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.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The trip: Part 7 (Santorini)

Day seven
On the seventh day, we went to Santorini.

Santorini is a small volcanic island in the Cyclades, just north of Crete. The main island is crescent-shaped, with the center of the volcano on a smaller island in the center of the crescent. The cities are perched on the cliffs looking down into the caldera. It is breathtaking.

We stayed at a fantastic hotel called Astra Apartments. All the rooms have views of the caldera. Ours was right next to the pool.

Before we fully explored the island, we had a bit of business to take care of. Our original plan was to return to Athens for two days after Santorini, but after three days in Athens, we felt like we had seen all we needed to see. So we made the impromptu decision to add Paris to the itinerary.

We were staying in the village of Imerovigli, which is a 25-minute walk from the much busier capital of Fira via a twisting, turning, uphill, downhill footpath. We walked over, amazed at the landscape and architecture and unrelenting Greek sunshine. For lunch we shared an enormous sandwich and gargantuan bowl of yogurt and fruit at Mylos Cafe. We also had the most amazing gelato of my life at Il Gelato d’oro.

Fira was full of tourists and the stupid stuff tourists like. The number of jewelry stores was incredible. You can tell what kind of people vacation in Santorini. (The kind who go to beautiful island resorts to shop for giant diamonds.)

We were looking for a travel agency that could help us find a flight to Paris, or at least somewhere in western Europe. So we walked into one and asked the woman if she had a flight to Paris from Santorini.

And she said, “Why? Is only two hours by boat.”

“Paris, France?”

“Oh, Paris. Not Poros.” **eyeroll**

She found us one flight from Athens to Paris. So then we asked if she had flights to several other cities. She didn’t. And she was getting annoyed with us. She said, “I cannot search all the flights.” And she looked away from us when she was exasperated, as though we might just get up and leave her alone if she stopped looking at us. (We would see this technique used again the next day by a different Greek clerk.) And eventually we did give up on her.

We went back to our hotel and borrowed a laptop to book our own trip. We had picked up a Paris travel book in the Athens airport and found a recommendation for Ermitage Hotel in Montmartre. It was described as family-owned and charming and decorated with antiques. So we jumped on Expedia and booked a flight to Paris and two nights at the Ermitage. We felt quite satisfied with ourselves. To be continued ...

We finished the evening with a glass of wine (or two) on our patio, watching the sunset over the volcano.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The trip: Part 6 (Delphi)

Day six
We knew that we wanted to go to Delphi, but we weren’t exactly sure how to get there. We were planning to take a public bus, but it became clear that figuring out the bus schedule might be problematic. And the bus might not be air-conditioned. And we might have missed the early bus anyway. So we had our hotel arrange a bus tour for us.

And it turned out to be kind of fun. The bus was very plush, and the group was really diverse. We sat across from two women from Minnesota and in front of a young couple from Australia with an adorable baby.

Delphi is about two hours from Athens, driving through beautiful mountainous country. We stopped for coffee on the way in a little restaurant/shop that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

We stopped again in the little village of Arachova, which our guide called the Aspen of Greece. It’s the ski resort where the elite of Athens vacation. It was quite charming.

Delphi is situated o­n the slopes of Mount Parnassus in what felt like a pretty remote spot. It was beautiful and quiet there.

A brief history lesson: Delphi was considered the center of the ancient world, the “navel” of the Earth. It was a worship site for the god Apollo and the site of the Oracle of Delphi. In ancient times the oracle was consulted on matters ranging from personal relationships to wars and political dealings. A priestess would inhale vapors escaping from the rocks, fall into a trance and yell out random words and phrases. Priests would then “interpret” these messages into answers for the questioning worshipers. The answers were known to be quite vague.

Here we are with the navel rock.

The site became a huge complex of buildings. Politically the site was supposed to be neutral. But each city-state built its own treasury house, where they displayed evidence of their prosperity and military prowess with hundreds of sculptures and other treasure.

This is our tour guide, Effie. She was very funny and Greek. She also had to give the entire tour in both English and French because we had three French people on-board who didn't speak English. It was kind of impressive.

We had only about 15 minutes to look around, and the Temple of Apollo was closed because of “technical problems.” Then we went to the museum, which houses the sculptures and other artifacts they have been able to save from the site.

