Friday, May 17, 2019

Running the NYC Marathon 2018

Last year, as I pondered what races to run in 2018, I started thinking more about the New York City Marathon. One of the six World Major Marathons, NYC is the world's largest marathon by number of entrants. The race is described as:
Held annually on the first Sunday of November, the race features over 50,000 runners including the world’s top professional athletes and a vast range of competitive, recreational, and charity runners. Participants from approximately 125 countries tour the city, starting on Staten Island at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and running through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx before ending in Manhattan.
Everyone I spoke with who had run the race had great things to say, so I decided to give it a shot.

There are three ways to enter: by running a qualifying time, by lottery, or by running for a charity team. I am nowhere near a qualifying time, which would be 2:55 for my division.  I tried the lottery but did not get in, so that left a charity team.

I decided to run for the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association as both my parents have been affected by strokes. The team had 40 entries, and asked us each to raise at least $3500 for a total of $140,000. We were granted a spot in the race but still had to pay the entry fee separately. Additionally, the team provided both email and in-person coaching as well as a racing singlet.

As daunting as any marathon is, the fundraising seemed a greater challenge. I had never attempted anything like this before. My last fundraising attempts were in high school, selling candy bars (pretty easy to a captive audience of hungry teenagers) and selling one ad for $50. I decided to make broad and personal appeals to friends and family, who were very generous. Together, we raised nearly $6000 for stroke prevention and research!

Alongside the fundraising, I decided to take a more systematic approach to training. I was disappointed with my marathon finish in Houston in January (4:43). Despite being a course known for producing fast times, I was nearly 30 minutes slower than my PR of 4:14, mostly due to a lack of training, specifically long runs.

For this race, I used the Intermediate 1 Training Program from running coach Hal Higdon. I made myself schedule the runs into my calendar, creating a greater commitment mechanism than my old app-based approach. While I can't say I hit every run, I definitely increased my mileage, average 30-40 miles a week during the peak weeks.

As I came to the final week of tapering, I felt confident that I could finish the race well. Friends had cautioned me that the race is more challenging than one might expect, with hills present in the later miles as well as several bridges to cross. The question in my mind was, how will I do relative to prior races? I came up with three goals: my stretch goal was to finish under 4 hours, my mid-range goal was to have a personal best, and my low-bar goal was to finish better than my last race.

On Saturday November 3, I went to the race expo to pick up my bib. The expo was held at the Javits Convention Center, a large exhibition space on the west side of Manhattan along the Hudson river. The expo was well run, and it was very quick to pick up my bib and race shirt. Surprisingly though, the convention center was nowhere near the race course at all, which was more of an issue for the immediate post-race time and Marathon Monday the following day.

Arriving At The Race

On Sunday morning, I awoke at about 6 AM to get a ride to the ferry terminal at the very southern tip of Manhattan. The race offered three transportation options to the start: ferry, bus from midtown Manhattan, and bus from New Jersey. My friend advised the ferry as it was the most scenic route.

To get to the ferry though was still a twenty minute ride. Waiting for the Uber in the hotel lobby, another runner noticed we were headed the same way and offered to split the ride. We did, and struck up a conversation about her running background. Turned out, she was from Chicago and had run their well known marathon several times, but was doing NYC for the first time. We ended up riding over on the ferry together, but lost each other in the starting line crowd later on.

Boarding the ferry and the ride over were both quick and scenic. The ferry passes right by the Statue of Liberty, with scenic views of Manhattan as it recedes in the distance.

Statue of Liberty, as seen from the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island side was less impressive. We stood for a long time in a line at the arrival terminal, perhaps 30-45 minutes, to board buses to get to the starting area. The bus ride itself was about 30 minutes.

After a security check, there were several waiting areas before heading to the starting line, separate by color and wave. The elite runners start first at the top of Wave 1. I was in Wave 3 out of 4. In all, it was around 4 hours between waking up and the race start!

Waiting beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge
Luckily, the weather was nice and not too cold. Finally, after a third playing of the national anthem, we were off!

The Race

By random chance, some runners were slated to run on the bridge's upper level, while others ran on the lower deck. I was bummed a bit to find out I was on the lower deck, but turned out to be pretty decent. The views off the sides were still pretty fantastic.

Running the first mile across the bridge, Manhattan in the distance
The race is well known for touching all five boroughs of New York (Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Bronx), but the Staten Island part is only the starting line. Once we crossed the bridge, we were in Brooklyn, essentially running the first half of the race on the east side of the East River. 

The first half is pretty flat for the most part. As with any race, one important key is to your pace yourself. While I did a pretty good job of staying consistent around 9 minutes / mile, I wish I had gone slower in retrospect, as the second half of the race was more challenging, with more bridges and hills. 

The crowds are great, in particular my high school friend and his wife who came out to cheer me and all the other runners on around mile 8 in the Park Slope area. A few miles past this, you start to see the Manhattan skyline more to your left than in front of you. 

Mile 15 is the first real test: the Queensboro Bridge. From near sea level at mile 14 (which is our brief point of contact with Queens), the bridge ascends to a peak height around 150 ft, before returning to near sea level by mile 18. As you turn from the bridge north to run up First Ave, the course is likely fairly flat but it *feels* like you are still climbing. 

