Archive for October, 2007

Oct 30 2007

Athens, Redux

Published by under Athens,Greece

The best part about traveling, by far, is the people that you meet. Fellow travelers, ex-pats, locals — we’ve met some incredible people during our journey. Mudfish, also known as Russ, is one of the best! His mi-casa-es-su-casa (er, to spiti mou spiti sou in Greek!) generosity has been much appreciated, and we’ve had a lot of fun hanging out with Mud and co.

Staying with Mudfish has enabled us to see a different side of Athens. There are parks here! And trees! Wider roads! No heavily armed guards on every corner! No street fights at 3 am!

We were lucky our stay in Athens coincided with a Greek national holiday: Sunday was Ohi Day! Ohi Day commemorates the day when Greek dictator Metaxas refused to let Axis powers enter Greece during World War II (Metaxas allegedly replied with an adamant “Ohi!” [no!] to Mussolini’s ultimatum). The fact that only a short while later Axis powers occupied Greece by force does not dampen patriotic spirits. Ohi Day is marked by parades and ubiquitous displays of Greek flags. We’d hoped to catch the parade in central Athens, but since we didn’t get home from the night before until an hour before the parade began in the morning, that didn’t happen (fun side note: the Greeks do not have a “last call” at 2 am).

mike, mudfish, ben, crazy-face brittany
Mike (friend of Mudfish); Mudfish; Ben; Brittany

Saturday night Mudfish gave us a tour of Athenian nightlife. Most notably, I got to see my first Greek punk rockers. Also, we met Uchi from Paraguay, so Ben was able to practice his Spanish a little. We also tried Greek late-night food – cheese-filled crepes! – which ruled.

Ohi Day for Ben and I meant free entrance into all of the ancient sites (which would have otherwise been 24+ euros!). So we set off Sunday afternoon, pleased with our budgetary prowess. We started with the ruins on lower ground – Hadrian’s library and the Roman agora. I am impressed by how even if most of the structure is gone, the restoration efforts have gone far to convey the sheer size of these gigantic buildings.

We didn’t dawdle long, as we were eager to see the Acropolis. One of my favorite moments on the trip so far happened when we were in Athens for the first time, stopping here for a night en route to Crete. We were walking along a crowded street to grab some dinner when, seemingly out of nowhere, the Acropolis emerged in front of me, with the Parthenon all lit up. It was one of those we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments, and sort of made our trip a reality for me. I don’t think many people forget the first time they see the Acropolis. I’m not sure why, but it’s one of those buildings that can be meaningful to someone even if they have no clue about the history or significance of the structure. What makes it more evocative is, while the builders realized they were working on an important project and meticulously made every angle and proportion perfect, they had no idea it would come to symbolize the dawn of Western civilization.

obligatory parthenon shotBefore visiting Athens, I always assumed Acropolis = Parthenon. What I didn’t realize is that there are several other, equally impressive buildings up there – The Temple of Athena Nike, The Erectheion – all with their own fascinating history. What is far less impressive is the massive amount of scaffolding that surrounds the Parthenon. Thanks to the stupidity of more modern civilizations, the building is on the verge of collapse. How something can last 2,000 years and then someone (ahem, Venice!) be stupid enough to BOMB it, I’ll never know. Nor will I ever understand how you can let the air in a city get so polluted that it DISINTEGRATES MARBLE. Which also makes me slightly concerned for my lungs.

We had timed our visit to coincide with dusk, but were disappointed to find that the clouds had situated themselves as to perfectly block our view of the sun disappearing behind the horizon. My disappointment was alleviated when we saw a regiment of men in traditional Greek military attire, accompanied by a band, ascending the Acropolis to ceremoniously take down the large flag that stands at one end of the hill. I wish I knew more about the evolution of traditional Greek uniform because it involves several decorative pom-poms, which I enjoy.

We finished our tour of ancient sites with a nighttime visit to the Areopagus, which is basically a giant rock that sits on one side of the Acropolis. For a rock, it has a remarkable history. It was the meeting place for what was essentially one of the first senates, the location of the judicial court in classical Athens and where the Apostle Paul delivered his famous “Sermon on an Unknown God,” which began the conversion of Athens. Standing on the rock, with the glowing Parthenon on one side and a sparkling modern city sprawling out in all directions on the other is another one of those wow moments I’ve experienced on this trip. Incredible ideas, like democracy and Christianity, were set in motion on this exact spot. Much greater people than me have stood where I am standing and have done things that affected the course of the world.

Greek fast foodWe appropriately ended our day by dining at Goody’s, the Greek version of McDonald’s. We’ve avoided the place for the entire trip, but Ben is strangely intrigued by artificial foods (I mean, seriously intrigued. Like we can’t go to the grocery store without him examining giant tubs of loaded-baked-potato-flavor chex mix), and after weeks of dropping not-so-subtle hints, I relented. My vote: yuck. What our guidebook says is true: avoid the Greek hamburger. I have no idea why anyone would choose to visit Goody’s rather than get a delicious gyro for less than two euros at one of the many street vendors.

In other news, Ben is hairless. Well, not really. He cut his hair (we unfortunately could never get the clippers to work, so Ben had to visit a salon) and finally shaved his beard. I’m so used to him looking like a crazy mountain man, that I do not recognize him anymore. Whenever he walks into the room I do a double take and usually say something like, “what is wrong with your FACE??” Either that, or I run away screaming “STRANGER DANGER!” He was amused at first, but I think he’s getting annoyed.

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Oct 27 2007

Our Savior, Mudfish

Published by under Athens,Greece

We arrived back in Athens on Wednesday, full of Greek Island spirit, but ready to move on with our adventure. Athens isn’t the tourist destination that the islands are, and you don’t find many travelers who want to stay in Athens as anything much more than a stopover on the route to somewhere else. Athens is a city rich in history and cultural landmarks, but it’s not a beautiful one. It’s dirty, loud, and traffic-congested. Still, we needed a place to break for some much-needed Italian route-planning, and we missed out on the Acropolis our first time through the city. So here we are once more!

Always looking for ways to save our dollars from the crushing jaws of the euro, we sought out accommodation in the form of hostels this time around. We had it narrowed down to two of the cheapest hostels in the city, before confirming that one of those options is on the same street as a bustling brothel. That nugget of information quickly narrowed our choices to: the other one. “The other one” is actually the Athens International Youth Hostel, and we were pleasantly surprised at its general lack of grossness after having experienced the Iraklio Youth Hostel on Crete first-hand.

The bad news is that our few meager euros only bought us bunk beds in a crowded dormitory-style sleeping arrangement, and that the hostel is in a neighborhood called Omonia. For those not intimately familiar with the city, Omonia is a seedier part of town than I would normally hope to sleep in/walk through/admit exists. To put it more bluntly, it’s the red light district. And right about now our parents are freaking out! But that’s OK. Enter Mudfish.

A co-worker of mine back home heard we were headed to Athens, and put me in touch with a college friend of hers, who now happens to live in Athens. On Thursday night, we met up for dinner with “Mudfish,” who is an American in Athens, working on a several-years long engineering contract. Mudfish not only treated us to the best dinner we’ve had yet on our trip (and I can now say that rooster is delicious!) but he also offered to put us up in his condo for the duration of our stay in Athens. A condo with A/C, internet, and no bunk beds. I may be proud, but I’m not a masochist. He didn’t have to offer twice.

And so it was that we moved into Mudfish’s condo last night. I don’t think he noticed the tears in Brittany’s eyes when she saw the washing machine/dryer. I never cry because I’m very strong, but I do hope that the noise from my hot shower muffled my manly shouts of joy.

I’m currently charging up Mudfish’s hair clippers, so that Brittany can administer my first haircut in months. Brittany wasn’t eager to try her hand with the clippers, until we learned from Mudfish that the local barber charges 20 Euros for a simple haircut. 20 Euros = 30 dollars = 3 good haircuts back home. Or, 10 jars of Nutella. I think this analogy is what finally converted Brittany. I’m going to miss my quasi-mullet, but pictures definitely to come.

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Oct 25 2007

Naxos, our Greek Islands Finale

Published by under Greece,Naxos

Monday morning in Naxos brought more bad weather — frequent downpours, gusty winds and cool temperatures. Being the hard-headedest people you’ll ever meet, Ben and I decided not to postpone our visit to Naxian villages, so we started our day by trudging through the mud to the bus station.

Our first stop was Halki, a small village notable for containing the oldest kitron distillery on Naxos and one of the oldest Byzantine churches. Our efforts to visit the church were thwarted when what I can only assume used to be a road leading to the church had become a raging river. Our spirits were lightened when we discovered a small bakery, where we found decent donuts! (The Greeks typically do not do donuts well.) At this same bakery, we were unable to resist buying cookies made from grape juice.

Our next destination was the legendary cave of Mt. Zas. The operator of the distillery was reluctant to give us directions, and warned us that it would be extremely unwise to attempt to climb the mountain in such weather. But our stubborn streak preserved and we set off towards Filoti, the small village at the base of Mt. Zas. We were determined to see what we’d come to see, even if it meant walking three kilometers in the rain to see it!

According to mythology, Zeus, great ruler of the gods, grew up in a cave of a particular mountain on Naxos. Zeus was hidden in this cave from his father, Kronos, who had the annoying habit of eating all of his children. It was also supposedly atop this mountain that Zeus received the gift of thunder from an eagle.

Not actually Mt. Zas (which we were unable to
photograph thanks to the pouring rain), but
captures the effect.

As we slowly approached the village, a dark, craggy mountain began to emerge out of the mist ahead of us. Sheets of rain ricocheted off the jagged cliffs, spraying in all directions; gusts of wind grew stronger, making walking uphill increasingly difficult. Black, stormy clouds swirled furiously around the peak. It seemed as if the mighty hand of Zeus himself would reach out of the storm and squash any feeble backpacker who foolishly attempted to climb the God of Thunder’s mountain.

We may be stubborn, but we don’t have death wishes, so we reluctantly abandoned our quest, went home and partook in our favorite Greek tradition: the siesta.

Ben goes full throttleThe next day began with an equally foolhardy idea: let’s rent a scooter! We decided that in order to fully immerse ourselves in Greek culture, we had to experience driving around an island on scooter. Scooters are the preferred form of transportation for many Greeks, who drive them on any flat surface they are able to reach, even if that surface is definitely NOT a road — for instance, the aisle of a supermarket. Since neither of us had ever driven any sort of motorbike before, and apparently it requires some sort of “balancing” skill, Tony of Tony’s Bikes recommended we rent a four-wheeler instead. Although not quite as ubiquitous as the scooter (since it’s unable to squeeze through ridiculously tight spaces that no motor vehicle should ever attempt to pass through), the 4×4 is also a prevalent mode of transport on the islands.

So we shakily set off with no idea where to go, Ben at the helm of a machine he’d never operated before, me clutching desperately to his waist and both of us wearing ridiculous mushroom-like helmets. After navigating Naxos Town, figuring out how to fill the thing up with petrol, and getting honked at a lot, we started to strive inland.

We decided to locate the island’s abandoned kouros. Kouroi are ancient Greek statues of young men. Many were carved out of Naxian marble – the sculptor would begin to carve the statue in the marble quarries before it would be transported to its final destination for the detailed carving. During the moving process, many statues would break and be abandoned on the spot. So, centuries later, island locals discovered 3,000 year old unfinished statues in their olive groves.

While Ben likes to call our hunt for the kouros an Epic Quest, I call it Hey Dummy Follow the Signs. He shot videos:
(We upload in four parts for quicker download. Part 1 is included below. Follow the links for more!)

Quest for the Kouros, part 1 on Vimeo & YouTube
Quest for the Kouros, part 2 on Vimeo & YouTube
Quest for the Kouros, part 3 on Vimeo & YouTube
Quest for the Kouros, part 4 on Vimeo & YouTube

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring marble quarries and citron groves and enjoying our rental – that is, until we started heading home. As we descended the mountains, Zeus decided to have one last laugh by sending a monster thunderstorm our way. Pretty much the only thing that could’ve made the image of us riding a four-wheeler any more hilarious was doing so through the pouring rain, getting completely drenched.

And thus ends our Greek islands adventures and phase one of our trip! We have arrived in Athens, where we will stay for about a week to recoup before heading on to Italy.

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Oct 23 2007

Naxos Town means dancing!

Published by under Greece,Naxos

Hello from the island of Naxos, our final Greek island destination! We’ve actually been here since Friday, but it turns out that getting reliable internet access is difficult on this island. It seems like we just got to Naxos, but we will be hopping our next ferry tomorrow morning (Wednesday) for our return trip to Athens. But that’s for later… there is much to say about Naxos!

Naxos is the largest of the Cycladic islands, and like all the rest, it is basically a giant mountain rising up out of the sea. We have been staying in the main town (chora), known simply as Naxos Town. There’s no longer any doubt that we’re in the low tourist season. Many restaurants and shops are now closed for the winter, and the rest seem to only open after 6pm.

We’re also finally starting to get hit by wind and rain, after almost two months of not seeing a drop. The upside is that, for the first time, we’re able to walk along a Greek island waterfront without being harassed by restaurant greeters! Unless you count the mysterious old man at the port yesterday, who called to us from the distance: “Hello, my friends, yes!” But I don’t think you do.

Naxos Temple of Apollo (Portara)Upon arriving by ferry in Naxos Town, the first thing you see is the island’s most famous monument: the Temple of Apollo. All that stands today is its doorway – a giant arch known locally as the Portara. According to Greek mythology, this is the spot where Theseus abandoned Ariadne, and I suppose this is why every third hotel you come across in Naxos Town is creatively called “The Ariadne.” The Temple may be little more than a door today, but it’s a really big door!

Sunday afternoon, we decided to explore an Old Venetian castle in town. While clambering around its inner walls, we saw a sign advertising “traditional Greek night” at a local museum. It promised live Greek music and dancing, a proposition that quickly sold Brittany. So, we put on some of our “nice clothes” and hit the town in style (“nice clothes” = shirt that’s been worn the least number of times since the last time I did laundry + Febreeze).

I’m happy to report on two pieces of good news:

1. I was not denied entry to the museum based on my concept of nice clothes.
2. Traditional Greek night did not disappoint!

Like a bagpipe, but made of inside-out goatThe small band consisted of a lute, a fiddle (we don’t have violins in Virginia), a drum, and an instrument that’s a lot like a bagpipe, but made out of an inside-out goat. We listened to songs about sailing, fishing, and love that go back in the island’s history as far as 4000 years. Of course, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the songs’ lyrics when you don’t speak Greek, but that’s where the open bar came in! All songs were accompanied by Naxos-produced wine, raki, and a Naxian specialty, kitron.

Selection of wine, raki, and kitronKitron is a liqueur made by distilling raki with the leaves of a fruit known as the citron. I’d never heard of a citron before coming to Naxos, but think of a cross between a lemon and grapefruit. Now multiply its size by 5, and its ugliness by 400. The citron isn’t much to look at, and everyone says that its raw fruit is so nasty as to be inedible, but somewhere in history, a resourceful wino figured out that it makes for some fine drinkin’. The human spirit always perseveres!

We even got to join in the Greek dancing toward the end of the show, and I showed my enthusiasm by shouting out the only lyric in the chorus that I could understand: “Opa!”

In other news, we’ve been trying to unravel the hidden island location of a giant statue of a stone man (pictures to come if we succeed!), and it’s become indisputable that I really need a haircut. Opa!

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Oct 20 2007

Last day on Santorini: Red Beach, fish heads and Nutella

Published by under Greece,Santorini

Although we’d heard that Santorini doesn’t have the best beaches in the Cyclades, that didn’t stop Ben and I from immediately seeking out any potential beach area upon arrival. Our obsession with the beach borders on unhealthy – something about not being expected to do anything but lay around or read all day. Our distinct skills and talents are appreciated in such an environment, so it’s only natural that we would gravitate towards it. Ben excels at sleeping, and I am really good at doing nothing. In fact, in the two months leading up to our trip, instead of exercising prudence and planning for our trip, we went to the beach four times.

Perhaps it’s just me being swept up in the novelty of black sands, sheer cliffsides and large volcanic rocks underneath clear, blue waters, but I’ve found Santorini beaches to be breathtakingly beautiful. (I also strongly urge everyone to visit the Greek islands in the off-season. Where our guidebook has warned of intolerable crowds, we’ve found to be pleasantly spacious.)

IMG_0998Our last day in Santorini was spent at Red Beach, a tiny cove of a beach that you have to climb up and over a rocky peninsula to access. While most of the rock and sand that covers Santorini is black, Red Beach gets its name because, well, it’s red. Apparently the particular isolation of this beach enabled many of the men-folk to feel comfortable walking around in the buff. While I’ve become accustomed to topless women of all shapes and sizes wandering around Greek beaches, it was quite a shock to my American eyes to see fully-grown nude men splashing about in the ocean. On many occasions, I had to stifle a giggle and the urge to elbow Ben and whisper “dude, that guy’s naked!”

We decided to stick around Red Beach through the evening, catch the magnificent Santorini sunset over the ocean, and eat at one of the fish tavernas along the shore. Dining in Greece is a different experience than dining the States. Most of the selection is determined by what’s in season and produced locally, and the menus change often. Particularly in the islands, seafood is a large part of the Greek diet and the menu selection at local fish tavernas is entirely dependent upon the catch that day. Many times, the tavernas will display the day’s catches in crates out front, from fish to squid to shrimp, so you can select what you want to eat before they cook it. Other restaurants will take you back into the kitchen to show you the evening’s selections. Since I’m used to seeing my food without eyes or heads and after being nicely filleted and cooked, this method of meal preparation took some getting used to. Especially when the chef is slicing and dicing a raw octopus on a table near where you’re eating. But you never doubt that the food is fresh!

Upon being seated at the taverna, the owner walked over with a bowl in his hands. I braced myself. “You have fresh fish special?” he asked, lowering the bowl so we could peer in at the small, silver, possibly squirming fish he was presenting us. Ben and I looked at each other, wondering how to ask the many questions we wanted to ask. He took our silence as “Yummy! Of course!”

“Okay, you have fresh fish I fry in olive oil. And Greek salad.” he said, retreating to the kitchen. While I was reassured that yes, our fish would be cooked, I was less certain that they would be served without heads.

And I was right. The owner had fried the entire fish in olive oil, bulging eyes, and all:
Dinner is served.
Bon appetit?

It actually turned out to be quite good. Yes, we ate every single one! And Ben was gentleman enough to decapitate the fish before putting them on my plate.

The highlight of the evening came later, when we decided as a celebration of our last night on Santorini, to splurge on dessert (again). In our wanderings of Fira, Ben and I chanced upon a shop called Loukomadopolis (for more on loukomades, see Ben’s previous entry) – which the sign translated to “Dumpling Town!” Upon striking up a conversation with the owner, we discovered they have Nutella-filled loukomades. Seriously. For the uninformed, Nutella is like chocolate-flavored peanut butter. They sell it in the States, but it’s very cheap in Europe, and I pretty much eat it out of the jar with a spoon for every meal.

Ben wanted to take a picture to document the awesome dessert. But when he saw me covered in Nutella from head to toe with my face inside the box, licking the chocolate remains from the bottom with a gusto I don’t care to describe, he changed his mind. “Not your finest moment,” he said, shaking his head.

We arrived in Naxos by ferry yesterday evening and are setting off today to start exploring the island.

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Oct 19 2007

Kamari Beach + Liars, Jerks, and Thieves

Published by under Greece,Santorini

I’m glad I’m able to write this entry while I’m still heated. Right now I’ve got bones to pick with: 1. Lonely Planet, 2. Santorini’s Volcan Wine Museum, 3. Santorini’s KTEL Bus Lines operators. However, the day started off on a good enough note, so I’ll back up and begin there.

Brittany on the black sand of Kamari BeachOn Wednesday, we caught a bus to the eastern shore of the island, to check out Kamari Beach. And I’m happy to say that all the legendary reports from Kamari Beach are true: its sand is actually black. Presumably, this is because it is made up volcanic rock from one of the island’s many explosions. Bad news for those on the island thousands of years ago, but good news for us! Not only is the black sand beautiful, we quickly appreciated the fact that its sand grains are more like tiny rocks than what I’d normally call “sand.” This bestows it with the under-rated benefit of not sticking to your body/towel/possessions. We laid our white towels out on the black sand all afternoon, and watching every grain fall right off when we picked the towels back up hours later was a novel experience.

