Apr 26, 2014

Greek Odyssey - Going Home

The view when flying out
Four days of bliss, fun and frolic, all coming to an end, it was time to go home. Mixed feelings one would say. A feeling of going home, happiness on one side, a feeling of not wanting to leave and continue the holiday yet for another few days.

Am sure that the feeling was mutual across the entire group of friends, relatives, who had all spent the last few days more as a family, than as friends. The visits to the Historical sites, the lunch / dinner meets, walking across hills to see some fabulous views, dancing across events, waiting for each other, getting lost, running across to find each other, the sing along drives, sharing jokes, walking foot in foot with each other on all events.

Heineken Bar @ Apt
The memories of Greece, as we all headed home, no doubt lingered in every one's mind. As we headed to the Airport doing the final rounds of the city, having our last looks, one could not but wonder of the civilizations that had been, that created such magnificence, such wonders that have survived the test of time. 

Surely there are many such wonders across the world, one would say, especially, if one looks at the Indian civilizations of yore, cultures that defined history, eras that set the trend of the future. What was wonderful about the country, was the care with which history was retained and maintained as opposed to many countries, where a complete lack of respect for the past has resulted in the degeneration of the present.

As one travels through the country, one cannot but wonder at the past gone by. Were the historical periods a good time to live in? Where only kings and royals had a life, and the rest lived in slavery or as commoners, making monuments a time one would prefer to today? Not that it is any different today (we are still slaves today, but just that we work for money). Would we trade our present lives to live in the past as we are today (not talking about past lives)

But yet, with the legacy left behind, the past appears so great in wisdom and vision that despite not having any kind of technology available, wonders have been created out of nothing, in the middle of no where, something that has not been able to be replicated till date and people who consider themselves scholars and learned giants, are yet to fathom out most of the mysteries that exist? How does one build symmetry without angles? How does one lift a 10 Ton Stone without cranes and yet place it in such harmony and position, that it survives centuries? Our buildings today, which are more modern do not survive beyond 50years !!!

Yet what was impressive was the way the past blending with the present. There are countries who have made a mess of their historical heritage, there are countries, who proudly preserve them, manage and maintain them for the generations to come to view the greatness of times. Modern Greece, filled with buildings (which incidentally was quite unique that it was flat and not filled with sky scrapers), the paved roads, the impact of modern day traditions of an open society, an economy gone bust due to its spending, surviving hand in hand with the past, most of it, also which is in the middle of the city. 

Pottery Making
Managing such history and ensuring it stays on for the generations to come, is not a small feat. What I do wonder is will we as the new intelligent civilization, the modern world, the intellectual ones, will we ever have any creations, that would be of such wonder? Would any of our creations be for any specific purpose, other than the fact of showing that we have the tallest building, the largest theme part, or the most expensive Hotel.

At the end, a wonderful trip, with a fabulous group, which as I mentioned on my first part was a community group tour. Getting a group of nearly 30 people, coordinating the event, ensuring all planned to the end, no mean feat. Of course one has tour guides and tour consultants, who manage the local parts, but then coordination too plays a major role.

All depends again, on whether one likes to have individual travels or group managed, but all one can do post a holiday, is just wonder, when is the next one again. Of course, the fun is also going through the photographs, and getting your album out. I am yet to do mine with nearly a month getting over. But there is hope..

The Group visiting Greece

PS: The Photographs on this post are just random snaps of the tour

Apr 18, 2014

Greek Odyssey - Day 4

The Tour Boat

Three days gone by in Greece (technically, I considered it two) and a few and exciting historical sights later, Day 4 was eagerly looked forward to. After all, it was the BOAT CRUISE.

Now why in Caps, one would say. A Boat Cruise I feel is simply in two categories. You love it or you Hate it. I fall into the former category, where I simply adore being on a boat, in the middle of the Sea, miles and miles and miles and miles of water on all four sides, with an occasional bird flying past or with you. Just the very thought of being on a boat, was enough to get the adrenalin pumping. 

Standard routine in the morning, an early than regular wake up as the Cruise would start off early being a full day one, finished off with Breakfast and a quick hop jump to the Tour Bus for the Cruizzzzee.. 

