Kyoto (and Nara) – Part Two

We took Sunday at a slightly slower pace. We’d only booked to stay two nights in the AirBnB before relocating to Hotel Mume closer to Gion. When I’d booked it all I wasn’t sure how we’d go sleeping on the floor so opted for something that was more familiar for the second half of our stay.

We woke up at 7, lounged, got up and made breakfast. Had a shower. Packed. Then I proofread Glen’s research paper, thinking I had oodles of time but Glen hadn’t changed the time on his laptop so it was a bit of a rush towards the end. Our host arrived at 9:30 and her husband gave us a lift to our other hotel.

We checked into Hotel Mume with its big red door. It’s close to/in the Gion district and is warm and comfortable. We couldn’t get into our room as it was still only 10am but we checked in, had a tea and some biscuits and then got some recommendations from the lady at the desk.

We decided to go to Nishiki Markets again, buying prawns on a stick and ambling along through the crowds. And then we bumped into Ravinder!

She was meant to be at Imperial Palace but decided against it and was going wandering so she came with us. I bought some different flavoured coated peanuts. We settled on lunch at a curry ramen place that was tucked out of the way. Usual issues over food but I said I was absolutely fine with the choice and would have the chicken, which was fine. It was wonderful to sit down.

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Red gate

The start of spring

The 3 February was the start of spring which is celebrating with a lantern festival, one of which was happening out at Nara, which was the first capital of Japan. After lunch we took the slow JR train to Nara where we got some info at the tourist centre about sites to see and the lantern festival, then walked through part of the city, stopping for a hot chocolate, before seeing the five-storey pagoda and then deer.

Lots of deer.

Deer you could feed.

There were only a few at the first park we were at but as we got close to the temple housing a giant buddha, they were at plague proportions, commensurate with the number of tourists feeding them biscuits. We joined in and the deers got aggressive. They were biting my jacket! And those teeth looked sharp.

But it was nice to see wildlife, even if it’s become totally habituated and they probably have to put a few down…

Lots of baby deer though.

We went through to see the giant buddha in the giant building. Wandered around. By that stage (how long had it been? Two days?) I was over temples. Afterwards we stopped for crepes and tea/coffee and a rest until it got dark.

We wandered along the lantern-lit path to the temple where the festivities were taking place. When we reached it, the crowd thickened. We joined a queue. The lanterns weren’t as impressive as we thought they’d be, and after meandering along in the throng for a while, we jumped out of the queue and left. I do not regret this decision in the slightest.

A 2.5km walk back to the train station and an hour train ride, we finally arrived back in Kyoto. We dropped Ravinder off, said our farewells, and returned to our hotel for a sleep.

The red gates of Fushimi Inari-taishi

We woke at 7:30 on Sunday and decided to take things a bit easier today. Nevertheless, we were out of the hotel by 10ish. We caught the subway down to Fushimi Inari-taishi, otherwise known as the Red Gates, otherwise knows as Hell is Other People.

The combination of it being a Sunday and a popular tourist destination made for a horde of people. We joined the throng, going along a vendor-lined street. Glen bought wagyu on a stick and I laughed at the photos I took of him eating it.

We entered the temple complex then joined the line of people marching beneath the gates, everyone trying to get a photo but unable to get one (rarely) without other people in it. Interestingly, if you look back the way you came, you see black writing on the columns which isn’t visible from the other way. With no interpretation around, I wasn’t sure what it all meant.

The crowd thinned a little the more you get to the top. We didn’t do the full loop but probably got a third of the way up, then turned around and came back. We got some photos and I contemplated writing a book about how god awful travel.

Back down the hill we went and caught the train back to Sanjo in the city. We walked to the handkerchief place so Glen could buy some for his mum, then we went for lunch on the seventh floor of a department store (sushi, soba and tempura – I liked it and it didn’t come with the stress of figuring out what to eat). Next stop was a 7-Eleven to get more cash and then to Aritsuga, the knife shop in Nishiki Market, and bought a wonderfully sharp kitchen knife.

After that, Glen saw a massage parlour so went for a 30-minute massage while I went back to the hotel to do various odds and ends. My feet hurt, I didn’t want to buy anything else, and I didn’t want to see another temple.

In the evening Glen wanted steak so we went for steak. Luckily they had chicken. The staff at the hotel had explained to the restaurant when they rang that I didn’t eat red meat or pork so for the little amuse bouche they gave me smoke salmon. Really considerate of them. We ate our food, had dessert, had some drinks, and then wandered home.

Such was our last evening in Kyoto. Not that I’ve got a need to go again, but I’d probably opt for more experiences next time, such as a tea ceremony or origami class. Then again, I can probably do that elsewhere and somewhere new.

Osaka and home

The next day we’d decided we’d just go to the hotel at the Osaka airport and chill. We caught the train, arrived sometime around one, had lunch and checked in. There were a couple of things in Osaka we thought might be interesting – the noodle museum and Universal Studios – but the airport was over an hour on the train from each, we were running out of time, it was cold, and unfortunately I had just received some work from my publisher that I needed to get on to. So Monday was very much a chill day.

The next morning we packed up, went to the airport, checked in, fast-tracked past the horror security queue, and then sat in the lounge until our flight. We’d managed to get business seats from Osaka to Hong Kong. Then in Hong Kong we used the lounge (The Pier, very nice) before our Premium Economy seats into Perth, landing about 10:30.

We were home and while I was glad for some of it, I actually really wanted to go skiing again. Whoever would have thought I’d find it addictive?

Kyoto – Part One

We’d heard a lot of good things about Kyoto…which always worries me. Other people’s experiences and high praise of things usually results in me being underwhelmed. Nevertheless, Kyoto appeared to be offering a bit more of the ‘Japanese’ experience than being surrounded by a lot of foreigners (mostly Aussies) in the snowfields of Hokkaido. We’d been to Tokyo last time so Kyoto was the next destination after Niseko.

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A long day of travel

For such a small (group of) island(s), it took a long time for us to get from Niseko to Kyoto. On Thursday we took the shuttle from Niseko (probably a little earlier than necessary) to New Chitose airport and then had about three hours to kill there. (We shopped, ate and looked at the inner workings of the chocolate factory.)

Then we flew down to Osaka (a couple of hours) and then caught a train to Kyoto (another couple of hours) and then a subway to near our AirBnB. We arrived at about 8pm so it was nearly 12 hours worth of travelling.

I’d booked an AirBnB because Glen and I wanted something that was a bit ryokan like. We probably should have paid for a proper ryokan guesthouse but instead we got someone’s house. It was bloody freezing until we put all the heaters on. It was quaint and small, with tatami mats and sliding paper doors. I guess that’s what we were after.

After the host left us, we went looking for a restaurant, finding one that had pictures of a few dishes and then an eel drawing on the sign. I had reservations but Glen was gun-ho so we went in.

They only served eel. Glen doesn’t eat eel. But by then we were inside (we were the only other set of customers in there apart from a man and woman) and we’d been given tea.  So we ordered one meal between the two of us, which had rice, soup and some veg, as well as grilled eel.

The eel wasn’t bad and I made the way through it for the both of us. The restaurant was warm, a family affair, and an adventure. Glen was still a bit horrified. We then went to the supermarket downstairs and bought things for breakfast and snacks, then went home and snuck off to bed with the heaters on.

Temples, monkeys and markets

We roused ourselves early enough on Friday morning to go meet our friend Ravinder, who was also in town from Perth for a few days, at the Golden Pavilion. This meant taking a couple of buses. Thank god for Google. We figured it out and luckily I’d read how to use the system and what you paid in Lonely Planet. We caught our two buses, the second (205), full of tourists (and some monks) heading to the very popular Golden Pavilion.

We didn’t see Ravinder and she didn’t have wifi so we went in, navigating around tourists. Golden Pavilion was beautifully scenic, especially when the pond was still and reflective. We eventually got away from the crowds and wandered around the rest of the gardens. The crowds intensified again at the souvenir stands. We then exited and sat to have a bit of food and to see if we could find Ravinder. Glen eventually spotted her; she was looking for us too. Mission accomplished.

We caught a taxi to the bamboo forest, having a few bits of food at the food stalls just at the entrance. I had one of those fish pastries with the red bean paste centre, and then a blobby dough thing dipped in sugar soy sauce, which was gross.

The bamboo forest wasn’t as impressive as we were all expected, probably to do with it only being a small area and you walk along a stone path rather than through the forest. But there was a really nice bit so I was happy.

Next stop was the monkey park but we stopped along the way, besides the river, and had some lunch. Ravinder and I had a really nice set menu thing with some fried croquette things, vegetable selection, miso soup and rice. I loved it. Glen’s wasn’t so enjoyable for him.

Across the bridge to the monkey forest and then the killer walk up the hill to the top where the macaques were. They were wandering around and there was a caged building where you go inside and feed the macaques hanging outside. It was pretty cool, though they’re fairly habituated and probably very overweight.

And then we wandered down, walked to the train, caught that all the way to near Ravinder’s hotel and the Nishiki Market. We went through Takashimaya department store, ogling all the desserts and chocolates and sweets, then the different food on display. We bought some sweets and then some pastries, walked down some shops in the Nishiki area.

Glen bought some new shoes – FINALLY! He’s been moaning about those shoes for god knows how many years and on god knows how many trips.

It took forever to get through the shops and I was glad when we finally reached the hotel and stopped for a drink and some food. We then walked through more markets and I bought some new hiking type shoes to replace my boots as they’ve got a hole in them.

A lot of the Nishiki Market was closing down as it was late so we walked more streets, into Gion, saw where the geisha restaurants were (and caught a glimpse of three real geishas rushing into a building beneath the flash of cameras.

We then walked along the street behind the river. By this time I was hangry and tired and just wanted to eat but there were the usual problems of not being able to read the menus or finding something we can settle on.

We eventually choose a place where you cook your food on a hot rock. We had the big room with the window view all to ourselves. Ravinder and I had the fish set and it wasn’t bad. I was just glad to eat.

After dinner, we said our goodbyes and Glen and I caught a taxi home and returned to the freezing house. We had more to do tomorrow.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Glen and I hit the ski slopes of Niseko, Japan, in late January. It’s the first time we’d been skiing in two years (the last time was also to Niseko) and I couldn’t wait to get out there again. Even better than going skiing, our friend Rob was also going to be in Niseko at the same time.

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From Perth to Japan

We left Perth late on 25 January flying Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then on to New Chitose. As awful as this is going to sound, it’s the first time Glen and I have flown anything other than business class on ‘long haul’ for a while. But don’t go feeling too sorry for us (I’m sure you were going to) as we had Premium Economy seats to Hong Kong (but then Economy to New Chitose).

When we got to Hong Kong we had some time to kill. Glen gallantly said I could go with Rob (who’d gone in business) to the lounge but when we got there, he wasn’t allowed a guest because he didn’t have status. A shame. So I went back with Glen, we got a drink, bought a Bay-Max mug from Disney and then went to our relocated gate to wait.

We were in economy for our flight to Sapporo in a terrible configuration of 3-3-3. It was full. Glen had the window and I the middle while a mother had the aisle. I slept for a bit around take-off, which was delayed, but then was awake from breakfast and from then on. I watched Ronny Chang’s sitcom and then we landed sometime around 3.

Flying overnight was definitely a bit gross, and I was very glad when we got to Japan finally…only to end up in a horror immigration queue. Unlike last time, this was our point of entry into Japan so we had to go through the whole shebang. The queue went forever and I think there must have been another plane or two landing at the same time.

The minutes ticked past and we were rapidly running out of time. We had to get through quarantine and then collect the wifi dongle and then catch the 4:30 bus, all in about 20 minutes. I was panicking a bit. We got through quarantine at quarter past and then I left Glen and Rob to sort out the bus. I ran to get the dongle and then returned to Glen only to find Rob gone (he had a different bus) and our bus delayed departure until 5:10.

This at least meant we hadn’t missed the bus and we could get some money out. We then went to find some food, settling on a couple of pieces of fried chicken and some drinks. We got back to our group and then there was more of a wait before moving where there was more of wait before getting outside to wait for the bus.

Despite it snowing and being chilly, it was great to be outside in the fresh air and to see snow again. (Mind you I was a bit jealous seeing a friend’s photos of him in Bali.) We finally got on the bus which took about 2.5 hours to get to Hirafu in Niseko. Strangely, despite leaving a good amount of time before us, Rob arrived probably only about ten minutes prior to our arrival.

After we checked into The Vale at about 7:30pm, we met Rob downstairs at our hotel and went for dinner at a Japanese cuisine restaurant over the road from our hotel. We had a good, filling dinner then went home and to bed. I was anxious to see what the next day would bring, what with it being the first time on skis in two years, first time since my patella fracture, and with a sore back that had been persisting for a couple of weeks. I was going to be devastated if I only got a couple of hours of skiing out of a possible five days.

Ski, onsen, eat, repeat

On the first day, after breakfast, Glen and I collected our rental skis (from just behind the hotel. So convenient) and our lift passes and went for a few easy runs to get our ski legs back.

We took a very easy green to start off with and then I wanted to do it again. I was able to get down, turn, go fast, pretty much like I used to so after we did that twice, we then went up the next lift to get higher up the mountain. There were some greens and reds (Canadian blues) here but I felt pretty confident going down. It looked like things would be alright after all.

By that stage it was already close to midday so we stopped, had lunch in the hotel, then went out to meet Crystina from Czech Republic, our ski instructor. We had two hours of a pretty good lesson, which I kept trying to practise over the new few days. Really, it would have been better to have another lesson a day or two later to help improve more. That’ll be something for next time.

After skiing we went to the onsen in the hotel. The hot water was heavenly and helped release some of the tension in my legs. Though over the next five days, they would get weaker and weaker. I was obviously using them too much and didn’t have optimal efficiency.

From the onsen, we returned to our room and relaxed. I even fell asleep. I think I was so relaxed (and tired from the skiing) knowing that I didn’t have to do anything until the day we left. The lesson was the last timed thing so the rest of my time was my own.

In the evening we went for dinner with Rob, trying a different restaurant, and then went our separate ways about 8pm while plenty of the young and hip people were still partying the night away.

