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Greece

On to Athens

sunny 77 °F

My travels to Athens from Bangkok were long, but not too unpleasant. I had an early afternoon return flight booked back to Bangkok from Chiang Mai. The timing of this flight was a function of my personal travel paranoia. I traveled to Chiang Mai on a ticket separate from my RTW ticket. As a result, if I was delayed on the local flight, I would have no recourse on my bigger ticket, so rather than take any chance, I gave myself way too much time in case of flight delays or other excitement. In fact, I arrived at Bangkok around 2 PM for my 2 AM (!) departure - a bit of overkill, right?

My next challenge was what to do - I didn't think that racing into Bangkok for another adventure was really a practical option, so I decided I would try to settle somewhere and play with my blog and photos. Since I am on a business class ticket I had access to the lounges. However, to access lounges you have to check in first. I was booked on China Airlines and when their ticket gate opened around 3, I tried to check in and was politely told I had to wait to 11 PM. facing 7 hours in the departures area, I used my puppydog eyes and made whimpering noises and the agent was moved to allow me to check in early.

I entered the international departures area of the airport, and it is simply enormous.
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Lots of opportunities to spend money at yet more designer shops. I wandered around and finally did buy a locally produced tshirt with cool elephants on it with the last of my bahts (must be the 9th inning - a little baseball humor there).

It was then time to settle in the lounge. China Airlines had a lounge but my online research indicated that the Air France lounge was better; in particular, it included a shower. So, armed with my by-now legendary puppydog eyes, I talked my way into the Air France lounge. This gave me a bunch of hours to blog, snack, nap and shower before the flight. The only way to fly!

Finally at 2 AM I boarded. It was an older aircraft and the seats reflected this - the usual oversized reclining chair. Older aircraft also have older consumer electronics, so choices of entertainment were fairly limited. This became a bit of an issue as we took off and the crew darkened the cabin. I slept for maybe 6 hours. When I woke up the cabin was still dark and it remained dark until 1 1/2 hours before landing - a total of 10 hours in darkness with like 2 movies available. Hey-I'm not whining here; just reporting the facts! Life is NOT tough in business class.

Anyway, we landed in Amsterdam and I connected to a flight on KLM to Athens. Here I encountered the very smallest business class seat I have ever seen.

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Must be those egalitarian Dutch. The seat is just an economy seat in a 6 across arrangement in a 737. We did have a very good lunch with some nice wine, so when I disembarked in Athens, I was really in pretty good shape, a 30 hour journey notwithstanding. I had booked a room at a hotel near the airport and a room through airbnb for the rest of the stay, so I headed to the hotel. I slept pretty well until 1:05 AM when I was awakened, not by jet lag, but by an earthquake shaking my bed back and forth. This was part of a magnitude 5.2 double earthquake that did some minor damage in and around Athens. I didn't sleep quite so well after that....

In the morning I took the train (brand new, very smooth - installed for the 2004 Olympics) into Athens and met up with my host, Andreas. And the Athens adventure begins.

Posted by tdeits 04:03 Archived in Greece Tagged travel airport shopping athens bangkok Comments (0)

Athens - downtown

sunny 63 °F

That title has a double meaning that will probably be a thread through most of this part of my blog. My first day in Athens I decided to head downtown and look at the central market and the Athens National Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately, my first immediate perception of Athens is graffiti. They are virtually everywhere - public signs, store fronts, walls, windows, sidewalks, you name it. It makes a horrible mess, but among folks I talked to, the basic attitude is they have other bigger problems to deal with. And they do; I think it's fair to say that Athens (and Greece) is the Detroit of Europe. They have taken a hammering and it shows on the faces of the people and in the state of the country. Like Detroit, there seems to be a sense that maybe the worst is in the past, but progress is difficult to discern.

Oh, let's be tourists again. My first stop was the Central Market which is as colorful and pungent as you might imagine. Every meat and fish stall has a butcher's block out front and some guy (always a guy) with a cleaver ready to hack the customer's request out of a larger piece of whatever they are selling. Here a a couple of photos of the market - an overview and lamb's heads on special (ew!)

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More conventional foodstuffs are also on display, including fruits and vegetables and you can get a good cup of Greek coffee while you wander. Interestingly, Greek coffee is just like Turkish coffee except that Greeks would never call it that - although if you look closely at the grinder in the picture, there is a little label that says "Turkish coffee."

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From here I headed to the museum. Suffice it to say that going to a Greek archaeological museum is absolutely guaranteed to be overwhelming. The National Museum is simply full of objects that fill world history and art textbooks with their images. I took pictures of some, and just gazed at others. Here are a few more or less familiar objects from the vast collection. Here is a head from 3000 BC, from the Cycladic culture and a gold death mask from the Mycenean era, about 1600 BC.

