Conquering Kings Canyon

On taking the early morning rim walk around Kings Canyon and the Karrke Aboriginal tour.

Much to Glen’s horror (and mine if I’m honest), we were up before the sun on Sunday morning so we could go on the early morning rim walk around Kings Canyon. We wolfed down some breakfast with a bunch of other eager hikers and then went to reception to meet our guide.

Glen and I were the only ones going on the tour so we had the guide to ourselves (as well as a giant bus). We arrived at Kings Canyon with the sun almost ready to burst over the rim. The guide, Marcus, was happy to have just two, seemingly fit, “young” people in his group as that meant no stragglers and no waiting for people with dodgy hips etc. The walk, advertised to take about 3 to 4 hours was going to be over in no time.

Walking the Kings Canyon Rim

We started with the 500 steps up the side of the canyon, setting a cracking pace that left my throat burning and my lungs heaving by the time we reached the top. We then set off around the rim, going through staggeringly beautiful rock formations bathed in the sunrise light. The rocks were so red!

We passed through Priscilla’s Crack, a split in between two rocks that featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We’ll have to watch the movie again now. There was also a tree that Elle McPherson had posed against. You can easily understand why it’s a popular spot for photos.

We continued on at a good speed, heading out to lookouts, seeing fossils that Marcus wouldn’t normally stop for if there was a larger group. (So happy was he to have only the two of us that he mentioned it to just about every other tour-led group, inspiring envy as we left their 24-strong hordes behind.)

On one of these slight detours we spotted a wallaroo (or Euro if you’re from WA) amongst the spinifex. Hooray for wildlife sightings!

We bumped into the British doctors we met at the Fields of Light dinner at Uluru; they were hurrying to get it done before embarking on their 500km-drive back to Alice Springs to catch their plane.

We went up and down rock ledges, down to the Garden of Eden (a water hole that can no longer be swum in because of all the sunscreen polluting the water), and I finally got to eat something off a bush – a native fig. Tasted like a fig.

We took photos along the way, continued our march that didn’t feel too strenuous for most of it, and then came around the other side of the canyon and began our descent. We reached the bottom two and a half hours after we’d started. If we’d not stopped, we would have easily done it in two, but then we wouldn’t have seen anything.

We got back on the bus with another group of people who’d done the shorter and easier creek walk and then arrived back at the resort at about 10am to find that Optus had installed a mobile phone tower nearby and we had signal again. (We’d been without it since yesterday…yet managed to survive.)

Karrke Tour

The middle of our day passed with naps, lunch, and reading, until we had an Aboriginal cultural tour booked for 4pm. It took place about half an hour down the road and was called the Karrke Tour. (Karrke is the name of the bowerbird local to these parts.)

We were greeted and joined a German couple who were halfway through their tour. The tour guides, Peter and Christine, took us to different stations where we learnt about different types of ochre, making jewellery, and bush tucker. They showed us live honey ants, their abdomens full of juice, and then how to cook a witchety grub. They pop when they’re done. After that it was different medicinal plants.

The Germans then finished and we continued on to see the large amounts of work involved in collecting and grinding seeds to make a type of flour and then turn that into a tasteless, utilitarian bread.

We were shown different hunting tools and weapons, and then real live witchety grubs as they were extracted out of the roots of trees. They’re soft and squishy to touch, pretty big for a bug and apparently taste of raw egg when raw. When they’re cooked, they take on the taste of the tree they were growing in so if they burrowed into eucalyptus leaves, they’d taste of eucalyptus.

The tour went for half an hour, was well structured, very interesting and Peter and Christine friendly and engaging. I’m glad we went along. While we were chatting to Peter on our way back to the car, we said how we’d seen a wallaroo earlier in the day. He said he’d lived there 15 years and only seen them three times, that’s how rare and shy they are. He also said that the number of kangaroos and emus has gotten low so now they’re a rare sight too, when before they’d be plenty of them to see. We were now more likely to see dingos (which we had).

Back at the resort, we packed our bags, went for dinner and had an early night ready for our return to Uluru in the morning and then our flights home.

Kata-Tjuta to Kings Canyon

On visiting Kata Tjuta, walking the Valley of the Winds and Walpo Gorge, seeing wildlife (perentie, dingo and eagle) and arriving at Kings Canyon.

I was keen to get going early on Saturday morning as the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta (formerly The Olgas) had closed the previous day after 11am due to the heat, as well as us having to drive 300 km to Kings Canyon in time for dinner.

Despite this, however, when the alarm went off at 6am, Glen and I both dismissed the alarms and went back to sleep. I thought Glen had a backup alarm set for 6:30am but he didn’t (at least not for a Saturday morning) and we both woke up at 7am instead. A quick shower, a quick breakfast and we were on the road before 8am.

Kata-Tjuta

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Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas) is the other big rock (or collection of rocks) on the horizon in Uluru – Kata-Tjuta National Park. From a distance it reminds me of a sculpture gone wrong with bits jutting out all over the place; or like it’s the unfinished version of Uluru.

I drove us to Kata-Tjutu and straight to the Valley of the Winds, which was due to close at 11am due to the rising temperature (slated to be 37°C). There are two lookout points at Kata Tjuta, one easily reached, the other part of a 7km loop. We set off and I wanted to at least get to the second lookout, and agreed with Glen that we didn’t need to do the full loop which would take about 3 hours.

We got to the first lookout, continued on through the gorge, and ascended to the second lookout. We were soon joined by about 25 high school students on some sort of trip, perhaps a last hurrah for year 12. We took our photos, rehydrated and then returned, bumping into the couple from Sydney we’d met the night before. They were going to do the full loop…and more power to them. We were quite satisfied with what we’d seen haha.

The trip took us about two hours with breaks included. It lived up to its name with the channel being quite windy. We made a stupid joke about Glen’s name meaning ‘Valley’ so he was ‘Glen of the Winds’ for a while and you can imagine the connotation that has.

Back at the car we headed for Walpo Gorge, a 1km trip that took about an hour return. It was spacious, rocky and ended in a cool shady spot. I was thrilled that, along the way, I spotted a 1-metre long perentie, happily strolling along beside the path. That provided much amusement – and filled a gap in what has been a fairly wildlife-free trip.

While it’s been awesome to see these iconic Australian places, I’ve got to say that as far as gorges go, Karajini National Park is by far the best we’ve been to.

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Uluru to Kings Canyon

After Walpo Gorge we hopped back in the car, got petrol at the resort and then booked it up the Lasseter Highway to reach Kings Canyon. Google said it would take four hours but somewhere I managed to do it in three. (It would have been 2 hours 45 minutes if we hadn’t stopped a couple of times.)

The drive was uneventful all except for THE DINGO! Glen spotted a sign for a rest stop and wanted to pull over. When I pulled in, I headed for a park bench and pulled up alongside it. At which point we both noticed the dingo sitting under the bench. It was completely unperturbed by our presence. We took our photos, and for some reason Glen didn’t want to get out and say hello.

We left after five minutes. I was absolutely thrilled to see a wild dingo. During the drive we’d also seen a wedge-tailed eagle flying overhead, which brings our animal count to about six (including zebra finches, rock pigeons and a small lizard).

We arrived at Kings Canyon Resort a little after 3pm and checked in. The guy at the counter seemed a bit unsure about what the hell was going on. He gave us our room key but we’d booked a package that came with a bunch of other things so it was a bit of rigamarole from there on. It was all sorted in the end though and we booked, for Sunday, a 6:30am Kings Canyon rim walk (ugh…so early), as well as a cultural tour at 4pm.

After getting into our room, we crawled into bed for a few hours and woke up groggy at 5:30. We’d booked another special dinner, again outside. I’m not sure about Glen but I was starting to feel a little over fancy dinners by this stage but we’d paid for it so we went. I think it’s been the best food out of the three we’ve been on.

Dingo
Dingo!

Under a Desert Moon

We joined two other couples – one from Melbourne with four kids and another from Brisbane nearing their seventies – for champagne and canapés. Conversation began with where we were all from and quickly progressed to talk about Uluru and dingoes.

We then were shown to our tables, each seating two and placed around a fire, which at the start of the evening was too hot for all of us but was eventually forgotten and pleasantly comforting.

We had a six-course degustation that took Australian ingredients and gave them a different twist. Remarkably there was no lemon myrtle. We had kangaroo loin with mushrooms, emu koftas (and other Middle Eastern inspired flavours), a delicious granita of passionfruit and pineapple (which tasted like a frosty fruit and I could have eaten way more), barramundi with beurre blanc and parsnips, and then a macadamia baklava with bush berries and vanilla icecream. Delicious!

Conversation bounced across the tables as we shared our experiences of what we’d seen and done. I think that when people look at Glen and I they think we’re in our twenties and we’re doing these things as our ‘one nice treat’ on a holiday that would otherwise be spent in backpackers or in the back of a 4WD. I think they’re surprised when they find out what we’ve done.

Thankfully dinner was all over by about 8:45 because that meant we could have an early night. We said our farewells and got back to the room, preparing ourselves for an early morning start. I think Glen’s hankering for one of those sit-by-the-pool holidays…I might be as well.

Uluru and the Best of Intentions

Uluru

On contemplating the climb/no climb situation; taking the Mala Walk; opting for driving instead of walking around Uluru, and dinner under the stars at Tali Wiru.


In preparing for this trip to Uluru, I’d checked the weather and was chagrined to find most of the days we’d be here the temperature would be well over 30°C. Today (Friday) and Saturday were slated to be 37°C – not the best temperature when you want to walk 10 km in the open sun.

Despite waking at 7, much earlier than we’d anticipated, we didn’t hit the road until 9am. The concierge recommended we join the Mala Walk, which is guided by a ranger, that started at 10am. That gave us time to stop at the cultural centre first (great building with strong thematic interpretation, however, overloaded with text and poorly attended) and then get to Mala Car Park to wait for the guide. The heat was already getting up there.

Because of the 36°C+ weather, the route to climb Uluru was closed and so only people who’d gone up there earlier were given access down. Glen and I were both surprised at the numbers tramping down the side of Uluru considering the prominent messages about climbing it being a mark of disrespect to the Anangu people who consider Uluru a sacred site.

The numbers of people doing the climb have dropped to about 20% of visitors, and a guide said that the reason the climb is still open is because it’s believed, by certain tourist bodies, that if it were closed there wouldn’t be anything else for tourists to do.

Now, no doubt getting up there, climbing the rock and seeing the valleys, the pools, the difference, would be something worth seeing, but, in my opinion, not at the expense of disrespecting another culture, especially one that’s suffered so much as the Anangu (and other Aboriginal people). I also struggle to understand how people can quite easily, it seems, disregard a heartfelt entreaty not to climb it, purely for their own self-satisfaction.

Getting Around Uluru

Uluru

We followed the tour guide for an hour-long guided walk along the Mara track, which took us to significant Anangu sites (including rock art) and ended down Kantju Gorge where there was a waterhole. We heard various stories relating to the Anangu mythology and how they lived off the land.

Once the tour finished, we hummed and haahed about continuing our walk around the rest of Uluru which would take at least three hours and cover 10 km. The heat rose and fell as we went from no shade to shade, and so did our willingness to undertake such a trek. In the end, with the heat beating down on us, we opted to drive around Uluru instead and justified it any number of ways. And now that we’ve done it, I don’t regret it at all.

We got back to the car and went clockwise around Uluru, stopping on the side of the road at various opportunities to take our photos (though not of sacred sites where we were told not to). There is something truly magical about the place, and I loved the variability of the surface of the rock. We imagined faces, or the flood of water during the wet season, or that Uluru was itself dropped from a great height and sinking into the earth because of the way the lines ran.

We stopped at Kuniya Walk and went along the track to another waterhole, stopping at caves where there was more rock art, and then took a break at the waterhole. Hundreds of tiny birds that peeped flew around us. They were so small that even when tens and tens of them landed on a branch, it barely moved. They were also so small that it was easy to overlook them until they launched into their air and the sound of their wings beating furiously amplified in the enclosed space.

There were also a bunch of berries around (and a helpful sign that said which of a few were edible or poisonous). I didn’t eat any, as much as I wanted to. Glen was concerned I might poison myself so for his sake, I didn’t.

Our trip around Uluru took a fraction of the time and saved us from dying of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Once back in town we stopped for lunch, bought a few things and returned to the hotel for a bit of a relax before the night’s dining experience.

