Monday, October 19, 2009

Would I do it again?

Would I do it again? In a word... yes, but I think the optimum time for me would be 3 to 4 weeks. That's long enough to reset your brain and see some really cool stuff, but not so long that you start getting homesick.
I'm back home now ... back to reality... and settling back in slowly. My body clock is set 7 hours ahead so I'm wide awake at 5am and getting very sleepy by 7 or 8pm. I'm sure I'll be back to normal in a week or so but for now I'm really enjoying the quiet of the early morning.
All in all I feel good... well rested, content, tan head to toe, and in great shape. Not that I was overweight by any stretch of the imagination, but I lost about 7 lbs and feel great... lean and mean. I think it was all the walking because lord knows I ate plenty. Between walking to bus and metro stops, walking to hotels, hiking through the mountains and valleys and just general sightseeing I imagine I easily walked 5 to 10 miles every day of the trip.
I can't say I had any great epiphanies on the trip (other than realizing while in Ephesus that this is where the biblical Ephesians lived!) but I did have plenty of time alone with my thoughts, and I came to realize that this is a good thing. It's so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and loose sight of yourself and what's really important. Contemplation/meditation/prayer... whatever you want to call it... is good for the soul. I vowed to myself to set aside some alone time every week just to sit and think... about anything, about nothing... it really doesn't matter. Just so my brain gets some quiet time and a chance to reshuffle the deck a bit.
I had some other thoughts too, thoughts on God, conspiracy theories and global warming to name a few, but they're still in the formative stages in my mind... too early to come out on paper and probably not appropriate for this venue. I've really enjoyed writing this blog along my trip and perhaps I'll use these other trains of thought to continue my writing... I hope so... time will tell.
On a less philosophical note.... I took about 3000 photos on the trip and I'm still sorting through them. The plan is to go back and post a couple within each blog entry and I'll probably post a bunch on facebook as well. Maybe even hang some at the Pub!

Be well and Godspeed,

Athens and the Argo-Saronic

For the final week of my journey through Athens and two of the Argo-Saronic islands just off the coast I was traveling with my friend Ira. After traveling solo for 7 weeks this took some mental adjustment on my part but all in all worked out very well. Now I had someone to talk to over meals, split appetizers with and cover more ground on the local menus, and upgrade to nicer digs while splitting the cost and saving money in the process. Case in point... for our first dinner we split a Greek salad, some delicious stuffed eggplant, a plate of sardines in olive oil and a half liter of decent white wine, light and crisp, not too sweet, perfect for dinner. Had I been traveling solo a meal like that would have been way over my budget but after splitting the cost was quite mangeable. Ira's also a great conversationalist... (Phd, college professor, has written a textbook on fluid dynamics, avid reader... you get the idea) We had plently of opportunity to talk about history, religion, the economy, conspiracy theories and the like.
Monday morning after seeing the Acropolis and the Agora we got up early with the intention of seeing the magnificent Archeological Museum in Athens and then heading out to the islands. All packed up and checked out, we walked 15 minutes or so to the museum only to find it doesn't open until 1:30 on Mondays! Oh well... quick change of plans... I'll just have to see it on Friday, my last day in Greece, before catching my flight home on Saturday.
So off to the port of Piraeus we go to catch a morning ferry to the island of Egina. The metro system in Athens is great ... convenient and easy to use and understand and we made it to the port in about 30 minutes. This is the second time I had been here so I sort of knew my way around, but I had seen it in my early morning grogginess after an all night ferry from Santorini a few days earlier. It's an enormous port with tons of huge ships, cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships and ferries large and small. Quite a sight and very well laid out.
The weather was gorgeous as usual... I was beginning to take it for granted... sunny in the low 80's with calm seas. Because of it's proximity to Athens, Egina Town can get pretty booked up in summer. Even off season the Athenians swarm the place on weekends, but we were arriving mid-week and had no trouble finding a great little hotel right downtown about a 2 minute walk to the waterfront in the center of the harbor. It was a 200 year old building with lots of character, a nice courtyard and views of the sea from the rooftop terrace. We booked their only suite for 3 nights so we had plently of space and our own rooms. The first day we just wandered around the layrinth cobblestone alleys that passed for streets in the old town. Had a great lunch ... Greek salad, mixed grill, eggplant and a couple 500ml Mythos beers. Dinner was at a place recommended by Raina from our hotel... it was down a little unmarked alley away from the more touristy waterfront places. We sat outside and the owner came out to greet us, apologizing that she didn't have a full menu tonight because of it being off season. Then she continued on to list the ingredients she had and what she could make of them! We settled on marinated pork pieces in a spicy wine sauce, a Greek salad of course, and some delicious spinach pie. All washed down with a half liter of house red...perfect.
Tuesday morning broke a little cloudy but mostly sunny. Raina prepared a wonderful breakfast with bread, homemade jams and marmelades, yogurt, fresh apple pie and a hot from the oven cheese pie. We decided to rent scooters today and see the island... probably couldn't have picked a worse day! Half an hour into the ride with us on the other side of the island the clouds moved in and it began to rain. We headed for home but the roads were very slick... probably the first rain here in a month. Anyway Ira crashed... nothing serious but enough to shake him up and call it quits for the day. We left his bike on the side of the road and made our way back to the rental place. Since it was early and mine was already I paid for I decided to keep it just in case. We had some beetroot salad and grilled octopus for lunch at the fish market and then the weather began to clear. Ira was perfectly content to relax at a waterside cafe and read his book, so I hopped on my scooter and off I went!
The sun came out and it got very windy, drying the roads in no time. Scooters are an awesome way to see the small islands. Made me think again about getting a motorcycle back home. I covered the entire island in a few hours seeing the sights along the way. A 2500 year old intact temple standing on a hill with views of the mediterranean on 3 sides. It was a little smaller than the Parthenon on the Athens Acropolis, but older and in much better condition. Saw the largest church in Greece... pretty from the outside but otherwise unremarkeable. Then I stopped to explore an abandoned village on a hillside in the middle of the island. Once again I was the only person there.... amazing. Walking little stone paths up the mountainside and passing churches and buildings some of which were 800 years old. And they're open to the public! No locks, just walk into an ancient church with 500 year old frescoes and then make your way up to the ruined castle on the top of the hill... it just floors me. In the west we would charge admission, everything would be roped off and, of course, there would be paved paths and safety handrails every step of the way. Not here... watch your step because you snooze, you loose.
Spent the next day lying on the beach and seeing the ruins just outside of town. The food was fabulous again and we even found a place with Guinness on tap and backgammon boards. The clouds began to move in again and we decided to head to the island of Agistri for our last day tomorrow.
Can't have perfect weather all the time! Drizzley, gray and cool for the 15 minute ferry ride over to Agistri. Pretty much rained on and off all day, although in between the rain we toured the little town and I walked up through a small village towards the highest spot on the island. Just beyond the village the road turned into a dirt track that ran up over the mountain and across to the other side of the island. Agistri is a beautiful small island mostly uninhabited and covered in lush pine forests. The fresh pine scent is incredible, especially after the rain. The views from the top are fantastic but it's starting to get dark and I have to turn around. On a nicer day I would have liked to walk all the way across... It's only like 12km across the longest point.
For my last day in Greece I woke to torrential rains, but they cooperated and subsided just in time for me to walk into town and but my ferry ticket before promptly sarting up again. I said my good-byes to Ira as he had a much later flight the next day and didn't really care to see the Museum. We boarded in the pouring rain and made the hour journey back to Athens.
Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time I made it back to the Backpackers Hostel near the Acropolis in the early afternoon and I immediately headed out to the great Athens Archeological Museum. It was everything I had imagined. In the past 8 weeks I've seen a lot of places and pieces from many civilizations... Assyrian, Hittite, Mycenaean, Minoan, Classical Greek, Lycian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, Alexander's Empire.... and the Athens museum kind of brought it all together for me and put them all into their proper place in history. Very similar to the Anatolian Civilization Museum in Ankara, Turkey. But the statues, sculptures, bronzes, Greek urns and vases and other artwork from the various Greek civilizations are truly beautiful and awe inspiring. The larger than life bronze statue of Posieden is an amazing piece of art, and it boggles my mind that something so beautiful could have been created over 2,500 years ago and it's still around for us to appreciate today. The 3,500 year old solid gold Mask of Agamemnon is another amazing piece of work. We've all seen pictures of these things in school and various books but to see them first hand made them all so much more real for me. It makes you realize how short our time on this earth is and to cherish every moment of it.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mystra and Athens

Well it's been a while since my last entry and I've done and seen quite a bit since then...
Spent a few days in Sparta in the southern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. I needed a place to chill for a couple days after traveling every day for the previous week and Sparta fit the bill. It's a very nice small modern Greek city and made a good base to explore the surrounding countryside. The guidebooks basically tell you not to bother with Sparta because there's nothing there to see... I guess it all depends on your point of view. As far as ruins go there really isn't much in town. Ancient Sparta was never heavily fortified, they depended on their military superiority. One of their leaders was quoted as saying "Walls don't make a city, men make a city". (There is one pretty awesome larger than life bronze statue of Leonidas though). The town itself is very pleasant however... it reminded me a lot of some of the smaller towns in central northern Italy. Lots of outdoor streetside cafes, pedestrianized streets, town squares with fountains and a beatiful central "piazza". (I'm not sure what they call them in Greek).
The streetside cafes are packed all afternoon with people drinking iced coffees and iced cappuchinos (frappes and freddos), very rarely do I see anyone drinking a beer during the day. At night the central square comes alive with families, friends, couples and kids... eating, drinking, talking, laughing, playing soccer and running around with friends. It's a festival atmoshere every night of the week... Wednesdays are every bit as lively as Fridays... and most folks don't even think about dinner until 8pm. It seems to be a very relaxed lifestyle and I'm glad I chose to stay for a few days.
During the days I did some sightseeing or curled up with a book and a freddo at my hotel's streetside cafe in the pedestrian zone. I went to Mystra one day, 5 km from town.... It made a nice backdrop for the town. A Byzantine city sprawling across a mountainside. The Byzantine empire lasted over a thousand years... from the founding of Constatinople in 330 AD to the it's fall to the Ottomans in 1453. Mystra was a late Byzantine city, but a very imporant one for the time. It started as a Frankish castle at the top of the hill in 1249, but it didn't last long. The Byzantines captured it in 1262 and over the next few centuries it grew into an important city full of monasteries, convents, churches, a palace and administrative center and many beautiful mansions. The town was inhabited until the 1950's and is pretty much intact. Walking through it is like walking into a time warp... especially this late in the tourist season when I had the place practically to myself. Mystra belonged to the Byzantine empire and it's capital was always to the east in Constantinople. But it was in the western part of the empire and served as an important link to Rome and the rest of western Europe. By the 1400's, however, Byzatium was in decline and when Mystra fell to the Turks in 1460 (7 years after the fall of Constantinople) many of the artists and craftsmen headed west to Florence and contributed to the Italian renaissance. OK... that's enough for today's history lesson (sorry).
Spent the next days hiking in the mountains, meeting people, riding busses, etc. Then I headed north on a 7:30 am bus. Arrived in Athens by 10:30, caught the metro to the Acropolis and checked into the Athens Backpacker's Hostel in the shadow of the Acropolis! Pretty cool. I was in Athens to meet an old friend who moved from Easton and now lives in Paris. But Ira wasn't arriving until tomorrow so it took quite a bit of restraint not to climb up to see the Parthenon right there and then. What the hell... I've been waiting to see it since I was a kid, one more day won't kill. me. I toured a bunch of minor ruins (if there is such a thing!) instead. I also hoped on one of those red double decker tourist busses that I usually turn my nose up at. I was very glad I did... it was a great way to see the city. Saw then entire city in 90 minutes, got some history and an overall good lay of the land. Would have done one in Istanbul had I known!
Ira arrived the next day and we climbed the Acropolis. There's not much I can say about it that everyone hasn't already read. It's probably one of the most recognized sites in the world and I was just thankful that I was able to see it first hand.

Well that's enough for one day's writing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Peloponessian tour

Ancient Myceana was really amazing. The Mycenaeans dominated Greece from the 16th to the 12th centuries BC. That's about 3500 years ago and it's incredible that anything remains still standing. The Fortress is the stuff of legends... Perseus, Agammemnon and his golden mask, Achilles of the battle of Troy... it all happened here.
Next stop Epidaurus, home to the largest and best preserved ancient Greek amphitheater. Seats 14,000 and you can hear a coin drop in the dirt at center stage from the highest row... no lie. Epidauris is also know as the center of healing of the classic Greek world. A sort of holistic approach to healing in a beautiful setting complete with spas. In some ways more advanced than our modern day hospitals. Epidaurus was the largest and most important of these Askeplions, as they were known. It was the administrativr center for about 200 of them disbursed through the ancient Greek world. ( I saw one earlier on Samos).
Overnighted in the beautiful seaside town of Napflio. Felt more like Italy that Greece. Amazing restaurants (I settled for pizza... low budget tour!) and people out and about and dressed to the nines.
Next stop Sparta, home of Leonidas, the great warrior whose army of 300 stood against the might of the Persian empire at Thermopylae in 480BC. Not much remains of ancient Sparta but I need to rest and recharge for a couple days and modern Sparta is a nice small city with good hotels and restaurants, so I booked 3 nights before heading to Athens. The hughly important Byzatine city of Mystra is about 5km from here up in the mountains... more on that later.


