Monday, April 29, 2013

Crazy For Corfu - Greece

Our last stop in Greece on the cruise was the island of Corfu, or Kerkyra in Greek. Corfu is the northern most island in a group of islands called the Ionian islands which lay of course, in the Ionian Sea. It is so far north that it is off the mainland of Albania, not Greece. As we sailed past Albania, you could see snow capped mountains off in the distance. For the day trip into Corfu, we teamed up with our American friends, the Point family. Our boys were tired of walking for miles every day in the Greek heat, so we let them stay on the ship and eat and be lazy to their heart's content.

Since we were smaller numbers, four adults and three children, we decided to rent a car. As soon as we disembarked off of the cruise ship, we were met by a hoard of Greek taxi drivers telling us that they would drive us around Corfu for €100,00. Two taxi drivers competed for our business by telling us they would take us to see the sights. Between demanding us to employee their services for the day, they would get into shouting matches between each other that we were their fare and for the other one to leave. We kept pointing at the six-seater Mercedes taxi saying we wouldn't fit, and they would say, "It's no problem." To which we would reply, "Um, it is a problem. No one wants to ride in the trunk." And then we heard back, "No problem." I think this was the extent of their grasp of the English language.

We spotted a car rental shop around the corner with a few Fiat vans parked outside. Matt ran over to see if we could rent one for the day. While he was running over, the taxi drivers still hadn't given up hope. "One hundred Euro. I take you. You come. Now." Mr. Point answered that no, we weren't going to get a taxi, that we were going to rent a van. "NO! No van!" The taxi man yelled at us. We were a little taken aback. Did he mean there were no vans, or we couldn't rent a van? While I sat there thinking about that Mr. Point said, "What do you mean there are no vans? I can see one right there!" Taxi man came back with, "No van! I take you!" He was getting a little intense, to say the least. I started thinking in my head that he was going to kidnap us and hide us somewhere on the island or something when Matt yelled that he got us a Fiat Van for only €60,00. Sold. Good-bye Greek kidnapper/taxi driver. We got us a van.

We booked out of the port, for obvious reasons, as quickly as we could and drove here, to Palaiokastritsa. This is a little town/beach on the north-east side of the island. Look at that water. I had never seen water so clear, or turquoise-aqua colored. 

I kept saying to myself, "This is real. I am really here. In Greece. On this beach." Greece has always been a fantasy to me. Years ago, Matt asked me what my three top ultimate vacations were and I answered 1- Greece, 2- India, and 3- anywhere in Africa. I answered these places because the chances of me visiting them seemed so remote that it probably would never happen. Well my friends, check number one off the list.

I need to bring paint swatches back here and match this color and paint my room that exact shade of greenish-blue. Corfu is said to be the island of Scheria, home of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus is ship-wrecked when his raft is blown here in a storm. He meets the goddess Athena, disguised as a local girl. He then goes to a palace where he tells of his adventures since the Trojan war, and they take pity on him and have a ship take him home to Ithaca. I might have just stuck around Corfu for awhile, but I do have to remember Odysseus had been lost for ten long years. That's one long trip.

 Palaiokastritsa is almost an island itself. It is only connected to the rest of the island by a little strip of sand and road. You can stand facing one beach and have a beach at your back. 

The water looked warm and inviting, but it wasn't. Locals told us that the spring current was still bringing cool water from up north and to wait a month before it was warm enough for swimming.

As much as I wanted to rent a shack on the beach and go native here for a week doing nothing but stare off into the distant horizon and sip coconut milk or something, Corfu had so much more to offer than just these beautiful beaches.

Places like this, the Neo Frourio, or the new fortress. Until quite recently, it had a working naval garrison stationed here.

And places like this. A wonderful baklava bakery where we picked up Every. Single. Kind. of wonderful Greek pastry under the sun. It was dripping with honey and flavored with different fruits and nuts. There were orange ones, and cashew ones, and lemon, and the list went on and on. Mrs. Point and I wrote our names and dates on the wall there. So if you happen to be in Corfu, you will see Kelly S. and Family Was Here! And I should have added and got really fat off of all the baklava we bought

The great thing, or maybe its not so great now that I am looking at my waist line, is that because baklava is made with honey, it doesn't go bad. We brought our box on the cruise ship, and then in the car, and then home. Constantly snacking out of it. I didn't realize what a problem it was until my jeans wouldn't zip up anymore. Mmm... baklava.

Here is my super-mature husband laughing. Hysterically. He's laughing so hard he can't even breathe. Why? Here's why.

