2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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sunday post: delicious

Sunday, October 7:  Jakesprinter’s Sunday Post for this week is DELICIOUS: good to eat; having an appealing or enjoyable taste or smell, delightful. Highly amusing, pleasing, or enjoyable.

As everyone knows already, I enjoyed every minute of delicious Greek food I ate!

Here is a gallery of my Greek meals.  Click on any of the pictures to see a full-sized slide show.

weekly photo challenge: happy

Friday, October 5:   Today’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is Happy.   There are so many things which could make you happy, so why not group them together to multiply the happiness?

Share (many) pictures in a gallery which mean HAPPY to you!

Here are some of the many things that make me happy: Sarah, Alex, Adam (my 3 children) & Mike; my Border Collie Bailey; my dear friend Jayne; whitewashed buildings with blue domes, green umbrellas, & traditional boats in Santorini; hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey; lanterns at a lantern festival in Seoul, South Korea; a junk on Halong Bay in Vietnam; red wine, Greek cabbage rolls, Greek eggplant rolls, and Vietnamese sea bass; Greek sandals and sundresses in Santorini; row houses in Richmond’s Fan District, and Greek music in an Athens taverna.

Click on any of the images to get a full-sized slideshow.

 

travel theme: foliage

Thursday, October 4:  Ailsa’s Travel Theme (Where’s my backpack?) for this week is Foliage.  She writes: It’s getting all autumnal up here in the northern hemisphere, while down in the southern hemisphere everyone’s looking forward to spring. Whichever hemisphere you inhabit, now is a fantastic time to get out and have a look at what the trees are doing. Whether they’re about to burst into life with fresh green growth, or starting to adorn themselves in their autumn glory; even if they’re still wearing their evergreen needles, it’s a wonderful time to go leaf peeping.

Here are some pictures of foliage from Greece:

sparse foliage on a line of trees near Rethymno Fortress

a little potted garden of foliage in Hania, Crete

strange but interesting foliage ~ looking across the sea to Rethymno Fortress in Crete

a lane bursting with foliage ~ and a lone man…

cactus-like foliage in Oia, Santorini

a cafe and its foliage beckon me to stop for a snack in Oia, Santorini

weekly photo challenge: mine

Monday, October 1:  The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge for this week is Mine. Is there a place, object, or view that’s entirely yours, or you’re a bit selfish or possessive about? Is it a feeling you feel when you look at the photo, or perhaps an unwillingness to share?

Share a picture that means MINE to you! 

This picture shows something that is all mine.  It’s a self-portrait of myself on the rooftop terrace of the Acropolis View Hotel in Athens, with a glass of wine in hand, enjoying one of many special moments during my vacation in Greece.  The Acropolis is behind me and though I cannot claim this ancient place, the experience of it, at this moment, is ALL MINE!  Traveling in a foreign country, soaking up the culture and the history, brings me adventures which are woven forever into the fabric of my life.  No one can ever take them from me.

This moment is, simply and irrevocably, MINE.

this moment is all MINE, and no one can ever take it away from me 🙂

And here are my feet, on this same terrace in Greece.  These feet have taken me to some of the most beautiful places on earth, and I hope they will take me to many more.  I’m incredibly thankful for these feet that are all MINE.

these traveling feet, all MINE, have taken me to Greece, Egypt, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, Bahamas, Canada, all over the USA, Korea, Oman, France, Britain, Jordan, Germany, Turkey, India, Japan and China… and i hope they’ll continue to take me all over this wild and wonderful world… 🙂

 

sunday post: people

Sunday, September 23:  Jakesprinter’s Sunday Post for this week is PEOPLE: human beings making up a group or assembly.  The mass of a community as distinguished from a special class or a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, that typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and that often constitute a politically organized group.

Here are people, tourists and Greeks alike, enjoying Europe’s lovely cafe culture in Rethymno, Crete, Greece.

people at an outdoor cafe in Crete

people wandering on the streets of Rethymno in Crete.

weekly photo challenge: solitary

Saturday, September 22: The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge for this week is  Solitary. I love capturing a person in a quiet and often unexpected moment. These kinds of images can be reflective, mysterious, or even sad, conjuring strong emotions and stirring up stories in my head.

Share a picture that means SOLITARY to you!

On the winding streets of old Rethymno, in Crete, Greece, I captured this solitary Greek Orthodox priest strolling along on a beautiful September morning.

a solitary Greek Orthodox priest strolling down the lane in beautiful Rethymno, Crete, Greece.

travel theme: white

Friday, September 21:  Ailsa of Where’s my backpack?  has challenged us to come up with photos of white for International Peace Day today.  She writes: Friday September 21st is the UN’s International Day of Peace. The first Peace Day was celebrated in 1982; this year marks the 30th anniversary. The theme for 2012 is ‘Sustainable Peace for a Sustainable Future’.

People around the world mark the day in various ways; wearing white, observing silence at noon, lighting candles. In honour of the International Day of Peace, I would like to go all white for this week’s travel theme.

Here are a few shots of Oia in Santorini, Greece.  This is a peaceful place now, but sitting as it is in the middle of two active volcanoes, this peace may not be sustainable.  Let’s hope these volcanoes don’t ever wreak havoc on this place again.

bells for peace in Santorini

a peaceful spot in Santorini

Oia built at the edge of the caldera, a shining monument to man’s will to pick up the pieces and rebuild after utter devastation….

weekly photo challenge: everyday life

Friday, September 14:  The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this week is Everyday Life. This challenge is all about people and the things they do every day: working, eating, drinking, chatting, dreaming, walking, exercising, or any of those things we do all the time without really thinking about it. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or around the streets where you work or study, and take a look at the people you see.

Here’s a man working his fruit stand at Monastiraki Square in Athens, Greece.

Everyday life in Athens, Greece

travel theme: on display {national archeological museum in athens}

Thursday, September 13:  Today, my last day in Greece, I go to visit the amazing National Archeological Museum and its excellent collection of Greek antiquities.  The museum, housed in a 19th-century neoclassical building, showcases sculptures, pottery, jewelry, frescoes and artifacts discovered in Greece, from the Neolithic  Age (6800-3300 BC) to the Cycladic Civilization (Early Bronze Age: 3200-2000 BC) to the Mycenaean Civilization (1600-1100 BC).  I have to say I am bowled over by this stunning and beautifully displayed collection that reveals such a sweeping history of mankind.  There are times when I feel so overwhelmed by the significance of this collection, that I become totally choked up.

the amazing National Archeological Museum

People say one should visit this museum before seeing the original sites within Greece.  However, during my trip, I have seen the major sites, including the Acropolis, Mycenae, Delphi, & Epidaurus.  Despite recommendations to the contrary,  I find it quite amazing to see the treasures found in all of these sites in one culminating grand finale.  I find my reaction to this display quite surprising, as I am not an avid historian.  I am simply awestruck by this collection.

The Prehistoric Collection represents the major civilizations that flourished in the Aegean from the 7th millennium to around 1050 BC.  It includes objects from the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age, from mainland Greece, the Aegean islands and Troy.  The most important exhibits are the treasures from the royal tombs at Mycenae, the famous Cycladic marble figurines, and the superbly preserved wall paintings from Thera with their large-scale compositions.

The Sculpture Collection presents ancient Greek sculpture from the 8th century BC to the end of the 4th century BC.  The treasury of large-scale sculpture occupies 30 rooms on the ground floor, arranged in a broad circle around the periphery of the old building.  The exhibits come from excavations in cemeteries, such as the Kerameikos and in sanctuaries, including the Athenian Acropolis.

The Bronze Collection is famous for its unique, large-scale original statues, such as the Poseidon or Zeus from Artemision, the Marathon youth, and the jockey from Artemision.

Here is a small sampling of what is on display in this stunning museum.  Luckily, visitors ARE allowed to take non-flash photos within.  Click on any of the photos to see a full-sized slide show.

This post is partly in reply to Ailsa’s (Where’s my backpack?) Travel Theme challenge: On Display. She writes: No matter where you go, there’s always something for sale somewhere. The items on display in local stores are often evocative of the flavours and aesthetics of the culture you’re in and make for really interesting photographs.

Though none of these antiquities in the National Archeological Museum are for sale, at least not to the common people, they are most definitely on display.  Priceless.

epidauros & last night in athens… :-(

Wednesday, September 12:  After leaving Nafplio, we head finally to Epidauros.  Its sanctuary of Ascelpius (the god of medicine) was a place where visitors flocked to seek cures for their ailments.  Today most visitors come to see the well-preserved World Heritage-listed Theatre of Epidauros, which is still used today for the Hellenic Festival for Classical Greek theater, as well as more modern plays, opera and music (Lonely Planet Greece).

