Thursday, August 31, 2017

Pre-Athens Trips

Three Steps to Athens

My best friend Riane and I decided that we would do some traveling before arriving to Greece. She had only been outside the US a handful of times, never to Europe, and I had always dreamt of traveling throughout Europe. After looking at different options and prices, we settled on Copenhagen, Budapest, and Sofia.

 Copenhagen, Denmark

From the moment we got on the metro in the airport, I knew I was going to love Copenhagen! Everything seemed to modern and sophisticated, yet the town had a feelings of the past. As a history major I love moments where you can see the advancements people have made, yet there is still a reminder of where they came from.
The city was welcoming and intriguing. We walked the city center every day for hours! We just could not get enough of this place that seemed so well put together. Not to mention there is a big shopping street (paradise for us shopaholics). During the free walking tour of the city we not only learned about the history of some sites, but also about the current situation that the citizens face every single day. I was surprised at how comfortably the people live here compared to the US, their civil rights make life enjoyable here not a burden, like it is for the lower-working class back home. I think that the most amazing fact I learned was that in Denmark new mothers get three whole months of PAID maternity leave AND they are guaranteed their jobs back. Fathers also get a paternal leave of one whole month, and combined parents can get up to eight months of parental leave. Aside from this there are many other welfare programs put in place to make life livable here in Denmark.
I left this country amazed at the opportunities it offers, and in love with its landscapes, architecture, and social life.

Budapest, Hungary

Our first night in Budapest was a breezy Saturday night. We were not about to miss out on the lively night life since it would be our only weekend here, so we decided to go out to grab some food and enjoy the night with some locals. Needless to say, our introduction to Hungary was set with high expectations. And we were not disappointed!
Although we did not have the time to join the free walking tour of the city, we did our own exploring of the center and the main attractions. Our favorite place was Gellért Spa, a huge bath house containing not only treatment spas but also recreational pools, thermal waters, saunas, and delicious cafes. It was the perfect way to spend a lazy, sunny day.
After this, we climbed the hill to the Citadella. Honestly, I almost did not make it, but it was all worth it when I got to the top and saw the view of the entire city! It was so beautiful I was in complete awe.
Our time in Budapest was unfortunately short, and we did not get to learn a lot about its history, but it was still an unforgettable experience! 

Sofia, Bulgaria 

This was my second favorite destination of our trip. Just like Copenhagen, Sofia offered us a view of the past while still showing us the present. But, unlike Copenhagen, this wonderful city displayed its continuous 4,000 year history. Buildings were built upon each other and next to one another. You can find a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, a Muslim Mosque, and a Jewish Synagogue all in less that a mile squared. Buildings from the past four centuries could be found next to each other. Traces of different eras were displayed along side one another. It is incredible!
My favorite was the food! In Sofia everything is so cheap compared to the US that we were able to eat out every day and still stay within our budget. Sofia is the only place in the world, up to now, to have a FREE food tour, and of course Riane and I were not about to miss it. In this tour we tried local foods, all had cheese (our favorite), and wines. It was truly a once in a life-time mouth-watering experience.

Three cities gave us the taste of what life in Athens will be like for the next couple of months. It allowed us to start opening our minds and hearts to different cultures and their traditions. All I can say is that I am so thankful to be able to have had this opportunity, and I am way beyond excited to see what happens in the months to come :) 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mount Olympus... Home of the Gods

Mount Olympus Trail Map -
for a better view

At the beginning of the semester, my roommate Amy and I planned to hike Mount Olympus, which we were originally going to do over Labor Day weekend, but switched the hike to our second to last weekend in Greece, as our last hurrah! We were joined by our two other roommates - Allison and Melissa - which made this the perfect way to spend our second to last weekend together. 

