To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: June 2003

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Acropolis and on...

An early rise and breakfast on the go - pastries and fruit (we can say apple in Greek!) and an ice coffee that makes Adrian’s hair stand on end. Despite being opposite the Acropolis we manage to get lost en route and are hot and sweaty before we even get there.

We pass the Temple of Athena Nike (thankfully no corporate sponsorship!) and the Propylaia. As well as being hard to spell, the Propylaia is aligned with the Parthenon and is the earliest example of a building designed in relation to another. Walking through it, we get our first view of the Parthenon. Too breathless to even gasp. Parthenon mean’s virgin’s apartment and is the largest Doric temple ever built in Greece. Amazingly, to have perfect visual form, all the lines of columns are curved in order to counteract inharmonious optical illusions. The foundations are slightly concave, the columns slightly convex, to make both look straight.

There is massive restoration work being done and it’s fascinating to watch the manual lifting of pieces and the delicate brushing of surfaces.

The friezes that once went around the Parthenon are in the onsite museum and we can view all of those that aren’t in the British Museum. Rowena declares early archaeology as nothing short of theft and takes a pro-Greek stance for the return of the “Elgin Marbles” to Greece for the Olympics.

The Erechtheion is one of our favourites, for the larger than life maidens who are sculpted to hold the roof. The women are called Caryatids and while I am disappointed when Adrian points out they are replicas, the originals in the museum show a good resemblance.

We eventually tear ourselves away from the Acropolis, and have a drink outside on a bench. Behind us in the undergrowth is a tremendous gnashing and cumbersome movement. We exchanged perplexed looks and then spot a tortoise plodding through the growth at some haste. Adrian is quick to get his camera out but the tortoise is almost quicker!

It’s time to leave the mainland and we make our way to the Port of Piraeus. We don’t know where we are going which is obvious by the frantic way our heads are spinning at every stop and sign to make sure we don’t miss the port. A stranger tells us – unprompted – where to get off for the ships. We contemplate a Londoner guessing we want Kings Cross station and pointing us the way but it doesn’t figure.

Piraeus is busy and the streets are functional – not tourist minded. We struggle across the traffic and I sit with the bags to allow Adrian to take the lead. He has been reading Frewin Poffley’s Greek Island Hopping Guide and knows the ins and outs of where how why and how much to buy tickets from whom and how to look when buying them. I am happy to let him take the lead. We get tickets for the island of Syros and have some time to kill before boarding our boat. Kebabs and internet – what else? I freshen up in the traveller’s centre where the internet is located. The toilets are very clean with a special cubicle for people with communicable diseases, very visibly marked. Would people want to highlight themselves that way? Just in case, we’re also given a Uricon which is a cardboard funnel-like device allowing women to remain standing. Despite the very elaborate how-to-use diagrams I save mine for a more desperate toilet situation… you never know! There is a kitten in the travel centre, but Adrian catches me stuffing it in my back pack…

With much anticipation we are ready for our first ferry, to cast our lines in the Aegean and begin island hopping…

Rowena and Adrian's photos from Greece

Postcard from the mainland

We are at Athen's main ferry port, about to embark on our first sea voyage to the Cyclades group of islands. Adrian has a great book which tells us that the ferry we are going to take should have been out of service 10 years ago and is the same as some ferry that sank in the 80s. We have consequently made notes of the nearst exit, consumed only a light lunch and practiced romantic Titanic style farewells!!
Last night we stayed outside the acropolis in an old hotel run by two very content cats. The Acropolis is magic and we gazed at it from all angles including from our hotel balcony. This morning we climbed the hill on which it's situated and marvelled at the architecture and the remaining friezes and frescos which aren't off in the British museum.
I made friends with many cats, even those with no ears. Adrian was very patient. We drove through the centre of Athens together - Adrian was less patient. Actually that was probably me too! It was a bit of a challenge for the road rules or lack thereof as well as the signs being only in Greek.
Travelling together is great because you never cease to learn things about each other. For example, only half an hour ago I discovered that Adrian has been washing his ears with anti dandruff shampoo. This is not because his ears have suddenly become hairy but because he remembered in the shower that he had not washed behind his ears for a little while and thought he would use the shampoo to wash them. Why not soap I don't know but I did notice his ears were bright red later. We thought it was an allergic reaction to sunscreen - but he made some remark about shampoo. I thought this would be odd as it's the same brand as at home but later today when I was remarked on how his poor ears were stripped of skin he explained the truth. That the shampoo was called head n shoulders perhaps misled him to think this meant ears as well?!
The weather here has been a strong sunny mid 30s. I've been faltering a little having been in England so long but Adrian is coping well despite his near translucent skin from the English weather.
The food has been great. Sure you wouldn't want to be a vegetarian with all the grilled meat but the salads, feta cheese, yoghurt etc is divine. And very healthy too. Unfortunately this would be one place where I wouldn't mind having the odd bout of constipation I have to say! You can't put toilet paper down the toilet and you have to put it in a bin by the loo. Some of these bins don't even have bin liners and it takes a bit of getting used to I can tell you!

