The Grandeur of the Acropolis

Columns of the Parthenon, which was built in the 5th century BC.

The Acropolis, perched on a rocky hilltop above the bustle of Athens, is one of the grandest historical sites that I have had to opportunity to visit.   I’m sharing a few photos from my 2012 visit in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Grand.  If you have never had the opportunity to experience the grandeur of the Acropolis, you can take a virtual tour here.  Happy Sunday!

View of the Acropolis from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Construction on this temple began in the 6th century BC.
The porch of the Caryatids on the south side of the Erechtheion.


The Sacred Olive Tree on the north side of the Erechteion.  It is said to be a descendant of the olive tree that Athena gave to the ancient Greeks, causing them to name their city “Athens” in her honor.  Every invader has cut it down, but every time someone has saved a sprig to replant later.

Escape to Hydra

Looking down at Hydra Port, Greece
Looking down at Hydra Port from the Koundouriotis mansion.

One year ago today, I stepped off the ferry from Athens to spend a long weekend on the island of Hydra with my parents, brother and sister-in-law. No kids, no work – it was a true escape! Yδρα, pronounced [ˈiðra] in modern Greek) is one of the Saronic Islands of Greece, located in the Aegean Sea between the Saronic Gulf and the Argolic Gulf. It is separated from the Peloponnese by narrow strip of water. It’s an easy ferry ride, only a couple of hours from Athens. The island has a storied maritime tradition and became a center of power and wealth in the 18th century due to the shipping industry. Hydra played a major role in the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821.

The flag of Hydra (on the right) reflects the maritime history of the island.

There is one main town, known simply as Hydra Port, with a population just shy of 2,000.  Tourists generally arrive by cruise ship, ferry or yacht. Most only come for the day and don’t venture far from the shops and restaurants on the harbor.

Harbor at Hydra Port
Harbor at Hydra Port

Steep stone streets lead up and outwards from the harbor area. Most of the local residences on the island are located on these streets.

Sneaky shot of the priest walking behind me up the street.

I was told that the only motorized vehicle on the island is the town’s garbage truck.Instead of cars, the locals use donkeys. My parents spotted donkeys hauling everything from a refrigerator to a coffin. (This guy was eating his lunch.)


There are many churches and monasteries on Hydra.  Unfortunately, I visited a few weeks too late to celebrate the Greek Orthodox Easter.  I loved the colors on this little church, which I could see from the window of the house we stayed in.


I thought perhaps that the island was named after the Hydra in Greek myths, the gigantic monster with nine heads that grew back when you cut them off. The destruction of Hydra was one of the 12 Labors of Hercules, but it turns out that it has no relation to the island. In ancient times, the island was known as Hydrea (Υδρέα, derived from the Greek word for “water”), which was a reference to the springs on the island. Ironically, the springs have dried up and water now arrives by ship to supplement the rainfall captured in cisterns.

Hydra is knownfor its windmills.

Ancient windmill on Hydra

Hydra is also known for its large population of feral cats.


A point of pride, I presume!


One thing that Hydra is not known for is its beaches. The travel sites all say there is only one decent beach on the island.  While it’s true that the beaches are rocky, it also means that the water is crystalline; snorkeling is fantastic on Hydra!  Just a few yards from shore, the ground drops away dramatically and you can see amazing fish, sea urchins, and other sea creatures.

Rocky shores mean crystal clear water for snorkeling.
Rocky shores mean crystal clear water for snorkeling.

Going to a new place and learning about its history and people – that’s my idea of a great escape!

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Escape. Read more entries here!

(I also wrote a post about human rights in Greece.  Check it out! The Other Greek Crisis: Xenophobia and Mass Detention.

The Other Greek Crisis: Xenophobia and Mass Detention

Landing at Elefthérios Venizélos in Athens, you can’t miss the sprawling blue and gold IKEA near the airport.  While tourists arriving  in Greece may recognize the siren call of cheap and trendy furniture, they are not likely to notice that there are also detention centers in Athens.  The brand-new Amygdaleza migrant detention center was opened in April in western Athens, shortly before the election. There are plans to build many more detention camps – and quickly.  Greek police reported this week that they have arrested thousands and temporarily detained more than 17,000 migrants, mostly from Asia and Africa, since August 4, 2012.

I traveled to Greece for the first time in May.  I was there briefly and only as a tourist. I stayed in tourist areas, encountering very few Greeks who didn’t work in the tourism industry. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard, but I can’t help but look for human rights violations – even when I’m on vacation.   So I listened carefully when my brother, who had been living in Greece for some months, mentioned that recently the government had started arresting, detaining and deporting migrants.  In fact, the first 56 migrants arrived at the new Amygdaleza migrant detention center on April 29 – only a week before the national election. Undocumented migration had become a major issue in the May 6 election, with several parties pledging to crack down on migrants. Based largely on this issue, the far-right Golden Dawn party gained seats in Parliament for the first time.

While Greece may be idyllic for the foreigners who are tourists, many migrants and asylum seekers have a very different experience.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has been a major entry point to the west and Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa.  Many of them cross the border with Turkey, which up until August was fairly porous.  By some estimates, a million immigrants live in Greece, which has a population of barely 11 million.  Add to this demographic change the deepening economic crisis and rising social tension and you get a volatile situation in which undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have become the targets of xenophobia.  According to a July 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, “Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece, particularly in the capital city of Athens.”

None of this was apparent to me when I was a tourist in Athens in May.  Even the economic crisis in Greece was surprisingly – shockingly, in fact – invisible.  I tried asking a couple of people about it.  People seemed annoyed with the politicians, but unconcerned that Greece would leave the Euro zone.   The waitress at the take-out place where I got my Greek salad just rolled her eyes when I asked about it.  “Try a FIX Hellas,” she said, proffering a pale Greek beer in a clear plastic cup.  “You can walk around with it.”  So I walked around Plaka like I was on Bourbon Street, thinking about the ironic name of my beverage. Lots of people were shopping.  The Barbie store was doing a particularly brisk business.

Later, I walked over to the Parliament.  Even though it was the middle of a workday, it was as still as a tomb.  I started to understand the Greek frustration with politicians.

I followed the news on the “other Greek crisis” after my return.  In early August, there was a mass crackdown on “irregular migrants”.  Greek authorities deployed 4,500 police around Athens to arrest and detain more than 7,000 migrants in less than 72 hours.    In another example of ironic naming, the Greek authorities called the operation Zeus Xenios after the Greek god of  hospitality and guests.  The Greek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that legitimate refugees and genuine asylum seekers could be among those who are summarily deported, but the round-ups have continued.  On September 5, Greek police reported that 17,000 migrants have been temporarily detained in these round-ups, with 2,144 of them arrested. One of the concerns is that the ongoing sweeps target suspected migrants based on little more than their physical appearance; the proportion of temporarily detained to arrest numbers seem to bear that out.  In addition to the problem of arbitrarily detaining migrants, visits to some of the migrant detention centers have documented inhuman and degrading conditions. 

Of course Greece has the right to control migration, to set and enforce their country’s immigration laws.  But Greek authorities must comply with their international and European human rights obligations.  Above all, they should not arrest, detain, and deport foreigners based on appearance or ethnicity – in contrast to the the welcome received by an American tourist like me.  The left-wing main opposition Syriza party has been critical of the crackdown and claims that the migration issue is being used to divert attention from the more difficult and unpopular issues of the economic crisis and the spending cuts that the EU and IMF require in exchange for assistance out of the economic quagmire.  From my limited observation of the situation in Greece, I have to agree.