Chapter 2: My Big Fat Greek Holiday

Trip Start May 10, 2006
Trip End Dec 17, 2006

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Greece is actually further east than a few of the countries in Eastern Europe so I'm not sure why it usually gets classified as part of "western" Europe. Maybe it's because of all the impact Greece has had on western culture. With about 5000 years of history I'll spare you going into the details. Let's just say Greece has had a major influence on western art, architecture, politics, philosophy, etc... Names like Socrates, Plato, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Archimedes and Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey are known by most everybody (Xena Warrior Princess might have been from Greece too). It would be interesting to see what the world would be like today if Greek civilization had continued to prosper like in the years following the Persian Wars when democracy, art and philosophy were flourishing. The Ottoman Empire occupied Greece for several centuries up until the early 1800s when the Greeks revolted and gained independence. There's still an animosity towards the Turks today. Post WWII there was a civil war and eventually a sort of stability has settled in.

As this is a new trip and travelog, I'd like to make it more interesting. I think the "I did this and this then this" style isn't terribly exciting. I'd like to describe it such that it almost feels like you're along for the trip, but I just don't think I can write that lots of descriptions and thought takes more time. More time at the internet cafes means more money, and I should be out enjoying where I'm at instead of being in the internet cafe. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'll try to make these updates a better read but don't expect too much. This update was originally going to have all of Greece (mainland and islands) but I decided to split it up into two. Most the upcoming entries will probably be by country.

Flights hardly ever arrive early, but my ones to Germany and Greece were doing just that(and the German airlines had pretty stewardesses). I flew from London to Hamburg and switched planes there. Had to walk to the other terminal and got checked in so I could wait around. The next flight took me to Astakos in Greece where we arrived and took off early so I arrived in Corfu just a bit ahead of schedule. Of course, that just meant waiting around even longer for the hostel person to come pick me up. I think they actually forgot about me so I called them and they said someone was on her way. It was an older Greek woman born and raised on Corfu. She was kinda creepy 'cuz she was telling me I had beautiful eyes and such. Uhhh, I'm just going to jump out of this moving vehicle now. She drove me to the western side of the island to a town called Agios Gordios where the hostel is. The Pink Palace sits on a hill overlooking the sea, but it's a bit of a hike down to the beach. It is one of the biggest party hostels in Europe so I was a bit worried what I was getting myself into. Turned out peak season hadn't hit yet so it wasn't too crazy. I arrived just before dinner and had a quick trip down to the beach to catch pre-sunset then up to the hostel for dinner. I was sat with a table full of girls which definately is not a bad thing. Actually being able to talk to one without being interrupted by others was. Nearly all were American with the exception of a couple Canadians and a Norwegian girl. And nearly all had recently finished study abroad programs and were doing quick trips around Europe. Conversations about what you're doing in Europe can be kind of lame but even more so when everyone you talk to has the same response - "I studied in ___ and came over to Corfu from Italy. We went to Rome and Venice and are going to Prague and Paris..." My favorites are the ones that brag about all the places they've been and have "done" Italy by going to Rome, Florence and Venice. Uhhh, ya. The Norwegian girl was more interesting as she actually has a job and is just on a quick holiday, but she had also just come over from Italy on the overnight ferry so was tired and went to bed soon after dinner. The dining area also serves as the dance/party area post-dinner. Only problem is, after dinner a lot of the people left. Played some card games with the people left over. We did a group shot of what's kind of like a long island minus the mixers chased by a shot red bull & vodka. The first one with all the alcohol was in a regular sized glass and packed quite a punch. I mentioned afterwards to one of the girls that it was kind of a rough shot. Her reply was "it was f-ing awesome!" Hmmm, just a couple minutes earlier she couldn't finish the shot in one go and had to take several sips...making faces each time. That would kind of prove the theme of the Pink Palace - college kids trying to look cool and thinking drinking to excess is the way to do it. I'm getting old.

