Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Paros, part 2 and on to Santorini

One minute I'm basking in the Greek sun, the next I'm back in NJ in the muggy rain. Expulsion from Eden can't have been any worse than this. Truth be told, I was ready to come home - or at least ready to have my workshop, bed, and cats close to hand again. Could all three have been transported to a lovely Cycladic house on Paros, I would've been very happy to stay.

The second half of our stay on Paros was in Naoussa a formerly sleepy fishing village which has now turned into an upscale resort town. There are still piles of nets on the docks but a Greek friend said he thought they were "for the tourists," not the fish. The center of town is chock-a-block with restaurants, cafes, souvlakerias, and clubs. At night it's like a carnival, with colored lights strung in the trees, vendors standing at carts or walking through the crowds, and music coming from every direction. This young entrepreneur was selling roasted corn and the ubiquitous balloons on sticks. SpongeBob Square Pants and his friend Patrick were very popular.

We stayed at the Stelia Mare Hotel, which is about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. Coming from the Pension Sofia we were stunned by the scale and relative luxury of the place. Our executive suite was maybe four times the size of our room at the Sofia and came complete with a kitchen larger than most NYC apartment kitchens, a living room/dining room area, large balcony, and truly spacious bathroom. The breakfast buffet was exhaustive: cheese and spinach pies, croissants, two types of fresh bread, Greek yogurt, honey, melon, cereals, local cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, boiled eggs, scrambled or fried eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, and Greek cookies. Unfortunately, the coffee was awful and even paying for a cappuccino didn't improve matters much. The people who work there are professional and charming. Still, our hearts belonged to the Pension Sofia, which gave us a lovely home at a quarter of the price of our executive suite.

Thankfully, Paros and Santorini are in the same group of islands, so we didn't have to troop back to Piraeus to get to our next island stop. I truly loved our time in Paros - it has the perfect mix of good beaches, good food, good shopping, and gorgeous scenery. Nevertheless, the highlight of our trip was Santorini.

Approaching the island by ferry you see sheer cliffs striped in black, red, and white, topped with white towns that drip over the cliff edges like icing. The ferry lands at Athinios port, which is a sliver of a town clinging to the base of the cliffs. It's a dusty, noisy strip of shops, with tour buses, vans, cars, and motorbikes weaving in and out of the crowds of suitcase-rolling tourists. It looks like something out of the Star Wars frontier scenes.

The first night we stayed in a small hotel in Firostefani, a suburb of Fira, the main town on the island of Thira, which is the largest of the group of islands that make up Santorini. The hotel, which, like all the others we stayed in, I had found on the internet, was not good. Even if we hadn't just come from the lap of luxury it wouldn't have been good. To be fair, the room was very large and it faced the caldera, meaning the view was stunning. It even had a living room/dining room area and a kitchen - but everything was shabby and dingy. The furniture looked vaguely early American, like it had been purchased from the Sears catalogue circa 1965. There were no lamps, only wall or ceiling mounted spotlights with bare bulbs. The bathroom was small and had the kind of shower that consists of a drain in the floor and a shower head on the wall. We decided to make the best of it and went off to dinner in Fira, where we had a fabulous meal at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the caldera and overlooked by a neighboring church.

Getting to and from the restaurant was a bit of a trial. We walked (30 minutes each way), by choice on the way there and of necessity on the way home. Getting a cab in town is impossible and we had no idea how to find a bus. Also, the streets that look so nice and straight on the map are actually winding paths that detour around corners and dead-end into shops, which is to say, we got lost. A few times. The center of Fira is a souk with roofed arcades that open into miniature squares, but the stores are much more high-end than anything we'd seen up to that point. It was crammed with people in snaking lines like the sidewalks in Provincetown at high season. By the time we finally got home we were exhausted and didn't much care whether the room smelled slightly of insecticide or not - which it did.

