Monday, February 8, 2010

Hooray Greece!

This is Part III of III; if you haven't read Parts I and II please scroll down to do so.

We arrived back at our hotel and settled into our new rooms, then realized that Casey and Anna's room led to a fire escape! We climbed up (and up, and up), skipped the broken step, and reached the roof of the hotel, from which we could see the Acropolis.

Then we all went to bed, because everybody except Logan and I was leaving the next day. We woke up to see them off, then went back to bed and emerged at a more reasonable hour for breakfast. I'm pretty sure we each ate two whole oranges every morning, just because they were so sweet and yummy. After breakfast, we went to the Acropolis, finally, where we got our student tickets and joined the huge crowds mobbing the place. Despite the crowds, it was really neat to see the ruins we'd been admiring from afar all week close up.

I love how you can really see the absolute perfection of these immense buildings. It's just astonishing.

We spotted another forested hill to the southwest, and, being heartily sick of the crowds of tourists, we decided to go explore that one. We ran into some creepy outbuildings and heard some loud barks, so we continued on rather quickly and saw a jogger. Figuring that he wouldn't jog around here if there was a danger of being mauled by an attack dog, we stopped worrying and continued up. We discovered that we were on the Hill of the Muses, later named Philopappos Hill because of a monument to Philopappos on the top. There were some neat remnants of buildings that had been carved into the hill.

Closer to the top, there were even more, including a Lisa-size niche!

At the top, we ate an orange we'd saved from breakfast and enjoyed a different perspective of the Acropolis. Then, as it was getting close to the fateful 3 pm closing time and we wanted to see the Temple of Zeus, we headed back down the hill.

The Temple of Zeus is HUGE.

One of the columns had fallen in the 1800s and nobody has had the money to put it back up, which is sad in a way but I found that it gave a much better idea of the colossalness (colossality?) of the structure.

After taking all our pictures, we sat down on a bench to await the inevitable yelling ladies kicking us out, which they did, but very politely for once. Then we wandered down a new street and discovered a country club with an open gate, so we walked in and tried to look like we belonged. They might have been fooled for a little bit, but then I saw a playground and all bets were off.

After our little hike, we were pretty hungry, so we found a gyro place and got delicious delicious mystery meat for €1.80 apiece. Seriously. They were fantastic, and we ate them while sitting on a marble step and watching the world go by. Making our way back to the hotel afterwards, we saw a very welcoming café with a patio and decided to stop to get some coffee. I managed to order something iced and got this, which was almost too purty to drink.

Logan had a regular coffee and we people-watched for a while, then headed back to the hotel for a brief rest before setting off for the Acropolis Museum.

The Acropolis Museum may well be one of my favorite museums in the whole world, right up there with the Musée de Cluny in Paris, the Victoria and Albert in London, and the Boston Science Museum. It's a beautiful modern building right at the foot of the Acropolis, and its subject is so precise that it can afford to have lots and lots of details, which I love. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed, so you'll all just have to go there yourselves! You start by walking up a ramp where, on both sides, daily-life artifacts from the Acropolis are displayed. There were children's toys, pots and pans, jewelry - all the things that really bring a civilization alive for me. Then you get into all the friezes and metopes of various temples, some of which are explained and some aren't. There are two floors of that, then the top floor has the metopes and friezes from the Parthenon itself. Or rather, it would, if the Brits would just give the Elgin Marbles back already. Seriously, England, everybody else has done it, the Greeks have the perfect place to display them, stop being silly.

The wonderful thing about the top floor is that the metopes are arranged exactly how they were on the Parthenon, so it's really easy to imagine what it would have looked like. Also, you can look out the floor-to-ceiling glass and see the Parthenon itself. It's the best way I can think of to display the originals inside to protect them, but still give the most authentic experience possible. We stayed upstairs until the absolute last minute, when the guards politely started herding us down the stairs. Then we watched a video in the entryway of statues being moved into position in the museum, which was really neat too. Finally, the guards gently but firmly kicked everybody out, and we got some great pictures of the museum from the outside.

Then we went back to the hotel, and we must have been tireder than we thought, because we fell into bed and were too tired to get up for dinner.

