A Travellerspoint blog

Turkey Highlights: Ephesus and Cappadocia


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We began our month in Turkey in the seaside town of Kasudasi on the western, Aegean coast. A classic beach town recognizable the world over for tons of tourist shops and restaurants along the beachfront promenade.
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We arrived during the annual summer holiday, along with thousands of Turkish vacationers.
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The main reason for choosing Kusadasi was its proximity to both the water and Ephesus and while not our favorite place, it did serve up some fantastic sunsets.
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ANCIENT EPHESUS

Built by the Greeks in the 10th century BCE and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the largest archeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. Since Scott wasn't feeling up to the visit after tweaking his back, I went to the site on an organized tour. Not my favorite way to explore but it was helpful to have a guide explain the various structures and their uses.

Our first stop was the nearby Temple of Artemis (completed around 550 BC), which has been designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately not much remains and the site is not well-preserved.
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Perhaps the most interesting part is seeing the subsequent appropriation of the site by both a Cathedral, now also just ruins, and a Mosque over which the fortress that was the fourth iteration of Ephesus stands.
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After the obligatory tour bus stop at a pottery market, we came to Ephesus. It's such a large site that it's very hard to see more than just the highlights on a tour but it was a brutally hot day and the highlights were enough to see the magnitude and importance of the site. On a different trip, I think I would have budgeted two or three days to visit the different areas of the site at a more leisurely pace.

Entering from the upper gate, you first encounter the bath house where visitors washed before entering the city.
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The path then leads through the acropolis where the agora and odeon in which state business was conducted are found.
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A marble walkway leads downhill from the acropolis to the main public areas.
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Along the way are the remains of commercial buildings, public toilets, various temples, and an "upscale" area that had mosaic flooring. Up hill from this area is a separate section that is under cover and houses the large homes of the Roman elite. It requires a separate fee and alas I didn't get to see it.
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The lower area is where the larger and more intact buildings are including the famous Library of Celsus, built approximately 125 CE and partially reconstructed, the Gate of Augustus, the huge theatre that at an estimated 25,000 seating capacity is believed to be the largest in the ancient world, and the commercial agora.
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Ephesus is definitely worth a visit just for the sheer size of it, the history associated with the place and the Ephesian people, and the beautiful valley in which it rests but as one of the main tourists sites in Turkey it is very crowded.

ANOTHER BUCKET LIST ITEM COMPLETED IN CAPPADOCIA

From Kusadasi, we flew out of Izmir to Kayseri in Central Anatolia and the jumping off point for Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is a region, approximately 300 km long, and encompasses a number of cities and sites. The region is known for towers of rock, "fairy chimneys" (the fatter towers used for houses) and beautiful valleys. It was formed by the erosion of limestone from ancient sea beds and volcanic tuff that deposited from the many volcanoes in the area. The erosion created the amazing rock formations that have been used for centuries as houses, churches, and fortresses. Here are some overview photos to give you a feel for the region.
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It completely captured our imaginations and reminded us a great deal of another favorite place, South Dakota.

Balloon Ride

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For many years, taking a balloon ride over Cappadocia has been on my bucket list and we finally made it happen so let's start there! It is imperative to book your balloon ride in advance and thankfully we enlisted the help of our hotel to do it. We were scheduled to go the first morning we were there and it wasn't until the morning we left, five days later, that we finally got up. The balloons can't fly in high winds and unfortunately we experienced a few days in a row where conditions were not optimal. Fortunately, I knew this was a possibility so planned for a longer stay than I might have otherwise. Our hotel booked us separately for each day in an effort to ensure at least one day would work and we are so grateful to them for going the extra mile for us. Our start time was at first light so we had to be on our shuttle at 4:10 a.m. We were taken to the launch site and watched the balloons being filled and then boarded.
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After a quick instruction on the brace position for landing, we were underway along with hundreds of other balloons. It's so much fun to be up with all these others. They make the views so dramatic as they fire off their gases. Our pilot was amazing and flew into the valleys and so close to the towers you felt you could touch them. He was amazingly skilled and we again felt very thankful to our hotel for the tour company selection.
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After a bit, we headed up to get the birds-eye views and see the sunrise.
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Finally, we landed (yes you do need to brace!) in a flower-filled field to have a breakfast toast of juice and sparkling cider to celebrate the successful trip. To say it was one of the best experiences of our lives barely does it justice.
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But Cappadocia is so much more than just the balloon tour and we were so happy that by booking five days to make sure we got on a flight we also assured ourselves time to see other areas and really experience it as a place.