The first shocker of the day, as we stepped out of the Hotel. An absolutely wet day!!! The skies filled with enough clouds to start the rains from the Mediterranean and last all the way to Siberia. This could not be happening!! 3 Days of perfect sunshine, with all outdoor site visits in perfect Sun, Wind, Moon, Shine, what ever one calls it.. The day of the Boat Cruse, it was raining!!!! Add to that our good looking gorgeous Tour Guide was also missing that day. Double Whammy indeed, if one could call it so.

Well, a lot of grumpy faces all joining in, and hoping against hope that it would not rain, we trudged off to the cruise, which was slated to visit three of the Hundreds of Islands that surround the mainland. Running through the parking to catch the boat (well to be frank, it was drizzling in the morning and being a Bombayite, issue is half the rain falls that happen, are not even worth calling them as Rain). headed off onto the Cruise Boat.

A brilliant welcome and a head off into the boat, lightened up the spirits a bit. The drizzle, the overcast sky was still there, however at least the ambience was bright. The well furnished decor, the well lit sitting area, the brilliantly open deck overlooking the Sea, the sombre Dining Area, some hope remained.

Starting off from Athens, our first stop of the Saronic Islands was Hydra, which is a pure delight from an Artists point of view.  A low level island, filled with colourful houses, boutiques, cafes all around the harbour. As one approached the harbour, the view of houses all across the hills, was a dream view for any painter or artist. One could simply sit there all day long, painting, or sitting at the port, looking out at the sea, for hours on end, and not get one bit tired. 

Hydra was simply a place meant for relaxing. Nothing else, period. The laid back life that the people seemed to live in, for sure they were working, but it was relaxed, the long road heading off into the hills, with the Sea at the Side, it was a writers / readers paradise. Forget the Garden, one could simply get one's book, sit there all day and just read or write. 

The key attraction at Hydra was the Donkey ride, which many people specifically came to travel on. Why so? Because there are no cars in Hydra! The Donkey and bikes being the only mode of transport, a Donkey ride was a novelty. I could not but help think, that if we ever did that at home, people would ridicule us and probably our families would have ostracized us from society. But here, we would be willing to pay money to have one! Amazing.

With the weather being what it was, as it was raining in Athens, the cool breeze and the low temperature had followed us to Hydra, it seemed, I could at that moment if asked, just say yes to spending the rest of my life.

@ Poros
An hour later, we proceeded to our next island stop of Poros, an island roughly 31 Square Meters and apparently 4000 residents!! That is probably less than the number of friends some people have on their Facebook Account!! Poros happens to be another small Island on the Southern side and is quite rich in vegetation. Known for its shopping (tourist shops have better stuff here), it is also an ideal location to spend a short stay of a day / two at the Island. There is nothing much to do, but then is it not what a holiday spot is meant to be. 

What was interesting was the wide harbour entry port that one passed through as you enter Poros. Probably due to the fact that it was widely used by the Romans, the Venetians during their rule of the Island and being subject to attacks, and also over a period of time being a key area for attacks against the Ottomans. The fact that the Russians also used it as a Naval base, could have contributed, but what does stand out is the simple beauty of the Island that does not seem to have been lost.

Poros Clock Tower
The Clock Tower was the main feature of the Island, at the top of a hill, of course, when one goes on a cruise that is meant to start and end the same day, the challenge is to see the topmost point at a place simply for the view. The same was the approach with our group, some preferring the small streets for their shopping, some preferring the high mountain top to reach the Tower, despite the number of steps that one had to climb to reach the top.

At the end of it, the view was simply fabulous, standing atop the hill, watching the bay downwards, with the Sea and the Harbour in full view. Worth the effort, even if it meant climbing quite a number of steps, and proving ourselves unfit in the process.

Last stop was Aegina the largest of the Saronic islands famous for Barbecue food and Pistachios. With a history going back to the 20th Century BC, it is also believed the Aegina was the pioneer in introducing coinage to the Western world, being the first city state to have their own mint and coins issued across Europe.

Reaching the island gave a few options to have a bus tour or simply laze around the port, of course, that meant, have a cup of coffee, some shopping, but obviously wanting to see the place, a bus tour was in place. Driving around, gave the same feel of the Other Greek islands. Sparsely populated at roughly about 10k inhabitants, life at peace, people making a living growing certain crops round the year, the main ones being pistachios.