The next morning we awoke refreshed and determined to find those elusive fresh fish and meat markets. We were not disappointed. Huge warehouses crammed full of stalls, shiny fins and scales everywhere, and always, always the shouts of vendors hawking their wares. They instantly pegged us as tourists, of course, so as we walked by the shouts turned to English, but we were too busy taking in the sights to care. There were octopi of all different sizes, from palm-size to head-size; the same variety of squids (the little ones are really cute); every single kind of fish I've ever imagined, rays, shrimp, shellfish... It was overwhelming but gorgeous. We slipped through a doorway and found ourselves in the meat portion of the market, which was just as interesting, although slightly more unnerving as there were lots of heads looking at us wherever we went. Calf heads, rabbit heads, chicken heads... There were even whole calves and goats hanging upside down. I was too wimpy to take pictures, but Logan did and you can see one of them here.

We emerged, blinking, and found a supermarket to buy lunch. We made out like bandits, with fresh tzatziki, little toasts to eat it on, sour cherry juice, and granola bars. We sat down in a little square and ate, then went back to the hotel to collect our luggage and leave the country. The plane trip was uneventful, except when we took out the potato chips we'd bought and discovered that the bag was about to pop because of the pressure change!

As we were flying over France, Logan looked out the window. "That's weird," he said, "the roads and things look like little islands with bridges connecting them, but I know we're over land. What could possi-Oh. Damn. It's snow." Realizing that he was right, I immediately lamented my lack of winter coat - it had been warm when we left France, and we certainly didn't need winter clothes in Greece! After retrieving our luggage, we both put on as many layers as possible and braved the cold. A man at the bus stop, seeing us shiver and swear, even offered Logan a cigarette, which was quite sweet of him. Despite the cold, everything was running on time, and we got back to Rouen without a hitch.

More pictures on Facebook, and as we're heading to Milan and then Morocco tomorrow, there will certainly be some interesting stories from there! À plus tard!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Part II of our modern Odyssey. If you haven't read the first bit, please scroll down to do so.

The six of us caught the express bus to the airport at an ungodly hour, then waited around for our plane because of course it wasn't on time. The plane was nearly empty, so we all spread out to get window seats so we could see the Aegean Sea. We touched down on Santorini less than an hour after leaving Athens, got our luggage, and were met by our lovely hotel person. When we arrived at our hotel, a maze-like (to get to our room, we had to go into the gate, down 4 steps, turn right, go down one step, duck under a balcony, go up another step, make a U-turn, and climb our 4 steps) collection of buildings just outside the main town, they offered us breakfast, which we couldn't refuse. We got slices of lemony cake, tea, coffee, and "toast", which in Greek apparently means a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich. After breakfast, we walked into the main town to get our bearings. Some geography:

Santorini was formed from a volcanic explosion. The middle island is the caldera of the volcano, which still emits sulfur and other smelly things. Unfortunately, the boat trips out to it only happen during the main season, so we had to admire it from afar. The western edge is all layered cliffs from different kinds of volcanic activity, while the eastern edge slopes into the sea much more gradually, creating all the beaches. The main town, Fira, is pretty much in the middle and our hotel was a little north of that.

Figuring we'd explore on foot first, we set off to the west side of the island. There were some gorgeous views of the caldera:

And of the town, which nestles into the hillside and invites exploration of all the tiny little whitewashed streets and steps and alleyways and switchbacks.

Everything was more or less deserted, Santorini being mainly a tourist town, which was occasionally creepy but usually nice, as I bet it's utter chaos in the summer. Casey and Anna eventually went off to investigate the possibility of renting four-wheelers, my parents set off to wander along the cliffs, and Logan and I saw this path leading down the cliff to the harbor and could not resist.

It was a pretty easy path, with long switchbacks and wide steps at each corner, but the paving was quite uneven and the donkey dung made for unpredictable obstacles. We made our way down, pausing to contemplate the ocean

and study Greek snails.

As we descended, we noticed doors, windows, and even fortress-like things built into the hillside, which only filled us with more curiosity and lured us down to the bottom.

At the bottom, we discovered the creepiest, emptiest part of Santorini yet: the port. Apparently in the summer, one or two huge cruise ships dock every day in the port, so the postcard, souvenir, and cold drink businesses do quite well. In the winter, however, it's absolutely deserted, giving it a real ghost town feel. Logan and I explored the caves along the water's edge,

then walked up to the doors in the cliff we had noticed from the path. This was when "creepy" started to edge into downright "scary", at least for wimpy li'l me, because these were obviously abandoned houses built right into the cliff. But the windows were boarded up and they were clearly deserted. Some entryways were full of junk; others looked marginally cared-for, but overall it just creeped me out and I kept bugging Logan to go back to the docks, where at least we were out in the open so we'd see the zombies coming. But then Logan saw that the fortress-thing we'd seen from above had a gun on it, so of course he had to go check that out, ignoring my protests. Sure enough, there was an anti-aircraft gun built onto a little gun deck, for what purpose we have no idea. That's when we finally climbed back down the little stairs and went out on the dock again. There was a huge metal buoy-like thing on the dock that Logan went to explore while I sat down and watched the waves for a while.

When Logan came back, we noticed a little rock slide, so we went over to play with the rocks. There was a variety of colors, and Logan noticed that the black rocks seemed lighter than they should have been. Hmmm, we thought, this is a volcanic island. Volcanoes produce pumice stone, which floats. How awesome would it be if we found floating rocks!? So, for science, we chucked a few black rocks in. They sunk into the ocean, never to be seen again, and we returned to the rock pile. The red rocks were even lighter than the black ones, so we tried those. They sunk a bit slower, but still they sunk, and we returned, dispirited, to the rock pile. This time, we found some white rocks that were much lighter. We threw those in and... they floated!

So cool.

Then my jacked boyfriend hurled some massive rocks into the water:

See the vein in his forehead?

After all that physical exertion, we were hungry and tired, so we headed back up the path. We could have taken the cable cars, but that cost money and we are cheap. It didn't take that long to get back up, though, and we made our way into the center of town to try to find some sustenance. As we crossed the main road, we saw a yellow four-wheeler coming towards us. I looked again and saw my brother and his wife, wearing helmets and sunglasses and generally looking pretty bad-ass on their ATV. We chatted for a bit, they sung the praises of their machine, and Logan and I continued to a roadside kiosk where we bought delicious herby potato chips and green apple Fanta and mandarin orange Fanta (which I have not yet seen outside Greece, which is a pity because they are delicious). Then we went back to the hotel to snack and rest and write postcards. A bit later, there was a knock on our door and my father was chivvying us out to watch the sunset, which I initially whined about but when I got to the top I shut right up.

Oh, Greece, you treat me so well.

After the sunset, our intrepid ATVers returned and we headed out to find dinner. Right down the road from the hotel was a nice-looking little taverna, so we went in and met the lone waitress, who spoke amazing English and told us all about all the dishes, setting our mouths watering right away. We settled on tomato balls, a Greek salad, little fishes, another fish dish, and other things I've forgotten... The tomato balls were definitely a highlight: minced tomatoes mixed with all manner of delicious things and fried. And the little fishes were just that: whole little fishies, sprinkled with herbs and fried. You eat the whole thing, so the bones make for a great crunch! Then we got a delicious honey-soaked cake for dessert and rolled home, fat and happy.

The next morning we got up bright and early to start our ATV adventure! We rented 3 machines, got a brief driving lesson from Tony, and set out south to find those black sand beaches. We got sick of traveling in a convoy for a bit and decided to split up, so Logan and I stopped to take pictures (on Facebook) and watched the others ride off. After tooling along happily for a while, we saw a cool building on top of a hill and decided to ride up to it to see what we could see. Our poor machine labored up the hill at about 4 kilometers per hour, but we kept at it and were rewarded for our efforts by a sign that said, in Greek and English, “Military base – photos forbidden in all circumstances”. But it didn’t say no trespassing, so we went around the next bend and saw two ATVs parked along the side of the road! A short walk up brought us to the rest of our wayward family, who’d seen the building and had the exact same thought process. There was a monastery on top of the hill, as well as a gigantic radar installation, but the monastery was closed and we couldn’t take pictures, so we just looked all around, then headed back down the hill. Shortly thereafter, we found a grocery store and bought bread, cheese, olives, chips, and soda for lunch, then found a deserted-looking farmyard to eat it in. This was our view from lunch:

Emboldened by the lack of life, we walked along the spine of a little hill to investigate the fields of “ostrich nests” we kept seeing. They’re actually grapevines, I think, but they’re arranged in neat rows of nest-like tangles, so Anna named them ostrich nests and it stuck. The paths around the fields were made completely of pumice rocks, which were weird to walk on – like spongy gravel. There was also a little abandoned building, so we had to explore that, of course.