Next time, we find paradise in Oia.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A very sad story

What's to be done when scuba diving off the coast of Paros proves to be unexciting? K decided that kiteboarding sounded like a good idea. And so it came to pass that last Sunday, after a morning of diving, K set off for an afternoon of kiteboarding under the tutelage of Frank, kiteboard instructor from hell. (Actually, he's from France.) Fast forward to 6:30pm that day: I was reading under the grapevine covered pergola with a glass of Greek white wine on the table beside me and a cat curled at my feet. K walked up the path to the pergola, limping, hands held up like a just-scrubbed surgeon on the way to the OR. "Are you ok?" "No, I fell and the kite dragged me." Injuries included a thoroughly scraped and bleeding right knee and shin; a badly bruised and swelling right hand; a similarly battered left hand whose pinky finger looked distinctly crooked. "It's broken - we have to go to the hospital." "No, I think it's just bruised - see, (wiggling pinky) I can move it." "Make a fist." Pinky, refusing to play nice with the other fingers, maintains its queasy angle. "I guess it's broken." We hop into our rented Twingo and K, the only one of us who drives standard, takes us to the medical center.

Greece has a national health care system, so health care is free, even for visitors, which is, in principle, a great thing.

The medical center in Parikia is a large white (of course) building near the center of the port area. On Sunday in the early evening, we walked into what appeared to be the ER entrance and found two very young women in beach wear sitting in plastic chairs in a dingy hall. The reception kiosk was dark and empty. Next to it were metal double doors labeled "Emergency" in English and Greek. Next to the doors a red metal paper number dispenser, the kind you see in front of the deli counter at a supermarket, was bolted to the wall. One of the young women opened the ER doors and waved us in -- turned out she was there with an injured friend. We never saw a receptionist. Inside, two doctors sat on opposite sides of a battered metal desk. Four exam areas were defined by curtains, only two of them with hospital beds. One of the doctors took K to an exam area and started prodding the broken pinky hand. I escaped to the waiting area. A few minutes later K emerged, the broken finger buddy-taped to the ring finger, the leg scrape white with spray antibiotic, and with instructions to return in the morning for an X-ray.

The next morning the medical center is still shabby, but no longer deserted. At least thirty people crowd the waiting area. The reception kiosk is still dark, but there appears to be someone sitting in the shadows. K inquires of the shadowy figure and is told to take a number. D05. We're confused because there's another number dispenser on the other side of the kiosk giving out numbers like C83. Do the Cs get seen before the Ds? The answer is unclear. We sit and wait. Nothing seems to be happening. A young woman in a white lab coat walks by sipping iced coffee and disappears through a door. Someone is smoking nearby. Finally, K sends me on an errand: "Find out if I really need X-rays. Maybe taping the finger is all that needs to be done." I go off in search of an open internet cafe and access to our own Delphic Oracle: Google.

Half an hour later, armed with the knowledge that X-rays are a good idea for broken fingers and that the finger should be splinted as well as buddy-taped, I leave the cafe. Arriving at the medical center I find that K has obtained a "prescription" for an X-ray and has moved to the Radiology waiting area. Unfortunately, the X-ray machine is broken. They expect it to be repaired within an hour. Everyone should wait.

Should we wait or go home and come back in a couple of hours? I recall noticing that there was a private medical clinic near the public medical center on the map of Parikia and set off to check it out. Turns out the private clinic is right behind the public medical center. I walk up the wide marble steps, open the glass door, and step into a cool sanctuary. Behind the modern reception desk sits a professional looking woman in a lab coat. Two people sit in the carpeted pastel waiting room. Music plays softly in the background. I find out that K could be seen in "maybe 15 minutes" and that an X-ray would cost "maybe 70 Euros". I hurry back to the medical center, where the crowd in the Radiology waiting area is large and restless. I sit down next to K who says, "What did you find out?" "First of all, it's heaven. Second, you can get an X-ray in 15 minutes for 70 Euros and there's a doctor who can then see you right away for an additional charge." "70 Euros? That seems like a lot." "But it's so worth it." "Right."