Temple of Aphaea
First stop on the tour was the Sanctuary or the Temple of Aphaea. Built between 510 - 470 BC, the temple is dedicated to the Goddess Aphaea, who was worshipped exclusively at the sanctuary. 

What is impressive is the remnants of the structure still intact, with the temple being made completely of stone (as most were during the period), the symmetry, the grand spacing, the settings of the columns, the structural layout. 

When considered in totality and more so that what remained as of today, was simply a fraction of what it originally was, makes it more spell bounding. The Temple was similar to the other monuments, the Acropolis, Adrian's Arch, The Olympic Stadium. A monument built of stones, of such beauty, that one can simply stare at the structures with the mind wandering on for hours.

Next stop on the rounds was the Cathedral of Saint Nectarios of Aegina, who spent several years teaching, preaching and writing books, but was mainly considered to be a wonder healer. A visit to the Church, yet another example of Greek Glory and a visit to the healing room, where the remains of St. Nectarios rest (that is what I could make of from the guide who was explaining the same). What was key though was that if one believed and with all his / her heart prayed sincerely, he / she would be cleared of their ailments.

Cathedral of St Nectarios
Beliefs, one states are stronger than rationales, and there were a number of believers, one could see wishing salvation from their ails. I have no clue if it works, but as one travels through the country and as one goes more and more deeper into the fabrics of the society that ancient Greece is built upon, one sees a huge portion that is built on Gods and Goddesses (mythological / real ?), and the respect belief that still exists. Whether the modern Greek citizen believes in it or not, vs the traditional one, is an open question, but what you see is centuries of progress left today in ruins, only providing a glimpse of what was, once in History.

Not belittling our own country, India, but the difference there was obvious. We too have our beliefs, we too have had our Gods and Goddesses, we too have a huge share of history, we too have a civilization that is second to none, we too have had grandeur like no other. But then, we have managed to destroy our own heritage ourselves. Not that there are no corrupt politicians in the European countries and for sure who knows, how much would have been pilfered, how much would have been looted (considering a bulk of the original stuff is in the British Museum for safe keeping and proper maintenance), but comparing our sites to the ones in Europe..

No touts, no people running after you, Guide, Guide, no street urchins coming after you for some money once you have visited the Historical sites, no junk shops of Pan / Chai Wallas outside the heritage sites, no politician posters or posters of some dumb educational institutes teaching English classes or complete your MBA in some shady joint, 55 miles away. These are venues, properly managed, kept clean, and with the purpose of being maintained. You don't find some engraving on the stone saying, "Rinki loves Mintu", or Subash, Geeta were here, or some idiotic Doctor advertising about his clinic on treating sex problems hammered into a tree.

Surely, some may agree, some may disagree, but as you through what was once a period in history, of what we were, and what we are today. Was the older period better with the Kings and Queens, or are we better off in our so called Democratic process? Subjects under Kings or so called free people, who still get looted by a few fake Kings.

Day over, and as was lost in these thoughts, the visit from Aegina back to Athens got over (amazing how the return journey is always faster than the outbound), more so, when having fun. With a local resident on board band playing some fabulous Greek music, watching, singing, yelling in the local dances, before we knew it, we were back into Athens, in what was surely a wonderful day. What I could not but help wonder during the entire journey as I passed through the various decks on the boat, as to how lonely, empty, yet peaceful the wide Sea was. Being in the middle of nowhere at times, made the heart flutter, but looking at that vast expanse of the Ocean, I could not but bring myself to think. Could this life go on for ever?

Wet city (the rains had gotten worse), leaving little to do, we headed off to the Hotel for our planned boring Indian Dinner, but then with a last minute plan, we headed off to an Italian Pizza Dinner at a local restaurant - Ciao, where a perfect day ended by having some wonderful stone oven baked Pizzas.

Head back to the Hotel, for the final leg of the Journey - Coming Home.. Until the last post. 

PS: In my attempt to save, the post got published erroneously a couple of times. Hence the visible / not visible.. Apologies.

