Thursday, June 18, 2009

Greece/Turkey: Athens - Crete - Selcuk

I'm writing from Selcuk, a town on the Aegean coast of Turkey.  (The innkeeper is watching horseracing on television right next to me, and the volume is very loud, so my thoughts might be scrambled!)  We only just got to Turkey today, and already we love it!  This is the first time I've had access to a computer to really write, so I thought I'd share some of our adventures.

We started out in Athens.  I got in around 9am, so I had most of the day before Amanda arrived at 6pm.  To stave off the effects of jetlag (and to break my feet back into days of walking in sandals in hot dusty climates), I pulled out my map and trekkedall  around the city.  It really isn't as awful as people make it out to be.  It is probably the dirtiest of the European capitals I've been in, and there's a strange sort of chaotic energy (in fact, it reminded me more of the Central American cities I'd seen than most European cities), but it still has its own charm -- and it's always fun to be in a new place where I can't talk to anyone and all the signs are totally illegible (by the end I started to get the hang of the Greek alphabet... but  only just a little!).

Athens has kind of weird topography, in that it's in this big valley that leads to the sea, but there are several big hills that just pop up in the middle of the valley.  One of them has the Acropolis on top of it, and the other two have a church or observatory or monument to some ruler on top of them.  I held off on the Acropolis till Amanda could go up with me, but I climbed all of the other hills so I could get the views of the city and some great camera shots of the Acropolis from eye level on the other hills.  As I looked from the hills out toward the harbor, which was full of ships, I kept thinking about that line about how Helen's was "the face that launched a thousand ships."

That night, once Amanda got in, we strolled around the city on the great pedestrian plazas they put in for the Olympics.  All the museums were closed, and we were saving the Parthenon for the morning, so we went to the old theater that is at the base of the acropolis and which is still in use.  We bought some tickets from an old man who was scalping them for face value (unclear how he thought he was getting a deal, unless he wanted just to break even), and got into the show.  The theater itself was pretty amazing:  steep marble seats curving around in a semi-circle amphitheater with the Parthenon above, ancient stonework in front, and the city and harbor laid out below. The show, on the other hand, was a little more "special."  Turns out it was some Greek singer singing what clearly were Greek classics that the audience (largely geriatric) just ate up like mad - I mean, there were random outbursts of clapping, and most people just couldn't resist singing a long at full voice.  It was fun enough, but since the whole thing was entirely in Greek, we had no clue what was going on and by intermission we'd succumbed to jetlag and the marble seats and decided to go home to sleep.

The next morning we were up and out the door to the Parthenon. For all that Athens might be disappointing as a city, the Parthenon was everything I'd expected it to be.  It was huge and beautiful and really old (and crowded with 14 million tourists), and it was hard to believe that I was really seeing it.  I also finally started to agree with all the people who argue that Britain should return all the marble statues and friezes that they pillaged from the Parthenon back in the day.  Seeing everything on site made me want to see the rest of it intact.

By the time we'd finished the Parthenon we had pretty much exhausted Athens, so we headed to the harbor to head to the islands.  We wanted to go to Crete, which is somewhat off the beaten track, so we didn't have a ton of ferry choices, and we didn't want to pay for airfare, so we booked an overnight ferry -- without a cabin.  Why (we asked ourselves) pay for a cramped little berth in a ferry, when we could sleep under the stars on the deck of a giant ferry as we cross the Mediterranean on a summer's night?  It was about as steerage as you can get (although we'd have survived a shipwreck, since we were right on deck) - we had to sleep on the benches placed at various intervals on the deck.  We just locked our bags to the benches (I always travel with cable and lock) and curled up with our earplugs and little eye pillows to block out the light and slept like logs -- or at least logs that are drugged with dramamine and wake up from time to time stiff and cold from sleeping on a metal bench.  Needless to say, it wasn't the best night of sleep I've ever had and I woke up feeling pretty grimy.  On the other hand, we did get to see the constellations from the part of the world where all the myths about them were created.  And we also got to see the sun rise over the mediterranean as we were pulling into the medieval port of Heraklion, on Crete. 

Crete was a huge step up from Athens.  It was smaller and a little calmer (and full of very beautiful, fit, tan people who all seemed to live there without anything to do other than be beautiful, fit and tan... I kind of want that job.)  It was also surrounded by the gorgeous blue water that you see in all the postcards.  After dropping our stuff at the hotel, we went inland to the ruined Minoan palace of Knossos - it was a huge center back in 1900-1700 BC (and I thought the Parthenon was old!) but the whole civilization was wiped out mysteriously at one point, leaving all the cities and palaces pretty well in tact.  We ran into a fun Australian mother/son traveling duo and eavesdropped on the French tour guide (and tried very hard not to get caught, because then she'd yell at us in a ferocious manner despite the fact that her group WAS taking up the whole room and she was speaking VERY loudly).

After roasting in the ruins for a while and a quick glance at the archeological museum, we decided we were done with culture and headed for the beach.  O, the beach!!  We rented lawn chairs and a large umbrella from a leathery old man and set up camp on the coast near a little town called Rethymno.  Apparently the old city center was lovely, but we didn't make it past the beach.  We sat in the sun and alternated between sunning ourselves and getting pulverized against the rocks by the giant waves.  That was fun for a while, but eventually we decided to stay with the sunning part...

