David – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this two-part post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. View my mother and father’s responses here. You can also view David’s fantastic blog here.

 

David Berger

BROTHER – David Berger

I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t quite understand. We’d been talking as a family about a great adventure, about exploring the world and seeing new countries, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I knew I’d need my favorite toys. We talked a lot about what to pack, what to do. I remember having to pack up my room, we were renting out the house… someone else was going to come and live in our house in Sedona. Someone else would stay in my room. I understood that I would not see my friends for a while, but I didn’t think about it much. It was all too exciting.

I was excited, new clothes, new backpacks, thinking about what I needed to take with me. We got our packs, and I remember watching Jo and Ed packing their big Osprey Packs, Dad’s highlander carrying the most important gear, the kitchen, and the necessities for travel. Mom’s strategically stuffed with the extra toys I knew I’d need. We started walking around the block, getting used to the heft of our packs. I remember thinking mine was big, but I was strong, I could carry it. There was a lot of encouragement from my brother and parents. We were going to do great, it was heavy, but we’d get used to it! We only walked around the block a couple of times. We’d learn the error of our ways later on.

We talked about Europe, we talked about our first destination. I remember talking about the trip, about what it would be like, as we walked around our neighborhood. The smell of the red earth, the dry Sedona air, and juniper pinions. I wanted to go and play, the pack was heavy, but it wasn’t too bad. Ma and Pa took a lot of our weight in their own bags, so we weren’t overburdened… Then it was time. We packed up and we headed out to Denver and then to Europe!

In Their Words – 20 Years Later – Two Years of Family Travel

It was more than 20 years ago when my parents called my brother and I into the living room. At the time I was 10 or 11 and I vaguely remember being more than a little confused. We were going to go on an adventure. In my previous post, Reflecting On Two Years of Travelschooling – 20 Years Later, I shared my reflections on the trip.  But, part of what I think makes this story special is the opportunity to also contrast those recollections with those of my parents, Ed and Jo, alongside my brother, David.

As part of the prep for my post, I asked each of them to write down their own recollections and reflections on our trips. Focusing on the 1995 trip to Europe, but also elaborating where inclined about our 97 trip through the US. I asked them to write down their musings independently, without talking to each other and without reading my more in-depth piece. In this post, I compile their thoughts and share them with you un-edited and in their own voice. Due to the extended nature of David’s response, I’ve made the decision to post it as a stand alone. Jump to it here.

Jo Berger

MOM – Jo Berger

As I think back to the time 20 years ago when Ed and I were contemplating a year of travel schooling abroad with our two sons, I find I don’t have a lot of planning memories. One thing I know for certain is that it was absolutely the best child-rearing, family-bonding, life-altering decision we ever made.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family that valued education, history, literature, art, music and travel. As Ed and I raised our own family, we continued to instill those values in our own children. I had traveled to Italy in college twice to study Italian and art history. Ed and I had traveled there together before having a family. Ed had also traveled extensively on a year-long, around the world adventure. Both of us were teachers. As a result, we didn’t have a lot of fear about traveling abroad in Europe without a fixed itinerary and teaching the boys from experiences in the real world. We were pretty confident we could handle most anything that came our way.

Once we knew we wanted to do it, we had to figure out how we could afford it. We planned for a year-long break from working. We had some small savings to cover our airfare, our 3-month Eurail passes, and our travel gear. We were able to find renters for our house and we used that income to help defray our travel costs. Food was basically food no matter where we were. Ed managed most of those details as he is the one in our relationship who keeps track of the finances.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Porch of the Caryatids in Athens

BackpackingEurope-3525

While Greece and Athens in particular have faced significant challenges over the last few months due to the nation’s economic woes I was recently reminded of my visit to the Acropolis.  While the actual Parthenon is without question one of the most impressive buildings in Greece, one of my favorites in the area is the Porch of the Caryatids.  Located within the greater Acropolis along side the Parthenon, it is much smaller but has its own beauty and special personality. The porch is located on the back side of the Erechtheion Temple which dates back to around 400 BC and the Caryatids are a series of beautifully carved women that double as pillars holding up the porch.  Enjoy this photo taken on a brilliant blue December day and make sure to note Athens sprawling in the distance as a fascinating combination of both ancient and modern history.

435 Select Photos From My European Walkabout

Croatia - Alex Berger

Hello all,

This has been a long time in coming and I apologize, but after months of struggling with software issues, my webhost and a crazy-busy life I’ve finally sorted through the 1,600 photos I took on my recent Europe trip and have uploaded 435 select shots. They are sorted by geographic region/the part of the trip (eg: Italy) and added to my own personal photo gallery hosted here on the site. There is also an Album that contains all 1,600 photos for those of you who want to see what didn’t make it into the 435 select shots.

In addition to the recently uploaded photos I have also created an Album with select shots from my 2004 study abroad trip to the British Isles with shots from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England.

As I find the time I will continue to add albums with new photos, retouched photos, and some of the very best shots that I’ve taken over the years.

Croatia - Alex Berger

To view the photos visit my photo-gallery here.