Yep. Those are a bunch of tiny fish eating the dead skin off of my husband's feet. He was laughing so hard because he is so incredibly ticklish. The girls who ran the spa kept telling him to just calm down. "Its okay, sir. Just relax." From which just followed more incomprehensible gibberish from Matt because he was laughing so hard. He is so ticklish that I think its a security hazard for our country. If he ever was kidnapped and forced to tell secrets, he could take torture and pain. Not tickling. He would be giving everything up after 10 seconds. "I give! I give! I will tell you everything, just don't tickle my feet! Please!" 

After eating ourselves into a baklava stupor and hearing Matt say, "My feet really are softer!" The day was winding down. We took the long way back through the old town, taking pictures. Listening to Greeks argue, watching Greeks hug and kiss. Often it was the same Greeks.

The old city of Corfu. A fun fact about the town of Corfu is that the streets in the old section are paved with white marble. They had so much of the stuff they laid it down to walk on it. Seems like it would be slippery in the rain.

Beautiful Corfu. Off to the right of this picture are our new good friends, The Point Family. Our partners in crime in Greece. Nothing bonds you like having a taxi-nazi tell you you can't have a van. Reminded me of the soup-nazi on Seinfeld. If you don't know what I am talking about, read about it here or watch it here.

As I walked back to the cruise ship, I thought, 'I could live here.' Corfu was that great. Beautiful, relaxing. And green! After the stark volcanic island of Santorini and the heat of Athens, Corfu was the perfect mix of beaches, baklava, old town, flowers, architecture, and trees. Mrs. Point echoed my sentiment. Maybe when raising four kids gets to each of us, we'll run away here together.

The Palaio Frourio, or old citadel. Built by the Venetians to ward off attackers.

 With Corfu's northern position in the Ionian sea, it is the greenest and most lush of all the Greek islands.

I loved seeing how everybody lived and worked so close together.

It was bittersweet leaving Corfu. We were glowing with relaxation (and baklava) and kept talking about what a great day it was. But leaving it was hard. It was our last stop in Greece and we knew that it would be awhile before we got back. We can easily make it to France or Switzerland in an hour or two. But Greece requires a little more effort. It's a good thing that effort is so worth it. Until next time Greece! 



*Is still currently working on her waistline from eating all those Greek pastries. This day could also be known as "The Great Baklava Gorging Of 2013."

Up Next - Croatia!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Teeny Santorini - Greece

Next stop - Santorini! I was so excited about the stop in Santorini. I have considered myself a novice volcanologist/geologist, so to go to an island that blew itself up in one of the world's largest volcanic eruptions is pretty cool on my list.

We were porting into Santorini early in the morning so I got up even earlier to watch the ship glide into the bay of Santorini. If you haven't ever taken a cruise in the Aegean Sea and then gotten up early and watched the sunrise over the islands of Greece, do it. I highly recommend it.

Santorini is the southern most island in the group of islands called the Cyclades. 

Santorini is too little of a port for our ginormous cruise ship to come into so we had to be tendered in by small boats. (A ship's tender is a small boat used to take people and /or supplies back and forth from the boat and port. Now you know.)

Santorini is a C shaped island, and it is actually a caldera, or volcanic crater. Steep, layered cliffs rise out of the ocean all around. A large eruption around 1600 BC destroyed the center of the volcanic island that was here. The sea rushed in and filled in the center leaving the sides of the volcano (the cliffs) as all that was left.

After we reached the island, we started a hike down the east side which has a gentle slope to the sea compared to the sheer cliff face that we ported at.

The gentle hills of Santorini.

The main town in Santorini is called Thira. Santorini has no rivers or natural sources of water. At all. And it is an arid climate. The locals were telling us that they collect what little rain water they do get in barrels and then bring the rest in on ship. 

The homes in Santorini are all brightly colored. This practice started when they would mix different colors of the naturally occurring volcanic sand into the plaster. All the reds, pinks, yellows, and oranges are sands found on the island. Santorini is filled with tiny churches, which all have their domes painted blue, like the one on the right of this picture.

On our hike back to the main part of town, we passed this little courtyard. Maybe they get the blue color from mixing in pieces of sky. Sigh... just a little whimsy.

The town's fish market was up and going, and filling the building heat of the day with the smell of a fresh catch, making you wonder how anyone could ever decide to eat fish at all.

Halfway through our visit, our kids started asking to go back to the boat. I think they had had enough of Greece, and the heat, at this point. What's the best way to keep kids going?