More support came from seeing my parents at mile 18! We had chosen a hotel near the race course, so it was easy for them to watch from their room until they knew I was almost there. Despite the thousands of spectators, they were easy to spot and we quickly chatted for a few seconds before I ran (fine, shuffled) forward. 

At mile 20, you cross the Willis Ave. Bridge to spend a few uneventful miles running in the Bronx, before again turning south to head back to Manhattan and Central Park. 

The last few miles along Fifth Ave. and into Central Park are beautiful but quite challenging. My legs were already dead, but there was still one climb from ~0 ft to 100 ft above sea level around miles 23-25. I wasn't sure what would carry me through, but just as we were about to turn into the park, I saw my mom's bright green jacket again! They had managed to walk the few blocks west from the hotel on 1st Ave. to Fifth Ave., something we had not planned. I was lucky to spot her in my semi-delirious state. The crowd was more packed here, so I only saw her. Later, my dad showed me photos -- he had been standing a few rows back, snapping away. 

Knowing there are only 2 miles to go inside the park makes it seem like you just have to give one more little push. This is wrong. The finish line is in the far southwest corner of the park, and the course takes many turns inside the park to get there. I probably stopped as many times in the park from cramps as I did in the five miles before entering. The finish itself though was quite glorious!

Some 4 hours and 26 minutes or so after I left Staten Island, I was done! I deliriously took a few photos near the finish line (including the one above, which I was photobombed by a flying Dutchman haha). The volunteers hand you a medal and a bag with post race food / water.

I wish I could say I rushed into the crowd to find my family. Sadly, the post race setup is a let down. Because the race is so large (approximately 50,000 runners), the race organizers line everyone up to exit the park on the west side. Part of the race signup asks whether you wanted a race poncho jacket to pick up at the end. I had said yes, so I waited.

This queue takes FOR. EV. ER. I actually got lightheaded, and for the first time ever, tried to enter a medical tent. The volunteers, who couldn't have been more than 17, said no! Who tells a guy who's just run a marathon that he's not "sick enough" to enter a medical tent in front of him? After arguing my case a bit, I just sat down for a while til I felt some will to move. I eventually got out of the park, grabbing my poncho, and walked a few more blocks to hail an Uber to the hotel I was sharing with my parents.

While I would definitely consider running the NYC Marathon again, I would encourage anyone interested in it to closely study the race logistics and course as it will have a significant impact on your overall experience. Looking forward to trying it again some day!


Monday, January 28, 2019

Relationship Advice Roundup

I found reading these pieces, post breakup and when pondering future relationship possibilities, helpful to put my situation in perspective. In addition to coming up with my own relationship principles (which I encourage you to think deeply about as well!), reading about other relationship challenges can help you see your own blind spots.

I have shared them with other friends, who also have found value in them. Knowing that you are not alone, and that others have faced similar troubles as yours can be a life-preserver when you are feeling adrift. If you get a chance to read them, let me know what you think:

Want a deeper dive? There are many books out there about relationships. Dr. John Gottman though has spent his entire career studying couples. He distills what he has learned into The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. Even if you are not married yet, the principles apply all the same in order to build a solid foundation. 

The 5 Love Languages is also a helpful concept to understand what forms of communication you value and that your partner values. Communicating in a way that your partner is receptive to makes it much more likely that your message will get through to them. You will also be more receptive to their communication when you see the form they are more likely to put it in.

Revised 2019-06-10


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Visiting Greece

In late November 2018, my parents and I visited Greece for the first time. After reading about it through literary works and many historical references, as well as enjoying the travelogue portions during the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, we had been curious about visiting for many years. We were excited to finally have the chance!

We visited Athens for 3 days, the island Santorini for two days, drove around the Peloponnese for a week, visited Delphi and Meteora, and ended our trip with a day in Sounion and a day in Athens respectively. Each day was quite packed!

Our trip route, at a glance

Day 0: Arrival

I flew SwissAir to Athens via Zurich. Although not the newest plane, the seats were clean and comfortable. The food was decent, and of course the meal service ended with Swiss chocolate. The day was cloudy in Zurich, so I could only see the Swiss Alps peaks as we landed. The airport was very clean and easy to navigate. In particular, the passport control was *much* smoother than Amsterdam/Schiphfol or Paris/Charles de Gaulle. I spent my layover in the Aspire lounge, which was also quite spacious with nice wood accents throughout.

View of Zurich gates from Aspire Lounge
 After catching my flight to Athens, I met my parents in the arrivals area just outside baggage claim. Their flight arrived several hours after mine, so I had some time to read, relax and explore. There are two terminals in Athens (A and B), with two baggage claim areas that connect together in an arrivals hall outside security. On one end, there is a luggage storage facility that charges about 8 euros / bag / day. There are the usual airport shops that lead to the other end, where there is an exit which if you walk out and continue in that direction, leads to the rental car lot.

After my parents met me, we deposited their bags for their subsequent trip to India in the luggage facility and caught a taxi to our hotel in downtown Athens, the Hotel Hera. The airport has very convenient highway access, but is situated about 30 minutes outside the city center, similar to other large city airports. The city center can also be reached by train (more on that below).We arrived at our hotel and settled in for the night, ready to start out Athens adventures early the next morning.

