Sunday, May 23

Views of New York

It's been an intense week of business meetings in New York. However, I found time to fit in a few of the city's sights and sounds along the way. On Thursday night I took a colleague in New York for the first time for a wander through Times Square. The billboards, dazzling lights and bustling crowd never fails to impress; even after midnight. What do these people do?

On Friday morning a group of us then rose early to visit the Top of the Rock observatory at the Rockefeller Centre. The weather was perfect and, at 8:30am, there were no queues to contend with. The Empire State Building literally dazzled in the sun as we soaked up the morning sun more than 285 metres above the city. I love New York!

Monday, May 17

The sky's the limit

Last week's flight to New York saw me earn enough status points to become a lifetime Gold Member of the Qantas frequent flyer program. This means I'll retain Gold level status with the airline for the rest of my life (or until they change the program rules) regardless of how often I travel in the future. Permenant perks include airport lounge access, priority check-in/boarding and priority for upgrade requests and fulfilment of waitlisted flights.

I've been a loyal member of the One World Alliance since the collapse of Ansett Australia in 2001. Ansett was a member of the rival Star Alliance group of airlines. I flew it to largely bolster my established Gold Member status with Air New Zealand, a Star Alliance partner. Ansett's demise forced me on to Qantas flights and into the One World alliance for good. At the time I held a dormant membership in Qantas frequent flyer program, having joined back in December 2004. How ironic that 16 years later I find my loyalty effectively locked in for life.

I wonder what the airline will offer me next?

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• Location:Horseneck Ln,Greenwich,United States

Sunday, May 16

Air & Space for a day

I visited the new Air & Space museum on the outskirts of Washington DC today. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center sits on the perimeter of Dullus International airport. It opened in 2008, displaying a variety of aircraft and space vehicles in the Smithsonian collection previously inaccessible to the public. Its exhibits include Enterprise, the original test-bed space shuttle; Enola Gay, the bomber responsible for dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; and the first Concorde put into service by Air France.

Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is the supersonic Blackbird spy plane which greets visitors as they enter the building. It's an impressive sight no matter what your interest in aviation. More photos coming soon!

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Monday, May 10

Unfathomable history

We spent our last day in Athens touring an eclectic series of historical sites. Our first stop was the Temple of Zeus. It was once the largest temple in Greece, consisting of 104 Corinthian columns, 17 metres high. Today, only 15 of these columns remain, including one that toppled over during a storm in 1852. The temple’s construction began in the 6th Century, but a lack of funds and ongoing problems with an unstable foundation meant that it wasn’t completed until 131AD.

Hadrian was ruling Athens at the time of its completion. In his typical egotistic manner he installed an enormous statue of himself inside the temple, next to an equally large statue of the temple’s revered deity. Nearby, Hadrian also erected a monumental arch. It neatly divided the city’s ancient Greek quarter from his modern Roman zone. Today, the arch is in a state of poor repair, fenced off from visitors and looking rather forlorn.

Our next stop was the Panathenaic Stadium, the world’s only stadium built completely from marble. It was here in 1896 that the Olympic Games of the modern were first held. The stadium you see today is a faithful reconstruction of an earlier Roman stadium completed during the reign of Hadrian in 139AD. The 2004 Games also used the venue for archery competitions and the Marathon finish. The locals still use it for crowds to welcome home triumphant sporting teams and other prominent individuals.

The venue offered a very informative audio tour during which we learnt that the earlier Roman stadium was actually a redevelopment of Greek venue; the Lykourgos Stadium, built in 330BC. However, the most interesting factoid was an explanation for the word ‘stadium’. The length of the interior track, 185 metres, is an ancient measure known as a stade. We completed our tour by posing on the track for an imaginary roaring crowd of 68,000 people.

