Saturday, July 30, 2016

Greece Trip. Sun. 7/24/16 PM (Cruise)

What can I say about Santorini other than it was breathtaking? On official maps its name is Thira, although nobody seems to call it that. It was called Calliste, most beautiful, in ancient times. To get there our cruise ship Celestyal Olympia actually sailed over a caldera, meaning a collapsed volcano. It's still active. Santorini is actually part of a series of five islands, and one of only two that are inhabited.

Oia, a scenic village of Santorini, also known as Thira

This island has no potable water and no irrigation. There are wells, cisterns, and bottled water. Farmers manage carefully-selected and -tended crops that live on morning humidity. White grapes, for example, mostly used for wine-making, are grown very low to the ground and in a basket shape to take advantage of the morning moisture and to protect the vines from high winds. The soil itself is highly fertile and multicolored due to the island's geology. It's also prone to earthquakes. The major source of income is tourism and wine.

View from Santorini

While some friends enjoyed an excursion and swim on the surrounding islands, Don and I took a bus tour with some walking and shopping in a pretty town named Oia (pronounced EEE-ya).

A church on Santorini with its typical blue dome. Blue and white are popular colors
 Little chapels dot the island, mostly private ones from seafaring families. Barrel vaults and domes are common in construction here due to the ability to survive earthquakes. The most expensive apartments and houses are constructed from caves. Ironically, the caves were originally built by inhabitants too poor to live anywhere else, but they happen to overlook the most scenic views on the island and now fetch high prices, replete with decks and even private swimming pools.

Cave-dwellings, highly desirable places to live on Santorini

Joanna, our EF tour director, pointed out that housing, which looks similar (white and tightly packed) at a distance on Greek islands, actually varies quite a bit. Samos is "lucky" because it gets enough rain to be fairly self-supporting, producing what it needs. The roofs there have tiles to fend off rain. Other islands have flat roofs lacking tiles. Rains is scarce, and what little the islands get, inhabitants collect and keep. Santorini favors earthquake-resistant designs, as mentioned above. In some areas of Greece, rebar is fashionable, sticking out of many roofs. Taxes are lower on unfinished buildings, so inhabitants leave rebar sticking out of the concrete buildings to convince inspectors of their lack of completion.

After Oia we rode a cable-car down to the harbor to rendezvous with our ship. The ride was fun, like a slow-motion roller-coaster with splendid views for those intrepid enough to keep their eyes open. Tonight we pack for an early-morning flight back to the U.S.

The best part of this trip has been the quality-time spent with my wonderful husband, Don. We would like to come back, perhaps to go diving, definitely to visit the National Archaeological Museum at Athens, which we heard a lot about but never had the chance to visit. The islands, especially Hydra, Samos, and Santorini, beckon us back, and it would be nice to visit Ephesus in Turkey when the political situation improves there.

Don and I, here on Santorini, thoroughly enjoyed our Greek vacation and our time together

The Greeks are a spiritual people with strong ties to the Greek Orthodox Church. They love life, love fun, a party, fireworks, celebrations, and each other (friends and family). Don and I would be very happy to return there should the opportunity arise.

Speaking of opportunities, I am organizing a tour of Italy in July, 2018. Anyone interested in prices or details can click here for more information. Anyone who wants to see more pictures and videos may visit this photostream on Flickr. Opa!

Greece Trip, Sun. 7/24/16 AM (Cruise)

In the morning we stopped at Heraklion, Crete's capital, named after Heracles (Hercules), the Greek hero and demi-god who slew the beautiful, white Bull of Poseidon as one of his Twelve Labors. This bull fathered the bull-headed monster, the Minotaur, by Queen Pasiphae, the wife of Crete's King Minos, the early ruler of Crete and son of Zeus in Greek myth.

The Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth, according to myth, until Athens' hero, Theseus, killed him with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne. On Crete the labyrinth, originally a word that may have meant a double ax representing the seat of double power, refers to the Palace of Knossos, the seat of a powerful, sophisticated, and influential sea-faring culture that historians call Minoan Civilization. The palace is the site of the oldest theater in Europe. The frescoes decorating the palace itself are reproductions of artwork housed in Heraklion's Archaeological Museum along with other objects and treasures. Its columns are wide at the top and narrow at the bottom and painted, giving them a liveliness lacking from later Greco-Roman columns.