Entrance to Hotel Hera, Acropolis, Athens

Day 1: Acropolis

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hotel (lots of Greek yogurt!) and then set out on the short walk to the Acropolis Museum, about 3 blocks away. Along the way, there was a light drizzle, and my mom commented that she had not packed an umbrella (or had been forced to leave it behind perhaps). We coincidentally encountered a man of South Asian descent selling umbrellas outside the Acropolis Metro station. My dad noticed the man and decided to rectify the situation by purchasing one his wares. As the exchange took place, the man made small-talk, asking us where we were from. We said India by way of America. He mentioned he was Bangladeshi and then unprompted, cautioned us to watch our wallets especially if near the train station. Our own Cassandra went on his way and we went forward to the museum.

Acropolis/Parthenon view from the Acropolis Museum Terrace
After waiting a few minutes for the doors to officially open, we wandered inside. The Acropolis Museum is actually built on ruins from the times of the Parthenon foundation, and you can peer down and see the ruins being actively excavated as you walk through the main entrance. Per the guides, the subterranean areas will be open for visitors sometime in 2020.

The museum consists of three floors with many of the original artifacts recovered from the Parthenon site. For safekeeping, they are maintained in the museum with replicas placed on the Acropolis. Photography is limited in some areas of the museum, but overall, it is an impressive collection. We spent about two hours walking around, with a coffee break in the middle in their second floor patio cafe.

One interesting exhibit was a live display of the preservation of the Caryatids. Next to the main Parthenon structure are several other temples, including the Erechtheion (named for a mythical ancient king of Athens Erechtheus), upheld by several columns sculpted into female figures known as the Caryatids. Over the centuries, they have decayed and developed a coating of many layers of debris. In order to clean the statues, the display showed how they used a laser to essentially burn off the dirt while preserving the underlying sculpture.

Afterwards, we walked to the Acropolis itself. There is a western and eastern entrance to the base of the Acropolis, but both lead to a main entrance along the western side. The eastern entrance is just across from the museum main entrance, but the western entrance has a bag check. After about 15 minutes of walking, we reached the main entrance to the Parthenon itself. The first site as we walked in on the right was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built by a wealth Athenian in 161 AD to honor his wife. The venue seats 5000 and still occasionally hosts events, although none were occurring during our stay.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus
Next, we continued onwards to the main gate, or propylaea. As we passed through, there was a monumental pedestal to the left upon which once sat a statue to Marcus Agrippa, a Roman benefactor of the city. As columns towered overhead, you pass through to see the first view of the Parthenon. The Erecthion with the Caryatids is to the left. Unfortunately, there was scaffolding up during our visit but the effect was still impressive.

Entering the Acropolis with Parthenon, right.
We circumambulated (ok, walked) around the southern edge to view the colonnade, still impressive after 25 centuries. Looking at the city from the vantage point, it makes a lot of sense why it would have acted as a central focal point for the entire valley, especially the ancient city. It allowed the city to be fortified while still maintaining access to major waterways and the sea. Visiting the museum first helped, as it spurred the imagination to "fill in the blanks" where the original statues would have been on the facade of the building. Similarly, you could look out and see Hadrian's Arch, the ancient Agora, and Hadrian's libraries, all landmarks of the ancient city, now penned in by modern shops and restaurants. Finishing our circuit, we passed by the Erechtheion on the northern edge, with the 5 Caryatid replica statues out front, and then exited via the propylaea.

Erechtheion with Caryatid columns
With the afternoon in front of us, we decided to attempt visiting the Roman agora, supposedly a short walk from the Parthenon. However, we headed the wrong way initially and took nearly 45 minutes to walk there. By the time we got there, the agora had closed at 3pm. During off peak season, many of the sites we visited were half-price... but also half hours as we quickly learned. We instead decided to walk to Monastiraki, where our hotel would be at the end of our trip and get a cup of coffee before heading back to our hotel.

We ended our day by having dinner in the upstairs Peacock restaurant at the Hera Hotel. The night view of Acropolis lit up was the highlight of the dinner (moreso than the food which was mediocre). The view reminded us of my mom staying up late during our trip to Paris nearly 25 years earlier, staring at the Eiffel Tower at night.

Day 2: Syntagma and Agoras

The next morning after another Greek-yogurt-heavy breakfast, we set off to visit Hadrian's Arch, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and Syntagma before heading towards the agoras. Our well-situated hotel was just a few blocks away from the arch, which sits outside the Temple of Olympian Zeus complex.

Upper level facade of the Arch of Hadrian

The arch is about 300m southeast of the Acropolis, and was thought to have been constructed around 131 AD to celebrate the arrival of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Built of Pentelic marble just like the Acropolis, the arch was thought to separate the old Greek and new Roman cities of the era, although this is disputed. Over the centuries, layers of soil accumulated around the bottom, covering (and preserving) the bottom 3 feet. The bottom columns are now missing but the arch still stands at its original height after restoration.

