that seemed remarkably familiar. I ordered an espresso and after a long wait it arrived with a shot glass of sparkling mineral water. I kept looking around for the Blue Bottle logo, yet it was nowhere to be found.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Later on my last night I went to explore the Akershus Fortress, which sits on a hill above the waterfront. Even though its military presence is long gone the area is still patrolled by royal guards with bayonets. Its clearly all for show as the guards seemed happy to take photos with tourists.

From the fortress there’s a good view of the waterfront — a sensible place for a fortress. Cruise ships dock just outside the fortress though, so if there’s one in the way the views may not be so hot.

Oslo

July 17th, 2018

Oslo
 

Following the wedding in Greece I flew to visit another city I’d never been to: Oslo, Norway. Yup, I took a V-shaped trip through Europe — not the most efficient plan, but this is what happens when you base your vacations around cheap airfare.

At first I worried Oslo would be a smaller version of Stockholm. After all it’s another old Scandinavian waterfront city, and to make matters potentially worse somehow I’d inadvertently booked an Airbnb in the hip part of Oslo just as I’d done in Stockholm.

Fortunately this worry was unfounded; both cities have their own character. Compared to Stockholm, Oslo has significantly more public spaces, outdoor artwork (I’ll get to that in another post), and an embrace of modern architecture.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Getting from the airport to central Oslo is simple enough. There’s an express train but it’s kind of pricey and not much faster than the NSB commuter train. To take NSB from the airport I purchased a Ruter transit card and loaded a multi-day pass on the card, plus an NSB ticket. The NSB ticket machines ask you where you’re going, load the ticket onto the Ruter card, and tell you which platform to wait on.

A quick train ride later and I was at Oslo S. My host had suggested taking a Ruter bus to the Airbnb, but after sitting on an airplane for several hours I decided to walk — it was only a 12 minute walk anyway, and Oslo is a fairly flat, walkable city for the most part.

What I didn’t anticipate is the apartment I’d be staying at was at the top of a four story building. After climbing all those stairs I needed to sit down for a while and cool off. Due to the heat wave at the time, and the fact that it was an attic apartment with windows on the ceiling, the “cooling off” part of the equation was not meant to be. Who knew Oslo could get so warm in the summer?

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo

I stayed in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and no I’m still not sure how that’s pronounced. It’s home to many cafes, boutiques, bars, and restaurants serving everything from Neapolitan pizza to falafel to veggie burgers. There’s a small river running through the neighborhood and a lot of outdoor spaces including a large (and free!) botanical garden. Many of the buildings have backyards, often used as outdoor seating for restaurants.

Since Norway is notoriously expensive and I was staying in an apartment with a full kitchen, I opted to buy groceries and eat in about half the time. Just on the block I stayed on were a couple of chain grocery stores, a butcher shop, and two produce markets. As I later found on a walking tour the area also has an upscale food hall — point is, the neighborhood’s a foodie heaven. My preconceptions about Norwegian cuisine being bland and boring were wildly wrong.

 
Oslo
 

This is a side tangent but that botanical garden has something I’d never seen before: a robot lawn mower. It wandered around sort of like a Roomba, cutting the grass before returning to its docking station. Sounds like a way to accidentally lose a toe, but their website claims it’s perfectly safe.

 
Oslo
 

As for getting around I took the Ruter streetcars on a daily basis. They’ll take you pretty much anywhere, assuming you’re able to climb a few stairs to board them. The stops all feature maps with real time arrival information. They’re also well integrated with Google Maps directions. Sometimes Google Maps suggested I take a bus instead but I always opted for the streetcars as I found them more charming, if a little cramped at times.

In Oslo the streetcars always have right of way so you have to be careful when you’re walking — they will not stop for you!

 
Oslo
 

Just as in Sweden the government of Norway controls all alcohol sales. To purchase anything harder than light beer you have to visit a chain store called “Vinmonopolet,” which translates to the amusingly honest phrase “Wine Monopoly.”

I noticed a few parks had small congregations of what I assumed were homeless people living there. However a tour guide later corrected this assumption — Norway has a problem with heroin, and the folks squatting in the parks were most likely addicts. So maybe their government is solving the wrong problem with their semi-prohibition on liquor. That said I never saw a single needle on the streets.

In the following posts I’ll go into tours I went on Oslo and the outdoor sculptures and art. During my brief visit to Oslo the weather didn’t lend itself to spending time indoors, so no — I didn’t visit the most famous painting there. Nevertheless, the legacy of Edvard Munch is all over Oslo.

