Sunday, October 31, 2004

Greek Island Hopping and the Peloponese

Santorini - Foleganoros - Sikonos - Ios - Naxos - Paros - Antiparos - Athens - Nafplio - Mycenae - Corinth Isthmus - Olympia - Gythio - Areopoli - Monemvasia - Sparta - Mystras - Athens

G'day youse guys,

Greeks seem to have a distorted perception of distance/time. For example, Greeks never run buses on time - if it ever arrives that is - basically the buses will arrive when it feels like it! A bus arriving an hour later is not unusual. In fact, one should just ignore the timetables and ask the person at the bus ticket office when the bus will arrive.

Though this has it's problems too, as one person's perception of "5 minutes" is someone elses "20". Same with distance. As a general example I found that 200m=600m, 500m=800m, 800m=1.5km, 1.5km=800m, 2km=get a bus/taxi cause it's a 1hr walk!
Also, the more rushed you are to get to your destination to say, catch a bus (that will turn up on time only if you're in a rush), the shorter the distance they claim it is, and the further away the distance it really is in reality!

But Greece is an absolutely wonderful place!

Anyway... left Santorini to go to Paros with some friend called Dave (Canadian). Because the ferry had to stop at several islands (Folendoros, Sikonos, Ios, Naxos), we decided to jump off the ferry at each stop, take photos of each other standing on the island, then hop back on the ferry, so we can say that we had visited the island. From memory, Folendoros was a small rocky island with a tiny white village; Sikonos was a larger version of such. Ios was even bigger with a nice beach visible. Naxos was the biggest, looking a lot greener and mountainous too.

Paros is a smaller version of Naxos. However we arrived to find it pretty quiet - the Greek islands are now practically dead - there are almost no tourists around and most of the shops and hotels have closed for the coming winter. Also the weather has gotten a little chillier and windier (which is why I skipped Mykonos and Delos and went straight to Athens after Paros/Antiparos).

Anyway, me and Dave befriended an Aussie couple at breakfast in a cafe, which was good because they had a car, so we ended
up getting driven all over Paros and Antiparos.

Antiparos, a smaller island close to Paros, has beautiful white beaches and a stunning cave full of stalagmites which went way down into the ground into an abyss - apparently one of Europe’s best caves. Couldn't agree more. Then we went to the beaches, where we found the best rocks to skip into the water. We then built a tiny stone village and temple reminiscent of Stonehenge, and took a picture of it close up so it looks like an authentic ruin. Sorta.

Afterwards we went back to Paros and went to the marble quarries, where they mined all the marble for the ancient Greek temples and sculptures. Played in the quarry and the caves nearby like little kids, then drove to the highest point for spectacular views of the island at all sides, seeing the staggered rock fences along the contours of the island mountains.

Headed back to Athens the next day, where (again) I ended up with hostel folk on the large rock adjacent to the Acropolis, drinking red wine and trying to take photos of our silhouettes against the lights of the Acropolis.

Next day I left Athens for Nafplio, which is considered one of Greece's prettiest towns. It didn't disappoint. Towering over this little harbour town of earth coloured rooftops and white/yellow walls is a huge rock peninsula which on top sits Palamida Fortress. To reach it you have to climb up over 1000 steps. Up there one can climb over the ramparts and walls of the old fortress to breathtaking views of the town below. Nafplio also boasts a castle which is much lower and closer to town. The place is stunning at night when they light up the walls of both fortress and castle. And, if that's not enough, it has a nice pebble beach on the other side of the peninsula.

Did a day trip to Mycenae, which is the old ancient Minoan city where the great Agamenemon ruled. He was the leader of the Greeks against the Trojans in the 10 year Trojan war, where they were trying to get back the famous Helen of Troy, his brother’s wife, from Paris, who was a prince of Troy. As well as gain a bit more land too of course. Anyway, Mycenae has some impressive ruins, the famous Lions gate, the domed graves of Agamenemon and his wife with a almost Egyptian like triangular entrance portal, the circle graves, the old palace where Agamenemon ruled from...

