Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bella Roma ancorra!

     Before we start in on Rome did you know we also have a Facebook page? We also post a lot more pictures on LuAnn and Andy's instagrams so please check 'em out and, if you like, follow along, share, etc, we sure would be much obliged!

      We both love Rome to the maximus. It's the only place in our whole trip that we've been to before. We hate to make a short trip there but as always timing is a factor. Boo. Anyway no trouble flying from Santorini into Rome. We got the train to Trastevere ("Across-Tiber"), caught a cab to our apartment, met the owner and checked in, all with no problem. We stayed in Trastevere last time we were there, and loved all the ancient streets lined with cafes.

     Since we missed these two items on our last visit we wanted to be sure to see The Capitoline Museum and the inside of The Pantheon. We arrived in Rome about noon so we walked down to the Tiber (Il Tevere) and picked up some picnic foods and wine on the way. We got our phones sorted at Vodaphone and walked a good long way down the banks of the Tiber before settling in a little park for our lunch. Sadly there was quite a bit of trash around which we made some small effort to pick up.

     After lunch we walked around a bit more, went in some of the churches we passed, and then headed back to Trastevere. We ate at a great little Osteria which turned out to be one of the top places in Trastevere, unbeknownst to us, across from Sloppy Sam's.

     Next day we caught the tram where a nice Italian man gave us the clue about how to deal with the trams and busses, which got us to Termini where we got our tickets in spite of unwelcome "help" from an attempted scammer. Fortunately a cop came by and shooed him away. We got the bus back to the Altare Della Patria (AKA Il Vittorio) and got in for free due, in part at least, to an inattentive staff. The free part was the only thing we didn't see LOL. That seems to happen a lot in Italy.

     Next door we checked out the Capitoline, which featured among other things a large ancient gem and jewelry collection, plus tons of amazing sculpture. Walking around this city it's just shocking how much antiquity is just floating around. At any given moment you could stumble upon a 5000 year old archeological dig. That doesn't happen in NYC.

     From there we walked down to The Pantheon, had some pizza for lunch outside, then went inside. We didn't realize it was still and active church. Kind of overrun with tour groups but still pretty interesting. From there we walked up the street to the church of Santa Maria Magdelena; really beautiful.

    That night we had a not-so-great meal at a place called Enzo, but had fun anyway since we met some nice Germans, Carsten & his lovely wife Uta. The next day we went to the piazza del popolo to see the basilica de Santa Maria because it was closed last time we were there. On the way we saw a humongous film production going on. Turns out it was Zoolander II. Didn't see Ben Stiller or Will Ferrel though. The church had the craziest crucifix I ever saw.

     From there we climbed the hill to the Villa Borghese park there and rode around the gardens in this funny little electric pedal cart. Fun times kids.

     We walked about 15 miles in three days. Yow. So much food and fun and crazy history and walking and art and history we can't even recall it all. Next up: The train to Milan!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Santorini, Greece

Hi All!

     We've been so busy that it's been tough to keep up with the blog! So fair warning; long post below. BTW did you know we also have a Facebook page? We also post a lot more pictures on LuAnn and Andy's instagrams so please like, follow along, share, etc..? Thanks!

     After our 3 days of downtime in Syros where we mostly caught up on blogging and beaching we were ready. We had been anxiously awaiting our 2 weeks in Santorini. This is one place we had planned for quite a bit in advance. We had hoped to meet up with our daughter Alexa there but her life got in the way. She's moving from Philly to LA! That was a huge disappointment, especially for LuAnn, so she asked her lifelong friend Jan if she wanted to meet us and we were tickled when she said yes! Yay, Jan! Also, Andy's sister Rose decided to meet us there too. Woot!

     First let me say, you know when you see pictures of a place, but when you get there, you are a bit disappointed because it just doesn't live up to all the hype? Yeah, Santorini is NOT that place. It was as breathtaking as all the photos we've seen. Its hard to even put into words how beautiful a place it is. Santorini is the name of the whole island-there are many small villages on the island, and 2 larger ones- Oia and Fira. We stayed just outside of Oia-this is the village you often see the iconic photo of with the blue domed church against the cobalt blue Aegean Sea. There was barely a cloud in the sky the entire time we were there, and the sunsets which Oia is famous for were amazing. They would turn all the bright whitewashed buildings a pale pink.

Here's the caldera of the volcano in the center:

     Santorini is a volcanic island. If you look at it on a map, you will see the shape indicates it was once round. Now the middle of that long ago volcano is full of water and the island is sort of crescent shaped. This explains its unusual geography. The "caldera" side has all the high-end luxury cave hotels going down the cliffs, while the Aegean side is flatter to the ocean (and less expensive places to stay!). We stayed on the flatter side, at Maria's Place, which was really one of the most enjoyable stays we've had. Anna and Kostas, the proprietors, were lovely people, and our room had a terrace overlooking the pool and sea.

     It is definitely a "touristy" place. If it has a downfall, that would be it. Obviously because of all its charms, people want to see it! So you do have to deal with all the tour buses, cruise ships in port, and the higher prices throughout that all that brings, but it was so worth it!

     Good God, those two weeks went by like a shot. We had a couple of days before everyone arrived and something about the gorgeous setting inspired Andy to record a couple of song demos, thus justifying dragging all that recording gear around. LuAnn was inspired to paint more than once right from our terrace. One day we decided to take the walking path between Oia and Fira, which proved to be much more challenging than we anticipated. Seven miles uphill and downhill under a relentless sun. But the views were crazy, so we'd have to say it was worth it although as we were walking we asked each other several times whose idea this was! We paused at the top so Andy could spell out our portmanteau in white volcanic pebbles:

     When Jan arrived a few days later however, we were ready to go out and explore. One thing we hadn't counted on was Jan's fear of heights...uh-oh, bad place to have that. But the first day we walked down the 280 steps from Oia to the Ammoudi Bay, and Jan conquered that fear by holding tight to Andy's arm. We had an awesome fish lunch by selecting our fish right from todays catch, and maybe had a couple liters of that Greek wine. Then we had a hilariously fun ride back up the steps on the backs of the donkeys! That donkey ride was repeated several more times once Rose arrived also, since it was always a blast.

     We rented the cutest little powder blue, drop-top Fiat one day and drove all over the island, visiting the black and red beaches. Once Rose arrived, we booked a brigantine sailboat ride to the volcano, nearby hot springs, the nearby island of Therasia and then on Oia Bay for the sunset. Included in that trip was a hike to the very top of the volcano, where you could just smell the sulphur.

     We saw the archeological digs in Akrotiri, and visited the museum in Fira where most of the artifacts found there are stored. This was absolutely amazing since basically its a village dating to 17th century BC, that was perfectly preserved in ash. The pottery, jewelry, and wall paintings prove that decorative art was alive and well even in those times.

     All these activities were filled in of course with time by the pool, shopping with Jan, eating delicious greek food, and drinking delicious greek wines. We found the beaches a bit challenging- the water was cold but so clear! The beaches were rocky, as in small to medium rocks, and even the black beaches were not the fine sand we are used to. And being black, extremely hot! All in all, our time there was really wonderful. We are pretty certain Jan enjoyed it too. By the end of the trip, she was able to ride the local buses without being bothered by the extreme drops and hairpin curves!

     We are still working out tentative plans to return to the US. We've more or less decided on south Florida, namely Del Ray Beach to nest in. There seems to be some opportunity there for both of us. We will see. It all sort of depends on what happens between now and September.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Syros, Greece

Hello again!

     Before we start, did you know we also have a Facebook page? We also post a lot more pictures on LuAnn and Andy's instagrams. We sure appreciate when you follow and share! That way we can stay in touch and meet new friends too. Yay new friends!

     OK so, while waiting at Paleofarsolas for the train to Kalambaka to see the monasteries of Meteora, we met a Canadian named Joe who was on break from teaching history in Berlin. When he heard our plan to go to Paros, Naxos or Mykonos on the way to Santorini since we had a few days free, he suggested we go to Syros instead. He told us it was off the tourist path, and we would experience a Greek island, without the tour groups and cruise ships. So off we went.

     We stayed at Hotel Brazzera, right on the beach. It was a lovely typical family run hotel with a balcony looking out over the water. We had fun driving around on a rented scooter and generally just relaxing. Many roads were quite donkey track-ish and I scooted down them wildly while LuAnn squealed in my ear. Good fun.

     The first night the hotel had double booked us so they stuck us at their sister hotel (meaning "my cousin's hotel") next door and it was rough. Twin beds, no screens (screens are something we have not encountered anywhere outside the US, to which we wonder why) and so at least 30 mosquitos on the ceiling in the room. Yikes. LuAnn had to come fetch me from jamming at Cafe Neon, the pub next door, to help kill them all.

     The next couple nights were much better, sea view, good breakfast, terrace... all in all a very chill place. I'm afraid it gets short blogging shrift because there is so much more to write about and we are getting behind. I highly recommend it though. It's a nice non-touristy place in the Greek islands.

     One notable event was meeting two college teachers from Colorado, Barry and Lisa Hughes, who were taking students on a sailing cruise for the summer session to go to places in the Greek islands and study the history. My kind of gig! We were a bit jealous of them, only to find out they were a bit jealous of us and our travels. Ha-ha!

All in all a really cool, laid back and fun Greek place. If you go be sure to visit Cafe Neon and tell Adonis we said hello!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Meteora, Greece

     First of all, let me say that Meteora, Greece was unbelievable. Many more pictures HERE and HERE. We got the subway from Monastirski station to Larissa station, Athens where we got the OSE train first to Paleofarsalos and then to Kalambaka. The trains were all kind of old and beat but they got the job done. It was a funny experience, the train stops at weird times, everyone gets off for a smoke, things like that. So Greek!

     Let me just say that Paleofarsolas is about as close to the middle of nowhere as I've ever been. I mean just miles and miles of nothing in every direction, or at least that's how it looked from the station.

     There we met Joe, a Canadian on vacation from teaching history in Berlin, and he counseled us to skip Naros, Paxos and Mykonos and go instead to Syros, the capitol of the Cyclades but that's for the next post since we did it.

     We stayed at the Hotel Kastraki and again I have to rave about the accommodations. It was the cleanest hotel I think I've ever stayed in and the view was beyond stellar. Like most small businesses in Greece, it was family run.

     The first night we laid low and ate at the Taverna right across the street. In fact, we ended up eating there every night, since we could see the father manning the grill from our hotel window, along with the delicious smells. Next day was kind of cloudy but we had an amazing time taking the bus to The Great Monastery of Meteoron and it was breathtaking, especially the hike up the 300 stairs!

    I kid, the museum and especially the 8th century manuscripts (which we couldn't photograph) were astounding and beautiful. Back in the days before the stairs were put in, the monks were hauled up with a huge winch in a net, curled up like a fetus. Imagine that! The original winches were still there.

     My personal favorite was the music. Before Guido of Arezzo invented the Guidonian hand (way before today's music notation) these guys had Neumes! There's your geeky music theory/history study for the day! The hand copied versions were stunning. I did get some other pictures though!

The Ossuary, not for the faint of heart!

The views were killer, and The Matador Network even featured on of my photos on their instagram feed! Woohoo! 2000 likes! Internet fame! LOL

     We went to 4 of the 6 monasteries (Grand Meteora, Varlaam, Rousanou, and Holy Trinity. All were beautiful, and the hikes down the mountain were great too. To imagine what it took those monks back in the 5th century to even build these, boggled the mind. We read that it took over 20 years to just get the needed building materials up to the top of the rock.
     The actual buildings were completed in relatively short time. The inside of most of these monasteries were not permitted to be photographed, but some still had the original painted murals throughout, while others had astounding recent murals. Most of these murals illustrated the suffering these monks had experienced here throughout the centuries-many scenes of heads rolling at the expense of the Turks. There sure was some horrific history there!

     There was a big museum of Greek history in one, which was very enlightening and fun to see all the Greek army uniforms and all the WWII memorabilia. The hand copies of Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great and all the Greek philosophers, plus music and the later printed copies from the 13-17th centuries were just astounding though. I can't recommend this enough if you are interested in history, art and religion. There were also some people crazy enough to climb these things!

     We went to a local pub where these musicians were playing traditional Greek music with accordion, clarinet, hand drum and tambourine and singing. It was the wildest Gypsy jazz I ever heard and I wish I had video taped it. LuAnn liked the beer though!

Ya mas! Next up: Syros!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Athens, Greece

     Three days in Athens is definitely not enough and now Rome has a competitor for the title of my favorite city in Europe. Many more pictures of all sorts HERE and HERE!

     From the second we arrived it was like coming home. Great food! Smiling faces! Perfect weather! Wow! After getting up early for our flight out of Ataturk airport (the unpleasantness of which has already been documented) we navigated the airport, Greek customs and the trains easily (except they didn't seem to have a SIM card vendor for our phones like every other airport) and got to Hotel Attalos, which we highly recommend. Great rates, wonderful view of the Acropolis from the rooftop bar, great friendly and helpful staff; truly superb accommodations.

     We took a walk around the neighborhood and had some lunch. It's an interesting place. I've never seen so much graffiti outside NYC in the 80's. Some of it was amazing, some not so much, as art tends to be. I recall thinking that I would stop supporting graffiti culture when advertisers stop invading my public spaces with unwanted advertising. Bonus points if the graffiti subverts the advertisers' message.

     There are definitely a fair number of homeless people, most of whom seemed to have drug problems from the look of them. They weren't aggressive at all (to me) but it was sad to see. It's such a contradictory place. It's the birthplace of democracy, yet hotbed of anarchist and fascist ideologies. It's full of ancient beauty, yet also a lot of run down, damaged and abandoned buildings, many of which seem to be stores on the street level and squats in the empty apartments above. We overheard a woman talking about witnessing a riot outside her hotel not far away and relating that the staff said "Don't worry, the happens all the time." Yow! There is apparently an anarchist neighborhood in which this woman's hotel was located-outside the tourist sector. "Lookout! There's one now!"

