Saturday, May 31, 2014

Thrill Ride to Postcard-perfect Mykonos, Crowds and a Geometry Lesson

A nice paint job for a wreck

Generally, when I write about a travel destination, I try to write, with a theme and a hook that pulls the story together as a unified piece at the end. Our visit to Mykonos was a random meandering over a short timeframe, almost an afterthought after a full morning at the ancient religious complex and residential ruins on Delos, leaving me a series of pretty memories that can fill a sketchbook, but which lack any structure. If you are looking for a sublime treatise on travel in the Cyclades, leave now.

Following our morning excursion, my father, son and I were originally scheduled to return to the Ruby Princess, and we assumed we'd need to arrange our own transport to Mykonos for the afternoon. But heavy seas meant our return tender had to detour to the sheltered city pier, which saved us 10 € for a one-way taxi. The cruise port is only about a kilometer from Mykonos Town (Chora), but a winding road with very narrow shoulders makes for the pedestrian version of Russian roulette. Happily we had stowed the Mykonos edition of the ever-dependable Tom's Port Guide series in my camera bag and hadn't left it on the ship, so we were prepared for the unscheduled walking tour.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Rocks That Look Like...Rockets

Pinnacles desert at Nambung National Park, 230 Km north of Perth, near Cervantes in Western Australia. The Pinnacles are resistant erosional remnants of a calcite-cemented sandstone, capped by calcrete. Shadows make for great photos here at sunset - though I was taken by the playful light of quickly-passing midday clouds here. It might have worked better as a video in this case.

Wildflower season (August-early October) is another special time to visit this part of Australia.

The most dramatic scenery always includes rocks.

February, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ancient Delos - Wind, Cats, Beheadings and Piracy in Classical Greek Suburbia

I liked desolate, windblown Delos as much as the Acropolis of Athens but for different reasons. Ancient Athens is a place I dreamed of visiting; the island of Delos was a surprise. While the Acropolis can be overwhelming, the relatively pedestrian, expansive ruins of Delos are more approachable. The site gives a glimpse of how people lived their daily routine between the 7th and 1st centuries BC, in a working town of approximately 20,000 people. The surroundings of the Acropolis were possibly much like Delos' residential and commercial areas 25 centuries ago, but they are now buried under modern Athens. Conjoined in my recent memory, the two sites when contrasted give a fuller picture of life in antiquity.

The agora of the Italians dates from the late Hellenistic period and was used by merchants from what is now Italy. It is near the commercial harbour of Delos. Mt. Kynthos rises in the distance. There, according to the Greek myth, the Titaness Leto gave birth to Apollo. It is also the birthplace of his twin Artemis, also known by her alternate name of "Kynthia," (Cynthia today) after this place. Just as interesting to me was the well-engineered drainage trench on the floor of the agora. Ruins extend up the flanks of Mt. Kythnos, giving a sense of the scale of this site.

What is missing today from Delos is the people. Athens still has a surging humanity familiar to its monuments; workaday Delos is frozen in time, and our touristic fascination with its ancient suburbia would be alien to its ghosts. The island is now deserted but for cats and a few caretakers, and the site's breadth means large groups of visitors can disperse into scattered, intimate groupings, voices carried over the wind. Otherwise, there is the howling silence of rustling grass and blowing sand.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Sometimes circumstances make all the difference. I took this picture the day after I captured Echinus Geyser in similar conditions. It's amazing what a point-and-click camera can do when you luck into good lighting. Until it erupts again and wipes out human civilization, Yellowstone is a fantastic place. After that it won't be so popular.

May 1992. Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA. Hot springs over terraces of travertine (rapidly precipitated calcium carbonate deposited by mineral springs).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Acropolis of Athens, a Bedrock Foundation under Ruins

Athens is a dichotomy, a mix of magnificent ancient ruin and modern debasement. I expected something epic, and I found that, but I also found an ordinary city. Residents eat, sleep, work and play there, living out daily life without much awe of, or reflection on, their storied surroundings. It reminds me of the difference between a summer cottage and a winterized house on a lake. One is a dream; the other is reality, with bills, chores and a daily drive to work. Some districts of Athens are visually appealing, and some can only generously be called shambolic. But ancient Athens surely had its own lowbrow districts too, probably in the same areas. How time does soften our perceptions.

I'm pondering this as I sit by the terrace pool of the Ruby Princess, overlooking the port of Piraeus and Athens. It's hot, but not quite the sweltering of recent days. In the hazy distance is the Acropolis, our main destination this morning. My son Thomas is not here, preferring to read in our suite. He hasn't put on his swimsuit except for reluctantly at Glyfada beach on Corfu. I'm starting to think I should have just got us a hotel room in New Jersey for two weeks and called it Rome. It would have saved some coin.

A floating hotel is not a bad way to skirt the coastline and islands of Greece.

Modern Athens from the port of Piraeus. The hill of the Acropolis stands far in the hazy distance (center).
We started early, sparing ourselves exertion and exposure in the heat of the afternoon. The bus trip to the Acropolis from Piraeus takes about 30 minutes. It takes about eighty steps from the base of the edifice to the Propylea, the monumental gate to the temple complex. A few elderly tourists dropped off in the face of that, waiting out the tour in a shady spot below1. How many had yearned for a lifetime to come here and were finally defeated by the last sets of stairs? I wondered how they felt. Outwardly, there appeared to be stoic acceptance. Maybe with age it's easier to accept the disappointing outcome of a well-fought struggle, like a farmer who has learned not to cry over blighted crops, but has found solace in the effort.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Picture of the Moment - These are a few of my favorite things...

