Sunday, September 27, 2015


We had a great tour of Santorini. I think it might be the most beautiful place we have visited and we did not see it at its best since the sky was mostly overcast all day. Small patches of blue sky just don’t provide the highlights the blues and whites deserve. Nevertheless, the beauty is still awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, these pictures only hint at the beauty.

The natural beauty of Santorini begins with the 3500 year-old caldera created when an eruption destroyed the cone of the volcano submerging it beneath the blue ocean leaving one crescent-shaped island with cliffs facing west to the sunset over the remaining small islands that draws lovers from all over the world. This natural beauty is enhanced by the stunning architecture. Pristine white buildings topped with arched roofs are interspersed with blue domes and the occasional red or pink doorway. Narrow marble walkways show off the island’s wealth.

The villages of Santorini perch high above the sea providing an interesting and perhaps scary ride or walk from either of the two ports. From the new port cars and buses negotiate seven switchbacks up the cliff side. Alternatives from the old port include a recently-built gondola or a donkey ride. Riding up on a donkey might not smell very good, but riding down can be a dicey proposition as the donkeys don’t seem to be aware of the fact that the rider’s legs are scraping the side of the cliff. Nor are they worried about how fast they might be going as they rush down the trail to reach the food and water that awaits them at the bottom. Walking is another alternative if you don’t mind the smell from that ‘stuff’ the donkeys leave behind. We chose the gondola.

One of the crew on our shuttle boat
The tour we chose here began at Santo Winery perched nicely above the cliff. We tasted three tasty wines: a dry white, a dry red, and a sweet desert wine which I liked although Linda did not. The vines are twisted into a circle to protect the grapes from the harsh sun and winds as they grow and also helps irrigate the vines as the morning dew drops to the ground where it can reach the roots. A shortage of natural water sources makes this important. In earlier days water reached the island by boat. Today, desalinization plants supplement the collected rainwater making the circular twisting of the vines important.

A huge crowd was no obstacle for this pourer
 The tasting process was highlighted by the pourer grabbing two or three glasses at a time into which she splashed an ounce or so without spilling a drop. Never have I seen anyone pour so much wine so quickly or take care of so many busloads of tasters at a time. We also had the option of a tasting tray. Our visit was too short to try even the six glass tray, never mind a tray of twelve or eighteen, especially since they were full five-ounce pours. I’m glad the Colorado couple we saw with the 18-taster had a driver.

Yes, those are tasting glasses.
From there we drove along the coast to Oia, the town everyone who ever had an inkling about visiting Greek Isles has seen pictures of. A picture of this white-walled village with its iconic round blue rooftops adorns most travel agency walls and every website that has anything to do with the Greek Isles. Blue and white are the colors of the Greek flag so when the country has been conquered by outsiders this was a way to show patriotism. Today, it is probably the law.

The old fort
Nightlife is concentrated in Fria, the capital city, but both Fria and Oia have many restaurants and tavernas to choose from. Guests staying anywhere on the island make sure they have a table in one of them to watch what must be one of the most romantic sunsets anywhere. If not in one of the restaurants, they will be sitting on one of the many terraces at Santo Winery. We stopped at one of these restaurants in Fria for a couple of drinks. While we did not get to see one of classic sunsets, we were still treated to some drama as the clouds did part enough to show us what we can look forward to on our next visit. 

Corfu - First stop on our cruise

Corfu's two summits
The weather forecast was for thunder storms just like we watched at dinner the night previous. Fortunately, the day dawned clear giving us a great opportunity to enjoy this lovely island. Corfiots are proud of the fact that they were never conquered by Turkey like much of the rest of Greece. This fact shows in an unusual way because you don’t see blue and white buildings like you do on most of the other islands. Those conquered islands were not allowed to fly the Greek flag so they used paint instead. Since they were never conquered, Corfiots never resorted to the painting subterfuge.
The name comes from the two summits of the island so it was called the Island of the Korifus (summits). It has long been a favorite summer home and vacation spot for Europeans, particularly the British. Today many of those tourists are from Eastern Europe. The local population numbers about 120,000 with four million olive trees. Because the Viennese paid the Corfiots to plant the trees, they are too close together so the harvest only takes place every other year. The main economic resource is those tourists. 

We began our day with a walking tour of the old town. Partly because Corfu was part of the Venetian empire for centuries, the Old Town has a strong Venetian character with its narrow streets, small vendors, and laundry drying from the balconies. No canals mean no bridges so getting around is much easier. 

Church of Saint Spyridon
One of many outdoor chapels attached to a church
We saw several churches, the largest being the Church of Saint Spyridon, Patron Saint of Corfu built in 1596. Even with a service going on, our guide sent us inside to see the artwork which adorns every available space from floor to ceiling. According to her, people enter and leave services all the time, so we would not be any disruption at all. The church was packed to the gills already, so we had to take turns and only got a quick look to verify our guide’s words of praise for the artwork. Nearly half of the shops sold religious icons and knickknacks. We bought a couple of things before sitting down to a coffee and a milkshake with a WC and free internet. Stanford 41 – USC 31. Big smiles.

The new fortress - a new use for the moat 
A view of the old fortress from our ship
Our bus stopped next to the New Fortress built by the Venetians in 1577-78. To get to the Old Town we crossed what may be the largest city square in Europe. When the British took over the town, they fired a cannon from the fortress. No buildings would be allowed between the Fortress and the cannon ball’s landing site. The square is large enough for Greece’s only cricket matches.

Our other tour stop was the Achilleion. Built by the young Empress of Austria/Queen of Hungary in 1880-91 as a summer palace, it is magnificent structure atop a wooded hill in the village of Gastouri. She and her husband Emperor Ferdinand visited twice a year until she was assassinated by a fame-hungry Italian anarchist in 1889. It was sold by her heirs to German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. 

The young empress
A sample of the fine works of art in the building
Wilhelm made several additions to the building over the years mostly to house his large staff. Perhaps the most significant change was to move the fabulous marble statue of the dying Achilles from its place of prominence overlooking the sea and replacing it with a larger than life bronze of a victorious Achilles. Achilles spear was topped with a gold tip that could be seen from his yacht. Legend has it that the first sailor to spy the spear on each trip was given a monetary reward.

Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector's body around the city of Troy
Achilles overlooking the harbor
Achilles removing the arrow from his vulnerable heel
Achilles dying pose
After World War I, the Greek government took control of the Achilleion. It was leased to a private company as a casino from 1962-1983 during which time it was used for the casino scene in For Your Eyes Only. It was restored in 1994 for a European Summit and today is a major tourist attraction. 

A common sight - Men talking over their morning coffee

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Venice: Part II

We stayed at Residenza degli Angeli, a small B&B two bridges from the Grand Canal. I wonder if Venetians think in terms of bridges to cross instead of distance between places. After carrying luggage between our Vaporetto stop and the B&B, that certainly is the way I would think, especially as we would be carrying groceries and other things from the store to our home. It’s hard to get most anywhere without crossing at least a couple of bridges.

Fortunately for us, Mario, our innkeeper, greeted us at the Vaporetto stop and helped us with our luggage. He also helped when we left. He said he wanted to be the complete innkeeper. He also got on the Vaporetto with us. I thought that was really nice, but he was just riding two stops to the fish market to get something for dinner and to have coffee with whatever friends he found there. The B&B was perfect. Mario gave us a hand-drawn map with directions to the B&B and major landmarks and, most importantly, to four recommended restaurants. The one we chose, Muro, was two bridges away. We ate outside where we could people watch while we ate the wonderful meal. We would definitely stay there again and will probably have another meal at that restaurant when we return for our week in Venice.
One of the dinosaurs
We also had a bit of a problem upon our arrival because of phones. We expected to be able to purchase a sim card for our phones there and make the necessary call to Mario so he could meet us. Unfortunately, unlike other airports, there are no sim cards available at the airport. They did have pay phones which I tried to use, but got no answer and then I had no idea what the recorded message said to do. It was, not surprisingly, in Italian. We decided to worry about that when we got to our Vaporetto stop.  Once there we simply asked someone for help and they called Mario who came a few minutes later to help. Stupid tourists can always get help if you just are not afraid to ask.

Some say that the only way to properly enter Venice is by boat. We got a good sense of how that is  when we left on our cruise. Cruises ships enter and leave port passing by the main part of the city providing fabulous views. We left at sunset so the views were even more spectacular.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Venice - First Impressions

The Grand Canal
We just  got back from dinner, so let’s start there. At the recommendation of our B&B host, we ate at a nearby place that was packed as soon as we arrived. We are still tired from two full days of flying so appetites were not huge, but we started with their daily bruschetta group. The tomatoes were rich and full of flavor, Linda liked the pizza-like topping, and I really enjoyed the anchovy paste mixed with Kalamata olives and tomato sauce. Linda opted for an artichoke penne pasta which she loved. 

I had a lobster spaghetti which was again flavorful and rich once I finished wrestling it out of its shell. A white truffle gelato followed by a couple of glasses of the house white finished off the evening.
The airport is small and easy to navigate. We quickly found our bus for the 13 km ride to the vaporetto which would take us down the Grand Canal to our stop. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to purchase a sim card in the airport so we had to ask a stranger to call our B&B to meet us at the vaporetto stop. We also had the pleasure of following one of the local “helpers” to the stop which was not well marked.  For some reason he led us to the second stop meaning we crossed the canal three times. Still, now we know where the train station is and how to get to our cruise ship tomorrow.

Our B&B is three bridges from our stop, but very easy to find. I think that people (at least the tourists) think of distances in terms of bridges because each means and up and down. After our orientation, we both showered. Linda chose to rest while I went exploring. Since it was 1:00 pm, my first exploration was a local bar for a beer and sandwich. I quickly discovered that it is hard to walk 50 yds without passing multiple shops and bars/restaurants.

The gondolas are beautifully outfitted.
One of the many delivery 'trucks'

This traffic jam included six gondolas, three delivery boats and two private boats.
It took about 15 minutes to clear. 
Fueled up, I took off for St. Marks Square. This took longer than expected, partly because of stops at the Hard Rock CafĂ© to buy a pin and Vodaphone to get a sim card so we can communicate online here like normal people. I also hit several blind alleys. Actually they are ‘blind’ only in the sense that you have to backtrack unless you want to swim or try to break the world long jump records.

This 'street' is quite wide.
Many small squares. Venetians used to get their water from collected rain out of wells like this one.

I wandered streets barely wide enough for two people and watched the gondolas fight with the delivery and personal boats for primacy on the canals, even the smallest ones. When I finally reached St. Marks, it took me a while to get oriented. It’s bigger than I expected and the main part of it is further from the water. We will learn more about that in a week as we spend more time in this beautiful city.

St. Mark's
Referring to something as ‘one of a kind’ today has lost its meaning, but this city fits. Because it was built on water, it has missed the programs other cities followed in turning their downtowns over to the car. Cars require much wider roads and straighter streets that actually go somewhere other than having to stop at the water. People dominate here as do small shops. The narrow streets and no cars make it hard to carry lots of purchases home if the home is more than a few blocks away. It is easy to see why people fall in love with Venice. Limiting the core area to boats and people creates and ambiance that is truly human in scope.
This black-headed gull is the only interesting bird so far.