Friday, 25 July 2014

Taking Pictures

I thought that it was about time I posted a piece that was predominantly photos, so here we go with a selection from the past couple of weeks...

I never get fed up of these Old Town alleys, which, as I've often said, well demonstrate the fact that even in high season, you can get off the beaten track in Old Rhodes Town.

This fella appeared to be taking his lunch break up there, while most of the pedestrians in the street below didn't even notice him. I felt like shouting "Don't jump!!" But I'd probably have caused a scene.

Last week we re-visited the To Nisaki Taverna at Kolymbia. It's possibly our favourite beach-side eatery on the island at the moment. The swordfish souvlaki was excellent and the staff still as friendly as the last time. The freebie they brought us (me, my wife, my sister and her hubby) was something we'd never experienced before. They didn't just bring us a tiny glass each of the excellent liqueur from Chios called Skinos, but they brought us four glasses and a bottle of the stuff!!!

Nice view of the impressive moat around the Old Town. Well worth walking too.

Across the moat from above

Another hidden gem - the beach at Plimmiri. They now have this excellent and fairly-priced snackbar right on the beach. High season and the place was a long way from being crowded. The beach bums were mainly Greeks too as it was a Sunday afternoon.

Also at Plimmiri beach

Good news for Kontiki fans. After well over two years the floating cafe-bar in Mandraki Harbour is now open again. Not the cheapest place to go, but the atmosphere and view more than compensate for that.

Nice view of the Grand Masters' Palace from just beside the Kontiki

Go on, I bet you know where this is anyway...

Made my sister and her hubby walk up the three hundred steps to Tzambika Monastery last Monday. After they got their breath back they said they did think it was worth it though!

Steert vendors on the path into the Old Town up near the Lido cafés. Someone will tell me the name of this gate...

And finally, one more view of the moat.
Hope you like 'em folks. Usual applies, click on any photo for a larger view. Once you're in the larger view you can usually right-click to "view image" and you get an even larger one.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Getting His Goat

The day before yesterday, which was Wednesday the 16th, I was doing Bay-to-Bay again as usual and the coach driver was once again "Old" Yiannis, who'd surprised me last week with his tales of life in Russia (see previous post). On our way back, as we were dropping the guests off at their accommodations, we were confronted by a particularly brazen goat, which didn't seem at all to be in a hurry to get off the road in front of us.

He stood broadside to us as we approached from about a hundred metres away and didn't move, merely turning his head toward us in what was either a gesture of curiosity or, as it looked to me, one of defiance. Yiannis leaned on his horn, which I must say doesn't seem to me to to be of much use where goats are concerned. However, our caprine obstruction did actually move. However, rather than scramming off the road to join his mates on the hillside to our right, he turned his body so as to be entirely in line with the approaching coach and began to stare us out.

I had the distinct impressions that he was saying, at least with his body language, "listen, you may be bigger then me buster, but I move when I'm good and ready and not before, OK?" I think it may have escaped his notice that a 59-seater coach is considerably more solid than he is and, were it to come to a collision, the chances were overwhelmingly in our favour. Stubborn goats most certainly are, but intelligent and logical? The jury's out. I was reminded of the old Frank Sinatra song "High Hopes", where the words went something like:

Once there was a silly old ram
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam
No one could make that ram scram
He kept buttin' that dam

I think we'd just encountered that ram's cousin, or maybe grandson. Yiannis had no choice but to stand on the brakes, but a coach doesn't stop in a few metres. Fortunately the showoff with the horns decided that his mates beside the road had seen his courage amply demonstrated by now, were suitably impressed and there was no need to actually take it to the point of impact. He trotted off to the roadside just in time to avoid becoming considerably flatter than he'd have liked.

"You know it's illegal Yianni?" Said Yianni (Yea, I know, confusing eh?).

"What is?" I asked.

"Allowing your goats to wander on the road. Law says if you hit one you can take it home for your table. Downright dangerous anyway. Causes a lot of accidents."

Now, I had been told years ago that if a goat gets into your garden then you're allowed by law to kill it and eat it, but I was rather under the impression that the goatherds had an ancient and inalienable right to let their goats roam on public land, which included, so I'd thought, the highways and byways. Yiannis the driver, though, believes otherwise.

"Some years back, Yianni," he went on, "I was driving a truck. It was a big pickup, twenty tonner, when a line of five goats decided to saunter across the road in front of me, cool as you like. There was nothing I could do. I slammed on the brakes and the truck slid sideways, but those goats acted as though I wasn't even there. They just carried on crossing the road like they had all the time in the world. The long and the short of it is, I ran over the last one. It was out of my hands, it was either that or thr truck was going to roll.

"Anyway, I finally stopped, jumped out of the cab and ran back to see what state the goat I'd run over was in. There was no doubt that it was terminal."

"So," I asked, "What did you do, leave it there? Call a vet or something?"

"Leave it there? You must be joking. I threw it in the back of the truck, took it home, slit its throat, skinned, cleaned and diced it. Yianni, I had 30 kilo of meat for the freezer. I tell you, saved me a lot of money did that goat!"

My driver's smile spread from ear to ear and he rubbed his tummy as he recalled the sweet taste of 30 kilo of free goat meat.

Of course, our guests behind us in the bus had no idea what he was going on about. I'd heard the collective "Aaaah" as the goat before us had finally strolled out of our way. No doubt they were thinking: "how cute, our driver stops for goats."

Friday, 11 July 2014

Moscow, I'm Russian (There IS a joke there, keep trying!)

It's been an OK week. Bit hot, but not as hot as usual for July, so that's a bonus. We had a free day on Monday and so, several-hundred-yard-long list of things to do in town tucked into the back pocket, off we set.

The town chores went fairly well, as long as you don't count discovering a distinctly strong pull to the right on the steering wheel (after returning to the car and almost dying from the furnace-like temperature within - now that's when I do appreciate air-con) as we pulled away from the parking space we'd shoehorned the car into earlier. No sooner had we turned a corner or two I had to find a place to pull over, right in the thick of the town traffic, and see what the problem was. Yup, sure enough, almost no air left in the front right tyre. Ger-reat! It's always when you've got your half-decent casual wear on that you have a flat tyre isn't it. Of course, living here it's almost a hobby getting punctures. We've probably averaged a couple per year ever since we moved out here. But I could have done without one in 36º of Celsius heat beside a busy road in Rhodes town. Out came all the stuff in the boot (trunk - fellas) and that all went on to the back seat and then out came the tyre-changing kit. 

Why do car manufacturers do that? I mean, place the spare under the floor in the boot? I found myself musing over all those classic cars of the twenties and thirties that had the spare in a wheel-shaped compartment situated outside on the rear of the vehicle. That's such a good idea, don't you think? As my hands became ever blacker, so did my mood. Bless her - my dearly beloved offered to help, but I couldn't bring myself to let her. She couldn't have done much anyway and so she retired to the other side of the pavement (sidewalk!) to gaze into a shop window or three, under the awnings and out of the blazing sun that was adding to my misery by the second.

It had all gone OK up until then. We'd even had a good frappé in the People and People Café beside Mandraki harbour and mused on how pleasant life can be occasionally. A good spot of people-watching always sets one up, eh?

Spare tyre now on and flat tucked away under the floor of the boot, we decided we needed a pick-me-up before confronting the food shopping. So we decided to go somewhere we hadn't been for several years, the last time had been during the wintertime too, to Kallithea Springs, between Koskinou and Faliraki, a few kilometres south of town on the east coast.

Kallithea Springs is an oasis of "cool" (that's "cool" as in chic) in a little stretch of wild and forested coastline between two rather built-up areas. Once you arrive and pay your 2 Euros each (worth every cent I say) to go in, it's like you've arrived on the French Riviera - there are that many elegant people around, usually dressed in very little, but it's very little that nevertheless smells of money. Yes, there are a few local youths about too, they'll have a coffee and make it last for hours, and that's good, but the overwhelming feeling one gets is that the slightly more well-heeled leisure-seeker plonks his or her rump on these loungers or café chairs once you've made the short walk to the waterfront café/restaurant.

