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July 13, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 7

This is the seventh of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Kalimera, from Greece!

My time in Rome was definitely a lot less organized than my previous stops. This was perhaps because I didn't go into the city with a firm idea of how to spend my time here, but it was enjoyable none-the-less. After sorting out my bankcard issue, I went off in search of a place to get dinner. The place I ended up in was a small Italian restaurant, well off the main avenues. It didn't take long for me to realize I was the only non-Italian there, which made it all the better. My waiter spoke fairly good English, and I tried ordering in what little Italian I had picked up from my phrase book. I actually found it easier to pronounce Italian than French (which is hard because of the silent or deceptive letters). The meal was excellent! Homemade fresh pasta, good house wine and a pleasant atmosphere.

The next morning, I headed to the Vatican City via Rome's metro system. From what I understand, Rome had big plans for their metro, and began digging for a large, extensive system. But, and perhaps not surprisingly, they ran into antiquities all over the place and had to pare down their designs to just two lines (Linea A and Linea B) that form a large 'X'. There's also little/no ventilation in the tunnels, so the only time the sweltering air moves is when a train rushes by. Three times a day, when the Romans use the Metro to get to and from work (morning, lunch and evening), there's a massive crush of hot, smelly people riding the trains. But I digress...

The last time I visited the Vatican City, you had to pass through customs (showing your passport, and everything) at the wall that surrounds it. This is because the Vatican is a sovereign country (the smallest in the world, I think). This time, there weren't even guards stationed at the entrances, although I did spy a few wandering the grounds. The main square of the City is an oval with fountains at the focal points and a large obelisk at the center. Reaching out from the San Pietro (Saint Peter) church and surrounding the square are quadruple rows of classical columns supporting a classical roof. Crowning these arms is a single row, which runs the entire length of the colonnade, of statues. I overheard a tour guide saying that each statue is of some saint, and there are 147 such statues. I had no idea there were so many saints! San Pietro's basilica is huge, classical and dominates the square. The dome itself was designed to be seen above the church's facade from the square, and it's really quite impressive. After a brief wander around the square, I headed inside. The best way to describe the interior is with the words 'big' and 'ornate'. Everything inside is big, and almost every surface is decorated somehow. The barrel vault dome rises perhaps some 100ft above the floor. Just to the right as I entered was a crowd of people taking photos of Michelangelo's Mary and Jesus. At the intersection of the transept and the nave is a small set of stairs going down to what I think was a tomb of someone important. The detail everywhere was just amazing, and again, even the cherubs, which are normally child-sized, were overly large. Huge blocks of marble had been carved at cloth draped over a doorway or under a fountain. I briefly wandered through the crypt below, which was neat - the sarcophagi of pontiffs long dead were stored there, with a carven figure of the respective pope atop. I then climbed to the top of the dome, which was the better part of a thousands steps! The view from atop was appropriately stunning, as you could see the rich greens of the papal gardens in the City as well as the dense buildings of Rome stretching out from the high wall that circled the City. After the long climb back down, I considered going to see the Sistine Chapel, but I had timed things wrong and the entry line was down the street and around the corner. That night, I met up with my British friends from Nice, and we went back to my Italian restaurant for dinner. My birthday was only a few days before, so we celebrated it with a nice bottle of wine (recommended by the waiter).

The next day, I went with my British friends early in the morning to see the Sistine Chapel. We arrived well before the crowds congealed, and strolled through the Vatican Museum for the better part of the morning. The museum has several parts, but the one that includes the Sistine Chapel winds through papal apartments of old before finally putting you out into the Chapel. Every apartment and hallway was richly decorated with ornamentation and painting. My favorite was done by Raphael though. The ceiling had four women seated, one for Poetry, Philosophy, Justice and Theology. The painting below Philosophy was a scene with many robed Greek philosophers from antiquity all posed appropriately - Pythagoras was crouched teaching geometry to his pupils, Aristotle was there along with a bunch of other notables. Finally, we found our way into the Sistine Chapel. The last time I was there, they were doing restoration work on a large portion of the ceiling. This time, there was no scaffolding, and I can definitely say that it deserves every bit of its reputation as impressive and important. Right in the middle of it all, and only being one of about ten panels, is the famous one of God reaching out to Adam. Awe inspiring is a good way of putting this incredibly large room - every inch of it is covered in the richly colored paintings. One end of the room is occupied by an immense depiction of what I guessed was the Last Judgment. Along the bottom there was hell, in deep reds and blacks. The top was heaven, in rich blues and whites. And there were people everywhere, on clouds mostly, each with a unique expression and face. Just amazing.

