2,000 PAGODAS AND A MISTY SUNRISE: Biking around magical Bagan

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Bagan is the highlight of any trip to Myanmar, so I had high expectations.

Getting around by bike is a good way of seeing many of the temples. You can basically just go anywhere around Old Bagan and start temple-spotting.

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The main temples are a bit busy and there are usually stalls selling handicraft around them, but most smaller temples are completely empty and you have the place to yourself. You can also just take a turn into any side road to find lots of little temples, they are literally everywhere.

You can climb up some of the temples to get stunning views of nearby pagodas – this way you get an understanding of the scale of the place.

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The most famous temples are usually larger, but in truth it doesn’t really matter where you go. The smaller temples can sometimes be more interesting simple because on an unusual detail or because you can explore by yourself.

From the most famous temples, my favourite was Ananda as it’s really unusual inside, full of Buddha statues in little carved nooks. But the most fun I’ve had was simply exploring aimlessly and stopping where it looked good – I don’t really think you can go wrong in Bagan.

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The best thing is to actually find a temple off the beaten path to climb up and enjoy the view by yourself. You just need to wander around a bit until you find one (locals will often point it out). In these you may sometimes meet locals who will always eventually try to sell you postcards or paintings – although it’s obvious that they will want you to give them some money, it’s also a good opportunity to have a chat and learn a bit about local life.

At the most popular temples you’re approached by locals but you don’t have a chance to engage much.

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Another popular activity is to watch the sunrise and sunset from the top of a pagoda.

I took a taxi (15,000MMK, a bit expensive) to watch the sunset. The pagodas can get quite busy, and especially since the 2016 earthquake, not many pagodas are available to climb, so everyone ends up in the same places.

I wanted the sunset at Bulethi temple, which has amazing views. It is a truly magical experience, seeing all the pagodas in the changing light and the countryside in different colours.

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Watching a sunrise from a pagoda is a highlight of any trip to Bagan, so I woke up at 4h30am. A big crowd gathered at Bulethi temple, but it was definitely worth it. You have plenty of time to take in the atmosphere (and take a million photos) of the light changing over the misty pagodas.

When it’s time for sunrise, hot air balloons take to the skies and give the place a fairy tale atmosphere. It’s a unique and magical place and the sunrise alone brings it all together.

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Mount Popa:

I took a shared taxi to Mount Popa, which is about 1h30 from Bagan. Mt Popa is a sacred mountain (of volcanic origin) with a pagoda at its top. Climbing the 777 steps to get there and fielding monkeys drinking from half-empty cans of Coke, you are greeted with great views over the countryside.

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This is a nice trip to do as long as you have enough time in Bagan. You can book a shared taxi for 10,000MMK which picks you up at your hotel at 9am and drops you off at 2pm.

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Food:

  • I went for dinner at Sanon, a social enterprise training local youths to work at and run restaurants. The food is really great (dinner for one including drinks and tip for 8,500-11,000MMK) and it’s a good place to go to if you’re staying in Nyaung U.
  • I had lunch at Moon, a popular vegetarian place close to Old Bagan. The food was really delicious and the place is great (lunch for one for 6,700MMK). They also have a great selection of juices.
  • Weather Spoons is a popular place with tourists (and much better than its British counterpart). It’s a good place with a varied menu and strong cocktails for £1.50 (lunch including drinks and tip for 8,000MMK).

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HOW TO DO IT:

There are many ways to visit Bagan. I chose to book everything independently but spending a bit on comfort.

  • Go: I chose to fly in, which is definitely the fastest option. From Mandalay it was only 30min and $70 with Golden Myanmar.
  • Stay: I stayed at Royal Bagan which was a great option – I paid £17 per night for a comfy double bedroom. Nyaung U is the area where most people stay, and that’s where you’ll find most restaurants and a few handicraft shops. In the evenings it’s a good place to go for dinner and a drink.
  • Get around: Most people rent and electric bike to get around, but I got a normal bike (2,000MMK for half a day). You can cover a lot of ground just riding around and stopping at some pagodas along the way.

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Bagan is a unique place. The countryside landscape filled with thousands of pagodas in a place that otherwise would be completely unremarkable really makes for a surreal sight.

I spent 4 days in Bagan which is a good amount of time to see everything without rushing. You can get a map with the key temples, but it’s more the scale of the site than the individual temples that matters, so you might as well just wander around and stops where looks good.

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A few people I know said it was a good idea to come to Myanmar now before it’s too touristy, and I think this is good advice for Bagan. Even though my experience was always great, the large crowds for sunrise and sunset on the pagodas just don’t fit with the place.

Many pagodas were damaged in the 2016 earthquake so there aren’t that many left to climb. And with the large number of tourists, there is risk to their structure. So I think this was definitely the right time to visit!

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JUMPERS IN THE HEAT AND THE LARGEST BOOK IN THE WORLD: Quick stop in Mandalay

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Mandalay is not super easy to like – walking downtown there doesn’t seem to be that much to do, and the busy roads are not in great condition. But you do find interesting things around, like the odd street market with nice food stalls.

I was unlucky with the weather in Mandalay as it was cloudy and a bit rainy (very cold for locals at 22 degrees). So I skipped Mandalay Hill as I wouldn’t get much of a view and instead explored the pagodas at the foot of the hill, including Kothodaw pagoda that has a claim to fame as being ‘the largest book in the world’.

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I don’t think Mandalay is a necessary stop in a trip to Myanmar, but as I walked around the city grew on me. The area to the east of Mandalay Palace has less traffic and so is nicer to explore on foot.

For dinner I went to the popular Mingalabar, a restaurant serving delicious food with the most insanely large portions (a small feast for one including drinks and tip for 9,500MMK).

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I stayed at Diamonds Inn, a really nice hotel ($25 per night including breakfast) that was centrally located and perfect for a break after a hot day exploring.

I went for a foot massage at Innwa and it was great. The service was excellent and it cost only 7,000MMK (about £4!).

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COOL RESTAURANTS AND A LIVELY PAGODA: A good time in Yangon

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I didn’t have very high expectations about Yangon and I was pleasantly surprised.

Downtown Yangon is easy to navigate and you can go everywhere on foot (if you can stand the heat). It’s definitely not as busy as other cities in Southeast Asia. It’s a mix of large roads with big offices and little streets with food and vegetable stalls. You can lose yourself for a few hours covering the many different areas to see.

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Bogyoke Aung San Market is a large market selling lots of different types of handicraft, and a good place to explore even if you’re not planning to buy anything.

Shwedagon Pagoda is the main highlight of Yangon. To avoid the heat it’s best to visit at sunset, and you also get to see the lights come on when it’s dark. The place is incredible, there are lots of amazing buildings and you can easily spend a few hours taking in all the details and people-watching.

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Sule pagoda: this is not the most impressive pagoda (tickets 2,000MMK), but it’s worth a visit as it’s quite central. Next to it there’s a big park and lots of street food stalls.

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Health Blessing: at the end of my trip I decided to visit this massage spa for a foot massage (1h for 12,000MMK). The service was very good and they have many locations around Yangon.

Circular line: You can take a train around Yangon. It takes 3h for the full loop, and you see busy markets, farmland and people going about their lives. Inside the train, people selling all sorts of snacks come and go. My carriage was taken over by vegetables being taken to markets, which was an unusual sight (but there are many). This is definitely a fun thing to do in Yangon. Buy your ticket for 200MMK at platform 7 at the Central Station. It’s best to go early to avoid the heat.

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It’s easy to spend a few days in Yangon – underneath the surface, there are lots of cool places: nice restaurants and a modern feel to Myanmar living.

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Food:

  • Nourish is a vegan place catering for expats and tourists. The food is good (meal with a drink for 14,500MMK, expensive for Myanmar) and it’s a good place to go for a change. They also have a yoga studio on site.
  • Monsoon is a nice restaurant serving food from Myanmar and beyond. Friendly service and big portions (lunch for 10,500MMK).
  • Kafe in Town: this is a great spot for coffee and dessert (for 6,500MMK). It’s a brand new cafe where you can chill and lounge about for a bit.

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COCKTAILS BY THE ACROPOLIS AND TOO MANY CAKES: Food and drink in Athens

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Athens is full of amazing places to eat and drink. Cafes are everywhere, serving great coffee and even better cakes and sweets. Here are my favourites:

DESSERT:

MELIARTOS

Meliartos is a bakery selling all sorts of sandwiches, cakes, coffee and ice cream. There’s lots on offer at the shop downstairs and table service upstairs. I had a delicious feta filo pastry and coffee (7.50€ including tip). Then I came back for some cake (a generous slice for 3.80€).

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LUKUMADES

The most popular dessert place in Athens, Lukumades is a great place to visit. They serve the Greek equivalent of donuts, and they’re really delicious. There are many flavours (I chose the ones with honey and cinnamon – 3.20€ for 10 little donuts), and portions are huge! They are made to order and served hot, which is really nice.

ZUCCHERINO

Zuccherino is a nice ice cream and dessert shop in a cute square close to Ermou street. Their ice cream is really delicious and creamy, and their desserts are also yummy (unnecessarily huge portions for 3.80€).

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FRESKO

There are many places to try Greek yogurt in Athens, but Fresko is one of the most popular. I tried the one with honey and walnuts (3.20€ for the small size), and it was really creamy and delicious.

ASSIMAKOPOULOS BAKERY

I ended up here because I read something about it online, but it is located in a bit of a rough area. This is a traditional pastry shop and bakery with the most amazing displays. I tried a pistachio mousse (cheap at 3.40€) which was absolutely amazing!

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BARS:

  • BRETTOS: Brettos comes up in any list of Athens recommendations, and it’s a definite must. They distil their own liquor and also have a huge wine and cocktail list. Plus their colourful display of bottles is so cool! Cocktails for 8€.
  • SIX DOGS: This popular bar is Athens’ equivalent of a ruin bar. The place looks really cool and gets quite busy. Drinks for around 5€.
  • CITI ZEN: You need to go up to the fourth floor to get to Citi Zen, but when you get there, you are greeted with the most amazing views of the Acropolis (make sure to sit outside)! Drinks for 6€.

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FOOD:

MAMA ROUX: I found this place by chance on my last day and it was a great find. It’s a popular brunch and cocktails place serving international food, and they have plenty of veggie and vegan options (meal and drink for one, including tip for 15€).

FALAFEL HOUSE: This veggie falafel place serving wraps and salads was really good – and cheap: dishes cost 3€ to 3.50€ and portions are massive.

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AVOCADO: Located between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, Avocado is a great veggie restaurant (dinner for two including drinks and tip for 34€). The food is delicious and the menu very varied.

ZAHARI & ALATI: This little cafe serving mostly vegan food is a great find. The food is delicious and portions are generous. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 21€.

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HOW TO DO IT:

STAY: I stayed at two Airbnbs and both were good (prices were great). This place was perfect in terms of location – the Plaka is definitely the best choice as you can explore everything on foot easily.

WHEN TO GO: I visited in November, and I got some bad weather. But other than a few days of rain, this was a good time to visit as temperatures are still 10-20 degrees and it’s low season. For travelling around it’s best to visit between March and October as transportation to Greek Islands or to tourist sites in mainland Greece is mostly seasonal.

TRANSPORTATION: You can cover pretty much all of the key areas of Athens on foot. The metro network is good but doesn’t go everywhere (single tickets 1.40€, tickets to the airport 10€).

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DORIC COLUMNS AND SCENIC VIEWS OF THE PARTHENON: Highlights of Athens

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Athens is a lively and interesting city. The Acropolis provides a scenic backdrop to the city, but in truth Athens is not as focused on its past as other places (like Rome).

There are many different places to explore, the Plaka with its traditional streets, Meliartos with its cool cafes and bars. But Athens is not a place for doing lots – it’s a place to slow down with a cup of coffee and cake, preferably with a view of the Parthenon.

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ACROPOLIS

Athens’ most famous attraction is the Acropolis. Hosting the Parthenon and other temples, it really is an impressive sight. To get there you need to go up a hill, and along the way you already get great views over Athens.

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Tickets cost only 10€ during the winter (November to March), and you also avoid most of the crowds.

There are a few different things to see at the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena, the Theatre of Dionysus and, of course, the Parthenon.

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The Parthenon itself has been going through a big renovation project over many years, so inevitably there are cranes around it. You still get a feel for the scale of it though.

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ACROPOLIS MUSEUM

Near the Acropolis is the interesting Acropolis Museum (tickets 5€). It hosts all sort of objects from the Acropolis, from statues from the Parthenon to vases and household objects.

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It is a new museum which opened in 2009, and there are lots of explanations and videos, many of them highlighting the pillaging of key features of the Parthenon (British Museum, I’m looking at you).

It is a great place to visit right after you see the Acropolis as the two really complement each other – and you even get views of the Acropolis from the museum.

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PLAKA

Plaka is a pedestrianised area of Athens at the bottom of the Acropolis. It is full of pedestrianised streets with little souvenir shops and taverns, and it looks like what you’d imagine Greece to look like. Even though it’s at the heart of the city, it feels like you’re in a small town – it reminded me a bit of the Old Town in Dubrovnik.

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You can definitely spend a few hours wandering around and exploring the little streets during the day, or stopping for drinks in the evening. It’s also a great place to stay as it’s very centrally located and close to many of Athens’ attractions.

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TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS AND HADRIAN’S ARCH

Very close to the Plaka you can find the Temple of Olympian Zeus (ticket 3€) and Hadrian’s Arch (free of charge). These are impressive ruins which are conveniently located with the Acropolis in the background.

The most interesting thing about these is the scale. They are definitely worth a visit but you don’t need more than 20 minutes to see both.

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ANCIENT AGORA

The ancient Agora of Athens (tickets 4€) is a large archaeological site not far from the Acropolis. The site has lots of columns, a museum and marble statues. The main highlight of this site is the temple of Hephaestus, which is the best preserved temple of its kind, and it does look really nice.

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ROMAN AGORA

Just a few hundred metres from the Ancient Agora is the Roman Agora (tickets 3€) which is a smaller but interesting site, with a range of ruins. It includes the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal clock tower with a really nice design

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OTHER ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Hadrian’s Library and the Kerameikos Cemetery are two other sites to visit in central Athens. I chose not to go into either as you can get a good view of what they offer from the outside. I also thought that the other sites in Athens didn’t offer much in way of explanation, so once you have a look at the ruins you already got all the value from the site.

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NATIONAL GARDEN

Located behind Syntagma square, the National Garden is a beautiful urban park, full of gardens, lively birds and people running around. When I visited it was autumn, so you got a beautiful effect with the leaves falling. A great place to check out for a couple of relaxing hours.

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PANATHENAIC STADIUM

Athens is rightly proud of its Olympic past, and you get a glimpse of that at the Panathenaic Stadium, which was built for the first modern Olympic Games. You can pay to go in (tickets 5€), but in reality you can see the whole stadium from the outside which is what most people do.

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SYNTAGMA SQUARE, MONASTIRAKI AND PSYRI

Syntagma Square is the central square of Athens. It is close to the Plaka and it leads to Ermou street, which is full of the high street shops you see anywhere in Europe. But the area around it, Monastiraki, is also full of really cool bars and cafes, always busy with people having a drink and eating some cake.

Nearby Psyri is home to lots of traditional tavernas and cafes, busy with people and live music.

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MOUNT LYCABETTUS

The best view of Athens, and particularly the Acropolis, is from Mount Lycabettus. You need to climb up some steps, but the hike up is really nice with great views and – weirdly – the odd tortoise passing by. From the top you see the Parthenon, all the main ruins scattered around Athens, the Panathenaic Stadium and all the way to the sea.

It is a lovely place to visit on a sunny day!

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FILOPAPPOU HILL

Filopappou Hill, or Hill of the Muses, is another great place to get a good view of Athens and the Acropolis. The hill itself is not that high, but it’s located right across from the Acropolis, so you see the ruins on one side and the sea on the other.

A good thing about this place is that it’s right next to the Acropolis Museum, so it’s easily accessible on a day of sightseeing.

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NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

The National Archaeological Museum (tickets 5€) is a bit further from most other attractions in Greece, but it does have an impressive collection. It is home to lots of ancient statues and all the amphorae you may need.

The display itself could use a few more explanations of the context of the objects, but it’s still worth a visit.

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MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART

The Museum of Cycladic Art (ticket 7€) is famous for the figurines of white marble on display. These are interesting and they do have a nice collection, but they also have an interesting display of classic Greek household objects, with interesting explanations bringing it all to life.

BENAKI MUSEUM

The Benaki Museum (tickets usually 9€, but when I visited it was free for some reason) also has a good collection of Greek artefacts, from the antiquity to the XIX century. The museum is located in a beautiful building not far from Syntagma square and it’s worth a visit if you’re in Athens for a good amount of time.

DEEP BLUE SEAS AND SCENIC VIEWS: A week in the Peloponnese

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I wanted to go to the Peloponnese since this Lonely Planet article put it at the top of places to visit in Europe.

I chose to stay in Nafplio as it’s a beautiful town and there were other places to explore nearby.

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NAFPLIO OLD TOWN

Nafplio is really cute and the Old Town is full of little streets and cute shops. There’s a nice pier with a promenade overlooking Bourtzi fortress in the sea, which is a lovely and scenic view.

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PALAMIDI FORTRESS

Overlooking Nafplio and with great views over the Old Town, Palamidi (tickets 4€) is a fortress that provides the backdrop to Nafplio. You need to climb quite a few steps to get there, but the view and the fortress ruins are definitely worth the hike.

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KARATHONA BEACH

Following a promenade that starts at the city centre of Nafplio, the path to Karathona beach is a lovely walk and a great spot for watching the sunset. You get to spot lots of fish swimming in the clear waters, kingfisher and other birds flying around and pretty local flora. There are also lots of little beaches along the way.

This is a scenic walk of a couple of miles by the beach, with plenty of benches to stop along the way and take in the scenery.

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TOLO

A 20min bus ride away from Nafplio, Tolo is a cute and scenic port town with a beautiful beach. When we visited it was mostly empty, which made it really nice for a walk.

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You can take the bus back to Nafplio but we decided to follow the walk suggested here and explore the Greek countryside instead. The walk goes through cultivated fields of olives and oranges, and you get great views of the land and the sea. Up the hill there’s a little monastery where you can sit and take in the landscape.

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TYRINS

Only 4km away from Nafplio and easily reached by bus (but not walking, as there are no pedestrian paths) is Tyrins, a Unesco Heritage site (tickets 2€).

It is a large site built from 2,000 BC. The site itself is pretty big and there are lots of ruins, but they are not in a state that you can understand much (some artefacts found in Tyrins can be seen at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens).

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FOOD AND DRINK

Nafplio Old Town has lots of cute bars and restaurants, with plenty of choice for a break. A favourite was popular Aiolos, which serves delicious Greek food. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 25€.

Greek restaurants are famous for their hospitality, and you will often get free dessert and other bits as part of a meal.

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STAY

We stayed at this Airbnb which was well-located and a great size for two people. Magda, the host, even cooked us a delicious dish of aubergine and potatoes which was just what we needed after a day of hiking.

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GO

Nafplio is 2h10 by bus from Athens. You can buy tickets online here. The bus leaves from Kifisou station which is a bit far from the centre of Athens. Once there, look for the ‘Argolida’ signs to find the right platforms.

The same website also has timetables and routes for all buses around Nafplio.

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LET’S NEVER COME HERE AGAIN BECAUSE IT WOULD NEVER BE AS MUCH FUN: Reflections on Tokyo and Japan

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I’m a big believer that your experience of a place depends not only on the place itself, but also on where you are in your life when you visit it. And I got to Tokyo right at the perfect time!

I was never particularly interested in Japan when I was growing up, but when I first started planning my sabbatical it was at the top of my list.

The night I arrived in Tokyo, as soon as I got out of Tokyo Station and started walking to my capsule hotel, I knew this was going to be a great trip. From the start of my trip I loved everything: the bright neon signs, the cute packaging, the quietness of zen gardens and the loudness of busy streets.

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Most people I know like Kyoto better than Tokyo – Kyoto has more of what we expect traditional Japan to be: it has endless amounts of incredible temples and lots of cool restaurants and bars. And although I had a great time in Kyoto, Tokyo for me just doesn’t compare. It is the most incredible city ever.

Tokyo goes forever – I spent 23 days there and I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface. Just walking around, day or night, I’d spend hours trying to soak it all in. From the sensory overload of Shinjuku to the attractiveness of Ginza to the traditional liveliness of Asakusa, Tokyo has it all, and then some.

I’m an urban soul, and I always feel recharged when I’m in a good big city – and Tokyo is the ‘citiest’ of cities.

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THOUGHTS ON JAPAN

I don’t really believe in perfection, but Japan gets very close. Everything works incredibly well, and given how different their culture is from that of Europe, it is amazing how easy things are.

Their famous transport network really works incredibly – and despite how busy it is, you’re really struck by how clean and quiet the trains are.

There are lots of things to make your life easy: the vending machines, convenience stores, products you never knew you needed, toilets with lots of buttons, restaurants where you place your order through a machine – everything is efficient and works.

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Japan also has an interesting dualism, being maximalist and minimalist at the same time. There’s the OTT neon signs, the kawaii cartoon characters on anything from sweets to health & safety messages, the insanity of discount stores filled floor to ceiling with all the tat in the world.

Then there’s the quiet of zen gardens, the simplicity of interior design where nothing is superfluous, the streamlined processes. Japan wouldn’t be the same without both.

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Another interesting paradox is that Japanese society, despite placing a greater emphasis on the collective, actually delivers greatness at the individual level too (of course this doesn’t apply to the exploitation of their workforce).

When you buy something in Japan, no matter how small, the rituals and formality around it always made me feel great about it – things are presented to you like they matter (even if you’re just buying a bottle of water) – and you’re treated like the only customer in the world. I’m a terrible shopper but in Japan I always felt good after buying something. This attention to detail really has a great impact on the individual experience.

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The Japanese people I met along the way were always interested to know my impressions of Japan and asked if I was having a good time – which of course I was. They seemed eager to please and to ensure I had a good experience.

Japanese people are discreet, but they are also helpful – without asking I was quickly shown how to do something or where to go on a number of occasions.

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I had the most wonderful time in Japan. It’s a magical country that is a whole world in itself. After one month, I still felt in awe at the smallest things like the potholes decorated with cherry blossoms or the way things always work.

This was the trip of a lifetime, and I would love to go back, but as they say in Lost in Translation:

“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”

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