April 26, 2009

Athens: Spring Break! A Multi-Day Post (have patience…)

Day 26: All our journeys are epic.

Since we left so soon after, I didn’t get to write about Greek Easter on Naxos. After my conference call, we hung out for a while and then, at 11, realized we were very tired and decided to go to sleep. I lay around and while watching Battlestar Galactica (the hostel had internet!), kept wondering why there was singing in Greek. Suddenly I realized it was midnight (the start of Greek Easter, and the point after which one can say Χριστοσ ανεστη (Christ has risen) instead of just Καλο Πασχα (Happy Easter)) and there was a lot of noise. In addition to the singing (of a priest, presumably, as it sounded churchy), a ship blew its horn for about 20 minutes, kids set off fireworks, and there was general riotous noise. On Sunday pretty much everything owned by Greeks was closed, but it turns out Naxos has a sizeable Italian (thus Catholic) population who choose to open their restaurants for the few tourists who are actually there (us). These places still served the traditional Easter lamb, which I ordered; they delivered to my table a pile of ribs with meat over fries. I tried very hard but couldn’t tap into my instinctual meat-ripping tendencies, so John had to finish off the lamb. The fries, by that point soaked in lamb fat, were delicious.

We also took a walk back to the port to see the Shrine to Delian Apollo and nearby tide pools. Then we attempted to find the Venetian citadel, which led us through the streets, twisting and turning, passing by numerous uninhabited (possibly abandoned) adorable houses nestled into each other. Occasionally there were socks or pants on a laundry line. Suddenly we found ourselves facing a very old doorway and, just inside, a Venetian castle. Further up the hill was the fortress, at which point we decided to split the group, as I wanted to go back and (for 3 euros) see the castle. It was built by a French crusader, De la Roche, who later Italicized his name to Della Rocca to fit in with the local Venetians. Built in the fourteenth century and refurnished in the sixteenth, the Della Rocca family still lives in part of it. I am quite worried for the Della Rocca family, as the ceilings/floors definitely hadn’t been redone in the last 600 years. They had an amazing collection of old furniture and clothes, and the museum guest part of me put up a valiant mental fight against the conservator part, as none of the antique books or papers were kept in cases and were open to the elements and the hands of tourists.

Later in the day it was cloudy, so we went to the beach still clothed. This turned out to be a mistake, as it became quite hot. That night everything opened again, and we found a nice restaurant at the port and followed it with a short trip to the kitron bar next door, where we all shared kitron drinks and spiced raki (much better than plain raki).

Monday we took some wasting-time walks and then left for Santorini. The ferry trip here (mostly the last 20 minutes) was awesome – the ferries pull into the caldera side, so we got to see the entire cliff and all the little buildings latching on. It’s adorable. Ridiculously adorable. I don’t know how people can live here and actually get things done with all of the adorable going around. Once again, we were upgraded from the hostel part of Manos 2 to the hotel (Manos Villa), which has a pool. It’s also cute and family-owned, and the owners know everything and are so helpful. We walked the 1.5km to Fira last night to try to find Lucky’s Souvlaki – we were told it was on the main square. However, try as we might, we could not find the main square. We walked for an hour through twisty streets (which I didn’t remember from last time, thus making me upset and confused at my lack of memory), getting hungrier and hungrier. Finally we found the main square and still couldn’t find Lucky’s, so we decided to ask in one of the souvenir shops. Turns out we had walked by it on our way into the twisty area. Also turns out it was closed.

At this point we were very hungry, so we found a taverna that had moussaka for Mariana and ate there; since our dinner was so early, we waited around for another forty minutes, then bought gelato to eat and watched the sun set over the caldera. (WE ARE ON A VOLCANO, OK. A VOLCANO.)

Today we caught a bus to the black sand beach, hoping to do that and Ancient Thera at the same time. However, it turns out Ancient Thera is at the top of a mountain and the bus does not, in fact, go there; also, the black sand was not sand but tiny pebbles. The group was split on the idea of a pebble beach; despite the pain of walking on pebbles, I quite liked it as it was not sand. (I hate sand.) We stayed there for two hours and then decided to go to the red sand beach. The only way to do this was to get a bus back to the Fira bus station and then a second bus. We decided the time frame was perfect for another shot at Lucky’s. This time we made it! I recognized him and told him my story and had the best souvlaki ever. (We’re definitely going back tomorrow.)



