ITALY: Venice, Dolomites 2013, 2011

Romantic Venice and the scenic Dolomites mountains together make a perfect trip of a week or more in Europe! Teaching a photo workshop in 2011 helped me plan our exciting 2013 trip full of classic day hikes in the glorious Dolomites of Italy, with 4 nights in romantic Venice plus a varied loop through Slovenia and Croatia. At bottom, see our recommended 30-day Itinerary: “Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour.

Tom photographed the Italy galleries below in summer 2013 and while teaching his Alps Photo Workshop in 2011.


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For trip planning, study our suggested Itinerary (at bottom) and use the following wonderful hiking guidebook, the basis for our trip:

Venice

Venice Marco Polo airport (VCE) gives quick access to historic Venice Lagoon (just 40 minutes by bus) and the striking Dolomites Mountains (2.5 hours by car).

Ryanair Airlines: Once you learn its many rules and add-on fees, Ryanair’s inexpensive flights efficiently connect Venice to suburban airports in many European cities. Oddly, Ryanair.com web site rejected my USA credit card address, requiring booking by phone, where their customer service phone fees per minute almost totally ate up my cost savings versus competitors. Beware! Carefully weigh your bag to fit within 15 kilograms, or else pay significantly more for 20 kg luggage limit (as I did). But in the end, I enjoyed the conveniently direct Ryanair flight from Venice to Oslo Rygge Airport, Norway.

Venice gallery 1: St Mark’s Square, Rialto, gondolas, canals, architecture

Explore Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco, including the Piazzetta which extends to the Venice Lagoon) and Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace of the Republic of Venice, Rialto Bridge, Redentore Festival July 2011 pontoon bridge and fireworks, fish & produce markets, gondolas, canals, flowers, and architecture.


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Venice gallery 2: Murano, Burano, and Torcello islands

In 1291 AD, to avoid risk of fire, all Venice glassmakers were forced to move to Murano island, which has become a world renowned center for glass making and lampworking (modern torchworking). Take the vaporetto (public boat) 40 minutes further to colorfully painted houses in the quiet village of Burano, my favorite photo spot in the Venice Lagoon.

Then a short ferry hop takes you to historic Torcello island, where the Church of Santa Fosca and Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta date from the 1000s AD. Italy’s Veneto region is named for the ancient Veneti people from the 900s BC. Barbarian invasions, such as Huns in 452 AD, drove mainland Veniti people to settle some of the more than 100 small islands that spread across the marshy Venetian Lagoon (along the Adriatic Sea). The population of Torcello actually peaked in the 900s AD with more people than the city of Venice. The Republic of Venice was a major maritime power during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a staging area for the Crusades, and a major center of art and commerce (silk, grain and spice trade) from the 1200s to 1600s. The wealthy legacy of Venice stands today in a rich architecture combining Gothic, Byzantine, and Arab styles.


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Global warming: sea level is rising on Venice

Built on a sinking marsh, Venice floods often due to tides and weather. On one island, a Roman walkway is now 5 feet below sea level. Industrial pumping of groundwater (now banned) unfortunately sank Venice by 10 centimeters from 1920-1970. But global warming now raises sea level by 1.3 inches (3.2 centimeters) per decade, much faster than the marsh sediments are compacting downwards. See for yourself as the ocean rises on historic structures of Venice. Global warming is quickly melting most Alps glaciers:

Brenta Dolomites and Venice locater map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). (Tom Dempsey)

Above map of northern Italy: When visiting Venice, don’t miss the nearby Dolomites − both are impressive UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our driving route shown in purple connects all major Dolomites Groups, including the separate Brenta Group marked with red arrow.

Dolomites geology, weather, and history

200-265 million years ago, Permian-Triassic coral reefs became deeply buried by marine sediments and gradually fossilized into Dolomite rock. During the Tertiary (between 60 and 5 million years ago), collision between African and European continents deformed the earth’s crust to lift the Dolomites along with the Southern Limestone Alps.

World War I divided the Euroregion of “Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino”; now Italy and Austria share this semi-autonomous, culturally-independent area. The Dolomiti range is shared by the Veneto region and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy. These spiky peaks rise impressively from blocky groups rising above fertile green pastures interspersed with manicured resort villages.

Dolomites mountain weather forecast for specific peaks: www.mountain-forecast.com/subranges/dolomites-1/locations

Dolomites galleries

Dolomites Groups map, Italy, Europe (from Google Earth). Mapped Dolomites Groups include: Brenta, Rosengarten/Catinaccio, Langkofel/Sassolungo, Geisler/Odle, Sella, Marmolada, Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Pale di San Martino/Pala Group, Ampezzo, Braies/Prags, Sesto. (Tom Dempsey)

Above: Dolomites Groups map: A cluster of knife-shaped peaks served with ski resort lifts makes the Dolomiti range a perfect playground for summer hikers, climbers, and bicyclists. Our driving route is shown in purple.

Dolomites gallery 1: Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Sesto Group

The mountain ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo (Ladin: Anpëz, German: Hayden, at 1224 meters/4016 feet elevation, at the top of Valle del Boite) makes a central home base to visit much of the Dolomites. Arriving in the pricey peak season of early August, we settled on the Hotel Olimpia (on its quieter north side) in Cortina for 3 nights, after finding that local apartments require 1-week minimum stay. From Cortina, take the spectacular lift to Tofana di Mezzo, third highest peak in the Dolomites. Another lift to Forcella Staunies on Monte Cristallo gives unforgettable views over Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo and beyond. Day trips by car take you to some classic hikes with optional overnight stays at the many rifugios (mountain hotels, lodges, or huts). From atop the Rifugio Auronzo toll road, walk the spectacular loop around Tre Cime di Lavaredo (“Three Peaks of Lavaredo,” also called Drei Zinnen or “Three Merlons” in German), with unforgettable views of spiky Cadini di Misurina. In the area, stop at scenic Lake Misurina, Lake Antorno, Lake Dobbiaco/Toblacher SeeLandro Lake/Dürrensee, and Lake Santa Caterina. Walk historic World War I trails and bunkers around Cinque Torri in the Dolomiti Ampezzane. Hike or drive onwards to scenic Passo di Giau which offers excellent hiking in several directions. Stay overnight and see sunset/sunrise. Book a hut to hut hiking trip to better experience sunset/sunrise mountain photography and escape urban life.


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Dolomites gallery 2: Corvara in Badia, Val Gardena, Val di Funes, Puez-Geisler (Odle) Park, Castelrotto

Corvara in Badia is a mostly Ladin-speaking a mountain ski resort town in the Dolomites. Don’t worry, you can usually find an English speaker. Explore nearby Val di Funes (Villnöß valley) with its onion-domed Church of St. Johann in Ranui and stunning peaks of the Geisler/Odle Group. See the Alps town of Kastelruth (or Castelrotto) near Alpe di Siusi (or Seiser Alm, the largest high altitude Alpine meadow in Europe).

The beautiful ski resort of Selva di Val Gardena (German: Wolkenstein in Gröden; Ladin: Sëlva Gherdëine) makes a great hiking base. For our favorite hike in the Dolomites, start from Selva with the first morning bus to Ortisei, take the Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes/Villnöss, then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles (Forcella Forces de Sielles) to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses the Geisler/Odle and Puez Groups from verdant pastures to alpine wonders, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles), including the deeply glaciated U-shaped valley of Vallunga (Langental).


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In Italy’s province of Alto Adige/Südtirol/South Tyrol, 64% speak German as mother tongue, 25% speak Italian, and 4% speak native Ladin (from Vulgar Latin) as of 2001.

Dolomites gallery 3: Brenta Group

The Brenta Group (Italian: Dolomiti di Brenta) is an impressive subrange of the Rhaetian Alps in the Southern Limestone Alps. Because geologically they are the only dolomitic group west of river Adige, they are sometimes called the Western Dolomites. From the ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio in South Tyrol, Italy, the Passo Groste lift takes you directly into the Brenta Dolomites to enjoy scenic mountain hiking trails.


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Dolomites gallery 4: Marmolada, Passo Pordoi, Sella Group, Bindelweg/Viel del Pan

Many spectacular hikes surround Passo Pordoi (or Pordoijoch, the highest paved pass road in Dolomites), at the top of Val di Fassa, on the border between the Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region and the Veneto region of Italy. We enjoyed a wonderful apartment at Hotel Gonzaga, where a pond reflects Langkofel/Sassolungo Group. On the Padon chain, hike the wondrous Bindelweg/Viel del Pan trail, directly across from glacier-clad Marmolada (3343 meters/10,968 feet, highest of the Dolomites). Lake Fedaia reflects peaks nicely. A lift to Sass Pordoi on the Sella Group gives another great perspective. From Malga Ciapela village, take my favorite Dolomites lift: to the top of Marmolada above the biggest (and only skiable) glacier in the Dolomiti. At the middle lift station, a World War I history museum describes the amazing City of Ice (Die Eisstadt, 1917), where Austrian soldiers inside the Marmolada Glacier built quarters in tunnels extending 12 kilometers.


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Dolomites gallery 5: Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group, Bolzano

The Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group is yet another impressive mountain massif in the Dolomitesl. Nearby, see a great reconstruction of the 5000-year-old Iceman (Ötzi) plus his actual mummy in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology near Walther Square in Bolzano. From Pera di Fassa village (in Pozza di Fassa comune) in Val di Fassa, we took a bus to visit Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte (also accessible by lift plus 45 minute walk) and to hike in the Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group.


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Dolomites gallery 6: Pala Group/Pale di San Martino

Among the most striking of the Dolomites is the Pala Group (Italian: Pale di San Martino, Dolomiti delle Pale, or Gruppo delle Pale). Rising majestically above Passo Rolle, the sharp pyramid of Cimon della Pala (or Cimone, 3184 m/10,446 ft) is known as the Matterhorn of the Dolomites (il Cervino delle Dolomiti). Visit the mountain resort of San Martino di Castrozza, in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol (South Tyrol) region of Italy.


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Dolomites gallery 7: Monte Civetta, Monte Pelmo, Alleghe Village

Monte Civetta (3220 meters or 10,564 feet) rises high above hiker trails accessible via lift from Alleghe resort village, in the Dolomites, Belluno province, Veneto region of Italy. Admire or hike around Monte Pelmo (3169 meters or 10,397 feet) to the northeast. Monte Cernera rises above Santa Fosca/Pescul village on the way to Monte Pelmo along a scenic back road, Strada Statale 251.


