Friday, April 25, 2008

Bazaar Fun


Windy, windy and cold, and tomorrow it is supposed to rain. I think it is time to go home! We had a lazy morning, chatting with the other guests in the breakfast room then heading out to the Bosphorus. We walked across the bridge at the south end of the river, watching the many men with their surf rods, trying their luck at fishing; lots of lacy jellyfish were skimming the surface of the water. The lower level of the bridge was lined with restaurants and we stopped for fresh sea bream, which was quite good. By then it was too late to go to the Topkapi Palace so we opted to wander through the spice market again. I bargained for and bought a few Turkish plates.

We went back to Majoob, the Chinese speaking spice salesman who greeted us heartily, and gave us a good price on pepper, cinnamon and other spices. You see, speaking Chinese does bring in extra business! In walked another American he recognized from 2 years ago and we had a nice chat about travels in Greece, Turkey and China. This guy was in Greece, learning the language and finding his roots; he was originally from South Carolina. Majoob was such a congenial guy and was in the process of negotiating a price for 250 kg of Turkish Delight candy with a large Chinese tour group. He loves speaking the language and is quite good; he is also a great salesman. The shopkeepers in the bazaar are entertaining and eager to make a sale. We have a good time interacting and joking with them-what a fun experience.

We spent the rest of the evening stuffing our things into the little bit of luggage we had brought. We had purchased only some food items, spices and a couple of plates but since we had come with full roll-ons and had only one empty duffle bag - finding space was a challenge. Besides the ongoing problem of having to check in all jars of liquids but packing them to avoid breakage. Breaking a jar of olive tapenade in your clothes would not have been good! I was pleased that I had read 2 of the 3 books I had brought, and did not have to take home the 4 magazines in my bag.
I have so many issues of the Economist stacked up at home, I take them with me, and leave them at airports and hotels, hopefully to enlighten others who might happen to pick one up.

Toward evening, we walked the streets of Istanbul and ended up at a small Turkish restaurant that was below ground. We were attracted by the woman standing in front, making flat bread. Helping her was a young girl from NY, whose boyfriend managed the place. It was her second visit to Greece. The restaurant’s specialty was chicken cooked inside a sealed pottery crock, which the waiter cracks open at the table. We watched with this process at the table next to us. The bread was fabulous and our lamb dishes perfect. It was a nice way to end our stay in Istanbul.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Running Around Istanbul


We just got back to the hotel after our little adventure in Istanbul. After spending the day in Ephesus, we flew back to Istanbul, arriving at 9pm. Our hotel owner had clearly drawn a diagram for us indicating the route we should follow from the airport to metro to tram, but when we asked for directions at the airport, we were told there was no metro, only a shuttle bus. This seemed very odd to us and we were really irritated and puzzled. The guard at the bus stop told us we needed to go to 4.Levant and take the metro to Taksin, but according to the map, that was all the way up north---how could this possibly be? Finally, after a lot of questions, one girl on the bus pointed out to us where we were on the map. Turns out we were not at the regular airport; I had booked our return ticket into the local domestic airport on the other side of town, on the Asian side of Istanbul! In order to get back, we had to ride the bus up north and across the Bosphorus, then transfer to the metro. It ended up being quite an adventure of bus to metro to funicular to tram and then a walk back, taking over an hour. Riding the metro and tram so late at night were mostly men, and we felt very much like locals. It was unbelievably safe, and all along the way, workers went out of their way to help us. Our little adventure on the bus went through the very modern Istanbul, financial district and across the Bosphorus. We saw beautiful high rise office buildings in blue and green neon lights, and the brightly lit buildings along the river at night. The bridge that spans the Bosphorus was glittering in blue lights. It was a breathtaking scene—a silver lining to my little error.

We had had an interesting day walking around the ruins of Ephesus, the former capital of Roman Asia Minor and site of one of the grandest reconstructed ancient sites in the world. Over 250,000 people lived in this city during this time. The reconstructed Library of Celsus is a two story high marble building that stands grandly at the end of the site. What a great undertaking it was over a period of 10 years to excavate and piece together this edifice. The size of this city is impressive with columns lining the marble streets, many of which are still standing. The Romans constructed an elaborate system of concrete pipes to bring water down from the mountains. This was a vibrant city until the land began to silt over increasing the distance to the harbor. As we walked down the streets, you could almost hear the sounds of this Roman city come to life.

