**Not all photos are here yet due to technical difficulties. See the Athens post for the whole story.**
On June 14th, we closed on our first house! All of our stuff is in 60+ boxes in Durham. The next day, we feverishly packed and flew to Amsterdam via Detroit. We were excited to see that KLM has installed personal in-flight entertainment systems in the back of each seat with movies on demand, games, trip information, and a whole lot more. It was only after rebooting the system almost a dozen times (over the course of 2 hours) that the system began functioning properly. [Geek-Note: Amusingly enough, this is the exact same system Airbus is having problems with in the new A380, causing over six months of delays. The entertainment system runs linux and Xwindows. We managed to capture a photo of the post screen with Tux (the linux penguin, for any non-geeks who are still reading) in the upper left corner. That photo will be up in a few days.]
Upon arrival in Schipol Airport, we collected our luggage and took a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Before we even arrived, fellow backpackers invited us to a coffeehouse with them. We took them up on the coffee, while taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of an Amsterdam coffee house. (For clarification, Mom, we just had the coffee. It was 9AM.) It was very interesting to see 30-odd varieties of something so taboo in the US displayed in the front of the shop.
Very excited to be in Amsterdam, we just started wandering toward a few recommended hostels and hotels. We quickly realized that walking around Amsterdam could be quite dangerous. Crossing a street involves watching out for first bicycles, then motorcycles, cars, and finally trains (and that's just to the middle divider). The city is covered with "bike-highways" which look like very nice walking paths. We were forewarned, however, if you walk in them (or cross without looking both ways) you will have a very angry Dutch cyclist yelling or honking at you. Complicating the matter, these bike-highways are also used by motorcycles, mopeds, and the occasional tiny European car. (Even after 3 days, we still could not always remember to look both ways before crossing seemingly benign paths. It was more difficult that you'd think!) As the World Cup is in full swing, the streets are covered in orange "Hup! Holland!" signs, orange flags, streamers, and orange-clad people. There are entire stores dedicated to the sale of such orange stuff every few blocks.
Our excitement wore off as we found out that all of the recommended lodging was full. Our packs were poorly packed and adjusted, it was getting hot, and every hotel reception was up two straight flights of the scariest, steepest steps we'd ever seen. Feeling defeated, we started checking every hotel on a strip of a few blocks. We finally struck gold with the Budget Rainbow Palace Hotel, a true gem. We got a cramped room on the top floor (yes, more terrifying stairs). It was the seediest hotel we've ever stayed at, but we managed fine in good humor. The Budget Rainbow Palace Hotel will hopefully forever be the low mark of our hotel experiences. In all honesty, the accommodations were serviceable as we were only using it as a place to crash.
The following day we took a day-trip to Rotterdam.
On our last day, finally rested, we lightened our packs and sent some extra clothes home. We also visited Annefrankhuis (Anne Frank's House, for all the non-Dutch), which was literally around the corner from our Rainbow Palace. It was very interesting to see the Annex and the original copy of Anne Frank's diary. No photos were allowed, however. Our last night in Amsterdam, we hit a couple bars full of crazy, orange-clad, Hup-Hollanders.
All Amsterdam Photos
**Not all photos are here yet due to technical difficulties. See the Athens post for the whole story.**
We took the train to Rotterdam, home of the world's largest port. The trip gave us a chance to witness firsthand the revolution of standard containerized shipping. We took a harbor tour and watched 40' (and baby 20') shipping containers being offloaded from enormous cargo ships. Many parts of the harbor are completely covered with hundreds of tall stacks of containers. From a distance, the whole operation appears to be nothing but boys playing with tens of thousands of large, colorful Legos. Between the dams and the harbor, this was Sam's dream trip. After he was so sated, Chandra led the way to Rotterdam's brand-new, expensive mall for a little retail therapy. In the end, we only bought some more backpacking supplies from the European REI/EMS equivalent, Active Life. Still jetlagged, we returned to our lovely accommodations and crashed.