Turning the corner from the arch, we walked about 5 minutes to the main entrance of the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Although only ruins are now left, this must have been a truly colossal structure from what one can still see. Over the years, it seems like people knocked down the columns to repurpose the marble for other uses. Seismic activity also likely toppled some of the structures. Still, it must have been something to see at its height of influence - especially after taking over 600 years to build the 104 columns! Today fifteen columns remain standing today and a sixteenth column lies on the ground where it fell during a storm in 1852.

Temple of Olympian Zeus with Acropolis in the background

After exiting the Temple complex, we decided to take a "shortcut" through the National Gardens of Athens. While walking through, we encountered the Zappeion, which was the first building commissioned for the revival of the modern Olympic games. The cornerstone was laid in 1874 and was used during the first Olympics in 1896 as a fencing hall. It is still actively used as a conference center, and was again put into Olympic service in 2004 as a media center.

Zappeion with Greek flag atop

After relaxing a few moments in the gardens, we continued walking about 15 minutes north to Syntagma Square, which is the main square of Athens. The word syntagma means Constitution in Greek, because this is the site where the modern Greek state was born in 1843. Along the eastern edge is the Greek Parliament, housed in the old Royal Palace. Every morning, there is a changing of the guards which we were able to witness.

We then continued walking to the Roman Agora, a large square which housed the commerical activities of ancient Athens. The agora contained a plaza with shops along it.
Roman Agora entrance
 At the eastern end is an octagonal building known as the Horologion of Andronikos, also known as the "Tower of the Winds." The monument was thought to initially be a primitive astronomical observatory but later served as a church during the Byzantine era.
Facade of the Tower of the Winds
After browsing through an exhibit about the archaeological history of the site, we walked over to the Library of Hadrian. Originally built in 132 AD as a functioning library, it was seriously damaged by the 267 AD Herulian invasion (which damaged much of the ancient and Roman agoras as well). It was repaired in the 4th c. AD, and later centuries saw churches founded at the site.
Tetraconch Church remains, Library of Hadrian
Everywhere one went in Athens and Greece, there were cats. One in particular caught our eye near the entrance to this site, so we nicknamed him Hadrian's cat. As with the other sites, one had to use a bit of imagination to see what the place must have been like at the height of its glory. A few clues were still present, such as the colorful mosaic tiling still visible in some corners.

Mosaic tile at Library of Hadrian

Hadrian's Cat and friend

We next explored the nearby ancient Agora. The site was huge! Our first stop was the restored Stoa Attalos, which now houses a museum. We then walked the grounds, which now looks like a big park but must have once housed truly monumental buildings. One that still stands is the Temple of Hephaistos at the western edge of the Agora, built in honor of the god of metal-workers. The facade shows the labors of Hercules. It has remained in near continuous use since its erection, although serving varying functions as temple, church, burial site, and now museum.

Temple of Hephaistos
Our last stop of the day was Kerameikos, the potters' quarter of the ancient city which was also its main cemetery area. The word 'ceramic' comes from the same root. Again pressed for time by the 3 pm closures, we hurriedly looked through the museum and saw the replica sculptures in the field outside.

After being escorted out by the guard (more or less), we made our way for our routine afternoon coffee and headed back to the hotel, with another packed day behind us.

Day 3: Arriving in Santorini

We headed to the airport bright and early the next morning to catch our flight to Thira, the airport on Santorini. The first surprise of the day was running into my co-intern Ashesh's brother Anant and his wife waiting in line to catch the same flight! Anant lives about 5 minutes away from me in Boston - talk about small world!

After a pleasant 1 hour flight, we landed in Thira and rented a Peugot to tour the island. The main town is barely accessible by car, and we had to make several loops before finding parking and our hotel. But once we did, wow what a view awaited us!

Our first view of Santorini
Part of what makes the view unique is how Santorini formed. The land part is actually the remnant of a large sunken caldera. The island in the middle is actually the tip of the ancient volcano. In warmer weather, people will take boats out to the island and go hiking. Our hike for the afternoon merely consisted of walking down 618 steps to the harbor below. We went on our own human power, but there were donkeys available to ride if you really wanted to make the journey memorable!
The walk down 618 steps
The trip back up was much easier as we used the adjacent cable car. We made our way back to our rental car to drive to the northern tip of the island and the town called Oia. Initially we had grand plans to walk there, but the drive was pleasant enough. Our visit was timed to see the sunset, which Oia is well known for. After a few false turns, we made our way to the main viewing point.
Sunset over Oia
The temperature dropped quite fast after the sun went down, so we quickly found a dinner spot. It looked almost abandoned when we walked in, but by the end, the place was packed. We drove back and were about to turn in when my mom spotted a gelato shop. The lady was so nice that we eventually all got full scoops for a sweet end to a lovely day.

Day 4: Santorini's Revenge

The next day was overcast and eventually quite rainy. We attempted to go for a morning walk but were quickly drenched. My shoes unfortunately were not water-resistant and they soon soaked through into the socks. Still, our adventure was memorable if only for the contrast it provided with the day before.