Let me know what you think =)

Athens Part II & The End

Feeling lazy? Listen to this post instead:

Audio blog of this post

When I left off last time I noted that the evening’s plan was to check out the hostel bar before a night out on the town. As it turned out that’s just what happened, only it was just the beggining. We started at the hostle bar and quickly ended up meeting a Brazilian woman, two argentinian stewardesses traveling in Greece, as well as several other American and Australian backpackers. After getting aquainted and spending an hour two at the hostel bar we set out to find a nightclub.

As we left the bar two of local dogs attached themselves to our group. Unlike other cities the dogs in Athens roam free. Most have collars and owners but perhaps because of how the houses are constructed they spend most of their time roaming the streets or sleeping infront of their owner’s shops. In general the dogs are nice and friendly. My biggest complain is that they are not cat friendly. I can’t stand dogs that are cat killers and as a result had a hard time watching them terrorize the local cat population – which also roams freely. Luckily most of the cats know the game and go about their lives in safetey with the occasional fash dash up a tree.

As we made our way down the street in a decent sized group we passed a couple walking their small dog. As we began past one of the dogs that had attached itself to us started toward the smaller animal. However, instead of the usual dog posturing and back and forth the dog went in with what I immediatly recognized as lethal intent. In an odd state of surreal shock (you know how things slow down and you feel frozen) I watched as it closed in on the smaller dog. It’s a weird thing, the mixed sensations as you push yourself to overcome that shock and take action. As I realized what was happening I somehow managed to break through the shock (something I’ve been working on recently) and jumped at the two dogs, kicking a leg towards the larger one and driving it off just as it’s mouth closed around the smaller dogs neck. The owners, shocked themselves were frantically trying to pull the dog by it’s leash into the air but not having any luck. Luckily my intervention drove the larger dog back in time, before it was able to hurt the smaller one. After driving it off two more times as it started in around me I drove it off between two parked cars where it went absolutly submissive and abandoned the chase.

As we continued along our way toward the nightclub after recieving a quick thanks from the dog’s owners I tried to drive off the larger dog and it’s friend. Despite my best efforts it quickly became apparently that both had no intention of letting us be and that the one that had previously gone after the smaller dog had attached itself to me – perhaps because of my intervention? Eventually I gave up. Short of blatantly kicking the dog, it seemed like there wasn’t much i could do.

Eventually we reached the nightclub and settled in. As it had been the previous time we attended, the club was mostly empty. Unphased we took the dancefloor and quickly brought the place to life. After a few hours of mixing, socializing and dancing the club was still fairly quiet beyond our group. After quickly discussing it amongst ourselves we decided to set off and explore a hill/lookout located in the Agora? at the base of the Parthanon.

By the time we reached the marble hill where the judiciary had stood in ancient times it was well after 2:00AM. We all found comfortable seats on the odd, somewhat wild marble hill. The hill itself is an odd thing. Devoid of trees and grass it’s made out of marble, but despite the 2 thousand+ years of use and habitation it still has a rugged feeling. Parts are polished smooth, while others look like rugged, jagged hillside. There are two ways up onto the top. One is the old, steep marble steps cut directly into the hillside and showing the sagging wear of thousands of years of traffic. The second is a new, metal staircase that winds up to the top.

The view from the top is incredible. It offers a 220 degree view of the city stretching out from the base of the hill/park. Behind us and to the left the Acropolis stretched up into the darkness and to the right another tree covered hill stretched away into the darkness. The sky was mostly clear with scattered clouds presenting an incredible, if somewhat dull view of the stars as well as a gorgous, glittering view of the city. We relaxed taking in the sights for several hours before eventually noticing that dawn was fast approaching and that it was almost 6:00AM.

During our trip across Athens to the club and later up to our starry perch we had accumulated another 6 or 7 dogs – so by the time we settled in we had a veritable wolf (mutt) pack keeping us company. Some of them wandered aimlessly, others chose someone and plopped down against them. Yet others stood looking out over the small cliff face like wolves taking in the city and rest of the park.

Our path down and back to the hostle led us through the park. The trees were well kept, some were small olive trees others were small gnarly things. The ground throughout the park was covered in small green plants and large clovers which created a beautiful green carpet.

We slept in late the next day and didn’t make it out of bed until 12 or so. We made our way straight to the new Acropolis museum which is currently under construction. We were dissapointed to discovery that the because of construction, that the museum was still mostly closed. However, they did have a free, one room exhibit with several interesting pieces. When completed the museum should be really interesting. Because of ruins discovered during the excavation for the building, the entire structure has been re-designed. The new design is unobtrusive and incorporates the ruins into a second exhibit, while the building itself will float over the ruins.

From there we made our way down to the Temple of Zeus which was somewhat dissapointing. Despite being an enormous temple at one point all that remains are several large pillars, which while impressive in their own right are fairly basic. After a quick stroll through the Temple grounds we continued across the street to the national gardens. The gardens were beautiful and more or less what one would expect. The one unusual sight was a picturesque scene with a large cat basking in the sun atop an old 70’s automobile with classic curves that was parked next to a tree and lanternesque looking streetlight.

After exploring the city at random for a few more hours we eventually made our way back to the hostel and relaxed for a while before repeating our nightly ritual and heading over to the hostle bar. There I met up with Kimberly, a girl I had met in Venice who was studying in Athens. We had communicated though facebook and organized a little get together. She arrived with 3 of her friends and after getting aquainted, Lander, the girls and I set off back up to our perch atop the agora where we all spent a few hours relaxing and socializing.

The following day Lander set off early in the morning to catch his plane to London, gearing up for my own extended trip back the following day I spent the bulk of the day reading, sleeping and relaxing while preparing my system for the stresses and shock of extended travel and my return to the states. However, as I was leaving at 6:30 or so to grab dinner the concierge stopped me and notified me that there was a complete 24 hour transit strike scheduled the following day. Unfortunatly, that strike also included all airlines and the airport as well as transit to and from the airport. Worried about my JFK-PHX connection I decided to take a gamble and make a stab and rushing to the airport and getting them to put me on a flight to JFK that evening regardless of how it was routed. After several learning lessons while taking the metro (only 1 in 5 trains actually went all the way to the airport) I eventually arrived only to discover that despite the 12:00 deadline being 2+ hours away, that there were only 4 flights desparting from the airport as a whole, none of which were on Olympic. Frustrated at the waste of time, though it was not utterly unexpected I did manage to talk to a woman who was able to switch both my Olympic flight and my US Airways connection over to the same flight the following day. Slightly relieved and happy to have learned the trick to the metro I made my way back to my hostel, checked back in and turned in.

With all major modes of transport shut down Wed. became another null day. I wandered around the acropolis area for an hour or two and then spent most of the day in relaxed reflection before eventually turning in for the night.

The next morning I woke up at 7:30 in preperation for the long trip out to the airport and my 11:00 departure. The day was rainy and gloomy. The perfect type for travel that doesn’t require long walks outside. After double checking my gear and making sure i’d placed my knife and other similar objects in my main bag I set off to the metro. The first leg (a quick 1 station hop) was uneventful, however when I arrived on the platform for line 3 (the airport line) the number of people on the platform was insane. All the way down the the terminal the line was shoulder to shoulder and 3-5 people deep. Ordinarily it would not have phased me, but the next train was the special airport line I needed. Worried that i would be squeezed out by the commuters using the line for general transport and have to wait another 30 minutes for another airport shuttle I held my breath. As it turned out, almost everyone fit on the train – the station I was at was towards the beggining of the line and as a result the metro cars were all mostly empty upon arrival. Relived I leaned in a corner and waited out the 40 or so minutes it took the train to travel from one side of Athens to the other. Upon my arrival at the airport I spent a decent chunk of time being sent from one line to another before finally getting the correct line and getting checked in. From there it was through security and then off to the plane.

The plane ride wasn’t as bad as i expected, perhaps because my experiences on the ferrys had put it into perspective. The plane ended up taking off 30 minutes late, my seat was located against a bulkhead and as a result did not recline fully. To make matters worse, the bathroom was located directly behind me. The good news was, that despite being in the middle 4 seat row I was on the isle and had an empy seat next to me. An especially significant fact since the Greek woman on the other side of the empty seat stank of body odor and badly needed deoderant. There was also ample legroom (compared to other flights) and each seat had a small TV screen. Despite a less than stellar title selection there were 5 or 6 movie channels which each looped the movies they were showing simultaneously.

On one hand I was greatful that i’d gotten out on the same flights i’d been scheduled for the following day, but on the other hand I can’t help but feel like that’s saying “I’m greatful that you only decided to kick me once” The transit strike was in part motivated by a Olypic Airlines (government owned) financial woes. The airline is apparently in the process of going bankrupt and the strike as well as several other protests are all geared toward a government bailout. Frankly, I really don’t have any sympathy for them – if the level of service I saw (which by all accounts is a drastic improvement over their standard business model) is any indication they deserve it (for the record I refused to sign the petition they passed around the cabin). Despite canceling my initial ticket and resecheduling part of the trip without bothering to notify me, they also failed to offer any sort of compensation for the added food/lodging/transport costs I had to spend during my extra day/night in Athens. Not to mention that in the reschedule I lost my assigned seats in the exit rows (legroom). A simple upgrade or apology would have gone a long way.

Anyhow – after arriving in JFK and a 45 minute taxi I eventually disembarked only to find out that I had to pick up my bags, go through customs, then go and check in again with US Airways because the Olympic people had messed up my 2nd boarding pass. After a few minutes going back and forth with the US Airways associate she finally found the ticket information – previously she had been telling me that the system said i had already had a paper ticket issued and that as such i needed to present that ticket…a small acomplishment given I was in an Athens hostel and had booked via an e-ticket.

The US Airways flight was obnoxious, the seats were tiny, the carpet smelled like dirty socks, they charged for food and earphones. Luckily the lady that was sitting on the isle (I had the window) had been bumped from first class because because of airmarshals on the flight and as a result been guarenteed a seat with extra space (the middle seat was empty). She ended up being both interesting and extremly friendly, it also turned out that her daughter was graduating from ASU the following day which immediatly gave us something in common to discuss (ASU, not the daughter). The most interesting part of the flight was the de-icing process.

Because of freezing rains in NY they put us through the de-icing tent which resulted in a 40 minute delay. The tent itself was really interesting. A large hanger it had several large heaters mounted on the roof which blew hot air down over the aircraft following the same basic phylosophy as bathroom hand dryers. In addition to the hot air the spent several minutes with an odd hose truck spraying down the wings with two liquids. The first was a white foam, the second a green substance that looked like anti-freeze. From there we took off, had an uneventful flight and eventually landed in Phoenix.

It was fantastic to have mom, dad and Nate waiting for me.

I’m going to end this post there – however i’m not done writing yet, i’ll continue to publish several posts about the trip and my experience before switching back over to my mainstream blogging so don’t go anywhere! I’ll also be uploading the rest of the photos soon as well as doing some re-touch work and uploading higher resolution versions of several of the better ones.

Athens Part I

Listen to this post:

Audio Transcript: Athens Part I

The ferry sucked, it smelled bad, I got one hour of sleep and was thrilled to get off when we pulled into port about 15 minutes before dawn. I could go on for a number of lines… but for the sanity of all involved…We disembarked, looked at our guide book and then set out in to the pre-dawn gloom. When you arrive in Athens by boat, you actually land at the port city of Piraeus, which is a 15 minutes metro ride outside of the city. To that end our first objective was to find the metro stop. Unfortunately, we misread our location on the map, failed to ask for directions and walked for about 15 minutes in the wrong direction through some incredibly shady, desolate areas around the docks before turning around and getting pointed in the right direction. Marginally surprised that we had not gotten mugged…we pushed on to the metro following several sets of confusing and poorly given directions before eventually stumbling upon it. We scratched our heads, figured out how to buy our 1-way tickets and jumped on a tram hoping it was going the right way. Whomever was in charge of making the city tourist friendly failed fairly badly. Parts are decent, but most of it is a confusing, poorly marked disaster.

We eventually found our way to the hostel, checked in and quickly collapsed into a long nap. When we eventually woke up and dragged ourselves out of bed it was almost noon. We introduced ourselves to our new roommates…an American couple from Colorado…then set out to explore the town. Eager to take things easy we spent several hours wandering aimlessly and taking in the sights. We found a few bookstores and restocked on reading material for downtime during our stay and in preparation for our flights back to the states. We scrounged up some food then headed back for another nap and a wash up.

When we finally awoke we ate a nice dinner, then made our way to a nearby hostel which dominates the traveler scene in the city and has a cheaply priced bar. We grabbed a few drinks, met some people and then eventually headed out at 11:30 when the bar closed with a large group of Philipinos and one of the off-duty barmen to an irish pub. Later we hit a night club where in typical form, with the help of a few of the Philipino girls, we took to the dance floor and got the club on it’s feet. We danced until 2. As we were resting one of the bartenders told us if we were not going to order a drink from him right at that moment that we couldn’t sit at the barstools. Pissed off we left him a two cent tip and left. We were effectively responsible for the dance floor being busy and probably most of the business that had stayed as a result /shrug. We wandered around a bit, exploring the packed, grungy bar scene before eventually making our way back to the hostel in a controlled-semi-lost sort of meander. As I reflect on it, it’s really pretty surprising the only conflict we have had was the one incident in Naples. The shady streets, with steel storefronts pulled down, covered in grit and graffiti were definitely a bit intimidating in places…areas that just seem made for trouble. Perhaps it’s luck or perhaps it’s presence. Who knows!

The next morning we woke up and decided to dedicate the day to the archeological museum. After catching the metro we wandered around the area before eventually making our way into the museum which unfortunately closed at 3:00. We managed to get there by noon and dedicated the next 3 hours to exploring the statues, frescoes, artifacts and vases from Ancient Greece. It’s truly an incredible experience. In Europe there are two museums that you need to see. Once you’ve seen those, the rest are icing on the cake but more local flavor than necessity. The British Museum is one (mainly because they stole everything important from everywhere) and the Athens museum (mostly because they got almost all of it back from the British, lol).

The artwork is incredible, the famous pieces (Athena, Poseidon, Pan and Artemis, Agamemnon’s mask etc.) were all captivating. I think my favorite is without a doubt the statue of Artemis and Pan though it’s so hard to pick a favorite. The level of detail, animation and the beauty that comes through in most of the Greek statuary and art is incredible. It’s a shame it would harm the artwork to touch it, as I’ve always found that things like statuary seem to be better appreciated when explored with multiple senses. It brings out the life in them and perhaps anchors the experience making it seem more real, instead of a surreal moment looking at what your mind tells you must just be another photograph.

In addition to the famous pieces, several that really stood out that were slightly less common: Beautiful bird/dragonesque heads made out of bronze and oxidized a blue-green, a 3-4 foot tall vase with a gorgeous Greek war helmet in black relief with a tan background, a set of beautiful daggers and a remarkable near-black bronze face.

The heads had initially been placed on some sort of large container, their falco-dragonesque features were somewhat square with curved beaks and heavy eyebrows. The image is one that captivated me, and I think I’ll look into tweaking and using at a later date for some sort of emblem or project. Perhaps as a logo for my various projects or personal website? Hard to say.

The vase (wrong name perhaps?) was a larger version of how I always picture Greek vases…Slightly wider in the middle, it was black except for the tan area surrounding the side view of an intricately detailed, artistically plumed war helmet.

The daggers were stunning. There were 3 with blades that had turned into gnarly rusted out blue pieces of metal, but, the inlaid engraving on the blades was still visible, unlike the rest of the blades it had not rusted – so I presume it was silver. The imagery on the blades depicted lions battling, sea animals and soldiers. The style was intricate with a realistic leaning. It romanticized the animals portraying them slightly blockier than life which ended up being profoundly flattering. There was also an amazing jade dagger on display. The tip of the blade was gone, however, the lower half of the blade and the hilt were still intact. The thin, deep green jade blade was fascinating and perfectly accented by the gorgeous pommel.

The face was interesting. It was about the size of a soccer ball with a gnarly beard that flowed into wild and slightly curly hair. The face was that of an old man and may have been Zeus or Poseidon. In addition to a powerful example of bronze statuary, it was made all that much more impressive by the eye. On the dark metal the eyes were inlaid in ivory with jet black pupils creating a piercing, penetrating gaze that not only followed you but felt almost alive. It was amazing…deep white orbs that sucked you in and transported you back thousands of years to a different time and place.

With tired feet, exhausted eyes and a sore back I eventually met Lander outside of the museum and from there we wandered and explored for another hour or two before finding a cheap internet cafe to get caught up on some things. After a mandatory nap we set out again and met up with some randoms as well as a few of the girls we had met the night before. We had a quiet evening at the hostel bar and a small lounge down the street dodging the rain as long as possible.

Which brings me to today – it’s been a beautiful one. After last night’s rain we half expected the day to be a oppressive and cloudy. When we first woke up a bit after 8, it was. Not in the mood to fight the weather we went back to bed and as it worked out, by 10 when we checked again the rain was gone and quickly replaced by a cloudless blue sky. We had heard a rumor that all of the museums were free – so eager to take advantage of the reduced (free) admission we set off to the Acropolis. Before long we found ourselves passing by the amphitheater and minding our way up a slippery marble path toward the Acropolis. After a few minutes walk through old olive trees whose bases were surrounded by thick sheets of dark green clovers and grass we reached the Acropolis, walked in unimpeded and began to explore.

Unfortunately, most of the Parthenon was surrounded by a latticework of pipes and scaffolding. They do renovation which replaces old structural improvements with modern marble instead of iron bars. If not for the well-preserved temples we had seen in Paestum Italy (of all places ehh?) we would have been a bit disappointed. Because of the rain there was almost no smog and we were presented with a beautiful 360 degree view of the city as it sprawls out and away in every direction. From the mountains to the port, we could see it all. While the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding the other main structure (the Erectheum I think – the one with the female caryatids) was in beautiful shape. It was the highlight of the trip up to the Acropolis. The figures were stunning, the backdrop gorgeous and the building they are attached to was also really impressive. As we walked around it, several of the old windows framed the sky and cityscape in the valley around us.

After taking in the Acropolis we made our way down into the ruins in the large park around the base of the mountain. There we found a small museum in a long re-constructed forum-like building as well as a small temple building in near immaculate shape. As we wandered through the area we also paused briefly at a tiny ancient church built in the classic style. Though scarcely the size of a house it was beautiful and sandwiched between a palm tree and old olive tree. After stopping for a photo we continued our wandering through the ruins and eventually made our way down into the flea market.

We had waited to explore the market hoping to maximize the experience. While the daily flea market area is massive, on Sundays it overflows onto nearby streets and is supplemented by anyone and everyone with a blanket and something to sell. Where the regular vendors tend to be overpriced and a bit more organized, the Sunday warriors are vastly different. Most have a sheet with random things literally dumped out of boxes into mounds. From pounds of old notes, coins and phonecards to beautiful old watches, jewelry, clothing – we even saw old motherboards piled in one spot. It’s a boiling mass of humanity and chock full of incredible things.

As we walked along exploring I found several items I had been looking for. Two of which I was able to purchase for 10 and 15 Euro respectively and which I later price-checked very similar objects at more established vendors for 75 and 150 euros respectively. We explored, saw tons of wonderful things and found a few more small items before grabbing lunch, making our way back to the hostel for a nap, pausing to spend a Euro on a bag full of beautifully ripened tangerines that came apart in our hands as we peeled them. Back at the hostel we napped briefly before heading down to the internet cafe where I’m writing this e-mail. From here we will hit up the hostel bar again and see where the night takes us.

Time to continue the adventure…until tomorrow!

Rethymno Part II, Iraklio and Knossos

BackpackingEurope-3372

So, you know that crazy phenomenon that occurs when you’re about 1/2 through writing something that’s difficult to save, and as a result, has not been saved? Well, it struck last night as I was writing this blog update. Unfortunately, the insane thunderstorm that was raging outside knocked out the power not once but twice. It was also kind enough to wait until I’d gotten a day or two into the update each time…oh well. It’s not raining at the moment and I’m going to give it another go – wish me luck!

Castle Gateway

Rethymno is beautiful. Of the big 3 – Chania, Rethymno and Iraklio – I would say Rethymno takes the cake, though Chania is definitely a not too distant second. The difference lies in the city’s layout. Chania’s old city sits inside the Venetian walls but lacks a real castle and is much more cramped. Rethymno lacks the city walls, but still has an intact castle which is in impressive shape and crowns the tip of the peninsula. Between the new city and the castle the old city spreads out along the peninsula in a beautiful mixture of small, cramped, vine-covered alleyways and slightly larger cobblestone streets lined by shops, cafes and restaurants. One of the biggest differences between Greece and the states is the cafe culture. Because the whole town shuts down from 2-4 every day, a lot of people head to the cafes…it’s like our Starbucks…but different in that everyone actually hangs out, drinks their coffee and socializes instead of running off to their next appointment bolstered by their caffeine high. The cafes also take the place of bars in some of the mid-sized towns resulting in a much more laid back bar environment… one not especially geared toward socializing or mixing with strangers, but one great for a group out for the evening looking for a place to hangout and relax.

Castle Wall in Crete

After our first night in the crappy hostel, we decided to re-locate to a hotel. The hotel we found cost us each 3 Euro more. For the slight price increase we got a private room with shower, a TV, and we were one street back from the beach. Using that as a base camp we spent our first full day exploring the town, wandering up to the castle ruins and walking along the castle walls. The interior of the castle is mostly an open field, however, the castle walls are in great shape and have been restored. It’s a beautiful sight looking out from the walls, down over the jagged rocks and over the crystal clear water at the empty horizon. From the castle we explored the city in greater depth, wandering aimlessly through the tiny streets and taking in their beauty and spirit. We eventually found a place to stop for dinner and tried sampling some local cuisine which was delicious.

A Small Cafe in Spili, Crete

Our second day in Rethymno we spent exploring the city, before setting out into Crete’s interior. We picked a small city called Spili located in the heart of the mountains and caught a bus around noon. The town ended up being much closer than we expected and after a 30 minute bus ride across the countryside we found ourselves in a quaint little town that sat at the base of a large cloud-cloaked mountain. The town wrapped along the main road and overlooked a large fertile valley dotted with orange trees and olive groves. The weather was cold and we were forced to dodge a few brief drizzles, however the town in general was fun in a quiet simple sort of way. After exploring the town we had about 45 minutes to kill before our bus left from in front of one of the local cafeneons. We found a beautiful little restaurant cloaked in vines with hanging gourds in it’s rafters and ordered an odd beef stew meal to split. As we ate our snack, several kittens showed up and kept us entertained until it was time to leave.

Greek Kittens

We arrived back in Rethymno, explored the city a bit more by night, then turned in.

Spili, Crete Countryside

The next morning we woke up, found some food, and made our way to the bus station. The day was grumpy and rainy. Once at the bus station we had a 45 minute wait until the next bus left, that wait stretched into an hour and a half as the bus was late. A bit irritable (and soggy) we finally got moving and arrived in Iraklio an hour and a half later. By then it was already about 3:30, raining, and getting dark. We walked around a bit, found most of the budget housing closed, and eventually found a hotel with a room for 20 Euro each. From there we set out for food and to explore the city a bit.

Knossos Monument, Crete

Iraklio is a mess. The city might have had a lot to offer 80 years ago, but the war apparently destroyed a lot of it’s historic neighborhoods. What’s left is mostly run down and unimpressive. The city itself is a large port town with a lot of abandoned areas and ugly streets. A few of the main streets are interesting, but even those are just busy commercial zones. After exploring a bit we eventually found a restaurant that showed some promise. Because of the rain and the delayed bus we had not managed to eat much and were starving. The place we found was a fun little local’s hangout with a two page wooden menu written in Greek. Instead of taking orders, the servers left a pad of paper on the table where we could jot down what we wanted. The prices were great and the portions beautifully presented. Instead of ordering just one thing, it was set up so you could order several, then mix and match.

Eager to try something new, between the two of us, we ordered cheese-stuffed peppers, fried cod, snails and Greek olives. When the food arrived we set to it and were delighted by the food’s quality. Each plate had a distinctly different taste and everything was well prepared. The snails were a new thing for both of us (I’d had them once before but they were cooked differently). Full, we set off to find an internet cafe and quickly got rained in at the one (where the power proceeded to go out twice). Frustrated, we decided to brave the rain and head to a local cafe for a drink. Then, tired of trying to wait out the downpour, we made a wet dash back to our hotel where we called it a night.

