Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Side of the Volcano We Haven't Seen Yet

Another day in Paradise, and after the massive day we had the day before, we were in no hurry to do anything. We also had 100 Euros left for 3 days and 50 of that set aside for snorkeling so it was off to the supermarket to plan out 3 breakfasts, 3 lunches and 2 dinners with the last of our spare change.

We went back to camp and made lunch, fending off a stray kitten that had come to know us and know that it would get a little bit of milk in the morning if it was good. While the kitten feasted of grated cheese, we discovered that the cheapest bread is not the best option and ate our sandwiches anyway.

We spent the rest of the day lying poolside. For the first time in history it was me that decided to go up to the pool first, leaving Courtney sat at the concrete tables near the kitchen, reading a book in the shade. By the time I talked him into joining me, I’d already gone in the pool twice on my own, with plenty of sunbathing and backgammon on the phone in between. We spent the entire afternoon swimming, sunbathing, playing games and reading, until we could no longer chase the sun with our loungers and went back to the kitchen to make hot dogs for dinner.

A day as eventful as any holiday day should be.

The following day was our last full day on the island and we had one thing in mind – snorkeling the volcano. Courtney loves snorkelling and has his own snorkel and fins at home. I’ve tried it once, in Rarotonga with SoulBuddy and loved it then too, especially since when I get tired I can just float. We had arranged to go out on a diving boat that morning and found our way to a little bay at Akrotiri where the divers were already suiting up.

Three other snorkelers were with us, a Thai girl that lived in London and two French guys who were escaping their families for the day. The boat took us out to a bay near the volcano where us snorkelers were told to basically get off and make room for the divers. A lot of the trip felt like we were just extra money on the side, getting in the way of the divers. We were left to snorkel around on our own while the divers were guided around the bay by the tour guides. If it weren’t for us inviting the Thai girl to swim with us, she would have been on her own in the middle of the ocean with no one watching out for her.

The snorkeling itself was good fun. We were told to stay away from the rocks at the edge of the bay because high speed ferries passing through the channel created unpredictable waves, so we swam out where it was more open. The lava formations on the sea floor weren’t as cool as I thought they would be and the fish weren’t as colourful as the ones any of us snorkelers had seen before, in Rarotonga, Goat Island, and Thailand. But being able to interact with massive schools of small silver fish was awesome, as was being able to feel the same confidence in the water that I felt in Rarotonga.

I got out of the water not long after our friend did, sitting in the sun and chatting with her while we waited for the divers and Courtney dove off the boat over and over again. We had been told the trip would include two dives, one at the volcano and one at the marine reserve in front of the dive base. The boat took us back to the base and then we were once again on our own. The tour guides gave all their attention to the divers who had to refill their air and about 10 minutes later we asked someone who told us where to swim to if we wanted to see the marine reserve.

Courts had already given up and gone snorkeling in the shallows by then so I joined him and together we swam out to a flag on a buoy. The water was a lot choppier with the small boat traffic around the wharf and I found it a lot harder to get my confidence up. For some reason my natural instinct when I hear water sloshing over the top of my snorkel is to take a deep breath in. Not so smart, but unfortunately not easy to teach myself otherwise.

I made it to the buoy however, passing a sunken wooden dinghy and eventually coming across a huge section of rock. Some of it you could stand on but it was hard to keep balance in the choppy water so I did my best to float around. There were way more fish here, including a few rainbow coloured ones. Nothing big, but very cool. In the choppy water I got tired quite quickly so I swam back and dried out in the sun while Courts watched crabs and small fish in the seaweed closer to shore.

We chose this dive shop because it was 25 Euro each for 2 dives and the other dive shop we found was 35 Euro each for 3 dives so we saved ourselves money. The snorkeling was awesome fun but I don’t know if Santorini Dive Centre gave us value for money in the end. Either way we were hungry and with our groceries sitting at home we made our way back to camp for lunch.

The rest of the day was pool side again. We could get used to this.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What Better Place to Conquer Your Struggles

Money worries won’t stop us making the most of our trip. Our second full day in Santorini we had booked a ‘Santorini in One Day’ tour that would take us over land and sea to see the best the island had to offer. It had all started because on the ferry from Athens it had come to light that despite me only ever talking about going to Santorini and having known our plans for months, Courts had it stuck in his head that we were going to three islands. I didn’t want him to be disappointed only going to one so I googled day trips you could do from the island and came across this tour.

It started early, at 9.15am, so it was yet again another alarm day. We were picked up a 5 minute walk from home and were off to the first stop, two churches on the highest point of the island. One of the churches I believe dates back to the 1920’s and one the 50’s from memory, but I may be wrong. 6 priests live up there and harvest small crops and make crafts to sell. The tiny churches (they only fit 6-8 people at a time) were very cool, with thrones around the edges and as much artwork as could be crammed in. I think most people were more interested in the view though, which stretched from our place on one point of the crescent shaped Island to Oia at the other end.

Our second stop was Pyrgos, one of the oldest towns on the island. Having had to do the same at the mountain, we again had to leave the bus at the bottom of a hill and walk up to the view point we were aiming for. To be honest I’m not really sure why we stopped in Pyrgos. It sounded awesome - little shops on every corner, narrow winding streets – but we bypassed all the quaint village character and went up to see another view. The island’s not that big and the view was much the same. The selling point I think was that we were seeing the view from the remains of a medieval castle, but the ruins were little more than stairs and foundations. Courts didn’t even realize it was a castle until I told him on our way back down to the bus and it was easy to see why.

From Pyrgos it was off to the port to board a huge wooden boat to be taken to the volcano. When booking the tour I didn’t realize we actually went on the volcano, which we learnt from other travelers the day before. Luckily we wore walking shoes because the people that wore jandals looked like they were doing the walk a lot harder than we were. The volcano itself looked amazing from the boat, black and grey and red rocks, all harsh and sharp. The entire island is lava having not existed before an undersea eruption. It is still active and expands from time to time as more lava hardens in the water.

The walk was horrible and showed me just how unfit I am despite all the walking we have done. Off to Bootcamp when we get home. We walked uphill 5 minutes and waited for the guide, who somehow got there before us despite being left at the bottom. He told us how Santorini, the neighbouring island of Therassia and the small island between them used to be one perfectly round island. The inhabitants were so advanced all these hundreds of years ago that they had three story houses with separate toilets on each floor, and they pumped water from the hot springs all the way up the mountain and through pipes in their walls to heat their homes. It is speculated that they may have been so advanced they knew the eruption was coming, because there are no human remains in the ruins that have been excavated. Either that or they had the means to escape but didn’t make it in time and are somewhere under the ocean in lava layers that can never be explored.

When the big eruption happened, pieces of rock landed in Italy and ash landed in Iceland. Geological changes have been discovered in South America that could only have happened due to a massive seismic event, and this was the only one that happened in the world at the same time. A 250 metre tsunami travelled at 350km an hour to obliterate Crete and wipe out most of the Minoan civilization. Many people thought the tsunami ended the Minoan civilization but in very recent years they have discovered remains that are post-tsunami.

The result of all this was that the middle of the island ended up splattered all over the world and we were left with two crescents, one from either side – Santorini and Therassia. This wasn’t the end because in 1956 the volcano blew up again, destroying pretty much everything on the island and creating the volcanic island in the middle that we were, at this point, now standing on. Essentially everything on Santorini has been built since 1956 except for ruins.

The tour guide also explained though that the volcanic activity is the only reason there is flourishing life on the island now. There is no natural water on the island – clouds don’t form properly which is why it always looks hazy and never rains – but the dry earth is full of pumice, which sucks the humidity out of the air and feeds the plants. The barren weedy lands we had passed on the island were infact successful low-lying wineries, cherry tomato and white aubergine crops. Of course the volcano is also responsible for creating the caldera, the massive cliff face that makes Santorini’s views world-famous, and is essentially a cross section of the inside of a mountain.

Now that we knew the power of the black island we were standing on (including the fact that in the 1956 eruption one of the 6 or 7 craters didn’t blow, which means it’s full of pressure) we still had to walk up it, which takes us back to how unfit I am. The path was loose and soft and quite difficult to walk on, but the worst part was climbing a hill in the insane heat of a Greek August only to find at the top that it dipped down and we had to climb all over again, even further than before. At one point I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it to the top, standing on a pile of lava feeling light headed and shaky.

I probably shouldn’t admit to any of that except that I did  make it to the top, eventually, and I’m proud of myself for not giving up when I wanted to. The view from the top was incredible, you could easily connect the dots and see the perfect circle of the original island. We stood on the edge of the main crater which is actually two twin craters in one big hole. The tour guide used a rock to scoop up lava sand which sparkled. He let us touch it and it was hot, hence the rock he used to pick it up initially. Smoke pushed its way out through holes in the crater, only a little bit, but enough to fill the air with sulphur. Americans nearby remarked how bad it smelt but it reminded us of home, because the town of Rotorua smells the same for the same reasons.

The walk back down the mountain was far easier of course, and getting back on the boat I was very thankful for the cold Fanta at the little shop on board. Our next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most – swimming in the hot springs that are heated by the volcano. Some tours take you right into one of the hot springs so you get off the boat into hot water. Ours didn’t – we had to get into cold water and swim to the spring, which posed a couple of problems. First and most superficially, anyone that has been swimming with me will tell you how long it takes me to get into cold water. With a boat load of people behind me I had to just go for it and I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Secondly, I can’t swim. Well, I can keep myself afloat and I can project myself forwards, which I suppose is swimming, but I can’t do it at anything that could be defined as speed or with anything that could be calld technique  and the hot spring was 70 metres away. The tour guide even said, if you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t go. I am stubborn though, and I was not missing out on the hot springs. There was a rock somewhere halfway and I swam vaguely towards it until I could see people standing on it and knew where to aim for. I rested on the rock and then swam the rest of the way using Courtney as a floatation device every now and then.

It was worth it, the hot springs were awesome and I can now say I swam over a volcano. The water was yellow and we were warned in advance it would turn jewellery and white clothing red (Courtneys white and blue Hawaiian boardshorts are now rusty). Sulphur sludge floated on the surface and people used it to write on the black rocks that protected the little bay we were in. Some people covered themselves in it, but for me I was happy holding onto the edge of the bay and feeling the hot water of the spring.

After awhile, the whistle blew to return to the ship and we had 10 minutes to get back. Swimming out of the bay was no problem but the ship looked a lot further away than it had been and the water in between was daunting. I missed the half way rock entirely and when I turned around Courtney was a few lengths behind. I had no choice but to go for it, and I made it most of the way before breathing at the wrong time and getting a nose and mouth full of water. I wasn’t far from the boat but I panicked and turned around to look for Courtney. He was further away than the boat so I kept going and when I finally grabbed the ladder I was happy I hadn’t given up. Despite the incredible views and other-worldly scenery, the highlight of the day had been claimed – I swam 70 metres without stopping and without help.

Courtney being Courtney and liking the cold, hadn’t really seen the point in swimming in hot water when we were in Greece. He much preferred the next stop on the tour, which was two hours at Therassia, the small sister island of Santorini. To get to the little village at the top of the mountain, you had to walk 200-and-something steps, but each step was three steps wide, so they were tricking us a bit when they counted. There was only one place to buy food up there though, so instead we stayed at the bottom where lots of restaurants beckoned. We walked past the busy restaurants next to the port, all the way until we reached the very last one. It was quiet, a victim of hungry people filtering through the restaurants only as far as the first one they liked. The food was amazing though – Courtney had fried calamari and I had traditional stuffed eggplant – and we easily got a seat on the edge of the terrace, inches from the clearest, bluest water we have ever seen.

It wasn’t long after we finished eating that those waters beckoned. We found a spot where I could sit in the sun and Courts could swim, but the rocks were slippery and we decided to move. Literally seconds after I stood up and picked up our bag, a wave crashed up, soaking the spot I had been sat on (which was over a metre back from where any previous wave had touched). We moved to a spot closer to other swimmers, but it turned out all the rocks were slippery. We left our stuff up near someone elses belongings and both went for a swim. You could see the bottom no matter how deep you went, and it was nice to wash the sulphur off but of course Courts stayed in much longer than I did and I retreated to sunbathe nearby.

Our last stop of the day was Oia, to watch the sunset. The boat docked at the Old Port, from which the only way into town is almost 300 of those nasty wide steps – or donkey ride. There are several points around the island where you can choose to ride a donkey uphill instead of walking and we had been wanting to give it a go since we arrived. We paid a grumpy old Greek man 5 Euro each and he showed us one at a time to a donkey. The second I was on the donkey (or at least half way on), it decided it needed to be ahead of all the other donkeys, and pushed past as many as it could to get to the front. Courtneys did the same and it wasn’t until we got off at the top that we realized the donkeys at the back were being whipped so of course they were all constantly trying to be at the front of the pack.

Riding up steps on a Donkey is an experience to say the least, but it’s a far cry from horseback. Several times I was sandwiched between other donkeys in my donkeys effort to get to the front. It’s not so fun to have one knee a sneeze away from a donkeys bum and the other from another donkeys teeth. It’s also not so fun to have your donkey try and pass another donkey on the outside of the path, ramming you leg against concrete beyond which is a sheer drop. Despite all these not so fun aspects, riding a donkey was awesome, I’m really glad I did it, we just felt bad for the donkeys afterwards when we saw them being whipped. It can’t be the most fun job in the world to walk up and down 250 steps all day in the summer heat being whipped.

We weren’t so fussed on seeing the sunset from the best possible vantage point so we spent a bit of time exploring Oia town. If we could have, we probably would have gone home at that point because we were 10 hours into the tour and we were knackered. Finding our tour guide to tell him and then finding a public bus was more effort than just waiting it out though, so that’s what we did. We went to the restaurant next to the meeting point we had to go to post-sunset and had coffee and panacotta. There was a small gap between buildings where we had an awesome view of the sunset so everyone on the terrace crowded around for the last few minutes of red and gold.

The bus home was a blur of half asleep-ness and the bus took a secret route that bypassed the massive traffic jam we had experienced a couple of nights before. 12 hours after we boarded the bus, we were off again and stumbling home. Definitely one of the longest days of the trip so far but I conquered a mountainous volcano, 70 metres of ocean, we swam in hot springs and on a tiny Greek island. And we had the best Panacotta I’ve ever tasted.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Grinch That Stole Snorkelling

Our first full day in Santorini we wanted to cross off the most famous beach, Perissa. Known for black sand and crystal waters, Perissa is a little bit of a tourist trap, but not necessarily in a bad way. It was way less busy than any of the other tourist beaches we had been to such as San Sebastian or Benicassim, well used but not over crowded. It had plenty of the rental loungers we had come to know and love in Benicassim, and for a cheaper price too. Even better than that, these were owned by beachside bars and cafes, so we were served cold beer right to our loungers a metre or two from the waters edge.