Compare the caldera to the "before" shot above

We eventually headed back to the hotel and decided to drive towards the southern edge of the island before heading to the airport.  Along the way, we saw some of the famous blue domed Orthodox Christian churches that Santorini is also known for. We eventually ended up at the very tip of the island, at the Hellenic Navy Lighthouse. Not much was written about the site but the views were spectacular.

Hellenic Navy Santorini Lighthouse
We then made our way over to Red Beach,  a small beach composed of rust colored rocks. The place was lovely but had a bit of a surreal quality to it.
Red Beach, Santorini
Adjacent to it was Akrotiri, an archaeological site that is excavating the ruins of the ancient tribe that once lived on the island. We walked around the elevated platforms overlooking the dig for about thirty minutes before heading back to get lunch and catch our flight.

Scale model of Akrotiri site
We waited at the airport for about two hours until learning that our flight was canceled due to the bad weather. The airline put us up for the night at a nearby hotel, and we went to sleep pondering how much this would affect our upcoming travels.

Day 5: Leaving Santorini, Take 2 / Corinth and Epidavros

The weather cleared overnight and the flight back to Athens was uneventful. We immediately went to pick up our rental Volvo and hit the road. Driving in Greece was nerve-wracking at first, but I quickly got the hang of it! Luckily, it was quite similar to American driving as it is a left-hand drive country and the signage is mostly in English as well as Greek.

Our first destination was Corinth. The city sits on a thin isthmus which connects the Peloponnese peninsula to the Greek mainland. It also separates the Gulf of Corinth to the north from the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea to the south. For centuries, rulers had wanted to build a canal at this point in order to cut short the travel time around the peninsula. Eventually, in 1893, the modern canal was built and opened after 11 years of construction. About 6.4 km long but only 21 m wide at its base, it is not passable for most modern ships. We spent several minutes looking at the deeply cut canal and driving across the submersible bridge at the Saronic end before driving onwards to Epidavros.

We luckily reached Epidavros shortly before their closing time (a recurrent theme). The site is the home of Asclepius, father of western medicine, according to legend. After visiting a small museum, we went to the outdoor theater, or Asklepion, the site is most known for and boy was it impressive. Cut into the surrounding rock face, the stadium's acoustics are so good that an orator standing in the center can be heard unassisted by audience members in the top row. The site was also well-positioned to give a fantastic natural backdrop to any speech or drama performed.

Asklepion at Epidavros

View from the top row with the natural background
After another gorgeous sunset, we drove onwards to Nafplio, our night halt prior to our hike of Fortress Palamidi the next morning.

After finding our hotel and parking, we decided to get dinner before turning in. I had done a little research beforehand and suggested a pizza place about a block from our restaurant. As we walked by, the restaurant was entirely empty but fully staffed. Next door, the restaurant was packed but serving more generic Greek fare. We glanced at the next door menu but it was literally Greek to us. We decided to roll the dice and stick with our original pick. Usually, an empty restaurant is not a good sign but I had seen 100s of positive reviews beforehand. The food and service ended up being excellent, and in what was turning into a theme for the trip, the restaurant was packed by the time we left! It seems that we generally ate earlier than the locals most places, which worked well for us as the service was faster and we still could get to sleep in a timely manner. The food helped us fuel up for our big adventure the morning.

Day 6: Palamidi, Tyrins, and Mycenae

Fortress Palamidi loomed large as we planned this trip. The fortress had been built in the early 1700s by the Venetians during their second conquest of the area. The fortress has 8 bastions which oversee the Argolic gulf. To approach the fortress, there is a single staircase from the town square with between 913 and 1000 steps to the very top. Our hotel was nestled in the foothills below, just across the square, for perfect access for a morning hike. We woke up early the next morning in just-above-freezing weather and set off.

Climbing Palamidi - the "Before" shot

The initial climb was not too bad. We merely had to maintain a constant pace, taking each step at a time, and pausing at each switchback turn. The pauses were great not only to catch our breath but also to catch some gorgeous views of the receding town below.

View from the Bastion of Robert along the climb
Near the entrance, the walls of the fortress started to tower over our heads but we felt elated because we did it! We spent about thirty minutes exploring the bastions up top before making our way down. Funny how the steps went by much more quickly on the descent. Breakfast at the Nafsimedon hotel really hit the spot after our morning trek.

The main destination of the day was Mycenae, the ancient city-state that dominated the Greek world from about 1600 to 1100 BC. On the way though were the ruins of Tiryns. The site is now mostly leveled but is still noteworthy for its Cyclopean wall, so-called because the stones are so large they are said to have been put there by Cyclops giants. Although referenced by Homer and the mythic birthplace of Hercules, the site had been abandoned even as early as the time of the ancient Roman traveler Pausanias in the 2nd century AD.