Along the Gortsia Trail
We began our journey on Friday morning, with a two mile trek to the bus station in Athens to get our bus to Litochoro (Lee-toe-hoe-roe), the closest town on the East side of the mountain range. After a five hour bus ride, we hitchhiked from the bus station into the center of town, where we bought a map of the trail and procured a taxi for the journey to the trail head. Once we got to the Gortsia trail head, we began to hike up the mountain towards the Petrostrouga Refuge, where we were to say the night. I think the hike to the refuge can be broken into three parts with different types of terrain. The first third of the trail consisted of switchback step paths through the wooded mountain and included two hundred meters of elevation change. During this part of the hike, all of our bodies were struggling to acclimate themselves to hiking, but they soon adjusted, and hiking the mountain became much easier. The second third to the refuge consisted of trails in which we lost as much elevation as we gained, while the last third was an uphill climb that changed over four hundred meters in elevation.

Hiking to the Refuge

On the last section of the hike we saw the lightning tree, which I like to believe is the result of Zeus' lightning. During ancient times, Mount Olympus was the home of the gods, Zeus took the Stefani peak as his throne, and the council of the gods took place on Mytikas peak (the tallest peak). The first known summit of the mountain wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century, as the Ancient Greeks refused to climb the mountain inhabited by their gods.

We reached the refuge around 7:30 pm, after three and a half hours of hiking. At the refuge we were given beds and a hot dinner. From the refuge we were able to watch the sun set over the mountain and paint the sky. After bundling up for bed, we retired early in preparation for the second part of our hike.
Lightning Tree
Saturday morning, we got up at 5:15 am for the second part of the hike. Once we started hiking the sun began to rise, and the snow that coated the trails was swathed in oranges and pinks, giving us the perfect start to our hike. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have experienced in my entire life.
Sunrise on Mount Olympus
After departing the refuge, we quickly came upon snow covering our path, starting out manageable but quickly becoming quite deep and slippery. While I had hiking boots with me that kept my feet dry and helped me to keep my balance in the snow, my roommates were faced with hiking the snow in sneakers.

Sunrise on Mount Olympus
One of the most fun parts of the hike was crossing this snow covered valley, which was surrounded on both sides by hills. The crossing included a lot of falling, snowballs, and ended with us breaking for breakfast while watching the last of the sunrise over the Aegean.

Hiking in the Snow

Eating Breakfast

About a half hour after breakfast, the snow started to deepen along with the rapid increase in the steepness of the trail. At this point Allison and Melissa turned back to the refuge while Amy and I attempted to continue up to the peaks. Once we got to Skourta, the snow was over a meter deep and we often had to brace ourselves against the wind, which threatened to blow us over. Thankfully most of the snow had been compacted and we were able to walk in the footsteps of other climbers.

Hiking in the snow
After summitting Skourta (as seen in the picture above and below) we were able to see the Plateau of the Muses, as well as Stefani and Mytikas. The view was absolutely incredible, and we poured some wine for the gods of old in libation. While we wanted to continue, we lacked the necessary equipment for the conditions and thought it was safer to return to the refuge.

Home of the Gods
From the refuge we made it to the Gortsia trail head in two and a half hours, shaving an hour off of our time. We had so much fun hiking and all of the Greek people that I have talked to about the hike have been quite impressed with our achievement. 

I have found that there is power in human belief. The Ancient Greeks' unwavering belief in their gods has left a trace on Mount Olympus. You can feel their spirits in the landscape, whispering through the wind, in the shape of the snow blown off the mountain. And so, perhaps it was better not to climb any farther, lest we partake in deadly hubris.

Monday, May 8, 2017

To the Islands!

The Greeks recently celebrated Labor Day (May 1st) giving us a four day weekend. My roommate Amy and I traveled to, arguably, the two best known islands in Greece - Crete and Santorini.


Thursday evening, after our classes for the day finished, we took a ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Heraklion, one of the major ports of Crete. This was an overnight ferry (nine hours), the first four of which, we spent freezing in the cold upper deck taking occasional breaks to the bathroom to warm up, as we were unsure of the range of our economy tickets. Eventually we plucked up the courage to descend to the lounge, where we saw other economy passengers curled up on chairs sleeping. Once we joined them in the warm lounge and put chairs together to sleep on, the journey was much more enjoyable and I would highly suggest traveling by ferry! Upon waking up on Friday morning, we were able to see the sunrise over Crete.

