Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bike Tour Day 12 - The Final Ride to Olympia & Homeward Bound

We had a relaxed, leisurely departure from the Olympian Village Resort.  We loved the room and the food, but the group universally felt it was “Disney Greece”, and had no true connection to actual Greek culture:

Delightful digs!

A parting view of the resort as we start the last ride

We decided to forego any pictures on the 45k bike ride for this day, and savored the moment, enjoying more beautiful vistas earned by climbing up and flying down.  But, the ride did come to and end in the town of Olympia.  That’s not to say the festivities ended too – our guides surprised us with a 3 PM meeting and walk over to the site of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic games.  We also had a wonderful private guide for our visit – Nita greatly illuminated the meaning of the site, and had our rapt attention as we sat on and amid the limestone ruins:

 The EP group takes it all in

The ancient site is wonderfully restored and each specialized building still had its essence intact:

The Gymnasion, for track & javelin training

The Palaestra, for boxing, wrestling & Greek “ultimate fighting”

The ruins of the Treasury, where the corporate sponsors
of old had their digs

We all posed as “Team Experience Plus”, inspired by the Olympian vibe:

From left: Zia, Jeff, Rick, Bill, Nancy, Jeff, Linda, June and guide Patricia

The Stadium was a true highlight – we were, however, admonished to keep our clothing on, unlike competitors of the past (and some modern visitors who are arrested, seems it happens all the time):

The entry portal to the Stadium,
as it has been since 480 B.C.

View entering the stadium
(starting blocks in the foreground)

Races were run on the straightaway, not in an oval:

Bill poses as the starter, let the
games begin!
Of course, we cannot leave out the Temple of Zeus – this reconstructed column gives an idea of scale.  The actual temple was 66 feet high measured from the topline, and this column is 34 feet high:

Peter in front of Temple of Zeus column – wow 

The Olympia Museum contains some of the most impressive intact statuary, second only to the remains of the Acropolis.  These include the amazingly preserved pedimental sculptures from the Temple of Zeus:

East Pediment (Serenity)

West Pediment (Chaos)

The “aged seer” of the east pediment takes a call on his cell,
foretelling of impending doom...

Add this famous sculpture, Paionios’ Nike:

Nike, goddess of Victory, pre-swoosh

The site and the museum were incredible “capstones” to a fabulous adventure.  But the thrills were not quite over!  As we walked back to the hotel, we stopped into a bookstore…and lo and behold, the proprietor had a black and white picture of a Greek track and field Olympian holding the torch at the 1964 Tokyo games – and it was he in the picture!:

Pericles and June holding original torches from the
1972 and 1964 Olympics, respectively

But, all good things come to an end – the bikes were back on the van, a wonderful final dinner feast was had, and we made our plans to return to Athens and beyond.  We are now flying home, first via Paris CDG airport today, overnight Saturday near the airport, and then tomorrow on to St. Paul.  For now, it is THE END:

The van and bikes head to their home in Italy

Thanks so much to you for traveling with us!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bike Tour Day 11 - Zakinthos to Amaliada, and More Rain...

Before I launch into the events of the day, I wanted to add some perspective to the narrative - our guides Manolis and Patricia had been in touch with Experience Plus owner Monica, and the news was not good for tours in Italy and France running concurrently with our Greece tour - torrential rains had caused those groups to miss a great deal of the biking and sightseeing which is the heart of EP vacations.  Made us all feel very fortunate to only be dealing with occasional showers and cloudy, cool weather.

Today (Thursday, our penultimate bike day) dawned predictable cloudy but quite warm.  We biked the short 1K to our ferry that would return us to Killini and the start of the biking day.  We did a long but gentle climb of about 7K to the town of Kastro to visit their Frankish castle (1220 AD) - we could see it long before on the horizon:

Approching Kastro & the Frankish Castle

No one wanted to point out the increasing clouds and distant thunder that dogged us from the east.  We arrived at the castle and greatly enjoyed touring the interior which included a small museum.  The structure was very imposing:

June wanders through the inner court of the castle

The castle was destroyed in 1430 by invading Turks, who rebuilt it - and now the Greeks are restoring it with help from the EU.

Spectacular views through the second line
of defensive wall

Peter takes in the space and the history

But then there was that pesky storm - still out there and coming closer...

Yes, that IS a storm front approching us

As we started our descent from the castle and into the town of Kastro, the drops got bigger and the thunder louder.  We saw members of our group who left ahead of us coming back to town, and 5 of us found shelter in the first floor of an unfinished building when the heavens opened.  It was a total gully-washer that erased ALL of the chalk arrows laid out by Patricia for our ride - bummer.

So, Plan B once again.  Manolis took 5 bikers and all the bikes up to the lunch spot about 30K away.  Peter and I stayed in Kastro with Rick and Jeff, went into a local bar and ordered cappucinos - it was time to hang out, chat and unfortunately watch the rain end and the sun break out in full force, as good as it has been in over a week.  Oh well...we were picked up and brought to the lunch spot in Amaliada center, where we opted to skip eating and complete the ride, 12K to the Aldemar Olympian Village Resort - a sprawling, beachfront vacation resort full of Swiss and German families enjoying their fall breaks.  We made lemonade from lemons by getting into our bathings suits (also a first for the trip) and enjoying a dip in the chilly Ionian Sea and laying on the beach.  The resort is very classy!

