Adventures in Athens

It is said that the area than the city of Athens encompasses has been inhabited for over 7,000 years, continuously. Because of its age and history, the city is home to a multitude of architectural styles and its historic sights are some of the best known by the modern world. In fact, the number of tourists who visit Greece every year is higher than the actual population of Greece.

Thankfully, as with many places that have relatively temperate climate year-round, visiting Athens in the off-season provides you a glimpse of the birthplace of Democracy with NO crowds, and some exceptional lodging options. And even when there are few tourists around, there are still street vendors offering fresh fruit, nuts and olives for a nice afternoon snack. One of the other benefits of visiting Athens in the off-season is that the usually pushy restaurant hustlers generally offer your discounts and freebies if you are polite to them, but begin to walk away.

Most people, when they think of visiting Athens, think of the Parthenon. And for good reason. Perched atop the Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaia date back to the 5th century BC. Over the centuries, the Parthenon has served as a temple, a church, a mosque, military barracks and a munitions dump. It has been set on fire, shaken by earthquakes, looted, defaced, and it was blown up when the munitions stored inside it detonated during the Turkish and Venitian fight over Athens.

In fact, the Parthenon itself has so much history it is generally a wise idea to take a trip through the Parthenon Museum before you actually visit. You’ll get a much better understanding of exactly what you’re seeing while you’re on the Acropolis, and don’t forget to visit the outdoor (free) section of the museum which features uncovered ancient ruins. If you’re looking for a historic tour like no other, book yourself one of the Segway tours of the Parthenon and other historic sites. It is well worth the cost, and fun for everyone in the family.

Athens features other historic sites as well. Pnyx (pronounced “nix”) Hill is about half a kilometer west of the Acropolis. Athenians used to gather there to discuss politics and make decisions pertaining to the city itself. Pnyx Hill is the actual birthplace of democracy, for it was here that all the male citizens of Athens were declared equal and given the right to vote and take part in the decision making. It also sports a pretty fantastic view of the city.

There are modern locations to visit as well. Pay a visit to the Olympic Track and run a lap, or stand on the medals podium for a pretty great photo op. When Athens was modernizing their infrastructure for the 2004 Summer Olympics, subway construction and modernization unearthed over 50,000 artifacts buried beneath the city. There were so many, in fact, that six of Athens subway stations are museums unto themselves. So when you’re getting ready to take a trip on Athens’ very clean and timely subway (don’t rent a car unless you absolutely have to), leave a little extra time to check the exhibits.

For a breathtaking walk through ancient ruins strewn among vegetation, rare plants, and saplings, pack a lunch and make an afternoon trip to the National Garden. The garden is home to 519 species and varieties of trees, bushes and other plants from around the world. Beautiful during any season, the Garden is just off the Syntagma subway station, and is open from dawn until dusk. It also features a conservatory, children’s library and a small cafe.

Finally, when you’ve had enough of ancient ruins and beautiful gardens, you should take advantage of Athens burgeoning street art scene. Several neighborhoods have been transformed into open air art galleries with phenomenal graffiti murals. In fact, several tour companies offer guided street art tours that will cap your visit with a taste of modern day Athens. So when you’re ready to travel back in time to the days of Aristotle and Plato, reach out to Endless Travel to help put together the perfect visit.


Recommended reading:
  • Kassandra and the Wolf, Margarita Karapanou
  • Red Dyed Hair, Kostas Mourselas
  • The Other Alexander, Margarita Liberaki
  • Something Will Happen, You’ll See, Christos Ikonomou

Western Austria

If ever there was a place where the fields truly were alive with music, it is Western Austria. From cowbells on the hills, to concertos from native son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to actual people playing actual alpenhorns, the hills teem with enough songs and sights to satisfy even the most discerning traveler.

Western Austria encompasses the high Alpine peaks of Tyrol and Vorarlberg as well as the rolling mountains of Salzburgerland and Carinthia. Nestled among the mountain tops and valleys are flush with castles of every size and style. As you make the stunning drive through the Alps it’s not difficult to stumble upon a “Burg” (military/government castle), “Schloss” (palace), or “Schlössl” (manor) in any state of ruin, repair or resplendence. There is even a bus ride up to Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest above the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden.

Between castles are beautiful mountain villages with white walls and dark, ornate trim and flower boxes. They are the traditional “gingerbread houses” of Hansel and Grettle fame. It is not unusual to stumble upon a village festival, where you can fill yourself with bratwurst, sauerkraut, pretzels, schnitzel and beer along with local specialties influenced by German, Hungarian and Italian tradition. Knowing how to say “Bitte” (please) and “Danke” (thank you) will thrill the locals, who will be more than happy to go above and beyond to help a friendly traveler.

