UNESCO World Heritage Site

Al, Anita, & I beside the Erechtheion, a temple to Athena and Poseidon on the Acropolis

After a couple weeks island hopping in the Cyclades Islands we took a brief, two-day stop in Athens. Mark & I have been to Athens a couple times, including just two years ago, but we were eager to show Anita in particular the Acropolis and other great Greek sites. So off we went.

We were leaving on Friday, when you an see the forecast high was 111 degrees. Definitely eager to get out before that but needless to say the heat on Wednesday & Thursday was oppressive.

The first thing we observed was that in late June when we were there (yeah, I’ve gotten way behind in my posts here) it was hot. Seriously hot. We’d been here in August 2015 and thought it was hot then but this was on a whole new scale. Our strategy was to wait until 6:30 PM before heading up to the Acropolis when it was “only” in the low-90s. Made us pretty reluctant to do a lot of outdoor touring.

Still, even if you’ve seen it before the Acropolis is just a remarkable place. As a common noun, an acropolis is just a citadel built on high ground, typically with steep sides, particularly for defense. As a proper noun the Acropolis is the site of the Parthenon, the ancient temple to the goddess Athena built by the great leader Pericles in the mid-5th century BC during the city’s golden age. It’s faced a lot of challenges in the 2,500 years since then – ravaged by time, blown up by the Venetians in the 17th century when they hit it with artillery fire while the ruling Ottomans used it to store gunpowder, vandalized by Britain’s Lord Elgin in the 19th century when he convinced the Ottoman Sultan to let him remove the best remaining statues – but it remains one of the world’s great sites. So yeah, it was hot, but I still loved it.

Near the Acropolis is the Acropolis Museum, a modern – and air conditioned – building with great displays of Greece’s ancient greatness. Again, we were here two years ago but this time was different for me. I had, you see, recently finished a Anthony Everett’s The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization. Suddenly stuff I’d seen last time but didn’t really understand leapt to life, now seen in a context I just hadn’t understood before. Last time I saw rocks and broken statues; this time I saw a story. Who says an old dog can’t learn something new?

Four of the original Caryatids, female statues taking the place of columns, supporting part of the Erechtheion

That was it with Greece, then. The plan had been that after saying goodbye to Al & Anita, Mark and I would fly to Rome and then catch a train to Lucca (in Tuscany) where Mark would study Italian for a couple weeks. After making those plans, though, I decided to take advantage of Mark’s stationary plans to go back to Minnesota to see my family. Given the flight schedule I would have to spend one night in Rome so Mark decided to spend the night there with me and enjoy the briefest of Roman holidays before he headed north.

It was definitely brief – we arrived in the afternoon and my flight out was at 6:30 AM the next morning – but we made the most of it. Needless to say, there is something cool about leaving the center of one great center of Western history to go to an even greater historic center. We stayed at a very cute hotel just off the Campo de’ Fiori, one of our favorite Roman squares and a short walk from Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s great squares. So there was good food, a big church or two, and a spin through the ancient Pantheon. Not bad for less than 20 hours in Rome.

Our three favorite Italian dishes are saltimbocca ala Romana, vitello tonnato, and eggplant parmesan (clockwise here from upper right). So when we saw all three items on the menu at a restaurant just steps from our hotel, it was a no-brainer.

For me, then, it was a 4:00 AM alarm to catch a 4:30 taxi to the airport. Except that for whatever reason my alarm didn’t go off and I didn’t wake up until 4:18, still needing to shower and pack. It felt a little rushed but by 4:32 – yes, I was late – I was in the taxi, off to Minnesota. Mark got to sleep in before taking a high-speed train north to Florence and then the local to Lucca. Those stories are next.

Mark in front of the Parthenon

Al & Anita up on the Acropolis

Mark and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. The temple was started in the 6th century BC, and Athens’ great builder Pericles tried to finish it in the 5th century BC. It was of such a massive scale, though, that even in the city’s Golden Age they couldn’t complete it. In fact, it sat unfinished until the second century AD when the Roman Emperor Hadrian – a noted Hellenophile – finally finished it. And to be honest, this picture doesn’t exactly belong here. I took it two weeks earlier when we passed through Athens en route to the islands. I forgot to include it in a blog post back then, so I figured this is close enough.

We only had a few hours in Rome but that was still enough to walk through a few grand churches

The view from our great little hotel near Campo de’ Fiori

And Rome’s Pantheon, today a church but originally a temple to all gods. This was also built by Hadrian early in the second century AD. It has been in continuous use since then which I assume must make it the oldest building in the world still in use.

Al & Anita enjoying lunch overlooking Paradise Beach

I’ve fallen further behind writing here than I usually do, largely perhaps because I’ve been having more fun with family than I usually do. I guess that’s not altogether a bad thing.