Tali Wiru

When I booked the holiday and accompanying experiences, I booked us in for Sounds of Silence, an outdoor dining experience with tables of ten. Last night, Glen read the description of it and realised that we were going to be repeating what we’d done the night before except without the Field of Lights. As good as the experience was, we didn’t need to do it again.

When we talked to the staff at the counter in the morning, they seemed uncertain about us getting a refund because it was less than 24 hours away but “while they checked” they upsold us on doing Tali Wiru. Tali Wiru is another outdoor dining experience, but limited to 20 people and an a la carte menu.

We caught the big car thing at 6pm, a vehicle so big it reminded us of the polar bear trucks in Churchill. We drove for about twenty minutes through the outback to a remote location (past the industrial area for the resort) where we stopped and got a nice view of the helicopter that another couple had arrived via. Glen and I instantly had FOMO (fear of missing out) that we hadn’t arrived in such style. I spoke to them later and heard how wonderful the experience had been. Ahhhh next time.

We walked up the hill to a fire pit where one of the staff was playing the didgeridoo. We were served champagne and then a series of canapés consisting of scallops (with ants), kangaroo and another that I can’t remember. All delicious. The chef then came out with an arranged platter of difference bush tucker which she explained and then offered us to sample.

I ate one of the ants which tasted salty, sweet and sour all at the same time. I also had a bush tomato which tasted like beef jerky. Most of the ingredients came from rainforest in Queensland so I felt a bit cheated that they weren’t local ingredients but instead under the broader umbrella of ‘indigenous’ ingredients. Still, they were delicious.

We struck up a conversation with the helicopter couple who’d come from Sydney but it was broken when we were shown to our seats. There were only 18 of us, all in couples, and all with our own tables. We were still able to chat with people as and when we felt like it. I also had a good view of Uluru in one direction and Kata Tjuta in the other until the sun went down.

Different from the dinner the night before, we were given a la carte choices, of which I had pressed wallaby as an entree, toothfish for a main and then a lychee and bush-fruit-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of dessert. All came with matched wines so it was a merry night.

We had a star talk again tonight, though this was longer and went into Aboriginal astronomy as well which was interesting. We also saw six of the zodiac constellations. After dinner we sat around the fire with hot chocolate (and cognac for those who wanted it) and heard a bit about the local Indigenous people and how they hunted. Made me realise we only scratched the surface on this ancient culture and its practices.

While around the campfire we chatted to an American couple who have been living in Australia for six years. They’d driven from Melbourne with their three children (two of which are four years old). They’d stayed in Coober Pedy and Port Augusta and one of the children had caught pneumonia. They were very happy to have a night out without the children.

After dinner, we climbed aboard the monster truck again and were driven back to our hotel. So ended another day out in Central Australia.

The Red Eye to Uluru and the Field of Lights

Long gone are the days of doing things on minimal sleep. We caught the Red Eye from Perth to Sydney at five minutes to midnight on Wednesday. There are no flights direct from Perth to Uluru. The only ones that go near enough are to Alice Springs which would have involved spending a night there and either catching another flight or driving. We opted to go via Sydney instead.

The winds over Australia must have been on point on Thursday because we landed in Sydney early (and sat on the tarmac for a bit) and our flight to Uluru also took less time than estimated (which we lost waiting in queue at Avis).

I’d slept a bit on the plane over to Sydney and then, much to Glen’s horror, fell asleep, horizontally, in the Virgin lounge. I would have been appalled too but I was too damn tired to care. People go in there in thongs, for God’s sake, so I doubt anyone minded.

Because Glen didn’t sleep through any of the four-hour layover, he was verging on delirious, evidenced by him panicking that we needed to head to the gate because they’d called our flight. I checked the board only to see he had gotten confused and thought we were going to Darwin. Crisis averted in time.

The flight to Uluru seemed to go forever because of the lack of a good sleep, but Glen and I had a seat between us that we intermittently used to bend ourselves in half and doze on.

Ayers Rock Resort

We waited about 40 minutes for our hire car, mostly because of hold-ups with other people who were in front of us. A queue formed behind us and by the time we were sorted, it was about ten people long. I felt for the staff who’d have to deal with each of them. Still not sure why everything took so long, considering everything is prebooked.

We drove down to Ayers Rock Resort, the self-contained town with all the amenities and accommodation. On the way we saw Uluru in the distance, obscured slightly behind a haze of what I’m assuming was due to burn-off. Much like the Rockies that are seemingly plonked onto the Albertan prairies, Uluru is just, well, there. The surrounding landscape isn’t as barren as I’d expected, as there are plenty of scrubs, trees and grasses all over.

We checked into Sails in the Desert and had lunch while we waited for our room to become available. By then, we were both tired and in need of a proper horizontal, no interruptions from flight announcements, screaming children or loud-talking businessmen on mobile phones. We were given our room about half an hour later, got in and promptly went to bed for a few hours.

We woke up at 5:15 when the alarm rudely shook us out of our slumber. We had dinner/tour reservations and needed to get going, but that awful tired/sick feeling took a while to shake off. However, we were out the front of the hotel and waiting for our bus with time to spare.

Field of Lights

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In the evening we went on the A Night at Field of Lights experience. British artist Bruce Munro created a light installation using 50,000 lights and a lot of optic cables that was so popular it’s now being kept until March 2018. It covers 49 square kilometres and is powered with solar power. When the sun goes down, the lights turn on to create, literally, a field of light. It was one of the reasons we wanted to come to Uluru in the first place.

Our experience, however, began before the sun set. About a hundred people got off the buses and walked up to a spot where we were served drinks and canapés (crocodile, kangaroo, prawn and some other vegetables) while the sun gradually set. This gave us the chance to see Uluru and a silhouetted Kata Tjuta. Two American couples struck up a conversation with us so we had a chat with them about their two-week holiday in Australia and New Zealand and a bit about earthquakes in California before being directed to our tables for dinner.

Glen and I were the last to be seated and joined a table of three other couples: a 51-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter; senior husband and wife from England; and two young English male doctors working in Cairns. Normally the idea of making small talk with random strangers is our version of hell, but everyone (including us) was friendly and fun.