The beach is long but narrow so despite being at the waters edge we had a clear view of the bike. It was awesome having the bike with us in Santorini, exploring anywhere we wanted and stopping anytime we wanted. On the way to Perissa we had seen a parking lot with an incredible view of the Caldera so we stopped and took pictures.

We spent the day just generally chilling out, swimming and sunbathing. We read an English newspaper Courts found at a bookstore, bought 5 Euro sunglasses (ours have both died of travel fatigue) from a crazy beach vendor,  said many no’s to crazy Chinese massage people and ate Gyros and Kataifi. I went for a walk at one point and found a dive shop to book snorkeling through and Courts spent a good part of the day trying to talk me into letting him buy a snorkel.

There’s a good reason for us not spending 10 Euro on a snorkel though – we’re well on our way to running out of money. We’re actually only 270 Euros off budget at the moment, which considering how much we blew in Pamplona and our spur of the moment trips to Valencia, is not bad at all. We can catch up on that over the next few weeks no sweat by un-budgeting a few low-interest attractions we budgeted for, and cutting 5 Euro a day from our food budget. That’s easy because we spoil ourselves a bit with eating out and we should really grocery shop more like ‘real’ backpackers anyway.

The reason we’re running out of money is because Kiwibank’s Loaded for Travel card, a prepaid visa you can load several currencies on to, has let us down a wee bit. A first it was awesome and we advocated it to several other people who were about to travel. About half way through our trip we started noticing double transactions on our account, which were reversed, but more worryingly, were amounts we had never spent. For example we might spend 19 Euro at a supermarket but see 19 Euro and then 70 Euro come out, with the 70 Euro reversed. Sure, the issue was fixed but it is still worrying to see it happening with no explanation.

When we got into the home stretch of our 3 weeks in Spain, we stopped at a truck stop for petrol and lunch, paid for separately. Those two transactions were charged three times each, with only one set reversed. Essentially we were double charged, but to have the 16 and 25 Euro transactions fixed up, we would have to pay Kiwibank $NZ15 (7.50 Euro) per transaction. We figured it wasn’t a big amount and we’d deal with it later.

The real issue came when our card was rejected by a Barcelona ATM for no reason at all. We tried again and it worked, but when we checked our bank account both 300 Euro transactions had been deducted from our balance along with two 3 Euro withdrawal fees. This happened again a couple of weeks later, this time with 400 Euros, so we were now down by 706 Euros. What are you supposed to do when you can’t withdraw money or spend it directly off the card for fear of double charges?

For the transactions to be investigated we of course had to pay 15 Euros per transaction, and with such a large amount we decided to sort it sooner rather than later. This was easier said than done as the website instructed us to print out a form and either fax or post it. Not so easy using wifi in a café.

This is what Mum’s are for. Back home, Mum called Kiwibank and with some begging, a kind Kiwibank employee submitted the investigations for the 2 larger sums without us needing to write in. The 2 smaller sums will have to wait until we are home. The downside is the investigation can take 120 days and there’s no guarantee we’ll get any money back unless the foreign banks admit there was a mistake. If we do get the money back, it will be well after our trip ends, so we are going to have to top up our 700 Euros with $NZ1400 from our going-home fund, which is supposed to cover bond for a new house and keep us above water until we have an income.

So, there you have it. The very long story of why Courtney can’t have a snorkel.

He dealt with it, and our day in Perissa was awesome. It felt like a real island holiday, the kind you dream of when you pass travel agents in shopping malls. We went home and checked our emails in the hopes our request for a volcano tour had been granted and they had, which meant a quick trip up the road to pick up tickets for the next day.

When we got into Fira town, only 5 minutes walk from camp, the sun was just setting. We walked to the caldera side of town, through the narrow cobbled streets and followed the signs to the cable car that takes people down the cliff side, just out of curiosity. By doing so we not only saw donkeys carrying people up the path next to the cable car but we stumbled upon one of the views you see on postcards and calendars. There we stopped and watched the famous sunset again and then watched the town below us light up and start sparkling as the last light of the day disappeared.

We wandered the streets looking for dinner and came across a little Mexican restaurant with free wifi and an extremely charismatic Canadian host. We’re loving trying local foods but Mexican is my favourite food so there was no dragging me away, especially when we discovered there was a couch at one of the tables (it has been so  long since we sat on a couch) and that wild kittens roamed under the tables. Dinner was amazing and the host said we could stay and use wifi as long as we wanted without having to buy anything else. Luckily it was a short walk home because with full stomachs and after a full day of swimming, we would have been rolling home if it were any further. Santorini, you treat us well.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The World's Best Sunset?

It was another alarm day as we left Athens, waking up at 4.30am to take down the tent in the dark and pack up the bike for the ferry crossing to Santorini. It was all worth it though when we drove past the city and could see the Acropolis all lit up, high above the streets and buildings. Even though we saw the lights come on the night before at Mount Lykabettus, there was no lesser thrill to see them again.

Boarding the boat was quick and easy and being one of the first on we had plenty of time to go out on the deck and watch the sunrise over the port of Piraeus. We couldn’t spend too long on the deck though,  unless we wanted to stay there. The Blue Star ferry we were on was much smaller than the overnighter we took previously and was divided into classes. There was just enough room for everyone in Economy to find a seat at a table either inside near the burger bar or outside on the deck, so we settled into window seats at a table inside.

We spent much of the 7 hour journey taking turns on the wifi or playing games on the phone, with a few snacks and drinks in between. Twice before reaching Santorini however the ferry made stops at other islands, Paros and Naxos, and we took turns either minding our belongings or running upstairs to see the sights. In less than 24 hours the sunset over Athens was overruled as the best view Courtney had seen in his life, and the magic of the Greek Islands took over. The view of Paros from the ferry was the new winner.

Exactly as you imagine sailing the Greek Islands, that is what we saw. White washed houses clustered over hilltops and around the water. Blue topped churches, sparkling blue seas and the most beautiful beaches in the world. Even on the ferry for the day we could imagine sailing the islands, on a cruise or island hopping with ferries. Again the blue water and bright sunlight reminded me of summer days near the water at home but nothing at home could compare to these islands.

Arriving at Santorini everyone crowded into the cargo hold waiting for the ramp to lower and there was a distinct thrill in the air when it started to reveal the port of Athinios. Massive vertical cliff faces hugged the port and as you gazed across them you couldn’t miss the famous road we had to ascend to really arrive on the island. The road from Athinios at the bottom to the main roads at the top has 7 180 degree turns and sheer drops from every straight section. I would have been petrified driving it myself but of course Courts did it no worries, even at the top when an idiot pulled out in front of us, putting himself on the wrong side of the road and forcing us to stop suddenly. At least it was an idiot at the top and nothing to do with the crazy cliff faces. I videoed the entire ride up, all 5 minutes of it.

We followed the signs to Fira, the main town on the island and it wasn’t too difficult to find Santorini Camping nearby. We set up the tent in our usual little routine and then it was off to explore. There is a good bus service through Santorini and countless places you can hire cars, bikes, scooters or even quads to get around, but we were very glad to have our bike with us.

