S: 2002/3 WORLD TOUR Part 3 France Greece Singapore
BC: 2002/3 WORLD TOUR Part 3 France Greece Singapore
FC: Greece | 2002/3 WORLD TOUR PART 3 France | Singapore
1: Paris FRANCE The drive to Paris took longer than expected although the traffic on the toll road from Langres was surprisingly light. As accommodation was a priority, it was decided to head for the Novotel at Ringis near Orly Airport where we had a booking for the following night. It only took one dead-end turnaround at a factory gate and a couple of CAT 5 arguments to find ourselves in the Novotel carpark and fortunately there was a vacancy. Tucked in beside the A6 to Orly in an industrial zone, the hotel had limited access to supermarkets. We opted for dinner at the hotel restaurant. Unaccustomed to the French tipping culture, the E1.50 left for the waiter would have probably triggered an indignant Gallic shrug. C’est le vie! | After dinner, Neil washed 3 months of road grime off our Peugeot. It served us well and deserved to be returned in a respectable state. The pristine paintwork was attributable in part to Neil’s driving skills but mainly due to all those alert and panic stricken motorists who swerved out of our path on the 10,185 km journey.
2: Paris FRANCE The next morning we drove over to the Peugeot Sodexa depot at Orly Airport and handed in the keys. Alors, n’est pas au revoir, mais, c’est audieu mon Peugeot! (or something like that). Neil had decided that any future trips of that magnitude would be undertaken on public transport. Coping with the increasing levels of traffic made self-drive holidays too stressful. Julie took the opportunity to check that the Iberia airline flight bookings were still in the system and Neil took the opportunity to comment that luckily for him, “Tomorrow the Spanish fly!” | We bought day transport passes that covered trains/metro/buses and hopped on the Orlyval train to a metro station at Antony. Like Dr. Who’s tardis the metro transported us 50km forward and centuries in reverse to deliver us onto the Ile de Cite where we beheld the rare sight of a scaffold-less Notre Dame bathed in brilliant sunshine. It inspired Liam to take a photo which in itself was a rare sight.
3: We crossed the Seine and struck off west in search of an American Express office. After several false leads, in frustration (and to save a marriage) we sought the assistance of a doorman at a ritzy hotel who insisted on escorting us inside to a concierge dressed in a magnificently brocaded jacket. Despite our backpacker couture, the courteous gentleman furnished us with a map and detailed directions which led us quickly to the elusive address.
4: Paris France Having staved off a financial crisis; we turned our attention to lunch. With such a tantalizing range of Parisian cuisine laid out before us it was difficult to comprehend how we ended up in a sterile establishment with a huge yellow M over the doorway, but at least it was warm and away from the crowded streets. We launched into the surging throngs on the Champs Elysee and headed for the Arc de Triomphe. Business was brisk for the profusion of sidewalk cafes and bars, with patrons clinging to the umbrella covered outdoor tables like so many shipwreck survivors. That description proved prophetic when the Champs Elysee suddenly assumed the mood of the Champs de Mars with a violent rain squall scattering people and overturning tables and billboards. It was briefer than a Moulin Rouge costume however, and the crowds soon surged back like a river swallowing a rebellious whirlpool.
5: Paris FRANCE The Arc de Triomphe was traditionally the starting point of parades for Parisians, so it seemed fitting for us Antipodeans to make it the end of ours. We took refuge in a metro station and after a short subterranean jaunt emerged onto the Champs de Mars. The solace of the Australian Embassy beckoned and we spent a quiet half hour lounging in that sprawling, uncrowded, expensive slice of real estate, flicking through week old Australian newspapers in a futile search for some updated news on the SARS situation in Asia. Suitably refreshed but none the wiser, we set off for the Eiffel Tower, only a short walk away.
6: Paris FRANCE There was a swarm of young hawkers mainly of African origin, peddling tacky trinkets and soggy postcards as we approached the base of the tower, prompting Neil to comment on the likelihood of a Fagan-like character orchestrating that miserable marketeering. Sure enough, some distance further on towards Les Invalides we spied the scruffy rogue, a true Dickensian replica, unloading boxes of cheap souvenirs surrounded by his urchin army. As we passed Lilliputian-like between the four massive footings of the tower and peered up through the 324 metres of latticed pig iron Julie suddenly recalled an old chestnut her father would have used on such an occasion. Q. “Why is it called the Eiffel Tower?” A. “ Because when you look up you get an eye full!” Due to the blustery conditions, that could mean raindrops, pigeon poo, or windblown skirts, depending on one’s level of meteorological interest, maturity, modesty, or morality. | Neil attempted to conjure a photo of Amy “holding” down the Eiffel Tower with the palm of her hand, which caused a high level of curiosity amongst some fellow Bonsai enthusiasts in the form of a Japanese tour group, and a look of cringing disdain from Liam. At 6pm we decided to call it a day – Jeudi actually.
7: Paris FRANCE
8: Other lesser rules that were also flaunted, involved factors such as stormy skies, language barriers, and the physical condition of expedition members. We trudged an exasperating 6km in the wrong direction on lonely freeway footpaths, until Amy of the sharp eye and photographic memory, spied the prominent silhouette of the Holiday Inn, a neighbouring hotel, in the distance on a transverse highway route. By that time there was rebellion in the ranks with Liam straggling far behind muttering murderous oaths, but at last the end was in sight. It was the French version of the Burke and Wills story. There were limited opportunities for pedestrian crossings on the 6 lane highway and although we finally found ourselves opposite the hotel it took another 2 km to find a footbridge overpass. Needless to say Liam’s mood was as dark as the night sky when we entered the Novotel lobby at 9pm. Paris a Pied had somehow lost its romantic appeal. | Paris FRANCE The reverse journey to Orly Airport took about an hour and it would have been prudent at that point to get a taxi back to the hotel. Unfortunately it was Julie and not Prudence who suggested that we follow a vague sign indicating a walkway to the hotel zone, so we set off across the carpark. This broke Traveller's Golden Rule Number 1. “Never travel anywhere without a map”.
9: At 5am Amy, Liam, and Neil were jolted out of their fatigue induced comas by the strident, maniacal strains of the Austin Power’s theme song blaring from the TV. They sat bolt upright blinking painfully into the glare and cursing the decision to use the hotel wake up alarm, while Julie slept on serenely unaware of the trauma around her. Whilst breakfasting on the scant remains of our food cache, we discovered that the Novotel had been besieged by a band of gypsies overnight. Cars, caravans, and wagons were parked on every patch of vacant land and roadside verge surrounding the hotel.
10: Head scarfed women tended open fires, felt hatted men stood around in small groups smoking, and bare-bummed children scurried everywhere. Perhaps we had walked to Romania the previous night. The hotel courtesy coach driver breached the blockade using hand signals that did not originate in a Semaphore Users Guide and sped off to the Orly Ouest Airport terminal. | The Iberia Airbus A320 left for Barcelona on time at 10:30am. The gain in Spain was mainly on the plane i.e. – a gain in weight. We were served breakfast before arriving in Barcelona at noon. There was a 1.5 hour stopover in a stuffy transit terminal lounge. The sign read “Smoke Free Zone” but it was obviously meant to read “Free Smoke Zone”, either that or the Spanish literacy rate was woeful. When Spain joined the EU the meaning of EU changed from European Union to Emphysema Unlimited.
11: Athens GREECE Fortunately our passive smoking ordeal was terminated by the punctual departure of the Athens flight. Our seating allocations were not consecutively numbered. Neil sat next to a senior Senora wearing a leather coat that stuck out like bat wings when she settled in her seat, poking him in the face. Perhaps that was her personal escape apparatus, for she crossed herself several times on take - off in a nervous manner. Possibly the fact that it was May Day (May 1st), was not boosting her confidence. The volume of conversation with her travelling companion increased with every gulp of wine she consumed, eventually overcoming the maximum volume setting on Neil’s MP3 player. Only the bumpy landing at Athens Airport had a quietening effect on her.
12: Athens GREECE Athens boasted a brand new airport terminal built for the Olympic Games. There were Olympic themes everywhere. Even catching a taxi was a marathon event. The queue was enormous, but eventually a friendly driver packed our luggage into his taxi and set off on the long freeway journey into the city. Keen to practise his English he would flash a big moustachioed smile and exclaim “Welcome to Athens!” sporadically. That was obviously part of his Olympic training regime. Approaching Athens, the familiar outline of the Acropolis came into semi-focus through dense hazy smog. Our youth hostel was located near the city centre. We all agreed that it was very basic, very grubby, and very noisy. Being on the top (6th) floor only afforded us views over a shabby rubbish strewn neighbourhood but its redeeming feature was the dirt cheap tariff! Athens was a noisy city. Whether it was due to exuberant Labour Day celebrations or just gangland warfare, there were gunshots at 4:30am. Daylight revealed a grimy world that also confirmed Athens as a dirty city. The smog hung heavy in the streets. We had bought facemasks in preparation for SARS in Asia but considered wearing them on those polluted streets. Liam and Amy witnessed a car break-in down in a back alley as they hung listlessly over the balcony taking in all the neighbourhood activity. Much to their disappointment and dismay we booked in for one extra night at the hostel.
