You Tell Us …

We’ve already spent a week in London, where we have been a few times before and we’ve decided not to blog about this part of the adventure unless there is something specific that you want us to check out or write about.

So – send us your suggestions and/or we’ll see you back home in a week or so.

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Travel photo detritus 2

I bet you’ve never seen this Rubens or the sculpture in the featured image:

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Here’s a couple of beautiful buildings in Vienna – an old and a new:

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Here’s a sign for a magic shop and part of the historic Teddy Bear display by Steiff:

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An old barge at the Arsenale and a giant newspaper boat (steel) part of Venice’s Bienale:

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Fresh pasta loaded with parmesan and a favourite spot:

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Arty couches in Venice and glasses frames for around 1,000 euros:

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Man trimming growth on Rhodes wall and arm of seat at Palace of the Grand Master:

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One of the thousands of roadside shrines in Greece and garbage by the cemetery:

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Mosaic interior of San Marco and lovely arcade of Venetian building in Rhodes:

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Eastern bagpipe player and glass bottomed tour boat,Rhodes:

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Chania protest march and cave-in of very old house:

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Drainage in Delphi and tablet recording livestock from ancient Mycenae:

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Shrine donations at Meteora (coffee type card included) and scrapyard, Parthenon:

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The Boating Party

How wonderful to be back in England.

We were going to meet our niece in Oxford the next day for a visit with her and her husband on their narrow boat which was currently tied up just north of the city in a picturesque village called Kings Sutton.  The plan was to move it closer to Oxford over the weekend and then Rebecca would travel with us to London as she had a couple of days of meetings there and could sleep over at our place.

Our plane landed early enough at Gatwick that we were able to travel by train to Kings Sutton and find a B and B to crash in and  leave our packs while we spent the next day in Oxford.  We strolled into the very quiet town and couldn’t see any sign of a B and B although I was sure I had seen some listed online.  We walked toward the direction of the shops when we were spotted by some locals having a drink at a table in their front yard.  They called a curious “Hello.”  We asked about accommodation and they all looked blank until one of the ladies said, “you can stay in the chapel!”

I thought she was offering a spot at the church we had passed but she ushered her through the yard of her cozy stone cottage to the backyard where we entered a tiny brick building with what looked like recycled chapel windows.  She explained that it was her son’s old room but currently unoccupied and if we wanted to stay we could.  A deal was struck, we hied up the high street to a pub for a light dinner and returned to zonk out on her son’s extremely comfy mattress for a very long time.

Feeling refreshed the next morning, we took the train back down the tracks a couple of stops to Oxford where we spent the day enjoying the sights.  We toured Christchurch college with its beautiful cathedral. (The “Harry Potter” dining hall was closed for renovations.) We happened across the graduating class of Balliol college who were being doused with champagne, covered with aerosol string and other messy products and then being covered in confetti by the crowd of well wishers, held behind barricades across the street. We strolled through the glam spots of Oxford, the Radcliffe camera, the Sheldonian, bridge of sighs, St. Mary’s, Magdalen bridge, the Martyrs’ memorial and then for fun, cruised the first floor of the Randolph hotel, site of so many scenes from the Morse and Lewis series. (We saw signed and framed fan photos of many of the characters.)

Rebecca arrived a little late on her bike with bursting panniers and we all proceeded to have a drink at a local while waiting for the next train.

Back at Dobbin cottage, our impromptu B and B, Jeannie was kind enough to drive us up the road near to where the boat was moored. Rebecca showed us around their recently purchased canal boat, acquired as an affordable alternative to the ridiculously high rents in Oxford. The energetic young couple have been working on improvements and planning more for the last month and a half while moving the boat down from Birmingham when time allowed.  We dined, and managed to stay awake long enough to greet Chris who was returning from a late work shift.

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The next morning after breakfast we started up the engine and went back a ways on the canal so we could turn the vessel around at a “winding hole”.  And hour later, we were back where we had started – this is an extremely leisurely form of boating and what a gorgeous time and place to be doing it. The verdant banks of the winding canal were overflowing with wild roses, irises, weeping willow, hawthorne and elderberry bushes.  Duck and coot families paddled furiously across the canal and disappeared into the marsh grasses.  We greeted fellow narrow boaters as they slipped past us in the dappled green light.  The Oxford canal winds through lush pastures, postcard towns and under old bridges that look as if they were only placed there to be admired.

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Jerry of course, had to hog the tiller as this was one form of boating he hadn’t tried yet which left the rest of us to relax and enjoy the scenery, occasionally hopping off to go through the process of opening and closing locks.  We snacked, drank and chatted our way through Saturday, finally stopping to fill up the water tank, unload some garbage and dine at a canal side pub.

Rebecca had a recipe for elderberry cordial so I joined her for a stroll down the leafy tow path where we gathered the flowers to the sound of sheep baaing in the fields nearby.  She steeped the flowers that night with some citrus parings and the next day, strained the liquid and boiled it with sugar.

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We had all slept soundly and proceeded further up the canal on Sunday, enjoying our elderflower/white wine cocktails with grapes and some good British cheese.  I popped my camera into my pocket while I tried to follow instructions at a lock and got back on board to lie down on the roof of the boat in the sunshine.  I shifted, heard a plop and realized that my camera had fallen into the canal – never to be seen again.  Oh well …. at  least I had downloaded the last of our pictures from Greece.  England was just not meant to be photographed this time.(The few photos I have included here aren’t very good because I was experimenting with the laptop which is difficult to use.)

Chris gave me his old camera as he no longer needed it and unfortunately, twisted his ankle a few hours later and received Jerry’s cane in trade. We arrived at a town which was a stop nearer to Oxford by train and after packing up, we all got off as Chris was off to work near Oxford while the three of us carried on to London. The trip was a delightful rest from our busy vacation – it felt as though we had moved into a slower, happier dimension for the weekend.

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Wonders: Ancient and Modern

The roads marked “main” in Greece are not what come to mind for the North American driver but more “one step up from gravel, mostly”.  The sight of a tourist rocketing along one is enough to raise the local farmer’s head from his examination of the chicken show in his yard.  At least it did in our case as we passed wondering if this really was the place indicated by matching names to the map.

After traveling for about an hour on the correct road from Proussos this time, we found the large lake, Trichonida.  Unfortunately, we no longer had time to stop.

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Eventually, we reached the coast where the Rio-Antirrio bridge looms to bring toll paying travelers to the other side of the Gulf of Corinth.  The bridge, finished in 2004, cost 630,000,000 euros to build and is like the new cable bridge in Vancouver but over twice as long.  We duly paid our 13 euros, thrilled to be on the National road again and joined the stream of traffic heading east at twice the posted speed so as not to cause traffic build up and let those who wanted to, pass at approximately thrice the posted speed limit. Here, cars drive half on the shoulder to indicate that someone can pass as they are usually only two lanes.

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We reached Mycenae safely, having once again left the National road for a very civilized secondary road. (They seem to be much better the nearer you are to Athens.)  The  archaeological site has yielded lots of information and many treasures, many of them golden as ancient Mycenae was a rich civilization.  The immense limestone blocks used to build the city walls were believed to be moved by Cyclopean giants – have a look at the lintel stone in the photo of the lion gate, below.  We had a quick look at the museum and Jerry toured the treasury of Atreas alone (below left) as I was feeling sick.

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Feeling better the next day (although Jerry started to feel not great), we had an enjoyable start by heading loopwise to the coast where we bought oranges from one of the many stands along the road sides.  We toured Epidaurus, an ancient version of a spa town/healing centre which is also the site of the best preserved theatre in Greece with it’s excellent acoustics. Lucky for us, a lady sang an aria for the smattering of tourists in the seats.

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Back on the road, we crossed the Corinth canal – which isn’t very big, at all (70 ft wide at it’s base) and made our way down the peninsula past Athens as we had time to tour the Temple of Poseidon at the very southern tip, at Sounion.  This beautiful location has a 360 degree view that includes the one in the featured image for this blog post.  It was a balmy evening as we made our way back nearer Athens to find a hotel room for the last two nights.

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The hotel at Artemida is only in business because of its proximity to the airport where we planned to park the car and take the train to Athens the next day.  There was a great view from the balcony but the place was a dump.

Unfortunately places in gorgeous settings like this look as though they had a jolt of infrastructure money pumped into them (for the 2004 Olympics, probably) but were then left to fall apart.  We could not believe the amount of garbage lying around on the beaches and streets of these places and the terrible mess of graffiti on anything that doesn’t move.  Communities just don’t seem to care about the mess they are in –  and it isn’t just a lack of cash keeping them from making an attempt.In contrast, the smaller towns inland are very tidy and kept relatively clean of graffiti. Everywhere we traveled though, there are big, unfinished projects sitting idle.