Went to the Corinth Isthmus to see the beautiful man made Isthmus canal. This canal was made to create a shipping lane right through the Peloponnese, effectively separating it from the mainland and making it technically an island. The result is a narrow strip of bright blue water streaming in a straight line between tall white vertical cliff faces. Pretty cool.

Olympia was next on my list. There is pretty much nothing left of Olympia standing, most of it is just pieces of rubble, though the ancient gymnasium has a corridor of thin pillars standing which looks like something could have been there. Also saw the Temple of Zeus (the floor anyway, and one standing column), without the famous Gold and Ivory 12m statue of Zeus - one of the wonders of the Ancient World. Apparently the Greeks moved it to Istanbul to stop it from being destroyed through war, only to have it destroyed in Istanbul by fire. Greeks must be kicking themselves for that one.

Oh, also ran down the old ancient Olympic stadium, a large rectangular area of dirt/sand basically. And saw the Temple of Hera where they light the Olympic torch.

Anyway, went all the way south to Gythio, which is the port of Sparta. Very picturesque buildings line the harbour, as well as a causeway leading to a little islet where allegedly Paris and Helen consummated their affair before eloping and causing the start of the Trojan War. Some trees, some shrubs, a little Byzantine white church, an old medieval tower, and an old lighthouse currently sits on the islet.

Went down to Areopoli, which is a town in a region south of Peloponese called the Lakonian Mani, famed for it's stone towers dotted along wildflower covered coastline. No wildflowers due to it not being spring, but a nice enough town to walk around noting the architecture.

Then I went to Monemvasia, which is one of my favourite places I’ve been to! Staying in the town of Gefyra, which is a picturesque coastal town with nice beaches, one could look across the ocean to see a huge towering outcrop of rock sitting in the middle of the waters, with a causeway linking the two. Walking across and then behind the rock you come across a dark tunnel. Walk through the tunnel and you emerge into a beautiful semi deserted/ruined Byzantine town, which is hidden from view from the mainland. Couldn't stop taking photos of the place as it is very picturesque, especially climbing up to the top of the rock where an old ruined fortress sits. Most of the houses are in ruins due to a massive earthquake which separated the town from the mainland in the first place.

Went to Sparta, which is where I've always wanted to see after learning about the Spartan civilisation in high school.

The planting of vast multitudes of palm trees in an area where palm trees are not normally found does not detract from the fact that Sparta is a uninspiring boring town. The ancient Spartan ruins themselves at the north of the town are merely disappointing piles of rubble, with no entry fee, no staff, and no security (I climbed over the fence to get in because it was locked up - at 3pm!)

One thing did amuse me though, in the main square of modern Sparta there is a gym, right on top of a fast food restaurant! Crazy Greeks.

Did a day trip to Mystras nearby, which is a large Byzantium deserted city of churches, palaces and a castle on top of the mountain on which the town follows down the slopes to the fortified walls at the bottom. Quite fun to explore amongst the ruins along the dangerously broken down paths to magnificent views at the top of the castle walls.

And Now I'm back in Athens, for my last night in Europe (for a while), before heading to London to catch a plane back home to Melbourne.

So, thus ends this particular chapter of my life. It's been an interesting and memorable 14 months away from home, learning heaps about life, myself, and all that sort of thing that one sees on soppy Academy Award winning movies. Or something like that anyway...

Anyway, looks like I’ll only be home for over a month or so. My plans for the future are to go back to Germany in mid December this year for a German Christmas and New Years, then go back to get more work in Bristol, England until my working holiday visa runs out in May. I will then travel to Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Moscow, St Petersburg, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, possibly Norway, Denmark, North Germany, Netherlands, then back in England in time to start a teaching degree, which may last a few years including teaching in the UK for a while. Then who knows... Of course all this depends on time, money and luck, but fingers crossed hey?

