Sunday, June 5, 2016

Part 2: Greek Island Hopping, an Aegean Sea Cruise

For the second part of our trip, we booked a 7 day Aegean sea cruise on the Celestyal Crystal cruise line. Unlike the massive, mega luxurious ships sailing through the Caribbean sea, this ship was a small and more agile for navigating through the shallow waters of Aegean sea and the small ports of the various Greek islands. The ship had approximately 450 staterooms to support 1200 people. The ship was comfortable, had buffet style food service as well as ala-carte restaurants, daily evening entertainment and all modern conveniences. The ship is more like a 3-4 star hotel. The cruise itinerary was port intensive. During the 7 day trip we visited the 10 ports listed in the order below. One of the fun things we did on each island was to look for the traditional Loukoumades.

Mykonos, Greece - A small island with narrow, whitewashed streets,  clustered cubicle houses with their tiny balconies and colored doors and windows. Tiny gardens, windows sills and streets lined by bougainvillea. Numerous little churches and chapels dot every corner. Looking up on the hill are the island's distinguishing and famous landmarks, the Mykonos windmills. Mykonos is beautiful, lively, lots of restaurants right by the waterfront. The streets are not only narrow but also very confusing. It
seems the pattern of the streets was intentionally designed without a pattern to confuse the pirates in the years past. As you walk around the labyrinth of these little streets, the aura of Mykonos is unmistakable.

Kusadasi, Turkey - Kusadasi is a Turkish port in the aegean sea. The day long stop allowed us to  visit the ancient city of Ephesus, a popular destination for tourists visiting this harbor town and on mediterranean cruise. By car it takes approximately 30-40 mins from Kusadasi. The trip takes you through a fertile valley of fields and orchards.
Marble road - Ephesus

Celsus Library - Ephesus

Ephesus' greatest claim to fame was its temple to the goddess Artemis. It is one of the "seven wonders" of the ancient world, and is claimed to be four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

There is much of the settlement left to show the deep history and the splendor this settlement must have been. Two things struck me most about this settlement. One, was the marble road, the main road through the middle of Ephesus and being awed at how prosperous this ancient city must have been. The columns, the art, the science (of water flow and medicine) as evident in various artifacts excavated, all indicate the importance and prosperity of this city. Two, the public bath and toilets. The ancient city is one of the earliest constructions of public bath houses and public toilets using water to clean the sewer system.

Samos, Greece - I don't remember much about this island. But all greek islands are beautiful. Samos is one of the low key, off the beaten path island. 

Milos, Greece - The island of dramatic rock formations. Milos has the most extraordinary rock formations we saw at any of the islands due to its volcanic past. if you have ever seen pictures of boat houses right on the sea with brightly painted doors and the living quarters on the upper floors, that is the picture of the village of Kilma on the Milos island. After docking at the port, we rented a private minivan. The van took us to Kilma (village with the colorful boat houses), to the pumice rock formations at Sarakiniko and the blue sulfuric water at Papafragas. 
Boat houses
Rock formations

Syros, Greece - This is one of the off-the beaten path islands. There was nothing remarkable about the island, except that it was beautiful and quaint. 

Cesme, Turkey - Cosme is a resort town of Turkey along the Aegean sea. It is a popular sun and surf town. We chose to sped our day in this town by the beach, our first this whole trip. The sun was high, the water was warm and kids had a great time. We caught a cab and drove about 10 mins to a beach further out from the city, a beach recommended by the cab driver. The area seems to have many popular beaches.

Kos, Greece - is one of the larger islands close to Turkey. The ship ports in Kos Town. The first thing we noticed as we got off the cruise ship were the masses of refugees. The port, the parks, and the streets close to the port were full of refugees sitting, sleeping, and eating. Volunteers from ARC distributing tents for shelter, water etc. Families children sleeping on little mats on the street or any patch of green they could find. The locals were complaining about theft and violence with the onset of refugees. We probably were the first batch of tourists to greek islands who saw the refugees coming in droves from the shores of Turkey into Greece and its real impact on the local greeks. The combination of refugee crisis and the austerity measures being enforced in Greece leading to the high cost of daily necessities (food and water). 

At the entrance to the port is an ancient castle (castle of Knights of the order of Saint John). Right outside the castle is the site of the Hippocrates Tree. It is said that the father of modern medicine (Hippocrates) lectured his students under the shade of this tree. The tree is not marked, but it does have low stone fence around it. We hopped on a little tourist train that for 8 Euro per person gave a small tour of the Kos town. From the water front area (port), it goes until Asclepion and back. Asclepion is the site of an ancient hospital/sanatorium called Asklepeio, a ruin surrounded by cypress trees. It is believed that Hippocrates was a student here. 

Ios, Greece - is known as the International party lsland that supersedes all spring break locations in the U.S. Since we were traveling with the cruise ship, we never saw the partying side of the island. But what we did see was a typical port village, with cafes and restaurants lining the main square. We saw a lot of college age kids seemingly backpacking through the island hanging out at Starbucks eating croissants. We walked a little bit along the harbor and saw the typical white geometric houses with blue domes lining the hillside. The locals and the travel books will tell you that as the sun goes down, these little white houses open their doors and become clubs, discos and bars. All the young people lounge by the beaches in day time and disco until the early morning hours at night time.

Santorini, Greece - When people think of Greek Islands, they are thinking of Santorini.  It was by far the most beautiful and spectacular though cliched island. The beauty of Santorini was formed by volcanic action that submerged all ancient parts of the island, and created a large volcano crater filled with sea water. A caldera deep enough for cruise ships to anchor and sail. This is the island that all paintings and picture postcards showcase, the azure blue waters, white geometrical houses, and the churches with blue domes. It is a dessert island and other than rain there is only a single source of fresh water. From the port, you take a bus that takes you to Oia. Oia is a small village with a huge traffic of tourists, narrow cobbled paths between touristy shops of painting, trinkets, bards and restaurants. The dramatic views from Oia is overshadowed only by the stunning sunset views. 

Santorini vs Mykonos
Santorini has stunning scenery, natural beauty, sunsets, fine dining, wineries, boutique hotels, boat tours of nearby islands, and volcanoes. Beaches are kinda far (have to go way down to get to a beach)

Mykonos has easy access to beaches, nightclubs, dancing, and partying, fun times wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets.

if you see any of the greek island postcards, paintings and any other form of art, they all show whitewashed houses, narrow lanes, prominent blue colored dome or shutters, churches and chapels and island windmills. Each of the islands we visited had all of the above but each island also had a few distinguishing feature; the caldera on Santorini, the boat houses on Milos, the windmills of Mykonos and so forth. While Island hopping gave us a great flavor of the various greek islands, we did miss out on the night life, on visiting the beaches, on absorbing the aura and ambiance of any one island. If there is another opportunity to go to Greek islands, I will prefer to spend few days at just one island. 

Islands such as Milos, Syros, Samos are very pretty and off the beaten path.  If I had to pick an island that was low key, and beautiful I will probably pick Syros. If I wanted to stay at one of the highly visited and dramatic island, it would be Santorini. 
Loukoumades (Greek donuts)

Part 1: 3 days in Athens

Athens is named after the goddess Athena, the Greek mythological goddess of wisdom, inspiration and civilization. If you enjoy ancient history, Athens is a great place to visit. Littered with an archaeological site or at every corner, these ancient ruins are part of Athenian vibe. 

Day 1: We landed early afternoon in Athens. The airport was approximately 30 minutes from the  Plaka area where we had booked our hotel. After checking in and leaving our bags at the Hotel Acropolis Select, we headed out to visit the Plaka area to grab lunch. Plaka was a beautiful neighborhood situated directly under the shadow of the Acropolis. It is supposedly the oldest section of Athens. Almost all the streets in this area are open only to pedestrian traffic. Plaka metro is also the closest metro stop to the Acropolis. This neighborhood is interested by two streets, one of them being Adrianou street, a street lined on both sides by boutique hotels, restaurants and outdoor cafe, jewelry stores, tourist shops, and art galleries. We ate lunch at one of the many cafes in the area catering to tourists, our selection was based purely on a cafe that had operating water misting fans. Our lunch included gyros, souvlaki, greek salad and moussaka and other greek dishes. Any of these cafe’s especially those located under the shade of trees with fans seemed to attract a lot of people regardless of what they were ordering whether it was a glass of lemonade or iced caffe or simply people watching. After lunch, we strolled leisurely along the Adrianou street. All the shops were crammed with typical touristy stuff, pretty much the same things for pretty much the same prices; these included masks, Ouzo, Olive oils, spice mixes, soaps, paintings, jewelry, t-shirts, hand crafted bags and street vendors of all kinds. After scrolling and people watching for a couple of hours, we walked back to our hotel to rest and freshen up before dinner. While our hotel was on the edge of the Plaka area, the distance between shopping district and our hotel was just a few blocks. The location of our hotel was very convenient. 
Highly recommend staying in Plaka area.  It is within walking distance of every major archaeological site including the Acropolis, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Ancient and Roman Agoras. The area seems to have a wide variety of restaurants as well as is Athen’s main shopping district. We were a few blocks from Syntagma Square and Monastiraki Square and the metro. Plaka also seemed to be a safe area.

We had tried booking our hotel stay at Hotel Plaka or Hotel Adrian (both 3 star properties based on some of the reviews) but neither of these two hotels were available for our group for the nights we needed. Therefore, at the recommendation of our travel agent, we ended up staying at Hotel Acropolis Select which too was a 3 start hotel. Hotel Acropolis Select did not have any direct views of the Acropolis but it was within walking distance to all the historical sites and to Plaka, it was very conveniently located. The rooms were comfortable, most had a balcony overlooking the street below but the bathrooms needed renovations. For dinner, we found a small restaurant a block down. We sat in the restaurant’s patio and ordered a large feast that included fish, chicken, lamb, greek salad and humous. Since we were the only occupants of the restaurant we had full attention from the proprietor and his wife who was the cook. The food was very well prepared. While rest of Greece might have been feeling the effects of austerity measures, it seems Plaka area, the hotels and restaurants were impervious to those effects. 

Day 2: We got ready early in the morning for our visit to Acropolis. Our hotel included breakfast buffet which worked out very convenient as the cafe didn't  open that early in the morning. We had been warned to visit Acropolis either early in the morning or late in the evening. We chose early morning and were one of the first few people in line when the ticket office opened at 8 am. The ticket included entrance to Acropolis, the Museum and the Ancient Agora. We chose not to take a guided tour but had earlier downloaded Steve Rick’s audio tour to Acropolis.   

Getting to the Acropolis was an easy uphill walk but a little longer than I had anticipated. Comfortable shoes are a must. Even though we entered the grounds as soon as the Acropolis opened, we had to stop a couple of times to catch breath in the rising heat. By the time we reached Parthenon, it seemed as if the sun in full force was beating down on us. The previously chilled water bottles had become warm and there was no shade to be found at the top. Keeping this in mind, it might be worth considering travel to Greece in the winter or spring months. 

The history of Parthenon is amazing. The various transformations it has gone through. The archaeological excavations and preservation work still under going.  In case you have heard of Elgin marbles, this is where they came from. I wont describe the Acropolis or Parthenon here, as that information is readily available on the internet in far greater details that I remember. If you prefer audio, Rick Steve adds color beautifully to his description of these ancient sites. 
Parthenon at night

After Parthenon, we visited the other sites in Acropolis such as the theater of Herod Atticus and the rock of Areopagos and walked down the hill to the Hotel Acropolis Select. The timing was perfect. Just as the sun was getting overhead, we were walking into the museum. The museum is quite an amazing design. As you walk into the museum and look down the glass ramp, you can see what remains of the ancient settlement, how the ancient city was planned and laid out, how well the dwellings were planned, the beginnings of urban planning. Inside are displayed the many excavated artifacts or the replicas of various friezes.  The museum’s design mimics that of the Parthenon in that the artifacts are displayed as they would have looked on Parthenon in their original positions. Unlike most museums (including the British Museum that houses the original Elgin marbles), the glass walls of the Acropolis Museum allows all artifacts to be seen in natural light. If you look out the glass walls, on one one side you can see the ancient Acropolis and the Parthenon and on the other side the current city of Athens, a large stretch of orange ceramic tiled roofs and the people of Athens going about their daily lives. 

After we were done with the museum, we grabbed lunch in one of the cafe outside and walked to hotel to rest for the afternoon. In the evening, we headed to Monastiraki area. The area similar to Plaka is a lovely tourist shopping area but a little cheaper. Our walk took us through the ancient agora

Day 3: Day Trip to Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

Temple of Poseidon
We rented a bus on our own to go to Sounion to visit the Temple of Poseidon. From Athens it takes approximately 1 and a half hours by road.  Some of the guide books recommend a trip in the morning to avoid the crowds but Sounion has an incredible sunset view, that it is worth the afternoon trip and dealing with the crowds. We went in the afternoon, but did not feel that the place was crowded at all.

The temple sits above the beach on a mountain that juts out into the sea and was dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. 

Just below the temple there is a little path that goes downhill towards the water, along that path there is an archaeological excavation of a historical settlement. The houses, the street, the shops that formed part of this little settlement are all marked by excavated stones.