Dinner was huge. After a starter of soup (with the perennial favourite lemon myrtle), the main was a buffet that consisted of salmon, kangaroo, beef, chicken and prawns, as well as vegetables and other sides. We were stuffed by the end of it (yet still managed to sample a wide variety of the desserts that were available later).

In between the main and the dessert, we were treated to a short astronomy presentation that was full of small bits of interesting information and terrible-but-oh-so-good jokes. The presentation aside, however, the stars, when the lights were turned up, were astounding. The night sky looks a little different in this part of the country from what I’m used to and of course the sheer number of stars was staggering. Makes such a difference when there’s little-to-no light pollution around.

After dessert, we were given about half an hour to walk through the Field of Lights as they changed colour. It was a subtly beautiful experience, as the lights aren’t turned up as bright as they could be but instead the colours are muted across the landscape and seemingly go on forever (until you reach the edge and realise you have to hurry to not miss the bus).

We left at 10 and happily climbed back into bed.

Greece: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By no means is this meant to be a definitive list of the good, the bad and the ugly in Greece. I spent fewer than two weeks there so it’s just based on short-term observations and limited personal experience. Having said that…

The Good

Food

Meze

On the whole, everywhere we ate was delicious or, at least, not awful. Only about three meals out of…what…30 were subpar. Everything else was tasty, good quality, enjoyable. Paired with some good wine or some cocktails and to-die-for views and eating out was a pleasure. Athens is also generally really well priced for food. Mykonos more expensive and Santorini somewhere in the middle depending on where you eat. Easier to find good find in Athens too as you can generally eat where the locals eat without much hassle.

Price

Athens was cheap. In some cases, really cheap. The downside to a struggling economy, I suppose. Food was exceptionally well priced (unless you’re going for the super fancy, which we didn’t, but I can’t imagine it’s outrageous. Definitely nowhere near Australian prices). Taxis were also ridiculously cheap in the city – just make sure they put the meter on. The reasonable and cheap prices in Athens make up for the higher prices in Mykonos…but what do you expect?

Chilled drivers

I drove for two days in and around Athens. I was anxious that they’d be like the Italians – aggressive and excessively using their horns. Not so. The Greeks drive super fast, drift across lanes without indicating and there’s a lot of cars on the road BUT they’re pretty laid back. I found myself copying their style, sometimes intentionally as I was about to go down the wrong road, but I didn’t feel harangued. Mykonos and Santorini you’re dealing with smaller roads but drivers still going the same speed.

Beaches

 

IMG_1316 (2)We only went to Elia Beach in Mykonos but that was well set up and the water was beautiful. It was incredibly chilled and I could have stayed there for days. The beaches on the mainland looked really good too and the water is clear as. Perfect way to spend the summer days.

Archaeology

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More ruins than you can poke a stick at. Lots of history, lots of picturesque ruined temples. Being also the main sightseeing drawcard, it was wonderful to see that sites like the Parthenon and the oracle at Delphi weren’t excruciatingly busy. It’s probably awful in August but in June it wasn’t too packed at all. Also, unlike India, you’re not harassed by people trying to see things. Only downside is you can get a bit ‘over’ seeing ruins all the time.

The Bad

Transport on Mykonos and Santorini

It can get a bit expensive using taxis on Mykonos and Santorini. Next time I’ll hire a car for the islands as you can see me. We ended up taking the bus quite a bit on Mykonos which was really cheap (€1.60 and €3.20) but the buses aren’t all that frequent so you run the risk of not catching them.

Trying to Get the Bill

IMG_0921Staff in restaurants are in absolutely no hurry to bring you the bill, or, once you’ve got the bill, the card machine (or take your money and bring back change). This can get a bit frustrating when you’re eager to get going (or running late for a bus). We pushed it along by getting up to pay at a counter which usually involved us being asked to go back to our seat and being reassured we’d be dealt with shortly.

The Ugly

You can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. At all. The pipes in Greece are too thin that toilet paper will just block them and cause a whole lot of trouble. One or two pieces is fine but on the whole it’s a no-no. Instead you throw it in the bin. As a result, just about every toilet in Greece has a small plastic bag-lined bin next to it which you throw the paper in. It takes getting used to, and to get over the ick factor but you deal. The amount of plastic waste that then gets thrown away isn’t worth thinking about.

Sunsets in Santorini

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: arriving in Santorini, Pyrgos, Fira, climbing the skarvos, cruising the islands and beaches, and the end of a holiday.

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The ferry docked at Santorini’s new port around lunchtime on Monday. We gathered with the rest of the horde of people at the back of the boat, ready to sprint off the drawbridge like greyhounds released from the cage. We found our driver and then took the windy road from the port up to the top of the caldera. It was a long way with an impressive view.

He drove us to the town of Pyrgos where we were taken to the hotel next door to the villa Glen had rented. The hotel manages the villa on behalf of the owner and also provided the transportation service, breakfast and anything else we could have asked for. Definite a step above the usual AirBnB service.

We were given a 30-minute orientation briefing which provided information on the island and the various activities available that we might like to try, one of which was a five-hour cruise that went from the bottom of the island to the top and ended at sunset. We eagerly booked it at €150 per person. That was Tuesday afternoon sorted.

The villa wasn’t ready yet so we walked into Pyrgos, the sun bearing down on us, reflecting off the white buildings. I’m sure I got sunburnt. We had lunch and then climbed up to the Venetian castle and took in the view. Santorini is a smallish island so you can pretty much see from one end to the other. Not everyone lives in the villages so the countryside is dotted with houses.

After our climb to the top we trekked to the supermarket and the fruit and veg shop (though despite the recommendation the quality was a bit poor). We were wiped out from the heat by the time we got back to the villa at about four.

We were staying in luxury. A newly built, modern-designed two storey building with an infinity pool and a jacuzzi. We lounged in the air conditioning for a while then jumped in the pool, the water bath-like due to the sun and the heat. A few hours passed with us lounging around reading and cooling down.

In the evening we caught a taxi into Fira then walked to Firostefani and Imerovigli, through the picturesque towns, along narrow winding streets and past white buildings with blue roofs. As we’d been informed, the crowds thinned the further along the path we went. We continued to the skavos, an outcrop of rock that used to hold a Venetian fortress which has since crumbled, leaving little behind. We walked out, then climbed up the rock.