On our way back, we suddenly heard someone yelling in Greek, very loudly. There was no one in sight, though, so we just continued on. When we reached the crest of the hill, we saw a man herding two donkeys who had apparently come loose, judging from the dangling ropes around their necks. Luckily, it was the donkeys who were the targets of the shouting, not us. We meekly made our way back to the lunch spot to pick up our gear, then hopped back on the machines. Destination: Kamari, the best black-sand beach.

Sure enough, the sand was black!

The insane among us (Casey and Anna) went full-monty-into-the-freezing-ocean swimming, while the less crazy (everyone else) just waded in. But the beach was completely made of pebbles (I felt right at home, being the good little Norman I am), which are really not comfy to walk on in bare feet, so the paddling was short-lived. Still, the fact that it was warm enough to even think of wading in January was pretty amazing.

After the beach, we set off for Ia, on the northern tip of the island. Ia is the town that all the postcards of Santorini are taken of, because it’s all white buildings and hillsides and blue-domed churches and donkeys. We drove right by our hotel, since it’s on the island’s main road, and continued north. There were some beautiful roads to drive on, with beautiful views for the passenger, so both Logan and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. When we got there, we were greeted by some donkeys – they’re really useful as pack animals on Santorini because most of the houses are on streets with steps in them, so wheeled machines do you no good whatsoever. We found another grocery store, where we bought more bread and cheese and olives and oranges, and Logan and I found some sour cherry juice that turned out to be fantastic. Logan and I also couldn’t shut up about the prices, since even island prices were so much cheaper than France. Does Greece need English language assistants…?

We left the ATVs along the main road and headed into town, where we were soon adopted by a stray dog we called Stavros. Every tourist group gets one, apparently, and they stick with you the whole time you’re in Ia, making sure you get where you need to go. We spent an hour or so just walking around and enjoying the sun and the view. Every single corner brought a new spectacular vista of ocean, islands, volcano, white houses, and blue domes, but since my camera was slowly dying I only took a few photos, including this one of which I’m inordinately proud:

Lens flaaaaaare!

Then we found the perfect sunset-watching spot and set up our picnic dinner. The young’uns went to explore the ruins of an old church, accompanied by our faithful Stavros (picture and longer biography on Logan’s blog). We got back and started on our picnic just in time for the sunset. It was beautiful and the food was delicious – so simple, but so good. I miss the olives rather a lot.

When the last glimmers had faded into the ocean, we set off back to our trusty steeds, still accompanied by Stavros. Who followed us practically halfway back to Fira, despite our best efforts to shoo him back. He kept up with the ATVs! Finally, we just focused on driving and he eventually fell behind, but we were duly impressed.

That night, the young ones headed out to a bar to taste some ouzo, which we’d been told we shouldn’t miss. The bartender gave us a few glasses to share, and I got a Mythos beer. Ouzo is strong, and I think the reason it’s so licorice-flavored is to mask the bathtub-gin quality of the alcohol. Still, I drank my entire beer, a few sips of Logan’s ouzo, and most of my delicate flower brother’s ouzo, because he couldn’t handle it, and was feeling quite happy by the time we left. Needless to say, Logan drove home, me holding onto him and giggling all the way.

In the morning, slightly the worse for wear, we watched the sunrise from my parents’ balcony and went out for a last hurrah on the ATVs. Logan and Casey got to try my parents’ machine, which was more powerful than the others.

Don’t they look tough?

Then we headed back down to the port for the Epiphany ceremony, which apparently involved a cross being tossed into the sea to symbolize Jesus’ baptism. We were quite early, so I sat and watched the waves again, with the added fun of watching my boyfriend try to defy them.

After the ceremony, we hopped onto the cable cars (free because of the holiday!) and went back to the hotel for another picnic lunch, this time on the balcony. Logan and I packed, then visited our favorite food stand for some more mandarin-orange Fanta, which I think I might like even better than the lemon kind, which has had my unwavering allegiance since I got it by accident last year while ordering a sandwich.

Then we hopped into the hotel van, which took us back to the teeny-tiny airport (they X-ray your checked luggage before you give it to the check-in counter ladies to check, and there’s only one security line), where we waited, nostalgic already, for our plane. It was such a brilliant three days, especially the ATVs – now I completely understand why Vermonters are so attached to their four-wheelers. They’re SO MUCH FUN!

Logan’s and my last few days in Athens to come shortly. Stay tuned!