Friday, September 26, 2014
I spent 2 hours last night writing a post and when I tried to attach some pictures I completely crashed the already sucky Blogger app. So i will try to fix it but probably I'll have to post the rest when I get home. 😞 Vacation is almost over, so it won't be long.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
I finished the last post in the Athens airport. When I checked in for our flight to Athens at Paros, we were for some reason given standby tickets. I was confused by that; I bought them months ago and they weren't the cheap tickets either. I think it was the foreigner tax. Anyway, there was no reason to worry much, there were only 11 people on the 30-something seat prop plane.
After a brief stop in Athens, we caught our flight to Izmir where we caught the train to Selcuk, our stop for the next two days. We rode through some really depressing looking 2 horse towns on the way so we were pleasantly surprised to find that Selcuk was a pretty little college city with lovely parks shaded by Roman aqueducts. Our hotel was in a residential side street that looked a little sketchy, but watching us wander around local girl offered to help and pointed us in the right direction. And the hotel was actually quite lovely with a patio and pool in back.
We got dinner at a cheesy tourist spot that actually was quite good. I had my first lamb in a pot with veggies and yogurt dish (it's a common thing here right after the mince stuffed eggplant). Everything seems to involve eggplant and tomatoes. Steve is in hell. Well, he was in Greece too.
The next morning we walked to Ephesus! That amazing site so completely overrun by tourists you'll want to run screaming. Actually we walked there and arrived before opening. Waiting for them to open, we met some Canadian expats showing their friends around for the day and they assured us that we had a good half hour before the tour groups started showing up. And they were right. We had the place to ourselves (with the Canadians of course) for a good 30-45 minutes where we ran around and took incredible selfies of the library of Celsus with no one around! But then we had to get down to business and do our Rick Steves walking tour and the hordes began descending upon us.
I don't want to sound rude or insensitive but if you have serious problems with mobility because you are seriously obese, need a walker or wheelchair, or are one of those chicks who needs to wear platform flip flops everywhere, then ancient ruins are probably not the right attraction for you. A good number of the hordes were coming off of a cruise ship and it was not pretty. The main path is along the original, well worn stone and marble path, and it is steep and slippery! It's actually easier to navigate uphill, but I can't imagine you could convince most of these folks to walk up a hill.
The highlight of the site for me was the exhibit showcasing the Roman era private houses that have been fairly recently excavated. Not only are they in great shape with intact frescoes and mosaics, but they are being restored and conserved in a far more modern and careful manner than the rest of the site. Also, private dwellings seldom survive like the temples and monuments, so it's an unusual peek into ancient private life. Well, life of the rich anyway. It was a separate admission ticket that none of the package tours included, and it was entirely shaded, so maybe that was really why it was my favorite.
We also managed to see the St. John basilica including the ancient castle on the top of the hill overlooking the city. So, all the sites here have some Christian significance. I don't get it because no one ever made me go to Sunday school and I declined to go voluntarily. So, I think Paul was nearly stoned at Ephesus for proselytizing, which the local makers of trinkets dedicated to the Greek/Roman goddess Artemis took as an affront. And John supposedly brought Mary here and they both lived out the rest of their days at Ephesus. (No mention though of George or Ringo.)
Lots of people come here to do religious pilgrimages. And we noticed something different. Almost all the Asian tourists were Korean. I've seen plenty of Chinese and Japanese tourists every place I've ever visited, but the mobs of Koreans is a first for me. Lots of Koreans are Catholic, so there is the pilgrimage draw for some. But also, one of the nicer Koreans we met told us there is currently a very popular television show in Korea that is set in Turkey and hence lots of young Koreans are coming to Turkey. Weird.
That night we had dinner at the hotel which was a set menu prepared by a local woman. It was pretty good but it was almost the same meal a friend prepared for us before we left on vacation. It involved the mince in eggplant dish. I really noticed that the dish resembles a vagina more than a little bit. I wonder if Turkish women are trying to send a message to their husbands with this one.
