Hydra

 

With my classes ending and finals week coming to a close, my parents were able to visit Athens for a few days before our trip to Italy. For my father’s birthday we took a day trip to the island of Hydra, about an hour and a half ferry ride from the port of Piraeus. Hydra is unique due to the almost complete absence of cars, albeit the noisy garbage trucks. Rather, mules are used as the main form of transportation moving everything from tourists to washing machines up and down the town’s hills. We saw the queue of mules paired up and waiting patiently in the harbor to give somebody a lift (adorned with beaded necklaces and nametags, these mules seemed to be in service only to island visitors while locals owned their own family mule).

Compared to my trip to Aegina, Hydra was a bit further away. There seemed to be more of a central town due to the geography of the island that creates a natural harbor. As a result, the hills cradle the small town and keep it from spreading out further. Rocky cliffs lines the north side of the island compared to the flatter landscape of the area around Aegina’s port. We hiked along this rocky route to one of the smaller harbors that housed small fishing boats. We passed one rocky beach with a steep set of stairs leading down to its shores. Due to the weather (windy with in and out sunshine from the clouds), we opted to continue walking rather than lounge by the water. The walking path provided beautiful views of Hydra with the Peloponnese across the water in the distance. Compared to Hydra, the Peloponnese looked uninhabited with its jagged coastline that didn’t seem to have any sort of development besides the spinning modern windmills.

Hydra appeared to be the perfect Greek island for those wanting to do a few short hikes on their trip. There was a map at the harbor illustrating the different hiking paths ranking their level of difficulty amongst other information. Hikes to the other side of the island terminate at smaller harbors that can provide water taxis back to the main port making them doable for those just wanting to do a day trip.

Lunch was enjoyed back in the center of town rather than overlooking the water to avoid the winds. We then walked back to the harbor in order to duck into the island’s history museum. The museum housed a number of objects dating from the Hydriots involvement in the Greek War of Independence to the Second World War. We ended the afternoon with a cappuccino at one of the cafes along the harbor before taking one final stroll through the town’s small side streets. The town continued to remain somewhat at sleep, not quite in full tourist season yet. After a busy few days in the motorcycle filled city of Athens this sleepy island town provided a relaxing break from city life that refreshed us before the next part of our journey, Rome.

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Five Things (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of Five Things (Part 1) which you can read by clicking this link: Five Thing (Part 1)

6.) Excellent service. Eating out in Greece is not just a chance to eat delicious food, but to spend quality time with your friends and family. Similar in other European countries, you are never rushed to order or leave your table after finishing a meal. At cafes and bars you are usually brought the bill with your drink in order to keep tabs of what you’ve ordered over time, but at almost all other restaurants it is up to you when to receive and pay the bill. In addition to the leisurely meal service, you are almost always given some sort of a “freebie”. At restaurants, sometimes this could be a small glass of Raki (an unsweetened Turkish alcoholic drink) or a dessert on the house. Go to a bar and glasses of water are always first brought to the table first perhaps along with some snacks ranging from popcorn to full on veggie trays after you order. Finally, at cafes you usually get a sweet treat to accompany your coffee. All this excellent service comes with no additional cost as tipping is not the norm in Greece despite the occasional rounding up of the bill.

7.) All the outdoor space. From patio seating at Tavernas, street side cafes, and Polykatoikia style housing, the Greeks love to use their outdoor space. Even when we first arrived in January, space heaters were placed outside almost all restaurants, bars, and cafes so that their outdoor space could be used by customers. Many restaurants have their main building location with the kitchen and a few tables inside but with the main dining area across the street under the protection of the trees and some umbrellas. Almost all apartments in Greece are considered polykatoikias. Based off of Corbusier’s Dom-ino system of housing, these buildings have simple skeletons that can lead to multiple uses. All of these polykatoikias have balconies that look onto the street below. Having these street viewing balconies results in a neighborhood watch as people have their meals, hang their laundry, and take care of their plants. Whenever there is a loud noise outside on our street, half the people are looking out from their apartments balconies to see what the commotion is about. The result is an overall safer neighborhood at the expense of dealing with nosey neighbors.

8.) Not overridden with tourists. With the exception of the Acropolis and Syntagma areas, most of Athens is full of Greeks. I didn’t appreciate this until visiting Barcelona where it felt that everything there was made for tourism (Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the built up waterfront areas, even the main pedestrian street was lined with tourist shops). I felt like the only locals were those working at the shops and restaurants. This compares to the currently less popular tourist destination of Athens. Especially in our neighborhood of Pangrati, avoiding the tourist clogged streets can be easy. While these congested places do exist (Acropolis, Plaka, Syntagma) and are getting worse as the weather warms up, we more or less can decide when we want to venture into these areas or stick to our local neighborhood.