Our guide took us to the city of Selcuk, the second city of the Romans, after Ephesus became less desirable. We visited St. John’s Basilica, a ruin of the basilica where he was buried. The size of the building is astounding and it made us wonder how the ancient Romans transported the columns and rocks over such large distances to construct such elaborate buildings. We stopped for a simple but delicious lunch of kabobs and dolmas (artichokes and peppers stuffed with rice). Our guide was a gentle 75 year old man who clearly was not happy about the increase of the extremists in Turkey. Despite his long career as an engineer and in the army, he was still working because the government pension is quite small. He had us a bit worried with his driving and we had a few close calls and swerves as he tried to answer his cell phone while driving. My heart stopped a few times when he was climbing down over the tall Roman blocks and the multitude of steps in the old Roman theatres. I took his business card but Ray said he definitely wouldn’t want him driving our kids around!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Propositioned


So much to see, and so little time to see it. First on the agenda was the Blue Mosque, a very serene place with red carpeted floors and stained glass windows. Visitors are required to remove their shoes and women must cover their heads. People who come to pray must wash at the faucets outside. Down the street is the Haghia Sophia, one of the world’s most magnificent architectural achievements. This Byzantine church was converted to a mosque in 15th century by the Ottomans. Here I was propositioned by a young security guard. I was taking photos and he attempted to engage me in conversation about my photos. He told me the mosque would be closing at 5, and asked if I had any plans. He then proceeded to invite me to have kebabs with him but I told him my husband was “over there”, to which he apologized. Don’t know what his intentions were, but I was flattered, just the same!

The Basilica cistern is a vast underground vault that held water for the great palace. The roof is held up by over 336 columns that run at angles to each other. This amazing structure is still intact. We walked along the walkways and Ray was in awe at the number of fish in the water.

Next stop was the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of streets all in one building, consisting of thousands of shops selling all sorts of goods-leather, clothing, ceramics and of course, carpets. This place was similar to Silk Alley in Beijing but on a much larger scale, and bargaining is essential. I was thinking of buying a set of 6 dessert plates but each stall had one sample of each design/color so in order to buy a set, I would have had to go to 6 stores and negotiate a price in each; this seemed like an awful lot of work and way too much trouble. The salespeople are friendly and entertaining, calling to you, saying “Ni hao” and “Konichiwa”, and “Where are you from?” We also walked through the spice market where we spent time talking to a young Turkish salesman who spoke excellent Chinese. He was a very likable guy, very proud of the fact that he is the only sales person in the Bazaar who can speak Chinese. He apparently does a booming business to Chinese tour groups! We bought a supply of spices and a variety of teas from him.

The hotel owner recommended an Ottoman Restaurant at the northwestern part of the city. It took a while to get there and was an upscale place with a few guests dining there. We especially enjoyed the appetizers-variations of dolmas and other Turkish delights. The main course, on the other head, was rather plain. What an interesting and busy day it had been.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Big Blocks


This was our last day in Greece and we had plans to drive to Mycenae and on to Athens to return our car before our flight to Istanbul in the evening. We had a leisurely breakfast and set out. The drive to Mycenae was a familiar one by now, having made it several times already. Mycenae is the site of a fortified palace, one of the earliest examples of citadel architecture. Mycenean refers to the late Bronze Age, 1700-1100BC. The cyclopean walls were made of enormous blocks of rock—how in the world did they manage to cut, move, and stack them? The front gate, called Lion’s Gate has a sculpture of 2 lions facing each other. At the end of the palace is a secret staircase leading to a tunnel system of water pipes that ran through the walls. This provided water to the palace in the event of attack.

We then walked to the Treasury of Atteus, a magnificent tholos, one of the few 2 chambered tombs. It has 33 rows of stones ending in a domed top. The doorway has a 30 ft. long stone rests at the top of the door, weighing 264,000 lbs. It is unknown how they managed to hoist the rock up so high. Above the door was a triangular opening----the sides of the triangle diverted pressure to the ends of the long piece of rock, versus having rock sitting directly on the cross beam. Their engineering and architectural prowess was admirable to say the least.

It did not take us long to reach Athens and to return our car. We flew Turkish Air to Istanbul, arriving early in the evening. The Ada Istanbul is s a small hotel in the Sultanahmet district, owned by an older couple whose son lives in SF. We were given a basement room but the lack of windows was a bit claustrophobic and we requested a room on the upper level.

Ah, Turkey has no church bells but at 5am, you can hear the call to prayer broadcast by megaphones across the city. It is followed by the voices of people praying. Muslims pray 5 times a day, but the early morning one definitely wakes you up. During the day, it is a memorable sound to hear this call amid the sounds of the city.

Monday, April 21, 2008

800 Steps


Today was a day of relaxation. Ray started with a long run along the wharf; I chose to sleep in then went for a 3 mile walk by the water. The hotel served a breakfast of rolls and Greek yogurt, thicker than American yogurt, and usually eaten with honey. The city had emptied out after the weekend and was quiet. We took a walk to the Palamidi, a huge Venetian citadel built in the 1800’s, and constructed to withstand all artillery. It consists of a wall enclosing 7 forts. Up 800 steps, the view from the top was again spectacular as were the lines and arches of the walls themselves. Purple wildflowers hung off of the craggy walls. At the top, I had a nice conversation with a middle aged man who was a bellman in Cooperstown, NY, the baseball capital of the US, traveling around Europe for the first time, staying in 10E a night hostels and riding around on a railpass. He had never traveled to Europe before this and was enjoying himself so much and realizing how much most Americans miss by not taking the opportunity to travel. Talking to him made me realize how much of Europe we have seen. The weather was warm and somewhat humid, leaving us quite sticky after our walk.

