Thursday, December 20, 2007

Final week in Greece- Delphi and Meteora

Monday was a beautiful day so the kids and I went for a hike up the little mountain behind our apartment. We really enjoy spending time outdoors. There is a nice view of the enormous city of Athens.

Tuesday I felt ambitious and decided to take the kids on the metro and go downtown to Syntagma Square. The metro is always very crowded so going up and down the escalators and getting on and off the metro with 3 small kids is the hardest part. The kids did great and we survived. We had a fun day….we went to a Children’s Museum in Plaka. They had many hands on activites, the girls enjoyed playing musical instruments and blowing bubbles the most. Allden enjoyed playing with all the different toys. After the museum we went back to the National Gardens to walk around. We found the playground-the best one I have seen in Greece and then we went to see the animals. What a fun day!
Thursday Brett took the day off and we got a rental car and headed out on one last adventure in Greece. It rained most of the drive but it stopped just long enough for us to get out and explore the archeological site of Delphi. In Ancient times Delphi was believed to be the center of the earth, the place where heaven and earth met. The site was known as the dwelling place of Apollo, and from the late 8th century BC people came here to worship and seek advice from the god. We saw the Athena Pronaia which dates from the 4th century BC. The purpose of this circular structure, originally surrounded by 20 columns, remains a mystery. After seeing the sites we headed to Kalambaka, right by Meteora, for our hotel for the night. We did quite a bit of driving today, it took forever to get there but we drove through some pretty scenery in the mountains and countryside. We checked into our little apartment, Alsos house and ordered some pizza for dinner while Brett dialed into a work meeting.

Friday morning we had our first view of Meteora. Wow! Huge rocks with monastaries on top. These extraordinary sandstone towers of Meteora were formed by the action of the sea that covered the plain of Thessaly around 30 million years ago. The huge columns of rock were first used as a religious retreat in AD 985, when a hermit named Barnabas occupied a cave here. In the mid-14 century they built a small church. In 1382, a monk founded the huge monastery of Megalo Meteoro on one of the many pinnacles. In the 1920’s stairs were cut in the rock faces to make the monasteries more accessible. We drove around to the highest monastery at 2,045 ft and hiked up to the top and toured the inside. We saw the ascent tower where goods and people were brought to the top of the rock in a net that was pulled up by a winch mechanism, made in 1536. The huge rocks were cool but what made it amazing was that people actually built monasteries on top of them. It is unknown how the first hermits of Meteora reached the tops of these vertical rock faces, it is likely that they hammered pegs into tiny gaps in the rock and hauled building materials to the top. It was a very cold day otherwise it would have been fun to hike around this amazing place. It started snowing in the evening on our drive back to Athens.

We really enjoyed our time in Greece. Saturday morning we began our long journey home. We packed up our rental car and headed to the airport. The airport is stressful and not a fun process with the 3 kids and lots of luggage! We should be professionals by now. So we finally got through it all and got on the airplane to sit on the runway for an hour and a half before taking off. Another flight was delayed, and we had empty seats on our flight so they had to wait for all those other people to get cleared and get on our flight! So we got to London later and a time difference of 2 hrs from Greece so everyone was very tired. We landed in Heathrow then had to take a bus to the Gatwick airport about an hour away then transfer to our hotel! What a long day!
Sunday morning we had a full English breakfast with eggs, sausage, beans, and ham yummy! That was the best part of the day. Then we had to get on a bus with all of our luggage and get to the airport. The lines were long! We then find out what we thought was Allden’s ticket wasn’t and we had to buy a ticket for him! So we were upset about that. Then security is always a pain to get everything through shoes off, jackets off, laptops out, Allden out of the backpack, then all back together again! Whew we made it through just in time to get on the plane for our 9.5 hr flight! Luckily they had TV’s with video on demand and Beauty and the Beast, that kept the girls entertained for a little while. Our flight landed about an hour late in Charlotte and we only had 1 hour until our connecting flight left! We hurried but we had to go through customs, reclaim all our bags and check them in again and then through security, so we missed our flight. We waited for 2 hours until the next flight. My family picked us up at the airport it was so fun to see everyone! It feels good to be home! Alana was especially excited to see everyone, she had a permanent smile on her face the entire way home from the airport.
We have had an amazing 5 and a half months of traveling in Europe I am sad for it to come to an end. We are excited to get back to a few things we have missed in the U.S. like family, “free shopping carts” bag boy help at the grocery store, Coldstone Creamery, Mexican food, pancakes, a house with a parking place, a babysitter so I can have a date night! There are many things that we did enjoy about Europe that we will miss, the many nice people we met, all the quality time with our immediate family without all the distractions we have at home, the beautiful scenery and amazing places we have seen and experiencing different lifestyles and cultures. I'm sure we'll be reflecting back on this experience for years to come.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Greece week 2 Nafplio, Diros Caves

