The Greeks and the Ottomans – A history in conflict
After we finished our cruise, we stayed in Athens for a few days. Part of our plan was three days in Athens, three days in Istanbul, and then on to Kathmandu. I am writing this post now in the Istanbul Sabiha Airport waiting for our red-eye to Kathmandu.
In Athens, I think I was maybe more excited about seeing the sites than I had been during the last several days on the cruise. There were so many ports on the cruise that I actually feel like I began to not appreciate some amazing things because it had been so much so fast. After 21 days of ports almost every day, I was thinking that I did not want to see any more walled cities, ruins, or churches. But when we got Athens, there was not the same rush there had been on the cruise. We had three days to see Athens… and there is a lot to see.
I downloaded some Rick Steves podcasts of audio tours onto my iPad. Many people were using Rick Steves guidebooks during the cruise. Rick Steves has a travel tv show on PBS and focuses only on Europe. His website is quite handy for getting around Europe. He has some handy advise in his books, like how to get from the port into the city if you do not want to pay for expensive taxis. If you are ever planning a cruise in Europe or even just travelling in Europe you might want to sign his guide for the countries you are going to out of your public library… or buy them if that is your way. As it so happens he has four audio guides as podcasts for Athens: a city tour, an Acropolis tour, a tour of the National Archeological Museum, and the Ancient Agora. Instead of paying for an audio guide machine at these sites, why not load it onto your phone or iPad and have Rick provide you with a free tour.
On our first day in Athens, we took the latest disembarkation from the boat we could so we would not be rushed. That is on 9:30am but still we had time to have our last relaxed buffet breakfast for some time. Our last eggs Benedict; our last bacon; and our last waffle for the foreseeable future. It could not have been much easier getting from the port in Piraeus to our hostel. We took a city bus from outside the port terminal which took us to the metro station two stops later. The metro took us directly to the Victoria Square station. Our hostel was about a one minute walk from there. Some people from the ship took a taxi which could cost about 30 € depending on where you were going.
Once we checked into our room, we took some internet time. We were craving it a bit I think. A little later we decided to venture out and discover Athens a bit. We asked the guy at the front desk about a free walking tour that they had a sign for behind his desk. Many cities now offer these free city walking tours. How they work is that you show up, have a 2-3 our overview tour of the important sites, and if you are happy you tip them. Often they are younger people providing them and often backpackers take them. However, I am seeing an increasing number of non-backpackers taking them. If you do a google search for free walking tour in a city of your choice you might be surprised to see that they have one. Unfortunately, when the desk guy called for us it was not happening because they did not have enough interest.
I searched online for a free walking tour in Athens and found one. However, we were not able to do it until day 3 in Athens. We saw a paid walking tour in Athens for 30€. The one we did had a free tour with 11 people and the average tip was 5-10€ per person I would guess. I think the guide did okay for 2.5 hours of work. These tours often provide a good overview of the city and help you to plan the rest of your visit. It would have been better to do it at the beginning but it was still good to do.
We wandered around Athens a little later on. From our hostel to the Acropolis was about a 20 minute walk with lots of other sites to see in between. As we were walking we began to hear the noise from the Athens Marathon. As you may or may not already know, the Athens Marathon is the original marathon. Runners start in Marathon, Greece and run 26 miles to Athens… the exact distance of a marathon race. It started as a result of a Greek soldier, Philipineas (sp?), who was ordered to run from Marathon back to Athens to tell the women and children that they had defeated the Ottomans, who had retreated back to their boats and the sea. The Greeks feared that the Ottomans were just going to circle around behind them by sea and take Athens. So, Philipineas told the women and children not to surrender, just lock down, until the Greek forces could get back. He ran the full 26 miles and then died of exhaustion. Luckily, not too many runners of the marathon today die at the end, although I am sure I would. That is exactly what the Ottomans did actually and had he not run to alert them, history might have turned out different because as it happened the Greeks were able to get back in time to repel the Ottomans from Athens and eventually the Ottomans went away for good. Almost for good anyway. The movie 300 was based on a battle that happened a year later. It was a revenge attack for the battle at Marathon. I try to not to recount history for fear of getting it wrong but this is one that I thought was pretty cool.