Gelato was next on the agenda; the best gelato in Greece, I believe. I think we should just skip meals and eat gelato instead. My tiramasu and mango combination was the best I have tasted in a long time, and we went back for gelato a second time in the evening. We sat at the wharfside and watched people walk by. Ever notice how many tall men are married to short women?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Are You Open or Not?

Greek museums and sites seem to operate on their own mysterious schedule. Ignore those guidebooks and the opening hours. What is supposed to be open until 7pm, and keeping summer hours, are actually not and no one seems to know why or when they will stay open late. On our drive down to Nafplio, we stopped in Mycenae, only to discover that the site closed at 3. However they told me that Ancient Corinth would be open until 7. We took a drive out there only to discover that wrong…they closed at 3 just like everyone else. Since we were already there, we decided to check out Acrocorinth, above the main city of Ancient Corinth, high up on the hill, a fortress that was refortified by every occupying power of Greece. It has Turkish, Frankish and Byzantine influences. Although we couldn’t go into the fortress, there was a sweeping view of Greece from the top.

We then headed down to Nafplio, the first capital of Greece in 1829. The medieval old town area is dense but quite charming with cafes lining the wharf. It was packed full of people and cars. We found our hotel, the Hotel Leto at the end of an alley and were impressed by the skill of the local residents in getting in and out of their very narrow winding driveways and parking spaces. This was clearly a town designed before the days of cars. The hotel is clean and lovely. I mentioned to the owner that Greek people are so friendly, and he laughed and said, “No, not always!” Perhaps they are like Chinese, friendly to tourists and not to their own! We ventured out for a seafood dinner along the wharf, though we found a Fodor’s recommendation Arapaka, quite expensive and only so-so. We ordered grilled cod and stuffed squid. Prices are based by the kg, and an average serving is 900gm for most fish like grouper, at 60E per kg. Smaller fish like cod run 40E for a kg and a serving is around 600 gm. With the exchange rate at 1.58, dinner was not cheap! Walking back to the hotel, we got great shots of the fortress bathed in lights.

Musings

I am convinced that the Greeks are going to die of lung cancer which will eradicate their civilization. Men, young and old smoke like chimneys. Young women and kids as young as 15-16 gather in groups and smoke. I noticed that young woman are quite beautiful, but they age quickly and that middle aged women look quite old and wrinkly. There does not appear to be any government movement to educate the populace about the dangers of smoking, rather you see posters of glamorous women in cigarette ads lining the bus stops. Tobacco is a major product in Greece and the income it produces most likely outweighs the motivation for them to regulate smoking. Smoking is permitted in any public building, restaurants etc. There is no escaping the smoke. In coffee stands, men and women have their cigarette and their cup of coffee. In the outdoor restaurant at dinnertime, every girl at a table for 8 ended the meal with a cigarette.

We also noticed that very few young people have earbuds on while riding the metro, or walking on the street. It is still rather difficult to find wireless connections in the cities, and technology certainly does not dominate life as it does in Silicon Valley.

We have found the Greeks to be extremely friendly people. Outside of Athens and Santorini, it is common to find people that do not speak any English. Yet they are helpful and eager to provide information as best they can.

Athens is a very polluted city but has its own type of charm. I can imagine how unpleasant it must be in the heat of the summer when tourists flock to the city in droves and the air is brown muck. Spring is definitely a more preferable season to visit and the weather is similar to that of the Bay Area.

We have tried all the main Greek specialties-stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, greek salad, souvlaki, grilled meats, meatballs, gyros, lamb etc. Greek food has left us with mixed feelings. We had a great dinner at a Crete restaurant but disappointing lunch at two homestyle Greek restaurants. I think we need to pay more to get a decent meal and that homestyle food is not necessarily the tastiest, but finding a reasonably priced good Greek restaurant seems to be a challenge. We followed Fodor’s recommendations as we usually do and have struck out twice. Baklava is very, very sweet , though they have many varieties here. Souvlaki is ok, though can be somewhat dry. Perhaps the seafood on the island and coastal regions will be good. It seems that the Greeks eat salads but not very many vegetables. Dinners are usually served with potato, often French fries, but not fresh vegetables. We question the so called healthy Mediterranean diet. Is it just the olive oil that makes their diet healthy? There is no shortage of fast food and the under 40 crowd appears to be somewhat heavy. Perhaps their diet too has changed, and that coupled with the lack of exercise and smoking seems to be a recipe for disaster.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Small Town Warmth