The Grand Elite Cave Suites

We stayed in Geröme, considered the heart of the region at this wonderful hotel. The views from the roof deck were stunning and the pool was a definite bonus.
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Another aspect of my bucket list was to stay in a cave suite. Literally carved out of the rock, it reminded me of how you would make the wax mold for a sculpture by removing rather than building. It was stunning, beautiful, and truly unique. (sorry some of the pictures are blurry I took them out of a video.)
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Geröme

The entire town, like our hotel, is built in and around volcanic caves and fairy chimneys.
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It's awesome to walk through the narrow lanes and see the creativity and ingenuity. We even found a lavender field, lavender tea is big here, and there were grapes growing wild up many drain pipes and light poles.
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Geröme Outdoor Museum
Its outdoor museum is registered as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is the site of a monastic community that contains more than 30 carved-from-rock churches and chapels, some having superb frescoes inside, dating from the ninth century to the eleventh century. The region became a refuge for early Christians and, especially during the Byzantine Kingdom, from the 4th through to the 11th centuries. The open air museum is a great place to start to get a feel for these communities. The frescoes are preserved so well because they were painted with egg tempera.
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Derinkuyu Underground City

But Cappadocia is even more ancient. Cappadocia was known as Hatti in the late Bronze Age, and was the homeland of the Hittite power centred at Hattusa.

The Hittites were an Anatolian people who played an important role in establishing first a kingdom in Kussara before 1750 BC, then the Kanesh or Nesha kingdom (c. 1750–1650 BC), and next an empire centered on Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1650 BC. This empire reached its height during the mid-14th century BC under Šuppiluliuma I, when it encompassed an area that included most of Anatolia as well as parts of the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. - Wikipedia


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By Near_East_topographic_map-blank.svg: Sémhurderivative work: Ikonact - Near East topographic map-blank.svg for the background mapThis map for the information, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28358963

Between the 15th and 13th centuries BC, the Empire of Hattusa, conventionally called the Hittite Empire, came into conflict with the New Kingdom of Egypt, the Middle Assyrian Empire and the empire of Mitanni for control of the Near East. The Middle Assyrian Empire eventually emerged as the dominant power and annexed much of the Hittite Empire, while the remainder was sacked by Phrygian newcomers to the region. - Wikipedia

Derinkuyu Yeraltı Şehri is an ancient multi-level underground city in the Derinkuyu district in Nevşehir Province, Turkey, extending to a depth of approximately 85 metres (279 ft). It is large enough to have sheltered as many as 20,000 people together with their livestock and food stores. It is the largest excavated underground city in Turkey and is one of several underground complexes found throughout Cappadocia.- Wikipedia

Likely first established in the 7th or 8th century BCE by the Phrygians to provide protection against invading forces, it has continually grown since then and significantly expanded during the Byzantine period centuries later. It was used until 1923 when the Christian inhabitants of the region were expelled from Turkey and moved to Greece in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. It descends eight stories and you are able to visit the top four.
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In the 1960's, a farmer digging to add a room to his home broke through into the caves and the city was rediscovered. The government turned it into a museum in 1969. It has to be one of the coolest places we've ever visited. It felt like being in a rabbit warren or if you've ever seen the tunnels of naked mole rats at the zoo, like that except with evidence of human inhabitation and ingenuity.
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You always read about Turkey being this crossroads of civilizations and having so many ancient sites but until we visited Anatolia I don't think we really understood. Here we were where a civilization to rival the Egyptians existed and where peoples I've only heard of from the Bible actually lived. It is awe-inspiring.

Selime Cathedral

Near the town of Aksaray is Selime Castle, a huge and elaborate complex set 50 meters above the Menderes River. It might not look like much from down below but as you travel up through the rock one of the best sights of the region is revealed.
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You first come to the huge kitchen...
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...then the informal hall that has upper rooms overlooking the central hall through large arches and rooms off the lower hall that would have had beds and benches for sitting. It is connected by a tunnel to the formal hall.
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The formal hall is barrel-vaulted and has gigantic proportions—17 meters deep, 6m wide, 8m tall. At the back is a room where the head family would have lived, the part of the hall adjacent to that would have been for the most important visitors, and the area below the step for the rest of the people.
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The Basilica Church is the most amazing of all. Again, you have to remember that these were carved out of the rock by removing dirt and stone precisely to carve the pillars and archways. They are of such high craftsmanship that they really do appear as if they were carved elsewhere and brought in.
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While there is dispute about the original nature of this site, whether primarily military or religious, it is most likely that a prominent local family of Byzantine Christians developed Selime over several generations as their personal residence, according to cappadociahistory.com. In our eyes, that made it even more amazing!

Natural Cappadocia

Besides the amazing history of the place, the region is home to beautiful and lush landscapes as well. As seen from the roadways, it's full of fields planted with grains, vegetables, fruit trees, and giant fields of sunflowers. In fact it's something you notice about Turkey right away. The hills are covered in pine trees and fields of fruit trees are scattered throughout the country: apricots, plums, pears, apples, and more.
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And the views of the various volcanic mountains and cones are never far.
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In the Ilhara Valley you descend 100-120 meters into another world as you hike along the Menderes River. Although even here there is evidence of civilization as there are 105 churches and close to 10,000 caverns along the 14 km valley. The wildflowers absolutely stole the show though.
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It also has over-the-water restaurants along the route so you can stop for a refreshment and/or meal.
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Along the route also is a place where it appears an artistic hermit has established a refuge and has made whimsical art that stretches along the path, including a few much-welcomed benches along the way.
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As I'm sure you can tell by the length of this section and the number of photos we took, we loved Cappadocia. If you can only visit one place in Turkey outside Istanbul, make it this one and be sure to give yourself time to really enjoy it.

