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12 posts from June 2010

June 30, 2010

Mykonos {text by Andrew}

Wednesday June 30 - Mykonos

Today, we visited Mykonos, which is a Greek island off the shore of Turkey, and part of the Cyclades chain.  This is believed to be where the Titans were hurled into the Ocean by Zeus & Co, and the Cyclades themselves bind them forever into the ocean.
Mykonos 9997 maddy sand

I don't have any historical context to offer on Mykonos.  It's the most impressive venue for street photography that we've ever seen.  The island has somehow adopted a theme of gleaming white walls and blue windows and doors.  The place is immaculate, everything clean and sparkling.  From the port, it looks like a sleepy seafront village, but once you enter the main town, the twisty little streets (arranged to facilitate ambushes against visiting pirates) keep going and going. 

There are restaurants and bars, and narrow winding alleys filled with shops.  No graffiti, no trash anywhere, people wiping down each individual section of white wall as you go by.  Apparently it's considered to have among the most cosmopolitan nightlife in Greece, but during the day, it's just beautiful.

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We loved the pictures we got here, of both the town and the kids.

Mykonos 9999

June 29, 2010

Ephesus {text by Andrew}

Tuesday June 29 - Ephesus

We visited Ephesus today.  Wow, this place is amazing!  It was for a time the second largest city in the world (behind Rome), with around half a million inhabitants, meaning at the time it housed approximately half a percent of the entire world's population -- this is significantly larger than any city today.  And it had everything. 

The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders.  Ephesus was home to St Paul for a long period, and was the last home of Mary the mother of Jesus.  There was a great library, and a stadium capable of seating 25,000 people.  It hosted essentially every leader of consequence in the Ancient western world.  The city was a leader in women's rights, and boasted a famous marketplace, and additionally a large slave market.  Three years ago, a large gladiatorial graveyard was unearthed.  All manner of goods were distilled or fermented to make alcohol, and a variety of recreational drugs were in common use.  The city recognized both Latin and Greek as official languages, and inscriptions in each are common. 

But all of this doesn't really convey how grand the place is.  It's so enormous that only perhaps 15% of it has been excavated, but that 15% is very impressive.  There aren't any pictures of what the entire city looked like, but from what has been excavated and reconstructed, you have to imagine what a modern-day megalomaniac turned benevolent dictator might cause to be built after conquering the planet. 

We walked along building after building of exquisitely carved multi-story marble edifices in various stages of reconstruction with enormous plazas hosting breathtaking facades of libraries and brothels, temples and marketplaces, fountains and imperial tributes.  We saw expanses of excavated piping used to deliver water from an external reservoir.  The reconstructions were beautiful, and barely begun.  It's estimated there will be another 500-600 years at current course and speed to complete the excavation of the city.

What could possibly follow this kind of immersion in the ancient world?  Well, according to our tour planners, re-integration into modern society is best accomplished by a little while locked in a room with a Turkish rug salesman.  This particular twist on an old classic involved apple cider, pastries, and repeated claims that we were here to be educated in the ancient and dwindling art of weaving, rather than, heaven forbid, sold to.  Methought the over-bearded Turk didth protest too much. 

We left the halls of education and wandered around the Bazaar for a while.  Like many before me, I realized I'd never had a haircut in a Turkish Bazaar before, and this might be my last opportunity in a while, and let me sum up by saying again: wow!  Not just a haircut.  It involved a straight razor, what I can only describe as a small flaming marshmallow repeatedly plundering my eardrums, a vigorous application of highly astringent alcoholic jelly to any small lacerations from the razor, a vigorous clipping of the interior hairs of nose and ear, and a back massage.  All for eight euros.  It took 45 minutes.  Given the chance, I'd go back in an instant.

June 28, 2010

Athens {text by Andrew}

We spent yesterday at sea, and arrived early this morning for our first ever visit to Athens. 

The city is located some 7 miles inland, so we landed at the port city of Piraeus, and then drove in and around the city on our way to the Acropolis.  There's a small downtown section that's really fancy, full of expensive boutiques.  The remainder of the city houses some five million inhabitants, and appears like a modern city, perhaps a little less thriving than most.  Athens is a young capital, as Greece itself only became a nation in the 1830s.