We abandon the world of public health care and gratefully wrap ourselves in the luxury of pay-as-you-go (and hope your insurance reimburses you later) health care. K is given X-rays immediately, waits no more than three minutes to see the doctor, and emerges after 10 minutes with hands in the scrubbed surgeon position -- both pinky fingers have been splinted and buddy-taped and both hands have been wrapped in flesh-toned stretchy bandages. The scraped leg has also been thoroughly bandaged and wrapped. To my lasting shame, I burst into laughter, as does the old Greek woman who is the only other person in the waiting area. K looks like a very sad lobster with giant flesh-toned claws.

The left pinky is indeed broken and needs to remain splinted for two weeks. Swimming might be possible if the splinted wrapped hand can be kept dry. Scuba diving? Out of the question. No more adventures for this trip.

I'm a big fan of universal health care. Here's one of the many reasons why: My Uncle LeRoy worked in highway construction for around 20 years, but always on a project basis, which meant that he never had health insurance. When he was 62 he injured his leg and couldn't work. His leg required tests, treatments, medicine, hospital visits, all of which my aunt and uncle paid for out of pocket. They sold off most of their land. Their truck was repossessed. They borrowed from relatives, but they still couldn't keep up with the bills or afford the continuing treatments that were needed. Finally the doctor who had delivered all their children and treated their family for thirty years said that he'd treat my uncle for free, even though he had recently retired from medical practice. All of which is to say, I know what it's like to live without health insurance and without access to affordable medical care. Sadly, our brush with the Greek health care system reinforced every complaint about national health care I've ever heard. We, who have the luxury of health insurance and enough money to pay for anything the insurance doesn't cover, find it difficult to tolerate the waiting, the lack of attentive service, the poorly equipped hospitals and clinics, all the indignities of health care for the masses. If we lived in Greece, we would surely pay for the superior medical care available through the clinics, so the national health care system wouldn't benefit us at all. This made me very sad, until I remembered my Uncle LeRoy. Had there been a national health care system in the US, he and my aunt wouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of bankruptcy and relying on the charity of a generous individual. Less than perfect health care is better than no health care.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Paros, part 1: Parikia

A last minute change of plans (see Hydra, Isle of (Ugly) Cats) and suddenly we had 5 days on Paros and no reservations. Tripadvisor wasn't much help, except to warn us away from the Hotel Apollon. Google gave us the Pension Sofia, a lovely place run by Sofia and Manolis. Arriving at 1:30am we weren't aware of much except that the garden seemed very large and the room seemed a little small. The bed, however, was a real double bed, not two twins shoved together, and very comfortable.

The next morning we looked out over the garden from our second floor balcony and were overwhelmed by both the size of the garden and the number of decorations: artfully tilted amphorae, sculptures, bas reliefs, fountains. Shaded by a grove of olive trees that bear almost as many olives as leaves, it's a cool breezy sanctuary. Grape vines cover arbors, pergolas, and fences, laden with huge clusters of still-green grapes. Roses, a little burnt from the previous weeks' heat wave, but covered with fat blossoms, keep company with oleander, bougainvillea, jasmine, tomatoes, squash, dill, basil, and geraniums the size of small shrubs. Every inch of the garden has been touched by loving hands -- even the stones in the paths have been primped: a white painted outline sets off each one. (Later we discover that this is a Parian thing - it's done throughout both Parikia and Naoussa in private spaces and public. Even some concrete sidewalks are painted with white lines to imitate the stone paths.)

Breakfast was simple and wonderful: coffee, incredible fresh oj, pound cake, and two kinds of fresh local bread with butter and delicious jams. The breads are great. One is a kind of semolina bread with a sesame seed covered crust. The other is whole wheat with sesame seeds and fennel seeds on the crust - delicious. The oj is squeezed to order by an ingenious machine we saw in several sizes at various hotels and cafes wherever we went in Greece. This Rube Goldberg contraption takes whole oranges in, slices them in half and squeezes them between rotating ferris wheel ball and socket thingies. At the bottom is a spigot that dispenses divine nectar - I never saw what happened to the spent orange shells. No doubt the deliciousness of the oj has to do more with the incredible Greek oranges than the machine, but the combination of the two adds up to an impressive sensory experience, especially first thing in the morning.

What really makes the Pension Sofia special are the owners, Sofia and Manolis, and their daughter, Evita. They are warm and friendly - always helpful and attentive, never intrusive. Sofia, who runs the business end of things, is exotically beautiful and quietly efficient. Manolis, a native Parian, former plumber, and the creator of the garden, made breakfast most days and does many other things that aren't apparent to guests. He also picked us up at the ferry at 1:30am when we arrived and drove us to our hotel in Naoussa when we left for the second part of our Parian vacation. On the way he told us the brief charming story of how he and Sofia met: "Her family lived in Athens but had a small house on Paros. In the small house was a small bathroom. One day, they needed a plumber for the small bathroom." (He smiled.)

The pension is across the street from the Cine Paros, an outdoor movie theatre. Walk down the street past the cinema and in two minutes you're at the corniche and a nice beach. The main part of the town is to your left, including a shopping area of winding streets, jewelry and clothing shops, and cafes. Parikia has at least five internet cafes. My favorite was Cyber Cookies - it has only three machines, but the connection is fast, the prices are good (first 20 minutes free), the iced coffee is excellent, and no one was ever smoking while I was there. Avoid Memphis.net: they make you pre-purchase access time in blocks - no refund if you don't use it all. Also, I found the connection to be quite slow - possibly a side effect of their many machines.

If you turn right at the corniche, away from the center of town and towards Livadia Beach, you'll quickly come to our favorite restaurant in Paros, Taverna Akrogiali, which is next to the Hotel Paros. Iannis, the son of the owner, proudly told us that their taverna is a real Greek taverna, not a tourist taverna. How can you tell the difference, we asked? At a real Greek taverna the food is good and they bring you something sweet at the end of the meal for free. At a tourist taverna, the food is blah, you have to pay for dessert, and they only care about taking your money. He told us all this as he brought us a lovely cream pastry that we hadn't ordered as an end to a delicious meal. We were so charmed by the good food and good people that we ate there twice more before we left and are setting out from Naoussa tonight for another meal there.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Slow boat to Paros

An entrepreneurial opportunity of gargantuan proportions is waiting for someone in Greece. All you have to do is create a central scheduling office for ferries to the islands. Every company has its own set of routes and schedules and there is no way to get an overview of who's going where when. If you could maintain an updated database of schedules, prices, and which trips have open seats, I'm sure you could do a brisk business just telling people where to go for tickets. The importance of such a resource struck us with the force of a revelation when we decided to leave Hydra early. Carefree fools that we are, we hadn't booked a return trip to Piraeus or the trip to Paros, our next destination. On Wednesday, we attempted to book this two-part journey for Friday. After much back and forth between Hydra's two tourist agencies it seemed that we could get to Piraeus, but not to Paros. We felt like we were trapped in that joke where the old Maine guy says, "Yah can't get theah from heah." Finally, we decided to book a fast boat to Piraeus for Friday morning and trust to luck once we were in the port.

Come Friday morning we bid farewell to the mangy cats of Hydra and set off. We arrived in Piraeus in about two hours. I stationed myself on a shaded bench with our luggage and K went off in search of transportation. While I amused myself by taking pictures of random travelers, K hoofed it all over the port trying to find us a way to get to Paros. An hour later, we were the proud owners of two tickets to Paros on the slow ferry leaving at 9pm. For the rest of the day we cruised the Archaeological Museum, where we saw this incredible vase, among other things, and hung out in the passenger terminal, which is a large air-conditioned cafe with surprisingly good cheese pies.

The ferry looked like the QE2 compared to the fast boats we'd been traveling on up to this point. We boarded, along with what looked like half the population of Athens, and a fleet of cars and trucks, only to find that our economy class tickets did not guarantee us seats. If we wanted to sit we had to snag a table in one of the on-board cafes or out on the open decks. We opted for an open deck, but soon discovered that the reason we had found an empty table so easily was that it sat directly under the vent from the McDonald's-clone just inside. After half an hour of being bathed in a constant flow of warm greasy air, we decided to try the indoor cafe experience. To our surprise, the cafe area in front of the McD-clone was a no-smoking area where people actually weren't smoking. And that's where we sat: in the middle of a mall food court on board a slow ferry. For four and a half hours. Fortunately there was a bar.

As we drew near the port of Parikia on Paros, most of the many hundreds of people on the ferry got up and moved to the stairway on the port side of the ship, where we had entered. The ship tilted. We looked at each other and, in one voice, said, "Poseidon Adventure." Picking up our bags, we headed for the other staircase, trying to be as heavy as possible. I don't know if our quick thinking saved the ship, but it did mean that we got out faster than most, since both sets of stairways led to exits.

Waiting for us on the dock was a mob of yelling, gesticulating people holding uniform white and blue signs bearing the names of hotels, pensions, and camp sites. We quickly spotted our host from Pension Sofia and were whisked away to our room, grateful to have arrived safely on the isle of Paros.

A note about getting to and from the Greek islands: there are several different kinds of transports (ferry, fast ferry, flying dolphin, catamaran). Tripadvisor has a good description of the travel options and how to book.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Hydra, Isle of (Ugly) Cats

Hydra is the most cosmopolitan of the Greek isles, so it says on the island's website. Cosmopolitan or not, it is certainly beautiful. Hydra town climbs from the harbor in a steep semi-circle of white stone buildings and terracotta roofs, punctuated by brilliant outgrowths of hot pink bougainvillea. The only engine-powered vehicles are the utility vehicles owned by the island government, which makes the island a peaceful pedestrian haven. The donkey "taxis" that wait to take your luggage to your hotel are charming, if aromatic - though the owners are fastidious about immediately scooping the piles their donkeys produce into canvas bags. The water is a crystal clear blue-green that's enticing even to a non-swimming aquaphobe.

Still, Hydra was a disappointment: the only dive shop, which is still advertised on the web and by local tourist agencies, had closed. For me this wasn't a problem, but for my partner diving is one of the reasons went to Hydra in the first place. It wasn't just this disappointment that set us against Hydra, though. Hotel and restaurant prices are inflated and the quality of the latter ranges from awful to just good. The highly touted shopping isn't any better than the shopping here in Parikia, Paros, a much less aggressively self-promoting port. The real problem was that Hydra town was claustrophobic and fly-ridden. The streets, which are more like paths with steps, are made of the same stone as the majority of the buildings, giving the effect of a single organism that bulges into hotels, restaurants, and shops like mushrooms protruding from a giant rhizome. All paths seem to force you down to the harbor, a destination whose charms are exhausted in a day. Vast numbers of flies make outdoor eating almost impossible. I suspect that the number of flies has to do with the presence of the donkeys (or more specifically, the donkey dung), which makes the whole experience distinctly unsavory. Also, the town is overrun with cats -- scrawny, mangy, scarred, rheumy-eyed cats. One was so ugly I called it the Nazgul cat, and I'm a thoroughly soft-hearted cat lover from way back. There is clearly no spaying or neutering going on and it seems that the size of the cat population exceeds the available resources. We had planned to stay five days, maybe seven -- we stayed only three, which was one too many for me.

If you go, don't avoid the donkey taxis. If you don't want the donkey experience, hire one of the human-powered two-wheeled carts.They charge 10 Euros per donkey for luggage or riders. They also cost 10 Euros. Just don't roll your suitcases to and from the hotel yourself. You'll make a hellish racket and probably ruin the wheels of your suitcase on the uneven stone pavement in the process.

The nicest man in Hydra runs a jewelry/clothing store called "21st Century" right on the harbor. I think his name is Lakis Christidis - that, at least, is the name on the store bags. He's a silversmith as well and has a sharp eye for unusual artist-made jewelry. His prices are fair and he is kind, helpful, and genuinely informative.

