Northern Greece: Thessaloniki and the Great Monasteries of Meteora

My next stop in Greece was to the site of Meteora. where a number of mountain top monasteries were build starting in the 14th Century (although monks have been living in the area since the 9th Century). The monasteries are surrounded by the village of Kastraki and the town of Kalambaka. From access to restaurants, cafes, etc, stay in town, for proximity to the monasteries stay in the village (although you can still easily walk from the town to the monasteries).

I had seen nice pictures of the site but I must say when I got there, even the city map was impressive. This was a billboard map and I didn’t have one myself. However, I thought the little dotted line path to the top would likely be more interesting than walking alongside the road, and I went for it. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too hard to find or follow without a proper map.

As it turns out, elite commando skills were not required to navigate this route.

The first Monastery, Agios Stephanos (St Stephen), built in the 16th Century, taken over by nuns after World War II.

Probably the easiest to get to, if you drive there. From the parking, a short walk will lead you to a little stone bridge and you are there. I figured that I would get bored visiting the interior of all the monasteries, so I skipped the first one.

Nearby Agia Trias (Holy Trinity, 15th Century) is connected by a small cable car. I actually saw it in use and set-up the camera to get a good shot. As I pressed the shutter button the camera read “Shutter disabled – change battery”. By the time I did, the little cable car was gone. Continue reading

My trip to the Centre of the World: The Oracle of Delphi

This short trip to Greece has so far been awesome, and the country is very high on the list of places I want to return to. The Greek Islands will likely be my priority on my next trip to Greece, but I felt like having just a little taste of what they were about, so I did a day trip to the nearest one, Aegina. The port city of Pirraeus is at the end of one of Athens’ subway line. You could easily mistake it for a suburb but, administratively speaking, it is an autonomous city.

The port of Pirraeus is absolutely packed with ferries. From little fast boats that ply the short routes to massive ships that bring hundreds of vehicles and passengers to distant islands like Crete or Rhodes. I booked a fast boat, which failed to show up. The company’s desk had no one working there, the signs were confusing, but the helpful Coast Guard man informed me that the weather was too rough for fast ferries, and that it had never left Aegina. I was very impressed that the ticket agent had sold it to me AFTER it had already been cancelled. I had the ticket replaced for a later, slower ferry, which would not be disturbed by the high winds.

When the ferry departed, I climbed on the top deck to take some pictures. The wind was impressively strong. It’s hard to take a picture of the wind, but here’s my best effort. I think the effect on my pants is pretty obvious.

The procedure to dock this big ferry on Aegina’s small quay is quite impressive. They turn the ship around, drop two anchors at different spots, back up and bring the whole ship in using two large ropes. It was impossible to embark or disembark without getting your feet wet, as the waves were going over the quay.

Just a few tens of meters inland, the wind died down considerably, and I spent a couple of hours walking around the small town, which is a picture perfect little seaside Greek harbour town. After having lunch, like the Greeks do, around 14h00, I went to the nearby ruins, where I learned the hard way that archeological sites in Greece close at 15h00 (for lunch – and they don’t re-open). Honestly, from the pictures, I didn’t miss that much. Continue reading

Athens: protests, good food, and a whole lot of marble.

I know what you want to know, so let’s cut to the chase: 38 minutes. That’s the amount of time between the moment I left my hotel after arriving in Athens, and the moment I ran into a protest. Of course, the fact that I was heading for Parliament helped. For my French speaking friends, I accidentally emailed someone with the typo: “Je suis en Grève”. Only one letter away on the keyboard, but instead of “I’m in Greece” (Grèce), it means “I’m on strike”!

I don’t know what it was about, it was all Greek to me.

Truth be told, the idea of protesting in the street is not really my cup of tea. In fact, I see my hypothetical future as a union leader as equally probable as becoming a successful hip hop artist, and I’m not even sure what exactly hip hop is. So, as I was uncomfortably walking around my slogan chanting friends, I saw this guy, and I instantly understood what he was doing. I’m sure he couldn’t care less about what the crowd was up to, but he saw the opportunity.

And success! I didn’t stay long enough to see how well he did, but there was at least one man in that crowd I could relate to.

I had gone to Parliament to witness the changing of the guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a little awkward for the protesters to be protesting there, but it’s not out of disrespect. The Tomb happens to be the front facade of Parliament, so if you want to protest the Government, that’s unfortunately where you have to go.

Military fashion doesn’t change nearly as fast as civilian fashion. But, over the course of decades and centuries, you can compare the uniforms of different armies and realize that international trends do occur, both in dress and, to a lesser extent, in drill. I will admit that the bear skin hats that the Canadian and British Guards wear are a little extravagant, but these Greek guards are way out there in terms of doing it their own way! I have never seen such strange drill. Worth checking out on Youtube. Continue reading

Visiting the temples of Myanmar – and exploiting people’s lack of access to credit (not me, of course!)

The Kings who ruled over old Bagan spent a couple of centuries in a furious spree of construction, building over 4,000 temples in the area. I couldn’t help but think of the video game series Civilization, where one controls the development of a civilization from the Stone Age to some time in a distant future.

– So, the Burmese built what for 230 years? Temples.

– What were the Mongols building at the time? Armies.

No need for a history book to figure out what happened next. The Mongols wiped them out in 1287.

If you look closely at the Sun, you see it seems to be just rising, in the middle of the morning sky. The fact is that the air is so thick with smoke and dust, that along the horizon, its light cannot make it through. It become visible at around 10 degrees of elevation. As I hinted in my last post, Myanmar was not the best travel destination, for me, at that time. Bagan is an incredible and popular area for temple watching, but my interest in temples at that time was sorely lacking.

