A Travellerspoint blog

Athens, Greece

In Athens we stayed outside the downtown area in a small hotel, close the the business school of the University. However it was a short subway ride away from Monasteraki and the old city. The modern city has been built around the Acropolis hill and the Agora, the center of the city during Greek and Roman tImes. With the economic crisis of the past several years Athens has clearly come upon hard times. There is graffiti everywhere and many buildings in disrepair. Some students at the University told us the unemployment rate for young people is more than 60%. All of this makes Athens rather a depressing place, especially in some locations. The only major site worth seeing is the Acropolis and the area immediately around it. We had heard this from friends who had been there a few years earlier, but it was our feeling as well. On the other hand, the food was decent and the baked goods excellent. One bakery near our hotel had a round thing made with fila dough and something like Romano cheese. It looked suspiciously like a bagel, only it tasted better. I had one nearly every day we were were in town. What will happen now with Greece and the euro seems to be anyone's guess. The few people we have talked to seem to be all over the map as to what should happen. Whatever it is, I fear Greece and especially Athens will remain in the economic doldrums for quite some time.

Our first stop was Syntagma Square to see the government buildings and the changing of the guard.

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The National Archeological Museum was well worth a visit.

Death mask of Agamemnon
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But not surprisingly, it was the Parthenon, now under reconstruction, that we found most interesting. What I didn't know was that the city was sacked by the Persians in 480AD and the Acropolis destroyed. So this is clearly not the first time it is being reconstructed.

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View from the top of Parthenon hill
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Outdoor theater on Parthenon hill
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The Agora, the area around the base of the Parthenon, which has several old buildings and ruins, also provides a look into ancient Greek culture.

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Looking up at Parthenon Hill from the Agora
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After walking around the extensive grounds of the Agora, we had built up a powerful thirst, and stopped to sample the ouzo at this factory in the old city.

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Posted by jonshapiro 13:39 Archived in Greece Tagged buildings tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (2)

Salerno

The Italian portion of our trip is rapidly coming to a close. Tomorrow we drive to Rome airport and fly to Athens. We left Modica early to spend another day in Siracusa, and the women who run the B&B were delighted to see us a second time. During most of the day the rain held off so we had time to wander with Joachim and Antonette, who took the train since we didn't have room in our car. The highlight was eating lunch in the open air market where we drank Prosecco, and had some of the best mozzarella and sausage I have ever tasted. At night thunderstorms rolled in, and we holed up in a small bar, drinking Grand Marnier, and talking about whether the German temperament had anything to do with Hitler. I couldn't have asked this question of any other Germans, but felt comfortable enough to do so with the two of them. The answer was complex, in that they felt the previous generation of Germans was considerably more rigid and conformist than subsequent generations.

Here in the pleasant town of Salerno, just south of the Amalfi Coast, we finally got lucky with weather, and have had two nice days to check out the museums and hang out on the seaside promenade.

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And yes, have some pastry at one of the many bakeries. There seem to be at least half a dozen on most blocks downtown.

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Shopping street. No cars.
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Street at dusk
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Fabian, our host at the B&B apartment, has been quite agreeable and helpful, coming out to find us when we, as per usual, had trouble locating his place.

View from our room
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Open air market just outside our apartment
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Posted by jonshapiro 11:26 Archived in Italy Tagged food cities_postcards Comments (1)

Modica and Surrounds

The next day, somewhat reluctantly, we left Siracusa, and made our way to Modica Alta. Once again our GPS failed us, and what should have taken about 1& 1/2 hours took at least twice that long. We ended up driving in circles on some tiny mountain roads, with totally conflicting navigational directions. Go straight, turn right, make a U turn, etc. At one point we stopped a group of men on a country road to ask for directions. They seemed to be shouting at one another and arguing, but there was no one else around and we were lost. In our poor Italian, we asked the way to Modica. They stopped arguing long enough to tell us the way, or rather two different ways we could go, and then resumed the argument as soon as we drove away. Asking directions is always an interesting process, as folks seem compelled to tell you multiple directions, which of course, makes things even more confusing.

