Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

Athens in a Day

Posted: August 9, 2013 in Europe, Greece

23 June – Athens

Have I mentioned that it is hot? Unusually hot for this time of year. And getting hotter – each day is a little hotter than the day before. Since we only have one day in Athens, we had booked two tours, and were hoping for a cool change, but no such luck. We are getting messages from home about how cold and rainy it is, but we have little sympathy – it sounds delicious!

Our ship was docked at Piraeus, which is a good half hour drive from Athens, so we departed early on the bus. We toured the ancient Agora – the town square / market place / public gathering place of ancient Athens. There’s one temple still in fairly good condition, as it was used as a church for many years. Most of the rest is foundations, and you need a good guide to help bring the place to life. It is fairly well signposted, with descriptive panels, including drawings of how it would have looked. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour – it will be nice to go back one day with time to wander & enjoy it at our own pace.

The small museum of the ancient Agora is housed in the Stoa of Attalos, which is a reconstruction / restoration of an ancient stoa (covered walkway). It was good to get an idea of what the whole site might have looked like in its day. The collection, all items found on the site, was very interesting with some unique items I haven’t seen anywhere else. The exhibits focus on Athenian civil life, including a water clock used in the law courts, inscribed pottery shards called Ostraca (a kind of BC version of voting someone off the island), as well as items of everyday life.

We didn’t linger in the Agora museum, because our next stop was the National Museum of Archaeology, the largest museum in Greece and one of the great archaeology collections of the world. I had downloaded a Rick Steves audio-guide for the museum, so ditched the tour group and wandered off on my own. The museum is arranged chronologically, and it was wonderful to immerse myself in ancient Greek culture and study the development of art and culture from the early Mycenaeans to the Roman era. There was just enough time to do the museum justice, a very enjoyable visit. Culling the photos to a manageable number may be a bit of a challenge, however!

After lunch (back on the ship) we met our guide again to visit the Acropolis. We started at the Acropolis museum, a brand new museum built to display the items recovered from the A

A cropolis and surrounding area. It is a striking modern building, as much the tourist attraction as the ancient artefacts it holds. Of course, the best stuff from the Acropolis is in the British Museum, which the Greek government naturally want back! The Acropolis itself was amazing to see, because it is so famous and familiar and because there are incredible views of Athens from up there. Disappointingly there was a lot of scaffolding, making for less than impressive photos, but that’s the nature of old things – they need a lot of maintenance! Because of the heat we had visited the museums first, leaving the Acropolis as late in the day as possible. It was still very warm but pleasantly uncrowded, and it was fitting that the last place we visited on this trip was somewhere so iconic.

It was a rather tiring day, between the heat and doing two tours in one day, we were glad to get back to the ship and recover. It’s been an amazing trip and we have seen so many exotic and fascinating places!

Oops – I realised that I never finished this blog! I’m not still in Greece!! So here are the last two posts (one now, one soon!!

22 June 2013

We arrived early this morning at the port of Nafplio. Nafplio was the first capital of independent Greece in 1828, after the Greek war of independence (from the Ottomans), until the capital was moved to Athens in 1834. In the past it changed hands between the Ottomans and Venetians with regularity. It retains a genteel charm that is quite delightful.

Our main reason for stopping in Nafplio was because of its proximity to the major archaeological sights of Mycenae and Epidauros. There was an included tour to Mycenae in the morning, which we took, and an optional tour to Epidauros in the afternoon, which we had chosen not to book. Our promotion to the red group has meant we are always the first group to leave, but that has involved some rather early starts! Today we had to be assembled by 8am – I thought this was meant to be a holiday! We had anchored in the bay, and so tendered to the shore. The tender boats are the lifeboats, and though it was fine for a short trip to the shore, the thought of having to use one for their intended purpose was not pleasant – cramped and uncomfortable with narrow hard seats.

Once on dry land we piled onto our buses and headed for the hills. Mycenae was the capital of the Mycenaeans, who won the Trojan War, and were a major civilisation from the 15th to the 11th centuries BC. The ruins are the remains of the Mycenaean acropolis, dominated by the famous lion gate which is so striking. There are a number of royal graves, and some impressive gold masks and other items were uncovered there. Hopefully we will see those tomorrow, in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There are the remains of the palace, houses, grain stores and an impressive cistern to bring water to the acropolis. There is also a large beehive shaped tomb (called the Treasure of Atreus) which is a remarkable structure. We were all struck by the antiquity of the place, and impressed with the technological achievements of these ancient people. There is a small museum on the site which we raced through to make sure we didn’t miss the bus back to town!