14: Athens GREECE Syntagma Square was just a short walk away, but the National Tourist Information Office proved more elusive. We were directed by a friendly policeman to a dilapidated building shrouded in scaffolding and throbbing with the beat of a jackhammer quartet. With some trepidation we stepped into a groaning lift in the deserted lobby and rose unsteadily to the 4th floor. Most of the office doors were locked and the corridor was strewn with tired old furniture and loose sheets of paper. At the far end of that chaotic jumble a security guard ushered us into an office cluttered with overflowing filing cabinets and occupied by a very disgruntled clerk. Not surprisingly he had no brochures or useful ferry information to take away, so we stumbled back into Syntagma Square somewhat shell-shocked. It was the National Tourist Information Office for Greece and was what the world would descend on and depend on during the 2004 Olympics. Looking around the square most of the buildings were in a similar state of decay and neglect. For comparison the Acropolis was in better shape. Trying to glean any information on an island ferry timetable from tour operators was like extracting teeth. Nobody was willing to part with information without a booking being made. That made our island hopping trips hard to plan, but Amy put together an itinerary that could work and it was decided to take our chances on the wharves of Piraeus the next day as suggested in the Lonely Planet Guide.
16: Crete GREECE Our second night at the hostel passed without the anticipated gunfight in the streets but the ambient noise level resembled living in a laundromat. We had a slow start to the day. While handing in the keys at reception we met a Canadian family and stopped to chat. Both parents were teachers with twin 12 year old boys. They were travelling for 6 months and we swapped a few handy travel hints. After our return from the islands we had booked into another Novotel hotel which raised enthusiastic applause from Liam and Amy. We were able to leave the majority of our luggage in the Novotel luggage storeroom, allowing us to travel light on the ferries. The Metro in Athens deserved accolades for its cleanliness and efficiency. Obviously, the Olympic refurbishment team hadn’t quite made it to ground level as yet. | Piraeus
17: Piraeus was dirty, dusty, noisy, and chaotic. We walked along the inside of a high wire fence under a hot sun towards two boats with CRETE painted on their hulls, but it took some clever guesswork to conclude that the ticket office was an insignificant decrepit building outside of the high wire fence and across a busy badly rutted highway that could have belonged in war-torn Baghdad. An old lady seated inside a grimy-glassed ticket booth took our booking and indicated in Greek which of the two boats we were to board at 4:00pm. It seemed straightforward so we set off in search of some shade and food. After wandering aimlessly through evil smelling rubbish strewn streets we bought some food at a LIDL supermarket and found a small taverna to take refuge in.
18: We sipped thick Greek coffee and cokes while the friendly owner gave us good advice about Crete. He suggested not staying in Iraklio as it was too much like Piraeus but to head for Xania instead. He quizzed us on Australia and New Zealand and said it was his dream to go there one day. On board the ferry we settled into a couple of Pullman benches with the intention of reserving some sleeping space, although after that Greek coffee sleep did not come easy.
19: Crete GREECE By 8:30pm we were underway. The “No Smoking” signs were completely ignored but fortunately it was not crowded. The background noise level on the ferry made conversation problematic. Some hours into the trip Neil woke feeling cold and noticing Liam stirring, whispered “Do you need a coat?” Liam nodded enthusiastically and followed Neil back to the luggage storage area. Neil handed a coat to Liam who stood there with a puzzled frown and blurted out “Where’s my Coke?” causing Neil to double over with stifled laughter. | The journey lasted 9 hours which meant an early morning docking. We were looking forward to a change of pace but that would have to wait until we set foot on Crete.
20: Crete GREECE We stumbled sleepily ashore onto a busy quay in the pre-dawn gloom. Fending off beckoning touts offering “nice place”, “cheap rooms” and possibly a whole lot more, we shadowed a high stone wall upwards until a gateway opened out onto the streets of Iraklio. The taverna owner in Piraeus spoke the truth. Even in the half-light, the city looked ugly. We rested in El Greco Park named in honour of the famous painter’s birthplace. It was a surprisingly tidy, tree-lined park with stone benches and a marble bust of the artist. It was interesting to note that El Greco left Candia (Iraklio) at the tender age of 16 and never returned. We were harried by a young Turk who intimated he was there without a passport and was talking in seditious terms about the Greek government. Consequently, the first car rental office to open its doors won our custom. | We were soon negotiating the light but nevertheless erratic Sunday morning traffic in a Fiat Punta, trying to recall enough of the Greek alphabet to interpret the road signs. More by good fortune than good management we found ourselves on a scenic mountain road heading for Xania.
21: Behind the town centre rose the impressive castellated walls of a ruined fortress. After a relaxing lunch of Moussaka and Greek Salad (what else?) at a quiet outdoor taverna, memories of our earlier disappointment in Iraklio faded. | Traffic on that quiet byway was sporadic and the only major delay we encountered was caused by a herd of goats ambling along the road in a torpid, bell-tinkling conga line. There was no attending shepherd and it was easy to imagine our little boy blue dozing under a tree overcome by the warm sleep-inducing sunshine. We passed through tranquil little villages where the only signs of life were the shuffling processions of elderly black garbed women homing in on tiny blue-domed Greek Orthodox churches. We stopped at Rethymno. The ramshackle outskirts belied the fact the centre was a well preserved medieval town with narrow winding cobbled streets surrounding a beach waterfront and compact harbour guarded by a sturdy stone lighthouse.
22: We drove on to Xania, the old capital and second largest city of Crete, and decided to bypass the city centre in search of accommodation. The Nikolas Apartments were near new, near the beach, and near our budget. The friendly landlady fussed over us. The only annoyance was a sign indicating that toilet paper was not to be flushed and a shower cubicle design that was no improvement on the Athens Youth Hostel. For a new building it seemed incredible that Greek bathroom design could not be modified to accommodate larger waste pipes and provide a simple shower screen.
23: Crete GREECE The weather was warm enough to attempt a swim in a nearby protected bay. The crystal clear water was chilly which was not surprising since the landlady explained it had snowed here only 20 days before. The sewerage sucker man woke us up early the next morning. Our car was blocking access to the apartment’s septic tank that he wished to drain. Fortunately, it was only a routine maintenance visit and not connected in the slightest way with our outright refusal to adhere to the signage forbidding the flushing of toilet paper. With that operation underway noisily and fragrantly just below our balcony, breakfast was a hurried affair.
24: Crete GREECE We shopped for food at a nearby supermarket before driving into the city centre through a confusing maze of narrow one way streets and parked on the seafront. The old town of Xania was contained within high stone walls laid down by the Venetians in the 1400s. Most buildings had been restored and converted into hotels, restaurants, and chic boutiques, but the narrow alleyways and intriguing facades still made for interesting exploration. We found a sprawling uncrowded undercover food market offering a vast selection of Cretan cuisine and seafood. | Like Rethymno, the harbour entrance was guarded by a striking stone lighthouse perched on the end of an extensive stone breakwater that arced seawards to create a large calm-water lagoon. Despite extensive damage from heavy bombing during World War 2, Xania had survived and thrived.
26: Crete GREECE With that reminder of wartime Greece, we crossed the narrow isthmus of the Akrotiri Peninsula to visit the Souda Bay War Cemetery which brought into sharp focus the significance of Crete to many WW2 veterans. The cemetery was sited at the end of a 15km long bay that formed a natural harbour. From there the Allies evacuated some of the mainly NZ and Australian forces in the face of an advancing German attack in 1941. Tragically, most of the remaining troops were either captured or killed. As we wandered through the acres of headstones in that sad place, the enormity of those losses became poignantly graphic. So many young men lying in foreign soil so far from home.
27: We met a NZ couple who had just embarked on a three month pilgrimage linking up battlegrounds across the world where Kiwis had fought. Even if only in modern history, that was a very long list. We drove south into snow capped mountains towards Samaria Gorge. In the foothills orange groves lined the route, but as we climbed higher only occasional pine trees and stunted bushes clung to the steep slopes. | We stopped at a tiny square in the village of Lakki to take in the view. An impressive bronze totem-like statue of three Greek soldiers was a reminder of the fierce independence of those mountain people. The monument commemorated Cretan resistance to Turkish rule in the 1820s but the village was also the centre of resistance during the German occupation of WW2. Looking over Lakki clinging to the mountainside and the rugged surrounding terrain, it was easy to appreciate the advantage that area would offer to a resistance fighter born to those conditions.
28: Crete GREECE Climbing higher, we eventually arrived at the head of Samaria Gorge. We had planned on walking the 18km route to the southern coastline, but the recent snowfall had caused flooding in the gorge and the path was closed to hikers. Julie and Neil were deeply disappointed, but Liam and Amy were secretly relieved. We had already been warned by the car rental office in Iraklio and again by our landlady in Xania so it wasn’t a totally unexpected outcome. The views were still spectacular. The snow capped rocky peaks and steep, sparsely vegetated slopes narrowed into a deep ravine that wound out of sight. It was every aspiring hiker’s fantasy. | We drove back to Xania and had dinner at a local taverna. The lack of patrons had more to do with the Greek custom of eating late than any adverse comment on the quality of food and service. Consequently, the calamari and the service were both excellent. We took a quick stroll along the beach which was little consolation for missing our gorge hike. The landlady had left us some home-made wine that, after the ouzo consumed with dinner, ensured a restful night’s sleep.
30: Crete GREECE We left Xania early the next day in brilliant sunshine, waved off at Nikolas Apartments in a manner akin to a family farewell by our gracious host. There were a couple of police radar traps operating along the highway to Iraklio that ensured a slower trip, but the traffic was light for a week day. The exit sign for Knossos was partially covered by tree branches which made the next few seconds of heavy breaking and wild swerving more effective than 10 Greek coffees. We stopped at a supermarket for lunch on the advice from LPG that the cafe at Knossos was likely to make one dig deeper than an archaeologist, and then drove on into a confusing suburban sprawl on a winding road filled with horn-tooting, weaving traffic. At one point, the road emptied out onto a wide square totally devoid of any sealed surface and littered with hillocks of dirt and debris. Finally, just like Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, we found Knossos.
31: Never mind the digging, the driving was hard enough! Knossos was a fascinating few hours well spent. Unlike Xianten, where the Germanic obsession with perfection subdued the mind’s imaginative powers, at Knossos Sir Arthur’s partial reconstruction approach worked well to create a mental image without desecrating the site.
32: Most of the reconstructed Minoan columns, distinctive by tapering at the base, were painted in a vivid brown-red pigment that commanded attention. The layout of the palace was a sprawling confusion of levels and zigzagging passages which gave some credence to the mythology of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. Sadly, parts of the palace were now permanently off limits due to the wear and tear of tourist traffic, but it was still an impressive site. The clever and cunning use of light, ventilation, and drainage made the palace an architectural marvel. It even boasted the first recorded flushable water closet which was a sad reflection on mankind’s advancement when one considered the smelly row of port-a-loos at the site entrance.
33: Crete GREECE There was a group of students carrying out restoration work on frescoes depicting vivid blue dolphins, exotic griffins, brown skinned slaves carrying large urns, and an iconic bull leaping scene that brought life and colour to scenes of Minoan culture from 1500 BC. Standing sentinel over the palace ruins were several pithoi, huge ceramic jars, some 2 metres high, used for storing olive oil, wine, and grain. We left Knossos mid-afternoon and drove back towards Iraklio to return our Fiat Punta. It was a simple enough undertaking but we hadn’t factored in the need for a detailed suburban map (shades of Paris), the Greek alphabet, the dust covered road signs, the maze of one way streets, a lumbering backhoe, and a cement truck.
34: Our slow procession of horn-blowing gesticulating drivers was finally halted by the logistics of a backhoe trying to pass a parked cement truck in a narrow lane. After a tirade of pure blue Greek invective it was obvious that even Euclid, Archimedes, or Pythagoras could not resolve the mathematical and physical impasse. Eventually, the philosophical approach of Plato and Aristotle was adopted and we all reversed up in search of another escape route. Perhaps that was the real labyrinth of Minoan mythology. It was with some relief that we found ourselves at the western gate of the old city walls, and more importantly back on the page of our scant LPG map. From there, finding the car rental office was a doddle. We were able to leave our luggage there until the ferry to Santorini left in the evening. The intervening hours were spent atoning for our previous prejudices of Iraklio. We discovered that despite some neglect, the city walls and fort were quite attractive and even the harbour seemed more orderly.
35: Santorini GREECE We boarded the Daedalus and settled in for the 4 hour trip. It was a curious coincidence that with all the day’s labyrinth experiences the ferry should bear the name of that mythical artisan who constructed King Minos’ maze. The ferry was crowded so we sat at a table with a French Canadian couple. Jean Dumas was a large weather-beaten man with a longish mop of thick grey hair and tired eyes. According to his reckoning he had travelled through over 50 countries and had friends living in Beijing. He gave us some contact details with the suggestion they could be handy when we got there. He shared a surname with the famous author of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, but although there was enthusiastic discussion about his travels no other details about Jean’s background were forthcoming. The dark cliffs of Santorini loomed large at midnight, and we departed the Daedalus at Port Athmios to do battle with a Grecian gaggle on the wharf, all talking at once and displaying brochures by torchlight.
36: Santorini GREECE After Julie beat the price down by 10 Euros, we settled on the Villa Roussa which our man promised was ”very central”. We were ushered into a mini-bus and joined a cavalcade of cars and buses that wound their way up a tortuous track to the cliff top and onward to the main township of Fira. The Villa Roussa was as promised, very central - just below the main bus terminal. There was a musty smell but we had two separate bedrooms, each with ensuites, and an adjoining balcony. Apart from a very persistent barking Alsatian dog (that only annoyed Neil), the night passed without incident.
37: The brilliant morning sunshine enticed us out to explore. Fira sprawled out along the high cliffs and presented gigabits of photogenic scenery to absorb. The beige and blue trimmed, whitewashed buildings threaded by cobbled lanes tumbled down the slopes against a deep blue Mediterranean backdrop. A narrow stone stairway, a Greek interpretation of crazy paving, descended 200 metres to a small pier from where a sad string of donkeys laboured upwards with their plump tourist burdens.
38: Santorini GREECE The low black pumice profiles of Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni prominently occupying the centre of the caldera were constant reminders of the unpredictable future of that idyllic island. Volcanic activity began in 1650BC and was last recorded as recently as 1956. According to our LPG, Santorini experienced daily tremors, but that might have had more to do with ouzo than Seismology. In any event, Life on the Edge was an apt description of Santorinian philosophy. For lunch Amy and Neil had souvlakia, Julie had melizanes papoutsakia, whilst Liam, hankering for some plainer fare, ordered roast chicken which looked suspiciously like souvlakia anyway. Following such a traditional feast, a traditional afternoon nap was mandatory. We noticed many shops observed that most civilised of Greek customs. | We emerged in the late afternoon to discover that the town had dissolved into soft hues of pink and grey as the sun set over the caldera. Amy amused herself by seeking out the crafty hide-outs of the abundant feline community and enjoyed much success. Sleek Greek sneaks! The tourist traffic melted away as we wandered through quiet alleys towards the cliff edge and sat eating gyros washed down with ouzo to witness the sinking solar spectacle.
40: Noisy cars and motorbikes disrupted our night’s sleep due to the late arrival of the ferry, but only Neil heard the barking Alsatian dog again. He named it Cerberus, after the mythical multi-headed hound that guarded the entrance to Hades, or put more succinctly, the dog from hell. Liam opted to stay put in town for the day, while Julie, Amy, and Neil planned a walk across the island to Exo Gialos. The road descended from Fira on a gentle slope through vineyards and fields of wildflowers to the east coast 4km away. On the way we passed an exclusive resort with its own preserved windmill and small chapel but no sign of life.
41: Exo Gialos boasted one small closed hotel, a few cottages and the mandatory domed church. The beach consisted of crumbling black lava and gentle surf. We saw only a handful of people for the entire 2 hour walk, a situation that was bound to change as summer rolled on. Meanwhile Liam had spent an exhausting morning watching Greek TV. The reception swung between wonderful and woeful, but the content stayed constant at woeful. It was mainly B-grade American movies and industrial strength Greek soap, with a smattering of Greek news (in Greek). Watching the news with the sound turned down was a soft porn experience with close-ups of nude sunbathers repeated ad nauseum. Even the lewd coverage of the 2003 Miss Greece contest became tiresome (eventually). That called for some lunch and a well earned Greek snooze.
42: Santorini GREECE We had all recovered sufficiently by 5:30pm to walk to the northern outskirts of Fira, buy some gyros and ouzo, and watch another awe-inspiring sunset. That time we were not alone. Apart from the profuse cat population on Santorini, the canine numbers, although sadly neglected, were significant. One shaggy unwashed specimen attached itself to us on our walk and while we sat on a low wall watching the last rays of sunshine sink below the horizon our malodorous mate climbed up beside Julie. Amy, Liam and Neil were forced to surrender their perches due to the overpowering stench, but Julie, blessed with a bad case of sinusitis, just sat there with her new best friend. Both were totally engrossed in nature’s grand finale. It must have been a quiet night in hell because even Neil slept well that night.