With Fira located to one side of the middle of the island, we headed in the shorter direction we had to choose from, towards Oia. We didn’t really have an exact destination in mind but with the sun starting to fall I wanted more and more to make it to Oia before it set. Oia is known as one of the best sunsets in the world and what better way to start off our island adventure than a sunset to rival Athens.

We parked the bike when we eventually came to a blocked road and walked up into the town. We followed narrow cobbled roads between the famous white washed buildings and soaked in the atmosphere of people and shops and relaxation. People were already securing the best spots for viewing the sunset on the first ledge we walked past. We thought we had plenty of time to find a spot so we kept exploring, heading towards the tip of the island and taking photos of the cliffs, crowded with white and blue buildings.

We found several good vantage points for watching but we were thirsty so we kept going in hopes of finding a bar with decent prices and a view as well. What we found was better, on the furthest point of the island, a pool café, with a swimming pool on the lowest level and tables and chairs dotting the many terraces above. We sat down at the first table we came across that was on the edge – front row for the sunset. We ordered fruit smoothies and chocolate brownie and watched people in the pool, envious of the cold water.

Courtney has become obsessed with the animals of the world, hunting down, photographing, and showing off beetles, frogs, lizards, hornets (there was one over an inch long in Munich) dogs, cats, butterflies, and birds. When we toured Athens with a University-educated tour guide he asked three questions, all about dogs and hornets and various animal species. There were more stray dogs to be seen in Santorini, after our surprise at finding them in Athens, suffice to say he took dog photos in numbers that rivaled my sunset photos, and that’s saying something. As I cull the sunset photos to a near-reasonable number I am under strict instruction not to delete any dog photos.

The dogs in Santorini appeared to live in a pack, far below us at the bottom of the cliff in a barren field near the water. At one point there were 9 or 10 chasing and playing and settling in to watch the sunset. They were probably just taking in the last of the warmth from the sun, but their behavior mimicked the people that were now crowding around the walls above the pool, trying to get a good view. There was one other dog we saw, limping close to the cliff. At one point he wandered up to watch the other dogs but as soon as one of them spotted him there was barking and he ran (limped) off into the cliffside, marking a flaw in the Greek system of open-door animal welfare.

Soon it was impossible to watch the dogs over the sunset as the sky turned a brilliant orange along a thin strip near the sea, with the orange fading to violet and the vast majority of the sky staying a deep blue. The entire view was overtaken by the sun, huge and golden as it descended. When the sun started to dip behind the islands in the distance, it turned an intense red, contrasting against the dark silhouette of the island. We saw it all from the best view point possible, front row and seated away from the crowds.

There was only one way back to the bike though (or so we thought) so we walked back into the centre of town and hit a massive wall of people leaving at the same time. I knew the sunset was a must-see but from our vantage point we had no idea just how many people had come to see it. The walk ways were full, a huge traffic jam of people barely moving, and it was no better when we eventually did get back to the bike and met with real traffic. From the bike we could see the tip of the island we had been sat on and realized we could have just walked up the hill and been first out of town. If we had done that though, we would have missed the view 20 minutes after the sun disappeared when the entire sky glowed red in its absence. So despite it taking almost 40 minutes to weave in and out of traffic, squeezing between busses and quad bikes to get home, we got to see one of the world’s best sunsets, and it was totally worth it. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Best View in the World

We didn’t really make the most of our second full day in Athens, spending most of it outside the restaurant at camp using free wifi to communicate with people at home and load photos onto Flickr. I think Athens is best taken in slowly, with plenty of time for sleeping in and dealing with the heat. We never saw the Ancient Agora on the way down from the Acropolis because we were too hot and although we saw everything I was excited to see, if we had air conditioning or a couple of weeks we could have found the motivation to do a lot more.

We did venture out from camp though, around 6pm. We took the bus and metro into a different part of town with the aim of seeing the sunset from Mount Lykabettus, the highest point in Athens. We had been told there was a cable car up to the top for 2 Euro but we didn’t know we had to climb about 4 billion steps to get to the cable car. I am incredibly unfit and it was horrible getting to the top of a set of steps and seeing twice as many unfold before you, previously obscured by trees. We did make it to the top of the steps though, and found the cable car that went the rest of the way. It was 14 Euros return for both of us instead of the 8 we had expected but it was very steep so we were happy to pay it instead of walking.

When we emerged at the top we passed through the lower terraces of a restaurant and climbed even more stairs to the very top, where a little church is perched with the best view in Athens. It is the best view, too. Courts went as far as to say it was the best view he’d seen in his lifetime and I’d definitely say it’s u there. By the time we got to the top we had missed the actual sunset but only by minutes and a brilliant red glow had taken over the city, filling the sky with fire that faded into a purple haze over the islands on the horizon.

As the glow deepened and darkened we treated ourselves to hot chocolate and frappes (that cost as much as some of the meals on the menu), in order to secure a table on the edge of the terrace with a view of the Acropolis far below. A new golden glow began to brighten the buildings of the Acropolis as the fire in the sky sunk away behind the islands. A few minutes later the harsh hillsides lit up with green which then changed to gold as the gold of the buildings brightened. By the time it was dark, the Acropolis was lit up brightly, mountain and all, and the lights of the city joined it as street lights came on and office buildings shone through their windows.

The breeze lost its heat and started ringing the bells of the church and so we went back down the hill and found a little eatery that served traditional Greek souvlaki and spinach pie at normal prices, which is what we had for dinner. Our campsite had told us the taxi home would be 8 Euro but when we discovered it was actually 18 it was too late to do anything different and so a crazy Greek taxi driver drove us home. Even if the walk up Mount Lykabettus hadn’t tired us out I think we would have slept as soundly just knowing we survived the ride.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Collision of Two Cities

One of the reasons we chose to stay closer to Athens was because on the first of our two full days in the city we had a walking tour at 9.30am. Admittedly I didn’t plan this so well – I thought I would choose the earlier of the two tour options to avoid the heat and that I would do it on the first day to give us an overview of the city before we explored on our own. Logical, no? But had we stayed in Raffina as planned we would have been quite far from the city and we didn’t have much time to figure out public transport. As it was, we took a bus from camp to the nearest Metro station and then the Metro to Syntagma square and all up it took around 30 or 40 minutes and all for 1.40 each.

We were early for the tour having left enough time to get lost on the way so we went and found a small café to have coffee and water. Even before 9am we were already starting to feel dehydrated but after buying a bottle of water the café staff topped it up from the tap for free and we found out throughout the day that Athens is full of drinking fountains that are not only free and safe but cold. When the temperature moves into the 30’s, cold water is a godsend.

Our tour guide was a vibrant older lady named Voula from Athens Walking Tours. She talked a lot, which might seem obvious for a tour guide but she filled the gaps in her commentary with chatter as well. It was really lovely because by paying attention to her chatter I learnt a little bit about Greek life and family, recent events in Athens and the local-knowledge back stories behind events and buildings that weren’t part of the tour.

