Tag Archives: architecture

Athens Day 3

This was my last full day (+night) in the city. Not tired of walking, I spent the day exploring more of the city on foot. This included a walk up Lycabettus hill (or Mount Lycabettus), the highest point of Athens!

Here are the highlights of the day:

#National Gardens
Located behind the Parliament building, this is a peaceful area where to relax away from the main tourist crowds. I actually visited these gardens on two consecutive days as I really enjoyed walking around and exploring!

#Panathenaic Stadium
I loved it! This is the site of the opening and closing ceremony of the 1896 Olympics and it was also a venue for the Olympics in 2004. Entirely made of marble and with very steep steps, it requires a bit of caution when walking up and down after heavy rain but once you are at the highest point the feeling is amazing! You can also have your photo taken at the podium that is located at ground level.

#Lycabettus hill (Mount Lycabettus)
This is the highest point in Athens and its top can be reached on foot or by using a funicular. St George’s Chapel is located at the top and offers a good viewing point to the rest of the city. The wind can be very strong here so be warned!

#Piraeus
Only a 15-min metro journey from Monastiraki lies Piraeus, largest passenger port in Europe and second largest in the world. I went because I wanted to see the port and enjoy the sunset by the sea on my last night in Athens. The sky was cloudy but the colours were still beautiful!

 

Athens Day 2

My top tip for Athens is: base yourself in the Monastiraki area! This is THE hub. Excellent transport connections to the rest of the city, reasonable walking distance to most tourist sites (I walked pretty much everywhere), plenty of restaurants and eateries of all sorts, plenty of bars for a good night out. And I just loved walking around in the evening, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from below and of the streets full of people. Yes, there are a few dodgy individuals around the train station but, as long as you are not there on your own in the middle of the night, concern should be minimal.

So my second day in Athens started by exploring the area further, and here are some photos.

#Psiri
Next I explored the Psiri district. I spent a lot of time there, fascinated by the rundown buildings, the huge amount of street art (more in another post) and the flea markets.

#Ancient Agora
This is the best known example of an ancient Greek agora, and it remained in use either as an assembly, as a commercial, or as a residential area for about 5000 years. Restoration of this area has been minimal. The highlights are the Temple of Hephaestus,  the best preserved ancient Greek temple from the Classical era, and the Stoa of Attalos, a building of the Hellenistic period that was rebuilt from the ground up based on its ancient appearance.

#Kerameikos
This is the ancient cemetery of Athens and is one of the least visited sites in the city, despite its importance and beauty. Archaeological excavations in Kerameikos started in 1870 and so far archaeologists have found columns of temples, marble statues, remains of public buildings, funeral offerings and thousands of tombs. I spent well over an hour wandering around the area and I definitely recommend a visit.

#Syntagma Square and Parliament
Syntagma Square is the most important square of modern Athens from both a historical and social point of view. In recent years (2010-2012) this square became the site of mass protests related to the economic situation of the Greek government-debt.
At the top of Syntagma Square you’ll find the Parliament building. Crowds gather outside every day to watch the Evzones, the elite soldiers who guard the tomb of the unknown soldier as well as the Presidential palace. While the main ceremony of the changing of the guard is held on a Sunday morning (this is when the traditional white kilts are worn), hourly changing of the guards occur every day on weekdays too. I watched these a couple of times and found them quite entertaining.

 

Nicosia: the last divided capital

I decided to take the 2-hr bus journey from Pafos to Nicosia (cost: Euro 7) mainly because I wanted to cross the Green Line, the border between the Greek part (South Nicosia, Lefkosia) and the Turkish part (North Nicosia, Lefkosa) of the capital city of Cyprus. The idea of a capital city still split between two countries – so many years after the end of a similar situation in Berlin – sounded very interesting.

As most tourist, I reached the border via Lidras (or Ledras) Street, a pedestrianised area in South Nicosia full of the usual high street stores and cafes. Passport checks were quick and relaxed, and within a couple of minutes I was on the other side.

"Green line" Nicosia Cyprus
The sign at the border between Greek and Turkish Nicosia

It was a very surreal experience, though: the vibe in North Nicosia is very different from the South, it is very Arabic/Turkish and it reminded me of Marrakech. Apart from the border crossing area I didn’t see many tourists and the streets and narrow alleys of the Old City were largely empty.

