Monday, June 17, 2013

Every Mile a Memory ( Part 13 ) Our final destination Athens


This is the last destination of our Adriatic Cruise aboard MS Noordam. We will be docked overnight and tomorrow -- Lulu and I will go on our separate destinations once more.. Lulu will fly back to the States and I will fly back home to the Philippines.

We docked at the Port of Piraeus at 8:00am. The Port of Piraeus is the main port of Athens and one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean sea. We did not have any shore excursion today because we are going on a Hop On Hop Off  ( HoHo ) tour on our own.  This port is 7 miles from Athens. Being a very busy port and hosting a couple of cruise ships in the same day, our ship docked at TERMINAL A –  This terminal is right by the main cruise terminal building where you will find a duty free shop ( where you can shop before you return back to the ship ), a cafe with wi-fi internet service and a couple of small souvenir shops. The temperature today was 26 degrees. So before we left the ship for the day, We made sure we had our shades, hat and a bottle of water to keep us hydrated on a hot day.

As we walked outside the terminal building, we were swarmed with taxi drivers. Since Greece was celebrating their Easter, a public holiday in Greece -- most of the places were closed. Most of the famous landmarks were closed too but according to our cruise director there were some shops and restaurants that will be opened. After getting confusing directions on how to get the Hop on Hop off bus from the port to Athens --- we were able to find the Hop on Hop off parking area. There was a lady waiting at a booth that will check on your voucher where you can ask any question about the schedules and  a map with the different routes.  She will give you also a pair of small earphones that you will plug on the side of the bus. The commentary is available in 11 languages explaining the history from ancient times until today.

How to get to the Hop on Hop off station from the Terminal: 

As soon as you get out of the Terminal building--  you have to walk along the water which is a 20 minutes walk from the Terminal  --- you would see the big Metro station. One landmark is an overpass with escalators and elevators if you are on the other side of the street.

As soon as the bus arrived, Lulu and I jumped in and proceeded to the top of the double decker bus. The stops are written in English and you will have no problem following the maps. The Hop on Hop off buses have 2 routes--( blue and red ) that are all color coded which makes it easy to follow signs when transferred between lines. The Athens Tour ( Red Route ) takes approximately 90 minutes and traces the history and culture of Athens. The Piraeus Tour ( Blue Route ) meets the Athens Tour (Red Route) after 30 minutes at the Acropolis bus stop. You can jump from the one line to the other, as many times as you like, and visit every little corner of this amazing city.

( courtesy of google images )

Here are the places where we went on the Hop on Hop off bus :

The main attraction in Athens is the ACROPOLIS. It's marred by scaffolding as they slowly repair the huge temple, but it's still an amazing man made structure. So tall and over powering, it stands over Athens and you get a great view of just how huge Athens is with buildings sprawling in all directions as far as the eye can see.

THEATER OF DIONYSOS -  is an outdoor theater which is located on the edge of the acropolis.

TEMPLE OF ZEUS - The few columns which remain standing give a sense of the majesty of the original building. The Temple of Zeus is more like ruins, but well preserved despite the columns having toppled to the ground. We weren't able to go in the gates because they close around 3:30 during the winter, but we could see perfectly and get great pictures through the gate without getting right up next to it. This Temple was created for Zeus who was the chief god of Greek mythology, so this structure holds strong historical and cultural significance.

HADRIAN'S ARCH - Built in 132 A.D. in honor of Roman Emperor Hadrian by the citizens of Athens, the arch or the gate was supposed to have divided the ancient Athens from the new one. The new town, the part of Athens was also known as Hadrianopolis. This is worth seeing and is a great photo opportunity. first built in 131 AD, the arch leads to the largest temple in Greece, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. 

PLAKA - just down from the Acropolis is the Plaka District. This area is made up of pedestrian streets that wander this way and that and offer excellent shopping and dining opportunities. A visit to the Plaka is almost a given after a visit to the Acropolis. Relaxing in one of the sidewalk cafes enjoying a local dish is a great way to spend the lunch hour.

On our way to the Plaka district we passed the statute of Melina Mercouri who was was a famous Greek actress, singer and politician.

Despite being a tourist hub and having a fair number of commercial establishments, Plaka still retains its traditional Greek soul. The food in the restaurants in Plaka is not standard tourist fare but good authentic Greek food.

If you’re fond of shopping then you can pick up antiques, wood carvings, jewelry, and traditional Greek items in Plaka’s shops. Motor vehicles are not allowed in Plaka. Tourists can spend many hours walking through the narrow winding labyrinthine streets of Plaka. We decided to have our lunch at one of the restaurants in Plaka.  Don't miss this on your visit to Athens!

( courtesy of Lulu Kamatoy )

SYNTAGMA SQUARE - Syntagma Square is the main square in Athens and is a good starting place to do your own walking tour. It is also referred to as Constitution Square and around here you’ll find the banks, airline offices, shopping centres and malls, restaurants and hotels.

The Parliament

This beautiful 11th century church of Kapnikarea sits in the middle of the bustling shopping district in downtown Athens.

MONASTIRAKI - This is within walking distance from the Plaka. It offers nice views of the acropolis, and is an entrance to the Athens flea market. If you stand in the middle of the square, you can see the Flea market on one side, Metro Station on another, Acropolis looming large over the square in the background

Monastiraki offers some shopping especially their open air market but most folks head to the Plaka District for excellent shopping opportunities. Most of the shops in Athens close for afternoon siesta around 1 to 2 pm and do not reopen until 5:30. They are also closed on Sundays, so be sure to plan your shopping.

Athens has something for everyone, whether it is for some food, drinks, shopping, souvenirs or just a casual walk around it is worth it especially if you are a tourist. Walking the Plaka is such an experience. We spent hours strolling and looking at the wares. The food was wonderful in the Plaka. Give yourself at least a day for wandering around Athens. It would have been nice to relax in this environment and not have to rush around to get back to the cruise ship.

First I must say I have never cruised before and didn't really know what to expect. This was my first cruise and it was Lulu who suggested to me that we would take a cruise with Holland America. Thank you Lulu for doing all the researches on our shore excursions. We loved the people we met aboard the ship, we loved the ports, and we will definitely be using Holland America again!  We had an amazing time.

I loved my adventure on the MS Noordam!!! Our cruise was perfect. Cheers to you MS Noordam and Holland America Lines!!!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Every Mile a Memory ( Part 12 ) I Left my heart in SANTORINI


( courtesy of google images )

It was another bright sunny day as we sail up to the island, there in front of us are the spectacular cliffs of Santorini, rising from the great half moon caldera. Santorini in Greece used to only be a volcano, but is now the most visited Greek island.

The photo below is the volcano island in the middle of the caldera. The definition of " caldera " -- is a large crater formed by volcanic explosion or by collapse of a volcanic cone.

The unique Greek island of Santorini ( officially called THIRA ) is all about colour and contrast. Everything seems painted white-- buildings, pavements, stones, even the tree trunks. Around midday the sky loses its dazzling blue and joins the whiteness above the hazy islands. Then there’s blue sea, blue paint, black sand and red rock. It was more gorgeous than I ever imagined.  None of the pictures I had seen showed just how high up it was! We were told we could ride a donkey up, or climb 600 steps that have been built which will allow you to gradually walk all the way to the top,  or take the cable car.

Greek is the main language spoken in Santorini. Although, English is well spoken by the friendly locals within the tourist areas. The form of currency used is in Euros amongst the American dollar in various areas. Just be mindful of the exchange rates. Temperature wise the best months to visit Santorini would be April thru June.

My first surprise came as we cruised into the bay and saw that the village was actually hundreds of meters up a cliff above sea level. As our ship maneuvered to drop anchor at Santorini, I got my first glimpse of the island’s iconic steep cliffs. Though I may have glimpsed what towered above me at that point, my attention was actually focused downward, as I contemplated the fact that we had just sailed into a giant, submerged volcanic crater. Santorini is what remains from an enormous volcanic eruption more than 3,000 years ago, and we were anchoring in the deep lagoon formed when the crater of the volcano collapsed. I wondered, if this caldera could really be the site of the Lost City of Atlantis, the legendary civilization that sunk to the bottom of the sea. With my attention now back on the island’s 300-meter high cliffs, I could see our destination, the town of Thira, perched high on the rim above. 

Santorini was the port Lulu and I were excited to explore on this entire cruise. We wanted to visit Santorini which boasts a population of 12,000 inhabitants. Finally our dream was becoming a reality. Santorini, is an island in the southern Aegean Sea. It is the largest island of a small, archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera.  For many it is the most enchanting of the Greek Islands -- for most travelers who have visited Santorini,  it has become a favorite across the entire planet. One of the best places in this island is the village of Oia ( pronounced EE-Yah ).

As soon as we got our tickets for the shore excursion to Santorini, we proceeded to the gangway to ride the skuna (  these are small local boats that are used as tenders ) to take us to the shore. The first ones loaded on the skunas were people who have shore excursions. For those who did not take any shore excursions,  they will have to wait until the ship moves to another location which was nearer Fira, drops anchor again, and then take the skuna to the little port of Fira. From there, you can take the cable car ( it costs 4 euros one way ) up the hill to Fira, which is the biggest town on Santorini.

By 9:00am we were in a tender and cruised the 10-minute ride over to the dock at the base of the village.

Upon arriving the port we were met by our tour guide and we boarded our bus.  The shore excursions were pretty well organized in terms of shuttling off hundreds of people onto different tender boats and buses. We drove along hairpin turns up the cliffs to the top of the island.