46: Santorini GREECE We packed up in the morning and caught the bus back down the tortuous track to Port Athinios. In the daylight the black precipitous cliffs observed on our arrival took on a more benevolent sloping reddish-brown volcanic appearance. It provoked imaginative speculation about the fate of Plato’s fabled Atlantis but more mundane priorities overtook us and the ferry for Naxos left on time at 11am. The magnificent views of Santorini as we passed through the caldera and travelled north were captured in precious memories that would beckon us back one day.
48: Naxos GREECE The blue-sky weather allowed us to sit on the top deck for that calm Julie-friendly crossing. The ferry stopped at rocky, treeless Ios, reputedly the site of Homer’s tomb. That got Liam excited until he learned that this was not the father of Bart, but the father of Greek literature. What a barren resting place for such a fertile mind. The island used to be a pot smoking, cave dwelling hippy haunt in the 70’s but since then, according to our LPG guide, the party set had moved in. The tiny port of Ormos, where we docked, had an over-abundance of tavernas and bars as testament to that claim. The night life may have been hectic but in the glaring midday sun there were only two squinting, dishevelled lads waiting to struggle aboard with some hurriedly packed luggage. One of those train wrecks dropped a bag as he wobbled aboard, and a man on the quayside barely managed to hurl it over the top of the rising gangway, to loud cheers from the ferry passengers. | NAXOS
49: The ruined but defiantly erect Portara of a partially completed Temple of Apollo stood sentinel at the entrance to Hora’s harbour on Naxos. We disembarked to be confronted by a clamour of dolmatia owners competing for our custom from behind an iron fence. One young Adonis hurdled the barrier and claimed the laurel wreath. The 4 bed apartment at Pension Oniro for 35 Euro looked impressive in the young man’s photo album, and we were whisked away in a minivan for an inspection, as the other competitors closed in shouting terrible Greek curses at him. On the short drive our athlete conducted an enthusiastic guided tour of his compact tidy town interspersed with insistent claims that the rooms were “very nice! very clean! very close!”. Fortunately he was true to his word and we stayed, although the very fact that there was a shower curtain would have sealed the deal back at the ferry. We had one large room with comfortable beds, kitchenette, dining suite, balcony and TV. The view from our balcony overlooked a quiet street with a hint of blue sea between the buildings.
50: Naxos GREECE Julie and Neil left their weary children to have a Greek snooze while they walked the short distance to the old town centre. There was only a straggle of tourists wandering along the attractive sandstone waterfront. With a siesta in full swing it seemed an ideal opportunity to meander slowly and quietly through the Bourgos, the traditionally Greek neighbourhood. It was a close-knit conglomeration of whitewashed houses, shops, and tavernas that crowded the lower slopes and shoreline, connected by a confusion of narrow cobbled lanes. The whole area was restricted to pedestrian traffic only.
51: The Venetians occupied the island during the crusades in the 1200s, and constructed the Kastro, a heavily fortified town above the Bourgos. The massive outer walls had crumbled over time and although only one of seven towers was still standing, we still had to walk upwards through a dark tunnel to breach the defences. There was a marked architectural metamorphosis within the walls, with spacious houses, winding arched passageways, and terraced gardens. We came back to Pension Oniro to find Liam and Amy watching kids cartoons on TV “because it was the only programme in English”. The suggestion that their schoolwork was also in English evoked a predictable response.
52: Naxos GREECE Once the heat of the afternoon sun had abated we all walked down to the Bourgos, which was once again a lively centre of commerce, and bought some gyros for dinner. At sunset we crossed over a causeway to Palatia Islet for a closer inspection of the solitary Portara of the Temple of Apollo. The striking silhouette of that monolith against the setting sun would have reinforced the authenticity and authority of Greek mythology to the ancient Greeks and possibly inspired the architect’s original design. It was certainly a powerful and mystical moment for us.
53: Back in the Bourgos we met a Tasmanian couple who we had first met on Santorini, and arranged to have dinner together the following night. The next morning Julie cooked a huge breakfast and we waddled down to Agios Georgios beach for a swim. There was a stiff breeze blowing over the shallow, chilly water, so after a quick dip we dried off and headed home for an infectious Greek snooze. | NAXOS
54: Naxos GREECE We walked back into town in the late afternoon to check out the shopping and prospective restaurants. Amy was entertained by searching out all the cats in the area. Liam and Neil were entertained by discovering the most stunning blonde policewoman on the beat. Julie just kept on shopping. We met up with Peter and Eve Haros and settled on Nikos Restaurant for dinner. Peter, being Greek, negotiated with the owner to serve us a combined seafood and meat platter with a variety of salads for a reasonable 40 Euros. Peter and Eve had been visiting relatives on Kythira and were island hopping back to Athens. Liam was feeling tired and left early to head back to our room. The view from Nikos over the harbour was quite entertaining. We witnessed the police booking a car for illegal parking, a ferry arrived and left again, and a wedding party paraded by in a cavalcade of honking cars. We chatted on until 11pm which was a social norm in Greece.
55: Arriving back at our room, Liam had a tale to tell. On leaving Nikos Restaurant he had taken a wrong turn, and after travelling some distance on unfamiliar streets, finally found himself in fading light on a busy highway heading out of town. It would have been inappropriate to burst out laughing at 11:30pm and wake the whole place up but we felt like it. His caring thoughtful sister kindly reminded him of his previous faux pas in Switzerland. As his father often remarked, it was lucky for Liam that toilet cubicles only had one door. | NAXOS
56: The sunny Sunday morning weather convinced us to have a bike riding day. The local bike hire shop rustled up 4 bikes in reasonable condition for 8 Euros, although the unreasonable condition of having to surrender a passport became an impasse until the shop owner relented. It was bureaucratic overkill considering our car hire in Crete came without any such conditions. We took a southern route along the coast to Agios Prokopios, and joined a pleasant esplanade that followed sandy beaches to Agia Annou. Being Mother’s Day, we phoned Nana Benfer and Grandma Smith to learn that all was well in Australia. The beaches were not crowded due to a brisk breeze coming in off the cool sea. | NAXOS
57: Naxos GREECE The sealed roads became dirt tracks and finally at Plaka we were confronted by a flooded lane, forcing us to push along a sandy beach to Mikri Vigla for a lunch stop. An old woman appeared above the beach waving us away in an odd mixture of Greek, French, and English, muttering “bad place! robbers! murderers!” or something similar. She certainly wasn’t inviting us in for a drink. Odysseus may not have been turned aside from his odyssey merely by that old harpy’s ravings but we had no desire to test the veracity of her claims. Besides, the roads had turned to slush. We obediently retreated to Agio Anna for a relaxing coffee at a taverna that overlooked a marina crowded with colourful photogenic fishing boats.
58: From there we turned inland and met Peter and Eva Haros in a hire car. They had been warned off half the roads on Naxos by the hire company which limited their attempts to enjoy a quiet Sunday drive. With our recent experience of flooded tracks there could have been good reasons behind those restrictions. We pushed uphill between neat clusters of dairy farm buildings, breathing hard from the effort, and involuntarily sucking in the heady, nauseating aromas of pig and cow manure. At Glinado, we stopped to recover and enjoy the more fragrant views back towards Hora. We descended into the teeth of a stiff cool breeze, grateful for an easy downhill run which ensured we had returned the bikes by 6pm. We dined on meatballs in sauce with dolmades and Greek salad, washed down with a smooth local red wine for dinner. Naxos was famous for wine production and Dionysus, the Greek god of the vine, was the resident deity. We really were drinking the nectar of the Gods. | NAXOS
59: Naxos GREECE As Neil stood in the kitchenette cleaning up after the meal, a warm sensation that he had not experienced since nappy days enveloped his feet. Looking down he saw a sea of suds gliding across the tiles from under the bathroom door. Julie was washing some clothes out while having a shower and had inadvertently blocked off the waste outlet. Poseidon himself could not have turned that tide and there was blind panic as it headed for the door to the hallway and the balcony across the tiles. With Liam and Amy marooned on their beds, Neil threw everything at the deluge (towels mainly) and managed to head off an embarrassing disaster. Julie emerged from the shower with the dishevelled appearance of Medusa puzzled by all the commotion. By morning most of the water had evaporated allowing us to tiptoe around the room.
60: Naxos GREECE There had been the sounds of fireworks or gunshots during the night. It could have been those wedding revellers or perhaps it was the divorce. We decided to hire a car for the day, despite possible road restrictions. Our little red Hyundai Atos suited the narrow roads which wound into the hills behind Hora. The views along the coastline from Galanado were extensive and rewarding, despite taking a wrong turn. Climbing higher we passed through Kato Potamia, Mesi Potamia, and Ano Potamia all of which had more letters in their names than houses. We turned off into the last village and very quickly determined that the narrow lanes were not suitable for vehicular traffic, shattering the peace with a humiliating reversal into a car park. We took a quiet stroll to the main square along a footpath that followed a sparkling clear stream. An old bent lady in black was the only sign of life. The sound of gurgling water was amplified in the stillness.
