Friday, November 10, 2006

Debbie and Dan's 2006 Big Fat Greek Journey

Getting There
The entire 2-week trip – including the cost, which was not insignificant – was passing before my eyes. Due to weather in the New York area (it doesn’t matter what kind of weather; any weather will do it - in this case it was a drop or two of rain), our flight to Newark was delayed by over 2 hours, which would cause us to miss our connection to Frankfort, along with our subsequent flights to Paris and then Athens. Our options? Go ahead and begin missing connections or wait until tomorrow. This latter one wasn’t really an option because we would then miss the beginning of the tour and have to hook up with the group in faraway (from Athens) Kalambaka. God knows how we’d manage that.

So we chose the first option and decided to beg for mercy to anyone wearing a Continental uniform. The third try did it. A lady at the Customer Service Desk spent over an hour with our complicated itinerary and made it sensible and doable. We went straight from Newark to Paris, bypassing Frankfort altogether, and then on to Athens. Not only did this work, it even did so for our luggage as well!

We met our Tour Director, Gordon Spicer upon checking into the Acropolis Select Hotel. Ate moussaka for dinner at God’s Restaurant. Really.

The city tour of Athens was pretty good. We saw the Panathenic Stadium, used for the first modern Olympic games in 1896, as well as for the 2004 Games’ Marathon finish. We saw the ancient Theater of Dionysis (the god of wine) at the base of the Acropolis, and of course the Acropolis itself.

Acropolis means hill-city, and many ancient Greek cities have them. But when we talk about The Acropolis, we’re talking about the one in Athens. At the top are a few temples in various states of repair, the most famous being the Parthenon. The size and scale of the Parthenon are amazing. It had survived intact for 2,000 years, until bombing in a war between Turkey and Italy caused the roof to collapse. The state of disrepair actually seems to add to its allure. There is a beautiful view of all of Athens from the Acropolis as well. We had seen the top and the Parthenon all lit up the night before.

Why did the Ancient Greeks build so many ruins? This actual query is to be the title of Gordon’s someday-to-be-written book. Even after 37 years of being a tour director, he never ceases to be amazed at the people who take these tours. He’s already assured us that we’ll be in the book as well. Although he’s funny at times, Gordon does seem efficient and competent so far.

It is a long bus ride from Athens in the south to Kalambaka in the north. Along the way we passed Marathon, where the first one took place, the plains of Thessaly, featuring miles of cotton, mountains galore, etc. Once in Kalambaka, Debbie and I dined with Margaret and Peter from the UK and Bernie and Linda from Australia.

Meteora is the site of several monasteries near Kalambaka. These Orthodox monasteries are perched atop huge rocks in unfathomable ways. Looking up at them from town, my initial thought was that we could never, in a bazillion years, drive to anywhere near them, but drive near to them we did, and in a bus no less. We toured the Varlaam and Bapbapac monasteries and also stopped at a third one. The views were great from up there; it was not unlike Yosemite. This and other things were good topics of conversation with our new friends from California, Jack and Glorina. Although it was still called a monastery, Bapbapac was actually a nunnery. One of the nuns made sure that all the women who entered were wearing skirts or dresses covering the knees; a wrap could be borrowed if necessary. No one tried to sneak by her for fear of getting slapped with a ruler.

Of course the best part of today’s visit was that I was able to tell anyone who’d listen about my friend who actually joined one of these monasteries. You know, the one that was so strict that the monks were only allowed to speak two words every ten years. After ten years of extremely hard, backbreaking work, my friend went to the head monk and exclaimed, “Hard work.” The head monk replied, “OK. We will note your comments. Now go back to work.” After another ten years of toil, my friend said, “I’m tired.” The head monk replied, “Noted. Now get back to work.” After yet another 10 years, my friend said, “I quit.” The head monk replied, “I’m not surprised. You’ve done nothing but complain for thirty years.

After the monasteries, it was on to Delphi, back in the southern part of Greece. So far we seem to have had moussaka and a Greek salad, complete with a liter of olive oil, every day of the trip.

The modern village of Delphi is very nice. Much of the town has a great view of the gulf of Corinth. The Delphi archeological site is most beautiful and serene. Debbie and I walked a long way from the area of Apollo’s Temple to see the famous three columns of the rotunda. We were the only ones there, and it was very quiet and peaceful. We could see why the area had religious significance for the ancient Greeks.