The next morning we caught a bus to Pamukkale. It was a really uncomfortable bus, but fortunately it was not such a long journey. We arrived and dropped our bags at our hotel. A lot of people seemed to be only staying the day and taking a bus out that night. We planned to catch an overnight bus the next night. The folks at our hotel were obviously accustomed to this and assured us we could sit in their lobby all day the next day and even swim in the pool and take a shower if we wanted. We headed up to the big draw of the city, and boy was it impressive.
Above Pamukkale is an enormous ancient city that was built upon a natural mineral hot spring. The water is highly calcified and as it bubbles out of the ground and over the ledges of this high spot, it creates striking white terraces. The site is strange because it feels like a water park with ruins. Hieropolis is the name of the ancient Roman city. This is one of the largest site I've ever seen. There's a theater, agora, temple, and sprawling necropolis (cemetery) just to start. Most of it has not been overly restored; the archaeological efforts have been restrained, but still there is just so much there. In the middle is a large concession where you can bathe in the springs. Ancient columns have been left (or moved into?) in the pool for ambience and they call it "Cleopatra's Pool". It was a separate $20 admission, so we declined to bathe, but you can check it out for free and there are lots of cafes around the pool, so we did watch all flavors of foreigners take a dip over a beer. To exit the park, you walk down the terracing. The formations have been encouraged to form pools so it's not all that natural, but it was still great fun. And being in Turkey, you got to watch Saudi women in burqas descend next to Russians in speedos and Italians in skimpy bikinis.
Having finished the main attraction for Pamukkale, we booked a ride out to Aphrodidias the next day. It is so named because their patron deity was Aphrodite. This site is actually pretty magnificent. But I have to confess that by the time we got here I was pretty over ruins. Like Hieropolis, this site was very well preserved and none of the would be preservationists have done anything too damaging. In fact they were taking great pains to reassemble and stabilize the Roman baths (called Hadrian's baths here) and this is the only place I could really visualize what the baths must have looked like. The baths were very important to Roman life. By providing such a decadent respite from daily life to the citizens for almost no money, the Roman emperors probably bought the empire many more decades than it might have otherwise survived. Aphrodisias also has the most intact stadium and it hadn't really been preserved at all.
Returning to town we still had many hours until our bus left. We sat around and read as long as we could stand. Then we went into town and had a little food. We headed over and caught our bus, which came complete with snack and tea service. It was a long night.
We were rewarded for the discomfort when we arrived at our next destination which is a magical fairy land. Or at least looks like one. I will post all about Göreme and Cappadocia next when I have a chance. The surrounding area--most of central Turkey actually--totally looks like the Wild West and I'm not surprised they made a movie called, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" a few years back.
Pictures: Efes by the pool at our hotel in Selçuk (yes, those are half liter bottles); the famous library of Celsus with NO tourists in front but us; the Selçuk Castle by night as seen from the patio at our hotel; walking down the travertine terraces at Pamukkale; ancient stadium at Aphrodisias; and entrance to the temple of Aphrodite.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Thursday, September 11, 2014
(Note: Steve said I am not to discuss relationship secrets after reading my last post so I'm not going to talk about him at all!)
Our first day in Heraklion we picked up our ferry tickets, wandered about, and cooled off. We had an amazing Italian dinner at a tiny restaurant. I think it was the best ravioli and bruschetti I have ever had.
The next morning we went to the ancient site of Knossos, which is the oldest stuff we have visited so far. The site has also become a lesson in how not to do archaeology. Much of it was rebuilt based on the hunches and assumptions of the amateur archaeologist. Well, let's be fair. In the 19th century there were only amateur archaeologists and it was mostly rich northern Europeans who were interested in doing it.
It is such a well preserved enormous site even without the reconstructions, and it's nearly 4000 years old, with deeper layers that are older than that. I have mixed feelings about the reconstructions. It's hard to get excited over looking at a pile of rubble and if nothing was left standing or at least has been reerected, it's very hard to imagine what a site used to look like as a visitor. But lots of reconstruction out of tiny fragments and you start to doubt the authenticity. How much do we really know about what this looked like and how much are we guessing and assuming? It was still fascinating. The Minoans were an interesting people with bull jumping and snake cults and they traded throughout the ancient world.
