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:
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!
At the National Gardens
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!
View of Athens from Mount Lycabettus
Ekklisia Agii Isidori (St Isidore Church) on Mount Lycabettus
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!
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.
Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea
Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea
Windows and balconies
I seem to have a strange fascination for rundown buildings!
Fruit stall in Monastiraki square
Oranges from a fruit stall
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.
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.
Ancient Agora – Detail of a column
Ancient Agora and Temple of Hephaestus
Ancient Agora – Temple of Hephaestus
Ancient Agora – Stoa of Attalos
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.
Archaeological site of Kerameikos
Archaeological site of Kerameikos
#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.
Hellenic guard outside the Parliament
Daily changing of the guard outside the Parliament
Daily changing of the guard outside the Parliament
My first day of Athens sightseeing covered quite a lot (I walked around 15Km!) and here is some information and photos on what I saw.
I couldn’t miss it. Yes I had been there before but 25 years can make a huge difference from the viewer’s end. The Acropolis wouldn’t have changed much but my way of looking at things would have.
To reach the Acropolis you walk up the steps on the hill, enjoying the narrow streets, the small restaurants and cafes along the way, the graffiti murals that seem to cover every wall, the panoramic views of the Athens. The route isn’t really well signposted (there are various routes anyway) and more than once I bumped into other tourists who appeared lost on their way up.
Steps up the Acropolis Hill
View of Lycabettus hill from the Acropolis
From a little restaurant along the Acropolis hill
Panorama from the Acropolis
Athens from above
The entrance ticket to the Acropolis is Euro 20 (it drops to Euro 10 in low season). I walked around the area for a few hours, enjoying the views despite the strong wind of the summit of the hill. A lot of restoration work is going on and sadly the Parthenon was largely covered in scaffolding. Yet just being able to be there in the presence of such majestic monuments of the ancient times was incredible.
The Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the Theatre of Dyonisus, the Temple of Athena Nike, and more. You could easily spend half a day there. And the views of Athens from above are pretty stunning too.
Athens and Lycabettus hill seen from the Acropolis
Notice on restoration works
Details of columns
Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Theatre of Dyonisus
Detail at the Theatre of Dyonisus
Along the north slope
View of the Acropolis from the Acropolis museum area
Not tired of archeology yet, I then spent some more time wandering around the Acropolis Museum, which displays a lot of remains that were found in the area. The museum is located by the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill and the building itself is quite beautiful.
If instead you are tired of sightseeing, the Plaka district, just by the Acropolis hill, has plenty of cafes and shops (mainly souvenirs) for anyone’s entertainment.
My first sightseeing day ended with a walk up Philopappou hill to see the Philopappou Monument and enjoy a panoramic view of the Acropolis and of Athens as a whole. Again it was very windy but the view from the top was really nice.
Dubai is not my thing (click here for my previous post).
But I am here now so I might as well try and see what’s out there beyond the overwhelming glitz’n’glam, I thought.
“Madam, you cannot walk to the Heritage Village from here. You must catch a taxi”. This is what the hotel receptionist told me in the morning. We’ll see, I thought. My well-known aversion for taxis had already kicked in. I always walk everywhere or catch public transport. I can be found on taxis only when no other options are available.
So I started walking around Deira, the old part of town, starting from a main road then turning into any interesting side streets I spotted. There were not many people around and I was the only white woman walking on her own. Did it bother me? Slightly, but not enough to stop me wandering. But I used care :-).
And soon there was the fish market. It was a large fish and groceries market, quite lively and busy.
After leaving the market, the sign for the “Underpass for Bur Dubai” appeared in front of me. Bur Dubai is on the western side of the Dubai creek, opposite Bur Deira, which is where I was.
I followed the sign and entered the underpass, a pedestrian underwater crossing that connects the two sides of the creek.
And at the other end I found what I was looking for: no more glitz’n’glam, but renovated historic buildings and museums, a step back in time into some of Dubai’s culture and heritage!
The area is called Al Shindagha and features a Heritage Village and a Diving Village, which are built to familiarise tourists with the region’s traditional arts, customs and architecture. In addition there are several museums (Camel Museum, Horse Museum, Traditional Architecture Museum, etc) and some historic buildings. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House is a beautiful traditional building and former residential quarters of Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai.
The whole area was very quiet when I visited, and therefore more enjoyable. Walking around the sand-coloured buildings and in the narrow streets was a pleasure (apart from the 40C degrees temperature..). One security guard offered to guide me around a couple of buildings and museums, giving me interesting information about history and local customs.