Mark & I were joined on our last three stops in Greece by my brother Al and his wife Anita. Last year they joined us at Lake Como for what was supposed to be a week-long stay, but on the first day we learned my Dad had died. So that one didn’t work out so well. We were hopeful that this trip would turn out a little better and I can happily report that it did: no one died!

Sunset over the iconic windmills of Mykonos with our hotel in the foreground. Built by the Venetians in the 16th century when they controlled the island, they were used to mill grain into the 20th century.

Our first stop was the island of Mykonos. As Mykonos lies just a mile away from the ancient religious site of Delos, and as the Cyclades Islands are defined as forming a circle around Delos, we’re pretty much right in the center of the Cyclades. Mykonos has a permanent population of a bit over 10,000 but it’s famous – and sometimes notorious – as a major party destination for the well-heeled. Along with Santorini, which Mark & I have visited on two previous occasions, Mykonos is probably the most famous of the Greek isles. Mykonos is also famous for being a gay-friendly island, though I’ll admit I didn’t see any great evidence of that.

Anita took this picture of Mykonos’s narrow but colorful streets

At any rate, our four days there were pretty great. The main town on the island is a warren of gorgeous winding whitewashed streets with sprays of color everywhere. It’s a bit more crowded and touristy than I would like but we’ve had plenty of opportunities to enjoy more sedate islands, too. We rented a car so we could try out a couple beaches and that worked out really nicely. The fist beach was nice, but the second beach – the aptly named Paradise Beach – was, well, a paradise. It’s funny, on previous trips to Greece Mark and I haven’t really experienced great beaches but this time around we’re finding some of the best in the world. Nothing to complain about there!

Paradise Beach!

In addition to beach time, Al & I did a day trip to the island of Delos. Uninhabited today, in ancient times Delos – legendary birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis – was a religious site second only to Delphi for the Greeks. As its religious prominence grew all graves were removed from the island and it was decreed that neither births nor deaths were permitted to occur on the island, though one suspects that enforcement was not perfect. After the Greeks’ war with Persia in the early sixth century BC, Delos was the center of the Delian League, sort of an early NATO pact of small Greek city-states who agreed to provide joint defense against a Persian return. Eventually Athens came to dominate the Delian League and even moved the treasury from Delos to Athens but that’s a story for some other day.

Al had been to the famous Temple of Artemis in Ephesus so he wanted to see the Temple of Artemis in Delos. Here it is!

So that was our fourth island on this Greek journey, the first for Al & Anita. We have one more to go but so far these Greek islands are living up to their reputations and more.

Me and Mark in a riot of red in front of the windmills

Anita and I enjoying the Mykonos waterfront

Anita posing with a pelican who seemed to make his home in the parking lot to our hotel. In 1958 a wounded pelican was taken to Mykonos where he recovered and became an island icon. Killed by a car in 1985 he was replaced by three other pelicans who apparently wander around the town. Strange.

Paradise Beach

A reasonable approximation of how I spend my time on Greek islands

Here are a few other shots of the ruins of Delos

We’ve seen better examples of ancient theaters

And here I am atop the highest point of Delos

Finally, Al & Anita enjoying dinner at Nico’s where we had an excellent table for people watching

Mark in the old train that runs to Sóller from Palma, definitely a better way to travel than cars and planes

Mark in the old train that runs to Sóller from Palma, definitely a better way to travel than cars and planes

We’ve been to nearly all the major islands in the western Mediterranean and we’re making a pretty good dent in the Greek and Turkish islands of the eastern Mediterranean. The biggest gap for us has been the Balearic Islands off of Spain so when we decided to visit Dan & Lorraine in Barcelona we figured we would then explore Mallorca, the biggest of the island group.

Here we are, then, on the northwest coast of Mallorca for four days. Getting here was fun. While the flight from Barcelona to Palma (the main city on the island) was pretty ordinary, you get to Sóller via a classic old train from Palma. And once you get there there’s an even more classic old tram that takes you the two miles down to the port area. So moving around was a lot of fun.

We rode the tram between Sóller and Port de Sóller a bunch of times, and enjoyed it every time

We rode the tram between Sóller and Port de Sóller a bunch of times, and enjoyed it every time

And speaking of moving around… Sóller is a tourist area and for us the big attraction was some spectacular mountain hiking. The Sierra de Tramuntana is a mountain range that runs along the western coast of Mallorca. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 because of its beauty and cultural importance, the area is studded with great hiking trails of which we did a couple during our relatively short stay.