Around lunchtime, I met up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman, who had been studying in Germany for the year. We'd planned to meet up for a brief period of time for many months, and after many emails, it was great to finally meet. With him was a friend of his from Britain (another British girl!) Sarah. We spent most of the rest of that day trying to figure out how to get from Rome to Athens, and me trying to pick up my new bankcard (which was eight hours late - FedEx in the U.S. seems a lot more efficient than FedEx in Italy). After a frustrating experience with a travel agent at the Rome train station, who seemed to know nothing, we finally gave up and got online. Within 10 minutes, we had ferry times and costs from Brindisi, Italy to Patras, Greece, and train times and costs from Patras to Athens. We had a good laugh about that. Once we finally got things worked out, we met up with my British friends for dinner.

Starting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, we began traveling to Athens. The full trip took almost 30 hours, and by the time we finally reached our hotel, we were extremely glad to have a place to stretch out! On the ferry ride over, we met Seth and Sally, a pair of American high school teachers from Louisiana who were traveling in Greece briefly before heading back to Italy. We ended up staying at the same hotel (they were using the Lonely Planet guidebook, which no one whom I've met on this trip has said good things about!), and the five of us went out for a late dinner. The Greeks tend to eat very late - between 10pm and midnight is normal. In Greece, heckling seems to be a normal form of doing business, and the first few restaurants we considered all had a man standing outside trying to bring business in. We eschewed that area for it's touristy feel and prices. The place we settled on was fantastic. We ate well, and for only about $5 each! Spinach pies, Greek salads, eggplant, stuffed vine leaves and what Sarah, who spoke a little Greek, said was a traditional wine. I didn't care for the wine though; it tasted a little like pinesap.

Josh and Sarah were on a much tighter schedule than I was, so we only stayed in Athens the one night. The next day, we went to the Agora and the Acropolis, before having lunch with Seth and Sally and then catching a ferry to Paros. I'd heard that Athens was a big, sprawling, dirty city and that it's a good idea to get in and get out, seeing the essentials, as quickly as possible. The big and sprawling parts were very much correct, but the overall feel of the city wasn't terrible, and if given the chance, I'd like to spend a few days there. The National Museum of Archaeology there is supposed to be incredible - the museum collected antiquities from all over Greece (of which I imagine there were a great many) and displays them in there in Athens. Definitely on the 'to see' list, and I'm hoping to get to see it before I catch my flight home out of Athens at the end of July.

The Agora is a ruin in every sense of the word. The landscape is very Greek - an arid area with mostly browns and greys, speckled with clumps of a pale green that are the bushes and trees that grow everywhere. Between the greenery are piles of rubble from ancient Greek buildings. If you look closely, and it helps if you look at the little map you get at the entrance, you can see the outlines of buildings, temples, etc. One building has been fully restored, and houses a museum of various smaller Greek artifacts such as pots, bowls, the voting machine used to elect officials (complete with a description of how it works, which is extremely complicated!), and even a ceramic potty for a small child. The upper part of the building was enclosed, while the lower part was open, supported by many rows of columns. I could immediately see why the Greeks favored columns so much - it was really very cool on the benches there, with a nice breeze blowing. A pleasant relief from the relentless sun outside. We then trekked up to the Acropolis (which literally means 'upper city', and many Greek cities have an acropolis. The one in Athens just happens to be the greatest of them all). There we saw the Caryatids (a set of columns carved in the likeness of women) and the Parthenon. Apparently, in the 1800s, there was a British man who, in the name of preserving antiquities, took large portions of the sculpture frieze from the Parthenon. It is those portions that I saw in the British Museum several weeks ago (this guy really did get the best parts too - what remains isn't really enough to tell that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, and that the main frieze portrayed the gods' reaction to Athena's birth (i.e. surprise!)). Even though the Parthenon seemed smaller than I'd imagined it, it was really neat to realize that humans had continuously occupied this area, the Acropolis and the Agora, for some 6000 years!

That night, Josh, Sarah and I caught the ferry to Paros. Except that we never quite made it to our destination. We misheard the announcement of which island we were at, and deboarded onto Syros! By the time we realized our mistake, the ferry had just left port. We managed to land on our feet though, and took a chance with a heckler who was pushing rooms. We rode with him some 10km out from the port to a sparsely populated area near the town of Vari. The hotel turned out to be really nice, with air conditioning, a refrigerator and a nice bathroom (with a Greek style shower, which is to say one with no shower curtain and a shower head that you have to hold in your hand) for a very reasonable price. There were a few other hotels in the area, but otherwise there were two restaurants, a mini-market and a beach. That was it. The restaurant we ate at that night was excellent again - our waiter insisted on our coming into the (large) kitchen and seeing what was available, and ordering there on the spot. This is apparently a very Greek thing to do, although the more touristy places don't do it. And so it was that we spent the next day on Syros, lounging on the very nice beach and then strolling the port (which we reached via the local bus) in the evening.

