Monday, 7 November 2016

Athens: Lay Claim to the Barren Streets of Dawn

30 July 2016
Athens, Greece (Αθήνα, Ελλάδα) 
Disembarking at dawn, we were relieved to find ourselves on solid ground again and excited for the day ahead. François and Fabienne dropped us off in Syntagma Square (Athens' largest square that sits right in front of the Greek Parliament) and we said our goodbyes. It had been a wonderful two weeks, and in 24 hours we would be back in the UK while they would take a few days to catch another ferry to Italy and drive cross-continent to Lille. Their first stop was Delphi, whereas ours was trying to find a bakery open for breakfast.
Setting off, we noticed a few places that we had visited on our last trip to Athens in 2013 and reminisced accordingly. However, it was too early in the morning for anything at all to be open. Thinking that we might have more luck searching in the more touristy Plaka neighbourhood underneath the acropolis, we headed in that direction but still found each street completely deserted and shop doors shut. Though our main priority was food due to hunger and grogginess, we did appreciate the feeling that we had a whole city to ourselves! Looking both ways before crossing a street (you can never be too careful), we saw the first car of the morning and stopped to let it past. As it drew closer, we noticed that it had a red number plate and with a jolt realised that it was the car we had been travelling in across Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes! François rolled down his window and explained that they decided it would be a shame not to see the acropolis before leaving for Delphi, so they were navigating the narrow roads of the Plaka. We hopped in the back again and made for the top of the hill.
The carpark right next to the acropolis is reserved for tourist busses only, but it was completely empty so we parked illegally and trotted up to the entranceway. Of course, it wasn't open at that time, but we were able to see the glow of sunrise behind the acropolis. There were actually a few other people around: a disgruntled groundskeeper who was hosing down the marble path, and several backpackers who were curled up on park benches catching a few Zs before the site opened.
Bidding farewell for a second time, we started off down the hill to continue our bakery quest while the others drove off, this time really going to Delphi. A couple of old dogs followed us, possibly in the hopes that we had food (how wrong they were). After a few minutes, we saw a car with a red number plate driving back up the hill towards us and François explained that apparently that route was blocked off. Laughing, we waved goodbye for the final time and wandered through the Plaka. The city was beginning to wake, and we saw that a couple of cafés had opened and a man was unloading baked goods from a truck for his stall.

We bought sesame bread from him (which was not quite as nice as that from the bakery in Masari) and settled at the 11th-century Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea, which sits smack bang in the middle of a small square between Plaka and Syntagma. To while away the time until archaeological sites would open, we sipped on juice and coffee at a café on the square and contemplated our options. We knew that we wanted to do some sightseeing, but we had our backpacks and didn't fancy lugging them around all day. Also needing to print the boarding passes for our flight, Yannick had the idea to visit a hostel and ask where we could fulfil those services as they would have to handle similar questions frequently.
The area around the flea market is a hub for hostels, so we picked one at random and went in. The receptionist was very nice, and printed our boarding passes for free! He also told us of a luggage storage place just around the corner that was fairly affordable. Hostel questioning success! We were able to store our bags for the entire day for €8, and freed from our backburdens we set off for the Ancient Agora of Athens.

In ancient Greece, the agora was the focal point of socialisation and is similar to a Roman forum. As we entered, our attention was immediately drawn to the Church of the Holy Apostles. Built in the 10th-century, it's one of the oldest churches in Athens and was constructed partially over a 2nd-century nymphaeum.

We wandered around the site for next couple of hours, reading plaques and resting under shady trees when the heat became unbearable. Though much of the site was heavily ruined, remnants of the buildings that once formed the agora could still be seen and we marvelled over the size of some of the pillars and stone slabs that lay discarded. An interesting feature we found was the water clock, which would tell the time of day using running water as a measure (though without the water it looked more like an emptied swimming pool).

At one point we walked up the hill to the Temple of Hephaestos which was (in a word) badass.

Forget the 11th-century. Forget the 10th-century! We're talking about Before Christ now, people. This temple was built in 415BC, and remains largely intact to this day. Let that sink in for a moment. It's amazing! (In order to capture the above photo, we were forced to wait for a German couple to move. They stood right in the perfect location to snag the aforementioned photo, chatting away, and a queue had formed behind them for that exact photo op reason. They were completely oblivious! Yannick and I shared some eye-rolling with an American group who were also in the informal queue, an unlikely time for bonding. But we finally got the photo!)

The view from the front of the temple was also stunning, as you could see out over the whole agora and beyond to the acropolis.

Our last stop at the agora was the Stoa of Attalos, which had been reconstructed and turned into a museum. Quite impressive in its own right, the stoa displayed some beautiful sculptures and artefacts that had been unearthed at the agora and we enjoyed walking around sheltered from the sun.
Before lunch, we wandered around the flea market and found the same spot where we had seen a gramophone fall on a vendor's head on our last trip. Then we strolled around the Roman Agora, which had been built in Roman times when Athenians felt that the Ancient Agora was becoming too cluttered with buildings. I mean literally strolled around, as we didn't actually go inside the site, but circumnavigated the perimeter looking through the fence.
We found a vegetarian café for lunch called Avocado. Yannick had pasta dish with pesto while I opted for a "macrobiotic" meal. I didn't know what a macrobiotic meal was (I'm still not too sure on the details), but the description sounded a lot like the food I eat at home. Mainly comprised of rice, sweet potato, greens and tofu with a soy dipping sauce, it was delicious and a change from all the traditional Greek food we had been eating.
From there we tried to take a tram and failing that a bus to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. When discussing the city with Fabienne, we had recalled only visiting the Acropolis Museum, while she mentioned that the archaeological museum was well worth a visit. Not wanting to miss out, we paid the entrance fee and began our perusal. Within five minutes, we realised that we had in fact visited that very museum before, spotting the gilded death mask of Agamemnon (alleged). Silly us!

Luckily, it didn't really matter that we had visited before, as it was three years ago and we had forgotten seeing most of it. A few artefacts jumped out at us, one being a kleroteria: a stone slab with allotment slots used for determining who would be up for jury duty. Kleroteria stood at the entrance to every court in ancient Athens.

Loafs of bread from thousands of years ago never fail to impress me! We also took great interest in the Egyptian section, which featured wooden sculptures, sarcophagi, and papyrus documents. 

The evening was wearing on, so we went to retrieve our bags from the storage facility (after being beset by pesky mosquitos in a park by Syntagma), and settled in for one last Greek dinner at Paradosiako. We battled the urge to order a wide range of tasty sounding dishes with the reality that we had eaten a sizeable lunch and should be sensible. We managed to reach a middle ground, and ordered stuffed peppers, baked feta, skordalia and lemon potatoes. Unlike the skordalia made with potatoes that we had tried previously, this specimen was made from soaked bread and tasted like the most amazing garlic bread dip you can imagine. It was garlicky and bready and olive oily and I need more of it. We made the most of our evening by taking our time eating and drinking copious amounts of rosé and sparkling water, knowing we would have to spend several hours at the airport waiting for our flight.
Boring airport stuff aside, when we returned to London we went straight back to Bethnal Green where we could stay in a nice little flat with a nice little cat. I was ecstatic to be able to eat less oily food for a while, but eventually came around to the idea of "Greek nights" where we would prepare an array of mezes as if we ran our own taverna!
So, our goal of enjoying great food, visiting archaeological sites and sunbathing on stunning beaches was certainly fulfilled. Bring on our next Greek trip!

This post was almost called: 'Pastry Quest - Sesame Says Me!'

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Rhodes, part two: Greek Hospitallerty and Fortified Tourism

Rhodes Town, Greece (Ρόδος, Ελλάδα) 
29 July 2016
On our final day on Rhodes, we had to choose between waking up early to visit the acropolis of Lindos or sleeping in a bit and going for a swim. We decided on the latter partly because we're lazy but mainly because that was the last chance for  a swim we would have in Greece - after Rhodes we would be taking an overnight ferry to Athens (where we expected no swims) and from there, a flight back to the UK.
After the swim (which strangely caused both Yannick and Fabienne to contract an itchy sea-rash, while François and I were unaffected), we drove to Rhodes Town and entered the historic part of the city. The old town is surrounded by a double layer of thick walls and a moat. Despite the impressive defenses, Rhodes has had a long and fascinating history and at different times has been controlled by the Romans, the Arabs, the Genoese, the Knights Hospitaller (a Catholic military order), the Ottomans, and the Italians.

Though super tourist-oriented, it was a beautiful old town with stone houses and archways, mosques and churches. Souvenir shops were everywhere, and restaurant touters were out in force declaring "yassas, hello, welcome please" down every street.

As we wandered, not worrying if we became lost so long as we stayed within the walls of the old town, we stumbled across an intriguing structure and pondered over it. A man saw us and sidled up, telling us that it was a well for ritual cleansing. Just off to the side of it was a mosque, and before entering one would have to wash their feet in the well out of respect. We thanked him for the information, and he passed a business card to us with his restaurant's name. This touter had some sneaky skills, as we did end up going back to that very restaurant for lunch after exploring a little more.
Disappointingly, his hummus was not good, but the gigantes were excellent and we were seated under a huge tree which shaded us from the sun most effectively. Overall it was more aimed at tourists than we like, but I feel that it was a better choice than most other places in the old town. As Fabienne and I needed to use the bathroom before setting off again, we went looking for it together. Hearing that someone was inside the only stall, we waited patiently outside while they left the stall and unhurriedly washed their hands. Then a male waiter emerged, which was quite unexpected as the bathroom we visited was clearly marked for women. He jumped a little when he saw us and said "Oh, sorry!" in his thick Greek accent. As soon as he had gone, Fabienne and I cracked up. It doesn't sound terribly funny written down, as it was the way he said "oh, sorry!"...you had to be there.

This is just one example of the many imposing gates that allow access into the old town. From inside we didn't notice the towers, and then once we had a look at the harbour outside the gate we turned around and were stunned by how large it was!

The cobbled streets felt very pedestrianised, but whenever you least expected it a motorbike would roar through, sending crowds scattering. Buskers were a staple feature of Rhodes Town, and they were almost exclusively children. Most played accordions sitting on the curb, while some were dressed in costumes with their hands out for coins.
Then the time came to leave the old town and board our ferry. When booking, we had made the choice to pay a little extra for a four-berth cabin (with ensuite) as we figured it would be much more comfortable than spending the whole night in cheap armchairs. As we settled into our cabin, the ferry drifted out of the harbour into open waters. Over two thousand years ago, a great statue of the sun god Helios had been erected at the entrance to the harbour: the Colossus of Rhodes. Completed in 280BC, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and stood at 33 meters high (around the same size as the Statue of Liberty when measured without her pedestal and raised arm). Tragically, an earthquake snapped the statue at its knees 54 years after it was built, toppling it to the ground. For centuries, even the ruins were so impressive that they attracted many visitors every year, but under Arab rule the bronze pieces were sold and carted off using nine hundred camels. Plans to build a new colossus are rumoured, though scholars disagree on where the original statue may have stood. After visiting the wondrous Crete and Karpathos, I was definitely disappointed by the touristic tint of Rhodes, but maybe I'll visit again once the colossus is in place (hearsay has the new statue standing at 150 meters tall!).
And what a success the cabin was! The bunk beds were surprisingly comfy and I managed to sleep for most of the night, which was brilliant as I was well-rested for our day in Athens.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Halki: Harbourfront Dips and Real Estate Tips

28 July 2016
Rhodes, Greece (Ρόδος, Ελλάδα) 
Our second day on Rhodes began early, as we planned to leave the highly touristic island to venture to that siren we spied from the aft of our ship: Halki. Foregoing our customary swim, we invested that beach time into stocking up on sesame bread from the baker in Masari and hightailing it to the "very picturesque" harbour of Kamiros Skala. After parking and checking our watches, we deemed the hour sufficient enough to sit down with a coffee in the bracing sea air before needing to check into our pre-booked ferry. Sagely, I opted for the orange juice, which (although not freshly squeezed) was apparently far superior to the watery cappuccino that Yannick had ordered.
Leaving the cappuccino almost untouched, we presented our tickets and boarded the little ferry, perching on long wooden benches. As we waited for departure, we observed a man in the middle of his morning swim (jealous!) who swam up to a moored fishing boat and struck up a conversation with the fisherman on deck. I suppressed a giggle as I saw the swimmer glide up to the hull and thrust out his hand, shaking with the man who was moments before straightening a fishing net.

Halki, Greece (Χάλκη, Ελλάδα) 
The ferry ride passed quickly in relation to our previous island hops, and was remarkably almost on time (which is the most you can hope for in Greece). Once our boat had been secured to the quay, tourists scattered like a menaced school of fish and then reconvened into smaller schools separated by their respective tour groups. We let them go on ahead, and then ducked into a quiet side street in stealthy secret agent fashion. They had no idea what hit them. One moment we were there and then BAM!

We quickly spied the two famous Halki bell towers. One is the white crown atop the church of Agios Nikolaos down at the water's edge. Our carefully selected pathway led us uphill past the other, which is the stone pinnacle gazing from above the village. The story behind this tower starts a long time ago, when Halki brought about its golden age through prosperity from sponge fishing in the 1800's. As time wore on, the sponge trade was becoming less lucrative and many residents uprooted their families to seek a living elsewhere. The population dropped from around three thousand in the mid 19th-century to just 250 today. A mass emigration took place to Tarpon Springs in Florida in 1911, where those skilled in sponge fishing could continue their trade. Never forsaking their origins, the expats in Tarpon Springs banded together and presented a sum of money to Halki for the building of a new bell tower.

On we plodded down the pale streets of the old town, over stones and grates and fallen petals.

Curiously watching us, a golden pup licked his damp nose and thumped his tail. 

Seeking the beach, we again utilised our secret agent skillsets and tailed a woman carrying a towel after discerning that the towel would most likely be used for sunbathing. (Full secret agent disclodure: I also called out to her and inquired if she was headed for the beach, to which she replied in the affirmative.) Instead of settling on the pebbly beach with all the other plebs, we clambered over crest and crag to reach a secluded cove.

The water lapped gently at the rock, and we carefully lowered ourselves into the crystal depths. Reemerging from the water was more difficult, as we were quite sure that sea urchins were happily loitering along the stony sea floor and like children playing some inane game, we would glide as close as possible to dry land before putting our feet down and hoisting ourselves to safety.

As birds rustling their outstretched wings in the warmth of the sun, we dried off some before strolling back to the town. A number of houses along the waterfront had been abandoned, some much more recently than others. One such house had direct access to the harbour via a little deck out front with a ladder leading invitingly under the surface. François took down the phone number posted onto the side of the building and called later on, finding that the house had an asking price of €450,000 which is no small sum. Ah well, one can dream.

Though broiling under direct sunlight, we walked the length of the town to fully take in the atmosphere of Halki and found a severely derelict abode. This one had clearly been uninhabited for a long while, as there were no doors, windows or roof remaining. The inherent sense of heartache that can be felt from seeing such a lonely structure was made all the more exquisite from lining up the sky and the sea where the two floors would have once met.
A long and relaxing lunch at the taverna Vasili's was filled with delectable dishes: gigantes (broad beans in tomato sauce), imam, and spicy roasted peppers stuffed with olive hummus.

Though we didn't rush over our meal, we factored in time for one more swim before the ferry back to Rhodes. Slipping into the harbour next to a couple of families was brought to a panicked conclusion, however, as we heard the ferry engines starting up. Scrabbling up the ladder slippery with algae, we threw our clothes on over wet bathing suits and all but ran for the quay, sliding everywhere in sopping jandals, where we realised that it was not our ferry departing prematurely but a different boat (presumably late to boot).
Once our ferry did cast off its ropes, I struck up a conversation with an English woman who was sitting beside me to pass the time and distract myself from my numb backside. Whenever she went on holiday, she came to Rhodes as the island was a reliquary for good memories (she was proposed to on the acropolis of Lindos). Our evening was a subdued one, with a late swim and a languid dinner of wine, bread and roasted tomatoes.

Today's post was almost called: 'Activate the Beach-Seeking Missile!'