Monthly Archives: June 2009

Crete

I stopped complaining about the pace of the cruise when we got to Crete. Possibly because we spent two nights here for a change and because I have eagerly wanted to come here for years.  Why?  Because of the palace at Knossos-

Knossos is the largest set of ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization, which flourished about 4,000 years ago.  I took an ancient civilizations course once during my copious free time as a physics major, and I concluded at the time that if I could choose which ancient civilization to be a part of it would be Minoan, the first ancient civilization of Europe.  There are a few reasons for this- women actually had a bit of power, their art is a beautiful transitional mix of Egyptian and Greek, and they were the first people in the world to figure out indoor plumbing.  Seriously, this is the queen’s sitting room and to the left there is a flush toilet, which had water coming from a mountainside 10km away!  The moral of the story here, of course, is that of all the modern technology you can figure out indoor plumbing gets priority.  Let that be a lesson to you.

And before you ask, no, this picture is not actually what the palace looked like when they discovered it.  This is because it was originally discovered a hundred years ago when archeologists didn’t just leave everything as they found it as a rule, so Sir Arthur Evans reconstructed various parts of the palace to show what it would look like.  I realize this is the biggest faux pas ever nowadays and they would never do it, but I must say it’s quite helpful to visualize a palace when you actually have a few rooms to work from and not just the foundations!

Another detail of the palace Linda and I enjoyed were the giant vases- there’s one behind her for scale.  These things are huge- so huge that they were never moved, and the entire kiln was built around them to be fired.  Which leads to the obvious question of why you would ever do such a thing, but it turns out these giant jars were where the daily wheat rations were stored for the workers in the palace.  Can’t make off with a jar of grain if it’s friggin’ huge, can you?

The most interesting thing about the Minoans though, or at least to me, is you hardly hear about them compared to the Egyptians or the Greeks for a very simple reason- we can’t read their language.  They wrote in a form of writing called Linear A that has never been deciphered, though this doesn’t mean it never will.  After all we had no idea how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics until the Rosetta Stone was discovered, and there is an ancient form of Greek called Linear B that was a mystery until just a few decades ago when a British schoolteacher worked it out.  Until then, all we know about the Minoans language-wise is from ancient Greek myths- for example, this palace is where the minotaur legend came from (not a surprise, with 1,500 rooms to stumble through) so it is said the word “labyrinth” is Minoan.  Huh.

So what else is there to do in Crete once you’re done with the Minoans?  Answer: the beach.  Crete is a popular holiday spot for Brits and Germans to come sun themselves, which means the beach has ladies bathing topless but they’re all women guys would rather wish to see covered up because they’re fat and beet red.  Even after three months here this is one aspect of European culture I can’t say I’ve figured out.

And my family will always remember Crete because, well, this is where we discovered raki.  I think I mentioned this before.  As it turns out there is a Greek custom that a restaurant will either give you a little dessert or shot of liquor at the end of a meal, and the place we went on our first night gave us a tasty shot of clear liquid we all rather liked.  Upon inquiry our waiter told us the stuff was “holy water,” and proceeded to bring us a filled Power Ade bottle with the understanding that we should help ourselves.

So we did.  Turns out my mom knows some interesting Hungarian drinking songs.  And needless to say, we bought a bottle of raki at the airport in Athens so we could enjoy it again later.

Santorini

The cruise lifestyle and me hit a low point on Santorini.  This is because this island is so beautiful, so magical, that a mere day on it just isn’t enough.  I almost feel like I can say I saw it but have never actually been there because of the frantic pace we saw the thing at.

When your boat arrives at Santorini, it’s hard not to feel amazement at the gigantic cliffs on the harbor side, with houses precariously perched on top…

The view from the top is quite a sight too!

Ok, here you can see where the cliffs come from.  Basically Santorini is what remains of a giant volcano that exploded a few thousand years ago, and the cliffs is where the island collapsed into the sea.  The island in this middle is what new lava the volcano has pushed up since (no danger now we’re told, though smoke was last seen in the 1950s), and Santorini and two other smaller islands are what remain of the giant caldera’s outside.  Very neat to see geology on a huge scale like this!

