August 9, 2013

Contiki Part 2: Greece


It was pretty evident on the bus that few of us had really considered what was meant by cruising the Greek islands but for some reason a bunch of us thought it’d be as a chartered little Contiki group boat but when we saw ship, it made a bit more sense. Small boat implies sailing, cruise means cruise liner. Our one was a 1600 bedder with a full pool deck and a couple of restaurants. We said goodbye to our Turkish guide and after what seemed like hours in the customs que, I was at the foot of this 9 floor boat where we were photoed and issued with our access cards and keys. It was then we were shown the optional unlimited drinks package. As I explained the offer to a friend who was given a Spanish copy of the page, I saw her eyes light up. Unlimited drinks and ice cream for the 3 day voyage for 60 euros. Judging by the money lost the previous night, we all thought we’d make pretty short work of that break-even point.

It was a bit strange and a real change in pace to be out of the same bus and by chance I no longer had a triple share but had a double cabin to myself. I found a couple of people to join for lunch getting lost in the buffet ques and feeling quite lost and unknowing of the standard practices of cruising. I soon picked up on how to order drinks. We all soon picked up on how to order drinks and as I picked up desert, the ship gave out a tremendous bellow and we left the port of Kusadasi.

We had a big team meeting and met up with another Contiki group who joined the cruise in Athens for the full round trip (just a day longer). We would be setting down anchor soon at the Greek island of Patmos and we were to decide on a bunch of possible tours and options for the following days after that. I went for one tour a day at each of the destinations which seemed to be a difficult but pretty rewarding choice in the end. Landing in Patmos via tender boat was our first taste of the sheer prettiness associated with a cruise as you got all of the costal views and got slotted right into the middle of this little village which was pretty obviously fueled by the steady stream of cruise line traffic. I joined up with Simon, we talked about sustainable architecture and when dropping back in to a fantastic ice cream parlor, we met up with a couple of the girls from the other tour. I spent most of the afternoon with Christina with a nice stroll along the beach in a hopeless attempt to find sun glasses under 100 euro. We settled by the smooth stoned beach for a welcome cool-down before hopping back on the tender to the ship. We enjoyed a nice 4 course dinner, delivered with great speed as she explained with her hospitality experience that they’d divided the floor in to one big rotating restaurant to cater for the hundreds of guaranteed guests for the night.

Tonight was the dual Contiki group Toga party! We all met up to give each other varying degrees of help with toga tying and after reveling in all of the strange looks from other residents, we converged at the Oklahoma bar for our first night of mayhem. There were group photos, human pyramids and countless strolls through the ship’s casino to the nearest bathroom. We certainly paid off that unlimited drinks package that night as we all tested the quality of our toga tying methods and got to know the other Contiki group a bit better. A little group of 4 of us ended up in my room at 4am when the party broke up and we were all gone but with the aid of some after hours pizzas and water we all sobered up a bit till Akor simply passed out on my other bed. It was good night to the others and we called it a night, dreading the impending wake up in under two hours. Akor wasn't going to be making it to the tour in the morning...

I woke on a ship outside Rhodes with just enough time to sleepwalk in to breakfast at 6:50am for the tour rendezvous at the Cancan bar at 7. I was stunned at just how big Rhodes was since it took over an hour to drive across to Lindos, the main sight for the day. Before that we stopped to see the traditional art of the area. We saw pots being turned, etched and painted to create rather beautiful terracotta plates I would have loved to take home. At the base of the Lindos acropolis, I opted for by first donkey ride up the hill. Through the streets of the small town, up the stairs and beside the steep hills as the landscape opened up, the donkey jostled forward in its chain ganged pair. Poor little creature, the guide wasn’t very nice to the one mine was tied to as he’d been walking slow all day so far. The view from the top was simply amazing! surrounded on two sides by sheer cliffs, the foundations of the temple on the Lindos acropolis gave an uninterrupted exhibition of landscape to all of the horizon. On the descent, a cooling orange juice and a lucky find of 10EUR sunnies brought me to the group just in time for a trip to the ice bar. This funny little freezer box sat opposite one of the car parks and no joke. It was a bar, made out of ice so it was understandably quite a shock to walk out from the 37 degrees outside to the neg 10 inside where the ice sculptures and ice glasses and walls were smooth and immaculate. Another bus ride back home and it was lunchtime on the ship.

It was still scorching and I joined the group on a walk down the nearby beach and to the water sports shop on the far side of it. The beaches of Rhodes were full and covered with people right up the far end where we deliberated on whether to parasail or to do one of the other drag-behind-a-boat sort of activities. I was quenched and relieved by the waters while I waited as I met a little group of Aussies and Kiwis who were from the other conditions group. It was eventually my turn on the Stingray so I joined the two South Africans as this blow up platform for up to 4 was hurled around an imaginary racecourse. I think the idea was to just hold on for dear life and not be the one who looses grip before disappearing into the wavey wash behind. At one point one of the girls lost one hand hold day we got air going off a steeper bow wave but she got it back not a moment before the next big jump. With our arms a good 5cm longer and with two fewer layers of skin on our palms, we hit the beach once more.

Sculpted in concrete and laying on the stone sea floor a good 100m offshore, was a permanent diving platform. With 4 levels up to 8 meters high, everyone was testing their courage or trying the next best type of somersault. The best one I saw was a guy who managed to hook the tops of his feet on the 8m platform, hanging upside down on the strength of his toes before he uncoupled himself, dropping straight like a pin, head first into the water. I'd jumped from 10m and other cliffs before but the thing about this one was that the water was just so clear that you could see the intimate features of the rocks not that far under the water. I jumped from the top and it was just high enough to pause and think after having left the platform: "I'm still falling but.. I haven't hit the water yet". We used brute peer pressure till everyone had made the jump and had got their obligatory mid-air photo.

