Friday, May 30, 2008

Crete, Part I

After dropping off the car in Athens, we boarded our ferry from the port of Piraeus to start the island hopping portion of our trip! Our first stop is Crete. We were surprised that our ferry looked a bit more like a cruise ship!

Also, we noticed that one of the nearby ships reminded us of our best girlfriend back home:

OK, so it actually looked like this:

But so close! Miss you Ariane!

We even learned it had a pool on the top deck. Excited, we checked it out:

As you can guess, we didn't do any swimming after all! Instead, we decided to have a tea in the "saloon". Because the boat was landing at 6:00am, we called it an early night and retired to the bunks we had rented in one of the ship's cabins.

Once the ferry docked, we had to take a bus from the port of Iraklion to the city we are staying in, Rethymnon. We started to realize just how big the island of Crete is when the bus ride took almost an hour and a half and the cities aren't even on opposite ends of the island!

Our "budget hotel", Hotel Axos turned out to be absolutely gorgeous! We have a huge room with a kitchen, appliances (hooray for toast in the morning!), and a porch looking out to the pool! In addition, the staff is really great as well. It's a family-run business and they've been so wonderful making us feel at home and helping us plan activities. If you're ever in Crete you should definitely stay here!

Yesterday, we caught the bus back to Iraklion and then another city bus to see Knossos, an ancient Minoan palace. We were excited because our guidebooks had told us it was "partially restored".

Unfortunately, the palace wasn't as restored as we had hoped. For example, the "Grand Staircase" looked like this:

After seeing ancient ruins all of the world (Giza, the Acropolis..) we were definitely a bit disappointed.

After Knossos, we checked out Boutari winery, which was nearby. We took a tour and then did a tasting, The wine was delicious and we also learned their growing methods are very sustainable! They handpick all the grapes, use no pesticides, and only use rainwater for irrigation. The production is very small, only about 50,000 bottles are produced per year in the six vineyards they have in Greek and France. I picked up a few bottles, including an "experimental varietal" to bring home. The experimental wine isn't sold anywhere except for the the winery itself. The idea is that people buy it and give their feedback and if it is successful they will put it into production. I didn't get to try it before hand, so it's a bit of a gamble. We'll see when I get home!

When we got back to the hotel, we used our kitchen to cook a delicious pasta with goat cheese and fresh tomatoes. We also had a salad and some fresh bread spread with honey from Mount Olympus. Delicious!

One of the guys who runs the hotel, Manos, invited us to the hotel bar/club because a band was playing. The band played all American cover songs and the bar was packed with all the locals who run the trade industry. We got to hang out with a bunch of them and even got a chance to try the local drink, Raki. Raki is very strong and is made with the leftover grapes from wine production. It tastes terrible and comes in large 1.5 litre water bottles - very sketchy!

All-in-all it was a great night and we're happy to have made some new friends!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Road Trip, Part III

On the way back to Athens from Thessaloníki, we stopped at the famous Mount Olympus to do a bit of exploring. As we saw it in the distance, it's easy to understand why the ancient Greeks thought that it was the home of the Gods and the throne of Zeus. Not wishing to hire a guide and spend an entire day climbing, we instead drove up the mountain as far as the road would take us. Our trusty Hyundai sounded like it was going to kick it as we neared the end but she luckily held out for us as we ended at the Monastery of Agios Dionysios.

As we walked around the monastery, which was in the process of being restored, we were stopped by a Chicagoan lovely couple, Tom and Mary, who were on holiday in Greece visiting family. Tom has family in Litohoro and his brother is a priest who is living at the monastery this summer. Even though they were initially skeptical of our attire of flipflops and sundresses (we had sneakers, but they were left in the car), they invited us on a hike to the holy cave, about a half hour hike from the monastery.

We made it the the cave and admired the altar that had been built there, tucked away under a rock. We also got to drink some holy water, which was cool and refreshing and bubbling right out between the rocks in the cave. Shortly thereafter we saw a frog swimming in the same water, but since it was downstream we figured the blessing still held.

At the end of the trip, Tom and Mary offered us their nephew to take home with us, but we had to decline as our suitcases are already stuffed and we've got 10 days on the islands ahead of us!

Amazingly enough, we arrived back in Athens without a single scratch. We can't believe we put over 1600 kilometers on the car in six days and lived to tell the tale! Looking back on the whole experience we really know we made the right decision renting a car because it gave us the opportunity to see so much more than we would have been able to otherwise. It's interesting to watch the locals' reactions when we tell them how many places we were able to visit without being part of a tour group. It's definitely a mixture of disbelief tinged with jealously followed by them questioning our mental health.