62: Naxos GREECE Our next stop was Halki, a sizeable village dominated by several stone built towers. We had lunch there and visited the Vallindras Kitron Distillery established in 1896. The factory building was surprisingly small and rundown when considering the fact that we had seen ample supplies of that bottled spirit for sale in Hora. Kitron was made by soaking the crushed leaves of the citron tree in water and adding a yeast brew. Apparently the citron fruit was considered inedible. There were three classifications bottled with distinct flavours and colours. Yellow – 36% alcohol, Saffron added, dry citrus taste. Clear - 33% alcohol, Aniseed added, liquorice and citrus taste. Green - 30% alcohol, Chlorophyll (from an African plant) added, sweet citrus taste.
63: After some serious sampling, we bought a bottle and wandered around Halki to sober up. Or did we wander a bittle, and sober about to sample up, hic! We drove on to Filoti, the largest village in the area, which boasted a brand new high school built with EU money. A herd of studious goats slowed our progress but eventually they tumbled off the roadside to a ledge below us.
64: Naxos GREECE A sign to The Cave of Zeus tempted us off the mountain road onto a steep track that traversed a wide scree and ended at a narrow rock ledge. Julie and Neil continued on foot along a path that hugged the precipitous terrain to a quiet nook protected by some magnificent shade trees. The unexpected greenery was the result of a spring that bubbled out of the rocks and spilled from a stone drinking fountain before cascading down a deep ravine. Since the cave was another half hour walk further on, we stopped and satisfied ourselves with the views across a verdant valley. A small domed church sat among terraced farmland below a barren rocky crag surmounted by yet another small chapel. Apiranthos passed by below us clinging to the boulder-strewn slopes. It was a neat village of unusual stone buildings and paved streets, built in the 1700s by Cretan refugees. There was evidence of landslips, and we were delayed by some council workers clearing a major slide just beyond the village. On the road north the frequency and size of landslides became a bit concerning. At several places the bitumen on the verge was cracked and sagging, forcing us to hug the cliff faces. It was with some relief that we arrived at the quiet fishing village of Appollonas and stopped for lunch.
66: Naxos GREECE We dined on our staple diet of gyros at a tiny cafe and took a short walk up behind the village to a long abandoned marble quarry. Reclining there was a massive 10.5 metre unfinished Kouras, a marble statue of a young man. Information suggested it was meant to represent Dionysus the God of Wine, which may have explained his “stoned” state. The ambitious dimensions alone would have made transportation difficult, so it was probably a fortunate disaster when the marble cracked and the sculptors laid down their chisels. Left to the elements since the 7BC its features and scale were reminiscent of a Maoi statue from Easter Island. We continued on our circumnavigation down the west coast through wild and windswept territory past the island’s two water reservoirs. A large contingent of goats that dotted the slopes raised some concerns about Naxos’ potable water supply. Perhaps since feta figured in so much Greek cuisine, a hint of goat in tap water would go unnoticed. As the sun was still high in the sky, we drove around Hora via Galanado and south towards Alyko. The road gradually disintegrated into an overgrown muddy track that our little Atos would not have survived. We turned off at Kastraki and stopped to cool our feet at a quiet sandy beach. After returning the car and relaxing back at Pension Oniro, Liam suddenly realised his wallet was missing. That caused a wave of panicked searching to no avail.
67: Neil walked back to the car rental office across the street where our car was still being cleaned. Fortunately the wallet was found on the back seat. After that adrenalin rush we settled down quietly to a simple pasta meal from our own kitchenette and a relaxing bottle of Naxian Nectar. Greek television redeemed itself that night by screening Notting Hill in English.
68: Naxos GREECE The following day flowed slowly by like Naxian honey. Amy sailed serenely into some science schoolwork and Liam was piloted carefully through some Maths by his father. It was a very Greek paced day with an afternoon snooze and a late stroll into the Bourgos for our daily dose of gyros. We bought ferry tickets for a crossing to Paros and went home to watch a strange B-grade American movie starring Kris Kristofferson. It involved the unlikely combination of ballroom dancing and deep sea fishing and might as well have been in Greek, for it made little sense in English. We left Naxos the next day in a relaxed mood. The island had grown on us and would be included in some future itinerary. When Theseus killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth on Crete he fled to Naxos with Ariadne, King Minos’s daughter, who had fallen in love with him. Theseus mysteriously deserted Ariadne on Naxos and scholars have spent centuries debating that ignoble behaviour. It was possible that Ariadne, like us, just didn’t want to leave.
70: Paros GREECE The crossing to Paros took less than an hour and we disembarked at Parikia around 11am. There was the usual swarm of dolmatia drones buzzing for our attention. One man sporting a striking pink shirt with an uncanny resemblance to Sid James caught our attention. In a raucous voice he extolled the virtues of his establishment and offered us a lift to his “very good, very close rooms”. Fortunately it was only a short distance away, for the transport was a battered old Fiat coupe that was never designed to carry 5 people with luggage. It was an omen of things to come. Sid owned a hotel and the first room he showed us overlooked road works where the growl of a cement mixer drowned out any conversation. | PAROS
71: Sunlight streamed in through shutterless French windows and the toilet flooded the bathroom. It was classic Faulty Towers material. Undeterred, Mr. James showed us another room at the back of the building that was at least quieter and not so sunny. We took that room but the shower recess didn’t have a hob (crucial information when travelling with Julie) and one power point hung menacingly out of the wall. The French windows had shutters, but wouldn’t shut until a bottle top was extracted from the ledge, some butter was applied to the hinges, and all screws were tightened with Neil’s Leatherman. The view was not expansive due to adjacent buildings but there was some beach scenery extending across Parikia Bay to a low sparsely populated headland.
72: Paros GREECE Liam dedicated his time to sorting out the TV. There was promise of 9 channels but only 5 could be found and the reception was best with the set positioned near the front door. At least the air conditioner worked. Sid materialised with some cooking gear. There was a hot plate and a ridiculous little aluminium pot sporting an oversized handle for boiling water. Unless full of water it would topple over under the weight of the handle, spilling hot water everywhere. It was a timely reminder of that old Trojan saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. We could only laugh, but it was a treacherous little device. | PAROS
73: It was overpriced at 35 Euros and did not compare favourably with any of our previous accommodation with the exception of the Athens Youth Hostel which was definitely not a compliment. Our first impressions of Paros were marred by that experience but after a walk into the cobbled pedestrian laneways lined with small shops and tavernas behind the Agora our demeanour improved. Parikia had many similarities to Hora (Naxos) although the Kastro was smaller and in decay.
74: Paros GREECE Amy fell ill that night, complaining of stomach pains and a headache. During the early hours she woke crying in pain, and Julie being a caring mother called out "Come here darling and have a cuddle". Amy struggled out of bed, but in those few microseconds Julie had fallen back to sleep leaving Nurse Neil to tend the patient. Amy was still feeling a bit fragile in the morning and Neil was in need of a strong coffee so we decided on an easy bus trip to Naoussa. The bus lumbered along crowded with both tourists and locals, but it was a pretty countryside drive and we were in no particular hurry. Paros provided the world with some of its finest marble. The Venus De Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were sculpted from Parian marble and the island must have been a hive of activity in ancient times, very different from the sleepy bucolic landscape that passed slowly by.
75: Naoussa was a quiet fishing village situated in a wide protected bay on the north coast. A fleet of blue and white caiques festooned with yellow fishing nets was moored in the harbour. The village had some quiet laneways bristling with craft and clothing shops plus a good selection of eateries. We ate grilled octopus and Greek salad at a quiet taverna and sipped complimentary life restoring Greek coffee. We joined a crowd of people at the bus stop for the return journey to Parikia. Suddenly a young American girl on a hired Vespa scooter swerved dangerously close to Amy and then lurched across the street. In an attempt to rein in her Italian stallion she fell over the machine, jammed her hand on the accelerator lever and launched it headlong into a middle-aged lady. The poor woman fell heavily and the young girl became quite hysterical. A serious young official took down notes, but by the time the bus left the lady was on her feet and the situation seemed a lot calmer.
76: Paros GREECE The bus ambled back to Parikia and put us all in the mood for a good Greek lie-down. We chatted over the balcony with two girls from the next room and learned that one was an Australian heading for London. We were keen to find out any news on SARS but they couldn’t enlighten us. Downtown we read a newspaper report indicating Russia had closed its Asian borders. It was time to re-assess our plans and consider alternatives such as Singapore. We wandered around the Kastro in the cool of the evening. It seemed plausible by the intriguing geometric shapes protruding from the ramparts that its construction coincided with the ultimate demise of some ancient temple on the island. Despite our interest in Parikia’s Kastro, Amy’s interest in her own gastro became a higher priority and it was decided to turn in early. Mosquitoes made an unwelcome appearance, but the time spent on window repairs earlier paid dividends, and Sid’s air-conditioner growled through the night.