9.) The ever present Acropolis view. No other city can boast the same grand view of such an ancient site. With limited high rise buildings, the Acropolis can be seen from throughout the city. Our academic building has a fabulous view from the 3rd floor library and some students even have a bit of it in view from their apartment balconies. One CYA administrator said that she felt herself constantly closing her office’s blinds that reveal a view of the Acropolis reasoning that whenever she looked at it, her work felt miniscule in comparison. At the same time, it is hard to not be inspired by these great works of architecture that always keep you company as you wander around the city.

10.) Greek kindness. Amidst the economic and refugee crisis, the Greeks remain a joyful group of people that celebrate every day of life. Overall, our experience has been a welcoming one with many willing to go out of their way to help us out. Greeks are eager to talk to you to practice their English (at the expense of me learning Greek) and appreciate it when you attempt to use simple greeting phrases. While some Greek habits remain peculiar, most have good reasoning behind them that makes them a convivial bunch. If searching for a country filled to the brim with hospitality, look no further than Greece.

 

Mykonos

With Greek Orthodox Easter occurring on Sunday May 1st this year, we had a late spring break that allowed us to visit some of the islands and their beautiful beaches. We chose the island of Mykonos due to its close proximity to Athens and lively atmosphere (take that as you will). We took an early Blue Star Ferry on Monday, departing from the port of Piraeus at 7:30 in the morning. The ferry was similar in size to the one I took to Crete, but without the cabins for overnight sleeping. There was plenty of common space both indoors and out in addition to cafes and restaurants sleepy passengers could grab their morning coffee at. After about three hours of travel we made two stops at the island of Siros and Tinos, before arriving at our final destination at 12:30. Our hostel for the week had a free shuttle waiting for us at the port to drive us to Paraga Beach on the southern end of the island. Being college students, we opted for the unique experience of high end camping on Mykonos with our little cabins and communal bath. In other words, we got the cheapest possible hostel BUT it turned out to be a great decision. It was opening weekend for many of the seasonal hotels/hostels on the island including where we were staying. While this meant that we were one of the few inhabitants of that part of the island, our rooms were clean and we had the full attention of the hostel staff. We spent the rest of the day at the beach opting for a convenient dinner at our hostel.

The following day we were able to drive in and explore the town of Chora thanks to our rental ATVs, or quads. We quickly learned that there was a island upcharge on nearly all food options; however, the restaurants were overall much nicer in appearance. We had a posh lunch at one of the nicer restaurants offering a lunch special  hidden in the labyrinth of white washed streets that make up the main town of Mykonos. Afterwards, we walked off our meals and headed towards the windmills, a defining feature of the Mykonos landscape. Here dozens of tourists gathered to take photos with the five large windmills built by the Venetians in the 16th century. In the afternoon we visited the nearby Paradise Beach, where we relaxed until the sun started to set. For dinner we ventured back into the town of Mykonos to search out our go-to gyro pita (also known as the cheapest meal option anywhere in Greece) to offset our upscale luncheon. Afterwards we walked down to the Old Port of Mykonos and waited

On Wednesday we took a day trip to the island of Delos. We rode into town and grabbed a coffee and spanakopita (spinach pie) to go before walking to the Old Port where our ferry departed. Tickets were €20 for the round trip journey and you had the option to sit indoors or up on top in the sun. Known as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, Delos offers visitors to chance to view extensive excavations of the ancient site in addition to a wonderful view of the island of Mykonos from the highest point on the island. The site was interesting to walk through as the entire town’s floor plan has essentially been excavated allowing one to see the scale of the houses, temples, and civic buildings. Mosaics from the wealthier houses can still be seen in addition to those preserved in the islands museum. We then headed back to Mykonos on our ferry in search of more gyro pita before exploring other parts of the island on our ATVs. We attempted to visit the well named Super Paradise Beach (we assumed in attempts to compete with the nearby Paradise Beach) but found that the steep downward incline to get there on the road would be impossible with our 50 CC vehicles. We opted to return to Paradise Beach before returning to our hostel for dinner.

Thursday began with a trip into town to purchase our ferry tickets back home. We also grabbed a crepe (cheese, peppers, and tomato for me) at one of the walk up stands to eat as we sat in the small side street. The day continued with exploring more beaches as we visited Kalafatis, Panormos, and Psarrou. While the first two were rather secluded, Psarrou turned out to be a high end shop/restaurant location with female servers in bikinis and men running around tending to customers’ needs. We picked out a spot further down the beach to a less luxurious area where one didn’t have to pay for a lounge chair and umbrella. We ventured back into town for a seafood dinner where I ordered an octopus pasta dish.

Friday involved returning our ATVs, packing up, and being driven to the New Port for our 2:30 ferry ride back to Athens. Unfortunately, the last time the hostel offered a shuttle to the port was 11:45 so we were stuck waiting outside for over an hour as the ferry arrived right at 2:30. The ride back was smooth and we arrived at Piraeus just before 8:00.