In order to put our journey into perspective for you, we've photoshopped this map to highlight our drive. The thunderbolts indicate places that we've talked about in this blog. Click on the map to look at it at a more legible size:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thessaloníki, Part I

As we wind up our three days in Thessaloníki, we really don’t have much to report. Thessaloníki is a trendy University town on the Mediterranean. Eva and I have decided that this would be a great place to study abroad. We’ve spent our time here just as we intended – relaxing, people watching, and enjoying the weather. Also, we’ve caught up on a few necessary chores – grocery shopping, getting our laundry done, writing in the blog…

Our interest was piqued by all of the locals drinking a coffee drink in the main square – Plateia Agias Sofias – so we indulged in the popular drink of Thessaloníki – the Frappe. This delicious coffee drink comes chilled and sweetened and settles into two distinct layers. We forgot to snap a photo, so we flagged down a delivery boy walking down the street with one so you could get the idea:

We also stopped by one of the many sweet shops in the city to do a sampling.

We also had plans to climb the city's symbol, the White Tower:

Unfortunately, it was under construction and we were out of luck - this seems to be a bit of a pattern for us!

Last night we scored a prime spot at one of the hip bars that line the Gulf of Thessaloníki to people watch and enjoy some Greek wine while watching the sunset. It’s definitely entertaining to check out the local fashion here – there are some hits and some definite misses! For those of you interested in copying European style (ahem, Mark and Ryan) we recommend very tight jeans, fanny packs, and off-center rat tails.

As we were walking along the main street in Thessaloníki, our attention was captured by this sign:

We miss you Ariane!

Today, we drove to Perea, about 45 minutes outside of town to spend the day at the beach. Even though we were warned that the beach would be pretty small and not much to look at; we’ve been craving some time at the sea so we didn’t care! It was nice to have time in the sun and we’re definitely rocking that Mediterranean tan – carefully controlled by our previously purchased $20 bottle of sunscreen of course!

We’ve repacked our suitcases are ready to hit the road again early tomorrow morning. According to the reliable estimates of the locals we’ve talked to, the drive should take between five and eight hours! Tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on a ferry as we cruise the Mediterranean to the island of Crete!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Roadtrip, Part II

Today we woke up refreshed despite sleeping on pillows dense as bricks with bedsheets that felt like sandpaper against our skin. Hotel Metéora (the least expensive hotel in the city) offered a delicious complementary breakfast which very satisfying compared to our previous two meals consisting of energy bars (samples stolen from the library during finals week, tasting like a combination of diabetic granola bars - according to Eva, and horse feed - according to Kelly), Pringles Wheat Stix, pumpkin seeds, and Craisins (please send $$$).

The highlight of Metéora is a series of monasteries perched on gigantic cliffs. On the drive up to the top we used our common sense and good judgment (thanks Mom and Dad!) and stopped to pick up two young guys who were hitchhiking to the top. They turned out to be Greek students on holiday and quite harmless. Phew!

We chose to visit the most famous monastery in Metéora, Moni Megálou Meteórou, which was built in the 14th century. The monasteries built atop these cliffs are still in use today. Born educators, we were tailed through the monastery by two women from the southern US who enjoyed listening to us read aloud facts about the monastery from our guidebooks (best $25 we’ve spent yet!). These monasteries are definitely an amazing feat of architecture and worth the visit.

Also interesting was the fact that the skulls and bones of all the former monks were archived in a small room:

After heading out of Metéora, we stopped at a local fruit stand to get a snack for our drive to the Tombs of Vergina. There were four tombs, one of which was Phillip II’s final resting place. We also saw a tomb that is suspected to be that of Cleopatra. These tombs are home to four gorgeous funerary wreaths made of pure gold. Unfortunately, as we were (not so gently) reminded by the security guard, photos were not allowed, so we had to steal some from Google images to show you:

Η εικόνα “” δεν μπορεί να προβληθεί επειδή περιέχει σφάλματα.

Η εικόνα “” δεν μπορεί να προβληθεί επειδή περιέχει σφάλματα.