Two weddings on Hydra

July 14th, 2018

Hydra, Greece
 

As I stepped off the ferry on Hydra I met up with a friend. We’d already arranged to split an Airbnb together on the island while attending our mutual friend’s wedding. Our apartment promised spectacular views, but as our host led us to the place from the port what proved far more spectacular was how quickly we became exhausted. We walked up one cobblestone street lined with stairs after another — my friend later said she counted 387 steps — all in the unrelenting Mediterranean summer heat.

I’d briefly visited Hydra during my trip to Greece last year as part of a one day cruise. I had a feel for the main port area of the island; you can easily walk from one end to the other in ten minutes. But on that brief visit I didn’t have time to explore the hillside so I had no idea how steep the streets could get.

The view from the roof of the apartment really did look amazing as you can see in the panorama photo above. Still, the thought of admiring the view in direct sunlight after walking up that hill had as much appeal as entering a sauna after running a marathon.

Another twist to all of this was Google Maps doesn’t have great directions on Hydra. Some pathways are on the map, some are not. While trying to find the place again and getting lost, I went back and labeled a bunch of pins on the map so we’d know how to get from the port to the Airbnb and back. This worked well and I’m glad Google Maps lets you do this… otherwise I might still be lost on that little island.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

Housing issues aside I’m still enamored with the island itself. The port town is a charming old place seemingly frozen in time with dusty old stone buildings, restaurants with fresh seafood, beautiful beaches, and a night sky glowing with lights.

The only modes of transportation on Hydra aside from walking are boats and donkeys. It’s nothing like the more touristy Greek islands; nobody’s going to try to sell you pirates movies at the beach, and none of the restaurants have barkers trying to drive you in. It’s easily the most laid back place I’ve traveled to. Just don’t step in the donkey droppings.

 
Hydra, Greece
 

In Greece you’re always going to have some cats. This scrawny little one kept appearing on our patio. I felt guilty because I kept forgetting to bring back some fish for her (at least I think it was a her.)

Those allergic to cats should remember to pack allergy medications when visiting the smaller islands of Greece as there may not be any pharmacies, and the cats tend to be very friendly.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

On to the double wedding. Both grooms were brothers marrying their long time girlfriends among a large audience of friends and family from around the world. Just to get this out of the way, no, there was no plate smashing, and I don’t think anyone drank any ouzo.

The first ceremony was very traditional in a Greek Orthodox church. Here my Greek friend and his girlfriend (the same couple mentioned in my post on Rome last year) were married in a ceremony I didn’t fully understand — because it was all in Greek. It began with a dramatic, almost operatic mass, proceeded by a number of marriage rituals. Seeing which guests knew when to stand, sit, etc. made it clear who was from Greece and who was not. Rice was thrown, hundreds of photos were taken, wedding favors were handed out, and many candied almonds were consumed.

Soon we all made our way to the port to board boats headed to the next wedding.

The second wedding was held at a large outdoor venue on the seaside with the sun setting in the background. This was a more contemporary wedding in English. Both ceremonies featured the traditional stefana crowns, or ring-shaped crowns tied together with a long ribbon. One is placed on the bride’s head and one on the groom’s, and then the best man swaps them back and forth three times to represent the holy trinity.

This was followed by dinner, drinks, and dancing at the same venue well into the night.

 
Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece
 

Many meals were shared on the island, from a very late lunch after I’d arrived to a very late dinner the night following the weddings. Aside from catching up with a few familiar faces, I also met a group of American volleyball players I’d heard about but somehow had never seen face to face.

My final morning on Hydra I had to quickly pack up and make my way down those 387 cobblestone stairs to the port to catch an early ferry. Once I’d taken a taxi back to the airport, I hopped on a plane to my last stop on the trip.

A layover in Athens

July 11th, 2018

Athens, Greece
 

Upon landing in Athens I had a brief layover planned since I needed to take a ferry to my next destination, and the ferry terminal at Piraeus was closed for the evening.

My initial plan was to take the Athens Metro from the airport to my hotel at Monastiraki. I asked at the airport information desk how to take the Metro from the airport but was immediately shot down — “There’s a strike,” the woman at the desk informed me. She told me to go outside and take the express bus to Syntagma Square — a short walk away from Monastiraki.

