I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007 Naxos by bus, and An Aussie Girl, an Irishman, and an American chick walk into a bar...

At breakfast I don't see yogurt, so I have muesli with milk instead. I see everyone else with yogurt and am envious, but I have to hurry to catch the 9:30 bus tour and don't have time to go back and see how I missed it. I am beginning to regret my decision to do the bus tour. Now that I have books I can hang out on the beach all day with no squirming. I am sure it is going to be all couples over 60. Oh well, I think, maybe one of them will have an attractive single nephew in DC.

I am really cutting time down to the wire here and it takes longer than I remember to make it all the way to the pier where the buses pick up. There is no bus with a giant sign saying "NAXOS BUS TOUR HERE, PASSENGER TRENA PLEASE REPORT" so I ask one of the bus drivers. He works out what I'm asking and directs me to a minibus and I step onto it, quite breathless, handing over my ticket. Miracle of miracles, there are not one but *two* people around my age on the bus, a guy and a girl. Now, will I have the guts to talk to them? I'm not shy, but I'm not outgoing either. If somebody speaks to me I am immediately comfortable and conversational, but initiating the contact is daunting.

The guide gives all the presentations in Greek and English (I believe there is a German speaking tour on Wednesdays), and most of the bus was actually Greek. He passes out a laminated sheet showing the day's route and stops. Naxos is the largest of the Cycladic islands, and it appears that we really will be covering the whole thing.

The first stop is at a pottery studio, where the owner demonstrates his skills with a pottery wheel. It's always so amazing to watch the clay form up from a lump into a graceful vessel. He has a few signature items--whistles that you can fill with water to warble, jugs that are filled by suction, and a wine cup I can't quite work out the operation of. It has a column on the inside, and a line is painted around it indicating the fill level, which is even with the top of the column. There is also a hole somewhere, I think at the bottom inside the column (which must be hollow?). If you fill the cup above the fill line, the entire contents drain out.

While I appreciate that people are maintaining native skills, the work is frankly not that sophisticated and nothing I really want. I worry that the entire day will just be stopping at workshops where we're supposed to buy stuff, which is not what I expected. En route to our next stop, the guy and girl start talking to each other and I feel doomed to isolation. They don't *seem* to be flirting, but if they are I don't want to interrupt, but then I will be left out all day, feeling like an idiot for not trying to make conversation first.

We have a brief pause to take in a view of the village of Filoti. The Church of St. John the Baptist is up on the hill in the center of the photo (click to enlarge). The villagers climb the long path leading up to it on the Saint's feast day. Of course that's in August, rather than October when the weather is pleasant for a mountain climb!

This stop also made for an excellent photo op, and I traded camera favors with one of the other passengers.

Our second real stop is in Chalki. As we get off the bus the girl my age says something about Athens Backpackers. On this trip I had decided to take a plunge and stay at my first youth hostel (at 33!), Athens Backpackers. Deciding to be bold, I ask her what she thought of it. She said it was a total party place and she had to come to Naxos to detox! After that I was in, and Jess, Tony, and I hung out the rest of the day. Jess is Australian and trained as a dentist, but had spent the past couple years in England working in head and neck surgery. She's around 26, blonde, adorable, the kind of bubbly person who somehow makes you feel all fabulous and interesting, and was 6 weeks into a 5 month trip. Her next stop was South America. Tony is Irish from County Cork, same age as me (33, as mentioned), and an electrician who enjoys his job (makes me consider being an electrician...). Like me, he was on a two week holiday but his had just started.

Chalki offers a Venetian tower (a private residence closed to the public) for photos, a beautiful church for photos, and, more importantly, the Kitron distillery. That's shopping tourism I'm down with, as I wanted to get some Naxian Kitron anyway. I had read about it before coming. The kitron is a citrus tree that grows on the island and has done since antiquity. It produces an inedible, almost juiceless fruit a little larger than a lemon. The peel of the fruit is turned into marmalade.

To make the Kitron they gather the leaves that fall from the tree in autumn and dry them. Then they take pure alcohol (basically Everclear) and distill it through the leaves. There are three varieties of Kitron. Green is the sweetest, yellow is the strongest, and clear is somewhere in between. We visit the distillery and get to taste some. I have the clear; it smells a bit like a good margarita and tastes quite nice. I buy a medium bottle for myself and some small bottles for gifts.

Our third stop is the church of Panagia Drossiani, Our Lady of Refreshment. It's a tiny little 5th Century church with frescoes still in place, which our guide explained for us. It has an unusual shape with three small chapels coming off the main nave; this leads historians to believe that the church was originally intended to be a mausoleum for a wealthy family. It is still a working church, the outside garlanded with fading tulle.

Next we went to the village of Apiranthos, which has a small archaeological museum (free admission) and a natural history museum (1E). The archaeological museum is a modest room but it has some great pieces, including some iconic Cycladic goddess figurines from prehistory. Tony and I go in the natural history museum, which is quite odd. It's a small room crammed with specimens, and it's not clear whether it is meant to represent the natural history of Naxos, or just of the world. The showpiece is the skeleton of a whale, I forget which species but the kind with teeth rather than balene, that washed up dead on the coast in the 80s. There's also a dolphin skeleton, and all manner of preserved fish.

The architecture of Apiranthos is a bit unusual from what we've seen, in that the balconies are wrought iron instead of the typical painted wood in other villages. Another unusual feature of the town is the carved marble belfry on the church. Though marble abounds on the island and has been prized throughout Greece for thousands of years, I didn't observe it to be much used for decorative features on buildings. Also, most churches are simple affairs with just a cross on the top.

As we drive we learn about the island. It's mountainous--well, we didn't need a guide to tell us that as we lurched around hairpin switchbacks--and in fact boasts the highest peak in the Cyclades. Most of the villages are situated in the hills, and placed so they can't be seen from the sea because pirates were a constant danger.

At one time the island had a mostly self-sustaining population of 100,000. It is now 20,000 and of course much easier to import food with the regular cargo boats. Back in the day to support all those people the entire island, as far as I can tell, was carved into narrow terraces for crops. Most of those are now abandoned, as in the photo at right, but now and then you saw some still in use. Naxos is still an agricultural island with its main crops being potatoes and corn. It also grows olives (naturally) and is a big dairy producer. I think he said 20,000 gallons of milk a day, but I have no sense of whether that's right. We saw plenty of mountain cows. When K and I had been driving through the mountains in mainland Greece we kept seeing Beware of Cow signs on the roads, but never saw any of these alleged mountain cows, only a few goats. I guess they've all moved to Naxos.

Our next stop was Apollona, where we paused for a couple of hours for lunch. Jess, Tony, and I are joined by the only other English speakers on the bus, a couple from South Carolina who are probably in their late 30s and an Australian guy, David, who was sitting at the next able. We all had an interesting and enjoyable conversation about American politics and our healthcare system. Though the South Carolinian couple are quite Southern, they are good Democrats and the non-Americans note that all the Americans they ever meet oppose Bush and so how in the world did he get elected in the first place? I don't have any real explanation, except that I think liberals are more likely to be educated and wealthy and therefore have the means to travel and that Bush got elected by leveraging the homophobia of the religious right.

After lunch we're back in the minibus for quick ride up to the Kouros of Dionysius above Apollona. I'm not sure why it's called Dionysius, as it seems a standard kouros, which didn't usually portray anyone in particular, nor was the form limited to worship of a particular god. A kouros is a statue of a young man with his left food forward and was given as a votive offering at a temple. Sometimes they were made to look like a specific person--a brave warrior and suchlike--but generally it just represented the beauty of an athletic young man. I am in favor of athletic young men.

This one is gigantic, 10.5 m (about 30 feet) tall--there I am for scale. I didn't see any pieces that size the rest of the places I went in Greece, though it's easy to imagine the largest pieces faring the worst in earthquakes, looting, and general erosion of time. The kouros was abandoned in the quarry it was chipped out of, half finished, most likely because it broke while it was being carved. It was a fair distance up the hill from Apollon--the picture of the town was taken from the kouros quarry--and most likely destined for the mainland. I cannot even begin to imagine how they were going to get it down to the sea in one piece!

The kouros was our last stop, and the remainder of the trip was a long ride back to the Hora enlivened by two WWII torpedos that had been hauled up on the hillsides for unknown reasons.

All in all, I'm not sure I'd recommend the bus tour. The drive time to site visit ratio was about 4:1; Naxos is big and mountainous which makes for a lot of tedious and slightly queasy sitting in a minibus. There were only six stops, one of them purely commercial, and the 25E ticket price is not cheap. I think it's probably better to choose one site and take the public bus to it. One of my tentative plans for the island had been to take the bus to Filoti and hike to the Cave of Zeus, in which prehistoric cave drawing and other artifacts were found. I didn't get the chance to do it but I still think it would be cool and probably a more interesting use of time. Of course, taking the bus tour totally worked out for me because I met Jess and Tony, but the odds are incredibly slim that 3 singles in their 20s/30s would be both dorky enough and well-off enough to take an all-day bus tour and I wouldn't recommend making the gamble!

We got back in town about 5:30, and Jess, Tony, and I went for a drink on the beach. Tony had beer, Jess had Sprite, and I ordered lemonade, which turned out to be Fanta in a can. What is with the mania for Fanta? Everything else in Greek cuisine is so fresh and minimally processed and prepared, and then the drink of choice is artificial flavors and colors galore! The sunset was beautiful, and Jess and I went in the water for a bit. She's a hearty Aussie--apparently the sea there is freeeezing cold--and swam around like we were in the Caribbean. I went in up to my knees and was mesmerized by the way the water refracted the sunlight onto the sea floor. At 7:15 we parted and agreed to meet for dinner at 8:30. Tony was amazed that we could get ready in about an hour hour. I showered, dressed, got ready, and still had time to read.

We met up for dinner and walked the promenade along the water, and then turned back and walked the main drag to check out restaurants. We chose Meze because it was crowded. It turned out to be a bad choice, as none of the food was good. Jess had grilled calamari, which seemed undercooked and was cold. Tony's chicken didn't look like chicken and he said it tasted a bit like curry and chips. I ordered fries and mushrooms on garlic sauce. The fries were cold and the sauce on the mushrooms was very greasy and congealed immediately. On the bright side, the house wine was some of the best on the trip, and only 3.50E the half liter. We got both red and white and both were excellent. The conversation was great--the political systems and politics of our respective countries, adoption, cardiac function, relationships--all the big topics. My part of the bill was about 17E.

After dinner we walked up to the square with the fountain and headed to the Irish bar there. The bartender is Greek, not Irish, and is kind of flirty with me. We continue our great conversation, but finally it is 1 am and Jess and I are both tired (and I am already getting a hangover from the Mai Tai I knew I shouldn't have ordered) so we exchange information--Jess and Tony were both leaving the island in the morning--and I head back to my hotel after inviting Jess to come stay with me after her time in South America.

You can see all my pictures from Naxos and all the photos from this trip to Greece if you'd like.

No comments: