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Greece: Final Notes

We left bright and early the next morning – our taxi picked us up at 5:30 AM. It was a Friday night, bleeding over into Saturday morning, but still: there were lots and lots of people still out, still drinking and partying. It was unexpected, and odd to see, but kind of nice.

We left Athens to the sound of covers playing on the taxi’s radio; covers, it seems, are big in Greece. It’s rare that we ever heard any actually Greek music.

The flight home was exhausting, just like any long trip is bound to be. But I couldn’t help noticing this in the Athens airport. How brilliant.

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So easy!

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Aegina

On my last day in Greece I wanted to see another island. K had to work, so I got up early so I could catch a ferry to Aegina. It’s only little more than an hour away from Athens, and it happens to be known for its pistachios (which I love).

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The Acropolis in the morning.

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It took me a while to find the right ferry, but I found it eventually.

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I used to live in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m used to ferries. But not like this. This is pretty nice – the cafe made your food (or in my case, coffee) to order.

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Leaving Athens behind.

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The main town on Aegina.

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Leaving the ferry.

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I guess freedom is closed.

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Look at how clear that water in the harbor is. I was astonished.

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The beach is part of the town.

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Many shades of blue.

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As in the rest of Greece, there were many cats. This one found something tasty in the garbage.

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A quiet street in Aegina.

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A beautiful trellis!

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Motorbikes were everywhere. Not just on the island; in Greece generally. It makes sense given the cost of petrol, and how narrow the streets are.

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They must be wealthy to have so much nice wood on the exterior of their home.

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A pretty street.

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Another street. On one of these I found a shop that sold me 200 ml bottles of wine for a single Euro.

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Lemons!

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Betty? What are you doing here? At a hardware store, no less?\

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Kitties above.

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Another gorgeous trellis.

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A home in disrepair.

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I found a lunch spot and wrote postcards during the afternoon. When I ventured out again, I saw this kitty.

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He climbed down when I called, and we bonded for a long while. He eventually climbed atop my shoulders and curled up for about five minutes. Eventually I lured him off and said goodbye, as I had other places to go.

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One of the high speed ferries coming in.

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I wanted to go for another long island walk, out of town and along the coast. Just to see what I could see.

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It’s not a tree. It’s a grass.

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FYI.

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This abandoned place, just outside of town…

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…has this for a view.

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A front yard of clover. I love it.

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I also saw this from time to time. A solar array and solar hot water heater.

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Pistachio trees. It’s not like there are huge pistachio fields – at least not that I saw. Instead, everyone has their little plot.

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Just a pretty view.

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Canna lilies!

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Orange drops.

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The Aegean.

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I walked south along the coast of Aegina about three and a half miles. When I turned back to catch the last ferry, the sun was setting.

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You can see other islands in the distance.

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The fading of the light.

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Shortly before this shot was taken, I passed a couple with their dog walking down their long driveway. Then they were shouting. It took me a while to figure out they were shouting for their dog to return, because it was chasing me. I brought it back to them (it was friendly) and they politely explained it was a new dog. “It must have seen something good in you,” she kindly said.

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Another island sunset.

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Frond down.

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I love it.

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Aegina town once more.

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That afternoon, some of these boats had makeshift produce racks, and folks along the quay could buy what they wanted.

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The water/electric hook-up.

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The restaurants with a view.

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Folks buying ferry tickets.

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A helpful map that not only identifies attractions, but lets you know what sort of taxi fare you should expect to pay.

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The ferry back to Athens. Halfway there I stepped out on deck. There were seabirds flying right alongside the ship, matching its speed and direction. For how long, I don’t know, but it was strange to watch.

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Athens Again

All this time, and we still hadn’t yet seen the most famous places in Athens. So that’s what we did on our last few days.

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Normally “indoor” plants – which couldn’t withstand a frost – were permanently left outdoors everywhere in Athens. As a plant lover, I couldn’t help but notice.