We also got there right on time before the cruise ship people made it up the hill. We saw the ship dock during breakfast and knew we had to high tail it up the hill! We finished just as they were arriving. Then we headed back to the archaeological museum which was similarly impressive. So many artifacts in really good shape were pulled out of Knossos and the other Minoan sites on Crete that it was truly overwhelming. Knives, endless eating and cooking instruments, jewelry, axes, statues, figurines, graves, frescoes, etc. Many haven't even been cataloged yet and tenacious guards stopped anyone who tried to take a picture of an unpublished artifact.
Next we headed to the market which was similarly flooded with cruise ship people. We ended up having a dinner of beer and sausage at a place we had passed earlier in the day. Because Greek food, while delicious, gets pretty monotonous after a while. Except Greek breakfast which I will never tire of and needs to become a tradition in the states: flaky phyllo or other pastry pies stuffed with delicious cheeses, pork based meats, and spinach and/or tomato. I just ate an enormous one and I could eat another.
The next morning we hopped on our ferry. It was a fast ferry so it was packed and had assigned seating. There was much drama over seats because we were not seated together and there were Russians all around us who didn't know (or care) how the seating worked. We stopped in Santorini first and most everybody got off. It looks amazing, but god those throngs of tourists!
We arrived in Paros about 2. We dropped our things, said hello to our boat captain and explored the medieval town center. It is probably what Chania used to like when not overrun by tourists. This is where much of the marble was quarried to build ancient Greek statuary and monuments. There are Minoan and Mycaenean ruins on the island. And it is one of those places where you feel immediately relaxed. If I spent a week here I would probably melt permanently into the sand. Of course we found more beer and a gelateria that was even better than the one in Nafplion.
Now we are going to get on a small boat with 8 strangers for 6 days. I will post highlights when I can.
Miss you all! S&S
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
So far Crete has been a mixed bag. We were warned by our cab driver when he drove us to our hotel--he said there were LOTS of Scandinavians here. Could be worse, right? He didn't specify that the place was packed tight wall to wall with our brothers and sisters from the great frozen north looking for some sun and, of course, discount shopping (for them, that is).
We got in late on a Ryanair flight. It was an interesting experience. Steve immediately crushed on the red-haired, freckled Irish flight attendant speaking in her lovely Irish lilt. It was a 45 minute flight, so the narrow, non-reclining seats were not an issue. Our baggage met their restrictions, so with the full flight they checked it for free at the gate. In the 45 minutes some people managed to order full meals and the stews were pushing the merch hard. That's obviously how they make a lot of their money.
We got to our pension and although we had reserved months in advance and given them our full flight details they were annoyed to have to meet us and gave us a room that looked like they had been using for storage with 2 rock hard misshapen twin beds. Ugh. Steve was super irritated and tried to get a different room (there or elsewhere) but to no avail--the town was fully booked. And didn't we know it.
Our first day we went on a 4x4 tour of a winery and the White Mountains, which are quite high. We had wine first, which was a winery importing the modern winemaking styles of France and CA to Greece. This was interesting, but not so different from a winery in California. Then we went to a hillside village for a delicious lunch where we learned that the locals are kind of scary! Really, all small town people can be a little scary whether you are in Greece, Mexico, Australia, Oregon, or wherever. But these folks love their guns more than a Texan. And whatever you do, don't turn down any raki they might offer! Cretan cheese is delicious--even better than feta, halloumi, and the other Greek cheeses we are used to. Next we went up to a Shepherd's camp high in the mountains. This was really quite interesting. We didn't see any kri kri, but I didn't realize how rare they were. The mountains were gorgeous. Then we returned to our pension and tourist central.
Chania had come highly recommended by many people. It was cute, and I understand the enthusiasm on some level. It looks like the model for Pirates of the Caribbean. The old town is a maze full of small little pedestrian alleyways lined with boutiques and cafes curving around a ruin of a 16th century Venetian fortress. Sounds wonderful, right? Now cram 50,000 Swedes, Norwegians, Estonians, Fins, and Danes into that same 1 sq km area. Besides the Old Town, Chania also boasts lots of beaches in the surrounding area. Most seemed to be little patches of sand where pale white flesh comes to roast.
