Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rambling in Rotherhithe - 30 March 2008

The O2 Dome anchored on the Thames
Inside the O2 Dome We had not been to the O2 Dome (ex Millennium Dome) in all the time we have been in London so when the Tuthankamun exhibition was staged there we thought it would be an excellent way to round off our Egyptian odyssey and see the Dome in one visit.

Tutankhamun advertThe Tutakhamun exhibition, while well done was a little short on the “good stuff” that one associates with the name and thus was over priced for what little there was on display. Fortunately we had seen the real treasures in the Cairo Museum in December 2003.

Left high and dryA couple of tube stops away, after crossing under the Thames twice but remaining on the south bank, is Canada Water and the area called Rotherhithe. Like most of the old dock areas, the warehouses have been turned into apartments; the locks and quays tidied up; and the area regenerated.

Brunel's tunnel under the ThamesThe Pilgrim Fathers seem to have sailed to the New World from Boston, from Plymouth, from Southampton and also from a pub called the Mayflower that we walked past today on the Thames. The truth is out there somewhere.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Grecian getaway - 16 - 23 March 2008

Temple at the Acropolis, AthensChurch at Oia, Santorini

Click a link or read the full details in the posts below.

Athens again - 23 March 2008

Theatre of DionysosAn early morning start was needed to catch the 7 a.m. ferry to Athens. The wind on the island was quite fierce and the weather during the trip was very indifferent: there was no incentive whatsoever to venture out on deck.

The posh seats in the theatreArriving in Athens the sky did not look much better but by the time we had caught the Metro to our hotel, checked in and used the rest of our 90-minute ticket to get to the Acropolis station, the sun was shining quite brightly.

Being Sunday the Acropolis was, again, free to enter so we took the opportunity to, once again, wander through this imposing site, so steeped in history. Leaving the Acopolis we climbed Areopogos Hill where Paul reasoned with the locals (Acts 17:22) Areopogos Hilland converted Dionysios, (v34) who later became the patron saint of Athens, to the Christian religion.

Ruins is PlakaAfter that it was time to meander through the pedestrianised streets in Plaka, the tourist-trap part of the city, then head back to our hotel for another of their wonderful Greek Salads. At least one of us had a Greek Salad every night during our stay in Greece and the best by far were those served at the Hotel Rio.

Monastiraki station excavationsAn interesting feature of travelling on the Metro in Athens is the amount of marble in the stations: whether this is a result of the 2004 Olympics or not, I do not know. There are also a number of stations where ruins were found while excavating for the stations. A very interesting one is Monastiraki station where the remains of an old river containment scheme were discovered.

Many more photos here

Fira to Oia walk - 21 March 2008

Mother and daughter churchToday was a clear blue-sky day when we surfaced, the first such morning on the island. Since we had extended our car hire for another morning we set off for the archaeological site at Akrotiri, which is supposed to be one of the finest Minoan sites in the area; however, it was closed for "technical reasons".

After returning the hire car we set off from Fira on the walkway to Oia. We had attempted this walk on our first morning but had lost the trail in Imerovigli. View of the volcanoWe had decided on this walk having read in a section on Oia that "a marble-paved walkway skirts the edge of the caldera to Fira" (Eyewitness Travel Guide: 'The Greek Islands', 2003): the author of the guide had obviously never walked this marble-paved path. A couple of hundred metres leading out of Oia is indeed a fabulous marble-paved walkway but the rest, between Oia and Imerovigli is neither marble nor paved in places.

However, it is a great walk and well worth the 3 hours, if you have the time. Arriving at Oia we could not believe how dead the place looked. OiaShops that had been open on our two previous visits were now all closed and the streets were practically deserted. The difference: no cruise liners moored near Fira. So we enjoyed Oia in the sunshine with the views, streets and photographic vantage points pretty much to ourselves and the hard-working load bearing donkeys. There are advantages and disadvantages of visiting Santorini in the off-season, not too hot, not crowded but many businesses are closed.

There are a number of substantial dwellings along the ridge that once belonged to sea captains. OiaThey are quite imposing and clearly much larger than the surrounding houses and of quite a different and distinct architectural style. With a spare €400 - €500,000 you can buy a derelict one - not on the caldera side with the great views - and providing you have another €150 - €200,000 to spend on renovating it, you can have yourself a lovely home on a Greek Island. Oia is, apparently, the most expensive real estate in Greece. There is one ruin there currently that is on the market for a mere €750,000: we were not tempted.

