Greece – Day 5: Stuck at a conference.

While Dan was traipsing around Mount Athos (see below post), I was being a good academic and attending my conference. I’ll refrain from blogging about the individual papers; if you want to read a recap of some of the papers you can go to Vicky’s excellent Music Psychology blog where she summarizes the papers she attended (which were most often not the ones I attended), except when she accidentally oversleeps.

In the evening, I tagged along with a large group of folks who were affiliated with Goldsmith’s Music, Mind and Brain group; one of their students had lived in Thessaloniki, and took us to one of her favorite haunts. So at least thirty people descended upon this poor, empty, hapless taverna all at once; it was quite entertaining to watch their faces as the two fellows behind the bar realized that there was no way they were going to be able to handle us themselves. Out came the cell phones, and ten minutes later there were two more people frantically working behind the bar.

Vicky and I shared some delicious fried cheese (not a surprise) and a plate of mushrooms. There was lots of beer and lots of chatting with old and new friends. At some point in the evening, one of the bar staff offered me a drink; I told him I hadn’t ordered it, and he said, “I know, just take it. No charge.” So I did, and it turned out to be tsipouro — the anise-flavored kind that is similar to ouzo. Now, I am fully expecting to incur the wrath of quite a few of my college friends here, but I do not like ouzo. (It’s not one of those “bad experiences” stories; it’s the “I just can’t stand the flavor of anise” story. Confession: I never drank it back then, either, guys — I just got really creative about how I would dump it out.) So instead I offered the drink to Daniel Müllensiefen, who had an empty glass and looked as though he was unhappy about that situation. Everyone’s problem solved.

When Vicky finished salsa dancing (oh, did I not mention the loud salsa music they were playing all night?) she and I headed back to the hotel at what would have been a decent hour to go to bed, if my brain hadn’t decided that now was the perfect time for me to have insomnia. And of course, why wouldn’t it be? I only had to give a presentation in the morning, so of course it was the best time for my brain to keep me awake until 3 am watching Lethal Weapon subtitled in Greek.


  • Meals with cheese: 3
  • Free stuff: tsipouro


Greece – Day 5: Mount Athos

For Tuesday and Wednesday, Leigh and I shall have to write separate entries, because I went off on my own.  In fact, I went somewhere that Leigh couldn’t have come even if she wanted to: Mount Athos.

Mount Athos is an essentially independent country within Greece composed entirely of Orthodox monks.  It’s a peninsula southeast of Thessaloniki that has been consecrated as a holy place in the Orthodox religion for over a thousand years.  Also, no women have been allowed there since 1060.

In order to visit the peninsula, you need a special permit, called a diamonētērion, for which you must apply in advance, and only ten per day are issued to non-orthodox visitors.  I was told that three years ago, to visit in the middle of July you would need to apply for a permit in February.  I applied only two weeks before the trip and was issued one.  Tourism is down due to the perceptions of the financial crisis.

Getting there was an adventure in itself.  I left the hotel at 4:30 in the morning by taxi, to reach the regional bus terminal east of Thessaloniki.  There’s hilarity there too: there are a number of different bus regions in Greece, all theoretically run by the same company, but they won’t coordinate with each other, and each have their own website and schedule.  By bus I reached Ouranoupolis, the last stop in secular Greece.

The bus was full of other pilgrims, so we all trooped off the bus and into the pilgrims’ bureau to pick up our letters.  It’s a great piece of paper – colored seals, and the facsimile signatures of the four top monks on Athos.  You can’t tell from the picture, but Oranoupolis is actually a bit of a tourist trap of a beach town.  So you have this odd mix of beach goers, souvenier shops, religious pilgrims, and a higher than usual number of bearded, black-clad orthodox clergy.

The only access to the peninsula is by boat, so the whole herd of us left the pilgrims’ office, and wandered down to the boat dock to buy tickets and catch the ferry to Daphni, the primary port.

The ferry proceeds down the coast, stopping at a number of monasteries before reaching Daphni.  At each one, a few pilgrims and clergy got off, but the majority were waiting for the main port.

While the majority of the monasteries on Athos are Greek Orthodox, there are also individual ones for several other branches.  This is the Russian Orthodox one, which has been seeing a lot of reconstruction funding lately.  Construction seemed to be a big theme everywhere I went, actually – there has apparently been a bit of a resurgence of interest in the peninsula in the last decade or so.

I didn’t take a picture of Daphni itself – it’s just a dinky little collection of buildings with a cafe, a customs station, and a gift shop full of icons, incense, walking sticks, and trail maps.  Also cats.

My plan was actually to do some hiking, so I caught yet another boat heading farther down the coast.  I intended to go one monastery past the one where I would be spending the night, and then walk back.

This is the view from the water of Grigoriou, where I would spend the evening. Note the largish hill-type things surrounding it.

