Vienna, Paris And Now Greece: Why Travelers Will Relate To ‘Before Midnight’

before midnight premier julie delpy and ethan hawkeIf you’ve ever approached a good-looking stranger on a train, or kicked yourself for not doing so, you probably love Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films – “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” – about a pair of travelers who met on a train bound for Vienna in 1995, rekindled their romance in Paris in 2004, and then re-emerge as lovers on holiday in Greece in 2013. I saw “Before Midnight” on Friday, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two films, I still believe that anyone who is passionate about travel has to see these films.

In the first film, Jesse, a jilted young American backpacker played by Ethan Hawke, convinces Celine, a Frenchwoman who is on her way back to Paris, played by Julie Delpy, to get off the train with him in Vienna. The pair fall in love while walking the streets of Vienna, but rather than exchange contact information when they part, they resolve to meet again in six months. (We learn in the next film that that meeting never happened.)

According to Slate, and a host of other publications, Linklater’s inspiration for “Before Sunrise” came from a stay-up-all-night evening he spent with a young woman he met in Philaelphia, who later died in a motorcycle accident after they lost touch. I saw “Before Sunrise” on the day it came out in 1995 and was deeply affected by the film.

I was 22, a couple years younger than Jesse and Celine, and had just graduated from college. I had no car at the time, and to save on bus fare, I took an hour-long walk from my decrepit $275 per month studio on Walnut Street to the cinema, down on Philadelphia’s waterfront. Jobless and with no plan for what to do with my life, I resolved on the long walk home to scrape together enough money to travel by train across Europe, where I imagined there were plenty of Celines waiting to meet me. It took me two years, but I did just that in 1997.

On that trip, I met a girl from Finland on a train bound for Prague, and we shared a few memorable days together before it was time for me to return to another dingy apartment – this one a $550-a-month, cockroach infested studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Unlike Jesse and Celine, I never saw the lass from Finland again, though I did get an amusing, somewhat incoherent letter from her a year later, clearly written in a state of inebriation.

Just weeks after returning from that trip, I decided to move to Chicago, where I met my future wife on my very first day in town. Leaving New York turned out to be the best decision I ever made. Our relationship has been a lot smoother than Jesse and Celine’s, but we still loved “Before Sunset” when we saw it in 2004. Jesse was stuck in an unhappy marriage and was trying to decide if he should stay with Celine in Paris; I was a diplomat who was depressed about the prospect of spending the next two years in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Before Midnight” for at least a year. It feels a little like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in nine years each time these films come out, and I was particularly excited by the fact that this film was shot in Greece, a country that I love. Linklater’s trilogy is about the big decisions we face in life and how we make them. Jesse always seem to face these crossroads while on trips – first in Vienna, then in Paris and most recently in Greece, where he tries to convince Celine to move to Chicago to be closer to his son.

The fact that the couple faces these major life decisions while on the road rings very true for me. When you’re far from home and removed from your daily routine, you can’t help but examine your life and ponder the big picture questions.

“Before Midnight” has received rave reviews but I wasn’t in love with this film. It had its moments and if you’ve seen the first two, you will want to see it, but I found listening to Celine’s litany of complaints, which are littered throughout the film, exhausting and stressful.

Despite that, I still enjoyed having the opportunity to think back to where I was in 1995 and 2004, and how I’ve changed since I saw the two previous films. Hawke and Delpy are still attractive but seeing how they’ve aged on the big screen is also a reminder of how quickly time flies by. To me, the last 18 years since I saw the first film have gone by in a blur, and the notion that the next 18 will go by just as fast is a little scary, but it’s also a great reminder that life is short, so you’ve got to seize the day.

The other redeeming quality of the new film, for me, is the cinematography. It’s a lush, almost sensual portrait of Greece at its very best – the crumbling ruins, the seaside tavernas and the heartbreaking vistas of the Aegean are all there. According to The Greek Star, the film was shot in the southwest Peloponnese, specifically at the Kalamta airport, and in the villages of Pylos, Koroni and Kardamili in the Messinia region. According to About.com, one of the scenes was shot in the former home of the legendary writer and traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamili. The film is a great advertisement for Greek tourism, and since I’ve never been to this part of Greece, Jesse and Celine have once again given me another great reason to hit the road.

International Budget Guide 2013: Athens, Greece

For budget travelers, there’s never been a better time to visit the Greek capital. Despite being on the Euro, the country’s debt crisis has made this popular tourist center dramatically more affordable than the balance of the European Union, making once expensive resorts now surprisingly reasonable.

As unemployment and other economic problems take their toll, Greeks have all but stopped taking vacations, which means most of the city’s tourism bookings rely on foreigners. Unfortunately, many visitors have been scared off by the tide of uncertainty. Fears of a Greek exit from the euro zone and strikes and demonstrations in Athens caused many potential visitors to cancel their bookings – in the first half of last year, the number of tourists visiting fell 9%.

The silver lining to this distress is that for the budget-conscious, it presents a great opportunity. Tourism is the backbone of the Greek economy making up more than 16% of GDP, so the travel industry is bending over backwards to welcome travelers. Hotels, which lost 10-12% in profits last year, have had to drop their prices dramatically to attract tourists. Visiting Athens now means fewer crowds and better deals than ever before.

Athens is also the jumping off point for travel to the Greek Islands. Like the country’s capital, the islands have also seen a reduction in the number of tourists and have had to lower their prices accordingly. As an added bonus, the strikes, demonstrations and closures that occasionally afflict the capital are not really felt in the islands.

Activities

The New Acropolis Museum. This modern structure opened a few years back but it’s actually one of the few newer developments in a city that has dramatically cut back spending. Even if you’ve visited Athens before, the New Acropolis Museum provides an excellent reason to return. The beautifully curated exhibition details the historical and archaeological significance of the Acropolis and is a great primer for a visit to the ruins. The museum also hosts various temporary exhibits, and this year visitors can see the caryatids – sculptures of Greek women who form part of an Acropolis temple known as the Erechtheion – being restored. Earlier this year, the museum also launched a series of workshops during which visitors can learn about ancient technology, modern preservation techniques and the production of replicas. The workshops, which are run by archeologists and conservationists, are free with museum entry on a first come first served basis. At 5 euro for entry (or 3 euro for reduced admission) the museum is a great value.

The Antikythera shipwreck exhibit. The National Archaeological Museum already boasts some of the most important artworks and artifacts from ancient Greece, and this temporary exhibit provides another compelling reason to visit. The Antikythera Mechanism is an ancient astronomical instrument that was lost for 2000 years when the Roman ship it was on sunk in the Aegean Sea. Experts have only recently come to understand the complexity of the mechanism, which has been referred to as the “world’s first computer.” The shipwreck exhibit is on display until August 31st and is free with museum entry, which costs 7 euro (3 euro reduced admission).

See a performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Situated on the slopes of the Acropolis, this ancient amphitheater comes to life as orchestral concerts, operas, plays, and dance performances take place during the warmer months. Spectators are provided with cushions to place on the tiered, marble seating of the amphitheater, which makes for a spectacular backdrop. Previous performances have included the Athens State Orchestra, a German contemporary dance troupe, and a tribute to Greek folk music. Tickets start at around 15 euro for seats in the upper tiers. Check out a schedule here.

Hotels

Athens Backpackers. Centrally located just a few minutes from the Acropolis metro station, this hostel offers easy access to all the main sights. Accommodation includes self-contained apartments as well as dorm rooms with access to a fully equipped kitchen. The hostel is air-conditioned and boasts a sports bar as well as a rooftop bar that is open during the warmer months. From 17 euro for a dorm bed, including free breakfast and Wi-Fi. backpackers.gr 12 Makri St, Makrygianni.

City Circus Athens. Located a five minute walk from Monastiraki Square, this budget accommodation option is found in a 20th century mansion complete with frescoed ceilings. The atmospheric hostel has been decked out with reclaimed furniture and was decorated by local street artists. There are a range of room types, including dorm beds and doubles with private bathrooms. Guests receive free breakfast and Wi-Fi and have access to a roof terrace with Acropolis views. From 16 euro for a dorm bed. citycircus.gr 16 Sarri St, Psirri.

Hotel Amazon. If you want to step it up a notch and stay in a hotel, this is a great budget option. Located right by Syntagma Square, the hotel is an easy walk to the popular Plaka area and most tourist sights. The establishment, which is part of the Best Western chain, has been recently renovated and provides guests with television, Internet and breakfast. The only drawback is that some of the rooms do get quite a bit of street noise. Official rates start at 80 euro for a double, but you can often find deals in the 40-60 euro range through secondary hotel booking sites such as trivago.com or opodo.co.uk. amazonhotel.gr 19 Mitropoleos & Penelis St, Syntagma.

Restaurants

Kostas. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves up juicy souvlaki at bargain prices and the long line out the door is a sure sign of its popularity. The closet-sized eatery is located in the same square as the Agia Irini church, and diners can either take the food to go, or eat it at one of the standing room only tables located outside in the small plaza. A serving of souvlaki or kebabs topped in a rich and spicy tomato sauce will fill you up for around 2 euro. 2 Plateia Agia Irini, Monastiraki.

Mani Mani. Located in the leafy Makrygianni neighborhood close to the New Acropolis Museum, this restaurant serves up food traditional to the Peloponnesian region of Mani. The restaurant is tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unassuming building, but once inside, there’s an open kitchen and warm, modern vibe. Dishes have a haute cuisine feel and include a type of traditional pasta known as chilopites, a pork belly cooked for 17 hours, and a desert flavored with mastic liqueur from the islands. Mains cost around 10 euro, but most plates are also available in half portions for half the price. manimani.com.gr 10 Falirou St, Makrygianni.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas. Despite being in the heart of Athens and close to the tourist sites, this restaurant seems to attract a large local clientele. The décor has a kitsch feel with shelves of jarred and canned goods lining the walls. Butcher’s paper covers the old-school wooden tables and you’ll find your silverware stashed inside drawers beneath them. Dishes include saganaki (cheese fried in olive oil and spices), traditional greek salads, and chicken with a mastika sauce. The mezedes (small plates of food) cost around 5-10 euro and diners are treated to a free shot of ouzo. Be sure to check out the unusual tomato can sinks in the bathrooms before you leave. 12-14 Mitropoleos St, Syntagma.

Logistics

Getting Around

If you’re staying in the downtown area of Athens, you’ll find many of the tourist sites are easily accessed on foot. For traveling longer distances, the metro is cheap and efficient. Individual tickets are good for multiple trips within 90 minutes of being validated in the machines at the train stations. Tickets cost 1.40 euro from the vending machines and can be used on buses as well. While you’re at the metro stations, keep an eye out for artifacts that are on display – these were found while the metro was being constructed.

You can also get to the international airport via metro although you need a special ticket that costs 8 euro. Buses to the airport also depart from Syntagma Square. Tickets cost 5 euro and are available from the bus driver.

Seasonality

Summer is the peak travel season and hotels raise their rates (sometimes doubling them) during this period. The temperature in Athens can also shoot into the high 90s and beyond, making sightseeing feel like an exhausting Olympic sport. But if those things don’t deter you, summer is a great time to visit with the Hellenic Festival taking place – the summer arts event that involves music, theater, and cultural programs. However, for those who prefer lower prices and milder temperatures, the best times to visit are spring and fall when the mercury hovers around 70 F.

Safety

Like with most large cities, you should beware of pickpockets, especially when traveling on packed buses and trains. At night, some parts of the city can feel a little unsavory. While most tourist haunts such as the popular Plaka area are fine, it’s best to steer clear of Omonia.

Given the economic unrest in Greece, you should be careful when sightseeing near the parliament building on Syntagma Square, which is often the site of demonstrations. While it’s still safe to visit this area, it’s a good idea to keep abreast of the latest political developments to avoid getting caught up in any potentially violent protests.

Lastly, it’s worth being aware that Greece has been cracking down on illegal immigration and recently made headlines after a number of tourists got caught in the net.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Panoramas]

Mistra: a medieval ghost town in southern Greece

Mistra, GreeceOn a steep hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta in southwestern Greece stands the last capital of the Roman Empire.

In 395 AD, beset by enemies, the empire split into western and eastern halves. The Western Roman Empire was soon overwhelmed. The east flourished. Its capital was at Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Known as the Byzantine Empire, it developed a distinctive style of art and architecture and protected the Greek Orthodox Church of its citizens.

Byzantium declined as civilizations always do, and suffered a serious blow during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Crusaders, who had originally set off to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims, decided to capture Constantinople instead. With its capital gone, Byzantium shattered into three small states. Byzantine art and the Greek Orthodox Church survived.

The Crusaders built an imposing castle on the summit of a hill overlooking the Vale of Sparta, one of a number of fortresses to protect their new domains. That didn’t work. The Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople and steadily pushed the Crusaders out of the lands they had conquered. The castle at Mistra was handed over to the Byzantines in 1262 and a fortified city gradually began to take shape around it. Mistra became the regional capital of the Morea, as the Peloponnese was then called.

The Palaeologian dynasty was the last to rule the Roman Empire. It was a time of political and economic decline, with the Turks pushing in from the east, the Venetians dominating trade, and numerous other enemies nibbling away at the borders. Morea was one of the last wealthy regions of Byzantium and despite the empire’s troubles witnessed a renaissance in art, learning, and culture.

Mistra is only seven kilometers outside of Sparta. It’s an easy walk but I was anxious to start my visit and so I took a taxi and decided I’d walk back through the olive groves. After a week of cloudy, cold weather, the sky had cleared and the air was cool and pleasant. The winding road up the hill is dominated by the massive town wall. Passing through the gate, I found myself walking along steep, narrow lanes between the remnants of homes, palaces, and churches. Several of these Orthodox houses of worship are still open.

These churches are deceptive. On the outside they are prettily made with patterned brick and a series of small domes and half domes around a large central dome. It’s inside that they show their true splendor. Frescoes cover the walls, domes, and pillars. Every available space is decorated with Biblical scenes and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, all painted in a rich but somber style.
Mistra, Greece

%Gallery-146699%Mistra isn’t entirely a ghost town. A small nunnery called the Pantanassa is a miniature town inside the larger one. Men are allowed in to see its medieval church. When I arrived, one of the sisters, garbed all in black, was sweeping the sun-bathed courtyard while several cats lounged nearby. It was a perfect photo that of course I was too respectful to take. The church was built in 1428 and its rich frescoes show what a cultural high point the Palaeologian Renaissance was. The ground-floor frescoes are from the 17th and 18th centuries and represent a continuation of the art and ideas that made Byzantium great.

Back outside, I wended my way through the maze of little streets and came to the summit and its Crusader castle. Climbing to the top of the tallest tower, I looked out and saw the Vale of Sparta lay spread out beneath me, with the ancient ruins and modern city both visible. Behind me rose the snow-capped Taygetus mountains.

Of all Mistra’s medieval buildings, the most evocative is the church of St. Demetrios. Some scholars theorize this church may have been the site for the coronation of Constantine XI Palaeologos in 1449, the last emperor of Byzantium, and therefore the last emperor of Rome. He had served as Despot of the Morea while his older brother was emperor and lived in the palace at Mistra. It’s easy to imagine him here, with the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints looking down at him through the dim candlelight light as the priests sang their Orthodox hymns.

It must have been a glorious coronation and a sad one. Fears of usurpation from his other brothers meant the ceremony had to be rushed, and done in this provincial capital rather than the glorious church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Even the crown showed Byzantium’s faded glory. The bankrupt Palaeologoi had long since hawked the crown jewels to the Venetians. Now the rightful heirs to the Roman Empire wore crowns of glass.

Besides the Morea and Constantinople, there was little left of Byzantium. The Ottoman Turks were closing in and in 1453 they made their final assault on Constantinople. The siege was a grueling one and it took the Turks weeks to pound the thick city walls into rubble with their cannon. In the final assault, the Emperor Constantine fought alongside his men and fell with them. He could have escaped. He could have made a deal. Instead he died fighting so that sad shadow of the Roman Empire would go down in glory.

But still Rome did not die. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans spent time consolidating their position. Mistra survived until 1460 as the capital of the last free lands of Byzantium, and thus in a very real sense the last capital of the Roman Empire. Trebizond, a strip of territory on the south shore of the Black Sea, lasted another year, but that state had seceded from the empire before Constantinople was captured by the Crusaders and thus cannot be considered a part of it.

In the 15th century it was obvious to everyone that Byzantium’s days were numbered. Many Byzantine scholars and artists fled for safer havens. The favorite destination was Italy, where local rulers welcomed their learning and didn’t care much that they were Orthodox rather than Catholic.

These scholars brought with them books and a knowledge of Greek, Arabic, astronomy, history, philosophy, geography, and much more. They brought with them translations of the Classical authors of ancient Greece and Rome. Wealthy Italians, hungry for knowledge and for a model to inspire their own flowering culture, eagerly read these books and attended the lectures of Byzantine scholars. The influx of Byzantine learning was one of the major factors that led to the Italian Renaissance and the foundations of humanism and modern Western thought.

The torch had been passed.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Sparta: Greece’s ancient warrior city

SpartaAfter having seen Athens and Corinth, I couldn’t resist visiting one of the other great city-states of ancient Greece: Sparta.

Sparta needs no introduction. It’s a star player on the History and Discovery channels and that schlocky pseudo-historical film 300. While I wanted to see the ancient ruins where brave warriors once strode, my main reason for going was to explore nearby Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town with a castle that rivals Acrocorinth. I’ll get to that in my next post.

Sparta is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Athens. The route passes along the Aegean shore, through the Isthmus of Corinth, and into the Peloponnese, the peninsula that makes up southwestern Greece. Passing Corinth, the road ascends into rough hills that were being buffeted by a snowstorm.

Luckily the roads were in good condition and I made it on time. The clouds were breaking over the Vale of Sparta although it remained bitterly cold. My first stop was at the Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to learn more about how the economic crisis was affecting archaeologists’ ability to explore and preserve Greece’s past. The Ephorates are divided by region, in this case Lakonia, roughly the central and southern Peloponnese, and also by period. There’s a Fifth Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities too.

Archaeologists Lygeri Nikolakaki and Ageliki Mexia greeted me in their cramped office overflowing with books, reports, and maps. They spread out several maps in front of me to demonstrate just how rich their area was in medieval remains. Castles, churches, monasteries, and medieval towns dotted the landscape. This area was called the Morea in late Byzantine times and was one of the few centers of wealth, art, and learning during the waning days of the empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One region caught my eye–the Mani peninsula. The Ephorate has recorded some 2,000 Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments on the peninsula, and the map showed hiking trails crisscrossing the area. The Maniots were always semi-independent, fierce fighters and pirates who never fully submitted to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, or Byzantines. Their culture remains distinct even today. As I was researching this trip I was already planning another one.

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Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra: a Byzantine ghost town in Greece!Nikolakaki and Mexia explained that Mistra, the Byzantine city outside Sparta, is their department’s star attraction and one of the top ten most visited historical sites in Greece. Numbers are generally down, however. There was a surge in visitors in 2005 and 2006 after the Olympics, and then a steady decline. They blame the economy and competition from more famous attractions in Greece.

Despite this, funding from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the European Union in recent years has led to improvement at many sites. At Mistra, the Ephorate had installed new signs in Greek and English to explain the remains, and the museum there has been reorganized and improved. The palace of the Despots (local rulers) is being restored. They hope to open a gift shop this summer.

Another Byzantine fortress city, Geraki, is being prepared for visitors and will open in two years, funding permitting. The Ephorate hadn’t received approval for their 2012 budget when I visited, and they’ve been told to “reduce expectations”. At the same time, they’ve been asked to increase the number of visitors.

The Fifth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities may lose its independence under a new scheme by the Ministry of Culture. It’s proposing to merge the Ephorates of each region into one, so that prehistoric, Classical, and Byzantine antiquities will all be handled by one office. Nikolakaki and Mexia are cautiously optimistic about this move, saying that it may help cut waste and improve the ability of the Ephorates to manage Greek’s heritage. After all, many sites, Sparta included, have remains from several different periods.

I hope they’re correct. Mergers generally mean layoffs, and I wouldn’t want to see these dedicated researchers join Greece’s large ranks of the unemployed.

The Archaeological Museum of Sparta is worth seeing to get some background on the city and its history. Despite the cold, only the front room where the ticket seller sat was heated. The rest of the heating had been turned off to save money.

I kept my coat on as I browsed the few rooms in this small but well-stocked museum. Funerary stelae, statues of the gods, and a remarkable bust of an ancient warrior showed that while Sparta was famous for its martial skill, it produced good art as well. Some of the best artifacts are a series of mosaics discovered in Roman-period houses in the area. Check out the photo gallery for some of the best displays from this interesting museum.

Chats with archaeologists and visits to museums, however informative, can’t compete with seeing the ruins themselves. That evening, with the sun peeking through the clouds, I took the short stroll to the edge of town to see ancient Sparta.

While not nearly as impressive as the ruins of Corinth or Athens, the remains of ancient Sparta are alluring. Soon the town of modern Sparta is left behind and you enter olive groves. There were almost no other visitors when I went and the place as quiet except for birdsong. From the old acropolis you can look out over the theater and the remains of a temple to Athena. Nearby lie the foundations of a Byzantine church. The ancient stones were taking on a golden hue from the evening light.

As I stood in an olive grove looking out over Sparta’s ancient theater, a shepherd grazed his flock nearby. A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds to shine on the medieval town of Mistra in the distance. Beyond that rose the snowy peaks and gorges of Taygetus mountains. Perfect.

A friend who has traveled extensively in Greece says that the country’s scenery “does tend to sneak up on you like that.”

Greece sneaked up on me several times during my trip.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Mistra!