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It’s nearly 1900 years old.

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Okay then.

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus – one of the sights I didn’t get to see when I was last here in 2002. I was so glad I had the opportunity to do so this time.

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We made kitty friends here, too.

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Roman baths.

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The Temple was finally completed in the 2nd Century, 638 years after construction began.

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Another gorgeous ruin.

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A plaque about the plant which only grows on the south side of the Acropolis.

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The Theater of Dionysus, south of the Acropolis.

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According to wikipedia, “the site has been used as a theater since the 6th century BC.”

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Another view.

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One of the surviving shade umbrellas used by Pericles.

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Beautiful.

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The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still in use.

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Growth on the south slope of the Acropolis rock.

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The Temple of Athena Nike, part of the entryway to the top of the Acropolis.

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Restoration work in the Propylaea.

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Looking down on the Theater of Dionysus from the Acropolis. You can also see the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

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The Parthenon, currently undergoing renovation.

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Another view.

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Another friendly kitty.

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Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

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The Erechtheion, originally built around 2400 years ago.

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An olive tree, planted in modern times, but redolent with symbolism – in ancient times, a holy olive tree was said to have sprouted here after a strike by Athena’s spear.

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Areopagos Hill. In AD 51, St. Paul delivered his first sermon here, and the convert he gained became the patron saint of Athens. Just like I did 15 years ago, I climbed to the top of the slippery rock after seeing the Acropolis. And like 15 years ago, the hill was covered with young people, playing music, smoking, talking, and hanging out. 

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It was cold that day. Our fingers froze. So after the Acropolis we retreated to the indoors for a warm lunch.

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Hadrian’s Library, built in 132 AD.

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The columns still stand.

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A pretty view of the octagonal Tower of the Winds.

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The Acropolis above.

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The Tower is located within the Roman Agora.

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Here you can see where the shop-seller stalls once were, and Lykavittos beyond.

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Through the columns, you can see the entry gate to the Agora. It was built with donations from Julius Caesar and Augustus.

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The interior of the Tower of the Winds.

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“The structure features a combination of sundials, a water clock, and a wind vane.”

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A pretty view.

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The Tower of the Winds is “considered the world’s first meteorological station.”

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A newsstand in Athens. You can buy soda, gum, and newspapers from what – a dozen countries?

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The meat market in Athens.

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An impromptu produce market on a street corner.

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Markets everywhere.

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Santorini

I’ve wanted to visit Santorini since Levar Burton went there on the PBS show Reading Rainbow. It’s not only renowned for its beauty; its history is spectacular. From wikipedia:

Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. A giant central, rectangular lagoon, which measures about 12 by 7 km (7.5 by 4.3 mi), is surrounded by 300 m (980 ft) high, steep cliffs on three sides. The main island slopes downward to the Aegean Sea. On the fourth side, the lagoon is separated from the sea by another much smaller island called Therasia; the lagoon is connected to the sea in two places, in the northwest and southwest. The depth of the caldera, at 400m, makes it impossible for any but the largest ships to anchor anywhere in the protected bay; there is also a fisherman’s harbour at Vlychada, on the southwestern coast. The island’s principal port is Athinios. The capital, Fira, clings to the top of the cliff looking down on the lagoon.

The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep and may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, through a gigantic tsunami.

This is what it looks like now – you can see the caldera, out of which a new island is rising because of volcanic activity.

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The lines through the water are ferry routes.

The first thing we visited was ArtSpace winery. We’d heard amazing things about their wine, but the place was nearly empty when we arrived. It wasn’t just the off-season: the owner just got back from a long vacation the day before. But he was kind enough to open up the place on our behalf, and give us a personalized tour.

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Deep caves carved into the earth.

The wine is entirely organic, and made using natural methods. The owner took great pride in describing many of his innovations and distinctions, like the use of gravitation, temperature control, and aging.

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The space lends itself to climate-controlled aging.

Naturally, we did a tasting, and the wine was spectacular. Santorini is known for its wine – the volcanic rock, dry climate, and native grape varieties all lend themselves to unique and intensely flavorful wines. Yet his were unquestionably the best we had there. We bought several bottles.

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Notice the barrel-vaulted architecture, which is common throughout Santorini.

Instead of calling a taxi, we decided to walk to our next destination, SantoWines. It was up the hill to the lip of the Caldera- a beautiful walk, even if it was raining and kind of icky outdoors.

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Trudging through the rain.

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Prickly pears are surprisingly common as an ornamental planting.

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Vines are everywhere – some planted; others naturally rooted.

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Often they’re formed in order to protect the plant from the fierce winds.

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Despite the winter rain, it’s a dry clime.

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A playpen with a view.

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We ordered a single wine-tasting at SantoWines. Little did we know that the “tastings” would be this full. More than enough to make two people drunk, as it did.

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Nevertheless, it was good wine with a great view.

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After all that drinking, K took a taxi back, but I wanted to walk along the lip of the Caldera. Look at those views!

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The huge ferry looks minuscule from this height.

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Off-season is the season for construction in Santorini – it’s less likely to interfere with the tourist trade. And there was construction everywhere.

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Instructions not followed.

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What is ‘mega’ fashion?

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I walked from one end of the island to the other, and came across several roadside memorials like this one.

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Just in case you’re curious about the price of gas. 3.79 liters to the gallon times 1.86 euros per liter times 1.23 dollars per euro = $8.67/gallon.

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A windswept field littered with attractive plastic bags.

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It wasn’t all drinking. We also ate. I love plants, so I loved this place – a restaurant that’s also a cross between a trellis and a greenhouse.

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If you look carefully, you can see the drying grapes still hanging from the vines.

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I thought this conifer was attractive.

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At a different place – Kokkalo – we received complimentary ouzo and a Santorinian specialty – cherry tomatoes. Given the dry climate, they’re especially flavorful and delicious.

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They even brew beer on Santorini, which is a bit surprising given how water-intensive the process is. The beer was okay. 

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Tomato fritters.

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As usual, K’s dish – seafood risotto – was better than mine.

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The beer menu.

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It’s quite common to see doors that, like these, appear to lead nowhere but a steep drop downward. They often lead to stairs to cliffside restaurants or residences.

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So many of the passageways are just beautiful.

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Even this, I would argue. This is from the next day, when I walked from Fira, in the center of the island, out to Oia, at the uppermost extremity of the crescent.

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As I mentioned, walking through a place is one of the best ways to see what it’s really like.

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The school playground has a view. Because of course it does. What doesn’t?

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A backyard trellis.

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Not much to look at now, but the prospect of living here is tempting.

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The view towards Oia. It so happens that there’s a pedestrian path along the lip of the caldera which I followed all the way there.

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Down, down, down.

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Way down. Don’t trip!

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Some attractive work with stainless steel.

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Looking back towards Fira. You an see how precariously the houses cling to the cliff-face.

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Another pretty passageway.

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People actually live here.

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Sloping away from the caldera, on the other side of the island.

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It’s still a long way down.

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The path along the cliff-face.

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The shadows of clouds on the water.

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Looking back towards Fira. Here, you can see the water on both sides of the island.

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Towards Oia.

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Santorini isn’t small, but it’s small enough to cover by foot, as I did. And it can be very disorienting – as it was for me – to be in a place with such circumscribed limits.

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A resting place along the path.

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Houses in the stone.

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Steps and barrel architecture.

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The long way down.

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Looking out.

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Built from stone.

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Donkey trains were common. And they weren’t for show, or for the tourists (though in season, I suppose they may also carry tourists). The trains I saw were for carrying heavy materials, like cement, over steps and uneven terrain.

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Cats for rent.

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A view of Oia, from within Oia.