There is a small beach, about the size of a hankie, but most of the tiny secluded bay in which the resort is set is rocks and stone terraces, all of which are well equipped with umbrellas and sun beds. The only building not yet fully renovated here is the Rotunda (and they're working on it now), which is the one right on the bay where the hot springs used to rise, even though they're scarcely more than a trickle these days. Check out the rather good website, where you can learn all about the history of the place, here. Mind you, the site's English isn't much to write home about.

So, to the snaps we took as we partook of cold drinks and tortilla wraps at our table in the shade...

The Rotunda, rarther fetchingly swathed in a half-hearted curtain-wall and scaffolding, since they chose the summer season to carry on with the renovations. It doesn't detract from the environment at the Café though.

Approaching the café, which is run by a local company called Pane di Capo

Yea, OK, so I don't quite get this "looking cool" thing. Don't you dare refer back to a "spare tyre" at this point!

The food's rather good. A little more pricey than elsewhere perhaps, but pushing the boat out now and then doesn't hurt, eh?

I took a swim  right from the café's terrace and returned dripping to the table. The staff don't mind.

The pavillions are so beautiful they're in danger of eclipsing the brides at the weddings that take place here, of which there are many during the summer season, and understandably so.

A member of staff "hangs tough"

The ice creams were a freebie from the two guys who served us. Good eh? It worked, we tipped them generously!

The only piece of beach in the place, not that it matters.

On the coach for the Bay-to-Bay excursion on Wednesday, I was remarking to the driver (also a Yianni) that we had a few Russian families to pick up and I didn't have a clue how to communicate with them if they didn't understand English. This driver, whom I've worked with several times already this season, is a big guy who I'd have said was about 70 years old. I decided not to react when he told me he was in fact, 55, and had to wait a further seven years before he'd be getting a pension. This guy's younger than me and he felt like he could have been my dad!! Gawd knows what kind of life he's led. But then, read on...

The main things is he's very nice guy and we get on really well. He likes to chat away as he wipes the sweat regularly from his brow whilst we're trundling along and I thought I'd found out all there was to know about him that was of interest, when he came out with...

"No problem, Yianni, I understand Russian."

Now, I've met a lot of Greeks and I'd say that apart from the odd professor or two, none of 'em speak Russian! You'd have been intrigued too, agreed?

Well, it all has to do with what happened in 1967 here in Greece. It was then that a right wing Military government took over which lasted until 1974. Under this regime left wing supporters either fled, were banished, or risked imprisonment. One high profile victim of this regime was the prolific composer and highly esteemed Greek musician Mikis Theodorakis.

My driver's parents were communists and hence they fled to Russia, with of course their 8 year-old son, who was now sitting beside me driving the coach. He told me they'd spent a couple of decades in Russia, hence his ability to speak the language. He's been back in his native Rhodes for well over 20 years now, but still understands the language, which of course he'd used when in school.

The only trouble was, he came over all shy when I waved the microphone under his nose and asked him to say a few words to the Russian guests once they'd climbed aboard. Of course, I needn't have worried, since most Russians under about 45 years of age speak at least a smattering of English anyway. Nevertheless though, after we'd boarded the coach for the return following our immensely enjoyable cruise up the east coast as far as Stegna Bay (where we go ashore to take lunch) he was able to tell me that the Russians had expressed their ecstatic thanks and appreciation for a day well-spent on board the "Lindos" after I'd asked in French and English "Did we all have a good day?" The Russians had replied:

"Это было замечательно!"

...Yea, I thought so too.

Walking back up the steep path from the boat's mooring in St. Paul's Bay to meet the coach, I snapped this...

Go on, you do wish you were here, eh?

On the cruise this week I had guests from France, Italy, Poland (where the women are all gorgeous), Russia and, oh yes, ...the UK!! Last week I'd had a very nice young couple from Holland too, who were euphoric about their teams' progress in the World Cup, whatever that is.