I still went around, climbing to hard to reach temples, like this one on Mount Popa (the hard part about this one was not the climb, it was the hour long pick-up ride, trying not to die from the mild carbon monoxide poisoning we were all getting).

And walking around beautiful temples, like the Shwe Zigon Paya. On a technical note, this was during a short bike ride and I wasn’t carrying my big camera. Sometimes I’m shocked at what comes out of my little point-and-shoot Canon camera, especially in difficult, intense back-lit conditions. I think this shot is pretty cool and it reminded me of this one, in Swakopmund, Namibia, also with the little camera. Continue reading

Myanmar: Catholic eggs, Nazi bikers and the floating villages of Inle Lake.

I used to annoy a British colleague by telling him we drove on the right side of the road, while they drove on the wrong side. Can’t believe he bit all the time. Of course, it was a joke, but the people of Myanmar actually drive on the wrong side!

Traffic on the right, steering wheel on the right. Which means if you try to pass, your vehicle will be completely engaged in the opposite traffic lane BEFORE you can see anything. Unsurprisingly, their death rate on the road is very high. Also notice the air freshener: probably a hundred real little flowers threaded together by hand. They are sold daily by guys standing at red lights, undoubtedly for a few cents, and they smell very nice. Ah, the wonders of cheap unskilled labor.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), is the main city of Myanmar, but lost its status of capital recently, when the authorities decided to move it to the obscure made-up city of Naypyidaw (a bit like Brasilia). It still retains the look, with all the important looking Government buildings, colonial influence and old religious sites.

Like most large cities of the area, within a few blocks, you can find the modern;

The old;

And the typical. There is a word in French, “dépaysé”, which literally means “un-countried”. It refers to the feeling of being in unfamiliar surroundings. Personally, I just love it. It can cause me to walk down the street by myself with a stupid grin on my face for an hour. The problem – for me anyways – is that it doesn’t last very long. I woke up before dawn in Mandalay and ran into a procession of a hundred monks. My reaction? Nothing! Of course there’s a hundred monks in the street, it’s 6 am. A world away from how I felt the first time I saw something like that. Continue reading

A week in Laos: Good bread, Bad weather and Ugly potions.

I decided to visit Laos and Myanmar mainly because they were the only two countries I had never visited in South-East Asia (along with Timor Leste, but this is a bad season to go). Being on the road with limited internet access, I must say I landed in Laos with little idea of what I was going to do, or about the country in general.

The first thing that struck me was the presence of French. The former colonial language still has some sort of official status in the “communist” country, and is common in business, government and education. Furthermore, since French tourists come here by the busloads (literally), some French is spoken in tourist-oriented businesses, even by young people.

While I couldn’t care less about French signs, I was delighted to discover French baking was also left behind by the former rulers. This little baguette tuna sandwich might not seem very impressive to you, but to me, it was pure delight. The last time I had eaten really good baguette style bread was probably in Cape Town around October. The little lady running this street stand even put the bread on a little bowl of hot coals before making the sandwich, turning the simple sandwich into a warm, toasted marvel. Best of all, it was not rice!

The capital city of Laos, Vientiane, also has obvious colonial influences in the city layout. Lane Xang Avenue is the Champs Elysées of sorts, and important buildings, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, are located along it.

In 1962, the US Government donated countless tons of concrete to Laos, for them to build a much needed new runway at the capital’s airport. This is what they used the concrete for: the Victory Gate of Vientiane (Patuxay). The Americans called it the vertical runway. Truth be told, it is quite ugly. Continue reading

How I became a journalist in Brunei!

First, sorry for being on radio silence for so long, but my internet access at the moment is the worst it has been since I was in Yemen.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my presence at Brunei’s National Day did not go unnoticed and I was interviewed by two newspapers. After the second interview, I decided to take a break from the heat and grab an ice coffee at some sort of local Starbucks-like shop. The journalist did the same thing and asked me to keep her spot in the line. She came back with the head scarf stashed away in her purse. “I have to wear it for work”, she said. Brunei was getting more intriguing by the minute.

We both ordered and, as she opened her wallet to pay for her coffee, she noticed she had forgotten to go to the ATM and only had $2 on her. To her great embarrassment, she asked me for $3. While waiting in the long line, she had been going on about how safe Brunei was, except at the floating village, where people would try to vastly overcharge me for water taxis, and other such minor scams. Still blushing from having to ask a stranger for money, she offered to take me there after the parade. I accepted with pleasure the offer of some local guidance.

Apart from what I am about to tell you, I also have to thank her for the pictures I got of the schoolchildren’s mass celebration in the stadium. I was going to look for a vantage point around the stadium, but she told me: “Just go inside and climb up the stands”. I probably would not have tried that. The event looked very formal, but there were no ticketing system, no security checks.  In laid back Brunei, I wondered how busy the riot police I had seen on parade usually is!

This short guided tour proved very informative. On the photo, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, built in 1958. Guess what? That’s not gold paint on the dome!

We walked to the floating village and that is when having the company of a local became very useful. Looking at these very modest houses in the foreground of a sumptuous mosque and a very large, modern shopping centre, I would have assumed a typical case of massive income disparity, with poor rural people living in urban slums. As it turns out, this is not the case at all. People are quite attached to these homes, often where their family has lived for several generations. Even if they move on land, they often make sure the home stays in the extended family. Continue reading