Outside of the grand castles and picturesque villages, there is still a lot to do and see in Western Austria. Former volcanic zones have dappled the countryside with spas (thermen) and hot springs (thermalbäder) which have spawned a whole industry around therapeutic treatment and rehab programs. They are, however, still open to everyone just looking to swim in steaming hot water any time of year.

Tauren Spa

Therme Aqua Dome” in Längenfeld is your typical example of a modern-day Austrian spa, featuring a sauna village, a beauty farm, pools to swim in outside, and the Aqua Dome itself. Less touristy, but just as well equipped is Tauren Spa in the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park. Tauren’s waterslides and huge indoor pools are only eclipsed by the stunning views and vistas everywhere you look.

For those who prefer a bit more adventure than hot springs, adventure also awaits beneath the mountains. Deep beneath the mountains surrounding Salzburg, you can tour the “white gold” mines in Hallein and Berchtesgaden. Ride a small mine train deep inside the salt mines (Salzkammergut) to see mines which have been in operation for over 500 years. A 36-meter long miner’s slide, a subterranean salt lake, and the famed Salt Cathedral are all just a short bus ride from Salzburg.

Ice Cave

And if one underground excursion isn’t enough for you, be sure to check out Eisriesenwelt, the World of the Ice Giants. The largest ice cave in the world, Eisriesenwelt is a 42 km deep, natural limestone and ice cavern inside Hochkogel mountain. Even though the cave was long known to locals, it wasn’t explored until 1879 because Austrian legend had dubbed it “the entrance to hell.” Now it plays host to over 200,000 visitors between May and October every year.

Finally, no visit to Western Austria would be complete without watching a sunset over Königssee, a natural lake within the Berchtesgaden National Park. The cleanest lake in the country, only electric and human powered boats are allowed to set sail on it.

No matter what song you sing, Western Austria will provide wonderful accompaniment for your journey. Endless Travel will gladly help you set up your Alpine music debut, so contact them today!


Recommended Reading:

The Habsburgs: The History of a Dynasty – Benjamin Curtis
Brother of Sleep – Robert Schneider
The Painted Kiss – Elizabeth Hickey
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – Nicholas Meyer

Spring Among the Tulips in Holland

Holland is the name given to the western part of the Netherlands that includes Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. One of the most densely-populated countries in the world, the Netherlands is also one of the most tourist-friendly, with most cities, towns and villages sporting at least one tourist information office providing maps and free brochures. Ocean currents keep the spring and summers very temperate and pleasant, but be prepared for the weather to change at the drop of a wooden shoe!

With over 800 bridges more than Venice, Amsterdam also sports nearly 900,000 bicycles. That’s more bicycles than inhabitants and four times the number of cars. This has led to the city being EXTREMELY bike friendly. In fact, one of the most photographed sights in Amsterdam is the bicycle parking in front of Central Station. Renting bikes to explore the city and take advantage of the more than €120,000,000 invested in bicycle infrastructure is a great way to experience life as a native. Amsterdammers bike approximately 2,000,000 kilometers (1,200,000 miles) every single day. There is even a bike-friendly museum in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum, which is the only museum in the world you can cycle through.

There are 51 museums in the city (the highest concentration of museums in the world), which make it a wonderful place to explore art and history. The Netherlands lays claim to some of the world’s most famous painters: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen, van Gogh and Mondrian. Besides the Rijksmuseum, people flock to the van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house, so be SURE to get tickets in advance. The van Gogh museum tickets are available online and give you an assigned start time in order to control the flow of visitors through the museum. Don’t be late for your entry time, or you may not be able to get in. The Anne Frank house releases 80% of their tickets two months in advance, and the other 20% at 9:00 AM the day of.

For those with a more than passing interest in history, a canal cruise is a perfect way to explore the city and see the sights. There are over 60 miles of canals in Amsterdam, separating it into 90 different islands, and Grachtengordel, the historic canal belt, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many locals actually live in one of the 3,000 houseboats on the canals, and some of them are even available for tourists to stay in rather than bunking in a hotel.