And this is Dionysiou, where I got off the boat.  Note all the other men walking right up the hill to the monastery.  I turned left, and discovered that the trail I had selected, a 500 year old footpath, had not been groomed recently, and by “recently,” I mean “for at least a decade.”  I was wearing jeans, because it’s not considered respectful to visit the monasteries in shorts.  Good thing, because I would have been cut to ribbons.

It was also an extremely grueling climb – according to the GPS, I went up about 500 feet in the first ascent, and it was very steep.  It was also in the high 90s. The views were quite spectacular, however:

The Aegean was also stunningly beautiful.

However, it was about at this point that it dawned on me that no one knew where I was, that my cell phone didn’t work in this hemisphere, and that if I passed out from heat exhaustion, no one was likely to find me for weeks.  The GPS kept me appraised of my location, but it was still a scary realization.  (Spoiler Alert: I made it back safely.)

About two-thirds of the way along, I found a gate.  A gate?  What the hell? I’m certainly not going to turn around and go back at THIS point!  Fortunately, the sign merely said, “Please Close The Gate Behind You.”  ?!?  I have no idea what the point of this gate is.

I had started the walk with a liter and a half of water, and by the time I was 80% of the way there it was already gone.  This was a welcome sight, when I finally reached it:

I dragged myself to the guesthouse, and discovered – no one there!  And no one answering the phone number I was supposed to dial, either.  So I just sat on a bench for an hour and tried to stop shivering – heat exhaustion, I’m pretty sure.

Unfortunately, no photography is allowed in the monastery, so I couldn’t take any pictures of the beautiful church or refectory.  Eventually I was collected, and sent up to the church for the pre-dinner service.  I had never attended an Orthodox service before.  The church has three rooms – the outer one where non-orthodox sit, the middle one, for orthodox worshipers, and an inner one where only the monks go.

The service lasted about an hour and was very confusing – monks were constantly coming and going, not just between the rooms, but out of the church entirely.  Every now and then someone would wander out into the outer room with a brazier of incense or a rattle, and we’d all stand up.  Arriving monks would venerate the icons in the outer room before continuing, except when they didn’t.  People would come and light candles, or put them out, seemingly at random.  Younger adepts would come out and prostrate themselves repeatedly in front of the icons.

The one truly memorable thing was the chanting.  Orthodox polyphony is definitely more interesting to listen to than Gregorian chant, in my opinion.  And since my Greek is even worse than my Latin, it’s a good thing the chanting was pleasant to listen to.

After the service ended, we all proceeded across the hall to the refectory for an excellent meal.  Eating at the monastery is very quick – there’s no talking at all, because a monk is reading from scripture during the entire meal.  You have about ten minutes to eat everything in front of you, because when the bell rings, whether you’ve finished or not, everyone gets up and leaves.

At the same time as I had arrived, an Irish visitor turned up who had hiked in over the much better path from the opposite direction.  After dinner, the two of us were introduced to Father Damien, a London native who had spent the last twenty years at the monastery.  We had a very interesting conversation in the refectory about the history and nature of the Orthodox religion.  I tried to be respectful and ask neutral questions, despite not sharing his faith.

I was going to combine Day 5 and 6 into one post, but seeing as how this is already the longest post so far, I’ll break here with yet another beautiful sunset.


  • Means of Transportation Employed: Cab, Bus, Boat
  • Cumulative Total: 8
  • Highest point: 173 meters
  • Most difficult food to eat politely with silverware: Seeded Watermelon

Greece – Day 4: Thessaloniki

This is going to be a short post, as we didn’t take any pictures on day 4, which was primarily concerned with getting from point A (Athens) to point Θ (Thessaloniki). Got up, went to train station, got on train, sat.  Also sat.  The train left an hour late, but apparently this is not at all unusual.  The trip across Greece was pretty, but uneventful.

When we arrived at Thessaloniki, we made the mistake of walking from the train station to our hotel.  It seemed like a good idea on paper, but Google Maps doesn’t tell you things like – “There’s no way to get out of the train station on foot,” or “It’s 100 degrees, dumbass, wouldn’t you rather take a cab?” (Ed. by Leigh: Or, things like, “It will be obvious that nobody ever walks on this sidewalk when you have to dodge a small tree growing out of the middle of the pavement surrounded by weeds on one side and a watermelon on the other.”)

Leigh checked in for her conference, and then we took a bus downtown with Vicky Williamson, a friend of ours from the UK, where we had a very nice dinner of various fried Greek items, including cheese and cheese. At the end of the meal, the waiter brought us free drinks (ed. by Leigh: luckily not Ouzo), which meant that Leigh and Vicky each got half of mine.


  • Means of Transportation Employed: Train, Bus
  • Cumulative Total: 7
  • Geocaches Found: 1
  • Likelihood of mispronouncing “Thessaloniki”: ~50%
  • Meals with cheese: 2
  • Free stuff: after-dinner drinks

Greece – Day 3: Athens

On our first day in Athens we did a walking tour of the city, so today we decided to concentrate on three specific sites – the National Archaeological Museum, the Roman Agora, and the Acropolis Museum.

