Friday, November 23, 2012

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Tim:  Dubrovnik is a beautiful city. Our accommodation was located about 1.5 miles out of the old historical center of town. We walked down to town in the early evening to find dinner. The old town is located inside the 13th century wall that were meant to provide safety from invading Turks. The city is located on the Adriatic see, so one of the walls is built right out of the water. The walls of Dubrovnik are considered the best preserved castle walls in all of Europe and are the number one listed tourist attraction in all of Croatia. The walls are still maintained and it is possible to walk on top of the entire two kilometer wall. We did just that in about an hour an a half of walking and viewing from the many towers that rested along the walls.

We had read about cliff jumping as an activity in Dubrovnik, and we spied a good spot on our jaunt from our hotel while walking along the coast. A small trail with stairs lead down the rocky cliff side to a small rock outcropping that had a metal ladder coming out of the water back onto the rocks. We saw this on our first day, but opted to wait as the sun was behind clouds. We made it down there the next day, but the surf had picked up and it was not very sunny so the cliff jumping did not work out. We did however meet some very gracious locals who where having a Sunday afternoon party on a platform on the rocks. They invited us for desserts and coffee and we talked to the group of eight old men for an hour or so before heading back to our room.

Our fourth day in Dubrovnik we decided on some SCUBA diving. It was difficult to find a diving shop that was even open this time of year even though it was not very cold out. Croatia is known for its excellent diving and large number of ship wrecks off of its coast. We almost backed out of our dives that morning because it was quite overcast and had rained that night. We did end up going for it and had an amazing time.

Our first dive was to island with a saltwater lake that was connected to the sea by a cave and a 15 meter underwater tunnel. During the war there in 1992 there was an armory located on the island. Underwater we could see many large artillery shells and even rifle cartridges. On the second dive we went near the dive center to a small rocky island with coral reefs jutting out from it. We saw many octopus hiding under rocks as well as several moray eels and tuna.

Amber:  Dubrovnik is beautiful.  After driving about seven hours through Montenegro from Albania, we arrived in the dark and found our little guest house.  It was very cozy, complete with a little orange tree and roses in the front terrace.  We hiked down to the "Old Town" of Dubrovnik and had a fun dinner of steamed muscles and a huge pot of seafood risotto at a cozy restaurant on the harbor.  While the food was delicious, we were clearly no longer in Albania... dinner with two glasses of wine and a .5 L of beer was $35!!  We decided we needed to be more budget conscious and to cook in while in Dubrovnik.

Diving was really fun.  At first, I was a little nervous about the cave diving.  Our guide even scolded me for swimming too fast and going past octopus he had sighted.  I seriously just wanted to get to the tunnel from the open ocean, swim through it, and pop out safely into the island saltwater lagoon, alive, and then slow down and look at octopus.  Of course, once in the water and swimming through the tunnel, it was beautiful and safe, so my concern was unnecessary.  Thankfully, our second dive was filled with octopus hiding in cracks in the reef or under rocks.  We lost count of how many we found.  They were so cool!  They were completely covered except for their little eyes poking out of their hiding spot. Tim found a huge moray eel and was able to yell loud enough at me to make me turn around and watch the arm sized neck and head of the purple moray eel, glaring at us from his hole.

Tim:  We hiked up Srg Mountain, the hill behind Dubrovnik for a pretty view of the city. The mountain top had an old French fort built during the Napoleon occupation in the 1700s. We had to make sure to stay on the main trail. We were warned that the whole mountain was laid with mines during the 1992 aggression and although they were said to all be removed... you never know.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thessaloniki, Greece to Tirana, Albania

Tim:  A five hour drive from Athens and we reached Thessaloniki in Northern Greece. We passed Mount Olympus on the way up the coast. Thessaloniki has a large population of University students which helps give the city an energetic vibe. Our first evening was the final day of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. We watched a foreign film in subtitles... interesting.
Thessaloniki is located on the coast, and the main stretch of walkway along the coast was full of bars and cafes that were the most crowded we had seen anywhere in Europe. It was refreshing to see so many people out. We had a delicious seafood dinner with wine. Thessaloniki's most famous landmark is called the White Tower. There were also Roman ruins from the time of Galerius (Roman Emperor) His mausoleum is still standing and was converted to a Mosque at a later time. 
Originally Emperor Galerius' mausoleum later converted into a mosque 