Our final stop of the day took us across town via Parliament and Syntagma Square to the National Archaeological Museum. Syntagma, the site of deadly riots four days earlier, was almost empty except for a large flock of pigeons and two traditionally costumed presidential guards. Their costume of ballooning kilts and pom-pom shoes is based on that of freedom fighters that fought in the mountains during the nation’s 19th Century War of Independence.

The national museum was everything we expected. Highlights included the dramatic dark bronze statue of Poseidon with outstretched arms. It dates from 460BC. Equally impressive were the rows of famous Attic black-figured pottery. However, the most surprising exhibit of day for me was the Antikythera Mechanism. This heavily corroded series of bronze cogs and wheels was recovered from a Roman shipwreck in 1900. It proved that the Romans had mastered the manufacture of intricate clockwork devices more than a thousand years before Western Europe.

The device calculated the movements of the moon and the sun across the zodiac using a hand crank. Experts believe it could predict the precise hour of an eclipse on a specific date, and possibly the position of planets on any given day. I recall learning about this device as a child and thus was delighted to unexpected see it with my own eyes for the first time. The advanced sciences of the ancient world continue to astound and astonish me. Visiting Athens proved a very humbling experience indeed.

The Acropolis

We spent most of our first full day in Athens exploring The Acropolis. Without doubt its one of the world’s iconic ancient sites and home to the instantly recognizable Parthenon. The history here is multi-layered and on full display. Incredibly, people have lived on this marble outcrop for more than six thousand years. However, most of its familiar structures arrived in more recent times. The Parthenon, for example, was completed in 438BC, a mere 2,460 years ago.

We made our way up the 150 metre rock face via its southern slope. Here can be found several impressive ruins including the Theatre of Dionysos amphitheatre. In its time this was the largest such complex in ancient Greece, sitting 17,000 over 64 marble-clad tiers. Today, only the bottom 20 tiers have survived, including many of the marble thrones that encircled the terrace’s base. Further along is the recently restored Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a Roman amphitheatre that was once fully enclosed by a wooden roof. It was built in 161AD, more than four hundred years after its neighbouring Greek arena.

A slow climb took us up to the dramatic colonnade gateway that guards entry to the summit of the Acropolis. The Propylaia as its known is an impressive sight. It was completed in 432BC after five years of construction. The structure stood undisturbed until the 17th Century when a lightning strike exploded gunpowder recklessly stored in its main hall by the occupying Ottoman Turks. Most of its marble pillars and portions of the roof have been subsequently restored.

Restoration work continues today across the Acropolis site funded in large part by UNESCO. For example the Temple of Athena Nike that stands to the right of the Propylaia was clad in scaffolding the day we visited as was the entire northern façade of the Parthenon. Incredibly, computer-controlled carving tools are sculpting replacement marble pieces that fit perfectly with the surviving ancient marble. It’s the ultimate 3D jigsaw puzzle.

The Parthenon itself is every bit as magnificent as you’d imagine it to be. The current structure was built on the site of at least four earlier temples. Built entirely of white Pentelic marble, it’s the largest Doric temple ever constructed in Greece. I was astonished to learn that the entire building and its marble artwork was completed in only nine years. It was officially opened in 438BC. Much like it neighbouring marble gateway, the structure suffered at the hands of the Turks when a single cannon shot fired in 1687 exploded gunpowder stored inside.

The Parthenon shares its summit location with another impressive structure, the Erechtheon. This is a multi-facaded marble temple, built on several levels on the northern rim of the Acropolis. It’s most famous façade consists of six marble maidens, the Caryatids, who support a small porch roof balanced on their heads. The sculptures you see on site are copies. The originals are now on display in the new Acropolis Museum. You can see the museum and a huge swathe of the expansive Athens’ skyline from a dramatic observation terrace built into the eastern wall of the Acropolis.

Mid-afternoon we made our way back down the hill to visit the Greek Agora, or meeting and administrative district of the ancient city. The site includes three main structures; the restored colonnaded Stoa of Attalos, the red brick Church of the Holy Apostles and the dramatic Temple of Hephaestus. This temple is the best preserved Doric temple in Greece; a mini version of the Parthenon. We were told by a guide that it’s often used to portray the Parthenon by period dramas that film in Athens.

Our final stop of the day was the Acropolis Museum. It’s an architectural masterpiece, designed to house artifacts from the Parthenon and its marble neighbours. It’s also a rather blunt political statement. The top floor of the museum has been reserved for displaying the Elgin Marbles, intricate marble friezes that once adorned the top of the Parthenon. They were removed by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador in 1801 and are currently displayed in the British Museum (see an earlier photo taken in London below).

For decades the UK refused to return these ‘stolen’ artifacts claiming Greece had nowhere safe and climate-controlled in which to preserve them. Of course, the new museum now makes a complete mockery of this claim. The British refuse to return what rightfully belongs in Greece. I add my voice to others who believe it’s time for the British to hand them back.

Sunday, May 9

Room with a view

Just a short post to share photos of the incredible views from our hotel in Athens. We stayed at the Athens Gate Hotel, a short walk from the base of the Acropolis and the stunning new Acropolis Museum which opened in 2007. We could see both sights with ease from the hotel's rooftop terrace where we enjoyed cocktails and dinner on our first evening (see above), followed by a hearty breakfast each day (see below).

Our hotel room offered an equally majestic view in the opposite direction, offering a ring-side view of the Temple of Zeus and nearby Hadrian Arch. At first I was disappointed we'd not received an Acropolis view. However, an east-facing room proved to be a bonus as our balcony was shaded in the afternoon and thus offered a cool respite from the intense Greek sun.

The hotel also came to the party on our second day in Athens, encouraged us to make good use of our balcony. It offered us a complimentary bottle of wine to atone for any inconvenience we'd experienced during the previous day's street protest. We enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours sipping local red and contemplating the engineering prowess of the ancient Romans.

Making headlines

We’ve returned safely from vacation in Greece. Our final days were spent in Athens, a city very much in the news this week as images of violent riots and protests outside the Greek Parliament were broadcast around the world. We were understandably anxious as our aircraft landed on Thursday less than 24 hours after the worst of the violence. However our fears proved unfounded. While the scars of violence were evident law and order had been very much restored before our arrival.

Our hotel was situated on the main boulevard that runs south from Syntagma Square where Parliament is located (it's the large yellow building in the top right corner of the photo below). We originally booked the hotel as a result of its rooftop bar offering an uninterrupted view of the Acropolis. However, this outdoor vantage point proved ideal on our first evening for watching an enormous peaceful protest march make its way towards Parliament. Hours earlier the road outside our hotel had been blocked off by police which enabled tens of thousands of people to pour onto the streets, waving banners and chanting slogans. This was clearly a peaceful family affair as we saw plenty of parents pushing children in strollers.

As you can imagine, we chose to dine in the rooftop restaurant that evening rather than venture into the city. However, as darkness fell, the road below reopened and the city seemed to return to normal. News stories later reported minor clashes with police after the main protest had dispersed, but we saw none of this from our hotel. We saw no further protests after our first night and felt safe on the streets at all time.

Instead, every so often, we’d come across evidence of the week’s earlier violence. Cracked shop front windows, including our own hotel’s lobby, could be seen along the street and on our last night we stumbled upon a burnt out car dumped in a side street. We even had a news reporter in the room opposite our own, making regular broadcasts from his hotel balcony.

The final irony of this entire affair was the return of volcanic ash to the skies of Europe. Protests and riots paled into insignificance as we watched airports close in Scotland, Spain and France on our final day. We were left unsure if our flight home would be delayed until we checked in at the airport. Fortunately all was normal. Our flight actually departed ten minutes ahead of schedule, landing at Heathrow almost 30 minutes earlier than expected.

Friday, May 7

Images of Oia

Words cannot describe the beauty of Oia, a village on the northern tip of Santorini. I'll simply let these photos speak for themselves.