There is a sense of calm and peacefulness in these little villages, far from the distractions of internet and world politics. Up here, little seems to matter and life appears to be simple. What is it like to live your life running a small café in these mountain areas, when a quarter of the year is spent with no guests? At the head of the path lives a family with 3 children; they have a small flock of sheep and an assortment of chickens and goats. Children like kids anywhere were playing happily, chatting while they rode their bikes in circles on the patch of concrete in front of their home. “Who do they pretend to be?” I wondered. The father, who we had seen sitting on the front patio of the restaurant for 2 days now, was engaged in a loud argument with a woman, we assumed was the wife. We would not survive such an existence for more than a few weeks, would we? The woman who runs one of the two village restaurants told us her mother was from this village, and her father from Macedonia. She has been here for 4 years with her husband, who works as the cook. In his black plastic frame glasses and tshirt that read “Facebook Addict”, he looked like a software engineer from Silicon Valley. Do people here aspire to be somewhere else, or something else?

We took a 3 mile hike along the Vikos Gorge, the turquoise river ran below the trail and in some spots we could see spring water bubbling out from under the rocky cliffs. Wildflowers were blooming everywhere and the cliffsides were green with spring grass. The sun was warm and the air humid; after about an hour we decided we needed to head back and proceeded onward driving back down the coast. First, though, we took a short drive to the Albanian border. Many police cars and vans were patrolling the highway and we reached the agricultural and passport control area within 20 minutes. Not knowing anything about Albania, we didn’t dare to venture across.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent driving south along the coastal area and through many small towns. This part of the country is agricultural and not very wealthy. They reminded us of small towns in China with run down buildings and machinery sitting in the driveways. We stopped at a roadside stand to buy fresh oranges which were hanging in bags from the stalls. The owner refused to give me a price per kg, indicating that my 5E was fine. He gave me no change and I began to think I had gotten cheated but there was not much I could do about it. It was worth it though as the oranges were sun ripened, and when peeled, the sweet juices ran down our hands. Our second stop was for strawberries. Again, the woman refused to give me a price per basket and indicated my 5E was fine; I really should have stopped showing 5 dollar bills! This time I refused, fool me once shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you! I continued to ask for a price or change. Along came a group of older Greek men, checking the quality of the berries. I stood there intending to see what they would pay but the woman keep shooing me off. She tried to give me 1E and clearly wanted me to leave. This made me more suspicious until I finally gave her back her berries and asked for my money back, refusing to be her victim! So much for roadside stands.

We crossed the suspension bridge across the Gulf of Corinth and entered the town of Patras, a port city that was bustling with young people. We did not have a reservation and were again worried about not finding a place, given our prior experience. We drove around town, and saw a hotel sign. How fortunate we were to find a decent hotel room in the central part of the town at a reasonable price. It was a block from a promenade where hundreds of young people were sitting at outside cafes drinking; the bars were booming with music. So this is what young people do at night! They drink but don’t eat; the restaurants are frequented by older adults. We managed to find a small Italian restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful meal of braised lamb and tiramisu.

Friday, April 18, 2008

God's Country


There is a part of Greece that few Americans venture to. It has some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, according to the guidebook, and a rustic charm that exists only in small villages, away from the tour buses and cruise ship vacationers, and with not a gift shop in sight. It is an area where few speak English but with local people so warm and friendly that it draws you to stay a while. The region of Zagoria in central Greece, is located just 30km east of the Albanian border and contains the Vikos National Park. The Vikos Gorge cuts through limestone cliffs, rising vertically 2,000 ft. Nestled in the valleys and along the way up the mountain roads are many small villages, with stone buildings and bright orange clay or gray slate roofs. Skinny cattle and groups of sheep can be seen meandering their way along the quiet roads, led by shepherds, some of whom spend summer high in the mountains and winters in town. We found the village of Aristi, just 30 min. north of Ioannina. The town had a sleepy feel to it; the local taverna owner told us that next Wed., before the Orthodox Easter would bring 10 days of tourists and all their hotel rooms were fully booked for then. Feb. through now is their slow season but autumn, with its vivid colors, is the most beautiful time in this area. Winter brings rock climbers, summer the rafters. She was curious as to how we had found our way up here as, “most Americans”, she told us, “go to Mykonos and Santorini but don’t come this far north”. We had suspected that but also thought it a shame, as this is some of the most beautiful country in the world. Having seen some of the most spectacular mountain ranges of the Alps, Sierras, Pyrenees, and Himalayas, we found this area to be among the most beautiful in the world.