Cretan bull behind typical Minoan painted columns

Model of the Palace of Knossos seems labyrinthine
Double-Axes from Crete (Hubby, Don, to show scale)

Famous artwork at Knossos include ivory snake-goddesses, bulls, bull-dancers, and bulls' horns, double axes, and griffins. Some griffins are winged, others not. The winged griffins are tethered to keep them from flying away. Also in the museum is the Phaistos Disk which contains an inscription the meaning of which is either unknown or highly controversial.

Bull-dancing fresco
Throne-room of Palace of Knossos

Wingless Griffin from Knossos
Winged Griffin is tethered so it won't fly away
Fresco of Dolphins
Female fresco from the Palace of Knossos
Gold and ivory snake-goddesses from Knossos
Europe's earliest theater
Looking for an adult group tour for July, 2018? Click here for more information.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Greece Trip, Sat. 7/23/16 (Cruise)

One nice thing about EF Tours is the ease with which it rearranges or reschedules in light of world events and U.S. State Department recommendations. We were originally scheduled to stop in Kusadasi in Turkey to visit Ephesus, but the State Department has issued travel warnings for U.S. citizens in Turkey since at least March, so EF arranged for an unadvertised stop on the lovely island of Samos, instead. It's located close to Turkey, where Greece defeated the Turks to gain independence in the 1800s. We were impressed that EF could influence the cruise line to make this adjustment for us.

EF Groups skipped Kusadasi in Turkey due to State Department travel advisories

Highlights of our visit to Samos included a tour of the ancient temple of Hera, a tour of a winery museum which included a wine tasting, and ample time on the beach. Samos is the birthplace of the influential Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, so Don was thrilled to be there and to spend time with the island's Pythagoras-monument. Prices were great on the island for those of us who went shopping, and merchants and restaurants were very welcoming. Apparently, business is down due to the migrant crisis that peaked several months ago. We saw no problems when we were there.

Monument to Pythagoras of Samos

A sailor treats his pet goats on Samos
The wine-tasting was the most popular part of the museum tour. Samos makes some famous wines, including the official communion wine of the Greek Orthodox Church

The Celestyal Olympia picked ups up on its way back from Ephesus in the afternoon. Apparently there were no problems for the passengers who disembarked there, but better safe than sorry. It took us to the island of Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelations. Don and I ate ice cream and strolled around the town before returning to the ship for supper.

Patmos is a sacred place with a beautiful harbor and a monastery up on the hill

Greece Trip, Fri. 7/22/16 (Cruise)

After passing through customs, we boarded the cruise ship Celestyal Olympia, bound for some Aegean islands. Joanna, our EF Tour Director, warned us to avoid drinking the water on the ship except what was offered at meals. She said to avoid the cabin water for taking medications or even brushing our teeth, if possible. Bottled water was more than double the typical price ashore, so we bought water every time we disembarked and brought it back with us. Once on board, we surrendered our passports for a plastic card linked to our passport and credit card. The card served a variety of purposes on the ship, including as our boarding pass, means of making purchases, passport, and room key. It quickly became our vade mecum.

The Cruise Ship, Celestyal Olympia, was a pleasant place to hang out

  During our scenic and restful voyage I lounged by one of the ship's two swimming pools, listened to Greek music and watched passengers trying out a variety of dances from traditional Greek folk dances to Merengue to Zumba©.


We arrived at the first island on our tour, Mykonos, famous for a pretty seafront called "Little Venice" and several old-fashioned windmills. The island was sandy, even dusty near the windmills. Water sprayed over the sea walls dotted with little cafes. Stores sold Greek clothes and blue-and-white scenic paintings and silver jewelry. Buildings were white, the water near shore was a vivid, aquamarine blue, changing to sapphire where it turned deep. I found out the tourist season runs from March to October and that few reside on the island year-round. Some winter in Athens.

Recently the American Hollywood star, Leonardo di Caprio, was spotted hiding out on Mykonos. I can't say I blame him. Unlike us, though, he traveled by private jet.

Mykonos' main tourist attraction is its picturesque windmills
View of "Little Venice" on the Greek Island of Mykonos
Sunsets over the Aegean are beautiful to behold
Another Cruise Ship at night, with a Greek island in the background

Greece Trip, Thurs. 7/21/16

We spent most of the day on a bus between Delphi and Athens. On our way down Mt. Parnassus, where Delphi is located, we stopped at a ski resort, the one closest to Athens, for a summertime photo-stop.