Monday, June 09, 2003

Arrival at Athens

One of the decisions Adrian changed when talking to the hire car rep was that he would return the car to central Athens rather than the airport and that he would do so at midday. Lamia is a healthy two and a half hour drive from Athens Airport, and at least we had a picture of a plane on the signs to follow for the airport. As we were drinking till at least three am it goes without saying that Adrian’s plans were a little optimistic. He leads me to greasy Greek pizza, juice and cola in an attempt to revive the navigator. The drive back seems long. We stop on a motorway to get air and stretch. A truck pulls in behind us. The driver jabbers at us in Greek and we mutter “Anglika” back at him. He makes a sweeping motion with his hand, like a knife cutting. Perhaps he doesn’t like English. “Machete” he says rather alarmingly, then tries French “couteau” and I realise he wants to borrow one as opposed to remove our liver with one. I’m still pondering how I am sure of this when I pass him my Swiss army knife, but then realise no one would want our livers after last night anyway.

Athens approaches. “Well,” I declare. “This is her test. If Athens can guide us in with appropriate signs from here to the city, then it’s ready for the Olympics.” This attempt to shift responsibility is pointless because if we get lost, Athens won’t care. But we will…

Somewhere we take a wrong turn coming into the city. I think Adrian followed a sign that said Centrum and came off the motorway. Blame was never attributed because it’s futile when you both want to get somewhere. Driver wanted navigator to be able to translate quicker, navigator wanted driver to pull over. Neither happened. In the end my translating got quicker, but it was pointless as the streets were not on the map.

Adrian was getting fraught as he is prone to do in traffic. No one was beeping us and I think he was doing fine. But we were still at odds to where we were, and using landmarks was still not getting us closer. We longed for a sign back to the motorway. But none came. All the likely candidates, bus stations etc were being translated until I decided there was enough time to dive into the dictionary to check the word I kept spelling out “eth –nik …” it sounded like a museum of ethnography to me… it turns out it was the highway.

Several “ooh that wasn’t the street I thought it was” and some “oh we can’t go that way” later we realised we were on track to drive right through the guts of Athens. Adrian, it was fair to say, was not thrilled. Some motivation from the navigator was necessary. “Adrian, I know where we are, I know where we are going. If you can’t take a road, just tell me and I will pick a new way. I am cool with it so enjoy this. You are going to drive through Athens… And I’m afraid you’re going to have to do it - NOW.”

We drove down Akadimias and came out in front of the Parliament buildings… “We need to do a right-left thing to get over there, can we do that? By the way that is Parliament and you’re doing great.”
… continued along Amalias “National Gardens… and we’re going to do a left-left thing to get over to that arch thing which is Hadrian’s Arch (gasp)… and you’re doing great.” and ended up at the hire car place. Job well done.

Athens hotels are not cheap and we chose the Art Gallery pension because it was cheaper than most, spoke English and didn’t need any other transport other than our legs to get there. It was a good call because the hotel was run and owned by two very charming cats. Much stroking ensued.

Our room was a huge and simple family room a top the pension. It came with a balcony with standing room from where you could see the Acropolis. That was special. We peered at it a lot and vowed to wait until morning when we were fresh and would get more out of it.

