|"I could not help reflecting
bodingly upon the intemperate zeal with which middle-aged
men are apt to surfeit themselves upon a seductive folly
which they have tasted for the first time" Mark
easycruise is the no-frills cruise company owned by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who also founded the budget airline easyjet. easycruiseone was the companys first ship. It has previously sailed in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean but is currently based out of Marina Zea in Piraeus, near to Athens. By the time I finish writing this (and it might take me a while...) easycruiseone could be no more - the boat is currently up for sale and in April 2008 easycruise will be introducing a new, larger ship called "easycruise life".
Day 1 - Piraeus
We flew into Athens from Heathrow on British Airways. We had a hell of a tail-wind behind us all the flight as it only took 2 ½ hours, a lot less than I was expecting.
Athens airport (also known as Eleftherios Venizelos, named after a Greek politician; I hate it when they name airports after people and am considering reversing the trend by changing my name by deed-poll to "Heathrow Airport" so that people will think I'm some kind of celebrity when I travel) was purpose-built for the 2004 Olympics and is modern and efficient, making it the complete opposite of that shambles Heathrow. The airport is well-connected to the city and to Piraeus, and we had the choice of going on the express bus, Metro, or the suburban railway. We ended up on the suburban railway mainly because when Dave went to buy a Metro ticket the guy behind the counter told him to get a train ticket instead. The journey wasn't direct and we had to change trains at Nernatziotissa station (where the train to Piraeus was already waiting on the next platform), but according to tinternet there should be direct trains from the airport to Piraeus (maybe we had to change because we were travelling on a Sunday? Or maybe tinternet is just telling me bollocks?). It cost us 6 euros each and took us just over an hour from the airport to Piraeus station and if a pair of clowns like us can manage it then anyone can, although we were later told that the express bus to Piraeus is a lot quicker and so would probably try that next time.
From Piraeus station it's still quite a distance to the Marina Zea where the easycruiseone is docked; you can take a bus (the 904) but all the buses were crowded and I didn't fancy trying to force myself on with a huge bag, and in any case I'm basically an idle bastard so we caught a taxi. Mistake. He seemed a nice enough chap but when we got to the ship he charged us 13 euros for a 10 minute journey, and as if that act of blatant theft wasn't enough I'm sure that I paid him with a 20 euro note which he switched for a 5 euro note and demanded extra money. To put it into perspective when we took a taxi back from Marina Zea to the station (because, despite this experience, I'm still basically an idle bastard) it cost us less than 3 euros. I guess I should have made more of a fuss, but that's not the way us repressed Brits do things so I contented myself to tutting (to myself, of course) and thinking dark thoughts about him (which for us repressed Brits is the equivalent of pissing on his mother's grave...). By the way, this taxi driver was the one who told us that the bus from the airport was quicker, so maybe he was lying about that too. If you do get the bus from Piraeus station get off by the Naval Museum from where it's still quite a long walk around the marina to the ship (easycruiseone docks at the end of the breakwater which is on the right as you face the sea, the furthest point out to sea in the marina; the good news is that it'll be by far the biggest boat in the port so you can't miss it). There are more details and a map on the easycruise website.
When you get on the ship your baggage will be searched; they're looking for food (the excuse I heard was that food left on board can attract rats) drink (because they want to sell you their own! If you're carrying alcohol it will be stored in reception until you leave the ship, but you are allowed to bring bottled water on board), and things like hairdryers and travel irons (which are fire hazards). Although your bags can be searched every time you get on the ship this never happened to us; it's only likely to happen if you're carrying bags that obviously look they contain food or drink (supermarket carrier bags spring to mind). A couple of girls told us that they'd had no problems smuggling booze on board, but we didn't speculate as to how they managed this and it might have been rude to ask.
The next step was registration; this took a bit longer than I was expecting, partly because there were so many people waiting to register and partly because when they did register they all seemed to be asking exactly the same questions of the staff at the reception desk (which were covered anyway later that evening at a welcome meeting). Another delay was that we had to register a credit card at reception; this is something that is not mentioned on the easycruise website but when you're checking into the ship you now have to give your credit card details; 50 euros per day of your cruise is then "set aside" on the card, meaning you can't access those funds on your credit card (although no money is actually taken from your card until the end of the cruise). If you don't have that kind of money on your credit card, or don't want to register a card you can make a cash deposit instead; if your on-board account exceeds your cash deposit you'll have to top it up (any unspent cash is returned to you when you check out of the ship). When you've registered you're given your ID card; this is very important as it acts as your room key, and you need to have it swiped every time you want to leave or get back on the ship. In addition, every time you buy something on board rather than paying in cash you have to hand your card over and whatever you've just bought is added to your on-board account. (You can check up how much you owe on your account any time at reception, half way through the cruise you're given an itemised interim statement showing exactly what you've spent and when, and you get another one when you settle your account at the end of the cruise). You're also given a little booklet containing a map of the ship, details of where all the passenger facilities are, and a greeting from Stelios himself, bless him.
After checking in it was time to have a look round the ship (this was Dave's third time on the easycruiseone so he knew pretty much what was what). Starting off in my room (or cabin, to use the nautical term), based on my previous trip in easycruise2 it was about what I was expecting; we had compact twin rooms (one each, thank God!); the beds are 2 mattresses on a raised platform at one end of the cabin, with a shelf above one of the beds. The beds seemed a bit bigger than on easycruise2 (my feet didn't hang off the end of the bed this time!), and unlike easycruise2 there was a drawer for storage under each bed. All cabins have a porthole (or round window, to use the non-nautical term); I was on deck 2 which was close to the waterline and the porthole didn't open; I don't know if those on higher decks were able to open theirs. There wasn't any air conditioning in the cabin, although there was a dial in the ceiling that could be twisted round to open or close it. What it actually opened or closed I have absolutely no idea. Anyway, my room never seemed to get too hot, although I didn't really spend all that much time in it. Each cabin has an en-suite bathroom with a toilet (nautical term = "head"), basin and mirror, and a shower. I could fit myself into it easily (the shower, not the toilet) so so can you. I'll basically stick to what I said about the cabins on easycruise2; for one person they're fine; for two you'd either have to midgets or sharing with someone you really, really like.
easycruiseone has six decks (I was going to say "floors to use a non-nautical term" but I think I've already beaten that "joke" to death...). The bottom deck is for the crew, and is off-limits to passengers. Deck 2 is passenger cabins, Deck 3 has more cabins, the ship's reception area (which is open 24 hours a day), the main exits, and a couple of "chill-out zones" - areas of comfy looking chairs and sofas which seemed popular with people who wanted to read or who wanted to play the board or card games that are available from reception. Deck 4 has cabins at the front and the main bar and restaurant, the imaginatively-titled "Restaurant on 4" at the back. More on that in a minute. At the back of Deck 5 is another bar, now known as the "Flocafe on Pool" (previously the "Sun and Moon Bar") which is an outdoor bar complete with some tables, benches, and an out-door hot-tub. More on that in a minute too. I think I probably spent more time on this deck than I did in my cabin. Also on Deck 5 (but indoors) are the sauna, and a spa where you can get massages and all sorts of cosmetic treatments that have names I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess as to what they meant. At the front of Deck 6 is the "Wellness Zone" where you'll find a couple of exercise bikes and a treadmill. It seemed to get about as much use as Anne Frank's drum kit. I stumbled across it by accident once and never returned... There might also be some sun beds up there but I couldn't swear to that. There's one small lift at the centre of the ship as well as a central staircase and stairs at the front and back of each deck. easycruiseone isn't huge; less than 90 metres long, with 108 cabins.
O.K., on to the food and drink on board, getting our priorities right we'll start with the drink. The only place to get draft beer is in the Restaurant on 4 and the only type of draft beer is Heineken. If you want bottled beer (from either bar) you can have Heineken again, Amstel, Carib, or canned Murphy's stout. For God's sake avoid the vile "Amstel Pulse" which Dave accidentally ordered when we'd drank all the Heineken on board; apparently it's low calorie and low carbohydrate which for a beer makes about as much sense as non-vegetarian tofu. It was vile, and we both struggled manfully to finish our bottles. And the prices? Expensive. For a pint of draft Heineken you'll have to fork out 5.50 euros. A 330 ml bottle of beer will set you back 4 euros. As I said, expensive but look at like this; you can book a cabin on easycruiseone for £20 a night. They have to make their money someway and if they do it by marking up the beer then that's fair enough. In fact, as beer swilling goons like me are basically subsidising the costs of everyone else's cheap cabins, if you ever see me on easycruise I think it's only fair that you buy me a drink to say thanks... OK a quick rant- whenever we drank on shore we tended to drink Greek Mythos beer, which is lovely stuff. So why don't they sell it on the ship? I think I'll send Stelios an email to suggest it... For those that aren't beer-monsters there's a decent range of wines (7 white, 4 reds, 2 rose), all of it Greek (don't turn your nose up, Greek wine can be lovely stuff, but I'll come back to that later) with prices ranging from 14 to 28 euros per bottle. You can also get spirits or cocktails, but these work out even more expensive than the beer. Apparently there are also soft drinks available, as well as tea and a variety of coffees. They went untasted by me. Now some good news - Happy Hour is between 7 and 8 pm, and all alcoholic drinks are half-price during this time (apart from bottles of wine, although if you drink it by the glass you'll get it half price). Do as we did and try and get as much down you as possible during Happy Hour (they have no objections to you buying 2 or 3 drinks just as the hour is coming to an end either, so you can keep some in reserve for later).
We ate on board a couple of times, both in the Restaurant on 4. The restaurant and bar on deck 5 are now operated by Flocafe, which I think is a Greek company (they also have restaurant by Marina Zea). There's a decent range of salads, snacks, pasta and other main courses, most of which have a distinctly Greek influence (fried squid, pasticcio, moussaka). Prices for a main course range from 8 to 15 euros (for the beef tenderloin). For some reason I had the burger both times I ate, and it was fine, a proper thick meaty burger rather than some thin, limp McDonald's equivalent, and which came on really nice fresh bread and came with potato wedges, salad, and a choice of barbeque or cheese sauces. Dave had the chicken olivada once, which he said was fine if a little small and for various reasons I can't really remember what he had the other time. Apparently you can have breakfast on board, but due to factors beyond my control I never made it there in time.... As I said, I thought the food was fine and also reasonably priced (especially compared with the mark-up on the drink). There's enough range (7 salads, 14 main courses) so that if you really wanted to you could eat something different every day, and there's also plenty of choice for vegetarians. Still, even though there were more things to choose from I didn't think that the menu was as adventurous as that on easycruise2 (or as cheap; which is probably why easycruise2 went bust!). And Dave said he'd preferred the food that was available on his previous 2 trips on easycruiseone. At the end of the day though you could go through the entire trip without once eating on board so just look at the restaurant on the ship as a back-up in case you're too lazy to go ashore, or if you can't find anywhere else to eat (which only happened to us in Kiato).
After a drink or three on deck 5 (we had to decide whether we preferred the Heineken or the Amstel) it was time to head down to the Restaurant on 4 for a welcome meeting.
