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

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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.

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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


Shoes

September 13, 2007

Mainland Italia is like a fashionable polished shoe. Sicily is like a fashionable shoe that is a little scuffy and could use some polish. Greece is…well, kick off the shoes and it’s a sandal! Mine are covered with the fine white dust from the Acropolis.

We are here in the land of light, blue, and white. Our plane connections went off without a hitch. The weather is again absolutely perfect!

We spent the afternoon walking around Athens absorbing the sights. Glimpses of the Parthenon high up at the end of narrow stone streets. Old men sitting on wicker chairs flipping worry beads and playing cards, watching everyone else go by. We saw a man wheeling a huge dresser on a dolly down the middle of a busy street, cars coming at him. Two people were riding a motorcyle perching a chair between them. Someone else was washing his car at the side of a busy street while two other guys hoisted a fridge into the back of a back-seatless car.

Men sell piles of nuts from carts on the corner; another roasts corn on the cob at the side of the street; others sell mounds of pretzels covered with sesame seeds. There are “purse people,” as I call them — just as we find all over Italy. They lay out their wares on blankets on the sidewalks. Gino calls them “bagabonds” since they carry their stuff in huge cloth satchels from place to place.

Athens is clean and much less polluted than the first time we were here in 1996. The subway system is fantastic — clean, fast, efficient, and easy. You can tell the Greeks worked hard to improve their city prior to the Olympics.

In the evening, we met up with Jan and Liisa, my friends from Finland. Liisa’s sister, her fiance, Jan’s daughter and grandson were also along. How I met Jan is a story that I will post later. It’s quite amazing.

This was our first in-person meeting although we have been writing back and forth for some time. We all walked to a great little outdoor taverna and had dinner at a long table while three musicians played Greek music. As we were sitting there, they played and sang the very song that was the reason we had all met in the first place. Jan commented, “This song is the reason why we are all here now at this table.” It was indeed.

I guess we are truly on vacation. I had to ask what the day of the week it was, and Jan commented I was obviously still under the influence of Sicily!

We met up again this afternoon and Jan and Liisa walked us to a fabulous local market filled with spices, vegetables and fruits, a huge meat section (not good for vegetarians — very graphic!), and a large fish market with EVERY kind of fresh fish imaginable. Then we paused for a lunch of Greek salad, fried potatoes, and threes kinds of little fish. YUM!

We left our friends and hiked up to the Acropolis and wandered around the Parthenon. It’s just an amazing sight, despite parts of it being covered in scaffolding. Back down the hill to visit another temple and archaeological site. Everywhere you turn, there is a dig tucked in between a building here and another there. I imagine all of this city covers a vast area of
ancient Greek ruins.

Time for more wandering. Tomorrow we pick up the rental car (EEK!) and drive into the Peloponnese.

Yassas.
M&G


Palermo…One More Time

September 12, 2007

Last night we spent our last evening in Giardini Naxos eating at a restaurant right along the waterfront. We had an outside table, as we usually do. The waves were lapping into the cove while little fishing boats bobbed just a few feet out. The night was perfectly clear so we had a fantastic view of Taormina across the bay and up the hill. Lights around the arc of the cove reflected in the water. The air was fresh, and candles burned at the edge of the water. It was gorgeous.

We awoke to another clear blue and cloudless day, ate breakfast at our hotel then caught the bus to Catania. We had planned to take the train to Messina then on to Palermo, but the hotel clerk convinced us the bus to Catania and then on to Palermo was much easier and quicker. She was right. This route also gave us a chance to cross the heart of Sicilia and see some of the interior. It is drier than I had imagined. Small mountains and rolling golden hills …vineyards, olive groves, and other crops covered the hills. Sometimes the crops and olive trees were growing on terraced hillsides, each level supported by old stone retaining walls.

We arrived around 1:30 in Palermo and had time to explore a section of the city we had missed previously, at least during the day. We visited the opulent Palazzo Mirta, still furnished and decorated as it had been when inhabited.

We returned to Piazza Marina where we had seen the huge banyon tree. I can’t remember if I already told you the story about this tree. In 1906, a police investigator from New York came to Palermo in search of the head of the New York mafia. He wanted to try to discuss things and settle down all the trouble. He met with the mafia head one night at this tree. I guess the discussion did not go well. The investigator was shot at the foot of the tree.