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Itinerary: classic Venice & Dolomites of Italy, plus Slovenia & Croatia

We suggest 1-3 weeks of day-hiking in the Dolomites (using valley accommodation or mountain refuges) starting from Venice, optionally looping into Slovenia and Croatia. We heartily recommend the following bible of wonderful Dolomites hikes, where we used the Second Edition for our 2013 trip (referred to as SWD Hike# in our itinerary below):

Pre-booking a hut-to-hut hiking package in the mountains lets you escape urban life and experience beautiful photographic sunsets/sunrises, with no worries for day after day. Or, rent a car like us and stay spontaneously in comfortable valley apartments, where kitchens saved money and freed us from hotel meal schedules:

Self-guided Dolomites driving & hiking tour

Driving stress was greatly reduced by pre-programming our Garmin Nuvi 2595LMT GPS (installed with City Navigator Europe NT) to speak turn by turn directions to hotels and hikes marked on its 5-inch map using Garmin BaseCamp. Drivers should be alert for constantly aggressive tailgaters and motorcycles passing on blind curves, which is standard practice in Italy.

Arriving in a new town by morning or mid day usually let us find good lodging, often with the help of the local valley tourist office (which often don’t cover adjacent valleys). In peak season, reduce your worries by booking at least one night ahead in popular areas such as Cortina, CorvaraVal di Funes/Villnöß, and Innichen/San Candido. Nice three-star-rated hotel rooms with half board (dinner + breakfast; with breakfasts usually after 7:30, dinners after 19:30) deliciously tempted us to overeat, but often didn’t jive with our hunger times or prime hours for photography. In comparison to mountain refuges, the valley hotels or apartments (our favorite) offer better meals and cheaper rooms per person with much more privacy, especially for a couple/Double. Plan to finish hikes by about 15:00, as afternoon thundershowers are common in July.

Itinerary key:  ***Amazing/must see.  **High priority.  *Do it if time allows.

  1. July 12, 2013 Fri: Fly Seattle late afternoon overnight to Amsterdam.
  2. July 13 Sat: Arrive in Venice late afternoon. Venice night 1 of 4. We enjoyed **Antica Raffineria, a clean, quiet hotel with air conditioning (crucial in summer), one of the best values in Cannaregio sestiere. Relax while you overcome jet lag.
  3. July 14 Sun: Venice night 2 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  4. July 15 Mon: Venice night 3 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  5. July 16 Tues: Venice night 4 of 4, Antica Raffineria.
  6. July 17 Wed: Venice car rental > drive 4 hours > ***Brenta Dolomites: Rifugio Tucket and Rifugio Brentei are perfect destinations for day hiking or sleeping overnight. SWD Hike #49. If you stay in Madonna di Campiglio, **Hotel Italo offers friendly staff and good meals.
  7. July 18 Thu: Hike out. Flexible/rain day. Drive 1.7 hrs > Bolzano: see the *Iceman (Ötzi) and  *Castelo Roncolo/Runkelstein Castel.  
  8. July 19 Fri: Drive 45min > **Karersee/L.Carezza, **hike 0-5+ miles/0-1500+ feet gain, SWD Hike #38. Rosengarten/Catinaccio Group: *Rif. Paolina lift+night+hike, SWD Hike #37.
  9. July 20 Sat: Hike the **Inner Catinacchio to Passo Principe (with optional steep side trip to * Vaiolet Towers and Rifugio Vaiolet 3+ hours round trip), SWD Hike #36. Stay at spectacular ***Rifugio Gardeccia Hutte via shuttle bus (or lift+walk).
  10. July 21 Sun: Bus (or hike+lift) down. Drive 2 hours > ***San Martino di Castrozza: Rosetta lift (plus optional SWD Hike #46 if snow allows). Walk from ***Passo Rolle hotel to see ***Rifugio Segantini at sunset, optionally trekking as far as SWD Hike #45. Our best view from a Dolomites Hotel was of Matterhorn-like Cimon della Pala peak, right outside our window at roadside ***Albergo Vezzana.
  11. July 22 Mon: Drive 1.1 hr > **Alleghe: hike on Civetta 5-10 mi/1800 ft to Lake Coldai and beyond, overnight option Rifugio ColdaiSWD Hike #17.
  12. July 23 Tu: Malga Ciapela: ***Marmolada lift (plus SWD Hike #432 miles/500 ft gain, if snow allows), including World War I history museum. Passo Pordoi: ***Bindelweg hike 4+ mi/1500 ft (optional lift, bus, or walk round trip), SWD Hike #41. Great apartment with kitchen and view: ***Hotel Gonzaga.
  13. July 24 Wed: **Passo Pordoi: north lift to Sass Pordoi for view (plus optional SWD Hike #40 but patchy snow made us instead choose ***Bindelweg SWD Hike #41). Passo Sella: *Rifugio Demetz lift + options for overnight and SWD Hike #39. Flexible free time.
  14. July 25 Thu: Stay in ***Selva di Val Gardena/Wolkenstein at the great Bed & Breakfast ***Garni Murfried to stage our favorite Dolomites hike: take the first morning bus to Ortisei (or St. Christina), take  ***Seceda lift, admire great views up at the cross on the edge of Val di Funes (Villnöss), then walk 12 miles (2000 feet up, 5000 feet down) via the steep pass Furcela Forces De Sieles to beautiful Vallunga (trail #2 to 16), finishing where you started in Selva. The hike traverses Puez-Geisler Group from verdant pastures to alpine wonders to U-shaped Vallunga valley, all preserved in a vast Nature Park: Parco Naturale Puez-Odle (German: Naturpark Puez-Geisler; Ladin: Parch Natural Pöz-Odles). Or try a shorter **SWD Hike #31 or easy *SWD Hike #32.
  15. July 26 Fri:  ***Geisler/Odle Group SWD Hike #29 or flexible day. ***Val di Funes (Villnöß/Villnoss) : Santa Maddalena: sunset/sunrise photos.
  16. July 27 Sat: *Passo delle Erbe. Optional **SWD Hike #28: 10mi/3700 ft.
  17. July 28 Sun:  Drive 1.5 hrs > **Lago di Braies hike 0-10 mi/0-3300 ft, SWD Hike #1 or #2.
  18. July 29 Mon: Drive 40min > ***Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop 10.5mi/4000ft, SWD Hike #8 with 3 scenic Rifugio overnight options. Our best value Dolomites apartment: ***Gruberhof (Köch Anna/Koeck Anna), St.-Silvester-Straße 6 (in Winnebach/Prato Drava village), 39038 Innichen/San Candido, telephone 0474 966684 (be prepared to speak German), near the Austrian border.
  19. July 30 Tue: Hike out from overnight hut on *** Sesto: Val Fiscalina loop. *Croda Rossa lift. Flex day.
  20. July 31 Wed:  Drive 1 hour > ***Cadini di Misurina 5 mi loop SWD Hike #10 (overnight option **Rifugio Savio). Cortina: ***Forcella Staunies lift.
  21. Aug 1 Thu: **Lago Sorapiss 8 mile loop SWD Hike #13. Stay at a scenic pass above Cortina d’Ampezzo: ***Hotel – Restaurant Passo Giau. Good nearby walks include **SWD Hike #10 Round the Croda da Lago for stunning larch fall foliage colors or *SWD Hike #20 Cinque Torri which is good all summer and includes a World War I outdoor history museum.
  22. Aug 2 Fri:  Drive 50 min > **Rifugio Lagazuoi lift to lodge with private or dorm rooms + optional SWD Hike #23 or 24. *World War I history center.
  23. Aug 3 Sat:  Depart Rifugio Lagazuoi. Drive 2.5 hours > Domegge + gravel road + very short walk to Rifugio Padova. Optional 8mi/3300 ft hike SWD Hike #15.
  24. Aug 4 Su: Drive from Rifugio Padova Domegge > drive 3.5hours > see Vrata Valley, Slovenia.
  25. Aug 5 Mon: Slovenia (read my separate article)Krma Valley hike 6 miles/3900 feet gain one way to stay overnight in scenic Stanicev Dom hut  (or 12.5 mi round trip in a tiring day) or further up to Kredarica Hut. Above the huts, demanding iron routes (vie ferrate) provide cables and hand grips on steep, exposed (non-technical) paths to the summit of Triglav, not advised for those with fear of heights.
  26. Aug 6 Tues: Slovenia: Stanicev Dom hut: hike out 6 miles > drive 40min > Lake Bled.
  27. Aug 7 Wed: Slovenia: Lake Bled > drive 3.5 hrs > Croatia: Plitvice Lakes NP: walk in for evening views.
  28. Aug 8 Th: Croatia (read my separate article): Get up 6:00am, ticket office for boat shuttle opens at 7am, then walk Plitvice Lakes NP.  Drive 3.5hrs > Piran Youth Hostel, Slovenia.
  29. Aug 9 Fri: Slovenia: Piran > drive 1 hour > Skocjan Caves > drive 2.5 hours > ITALY: **Titian Inn includes free shuttle to adjacent Venice Marco Polo (VCE) airport.
  30. Aug 10, 2013 Sat: Fly early morning Venice > Seattle at lunchtime.

For an expanded list of hotel and hiking options, click Tom’s 12-page “Italy’s Dolomites & Venice + Croatia, Slovenia: drive/hike tour.”

Mobile phones tips in Europe

Before leaving the USA, we contacted T-Mobile for the simple codes to unlock our Sony Ericsson Equinox 4-band GSM phone for use with other SIM cards and mobile phone networks worldwide. If you expect to call home or multiple countries outside of the SIM card’s home, buy a prepaid international calling card in USA such as from Costco.

Wind Telephonia Mobile store in Venice sold and installed a cheap 25 Euro SIM into our phone, good for our month in Europe. Wind helpfully texted our credit balance automatically after each call (but ask how to check balance before leaving the store, anyway). When the store activates the SIM, test using the shop’s or other phone. Using your phone’s menu, turn off the option to require a password on each call. If calling from the SIM card’s home country, expect about 10 to 20 cents per minute for domestic calls to fixed lines, more to mobile phones, more if roaming outside SIM’s country, and free to receive calls.

