Home, James…And It Was Worth It

September 23, 2007

We are back home.

Our last day (before the travel day home) was superb. We woke up to the first cloudy skies since we had arrived. Before breakfast, we stepped out the door of the hotel and up into the little back lanes above the town where the fishermen live. I had glimpsed it the night before, making a quick trek while Gino nursed his sore feet with a beer down by the waterfront.

Gino was glad to be dragged up one more set of stairs and up and down a few more narrow alleys for one last breath of village Greece. It was another fairy tale village. Then breakfast and on the road. (The hotel brought us a carafe of what we thought was coffee, but turned out to be only hot water for INSTANT coffee! ERGH! We sought out a proper cappuccino before we hit the road.)

The drive was very pleasant — no wrong turns, great roads, a variety of scenery. We went through Sparta and Tripoli, then hit the autostrada.

Close to Korinthos we did see many more burned areas — entire hillsides scorched. We saw where the fire had come right down to the highway at one point and had picked up on the other side. Obviously, the main road had to have been closed while that was burning.

We shared the road with slow-moving tractors here and there. We noticed that in Greece, few people use their horns (with the exception of some absolutely insane city bus drivers), while in Italia horns are often used.

We passed roadside stands selling bags of potatoes and hanging strings of garlic. Men hawked bags of potatoes on the side of the autostrada, and as you approached the toll booths others were selling bunches of bananas! You could pay your toll and pick up a snack at the same time!

Successfully back in Athens, our little Aggie turned back into EuropeCar and our bags stowed at the airport, we took the X95 bus (instead of the Metro) back into the city for one last whirl. That was a wild ride! The driver drove through the city streets at breakneck speed, expertly missing (sometimes by an inch) a car door, a person, or another large vehicle. We had plans to meet Jan and Liisa for one last celebratory dinner, but had the afternoon to tear through the Plaka once more. We indulged in our last gyro and bowl of yogurt and poked around the flea market that spilled its junk and treasures into the streets. We laughed at seeing The Gap store right next to a little shop selling hookahs of all shapes and sizes.

Then we met up with Jan and Liisa and found a wonderful, mellow neighborhood taverna to share our evening meal. Jan ordered a wonderful selection of Greek specialties and we ate and ate, still leaving food since our stomachs could hold no more. Even including two carafes of their homemade wine, all of this delightful food for the four of us came to only 46 Euro!

After midnight, our friends walked us to the X95 bus stop and, after a flurry of goodbyes, jumped on for our final ride to the airport. Along the way, we saw billboards that read, “GREECE — Five Senses to Explore, One Country to Adore,” and “GREECE — There is Always More to Explore.” I’m sure they were put there for us.

Things we will NOT miss:
The coffee (Greece)
The cigarette smoke (ubiquitous)
Missing our dogs

Things we WILL miss:
The coffee (Italia)
The people (both countries)
Exploring the most incredible sights every single day

For those interested in reading more of our adventures in greater detail and (hopefully) improved eloquence over these off-the-cuff ramblings (often written in rooms so dark I could barely see the keyboard, or places so hot I felt like I was in a sauna), I will let you know when my blog is done. There will be pictures to accompany the stories.

Ciao until the next MelindaTrip.
Melinda and Gino

P.S. By the way, did I mention that every single thing and place we did and saw was WORTH IT?


Leave No Stone Unstepped

September 20, 2007

And that I will doing tomorrow morning as the dawn arrives. I will set the alarm early so I can be all ready when the sun peeks over the Aegean. I peeked up the steps alongside our hotel and found myself in another world: white-washed marshmallowy stairs leading up to creamy stucco, vine and flower covered houses, strains of recorded Greek music emanating from the open windows, an older couple slowly making their way up the steep narrow lane, smiling as I passed them. A friendly “Yassas!” brought forth smiles and a string of friendly Greek words. The light was dying, so I will return tomorrow morning to do it justice before we head off to Athina, our last day here. We will meet up once more with Jan and Liisa and celebrate again Jan’s 60th. One can never celebrate too much.

In our travels in this area we haven’t seen too much of the evidence of the fires, but we did drive through Aereopoli, which was hit very hard. Huge swaths of the hillsides were black and crispy and we saw at least two blackened cars by the side of the road, the metal twisted in on itself.

