Friday, October 15, 2010

Rhodes, Greece

Another great sunset at sea.

My ferry ride from Santorini to Rhodes was much better than my ferry ride to Santorini. Having learned from my first ride, I had my sleeping bag and sleeping pad right from the start of the voyage. Then, I looked around for a quiet dark place and got a decent night's sleep. I only remember waking up when we stopped at another port. The stars were amazing.

Rhodes harbor.

Despite a great ferry ride, Rhodes was a dud for me. It had two claims to fame that I knew of. One, it had the biggest surviving old town in Europe. Two, it was home to the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue that was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. I was still over old towns and cafe culture so that part of Rhodes was out. There is supposed to be an acropolis on the east coast of the island, but having just come from Athens, I turned my nose up at it. I didn't think it was going to compare. The Colossus would have been incredible, but the big wonder now is what it actually looked like since it long ago fell down and nothing is left. They can't find any ruins. They have two pillars where the legs used to be. In 2008, Greece announced they would be rebuilding the 30m Colossus.

I love this guy. If only he wasn't typical of the old town and trying to get me to eat at his restaurant.

The two pillars that mark the old Colossus' location.

After taking a look around the harbor, I was craving a nap. However, I could not find any grass to save my life. I saw some in the old moat, but I could not figure out how to get down to it. It was frustrating. From there, I went back to where I had left my bike under the watchful eye of an expat Brit working at a hostel bar called Mango. When I got there, I ran into a Dutch man that I had met at the ferry terminal in Athens. He had biked Italy, ferried Greece, and was about to spend two weeks biking in Turkey. He makes the trip every year and gave me a quick look around his favorite Rhodes' Byzantine ruins and sights.

The Dutch bike tourer and Elfstedentocht finisher that I met.

In the years that the lakes and canals in Holland freeze over enough (this is happening less and less), they hold the Elfstedentocht (Friesland 11-City Tour). The last editions of the single day 124 mile ice skating event took place in 1985, 1986, 1997, and maybe 2008. The Dutch biker has finished 3 and competed in 5. The really curious thing about this is that I just learned about this race from the people who told me about side saddle bike riding on the bus to Delfi.

The view from a balcony in Rhodes.

A mosque.

The Street of the Knights and the Grand Master's Palace were established by the Knights Hospitallers who controlled the island from 1307 to 1522. They took control after leaving Italy to avoid persecution by the Knights Templar. The Knights Hospitallers eventually lost control after a siege by the Ottoman, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Street of the Knights

Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights.

Rhodes was a quiet day for me. I didn't do much and that is just what I needed. I was starting to feel pretty burnt out. The heat was getting to me. My legs were tired. I was a bit lonely from having been home. I just wasn't feeling my trip at that moment. I think a lot of that had to do from mental and physical exhaustion.

The very crowded Rhodes beach. Check out the diving platform in the background.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Santorini, Greece

Santorini at its finest, brightly colored buildings overlooking the caldera.

Before I started taking ferries in other countries, I thought all ferries were supposed be beat up, slightly rusty, behemoths of boats. My experience was based on taking ferries in Maine and Massachusetts. When I took my first ferry overseas from Tasmania to Melbourne, Australia, it was basically a cruise ship. You could even get a sleeper cabin. In Croatia, I took fast catamarns and larger versions of the boats that I took in the states. To get to Santorini, I was once again on one of these ferries that are basically converted cruise ships. I am still not sure if they are amazing or ridiculous. I love them.

The sunset reminded me of being on Semester at Sea.

When I went to book a ferry, I had five choices. I could take one of the four that left at 7:30am (that is not a typo) or take the 5:30pm one. Apparently, the ferries all take different routes, sometimes to the same places. Mine made two stops before I made it to Santorini. I could not sit still on the journey. I must have moved seats no less than thirty times. Sometimes I wanted food. Sometimes I wanted fresh air. One time, I was distracted by a BBC nature series. I eventually went into the hold to get my sleeping bag and then unrolled it up on deck and went to sleep under the stars. Unfortunately, I was woken up everytime the ferry pulled into port. Pulling into each port was interesting. Everyone lines up, the door is down before we even dock, and as soon as we touch, they are unloading. They reload and leave just as quickly. I would not want to be running late.

We were not at port yet, but everyone was lined up to get off the ferry.

I arrived at Santorini at 1am. There was camping just 10km away, but first I would need to climb an enormous hill in the dark. A hostel from the other side of the island, Perissa, was there to pick someone else up and had beds for seven euros. I went with the cheap easy option that did not have me biking at night. The hostel sucked, but it was easy. The best part was the three stray dogs that were hanging out there. One would curl on a folding chair to sleep. Another one hid behind the hostel wall and chased every car that went by. He got one to stop and the other two went to help him harass it.