Turns out that was a good choice, because that meant our base tans were all the more advanced for our next beach day -- this time on Rhodes.  We hadn't originally planned on staying very long in Rhodes.  We had caught a little propeller plane puddle-jumper from Crete to Rhodes so that we could catch a ferry to Turkey.  Upon arriving in Rhodes, however, we discovered two things:  First, no ferries went to the part of Turkey we wanted; second, Rhodes was kind of rad.  In fact, very rad.  So we changed our plans and bought a ticket for a ferry to a different part of Turkey, booked a hotel in Rhodes, and headed to the beach for another day of sun and swimming.  This time the waves were milder and we were able to get some good swimming.  After the beach we cleaned up and went out for a tour of the city, which is a UNESCO world heritage site for good reason.  It's an ancient fortress of the Knights Hospitaller and remarkably intact (thanks to a kind history and the thoughtful ministrations of Mussolini, who thought to make it his summer home).  The walls are massive, with a huge moat and a very castley-looking castle perched above it all. Between the castle and the walls/moat is a labyrinth of medieval streets and houses that are as bewildering as they are picturesque (honestly, I haven't been so lost since Venice, and there weren't any canals here to complicate things!)

By the time we left Greece on the ferry the next morning, we were definitely glad we had come and felt like we'd seen a good spread of what Greece has to offer.  We loved the beaches and the temples and ruins.  The people we were a little more ambivalent about.  We didn't meet any outright rude or mean people, but they weren't exaclty cuddly bears either.  For example, Greeks are excellent line cutters, as we learned in the grocery store and airport.  The technique involves putting a grocery basket or piece of luggage on the floor in front of you and pushing it with your feet into the space between the person in front of you (me) until you just have to step in yourself to keep taking care of your bag - funny how it got there...

The Greeks also have a way of insisting that you eat what you're given.  Last night Amanda "ordered" (the waiter interpreted Amanda's request for a recommendation as carte blanche to bring her whatever he wanted her to eat) a special chef's plate at our restaurant.  It was tasty, but a little heavy on a hot summer's night.  The waitress, however, insisted (only quasi playfully) that Amanda have five more bites before she'd bring us the check! And then this morning at breakfast, I took a piece of what I thought was pound cake -- but when it turned out to be a very sweet, heavy bread, I left some of it untouched on my plate.  When the old woman took my plate she asked me in broken English why I didn't eat it.  I told her it was too sweet, and apparently broke her heart.  She had positively the most tragic look on her face, as she swept off the bread, that I've ever seen.  You'd have thought I'd told her to think about dead puppies.

The ferry to Turkey went smoothly this morning, and we had a pretty seamless trip to Selcuk this afternoon.  It took us a minute to get back into the mode of dealing with aggressive vendors and taxi/bus drivers (so familiar from traveling in Central America last year), but over all we've both been impressed by how much better we like the feel of Turkey than Greece.  Turkey is much more developed and cleaner than I'd expected it to be, and it doesn't have the chaotic feel of Athens or the resorty feel of Rhodes.  And the Turks, although more aggressive in their pursuit of our business, are also more welcoming and hospitable.  I think all this bodes well for the rest of our trip here.

The best thing I did since I got here this afternoon was to go to the barber.  Our innkeeper told me about a barber down the street and how my face would be "pulled and pummeled into relaxation" and how the barber would "burn" my sideburns.  When I expressed interest, he called and had the barber send a little boy to guide me to the barber shop.  He plopped me in the chair, and I had my first ever traditional (Turkish) barber shave.  He started with the soap lather with the brush, then shaved me with the straight razor; then repeated the whole process againt.  When he was satisfied with the shave, he rinsed my face with water and pulled out this little torch, which he lit and started rapidly thumping my face with!  I was kind of terrified, but it didn't hurt at all. Apparently the goal was to singe the ends of my sideburns and the little fuzz on my cheekbones and earlobes (who knew it needed to go, too?).  After that came the lotion and face massage, which evolved into a shoulder and arm massage. Then came the powder on the face and a restyling of my hair.  Last of all was the cologne.  LOTS of cologne.  He took the bottle and started spraying on my chest -- and just kept spraying!!  For about 4 seconds!  I about died.  Suddenly, I realized why so many of the guys we'd passed in the streets were so aromatic.  Anyway, the whole experience was fantastic, and I think that I could get used to doing that (minus the 18 gallons of cologne) on a regular basis -- in fact, I'll probably do it regularly through the rest of the trip. 

Two other points of interest in this place.  The first is that there is a ruined Temple of Artemis here, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  It isn't much to look at now that it's only a jumble of stones and a rather suspect-looking column, but apparently it used to be quite the temple and bigger than the Parthenon.  The other thing relates to Christian history:  Apparently after Jesus died John brought Mary (of Virgin fame) to Selcuk, where she lived out the rest of her days; he later returned, after his stay on Patmos, and spent the rest of his life here (writing the gospel of St. John here and being buried here).  I probably won't go to Mary's house, but we did walk over to the ruined basilica that was built on the site where John was supposed to have been buried.  In addition to being an impressive building, it was also neat to walk into a room and recognize it instantly as the baptistry -- it looked almost exactly like the baptistry in our temples:  a central font with stairs going down into it from both sides (clearly designed for immersion), with two spots on either side that could have been for witnesses.  The only thing missing were the oxen.  The baptistry would have been built sometime between 300 and 500 AD, so we can see that some of the things we recognize in the restored church hadn't yet been entirely lost to the apostasy yet.

That's all for now.  I should go and get some dinner and head to bed eventually.  We're going tomorrow to the ruins of Ephesus (where the Ephesians lived who received that epistle from Paul...) bright and early.

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