This was our first chance to meet our fellow passengers and...., well they weren't what I was expecting. Over half were Americans, the rest seemed to be Brits; we didn't see anyone from Greece or any other European countries. And it was a more mature bunch than I was expecting, a lot of retirees and over-50s. There were plenty of younger people too, including a small group of American college students, some back-packer types, as well as a few couples, but I'd say me and Dave were among the youngest third on the boat (well, I probably was, maybe not 40 year-old Dave...). A lot of the Americans we talked to had been on "proper" (full service) cruises before, so easycruise must have come as a bit of a shock to them (and remember that the easy-brand and concept is pretty much unknown in the USA). But, in fairness to them the majority seemed to quickly get into the spirit of things and had fun (needless to say there was still a small minority of whingeing bastards moaning about the cost of everything, or how basic some things on the boat were, but you'll probably get some of them in any group. We just ignored them, or took the piss out of them behind their backs - like this!). And despite the presence of a few weirdos on the boat (I might have to include Dave and I in that number...) everyone seemed to get on pretty well. Although people tended to hang around in groups, it didn't feel cliquey, and it wasn't as if the Americans and Brits just kept to themselves. It was fun meeting people from different countries, backgrounds, and age groups. We got talking to lots of interesting people, had some wide-ranging conversations (but we could only find one American who admitted to liking George W. Bush!) and came away having made some new friends, always a nice bonus from a holiday.
The welcome meeting was also our introduction to the cruise director, Alex; half Greek-half Swedish, and most certainly good with colours... He got progressively more camp and his tannoy announcements more outlandish the longer the cruise went one. I have never heard anyone make the word "kiwi" (as in fruit) sound quite so suggestive, and the sight of him in his obscenely tight yoga pants is one that will be seared into my memory for a while yet. Still, he did tell us about the Swedish Bjorn Borg variation of salt, tequila and lemon, so for that I forgive him. An absolutely brilliant bloke, who did his job (keeping us entertained!) superbly. More on him later... We were also introduced to some of the other crew members, including Kelly, the Classical Greece coordinator; she came with us on all of the tours, was very knowledgeable, and gave us some fascinating talks. She also bought me a free drink (for being the only person on our coach able to name the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World; keep reading this site and you might just learn something!).
This was also a chance for passengers to ask any questions; this went on for rather longer than it should have as the result of a bunch of imbeciles asking exactly the same questions (to sum up - you can't do both of the optional tours on Ithaca as they both start at the same time, and they won't open the kitchen up early for you because you fancy having breakfast before everyone else. Sounds straightforward, but the number of times they had to repeat it....).
It was a happy coincidence that the welcome meeting ended just as happy hour began so we headed back upstairs to deck 5 to take advantage of that; it was actually a bit chilly up there (as it was on the other night we spent in Piraeus, the final Saturday night; there seemed to be quite a stiff breeze coming in off the sea) but beer helps keep a man warm so we coped. After happy hour we decided to hit dry land for a bit and went for a bit of a stroll round the Marina Zea, where there were some seriously expensive looking yachts, from all corners of the globe, with easycruiseone looking rather conspicuous at the end of the harbour, especially when it was all lit up.
There also seemed to be some pretty good bars and restaurants on the Marina but Dave was feeling lazy, and one of our great regrets about easycruise two is that we never really ate on board, so we headed back to the ship to get something to eat. As I said earlier, if you can remember that far back, I had a burger which fine, if not outstanding, and I can't quite remember what Dave had (actually, now I think of it, it may have been moussaka). A couple more beers on deck 5 and we headed off (separately!) for an early night.
An early night? you ask. I know, but we had a very full day ahead of us, as you'll find out when you read the next section!
By the way, despite my room apparently being right above the engines I slept pretty soundly, if not at great length, on the ship. Granted, that was partly to do with the Heineken and Mythos, but I think a combination of the fresh sea air and the gentle rocking of the boat meant .......zzzzzzzzzzz......
Day 2 - Kiato
The sun rose early on Monday morning, and surprisingly I was there to see it. The easycruise newsletter said that we'd be sailing through the Corinth Canal at 7am and so not wanting to miss this I set my alarm, dragged myself out of bed, knocked on the wall between our cabins to interrupt whatever foul activity Dave was engaged in, and then headed out on deck to see the canal. I had to wait for a bit.... In the end we didn't actually enter the canal until just after 8, but it was nice to stay on deck get some fresh air. The boat was sailing through the Saronic Gulf, and the views were amazing; high mountains on all sides, some of the tallest still capped with snow, a few rocky islands, and of course there was also the sunrise. I'm not really a man who is generally around to witness sunrises. I've seen a few in Prague, but that was when I'd been up all night drinking so I wasn't really in any condition to appreciate them. Anyway, this one seemed particularly fine, I might have to make an effort to see a few more of them in the future. There was quite a stiff breeze coming in off the shore but it felt like a pretty warm breeze to me which made Dave, huddled up under his wooly hat like a gay Compo, look rather unmanly.
For a while it looked as though we were sailing directly towards a wall of solid rock, like an even more slow motion Speed 2, but eventually a tug boat appeared and the easycruiseone was roped to it, and the entrance to the canal appeared.
The Corinth Canal is less than 4 miles long so compared to the likes of the Suez and the Panama it's a bit of a tiddler. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land that connects the Peloponnesian peninsula with the rest of the Greek mainland. The alternative to sailing through the canal is to sail 250 miles around the peninsula. Although there are records of plans to cut a canal through the Isthmus dating back to the 7th century BC, and both Julius Caesar and Nero also thought it would be a good idea, construction on the current canal didn't start until 1881, and it took 12 years to finish. The story goes that the ancient Corinthians asked the Oracle at Delphi if it would be a good idea to build a canal and the Oracle replied in the negative (if only the organisers of the Millennium Dome had thought to consult the Oracle of Delphi!), so instead they built a road across the Isthmus, and dragged boats out of the water and across the Isthmus by road.
Large boats have to be pulled through by a tug, but given the narrowness of the canal (just over 21 metres wide) many modern cruise liners are too wide for it. The easycruiseone is not a large boat, and it times it felt like we could reach out and touch the walls on either side. I suppose this is what most impresses about the Corinth Canal, having the walls so close by and looming up above you. Needless to say the canal is only open in one direction at time, as overtaking or turning round would be impossible. The journey through the canal takes half an hour or so and honestly, it's something that you really shouldn't miss.
After the trip through the canal it was time for the evacuation drill. Basically this involved everyone going back to their cabins, putting on their life jackets, and then following the crew's direction to one of the decks where a roll-call of all the passenger's was taken to make sure that there were no lazy bastards still asleep. The evacuation drill is a requirement under Greek law, and at least we were given plenty of notice of it. Had the alarm gone off while I was in the shower, or enjoying a well-deserved lie-in I might have been a bit perturbed.
It was a short sail from the canal to the port of Kiato, where the easycruiseone docked for the day. Kiato is a small modern port. While there are useful things like shops, a post office, and banks there's nothing really to see there and we found it the least interesting of all the ports that the easycruiseone visited. From Kiato we loaded up on the coach (actually, there were 3 coaches. And when we boarded and they were checking our names off against the passenger list I was horrified to be informed that I hadn't even been given my own name, I was down as Dave's "plus one". It wasn't the last time that that little misunderstanding popped up on the cruise...) which took us to the site of our first guided tour - Corinth, about a 40 minute ride away.
There has been a city on the site of ancient Corinth since the 1000 BC, although there has been some form of human settlement here since around 5000 BC. For a while the city was even a rival to Athens, taking advantage of its domination of the land and sea trade routes across the Isthmus, and was also renowned for its Temple of Aphrodite and the hundreds of prostitutes who worked there. They're all gone now. In 146 BC Corinth was destroyed by the Romans, although they were good enough to rebuild it nearly a century later, making it the capital of their province of Achaea. Around 50 AD Corinth had an extended visit from its most famous temporary inhabitant, St. Paul. Maybe nobody told him that the prostitutes had gone either. Over the following centuries the city survived various invasions, occupations, and earthquakes but it had lost most of the prestige it held in ancient times, and by the 19th century the site of the city had moved nearer to the coast where it is now imaginatively known as New Corinth. A small village was left over the site of Ancient Corinth which, with the exception of the Temple of Apollo, was almost completely buried. The first archaeological excavation took place in 1892, and since 1896 there has been an almost continuous program of excavation carried out by the American School of Classical Studies (the early Greek state, deciding it had better things to do with its limited resources than dig up old cities, invited foreigners in to do the job for them; as well as the Americans the Brits, French, and Germans have all been involved at different sites).
A quick word about how the tours worked. Each bus had its own local guide who stayed with us for the whole day. To save having 120 people traipsing round each site at the same time each coach group started at a different part of the site and then worked their way around it so that no one part of the site got totally swamped. Of course if you want you're perfectly free to ignore the guides and wander round at your leisure, but I'd definitely recommend sticking around for at least a little while to listen to what the guide has to say. Sometimes it was hard to visualise exactly what appeared to be not much more than a pile of rubble really was; having a guide along to explain what the building was, what it's purpose was, and how it fitted in with the rest of the city was extremely helpful.
The important thing to remember is that with a few notable exceptions most of the remains that can be seen at Corinth today are those of the rebuilt Roman city, rather than the Ancient Greek one. Roman Corinth was a wealthy and important town so you can see the remains of the agora (Town Square) complete with rows of shops, temples, and a basilica (although probably not the one where St Paul had to publicly defend himself and Christianity; that's now reckoned to be the Julia Basilica, on the east side of the city. As if anyone reading this site is likely to be interested...). You can also see the Roman public toilets (a row of holes with a channel running underneath them. Everything was done in public, negating the need for a glory hole). Although some of the buildings seem no more than piles of bricks and fragments of pillars, a few are well preserved and survive to quite a height, and some of the streets are actually still paved with big marble slabs.
The most obvious remains from the Ancient Greek city are the Glauke Fountain and the Temple of Apollo. The Glauke Fountain is one the first things you see as you enter the site, a cubic building that has been cut directly out of the bedrock. I thought it was a modern toilet block at first, but it is actually one of the old city's reservoirs. Our guide told us that the top of the Glauke Fountain was the ground level for the whole site before the excavations started, which gives you a good idea of how much earth has been shifted over the years (and more impressively how much rock the ancient Greeks and Romans must have quarried). .The fountain gets its name from the second wife of Jason (he of the Argonauts fame); Jason's first wife, Medeia, was understandably a bit put out about being traded in for a younger model and so sent Glauke a wedding present of a poisoned coat. The dozy bint put it on and then had to jump in the fountain to relieve the pain of the poison, thus poisoning the water supply for the entire city. Selfish bitch.
The Temple of Apollo was built sometime around 550 BC. Seven huge pillars and three lintels still stand today, which considering the number of earthquakes and other general devastation that has been visited upon Corinth over the last 2500 years makes their survival pretty amazing. The temple totally dominates the city, as it was intended to do in ancient times. As well as the standing pillars the floor plan of the rest of the temple has also been well preserved, and there are the remains of a few toppled pillars too (see photo above). Our guide was quite impressed by the fact that the pillars are made out of one big lump of rock, rather than being built in sections. Maybe that's why they've survived so long.