Sunrise over Crete

After landing in Crete and exploring the town of Heraklion, we went to the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, where we saw Minoan artifacts, including bull sculptures and the original frescoes from the Palace of Knossos. We then proceeded to drop our backpacks at our Bed and Breakfast (minus the breakfast), and then took a walk along the shore of Heraklion, where we found a beach a which to relax. The mentality of this trip was gelato, gelato, gelato, and this night I got a creamy caramel flavor. 

The following morning we walked to the bus station of Heraklion, as we wanted to visit Psychro Cave, the birthplace of Zeus. However, it is almost impossible to get there on any day except Mondays and Thursdays, so instead we traveled through Agias Nikolas to the town of Plaka, where we proceeded to take a ten minute boat ride to the island of Spinalonga.

When Crete was taken over by the Latin crusaders in 1204, the island, and subsequently Spinalonga, developed Venetian influence, and the island of Spinalonga was carved out from the mainland. Venetian forts and fortifications dot the island, along with Ottoman fortresses dating the to 18th century Ottoman seize of Crete. During the 20th century, from 1903 to 1957, the Greek government converted the island into a leper colony in order to quarantine the leper population of Greece. Whole families were brought to the island, where they lived self-sufficient with little aid from the Greek government. When the leper colony was disbanded in 1957, the island was abandoned and it now serves as a tourist attraction due to its vast colonization. Hiking across the island and through the abandoned houses is eerie, you can feel the silent presence of all those who lost their lives abandoned to this disease.

Venetian Fortress
When we return back to Heraklion after some lucky chances with the bus time tables, we then went to the Palace of Knossos, the famed home of King Minos and the Minotaur. The convoluted architecture of the palace lent to the myth of the labyrinth, and I can attest to the labyrinthine corridors of the palace, which makes it almost impossible to see everything the palace has to offer. While Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who worked at Knossos, took liberties in his reconstruction of the palace, I really did find it amazing to walk through partially reconstructed areas based upon archaeological evidence (but mostly his own imagination). In fact, I couldn't keep a smile off of my face while walking through the site. (Side note: this night, I got coconut and toblerone gelato).
Palace of Knossos



Sunday morning, we took a high speed ferry from Heraklion to Fira, the port of Santorini. From there we took a local bus up the switchback road into the town of Thira. From Thira we walked to our hostel... Caveland, which has rooms built into natural caves in the landscape.

The White Buildings of Oia (E-ah)
After getting settled into Caveland and changing into our bathing suits, Amy and I headed to Akrotiri, a town in the south of Santorini known for its beaches. There under the guide of the Santorini Dive Center, we went Scuba Diving! I have been snorkeling before, but I was really nervous about scuba diving as I was concerned about getting the bends and that I would face a mental barrier about breathing under water. Our guides, however, took the time to teach us the physics behind diving, and taught us the techniques used by divers in order to stay healthy while diving. Once we were all suited up, we slowly backed into the shallow water from the beach, where we then practiced breathing. Despite my reservations it was a lot easier than I thought to breathe. Amy and I had so much fun and the guides said that we caught onto diving pretty quickly! I was ready to go and swim around independently, but they kept us together for the dive (which was probably for the best). We got to swim with barracudas and other fish native to the area, and we even saw the famed "Atlantis" volcano from under the water. Diving in Santorini was such a unique experience that I would have never tried without my roommate and I am so glad that she convinced me to go diving with her.

Scuba Diving in Akrotiri, Santorini

Scuba Diving with fish

Me and Amy
After scuba diving, Amy and I took the local bus to Oia (pronounced E-ah) the northern most town in Santorini, and arguably the most tourist-y. We were on a mission. In Venice, we went to Alta Acqua, one of the twenty best bookstores in the world. Oia, Santorini holds another bookstore on the list - Atlantis Books - and we were determined to find it. (To be honest, it was a toss up as to whether we were more excited about diving or visiting the bookstore.) Bookstores are my favorite places in the world, and this one definitely lived up to the hype! Not only was the outside beautifully decorated with paintings of bookshelves and quotes, but the inside was absolutely magical.