Other sights: men playing backgammon at streetside tables, priests in long flowing black robes darting among the traffic, gray beards and tall black hats to match the robes, bee boxes everywhere and honey being sold alongside the road. We saw an old rickety truck lumbering through the middle of town, piled with large bales of hay and two people riding on the very top. This morning a pickup went through, the driver hawking his wares over a microphone: toys and beach items strapped to the roof and hood of his vehicle.

The first part of today we drove through Sparta (no longer an ancient looking site!) and veered off to Mystra, a Byzantine settlement from the 1200s. We climbed up among the old stone buildings and churches, some with amazingly-preserved frescos still very visible. They tell the story of Christ’s life. On we went, up to the very top (would you expect less?) to the Kastra, the castle. We were once again at the top of the world with the valley and sea far below.

The afternoon we spent at nearby Mouvrouni Beach. The surf was wilder here, but still very safe and Gino was in his watery glory. Back in town, we walked out to a small islet to see the lighthouse glowing in the sunset.

Tonight we see lightning in the distance but cannot hear thunder. The weather may be changing. We have a 200 + mile drive tomorrow to return the car to Athina. Then we’ll take the metro back into the city (WITH THE RIGHT TICKET) to meet up with Jan and Liisa, as I said. Then back to the airport on the bus since it runs 24 hours. Our plane takes off at 5 a.m.

I will probably not send another message until we are back in California. So I bid you a Kalispera and Yassas, Ciao, Arrivederci.
M & G


More Monemvasia

September 19, 2007

We took some time to while away a couple afternoons on the beach. The water is simply incredible. I know I keep going on about it, but for a nonwater person like me, it’s truly something. It’s cool enough to be refreshing, but warm enough to be so comfortable. And I swear, it has healing properties. And the color, the color. I know. I’ve said it more than once.

We have eaten at some gorgeous spots, all overlooking the sea, on little tables with wooden chairs, amidst olive trees. The food…sigh.

We left this morning, sad to say goodbye to our lovely little hobbit town. We had a pleasant easy drive (again following symbols! We are actually learning to read Greek) and arrived at Gythion, a cute little fishing village. The town is small, but is a great place to use as a home base for visiting nearby sites. We settled into our room, overlooking the sea, a Greek flag flying from our balcony. Then we took off again, south to the Pyrgos Doulou caves. About six people get into a row boat, donning hard hats and life jackets, and a guide paddles you through these amazing underground caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites, the water dripping down here and there. The labyrinth of caves curves around throughout this area, they think all the way to Sparta. The ride was about 30 minutes. Truly amazing!

Back in the sun, we took the road down into the Mani, which is ROCK ROCK ROCK and olive trees. The hillsides are dotted with old stone tower houses. Everything is made of stone. It is everywhere.

We stopped for lunch at a little deserted taverna along the road. No English spoken, but we communicated and we had a lovely delicious lunch of Greek salad, the best feta I’ve ever eaten, the best potatoes in the world, and pork. Gino had a beer and I had — or I ordered — a soda water. It turned out to be a glass of tsipouro, a distilled spirit with 45% alcohol! Miscommunication! Now I had to drink at least some so as not to offend. That stuff is quite potent!

Then back safely on the road, notwithstanding the tsipouro, we made our way back to Gythion. We wandered a bit here, finding the abandoned Roman theater (small) and were amazed at the adjacent empty lots littered with fallen ancient columns and old cars. Such a contrast.

Time for dinner. Tomorrow we are heading to Mystra, near Sparta. That’s backward pointy E, Pi, triangle…

Kalispera!
M & G


The Road to Monemvasia

September 19, 2007

I may have to send this without being finished since this computer is a coin operated thing, and I may run out of time before more coinage gets put in. You know me and machines.

Our last destination, Monemvasia, had no internet at all unless you had your own laptop. We have seen and experienced so much, so I will write in chunks to catch you up.

We left Naplion after breakfast, not taking our hotel proprietor’s suggestion to take the new faster road. We wanted scenery, so we trusted our instincts and the map and had the most delightful drive. We have come to the point where we only bother with the first four letters of a town name to figure out where we are. Sometimes our conversations consist of “turn left at the town that starts with an upside down triangle, then backward seven, and the jagged E thing.” We get there!

