Back on track...
We flew into Thessaloniki in northern Greece early Sunday morning and had to wait for a couple of hours to catch a bus to Meteora in central Greece. Meteora is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that we learned about, made up of a bunch of monasteries built on rocky outcroppings high in the mountains of Greece. At one time, there were about 21 functioning monasteries, but now there are only 6 that are still in operation and the rest are in various stages of ruin. Women are required to wear long skirts to go through the monasteries, but if you don't have one the monastery will provide you with a wrap-around one to wear over your pants. We hiked curving mountain roads from monastery to monastery and had to jump over the guard-rails a couple of times when tour buses went by, but we had great views the whole way.
We got a lot of advice before we left that we should spend as little time in Athens as possible. About half a day to one full day really is enough to see the city's only main site which is the Acropolis. The rest of the city is just a massive, filthy, 1970's throwback, which is really sad because Athens could be so much more than what it is. The Acropolis is really amazing though, built up on a rocky hill overlooking the entire city.
The Parthenon is enormous and made of gigantic pieces of carved marble. It was a place where I just felt like being quiet and sitting down to wonder in awe of the awesome things that ancient people were able to accomplish without modern technology or conveniences. And inevitably when I get to wondering about that sort of thing I wonder about how these civilizations eventually decline and are mostly forgotten. It always leaves me feeling a little sad. Paul was not happy about all of the framework that interfered with his photos of the Parthenon. He joked that the whole place has been "restored" so much that it is now mostly fake - put up by the Greek government to attract tourist dollars - but I had to convince him that it was still worth taking pictures of.
We took an overnight ferry from Athens to the island of Santorini. We had planned on going to Mykonos as well, but had some problems figuring out the ferry schedule and were unable to see both islands on this trip. Santorini was definitely another highlight of the trip. We rented an ATV to drive around between the towns and beaches (because we weren't confident enough to rent a moped), and spent our two days there zipping around in the withering island sun. The picturesque towns of Fira and Oia are built on the lip of a volcano that erupted thousands of years ago and left a circular crater called a caldera that is now a port for the island. The white-washed houses cling to the cliff-face and gingerly climb down the inside of the caldera so that the gently sloping backside of the island can be used for farming. Oia, our favorite town, had windmills and flowers and the famous blue-domed churches that we had heard about. While taking photos in Oia, I discovered that Paul's camera can actually take really good "jumping" photos and we had a fun time playing around with that feature. We also ate our favorite gyros of the trip at a place called "Lucky Souvlaki" in Fira. For about 5 Euro we could get two amazing gyros with yogurt sauce and a Fanta to split - still pricey, but a great deal compared to everywhere else we had been.
After two days in Santorini, we took another overnight ferry to the island of Rhodes, which is part of the Dodecanese islands in Greece. We hadn't really planned on seeing much of Rhodes, but we missed the morning ferry over to mainland Turkey so we had to wait for the 5:00 pm one. We were glad that we had time to see the island though, because Rhodes was so different from Santorini. The island is only about an hour and a half ferry ride from Turkey, so back in medieval times it was sacked a lot by invaders. So the Rhodians built huge fortresses and walls to protect themselves from invaders. The whole old town is surrounded by thick stone walls and towers with roughly cobbled streets, and it is easy to see how the townsfolk could bunker down inside the gates when they were besieged to try to defend their home. There is also a lot of Islamic influence in Rhodes and it was here that we saw our first minarets and mosques of the trip.