We stop in the museum first, where we find statues, stone inscriptions recording medical cures, surgical instruments, votive offerings and partial reconstructions of the sanctuary’s once-elaborate tholos.  The tholos is believed to have been the most impressive building of the sanctuary besides the theater, and fragments of its intricately carved ceiling adorn the walls of the museum.

one of the statues in the museum at Epidauros

The 3rd-century limestone theater is well-known for its amazing acoustics and seats up to 14,000 people.  We walk around the theater, climbing up to the top and back down again.

the Theatre of Epidauros

—————————————

In my eyes, the bonus to today’s trip is meeting Marie-Claire.  She truly inspires me.  She is on a 7-week tour of Europe which she managed to do on 5,000 euros!! I have spent more than 2,500 euros in two weeks!  Obviously, I am not a frugal traveler.  I like to treat myself well when I’m on holiday, but if I were a little more frugal, I could travel more and for a longer period of time!

Next summer I hope to take a 5-week trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco for 5,000 euros!! I hope that will include the air fare as well.  I need to pack lighter, use more public transportation (NOT over-priced taxis), and eat out less.  I also need to shop less.  I usually stay in moderate but charming hotels, so I don’t think I’m willing to skimp further on my accommodation.  But if I don’t eat lunch out, and am smarter about my transport, I think I can do it.

me at the Theatre of Epidauros

Marie-Claire was particularly entranced by Portugal, and she told me I should visit Sintra, which is a major tourist center because of its 19th-century Romantic architecture and landscapes.  In addition to the Sintra Mountains and Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, royal retreats, estates, castles and 8th-9th century buildings dot the parishes of the town.  Also in Sintra are Castelo dos Mouros, the Pena National Palace and the Sintra National Palace.

She also loved Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon. During the times of Moorish domination, Alfama constituted the whole of the city. Alfama became inhabited by the fishermen and the poor, and its condition as the neighborhood of the poor continues to this day. Alfama has remained a picturesque labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares. Lately the neighborhood has been invigorated with old house renovations and new restaurants where Fado – Portuguese typical melancholy music – can be enjoyed.

looking down from the top center of the theater

Also in Portugal, Marie-Claire loved Óbidos, which hosts a Medieval Market every July where people dress in Medieval costumes.

In Spain, she recommended Montserrat.  This is a spectacularly beautiful Benedictine monk mountain retreat about one hour northwest of Barcelona by train.  Not only is Montserrat Monastery of significant religious importance, but the natural beauty surrounding the monastery is simply breathtaking.

Finally, she told me I should go to 3 islands in Venice: Murano, Torcello & Burano.  She says Murano is okay for its glass, but she loved the pastel houses of Burano.  Of course, Italy is not on my itinerary for next year, so this will have to wait… 😦

the fabulous Theatre of Epidauros

I love Marie-Claire’s enthusiasm and determination.  She has been married for 40 years, but, when she couldn’t convince her husband to come with her, she saved up enough money and planned the trip herself.  This is her first trip alone and she is loving every minute.   I want to cheer her on, but she doesn’t seem to need any cheering.  In fact, she inspires me to make my own dreams a reality!

the dot at the bottom with her arms in the air is Marie-Claire 🙂

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In the evening when I return to Athens, I’m happy that I canceled the questionable plans with Bill.  I can just relax and enjoy my own company on the terrace of my favorite Acropolis Restaurant and order, for the 2nd consecutive night, the delicious cabbage rolls.  Of course, I enjoy the Greek wine again, on this, my last night in Athens.

cabbage rolls ~ believe it or not, this simple-looking meal was my favorite! I ate this meal two nights in a row at the Acropolis Restaurant!

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” ~ Anais Nin

a short stop in the quaint town of nafplio

Wednesday, September 12:  After lunch we make a short stop for photos in the pretty town of Nafplio.  Sitting beneath the Palamidi Fortress on the Argolic Gulf, this town of narrow streets, Venetian houses, and neoclassical mansions was the first capital of Greece after Independence (between 1833 and 1834).  It had such a strategic position as a major port that it had three fortresses: the huge fortress of Palamidi, the smaller Akronafplia and the tiny Bourtzi on an islet west of the old town.

We only stop briefly near the tiny Bourtzi Fortress, which sits on an island near Nafplio’s port.  The Venetians built most of the existing structure.

the island fortress of Bourtzi in Nafplio

Looking toward the town, we can see quayside cafes and boutiques.

cafes along the quayside in Nafplio

Marie-Claire and I take pictures of each other with a view over the Argolic Gulf.

Marie-Claire in Nafplio

Me in Nafplio

If we could have stayed longer, I might have taken one of these little vehicles for a spin around the town…

Looking inland, we can see the Palamidi Fortress standing on a 216 meter-high rock.  Built by the Venetians between 1711 and 1714, it’s regarded as a masterpiece of military architecture, according to Lonely Planet Greece.   It’s a typical baroque fortress.  In 1715 it was captured by the Turks and remained under their control until 1822, when it was captured by the Greeks.

According to Wikipedia, there are approximately 857 steps in the winding stairs from the town to the fortress. However, to reach the top of the fortress there are over one thousand. Locals in the town of Nafplio will say there are 999 steps to the top of the castle, and specials can be found on menus that incorporate this number to catch a tourist’s eye.

Sadly, we don’t have time to climb up the estimated 999 steps to the top, because we have to move on to Epidauros.

the Palamidi Fortress overlooking the quaint town of Nafplio

ancient mycenae

Wednesday, September 12:  After seeing the Corinth Canal, we head down the road to Ancient Mycenae, the most powerful kingdom in Greece for 400 years (from 1600-1200 BC).   Homer himself talked of Mycenae in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” where he described the ancient city as “rich in gold.”  Myth and history are intertwined here, and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90), found evidence, since found to be dubious, at Troy and Mycenae, that Homer’s legends might be true.

Legends aside, historical evidence shows that Mycenae was first settled by Neolithic people in the 6th millennium B.C.   Between 2100 and 1900 BC, the city was invaded by people of Indo-European descent who brought an advanced culture to the primitive Mycenae. This new civilization is now called the Mycenaean.

pottery from Mycenae

Archeological evidence shows the palaces of the Mycenaean kingdoms declined around 1200 BC and the palace itself was destroyed by fire in 1100 BC. It is uncertain as to whether this was done by outsiders or as a result of internal battles between the various Mycenaean kingdoms.

We first go to the museum, where we see pottery, weaponry, jewelry and the important early clay tablets written in Linear B, an early language first uncovered in Knossos.

more pottery from mycenae

Then we enter the Citadel of Mycenae through the Lion Gate, built of massive stone blocks topped by two rearing stone lionesses.

the Lion Gate to the Citadel of Mycenae

the inspirational and lively Marie-Claire from South Africa inside the Lion Gate

me on the inside of the Lion Gate

Inside the Citadel we see Grave Circle A, which was the royal cemetery that contained six grave shafts.  When Schliemann excavated five of these, he found an immense gold treasure, including the well-preserved gold death mask of, he thought, Agamemnon.  It turned out the mask was of some unknown king who died 300 years before Agamemnon.

Grave Circle A at Mycenae

We walk up the main path to Agamemnon’s Palace.  The rooms to the north were the private royal apartments, and one is believed to be the very room where Agamemnon was murdered.

Somewhere up here is Agamemnon’s Palace….

The former glory days of Mycenae are hard to imagine here, as the ruins are so, well, ruined.  But it’s fun to imagine that the stuff of legends once took place at this ancient and sacred spot.

After we leave Ancient Mycenae, we stop at the Treasury of Atreus, a tholos tomb shaped like a beehive.  This is known to be the tomb of Agamemnon. A 40-meter long passage leads to the immense beehive chamber.  Its stone blocks get steadily  smaller as the structure tapers to its central point.

the Treasury of Atreus, also know as King Agamemnon’s Tomb

Inside the beehive-shaped chamber of the Treasury of Atreus

Then it’s lunchtime, but, as in your typical tour, the hotel restaurant is quite the tourist trap, with nondescript food for large groups. I don’t even bother to photograph this most uninspired meal.

argolis tour. {stop #1: the corinth canal}

Wednesday, September 12:  Today I take a one day tour with G.O. Tours to Argolis.  The tour costs 101 euros (~ $130), including lunch.  My vacation in Greece is winding down, as I must leave tomorrow evening.  I guess I am desperately trying to squeeze in as many things as I can see in my final days here.

The tour is described as such: Leave by the coastal road along the Saronic Gulf to the Corinth Canal, which connects the Aegean Sea with the Ionian Sea, (short stop). Drive to Mycenae, the Homeric city of Atreides, the city “rich in gold” of the ancient poets.  Visit the Lion’s Gate, the Cyclopean Walls, the Royal Tombs, etc.  Depart for Nauplion through the fertile plains of Argolis, the picturesque town nestling at the foot of a cliff crowned by the mighty ramparts of the Palamidi Fortress (short photo stop), leave for Epidauros, to visit the Theatre (4th century B.C.) famous for its astonishing acoustics.  Return to Athens by the national road connecting Epidauros with Corinth.  Lunch in Mycenae.

The G.O. Tours system for picking up tourists by bus from a variety of hotels, driving them to a central spot near Syntagma Square, and then redistributing them to their proper buses for the day, is quite puzzling and confusing, at least for tourists.  I’m sure the tour company itself has a grip on the process.  Finally, after being directed to and fro, I board a small bus with about 15 people for our Argolis tour.  This tour size is much more to my liking than the 30+ person tour of yesterday.

looking north toward the Gulf of Corinth, which leads to the Ionian Sea, through the Corinth Canal

As I’m sitting on the bus, I see a beautiful petite lady asking one of the G.O. Tours guides on the sidewalk where she should go for the Argolis tour.  He shakes his head, not knowing where to send her.  I knock on my window and tell her to come on board.  She sits behind me and introduces herself as Marie-Claire from South Africa.  She tells me she is on a 7 week tour of Europe and it’s the first time she’s ever traveled alone.  Her excitement is so infectious that I’m drawn to her and we spend much of the day sharing stories about our travels.

We drive for about an hour out of Athens, where we make our first stop at the Corinth Canal.  According to Lonely Planet Greece, the idea to cut a canal through the Corinth Isthmus to link the Ionian and Aegean Seas originated with the tyrant Periander, of Ancient Corinth, at the end of the 7th century BC.   The magnitude of the task was so daunting that he gave up, and instead he created a paved slipway, called a diolkos in Greek.  Across this slipway, sailors dragged small ships on rollers.  This method was used for 2,000 years, until the 13th century.

the view toward the Aegean Sea from the Corinth Canal

Many other leaders played with the idea of building a canal here, including Alexander the Great and Caligula, but in AD 67, Nero was the one who began the digging.  He used a golden pickaxe to strike the first blow.  He then departed the scene, leaving 6,000 Jewish prisoners to do the rest of the digging.  Then the Gauls invaded and put a stop to the whole project.

A French engineering company finally completed the canal in the 19th century (1883-93).

The canal separates the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, thus effectively making the former an island. The builders dug the canal through the Isthmus at sea level, so no locks are used. It is 6.4 kilometers (4.0 mi) in length and only 21.3 metes (70 ft) wide at its base, making it impassable for most modern ships.  The vertical sides rise 90 meters above the water. The canal helped to make Piraeus a major Mediterranean port at one time.   However, because only small ships can now pass through it, today it has little economic importance (Wikipedia: Corinth Canal).

The narrowness of the canal makes navigation difficult; its high rock walls channel high winds down its length, and the different times of the tides in the two gulfs cause strong tidal currents in the channel.  The canal’s high limestone walls have been persistently unstable from the start. Although it was formally opened in July 1893 it was not opened to navigation until the following November, due to landslips. It was soon found that the wake from ships passing through the canal undermined the walls, causing further landslips.

The canal is too narrow for modern ocean freighters.  Ships can only pass through the canal one at a time on a one-way system. Larger ships have to be towed by tugs.  The canal is nowadays mostly used by tourist ships; 11,000 ships per year travel through the waterway (Wikipedia).

We get out of the bus for a short stop and stand on one of the bridges built over the canal, where we can look at the seas at each end.  The solid rock sides are sturdy and impenetrable, much like a fortress, and the canal is very narrow at the bottom.

After our short stop, we drive on toward Mycenae.

the meteora monasteries

Tuesday, September 11:  Today, we visit the Meteora monasteries.  The tour is sadly very limited, and today is the day I most regret being on a tour. If I had driven on my own, I would have visited more of the monasteries and stopped for many more photos.  However, being stuck on a bus and limited by a timetable, I feel like I only see a small sliver of what there is to see in Meteora.

Moni Agiou Stefanou, or the Holy Monastery of St. Stephen

Though the tour is two days long, we spent all day yesterday driving to Delphi, visiting the archeological site briefly, then driving to Meteora.  This morning, we get an early start after a decent buffet breakfast, but we head straightaway to an icon factory, where we are given a demonstration on how icons are made, and then we’re left to browse in the large icon and souvenir shop.  Though I admittedly do buy something, a copy of a Byzantine icon which is supposed to bring luck on “new beginnings,” as well as a small bell much like one found in a monastery, I still consider this 45-minute stop a waste of time. Considering that we only get a couple of hours at the monasteries, and then have to drive 5 hours back to Athens, I feel sorely disappointed that I miss much of what there is to see in Meteora.

the gardens at the Monastery of St. Stephen

According to Lonely Planet Greece, as well as Wikipedia, the name Meteora derives from the Greek adjective meteoros, which means “suspended in the air.”  The jutting pinnacles and cliffs of the Meteora were once sediments of an inland sea.  The rocks, composed of a mixture of sandstone and conglomerate (limestone, marble, serpentine and metamorphic, interspersed with layers of sand and shale), were formed about 60 million years ago.  A series of earth movements pushed the seabed upwards, creating a high plateau and causing many fault lines to appear in the thick layer of sandstone. Continuous weathering by water, wind and temperature extremes turned them into huge rock pillars, marked by horizontal lines which geologists maintain were made by the waters of a prehistoric sea.

we can light candles and say prayers at Monastery of St. Stephen

This is NOT actually a monk from the monastery but one of a group of visiting priests from Serbia. I’m sure he was thrilled that I asked him to pose!!

By the 11th century AD, natural caves that had been carved out of these pillars had become the homes for hermit monks.  By the 14th century, the Byzantine power of the Roman Empire was fizzling out, and the Turks were invading Greece.  Monks began to seek safe haven from the bloodshed and built monasteries atop the pillars.  In the early monasteries, removable ladders were used to access the monasteries.  Later, windlasses were used so monks could be hauled up in nets.

more gardens at the Monastery of St. Stephen

Eventually, 24 monasteries were built on these pinnacles.  Today, six are active religious sites, occupied by monks or nuns. Today they are accessible by staircases cut into the rock formations. They were created to serve monks and nuns following the teachings of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The first monastery we visit is Moni Agious Stephanou, or the Monastery of St. Stephen, founded around 1400.  It is now a nunnery. Although less spectacular than the others, it is the easiest monastery to visit and the nuns are welcoming.

According to Sacred Destinations: Agios Stefanos Monastery, Meteora, Moni Agious Stefanou was founded by St. Antoninus Cantacuzene, who is thought to be a son of the Serb ruler Nicephorus II of Epirus, around 1400.

me next to the Icon of the Archangel Michael at the Monastery of St. Stephen

The monastery suffered much damage in the 20th century: it was bombed during World War II by the Nazis, who believed it was harboring insurgents.  Then it was desecrated during the subsequent Civil War. In the latter period, most of the frescoes were defaced by Communist rebels.

St. Stephen’s was virtually abandoned until 1961, when it became a nunnery. It is currently inhabited by 28 nuns led by Abbess Agathi Antoniou.

on the grounds of Monastery of St. Stephen

The grounds of the monastery are beautifully manicured and the views to the town of Kalambaka below are spectacular.

more gardens at Monastery of St. Stephen

the view from Monastery of St. Stephen to Kalambaka down below

There are different types of artistically designed bells; one is rung for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

one of the bells rung for meals at the Monastery of St. Stephen

another cool bell at Monastery of St. Stephen

After leaving the Monastery of St. Stephen, we drive past the famous Moni Agias Triados, or Holy Trinity Monastery, where scenes in the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only,were filmed. This monastery is one of the more difficult to access, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not on our tour!  We stop along the road and are released briefly from our bus captivity to get out and take photos.