Anna and Glen went right to the top but I at first stayed below. My fear of heights – or more accurately, fear of falling – crept up on me and kept me grounded. This then warred with my desire to not get left behind so I climbed up a bit, only to be told by Glen not to come any higher as he was having trouble getting down. At this point, I looked down and almost hyperventilated and had to give myself a serious talking to to make me get down safely. I managed. At least I also managed to make it part way up.

We walked down the steps a bit, saw a church below where two shirtless guys looked like they were preparing to do some firetwirling. This is also the spot where you can do very expensive yoga. We watched the light change as the sun descended, then walked back to the town. We had dinner then caught a taxi back to Pyrgos.

Cruising around Santorini

Breakfast arrived at 8. We ate and then decided that we wouldn’t go to the beach as discussed the day before but instead relax at home. I did some work. I read more of my book. The morning passed. We then went for lunch down the road (I was disappointed in the chicken I had) and then returned to the villa to wait for the transfer to the boat at 2:15pm.

We were collected and taken down to the bottom of Santorini where we waited amidst the chaos of docking catamarans and people milling about and not listening for their names being called. We boarded the 400 S2, a once-private boat now commandeered for these twice-daily cruises. We were three of 15 passengers with three crew.

Our first stop on the catamaran was Red Beach. The beach itself isn’t red; the cliffs are. Probably due to bauxite/iron in the rock. We swam for about 10/15 minutes. The sea floor here is utterly devoid of anything but sand (also not red). It seems not much wants to grow in these waters.

Our second stop was White Beach. Not so-called because the sand is exceedingly white (it was pretty grey) but because of the cliffs (limestone). We snorkelled here for a while, fish being drawn in by bread thrown in the water. We saw a few different species, mostly grey but some green and black (dragon fish, with spines, venomous, spines) and some colourful striped ones too. The water temperature alternated between chilly and warm, mostly chilly, especially about 50cm below the surface. We then had lunch on the boat and set off again.

The catamaran went up towards the volcanoes, one extinct, the other dormant and growing by 4–5cm per year. Here we also went into the hot springs, really, they were warm springs. We were all suitably terrified at the prospect of sharp rocks and water that stained your white clothes red or tarnished your jewellery. Initially I wasn’t going to go in as I didn’t want the minimal amount of white on my red board shorts to stain but then I thought, what the hell. It’s only a pair of shorts. I went in. The water got warm. I swam back. The white parts are now pink.

From the volcano we went up to Oia and watched the sunset with all the other catamarans. About 30 seconds before the sun dipped beneath the horizon a large cruise ship cut in front of it and blocked it. The catamarans scrambled to get around the ship so the passengers could see the sun disappear. The succeeded, though we thought it especially hilarious that the main driver for the cruise at this time was to see the sunset and we were about to be thwarted.

A zodiac then took us to the dock and a driver took us up to the top of the caldera to the town of Oia and dropped us off so we could find dinner. We wandered through the town, all the way to the end and then turned around and came back in to get dinner. By this stage it was already 10 o’clock and we were largely over it.

After dinner we requested a taxi. The first one picked up the wrong people. The second one never came but we got in one that was nearby and was full of other people going elsewhere on the island. The driver went right past our village so we were the last ones in the taxi and getting angrier by the second. It took over an hour for us to get home so it was well after midnight. Anna was ropeable.

I collapsed into bed; I could pack in the morning.

Santorini–Athens–Abu Dhabi–Perth

We woke up at seven, packed, ate our breakfast, checked out and went to the airport. The aircraft was late taking off, not helped by the disorganisation going on around us as we stood outside for about 20 minutes waiting for the bus to take us to the plane. I was worried we’d be running late for our flight to Abu Dhabi from Athens but we had plenty of time.

While I was sad the holiday was at an end, I’m ok with going home. It actually felt like the holiday had finished when we left Mykonos, and the few days in Santorini had merely extended the inevitable. I definitely preferred Mykonos to Santorini. The beaches were better (from what we saw of the Santorini ones) and it just felt like there was more going on in Mykonos than Santorini.

Santorini, however, has the more dramatic scenery with its towns perched on the top of the caldera, its volcanic rock and blue-domed white buildings. Perhaps one day more would have helped me appreciate it more but I don’t feel a strong desire to go back. Mykonos, however, I could easily go again for a week.

Back in Athens, we waited and waited for our luggage then checked in. Anna wasn’t leaving til about 6 or 7 hours later. Unfortunately she couldn’t check in so we said our goodbyes. It was really good travelling with her, no arguments, no destroyed friendships, easy going travelling (although she did have to listen to Glen and I bicker on occasion).

We proceeded to our gate, sat in the terrible Swissport Lounge (though any lounge is better than no lounge), and then boarded our flight at 2:15pm to Abu Dhabi. I finished my book, the fourth of the trip and damn excellent (Britt-Marie was Here, if you’re interested). We had a short flight with enough time to do some work, have lunch and finish watching the last two episodes of Apple Tree Yard before landing.

Short stay in Abu Dhabi. Long flight back to Australia. Slept. Watching almost all of Big Little Lies and touched down in Perth just after lunchtime on Thursday. Holiday complete.

Mykonos: An Island Paradise

Friday to Monday: leaving Athens for Mykonos and three days of sunshine by the pool and by the beach, late-late-late night clubbing and not wanting to leave.

Friday morning we roused ourselves to finish packing and tidy the apartment to be ready for our 8am departure. We closed the door behind us, leaving the keys on the table, as instructed, and went downstairs to meet Anna. Only to find that the external door had been double-locked and needed a key to open again. We were stuck.

I knocked on every door in the apartment building, finally finding someone still home on the top floor. I woke her up but she was good enough to come downstairs and let us out. We were free! No need to break any windows.

We caught a taxi to the airport, joined the queue to drop off our luggage, found some food and waited for our slightly delayed flight to Mykonos. It took off and then it descended almost immediately.

Our luggage took forever to come out. We hailed a taxi (not finding out until we got to our hotel that we could have had a free transfer) and paid €30 for the short ride. After catching taxis in Athens for next to nothing, to pay €30 took us by surprise.

Glen booked The A Hotel which was beautiful. Like nearly every building in Mykonos it was made up of white, square rooms. There was a pool and a restaurant, which we had lunch in while we waited for our rooms to be ready. The room was really nice and Glen and I had one right next to the pool. After checking in, Anna and I staked out sunbeds, read our books and then went for a swim. We were in heaven.