 Athens fixed-7382

Per legend, the region of Athens has been inhabited since 7000BC, but the city was formed officially under Theseus, and was the hub of the golden age of Greek culture from around 800 BC to 500 BC.  At its inception, the city (as was traditional) sent out an RFDS (request for divine sponsorship), which was answered by Athena and Poseidon.  The agency responsible for selecting a sponsor asked each to demonstrate the nature of their bid.  Poseidon smote the ground with his trident, and a spring of fresh clear water burst forth.  Athena then struck the ground with her spear, and an olive tree arose.  After some discussion, the judges decided that water was cheap, while olives represented an industry with staying power.  Athena was awarded the job, and the city was henceforth called Athens.

It had a few good years fighting other Greek city-states, and finally went through a series of exciting battles with the Persians.  In the first such battle, the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon, and some poor Joe was tasked with running 26.2 miles back to Athens to let people know, hence inventing the marathon.  The Persians ran away, but came back ten years later to try again.  This time, Athens was completely destroyed, but the Athenians managed to escape to the water, and subsequently routed the Persians, who never returned to Greece (except on the occasional cruise ship). 

For a brief period, the Athenians decided to leave the destruction as a monument to the folly of trusting strangers, but living in ruins turned out to be sufficiently inconvenient to change the mindset over time.  Pericles, who was general at the time, decided instead to rebuild better than ever to showcase the benefits of freedom vis a vis those of slavery and life among ruins.
Athens fixed-7355

Each town is said to have a highest hill, or "acropolis," so they identified one for Athens and decided that this is where they would build their monument to freedom.  The top of the hill boasts the Parthenon, the Erechtheum, the temple of Athena Nike (an aspect of Athena representing victory), and one or two more.  This place is ancient, fascinating, and beautiful.

Athens fixed-7219

To get to the temple, we had to traverse a series of steep switchbacks while earlier birds than us were on their way down.  Traffic stalled completely for about 15 minutes in the sun.  Being Americans, many of the tourists tried to shortcut the holdup by scrambling up the ancient marble stones between the switchbacks, into oncoming traffic.  Our tour guide recruited a few other tour guides from other companies and did a quick demo of Olympian Fury, haranguing the masses, and bodily accosting a poor teenage scapegoat, stopping just shy of hurling him down the mountain.  Good behavior prevailed from that point on.
Athens fixed-7385
When we made it to the top, we walked through the temple of Athena Nike, and out onto the main plain atop the Acropolis, facing the Parthenon.  The Parthenon is built to appear flat, level and straight from afar.  2500 years ago, the Greeks understood that to do this correctly would require every line to be slightly curved in subtle ways, and they were able to determine and then build the temple to within a tenth of a inch tolerance to this plan.  Almost all the carving was done before the temple was assembled, and the resulting 32,000 pieces of marble were then assembled together.  The entire construction took only ten years.
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Athens spent the next few years infighting with its neighbors, until being taken over and spending most of the next 2000 years under the thumb of Rome, Constantinople, or Turkey.  Finally, encouraged by the proselytization of Byron, Shelly and others, European powers forced a treaty freeing the country from Turkey. 

In 1834, Athens was proclaimed the capital of the new, independent Greece, and a young Austrian royal was installed as the first King.

June 26, 2010

Messina {text by Andrew}

Messina sicily etna-7032

Our first port of call after leaving Rome was Messina, in Sicily. Messina lies directly across the Straits of Messina from Italy, across from a city called Scylla. Of course, according to Homer, this is where Odysseus sailed pass Scylla and Charybdis on his journey home. Charybdis, from what I recall reading the story 30 years ago, was a sort of giant underwater snail thing who would suck in and jet out vast quantities of water, forming deadly whirlpools in the straits. Scylla, on the other side of the straits, was many-necked and toothsome, and would eat sailors as they went by. I'm not sure what natural phenomenon she represents, but she was generally believed to be the more soft-hearted of the two.

Today, the straits are still treacherous, and apparently 90% of sea captains elect to travel around Sicily to avoid them. Due to oddities of Mediterranean currents, the seas on either side of the straits are one meter different in height. On a clear day, the straits look like a waterfall.

Under rough seas, the currents are treacherous. The area is also subject to heavy seismic activity, leading to frequent earthquakes and seaquakes, along with plenty of volcanic activity. In fact, life in Messina, and in Sicily more broadly, consists of watching a dizzying parade of natural and man-made destructive forces march past, punctuated by occasional moments of rebuilding in preparation for the next disaster. Everybody capable of building a boat came over at one point or another to raze something. World wars resulted in epic bombardments. Routine earthquakes would knock down whatever was left standing. Gaps in the earthquake schedule were filled in by seaquake-generated tidal waves that washed any budding port cities away. And in a fitting tribute to their fortitude, the few hardy settlements that managed to survive all that were destroyed by blistering rivers of molten lava, courtesy of Mount Etna. So that's where we went.

Our guide was knowledgeable and chatty, and for each piece of the island, she could tell us the exact year that it was washed away, burned, blown up, or slaughtered. We traveled along the coast by bus, and then climbed through some quaint little towns towards the volcano. Etna, we were told, is a "good" volcano -- she usually gives signs before erupting. Vesuvius, on the other hand, is a "bad" volcano. More on that later.

Most of the towns we saw had many uninhabitable houses, rendered unsafe by earthquake or lava damage. In these cases, the inhabitants would submit a claim to the government, which would reimburse the citizen. However, the process would routinely take years, and so many folks lived in tents in the interim, or in some cases moved to some form of council housing.

Soon, we left the quaint towns behind and climbed higher into the foothills of Etna. Here, the landscape was increasingly lava-encrusted. After the lava passes through, it takes a few hundred years before vegetation can reclaim the land. There are places where the lava washed all the way down to the water, but these haven't happened in recent years. The last occurrence was, per legend, engendered by Odysseus himself. According to the legend, Mount Etna was inhabited by three giant Cyclops, one-eyed figures standing ten feet tall, endowed with foul tempers and solitary natures. Odysseus was visiting town, and convinced the islanders to suffuse the feast with which they would placate the Cyclops with various of the soporific herbs in the area: wild roses, valerian, chamomile, and so forth. As a consequence, the Cyclops fell asleep and Odysseus and his crew headed uphill to his case. They found a tree trunk, cut it to a fine point, hardened the point in a fire, and heroically drove it deep into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops. The Cyclops awoke in rage, clutching his hand to his unibrow and bellowing. He smelled Odysseus, and called out fearsome threats. Odysseus, crafty as a fox, hid by clinging to the underbelly of a particularly pungent ram the Cyclops kept around for late-night snacks. Feeling and smelling only sheep, the Cyclops allowed the ram to depart, whereupon Odysseus and his remaining crew high-tailed it off the island. Recent archaeological findings have discovered giant historical statues, believed to be elephants, whose trunks have broken off -- the statues thus appear to be enormous figures with a single hole in the middle of their forehead. It is believed that these figures were discovered by early inhabitants of the island, and led to the legend of the Cyclops.

We stopped once at a restaurant / lava field to enjoy a little desolation / juice-and-cannolis, and then continued to our second stop at Death Crater.

Messina sicily etna-6936

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There are numerous craters formed by side eruptions of Etna, which run for a while to relieve pressure, and then close up forever. We have a few pictures of the girls at the crater, collecting lava of different colors.

Messina sicily etna-7025

We're here!

Sorry to take so long to update the blog but internet access on the ship is insanely expensive (about 50 cents per minute) so we've not been on the computer much.


The girls did great on the flight and we had no snafus until the last leg when we were delayed on the runway on arrival into London and missed our connecting flight to Rome by just two or three minutes.  No big deal except that only part of our luggage made the switch to the new flight so we arrived in Rome and boarded our cruise ship without our stroller or any of Gwen and Maddy's clothes.   The airlines promised that we'd have our missing luggage at the first port but it didn't arrive.  Then they promised again that we'd have it before the ship left Athens but only the stroller arrived.  So, five days later, the girls are still wearing PJ's.  But their PJ's are super cute and they don't seem to mind wearing the same thing every day so we're feeling kinda lucky that it was their suitcase that went missing instead of one of ours.  

We've been to several places and it's been AMAZING but I've been bad about blogging so I"m going to backdate this post and try to start at the beginning and catch up.  

Here's the beautiful sunset on our first night.

Messina sicily etna-7086

And here's the amazing sunrise the next morning.

There is so much more to share but I"ll get this posted just so you'll know we're here and alive and having a wonderful time!
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