Oia windmillThe local bus returned us to Fira where, in the absence of yesterday's sea-fog, we thought we may get one of the fabled Santorini sunset shots, but although the sky was clear the bank of cloud on the horizon prevented any colour at all as the sun set.

Many more photos here

Oia - 21 March 2008

Windmills at Oia
The weather is very changeable, the morning was totally Oia Windmillgloomy and overcast after a very windy night but then the sun broke through so we decided to extend the hire on the car and set off once again for Oia. By the time we arrived the sun was shining brightly on the houses making the village sparkle in the sunlight. We had an enjoyable time exploring much more of the village than we did yesterday, as well as exploring the two harbours at the foot of the cliffs.

Santorini harbourReturning to Fira, Christine descended the 580 steps to the fishing village below and we both rode the cable car back up to the top. The cable car was a gift to the island community from a wealthy Greek shipping magnate.

The 'lost' churchA significant proportion of the morning was taken up with the hunt for a photo location. Many of the books about Santorini, and in fact, many of the books about the Greek Islands in general, feature two particular churches. We had located one in Oia but the other had eluded us. The books were not helpful in that they did not identify the location Oiaof their cover shot, however we came across a postcard that included not only the elusive church but the three islands in the caldera. Using our map and the relative positions of the islands in the postcard we were able to work out the position of the church fairly accurately: it was in Firostefani. It transpired we had walked along the cliff path beneath it on our first day but had not realised that it was just above us at the time.

FirostefaniAs the sky had steadily got clearer through the day, we had high hopes of magnificent sunset shots from Oia so, late in the afternoon, we set off to the northern end of the island once again. As we drove along we could see what looked like a roll of cotton wool out to sea and this rolling sea fog rapidly engulfed us, and the island ahead. So much for sunsets, there was no point in proceeding and by the time we had returned to Fira it, too, was shrouded in the sea fog.

Many more photos here

Santorini Tour - 20 March 2008

Windmill at FiraAfter an early morning stroll through Fira to the northern end of the suburb that adjoins it we returned to our Hotel and rented a car from a nearby car rental firm. Car and motorbike/quad-bike rental firms are everywhere on the island, although like many other businesses in this off-season period, most are closed. Car rental seems very good value, presumably because there is no way that you can drive hundreds of kilometres before you return is as the island is not very big.

Church at KamariLeaving Fira we went east, past the airport to one of the sandy beaches on the east coast, Monolithos. We then drove down the coast to Kamari, another beach resort and then on to Ancient Thira. Ancient ThiraFirst settled in 9 BC this ruined city is on commanding hilltop site 370m above the sea. A series of 24 switchback turns takes the braver driver to within a few metres of the top, leaving only a short climb to the extensive ruins.

PyrgosWe retraced our route down the 24 switchbacks then headed across to the western side of the island and visited Pyrgos, which, according to the guidebooks is one of the more attractive villages on Santorini. Frankly, we were not convinced. Through Megalochiori and towards Akrotiri we passed through the grape growing area of Santorini Grapevinewhere the vines are intriguingly trained into coils on the ground as protection against the wind.

Heading north we took the costal road to Oia where there are supposedly the best sunsets in the world/ the Mediteranean/Greece/Santorini (depending on which book you read). Unfortunately the clouds have to conspire to assist in these solar displays and tonight they conspicuously failed to do so - we will have to buy the postcard!
Church at Oia
The trouble with relying on the guide books is that you can be seriously let-down as we were tonight over dinner. All the books we had read recommended 'Nikolas' a restaurant in Fira not far from our Hotel. Last night it was full so tonight we considered ourselves fortunate to secure a table. There is no English menu, the fare is explained in English but, of course, the prices on the board are against Greek text so you have no idea until your bill comes what the cost of your chosen dish will be. The ambience is OK, the bonhomie from the host is great, the prices are medium to high, the portions are not huge and all in all we left feeling that we had fared much better at other establishments that were not mentioned in the guidebooks.

Many more photos here

Island hopping - 19 March 2008

ParosAt 06:05 our taxi had not appeared so when another cruising taxi enquired if we wanted a ride we accepted. The traffic was light and we were at the ferry far too early but that was far better than missing the boat. NaxosAfter 4 hour's cruising we arrived at Paros and after a short stop we were off again bound for Naxos then Ios before finally arriving at Santorini at 4pm.

Those passengers not being met by drivers from their hotels crammed aboard a bus that could not possibly cope with Iosthe summer crowds and were taken up the switchback road from the port to Fira, the main town on the island.