And so that was pretty much the pattern for the next four days. We’d ski in the morning, have lunch, go skiing again, onsen, rest, eat dinner, go to bed. The restaurants we went to were Ginger (twice – nice food, mixed service, expensive), Bang Bang (or Bang 2 – yakitori – awesome, wanted to go again), and then another restaurant on our last night with the slowest service ever.

You shall not pass!

It snowed almost non-stop while we were there, and while that was great for the powder, (sorry, the ‘pow’) some days it was a bit much. We lost the mountain or couldn’t see downhill more than a few metres. I managed to go to three sides of the mountain but the Anapurni side I couldn’t get to via the lifts because the top ones were closed.

At one point my goggles iced over and I could fix them until after I’d skied down a hill. It was snowing heavily so I took my goggles off and skied into the snow, resulting in snow going straight into my eyes. At that time, Rob went a different way and ended up to his neck in snow.

The snow didn’t really let up until the day we left and by then it was too late.

The mountain demands a sacrifice

On the last day we’d skied in the morning and then decided to take a rest after lunch. Glen and I lounged in our room for much of it after going to the onset. I read a book and took it easy but the pull of the snow — and the fact it was our last day — was strong enough to make me anxious about fitting in one last run.

I figured I would go but prior to that, Glen was stacking the dishwasher. I hurried around the side of the bed to collect a cup to give to him and BAM! kicked the end of the bed with my left foot. I was sure I’d broken the three middle toes it was that painful! And even worse, it was looking like I couldn’t go skiing.

Nevertheless, the threat of not being able to ski again was sufficiently strong enough for me to push on. I struggled into my boots, got outside and went down the green as a test run. I made it but the whole way I was worried about my toes, and my quads were so sore I thought I was surely going to have an accident if I did anything harder. I decided then that it was time to call it a day.

I returned the skis, returned Glen’s too, and went back upstairs to await dinner. So ended our skiing.

Five full days of skiing was pretty good. It gave plenty of downtime, plenty of opportunities to ski without feeling pressure to fit a whole lot in. Perhaps next time we’ll explore a bit further afield for some variety but otherwise, it was an awesome ski trip (minus the broken toe – I had it x-rayed when I got back).

Next stop…Kyoto

A Day on the Great Barrier Reef

After my conference in Brisbane, I’d booked to head up to Cairns to check out the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Glen vowed never to go on a boat again (he gets bad seasickness) so considering how “close” I was, it seemed like the best opportunity.

I arrived in Cairns on Monday afternoon and had a day on the outer reef booked through Tusa Dive T6 for Tuesday. I walked to the marina just after 7am for a 7:40am departure with about 20 other people.

After setting off we had a 1.5–2-hour journey to Norman Reef. While the sky didn’t look too foreboding or the seas all that rough, the swell was significant and after about an hour I was out the back of the boat hurling up my breakfast.

Much embarrassed, I wasn’t the only one to be feeling ill (this is despite taking the seasickness pills that were being sold – perhaps I needed something stronger). Others joined me, were handed white paper bags and looked green as until we reached the reef and the rocking of the boat eased. I did feel much better after throwing up a few times though.

Dressed in a wetsuit and carrying a pool noodle, I went snorkelling through the reef. The highlight was seeing a medium-sized Hawksbill Turtle (so cute) and a rather large fish, the name of which I’ve forgotten, who kept following the photographer around.

We swam around for about 1.5–2 hours. Saw loads of fish and coral. It wasn’t as bright as I was expecting (or hoping) but I was staggered at the size of some of the coral (they look more like giant boulders). Plenty of colourful fish as well.

After snorkelling, the boat moved to another location, we had lunch (I didn’t eat much, worried about the return journey to Cairns) but it was good food, and then fell asleep during the nature talk (probably due to the seasickness pill).

Next stop was Saxon Reef for another snorkel, this time 1.5 hours. Giant reef shelves here with also a lot that were shallow and close to the surface (had to be careful not to kick the coral).

Highlights here were the giant clams. The largest ones were too far for me to reach but still easy to see. They’re huge. Also saw two dead ones with the halves sitting there being picked at by fish. The other bonus was seeing a long white-tipped reef shark in the distance. I wasn’t fast enough to get closer but was impressive to see from afar.

No seahorses. No Nemo or Dory (though I think someone else saw Dory). Nevertheless, I was glad I got to see it, experience a small part of this amazing and large reef, and sad that so much of it has been destroyed. (Being a tourist probably doesn’t help much either.)

Back on the boat and about 1.5 hours back to shore. While on the journey, I realised how sunburnt the backs of my legs had gotten because I stupidly went without putting sunscreen on. Tomorrow they’re going to be worse.

No seasickness this time (unlike the poor guy who didn’t get a bag in time) and I slept for part of it. We arrived back at the marina at 4pm and went our separate ways.

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.