I wandered around for a few hours, checking out the main sites of Lefkosa but also losing myself in the alleys of the old town, soaking up in the atmosphere.
Here is what I saw:

Büyük Han – considered one of the finest buildings in Cyprus, it was built in the 16th century. Originally a caravansarai, it was restored in the 1990s and is now a thriving arts centre, with galleries, workshops, cafes and souvenir shops.

Selimiye Camii (Mosque) – also known as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, this is now an unusual mix of Western cathedral and mosque, with landmark minaret towers that can be seen from most of Nicosia. The building is a beautiful example of a Roman Catholic cathedral, built mostly in the 13th century. Taken over by the Ottomans in 1570 it was then converted into a mosque and the minarets were added to the building.

The Bedesten – another example of a church that was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period, and is now a cultural centre.

Belediye Pazari (also known as the Bandabulya) – for a lover of traditional markets like me, this was quite a disappointment. Apart from a few grocery stalls, where most locals gathered, the market was largely empty and only a handful of souvenir shops were open. I was quickly out of it, not before having bought a silver ankle bracelet, though!

The Venetian walls – initially built in the Middle Ages then rebuilt in the 16th century, they surround Nicosia and are very well preserved. They also contain eleven bastions and three gates.

"North Nicosia" Cyprus "Kyrenia Gate"
Kyrenia Gate in North Nicosia

I stopped for lunch in one of the local kebab houses, where I joined lots of locals enjoying their meals sitting outside and I tasted a traditional Cypriot dish: sheftalia kebab.

Walking along the Green Line from the Armenian Church back to the Lokmaci gate, the atmosphere was a bit eerie, a lot of buildings here have been destroyed and hardly anyone walks around, while frequent signs remind you that this is still military zone and photography is not allowed. I didn’t see police around but thought it was better not to take chances and didn’t take any photos…

I really loved North Nicosia and when I crossed the border back into the Greek part, the tourist crowds and the shops of Lidras Street made this part of the capital city quite disappointing. I ended up catching the bus back to Pafos without exploring any further, also partly due to the odd bus hours and the long journey back.

Top tip if you visit Nicosia:
the Turkish part of Nicosia doesn’t belong to the cheap European roaming/mobile data plans that apply to its Greek counterpart. As soon as you cross the border, you will incur hefty charges on your smartphone, unless you switch roaming and data off. I forgot to do that and saw my £15 balance disappear in about an hour just by having internet switched on!

Exploring Galle Fort

I had been looking forward to visiting the Galle area since the start of my trip to Sri Lanka. It seemed the most exotic destination on my list, with a mix of beaches, local culture, and colonial heritage.
And I wasn’t disappointed!

Galle is a fascinating and very atmospheric town, mainly characterised by its Fort (built by the Dutch in 1663 and now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is the best preserved colonial town in Sri Lanka and beautiful colonial buildings will surprise you at every corner, as they mix with Islamic buildings and Buddhist temples built in more recent years. While the tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed large parts of Galle – killing thousands of people – the fortified walls of the Fort protected this area, which managed to survive the devastation.

Nowadays the Fort is mainly crammed with boutique shops, cafes and hotels, but this is also part of its appeal. The magistrates’ court is located within the Fort too, and you won’t be able to miss the queues outside its offices. The windows to the court rooms were open when I walked past (and stopped for a few seconds) but I was quickly told off by the local police and asked to move away!

I spent a whole day wandering around the Fort area, exploring its narrow streets, its buildings, its shops (the latter mainly for relief from the excruciating heat, I must admit!).
I checked out the old Dutch Hospital, beautiful building now turned into shops and restaurants.
I followed with curiosity a never ending game of cricket played on a green patch of grass just below the Fort walls (by the way, the Galle International Cricket Stadium – a couple of minutes away from the Fort – is considered to be one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world!).
I swam in the ocean at Lighthouse Beach, a lovely place for a break and a refreshing dip in the water.
I watched monks in their orange robes leading groups of school kids around the walls.
I walked the whole length of the walls and watched the sunset from one of the bastions.
I had dinner in one of the swanky hotels, enjoying a catch up with a couple of friends who happened to be in Galle at the same time as me.

And when you are tired of Galle, a handful of miles away lies the town of Unawatuna, which can be easily reached by bus and is a good base for exploring the area. Do not miss the Japanese pagoda on the top of Rumassala hill!
As for the Unawatuna beaches, oh well, I will leave that for the next post ;-).

Unawatuna "Sri Lanka" Japanese Peace Pagoda
Japanese Peace Pagoda, Unawatuna