Sunday, 28 June 2009


Rome is so jam packed with things to see and do I am glad we spent a week there. The power and depth of the Roman empire is evidenced everywhere with history around every corner; statues, monuments, fountains, churches, piazzas, ruins at every turn. We had the chance to see a lot of the city and take our time with it; which was good. We saw the big hits including the Coloseum, Vatican & San Pedro, Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain, Pantheon & Roman Forum.

One thing which I find annoying in continental Europe is that you have to pay to go to museums, art galleries and even some churches. Coming from London where they have world famous museums and galleries full of amazing things free to the public its very hard to get used to. I really appreciate that about London now.

Anyway, back to Rome. The Coloseum was huge and an amazing sight. Reading the descriptions of how it was used I could close my eyes and almost see the place alive in its heyday, full of crowds cheering on the gladiators. I was most impressed with the Pantheon (even more than the Sistine chapel - yes I know most people won't agree with me). Its a circular building with a huge concrete dome that was built as a temple for all the gods of Ancient Rome. It stands at some 43 meters in height with an opening that lets in the sun to light different alters within the temple at different times of the day and is the only intact building surving from Ancient Rome. Seeing it from within is an awe inspiring sight.

I was also pretty impressed by the King Vittorio Emanuele II monument in piazza Venezia, although apparently Romans are not too keen on it. Italians seems to love VE II because he has so many streets and monuments dedicated to him throughout the country, and why shouldnt they love him because he was the first king of an unified Italy. The monument itself is huge with multiple levels & countless statues in a mix of styles which doesnt sound very attractive but its sheer size and sprawl is impressive.

Rome has a great many piazzas and public spaces and we spent a lot of time sitting around people watching. We also did a day trip to the catacombs in the outskirts of Rome and hired bikes and rode along the Appian way - world's oldest highway and the original of the "roads leading to Rome". The Appian way is full of massive uneven cobblestones and some parts were impossible to ride through so we didnt get far with in our bike ride.

In Rome the ancient and modern live side by side in a weird harmony that is hard to comprehend at times. As the centre of the Roman empire and the significance it has for Catholics one can easily see why people flock from all over the world to Rome. I for one am glad to have had a chance to see it for myself.

Roma - Part 2

It doesnt seem right to write about Rome and not comment on the Sistine chapel so here is what I thought. To get to the Sistine chapel in the Vatican museum you have to pass through almost two hours worth of lavishy decorated corridors and rooms with frescoes, paintings, statues, furniture and tapestry. The journey ends in the Sistine chapel which is a huge rectangular room with all its walls and ceiling covered in frescoes. The frescoes are quite magnificant although the most famous sections on the ceiling done by Michalangelo are so far above its hard to make out the details. Nevertheless you stand in awe of it all shoulder to shoulder to hundreds of other people doing the same. There is so much to see in such detail you can really spend hours in that room but its impossible to do one because there is limited seating and the other because of the sheer number of people coming through to the room.

One thing which Pramod and I both couldn't understand was the fact that almost every person in the room (except us of course) were taking photos of the frescoes with flash repeatedly despite the signs forbidding that very act. With the thousands of people that visit the Sistine chapel everyday if everyone did that all those priceless frecoes will not be around for much longer. There were guards in the room, but they seem to be more concerned with keeping people quiet rather than warning them against the use of flashes. We found this attitude quite common throughout Italy, where staff were too busy socialising to enforce the rules of the gallery/museum they are looking after. It's such a pity because they dont seem to either not understand the significance of what they are looking after, or simply don't care. I'm not sure which is worse.

Sunday, 21 June 2009


Getting to Naples turned out to be quite a task. From Crete we flew into Athens with the intention of going to the Peloponesse. But after finding no reasonable accommodation in Napflio we decided to head straight to Italy. So from Athens we caught two trains to Patras and then boarded the overnight ferry to Bari, Italy. The ferry trip was great. Our private cabin was clean and comfy and after a great night's sleep we woke up in Italy. The journey to Naples wasnt finished though as we had to catch a train and a bus to Naples as we missed the daily train to Naples which left in the morning.

The hostel we stayed at in Naples was near the main train station and not in the best neighborhood as we found out. The hostel overlooked a road that ended with a huge supermarket and was full of rubbish. It turned out that the street turned into a market every morning that sold clothes, shoes etc. By 2pm each day the market stalls were packed up and the street was open to traffic again however all the market vendors left their rubbish on the road which were swept up by street cleaners each night. The roat below the hostel was a hub of activity day and night and many times we sat on the balconies and watched the chaos below.

When we checked into the hostel the receptionist basically told us not to carry anything valuable with us in the streets or take anything valuable out for people to see. He told us to only carry a small amount of money at a time and secure all bags properly. He told us to not come and go from the hostel after midnight as the street was not safe. All this was quite a lot to take in on that first day. Nevertheless the hostel itself was clean and spacious.

While in Napoli we had the very best pizza we've ever had. All the guide books recommended a pizzeria that had been around since 1870. This place was quite small and with simple decor. The menu was also limited; they had 2 kinds of pizza margerita(basil, tomato, oliva oil & mozzerella) & marinara (oregano, tomato, garlic & olive oil), soda, water and beer. The pizzas had a thin crust and were made in a wood fired oven. They were so delicious we were left wondering how they could make something so simple taste so good.

During our stay in Naples we had the chance to visit Pompei which was a short train ride away. The ruins covered a huge area and it was facinating to see how the city was organised. There were ruins of temples, markets, shopping streets, residences, administration buildings, brothels, sport and theatre arenas as well as graffiti, casts of people who died in mid expression, frescoes, wall paintings etc etc. Most of the artefacts from Prompei are kept in the National Archeological Museum in Naples, which we had visited the day before. Although the museum is not very well organised it had a superb collection of sculptures and the most complete collection of artefacts from Pompei so it was well worth the visit.

While in Naples we also did a day trip to the Amalfi coast via Sorrento. The Amalfi coast stretches for about 50km and the road is carved into the side of a mountainous ridge that follows the coast line on a very windy path. Along the way there were many towns which spread from the cliff tops down to beaches and the sea below. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Somehow it feels impossible to find the words to describe the sense of exhileration and awe we felt that day. The coastal towns such as Positano and Amalfi were so beautiful I felt that especially Positano was far more beautiful that Santorini on any day. We had lunch in Amalfi and headed back to Naples hoping to return to spend a holiday somewhere along the Amalfi coast.

In the 4-5 days we spent in Naples we met some great people in our hostel. Most of the were Aussies or Kiwis travelling around Europe and we had a great time swapping stories over pizza and wine. Being in such a dangerous place brought us closer together and I got a true sense of what its like to stay in a hostel because of it. Come to think of it everyone we had met so far had been very friendly and I'm glad we are staying in hostels because without the people we had met along the way Europe would not have been half as fun.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


Just wanted to write a summary of my thoughts on Greece. I had heard a lot of good things about Greece so I did have high expectations which were quickly deflated.

The touristy parts of Greece were terribly expensive... and everything else was run down and dirty. A lot of the nice places main aim seemed to be to exploit tourists. For example a lot of the restaurants which we went to that had good reviews in travel guides had really gone downhill after the review. They still charged crazy prices, and advertised the good reviews to get customers but the quality of the food was not good at all. We felt ripped off most times. I dont mind having to pay for expensive meals if they were worth it. But that was not the case.

It looked like the government had invested on infrastructure and building public spaces but once built nothing was maintained. The metro is Athens was great because its relatively new from the Olympics but other things were run down and dirty. Most transport and public systems were very disorganised.

The other thing we hated was the smoking absolutely everywhere, including all enclosed spaces. They would have smoking and non-smoking sections, but they were just different corners of the same room. Its not just that but many very young people smoked and it seemed socially acceptable to do so. On the ferry to Santorini there was a football team with their coach and I would say they were about 11-14 years old. The whole team chain smoked including the coach. Also there was a mother with a small girl about 4 years old who was sleeping on her lap and the mum was smoking away the whole time. There seemed to be a lack of awareness or care for the dangers of smoking.

Despite all that we had some good times in Greece. Crete was beautiful and I wish I had more time to explore it, especially by car. Greek salad was yummy everywhere and the olive oil in Crete was divine. Moonlit Santorini was breathtaking. Athens exceeded our expectations in most ways so I would say it is really worth a visit, especially if you appreciate history.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Our first stop in Crete was Heraklion the modern, bustling capital of Crete. We stayed close to the old Venetian fort and harbour, within walking distance of a busy cafe and restaurant strip.

About 5km from Heraklion lies Knosses the capital of Minoan Crete, with the most famous of Minoan ruins - the palace of King Minos of Knosses. This site is the inspiration to the myth of the Minotaur. The half man half bull being that lived in the labyrinth below the King's palace. We visited the ruins which are set on a hill and include a huge palace with courtyards, private rooms, baths, fresh water irrigation system, sewerage system and decorative wall paintings & frescos. We even saw archaeologists excavating certain parts of the ruins that were cordoned off to the public.

After a day or so in Heralion we took a bus to Hania. The way to Hania was very picturesque with the bus going through mountains and valleys to end up hugging the beautiful coast line passing small seaside towns along the way. Crete has a lot of scenic variety packed into a small area and I think hiring a car is probably the best way to explore all its beauty.