The Oracle of Delphi was actually a series of women who told fortunes for the ancient Greeks; anyone up to and including kings. Legend has it that the Oracle would hear the request and then enter the nearby cave for inspiration before returning to tell the fortune. It is now believed that the Oracles experienced hallucinations resulting from gasses within the cave.

“Calimara” means “good morning” in Greek. I must remember not to wish anyone “calamari”, which means squid. We ate some calamari for lunch at a nice place on a typical Mediterranean beach. Then it was across the bridge to the Peloponnesian peninsula. There are mountains everywhere in Greece. It seems a bit like California in this way, and unfortunately it also has the smog, especially in the south. By evening we made it to Olympia to stay at the Olympia Palace. It’s the nicest of the hotels we’ve been at. The food and location were great, and it’s just a short walk to the Olympic site.

This is the place where it all began in 776 B.C. The ancient games were held every four years for over a millennium. Pope/Roman Emperor Theodosius I put an end to them in 394 A.D. I find it interesting that the Greeks kept track of the years by the Olympiad along with the name of the winner of the sprint from that year. As we walked through the awesome tunnel and into the original stadium, I couldn’t help but get some goose bumps. Of course I had to take a run back and forth on the approximately 200-meter course. Other folks eventually got the idea to do so too. By mutual consent, we all decided not to run naked like the Greeks did.

Nearby is the ruins of the temple to Olympian Zeus, which contained one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a giant gold and marble statue of Zeus. It was destroyed by the same Emperor Theodosius I who put an end to the games. What a guy.

Our tours of these places is falling into a pattern set by Gordon: get an early wake-up call, go to breakfast early, get the luggage ready and out of the room early, and get on with the site-seeing early. Although there is some grumbling, everyone realizes that getting to these sites early is extremely important. We are beating all the huge crowds that are just beginning to arrive in caravans of tour busses just as we are leaving. The crowds, not to mention the heat, must be really awful in the summer. Speaking of heat, we’ve had wonderful weather: the days have been sunny and the temperatures have ranged from about 45 to 50 at night to 65 to 70 during the days. Yes, this is the time to go.

We can’t help but believe that the ancient Greeks, or at least the Romans who followed, had better plumbing than the modern Greeks do. Most toilets are somewhat functional, except for a few places where they are literally just a hole in the ground. The hotel showers are a topic of conversation for everyone though. So small that one can’t turn around; made so that the water floods into and all over the tiny bathroom; shower curtains that wind up sticking to your body; I could go on and on.

Epidaurus and Nafplia
We toured the ancient theater of Epidaurus, which seats 14,000, has fantastic acoustics, and is still used to this day.

The city of Nafplia was our next destination. It is a beautiful town along the sea: very Mediterranean, and a nice place to walk. We ate dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant in an alley along with Peter and Margaret. Glorina and Jack were nearby as well.

Mycenae and Corinth
The Mycenae archeological site is hundreds of years older than the others we’ve seen. It’s famous as the home of Agamemnon who, according to the Iliad, led the Greeks in the Trojan War around 1100 B.C. Parts of the site are older still, and much is still being excavated. We saw the famous Lion’s Gate (amongst the 18-foot wide city walls) and the Beehive tomb. Unfortunately we had a foggy day and couldn’t see much of the surrounding scenery from the Mycenaean acropolis, which we were told was outstanding. Maybe we’ll see it next time we’re around.

We subsequently drove on to Corinth for a brief stop. This is the place where Paul gave his letters to the Corinthians. He obviously didn’t trust the Greek Postal Service.

Once back in Athens, Jack and Glorina, Bill and Jenny from Sydney, Shirley and Ray from Fort Worth, and the two of us all trekked over to the Benaki Museum. A mixture of art and artifacts were there for the viewing. We walked back through the Plaka district and stopped for dinner at a nice outdoor café on a square.

Cape Sounion
Since there was nothing better to do in the morning before the cruise, we took an optional side trip to Cape Sounion. There we saw Poseidon’s Temple, which commands a spectacular panoramic view of the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

That first week sure had been busy – on the go every day. The theory was that once we got on the cruise ship that we’d be able to finally relax in the lap of luxury and high living. Sure, we knew that the MS Perla wasn’t going to be newest and fanciest ship in the fleet, but we went with it because it was priced right through Cosmos, and because it had a great itinerary.