View of Mt. Parnassus in Greece
Don and I enjoy a summertime photo-stop at a ski-resort on Mt. Parnassus in Greece
After we arrived in Athens we had a couple of hours for lunch and free time. Don and I returned to the Acropolis Museum. Our earlier visit seemed too short, plus we knew it was air-conditioned.We took some time along the way to admire the street art/graffiti.

Street Art or Graffiti in Athens near the Acropolis Museum

The late afternoon and evening was spent on yet another bus tour along an area near Athens known as the "Greek Cote d'Azur" for its clear and colorful waters. It's popular with swimmers and divers. There we visited the archaeological site of Cape Sounion with its Temple of Poseidon.

Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

Don takes pictures of the beautiful views near the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

In the evening, most of our tour group rested and dined at our hotel, but a few of us rode by taxi and funicular train up Mt. Lycabettus to a beautiful restaurant called Orizontes (Horizons in English). The mountain is so tall the views were spectacular. We had the odd experience of actually looking down at the Acropolis and the Parthenon. The reason this higher mountain never became Athens' citadel was due to a lack of water. The restaurant was a little pricey, and we returned to the hotel after midnight and very tired, but the food was great, the service excellent, and the view itself made the whole experience well worth our time and money.

I am organizing a tour of Italy in July of 2018.

A daytime view looking down at Athens' Acropolis and the Parthenon

A breathtaking night view of the city of Athens from Mt. Lycabettus

Greece Trip, Wednesday, 7/20/16

 Today we headed to Delphi, the seat of the famous temple and oracle of Pythian Apollo, named for his slaying there of the snake-monster, Python. His priestess, Pythia, gave forth oracles that were interpreted by his priests. These were famous for always being right, because Apollo was not only the Sun, but also all-seeing Truth (and Medicine and Music and other things). Of course, the ever-correct oracles, like modern horoscopes, could be quite vague, as proven by the example of Themistocles' famous prophecy about Athens' wooden walls. Pythian games, like the Olympics but more cerebral due to the addition of poetry and music competitions, were celebrated in his honor there. Delphi was amazingly wealthy at its height, a repository not only for votive offerings but  the treasuries of various Greek city-states.

Altar and temple of Pythian Apollo in the background; the bronze spiral in the foreground is a copy of one relocated to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantine

The restored "Treasury of the Athenians," for example, commemorated Athens' victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, the same event from which the racing-term "marathon" comes. Hopefully modern marathoners don't drop dead like the original runner did. Near the treasury grows some laurel, a tree sacred to Apollo. The leaves of the laurel are the familiar bay leaves found in many kitchens. Pythia may have chewed its leaves as part of the process of getting high to produce her prophecies. The metopes of this treasury featured the exploits of the famous Athenian hero, Theseus.

Restored Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi; the metope on the right shows Theseus killing the Minotaur

Laurel trees (left) grow near the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, Greece

Until this visit I never knew that Delphi closed down for three months in the winter time, at least as far as Apollo was concerned. Instead, worshipers took to the local wilderness to worship Bacchus or Dionysus, the god of grapes, wine, liquid nourishment, wild animals, etc. An important relationship between the two gods is implied by Praxiteles' statue in my previous post. Our guide says their complementary worship shows the Greek love for balance between mind and body, with Apollo representing the needs of the mind, and Dionysus, those of the body. It's an interesting idea. The region today is thickly dotted by olive trees, sacred to Athena, the remains of whose temple is visible near them. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Remains of the Temple of Athena near her sacred olive trees in Delphi, Greece

Under the sacred road leading to Apollo's temple, a burial site was found. Hidden inside were treasures that corroborate ancient tales of Delphi's treasures and wealth. We found them displayed in the splendid little museum nearby. We also found a reproduction of the omphalos there, the famous bronze charioteer, and, of course, the original kylix cup, a reproduction of which I bought yesterday.

Gold burial-offerings from Delphi, Greece

Griffin gold burial-offering from Delphi, Greece

Famous bronze charioteer at Delphi

Kylix cup at Delphi illustrates the pouring of a libation (liquid offering)

Roman reproduction of the omphalos or navel-stone found at Delphi, Olympia, considered the center of the universe

On our way to Delphi we stopped at the Rion-Antirion Bridge, an engineering achievement of which the Greeks are very proud. Officially known as the Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge after the statesman who advocated for its construction, it is the world's longest cable-stayed bridge. They completed it ahead of schedule and in time for the 2004 Olympics. We saw video about the effort it took to build this bridge and were rightly impressed. The fireworks the Greeks celebrated its completion with were more impressive than anything I've ever seen. Joanna told us she knows the man in charge of those fireworks, the same man who supervised the fireworks at the Olympic Games. As Joanna says, the Greeks know how to celebrate. Opa!