Next, Escape from Hydra, in which our protagonists overcome great obstacles in their attempt to travel from Hydra to Piraeus and then to Paros in one day.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Delphi, navel of the world

Delphi soundtrack: greatest hits of the 80s -- Bette Davis Eyes, the Eurythmics, the Pointer Sisters. One exception is this gem I heard several times on the radio during our two days in Delphi:
I've had enough.
Baby, I'm leaving.
Elvis has left the building.
You had your chance.
I gave you the honor,
but, baby, you're no Madonna.

Apollo figured out Delphi was the center of the world by releasing two birds at opposite ends of the earth at the same time -- they met at Delphi. I'm not troubled by the releasing birds at opposite ends of the earth at the same time - he's a god, after all. But how do we know the birds flew at the same speed? What if one of them was a slacker who coasted on zephyrs while the other was flapping his little heart out? And what about the weather - did he make sure it was clear sailing all over the world for the duration of the flights? At some point, wouldn't a headwind for one have been a tailwind for the other? I think it's much more likely that someone looked at the mountains and views, calculated the distance from major population centers, and thought: this is a good place to build a shrine -- far enough away to make a pilgrimage feel cathartic, impressive enough to make a pilgrim feel gratifyingly small, but accessible enough to make the construction of large monuments possible.

I've wanted to see Delphi since I was a kid obsessed with Greek and Roman myths. So, in spite of the fact that I don't like vacations that involve a lot of running around to various places, we scheduled a two-day stop in Delphi at the beginning of our vacation. The bus from Athens takes 3 hours, which seems much shorter because the countryside is so stunning. The hills and mountains are rounded but craggy, equal parts bare stone and thick forest. Olive trees are everywhere, silver-green, short, twisted, and perfectly accented by the occasional cypress trees, tall black-green spires. The roads are lined with pink and white oleander, orange trumpet flower vines, and purple-pink bougainvillea. It's a landscape that feels, not like my actual home, but like my inner aesthetic home.

I was surprised to find that Delphi is a tiny mountain town. I'd always imagined the Oracle's cave in a secluded forest glen for some reason. Another thing I didn't realize is that Delphi was a sort of cross between the Vatican and the Way of the Cross. The Sacred Way, which leads to the Temple of Apollo is long, sweeping, magnificent, and really successful at putting one in mind of the greatness of the gods. And that's in its completely ruined state - it must have been dazzling in its prime. Walking the Way took almost an hour - if you go, bring a large bottle of water. We brought small bottles and they were empty before we got to the stadium at the top of the hill -- and that was on a day when the temperature was in the upper-70s. You can read all about what there is to see here. At the museum, which is definitely worth visiting, you'll see several reconstructions, both paintings and models. One thing I didn't understand were buildings that the reconstructors called stoas. They're long buildings with a back wall, three sides of pillars, and a roof. There's one at the start of the Sacred Way and another about half way up. The very fanciful painting in the museum shows them crammed full of highly decorative statues. I'm not convinced. They look to me like perfect places for peddlers of souvenirs and refreshments. Pilgrims brought all sorts of offerings: pigeons and other sacrificial animals, small figures of gods, goddesses, and navels (seriously - it was the navel of the world after all). It doesn't take much in the way of entrepreneurial smarts to figure out that at least some of the pilgrims might have forgotten to pack their sacrificial pigeons or perhaps realized that a homemade navel might not cut it with Apollo once they got a look at the offerings of the guy in line ahead of them. And that stoa halfway up is the perfect location for a cafe. I'd have gladly handed over several Euros for a cup of watered down wine at that point in the trek up.

The village itself is a couple of streets backed by a mountain facing a world of magnificent views. Have dinner in one of the restaurants facing the view to the sea. Swallows swoop, the sun sets, and slowly you start to see the lights of villages that aren't really visible during the day. Life is good.

On the downside: the national anthem of Greece should be "Everybody smokes" (to the tune of REM's "Everybody hurts"). Hasn't anyone told these people about the dangers of smoking, not to mention of second-hand smoke? So far Athens, Delphi, and Hydra have been horrific. Paros, where we are now, is heavenly by contrast, but that could be because of the constant wind.

Nest installment: Hydra, isle of ugly cats.