We caught the free shuttle to the town (the hotel being a distance away from buses and the Old Port area) at 5:30pm and went for a walk through maze-like streets towards the windmills. A cruise ship had just disembarked so we were swamped suddenly with lots of tourists. After a quick look at the windmills, we had a drink at one of the seafront bars and a light meal, then continued our walk as the sun got lower in the sky.

We found the two main gay bars (Jackie O and Babylon) which are on the waterfront (there’s a joke there about sailors I’m sure) and have a beautiful view of the port and the sunset. We sat, ordered drinks from the helpful Alex, and watched the sun go down. Definitely in heaven. After our drinks, we went to Niko’s Taverna (a recommendation from the lovely Alex) for dinner. I had a delicious fresh whole red snapper. I don’t think I’ve had fish that good in a long time, cooked to perfection.

After dinner, Glen guided us through the maze of shops and restaurants which were getting even busier the later it got. We ascended up a very steep hill and then along nearly deserted backstreets to return to our hotel for bed. I think we’d made it out til 11, just as the rest of Mykonos was getting ready to party away the rest of Friday. I wasn’t too disappointed in our choice.

“It’s a place; it’s a place I’m going to.”

Objective for Saturday: go to the ‘Shirley Valentine’ beach and the hotel she stayed in. Objective: completed.

One of my all-time favourite movies is Shirley Valentine. I can still recite it off by heart. The Greek scenes are filmed in Mykonos so we had to go to what we could. Admittedly we didn’t go everywhere that’s featured in the film (the lagoon where she and Kostas go would have been nice) but we at least went to the beach where she sits and watches the sunset and feels “awfully… awfully old.”

It’s at Agios Ioannis. The stretch of road is there but the taverna isn’t anymore. There’s an old painted sign that denotes it’s prominence though these days there’d be far fewer people who show any interest in such a landmark. The hotel Manoulas is also there and was used as the hotel in the film. (There’s a photo of some of the cast there.)

A car from the hotel took us to the beach (we gawped at the €30 price tag and wrongly assumed that every trip we’d take with them from now on would cost €30. Turns out it was just because of the distance involved). We walked along, stopped in at one of the beachfront bars, and then I went for a swim. My first swim in the Aegean Sea.

The water was beautiful, not too cold, warm enough to spend time in. I swam along the length of the beach and back again, thankful for being in such a place where the water is warm and clear.

After my swim, we walked up to the hotel, I took my photos, and then we waited for the bus to arrive to take us back to the Old Town. The bus ride cost €1.60 each. Back at the town we had 15–20 minutes to walk across town to the Old Port and catch the bus to Elia Beach at 12pm. Glen set a cracking pace, made worse by me desperately needing to pee. Anna and I thought we wouldn’t reach the bus in time to catch it but it was slightly delayed (or on Island Time) and we managed to catch it. Hooray! I had to hold on for 30 minutes.

Elia Beach

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Elia Beach is billed as one of the gay beaches. There’s a restaurant and in front of the restaurant are a lot of beach beds and umbrellas, then further to the right (facing the ocean) past one set of rocks is the ‘gay’ beach. Sadly there’s no rainbow sand, but there is a rainbow flag. More beach beds and umbrellas. Behind a mountain of rock there’s another small secluded beach which is more nude than the others and you’d only find men there.

We took up a spot between the gay and straight beaches in a cabana (like a four-poster bed) that was big enough to seat the three of us comfortably. We loved the cabana because unlike the umbrellas, you’re guaranteed shade at all parts of the day. We paid €50 for the privilege and ordered our lunch and drinks.

We sat, we read, we swam – the water clear and warm and beautiful. I went off to buy one of those full face snorkel masks (for an inflated price of €55) so I could swim around the rocks and look at the fish. It took my a while to get used to this new type of snorkel. You’re meant to breathe through your nose, as I figured out, because breathing through your mouth takes in and expels too much air and I soon found myself gasping for breath. Once I mastered it – yes, once I mastered breathing – I was able to spot a lot of fish without fear of passing out.

Mostly grey and silver small fish but there were some black and brightly coloured ones too. I was gone a while and Glen thought I might have drowned. I remember giving my grandmother the same fear when my cousin and I used to go snorkelling off Penguin Island and Rottnest Island.

Despite there being a few beautiful people wandering about, they were vastly outnumbered by ordinary people, the ones with not the greatest bodies, or not the height-of-fashion clothes. Not to mention there were quite a few naked people around and most of the women were bare-chested. It was geat. Pretentiousness seemed to be out of fashion and people were just…hanging out (literally, figuratively). It was all comfortable and easy. Not sure what it’s like at Paradise and Super Paradise and Jackie O (the more popular beaches) but we were more than happy where we were.

We stayed on the beach until 4:25 and caught the bus back to town, getting off nearer to our hotel and walking the rest of the way. Anna and I sat by the pool for a little while and then we had an early dinner at the hotel before going for a nap. We were going out and going out in Mykonos required replenished batteries.

Going Out in Mykonos

Despite having about three or four hours in which to sleep, I probably managed 30 minutes and that was in the last 30 minutes before needing to get up. We struggled awake at 11pm and got ready. We’d booked a car to take us down to the port, me nearly dozing off on the ten-minute ride. We arrived in a buzzing and vibrant town that looked like it had no intention of ever going to sleep.

First stop was Porta where we had two drinks, danced a little and then gave it up to go to Babylon. Jackie O was busier next door – apparently out of brand loyalty from the people who’d gone to Jacki O beach during the day – but we were happier in Babylon as it was easier to get a drink and the music was better. Some killer mashups going on from their first DJ.

Drinks were very easy to come by because as soon as your hand is empty, there’s a guy ready to take your next order (and your money). In spite of this, we didn’t drink all that much, but we did get drunk very quickly as the drinks were strong and we hadn’t eaten for hours.

We danced and chatted to people. Anna got harassed by a straight guy until I told him to fuck off. He wouldn’t take Anna’s closed-down body language as a sign to piss off. I was enraged. He slunk away then and didn’t bother her again.