We flew from Kayseri to Istanbul, internal flights are super cheap and very nice, and plan to spend about three weeks here catching our breath before a month in Bulgaria and Romania. We have yet to book a single hotel in those countries so I guess we better get busy!

Keep up with us @arrradventures on InstaGram and take good care of yourselves!

Posted by mrb430 12:41 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Island Hopping in Greece - Syros to Kos to Bodrum, Turkey


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Our adventure in the Greek Islands continued from Naxos with a short one-hour ferry to Syros. If you've ever tried to get from here to there through the islands, you will know that to go forward you must sometimes go back. Not all islands connect and getting from one island group to another can be especially challenging. We knew we wanted to get to Turkey and there are only a few islands with direct ferry connections and they are all just off the coast in the Dodecanese chain. Syros is one of the few in the Cyclades with connections. The ferry was a very nice high-speed catamaran type with assigned seats like the best Amtrak seats. It was smooth on very rough seas.

SYROS

Although just an hour from Naxos, and that's with a stop in Mykonos, it couldn't be more different. As the capital of the island, the Cyclades, and the South Aegean, Ermoupoli, the main city, has a cosmopolitan feel. It has always been a significant port town, and during the 19th century it was even more significant than Piraeus, the port of Athens. Between 1822 and 1865, Ermoupoli was rebuilt in a Neoclassical style, merging Greek Classicism with elements of the Renaissance and the buildings are decidedly different from what you find on Naxos or other islands, particularly the City Hall and the Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas.
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With only two nights on the island, we took our one day to explore the two hills behind Ermoupoli. The first is the hill of San Giorgio on which Ano Syros resides. Built by the Venetians at the beginning of the 13th century, it's another place with winding pathways, no cars, and amazing views.
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If you look closely at the first photo you can see the stairs that lead up and down from Ermoupoli. It's steep!

The second is the hill directly behind Ermoupoli that is topped by the amazingly photogenic Church of the Resurrection of Christ. Another Greek Orthodox Church that I did not take any pictures of but it was easily the most beautiful church I've seen in a very long time. Give it a Google to see the interiors. We climbed down from Ano Syros and back up to the Church - ugh!
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There was a sweet little park below the church with a cool breeze coming up off and big pines to shade it where we spent a few hours reading before heading back down another long and steep flight of stairs into town.
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We enjoyed Syros and we're sorry we didn't have a few more days to sit in the cafes and to walk the streets admiring the architecture. If you ignore the blue Aegean or sit in the beautiful Miaoulis Square, ringed with cafés, seating areas, and palm trees, you can imagine yourself in a small Italian city. There are many large, stone Renaissance palaces falling into disrepair here so if you're looking for a project in a place that's a lot cheaper than Italy...

The next evening we left on our overnight ferry to Kos. We spent a few hours out on the back deck watching the moon and listening to some young men entertaining the boat. It was so dark I actually got a picture of the Big Dipper with an iPhone! And the next morning we got to watch sunrise as we came into Kos.
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It was a huge ferry and very nice. We had a berth and were shocked at how big it was with a full bathroom.
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KOS

Kos is, again, completely different from Naxos and Syros. It's so much fun to visit a few islands and see just how unique each one is - or maybe we just got lucky. Kos is first and foremost a beach resort. The beautiful harbor is lined with shops and restaurants and boats selling the "Three Island Tour", the streets are lined with shops selling beach paraphernalia, and the beaches are lined with beach clubs that would fit in anywhere in the US. We gave in and spent all of our time at a couple of favorite beach clubs, taking time out to watch Formula 1 a few afternoons. We can feel our beach time winding down so we made the most of it!
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The food at the clubs was surprisingly good, diverse, and inexpensive and the loungers and umbrellas were free! There was a preponderance of European and Greek twenty-somethings and we couldn't help but feel this is a place US kids need to find.

We did stumble across the main archaeology site one day so we knew we were still in Greece.
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It's been an amazing two weeks exploring the islands and we're sad to see our month in Greece end. It definitely tops our list of southern European countries in a lot of categories. Fresh meats, fish, and vegetables and the way they are prepared (can't remember if I mentioned Scott is now an eggplant fan!), the low cost of living, the friendliest people, almost everyone speaks English, transportation is easy to navigate and well run, the water is the most amazing shade of blue, and there is much more diversity in the culture within the country than we expected. It's also a very easy-going place. Nothing seems hard, no one rushes you, everyone puts on a happy face, and being from the US we were welcomed if a bit of an oddity.