I don't think this is vegetarian.

The dry caldrea towers over Perissa.

The next morning, I woke up early as usual. I went down to the 24 hour bakery that the drunk hostel folks told me about the night before. From there, I went down to the black sand beach for a stroll. Just a few meters out in the water, the sand gave way to smoothed lava. It was a weird sensation. When the hostel reception opened up, an incredibly friendly Greek girl helped me figure out what to do for the day and when to catch the next ferry.

A home on Santorini with those typical bright Mediterranean colors.

The southern part of the caldera.

My choices were to take an all day tour that went out to another island, swim in hot springs in the middle of the caldera, and explore the center of the old volcano or just bike myself around the island. I ended up taking her advice to bike myself around the island because I could do what I wanted for as long as I wanted. As for ferries, I could take an 8 hour overnight ferry or take one two days later that was 12 hours long or three nights later that was 17 hours long! I cannot believe how much variation there is. I also had no idea there were so few ferries. To keep with my schedule, I chose the ferry for that night which meant I only had one full day to explore Santorini.

The southwest end of the caldera.

Video panaroma of the Santorini caldera.

After a full day on Santorini, I'll say it is worth the hype. The island is a caldera, the rim of an old volcano. I guess technically, it is only half the rim. Another quarter of the rim is another island. The center cone of the volcano is also another island. The western facing side of Santorini encircles the cone island. On the east side of the island you can't see the caldera's form because you are down at sea level. My first glance suggested that it was just a dry island with a big mountain in the middle. Though, that same dryness grows some great grapes that they harvest for great wine. Of course, my first glance was wrong and when I finally climbed to the caldera rim and could see the form of the old volcano, I was amazed. The cute little towns made the perfect spots to sit and soak in the view.

Red beach.

The first thing I did after deciding how to spend my day was head for white and red beach. In Hawaii, the color named beaches did not disappoint me. I thought the same would work here. Unfortunately, Red Beach is named for the rock above it and is full of rentable foldout chairs. White beach is only accessible by boat and the water taxi wasn't running. However, the black beach I started the day with was still good. After a quick look around, I decided to spend my day lounging somewhere else.

Akrotiri Lighthouse.

I headed for the southwest end of the island where the lighthouse is. On the way there, I leap frogged an ATV about five times. The whole island is overrun by tourists on ATVs. This is a brilliant strategy. It keeps the tourists out of cars which saves gas. They go slower which is safer. The funny part about it is that there is actually no ATV terrain that they are allowed to use. It is all paved roads. They could use scooters, but you need a motorcycle license to ride those in Greece. You don't need any license to drive the ATV.

The east coast of Santorini.

Another caldrea view, looking towards the highest point on the island.

From the lighthouse, I headed towards the captial of Santorini, Fira. Fira is where the cruise ships take everyone and was a little bit too busy for me. Before I left, I got a falafel for lunch. On my way out of town, I wanted to see the water so I went up to where the shops were. They were narrow streets and I was told they did not have many stairs. That information was not correct. There were a lot of stairs that I got to walk my bike over. One of my favorite parts of the narrow streets is that the shop owners still sit outside their stores to talk, attract attention, slow down pedestrian traffic, or whatever else is they are are doing out there. One guy had two woman passing by who were stuck by my bike and the narrow streets. He started chatting them up as they peered into his window, but my bike was blocking his other store window. He grumpily told me to hurry up, but I couldn't because the very thing that was slowing them down, his chair in the way, also kept me in the way. I was amused.

A pottery shop that was a great example of a typical nicer building.

The capital of Santorini, Fira, sits right on the caldera's edge.

By this point, it was three or four in the afternoon. I was told that the place to be at sunset is Oia (pronounced Ia). I decided to get there early to look around. It is a brilliant little town, with tons of great restaurants, built into a hill side. I settled in to a restaurant with a great overlook of the caldera to finally get the smoothie I had been hunting for all day. The smoothie cost seven and a half euros. That is probably $10. I would say that it was mostly atmosphere that I was paying for and it was worth it. However, the smoothie was also incredible. It was the first great one I have had in Europe and I hope to figure out ratios of blueberry, blackberry, pineapple, and banana that made my mouth water so much when I get back home. Also of note, my priorities became pretty evident to me when I realized that I paid more for a smoothie than for a bed to sleep in.

The town of Oia.

The center of the old volcano.

