Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Athens — It's still a classic

Acropolis at Night with cranes and all
Our introduction to Athens started with the drive from the airport which passed the Panathenaic stadium where in 1896 the modern Olympics were launched and was followed with a view of the Parthenon (complete with cranes - best viewed in the dark) from the balcony of our room. In a nutshell our Athens experience included a private tour of the Acropolis & the impressive new Acropolis Museum, an overview of Greek Food by a local expert, visiting a few museums and churches, wandering streets & alleyways tripping over ancient ruins, the usual shopping "sprees" and making the most of our last opportunity to enjoy the fine local food.

Our first activity was finding our way to the Monastiraki district, renowned for it's numerous restaurants offering souvlaki (Warm pita, grilled marinated meat, yoghurt, lettuce and tomato … served with french fries)….Just the thought makes us hungry again.  

Souvlaki with fries
Our guided Acroplis Tour began with a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. While the museum is built over ruins from the old city, every effort was made to preserve the ruins and make them viewable through a glass floor (covered with a grid of black dots to help viewers maintain their perspective). The Acropolis Museum is home to the remaining few original major artifacts from the area.  Many of the original pieces from the Parthenon are in London, moved there by Elgin. One unusual display is the Marathon Cup awarded to the marathon winner in the first modern Olympics in 1896. It is lovely. 

A column from the "Porch of the Caryatids", a recreation of the set of the greater than life-size sculptures from the Parthenon (featuring copies of the "Elgin Marbles") and the 6-8" high Marathon Cup.

The Acropolis includes the ruins of the Parthenon and several other structures. It has been built, rebuilt, extended, and shot at over the centuries and like many similar sites around the world is constantly under restoration. There are also some good views of the surrounding area.

Theater of Dionysos and view of city view looking NE toward Lykavittos Hill

The changing of the guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was quite interesting. It was odd. We arrived late. But a few minutes before the action started, the police started moving the folks in front back away from things in order to leave maybe  10 meters from some pretty nebulous point. As a result we were left with a pretty much front line positioning.  Seeing the event is worth it just for the march step and costumes of the guards. Love the kilts & the pom-pom clogs.

Our Food Tour began in the central market and wandered around several nearby streets where we sampled Greek pastries, meats, cheeses, and olives. 

Flying pastry dough
Hung-up on cured meats
A small selection of olives

We also had the opportunity to see one of the local pastries being prepared, quite an impressive process. The end result, galaktoboureko (custard filled phyllo dough), was quite tasty, as were the "doughnuts".

Greek Donuts / Loukoumades

The most amazing thing happened on this tour.  The guide told us he prefers working with Americans. They are more open, friendly, curious, … than Europeans. Hey, what ever happened to "The Ugly American"?

The National Archeological Museum covers the history and culture of Greece. With so much to cover plan on a 2-3 hour overview or several days for an in-depth experience. A few samples of the displays from our 2 hours visit.

Zeus or Poseidon?

A visit to the Benake museum is worth a hour or more depending on your interest in the antiquities, history, and costumes around Greece. We enjoyed looking at the variations in dress throughout the country.

Dining is easy, just walk along the street and you will be encouraged to view a large number of menus, featuring mostly Greek dishes with slight variations and a reasonable wine lists including some fine Greek vintages. Typical Athenians eat lunch after 3PM and dinner at 9+ (restaurants are mostly empty earlier, note that we were there in off-season). 

Shops were open long hours but few buyers were visible. On Sunday the stores were open for the first time ever and there were crowds. Maybe a good sign for their economy. 

And, not to missed, a protest on our last day. A quite civilized event. We were somewhat surprised when they very politely slowed up to let us cross the street. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Santorini - too beautiful for words (but we try)

Santorini showing crater, white houses on the hilltop nearby & in the distance,
and one of too-many-to-count churches
The beauty of Santorini is that the island is the top two-thirds (or so) of an ancient caldera.  A couple additional islands complete the circular shape of the full caldera, the circle of land left behind after a volcano blows it's top. 