Dining in Amsterdam is an exploration of world cuisine. There are the traditional Dutch foods such as Bitterballen (deep fried crispy meatballs), Frites (thick cut Dutch fries served with mayo), Snert (a thick green stew made from split peas, pork, celery, leeks and onions), and Stroopwafels (two thin waffles with a sweet syrup holding them together). But you can also get an Indonesian Rice Table dinner (25 to 30 small plates of veggies, meats and other delicacies), a Javanese Bakabana (fried plantain in peanut sauce), Tibetan Dumplings, and Eritrean Meat Stew (with beer served in a coconut shell).

For those looking for a shopping experience, there are numerous department stores and shopping centers, most notable De Bijenkorf in Dam Square and the spectacular Magna Plaza. Kalverstraat and Leidstraat sport numerous exclusive shops such as Paul Warmer, Filippa K and Shoebaloo, as well as more of the typical European fare such as Zara, Esprit and UNIQLO. For antiques and art, be sure to visit Spiegelkwartier. And no visit to the city would be complete without spending some time at Bloemenmarkt, the floating Flower Market and one of the most fragrant places in all of Amsterdam. You can even find flower bulbs certified for export so you can bring some of Holland’s colorful Tulips home with you. You can find tulips in every color in a 64-crayon box, and then some more colors and patterns Crayola never imagined!

A short tour bus ride from Amsterdam is Lisse, home to the famous Keukenhof, the largest flower garden in the world. Hyacinth, tulips and daffodils can be found in spectacular arrangements of colors, creating a display like no other. There are bikes available for rent which you can ride through the fields and surrounding gardens. But the garden is only open a VERY limited amount of time each spring, so if this is one of your chosen destinations, plan carefully, and be sure to take your allergy medication so you can enjoy the incredible smell without sneezing for days.

When your historic, artistic, floral and dining senses have all been overwhelmed, Amsterdam sports the ‘Literary Landmarks Walking Tours’ focusing on libraries, book cafés and the city’s most important writers. Holland’s industrial and mercantile history fostered a robust book trade, which wasn’t subject to the same degree of control that was imposed in countries such as France and England. This brought about a very stimulated cultural and intellectual life for the cities residents, one you are sure to fall in love with as you explore this phenomenal city.

Recommended Reading:

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto
The Coffee Trader, David Liss
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, Geert Mak
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

A Month in Italy – Florence

Florence, or Firenze, was the center of European trade during the Middle Ages. The constant influx of people and knowledge (and wealth) birthed the Renaissance, and it continues to be a cultural Mecca even today. It is commonly believed that Florence has the greatest concentration of art per square meter of any city in the world.
Founded atop Etruscan ruins as a Roman garrison in 59 BC by Julius Caesar, Florence is a treasure trove of Renaissance buildings. The many self-guided and guide-led walking tours of the city will thrill anyone with even the slightest interest in architecture, especially in the city center, which still contains glimpses of medieval, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

The many palaces and historic buildings provide a breathtaking view of Florentine history, and there are numerous museums scattered throughout the city, including the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio, which does double duty as an art museum. It was here that Michelangelo’s David was installed in 1504. While the statue currently in place is a replica (you must travel to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the original), there are numerous other statues by Donatello, Giambologna, Cellini and Ammannati as well.

A simple, unassuming building, Galleria dell’Accademia, is a must for any aficionado of Renaissance art. Along with the original David, the Gallery of the Academy of Florence also hosts other works by Michelangelo as well as a plethora of historical art from the 14th and 15th centuries. There is even a “skip the line” guided tour of the museum, which will give you priority entrance to the Gallery as well as historic information on the life and times of Michelangelo.

The city is dappled with numerous squares (piazze) such as Piazza del Duomo in the center of town, home to Florence’s Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly referred to as Il Duomo. One of the most celebrated cathedrals in the world, it is visible for miles as it looms over the surrounding buildings. Choose one of the piazza’s coffee shops and sit outside to people watch as you sip an exquisite Italian caffè. Tourists can climb up into the top of the dome, with its incredible views over the cathedral and the city. These tours are breathtaking and inspiring but they are not for the faint of heart!

Florence also offers unique opportunities for tourists to experience what the old city was like. Perfume has played an important role in the history of the city with aristocrats demanding new and personalized scents to modern day visitors wanting to enjoy the unique and new scents. If you look, you can find master Perfumiers leading short workshops where each participant designs their own personal scent and leaves with a bottle of their creation and a recipe for future batches.
Major thoroughfares connect Florence’s piazze, which include Piazza della Repubblica (home to several bourgeois palaces), Piazza Santa Croce (named for the Basilica of Santa Croce), Piazza Santa Trinita (a triangular square featuring the church of Santa Trinita), as well as Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza Beccaria and Piazza della Libertà. If you are traveling by car, however, pay special attention to streets which are often restricted, one way and/or bus-only roads. A traffic ticket is a pricey and unpleasant souvenir.

For those who prefer a little shopping with their tourism, Florence has been a center of textile production since the year 1300. Currently, the city is home to fashion companies such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Emilio Pucci. You will want to visit Via de’ Tornabuoni with its luxury fashion houses and elegant boutiques.

Before you depart Florence, be sure to walk up the shady via Michelangelo from Piazza Ferruccio to visit Piazzale Michelangelo. The panoramic views of the city’s skyline are wondrous and inspiring for any photographer. No matter the time of day, the views are breathtaking and not to be missed. So, let Endless Travel help you plan the perfect Florentine vacation.


Recommended Reading:

The City of Florence, R. W. B. Lewis
Dark Water, Robert Clark
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

A Long Weekend in Venice, Italy

Venice is actually a city that spans 118 small islands located in the Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay that sits between the mouths of the Po and the Piave rivers.  The canals that separate the islands are spanned by over 400 bridges, but Venice is so much more than bridges and canals.

If you aren’t fond of crowds, the best time to see Venice is during the low season. There are fewer crowds, prices are lower, and best of all there are no lines. Even parking on the island is cheaper during the low season. On our long weekend stay in Venice, we were able to walk right into the splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the best-known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. And without crowds, the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square were excited to see us as we posed for photos holding the birds.

While some of the restaurants in the city are closed during the low season, many of the local dining options are still open, giving you a better glimpse into daily life for Venetians, and a delightful sampling of local pizza, pasta, Limoncello and Aperol. Dining in a local establishment can be a more accurate taste of what the culture and food are about. Authentic recipes often include ingredients that tourist spots do not invest in so the real food is missed. Some of the local pubs even have local musicians performing in the evenings.

Many stores have significant low season sales on leather bags, clothing, purses, perfume, and even some of the high-end couture featured during Venice’s annual Fashion Week. Shops like Nardi in St. Mark’s Square feature beautiful jewel-encrusted Moretto brooches, a wide variety of wearable jewelry, decorative trinket boxes, and silverware in the traditional sense, which includes candelabras and other dinner table accouterments. Stop in and look around even if you have no intention to buy! The treasures are sure to delight your inner prince or princess. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi serves as a high-end shopping mall for designer wear, restaurants and free art shows in its top floor space. Be sure to check out the spectacular views from the roof terrace! The back alleyways house many small stalls and shops that have vendors looking for clients. Stop in, make conversation and see what they have to offer. You can probably bargain for a lower price if you are friendly about it!  

A short ferry ride will take you to nearby Murano and Burano Islands where you will find a myriad of things to explore. Murano is famous for its glass factories and gelato while Burano is home to colorful buildings and shops with amazingly intricate lacework. Murano glass can be seen in the big shops and factories but we prefer to wander into the small shops and see what the individual glass blowers were working on right then. Some were making huge abstract art and others were working with tweezers to fashion Christmas ornaments. If you are purchasing glass souvenirs, make sure they have the official “Murano Glass” trademark, as foreign-made cheap knock-offs are plentiful.

Burano is a storybook island with picturesque buildings in every color of the rainbow, and then some. Stores here display a wispy array of spectacular and beautiful lace, tablecloths and napkins, curtains and even dresses and clothing. Take the time to enjoy a coffee or gelato and watch the world go by or watch a local artisan at their craft.

No visit to Venice is complete without a boat ride in the canals.  Whether it is in a classic black gondola, or up and down the main canal, be sure to take daytime and nighttime rides in order to experience the strikingly different views. While the daytime tour allows you to appreciate the details of the architecture, a nighttime tour brings the energy of the city to life as the lights twinkle on the water around you. If you’re looking for a “Bargain Tour” check out the Vaporetto, a local water bus that slowly takes passengers from point to point through the city. It’s an inexpensive and fantastic way to tour the Grand Canal, riding from the lagoon, past the Rialto Bridge, all the way to the train station. Regardless of how you spend your day, make sure to be at the pier point for sunset. Get there early and bring a bottle of wine and your camera. Locals and tourists alike gather and this is the location where many iconic photos of Venice have been taken as it’s a favorite of professional photographers and Instagrammers from around the world.

Venice has been captured in thousands of images, films and books, but nothing can beat exploring this ancient city in person by foot and by boat, making memories that will last forever. Endless Travel can help make your gondola riding dreams a reality, so call us today.


Recommended reading:

Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, Candide by Voltaire, and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann