I'm in Piraeus, first stop on a visit to Greece. The weather is t-shirt-and-shorts comfortable and so far all has gone off without a hitch.
Piraeus is Athen's port, a dense, old city that occupies the space between Athens and the Mediterranean. It's not a destination in itself, just a place to stop while waiting for a ferry, which is what I'm doing. Boarding a ship means walking among cars, trucks and motorbikes, there is none of the separation you see with BC ferries. No guard rails either, a pattern throughout Greece I will find. I guess we don't need no stink'in guardrails.
Tomorrow, 7am, we'll take the Blue Star Delos as far as the island of Naxos. After Naxos the ferry goes to Santorini, then it reverses course, returning to Piraeus before midnight.
Today was cloudy and cool, good for a half travel, half explore day. We took the Blue Star Delos from Piraeus to the town of Naxos (aka Chora) which is on the island of Naxos. It takes about six hours.
First, the Delos. It's large, 2400 passengers. It's in good shape and has several food sources and espresso stands. Lots of places to sit though we are off season so I can imagine it can get crowded in summer. We stayed outdoors, on the back deck, to look at passing ships and islands. The only annoyance was cigarette smoke. I will soon find almost everyone in Greece smokes.
Naxos is the largest island in the Cyclades. It's said to be the greenest, too, though in comparison to BC it's a desert. Naxos Town, the largest town on the island, makes a good first impression. The waterfront is pretty and chock-a-block sidewalk cafes separated from cars. After checking in to our hotel we ate dinner then walked to the massive marble doorway called the Portara, entrance to an unfinished Temple to Apollo. A nice view of the town from there.
Morning arrived with the sound of rain but it wasn't rain, it was popping from the electrical transformer next to the hotel, the comfortable and reasonably-priced Anassa suites. Later the hotel's proprietor assured us it was normal, something about the evening humidity.
After a cappuccino Paul and I walked to the old town, old being relative as everything is old. Our goal was a cafe known for views but we could not find it. We visited the archaeological museum. instead, a small collection of art and every-day objects dating from 5300 BC to the 5th century AD. Quick and cheap (2). Uninspired with minimal texts, but cheap and quick.
Next we walked to St George beach, south of town, to watch windsurfers riding the crystal-clear water. Really, the water here is transparent like glass.
My advice should you visit Greece: don't drink ouzo on an empty stomach. Just don't ask me how I know.
Today we swam in the Mediterranean, traveled back in time to 530 BC, and got a taste of driving like a Greek.
First, we walked to Avis where their friendly young rep spent a good half hour sharing her thoughts on the best ruins, the most charming hill towns, and the most photogenic drives.
Next, I drove our droptop Fiat Cinquecento a few km south to Plaka, one of the many beaches that circle Naxos island. I'd post a pic but you can use your imagination: it's a long stretch of sand, lapped by crystal-clear water, and dotted with the occasional person, some sans clothing.
From the beach we headed inland to check out the Dimitra temple. Driving on Naxos I soon discovered takes full concentration. Roads are narrow: they range from paved with two lanes to paved with one lane to dirt with one lane. More than once I had to pull over to let an opposing car pass, once I had to back up to let a pair of cars get by as the space between buildings was barely a car wide, and once I got stuck between buildings and had to back about a block as even with the mirrors collapsed the Fiat - not a wide car mind you, this is the Mini-sized 500 - couldn't squeeze any further. (At this point my claustrophobia kicked in and I briefly thought I'd have to escape through the car's sunroof.) The motorcyclist who got stuck behind me had a lot to say about this but I can only imagine what he said as it was all in Greek.
Finally, we arrived at the temple. Built around 530 BC and dedicated to the goddess Dimitra, the ruins are easy to miss as the text on the road sign has faded away. Fortunately the one-lane road, which is hemmed in by stone walls, ends just past the path to the temple. Unfortunately we found none of the signage readable, it has almost all faded away, with only a few legible words. A bit indicative of Greece's state I'm afraid.
The day started with a Seinfeld reference and ended with a hike to the highest point on the island of Naxos.
We woke to see the cruise ship MV Astoria anchored offshore and unloading passengers via tenders. The Astoria, it turns out, has had seven owners and ten names since it entered service in 1948 as the MS Stockholm, though I don't know whether this is unusual for a ship of this vintage. What is interesting is that, sailing under the name Stockholm, it collided with the Andrea Doria off the coast of Nantucket Massachusetts in 1956, resulting in the sinking of the Andrea Doria and the loss of 46 of its 1,660 passengers. Both crews shared in the blame.
If you are a Seinfeld fan you'll recall that George Costanza lost an apartment to a survivor of the sinking. While George's tales of woe drew more sympathy than the survivor's experience, a bribe from the latter won the apartment.
Now to the serious business of being a tourist. Most of our day was spent hiking to the top of Mt Zas (or Mt Zeus) , the highest point in the Cyclades at about 1000 m. The views are far reaching all the way up to the peak: we could see inland Naxos, the neighboring island of Paros, as well as the Aegean sea and several of the other Cycladic islands.
We spent our last full day on Naxos touring the center and north sides of the island. The narrow, winding, vertigo-inducing roads took us to the mountainside towns of Moni and Apirathos and the seaside town of Apolonas.
Something you'll find on Naxos is an abundance of small chapels. They are everywhere, on hillsides, tucked into valleys, and even perched on seemingly- inaccessible hilltops. They are always white in colour so they stand out against the background (though white combined with bright blue trim is a common colour for buildings on the island).
A less common sight is a kouros, which is an ancient, free-standing sculpture, usually of a nude male youth. There are three on Naxos, the largest being the 10 meter long kouros just outside the town of Apolonas. It has been dated as being from the 6th or 7th century BC. It lies on its back near an old marble quarry. This being Naxos, little has been done to promote access: there is no parking lot and no explanatory signage. It's just lying there, a few steps off the road. In the photo Paul is standing next to the statue to give a sense of its size.
I'll miss Naxos as it's a very charming town, not too big and not too small, and it's a port so there is always change: the light, the boats, the people. The people we've met, from the Avis lady - what a sweetheart! - to the hotel proprietor, to the little old lady we talked to on the far side of the island, everyone has been friendly and welcoming. I've also learned a bit about the struggles they are dealing with, the economic stresses and the doctor shortage, yet they are carrying on, working hard, and putting their best face forward. I think anyone who says Greeks are lazy has never been to Greece. Avtio, Naxos.
Our first night on Santorini island. The hotel, the Petit Palace, is comfortable and the view, as you can see, is stunning. My sole complaint is spotty wifi. Of course you don't come to Santorini for the wifi, you come to perch on the rim of a volcanic caldera and soak in the breathtaking setting.
Today we started out by exploring Fira, Santorini island's capital and largest city. It was a blazingly sunny day, the brightness enhanced by the ubiquitous white buildings and reflections off the wine-dark sea.
I am reading the wonderful Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey and can easily visualize Ulysses' ship sailing the Greek waters, trying to avoid being bashed into the rocky shores. In fact, at the base of the cliff 250m below our hotel is an outline of where a cruise ship sunk in 2007. The giant ship is still there.
Fira's 7000 inhabitants are dwarfed by tourists; the town is covered with hotels and restaurants, many of which cascade down the cliffside to afford views of the caldera and the boats that ply its waters. Yet everyone we've met has been friendly and helpful and most people we've encountered speak English - and their English is certainly better than my Greek. Signage, too, is almost always accompanied by an English translation.
Next, we walked north from Fira along the cliffside path to the two adjacent villages, Firostefani and Imerovigli. While there Paul hiked out to Skaros, a rocky outcrop that once featured a village and a castle.
Aeolus, the god of the winds, was in full form today as we set out from the Petit Palace hotel for the distant village of Oia. In addition to facing Aeolus's brisk winds we missed the bus into town so it was an exhausting day. First we retraced yesterday's path to Fira, Firostefani, and then Imerovigli. Then we hiked a path that hugs the cliffside overlooking the caldera. It also involves climbing a couple of hills. Finally the path drops down to Oia, at the northern-most tip of Santorini island. By the end of the day I figure we did 16km.
Oia is a yet another charming hilltop town, a little more polished than Fira - the marble sidewalks are beautiful - but I didn't find Oia all that different from Fira. Oia might be a better place to stay than Fira if only for the fact that Fira is where the cruise ships disembark.
We took the bus back to Fira then walked the rest of the way to the hotel. The ticket taker on the very comfortable bus provided an entertaining nonstop commentary on his need for small change for fares as well as how not to dispose of our bus ticket stubs. All in English, mind you. Then, on the walk back we encountered several groups of donkeys going home for the night. I suppose these are the animals that ferry passengers frim Fira's cruise ship port. Note that the guidebooks discourage using the poor donkeys.
Dinner was excellent Mexican at Senor Zorba, our second visit. Greek cuisine is fine but it is also nice to have a break from it.
We're in Nafplio to see its elegant old town, to hike up to its looming fortress, and to start an exploration of the Peloponnese.
I'd not heard of Nafplio until I started research for this trip. It has a long colourful history thanks to its strategic location. Since ancient times Nafplio has been fought over and control passed between Greeks, Venetians and Ottomans. More recently Nafplio was the first capital of modern Greece, though only for the brief period of 1829 to 1834.
As the crow flies Nafplio isn't far from Santorini but it took a good part of a day to get here as it required a flight to Athens, a bus to the city, then a bus to Nafplio. I hate hate hate flying so would much rather have sailed but ferry schedules are sparse this time of year.
After arriving we spent the evening walking the beautiful marble-paved streets, stopping to eat sweets from the abundance of pastry shops. The Greeks are very good pastry makers, with honey featuring a big role. Mmmmm.
I took these photos pretty late in the evening so the streets were largely empty. I converted them to black and white using the lovely Fuji Acros film simulation. Nafplio's old town is beautifully lit at night. Its marble-lined streets and squares shimmer with reflections and remind me of nighttime in Siracusa, though I think Nafplio may be in better shape.
After eating a gyro - my second today, both good and cheap at a little past 2 - we capped the evening by sitting in on a free concert in an old church.
Some travelers like beaches; I find them boring after half an hour. Some like fancy restaurants; I find the more I spend on food the less I like it, what I call my rule of diminishing returns for restaurants. Some like to shop; I really don't need any more stuff, plus I've a long way to lug purchases to get them home.
What I do like is to hike to the highest point in town, so today we hiked up to the Palamidi fortress.
The Palmidi fortress looms over Nafplio. It's a huge rambling stone complex that covers a hilltop that's something like 220m high.
I'm glad we climbed to the top of the Palmidi fortress yesterday because the 999 steps would be pretty slippery today. Instead we hung around town, window shopping and eating and checking out the harbour and the smaller Akronafplia fortress which is just above our hotel.
Our hotel, the Amfitriti Palazzo, is a nice-enough place: centrally located, good breakfasts, stylish, but it is not for the staircase averse or for those who hate cats. Though if you hate cats I'd say maybe you should just avoid Greece altogether as there are cats everywhere.
After breakfast we walked out to the harbour to check out the breakwater and get a close look at the Windstar, a small cruise ship that is a combo sail/motor boat. The same ship was anchored off Santorini a couple days ago. We are tempted to try a cruise someday though I'm not sure I'll like the brevity of the shore leaves.
We spent some time talking to a woman fishing off the breakwater (see picture of her below), about the economy and fishing and Greece in general. Gotta say I've yet to meet friendlier people than the Greeks.
From the harbour you can see Nafplio's three Venetian fortresses. There's actually a fourth fortress across the bay but the sky was too grey to get a good view of it.
The Palmidi fortress is the one we climbed yesterday. The Bourtzi fortress is on a small island just offshore. And the Akronafplia fortress is just behind our hotel. We'll climb it - it's just a short hike up - later today.
Back in the old town I wolfed down a dark chocolate gelato at the Antica Gelateria. The old town is full of tempting places to eat: pastry shops - so many pastry shops! -, cafes, gyros, ice cream, and on and on, and none of them chain restaurants, no macdonalds, no olive gardens. Many Greek restauranteours try to engage you as you walk by, but they aren't obnoxiously pushy like those in nearby Turkey. I just smile, say hello, say no thanks.
Just another day in Greece.
We picked up a car in Nafplio to go to Monemvasia, a giant rock island with a medieval town wrapped around it. And of course we chose to drive the scenic route, which combined a windy two-lane road that hugs the coast, a plunge through a Yosemite valley-like canyon, a twisty 1,250 meter mountain pass, then an easy downhill that became a tiring slog through a frog strangler, what we call a torrential rainstorm in Texas.
Highlights of today's drive were the town of Leonidio which is in a dramatic red/brown rock canyon, the quaint stone mountaintop town of Kosmas whose main square is filled with cafes surrounding a pretty church, and a monastary somehow carved into the side of a cliff. A pretty drive, and the road is in good condition.
When you arrive you find that you can't drive in Monemvasia. In fact you can't even see the town from the mainland, it's hidden on the far side of the island. A defensive measure of course. To get to Monemvasia you drive through the mainland town of Gefyra, cross a narrow causeway over the Mediterranean, then leave your car on the road. Well, assuming you find a place to park. From there you walk through a dark tunnel which pierces the city wall. When you come out of the tunnel you feel like you've stepped back into medieval times as you are in an old stone village that is very rough around the edges. This isn't Santorini.
Monemvasia is split between a lower town, which is peppered with hotel rooms, cafes, and a few shops, and an upper town with castle ruins. The lower town is a honeycomb of cobblestone stairs and alleys. Hotels consist of rooms scattered here and there, with no cohesive plan. The chunky cobblestones make for a challenging walk - wheeled luggage won't roll here - and you have to watch your every step, and it's even more challeging in the rain as the round stones get slippery. That said, it is also very cool to look at and explore, with old stone work, low arches, and narrow passageways.
Fortunately the rain has passed, the stars are out, so tomorrow we'll explore the lower and upper towns.
One look at Monemvasia and you think this is one defensible place: the upper town, which was occupied before the lower town, is surrounded by a hundred meters or more of rocky cliffs. Better yet, it's an island. Of course if you're holed up here, surrounded by angry hordes, at some point there is the problem of food and water as the climate is dry and the ground is mostly rock. Nothing's perfect I guess.
We are staying at a hotel in the lower town, the occupied area of the island, and so today we explored Monemvasia's unoccupied upper town. The path from lower to upper takes a series of slippery cobblestone switchbacks that end at a small but foreboding door in a big wall. Think Mordor. Once inside the door you pass through a long dark tunnel that is crooked so as to deny any peek of the town beyond.
Unlike the lower town, which is beautifully restored medieval/Greek chic, the upper has no residents or businesses. Instead it is speckled with ruins in various states of decay and reconstruction. The best two of the many ruins are the vaulted building adjacent to to the wall and the large church, the Agia Sophia, that is furthur up the hill and precariously positioned on a cliff edge. We spent several hours here, walking the sometimes confusing paths, climbing the ruins, and looking over the edges of the hill. The views are expansive but you have to watch your step as there are holes that fall into cisterns and cliffs with no railings or barriers of any kind.
The best restored building is the beautiful church of Agia Sophia which, I've read, combines Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian elements. It even has some colorful murals inside; these reminded me of murals i saw at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
After hiking down we explored the lower town, walked along the city wall, and then waved goodbye to the Windstar cruise ship yet again; we also encountered it in Santorini and Nafplio.
I don't usually talk food but we had a great dinner of mezes at Voltes Mezedopolio for 25. Like old town Nafplio, there are no tacky fast food places in Monemvasia, every restaurant on the one commercial street looks pretty classy.
Let's see if I can complete this post before the Malvazia hotel's wifi disappears again ...
We woke to grey and wet weather but soon enough it cleared and it became a good day to wander the delightful island of Monemvasia.
To get some perspective on Monemvasia the first thing we did today was leave. We walked across the causeway to the nearby town of Gefyra where I took the first picture which shows Monemvasia as seen from the mainland. The connecting causeway is on the left of the picture. At one time there was a tower and drawbridge in the middle of the causeway but now there is a conventional bridge, a small hotel and gas station, and piers for small boats.
There's no hint of a walled town visible from the mainland, aside from a few structures sticking out on the top of the rock, which of course made this a more secure and defensible place.
The importance of defense is reinforced time and time again as I travel the old cities of Europe. Cliff-top Ronda, for example, hints at the same isolation as Monemvasia but it's nowhere near as secure. Both towns also shared a weakness in terms of food and water supplies.
As you drive (or walk) the narrow road that hugs the southern side of the island, the island appears to be uninhabited. Then you pass a cemetary and round a corner and suddenly you see the lower town's western wall. A small door in the wall leads to a crooked passageway which then opens on the main street of the town. The wall surrounds the town on three sides, the fourth side being protected by the cliff.
Monemvasia has been a real treat to visit. The narrow cobblestone streets, the ominous cliffs, the city walls, the small atmospheric buildings with their narrow stairs and low ceilings, the stonework and ruins, it's a magical medieval atmosphere. And, of course, the friendly Greek people and delicious food - tasty mezes again tonight! - just add to the pleasure.
The wind god was blasting Monemvasia this morning when we said goodbye; the sea frosted with whitecaps. It was time to head west, to check out the ruins at Mystras and then on to Kardamyli on the rugged west coast of the Mani peninsula.
Our first stop, Mystras, was about the halfway mark on today's drive. The fortress atop Mystras was built around 1249 and in subsequent years the hillside below developed into a walled city. Today Mystras consists of a lot of church ruins, a few in decent shape, plus the crumbling walls of the hilltop castle.
The best preserved/restored churches are near the lower entrance and are well worth visiting but at some point, say after three or four, I found it repetitive. I suppose an anthropologist or archeologist or historian would find it all fascinating but I can only take so many ruins in one day. So we hiked the cobblestone path up to the top of the hill to see what is left of the castle - not much, it turns out - and to view the surrounding countryside, the green hills and the brown above-treeline mountain peaks in the distance. Greece sure is good looking.
Not the best photographic conditions though, the mid-day sun is harsh, the shadows contrasty, but you can't carry golden-hour lighting conditions in your backpack. I took some bracketed shots but have to be home at my PC to process those.
From Mystras we drove south to get around the impressive Taygetos mountains, then north along the rugged coast to Kardamyli where we are spending a couple nights in a large comfortable apartment. The west coast of the Mani peninsula is beautiful indeed: a deep blue sea crashing against a dry mountainous landscape dotted with nice looking towns.
We stopped for lunch at a cafe somewhere between Kelefa and Platsa, I was desperate for a coffee, where we met a warm, friendly local woman who served us. She reinforced my thinking that the Greeks are the friendliest people.
We're in Kardamyli, a small town which doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions: no sandy beach, not much in the way of ruins, a tiny museum. The two roads in are a pain, hairpin curve after hairpin curve. Few hotels. Yet the same people - mostly Brits but also a smattering of other northern Europeans - return year after year for weeks at a time, filling the many apartments in the summer months. Why? Because Kardamyli is in a beautiful and remote spot, hemmed in by a range of tall mountains to the east and the deep blue Mediterranean to the west.
The regulars are like the Austrian woman we met while hiking. She comes for the hiking, the warm sea, and the friendly laid-back atmosphere (though I'd say Greece in general seems pretty laid back).
We spent the morning hiking to the tiny village of Petrovouni, then to an old church, the Aghia Sophia, and finally back down to Kardamyli for lunch at a seaside cafe. Tough life, eh? It was a pretty easy hike, part cobblestone scramble, part traffic-less country road, and part old stone pathway. Lots of flowers blooming - bougainvillea do really well here - and olive trees. The stone path we hiked on dates back to ancient times when the only way to get to Kardamyli was by walking or boat. I think the road into town is a pretty recent development.
The photos show the countryside which is mostly green forest, largely olive trees. In the second photo is Mount Taygetus at 2400m. (Mystras, which we visited yesterday, is just on the other side of the mountain.) Supposedly it appears in the Odyssey though I've yet to encounter it. Other photos show a couple of churches, a typical new-construction house (the simple but elegant architecture is a relief to my eyes from the over-wrought design seen in north America), and the final photo is of schoolkids practicing for the Oct 28 (No Day) parade. They were in the middle of the highway, blocking traffic a bit, but no one seemed to care. It's all pretty mellow here.
Would love to stay longer in Kardamyli, there are lots of tempting hiking trails all along the coast, but we allowed just long enough to get a taste. Tomorrow is a travel day: we are off to the big city which I expect to be a shock after the series of wonderful small Greek towns we've seen. I didn't expect this: Greece is giving Italy competition for top spot on my list of favorite countries.
We left bucolic Kardamyli early this morning to travel to Athens. I'm not looking forward to a big bustling city after all those mellow Greek towns but I figure the museums and the Acropolis deserve a visit.
The road north from Kardamyli is as beautiful as the road south, winding around red rock cliffs and patches of forest that reminded me of Sedona. Our path then took us through Kalamata where traffic rules are merely suggestions. And then suddenly we were on the A7, an EU-standards-compliant toll highway so perfect in execution that 130 seemed slow. We made great time on the A7.
Soon we were back in Nafplio where we dropped off the Fiesta, ate yet another gyro (can one overdose on gyros?), then hopped the bus to Athens.
The Athens bus left us at the Eleonas (or ) metro stop and from there it was an easy trip to our apartment.
One of the first things I discovered while travelling in Greece is the challenge of names; in Greece a place can have a number of names. Of course you expect there to be a Greek name and an English name but there can be several additional variants. For example Nafplio, , Nauplia and Navplion all refer to the same place. Google maps might use one name, CityMaps2Go (which uses OpenStreetMap's data) another. It can be confusing.
Speaking of maps, Ulmon's CityMaps2Go app is my most used travel app. Assuming I've my phone, I'm never lost because I've got CityMaps2Go. It doesn't do navigation, it has few bells and whistles, but it works with your phone gps and the maps are really good, they even have a lot of hiking trails. For example, all the trails we hiked in Kardamyli are in there. To get around its lack of navigation I find my destination ahead of time and place a pin on the map at that spot, then i target that pin as I walk.
Of course Google is trying to get in on the action here - the offline maps space - but their offline maps
suck are lacking.
Maybe it's user error, maybe it's just too immature a product, whatever it is, I'm not finding Google's offline maps reliable just yet.
Only one photo to post today, the beautful Parthenon. Covered in scaffolding but I think that's a given. It's from a distance: I took this shot from our patio using my telephoto and converted it to B&W with Fuji's Acros. B&W hides a lot of sins in night time photography.
“Alors, c’est la guerre!” can be translated as "Then it is war!"
Greece's main public event in October is Oxi Day, on the 28th. Oxi, by the way, means 'no' in Greek. This day commemorates the date in 1940 when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas said no (actually, he said "then it is war") to the Italian demand to march unopposed into Greece. This was Greece’s entry into WWII on the Allied side. Greece’s fierce resistance against Italy and then against the Nazis is a source of Greek pride.
Most towns have parades on October 28th. School kids get to march in front of their parents and everyone else. We saw kids practicing in Kardamyli earlier this week. Military parades also occur in the larger cities. The day is a public holiday and all state and most private offices are closed. In tourist areas shops and restaurants shut for half a day so their owners can go watch their kids march, but most have reopened by the late afternoon.
I've woken to church bells, I've woken to the call to prayer, but waking to booms is new. Since it's Oxi day in Greece I figured the booms and the accompanying sounds of drums must be the kickoff of the celebration. Cool.
We spent the day checking off the big two sights on the Athens list, the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis. We had the pleasant discovery that both were free today - this being a national holiday - though I wouldn't mind paying, I hear the Greeks could use the euros.
The National Archaeological Museum was about a 45 minute walk from our apartment and it was packed with visitors which is the downside to free. Have you tried the Prado when it's free? Don't.
The museum presentations are arranged chronologically and are well documented in English as well as Greek. I'm fortunate that the sole language I speak is the second language in the country I'm visiting. Ditto the Netherlands and Portugal.
The archaeologists have done a fine job of digging up, analyzing, organizing, and explaining what the've found. It's amazing what has been gleaned from the bits of pottery and sculpture and charred bits that have been dug up.
But just like church ruins in Mystras, a little bit of archaeology goes a long way and soon we left, though we came away impressed with the beauty of the culture. And what a long history they have. Impressive.
In the afternoon we climbed up to the Acropolis, a massive rock that dominates all of Athens. I can't add much save to say the Parthenon is huge and beautiful - the use of optical illusions is brillant - and, like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I wish they'd hurry up and finish it.
Just as we were about to leave - sunset was on its way - a line of fellows in curious costumes walked by, heading for a platform where a large Greek flag was flying in the strong cold breeze. Think Swiss guards but in black and white. They were followed by a small band carrying instruments. The costumed fellows were Evzones, the presidential guard, and they gathered at the flag while the crowd circled around to wait. As the sun set they performed a flag-lowering ceremony, accompanied to music. A nice end to the day and a reminder that we in the west should appreciate the freedoms that others have fought so hard to protect.
And again we heard boom! Boom! Boom!
When dawn spreads out her finger tips of rose the city of Athens looks her best. Problem is, even at her best Athens is largely chock a block grungy cement buildings separated by dirty streets filled with cars parked anywhere they can fit. And then there's the graffiti, the ugly icing on the ugly cake.
But if you can overlook these shortcomings, and maybe you can't, Athens is a perfectly nice place to visit, to eat good food and see some ruins and meet city people who are just as friendly as small town people.
We spent the morning doing the Rick Steves' city walk. I confess I like his guides: he's unashamably opinionated, and we often disagree with his opinions, but his maps are great and his city information useful. I especially like his history-filled city walks. A couple of highlights from this morning's walk follow.
In front of the nondescript Parliament building a pair of Evzones can be seen guarding the tomb of the unknown soldier. Their outfits and their marching is most curious. They even let you pose next to them for a photo though i didn't do that.
Another highlight was sitting in the small dark and completely frescoed Church of Kapnikarea. It's an 11th century Byzantine church, very dark inside like other Greek Orthodox churches we've visited, and the interior is completely covered with paintings of men who seemed to be looking at me. As I sat in the church (typically parishoners stand) I felt as if the men painted on the walls were watching me, perhaps judging me, as if to ask whether I was living up to their expectations. Not a bad experience, a thoughtful one.
After the walk we grabbed lunch from the friendly patisserie around the corner. The same young woman who served us the day before gave us some free cookies to go with our savory pastries.
The Acropolis Museum stands in stark contrast to the Archaeology Museum: it's wonderful! A clean, light-filled modern building, steps from its namesake, that is cleverly cantilevered over some of the ruins that it covers. Some of the museum's highlights are glass floors that reveal the ruins underneath the building; clever use of videos to explain exhibits; and a top-floor display that mimics the shape and dimensions of the Parthenon. It's a pleasure to visit. I think it's time the Brits (and French and Italians and Danes) give back their marbles, if for no other reason than the Greeks have built a museum worthy of them.
This morning we left Athens for Hydra, a small island known for ... well, unfortunately I need to digress, there is something more to say about Athens.
We were mugged this morning, on the metro. Maybe mugged is strong but it was more than a pick pocketing; it involved physical conflict, Paul and I versus several others. Not to worry, we weren't hurt and all we lost was a passport but it shook us up. It sucks. Put a big damper on the day.
With that out of the way, I'll move on to our final Greek stop, Hydra. It's as laid back, as bucolic, as non hustle bustle as can be. The anti Athens.
We took the sinister-looking Flyingcat 4 from Piraeus to the town of Hydra which is on the island of the same name. It's a rocky island with maybe 3000 inhabitants almost all of whom live in the town.
So what's so interesting about Hydra? At first glance it's a typical picturesque Greek port, stone buildings climbing a hillside and wrapping around a port filled with colorful boats of all shapes and sizes, fishing and pleasure and transport. But what is unusual about Hydra is that it has no automobiles, no motorscooters, they don't even have bicycles. (How do you forbid bicycles?) All transportation is by foot, hand cart, boat, or donkey.
Weather permitting we'll spend the next couple days exploring the island on foot then we'll start our journey home. I confess that at the moment home sounds pretty good.
This morning the events of yesterday seemed distant, almost surreal, so we were back to enjoying the Greek island of Hydra, the car-free land of donkeys and cats.
Ahh, but we couldn't leave the unpleasantness quite yet, we had to file a police report because Canadian authorities require this for a replacement passport. We found the Hydra police in a small dark office (at first we thought they were closed) where an un-uniformed fellow sat at a desk watching a Greek telenova. A second casually-dressed officer soon joined him and he took our case. For some reason Barney Fife and Andy Taylor came to mind.
The second fellow took our information, wrote the report, had Paul swear on his choice of thing to swear on (honor, holy book, mother, etc.) then told us to return later when they'd give us a copy.
With that out of the way we stopped at the Hellenic Seaways office to inquire about tickets for Wednesday. There we were told that the sailing schedule for November had yet to be released since it isn't November. I wondered what makes this November different from previous Novembers but I kept this thought to myself.
With these tasks out of the way we had a late breakfast and shopped for something small and unbreakable that would remind us of Greece.
We then walked along the coastal path to the nearby village of Mandraki, though I'm being generous with the word village. Since the island has no cars most everyone lives in the town of Hydra. You can't zip into town for milk, it's a walk or a donkey ride, or a horse ride away.
Speaking of donkeys, today's Times debunks some of the myths that bedevil donkeys. For example, donkeys are cautious as opposed to contrary; they are employed to guard livestock - guard donkeys; they are one of the earliest beasts of burden, predating camels; and they can be friendly, what one person calls a dog you can ride.
Here are a few photos of the many donkeys seen about Hydra. The donkey rider in the last shot - they seem to mostly ride side saddle - was talking on the phone so I guess there are no rules about using mobile devices while riding, not that Greeks care too much about rules. The lead donkey appeared to know the route to the monastary.
Our last morning in Hydra and the weather is clear, cool and still. Great weather for the ferry, not so great for the sail boat racers. We squeeze in a last morning in this tranquil place. Our hotel is a few blocks up the hill from the harbor, where the town suddenly transitions to country, and you wake to the sounds of the animals who wake up with the sunrise, crowing and barking and mewing and braying.
We walked down to the harbor then hunted for stairs that lead up to the ruins. The ruins aren't much in themselves, but they are evidence of a defensive position, so they overlook Hydra harbor and the coastline to the southwest.
Once up there we watched as the sailboats headed out into the deep sea to resume their race. The views are spectacular, with the deep wine sea and the steep brown and green hillsides here on the island and also across the water to the Peloponnese mainland. The sea is peppered with small islands, most have a small white chapel, even if the island is so small that no one could possibly live on it. I remember the port of Naxos town has a tiny island maybe forty feet from shore, and even it has a tiny chapel. Every island needs its chapel.
We had a long lunch at a harbor-side cafe where we watched the donkeys wait for their next assignment. Then we boarded the Flyingcat 6 for Piraeus and from there it was on to Athens airport for the night.
I'll miss Greece. The people are warm and welcoming. They have a long history of independence which was typified by the Hydra police officer offering Paul his choice of what to swear on (I swear on ... that this is the truth). They've been fighting for their independence for a long time, against the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Nazis. A shame they gave up their currency; my semi-informed opinion is they fit in with the EU philosophically but not economically.
The Greek scenery is so very beautiful, the seas crystal clear, and aside from Athens with its ugly buildings and graffiti the towns were pretty and clean. And such variety: super-scenic but oh-so-touristy Santorini, bucolic Hydra, medieval Monemvassia, outdoorsy Kardamyli, historic Athens, elegant Nafplio, and pretty Naxos. Greece isn't without its problems, some of which I now understand a little better, but it's a great place to visit both for its history and its present.
Well I guess it's time to go home.
Mt Zeus, on Naxos, isn't quite as I imagined. Zeus was ancient Greece's king of the gods, as well as the god of the sub-specialties sky and thunder, so a mountain called Mt Zeus makes me think it should contain a hilltop fortress encircled by thunder and lightening. Well the real Mt Zeus, aka Mt Zas, turned out to be nothing like that, no scary bits at all, just a steady hike with panoramic views all the way to the top. And while an elevation of 1,000 m doesn't sound impressive, it is the highest point on Naxos as well as the neighboring islands.