Anyway, Moscow now, I'm Russian (You do get that, don't you!?)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

The Athens of 1982 was a very different place from the Athens of today. The last time I'd walked in the city was over thirty years ago and I went there last weekend with mixed feelings after all that I'd seen on the TV over the last few years. Since there has been a financial crisis in this country, there has been a rise in right wing political activism, often involving violence against racial minorities, civil unrest in parts of both Athens and Thessalonika and a rise in certain kinds of crime, the kinds that were simply unheard of back in the Athens of the 1980's. 

What kinds of crime am I referring to? Well, in the past couple of years there have been ram-raids on bank machines, drive-by shootings, armed robberies and the like. Things we've seen on our TV screens were simply of another world when I walked in Athens in the years from 1977 thru 1982. 

Something that I was kind of prepared for was the graffiti. The last time I'd been there it was non-existent. You could go anywhere in Greece's capital and see not one single incidence of spray-can vandalism, for that is what it is in my view. I fail to see any positives in it. Now, sadly, it is endemic. There is scarcely a vertical surface anywhere that's larger than the size of an A4 sheet of paper that's not simply covered in the stuff. I say that I was prepared simply from what I'd seen on national TV over the past few years. Where do these people get the money from, that's what I'd like to know? On that note, on Sunday, the last evening we were there, whilst we waited at the Neratziotissa station for the Suburban Train back to the airport, I was studying the graffiti that was plastered all over the wall just across the tracks from our platform and was rather bemused to read the following (in Greek, but here translated):

€510!! At that wage, there won't even be the cash for the spraycans anymore!

That figure refers to the national minimum monthly wage that a person up to 25 years of age should earn.  I found myself thinking, "well, every cloud..."

The Athens Metro, its underground train system, which now boasts three lines plus the suburban line that runs to the new airport, actually functions very well. We used it all the time we were there and were well impressed with the speed and regularity of the trains. Not so enjoyable was the fact that one had to deal with the beggars who patrol the carriages holding out in grubby hands cut-off plastic bottles adorned with religious icons whilst they cry out in pathetic, childlike voices, "Help Me!! Jesus and Mary, help me!! I'm hungry. Please, please, you must help me!!" or something similar. 

One could go down a long road discussing the why's and wherefore's of whether one ought to help these people, and we did find ourselves chucking the odd coin in their receptacles, but the experience of having one of these often grotesquely disfigured individuals lean against your seat for a few moments can be obnoxious to say the least. Some of them emit such body odour that it almost makes you gag. There was a young Rhodean couple on the train from the airport into the city who'd attached themselves to us as it was their first tme away from Rhodes and I felt deeply sorry for the girl, who found herself almost vomiting with the smell of one of the more persistent of these poor individuals as he leaned against her rather clean t-shirt top for a couple of minutes before he could be persuaded to move on.

On the whole, the Greek travellers on these trains completely ignored these beggars. We did find ourselves wondering whether the Police or security guards ever come aboard the trains to eject such individuals. They obviously hadn't paid for a ticket since they were begging for small coins. The entire system works on trust as you find ticket machines or a ticket booth at the stations, then validate the ticket in a machine as you pass it before proceeding to your platform. We found ourselves discussing the fact that, since we never saw an inspector for the whole three days we were there, anyone who wanted to could ride the system for free perpetually with little risk of being caught.

So, you're probably thinking that you'd prefer to go anywhere but Athens right now. But that's where you'd be wrong and I'd have misled you. See, the thing is, graffiti apart and the fact that the modern city is rife with closed down businesses whose roller shutters have become the playground of the spray-can artist, it's still a pretty safe place to be. Even at night.

A corner of Ommonia Square, early morning

The street where our hotel was situated, looking toward Ommonia. the hill in the background is the magnificent Lykavittos

Arriving on foot at Monasteraki, early evening. Fifteen minutes from the hotel

The Delphi Art Hotel, where we stayed

Another view of a corner at Ommonia, early evening

The view from our breakfast table in the hotel
We'd made a reservation online with the Achilion Hotel, in Ag. Konstantinou Street. It's right next door to the National Theatre and minutes from both Syntagma and Ommonia. When we arrived they told us they'd moved us over the road to the Delphi, which we didn't mind because a very courteous young lady escorted us over the road to see that we got checked in safely and the standards of both hotels were on a par. They're not the most luxurious hostelries on the planet, but they are very clean, well kept and the rooms comfy enough. The breakfast (included in our deal) was excellent and consisted of every type of breakfast food imaginable.

