Category Archives: Greece

Artie Aardvark Sees Santorini

For those of you who don’t know him, Artie Aardvark is my curious little aardvark friend who is the mascot for our radio astronomy group.  He likes to tag along on astronomy adventures and write about them in a far cuter way than I ever could.  Take it away, Artie!


Wow it’s a good life being an astronomy project’s mascot- the astronomers had a conference here in Santorini and they brought be along!  This is the view from the conference center.  I think it might be the prettiest place in the world to have a conference. Continue reading

My Boring and Tragic Life Continues

IMG_1225The view from the hostel-more-like-a-hotel terrace on the lovely island of Ios, Greece where I am spending the weekend.  And from which I am now writing this, but the blue has been replaced by black and twinkling lights from stars above and houses below.

I am here because I just spent a week at an astronomy conference in Santorini- an amazing island I briefly visited before, so a week there was excellent- and while it was an amazing week during which I learned a lot and met many wonderful people it was also a fairly intense.  Let’s just say I have earned a weekend by the pool and a lack of discussion of spectral variation and confusion limits over the sunset cocktail.

The good news is as this was an astronomy conference Artie Aardvark tagged along to explore, so while typing unfortunately takes him longer (what with lacking digits) he will have a dispatch from Santorini soon!  Stay tuned…


Photo: The View on Santorini

Hot here today, almost as hot as the visit to Santorini!  These churches and houses are basically perched on the edge of a giant volcanic caldera that last erupted a few thousand years ago, which is a blink of an eye in geologic terms.  In fact, there is archeological evidence that that the fabled lost city of Atlantis was on Santorini pre-explosion- lots of beautiful artifacts in the museum here- which would have wiped everybody out in a giant tsunami.  They’re still excavating the site several decades after discovering it though, but I’m hoping someday I can return to this island and to see the ancient Greek version of Pompeii!

Summary of Greece

Greece is the sort of lovely place you stumble across and realize you could spend several weeks in and never get to the bottom of what all there is to see.  There are just too many beautiful islands, too many priceless artifacts, and too many good dishes to consume in this corner of the world…


– First of all, I got to see Greece with my family who I have not seen in several months.  This is good.  The fact that we all went on to Africa afterwards was even better.

– I liked every place we (briefly) stopped at in Greece, but my favorites have got to be Delos, Mykonos, and Santorini.  And I sincerely think Athens has a bad reputation as I thought it was a perfectly fine city for a few days to see the major sites.

– Oh, and the food is exemplary here.  Even if you need to hold regular negotiations with the cats in order to have your share.


– I’m just gonna come out with it and say I’m not a cruise person.  I mean sure, if I only had a week of vacation I would probably warm up to the idea but can’t say I do partway into a trip around the world where I’m used to moving at my own pace and my way of things.  So I got a little annoyed at this aspect at times.

– It should also be noted that Greece at this time of year is hot- about 35C during the day is pretty standard, meaning walking around routinely involves elaborate street geometry to move from one shady spot to another.  What it must be like in July and August around here I dread to think.


Before you ask, Peloponnese is that peninsula of Greece that sticks down into the Mediterranean.  Which I was kind of excited to hear about as I’d always wondered where it was.Africa 2 007

This is the lovely town of Monemvasia, which is a lovely old mideval fortified town and where the cruise stopped for a morning (I confess by this point I had no idea what the names of any of these places were so I needed to look it up just now).  They sure picked a lovely spot!  The entire place is surrounded by city walls and has old stone arches that you pray “please Poseidon, no earthquakes now ok?” when you pass under as it looks doubtful they’d survive any shaking.Africa 2 008

The other neat thing about this place is how the roads are so narrow that cars and trucks can’t come in.  What does this mean?  Well if you want to build within the city you need to use horses and mules to bring the stones and cement in.  I’d never seen such a thing happen anywhere in Europe, and it was certainly entertaining to see.Africa 2 009

My other favorite place in the Peloponnese- Agamemnon’s palace!  Ever read The Illiad or The Odyssey? (I’m betting you did one or the other for lit class at some point.) Agamemnon was the king of the Myceneans, ie main guy in charge when the Greeks invaded Troy, and his palace still exists.  In fact, this is the famous lion’s gate where his wife’s lover killed him after he came back from ten years in Troy.  If you think this wasn’t very nice of her don’t bother to sympathize, as he had killed his daughter in order to get a good wind to sail to Troy.  What a nice lot those ancient Greeks were…

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The view from Agamemnon’s palace- they sure picked a lovely spot didn’t they?  There isn’t much left of the palace, just some stone foundations, so the Lion’s Gate is the most impressive spot.  They do have a great museum though.

And with that, my story of Greece is done, as the next day we were back in the Athens airport waiting for a plane.  But not to worry as the story is about to get really interesting- time for the continent switch to Africa!


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.


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!


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!