We finally managed to get to the Piazza Giovanni, through the impossibly narrow streets of the old town. There we called our host, Giuseppe, and then followed him in our car through more narrow alleys, until we arrived in his street and pulled into his garage. Also not an easy task, because the street was barely wide enough for one small car. Our apartment, upstairs from his place, is quite large, but unfortunately at this time of year, also very chilly. There are air conditions in most of the rooms, which work inefficiently as heaters, but you have to keep all of the doors to each room closed to keep in the heat, and like most places in southern Italy, all the floors are tile, hence cold.

Although I was tired from the difficult drive in yet another cloudy, drizzly day, Giuseppe was quick to take me on a short driving tour. A maze of criss-crossing alleys, I instantly forgot where and what he showed me. He then brought me to the only supermarket that was open in the middle of the afternoon, as everything closes between 2 and 5 PM. This makes sense during the Summer, but when it is cold and chilly, it seems like a waste of time. Sense, however, is not something that seems to be in abundant supply down here.

One of the main streets of Modica Alta
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One of hundreds of alleys, it's even narrower than it looks
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Much of Modica was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1693 in what is called Sicilian Baroque style, although the city is much older then that, having been settled by the Greeks as early as 1360 BC. It was later occupied by the Romans, and then the Arabs in 860, and did not become a part of Italy until 1860. Because of the architecture, the city and several others in the Val di Noto are now World Heritage Sites. As with many of the old towns in southern Italy, it seemingly owes it's largely in tact survival to benign neglect.

Modica Alta is built on top of a hillside with old stone and cement houses, narrow alleys, baroque churches, and a few small shops, etc.

Looking up at Modica Alta, San Giorgio Cathedral on right
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Though highly atmospheric, as the Lonely Planet might say, much of it is dilapidated, and seems well off the tourist circuit, at least at this time of year. When we first arrived in the chilly, damp, weather, it felt rather depressing, and we wondered if we had made a mistake renting a place here for a week. The next day was also overcast, but we walked around a bit, and saw some of the sights.

Many ornate building details
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San Giorgio Cathedral
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Later that afternoon, our friends from Germany, Joachim and Antonette, met us as planned, in Piazza Giovanni. It was great to see them, though as luck would have it, they are staying in Modica Bassa, which is about a half hour walk straight down from where we are. On seeing them, we forgot all about the depressing weather, and they came over to our apartment where we drank wine, made a pasta dinner, and caught up on each other's lives, as it had been a few years since our last visit.

Next day we saw the sun, finally, and though not exactly warm, it cheered us immensely. This time we walked down to see them, and although not as old as Modica Alta, the lower town is much more lively with many more shops and restaurants. We explored for a few hours as it was a very nice day to be outside, more like what we expected in Sicily. Then we spent the latter part of the afternoon in true Italian fashion, having an enormous lunch, drinking wine, etc.

Looking down on Modica Bassa and surrounding area
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Centro of Modica Bassa with clock tower above
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Looking up from another angle at Modica Alta and clock tower
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Today is also fair, and our friends are coming back up to our apartment. I will attempt, with some trepidation, to take the car out, so that the four of us can do a little sight seeing in another nearby baroque town, Scicli. Vamos a ver, (we shall see) how this goes, but in the end, we had no problems getting there. And it was a charming old town. Though much smaller, Scicli seems to be doing relatively well, and the houses look better cared for, at least compared to Modica Alta. Following a stop for ice-cream which Joachim and Antonette enjoyed very much......

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We hiked the alleys up the steep hills surrounding the Centro.

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In many places we came to dead ends, and the way was blocked intentionally. It seems that the authorities were concerned about rockfall. We stopped at one point, after being practically pulled inside by the proprietor, in a small private cave museum that purported to show what life was like in Sicily around 1900. The owner had collected old objects and pictures, as well as some furniture. It was somewhat interesting at first, but then, he saw some other Italians outside and lured them in as well. He upped the speed of his Italian, for their benefit I suppose, and went on in great detail about various objects, and since we couldn't understand much, we quickly got bored. He was also rather bossy, insisting we stay with the other folks to get the tour. After a time, we managed to escape, and left him with the 2 euros a piece, no doubt the only way he can make ends meet.

The view outside the cave museum
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Eventually, we found the right path and made our way up to one of the old churches, no longer in use, high on top of one of the ravines. It's visible from the picture of the Centro. From there we could see most of the town below, and all the way to the sea, about 10K distant.

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We walked back to the car and headed for Marina de Modica, which we found in spite of the once again crazy directions of the GPS. We spent an hour or so walking on the beach in the now delightfully warm sun, and somehow drove back to town without getting too lost. The last 15 minutes or so, in the narrow alleys of Modica Alta, were a bit harrowing, as it was hard to know which way to turn, and there were often cars right behind us looking for a way to get past these impossibly slow foreigners. Luckily, we were able to ask directions to Piazza San Giovanni, and I remembered the way to our apartment from there. Trying very hard not to scratch our new rental car, I made the turns carefully through the tiny streets.

On arrival, we polished off the schnapps and cidre that our German friends had made, which provided a much needed respite from the crazy drive (and drivers) through Modica Alta. An hour or two later, we went to the local Taverna Nicastro, which had been recommended for a hearty, yup,you guessed it, pasta dinner. At 7 PM they made a point of opening early just for us, and more wine helped to dispel the cold inside the restaurant. When we left at 8:30 or 9, they didn't seem to have much business, especially for a Saturday night, and it is hard to imagine that they have stayed in business since 1948, as their sign indicated.

The next evening, after a rainy excursion to Ragusa Ibla, including a mad dash through town to catch the last bus out,

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found us back in our apartment, once again drinking wine to dispel the damp cold, but unfortunately we soon ran out. Joachim and I went out into the gloomy mist to see if any place was open. The only store with lights on was a small chocolate shop-cum bakery, which was not likely to sell alcohol, but hey, this is Italy so you never know.

"Vino, per favore?"

"Mi dispiace non abbiamo alcun vino."

We didn't exactly know what this meant, but when he shook his head we figured it meant no. As we were speaking there was another man picking up some cookies and pastry.

He said to us, "Se si desidera che il vino mi segua."

We didn't know what that meant either, but when he motioned with his hand, we figured it meant follow me, and so we headed off down the street to his old beat up car. Even before I had both feet inside, necessitating a mad scramble to climb in and close the door, he started driving incredibly fast through Modica Alta's narrow streets, to a point about 2/3rds of the way down the hill toward the lower town. There he abruptly stopped in front of his house, and motioned for us to wait in front while he went inside. He reappeared a few moments later with two bottles of red wine.

"Ce l'ho fatta. Spero ti piaccia."

Well as you have guessed, we still had no idea what he said, but when he handed us the bottles we assumed they were home-made because they didn't have labels.

"Quanto?" How much, one of the few words we did know.

"Gratuito," Another word we knew.

"Grazi, grazi, molto grazi," we said, and started the 20 minute hike back up to the apartment.

Only in Italy.

And it wasn't too shabby for home-made wine.

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Posted by jonshapiro 05:41 Archived in Italy Tagged people photography living_abroad buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Mt. Aetna and Siracusa (Sicily)

To get to Sicily we took the ferry to Messina, which was quick and easy.

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Then we drove on to Nicolosi, near the slopes of slopes of Mt. Aetna, which took hours in a driving rain. The main problem was that google maps didn't seem able to find its way on these crazy Italian roads, where there are more roundabouts than you can shake a stick at. The major roads are fine, but as soon as you get off of them, the GPS gets lost, and it doesn't help that the name of the same road seems to change every few miles. At any rate, it was cold and damp when we arrived, and so we left a day early and drove to Siracusa.

We were lucky to get some nice views of the mountain, totally snow covered, as the weather cleared overnight.

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In the more distant view, you can see smoke rising from the top of this very active volcano
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Siracusa turned out to be a delightful city with a mostly restored old section, Ortigya, about a ten minute walk from our B&B. Ortigya is on a small island separated from the rest of the city by a causeway. We spent most of the day there just wandering its narrow alleys and piazzas, going to the papyrus museum, and later to a crazy puppet show, in Italian, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense even when we read the plot in English.

Houses and sea wall near papyrus museum
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Siracusa has a long history of several thousand years. The Greeks occupied the place for quite some time around 1000 BC to 2 or 300 BC. In fact there is still an ancient Greek amphitheater where aeschylus' plays are performed as they were during Greek times. Aeschylus lived here for a while, as did Archimedes. Siracusa was a major maritime power and Greek city/state. Eventually it was taken over by the Romans, and then the Arabs, and finally the Normans who came in around 1000 AD.

The Duomo, the towns most famous cathedral, is built on top of the columns of the Temple of Apollo, which dates to 600BC. The old columns of the temple are still quite visible, and the building is, in a word, magnificent, both inside and out.

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Side view with columns still visible on the outside
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Inside the building
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Inside of dome,
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Not quite Michelangelo, but almost
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Our B and B, Siracusa, is newly opened by two very friendly women, one of whom speaks some English. We spent some time talking with them at breakfast and soon they felt like good friends. We are very happy to be staying here, and they invited us back for breakfast on our return trip to Rome in a week or so. Nanette even arranged for an inter-cambio over skype with one of the women.

Nanette with our hostess' showing off breakfast pie
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Posted by jonshapiro 06:31 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains buildings cities_postcards Comments (1)

Scilla

We are now in this small seaside town south of Tropea, and are staying in a B&B in the old fishing village of Chinelea. Finding our place while driving in the tiny streets of Scilla was not easy, and it took several phone calls to the owner before we could locate it.

There are three parts to Scilla: Chinelea, and its ancient stone houses practically sitting in the tempestuous sea, with its partially submerged and sharp rocks.

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Marina Grande, a separate beach area with a couple of streets of houses set 20M or so from the sea,

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and finally, there is Scilla Alta, which is the largest.

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To get there, you ascend several steep sets of stairs and narrow cobblestone streets that reach partially up the mountain that descends all the way to Chinelea.

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This part of town consists of a number of streets and narrow alleys, and though most of the houses are old, there are a few newer ones scattered about. Jutting out over one of the lower levels of the upper town, on a high rocky promontory, is the old stone fort, which has commanding view over the ocean and to the port of Reggio Calabria, some 20K distant. Freighters ply the waters in between.

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Actually, there is a 4th part of town between here and Marina Grande, the port of Scilla, where larger boats are moored behind a protected area framed by a long rock jetty.

Here in Chinelea, fisherman cast their rods and work on their small wooden boats, most of whom now have motors. In the past, they would go hunting, as they call it, for spada, or swordfish, in boats without motors. They used a kind of harpoon to try and stab the fish, much like the old whaling boats. Sword fishing is still a way of life here, as is fishing in general, though I suspect that it is greatly supplanted by tourism, during the summer and fall.

Scilla, as described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, is a type of sea monster that would lure sailors to the rocks just offshore, where they would drown. So this place has a long history dating back to the Greeks, and, as I have learned from our proprietor, Francesco, so does much of Calabria, where old people still speak a kind of Greek dialect.

It has been enjoyable wandering the alleys of various parts of town, though unfortunately the weather has remained cloudy and chilly, with intermittent rain. During a morning walk today, we found a small, out of the way place in the upper town to purchase fresh pasta, ravioli, and eggplant parm, but we spent much of the day, reading in our room. Later we went down to the tiny bar attached to our guesthouse, and chatted with the bartender, also named Francesco, and his girlfriend, in a mix of Italian and Spanish. We taught him a few words of Spanish, and he gave us the Italian equivalent, while we sipped on a glass of the local vino. It was a nice way to while away an otherwise dreary afternoon. At one point, a woman came in with her daughter. She was born in Poland and started chatting away with Francesco about the importance of learning English, because when she was recently hospitalized for a month in Reggio, the staff only spoke in English. Of course, she knew almost no English, though her daughter knew a little.

Coast road just south of town
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We have been in touch with our neighbor, Guy Gamello, via email. He is keeping an eye on our house while we travel. It turns out that his relatives are from Messina, in Sicily, where we will go by ferry. Francesco's girlfriend lives in Messina, and she told us that Gamello is a very common name. It seems that Guy probably has a number of his relations still living there. Perhaps we will run into one.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:25 Archived in Italy Tagged beaches people buildings_postcards Comments (2)

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