After an hour on a very crowded bus I finally wound up at Syntagma. I’d never seen this part of Athens in at midnight before. As you can see in the above photo the streets were hardly deserted.

 
Athens, Greece
 

I picked up some late night snacks as I wandered over toward the hotel. But first I checked out Monastiraki, taking in the late night Athens style touristy madness, with young tourists partying, street vendors selling all kinds of silly stuff, and the moon bursting through the clouds over the Acropolis.

It’s hard to explain but after a week in Stockholm during the summer, being in a place where the sun went down at night felt like a relief. People partying and playing loud music outside didn’t bother me — they were just doing their thing — my only focus was on the comfort of a dark sky.

In my hotel room I finished up my blog post on Stockholm before going to bed. It was still a party outside but fortunately the hotel had provided earplugs (I’d brought my own anyway.)

When morning came I had to take the lift elevator downstairs, then take the express elevator up to the bar and restaurant for breakfast.

 
Athens, Greece
 

The hotel breakfast would have been unremarkable — if not for the view. That’s the Acropolis in the center, with Monastiraki down below. Upon checking out of the hotel I walked to the Metro station to take a ride to Piraeus. I already had my ferry ticket from Piraeus to the island of Hydra and there was a pre-wedding lunch scheduled, so there was some time pressure.

And that’s where a comedy of errors began. First I tried taking money out of the ATM at the Monastiraki Metro station. It only dispensed twenty euro notes, but as I quickly learned the ticket machines wouldn’t take anything more than a five euro note. Next I tried buying a ticket with a debit card. Since I was in Athens the previous year they’d upgraded the ticket machines to accept plastic… almost. Of the eight ticket machines at the station I waited in line at six of them before I found one that had a working card reader.

 
Hydra, Greece
 

Fortunately I’d left enough time for all the Metro ticketing madness to get to Piraeus ahead of schedule. I even had time to stop at a nearby cafe for a much needed cappuccino freddo on the way to the Hellenic Seaways dock to catch the ferry.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned traveling in Greece over the years, it’s this: schedules are more like suggestions, things just happen when they happen. I think of this as “Greek time.” There’s no need to rush when you’re on Greek time — if you’re late you may still be the first one there.

Stockholm’s subway art

July 5th, 2018

Stockholm’s subways are considered a type of art gallery by many. It’s hard to explain without photos, so here’s some I captured during my time riding around in Stockholm.

 
Stockholm
 

When I came and left Stockholm from the airport I took the commuter rail to and from Central Station on SL’s commuter rail. This station is enormous — it’s technically two separate stations connected together — and is at least eight levels deep. The commuter rail platform I took features tiles painted to look like trees with birds here and there.

 
Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm
 

The Metro (or T-bana) part of the station I found myself in features blue-on-white floral patterns and silhouettes of workers. This was a challenging part of the station to take photos as passengers were rushing through and I tried my best to remain out of their way.

 
Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm
 

If you’re familiar with Stockholm’s subway art, the station that probably jumps to mind is Solna Centrum with its red and green color scheme. This station’s unlikely to be visited by most tourists due to its location. Still it’s worth a detour for those interested.

Now that said most photos make this station look dark and dramatic, but it’s actually well lit and contains funny murals and dioramas. So it may not be exactly what you expect.

 
Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm
 

The design of the Stadion station invokes a sky motif with a sky blue color and a big rainbow in the middle. It’s a a strange choice for an underground room.

You’ll also find a poster for the 1912 Olympic games here as the station is near the Olympic stadium (hence the name of the station.)

 
Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm
 

The art at Tekniska Högskolan station reflects it’s proximity to Stockholm’s technical university. There’s a map of the solar system (not to scale) built into the wall. A giant apple precariously dangling from the ceiling represents Newton’s theories, which are also written on the wall in Swedish.

The strangest art is a sculpture in the middle of the station: a dodecahedron with clear sides, with a black rod in the middle and some curly pasta looking things surrounding the rod. What’s going on here? According to the subway art tour I attended, this is a representation of a Stephen Hawking quote about what you’d see if you were sucked into a black hole just before you died. You can view this as it’s intended by standing directly under it and looking straight up. Apparently Hawking himself visited this station and approved of the sculpture. I’d imagine not many subway stations can make such a claim.

 
Stockholm
 

Kungsträdgården station is just below the King’s Garden, as the name suggests. If you listen carefully you can hear water trickling in the station, which isn’t really ideal — a mildly toxic fungus has to be cleaned out of the station regularly. The art includes strangely shaped light displays, ivy growing over broken white sculptures, a petrified tree stump, etc. It has a sort of otherworldly sensibility down there.