It when we had just finished showering before heading back to the ship that one for the girls asked me the time and I looked to see that my favourite Titanium Skagen, a 21st birthday present, was gone. I went into panic mode for a moment before remembering that I lost a watch once in the past while jumping the cliffs at Blackwall Reach at home. If the waters weren't so incredibly clear and the water not more than 4m deep near the platform, I wouldn't have bothered but instead I told them that I was going back out to go looking for it. I sprinted out and intercepted a passing swimmer as I approached the platform. In broken Spanish and English, I asked to borrow his goggles but he said he'd look for me. He made shallow dives and I treated water, trying to look through the water from above for the dull glint of brushed metal on the rock floor. It was almost 10 minutes after a couple of near misses with platform jumpers that I was going to ask him call of the search but just then he made a slightly deeper dive and where I thought I was about to hear the bad news, he held up the watch he'd pulled from the sea. It was such a remarkable thing! I swam back slower, clutching the watch and was met halfway by two of the girls who were about to join the hunt. Feeling like the luckiest person in the world, we all headed back to the boat before it left the sunny port of Rhodes.

Another night, another party and it didn't take long after getting on the boat that the 5 of us went up to the sky bar, looking over the pool decks from above, that we were back at it. While we ordered cocktails from the bar, Trinity, went down to the pool deck bar where they had ice cream to make us 5 chocolate milkshakes complete with a shot of Baileys.

It was time to scrub up tonight for our formal dinner and then cocktail reception followed by a meet with the captain. With the exception of the dinner, this whole affair was quite a lot of fuss about nothing. It seemed to me like this was the sort of novelty that I could have done without because it seemed like it just entailed a whole lot of queuing for a handshake and a group photo I wasn't going to get anyway. Either way, it wasn't long before we re-took the dance floor, not getting to bed till 3am once more.

I was getting used to those 7am starts and it was just as well because the Palace of Knossos on Crete was great! Sometimes dubbed 'the first European city', this 1700BC palace inhabited by the Minoans had all of the trimmings with running water, piped sewers, two storey buildings and design promoting natural ventilation. All this they accomplished without a standing military and they still had trade partners who were armed (unless they had a massive navy that they haven't found any evidence for yet). I guess no one really wanted to mess with the big local Economic power of the time. We didn't have long in Crete because Santorini was the second stop for the day.

We all took in the arrival over lunch where we entered the caldera of the old super volcano and approached the sheer cliffs of this highly elevated town. We bussed up the perilous cut zig-zag road past the immaculate white washed, blue topped houses of the towns on the way to the title piece being Ios [[[IS THIS THE RIGHT NAME??]]. Melly, Nadia and I were dropping into little paths to try and find the best niche for taking photos of the town, draped over the cliffs when I saw a group of Koreans. There, taking photos of them selves in their usual style were Stella and Sarah from one of my days in Istanbul. While I knew they'd be in Santorini at some point, I never thought we'd actually meet there especially since we only had a couple of hours to roam the place. The astonishment in their face when I called out to Sarah was amazing. So we took our photos and we parted ways again. Maybe we'll meet again in South Korea some day.

Melly, Nadia and I were a little peckish so we saw an awesome menu and plunged into a cafe. There was a little roof terrace and when we climbed the steps, we knew we had arrived at the right place. The height gave us the most spectacular view of the town. I got a freezing yogurt smoothie and nibbled on this amazing fried Greek cheese called [[[INSERT NAME FROM NADIA]]]. We were all just completely absorbed by bliss and as it always does, time caught up to us and I went for a run off to the lookout further down the road before dodging people traffic back to the last bus to the next spot. On the way I found out why the architecture was so uniform in Santorini: Firstly, they all have to be the blue and white you see on the Greek flag or sometimes cream or another light pastel is permitted. Naturally the white helps against the relentless sun too. Secondly, at least one room must have a vault which is safer and much more flexible against earthquakes that have destroyed so many houses in the past.

There were more tourist shops in [[[[INSERT NAME]] but it was pretty nice and after a good perusal, I joined a bunch of people at a bar with super views before we went down to the donkeys. These were much bigger animals than those at Lindos and soon we saw why that made a lot of sense because the cliff face we bussed up before, we were about to go down the donkey trail equivalent. We all agreed after that this ride was probably the best mix of terror and excitement that anyone had had for a long time. It wasn't like a rollercoaster where you know the restraints are made of good steel and have been running every day for the last 10 years without incident. That sort of security makes it easy to be thrown forward at 100kph without batting an eyelid. This was more about holding on to that harness and trying to stop your thongs from slipping out of the foot pieces as this work horse jerks forward down the cobble steps, having to steady yourself each time it slips a little on the smoother ones. As we got a little confidence, we got a bit bolder with photos and one handed rodeo rides. Sunset approached as we descended and you could get an idea of how magical it would be to stay up in the towns to watch it all from the cliffs. The donkeys would stall here and there, would take particular affection to one of the others in front of you or try to overtake on a corner, tackling the steeper gradient stairs on the inside. It got closer and closer to the last tender time so when dismounting, Cristina and I legged it through the narrow roads to the last waiting tender.

We had our bags ready before going out and left them for the porters and the next morning it was all over. We docked at Pireus in the night and after a long wait to clear customs, it was sobs and hugs and last minute exchanging of details as we all said goodbye to our Contiki mates for the last 10 days. It didn't take long to realize that Melly and a bunch of others were heading to the airport around mid-day too so we all caught the bus in after a little morning roam through a sleepy Athens. At the airport it was final goodbyes to the best people and for me it was off to Copenhagen.

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