As we rolled into Thessaloniki, we hit the 1,000 km ( 621 mi) mark for our trip. We are staying in Thessaloniki for 3 nights, enjoying the beach and the cosmopolitan atmosphere. Always smart shoppers, we comparison shopped for hotels after our arrival in Thessaloniki (OK, we checked out four hotels in one block). We finally settled on a nice hotel which we bargained the price down to save $35; we also convinced the hotel manager to carry our luggage up the three flights of stairs and cook us breakfast! We also saved ourselves from the peril of the budget hotels which offered rooms with a lingering smoke smell, cigarette burns on the bedsheets, a broken bathroom light, and a doorman who may have a been a recovering(?) crack addict.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Roadtrip, Part I

With Kelly at the wheel, we “safely” escaped the hectic Athens traffic and headed to the Pelopennese peninsula. The first stop on our route was Náfplio. We would have arrived in Náfplio after about an hour except we got stuck in traffic and ended up moving about 6 km in about 30 minutes. When we finally made it to Náfplio, we followed four tour buses (to us tour buses equal free guidance to many popular destinations) up to the top of the city to Palamidi Fortress. Unfortunately, the buses didn’t contain the usual group of 65-year-old-plus tour group but instead a gaggle of obnoxious pre-teens. We did our best to avoid the madness and came away with some great photos of the Mediterranean:

We also snagged some delicious oranges picked fresh off the tree:

After touring Palamidi Fortress, we continued on with our road trip to Olympia. Even though Olympia looked close on the map, we soon learned that the “major” highway between Náfplio and Olympia was actually an extremely curvy mountain pass. As we wound through mountains of Greece, we came across several cute towns where we admired the wildflowers and enjoyed baklava soaked in locally produced honey.

Upon arrival in Olympia, we were dismayed to learn that the site of the original Olympic Games was also operating on “winter” hours. We decided to check into our hostel and tour the site early the next morning. As we wandered the main drag in Olympia we noticed that we were the youngest people in town by at least forty years. We realized how fortunate we were to have rented our car, because we are able to see a lot of the important sites that many young people miss.

The ancient Olympic site was worth the wait. It was inspiring to stand in the place where the Olympic Games were held over 2,000 years ago.

The site of the original Olympic torch is still used today to light the torch for our modern Olympic Games:

We also spotted some crafty tourists who had brought their own sun reflector to enhance their many photographs. We only wish we had planned ahead like them so we could look picture perfect too!

Back on the road again, we headed to Delphi, but not before crossing the newly-built bridge connecting the Peloponnese peninsula with the mainland. It must have been expensive because it cost us 11 euros (about $16) to cross!

Delphi is the site of the famous Delphic Oracle and the Temple of Apollo. We barely squeaked in before the 2:45 “winter” closing time (don’t worry we’re not bitter…even though it is 85 degrees out!).

After Delphi, we hit the road for Meteora, where we spent the night at Hotel Meteora.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Athens, Part I

Eva and I woke up bright and early this morning to start our official first day of touring Greece. We headed to the Acropolis, one Greece's most recognizable sights. Our first stop was the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Originally made with 104 columns, only 16 now remain but the sight is still stunning:
We felt like tiny ants below the massive structures. It is the biggest temple in Greece.
Next we checked out the Hadrian's Arch. On one side of the arch, it reads, "This is Athens, the city of Theseus." However, the immodest Hadrian added, "This is the city of Hadrian, not Theseus," on the other side.
The actual enclosure of the Acropolis is situated high on a hill in the middle of the city. Near the Acropolis we saw Odeion of Herodeus Atticus, which is a theater built in 161 AD that is still in use today. Inside was the Propylaea (the grand entrance), the famous Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion, which was built where Athena planted the first olive tree in Athens, thus claiming the city as her namesake.

The Proylaea, the Erechteion, and the Parthenon:

After the Acropolis, we used our student discount-purchased multi pass ticket (only 6 euros for 6 sights!) to also get into the Ancient Agora to see the ruins of the public center for life in ancient Athens.

We had lunch at the Rough Guide recommended Skholiarhio. We chose the special which involved picking our choice of mezedes (appetizers) from a long tray (we chose cucumber/tomato/feta salad and a fava bean hummus-like paste) and was accompanied by bread, choice of beverage (we tried Mythos, a Greek beer) and dessert (Halvas - a sweetmeat of sesame). We really enjoyed our meal and the waiters took a liking to us, even bringing a second helping of Halvas (which we ate even though we were too full and didn't particularly enjoy it the first time).
After lunch we trekked to the Archaeological Museum only to find it was still observing "winter" hours and had actually close at 2:45pm. Bummer. Good thing we're coming back to Greece for one more day on our way home.
Instead of learning about ancient Greek archaeology, we spent the afternoon getting sunburned, purchasing a $20US bottle of sunscreen (!), and price-shopping for our rental car for our road trip tomorrow. We finally settled on a 2007 Hyundai Accent from Axon Car and Van Rental that cost us a reasonable (at least we think, compared to the 600+ quotes other places gave us) 253 euro for six days and unlimited mileage, plus the added bonus of getting picked up and dropped off and a waiver of the 600 euro deductible. We think we did our research and picked the right company, but I guess we really won't know until we're on the road.
We're off to Nafplio and Olympia tomorrow!