Moni Agias Triados, or Holy Trinity Monastery, where For Your Eyes Only was filmed

another view of Moni Agias Triados

Because I run quite a distance down the road from the bus to get as many pictures as I can, I arrive back to the bus late, only to be berated in a screeching voice by our carrot-headed guide:  “You’re late!  Why did you run all the way down the road?  I told you only 5 minutes!” I yell back: “We don’t have enough time!  You’re rushing us way too much!! This is ridiculous!  You stop us for 45 minutes at an icon factory and yet you won’t give us an extra 5 minutes to take pictures!!”  She yells back, “We have a 7 hour drive back to Athens this afternoon.  We have a timetable!”  Here she is exaggerating wildly, as the drive back to Athens from Meteora is actually only 5 hours.  We are both fuming by this time and I am really irritated with this bitchy woman as well as myself for deciding to come on this blasted tour!!  LIVE & LEARN!!

more of the Meteora pinnacles

Finally, we both settle down, although I’m seething inside. For me, travel is about a lot of things: experiencing a culture, enjoying the food and wine, lingering and soaking up the atmosphere, meeting interesting people, pushing myself outside my comfort zone, learning about myself, journaling about my adventures, and TAKING PICTURES.  I love to take my time searching out interesting angles and light and subject matter.  Not that I’m always successful, but I like to try.  And a tour simply isn’t conducive to that.

a view of the other town at the foot of Meteora, Kastraki, with Alsos Rock on the left and Holy Spirit Rock on the right, and Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou in the right foreground

We continue down the road only a slight distance to the 2nd of the two monasteries we will see, Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou, or the Monastery of St. Barbara.  We walk from a high cliff where we have a view of some of the pinnacles, down a path and then up a small wooden bridge to St. Barbara.   The steep structure of this monastery is a stunning accomplishment.  Today this is home to an order of 15 nuns.

me at the top of one of the Meteora pillars

the entrance to Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou, or the Monastery of St. Barbara

As we walk up the bridge to St. Barbara, we can see a beautiful garden down below.

the garden at the Monastery of St. Barbara

Inside the very small monastery, which is packed with tourists, the nuns sell hand painted rocks with the monastery on the front.   They sell the rocks or they’ll make them into a necklace. I can’t help but buy one because I like quirky jewelry and it helps to support the monastery.

The stones painted with the monastery by the nuns. They will write your name on the back and make them into necklaces.

We get a tour of the beautiful stained-glass-illuminated katholikon; it’s gorgeous but tiny and of course we’re not allowed to take pictures.

From the deck of Monastery of St. Barbara, we can see Grand Meteora Monastery, which is built on the highest rock in the valley at 613 meters above sea level.  St. Athanasios founded it in the 14th century and it became the richest and most powerful monastery because of a Serbian emperor Symeon Uros, who turned all his wealth over to the monastery and became a monk.  Maybe this is why we see so many Serbian priests visiting the Monastery of St. Barbara today.

a view of Moni Megalou Meteorou, or Grand Meteora Monastery

another view of Grand Meteora Monastery

I love the Meteora monasteries, but sadly the ones we see are overrun by tourists.  Also, we only go inside of 2 of the 6 operating monasteries.  I really wish I had gone alone and hiked on the trails between the monasteries.  It is a beautiful day and I think I would have loved it.  I’m going to have to go back there one day.

After we finish at Monastery of St. Barbara, we head into the town of Kalambaka, where we have lunch at the Meteora Restaurant.  This restaurant has been run by the same family since 1925.  We go into the kitchen where the owner and her daughters and sons are cooking a variety of different dishes in a cloud of steam.  We are allocated bread, a meat dish of our choosing, and two vegetables for about 10 euros.

we have lunch at the Meteora Restaurant

the proprietor at the Meteora Restaurant cooks up a feast

the kitchen at Meteora Restaurant

The lamb meatballs I have here are delectable!  They’re one of those things in life that taste so good you don’t ever want to stop eating them, even when you’re stuffed.  This is one of my favorite meals in Greece, after the cabbage rolls which I will eat the next two nights in Athens, and the eggplant rolls in Santorini.

homemade lamb meatballs & green peppers

We leave the restaurant at around 1:30 p.m. and head back to Athens, driving over much of the same course we traveled to get here, except veering off at Lamia to take a scenic route along the Gulf of Evia.  Our guide tells us that Mama Mia! was filmed along this route.  According to Wikipedia, most of the outdoor scenes were filmed on location at the small Greek island of Skopelos, and the seaside hamlet of Damouchari in the Pelion area of Greece. On Skopelos, Kastani beach on the south west coast was the film’s main location site. The producers built a beach bar and jetty along the beach, but removed both set pieces after production wrapped.

Either way, from our bus, we are unable to see this location, so I don’t even know why our lunatic guide tells us this.

We arrive back in Athens around 6:30, exactly 5 hours after leaving Kalambaka.  Surprise, surprise!  It wasn’t anywhere near seven hours, as the guide claimed during our yelling match!

delphi: the temple of apollo, the sanctuary of athena {& the oracle of delphi}

Monday, September 10:  For my last three days on the mainland, I have arranged tours with G.O. Tours.  Today’s tour is a two-day tour to Delphi – Meteora Monasteries.   I usually try to avoid tours because I hate getting stuck in large groups that include people I don’t like, I dislike the large-scale “tourist restaurants” where they invariably take you for meals, and I don’t like not having the freedom to linger in a place I find fascinating or to rush through a place I find boring.  Not only that, but I hate being captive on a bus that has no toilets.  Neither do I like having to stay in a group and listen to a long-winded tour guide.   I also get extremely irritated when the tour takes you to a large-scale tourist trap where they sell a bunch of overpriced souvenirs.

the Roman Agora at Delphi

However, I decide now to take these tours because I don’t really want to hassle with going back and forth to the airport to rent a car; nor do I feel like driving the five hours from Athens to Meteora or the several hours to Delphi and then to Meteora.   I have determined I want to see Meteora on this trip to Greece, and I’m tired enough by this time on my trip that I want someone else to do the logistics.

the Athenian Treasury

The total cost for this tour is 162 euros, which includes the tour, entrance fees to the sites, dinner, hotel and breakfast.  Drinks and lunch are not included.  On top of that, because I am a single person, I get penalized and have to pay a single supplement of 28 euros.  So, my total cost is 190 euros, or around $248.  Very steep, I know!

the Temple of Apollo ~ home of the Delphi Oracle

The first day of the trip, we leave for Delphi via Thebes, Levadia and the picturesque village of Arachova, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, arrive in Delphi and visit the Archeological Site.  After this visit we are to depart for Kalambaka, the town at the foot of the Meteora Monasteries.

me in front of the Temple of Apollo

On the way there, our tour guide, an older frumpy woman with orange dyed hair, tells us a bunch of random facts about Greece.  I have no idea of the truth of these “facts,” but I’ll give them to you just the same.

the Theater at Delphi, where plays were performed every 4 years during the Pythian Festival

She tells us that Salonica, also known as Thessalonica, is the second largest city in Greece with 2 million people.   It is the capital of the Central Macedonia region.  The Sea of Thessalonia is part of the Aegean Sea.

All of Greece has 11 million people and Athens has 5 million.  We drive today along the Sea of the Saronic Gulf.  She says you can swim in these seas from April to the end of October.  Piraeus is the main harbor and is 10 km from Athens.

She then tells us about the Greek flag.  The cross represents Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the established religion of the Greek people of Greece and Cyprus.  Ninety-six percent of Greeks are Greek Orthodox and 4% Catholics and Protestants. The blue color represents the sea and heaven.  The nine stripes represent the nine syllables of the Greek phrase that means “Freedom or Death.”

Other flags that you see in Greece are the blue flag with a star which is the European Union flag.  Greece has been a member of the EU since 1991.

On the highway, we pass by the town of Thebes.  Here legend has it that Europa was kidnapped and taken to Crete.  The guide points out the pistachio tree orchards in the area.  She also points out the numerous little shrines along the highway for people who died in car accidents.  They are filled with olive oil and water.  Sometimes people stop and take the oil and water and light the lamp.  Sometimes they put flowers in the shrines. Or they put coins in them, and then the local priest collects them and gives them to poor families.  Sometimes these shrines have pictures of the people who died.

a shrine along the highway for someone who died in a car accident

Mount Parnassus is a 2,500 meter mountain of limestone that towers above Delphi,  and offers scenic views of the surrounding olive groves and countryside. According to Greek mythology, this mountain was sacred to Apollo and the Corycian nymphs, and the home of the Muses.   Today there are two ski resorts on the mountain.  Windmills dot the surrounding mountain tops.  Also, aluminum is made from the bauxite found on Parnassus.

the Stadium at Delphi, one of the best preserved in all of Greece

Delphi was not a town but the religious and spiritual center of the ancient Greek world,  used for the worship of Apollo. It was considered the geographical center of the earth, where two eagles released by Zeus from opposite ends of the universe met.  There is a conical stone there that is considered the navel of the earth.  Delphi sits majestically on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and spreading into a valley of olive and cypress trees.

The guide tells us the story of Apollo, and I apologize if this is a little disjointed, but this is how I heard it and wrote it down.  When Apollo was 4 days old, he left the island of Delos.  At Delphi, he killed a python.  He went to Thembi (?) to purify himself and spent 7 years there.  He was born on February 7.  In honor of the number seven, the games were held every seven years. (This is what our guide tells us, but I find later that the Pythian Games were held every 4 years to commemorate Apollo’s victory over the python.) Apollo converted to a dolphin and asked sailors to become priests, or priestesses (pythias).   First young priestesses served as the Oracle of Delphi, but the young maidens kept running off with the pilgrims who were seeking answers.  Later the priestesses were required to be 50 years old, and even later 80 years old. They had to purify themselves in the Castalian Spring before entering the Temple of Apollo.

The Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia

Delphi reached its pinnacle between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, when multitudes of pilgrims came to ask advice of the Oracle, which was believed to speak for Apollo.  The rituals at Delphi were kept alive until the 2nd century AD, when the oracle’s influence began to fade.  The Byzantine emperor Theodosius abolished the sanctuary in the 4th century AD.

We walk past the Roman Agora  up the Sacred Way, climbing up the hill past the Athenian Treasury.  Here, I take off from the rest of the tour group because they’re moving too slow for my taste.   I come to the 4th century BC Temple of Apollo, which had in its day a statue of Apollo and an eternal flame.  This is where the Oracle of Delphi was housed.   I can’t linger because I want to climb all the way up past the Theater, where dramatic and lyric contests were held, and up to the top of the hill where the Stadium is.   The Stadium was home not only to the athletic games, but also to musical events.  I make it to the Stadium, but I’m very winded from climbing so quickly.  Then, because there is not time allotted in our tour to see the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, I run back down the hill, and quite a distance down the road, then down another hill to the Sanctuary of Athena, which is the coolest place in Delphi.   Why the tour has no time allotted for this, I don’t know.  I barely make it back to the bus on time, and I’m covered in sweat.

The tholos of the Sanctuary of Athena

The Sanctuary of Athena is the site of the 4th century BC tholos, the most striking of Delphi’s monuments.  This circular structure had 20 columns on a three-stepped podium.  The columns look like camouflage because some were re-erected in the 1940s.  The white blotches on each column are the original marble, and the darker portions are new material.

The tholos of the Sanctuary of Athena

——————————

The Delphi Oracle

There are more than 500 supposed Oracular statements which have survived from various sources referring to the oracle at Delphi. Many are anecdotal, and have survived as proverbs. Several are ambiguously phrased, apparently in order to show the oracle in a good light regardless of the outcome. Such prophesies were admired for their dexterity of phrasing. One such famous prediction was the answer to an unknown person who was inquiring as to whether it would be safe for him to join a military campaign; the answer was: “Go, return not die in war”, which can have two entirely opposite meanings, depending on where a missing comma is supposed to be – before or after the word “not.”

To read more about the oracular statements, see Wikipedia: List of Oracular Statements from Delphi

————————————–

After we finish at Delphi, we head to lunch at one of those large tourist-type restaurants that exist solely for large tour groups. I have some Symposium Feta in a pot with tomatoes and peppers.  For dessert I can’t help but try some rich Greek yogurt with fig preserves.  It is delicious!  I eat with a couple of women I have met along the way: Elena from Moscow, Vanessa from Montreal, and Gina from New Jersey.

Elena, Vanessa and Gina at the roadside tourist restaurant

feta in a pot with tomatoes and peppers

Greek yogurt with fig preserves

Finally, after lunch we drive through the flat lands of Thessaly, the granary of Greece, toward Meteora. Here they grow cotton, grapes, tobacco and rice. Our guide points out Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece at 3,000 meters.  All the gods of mythology lived here.

The guide tells us that the Thessalonians burned their fields when they saw the Turks coming, in one of the wars.  She also tells us that women were allowed to eat with their husbands in Thessaly, where in other parts of the country, sharing a table with their men was strictly forbidden.

the scenery on the way to Meteora

Finally, we arrive at the town of Kalambaka near Meteora, where we have dinner and stay the night at the Orpheus Hotel.  Tomorrow we will explore the Meteora Monasteries….

a-wandering in athens

Saturday, September 9:  After checking back in to the Acropolis View Hotel, I venture again out into the heat of Athens to explore the rest of the historical route.  After having an iced coffee at an appealing little cafe along the road,  I go by metro to Syntagma Square, where I see the funny guards at the Parliament.

Syntagma Square and the Parliament Building

Greece’s Parliament was built between 1836 and 1842, after being designed by a Bavarian architect.  Originally it was the royal palace, and from its balcony the constitution (syntagma) was declared on September 3, 1843.  In 1935 the palace became the seat of the Greek parliament.  When the monarchy was abolished in 1974, the royal family moved to a new palace, renamed the presidential palace.

one of the guards at the Parliament Building

The war memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, sits in front of the Parliament, and is guarded by the city’s presidential guards, wearing kilts and pom-pom shoes.  This is based on clothing worn by the mountain fighters, called klephts, in the War of Independence.  After watching the interesting little parade-dance changing of the guard in front of the Parliament, I head to the National Gardens.

the National Gardens

The National Gardens were formerly the royal gardens designed by Queen Amalia. They’re nice enough, except maybe just a little unkempt. After strolling through the gardens, I walk to Hadrian’s Arch, through which I can see the Acropolis on its rock-solid perch.

Hadrian’s Arch

Hadrian’s Arch was erected by Hadrian in AD 132, probably to commemorate the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  Inscriptions show it also divided the ancient and modern city.

the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Next to Hadrian’s Arch is the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in Greece.  This temple was begun in the 6th century BC but was abandoned for lack of money.  Other leaders tried to complete it in vain, until finally Hadrian completed it in AD 131. It took more than 700 years to build.

the Temple of Olympian Zeus

Only 15 of the temple’s impressively huge 104 Corinthian columns remain standing today.  One of the columns was blown over by high winds in 1852.  Hadrian put a huge statue of Zeus in the cella, and in typical egomaniac fashion, put an equally large statue of himself beside it.

the fallen column at the Temple of Olympian Zeus

By this time, I’m quite hot and sweaty, but I have it in my mind I want to go see Athens’ first cemetery, the resting place of many famous Greeks.  I follow a long road, and cross a busy eastbound highway.  Here in the median strip of this big highway, is a narrow and colorful open-air cafe called Banana Moon.  Bottles of liquor and sodas and water are lined up on the open shelves. Fresh flowers and bowls of limes adorn the tables.  Strangely, no human proprietor is in sight.  I haven’t had either a drink or a bathroom break in a long while, so I go poking around in the cafe.  Finally I come face-to-face with a tall guy in jeans, a tank top and a gray ponytail, holding a broom and dustpan in his hand.  He introduces himself as Bill Michalopoulos.

me with Bill, the Dutch-Greek former model

Bill tells me he is Greek but also Dutch.  He works at this cafe, which I understand is really a popular nightclub. Offering me use of the toilet, and a drink of bubbly water with a lemon, he puts his broom and dustpan aside and takes a seat at my table.  He chats with me for quite some time, mentioning that he used to be a model.  Now he is 42, and I can tell he knows he is still handsome.  He’s wearing a gold cross necklace and has a wreath of thorns tattooed around his upper arm, which he flexes continuously. He also keeps pushing a stray strand of his gray hair behind his ear.  I take one picture of him alone, but he asks me to set the timer and take a picture of the two of us together.  He wants me to mail it to him when I return to Oman.  When he writes down his address on a piece of paper,  I’m surprised to see it’s actually a street address, not an email address.  I say, “Really?  You want me to mail this to you? To your house?”  He says yes, he doesn’t use computers or the internet.  Huh?  A throwback to some bygone day!  I take his address and agree to mail it.  I note aloud that he has also written down his phone number and he says, yes, if you ever come back to Greece, give me a call.  Strange.

Banana Moon Cafe

I don’t want to take more of his time as it’s obvious he’s trying to clean up the place, so I take off across the westbound highway and walk up and down streets looking for the cemetery.  No matter which way I turn the map,  and no matter which direction I walk on the streets, I can’t find any cemetery.  Finally, I give up in frustration and head to Plakas, where I stop for a sandwich and some lemonade at an outdoor cafe.

a late lunch at a Plakas cafe

After this late lunch, I head back to the Acropolis View Hotel, where I have a glass of wine on the terrace and take a nap.  Tonight I’ve arranged to go with a group to a musical museum and a Greek taverna to hear some Greek folk singers.

