Sunday, October 30, 2011

Our Tour d'Eifel

We thought German towns couldn't get any cuter. Then we went to Monschau, a tiny, touristy town in the Eifel (a national park full of rolling hills and trees). Luckily, we came late enough in the "summer" that most of the tourists, except for the Belgians, were gone. Monschau is conveniently located about one hour by bus south-by-southeast away from our house, right on the Belgian border.

The first thing we did was go to Das Rote Haus (the Red House). Built in 1752, this was the home and office of a successful cloth merchant. Much of the original decor has been preserved. It was only 5 euros and, most importantly, it was well heated for us morning visitors. (We set a record by getting out of the house for one of our Saturday day trips by 9 AM!)

Self-supporting staircase, much slanted toward the center:


Silver tea service:


Us with a gruesome little sculpture:


Cal-colored room!


Ridiculous rainbow chandelier that looks as though it were made of little pieces of candy, hanging in the children's room:


There's a picture of the exterior of the Red House a little later. I bet you'll be able to pick it out. (Hint: the red is actually pretty pink.)

Monschau was in the middle of a three-day Halloween celebration. There were decorations up all over town, and they were doing face-painting for dressed-up kids in the market square. (Almost all the kids were either witches or ghosts. We saw one mummy and one vampire. I guess Germans are all about the classics.) Tyler and I saw this ghost and cracked up at the exact same time--German ghosts say BUH!


We'll have to go back to Monschau in a few weeks, after Halloween has been replaced by Christmas. It seems like a Christmas kind of town--not only do they have a seasonal Christmas market, they have a year-round Christmas store. It contained three stories stuffed with Christmas decorations for all tastes--there were cupcake ornaments, elegantly bedazzled balls, and corseted-female-figure ornaments.

Monschau is nestled among hills and clustered around two streams. As you can see, the fall colors were at their peak. Frankly, these pictures don't do it justice--we'd both stop every two minutes and gaze and sigh at the beautiful vistas.

Several buildings, like this hotel (Hotel Stern, in the middle), have private bridges leading to them. As you can see, the half-timbered houses here were among the most ornate, most crooked houses we've seen in Germany. And we've seen quite a few.



The town also boasts a fortress on a hill (left side):


Das Rote Haus! Also ruins, on the opposite hill (top right):


The hills are full of beautiful natural rock outcroppings, along with man-made (though very old) stone steps and walls.


Tyler with the view:


After lunch we climbed up to get a better look at the ruins. The sun finally came out!


There wasn't much to see at the ruins, but we saw the city from another beautiful angle.


Here's another private bridge. I want to live in that house.


One of the highlights of the trip was having Old World food. We were very hungry after all our climbing around, so we started with roasted chestnuts in the market square:


This was our first time trying them. Delicious. They were extremely hot, but the flesh was surprisingly flavorful and had a great texture. We're hopeful that there will be lots of them in the Aachen Christmas Market. We also found a Belgian waffle shop. The waffles were fantastic. We had them for a snack to accompany out chestnuts. Then, since we had an hour before the bus back to Aachen came, we went back for one more. And a Coke. What a great day!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Board Game Heaven

On Saturday we went to Essen and Board Game Heaven, aka SPIEL, the world's largest annual board game conference. Yes, we are geeky that way (although you already knew that). It turns out, though, that there you don't have to be at all geeky to want to go to a board game conference in Germany. It is pretty mainstream. There were tons of totally normal-looking people there, including lots of families with kids. There were also some weirdos, complete with elaborate costumes and rainbow-colored hair. Anyway, there were A LOT of people of all kinds there. It was a madhouse.



That's only one room of 6 (8? I don't even know) stuffed with people and games. After wandering one hall for about 10 minutes trying to see the games and figure out what you were supposed to actually do here, we got brave and just went up to a counter and demanded a game to play. Then it took us another 15 minutes to carve out enough space on the floor to set up the rather large game board. There were lots of tables, but we were able to snag one on only 2 occasions in the course of the day.

**Alert: The next 2 paragraphs are for our fellow board game geeks.**
We played a total of 5 games (Qwirkle, Asara, 7 Wonders, The Forbidden Island, and Hexen Hochhaus (Witch Skyscraper)) and bought the first 2. Qwirkle is the Game of the Year 2011--it's simple, elegant, and hard. It's kind of like dominoes, Set, and Rummikub combined. Asara is about building towers. It has very nice art and an interesting mechanic. 7 Wonders was also really fun, but very complicated. We didn't get it because it was pretty expensive, and since the English rules aren't out yet I wasn't confident that we'd be able to figure out how to play it correctly. (Reading board game rules in German is really hard.) Forbidden Island is a cooperative game. We thought it was only okay. Hexen Hochhaus is a children's game that Tyler wanted to play, I think because of the name. When we went up to ask for it and asked how long it took to play, the woman gave us a strange look and said, "It's very short--it's a game for 4-year-olds."

Tyler had a geeky-yet-exciting appointment with Hanno, one of the designers of Agricola, our favorite game. Hanno wanted to talk to him about the 6-player rules for Agricola that Tyler has developed. Tyler explained the changes to him in about 2 minutes. Hanno thought for a second, then said, "I think you'd still be a little short on food." Tyler had used about 6 spreadsheets to get the distribution of resources right for his adaptation. This guy did that math in his head, on the spot. Tyler is emailing him the changes, so we'll see if anything comes of it. In the meantime, Hanno gave us 2 free sets of Agricola player pieces in new colors--score!

We are already formulating our plans for next year. We'll avoid the crowds by going earlier in the 4-day event, and we'll stay a night in Essen so we can go on Thursday AND Friday and play way more of the available games. Who's joining us?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Breakfast of Champions

Last night/This morning, Sara had a very early online session for one of her classes. She got up at 3:40 am to make it to her 4:00 online session, which lasted until about 6. She went back to bed until I woke her up at 10:30. She was still feeling pretty groggy, so I suggested this fine meal as a pick-me-up. It totally worked. The breakfast of champions.

Breakfast of Champions

(The attentive reader will notice the return of the Nougat Bits to our house. They, like good friends, are always welcome.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fills like Fall for Rill

It's starting to get chilly over here at the Meldrumhaus, and there's no getting around it: it fills like fall for rill. (This silly spelling is based on the accent often used in the Intermountain West region of the United States and translates roughly as "it feels like fall for real.")

While we're sad to leave the (obnoxiously rainy) summer months behind, the clear, blue days are really beautiful, and it's nice to sit down to a mug of tea in the evenings. Also, we've been thinking about the really cold weather to come. I've acquired my first real winter coat in over five years, Sara has some new waterproof shoes, and we're going to Paris and Brussels with my brother, Jaren, the week before Christmas. It's pretty exciting.

A couple of visual indicators of this transformation in Aachen. The tree outside our house is changing colors:

There are beautiful pumpkins and other gourds at the store:

And the Weckmänner are here:

These last guys are pretty interesting. I saw them for the first time about a week ago walking by our local (and currently favorite) bakery, Moss; turns out they're all over town now. They're made of a slightly sweet dough with two raisins for eyes and a sugar cube navel (other varieties exist that don't use sugar cubes), and they hold pipes made of clay. As best as we can tell, they're the symbol for Saint Martin's Day (November 11). Saint Martin was a kind soldier who lived in the 4th century AD. Once, while walking/riding around, he saw a beggar in the cold. Being so benevolent, St. Martin took out a knife and cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. (He kept half so he himself wouldn't die in the cold, apparently.) To honor Martin's generosity, on the 10th children will make little paper lanterns and then the following day will go around in a parade where they will be rewarded with candy and other small treats, including Weckmänner. I don't really know how the Weckmänner came to be the symbol for this festival, but they are pretty good! (Sadly, we'll be traveling by train to Berlin on St. Martin's Day, so we may not have much by way of pictures to post this year. Hopefully we'll see something in Berlin and can photograph and report.)

As we learn more and more German, we find more and more to share with you. This time I have some stories relating to the culture of addressing people, both formally with "Sie" and informally with "du." Lots of languages have two forms of address, including Spanish, Lithuanian, and, formerly, English (you and thou were formal and informal, respectively). The culture of when to address people formally and when informally varies quite a bit within the languages. For example, in (Argentine) Spanish, people almost exclusively use "vos" (informal) unless addressing a much older complete stranger. In Lithuanian, I use "Jūs" (formal) with people I don't know and people who are older than me, but otherwise it's usually "tu" (informal). While I anticipated some level of formality in German, it turns out to be more austere than I expected. For example, at a recent conference in Bonn, it came up that I address the professor with whom I work by his first name. The German graduate students I was speaking with were stunned. "You... you say, 'Bernhard' and not 'Professor Blümich?'" They just couldn't understand that level of informality with a professor, someone who commands respect. They told me that they always use "Sie" with their professors, who use it with them in return, and that often even professors address each other with the formal "Sie" and use last names, rather than first names.

Sara had two interesting stories relating to using "Sie" and "du." A few weeks ago, she was auditioning for the Aachen Bach choir. During the audition, the director and Sara used "Sie," since they didn't know one another. After the audition, the director (unsurprisingly) liked Sara's singing and invited her to join the choir if she wished. He very politely and formally asked, "Oh, one thing. In the choir we use first names and 'du.' Is that okay with you?" Such a ritual, a definite event, to define how choir members should address one another!

A similar process took place last Saturday where Sara, looking for opportunities to work in any library, volunteered for a "Freiwilling für Aachen" (a city-wide volunteer day) event in a church-community center near us. The director asked the three volunteers to introduce themselves, each of whom talked for approximately five minutes, recounting lots of personal details like loss of employment and divorce. (Sara gave her standard, three-German-sentences introduction.) After introductions, another volunteer suggested that, to keep things easy for Sara, they should use first names rather than "Frau So-and-so." The volunteers agreed, but the director then asked, "Well, if we're using first names, should we use 'du,' too?" They all consented and, after the ritual of establishing "du-ism," the work commenced. Interestingly, when another volunteer showed up after the work had begun, the director quickly pulled her aside to introduce the protocol: "We're using first names, and we're using 'du.'" Pretty crazy how defined the "du"/"Sie" relationships are!

I was thinking about a Lithuanian verb "tujinti," which means to address someone with the informal form "tu." I thought that surely German has an equivalent, though we hadn't heard it yet. Sure enough, "duzen" and "siezen" mean "to address someone with 'du'" and "to address someone with 'Sie,'" respectively. German precision at its finest.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kirchen, Kornelimünster, and the Fleischwolf

Upon our (wet and cold) return to Aachen from Greece, Sara and I were both a little in the post-vacation-in-one-of-the-most-beautiful-places-in-the-world doldrums. However, our city of Aachen was quick to lift our spirits and remind us that we really do like living in Germany. First was the Nacht der Offenen Kirchen--the Night of the Open Churches. Many of the churches in the city opened their doors to all visitors from about 6 pm until midnight with free tours, concerts, and people explaining more about church. I think that's a pretty clever idea for such a secular society. It was pretty cool because Sara sang in her first choir concert since she left the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in June. Figuralchor Aachen, Sara's new vocal ensemble here, is a group of about 20 people that sing a cappella music, and that quite well. Their concert was about 40 minutes long and included works by Byrd, Kodály, and Holst, among others. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to catch any video of the singing as I was in the center of the church right in front of others, and I didn't want to obstruct their view. However, the music was good and the evening was enjoyable, if a little (and, at times, a lot) rainy.

After the concert, Sara and I took advantage of the open church night to check out the Dom, the central cathedral in Aachen. (We'd been there once before, as you may recall.) It was far more spectacular this time. They had completed (or at least temporarily suspended for the exhibition) the renovations on the second floor. That meant that, while we couldn't go to the second floor, we could see all of the mosaics and murals above us, together with the organ. It was gorgeous and quite sparkly--so much gold tiling! Again, no pictures (we weren't sure if they were allowed or not), but we'll do a real tour soon and then you'll see it up close and personal! Speaking of up close, we also got to see the chests/arks/things in which Charlemagne's remains are kept. There were phenomenally ornate and quite beautiful--and they looked heavy! Also, the weirdest thing we saw was a podium or lectern cast in metal with three lions making the support on the ground, a large eagle facing an audience, and, attached to the eagle's back and making the place where the book would be placed for the reader, a large bat. Again, you'll need to see the pictures to understand, but it was crazy. And pretty cool. Like Aachen.

The day after the Nacht der Offenen Kirchen, Aachen hosted another festival: the Kunst und Kulinaria (Art and Culinary) festival in the piece of Aachen known as Kornelimünster, about 45 minutes by bus from us, and just a few minutes by the same bus from our church. The festival itself was nice--a little pricey, but full of cute crafts and delicious food. (Notable foods include the Zwiebelkuchen--an onion tart--with onions, egg, rosemary, and some apple slices that was really good, and some fancy jams. Fancy as in Raspberry-Rhubarb and Blackberry-Apple-Cinnamon. So good.) Perhaps more notable than the festival was the town itself. Take a look!




After looking around, I remarked to Sara, "I think we just found the Marin County of Aachen!"

Also in Kornelimünster, we noticed an advertisement for an event the previous night (thus, one in conflict with Sara's concert) that was some live rock music performed, apparently, by Charlemagne:
We're pretty bummed we missed that one.

One more crazy thing we discovered in Kornelimünster: pay toilets. Now, we've seen these before, but we hadn't yet used them. Since we were pretty tired still from the lack of sleep on Thursday night and the long day of travel on Friday, Tyler had consumed about 2 liters of Cucasaft (our word for Coke--taken from a spin on "Coke juice"), leading to his need to pay 50 cents to use the bathroom. It was 50 cents so well spent that Sara did it too. Here's the bathroom itself:

You pay your money (no change provided, though), and the door slides open automatically. The toilet itself doesn't have a drain, as shown here:

So what you do is, well, what one normally does in a bathroom. Then, when you leave, the toilet tips into the wall floor (after careful review, the geometry indicated that tipping into the wall is impossible), dumping the contents in a sanitary and environmentally-friendly place, and the whole bathroom is cleaned and sanitized (desinfiziert, they say). It's even left a little wet after the cleaning, so you know it was done right. So crazy! An outhouse that is sanitized after every use! Of course, Sara and I are most perplexed by how they keep the toilet paper dry during cleaning. Hmm....

One more tidbit. As part of Tyler's continual quest to find crazy German words, a new entry from the weekly advertisements has come through. In German, das Fleisch is meat and der Wolf is, naturally, wolf. So, what would one expect from combining the two into der Fleischwolf? The meat-eating wolf? A wolf sculpted from meat? No no, it's much more simple:
Der Fleischwolf is a meat grinder! Who knew. Pigs that save and wolves that grind your beef. What's not to love about German?

Epilogue: The Return of the Haus

Note: Our trip to Greece is so breathtaking that we needed to split it into four-and-a-half blog posts to cover it all. This is the epilogue. You can go back to parts onetwothree, or four if you'd like. But take your time--it's really beautiful!

Our four-part blog about Greece probably didn't answer all of your questions. Like why were we there in the first place? Or what did we eat? (The latter is especially relevant for those of you who know us--and our love for food--too well.)

The whole point of this trip was for Tyler's work. I mentioned the university where I work before, but haven't really taken any time to explain the science. The big idea is that we're trying to help art conservators and restorers to better understand their artifacts of cultural heritage (including paintings, musical instruments, old buildings, etc...) for the sake of preservation, restoration, and education. Our techniques involve the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (the same science that makes MRIs at the hospitals work), but instead of huge magnets in hospitals we use small portable ones that we can take with us, say to Crete. Our apparatus looks like this:

Here, we're looking at layers of mortar and paint on some frescoes in the Dominican Monastery of Saint Peter, built by Dominican monks in the early 13th century and pictured here:

The monastery was in pretty bad shape until recently (I think three years ago) when conservators replaced the roof on the whole building, helping protect it from the elements. Unfortunately for the frescoes, they pick up a lot of water from the sea (the building is right on the coast) and, since the ocean is salty, the salt comes up with the water and, as it migrates through the stone layers, ruins the frescoes. Our apparatus is unique among conservation techniques as it can give us information about what is going on up to about an inch (2.5 cm) into the material (that is, inside the wall) without even touching the wall. (In the picture above, the apparatus is about one millimeter away from the wall. We get close, but we never touch.) These frescoes, after the years, are in pretty bad shape and it seems doubtful that they can be restored, but we hope to learn about mitigating damage from the salt. Turns out that I'm just the guy to do it! (Together with the other scientists that have been doing this for much longer than I have.)

Not only did we take measurements in the monastery for two days (Monday and Tuesday), but there was a meeting of the CHARISMA project (Cultural Heritage Advanced Research Infrastructures: Synergy for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Conservation/Restoration), an EU-sponsored and funded project to get workers from different fields, including science, documentation, history, and restoration, to work together to develop technology and protocols for conservation and restoration. The meetings took place on Thursday and Friday and while, sadly, they contained an inordinately large bureaucratic component, I made several great contacts that will help propel this technology and this postdoc for a while.

The other thing you need to know about our time in Greece is that the food was amazing. I mean really, really great. We ate lots of Greek yogurt with honey and nuts and occasionally dates. (We're totally converted to honey now and are asking ourselves why it took us so long.) We ate moussaka with a lot of nutmeg in the potato mixture and it was awesome. Sara had a whole meal of seafood--a risotto with crab, mussels, and oysters. (If you know Sara's aversion to seafood, this was a big deal.) Tyler ate a cuttlefish in a wine sauce that was awesome. Fried tomato balls with bread and herbs. Souvlaki (which, turns out, is like šašlykai in Lithuania). Stuffed tomatoes and peppers. Dolmadas. Baklava. Homemade, chocolate-dipped ice cream bars (available in all finer bakeries on Crete). And an absolutely fantastic dessert, loukoumades--a fluffy-but-chewier form of a doughnut hole that is topped with a honey syrup and sesame seeds, but, as Sara says, "Is crunchier on the outside and more delicious [than a doughnut hole]." And that's how the whole trip was.

I couldn't help but compare the food we ate in Greece to the food I had in Italy, not that they're so similar, but that the quality was comparable. I'd say that the high-end stuff I ate in Florence (Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Pollo alla burro) was better than the Greek food we had. But when it comes to the day to day fare, the stuff that we could afford to eat, I think Greece may come out on top. (If there are any Italians reading this, our blog must've been hacked. I certainly wouldn't ever write something that inflammatory.) The only way to know is to keep going back. To both places. Lots of times.

Previously on our Tour de Greece: Santorini!

Sara and Tyler vs. the (remnant of the) Volcano

Note: Our trip to Greece is so breathtaking that we needed to split it into four-and-a-half blog posts to cover it all. This is part four. You can skip ahead to the epilogue, if you'd like, or you can go back to parts onetwo, or three. But take your time--it's really beautiful!

In our travels in Greece, we ran into only one minor problem with transportation: strikes. On the day we landed in Heraklion the taxis were all on strike, so we had to take a bus to the hotel--not too bad. On the day before our trip to Santorini, we got an email saying that our ferry back from Santorini had been canceled--bad.* We called several people and, after being given the run-around a few times, we learned that all that matters in Greece is if the tickets are in your hand. So we were able to track down a travel agent that was still open, exchange our ticket (for free, fortunately), and hop on a ferry to Santorini, knowing that we'd make it back to Heraklion and the airport. (Moral of the story--when you go to Greece and have ferry tickets, pay the fee to have them mailed to you--it's best to keep the tickets in hand.)

What we saw in Santorini was worth all of the stress (and expense) of getting there. It was stunning. We were staying in Perissa, a small town (they're all small towns) on the southeast side of the main island. There wasn't much by way of a gorgeous city like in Oia or Fira (see below), but the beach was amazing. Phenomenally clear water, beautifully black sand, two mountains and cliffs as a backdrop--it was fantastic. We spent time on both Wednesday and Thursday at the beach, just because we could.




We played in the water (which, though not terribly warm, was a lot warmer than the Pacific and Lake Tahoe, and surprisingly salty), we lay on the beach, and we skipped rocks. Near the beach we found a very odd sculpture of a donkey surrounded by five moons that I just must share--it'd have Galileo rolling in his grave.

After our time at the beach on Wednesday, we hopped a city bus to Oia (pronounced EE-uh), the city on the northwest corner of the main island. It was amazing. To illustrate:

This was the view at sunset--the entire city/island looked spectacular. All of the houses/buildings are built into the cliffs, which themselves are quite steep, and overlook the Mediterranean (Aegean) Sea on three sides. We were absolutely enchanted. Sara and I walked around the narrow streets for about 45 minutes as the sun was setting, looking at the water, the windmills, the houses, and the art galleries and other artsy things. We also went out for a fancy dinner for the first time in months. Here's a sampler of what we saw; the rest is, of course, at Flickr.



One of the most beautiful things there were the vacation homes for rent with the swimming pools carved into the cliffside. Yes, the pools themselves were cut into the rock and accessible from the house. I'd highly recommend this type of accommodation, if not for the €230/night price tag. In the low season. (Sorry, I don't have pictures from the poolsides--couldn't get past the guards at the gate.)

We went back to Perissa for the night (where, by the way, we stayed in a really cute and relatively inexpensive hotel called Zorzis. If you're going and want to be by the beach, check it out). In the morning we had breakfast and went to the beach again, then took a bus to Fira (sometimes written Thira), the capital city of Santorini, located roughly in the center of the island. (You can look at a map here.) While not quite as spectacular at Oia, it was still really great. For example, this beautiful church:

Or this overlook (where you can see Oia in the far background):

Or this view of the city itself, where you can maybe see one of the pools carved into the cliff (it's bright blue):

And here's a rough idea of the houses built into the cliffside:

After our time in Fira we headed back to the port and caught our (new, rescheduled!) ferry back to Heraklion, our last hotel, and eventually the airport. It was really sad to leave, but that island was perhaps the best part of the whole trip. Certainly because it was gorgeous, but also because I wasn't working and we just had some time together.

I think I can best summarize our feelings about Santorini by the following picture. This is Sara, overlooking Oia with the most genuine smile. I've seen that smile a few times before, but not too often. (For comparison, our wedding day was one of them.)

By the way, I should clarify that Santorini is the remnant of a volcano--still active, but mostly doused with water; hence the title of this post. There are several islands in the grouping and they form the southernmost part of the Cyclades group of Greece. More on that at Wikipedia. Heck, more on everything at Wikipedia.

To the Epilogue! Or learn more about Minoan History.

*Contrast that with my coworkers who, having planned to fly home on Wednesday, had to change their plans and fly to Paris early on Thursday morning because the air traffic controllers were on a 24-hour strike on Wednesday. Or with the fact that all of our connections in Greece worked just fine; however, our first train connection in Germany trying to get home to Aachen was messed up and we missed our train. German efficiency.

Minoan Stuff

Note: Our trip to Greece is so breathtaking that we needed to split it into four-and-a-half blog posts to cover it all. This is part three. You can skip ahead to parts four or the epilogue, if you'd like, or you can go back to parts one or two. But take your time--it's really beautiful!

Crete has a tumultuous history, as I indicated in my previous post. Before all those conquests, though, there were the more than 1000 years of (relative) peace and prosperity of the Minoan period. Lasting from about 2700 through 1400 BC, Minoan Crete was Europe's first great civilization. I got to see three different places with significant Minoan stuff--the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, the palace at Malia, and the palace at Knossos.

The Archaeological Museum was amazing because I got to see in person several artifacts I recognized from textbooks. I managed to restrain myself from photographing every single item in the museum, but just barely.

Here's an artifact you'll probably recognize: the famous Bee Pendant. Apparently the craft for producing those tiny balls of gold in the middle has been lost. Humans don't know how to do that any more, but the Minoans figured out how to do it 1500 years before the birth of Christ.


There was tons of cool pottery, but this piece is probably my favorite.


I couldn't resist including this Minoan board game.


I recognized this guy, too. It turns out he's a very fancy drinking vessel.


The Minoans were into extreme sports. This fresco shows a man bull jumping--doing a somersault on the back of a bull.


Probably most famous of all, the Phaistos Disc! Both sides are covered with hieroglyphics that spiral into the center. Notice the prehistoric mohawk.


In addition to a writing system that still hasn't been deciphered (known as Linear A), the Minoans had great taste in jewelry.


As part of our excursion on Saturday we went to the ruins of the palace of Malia, where we listened for a very long time to our tour guide talk about storage of various foodstuffs, multiple theories for the use of each room in the palace, and the opposing archaeological philosophies of the British/Americans and the French/Greeks. I got the sense that, though the excavators at Knossos in fact made some questionable choices in their restorations there (more on this later), the French and Greeks are mostly pissed because the Brits and Americans got the cooler site. Not that Malia isn't cool--it is, and you're allowed to climb everywhere, so in some ways it's more fun than Knossos. But there was way more left to find at Knossos, including frescoes, walls made of sparkly stone, an actual throne, and rooms with multiple stories.

Without further ado, the palace of Malia.


Nice backdrop, huh?




I went to Knossos by myself on Tuesday, our last full day on Crete. It's a little way outside the city of Heraklion, and can be reached by a (mercifully) cheap bus.

Here is one of the iconic shots of the palace:


This structure nicely illustrates the controversial steps that Sir Arthur Evans, the main excavator of Knossos, took in preserving the site: he did a lot of rebuilding, and he placed copies of frescoes found on the site in new locations. Apparently, just a few years into the excavation, the ruins were getting badly weathered. Something had to be done to protect them. At Malia, the archaeologists used cement very conservatively, just to cap weathered stones, fill in cracks, or stabilize walls. Evans, on the other hand, protected the ruins at Knossos by (in many places) building cement structures that represented his ideas about what the palace originally looked like on top of them. Obviously, there are several problems with this--most importantly that by doing so he imposed his interpretations on all future visitors to the site. That's not my biggest problem with it, though. From this fresco you can see that what he recreated looks quite a bit like at least one contemporary depiction of the palace.


No, my biggest beef with Evans is that he didn't make his buildings pretty enough. From a distance the modern structures look striking, but up close they're totally cheesy. The fact that they're made completely out of cement is painfully obvious. Parts are cement painted to look like wood. Also, there are metal grates and poles, fences, ropes, and roofs all over the place that are rusted and mildewed and cluttering up the views. I also don't like that some of the areas are fenced off so you can't get a close look.

Despite all this, Knossos is still very cool. Also, the signage is excellent. (There's no signage at Malia.) Here are a few of the most interesting parts.





Really large pithoi (urns for storing olive and other foodstuffs):


The floor of the throne room (totally original):


A copy of the throne (the original was alabaster):




The "Queen's Megaron":


Road leading to the Minoan town nearby:


Minoan stuff, although not my favorite part of the trip, was very interesting and totally worth seeing.

One final note:
Before I got to Crete, I thought that the labyrinth in the Minotaur myth was real and had been discovered. Sadly, this is not the case. I overheard a tour guide at Knossos talking about theories on the origin of the myth. First, humans and bulls lived together at Knossos (see above re: bull jumping). Second, the palace itself was labyrinthine--there were over 1500 rooms! So some people, at least, thinks that the palace is the labyrinth. I prefer to think that is still out there somewhere, buried, and someday someone will find it.

On to Santorini! Or back to Crete!