How to use mobile phones in Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia

  • When calling within Italy leave off the 39, then dial entire number, including initial zero (no “city codes” anymore) plus area code (even from within it).
  • Italian land line numbers all start with a “0” (041 for Venice, 06 for Rome, 055 for Florence).
  • Italian cell phone numbers start with 338, 339, 439, or any other trio of non-zero numbers. Toll-free numbers in Italy now start with 800, free within the country but cannot be called from outside.
  • In Italy, to call home, first dial Italian international prefix 00, then your country code (US/CAN: 1, UK: 44, AUS: 61, NZ: 64), then area code and local number, but this is expensive unless using an international calling card (Costco’s) or using Internet cafe email or Skype.
  • When calling to Italy from outside countries, start with your country’s international dialing prefix (US/CAN: 011, UK/IRE: 00, AUS 0011, NZ: 00), then dial number with initial 39.
  • How to call Slovenia from Italy: dial 00 + 386 + number.
  • How to dial Croatia from Slovenia: 00 + 385 + Areacode + #. Mobile phone: 00 + 385 + 9xx.xxx.xxx.
  • Only within Croatia do you dial the number (0) shown within parentheses.
  • Slovenia uses tri-band GSM. Buy €10 SIM card from Mobitel or others. Ignore the number within parentheses +386 (0)2 when calling Slovenia from outside, but within Slovenia you must dial it plus area code, for example: 02…

Recommended Italy books from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Italy travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years). Bring good country and city guides on the trip. Hikers and trekkers should add a walking guidebook. Get the latest ebook versions, which are searchable and lighter-weight than printed books (for smartphone, Kindle, tablet, and PC).

  • DK Eyewitness Italy (Travel Guide) Paperback – June 22, 2021: helped me quickly plan and prioritize a meaningful trip to Venice, the Veneto, and Dolomites.
  • Lonely Planet Italy 15 (Travel Guide) Paperback with Folded Map, October 26, 2021: covers the country in great detail
  • Rick Steves Italy Paperback with Folded Map, January 19, 2021: defines concise and efficient tour itineraries for those with limited time. Rick Steves updates the books every year for each country in Europe, saving time and money on heartfelt experiences.
  • Rick Steves Venice (Rick Steves Travel Guide) Paperback – 2019

  • Shorter Walks in the Dolomites (Cicerone Guide) Paperback – Illustrated, 3rd edition June 16, 2015: encourages hiking combined with public transportation
  • 100 Hut Walks in the Alps: Routes for day and multi-day walks (Cicerone Guides) Paperback – August 30, 2014
  • The latest Alps hiking books by Cicerone Guides are essential for planning a hiking trip and carrying along, from hut to hut or based in hotels.
  • Rubicon by Tom Holland, Paperback novel (2005): rousing historical fiction: “In 49 BC, the seven hundred fifth year since the founding of Rome, Julius Caesar crossed a small border river called the Rubicon and plunged Rome into cataclysmic civil war. Tom Holland’s enthralling account tells the story of Caesar’s generation, witness to the twilight of the Republic and its bloody transformation into an empire. From Cicero, Spartacus, and Brutus, to Cleopatra, Virgil, and Augustus, here are some of the most legendary figures in history brought thrillingly to life. Combining verve and freshness with scrupulous scholarship, Rubicon is not only an engrossing history of this pivotal era but a uniquely resonant portrait of a great civilization in all its extremes of self-sacrifice and rivalry, decadence and catastrophe, intrigue, war, and world-shaking ambition.”
  • Gladiator (Blu-ray) starring Russell Crowe. One of my favorite dramatic movies.
  • Rome: The Complete Series by Kevin McKidd, Blu-ray/multiformat GIFTSET, 10 discs, 20 hours and 29 minutes (2014): One of my favorite dramatic series portrays Roman times with more depth and drama than ever before seen on film. This lavish spectacle of Rome in 52 BC expertly weaves human dramas of historical figures and fictional characters, featuring family dysfunction, treachery, betrayal, brutal violence, and graphic sex.


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TURKEY in 1999

Neither earthquakes nor reckless taxi drivers stopped us from enjoying the amazing Republic of Turkey, where my wife and I encountered the friendliest people whom we have ever met. To our Western eyes, Turkey is more exotic than its well-touristed neighbor Greece. We hiked the Kaçkar Mountains, danced with Hemşin and Laz people, drank lots of tea, sailed the Aegean Sea, and witnessed a total eclipse of the sun, all in 6.5 weeks from July 24 to September 9, 1999. A two-week tour package warmed us up for the ensuing month traveling on our own.


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Ephesus, Turkey: the Library of Celsus, built 114 AD

Turkey offers a rich variety for travelers:

  • Turkey is a democratic, secular, western-looking, rapidly modernizing, capitalistic, NATO ally of the USA.
  • Turkey has the lowest travel costs in Europe.
    • Easy, cheap, and comfortable travel on the extensive bus system.
    • Travel without a tour package to meet more people, accept generous local hospitality, and experience serendipity.
    • High quality gold jewelry costs half of US prices.
  • Turkey is safe and has low crime.
    • The crime rate in Turkey is lower than in the United States.
    • The risk of terrorism for tourists is very low — no more risky than being struck by lightening. (See section on the Kurds.)
    • Tourism in Turkey has been hurt by negative press and misperceptions, and resulting empty hotel rooms and uncrowded sights make Turkey very attractive for spontaneous visitors.
    • The tragic August 17, 1999 earthquake in İstanbul’s poorly-built suburbs did not damage the airport or any tourist areas. Your chances of experiencing an earthquake are no different than for visiting California.
  • Turkey has fresh and tasty food.
    • Enjoy fresh peaches, watermelons, böreks, baklava, meatballs, breads, a hundred eggplant dishes, and more.
    • Turkey is the world’s biggest producer of hazelnuts, figs, and apricots.
    • Turkey is one of only 7 countries in the world that can feed itself without imports.
    • Eat döner kebap in the family room of a “self-servis” cafeteria, where the welcome is warm. Döner kebab is a Turkish dish made of meat cooked on a vertical spit and sliced off to order. The meat may be lamb, mutton, beef, or chicken. Alternative names include kebap, donair, döner, doner or donner. Döner Kebab is the origin of other similar Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes such as shawarma and gyros.
  • Turkey offers fascinating historic cities where East meets West. İstanbul makes a fabulous destination for a week or more.
  • Turkey offers majestic architecture and ruins from an amazing 9,000 years of Anatolian history.
    • The Turks came to Anatolia from Central Asia after 1000 AD (and are not culturally related to Arabs or Persians).
    • The sweeping story of Anatolia includes the Hittites, Romans, Saint Paul the Apostle, Süleyman the Magnificent.
  • Turkey was the the cradle of Christianity and now hosts popular Christian tours, such as to the birthplaces of Saint Paul the Apostle and Saint Nicholas (“Santa Claus” himself).
  • Turkey’s geography varies from the warm and beautiful Turquoise Coast, to icy Mount Ararat 16,854 feet (5137 meters).
  • Turkey’s people are the friendliest we have ever met:Meeting a friendly Turkish family in Amasya, Central Turkey.
    • Turks actively practice the Muslim value of hospitality towards visitors, and serve you tea in little tulip-shaped glasses at every opportunity.
    • When travelling on our own away from the big cosmopolitan cities, local folks often showered us with curious attention, making us feel like rock stars in the spotlight. On six different occasions, locals had us take a group photo to mail to them later.
    • The people of Turkey hunger for connection with the world. Most Turks yearn to join the European Union (EU) to trade a remarkable variety of food and industry.
    • Advice for women:
      • Dress conservatively.
      • When entering a mosque, etiquette requires everyone to take off shoes and women to put on a head scarf (bring your own scarf for convenience).
      • As a married couple traveling together, we had no problems with unwanted attention, aside from feeling like rock stars pursued by curious fans.
      • In smaller towns and rural areas, Carol felt uncomfortable culture shock by noticing mostly men and very few women on the streets. A common Muslim tradition in rural Turkey is for women to stay at home or only go out in groups, conservately dressed, usually with a head scarf. This sex role difference is most pronounced in Turkey away from the cosmopolitan cities. We were relieved to experience an exception in the Kaçkar Mountains, where men and women mixed in a more relaxed fashion and we line-danced with the local Hemşin and Laz people.
      • Solo female travelers need to be extra confident in the face of assertive male attention in Turkey, and may enjoy the trip better by traveling with a companion of either sex (or with a group). American movies and TV shows shown worldwide have unfortunately portrayed American and Western World women as having loose morals, which can encourage amorous men.
Mountain weather forecasts for Turkey (Anatolia)

As mountain weather differs from nearby cities, check forecasts for specific peaks or ranges:
www.mountain-forecast.com/mountain_ranges/anatolia/subranges

İstanbul

Built in 1973, the First Bosporus Bridge connects Europe with Asia and is one of the longest bridges in the world. İstanbul is the world’s only city which spans two continents. 3% of the Republic of Turkey is in Turkish Thrace, in Europe on the Balkan Peninsula, and 97% of Turkey is Anatolia (Asia Minor or Anadolu).

The Bosporus Strait (in Greek Βόσπορος; or “Istanbul Strait” in Turkish: İstanbul Boğazı) separates Europe from Asia and has determined the history of İstanbul and its empires. As the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, the Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (which is connected by the Dardanelles to the Aegean Sea, and thereby to the Mediterranean Sea).

History of İstanbul

Culturally speaking, 2700-year old İstanbul (Istanbul) peaked twice: once as the capital of the East Roman Empire, and again as capital of the Ottoman Empire, when it became the biggest and most splendid city in Europe by the 1700s and 1800s. Today, İstanbul’s population is 12 million and growing rapidly. The next largest cities in Turkey are Ankara, the capital (with 3 million people) and İzmir (2.5 million). In 1985, UNESCO listed the “Historic Areas of İstanbul” as a World Heritage Area.

1000 BC to 657 BC

İstanbul started as a fishing village on the Bosphorus Strait.

657 BC to 330:  Byzantium

İstanbul was first called Byzantium, a Greek city-state which was later subject to Rome and renamed Augusta Antonina.

330 to 1453 CE
Constantinople

Emperor Constantine renamed the city to Constantinople, which served as capital of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern or Later Roman Empire). Constantine the Great encouraged Christianity for the Empire and became baptized near his death. In the 400s, Emperor Thoeodosius II built the city’s walls, the strongest in Europe, so strong that they blocked the Islamic Arab army assaults of 669-718. Constantinople peaked in the 1100s.

1453 to 1922 CE
İstanbul

Islamic conquest: With the help of the world’s largest cannon battering the city’s huge walls, Mehmet the Conqueror captured Constantinople, which then became known as İstanbul, capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which achieved its greatest dominance in the 1500s.