When we got off the bus at the red sand beach, we couldn’t see it. Someone told us it was a five-minute walk in one direction, so we started walking. Unbeknownst to us, we took the most difficult and complicated route. We walked along a tiny beach littered with old fishing equipment until we came to a parking lot. Then we followed John up what seemed like an unused goat trail, which brought us to big piles of rocks we had to scramble over. Suddenly we were at the top of a steep hill, looking down at a beach nestled at the base of tall, red cliffs, and we thought, “How the hell do we get down there?” We kind of scrambled, with much falling and cursing flip-flops and everybody who didn’t tell us to wear hiking boots to get to the beach. Eventually we got down somehow. Unfortunately, it was very windy and the beach was a granular mixture of rocks and sand (basically, very small rocks). We still sat there for three hours because of the bus schedule, and every so often we’d look up at the cliff and see some tourists staring at us, possibly thinking, “How the hell do we get down there?” On the way back, however, we noticed that there was, in fact, a trail; someone had even drawn arrows on the rocks. It was much easier, had actual rock-stairs, and nobody fell. After we reached the parking lot, we noticed that you could actually take the road back to the bus stop (instead of the rocky fishing beach route). On the way we passed Ancient Akrotiri, which was has unfortunately been closed since someone was killed by falling debris a few years ago. (I’m really glad I got to see it the last time I was here, as it’s a pretty awesome site.)


the goat path

After cleansing ourselves of the very small rocks, we had dinner in Fira again, at another taverna. Afterwards we went to a bakery where I bought some cupcakes. Tomorrow these shall become Breakfast Cupcakes.

(A note on the buses of Santorini: I have seen the entire fleet. There are four of them. Three are modern tour buses, and the last is from the 1960s and smells of sweat. They each take about an hour to complete a route. To get on a bus you have to wait at a bus stop and wave it down; we still have no idea how to get off, as our method of standing and waving at the driver was futile. One can buy tickets on the bus from a kid who goes around with a money belt and some little paper tickets.)

(The story of Lucky Souvlaki, in case you didn’t know before: when we were here 10 years ago, we found this amazing gyros place. It was so good we went there four times in two days. I shall now attempt to beat that. Lucky himself is enthusiastic, likes to tell stories, and acts partly drunk all day. Apparently his wife is Peruvian and he spends a few months of the year in Peru. He has three children, and his oldest daughter is three months pregnant. I found out all this from about 10 minutes in the shop; I’ve found that Greeks will always love to talk about their families with strangers.)

(Another tidbit: The correct Greek pronunciation is “YEE-rohs”. However, when you order, you call it a “YEE-roh” because it’s in the vocative.)

Day 29:

Wednesday turned out to be extremely windy, so our volcano tour was cancelled. However, we only found this out when we went to buy cable car tickets. So, with nothing to do in Fira at 10 am, we split the group; John, Sarah, and Mariana decided to walk down to the port anyway just to check it out, and Priya and I went to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, where we learned all about the various volcanic eruptions and saw the artifacts from Akrotiri. Afterwards we all met up and went to Lucky’s. Then we went back to Villa Manos, and Priya and I decided to make an archaeological day of it and went to visit ancient Thera, which is up a mountain above the black sand beach. We took a taxi there, and saw the site (it’s mostly Hellenistic, making good use of the local volcanic rock). It was incredibly windy, so I spent most of the time with my sweater zipped up and the hood tied around my chin. It closed at 2.30 and we decided to walk down [the incredibly tall mountain with the windy unpaved road traveled by scary Greek drivers]. Quite soon we encountered a car and decided to stick out our thumbs just in case. The car stopped, and we stepped in. The couple in the car were from Taiwan, also visiting Santorini for three days; they dropped us near the bus stop, where we realized we could catch the 2.55 bus.

Except that there wasn’t a 2.55 bus, so we sat and waited and waited until the 3.45 bus came. It took a shorter time than expected to get back to the hotel, so we all had naps and then decided to go out for dinner in Oia.

To my detriment, I was in the camp that was voting against going to dinner in Oia. Actually, I was the camp. I was outvoted and we ordered a taxi. Turns out not wanting to go was wrong, a bad choice, a very very bad choice, as Oia was the cutest town imaginable. The only thing that could have made it cuter would be if it were only inhabited by Himalayan kittens and butterflies. All the tourism brochure photos of Santorini were taken in Oia, because the rest of the island apparently just isn’t cute enough. We followed a sign that said “sunset” and watched the sunset from in front of a blue-domed church and behind a field of flowers, in front of which was a windmill perched on the very edge of the caldera. And I forgot my camera. We also realized that, if only we had a small Greek girl and a butterfly to frolic in the field, we could snap it and win the photo contest. Unfortunately, these critical elements were missing, and Jordan will probably win with his shot of the accordion man outside the Athens Centre.