Rowena loses her wallet. Convinced it’s in the hire car, and with Adrian commissioned to checking it really is lost, she cancels all her cards. The wallet turns up moments later in a bag. It’s Adrian’s fault, naturally…

We walk the streets of Plaka, the old town, which are actually the old Turkish quarters. The streets are a narrow and haphazard as they wind their way around the Acropolis. The houses are painted ochre, orange, yellow and trimmed with bougainvillea and other bright flowers. The streets are packed with restaurants and souvenir shops but it makes for mindless wandering and the odd chasing of cats. We clamber a rocky outcrop and look over Athens and the Agora, the city is dotted with ruins hinting at its former glory. We walk around the base of the hill where the Acropolis is situated. Feral dogs and cats fight in the undergrowth. In parts the base is paved over, one side lined with genteel houses, the other with views of the Acropolis. We sit in one such street as the sun sets and the moon rises. A busker plays jazz saxophone under a tree and we give him money for providing the perfect soundtrack to a beautiful visual scene.

We eat al fresco so Rowena can watch the cats play at her feet. Despite appearances, the cats of Greece are pretty well fed, there being no shortage of restaurants with back doors out of the kitchen. It’s expensive to get a cat neutered in Greece, so perhaps the number of restaurants are not really for the tourists but to keep up with the growth in the cat population?!

We steal more glances of the floodlight Acropolis from our balcony before calling it a day.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

The last day of the rally

We check out of Hotel Pan and bid a sad goodbye to Delphi. After catching the service (souvenirs bought, kebabs consumed, Adrian presses bunting, Rowena reads tourist leaflets in the shade of a tree, English tourists turn burn) we drive to a spectator point.

Rowena, who has a healthy combination of laziness and aggression, urges Adrian to drive as close as possible to the spectator point. He does, but we are still forced to park somewhere by the side of the road with no stage in site and our little hire car clinging to the Greek hillside. We climb through small villages. Old ladies clad in black watch our progress. Greek ladies tend to marry much older than themselves, and once their husbands pass away, a five year liminal / mourning period is observed where she wears black, covers her hair and visits his grave on a daily basis.

We also pass tempting simple cafes, where pale wine is being placed on plastic tables ready for lunch. We refresh ourselves at the many public fountains of fresh drinkable water that European villages always have.

We reach the top of the hill and the spectator point. Rickety scooters have pushed their way to the top and young girls in impossible heels with impossible waists dismount. I console myself with the knowledge of what a Greek woman’s waist looks like post-teenage years!

We have a great spectator spot where we can run around a corner and see the cars in several sections. The crowd whoops, the men pass comment on driving performances, we all eat dust.

Adrian – being tall – catches the finish ceremony. I stare at a lot of Grecian necklines.

We decide to overnight in Lamia, where we will meet up with another Australian who works in the World Championship. Lamia is famous for its lamb on the spit, as we discover when looking for dinner. Alleyways are like Little Bo Peep nightmares, lined with lambs upside down, right way up, marinated, fresh, well done and any way other than alive. We eat well and cheaply.

The evening is spent on top of a building, a bar with astro turf grass and palm trees and fairly decent cocktails. We three Aussies talk for most of the night, until we are the only people left in the bar. We invite the Greek owners and waiters to drink with us, which they do and we end up very drunk and swap international perspectives, none of which we can remember the next morning. Simone calls from a rally in Queensland and we all talk to her but again are not able to recall this in the morning. Adrian falls asleep in the bar but luckily the Buk Compass has a memory back up system and can still remember where the hotel is once he is reactivated.

Saturday, June 07, 2003

Postcard from Delphi

We write from Delphi, the centre of the world, where according to Greek mythology / history, Zeus's two eagles landed and formed the start of the earth.
In fact we have just finished touring the ruins around where the eagles were to have landed, but despite an archaeological spirit to rival Indiana Jones, we could not find the place. It was magical enough to wander amongst the columns and feel dwarfed by the remains of Appollo's temple as the sun dipped behind the mountains.
Greece has been a pleasant surprise, and okay we haven't found ourselves faced with the reported horrors of Athens yet but the roads have been well built, the hire car has working components and aside from an odd disagreement about what is uphill and what is downhill (uphill has right of way) the traffic rules seem fairly sensible, especially that you can use the hard shoulder as a lane.
Some recent rain has lent the countryside a burst of green and the landscape is alive with gorgeous bursts of pink and orange flowers (sorry Mrs B to let you down that I don't know the names of them but I remember my mum once telling me not to eat them... )
Oh yes and apparently there is a rally happening near by. I went to a stage yesterday. Cars and stuff. very nice. No really I am still very enthused about motorsport but it's been a killer fortnight at work and upon arrival in the land of ancient history, homeless cats and sun it took a lot of convincing that standing in the heat of the day choking on dust watching cars go past was not my first preference. So after a single stage (much coaxing up the hill, much sulking on my part) I called it quits.
Adrian had his big dip, his first since oh the sands of Maroochy I would say by the jubilant look on his face. It was in the Gulf of Corinthia or something like that (sorry don't have guide book here to refer to) and the water was gorgeous blue and the stones, well stony but after england we didn't care about that or that we could see an aluminium factory across the gulf. no sir. after england anything more than a stagnant pond is exciting!
Tomorrow sees us do a day more rallying, overnight in Lamia famous for nothing (that won't stop me finding something to see!) and then down to athens - where the adventure begins.

A morning alone

Adrian goes spectating on his own. Rowena run down from work and in need of a holiday. Buk skips off in his element to a stage set in a bauxite mine in the early hours of the morning. It’s one of the highlights of the holiday for him and I am glad that the spare wheel is not there hampering it!

I surf the internet, buy tickets for the Olympics (mens 1500m final 4 x 100 m swimming finals and the closing ceremony.)

I walk the length of the down, drinking in the view of cypress and olive trees which sweep down to the Gulf. I sit on the roadside listening to the goats. Their bells are home fashioned of different thicknesses and types of metal, so they create a melody as they search for something to eat, the occasional bleat punctuating their tunes. Our family used to have a goat farm so it’s special to me to be with goats again.

I got to the town visitor centre and look at a model of the ancient town. According to mythology, Zeus released two eagles at opposite ends of the world and they met here at Delphi. Like the eagles, Adrian and I rendez vous on the road outside our hotel!

We set out to explore the ruins of ancient Delphi – a sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo. The oracle at Delphi was considered to be Apollo’s mouthpiece and was the most powerful oracle in Greece as a result. When the oracle was consulted over matters of war, it was showered with treasures by the victors and soon became coveted for these treasures.

The museum was being renovated so there was not a lot on display. We couldn’t find the omphalos – the cone that marked the actual centre of the world where the eagles met, but there was a remarkable life size bronze charioteer from approximately 470 BC.

We had only an hour before closing time to take in the ruins, which meant that some of the site caretakers chased us up to the stadium and down again! The Theatre and the columns of the temple of Apollo were breathtaking in size and stature – despite the years.

Friday, June 06, 2003

First stage of the 50th Acropolis Rally.

It’s a long walk and it’s hot. A huge kebab van, laid out with layers of fresh ingredients revitalises us. We sport bandanas to keep out the dust. Adrian looks like a boy scout in layers of khaki and my red bandana from Monte rally.

We headed into Lamia for the service park, Adrian in his element pressed against the Subaru bunting, free Pirelli cap in hand (another?!) despite the intense heat.

On the way back we go to the village of Distomo. 200 villagers were slain here by the Nazis in 1944 as reprisal for a guerrilla attack. We see the memorial to commemorate this. We can’t understand more than the odd word but it doesn’t need translation. The town is coastal, eerily quiet like we have driven into an army base when the army is out of town. The homes are small and new, like living quarters than homes. The water though is clear and tempting. There is an industrial plant across the bay, it doesn’t deter us and the water looks none the worse for it. Adrian is submerged in a flash, Rowena flaked out under a tree. We have no towels but the heat dries everything out quickly.

We search for local cuisine for lunch. We both know what we want. Some of the cafes (kafeneia), populated only by old men playing backgammon, clicking worry beads are intimidating. Some of the restaurants are closed. We check out several settlements unsuccessfully until Adrian spies a large building like a tidy big shed. There is a family eating inside and a man hosing down the road in front to keep the dust down. We are beckoned inside to eat. When it’s apparent we don’t speak Greek we are invited to the kitchen to identify food. Seeing mass style catering throws anyone the first time when you are accustomed to seeing a well presented chicken breast on your plate, rather than a whole mass of chicken in a pot. But we are hungry and we point to what we want and get a load of lukewarm but real Greek food in return. (There is a joke comment that the Greek wife nags her husband “come to the dinner table quickly before your food gets hot” because of their reputation for serving food lukewarm.)

