Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lykavittos Hill

Lykavittos Hill, or Lycabettus, one of the seven official hills of Athens, is said to have the best view of the city and the sea beyond. It is the highest point in Athens, at 300 meters above sea level. One afternoon, we decided to make the trek up there to see the sunset.

The hill itself takes about 30 minutes to hike up from the neighborhood below, and there are paths and then stairs. It's a bit of a workout but nothing too difficult, especially since there are multiple viewpoints to take a break, complete with benches.

An interesting detail are the signatures carved into the cacti leaves along the paths. 

The top of the hill has a number of facilities, including a viewing platform, a little church, and a restaurant. The restaurant is actually quite nice, with great views over the city, and it has great falafel sandwiches that are cheap if you get takeaway. There are also a few individual vendors that sell drinks and snacks.

From the top of the hill you can see Athens from all angles, and the city spreads out before you in a beautiful white lattice of streets and buildings.

When the sun starts to set, all the visitors crowd around the platform, so make sure to stake out a spot for yourself.

In the distance, you can glimpse the famous Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, shining in the light.

I zoomed in to get a better view. It's amazing how the sea blends into the pastel colors of the sky, and you can't really tell where one ends and the other begins. The view was really magical.

Seeing a city from above really aids in my understanding of how it is laid out, and how the different neighborhoods relate to and connect with each other. Because I am a visual thinker, I like having the cityscape laid out before me. I highly recommend hiking up this hill; it's not too strenuous of a journey, and there is also a railway that takes visitors up if you'd rather not exert yourself. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Vibrant Streets of Athens

One of my favorite activities while in Athens was simply wandering around the streets, up and down the alleyways. There were very few grand boulevards or wide avenues, and this was fantastic to me. Every corner led to a mystery - eclectic bookshops, smokey cafes, crumbling ruins.  

Athens is full of crisscrossing narrow alleyways. The residential neighborhoods contain historic buildings with pale, pastel facades, intricately wrung iron balconies, and delicate vines and flowers. These idyllic sights are juxtaposed with colorful graffiti of varying degrees of artistic technique, seemingly indiscriminate in their placement. A gorgeous centuries-old church is as good as a crumbling stonewall in a parking lot.

It was only after visiting Rome that I realized that Athens is a bit more run-down and smaller in scale compared to some of the other grand capitals of Europe. It's a different sort of beauty - a raw, gritty, worn, and unpretentious charm pervades the city. This is the real Athens, very little of it molded or curated especially for tourists - and I like it.

Somehow, it's all the more gorgeous and satisfying to know that all of this is built for itself, not for the eyes of others or the glossy covers of travel brochures.

Graffiti was everywhere - homes, street signs, businesses, churches, offices. There were amazing murals and smart designs right next to crude language and messy scrawls. Though sometimes the street art seemed to take away from the beautiful buildings, they also added an interesting layer of color and political commentary to the built environment.

Athens is also quite a hilly city, as there are seven major hills within the metropolitan area, so the changes in elevation added another interesting visual dimension. The metro stations are a bit more far apart than some other cities I've visited, which makes walking a great choice of transportation.

Of course, walking is the best way to see a city in my opinion. Only through walking do you get the glimpses of the everyday, the little details that make up the lives of the people around you, like the cats stretching in the patch of sunlight, the old neighbors chatting over a cup of coffee, and the heavenly smell of fresh bread drifting from the local bakery. Even in the chill of late February, there was also something interesting happening in the streets. 

Greek Eats

I have finally finished my one month travels in Europe, and there is so much to share. First, I traveled to Athens, the beautiful capital of Greece. Food-wise, I was pleasantly surprised that though I was a budget traveller, I was able to eat quite well in this country.

The most affordable, filling "fast food," is souvlaki. Souvlaki is basically roasted or grilled meat wrapped up in a warm, soft pita. There is pork, lamb, and chicken varieties. Other fillings include tomatoes, lettuce, yogurt sauce, and sometimes herbs. Souvlaki commonly costs around 2 euros, and the quality can vary vastly.

The souvlaki in the photo below had french fries added into the mix!

The best souvlaki that we tried was at a small family establishment called "O Kostas." This hole-in-the-wall is a out of the way from the Acropolis area, and it looks quite plain from the outside, but looks are deceiving in this case. This shop exclusively makes souvlaki, and have done so for about 50 years. Inside is a tiny room with a counter, a small grill and toppings bar, and two bar stools.

This souvlaki was the best! The pita bread was soft and warm, the meat was tender, the tomatoes so fresh, and the fresh herbs added a nice flavor punch. The price is comparable to any other shop, 2.20 euros for one. We went back again just to experience this amazing food. The owners were really friendly, and we could see how successful the little shop was, with the continuous line of locals throughout the whole lunch period.

Another cheap eat we saw everywhere was a sesame bagel/pretzel crossover called koulouri in Greek. These are deliciously chewy and seedy - they make a nice snack with some tea or coffee. 

Most of the meals that we had involved some form of grilled meat, bread or potatoes, and salad. Greek food is simple, wholesome, and relatively healthy. There is plenty of olives, feta, lemon, and olive oil - all part of a healthy Mediterranean diet.  

The small plates of meat skewers are pretty cheap. At many restaurants, even in the tourist areas, they were 1.5-2 euros for a meat skewer and some bread on the side. Two of these could be a light meal for a person.

At local neighborhood sit-down restaurant, dishes cost between 4 and 9 euros. Most prices include tax, and some restaurants charge for water while others provide it for free. 

I had to try a Greek salad, and here they use way more feta cheese than I've ever seen. The salads commonly come with huge slabs of salty, savory feta. The salads usually cost around 5 euros, and they were certainly large, meant to serve as a side for multiple people. 

I also ate copious amounts of Greek yogurt, obviously. I love that creamy, rich yogurt, and in Greece I found that dairy and fresh-baked bread was much cheaper than in the U.S., and certainly than in Asia. Overall, the food is surprisingly affordable for Europe, especially if you buy food from grocery stores to make your own breakfast.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hongludi Mountain Trail

I recently went on a day trip to hike up Hongludi trail in New Taipei City. Surprisingly, the attraction, with a temple dedicated to the Earth God, isn't too well known, but I think the short hike up the mountain is well worth it thanks to the gorgeous panorama of Taipei. It rivals the views from Xiangshan, and it is far less crowded on the weekdays. 

Hongludi is a bit tricky to reach. First we took the MRT to Nanshijiao Station. A few blocks down from the MRT is the stop for the free shuttle 512, which arrives hourly. The shuttle stop is next to this adorable image of two koalas, in case you have difficulty locating it.  

After about twenty minutes, the shuttle dropped us off at the terminal stop at the base of the mountain. On normal weekdays, 512 ends its service at the bottom of the mountain so you have to hike up to the top of the mountain to get to temple at the top On weekends, the shuttle actually goes all the way up to a parking lot near the temple, so you would only have to climb a few sets of steep stairs instead of the entire mountain. 

Though we ended up experiencing the "difficult" option, it ended up only taking about 1.5 hours, and we got to see some interesting sights along the way. There are long stretches of steep stairs though, so be prepared for some moderately strenuous exercise. 

First we walked up from the shuttle stop to the mountain, following the signs for the trail. 

The older area around here is an odd mixture of rural fields, small workshops, and small traditional houses.

After a few hundred meters, there is a point where the road splits into two. One way leads to stairs going up alongside the main road to Hongludi, while another one takes you first to another temple lower on the hill. We walked up the path that bypassed this other temple.

There were so many steep stairs, and I knew this was only the first stretch! However, there are clear views of the city when you turn around, and seeing the slow progress upwards was quite motivating.

I'm glad we got to pass by this first temple. I didn't get the name, but it is vibrant and colorful.

Even at this lower elevation, there are already stunning views of Taipei City.

After more stairs, we arrived at the base of the top of the mountain, marked by this gigantic statue of the Earth God. There is a parking lot here, where the 512 shuttle stops on weekends. There were also some visitors who had driven up in cars.

After a few more steep steps, we finally arrived at the top of Hongludi. The beautiful temple had all the amenities of a nice rest stop, with a large convenience store, bathrooms, vending machines, and a small eatery.

The food vendor, near the back of the temple, sold many local foods like stinky tofu. We decided to get a warming early dinner.

The food was not bad at all for coming from a random small shop at the top of a mountain. I got the soup on the right, full of different vegetables and tofu in a rich, spicy broth (about $2 USD). 

There is a trail leading out from the back of the temple to other mountains, but the real stunning view is right in the front. On a clear day, you can see most of Taipei laid out in front of you. Dusk is a particularly nice time, as the orange-hued sun rays hit the city and create a warm glow.

At this time, I was quite jealous of all the people who had driven up in cars! We still had to hike down the entire mountain, and we weren't sure if the shuttle would be on schedule, or if we could even make the next hourly departure. Fortunately, we caught the 6PM shuttle.

Near Nanshijiao Station is a small neighborhood full of Burmese immigrants. There are Burmese and groceries all along a street called Huaxin St. We decided to eat dinner here, though some of the businesses were closed by the time we arrived, since they focus on providing breakfast.

The restaurants seemed really authentic! There were Burmese language posters and menus everywhere, and a bunch of rich curries laid out on a counter. It brought me back to my travels in Yangon.

We decided to try out a Burmese classic, mohinga, otherwise known as fish noodle soup. The soup is made with a pungent fish paste, giving it a savory and rich taste.

There was also a shop down the road that sold some Indian-style foods, like naan for $1USD. I had to get a piece! It was enormous but surprisingly light and fluffy. My carb craving was deeply satisfied.

What a fun day trip! I'm so glad I spent this long in Taipei, to be able to see some of the lesser-known sights in this great place. Hongludi Mountain is the place to go for gorgeous views, a moderate hike, and fewer crowds. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beautiful Taiwan Landscapes

Taiwan is gifted with gorgeous natural beauty - tall peaks and valleys, rivers, lakes, farmlands and miles of ocean coast. If you just visit Taipei without venturing outward, you are really missing out! 

The East Rift Valley is an especially pleasant area to visit. Even on a gloomy and overcast day, there is no denying the breath-taking nature of some of these places.

The sheer variety of sights to feast your eyes upon is simply amazing. Outside of the cities and industrial towns, the air is crisp and fresh, the vegetation is shades of lush green, and the waters run clear.  

Most of the towns and cities are connected by well-maintained roads, even through the mountains and valleys. We saw many bicyclists and motorcyclists making their way along the coast. There are several popular routes that travelers take, depending on whether they want to ride along the coast or journey through mountains. 

If you travel in January, between New Year's and Chinese New Year, you will hit the low season, with its benefits and disadvantages. On the one hand, the weather is cooler and there are fewer tourists. On the other hand, some of the smaller attractions and tourist services may be closed. It's also quite rainy during this time.

Sadly, I'm leaving Taiwan in less than two weeks. I can't believe how fast these past six months have gone, and I've grown quite fond of this country. I highly recommend everyone to visit - it's modern, safe, convenient, beautiful, affordable, and the people are some of the friendliest you will ever meet. I'll be back!