1922 to present

İstanbul lost some of its luster when the capital of the new Turkish Republic was moved to Ankara, an inland location safer from invasion. But by the mid 1980s, İstanbul regained its international renown as “Capital of the East.”
Ethnic harmony and conflict

Sultanahmet (or Blue) Mosque built 1609-1616 in Istanbul, Turkey. In the İstanbul suburb of Ortaköy, a Jewish synagogue, Islamic mosque, and Christian church have been peaceful neighbors for centuries. After Ottoman Turks conquered the city of Byzantium in 1453 and renamed it İstanbul, the Ottomans’ millet system of distinct religious communities allowed Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Kurds to continue to live in relative harmony for centuries, as they had in Byzantine times. In the 1400s and 1500s, many Jews who fled from the Spanish Inquisition took shelter in Ottoman İstanbul, which welcomed their advanced knowledge of science and economics. In modern times, many of these Jews were attracted to Israel, leaving only 24,000 in Turkey as of 1999. As the Ottoman Empire weakened and ethnic nationalism rose at the turn of the 20th century, Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds yearned to assert their own control over claimed homelands, and they separately fought bitter but unsuccessful battles against the staunch Turks.

Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya Museum)

Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sofia from 532 to 537 AD in Constantinople on the site of a former Hagia Sofia on the acropolis of the former Byzantium. The Greek name Hagia Sofia is Sancta Sophia in Latin, which means “Divine Wisdom.” The 102-foot diameter dome perches an amazing 180 feet above the floor (rivalling the scale of the 144-foot high and wide concrete dome of Rome’s Pantheon, built earlier from 118-125 AD). An earthquake collapsed the dome after only 22 years, and it was rebuilt several times by later Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. 30 million gold mosaic tiles covered the dome’s interior in Byzantine times. Hagia Sofia reigned as the greatest church in Christendom for nearly 1000 years, until the Islamic conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, after which minarets towers were added. A church with a larger dome, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was not built until 1506. Hagia Sofia served as a mosque from 1453 to 1935, after which Atatürk, the father of the modern Republic of Turkey, declared it a museum. İstanbul’s Hagia Sofia still stands as one of the architectural marvels of the world.

Impressive sights
  • Visit impressive Sultanahmet Mosque (or Blue Mosque), built 1609-1616.
  • Architect Sinan built Süleymaniye Imperial Mosque on Golden Horn harbor in İstanbul from 1550-1557. Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife are buried here. In the West, he is known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the Islamic world, he is known as the Lawgiver (in Turkish “Kanuni”; making his formal Turkish name of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman), because he completely reconstructed the Ottoman legal system.
  • Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı in Turkish) is on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait. Dolmabahce served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1853 to 1922 (except for a twenty-year period 1889-1909 when the Yıldız Palace was used). In style, the palace is baroque, rococo and very French. Dolmabahçe means “filled garden”, referring to the palace being built from 1843-1856 on land reclaimed from the sea.

Turquoise Coast or Turkish Riviera: Ancient Lycia

Visitors walk beneath Corinthian order columns at the Great Theatre of Ephesus, in the Republic of Turkey. Ephesus or Efes

A nearby goddess sanctuary helped the town of Ephesus (or Efes in Turkish) become a prosperous port and cultural center by 600 BC. At various times, Ephesus was controlled by Lydia (King Croesus), Persians, Hellenists (Ancient Greeks from Athens), and Alexander the Great (334 BC). Eventually Ephesus became capital (population 250,000) of the Roman Province of Asia Minor (ancient Greek Anatolia, or modern Turkish Anadolu). As its port silted and restricted commerce, Ephesus declined from greatness and the city center moved to nearby Selçuk.

The Great Theatre of Ephesus, the largest outdoor theatre in the ancient world, was begun during Hellenistic times (probably during the reign of Lysimachos in the third century BC), and was altered and enlarged from 41-117 AD, by Roman emperors Claudius, Nero, and Trajan. The Greek builders dug out a space from Mount Pion (present-day Panayir Dagi) to fit the 30-meter (100-foot) high theater, which accommodated 25,000 people, or 10 percent of the population of Roman Ephesus at its peak. The theater exhibited the fights of wild beasts and of men with beasts.

Biblical note: Paul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) stayed 27 months as a missionary in Ephesus. A few years after 51 AD, he delivered a Christian sermon condemning pagan worship in the theater in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income from the sale of silver statues (idols) of the goddess Artemis. The resulting mob almost killed Paul (Acts 19:21–41, in the New Testament) and his companions. After that, Paul avoided Ephesus. Paul died about 64-67 AD in Rome during Nero’s Persecution. However, centuries later, the tide turned in favor of Christianity. During the fourth century, Ephesians probably converted to Christianity, as all temples were declared closed by Theodosius I in 391 AD.

Over several centuries, the Cayster River filled the harbor of Ephesus with silt, creating a malaria-infested swamp, pushing the sea 4 kilometers away and cutting off the city’s commerce and wealth. By the 6th century, Emperor Justinian decided to build the Saint John Basilica 3 kilometers away, which effectively moved the city center to Selçuk.

Selçuk: the Temple of Artemis

Just a column in a swamp remains from the Temple of Artemis (Greek: Artemision; Latin: Artemisium; aka the Sanctuary of the “Lady of Ephesus”), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, originally described by Antipater of Sidon about 140 BC. The large Temple of Artemis (measuring 300 by 150 feet) was finished about 560 BC, after 120 years of construction, started by the notoriously rich Croesus of Lydia on the ruins of a smaller temple designed by Chersiphron. A fame seeker named Herostratus burnt down the Temple in 356 BC. The Ephesians eventually rebuilt a larger structure measuring 425 by 225 feet, four times larger in area than the existing Parthenon of Athens (228 x 101 feet, completed 431 BC). In 262, the Temple of Artemis was razed again, this time by Goths. Ephesians rebuilt again. The third Artemision ended with Christian destruction in 401 by John Chrysostom and a mob. The stones were reused in other buildings — some of the columns in Hagia Sophia originally belonged to the Temple of Artemis.

In Selçuk is the Basilica of St. John (St. Jean Aniti), constructed by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It stands over the believed burial site of St. John, the apostle, evangelist (author of the Fourth Gospel) and prophet (author of Revelation). Atop the hill is Selçuk Castle, a Byzantine construction from the 6th century. A nearby domed building is the Isabey Mosque, or Jesus Mosque, built in 1375 at the direction of the Emir of Aydin and using columns and stones recycled from the ruins of Ephesus and the Artemision.

Santa Claus is from Anatolia, not the North Pole.

Castle of Uchisar, Cappadocia, Turkey, carved in volcanic tuff in 15th and 16th centuries by Byzantine army. Saint Nicholas was born in Patara on the Aegean Sea coast of Anatolia. As a Byzantine Christian bishop, Nicholas of Myra anonymously dropped gifts of coins down the chimneys of village girls who lacked dowries, thereby allowing them to marry and probably avoid a life of prostitution. After his death he was declared Saint Nicholas, patron saint of virgins, sailors, children, pawnbrokers, Holy Russia, and others. Saint Nicholas’ town of Myra is now called Demre in Turkey.

The fame of Saint Nicholas grew in different cultures, such as in the Dutch figure of “Sancte Claus”, and in the German legend of Christkindl (the Christ child) who was helped by the elf Belsnickle, imitated by adults in furs who brought gifts. These traditions evolved into Kris Kringle, as defined by Reverend Clement Moore in the famous 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which starts: ” ‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse… .”

In the Civil War era of the USA, Thomas Nast further solidified the image of Kris Kringle in Harper’s Magazine illustrations of a familiar white-bearded, gleaming-eyed man. Today in Turkey, Saint Nicholas is known as “Noel Baba”, or Father Christmas.

Built before his death in 343 AD, the original Saint Nicholas Church held his remains and was restored as a Byzantine basilica in 1043, and was restored again in 1862 by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, and again by Turkish archaeologists. An ancient Greek marble sarcophagus had been reused to bury the Saint; but his bones were stolen in 1087 by merchants from Bari, Italy, where today his remains rest in Basilica of San Nicola. The present day Church of Saint Nicholas is located in modern Demre (ancient Myra), Turkey.

Olimpos (or Olympos)

We anchored our gulets at Phaselis, offshore of Mt. Olympos (2375 meters or 7792 feet elevation, Turkish name Tahtalı Dağı). The area around Phaselis and Olympos Valley was one of the most beautiful on our coastal cruise of southwest Turkey.

A gulet is a two-masted wooden sailing vessel traditionally from the Turkish Riviera (or the Turquoise Coast), and today commonly serves as a tourist charter. This motor sailboat design, varying in size from 14 to 35 metres, is also found throughout the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Most gulets are powered by diesel, and many are not properly rigged for sailing.

Near Phaselis is the ancient city of Olympos (or Olimpos), one of the six leading cities of the Lycian federation (168-178 BCE), located in Olympos Valley, 80 km southwest of Antalya city near the town of Kemer. This coastal peak is the tallest of the several different mountains named Olympos (or Olimpos) in Turkey, but not as tall as the more famous Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Greece (9,568 feet, or 2918 meters), known to the ancient Greeks as the home of god Zeus. (The highest peak in Turkey is Mount Ararat, an extinct volcano on the eastern border, with a height of 16,854 feet or 5,137 meters, also called Buyuk Agri, meaning “Great Pain” in Turkish.)

Visit the ancient natural gas fires of the Chimaera, a remarkable wonder of the natural world. The Chimaera will spontaneously reignite even after you smother the flames! In ancient times these natural fires burned more vigorously, so bright as to be visible by sailors along the nearby coast. In Greek mythology, the Chimaera was the monstrous son of Typhon, and grandson of Gaia.

Ancient Lycia

Lycian tombs (or necropoli) from about 400 BCE can be seen by boat on the Dalyan Çayı River, above the ancient harbor city of Caunos, on the Turquoise Coast, near the town of Koycegiz, in the Republic of Turkey. Dalyan means “fishing weir” in Turkish. The Dalyan Delta, with a long, golden sandy beach at its mouth, is a nature conservation area and a refuge for sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and blue crabs.

Visit the Greek theatre at the ancient Roman city of Caunos, founded in the 800s BC, becoming a Carian city in 400 BC.

Gemile Island

Visit a 6th century Byzantine monastery on Gemile Island.

Simena

See a Byzantine castle at Kaleköy, or ancient Simena. Kaleköy can only be reached by sea. Its Byzantine castle was built in the Middle Ages to fight the pirates which nested in nearby Kekova Island. Kaleköy (literally “Castle’s village” in Turkish, called Simena in ancient Lycian) is a popular yachting destination in the Kaş district in the Antalya Province, located between Kaş and Kale on the Mediterranean coast. The village lies amidst a Lycian necropolis, which is partially sunken underwater.