There are other reasons it may not top the list for a permanent home but it's definitely in the finals.

Up next, a month in Turkey! We took the short ferry from Kos to Bodrum turkey (definitely the least nice and least organized of all) got through immigration with no problems (goodbye EU for awhile), and caught the bus from an amazingly clean and new bus station (how did GreyHound get so bad?) to Kusadasi another total beach town! The ride was beautiful! Turkey has so many trees and such a diverse landscape!

Can't wait to start another new adventure. Follow along @arrradventures on Instagram and take care of yourselves.

Posted by mrb430 16:03 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Island Hopping in Greece - Athens to Naxos


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We're at the beach in Kusadasi Turkey along with half the country as they enjoy their weeklong national summer holiday. Certainly makes things more interesting! It's our last beach stop for the foreseeable future and it's a nice place to reflect on the last two weeks island hopping in Greece.
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ATHENS TO NAXOS

We took Blue Star Ferries for the five-hour ride from Athens to Naxos, passing by the Saronic Islands and through the center of the Cyclades, stopping at Paros before reaching Naxos and departing the boat with hordes of other tourists. It was a beautiful day of blue skies and bluer water.
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The ship was huge, though not the biggest we would be on, and the ride was smooth. It's amazing to see the islands from the water and going by ferry is a cost-effective way to achieve it. Booking is easy and tickets are electronic. There are various classes of service available on most ferries, especially the larger ones. We opted to just sit at the outside tables for this one.

PIRGOS AND AGIOS PROKOPIOS

Since we rented a car on Naxos, we opted to stay on the peninsula of Pirgos that sticks out between Chora (the main city) and the beach area of Agios Prokopios. The peninsula is not densely inhabited and has big stretches of native landscape that go down to the rocky shoreline. The hotel was classic whitewash and with it's own little beach, it was a stunning and peaceful place to hang out.
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And we had the best sunsets! Seeing the lights come on across the channel on Paros reminded us so much of being at our house on Chincoteague Bay.
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Agios Prokopios was our absolute favorite beach on Naxos and we were so happy to be so close to it. People say that Plaka beach is better but not for our money! AG has a wide beach with more granular protected from the winds, a paved road behind it lined with excellent restaurants and shops that cuts down on the blowing dust and sand, and the water is calm with a sandy bottom. The restaurants rent loungers and umbrellas and provide beach service. Two chairs and an umbrella were $10. What more could we want?! We interspersed our exploring days with days just lounging.
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MELTEMI WINDS

A word or two about these winds seems appropriate. Unlike other winds that blow constantly and are unwelcome, looking at you Mistral, the people of the Aegean find relief from the Meltemi Winds. The winds, which bring cool air down from the north, generally occur the most in July and August, though they can have an early onset in June as we experienced. They tend to die down during the night and blow throughout the day, bringing relief from the heat and blowing out the humidity. Sitting on our deck in the evening watching the sunset required a sweater and was another thing that reminded us of our house on the Bay. The air was crisp and fresh like a beautiful fall evening.

But they can be very strong - up to 30 or 40 knots - though generally more like 25 as seen here in a screenshot from the Windy app. (Athens is on the left of the photo and we are the blue dot in Turkey on the right.)
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They can really blow fine sand and dust and make it unpleasant to be at an unprotected beach. They also kick up the waves so sailing is much rougher and surf can be strong. We were glad to be on ferries rather than catamarans or sailboats! Just something to keep in mind if you are planning a summer holiday. Leeward places are definitely better and booking a sailing cruise could be a bit iffy.

DRIVING THE SCENIC ROADS

We would definitely recommend renting a car on at least one island to get away from the port. Naxos is the largest island of the Cyclades with lots of places to explore so it was a natural choice for us. The island is very mountainous and the roads alternate between cliff roads along the edge of the island with amazing views and curving mountain roads through fields and groves. Both churches and windmills, old and new, are frequent sites along the route.
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APPALONAS

A small, picturesque fishing with a small beach, it's a nice stop off for a cold drink. And just up the road is one of the famous kouros statues of Naxos. Believed to be statues carved in place from the local marble prior to transport to their final site, there are a few that were left behind. They're pretty cool. Naxos is famous for it's marble and we actually saw some being loaded as we left.
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KORONOS

Naxos, as with many islands in the Cyclades, has numerous "white villages" up in the mountains. We chose Koronos to explore since I had read a few good reviews of a farm to table restaurant in the village (although almost every restaurant on Naxos really is). It was Scott's first visit to one of these Greek villages that can now seem so cliché but actually feel amazingly authentic when you park the car and step into their pedestrian only winding pathways. He had seen places I kept saying looked like Greek villages like Anafiotika in Athens and Frigiliana and Nerja in southern Spain but this was his first real one! Although the up and down of the hillside paths wasn't his favorite, even he had to admit it was a special place.
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And the restaurant was amazing. A shaded oasis at a junction of paths with a cold spring to get fresh mountain water right out of the rock!
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APERATHOS