We started off the tour in the Syntagma Metro station we had originally arrived in. Voula explained that the Metro is relatively new, around 10 years old, but that it took a really long time to construct because every single piece of land in Athens is essentially an archaeological excavation site once you put spade to earth. The Metro system is testament to this and they have done an amazing job of preserving their finds. Entire walls of the underground station are glass, set away from the earth and showing cross sections of what is under the modern-level land. Below early Christian graves and water mains are the remains of the road that lead to the plains which now host the airport, and nearby are greek graves from the classical period. Even further down you can see layers of prehistoric seashells showing the bottom of the ocean from a time when Athens was actually part of the sea bed.

There are gravestones, amphoras, perfume bottles, piggy banks and even a few square metres of mosaic church floor that were uncovered during the excavations and preserved for display in glass cases within the station. A mere Metro station and yet all this is just there for anyone to see, in its original place. It’s very impressive that they have gone to these efforts to properly excavate and preserve these sites instead of bowling through and putting the Metro wherever they wanted, however they wanted.

From the station we went to the nearby Parliament buildings to watch the changing of the Presidential Guard. It was while waiting for the ceremony that we asked Voula about the dogs that roamed the streets everywhere we turned. They were sleeping, playing and wandering the streets of the city, sometimes on the edges of paths next to multilane roads. They all had collars and tags and looked very well fed so we didn’t understand where their owners were.

Voula let us know that the dogs are all registered and vaccinated and that they’re fed and cleaned up after by volunteers. The city of Athens basically lets them run free and do what they want. They’re apparently not dangerous although one decided he didn’t like a man nearby and ran straight for him, staying a metre away and barking continuously until the man went away 10 minutes later.

It’s so weird seeing dogs just chilling out on the city streets. Voula recognized most of them and they listened to her as well – the same dogs seem to hang around the same areas and so doing the tour every day she is familiar with them. Once we had left the changing of the guard, five of them followed us all the way through the National Gardens to the Temple of Zeus, stopping when we did for commentary and continuing when we continued.

By structuring the tour to go to the Temple of Zeus first, we missed the massive ticket queue at the Acropolis later. We were able to buy the 12 Euro ticket that grants access to all the major monuments with hardly a queue at all and then skip to the front later in the day. The Temple of Zeus was awesome even though the remains are just a taste of the huge number of columns that used to support the now non-existant roof.

Next to the Temple of Zeus but outside the ticket area is Hadrians Arch, which was built for Hadrian to pass through in order to consecrate the temple. It used to show the blurry divide between the old side of Athens supposedly created by the Gods and the 'new' (2000 years ago) side that Hadrian presided over. It now lies on the edge of a busy main road and kind of points out how the ancient city has been taken over by the new. We passed it to cross the road and found ourselves on a shop-laden pedestrian road that leads into PLaka, the old neighbourhood, and straight to the acropolis. We stopped first for samples of Greek Yoghurt with black cherry preserves and Courts and I ended up buying more, his with black cherry and mine with honey and walnuts. Best yoghurt I’ve ever had.

To avoid the massive queue heading straight up, we came to the Acropolis from the side, passing first the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus, the medical temple, shops and stores and then the Theatre of Herod Atticus, which has been restored and is still used today for opera, orchestras and occasionally artists like Vanessa Mae and Norah Jones. Despite the more intact nature of the Theatre of Herod Atticus I preferred the Theatre of Dionysus. Thrones for the priests still remain in front row and you can see where the romans converted the full circle orchestra into a roman-style half circle. You can also see the foundations of the stage and the various layers of what was underneath which was awesome.

Passing all of these ruins the path started to get steeper and steeper as we climbed the hill to the Acropolis. I think our guide struggled the most with it to be honest, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant in the heat no matter what. Arriving at the Propylaea, the main entrance to the Acropolis, was very cool. Despite the crowd there being thicker than anywhere else on the complex, to know you are walking up the same steps as ancient Emperors is mind boggling. Not only emperors either but pilgrims, who came to worship at the temples and would have felt the same awe as we did as the buildings unfolded before us.

The Propylaia was designed as a taste of what the Parthenon beyond it would be like. The Greeks felt that pilgrims needed something to ready them for the incredible sight of the Parthenon and you can see why. Despite the Parthenon being covered in scaffolding, it is incredible in size, structure and feel. No other wow-moment of the trip quite prepares you for the structure, which is being restored at the moment, along with the rest of the Acropolis complex. They won’t restore it back to its original state, although that would have been cool, but they will continue restoring it until they run out of original pieces to fit back into the puzzle. The world’s oldest, heaviest, and most awesome puzzle.

The marble for restoration is coming from the exact same quarry the original marble came from thousands of years ago, which is nerdily exciting, and it’s really cool to see the parts that have been finished already with new bright white marble contrasting against the yellowed original marble. The restoration doesn’t detract from the authenticity at all, I think it makes it more exciting to actually see the site as active and seeing modern builders using power tools to shape the flutes of the columns gives a clearer perspective of the immensity of the project the Greeks undertook when mules carried the marble and the flutes were hand carved to perfection. The entire building took 9 years for the Greeks and the restoration will take longer, because this time the entire population hasn’t essentially stopped what they’re doing to make it happen.

Our tour ended at the top and Courts and I made our way down the hillside and around the opposite side of the hill from where we had come up. We wandered the old winding streets of the Plaka and perused the Monastiriki market. We ate authentic Gyros for 2.20 and attempted a Hard Rock Café detour but they didn’t have any pins. Our wanderings lead us back to Syntagma Square where we had started and after a short walk around looking for a supermarket we retreated back to the Metro and went home for a Courtney-cooked meal of packet mashed potatos, fried salami and gravy. Not healthy, but a very good end to a very long day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dirty and Dusty

Breakfast on the ferry was amazing. Courtney went first while I guarded our stuff, and came back with bacon, eggs, sausage and croissant. It looked good but was nothing compared to the inch thick French toast I had, which got covered with a soup ladel full of thick sugary syrup and a coating of cinnamon. I got a side of bacon and some canned pears and by the time I got back to my seat the sugar syrup on my French toast had hardened into a gooey, stringy, delicious mess. I never said breakfast was healthy, just amazing.

The view was as well, as when we went to sit on the other side of the ferry in the lounge we discovered we were sailing close to mainland Greece and passing countless islands just off the shore. A lazy haze blanketed the land and made the colours of the view fuse together and blur so that you could hardly see where one stopped and the other started.

Disembarking was easy although done in a mad rush as we had to unstrap all our gear and restrap all our ferry clothes to the bike before we could ride off and access to the garage was only given at the last minute. It wasn’t long though before we were away, and once we got through the dirty, dusty streets of Patras and away from the concentration of insane drivers, the idea of being in Greece finally settled in. The entire ride was dirty and dusty, not just Patras, and the insane drivers followed but further apart from each other and our bike. Most of the ride had a view of the ocean but with the wall of heat we were forcing ourselves against, it was hard to imagine why anyone would live in one of the dirty, dusty houses. If I lived in that heat I wouldn’t clean either.

Rethinking our plan of attack at the first McDonalds (Air conditioning! Free water!) we found, we decided not to stay at the campsite we had originally chosen. I think I chose it because it was on a cliff top and had a private beach. The website proclaimed ‘only 35 minutes from the Acropolis!’ but after our experience in Barcelona and learning the difference between advertised distance and public transport distance, 35 minutes was starting to sound like a long way. I also realized that our ferry for Santorini left at 7.45am with a likely check in 2 hours earlier. While the ferry was only 10 minutes from the Acropolis and the centre of Athens, it was on the opposite side of the city from camping, so it would a very early start to get across in time. Our trusty GPS pointed us in the direction of Camping Athens, a very basic campsite on a very busy 6 lane road. It was nothing special and there was certainly no private beach but it was 15 minutes from the Acropolis (aka 35-45 minutes public transport time) and 10 minutes from the ferry. Much better!

We drove to the ferry port first to pick up our tickets to Santorini in a couple of days time and then headed to camp. As we drove through the dirty, dusty city, I looked between the workshops and offices in desperate need of TLC and there she was, the Parthenon, sitting proudly in charge of the Acropolis. There is no sight like it. I got the same feeling when I first spotted Mont St Michel, the lit-up Eiffel Tower, and the Italian border. After those sightings, the view of the Acropolis was not necessarily the prettiest, crowded in by more dirt, dust and dilapidation than any other major city I’ve seen, but it was in it’s own league, having earned it’s right to take your breath away over thousands of years.

When we finally had the tent up and the pegs knocked into the rock hard ground, we bought cold drinks and settled in. For me at least it was all the nicer to settle in for the night knowing she was just around the corner.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cruising on the Ferry to Greece

We’ve woken up to a few alarms lately, and despite years of practice, we’ve become accustomed to waking up naturally. Alarms are unwelcome and on the morning of our ferry to Greece, even more so at 4am. We had packed almost everything the night before so we just strapped it all on the bike and got the night guard to let us out. It was well and truly dark and while the cool air was refreshing at first, it only took an hour or so before I wished the sun would hurry up and provide some warmth.

We drove alongside the sunrise, red and purple over the fields of Italy. We stopped once for hot drinks but found yet again parts of Europe aren’t big on Hot Chocolate. The ride was 5 hours from Venice to Ancona to catch the ferry and we had to check in at 11.30am. We had purposely left early incase we got lost or the GPS took us the long way as it often does. Everything went to plan though, so we ended up riding into Ancona at 9am. The view was incredible, high up in the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

We figured out where the ferry terminal was and then back tracked a bit to find a McDonalds that the GPS said was nearby. It was closed, the first time we discovered that not everywhere does Maccas breakfast menu, so we went back to the ferry, checked in early and then had snack food from the nearby kiosks.

Nearer to boarding time we made our way to the loading zone and navigated our way through the thick stream of vehicles coming off the just-arrived ferry. We parked underneath it and stripped off all our gear, strapping it onto the bike in favour of shorts and singlets. The ferry was huge but only offered shade to the other side of it, so we sweltered in the mid morning heat and waited for our queue.

After loading the bike and stowing our boots and helmets in a locker we went straight to the top to see the view of Ancona. We could see the cathedral perched high on a cliff top and the bustling port long at work below us. We nabbed loungers next to the swimming pool just before a crowd of teenagers attempted to do the same but they settled on the opposite side of the pool and we grabbed wine and food and settled in. We never went in the water but I could have stayed poolside all day. Instead when the shady side became the sunny side as we turned, Courts requested a retreat under cover and we ate our lunch overlooking the endless ocean with no land in sight.

Having been travelling every couple of days for a week or so we were well and truly ready for a rest so mid afternoon we purchased wifi access and sat on the couches near reception for the best signal. From this vantage point we were able to witness Greek customer service at its best – which is terrible. We haven’t had as bad an experience since leaving the boat so maybe it was just Superfast staff but they were short, impatient and rude to everyone that asked them for help. This included a group on a Topdeck tour whose friend was in a cabin very very ill and who couldn’t find their tour leader. The receptionists didn’t want to know because they had no doctor.

As we sailed away from the sunset we went to the buffet for dinner and were able to watch an incredible sunset from the window next to our table. We literally watched as a ball of brilliant orange light disappeared over the horizon, slowly blinking away like the eyelid of a child who desperately wants to stay awake.

Our food was good and as expected, overpriced, and we left the restaurant for hot drinks in the lounge while pondering where to sleep. I was sure I had booked airplane seats as our accommodation on the 22 hour voyage, the cheapest option, but when we couldn’t see them on the map or on the elevator level guide I started wondering if I hadn’t booked them for this particular ferry afterall. When we spotted lots of other people unrolling lilos and sleeping bags on the sundecks we started looking around for comfy chairs – only problem being that most areas had ‘no sleeping’ signs or were roped off. As I got more and more tired I went to look at the Cabinettes that were shown on the map, just out of blatant curiosity as to what a cabinette was. On the maps of the ship it showed a female cabinette side and a male cabinette side but when I went to the female door it had a sign saying ‘airplane seats’ on it.

With a tiny ball of hope starting to rise within I ran down to Courtney and got our tickets off him, asking reception if they came with airplane seats. Low and behold they did and it was apparent we were the last in the know when we were given two keycards for the door and discovered only two seats left. Luckily they were together and I took them over, leaving Courts downstairs on the net.

Courts joined me not long after and over the course of the night our sleeping positions changed several times. A lot of people had bought sleeping mats or at least blankets and were stretched out on the floor. With Courtney on our two seats (with a massive plastic arm rest in between unfortunately) I moved to lie in the tiny gap between our seats and the ones in front, with our backpack as a pillow. At some point Courtney moved to sleep behind our chairs, which were the back row and for an hour or so in the wee hours he even slept under them, head first. I got cold and moved to curl up as little spoon behind the chairs after which I slept much better. 

It was a broken sleep, especially when a ferry employee came to wake up everyone getting off at Igoumentisa, but it was a lot better than trying to sleep on the hard sundeck floor without a lilo.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Best Day of our Trip so far

When we woke up in Venice I was super keen to get over to the city so we decided to head over for breakfast, although our idea of breakfast turned out more like lunch. Our campsite was only 100m from the ferry terminal and the ferry ride was exciting all on its own, seeing Venice unfold before us, sparkling in the morning sunshine reflected by the sea. I took way more photos than necessary, even just from the ferry, because I knew my Mum and sister would love it there.

Even Courts got excited when we got off the ferry near the entrance to the Grand Canal and we were actually in Venice. Our campsite had provided a map of the city with recommended walking trails and I had used it to pin point the main sights so we could see them first and then just immerse ourselves in the city. We walked along the edge of Venice and headed down the Grand Canal. At times there was no path on the edge of the Grand Canal so we wove in and out of alleyways, over smaller canals and through small squares until we reached the Accademia, a wooden bridge spanning the Grand Canal that has been there since the 1600’s.

Not far from the other side of the Accademia we stopped to eat. Being close to St Marks Square but not within sight of it, the prices weren’t insane but they were borderline. Courts had pasta and I had a Panini with a coke. They put lemon in coke in a lot of places in Europe and at first it was weird but now I’m thinking I need a lemon tree.

Having had our fill we followed the direction of the vague signs that pointed to St Marks Square. I say they were vague because the signs were so far apart and there were many slight corners and twists in between. However, we made it from one to the next without getting lost so the route must have been logical at some level. It was really exciting coming across the square itself, which we entered through an archway that perfectly outline the basilica across the square.

Plazas and town squares aren’t really something we have at home, not like they do here. We have Aotea square at home in Auckland and I suppose people have lunch there and it’s sort of a meeting point but it’s really not the same as a European plaza. St Marks is probably my favourite that we’ve seen so far with architecture that feels immense and awe inspiring despite the relatively plain nature of the three non-basilica sides. Each of the three full sides (the basilica closes in the open end) has high end cafes, bars and shops that I could never afford to enter, while the middle is full of street vendors.

Despite the warnings of mass crowds and pick pocketers, the crowds really weren’t that bad. We’re learning now that if you can handle the heat (Courts is not in favour of it but I don’t mind) August is one of the best times to visit the hot European countries because the locals are all on holiday so the crowds are localized only to the tourist spots and traffic is far less than normal. We did however still bypass entering the Basilica itself – the queue was crazy long and in direct sunlight.

After a detour to the nearby Hard Rock we crossed in front of the Basilica and past the presidential palaces, again finding ourselves essentially on the edge of Venice. We didn’t spot the Bridge of Sighs but then we didn’t really know what we were looking for so we may very well have crossed it. The wide open edge of the city was in direct sunlight and full of market stalls. Most of them sold souvenirs or cold drinks and all were full of tourists. It was starting to get very warm and beyond the must-sees like the basilica we really weren’t interested in doing anything touristy. Rather than continue on towards the Arsenale or navy quarter which had been recommended by the campground, we ducked into a shady alley and proceeded to lose ourselves in Venice.

I would thoroughly recommend the route we took that morning prior to getting lost – from the Fusina ferry stop we walked along the edgeof the city to the entrance of the Grand Canal and then down it, crossed the Accademia and then followed the signs to St Marks. From St Marks we walked towards the visible water and then followed the edge past the palace towards Arsenale. It allowed us to cross off all the main sights (except maybe the Royale Bridge) and see some amazing  lesser-known churches and halls as well as get a taste of the narrower alleys and less touristy life of Venetians. It only took an hour or so and then the day was free to spend however we wanted without wondering if we were near the next must-see.

We had been told by numerous bloggers and guide books that the best thing to do in Venice is get lost. Having now done so, I whole-heartedly agree. We found numerous dead ends but also found that the narrowest of alleys (seriously, it was a squish for a similarly sized person to pass me going the other way sometimes) led to some amazing spots. Beautiful residences covered in flowers and moss, mask shops aplenty including ones where you can watch the masks being made, carnival costume stores, gelato on every corner. Steps leading into the canal were dotted with people dipping their toes and we joined in, eating pink grapefruit and black chocolate ice cream in the shade.

We came across markets, found a surprising McDonalds (the only commercial mainland shop or food place we saw), perused Murano glass for far longer than Courtney would have liked and sampled real Venetian baking. We found hotels only accessible by boat, including a couple with new platforms that made the door height much lower but did stop your feet getting wet in the sinking floor. One clock tower was on a definite lean as the ground below it gradually gave in to the sea.

Twice we asked locals to show us on our map where we were at the time but distractions often prevailed over directions so despite intending on making it to the Rialto Bridge we never did. We did however make it much further, right to the other end of the snaking Grand Canal. Instead of paying the government-regulated minimum Gondola price of 80 Euros for 40 minutes (they don’t even sing like they do in the movies) we paid 6.50 for a one-hour bus pass – Vaporetti or water-bus that is – and took the Number 1 line from the far end of the Grand Canal, all the way along to the entrance we started at and back almost to St Marks Square past the end. We could have got off right by the ferry home but we were happy with our seats on the sun deck, passing under the Accademia and the Rialto as well as palaces and hotels, soaking in the setting sun and the Venetian life.

We wandered slowly from St Marks square back the way we had walked when we first arrived and ate even more gelato while waiting for the ferry. The ferry home seemed much quicker as they usually do and before long we were back in our cabin (oh, glorious cabin) packing for our departure in the wee hours of the morning. Venice was easily my favourite day of the entire trip so far, and to think in the rains of Munich I considered skipping Venice to avoid the rain. Packing up in the rain was the best decision I made all trip.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Waking up to the sound of rain is not as soothing as falling asleep to it, or at least not when you need to pack up a tent. We had such good intentions when we chose to put the tent up to dry out instead of sleeping in the tent dorm but although the tent did briefly dry out, it was wetter than it started when it was time to go.

The rain was bucketing down so we decided to get breakfast first and use the wifi in the cafeteria in the hopes it would ease. At least then we would be dry even if the tent wasn’t. For the first time we had a real, strong wifi signal and spent the next couple of hours on the phone to family, Courts on Skype and me on our Voip line.

Courts had the privilege of being overheard talking to his Dad about the surfers in English Garden and questioned on them by quite possibily the most miserable human being I’ve ever come across. He was an English guy and he spent the next hour or so complaining about everything that had ever happened in his life. Courts has trouble politely edging away from conversation with anyone, he feels like the very idea of it is rude but I happily sat there looking extremely busy on the computer. Even Courts eventually started ignoring him, which I’ve not seen before.

Actually, I didn’t see it this time either, because as soon as the rain eased, I raced off to pack up the tent. Courts didn’t need to be wet and grumpy for the 6 hour ride to Venice but we did need to get on the road so I packed everything up as quickly as possible, wrapping the dry stuff in our Wacken ponchos and putting the wet stuff in between them as I strapped it all on the bike.

When I got back to Courts to tell him it was time to go his English friend had only just left and that was all the motivation he needed to get on the road. By this time it was noon and we were well behind in our day. For a 6 hour ride we would normally leave about 8am and take our time so the possibility of doing one with shorter breaks and a late arrival was daunting, and I wasn’t even the one riding.

For most of the ride through Germany it was raining still so there was little to see and we had to go a lot slower than normal, pushing our impending arrival time further and further out of reach. I had completely forgotten that we would cross through Austria to get to Italy so it was a nice surprise to see the border and even though the weather didn’t improve, Austria is amazing. At home mountains tend to gradually rise from the land so much so that they don’t really have a bottom, they just are. Not so in Austria, where there is perfectly flat land, massive fields with not a bump in sight and then BAM! Mountain. Not just any mountain, huge mountains. There was one that Courts unfortunately couldn’t see because I was looking to the right and then saw shadows in the clouds above us and realized that when I tilted my head back as far as it would go I could still see mountain in the sky. Easily the biggest mountain I have even been next to and by far the coolest. The flat land around them makes the mountains so breathtaking and humbling, especially when there are tiny house right next to them.

At one point we climbed higher into the alps and crossed a 192m bridge. I know it was that tall because that’s what the sign for bungy jumping from it said. No, we didn’t bungy! We did however, stop at the McDonalds next door, which hung out over the edge of the mountain and must be the McDonalds with the best view in the world. When we got off the bike we discovered that a little grasshopper we had seen when we got on way back in Munich had survived the whole ride. He was still there when we left Maccas an hour later and so he became Jiminy from Germany, and had his photo taken in the Alps.

Coming down the other side was a relief, in part because we soon reached the Italian border, and long rides are powered by milestones. The other cause for relief was that with Italy came sunshine. The weather was perfect and the second we crossed the border I was grinning. I didn’t stop until we reached the highway to Venice 2 hours later because Italy is everything I ever dreamed it would be and so much more. It’s stunning, I love it, I love it, I love it!

We had been told by friends at Wacken that when they attempted to drive from Austria into Italy they lasted an hour before turning back because of the number of near death experiences the Italian drivers provided them. Since hearing that I had been freaking out a little and while still on the Austrian side of the border we had two idiots on two different occasions pull out in front of us at the last minute. I figured we must be getting close to Italy and I was right, however as soon as we crossed the border everyone behaved and we didn’t have any issues the rest of the ride.