Overall, Mykonos was a beautiful island. There were a fair amount of tourists in the town but less to none at the more remote beaches. We came at an almost perfect time on the island where everything is open for the season, but the mobs of people from Europe and elsewhere have yet to take over the beaches and town. I would recommend renting a car/ATV/moped in order to explore the lesser known beaches as it gave us the opportunity to see the whole island which is just as beautiful as the white washed streets and buildings of the old town. We found that the Greeks were more likely to speak perfect English and were surprised when we used what little Greek we did know. I think this demonstrates how much more of a tourist attraction the islands are rather than other areas of the Greek mainland. Tourist friendly or not, Mykonos is a special island that anyone should jump at the chance to visit.

Poet Sandal Maker

Before I came over to study in Greece, there were two things that I knew I would purchase during the semester: a Turkish rug and hand made leather sandals. Well, I left Istanbul with my carryon stuffed with two Turkish prayer rugs and I think that I will have to pay another visit to Melissinos before my time in Athens comes to an end. Melissinos the Poet Sandal Maker of Athens is a historic shop established in 1920 by Georgios Melissinos who passed the business to his son Pantellis, graduate of Parsons School of Design, who currently runs the workshop. Located off Ermou near the central Monastiraki Square, the shop makes tailor-made sandals and has attracted thousands of tourists, not to mention many celebrities.

I walked over to the shop with a friend on a Sunday to finally get myself a pair of these highly desire sandals. The shop was filled with about ten other customers including one of our classmate’s family who was visiting from the states. We were handed a brochure that showed pictures of about 25 different pairs of sandals ranging from €35-50 and we were asked which ones we would like to try on. After guessing my correct shoe size, I tried on a pair of the “Aeolian 2.” I immediately liked them and decided that this was the pair I wanted to get. The straps were then adjusted (similar to how Chaco straps are pulled tighter or looser) and then nailed down so that the sandals fit me perfectly. The straps were punched with holes so that they could be fastened and then the excess was cut off. The whole process took about twenty minutes even with the store being filled with other customers. We both paid in cash (paying with a card is not a thing in Greece). It is worth noting that both the Poet and his helper speak some of the best English that I have heard at a store or restaurant. Overall, a wonderful no-stress situation. Hopefully these sandals will hold up over the next month and I will be back in May for another pair.

Crete (Day 3)

Our final day in Crete began with us departing for Margarites village. This village is known for the production of beautiful ceramics due to the high quality of clay that is found nearby. We visited one particular ceramics shop for a demonstration on creating works on a potter’s wheel as well as showing us some “trick pottery” that has been created for many centuries in this town. The town is filled with many ceramic shops, a dangerous thing for those of us who were supposed to be traveling light. We had time to walk around and explore many of the shops before heading to our next destination, the Arkadi Monastery.

The Askadi Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox monastery located in central Crete. I enjoyed this monastery with its Venetian baroque church that was different from the many Byzantine style churches that are scattered around Greece. This particular monastery played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming Ottoman forces, the Cretan blew up barrels of gunpowder choosing to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. Due to the large amount of women and children that would have sought refuge in the monastery, this event gave us an eery feeling at the otherwise bright and sunny day at Askadi. Apparently sacrifices such as these were common throughout Crete and parts of Greece during the arrival of the Ottomans, but due to the large amount of deaths that occurred here (943) it attracted the attention of the rest of the world. We then traveled to the town of Rethymno, one of the northern port cities, for lunch where we got a gyro and walked by the water.

Our final site tour was at the WWII Allies Cemetery in Souda. The cemetery is beautifully upkept with a peaceful view of the water. About 1500 graves of British, Australian, and New Zealanders soldiers and officers exist at the site. Most notably is that of John D. Pedlebury, a British archaeologist who was the archaeological commissioner of Knossos and played an important part in counter-intelligence in WWII. We ended the day with a walk around the port town of Chania before taking the overnight ferry back to Athens.

Overall, Crete was more beautiful that I expected. There was significantly less modern architecture and a fair amount of beautiful neoclassical buildings in many of the towns we visited, compared to the polykatoikia filled Athens. I enjoyed visiting all the seaside towns on the northern part of the island as well as traveling through the mountainous interior. It was also great to check of the ancient site of Knossos off my bucket list. If we had more time I would have loved to hike some of the Cretan gorges and ravines, but perhaps that will happen at some other time in the future.

Crete (Day 2)

Our Saturday began with breakfast at the hotel, departing by bus at 8:30 for the Diktaion Andro Cave in Lasithi. After about an hour drive we hiked up to the top of the mountain where the mouth of the cave is located. Many myths surround this cave, the most popular being that this is the location Zeus grew up. Many offerings and human bones were originally found around the bottom of the cave which is covered in stalactites and stalagmites with a small lake at the very bottom. The cave cooled down in temperature as we descended the concrete steps, giving us a break from the hot Cretan sun.

