Thursday, December 31, 2009

The trip: Part 12 (Paris)

Ahem, so, where was I?

Day 12
We woke up in the glorious hotel to room-service breakfast, which we again enjoyed on our balcony. It was a fitting goodbye to Greece.

After another long, sweaty subway ride, we were almost late for our flight to Paris. But we made it.

When we arrived in Paris, we took the train to Gare du Nord, which was near our hotel, the Ermitage. (Remember? The one we booked on Expedia while we were in Santorini?) Kim had written out the Ermitage address from our guide book, and we handed it to a cab driver outside the train station.

The cab dropped us off in a charming little neighborhood with wonderful old buildings with wrought-iron balconies. We opened the hotel door and were greeted by a giant ceramic dog. "I like this place," I said.

We went inside and met the proprietors, a little old French couple. The wife was obviously in charge. She pulled out her reservation book and asked our names.

But she couldn't find our reservation. "Did you call?" she said.

"No, we made the reservation online, on Expedia."

"Oh, I do not take reservations by computer."

We looked at each other. WTF?

"You can look at my book, you will see you are not there." She ran her finger down the list of reservations, all written in pencil.

"Yes, we see."

"Do you have the papers with you? The reservation?"

"No, we don't."

"You have to have the reservations! I do not understand the new generations. You show up to a hotel, how can you not bring the reservations?"

"Well, we made the reservations in Greece, in a hotel room. We didn't have a printer."

"Ah, I see!" But she continued to chastise us for our obvious stupidity in not bringing the reservation, as if that would have helped.

We found out then that there are two Ermitage Hotels. A nice one, which doesn't take reservations online, and a shithole, which does. When you search for the nice one on Expedia, you will unwittingly get the shithole.

The lady told us we were not the first dumb young people to have made this mistake and said she "felt sorry for us." She gave us detailed directions to the other Ermitage. She advised me about keeping my bag in front of me and then scolded us for dragging our luggage on her rug.

She was the perfect French combination of motherly/helpful and condescending/bitchy.

So then we trudged down the street with our luggage, stunned at what had just happened. We rounded a corner and there was Sacré Coeur. We paused and I said, "Well, might as well take a picture of it."

There was some kind of concert happening on the steps, and the street was crowded. We rode the funicular to the bottom of the hill. We wandered a bit before finally deciding to get another cab.

The outside of the other Ermitage was pretty nondescript. The inside was painted sickly peach, like a hospital in the '80s. And it smelled.

We checked in, (What do you know, they had our reservation!), and lugged our bags up to the room on the fourth floor. It was tiny. And hot. And when we opened the window, it was a cacophony of street noise. And we didn't feel confident about the bed linens.

We analyzed the situation for a few more minutes before deciding that we didn't want to stay there. I mean, we're not super picky. We didn't need the Ritz or anything, but this was too much. And we suspected the proprietor might have been exploiting his housekeeping staff. We wouldn't be comfortable there.

So we found a couple of good hotel options in our guide book, grabbed our luggage and walked out the way we came in. And grabbed another cab.

We wound up staying at our first pick, the Jeu de Paume on the Ile Saint-Louis. It was a cool old building that used to be tennis courts. It had big exposed wooden beams. When we walked in, there was a giant golden retriever lying in the lobby. It was awesome. And the staff was over-the-top accommodating.

We rested for a minute, but after the Ermitage fiasco, we had no daylight to spare.

If you're ever in Paris, I highly recommend the Ile Saint-Louis. It's a delightful little neighborhood with beautiful shops, bakeries, cheese shops and ice cream parlors. And a very short walk to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame was exquisite, of course. But it surprised me how touristy it was. Every other cathedral I've been to had made an effort to preserve the religious nature of the church. Even the ones that have gift shops and tour brochures. They at least tell you to be quiet and respectful of those who are there to pray. Notre Dame was a free-for-all. There was even some kind of service happening down front, with singing, and none of the tourists seemed remotely concerned about disrupting it.

Then we walked along the Ile de la Cité, past the Palais de Justice, toward the Louvre, which is open late on Wednesdays!

One serendipitous thing about our impromptu trip to Paris was that we got to see more Parthenon marbles!

A few other Louvre highlights:

Michelangelo's Dying Slave

Venus de Milo

Botticelli's Venus and the Three Graces

Once we had found our way out of the Louvre and dashed across the street to buy an umbrella (because it was raining), we hopped on the Metro (because it was raining) and went back to our hotel.

We had dinner that night at L'Ilot Vache, an adorable and cozy little restaurant. I had the prix fixe menu with escargot, brochettes de bœuf, cheese course and chocolate mousse. (Kim had the fish and creme brulée.)

During the cheese course we had an unbelievable laughing fit. This was probably a combination of the exhausting day we'd had and a little too much wine. I said, "This cheese is kind of stinky cheese," which in Paris is sort of like pointing out that the sky is blue. We laughed uncontrollably 'til dessert.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The trip: Part 11 (Last day in Santorini)

Day 11
On our last day in Santorini, we walked to Fira to check out the archeological museum, which houses artifacts of the island's prehistoric settlement.