We made a quick stop at Aperathos, a much more accessible town (read flatter), before heading home through Filet and Chalkio. If it hadn't been such a long day, Chalkio looked really interesting.
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NAXOS CHORA

The main city of Naxos has two really interesting sights, the Venetian Castle and the Temple of Apollo. While not your typical castle, we found the Venetian Castle interesting because it was really a village inside the walls. There aren't giant ramparts or other fortifications to show it was a fortress as well since the town has grown all around its base but the city gates remain.
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Many original houses from the time it was built by the Venetians still stand and are still inhabited. From Wikipedia: "In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade, with a Latin Empire under the influence of the Venetians established at Constantinople, the Venetian Marco Sanudo conquered Naxos and most of the other Cyclades in 1205–1207. Naxos became the seat of Sanudo's realm, known as the "Duchy of Naxos" or "Duchy of the Archipelago". Twenty-one dukes in two dynasties ruled the Archipelago, until 1566." A few of the original towers that were occupied by the dukes also remain. One is now an antique shop and is open for you to see the stolen Greek columns that support the three floors above.
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And we finally were invited into a very small Byzantine chapel where we were allowed to take pictures!
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All that's left of the Temple of Apollo is a few broken pillars and some block except for the grand portara. It makes for a truly magical window out onto the Aegean and is a favorite spot for sunsets. We chose to avoid the crowds and get our sunset shot from a distance.
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TEMPLE OF DEMETER AND ALYKO BEACH

Last but not least was a drive down the southern end of the island to this ancient site and Alyko Beach with its ancient cedar forests. Originally built around 530 BCE, it was later converted to a church in the 6th century CE, the Temple of Demeter has been partially restored by an archaeology group so that the outlines and major portions of both can be recognized. While not a tremendous site, it was interesting and a great excuse to get down south. It's much less mountainous and more agricultural and the brown fields of grasses with olive groves dotted in were truly beautiful.
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We followed some dirt tracks past farms and ranches out to the coast where we had lunch behind the dunes of Alyko Beach. No pics as the winds were fierce and the sand and dirt were blowing! Did I mention there's a lot of wind surfing on Naxos?! But we did take time to stop and see a huge hotel that was abandoned before it was finished and now serves as an outdoor street art gallery. There were some very interesting and well done murals. It's also the only place that the island still has remnant of the cedar forest that once covered the island.
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We absolutely loved Naxos. It was so much fun to explore and the beach was great. The people were just as friendly as Athens, if not more so. The food was fresh and delicious and trying their local specialities was great. Neither Scott nor I are vegetarian but we felt it wouldn't be hard on Naxos! It wasn't crowded despite our fears on the first day disembarking. There was room to move around and we were amazed how easy it was to take pictures in the castle, at the Portara, in the villages, and at the temples with no other tourists in them. It seemed everyone was gathered in Chora and just getting a bit away made all the difference. And with the Euro falling it just got cheaper and cheaper.

So summer on Naxos and winter in Athens?! Who knows but we can imagine it would be a good life and certainly understand why so many Greeks do it if they can.

Next up Syros and Kos! Stay tuned and follow us @arrradventures on Instagram.

Posted by mrb430 15:14 Archived in Greece Comments (1)

Pondering Life in Athens


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We just wrapped up two weeks in Athens and could not have enjoyed it more. So much so, that we spent a fair amount of time pondering not only our lives but life in Athens itself - could we live here?! It's been no secret if you've followed this blog that I love Europe. I've just been trying to find the right country to entice Scott and Greece is checking - shall we say quite a few of - his boxes. His favorite cuisine is now Greek - need I say more?!.

First off, Athens was a break for us. We've been traveling a lot faster than we have in a long time and we intentionally planned in some longer stays. Since Athens is somewhere I've been before without Scott, I wasn't in such a rush to "see it all again". In fact, awful to admit, but we didn't actually go to the Acropolis. We went to the museum, we saw it from our balcony and many other angles, and we saw it at night but never did make the climb. I am the person who lived in DC for 10 years and never went up in the Washington Monument either so there's that, too.
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A SMALL VILLAGE IN A BIG CITY

We did a lot of exploring neighborhoods, going to alternative sights, and just enjoying the atmosphere. Athens is a wonderful city that is easy to get around by very inexpensive, clean public transportation and by walking. The Metro (subway) even has archeological digs and antiques. Who needs the Acropolis!
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We stayed in the Koukaki neighborhood described on greeka.com as a hidden gem and we agree.

In 2015, Koukaki was voted as the 5th most interesting neighborhood of the world, by people who travel using Airbnb? This is not surprising, as Koukaki has a unique urban vibe, minus the city center hassle. Considered as one of the coolest neighborhoods in Athens, Koukaki is a place that has it all. From vibrant coffee places and bars to minimal restaurants and taverns, it offers a variety of choices. Its stylish shops, the proximity to the Acropolis Museum and the local archeological sites, as well as the laid back vibe make it one of the best non-touristy neighborhoods in Athens.

We loved it. And I know we did because I have not a single photo of it. When I'm in "relax and live like a local mode", I never manage to get the camera out. Not for the amazing cafes and coffee bars, the homemade mint lemonade they serve everywhere, the delicious meals we had, or even for the beautiful balconies filled with flowers or the street trees full of oranges. But it was all there. You'll have to take our word for it!

One of the things we seriously loved was that the apartment buildings are usually no more than six stories, almost every apartment has a big balcony running the length of their unit across the front, and most have rooftop decks. When you're on the roof, you look out at everyone else up enjoying theirs. It's like a whole party up there no one on the street knows is happening.

Koukaki is like a small village in a big city. The streets are narrow and steep and windy so they don't get busy. There are local shops where locals hang out and tourists don't venture in because there aren't any tourist sights - even though it's five minutes from the foot of the Acropolis. And no tourists means no tourist shops selling the same trinkets as everyone else. There was the shop the lady and her husband ran while watching reruns of Friends that stayed open even on Sunday to sell a few beers and other essentials to the neighborhood. There was the shop selling handmade pottery and other crafts and the weaver where you could watch the looms as they produced their artist-designed wares. There was the Greek products store with imports from all over Greece where we got the best olives and local wine sold in plastic jugs and the bakery that made breadsticks we couldn't stop eating. So we hung out in our little village and frequented the same few places talking about life and where we're headed after this tour. We're both starting to feel the pull to settle down a bit so it's time to start seriously thinking about where that might be. Both Italy and Greece are top contenders at this point and while we haven't decided between city or "country", it's nice to know we might not have to after all.

ABOUT TOWN

We did manage to get out to three museums. The first was the National Gallery, which is newly refurbished and they've added a new wing for European art that hasn't opened yet. Right now, it is filled solely with Greek artists from the 14th-20th centuries. I have to admit that I loved that it was all Greek. It was so interesting to see the same styles and movements that happened in other European countries but through the Greek lens.
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But I also have to admit it was mainly an excuse for a bus ride across town and a tour of the Kolonaki neighborhood. It's full of elegant apartment buildings and cafes. It's a bit more upscale and edges some very nice parks and Lycabettus Hill, one of the best viewpoints in all of Athens. That's it in the distance as seen from the Acropolis hill.
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The National Archaeology Museum is more well-visited than the National Gallery but since the new Acropolis Museum opened, it's sort of the old grande dame now. And grand it is housed in it's Neoclassical building. It's an amazing collection from all of the sites around Greece and has collections starting with the Cycladic (5000-3000 BCE) and Mycenaean (1600-1200 BCE) through to the era of Athens around the time of the Roman conquest. There are wonderful statues - my favorite - and also amazing bronze works.
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And we did go into the new Acropolis Museum. First, it's a beautiful building. Modern and sleek and the perfect juxtaposition to the Acropolis itself. The exhibits were a bit of a rehash after the Archaeology museum but there was a very cool movie that explained the site over time from being built through conquests and wars to modern day. It was really helpful to understand "the finished product" you see today. And then, of course, there's the whole debate about most of the frieze being in a British museum, which is just fun to get fired up about and debate.

The Presidential Palace and Syntagma Square are in the heart of the more modern Athens it seemed to us. There are international shopping chains and restaurants, more modern buildings, and lots of business people about. It is notable for two tourist attractions that attracted us. The first was the changing of the guard at the palace. Similar to that at the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, each hour they do an elaborate performance to switch places in front of their War Memorial on the front of the palace.
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Also near Syntagma is the National Garden that is definitely worth a stroll. Lot's of shady benches to relax on before heading out again.
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ANAFIOTIKA AND PLAKA

Anafiotika is another small village within Athens. Built originally by builders working on the Presidential Palace for the first king of Greece in 1832 from the island of Anafi, they built their home in the island style they knew. The result is a tiny village of whitewashed homes on the side of the Acropolis. The neighborhood has tremendous views.
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Plaka is the main tourist and shopping district of Athens. Filled with restaurants and small shops, it's worth a tour but we didn't spend much time there. It was tooooo crowded and too filled with shops all selling the same things.

METS AND THE 1ST CEMETERY OF ATHENS

You might be forgiven for thinking that the first cemetery of Athens is another ancient ruin but it was actually built in the 1830's and is the official cemetery of Athens. Many notable Greeks and foreigners are buried there. It is also a beautiful space filled with flowers, pines, and cypress trees.

