Friday, April 2, 2010

Trips, trips, and more trips: Santorini, Sparta, Mystras, and Monemvasia

Well, I’ve finally returned to my Athenian apartment after a whirlwind couple of weeks touring around Greece. The following post will attempt to give a pleasantly detailed yet not exhaustive (or exhausting) account of my diverse Grecian travels. Last Wednesday ended with a showing of the intriguing film “Never On Sunday” intended for my lit class. I plan on watching it again soon given that I missed the last half hour devising a plan to switch presentation days with another girl in my class for the next day so that I could actually meet my family on time at the airport to jet off to…Santorini! With that minor drama behind me, I hopped a bus to Syntagma Square and then another to the Athens airport. A large, snorting, and strangely clothed Greek women chose to keep me company by sitting directly next to me in an essentially empty gate waiting area. Two strategic seat relocations and half a delicious citrus fruit later, I was joined by Richie and girlfriend Michal who had arrived from Israel earlier that morning and Mom, Dad, and Steve who had left from the U.S. of A. the previous night. The whole jetlagged gang plus me boarded our tiny plane, ate some biscuits (this is what the Greeks call “cookies”) and arrived in Santorini on schedule. The hotel, seemingly run solely by one quiet yet charming Russian lad—“Murat”—who came to the Greek islands to relax nine years ago and never left, was equally charming and quiet with the exception of the howling wind. Oh right, and the creepy black stray cat with electric green eyes that my mother decided to befriend. The scenery, the eclectic characters, and the island experience in general lived up to our fantastic visions, although I don’t think any of us were expecting the “I’m not in Kansas anymore” type of winds that we encountered.

Days on the island commenced with a lovely and slightly mysterious breakfast tray delivered individually to each of our three rooms (or sometimes, in the case of extreme wind, all three trays came to our room). The six of us lounging in white robes in an almost entirely white room eating chocolate croissants, scrambled eggs, and various other unidentifiable baked goods must have made for quite the ridiculous scene. But, in a Russia’s funniest home videos clip, I do believe that one of Murat’s early morning stunts topped the image of our chocolate covered white robes. As he walked around the bend from reception to our room with a food tray that teetered with a small child’s weight worth of breakfast delights, poor Murat and his strange sweater were met with an intense gust of wind that sent one of our orange juices flying into the air. As it shattered on the pavement, sending cascades of broken glass bits and citrus beverage all about the picturesque pool (empty—off season) area, Murat guided the tray swiftly into our common room and exclaimed, “I made it!”. Eh, kind of, Murat.

Besides mercilessly mocking people, we explored the area of ancient Thira, chatted at length with winery man “Stavros” (apparently his garrulous nature can be attributed to our arrival during the off season—guess he hadn’t experienced any human contact for a while), ate delicious yet questionably unsanitary meats at a taverna owned by a great personality “Nectarios”, and had fresh fish and traditional Santorini fava beans at a sea side café. Other humorous tidbits include ordering pizza to be delivered to our hotel, cramming six people into a diminutive rental car (sitting in the trunk was not particularly luxurious for any of us) while touring the island, and seeing both Murat and the other couple (possibly Turkish) staying at our hotel in multiple other restaurants and shops around town. Overall, it was a great and unusual trip. Seemed like a festive and appropriate way to celebrate our family reunion. So, after the unnecessary 2 minute trolley ride from the actual airplane to the gate itself (I’m sorry if this is somehow obvious, but why can’t they pull the plane right up to the gate?) and a ride back to Pangrati, the group (minus Murat and the Turkish couple) accompanied me back to Athens to take me and my friends out for dinner (thanks Dad and Mom!), get a quick tour of the apartment, and walk up the path at the original Olympic Stadium down the street. While I am of course soaking up my time here gratefully, I also can’t wait to see everyone at home. Any interest in moving to Greece, Lopatins? It’s actually sunny here now, I promise!

