Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Twain Trail

It's been a month and a half now that I've been living with Mark Twain. Usually I don't cohabitate with authors for quite as long as that, but Twain's The Innocents Abroad is hard to read in bursts of more than three or four pages at a time. He makes me laugh and my mind starts to wander and before I know it five minutes have passed of just staring at the pages without reading any words.

I have had a couple of flirtations with other authors in the meantime. But nothing significant unless you count the 24 hours I spent with Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. Chris gave it to me as a present and I repaid him for his kindness by abandoning him from the first page all the way to the last. "Shhh.... it's a good part... can you tell me tomorrow?"

When not spending time with the male authors in my life, Chris and I went out and explored Athens. It took a lot longer than we expected because everything seems to close between two and three in the afternoon. We thought that maybe things closed for a siesta, and then reopened again, but no. Once shut, everything remains that way. What do people in Athens do all day? If work finishes at 2:30 p.m. and super starts at around 10 p.m., what happens for the seven and a half hours in-between?

The only answer we have come up with is that people drink coffee.

One day when we woke up early enough to do some sightseeing before everything closed for the day, Chris and I wandered up a maze of streets to reach the Acropolis. Before entering the site and viewing the buildings, we sat down and I read Chris passages from Mark Twain's visit to the Acropolis.

Twain's visit was more than a bit illegal. The ship he arrived on would had to be held in quarantine for 11 days before any of the passengers would be allowed onshore. Since the boat was only stopping in Piraeus harbor for one night, Twain and friends decided to flee the boat in the dead of night and make their way to the Acropolis by back roads. The men awakened all the dogs of Athens and stole scores of grapes along the way.

After traveling on foot for several miles, climbing down ravines and up hillsides, Twain's group finally reached the gate of the Acropolis. "It was locked!... We sat down and held a council of war. Result: the gate was only a flimsy structure of wood - we would break it down." He was a very well behaved traveler.

Sitting where we were, Chris and I could just make out the shore of Piraeus. It was easy to imagine the direction Twain and his partners in petty crime would have taken. Directly in front of us was the hill they would have climbed, getting their first close view of the Parthenon.

We got up and went into the ruins. I looked for the first building, the easily recognizable Temple of Athena Nike, but it wasn't there. Deconstructed completely for a restoration supposed to be finished in time for the Olympics last summer, the building still hasn't reappeared.

We moved on through a network of scaffolding covering the Propylaia and soon stood in front of the Parthenon. Some argue that it's the most perfectly proportioned structure in the world. Trying to imagine it without scaffolding and construction trailers, I couldn't help remembering Ayn Rand's rants in The Fountainhead against the Parthenon and idealization of all things classical. If she were still alive, she might have enjoyed the modern metal scaffolding obscuring the building.

After seeing many many ruins and many many museums, we finally departed Athens. Our ferry to Crete left from Piraeus in the evening. As the ship set sail, I kept running out on deck, into the cold winds. Chris came out to see why I was choosing to suffer. "I want to see if we can spot the Acropolis from here." Chris was skeptical. Lots of tall buildings had been constructed since Mark Twain's day. My teeth chattered and I couldn't stop shivering. Chris encouraged me to go inside. "Not yet, maybe we'll see it!" He tried to shield me from the wind while I scanned the nightscape. We saw nothing but hotels and apartment blocks until one hill stood out in the distance, classical lines illuminated by floodlights. "There it is - let's go inside!..."

As we went back into the warmth, Chris asked if Mark Twain had gone many places in Greece. And if he did go many places, did we have to see everything from the same spots that he did? Lucky for Chris the cholera quarantine prevented Twain from seeing anything more of Greece. It won't be until Italy and France that we end up on the same worn tourist trail as Twain. Hee hee.

In Crete, we spent a few days in the city of Iraklio. I had really wanted to see the beautiful Minoan frescoes from the Palace of Knossos. I remember them from my art history textbooks in high school and university. We went to the local archeological museum, saw too many ancient pots and vases. At last we made our way upstairs at to the famous frescoes.

Art books often comment that the frescoes look surprisingly modern, thanks to their vivid colors and almost art nouveau styling. Seeing the frescoes in person, it's not surprising that they look modern. The reality is that the ancient murals consist of little bits of old discolored plaster surrounded by modern interpretations of what the frescoes may have looked like. I felt swindled by my art history education.

The museum experience should have prepared me for the ruins of Knossos. In art books, Knossos, home of the Minotaur and King Minos, looks remarkably well-preserved. In person, you instantly see all the concrete that's been used to simulate the ancient constructions. Chris and I marveled at concrete wooden beams, the concrete wooden pillars, the Mexican glass skylights....

The signage was kind of funny though. The archeologist who reconstructed Knossos, Arthur Evans, took some liberties a century ago. We'd get to a structure and the sign would say something to the effect of, "Evans believed this area should have an open patio like buildings he had seen in Italy. So he tore things apart and reconstructed according to his taste. More recent research shows that the original buildings would look nothing like this." It feels a little like Disney came to Greece.

Another ancient place demystified.

After the big disappointments at the Athenian Acropolis and Minoan Knossos, Chris hoped, for my sake, that there weren't any more Greek archeological sites that I had studied in school. Nope. All finished. On to the unknown.

We spent a night in the lovely little town of Hania. We found an old neighborhood of crumbling Venetian buildings and took photos of people's picturesque underwear hung out to dry across the narrow alleyways. Old men in Greek caps and white-haired women dressed in black watched us roam around their neighborhood. They looked unwelcoming until we called out "yasas" in greeting. Their wrinkled faces always cracked into smiles.

Leaving Crete, we boarded a ferry to the fishing village of Gythio on the southern coast of the Peloponnese. Gythio was another beautiful little place we had known nothing about. Hurray for unheralded destinations.

For the past couple of nights we have been in Sparta. It's a relatively un-Spartan place, although the mattresses are hard and lumpy. Either this is a conscious nod to ancient Spartan reputation or we're staying at the cheapest place in town.

Yesterday we went to visit the seaside town of Monemvasia. Carpeted with wild flowers, the Venetian town, hidden on the backside of a huge rocky island emerging dramatically from the sea, was unexpectedly gorgeous. Words can't do it justice. I'll have to add photos later. Lonely Planet calls it "one of the most romantic spots in Greece" and Chris and I wholeheartedly agree.

Tomorrow we will head for another old Venetian town - Nafplio. It's also reputedly very beautiful and romantic. The main reason we're excited to go there is that we will finally eat in a restaurant again. Due to budgetary constrictions, it's been about a week and a half since the last time.

P.S. In case anyone was wondering, the electric kettle and egg experiment was a success. Takes about ten minutes, bringing the water to a boil twice. The hot eggs taste great with a little pepper and dried herbs. We may not be able to go to restaurants very often but that doesn't mean we can't picnic in the room like gourmets.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

European Roadtrip

It's official. We're finally both in Europe! Saturday Chris arrived in Athens and I met him at the airport with a Kinder Surprise.

We've had a great week, although we've both had severe sticker shock as everything in Greece is so expensive compared to what we've been used to in Asia and Latin America. With accommodation prices as high as they are, just sleeping is putting us over budget. As a result, we've gone into super-efficiency mode, having elaborate picnics in the room, breakfast/lunch/dinner for the past week. We've also managed to get into most of the museums and attractions for free. Please don't ask about that. It looks like we may survive the European portion of the trip.

A couple I met in Turkey, Ellen and Mel, are our inspiration for how to travel in Europe without going broke. Their best advice was to buy a small electric kettle. Suddenly we can make tea and coffee, hot Ribena drinks, soup, and maybe hard-boiled eggs. The eggs will be tomorrow's breakfast experiment.

Ellen and Mel also suggested that it would be more economical to do a long-term lease of a brand-new car than to get a Eurorail pass. It would be easier to explore rural villages and we could stay inexpensive places outside of city centers. Baring any complications, Chris and I will be the proud short-term owners of a brand-new diesel consuming Peugeot next month. Somehow between now and then I have to learn how to drive a standard transmission... in a mountainous country. It's one of those skills I've had actual nightmares about in the past. Dreams where it is necessary to escape somewhere in a car and the vehicle has a stick shift. I can't even get out of park.

We haven't figured out where we are going exactly but right now we are planning to spend the next three weeks in Greece. Next month, ready or not, the European Roadtrip will begin. Dropping in on family, friends, and passing acquaintances as we go... Hi, remember us?

The possible itinerary without mentioning random assorted principalities:

Switzerland (get the car)
Italy again

France again
The Netherlands
Czech Republic
France again (say goodbye to car)

And then back to India in August, where we can afford to have tea in a cafe.

In the meantime, tomorrow we are taking a ferry down to Crete. Can't grow up with a labyrinth obsession and not go to Knossos, home to the Minotaur and the birth of the world's first maze.

Since I'm feeling a little bit older today, Chris is letting me choose all our activities. We started with a cafe breakfast. Went to the National Museum and then got some Kinder Surprises. Soon we'll go to the Benaki Museum. Tonight we'll see a good movie and go out to dinner. One day of indulgence. Budget be damned.