How did we find this place, you ask? Coming out of Ioannina earlier in the day and heading north, we had made a short stop in Asfaka for coffee. We had been driving for over 2 hours on switchbacks that wound up and down the mountain, sharing the road with trucks and wild Greek drivers who had no fear of passing a caravan of cars on a two lane road. Their custom is to drive a bit on the shoulder, leaving a midroad section for passing, but pray that no one is passing from the opposite direction. We were headed for the national park, which in the guidebook looked inviting, but we were were clueless as to where to find hiking trails and whether there was any lodging in the mountain area. No one at the roadside café spoke English, but the owner of the 2 room hotel sitting out in front knew more English words than anyone else and was delegated to the job of answering my questions. I’m sure we were an amusing scene-me deep in conversational English, he in Greek, though neither of us understood each other; we might as well have kept our mouths shut! Pantomine, drawing numbers in the air, one word at a time, by intonation, we somehow had a conversation. We learned that Vikos gorge was up the road, you can pay for lodging, people go up to hike, and that we should come back and stay at his hotel! A smile, a nod, a few laughs, and pats on the back, and we had made a connection.

An hour later, in Aristi, we were checking out a small hotel owned by an elderly Greek couple, but who were no where to be found. A very helpful and quite handsome young Greek construction worker with a beautiful smile told us to go in and take a look at the room. He also couldn’t find the owners, but as we were waiting, he gestured that the couple was coming down the path, returning from their evening walk. It was 40E, a good price. Aphrodite and her husband, a typical Greek couple straight out of the movies, very cheerily greeted us. The rooms had not yet been prepped for the tourist season and they busily turned on heat, hot water and electricity. I helped Aphrodite make up the bed and we unloaded our luggage before driving to Vikos along a narrow and very scenic 3 km road to the head of the Vikos Gorge hike. Vikos is an even smaller town of less than 10 shepherding families. The path runs behind their homes and we saw sheep and chickens in the back yards. The view down the gorge and across the valley was really God’s country-layers of mountain chains fading into the distance, craggy limestone rising up to the clouds, and the bright green of spring grass as a background for the blooming purple plum trees put us in touch with the heavens.

It was an end to an interesting day. Early in the morning we had entered the town of Meteora in search of video tapes and batteries. First things first, we found a tiny local bakery where an elderly woman was gently placing dozens of loaves of bread at a time onto a baking sheet, with many dozens of freshly baked loaves standing in baskets by the door. We went back 3 times in a period of 15 min. for more fresh bread, breadsticks, and muffins. Oh, so yummy-fresh from the oven, the bread was crusty on the outside and soft as velvet inside! On the street, we saw groups of young girls swinging baskets decorated with flowers, frequenting the shops for sweets, Easter eggs, and treats. It is the week before Easter and this Greek tradition finds children singing their Easter song for treats, not unlike trick or treating. Meteora has a cluster of limestone rocky protrusions, approximately 1,500 ft. high, upon which ancient monks had built their monasteries. With no roads leading to the peaks, they had used ropes and pulleys to haul their supplies and building materials up. Seeing the buildings constructed into the rocky protuberances made us realize what a great feat this was. The neighboring area has clusters of villages nestled in the mountains and hills. Our drive throughout the day took us through this mountainous region winding along mountain passes, and finally ending up in Aristi. It was truly a backroads experience and one that is seen by few American tourists!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ni Hao!


I believe that we are quite an oddity in Greece, especially to the hoards of Greek schoolchildren who we have seen at various tourist places this week. “Ni hao”, they say, “Welcome to Greece!” “Are Greek children learning to speak Chinese?” we wondered. Early in the morning, we left the Holiday Inn Attica by shuttle bus back to the airport for our rental car. Economy Car Rental-their shuttle should have been at the parking lot, but was not. 2 phone calls and 30 min later, we were chastised by the owner for coming in earlier than our reservation time and expecting the shuttle to be there to pick us up. He turned out to be a friendly guy, and gave us advice on which highways to take as we headed north. In our little Fiat, we ventured onto the highway toward Delphi. We quickly learned that the roads in Greece are not well marked, and often do not appear as on the map. You have to match the city names with the highway signs to determine which direction to go, and this is sometimes challenging as the city names are long and not always Roman alphabetic. We made it to Delphi, but learned that the guidebooks often do not correctly reflect the closing times of museums. The Delphi museum was to close at 2:45, for what reason, we were not able to determine. Fortnately, the museum was not as big as we had expected it to be and we had adequate time to explore and see the displays. The bronze statue of the charioteer and chariot are beautiful. According to legend, Zeus released 2 eagles and the spot where their paths crossed, at Delphi, was determined to be the center of the earth. The dwelling spot for Apollo was the site where ancient Greeks traveled to in order to determine the course of their public and private lives. The Sanctuary of Apollo with its temple, and the Tholos were incredibly elaborate structures, as depicted in the museum. It was hard to believe that the ancient Greeks traveled so far to this area for direction regarding their destiny; it is not an easy place to reach running through mountain passes and valleys.