Kayaköy

The Taxiarhis Greek Orthodox Christian Church, which dates from the Ottoman era, was abandoned in 1923 in Kayaköy. Kayaköy (Greek: Levissi) is a ghost town near Ölüdeniz, 8 kilometers south of Fethiye in southwestern Turkey, abandoned by Greek Christians in 1923, and today visited by tourists. In the 1700s, Kayaköy was built on the site of the ancient city of Carmylessus (or Karmylassos). In 1900, its population was about 2000, mostly Greek Christians. After the Greco-Turkish War, Kayaköy was mostly abandoned after a population exchange agreement was signed by the Turkish and Greek governments in 1923. Kayaköy may be the inspiration behind “Eskişehir”, the imaginary village chosen by Louis de Bernières as the setting of his 2004 novel “Birds Without Wings”.

Arycanda

Arykanda (Arycanda) is an ancient Lycian city built on five large terraces ascending a mountain slope, near the small village of Aykiriçay, on the Elmalı-Finike road in Antalya province in south western Turkey. While the oldest confirmed artifacts date from the 6th/5th century BC, the settlement of Arykanda may go back as far as the second millennium BC. Arykanda survived through Byzantine times, until the 6th century when the village moved to a new site, called “Arif Settlement” by archeologists, south of the modern road. The Greek style amphitheater at Arycanda was built in Anatolia during the 1st century BC. Twenty rows of seats were divided into seven sections, and holes supported protective awnings at the edge of every row.

Perga or Perge

Walk through a Roman gate to Hellenistic gates, and see Ionic order columns made by Romans at ancient Perge, Turkey. Perga, now commonly spelled “Perge” and pronounced “per-geh”, was the capital of the then Pamphylia region, which is in modern day Antalya province on the southwestern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. An acropolis here dates back to the Bronze Age. In the twelfth century BC, Greek tribes migrated from northern Anatola to settle what would become four great cities: Perga, Sillyon, Aspendos and Side. Perga was founded about 1000 BC at a defensive location 20 kilometers inland from the pirate-infested Aegean Sea. In 546 BC, the Achaemenid Persians gained control, followed by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. Then came the diadoch empire of the Seleucids, under whom Perga’s famous mathematician Apollonius lived and worked (about 262 BC to 190 BC). Apollonius was a pupil of Archimedes and wrote eight books describing conic sections (the circle, ellipse, parabola and hyperbola). Beginning in 188 BC, the Romans ruled and created most of the buildings that survive as ruins today. St. Paul the Apostle briefly “preached the word” here, as mentioned in the Bible (Acts 14:24). Perga lasted until Seljuk times before being abandoned. Perge is in the modern Turkish village of Murtana on the Suridjik sou, a tributary of the Cestrus river, formerly in the Ottoman vilayet of Koniah.

Central Anatolia: Cappadocia

The Persian name “Cappadocia” does not exist on official road maps, but describes one of Turkey’s major tourist destinations, the 100-mile-wide square east of Kayseri, in Central Anatolia. As much as 10 million years ago, three volcanoes covered this area in ash, which hardened into a soft rock called tuff. This volcanic tuff has eroded into fantastic shapes which the Turks call “fairy chimneys.” Cappadocia once included most of central Anatolia (between Ankara and Malatya, between the Black sea and the Taurus Mountains, and centered at Kayseri), and was the center of the Hittite Empire and later a Roman province mentioned in the Bible. For thousands of years, people have carved caves and entire underground cities into the tuff formations. Early Christians thrived here, hid from 7th-century Arab armies, and made unique rock churches carved from tuff, with frescoes added in the 1000s to 1100s. In 1985, UNESCO listed Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia as a World Heritage Area.

Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nimrod)

A six-foot tall head of Zeus commemorates the lofty aspirations of pre-Roman King Antiochus (64-38 BC) at Mount Nimrod (Nemrut Dagi), near Malatya, Turkey.

Pre-Roman, megalomaniac King Antiochus (64-38 BC) cut two ledges on top of 7237-foot high Mount Nemrut in central Anatolia and filled them with impressive statues of gods and himself. Between the ledges, his workers piled crushed rocks into a cone-shaped tumulus 160 feet high and 500 across, burying the tomb of Antiochus and his father Mithridates Callinicus. The small Commagene Kingdom’s greatest days only lasted for the 26-year rule of Antiochus, who was deposed by the Romans. For many years, modern scholars tried in vain to probe the mysterious tumulus, and one scientist died trying to dynamite a tunnel; but finally in 2003, Turkish archaeologist Mahmud Arslan discovered the burial chamber hidden for more than 2000 years. Earthquakes toppled the 6-foot-high stone heads long ago, but the Turkish government may make restorations. UNESCO listed Nemrut Dağı National Park as a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Anatolia: Historical claims to fame

Greek Anatolia (meaning “The East”) is what the Romans called Asia Minor, and the Turks now call Anadolu.  The Asian peninsula of Anatolia encompasses twice the land area of California, and has hosted the following astounding drama of human history (listed sequentially in time):

  • the world’s first city, Çatal Höyük, 7000 BC (Palaeolithic times, the Old Stone Age).
  • the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, possible homeland of the Indo-European languageand people.
  • the Hittite Empire (mentioned in the Bible), which rivalled ancient Egypt.
  • İzmir (ancient Smyrna): Home of Homer (born around 700 BC), founder of western literature.
  • Troy: In Homer’s Iliad, Troy was called Ilium, where Paris killed Achilles by a shot in the heel in the Trojan War, about 1250 BC, giving us the expression “Achille’s Heel.” Homer described a Trojan Horse filled with soldiers to crack Troy’s defenses, but the earthquake of 1250 probably did the damage. The Trojan Horse may actually have been built as a “thank you” to Poseidonthe Earth-Shaker.
  • two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:
    • The Mausoleum was the striking tomb of ruler Mausolus of Halicarnassus (or modern Bodrum) who died in 353 BC, giving us the modern term, “mausoleum.” The original Mausoleum was lost to earthquakes and crusaders.
    • Temple of Artemis (Anatolian mother goddess) was four times bigger than the Parthenon in Greece, but all that remains today is a stone column in a marsh.
  • important Roman sites and some of the most famous Greek (Hellenistic) ruins: Ephesus, Troy, Pergamum, Miletus, Halicarnassus, and others.
  • Turkish baths, which evolved from Greek and Roman baths.
  • Diogenes, who founded the Cynics (412?-323 BC).
  • the first cultivation of cherry trees.
  • the inventions of parchment (at Bergamon) and the envelope.
  • where Julius Caesar spoke the famous Latin phrase “veni, vidi, vici” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”  in 47 BC near Zile & Amasya, after a battle against King Pharnaces II (who was trying to reestablish the Pontic Kingdom of his ancestors by attacking the Roman provinces of Galatia, Armenia, and Cappadocia).
  • Anatolia is the cradle of Christianity:
    • Urfa (or Şanlıurfa): Possible birthplace of Patriarch Abraham, who first heard God in Harran and ultimately fathered three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
    • Tarses: Birthplace of the foremost champion of Christianity, Saint Paul the Apostle, who used Roman roads to spread Christianity in Anatolia from the years 45-58 CE.
    • Ephesus: where Saint Paul the Apostle preached Christianity for 27 months, and later Saint John took care of Mary, Mother of Jesus, for the last 5 years of her life.
    • Antioch (now Antakya, or Hatay): where the term “Christian” was invented, St. Peter preached, and Christian thought thrived from 100 CE until the Arab conquestin the year 642.
    • The 7 Churches of the Revelation (of Asia), early centers of Christianity: Ephesus (now Efes), Smyrna (İzmir), Pergamum (Bergama), Sardis (Sart), Philadelphia (Alaşehir), and 2 others.
    • Mount Ararat (Arı Dağı): 16,800-foot volcano, highest point in Turkey. Biblical landing place of Noah’s Ark.
    • Patara: Birthplace of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), who was Christian Archbishop of Myra(modern Demre).
    • Constantinople (now İstanbul), where
      • Constantine the Greatdeclared equal rights for all religions, then elevated Christianity and accepted baptism on his deathbed. Within 20 years, Christianity went from persecuted faith to state religion.
      • Emperor Justinian built Hagia Sofia, the greatest church in Christendom for nearly 1000 years and one of the architectural marvels of all time.
  • Seljuk Turkish Empire: In the year 1097, Seljuk Turks beat the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert (near Erzurum), founding the Kingdom of Rum. Turkish tribes then settled Anatolia. The Pope called for the First Crusadeto drive out the Muslims, but too late. Famous Seljuks include:
    • Omar Kyayyam, poet.
    • Aladdin Keykubad, ruler.
    • Whirling Dervishes founder Celaleddin Rumi, or Mevlana, the mystic “Shakespeare of Islam,” a Turk writing in Persian and teaching universal love.
  • the first known coffeehouses (in 1554 İstanbul).
  • the world’s first successful human glider flight, by Hazerfan Ahmet Celebi, launched from İstanbul’s Galata Tower.

Atatürk, “Father of the Turks”

Mustafa Kamal almost single-handedly turned the backward Ottoman Empire into the secular modern Turkish Republic. In thanks, he was proclaimed Atatürk, “Father of the Turks.” Almost every town in Turkey mounts a statue to this national hero. He was born Mustafa, and later nicknamed Kemal (“excellence”) by his math teacher. He earned hero status in his brilliant defense of Gallipoli (in 1915-1916), saving Constantinople from the British.

