Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A date with antiquity

Athens had a glory once. It hasn't had it for a long, long time. Apart from the Acropolis and the ruins contained therein and about, there's nothing much of value to see. It's not cute and quaint.The big shops are the same as anywhere. Most of the smaller ones are so kitchy. Greece is in the grip of the financial crisis and it shows. I estimated a minimum of 25% of the buildings we passed by in the outlying suburbs were empty or abandoned. The most flourishing enterprises seemed to be garden centres. The Greeks like their gardens even if they don't have much money

However, we devoted a day to Athens and started with a guided tour of the ruins. It was SO hot again, over 40 degrees Celsius. We tried to stick to the shade of trees where we could but the site doesn't lend itself well to that, of course The acropolis is a 156m high limestone rock that crowns the city. It was first inhabited in neolithic times 6,000 years ago. The first stone temples were built int he middle of the 6th century BC.

After a bit of a walk we could view the Herod Atticus Theatre which has a seating capacity these days of 5,000 people. It was used for musical and drama performances as well as contests and is the main theatre of the current Athens Festival performances. The theatre was built by Herodus Atticus as a memorial to his wife Pegilla.

                                                                               Moving up the hill we spied the first of the key buildings of the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena Nike, also known as the temple of the 'wingless victory', built in the 5th century BC to commemorate Greek victories over the Persians. Apparently it has friezes but I didn't see any and you can't walk around it these days. Note the white 'repairs' to the buildings.

The white stuff is modern material, the cream blocks are original. While it's always interesting to see things stuck back together I was surprised at how little is really standing of its own accord now. There are a lot of well chiselled and decorated blocks just lying around on the ground, though the best ones are roped off.

The Erechtheio temple displays the Caryatids, the young priestesses who hold up the temple's roof with their heads. It's of Ionic design and was built around 420BC. There would have been statues dedicated to the Gods and various small sanctuaries there in earlier times. The Athenians were told that this is the place where Athena and Poseidon contested for the protection of Athens. Athena won by producing an Olive Tree from the earth.

The Parthenon is one of the main reasons for visiting this site but I felt a little disappointed. There's very little of it and when we visited it was covered in scaffolding. Of course they've got to do their conservation activities sometime. Various wars have all but destroyed this building. It's criminal that combatants are prepared to lob cannonballs around places like this-they inevitably strike and destroy. The temple is built of marble in the Doric style and took 15 years to build.

After suffering the heat and intense light on this site we headed back down the hill and visited a museum. I don't recall which one it is but it's virtually a reconstruction of a major classical building. It annoyed me. The Americans have generously given the money but they've made a fake building. They haven't used the original materials and it totally lacks soul. It does, however, house some interesting collectables.

I was impressed by the child's potty. It's 2000 years old but immensely practical. Some things just don't date. Outside the museum there's a gallery containing ruined statues and a few busts

After finishing our visit to the Acropolis we had a late lunch and looked at the shops. Not very interesting. I dragged JC along in search of more artisanal shops in the touristy street. By chance I happened upon a Bouzouki shop.

 I love musical instruments but I knew I'd have to keep my hands in my pockets here, there's a limit to what I can fit in my new apartment. The man in the shop explained how they worked. There are various sizes and they sound a bit like banjos. He also had authentic Greek wind instruments/pipes, tambours and CDs. I bought a CD - bit of a lucky dip not having heard it. It's not too bad  but I think I'd have preferred one without the wailing singing. I'd go for instrumental next time.

I'll leave you with images of the pompom boys. JC and I took so many pics between us we could have strung them together as an animation. As we flicked quickly through them we just cracked up. I haven't seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace yet but I have seen the changing of the guard at the Elysee Palace.

This is different. You'll find this bizarre performance outside the Parliament buildings at Athens. We saw the 4pm performance.  
The pompom boys are in a class of their own. Even allowing for the shoes, they are very tall. I was a bit startled to see, at one point, one of the guys in fatigues go up to one of the pompom boys and start caressing his face. Yes, really, eyes, cheeks, mouth, forehead. It was a bit spooky.  The whole thing cracked me up though it must have been difficult for the guys in the heat.

 By now I felt I'd probably seen a good slice of Greece, it's ruins, its islands, lots of history, men in skirts. Armed with lots of photos and a few mementoes I was ready to go home to France.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Life on board a cruise ship...