You could take photos in the museum, but you were not allowed to pose with the artworks. So that is totally not what I was doing here.

We ate lunch in the modern village of Delphi, which was also very cute. I had moussaka, which is a Greek casserole with eggplant and meat sauce. Kim had eggplant shoe, a weird name for what was basically stuffed eggplant.

The ride back to Athens was uneventful except that Greece was in the middle of a dramatic national election and both presidential parties were staging rallies in Athens that night. Traffic was a little hairy, but I was amazed that those giant tour buses could navigate the narrow Greek streets to begin with.

That night we went to the trendy Gazi district and ate at Myrovolos. We had super yummy potato dishes and pita bread, followed by a marvelous chocolate souffle. There was a big group of young professionals at the next table having an intense discussion about the Greek election.

Then we wanted a taste of the Greek nightlife. But we were about two hours too early. The Greeks don't eat dinner until 9 or 10, so the bars aren't exactly hopping at that time. We had a quiet drink and headed back to the hotel.

There was a pet store on the corner by the hotel that had unbearably cute puppies in the window. It was a sweet end to our nights in Athens.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The trip: Part 5 (The Acropolis)

Day five
We tried to get an early start before it got really hot. After scoring the aforementioned bargain cappuccinos, we took the Sunshine Express again up to the Acropolis.

I’m having trouble putting into words what the Acropolis experience was like. A thousand photographs could not have prepared me for the sight of the Parthenon.

It was a moderately steep climb to the top. Along the way, dogs snoozed on the marble, which stays cool even in the unrelenting Greek sunshine.

First we climbed past the little Temple of Athena Nike, up the steps to the Propylea, the ancient gateway to the Acropolis.

Even half-covered with scaffolding, the Parthenon made us gasp. It is truly remarkable.

We walked slowly around it, pausing to look down at the Theater of Dionysus and foundations of the temple of Asklepios.

The Parthenon is being meticulously restored to its former glory (before fires and wars and pollution and other stupid human behavior “ruined” it). Pieces of marble scattered around the site are being categorized and returned to their original positions, with new pieces being fitted to the millimeter to fill in the gaps. Replica sculptures are even being placed back on the pediments that remain.

Then was the Erechtheum, with its Porch of the Caryatids, a temple to Athena and Poseidon.

Then we climbed up the Rock of Ares, a big rock just below the main Acropolis where the Apostle Paul is said to have preached in 51 AD. The view was lovely.

We then walked to the new Acropolis Museum, which just opened in June. It was built, in part, because in the past, when Greece requested that Britain return the Parthenon Marbles, British officials said the Greeks had no suitable place to display them. The new museum features a glass gallery with almost 180° views of the Parthenon itself.

The museum is built on top of an archaeological site, and the building design features glass floors so you can look down on the excavation. An amazing floor mosaic was visible just in front of the museum entrance.

The museum houses what remains of the Parthenon Marbles, plus every other artifact and artwork discovered on the Acropolis. I managed to snag a photo of the Calfbearer before we were told photos weren’t allowed. Kim was this close to getting Kritios Boy.

Then we took the metro to Piraeus, the port of Athens, and bought a ferry ticket to Aegina, a small island about 40 minutes away. The ferry was enormous and mostly empty. We stood at the railing and got covered with salt spray.

Aegina was cute. The town was tightly packed with shops and restaurants and scooter rental places. We ate giant Greek salads and baked feta at a cafe beside the bay. There were cats everywhere. They would sit at your feet and meow for scraps. When people got up from their tables, the cats would hop up and start licking the plates until they got shewed away by the waiters.

Then we rented a four-wheeler with the intention of going to see the Temple of Aphaea. We made it half-way around the island before we had to turn back so we wouldn’t miss our ferry back to Pireaus. So we wound up seeing a glimpse of the temple from what turned out to be very far away.

We returned our four-wheeler and then bought some local pistachios, the island’s top export. Then we went back and bought more because they were so flippin’ delicious.

We dozed on the ferry back to Pireaus. On the metro back to the hotel, a girl sat across from us and meticulously ate every kernel from a roasted ear of corn.

Before calling it a night we went to our hotel’s rooftop lounge and took some blurry photos of the Acropolis.