The thing about a caldera is that it can have steep sides.  In the case of Santorini, this means that there is no easy way to get from the sea to the towns at the top of the caldera… Well, it's not really so bad. From where we arrived there is a road with many switch-backs…and taxis or buses to get you to your lodging.  From where the cruise ships arrive the options are: walk, take the cable car or ride a donkey.
Donkeys returning home at the end of the work day
An uneventful, smooth, ferry ride and a transfer (Bill not driving) up a series of switchbacks to the "main" road took us to the cave house we had rented in Firostefani. With a short trek up over the lip of the caldera and down to our accommodations in the rock, we had arrived. Then we walked to Fira (very close) and on to Thira (maybe a mile further?)  From the time we hit Fira, there were a several more or less parallel walkways, each lined with shops offering clothes and/or a range of potential souvenirs….
Marty's House: Looking down from the loft to the living room. Kitchen is to the far left. Bathroom is thru the door to the right. Master Bedroom is below the loft. Note: Cave houses seem to always have a curved roof.
The views over the caldera, were stunning morning, afternoon and evening but especially at sunset.  From our cave house we also had a great view of Skaros, a rocky promontory that unbelievably used to be the castle/fortress "city" of Santorini from medieval times until the early 1800s. The castle was destroyed by a 19th-century earthquake.
See that knob on the hilltop in the center of the photo?  That's Skaros today.
In a photo we saw, it had a fort and buildings clinging to the hillside.
Our lovely cave house belongs to Marty Finkelman, a friend of our SMA friends Jack & Ruth. Living in a cave house means constant temperature and, occasionally, some interesting sound effects from the walkway overhead. It seemed like we were in a standalone house. We walked down to our patio and into the living room. But occasionally it seemed like someone was walking around "upstairs".  As it turns out this was literally true. We finally realized that the public pathway along the water that we walked to get to/from the house, was indeed over the back half of the house. The house comes with a resident cat, Martina  She pretty much owns the property but she must own a couple others as well. She is well-fed! We worry a little about how she does in the winter, but we heard stories from the locals about how they adopt several extra cats over the winter months.

Poor, underfed(?) Martina.  We think she is the real owner of the house.
We had a rental car and made excursions to Oia (one of the extremities of the island), Akrotiri (the other end of the island), and several other spots in between. Along the way, we tasted local wines, explored touristy shops, and photographed castles, churches, and white & blue buildings stretching down the steep hillsides / cliffs.
From afar the white houses look like snow or frosting on the hilltops.
This is what they look like in the setting sun.
Church in Oia
The windmills are commonly associated with Mykonos
but we found them on Rhodes & Santorini as well.
After our day in Oia, Bill's Mom sent us an email with the jigsaw puzzle of the day that she had completed. And, yes we were able to send her back a photo of the same location that we had taken that very same day. What a coincidence!
Our version of Puzzle of the Day
One day we wandered through the neighboring town of Fira and viewed some replicas of lovely wall frescoes from the ancient Akrotiri, a Minoan city inhabited around 2000-3000BC.
Copy of a wall fresco from Akrotiri.  The original is in the local museum but we didn't get there.
The frescoes are amazing. As are the ruins of the city, which we discovered later… The site is being excavated and several houses are clearly visible. Unusual is there are no temples, churches, etc.

Remains of one of the houses at Akrotiri; storage jars intact.
One evening the entertainment was presented by mother nature. It had been a partially cloudy day which made for a spectacular sunset that filled the sky with vivid colors. Even the locals were taking pictures and exclaiming how spectacular it was. That said, the sunset was so amazing that pictures can not even describe it. 
The crater at sunset
Being off-season there were fewer tourists (usually one large cruise ship each day) and consequently many of the restaurants were closed. Never fear. We did not starve. In fact we ate just fine, we just had to walk a little farther.

Fried fish plate. Yum!
We're struggled (and failed) to master Greek wines. The challenges are that the bottles are labelled in Greek lettering and the grapes are primarily unique to Greece. They do have some Cabernet, Syrah etc but we of course are more interested in trying the unfamiliar ones. 
Typical labeling on local wines.  Apparently for the larger wineries,
they have labels combining the Greek with the English translation using the Roman alphabet.
Here's what we know about Greek wines as of our Santorini stop. 
  • At least on Santorini, odds are, if the grape name starts with "A" it is a white wine (there is one red, but we hardly ever saw it). Common white wines are: Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. Common red wines are: Mandelaria, Mavrotragano.  (Actually that second red is unique to Santorini but that really is the source of our knowledge at this stage).
  • On Santorini, grapes are cultivated with a method that is new to us. The main source of moisture for the grapes is from the overnight dew. To help the vines collect this, they are curled into circles about 2-3 feet in diameter. During the summer the vineyards look like a field of low lying grape leaves. In fall/winter, they look like a a field of grapevine wreaths all laid out separately.
    Grapevine coiled to better retain moisture.
  • Vinsanto it is not the same as "Vin Santo" in Italy. In Greece they harvest the grapes in early August, at the same time as other grapes. They then leave them to dry in the sun for several days or weeks before pressing them. In Italy, the grapes are dried much longer.
Stayed tuned for news of our final stop: Athens

Friday, November 1, 2013

Crete: Be advised: it's hard to leave

Is it Chania or Hania? 

Our first lesson with Greek is that even when written with roman characters, it's still confusing. For instance Chania & Hania are both pronounced the same (sounding most like Hania.) Whatever the name, it is a delightful small city in the West of Crete. 

Chania Harbor - Our "home" is just to the left of the photo, but we did indeed walk around the breakwater and out to the lighthouse (also on the left, just beyond the entrance to the harbor).
In the past, travelers more typically visited the beach resorts on the East of Crete with a brief stop in Heraklion (in the center) to visit the Minoan Palace at Knossos. We were attracted to Chania by the combination of hiking the renowned Samariá Gorge along with the more recent publicity about it being a hidden gem. The hike is a bit of an ordeal involving a bus ride to the beginning, a cruise back to a nearby town and a bus ride back to Chania.  Oh, and the hike itself is 9+ miles long. Since we are traveling in the off-season, the bus/boat services weren't available. We would have loved to hike through the gorge but who knows, maybe things worked out for the best...

Chania was one of the nicest stops on the trip for relaxing, laid-back style (at least in mid-October). The Old Town is a pleasant walled-town set around a harbor (surrounded by restaurants and cafes). It's quiet back streets are packed with shops (offering useful items as well as souvenirs), hotels and restaurants. The locals are wonderful, helpful people. Tomais, the owner of Madonna Suites where we stayed, is the most gracious host you can imagine. Not only did she provide comfortable & spacious accommodations, she also provided touring advice, cooked wonderful tasty snacks & desserts for us AND even insisted on doing our laundry.

The carriages are cute but everything is such an easy walk it is hard to consider riding...
We had great intentions, but the calm, peaceful atmosphere kept us near town more than we expected. We managed one trip inland to see the rugged terrain, villages and the Crete Botanical Garden. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the tiny village of Therisso. The twisting roads would normally make driving challenging but the lack of traffic and slow pace (it is hard to get out of 2nd gear) made it quite manageable despite the continuous sequence of hairpin turns. It also helped that there also was the occasional stop for a photo shoot.
Yup, that is the road Bill drove.  Note the Sea in the distance (the bay of Chania)
More of the countryside on our drive
Map of the Botanic Garden...what is doesn't show is the vertical aspect.
There was a lot of up and down on the tour.
A countryside church along the way
The local covered market is one of the best we have seen anywhere. The market offers beautifully displayed fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, fish or herbs, spices, oils, wine and locally hand-crafted souvenirs. A great place to prepare for a fine meal or to buy gifts. 
One of the cheese shops at the covered market 
Thursday is the local day market. Vendors offer plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish, and clothing. 
The weekly market...buying fresh fish with the perfect backdrop.
The maritime museum is a complete history of Crete on the sea, several millennia of history.  
Buried treasures...there were also wonderful replicas of famous sailing vessels
...but somehow we forgot to take any photos!?! 
For lunch we went to the town of Stavros on the nearby Akrotiri Peninsula. This was the location of the first sandy beach we've seen in Europe.  After lunch a foto op around the shore and beach. We didn't have a guide so we left with some unanswered questions.
Question 1: what is that square block doing there?