Apr 15, 2014

Greek Odyssey - Day 3

An eventful Day 2 over with visits to the Acropolis, the Parliament House and bouts of shopping, the wait was for the the next day, planned to be as eventful as the prior two.

Post a sumptuous breakfast (it always is amazing to note how much one can eat when on holiday, as compared to a working day), proceeded in our luxury bus (of course, when one is not driving and the seats are comfortable, the bus is luxury), for our first stop at the Corinth Canal.

A Credit to the builders
How does one describe the Canal? A Marvel of Engineering, a feat of Human perseverance, determination of men, who dreamed to do some thing great. Simply speaking the canal connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Gulf in the Aegean Sea. It cuts through the Corinth Isthmus and separates the Peninsula from the Greek mainland, effectively, making it an Island (part from facts, part from Wikipedia). 

What is amazing about the canal is that is an Engineering feat achieved in modern times, in the 19th - 20th century. The purpose of course being to use that as a channel to divert traffic rather than having small ships navigate all the way via the Suez Canal. It may or may not have achieved its purpose in it's day and time, however the fact does remain that as one looks at it, one can only imagine the determination of the people involved in cutting through the ridges all the way to the Sea Level to achieve what was probably a dream, a need, but ended up being a classic.

Next on route was a trip to Mycenae, a major center of civilization during the 2nd Millennium BC, mainly built by immigrant Greeks. The place is more known for the fortress and the citadel built during that time, also considered as an Acropolis. A key feature of the Citadel is the Lion's Gate, the entrance to the fortress, where two lionesses feature on the roof of the gate. What they represent is probably another story, on another day.

Lion's Gate
As we trudged up the fortress, the view was a sight for sore eyes. Looking at the structures built, purely out of stone, one could only marvel at the period in question, the knowledge, and the vision that the rulers of the time possessed. 

Interesting facts being that most of the stones averaged at about 10 tons, and if manpower was used, it would have taken around a 100 years before the fort was built. Of course that is the minimum average, with some of the stones going as high as 20 - 100 tonnes each. No machinery, no fork lifts, no cranes, all human power to pull, push, lift, settle, with not a stone out of place. The vision of the rulers who wanted to build the forts, the skills of the persons doing the task. the Tomb of the Kings.. Amazing.

Another site of note was the Great Theatre of Epidaurus, used for dramatic performances. What is breathtaking is the symmetry and the beauty of the Theatre, which was built in the 4th Century BC. A perfectly oval shape, the grandeur of the theatre can leave only only wondering at the era's gone by and the greatness of the civilizations of the centuries gone by. The lush green surroundings which encompass the theatre, is a venue of peace and tranquility.

The key feature of the Theatre is the fabulous acoustics that it possesses. Standing at the centre stage and speaking in a theatre built of lime stones, the manner in which a match struck standing in front of 15,000 people is heard by all... A spectator sitting right at the very top of the theatre, being able to listen to every word the performers speak, in an era of no technology, an era of no microphones, an era of no booming speakers, simply based on acoustic designs, is simply mind blowing. And this done in the 2nd Century BC ! Being there and having this heard via live testing of a match being played and listening to it on the 20th row. No words to express the feeling.

Courtesy Gitesh
Of course the day covered a few other sites. Driving around Nafplion, seeing the Royal Tomb and the Cyclopean Walls at Mycenae, and of course not to forget a brilliant lunch at a local Greek restaurant. After eating horrible food at local Indian restaurants, (where we had food in oil), this was a superb break. One does tend to eat the same food when one travels, not lose the feeling of going away from home, but then, what fun it is to taste your same food that you have day in, day out?

The simplicity of the food, the freshness of the fruits (imagine buying 10 Kilos of Oranges for 3 Euros), the sweetness, looking at orange farms streaming through the road sides, the breathtaking views when travelling within cities, miles of coastal areas, made the day a memorable one and forget yet another forgettable dinner.

Evening back at the Hotel, and looking forward to another day of a tour, this time a boat cruise! Until the next one.

Apr 12, 2014

Greek Odyssey - Day 2

Officially, Day 2, technically, Day 1 in Greece.. After all, we lost the entire previous day and only landed up in the night... But then, as the saying goes, when on vacation, who cares, Enjoy.