Until my next adventure,

James Lee

Sunday, October 3, 2004

Central/South Italy

Florence - Siena - Rome - Naples - Mt Vesuvius - Herculaneum - Pompeii - Sorrento - Positano - Capri - Amalfi - Atrani - Ravello - Salerno - Paestum - Materna - Lecce - Brindisi


Hope all is well back home seeing I’ll be back there in 28 days? from now!!

Florence as mentioned in my last email, is a beautiful white marbled facade town, home of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is full of lovingly crafted marble sculptures and rare paintings, unfortunately contained within expensive museums such as the famed Uffizi gallery, which I had intended to visit but ran out of time (and patience waiting in the extremely lengthy queue of people waiting to see works of art such as Botticelli's "Birth of Venus".

Anyway, did get some amazing views of the city from above in an old monetary on top of a hill overlooking Florence, which also contained a beautiful old cemetery with elegant marble gravestones with vines growing on them and all that sort of thing.

Went to Siena the next day, a small town in Tuscany, where all the buildings are the colour of, well, siena. Probably due to the type of building materials they had available at the time, but I think secretly it's a good way to avoid having to wash the walls (they are filthy but the siena colour hides the dirt). No amount of rain (and indeed there was plenty of it that day!) could remove all the dirt caked on the walls. Nice Romanesque town though, with it's chocolate wedge like shaped/shaped main piazza.

Went to Rome next, a glorious city with a glorious past, shame about the people though. I've found that Italians can be either exceptionally nice, or exceptionally nasty! Got a 50 euro fine with other hostel folk at the train station because we had unvalidated tickets due to somehow accidentally bypassing and missing the validation machines there! Italian ticket inspectors are perfect incarnations of evil, no excuses or explanations are accepted!

Was lucky at least to be in Rome for this huge festival called "La Bianco Notte" (White Night) which was an one night only thing that went from 8pm till 6am! Watched "Cirque de Soleil" do spectacular circus stuff at the Spanish Steps, then with hostel folk enjoyed drinks at a bar in front of the Pantheon at 2am while people watching - Rome was heaving with people of all walks of life that night, moving around in all directions to watch other performances, bands and events going on. Ended up at an outdoor rave at the main train station which was fun!

Getting up the next day you would find Rome devoid of life till about noon when bleary-eyed people would emerge for lunch. The amazing thing was all the stages that were set up and the bottles and rubbish scattered everywhere last night had miraculously disappeared! The only time I’ve seen Italians efficient at something (besides brushing you off if they don't want to deal with you)!

Went to the Vatican and St Peter's Church again to warrant a better look than when I was here doing the Contiki tour last year. Turns out that, according to my journals, I visited the Vatican and St Peter's Church EXACTLY one year ago to the day! Divine intervention perhaps?

Also went to into the Colosseum because people kept telling me "you're in Rome, you HAVE to see the Colosseum! "So I did, and it was indeed impressive, though smaller inside than I imagined. Also had a good look at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, which is where all the ruins of Ancient Rome are located and you'll find broken columns here, a statue of a god missing a head there, and a lot of unidentifiable piles of rubble and buildings that were important at some stage in history but only get a sidewards glance today.

Checked out Bernini's famous baroque sculpture of Ecstasy of St Teresa, the only sculpture I know of a saint having a... well, an orgasm! Satisfied, from Rome I headed to Naples.

Naples is a city that you either really love or hate. The dirty streets with garbage filled gutters, beautiful views of the bay, high crime rate, very friendly people, broken down houses/apartments, good quality cheap food.... Naples is also the birthplace of pizza (so guess what I ate there?) It was pretty good, usually tomato paste, mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk, and fresh basil leaves.... also good (but not for the heart) is the deep fried cheeses, potatoes and rice dumplings they make! Bellisimo!

If you want a cheap thrill, try crossing the road in Naples. Drivers in their cars, buses, mopeds and bikes are crazy, and the trick to crossing the road is to not hesitate and just do it, making sure you look at drivers in the eye as you do so!