After my smoothie, I explored town. It is beautiful and if I ever go back, that is probably where I will stay. They had the blue covered churches that you see pictures of. They had old windmills that I don't think they use anymore. They had terrace after terrace of ocean views. They didn't have streets. They had paths, but if they went to a single house or many other paths, I could never tell unless I walked it. I think I would get lost there in a hurry.

I believe this is a Byzantine church.

SO many people watch sunset under the old windmills.

Despite Oia's amazing layout and architecture, its claim to fame is sunset. I thought the sunset was going to light up the town in the golden hour, set over another island, or do something else special. The helpful hostel hostess had told me some people went to the lighthouse to watch sunset instead of Oia for more solitude, but I was willing to trust the masses. She also told me not to stay up top, but to head down the hill. I didn't really know what that meant, but I figured I would figure it out.

A windmill in Oia.

The use donkeys to bring up cargo from the harbor below.

As I walked to the end of the island, the streets got narrowed. They got more crowded. The tour buses were starting to arrive and it was getting even more crowded. I finally got to the 'end' of town and it was madness. The view of sunset was just going to be of the sun sinking into the ocean. Don't get me wrong, I love ocean sunsets, but I'd rather watch the sun set over the caldera in peace that hang out with the mob that was descending on Oia. I am not kidding when I say thousands of people were arriving. There were even signs at hotel balconies that you could only enter if you were a guest. I think it would be fun if you had an unobstructed view from a dinner table (you'll need a reservation), but just walking around town was too much. I decided to duck out and head back to Fira. I settled into the aptly named sunset restaurant and watched an amazing sunset in peace from there. I had another smoothie and who knows what other goodies. I was very happy. It had been a great day.

Sunset from Fira, not from Oia!!

When it was dark, I headed back down the crazy hill to the ferry terminal. A couple cars almost took me out on their way up. It was my own fault for not having a light in front and only in the back. I had made the assumption that I would be safe on the far right side of the road. I was wrong. Anyway, I made it down alright and just in time to meet someone could have been my partner in crime on my bike trip. A cute french girl on a bike tour was in the exact same spot as me the night before. She wanted to camp. She didn't want to bike the big hill or the island in the dark. She had started her tour around the same time as me and had done about 3600km through France, Italy, and Greece. She was unemployed. She was a biker. She has an open ended schedule. She was biking about the same amount of miles as me per day. She normally camps. Unfortunately, she was heading north to Croatia and I was heading east to Turkey. I was tempted to stay another night to sway her, but decided it wasn't likely to happen. We exchanged info in case one of us changed directions, but I don't suspect we'll be meeting up anytime soon. Ships in the night.

I had a chuckle when I first looked at this sign because it says you need no license and it looks like two boats are about to collide.

After getting the French biker a ride to a hostel, I chatted with some other folks. One guy had left a big law firm to travel five years ago. He has not returned and is currently happy harrassing people to eat at a restaurant in Santorini. Another couple was from Boulder, Colorado. I had been thinking about home, so it was great to talk to them. I had also been thinking about a massage and one of them was a massage therapist. If she wasn't on vacation, I would have put her to work.

This is a long post. I had a lot to say. I must have liked it there.

Me at Oia before I abandoned ship on watching sunset there.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Athens, Greece

The Acropolis.

Temple of Hephaistos in the agora.

Athens is not a city that I am in love with. It was too hot. It was too crowded. I was visiting in the shoulder season and was told it is twice as bad during the normal summer months. I might have had a panic attack if I was traveling through there then. On the other hand, the sights were cool. They threw me back to my middle school days when I was studying Greek and Roman mythology. The Acropolis and a few other sights sit on their own, but a few of the others are a stone's throw from residential houses and commercial shops. It is crazy to see such a busy city surrounding these ancient sights.

Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora.

Agii Apostoli (Church of the Apostles) in the agora.

Columns at the restored Stoa of Attalos.

Statues at the museum in the restored Stoa. A woman was yelled at for using the stone block as a table because she didn't realize it was an artifact. Neither did I.

Everyone thought this foot pedal operated sink was activated with an infrared sensor.

A close up of the columns at the Temple of Hephaistos. I don't think these have been restored. I am curious how they became offset. An earthquake?

Temple of Zeus.

Socrates' cell. It is thought that Socrates might have been held prisoner here, but it is likely just a legend. These caves were actually filled with national treasures and sealed up during World War II.

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus which is still in use today.

I just looked up the population of Athens. It is listed as 3 million. I can't believe this. I would have guessed ten million. I just looked up the population density. It is 20,000 per square mile. That number makes more sense because New York City is 27,000. Wow, I can't believe it is 'so small.' The number of people in that small area, amplified by the tourists, is deceiving.