This week Brett had a giant outage at work. He worked nonstop day and night and we didn’t get to see him much during the week. The kids and I just did our normal activities during the week, going to the grocery store, laundry, playing at the playground and hiking up the hill behind our house. The kids like to have a normal routine during the week.
Our apartment owner here in Athens also owns a nice home with an apartment in Nafplio and offered to have us stay in their apartment for the weekend. We wanted to see the area and were excited to have a nice place to stay. We rented a car for the weekend and left Thursday evening, it was about a 2.5hr drive to Nafplio. The apartment was nice with 2 bedrooms and big family room and kitchen. We got some take-out Greek food for dinner and had a nice fire in the big fireplace. Takis (apartment owner) was very kind to us and told us all about the area so we planned our couple days there. Brett had to work late into the night finishing up work problems.
Friday morning we got up very early and drove down south to the Diros Caves. This is one of the most important natural sites in Greece.

The known part of the caves covers about 33,000 square meters of which only 5,000 square meters have been explored. We entered the cave by walking down a few stairs to an underground lake where there were boats waiting. The girls put on their life vests and we got into the boat with the guide. He used poles to journey through the caverns and tunnels, which were eerily lit and adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. We had to pass through some narrow areas just wide enough for the boat and we had to duck our head. The cave was about 70 degrees inside. After the boat ride we got to walk on a trail through the rest of the cave, we had a great time. The exit of the cave is on a trail overlooking the ocean-beautiful blue water!
After our cave adventures we stopped in Mystras, it is a panoramic site on a mountain. The city was founded by the Franks in 1249, they built a fortress and churches and over 2000 houses. It is now in ruins, but we were able to drive up the the top and get a magnificient view of the ruins and the surrounding mountains and valley.
We then continued our drive back to Nafplio for the night, it was a long day trip with about 6 hours of driving but a fun day! The caves were a hit!

Saturday morning we went to a big farmer’s market, it was fun to see all the fruits, vegetables, fish and goods for sale. They don’t really have anything like this at home. The towns in Italy and here in Greece have a market at least once a week.

This area is filled with olive groves and citrus groves. Takis has a little orchard of citrus trees and gave us a big bag of tangerines to take with us. Everyone loves them!
We then drove to Epidavros about 30 minutes away and saw the ancient theatre.