All Rotterdam Photos
We arrived in Athens in the evening and caught a train to Victoria station. From there, we found our way to Hostel Aphrodite, a large, clean, well-run hostel popular with backpackers. We were excited to hear that, in addition to a few computers with internet, there was also free wireless. A bar in the basement offered a complementary ouzo shot upon check-in (and recommended a 5 euro beer chaser). Tired and hungry, we checked in to a private room (dormitory-style accommodations were also available) and ran around the corner to a supermarket for some food. There were many signs posted prohibiting outside food, but we decided to live on the wild side and sneak some snacks in. We dropped off our food in the room, and then headed back down the beautiful marble staircase to ask about the wireless internet and the air-conditioner that we noticed in the room.
We found out that air-conditioning would be an extra 4 euro/night and decided we'd give it a shot. It became clear that the clerk was going to go up to our room to activate the unit, and we were worried about the groceries that we had simply left on the bed. Sam, grabbing his laptop and the key, decided to sprint back up the stairs in an attempt to beat the elevator (still on its way down). A flight and a half into his journey, he slipped on the marble. Sam, laptop and all, went crashing onto the staircase. Sam was merely slightly bruised, but the laptop (on at the time) did not enjoy the same fate. We did not get in any trouble for the food, but the laptop hard drive was destroyed. Picture tiny little read-heads smashing into spinning platters. Very bad. We lost about half of our Amsterdam/Rotterdam pictures, as well as everything else on the laptop we foolishly did not back up before we left. This includes all of Chandra's graduation photos, and pretty much all of our photos from the last few months of college. Sucks, and if we want to have them restored, it will be quite expensive. We got a hold of our personal tech support (Ben) and had him ship another laptop hard drive to us in Athens (also expensive, but extraordinarily well-packed). We needed the laptop up and running, or we could not take photos off of our cameras.
We had a few days to kill waiting for the hard drive, so we began the Lonely Planet walking tour of Athens, chronicled in our photo gallery. It was ridiculously hot, but very interesting. Highlights included the Acropolis, Ancient Agora, the Plaka, Temple of Olympian Zeus, and everything else you are supposed to see in Athens. It was fun, but at the end of the day we were exhausted.
Our next two days in Athens were more relaxed. We went shopping at the Monastiraki flea market and caught a movie at the Aigli (the oldest outdoor cinema in Athens). We ate mostly souvlaki on the street, real greek salads (no lettuce, just a pile of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers topped by a slab of feta cheese), and fruit from street vendors. We tried the coffee frappe that every Greek seemed to be drinking (they called it a "Nes"). We discovered that it is an unappetizing mix of Nescafe instant coffee, water, and cream all thrown together in a blender. Whenever we did eat in restaurants, we made the mistake (three times) of ordering platters of meat designated for two. Even by American standards, these could have easily fed a family of five. We discovered that Greek payphones do not take coins, but rather chipcards (inserted into the phone) that can be purchased from ubiquitous street kiosks that sell everything from orange juice and cigarettes to hard-core pornography. The sidewalks of Athens are mostly made of marble, which becomes very slick and dangerously slippery under every draining air conditioner. Chandra's J. Crew flip-flops, with zero tread, were rendered useless. It was worse than walking on ice.
According to FedEx, our harddrive was sent by guaranteed two-day priority. On the morning of the third day, we spent quite a bit of time tracking it down by phone, to be told it would be delivered by 2pm. We took a leisurely stroll and grabbed lunch while waiting. As soon as it was delivered, we hopped on the metro to Piraeus (technically another city, but now incorporated completely into Athens' urban sprawl). From Piraeus, we took a ferry to Syros, the administrative capital of the Cyclades.
All Athens Photos
Now knowing how to use the payphones, we called ahead and reserved a room at Hotel Ipatia just outside of the main square in Ermopoulis, Syros. We had a great room with a wonderful view. Ermopoulis was a nice escape, as it is one of the larger cities in the Cyclades (pop. 11,000), but has few tourists. Downtown is covered with small shops and tavernas on the waterfront. We relaxed and explored around the area by foot.
The next day, we took a cab up to Ano Syros, a medieval Catholic settlement on a steep hill. At the top was the famous Agios Georgios Cathedral. As it was Sunday and mass was being held, we did not go inside, but slowly wandered our way back down the narrow, winding streets. (It was very wise to take a cab up and walk down, as the opposite would not have been nearly as enjoyable.)
We ate a few times at a popular souvlaki shop where you could get a skewer of chicken or pork wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, onions, yogurt sauce, and french fries for less than two euro. After our two days, we had seen most of Syros (except for some popular beaches) and decided to head on to Mykonos, from which we could take a day trip to the sacred island of Delos.