Thursday, May 6

A postcard moment

Garry and I have spent our last afternoon in Santorini visiting the remote village of Oia. It's here that many of Santorini's iconic postcard sights can be found. Perhaps the most famous of them all is that of three blue church domes overlooking the Aegean Sea. We stumbled across this iconic scene by accident, without another tourist in sight. For more than 20 minutes we enjoyed the view alone. What a magic way to end our tour of the Greek islands.

Look for more photos soon.  Meanwhile, please enjoy the view from our lunch table as shown in the video above.

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• Location:Αγίου Μηνά,Thira,Greece

Having a riot of a time

We’re off to Athens tomorrow afternoon. We’re not quite sure what to expect. There were riots in Athens today as protestors took to the streets in protest at austerity measures imposed by the near bankrupt Government. Sadly, three people were killed earlier this afternoon after becoming trapped in a bank set alight by molotov cocktail welding protesters. Earlier in the week we saw protestors vandalizing a Hotel Grande Bretagne in the main square opposite Parliament.

The images of men attacking the hotel left me cold as I’d almost booked us into this venue last week after being emailed a remarkably cheap last-minute deal. The temptation of five-star luxury was almost too good to refuse. Fortunately, we’re still booked into a hotel on the south side of the Acropolis, almost a kilometre away from Parliament and the focal point of angry protest. However, I think we’ll probably give Constitution Square a miss while we’re in town.

Tomorrow's holiday snap?
Image courtesy of Reuters

A 24-hour strike was also called today, the third to hit Greece in as many months. Flights were cancelled, trains and ferries stopped running and public facilities remained closed. There was little sign of the disruption in Santorini. We’re also hopeful our afternoon flight will depart as normal tomorrow, as flights are scheduled to resume in the morning.

It seems that public protest is a regular feature of Greek life. Almost 20 years ago, my first attempt to visit Athens was foiled by a nationwide public strike. We arrived in Patras by ferry to be greeted by power cuts, trains and buses not running, ATM machines not working and chaos everywhere. With our money running low and little hope of reaching Athens in a timely manner we abandoned Greece after 24 hours and returned to Italy.

Ironically, our travel plans this week were also disrupted by a strike. We’d originally booked a ferry from the mainland to Mykonos. However, a week ago I was advised by the ferry company that our sailing had been cancelled in response to a scheduled strike. I secured a refund and put the money towards an airfare instead. This change of plan proved fortuitous. Our flight arrived several hours earlier than our original ferry booking, enabling us to enjoy a wonderful sunset from our hotel balcony.

Irene and Petros

The day we arrived in Mykonos our hotel warned us to watch out for Irene, the island’s official mascot. Irene is a large, rather intimidating looking Pelican. She wanders the streets of the old town at will and can be often found holding court on the waterfront, surrounded by a frenzy of camera-welding tourists. We saw her several times; once standing among local rowboats on the harbour foreshore and once at dinner.

The second encounter was particularly unnerving. Garry and I were dining outdoor at a local seafood restaurant. Earlier that evening we’d stood at the fish counter and selected a large, fresh snapper barely hours off the boat. Within moments of the cooked fish arriving at our table, Irene came wandering down the laneway. I swear that pelican looked twice at our table before slowing ambling past. I was petrified. With a beak as fearsome as Irene's swaying mere inches from my arm I wasn't game to move a muscle.

We later learnt that Irene isn’t the original mascot. The first pelican of Mykonos, called Petros arrived in town in 1954 and remained resident until his death in 1986. His passing was met with calls for a new pelican to take his place, the rather pampered and somewhat bold bird that eyed our dinner. This latest incarnation of the island’s mascot was donated by none other than Jackie Kennedy-Onassis. It was later joined by a pelican donated by Hamburg Zoo. Today, three pelicans wander the streets as a third, nursed back to health by locals, has since joined the mascot brigade.