A cruise. It conjures up so many ideas, like sea-sickness, romance, luxury, sunbathing and Titanic. It wasn't like that for me though JC did quip initially that we were on Titantic 2. It's extremely organised to military precision. I didn't really know what to expect but I hoped I'd like it when JC made a snap decision 2 weeks out to go on a cruise of the Greek Islands. First up I'd never been on a cruise, second it was the Med and Greece which were complete unknowns to me.

Early starts from well, start to finish were not negotiable. We left our lodgings which were a good distance out from Athens then bused for what seemed like forever, picking up passengers at other hostelries until we reached the port of Pireus, the port of Athens.

Embarkation took a lot of time standing around being processed. Our passports were confiscated. We each had our photo taken, for which we could pay a small fortune for a copy if we wanted...we didn't. Our cabin was exterior meaning it had a window on the ocean. That was great as I loved watching the ocean swooshing by any time of the day or night.

As soon as I stepped on board I felt it, that slow rolling. There was a very strong wind which picked up so much while we were settling in that all the transats were roped together and the pool was out of bounds. Not surprising really as the water was looking for ways to escape its confines. But that was the roughest part of the trip-half a day of rolling. The rest of the time it was barely noticable that we were on a ship and our ship wasn't humungous.

In fact The Louis Olympia is old She was built in 1982 Helsinki, Finland and has been through several changes of ownership and name since. Her window frames are rusting and the cabinsare very dated, despite being renovated not too long ago. They're making an effort to maintain her but the bigger ships we passed by were in a different class. Ours was still a little inimate, we weren't living on a floating city.

Louis Olympia has twelve decks, eleven of which are accessible to passengers.
  1. Engine room, crew spaces, gangway
  2. B deck - Outside and inside cabins, gangway
  3. A deck - Outside and inside cabins, gangway
  4. Main deck - Outside and inside cabins, internet cafe, reception, library, The Seven Seas restaurant (formal), shops
  5. Cabaret deck - Outside and inside cabins, Can Can Lounge (show lounge), casino Royale, Clipper bar, Oklahoma Lounge (Nightclub), Oceans Beauty salon, video arcade
  6. Upper deck - Outside and inside cabins (deck only exists in the forward part of the ship)
  7. Promenade deck - Deluxe cabins, Blakes bar/café/lounge, Kidzone, outdoor promenade
  8. Bridge deck - Bridge, saunas, Oceans gym
  9. Sun deck - Suites & Grand Suites (deck only exists in the forward part of the ship)
  10. Compass deck - Lido bar, swimming pools, Lido buffét restaurant, sundeck[7]
  11. Mast bar, sundeck
  12. Skybar

Before the tug moved us out of the harbour we had life vest drill. What a serious hoot. I grabbed my life vest and popped it on correctly before I left the cabin. I was so intrigued by the whole thing and remembering all the relevant scenes from the movie Titanic I forgot to bring my camera - sorry about that.

We then followed the general direction on the gangways and were directed to OUR allocated lifeboat, Number 10. Women at the front, men at the back. The crew took it seriously but I wished some of the tardy passengers had, Many of us were probably thinking about the ill-fated Concordia. In short you put your lifevest on correctly, locate your little light and whistle and make sure you know YOUR lifeboat and you're then dismissed to watch the tugboat guiding us before we left the harbour for the Aegean Sea.
Our cabin, as I said, had a view of the sea. We were on level 3 and our room consisted of two little beds: one almost comfy (mine) and the other not (JC's). I often woke up in the night to hear the engines come to life or stop. Not that loud but the vibrations inevitably are more noticeable when you are sitting or lying down. I didn't mind them at all- rather like being in an artificial womb- reasuring and lulling.

The bathroom is tiny so you take turns using it. The shower is even smaller and the soap is liquid stuff, there is no conditiner etc supplied. You have to be very careful not to stuff up the toilet too. It was all old and small but it was clean and it worked.

On three occasions we arrived back after dinner to see a towel creation from a member of the rooms crew. Rather amusing. The crew were very friendly but often the waiting staff in the restaurants were too busy to even look at you if you wanted something, they were like robots.

Each day we returned to our cabin after our last excursion were was a copy of the Olympia Newsletter which gave the meal times options, suggestions for the upcoming excursions, practical stuff about tips for the staff (almost compulsory, the way they put it, you have to sign a letter if you don't want to pay). There's an intercom in every room so there are loud mustering messages from time to time. Using the phone to call anywhere ashore is too expensive so we didn't so it. Didn't need to, thank goodness.