Went to Mt Vesuvius, which is a very large active volcano which caused the demise of the inhabitants of Herculaneum and the famous Pompeii. Went up to the very top to see the crater, which still had smoke coming up from particular areas. Great views of Naples bay and surrounding villages from there!

Then went to Herculaneum, which was remarkably well preserved having being buried under lava mud. You can walk through the old ancient fishing town and see colourful frescos, piazzas, shops and pubs as it was in that time. Interestingly some of the architectural styles haven't changed too much from there to some places in Europe.

Pompeii is pretty much the same as Herculaneum, only 5 times bigger, and contains an amphitheatre, more richer lavish villas/piazzas, and of course, the local brothel featuring mosaics of...well, use your imagination! Pompeii was one of those places I’ve always wanted to see as a kid so now I can cross that off my list!

Went down to Sorrento for the start of my Amalfi Coast adventure, the Amalfi coast is supposed to be one of the most beautiful coasts in the world, and it didn't fail to disappoint! Rugged cliff faces and coast line with white washed houses staggered on the edge, connected by a series of white steps, twisting narrow pathways and tunnels, opening up to small intimate piazzas, local houses, or the expanse of the cobalt blue Mediterranean sea! Though the sea is very salty and the beaches aren't very good (pebbles and black sand) - does not compare to Australia beaches at all!

Ok, so first was Sorrento, a popular resort town, but nothing as exciting as the other towns. Has a cool old mill at bottom of ravine and extinct waterfall.

Went to Capri, an island off the coast, with its famous blue grotto! Didn't go in, was more amused by watching petrified tourists lying flat in small row boats in turbulent waves as row men valiantly grab hold of a dodgy rope and pull them all into a tiny hole in the cliff face where inside lies a cave with water bright blue from the sun reflecting off the bottom. Views from the chairlift at the top of the island at Anacapri town were amazing! Also the famous Via Grupp road, a picturesque road meandering through the cliff wall, and the rock of the legendary sirens, though the only sirens you see today are the pretty topless Italian girls sunbathing on it...

Positano was another resort town, the most expensive and scenic part of the Amalfi coast, filled with designer clothes shops, restaurants and tourist shops that you can only look at but not afford to buy things from!

Amalfi (trying to keep this email short now) has a spectacular duomo cathedral with lots of Byzantine gold and mosaic influences, also contains the tomb of St Andrew the apostle.

Atrani has the cathedral that inspired M.C Escher with his famous "waterfall" drawing. In fact Atrani has a lot of Escheresque qualities to it.

Ravello, on a cliff on top of Atrani, has beautiful villas and gardens, once a residence of Wagner (this guy's been everywhere!), choral orchestral performances now perform in the gardens at dusk near the cliff edge with spectacular views and groves of lemon trees where they make their famous limoncello, a lemon flavoured strong liquor. Hic.

Salerno is the end of the Amalfi coast, nothing terribly exciting there, I only stayed there to do a day trip to Paestum, where you would find 3 Greek Doric temples standing in a middle of a field of poppies (when in season of course) and ruins.

From Salerno I went to Materna (rocky Basilicata region), which is a small town of stone houses (and cave lodgings) built on the slopes of a steep ravine, timeless, almost like living in a town in ancient Rome, most of it still hasn't got running water, electricity or gas as people were relocated 40 years ago due to Malaria epidemic and have only just started moving back in. The place seems almost deserted, with rock churches with Byzantine decorative motifs, and the place is stunning at night from the top of the Cathedral overlooking the town below...definitely a favourite of mine in Italy.

Went to Lecce, which is a small town at the heel of Italy, known for it's refined "Lecce Baroque" style, there is a church there with pretty cool gargoyles of mythical creatures and giants...

Then from Brindisi I went to catch a ferry to Corfu, after a turmulous start that will be part of next email...