The Tomb of Sofia Afentaki with Koimomeni (Sleeping woman) statue, a work of Yannoulis Chalepas is a favorite.
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But there are many that are truly beautiful. Most of the plots are taken up by crypts where generation on generation of family members are buried. As a result, they are very ornate and there is a rich history. You can see multiple family members killed during the period of WWII and speculate on their demise. It was so interesting we actually spent more time here than either museum.
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If this is the Pere Lachaise of Athens, then Mets is Montmartre. Built below the cemetery on the hillside, it's a funky neighborhood of galleries and cafes. Not a favorite for us but it was fun to explore. The not so fun part was Scott getting his pocket picked when we boarded the tram for home. Now don't get too upset. We didn't. We're in our fifth year of travel and it's literally the first time we've ever been robbed of anything. We've been to carnival in Panama, Semana Santa in Nicaragua, the souks of Morocco, and we spent a month in the pickpocket Mecca of Montepelier, and nothing. And this person was good - really good. So we got hit by a pro but we're pros too so they didn't get but two cards that we can cancel immediately and have backups for and a driver's license from four years ago in Florida that we also have backups for - don't ask. We each have about four drivers licenses in reserve. But for their trouble they did get the cash we had and, darn it, we had just been to the ATM. Lucky them, they picked a good mark this time.

PATTI SMITH AT THE ODEON

We capped off our experience in Athens with a concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Since 161 CE when it was built by Herodes Atticus in memory of his Roman wife, it has been a theatre. And although it's changed and the acts have certainly changed, it's still an awesome venue for a show. Entering you can just imagine the toga clad throngs. Sitting at the bottom of the Acropolis and five minutes from our apartment, we heard the concerts our first night up on the deck. A little exploration and we had tickets for Patti Smith. The show itself was really good. We had no idea if we were in for a rock concert or a poetry recital and turns out it was a bit of both but mostly music. She did read an Allen Ginsberg poem and she railed about people realizing they had power and actually using it for positive change - as she and we define it that is - so it was also a revival and a call to arms. If I'm betting I'd say the audience was mostly Greek and they loved it as did we!
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Of course Athens has tons of Byzantine churches (that after Meteora we know how to appreciate!)and lots of historical ruins and we saw our fair share.
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But as we hope you've seen here, it's so much more than that! I can't end before I mention the Greek people. We thought Italians were friendly until we came to Greece. People stop to ask where you're from and have a chat. They draw you maps and make you lists of places to go. They are so sweet that I literally asked a bartender the stupidest question ever "Are all Greek people just happy?" He smiled and gave me an answer that was also friendly and honest if a bit bemused. All it takes is a "kalimera/kalispera" (good morning/good evening) or a "yassas" (hello) so set yourselves apart from the average tourist and they will treat you like a friend. It really warms the heart and added to everything else, Greece has made us ponder what a life here could be.

Keep up with us on InstaGram @arrradventures and take care of yourselves.

Posted by mrb430 18:59 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

Magnificent Meteora


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So we all have a Bucket List, right? In reality, mine isn't too long but there are a few items that have been on it for a looooong time and visiting Meteora was one of them. Ever since seeing the first photos of it (and no it wasn't the James Bond film), I've wanted to see it in person. One always worries that actually arriving at a Bucket List place will be a let down, especially in the days of social media when every conceivable photo seems to have already been taken and you can feel like you've been somewhere before actually going. Well...Meteora did not disappoint. A visit from Athens is everything you expect it to be and more.
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TRIP OVERVIEW

We booked a trip through GetYourGuide with Visit Meteora for this excursion. Normally, we like to do our own thing but in this case not having to sweat the logistics seemed worth it and the price was right. We opted for the overnight trip from Athens that included the return train fare from Athens, overnight in a hotel, transport to and from the hotel, and two guided tours in air conditioned comfort. If you are into hiking, you may want to spend more time as this is a hikers paradise (or so we're told) and there are paths up from town to all the monasteries and viewpoints. As you might expect, there are a lot of German tourists!

The train ride is four hours and travels up the mainland along the spine of the Pindus mountain range. It's a great way to see the country and the train was very comfortable. Alas, no pics as our windows were very dirty! The countryside was beautiful as we passed olive groves, fields, small towns, and hugged the mountains that in some places are towering with some snow still at the top and in others are merely rolling hills. We even caught a glimpse of water at the Euripus Strait that separates the mainland from the large island of Euboea. Upon arrival we were met by the tour company and taken to our hotel, which was a nice friendly place with a great view of the mountains from our balcony.
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SUNSET TOUR

That evening we did a five hour Sunset Tour that took us to one monastery and many other places off the beaten track ending with a stop to view the sunset. It was a steep uphill walk to get to The Monastery of St. Nikolaos but we made it and the views were worth it!
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From there, we visited The Byzantine Church of Kalabaka. This was a bonus as most day tours don't include it and our guide was very knowledgable and informative. We've visited many Byzantine churches but now we actually understand what we are seeing! No photos are allowed of the interior but if you're interested visit this website. It is the only church in the world today with an early Christian pulpit preserved in the center of the nave.
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Next stop was a short walk to see a skete where a single monk is living out his life in solitude. He is supported by the local community that brings him food and other items. It's hard to imagine the kind of faith and commitment it takes to embark on such a life.
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There is a small chapel at the foot of the hills there and the area was full of these Boettger's Toroise - apparently it was mating season!IMG_7742.jpegIMG_7744.jpegIMG_7733.jpeg

From this path we also saw the earliest hermitages where monks lived individually, all abandoned today. The first monks that came in the 9th and 10th century to seek safety from the ongoing wars and to seek isolation and spirituality lived in these. The hills are absolutely full of caves and it must have been quite a sight when many of them were inhabited.
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It wasn't until the 12th century that they began to organize into a more formal monastic community and had communal gatherings at this little building, The Chapel of Doupiani.
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Then in the 14th century, the formal monasteries you see today were formed. At the height in the 16th century, there were 24 of which only six still remain active today and two have been taken over by nuns. More on them later. We stopped at many viewpoints throughout the valley. One of the fascinating things about the area is, of course, the huge pillars of stone, some of which the monasteries are built on. As you drive the winding roads, you see the villages, the towers, and the monasteries over and over again from every vantage point and as the sun set, it becomes otherworldly.
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The duration of this tour obviously fluctuates with sunset so we felt very fortunate to be traveling in June when we got the longest tour! The tour company dropped us in the town center so we could get dinner and walk back to the hotel. We happened on a taverna where two men were playing and singing Greek ballads. One was playing a bouzouki, which added to the authenticity.

THE DAY TOUR

Next day, we had a morning tour to three more monasteries and multiple viewpoints. Before that, here's a map of the area and a little context.
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The rock outcrops are up to 2000 feet tall and were formed, according to going theory, when they were underwater in a great inland sea. After the sea receded, the hardest stone was left behind as the rest was washed away, leaving the pillars of rock we see today. Until the government interceded on their behalf in the early 1900's, the monasteries had no electricity, running water, or crucially, stairs to reach them. Rain water was gathered in cisterns and transferred to large barrels like this to get through the dry summers.
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Built originally as places of worship but also places of refuge, they were built with wooden ladders up the side of the rock face that could be withdrawn in case of danger. Of course this means they were built by dragging, often, one stone at a time up the rock face. Local people assisted in the building but it must have been a massive undertaking! At some point, they installed huge pulleys that could bring up supplies and monks! This wheel was pushed by monks at the top to raise the loads. I stole some photos from the internet to help show this. The first is mine and if you look closely you can see the bar the rope operated from. You can also see the cables that were installed later and mechanized to hold carts like in the last picture and now enclosed coach boxes that are used for the same purposes. We actually saw one in use at Great Meteroan. Must have been a wild ride! Apparently it could take up to an hour to raise them!
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The Monastery of Great Meteoron

This is the largest of the monasteries and one you can see from many viewpoints. It was closed the day we went so we only saw it from the outside.
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The Monastery of Varlaam
We did get to visit this one and it was beautiful inside. The views were great from there. Each monastery has a Byzantine chapel but you are not allowed any photographs so I could only take photos of the icons in the other rooms.
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Great Meteoron and Vaarlam are close to one another with Vaarlam below so they often get into the same view.
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The Monastery of Holy Trinity
Probably the most photographed of all and the site of the James Bond movie, this one was not one we visited but we got lots of pics. Out on the tower alone, it's easy to recognize. It's quite a hike down from the road and then back up over 100 steep steps so most bus tours don't do it. It's also one you see from sunset so a few pictures above are of it, too.
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The Monastery of St. Stephen
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Although from some angles it appears inaccessible, this is actually the most accessible as there is a bridge to it from the road so it was packed with people but it's worth it for the most beautiful gardens. It's one that is a nunnery now.
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The Monastery of Roussanou
Another nunnery now, this is the smallest. It also seems to float on a hilltop all by itself.
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There is a path from the road you can take to walk down to it so it's actually easily accessible without requiring a climb.
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It also has a pretty little garden on the way in.
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Our last stop was a viewpoint we had been waiting for the whole trip. We kept driving past the place where you see the towers from the narrow side and it's just a really special view.
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We were returned to town for lunch and then had the afternoon free before we were picked up to go to the train station and board our train home. This was the only snafu as the train was an hour late so we arrived after midnight in Athens. Luckily, our AirBnB host knew our plans and had no issues meeting us. I don't think 12:30 is really that late for most Greeks!

It was a bit of a whirlwind but we felt like we had enough time at each place and got a really good sense of the Meteora overall. I would definitely recommend the trip even to people who don't like organized tours. One other thing that was a plus for us about this tour was that they just dropped you at the entrance to the monasteries, gave you a timeframe, and then waited outside. No headphones, no sticking with the group, no silly flag to follow. It was kind of the best of both worlds. That's Roussanou and St. Nikolaos in the background.
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Hope you enjoyed Meteora as much as we did! We're in Athens now enjoying a two-week travel break and an amazing city. Keep up with us @arrradventures on InstaGram and subscribe here if you want to be notified when a new blog comes out. Take care of yourselves!

Posted by mrb430 16:13 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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