Very neat to see what people do when given an old volcanic cliff with a view too- it’s hard to believe one earthquake wouldn’t send some of the houses on the cliff tumbling into the sea.  But let’s think about something else instead while standing here, shall we?

Like the possibility that Atlantis was on Santorini!  As it turns out, Santorini was home to one of the most spectacular prehistoric civilizations on what is the outer (ie non-cliff) northern rim of the island, a place called Akrotiri. They had things like beautiful art and running water thousands of years before anyone else did, but this all ended around 1600 B.C. when the volcano erupted and destroyed the town a la Pompeii.  They curiously never found bodies- the theory is the mountain gave enough advance warning so the people had enough time to get onto boats, but not enough time that the resulting tsunami didn’t destroy them all as they never show up later in the record.  What a fascinating story.

They’re still excavating the site ~40 years after discovering it, so I suppose I’ll have to wait and see it for myself instead of just the museum pieces.  Maybe then I’ll spend enough time to say I’ve seen Santorini?

Delos and Mykonos

The weird thing about a cruise versus how I usually travel is a cruise will do in two days what I will spend a week doing when left to my own devices. Like I could spend days in a place like Mykonos but here I was, fitting it into an afternoon… and we saw Delos that morning to make things even more hectic, so I’m just sticking the two islands together for lack of any better structure.

These are the famous lions on Delos. Why is Delos famous, you ask? Because it was a holy island during the classical Greek period and home to 30,000 inhabitants, and was inhabited for thousands of years until piracy forced the Greeks to abandon the isle in the first century B.C. So it’s the best-preserved ancient Greek site in the world- the only one where you can do things like walk down streets and see houses and things like that- and the scale of the place really overwhelms you.

The reason Delos was an important religious site is it is the sunniest point in Greece, hence they said the twin gods Apollo (god of the sun) and Artemis (goddess of the moon) were born here. When we were younger my twin brother Patrick and I had the perfectly normal hobby of Greco-Roman mythology under our belts so we decided Apollo and Artemis were “our” gods, so I was happy to come here though sad Patrick wasn’t here to see it with me. The palm tree behind my shoulder is where they were allegedly born by the way- allegedly Artemis was born first but she grew up so quickly she could help her mother with the birth of her brother.

While the temples are cool, my favorite thing about Delos is how you can see the old houses and daily life the Greeks led when they used to live here. These sets of columns were the main atrium part of a wealthy house which, believe it or not, held up a second story as well. Quite impressive to think about!

Next stop: Mykonos. Where they have beautiful whitewashed architecture that you always think about when you think of Greece, such as this small chapel.

A pelican showing us his stuff on the beach…And the famous windmills of Mykonos! No idea what they would have done if they hadn’t built them, as there would be several hundred fewer tourists standing here taking a picture… This area on Mykonos is known as “Little Venice” because the houses were built right up on the water. This is because islands in Greece at a time were either attacked by pirates or the home of pirates- Mykonos fell into the “home” category, so the pirates would build houses right up on the water so they could quickly dispose of their loot. Nowadays though it’s more famous as a great party island- around midnight you’ll still see people sitting down to dinner and have people just arriving into town for a night out around 2am…

So that is a quick whirlwind tour of the first two islands we checked out. If you feel breathless at the pace then you know just how I felt!

Athens

As the more astute amongst you might have noticed, I was supposed to be in Africa by now. But frankly things got a bit delayed- my parents emailed me awhile back to inform me of a Greek cruise they were planning that my sister was coming along for as well, so would I kindly buy a ticket to Athens in early June? I did what any sensible person would do and conclude Africa can wait. Plus I haven’t seen my family in four months, and hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them until I got teary-eyed in the Athens airport-

For those who have never had the pleasure of meeting them, this is my mom, dad, and sister Linda.  Linda just joined this trip in celebration of defending her Biology M.S. a few days prior, but unfortunately my brother Patrick has already joined the ranks of the real world and couldn’t take off from his job.  He is being sorely missed, but at least this way someone can keep us informed about the Penguins in the Stanley Cup!

So Athens.  I realize everyone and their mother tells you to not bother with Athens, as it’s a huge dirty city and all that, but do yourself a favor and don’t listen to them.  I happen to like it.  I mean yes I wouldn’t spend more than two or three nights in one stretch here, but the smaller streets are charming, the bazaar is bustling, and they have ruins here big enough to get lost in.  What’s not to like?

This particular set of ruins, by the way, are the last remaining columns for the Temple of Zeus Olympus, where most of the missing ones were taken away by the Ottoman Turks.  Greeks still don’t really like Turks for this, but they’re not particularly unique in this aspect in this part of the world.

The picture you’ve all been waiting for if I was coming to Athens- the Parthenon! (Fun fact: I overheard an American tourist wondering aloud if the “Parthenon” and “Pantheon” were one and the same while here.) They’ve been doing restorations here for 20 years and have another 20 to go, unfortunately, mainly because there are several layers of bureaucracy one needs to weed through in order to get anything done.  I will also advise you to come here in the afternoon rather than the morning if you’re on your own as that’s when all the tour groups come in!

One interesting thing I learned here though is what makes the Parthenon famous is its architectural perfection- the whole building is an optical illusion designed to give the image of straight lines, but in fact there are none in the entire building.  If you take out a ruler it turns out the floor is highest in the middle so the rainwater can drain out, the columns are in fact slightly thicker in the middle than on the ends, and the columns themselves even lean slightly inward… It should also be noted that all the original carvings are not here but rather in the British Museum, which no Greek in the known universe is entirely happy about.  Luckily I am on a trip around the world so I saw the originals two days before going to the Parthenon, so I have the entire picture.

Catching a seat at the Theatre of Dionysus at the bottom of the Acropolis complex, where “Acropolis” is not actually a building but rather the term used for the hill itself.  The heat this time of year in Greece is searing but that didn’t stop me from spending a few minutes contemplating how it would be in ancient times to catch a show written by Sophocles or Euripides in these very rows.  Greece is one of those places where you would give a lot of money to hear the stones talk.

Finally, a word about this cat. Cats are everywhere in Greece, no doubt assuming from the fawning of the tourists that we visit their country to pay homage to them, so they reciprocate this affection by trying to steal your food. This specific cat came to our dinner table the first night in Athens but would step behind the fence when a sharp “no!” was issued his way, and compromised by leaning against the fence with his front paws. In an “oh, what a coincidence that I’m hanging out here while you guys and your food are right there!” way that made everyone laugh. (And then he got some leftovers, so I guess it worked.)

So the Grecian Odyssey begins.  We’ll see how this goes!

Summary of the U.K.

The interesting thing about the United Kingdom is you can never let go of the feeling that there’s something very… proper about it. I blame stereotypes for this- when you think of the British some stuffy accented professor comes to mind, meaning I’m always secretly entertained when I hear British people cursing with their accent. Though I should note that this doesn’t always apply to Scottish people, where you are lucky to understand them at all.

Highlights:

  • I know you’re not supposed to say this, but I hit a streak and the weather was wonderful- I even got pink wandering around Cardiff, which I am aware is just not supposed to happen. I spent about two weeks here and it rained about two days the first week and only one the next, making me suspect they had better weather here than what everyone else had back home.

  • I have a confession to make: I never quite got over being delighted with the British newspapers. Back home we like to think rags like USA Today are complete fluff but believe me when I say their British counterparts have nothing on us- for 40 pence you can buy a hundred pages of newsprint which you can finish feeling no more enlightened about the world than when you started. Though the articles unfortunately often stop short of giving you the really important details. Take the above article- by showing up in a jar of Marmite, what is Jesus trying to tell us about yeast extract? Does he endorse it over other breakfast spreads, for example?

  • I am indebted to Doug and his hospitality in particular in London (and, I suppose, his hippie roommate who bought a new guitar instead of paying his rent so I had a place to sleep). Plus London is cool. Can I run away to Camden or the South Bank and never go home?