Of course, laying out on Kamari Beach wasn’t all we had on tap for the afternoon. We knew from our Lonely Planet guidebook that there is a wine museum located about midway between Kamari and Fira, on the KTEL Bus line. This particular museum is advertised as illustrating the history of wine-making through the use of animatronics, which was really all I needed to hear. Brittany kept talking about some other things we could see or do at the museum, but all I could really think about all day was getting to watch aging robots in traditional Greek dress creakily demonstrate the grape stomping dance. With any luck, to the accompaniment of accordion music. But much like Icarus, my vision must have soared too close to the sun, because it was all about to come crashing down in flames.

Problem 1: Lonely Planet is a liar
I’ve refrained from blasting Lonely Planet for similar grievances so far on this trip, but consider the camel’s back broken. Lonely Planet advertises its overpriced Greek Islands guide as providing definitive insider’s information on the different sights you’ll encounter. Among other things, this includes the prices you will expect to pay for admission to any of its recommended attractions. The problem here is that Lonely Planet has either chosen to publish 1994 prices in its 2006 edition, or their “expert guides” are simply making up numbers.

We didn’t bring a lot of cash with us on our daytrip, since Lonely Planet promised that the Volcan Wine Museum’s “highest” admission price is 1.70 euros per person. Imagine our surprise when, after being dropped off by the bus at the wine museum in the middle of nowhere, we found the admission price to actually be 5 euros per person. Now don’t get me wrong: 5 euros per person is an entirely reasonable admission fee, which I would be happy to pay in exchange for animatronics. But since we were counting on a price of 1.30 per person, we barely had 5 euros in cash between us.

Stranded at Volcan Wine Museum
Stranded in the middle of nowhere

Let me reiterate that this museum is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest ATM would entail a 2km walk. And the bus that only passes this stop once an hour had just dropped us off. Thanks to Lonely Planet’s decision to distribute grossly inaccurate data as “reliable advice,” we were effectively stranded. We had no other choice but to leave the museum, and sit at the bus stop for the next hour, waiting to be rescued from our ill-judged decision to trust Lonely Planet guides.

Problem 2: The Volcan Wine Museum curator is a jerk
When we first met the curator, he was all smiles as he quoted his price of 5 euros per head, which he told us would include a tasting of 3 different wines, as well as an audio tourguide device. Since Lonely Planet’s quoted price was off by 500%, we didn’t have the 10 euros in cash. So I explained our situation, and posed a reasonable request: could we pass on the wine tasting and audio guide, and simply view the museum at a reduced rate? His response: “One price” and he immediately turned his back to us. I tried to follow up, “Well, is there a cash machine anywhere nearby?” Curator: “Nope,” as he immediately turned again and quickly walked away. He left us standing right there knowing full well how far off the beaten path any visitor must come to find his isolated museum.

Arriving at Volcan Wine Museum: a happier timeTHANKS VOLCAN WINE MUSEUM. You may have won the battle, but I’ll yet win this war. And that war is called The War of Me Lambasting Your Establishment on my Website, then Search-Engine Optimizing This Page So That Everyone Searching For Your Museum on Google Will See The Truth About the Sort of Business You Run.

Problem 3: Santorini’s KTEL Bus Lines Operators are thieves
Well, maybe not all of them. But the one we dealt with on Wednesday sure was. When we caught the bus from Kamari Beach to the Wine Museum, the operator charged us the full price for a ride from the beachall the way to Fira, rather than the reduced rate ticket for a half-trip. We even asked about the cheaper ticket (which we’ve used before) since we were only taking half the trip to Fira, and he denied any such ticket existed. Fine. We kept our full-price tickets after disembarking at the Wine Museum, and when we got back on his bus an hour later, we showed him the same ticket for a ride from Kamari Beach to Fira that he’d sold us that very afternoon. Now we would simply like to complete that ride. He wasn’t having this, nor would he even let us pay the reduced price ticket THIS time. If we wanted a ride back to Fira, we once again had to pay the FULL price for a ticket from Kamari to Fira. This sat about as well as you can imagine, and it didn’t get any better when we later saw him slyly slipping money from his KTEL change belt into his personal backpack. Well done.

P.S. And just for the record, Lonely Planet misquotes the price for a KTEL bus ticket on Santorini by 1300%.

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