The Mt Zas trail head is about an hour's drive from Naxos town via a twisty, narrow road. The road passes white chapels and through picturesque villages. The trail starts next to a chapel which is not particularly notable since Naxos is heavily peppered with chapels: on hilltops, on cliff-sides, by the road, in valleys, accompanying trails. And every chapel is the same colour scheme, bright white with a dash of deep blue. It's a chapel-palooza.
The hike is over and so we're in the nearby town of Filoti for coffee, after which we walk around the town. We encounter this square a couple blocks off the road up narrow marble walkways and stairs. There are lots of stairs in Greece.
The most common pavement material in Greece seems to be marble. It's beautiful, light in color, it reflects the light at night giving a town a glow, and it really glistens in the rain. But you quickly learn marble is slippery esp when wet.
From Filoti we drove the hour back to Naxos, left our car in a free city lot, then walked a few blocks to the hotel.
Santorini has two ports: Skala (Old Port) and Athinios (Ferry Port). We watched Skala pass as we - passengers of the Blue Star Delos - headed for Athinos. The ports aren't far away, it's like Skala is in town and Athinos is the suburbs. Athinos is newer and can be reached by a (scary) road. They both face the challenge, how to get to the town above.
Athinos is the ferry port for Santorini. It isn't pretty, it's a transport hub and not a place to hang out. So as soon as we walked off the ferry we found a bus, got in, and rode up the cliff side. The bus driver collected the fare later.
If you look to the lower left you can see the road starting up the cliff, then a series of switchbacks. Just to the right of the light pole you can see a bus on its way up.
This view is why one comes to Santorini.
If you look to the lower left, sticking out of the cliff-face, you can see a bit of road to Athinos port. Then, if you look to the lower right, the buoys in the water outline where the MS Sea Diamond cruise ship sank, in 2007. The ship is still there, waiting to be salvaged. Or not.
The town of Fira is about as touristy as a town can be. Still, it has its charms.
Our second day on Santorini we hiked from our hotel to the northernmost tip of the island where the town of Oia is located. A warm sunny day though really windy. At times I wondered if I'd be blown off the trail and into the sea far below.
The trail follows the edge of the caldera and involves a couple of decent climbs.
I didn't take a wide* lens to Greece last fall so I didn't get any of those mind-bending panoramas that a wide angle, a fish eye especially, can get you. Oh well. That I miss those shots so much tells me I may have to get another lens, like the Rokinon 8mm, or maybe a converter for the Nikon 10.5. It seems my shopping list is never empty.
On the other hand, I'm not really looking to add to my carry on. The iPhone's panorama function works in a pinch. Or, just overlap a set of shots by about a quarter frame then merge them later. The cost of these hand-made panoramas is in immediacy, the time spent processing, and a potentially ungainly file size, but it doesn't add to your bag.
Speaking of panoramas, here is an example of how not to shoot a panorama: the shots aren't lined up. It's not right, but I like it anyway.
*I'm gonna define wide as 10 to 12 on DX, 15 to 20 on FX.
Stepping off the ferry in Hydra the first thing that caught my eye was a blue boat. A lovely blue, it reminded me of a plastic-toy blue offered on the first-generation Miata. So I thought I'd have some fun with the blue boat set against the town as backdrop. First I cropped some sky off the top and some sea off the bottom which left just a band of each with a band of land in the middle.
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind ... What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it. Stephen Pinker, The Second Law of Thermodynamics
I caught these fellows walking one morning along the harbour in Hydra. Actually I encountered the priest several times through our short stay. The tourists were mostly gone, except for me of course, and the seasonal businesses were starting to shutter their doors, so you saw the same people over and over again.
The pool of knowledge is limited; its the pool of ignorance, speculation and misunderstanding that is infinite. Pico Iyer, What do we know?
The photo is of the Acropolis as seen from the nearby Acropolis Museum. The museum, the building I'm in, is built over ruins, you can see them through the glass floors. Novel to me but I suppose you can't scratch the Greek earth without turning up some ruins. And I imagine that planning for and working around historic remains must add to construction costs.
All of these ruins were especially curious to me since I live where pretty much everything is built of materials that barely last a lifetime. Fortunately the Greeks weren't short of beautiful stone, a material that lasts hundreds of lifetimes.
I like the photo despite, or maybe because of, the mom and kid in the corner. They seem to be a little too in the corner but then again, maybe that's a reason to like it. What also caught my eye was the grid of the window frames and the pattern of layers made up of sky, ruins, town, and museum. It's all very geometric.
For more pictures of the museum go to the Acropolis Museum post dated Oct 29, 2016.