In 2010, it was the 2500th running of the Athens Marathon. The marathon finishes in the Palladium which was an ancient stadium but had an overhaul for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Runners finish the gruelling event by crossing the finish line at the far end of the stadium. When we arrived at the stadium we went and sat just above the finish line. It was about 7.5 hours into the race so we watched people cross the line who were more thrilled that they finished it than how long it took them. We saw some people get helped across the finish line by others and we saw some people collapse as they got across. The Athens Marathon is an open marathon meaning anyone can run it unlike some big marathons that you have to qualify for. I would think this would be a cool marathon for anyone who runs marathons to have under their belt. As it happened, the marathon was won, as well as second and third places, (you probably already guess it) by Kenyans. They are such amazing long distance runners.
After watching the marathon for a while, we hit the streets again, this time heading towards Monasteraki. Monasteraki is a main square from which the market begins. Also, there are walking streets of restaurants and stores all over the place. We just explored the ruins like the Agora and Hadrian’s library from the outside. You can go in for a fee but we did not bother. Not sure there was much more to see of these sites from up close. We had lunch at a place on one of these streets eating on the street as thousands of people walked by. It was Sunday so the streets were jam packed. I was so excited just to have some Greek food. I love Greek food. I mostly wanted a Greek salad. I was surprised to see that it came with a solid block of feta cheese on top that was about four inches long by 3 inches wide and 1 inch thick. I am used to it being broken up in the salad. I am also used to there being a dressing of some sort that is vinegary. This one just had olive oil and lots of oregano. It was excellent though. A large Greek salad and warm pita bread was my meal and that is all I wanted. Nic ate moussaka. Moussaka is like an eggplant lasagna-type of meal. I don’t think there are noodles though, but I may be mistaken. We have seen it different ways before. Also a tasty dish although I am not a big fan of eggplant.
The rest of that day was spent just wandering around and then finding our way back to our hostel. We were pretty exhausted so we were back to our room and in bed fairly early. The next day we were slow to get up and going. Once we did, we asked the front desk guy for a place to find some good Greek food. He told us right back where we had eaten yesterday to which we asked him, “no, where would you go to eat?” He pointed us to a little restaurant around the corner at Victoria Square. We had gyros and Greek salad. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. The meal cost us about 10€ for the two of us and it was amazing. Much better than the 25€ we spent the day before.
Next, we headed to the National Archeological Museum. It was about half a kilometre from our hostel. It contains most of the artifacts that we did not see as we explored the ruins during our cruise. Other artifacts are in a museum in London. If you ask the Greeks and the Turks, the story is pretty much the same. We keep asking for our stuff back but the museum in London will not give them back. The free walking tour guy actually told us why he thought they would never give them back. Firstly, he said that they were actually sold to the museum. The problem is that they were sold by the Turks before Greek independence. Secondly, if that museum starts giving some stuff back then every country will want their stuff back. It is a slippery slope problem. We did the Rick Steves‘ audio guide on my iPad in the museum. It was really good.
We could not believe it but in the Archeological Museum we ran into four couples from the ship. Barry and Kathleen as well as Neal and Rebecca. How cool to think that you could be in a city of millions and would run into people you know. I think it was that everyone was thinking the same thing for their few days in Athens so I guess it is not just a coincidence.
The following day we went on the free walking tour. It started from the Acropolis Museum and made a big loop seeing all of the major hi-lights. We had seen almost all of them on our own but it was good to put some background to what we were seeing. When the tour ended we were at the Acropolis. We bought our ticket to go in. The ticket also included admission to six other important sites and could be used over four days. Most of the sites were only open until 3pm though. So we would only get to use our ticket for the Acropolis. As we entered the Acropolis, low and behold, we ran into Neal and Rebecca again who were just leaving. After chatting for a few minutes we began the climb. It was not too bad because we were already part way up. We were on Mars Hill where St Paul attempted to convert the masses to Christianity. I think that is what we were told.