I had a relaxing day my first full day in Corfu. The weather was great so I just went down to the beach and read for a while. Stopped in town for some water and a gyro for lunch. (The Pink Palace rips you off on their prices for drinks and food. Stuff from the markets was less than half the price. Guess they figure people are just too lazy to walk the few blocks.) Went kayaking for a while. The water was calm so that was nice. Just sat and rested floating on the water now and then. Back to the beach to relax in the sun. Soon it was time to get ready for dinner. It was cross-dressing night. Funny thing, I didn't pack any women's clothes. Hmmm... One thing that bugged me about the scheduled dinner time each night was that it conflicted with sunset. I missed it each evening 'cuz I had to be inside at PP for food. The dinner group this night was much the same as the night prior - college students who studied abroad and are traveling Europe. The cross-dressing theme didn't liven things up at all. Actually, it was even quieter than the previous night. I sat with a couple sisters from New Jersey, the younger kind of mad at the older for being overprotective of her. There was a futbol match on that evening so I went down to a local pub and watched Arsenal vs Barcelona. The locals gave me a hard time 'cuz they figured I was British and the waitress was pretty, so it was a good time. Back to the Pink Palace but it was dead.
Transport around the island of Corfu isn't so easy unless you have your own vehicle. Most people at the PP let themselves just hang out there and experience the "culture" of Greece. I missed the morning bus into town so went down to the beach again. I had spotted a nice beach a bit to the north while kayaking so went up that way and found the sandy area. Sat out there reading and enjoying the sunshine for a while. On my walk back the nudists had come out (and, of course, they were all guys. d'oh!). Another gyro for lunch then caught an afternoon bus into town. Greek women seem to be the loud ones. On the bus an old woman got on and was screaming. My interpretation, "I'm old and shouldn't have to pay since I'm old! What are you doing trying to make an old woman pay for the bus!?! Are you crazy!?! I'm old! Don't make and old woman pay for the bus!" Once in Corfu Town, I checked ferry times at the dock and went on to explore the New Fortress. It was alright and had some good views of town.

I wandered around the Old Town a little while. It was quite cute - I like the outdoor cafes. Had to get back to the bus station for the ride back to Agios Gordios. No special themes this night at the PP. New Canadians and Americans this night, but there was also a guy from New Zealand and a girl from Mexico who live together in San Francisco and quit their jobs to travel. They had some interesting stories but left soon after dinner. More drinking games this evening followed by some billiards.

Was quite happy to be on my way out of the Pink Palace and onto somewhere new. Got the morning bus to Corfu Town then caught the ferry to Igoumenitsa. I rode on the deck in the sunshine. It was around this day that I began to become more familiar with the Greek alphabet. Looking in my book I saw many of the letters/symbols I recognize and their sound. For example, sigma sounds like an S, lambda like an L, delta like a D (or th). Of course, there are several that don't sound like what you might expect (e.g., beta sounds like a V). When we arrived in port, I used the Let's Go book's info on how to find the bus station. It said to head north and follow it to 23 Februariou street. So I headed north for a ways not seeing the street anywhere. Stopped in at a mini-market and the lady told me the bus station was further in the direction I was heading. I kept walking and walking. Went into a travel agency and the woman in there told me it was back in the center of town. *&$#@! Walked all the way back into town and found the bus station just a little ways SOUTH of the port. Freakin' Let's Go book. I wasted an hour looking for the bus station and had to wait another hour for the next bus to Ioannina. That was a windy 2 hour bus ride. I had a little over 2 hours to kill there before the next bus so checked out the town. Ali Pasha had a fortress built in Ioannina as the capital of his empire. There's an old town surrounded by a wall and a couple citadels/minarets on the hills.

While walking to one, I had a couple stray dogs barking and biting at me. A bonk on the nose with my book got them to back off. There are lots of stray dogs around Greece. Had some souvlaki for dinner. Caught the 7pm bus to Kalambaka and went through more windy, mountain passes. I didn't realize how mountainous Greece is...or that there'd still be snow in the mountains. Arrived in Kalambaka about 10pm and hiked way up the hill to the hotel, checked-in and was about ready to pass out. The old lady running the hotel was quite nice.