I love these colorful Greek buildings

me back on the rooftop of the Acropolis View Hotel

a lurching 5-hour ferry ride to piraeus

Saturday, September 8:  I reluctantly head to the new port in Santorini, where I turn in my rental car and climb the ramp of this ferry, thinking it is the SuperJet Sea Jets ferry to Piraeus.  However, I’m turned away on the ramp when I show my ticket.  I’m told to join the hordes of people lined up inside a l0w-slung building at the opposite end of the port. This ferry, shown in the picture below, is similar to the one I took from Crete to Santorini.  It is apparently the SLOW ferry.  I’m to take the FAST ferry tonight.   FAST being 5 hours from Santorini to Piraeus.

this is the Sea Jets SLOW ferry

At about 6:30 p.m., the SuperJets ferry comes speeding into the dock like Superman on steroids. Within moments of its arrival, hundreds of us are lined up and boarding, tossing our suitcases into the hold and taking our seats. It has been quite windy all day in Santorini and the boat is rocking as it sits on the dock.  The light is waning as it’s getting close to sunset.  We board and within minutes the boat is underway.  Like airline hostesses, the boat crew goes through detailed instructions about what to do if the ferry sinks.  They warn that there will be rough seas tonight and so they expect a lot of “health problems.”  They point out a huge collection of vomit bags at the front of the ferry and in the pockets behind each seat.

the Triton Hotel in Piraeus

The rest of the evening, I experience the most torturous and miserable five hours I have ever spent on a boat.   The wind is whipping the sea into huge angry waves.  The boat rocks violently, like one of those carnival rides that lurches you side to side and forwards and backwards and up and down.  Immediately, people around me are vomiting into their little foil-lined paper bags.  I’m sitting next to a couple from Russia who say we should keep our eyes on the horizon.  We do so, unrelentingly, but soon the sun sinks below the horizon and there is nothing but blackness to look at.  There is nowhere to anchor our eyes or to keep our bearings.

a cozy place to rest after the lurching boat ride

All around me people are either actively vomiting or they are grasping their stomachs with a green and sickly glow on their faces.  Luckily, I didn’t eat much before getting on board, just a light Greek salad, so even though I’m highly uncomfortable just from the lurching, I never actually feel sick.  Thank goodness!  However, there is nothing to do to make the time pass.  It’s impossible to sleep with this extreme motion, and reading a book would just contribute to the motion sickness.  The ride seems like an eternity.

We do make one stop, an hour after leaving Santorini, at Folegandros.  Some people had already arranged to get off here.  One guy, a couple of rows up from me, who has gone through countless vomit bags, decides to get off even though he intended to go all the way to Piraeus.  Once we leave Folegandros, we are captive on this nightmare boatride for the next 4 hours.

the sumptuous breakfast buffet at Hotel Triton

Now, I understand why everyone was warning me not to take the fast ferry in tonight’s “weather.”  I ignored such sage advice at my peril!

Finally, at around 11:30 p.m., we arrive at Piraeus.  Everyone practically runs to get off the boat.  I’ve never been so happy to see land again!  Before leaving Santorini, I made arrangements to stay at the Triton Hotel in Piraeus.  When I asked directions on the phone before leaving, they said there are no street names, but the hotel is within walking distance.  They told me they were located directly behind the tallest building surrounding the port.  When I get off the boat, I look around and set my sights on the tallest building.  I find it and head for it.  Sure enough, there is the Hotel Triton, right behind it.

the port at Piraeus

It’s really a nice hotel for the price of 50 euros.  It’s clean and artfully decorated.

Sunday, September 9: In the morning, I find the hotel has a huge breakfast buffet.  I help myself to coffee, eggs, and numerous pastries; I pack my bag, and walk down to the port to take a few pictures.  Again, though I plan to take the metro back to the Acropolis View Hotel, I find a taxi there for 15 euros.  I take it, once again succumbing to the easy route.  Finally, I’m back home at the Acropolis View Hotel.

the port of Piraeus in Athens ~ the morning after

Back to the mainland for five more days….

bidding adieu to santorini

Saturday, September 8:  This morning I take my time checking out of Villa Galinia.  The ferry for Athens doesn’t leave until 6:40 this evening, so I have a long day ahead.   I linger over breakfast, reorganize and re-pack my suitcase with all my new purchases, and then go back into Fira, where I take a little walk through the white-washed village one last time.

All day today, the wind is howling and whistling over the island, a bright & cheery tempest.  I wonder if this is the “weather” that the tour company warned about when I decided to take the fast ferry tonight.

me at Mama’s Restaurant

I stop for lunch at Mama’s House, a Rick Steves-recommended restaurant.   According to Steves, this is a good budget choice with unpretentious Greek fare.  I order some tzatziki, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic appetizer, and some eggplant rolls.   As these are both “starters,” I figure it will be okay to eat two things, but as always, I’m surprised by the portion sizes.  They are both delicious, but, along with the bread that comes with the tzakziki, I can barely make a dent in the meal.

Eggplant rolls

I have plenty of time to kill, so I drive back to Oia, where I saw a cool painted cross I want to buy.  I walk around the town, find the little cross which is hand-painted by the shop’s owner, and take some more photos.

views in Oia

Oia church domes

another Oia church

me, hot and tired in Oia

On my way back, I take the route along the outer edge of the island, where I see vineyards, beaches, and a hill covered in windmills.  It’s quite a lovely drive out in the country, away from the tourist crowds of Oia and Fira.

windmills on a hillside on the outer edge of Santorini

Finally, I return to Villa Galinia, where I sit by the pool for a while, whiling the hours away.  Finally, I go to the little “Restaurant” in Akrotirion, where, since I’m barely hungry, I eat a colorful Greek salad with tomatoes, onions, olives and feta cheese.

my dinnertime restaurant in Akrotirion

the colorful restaurant in Akrotirion

Greek salad with feta, olives, onions & tomatoes

Finally, at around 6:00, I head to the new port to take the speed ferry to Athens.  I’m sad to leave the islands and return to the mainland, especially because there are so many other islands I would love to explore.  Of course, I know I’ll have fun on the mainland too, although it will be a different vibe altogether.

Little do I know what a torturous evening awaits me.

my last sunset in santorini ~ stani in fira

Friday, September 7:  After relaxing by the pool at Villa Galinia, and exploring a bit of Akrotírion, I head into Fira for my last sunset view.  So far I have seen the sunset from Akrotírion and Oia;  tonight, my last night in Santorini,  I will see it from Fira.

Stani Tavern

I eat at Stani Tavern with its “sunset & volcano view.” I’m actually a little disappointed with this view, because I get here late and so am seated behind a bunch of couples.  The restaurant is small, and it’s difficult to get a uninterrupted view without intruding on these other diners.  Also, because this evening the wind has whipped up quite a bit, the restaurant has pulled a plastic cover over one side of the outdoor patio.  This also hinders the view.

my obstructed view of the sunset in Fira… oh well!

It’s still a pleasant atmosphere, even though I don’t get many good pictures.  I do get to peruse the menu though, and I find this unintelligible transliteration which hints at some wise folk saying:

a lantern on a table in Stani, overlooking Fira

The three characteristics of Santorini old people used to say as following:
the churches more many of the houses
the donkeys more many of the persons and
the wine more very from water
I don’t know for the two first but
the last one sure remains is in effect

I’m not sure exactly what they’re trying to say, but it seems it is complimentary toward wine.  If so, I’m in agreement!

me at Stani Tavern, my last night… 😦

I order tagliatelle with fresh salmon, which is good but quite heavy.  I also have my normal glass of red wine.  After dinner, the waiter brings me a complimentary sweet drink called Mastika.  This is a liquor seasoned with mastic, a resin gathered from the mastic tree, a small evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean region. The name of the resin is derived from the Greek “to chew, to gnash the teeth” (Wikipedia).

tagliatelle with fresh salmon

After dinner, I walk through the bright and lively lanes of Fira, stopping into shops here and there.  I end up buying a cool bracelet with a Greek symbol on it.

a funky jewelry shop in Fira

Then I go into a colorful shoe shop where I buy two pairs of Greek-style sandals, one silver and one red.  Like I really need to buy any more of ANYTHING to lug around in my suitcase for another week.

a shoe store in Stantorini

I return to Villa Galinia for my last night in Santorini, where I read until I fall asleep.  All night long, I toss and turn, alternating between my contented dream world and the real world outside my window ~ of howling wind, banging shutters, frantic wind chimes, and rushing water overflowing from the pool.  Though fitful, it’s not unpleasant. Not unpleasant at all.

I’ll be so sad to leave Santorini tomorrow.

akrotírion: a lively cemetery, churches, and caldera views {santorini}

Friday, September 7:  I return from the volcano trip to Villa Galinia, where I sit by the pool and relax, and then head out to explore Akrotírion.  I find a beautiful little church with a colorful and lively (!) cemetery out back.   It’s obvious that this little cemetery is well-tended by friends or relatives of the deceased who want to keep the memories of their loved ones alive!

I feel a lot of joy visiting this cemetery.  What a dichotomy, to find such a celebration of life in a place inhabited by the dead.

Click on any pictures below to see a full-sized slide show.

I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go when the volcano blows… {Nea Kameni & Palia Kameni}

Friday, September 7:  Today I take a traditional boat to visit the two active volcanoes at Santorini.  Before that though, I head to Fira, where I finally, 8 days into my trip, buy a SIM card for my phone.  This will make things easier here, say, when I get lost or when I need to arrange tours or transportation or accommodation.  Finally, I feel like I’m a local!  I also buy a new camera card, because I’m so worried something will happen to my camera and I will lose all my pictures.  I have decided I will divide my pictures between 2 cards.  If I lose my camera, or drop it by accident into the sea, then at least I’ll have half of my pictures.  You can see what a worrier I am sometimes.   I also stopped in my favorite internet cafe in Fira to reserve a room near the Piraeus port, where my speed ferry will arrive close to 11:30 p.m. tomorrow night.