The first was a maybe three-and-a-half hours to the even littler town of Deiá. We were pretty excited when our hotel manager told us about the hike. Deiá, you see, is something of an artist colony, with the great British poet and writer Robert Graves living and ultimately dying there. More to our tastes, the manager told us that Andrew Lloyd Weber has a place there and one night his wife, enjoying a drink with friends, was surprised to see Weber and his one-time musical partner Tim Rice show up and start singing Beatles songs.

The view on the way to Deiá

The view on the way to Deiá

Our Deiá experience wasn’t quite so eventful. It was a beautiful and challenging hike, but no Andrew Lloyd Weber. We did have a great lunch, though, on the terrace of a lovely Italian restaurant and then one of us walked back, up and over the mountains again.

The next day was mostly a rest day, in part due to a bit of on-and-off rain but mostly because I was worn out. Our last day, though, was another great hike, this time nearly five hours to a little town of Tuent. Part of the attraction of doing this hike was that, at well over four hours, there was no prospect of just turning around and walking back. Instead once a day at 4:45 PM a boat pulls up to the little pier at Tuent to whisk you back to Porto de Sóller, the little port town near Sóller proper. Sounded fun.

Along the hike to Deiá and the early part of the hike to Tuent Mark and I would note that while the terrain was beautiful and the sea was, well, the Mediterranean (you need say no more), this was no Capri. Then at one point on the trail to Tuent *bam!* there it was, just a stunning view of the mountains and the sea and the trail and yes, it was just about as good as Capri. So we finished the hike just loving the natural beauty with one looming question: what kind of lunch would we find in Tuent.

The stunning trail on the way to Tuent. Now we understood why it's a UNESCO site!

The stunning trail on the way to Tuent. Now we understood why it’s a UNESCO site!

A woman at our hotel in Sóller had described the hike and boat ride to us and explained that there was one restaurant there. Just one. My expectations were low since if there is only one it probably aims for a pretty low standard. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a beautiful place with a great terrace shaded by huge trees. Good food, good wine, lots of water, and a beautiful setting. You couldn’t really ask for much more.

In other words a great lunch, but with one exception: a group of some 30-or-so French hikers who’d been a challenge to get around on the trail. There were just so many of them, walking fairly slowly, and all of the with those silly walking poles that just take up too much room on the trail. That was OK, but they got to the restaurant just about the same time as we did (after we’d made a wrong turn and detoured by maybe 30 or 40 minutes) and were just obnoxiously loud. There were a number of other guests but somehow the French figured they had a right to chant and sing and just be noisy. Next time I hear someone complain about loud Americans I’ll have a story to tell them.

The boat ride from Tuent to Port de Sóller. Have I mentioned that I love Mediterranean waters?

The boat ride from Tuent to Port de Sóller. Have I mentioned that I love Mediterranean waters?

After an otherwise great lunch (and they did eventually quiet down more or less) we had time to kill before the boat ride, so we just hung around reading. And then we finished it all with a beautiful little boat ride along the coast up to Port de Sóller. Close to perfect!

Besides hiking and food there was plenty to enjoy about Sóller. It’s mostly just a cute little town with cute little streets and a cute central plaza. But it has one of the most interesting train stations you’ll ever see anywhere. Two giants of Spanish art, you see, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, both spent time in the area; Miró in particular spent a lot of time here. So the train station has a little museum with art by both of them. Picassos and Mirós in a train station.

Sóller's big old church right on the main square

Sóller’s big old church right on the main square

And a typical street early in the day

And a typical street early in the day

The other highlight of Sóller is the tram ride down to the port. Port de Sóller is a separate town about two miles away; it’s where you go for a (modest) beach experience and the newer hotels and restaurants are down there. You can walk there (and we did on occasion) and there are buses and taxis that go back and forth. But tourists travel by an old narrow-gauge open air tram that’s just fun to ride on. Definitely touristy and more expensive than the alternatives, but fun and pretty much worth it.

Sunset at Port de Sóller

Sunset at Port de Sóller

Thus our first stop on Mallorca was a success. One of the things we learned here was that Mallorcans actually have their own language. It’s close to Spanish and for a while we thought it was Catalan, which was strange because this isn’t Catalonia. At some point though someone explained to Mark that Mallorcan is in fact its own beast, a separate language close to both Spanish and Catalan but also different from both, reflecting the separate history that the island has had.

Maybe we’ll come back some day so Mark can study Mallorcan.

First, though, we’re off to Alcúdia up on the northern tip of Mallorca and then on to Palma, the major city.

Another view along the coast

Another view along the coast

Mark loves these quaint bicycle pictures

Mark loves these quaint bicycle pictures

Mark at a lookout high above Port de Sóller

Mark at a lookout high above Port de Sóller