Europe

Hyde Park in the spring was a colorful place

We spent the last two weeks of April and the first few days of May on our first foreign trip since landing in New York last January. The main goal was taking my brother and sister-in-law to Italy, but we decided to tack on a few days in London at the start of things. Oddly, in our 68-month adventure around the world (and around and around) we never once set foot in England. And since we have a friend there we wanted to visit, this was as good a time as any to stop by.

First, the friends. The first night we had dinner and drinks with Matt, a former employee who had since moved to London. Forgot to take pictures while we were talking and catching up, though, so nothing to see here.

Mark & Natasha

Next up was a day with Luba and Natasha. We met them when we biked in Japan back in April 2017. A native Russian, Luba lives in London now and we’ve been eager to visit. She was joined on the bike trip by her childhood friend Natasha who was then still living in Moscow. Fast forward two years and Natasha has moved to Germany but entirely coincidentally was, with her six-year-old son Maxim, visiting Luba the same weekend we were there. So we got to see both of them!

And Mark & Luba

You never know with something like that if the fun we had in Japan was a one-off deal, something about the bike trip or whatever, but we just had a fabulous time with the three of them. Little Maxim was cute; he didn’t speak English nor could he understand my very rudimentary German or Mark’s more accomplished Russian. Still, somehow we got along just fine. And visiting with Luba and Natasha – walking around, hanging out in a park, dinner – was just total fun. So that was good.

And, needless to say, there are some great museums in London. We managed to spend a lot of time in the British Museum and the National Gallery, both great museums, along with a shorter visit to the National Portrait Gallery for a good refresher course in post-Tudor England.

The Rosetta Stone is a highlight of the British museum. It is inscribed with a decree issued by the Egyptian Pharaoh in 196 BC in hieroglyphics, demotic script, and ancient Greece (as the Ptolemaic rulers of the time were Greek). Thus historians were for the first time able to decipher hieroglyphics. Some people think it would be more appropriate in an Egyptian museum.

One of the interesting things to observe in the British Museum is their (appropriate) sensitivity to the issue of whether some of the items there – particularly the “Elgin Marbles” acquired (looted?) from the Greek Parthenon in the early 19th century – belong there. Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, claimed that he had permission, an official decree, from the central government of the Ottoman empire, who then occupied Greece. That document has never been found, though, notwithstanding that there are a wealth of documents from that period.

Meanwhile, the British Museum is careful to point out that other pieces from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, the National Museum in Copenhagen, and of course the Acropolis Museum in Athens. They explain that the sculptures that remain are “divided roughly equally” between London and Athens and that in fact they “cannot for conservation reasons be returned to the temple. Even those that have until recently remained on the building are now being removed to the New Acropolis Museum.” Umm, the issue is returning them to Greece, not to the elements on the Acropolis. And the fact that other museums have very modest collections of these sculptures is a very different issue from having fully half of the remaining sculptures. To put it mildly, the Museum’s justifications didn’t convince me.

Okay, so some controversy. Nevertheless we definitely need to make London a more-frequent destination.

Emperor Hadrian and his favorite boy-toy Antinous. Some museums are discrete in the descriptions of Antinous, but not the British Museum. They say simply “Antinous was Hadrian’s lover.” Okay, then, that’s settled.

A portrait of Queen Anne

And the current queen

And a fabulous piece that showed Dame Zaha Hadid, one of the great architects of the modern era, in constantly changing colors

Here we are enjoying spectacular spring weather in London

Hanging out with Natasha in a park along the Thames

Maxim & Natasha

I loved the architecture in the Mayfair neighborhood where we stayed.

We stayed at a hotel right across the street from Hyde Park and spent a lot of time wandering around it

Pink & purple, my favorite colors

London sure knows how to make a boy feel welcome!

The Acropolis from the breakfast area on top of our hotel

We’ve been to Athens quite a few times. Whenever you come to Greece you are very likely to fly into or out of Athens — or both. Because it is the epicenter of one of the world’s great historical civilizations, you usually spend a couple days doing the obligatory sights. Those would include the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the museum of archeology, and a few other good ruins.

Jim glows at a great rooftop restaurant with fantastic food that we’ve been to several times

But we’ve done all of those things multiple times, and this time we just didn’t feel like doing any of them. So we were very bad, very lazy tourists.

I think Athens gets kind of a bad rap. Many people do make their one- or two-day stops here, including those obligatory visits to the top sites. And then they kind of dismiss it as a destination unto itself. But since I first came here 34 years ago, I have always really liked this city. It has a gritty kind of beauty. It has great food (but beware the many tourist traps; do your research). And it has a very cool nightlife scene. It’s a city that just has a ton of cool spots to have a drink or linger for hours over an espresso.