                                                  The White Tower

After three nights in Thessaloniki we departed for Tirana the capital of Albania. The GPS said it would take about five hours, but it ended up taking more like seven hours. We had to drive through Macedonia on the way. At the boarder we had to buy a supplemental car insurance police for $75 to drive through the country for two hours.  Besides this minor hick-up we had not issues reaching Tirana. We had heard bad things about Albania including the roads, the garbage, the people, etc.... We found it to be quite pleasant. The roads were not bad, a little narrow, but manageable. The people were very friendly and accommodating. And the garbage was no worse than any other developing country that we have visited. The city itself was not that exciting, but the beer and food was the cheapest we had seen in any of our Europe travels.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Delphi, Greece

Amber:  After viewing the Athens Archaeological Museum (it was awesome, artifacts from as early as 2,000 BC), it was time to pack up Heather, her very nice Osprey carry-on sized suitcase, and a bag made out of tarp material. It was hideous, bulky and heavy.  We filled it with three beer steins we had take  from Oktoberfest, our two sleeping bags, lots of cloths we didn't want, a pair of shoes, two guide books about Italy, and anything else we could cram into it. The zipper broke when I zipped it up, but it appears that these cheep bags know this is going to happen, as it came with a back up.  We bought packing tape, and wrapped it twice around the width and for good measure, length wise as well.  So, off went Heather, basically an REI model, wearing her stylish travel Patagonia, her Osprey suite case, and... Tim's and my bag.  She went from cute to "Bag Lady", with just one article of luggage.
When Heather came over to visit us, she had an itinerary for her nineteen day stay that would take Tim and I our entire five and a half month trip to complete.  So, we unfortunately had to simplify what she wanted to do so that we could actually enjoy the places we were visiting.  That meant Heather had done a bunch of research that benefited Tim and I, even after she went home.  Delphi was one of those sights.  And it was awesome. Thanks Sissy!!
Our on drive from Athens we came around the corner of the windy road to see the ruins of Delphi. Before finding our hotel we went for a visit. We checked out the museum first and saw many of the better preserved sculptures and artifacts. The Delphi site is in a beautiful setting in the opening of a gorge that leads into the valley below with views of the gulf just 10 kilometers away.
Ancient Delphi was a place of great importance for the better part of 1000 years from 600 BC to 400 AD.  The site was the location of the Oracle who apparently sat on a tripod over a crevasse inside the temple of Apollo and inhaled ether fumes going into trance. At this point she mad some mumblings that could only be understood by priests who translated the Oracles language into words that could predict the future. 

On our second day in Delphi we opted for an 11.3 mile hike into the Peloponnese Mountains behind Delphi. This was on the ancient trail used by worshipers to visit the cave used for the worship of Pan and for Dionysian orgies. This is said to be one of the oldest still used trails in human history. The hike was beautiful and we had nice views of Mount Parnasos. After four hours and a 700 meter ascent we reached the cave.
Our third morning on our way out of town, we stopped at the temple complex that included the temple of Athena just 500 meters below that of the Temple of Apollo. There were four different temples here built over hundreds of years.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Athens, Greece

Amber:  We arrived at our budget hotel in Athens and while Heather and I checked us into our rooms, Tim parked the car and literally watched someone sitting on the street corner, shooting up with heroin.  We laughed about it, determined to see the historical sights Athens had to offer.  As we walked down the main road towards the city center, we stumbled across another group of junkies, sitting in plain view and using syringes on the street corner. We also found a collection of prostitutes, and an abundance of homeless people, all scattered along the alley ways framing the main road.

The Acropolis and the Parthenon closed about at the time we arrived, so we just soaked up the sunset over Athens.  The sunset was beautiful, and sitting on a hill made of marble was fun.  It was cool, slippery in flip-flops and very smooth to the touch.  We went down to the 'tourist' quarter and ordered a bottle of wine, watching a very quiet plaza.  It wasn't long before a group of young children came up, asking us for money. We said no, and they went a ways off, and another group of slightly older children walked by and threw shreds of plastic at us while we sat. Not the best first impression we've had on a city, so its a good thing that it had such cool history to offer us in the morning!