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Naturally, this looks out at the sea.

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Water you can reach.

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Oia.

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At the extremity. Beyond this we could not go, because of the risk of landslides.

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Far below, where the boats tie up.

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Like most of Oia, a jumble of construction.

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One of the famed, blue-domed churches.

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I took a taxi back to Fira, and with the remaining daylight decided I’d walk down the 588 steps to the old port, within the caldera. As you can see from the remains, many donkeys had walked this route before me.

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A defense against gravity and erosion.

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An abandoned location on the way.

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More abandonment.

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The old port.

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I wanted to touch the water, so I edged down this embankment. And then slipped and slid into the water. Not entirely, but my pants and shoes were sodden.

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Some abandoned floss.

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It was a bit eerie to wander around without there really being anyone there.

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The fairytale doesn’t extend to the off-season.

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An island sunset.

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It’s not just a name. We were treated like family while we were there.

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On the last day I took a taxi to the other extent of the island, the lighthouse at Akrotiri. I wanted to walk back to Fira along the caldera, and see what that side of the island was like.

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But unlike the sunny weather for the walk to Oia, it was overcast and drizzly again. And the wind was fierce. As it must often be, if these weather-beaten plants are any indication.

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My best guess is that the winds were 40-45 miles per hour. Hard enough to push me off my feet on occasion; to lash raindrops against my face; to whistle over obstacles.

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The goats were used to it.

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The flag was already shredded along the edge. It snapped back and forth with the wind, always taut.

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An interesting architectural choice.

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Underground.

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Fowl.

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I took a detour to walk down to a black beach.

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As with so many things, it was largely abandoned for the off-season. There happened to be another fellow there, with his dog, shoveling grit out of one of the buildings while I was there.

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An example of fierce erosion.

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I wasn’t fond of the wind, but the walk itself was gorgeous.

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Marble stairs and a trellis.

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One of the other memorials.

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The sun broke through the clouds, at times, to shine like spotlights on the sea.

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A last look.

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Our Next Stop

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We flew to Santorini for three days.

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I couldn’t resist taking some pictures of the islands we flew over.

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The whole flight was under an hour.

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Landing in Santorini.

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Just in case you’re curious what Airbnb accommodations in Santorini are like.

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I think the cost was about $35/night.

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It came with amenities.

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Also some complimentary ouzo and sweet wine.

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You can’t see it in these photos, but the house featured a barrel-vaulted roof.

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Pretty tile.

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From the outside.

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More from Athens

One of the things that “bothered” Katherine the most about Greece was the quality of the food. Like the wine, it was almost always excellent, and invariably superior to the usual fare in the US. Also, it was quite often cheaper.

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One of the many delicious meals we shared.

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Was the wine good? Of course it was.

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I really liked this piece of art, for some reason. But not enough to buy it.

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The graffiti is in Greek! Mostly, at least.

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This is part of the Central Market. There’s many more produce sellers which I didn’t photograph, as well as a meat and seafood market, and a rummage/flea market portion as well.

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A meat/sausage shop.

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A shop window. It just looked pretty.

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Speaking of lights, this place was truly lit up. You can’t really sense the scale in a single photograph – it extended way beyond the corner.

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In contrast, a lonely table.

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What do the Greeks think of Detroit?

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I heard you twice the first time.

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I’m not sure that has the connotation you intend.

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Someone feeding the pigeons.

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The Acropolis at night.

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You can’t help but laugh. It’s the Black & Yellow Store.

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Inside a cafe.

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Close to my heart.

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I stumbled across a hidden basketball court.

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A pretty street.

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It’s not just the chairs that caught my eye. I love the flower-boxes.

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More pretty places to eat and drink.

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The city is full of them.

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Even this – a former stairway turned into something attractive and unique.

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Not everything was pretty. Though an argument could be made that even these houses, in their ruin, are beautiful.

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One more example, though there were many.

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Speaking of ugliness. What? Also, that was the other thing – several people (a taxi driver, a street performer, a waiter) warned us to watch out for crime. But not from Greeks – no, no. It’s the immigrants, you see.

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A tourist magnet.

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Parking magnet.

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Another great meal.

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Again: the food was sublime.

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The highest hill in Athens is Lykavittos, and it affords some great views of the rest of the city.

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There’s a church at the top, and shrines on the way up. And at this shrine, there were lemons and kumquats, as you can see.

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Looking across at the Acropolis.

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Apparently this plant-borne graffiti is from 1973.

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Toward the North-east.

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As you can see, you can see the sea.

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A look up at the Monument of Lysicrates, erected 2300 years ago to celebrate a theatrical achievement.

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Meteora Vignettes

A last few items from Meteora:

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A large herd of goats crossed our path while we were on the tour.

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We were a bit late to catch the show. This poster was in one of the many closed shops in town. It was the off-season.

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Plants! On a lamppost!

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The view of the monasteries from the town.

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Does this look open to you?

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A truck.

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Another ambiguously-stray cat.

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Meteora

First, a bit more about the place. From wikipedia:

In 1344, Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought a group of followers to Meteora. From 1356 to 1372, he founded the great Meteoron monastery on the Broad Rock, which was perfect for the monks; they were safe from political upheaval and had complete control of the entry to the monastery. The only means of reaching it was by climbing a long ladder, which was drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.

At the end of the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire’s reign over northern Greece was being increasingly threatened by Turkish raiders who wanted control over the fertile plain of Thessaly. The hermit monks, seeking a retreat from the expanding Turkish occupation, found the inaccessible rock pillars of Meteora to be an ideal refuge. More than 20 monasteries were built, beginning in the 14th century. Six remain today.

In 1517 Theophanes built the monastery of Varlaam, which was reputed to house the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew.

Access to the monasteries was originally (and deliberately) difficult, requiring either long ladders lashed together or large nets used to haul up both goods and people. This required quite a leap of faith – the ropes were replaced, so the story goes, only “when the Lord let them break”. In the words of UNESCO, “The net in which intrepid pilgrims were hoisted up vertically alongside the 373 metres (1,224 ft) cliff where the Varlaam monastery dominates the valley symbolizes the fragility of a traditional way of life that is threatened with extinction.”

Until the 17th century, the primary means of conveying goods and people from these eyries was by means of baskets and ropes.

This was our first view, getting off the train:

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Not too bad.

And this was our first meal in Kalambaka – notice the moussaka. Delicious.

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Also lamb and saganaki.

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And Greek coffee and tsipouro.

Our tour of the monasteries left the next morning, and the views were spectacular.

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Notice the mountains in the distance.

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The monks wanted solitude, and believed that high places were closer to God.

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Notice the cables.

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Not as pretty as the picture in the last post, I’ll grant you.

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Still beautiful, though. Achingly so.

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Women were required to wear skirt, which were provided when we entered. For almost the entirety of their history, the monasteries were closed to women. Two of them are now entirely run by nuns.

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We often weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but there were spectacular depictions of Christ, contemplative places of prayer, and more than a few monks. 

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It may not surprise you to learn that tourism is the major industry in Kalambaka, and that the entry fees from tourists have funded the upkeep and restoration of the monasteries.

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Obviously there were many places we were not allowed to go. The second floor, for example. But we could admire the architecture from the outside.

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One of the features I found pretty.

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Before the road and steps were built, this was the system they used to move goods and people.

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A net. I believe the system is still used for some goods.

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A long way down.

 

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We visited three monasteries in total.

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The woodwork was often quite beautiful.

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One of the rare examples of outdoor iconography.

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We saw a few hikers, and I was a bit jealous. It would have taken a lot longer, and we would have seen a lot less. But what a beautiful place in which to hike.