Thursday morning we took our caldera trip (finally) after much confusion over whether the boat would be canceled or would actually refund us (at this point I wished we had a New Yorker in the group who could go and demand things, in that declarative way they have), and while we were in the process of buying new tickets, we found out we could still use our tickets on the new boat (which turned out to be a replica of an 18th-century schooner). While we were sitting there waiting for it to leave (there was some problem with the port authorities and the weather) we made up stories about the old sea captain who kept poking his head out the cabin window, the quite attractive first mate who ran around telling everyone not to worry, we will leave soon, the sea wench dressed skankily who kept making rounds about the deck, and the cook, and older woman dressed sort of like a red bat. (Turns out the first mate was the tour guide, the cook was the French tour guide, the sea wench still had an unsure purpose, and the captain was, in fact, the captain.) We left eventually, and had a nice hike around the volcano. The hot springs, unfortunately, were farther away from the boat than expected (so I had to swim to get to them) and infested with jellyfish, so I spent about three minutes there freaking out about the jellyfish before swimming back to the boat and wrapping up in my beach sheet. (I guess I haven’t written this yet, but instead of bringing a beach towel, I brought a sheet – the sand shakes out easier and it dries quicker. Also, I can wrap up in it for warmth, as many photos now can attest.) I took a donkey back up the cliff to Fira, after which I went to Lucky’s and had two gyros. TWO. If anything is a more magical experience than one Lucky gyro, it is two. I think it was the perfect amount – three would be overly magical and into the territory of nauseating (think of a unicorn vomiting). We got back to Villa Manos at 3 and were promptly driven to the port, where we waited for our boat.


I’m on a donkey.

The boat – a Flyingcat 4 high-speed catamaran – turned out to be a mistake. It had no deck, only interior seats, so we couldn’t watch the ocean except through the windows. And it moved so quickly. I felt nauseous as soon as we started moving. (I noticed they provided seasick bags on every seat.) Fortunately it was a short ride. After we left the ferry, we went to the bus station to find a bus to Rethymno, where the hostel is. The bus was an hour and a half. I would say I made a mistake booking us in Rethymno, but this was the only hostel I could find. It’s quite cute and friendly – also, traditional hostel style (shared bathrooms, dormitory-style bedrooms), which is slightly objectionable to everyone but me.


Sleeping on the ferry

Friday morning we took the bus back to Iraklio (aka Iraklion, Heraklion, Heraklio) and then another bus to Knossos, the central palace of the Minoan civilization. It was indeed impressive. I found that I have a new party trick: a woman came up to us offering tours in English, which we refused. “But it’s 2200 square meters,” she said. “You will never be able to see it by yourselves.” We looked around at each other, trying to figure out how to get rid of her. “I’m an archaeologist,” I said. She looked deeply unhappy and turned away dejectedly. The site was quite big, but we still got through it in two hours. It had been partly reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 1900s, and since then there’s been continuous restoration. The oddest part was that we kept finding cement blocks covered with sticky laminated paper printed with a wood design – eventually I realized that these would have originally been wood beams, but in the reconstruction they used cement. Another interesting part was the Minoan style of columns – they’re wider at the top than at the bottom. After the site we ate at a restaurant called Minos Café, then took the bus back to Iraklio and then another bus to the Cretaquarium.

The journey to the Cretaquarium was, in keeping with our others, an epic journey. The bus dropped us off at the side of the road, and we followed a sign saying “Cretaquarium”. This led us to an abandoned, graffitied guardhouse with another arrow sign saying “Cretquarium”. We walked by numerous abandoned, decrepit buildings, including one Minos Inn (which we looked inside – imagine the near-final scene from “Children of Men”), following signs.  One building was not abandoned, but apparently a pound for large, loud dogs. We imagined all the ways this could quickly turn into a horror movie. Suddenly we rounded a bend and saw the Greek Institute for Marine Research, and then the aquarium. It was nice inside – very well-designed, but quite small for being the “largest aquarium in the eastern Mediterranean”. Doesn’t give much hope for the rest of them. It was primarily about Mediterranean fish, so there were very few colorful and cute species. My favorite, of course, was the seahorse tank. Most of the tanks were unlabeled, so we didn’t know what most things were. They had a petting tank where we got to touch sea cucumbers, urchins, and starfish. At the end we watched a documentary on the deep sea, dubbed in Greek from a BBC David Attenborough documentary (with English subtitles). Then we sat in some chairs shaped like starfish, and proceeded back to the main road. Unfortunately, we took too long exploring the abandoned buildings (I think it was once a resort, and the aquarium settled there because it was cheap oceanside land – maybe a bankruptcy deal?) and taking photos. We missed the bus by about two minutes, and had to sit on the sidewalk for another forty waiting for the next bus as it began to drizzle. Fortunately this shortened our wait time for the bus back to Rethymno, where we arrived and promptly went to one of the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurants.

Gyros count: 9

Day 31: It is always time for a chocolate biscuit.

Back in Athens. Yesterday we stayed in Rethymno and went to the beach. I had gyros for lunch; not only was it not magical, it was decidedly un-delicious and I was severely disappointed. After Lucky’s, there can be no other comparable gyros. In the evening we tried to watch “Shaun of the Dead” on my laptop, but the sound quality was bad so we went to have some wine and hang out with the other hostel guests. They were pretty friendly, and we ended up playing cards for a while with a French guy named Maxim. Earlier, we met a Pakistani guy named Ali on the beach; he played Frisbee with the rest of the group while I read, and then he and Priya found out that Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible. Anyway, we have no idea how long Maxim has actually been at the hostel, his reason for travel, or anything except that he loves coffee, card games, chocolate Euro-cookies, and wears really fashionable clothing (as he was taking it all off the laundry line). There seem to be some people who just go to hostels to meet people, and I think that’s interesting. It’s quite a different travel experience than being bundled up in a hotel room. When you share a bathroom, everyone is forced to be friendly and entertaining.

A comment on Crete. Unlike the Cyclades, which are made for tourism, it has its own industries (which appear to be mostly goat-related) and internal tourism. Not all of it is cute; in fact, not much of it is. It’s much bigger than I expected, and rather more like the rest of the Mediterranean than the nearest islands. The main draw was Knossos, not any scenic things, although Rethymno did turn out to be quite cute.

Today was uneventful. Our ferry was called the Knossos Palace, and it had a swimming pool (unfortunately closed). It was cold and windy outside and there was no indoor deck seating, so we moved into a stairwell and just sat for the last three hours of the ride. I wrapped up in my sheet. (I haven’t mentioned it before, but instead of a beach towel, I brought a sheet. Not only does the sand shake out easier, it’s also much bigger, dries faster, and used it to wrap up when I was cold on the beach and on the ferries. There are many pictures of me entirely covered by my sheet in various locations around the Cyclades.) We arrived at 5.30 and took the Metro to Monasiraki, where we had crepes and then got back on the train; we got back to the apartments at about 7. My feet hurt, as my Chacos hurt me from so much hiking and I was forced to wear flip flops for our extensive walking today. I also did a massive load of laundry (and by “did” I mean put in a bucket to soak).

The point of this is: I successfully planned and executed a vacation for myself and others. Yes, I’ve booked tickets to various places in the US to visit friends, and I’ve looked through guidebooks when we’ve been on family vacations to decide what to do. But here I made all the arrangements. Everyone went along with my plans, because I took a stand. (I’d like to thank the academy, namely, my parents for providing me with the necessary vacation planning skills of excessive guidebook usage/planning ahead and also play-it-by-ear/have fun. You know which of you is which.) Nobody died, nobody got lost, nobody starved or complained. It did get a bit annoying when I had four people each asking what time such-and-such was, but I guess that’s what I get for putting myself in charge. Of course, not only did I always know when such-and-such was, but I knew where it was, how much it cost, and all the local restaurants. (I have no idea how people travel with children. I hope I was a good child to travel with.) I think we all had a pretty good time – sometimes people got a little tired of my adventuring when they were hungry, but John usually countered this by asking directions. (The two times I ever asked for directions, they could never understand me, even when I asked in Greek and showed them a map. Somehow he always found the English-speaking locals.) Yes, the islands were fun, and cute, and picturesque, and had nice ancient things, but I think the overwhelmingly positive moral of the story is thatyes, I can. I can take myself places. I didn’t even worry so much because I was the dictator in a supposed democracy and I always thought two steps ahead.

Now for a week of intense reading and food budgeting.

Gyros count: 10


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