First the good news. The Perla’s food was excellent. We weren’t enamored with the buffet, but the food in the main dining room was great. The ship’s entertainment was also good. The five or six singers and dancers were the same every night except for the occasional magic show, and that was good as well. The best part was that we wouldn’t need to pack and unpack every day; we could unpack and stay put for the week.

The bad news begins with, unpack to where? Our stateroom was literally much smaller than our bedroom closet in our last house. There were a couple tiny drawers and an itsy bitsy closet. The walls were paper thin, so that we could hear everything going on in the three adjacent rooms. My 18-inch bed was against the wall, so that I was only inches away from the guy in the room next to us, and he snored like a grizzly bear. I used earplugs. Modern Greek plumbing being as it is, bad smells emitting from the bathroom drains had Debbie stuffing towels into all of them. I was half expecting us to begin having Oracle-like hallucinations. And leave it to the Greeks to come up with one-sided toilet paper; heaven help you if you use the rough side….

So although we weren’t expecting the Ritz, the ship was still below our expectations. In spite of all this, we were having a wonderful time. This was mostly because we were spending so much time with all our new Cosmos friends. 28 of the original 42 had opted for continuing on with the cruise, and we were almost like a family now; a family with Father Goose, Gordon. A few of these folks that we became very good friends with, besides those already mentioned, include Becky from B.C., Valda from Rotorua, N.Z., Jeff from Oakland, C.J. and Lay Chen from Malaysia, Gail and Joanne from near Brisbane, Joan from Canberra, and (Panama) Jack, along with Sandy and Al from Florida.

“Hit Di Road Jack!” As good as the entertainment was, these Eastern Europeans were not quite Ray Charles’ material. Later one of them gave Greek dancing lessons: “Step, step behind, keek; step, step behind, keek.” We did only some dancing, but the Greek music was just as our old friend Linda Rafalski had described: “The music starts slowly, and then goes faster and faster, as does the dancing. It ends at its fastest, and then everyone yells OPA! Then the next piece begins slowly, goes faster and faster, and everyone yells OPA! Then the next piece begins slowly… and so on.”

To get from Athens to Istanbul, we cruised through the night and much of the next day. We had hoped to arrive in the afternoon in time to get to the Grand Bazaar. Unfortunately for some reason the Turkish government held us from entering the Dardenells straights for several hours and we didn’t arrive until evening.

Arriving after dark, there wasn’t time to see or do much. We took a short walk before discovering that the laser show we were looking for was best seen from the deck of the ship. We managed to get back in time to catch part of it. The show was part of the celebration for the next day’s Turkey Independence Day celebration.

The following morning I got out for a run in which I made an attempt to run from Europe, across a bridge to Asia. The bridge turned out to be further away than it looked, and I had to turn back as I was running out of time. I have never seen so many flags. Big ones and little ones were on display everywhere for the holiday.

Our all-day city tour took us to the Blue Mosque, one of Islam’s largest and most impressive, the Aya Sofia museum, once a huge Christian cathedral dating from the Byzantine Empire and later converted to a mosque, and finally Topkapi Palace, which, along with one piece of our furniture, dates from the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi provides great views of Istanbul, along with relics of Mohammed himself. The jewels on display, including an 86 karat diamond and some equally huge emeralds, put Great Britain’s Crown Jewels to shame.

Turkey has a secular government, and although well over 90% Islamic, is not fundamentally so like several other countries. Our guide covered her head whilst in the Blue Mosque, but explained that even this was optional. About halfway through the day we were walking around when we heard the noon call to prayer blasted from the Blue Mosque’s minarets. It was all pretty exotic stuff.

When you imagine a Greek Island, Mykonos is what you think of. All the houses and other buildings, even the 400 or so churches, are painted white, and the whitewashing must be done a couple times a year. Only some of the trim may contain bits of color. Even the space between the stones on the walkways is white. We strolled through town, stopping at churches, the hill-top windmills, and for the town’s famous pelican (the one that tried to swallow Gail, whole) before the rain began. Glorina, Jack, Debbie and I made it under an awning to wait it out. Soon it was a storm of biblical proportions. We made a run for it when it abated a bit. Our shoes were soaked from having to step through the flooded areas of the streets.