There's a small museum on the site too, which houses some of the artifacts that have been found during the excavations. There are lots of statues (most without their heads), tombstones, bits of pottery, and some very fine Roman frescoes. Just outside the main site are the remains of a couple of theatres one built by the Romans and one originally built by the Greeks. The steep hill that rises behind the city is the Acrocorinth. The ancient Corinthians had a fort up there but what you can see today is the remains of a medieval castle, originally built by the Byzantines and then added to by the Venetians and the Ottomans. We didn't climb up there.
To be honest, I could have done with a bit more time at Corinth. It's a big site and there was lots of it that I didn't manage to see. Still, it was time to go back to the coaches (you're asked to stay in the same coach all day so they can count the number of passengers and make sure nobody has been left behind) and head to the next site; Mycenae.
Mycenae was about a 40 minute drive from Corinth, an interesting drive too through wine country, we saw lots of vineyards and plenty of little road-side stalls selling wine from plastic bottles. Sadly, the coach didn't stop at any of them (but as Dave was to later astutely point out drinking alcohol from plastic bottles rarely ends well. As you'll find out in Itea).
According to legend Mycenae was founded by the hero Perseus, its walls were built by the Cyclops, and one of its kings was Agamemnon. The actual history is no less fascinating. There has been human settlement on the site of the city for over 5000 years. The city started to develop in around 2000 BC and reached its zenith in around 1450 BC as the centre of a great trading empire that spanned the Mediterranean, and beyond (with trading links as far a field as Britain, in fact). Mycenae's decline started with a big fire in around 1200 BC, and the city was almost destroyed in 468 BC as a result of the political fall out of the Persian Wars. Mycenae began its slide into obscurity, remembered only in the legends, although the huge city walls and the Lions Gate always remained standing. The city wasn't really put back on the map until Heinrich Schliemann's excavations of the site in 1876. Schliemann is a controversial figure, regarded by many as the father of modern archaeology his basic aim was to try and prove that the Greek myths (and especially the Trojan War) were historical events, as a result many of his conclusions were distorted as he attempted to make the archaeological evidence match up to the myths. After Schliemann more academic and comprehensive excavations were carried out by British and Greek archaeologists.
Before going to Mycenae itself we stopped off at what the tourist guidebooks call The Tomb of Agamemnon (and the historical books call The Treasury of Atreus), which is about 2 minutes' walk down the road from the main site. Whatever you want to call it, it's spectacular, a 3,400 year-old stone tomb that has been built into the side of a hill. Even though there's nothing left of the original exterior or internal decoration, and the tomb was looted in antiquity so we don't know what was originally in it, but it's still an amazing structure (and nice and cool inside too), with successive levels of stone tapering to a domed ceiling at the top. The huge stone over the top of the doorway is reckoned to weigh 120 tonnes, which according to our guide makes it the heaviest single stone ever used by the ancient Greeks.
From the Tomb/Treasury we all got back in the coach for the 30 second ride to Mycenae itself. The site is perched on a low hill, standing between 2 much higher and steeper hills. This is the site of Mycenae's citadel or acropolis, and consists of a fortress and the royal palace. Most of the actual city of Mycenae, the places where ordinary people lived and worked has yet to be uncovered by the archaeologists. Get on with it you lazy bastards.
The first thing you notice as you approach the city are the walls, they're enormous made up of huge blocks of rock that have been fitted so tightly together that the builders didn't need to use mortar. They run for most of the way round the edge of the fortress, apart from where one section has collapsed into a ravine. They've survived for over 3500 years and god knows how many earthquakes and they still look impregnable, you can see why the ancient Greeks might have thought they couldn't have been built by man, especially as they are believed to have once been much taller than they are now. You enter the city through the Lion's Gate, named for the carving of 2 headless lions above it. The gate was designed to be entered by people in chariots, although sadly we had to do it on foot. The round stone-lined pits on your right is a grave circle, excavated by Schliemann and found to contain numerous royal burials, and some spectacular artifacts, many of them gold (no less than 15 kilos of gold, it is reckoned; I think they've taken it all out by now), including the face masks now found in the Archaeological Museum in Athens (when he dug up the masks Schliemann claimed to have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon; utter bollocks of course, especially considering Agamemnon was murdered by his wife when he returned from the Trojan War, it seems unlikely she'd have given him a posh funeral and a golden mask afterwards). A modern concrete path zig zags up the hill and around the site and you're pretty much free to wander round where you want. We climbed up to the top of the hill, which is where the Royal Palace once stood, although the remains up here are not as well preserved as they are further down the site, and then walked round the lines of the walls for a bit. The views from the city are beautiful, with rolling olive tree covered hills leading up to the high mountains behind the city, and The Argolic plain stretching down to the sea in front.
Around the back end of the city you'll find the water supply, a small cistern and a doorway built into the walls that's the entrance to a tunnel cut through the solid rock that eventually leads down to a well fed by a spring located outside the city walls. You can go down into the tunnel if you want. As there are no lights a torch would be a good idea, we tried using the lights from our cameras or mobile phone screens to light the way but that didn't really work. The roof of the tunnel is low, so watch you head, the steps going down are quite steep and slippy too. I only managed about 20 steps, down to the first landing, before I'd had enough and turned back (not the easiest manoeuver in the world, I have the turning circle of an oil tanker). Apparently after the first landing there are two more sets of steps and a couple of right angle turns before you finally reach the well, but bloody hell it's dark down there and that was one of the few times in my life that I've ever felt claustrophobic. Nobody I spoke to made it all the way down to the well, and to be honest even if you told me that there was a free bar with topless barmaids I don't think I'd go back down there again. Not without one of those helmets with a torch stuck on it anyway. After emerging joyously into the bright, fresh air again we followed the walls across the northern end of the city; there's another gateway in the middle of this wall, smaller and much less grand than the Lion's Gate, I think this must have been the pedestrian entrance. Following the wall round brought us back to the Lion Gate so we headed back towards our coach, stopping off at the snack bar in the coach park for a well earned can of ice cold beer (I make no apologies for this, it was a hot day, it was nearly 3pm and we hadn't touched a drop all day, and we'd just had that nasty underground shock), and to chat with a few people about what we'd seen (hello, Tracey!). Anyway, that beer went down particularly well...
We all piled back in the coaches for the drive down to the modern city of Mycenae (which appeared to be one main street full of shops selling nothing other than tourist tat, reproduction Greek vases and plaster owls, that kind of thing; sadly we didn't get chance to check it out). It was dinner time, a good job too seeing as though I'd skipped breakfast. We were taken to a place called Kolizaras Restaurant, a huge white building on the edge of the town, complete with fountains and pillars like a fake Greek temple, and probably the only the only place in Mycenae big enough to accommodate a party of 120, including one particularly fat and hungry Lancastrian. There was no choice of food everyone got lamb and potatoes (apart from the veggies who could have some kind of fish thing, I think) but it was delicious, the potatoes were cooked in olive oil and herbs, the lamb was fatty but unbelievably tender, it just dripped off the bone and melted in your mouth. The desert, Greek yogurt drizzled with honey was very good too. This was definitely the best of the restaurants that we were taken to as part of the tours. As for drinks water was free, but if you wanted anything else you had to pay. The freshly squeezed orange juice was highly rated, and one couple on our table tried some of the Greek wine which they said was very good. Having already had had one beer apiece Dave and I decided not to risk mixing our drinks and opted for the Mythos. By the way, several of the whingeing bastards on our table (American, elderly, Republican) refused to order any drinks on the grounds that they thought they'd get ripped off. Of course they could have simply asked the waiter who'd have told them how much everything cost, in the end I think our beers came to around 2.50 euros each so hardly what you'd call a rip off, considerably cheaper than drinking on the boat in fact. This wasn't to be the last time that we heard certain passengers on the boat (American, elderly, Republican) constantly complaining that everyone in Greece was out to overcharge them. God knows what they'd have said had they encountered our taxi-driving bastard in Piraeus, probably headed straight back to the airport and to the safety of the States.
From here it was about an hour's ride back to Kiato. When we arrived back Dave headed in the direction of his cabin for..... well, I've no desire to know what for. I decided to snoop around town a bit. There wasn't really much to see. The Post Office was closed (it closed at 12.30 according to sign on the door), as were most of the shops. A few bars were open, but no tavernas and restaurants, as far as I could see. Anyway, it was still fairly early and I was hopeful that things would be a bit livelier later in the evening, but for the time being I headed back to the boat, more specifically to the bar on deck 5 to make sure that I was there in good time for the start of Happy Hour.
Surprisingly we didn't stick around for the whole of Happy Hour as there was an event in the Restaurant on 4 that had captured our interest, a wine tasting session! This was presented by Boutari wineries, who produce all the wine served on the easycruiseone. We were given the chance to sample 5 different wines (so not all the wines available on board); 2 whites, 1 rosé, and 2 reds. It started off fairly civilised and organised, with the waitresses going round making sure everyone got a sample of each wine (they were pretty good sized samples, around a third of a glass, and needless to say nobody was spitting it out into a bucket), but then things degenerated a bit, and by the end of it hardly anybody was paying attention to the poor chap from the winery, and people were just coming up and helping themselves to the bottles, even before he'd started to talk about that wine. Still, I'm not one to complain about free alcohol. And with the possible exception of the rosé I really enjoyed all the wines; the whites were light and refreshing, the reds a bit rough but with quite a distinctive character (Dave claimed he didn't like the reds at all but he's a wine philistine, you can ignore his opinion).
Holding the wine tasting was a good idea, and not just because it allowed us to get tanked up on free booze. Greek wine isn't really all that well known, and some of the unfamiliar grape varieties and names on the label could be a bit off-putting. The chance to show off how good Greek wine can be, and to give people the chance to decide which particular bottle they liked was definitely worthwhile. That said, I had some reservations, particularly about the timing of it. Holding it during happy hour was just cruel on us, and having it when the restaurant was still packed with people eating their evening meal wasn't the best idea either, with the wine-swillers getting in the way of people trying to use the buffet, and the food-stuffers having wine forced upon them that they didn't necessarily want and which us pissheads would have been quite happy to finish off. OK, maybe that last bit wasn't true... The restaurant was so packed that we had to stand at the front, which turned out to be the best place to be as it was nearest the bottles.
Anyway, by the time the wine tasting was over I was rocking a bit, so I decided to have another stroll into town to take in some fresh air and hopefully find something to eat. It was not to be. The fresh air part was fine, obviously, but I spent 40 minutes walking round the town centre and couldn't see anything that looked like it was serving food, at least not in the quantities that I required. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Kiato, after all we were there at the beginning of March so the tourist season hadn't started, but this was only place on the cruise where we had this problem. So in the end there was nothing else for it but to head back to the boat. I made it back to the Restaurant on 4 to find that Dave had been adopted by a group of mature Americans (it's strange how tourists often take pity on stray animals) who judging by their demeanor had been somewhat over-served in the course of the evening (we'd started talking to them at the wine tasting and they were pretty well oiled before that even started). Still, they were very nice and we ended up giving them lessons in British swearing (they asked!). Anyway, we finally got some food; for some reason I decided to have another burger while Dave had the chicken olivada, and to wash it down we ordered a bottle of wine. Each. Dave had a bottle of one of the whites (Moschofilero), I tried one of the reds (Semeli, which hadn't been part of the wine-tasting, but it was gorgeous, much nicer than the ones we'd sampled earlier). Needless to say that didn't really improve our condition, and although things start to become a little hazy from this point on we ended up at the bar on deck 5 again, Heineken was involved, as was dancing. I could not state with any great accuracy what time I went to bed.
Like I said, a very full day. Don't worry, tomorrow is a bit less hectic.
Day 3 - Ithaca
Some time late on Tuesday morning the ship sailed into the harbour at Vathy, capital of the island of Ithaca. For reasons that may have been in some way connected to the previous evening's wine consumption I wasn't out of my cabin to witness it... Ithaca is one of the Ionian islands, to the north of Kefalonia, and according to legend was the home of Odysseus, hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey. "According to legend" can be translated as "there isn't any actual evidence for it" but in fairness to the island apart from the obligatory Odysseus hotels and tavernas, a rather camp statue of the man himself in the town, and the identification of a few sites on the island and places mentioned in the legends they don't push the dubious connection too far.
Ithaca was the only spot on the itinerary where there wasn't a pre-arranged tour, although it was possible to sign up at reception the day before to go on one of two trips (which, as they set of at the same time meant you couldn't do both of them, a fact that appeared to cause a great deal of confusion among certain passengers...), either a long hike to a couple of the sites associated with Odysseus or a coach trip around the north of the island (which according to some of the people we spoke to who went on it involved a rather unpleasant combination of narrow, steep twisting roads and a slightly too large coach). We opted for a lazy day and signed up for neither.
We spent what was left of the morning exploring Vathy town. Vathy is built around a huge natural harbour (one of the world's largest, I've been told), home to a few small fishing boats, surrounded by green hills that in turn climb into some high mountains. The town itself is a thin ribbon of buildings around the water's edge, a collection of multi-coloured cottages, tavernas and shops, with a few graceful churches. Basically, if you were asked to picture an idyllic Greek island village it would probably look something like this [the preceding paragraph is © 2008].
The town isn't big; it took me less than 15 minutes to walk from where the ship was docked round to the opposite end of the harbour, and I wasn't hurrying. Although many buildings on the island were destroyed in an earthquake in 1953 it still looks picturesque enough, and some of the churches at least seem to have survived the earthquake (who says praying doesn't work?). On a more practical level Vathy also boasts a post office, a small supermarket and some other food shops, some tourist-tat shops, a moped rental outfit (which we resisted the temptation of, wisely I think), some cafes on what passes for the main town square, and a decent collection of tavernas and restaurants.
Having skipped breakfast, as usual, we settled down for a quick snack at one of those main square cafes. Well, I settled down for a quick snack, that fat bastard Dave decided to order a huge pizza, although in fairness to him he did let me have a slice of it, and very nice it was too. After that we decided to go on a hike; the fact that we had no directions, a map, or a compass was no obstacle to us. As you might have guessed, neither of us was in the boy scouts. At least not when we were boys....
Dave's Rough Guide mentioned a long walk to some Odysseus-connected spring that was supposed to be sign-posted, but having walked round the length of the harbour front we couldn't find the damned thing (a lady on the boat who did eventually make it to the spring told us that the sign-post was at the end of the walk, which probably explains our inability to find it) so instead we decided to improvise. Normally that's a recipe for disaster, but this time things worked out pretty well. The route we took went past the town's small archaeological museum and then we turned right (in-land, up-hill, and away from the town) when we reached the yellow church with the tall spire. It was a pretty challenging walk (by our standards) climbing up the side of a pretty steep hill, and very energy-sapping (by our standards) especially as it was a hot day and once we'd left Vathy there wasn't an open taverna to be found. The amazing scenery of the interior of the island more than made up for our exertions, and after a few treks up dead-ends in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the actual summit of the hill we carried on heading in-land and were rewarded with the views of the coast on the other side of the island; a deserted bay, a pristine looking beach, and deep turquoise sea. Something rather like this in fact.
Having had a glimpse of such a Paradise we decided that we could hardly turn back, even though there didn't appear to be any tavernas there either, and so we headed off down the other side of the hill towards the sea (although there was the nagging fear in the back of my mind that once we actually reached the beach Dave might suggest a spot of skinny-dipping, in which case I'd probably have sprinted all the way back to Vathy and locked myself in my cabin for the remainder of the week...). Anyway we made it, and although up-close it was a bit of a disappointment (the thing about deserted beaches is that there's no one around to clear up all the crap that washes up) the water was still clear and cool (I know this because I dipped my fingers in it; no skinny dipping for us, we being manly men), the fresh sea air was most invigorating, and we had the sense of achievement of reaching a place untouched by human footfall since someone had lit a camp fire there a day or so previously.
Of course, the problem with marching miles to these deserted coves is that you then have to march all the way back again... But we made it, and in the end it took us only about an hour to walk back to Vathy, partly because we walked straight back without taking any of the diversions we'd taken on the way there and partly because we had the thought of a cool Mythos spurring us on...
Unfortunately by the time we got back to Vathy the archaeological museum had closed so we decided to find a bar instead. Actually the bar found us... As we were walking past one a couple of blokes we didn't initially recognise started waving at us and calling us over. I'm not one to resist an invitation like that, especially when it's coming from bar, and we got a bit closer we recognised them as a couple of the easycruise crew, Konstantinos the barman and Giorgios (George) the DJ who were off-duty and having a couple of drinks with one of the girls from reception (who's name I'm afraid I can't remember) and they invited us to join them, which was very considerate of them. So rather than the quick drink to slake our thirsts that we'd been planning on we spent a very pleasant couple of hours which involved a handful of beers and a wide-ranging and rather eclectic conversation (can conversations be eclectic? I don't see why not...). Anyway, I can't remember the name of the bar but it was on the other side of the road from the water front, right at the furthest end of the harbour and pretty much opposite the entrance to the harbour, a big building with a lot of tables and fat palm trees in the courtyard, set round what appears to be a pool (which is actually part of the harbour; there's a tunnel going under the road, which means that the pool is full of fish; try crunching up some crisps and throwing them into the water and you'll soon attract hundreds of the buggers. You might want to bring a net...). There's only one bar in Vathy that looks like that, so it should be easy to find. Dave also had a look inside the place (he wanted to check out the toilets; it's a proclivity of his...) and reported that it looked rather posh inside. It might have been a restaurant too for all I know, all I can tell you is that they serve Mythos and crisps.
After that we headed back to the boat for a very leisurely, Heineken-fuelled evening. We took our normal place on the outdoor deck on deck five and before long Dave ended up in the hot tub; to cover my shame and avert my gaze from such a grotesque spectacle I caught up on my postcard writing but, shamefully, at a certain point in the evening I'd sunk enough Heineken to overcome any inhibitions I had previously had, and I'm afraid I have to report that I ended up in the hot tub too.... A quick word about the hot tub. First of all it's pretty small; 6 people can fit in it reasonably comfortably (possibly less if 2 of them happen to be me and Dave), but if you tried to fit any more than that in I think you could officially classify it as an orgy. Second, there's only one tub. If you want to wait until it's empty before getting in you might be waiting for a while. So, if there's space in there hop in and introduce yourself. Naturally, for a repressed Brit hopping into a hot-tub with a bunch of complete strangers is a bit of an alien concept, but after you've done it once you'll get used to it. Hell, even I was getting the hang of it by the end of the cruise, although that probably had something to do with the rivers of Heineken I was knocking back... [The preceding paragraph was sponsored by Heineken - "The Best Beer On easycruiseone"]
So anyway, back to the hot tub. How to describe such pleasures? A band of angels spraying your body with warm champagne? OK, that'd probably be a bit of an exaggeration, but by crikey it felt pretty damned good in there...After an hour so I felt rejuvenated enough to have walked all the way around the island. The only downsides are that you have to get out of the tub to stock up on fresh drinks and it can be so hot in there that your beer can get warm quickly (obvious solution - drink the beer before this happens...). Needless to say that wasn't the last time I ended up in there, but I'll come to that later, and I'm now trying to figure out a way of fitting a hot-tub into my flat. It'd probably mean getting rid of my kitchen, but what the hell... And I could always use it to boil eggs.
After a few hours of such indulgence we headed back into town in search of a bite to eat. We'd spotted one or two rather fancy looking restaurants on our earlier explorations but we both felt in need of something a bit more down to earth, and substantial. We ended up in a place called Kalkanis Taverna, which seemed to be full of fellow easycruise passengers, but which best of all had a collection of rather fat waiters which I always find, as regular readers of this site will know, is the sign of an impending good feed. We weren't disappointed. Dave had the chicken souvlaki, big chunks of marinated grilled chicken on a spit. I had a mixed grill, which was a combination of lamb and chicken kebab meat, but it also came with liver (which I'm not too keen on, possibly because eating it reminds me of the state of my own; most of that got fed to a cat... He seemed to like it.) Very nice it all was too, far tastier and much less fatty than what you'd get from a kebab shop in the UK, and it was the first time I've been served kebab meat on an actual plate! You live and learn. The taverna has its own website.
Anyway we headed back to the boat, and had a couple of quick ones for the road on deck 5. The hot tub was still open (officially it closes at 12 but they were flexible about this; as long as people were still in it and the bar was still open they seemed to keep it going) and I was tempted, but it was absolutely packed so it had to wait for another day...
Ithaca was one of the days on the cruise I enjoyed most. The feeling of being on an island helped, as did the fact that Vathy is such a charming town. But I think the main thing was that in the middle of organised tours it was nice just to have a free day, where we could do as much or as little as we wanted, and at our own pace (or lack of it).
Day 4 - Patras
Easycruiseone spent Wednesday in Patras, the largest city on the Peleponnese and the third largest in Greece. Although today for the most part the city looks like a fairly ugly modern port it has ancient roots and its setting, with the sea in front and snow-capped mountains rising steeply behind, is spectacular. We didn't have the chance to explore the city during the day, which seems a shame as apparently there are a few interesting sites scattered among all that nasty modern concrete. There's a Roman Odeon that is still used as a theatre; a castle in the upper city, originally built by the Romans on the site of Patras' ancient acropolis, then modified by the Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans; and the Church of Agios Andreas (apparently the biggest church in the Balkans, although several others also make that claim) built on the site of the crucifixion of St. Andrew. Personally, if I lived in a city that had murdered a close, personal friend of Jesus I'd try and keep it quiet rather than building a huge church to celebrate the fact....
Anyway, the main focus of our day wasn't Patras but the site of Ancient Olympia which was nearly 2 hours away by coach, by far the furthest distance we had to travel to visit any of the sites on the cruise.