If you've read the book "Blue Skies and Black Olives" by British journalist John Humphrys and his son Christopher, you may remember an experience that Christopher relates in which he compares the city of Athens with London. Christopher is married to a girl from Athens and, if I remember correctly, relates how on one particular evening whilst walking in the city of London with his wife and children, they were approached by a group of rather unsociable-looking young men on the pavement (uh, sidewalk, guys, ok?). Christopher advises his wife that they'd be well advised to cross the road to avoid any trouble. His wife, hailing as I said from Athens, doesn't understand the reason for her husband's caution at all.

This experience well illustrates the diiference between Athens and not only London but I'd guess many other European cities. Having just spent three nights walking the inner city streets of Athens I can testify to the fact that, despite all you may have heard in the media, we felt very safe. Yes, the modern city is tatty, scruffy and run-down. It rather put me in mind of bleak council estates in the UK in the 80's. In the US I believe you'd think of what you call "the projects". But, that aside, there are delis open, pavement cafés, kiosks on every street just as there had been thirty and more years ago, selling newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, confectionery, hats, umbrellas, cold drinks, the list is endless. Walking home late in the evening after many of these kiosks were closed, we remarked on the fact that they still left all kinds of stuff hanging outside, including papers and magazines that we were quite sure that in the UK would have in the very least been torn asunder and scattered all over the road to the four winds or, in the worst case scenario, set fire to, I shouldn't wonder.

On our first evening we found a giros place in a side street not far from Ommonia Square and sat and ate as a group of about 12. There was a duo playing Bouzouki and guitar sitting in the doorway and the tables and chairs filled the alleyway. There we were in the heart of the modern city, which - were you to try and describe it - the word picturesque would not be the one you'd call to mind, eating in the street around tables with waiter service and all the passers-by were regular folk going about their daily lives.

What I really wanted to do, though, was get down to Monateraki, which is the place where the modern city rubs shoulders with the ancient. From Monasteraki you can wander the flea markets as you go deeper into either the ancient Agora, or the area known as "Plaka" which is a maze of old streets rather like a larger Lindos, all sporting a range of eating places in impossibly pretty steeply stepped street locations.

Had this area changed? That's what I wanted to know. Monasteraki always had an amazing vibe going on during summer evenings. I was surprised and delighted to find that, apart from a burst of graffiti on the awning of the local "periptero" [kiosk] outside Monasteraki tube station, I found myself being mentally transported back thirty years, the place was so unaltered. What joy.

So, folks, for your delectation and delight, here are some photos from Saturday evening June 28th 2014, taken at Monasteraki and in the Plaka district, under the shadow of the mighty Athens Acropolis...

The many-arched building is Monasteraki tube station

The magnificent Acropolis towers above this area of Athens

Entering Plaka district

This was where we finally chose to sit and eat

I never miss the opportunity to get my Fix in-shot!!

The unexpected bonus at our taverna. Had trouble stopping her indoors from joining in though.

I'm told that a live band plays in Monasteraki Square frequently during summer time

So, then, the verdict. 
Afer more than thirty years apart, we were re-united with Greece's ancient capital, where we found the modern city to be tatty, yes, but nevertheless a safe place by and large to wander around in on foot after dark. There are many cosy hotels in the downtown district and they're certainly reasonably priced and cosy enough. They're only a base anyway.

The pièce de resistance, though, is still the Monasteraki and Plaka areas, leading up to the marvel that is the Athens Acropolis, atop which stands the Parthenon. 

Would I recommend you visit Athens? Too right I would. Two cities it may be, the modern and the ancient, but both will beguile you still and you'll want another fix. We're already thinking of trying to get away for a few days some time soon for another visit.