Post a sumptuous or a healthy breakfast, the day was planned for quite some visits around town. The Parliament Square or the Syntagma Square as the Greeks called it, a visit to the Acropolis, the Parthenon,  the Olympic Stadium, the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Athena... Good Lord.. This was to be a packed day.

A visit around town in the day time, gave a fair view of the city. Of course, it is the same as any other city, has its share of buildings, it shops, people going every where, but what did look different was the peaceful manner in which people went around. No doubt Athens, is a major city, after all, it is the Capital city of Greece, but despite being a different country, yet as one passed through the lanes, it was as if at home.

But am not talking about the city streets, it is what I encountered there. As when you enjoy, you don't keep a track of the moments, the visit to the places was surely an Eye Opener. The Parliament Square or House of Parliament, right in the middle of the city, where a few blocks down one goes shopping. Amazingly well managed, brilliantly kept clean with the highlight being the change of the Guard. 

Guard @ Parliament House
Similar to the London change of Guard, the Guards change their duty every hour, and the change is a sight to watch. What is amazing is that for one hour, the guards stand at one place, with not a movement, come rain, come shine. The change too is an event that is looked forward to, and a full 10 minute process, where one set hands off to another. What was also interesting was that the change of Guard, watching the incoming and the outgoing, is a sight that is open to all at close range. It is a pure Tourist event, where tourists come up close to the Guards (of course maintaining some distance at the change), but was seamless. 

Post this was the visit to the Acropolis, an ancient fort high up on the mountains containing the remains of several ancient buildings not only having an architectural value, but also historical. The Parthenon being one of them. Created centuries ago, where it attains significance is the various different periods that the construction went through, not only in terms of expansion, but also for repairs and the different time periods leaving their individual time stamps of their own periods. 

Another stop was the Panathenaic Stadium, the site more popularly known for its first Olympic Games. The Stadium more used to host the athletic portion of the Panathenaic games, held the 1st ever Olympic Games there in 1896. Standing there and watching a piece of history was enough to put a lump into one's throat. One could only wonder and imagine the roar of people sitting centuries ago, screaming, yelling, shouting, cheering the athletes as they competed to what was the prelude of the International Olympics.

Adrian's Arch
The other visits included a trip to the Museum, the National Library, the Temple of Zeus, Hadrian's Arch, a visit back to Syntagma Square, including a nice leisurely lunch and a stroll around the city. The Evening post Dinner included a Night drive around the city, catching a glimpse of this historical cum modern city. A later trip to the club area to close off the evening with some music and relaxation too was an eye opener. Thought the Area was filled with clubs, again, very well organized giving a good feeling of safety and security. Could be more

A stark observation was the absence of large buildings, or sky scrapers, probably it was more do with where we were in the Athens, but not seeing skyscrapers, after flying from a land filled with them on every nook and corner, was a refreshing sight.

What was also interesting and wonderful, was the relaxed pace at which people moved around, probably because it was a weekend, but it had a life of enjoyment and relaxation that even in this day and age, seemed distant. Living in a fast paced world, we tend to lose out on a lot of simple pleasures in life and unfortunate that we need to go on a vacation to enjoy... Or maybe that is what vacations are for. To forget our busy life, take a short break and enjoy life, albeit for a short time. Can we not do this in our daily life? Meet friends, get out together, have a coffee, have a laugh.. A thought worth thinking about.... Until Day 3.

Apr 11, 2014

A Greek Odyssey

Funny how vacation time comes and goes. You look forward to one, plan it for so long, excitement abounding, pulses racing, planning beginning from perfection, to acceptance, to craziness, to the ultimate landing up haywire. 

My vacation time was back (albeit, not exactly a vacation month), more due to the work planning that had to be done during the regular vacations, so this time, after a lot of soul searching, pocket and bank balance checking, Greece.  Situated at the cross roads of Europe, a country built upon a consortium of Islands, the land considered to be the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of democracy, the Olympics, a country built upon a consortium of islands.

The land of the Macedonians, the Spartans the land of Gods and Goddesses, the land of Alexander the Great, the land of Plato and Homer.. the list is endless. Of course, the perennial lets go back home was always there, but since had done that last year, this year, a different option. With all that was there in history, how could one not go to Greece..

Every one has their preferences for travel, some like to travel alone (with immediate family), some in a family group, some with few friends, small to make it light, some in large groups. There are takers for on the fly... lets land up there and we decide, some plan. My case, have done a mix of all, currently prefer planned vacations in Tour Groups. Of course, both have their pros / cons, my case, have found a lot of pros (new people, every thing planned, you don't worry about major issues) and the cons, small cases one manages).

Any ways, once vacation finalized, the preparation began. What is surprising that despite all the planning that one thinks that they are managing and the fact that the vacation is managed year after year, one still manages to mess it up when we land up at the airport, trying to catch a plane. 

Sounds similar, well I too went through the same and the first part of the story is nothing but that. All the plans, the organization, the documents that we need, the clothes that we will require, how many days, the weather, what should we carry, what should we bring, the shopping plans, the fact that we need to travel light to make it easier, yet our bags almost match our weight at the Airport at the check in. We wonder. Are we planning to come back? 

No doubt an achievement of sorts, when we land at the Airport. We made it so far (considering the mess that one was in a few days ago), and thinking that no matter the odds, we are still great, to the stark ultimate realization with a feeling of helplessness and a prayer to God.....Did I lock the damn front door!

The Airport part was the easy one, what was disappointing was the flight being delayed. A fight supposed to leave at 5 AM, making you reach the Airport at 2 AM, causing no sleep the night before, is delayed, just because there is rain and thunder, one feels like asking the Airlines. You call that Thunder and Rain. Come to Bombay, I will show you what is rain and the planes still fly. Of course nothing much that could be done, but to wait for a good 9 hours at the Airport, in a chair that reminds you of the movies where the hero sleeps on a wooden bench in Jail (of course, that must be laced with soft sheets), the first thought of what in God's name am I doing here, comes to mind.

Luckily enough, we managed to get a lounge, where one could lay down (but then so could 100 other people), eat and drink. Free drinks have always been stimulants, and when can drink and then sleep and then get up and drink again and sleep (even if it is 4 AM), who really cares? Well, 11 hours later, we managed to fly off, with the Journey officially starting, also realizing that we had missed our first connection only to find out that we had 45 Min's to catch the next one.

Now, this is the part where the mind really plays tricks. Can we do it in 45 Min's (of course the Airline will make sure you do), but 2, will the damned bags come along? This is where the smart traveller differs where he carries an emergency set of clothes in his hand, but then there are the ones who consider themselves to be lords and would like to walk empty handed in a plane (myself included). But I guess that is why there is God.

Transfers done, planes switched and we were finally off on the last leg of the journey. Six hours in a cramped packed flight (where every one ended up sitting every where but with each other), we finally made it to the land of Zeus and Athena. Seeing the light breeze and the wonderful weather, with the Olympic Signs outside the Airport with a heart warming sign of Welcome to Greece, made every one forget the rough 14 - 18 hours spent just tying to reach a place which normally should have taken six hours (some of us even calculated that we could have been back from India !)

Tiredness aside, the first evening itself was a dinner outing, with traditional Greek Food and Greek music. The sight of the two and more so, the music was enough to take away all tiredness. An evening filled with wonderful food, the one that had always read growing up as to how the Greeks loved their food and wine with a backdrop of foot rendering music.

Words fail to express what we witnessed that evening, not that it was the best food or the best evening ever with the best dancers that ever exist, but the fact that watching tradition at its liveliest and the local people enjoying that tradition with so much gusto, was also a big eye opener, and a dampener, that we as Indians don't value our own. Here we were in a traditional Greek Restaurant, eating local food, going through local traditional cultural dances with the few Indians and a few Americans being the only expatriates. 80% of the restaurant was filled with locals, and kids most of them. Boys / Girls participating in local events, that we in our own country would never see and only be amazed if a Westerner comes and participates. Our comment. India is magical.

Happy that it is, sad, that no one actually realizes what we in our gusto to become modern simply have destroyed our past. And where tradition does come up, we are quick to denounce it with sarcasm or with eyes of contempt showing our approach to life.

But hang on, this is a holiday and this was only Day 1.. More to come