Unfortunately, our lazy visit ended on a negative note. After a nice lunch at an Indian restaurant, Jim’s wallet sort of inexplicably disappeared. He had used it to pay the lunch bill. And then we walked a short 10 minutes back to the hotel, at which point he noticed it was gone. Only two things could have possibly happened in that short window of time. He might have left it in the restaurant — but they claim they never saw it. Or he got pickpocketed — though the streets weren’t remotely crowded, so that seems so unlikely. We have a bad feeling that someone in the Indian restaurant kept it for the cash. Nobody has made any attempt to use the credit card or ATM card, so it doesn’t seem like a professional job. Ugh! So much hassle to deal with those things now!

Our hotel had a great rooftop bar with views of the Acropolis, so we encountered culture from a distance

On our other evening out we stopped at one of the cool bars in one of the cool neighborhoods that makes me love Athens

This is the kind of grittiness that makes Athens tick

After a month in Cyprus and Greece we were actually getting a little tired of Greek food, so we had our last lunch at an Indian restaurant. At this moment we are happy because the food was great. Too bad a lost wallet was in our immediate future.

Rhodes – an amazing medieval town made even more atmospheric in a rainstorm

Three years ago Mark & I spent a week on the island of Rhodes and fell in love with it. So when Bart & Ann suggested they wanted to experience one island in addition to Crete we leapt at the chance to go back. The bad news was that because of scheduling issues we only had three days to enjoy it; the good news it was at least as beautiful as we remembered it.

Of course one of the reasons we love Rhodes is because there are cats everywhere

There were definitely a few bumps in the road (bumps in the Rhodes??) for us. First, when making the reservations for two rooms a couple months ago Mark made a mistake. He booked the first room (at Spirits of the Knight, a hotel we loved three years ago) just fine but then somehow booked the other room for a week earlier. They graciously canceled that early/erroneous reservation but didn’t have any rooms at all our first night. Instead we had to stay one night at a different hotel before moving to Spirits of the Knight the next day.

And then our arrival was all messed up. We’d arranged with our hotel to pick us up at the airport but they didn’t show up. Traffic, they said. So we took a taxi to the town gates where they were supposed to meet us because ordinary taxis can’t come into the old town. They didn’t show up there either. Very frustrating.

And then as though those annoyances weren’t enough we had more rain our first days than we’ve ever seen in Greece. OK, it seems as though it never rains at all in Greece though apparently the weather saves it all up for one huge burst. Over several hours it just poured, water running like a river down the cobbled streets as we tried in vain to avoid getting our feet soaked.

In other words Rhodes wasn’t perfect. It was damned good, though. The hotel we spent our first night – the oddly named In Camera Art Boutique Hotel – turned out to be even better than the Spirits of the Knight that we’d loved three years ago. They weren’t great at that whole “transfer from the airport” thing but we had a beautiful room. And even in the pouring rain the old town is simply beautiful, one of the best preserved medieval towns you’ll find anywhere in the world. In breaks in the weather we had opportunities to just wander, to walk at length in what was once something like a moat separating the town from the exterior walls, and to walk on top of the historic walls themselves.

There are some serious medieval remains here

Then there are two of the things we loved the most from three years ago. On our first visit we stumbled onto a dentist office just as it was time to get our teeth cleaned and thought he was really good. So this time we went back. The dentist, one Victor Panagiotakopoulos if you can believe that name, lived and studied for a while in the U.S. and just does a great job. I wonder if there are any other tourists in the world who look forward to going to Rhodes so we can get our teeth cleaned.

Mark and Victor Panagiotakopoulos, with Mark’s newly cleaned teeth

And finally there was one day at the beach. After some pretty intense thunderstorms the weather cleared for our last day so Mark & I headed to our favorite beach from our earlier visit and enjoyed it – and the little Greek taverna at one end of the beach – just as much as we remembered it. Bart & Ann wanted to go to something more remote (and they did) but we had such great memories of that urban pebbly beach with the diving platform that there was no way we would miss it on our one day of beach weather.

The diving platform anchored well offshore from our favorite beach. And just in case you don’t recognize me, yes that’s me mid-jump.

The three days went fast and then Bart & Ann were headed back to the States. This was our third stay with them during this adventure and they are just so easy and fun to travel with. It’s good enough that we ended it considering trying to schedule a bike trip next spring in Bart’s native Netherlands during tulip season. We’ll see.

Meanwhile Mark & I are off for a short stop in Athens before continuing on to Azerbaijan. I mean, who hasn’t always wanted to go to Baku?

One of the entryways into the old town

The narrow streets of the Rhodes

A view across the rooftops from the city walls

The main square during a downpour

Cats love Rhodes too

At the airport in Rhodes we saw this sign telling tourists that establishments are required to accept credit and debit cards and they don’t have to pay if they don’t get a receipt. Bart observed that this is probably a requirement of the European bailout of Greek debt, caused in no small part because of tax avoidance. Mark and I are always annoyed when restaurants claim their credit card system isn’t working, since we figure it’s just a way of avoiding the fees and/or taxes, so we liked this sign.

More beauty in the old town

Mark walked a long time in this area between the exterior walls and the old town. I was being lazy.

Eventually, yes, the sun came out

Feels very olde-fashioned, no?

The old town is chock-filled with great sights like this

And yes, cats