Cyclopean wall stone

After a brief visit to Tiryns, we continued onwards to Mycenae. The citadel was initially identified by its Lion's Gate entrance, from the Pausanias' description. The modern complex consists of a museum, the Lion's Gate, and the foundations of about 10 buildings that still remain, including a large honeycomb shaped tomb known as a tholos.  We decided to visit the museum first, with the large tholos just outside. The acoustics were quite impressive, with a clear echo if one stood directly in the center.
Mycenae Tholos
We next perused the museum for about 15 minutes before walking through the main site. The museum contained many original artifacts from the site, some quite well preserved. The citadel was entered underneath the Lion's Gate, which consists of two large stone lions, standing silently over an archway.
Lions' Gate, Mycenae
Lions, up close

The hilltop contained the foundations of the buildings that fueled the settlement, such as a granary and the royal quarters. My dad separately went and saw the Tomb of Clytemnestra, another large tholos. We attempted to see the adjacent Treasury of Atreus, but - you guessed it - we just missed it because of an early closing time. The name is a misnomer as the site is actually a tholos of likely another sovereign, but was named by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who discovered it, and the name stuck.

We had a long drive ahead to our next night halt, Monemvasia. The drive was quite scenic, and took us through the township of Sparta. Leonidas might be surprised to see this mythic historic home of warriors now looks like another sleepy countryside Greek town. After passing through Sparta, we turned southeast and headed towards the island of Monemvasia, reaching our hotel just after nightfall. Getting into our room though was a mini-adventure, as the receptionist spoke literally no English! We were eventually able to make our intentions clear and she led us to our room, which was ultimately quite spacious.

But not only did we need to rest but so did our car. The hostess pointed to a spot just next to the room and said the access was just around the back. So I dutifully went down to where the car was parked roadside, drove to the side of the building and started up a steep embankment, with several bewildered onlookers. I came to the end of the embankment and only saw a garage, with my intended spot behind a row of hedges. A man came running behind me, rapped on the window, and said "No! No! Private!" -- I was in someone's driveway! Turns out, the actual access point was tightly wrapped around the hotel itself, not a separate entryway. Backing out of that dead end embankment and up the actual ramp was one of only a few white-knuckle driving moments during the trip. With the car settled in, we quickly settled in for the night.

Day 7: Monemvasia & Mystras

The island of Monemvasia has an interesting history.  The name Monemvasia comes from two Greek words mone (single) and emvasia (entrance) referring to the 200 m bridge connecting the island to the mainland. Our hotel the Lazareto was just past the bridge on the island. The island was separated from the mainland by an earthquake in 375 AD. The town on the island was founded in 583 AD and in the centuries since underwent many changes in rule, including local despots, Byantine, Venetian, Ottoman, and ultimately Greek rule.

The "single entry" bridge to Monemvasia

The main attraction to staying on the island was the sunrise, as seen from the mainland. Given its fully eastern location, the time offered a surreal interplay between light, clouds, and waves with the rock acting as a constant amidst the gracefully dynamic backdrop. We awoke in darkness to drive across the bridge, park, and take in the sight.

Sunrise over Monemvasia
After seeing the full sunrise, we made our way back across the bridge and had a full breakfast. Before leaving, we spent two hours hiking to the top of the island to see the old town and the church of Agia Sophia at the top.

Church of Agia Sophia, Monemvasia
Heading out, we backtracked to Sparta in order to visit Mystras, which was a few kilometers past the town in the hills overlooking the valley Sparta sits in. The fortified town was the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries. A World Heritage Site, the ruins contain many monasteries, churches, and palaces from the era.

We walked through the entrance and initially saw a small museum with many artifacts before hiking up the hill to see the old monasteries. The dimly lit buildings contained hints of the past, with faded frescoes of Christian foundational stories painted on the walls.

Monastery interior
Faded fresco (Adoration of the Magi?)
Trekking down, we returned to our car to drive to the top of the hill. The area, commonly referred to as "upper" Mystras contains the Fortress and Palace of the Despots among other buildings. Guess what? We hit closing time again so could not really see the buildings. The 3 pm closures were really limiting our day!

Knowing that our sightseeing was done, hunger hit hard. The area is somewhat remote so we tried to use map reviews to find a place to eat. On the drive over, I noticed two women who had been at upper Mystras just before us turning off the road into a small cafe. The restaurant we tried looked truly deserted, so we decided to take a chance on the cafe... and what a find! A true gem tucked away in the hillside with fabulous views of the valley below.  Cafe Bistrot had friendly service, a diverse menu, and great tasting food. We greatly enjoyed our coffee break before our long drive to Kalamata for our night halt.  

Day 8: Messini, Pylos & Voidokilia

Kalamata, known worldwide for its olives, was mostly a pit stop for us on the way to the west side of the Peloponnese. That being said, the hotel gave us the full resort experience with nice views of the sea, luxury amenities in the room, and even a private infinity pool! The buffet breakfast was also quite good, and fueled us for another long day of driving.

One could get used to this!
Our first stop was ancient Messene, an archaeological site north of the modern city of Messini. The town was founded in 369 BC to support local rule after a long period of domination by Sparta. Today, the ruins contain the ancient city center, an asclepion and a quite well preserved stadium. We spent a few hours exploring the grounds, mostly on our own with few other visitors in sight.

Theater, Messene
Stadium, Messene

Afterwards, we quickly toured the associated museum, which continued several fine examples of the statues that had once lined the stadium. We next drove up the road less than a kilometer to the Arcadian Gate, which once protected the city. Still an active road, the gate is an impressive piece of masonry that would rank up there with the Cyclopean walls we had seen earlier.

