Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Greece, Day Six

To return to Greece . . .

(Jenese's words are still in blue, and Rick's are still in black.)

Our final day on Rhodes dawned to find us once again sticky and in need of cooler air.  After breakfast, we loaded the car, turned in our room key, and set out to see what adventures the western half of the island had in store for us.  The plan was to cut over to the western highway, drive all the way to nearly the southern end to start our sightseeing, and then work our way back north.  We intended to arrive in Rhodes Town in time to turn in the Fiat, grab a bite of dinner that wasn't sliced out of a tube and drizzled with pineapple unexplainable, and catch the bus to the airport for our flight to Athens.

Spoiler alert:  We succeeded.  We know you're surprised.  You should be.  And we're big enough to admit that.

Breakfast was our final meal at the Hotel Princess Flora.  As we left the restaurant, the Waiter smiled and said good-by, as if he knew we were leaving for good and the time of strife had come to an end.

As we entered the connecting road between the east and west highways, Rick spotted an exciting sign:  "Bee Museum."  Many of you know that we are amateur beekeepers, so it should be no wonder that this instantly became a must-stop.  It turned out to be a cute little place, perfect for second-grade field trips.  It had educational exhibits (which we did not pay to see), a bee garden, and a gift shop offering all sorts of beekeeping gear, different types of honey, and various treats and cosmetics made with honey.

The prices on the gear were surprisingly reasonable.  I was tempted to stock up, but was deterred by the prospect of taking beekeeping equipment through TSA screenings and fitting it into overhead compartments.  

Bee Museum
Rhodes prides itself on its honey.  The warm climate, long growing season, and abundance of plants bees love all make for a wonderful environment for producing this golden treasure.  We sampled thyme honey and pine honey, and picked up jars for ourselves and our families, along with a couple of sesame seed and honey treats to nibble on.  True to their names, thyme and pine honey have rich, aromatic, herbal flavors that blend strangely well with the sweetness of the honey.  It's hard to describe, but believe me:  If ever you try it on yogurt with walnuts and figs, you'll never go back to Yoplait.  We also picked up a few ideas out in the bee garden, although the hives did not appear to be inhabited.

Greek bees are prone to going on strike.  It drives the Germans nuts. 

And back to the road.  The western highway was less resort-ish.  Instead, there was a succession of small towns, with free beaches here and there, featuring a taverna and occasionally real sand.  More beautiful water, more gorgeous, piny mountains.  We seemed to reach the mountains more quickly on this coast.  When Rick needed a stretch break, we stopped at little Kopria, which boasts a Lycaean tomb.  It's basically a big triangle carved on a big rock.

Lycaean Tomb
I don't know if "boasts" is the right word.  The rock face containing the faint chiseled outline is on the other side of a chain-link fence at the end of a large parking lot.  There was a single sign that simply read "Lycaean Tomb."  I was more impressed with the free restroom at the opposite end of the parking lot. 

And back to the road.  It curved higher and higher into the mountains, and farther from the coast.  As we approached our destination, the ruins of a castle at Monolithos, we found a scenic overlook with two roadside stands, placed several yards apart.  Or meters, if you want to be all EU about it.  We stopped in between them to take a few photos of the castle with the sea behind it, and then drove over to the second, smaller stand.  
View of the castle from the roadside honey stand
The woman running the stand welcomed us warmly, ascertained that we spoke English, and proceeded to feed us tastes of everything she had for sale.  She gave us "flowers" honey, bread dipped in fruity, rich olive oil, a sinus-clearing moonshine called souma, and peanuts covered in honey and sesame seeds (and "aromatic stuff" -- it says so on the package!).  I tried to compliment the food in Greek by saying "orea", the word for "good" I'd learned in travel guide.  She smiled.  "You say, 'poli oreo,'" she replied in a deep, gentle tone and raising her hands, fingertips together, for emphasis.  "This means, 'very good.'"  I repeated it until I had it down, and mentally dubbed her my new Greek auntie.  We chose more honey (which she wrapped in tape, so it wouldn't accidentally open in our bags), and a bag of those tasty peanuts, and thanked her.  She wished us all the best and safe travels, and we continued to the castle.