The next morning, I caught a ferry to Santorini - ferries in Greece don't run very often between certain destinations, so you go when there's one you want. It was an all-day venture, and I arrived in Santorini in the evening. Santorini is known as the most picturesque of the Greek islands, and it lives up to every bit of that reputation. Here's a little history on the place: some 80,000 years ago, a volcano began to build the island, connecting several smaller islands that were already there. Very quickly, it formed a very large, circular island. Then, about 3500 years ago, the volcano exploded, vaporizing the island's center. Water rushed in to fill the area, and we have the Santorini we see today. About 500 years ago, the volcano formed a small island in the center of the caldera. Then 50 years ago, it moved about a kilometer away and started a new island, still in the middle of the caldera. So... the main island is shaped like a slightly overweight crescent, with two main towns, Fira, which is right in the middle of the crescent, and Oia, which is at the very top. There are other villages on the island too, but these towns are the biggest.

My first day, I went on a guided tour of the islands. We sailed on a Kai-eeky (phonetically), which is a traditional Greek vessel, to the new volcanic island and hiked to its top. I mentioned earlier that Santorini is very picturesque, and it's true. This place gobbles film. We then went to the old volcanic island, where most of the people in the boat went swimming and visited the 'hot' (warm is more like it) spring. The Europeans in our group smeared the muck from the spring's floor all over their face, hair and upper body, for it's therapeutic effects, I suppose. I dared only to smear my arms. Later that day, I did notice that my shorts and boxers had been dyed with the reddish color of the spring water though! Next we went to Therrisia, part of the rim of the original island. More beautiful scenery, and pictures to take. Both here and at our final destination, Oia, there was a winding trail that climbed the cliffs of the caldera to the top of the island. Industrious Greeks would rent you a donkey to ride up the trail, if you wanted. Oia (pronounced 'Ee-ah') is perched on the very tip of the crescent, and was the perfect spot from which to see the sun sink into the distant haze. The buildings in Greece reminded me of the pueblo style of the Southwest - flat roofs and square buildings. The Greeks white- and blue-wash everything, so the buildings merge seamlessly into the low walls, the walkways and each other. The overall effect actually reminded me of the non-classical unity of Gaudi's architecture. Gaudi's stuff is a lot more refined and designed, but I did wonder if perhaps he'd visited Greece at some point.

My next day in Santorini was a beach day. I rented a motor scooter (these things are so much fun!), and visited the black sand beach in Perissa (another little village), and the red sand beach near Akrotiri. Both were interesting places, and both were very commercialized - you could rent one of the umbrella and beach chairs that lined the seashore. Wading out into the water at the black sand beach, I discovered that the seabed was very smooth, feeling like volcanic rock. It was also quite shallow for at least 50ft from the shore. The red sand beach was a little more exotic, as you had to traverse a rocky little trail that went around the side of a cliff to reach it. The beach itself was nestled under vaulting cliffs of deep burgundy and black, and the beach was pebbly (small pebbles, not the big ones you have in Nice, France), and even the pebbles were red and black. The seashore dropped off much more here than at the black sand beach, and there were a few partially submerged rocks that you could swim out to and lay on. If it weren't for the many people, the rows of umbrellas and the little shop making a killing on cold drinks, this place would be perfect. Nearby, although I didn't visit it, was a white sand beach that I heard was equally exotic a locale.

My third day in Santorini, I went SCUBA diving at a little village named Kamari. It'd been, I guess, about six years since I last went diving, so I was a little nervous about going, but the basics are very easy to remember. Also on the dive were two French women who were still learning, a Frenchman who had also not been diving in a while, and an Austrian. Our guide took us out in a little boat around a large cliff, and prepped us. The dive itself was wonderful, although there was a lot less life down there than I had expected. On my previous dives in tropical places, the sea seemed to be teaming with fish and plant life. Here there was a funny grey-brown plant that covered the cliff face as it plunged the 10-20meters from the surface to the sandy sea floor, and a few fish that I didn't recognize. It wasn't until the last third of the dive that I finally settled-in and relaxed. Being a little nervous, I was using up my air rather fast at first. For the rest of the day, I kicked around Kamari, ate lunch, watched people come and go from the beach, and generally soaked up the atmosphere.

And so that brings me to the present. I leave for Rhodos Island today, and on Monday, I set out for Turkey. I met another person who'd traveled through Turkey while I was on Santorini, and she gave me some good tips about how to travel and site-see. One interesting tip she gave: the Turkish lira is so volatile, that when bartering, it's better to have Euros or US Dollars to pay with, since the merchants like that. Some of them will even insist on bartering in USD, and then convert the price (with a suitably horrible exchange rate) to Lira.

Now reading: Return of the King, Lord of the Rings. Things are really getting exciting now! Can't wait to see how the rest of the trilogy plays out on screen.

Kalimera! Aaron

posted July 13, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink