Saturday, April 24, 2010

Put Some Windex On It

Escapade 4: Santorini
Probably the destination we'd all been salivating the most over, Santorini lived up to every expectation. The rocky outcrop of an island has no port so the cruise ship anchored offshore and we took a ferry in. At the base of the cliffs, you had three options: walk the switchback trail to the top, take a cable car for four euro, or take a donkey for five. We obviously chose donkeys. Somewhere deep inside we were all living out Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fantasies riding up the whitewashed cliffs on the backs of our beats of burden. The stubborn donkey adage is true, by the way. One brute purposefully dragged one of our girls legs against the walls and stopped to eat or take off running at will.
Once we reached the top, we set out to find Tony of Tony's Car and Moto rental. As we filed into his office, his bushy eyebrows drew together in a look of "my God, who am I renting these ATVs to?" After signing the "I promise not to wreck your vehicle, Mr. Tony" paperwork, he strapped Kazoo helmets on our heads and made us each test drive a 4-Wheeler until he was satisfied that we wouldn't kill it or ourselves. With Tony's hesitant approval, we left his shop and merged into traffic on a busy Santorini road. Dressed in any combination of tanks, tees shorts and pants, we soon realized that standing still and taking in the Grecian sun was much warmer than zipping along bare-armed on an ATV. Teeth chattering, we realized all of our bikes were flashing E! E! E! and out of gas. Pulling out the map Tony sent us with, we found two abandoned gas station while the E! screamed at us for mercy. The third station was open, thank gyro. Tanks full, we set off to explore.

Our first stop was a local winery perched atop a cliff. Frozen from riding inadequately dressed, we hurried inside more for relief from the wind than for wine. Once inside, we were quickly convinced to do a 12 euro wine tasting, though. Palate satisfied, we ventured back into the elements and onto other parts of the island. It didn't take us long to get lost. We found ourselves at the southern tip of the island at the black beach, sand like charcoal meeting water bluer than blue. Our final destination in mind, I stopped to ask a local boy nearly our age for directions. Trying to communicate through our language barrier, I pulled out my map and motioned "where are we?" He took the map, labeled in both English and Greek, and stared. He didn't know how to read it or where his town was upon it in comparison to the rest of the 25 km island. I then realized he'd probably never left it and had never seen such a map. 
We finally found our way to our main destination, Oia, the Greece/Santorini you see in pictures. The city seemed to be carved out of one chunk of marble, as if some master architect or sculptor took a giant chisel and formed the houses and staircases with a touch of Gaudi or Dali inspiration. The city shines brilliantly white in the sun, and I'm sure even more stunningly at sunset. Unfortunately we had to be "home" to the ship in order to make our next port so we missed the dusk in Oia. Tony, though, was visibly relieved when we returned his vehicles to him on time and harmed. The best gyro of my life and a hike down the cliffs later, we were back on board and setting sail for Croatia.

The Rhodes Less Traveled

Escapade 3: The Isle of Rhodes
Our first Greek Isle, Rhodes was a maze of windy cobblestone streets completely surrounded by massive grey walls. Vendors sold Fay Bans sunglasses and Prado bags from stores built into the city walls while the Palace of the Grand Master castle loomed above. Navigating by street map whose "English" translations seemed as foreign as the Greek counterparts, we came upon the fairy-tale fortress from whose towers you expect a long blonde braid to fall.

We took a lilliputian-sized doorway to escape the bustle of other tourists to find ourselves in the castle moat. While improvising new words to the SNL hit "I'm on a boat mother..." into "I'm in a moat mother...", we posed for pictures atop ancient catapult ammunition. Follies at the fortress complete, we headed back into the city to find a site of more cultural relevance.

In 1944, the Nazi Gestappo rounded up the Rhodes' nearly 2,000 Jews and sent them to extermination camps throughout Europe. Only 160 of them survived. Acknowledging the atrocity that befell its citizens, Rhodes erected a monument to its murdered citizens. A somber note in our otherwise whimsical Rhodes experience, the memorial held great cultural significance for the two girls of Jewish descent in our group.

They're Just Rocks!

Escapade 2: Kusadasi, Turkey
I'm not sure how I expected Turkey to be. I do know that it surprised me more than any other destination on our whirlwind vacation. In leu of the Casa Blanca vibe I'd imagined, Kusadasi was a paradise of rolling green hills, valleys of orchards of peaches, apples, and pears, bright blue waves crashing at the foot of stark cliffs, and sandy beaches adorned with five star hotels. We didn't spend much time in the city itself since we decided to forego the cruise sponsored tour of Kusadasi and the neighboring city of Ephesus where the real marvels were located. This was, hands down, the most fortuitous decision we made during the entire trip.

Our taxi driver seemed as elated as our wait staff had been the night before to have seven American girls as his charge. After haggling down to just ten euros a pop, we climbed into Sabas's (pronounced Sabash's) taxi van and set off for the ruins of Ephesus. As we climbed into the hills outlying Kusadasi, we began to prod our driver for information about the city and himself. As he spewed facts about the countryside and the country of which he was so proud, we learned that taxi driving was only a temporary gig for old Sabas. By age 35, he's seen 62 countries working as a journalist for Atlas. He'd trained sled dogs in Alaska, grown bored and become a skydiving instructor. He'd tried his hand as a newspaper man in Seattle. He'd worked at a vineyard in New Zealand. He'd done it all and come back to the family hotel before starting his next adventure. Inspired beyond belief, mouth agape, I decided then and there to try and emulate this man's life.

Snapped back to reality from envisioning my own fantastical future, Sabas switched topics from himself to the Virgin Mary House that we were about to visit. The people of Ephesus are proud to tell you that tucked away on Mount Koressos sits the last dwelling of the Virgin Mary. It is said that Mary was "assumed into Heaven" by angels from this modest home that Saint John built for her. The house itself is rather unremarkable, a stone edifice surrounded by trees and speckled with sunlight with a simple rope lined queue where patrons wait to see inside. Inside the house is a simple altar with a statue of the Virgin where guests can light a candle and pause to pray. The site glows with a certain power, not because of any religious significance it holds for me, but because of the raw display of emotion it caused in other visitors. A woman in her late 50s, red sweater, dirty blonde unkempt hair, closed her ayes as she turned them heavenward, putting her hands together captivated by prayer. It felt almost voyeuristic watching such an intimate moment between one mother and another. On the way down from the house, patrons pass a wall of prayers- scribbles on napkins and receipts stuck into wire mesh, asking or thanking God or Mary.

Our next stop after the Virgin Mary House were the ruins of Ephesus. For a few euros, we entered the excavation site that held the third oldest library in the world. Tourists are allowed to galavant freely about the fallen pillars and nearly intact amphitheaters. The American in me expected them to be roped off and covered in cellophane for preservation but the Turks take a different approach. We climbed on the ruins til our feet and our camera memory cards were full, taking whimsical pictures on columns and statuary. Finally fed up by our lingering at each site for unnecessary time and photo ops, Emily yelled in annoyance, "they're just rocks. You don't know what they mean and you won't remember them anyway!" Touché Emilia.
Good old Sabas picked us up from the ruins and as a special treat, took us the the "modern" town of Ephesus where he and his family run their hotel. In a very "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" style, he introduced us to all of the extended family. "Nick, Nick, Nicky, Niko, he's single, how handsome no? Nicolai, Nick..." While those may not have been the actual names, it was definitely the vibe. From the roof of the hotel, Sabas pointed out the sites in the surrounding countryside including a castle in the distance. He then called upon one of the relatives to whip us up a sample plate of Turkish food. A variety of yogurt, tomato, and pepper based sauces served on a platter were the cherry on top of our Turkish delight.

It's All Greek To Me

After a week of recovery from my bush with volcanic fate, I've finally mustered the motivation to put my unparalleled Mediterranean wanderings into words. Rather than spout off my ramblings in each city in a single post, they'll be divided up and posted in succession in a "tune in for the next chapter" sort of fashion.
Escapade 1: Athens
Groggy from spending the night sprawled on the floor of the Madrid airport, we deplaned in the first Greek city any of us had ever visited. After dropping our luggage in the two kiddy-corner cabins the seven of us shared, we hopped on a tour bus to see the sights. I'm rather embarrassed to admit that we did a group tour since I usually despise them, but it was the only way to see the sights and not break the bank before the ship set sail. Our first stop was the Olympic Park- a track and field with giant Olympic rings. The main event, however, was the Acropolis.
Contrary to our shirts, shorts, and the sweat running down our backs as we climbed the ancient plateau, the Greeks still considered April the winter season and closed the upper section in the early afternoon. We still had the opportunity to climb the butte and see the ruins of the Parthenon and other temples from a short distance. While it would have been grand to walk among the ruins, taking in all of Athens - the Temple of Zeus and the ancient Olympic Stadium below and the Temple of Athena and other monuments above was breathtaking.
With little else worthy of note in the city, we headed back to the cruise ship to change for our first five star dinner in the restaurant on board. Our waiters were from Peru and Colombia and thrilled to be assigned to the only table of Americans on the entire boat. Dinner was a culinary masterpiece each evening with four courses of delightful cuisine. Some in our group were painfully disinclined to behave like they were in a nice restaurant and made every meal embarrassing for the rest of us. If you choose a Spanish cruise line, you should expect your menu to be in Spanish, the food to be a little adventurous, and the wait staff not to be fluent in English. No, you can't order three entrees instead of the appetizers, no you can't wear holy jeans and wet hair to dinner, no you can't have a rum and coke from the bar across the ship to accompany your meal. And for those who know me, if I could order without issue and clean my plate every night, the food can't have been that outlandish. Aggravation with my fellow American aside, eating on the Gemini ship was a treat. (One that nearly cost me another pants size.)