In Hania we stayed at pretty little pension - a restored Venetian building converted to accommodation on top of a tourist gift shop. If you ever come to Hania you have to stay in the old town filled with small characteristic buildings in amongst snug cobbled paths. We were walking distance from the waterfront and old harbour lined with restaurants where we saw great sunsets on the back drop of the Venetian light house. The food was also better than we've had in all the places to we had been in Greece.

While we were in Hania we also did a day trip to the Samaria Gorge and trekked the 16.7kms downhill to the coast. Samaria gorge is Europe's largest and most spectacular. It is a national park and as no one is allowed to stay in the gorge overnight once you start the trek you have to finish it in about 5-6 hours so you can catch the boat to the next town.

The day began very early as we lighted a bus at 6:15am for a 45 min ride to the south coast of Crete and the head of the gorge at 1230m above sea level. We started the trek at about 7:45am and the first part was very steep, rocky & downhill and we descended 900m in the first 4kms. The rest of the trek was flatter than this and the scenery was breathtaking as we followed the path of the mostly dried up river bed to the sea. There were three rest stops but we kept a very good pace all the way down. Our guide started half an hour after us and ensured that everyone made it to the end where we had a catch a boat to the next town to get our bus back to Hania. As the day wore on and the sun got higher it became very hard to walk on the rocky path down hill. It was a real workout for the legs; especially the knees. Towards the end of the trek we passed through the narrowest part of the gorge which is 3m wide and 300m high. I felt a great sense of achievement to finish the trek especially with my dodgy knee. It was definitely the hardest thing I've even done. I think it was really worthwhile to do even though we were sore for a couple of days after it.

All in all I really enjoyed our time in Hania.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


After a long and arduos ferry trip spent trying to avoid the incessant smoking everywhere we arrived in Fira, Santorini at about 2am. Unfortunately for us the place we booked via the travel agent (who also booked the ferry) was not at all what we expected. The most irritating thing was the fact that it was right next to the main road leading up to Oia (pronounced ee-ya) and the noise from the constant stream of cars, buses and motorcycles was unbearable.

We didnt get much sleep that first night and after trying in vain to get a different room we decided to change hotels the next morning. Since we happened to arrive on the weekend we couldnt find anywhere decent for the next night and could only change hotels after spending 2 sleepless nights at our original hotel.

Enough said about that. For those of you who arent familiar with Santorini, it is a doughnut shaped island with a piece bitten off in the bottom left hand side. It has been formed by multiple volcanic eruptions over thousands of years(including the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history believed to have wiped out the Minoeans in Crete in 1650 BC) which left the mouth of the volcano mostly intact and the caldera submerged leaving only a small volcanic island in the middle. Santorini is the volcano mouth part with jaw dropping cliffs made of layers of lava. The views from the clifftop towns to the caldera are amazing in the day and night, but its most famous for its sunsets. Many large cruise ships come into the caldera and boats full of tourists visit Santorini for the day. Many of the tourists we saw were older Americans who could hardly manage to walk the cobbled and hilly paths.

Santorini is very touristy because that is its life blood. The clifftop cafes and restaurants charge exorbitant prices because of the views. While we did have an expensive meal in one of those restaurants overlooking the caldera most times we bought gyros and sat in front of the church in the main promenade and enjoyed the view all the same.

We did a day excursion that took people by boat to the volcanic island in the middle of the caldera followed by the hot springs in Palia Kameni and a visit to a seaside town in Thirasia (an island separated from the Sanotirini mainland). The climb up to the top of the volcanic island was very tiring in the extreme heat of the day and I didnt think it was really worth it.

We also visited the black beach in Perissa for half a day. Many tourists were sun bathing and swimming even though the water was very cold. We didnt really see the appeal of Perissa beach when compared with Fira nevertheless you cant underestimate the sun starved Europeans need to get a tan.

In one of the evenings we visited Oia which is another cliff top town with unrestricted views of the Aegean Sea. Oia is supposed to have the best sunsets (this is what most postcards have a picture of) and many tourists flock to every nook and cranny facing the water to get a look at the sunset. We found a spot in the old Venetian fort and waited for the sunset. I really wouldnt say that was the best sunset especially after seeing so many wonderful ones in the Maldives.

My most vivid and treasured memory of Santorini happened quite by accident. As we were walking back to our hotel one night along the clifftop path we happened to look back at Fira and were amazed by the way the town was light up with lights and the full moon in the distance reflecting on the water. We sat on a set of steps and watched the scene for ages in the cool of the night. I think this view was more spectacular than the world famous views of the caldera by day.. but thats just my opinion. We tried to get photos of it but it didnt seem to capture the full spectacle.

Overall I have to say I found Santorini quite underwhelming & overrated. Even if I ignored the whole hotel saga I still feel this way. It was too expensive and touristy for my liking. Our next stop is Crete.

On a side note.. I had such a laugh in Santorini looking at all these women wearing ridiculous heels and wedges walking with wobbly feet. The paths are so uneven and you tend to climb up and down so much I really couldnt understand the logic of some people. So much for women's liberation if we have to still be in pain to 'look good'.. but I suppose liberation is just that; freedom to do anything and be anything even if that is stupid.

Saturday, 6 June 2009


Our much anticipated Europe 2009 backpacking trip began in Athens, where we flew in on the 3rd of June. Our plane was late and the bus we took from the airport terminated about 3kms earlier than it should have so we had a long walk to find our hostel with all our luggage. We were off to a great start.

In Athens we stayed at a hostel called 'Athens Backpackers' run by a friendly bunch of Aussies in Acropoli, walking distance to the Acropolis & in the heart of the Plaka district - full of shops, restaurants and cafes. By the time we checked in it was about 10pm and we headed out to get a bite to eat. We both realised that it was our anniversary on our way to Athens andd decided to have a sit down dinner.

The hostel receptionist recommended a restaurant nearby called 'God's Restaurant'. I'm not sure who the cook was at the God's restaurant by the food was not that great. On our way back to the hostel, we stopped for Gelato(this is not the watery version you get back in Oz, its proper homemade ice cream). The girl at the Gelato shop let us taste a new flavour which was tequila, chilli & chocolate. It was way too alcoholic for our liking so we ended up buying the Creme Brulee flavour.

While the hostel was clean and the beds were comfy we didnt get much sleep thanks to the mosquitos. The next morning we headed up to the rooftop for breakfast with staggering views of the Acropolis almost touching distance from us. After breakfast we signed up for the daily walking tour of Athens run by the hostel. Our guide was a 23 year old crazy chatterbox Greek girl called Paula. We headed off the in direction of the Acropolis with the sun already high and the temperature in the early 30s. Some of the sights visited in the walking tour included Herod's Odean, Athens First Court (a rock on a hilltop used by Greek elders to preside over criminal matters), Ancient Agora (old marketplace where Socrates used to come to challenge people's views on social and moral questions), Temple of Olympian Zeus, Hadrian's Arc, National Garden, Parliament (watched the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier), Olympic stadium (home of the modern Olympics, which is normally not open to the public but we managed to go inside because of some ceremony).The rest of the day we spend sleeping and eating and walking around Plaka.

The next day we made plans to visit Sounio, a 1.5 bus ride that takes you to the Temple of Posoiden & great beaches. Unfortunately as it was a national holiday the buses were irregular and we gave up the idea after wasting a couple of hours waiting. On national holidays all sights and museums entry is free so we decided to make use of this and head to the National Archeological Museum. First we had lunch in Mynastirakas, 2 gyros(open kebab sandwich consisting of pork/lamb/chicken + salad, chips, taziki on pita bread) at a place recommended by lonely planet. We came to love gyros in Athens as it was quick, convenient, cheap and tasty. Lunch was again followed by Ge‏lato.

The archeological museum was well worth the visit, though so much so since we didnt have to pay to get in. They had some great sculpture and egyptian sections. After taking a well earned rest back at the hostel we decide to visit the Acropolis at sunset. This turned out to be a great decision because there were no queues as per normal and we got to the top very quickly. The Parthenon was an impressive sight and it was fun trying to imagine what the whole site you have been like in its hay day. Its so sad that so much of the beautiful sights around Athens are no longer in tact mainly due to war and people's stupidity. If I could go back in time I would have liked to have seen the Temple of Zeus as it was meant to be; not the 12 columns its reduced to now. The 25 foot seated Zues with human size nymph in his hand would have been a spine tingling sight.

After the Acropolis closed at 8pm we headed to the rock right next to the Acropolis to survey Athens from above (also known as the First Court) and watch the sunset. The sunsets in Greece are fabulous due to the excessive pollution and fog levels. All in all it was a great day.

Our third and last day in Athens we spent shopping in Mynastirakas and meandering about town till our 5:30pm ferry to Santorini. Most peope who have been to Athens dont describe in very pleasant terms. While its not the prettiest city I've been to I had a great time there. Plaka was a nice area to be in although very touristy and all the main historic sights are very close by. The city is seeping with history and the Greeks were friendly & hospitable. The Metro was quick and convenient and who doesnt love gyros & gelato? One thing I could not stand there was the excessive smoking. People smoked everywhere indoors and out & some at ticket booths and other enclosed spaces. Mothers, teenagers, old folks.. everybody smoked. It's quite ridiculous.

The other thing I noticed was that the Greeks are crazy drivers. Although not as bad as Sri Lankans they still dont pay attention to any road rules. A lot of them use motorbikes especially women who dont seem to mind big chunky bikes to go about town.

All in all I think that if you are going to visit Greece Athens is well worth a visit.