Adventures in Athens

Acropolis, 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

A Long Weekend in Venice, Italy

Gondolas in Venice

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

Ireland, from North to South

Ireland flag Mosaic

Éire, also known as Ireland, is the second largest of the British Isles, and is split into two countries, The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. From coast to coast, the Emerald Isle is awash in beautiful vistas and historic and cultural venues.

Donegal farm, Photo by Heather Mount

Many visitors begin their explorations in Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland.  With the youngest population of any city in Europe (about half the population of the city is 25 or under), Dublin is never in short supply of adventure. One of the most walkable cities in Europe, Dublin has something for everyone.

With a vibrant theater and performance scene, a plethora of art galleries, museums, monuments and historic buildings, the arts lovers will never be at a loss for something to do. The sports fanatics can watch rugby, cricket or soccer from most any of the city’s 667 licensed pubs. And there are even a number of nature trails within a stones throw of the city. Whether watching the numerous and varied street performers, exploring the grounds of Trinity College, or drinking one of the ten million pints of Guinness produced in Dublin every single day, you could easily spend an entire vacation in Dublin alone, but Ireland offers so much more.

At the southwestern edge of County Clare’s Burren region you will find the iconic views provided by the Cliffs of Moher.  Running about eight and a half miles along the coast, the cliffs vary from 400 to 700 feet above the sea. Continuing south, you’ll come across the Gap of Dunloe where you can bike or hike along the winding mountain pass. And for the ultimate local experience, you can hire a trap and pony to take you on a horse drawn carriage ride to see the Gap’s five lakes.

The Gap of Dunloe sits within the Ring of Kerry, a scenic, 111 mile circular route through County Kerry. Along the ring, travelers will find epic vistas, classic pubs and historic landmarks such as Ballymalis Castle, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and Beehive Cells. For the hearty adventurer, there is also The Ring of Kerry cycling path (using older, quieter roads), and The Kerry Way, which takes its own signposted route.

The centuries of social and political fluctuation in Ireland has impacted the cuisine. Custom, conquest, and cultivation all changed the tenor of Irish food, culminating in the diverse menus we find today. Black pudding, poundies, curry chips, scones, fried bread, spiced beef and Irish stew are among the varied traditional foods you can find throughout the country. And for a uniquely Irish experience, you can find The Oratory Pizza & Wine Bar in Cahersiveen along the Ring of Kerry.  Built in an old church, they serve gourmet pizza and a wide selection of wines.

And of course, Ireland is home to numerous authors. WB Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Frank McCourt, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, CS Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift and Maeve Binchy are only the tip of the Irish literary iceberg. May and June feature the Belfast Book Festival, the Bloomsday Festival, Yeats Day and the International Literature Festival Dublin.  A UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin is packed with landmarks honoring Ireland’s literary greats.

Ireland has adventures for everyone, and as Lady Gregory once said “I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland.”

Post written by Mindy Hanson, AlphaPixel Reach for Endless Travel.