Feed them pizza of course. Even Greek pizza will do.

That's better. 

As we walked around, it was pretty obvious that Santorini's only economic industry is tourism. Which as tourists, was okay with us.

Thira and a view of the caldera.

The people of Santorini were friendly and kind. We had a chat with the man who ran the little Greek cafe that we ate at. He was very interested in where we are from and what we were doing there. 

Thira is a very exposed to the elements on Santorini's western face. There weren't a lot of places for shade. (The next time I have my picture taken, will someone please remind me to take my lens cap out of my front pocket so I don't look like I am carrying around a container of dip or chew?)

That volcanic hill to the right of me is evidence of continuing volcanic activity at Santorini. In 1707 this lava flow breached the surface of the sea. The small island is now called Nea Kameni and it had its last eruption in 1950.

Before we got to Santorini, everyone told us that we had to make it over to the village of Oia on the northern tip of the island. We never made it over there with our four tired kids, but we got a good view of it from the hill we climbed.

In the towns on Santorini, there really were no roads or streets. Just walking paths that linked all the homes together.

As we sat and enjoyed the view from the top, we saw all the boats tendering people back to the cruise ship. We felt we didn't get enough time in Santorini, but didn't really want to extend our visit by getting stuck on a small island in the Aegean Sea, so this is our last view of Santorini. After the hustle and bustle and Athens, the relaxed and easy going pace of Santorini was a welcome change. We heard about some great beaches here. The Red Beach, the Black Beach, and the White Beach. All colored by the volcanic sands that grace their shores. We didn't make it to them either. I guess we will just have to go back. Right?



Thursday, April 25, 2013

Attitude In Athens - Greece

Athens, or in modern Greek, AΘHNA, was our second stop in our Greek cruise whirlwind. Athens is located on a peninsula in southern Greece. There is so much to see and do in Athens. We knew that the eight hours our cruise gave us would not be enough time, so we had to carefully pick and choose our destinations. Because we are super cheap, we opted to not take our cruise ship excursions, but try to manage getting to all these locations by ourselves. That required a lot of walking and metro riding. For this trip we teamed up with another American family with four kids that we knew from Heidelberg. The Point Family. Have you ever dragged eight tired kids around down town Athens in 85°F/30°C heat? If you haven't, you should. It's really fun.

We started by walking the one mile hike to the metro station. As we walked along the small sidewalks in Athens from the port, we got points and stares from the cars waiting at red lights. 'Oh boy,' I thought. It's going to be one of those places. A place where we get stared at, and asked if they are all ours. In this case they weren't all mine, but with four adults and eight children, I'm sure we looked like a school field trip or something. The metro station was easy to find and the tickets were super cheap. €,70. That's like practically giving them away. And then I saw why.

Here is our train. If you are thinking it looks a little rough, don't worry. We thought the same thing. We rode it to the historical neighborhood of Pláka. 

The hill is called the Acropolis. The temple on the hill is called the Parthenon. Just to help clear that up.

Pláka is clustered around the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. Since we didn't feel like climbing these cliffs, we hiked around to the other side. 

Wild, red poppies were blooming all over the slopes to the Acropolis. It was gorgeous.

This here is the Areopagus or the "Rock of Ares." The Romans called it Mars' Hill. In classical times the rock functioned as a court of appeal for criminal cases. Sure is different from the wood paneled court rooms I am familiar with. The Apostle Paul, from the New Testament, delivered his famous speech about the Lord of Heaven who made the world does not live in temples made by hands. Pretty good speech. Read the whole speech here starting at verse 16.

It was amazing to walk in the footsteps of an apostle. I walked off on one side of the hill and took a look around at the beautiful vistas that the rock provided.

The Temple of Hephaetus. Everywhere you looked, there was another ancient building reaching out, competing for your attention.

Athens, old and new.

Matt felt so inspired by standing on the Areopagus he delivered his own sermon. Probably sounded something like this: "Let us all find a shady spot, and drink water and rejoice in the shade for it is hot. Let us all eat cookies, for cookies should not dwell in packages made by man, but in our stomachs." It was close to lunchtime, after all.

We hiked up the stairs to the Parthenon and were rewarded with sweeping views of Athens with the blue Aegean Sea in the background. 

The Acropolis dates back to 447 BC when it was built as a temple to the goddess Athena. Other religions have also worshiped here. In 400 AD it was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And in 1460 AD, it was turned into a mosque. Poor Athena. Seems people forgot about her.