Many Greek tragedies were played at this theatre and in the summer they hold a big festival here where they continue to play the ancient drama. The theatre is known for it’s perfect acoustics. Brett and I sat up on the very top seats and listened to Alana sing her ABC’s on the center of the stage and we could hear it perfectly. We even heard a lady ripping a piece of paper from the top seats! The theatre is 374 feet across and surrounds a 66 ft diameter stage. We also walked around and saw a giant stadium where they held athletic events and saw many ruins and pillars around the area.
In the afternoon we went back to Nafplio to explore the town a little more. Nafplio is one of the prettiest towns I have seen and my favorite town in Greece. From 1829 to 1834 it was the first capital of Greece. There is an island fortress of Bourtzi that protected the entrance to the harbor from Pirates. The huge Venetian Palamidi fortress was built above the city in 1714 and is actually 3 fortresses walled together. There are 999 steps leading up to the fortress. We only counted about 880 steps up to the top gate that was locked. The other steps are inside the gate. Yes, we really hiked up all those steps with the kids. Alana beat us to the top, Addy only had to be carried for about 100 steps by me, and Brett carried Allden all the way to the top. It was worth the hike for the magnificient views and good exercise! After all that hiking we worked up an appetite and found a little restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed walking around the town, Nafplio is a neat place!
Sunday we got up very early to leave and head back to Athens for church, since there was no church in or near Nafplio. We had planned to see a few more sites in the area but we can never see it all, it was raining that morning anyways. We enjoyed the church meetings and all the nice friendly people. After the meetings they had a potluck which they invited us to and we got to visit more with people and the missionary’s. After church we walked around Plaka the historic heart of Athens. We also found the National Gardens to walk around, it’s a huge park and they even had a small zoo with goats and a few animals. We also saw Hadrian’s arch, which was built in AD 131 and marked the boundary between the ancient city and the new Athens of Hadrian. We also saw the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Only 15 of the original 104 columns remain, but enough to give a sense of the once enormous size of this temple approximately 315 ft long and 130ft wide. There is so much history in this city!
We had another wonderful weekend, the best part is just spending quality time together as a family, something we didn’t do as often while at home. We have had many good experiences and created many memories!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Greece- Island of Idra and Athens

We arrived at the Athens airport on Sunday afternoon to find one of our big suitcases was lost! It had all of our dirty clothes in it from our vacation in Italy. So we were quite frustrated and hoped they would find it soon. We met the apartment owner who helped us get all of our luggage to the apartment. On the drive we got the first look at Athens, it is a huge city! There are just buildings everywhere! The apartment is very nice with 2 big bedrooms 1.5 baths, a large family room and nice kitchen with a dishwasher (Yeah!) Later that night our doorbell rang and our suitcase was delivered!
Monday we settled in and went grocery shopping in Athens, food is still expensive here! I’m excited to get back to huge grocery stores with more reasonable prices and shopping carts! They have no shopping carts at the two stores I have visited so I have to carry everything in a hand basket and the rows are narrow so it’s difficult to navigate a stroller through the store…..then I have to carry all the groceries home (uphill both ways)! The Greek alphabet and language is going to be a challenge, some things are written with the Roman alphabet so that helps, and I have no idea what people are saying, it's all Greek to me! Brett takes the bus to work every day it takes him about 20-30 minutes. We didn’t rent a car while here because public transportation is much cheaper and gets us around during the week. Traffic and parking here is crazy. We will rent a car next weekend.
On Tuesday morning Brett headed into the Athens Intel office and the kids and I hiked the hill behind our house. It’s a big hill with trees and grass, and is a nice retreat from the city. On top of the hill there is a good view over the entire city. I'm not a fan of life in the big city, with so many cars, and people and noise. Athens seems to be the least pedestrian friendly city we have been in. Cars really don’t give way to pedestrians so I have to be very careful walking down the street with the kids. The sidewalks are usually blocked by cars parking on them and they are uneven and up and down hills.
Wednesday we found a park near our house so the kids were very excited! The kids adjust well to wherever we go and have been great sports about all this traveling.
It was a long week with Brett working late most nights so we were really excited for the weekend.
Saturday we went to one of the many Greek Islands, the Island of Iydra (Hydra). We were able to take the Metro to the Port and then we took a "flying dolphin" (a pretty fast ferry boat) to the island for the day.
(Brett & Allden waiting for our boat to arrive. Here it comes in the background on the right)
The inside of the boat was like sitting on an airplane. We got on the boat at 9am and got to the island at 11am. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm. This island has no cars and the form of transportation is by donkey. When we got off the boat they all wanted to give us a “taxi” (Donkey) ride, we let the girls have a donkey ride later in the day and that was their favorite part. The town is built around the port with cannons set on the hill on each side of the port to protect the town. We walked around the town and enjoyed the cobblestone streets and the beautiful turquoise blue water. We had lunch close to the port. We left the island around 4:30 and arrived at the Athens port by 6pm, what a fun day! Sunday we got on the metro to go to church, it was right near Hadrian’s Arch in the center of the old city. It was a small branch with just about as many missionaries as there were members of the church. We felt very welcome there with most people speaking English. We met another couple there visiting from Utah.
The meetings were translated into English so that was nice. The missionaries taught the girls primary class (only 2 other children in the class). It was a very diverse bunch of people from all over the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Iran, Phillipines, and Greece of course. The missionaries said there are only about 500 members of the church in Greece because Greek Orthodoxy is the state religion and the church was not allowed to enter here until 1992.
That afternoon we walked around the Acropolis. The Propylaea is the glorious entrance to the Acropolis and its monuments, erected between 437 and 432 B.C. The Temple of Athena Nike is the temple that was built around 420 B.C. to commemorate the victories of the Greeks over the Persians. The Parthenon is a unique masterpiece of the world. Work on the Parthenon began in 447 BC, and took just 9 years to complete, it was built primarily to house the Parthenos, an impressive golden-ivory statue of Athena. The Erechtheion was the part of the Acropolis held to be the most sacred; the place where the goddess Athena had caused her most sacred emblem, the olive tree, to sprout. This tree was destroyed by the invading Persians but when the Persians were finally driven off, legend has it, that the tree miraculously grew again. The Caryatids: the figures of maidens that you see supporting the roof of the porch of the temple are copies. Four of the original six are in the Acropolis Museum. Temples were the most important public buildings in ancient Greece, largely because religion was a central part of everyday life. After walking around and admiring the views of the city and the Parthenon we walked over to “Mars Hill” where Paul the apostle had preached.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Italy Vacation part 2 Pompeii, Vatican, Rome

