"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Crete trip - Part 1
16/4, 17/4 - Brussels, Athens


My flight to Athens was from Brussels Airport. There're flights to Athens from Schiphol (Amsterdam), but I couldn't find any by low cost carriers, so Brussels was the next best choice. My original plan was to wake up early and visit Brussels, exploring the city for a day, before embarking for Athens. Of course, it didn't work out that way, since I slept at almost 3am or so the night before since I was packing and chatting with people. In the end I left at about 3:30, due to reach Brussels at 7:19pm.

The announcer on the train to Brussels spoke French like she was speaking Dutch. It was quite funny, given how other announcers speak Dutch like they're speaking French.

Just before reaching Brussels Noord, looking out from the train window I saw below the train track many prostitutes parading in windows. Meanwhile, the group of old people sitting around me all seemed very excited (and seemed to be looking down), a state which passed once we'd passed the prostitutes.

Seen near Brussels Noord station: "Hotel Chaochow Palace". Wth.

When I got off at Brussels Central station, I smelled piss. I was not surprised, but still - gah. The place also looked quite run down - quite surprising considering that it was the Central Station of Brussels.


Gardens across from Place de l'Albertine


Fountain outside Musee du Cinema


Navenstein sculpture

When I arrived at the Brussels Central station just before 7:30, a minimart and a hotdog stand were open, but less than an hour later everything was closed. Taking a short sub-hour Walk around Brussels (~19kg backpack notwithstanding), I found that everything was closed, even the restaurants - I found not a single one open (and I was so looking forward to a French meal before flying off). Probably the only people working in Brussels were the prostitutes. At first I was wondering why, but then realised it was Easter Sunday. Then again, though this was not the best time to be anywhere, I was surprised that even the restaurants were closed - even in Crete where people are more religious there were restaurants open on Easter Sunday. So it was lucky that I'd decided to sleep in in Utrecht, or the only thing to do in Brussels would've been to sleep somewhere else.

On the train to the airport, one girl mysteriously walked quickly down the aisle just a minute before the conductor appeared. Hmm.

Even at the airport, almost all the shops were closed. The cafeteria was expensive and unappetising so I went for the deep blue sea and patronised the Pizza Hut Express, having 2 slices of ham and witloof pizza (the bitter Belgian vegetable like cabbage). Besides it being exotic and new to my palette, I chose it because the 2 other choices were vegetarian and margherita.

After dinner I still had a lot of time to kill, so I found a power plug in a deserted area of Brussels airport and amused myself with my laptop. If I hadn't brought it I'd have been bored to death, for sure. I must remember to load up my PDA with games for future trips.


If you're caught on the wrong side of the door at Brussels Airport you're doomed. Good luck to you.

The French word for worship (in the phrase 'worship services') is "cultes". How appropriate.

Near the gate for my flight to Athens was a painting, "Embarkment for Cythera at Sunset" by Robert Groslot, 2004. It incorporated photo-realistic figures which were almost all women, some topless. Gotta love these Europeans.

At the end of the boarding announcement, the Virgin Express representative said, "Thank you for your trust in our company". I found this odd, as it was the first time I'd been thanked for trusting an airline. I was almost as shocked as when I'd first been subjected to the Trouble Prayer on Royal Brunei Airways; perhaps there was a reason why Virgin Express should not be trusted? Or maybe it's one of those linguistic translation things - for example, one of my flatmates refers to the rest of us as "colleagues".

I was wondering how they'd do the safety demonstration in three languages (Dutch, French, English) - it's usually rushed enough as it is in one and two is a horror. In the end it was only done in English. Hah (and hooray to globalization)!

One woman brought her dog on board the flight. She wrapped it in a blanket and carried it in her arms like a baby, and it didn't bark or make any other sound throughout that I heard.

On the flight I only got 2 1/2 hours of sleep, not the 3 1/2 I'd been expecting, because I forgot that Greece was an hour ahead of Central European Time; this was also because the flight reached Athens 20 mins ahead of schedule - this is the first time I've ever been upset at arriving early. When I reached Athens airport I tried to hunker down for some shut eye, but didn't manage to due to the annoying music and announcements constantly filling the air (Brussels in contrast had deathly quiet corners). So I ended up wandering the streets like a zombie - a bad state to be in considering how psychotic Greek drivers are (worse than Malaysians, I think).

Cigarettes retail for as cheap as €2-€2,10 for 25 in Greece. And I thought €3 for 20 in Vienna was cheap. I wonder about China.

After taking the Metro into town, I headed for the Larissa railway station, intending to deposit most of my luggage there and then wander the city. To my horror, it had no left luggage facilities or services - I'd thought all railway stations in the civilized world offered them. The counter staff very unhelpfully suggested the Metro station might have left luggage facilities - bah. So in the end I ended up sitting in the park for almost 2 hours waiting for the tourist information centre to open, since walking around a busy city with only 2 1/2 hrs of sleep and 19kg on my back was not my idea of a good time, as a brief but tiring walk to break the monotony amply demonstrated.


Rear of Hadrian's gate. 2 years after Exercise Minotaur, the scaffolding has come off.

After depositing my luggage at a left luggage service, I headed for the National Archaeological Museum, one of the few Greek (or indeed any) museums open on a Monday. When I was in Greece on Exercise Minotaur, it was closed for renovation, which was incredibly infuriating. Irritatingly though, they'd closed the place off on Monday mornings for professional photography so I had to find other diversions, namely stumbling about the streets of Athens trying to avoid being run down by madmen and looking for gyros.

Tickets to/from the airport to town on the Metro used to cost €2,90, and also be valid for travel on all forms of Athens public transport for 24 hours. Now they are €6, and only valid for 90 minutes after validation. Bloody hell. I bet the fares were jacked up just after the last of the Olympic tourists went home.

After 2 months in the Netherlands, I smile whenever I see a shop with a sign reading "Coffee shop".

I don't know why so many cities have trams and (more rarely) buses that run with power from overhead cables. Firstly, you ruin the city by stringing ugly power cables everywhere. For the former, you then have to waste precious road space building tram lines that can't be used by other vehicles. For your troubles you get limited routes, and if one vehicle breaks down you're screwed. The only advantage is that the trams get to bypass traffic (with the cost of reducing road space available for others), but then they're still stopped at traffic lights.

There're cock cars in Athens (and Crete) also. They've invaded the whole of Europe. I notice that some of them had advertisements on them. This is probably because they're so cock that people take notice of them.

The Athens metro is very helpful. They inform you that if you don't have a proper ticket, you'll be fined 40x the fare in penalty (actually I think the penalty has stayed the same despite a fare increase so the fine is now only 35x the fare). So if you know you'll be caught only once ever 35 trips or less, it'll be worth your while to cheat on transport fares. This is especially so on the airport route, where the fine is only €10, while you have to pay a whopping €5,20 more in train fare - the choice is obvious.

I couldn't find any Turkish places at all in Athens or Crete. It's amazing. Greece must be the only part of Europe to have successfully resisted the Turkish (culinary) invasion, but then they threw off the Turkish yoke less than 2 centuries ago, and hate the Turks with a vengeance, so.

For some reason for much of the day I couldn't find any places selling Greek rough and ready (aka fast) food (Gyros and Souvlaki) - there were Greek restaurants, and lots and lots of cafes selling Italian-French sandwhiches/breads/pastries/baked goods. I might've been in the wrong part of town, since I was where all the banks were. In the end I settled for a Calzone for lunch, since sleep deprication alone was bad enough (as Murphy's Law would have it, I found a few of the joints I was looking for after lunch). Wanderings in later days confirmed my initial observation, though - you have to know where to look for these places, as they aren't everywhere as one might expect.

Seen: "Laboratory of Liberal Studies". Wth.

There weren't any Muslim men selling Ah Beng Parthenon souveniors, or Black men tying strings around people's wrists/palms and then asking for money, but there were men palming balls which sizzled when they touched each other and women selling baby dolls which cried. The former was dominated by Indian-looking men, with Chinese making up the remainder, and all of the latter were Chinese. Also, the pirated DVD market in Athens seems to be monopolised by black men whose sixth sense tells then when the police are coming, at which they quickly disappear down the alleys with minutes to spare.

Some places (and in Crete also) were still selling Athens 2004 Olympic merchandise (at a substantial discount of course). Gah.

Since it was past 1pm, I could finally proceed to the National Archaeological Museum. One great thing about Greece is that museums and archaeological sites run by the Ministry of Culture are free for EU students to enter (also for journalists - maybe they want good reviews), so I saved a great deal of money on this trip.


Attic Sarcophagus, AD 150-175


Statue of a lion, mid 4th century


Mask of Agamemnon - Finally, I see the real thing!


Gold coverings for the body and face of an infant


Gold signet rings


3 type A swords, 1 type B sword and a dagger.


Copper oxhide ingot, ~30kg


Agate and Lapis Lazuli seal stones


Boar's tusk helmet, partially reconstructed


This item incites hate and must be destroyed.


Statue of a Kouros found in Sounion, c. 600 BC
This was described as being imported from Constantinople. Wth.