We are having a bit of a heat wave, with temperatures well above average in the mid-30s. It is hot work traipsing over ruins, especially when they are on the top of a hill! We returned to the ship for lunch and a bit of a rest, and Dad decided he had done enough sight-seeing for one day. I opted to tender back to shore and spent several hours strolling around the town of Nafplio. I had a Rick Steves self-guided walk to follow, and thoroughly enjoyed my wander. It is such a pretty town, and was blissfully free of the tourist hordes. In fact you are hard pressed to find any people in my photos! The streets in the old town are narrow and traffic free, and lined with interesting shops and cafes. There are the usual tourist shops, but also a number of small galleries and other classier shops. The town is wedged between the sea and the imposing Palamidi Fortress, built by the Venetians in 1711 to protect the harbour (one of 3 fortresses, but definitely the most impressive. I declined the offer of climbing the 1000 steps to reach the fortress, and instead enjoyed the view from below. The Bourtzi Fortress (15th century) lies on a small island in the bay. I felt very protected!

As part of my tour I visited the small archaeological museum. There were a number of interesting items, mostly 2,500-3,500 years old, including clay figurines, gold jewellery that could have been made yesterday, an impressive collection of intact Greek glass, pottery and bronze. My favourite item was an intact bronze suit of armour from the end of the 15th century BC. It is thought to be the oldest armour in Europe. I just stood in front of it thinking that someone wore that suit 3,500 years ago! Spooky!

This evening we had our disembarkation briefing. The trip is ending all too soon! It must be a logistical nightmare to organise everyone to get off, with their correct luggage, and transferred to the correct onward flights, even on a small ship like this one. As our flight is not till 4pm, we get to stay on board the longest (though we have to vacate the cabin at 8.30am!!) But first we have a full day in Athens to enjoy!

PS Apparently all of the above spellings of Nauplio are used. I assume there’s a ‘correct’ Greek spelling!

Olympia, where it all began.

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Europe, Greece
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Our next port of call was the pretty town of Katakolon, but we didn’t get to spend any time in town as we were heading for the site of Olympia, the home of the original Olympic games. Dad was a little tired so decided to skip the tour and take a day off, so I headed off on my own. Although with a busload of my new friends, I was hardly alone. Our guide was a young Dutch girl called Saskia, and she was charming – a good guide can make all the difference.

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The ancient Olympic Games started in the 776 BC, and centred around the workshop of Zeus. They were held every 4 years, and thousands came to watch. Only men were able to participate, and there were no second prizes. The site is quite large and although in ruins there is a lot of detailed knowledge about the site based on contemporary writings. We visited the gymnasium, the wrestling training centre, the temple of Zeus, the main running track. We saw pediments inscribed with the name of the victors and others where the names of people caught cheating were recorded. Although it was hot, it was pleasant to walk around, because there were many pine and olive trees, giving shade and pleasant greenness.

We were the only cruise ship in Katakolon that day. Saskia told us that the day before there were 4 of the huge ships there, and 10,000 (literally) people at Olympia. So glad we went today! It wasn’t crowded at all, and it was lovely wandering around picturing the site in its heyday, which continued until the Byzantine ruler Theodosius I put a stop to pagan worship in 393AD.

There is an impressive museum at Olympia, containing all the treasures found at the site – pottery, coins, paintings, and sculptures large and small. There was one big room which displayed the sculptures from the pediment of Zeus’s Temple, arranged as they would have been originally. Although many of the pieces were not intact, they were held in place with metal fixings so you could easily imagine how grand it once was. The rest of the gallery is arranged chronologically, from prehistoric artefacts to the Hellenistic and Roman galleries. I could have spent a lot longer there. One of the highlights of the trip for me.

We sailed at 1pm for one of the longer sea legs of the trip – we won’t reach our next destination until tomorrow morning, so there’s not much more to report for today!!

20th June

Our stop today was unusual as it is not on the usual tourist trail. We docked at a little town called Preveza, a small fishing village, and I guess the closest point to our real destination which was a small town called Arta, about an hour’s bus ride away. More specifically the church of Panagia Paregoritissa (“Mother of the Swiftly Consoling”).

Breakfast is served in the restaurant (the Terrace Cafe) but there is also a continental breakfast on the Lido deck around the pool, which happens to be the same level as our cabin. There is cereal, fresh fruit, various dried fruit and nuts, breads, croissants, muffins, juice, tea & coffee. Downstairs there is a menu of hot breakfasts and we had planned to vary our breakfast location but somehow we never have. It is very pleasant sitting on the Lido deck before the heat of the day, and less temptation to overeat!

After breakfast we piled onto (thankfully air-conditioned) coaches for our journey to Arta. This was the first time our shore excursion had involved coaches, other than a shuttle from the ship to the town. We had a lovely guide, who talked constantly the whole way there and back. She talked of the history, culture of the area, and of Greece in general, but I have to say I didn’t take much of it in. Too much information! It was interesting driving through the Greek countryside and passing through farms and small villages. We passed the ruins of Nicolopolis, which was a city built by the future Roman emperor Octavian (Augustus) to commemorate his victory over Mark Antony & Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31BC. There’s not much left of Nicopolis now, but from the bus we could see walls & part of an ancient theatre. It is a bit mind-blowing that here you just drive past the remains of a 2000 year old city with hardly a sideways glance.