Acropolis literally translates into “high city.” It can be seen all over Athens because it is perched atop one of the highest points in the city. At night it is particularly impressive because it is all lit up. It rained one evening with thunder and lightening. I took a photo of the Acropolis just as lightening lit up the sky. It made the the Acropolis look lit up in the middle of the day time. It was very cool.
The main site to see at the Acropolis is the Parthenon. I have seen it in movies and in books but it is always way more amazing in real life. Of course, the Parthenon has been in a state of repair for the past 20 years. It took 10 years to build it originally so they have been trying to restore it for twice as long as it took to build. Again, we did the Rick Steves audio guide and no I am not working for Rick Steves. But it was again like having our own guide. We took our time and just sat in the area appreciating the history and the marvel of the construction. The marble that was used to build the Parthenon was brought from a distant island so it is even more impressive to think that they had to bring it so far.
One of the neat things about Athens is that the city was once all ancient civilization. So you can be walking along and see glass on the sidewalk allowing some important ruins below to be preserved right in the middle of the current city.
We left Athens the following day on a mid-afternoon flight to Istanbul, Turkey. We got to Turkey a few times during our cruise but never to Istanbul. The continuation of the cruise after we got off went on to Istanbul and was there the same day. We might have seen Andrew and Amanda had we arrived earlier. As it was, we only got to our hostel at around 4pm and that is when they were leaving. We were surprised to discover that we had to get a visa in Istanbul. We figured that we had been to Turkey several times so we were fine. However, I guess cruise passengers do not need one. Nicola almost fainted when she learned that it was 45€ each… for 4 days in Istanbul. We had no choice though. Oh well… guess we need to pay closer attention to that in the future.
Our hostel in Istanbul was amazing. Our room was quite small but we were in a great location. To the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sofia was only a couple minutes walking. There was a roof top terrace that was a great place to sit and take in the sea view. It was also the place where we ate our breakfast and a good place to meet new people. The breakfast was a continental breakfast but there was lots of choice. It was quite nice.
On the evening of the day we arrived, we went out for dinner at a restaurant around the corner from our hostel. It was pretty good. I had a kind of kebab that was wrapped with a nice sauce on it. All of the meals came with an appetizer of some sort. Usually, a large inflated pita bread that looked like a big oblong balloon. You rip pieces off and dip them in hummus and tzatziki. After you had your main course they usually gave you a choice of teas: apple, orange, strawberry, Turkish. One place even gave us some baklava for dessert. All of these are a set menu. The cost is often about 20-22 Turkish Lira (about $11). In all, I enjoyed most of my meals in Istanbul. I think what I enjoyed about Istanbul, as well as Athens, unlike being on the cruise is being able to pick and eat local cuisine. I don’t think the cruise ship did a great job of integrating local foods.
On our next day in Istanbul, we had arranged a free walking tour again. Perhaps what was funny about this one was that the guy had only been doing them for two months and he was Czech. He said to us before others arrived that he was not very good at it. That made us laugh. We told him that we have done free walking tours in Berlin, Athens, Prague, London, and more places. He said we have been on more than him. Nicola said this was her 3rd time in Istanbul and he was even more freaked out and told her she could do a better job than him. This was all before the tour started. He was better than he gave himself credit for. He was entertaining and informative. We started to laugh at the end of the tour when he shook all of our hands and said good bye and started to walk away. The free walking tour guys/gals are always clear at the beginning and the end about the tipping process. He never said anything once. As he started to walk away I said wait, aren’t you forgetting something? He came back and I gave him a tip as did everyone in the group. The other thing that these guys always do is say that they will hang around for a few minutes for people to ask questions. This gives time for people to thank him and tip him. This guy was racing away from us. I guess we could have let him go but that would not be in the spirit of the tour we had planned on. Another thing that was funny about this guide was that he mentioned several times that he was unofficial, in fact he said illegal. Everything was unusual about this guy and yet we enjoyed it nonetheless.
The tour took us to places like the Blue Mosque, Haiga Sofia, Basillica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, the mosque of Suliman the Magnificent, a 300 year old Hammam and more. One of the interesting things that our guide talked about was the history of the Ottoman Empire. Much of it is in quite stark contrast to the Greek versions of things that we got in Athens. The Ottoman Empire fell during the reign of Constantine the 11th. Whether he was a great man or not depends on whether you are Turk or Greek. At the end of the tour, we latched onto an Australian couple, Sarah and Kieran. We decided to continue wandering about with them. In particular, we made our way to the port area for a fish sandwich. They catch the fish that day, fry it up on a rocking boat, and you have a fillet on a big bun. It was quite tasty. After eating with these guys we went our own way. We continued to explore for a while but made our way home not too late.
The next day in Istanbul was a quiet day for us. The manager of the hostel asked us if we were sick because we did not go out most of the day. I think we were both tired but maybe more Nicola appeased me by us having a lazy day. I find being on the go all day, every day really makes me tired. At home I have lazy days when I need them. When you are in an exciting day, it can be difficult to say no we are not going out today. We did get out later in the day for a while including dinner and strolling around the Sultanhamet square. It was so easy and so close that it made it nice. It also did not help that it got quite cold that day so we were more inclined to stay in. In fact, it was quite cool the whole time we were in Istanbul. The big selling feature for restaurants was that they had heaters.
The next day was our last day in Istanbul. We had a midnight flight so we had the day to kill before going to the airport on a 7:30pm shuttle. We were out of the hostel by 11am and we had decided to go to the places we had not seen yet including the Topkapi Palace and into the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sofia. It was also Sunday. I could not bring myself to pay $20 to go into the Palace. Partly because the line up was huge and the crowds were crazy. I think I was not necessarily in the right headspace for another palace museum and so that added to my unwillingness to pay the admission. Similar story for Haiga Sofia. The line up was at least 25 minutes long…. could not bring myself to do it. Perhaps on my next visit to Istanbul. I was happy just to wander around and people watch. Nicola had been looking at some really cool Turkish lamps (like we had seen in Morocco) however we doubted that they would ever make it home unbroken in the mail. Some day we will plan a summer holiday and maybe make Istanbul our last place so that we can then carry home one of these lamps. We have also been looking everywhere for numbers for our house. We finally found the right ones. Nicola must have wanted them pretty bad because she did not even barter for them. He did a great job of bubble wrapping them so I think they will be fine.
I wrote in my Facebook status that “Today I walked from Europe to Asia and man am I tired!” Istanbul is the only city in the world that is divided between two continents, Europe and Asia. The two continents are divided by the Bosphorus River. You cross between continents when you walk across the bridge. The European side is the old city and the Asian side is the new city. They are very different. We crossed the river into Asia to see the difference and to say that we went from Europe to Asia and back to Europe that day. We climbed a steep hill to the tower and then walked along busy streets that are lined with popular stores and restaurants. You can find it all. Finally, we made our way back to Sultanhamet. We had dinner one last time and then back to our hostel in time for our airport shuttle.
As I mentioned, I started writing this blog in the airport. I have been a little slow in finishing it because we are in Nepal now. I am finally there and ready to post. Next entry in a while about time in Kathmandu.
This was our view as we ate lunch. An amazing view of the Acropolis made the meal a little more expensive
The finish line of the Athens Marathon
The Acropolis at night lit up by lightening
Roman Emperor Hadrian built this arch between the old city and the new city. He was fascinated by Greek culture. You can see the Acropolis behind it
This is a statue of Constantine the 11th in Athens. This is where he was defeated.
Sitting on Mars Rock overlooking the Acropolis behind us
Modelling in front of the Parthenon
The stairs up to the Acropolis
Now in Turkey, at the Blue Mosque
The Grand Bazaar
The sarcophagus of Suliman the Magnificent
The pillars inside the Blue Mosque are huge
The Blue Mosque at night