I am not a beach person, but I do love the coast and the ocean. I have had some fantastic beach experiences, but for me those are the exception rather than the rule. Good beaches are never ever visible from a major road. Toilet facilities are usually limited and gross. You have to bring lots of stuff with you and then constantly worry someone will steal it while you are swimming or looking the other way (because good beaches are also usually full of petty thieves). And I hate sand. It always gets everywhere. But a truly gorgeous beach, like the one we followed our German friends to in Phuket, or the national seashore in Pensacola (trust me on that one), is worth all the discomfort. The other people I see enjoying the popular beaches don't seem to be nearly as picky or neurotic as me. I just don't get the appeal.
So what I'm trying to say is that Chania is old town tourist hell surrounded by shitty beaches. And the outskirts are a typical 2nd world depressing concrete jungle, which is pretty common for Greece. It is cute and picturesque in parts, but without even welcoming accommodation, we couldn't wait to get the hell out. We did manage a good dinner last night. I had a local specialty which was like a lasagna made with zucchini and potato. It felt good to get some more veggies to balance all that cheese and olive oil. But today we caught the first bus we could out of town to Heraklion.
Heraklion is not as charming, but it has similar labyrinthine streets with hidden cafes and it's not as ham packed with people. We got an excellent lunch with smoked pork and tomato croquettes and then Steve managed to find a place to buy some underwear (minor packing mishap). Then he found a bar where he could get a Negroni, which is apparently his new thing.
And our hotel is much more comfortable. Not surprisingly it is also more expensive. But I prepaid for this one and got a deal on hotels.com, so it's free, right? 😀
- We are so lucky that English has become the default language of travel! I feel like such an asshole for not speaking any other language well.
- We are over a week in and we haven't run in to any Australians! This is a first for us in or travels.
- We are adjusting to Greek style living. It's after 8 and we're not even ready for dinner yet!
- Although we are having a great time, we get on each other's nerves a lot when we are together 24-7 and in unfamiliar environs. So it's not all happy times. But when that happens we have to remember we are on vacation so nothing can be so important to stress and get upset about. I'm constantly working on that!
Miss you all! Hope I have entertained you a little.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Love him or hate him, if you travel to Europe, you can't avoid Rick Steve's. I've heard (and made) plenty of complaints about him. His listings are sparse, his taste might not be your taste, maybe you disagree with his opinions on some things, and there are huge geographic holes in his books. He is biased and doesn't hesitate to say when he doesnt feel something is worth the time. But if you read his books closely before you leave, and combine them with other travel resources, he is there to make your life easier--on some things he is always right.
On this trip I failed to notice several tips that could have made our trip cheaper and easier. But I also caught many tips that amused us and saved us time and effort.
1) Rick said to rent a tiny car. And better yet, rent a diesel. Actually what he said is that he always gets the smallest car. We should have followed his lead instead of the bad advice we got to not rent the smallest car, for the reason that you need power to get up the mountains in Greece. Fair enough. But what they failed to mention is that in Europe, bigger car does not mean more powerful engine. The bigger car (American compact size really; roomy by Greek standards) that we got chugged up the hills like a semi. Also--tiny little roads! Smaller is less likely to get sideswiped! And diesel is everywhere and €.35/liter cheaper than regular, which will add up quickly. Enough said.
2) Rick had all sorts of advice about driving and a heads up on the passing that I failed to see or comprehend before we left. One thing I got: his observation that Greek drivers drive 1/2 the limit or twice the limit. Steve and I laughed over this a lot because it was entirely true.
3) Epidaurus: Rick said this was a boring pile of rubble with an exquisite ancient theater. Precisely right. I know this was an important site for many reasons, but after seeing the theater, nothing else there quite catches your imagination.
4) Athens Archaeological Museum tour: his audio tour got us through the highlights before closing time. Otherwise we probably would have been muddling around not even halfway done as they were kicking us out.
Rick was not correct on opening/closing times anywhere, but thankfully they were actually earlier and later than stated and many things were open every day that previously had not been. So that was fine.
I'm sad that the portion of my adventure that includes Rick is over. If nothing else I already miss his corny jokes buried throughout his books!
Sorry to write so much! We have already done so much that I got carried away. More pictures and less words on Instagram! @cottingh1234 and @stephenlynnw. Our profiles are public but I think you do have to set up an account to view them.
We left Delphi behind and drove to Ancient Olympia on Thursday. Day one of driving hadn't been so bad because it was first on modern toll freeways and then on slow, windy roads which are pretty much the same everywhere. Day 2 in the car introduced me to a new style of driving: highways Greek style. There are 1.5 lanes each direction--in the US that is a 2 lane road with wide shoulders. Here, the shoulder is the "slow traffic" lane with slow defined as anything less than 2x the speed limit. Passing happens constantly and without regard for whether or not passing is allowed in that section. It was a bit troubling at first but by the time we turned in the car today, I too was passing trucks on blind curves and taking the posted limits as a mere suggestion.
The bridge across the gulf of Corinth is SPECTACULAR, by the way. There was nowhere to pull over and take pictures (though Steve got a few as we were crossing), so go and google it now!
We stayed above Ancient Olympia in Ancient Pissa at an adorable pension. Everyplace in Greece is ancient. We were hot from the drive and so we put on our swimsuits and attempted to make use of the pool, only to have clouds roll in, so we went upstairs. The rain stopped quickly, but as the clouds rolled out, 3 families of Italians rolled in and took over the pool. Italians take over every place they go. And they do it stylishly, even if their guts hang over their speedos.
We drank some wine and hung out until dinner. Our pension was known for having a great tavern, so we looked forward to dinner. It was good. But not great. My lamb was amazing. Steve's pork was a little overcooked. But overall, tasty. Wine comes by the liter here and the pitchers of house wine are better than you would think. Then again, I am on vacation, which impairs objectivity on such matters.
Ancient Olympia was fascinating. Every Greek site has layers of history spanning just about 4 centuries and multiple distinct civilizations have left traces. This site was in continuous use for a thousand years of Olympic games. And before and after for other uses. The modern Olympics is not even 150 years old yet.
After we finished with the site and museum it was still early, so we decided to see if we could find a winery the cute girl at the wine bar in Athens gave us information about. A 40 minute drive through the country and tiny villages and we found Mercouri Estates. The woman there was exhausted from long harvest days but poured through their collection for us and I was impressed. All the bottles were about $10 or less. After we finished tasting she pointed us down to a beach. I knew we weren't far from the coast but didn't know it was so close. We hiked down to a lovely secluded little beach. I stuck my feet in the water--Mediterranean? Adriatic perhaps? And then we hiked back up and took pictures of the grapes, an old Citroen parked out back and a lazy Dog du Bordeaux that was their winery dog. We bought 2 bottles of wine and headed back.
We decided to get dinner across town at the best rated place on TripAdvisor. It was a highlight. Although I will say, the pork (the specialty) was still a little overcooked. I'm sensing a theme. Time to move on to chicken. The veggies were all delicious. And key to Greek cooking is to cover everything in an thick layer of fresh olive oil. Don't bother trying this back home. I don't think they export this olive oil. Or it does not taste as good after it crosses the ocean.
We spent a second night in Olympia and then left the next morning for sight seeing enroute to Nafplion. We had a bit of an issue with the GPS that seemed to keep routing us up back roads through little towns only to spill back out onto the same highway we had gotten off of (at the GPS's command of course). We wondered how much time we had lost. The good thing about driving in Greece, though, is that all the road seem to connect. If you take a wrong turn the road will take you to the next town and at worst you travel in a circle (much worse things can happen to you if you get lost in CA). And it's hard to know when you are in fact taking the fast way because sometimes the crappy 2 lane road badly in need of repaving is the only road.
But we made it to ancient Mycenae which I have been dying to visit since college. The lion gate was really impressive. Most of the booty that Schlieman thought was Trojan War era is back in Athens but we had stopped to see that before we left Athens. The intact tomb structure "tomb of Agamemnon" was also very impressive.
Next we went to Epidaurus which has the best preserved ancient Greek theater. Wildly impressive! I'm sure it's not comfortable, but they still have live performances here and the acoustics are amazing. How cool would it be to watch Oedipus Rex in a 2300 year old Greek theater?