     In fact, Athens reminds me a lot of the way NYC used to be before Guiliani and Disney took over, speaking of fascists, and 9/11 turned the city into a police state. It may be true that there are no more aggressive panhandlers (they are now all in jail apparently) but a great deal of the vibrance that was once NYC is gone, replaced by rich people. That vital spark seems very much alive here.

     Sitting in the rooftop bar and marveling at the sight of the acropolis on the hill we chanced to meet a couple from NJ (now living in Florida) who had bought tickets for all the local sites as a package, but after the woman sprained her ankle at the Acropolis they couldn't use them, so we got in free to everything but the Acropolis. Sad for them but amazing good luck for us.

     As it was LuAnn's birthday we decided to have a nice fish dinner but the place the waitress recommended was closed. Next we tried Trip Advisor but their suggestion was not at the published address and let me just say that they really ought to fix that. We have found that at least 50% of the time their locations are not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong; like nowhere near where they are supposed to be. Surely they could try to mitigate that? Thus we jumped in a cab and I asked Kostas, the driver, "If you were taking your wife out for seafood where would you go?" and he took us to Zorba's in Piraeus, which despite the silly name (Zorba the Greeks? Really?) it was delicious, if rather pricey. Here's the view:

     Next day we walked past Hadrian's Library and through the Roman Agora Wow.

     Big deal you may say, old rocks and columns, but seriously the stuff that went on here is worth reading about. Heavy history. Next we strolled up the hill to the Acropolis and it was even more breathtaking than it looks in pictures. Many of it's more delicate parts have been moved to the museum for cleaning and restoration and the replacement casts maintain the effect.

     After exploring the old place thoroughly, including the North and South slopes, we wandered down into town bumped into the SIM card salesman, got our phones working and had a tremendous lunch at one of the many cafes. Really, the food has been wonderful. Nearly every bite we've had in this country can only be described as "sublime". Everything is so fresh and delicious! Maybe its magnified because we were so over the food in Asia, Japan notwithstanding of course. Then there's the beautiful scenery:

     Next up we made our way to the Ancient Agora Museum, yet another site full of stunning relics and artifacts from 1500-2500 years ago. Here's a Spartan shield, captured by the Athenians at the battle of Pylos 425 BC with poetry by Tyrtaeus carved in it. 2400 years ago a real man carried this thing into battle, possibly to his death, and now I can look at it and...what? Be awed? Yawn and walk by? It's hard not to be overwhelmed by it all.

     Moving on we walked up to the temple of Atlas and strolled around taking in the views. You often see these strange sorts of repairs, temporary interventions trying to hold these thousand year old buildings together. They've had so many different cultures invade, turn the temples into Christian or Muslim temples and back again. Knock out a pice of wall for a door, brick it up, whatever. Crazy.

     After such an amazingly full day we had dinner at a cool little place by the border of the Agora and headed back to the hotel and slept soundly. Next morning we had our coffee at the local and got to the Keramikos museum, which has quite a collection of funerary art and sculpture, tombs and such as well as a big outdoor section where the potters worked creating what we now call "ceramics". There's also some great views of the surrounding area, including this Orthodox church:

     As the day got hot we headed to the Museum of the Acropolis, where all the artifacts and being stored, restored and displayed. They've won all sorts of awards for the groundbreaking work they are doing (pardon the pun) while still keeping it accessible to the public. Some of the things that have happened to this priceless historical treasure are beyond belief.

     That the Turks would store ammo there to be blown to bits by the Venetians or that the British minister in 1801, Thomas Bruce, Lord of Elgin, bribed the Turks to let him just loot the place for the so-called "Elgin marbles" is beyond shameful. WTF? Fortunately these guys are doing a great job and it was a wonderfully fun and informative place. They even have archeologists to answer questions and all sorts of cool new research on how all these statues and temples were painted.

     The day clouded up and we passed through Hadrian's Arch here:

     We were on our way to visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which is now really just a bunch of HUGE Corinthian columns in a field but it was still interesting to see and read about. It's really surprising that any of this stuff is still around at all considering the amount of invasions, occupation, pillaging and general higgledy-piggledy this place has gone through since forever.

     Once again we had a great dinner. We try to find places full of Greeks (or whatever the locals are) and bonus points if the menu isn't in English and/or the guy just tells you what to order. "Tonight we have baby lamb chops. Delicious!" or "Fresh small fish, fried. Two hours ago they were swimming." Yes. Please. Bring me that. And some of the local beer or wine. Gotta be ready for the next day when we must to get up stupid early to catch the train to Meteora, the Monasteries in the Sky.