Atlantis Books
I was so excited (and still am) to get a bilingual edition of Constantine Cavafy's poems. Cavafy was an early twentieth century Greek poet who wrote my favorite poem - Ithaka. I also got a copy of The Song of Achilles, one of my favorite books that I can never find in print with the U.S. The bookstore stamped the inside of our books with their logo, and I also got an Atlantis Books tote bag!

Atlantis Books
We ended our day in Santorini, and our weekend, joining about five thousand other tourists in watching the sunset from Oia. It was beautiful, though a little overcast, so we abandoned the sunset early for a gelato place (coconut and caramel) and a less crowded bus back to Caveland.

As someone who doesn't particularly like the beach, I was nervous that I would not enjoy the islands, but the Greek Islands have so much more to offer than beaches, they all have their unique cultures and attractions, and by no means is visiting Crete and Santorini satisfying enough.

Sunset at Oia

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Snapshots of Egypt - Cairo


Not only was Egypt one of the most incredible experiences of my life, as I was able to experience one of the cradles of civilization and gaze upon the wonders that have drawn intellectuals, thrill-seekers, and tourists for over three millennia, but I also was joined by my parents, who I got to see for the first time in three months. Having my parents with me only enhanced the incredible experience of seeing the pyramids. 

The pyramid complex contains three main pyramids belonging to the Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (listed in order of age and size). After a night enjoying traditional Egyptian food and dance, my parents and I were transported to Giza, where the Pyramids are located.

We first approached the Great Pyramid of Khufu - the only true surviving wonder of the seven wonder of the ancient world! The extent of the architectural feat is breathtaking and even impressed my father, who couldn't stop asking questions about the construction and engineering techniques used to built the pyramids. One of the best parts of the trip was seeing my parents experience the history that I love so much, and how much they got into it. Both my mom and dad proceeded to point out objects at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and tell me little things about them that they learned on the tour - their enthusiasm and support meant everything to me. 

Touching a Wonder of the World
After seeing the Great Pyramid, we traveled to the look out point (where the first picture was taken) where we took a camel ride. These animals are awesome and the fact that I have ridden a camel in front of the pyramids of Egypt would be inconceivable if not for the pictures. So many of my bucket-list items have been crossed off while studying abroad, I am going to have to find new dreams to chase.  

Camel Ride

Once we got to the second lookout site, we took pictures (LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF ME!!) and drank ten euro Pepsis (but at least I got a nice glass soda bottle out of it) which made it feel like we were in a commercial. From here we went to the smallest pyramid - Menkaure - which we were able to enter. We followed the entrance down on a stepped ramp which led into a holding chamber and from their the burial vault. Both my parents and I were surprised at the lack of decoration present inside the pyramid (we only saw white plastered walls), but we all enjoyed saying that we had walked inside one of these architectural wonders.

After seeing the pyramid of Khafre, we were taken to the site of the Sphinx, which is incredible impressive and detailed! I was taken aback, however, by how small the Sphinx appeared compared to the surrounding pyramids, but I think that speaks more to the grand scale of the pyramids than to the size of the Sphinx.
My parents and I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, before flying back to Athens for Easter. We spent Easter Sunday touring around the ruins of Athens, while eating gyros, baklava, and spit-roasted lamb. And as much as I absolutely loved Egypt, it was really a highlight of my study abroad experience to show my parents around the city in which I have been living these last four months.

Snapshots of Egypt - Abu Simbel

After my two days in Luxor, I took a two day tour to Aswan, which included stops at Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo, Philae Temple, and Abu Simbel.
Edfu Temple

My first stop on my journey to Aswan, where I stayed the night, was Edfu Temple, a Ptolemaic Temple dedicated to Horus. The entrance to this temple is flanked by two falcon statues, the sacred animal of the god.  The pylon entrance to the temple is decorated with depictions of the pharaoh smiting the enemies of Egypt under the watchful gaze of Horus, the protector of Egyptian pharaohs. 