78: Poros GREECE The weather was still fine in the morning. We caught an uncrowded bus to Pounta and then a ferry across to Antiparos. The narrow lanes of Antiparos village ensured motorised transport did not disturb the peaceful atmosphere there but the Venetian Kastro built in 1400 was a silent monument to a very violent past. The island had been occupied by Germans, Italians, Turks, Russians, and pirates down through the centuries and was the scene of a bloody massacre in the 1800s. | ANTIPOROS
79: The only invaders we encountered were a scattered straggle of tourists leaving us to wander alone through the winding alleys hemmed in by crowded rows of traditional blue-trimmed whitewashed houses. Greek housepainters lived busy but uncomplicated lives. The ever present menagerie of cats lazed about on porches and stairways, eyes closed against the dazzling whiteness of their environs. In a neat little square a solitary tree brought some green relief but even its trunk had fallen victim to the whitewash brush.
80: Paros GREECE The heat drove us to a shady beach and despite the cold water, Amy, Liam, and Neil enjoyed a quick mind-numbing swim. Julie was suffering from dry eyes and was content to paddle about and snooze under a tree in true Greek style. We lunched as the sole patrons of a small taverna on souvlaki hot pot and caught a boat back to the mainland. The boat was late leaving Antiparos and before we came alongside the pier at Pounta our connecting bus to Parikia drove off.
81: As that was the last scheduled bus for the day we had no option but to walk the 6km home, much to Liam’s disgust. It was a hot walk on a narrow road but fortunately there was little traffic. Near Parikia the route took us along a shady esplanade where Neil could not resist the temptation to surreptitiously photograph an old woman dressed in black seated under a tree. The shot was taken blindly from the hip but the result was an artistic triumph (according to the photographer). Unfortunately, the subject tumbled to the ruse and became quite agitated, causing us to quicken our pace.
82: Paros GREECE We shopped at a small supermarket for dinner and bought a bottle of retsina. To the uninitiated, retsina tasted like house paint, which was confirmed by Liam and Amy. Julie and Neil on the other hand found it quite drinkable due to long years of practice and fond memories from their 1984 sojourn. As it was our last night at Hotel Sid, we bequeathed our little Trojan pot to the two girls in the next room, with a detailed set of instructions on how to boil water (safely). Paros was a quiet interlude in our schedule that gave Amy and Julie time to recuperate a little. In the morning we packed, made our way to the harbour, and waited with a motley crowd for a jet boat ride to Mykonos.
83: It took less than one hour to make the crossing. Hordes of noisy young travellers thronged the gangway but their progress was steadied by an even noisier group of touts on the quayside. A young girl emerged from the melee to show us a brochure of some rooms at Agios Stefanos, a village 4km north along the coast from Mykonos Hora. According to our LPG, Mykonos had a party island reputation and the mood of our fellow passengers backed up this claim. With that in mind, accommodation somewhat removed from the nightlife epicentre seemed a sensible choice. We accepted the offer and climbed into her mother’s minivan.
84: Mykonos GREECE The room was part of a typical whitewashed blue trimmed villa with 4 single beds and a standard Greek toilet bathroom combo (no shower curtain, but an all important hob). The complex was situated on a grassy slope above a sheltered cove and the views from the private swimming pool deck were sublime. Below was a beach with a neat array of white umbrellas and white deck chairs outnumbering a scattering of semi-naked bronzed sunbathers. On the headland beyond the cove an extensive building project was underway. Our quiet hideaway was headed for some serious development. We found a nearby minimart and bought some groceries before catching a bus back to Mykonos Hora. The town was the usual whitewashed tangle of buildings but lacked the atmosphere of Naxos, Paros, Xania or Santorini.
85: The crowds of young people disturbed the serenity of its backstreets although Amy still managed to locate a number of cats lolling on balconies unperturbed by the commotion. The Venetian influenced architecture with balconies overhanging the streets and waterfronts was intriguing. We climbed a low dusty hill to inspect the row of iconic windmills that featured in any brochure promoting Mykonos. From behind they resembled a Beatles line-up with their mop-top thatched roofs. There were quite a few windmills dotting the landscape on the island. Another oddity we encountered was a pelican ambling along an alleyway quite at home among the crowds of shoppers. There were apparently 3 regular mascots in the town, replacing the original bird named Petros, which lived there from 1958 to 1986.
86: The many faces of
88: Mykonos GREECE We returned to Agios Stefanos by bus and took a quick dip in the pool. The weather had been hot during the day and a swim was welcome but after sundown the wind started to pick up. Mykonos was the alleged battleground upon which Zeus and the Olympians overthrew his father Cronus and the Titans. The tempest that raged through the night resembled a rematch of that ancient contest. The wind maintained its fury from the north all the next day and it convinced us not to venture too far. The beach was deserted and all the umbrellas were either taken in or well on their way to Africa. Walking in a straight line was impossible. The LPG explained that those cold dry winds were called the Meltemi and descended on the Cyclades annually from mid-May to mid-September. They were very punctual that year! It certainly explained the abundance of windmills we saw there.
89: As if to pre-empt the outcome of Zeus’ struggle outside, we watched a Greek B-grade TV version of "The Twelve Labours of Heracles". Zeus’ favourite son was born after his ascension to the top job. It was doubtful if even Heracles could have maintained a steady bearing in that wind. We sailed down the street for dinner, content to watch the wild weather in the bay from the cosy comfort of a warm taverna. Amy and Neil ordered Mykonos sausage and Greek salad, Julie ordered stuffed pork, and Liam ordered stuffed hamburger that nearly stuffed him.
90: Mykonos GREECE The next morning Zeus and Cronus were still at it, going hammer and tong. The new ferry terminal was situated 2km back towards Mykonos Hora and the “mother of the villa” drove us there to board our high speed catamaran bound for Piraeus. There were no buildings to shelter in at the new terminal and we all suffered 1.5 hours of windburn, sunburn, and burning impatience before the indifferent crew allowed us to board. Mykonos had not left us with many good impressions but over time, just like our crimson skin, the pain subsided.
91: The jet boat laboured harder than Heracles on its way north into the teeth of the Meltemi. We shared a large dining booth with a couple of bling laden Greek lads who spent the entire journey playing games on their mobiles and babbling incessantly to each other. Odysseus was lashed to the mast of his ship and had the crew’s ears plugged with wax to resist the seductive singing of the sirens, but even if those pretty boys had kept quiet long enough to hear them it was doubtful they would have been interested in sirens on any level. The entrance to the Great Harbour at Piraeus was flanked by an anchored flotilla of rusting hulks. Greece had the largest merchant fleet in the world, although including all those corroded carcasses in the count would have been fudging the figures somewhat.
92: Athens GREECE Piraeus was tidier and less chaotic than on our departure two weeks earlier. As with Iraklio, we may have judged her too harshly, for the soft evening light was quite flattering to the old port’s facade. We caught a Metro train into Ominia Square and made our way to the Novotel. Our room on the 4th floor was spacious and the bathroom had a shower curtain. Unfortunately, on the sill below the open bathroom window was a fetid pigeon roost. A suffocating birdcage aroma pervaded the room. While the rest of the world was agonising over the spreading SARS pandemic, Greece (or more precisely the Athens Novotel) was about to add Avian Flu into the mix from its own little H5N1 hothouse. We shut the window but it took an age for the air-conditioner to cool and sweeten the air. Neil attempted to frighten the birds away with a hairdryer. That produced some raucous amusement for Liam and Amy, but had only a short-lived effect on the pigeon population. A cup of coffee would have been a good way to settle us down after all that excitement but incredibly the hotel made no provision for such outlandish luxuries. The manager was obviously from Sparta. Being only five years old, the Novotel was already showing early signs of neglect. The dismal view over the rooves of the dishevelled and crumbling neighbourhood seemed to forecast its fate.
94: Athens GREECE The next morning we set out to find an internet cafe and learnt that SARS was starting to close off our options for continuing on to China. Singapore was emerging as the safest Asian destination. The weather was quite warm but after our habitual midday siesta we took an afternoon stroll down Stadiou Avenue and across Syntagma Square to watch the Presidential Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Hellenic Parliament building. The odd spectacle of soldiers parading in short skirts with pom-poms on their shoes belied the fact that Greeks displayed a fierce nationalistic fervour when threatened with invasion. We retired to the cool green sanctuary of the National Garden behind the Parliament building. It was a welcome respite from the clamour and concrete, a maze of shady gravel paths meandering through a green tangle of trees and bushes. King Alexander of Greece was bitten by a monkey while wandering there in 1920 and died of sepsis 2 weeks later. Nothing so drastic befell Amy but she was “bitten” by a scheming old woman who took her photo and then demanded 11 Euros. Neil responded with a reply in a universal language that seemed to have the desired effect. Nobody died so it was a better outcome.
95: Beyond the garden was the Panathenaic Stadium, the white marble arena used for the inaugural Modern Olympics in 1896. It was being refurbished for the 2004 games and hence off limits to visitors. However, Julie managed a close and quite lewd inspection of a naked bronze discus thrower statue that required neither reconstruction nor refurbishment. Turning back towards the Acropolis we passed by the remnants of Hadrian’s Arch enveloped in scaffolding, presumably another Olympic makeover. The colossal columns of the ruined Temple of Zeus rose out of a grassy concourse behind the arch. The temple was begun in the 6th century BC and took 638 years to complete, affording Neil good reason to claim complete absolution for coming on the trip before finishing off our house.
97: Athens GREECE We entered the Plaka nestled under the Acropolis, the old Turkish area that was the heart of Athens in the 1800s. The narrow streets and proliferation of open fronted shops were reminiscent of many island towns but more ramshackle and time worn. As we passed through a crowded food market, an Asian street trader caused a small wave of panic by having a violent sneezing attack. With SARS on the doorstep that was a worrying development. The nearby meat market was cause for more alarm. Every organ and appendage of animal anatomy was on sale there in all its unrefrigerated fly-covered glory. We opted to seek out a supermarket for some groceries.
98: Athens GREECE Ominia Square was pigeon paradise. The flagstones were covered by a grey, bobbing, warbling mass of birds, and more squadrons swooped and circled overhead. It looked like an audition for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Neil now realised his window sill campaign at the hotel was a lost cause. Oddly, those creatures were not roosting or leaving poo trails on a nearby life sized marble statue of Pericles who was considered the “first citizen of Athens” and commissioned many buildings on the Acropolis. He was a leading democrat, orator, and general of Athens for 32 years from 461 BC to 429 BC. They may not have known him personally but those pigeons seemed to be demonstrating respectful restraint in his honour. Unfortunately everything else within range was fair game including us.
99: Liam went for a swim in the rooftop pool of the Novotel when we got back and was impressed by the good views of the Acropolis from up there, which lifted our hotel approval rating from a black hole to one star. On the BBC World News that evening we learned about the Indonesian crackdown in Aceh, and suicide bombings in Saudi and Israel, but nothing new about SARS despite our potential infection in the market earlier. The next morning we emailed our travel agent to cancel the China/Russia leg and book flights to Singapore. There was a sense of disappointment but also relief. SARS had dogged our plans for months and now at least we had some certainty, trusting our well being to the super sanitary Singaporeans.
100: Athens GREECE We walked to the Acropolis in warm, smoggy sunshine. A dry dusty track led upwards through a grove of mimosa to the entrance at the Beule Gate. Beyond was the Propylaia, another ornamental gate, through which we emerged onto a rubble-strewn plateau and stood before the magnificent Parthenon. Despite the bristling scaffolding and the din of renovation activity emanating from within, history haunted our every footstep. The other lesser buildings such the Erechtheion and the Temple of Athena Nike had their own unique features such as friezes and sculptures to admire although the whole site had suffered much from earthquakes and vandalism at the hands of Lord Elgin, the Turks, and the Venetians.
101: There was an exact replica of the Parthenon in Nashville Tennessee that displayed the early Greeks complex knowledge of architectural design but thankfully the Americans did not remove any relics from the original building for its construction. For us, standing amongst those broken buildings, the argument for returning the Elgin Marbles from the sterility of the British Museum to that sacred site was very compelling.
102: Athens GREECE The museum on site housed a collection of surviving artwork salvaged from the ruins. The perfection of marble and bronze sculpture on display was testament to the skills of the ancient Greek artisans and their major influence on Art down through the ages. Our descent from the ancient acropolis to the modern metropolis saw a loss of altitude but a gain in lassitude as we confronted the grimy streets of modern Athens again. By comparison the Acropolis had survived the ravages of time with much more finesse.
104: Athens GREECE Before leaving the Plaka we visited the Agora, an ancient ruined marketplace preserved in parkland. Among the ruins was another surprise example of American philanthropy. The Stoa of Attalos had been fully and faithfully restored with donations from the Rockefeller family and we wandered along an imposing marbled colonnade that fronted a long row of rooms under a ceiling of polished timber beams and a terra cotta tiled roof. Despite some misgivings about interfering with historic ruins, the project had breathed life back into an integral part of ancient Athenian daily existence. Modern Athens could also benefit from such a generous cash injection. Similarly to the islands, small packs of feral dogs roamed the city freely. We gained the undivided attention of one scrawny mustard coloured mutt, who wagged his tail and decided to adopt us.
105: From the Plaka, through Monastiraki, and along Athinas Avenue he remained resolute in his determination to follow us home. Entering Omonia Square, Neil spied an escalator to a subway and ushered us on, leaving our clinging canine stranded. Crossing under the square we emerged back onto the street level and arrived at the Novotel dog tired but fortunately not dog tied. On the TV news that night was a report of an earthquake on the Algerian coast. The death toll was in the thousands and whole cities had been destroyed. Along with our fresh images of the Santorini caldera and the Acropolis ruins it brought home to us the vulnerability of the region to natural disasters.
106: Athens GREECE The following day Amy and Julie spent a frustrating few hours trawling through internet cafes in an attempt to get email access for confirmation of our flight bookings. Eventually we got reports that a major optic fibre cable to Spain had been damaged by the Algerian earthquake which was causing massive congestion issues for Greek internet providers. Julie finally resorted to faxing a message to our travel agent. We took a metro train on the Kifissia line to inspect the progress of the Olympic stadium construction. The journey took us deep into suburban Athens through a jumbled jungle of depressing identical concrete multi-story apartment buildings. Some positive signs were a lessening of the grime and a sense of order on the streets. The train by passed the Stadium station stop as it was out of bounds to the general public. Apart from a solitary cement truck and one listless crane there was very little industrious activity to mark that site as the showcase venue for the games due in a little over 12 months time. It was yet another example of lethargic indifference that threatened to sabotage the Greeks in their finest hour.
107: On our second last day in Athens, Apollo, the sun god, abandoned us. It rained quite heavily. The streets ran with a murky sludge washed down off the dusty buildings, stranding us on a narrow footpath in a shop doorway. Speculating on the possible range of deadly diseases borne by that deluge, we stayed put until it passed. We had become regulars at a local laundry and actually extracted a gold toothed smile from the grumpy old attendant. The wet weather was probably good for her business. As the internet was still unavailable, we resorted to finalising our BA flight bookings to Singapore by fax. The taxi ride to the airport was much cheaper than the fare we were charged on arrival. The driver was not very communicative but at least he was honest. Neil calculated we must have paid 5 Euros extra for every “Welcome to Athens” on the inbound ride. We had one last battle with bureaucracy at the airport. The BA office was not officially open and it seemed we should have had our tickets processed at the city office. Fortunately an off-duty staff member took it upon himself to help us out and after 2 hours of phone calls he proudly produced our tickets. Greece on a tight schedule would be a nightmare. Our 24 day Greek odyssey was over. The gods smiled on us for most of that time and the islands won us over. Even grimy old Athens gave us cause to reflect on Greece’s role in shaping the modern world’s Art, Philosophy, and Politics. The Olympics would be a big challenge but if the pace slackened and the ouzo flowed, a few cups of that strong Greek coffee was guaranteed to get things moving again.
108: Singapore SINGAPORE The conditions of our round-the world ticket restricted us to using affiliated One World airlines. From Athens to Singapore our only choice was British Airways flights via London. It was for that reason that we endured a 4 hour flight north-west to Heathrow, a 12 hour wait at the terminal, and a 13 hour marathon journey south-east to Singapore. We were all very restless towards the end. Even Liam finally succumbed to all the junk food he had been scoffing and filled a sick bag. The movie offering on the last leg was “Catch Me If You Can” which only gave us a double dose of flying to cope with. Amy had developed an in-flight sniffle and sore throat but fortunately we all passed through the stringent SARS checks at Changi Airport without a hitch. | The limousine taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Park View Hotel through clean, green and orderly streets was a smooth, nostalgic left-hand side drive, unhindered by traffic snarls or honking motorists.
109: Our driver politely pointed out places of interest in an unassuming, quiet manner. That small journey had a very calming influence on us and presented the best possible introduction to the next 5 days. The foyer of the hotel was lavishly furnished with ornately carved upholstered chairs and divans, marble bench-tops and malachite tables. It was lit by the rich golden glow of two massive chandeliers hanging from a high intricately carved plaster ceiling. | All they wanted was a shower and a sleep. After Greece those bathroom facilities were the stuff of dreams. The piece de resistance were the faux gold-plated taps! | We were excited and hadn’t even seen our room yet. The hotel was built around a central atrium which presented every guest with a light and airy pathway to their door. Our room had only two large double beds but Amy and Liam were too tired to find fault in that.