Our trip to Athens went smoothly.  We arrived at the Parliament Building, walked to the Acropolis and toured the buildings before the sun got too hot.  It felt very surreal to be there with the incredible, glistening white architecture, high above the vast spread of Athen’s sameness for miles all around.

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above: the major attraction and right, the Erechtheum (scaffolding all over the Acropolis)

We rode the metro to the Archaeological museum and saw as many treasures as we were able. There is a fascinating exhibit on the Antikythera mechanism-  a sort of ancient analog computer found on a shipwreck in 1900. (Google it – amazing stuff)

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beautiful young and adult male sculptures

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above: battle chariot fittings found at Thermopylae (on reconstructed chariot) and right, one of the linear B tablets found at Mycenae

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early Cycladic Art looking very modern

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above left: Areopagus rock – birthplace of Solon’s democratic reforms (St. Paul preached here too)

above right: Greek flag flying proudly from atop the Acropolis while the nation grapples with the EU over it’s debt repayment.

We returned to our lousy hotel to be eaten by mosquitoes for another night.  I had a final swim, picked a bag of garbage off the beach as a thank-you for the wonderful Greek holiday and the next day we returned the car and caught the plane to London.

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The Fun Ended at Proussos … (and then started again, much later)

It looked so easy on the map.

“Instead of returning the way we came,” I suggested, “let’s just go this way through the mountains to the coast and cross over to the Peloponnese  on that new bridge – maybe stop by a lake for the night?”

Who knew the mountains in Greece are really, really high and that twelve inches from the roadside, the drop to the bottom of the valley would probably take three minutes of free fall? Silly us!

We left Meteora and stopped at Karditsa for a quick coffee. Once again, the small town square was full of kids playing, parents socializing, older men sitting together playing cards – it seemed that hardly anybody was at home stuck in front of their TV set or playing Solitaire on their computers. It had been the same everywhere.

Off on the road again, we climbed the foothills and found a pleasant place with a great view for our picnic lunch.  Jerry had to turn the car on the verge and the tires squished the wild sage enough to scent the hot air. We found a shady spot and if it hadn’t been for the ants and thistles, could have easily stayed for a nap.

(below right, I try to match letters on the map)

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Jerry had agreed to the jaunt through the mountains, so there we were motoring pretty much straight up to our next stop, Karpenisi, saying things like, “look, we must be at the top of the mountain, I guess it’s all downhill from here!”

True, it was. We went down, and then up again, way, way up, and then in a series of unprotected hairpin turns, down again – a number of times.  The roads were lined with hundreds of bee hives. Karpenisi finally attained, we stopped for a chocolately pair of desserts and coffee, because we hadn’t really had breakfast, unless you call one coffee, a handful of Pringles and a couple of licks out of the yoghourt container, breakfast.  And, we had found our way back from being lost past a middle of nowhere village called Klitsos which had prompted Jerry to ask, “ I wonder what they do here?”  When questioned for directions, two eleven year old Greek boys had explained, in a torrent of Greek that you want to turn around and go back – crazy tourists! Unless of course, you came to see Adonis’ two headed goat – or something like that.

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So off we went, oohing and awing over the magnificent scenery, much of which looked like Banff. We drove through Proussos, clinging to the mountainside and along the road as it wrapped around to the other side of the valley.  We just had to stop for another photo of the clock tower built on a pinnacle of rock far below and could hear the far, far off singing of the monks at the monastery below that which is about a thousand feet from the valley floor.  We carried on winding our way to what we thought was our destination, Thermo, which sounded like it held the promise of hot springs and on the map, looked like it was beside a gorgeous big lake.

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We wound, and wound, came across more and more rock fall from the hillsides, (not unusual here) some road machinery – stopped as it was Sunday. We drove through another impossibly vertical village, where there were indications of all kinds of hiking trails. It all looked invitingly alpine, if a little scary with the total road wash out now and then. We soldiered on knowing that this must be the way as there were no other turn-offs past Proussos.

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Then we hit complete gravel, went a bit further, then my laughing about how things couldn’t get worse, ha ha, lots of laughs, turned to a sudden choked sob when at the crest of the road, I saw far below, a sliver of paved road weave its way up the next mountain but that to get there, we must hairpin our way down on a gravel road above a canyon we could not actually see the bottom of.

