Laura's Vacation Blog

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Our 2006 Greek Odyssey

September 30, 2006: Airports, TSA and sleep-deprivation

After nearly a week of packing the perfect travel bag, not too much, not too little, we found ourselves up early on our day of departure with a couple of hours to burn. It's been a long time since we really had nothing to do but sit around and we found ourselves sitting in the living room, starring at each other waiting for the clock to strike ten. We made our way to SeaTac, through all of the checkpoints and onto the plane. I was a little nervous about flying Northwest due to it's poor union relations with its mechanics but the flight completed with no incidents and before I could watch that fifth movie on my personal media screen, we were in Amsterdam, nine hours out of our zone. We laid over for 2 hours, desperate for a bed but instead boarded a 737 bound for Athens. It was sort of the anti-bed.

October 1, 2006: It's all Greek to Me

Our passports stamped in Amsterdam, we had only to collect our luggage and find the metro to take us to our hotel. My years of calculus started to pay off immediately as I decoded the Greek alphabet on the signs. Getting around was going to be a cinch. We boarded the metro and 45 minutes later, we disembarked in the middle of everything in the Monastiraki district. It was about 1 in the afternoon but we were exhausted and as much as I wanted to get on with my vacation, we needed to sleep. We checked into our cute hotel, The Attalos Hotel, and promptly fell asleep. Justin woke me up around 8pm and we decided we had rested enough and it was time to poke around and have a dinner. Map in hand, we set out to stroll the streets of Athens. Surprisingly, for a Sunday evening, things were pretty happening. We walked through the commerce district on Ermou St. along the marble streets taking in one after another shoe store. The Greeks are really into shoes. We stopped for dinner at a non-descript taverna which turned out to offer the best Greek salad that we would have during our trip, although we stopped ordering salads about halfway through because there were too many other options to try. After finishing dinner and getting a little lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, we stumbled onto Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus, lit up in the night.

We worked our way back to the hotel, finding a few more photo-worthy sights and a neighborhood of tourist shops still open for business at 11pm. Back at the hotel, we took the very small and very unfamiliar elevator to the roof for the spectacular views that were advertised. They were spectacular.

October 2, 2006: Ancient Athens & Nafplion

As jet-lag goes, we didn't have the worst case although we weren't able to sleep too late into the morning. Our Circadian rhythm had us waking at 5 or 6 am so we cleaned up and had an early breakfast and set out for some morning sightseeing. In my mind, I had planned to see the acropolis and surrounding sights on our last day in Athens but we ended up being too early for the Monastiraki flee market so we bought our tickets to the agora and acropolis as the gates opened for the day. We checked out the Temple of Hephaestus and a lovely little church as well as the old Senate headquarters.

After poking around endless piles of rocks that used to be amazing structures, we set out for the climb up the hill to the piece de resistance, the Parthenon.

We realized by the end of the trip that the term "acropolis" means "high fortified area" because every acropolis that we visited was up on a tall hill. The Greeks must have had buns of steel after climbing up those hills day in and day out. By the time we reached the entrance to the site, the sun was strong and the throngs of tour buses had arrived with visitors from all over Europe, Asia and North America. I couldn't believe the quantity of people that descend on this place--and this was the low season. We climbed up the Propylaea, the grand entrance and were awed that these structures had survived more than 2000 years. There were plenty of craftsmen up in the scaffolds working to restore the structures so they could endure another 2000 years. I was thinking that it would be an amazing job to have a hand in the restoration of such a structure. What is even more amazing is that the ancient Greeks assembled this place without modern power tools. The precision and artistry are perfect. The Erechtheion has columns carved in the form of women, called Caryatids.