BackpackingEurope-3439

Today we woke up early and caught a bus to Knossos – the largest and best preserved Minoan Palace. Also the fabled home to the minotaur and it’s labyrinth. The ruins are impressive, if fairly plain. It’s obvious in the cement reconstructions and pathways that they have been tuned to deal with a lot of tourist traffic and as a result have a ‘polished’ feel to them. Despite this, they have a certain spirit…one reinforced by the rebuilt sections of the palace and reproductions of the fresco/mosaics which were excavated from the ruins. We spent a good hour exploring the ruins before catching a bus back to the city and heading to the Archeological Museum. Unfortunately, the museum is under renovation and all they have up is a temporary exhibit. Despite being very limited it still had most of the main paintings and a number of impressive artifacts which left us feeling satiated.

BackpackingEurope-3445

From there we booked our ferry tickets and will leave tonight at 8:30 for an overnight ferry to Athens. Until then we’ll be exploring the city, trying to find a few books to tide us over on the long, uncomfortable ride, and probably locating some food!

Athens bound! Bye for now.

Chania Part II, Rethymno Part I and A Rome Flashback

Greece - Crete

As I was walking along the castle walls here in Rethymno, I realized I forgot to blog about a fantastic experience I had in Rome. It’s amazing how things that would ordinarily be the highlight of the month have at times become almost daily travel occurrences and blend into the background noise.

While in Rome, Lander and I stumbled across handouts for several operas being performed in one of the cathedrals located near the central train station. Eager to mix things up and sample something different we selected the more diverse of the two programs and found our way to the church that evening. The building was beautiful. It had Moorish influences with a fantastic roof design painted to look like a starry night. In the dome over the dais there was a beautiful depiction of a non-crucified Christ accompanied by angels. Perhaps the most impressive part of the simply decorated cathedral was a small set of 2 thin-cut marble windows and another beautifully presented piece of thinly sliced marble at the very back of the dais. I’m not sure what to call it other than marble-like stained glass – but that’s deceiving. Where stained glass windows had once been there were thinly cut pieces of marble. Each window consisted of two pieces, one mirroring the other and creating winglike patterns. The central piece was the most captivating in that it was back-lit and a horizontal cut brought out the inner color and shapes in the stone creating what looked like a sunset with rays of light bursting through clouds. It was such an fantastic piece that it looked 3d.

The opera was good, though not incredible. There were 2 male and 2 female performers who took turns singing solo pieces with one or two mixed. Of the 4, one older gentleman was terrific, the other male was horrible and the two women, while not exceptional, were enjoyable. The total performance lasted about an hour and a half with intermission. It took advantage of the cathedral’s acoustics. All in all the experience was enjoyable. The music was enchanting and it was a great change of pace from our typical evening activities.

A Doorway in Chania, Crete

Back to Greece!

After finishing my last blog in Chania, Lander and I found dinner and then set out to hit up the town. The evening started fairly similar to the night before as we quickly got ushered into one of the bars by a street promoter promising free drinks. We struck up a conversation with one of the bartenders – a girl from Sweden working for a few months in Chania then traveling. Before long we built a decent rapport and decided to take a break to see if we could connect with the guys back in the states. We hit up the internet cafe, then Lander decided to turn in. I was feeling energized so I returned to the bar and picked up my conversation with the bartender. Time slipped by, I ordered a beer and had several more provided for free by the promoter or the bartender. A bit after 1:00, a few of her friends showed up with one of her co-workers who was off that night. The other two girls were Finnish and Swedish and the guy was from New Zealand.

Chania Harbor and Lighthouse

We all got acquainted and by 3:00 am, as the bar closed, after dancing for a bit (got some Latin in!) we moved over to the bar where Lander and I had spent the bulk of the previous night. There the Romanian bartender remembered me and demanded I join her for a drink. Afterwards we all socialized, danced and relaxed until about 5:30AM when the bar closed. As everyone put stuff up I decided to leave and hang out by the harbor to get some fresh air and sober up a bit before turning in.

I’ve never really figured out why (maybe it’s because I wear my watch on the wrong wrist?), but gay guys tend to hit on me fairly often. It’s never really phased me, if anything I take it as a compliment of sorts, but it still throws me off a bit. I only mention it because as I was sitting down by the dock sobering up a scooter pulled up with two guys on it. I’m a bit on edge because it’s late at night and I’m halfway expecting I’m about to get robbed. Instead, the two guys proceed to try and pick me up, then offer me drugs, before trying to pick me up a second time. After spending a good 5 minutes trying to get rid of them, they finally left. Slightly traumatized I decided to turn in and call it a night. Normally, I’d consider the story to be unblogworthy, but because of what happened in Paleohora the following day I’m gonna go ahead and include it.