Our first stop in the island of Santorini was Profitis Ilias.  This is the highest spot of the island which is located between Pyrgos and Kamari. The Mountain's name is Profitis Ilias ( Prophet Elijah ), coming from the Monastery with the same name on its peak. From this vantage point, you will enjoy a panoramic view of the entire island, from the patchwork agricultural plains to the hilltop village of Oia.

Then we visited the Orthodox Metropolitan Church in Fira. The church was built in 1827.  It was a beautiful cathedral with a nice mosaic on the outside and an impressive bell tower. Inside the church is adorned with beautiful frescoes made by Christoforos Asimis.

Our bus ride to Oia was comfortable, passing one slideshow of scenic cliffside panorama after another. The bus route goes through the road on the non-caldera side of the island with farms blanketing the foothills down below. Vacation villas and houses dotted the rolling hills and cliff sides. There are so many nooks and crannies, along with vistas from every turn. The white buildings seem to be electric against the occasional bloom of neon pink flowers.

On the island of Santorini, man and nature live in harmony. Born from the fires of a volcano, today it is a land of sea and wind with picture-postcard villages dotted on its rocky cliffs. According to our tour guide, during summer, ferries and cruise-ships bring hordes of tourists who head for the cable car, donkey taxi or on foot from the port to the center of Fira, in search of the most photogenic spots, hoping to capture and carry away on film a fragment of the island's beauty.

The bus stop at Oia was lined with stores and kiosks selling tourist trinkets, t-shirts and other resort wear, and various knickknacks. We followed the throng of tourists toward the village square in front of the Church of Panagia which has the classic Greek Isle architecture: white-washed walls, a blue dome, and cast-iron bells.

Oia is situated atop an impressive cliff with more views of the sparkling expanse of sea, and the charming village is made up of traditional white houses and blue domed churches, with the narrow streets between buildings just wide enough for pedestrians and the occasional passing donkey. This is the main attraction on Santorini and the beautiful white houses you see on all the photos are from here. We discovered that many artists have made this picturesque setting their home.

This village, the most photographed in the Aegean, definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the most picturesque spots in the world. The whitewashed buildings with blue accents, the blue domed churches and the stunning views of the Aegean Sea beg to be photographed as visitors stroll the streets of the village. We walked around the small village of Oia. They have great ( but expensive ) restaurants here and it’s a popular place to watch the sunset from as it sets right over the town. Everything in Oia seems perfectly in place.

The Oia walkway is a narrow street on the edge of the village and lined with restaurants, tavernas, and shops selling everything under the Mediterranean sun. On the caldera side of the walkway, hotels and whitewashed villas cascade in picturesque terraces down the cliffside in so many levels. On the cliffside, the view of classic Oia is utterly stunning. The interior side offers glimpses of the real village of Oia.

After wandering around taking endless photos for an hour, we found a small taverna with rooftop dining affording a fabulous view of the caldera and the 4 cruise ships that were visiting the island that day.  After having lunch, we took time to wander the narrow alleys and shopped a little more but realized that the cable car line was growing by the millisecond.

We decided that it was time to start making our way back to the ship. Again, there was a huge queue for the cable car and we were not feeling brave enough to ride one of those crazy donkeys down the path. When we got into the line, we didn't realize exactly how long it was. At least the people in line tried to remain in good spirits.  Most of them were from our cruise ship. The cable car ride itself takes only five minutes, but the lines can be quite long. Allow yourself some extra time.

If you’d rather walk, follow the path connecting Thira to the port downhill. It takes approximately 40 minutes, and you will have to share the narrow path with the donkeys. You can ride a donkey back too.
If you are on tour, the guides will give you a cable car ticket that you can also use for the donkey ride, but the donkey owners will expect a tip.

The old port of Fira originally could only be reached by the long winding set of steps down from Thira. The locals came up with an easy way for seafarers to go up to the town of Fira -- using donkeys to carry people up and down. This was where we were going to ride our skuna back to our ship.

We loved Santorini especially the Oia village and anyone heading through the Greek isles would be mad not to stop in this special place. Santorini is famous for its cliff side homes painted blazing white with deep blue roofs. They are symbolic of Greece. If you are looking for a romantic getaway, this is the place. The island is dramatically spectacular - high black cliffs overlooking the remains of a vast volcano contrast with the deep blue sea, turquoise shores and endless blue skies. They're dotted with glistening white villages and domed rooftops.  Santorini is just incredibly beautiful, gorgeous and romantic!! I immediately fell in love with it!!! Out of all the islands in Greece that I've been to, I would have to say that Santorini is the most beautiful. Take lots of photos. Santorini feels like no other place on earth. If you ever plan on going to Greece, make sure Santorini is on your list.

 Santorini is a magical place! It should definitely be on a travel bucket list......