  • Ever since Greek independence in 1831, Greece wanted to reestablish the Byzantine Empire’s boundaries, so they invaded the Ottoman city of İzmir in 1919 with British encouragement. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in defeat, General Mustafa Kamal organized a democratic revolutionary government in Ankara (formerly Angora), and with very limited resources, brilliantly held off invading French, Italian, and Greek armies.
  • Detractors:Many Hellenic (Greek), Armenian, and other Christian people revile Atatürk, holding him responsible for war crimes, human rights abuses, and the removal of more than a million Christian people from their ancestral homes in Anatolia. However, responsibility for the huge exchange of Christian and Muslim populations between Turkey and Greece is also shared by the Allies and Greece, who also signed the Second Treaty of Versailles in 1922.
    • Sadly, human history repeats an endless round of ethnic conflict (essentially fratricide), where one era’s victims become the next era’s oppressors. For example, in a little-remembered holocaust from 1821 to 1913, more than half a million Muslims were murdered or driven from their homes in the Balkan peninsula and Greece by various Christian groups including Greeks, Bosnian Serbs, Bulgarians, and Russian Cossacks.
    • Ironically, a classical hero of Christian and Greek people is Alexander the Great, a Macedonian responsible for pillaging vast areas, and spreading Greek culture along the way. The winners rewrite history. Coincidentally, Mustafa Kamal was also born in Macedonia (in the city of Salonika, which later became Thessaloniki, Greece).
    • References: 1) The Washington Post.  2) The Associated Press.
  • After the complex task of virtually single-handedly establishing the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kamal Atatürk lived another 15 years. During this time, as a benevolent dictator, he directed sweeping humanistic reforms on a foundation of Turkish nationalism, including the following:
  1. adopted a constitution with western-style legal codes, granting women the right to vote and serve parliament (1934).
  2. abolished polygamy, and required marriage to be a civil ceremony (non-religious).
  3. abolished the fez hat (symbol of the Ottomans), replacing it with the kasket, a brimmed cap that prevents bowing to the ground, which Atatürk thought demeaning.
  4. influenced the next leader of Turkey to be neutral in World War II.
  5. overhauled the Turkish language (which had evolved in the 11th century from the Seljuk Turks who wrote with Arabic script):
  • Non-Turkish words (Arab, Persian, etc.) were removed and replaced by Turkish words (originating in central Asia).
  • City names were converted to Turkish (Angora toAnkara,Smyrnato İzmir,Constantinopleto İstanbul officially)
  • Turks were required to adopt a surname (family name). Up until then, Muslims had only one given name; family names were optional. Parliament proclaimed Mustafa Kamal’s family name to be Atatürk, which means “Father of the Turks.”
  • The Arabic alphabet was replaced with a Latin-based alphabet. Several Turkish letters are not found in English, such as: ç ğ ı İ ö ş and ü. (To correctly view the Turkish letters ğ, ı, and İ in your Internet browser, choose View…Character Set or Encoding…Turkish.)Fortunately, Turkish letters are pronounced the same in every word, making words easier to recite aloud from reading (unlike the many inconsistencies of English, where a letter such as “c” can be pronounced “s” or “k” and vowel pronunciations vary with many exceptions).

Turkish grammar is so logical that it forms the basis of Esperanto, an artificial international language. However, word order, verb usage, vowel harmony, and multiple suffixes make Turkish challenging for English speakers. For example, Turkish generally uses the following word order:

  • SUBJECT, TIME, PLACE, OBJECT(s), VERB
  • for example: “John this evening at his home to me a book gave he.” = “John bu akşam evinde bana bir kitap verdi”

Silhouettes of four photographers at sunrise on Mount Nemrut, in the Republic of Turkey.

The Kurds

Turkey has about 60 million people, mostly Sunni Muslim Turks. Kurds are the biggest minority in Turkey, numbering 10 million (including 6 million in Eastern Turkey).  Like Turks, Kurds in Turkey are virtually all Muslims. However, Kurds maintain their own Kurdish language, culture, and traditions. In search of better wages, 2.3 million people from Turkey live and work in Germany, including one-half million Kurds. On the streets of Erzurum, the biggest city in Eastern Turkey, I met Kurds and Turks who mixed freely as friends, which I take as a positive sign for Turkey’s aspirations towards a pluralistic society more acceptable in the eyes of the European Union and the world.

Kurds, who speak an Indo-European language (Kurdish), are closely related to the Persians, and migrated to Southeast Turkey from northern Europe centuries before Christ. Kurds and Ottoman era Turks coexisted in relative peace for hundreds of years. But since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in an era of ethnic nationalism, many Kurds in disparate tribes hoped to create a new nation of “Greater Kurdistan,” which would consolidate the Kurdish territories across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. (Note that many of the atrocities that Armenians blame on “Turks” in this era were actually done by Kurds, who historically feuded with Armenians over the same territory around Mount Ararat.)

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was founded on a policy of ethnic Turk nationalism, which wrongly classified Kurds as “mountain Turks,” who were supposedly “equal citizens” except that the Kurdish language and culture were outlawed.

During the 1980s, a small number of Kurds, mostly from down-trodden under classes, joined the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) out of hunger, desperation, and nothing to lose. PKK was based in neighboring Syria, Iraq, and Iran and secretly supported by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). PKK guerrillas killed thousands of people in Southeast Turkey. The Turkish army responded severely, and 30,000 people from both sides (but mostly Kurds) were killed in the 15-year guerrilla war. In 1988, Iraq killed 5,000 of its native Kurds with poison gas, pushed survivors towards Turkey and brought their plight to the attention of Europe and the USA, who pressured Turkey to become more lenient towards their Kurds.

As of 1999, Turkey officially legalized Kurdish language conversations, songs, and a radio station, but attitudes are still slow to change. Kurdish feudal lords currently have de facto control over Southeast Turkey: 80% of land is owned by 5% of the population, and 50% of the Kurds own no land. The majority of Kurds live in harmony with Turks, but tensions will remain for generations to come as Turkey slowly evolves into a more integrated multicultural nation.

Turkey’s huge Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) helps bring prosperity to Kurds and reduce discontent. GAP projects, such as Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates River, inject money into Kurdish territory and employ 1.8 million people. GAP comprises 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants, and irrigation facilities on the Firat (Euphrates) and Dicle (Tigris) rivers, to be finished by 2005. However, neighboring Syria and Iraq are not happy about GAP because it reduces their water flow.

Recommended books about Turkey

Search for latest “Turkey travel books” on Amazon.com (look for updates every 1 to 3 years).


  • Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 28, 2009
  • Birds Without Wings (2005) by Louis de Bernières. A humanistic historical fiction novel of the political and personal costs of love and war amongst Christians and Muslims of Turkish, Greek and Armenian descent, during the rise of Atatürk. The ghost town of Kayaköy which we visited on the Turquoise Coast may be the inspiration behind “Eskişehir”, the imaginary village in this novel.
  • Ironfire: An Epic Novel of Love and War (2005) by David Ball: Knights of Malta versus the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

GREECE: Athens, Santorini, Crete, Zagori, Pindus Mountains, Meteora

After five weeks in Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), we most enjoyed wandering romantic Santorini Island and trekking the rugged northern mountains of Zagori. We hiked a total of 170 miles (280 km) with day packs and stayed overnight in pleasant pensions and north Pindus mountain refuges. Robinson Expeditions conveniently moved our luggage each day to the next pension. Carol and I joined a group of friends touring Greece (via Amsterdam, Netherlands) from April 26 to May 30, 2001. Before visiting Greece, read about crucial Greek history, culture, and language in books recommended at the bottom of this article. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the clutter of modern Western trappings and services which surround most tourist destinations.


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Highlights of five weeks in Greece

  • In May, Zagori and northern Greece offer great hiking amid crocus and wildflower fields.
  • Despite crowds emerging from cruise ships, Santorini island (Thira or Thera) romances you with whitewashed villages perched high above the Aegean Sea on the rim of an active volcano settled since Minoan times, dating from early Art History.
  • In Athens, the Acropolis and Parthenon inspire awe as classic symbols of early Democracy.
  • The cliff-top monasteries of Meteora are visually stunning and culturally important. Avoid overwhelming hordes of tourists by visiting in the off season, late fall through early spring.
  • Crete fascinated us with ancient Minoan history and lovely aromatic wild herb gardens thriving on the sunny southwest coast. But buses dropped hundreds of tourists to hike down “remote” Samaria Gorge, trampling on my wilderness preconceptions. Instead, try quieter hiking in spectacular Vikos Gorge in Zagori (further below), or more exotic variety found on the Turquoise Coast of Turkey.

By the way, in comparison to Greece, neighboring Turkey offers taller mountains, more exotic charm, and friendlier people (who crave Western contact more than Greeks, who suffer more tourist crowds). Turkey preserves many important Christian historical sites and ancient Greek ruins. Of course your enjoyment of each country is subjective — a couple of friends in our group loved Greece (and each other) so much that they got engaged in Samaria Gorge on Crete!

Greek food

Greek food has evolved in the Mediterranean region for 4000 years. In 320 BC, Ancient Greek poet Archestratos wrote the first cookbook in history. Today, Greek and Turkish cuisines are closely related due to proximity and Ottoman Turk occupation (1453-1829). Next to Thai food, Greek is my favorite world cuisine. We found food in Greece to be uniformly delicious, albeit sometimes overly soaked with olive oil. After four weeks of eating Greek restaurant food, local diet grew repetitious (as in Turkey). We yearned to replace the boring white-bread breakfasts with our favorite whole grain breads, oatmeal, and fruit available back at home. I’m thankful for the amazing variety of international foods available in Seattle groceries and restaurants. The worldwide diaspora of Greek people brought Greek food to Seattle that tastes as good as in the homeland!

Athens


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In Athens, the amazing Acropolis and Parthenon still inspire awe as classic symbols of early Democracy. Avoid crowds by arriving early morning.

The Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games were declared in 776 BC (for male athletes only) and ran every four years at Olympia on Peloponnese Peninsula until 394 CE, when Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned them as pagan. The Games were not revived until 1896. The return of Olympic Games to Greece in 2004 was a proud and triumphant moment for the people of Athens and Greeks worldwide. About 10 million people live in Greece, and about an equal number of Greeks live in other countries worldwide, scattered by a tumultuous history.

Santorini island


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Geologic and human history of Santorini

Humans first arrived around 3000 BC on this volcano known in ancient times as Thira. The island was a volcanic cone with a circular shoreline until 1646 BC, when one of earth’s most violent explosions blasted ash all over the Mediterranean, sunk the center of the island, launched tidal waves, and may have ruined the Minoan civilization 70 miles away on Crete. Remarkably, volcanic ash dumped onto the volcano’s flanks actually preserved the village of Akrotiri and its 3600-year-old frescoes from the Minoan era. These are some of the earliest known examples of art in history, which you can now view in museums. In 286 BC, the volcano split off Thirasia (“Little Thira”) Island (to the West, left on map). The volcano began rebuilding, and in 197 BC the small center islet of Palia Kameni appeared. In 1707 CE, lava started forming Nea Kameni, the larger center island which erupted as recently as 1956 and caused a huge earthquake (7.8 on the Richter scale) which destroyed most of the houses in the towns of Fira and Oia. Fira and Oia have since been rebuilt as multi-level mazes of fascinating whitewashed architecture, attracting tourists from around the world.

The sirocco (or scirocco) winds from the south can turn the sky over Santorini reddish in color with dust swept from Africa. In summer, the winds shift and become the meltemi, which come from the north-east. On May 5, 2001, we experienced unusually strong 50 miles-per-hour winds from the west, the strongest wind that our hotel owner had ever seen in 10 years living in Oia, Santorini.

Santorini travel tips

Santorini is justifiably celebrated for its romance and beauty. Reserve ahead like we did, or else pay a premium to find a place more spontaneously. As elsewhere in the world, the cheapest lodging with best value usually fills before more expensive rooms.

We pre-booked and enjoyed several nights at the inexpensive Ecoxenia Studio Apartments, one of the best values on the island, located on the sunset (West) side, very quiet in the countryside, about a 15 minute walk (or short taxi ride) from Oia village, the most photogenic village on Santorini.