Most of the Italian leg of the ride was through the Dolomite Ranges and if you ever drive or ride through Europe, you have to go through them. More mountains, yes, and I can’t explain how so many mountains can all be amazing and not look the same, but they don’t. These ones had sheer cliff faces of rock where nothing could grow, and tiny houses dotted in higher places with seemingly no access. That’s as well as the vineyards and farms and the castles. So many castles! We didn’t see a single one in Germany, where we thought we would be flooded with them but Italy took one for the team and I think we saw more castles in that ride than we have in total since leaving Ireland.

Jiminy, or Jiminiiiia as he became when we crossed the border, hung on until just after we had stopped for petrol about an hour and a half into the Dolomites. I saw Courts swing his head back and I realized instantly what had happened. We thought he was our friend but he was really just hitchhiking to a warmer climate. I don’t blame him, I just hope he didn’t splat onto someone’s windscreen.

Once we were through the Dolomites and on the highway it didn’t take long to get to Venice and there was an added motivation for getting there in one day despite our late start. Awaiting us were two real beds inside a real cabin and they were all ours. It was tiny, little more than those 2 single beds and a cupboard, but that size made it only a couple of Euros more expensive than tenting it so we had booked it before we left home. Courts hung the tent out over the bike to dry and after a very long day we slept very, very soundly.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Munich is Awesome And That's All There Is To It.

When we woke up after the last night of PartySan it was still raining. The tent was soaking wet and dripping through in places, and we had to get to Munich. I hit the snooze button for an hour while we waited for the rain to ease and luckily it eventually did. We packed up the bike in record time and were on the road by 7.30am.

I really wanted to get to Dachau, the first Concentration Camp built in Germany during the war. The weather was overcast and cool for most of the ride there, until about half an hour before we arrived when the clouds disappeared and Summer arrived. The sun shone through and the weather warmed and I rode with my face to the sky (the benefit of riding pillion) basking in sunshine, our first real sunshine for weeks.

The only thing is, as the weather got warmer it didn’t really stop getting warmer and so when we got to Dachau it was absolutely roasting. We took off most of our gear but this just mean we had to carry it – two helmets, two jackets, Courtney’s riding pants (I kept mine on) and our valuables bag. It would have been easier if we had been able to navigate the memorial grounds. We followed a few people with audio guides in the direction we thought we wanted to go but after seeing the SS guard houses and the foundations of an SS Office building we passed a kindergarten and realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore. There were still  parts of the wider camp area you could see in that direction but the walk between them was long, the spaces in between used for other, modern means and our gear was very hot and very heavy.

Funnily enough it was when we walked back from this area that Courts found the barracks and the entrance gate and a whole lot more interesting stuff not far from where we had started but in the opposite direction. By this time we were seriously struggling with the heat, especially me with armoured pants still on, so we had a quick look and then decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and headed back to the bike. It’s a shame because I had really wanted to go to Dachau and I thought I would get a better understanding of what happened. I expected the eerie feeling I experienced visiting Ground Zero in New York City, the same feeling I’ve heard lots of people describe in similar situations, but I felt nothing and really got little from it except what I read on the tourist signs. I can say I went though, and I’m glad I did.

Courts was very skeptical of the campground, which was thankfully only 20 minutes away by this time. It’s called The Tent and that is essentially what it is – one huge tent where you can elect to either put down your own mattress on the floor or pay a bit extra for a bunk bed. We were booked in to sleep on the floor because we were intending on leaving early the next day anyway but with Courts being worried about our stuff getting stolen (although it did turn out there were lockers) and a sopping wet tent in our bag, we decided to put our own tent up in the field next to the shared tent. We figured it would dry out and provide a bit more security for our stuff.

With the tent up and almost dry within minutes, we stopped by reception to get a tram ticket and a map of the city. The guys there were awesome - as the entire campsite turned out to be actually – and pointed out the best things to see with our limited time and the best ways to get there. The tram was easy to catch even if we did end up going the long way about finding a tram stop, and we were away.

Once again Germany’s road works companies were out in full force so it took a bit of roundabout navigation to find our way but it wasn’t long before we were on one of the main shopping drags in town. The street was wide and open only to foot traffic, and despite the fact the shops were all closed (it was Sunday evening) there was still a lot of people around. We stumbled upon awesome architecture the whole way and then eventually found Marinplatz. The square is home to the old town hall which is probably the coolest building I’ve ever seen. There are so many intricate details, so many different statues, monsters and gargoyles (which aren’t gargoyles Monty tells me but I forget the name) and even a dragon climbing up one corner. Some of the statues move three times a day which we unfortunately missed out on but the whole building was just crazy awesome.

After the compulsory Hard Rock Café stop we walked through some of the narrower old town streets until they opened up and unveiled the Residenz palace. It wasn’t the most impressive buildings we’ve seen but either way I rubbed three of the four Lions outside for good luck (rubbing all four is greedy and gives you bad luck apparently but as you’ll read the damn things didn’t work anyway) and we continued on our way.

Not far from the palace is the bottom of the English Garden, a huge central city park that hugs the river. It’s so big that in the northern, more wild end of the park live actual real life Sheppards. We weren’t interested in them though because there was far more interesting sights to see. Although we never saw any nudists (apparently they’re common) we did find the surfers. Right in the middle of the city, below a bridge at the edge of the park, is a man made standing wave. Queues of insane surfers in thick wetsuits jump off the sides of the river to brave the concrete edges, alpine waters and huge numbers of spectators. It’s really cool, not least of all because they are literally at the very edge of the park, surfing in the shadow of big city buildings.

The English Garden was to become Courtney’s second favourite place on Earth (after Wacken) when we found the Beer Garden the camp guys had recommended to us. There are a few in the gardens but the Chinese Tower beer garden is one of the biggest and most well known in the city. Under a 5 story Chinese tower, which had a traditional German band playing halfway up, tables stretch as far as you can see. Every single table is full of people with massive litre steins of beer and huge piles of food.

There are a few food areas but they all sell the same things – sausages, schnitzel, every variation of pork you can think of and lots of potatoes. I had schnitzel and herbed fried potatoes and Courts had potatoes and pork knuckle. We shared a giant pretzel and this amazing dip made of butter, soft cheeses and onions. I tried the apfelwein (Apple Wine) after Courts chose it by mistake and he of course had a huge jug of beer. We sat at a table with a friendly German guy and devoured as much as we could.

10 minutes into dinner it started spitting but we happily continued eating under the shade of a massive tree. It was about two thirds through dinner that it started bucketing down and while the tables around us emptied and every sheltered spot overflowed with patrons we ate on like troopers. Eventually, in a sundress that seemed like a good idea 3 hours and 28 degrees earlier, I had to take shelter with everyone else, or at least try. Courts soldiered on, blinded to the bulk of the weather by the ecstasy of finding such a place on Earth.

When we left an hour or so later, the rain had eased and we were able to walk to the tram comfortably. We could have happily spent a week in Munich and I think it’s the first place we’ve been to that I’d consider living in, other than maybe London, or Beauvoir if I was older. Even without time on our side, the city was easy to see in one evening. I think it took us a couple of hours to see all the main sights that had been recommended to us, plus a couple of hours at the beer garden getting to know the ‘real’ Munich. Well worth it, even with the rain.