Going down the cable car to the old port

our traditional boat

a colorful crowd onboard!

I take the cable car down to the old port, where tourists of all nationalities pile into a traditional boat which takes us to Nea Kameni.   Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni (the new and old burnt islands) were formed over the past two millennia by repeated eruptions of lava and ash (Wikipedia). Major eruptions over the past 300 years took place in 1707–1712, 1866–1870, 1925–1928, and 1939-1941. The last small eruption happened in 1950.  Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera.

Oia in the distance

approaching the active volcano of Nea Kameni

coming in to dock at Nea Kameni

We’re quite a colorful assortment on this lovely traditional boat.  I love the feeling of being on a boat, bobbing over the waves with the smell of salt in the air.  It’s fun to see Santorini’s caldera from the water, with its white villages of Fira and Oia perched on the cliff edges. We arrive at Nea Kameni, climb over 5 other traditional boats at the dock and then up a gravelly path toward the first of three craters.

the path from the boats to the volcano craters

our guide with the black curly hair

the first inactive crater

The first and second craters we see are not active, but the third one, called King George III, is.  There is a small sulfur vent near the top of the crater that our guide tells us to put our hands over, to feel the steam.

King George III crater ~ still active

the view of Fira from Nea Kameni

Our guide tells us that geologists have instruments set up all over the volcano, which is a protected scientific site.  They can predict when the volcano will erupt, but not how big the eruption will be.  She says, however, that a greater threat is the volcano of Columbo, about 7 km off the coast of Oia; it lies submerged 16 meters under the sea.  Because this volcano is unable to release its steam, scientists are more worried about what this volcano might do.

a view of Palia Kameni next door

traditional boats docked at Nea Kameni

Our guide tells us that Santorini is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption, which occurred some 3600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of meters deep.

cute little yellow boats near the “hot springs” of the other active volcano

everyone jumps off the boat and swims to the warm cove…

She also tells us the Minoans knew there was going to be a volcanic eruption from the frequent earthquakes, so they tried to escape. However, the theory is that a big tsunami killed them all either on their way to Crete or when they arrived in Crete.  They believe this because, though many ancient ruins are found on Santorini, no skeletal remains have been found.

swimmers galore

getting ready to climb back aboard after our little swim

After our tour of Nea Kameni, we climb on the boat again and head to Palia Kameni.  Here there are “hot springs” where we can swim.  It’s not actually that hot, only 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit) versus a temperature of 20 degrees (68 F) in the sea.  It’s basically just a small cove.  We all jump off the boat into the sea and swim into the cove, where the “warmth” is barely noticeable.  It is a lot of fun, though!  And refreshing after our hot trek up to the craters of Nea Kameni.

back at the old port

After our swim, the boat heads back to the old port of Fira.  The wind has become fierce and the waves much more choppy since we departed this morning.  We lurch over the waves until we finally disembark at the port.

Going to see the volcanoes, I can’t help thinking of the lyrics of Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano.”

But I don’t want to land in the New York City
I don’t want to land in Mexico
I don’t want to land on no Three Mile Island
I don’t want to see my skin aglow
I don’t want to land in Comanche sky park
Or in Nashville, Tennessee
I don’t want to land in no San Juan airport
Or in Yukon Territory
I don’t want to land in no San Diego
I don’t want to land in no Buzzard’s Bay
I don’t want to land on no ayatollah
I got nothing more to say

I don’t know
I don’t know
I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go when the volcano blows

I do know where I’m a-gonna go after this volcano trip.  I’m going back into Fira for a gyro sandwich filled with veggies and cold French fries and a Coke Zero, and then I’m a-gonna head back to Villa Galinia to relax by the pool.

gyro & Coke Zero after our volcano trip

the famous oia sunset. {chapter five}

Thursday, September 6:  Finally, I make it to the western tip of Oia to see the fabulous sunset.  According to Wikipedia, “the famous Oia sunset, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the world, keeps tourists flocking down to the castle, waiting for the moment when the sun slips down on the calm sea of the caldera.  In the evening hordes of people arrive simply to watch its sunset. Every available seat, wall, step or patch of ground is occupied and picnicking while watching the sunset is almost de rigueur.”

me in Oia for its famous sunset

I find a spot to stand and watch the sun sink slowly into the sea. Because I stopped for dinner at Skala, I’m too late to grab one of the prime views, but it’s lovely just the same.

sunset in Oia

Here is my gallery of Oia at sunset.  Click any of the photos in the gallery to see a full-sized slide show.

dinner at skala in oia {chapter four}

Wednesday, September 6:  After my shower at Villa Galinia, I head to Oia, AGAIN, to try to see the sunset.  This time I will arrive about an hour before; I hope to stake out a good seat at Skala, a lovely outdoor cafe overlooking the caldera, and hopefully, the sunset.

Skala

I arrive in plenty of time and take a seat at Skala, the Lonely Planet-recommended cafe that has an amazing view.  However, as soon as I arrive, I notice that, though the view is stupendous, it will NOT give me a view of the sunset.  As Skala sits on the inside edge of the northernmost tip of the caldera, it looks south.  The sunset will be further at the western tip of Oia.

I will need to eat and run.

in Skala Restaurant

the colorful Skala

Skala

I order red wine, as always, and some pasta with tomatoes and capers.  It is quite light and delicious; I love the taste that capers give to any dish.  They are so refreshing and tangy.

pasta with tomatoes, onions and capers

The waiter never offers me bread, nor is he very friendly at all.  I wonder what it is these people think of a single woman coming into a restaurant.  Do they look at me as an annoyance, someone who will probably order small quantities of food, and thus not spend a lot of money?  Or do they look at me as if I’m some person with a disfiguring or contagious disease?  Leprosy, perhaps?  Maybe they think my solitude is infectious, that if they interact with me too much, they will “catch” my single state.  I have to say by this time in Santorini, I am starting to get annoyed by the “romance” of it all.  By the couples holding hands, hugging each other, taking pictures together, zipping along the roads on their ATVs, arms wrapped around each other.  I’m annoyed by the prevailing attitude here that two is better than one.

I love the colors in Santorini!

As I sit and enjoy the fading light of the setting sun over Oia and the caldera, I notice a couple having a problem with their food.  Though they are getting ALL the attention from the waiter (I am being virtually ignored…), the young woman apparently finds something in her food and calls the waiter.  I can’t tell what it is (a bug?  a hair?), but there is a discussion going on, which I can’t really hear, but seems quite animated.  Finally, the young lady gets up and leaves the restaurant in a huff.  Her baffled partner apologizes to the waiter for her outburst and then follows suit.

the view from Skala…

I understand people being upset to find foreign bodies in their food, but unless the wait staff is really rude, or neglectful, I wouldn’t raise a big stink like this woman did.  I would quietly point out the problem, and wait for them to resolve it.  Some people are just so finicky about their food!  And rude to boot.

I, the quiet, ignored customer, enjoy my food in solitude, ask for the check, and quickly make my escape to try to find the perfect point to watch the sunset.

the “contagious” single woman 🙂

red beach near akrotírion

Thursday, September 6:  The only beach I visit in Santorini is Red Beach, near Ancient Akrotiri, with its high red cliffs.  I’m actually not much in a beach mood here; for some reason I’m most interested in just admiring the landscape and the whitewashed villages.  But while here, I figure I should check out some of the beaches on the east and south coasts of Santorini.

Red Beach

Red Beach looks interesting enough, but for some reason doesn’t entice me for a swim.  I climb around a promontory over a rocky path and check it out.  Then I leave.  Would you be enticed to go swimming at this beach?

After checking this out, I return to Villa Galinia to have a beer on the deck, take a shower, and then head back to Oia for its spectacular sunset.

Click on any pictures in the gallery to see a larger slide show.

the lively village of fira {santorini}

Thursday, September 6:  Today I head to the stunning village of Fira, the capital of the island of Santorini, as well as its most central and important village.  It is also the most crowded village on the island, brimming with tourists of every nationality.

the view down toward the old port (& the cruise ships) from Fira

Fira “tumbles into the sea”

colorful flowers appear to be in holiday mood in this romantic village

On my way to Fira, I stop at a travel agent I pass along the way, where I book a tour for tomorrow morning to see the volcano.  I also book the speed ferry (5 hours) going back to Athens for the early evening of Saturday, September 8.  The travel agent tries to convince me to take the slow ferry, warning:  “It’s not good to take the fast boat because of the weather.”  I look around and see nothing but sunshine, warmth and blue skies; I can’t imagine what might be the problem.  I stick with my fast ferry decision.

green umbrellas and the Mediterranean Sea 🙂 What could be happier?

blue doors into private passageways

Fira is perched on the edge of an impressive multicolored cliff and offers a great panorama over the submerged volcano. Multitudes of white-painted houses sit on stepped streets beside blue-domed churches and sun-bathed verandas.  Plateia Theotokopoulou (Theotokopoulou Square) is the main square of Fira and is where all the locals meet. The narrow winding streets are filled with all kinds of cafes, restaurants, bars, night clubs, art galleries and shops selling gold jewelry, scarves, shoes, clothing, paintings, pottery and every other kind of imaginable souvenir.

pink flowers add an exclamation point to the blue & white architecture (!!)