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Aside from the monasteries, our tour guide also pointed out several other caves in the rock face. These were once used as makeshift prisons, for monks who failed in some portion of their monkly duty.

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Taken in a photogenic location on the road between the monasteries.

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I wish I’d had more time to absorb this view.

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K and I only had to share our tour van with two other people – another advantage of going in the off-season.

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This is one of the places where you can clearly see that the stone is sedimentary.

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You can see four of the monasteries in this view.

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I took this photo because of the beauty of the rocks themselves.

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This monastery – St. Stephen – was our final destination.

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Originally built in the 16th century, St. Stephen Monastery was shelled by the Nazis.

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It’s the only monastery to which we had to really climb. And even that was made vastly easier by the stairs crafted into the rock face.

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A view through to Kalambaka below.

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Notice God filtering through the clouds.

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A picturesque view, and a long way down.

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Jesus waits at the end of the hall.

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Notice the vineyard in the foreground, planted in the terrace.

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A beautiful passageway.

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Still more terraces.

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Notice the enclosure they’ve built to protect the plants.

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A beautiful courtyard.

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Another nice view.

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The landscaping was immaculate.

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The valley below.

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A picturesque view, and a long way down.

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The quad.

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Another pretty scene.

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Self-explanatory.

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All this was rebuilt starting in 1961, when the formerly-abandoned site was given over to the nuns.

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I assume it’s even prettier in the summer.

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Each monastery we visited had free-range cats, which may or may not have been looked after by the inhabitants. They were certainly tame.

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Train Views

The last time I was in Greece, in 2002, I didn’t get to visit Meteora or the Greek Islands. Hence, I was determined to do so this time. So two days after we arrived, K and I boarded a train for the 5-hour ride to Kalabaka, in central Greece.

trip

The route.

Why? To see monasteries like this one. I’m neither Eastern Orthodox nor particularly religious, but that is beautiful.

Meteora

The motivation.

The train ride afforded spectacular views of central Greece. Like these:

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A view.

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A view.

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A view.

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A view.

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A view.

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A view.

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A view.

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Initial Vignettes

Stomping

Our stomping grounds.

I don’t think there’s any better way to get to know a place than to walk all through it. That’s what I tend to do when I travel, because while many tourist attractions interest me, I also like to explore the places where people actually live their lives.

So yes: central Athens has plenty of attractions. But it’s also the center of a city of ~660,000 people. And aside from the streets near the Acropolis, most of the streets – and the shops in them – are obviously for locals. Like this one, which had a concentration of hardware stores:

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…and pretty trees which I admired.

It also helped that we were there in the off-season. Yes, there were tourists, but their numbers were limited. Aside from the Acropolis, we didn’t see many. And I loved it. I didn’t travel to Athens to see tourists; I wanted to see the city itself, which is easier when it’s not being overrun. And I had less competition for the touristy things I did want to do.

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They’re ornamental!

Orange trees fill the city, by the way.

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And beautiful.

I kind of think it’s silly when people photograph the food they’re about to eat. And yet I do so myself, on occasion. The breakfast, looking out at the Acropolis, was delicious.

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That’s Monastiraki plaza in the foreground.

And there’s the view.

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Oh, is it the church that interests you? Read this.

This is such a pretty church in the middle of a pedestrian street. That’s another thing I loved about Athens, and Europe in general: the prevalence/existence of pedestrian-only streets like this one.

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On the wall outside.

This was a stop worth making. Katherine and I shared a tasting of red wines, one of several options we could have chosen from. And the wines – every one of them – were all good. This was a nearly universal characteristic of the wine we had in Greece. It was exceptional.

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Some of the colorful bottles to which the sign refers.

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Some of the wine to which I referred.

On my second evening there, I happened to run into a march of striking workers. They were striking over curbs on their right to strike, and the protest was simply too large to photograph. This is a portion, but there were thousands of people, and the streets were eerily silent, aside from the march and the sound of bullhorns.

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A protest.

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