Thursday, November 13, 2014

Tight security in Rome, really?

Tight security in Rome after the Ottawa tragedy?

I took these pics on Monday.  After the Ottawa tragedy and the death of the poor Canadian soldier at the War Memorial, many around the world began asking themselves, “But could this happen to us”?

The monument is located in central Rome, the “Vittoriano” which is also known as the “Nation’s Alter” (they say that all distances from Rome are taken from this monument).  It’s also called, by Anglophones, the “Upside Wedding Cake” or “Typewriter”.  It contains the remains of the Unknown Soldier, a sacred place just as much as the War Memorial in Ottawa.

But is security tight after that terrorist attack? Not really:  you can climb right up to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded day and night by two Italian soldiers.  There’s a chain-linked fence, if you can call it that, which doesn’t really protect the two soldiers from would-be assassins or lunatics that want to take a swing at them (or also damage the tomb).  

And security at the entrance of the tomb? A bit of a joke, with a Carabinieri van parked in front (it wasn’t there though on Tuesday when I went by at around 11 am) and with two Carabinieri officers who have much better things to do than to watch over the tomb's entrance, such as checking their cell phones for messages and/or Facebook postings!

(checking the latest soccer results?)

But the “security” doesn’t end there: on November 13th, 2014 at around noon I went to the Vatican to see the necropolis which lies under St. Peter’s Basilica.  I was told to go to a gate (on the left, facing the Basilica).  There at the gate were two Swiss Guards.  They told me that I could only enter the necropolis thru a prior reservation.  I asked them where to go to make the reservation?  They indicated another gate, but inside the Vatican grounds.  Before doing that though, they told me to go to the nearby police van, about 20 meters away from them, to pass the “security” check.  I went, and there was an Italian police officer with a small portable metal detector.  I had with me a small bag with inside a small digital camera and a flash.  He asked me what I had inside, and I pulled the camera out and then said “I also have a small flash…”, which he didn’t even bother looking at.  Nor did he “wand” me with his metal detector, nor did he check if I had a cell phone (you can’t get in as a visitor with a cell phone at the U.S. Embassy in Rome), nor did he bother checking my other pockets. 

I then went back to the Swiss Guards, and with no special pass from the police officer, I walked some 300 meters to the ticket office where one can make a reservation for the necropolis.  Along the way there were Vatican police officers, but no one bothered stopping me nor asking me where I was going (I only spoke to one asking where the ticket office was).  Along the way I saw a small German cemetery inside the Vatican walls.  I could have even wondered off to the “Sala Nervi”, where Pope Francis also holds his weekly audiences (when the weather is poor).  Had I left home with a few of my press passes around my neck, I could have easily walked around the Vatican and I could have quite easily placed a small radio-controlled explosive device either inside the “Sala Nervi” or inside the cemetery, or even inside the ticket office (there was a foreign couple in front of me making their reservations for the necropolis).

This happened in an area which (apparently) has the 4th best secret service in the world!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wonderful Greece (and magical) Milos!

Yes, for the second time we once again hit the magical island of Milos!  I had been there the very first time in 2005 with Dani, not knowing anything about Greece nor it’s magnificent and enchanting islands (there are about 480 of them).  

(One of the very few days it rained in Milos!)

(Dusk over Adamas) 

(The small port in Pollonia)

(The small port in Pollonia)

(The adorable church at Pollonia)

(Arriving on the island of Kimolos)

 (The white beach at Kimolos)

  (The white beach at Kimolos)

Like Tony Bennett’s famous song, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, the same applies to Milos (by the way, it’s the very same island where they discovered, back in the 18th century if I’m not mistaken, the Venus, yes, the very same statue that sits in the Louvre and which I saw in 1981 circa).  

(The white beach at Kimolos)

(Many boats at Kimolos)

(The churches of Kimolos)

(Scenes of the center of Kimolos)


(Scenes of the center of Kimolos)

(Scenes of the center of Kimolos)

(Scenes of the center of Kimolos)

 (The view from our studio, with nothing much behind our balcony!)

 (Scenes of the island of Milos and its magnificent beaches)

 (She's part of the official "Milos welcoming committee"!)

 (Trying to get a pic of myself on the 125cc scooter)

This was for me the seventh time to that wonderful country.  Together we had already gone to the following islands: Kimolos, Karpathos, Skiathos and Skopelos (where they shot that great movie with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “Mamma Mia”!), Samos (where Pythagoras was born, someone who caused me a LOT of problems during high school maths!), Leros (another great little island), Mykonos (a haven for the international gay community), Naxos and nearby Paros (we went there last year).  

(Scenes and beaches of Milos)

(Restaurants in the central Plaka)

(Just some of the "Highways to Hell" on Milos that you have to face with your scooter!)

It was up in the air this year: southern Puglia or a shot again at Milos?  Naturally, going to Puglia would have cost much less than going all the way to Milos (in the former case we would have driven there), but the “calling” from Milos was too powerful this time (and a wise choice too as the weather in Italy this summer was filled with rain and cool temperatures).  So off we went on Sept. 1st until the 11th.

(Dani enjoying the studio's balcony)

(Leaving below from Milos' port for the nearby island of Folegandros)

(Here below life on the quaint island of Folegandros)

The flight there was with EasyJet from Rome directly to Santorini (a short 1 hour and 45 minute flight).  The flight from Rome’s Fiumicino airport was rather early, like at 6.45 am.  Wake-up call was at 3 am as we had a private chauffeur who took us to the airport (I must have slept a whopping 2 hours too!).  Indeed a pity as we arrived rather early in Santorini, around 10 am local time.  Our hydrofoil trip to Milos (two hours away) was at 6 pm, so we had like 8 hours to kill.  

(Leaving the beauty and tranquility of Folegandros for Milos!)

(Some of the back-to-nature aspects of Greece and its magnificent islands!)

We chose the bus ride from the local airport down to the main port.  Personally, I was somewhat “zonked” from my so-called “sleep” and was a wee bit cranky to have to take another bus ride all the way to the top of the island to then walk around in like 30+ Celsius heat to view the beautiful island of Santorini (I don’t know if it’s true that David Bowie’s got a villa there or not).  

(Scenes again of Milos and its wonderful beaches and sites)

 (Fresch octupus, anyone? We ate at this very same restaurant too)

(A view from afar of Adamas with us below on our way to yet another wonderful beach)

The drive down from the main town to the port is rather impressive: a James-Bond-like winding road that is several hundred meters high (see pics).  Walking it would have been almost impossible, given the traffic and the intense heat.  So first things first: a bar-restaurant where I could indulge for the first time this summer in my favorite Greek coffee, a frappe’!  That was then followed by lunch, and then several other frappes (plus a few bottles of GREAT Greek Mythos beer!).  After sitting, chatting, eating and watching hordes of tourists arriving on ships and hydrofoils, 6 pm soon approached for our voyage to Milos (yes, hard to believe, but we sat in the port for like 8 hours!).

(The beach at the old abandoned mine)

Once in Milos we stayed at the Anamnisi Apartments  It was nice that the owners came out to pick us up at the local port.  The place turned out to be a simply wonderful studio with a great, great balcony where we could have, lunch and dinner (with ALL respect to Greeks and their fine cuisine, but I can’t eat in a restaurant every day and for ten or eleven days the usual souvlaki or moussaka with French Fries.  By renting a studio we have all that we need to do our own cooking, nothing complex mind you, just a pasta dish and a salad or a nice Greek salad with exquisite feta cheese and all washed down with Mythos beer or some fine white Greek wine. It also costs us LESS by eating something in the studio vs. restaurants every day). The studio itself is less than a 1 km from the main port-town of Milos, Adamas.  Very easy to get there by foot and/or with the scooter. A good price I'd say too: 60 euros (for two people) per day.

(The beach at the old abandoned mine) 

Which we naturally rented the day after, a 125 cc. Honda Vision, as we got to Milos around 8.30 pm the night before, and were naturally too tired to drive around that evening (we ended up going for a walk and also to grab a bite to eat).  It’s the ONLY way, at least for me, to enjoy the Greek islands (180.00 euros for 10 days. You have to haggle on the final price.  The rental owner asked us: “Cash or credit card”?  If it’s cash it’ll cost you less...).  There’s nothing like riding a scooter on a Greek island with the wind and very hot sun in your face (you can even rent small ATVs or even a car but I don’t think they’re easy to handle or to move about on narrow dirt roads as when you’re riding a scooter).

(The beach at the old abandoned mine)

(The bay of Adamas)

(Scenes around Milos in the evening)

(The catacombs of Milos)

 (Scenes around Milos)

The island after a nine-year absence?  It hasn’t changed much at all. Perhaps the economic crisis left a small mark here and there because in 2005 I recall that there was a disco and an Internet point in Adamas, which no longer exist.  Housing (in the sense of construction) appears to be unchanged with no major construction sites popping up like mushrooms here and there (as is the case in Italy).  I was very happy to see that my favorite pastry shop is still in Adamas, right in front of the local bank.  I hit the place on many occasions in 2005.  Ditto for this time (there are simply “divine” Greek pastries in that shop)!

 (Scenes around Milos) 

Milos’s main city center is the small and very delightful “Plaka”, with cute stores and some good restaurants.  It overlooks from high above Adamas and the entire port (which is still to this day populated by some truly magnificent private yachts!).  Plaka is also at the foot of the castle.  From our studio it takes about 15 minutes to go up and down the winding Greek (paved) roads.  

 (Scenes around Milos)

It’s actually a hop, skip and a jump, as is the town of Pollonia, on the extreme eastern part of the island (where you take the ferry boat for Kimolos). We ate some good fish there on the night before heading back to Rome.

Interesting places to see in Milos?  The ancient Roman theater, which is right next to the point where the famous Venus was discovered (yes, the very same statue that sits in the Louvre) and the catacombs.  Albeit, they're not as large as the ones in Rome (there are only 54 of them) but nevertheless they are interesting and also mysterious too. 

(Scenes around Milos) 

(Here below with Ianis--on the right--one cool guy who runs a beautiful beach on Milos)

What to do in the evenings?  Go for a pastry and then sit on one of the benches directly in front of the port and gaze (and dream) at some of the utterly AMAZING yachts that pull-up to Milos from ALL over the world!  You stare at them and then pray that you’ll win one day the lottery!

(Scenes in the evening of Milos's Plaka) 

I saw a poster one day that indicated a cultural event near the church that overlooks the port.  It was all in Greek.  There were six people in the picture, so I did (erroneously) 2+2 and thought that it was a concert.  Having seen close to 350 concerts so far in Canada, Italy, Austria and Germany, I thought to myself, “Great, a concert in a fifth country, go for it”!  I asked a bartender where the concert would take place, and so Sunday night we were off to the show.  Tickets were only 8 euros.  Once there, well, it turned out to be Greek theater instead of a concert!  Odd that the lady at the ticket booth, hearing me speak only in English, didn’t bother saying, “Excuse me, but I presume that you DO speak Greek”?   

(Scenes in the evening of Milos's Plaka)  

(There are "hot dogs" in the world and "cool cats" in Milos!)

‘Twas a rather interesting experience in trying to decipher and to understand the plot (the show was a comedy). You should try it one day with a language which isn’t yours!  And in true Greek spirit, the play ended off with a typical Greek tragedy (the spirit of the Greek tragedies I believe were born during the Aristotelian era).  The play wasn’t quite over as at the end we were ushered out of the theater into the small courtyard, where the play continued for about 20 minutes. It eventually ended there.  Naturally, it was again ONLY in Greek, so I looked at Dani, laughed and said: “Gosh, if we hadn’t ALSO sat in on this part, we would have CERTAINLY missed the gist of the play”!  Nevertheless, it was a pleasant (and rather surreal) way of spending a nice Sunday evening with a bunch of very attentive and supportive theater aficionados on a Greek island!