Lander Dock Paleohora

The next morning Lander and I woke up fairly early and caught a bus across the island to a small town on the south shore called Paleohora, which we had been told had interesting architecture and was beautiful. Despite being less than 50km to the south, the bus ride took about two hours – which other than my hangover – was great. The bus ride wound up into the mountains and along the mountainside through several medium-sized gorges. The hillsides along the gorges were extremely steep but still terraced in many places. Any remotely flat areas were covered with olive orchards. Several of the steeper areas had also been cleared into fields where sheep grazed. The day was a beautiful partly cloudy dream. Large fluffy clouds regularly shot rays of light down onto the countryside. Because of the light and the somewhat glossy nature of several of the shrubs everything seemed a vibrant green, broken only by the jagged white rocks protruding from the shrubs and the golden-hued trees that dotted the small washes and dry river beds. A number of the small green bushes had berries which were a vibrant red and looked delicious. The rock formations were fierce looking…almost like a white lava. They are sharp…pitted by water, rain and snow in a way that leaves cutting edges and circular indents in the stone.

BackpackingEurope-3387

Eventually we wound our way through the mountains and found ourselves at Paleohora. We disembarked on the main street and immediately had to make a decision. The sign in front of us read <–Beach–> and pointed in both directions. A terrible quandary to face ehh? As it turns out, the city sits on a peninsula and we had been dropped off about halfway up it. We chose left, which dumped us out on a beautiful pebble stone beach. The stones were all decent sized and there was almost no sand. As a result, as the tide washed in it would push stones forward, then as the wave pulled back out the pebbles would fall on each other creating a quiet thunder as they banged and slid back down. It was astounding and fantastically melodious. We paused, took it in, relaxed and then set off to walk out the peninsula following the coast road.

Pebble Beach, Palehora, Crete

After leaving the pebble beach we found a small market and picked up some fresh fruit and a tin of sardines. We walked out to the tip of a large cement dock and sat down to eat our snack. From our perch on the dock we were able to see down through the crystal clear water to the sea floor some 15 feet or so below us. Along the edge of the dock were several large schools of different types of fish. As we sat there throwing in small pieces of banana, orange, kiwi and sardines, the fish schooled to nibble at the food. About 10 minutes after we arrived an old Greek man appeared. This is where the story I was writing about earlier comes into play. He was dressed traditionally like most older Greek men, missing most of his teeth, and he walked with a cane. He hobbled up and said something in slurred Greek. Because of his missing teeth and the way he talked, I doubt I’d have been able to understand him even if I spoke Greek. Never the less, he gestured as we talked and we carried on a brief conversation.

From what we could piece together he was an old fisherman who had had to stop fishing because of an accident which damaged both of his knees, but, in his youth he had caught a lot of big fish out on the sea. We offered him a tangerine as we apologized in English for not being able to speak Greek – all of which was fairly normal and made for a good story. That’s where it got really odd, however. After his fishing story he pointed at the two of us, said something, made a weird inquisitive face then in response to our blank looks held out his two hands in pointer position, then rubbed the two back and forth in parallel side-to-side. Not sure what he was asking or getting at, I decided to play dumb, shrugged my shoulders, made an apologetic face, then said, “Oh, we’re American” – as usually when people ask something odd it’s a cultural question or they want to know where we’re from. He talked again briefly before ambling back up the dock to a chair in front of one of the houses a ways back where he sat staring out at the sea. It wasn’t until after he left, as Lander and I were walking back up talking about the old guy, that I asked him, “Is it just me or did he just ask us if we were gay and hit on us?” It turned out he had gotten the same impression. We tried to think of some other meaning behind the hand motion and couldn’t figure anything out. All around quite the odd day, that made two times in a 24 hour period I’d been approached in some shape or form on a dock…maybe there’s some unspoken Greek rule we should have been told about?

Anyhow, from there the road wrapped around the ruins of an old Venetian castle before turning into dirt at the point which was just open land with a small building or two and a number of goats and chickens. As we followed the track back around the other side, we passed the harbor and eventually ended up by the large sandy beach which was on the other side of the peninsula. There we paused before exploring the town and ordering a horrible meat plate. Disappointed, I pulled off a small piece of hamburger, wrapped it in my napkin and stuck it in my pocket to feed the cats later. As in Chania, there were cats everywhere, some were well fed, others looked fairly thin – despite this, as we left the restaurant and walked around (we had an hour to kill before our bus arrived) there was not a cat to be found. Amazed, I finally gave up and was complaining to Lander about how they had all vanished when I tossed my remnants at a large open trash bin. My aim was poor, it hit the side of the bin, teetered for a moment and fell to the ground. At the same moment there was a huge commotion and a cat flew, practically vertically, up and out of the dumpster. It turns out it had been rummaging inside for food and I’d scared it when I hit the can with the meat. Laughing at the irony, I unwrapped the rest and tossed it to the cat.

The next morning we got up and caught the bus to Rethymno. We arrived at 3 or so and made our way to a hostel noted in the book. By 5, we had two beds, though we were extremely disappointed by the quality of the hostel and atmosphere. Committed to one night, we decided we would switch back to a cheap hotel the next day. We explored the town briefly before finding a nice place for dinner and sampling some of the local cuisine. We found a reasonable restaurant and ordered a delicious meat & artichoke plate which was as tender as could be and came with a side of sliced potatoes. From there we explored the nightlife briefly before turning in and getting a horrible night’s sleep on the nasty hostel beds.

The rest I’ll have to pick up tomorrow. Until then!