We are now munching our way around the town, sampling our last minute Sicilian specialties before we leave early tomorrow for Athens.

See you in Greece!
Ciaoooo!!!
M and G


An E Ticket…and an EEK Ticket!

September 10, 2007

Last evening we attempted to follow the rather convoluted directions given to us by our hotel people. We were in search of the BEST restaurant in Giardini Naxos: Sea Sound. We walked around the cape — no sign. We walked up another road — no sign. We even asked two different people, one at the archaeological center — never heard of it. We finally found the right road and walked for about 1,000 miles (so it seemed). It had better BE WORTH IT, we said. We finally found the sign and then had to follow a winding narrow path down down down. We arrived at the restaurant and found it had an open-air roof and one entire side opening onto the sea. We ate a great meal, listening to the sound of waves crash below. After dinner, we peered out at the water just below us and spotted fireworks in the distance. The Italians are always celebrating life in some way. On the way back, we stopped and I had a Nutella (which is the consistency of peanut butter with with a chocolate hazelnut flavor) crepe, made before my eyes. Yum.

This morning it was clear and blue and warm. Not a wisp of a cloud. We jumped on our reserved bus and rode up to Taormina on our way to Etna. The bus was double decker and of course we had to ride on top for the extra thrill. The driver expertly navigated around the tight hairpin turns, the wheels seemingly right on the edge of the road…cliff…the sea farrrrrrr down below. What an E ticket that was! (Disneyland back in the day had coupons you had to buy to get on the rides. Their best rides were always designated as the “E” tickets.) At one point, we had to back up (down the hill a bit) in order to let two other buses by that were coming down.  That was dicey.

We continued our way up towards Etna. Since the day was crystal clear, we had picture perfect views of Etna smoking in the distance. We arrived at the first level, 1800 meters. We all got off and then jumped onto jeeps that held about 25 people. Here is where the EEK Ticket ensued. We were slipping and sliding UP UP UP roads that were not paved, but made of crumbled lava. Again, the hairpin turns, but one false move and we would be dashed into a crater or down the side of smoking Etna. We passed swaths of lava…red, black, gray, sprinkled with clumps of yellow-green foliage poking up here and there between the forbidding rocks. Trees that had been mowed down and burnt white-crisp were either skewed here and there, or standing starkly alone.

We passed the cable car that was destroyed by the large eruption in 2002, the cable lines lying like limp spaghetti down the mountain. Former souvenir shops and restaurants were melted into a metal heap. Hmmmm….should we continue? Up we went to 2800 meters. We got out and walked around, marvelling at the terrain. On the way down, we stopped at one point and were able to scramble down a trail to the 1800 level, peering into a gaping crater created during the 2002 eruption. NO fence. If you weren’t sure-footed, one tumble would take you away.

The ride down was as eeky as the way up. I even had to close my eyes a couple of times as we made tight turns on the slippery lava. The temperature difference at the top was amazing. 25 celsius down below, 8 on top. The tramontana (cold north wind) blew the air clear.

We returned to our hotel, perched on the top of the double decker bus, having snagged the very front seats. Another E ticket!!! Our shoes are covered with the dust of Etna and our knapsack is bulging with lava rocks. It was a GREAT day!!!!

Time for dinner.

Tomorrow we are taking the train back to Palermo to catch a plane (on Wednesday) to Athens.

It’s all been worth it.

CIAOOOOOOOOOO!!!!


Taormina

September 9, 2007

Yesterday evening as we walked back through Taormina, we came across another wedding. The bride and groom were strolling along amidst the rest of the people all out for the evening passeggiata (the evening stroll). A camera man was following every move. It was a beautiful sight.

The main road back in Giardini Naxos, where we are staying, was closed off for the Festival of the Madonna of the Rock, so the bus let us out at some other place. We hoofed along the waterfront and soon arrived at our hotel. We had dinner at a great little trattoria along the water. Gino is going to turn into one big pasta noodle by the time he returns. I will be a fish since I’ve been eating seafood seafood seafood. And, of course, wine with every meal…except breakfast.