"aromatic stuff"
We parked at the foot of a hill and, to the apparent amusement of other tourists, applied sunscreen.  Guess what happened next?  That's right!  We climbed -- more stairs!  They must have stabled all their horses downhill, somewhere.  There would have been no awe-inspiring galloping through the portcullis, from Monolithos Castle.  Some walls and arches still stand on the tippy-top of a peak, as well as an arched room that served as a storehouse, I believe.  And there's a little white chapel.  It was surprising to find little protection around the edges, as well as no supervision, compared to some places we've visited, where the out-of-bounds spots were roped or fenced off, and dragons disguised as docents hovered to ensure you kept your grubby hands to yourself.  Here, you could scramble about at will, at your own risk.  Perhaps the Greeks figure we were all given brains for a reason.

Or perhaps castle attendants tasked with keeping tourists from falling to their deaths were the first to get sacked with the onset of Greek austerity measures.  The Venetian castle was built in 1480 by the Knights of St. John and was never conquered, but is now overrun with German and Russian tourists.  

Once again, I was entranced by the view of steep hills thickly covered in pines, sweeping down to the blue, but it didn't take long to thoroughly explore the ruins.  Soon we were back on the road.  I waved at Greek auntie as we passed, and she returned it, enthusiastically.  I like these people.

We were able to see Greek aunties' honey stand from the castle.  We felt sorry for her when we saw a large tourist bus stop at the stands further up the hill and tourists loaded up with honey without taking notice of her more isolated stand.  

As Rick negotiated the tight turns and twists of the road, I fell to watching the slopes.  I noticed that the soil was variegated, in dusty shades of pink, green, yellow and brown.  Maybe that's a strange thing to notice, but, to me, it was yet another item to add to the list of beautiful things to find on this island.  We stopped at Kritinia Castle, which is in much the same shape as Monolithos, but it is on a smaller hill, and is surrounded on nearly three sides by farmland.  We explored, ate snacks in the shadow of the castle, and continued north.

It is another Venetian castle built by the Knights of St. John.  Much more remains of it than of Monolithos Castle, so I was surprised that there were fewer tourists.  There was a ticket booth, but it was locked up, so we once again had FREE reign of the castle without adult supervision.  After some thorough exploration, I found some shade and enjoyed the view of the Aegean while Jenese got artistic with the camera.  (See the photo at the top of this blog entry.)

Kritinia Castle
Our final sightseeing destination was Ialyssos, with its tall Mt. Filermos.  Here, high above Rhodes, the ancients built an acropolis.  Rick drove the Fiat up yet another piny slope, to the flat top.  We parked and walked up to the gate, only to find that the ticket booth was closed.  We hesitated in confused consternation, but the sight of a number of other tourists wandering in and out of the grounds freely, emboldened us to march right up the path.  

An open gate and closed ticket booth is my favorite combination. 

It's an elegant, dreamy place.  Peacocks tiptoe on the open ground between the widely spaced pines and oaks.  A monastery and chapel were built atop the ruins long ago, and the the small towers and little cloisters seemed to grow quite naturally out of the top of a gentle slope.  The buildings were closed to entry -- that, perhaps, may have been where the tickets would have gotten us -- but we could look about the quiet grounds freely.  Sunken in the ground beside the chapel was the baptistry of an early Christian church, shaped like a cross.  In front of the monastery are the ruins of an ancient temple and necropolis.  Behind the monastery were the remains of a Byzantine castle.  We reached it by strolling down a lane flanked by pines, whose fallen needles softened our steps.  I had that feeling again, of being taken back to an older time.  We returned to the slope in front of the monastery, and I found two large benches set into the hill, placed several yards apart.  They were semicircles carved from stone, nearly hidden by the low-hanging branches of venerable trees.  I tried both out, and found them to be quite comfortable.  Perfect spots for letting the imagination wander.

The baptistry is what remains of a triple-aisled basilica built in the 6th century A.D.  The basilica was built from material taken from the temple of Polias Athena, which was built in the 3rd century B.C.  The foundation of that temple is still visible.  The Byzantine fortifications were used by "Suleiman the Magnificent" as his headquarters during the great siege of 1522.  But most tourist cameras seemed to be pointed at the peacocks roaming the grounds.   

We passed by the ticket booth and found that the path continued to the other side of the hill.  It became a wide lane, also flanked by huge pines.  It was thick with tourists.  We joined the stream.  At intervals were stone monuments depicting the stations of the cross.  The lane terminated in an overlook, dominated by a huge cross.  The arms of the cross could be reached by a tight, spiral staircase inside the central shaft.  Rick was up top in no time.  I made it about halfway, but a choking fit of acrophobia sent me shivering back down.  Nevertheless, the view from the base of the cross was spectacular.

Looking southward, I could see the island's old airport below and to my left, and the new, much larger airport to my right.  I was able to watch passenger jets pass by at eye level and then drop below me to land. I noticed a warning light at the end of the arm of the cross I was standing on.  Presumably, that's to shoo jets away from the cross.  

It was time to return to Rhodes Town, which is about 15 minutes north of Isalyssos.  Dreading the stroke-inducing snarl of traffic, I studied the map and found the intersection where we'd need to turn to go straight to the rental place.  And then missed it.  When we reached the port, where we'd boarded the ferry, we knew we'd gotten something wrong.  Rick bravely pointed the Fiat back into the thick of Rhodes Town, disregarding my gasping map-flapping and trusting in the idea that if we just kept turning east (or left, from our perspective), we'd somehow find it.  Bless me if he wasn't right!  (By going left, har, har.)  In a very few minutes we were stunned to see the sign for Zeus Rent a Car.  We gratefully tumbled out, turned in the car, and collapsed at a sidewalk cafe across the street.  We filled up on soulvaki and gyro plates before catching the bus to the airport.

Our uneventful flight landed in Athens at 9 p.m.  (Uneventful except for the tragic loss of honey, which was covered in an earlier post.)  The express bus dropped us at Syntagma Square (the main square, located in front of the Parliament building -- more on that, later).  From there we caught the Metro to Karaiskaki Square.  Now, we did not have directions from the Metro stop to our hotel.  Rick had sent an email inquiry to the hotel, but never received a response.  So, my little adventurer decided to bet on his luck and simply hope that the Metro stop would have a street map.  It did.  I (a nervous wreck from watching for bus stops and Metro stops and wondering whether we'd EVER see our hotel) tried to focus my tired brain and eyes on picking out the street name we needed from the tangle of avenues on the map.  

We had already suspected that God was closely guarding our steps, but He was about to prove His presence, unequivocally.  I must tell you that we were alone, downstairs in the quiet station -- it was around 10 p.m.  Out of nowhere, a little gray-haired man appeared, leading a child by the hand.  Or, rather, the child was trying to drag the man holding on to his hand.  The man peered at us through thick glasses, and then, in a soft, quiet voice, asked if we needed help finding our way.  He knew exactly where our hotel was, gave us directions, and allowed the child to pull him away.  We seemed to be on the same path, however, because we met again, upstairs, and then again, at street level.  Each time, he reiterated the directions, apparently determined to make sure we arrived safely at the hotel.  When we reached the street, he set us precisely on the right path before the child dragged him across the square and into the night.  

The child looked to be about 12 years old and seemed to be autistic.  We did not rate very high on his attention meter. 

The hotel was exactly where our angel had said it would be.  I asked God to bless this angel He'd sent us.  We checked in and found our room.  I was unpacking and settling in, when Rick called me softly to the tiny balcony.  I joined him, and he pointed between the buildings across the street.  There, glowing above the cityscape, was the Parthenon.  Rick put his arms around me.  We were in Athens.

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