I want to float in this sea!

pretty bannister 🙂

Early in the 19th century the capital of the island was moved from Pyrgos to Fira. After the earthquake of 1956 a part of the town was destroyed (only a small part of the 18th century buildings were saved).

motorbikes and wrought-iron gates

another church in Fira

white & blue with wrought-iron fence

I wander through the streets, stopping at the Catholic Cathedral, the Orthodox Cathedral, and numerous cute shops.  I locate the cable car, which I will need to take tomorrow morning to get to the old port for my volcano tour.

village of white

one of many domes in Fira

I’m awestruck by the spectacular scenery, the pristine lanes and dwellings, the royal blue domes mirroring the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea. I’m drawn into shops full of colorful goods and want to buy them all. I don’t know why, but I always have the urge to “own” beauty, but of course, it is an impossible and bottomless desire to fulfill.  I buy some scarves and a colorful embroidered bag that the shopkeeper tells me is made in Thailand.  Everywhere I go, I encounter the global nature of the marketplace.

another idyllic setting

I wonder if people who live here become immune to the beauty of this place, like many of us do when we live in a place, day in and day out.  I’m only here for 4 days, so I can’t imagine growing bored with it.   My overall feeling is awe.  I am awestruck.  I’m also at peace, loving the lifestyle, the easy-going pace.  I think I could stay here for a good long time.

another church dome… 🙂

grape arbor at the opening to a restaurant

The only drawback is the crowds of tourists.  I’m sure August is worse than September, but the crowds still linger this month.  Mostly there are couples in this romantic place.  Middle aged couples close to me in age.  Or young exuberant and beautiful couples, holding hands, infatuated with one another and with this romantic place.  I feel like I’m in a romance, but not with a person.  With the mood, the atmosphere, the scenery, the lifestyle. With Greece.

reminds me of Italy with its peeling paint…

niches and pottery

donkey and cart

me with the local artwork!

However, I find myself yearning for more. This is one time that I wish I was here with the love of my life.

further along the village path

enigma cafe

local artwork

pretty umbrellas

the museum of prehistoric thera {fira, santorini}

Wednesday, September 6:  The Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira, Santorini displays amazing finds that were excavated from Ancient Akrotiri, the Minoan outpost that was buried during the volcanic eruption of 1650 B.C.  To date, only 5% of this area has been excavated.  The museum houses stunning frescoes, ceramics and a gold ibex figurine, about 10 cm in length and dating from the 17th century B.C.

There is a model of the plan and architecture of the city and its organization as an urban center.

a model of Ancient Akrotiri

A wall painting of blue monkeys depicts the Theran landscape in shape and colors.  The blue monkeys, foreign to the Aegean, clamber on the rocks, moving freely in all directions.  All are depicted in profile except one, which is shown in frontal view, a bold rendering in Aegean wall paintings.  (Information from a placard at the Museum.)

The wall painting of the monkeys, a masterpiece by an avant-garde painter, combines a certain restraint in color and drawing of the natural landscape with freedom of composition, intense movement, varied poses and a registering of the momentary, thus creating an atmosphere that realistically conveys the monkeys’ character.  This indicates the painter must have had a direct image of the animals, which would have been imported to the Aegean from the Eastern Mediterranean.

the painting of the blue monkeys

The other impressive find is the gold ibex.  It was discovered in 1999 in mint condition inside a wooden box, inside a clay chest, next to large piles of pairs of horns, mainly of goats.  It is still too early to draw conclusions about the figure’s significance.    It is one of the few items of wealth left by the Minoans in their flight from the volcanic eruption; most everything found so far are household items that the Minoans would have abandoned because they didn’t have much value.

the gold ibex found at Ancient Akrotiri

Below is a gallery of some other impressive and beautiful household items excavated from Ancient Akrotiri. The collection includes fossils of plants that flourished before the human habitation of Thera; Neolithic pottery; Early Cycladic marble figurines, pottery, and metal artifacts; Middle Cycladic pottery including bird jugs decorated with swallows; plaster casts of furniture, household equipment, bronze vessels, tools and weapons; and magnificent wall painting ensembles or fragments.  There are also numerous clay vases.

Click on any of the images to see a full-sized slide show.

sardines & caper leaves at a cafe with a view {fira, santorini}

Thursday, September 6:  I make a stop at yet another lovely outdoor cafe called Mama Thira Taverna, about midway between Fira and Firostefani. I’m enticed by the cool display out front and by more promising views of the caldera and the sea.

the enticing display in front of Mama Thira’s

octopus on display… 🙂

I order sardines with caper leaves, and as I wait, I sit and enjoy the view.  The waiter, a Greek-Australian, is quite friendly.  I’m a little confused because he looks Greek, but perfect English comes out of his mouth.  He tells me he went to high school in Greece but was brought up in Australia, so he speaks both Greek and English fluently.  He also tells me he lives and works in Santorini for 6 months and then in Athens for 6 months.  His room here, a small room he shares with someone else, is “adequate,” but he is now quite homesick for his nice home with rooftop terrace in Athens.

Mama Thira Taverna

Mama Thira Taverna and the Greek-Australian waiter

I am so used to having lunch or dinner in utter silence, so it’s nice to have a little conversation with a local.  I am feeling on the outside of things in Santorini because it seems to be such a “couples-only” place.  I imagine I would also feel this way in Italy, which I imagine to be the epitome of romance.  I have avoided traveling to Italy in my single state because I’m afraid I would feel sad there, watching everyone else in love and me not having anyone.  I keep waiting until I have a romantic interest to go there; I hate to think I may never go!  I guess if I get to be 80 years old, and I still haven’t found anyone, I will go.  Maybe I won’t care I’m alone because I’ll be too old!

the view from my table

Anyway, I eat all my sardines, which I thoroughly enjoy.  It’s weird; I’ve only ever had sardines out of a can, and these are quite different.   After I’m done, the handsome waiter comes to pick up my plate.  He says, “You didn’t like the caper leaves?”  I say, “What?  These?  I’m supposed to eat these?”  (They just look like decorative leaves to me!) He says, “You should try them.”

sardines with caper leaves

I do.  They are cool, refreshing, like the slight breeze dancing over this brilliant village on the edge of the aquamarine sea.  Why is it that certain things stand out like an oasis in a parched desert?  These caper leaves have the flavor of capers themselves, but with an intriguing twist.  Every bite is enticing and delectable.  They are like cool mint in my mouth, so fresh!  How, I think, how can I be so excited about a leaf?  Is it just the setting, the breeze, the sun glimmering on the sea below?

a cafe with a view

There are certain tastes that will always be intertwined with experiences in my life.  Dill in Cappadocia, Turkey; gelato in Provence; green onions and Asian sauces in Vietnam… the list goes on.  These caper leaves are one of those things.  I’ve never had them before and my introduction to them here in Santorini will always be memorable.   I imagine anytime I have them again, I will be transported back to a lazy afternoon at Mama Thira Taverna.  Fira.  Santorini.  Greece.

Oh happy day!

the orthodox metropolitan cathedral in fira

Thursday, September 6: The Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral in Fira sits prominently towards the bottom of the town and can be seen from many points of Santorini.

Rolling arches surround a courtyard filled with gardens and there is also an impressive bell tower. The curves of the arches are mirrored in the design of the dome above.

There is a nice mosaic on the outside of the cathedral but close inspection reveals it only dates from 1975.  No photography is allowed inside, so I’m sorry I can’t show you the beautiful interior.

Click on any of the pictures below to see a larger slide show.

the catholic cathedral of saint john the baptist in fira

Thursday, September 6:  This morning I started my explorations of Fira.  I came upon the Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.

This cathedral is in great contrast to many of its Byzantine neighbours. The peach exterior. as well as its size, makes it stand out from afar. There is also a wonderfully ornate clock tower within which are also bells.  The inside is just as decorative with large religious portraits framed with pillars. The dome from the interior is lilac blue and other parts are colored orange and cream.  The cathedral is not that old; it was restored and opened in 1975 after suffering from the earthquake of 1956.

Click on any of the photos to see a full-sized slide show.