 
Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm
 

Bonus: This one’s not a subway station though it is on the Stockholm Metro. Thorildsplan station is in fact above ground, but the art is fun and I couldn’t leave it out. Tiles are used as form of pixel art to make the station an homage to early video games, in particular Pac Man and Super Mario Bros.

You may have no practical reason to visit Thorildsplan — I certainly didn’t — but it’s worth checking out if you want to see the only metro station in the world designed to look like old video games.

Stockholm expeditions

July 4th, 2018

During my six sunny days in Stockholm I tried to squeeze in as many expeditions around town as possible without exhausting myself too much. It’s a big city with a lot going on — you could probably spend a couple weeks in Stockholm and still leave with that nagging feeling you missed something.

Here’s how I spent my time:

Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm

 
Free walking tours
Note: These are all free, but you’re expected to tip the guide if you enjoyed the tour.

  • City Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. This tour’s kind of a grab bag, but wanders around mostly in the new-ish parts of Stockholm to the east of the old town. Much of it focuses on the era around the beginnings of the era of the constitutional monarchy.
  • Old Town (Gamla Stan) Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. When I first set foot in Gamla Stan I couldn’t help but to roll my eyes — yet another beautiful relic of a medieval European city turned into a tourist trap. Sigh. But this tour helped breathe some life, or in some cases death, into the stories from the old days. Can’t say Gamla Stan is my favorite place, but by the end of the tour I appreciated it the history enough to not hate its current incarnation.
  • Subway Art Tour by Free Walking Tour Stockholm. If you’ve seen the amazing photos of the subway stations in Stockholm this tour needs no introduction, and if you haven’t go Google it right now! My only complaint about this tour is it didn’t take me to enough stations. I’ll follow up with another blog post about Stockholm’s subway art in the near future, there’s too much to say here.
  • Söder Tour from Free Tour Stockholm. I was staying in the Söder neighborhood/island so most of the ground we covered was already familiar, but the history of the neighborhood was new to me. Somehow this part of town went from a battlefield to the poor part of town and eventually became a the hip part of town.
    •  

      Stockholm Stockholm Stockholm

       
      Other tours

      • Stockholm Ghost Walk. This somewhat theatrical tour covers both the historical stories from the old town (Gamla Stan) as well as the more… shall we say, legendary tales. A crypt is included, though the bodies were moved long ago.
      • Guided tour of the Riksdag (Parliament). This tour shows you around the building where Sweden’s government operates. The building’s a mishmash of old and new, modified over time to fit the needs of the day. It’s completely free, just show up at the designated time and prepare to go through an airport-style security check.
      • The Nordic Food Walk. This one’s pricey but worth it since it includes samples of many different Swedish cuisines you won’t find elsewhere. They’ll try to cater to your dietary needs, and as a pescetarian there was only one dish I didn’t get to try — a meatball. The tour ended in the basement of a restaurant for a “fika,” or Swedish coffee break.

       

      Odds and ends

      Aside from the tours here are some other places I stumbled on during my time in Stockholm.

      Stockholm
       

      During my first day in Stockholm my Airbnb host suggested visiting Monteliusvägen, a lookout point near where I was staying. There’s a panoramic view of the city from there and it’s not much of a climb. The place was pretty crowded, but there’s a long trail along the cliff with a few lookout points where you can take in the view and snap some photos.

      Stockholm
       

      A few rooms of the Royal Palace were open to visitors for free. The photo above is the chapel built into the palace but there are several other rooms you can visit without taking the tour. The courtyard is also open to the public.

      Stockholm
       

      The Stockholm Public Library is like a temple for reading. The circular main room has three levels of narrow hallways with books on one side. There’s a small section of English books, though like many visitors I was just there to admire the architecture of the building. According to a sign outside the building this was the first open stack public library in Sweden.

      Stockholm
       

      The idea of an espresso tonic never appealed to me until I was in Stockholm during a heat wave and happened to walk into Johan & Nystrom. Normally at a fancy espresso bar I’d order an espresso, but it was such a hot day I almost gagged at the though of drinking a hot beverage.

      Noticing an espresso tonic featured on their summer menu I went ahead and ordered it. The barista made an espresso, which he poured over iced tonic water. I liked it so much I came back for two more during the trip.

      Stockholm
       

      Everyone who visits Stockholm seems to agree there’s one museum you have to visit: the Vasa Museum. They’re right. This is one impressive museum.

      Back in the 1620′s, the king of Sweden wanted a modern warship with two gun decks in order to intimidate his neighbors. This proved to be a little too cutting edge for the time as the ship sank on its maiden voyage. The wreckage was mostly forgotten until the 1950s when it was discovered again.

      The museum tells both the story of the ship and its historical context as well as the monumental effort that went into getting the ship to where it is today. But the initial “wow” factor for me was walking in past the ticket counter right up to a massive wooden ship that nearly fills a five story building. You don’t see that every day.

Stockholm

June 29th, 2018

Stockholm
Stockholm Stockholm
 

I visisted Stockholm on a whim to be totally honest — I knew I’d be in Greece for a wedding, and wanted to fly nonstop to a city in Europe I’d never been to before and spend a few days there. Flights to Stockholm were cheap, so why not give it a shot?

Little did I know I’d be visiting Stockholm during “midsummer,” a time in which there’s no escape from the sun because it never sets. If you’re like me you’d heard about this phenomenon, but if you’ve never experienced it firsthand it’s incredibly jarring.

For midsummer many stores and restaurants adjust their hours to a later, more Mediterranean schedule. From around 8 PM to sometime early in the morning, the city takes on an eerie glow. I knew I’d have some jet lag flying in but it’s much worse when the sun doesn’t have the decency to disappear at night.

Stockholm
 

First things first: the language barrier. This wasn’t an issue; almost everyone spoke English, though some were more reluctant to practice than others. Not all written information is available in English but this never seemed to matter much.

Second, make sure you bring a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. Cash isn’t accepted in many places in Stockholm, and you can pay for almost anything with credit cards — even things like pay toilets and vending machines take plastic. Some stores require you to present an ID with your credit card if it doesn’t have a PIN associated with it.

Stockholm
 

From the Stockholm Arlanda airport I picked up an SL Access public transit card and loaded a seven day pass on it. This card lets you on the local buses, the T-bana (subway), the commuter rail, and the ferries. Getting around is pretty straightforward with Google Maps but unfortunately Google hasn’t yet added ferry routes to its transit directions. FYI: It takes a little “travel hacking” but you can get out of paying airport surcharges on the commuter rail if you ask how at the airport information desk.

I found Swedes tend to be friendly but usually pretty quiet. This has its advantages, mainly that you can ride the subway without being forced to overhear loud conversations. Come to think of it I guess their demeanor is kind of like their furniture — pleasant but not trying to stand out.

Stockholm
 

Stockholm itself is a city of contradictions. Food is everywhere, but there’s not much Swedish food to be found (with the exception of cinnamon rolls.) There’s an enormous royal palace, but it’s barely used and the royal family isn’t well liked. Most businesses don’t take cash, yet the country declined to switch to the Euro. Alcohol is only sold at government stores, but drunks roam the streets at all hours. Swedes might seem reserved, but I’m told going to nude saunas with your friends and family is a big part of their lives.

Every culture has its quirks of course, but I didn’t expect to find so many in just a week. What makes these cultural elements stand out like a sore thumb is I’m writing this blog post from a hotel overlooking Monastiraki Square in Athens. People are eating junk food and drinking beer while loud music plays from every direction in almost unbearably hot weather; I’m trying to write about Sweden from a place that had might as well be the anti-Sweden.

In the next post I’ll go into detail on some of the places I went, tours I attended, etc. in Stockholm.

Greece

December 24th, 2017

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

After checking out of my Airbnb in Rome, I caught the “Leonardo Express” train to the airport, then hopped on a flight to Athens. My friend was gracious enough to pick me up at the airport and let me stay with him and his father at their home in Glifada, Athens.

I was a little nervous about returning to Greece — the last time I was there, we experienced a gas shortage due to a strike that almost left us stranded a few times. It turns out my fears were almost warranted; shortly before I left Rome, Athens resolved a garbage worker’s strike that had gone on for ten days. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember that Greek summers are very hot, and this is a country where toilet paper goes in the garbage, not the toilet.

As luck would have it, everything went better this time around. It was also a less hectic trip, and I spent most days exploring Athens on my own. Having already seen the major sites last time, I opted to look for small, unusual tours and to somewhat off the beaten path destinations.

Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens

My first full day in Athens was packed. My friend drove me to the nearest Metro station, where I was shocked to discover the price hadn’t increased in the seven years since I’d been on the Metro last time. Although I was running a little late, I arrived more or less on time for the street art tour I signed up for. The group was surprisingly large and diverse.

The tour explores the street art in the Thiseio neighborhood, ending near Monastiraki. The tour guide treated it almost like a museum tour as he knew the names of the artists, how and where they learned their craft, and which murals were commissioned and which were informally painted on abandoned buildings. The art ranged from silly and abstract to overtly political, and in size from small murals on doors to sides of large buildings.

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

Having some time to kill before my next tour and feeling guilty for eating so much pizza back in Rome, I decided I should work out a little. So I climbed to the top of Mount Lycabettus.

This turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. Not only were the directions on Google Maps confusing about how to get to the starting point of the trail, but even once I got on the trail it wasn’t clear which direction I should go. So there was a lot of fumbling around and asking locals for directions.

Eventually I got to the peak, which has a patio outside a small chapel. The view is incredible (see also the panorama at the top of this post.) But at this point my heart was pounding and I was drenched in sweat, so I wasn’t prepared to appreciate it. Luckily there’s an enormous restaurant near the peak that has great air conditioning. You can also take a funicular up and down the hill from this building, but that’s cheating. Anyway, after a beer and a huge bottle of water I was ready to go back outside, take some photos, and apply another layer of sunscreen.

Acropolis, Athens Roman water clock, Athens
 

As the evening approached I took one last tour — the Athens Free Walking Tour. This was a pretty big group, but the guide was very knowledgeable about the era spanning from Ancient Greece to the Roman days, and explained many artifacts, ruins, and religious monuments near the base of the Acropolis hill.

In the above photo on the right there’s a funny looking octagonal tower. In English it’s called the Tower of the Winds and is believed in Roman times to have housed a device known as a water clock. Unlike a sundial which can only be used during the day, a water clock runs as long as water is able to flow through it. Though the building’s exterior is in good shape the clock mechanism is no longer intact.

After the tour I wandered back to the Metro, grabbing a much needed bite to eat at a local market. I also stopped by Pittaki Street to see the unusual light installation. Despite being dark it was not illuminated — I found out later that some locals had rallied against it for some reason I never clearly understood, and as such it had been shut off. Sigh.

Athens Athens Athens
 

The next morning I woke up exhausted. After another trip on the Metro system I found my way to the starting point of the aptly titled “Get lost in Athens with an Insider” tour. This low key tour involved only me and the guide, as apparently nobody else had registered. The tour really lived up to its name, as I learned all kinds of odd trivia that even my local friend wasn’t aware of. Here are the highlights illustrated in the photos above.

  • One of the first stops was a sculpture representing the Star of David all ripped apart (big photo above.) This represents how the Jewish population of Athens had been torn apart in the Holocaust. Today the Jewish population in Athens is a small fraction of its pre-World War 2 days.
  • Anafiotika is a small neighborhood built in the same architectural style as the old towns on many Greek islands. Think small blue and white stucco buildings, narrow winding streets, all built into the hillside landscape in such a way that patios and rooftops all blend in together. On the way there, we walked by a restaurant where the cook was throwing pieces of meat and fish out the door, which had attracted a crowd of cats.
  • Some local Irish crank named Tom squats in an abandoned building just down the hill. He’s allegedly a local drunk who makes his living selling wire sculptures, and is particularly well known for his pro-Irish and anti-EU views. Though I wandered by later in the trip as well, I never saw Tom or got to speak with him but his presence spanned a small intersection. From what I gathered based on his painted walls he’s very much pro-Brexit despite now living in central Europe. (Talk about a mixed message.)
  • What’s missing in Athens? My guide’s unexpected pop quiz led to an answer I wouldn’t have ever guessed if I hadn’t been told. The historic architecture of Athens intentionally excludes the entire period in which they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Ancient and classic Greek architecture stands alongside a handful of Roman buildings, but Greeks resented Turkish rule so much they demolished hundreds of years of historic architecture, plazas, and statues once they regained their independence in order to forget an entire era.

Athens Athens

After the tour I wound up having an hour or so to kill before dinner, so I decided to spoil my appetite by visiting a nearby vegetarian restaurant called Avocado. I ordered a couple of appetizers — a small gazpacho soup and some guacamole — in addition to a beer and a glass of wine. Not traditional Greek food by any means but it hit the spot.

Shortly before heading back to the Metro I got a brief glimpse of the changing of the guard ceremony outside of the tomb of the unknown soldier; more on that later.

Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece
 

The next day was Saturday, and the three of us got together again for a long weekend on the Greek island of Spetses. The hydrofoil ride there from Athens takes a couple hours. Spetses was once a naval asset, and while most of it doesn’t look like a fortress there are a few rusty cannons still positioned along the shore. To add to the old fashioned ambiance, many couples and families ride along the harbor coastline on horse-drawn carriages.

We were lucky to get an Airbnb not far from the harbor with a friendly and helpful host. We got lost walking to the place, because as it turns out Spetses doesn’t have addresses. As such, Airbnb and Google Maps led us to a random location on the island. After calling our host he gave us a course correction and we soon found our way there. The home turned out to be more spacious than we needed; the opposite of our cramped Airbnb in Rome.

Sunday we figured out how to take a crowded tourist bus to a beach called Agioi Anargiri on the west side of the island. The beach features a natural cave known as Bekiris. The tide was too high to get into the cave while we were there, but I’m told it’s well worth exploring if you can. The trail there is short and well marked. We had lunch at the beach’s only restaurant before heading out. Although the restaurant had a captive audience and an ambiance I can only describe as “nearly deafening cicada chirps,” the food was surprisingly good.

That night we watched Going in Style, the American bank heist comedy at an outdoor theater called Titania. It was reasonably priced, the beer was cheap and they added an intermission which was useful for a bathroom break. The only other movie theater I spotted on the island was also an outdoor theater so if you’re there when it’s raining, I guess you’re out of luck if you want to watch a film on the big screen.

On our last day on Spetses before departing, we took one last trip to a beach near our Airbnb. While Spetses is advertised as not having cars on the island, well… many of the locals have cars and they drive at insane speeds on narrow roads without sidewalks. As I’ve stated numerous times in my blog posts about Greece, Greeks don’t seem to take safety very seriously. That said it wasn’t a long walk to the east side of the island where we found a nice beach with a variety of amenities.

Grocery store, Athens Grocery store, Athens
 

On the way back from the port, my friend mentioned he needed to do some grocery shopping at a supermarket. Normally in Europe a “supermarket” is about the size of an American convenience store, but this one was the size of your average Safeway or Albertsons, if not larger.

All their shopping carts all had a built-in mechanism that required the deposit in the form of a coin that could only be returned if you brought back the cart. Strange idea, but it seemed to work as long as you remembered to carry the required coin with you.

The store carried a dazing array of worldwide foods from kopi luwak coffee to a display of Mexican foods to… Anchor Steam beer! My memories of eating a burrito in Berlin were flooding back. While I wasn’t about to make a burrito, we had to buy a couple overpriced bottles of Anchor Steam just for fun.

We eventually wound up drinking most of the beer while playing the remastered LucasArts classic adventure game Day of the Tentacle. Never though I’d wind up halfway around the world re-playing an old video game but hey, that game still holds up.

Greek/Turkish style coffee, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens
 

My second to last day in Greece I went on a food tour called Taste of Athens. Once again, I wound up being the only person in the tour group.

  • The first stop was a traditional Greek coffee joint called Mokka. They brewed the finely-ground coffee in a small pot that was partially buried in sand, which I’m told is to help maintain heat consistency. And yes, Turkish and Greek coffee are exactly the same thing — but don’t tell them I said so.
  • At the cafe I also learned a completely unrelated factoid. The Greek version of “jinx” (where two people coincidentally say the same thing at the same time) works a little differently than ours. Both parties are required to touch something red, otherwise according to legend they will start a fight. The more you know!
  • We walked through the meat and fish markets, then through a number of shops that sell dry pasta, spices, etc. Plenty of options if you want something to take home, or are planning to cook for yourself in Athens.
  • Next up was a cafe with a new twist on a classic baked good. A koulouri is the Greek version of a narrow bagel that’s common in that part of the world. At Oven Sesame they have koulouris that aren’t completely hollow in the middle, but contains a pita pocket. You can order these with a variety of fillings.
  • At another nearby cafe we got an enormous plate of appetizers. The sheer quantity of food rapidly became a problem at this point, and I was starting to think I wasn’t so lucky being the only guest on this tour.
  • Finally, and against my better judgement, it was time for dessert. We went to Lukumades, nearby joint that sells, well… loukoumades. What is that, you ask? It’s a bunch of fried dough balls, basically like donut holes but served fresh, and covered with a variety of toppings like chocolate sauce, nuts, etc. Certainly delicious but also very heavy for someone who was already on a gluttony streak. Fortunately I also got a small bottle of tsikoudia, a type of brandy from Crete. This numbed my digestive system to the point where could choke down a few loukoumades.

Athens Athens Athens
 

When the tour was over I walked back to the Parliament Building just in time to see the changing of the guard. A large crowd was already gathered to watch the soldiers in silly uniforms go through their weird hourly ceremony in which the guards slowly march in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier to change shifts. The slow march looks ridiculous, but makes sense considering the heat.

Next I headed to the National Gardens behind the Parliament Building. It’s a large peaceful park with plenty of shade and a variety of animals including ducks, chickens, and turtles. It’s easy to get lost in there, but it’s also one of the few places in Athens you’ll find free bathrooms.

While relaxing in the garden deciding where to go from here, my friend sent me a text message suggesting I check out a bar on top of a hotel called A For Athens near Monastiraki. I headed over there along Ermou Street, a busy shopping corridor with high end stores and outdoor chandeliers above the street. Finding the entrance to A For Athens proved challenging as it wasn’t well marked, but once I was inside and asked for the bar the front desk staff waved me to an elevator in the back. Soon a glass elevator lit in red took me to the top of the building. From one side, there’s a glass wall with an amazing view of the Acropolis in the distance with Monastiraki Square down below. I sat for a while sipping a cappuccino while taking in the view.

Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Poros, Greece Aegina, Greece
 

My last day in Greece I embarked on an adventure to three small islands I’d never been to on the One Day Cruise. After a lengthy voyage the first stop was Hydra, an island with a small harborside town where all transportation is either by foot or by donkey. Tired and somewhat hungry, I stopped by The Pirate Bar (also known as The Pirate Cafe) for a salad and a Mythos before exploring the naval fortress. Much like Spetses, a few rusty cannons still sit along the old fortress’ walls.

At this point we were heading back towards Athens so the stops were much closer together. Next up was the tiny island of Poros. Along with many other travelers, I climbed up to the peak of the island where there’s a clock tower and a huge Greek flag. From here the mainland looks so close you could swim there, not that I’d recommend this. I took a long walk along the shore before we had to head back to the ship.

Our last stop before returning to Athens was Aegina. These days this island is mostly known for growing pistachios, but was apparently an important place throughout various eras of Greek history. The port town here isn’t terribly interesting, many of the businesses look to have closed along ago, and the beach is small and uninviting. That said, there’s a small stand near the port that sells bags of pistachios. If you’re a fan (or know someone who is) definitely buy a bag or three, you won’t regret it. You can also find pistachio flavored gelato and such at restaurants and cafes around the island.

 
My last morning in Athens we said our goodbyes and I hopped on a plane back to Barcelona for the last few days of the trip.

To conclude my post on Greece, here’s all the tours I went on.

  • Street Art Tour from Alternative Athens. If you like exploring side streets and looking at street art, you can’t go wrong with this one.
  • Athens Free Walking Tour. This tour mostly covers the historic area around the Acropolis, and ends near the entrance to the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum. Totally free, but bring a cash tip for your guide if you found the tour enjoyable.
  • Urban Athens Collective’s Get lost in Athens with an Insider tour. I paid 32 euros for a group tour, but since I was the only one who registered it wound up being a personalized tour. Not sure if this is the norm for this one, but ten euros an hour for a one-on-one tour of Athens’ best kept secrets is an insane bargain; even a coffee was included. I’d do it again.
  • Taste of Athens from Urban Adventures. Again I lucked out and had this tour to myself. Aside from a glutinous amount of food included in the price, the tour also stops by a few local markets and shops in case you’d like to buy food to take home. The tour ends not far from the Acropolis. I called ahead and they were happy to accommodate my vegetarian diet.
  • One Day Cruise. This three island tour starts early and ends shortly before dinnertime. They have a bus that stops by many nearby hotels to take you to the cruise ship terminal. Grab breakfast before you go as only lunch is served on board. Various tours are offered on each island as an upsell, if you do any of them I’d recommend booking one on Aegina as it’s the last stop and there’s not much else to do there.

 

For more photos from my trip to Greece this year, check out this Flickr album.

This blog post concludes my month long journey over the past summer to Spain, Italy, and Greece. For all blog posts in this series head over here.