Ioa on SantoriniAfter locating our accommodation we wandered to the top of Fira, past the terminal for the recently built cable car and then found a restaurant for dinner.


Many more photos here

Corinth - 18 March 2008

"Paul left Athens and went to Corinth" Ruins at Ancient Corinth(Acts 18:1) and, since the next most popular day trip from Athens is to Corinth, we decided to follow Paul's example. The buses to Corinth leave from Terminal A and the local bus to Terminal A went right past our Hotel. All in all it seemed a promising start. We left the Hotel and walked to the corner where the bus stop was, stopping at the street kiosk to buy a bus ticket. "Sorry, no ticket." A quick jog back to the Hotel to check where we could purchase a bus ticket, only to be pointed back to the kiosk I had just left. No matter, there were plenty more kiosks in the locality. Sorry-no-ticket-kiosk four suggested I try the Metro station but the door to the Metro was closed. Optimistically, I crossed the road to the other Metro entrance, also barred: this was getting serious. Finally I managed to encourage a lady in a mini-market to leave her conversation and return to her counter and sell me the needed bus tickets.

Ruins at Ancient CorinthArriving at Terminal A we located the counter which sold tickets to Corinth (they seem to have one ticket selling counter and agent per destination) and noted that the next bus was scheduled to leave in 10 minutes. No particular problem there except that the agent was on the phone to his broker/wife/mistress/bookie/whatever and was not going to interrupt his important call for a couple of tourists. As the time ticked past 4 minutes to go I began tapping on my watch meaningfully, but the phone call continued. This was particularly worrying, as yesterday's bus to Delphi had left 3 minutes before the scheduled time. Finally, right on the departure time the agent finished his call; put in a quick call to the controller on the platform; sold us the tickets; and told us we needed to hurry: something we had been trying to tell him for the past 10 minutes!

Corinth CanalWe collapsed into our seats for the journey to modern Corinth, crossing the Corinth Canal, cut over 90m into solid rock. First suggested in 6BC it was begun by Nero in 67AD and finished by French engineers 1826 years later.

Instead of taking us to the bus depot we were deposited in the centre of modern Corinth and directed to the place where the local bus to Ancient Corinth would depart. We spent a couple of unhurried hours browsing the ruins and museum and seeing the Bema, the place where Paul was brought by the Jewish elders who had their case dismissed by Galliio, the proconsul. (Acts 18:12-17)

Ruins of the BemaThe local bus dropped us back in the centre of modern Corinth but it appeared that the bus back to Athens did not collect from there and we had to walk back to the bus station. Fortunately we had time before the next scheduled departure, but it did seem a very strange arrangement. As we approached Athens we were caught in a traffic jam and crawled along for some time, broken only by a slanging match between the passengers and driver. They were all quite voluble with their various opinions and it was a pity that it was all Greek to us: we did pick out the word 'Metro' a few times.

Ruins at Ancient CorinthFinally, the passengers in the know started to assemble their coats and bags so we assumed we were nearly back to Terminal A, however the bus just pulled to the side of the road and the passengers started to disembark. Looking out the window I realised I was looking down the street to our Hotel so we quickly joined the exodus.

It transpired that the Metro was on strike and had been all day, hence the shut doors this morning and the chaos on the roads. But worse was to come.

As we had an early start scheduled for our ferry to Santorini the next morning we thought we should check out the travel options and when we did we found that Wednesday was to be a general strike: so, no buses, no Metro, no archaeological sites, no tourist information office - nothing. Returning to the Hotel we attempted to organise a taxi for the morning, only to be told that it was not the way things were done - simply ring in the morning and hope!

That, however, is not our way, so we wandered out to the main street nearby and arranged with a friendly taxi driver to collect us at 6 a.m. in the morning. We shall discover if he is as good as his word.

Marble Shinx 550BCLater that evening the general strike struck again. The electricity was turned off for 90 minutes, just as we were beginning to pack our bags for our early morning start. Fortunately the laptop had a full charge and there was enough illumination from the screen to see what we were doing, although we did abandon packing and used the light to get ourselves to bed, instead.

Because of our early start the next morning we had returned to the hotel reasonably early. We had taken the guidebook advice and dined in view of the floodlit Acropolis so it was fortunate that we had made it back to the hotel before the lights went out as finding our way back in a darkened and unfamiliar city may have been a challenge, especially given the piles of fetid garbage spilling out all over the streets because of non-collection due to the strike.