Ferries: We flew from Athens to Santorini, to Crete, then back, which is quicker than navigating the ferry system for the long distance from the mainland. Fly the longest legs, then take local ferries to closer islands. Compare prices and consider how much time you spend in open water with little to see.

I recommend Booking.com to find lodging, with all fees clearly disclosed on the reservation page. TripAdvisor.com offers helpful user ratings and feedback.

Crete


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Before visiting, be sure to read the latest art history of Crete and the ruins of Knossos. Seeing the ruins and reading local documentation probably won’t impress you unless you’ve studied in advance.

Crete is the home of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoan, which was contemporary with nearby advanced Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The hundreds of interlocking rooms in the six-stories-high Minoan Knossos palace complex on Crete probably originated the myths of the Labyrinth and Minotaur (half man, half bull). Water pipes running 18 kilometers from mountains to the Knossos supplied the world’s first known flush toilets and sewers by around 1500 BC, when the Minoans reached their peak. Three-story town-homes and the first known paved roads in Europe also indicate a wealthy, organized society. Archeaological evidence suggests that Minoan and earlier societies on Crete may have been peaceful:

  • Towns on Crete had no fortifications for 1000 years.
  • Few weapons have been found.
  • Minoan art depicts nature (not violence), little social stratification, and prominent females and female deities
  • About 1500 BC, the palaces on Crete may have been destroyed my Mycenaean invasions from the mainland. Minoan society had been weakened around that time by the huge volcanic eruption of Thira (now known as Santorini island). Deforestation may also have affected human carrying capacity.

The purplish-red spathe (specialized leaf or bract) and foul-smelling stench of the dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called dragonwort, dragon lily, or voodoo lily) attracts flies to the base of its erect, flower-bearing spadix in Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, in Greece, Europe. The purple spadix can reach over a meter long. With an odor of dung or rotting meat, the Dragon Arum entices flies deep inside into the bulbous chamber of its spathe where the flowers are actually located. The insects can sometimes get trapped overnight but are later freed, covered in pollen to find other flowers for pollination.

For a book that brings alive the ancient era of the Minoans and the eruption of Thira, I recommend reading Voice of the Goddess, a historical fiction and romance book by Judith Hand (Copyright 2001). I read the book after visiting Crete, and would also have found it valuable reading before going. In this well-researched book based upon archaeological evidence plus creative imagination, Judith calls the Minoans, “Keftians,” because the Egyptians of 1500 BC called Crete, “Keftiu”. In the early 1900’s, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans spent 35 years uncovering the Knossos, and he coined the term “Minoan” in reference to Minos, a king of Crete mentioned by Homer. However, King Minos may have been Mycenaean, an invader from mainland Greece, which would make “Minoan” a misnomer for the female-worshipping ancient people who built and maintained the Knossos from 1900 to 1450 BC.

Olive history

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean. 50,000-year-old olive leaves have been found fossilized in lava on Santorini island. Oil-producing olive varieties have been cultivated over 6000 years, starting with a sparse, thorny tree and ending with today’s compact, thornless, and oil-rich varieties. The Minoans were some of the first people to get rich from olives.

Unfortunately, the tap roots of olive trees cannot hold the soil like the surface roots of native forests, and planting of vast olive groves on mountainous terrain caused an environmental disaster — the topsoil washed away, resulting in the dry and rocky landscape you see throughout much of Greece today. Crete was formerly 90% forest, but is now 17% forest. Humans have stripped the trees to clear space for olive plantations, to build ships and towns, and to burn for cooking. Big naval battles in wooden ships over thousands of years helped spur demand that decimated forests.

Flowers and aromatic herbs of Crete

My favorite plant on Crete was the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, also called Black Arum, Voodoo Lily, Snake Lily, Stink Lily, Black Dragon, Black Lily, Dragonwort, or Drakondia, a member of the Araceae family) which grows a dark purple flower spike up to a meter high above green leaves mottled with white spots and eye-catching stalk striped with white and green (see photos). In May, the Dragon Arum was blooming in the Samaria Gorge and growing green seed pods (which later turn red) on the bluffs around Loutro. This striking plant is native to the Aegean Islands and the Balkans.

Many other spectacular flowers grow on Crete, such as the Star of Bethlehem Lilly, seen at Omalos. As we walked coastal cliffs near Loutro, wonderfully rich aromas of thyme and other herbs wafted strongly all around the most fragrant hike ever.

Hiking in Zagori and north Pindus mountains


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A highlight of our trip to Greece was trekking through Zagori in the north Pindus (or Pindos) mountains, near Ioannina in northern Greece (near the border with Albania). Zagori contains 45 villages collectively known as Zagoria (Zagorochoria or Zagorohoria). In May 2001, we were exhilarated by hiking through large expanses of purple crocus and a variety of other wildflowers in peak bloom on the Tymfi Massif. A metallic green beetle contrasted brightly with a magenta thistle.

We enjoyed hiking the spectacular Vikos Gorge, the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width. (We only encountered two other hiking parties in the Vikos Gorge, but hundreds in overcrowded Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete.) Limestone rock towers rise impressively thousands of feet above the traditional slate houses of Vikos and Micro Papingo. Visit Kalogeriko triple-arch stone bridge, 300 years old, near Kipi.

Tourism is fairly new and visitors few enough here that the towns feel special and less-commercial than the more well-known destinations in Greece. Mountain inaccessibility helped preserve local culture over the centuries.  The Greek Orthodox Church orders society here, and crime is rare. Few locals speak English, so learn the Greek alphabet and basic phrases. Public buses and tours easily reach the area from the local capital of Ioannina.

Northern Greece seasons & climate

Best to visit in May-June and September-October. In our May trip, beautiful flowers bloomed in the mountains, and temperatures were not overly hot. May-June are temperate, with sporadic thunderstorms. July-August are scorching hot. September is temperate. Lodging will be tighter August 5-20, the most popular-high season for Zagori due to the many Greek visitors. October is damp. Snow covers Zagori mountains from November to April.

Our excellent guide Mike Vasileiou kept us on the right trail, and our luggage was conveniently shuttled between hotels by Robinson Expeditions, Ioannina, Greece (on days 3-4 we carried our own sleeping bags). If you are sufficiently experienced to hike rough trails on your own, be sure to use good maps and detailed trail descriptions, since many trails are not well marked. Ask a local expert or tourist office for advice:

Where is the world’s deepest gorge, canyon, or valley? What makes Vikos Gorge unique?

Answers depend upon definitions. According to the Guinness Book of Records 2005:

  • “The World’s Deepest Canyon” = Vikos Gorgein northern Greece is the world’s deepest canyon in proportion to its width, and at one point measures 2950 feet (900 meters) deep and 3600 feet (1100 meters) wide from rim to rim. Its depth is an impressive 82% of its width at that cross-section (depth/width ratio=0.82). “Gorges in many countries have higher depth/width ratio, but none are as deep.” My research agrees with Guinness and adds some footnotes:
    • A different area in Vikos Gorge is 5,927 feet (1,780 meters) deep, measured from the top of Papigo tower above Vikos village to the small chapel of “Panagia” at the springs, but that spot is wider and has a less impressive (lower) depth/width ratio than the location quoted above in Guinness Book of Records 2005.
    • Many gorges are deeper than Vikos Gorge but are significantly wider, giving them a smaller depth/width ratio, such as the following canyons: Colca Canyon, Peru (10,500 feet deep); Kings Canyon, California, USA (8,200 feet deep); Hell’s Canyon, dividing Oregon and Idaho, USA (7,900 feet deep from Devil Mountain down to the Snake River).
  • “The World’s Deepest Valley” = Yarlung Zangbo Valley, in Tibet, with an average depth of 16,400 feet (5000 meters) from rim to river, and 17,657 feet at its deepest point. Here, the Yarlung Zangbo river at 8000 feet elevation (2440 meters) separates the peaks of Namche Barwa (25,436 feet elevation) and Jola Peri (23,891 feet), which are 13 miles apart (depth/width ratio = 0.26).
    • Although not mentioned in Guinness Book of Records 2005, note that the wider Kali Ghandaki Gorge in midwest Nepal is 21,000 feet deep and 18-miles wide, located between Annapurna (26,503 feet) and Dhaulagiri (26,811 feet). (depth/width = 0.22)
  • “The World’s Largest Land Gorge” = Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, Arizona, USA, is 277 miles long with an average width of 10 miles and depth of 1 mile.

Two week itinerary for Zagori, Meteora, and Mount Olympus

The following demanding 10-day hiking trip (booked with Robinson Expeditions) includes transportation starting at Ioannina and ending at Meteora, plus we added a 5-day extension to see Meteora and climb Mount Olympus.