While in Santorini, we had cancelled our hotel reservations for 3 nights in the Delphi area, in order to give ourselves the flexibility to explore the mountains. It was fortunate we had done that because we found that Delphi is a very small town with not much to hold our interest for more than a day. However, we were hotel-less and somewhat anxious about finding something. The last time we went reservation-less was 30 years ago in DC, where we ended up driving 30 miles outside of the city before we could find a room. Leaving Delphi, we drove north and by evening had reached Trikala, a moderately large city in central Greece. To our surprise and dismay, the city center was packed with cars and people, and several hotels were full—who stays in Trikala, we wonder?
Apparently, it was the week before the Greek Orthodox Easter, schools were out, and many local tourists were in the area. We finally found a simple hotel, reeking of stale cigarette smoke, but were so thankful to find a room that it didn’t matter.

We went out for a late dinner and decided to go where business was brisk; there were not a lot of options in the area. It was a fast food place filled with young people enjoying gyros. A young man who spoke some English offered to place our order for us; we decided to have gyros with “everything on it” and oh it was so delicious! We watched with great interest as they used a slicer and a dustpan, shaving mounds of lamb off the tall roasting leg. This was stuffed inside a fluffy pita bread and smothered with sour cream, onions, and French fries. Again, we were a curiosity among the young people, but smiled at each of them and got lots of smiles and nods in return. The manager or owner seemed pleased that foreigners had come to eat at his shop.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Windy Aegean


“The sun is rising and the colors are beautiful!” said Ray with enthusiasm at 7am. We bounced out of the room, cameras in hand and ran off in different directions to capture the soft colored shadows of the early morning light. I walked the path and went down steps in various directions, seeking the perfect photo. Along the way, I encountered the garbage collector with his donkey, traversing the narrow steps and paths. Workers were coming in to town, and everywhere there were signs of preparation for the tourist season-lots of painting and construction in progress. Gift shops were preparing to open but the town was peaceful in its awakening. I could smell the aroma of fresh bread from the bakery across the way, and my dog buddies greeted me happily and followed me in my quest. 2 hours later, I returned, and we sat on the balcony happily munching on freshly made pastries. The wind had died down a bit and the sky was bluer than it had been the previous day. We were sad to be leaving this beautiful place. Our flight was not until 6pm, and we had plans to drive south through Fira and to visit the smaller towns and possibly the archeological site of Thera. However, the Aegean was bringing in strong winds and it certainly was not the day to be climbing a caldera. Once in Fira, we discovered it was way too touristy for us—alley upon alley of gift shops, hotels and restaurants, and tourists by the busloads; we couldn’t wait to leave. Lunch there was also disappointing as the moussaka was certainly not up to par and we were not happy to learn that bread placed on your table comes with a charge if you eat it. We were thankful that we had chosen to stay in Oia, for what a completely different experience Santorini would have been otherwise! We drove through a few of the picturesque medieval towns and returned our car to the airport for our flight to Athens.

The clear skies gave us a view of the multitude of islands, large and small, popping up in the blue waters. The flight was uneventful and we were on our way to the Holiday Inn, not quite an airport hotel but the closest hotel to the airport. We took full advantage of the amenities-worked out in the fitness room, used the business center to check email, did some laundry, and got cleaned up.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sunburn and Great Vistas


Strong winds rattled the shutters and whistled between the buildings during the night. It is no wonder that people built cave houses; their homes would have gotten blown away otherwise. Early morning was breathtaking as I headed out with my camera and Ray went for a long jog. The paths were empty, the air cool and moist. I really enjoyed the morning calm and the sun rising over the hill. I was greeted by 3 dogs who quickly became my loyal buddies for the morning, running ahead of me on the path, resting on the ground when I stopped, and coming up for scratches and belly rubs. I shot pictures of the sun’s glow on the white buildings, the sun shining through the church steeple, the bright blue domes contrasting with the white walls, and the islands in the distance.

After our morning outing, we stopped for Turkish coffee and then headed out for our long hike toward Fira. The walk took us along the upper edge of the caldera through meadows of wild daisies, up hilly passes overlooking the sea below, and views of the village of Imerovigli in the distance. It was a warm day, quite windy in spots, and somewhat overcast, though we later realized the sun was quite strong on our bare skin. We stopped in the village of Imerovigli, which was busy in preparations for the summer season; everybody was painting and building but not much was open. We managed to find a small store, bought fresh bread, salami and cheese and had lunch in the square. It was a delicious lunch; the bread crusty and soft. The walk was a total of 10 miles and we were both sunburned when we returned and ready to sit and lounge. We had dinner at a local restaurant; according to Rena, all of them are good! I had a superb moussaka. We joined the crowds trying to view the so called “famous” sunset; the skies turned a glowing pink but the angle of the sun shone on the backside of the buildings and did not cast their glow on the picturesque side of the village. It had been a perfect day, relaxing and peaceful. What a wonderful place Santorini is.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Island Calm


We felt quite comfortable taking the Metro and made our way to the airport. Surprisingly, partway there, the train stopped and the lights went out. One woman gestured to us to get off; apparently we needed to change trains midway but this was not shown on the train schedule. It was interesting to be on the train with all the local residents on their way to work. The crowds thinned out as we got closer to the airport. I’ve noticed that the young Greek girls are quite beautiful. We arrived early at the airport – the place was full of travelers and their cigarettes. It is hard to escape the smoky air of Greece. Our flight to Santorini was short and the Santorini airport is about the size of the one in Champaign-Urbana-one runway and a simple terminal. Our rental car was ready for us and we took the somewhat stressful short drive to Oia. The roads are narrow, drivers aggressive, and take to passing anytime and anywhere. Sharing the road with trucks and huge tour buses mades it a real challenge. Driving through Fira is not for the faint of heart.