The Parthenon is undergoing restoration right now. Apart from being around 2,500 years old, it was blown up once. In 1687, the Venetians were attacking Athens, who was under control by the Ottoman Turks. Those brilliant Ottoman Turks stored their gunpowder in the Parthenon. The Venetians launched a mortar, which wouldn't have done that much damage, if the gunpowder wasn't in there. The Turks said they didn't think the Venetians would attack a building of such great importance as the Parthenon. Apparently, the Venetians called the Turks on it by saying, "Oh yeah? Not only are we going to get all your gunpowder, but we are going to blow up the very important building you put it in." Goes to show you, not only should you 'keep your powder dry,' you should keep it away from things you don't want destroyed. Kind of seems like a no-brainer to me, but hey, I've made some mistakes too. Just not this big.

They are not trying to restore it completely, but just to restore the structural integrity of the building. They are using the original marble pieces whenever they can find them, and then filling in destroyed pieces with new marble, quarried from the same place.

The new, white marble will eventually yellow and age to match the existing marble.

This is north of the Parthenon and is called the Erechtheion. It is another temple and is dedicated to the Greek hero Erichthonius. It would seem he was born fully formed from the earth after an attempted rape of Athena that you can read about here. Yuck.

More Erechtheion. No more attempted rape stories though.

Further destruction of the site occurred when the Earl of Elgin looted statues and sculptures to take to England in the early 1800's. Because some of them were still attached to the building, the building and the sculptures were sawed and cut to make it easier to retrieve and transport the items. The stolen items are still located in the British Museum. A few have also turned up in the Louvre, and in Copenhagen. The Greek government has been asking for them back for 30 years, but it seems the British Museum is calling out the old rule of "finders keepers, losers weepers." Oh England. Didn't you ever learn you don't take things that don't belong to you?

Just like in Olympia, the site was patrolled by whistle blowing guards who watched you like a hawk. We knew not to touch a single thing. But we still got the whistle. Our gaggle of eight kids sat down in the shade of the Parthenon, off to the side. Apparently a big no-no. You are not allowed to sit around the Parthenon. Stand, yes. Sit, no. Not even hunch down on your feet. You must stay perfectly vertical to enjoy the shade of the Parthenon. 

This guard seemed to have it out for us because after this she followed us around with her whistle in her mouth, ready to tweet us into compliance. It was time to go.

We stopped in a little street side cafe and got some lunch of souvlaki, gyros, and tzatziki. Souvlaki is skewered meat and vegetables and tzatziki is a yogurt and herb dip. It was pretty good. It was at this cafe where the Greek guy behind us didn't like how slow we were ordering. He impatiently tapped his foot and gave us audible, loud sighs. When we were out eating in the street, he walked up to his friend and said loud enough for me to hear, "Some stupid Americans." To which I replied, "Hey, you suck." But only in my mind because I detest confrontation. 

Next we walked to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, or the Olympieion.

These few columns are all that is left of the temple. Construction began in the 6th century BC, but the temple wasn't completed until the reign of a Roman emperor in the 2nd century AD. Because of the large time lapse, different styles of architecture and adornment are quite evident on the columns.

After its completion, the temple was quarried to provide marble and other materials to build other sites around Athens. Out of the original 104 columns, only 15 are left standing and one on the ground that was blown over in a storm in the 1800's.  

From this temple you can look up and get a nice view of the Acropolis. But you can't hear their whistles of disapproval from here.

On to Pláka!

Pláka was fun and quirky old town to walk through. I warn you though. If you stop and look at anything in the tourist traps stores, they grab you and pull you in and say, "You like! You buy!" 

It was in this town that one store owner said to us, "All Greeks hate Americans. Except me. I love Americans!" After being told how stupid we were and all the whistle blowing I was beginning to believe that. But then we were told by another shop keeper, "Greeks love Americans! You are so happy! And you smile! And you spend money!" All I need to do to get Greeks to love me is to smile and spend money? Heck, I can do that.

Here is a set of six beautiful, Greek ceramic bowls I bought. While smiling, I might add. These ceramic pieces are for sale all over Greece. The blue color reminds me of the ocean in Greece.

After all the sightseeing and walking and eating and walking and shopping and walking, it was time to go back to the ship. On the metro ride back to the port there was some old, drunk, Greek guy singing and clapping to some song in his head. He sang for five stops on the line. All the Greek people on the train looked from me back to him back to me and all I kept thinking is he better not be saying I am a stupid American. So I just smiled.


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