  1. Day 1. On May 15, 2001, we flew from Athens to Ioannina, in the Epiros region. Bus to Vitsa and stay in a new hotel in this attractive town of slate rock homes. Look into Vikos Gorge at Moni Agias Paraskevis, a slate monastery at Monodhendhri village.
  2. Day 2: Hike Vikos Gorge 6-7 hours from Vitsa or Monodhendhri to Vikos. Watch trail markers carefully, especially in the first descent through boulders. Don’t get lost.
  3. Day 3. Hike 3 hours from Vikos to Micro (or Mikro) Papingo (descend 250m/800 feet, ascend 370m/1200 feet) through beautiful fields of flowers (red poppies, white & yellow elyssum, and purple, white, & yellow stars).
  4. Day 4. From Micro Papingo village, ascend a demanding 3 hours and 1000 meters to overnight lodging at Astraka Refuge, located on windy Astraka Col. We left most of our gear at Astraka Refuge while we day hiked 3 hours round trip to scenic Dragon Lake (Dhrakolimni) of Gamila, which was tiring by the end of the long day. At Dragon Lake, many blue crocus flowers popped through snow patches on May 18, 2001. Cliffs of Mount Astraka loomed impressively above. Hope for a day with no wind to get pretty photo reflections of peaks in Dragon Lake. After our trip, the popular Astraka Refuge was upgraded to 43 bunks by EOS, the Greek Alpine Club. (The former Astraka Refuge was crowded, with poor meals and sounds of wind, barking dog, and people snoring keeping us awake in the rustic downstairs dormitory room.) Near this hike through the limestone landscape is the Provatina Cave, 2nd longest straight drop sinkholes in the world (405 meters), after a Yucatan cenote hole.
  5. Day 5: Night 1 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We hiked 6 hours from Astraka Refuge to Tsepelovo, through the largest fields of crocus flowers that I have ever seen. The impressive variety of wildflowers included grape hyacinth (muscari), wild narcissus, purple phlox, yellow daisy, wild garlic, powder blue forget-me-nots, violets, creeping thyme, and more. We admired broad views of pancake-shaped rocks, limestone holes and high plateaus. The hike was very long and tiring, but well worthwhile. The trail may not be marked very well, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. In Tsepelovo we stayed at the pleasant Gouris Hotel in private double rooms, where we caught up on sleep. Gouris Hotel was the first pension in Zagorahoria, starting in the 1960s. Tsepelovo (1100 meters altitude / 3500 feet) is the second biggest tourist center in Zagori, after the Papingo villages. Optional day hike from Astraka Refuge: Loop walk to the summits of Mount Gamila (2480m) and Mount Astraka (2436m), 7 hours round trip. We haven’t done this, but I bet it’s rewarding. Easier exit: A more common exit from Astraka Refuge to the road (probably easier) is through forest to Aoos River, Stomiou Monastery, and the town of Konitsa.
  6. Day 6: Night 2 of 2 in Tsepelovo: We were driven several kilometers to our last overlook of Vikos Gorge, near Vradheto, which can also be reached by trail from Tsepelovo to complete the trek circumnavigating Mount Astrakas. We drove onwards to see the impressive triple-arched stone Kalogeriko Bridge alongside the highway near Kipi.
  7. Day 7. Our most difficult day, 10 hours hiking: We ascended 854 meters/2800 feet over Tsouka Rossa Pass, descended 1037 meters/3400 feet, and were picked up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle which drove us to Vrissohori. Descending Tsouka Rossa Pass required a two-rope rappel down a steep 30 degree snow slope, which is the scariest thing Carol has ever done. Watch out for ice! We walked steep slopes on a lightly-used slippery trail for the rest of the descent. The trail is often not marked, so get a good trail description, map and/or guide. Rope and ice ax may be required. Hiking through one of the remotest parts of Europe, our efforts were rewarded by seeing 4 wild goats (chamois) and an eagle. Apparently 100 bears still live in these remote north Pindus mountains, though we didn’t see any. We enjoyed spectacular views from the friendly Ioannis Tsoimanis Pension in Vrissohori.
  8. Day 8. From Vrissohori, we walked 3.5 hours on roads, crossed the Aoos River on a partially-constructed highway bridge, and drove 4WD car to our private tent camp at 2000 meters/6600 feet elevation on Mount Smolikas. On a hot humid day (24 C or 75 degrees F), we saw a tortoise, a rare orchid, and bright green metallic beetles on purple thistles beneath a spectacular backdrop of the north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m).
  9. Day 9. Our longest day, 10.5 hours hiking: We climbed 870m/2850 feet to the summit of Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece, 2637m/8650 feet elevation) and traversed down to Samarina. We enjoyed spectacular views of the sharp-toothed north Pindus mountains and Mount Gamila (2497 m) to the south. On the descent, we admired more blue crocus, plus some isolated white barked pine trees with trunks 1-meter in diameter, natives to the Pindus and Bosnia. Local geology includes shiny dark green serpentine rock (former ocean crust subducted then lifted into the mountains) and an alpine moonscape of red rock near the summit plateau. In the snow bowl far below, we saw Albanian refugees sneaking into Greece, probably for gainful employment (such as for construction work). We descended to Samarina, a ski resort and home of the Vlach people, an ethnic group of shepherds. The descent was harrowing and tiring on loose rocky scree, crossing several dangerous snow chutes, with the security of ropes brought along. We have now left Epiros and Zagori, and crossed into the Macedonia region of Greece.
  10. Day 10. From Samarina, we drove to Meteora for a 24-hour visit. Alternatively, you could return to Ioannina by bus, where you could fly somewhere else.
Optional 5+day extension to Meteora and Mount Olympus
  1. Day 11. See Meteora for at least one day. Then drive to Litohoro to prepare to climb Mount Olympus.
  2. Day 12. Begin 3-day ascent of Mount Olympus: Drive 1 hour from Litohoro to Prionia. Hike 3 hours to Olympus “Refuge A” on a steady trail graded for horses.
  3. Day 13. Mount Olympus summit attempt: One route is easier than the other. However, we only made it to 2800 meters/9200 feet elevation, before fresh slippery snow blocked us. The trip was adventurous and worthwhile, despite bad weather.
  4. Day 14: Descend from Olympus “Refuge A” back to trailhead and return to Litohoro. Visit the ancient Roman ruins of Dion, sacred city of Macedonians and Alexander the Great.
  5. Day 15: Drive to the big city of Thessaloniki, where you can fly to Athens, Amsterdam, or other points in Europe. An “open jaw” flight back to Amsterdam from Thessaloniki would have saved us time and money compared with our return via Athens.

Mount Olympus was declared Greece’s first national park in 1937 and consists of eight peaks including the “Throne of Zeus” at 2909 metres and Mytikas which has the highest summit at 2919 metres. The park is located 100 kilometres south west of Thessaloniki. Hiking season is June through October. The huts will be most crowded in July and August, when advance reservations are most necessary. May through mid-June usually have the best weather for climbing. Visit the EOS (Greek Alpine Club) office in Lithoro for details of trails, mountain refuge reservations and advice about weather conditions.

The world according to Mike

Our mountain guide Mike Vasileiou was born in Ioannina from a mother who was a Vlach, a shepherd ethnic group, traditionally semi-nomadic, grazing flocks in summer mountains and returning to valleys in autumn. Working with Robinson Expeditions, of Ioannina, Greece, Mike likes to shepherd hikers like us to the high mountains of Greece and Italy. When our group would pester him for details of the next day’s hiking plan, Mike would knowingly say, “After dinner, all will be revealed!”  We soon learned that if the next day was going to be long and hard, Mike would enthusiastically say, “We are going to have another glorious day!” Then, at every dinner his sincere toast would always be, “Here’s to the next day!” After we had safely traversed the rigorous Tsouka Rossa Pass and Mount Smolikas (second highest mountain in Greece), he assured us that “Mount Smolikas is the cake, and Olympus is the cherry.” We had successfully hiked our hardest.

Traversing Mount Smolikas is an adventurous scramble in one of the wildest remaining parts of Europe, whereas Mount Olympus is a more accessible and easier ascent done by thousands of rock scramblers every year. Mike warns that these mountains can seriously challenge anyone when the weather gets bad. He has personally saved the lives of several hikers on Mount Olympus and other peaks.

Meteora


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Meteora means “suspended in the air.” The words meteorite and meteorology come from the same Greek root. The conglomerate rock at Meteora has eroded into fantastic peaks upon which medieval monks built remote monasteries, some still active. The isolated monasteries of Meteora helped keep alive Greek Orthodox religious traditions and Hellenic culture during the turbulent Middle Ages and Ottoman Turk occupation of Greece (1453-1829). In 1988, UNESCO declared Meteora to be a World Heritage Site.

Travel Tips for Meteora
  • Read all you can before going — don’t rely on a tour guide to give you the depth of perspective necessary to understand the history and the symbols and styles used in the Greek Orthodox Church.
  • Stay anywhere in Kastraki, which is a small town with fascinating architecture, cobbled streets, and closer walking distance to the rock towers & monasteries than the larger town of Kalambaka.
  • To avoid the big crowds, visit monasteries when doors first open in the morning.
  • Sunset may give the best light since the the cliffs face to the southwest. For photography, explore all the different different angles and possibilities over a day or two. Be ready for the perfect shot as lighting keeps changing. Don’t miss low-angle sunlight and colors at sunrise and sunset. If your time is limited, rent a car to zip around to the different photo angles as the light changes quickly at sunset. Otherwise, if you have time, walking is the best way to absorb the ambiance of this incredible area.
  • A few hours drive from Meteora is a classic trek on culturally important Mount Olympus. The challenging and scenic ascent of Mount Olympus includes a clean, comfortable, overnight dormitory-style hut that serves meals. (See itinerary above.)

Modern Greek history

The Greek War of Independence of 1821-1829 reclaimed Ottoman Turk holdings in the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, and the Cyclades and Sporades Islands, but intervention by Britain, France, and Russia would set up foreign kings to control Greece on and off for generations. With the decline of the Ottomans in the mid-1800s, the “Megali Idea (Great Idea)” of a new Greek Empire became popular for reclaiming former Byzantine Greek lands. The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 expanded Greece to include southern Macedonia, part of Thrace, more of Epiros, the North-East Aegean Islands, and union with Crete. After siding with the Allies in World War I, Greece invaded Turkey as far as Ankara. However, the young General Mustafa Kemal (later called Ataturk) drove the Greeks out of Anatolia, finally evaporating any Greek desire for the “Great Idea”. In a huge exchange causing great hardships on everyone involved, 1.5 million Christians left Turkey and 400,000 Muslims left Greece.

Greece also suffered terribly under Nazi occupation in World War II, with many civilians dying of starvation and half the Jewish population sent to death camps. Greece’s turbulent history culminated in a 1946-1949 Civil War between monarchists and democrats, where more Greeks were killed than in World War II. Despair motivated nearly a million Greeks to seek better life in Australia (Melbourne), Canada, the USA (New York and Chicago), and other countries. After a coup by Colonels 1967-74 and later socialist rule, Greece shifted politically to the right by 2001.

Greek standard of living rose rapidly and low interest rates expanded car ownership. Greece proudly hosted the lightly attended 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which was seen on worldwide television by an unprecedented 3.9 billion viewers.

In 2010-12, a severe national debt crisis required Greece to agree to Eurozone and IMF loan rescue packages including harsh, unpopular austerity measures to control deficit spending.

Recommended books about Greece from Amazon.com

Search for latest “Greece travel” books at Amazon.com.

Before visiting Greece (called Ellada or Ελλάδα in Greek), read up on crucial Greek history, culture, and language. By studying Greek language tapes for 10 weeks before the trip, I felt closer to the culture by being able to read and speak Greek numbers, signs, and place names. Good preparation will help your mind cut through the commercialized modern clutter which surround popular tourist destinations.


Historical fiction:

  • The historical fiction and romance Voice of the Goddess (by Judith Hand, 2001) enlivens Crete’s Minoan era based upon archaeological evidence and the author’s imagination (or “Keftian” era, since the Egyptians of 1500 BC called Crete “Keftiu”). She also wrote The Amazon and the Warrior, a novel of Troy.
  • Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2007) by Tom Holland. In the fifth century BC, the global superpower of Persia was determined to bring truth and order to two terrorist states, Athens and Sparta. The small city-states of Greece take on the Great King of Persia in a heart-stopping story where they save not only themselves but Western civilization.

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