All Syros Photos
We arrived at Mykonos at 11pm and were a bit confused as to where we had been dropped off. According to our map, there was something labeled "old quay" at one side of the downtown area, and "quay" on the opposite side. However, where we were dropped off was quite far from the downtown area. We decided to follow the masses of people who were walking away from the distant downtown lights, and found a bus. Upon careful inspection of our map, we saw a little arrow at the edge, pointint off of the map, labeled "new quay, 2.5km". We had not expected Mykonos to have three ferry quays, but all was well as the bus took us straight to the center square.
We had called ahead to Hotel Apollon to reserve a room, but we were not confident that a room had actually been reserved, because the only response we could get over the phone was "no problem, no problem." Sounded promising, but there was none of the customary exchange of names, credit card info, etc.
We did tell her that we would be arriving around 10, but after a late ferry and an unexpected bus ride, it was past 11. We hesitantly rang the bell at the darkened Hotel Apollon, and after a minute, a charming old Greek woman came bustling to the door in her nightgown. "You late? No problem, no problem!" she repeated while showing us to a very servicable room. No a/c, but 14' ceilings and an extremely powerful ceiling fan did the trick. Quite tired, we quickly fell asleep.
The following morning we explored Mykonos by foot, as Delos was closed on Mondays. Mykonos is a very touristy island and one of the top gay vacation destinations in the world. The tiny winding streets are lined by designer stores and shops of expensive tourist kitsch. It was strange seeing medieval streets covered in signs and logos of Gucci, Armani, and the like. Stores did not follow the standard opening hours of Greece, but were open well into the night. We did find a gallery of beautiful handmade glasswork and splurged on a set of glass coasters for our new house. We did not find the downtown area terribly interesting, except for people-watching. Tourists of every shape and form crowd the streets, and we amused ourselves by guessing which countries people were from.
Outside of the immediate downtown area, Mykonos has some interesting sights. The island is famous for its windmills (reproductions of which are available on t-shirts, ashtrays, coasters, and underwear in the tourist shops). There are some pretty churches downtown (sandwiched between designer stores and gay bars), and a few more on the water. The most interesting was the Church of Panagia Paraportiani, which is an amalgamation of five small churches.
Our favorite part of Mykonos was our hostess, who bustled around repeating, "no problem, no problem" to any question we had and kissed us every chance she got. When we showed her the photos we had taken of Mykonos, she was bouncing with excitement, pointing out her church, her daughter's house, and an ugly brick building amid the whitewashed landscape, which she deemed a "catastroph". Despite a substantial language barrier, her energy made her a joy to talk to. We found out that the Hotel Apollon had been in her family for over 100 years and went through every family portrait that she hung on her walls.
Unfortunately, Tuesday morning we discovered that all boats to Delos had been cancelled due to high winds, and Wednesday did not look any more promising. We were bummed, because we really only stopped on Mykonos in order to hop over to Delos. Instead, we spent a leisurely day updating our webpage from an internet cafe and enjoying a long afternoon lunch at a scenic cafe. As Mykonos was quite expensive and no boats were guaranteed to go to Delos anytime in the next few days, we decided to cut our losses and continue on to Naxos.
All Mykonos Photos
Before leaving Mykonos, we called ahead and found a room at Despina's Rooms in Naxos. When we arrived, we wandered the streets, but were unable to find the place. We turned around and headed back He the Tourist Office to ask for directions. A helpful man in an official t-shirt offered to walk us there. While walking, he convinced us to switch to Pension Irene and promised great accomodations at a rate of 25 euro/night. As Pension Irene was also recommended by our book, we agreed. He turned us around (away from where we thought Pension Irene should be) and walked us to his car. He put our packs in the trunk and drove us around the main downtown area and over to Pension Irene. He walked us straight into an empty room and asked us if it would work. It was a two-room unit with 4 beds, a small kitchen, and a private bathroom. Looked good to us! He took Sam's passport, gave us the key, and left again. We were slightly worried that we'd been had and would never see Sam's passport again, and fully expected Irene to walk through the door and wonder what we were doing in her place. [Fortunately, this was not the case and we met Irene the next day. After the second night, she asked us to switch to a smaller room, and we told her it would be no problem. Our second room at Pension Irene was even nicer, only two beds, still the kitchen and private bath, and also a large private balcony which we enjoyed.]
As soon as we settled in, Chandra realised that she had left our power adaptor on the ferry, and fretted that it would be difficult to replace. Fortunately, the second store we tried on our way to dinner sold them, and we picked up another one. We decided to take a break from Greek food, and instead enjoyed fajitas and chilli at Picasso's Tex-Mex. We were amused by German tourists, wholly unfamiliar with the concept of a fajita, asking the waitress to demonstrate, and wondering if it should be eaten with knife and fork. By the end of the meal, Chandra was falling asleep at the table, so we went immediately back to our room and crashed.
The next morning, Sam woke up, explored the downtown, and bought some tasty ham & cheese croissants at a bakery while Chandra continued to sleep until 3:30pm, a full 16.5 hours! Finally rested, we explored the harbor area together, wandered the streets looking for wi-fi, and ended up at a waterfront taverna for dinner.
There were many things we wanted to see in the interior of the island, and some of Naxos' best beaches are a drive from downtown, so we decided to rent a 4-wheeler for two days. It was a bit scary at first (at least for Chandra, Sam was having the time of his life!), but we quickly noticed that the roads were covered with tourists on scooters and 4-wheelers, and all of the real cars were very careful around the crazy tourists. The 4-wheeler was a fantastic way to see Naxos, we put about 75km on it over the two days!
Our first trip was to the village of Halki to see a distillery for Naxos' famous Kitron liquor. Kitron is made from the leaves of the citron fruit, itself almost inedibly bitter. Check out our photos for a few posters on the history and production of Kitron. After a quick private tour of the distillery, we were offered a tasting, and liked it so much we bought a few small bottles. Come visit us in North Carolina and you can try it, too! We also stopped by Fish & Olive, a famous ceramics gallery-shop and bought a few small things. We also visited a fantastic jam and spoon-fruit shop and picked up some tasty treats. A few km outside of Halki is Panagia Drosiani, one of the oldest and most revered churches in Greece. According to the hours posted on the locked door, the church was open. However, there was no one around, so we didn't get to go inside and see the 7th century frescoes.
Next, we took the 4-wheeler to the Cave of Zas (Zeus), a huge natural cavern. From the parking area, we began walking up a stone path towards the mouth of the cave. A woman coming back down pointed at our flip-flops and communicated via hand motions that we should not continue without better shoes. Some of the stones were a bit wobbly, and we weren't sure how long the path was (we could not see the mouth of the cave), but we decided to keep on going anyway. After about 5 minutes, we discovered that the nice stone path disappeared, and we carefully made our way across the rocky landscape. The last third of the climb was truly difficult, requiring both hands. Not knowing how long this would continue, we almost turned around a few times, but finally made our way to the top. The cave was huge, but very dark, so we didn't venture too far inside for fear of breaking a leg. The hike back down was easier and we stopped in a local taverna for some greek salads. Exhausted, we spent the rest of the afternoon at a beach.
The following morning, Sam took the 4-wheeler to a bakery and picked up some ham & feta pies. We organized our photos, worked on the website, and did some reading during the hottest part of the day. A little later, we hung out at a very nice (and mostly empty) beach on the southern end of the island. When we returned, every taverna was packed with shouting soccer fans, as Germany was playing Argentina. We found the only restaurant without a plasma TV and stopped inside. We were led up to their roof garden dining area, which we had completely to ourselves!
Our last day in Naxos, we again hit up a bakery for some tasty savory pies, and then walked out to the Temple of Apollo. Only one arch is still standing, but the original temple must have been an impressive sight overlooking the harbor. During the siesta time, we wandered around the Kastro (the medieval walled area of the city) through the hushed winding streets. Street signs were not used, instead at every intersection was posted a multitude of arrows pointing towards every restaurant, church, and shop. We ended the afternoon lounging around the main square, waiting for our ferry. Naxos has definitely been our favorite island so far!
All Naxos Photos
Feeling like experienced Greek island-hoppers, we did not make reservations. None of the Lonely Planet suggestions sounded wonderful, except "Rooms Mike - You'll never be short of friendly chat and advice at Mike's place, which is very popular with backpackers" and continued to warn that reservations would likely be necessary. Every ferry in the greek islands is met by a crowd of "domatia", who accost anyone carrying a backpack and offer rooms. It is a bit overwheliming the first couple of times, but we decided to give the domatia on Paros a try.
Sure enough, upon exiting the ferry, we were surrounded. As soon as we started talking to one, the sharks could smell blood and came in for the kill. We started to negotiate and look at the photos of various rooms when we noticed a man standing quietly in the back, holding a sign: "Rooms Mike." Chandra pointed at Mike, Mike pointed to the Lonely Planet guide in her hand, smiled, and immediately led us out of the crowd. We immediately bonded over the Lonely Planet "bible" and enjoyed the a quick (5 min) walk to Rooms Mike, a beautiful location right on the harbor.
We quickly found out that "never short of friendly advice" was certainly the case. In our first 15 minutes with Mike, we heard about: Paros' history; what sights to see; where every grocery store, laundromat, and newsstand are located (and his personal opinions on each); where to pick up every bus, excursion boat, cab, and water taxi; where to eat; and which beaches to check out. He also demonstrated the use of the toilet, shower, air conditioning, TV (which he tuned for us to the World Cup game and gave us his thoughts on the teams), and a mini-fridge in the hallway with an empty shelf designated for us. Finally, he gave us his card with his office and mobile numbers and insisted that if we ever had a problem, anywhere on the island, at any time, we were to call him immediately. (Mind you, all of this was said seemingly without pausing to breathe. We could not get in a word edgewise!) The accommodations were fantastic, and Mike was constantly around and an absolute riot.
We were not very productive while in Paros, but spent a lot of time on the beaches. One afternoon we hopped over to Antiparos (a smaller island separated from Paros by a narrow strait) intending to see some cool caves. On our boat ride over, we saw that the strait was covered in kite-boarders (a sport which we had learned about the previous day). All of the multicolored kites flying in the air were quite pretty, and the kiteboarders were zipping around on the water doing jumps and flips. We discovered that the caves closed at two (it was just past two-thirty), so we took a very quick look around the port of Antiparos, and jumped on a ferry across the strait to Punda beach to watch the kiteboarders.
Soon, just watching from the beach wasn't enough for Sam, so he signed up for a 6-hour introductory kiteboarding course. The instructors warned him that not much progress can be made in six hours, and that it was rare for a student to even be able to stand up on a board at that level. Sam wasn't deterred (and the other kiteboarders made it look easy) and was convinced that, if anyone could stand up after 6 hours, it would be him. While Chandra read on the beach, Sam suffered through a lesson in basic physics and aerodynamics (never mentioning his newly-acquired engineering degree). Next, they had him fly a stunt kite own the beach (which he had done as a kid). All exciting stuff was saved for the second day.
The following morning, the wind was quite strong. Despite this, Sam learned to fly a kiteboarding kite (the smallest one at 5 m^2). Even having had previous kite experience, there is a steep learning curve with these large kites, especially with high winds. Before being able to get up on a board, you need to be able to fly the kites completely by touch. So, after flying from the beach, Sam graduated to being dragged through the water by the kite. He had a blast!
Meanwhile, we found out that almost all of the kiteboarders we had seen on the previous day (who started to trickle back to the beach around noon) were actually professionals. The Kiteboarding World Cup was only a week away, to be held at this very beach. All the professional teams were here early, practicing (which explains why they made it look so easy). They were all showing off for each other, and making crazy jumps close to the beach for professional photographers. Sam caught a couple of these on video, check them out here!
On Sam's third day of lessons (and our last day on Paros) winds were a sustained at over 25 knots and gusting to over 30! Sam's original instructor wouldn't take him out, but another (more daring) instructor did. He just practiced more of the same, mostly body-dragging, but had a great time being pulled around in those winds! Even the pros were using 5 and 7 m^2 kites, and getting huge jumps 40 feet into the air. While chatting with the photographer (who happened to be a former biology post-doc at MIT, of all people) we found out that Cape Hattaras (in North Carolina) is one of the best places in the world to learn to kiteboard. So, despite Sam's inability to stand up on a board after the first set of lessons (which we will blame on the crazy wind) he has high hopes of continuing the sport. In retrosect, record-high winds on our last day in the islands should have concerned us, but we were told that the large ferries back to Athens were never cancelled. Well, sometimes they are. For our return adventure, read on :-)
All Paros Photos