We took a short cut, suggested by an old Greek at a gas station. Such gorgeous scenery! Rolling hills, then a deep dramatic gorge which we cut through and emerged at the very top, miles of olives trees, sweeping coastal views. At one point, we were out in the middle of nowhere and we had to stop to let a herd of goats go by, bells jangling. The goat-herder was on a motorcycle. He asked if we were German. No! Everyone seems to beam when we tell then we are from California.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride continued… We went through remote little villages perched high in the mountains, the main road going right through the little towns. The road was no wider than one lane. We went carefully, watching the sides of the car and hoping we didn’t meet a car coming the other way. We stopped for beer and coffee in the shady square, seemingly at the top of the world. We watched old Greek men sitting, sipping their coffee and/or ouzo, flipping their Kolomboi (worry beads) and watching the world go by. We made our way back down to the sea and arrived at Monemvasia — also known as the Gibraltar of Greece. No cars are allowed so we parked and entered the stone arch — into another world.

This is a hobbit village, and we were staying in a hobbit hotel. The feel of the place is quite bohemian and kicked back. It is old, and the houses are all stone. The town has one main very cobbly street with an incredible labyrinth of steps and paths both up and down. We explored them all. There is also an upper town — completely deserted. Its last inhabitant left in 1911. It was built by the Venetians, then the Turks, and the stone remains litter the huge rock mountain. We climbed to the very top, the citadel that looks over the entire area. They say on some clear days you can see Crete. We saw Samos, an island in the distance.

That night, the stars were close enough to touch. I haven’t seen the Milky Way for awhile, but there it was. I woke up at 3:00 to poke my head out onto our little balcony overlooking the sea to be greeted by Orion hanging brightly in the sky.

At 7:00 I woke up Gino so we could go sit on our balcony and gaze out over the sea watching the sun come up over the water while the birds sang to us. This place is MAGICAL!!!!!!!!

More in a minute.


The Swirling Senses of Hellas

September 16, 2007

Last night we sat on some steps overlooking the main square, watching kids practice their roller blading and skateboard skills while their parents watched TV screens in every cafe and bar surrounding the perimeter. The game was on. Basketball — Greece vs. Spain. If Greece won, they would go on to the playoffs and the first game would be today. Jan said if Greece did win, no one would vote — everyone would be watching the game. It was fun walking around listening to the intermittent roars of happiness as Greece scored. Alas, they lost. Today was election day and all was calm.

The War Museum was closed because of the election, but the Folklore Museum was open with its fabulous displays of colorful traditional clothing from all areas of Greece.

We had dinner at another taverna with Greek musicians. Other tables filled with Greeks sang along. This morning, I ate a mound of yogurt. Then we headed off to the 1,000 steps zigzagging up the steep promontory to the Paramidi, the old Venetian fortress at the very top. The views were staggering on the way up, and we took frequent breaks to take pictures.

At the top, we found that the entrance was closed due to the election, however we also found a couple from Manchester, England — Paul and Margaret. We stood there at the top, chatting with them for almost an hour. They were delightful, and we took pictures of each other before we returned below.

On the way down, we found a rocky ramp that was obviously not for the public, but we walked up it anyway (since we had seen others doing so). A great, albeit dizzying view of the town and water below! We found a three foot wide hole that, when peering down into, the bottom could not be seen! That was a little unnerving. We carefully returned to the real steps and made our way back to the bottom.

We spent more time wandering all the little nooks and crannies and characteristic corners of the town: flower-bedecked balconies, white-washed steps leading up and around corners that compel you to follow them (we obey). We walked around the point alongside the water, following a wide flagstone trail that hugs the sheer face of the rocky cactus-covered cliff. An old stone wall caps the top where lookouts once protected this inlet.

We had a gyro (sort of a pita sandwich filled with meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, accompanied by tsatziki, onions, and french fries), then packed for the beach. The Aegean Sea was calm today, no boats to disturb the tranquility of the water. It lapped at our toes and called us into its crystal clear depths. We heard someone yell “GINO!” and saw our new friends, Paul and Margaret. They had the same idea to spend the afternoon at the beach.

The water is perfect: cool enough to be refreshing, but warm enough to be deliciously comfortable. It is very salty and keeps you buoyant. The water feels soothing and curative, both mentally and physically. I can’t get over its color and clarity. And the Europeans cavort about unselfconsciously in speedos.

After some lay-out and water time, I left Gino basking in the Hellas sun and took a solitary walk along a dirt road that curved along the shore. The cicadas were singing in the trees, the scent of pines wafted past my nose, I felt the warm Hellenic sun on my face and tasted the saltiness of the sea on my lips. The gold and gray-green colors of the rocky cliff straight up on my left contrasted with the blue-green of the sea straight down on my right. I found a little white-washed religious shrine, adorned with pink flowers and a candle burning within. You see these little shrines all over Greece, often at the sides of the road.

On the way back into town, we stopped at Antica Gelateria, a wonderful Italian store featuring homemade gelato. We spoke Italian to the proprietor, who pegged me immediately as an American. I asked her how she figured that so quickly. It was because I spoke Italian with an American accent! I wonder what that sounds like! I had chocolate-grappa gelato covered with espresso (gelato affogato: drowned gelato), while Gino enjoyed a shot of Limoncello (his favorite!)

We bought a small bottle of red Greek wine, grabbed two glasses from our hotel, and walked back around the point to sit beside the sea. We watched the sun set, toasting Greece with our glasses of wine, and are now back in town ready to search for a perfect taverna for tonight’s dinner.

Tomorrow we leave Naplion and make our way further south into the Peloponnesos: Monemvasia.

Yassas!
M&G


A Very Greek Day

September 15, 2007

The Peloponnesos is truly the heart of Greece. There is less tourism and what there is, is mainly for the Greeks themselves. Not to say we haven’t seen and heard people from everywhere, mostly Europe. Again, we’ve run across few Americans.

This area is beautiful. As we drove through yesterday, we only came upon one swath of burned area, a hillside with fried trees and blackened scorched earth. Since this area hadn’t been involved in the recent fires, this must have been from the fires that hit this area in June and July.

We walked around last night listening for our bouzoukia music…found it! We came upon a great little taverna with an older man playing the bouzouki and a younger guy playing guitar. Both were singing Greek songs, and some of the patrons were intermittently singing along. A woman was sitting in her little balcony across the way, listening all evening to the free music. People would walk by and join in on the words of whatever song was happening at the moment.

I had a great Greek meal: tsatziki (the cucumber and garlic dip), dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), and grilled octopus. Gino can’t seem to leave the Italian food behind and had spaghetti with Greek cheese sprinkled on it and tomato salad. The waiters were fabulous and brought us free dessert — galaktobouriko, which is close to a custard. It was drizzled with a golden caramel sauce. YUM! Of course, wine.

Reluctantly, we got up to leave after the lingering dinner, not anxious to leave the music behind. No problem! The owner of the restaurant hurried out with two complimentary glasses of ice cold ouzo and water. Gino took one drink and exclaimed loudly, “Strong! WOO!” Even the musicians laughed. Gino calls it booz-o. We stayed considerably longer, sipping our ouzo and enjoying the traditional Greek Rembetika music. We walked back to our hotel, arriving just past midnight.

People are incredibly nice and so helpful (never mind that unpleasant Metro woman!). We have noticed how much everyone smokes! They smoke walking around, while they are ordering dinner, during dinner, after dinner. Sicily smokes a lot as well.

This morning we had breakfast outside in the plant-filled courtyard of our hotel. I swooned when I saw the mound of delicate Greek yogurt. I can’t stand yogurt at home — it is nothing like you get here. Even the “Greek yogurt” you can buy at Trader Joe’s does not come close. This stuff is like mellow clouds of yumminess drizzled with sweet golden Greek honey. Nirvana! I can’t wait until tomorrow morning. I will forego all else and just eat yogurt for breakfast.

The weather has been astounding. Every day is cloudless, warm, deep blue skies. We feel so lucky.

We hopped in our trusty little sea-colored Aggie and drove through the Peloponnesos countryside towards Mycenae, a very important archaeological site. It should have taken only 30 minutes to reach, but it was more like 45. Gino laughed that it took him 20 minutes to realize he was reading the map upside down. Guess it doesn’t make a difference to us since everything is in Greek!

But we found our way and explored up and down and around this area that was built in 1500 BC — yes, that old! We had forgotten to bring our little flashlight to explore some “dark areas” we had read about in the guidebook. We found the entrance to an old cistern, now dried up, but a few steps down you could not even see your hand in front of your face.

Genius Gino thought to turn on the video camera light, so we did have a light after all! A couple came up behind us and we invited them to join our light. Down we went into the depths, 100 stone steps, a curving vertical tunnel down with nothing but this little camera light. We came to the bottom and took pictures of each other to prove we made it. Then we started back up. We gasped at one point when the camera light went off, and we were in complete, utter darkness. But Gino got it turned on again and up we went, congratulating each other at the top.

On the drive back to Naplion, we pulled over to investigate an old Byzantine church — the most amazing architecture! The drive was very pleasant. The Greeks are crazy drivers, but somehow less frenetic than the Italians.

In fact, we are shifting down into the Greek pace — yes, I’m even walking slower. After lunch (eggplant salad: a puree of sorts, pastitsio: sort of like a lasagna, but with different spices), we walked to the beach and lazed away the afternoon lying in the sun, dipping into the truly aquamarine colored sea, and hunting for little rocks. Came home with a little bag of them. Oh dear, what will customs say. I have many rocks.

Now we’re waiting for the Greek Saturday night (“One More Saturday Night!” – a Grateful Dead song dear to our hearts) to blossom. Tomorrow is the election, but the energy here is very mellow. Rumors are, there will be much music tonight.

Yassas and Kalispera!
Melinda and Gino


Greece — Is it Worth It?

September 14, 2007

We spent our last evening in Athina (Athens) having dinner at a little out of the way taverna that a man told us about — primarily only Greeks go there. We met him walking by his shop on a steep little street as we wandered about (as we tend to do, which you know well). We stopped to chat and he asked where we were from. Now that we are in Greece, people think we’re Italians. Except today a man in a little pottery shop (which he makes on a wheel and kiln all himself) pegged us right off as Northern Californians. I think he must be psychic.

Anyway, today did not start out well and didn’t get good again until this afternoon. We jumped on the Metro back to the airport to pick up our rental car. We knew that the trip FROM the airport into the city had cost us 8 Euro each. This morning, the ticket office was closed so we had to buy tickets from a machine (bad news for me — machines don’t like me and vice versa).

We had, however, used a machine to get tickets in and around the city during the couple days we were there. We didn’t look closely enough and simply bought a one-way ticket as we had before. We found out the very hard way that we were supposed to have pressed the box for AIRPORT, not just a one-way fare. We were almost at the airport stop and some ticket-checkers got on the check tickets. I showed ours and the woman (who did not make the slightest effort to be pleasant – she was downright mean!) told me they were not the right ones. We had to pay a fine, which put us into rather bad moods. We watched her as she made her way down the cars, extracting (EXTORTING) fines from several other innocent travelers.

map-greece.jpg

Grumpily, we made our way to our rental car. She’s a little turquoise something (by Chevy, but nothing that we have in the US). We named her Aggie after the Aegean Sea and Aghia this and that. We found our way out of Athina quite easily, but as we approached Corinth (the Canal), we tried to find the road to Ancient Corinth. It escaped us.

We took a wrong turn and had to stop at a feed store to ask two sweet Greek gentlemen who tried to pantomine the way to go. They spoke no English and of course Greek is all Greek to me. But at least we found our way back to the canal, took some pictures, and decided to skip Ancient Corinth.

Instead, we took the scenic road to Epidaurus, the ancient theater. We passed miles of olive trees, drove over staggering heights of mountains, enjoying sweeping vistas of the blue sea far below. The drive was very pleasant — little traffic and fabulous views. Gino is learning to read Greek signposts.

We arrived at Epidaurus and had fun experimenting with its astounding acoustics. You can sit on one of the marble seats HIGH at the top and can still hear a teensy little noise down at the bottom in the middle of the “stage.” The theater is ancient yet was a mathematical wonder in the way it arranged the seats with a perfect sight line and those incredible acoustics.

On we went to our home base, Naplion. We found it with Gino’s expert map-reading and miraculously parked two short streets away from our hotel. We checked in and moved the car where we are now parked directly in front. It’s a gorgeous place and on the very edge of the old town, which is where you want to be.

We’ve already walked all around the little streets meandering up and down the hill and down along the waterfront, had a late lunch at a taverna along the quay and are now at this internet cafe filled with young teenagers playing video games. It’s open 24 hours and has about 40 computers.

After the most stressful day we’ve had so far (trying to read Greek and still find our way) and suffering the wrath of the Metro fine, we have decided…YES, it’s still worth it!!!

We’re off now to wander the streets lit for the night. Off we go into the fresh sea air, gently warm without being humid, to tune our ear to any strains of the bouzouki.

Kalimaspera and Yassas!
M&G