We hiked down from the hill and stopped to photograph the Theatre of Herodes Atticus which has clearly been restored to a condition that is functional today. Unfortunately, admission to the theatre was closed but we were still able to see it from above. Hiking down to street level, we were able to enter the Theatre of Dionysos, the birthplace of Greek tragedies. Chairs in the front row seats are more elaborate than the simple bench bleacher, just as they would in any modern arena. On our way out of the acropolis, we had some photographic fun with a small display of miscellaneous statues.

The goal was to check out by noon and around 11:00 we started making our way back to the hotel. We collected our luggage, got directions to the bus station and continued our journey onto Nafplio, a lovely city on the Pelopponese peninsula. Nafplio was night and day different from Athens. First, it was much less crowded and much cleaner although it had its share of stray cats and dogs. While it has many amazing architectural sites, they are primarily Venetian ruins. We were enchanted by the views from the hotel balcony and the quaintness of the harbor and town behind. We walked around for a bit, had our Greek siesta to compensate for our jet lag and found a nice taverna for dinner.

October 3, 2006: Physical fitness challenge

Despite my best attempts to sleep past 6am, I woke up early, as usual, in time to see the sun rise had our balcony been east facing. However, in my morning restlessness, I had time to plan out an itinerary for the day, starting with a 999 stair climb up to the Palamidi fortress. Really there are only around 860 stairs but we got a fine cardio workout nonetheless.

The fortress was build by the Venetians and the views of the city and sea were breathtaking. Its position certainly offered a strategic advantage over any enemy invaders--they could see them coming for miles. Palamidi fortress is gigantic and just when you think you're at the end, there's a whole another section just over the wall. We spotted a lovely beach below the fortress and seeing that there were already sunbathers at 8:30 am, we decided to turn back and descend the stairs. It's a lot harder to go down than up, despite conventional lazy-person widsom. But, we made it down and back up the stairs to our hotel, into our swimsuits and back to the beach. The beach was rocky, with small pebbles at the shore and fused rocks off to either side of the main beach area. With precious little real estate on the pebbles, we sought out the fused rock--a berth of much discomfort. After 45 seconds of that, I decided to scope out other options, namely the patio seating off the sea-side bar. We hung out on the patio for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the vacationing Greeks who had camped out at the table next to ours. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day and we were in paradise.

After an afternoon of sunbathing, we took a stroll along the harbor boulevard to scope out a place for dinner. We opted for an Italian-Greek restaurant that was all ambiance. After a few poor selections for appetizers (mediocre Greek salad and octopus), we were pleasantly surprised by a baked lamb entree with these tasty broiled cheese morsels that was simply delicious. At least it wasn't a total bust. Following our meal, we headed out to the harbor to enjoy the lit-up view of the bourtzi, a fortress isolated out in the middle of the harbor.

October 4, 2006: Sprechen Sie Deutsch

Today our objective was to travel to our next destination, Korinth, right at the isthmus of the penisula and mainland of Greece. I picked this destination because it was halfway back to Athens and it had a direct train to the airport. Between Nafplion and Korinth, there are a bunch of major ancient ruins that are easy to access by bus. It was my plan to stop along the way but after discussing the route with the bus station manager, I realized we couldn't do this. We would have to do a round-trip ticket. Because time was precious and the hotel in Korinth was both our fanciest and most expensive, we decided to head directly to Korinth, passing over the Mycenean ruins in the countryside.

Before we left Nafplion, we visited the local acropolis (access by elevator--those modern Greeks are smart) and we attempted to catch a ride out to the bourtzi on a little boat. Despite asking the captain of the boat about departure times the previous evening, we were unable to find any service to the island fortress all morning and around 11:30 we surrendered and headed back to collect our bags and catch the bus.