Next it was on to Nafplion. By this point we had taken to talking back to the GPS. "No, I'm not turning around. The sign points that way!" (That is when we were being nice.) We pulled into one of the most adorable towns ever. I'm sure Italy is lousy with towns like this. Here is where I really regretted getting the larger car as we attempted to navigate down alleys that could scarcely accommodate 4 full grown adults abreast. So I dropped Steve as far up the road as I felt I could drive with out hitting anything and then I parked the car elsewhere. (By the way, parking is free and more or less legal anywhere you can fit your car in Greece for as long as you care to leave it.) When I returned I found that while our hotel was on that street, reception was at the top about 10 flights of stairs up. Poor Steve dragged our bags all the way up only to then learn that our room was back down on the lowest level.
Nafplion is a cute seaside town full of tourists from abroad and all over Greece. 3 Venetian fortresses surround it and hills, of course. We had a another wonderful dinner of octopus, Greek salad, saganaki (fried cheese) flambé, meatballs, and of course wine. Just .5 liters of wine because we had already consumed one of the bottles we scored at Mercouri. We walked around, window shopped, found the gelato place, and called it a night. Sunday morning we took a morning stroll. It was already getting hot. Time to head back towards Athens to catch our flight to Crete.
We had some time to kill so we asked one of the Zotos brothers (proprietors of our hotel) what we should do on our way to the airport. He recommended stopping in Nemea. I had seen Nemea on the map and secretly really wanted to stop there because that is also the name of our awesome local Greek spot in downtown SJ. So we headed over (wary of the GPS) and explored ancient Nemea. This was the site of yet another of the Pan Hellenic games (there were several). More importantly there are lots of wineries just off the main drag. We found one that looked particularly lively and we totally scored because not only did we get to do a tasting, but they had a barbeque going on and we were hungry. The area is also just simply gorgeous. It's kind of like Paso Robles with ancient ruins and a red roofed/white stuccoed village.
On our way out of town we hit the last stadium (our 4th ancient stadium) for some gorgeous views of the area and headed back to the airport. Driving in Greece is easy once you get used to it, but expensive. We covered about 600 miles and paid about €20 in freeway tolls, a whopping €13.20 bridge toll, and €125 for gas. Not to mention the €200+ rental cost. Having your own wheels in a foreign country: priceless 😁
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
On Wednesday, we picked up our overpriced rental car which was a bit of a challenge. Until we got to Hertz, I had not experienced anything other than extremely helpful warm hospitality in Greece so far. The dude at Hertz sucked. He didn't explain anything, actually didn't want to sell me additional insurance (although I kind of wanted it) and forgot to give us our GPS after we paid for it. I hope his day got better because clearly it had not been going so well up to that point.
Avoiding Athens, driving from the airport with GPS was easy. And that was a good thing because I have not slept much yet and if I had to think it might have been a disaster. We arrived at Delphi a little after 3. It is a gorgeous location! Quaint village perched on the side of a mountain with dramatic sweeping vistas and ancient ruins that everyone has heard of! (Even if everything you know about Ancient Greek history is from Clash of the Titans.) It doesn't hurt that it is 10 degrees cooler and lacking Athens' humidity.
All the attractions were still observing summer hours and were open until 8 so we managed to visit all the sights last night.
Here are some more pictures from our prior night's festivities, the view from our room, and the temple of Athena.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
It's our second day in Athens. We have managed to see most of the major sights--the Acropolis, the Agora, the Plaka, and the Acropolis and Archaeological museums. The neighborhood where we are staying is adorable with coffee shops and bars but far enough away from the party area that it is nice and quiet. And it's walking distance to most things. I can't figure out how to add pictures from the new Blogger app but I will try to update later with photos.
We sampled Greek wines at a wine bar last night. And today we are going on a nightlife tour. Check out Instagram for lots of pictures particularly @stephenlynnw.
OK managed to add some pictures but this still sucks. I attached the Parthenon, a copy of the statue of Athena that used to be in the center of the Parthenon (but the original was gold and 40 feet tall) and possibly the a statue from the Agora if that one attached.