Monday, March 17, 2014

The Island of Mykonos

Mykonos is one of the classic tourist sites in the Greek Isles.  We wanted to visit this site early before the summer crowds arrived. Because of this early visit in the winter, we had some grey skies, rain, and where not able to get a boat to the adjacent island of Delos which is thought to be one of the major archaeological sites in Greece (which is saying something). The weather broke on the Sunday and presented us with beautiful blue skies and the turquoise blue sea which Mykonos is known for.

The city has an ordinance that all construction needs to be native stone or white-wash walls.  This maintains its historical integrity and some of the beauty and charm of the city. Another wonderful characteristic of the city are the windy allies that are just about two people wide that honeycomb the entire city in a chaotic pattern. There are small shops dotted throughout these alleyways which make them fun to explore and see what is around the next corner.

We found an excellent hotel called the Harmony Boutique Hotel that was on one side of the bay so that you could look around at much of Mykonos city. The hotel was a beautiful property that climbed up the hill giving views of the sea. Its white washed walls and tiled floor tiles made a very attractive place to stay. One of my favorite things about our lodging was the buffet breakfast in the dining room that overlooked the bay.

Another great find in the winding alleyways of Mykonos is the Mandarini Sweet Shop where we found the best Baklava we have ever had.  This place turned into a necessary daily visit.

Mykonos is also know for its 16th century windmills which were well preserved. They where built be Venetians to mill wheat and where used until the early 20th century.  They are currently not in use, but make a beautiful landmark in the town of Mykonos.

Just down the street from the hotel was the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos which had many artifacts from burial sites related to Delos Island. I particularly liked this series of geometric era designs that show the interfering waves, which I could imagine could be motivated by rain drops in water. This particular clay vessel dated to the 9th century BC. Delos itself was often the treasury of past Greek civilizations and a religious cultural center from 900 BC through AD 100. It was at the center for the Cyclades Islands and considered a wealthy market. A recent excavation even unearthed a goldsmith’s shop near the market street. I hope that we can return to Mykonos and make it to visit Delos during our stay, although we have so much to see, that it might be hard to make it back here.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tour of Athens

Since our house is less than an hour from the center of Athens by public transportation, we will be taking many trips to Athens, so I am likely to be doing multiple posts on the city.  We have already travelled to Athens twice and feel that it would take months in the city to explore all of its wonders. It has archaeological sites and artifacts dating back to the Neolithic, about 6800 BC. It has extensive structures that date from the 8th and 9th century BC through the modern era.

Our first trip into Athens we took the bus from Rafina to Athens until it stopped.  We did not really know where it would end. As it turned out, it stopped about 2 km north of the city center and the Acropolis. Using our handy-dandy iPhones, we mapped our way to the Acropolis and took off for a walk. We had decided not to bring a stroller for the kids, because we have found the sidewalks in Greece to be variable. This meant that we soon had two kids riding on our shoulders. About half way along the walk, we decided to stop for a morning café. The place we chose was outside of a nice large building that obviously looked important.  After asking our waiter, we found out that we had landed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which was one of the sites that we wanted to see. You might think that we should have been able to figure this out from the maps, but most of the maps (including the iPhone map and Google Maps were mostly in Greek and we are still figuring out the alphabet). The museum was amazing, but the kids where not so psyched about walking through room after room of artifacts that they were not allowed to touch, so I took them outside to play with the pigeons so that Karla could enjoy the museum in some peace.

From there, we walked the city streets towards the Acropolis which you could see on the hill through the city buildings. We passed many nice shopping streets and many old churches. The number of ancient buildings in Athens is amazing and the way that they are integrated into the modern city landscape is interesting. L2 was getting very tired and actually fell asleep with me carrying him, so we stopped on a stone wall north of the Byzantine Church of Panaghia Kapnikarea on Ermou Street.  This is one of the oldest churches in Athens and was built in the 11th century. It is surrounded by modern architecture and lots of shops which makes an interesting dichotomy with the church.

We passed through the Monastraki area (which has a handy metro station which we started to use as our access point after that). This square has an old Pantanassa church monastery from the 10th century in it (for which the square is named). This area is the junction of many small city streets with cafés along the alleyways and a flea market off of one side. It is also very close to Hadrian’s Library and the access to the Ancient Agora.

The Ancient Agora was the central public space of ancient Athens and is thought to have been built in the 6th century BC. It is located at the base of the Acropolis with great views up to the Parthenon and the temple Erechtheion which was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon.

Many sculptures are housed in the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora which was originally built in the 2nd century BC. This original building was also destroyed by the Heruli (an East Germanic Tribe) in 267AD when they sacked Athens and was reconstructed between 1952 and 1956.
There are many street artists throughout the city. They produce all types of art from drawings of you that they will do while you wait to Byzantine icons that are printed on paper made by the artist and aged and illustrated.

There is a small scale tourist train that goes around the acropolis in about one hour and leaves form Constitution square.  I think we will take this at some point in the future as L1 would really enjoy the train ride and it is an easy way to get around to see the sites.

The old royal palace was built by King Otto of Greece in 1843 and today houses the Hellenic parliament. It faces Syntagma Square which has another very handy bus stop. The building has a ceremonial guard which has a very elaborate changing of the guard ceremony.

We finally found our way through the winding alleys to a road that went up to the Acropolis and passed by the Roman Agora. Construction of the Roman Agora started in 15BC.

The Parthenon is an amazing building that was originally built in the 5th century BC. The Ottoman Empire used the building as an ammunition dump and the building was partly destroyed when these munitions where ignited by Venetian bombardment in September 1687. In 1975 the Greek government started a concerted effort to restore the Parthenon. That work continues today using marble from the original quarry which stands out as a bright white, but will weather to a similar tan color as the aged stones. Previous restoration work had used iron bars to support some of the structure, but the resulting oxidation and rusting caused the iron to expand which has actually caused more damage to the original stone. Any modern reinforcement is made of titanium.

From the top of the Acropolis, you can look down in to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus which was completed in 161 AD. It was originally a covered structure, but the building and roof were destroyed by the Heruli in 267AD. It was renovated in 1950 to seat 5,000 people and is used today as an outdoor theater for concerts and plays.

I have been impressed with the graffiti throughout Greece and other locations in Europe. I had always thought of graffiti as a US art form, but it is interesting to see the ancient structures in Europe next to these modern graffiti paintings. I was also impressed that much of the original archaeological work throughout Athens was instigated by the expansion of the metro system. The excavations for the metro unearthed many archaeological sites and created an interesting landscape that is a combination of ancient structures, more modern buildings, modern metro rails, and recent graffiti in bright colors. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sustainability in Greece

I have observed many practical sustainability solutions in Greece that match its climate and environment. Solar panels are fairly common and over 50% of the houses have solar water heaters on their roofs.  Flying in to Greece, we saw some intensive wind farms on islands like Evia where they have the wind capacity for energy production. The Island of Mykonos has some historical wind mills from the 16th century that have been maintained and are now a tourist attraction for the island.

The houses have localized heating and cooling units, rather than central air conditioning.  This enables one to set room temperatures (like in the bedrooms) where it is comfortable, but the hallways are allowed to remain at the ambient temperature.  This localized heating/cooling system is more efficient as you are not working to heat and cool the entire house. I saw the same systems in Townsville, Queensland, Australia which were used much more for cooling while I was there in January.

It is common to dry cloths outside or on a portable drying rack rather than to use a dryer. The climate is conducive to outdoor drying for most of the year and we found that the drying racks work quite well inside under the heater in the winter time when it might be cold of raining outside.

Most of the houses have stone tile throughout the house which would be cooling in the warm summer time which dominates this climate.  In the winter, rugs on top of these tiles help to keep your feet warm. We were instructed to only turn on the localized water heaters (one per floor) 20 minutes before hot water is needed. We founds (through trial and error) that the electrical system is not up to having the water heaters on more continuously or with larger appliances like a clothing washer. This apparent limitation actually forces the community to save energy by necessity.


Much of the Greek economy (especially around Athens) is driven in a large part by the tourism industry. We visited the island of Mykonos from March 1-3 and everyone from the travel agent, to our local baker, and our taxi driver noted that we are traveling during the off season and after mid-Marc
h, and really during peak summer, the town is dominated by tourists. It was very nice to visit Mykonos without large crowds although we found it busy enough with local activity. We have visited Athens twice and the city and its archaeological ruins seem to always be packed with tourists seeing these amazing ancient ruins.

Recycling bins are the norm. The trash system in Rafina is dominated by trash dumpsters every few blocks and these almost always have a recycling bin next to them. We found on the ferry that recycling bins where easier to find that trash cans. Many of the products are marked with a recycle symbol (the curved black arrow) and many of the products had FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) tags as well which show that the products are manufactured from sites using sustainable forest practices.

The urban vegetation is often made up of local well-adapted tree species such as this road lined with olive trees (picture on the left). I was surprised to find that much of the streets are lined with a now-familiar tree species from Australia, the Eucalyptus trees (picture on the right which is actually located just across the street from the previous picture). Eucalyptus trees are one of the dominant tree species. It is interesting that when we were in Melbourne, most of the urban trees where actually introduced from Europe and North America. Now when you travel to Greece or southern California, you find the Australian Eucalyptus trees lining the streets.

The public transportation is quite good in Greece. We are staying in the town of Rafina on the east coast of Greece. We can take a bus into Athens that runs every half hour and takes about 40 minutes to get in to the city. Another bus runs every half hour to the airport which takes about 20 minutes. The metro system in Athens is very efficient and can get you all over the city (including about a third of the way to Rafina). There is also a fairly extensive train and bus system that can be used to travel throughout Greece (although the train to Thessaloniki in the north of Greece would take about 7.5 hours).

We are spending this three month period in Greece without a car. It has been an interesting experience and we regularly walk 2 miles a day. Grocery shopping for four people is probably the hardest chore since the closest full grocery store is ¾ mile away over some pretty steep hills. We also found it hard to keep the kids from getting into trouble at the store with them both wanting to push the carts and pull everything off of the shelves, we have worked it out so that Karla entertains the kids at home while I take a cart to the store to stock up for a week at a time. We do other shopping at a closer bakery, green grocer, or dry goods store. Those stores are about half the distance but are more expensive, so we have been trying to maintain our larger shopping at the grocery store.  We found that the four of us go through about 1 liter of milk a day which means the weekly shopping trips are heavy work. The good news is that a fresh baker is closer than the grocery store, so all of our bread is fresh and we have been systematically trying all of the cookies that they produce (for scientific study of course).