The bus pulled into an out-of-the-way station in Korinth and I had very little information about how to find the hotel. I attempted to ask the woman selling bus tickets but she was unable to communicate in English. Finally, after a few minutes of increasing frustration, we opted to hire a taxi. Luckily, we found an honest driver who turned on the meter and provided an estimate of the cost before setting out that was accurate. So, 15 minutes later, we arrived at our hotel. The Hotel Alkyon is fancy for Greece because it is modern complex but it looks just like something you'd find in any Florida beach town that caters to business conferences. It had a pool and was a block from a relatively deserted beach. Further, the hotel was so far out of town that there was little else to see or do other than hang out at the hotel and beach. This was our option. The pool was closed as we arrived (I'm guessing it had something to do with the Greece seista). So we bathed in the Gulf of Korinth along a rocky beach that reached into the sea and eventually became sand. It was a lovely view. Growing tired, we headed back to our room and took a short nap and when we awoke, we were ready for dinner. I had already looked into the restaurant options near the hotel premises and they appeared to be closed for the winter. The hotel was hosting a buffet dinner with traditional dancing that evening to which we had been invited so we decided to head to the dining room and check it out. I was less than enthusiastic about the buffet but with no other options, we were stuck. Sometime that afternoon, a very large group of German tourists had arrived in a caravan of buses. The wienerschitzel on the buffet was clearly a token for them. We were a bit out of place and a bit tuckered out so we finished our meal, stayed for a few minutes of the folk dancing and headed back to the room.

October 5, 2006: Cretan culture

The next morning, we called a cab and headed to the train station for a train bound for the airport. Our flight was quick, comfortable and nearly on-time and by mid-afternoon, we had made our way to our final destination, Hania, on the island of Crete. Hania is a bustling city on the northwest side of Crete with significant Venitian influence. If there was any doubt that we weren't in the US, the scenery in Hania assured us. The "old town" portion were we stayed was built up on top of crumbling ruins of decades past. The hotel in which we stayed was 650 years old, formerly a Venetian town-house and later the residence of the esteemed former prime minister Elefanous Venizelou. There isn't anything in the US that is 650 years old. The harbor, just steps from our hotel, was well developed with plenty of tourist restaurants and souvenir shops. The outer harbor had a walkable stone breakwater and we decided we would check it out. After enjoying the harbor from the opposite side, looking back on the town, I was itching to sit at one of the harbor-side restaurants and enjoy the view. We dined on a glass of wine and some appetizers and watched the sun set. Still suffering from abnormal sleeping patterns, we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest, intending to dine later, closer to 9pm, when it is fashionable. But, we fell asleep and awoke much too late and without much hunger so we stayed in.

October 6, 2006: A Tourist in Crete

The hostess at the hotel offered us traditional breakfast fare of bread and jam, tea, coffee and juice, and the standard yogurt. We had examined our plans for the remainder of the trip and we were contemplating making some adjustments to minimize travel. However, when we ran the idea past the hostess she urged us to stick to the plan and indicated that there wasn't too much to see in the city and we could cover that ground in a day. So, we made Friday the day. We visited the archeological museum which contains artifacts from the Minoan civilations; plenty of pottery, statue and an amazing assortment of jewelry, coins and glass objects. The real show stopper at the museum is the museum itself. It is housed in an old mosque turned monastery turned museum. The architecture is really outstanding. Just as a troop of 5th graders arrived for their history lesson, we headed out to the next sight. We walked along the Venetian walk that is constructed adjacent to the harbor to the public market. The market is part supermarket, part souvenir shop and much like the Pike Place Market in Seattle but less glamorous. We picked up some snacks for the hike we had planned for Saturday and a large sack of greek salad seasoning and headed out to the opposite side of the harbor. We had lunch along the harbor and picked up tickets to take a boat ride out to a nearby island, Theodori and do some swimming.

The boat departed with about 15 guests and we steamed out to the island through the aquamarine waters of the Creatan Sea. Theodori Island is renowned for its inhabitants, the Kri Kri goats. These goats are somewhat rare and only can be found in Crete. The island is a sanctuary for these animals. The catamaran we were on, the Evangelos II, pulled right up to the edge of the bluff of the island and sure enough, we spotted the well-camouflaged goats as we made our way around. We stopped near shore for a swimming and snorkeling break. The snorkeling was pretty pathetic, mostly just a sea floor of grass and sand. But, we were given permission to launch ourselves into the water from the top deck of the boat and that proved amusing, although a smig uncomfortable.