The Parthenon (look for the cranes to get a size perspective).

Smart kid's use greek letters in their graffiti!

I was amused that even the Parthenon was visited by stray dogs and cats.

Erechtheion with its six stone Karyatides maidens. The originals have all been removed.

View of sprawling Athens from the Acropolis

The entrance to the Acropolis.

I spent two short days in Athens. On the first, I went around to all the major sights: Acropolis, Temple of Zeus, Agora, Roman Agora, etc. They were cool, but I definitely lost my enthusiasm as the heat wore me out. By the end, I had a huge headache that I think was from heat exhaustion. I had trouble imagining the ancient Athens. I had an easier time with it at Delfi because it was quiet. It was smaller. Athens had too many modern city sounds and sights to let me escape into ancient times. For instance, having two cranes sitting in and around the Acropolis threw me off a bit.

I don't think you can find stores like this in the USA because we are afraid of graffiti.

The tourist trap street. They were selling Greek souvenoirs and everything else you could imagine, including army gear. Just imagine all the silly stuff you bought on vacation as a teenager. They have it.

Dig out your old Chucks and college gear, that Franklin & Marshall hoodie was selling for 100 euros ($138).

I enjoyed my second day a lot more than the first. If you can get ten blocks away in any direction from the Acropolis, you will get a better idea of what the city is like. I left the tourist part of the city and went north toward what I think is their downtown. While the tourist sights are great, the living part of Athens is better. On the day I was there, they had closed down a major street so that people could walk and bike around. The cafes moved their tables onto the street. I sat down at one of those and had a mini pint of Ben & Jerry's. I was in heaven

Panepistimiou Closed street in Athens with my favorite snack.

There were tons of stray cats.

Outside of Athens, I had been hurting for vegetarian food and restaurants. What I had been eating before was from grocery stores and getting redundant. My favorite snack was yummy sesame seed snacks. They sustained me on many days! In Athens, I got a smoothie. It was not up to par because it was made with apple juice instead of dairy or ice to thicken it up, but it was better than nothing. I started eating a ton of variations of Greek salads minus the olives in Athens too. I know it is sacrilege to skip the olives, but as many times as I have tried, I just can't stand them. Also, don't expect to get a thick American milkshake in Europe. As far as I can tell, milkshake means flavored milk to them (think mixing Hershey's syrup into regular milk).

Government building or museum.

My hostel was crappy. I think the owners know it is crappy, but it is cheap and near the touristy stuff. There aren't very many other choices. I had to go down stairs to get to my shower. Once there, you had to leave your stuff outside the stall or get it wet in the shower with you. Outside the stall, it was in someone's way to get to the toilet. My room was right beside the hostel bar which I've already vented about. Since I didn't like the hostel much and Athens was a little too crowded for me, I decided to move on about twelve hours early and take a night ferry to Santorini.

The meat market in Athens. Pireas.

Odds and ends. An English movie theater near my hostel was showing Casablanca. The store owners sit in the middle of the sidewalk and look at their store instead of sitting in it looking out. I guess this lets them talk to the other owners and entice customers. It clogs the sidewalk which I guess is also good for business. I tried to find the fruit and veggie market. I went the wrong way and found the meat market instead. Wow, what an experience. The guys with blood all over their aprons wait in the aisles like regular store owners when there are no customers. Since it is so crowded, I can only imagine that everyone goes home with a free souvenir on their shirts. One last tidbit, Athens stays up late. That means they also sleep in. It seems that none of the shops were open before 9am.

Crowded coastal Athens

When I went to the ferry terminal, a young guy gave me directions. He also asked if I planned to bike the 10km to the ferry terminal. I said yes and he said I was nuts because Greek drivers are the worst. He told me to be careful and never pass. Always stay on the right. I don't think I saw another biker in Athens. At the ferry terminal, I waited at an Internet cafe for ten minutes to ask how much it cost but no one was there. One sign said, 'The Internet costs whatever you want it to.' Since no one appeared after a wait, I hopped to check for a specific email. It wasn't there and I logged out. A guy suddenly came over and asked for money. I said the sign said it cost whatever I wanted and I did not feel one minute constituted any cost. He did not agree. It felt like when you almost get into a place and then they stop to ask you for money. Ugh. I hate dodgy business practices. On to Santorini.

Changing of the Guard at Greek Parliament. Is there a pride in representing your country like this? Why do we make them dress up and march weirdly to change the guard? Tradition? Tourism?