Did I mention that Jerry is not happy with heights? Nor am I anymore. He drove, I prayed and at the bottom where there was a gurgling stream under a bridge, we had a celebratory small glass of wine. Then the mood was festive as we climbed up the paved road to the few buildings at the top, anticipating a sign to Thermo at any moment.

The road petered out at a small stone house. Jer got out for a look. Nothing. He knocked on the door of the house. A man appeared, looking uncannily like Sean Connery’s younger brother, from around back and interpreted what Jerry was saying and responded in emphatic Greek with gestures that this was not the way to Thermo and that we had to return to Proussos. I believe he could see the tears welling in Jerry’s eyes and noticed the terror in my face because he offered us a shot of something very strong, in a bottle which we gratefully accepted as it might be our last drink.

Back we went, “every sphincter choking furlong,” as Jerry referred to it.  It wasn’t as bad as the way there – of course, because we were looking up more than down. When we were almost at Proussos we noticed the 170 degree turn we had missed on the way out that would have brought us to Thermo. Not in the mood for anymore driving, we got a room at a beautiful little hotel, “Hotel 796” named after it’s altitude in the mountains, shared some wine and enjoyed the view from the safety of the deck.

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A Meteora Minute

Let’s just say that if Brother Giorgios wanted Brother Nikolaos fetch him a cup of honey from next door, he had better send him a week beforehand. “Right, be back in a minute …”

The impossibly precarious positioning of the monasteries of Meteora takes one’s breath away. There are six of them left  – 4 for monks and 2 nunneries. The strange stony projections thrust just over 1,000 feet almost directly vertical from the plains where the buildings of Kalambaka lie sprinkled at their feet. Scientists believe earthquakes and weathering shaped the sandstone pinnacles about 60 million years ago

We arrived from Stilida in the early afternoon having driven over the lower mountains into the wide prairie-like basin of the Thessaly plain. In an area where you can see roads extend to the horizon in all directions, we managed to get lost. Did I say that the signs are all in Greek if you aren’t on the main roads and that the map we were using spelled out town names all in capital Greek letters whereas most of the signs used both cases and if you have ever puzzled over an alphabet where “bs” are pronounced as “vs” and “ps”as “rs” so that one often sees advertisements for “tabepnas” – well, you get my drift.

There we were rocketing through some tiny hamlet on a road like a patchy back alley except narrower, with a car or scooter on our tail, of course, when I spotted a lot of movement up a church bell tower out of the corner of my eye, glanced over and saw an enormous stork nest complete with the whole stork family. I’ve always wanted to see one so ordered the driver to pull over.

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The nest was at least 6 feet wide and 4 deep, out in the open with a cloud of smaller birds (mostly swallows I think) fluttering in and out of their nests which had been built into the sides of the stork’s nest. We watched for awhile from I still don’t know where and then found our way back to the road we needed to be on.

A grassy park square in a slightly bigger town seemed to beckon us to stop for our bread and cheese picnic lunch and what should be on their church tower but another stork nest and across the street from it, a second nest both with stork families, fearlessly feeding, preening and surveying their surroundings. After a speedy Google search that night, I learned that storks have inspired all sorts of mythology and in Greece symbolize family devotion and good luck, so are encouraged to nest.

We drove through a couple of charmless, sprawling towns before the mountains rose out of the dusty plains like movie set fortress walls.

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Following the signs to the monasteries brought us through hills forested in a variety of trees, many olive but not for long as the rise was so rapid. Incredible panoramas presented themselves with each turning as we snaked up to where the monasteries have clung to the mountain tops since the 1300s. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to build in such a ridiculously impractical place but I suppose that old Athanasios Koinovitis, had spent a lot of time watching those storks atop poles and towers.

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We climbed down and then up the many staircases (see right photo, above) that bring the hordes to the Great Meteoron Monastery where visitors are allowed to tour the museums, some grounds and cathedral. The peaceful afternoon heat and unbelievable setting were very conducive to quiet contemplation. Monks had been living in these buildings for two hundred years before the Renaissance and I’m not sure that anyone has told them about the invention of the elevator yet. Jerry just thanked his lucky stars that he wasn’t forced to ride in the basket that is occasionally used to provide a short-cut past the visitors for monks across the looming gorge between one cliff and the next.