Edfu Temple
Every inch of the inside of this temple is covered with hieroglyphics and depictions of the gods and sacrifices. Scenes include the building and dedication of the temple for Horus, the recipe for different perfumes, and the back of the temple contains dozens of rooms dedicated to different gods of Ancient Egypt. The temple also has a rare depiction of the chaos god Set, who is depicted as a hippopotamus being conquered by Horus along the outside of the temple. 

Hieroglyphic Depictions

Seshat and Pharaoh laying Temple Foundation


Kom Ombo
My next stop was at the double temple of Kom Ombo. This temple is split down the middle with the crocodile god, Sobek, worshiped on one side, and the falcon god, Horus, on the other. These two sides mirror each other, with the depictions interchangeable except for the main god depicted. The double temple of Kom Ombo is unique in this way, and was the major cult for the worship of crocodiles. The temple site also includes a crocodile museum that contains the mummified remains of  dozens of crocodiles that had been buried at the site of the temple. The bodies were so well preserved and it was really cool to see the 2000 year old crocodiles that lived within the sanctuary of the temple and housed the god.

Kom Ombo
Last semester in my Ancient Greek and Roman Medicine class, we discussed the medicinal instruments depicted at the temple of Kom Ombo. I did not put the two together and I am so thankful that my tour guide pointed out the carvings to me. On the left of the carvings are two women seating on birthing chairs, while the primary component of the depiction are the instruments which include scissors, scalpels, bleeding cups, tweezers, enema instruments, and cautery irons. The most important instrument depicted, however, is the scale (which is located on the top right of the third row) as scales were used in Roman medicine to measure medicine, not before that period, allowing historians to date this section of the temple to the Roman Period of occupation.

Medicinal Instruments of Kom Ombo

Philae Temple

After a quick stop in the sweltering heat (110 degrees) to the Aswan High Dam, which is used to control the flooding of the Nile River, I took a boat to the Philae Temple. This temple was moved in the 1970s from its original island, upon which the temple was flooded with the creation to the Aswan High Dam. UNESCO worked with the Egyptian government in order to move the temple to safety as it was designated as a World Heritage Site. In fact, if you look closely at the picture below, you can make out a slight difference in color of the temple's walls, which became discolored from the water damage. The temple was dedicated to Isis, and includes depictions of her along with her husband Osiris, her son Horus, and his wife, Hathor. The temple is believed to be the last site in which the religion of the Egyptian pantheon was worshiped, and following the conversion to Christianity, the temple became a church, including an altar and carvings of the cross. 

Philae Temple

Abu Simbel

The following day, I was picked up three in the morning for the drive to Abu Simbel, a temple complex built by Ramesses II the Great. The temple complex was constructed by Ramesses after his "victory" at the Battle of Kadesh (it was actually a draw from which we get the first recorded peace treaty). Not only is the temple complex giant but it is also my favorite temples that I visited in Egypt. The inside of the temples are richly decorated depicting not only the gods of Egypt but also scenes from the Battle of Kadesh. Just like Philae Temple, the Abu Simbel temples were submerged after the construction of the Aswan Dam, and the temples were deconstructed and subsequently moved up the cliff face to their current positions. The coolest aspect of this temple complex is that the sanctuary of the temple contains statues of three gods - Ptah, Ammun- Ra, Ra-Horakhty - and Ramesses' deified self. The architects of the temple positioned it so that on October 22 and February 22 (his birthday and coronation day respectively) the rays of the sun would light up the statues of the sanctuary, except for the statue of Ptah, a god of the underworld. God(s) bless Egyptian engineering. Today, with the relocation of the temple, this solar alignment occurs on the 21st of October and February. 

The smaller companion temple was built for Neferari, Ramesses the Great's chief wife, with whom he had a deep love affair. The temples' location are in honor of his wife's lineage, as she was of Nubian descent (the territory of modern day Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan). The face of this temple contains six statues, four of Ramesses and two of Nefertari. Though he graced the face of the temple with more statues of himself than of his wife, the statues of Nefertari are the same size as those of Ramesses, designating her significance as Egyptian women are always depicted as smaller. The couple are flanked with small statues of their children together, and within the temple, Hathor is worshiped alongside of Nefertari.