We had a difficult time finding the hotel, driving up and down the street several times. I ended up getting out and walking, finding that Delfini Villas is actually not on the street, but in the village along its walking path. The village is breathtakingly beautiful, the white buildings hug the sides of the cliffs and are contrasted by bright blue, burnt orange, yellow and other tropical colors. The stone and marble walking path run the length of the village. There was a distinct charm to the place and it being out of season, was quiet and relaxing. Our room was tiny but the balcony overlooked the caldera and the sea below. I think it was the most beautiful place we have ever stayed. We meandered through the village taking pictures; the painted staircases lead to alleys which take you to different villas, homes, views of the village and the sea below. In the evening, we made our way down the rocky steps to the harbor below where the Taverna Katina had just opened for the season. The waiter introduced us to eggplant salad, a cold dish of soft white eggplant, onions, vinegar and olive oil. He also recommended tomato fritters-a fried cake of chopped tomatoes. We selected a few small fresh mullets which they cooked for us on the grill. It was a perfect ending to a beautiful day. Oia is famous for its sunsets, but alas, today was heavily overcast.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Smoking Like Chimneys

We started the morning at our now favorite coffee shop and were now beginning to wonder if lack of running and too many baked goods were going to take their toll on our waistlines. Our first stop was the National History Museum, with artifacts from Greece’s war days. Next, back to the National Arch. Museum to finish our visit there. I spend most of my time in the bronze and sculpture exhibits. Feeling satisfied, we stopped for a quick lunch of Greek pizza and paninis at a Greek fast food chain which was quite good, and made plans to take a long afternoon walk through parts of Athens we had not yet seen. We were ambitious today and decided to head for Lycovittos Hill. There is something about us and hills, isn’t there? It rises up 910 ft. above Athens, a 45 min. climb. From the top, you can see all of Athens and at dusk, the lights coming on from below. There are great shots of the Acropolis and the densely populated city. Unfortunately, Athens is often shrouded in smog and we wondered if it is ever gets sunny here. We climbed down in the dark, and went in search of dinner, a bit wary after our strike outs in previous days. As we walked, we ended up in a trendy part of town, where young professionals were dining at outdoor cafes. We stopped at a restaurant serving food from Crete, and ordered chicken breast and a large salad. Turned out to be a delicious meal with great ambience. The young people around us seemed to be enjoying their evening with friends, smoking, dining and chatting. There didn’t seem to be any escape from cigarette smoke; young teens and young adults puff away nonstop in all public buildings and restaurants.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Closing Already?


We awakened, well rested and ready for adventure. We chose to have breakfast at the hotel, which was typical European-ham, boiled eggs and breads, then set out to see the Acropolis, which we could see immediately upon exiting the hotel. The streets were crowded with people walking to work and traffic was heavy on the narrow cobblestone streets. The neighborhood reminded me of China, small old shops lining the sidewalks selling household goods, sundries, and shoes. On the street corners, older men were selling oval shaped sesame breads that were stacked several feet high. There was a distinct smell of a busy city. Along the way we stopped to see the Roman Agora and then made our way through a fruit market and gift stalls, up the hill to the Acropolis. It is really an incredible contrast in time, these enormous ruins sitting on a flat rock high above the busy city of Athens. As you walk up the path, one of the first stops looks down into the theatre of Herodes Atticus. At Beule gate, there are throngs of tourists and school groups making their way up. We seemed to have reached this place at prime tourist hour.

The new entrance to the Acropolis is the Propylaia with its majestic columns. As you make your way in through the gate, the path opens out into a large flat area and the splendor of the Parthenon greets you and literally takes your breath away. It is surrounded on almost 3 sides by scaffolding as they continue to renovate the building. I think it is probably a lifetime job for some of the men. There are stacks of marble and columns waiting to be retrofitted and you can see where the old joins the new on the structures already completed. I was amazed at the size of the building for pictures cannot do it justice. It leaves you in awe and lets your imagination run wild in picturing what it must have looked like in its full glory. The path runs around the building; it is not possible to enter into it, or to see into it and being there makes you long to go inside. The Acropolis museum is now closed and its collection has been moved to the National Arch. Museum in Athens. We took our time, leisurely walking the grounds, soaking in the atmosphere and the grandeur of the place.