Rion-Antirion or Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge, the longest cable-stay bridge in the world, is in Greece

I am organizing an Italy tour in the summer of 2018.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Greece Trip, Tuesday, 7/19/16

Today we headed for Olympia on Greece's western coast. On the way we stopped at a store, Padelina, owned and operated by a Greek family that grows and processes olives. We enjoyed a highly educational olive-tasting there. Even virgin olive oils taste different, we learned, depending on the type of olive, location, and details of processing. Consumer Reports has found many imported olive oils lacking, so I wanted to take the time to find out what a fine-quality olive oil can and should taste like. There's a fusti bar, Experience Olive and Grapes, near home in Chesapeake, Virginia, so hopefully we can continue to find high-quality olive oils after we return home.

By the look on my face, I found an olive oil that tastes "just right"
Our next stop was the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, also called the Archimedes' Museum and the Museum of Ancient Greek Musical Instruments and Toys in Katakolo Port. There we saw reproductions of an assortment of amazing inventions, including the automatic theater of Philon and the robot-servant of Philon (3rd Century B.C), the hydraulic clock of Ktesibios (also 3rd Century B.C.), Hero's "aeolosphere" or steam engine, a type of ancient calculator, a couple of advanced catapults, and the world's first door alarm. The museum is privately built and owned and well worth our time. Some of the exhibits were hands-on, an aspect many of us thoroughly enjoyed. Don, who likes to tinker with gadgets and inventions, was in heaven.

The robot-servant of Philon served wine (mixed with water, of course) at dinner-parties
We checked into our hotel in Olympia, then headed for a tour of the Olympia Museum and Olympia itself, the site of the original Pan-Hellenic Games in honor of Zeus Olympios, and the inspiration for the modern Olympic Games. All the city-states of Greece ceased war and held these games to honor the gods and to compete to see who was the best at various athletic events.

Highlight of the small museum in Olympia were the Hermes of Praxitiles and clay molds with glass and other evidence of Phidias' workshop. Phidias built not only the statue of Zeus Olympios at his temple in Olympia but the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. Both of the statues are long gone, but they were well-described and famous in their day. In fact, the statue of Zeus was one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World." Hera's temple at Olympia is actually older and possibly a sign of a more matriarchal society that was later supplanted. The altar in front of the remains of Hera's temple is the site where the modern-day Olympic torch is lit even today.

Don and Zoe, a member of our group, race in the original Olympic stadium. The heat was stifling. Zoe won, but I thought Don gave it a pretty good effort for a man who's nearing sixty years of age.

Praxitiles' Hermes at Olympia. He teases baby Dionysus, probably with grapes
Clay mold and evidence of glass-making for Phidias' statue(s)
In the evening we walked around Olympia, a pleasant village with lots of shopping for us tourists. I bought a nice reproduction of a kylix, a type of ancient Greek wine-cup. Sakis Doylas made the reproduction with exquisite colors. He is very proud of his work. The original was found in a burial site and is now housed in the museum at Delphi, which we will visit tomorrow. We also visited Apollo Jewellery, whose owners were proud of the fact that a member of the family carried the Olympic torch for the 1996 games held in Atlanta. They still have the torch and like to show it off to visitors from the U.S.

Don and I pose with the Olympic torch. The owners insist Americans do this (seriously)
I am not sure of the timeline, but somewhere up to this point in the trip we visited the ancient theater of Epidaurus, famed for its perfect acoustics and careful mathematical proportions.

The Theater of Epidaurus. We tested the acoustics by clapping and by dropping a coin in the center. Amazing!
For those who are considering travel to Greece, and, indeed, to much of Europe, keep in mind the bathrooms are generally small. Very small. I worry that many Americans, who tend toward plus-sized, might not even fit in many of the showers we used on this trip. I will post some pictures so readers can see what I mean. Don kindly stands in the showers to give us a sense of size and proportion.

Don in a typical shower in Greece. Bathrooms and showers are tiny by U.S. standards
This bathroom seems small even by Greek standards, but we managed.
Want to visit Italy in July, 2018? I am organizing a tour.