Thursday morning we headed to Pompeii, an ancient city that was destroyed in AD 79 by an eruption of Vesuvius. The city lay buried under rock and ash until the 18th century, when excavations began and revealed the city frozen in time. Many buildings survived, some complete with paintings and sculptures. We found this place to be fascinating. This was not just a few ruins but it's actually the ruins of an entire huge city! The streets were made with large stones (not very stroller friendly) and they had bigger rocks sticking out where people could walk across the street without stepping down into the mud. You could actually see the indentation in the stone streets from where the Chariot wheels had worn down over time. The girls found great fun rock hopping across the streets. We visited 2 theatres one large one small, temples, houses, and even a brothel. Below you can see the giant arena where gladiators battled, and the theater in tact.

Around 2,000 people died at Pompeii and numerous casts were on display that showed the people in their final moments. Since most of them were buried under a huge landslide of mud, archaeologists found empty spaces in the mud where a person had been, and they filled that hole with plaster to recreate the image of the person and the position they were in. It was both amazing and yet quite sad to see, because the casts were so lifelike.

It was fun to imagine what life must have been like 2,000 years ago. We saw Vesuvius in the distance, (which you can see in the above picture). It is Europe’s only active volcano. We learned a lot and enjoyed the day. Afterwards we enjoyed some yummy pizza and headed to Rome, about a 3 hrs drive.

Friday morning we headed out to see the Vatican City. We jumped on the train near our apartment so we didn’t have to mess with parking.
We went to the Vatican Museum first - we had to wait in line for about 30 minutes to get in. This museum was huge! The museums are housed in palaces originally built for wealthy Renaissance popes. Parts of these were decorated with wonderful frescoes by the finest painters of the age -- especially the Sistine Chapel.