I loved the fact that it was more comfortable for me travelling by liner than hours and hours in a bus or train or plane. You could go to sleep in Greece and wake up in Turkey. As with all organised tours you get really tired, you're on the go from morning until night, However, all excursions are optional on the cruise and need to be paid for in addition to the cruise. I suppose you could just stay on the boat for the week and see nothing but the sea and the transats.
It's very hard to lose weight on board a ship. There are three meals a day. I preferred buffet because I could portion-control and only eat what I wanted. JC liked the options of a la carte in the other restaurant so we did a bit of both.

I enjoyed walking around the decks, especially if we were anchored somewhere. Many of our excursions required us to transfer to a small vessel to go ashore if a deep harbour was not available. This meant a lot of waiting around to be organised. In fact the organising takes up quite a lot of your day, but it's necessary and in most instances well done. We were each issued with a photographic ID which was scanned every time we left or returned to the ship.

There are usually shows put on each night but they start very late. I only saw one by planning it. It consisted of song and dance, not JCs thing but I enjoyed it and I thought the performers were talented- it wasn't second-rate stuff considering the boat's not at the top end of the market. You can wander into a bar and a duet may be performing. There was a casino - yuck, no interest to me.

JC discovered the only way to get a decent coffee was to go to the bar in the middle of the boat but he only discovered that halfway through the cruise.

We both put the Island of Santorini at the top of our list of favourite places and things to do. JC was disappointed that the whole place was so multicultural he didn't get to make any friends. Normally he'd be in a group of French folks that would all travel together but this time we were a small group in a large universe and we rarely saw anyone recognisable that we could communicate with. This was less of a problem for me because my French is not great anyway so I'm usually left out. I got to spend more one-on-one time with JC so to me that was a bonus, but I understood his point. We tried to meet up with a Canadian family we got on well with but mostly it was too random, you couldn't plan to be in a certain place at a certain time as we were on a Francophone package and they were on an Anglophone one.

All up I enjoyed my first cruise. There were bits I'd have liked improved like the cabins and to see more shows and make some friends but on the whole a great experience and there are some parts of this world you can only get to by boat anyway.

Here's a lengthy video taken by a Brit of his experiences on the same ship before I had my cruise

Next post - Athens.

Monday, 10 September 2012

It is the quintessential Greek Isle

I'm talking about the island of Santorini, the southern-most of the Cyclades group in the south Aegean Sea. The island is the summit of an ancient volcano which erupted in 1600BC. The caldera is truly impressive when you watch your cruise ship moving across it. What a volcano that must have been, and what a catastrophic explosion.

There is speculation (not without some reason) that Santorini is equivalent to the lost Atlantis mentioned by Plato. The eruption was gigantic; a great many times bigger than the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii and bigger than Krakatoa later on.

In his book Volcanoes in Human History, de Boer links the eruption to the demise of the Minoan civilisation. The seafaring Minoan culture was based on Crete, which is only a few dozen miles from Santorini. At the time of the eruption, they dominated that part of the ancient Mediterranean. When the volcano erupted, the Minoans would have been hit by tsunamis, over-water pyroclastic flows, and fires from oil lamps knocked over by the eruption's shockwave. Goodbye civilisation.

To land you must transfer to a small craft, chug to a tiny pier and then bus to where you want to go. As you approach the island you notice the white buildings sprinkled all along the edges of the cliffs, rather like icing sugar or bird guano. Anticipation mounts, you can sense it's going to be different to what you've seen before. The main town is Thera (Fira) but we weren't heading there. We wanted to see the beautiful little town of Oia.

It's picture postcard perfect: the blue of the Aegean, the white-painted buildings, the blue shutters. Everything is clean, cared for, touristy but at the topend where taste oozes from the shops and kitchy trinkets are harder to find.

 The perched restaurants, the cats sunning themselves on chairs and stone steps (there are a LOT of cats in Greece), the art galleries, hand-made wares. If you want to know more about what's on offer, what you can do there, visit http://www.greeka.com/cyclades/santorini/santorini.htm

I loved this place at first sight and didn't mind all the up and down mountain-goat climbing we had to do. Mostly we were left to wander and that was the best part. I just like to explore under my own steam, take an alley and see what's around the corner. I was amused to see framed doorways with gates practically hovering in space. Obviously they led down via steps to private homes but to see them free-standing was novel for me- rather like a time portal where curiosity made you want to take a risk and walk through. But they were locked.

