Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

Departure for Turkey

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

10 km to the ferry terminal

For breakfast, we introduced Michalis to peanut butter and he introduced us to Tahini (sesame paste) and honey spread on toast. We both very much enjoyed the Tahini and honey. Michalis found the “just peanuts” peanut butter a bit dry and salty, and in comparison we would have to agree. Maybe we’ll have to give up the peanut and almond butter we’ve been carrying since Florida?

When we told Michalis about our visit to the cathedral in Patras, he commented that most of the Greek Orthodox churches are not so ornate. This was news to us, as the ones we had seen in Canada also contained large domes with fancy motifs. But with further observation, we noticed that the churches of Athens do not stand out like the newly built cathedral in Patras. The traditional Greek Orthodox churches do contain elaborate wooden chandeliers (or at least the ones we went in did), but did not have the bright motifs like the newer one in Patras. We wonder if the darker colour is partially related to all the candles that are burned throughout the day. As we passed each of the small churches there were always people walking in and out to light candles and pray, even the smallest churches on the quietest streets.

Ever wondered where to get bunny tails in Athens?

Ever wondered where to get bunny tails in Athens?

Since our ferry didn’t depart until 1900h, we had time for one last wander around Athens before getting ready to leave for Turkey. First, we ended up in the market district. We had never seen so many different meat vendors in such a small space. The floors were very slippery, and Becky was terrified of slipping and landing in all the refuse from the meat and fish vendors. Watching one of the vendors hack a goat in half with a cleaver, we wondered about sanitary conditions, but at least here we could see what was happening. In Canada, this is all hidden away in the meat packing plants, but the activities are pretty much the same.

During our wanderings, we stopped to see Keramikos, the ancient graveyard of Athens. It was a tranquil spot, with a small museum, lots of partial walls and houses as well as grave stones and ceramics from various eras. We tried reading the various placards – both there at and the Parthenon, and have found them almost impossible to digest. They are all quite technical and written too much for the archeological student and not for the average tourist. Becky believes the folks running the museums in Athens could benefit from hiring a learning consultant to help with their displays. It would be much more meaningful if at least some were simplified and used to tell a story. Talking later to Michalis, we learned that this is quite a common complaint, but money is not allocated for such things. Perhaps it is so people will hire a guide?

Michalis in his studio with some of his paintings (and Scott)

Michalis in his studio with some of his paintings (and Scott)

After our morning of touring, we headed to Michalis’ studio. Neither of us are close friends with any professional visual artists, so it was really neat to see his studio and some of his pieces he is working on. Scott’s comment on seeing his pieces is that many had a theme of traffic and sexuality. They often involved vehicles of some type and forms of the human body. There was a neat one that was a parking lot that made the shape of a women’s body. Becky focused more on the “coming of age” theme in other works.

His art initiated some discussions on the current situation in Athens and Greece. He is working on a piece called “The Acropolis without Athens”, exploring the possibility of Greece without the focus on being the “Cradle of Western Civilization”. With all the money and focus allocated to tourism (“Greece’s heavy industry”), and restoration of past glory, there is little focus on today. Virtually all the money for arts is going to the restoration of the Parthenon and other ancient Greek glories, leaving nothing for the contemporary arts (dance, music, visual). With that focus, and significant government corruption, there are many problems not being dealt with. For one, Greece has just overtaken the U.S. as the country with the highest child obesity rates. Michalis teaches in the primary school, so he sees this every day. Interestingly, we had not noticed. We certainly saw a few more large women and men, both adults and teenagers, than in southern Italy, but it was still quite a small percentage. The younger children must have been in school during our wanderings.

After our brief visit to the studio, it was time for us to venture to the ferry terminal. The ride itself, 10 km south east, was amazingly painless. Michalis helped us find a route mostly on quieter streets, which was a big help. When we did enter a busier street, Becky had to remind Scott to not be so polite. He stopped behind the last car rather than moving up on the right to the front of the line. This is fine and expected in Canada, but in Greece is causes confusion. The cars expect all the bikes and mopeds to weave through stopped traffic to jockey for position at the light. We need to learn to at least make a token effort in order to not confuse the car traffic!

The Greek ferry terminal was definitely nothing like the terminals at home. When we found our way to the main terminal road, there were at least 30 different ferries throughout the terminal. Our tickets, which we are glad we bought in advance, told us which gate to go to and which boat was ours. It turned out there where at least 3 boats in the vicinity of our gate. We expected there to be someone, somewhere in the terminal to check us in and direct us, but we found no one. We found the boat, so we made our way on board. The loading process is complete chaos. You just find a time when the transports are not being backed in, and ride on board. Then you find someone to tell you where to put your bikes. In all this vehicular chaos, there are people coming onto the boat on-foot with hand trolleys full of stuff and big suitcases. Their luggage is stored in room right by the entrance, causing an increase in congestion during loading.

Safely on board, with our gear stowed, we went to find ourselves a seat. We were hoping to upgrade to a cabin, but that was not meant to be. They wanted 60 Euros for the cabin, which seemed a bit much given that we were only on the boat until 3:30 am. Our previous ferry must have been a particularly good deal at 26 EUR. Instead, we slept on the deck. Unfortunately, we had not planned well, and our Thermarests and sleeping bags were on the bikes, nicely locked on the car deck. We made do with what we had, found a flat corner on the deck, and slept – Becky was asleep by 8 pm! Scott didn’t sleep as well, even with earplugs and eyeshade, since he kept worrying about being told to move, or missing the Chios arrival, or…

At 3:30 am the ship arrived at Chios. The unloaded process was no more organized than the loading process. Scott went downstairs to discover that many of the trucks parked near him had their engines idling. They saw nothing wrong with running them for 15 minutes while the boat was docking. Needless to say, the car deck was not exactly great for breathing! Scott was almost choking on fumes from badly tuned diesels, and had a headache from the carbon monoxide for more than an hour afterward. Fortunately, Becky was a little further forward and on the other side of the boat, so she found it hot, but not as unbearable. With the unloading chaos, we jumped off the boat the moment the ramp chain was removed and were quickly in the fresh air of Chios.


The ancient/modern city of Athens

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

About 10 km around town.

Becky and the Parthenon

Becky and the Parthenon

What can you say about Athens that hasn’t been said by another of the millions of visitors who come here every year? We don’t have anything profound, but we have enjoyed our two days sightseeing and wandering around central Athens. It would take many more days than we have to even scratch the surface of all the museums, shops and districts, but we have enjoyed our time here.

We especially enjoyed walking around Athens. Other than the key attraction of the Parthenon, we have spent much of our time walking the streets, and getting a feel for the city. It is definitely busy, with everyone moving much more quickly and purposefully than we have seen elsewhere – comparable to New York City! The drivers tend to be quite pushy, especially with their horns, and scooters/motorcycles will leap into any available space. We have seen more big/powerful cars here than in Italy, and even the motorcycles are much bigger and louder. Even with this aggressiveness on the road, we have not yet seen an accident, not even a small fender-bender. The drivers seem to be careful and aware of their surroundings, unlike many in North America.

Originally, we felt bad about riding our bikes on the pedestrian streets. In Ottawa, riding a bike on Sparks Street will get you a nice fine. We realized that riding our bikes on the pedestrian street here was not going to be an issue when we were passed by a motorized scooter, then a motor bike, then another. It appears that scooters and motorcycles also qualify as pedestrians, at least in the minds of their drivers.

Becky in front of some of the better grafitti we found

Becky in front of some of the better grafitti we found

One thing that Becky has found surprising is the amount of graffiti in Athens – especially on some of the older buildings. We do wonder if some of the graffiti is actually commissioned. Back at home, most of the graffiti would have been cleaned up or painted over. Here, the graffiti seems to be left and Becky thinks there is much more of it than elsewhere – Scott thought it was pretty normal for a large city.

We have now replaced the most critical items from our stolen bag, and we’re ready to move on to Turkey – eager to get there before it gets too much colder.

After two days of not biking – but a lot of walking, Becky’s back and shoulder are feeling better. She figures the issue was caused by the fall, and all that her body needed was a day or two off the bike to recover. Unfortunately, by the end of Monday, we had both picked up a sore throat. Hopefully, that too will be temporary and will be gone by the time we get to Turkey. So far in our travels, we have both been much healthier than we normally are back in Ottawa, where one cough or cold seems to follow another. Some of this may have been due to taking “Cold FX” whenever we start to feel a bit of a sniffle, but unfortunately our supply was one of the things in Becky’s stolen bag. We have found some Ginseng in the pharmacy, and hope that will work as well as the Cold FX – at least until our supply is replaced.

Wednesday we are off to Turkey – taking an overnight ferry to Xios (Hios/Chios) followed by a short ferry to Çesme, Turkey. We have planned an extra day in Çesme, which should ensure we are well rested before we start biking again.

Athens extending north to the hills

Athens extending north to the hills

Bus and Bike

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

15 km around town

Waving goodbye to Dimitris from the bus

Waving goodbye to Dimitris from the bus

Taking the bus from Patra to Athens turned out to be much easier than we anticipated. Dimitris explained to the people at the bus terminal what we wanted to do, which made the whole process much easier. We had asked about taking the train, but the track between Patra and Athens is under repair, so the trip involves an hour on a bus in the middle. The people at the train station said that we could not take our bikes on the bus portion of the trip, so it would have taken us 2 days to get to Athens by train. Instead, we took an express bus – one leaves every hour on Sundays. The driver and luggage loader quickly rolled our bikes (gear and all) into one of the luggage bays and we were off. Because it was the express bus, it did not stop, so we did not have to worry about the bikes or any of the bags until we arrived in Athens.

During the 3-hour bus trip, we checked out the highway for “bikeability”. Our first impression was that there was a nice shoulder we could have ridden on. That proved to be a fallacy. We soon discovered that the vehicles drive on the shoulder – the lines on the highway are a mere suggestion. The cars drive as far right as they can, allowing the center line to be a passing lane. The passing lane is either 1 or 2 cars wide, depending on how wide the road is. Often cars seem to pass without paying any attention to what the vehicles in the other direction are doing. It would definitely have been unsafe to be riding a bike on that road!

After arriving safely in Athens, we hopped back on the bikes for a short ride (about 4 km) to Michalis’ flat. He is kindly hosting us in Athens. Unfortunately, the “walking track” that Scott had downloaded from Google Maps took us the wrong way down several one-way streets and into a crowded park – Sunday is flea market day in many of the parks. The fact that we were riding our bikes down the streets of Athens felt completely surreal. Even more amazing is that we felt quite comfortable doing it.

At one point our “walking track” brought us to a staircase. We had to deviate from the track – so we headed down a block and pushed our bikes up the steep hill. Normally this is not an issue, but it was particularly challenging because our feet kept slipping on the tile sidewalk.

We arrived safely at Michalis’ home and enjoyed a welcoming cup of coffee and some great conversation. Michalis is a sculptor and painter who has lived in both Italy and England, so it was very interesting to learn more about his life, and see some of his work. We are looking forward to a visit to his studio in the next day or two.

For lunch, we all headed into downtown Athens on our bikes. Again we found ourselves following a local navigating through the narrow twisty streets and through all the cars. This city riding has challenged our skill on our bikes, as we are often riding between a row of parked cars and a row of stopped cars with barely a bike width between. We wouldn’t want to do it with all our gear though! We did let both Dimitris and Michalis know that we cannot weave through the cars as they are often do. Our recumbent have a much larger turning radius than an upright bike. We are also learning that it is completely acceptable to ride on the left side of a road – especially a one way street. We find this much easier when the cars are parked on the left, which is common practice on one way streets. It is also necessary when you will be making a left turn. For the most part, when we signal our intentions, the cars stay out of our way – much more pleasant than we been led to expect.

One very strange thing to our Canadian eyes is the way pedestrian streets are used. There are many in Athens, but contrary to the signs, scooters and motorbikes use them too. We don’t feel too bad about riding on them now!

The Acropolis, as the sun sets

The Acropolis, as the sun sets

After another wonderful meal, we headed back towards Michalis’ flat with a stop for coffee along the way. We caught several views of the Parthenon, which helped to reinforce in our minds that we are actually in Greece (you might think all the Greek signs would do that!). Scott stopped to take a few photos, and we were on our way. Becky is definitely missing having her camera, and as a result, there are many fewer “snapshots” of the scenery while we ride. We will look into replacing her camera either here in the next few days or in Istanbul when we get there.

At some point during the day today or yesterday – perhaps when pushing the bikes up the hill, Becky managed to pull something in her back and shoulder. She is not sure if it happened today or yesterday when she had a spectacular fall just outside Dimitris’ apartment in Patra. She did not notice any pain until we started out to lunch today, and it got worse while riding back. So, we will definitely be taking it easy for the next couple of days and limiting our travels to foot and public transit.

We are looking forward to at least two days seeing the sites, both ancient and modern, in this wonderful city.

On our trip to Greece

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

For the last week, the song going through Becky’s head has been the Arrogant Worms “On his trip to Greece”:

I get water in my ear (On his trip to Greece)
Which makes it kind of hard to hear (On his trip to Greece)
It isn’t bad ’cause already (On his trip to Greece)
All they say is Greek to me
He thinks this joke is so funny
That he says repeatedly (On his trip to Greece)

Becky is constantly reminded of the English expression “It’s all Greek to me!”. Until we arrived here, we had little idea what Greek sounded like. Becky is finding that it is a flatter and much faster language than Italian. Italian is much more emphatic or passionate. Greek is often spoken very fast, so we are barely able to make out the different sounds people are making and have found it very difficult to remember even a few key phrases (Efharisto – which means Thank-you – has been particularly challenging). Fortunately, we have found that many people in Greece speak at least a little bit of English, such that we do not need to use Greek to get our message across. We have also been spoiled by having Dimitris to help us order food and ask questions for us.

We were late to rise this morning, and did not leave the apartment until after noon. After a quick trip to the grocery store, we headed out on our bikes to replace a few of the items in the stolen bag (a new bag and a set of bike lights). Again we found ourselves on an adventure riding through the streets. Becky was greatly confused when we stopped for some of the stop signs and then rode through other ones. She found we were doing it yesterday on our ride as well – the rules were rather mysterious. Eventually, she noticed that there were stop signs (or yield signs) next to the traffic lights. The ones Dimitris and Scott had been leading her through were when the traffic light was green. Apparently, the signs are there to tell people what to do when the lights are out. In Canada, we are taught to always stop for a stop sign, and when a traffic light is dark, it acts as a stop sign as well.

Illegal Immigrants climbing the fence into the port

Illegal Immigrants climbing the fence into the port

After a wonderful lunch, we rode around some more and checked train and bus schedules, then rewarded ourselves with a coffee on the waterfront. We again watched as at least twenty illegal immigrants climbed over the fence towards the ferries and other ships in the port. After the sun set, we took a ride down to see the bridge across the Gulf of Patra. The bridge is 3 km long and costs 11 Euros to cross. Dimitris called it the most expensive 3 km in Europe.

We passed several parks where more refugees were preparing meals over open fires, and several beaches where they were using the free showers. Becky noticed one the men was clearly naked as he crouched down while shaving after his shower. Another experience we never imagined! We continue to feel very safe in Greece, despite not always understanding what is going on around us.

The most expensive 3 km in Europe

The most expensive 3 km in Europe