After parting with the family, I went home and started to pack for our program organized trip around the Greek mainland, or the Peloponnese. Arcadia based the trip off of a medieval theme through Ancient Corinth, Sparta, Mystras, and Monemvasia (my personal favorite). We got up early the next day to meet the bus that would cart us around for the next few days.

My Byzantine History Professor, Stavros, joined us as one of the chaperones on the trip. We were thus blessed with gushing lectures about the relevance of several of the sites with regard to the life of the Byzantine empire. Don’t get me wrong, Byzantium and its lengthy history both entertain and delight me; I just don’t want to hear about them when I’m standing on top of a beautiful, lush mountain top at Mystras with my camera itching for use or out in the rain in front of a strange looking church that was apparently built in the 1970’s. Stavros seemed extremely amused by its modernity. Or that might be because everyone was a bit loopy after our visit to the Spiropoulos vineyard and winery at which we enjoyed many cured meats and cheeses in accompaniment to our wine (Stavros of the Santorini winery [not Stavros, professor of Byzantine History] would not have been pleased). Oh, and just as an aside, everyone in this country has one of four names. Yelling Nikos on the street here would be akin to yelling Rachel in the Brandeis dining hall. But back to Stavros’ lectures. My admitted boredom was instantly gratified by the invasion of about a dozen noisy stray cats. He just had to chuckle at the fact that each time he has attempted to be “fun” and lecture outside, he gets derailed by Greece’s many wandering cats.

To drop the sarcasm for a brief moment, I will offer kudos to Guy Sanders, Jan Sanders’ (director of the Arcadia Greece program and Pangrati resident) husband who organizes digs at Ancient Corinth. I have never been exposed to a lecturer who is both so dynamically connected to his subject matter and equally skilled in conveying his enthusiasm and knowledge through speech. He joined us on parts of the trip, offering touchingly human accounts of ancient societies that occupied the very sites on which we stood. His lectures were intensely archaeological (as they should be for someone who owns more than three pairs of khaki cargo pants), noting amazing discoveries from ancient cemeteries that provide great insight into the ways that people lived, died, and interacted. His ability to reconcile social science with humanity itself made for a striking and educated connection to the places we visited. Besides the cemetery, visits to an ancient battleground, “The Museum of the Olive” (surprisingly mundane), the Spartan archaeological museum (and the accompanying pictures of us with the statue of Leonidus screaming “THIS. IS. SPARTA!” obnoxiously loud), and great souvenir shopping rounded off another great trip.

Stavros and Guy competing for lecture rights

The last place we visited might be the (get ready, Mom) quaintest little town I have ever visited. Monemvasia is a tiny fortress with an adjacent town that sits on a little peninsula. The peninsula’s streets are narrow and lined with small shops and tavernas only intended for pedestrian traffic. To get there from the mainland, one must travel down a long straight road until you reach a pitch-black cave-like area. After walking through the cave, you are greeted by the candlelight of this tiny town. The actual town houses ruins of defense structures dating back to the 6th century and a LOT of Byzantine churches—settle down, Stavros.

Other highlights from the trip in its entirety include the following:

--Eating delicious fish (and fish eyeballs—not joking!) by the sea in Monemvasia

--Hiking various picturesque hills

--Attempting to wake up to see the sunrise. We snapped a few pictures from the balcony and then went back to sleep

--Paul’s friend accompanying us on the trip. He wore a lot of button downs with the last two buttons on the bottom unbuttoned. I asked him why he did this to which he replied that it makes him look fat if he buttons them. Ah yes, because letting your stomach hang out is a far better solution.

--Getting locked out of my hotel room and having the maintenance man break in through the balcony door.

--Watching “Greek Idol” on TV. We turned it off when someone wearing an Elvis inspired outfit came on for an enthusiastic rendition of some song that I believe was supposed to be English, but it was definitely unclear.

Accounts of Thessaloniki and our spring break trip to the Cycladic Greek islands of Naxos and Amorgos coming VERY soon!

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