Back at shore, we collected a recommendation for dinner from our hotel host and made our way to a historic Turkish bathhouse turned restaurant for dinner. Lucky for us, the tables on the street were all employed so we ended up eating in the restaurant that offered a truly unique ambiance. Plus, we were successful in ordering a delicious meal. I had baby goat, for the first time, and I must admit it is worth eating again.

October 7, 2006: Chronicals of Samaria

One of the major plans I had for this trip and the rationale behind much of my itinerary was to hike through the Gorge of Samaria. The gorge is a 14 km river-bed in a national park that empties out to the Libyan Sea on the south coast of Crete. There is a harrowing bus ride through the mountains, switchback after switchback, to get to the starting point. Plus, you have to start early as so to time your completion with the departures of the ferries and busses at the finish. So, we woke before the crack of dawn (this came easily), made our way to the bus station and departed for the gorge. We were pleasantly surprised that the bus ride was shorter than indicated in my guide so we started a little earlier than expected. The first 6km of the hike is straight down along a trail. Here is where the weak are separated out. We were the healthy and strong type so we plotted along, passing the poorly dressed and the out-of-shape along the way. After the seemingly endless downhill hike, we ended up along the river bed to a much more flat stretch of trail. Here, we passed through ancient villages that have been conserved for the hikers to explore. We continued on into much denser groups of hikers (there were busses that arrived 1.5 hours earlier than us) to the ancient village of Samaria. Around here, we started to encounter hikers headed in the opposite direction, those that had started at the sea and only planned to do a few kilometers of hiking instead of the 14. Pushing on and yearning for the end, we finally passed though the park gates and into a little village full of goats and sheep and one long, wide sidewalk to the sea. We walked ourselves into town, bought our ferry tickets and changed into our swimsuits. The beach was so refreshing! Again, we had a stone and pebble beach. We swam and lay on the beach for 45 minutes and then headed back to the restaurants for a quick gyro pita before the ferry ride. The ferry passed from Agia Roumeli to Loutro to Hora Stafkion where we caught a bus to take us back to Hania though another range of mountains. Back in Hania, we headed back to the hotel, passing a wedding just getting started. The bride and groom had arrived at the church, a magnificent old church, by horse-drawn carriage and all of their guests were waiting in the courtyard for their arrival (plus a bunch of tourists who were just hanging out for the free entertainment). Again, we collected a recommendation for dinner and after showering and washing a few clothes, we dined, reflecting our our vacation.

October 8, 2006: Again in Athens

Sunday was our last real day in Greece. We boarded a plan for Athens and arrived in town around noon. We headed out to visit some of the sites that we had missed on our first day. Stopping first for a gyro, we sat in a square and had lunch. We visited the Parliament building with its well-decorated guards and then took a walk through the national gardens. The gardens were lush and although there were few flowers blooming, seemed extremely picturesque. The Zappion exhibition hall is on the outer edge of the gardens so we made our way to the edge and then headed up toward the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian's Arch. We had visited these two sites a week earlier but it was daytime now and we were in the neighborhood. A little weary from walking, we started to make our way back to the hotel via the souvenir district in search of a soccer jersey and some olive oil soap. (I should note that we didn't need to search for either of these items because they were everywhere but we felt like we needed to look at every available option). We took a recommendation from our guidebook for dinner and enjoyed, but were not dazzled, by our final meal in Greece. Our day ended early because it was to start so early on Monday.

October 9, 2006: Leaving on a jet plane

We departed for the airport at 3:30am in Athens and pursued traveling until 2pm Pacific Time. Into my bed by 3pm, I fell asleep to sweet dreams of a wonderful vacation.