Many more photos here

Dephi - 17 March 2008

Theatre at Delphi
We had been advised that if you only make one trip out of Athens, it should be to Deplhi, ancient home of the Delphic Oracle. Taking a guide tour there will cost €93 pp. Temple ruinsHowever, having found a hint on the web on how to find Bus Terminal B where the Delphi bus left Athens we decided to do it on the cheap by taking the intercity bus. Total cost: €32 pp for return fare and entry (the official tour did include lunch).

Unfortunately the hint on the web was a little short on detail once we had arrived at the Kato Patisia Metro station and finding Terminal B was a little more difficult than we expected. Click here for a map of the route we took. Clearly there are shorter ways to walk.

LevadiaThe bus trip is three hours through mainly flat agricultural land until you get to Levadia where the road climbs up over a mountain pass and through a very picturesque (and very touristy) town of Arachova near the ski resort on the slopes of Mt Parnassus before descending to Delphi.

Circular TholosUnlike the other Greek ruins we have visited, this site is on the slopes of a mountain so a fair bit of climbing is involved to get to the top where one finds one of the best-preserved stadia in the country. Below that is a large theatre and over the road a gymnasium and some more temples including a circular tholos of unknown use.

Delphi StadiumDelphi Stadium

The return bus trip was a bit of a trial as the Athenian traffic meant that we spent an extra hour crawling into the city. Since the walk back to the metro station was about 20 minutes and all uphill we decided we would take a bus from outside the Terminal. We did not have long to wait before a bus with the correct route number came along so we hopped aboard. After a little while the smarter, female, member of the party asked a valid question, "Are we going in the correct direction?" We finally established in broken English that we had, in our haste, unfortunately chosen a bus going out of the city instead of towards the centre. Time to alight and try the other side of the road!

The bus route took us close enough to our hotel and the short walk back took us past the Alexandra the Great restaurant where we rounded off a wonderful day with an excellent meal.

Many more photos here

Athens - 16 March 2008

Acropolis from Filopapou Hill
The guidebooks all said that an early start was essential to beat the crowds of tourists at the Acropolis. The opening time was 8:30 so we had our breakfast at the earliest possible sitting, 8:00, and set off. Greek Orthodox ChurchAfter an easy 20-minute walk we arrived at the southern gates only to find that all archaeological sites were closed as the staff were on strike until noon. So much for our early tourist beating plans; although the notice did say, generously, that they apologised for any inconvenience. Imagine the inconvenience that you would feel if you were on a package tour and you only had that morning to see the Acropolis - I don't think an 'apology' would suffice.

ErechtheionClearly there was no point heading off to any other site so we climbed Filopapou Hill, opposite, and enjoyed fantastic panoramic views back across the Acropolis and out towards the coast. We descended past Pnika and the Observatory and back to the pedestrianised area to the north of the Acropolis site. This area had been deserted when we went through on our early morning dash to the Acropolis but was now buzzing with tourists and the tourist-tat and fake handbag vendors that are endemic at any tourist destination.

HephaisteionPartway along the street is the entrance to Ancient Agora and although it was only 11:30, the gates were open and the staff were not on strike. No only that, but we discovered that, being Sunday, all archaeological sites were free of charge: much better than an apology for the inconvenience!

Temple of the Four WindsFrom Ancient Agora we visited Hadrian's library, Roman Agora, The Temple of the Four Winds and then wound our way through the streets of Plaka to a northern entrance to the Acropolis complex. It was about 1 pm at this stage and in the hour that the place had been open the tourists had arrived in their hordes. One wonders what it must be like in the high-season. Evidence of the numbers is shown in the marble of the paths and rocks that has been polished smooth to the point being treacherous. Unfortunately the restoration work being undertaken at present means that much of the structures are covered in scaffolding or obscured by cranes.

Temple of the Olympian ZeusExtricating ourselves from the snaking lines of tourists, we headed for the wide open spaces of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. It is unfortunate that so little remains of these once magnificent structures and we were grateful of having had the opportunity of seeing the much more complete Grecian temples at Paestum in Italy.

Wending our way back through the pedestrianised and labyrinthine streets of Plaka we headed for the ancient cemetery at Keramikos only to find that they had closed 30 minutes earlier. This was the closing time posted on the web but the staff at Ancient Agora told us that closing time today was 5:30. This time there were no signs apologising for the inconvenience.

View through the fenceSo it was back again through Plaka again for a late lunch/early dinner at a roof-top restaurant overlooking Athens and with views up to the Acropolis, a fabulous spot to sit and review the sites we had wandered through during the day.

Many more photos here