The church of Panagia Paregoritissa is a very unusual design. It was built in 1290, designed by a local architect. it has a high dome, supported by a very unique arrangement of cascading columns. I think I will have to let the photos speak for themselves! There are a number of icon paintings which were dismissed as “modern” by the guide (i.e. 16th & 17th century) but the ceiling mosaic is original, as were some quaint stone reliefs hanging from archways so high in the dome that no-one could possibly have seen them from below! They are a mystery. It is quite striking, inside and out, with elaborate brickwork designs on the exterior, and well worth the drive to get there.

Local legend has it that the architect’s assistant actually designed the best features of the church. The architect recognised this, and in the pretence of showing him something, took the assistant up to the roof in order to  throw him off. The assistant grabbed the architect on the way down and they both fell to their deaths. There are two stones on the ground, which apparently are their petrified heads. There is an 17th century  bridge near the town of Arta which has an equally blood-thirsty legend attached. Apparently the bridge builder was frustrated because the work he had done on the bridge during the day was getting washed away every night. A bird came to him in a dream and told him he had to sacrifice a person that he loved, so he build his wife into the foundations of the bridge, burying her alive. I guess it worked because the bridge is still there today!

We spent a relaxing afternoon on board while we sailed to the island of Ithaca. We anchored for the night and were given the option of tendering into the town of Vathy, but Dad and I opted for a quiet night in. It is exhausting, all this sight-seeing, and it didn’t sound like Vathy had much to recommend it. I’ve looked in several guide books in the ship library and it doesn’t get a mention in any of them! Normally that would recommend it to me as a place to see a ‘real’ Greek town, rather than one that caters to tourists, but inertia set in and we stayed on board.

Kalimera Corfu.

Posted: June 26, 2013 in Europe, Greece

I am home now, and very happy for my fast unlimited internet access! I will catch up on my blog posts over the next couple of days. I will post them as they were written on the day, so don’t be too confused by the present tense!

19 June

I guess you can tell I’m not a very experienced cruise passenger (unlike most people on this ship, it appears) but it still seems a little surreal to go to sleep, and wake upon the same bed, in the same room, but a different country. Yesterday we were in Croatia, today Greece. Our first port of call was the island of Corfu, one of the seven Ionian Islands. Corfu Town is an interesting architectural mixture, reflecting its past under Venetian, French & British rule. We had a full day in Corfu, with a tour in the morning and then free time all afternoon.

Our guide took us first to the “old” fortress (built in the 15th century) – there is another fortress which is new (16th century!). I was expecting a tour of the fortress, but it seems we mainly went there to see the view of the town. It was a good view but I was a bit disappointed not to see the fortress. It is surrounded by a moat, and we crossed the drawbridge to enter it.  The old town is a jumble of tiny streets lined with shops – a mixture of tourist shops and regular shops catering to the locals. The buildings are a unique mixture of Eastern, Venetian and Georgian, all needing a lick of paint. There’s a wide Parisian-style boulevard called the Liston (because apparently you once had to be ‘on a list’ of noble families to be allowed to use that promenade), and there’s even a cricket pitch. The British introduced cricket to Corfu and it is played there to this day – the only place in Greece that does so. The guide (whose name I can’t remember) took us through the narrow lanes, pointing out some recommended shops and cafes along the way (like we had a chance of finding them again!) and took us to yet another interesting old cathedral where we were not allowed to take photos.

Once the tour had finished, Dad & I went in search of the Synagogue. It was well sign-posted, surprisingly, and we found it fairly easily, and had a little look around. There are very few Jews in Corfu now, but we saw a memorial to 2000 who perished in the concentration camps in WW2. We managed to find our way back to the pick up point for a shuttle bus (frequent helpful street maps with “You Are Here” clearly marked helped!) and Dad returned to the ship for a rest. I soldiered bravely on, exploring the lane ways, window shopping and (as usual) taking photos. I enjoyed exploring the less touristy lanes, and sat for a while in a cafe drinking freshly squeezed orange juice and watching the world go by. I walked along the sea front, where some delightful cafes competed for space with tiny pebbly beaches and sparkling blue-green water. I even found a Marks & Spencer store.

By mid afternoon it was definitely siesta time, and I headed back to the ship. A swim revived me and we relaxed as we sailed to Ithaca, our next stop. We had to anchor there and tender to shore, but as we only had a very short time there, Dad & I decided we would stay on board and relax, and save our energies for tomorrow. It did feel a little lazy, but that’s what cruising does to you!