  • I am in love with Scottish people, their scenery, Edinburgh, and their roast pig. And because Chris from Toronto was sad that he was not mentioned in my original writings about Scotland, he gets a mention here.

  • I really enjoyed my time in Bath, as it’s a lovely little city and my hostel there was the one I enjoyed the most out of the U.K. ones I stayed at. The one in Cardiff may have been rated the best in the world but St. Christopher’s gave me a free Stonehenge tour and had Strongbow for 1.50 pounds in their bar- what’s not to like?

  • Lowlights-

    • I spent a night in Manchester which I didn’t mention before, mainly because I exploited all the touristy things to do there in a few hours. I think if you lived there it would probably be a nice enough place, but not much to do if you’re a tourist really.

    • And while I know we all knew this before I went there, the price. Wow. I’m pretty sure I could have lived a week in South East Asia for what I would spend in a day in the U.K. No wonder you run into British tourists everywhere else in the world, everywhere else is cheap after home for them! And yes, this still stands even after their currency has taken a pummeling and is almost on par with the Euro… I hesitate to think of what it would have been like to visit here last summer.

London

I am now going to attempt the impossible and write a blog post about London without posting a picture of Westminster in general and Big Ben in particular.  This isn’t to say I don’t like either, but rather you all know what they look like and I’d rather focus on some of the more unique things I liked about this visit to London.  It’s a wonderful city in that “if anyone needs a PhD student let me know” sort of way, and the days of beautiful weather and great company didn’t hurt!

These are my hosts, Doug on the right and Ryan to his left, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.  I met Doug and his lovely cousin Laura two years ago in New Zealand while they were on their gap year, and I received an all too kind invitation to stay in a spare room when I got to London.  Doug was kind enough to spend his days wandering about with me, which resulted in an odd mix of sights ranging from “tourists never come here” to “Doug has lived here for years and has never been here before.”  Just perfect and I am indebted to their hospitality!

But before I forget, the Globe!  If you ever come to London and have very little money but want to catch a show, do what all the broke kids do and head for the Globe Theater.  The yard tickets are 5 pounds a pop, the plays are wonderful (we had As You Like It and I nearly died laughing), and you’ll have one of the best spots in the house if you show up a little early.  Oh, and you can drink, a la what they did during the era of Shakespeare.  What’s not to like?

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None of the Londoners had any idea you could go see a show for so cheap (but you guys are going to be regulars now, right?) but made  up for it by introducing me to Camden.  Wow, what a great area.  Camden is an interesting combination of one of the best markets I’ve been to and the home of the punk scene in London, meaning you can spend many happy hours checking out the goods, eating delicious stall food, and people-watching.

And then, this being Camden, time for the pub!  Where a great band you would kill to hear back home is playing even in the late afternoon whilst you argue what counts as an “unusual pet.”  An iguana?  A tapir?

Here’s another place I was determined to check out but Doug hadn’t ever been to voluntarily- the British Museum!  I love the atrium here by the way, which wasn’t around the last time I visited here five years prior.

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Some of the cat mummies in the British Museum.  This place is fascinating because basically the British during their heyday went everywhere in the world and took the prettiest stuff back to London.  Obviously now this causes a bit of consternation in some relations- the Egyptians would really like their Rosetta Stone back, the Greeks are arguing over the Parthenon carvings- but until further notice the pirate’s treasure remains here.A sight we stumbled upon while walking from the British Museum- the infamous changing of the guard.  Apparently it happens twice a day but the middle of the night one isn’t half as showy- we watched  for nearly a half hour while the band paraded around, playing classic marching tunes like Elanor Rigby and the theme from Doctor Who.

Finally because I’m certain under normal conditions this doesn’t happen in London, a few artists were doing sand sculptures on the South Bank. (I love the South Bank by the way. Can I get a flat here when that PhD position opens up and promptly go bankrupt?) Possibly the best sand-sofa I have ever seen, because I have clearly seen so many.

PS- This blog post is stopping right now because on average it is a week behind, meaning right now I am in Greece with my parents and sister for the first time in four months.  And we are sitting at a table in Crete where the waiter gave us a bottle of Power Ade that curiously does not seem to be Power Ade, and we are on the fourth shot of this strong clear liquid.  My writing can’t stay clear much longer…

Cardiff

I came to Cardiff for two reasons: I wanted to dip at least a toe into Wales and because of the hostel.  I’m sure the latter reason sounds like an odd one to visit anyplace, but for months now I’ve been primarily relying on Hostel World for my hosteling information, and while some have been good and some have been bad it has not escaped my notice how at 96% the River House Backpackers in Cardiff is often rated the best backpackers in the world.  I soon became fascinated with this- what constitutes the world’s best hostel anyway?  Wasn’t it worth a two night detour to find out?

Anyway, this is the River House backpackers as seen from the water bus  that runs up and down the river.  To be honest it really is nice- excellent location and breakfast spread, above and beyond friendly staff, and a comfy lounge with big TV and the rest of the works.  While I can see why they win on the ratings scale, I confess this hostel was a reminder of how what you remember most about places are the people you meet which is a factor you can do nothing about.  For example, I was awakened at this hostel at 8am by a German girl blasting her hairdryer beside my bed who uttered an unconvincing “sorry” when I shot her the death stare known in the hosteling  world as synonymous with “you are being a jackass, stop now,” and it’s not like you can do a thing about that!  So it goes.

Anyway, Cardiff.  I like Cardiff.  The weather was this clear blue sky that makes you convinced the Welsh really have great weather they make up stories about so they don’t have to share (cue the maniacal laughter from anyone who has lived in Wales ever), and there’s enough going on in the city that you can happily spend some time exploring.  This here is a view of the enormous Cardiff castle that takes a few hours to explore properly.  My favorite  thing about it is it turns out residents of Cardiff can enter the castle for free so on days like this many do to picnic with their families, and after lunch the parents laze about while their kids are encouraged to run around with cheap plastic swords and other props.  Wouldn’t be awesome to grow up where your playground is a castle?!

I also realized I liked Cardiff Castle because it has the exact same layout as the Playmobil castle that we had back in the day- nice large square area in the middle, large gate, a tower on the corner, and residential houses on the side. This was possibly the favorite toy  my brother, sister, and I had as kids, and we spent many happy hours inventing adventures for two Barbies and a stegosaurus.  So I got a bit nostalgic about that…

The interior of Cardiff Castle is pretty sweet as well- the nobles that had it in the past century redid everything in a lovely classical style, so the whole thing feels a bit like Ludwig II’s castle in Germany.

Oh, and there was a falconry too!  They used to have peacocks at the castle up until two years ago as well, but they kept climbing up a wall and launching themselves into a busy intersection and wandering into Burger King.  Needless to say this caused much unhappiness on both sides, so the peacocks were sent to a farm far out in the countryside where there are no fast food joints to disturb for miles.

Perhaps I’m mean, but when I saw this museum I laughed out loud.  Perhaps the reason the Welsh could never defeat the English is they didn’t realize goats aren’t exactly the most frightening of creatures to have in your regiment?

Speaking of Welsh, I was always on the lookout to see how many differences there were between Cardiff and England proper, even though I’m told this isn’t “real” Wales yet.  Verdict?  It’s much more like England than Scotland was, but the Welsh really have the Scots and even Irish beat when it comes to speaking their original language.  Only 3% of Scots speak Gallic and you see  it on roadsigns occasionally, Ireland you see Irish most everywhere and they learn it in high school but hardly anyone speaks it, but in Wales it’s written first and lots of people speak Welsh over English!  The above is from a festival by the harbor that was a language festival where I couldn’t understand a word- the kids above are singing along in Welsh to the costumed characters in front- and you saw several kids wandering around working on their Welsh school assignments.  Speaking as someone who speaks an obscure language that has minimal use outside its borders, good for them.  Glad to see they still use it.

image254Finally, a sunset over the river with the Cardiff stadium on the side.  What a nice little city.  It was a short break from the capital I’d been slowly working in the direction of seeing all this time, London…