A big volcanic eruption in the 15th or 16th century B.C. covered the island in a layer of ash and destroyed the civilization, which included complexes of multi-story buildings and the oldest known running water system. In 1967 archeologists began excavating the site, called Akrotiri, and found it had been remarkably preserved, much like Pompeii. They found stunning pottery and amazing frescoes still beautifully intact. Amazing.

The museum was small but really well-designed. Very sparse, so the artifacts really stood out.

Just outside the museum is Fira's Orthodox Cathedral, which is all white and lovely.

Then we wandered around Fira and did some souvenir shopping and ate lunch at Naoussa. Best spaghetti I've ever had. And as we were sitting at our balcony table, the donkeys came by.

After lunch we wandered around some more, taking lots of photos before our flight out.

We saw lots of people taking wedding photos during our stay in Santorini, and most of them were doing silly, awkward poses on the cliff. Like this (imagine me in a flowing white veil):

This is an olive tree. They were everywhere in Greece. On the way to Delphi we saw miles of olive trees. They are a beautiful silvery green.

This is one of the tiny lizards that were constantly crossing our path in Santorini.

We were eager for our next destination but so glad to have experienced Santorini, which was uniquely beautiful and fascinating.

We flew back into Athens that night and were exhausted by the time we got to the Electra Palace Hotel. So we ordered room service pizza and enjoyed the view from our balcony.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The trip: Part 10 (Scuba!)

Day 10
We had set up a pretty high expectation level for excitement with that volcano boat tour, so we decided we had to up the ante a bit. We signed up for scuba diving.

Neither of us had ever scuba-dived before, so we really didn't know what to expect. We were picked up in a van by a large, blond man who we later found out was Norwegian. (You'd automatically assume that everyone in Greece speaking Greek is Greek, but you'd be surprised.) He was making fun of how Greeks never show up anywhere on time. "You've heard of GMT? Greenwich Mean Time? Here it's Greek Maybe Time."

We drove south and wound up at Caldera Beach.

We were given a crash course on scuba from the dive leader, Paul. We had to learn the hand signals (because you can't talk to each other, of course) and the various ways to control whether you sink or float. Also how to keep your eardrums from bursting. And how not to drown.

Then we put on our gear and practiced using it. The wetsuits were much stiffer and harder to get on than I anticipated.

Then we waded into the water and practiced putting our faces in and breathing from the tank. It was semi-freaky. Then Paul started leading us deeper into the water.

I had some issues. For one, I kept floating up. The instructors had to keep grabbing me and pulling me back down. You're supposed to point your head and shoulders down to go down, and I apparently wasn't bending enough. (It felt wrong that when I leaned way forward my tank smacked me in the back of the head.) Also I was kicking my flippers too fast.

I had a couple of panic moments, when I felt like I couldn't catch my breath or was possibly hyperventilating. But they were few and were separated by long stretches of calm.

Paul had brought fish food, and when we reached a sufficient depth he started releasing it. Fish started swarming all around us. It felt like being inside a snowglobe. I tried to touch the fish, but they were too fast.

I have no concept of how long we were under or how deep we went. I found it impossible to look around me or pay attention to anything but the task at hand.

Paul led us back up the beach and to the surface. I immediately felt a rush of nausea and started imagining how embarrassed I'd be to vomit in the Aegean. Kim had a similar reaction. Luckily, we managed not to.

We struggled out of our wetsuits, (the Norwegian guy actually yanked mine off of me), and sat around recuperating until an Australian guy drove us back to the hotel.

The rest of the day we did this:

I've never seen the appeal of a vacation where all you do is lie by the pool or lie on the beach. I need to go places! See stuff! Do things! But I must admit, one day of lying around was nice. And we weren't completely sedentary: Whenever we got too hot, we jumped in the pool.

And we relaxed and chatted and dozed and got sunburned. We ordered a fabulous chicken club sandwich from room service (it had a fried egg on it!). And we took a few pictures of our surroundings.

There was a young German couple who also spent the whole day poolside. They were alternately nauseating (like when they were lying all over each other) and kind of cute (like when he was reading aloud to her from a book about Frida Kahlo.) The woman had a fascinating technique for avoiding tan lines: She changed swimsuits four times. And apparently it works, because she had nary a line. And it was a lovely little fashion show for us. (Speaking of shows, she also took her top off at one point and made a half-hearted and ineffectual attempt to cover herself with her hands.)

After sunset we finally got off our butts and drove to Oia to have dinner at Amoudi Bay. We ate at Taverna Katina, where basically the only thing on the menu is fresh grilled fish. We couldn't figure out how many kilos of fish we should order, (we should've brushed up on our metric system before the trip), so the waiter had us come to the kitchen to look at the fish. We wound up having red snapper and Greek salads. We wanted dessert, but they didn't have any, so they gave us coffees on the house.

A great night. The first of the trip when our feet weren't even sore.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The trip: Part 9 (More of the island)

Day nine
After another perfect breakfast, we rented a tiny European car to explore the island.

We first headed for the inland village of Pyrgos and got a little bit lost. The roads in Santorini don’t have names. I stared at the map for a long time before I figured this out. And since neither of us has an internal compass, navigating was a little tricky.

Then we went looking for the beaches, which are on the opposite side of the island from the caldera. First we found Perissa, the black sand beach. It was fairly deserted at that time of morning. We didn’t stay long.

Then we went looking for the red beach, which was surprisingly hard to get to. From the parking lot you have to scale a pretty large, rocky hill to get down to the beach. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it in a swimming suit and flip-flops.

It was quite beautiful, though. I can see why people make the effort.

On an impulse we decided to drive out to Akrotiri Lighthouse, which is on the far southern tip of the island. The lighthouse itself was sort of understated.

Since it was at the tip of the crescent-shaped island, there were lovely rocky cliffs for us to climb out on.

Driving back toward Fira, we spotted these two stray dogs hanging out by the road. I made Kim pull over to get their picture.

We stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the way. Yes, a Mexican restaurant in Greece. It’s called — get this — Senor Zorba. We had planned to go there mainly because we thought it was funny. It turned out to be cute and fun and beautifully perched on the cliff. And expensive. A small tostada was $9. A Coke was $6. And you couldn’t even save money by ordering water because the tap water in Santorini is too salty to drink. So you got $6 Coke or $6 bottled water.

Which reminds me — I forgot to mention the toilets. In Santorini you can’t flush any toilet paper because the plumbing is so delicate. You have to put it in a little trash can next to the toilet. You might think this would be nasty, but it’s actually not so bad. You get used to it pretty fast.

Anyway, after lunch we stopped by the island’s main port at Athinios to ask about ferries to other islands. Unfortunately, only one island was available for one-day trips: Ios. And I’m sure Ios is lovely, but we had read that it was a real party island with lots of shopping and nightlife, which wasn’t really what we were looking for.

We drove on to Oia (pronounced ee-a), the village at the north end of the island. We drove down to Amoudi Bay, where the fishing boats were bringing in their fresh catches. Those guys in the bottom right were gutting a 3-foot-long fish right on the sidewalk.

We walked around to the other side of the cliff, where a bunch of people were swimming and jumping off the rocks into the water. We might have jumped in if we’d had our suits on.

We walked around Oia for a while before deciding it was too hot to be walking around with all those tourists.

We ate dinner that night in Fira at Ampelos Wine Bar. I had a very yummy artichoke stew with potatoes. We listened to the dumb Americans at the next table ordering decaf. “I just want regular coffee, only without caffeine.” Because Greek coffee isn’t regular.

Then we had some more awesome gelato. I got banana. And nearly died.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The trip: Part 8 (Thalassa tour)

Day eight
During our stay in Santorini, we had breakfast every morning on our patio overlooking the caldera. The breakfasts were fabulous. We had giant bowls of yogurt with honey and fresh fruit and buttery croissants and fresh-squeezed orange juice. (Orange juice was a big thing in Greece. You could get fresh-squeezed OJ practically anywhere.)

After breakfast we went hiking out on Skaros rock, which juts into the sea just below our hotel. Skaros was once the site of a dense medieval settlement and castle but has been uninhabited since a large earthquake in the 19th century.

The view from out there was pretty nice.

When we'd hiked around to the opposite side of Skaros, we were surprised to discover a little white chapel.

Kim likes to make me crouch in nooks.

After we'd cooled off back at the hotel, we walked to Fira and ate grilled cheese at Zafora. (They call it toast.)

We had signed up for a boat tour of the volcano that our hotel recommended. To get to the port at Fira, you can either walk down 600 stone steps, ride a donkey or take the cable cars down the cliff.

In what must have been a translation problem, we thought our hotel clerk had told us to wait at the top of the cable cars. But when we got there, we didn't see anyone else waiting. So we asked the cable car clerk if she knew whether we were supposed to wait at the top or the bottom.

So she kindly explained that boats cannot come up the cliff. "It's only logical," she said.

Oh! You don't say!

So we rode to the bottom. The cable cars are sort of like an enclosed ski lift.

Our boat was a replica of an 18th century sailboat called Thalassa.

In Fira we had bought sun hats to protect against the unrelenting Greek sun. (Have I mentioned that it's sunny there? It is sunny there.)

The boat sailed out to Nea Kammeni, the small island where the volcano is still active. We hiked up about a mile and a half to the rim of the crater.

This is our tour guide. He gave us a really interesting history of the island and the volcanic eruptions that have shaped it. Behind him you can see the rock layers of the island. The top white-ish layer is volcanic ash.

The boat then took us around the other side of the volcano to the hot springs, where we hopped off the boat for a swim. It was outrageously fun.

We climbed back aboard, and the boat swung around and docked near Thirassia, the second largest island of Santorini, and we ate a feast of Greek hors d'oeuvres and Santorini wine.

The boat then moved back toward the main island and paused once again to raise the sails. The tan, muscular crewmen jumped around the boat in bare feet, unleashing the huge white sails.

Another crewman played the saxophone as we watched the sunset over the Aegean.

But somehow the day hadn't been quite magical enough. We went to dinner at Selene, probably the island's most famous restaurant. And the food was some of the best of my life. Beef filet with honey butter and green beans, followed by vanilla creme with strawberries.

It was a good day.