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Now a few youngsters, maybe 2000 years old, from the classic era of Greek art

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However, the high point for me was these relatively unpreposessing brass fragments from a 2000 year old shipwreck. This is the Antikytheria mechanism.

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It has taken decades to analyze this material but now it is clear that it was an extremely sophisticated analog computer, capable of a variety of calendrical functions for different calendars in use at the time as well as being able to predict the phases of the moon, the time of the next Olympiad and even solar eclipses. It is truly an extraordinary example of what was undoubtedly a fairly mature and highly advanced technological culture of which this single artifact and a few references in texts are our only evidence. The museum also includes many replicas built over the years to attempt to duplicate its funtions; here is a glimpse of the workings of one of the more recent models.

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Another cool feature is that it is its own owner's manual; the visible surfaces are covered with inscriptions describing its operation.

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Hey, I'm a techie, so excuse me if I say that I was deeply moved to contemplate this artifact. It represents an amazing Greek technological culture that disappeared from the face of the earth. Its like would not be seen for more than a millennium into the future. I know that technology is no cure-all for what ails human culture, but I just can't help thinking where we might be today technologically and possibly as a people if we had been able to build on this foundation instead of waiting 1000 years to start again.

Sigh.

Posted by tdeits 04:50 Archived in Greece Tagged shopping athens museum graffiti archaeology antikytheria Comments (0)

Acropolis now

sunny 74 °F

You have to do it, right? The Acropolis looms over Athens, popping up unexpectedly as you round a corner or on souvenir tea towels all over town. My plan was to get there early; very early. So I set off well before dawn from my apartment and headed up. Another thing about Athens - they are not very big on signage; street names, directions to this or that or even buildings (the National Archaeological Museum doesn't have its name on it). Instead I relied on Mr. Google and the notion that the Acropolis was up so up was good.

Well, here we learn the difference between a local and a global maximum. There are actually two hills in the same vicinity. One is the Acropolis, the other is the Hill of Muses, which I ended up on top of. No worries - in retrospect this is actually the clever way to do it. The climb to the top of the Hill of the Muses is over somewhat rough paths (especially if you are improvising) but no big deal. Arriving, though, I had a fabulous view. Hey - I got your rosy fingered dawn right here.....

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There is a small ruin on top of the hill that is also pretty picturesque

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and of course you get a great view of the Acropolis (and, sadly, all the construction equipment)

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After enjoying the sunrise I dropped back down and, armed with actual sunlight, I struck out for the Acropolis - again. I was aided by one sign that said, helpfully, "Acropolis" and had an arrow. Unfortunately, while technically true, it did in fact point in such a way that I had to walk 320 degrees around the hill to actually find the entrance. Still, a nice walk through a pretty neighborhood. Part of it was through a very tony area and then down tiny pathways between tiny houses likely full of people tired of people like me getting lost on their hill. They have supplemented the Acropolis signage by doubling it to two.

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Again, better to be lucky than smart. I arrived at about 7:45 AM. The Acropolis doesn't open until 8, so I got my ticket and was one of the first visitors. This has got to be one of the most photographed places on earth, so I won't show too many of my efforts. This one of the Parthenon is pretty good and illustrates a point - there are only 2 people in the picture! This is the virtue of visiting Greece in the fall, apart from the ludicrously good weather; not many tourists. It turns out that tour buses don't show up until 9, so that first hour is the magic moment to spend some quiet and contemplative time at this amazing place. After 9 - fugeddaboutit.

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The second picture above is of another smaller temple next to the Parthenon, which is also quite beautiful and illustrates another point. The statues you see are fakes. This is not something the Greek authorities are trying to hide; it's right on their signage (yes, there is decent informational signage on the Acropolis). As you can see, there is a whole lot of preservation and restoration work ongoing, in part to prevent further damage from air pollution as well as stabilizing the structure. They have made the decision to replace certain parts with replicas so that the originals can be preserved in museums. Oh, and by the way, they are clearly still super pissed off about the Elgin Marbles.

Once it became clear that the crowds were in control, I headed downhill and found a nice cafe for breakfast. Chicken crepes and coffee. By the way, ordering coffee in Greece is probably trickier than even Australia. I never really got the hang of it but ordering a cappuccino is usually a safe option. The Greeks drink tons of 'frape' - milk and water and instant coffee served over ice. I did learn to order a frape metrio - meaning with just a little sugar but it wasn't my fave beverage.

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Armed with a few calories, I hit the Metro and headed for the Mediterranean coast of Athens, more or less at random. I ended up along a shoreline that had both mega yacht harbors

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and squatters villages of refugees.

The other thing the area held was many Olympic venues. Apart from the main stadium, most of them were completely abandoned and going to ruin. Here's one that doesn't look to bad yet, but is clearly never used - the beach volleyball venue.

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Another sad indication of the state of Greece today were the UAC's in this area - someone had gone along and carefully pulled up each and every one of them in the sidewalk and sold them for scrap.

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Still, after much walking, I came to a yacht harbor

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that had a very nice outdoor restaurant where I had a delicious fish lunch. Which I shared.

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I then took the metro to the next stop, Piraeus, which is the end of the line and Athens' main shipping and tour boat harbor. I decided to see if I could squeeze in a visit to a Greek island, as my friend Audrey had suggested. I got a ticket for the next day and headed back. I noticed something odd that I had been unconsciously aware of on the way from the Olympic site to Pireaus. the subway roadbed from Piraeus to the Olympic site was rough and irregular and used traditional jointed rails. As soon as you hit the Olympic site, the roadway was smooth, level and used modern welded rail. Clearly the Greek government had upgraded the track just far enough to get Olympic visitors to the venues from downtown but had cut corners by leaving the last mile in its original sorry state.

A real day of contrasts in Athens. Again.

Posted by tdeits 23:58 Archived in Greece Tagged temples food athens sunrise acropolis Comments (0)

Aegina and the temple of Aphaia

sunny 71 °F

On the advice of the helpful travel agent at Blue and White Travel in Piraeus, I took off on one of the many ferries and cruise ships crowding Piraeus harbor in the morning.
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As we left the harbor, I spotted this yacht at dock. Googling it up, I discovered that it is the Topaz which is the world's largest mega yacht. Apparently it cost $500 million to construct. Egad. Later we passed a rather better looking boat.

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It took about an hour and a half to get to Aegina harbor which is quite pretty and lined along the shore with tourist restaurants and shops. The harbor is full of charming small fishing boats that are in active use.

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The major attraction on the island is the Temple of Aphaia. It's some distance from the harbor and I decided to use it as an excuse for a stroll. I bought a bag of pistachios (a major product on the island) from a nice guy who gave me directions - turn left at the stadium and just keep going. He thought I was nuts (ha). I also bought some mandarin oranges and with my bottle of water I set out. The first thing to say about the walk was that the weather was unbelievably perfect. A real Mediterranean climate, mildly warm, low humidity, brilliant blue sky and a very light breeze - one of the best weather days I have had anywhere. Here's a look back towards town - quite a bit of climbing on this walk. I also passed this perfect little Mediterranean house with pistachio trees in the front yard.

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It just kept getting prettier as I walked. After a while my first destination came into view, the church of Agios Nektarios.

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The church is quite new, less than 20 years old. It was built to honor Fr. Nektarios who, after what appears to have been a somewhat tumultuous career in the Orthodox church, retired to Aegina and ministered to the locals.

The interior is under renovation (leaky roof; what church doesn't have one?) but did get a nice picture of the altar and the charming mosaic map of the islands on the floor in front of the altar.

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There was also a lovely domed chamber containing the remains of Fr. Nektarios (miracles have been attributed to him, but I don't know if he has been canonized) and another beautiful altar and mural.

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After this break, it was back on the road (it's about a 7 mile trip). More gorgeous scenery and, finally, a glimpse of the temple.

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I reached the bottom of the last climb to the temple and a car pulled over. A very nice lady, Lisa, who is a sport teacher on the island had pulled over and offered me a lift up the hill to the temple. Maybe she was motivated by the fact that by this point I was crawling on my hands and knees and weeping :) . Whatever the reason, she zipped me to the top of the hill and even took me a short way down the other side to get a view of the other side of the island, which looked fabulous.

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The temple itself was remarkable. It has suffered far less damage than other temples owing to its isolation and I was also the only visitor that afternoon. Here are a couple of pictures of the temple, one when I first arrived and one later near sunset.

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Of course, the view from the hilltop was also spectacular.

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Lisa had encouraged me to consider staying overnight on that side of the island and I was tempted. I decided to walk into the town on the other side of the hill and see I could find a place to stay. I arrived after dark and the entire town had apparently closed for the season. I found one open restaurant and one supermarket - as far as I could tell all the other restaurants and all the hotels were closed. Fortunately, I had a number for a taxi service and so I bailed and called a taxi for the ride back to the harbor to make it in time for the last ferry back to Pireaus.

I made it, rested on board and grabbed a sandwich for dinner in Piraeus before going back to my apartment - what a remarkable introduction to the true Mediterranean experience.

Posted by tdeits 02:28 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes temples view scenery island weather aegina aphaia Comments (0)

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