Needing a comfort stop we quaffed a cold soft drink at a picturesque restaurant. The heat was intense but we were so focussed on soaking up the experience that we noticed the discomfort less than we would have done normally. A young couple had ordered a meal and a bottle of white wine. I could see JC looking at that wistfully but we didn't have time to do that, we weren't staying the night in the village.

After giving the main discovery areas an investigation I went in search of something to buy to remind me of this beautiful place. Merchandise is more expensive but it's much better quality. I'd spent the whole trip up to this point trying to find some pottery to bring back that would not get broken in the luggage. I'd come away with nothing because plates and bowls were too much of a risk and you have to be careful of the place of origin (made in China was a constant fear). My eyes lit on a cute little handmade vase in navy, turquoise and white with a fine crackle of the glaze. To me it really does say "Greek Islands".

There were many art galleries with new ideas which were interesting but were not for me. On an impulse I stepped into a shop that sold limited edition prints. Woah! The prints weren't tacky and one of them screamed 'take-me'. It was a view of Oia houses and churches at sunrise or sunset over the sea. Warm colours of terracotta and blues - absolutely me so JC bought me one and one for himself. He too was really taken by it. I just need to find a good framer.

Another interesting shop specialised in puppets. So colourful but not practical in my appartment. Jewellery, clothing; there was something for everyone. I'd highly recommend a visit and there are accommodation options there too.

Santorini has archeological sites on the island but we only had the afternoon to get there, visit and get back all the way to the ship. The sun was setting as we chugged back to the Louis Olympia. I just had time to watch the lights come on, on the cruise ships, as we powered away from our last island visit, cruising back to the port of Pireus at Athens. Magical.

Cruising to Crete

The second to last island stop on my cruise of the Greek Islands was Crete, the largest of the islands. There are 5000 inhabitants. The port of Heraklion was our first glimpse and we transferred to the archeological site of Knossos.

Knossos was the seat of the legendary King Minos and the main centre of power in Crete.

Knossos is famous for the ruins of the Minoan civilisation which was established there 4000 BC yes, that's 6000 years ago. I was awed by the engineering excellence, the clever architecture and the water management used. Real toilets. Such a tragedy that this technology was lost in antiquity and we all had to rediscover what had once been comonplace.

The first settlement in the Knossos area was established circa 7000 BC, during the Neolithic Period. The economic, social and political development of the settlement led to the construction of the majestic Palace of Knossos towards the end of the second millennium BC.

The first Palace at Knossos was destroyed circa 1700 BC. It was rebuilt and destroyed again by fire, this time definitively, in 1350 BC.

In March 1900 to 1931, Sir Arthur Evans excavated not only the Palace but the whole surrounding area of Knossos. The Palace complex was excavated in only five years, an extremely short time by today’s standards.

Evans restored the Palace with concrete, a technique condemned by modern archaeologists as arbitrary and damaging to the Minoan structure. Excavations continue and a conservation programme is under way to halt the deterioration of the Palace.

This programme has its detractors. In order to give tourists and students something to actually look at they have reconstructed little bits and pieces as they would have looked. Fake wood, concrete, painted columns are like a poor Hollywood film set. WARNING: what you see isn't 'real'. It's fake.

The frescos on the remaining excavations are copies. The originals are in museums. The edges of buildings are not the orignials. It's useful for educational purposes but it's less reqarding than other archeological sites.

JC found it all so tedious and fake that he took to taking photos of stupid things as his personal rebellion. He has a good collection of the following: a pair of jandals being worn, a section of modern spouting, a rubbish bin, a cigarette butt on the ground, an umbrella, a restaurant menu, my backside. I tried to stick with the programme but I too got bored and the effort to try to understand the French commentary of our guide made it all too hard.

In my opinion Ephesus in Turkey, as well as sites in Sicily leave it for dead, except for the fact it is so very ancient. That part is truly hard to grasp- that people thousands of years ago had such a high standard of living had such sophisticated technologies which were more eco than what we usually have now.

Next post focuses on Santorini- the jewel in the cruise, for me.