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Before we left Taormina last night, we stopped at a quaint little bar that spilled UP some steep steps, cushions perched on the steps themselves with little tables balanced between. Middle Eastern music was playing. I was in heaven. Gino had two drinks, and I had a rather large glass of grappa. He was amazed that, yes, I drank the whole thing!

This morning after la colazione (breakfast) at the hotel — by the way, the hotel is gorgeous, filled with antiques and antiquities. The breakfast is yummy….salami, breads, fruit, cheese, cappuccini.

We bought two beach towels and walked down onto the sand just across from the hotel. Gino deserved a day to rest. He’s been such a good sport, exploring everywhere I drag him. He swam in the Mediterranean Sea while I read guide books. I took my turn in the water, and it was LOVELY! A little cool at first, but you immediately warm up, and then it just feels like the most refreshing water you’ve ever been in. It’s very salty and extremely clear.

We took a walk further down along the waterfront until we came to the Naxos archaeological excavations. It isn’t Pompeii, but still very interesting. There is a great little museum there filled with artifacts from these digs.

We had lunch, then jumped on a bus back up to Taormina. When we arrived, we took a cable car DOWN to mazzaro, the beach below, and then back up, just to have the thrill. Now we are walking around, joining the nightly passeggiata. We found an old church teeming with people. Around behind it we found an ancient Roman theater spilling out of the back wall of the church. Back in the front of the church we saw a priest in purple finery baptising a sweet little baby — ancient meets new.

Tomorrow…up to Etna.
Ciaooooooo!!

Melinda and Gino


It’s Worth It

September 8, 2007

That is the name of this trip for many reasons. I finally found another internet point in Taormina. It’s a bar-internet point, and the place is quite dark. I can barely see the keys, which makes it even worse for spelling, etc.

Where did I leave you… We explored all over Sciacca in the morning. There is such a mix of Sicilian and Arabic, in both the architecture as well as the people, the music, the culture.

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We found a secluded little garden at the top of town filled with old Italian men sitting on benches and chatting. We took their pictures, and they were thrilled. The gardener was so proud of his garden, inviting us in to see the panorama and all his greenery. The Sicilians are very proud of their land and are so appreciative when we express such joy in also seeing their beauty. After Sciacca, we took the bus to Agrigento and spent the afternoon and evening wandering all over the Greek temples and ruins. We saw a couple having wedding pictures taken among the columns. Such a lovely contrast — the flowing white, sparkly dress of the bride and the ancient crumbly columns.

That night, we walked along the waterfront and had a fabulous meal. What meal isn’t fabulous!!!

In the morning, we took the bus out of town, after riding next to a local man who chatted with us the whole way to the main station, telling us about his life. His parents were killed by Mussolini’s fascists in the war. His wife died and he wants to get married again, but his 40 year old daughter won’t let him. Ah….life in Sicilia!

After Agrigrento, we took a taxi to Caltagirone, a very old town, also with Arabic origins. It is famous for its ceramics, and we explored every alley, nook and cranny, admiring all the different styles and colors. We had a campari and soda, and beer for gino, on a little terraced bar along a side street just down from the 142 stairs. Each rising is tiled with a
unique pattern and color of tile all the way across. We climbed to the top and admired the view back down.

Back to the taxi. We found out the bus for Caltagirone didn’t leave until 1:00 in the afternoon. Since it was around 9:00 a.m., we decided to be insane and ask how much a taxi ride would be, at least to Gela, which would get us much closer to Caltagirone. We settled upon a price, and off we went with a wonderful older taxi driver. As we approached Gela, we decided to have him drive us the rest of the way. The whole ride cost us 120 euro for 2.15 hours. We decided after all the walking and not taking taxis, plus getting some great prices on B&B’s, we could splurge. It was worth every cent. He dropped us off exactly in front of our hotel.

We arrived this morning at Giardini Naxos, at the foot of Taormina. We are here in Taormina now, already having explored the Greek amphitheater and the profusion of stepped streets and balconies overflowing with vivid flowers. We can see Mt. Etna smoking in the distance.

Gino is patiently waiting, most likely for a cold beer, so I will sign off for now.

Ciaooooooooo!!!