110: Singapore SINGAPORE Julie and Neil took a short walk along Orchard Road soaking up the warm humid atmosphere and enjoying the crime-free environment that Singapore provided, even so late at night. Our body clocks played havoc with us the next day resulting in a rise at midday and one quick shopping sortie to buy an extra memory card, card reader, and battery for our overworked camera. Every store had sale banners festooning the footpaths but the prices were not that alluring. By 7pm we were flagging and ready for more sleep. At 2am we were all wide awake again! Liam, Amy and Neil watched a Discovery Channel programme on Troy. It seemed difficult to get Greece out of our systems. Incredibly Julie was very quickly lulled back to sleep like a bear disturbed during hibernation!
111: Everyone was wide awake again by midday. We sauntered down Orchard Road and crossed busy Fort Canning Road, to the leafy refuge of Fort Canning Park. Beyond the parkland we skirted around the grounds of the whitewashed colonial edifice of old Parliament House and followed the banks of the Singapore River past an animated collection of brass statuary portraying scenes of life on the waterfront from a bygone era. One of the works depicted five naked laughing boys in the act of leaping from the wharf into the water. The fact that they were very obviously boys seemed at odds with Singapore’s staid sense of modesty and decorum.
112: Singapore SINGAPORE Across a causeway the solid broad profile of the Fullerton Hotel held its own against an army of modern gleaming towers and still spoke of wealth and power. On the hotel promenade facing Marina Bay an imposing Merlion statue stood sentry, guarding the harbour and gushing gallons of foaming water from its gaping jaws. That was the only example of public spitting officially condoned by the Singaporean authorities. A scattered flotilla of sampans, launches, and ferries in the bay belied the fact that Singapore was the fifth busiest port in the world. The industrial port was neatly tucked away out of sight of the city centre.
113: We fended off a very insistent boat cruise tout and hailed a water taxi for a trip upriver to Riverside Point. The taxi was known locally as a Bumboat and could take up to 20 passengers, but there were only 4 bums on ours. Singapore was still suffering a tourist downturn due to SARS which peaked there in March and April. There seemed reluctance by tourists to visit despite the fact that the strict hygiene laws had enabled the city to get the epidemic by the throat, unlike its Asian neighbours where SARS still had them by the throat quite literally. The stone walled banks along that section of the river were flanked by a colourful parade of low storey apartments and alfresco restaurants painted in bright yellows, blues, reds and pinks that would not have looked out of place on the beaches of the Mediterranean.
115: Singapore SINGAPORE Confident in the knowledge that SARS posed no danger to us, we strode off down New Bridge Road and at Upper Cross Street reached the heart of Chinatown. Despite some demolition activity creating a messy facade we soon found ourselves in narrow alleys crowded with tiny shopfronts and eating houses. The air was heavy with unfamiliar spicy aromas but the streets were fastidiously clean despite some obvious poverty. We chose a chicken and rice meal from a pictographic menu in a basement eatery and sat conspicuously among a throng of noisy local patrons on their lunch breaks. | There were very few Westerners to be seen anywhere so in the midst of those totally oriental environs it seemed improbable that we would come across a Neil Road and then a Smith Street.
116: Singapore SINGAPORE The technicolour Sri Mariamman Hindu temple in Pagoda Street topped by a totem-like writhing mass of carved figures reminiscent of a Bollywood movie set, was a loud reminder of the large Indian population in that country. We took a conventional taxi back to Orchard Road. The Wisma Atria shopping mall on 5 levels was a prime example of Singapore’s heavy reliance on tourism for survival. | There was not a large volume of shoppers and the shop assistants’ anxious faces betrayed their concerns. We bought some savoury pastries for dinner and then opted for a swim in the hotel pool to cool off. The average all year round daily temperature in Singapore was 23-30 C which was similar to a Cairns summer but after 6 months of cool European weather we were feeling the heat. Our bed time viewing that night was a programme on SARS which simply reinforced our decision to cut short our China/Russia leg.
118: Singapore SINGAPORE The following day after a slow morning spent shopping for some cheap summer clothes to cope with the tropical weather, we took a Metro train to Tanah Merah and then a bus onwards to Changi Prison Museum. The drive through peaceful immaculately maintained boulevards lined with stylish houses and neat 3 storey tenement clusters was a surreal comparison to the chaotic and brutal spectre Changi 1942 conjured up in our minds. | The museum had been relocated 1km off site but still retained the sombre atmosphere of a dark place filled with sadness and suffering. Our museum guide was a turbaned Sikh retiree who delivered a fascinating oratory in a booming voice, describing events from a unique Sikh perspective. Sikhs were conscripted from the captured Indian National Army by the Japanese to work as prison guards. Our guide made a valiant attempt to justify the change of loyalties, ignoring their reputation for being “over zealous” gaolers.
119: He did make a valid point concerning the unacknowledged plight of Malay, Chinese, and Indian POW’s who comprised a large section of Changi’s inmates. Most of the recorded history in the museum was dedicated to British, Dutch, and Australian POWs. Relics such as diaries, sketches, murals, and handcrafted artefacts told a tale of great hardship and endurance in dealing with the Japanese psyche that regarded death more desirable than surrender. | A reconstruction of a chapel built by the POWs complete with altar ornaments and a crucifix fashioned from artillery shells helped to explain the self discipline those men and women embraced to carry them through a very trying time. The museum exit took us through an unlit narrow corridor dimensioned to simulate prison cells with a progression of actual POWs voice recordings describing punishments meted out by the Japanese. It was a haunting memento. In WW2 the cost of escape from there was death, but our price was only a taxi fare and a train ticket.
120: Singapore SINGAPORE We went past the Raffles Hotel on the way back to our hotel but weren’t appropriately attired to satisfy that establishment’s dress code. It probably saved our house. That theoretical monetary gain was immediately converted into liquid assets by Julie in a jewellery store at which time it finally dawned on Neil that her birthday was the next day. It probably saved a marriage. On the TV news that night it was announced that Russia had confirmed its first SARS case near the Chinese border. Naturally we felt concern for Lydia but also great relief for ourselves not having to face quarantine detention at some lonely border post in Inner Mongolia.
121: For her birthday Julie chose a day at the Jurong Bird Park. Now that SARS was deemed not to be an immediate danger, a day contending with the risk of Avian flu did not faze us, especially since we had survived contamination by pigeons at the Novotel in Athens. The complex comprised free-flight aviaries with treetop walks and traditional caged areas covering a massive 50 acres. The variety of birdlife ranged from tropical toucans, macaws, hornbills, and flamingos to not so tropical penguins. We sat with a straggle of visitors and watched a Birds of Prey show, and a cockatoo circus where one cocky performer sang “Happy Birthday” to Julie in a voice that would have made Joe Cocker jealous.
122: Singapore SINGAPORE A huge hornbill in a classic pose among the foliage at the back of its cage was so alluring with its blue eye-shadow and yellow striped bill, that Neil positioned our $1000 digital camera between the cage bars for a photograph. In a mercurial dash the bird spied the infra-red focus light and swooped forward to snatch the luminous “bug”, neatly denting the metal case of the camera with its huge scythe-like beak. That bird had an enormous bill, but we almost had a bigger one for the camera.
124: Singapore SINGAPORE Incredibly we managed to fit in a little more shopping on the way back to the hotel but that form of entertainment had run its last race. On the TV news we learned that Lima had suffered its fourth earthquake in as many days and some lunatic had attacked and injured two Australian Airlines hostesses with sharpened sticks. It seemed that we were safer there in Singapore. Our last day in Singapore marked the start of the Great Singapore Sale which ran for a month. Sadly there were very few tourists present for its launch. It made walking the streets quite hazardous as desperate touts would attempt to shepherd people into shops like spiders gathering insects into webs. So ended our Singapore sojourn. That tiny archipelago of law and order amidst a broiling sea of oriental chaos was the legacy of its principal architect, Lee Kuan Yew, although whether the majority of 4 million Chinese, Malay, and Indian citizens agreed with his strict penal code was a moot point. It could be said that as visitors we enjoyed a restful 5 days at their expense. | We took a taxi to the airport in the afternoon and spent our last few hours wandering around the transit terminal catching up on emails and people watching. Passengers arriving from Taipei and Hong Kong, conspicuous by their SARS facemasks, filed past babbling in muffled sing-song conversation.
125: A few intrepid Western travellers drifted through the duty-free shops, but the majority of fellow passengers boarding the 747-400 to Brisbane were of Indian extract making us double check our boarding passes. Arrival in Brisbane at 8am marked a quiet end to an otherwise eventful overseas odyssey that took the four of us around the globe. Despite the disappointment and disruption SARS caused us, our 178 day journey was a kaleidoscope of memories that would shine on and light the way for new ventures. Russia still beckoned! | Back in Australia - biding our time on the Sunshine Coast with Nana and Poppy Benfer