the longest day

The weather on my last day on Santorini was gorgeous again. Mid 80's, just enough puffy clouds to provide a brief break from the sun, and a nice breeze coming off the sea.... perfect for a 12km hike along the ridge of the caldera from Ia south to Fira. So that's just what Yannick and I did... and we were not disappointed. The walk took about 3 hours and the views were inspiring. I must have snapped about 100 photos.
Had lunch in Fira and looked around a bit. Fira is where all the cruise ship passengers arrive in Santorini so it's a pretty busy place with lots of boutique shops and fancy restaurants. Very pretty. There a 3 options for getting up and down from the waterfront and Fira, which is several hundred meters above perched on the rim of and overlooking the caldera. You can walk... takes about an hour, you can get a donkey ride (no kidding!), or you can take the cable car which wisks you down the side of the cliff face in about a minute. Most people opt for the third choice... hence the hour long waiting line. Glad I was headed back to Ia and not to a cruise ship!
Ia is the northernmost point of the island of Santorinio and it's famous for the sunset. Each evening thousands of people alight on every available westward facing space in Ia, myself included. It's a spectacle in itself. Anyway after the sunset they all have to get back to wherever they're staying... the majority on the overtaxed local bus system. I had to catch the 10:30 pm overnight ferry to Athens so I went to the station to catch the 8:20 to Fira. There had to be about 200 Japanese people waiting on line for the next bus. I'm as polite as the next guy and would normally never cut in line... but suffice it to say I was on that 8:20 bus! It left late(of course) but I made my connection in Fira without incident and made it to the port on time. The ferry ride was unremarkable. Nice boat ... more like a small cruise ship. I found my cabin, climbed in my bunk and went to sleep. Except the guy in the bunk below snored loudly all night so it wasn't a very restful night.
I woke at 7am as we were pulling into port. Caught the Metro to the train station and got a train to Corinth. From the train station I had to get a bus to the city center. Dropped my backpack at the Ephina Hotel (they were very nice and insisted I didn't have to pay for the service even though I may or may not stay there) and caught a bus for ancient Corinth. There are 2 parts to ancient Corith... the Greek ruins near the bus stop and the Byzantine fortress ruins occupying the top of the hill that was once the Corinthian Acropolis. Of course I immediately started hoofing it to the top. It was around noon, very hot, and the walk was about an hour up a long steep hill. Probably not the smartest decision I ever made... but the walk paid off. I had the place almost to myself. The ruins were awesome and the veiws of ancient Corinth and the Mediterranean and surrounding mountains were fantastic. I broke down and took a taxi back down. and then caught the bus back to Corinth.
You would think after a long night and day I would stay put in modern Corinth for the night, but no, I pushed on to Myceanna, Palace, fortress and capital of the mighty Mycenaean civilization.
A local bus (40 minutes late) dropped me at a bus station in the middle of nowhere on the side of the highway where I had to catch another bus to the modern city of Mikynes. The bus station was chaotic filled with hundreds of Greeks trying to get back to where they lived after coming "home" to vote in the national Greek elections. Pure mayhem. I was able to get my bus with the help of Alexandros who was heading south to report for duty in the army. The bus dropped my about 2km from the village, it was a pleasant 20 minute walk through some orange and olive groves. Found a decent hotel, took a shower and went in search of FOOD. Had some delicious home made mousaka prepared and served by a nice old woman who didn't speak a lick of english. Washed it down with a half liter of local read wine and headed for home. By this time it was about 9am and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I passed out immediately and slept for 12 hours straight.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Nissyros was definitely the hardest place I've had to leave on this trip. It had a great vibe... very laid back with great food and mostly locals... all very friendly. On my last morning there I took a nice 2 hour stroll up towards the rim of the volcano on a really nice well marked trail... although quite steep in places. I was alone the whole time and it felt like I had the whole island to myself. I walked up to a little monastery and church called Evangelistra. When I got there the church was locked but the key was hanging in the door jamg just like the woman at the restaurant said it would be. So I let myself in and took a look around, rested a bit and locked up on the way out! Caught the 3:30 day tripper boat back to the town of Kardhamena on Kos and took the bus to Kos Town. Got on the 8pm ferry and arrived in Santorini about 20 past midnite.
There's nothing at the port of arrival except a bus into town, some car rental places and (luckily) people trying to sell rooms. So I found a room in a hotel for 25 euro but it was on the wrong side of the island from where I wanted to be... at this hour though I didn't much care. The ride from the port was insane. Santorini is also a volcanic island and to get from the port to the top of the island where all the towns are is almost straight up! Must have been 20 hairpin switchbacks. The hotel was nice enough with clean sheets and towels and I laid down and fell asleep immediately.
Woke the next day and took a 10 minute walk down to the beach... nice but not really where I wanted to be. After breakfast I caught the next bus to Ia perched on a cliff on the northernmost point on the island. Ia is probably the most photographed island in Greece. Whitewashed buildings, whitewashed churches with bright blue domes and lots of windy little cobblestone streets all overlooking the Mediterranean. Santorini is just one island of several in a ring around a huge ancient underwater caldera. Just beautiful.
The hostel was nice... very clean. Walked down to a little pebble beach on the far side of the island away from the cliff and went for a refreshing swim. Came back and walked out to the point with about a thousand other people who all some to the town of Ia just for the sunset. We weren't dissapointed. Got some great photos.
Next morning Yannick and I walked to the main city of Fira. It was a beautiful 3 hour walk along the cliff overlooking the caldera. The sun was hot but we had a nice breeze and I must have taken about a hundred photos along the way. We passed some gorgeous high end boutique hotels hanging to the cliff with terraces and swimming pools overlooking the sea... very nice. Fira was crazy busy... cruise ship central. Tons of very nice boutique shops and lots of overpriced cafes with a view. There are 3 ways to get to down to the port from Fira. Walk (very steep... about 45 minutes) take a donkey ride (looked like fun) or take a cable car ride down. The cable car was definitely the most popular choice... the line was about an hour long... glad I wasn't heading to that port! Although the cable ride looked like fun.
Bought my ferry ticket to Athens. I leave tonight on the 10:30 pm slow ferry so I'll arrive in Athens about 7am. I upgraded to a cabin with a bunk so I'll be able to get a good night's rest. ( I hope).
Santorini is nice... very highly rated. And for most people stopping for the day on a cruise ship or spending a week in a luxury hotel and shopping every day it's a great choice. But for me Nissyros is the place.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Another beatiful day in Nissyros