Adrian patiently follows small wooden signs to the Moni Osiou Louka (Monastery of St Luke Stiris) In Greek the word for Monastery looks like Movn prompting Adrian to call out from time to time, “there was a sign there for Moving… Moving House, Moving Something – is that it?”

The monastery (dating from 10 to 16th C) is dedicated to a local hermit who was canonised for his healing and prophetic powers. I really wanted Adrian to see some of the frescos which I had seen in other Greek monasteries over ten years before but had made such an impression on me. The main church Agios Loukas contains some of Greek’s finest Byzantine frescoes and well as marble and mosaics and icons by a famous 16 C painter Michael Damaskinos. The frescos and mosaics are brilliantly preserved. We try to honour to sanctity of the place, and I cover my arms and legs despite the heat and scowl at the French tourists baring all. Many visitors are demonstrative in their religion, kissing the icons, and paintings. We contemplate what this does in terms of preservation, not to mention personal hygiene.

The monastery is in a peaceful green setting and we are both surprised at how lush the vegetation is compared to our expectations.

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Arrive in Greece

Early morning departure from Heathrow to the new E. Venizelos Airport in Athens. We hum Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me in the Mini Cab. An uneventful flight, we are met by the young hire car rep. We had agreed rally plans, pick up points etc on the plane to avoid decisions and consequently arguments in front of the hire car rep. Adrian inadvertently changes all plans at the last minute so we argue in front of the hire car rep anyway.

The area around the airport has been newly developed and is signed in English. We have road books to get us in the right direction. We make a good start by encircling the airport carpark a few times. And we’re off…

First cultural hitch, the petrol station – why can’t companies renting to foreigners deliver cars with petrol? Turns out you pay a little old man who works the pumps. This system doesn’t work when you use overseas credit cards. This takes some miming to work out.

Now we’re off! Sun shines on the motorway to the Delphi turn off. Rowena shows off and reads signs in Greek before they are translated in English. So far the signs are for place names so only transliterating not translating is required.

We drive past the turn off for Thiva / Thebes. Rowena gasps and murmurs a lot about being IN history. Rowena tells Adrian about Oedipus, and Oedipal complexes.

We come into Arahova first. Like the Lonely Planet Guidebook warns us, the streets are flanked by handwoven carpet sellers. Despite the motivation of the tourist dollar, it makes the town look attractive. But it would be better without the tourists. We play spot the nationality. Germans are easy.

Arahova is where many Greeks stay to holiday at the nearby ski resort of Mt Parnassos (1750m).

We come into Delphi, the ruins, or more the tour coaches around the ruins. We glimpse columns and gasp. Delphi is atop a hill and below the roads wind through hardy greenery with the odd Doric column – more gasping. Delphi overlooks the Gulf of Corinth. We see it below as we take the parallel one way streets of the town. We like it a lot more than tourist filled Arahova and finally spot our hotel, Hotel Pan. We marvel we keep managing to find our pre booked hotels in Europe without any town maps and instructions like 100 metres after the BP, which can lose a lot of important detail in translation. Our room is simple, lino floors, bare walls. But we have a balcony looking down the hill towards the Gulf of Corinth. Priceless. We were to spend many moments on this balcony, eating kebab, drinking local beer, eating pistachio nuts a plenty, listening to the music from the bells around the wandering goat herds (me especially) doing yoga stretches (me again, a fad I’ve now grown out of), contemplating life and listening to the loud and pretentious Australians next door.

Adrian rests, Rowena explores. There are many cats to chase, old wooden doors to photographs. Adrian is quickly woken with tales of doors and cats.

Dinner is plates of cheese - fried, cheese baked, vine leaves – stuffed, meat – grilled, wine – drunk.

We sit on our balcony, the goats silent, the Australians elsewhere, listening to foreign chatter on the breeze until we sleep.