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Thursday, December 18, 2014

On the Trail of 'The Lord of the Rings'

I originally posted this piece about "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" sites in New Zealand on October 24, 2013, shortly after I visited them. With the release of the the final segment in the Hobbit trilogy, however, I thought it would be appropriate to update this one a little and post it again! 

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND  One of the most enjoyable things I did on my recent trans-Pacific voyage from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia, was to take a tour in Wellington, New Zealand, that took me to a number of the sites where The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were filmed, to include a visit to Peter Jackson's Weta Studios! Following are some representative photos from this experience. The New Zealand fantasy film industry was, in fact, one of the things I spoke about during my tour of duty as Destination Lecture about the Royal Caribbean International vessel Radiance of the Seas, and is one of the things I will spoke about at a number of 2014 conventions, including Dallas Comic & Pop Expo (March 1-2) and Comicpalooza (May 23-26)Above right is the entrance to the municipal park where several of the scenes associated with the departure of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin from the shire were filmed. 

 
Above left, Ted Guise of Wellington Movie Tours displayed on a laptop scenes filmed at the various spots we visited. Above center, a scene from the Lord of the Rings shot in the tree pictured in the upper right corner of the first image; above right, me and Diane Varhola recreating the scene in question with props provided by Guise.  

Above left, Guise also brought story boards depicting stills from The Lord of the Rings, this one showing the scene in which the Hobbits roll down the hill into the woods after being chased by Farmer Maggot. Above right, our recreation of Frodo and the Hobbits where they landed on the road, played by me and a trio of au pairs. 

Above left, in the foreground four tour goers recreate the actions of the Hobbits as they hid below the road, while in the background four others represent the Dark Rider, its horse, and the roots and tree depicted in the scene — which were artificial and created for the film! Above center, the clever Guise showed our group how to replicate the image of a Dark Rider in silhouette. At right, our actors can be seen in their guise as a Dark Rider. 

Above and below left, some of the life-sized Troll statues displayed at the Weta Cave, which provide ample opportunities for amusing fan photography. 

Above center, the Weta Cave has on display numerous props and models from The Lord of the Rings and other movies produced by the studio. Above right, we had the opportunity to go beyond the red door while we are at Weta Studios, where we learned about props and models created for their movies! Photography was not allowed but anyone who cares can buy me a beer and I will tell them about all the wonderful things we saw there.  

Above left, a glimpse at the massive green screen at Weta Studios — note that the wall it is built on is made of stacked up-shipping containers! Above right, some of the rocks along the shore of Wellington Harbor that were used as models for the stonework in the lair of Shelob the giant spider. 

If you are in Wellington, New Zealand, or will be visiting it, be sure to check out the Lord of the Rings tour to see all of this and more yourself. Otherwise, be sure to check out one of my great presentations during the convention season in 2014! 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Aegean Odyssey: A Brief Retrosepctive

A big trip like the one my wife and I have just returned home from makes me contemplate, for good reason, the purpose of travel. To me, it is to learn about the world and better understand one's own place in it; to make connections with people from other lands, both natives of the areas visited and fellow travelers; and to share ones' experiences with others, both in person and through venues like this. Ideally, a person will come back from a trip of this sort with new ideas, a new perspective on their old ones, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose. Suffice it to say that we accomplished with our Aegean Odyssey everything we might have expected. 

In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, hospitality and how people treated strangers was extremely important and was, not to put too fine a point on it, integral to the continued existence of civilization itself. Commerce with other lands could not take place if travelers were subjected to theft or violence or were not able to obtain from their journeys things commensurate in value to what they had expended on them. People like our friends Dimitri Kremmydas in Athens and Michael Townsend in Crete may just be mortal people but, in that they invited us into their homes and made our journey more fulfilling, they follow in the steps of paragons like Aeolus, who used his winds to carry travelers on their paths across the wine-dark sea. 

Many other people bear mentioning here and they include friends Richard and Laura Allan, who journeyed from their home in Scotland to spend six wonderful days with us in Santorini, our fourth reunion since we met them on a Nile River cruise in 2006; my friend Brendan Cass, who made monumental efforts to come to Kos Island for just a day-and-a-half so that he could experience it with me; Nathan and Alison Richards and Toni Symonds, who along with Michael Townsend made our time in Crete much more enriching; the staff of the Atlantis Hotel in Santorini; Stamatis Patiniotis at the Asimis Kolaitou Art Gallery and Giorgia at the Lignos Folklore Museum in Santorini; Mary, Voula Mavrea, and the other staff of the Small Village resort on Kos Island; teacher and caretaker Julie, who shared her knowledge of the Hippocrates Garden with us and her friend Dora, an archaeologist who discussed history and mythology with me; and Sophia Stavrianou at the Porfyris Hotel, who provided excellent advice that helped us make the most of our time on the island of Nisyros. Thanks also to Tracie Conner for getting us to the airport on our way out and to Karen Holmes for picking us up there and to Taylor Conner for taking such good care of our cats while we were on the road. And there are undoubtedly other deserving people I may have neglected to mention in this quick recap of our trip and I beg their forgiveness and will be sure to add them as I update it! 

We encountered villains in the course of our travels as well and, while their impact was much less than that of the good people we met, they bear mentioning. These scourges of the Aegean include the swine that lurk at the port of Santorini and other islands and will not answer polite questions while trying to sell overpriced shuttle rides; the many shiftless taxi drivers of Rhodes, who will drive past visitors hauling luggage up the street in favor of giving ride around town to cruise ship passengers; the gypsies who create distractions with their drugged and abused children while their compatriots pick traveler's pockets; and the restaurants that provide substandard service and food to strangers because they do not think they will have to deal with them again or prefer to deal only with those who speak particular languages. Heracles, Theseus, and the other heroes of antiquity would certainly have wreaked a terrible vengeance on them all. 

Many friends followed our journey, commented on it, and provided encouragement to us during it and I would like to thank them for that. Interestingly, a number of friends commented in response to my posts during this trip about how I don't stop working even while on vacation, which points to the fact that of all the things a prolonged trip like this is to me a vacation is not really one of them. Yes, a journey like this can and ideally should have elements of fun and relaxation, but our four-week odyssey through the Aegean was often physically demanding, was expensive, and was attended by elements of uncertainty and hazard. If we just wanted a vacation we could have much more easily, inexpensively, and quickly gone to Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Disney World, or a hundred other places. 

So this trip was much more than any mere vacation could have been, I achieved my goals with it, and, while I am physically exhausted, I have been mentally stimulated -- and am hitting the ground running with an eye to finishing up projects I set aside when we went overseas and to jumping into ones that are exciting and altogether new. And being inspired and invigorated by a trip is, I think, the most someone can expect from it. 


Friday, August 29, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 27 (Kos/Athens)

Took an early morning flight from Kos to Athens, checked into the Sofitel at the airport, and spent the afternoon with friend Dimitri Kremmydas discussing everything from culture, politics, and religion to wargaming and learning how to make phyllo dough and spanokopita! 

More to come! 


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 24 (Kos City/Nisyros)

Spent the morning in Kos City and then traveled by Dodecanese Lines high-speed ferry to the nearby island of Nisyros, a journey of about an hour, where we checked into the Porfyris Hotel. 

More to come! 


Monday, August 25, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 23 (Kos City)


Purchased ferry tickets to the nearby island of Nisyros, washed in the waters flowing from the fountain beneath the Plane Tree of Hippocrates, and then spent the rest of the day tramping through central Kos City from one archaeological or historical site to another! Got some insights into the history of the city and island over the millennia. 


The marble facade on the fountain shown here dates to the time of the Ottoman Empire control of Kos. According to my friend Saleem Shaikh, it is a combination of Arabic and Persian and means in part: "Allah of this stream shows us that Allah gives life ... beware! Allah can produce ease to whom he wishes.

More to come! 






Sunday, August 24, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 22 (Kos Island/Kos City)

Visited Hippocrates Garden, a reconstructed 5th century B.C. physician's home, early in the day with Diane and Brendan Cass. Then, left the Mastichari area, saw Brendan off at the airport in Antimachea, and took the bus into Kos City for a couple of days. 

More to come! 



Saturday, August 23, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 21 (Kos Island)

Spent the day exploring as much of Kos Island as possible with Brendan Cass! Rented a quad ATV and visited first the mountain villages of old and new Pyli, Lagoudi, and Zia, and then ran out to the western end of the island and ventured into the hills above Kefalos. Gained some amazing insights for the "Swords of Kos Fantasy Campaign Setting" that we are developing for our Skirmisher Publishing LLC


More to come! 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 19 (Rhodes)

Ventured out this morning after a substantial breakfast at Esperia Hotel to visit the spot where the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was believed to have been located. Today the spots where the great statue of Helios, titan of the sun, are believed to have had its feet placed are marked by pillars with statues of deer on them. 

Then, entered the medieval Old Town through one of the port gates and headed south, following the line of the walls clockwise around the town. Hard to get good pictures much of the time but we discovered that once we got beyond the area where there were any shops or tavernas that we suddenly had much more elbow room and could relax a little. Entered the outer moat once we reach the west side of the walls and walked through it, much of it park-like, until we reached a spot near the Palace of the Grand Masters where we could reenter the town itself. 

It was hot and we were a little worn out by that point and so, after sitting on a bench in the shade for awhile, headed back to the hotel, where Diane took a nap and I wrote and worked awhile. Going to decide now what we are going to do for the rest of the day. 

More to come! 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 18 (Rhodes)

Arrived on Rhodes after an overnight Blue Star ferry from Santorini. No taxis at port and just one overtaxed city bus and, like dozens of other people, we had to drag our luggage up to the main road and then, after getting rudimentary directions, along the irregular sidewalk in the direction of our hotel; very tough on Diane in particular. 

More to come! 





Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 17 (Santorini)

Busy last day on Santorini! Visited the wonderful Lignos Folklore Museum where we learned numerous fascinating things about the history and culture of the island; had delicious wine, fava, and saganaki at local restaurant Assyrtico; and packed out and got ready to take an overnight ferry to the next stop on our journey, the island of Rhodes!

More to come! 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 16 (Santorini)

Wanted to do something a little different today and get away from the crowds choking the narrow streets of Fira and so hiked out past the edge of edge of town and along a stretch of desolate coastline that we had ridden along several times by bus. Was very pleased to stumble upon the Asimis Kolaitou Art Gallery and spent some time chatting with curator Stamatis Patiniotis about the exhibits and in the course of our discussion learned a number of interesting things about Santorini from him. 

More to come! 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 15 (Santorini)

Visited two museums, foot-and-hand-washed laundry in the bathtub, tried to do some writing and updating of my blogs while being plagued throughout the day by bad Internet connection and difficulty keeping the computer powered up, and had a gyro each for first and second dinner. 

After breakfast we walked up through town to the vicinity of the museums I wanted to visit. When we arrived at the Archaeological museum Diane confided that, with only 56 hours until our departure from Santorini, she was "concerned about the laundry" and we both agreed it would be best if she went back to the hotel to work on it. My guess is that she had glanced into the foyer of the museum when we walked past it the day before and recalled that it was dominated by pots, certainly the sort of antiquity she hates the most. 

Archaeological Museum
To say that I was a bit disappointed with the museum is not to diminish the many wonderful things its two halls, configured in an L-shape, contained. It is the only museum I have visited on this trip, however, where I was provided with no brochure or other guiding information, and about half the items were not labeled in any way, leaving visitors to guess at their provenance and somewhat uncertainly figure things out on their own; there did not even appear to be a guidebook available for sale. 


In general, a preponderance of the artifacts dated to the 7th and 8th century B.C. and were from local ancient cemeteries. Certainly the most striking and beautiful of the objects was the lifelike bust of the goddess Aphrodite (above), which still retained much of the pigment that had been used to color her hair. Other things I particularly enjoyed were the ceramic items with depictions of birds eating snakes, a theme that appears to have predominated in the iconography of local grave goods from this period; and some humorous and even somewhat vulgar statuettes that appeared to have been in vogue for a time, such as a satyr mounted on a fat little donkey that almost could have been the model for the one in Shrek. 

I love artifacts like these because of the connections they make for us with the past and the sorts of questions they prompt. How did someone feel about the person they buried this with? What would I want to be buried with? Contemplating these ancient peoples in this way always makes me quite emotional and I hope part of them knows that they are being remembered and mourned anew. 

Santozeum
Located just a half block down the hill from the Archaeological Museum and apparently situated in what had once been a large private residence is the Santozeum, a museum dedicated to full-sized reproductions of frescoes discovered in the ruined city of Akrotiri. Upon entering visitors are provided with a laminated booklet that provides a crash course in Theran wall paintings and which explains the iconography of those on exhibit; there is also a brief video with interviews with the Princeton archaeologists involved with the restoration of the frescoes. One of the most impressive of the works is certainly that depicting the extended sea voyage of a Minoan fleet from the 2nd millennium B.C., which includes representations of four different Bronze Age seaports. As with the nearby Museum of Prehistoric Thira, a visit to the Santozeum complements one to the archaeological dig at Akrotiri and helps make a trip to it complete. 

When I got back to the hotel Diane dumped some soap and two weeks worth of my laundry into the tub and, after letting it soak in hot water for around half an hour, I got in and stamped around on it for about 10 minutes before working each piece a little by hand. Seemed very reminiscent of pictures I have seen of people stomping grapes for wine and made me wonder if anyone would ever discover a fresco at Akrotiri that would get dubbed "Washerwomen of Thera"; asked Diane to take a picture for posterity but she declined. Then, as I wrung out each piece Diane rinsed it in the sink, wrung it out again, and then found a place to hang it on one of our two balconies. I don't think it was too obtrusive but, suffice it to say, the hotel won't be using any pictures of it taken this afternoon for its new brochure. 


Headed out to find somewhere casual to eat and, after wandering around lower Fira a little, rejected one place because it looked "too hot" and another probable-looking establishment simply because it was named "Meat Corner." Finally stopped at a gyros shop called McDaniel's Snack Bar, where Diane had a pork gyros and I had a lamb kebab pita, both good, along with a couple of cans of Coke Light (hours later I was hungry again and wandered a few streets down to Nick the Grill, where I had a delicious lamb gyro that had a nice hot blob of fat in it). 

Watched the sun set over the caldera from our terrace while the crowds milled below and cheered as it descended beneath the horizon, a tradition that irritates Diane (and which is, admittedly, a little strange; for time immemorial people have celebrated the rising of the sun and even gone to great pains to ensure it would happen, and this is certainly a new spin on that). Then, I went downstairs to the "Colonial Room" and ordered a cup of coffee. I chatted with the barman, Giorgio from Athens, while he went through the prolonged process and learned he was working at the hotel for the season and very much liked Santorini. 

"There are many islands," Giorgio said. "There is only one Santorini." 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 14 (Santorini)

Sadly, today was our last day with Richard and Laura! A week with them went by pretty quickly and was over too soon. 

We met for breakfast at 10 a.m. and, as it was damp on the terrace of the Atlantis Hotel, we ate inside for the first time since we arrived. Richard and Laura checked out right at 11 and then we moved their luggage into our room for the day and, after chatting awhile, realized we still needed a picture of all of us on our premium balcony. I approached the desk clerk, who was hanging around by the bar entrance, and he seconded a guest who was having a cup of coffee there for the task. I lined up the shot and even took a sample (top right), but somehow the settings got changed after I handed over the camera and the one with all four of us did not come out quite as crisp (below right). 


We then decided to head out and wander around Fira a bit, heading up to the area of the cable car that goes down to the port and scouting the locations of two of the three museums in Fira I still wanted to visit, the one for Classical antiquities and the Zantozeum. After circling back toward the hotel on a side street that took us past the Highlander -- where Richard and I resisted the urge to step in for a quick one -- we decided to have a bite at Ampelos, the place we had met the Allans for our first drink of the vacation with them a week earlier. I had a delicious artichoke heart stew with peas, carrots, potatoes, and Santorini tomatoes, while Diane had a Caesar salad, Laura had the fresh fried calamari, and Richard enjoyed a pork "Slovaki." We induced the waiter to shoot a brief video segment of us giving our famous "Yamas, Ya' Bas'!" toast, which was one of the trademark watchwords of our vacation together (bottom). While we were sitting there, we were amused to look over at the Naoussa Restaurant and see one of its waiters escorting customers from the nearly-empty terrace down the outer stairway toward the vault we had been taken to! Someone else apparently had not measured up to the stringent standards they expect of paying guests. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking water and wine on our terrace at the hotel and, among other things Richard and I agreed in principal that we were overdue to embark on some sort of project together and would look at doing so once he completed his doctorate and I had cleared my slate a bit. We put the Allans in a cab to the airport at 7:30 and wished them a safe, speedy, and comfortable journey home, where they were looking forward to several days of primitive camping in the sunless and drizzly hills of their rugged homeland.  

Around 8:30 I went and got us some takeout from Chinese Famous Foods a few blocks away. Suffice it to say that this restaurant has zero ambience but I had a nice chat with Orestes, the young Albanian/Greek guy that takes orders for the older Chinese men that run the establishment; among other things, I learned that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had visited Santorini by yacht last year and that he had gotten his picture taken with them.  And, lack of ambience aside, we were pleased to discover that the food was excellent and thoroughly enjoyed our numbers 1, 24, 43, and 53 (hot and sour soup, pork with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, stir-fried noodles with vegetables, and fried rice).

Dozed for a couple of hours while the thoroughly mediocre street musician that has plagued us this week droned out the handful of songs he knows, again and again, for about three hours over by the bell tower of the Greek Orthodox cathedral; waited in vain for Bono to arrive and slap him with an injunction preventing him  from continuing to ruin With or Without You. Then, got up, worked and played my Grepolis computer game for about three hours, and then had a beer on the terrace and turned in. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Aegean Odyssey Day 12 (Santorini)

Had a long an tiring but very fun excursion into the caldera of Santorini that included climbing up to the volcanic peak of the island known as Nea Kameni, swimming in the sulfurous hot spring of nearby Paleo Kameni, and exploring the island of Thirassia! 

Had to get up and meet for breakfast fairly early so that we could be at the bus pickup point in front of the hospital, a few blocks down the hill, by 9:50. Then rode to the commercial port a few miles away and boarded our vessel, King Thiras, one of five traditional Santorinian ships used for local tours. Perhaps less traditional is their lack of sails, which appear only to be either rigged, or perhaps just photoshopped in, for promotional photos, modern diesel engines being apparently being used exclusively for motive power now. 

Upon landing at Nea Kameni, the steaming lava-rock island in the caldera of Santorini, we hiked up to the low peak of the volcano, which only took about half an hour but between the heat and rough terrain was still a decent walk (at right are Laura, Richard, and Diane at the summit). Back on the boat Richard and I had a beer to relieve the rigors of the hike. 

Sailed on to Palea Kameni, where we were able to jump off the ship and swim about 100 yards into an inlet where a sulfurous hot spring disgorged water into the sea. Richard stayed behind to protect our gear and seats from the depredations of fellow tourists, while Diane, Laura, and I made the swim. Tough going and, not being particularly buoyant, I was pretty work out by the time I made it back to the ship. Richard and I had another beer. 

Continued on to the island of Thirassia, where we shared a lunch of chicken and pork souvlaki, fries, and two liters of wine. Richard and I then walked it off a bit and took some photos of the lower part of the island, a hike to the top of the mountain and the upper part being more than we were up for by that point (a picture of the port of Thirassia appears at right). 

Long boat ride back to the port, via Oia on Santorini for people who had signed on for the sunset dinner portion of the tour, and then took a bus back to our starting point. Women took showers when we got back but Richard and I opted for a cold plunge into the hotel pool. 

Had late dinner at a terrific new Italian place a few blocks away from the hotel called Convivium. I had a delicious fritto misto that included prawns, squid, octopus, and batter-fried vegetables (below right), Diane had a tortellini of some sort, Laura had a beautiful bit of duck, and Richard had a pizza. It was all very nice and everyone was pleased. 

After dinner Richard and I went to check out a bar called the Highlander, where I got some choice insights into Scottish culture and we had beers and some complimentary shots of something orange (at bottom is a picture of the second-oldest person in the establishment, as photographed by the oldest one). We then came back to the "Colonial Room" at our hotel, where we successfully prevailed upon the front desk clerk to serve us snifters of Metaxa and thereafter spent a couple of hours discussing geopolitics, sustainability, and the popular form of apparel known as UtilitKilts. 


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Naoussa Restaurant (Santorini, Greece)

With as many restaurants as there are in Santorini, one would think that proprietors would do everything they could to please the people who walk through their doors and not deliberately offend paying guests. Unless you want to quite possibly be treated badly, however, and maybe still not get anything to eat, you will want to make a point of avoiding the Naoussa Restaurant here. 

As guests of the Atlantis Hotel next door, my wife and I and the other couple we are with here had had our eyes on Naoussa for several days and, after a day exploring the island, decided to get cleaned up and go over there for dinner one night. When we got there, a man who we understand to be the owner sized us up and asked us if we had reservations. This seemed like an absolutely absurd question, as the place was almost empty and not more than half the tables actually had anyone sitting at them! 


We told him we did not and, at that point, everything might have ended well enough if we had just walked away. The proprietor, however, a fellow that looked something like a little Mickey Rourke, offered to recommend "another restaurant," which immediately got my hackles up, as the last thing I need is someone assessing which restaurant is appropriate for me. 


Declining his offer for guidance to whatever restaurant he thought would be more suitable for us, we started to leave and -- ideally just would have -- when the maitre'd said that yes, they actually did have a table for us! He then had a waiter lead us down a set of stairs to the lower level of the restaurant, which was also about half full and, while not as airy, did have one side open to the sea. One of the tables had children at it and this was the clearly the area intended for parties that the restaurant did not want displayed in it most public areas and I was trying to figure out which of the empty tables they would seat us at. 

They led us right through through this area, however, right past a laundry room and into a stifling vault at the back of the restaurant that was clearly being used as a storage area! At that point, thoroughly disgusted, with my wife beginning to gasp from the close atmosphere and the waiter starting to clear debris off the unused table in this grim space, we did finally all just turn around and walk away. 

A little research revealed that three other restaurants are affiliated with Naoussa Restaurant, Ellis Restaurant, Daphne Family Tavern, and Olympos Family Greek Tavern. While I have not eaten at any of them and cannot comment on their food I would not go to any of them for fear of suffering the same humiliating treatment as the result of a prevailing attitude shared by all of them. 

I am not sure what prompted the staff at Naoussa to treat us the way they did but I really don't care that much about the reasons. I put up with this sort of horrible crap for years when I was a soldier or a student backpacking around Europe and I am done with it. A restaurant that acts this way toward potential patrons does not deserve business from anyone. It bears mentioning, in any event, that our group consisted of two young to middle-aged couples and that we had gotten cleaned up and dressed for dinner and were not in any way grungy, attired in beachwear, or the like. We also had money that we did not and never will spend at Naoussa or any of the other establishments affiliated, and have a platform for warning other people about what they can expect from this strange and unfortunate place. They can be sure that the comments that appear here will also be reflected on TripAdvisor and a number of other travel-oriented sites.