The next morning we were able to make our way back to the Acropolis and view the Parthenon.  The sun had come out, and it was a beautiful, hot day.  We got into the very long line to get tickets, and finally made our way to the stair way leading up into the Acropolis.  The stairs were crowded with a tour finding a bit of shade on the steps.  We had a laugh about an old dog that had found a spot right in the middle of the action, and was sprawled out on the cool marble steps, completely at home in the chaos and sound asleep.  No big deal that the marble steps he was sleeping on were from about 450 BC.

The Parthenon, the Acropolis and the city of Athens is dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena.  The myth has it that there was a competition between Athena and Poesidon as to who the city should be named after.  Athena provided an olive tree, the first in Greece.  It symbolized peace and prosperity.  Poesidon offered a horse, representing war and conquering.  Others say he thrust his trident into the soil and a large spring of salt water spewed forth, symbolizing war and the sea.  Either way, Poesidon lost, and Athens had been named in honer of their patron Athena ever since.

Tim:  After two days in Athens, we were up for a beach day. We drove an hour and a half southeast of Athens to the Temple of Poseidon which is located on the coast on a small point near the most southern tip of the peninsula. Afterwards, we found a decent stretch of beach to relax for the afternoon and do some swimming.   

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Onward to Greece - Ioanniana and Meteora

Amber:  We headed towards Greece via ferry from Brindisi, Italy and landed in Igoumenitsa.  Our Italian is horrible, our Greek, nonexistent.  The first part of our trip had us going to Ioannina for two days to explore the deepest gorge in the world, per the Guinness Book of World Records.  Vikos Gorge was beautiful, and a very nice break from the hustle and bustle of all the historical sights we have been viewing.  We weren't sure if the part we hiked in was actually as deep as the Grand Canyon, but it was pretty just the same.  The gorge was terrifying as we followed a very narrow trail that had been chiseled out of the mountain face, very, very high up, by monks.  Tim was very confident about how safe we were, Heather and I were less so.  In fact, I felt like we were going to fall to our death at every step. I especially felt this way when Tim got a little shaky about the trail, and actually held on as opposed to skipping along, trying to convince us we were as safe as could be, thousands of feet above the gorge floor.

After our hike, we found a great little restaurant in Ioanniana, serving gyros.  Spirros, one of the cooks, could actually speak English, and helped us order, then sent us upstairs to drink really, really nasty Greek wine (we were encouraged to dilute the flavor with a coke) while he cooked our food.  Finally, our meal arrived, and it was wonderful.  We all had admitted to ourselves that we were sick of eating pizza upon leaving Italy, so the soft pita bread, feta cheese, Tadzhik  red onions, tomatoes  and grilled chicken were a great change.  Spirros taught us our first Greek word, "Afaresto" - thank you.

Tim:  Meteora was only an hour and half drive from Ioannina. As we arrived by car, the sight was beautiful. Tall domed rock deposits jutting out of the flat surrounding area with monasteries and nunneries built precariously on top. After getting settled we took t he trail that lead up to several of the monasteries. There first one we visited was the one used in the James Bond film "Four your eyes only." Monks built the monasteries in the 12th century to keep themselves safe from invading Ottoman Turks. Originally, the only access to the monasteries was by baskets that would be lifted from the ground or rope ladders that would be let out the side of the buildings. Of the dozen or so that were originally occupied on six are still in operation today. Nowadays there are roads and stairs cut into the rock to each of the operating monasteries. It was still a really cool experience an the place is beautiful. Apparently the band, Linkin Park name their album, "Meteora" after they saw this place.  Meteora is the name of the largest monastery and it means, suspended in air.

See more photos at our facebook album.

Our first afternoon of hiking was beautiful and we visited two of the sights. The next day it rained and rained and rained with thunder and lighting two. We needed the exercise so we went for it anyway and hiked in the pouring rain.

See more photos at our facebook album.