Walking back down the path, we went into the Ancient Agora, a marketplace that was the political heart of ancient Athens. The rebuilt Stoa is the most complete building, and there are some statues on display; I loved the colonnades and the great hall and took many pictures of them. From there, we walked up to Areopagos Hill, a stony hill, which looks across to the Acropolis.

Lunch is a guidebook recommendation-in a small residential square-I had stuffed grape leaves and Ray had lamb; we also tried their fava beans in tomato sauce. It was ok but expensive-the stuffing in my grape leaf reminded me of Heidi’s food, lamb and rice! We walked around the city and the traffic and pollution reminded me of cities in China.

After a short break at the hotel, we set out for a walk around around the city at sunset and took night shots of the Acropolis, all lit up. We decided to forego a fancy dinner and tried some local spinach pie, Greek pizza, and gelato.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Ruins


We awakened, well rested and ready for adventure. We chose to have breakfast at the hotel, which was typical European-ham, boiled eggs and breads, then set out to see the Acropolis, which we could see immediately upon exiting the hotel. The streets were crowded with people walking to work and traffic was heavy on the narrow cobblestone streets. The neighborhood reminded me of China, small old shops lining the sidewalks selling household goods, sundries, and shoes. On the street corners, older men were selling oval shaped sesame breads that were stacked several feet high. There was a distinct smell of a busy city. Along the way we stopped to see the Roman Agora and then made our way through a fruit market and gift stalls, up the hill to the Acropolis. It is really an incredible contrast in time, these enormous ruins sitting on a flat rock high above the busy city of Athens. As you walk up the path, one of the first stops looks down into the theatre of Herodes Atticus. At Beule gate, there are throngs of tourists and school groups making their way up. We seemed to have reached this place at prime tourist hour.

The new entrance to the Acropolis is the Propylaia with its majestic columns. As you make your way in through the gate, the path opens out into a large flat area and the splendor of the Parthenon greets you and literally takes your breath away. It is surrounded on almost 3 sides by scaffolding as they continue to renovate the building. I think it is probably a lifetime job for some of the men. There are stacks of marble and columns waiting to be retrofitted and you can see where the old joins the new on the structures already completed. I was amazed at the size of the building for pictures cannot do it justice. It leaves you in awe and lets your imagination run wild in picturing what it must have looked like in its full glory. The path runs around the building; it is not possible to enter into it, or to see into it and being there makes you long to go inside. The Acropolis museum is now closed and its collection has been moved to the National Arch. Museum in Athens. We took our time, leisurely walking the grounds, soaking in the atmosphere and the grandeur of the place.

Walking back down the path, we went into the Ancient Agora, a marketplace that was the political heart of ancient Athens. The rebuilt Stoa is the most complete building, and there are some statues on display; I loved the colonnades and the great hall and took many pictures of them. From there, we walked up to Areopagos Hill, a stony hill, which looks across to the Acropolis.

Lunch is a guidebook recommendation-in a small residential square-I had stuffed grape leaves and Ray had lamb; we also tried their fava beans in tomato sauce. It was ok but expensive-the stuffing in my grape leaf reminded me of Heidi’s food, lamb and rice! We walked around the city and the traffic and pollution reminded me of cities in China.

After a short break at the hotel, we set out for a walk around around the city at sunset and took night shots of the Acropolis, all lit up. We decided to forego a fancy dinner and tried some local spinach pie, Greek pizza, and gelato.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Road to Greece


This was not good news to wake up to. American Airlines had grounded 500 planes in order to inspect them for potential electrical problems. Our first leg was on American, followed by 2 other connections at JFK and London Heathrow with very short layovers. Would we be sitting at JFK unable to get a connection? How well will they treat people flying on mileage seats? These nagging worries accompanied us on our train ride up to SFO. We breathed a huge sigh of relief to find our flight was still scheduled to depart on time. With only one carryon each, we also avoided the risk of lost baggage.

I am convinced that American Airlines serves you only enough food to keep its customers from fainting due to hunger while flying over the Atlantic, and certainly won’t win any awards for culinary excellence. After arriving in Heathrow, we got our first exposure to the now famous Terminal 5 and had to walk miles to make our connection. This new terminal has just opened and there obviously are still a few kinks they need to iron out. Some signs would help, but a people mover would be an improvement! Miraculously, every connection on this flight out was on time, which was unbelievable to us. We had exit row seats on all our flights, conditions were excellent, and we were comfortable and happy. 20 hours from the time we left home, we arrived in Athens. It was only late afternoon on Thursday, and feeling adventurous, we decided to take the metro for 6E each versus a cab for 30E. The metro runs from the airport and stopped just a block from our hotel. The Hotel Acropole was old and situated among hardware stores, like the online reviews indicated. The room was spartan, but clean and you couldn’t ask for a better location, in the Monastiraki district, in south Athens. I couldn’t believe we were actually in Greece! I followed my usual routine, got right into bed and slept like a log until morning.