Dubai – Traditional building in the Heritage Village
Dubai – Entrance to the House of Poetry
In Al Shindagha
The Horse Museum
Charcoal wall decoration
A typical windtower
The Dubai Museum, located in the Al Fahidi Fort (built in 1787 and the oldest building in Dubai), was another highlight of the morning. It has very interesting displays of traditional ways of life in the UAE, and kept me occupied for quite a while.
I didn’t take a boat ride across the creek, on one of the traditional wooden boats (abras) that cross the river. I was planning to go back at sunset and do it then, but plans changed.
I may never go back to Dubai – after all I have seen all I wanted to see – but I am glad that I have found something more than just glitzy and glamorous buildings.
My first impression of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, was not good. Just another crowded and noisy city.
Admittedly, after spending two days in the Ninh Binh countryside in the middle of nowhere, anything louder than complete silence was likely to annoy me.
My first night in Hanoi. KFC for dinner (argh!), as I could not be asked looking for a “proper” place to eat. Too many people around (it was Saturday night and the weekend market was on). And I had not studied the city map yet so I had no clear idea of where I was and how to move around. I hated it.
But then Hanoi started growing on me. It is actually a very nice city!
The Hoan Kiem lake in the city centre is a great place to stretch your legs and watch people, at any time of the day. There are always dance classes going on, people jogging, doing push-ups or practising tai-chi!
The Old Quarter is a madness of street vendors, little shops displaying their stuff on the pavement, street kitchens, motorbikes and people everywhere. But it’s fun and full of photo opportunities. The buildings themselves are quite interesting too.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
Street vendor in the Old Quarter
And then you have the museums! They will keep you busy for a day or two, and they deserve a visit. I skipped the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum because of the never ending queue, but went into the Ho Chi Minh Museum (a surreal experience…) instead. Nearby also the One Pillar Pagoda is a sight not to be missed.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Changing of the guard at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The Vietnam National Museum of History (with two buildings across the road from each other) has interesting displays that reflect the history of the country from prehistory to contemporary times.
But the highlight of the day was my visit to Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s historical centre of learning): a large group of University students was there to take photos in their graduation gowns and in áo dài, and all us tourists joined in the events, either as photographers or photo subjects or both!
Stelae at Van Mieu
Students in their graduation gowns
We have graduated!
This student took a photo with me on her iPad too!
This is going to be a sad post.
If you want a happy and cheerful one, you will not find it here.
If you want to learn more about the brutal and inhumane past of Con Dao, keep on reading,
During 113 years (1862-1975) Con Dao became the biggest and most brutal prison with the longest time of existence in Indochina. The most barbaric torture and custody took place here, especially in the so called “Tiger Cages”. Many kinds of savage torture and punishment were used, comparable to what happened in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Thousands of Vietnamese died here.
French Tiger Cages: cells doors
American Tiger Cages
A visit to the Tiger Cages (there are French and American ones) is a spine chilling experience. Even more so when you are the only tourist in the entire complex. Dark prison cells, cages bars instead of ceilings, lifelike models that show how inhumanely prisoners were treated, eerie silence around you except for creaky metallic doors.
The new Con Dao museum, just before the French Tiger Cages, is a must visit for those who want to learn more about the island’s past (not much is recorded on the usual travel guidebooks, and online information is quite fragmented). Well arranged displays and detailed descriptions in English cover the history of Con Dao from its first discovery to the liberation in 1975, and now, with a main focus on the brutality of what happened in prisons and cages.
Remembrance is quite strong and you will always find Vietnamese people paying tribute to those who died in Con Dao. The revolutionary heroine Vu Thi Sau is still celebrated every night at the local cemetery.
As a note at the museum states: “This is the place for generations of
Vietnamese to follow, to learn, to imitate, to care and to preserve” [sic].
So if you visit Con Dao, don’t forget to look beyond the natural beauty of this island and learn about its past!
Pier 914 in Con Son Town, Con Dao, takes its name from the estimated number of prisoners who died during its construction. Another reminder of the sad history of this island.
This is where my friendship with Jo and Gez started. All thanks to a freshly caught mackerel and a Vietnamese phrasebook.
We somehow managed to have the mackerel delivered to a local restaurant, where it was then cooked in three different ways. The evening also involved riding a motorbike in three, in true Vietnamese style.
“Meet me at the pier after sunset” has become the refrain at the end of our evenings.
At the pier we sit with a couple of drinks and listen to the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks. There is no one else there. Only a fisherman or two when it gets crowded. Darkness surrounds us. It is very quiet.
Tonight Jo and Gez did not meet me at the pier. I waited and waited but they never arrived.
Maybe they were tired, maybe they wanted time to themselves.
I will go back to Pier 914 tomorrow after sunset.
Maybe I will see my friends again.