The Archaeological Museum was fascinating.  With so MUCH history accumulated in this city, it’s hard to imagine you could plant a tomato bush in your backyard without unearthing the ruins of Atlantis or the like.

Also, apparently Matt Groening was around in ancient Macedonia.

After a tasty lunch on a little street known as “souvlaki row,” we headed to the Roman Agora, where you can just wander about and poke things, which is a bit staggering to Americans used to the hands-off approach of museums and archaeological sites in this country.

At this point, the heat started getting to us again, so we headed to the Acropolis Museum.  They didn’t allow photography, so we don’t have any pictures from there, but it’s a stunning building.  It was built expressly to convince the British Museum to return the enormous hunk of the Parthenon they stole in the early 1800s.  To date, it hasn’t worked.

For our last trick, we hiked up yet ANOTHER hill in the Athens area, this one just south of the Acropolis.  The view from the top was again amazing.

Just to the right of the Parthenon, you can see the hill we hiked up at sunset on the first day.  For dinner, we walked down a long street just north of the Agora which is lined with outdoor tavernas.  Every restaurant in Athens has a tout whose job it is to stand outside and hassle you to stop and eat in their establishment.  It’s quite annoying.  We eventually settled on a restaurant that had an attractive sans-serif sign, and a less intrusive tout than most.

Good choice.  For twenty euros we got feta and spearmint dumplings in pomegranate sauce, salad with Mykonian cheese, chicken with figs, 12-hour-cooked pork with lime and basil cream, and a lovely chocolate mousse with mastiha.  And a view of the Parthenon.


  • Modes of Transportation: Subway
  • Percentage of Athens Subway Lines Used: 100%
  • Number of Geocaches Found: 2
  • Highest Altitude: 147 m
  • Moose Deployed: 1

Greece – Day 2: Hydra

For day 2, our plan was to visit an island, and Hydra was the recommended choice for a day trip from Athens.  Hydra is pronounced “Ee-dra”, just like “Gyro” is really pronounced “ee-rho,” and “typically” is actually pronounced “ee-pically.”  After an early start to catch our connections, we arrived on Hydra at about 10 AM to be confronted with this picturesque view.

Hydra is a fairly small island – over 90% of the population lives in this main town.  There are no motorized vehicles except for a few garbage trucks.  Somehow, we managed to encounter this truck about four times in the first hour, but after that the lack of traffic noises was very noticeable.  Instead, you encountered “parking lots” like the one in the blog’s banner image and this one.

Hydra, even more than most Greek towns, is also full of cats.  I think their intended purpose is to deal with vermin, but these guys seemed mostly interested in sleeping under tables at the waterfront tavernas.

Interesting trivia note: Leonard Cohen wrote “Bird on a Wire” while living on Hydra.  Probably not about this exact bird, but possibly this wire!

After exploring the main town for a bit, we walked down the coast to a nearby fishing village, and then decided to come back via the “high road” through town above the water.  And by “high road,” we mean “just keep attempting to go east through tiny cracks between houses.”  Astonishingly, this actually worked, despite the fact that this is what a “street” on Hydra usually looks like.

Eventually it was time for dinner, so we went back to the fishing village for a lovely meal of grilled red mullets (heads still attached) and octopus while sitting at a table overlooking the ocean.  Then it was time for another sunset!

Finally, back to Athens.


  • Modes of Transportation used: Subway, Hydrofoil, Boat
  • Cumulative Total: 5
  • Geocaches Found: 1
  • Meals Containing Feta: 2
  • Free stuff: After-dinner fruit

Greece – Day 1: Athens

The reason for our trip to Greece was a conference of Leigh’s in Thessaloniki: a joint meeting of the European Society for the Cognition of Music and the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition.  (What a mouthful!)  We made a point of arriving early so we could spend some time in Athens.  This turned out to be a really good idea.

This is Syntagma square, home of the Greek Parliament building and guards with pom-poms on their feet.  After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went on a self-guided walk around town, with the Acropolis as our ultimate goal.

This is the remains of the temple of Zeus.  It’s hard to believe, but this was actually larger than the Parthenon when it was still standing.

Speaking of which:

How would you like this to be your front door?  Coming from a country where “old” means a hundred years at best, it’s astonishing to climb stairs that have been around for 2,500 years.

And there it is.  The Parthenon is one of those things like the Grand Canyon.  You see the pictures, and figure it can’t possibly be that impressive in person.  And yet – they both are.

This is another temple on the same hill.  I’m sort of proud of this picture.  It really captures the “Lawrence of Arabia” level of really, really, hot that the weather was that day.  It was about 100 degrees when we were there.  Which is apparently 15 degrees cooler than it had been the week before.

After a long day of walking around Athens, we decided it would be a good idea to climb yet ANOTHER hill (climbing hills turns out to be a theme of this trip) to watch the sun set.

And it was.


  • Modes of Transportation used: Airplane, Subway, Funicular Railway
  • Cumulative Total: 3
  • Geocaches Found: 4
  • Highest point: 277 meters