Question 2: How did that transition from red to grey stone happen?
FYI, for scale, the long transitions are probably 15" long and the shorter one is maybe 6".
(Note: this is just something we observed on the shore.)
There are many monasteries on the peninsula. We stopped at one. Basically you tour it like you would any other home or craftsman's business.  In this case the business was winemaking...but they didn't offer tastings. Drat.
Entrance to the monastery.
An icon from the chapel.  Except for the faces and hands, that is all hammered silver.
A vase. Love the way it broke.
There is good seafood and Greek cuisine available along the water and along the secluded back streets. Several things we discovered about dining in Greece:
  • While there are desserts on the menu, it is impossible to actually order dessert following a meal.  But when you ask for your bill, you will most likely receive a dessert along with a drink (raki, coffee) before you will actually receive your bill.
  • They make amazing grilled meats.
  • When you order the House Wine by the half liter, you get it in an aluminum cup which looks like it would be very difficult to use without spilling the wine. Fortunately  it is actually easy to pour from and the house wine is quite fine.
A half-liter of wine served in aluminum cup

Of all the places we've visited on this trip, this was the hardest to leave. We could almost imagine living in Chania...if the locals had not mentioned that in mid November the sunshine turns to rain and the temps drop into the teens (40's and 50's).

Heraklion & Knossos

Heraklion is a city with a wonderful pedestrian walk from the port to the center with shops and restaurants. The port has a loooong breakwater ...good for a stroll to see the cute small boats. 

There's actually a nice shopping district and some good restaurants.  Of course the main reasons to visit Heraklion is it is the primary transportation hub of Crete, it is the base from which to visit the Minoan city of Knossos. Heraklion also hosts a fine archaeological museum with the frescos and artifacts from Knossos.

Knossos is a  Bronze Age site, the reputed palace of King Minos. Legend has it that the palace was built over a labyrinth that was inhabited by a Minotaur (half-man, half-bull). More factually the area was first settled around 7000 BC. The first palace (really a collection of religious, political and civil facilities including workrooms, storerooms and living spaces) was built on the site around 1900 BC. Following an earthquake this was later rebuilt. The "palace" was clearly beautifully decorated and and featured sophisticated architectural features such as light wells (aka open courtyards that provided lighting to surrounding rooms) and plumbing systems that delivered fresh water and met sanitation needs.  

The palace was abandoned at some unknown time at the end of the Late Bronze Age, ca. 1380–1100 BC, and like Pompeii, it was preserved in the ashes of the local volcano. It was discovered in the late 1800's. It was excavated and partially restored under the direction of Arthur Evans in the earliest years of the 20th century. Many people today find Evans work controversial because he rebuilt so much. Whether this was wise or not, he did it in the interests of preservation and it is truly fascinating to see the results.  

Aside from the site itself and the artifacts recovered and restored from the site, we found it fascinating that Evans and team could fill-in the missing areas of frescos based on only a few pieces. Still the restorations seem to make sense… and Pat studied them quite closely. There is so much more we could say about Knossos, but it's time to let the photos do the work...

Fresco of "Bull Jumping".  You start by grabbing the horns, flip over the back and land with
two feet on the ground. Maybe you also turn 180 degrees because
the guy at the back is facing the back of the bull after landing.
The "Queen's Room", decorated with dolphins.

The "Throne Room" (see stone throne on bottom right)
Below: Pieces recovered and preserved at the museum.

From Heraklion, we took the ferry to Santorini. Stay tuned.