I rented a scooter today... what a blast! Nissyros is a tiny island with a volcano in the center. Very windy roads with lots of hairpins and gorgeous views everywhere you look... perfect for a scooter. Went to the volcano first thing this morning before the tour busses arrive. 3 boats arrive daily from Kos carrying 300 - 500 day trippers to Nissyros. They make a beeline for the volcano and then hit Mandraki, the largest village on the island... then they leave at 3:30. So I basically had the caldera to myself, walking through the craters, seeing and smelling the sulpher vents and boiling mudpots. Sort of reminded me of Yellowstone Park.
After the volcano I cruised over to the (almost) deserted town of Emporia... kind of creepy. It was a good sized vilaage that was all but abandoned. People are starting to move back in and fix up the houses. It's actually quite pretty and perched on the rim of the volcano, so there are magnificent views no matter where you look... the volcano to one side and the sapphire blue Mediterranean to the other. I had a greek salad at the only taverna in town. Perfect day, low 80's and sunny, overlooking the volcano. After Emporia I headed to Nikia, another picturesque village on the rim of the crater... only this one is fully occupied.
Then down to the beach. You head away from town on the coastal road that eventually just ends. Park the bike and start hoofing it. 15 minutes later I'm at this practically deserted beautiful black sand beach. The only other people there a nude couple at one end of the beach. So I walked down to the other end and stripped down... when in Rome... ( I know, TMI for some of you). Had a great swim in the Sea and really enjoyed just doing absolutely nothing on the beach.
Headed back to the hotel for quick shower and some logistics and then out to dinner. Last nite I had rack of goat, slow cooked for 6 hours with chick peas and rosemary. I think it was the first time I had goat... it was very tender but had a pretty strong flavor. I like lamb a lot, but this was much stronger. For an appetizer I had fresh beets in olive oil and garlic "sauce" on the side. It was more like the consistency of mashed potatoes, mixed with almonds and breadcumbs... delicious. Washed it down with some decent local red wine. Tonite I had grilled calamari that was perfect. I tried the white wine tonite... a little sweet but went down just fine.
Tomorrow I'm catching one of the Kos tour boats back to Kos at 3:30. I'll arrive in Kos around 5 and then catch the 8pm ferry to Santorini. I'll arrive in Santorini after midnite so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to find lodging. So far it hasn't been a problem. After that I'm not sure... maybe Ios... maybe not. I'm heading back to Athens for the 10th to meet an old friend, but I'd like to see some of the Pelopennesian Penninsula first. I'll check the ferry schedules in Santorini and see how it goes.
Happy October! See you all in another 16 days!