(A modern-day "Venus" on one of Milos's splendid beaches?)

The people?  Except for one scooter rental owner who tried taking me for a “ride” (excuse the pun), the people on Milos (ditto for other islands too) are wonderful as always, some of THE most laid-back people I’ve ever met in the entire world!

(Just some of Milos's splendid beaches, such as the one in Gerontas)

We also went for the day to the nearby island of Kimolos, where we went back in 2005 with a French tourist friend.  To get there you take a small ferry boat from Pollonia.  You can take either your car or scooter on board. The ride is 30 minutes and for the scooter and two passengers it’s a mere 5 euros.  The famous “White Beach” of Kimolos (where everybody goes) has had some improvements since 2005: they’ve now got sunbeds, umbrellas and also food and beverage services.  The cost for two sunbeds and an umbrella are still amazingly low, between 5-6 euros (the same near Roma at the Ostia beach will run you five-six times as much).  On some other islands, like Leros, we even encountered beaches where two sunbeds and an umbrella were completely free!  Talk about generous people the Greeks…

(Just some of Milos's splendid beaches, such as the one in Gerontas)

There are caique boats that will take you around the island to those hard-to-reach beaches, the ones that you can’t get to with a car nor a scooter.  They leave from the Adamas port at 9.30 and come back at 7 pm.  You can end up on these boats along with 20+ people, not exactly my idea of fun nor my cup of tea, as they say.

(Kayakying on Milos, a service which is run by a fellow, Rod, from Melbourne!)

So we opted instead for a day-trip to the nearby Folegandros island, just one hour away with the hydrofoil (it’s the same boat that goes to Santorini and back).  Departure was at 9.30 pm with return to Milos at 7 pm.  We couldn’t take along our scooter so we rented one on the island (for about 6-7 hours it was only 15 euros). The funny thing is that we ended up renting the very same scooter we had in Milos.

A nice island, only 15 kms long, populated by many of my “brothers”, that is, donkeys (I love Greece also for that: you’re walking in the narrow streets of a tiny town when all of a sudden outside of someone’s door you see a donkey ready to be loaded with goods on its back)!  Some nice beaches and great little churches (some of THE nicest things of Greece and its islands are the churches which also proudly show-off the Greek national flag, something you DON’T see much in Italy).

I had some back problems (just on the island of Milos we covered some 364 kms, or 227 miles.  No easy thing to do when I weigh up to 103 kgs and Dani who is pushing 65 kgs, more or less.  On some of the “Highways to Hell” it’s QUITE the balancing act: you simply DON’T want to fall, not only because you can seriously hurt yourself by also going off of a cliff but seeing that the scooter’s not yours, you’ll end up having to pay the rental hefty repair costs!) when we finally arrived at our final destination, a nice beach on the island. We had to take another small boat (for 5 euros) to another small beach, but I was aching from the ride down, so we opted instead to stay on the first beach, have a quick lunch and then go back to the “Plaka”, the center of the very quaint Folegandros.  And indeed what a lovely little center it is (as you can see by the pics)!

Yet my umpteenth frappe’ in a splendid little café in the center of the town and then over to the port for the 7 pm ride back to Milos.

And the weather, indeed a topic of conversation for anyone who goes away on holiday?  The following day after our arrival to Milos it sprinkled rain here and there, but for the rest of the holiday the weather was very, very nice.  Admittedly, something is “in the air” as climate change is indeed affecting the world, including Greece: this is the very first time in seven trips to that country that almost every day I saw clouds in the sky, albeit small ones, but nevertheless clouds they were.  Past visits to other islands have ALWAYS had clear blue skies, but not this time.  We also left Italy in a climatic mess, with rain in the Puglia area, so something is definitely amiss in the global weather system.

(Indeed a perfect fit: great Mythos beer and a wonderful beach on Milos!)

Temperatures?  About 30 degree Celsius (in the shade mind you) during the day and about 24 degrees in the evening, just perfect for riding around on a scooter without any kind of sweater (at least NOT for me, that’s for sure). 

And the water you may very well ask?  Cold? No way, just perfect, and as always, crystal-clear water everywhere we went (and given the period many beaches weren’t at all crowded.  On one beach there were only five of us one day!).

We managed to hook-up with Anezina who runs her own hotel in Adamas.  We stayed there in 2005 and it was very nice to see her again (  She’s a very warm person.  I also made friends with a cool cat who runs his small kiosk (food and drinks) on the Mitakas beach, in the northern part of the island.  He goes by the name of Ianis and actually lives in Athens where he works as a graphic artist and photographer.  I guess this is part of his summertime job, and what a summertime job too as you can see from his beach (you can also find him on Facebook at “Mitakas Splas”)!

And some of the 75 beaches on Milos (further info also at  Ianis told us one day to check out the one right next to the old sulfur mine, an area which was abandoned some 60 years ago.  To get there it takes about 30 minutes (by scooter naturally).  The area has some interesting churches and also an old and small abandoned (at least it looked that way) NATO base (Turkey is always in the “air” when it comes to Greek-Turkish relations).  The road down to the beach itself is another one straight out of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”.  In fact, at a certain point Dani had to get off because it would have meant either falling down or taking an hour to get there.

The scenario?  Something straight out of a Quentin Tarantino/Sergio Leone movie (as you can see from the pics)!  The beach itself was rather nice, no sand but rather small pebbles.  We got there and I think there were about six of us.  Nice water too.  The ride back was rather difficult, but with some patience and good driving skills, we eventually made it back to the studio all in one piece.

Ianis also suggested that we check out the beach at Gerontas, in the southern part of the island.  This beach was about 17 kms from our studio. It doesn’t really come across as being a great distance, at least NOT by car, but on some Greek roads and on a scooter (and with two people too) it can seem like from “here to eternity”.  And the road (by foot) to get down to the beach (it was Katergo, the beach just next to Gerontas, but we didn’t know that as we got the two screwed-up!) was again straight out of an AC/DC song!  But once there it was wonderful: just five of us with one lassie (much to my joy!) who was completely naked too (the effects of the original Venus???)!

(Hard to beat that crystal-clear blue water in Milos!)

They left and we asked if this beach was in fact Gerontas.  “No, it’s the one next door. We’re going to it now”, said the modern-day Venus.  So we swam a wee bit more on Katergo and then packed up our things (we always bring with us a small cooler for water and snacks) and marched over to the Gerontas beach, with yet ANOTHER “Highway to Hell” (you have to eventually leave your car/scooter near the footpaths)! 

But, as you can see from the pics, it was well worth it: another magnificent beach with crystal-clear blue water and with the presence also of an Aussie, Rod, who runs his own kayaking service in Milos.  The guy hails from Melbourne (AC/DC’s former stomping grounds) and has been in Milos for the last 14 yrs.  He married a local Greek and charges 65 euros per person for a kayak ride around the island.  He gets a lot of requests from his native Australia.  The day we were there he was taking around a large group of Danish tourists.  Old Rod has certainly understood the so-called “meaning of life”! 

(Cool t-shirt with a cool guy in Milos, Ianis!)

Last but never least regarding the small island of Milos (pop. 3,000+ souls), we sometimes think of Greece as being a rather “backwards” country.  Unlike it’s EU partner, Italy, it’s not part of the G8, and yet our studio, the three restaurants we went to for dinner and even the beaches all had wi-fi connections, something you STILL don’t see in 2014 in many parts of Italy! 

The (unfortunate) return to Rome this time was via Athens.  We were supposed to leave Milos with another hydrofoil at 3.30 pm.  The ride is three hours, plenty of time to arrive, take the metro and train to the airport for our 10.25 flight, again with EasyJet.  But the boat arrived about an hour late, so we got into Athens’s Pireas port (no doubt one of THE busiest in Europe), around 7.30 pm.  We had been there some yrs ago when we had gone to another island.  I have a pretty good sense of direction and as we began walking (quickly) I had a pretty good idea where the metro stop was (thanks also to some added directions from the locals). 

We got our tickets and climbed aboard, surrounded naturally by pickpockets (coming from Rome where pickpockets are usually the “norm”, we didn’t have problems picking them out!).  As we left we looked up and saw the metro stop where we had to change in order to grab the subsequent train for the airport.

Quite funny as at one point we ended up asking the pickpockets themselves on which side the train doors would open (we had some luggage so in a crowded wagon you have to sort of get prepared before the train arrives at your stop).  They told us the side, but I’m sure they probably thought we were crazy to ask THEM, of all people, for help!

(It's rather hard to NOT fall in love with Milos, eh?)

We ran for the stop and grabbed the airport train just in the nick of time. Once aboard we asked someone if this was in fact the train for the airport (there was even the indication inside the wagon).  Luckily, ¾ of Greeks speak good English (I’m at our first beach in Milos. I asked for a frappe’ at the small bar. I began talking to the girl behind the counter. She asked me where I was from seeing I was speaking fluent English.  I said Canada but I currently live in Rome. She said that this summer many Italians showed up in Milos, and many  DIDN’T speak English.  After 25 years that I’ve been living in the Bel Paese, I wasn’t terribly surprised by her observation. What did surprise me though, and it surprised her too, is when she told me that many 20 year-old Italians STILL don’t speak English!). There was a young chap who then explained to us that no, this train was NOT going to the airport (go figure…).  It was better to get off and to grab a taxi.

Which we did.  Like quickly.  The driver didn’t speak English all that well, one of the few, so I broke the ice by asking him: “Panathinaikos or Olimpiakos fan” (as in soccer”)?  He said, “Olimpiakos”!  I then shot back with, “Roma”!, seeing that Roma currently has three Greek players.  Once the soccer chat was over with, we told him we had a 10.25 flight and if he could kindly hit the gas pedal (it was 8.30 pm when we stopped him).

(As Monty Python would say, "It's hot enough to boil a moneky's bum"!, and the same applies to Milos in the summertime!) 

They say Greece has some 10 million people with up to 5 million just in Athens.  It’s no doubt a very BIG city, and we didn’t really know where we were with respect to the airport.  So he did floor it and luckily most of the traffic lights were green too (it was sort of like a scene out of a James Bond movie, you know, with the bad guys chasing 007 in a taxi thru the streets of a major city like Athens!).

Once we hit the highway I began to have my doubts as I saw signs which said, “Marcopolous” and with the symbol of an airport.  Their main airport has another name, so I thought that he was taking us to the second one (we have two major airports in Rome which also rhyme: Fiumicino, the main one, and Ciampino, which is also a military airport.  More than one foreign tourist to Rome gets the two mixed up!).  We were travelling close to 150 kms/hr, or 95 mph, when I saw the sign of the main airport, and thought that “Ahh, we made it”!  Sure enough, he got us there at about 9.10 pm.  I yelled out from the back seat: ”Grande Schumacher”!  I think we also left him a nice tip.  After all, he deserved it (had he been dishonest he could have taken us on the “Grand Tour” of Athens, made a lot of money off of us and also made us lose our flight back to Rome).

Once inside the airport we were reassured by the check-in folks that we had indeed made it on time for our flight, which left promptly at 10.25 pm for Rome. The flight back was actually five minutes quicker than the flight to Santorini from Rome, 1 hour and 40 minutes.  A rather smooth flight too, thank God (on the horizon and right behind us were some pretty large lighting bolts. As I was watching them THE song that came to my mind was AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”!).

All-in-all ‘twas a very nice eleven days in Milos and truly a pleasure to have returned after a nine-year absence  (n.b. ALL pics were taken with a Canon Power Shot G1X digital camera). 

So go ahead and ask me: do I recommend going to Milos?  After what I’ve just written and the attached pics, what do YOU think????