Nifty architectural shot from our balcony
across the other room balconies

The pool and the blue trim make for a very
"Greek palette"

Zia, June and Jeff (at back) stroll
on the beach after swimming and lounging

Fantastic sunset skies over the Ionian Sea
from the balcony

A ghostly cruise ship looms out of the fog and clouds

We had an absolutely wonderful buffet dinner at the resort center - Peter and I agreed it was far and away the very best quality food we have ever eaten in a buffet setting.  So many choices, so little stomach capacity.  We have a later start tomorrow for our final day, a 45K bike to Olympia - we will have a private guided tour of the ruins and museum there and are really looking forward to it! 

As with every vacation, the time has flown, and we are slowly getting our minds around the idea that we will be back in St. Paul in a few short days.  Good night all!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bike Tour Days 9 and 10 - Plan B Strikes Again, and Rest Day on Zakinthos

It rained - hard - all night Monday, and the early morning dawned ominously gray and windy. Our intrepid guides Patricia and Manolis once again had to invoke "Plan B" to avoid unsafe biking conditions - and NONE of us were in the least bit sorry.  Patricia and Manolis worked hard to pack the van and get another vehicle lined up to drive us the 68k to the port of Killini, where our 1:30 PM ferry awaited us.

Our cosy hotel by the ocean, before our
Plan B departure

We drove the bike route with intermittent rain showers spitting, and did a quick visit to a nature preserve that was the route's highlight:

Glorious colors in the marshlands

Peter and I loved these "umbrella trees"

The ferry departed from Killini at 1:30 PM as planned, and not one of us was sorry to have missed riding there:

June - warm, dry and fed vs. wet and tired -
 in front of the Ionian Star ferry

The ferry ride took a bit over 1 hour and the boat was very comfy:

Super guide Patricia taking good care of us!

The island destination looms up in the haze

The weather on Zakinthos was good enough to allow a "makeup" ride of 31k to stretch our legs and whet our appetites for dinner:

Manolis readies our bikes for riding-
cool view from our 4th floor hotel balcony!

Ready to roll at 3:45 pm!

View of the waterfront from across the harbor,
returning from our ride

We had another superb taverna dinner with a tsunami of food - just when you think "I've had TOO much", the main course arrives!  This time is was moussaka in servings as big as your head!  The Greeks pride themselves in hosting, and that means lots and lots of food.

With dinner heavy in our bellies we slept in and looked forward to a "rest day" on Zakinthos.


Wednesday has been very leisurely.  Peter and I opted for a 41k (short) bike ride to burn some moussaka - we loved these old olive trees we saw on the route:

June poses for scale

Olive grove - wonderfully sculptural

We were rained on a bit, but as it was close to 80 deg. F we didn't mind a bit.
It cleared in time for our return to the hotel - we cleaned ourselves up and took a stroll around town:

Loved this street landscape

Our hotel - 4th floor!

Caught gawking on the balcony...

Next up - Greek cooking demonstration at 6 PM, dinner to follow - life is good!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bike Tour Day 8 - What Goes Up, Must Come Down!

We had a later (8 AM) breakfast and a later departure (10 AM) so Peter and I took another stroll through the village of Kalavrita before packing up.  It is a charming place:

Peaceful village square

Main Street - has that ski resort in off-season feel

We loved our hotel, which also had a spa, very welcome after the big climb:

3rd Floor - June & Peter slept here!

So, as is always the case with bike touring, we hit the road again.  The goal was to ride "rolling terrain" 40K to our lunch stop - our thighs are in shock!

Some "rolling" terrain

Our super guide Patricia was ahead marking the course with the wonderful chalk arrows that make these tours so great,  no map reading needed - and she pointed out (in chalk arrows on the road) this unusual scene:

The walnut harvest has begun!

And, as always, I lived up to my mantra: "I brake for critters".

Hard to say who is cuter - or more curious -
they are, not me!

The scenery was predictably spectacular at every turn, even in cool, cloudy weather:

Down in the valley - and we are headed that way!

Majestic mountain terrain

This shot by Peter, from the road above, gives you a sense of scale:

I'm on the bike at center bottom -
Only 3/10 mile past Peter!

Another great shot for scale:

Jeff and Rick are the two dots on the road (far right)

Part of our good fortune was arriving at our 40k lunch spot just as the winds kicked up and the rain began to spit - we quickly entered the warm and inviting taverna and ordered big bowls of bean soup - absolutely wonderful!
By the time we ate and paid up, the squall had passed.  Here are the happy diners:

Peter, June, Manolis, Bill and Nancy -
All happy to be inside, dry and warm!

The end of lunch signified the start of our amazing downhill ride - the taverna was at an altitude similar to our starting hotel in Kalavrita,so we were about to descend 2,500 ft. back to sea level:

Stunning switchbacks - down and down

Due to the damp roads we were very cautious in our descent - everyone got down safely!  We did encounter some locally heavy traffic with about 10K left:

Running of the Sheep - just like Pamplona

After arriving at our hotel directly on the Gulf of Patraikos (12k SW of Patra, the main port city of the Peloponnese), we cleaned up and were indulged by the owners in appetizers special to the area:

Tomato, teeny fish, olives and ouzo -
don't knock it until you've tried it!

Dinner was also remarkable - lots of fish dishes including whole calamari, fish soup, salad, fish and potatoes (really wonderful) chased by apples drizzled with honey and dusted with cinnamon, and shots of a special liquor infused with cinnamon and cloves.  All wonderful!

Big day tommorow - early departure to make the ferry from Kyllini to the island of Zakynthos, 1 hour by water.  It will be the only stop of the tour where we lay over 2 days, hooray!  Onward...