Few things appeal to the likings of both men and women. The rare goods that do probably sell well.

I spotted this fine pair displayed at the Minerva Chocolaterie, on a cold summer's day in Bath, England on July 16, 2009. I'll take my nip and tucker in a C-cup, please. The premier attraction of the city is the well-preserved Roman-era baths, but this dark chocolate handful certainly stood out. It's proof that classical sculpture has at last returned from the Dark Ages to the the realistic aesthetics of antiquity.

I thought, "It's comfort food and a fair trade. The £ you spend become the pounds you put on your waistline." I spotted no adjacent confectionery babies, which explains why this wasn't a milk chocolate bosom.

I'm not sure the sign was required. This work of art is suitable for consuming tête-à-tête.

There was a fire in the shop in March of 2012 (allegedly related to the cooking equipment), and I think the venue went bust. Its Facebook page says "permanently closed." The original mold may have gone up in smoke, but these aren't the first chocolate body parts, and with 3D printers one can imagine what the future has in store.

Chocolate elbows.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Olympia - fleeting immortality in the sun of Ancient Greece

Near the port of Katakolon, Greece and site of the ancient Olympic games for a millennium, Olympia is a reminder that nothing made by the hand of man lasts forever.

The village of Katakolon is really nothing more than a short avenue of shops and cafes servicing the port. There are the nearby underwater ruins of ancient Pheia and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, but the main attraction for those who are not near-dead is Olympia. Our shore excursion did not begin until 12:15 pm. Even the sleeping habits of my fourteen-year-old son Thomas were accommodated, and our breakfast aboard the Ruby Princess was more of a brunch. Access to the archaeological site was via a 30-minute motor coach ride through olive orchards and scattered vineyards of the western Peloponnese.

Katakolon as seen from the decks of Ruby Princess

Ruins at Olympia date from circa 776 BC (the first definitively recorded games) through to Roman times until wet blanket Emperor Theodosius put a damper on the party after AD 393. Here, Thomas got his first taste of the ancient sites that so interest him since our family visit to Bath, England in 2009. Though our admission was included in Princess Cruise Line's shore excursion package, standard entry costs €6, €3 for a child; rates for both site and museum are €9/5.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Picture of the Moment - Board of Trade Saloon

If there is still a bastion of the American wild west, it is located at the historic Board of Trade saloon (BOT) in Nome, Alaska, "Headquarters of the Sin City of Nome." Siberia is only 164 miles away, so you can't get much further west.

It's easy to forget a night at the BOT, but not because the BOT is forgettable. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. What happens at the BOT is common knowledge across the Seward Peninsula the next day. The annual Iditarod dog-sled race essentially ends at its doors on Front Street, which is convenient for thirsty contestants after a long race, and their handlers too.

Not much has changed since I visited here in 1992, except maybe some of the endorsements, and the bar is now smoke free. The bay windows to the right fronted (or at least used to) a gift shop specializing in locally-carved walrus ivory or an oosik.
Inhibitions are often left at the door, and there were times I wished for Windex and a full body covering of cellophane. I have clear memories of some patrons wandering out onto Front Street in a stupor beneath the midnight sun. Summer's light made it easier to drive around the prostrate, unconscious bodies. But I mostly remember a motley, cross-cultural gathering of collegial people looking for a spot of company in a climate that encouraged neighborly individualism. Any visitor to Nome is a local attraction, but stay for any time and you'll be absorbed into the fabric, a familiar cheechako. I was never wanting for a dance partner at the BOT, of any age.

There are plenty of other things to do in Nome than drink, particularly if you are a birder or gold prospector, or look for adventure in the nearby Kigluaik Mountains. And inebriation isn't my idea of a good time, except for its opportunities for sociological commentary. But there is always the bingo hall upstairs, free food on bingo nights (but not the drinks) and the other eight saloons, and no visit to Nome is complete without a visit to its oldest saloon, established in 1900 at the height of the gold rush.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Corfu - Burning on the Beach and Steaming in Church

Corfu is the second largest Ionian island, roughly shaped like an upper-case Σ (sigma), which is fitting for a Greek isle. It's hard to write anything about 'a day in Corfu' that sums the essence of such a big island. However, if you focus your visit on beaches, forts and monasteries, I think you'll have as much success as can be had. The mythical Jason and Odysseus also visited here by boat, and Hercules figures in local legend. All three tarried here with beautiful women before there were the forts or monasteries, so the island has that going for it.

A typical view of the rugged coastline from the monastery at Paleokastritsa.

Clocks were set forward an hour last night, so my son Tom was especially difficult to wake up this morning. As if on cue, once we were in the ship's theater waiting to debark, several people proved it's possible to stuff up even the simplest instructions, like lining up single file. I wonder how much of the theoretical work on chaos theory was inspired by cruise ship passenger behavior.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Commute

My little commuting poem for the day

"The Commute" - M. Orobona, 5/1/2014

photo from