Push & pull
We next drove across the southwestern arm of the Peloponnese to Pylos to see its castle but - yep, you guessed it, closed. Spent another hour driving South to Methoni and its island castle and what do we find? Closed! Luckily, our last stop of the day was a natural beach Voidokilia, something impossible to close due to the slow season.

At least we could still walk up to the door
Voidokilia Beach is uniquely situated on the western coast. Described as a round or omega shaped beach, it is a semicircular set of sand dunes. The spot of historical significance as well, as Nestor's Cave and Old Navarino Fort overlook the sandy shores. We attempted to hike to the Cave and Fort but soon realized the ascent would be too much for us to handle before sunset.

 The Omega of Voidokilia Beach
Sunset at Voidokilia
We made our way to seaside resort town of Marathonpoli for the night, before a long day of driving the next day.

Day 9: Nestor, Bassae & Olympia

Marathonopoli surprised us with a bonus pretty sunrise before we hit the road to visit Nestor's Palace. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace is mythologically famous as the seat of King Nestor and features in both the Iliad and Odyssey. Today, it remains as the best preserved Mycenaean Greek palace. We could even see the royal bathtub as it originally stood!

The design along the rim is still faintly visible

After visiting a nearby tholos, we hit the road to Bassae, famous for the well-preserved Temple of Apollo Epicurius. And the name fits, because it is truly a site only for the very curious given how remote it is! Another heritage site, it was actually the first Greek site named to the list by UNESCO in 1986.

After over 2 hours of winding roads, we finally came to a wind-swept peak with only a large white tent visible from the parking lot. Eerie music was playing, which turned out to be from an explanatory video on loop. Initially, even the ticket counter was empty, so we wandered inside. A few minutes later, the attendant came to take our tickets and explain the significance of the site. He seemed happy to have any visitors at all! The site is supposedly designed by Iktinos, the architect of the Parthenon. At an elevation of 1130 m, it is quite impressive, although what we see is a partial reconstruction. It is likely well-preserved due to how remote it is.

Temple of Apollo Epicurius Colonnade inside the tent at Bassae

We eventually descended from the mountain for another few hours of winding roads on the way to Olympia. Site of the original ancient Olympics, today it houses the original site and a museum with many artifacts. Par for the course, we arrived there barely 45 minutes before closing time, so we hurriedly looked through the ruins and original Olympic field before heading over to the museum.

The original Olympic Stadium
The museum was quite impressive and well-laid out. They had attempted to recreate the statuary and frescoes that dotted the original site, including monumental works of Nike, Hermes, and others.

Nike, Goddess of Victory
Hermes, holding the baby Dionysus
As the last visitors to leave, we made our way back to the car and drove onwards to Patras for the night, before planning to see the Oracle... ok, the temple at Delphi and then the hanging monastaries of Meteora on the 'morrow.

Day 10: Delphi & Meteora

Day 10 might have been our earliest wake-up call. We had a few hours to drive to Delphi, before a much longer drive to Meteora. Crossing the bridge from Patras to the mainland found us saying goodbye to the Peloponnese (and about 15 euros haha). The drive was pleasant enough in the dark, with the early rays of dawn slowly breaking through.

We soon reached Delphi, a place of great importance in the ancient world. I had not realized how it was truly built into the mountains, with an almost vertical orientation. As rumor has it, the oracle would make vague pronouncements, which would then be helpfully "interpreted" by the priests, who would act as counselors to the rulers of Athens and the other surrounding city-states. By doing so, they helped guide the state-craft of the ancient Greek world.  In order to curry favor, each city would make grand donations to Delphi, such as the Treasury of Athens below. The central building is the Temple of Apollo, which dates back to the 4th c. BC. This is supposedly where the Oracle would preside and receive her premonitions.

Treasury of Athens

Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Another theater seating perhaps a 1000 was at the top. We then retreated back to our car and drove a few minutes down the street to the Delphi Museum, which was also quite well maintained. Items included the Delphi Sphinx, numerous friezes, gold collection, and a remarkably well-preserved charioteer.

Delphi Sphinx
Relief from frieze
We then headed out to Meteora (after a quick twenty minute detour - my only major GPS goof of the trip!). The drive was about three hours, but the roads were fantastic! Arguably one of the best highways I've ever driven on. In fact, one gas station we stopped at was so new, the shelves had not even been stocked yet!

Meteora is an other-worldly place. The name Meteora means lofty or elevated, and shares a root with the English meteor. The name holds because the rock formations that make up the town seem almost unreal. They are theorized to have formed as seismic activity pushed the rocks upwards, which were then reshaped by centuries of wind and other natural phenomena. About a 1000 years ago, monks who retreated to this area started to build what are now known as 'hanging monasteries.' We hiked to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity and then drove to the others.

Monastery of Holy Trinity
View of Megalo Monastery and others from Holy Trinity
The sunset from Meteora was spectacular. What a way to end a day!

Sunset at Meteora

Day 11: Thermopylae, Marathon, & Sounion

After a nice breakfast at the Archontiko Mesohori B&B we were staying at just outside Meteora, we headed back into the mountain morning chill to head onwards to Thermopylae. Popularized in the movie 300, Thermopylae is the site of the final battle between King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans against the thousands of soldiers of the invading Xerxes. Today, there is a large monument at the site as well as a small museum with a 12 minute video presentation and interactive displays about the battle.

Statue of Leonidas at Thermopylae

After the museum, we drove several more hours to Marathon, birthplace of the famed race distance and now home to a Marathon Run Museum. Built for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the museum hosts an impressive collection of running-related memorabilia, especially for Olympic marathon races.

First Place Medal at the 1896 Athens Olympics
Rain had started to fall at this point, so we quickly stopped by the stadium that hosts the starting line for the Athens Marathon. We actually drove about half the marathon route itself, which was clearly marked along each kilometer we passed.

Marathon Stadium, Athens Marathon starting line
Marathon road sign / kilometer marker

We continued driving south, actually passing Athens to reach the southern-most tip of mainland Greece and Sounion. The town is most famous for its Temple of Poseidon, built on a rocky outcropping overlooking the sea. The temple was built around 440 BC, during the age of Pericles. About half of the original columns are still standing today.

Sounion at sunset
Back of the Temple of Poseidon
The site was famously referenced in one of Lord Byron's poems:
Place me on Sunium's marbled steep
Where nothing save the waves
There, swan-like, let me sing and die!!

The weather turned quite cold, so while I quickly toured the sight (again, at closing time, the last visitor let in), my parents enjoyed a hot meal at the nearby cafe. We vowed to return the next morning, as our hotel was nearby.

Turned out our lodgings were quite hard to find! Despite being only 1-2 km away, the entrance was poorly lit with no adequate signage. After driving around in circles in the dark, we eventually called the proprietor who came to the gate to let us in. He generously "upgraded" us to a better room. Turns out though, the heater in the large entrance hall did not work, nor did the villa have views of the actual Temple. We used the time to plan our last hours in Greece as we drifted off to sleep.

Days 12-13: Yia-sas Greece!

The temple site did not open til 9 AM the next morning, so (for once!) we slept in until it was time to drive over. We snapped a few pics and then headed back to the airport to return the rental car.

After returning the car, we decided to make use of the public transportation system to take us back into the city. However, figuring out the subway was a bit confusing as our intended stop of Monastiraki was not clearly marked on the line map. Eventually the clerks clarified that all the lines ran that way so just hop on the next train.

Unfortunately, the next train was thirty minutes later, and the platform was outdoors. As we waited, a woman who spoke neither English nor Greek approached us about directions. We tried to explain what we were doing and she seemed to wander off, only to follow us onto the train when it arrived. The train ride over was pleasant enough, taking about 30 minutes.

As our stop approached, many people got up to depart. Some people seemed to make way for my parents, encouraging them to go forward with their bags. However, as the train actually stopped, the door my dad was in front of would not open! My mother darted to the next exit, fearing she would be trapped. I was unsure what to do, but decided to follow her since I would otherwise be the very last person out.

Eventually, the stuck door opened and everyone left. My mother and I looked to see my dad looking down and patting his legs. Initially concerned that he was injured or had dropped something, we quickly went to check him, only to hear him exclaim, "My wallet!" Confused, we looked around but nothing else seemed amiss. That same woman though mysteriously had exited with us and again asked for help before wandering off.

We soon decided to just treat this as a pickpocketing and check into our hotel to work on canceling all the relevant credit cards. Our fear was soon validated, as the online accounts showed that the thief had beelined to the nearest ATMs to take out cash. We systematically canceled the cards, but the experience cast a pall on our afternoon plan of visiting the National Archaeological Museum.

After the initial shock wore off, we recalled our earlier Cassandra, warning us of the pickpockets in the Athens Metro. We learned to heed his warnings the hard way. But, we also were grateful that no one was injured, there was no permanent damage, and we learned an important lesson. After relaxing in the room for a bit, we decided to head out anyway to make the most of the remains of the day.

We first walked to the city center to see the statue of Pericles outside City Hall and one of the main squares. We continued to the National Archaeological Museum. It was of course closed, but we looked at the statues outside for a bit before continuing.

Pericles of Athens
For dinner, there were many options in the area. The vegan restaurant we settled upon Mama Tierra was excellent, with tasty food and generous portion sizes.
Tasty dinner, Mama Tierra, Athens

The next morning, we decided to have breakfast and walk to Socrates' Prison before heading to the airport. The hotel had a terrace cafe with fantastic views of the Parthenon.

Sunrise over the Parthenon
The walk lead us back past the Agoras to the hill underneath the Parthenon. Areopagus Hill was the home of the ancient Supreme Court of Athens. Now it offered great views of both the Acropolis and the city below. Descending the hill, we walked along the western edge of the Parthenon to enter the park to the west of site. Located about 200 m within is a set of caves known as the "Prison of Socrates." While unlikely to be the actual spot Socrates was held in, they do hold historical significance, as they were used during WWII to hide items of historical value. The entrances we saw had actually been barricaded behind a cement wall until recent years.

Prison of Socrates
We enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, before hailing a taxi for the drive back to the airport. We checked into our flight and bid a happy Yia sas!  (farewell) to Greece. Looking forward to our next visit to the Aegean shores!