Our next stop was the small town of Plaka (not to be mistaken with the Plaka neighborhood in Athens). Here we immediately got on a small boat that ferried us to Spinalonga Islet. This small island was the site of both Venetian and Ottoman fortifications until it was later turned into a Leper colony for the citizens of Crete. Serving as an almost Alcatraz of Crete, members of the Leper colony lived on the island as late as 1957 when the last patient left the island after a cure was discovered for their disease. The island was beautiful with views of the mediterranean and of Plaka in the near distance. After a tour of the island we headed back for lunch where we were able to eat fresh octopus as we sat at a restaurant right on the water. With over an hour before we were to head back to our hotel, we went to a nearby rocky beach. The water was cold but clear, I opted to view it from the warm dry shore.

Back in Heraklio, we had our souvlaki before sitting down at an outdoor cafe to watch a soccer game on television. We later walked down to the water again before heading back to our hotel for the evening. After the ancient site/museum heavy Friday, this day was a good since we were able to see much of the Cretan countryside and areas further away from the city we were staying at.

Crete (Day 1)

Our final CYA trip of the semester was this past weekend taking us to the wonderful island of Crete. Our journey began with an overnight ferry ride from the Piraeus port in Athens to the city of Herkalio in Crete. Before departing, we could see many of the refugee campsites from the upperdeck of the boat. Tents lined the streets near the port with those who had recently arrived in Greece. Instead of looking chaotic or in ramshackles, the lines of tents were well organized creating mini “blocks” as children ran around the site. I think witnessing this before we departed made us feel even more fortunate to be taking a trip to one of the most beautiful parts of Greece acknowledging that these refugees will likely never see it as they try to form a new life in Europe. This was my first overnight boat ride and although we had to deal with the unavoidable warm cramped boat cabins, it was pleasant sitting out on the deck as we watched the city lights of Athens slowly disappear behind us.

We arrived early morning with a 6:30 breakfast on the ferry boat before departing by bus to the Knossos archeological site. This site contains the first Minoan palace from 1900 BC making it the first European city. Covering an area 14,000 square meters, this palace is enormous and originally contained many artifacts and frescoes that are now on view in the museum. Much of what one views today are the reconstruction efforts of Arthur Evans who excavated the site beginning in 1900. Frescoe replications cover the “new” walls and demonstrate the thoughts on reconstructing ancient sites at the time of Evans.

Leaving Knossos, we arrived at our hotel in Heraklio to drop off our luggage and have a walking tour of the city we would be spending the next two nights in. The city was significantly more beautiful than I originally had in mind. Neoclassical architecture with Venetian influence lines the larger roads with small streets offering plenty of food and drink options. We walked down one of the main pedestrian roads that led to the water where the Venetian castle is located. At the waterfront I saw a large basket filled with sea sponges that had been collected from earlier that day. After eating lunch at a recommended souvlaki stop, we walked next to the water and sat on the rocks. From this spot we could see both the Cretan Sea and the mountains that form in the central part of the island. Snow is still visible on some of the larger mountains resulting in chilly water temperatures as this snow melts and makes its way down to Crete’s many beaches.

Meeting at a central fountain at 1:30 we then walked over to the Archaeological Museum. We received a brief introduction to the museum by one of the conservators that currently works there who we found out worked on the Propylaea restorations with my professor Tasos Tanoulas back in the 90’s. Inside the museum we saw many objects from the Minoan time period (as early as 2000 BC) before contact was made with other civilizations outside of Crete. My favorites included a wood model of the palace (it looks like a maze!), the Snake Goddesses, and the frescoes. Much controversy surrounds the fresco remains as they have been pieced back together with some “additions” that end up completing a picture that might not have actually been the original image. Nonetheless, these reconstructions have become so representative of this mesmerizing civilization that it can be difficult to suggest other theories as to what these frescoes actually represented.

Finishing our museum tour, we checked into our hotel rooms and asked the front desk for the closest beach. We ended up taking a taxi cab to a public beach about 20 minutes away. The beach and its water was beautiful with families and younger Greeks enjoying their afternoons. I managed to swim around for a few minutes before retreating to the shore so that I could warm back up before the sun went down. After taking a taxi back and showering at the hotel we walked over to a recommended restaurant. Our dinner selection for that evening included Graviara (Cretan cheese), traditional Cretan sausage, fava, and snails cooked in a rosemary sauce. While the snails could almost be compared to mussels, they were a bit more chewy and I ended up liking the sauce more than the snail themselves. We followed dinner up with a walk down to the harbor before going back to the hotel that evening.