We could have spent much more time here but it closed at 1:30 so after waiting in line we only had about 2hrs (this was long enough for the kids). The kids liked the Room of Animals, it was full of animal sculptures. We also liked the Egyptian Art with the mummies! Yes, this is a real mummy below.The Sistine Chapel is the reason most come to visit the museum. We saw it at the very end and it was packed with people! Here Michelangelo created what has become his most famous work -- the chapel ceiling. He painted the “creation of the World” and “Fall of Man”. After the Sistine Chapel we went out to St. Peter’s Basilica which is Catholicism’s most sacred shrine. The basilica is 615 ft long and took more than a century to build. All the great architects of the Roman Renaissance and Baroque had a hand in its design. We took the lift and walked around the inside of the Dome and we were able to get a good view of the inside of the church. Wow! We have been in lots of churches around Europe but I think this is one of the most impressive. Every inch of this place was exquisitely detailed and made out of the finest materials. We also went to the very top of the dome and walked around outside and were able to take some cool pictures of the Vatican City.

The piazza in front of St. Peter’s is enclosed by a vast pincer-shaped colonnade and is topped by statues of saints. Then we went down and walked around the church on the ground floor-- it is amazing! In the middle is the Baldacchino, which is an extravagant Baroque canopy that stands above an alter at which only the pope may say mass. The altar is sited directly above the tomb of St. Peter in the Grottoes below. After visiting St. Peter’s we walked over to Castel Sant’ Angelo, which looks like a massive fortress. The castle is from 139AD and since then has been a prison, and a place of safety for popes during times of war or political unrest.

We enjoyed walking across the neat bridges and looking at the river. The kids were ready to get their energy out and look at birds and leaves and run around.

Saturday was another action packed day in Rome. We started our day at the Colosseum, Rome’s great amphitheater, commissioned by the Emperor Vespasian in AD 72.
The Colosseum was the site of deadly gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights, staged free of charge by the emperor and wealthy citizens. There was room for 55,000 spectators. Excavations in the 19th century exposed a network of rooms under the arena, from which animals could be released. They had a room where they would take the dead people and the wounded. They would send criminals out in the arena to fight the wild beasts. I don’t think I would be able to watch this gruesome type of entertainment! Beside the Colosseum stands two important Arhces: The Arch of Titus which commemorates the crushing of the Jewish revolt by Titus in AD70, and the Arch of Constantine, commemorating Constantine’s victory in AD 312 over his co-emperor Maxentius. This was an important battle because Mexentius was pagan, and Constantine a proclaimed Christian, so his victory allowed Christianity to flourish thereafter.We saw traces of Ancient Rome all over the city as we walked around, occasionally a whole building, often just a column from a temple. We walked through the Roman Forum, the center of political, commercial, and judicial life in ancient Rome. We walked through Palatine, the hill where the Roman aristocracy lived and the emperors built their palaces.

It started pouring down rain so we huddled under a giant arch with a bunch of other tourists. When the rain finally stopped we walked over to the Pantheon, the Roman “temple of all the gods”. The present structure was built, and possibly designed, by Emperor Hadrian in AD 118. We walked inside and saw a vast dome equal in radius to the height of the cylinder.

A circular opening in the center of the coffered dome, the oculus, lets in the only light.

We stopped for an ice cream break and then walked to the Trevi Fountain.

The area was crowded with tourists. The fountain takes up the entire front of a building, which is much bigger than I thought it would be.

The statues are neat and the kids enjoyed the running water. The central figure is Neptune with 2 Tritons on either side, one triton struggles with a very unruly seahorse, the other leads a tame horse. These symbolize the two contrasting moods of the sea.

Our last site of the day was the Spanish Steps. The steps, combine straight sections, curves, and terraces to create one of the city’s distinctive landmarks. The steps were filled with people sitting, taking photos and watching the passers-by. Our last night in Italy! We really enjoyed the many sites of this beautiful country!
Sunday morning we dropped off our Peugeot rental car and headed to the airport to fly to Athens Greece where we'll spend our last 3 weeks.