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This page right here is Part 1 of the travelogue, which covers
Budapest, Prague and Munich.
Without further ado...
To stave off sleep, we headed directly for the Acropolis. We decided not to hire a guide and tromped all over the place ourselves instead. For my money, the most impressive part is the entranceway -- gargantuan columns and stairways leading up to the top of the hill. The Parthenon was under heavy reconstruction -- this was to be a theme of our entire trip. The view from the top of the Acropolis was pretty amazing.
Afterward we headed down into the Plaka and ate at a nice rooftop cafe with a great view of the city and some live musicians. As expected, the food was fantastic. The beer, of course, was not -- Mythos and Alfa are the two most common Greek brands, and they have a lot in common with beer in other hot countries (i.e., they're crap, but refreshing crap).
Next day, we got up early and walked to the National Archaeological Museum before the crowds. Then we went to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Incredibly huge, all by itself in a field (which just makes it seem huger); all that's left are a bunch of columns and a bit of roof. One column has collapsed relatively recently and lies there in chunks. Kind of humbling.
Then we wandered around the Ancient Agora, but by this point jet lag was catching up to us. We headed over to Likavitos Hill, the tallest hill in town, and took the funicular up to the top. We watched the sunset and then watched the Acropolis (and Zeus' temple, and all the other old stuff in town) light up slowly over ouzo. Ouzo is typically served over ice and/or mixed with water, and it can be quite refreshing. It was everywhere in Athens and Santorini, though the Cretans favor raki instead.
We rented a car and drove around a bunch. Drivers on Santorini
are all either crazy locals or clueless tourists, and the roads are
tiny -- once we had to back into an alley because a
was driving down the main
road on the island, taking up the whole thing! The archaeological
site of Akrotiri was impressive. Boutari winery had some
very good white wines from Santorini grapes, a gorgeous setting, and an
unbelievably cheesy multimedia show. We took a wrong turn and
accidentally ended up on the highest part of an island, a huge
hill. Great view, but pretty harrowing getting up and down.
Then we ended up in the right place, Ancient Thira, an ancient town on the second-highest point on the island. The drive up to it was the most treacherous drive I've ever seen (including the one up from the harbor) so I wussed out and we hired a minivan to take us up. Old, old streets and foundations of buildings, with an amazing view all around.
After Ancient Thira, we drove down to Kamares Beach, had some beers and played in the water. Highly touristy, but, since crazy Europeans don't like to go in the water no matter how nice it is, we had it all to ourselves. This evening was our Fira sunset evening.
I should say a word about the food. The tomatoes in Santorini and Crete are fabulous. The Horiatiki salad is uniformly excellent, everywhere. Tiropita, saganaki, piperyes yemistes, dtomatokefthedes, bougatsa, galaktoboureko... all of these things are astoundingly good, reasonably cheap, and everywhere. Cheese is a staple. The olives, oddly, were not as amazing as I'd imagined... possibly a seasonal thing. But in all other ways the food surpassed my expectations, which were very high to begin with.
The next day we headed down to Ammoudi Bay, a perfect little bay down a few hundred steps from Oia. The view on the way down there is gorgeous. Ammoudi itself is very nice -- little fish tavernas clustered around the bay, traditional-looking fishing boats bobbing in the clear water -- but nothing could fulfill the promise of that gorgeous view on the way down. Then we had one last overpriced, over-good meal and headed down to the port for the boat to Crete.
If you can avoid the throngs of tourists that fill the shops and cafes in the evening and every time a boat lets off, Santorini is a magical place. It's every bit as gorgeous as they say, and as the pictures make it look, but it's also very commercial. Bring a dash of misanthropy and get off the beaten path a bit.
Next day we checked out the museum, dodging the tour groups, and then headed out to Knossos to see where a large portion of the museum's contents had come from. Knossos is the inspiration for the palace of King Minos, as described in the Theseus myth. It's likely that the term "labyrinth" at one time referred to the palace of Knossos itself -- a possible source of the word "labyrinth" is labarynthos, a word used for the double-bladed axe that they used here to kill bulls in sacrifice to the Goddess. The place is pretty amazing, restored to a contraversially high degree by Sir Arthur Evans, who did much of the excavation. We hired a guide and had a great time exploring the place. First known flushing toilet anywhere; go Minoans! Thousands of years later, the Greeks still can't flush toilet paper into their sewer. Boo, modern man.
We pulled up at our timeshare and were dumbstruck. Plush . This place was fine , especially after 5 days of grungy backpacking. And my parents had sprung for flowers on our bed and a bottle of champagne ready to go. It was in a huge strip of resorts and resorty businesses, but that's ok, we weren't gonna spend much time in Platanias itself. We got settled in.
Next day we bummed around the resort a bit. We heard about Rehnquist dying, another weird out-of-the-country thing. Then we headed into Rethymno city. We left the main square and followed large numbers of tourists. On the way we passed a quintessentially Cretan building, Nerantzes Mosque: originally a church, then taken over by the Turks and converted into a mosque, and now it's a music conservatory.
After a nice lunch we headed up to the Fortezza, a huge old Venetian fort. Great views all around, and a mosque in the middle. Too bad it was too early for sunset, it would have been glorious from there.
Then we grabbed a glass of wine at a way -too-fancy wine bar with gorgeous surroundings.
Just down the street was a guy who makes phylo dough by hand, one of the few left who does. It's a pretty cool process... when we were there he was making angelhair-like kantaifi dough.
Dinner was at a place high up by the fortezza with a great view of
ocean -- saganaki tessera tyria (four-cheese saganaki), manitaria a la
creme (mushrooms in cream sauce), and free raki... bliss. Then some
drinks out by the harbor.
Next day, we went to Samaria gorge. This was one of the
highlights of the trip -- everyone who visits Crete goes here, for damn
good reason. It's a 13k downhill trek through an
ever-more-impressive gorge with towering cliffs. First, though,
we had to get on a bus at 4:30 in the morning.
The hike was well worth it, though. The first 1/2 hour was spent passing people right and left so we could get to where we weren't hemmed in by people. Then we started to have fun. We played with some kri kri (native, endangered little goats) at the displaced village of Samaria about halfway through. The pictures tell the story best -- by the end I was more than a little picture-happy.
After, we ended up in Agia Roumelli, as does everyone who comes out of the gorge. We got some surprisingly good German beers and swam around in the warm, blue ocean until the ferry took us back.
Next day, back on the road. We drove west past Chania and turned south into the mountains. As we wound up into the mountains, we saw more and more olive groves and cute little villages. We stopped at the cave of Agia Sofia, which is pretty picturesque and all holy and stuff.
Then we headed up to the mountain villiage of Mylia. This is a very cool place -- a "traditional village" reconstructed on its original location, with funds from the EU, after it had almost failed completely. Now it's an ecotourist kind of place, but remote enough that not many tourists actually make it there. In Mylia we had one of the best meals of our entire lives -- all ingredients grown in Mylia, all unbelievably good and well-prepared. Horiatiki, of course; fried tomatoes and cheese; stuffed (I believe) okra; good lord, it was amazing.
Then we wound our way back out of the mountains, looping around to the west. Eventually we hit the cliffs far above the coast and drove with an unbelievable ocean view for a couple of hours.
Then Chania. It's a gorgeous town, with a bigger Venetian harbor than Rethymno, and more picturesque (but lacking the super-cool Fortezza). We walked around the seawall trying to get to a lighthouse, but it was being reconstructed, so we just had a drink at the nearby restaurant and watched the sunset.
Next morning we took another mountain drive, this time in Rethymno prefaecture. We walked around the beautiful little village of Argyropoli, which is famous for its cold springs -- they really do cool the place down, which was mighty nice this time of year.
Then we bused back into Rethymno and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset and another excellent dinner by the Fortezza.