Herm, 520 BC


Hoplite grave stele, 510 BC


Bronze statuettes of Peplophoroses, 450-425 BC, 455 BC


Bronze statue of Zeus/Poseidon, c. 460 BC
Ridiculously, this crazy staff member claimed that I was not allowed to use the small lamp on my camera that blinks when the timer is set since it was counted as flash photography. Next they're going to tell me to cover my watch face and remove my glasses since they reflect light.


Votive relief from Elesium, c. 440-430 BC


Grave stele, c. 420 BC

All photography and video filming was forbidden for at least one piece - the Lady of Kalymnos. It'd been recovered from a shipwreck and heavily restored. I could kind of see why the prohibition was in place - if idiots flashed away continuously at it, the fragile surface might fade (I had no idea what strange cosmic waves video cameras emitted though). Coincidentally, it was also a great piece to front a postcard.

The security surrounding the Lady of Kalymnos was interestingly tight. Firstly, all of the museum staff seemed to be citizen volunteers, and they had no uniform, only wearing a nametag around their necks. So one of them was sitting on a chair near the Lady, reading a novel. He was so non-descript that at first I thought he was a visitor - I only knew him for who he really was when he exchanged a word with another staff member entering a restricted area. And then when he went off he got someone to replace him.


Vaginal dilator


Artemis figurine, 4th c. BC, Seated Demeter (?), 470 BC


Bronze sheet from Olympia, 600 BC


Varvakeion Athena, copy of Phideas' sculpture


Votive amphiylyphon, c. 410 BC


Artemisian jockey


Boxing children fresco, Akrotiri, Thera


One of the wooden plaques of Pitsa


Funerary lebes-kalp, 350 BC

The pottery collection of the museum was very extensive, with examples from many phases of Greek pottery, but not impressive. It was either because my feet hurt, I was rushing to finish most of the rooms before meeting my brother in law or all the good stuff was already in the Louvre, the Met and the British Museum. I suspect the last. Actually this applied to a lesser extent to the rest of the collection, excepting the highlights and the funerary steles which were excellent.

In the early evening, I rendezvoued with my brother in law, telling him that I was glad to see him since it meant I could dump some of the stuff I wanted him to bring back to Singapore. we then went to Piraeus to catch our ferry to Heraklion. I think it was my first time on a big cruise ship, and definitely the first time I was on one overnight. The cabin was quite cramped for 4 people's usage, but after Eurail couchettes, nothing fazes me anymore.

At various staircase landings, and even corridors outside cabins in more deserted parts of the ship, there were refugees laying out their sleeping bags or comforters on the floor and utilising the power sockets in the walls. I suspect they were "deck class" passengers; at first I was considering deck class, but my brother in law kindly got a 4 person cabin for us both - I was wondering if deck class meant you'd sit on the top deck and be sprayed by the sea for 5 hours as flying fish soared above you. Our guess was that those in deck class got to sit and sleep in chairs in big rooms in which Greek TV was blaring - no wonder they chose to go be refugees instead. A chat later in an Athens youth hostel revealed however that deck class really meant you sat on a bench on the open top deck (regardless of inclement), where all the dogs were chained and barking; however, when my source asked on boarding where he should sit, he was told "anywhere" - it seems they don't care where you put up for the night. The chairs in the enclosed rooms were "air-type seats". Meanwhile, there were also passengers in "distinguished class" - presumably cabins for 1 or 2. Gotta love the translations (then again it might reflect a Greek tendency for verbal flamboyence, as an extract below will show).

I suggested to my brother-in-law that I compile cock files for him as well. He wasn't very keen on the idea.

When the two of us went for dinner (not in the section for Distinguished Class passengers, unfortunately) we saw one guy who ordered spaghetti and dumped quite literally a whole mountain of cheese on it. And then 2 kids came and had fries and bread rolls (and nothing else).


I got a booklet on Athens and Attica from the Tourist Information Office. Many parts of the booklet were officious and pompous, but this part was especially, and hilariously so:

The general atmosphere
Try a glass of ouzo or wine with fried octopus or any other Greek dish, sitting in the shade of a tree in a small taqverna by the seafront, on an Aegean island. Try to repeat the experience in your home country, preparing the same dish, and helping yourself to the same drink. You may try it anywhere, but you will soon realise that the flavour is not the same. Don't try again. Your palate has not changed, nor is there something lacking in your cooking skills. The Greek food experience, in particular the combination of what you eat and where you eat it, are unique, and cannot be exported or imitated. It is simply something you can find, taste and enjoy only in Greece.
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