The crowd began to thin at about 4/4:30. The DJ had changed over an hour or two earlier and wasn’t all that good. We left then and wandered back up to the meeting point, buying water and some food at a 24hr bakery. Anna called the hotel and the car came to get us. Hooray! We collapsed into bed at about 5. We did it. We went out in Mykonos=.

Sunday, a Day of Rest

Not wanting to miss breakfast, we all staggered up at 9:30am, ate and then went back to bed for a few more hours to catch the 2pm bus back to Elia. While yesterday had been incredibly warm, the water perfect and our experience by the beach heavenly, Sunday was a little less magical.

Most of the sunbeds were gone, along with the cabanas by the beach. We took up three beds in the gay section but had to pay for four as we were in the front (the only place with three beds next to each other). The food and drink were a let down and it was windy so the water felt chilly.

I went in and out a few times but it was too cold to go snorkelling again, much to Glen’s disappointment. He also didn’t get a massage this time. Nevertheless, we made the most of the privilege we’d been given and relaxed. I read more of my book and we all bemoaned the fact that we’d soon be leaving Mykonos and Greece. I could easily have stayed a week or more. That way we could have seen more beaches and even gone to Delos (we were meant to go in the morning but that wasn’t going to happen).

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We caught the 6:25 bus back to town, showered, caught a shuttle back to town and ate at a restaurant by the edge of the water. We ordered too much food but we managed to stuff most of it down. We had a 1.2kg grilled sea bass which was delicious! It cost €85 so you’d hope so. No dessert for us, we waddled through the streets for a bit but I was tired and so was Anna. No desire whatsoever to go out just as the town was ramping up.

We caught a taxi and were in bed by 11, sad that we’d be leaving in the morning but hopeful of our return.

The Boat to Santorini

We slept late-ish (not as late as yesterday of course) on Monday, had breakfast, packed our bags and sat waiting for our shuttle to the port. We definitely did not want to leave. As we only have one full-day and two nights in Santorini, leaving Mykonos feels like we’re at the end of the holiday, a disastrous thing to think.

We were dropped off at the New Port and joined the masses of people waiting to board the ferry to Santorini. Bizarrely, I saw a friend of my sister’s from back home in Perth. He’d been in Mykonos for a week and was on the way to Santorini too. What a coincidence! as Diedre Chambers would say.

The ferry was smooth but the seats we had were underneath the arctic blast of air-conditioning. Thank god for Anna’s scarf and beach towel.

After two hours and a brief stop at Naxos, we docked at Santorini. I could definitely return to Mykonos.

Three Islands on the Saronic Coast

Thursday: on cruising to the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina along the Saronic Coast just off Athens.

I’d booked a day-long cruise to explore some of the islands just off the coast of Athens. There’s a popular cruise that takes in Hydra, Poros and Aegina. Briefly, I’d considered catching a ferry by myself and visiting one or two of the islands and doing everything myself. I’m not usually a fan of big tour groups and super structured activities, plus doing it alone (Glen had the conference) I was a little reluctant. But the effort involved to do it under my own steam seemed too much so I paid the money and got on the bus at 7:30.

I had an unpleasant experience with the guy corralling us all. I’d booked the tour only a day or two before and the confirmation said I either had to print the voucher or show the email confirmation on my phone. Not having a printer handy, I was ready to show my phone. I then got flack from this arsehole who said, ‘All this stuff [I assume he was referring to my bag] and you haven’t printed the voucher.’ I said I didn’t have to and when he gave me some bullshit about his accounting department, I was ready for a fight but he backed down. I was pissed. It was not a good start to the tour.

The bus took us to the port and we boarded the boat with what looked like 300 other people. I wondered if I could have found a smaller tour group that could have taken me to the islands instead but that would be no use now. I got on the boat, found a place to sit and the cruise began.

Hydra

First stop was Hydra after a couple of hours on the boat. I read a book. I’d paid to go on a 45-minute walking tour of Hydra. You don’t cover much ground in 45 minutes. I could have easily bypassed this tour as there wasn’t much that really held my interest. Apparently it’s a well-known island for the rich and famous. It also doesn’t have cars so everything is transported by donkey.

We stood in a square underneath a bougainvillaea where they filmed a scene in Octopussy. We also went in the church where we saw the relics of the saint. His bones are arranged in a silver box. It’s a bit grotesque.

After the tour, I went for a short walk along the coast, taking some photos and looking longingly at the sea and wishing I could go for a swim. I got back on the boat at quarter to 12 and we headed to our second island.

Poros

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We had 45 minutes on this small island but I liked it the best out of the three from the little I saw. I had hoped to go for a dip in the ocean but couldn’t find a beach nearby. (I contemplated just jumping in where the boats docked but didn’t.) Instead I walked through narrow streets and along the edge of the water. I bought an ice-cream (which was sickly sweet) and a bottle of water and got back on the boat for lunch.

Aegina

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Temple of Aphaia

If it weren’t for visiting Aegina and the Temple of Aphaia, I probably wouldn’t have booked the tour and instead just picked one island and gone to that. I chose to go on the ‘classical’ tour which took us up to the temple and then to a monastery. (The other tours were a scenic tour or a swimming tour – which I was sorely tempted to go on.)

The Temple of Aphaia is one of three temples that form the Sacred Triangle – the others being the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon. I can now say I’ve been to them all. It’s the most intact temple out of the three. You can also see where the altar is and more of the broader complex. Aphaia was worshipped there in the second millennium BC and later became incorporated into Athena. Athena is worshipped on the mainland and Aphaia on Aegina.

Twenty minutes later we got back on the bus and headed to the monastery of St Nektarios. (I kept thinking of him as St Nectarine.) The island of Aegina – as well as being briefly the first capital of modern Greece (1827–1829) – is also a highly significant religious site for the Orthodox Church. Adherents are meant to go on a pilgrimage to the island at least once in their lives. Not a bad spot to go on a pilgrimage, that’s for sure.

The cathedral is finished on the outside (it was only built about 30 years ago) but the inside is still undergoing works. I saw the relics of the saint, less gruesome this time, in the smaller chapel. Beautiful paintings on the roof.

After that, it was time to return to the boat. Nearly two hours had passed.

Return to Athens

The boat docked at about 7:30 and then it was a bus ride back to the city. I can’t say I really had the best time. Perhaps it was tiredness, being on my own, or just not being all that interested in what I saw. I was glad to have gone to the Temple of Aphaia but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d had more time on the islands to go swimming, to have lunch, to relax.

Instead I spent 8 out of 12 hours travelling. It can’t really be helped considering the distances we travelled. I’d even worked that out beforehand but went anyway, hoping it would be amazing. Oh well. I did it. It’s done. Mykonos tomorrow and finally – finally! – a swim in the ocean.

I got back into Athens later than expected so Glen was ready to call the police or the coast guard or Superman to find out if I’d sunk. He was on the balcony waiting for me when I got back at 8:30.

We then went for dinner at Macro Provato (again) with Anna, Michael, Alison and Michael’s friend, and ate an enormous feast before heading home to pack at 11pm. Athens has been great.

More Ancient Athens

Wednesday: On returning the car, seeing the Temple of Olympian Zeus, marvelling at the Antikythira Mechanism in the Archaeological Museum, and enjoying the sunset with a bunch of drunk radiologists.

I returned the car in the morning, navigating Athens’ rush-hour traffic to deliver it downtown. I’m sure I crossed three lanes of traffic at some point and cut off a bus. Driving in Athens felt more like being in a computer game than being of any consequence. Glen went off to the conference for the morning and then returned at 11 with Anne for us to check out a few more of Athens’ sights.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

We’d purchased a combination ticket (€30) at the Acropolis which gave us access to other archaeological sites around the city, one of which being the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was only a short walk down the road from our accommodation but the heat was already quite fierce and draining.

We got into the temple complex, took our photos and wandered around this impressively large temple still with a good number of columns standing (and one that had fallen over in the 1800s and been left where it lay).

The sun drained me of my energy and I was keen to get inside somewhere that wasn’t so hot. We walked up the road and flagged down a taxi which took us to the Archaeological Museum of Athens.

The Antikythira Mechanism

The main reason for going to the Archaeological Museum was to see the Antikythira Mechanism, the 2000-year-old ‘computer’ found at the bottom of the ocean. A bonus was seeing a whole lot of ancient sculptures and artefacts.

The Antikythira Mechanism, when we found it, was in pieces, separated out to show the cogs and the intricacies of a device that you wouldn’t think someone could make back then. It was an astronomical device and, according to the interpretation, matched up a variety of calendars with the movements of different planetary bodies. Or something like that. The mathematics involved made my head hurt.

We zoomed through a few more galleries, took our photos, read a few signs and then left to catch a taxi back.

ESGAR by the Sea

Sunset on the Coast

Glen and Anna returned to the conference while I had a nap. The conference dinner was held in the evening so we went along to that, boarding a bus at 7/7:30 and driving out of Athens down the coast. We stopped at a place that we passed on our drive down to Sounio. The dinner was held on a spit of grass and tree-covered land that jutted into the ocean.

We nabbed some comfy couches, drank our drinks, muscled our way through the crowd of hungry radiologists to get to the food, and watched the sunset. Magical setting, good food and ample drinks.

The event was meant to finish at 11pm but we opted to catch a taxi at 10ish back to Athens. It took barely anytime and we got home before 11. (If we’d stayed for the buses, we likely wouldn’t have got home until after midnight.) We socialised. We were content.

The Road to Sounio and Temple of Poseidon

Glen went to the conference on Tuesday morning while I stayed in the apartment catching up on some work. It’s both a positive and a negative that as a freelancer you can work from anywhere. He returned at lunch time with the other radiologists and we went for lunch at a local fish restaurant. We then collected the car and set off on our second road trip.

Vouliagmeni Lake

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About half an hour out of Athens (if there’s no traffic), you’ll find Vouliagmeni Lake. It’s a lake carved out of the mountain and set back a little from the coast. It’s fed from sea water and an underwater thermal spring. To capitalise on this unique natural feature, it’s been turned into a ‘spa’.

We paid our €12 and claimed a table underneath an umbrella and went for a swim. The sign said the water was between 26°C and 28°C but it didn’t feel as warm as that going in. It was a bit like being in a saltwater pool, the water only tasting slightly of salt.

Another unique feature of the lake are the schools of tiny fish that swim around, waiting for anything to stand still long enough so they can attack it and strip it of dead skin. This resulted in many, many squeals as their little mouths rapidly suck away at your flesh like a ticklish massage.

After a swim and a fish-pedicure, we continued on our way.

Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon

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About an hour farther up the road are the town of Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, an impressive ruin that dominates the landscape from the land and the sea. We stopped to get a photo from the opposite side of the bay before going around, parking and exploring the site.

We went down before we went up, seeing ruins of the walls and settlements. I saw a long green lizard while we were later treated to the sight of an adult bird corralling (and trying to defend) its brood of six chicks. We watched them for a while as they peeped away and tried to climb a wall.

We reached the top of the hill and walked around the temple. I was impressed with the number of columns still standing (or the number that had been restored). The weather was perfect and I got some great shots (Glen and I doing our traditional #lickingthings photos).

It was well worth the trip out to see and I was glad I’d chosen to drive rather than hire a driver. Felt we were free to do what we wanted. We left at about 5 something and headed back into Athens.

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Mount Lycabettus

As we had the car we decided to check out Mount Lycabettus in Athens, also known as ‘the other big hill’. Getting back into Athens-traffic was not pleasant, especially when I had to drive down narrow streets lined with parked cars. I got us fairly high up the hill before we had to get out and climb the rest of the way. (There is a funicular from the other side to the bottom of the hill.)

Our first view of the Acropolis and Athens was impressive and we oohed and aahed over it. We then repeated this the higher up the hill we climbed. The only downside was a slight haze over the city but in the gradually fading light, it was a real treat. Athens just goes on forever.

At the top of the hill is a restaurant that’s apparently expensive (I didn’t look) but instead of eating there, we head back to the car and I drove us to the Gazi district. We settled into a Greek restaurant (well, they’re all Greek as they’re in Greece but you get what I mean) called Frog Island and ordered lots of different things.

It was all delicious. Alison was coming to join us so we had the problem of deciding whether to leave things for her (and risk it being cold when she arrived) or gorging ourselves (and destroying the evidence) so she could order something fresh. In the end we were too full to finish it all so Michael made up a plate for her. We waddled out sometime around 9pm, dropped the car back at the parking garage and went home. Another successful day in Greece complete.