So much for Mykonos. At least we had had a bit of time there to enjoy it.

Yet another of the picturesque Greek Islands is Patmos. We took in some of the scenery before heading to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where John wrote the book of Revelation. The cave is part of an Orthodox Monestary, and a liturgy was taking place at the time, so we had to be quiet and respectful for a change. We did see the large crack in the ceiling that is traditionally thought to have been caused by either God, an earthquake, or both, inspiring the book. I think if I was sitting there and an earthquake caused a crack like that, I’d have a Revelation too.

Kusadasi and Ephesus
After just a few hours on Patmos, we sailed for Kusadasi, on the mainland of Turkey, arriving mid-afternoon. Nearby is the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. The size and scale were enormous; the place must have rivaled Rome itself in its day. We saw a theater similar to the others we’ve been to, a library, a brothel, and everyone’s favorite, the toilets, which still looked usable. Saint Paul preached and wrote (the book of Ephesians) here as well.

Later we went to the Kusadasi bazaar where we were physically pulled into every shop. We wound up bargaining for some leather jackets, but in the end said no because Debbie’s didn’t fit, and I was too afraid of being swindled even though the price seemed great.

Rhodes is a large island, and we spent the day there. In the morning we hopped on a bus and toured the town of Lindos, a beautiful little town along the Mediterranean. It’s been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. The cobblestone steps were so treacherous and slippery that Debbie and many of the others turned back from the trip to the town’s acropolis. Who thought those cobblestones would be a good idea? Could it be one of the Greek master plumbers? Though smaller, this acropolis is not unlike the one in Athens, and it did have wonderful views.

There was another heavy rainstorm, but in the afternoon we walked over to Rhodes Old Town, a medieval walled city within the larger Rhodes city proper. What a great place – it was just like being at a permanent Renaissance or Middle Ages fair. It was also a bit like Prague. The town’s port also once contained the Colossus of Rhodes, a huge statue to welcome incoming ships and another of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Debbie and I managed to get extremely lost and became a bit frightened that we wouldn’t make it back to the ship before it sailed away. A little old local woman figured out that we were off track and pointed the way, and we made it in time.

This would be our final pile of rocks: the palace of Knossis. It is an entire city contained within a single palace, which contained over 1,600 rooms. These rocks were part of the oldest civilization we’d seen yet, that of the Minoan Empire of 4,000 years ago. This empire rivaled that of the Egyptians.

In theory the collapse of the Minoan empire was precipitated by the largest tsunami in recorded history caused by the 1700 B.C. Santorini volcano. The disaster to the Minoans of Crete as well as the civilization on Santorini itself is probably the source of the legend of Atlantis.

We only had a few hours in the afternoon and evening to see this spectacular island. It was certainly the most beautiful of any we’d seen, and that is saying something. The scale of what’s left from the volcano is enormous, and the town is perched high up on the rim. After tendering over to the island, we took a cable car to the top. What a view! Along with Glorina and Jack, we walked for several miles along the rim. The sunset was great from up there.

Yes, we were back to the Acropolis Select for the third time. Time to say goodbye to Gordon, who would soon be married in London. All agreed that he did a great job to enable us to have a wonderful holiday.

Would we relax and brace ourselves for the next day’s long arduous trip? Naaah! Even though we were tired, several of us (Jenny, Bill, Glorina, Jack, C.J., Ley Chen, Becky, Joan and Debbie and I) made our way to the National Archeological Museum via the metro. It was by far the best museum we’d seen. There was the bronze statue of Poseiden, now thought to be Zeus, the golden death mask of Agamemnon and many other treasures. After lunch at a sidewalk café, we walked the long road back. Along the way we ventured through a flea market (it was very similar to the ones in America), a meat market with entire carcasses hanging around, and a fish market. We also walked around the ancient agora, a market place dating from the golden age of Greece. Turned out that I had lied about no more rocks and ruins.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, Debbie had had it. She had succumbed to the cold/flu virus that had been going around. We ate dinner at God’s again and said goodbye to all our friends. We’ll miss them, one and all, for the trip was very much enriched by the experience of having them with us.

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