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The church was full of the usual icons, candles by the dozens, square wooden box-type seating and incense smells. In the museum I managed to sneak a photo of one of the historic monastery books.

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We drove down the road to the Vaarlam monastery next door but Jerry had to rest his ankles. I did manage to coax him across the bridge that connects two points very high in space though before I walked up a couple more flights of stairs to take in the view. I decided to skip the monastery interior as the real drama is outdoors. There were clouds of small butterflies in the parking area adding to the magical feel of the place.

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Our hotel was finally located after an extremely circuitous route – cheap, old dump but clean. Luckily, we returned to town for an absolutely heavenly meal of moussaka and stuffed peppers in a family run restaurant that had hanging in the trees all around, all sorts of birds who kept up a constant chatter.

The whole day had had an other-worldly feel to it.

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The Oracle of Stilida

We didn’t really have a plan when we got to Athens. There were the usual tourist trail sights that I wanted to see, Delphi, Mycenae and Epidaurus but my sister and her family had been up north in Meteora last year to see the hanging monasteries and since we had the car, ($150 for 6 days, insurance and mileage included in the price) why not use it? We set off and on the way realized that if we hung a left, we could see Delphi on the way.

Off we went toward Mt. Parnassus to the sacred place that brought our ancient ancestors to seek guidance from the oracle, a priestess who sat over the vaporous opening in the temple of Apollo. I suppose her advice was no worse than what the psychics tell us nowadays.

The road rose way up and through a lovely ski town. We caught up to some tour buses and knew we were on the right track. And suddenly – there we were.

We parked out front – probably where ancient travel historian, Pausanius, stopped for a quick breather, walked up and paid our fee – 6 euros, about half the price of a lousy movie in the modern world.

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4.000 years of history opened before us as we processed along the ancient route to the temple which had been lined by impressive buildings holding the treasuries of city states – only the temple of the Athenian treasury has been reconstructed, just past the omphalos, or what the ancients believed was the navel of the world, a rock so perfectly formed they believed it must have been hurled down to earth by Zeus himself to mark this place.

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On our way up to the Temple of Apollo, the theatre and the stadium beyond we heard the chatter of Russians, Chinese, Greeks, Germans, English, French and others we couldn’t identify. It appears that people still come from all directions seeking something here.

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We took a hundred photos before Jerry needed to rest his ankles after all those stairs up and down so he returned to the car while I walked back down the highway to the temple of Athena. He drove down to meet me and we toured the peaceful ruins, with wide vistas of mountains and the Gulf of Corinth far beyond to fill the spaces between the three columns of the Tholos that have been reconstructed.

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We needed a refreshment so stopped at the tiny cafe that is a few steps down from the highway between the two sites. The old gent wasn’t quite set up for the tourist season yet,  it  looked like his rusty postcard racks had been left out since the war but we were able to buy a couple of lemon Fantas to sip on the terrace with the million-dollar view.

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Off we drove, around and up and down the mountainsides – beautiful views everywhere if you are brave enough to take your eyes off the road. I was in the process of giving Jerry some helpful driving advice when we rounded a bend and came upon a huge bull at the edge of the road, staring off into the valley – not at all concerned about the mayhem he could create if he were to take a step or two back onto the road. About ten kilometres later we came across the warning sign for cows on the road.

We descended to the plains of Thermopylae –  famous battle scene of the 300 Spartans and friends and drove across to Stilida, hoping to find a hotel.  After a mostly vertical search of the small town, we pulled over when I spotted a hotel sign near the central area.  I realized it was closed when I was close enough to see all the papered over windows so asked at the empty taverna next door if there was another hotel. The friendly waiter told me that there was nothing in Stilida anymore but up the road about three kilometres there was one.

I brought Jerry over for dinner as we hadn’t eaten since 8 that morning when our flight got in. We had the most delicious overstuffed souvlakis, with fries tucked in and a half litre of wine.  The cost for this magnificence was 9 euros.

Jerry had chatted with the waiter who told him, “we don’t have a Greek government anymore…. its European. Four years ago, this place would have been full. Now, all the towns are suffering.”

The almost empty hotel up the road was 40 euros –  aging but clean and on the sea, with a pool. Who knows what the fate of Greece will be but for travelers who want first class sights, food and reasonably priced accommodation and transportation, it’s still a winner.

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