The site of Olympia was probably first settled in around 3000 BC; by 2000 BC it had ceased to become a place of settlement and was a mainly a religious site, initially dedicated to all the Gods, but by 1000 BC it was mainly devoted to the worship of Zeus. Don't you just love all these nice, round dates? If you want something more precise the first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC, and according to legend were either founded by King Pelops (after whom the Peleponnese is named) or Herakles. The games were Pan-Hellenic, meaning they were open to anyone who spoke Greek, and further games were held at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia (near Corinth). The games were held under a sacred truce, meaning that athletes on their way to the games could not be harassed, and forbidding violence at the site of the games themselves, an important consideration seeing as the city states that took part at the games were frequently at war with one another. They were held every 4 years and only lasted for 5 days, although the athletes had to be at Olympia for 30 days before the games got under way to train under the strict supervision of the judges. All the athletes and judges had to declare an oath to uphold the rules and ideals of the games while standing on the genitals of a goat. Quite how the goat felt about this arrangement is not recorded. Winners received ever-lasting fame and glory and a crown of olive leaves, everyone else got bugger all. The games were later adopted by the Romans (the Emperor Nero was declared the winner of the chariot race, even though he cheated; they waited until he died before stripping him of the title), who made many additions to the site but in 393 AD the Byzantine-Roman Emperor Theodisius I decreed that the games should cease. In 426 Theodisius II had Olympia burned; what a miserable pair of bastards. Whatever was left was further damaged by 2 huge earthquakes in the 6th century AD, and by the 7th century the site was finally abandoned, to be gradually silted over by the flooding of the nearby River Alphios. The site was rediscovered in the 19th century and was initially excavated by the French, but once most of their finds started appearing in the Louvre the Greek Government replaced them with the Germans, who are still working at Olympia today (not the exact same ones, obviously). Olympia was spruced-up and the museum renovated to celebrate the Athens Olympic Games of 2004. In 2007 huge tracts of the Peleponnese were devastated by fires; the flames came literally within feet of Olympia before an unexpected change in the direction of the wind saved the site. Maybe Zeus still keeps an eye on the place after all?
Going in through the main entrance you get a good idea of the different ages of occupation of the site. On the left are some fairly well-preserved Roman baths, on the right the older ancient Greek gymnasium, built in the 2nd century BC as a place for the athletes to train. We headed left, towards the stadium, passing fist the Philippeion, a round shrine, started by King Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC and completed by his slightly more famous son, Alexander the Great. It has been recently restored, and even though only 3 of its pillars have been re-stacked it still looks very nice. Next door to the Philippeion is the Temple of Hera, built in around 600 BC. Again, only a few of the pillars have been re-assembled, but the layout of the temple is easy to make out, and some of the interior walls are still standing (although not to their full height) so it's not too difficult to imagine how it would have originally looked. To the east of the Temple is the Altar of Hera; it is here that the Olympic flames are lit (using a magnifying glass), the torch is then carried around the world to mark the approach of the next Olympic Games. This "tradition" was actually the idea of the Nazis who devised it for the Berlin Games of 1936. The tradition was later refined by the Chinese who surrounded the torch with a band of track-suited thugs to beat up any protestors who come near it. Just to the north, and on the edge of the site is a row of small buildings called the treasuries, each one built by one of the different Greek city-states that took part in the games to house loot and offerings to the Gods. Just before you reach the stadium you'll see a row of empty plinths; these used to the bases of statues. Anyone caught cheating at the games had to pay for a bronze statue Zeus; on the base of the statue the cheat's name was engraved, along with his offence. Sounds a good idea to me, although if they were ever to revive the tradition there probably wouldn't be enough bronze in the world to make all the statues they'd need...
OK, you've now arrived at the Olympic stadium. The entrance to it is down a little tunnel known as the Krypte (the arch over the entrance to it is Roman); this is the entrance that was only used by the athletes, judges, priests and other officials. The spectators would just climb over the banks. Inside the stadium the sides are made up of grass banks. Apart from a few seats for the officials all the spectators would have just sat on the grass. As the athletes competed stark bollock naked (good job they didn't have events like the pole vault back then...) married women weren't allowed in, although in what seems a sensible compromise unmarried girls were allowed to letch away. I wonder how easy it was to lie about your marital status back then (although considering the penalty for a married woman caught watching the games was to be thrown off a mountain, maybe not many risked it). On the rest day during the games there were races for the girls to take part in, and although they sadly didn't take part au naturel, apparently the tunics they did wear didn't leave much to the imagination... Bloody hell, if only someone had invented the video camera a few millennia earlier. The stadium as it appears now is believed to be the third stadium at Olympia; the others were located closer to the centre of the site, and it is thought that they weren't surrounded by embankments. The stadium would have held over 40,000 people, but none of the books I have read have made any mention of there being any of the facilities that you'd expect at a modern stadium, such as a pie stall or toilets for the spectators. The total length of the track is 212 metres, although the distance between the start and finish lines (both still visible as a row of stones) is 192 metres. All events were run in straight lines, so there was none of this "accelerating off the bend" nonsense.
Anyway, here we were at the original Olympic stadium, so there was only one thing to do - race! Out of respect for our fellow easycruisers, all the other tourists who were there, the Olympic spirit, the Greek nation, and humanity in general we decided not to do it with complete authenticity and so we kept our pants on. We also considered that as everyone else had decided to run up and down the track we would do something original, and as walking is now an Olympic event we decided to do that. I won. I didn't actually bother to let Dave know that we were racing, which may have partly explained my victory, but nevertheless I won.
After recovering from our race we left the stadium. The big building (or to be more accurate, pile of stones and pillars) on the left as you exit the stadium is known as the Echo Stoa as when it used to have walls and a roof it also used to have an echo. From here we headed towards the centre of the site and what was once its grandest building, the Temple of Zeus. The temple was built between 470 and 456 BC and used to house the 40 foot high marble, ivory, and gold Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. When Theodisius II ordered the temple to be burned he first had the statue removed and it was carted off to Byzantium where it was destroyed, ironically or through divine retribution, in a fire in 475 AD. There's not much left standing of the temple, although one of the pillars was reassembled in 2004 and gives some idea of the vast scale of the building. To make the temple appear even more imposing it was built on a raised platform which has survived and which still takes a bit of effort to climb on top off, the outline and ground plan of the temple can still easily be made out, and the whole temple is surrounded by huge chunks of masonry and stacks of toppled pillars.
There was still plenty more to see at Olympia, but unfortunately we weren't given enough time to look at it all. We did have chance to go into the Workshop of Pheidas. Pheidas was a sculptor; he worked on the Parthenon in Athens but he also created the Statue of Zeus (in this very building). The dimensions of his workshop are the same as those of the temple, probably to help him to work out how to best fit the statue in the temple. The workshop was later turned into an early Christian bascillica, some elements of which can still be made out. Among the other things we had time to have a quick look at were more Roman baths and hostels, and the Palaistra which was used for the education and training of the athletes. The site of Olympia is big, and parts of yet have to be fully excavated (other parts, such as the Hippodrome, where horse racing and chariot events were held, are believed to have been washed away by the river). To take everything in would have required much more time than we had there. One of the good things about Olympia is that even with the hordes of tourist groups that infest the site you can still find an isolated spot for a bit of peaceful contemplation, if you so choose.
From the main site we headed off to the Archaeological Museum, a 5 minute walk away and reckoned to be one of the finest of its type in Greece, which houses many of the finds found in the excavations of Olympia. So what can I tell you about the museum? Well.... The toilets are clean and modern and the cafe sells cold, reasonably priced Lowenbrau. Look I'm sorry, but it was a nice sunny day, I still hadn't quite recovered from our race down the stadium, or the euphoria of winning it and I'm basically an idle borderline alcoholic so I decided to skip the museum and sit on a bench outside with a can of beer instead. Anyway, according to the guidebook I bought among the treasures you'll find inside the museum are a collection of ancient bronze figures, lots of bronze helmets (including the helmet of Miltiades, the Athenian general who won the Battle of Marathon; he donated the helmet to the Temple of Zeus as a way of giving thanks for his victory), and the sculptures that were originally on the outside of the Temple of Zeus. There's also a marble statue of Hermes, noted for what were considered to be his ideal physique, and for having a very small knob. According to Kelly, easycruiseone's Classical Greece co-ordinator the Ancient Greeks believed that having a small penis was a sign that you were civilised. I can safely say that Ancient Greece would have been one of the few cultures where Dave would have been thought to be one of the most civilised men around... Anyway, I'm sure that everything in the museum was very nice, but then again so was my lager. Je ne regrette rien.
After a quick visit to a nearby souvenir shop (where I actually managed to find a t-shirt that fit me) it was a short coach ride into the modern town of Olympia where it was time for lunch. I can't remember the name of the restaurant we were taken to I'm afraid, but it was quite a big place on the main street. We were given three courses, starting with a feta cheese salad, then pasticchio (pasta and meat sauce squashed together into squares; there was a vegetarian option but I wasn't paying attention so I've no idea what it was) and finally some kind of creme brulee for pudding. The food was OK, if not outstanding, but I heard several people complaining that their pasticchio was cold, and mine was just over lukewarm, so it would appear that they hadn't re-heated it properly. I didn't hear of anyone going down with a case of the shits afterwards though. And the company we had at our table was most agreeable, Mark and Valerie an extremely entertaining Ukrainian-American couple, and Tracey who Dave had first accosted outside Mycenae and who bravely volunteered to eat with us anyway.
After the food we were given around 40 minutes to have a look round the modern town of Olympia. It didn't look that big, and most of the shops on the main street were souvenir/tourist-tat emporiums so Dave and I found a nice looking restaurant and sat at a table outside drinking Mythos in the sun. It was very pleasant. Then of course we had the 2 hour journey back to Patras. I suppose once we'd arrived back there it would have been a good chance to explore the city a bit, especially as it was only a 2 minute walk from the boat to the city centre, but surprise surprise we ended up in the bar on deck 5 again, and almost immediately found ourselves back in the hot tub, which I'd enjoyed so much the previous day that I cast aside my ingrained British reserve and jumped into almost stone cold sober. We were in there for quite a while, until after happy hour and the sun had gone down, I seem to recall, watching some of the huge ferries coming and going from the harbour. We then decided to head into the city to find somewhere to eat, and the fool-hardy Tracey again agreed to join us. On our way into town we bumped into a couple of girls from the boat who told us that they'd had a lot of difficulty finding a restaurant and had ended up eating in a TGI Fridays. It didn't put us off; this was the third largest city in Greece, how hard could it be to find a restaurant, especially considering that my gut acts as a kind of magnet that can home in on sources of food in the most unlikely places?
While we were in Patras it was carnival season (which seems to last for months, according to my guidebook) so everyone was in party mood. There were street lights and decorations (large paper mache caricatures of people we didn't recognise seemed to be on every street), people in fancy dress, and street vendors selling fancy dress. There were dozens of bars, most of them packed to the rafters, but none of them seemed to be serving food. We also saw a mobile bar, a small truck with a bar running down the length of the back of it, and bar stools attached to the side, that was driving round the streets a rapid rate with dedicated drinkers perched precariously on stools stuck to the side of it. It was one of the greatest regrets of my holiday, if not my life, that we were unable to catch up with this bar and claim a seat. If we had I think I'd be there still. Anyway, we walked for a while up and down the main streets, then off the main streets, then round a few blocks and while we saw dozens of bars we didn't see anywhere that appeared to be serving food. After around half an hour of this Dave gave into his hunger and ordered a sweaty looking cheese and ham slice from a takeaway, at which point I promptly found a nice looking bar that also had a fairly extensive menu, and when the barman confirmed that the kitchen was still open we took an out door table and waited for Dave to finish his tasty slice before he joined us. Again I'm afraid I can't remember the name of this restaurant but it was on Agiou Nikolaou, on the left hand side of the street (as we headed away from the sea front) just after the junction with Mezonos. Dave and I ordered one of the specials of the day, chicken with potatoes, a sort of chicken casserole, which was very nice, Tracey ordered a salad which turned out to be absolutely enormous. And Mythos to wash it all down, it goes without saying. It was a good place, the food was very nice, the waiter was very friendly, and the bill was a lot less than we were expecting so we were pretty much satisfied on all counts. In retrospect, I think a lot of the bars that we'd passed earlier would probably have also been serving food if we'd bothered asking, and according to Dave's Rough Guide we should have passed plenty of tavernas on our wanderings, so I think it was just a case being stupid rather than there being a shortage of restaurants in Patras.
Anyway we headed back to the boat (arriving too late to take part in the on-board "Salsa Night", so I can't tell you what that involved), a few more al-fresco beers while casting longing glances at the hot tub and it was time for bed!
Day 5 - Itea
Thursday saw us in Itea, a small, modern port about half way between Patras and the Corinth Canal. It's a similar type of place to Kiato where we spent Monday; a commercial, un-touristy town, but we found it a much more pleasant place than Kiato. More on that later. The main reason we were in Itea was because it's the nearest port to Delphi, which is where our coaches were taking us.
Delphi is only a 45 minute coach ride from Itea, but it's quite a ride, through a huge expanse of olive trees (we were told it's the biggest olive grove in Europe, and who am I to argue?) and then up into the mountains, up a steep road with a series of tight hairpin bends that was uncomfortably similar to the end of the Italian Job (the original 1969 Michael Caine film, of course, not the crappy American remake). The roadside crosses and shrines weren't very reassuring either.
The Greeks believed that Delphi was the centre of the world. The story goes that Zeus, wanting to know exactly where the centre of the world was, released 2 eagles from each end of the world and so where they met was the centre. The fact that Zeus knew where both edges of the world lay but couldn't figure out the mid-point between them suggests that he was a pretty crap God.
There has been a village on the site of Delphi since at least 1400 BC and there has probably always been a shrine here too, although initially it was dedicated to Gaia. By the 8th century BC Apollo had taken over, and the Oracle of Delphi became the most famous seer of the Ancient World, at the height of its renown not only Greek rulers but also foreign Kings would regularly consult the Oracle before reaching a major decision.
Answers to questions posed of the oracle were given in the form of a riddle, often with a double meaning so that with the benefit of hindsight whatever course of action was taken, and whatever the ultimate outcome, the advice give by the Oracle could be construed to be correct (the famous example is the advice given to King Croesus of Lydia; he wanted to know what would happen if he attacked the Persians. The Oracle told him that if he did a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus believed that the Oracle was guaranteeing him success, attacked the Persians, and lost. A great Empire was destroyed, Croesus's own, so the Oracle was shown to be correct). So basically, a newspaper astrologer but on a much grander scale. Initially there was only one Priestess, and she had to be a Virgin. Maybe they had difficulty finding Virgins, or they thought up a better use for them, because this requirement was quickly waived. At the height of the shrines fame there were three priestesses. At first questions could only be asked on one day of the year, but as the Oracle became more popular (and more of a money-spinner) this was extended to 9 days a year. The Priestess who delivered the Oracle's advice, and who was thought to be no more than an instrument to transmit the voice of Apollo, was believed to be stoned out of her head on gasses coming from vents beneath the temple (sadly, there is no geological evidence for this; maybe she was just tanked up on Malibu and Babycham) and so basically she delivered an unintelligible rant that had to "interpreted" (i.e. made up) by the male priests who were in attendance. Some things never change and over 2000 years later women still speak gibberish that has to be deciphered by men.
Delphi also hosted the Pythian Games, Pan-Hellenic games similar to the ancient Olympics. The Pythian Games originally started out as a singing and music competition but in 582 athletic events were included for the first time, making a sort of Eurovision Song Contest with wrestling. The games lasted for about a week, and as at the Olympic Games there was a sacred truce while the games were taking place, and to allow competitors to reach the games unmolested. Winners at the Pythian Games received a laurel wreath, and were allowed to have a statue of themselves put up at Delphi.
Remarkably the Oracle continued operating right into the Christian era, although it was no longer consulted by Kings and was mainly limited to answering questions of a religious nature. Delphi had lost most of its influence by then, and most of its wealth too as many of its treasures were stripped away by the Romans who had taken control of the site in 191 BC. The Oracle was finally shut down in 394 AD by the Emperor Theodisius I, the miserable bastard who also brought an end to the fun at Olympia. A small Christian settlement was here for a couple of centuries but by the 7th century the site was abandoned totally, what was left was buried under landslides from the overlooking mountains, and eventually a modern village was built on top. There were some limited archaeological excavations in the early 19th century but then in 1870 the village of Kastri which had been built on the site was destroyed in an earthquake. This allowed a thorough excavation to begin, conducted by the French archaeological school.
The first thing you notice about Delphi is the setting; high up in the mountains the city creeps up one side of the valley, with sheer red-grey cliff faces towering above it. The views down and across the valley are equally spectacular. The views and the setting are the real reason why the shrine was built here in the first place.
The tour of Delphi follows the old sacred way, what used to be the main street of the city, which zigzags its way up the side of the valley. We started off in a Roman forum, which still has the remains of the small shops (probably stalls selling Apollo-related tourist tat) that were once here. The next section of the road was once home to the treasuries and dedications of various Greek city-states; some of these were statues but most were little temple-like buildings, each housing offering to Apollo from that city, some commemorating victories in battle ascribed to the God or the Oracle, with each city trying to out-do their rivals with the richness of their offerings. Although most of the treasuries (and, unfortunately the loot) are now completely gone, one of them (the Treasury of the Athenians) has been rebuilt, although it does look rather incongruous, made of a mixture of the original worn, weathered marble, and brand new blocks where the originals were missing. There doesn't seem to be that much room for treasure in it either. The huge ivy-covered boulder that you can see next to the sacred way is known as the Rock of the Sibyl, from the top of which one of the first oracles (who's name was obviously Sibyl) was believed to have made her pronouncements, a reminder that the site was in use long before the Temple of Apollo was built.
After passing the remains of all these treasuries you come to the most important part of Delphi, the remains of the Temple of Apollo. The current temple was built in the 4th century BC and is believed by archaeologists to be the third building on the site (the previous 2 being destroyed by fire and earthquakes, the present one being mostly destroyed by earthquakes and Christians, a far deadlier combination), or possibly the 6th, if you believe the legends about the first 3 temples being made of leaves, feathers, and bronze; unsurprisingly no trace of those has been found. There's not really much of it left standing, just a few courses of stone and a handful of pillars that have been partly reconstructed, but the outline of the temple is very well preserved, and you can still see the set of steps at the front, and the ramp (not for wheelchairs, but to prevent the indignity of the priest tripping on his robes while climbing up the stairs, as our guide Kelly perceptively pointed out). It was from inside the temple that the Oracle priestesses, or Pythia, gave out their prophecies.
By the way, the big polygonal wall that shores up the area on which the temple is built is known as the Lesbian wall; to our disappointment it turned out that it was given this name because it was built using a technique common on the island of Lesbos. We were equally disappointed to find out that the Column of the Dancing Girls is no longer standing (although the top part of it can still be seen in the Delphi Museum). But, on a related subject, and one that Dave has claimed I don't have the courage to mention, it was while we were in this area of Delphi that a couple of girls from the boat asked how long Dave and I had been a couple! Naturally, I take no offence at people thinking I'm gay (although I doubt that there's ever been a gay man with my lack of style), but it was somewhat disconcerting that they'd think I had low enough standards to settle for a partner such as Dave. And it turns out that they were far from the only people on the boat who'd come to that conclusion about us..... Of course I take great comfort from the fact that everyone we spoke to who had assumed we were a couple had also assumed that I was the daddy. No doubt they would be right about that. Anyway, Dave, I told you I'd mention it. Although quite why he wants it broadcasting to the world that everyone on the boat thought he was my bitch I've no idea...
Standing above the Temple of Apollo is the open-air Theatre, which also dates from the 4th century BC, and which could hold up to 5000 spectators. They must have put on damned good plays here because I'd guess most people would be distracted by the view over the Temple and down the valley. The Theatre still retains perfect acoustics, as demonstrated by the Amazing Mark and Valerie; if you stand above the theatre and shout at your wife in the middle of the stage, she'll still hear you well enough to be able to totally ignore you.
If you carry on climbing uphill from the Theatre (it's not that long or steep a walk; if Dave and I managed it then you can) you'll reach the Stadium. The stadium was built in the 5th century BC and was where the Pythian Games took place. Prior to that they were held on the plain below the city, which seems a much more sensible arrangement; based on my experience I think the athletes would already be knackered by the time they climbed up to the stadium. But then maybe competing at altitude improved their performance? The stadium could hold around 7000 people; initially they sat on the bare ground, the rows of seats weren't added until the 2nd century AD, which is a hell of a long time for someone to have to stand. The stadium is just less than 180 metres long, a bit shorter than the one at Olympia. You can still make out the starting gates and the finish lines, and the special seats for the VIPs and the judges, but while we were there it was off-limits due to reconstruction work, which meant that Dave didn't have the chance to avenge his defeat in our Olympic walk of the previous day (not that he was aware of it in any case).
From the stadium we headed all the way back down hill to the main entrance, and after stopping for a bit to say hello to the stray pussycats who congregate around here (what is the collective noun for a group of cats anyway) to the Archaeological Museum. The museum is in a big, modern building that while it's only a short walk is far enough away that it doesn't impact upon the ancient city. It houses some of the things that the archaeologists have dug up in Delphi over the last couple of centuries. It's amazing that there's anything left to display at all, given the looting that went on even in ancient times (the Roman Emperor Nero is reported to have carted away at least 500 statues). Anyway, this was probably the only museum on the whole trip where I was really paying attention and some of the things I can remember include a Roman copy of the Delphic omphalos, the stone the Greeks put up to mark the exact centre of the world (the one that you can now see in Delphi is replica of this one, making it the copy of a copy). There were lots of statues, most of them with bits missing (well, hardly surprising after 2500 years), such as the previously mentioned top of the Column of the Dancing Girls (which was missing a few feet and faces, like an amputee lap-dancing club) and a marble sphinx which used to stand on top of a column, that was in pretty good condition apart from its missing nose. Somewhere in the world I'm sure there must be a museum where there's nothing on display apart from all these missing arms, heads, noses, and other bits and pieces. There were also lots of fragments of sculptures that used to make up the decoration on some of the buildings, such as the Treasury of the Athenians. Probably the two most impressive things in the museum were the life-sized silver bull (it was made up of thin silver panels, so quite a lot of that is missing, it still looks amazing though, and expensive), and the life-sized bronze statue of a charioteer. Although this one looks fairly complete (apart from the loss of his left arm) it's actually also missing the chariot and a team of four horses. Most unusually not only is the entire face still preserved but the eyes are too (our guide kept emphasizing that the number of Ancient Greek statues that still have their eyes is miniscule). You can even make out his eye lashes.
Anyway, it was a very interesting museum, and we probably needed more time there than the half an hour we were given. But we had to load up in the coach and head back down the mountains to Itea. Our itinerary originally said that a meal was included, but either they couldn't find a taverna in Olympia or Itea to cater for 120, or more likely the owners of the tavernas that we had previously ravaged warned all the restauranteurs in the area what they could expect. Anyway, we all ended up being taking back to the boat to eat, where we were all given.... a medium sized plate of spaghetti with a little bit of tomato sauce. To be honest, I think they could have gone to a little bit more effort than this. While I appreciate they had to come up with something that everyone, even the veggies, would be able to eat, it surely wouldn't have been that difficult to give people a choice of something from the normal menu. Still, food is food and that was my breakfast so I ate it.
That gave us the rest of the afternoon to look round Itea. It's a fairly modern town (by Greek standards) so there's nothing specific worth coming here to see, but it was a pleasant enough little place; we went for a bit of a stroll along the small, rocky beach and then had a wander through the streets, all of which seemed to have citrus trees growing by them. There were some interesting shops too, including a couple of surprisingly well-stocked purveyors of tourist-tat. And a pleasingly wide selection of bars, certainly superior in terms of quality and quantity to Kiato, and Itea also seems to make more of its sea-front than Kiato does. So with nothing better to do we settled down outside one of the bars on the sea-front for a couple of Mythos and a complimentary bowl of nuts. That was a very convivial way to spend a sunny afternoon. Although it would have been more convivial without Dave.... Needless to say we made it back to the boat in time for Happy Hour, and yet another dunk in the hot tub.
In the evening, once the beer onboard had returned to its normal price, we headed back into town (all of a 2 minute walk from where the easycruiseone was docked) with some of the girls from the boat to get something to eat (remember, by this stage I'd only had one small plate of spaghetti to soak up all that beer). At first the town was so quiet that we thought everything had closed for the evening; it turned out that the power workers were on strike and so there was a power-cut for a couple of hours. Luckily this was obviously not an isolated occurrence and most of the Tavernas had their own generators (they seemed to be the only places in town that were still lit up). We ended up going to the place nearest the boat, Restaurant Mouragio (it's the first on the right once you've left the port). The restaurant is actually on the promenade along the sea front, on the far side of the road from the sea, but they also had a lot of tables under a big marquee on the opposite side of the road, right next to the sea and this is where we were directed; either they thought it would be more pleasant for us there, or they didn't want us cluttering up the main part of their restaurant and putting off other customers! (actually, they seemed to put all their customers there, it was pretty full). To be honest, I can't remember what anyone else had, but had a dish of mussels baked in a cheese and tomato sauce, which was delicious, and needless to say I washed that down with lovely Mythos. Anyway, I really enjoyed it in there, it was a very friendly place and the breeze coming in off the sea and smell of the fresh sea air made things even more relaxing, and extra atmosphere was provided when the generator nearly conked out a couple of times, causing the lights and TV to dim. I seem to remember it being pretty good value for money too. The restaurant has a website, but there isn't much to see on it!
After eating we all headed back for the boat where we had been lured by the promised onboard entertainment for the evening; a display of belly dancing. There was a male and a female dancer but we didn't linger too long as the lady who was dancing was clearly no stranger to the kebab van, although the oiled up young man dancing without a shirt seemed to be very much appreciated by one member of our party (no, not Dave).
So Dave and I headed back into Itea where we quickly bumped into out American friends from the first evening in Piraeus, who had taken over a couple of tables outside another of the Tavernas on the promenade (the name translated as something like Thalassina, although it looks completely different in Greek). They already had the demeanor of persons who have spent some time and licensed premises, probably attributable to fact that as well as ordering drinks from the bar they were also swigging some kind of local spirit they'd bought from a plastic bottle (and as Dave pointed out, drinking alcohol from a plastic bottle rarely ends well, although at least they didn't have it hidden in a paper bag as well). Anyway, we joined them and it turned into a fairly raucous, but good-natured, night. I started off on the Mythos, then switched to ouzo, and finally Mythos and ouzo, so things get a bit hazy, although I do remember that several plates of whole, baked fish appeared at some point. I couldn't swear with any great certainty what time we made it back to the boat, so obviously it was a pretty enjoyable evening....
Day 6 - Aegina
Surprisingly, I woke up fairly early, and without any trace of a headache. It must be all that fresh sea air.
But I didn't wake up quite early enough to see the boat passing back through the Corinth canal; actually, I was sort of awake and watched it through my porthole for a few minutes before deciding to go back to sleep. I figured I'd already seen it once so I wasn't missing out on anything. By the time I made it up on the top deck it was still well before midday, and the boat was steaming towards the island of Aegina. I thought this would be a good chance to have some breakfast, which was no doubt a good idea, and then decided that a bottle of Heineken would make the ideal breakfast, which probably wasn't quite such a good idea... It may also help to explain some of the things that happened later. But still, sitting out on the top deck under a warm sun and perfect blue sky, with a gentle breeze coming in off the almost perfectly flat sea, and with Aegina coming into view in front of us, je ne regrette rien.
Aegina (or Aigena) is a large island in the Saronic Gulf, less than 20 miles from Piraeus; it's a popular weekend from the city and many wealthy Athenians have second homes here. In Ancient times Aegina was a rival to Athens, but it was later colonised and absorbed into the Athenian empire, and after that was occupied by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans, among others. Remarkably after Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire Aegina was briefly (less than 2 years) the capital of Greece, which would be somewhat like the UK moving the Houses of Parliament to Alderney. Today the island is best known for its harvest of pistachio nuts; I'm sure that fact is of no earthly interest to anybody reading this site, but all the guidebooks mention it so I thought I'd better too.
The easycruiseone docked in Aegina Town, the main town on the island. There were tours to a couple of temples, the Temple of Aphaea and the Temple of Apollo, which is right next to Aegina Town and which we had a great view of from the boat when we came into port.
Before we left the boat we were all given our packed lunch for a day; a sandwich (a bit of lettuce and a slice of processed cheese between 2 slices of dry bread) and a kiwi fruit. In fairness to easycruise our itinerary said that Aegina was a half-day tour and no mention of any food at all, so anything we got was a bonus but if you're going to give everyone some fruit surely an apple or a banana is a better idea than a kiwi fruit. Ever tried eating kiwi fruit with nothing but your bare hands? They may as well have just given everyone a coconut.
The first thing we all did was pile into the coaches to head to the Temple of Aphaea (I was quite surprised that there were 3 coaches on an island the size of Aegina). We had a bit of a problem on our coach because our local guide spoke English with a very thick accent and had the habit of ending every word with an "a", a kinda ofa lika thisa, which got very annoying after a while. Still, seeing as I don't speak a word of Greek (apart from "Mythos") so I'm not really in a position to criticise someone else's linguistic skills. But once a few people on the coach had complained they were having difficulty understanding her she came to the conclusion that this must have been because of the noise from the air conditioning, and so had the driver switch it off, which meant that nobody could still understand her, and everyone was getting hot and sweaty as well. Luckily the coach wasn't anywhere near full, and it was only a quite short driver (less than half an hour). Some of the roads seemed a bit too narrow for our coach, especially once we started going uphill to the temple, but it gave us a good look at the island. There were lots of pistachio trees, and plenty of churches (apparently there are 365 on the island; I don't know what they do if it's a leap-year), most of them no more than road-side shrines, but one of them the huge modern Monastery of Agios Nectarios, a local Orthodox saint who lived on the island in the early 20th century.
The Temple of Aphaea is one of the largest and best preserved ancient temples in Greece. It was built towards the end of the 6th century BC as a two-fingered salute to Athens, which didn't have anything like it at the time. Of course, Athens then went on to build the Parthenon, which was a pretty good riposte. But you should still bear in mind that the Temple of Aphaea is it least a century older than its upstart Athenian rival, and there has probably been a temple on this site since at least the 7th century BC. The setting is amazing, in a clearing on top of a pine covered hill, one of the highest points on the island, with clear views down to the coast; in its heyday it would have been clearly visible to passing ships (most of which would have been heading to or from Athens). Unusually for such a grand temple it was a centre of worship for a minor local deity, rather than one of the major Greek gods.
Considering its age the temple is in a remarkable state of preservation; 24 of the original 32 stone columns are still standing, as are many of the pediments. The structure is so well preserved that it has offered plenty of clues to archaeologists about how this and other temples were constructed. It would have been in an even better state of preservation had most of its sculptures been removed by German archaeologists in the 19th century (they're now in Munich) but as a Brit I'm hardly in a position to criticise other countries for stealing bits of Greek temples...
On the hill top you can also see the remains of the rest of the sanctuary complex (this has always been a religious site rather than a civil one), and there are a few panels to explain what some of the other structures were believed to be. And while you're up there be careful of the wasps - I think they lived in the old well. There's also a small museum on the site, which apparently has scale models of the how the sanctuary used to look, and a few fragments of the original sculptures that didn't end up in Munich, but I didn't get time to see that. We were only given less than an hour here, which probably wasn't enough time. After that we all piled back in the coaches for the ride back to Aegina Town; at least they put the air conditioning back on this time.
Our next stop was right next to Aegina Town, the Temple of Apollo that we'd seen from the boat, which is better known as Kolonna (from the Greek word for column, as only a single, weathered pillar from the temple remains standing). Before getting to the remains of the actual settlement we went through a small archaeological museum, housing things found throughout the island, not just from Kolonna. There were bits of painted pottery, fragments of sculptures and statues, and some small human figurines, as well as some storage jars that are nearly 4,000 years old.
There's actually a lot more to the site than just the temple (a good job, as anyone coming all this way to see one pillar would be a bit disappointed). The temple was probably built in around 500BC but archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation here going back a couple of thousand years before this, the Romans were also here, while some of the buildings that you can see were put up by the Byzantines, making them relatively modern. The jumble of different buildings from vastly different ages makes the site rather confusing, and there isn't much explanation to say what everything was, although most buildings have small plaque giving their names (in Greek and German), but it is extensive, big enough to find a place where you can be by yourself for a spot of quiet contemplation, and you are free to wander through and clamber over it pretty much at will. And the sea-front setting adds to the atmosphere of the place (apparently there are remains of the old harbour under the sea, but I didn't get my feet wet to find out).
After finishing at the kolonna we walked back to the boat to dump some stuff; in every other place we visited the easycruiseone stayed in port all day and so we were able to come and go from the boat as often as we pleased. But because Aegina is a busy ferry port they needed the space that the easycruiseone was taking up for other boats, so it had to leave the port and anchor out at sea for what was due to be only a three hours; everyone was given plenty of notice and had the choice of staying on the boat or on dry land. Most people, including us, decided to stay on Aegina.
First of all there was a tiny little blue-roofed church on the harbour next to the boat, so we had a look in that. It didn't seem very old, but it had some nice frescoes inside. Then we explored Aegina Town itself; we basically headed along the sea front to the edge of town, and then went in land a block and came back in the opposite direction. The town's not huge, but there are a couple of churches, and some quite grand neoclassical buildings that date from when Aegina was the Greek capital. There was also a decent array of shops, including a few touristy type ones, and a fresh fish market, although that had started to close down by the time we got there. Best of all Aegina had probably the best collection of bars and tavernas in one place of any of the places we went to on the cruise (well, Patras probably had more but I was buggered if I could find them). So it would have been silly not to take advantage of them.... Anyway, we saw a few friends from the boat in a taverna called Cafe Leousis, which was on the sea-front, so we decided to join them for a while. It was a very fine place, and as well as a few Mythos we decided to have a quick snack to keep us going. Dave had an omelet, I had a pancake stuffed with ham and cheese which was really nice, much tastier than I'd been expecting. Apart from my earlier easy-sarnie it also turned out to be the only food I ate all day, which may help to explain some of things that happened later...
By this time the boat should have been back in the harbour, and we were eager to get back on board for a quick dip in the hot tub and to take advantage of happy hour. But we could still the boat moored out on the horizon. It turned out that a bit of storm was brewing out at sea, which meant that strong winds were whipping up the water in the harbour. Because we were sitting in a bar opposite the sheltered marina the water looked perfectly flat and calm but it was a different story when we went round to the main harbour. The water was very choppy, there were some very impressive sized waves breaking over the harbour, and the wind was blowing spray everywhere. This photo doesn't really capture it, to be honest. It looked much more dramatic in real life.
It wasn't that the waves were big enough to stop the easycruiseone from coming in, but they were making difficult for some of the ferries to dock (they really were bouncing around, and one boat had to come round 3 or 4 times before it finally managed it) and our boat had to wait to come in to harbour until the ferries had finished.
So there we were stranded on dry land, there was nothing else for it but to sit out the storm in a taverna. In a way we were lucky that this happened here, with Aegina having such a decent number of tavernas (each one of which had at least one group of easycruisers keeping one eye on the boat in the distance and the other on their watches as the time ticked down to happy hour on board); had we been marooned in Kiato I think there may have been suicides..... At first we went to an outdoor bar closest to the harbour but it started getting a bit chillier and so we retreated to the sheltered patio of the Cafe Leousis, where I got stuck into the Mythos and Dave decided it would be a good idea to make a start on Metaxa. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a good idea, but what the hell... And while we were in there there was yet another power cut, although obviously they were expecting it and Cafe Leousis's generator kicked in pretty much straight away.
We were in there for a couple of hours before someone told us that the easycruiseone was back in port, so we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the bar. When we got to the harbour the waves were still pretty sizeable and the boat seemed to be rocking, but once we were on board this was hardly noticeable (although the hot tub was closed for the rest of the evening as a precaution). Actually, it wasn't long before we were rocking from side to side too, but I don't think this had anything to do with the waves. We were greeted by the grinning cruise director Alex, who to make up for the disappointment of everyone missing happy hour was handing out free ouzo. And he was handing it out in big plastic cups, which he was filling pretty much to the brim (well, he did for me anyway), and if you asked very nicely he'd give you a refill (or two refills, in my case). I think the amount of free ouzo we got more than made up for missing out on happy hour (the next day I was talking to some people who'd stayed on the boat during all this; they said they'd had a great time on board, they hadn't noticed that the sea was rough at all, and happy hour had been extended for all those stuck out at sea, profiting from the misfortune of us poor saps stranded on dry land). We then decided it would be a wise move to start drinking Heineken with our ouzo, which in all probability wasn't that wise, and when I did manage to drag myself back to my cabin for a quick shower I ended up drinking a bottle of Heineken while I was under the shower, which to be honest has happened a few times before and is generally the sign of an impending disaster.
We met up again in the Restaurant on 4 where the evening's entertainment was a Greek Night, culminating in a demonstration of Greek dancing, which I thought could be quite fun, and indeed it might have been had not Alex asked for a couple of volunteers to help him demonstrate and our great new friend Tracey very kindly "volunteered" us, and there was nowhere for us to run or hide. Anyway, thanks for that Tracey. To cut a long story short I made a complete tit of myself, I had been so over-served that I didn't get a single step right, and I didn't want to dance too vigorously for risk of spilling my beer, but luckily just about everyone watching was so far gone that I don't think they noticed. And when I grabbed the first possible opportunity to sit down again Alex presented everyone who had taken part in the dancing demonstration with an easycruise "Hello Sailor" baseball cap, which still has pride of place in my flat.
Given our state at this time we decided it would be a good idea to head back into Aegina in search of something to eat, to soak up some of the booze, and we could see from the boat that the power had come back on. Anyway, we headed into Aegina town and I swear it was our intention to find a pleasant restaurant, but one of the first places we walked past was a bar that had several easycruisers in it so we decided to join them and that was pretty much it for the night. Some of the details of the rest of the evening are a little hazy, while others are unfortunately all too clear.... It was quite a big bar, and they also had a DJ playing, but the only people in there were the 8 of us, so it was like our own private party. At first we started on the Mythos, but then I think the barman took a shine to a couple of the girls who were with us and started handing out free shots, although I've no idea what they were shots of. I carried on drinking Mythos as well though. There was music, there was dancing, there was a hairy chest competition (won by Dave, needless to say, making the most of his advantage of not actually being a member of the human race). And then, shamefully, one member of our little band decided that it would be a good idea to get up on the bar and start doing impersonations of Elvis. OK, so that was me... And surprisingly I didn't fall off, or break the bar, and they didn't kick us out. Actually, I've no real idea what time we were in there to, sometime after 2 am I think. The details of getting back to the boat are a bit sketchy too, although there are photos to prove that we did it. And if we hadn't done it I suppose we'd still be on Aegina.... One of these photos shows me talking on a mobile phone; whose phone this was and who I was talking to I could not say. And I woke up in my cabin the next morning, so my beer-compass was obviously functioning that night. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of this fine bar; it was on the main road along the sea front, and I seem to remember it was towards the far end of town, away from the harbour. The photos show it has white and blue walls and a red ceiling, if that helps. Maybe you should just look for the place with a big dent in the middle of the bar.
What a great night! I might regret it in the morning though....
Day 7 - Athens
I woke up in Piraeus. I don't know how I got there. I imagine it probably had something to do with the easycruiseone but for all I know I could have ridden stark bollock naked from Aegina on the back of a dolphin and I wouldn't have remembered a damned thing about it. I also woke up surprisingly early, before 9am, although that was because of the tannoy announcements put out by Alex the cruise director telling everyone to get up. When a screaming homosexual orders me to get out of bed, I get out of bed. Most surprisingly, when I did get out of bed I didn't feel remotely the worse for wear. After the events on Aegina the night before that puzzled me.
Anyway, the boat was docked in Piraeus, and we were due to go on a half-day trip into Athens, first of all to the Acropolis and then to the National Archaeological Museum. The coach journey to the acropolis took less than half an hour, it helped that we were going on a Saturday and so there was no rush-hour traffic for us to get stuck in.
The acropolis is a rocky outcrop that towers above the city centre. From the coach park we had a steady up-hill climb, not my favourite activity on a hot sunny morning but luckily our guide for the day, Angel, stopped every 100 metres or so to to explain things to us. Unfortunately it was hard to get close enough to him to hear everything that he was saying as some of the girls from the boat were busy crowding round lusting over him... Once we started climbing up the side of the acropolis hill itself we passed by the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an open-air Roman theatre which is partly built into the side of the hill. The Odeon dates from about 160 AD, but was partly restored in the 1950s and is still in use as a theatre. The pathway carries on up past the theatre until you reach what for the past 2500 years has been the main entrance to the acropolis, the Propylae. As doorways go, this one is pretty grand, a central gateway building between 2 outer wings, with a facade of a row of 6 columns, although the pediment (architectural term for "bit on top") and tops of the front columns are no longer there. When we were there the back half of the structure was completely covered in scaffolding, and apprently it's been since that way since before the 2004 Olympics. Still, they seem to be doing a pretty thorough job on it, the marble is gleaming white and looks brand new. The Proplyae wasn't really built as a military structure, it was more to do with keeping the riff-raff away from the temples, which is why 800 years later the Romans built their own more defensive Beule Gate in front of it. It was while we were here that we got our first idea of exactly how packed the acropolis would be; even at 10am on a Saturday morning in early March the steps in front of the Proplyae were totally packed solid with tour groups, although in fairness a good proportion of those were off Stelios' boat.
Once you've passed through all that scaffolding you'll find yourself on top of the Acropolis. It's one of the most famous sites on earth, so what the hell can I say about it that none of the other guidebooks have already said about it? Well, I was pretty drunk when I was up there. Yes, by this stage the reason for my apparent well-being had become clear, I still hadn't actually sobered up from the night before. Luckily I wasn't that drunk that I've forgotten everything.
Obviously the first thing that catches your eye is
Once we'd finished at the Acropolis we all piled back into the coaches for the short journey across town to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum is housed in a neoclassical building, funded by rich Greek expatriates, and completed in 1881, when collections that had previously been housed haphazzardly at various sites throughout Greece were brought together under this one roof. During the Second World War, when Athens was occupied by the Nazis most of the exhibits were sucessfully hidden, many of them concealed in the basements or even under the floors of the museum.
Unfortunately it was while we were in here that I came back down to earth with a nasty bump as I finally started sobering up. As a result I didn't really see that many of the exhibits inside, but I can tell you that there are plenty of comfy benches to sit on. Some of the things that I can remember seeing include the gallery of finds excavated in Mycenae, including gold masks the (so-called Face of Agammemnon), and fantastically detailed cups, rings, and daggers. There's a huge selection of statues, many of them being naked men, the most famous being a bronze one that's either Zeus or Poseidon (nobody is entirely sure which as whatever it was that he was about to hurl, either a thunderbolt for Zeus or a trident for Poseidon, is missing) but I was more impressed with one of a young boy hanging on to the back of a charging horse. Both of them look in remarkably good condition for having spent a couple of thousand years in the sea before being dredged up. Anyway, the museum has an extensive collections ranging from 7,000 year-old pottery to Byzantine Christian artefacts so it's a pity that we got so little time (less than 90 minutes) in there. Then again, given my condition, maybe not.