Kalambaka is situated at the base of some cool looking rock pillars/cliffs where some monks built monasteries back in 14th century. The monks built the monasteries to escape persecution by the Turks. I took the bus from town to the Grand Meteoron monastery at the top of the hill. Did a tour around inside the monastery - it was neat to see how they lived back in the day (and made their own wine). The inside of the church had some interesting murals - scene after scene of saints/holy people (they had halos) being killed and tortured in various ways. Beheadings seemed to be popular. In the museum they have some books and manuscripts from almost 1000 years ago! On to Varlaam monastery, the next one along the road. It wasn't as big but still had some nice areas to see. Roussanou monastery is one of the more dramatically situated ones and looks cool for pictures.

I didn't go inside that one. Continued on down the road for some pictures of Agios Nikolaus monastery. I tried to find the trail back to town through the hills. My first attempt brought me to a dry creek bed and the trail disappeared so I went back up the road to another trail. That one was better and got me to the top of the hill for some good views of the monasteries and town. Heading down though, the trail soon disappeared at a dry creek bed again. I tried to locate the trail, but didn't have any luck so just followed the creek bed down. Eventually I spotted the rock path and crossed over to it and had an easy rest of the way down. In town I checked on the train times for the next day and uploaded some pictures at an Internet cafe. In the evening I hung out with the folks at the hotel. There were a couple Aussies and some Americans. The Aussies were quite talkative.

Woke up early for the 6:35am train to Athens. There was some nice scenery along the way. Well, what I saw before napping was nice. I got off at a town called Livadia and rode the bus from the train station to the actual town. Got there about 10am and found the bus stop for the bus to Delphi and started waiting. After a little while, I checked at a local kiosk and found out the bus is supposed to arrive at noon. So I wasted some time and waited back at the bus stop about 11:30am. Bus didn't freakin' arrive 'til about 12:45pm. Argh! Got to Delphi about 1:45pm and followed a guy to his hotel 'cuz rooms were only 15euro. (Greece is quite expensive for accomodation. Not so bad for food and transport though. Money seems to be disappearing rather quickly...I'm not sure what I'm spending it on as I eat cheap and don't buy things.) Delphi used to have an oracle that drew pilgrims from all over for its wisdom. I wandered off to see the ruins. There is something inherent in the word 'ruins' that implies buildings that are no longer intact, but I really do prefer it when there's a lot remaining. The ruins of Delphi are mostly just that - ruins. Quite a few of the buildings only have foundations left or there are a couple blocks from walls sitting there. The Temple of Apollo only had a few pillars left standing.

The theater and stadium are in relatively good shape though. Any good statues or frescoes have long since been removed and put in museums. I don't find it terribly exciting looking at ruins that consist mostly of parts of walls littered about the ground. Checked out some more ruins just below the main ones - those were just ok too. Back to town to pass the evening. My hotel room had a balcony with a nice view of the Gulf of Corinth for sunset.

I learned the day before that there was no bus that would take me to Corinth on the Peloppenese Peninsula from where I'd go on to Nafplion to visit ancient Mycanae. I'd have to go to Athens then over. I was up really dang early for the 5:30am bus to Athens, which showed up about 5:45am. Napped most the way to Athens arriving in a little past 8:30am. I knew it was going to be a bit of a pain getting from bus terminal B to bus terminal A, but the guy at the bus station in Delphi assured me it would be a quick 10min taxi ride. Tried to get a taxi at the bus station and they were trying to rip me off saying it would be 15euro. So I went to the street to catch a metered taxi. Every taxi had people in it. I walked a ways to the main road the bus came in on and spent like 45 min trying to get a taxi without any luck. Most had people in them but others just wouldn't stop. I thought it might be 'cuz I obviously look like a tourist with my backpack on, but then I saw that they weren't stopping for much of anyone. Sometimes they would stop for a person and they'd tell the driver where they want to go and the taxi driver would just drive off and leave them. !!! OK, so taxi drivers in Athens suck. Drivers in general in Greece don't seem to pay much heed to traffic laws. I'd always have to look before crossing on a walk signal. Too much time had passed and I was getting frustrated so decided to just go to a hostel in Athens. Called and they had beds available so I just hopped on the subway there (which was right across the street from where I was standing). My initial thought was I'd stay in Athens 2 nights so I could make a daytrip to Mycanae. Upon further reading, I didn't think it would be worth the 9 hours of travel back and forth since it sounded like the ruins wouldn't be in such good shape. Oh well. So I have 3 days to kill in Athens. Around the Monastiraki subway station are a bunch of street vendors and cafes. I got a big bag of strawberries for 2euro. Rode the subway a bit north to the Archeological Museum but it's closed on Mondays, so I sat in the park and ate strawberries. Went to Ancient Agora and explored around (it's right by the Acropolis). Most everything in ruins but the Hephaesteion was in reasonably good shape. There are some good views of the Acropolis from Agora as well. It's really, really hot out so I was dying while checking out the ruins. Had my big bottle of water to hydrate myself with. Looked around some of the shops in town (got a magnet), checked out the enzone (soldiers) at the tomb of the unknown soldier and wandered the National Gardens. The hotel I stayed at had a rooftop terrace with an excellent view of the Acropolis so I had my dinner up there then ventured out later. There's quite a thriving cafe scene in Athens. People are all out in the afternoons and evenings enjoying a drink or a small bite to eat. I may as well paint a big 'L' on my forehead if I'm sitting at a cafe table alone, so being a solo traveler has disadvantages.
Slept in a bit and got myself up to the Acropolis just in time to enjoy it with hordes of group tours. Ugh, groups of tourists are the bane of my existence. They completely block pathways, crowd around signs and generally do everything they can to get in my way. There are security people all over watching because it seems like tourists are some of the stupidest people on earth (or just beligerent) as they'll cross over ropes or chains and stand on ancient buildings, take flash pictures when there are signs all over with 'no flash photos', touch things they're not supposed to, etc... The Acropolis is under major reconstruction so there's scaffolding all over everything and a couple large cranes by the Parthenon. The Temple of Athena Nike is almost completely torn apart. I checked out the sites and made a toga for Spanky out of a napkin for pictures. I got whistled at by security while taking pictures of Spanky in front of the Parthenon. I guess that falls under the etc category for stupid tourists. Hmmm, there was no sign that said do not take pictures of monkeys. Perhaps security thought people would confuse Spanky for one of the Greek gods. Mighty Zeus or Adonis?

I continued around there looking at the buildings and museum before wandering down to the Theatre of Dionysus and Temple of Olympian Zeus. More walking around the shopping areas and visiting my mini market (I must have stopped in there like 10 times while in Athens). Basically I was just wasting time. Like in Spain and Italy, most the shops close up in the afternoon and people take their siesta. I followed there example and popped in at the hotel for a nap. More aimless wandering to waste time before going back to the hotel to watch the sun set. It was ok but I was hoping for some nice pinks and purples behind the Acropolis. The hotel/hostel seems dead today and no one was around the roof for sunset (or most the day from what I could tell). Had yet another gyro for dinner (I'm fairly sick of gyros now) sitting in a plaza in one of the pedestrian areas. Nothing exciting tonight.
Slept in again and checked out of the hotel. The lady that ran the hotel definately wasn't the friendliest. Put my bags into storage at the subway station. Went back out to the Archeological Museum and spent a couple hours there checking out the artifacts. Wow, there's a lot of stuff! So many vases, statues, jewelry, etc... It was interesting to see how the statues evolved from rather plain to showing emotion and true physical features. Since I had the whole day to kill, I went out to the Olympics site and checked that out. The stadiums and Olympic village are kind of cool but it doesn't look like they're really being used. That's a shame. I've seen that at other Olympics venues. More wandering aimlessly in the streets near Agora below the Acropolis. Saw the enzone again and went to Benaki Museum. It's a collection of various things, mostly Greek, acquired by a guy over his lifetime. There was some cool stuff but I was a bit museum'd out for the day. Killed some time at the i-net cafe before catching the subway out to Piraeus for my overnight ferry ride to Santorini.

Mainland Greece was a bit of a let down for me. The ruins just weren't up to my expectations and transport was a pain. Meteora is quite cool and I'm glad I made it there. The 2.5 days in Athens were about 2 days too many. I guess like anywhere there are some friendly people and others that are just kind of blah. Maybe I ran into too many of the blah people in Greece - they just didn't seem overly friendly and willing to help. The islands are supposed to be the highlight of Greece so I expect the coming days will be nicer.
(tentative - Santorini, Ios, Paros + Naxos, Samos then to Turkey)
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