Thursday, April 17, 2014

Crete: A Road Trip to Remember

We’ve left our little ‘red wagon’ at the Athens airport, flown to Crete and picked up our new wheels. . .another teeny, tiny car, which, we’ve decided, is the best in which to travel the rural roads of Greece.  (And with gasoline nearly $8 a gallon – these teeny, tiny cars get great mileage.)

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Our teeny tiny car came in handy today as we took one of our favorite road trips high up into the mountains behind the port town of  Chora Sfakia, where we are staying on Crete’s southern shore. We were headed to Anopoli, another small town, and then on to Aradena, a virtually abandoned township a couple of kilometers beyond it.  Come along for the ride, but buckle up – this isn’t for white knucklers:

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I took this photo at about midpoint of our journey, that’s our little town of Chora Sfakia towards the right side of the photo.  Because The Scout is also The Driver here (manual shift cars)  I had time to count the 38 turns, a mix of sharp hairpin spinners and to take photos of the animals that like to rest on those curves.

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We were heading into the south coast’s rugged and beautiful interior country; a haven for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

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We limited our ‘hiking’ to a stroll through the olive groves that surround Anopoli,  – once such a bustling place that it minted its own coins – today, it  is a starting point for a number of hiking trips.  Two kilometers further down the narrow road we crossed the Vardinogiannis Bridge, a single span of wooden beams and steel frame some 138 meters, or 455 feet above the Aradena Gorge. Just wide enough for our teeny, tiny car!

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Cars cross the bridge slowly, almost hesitantly, the majority are driven by tourists who venture here – either sightseeing or en route to do some hiking  into the gorge. The noise that reverberates throughout the area when a car crosses those beams sounds similar to a series of explosions re-echoing through the gorge.

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The gorge is not only popular with hikers, but the bridge – according to the guidebooks – is a popular bungie jumping point – and holds the distinction of being the highest such point in Greece. (No thank you!)

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Those two highlighted spots on the  right of the photo above are parts of the trail that leads into the gorge. I have to admit that once again we wish we had packed shoes suitable for hiking. . .as these gorges are far too inviting. (And for you ‘boomer’ travelers out there: a majority of the hikers we’ve seen here sport varying shades of gray or white hair so there really are no excuses for not hitting the trail!)

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There’s a lone cafe to the side of the bridge and on its menu was “mountain tea with honey’. We’ve seen that in rural areas and finally gave in to curiosity. . .and now are hooked on this magnificent tea made from plants/herbs/flowers gathered from the upper reaches of the area’s White Mountains or Lefka Ori, It is served with a hearty dollop of locally made honey.

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Crete's White Mountains

We’ll head a bit further west on this southern coast of Crete, overlooking the Libyan Sea when we hop the ferry on Friday to Loutro for Easter weekend. Sorry we’ve not had the time to tell you more about the places we’ve been but we are trying to keep you along in real time and we’ve been on the move for the last week.  I’ll fill in some of the gaps when we are back home and basking in the afterglow of the trip.

Hope you’ll stay with us as we move on after Easter to . . . well, we don’t know where we are going after the weekend.

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We’ve considered staying in Crete a bit longer, or heading to Thessoloniki in the north of Greece, or returning to The Mani or to Poros Island or perhaps Mykonos and Santorini. . . or perhaps, Egypt. No joke.  We are ‘sort of’ in the neighborhood . . .and we’d still have time for a few nights in Istanbul.

We don’t know where we are going.  If you are up for the suspense of traveling where the winds blow us, stay with us!

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Linking up today with Budget Travelers Sandbox, Travel Photo Thursday.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday in Galaxidi

We begin the Easter Week celebrations today in a small town of 1,300+ residents, called Galaxidi. We are in what is considered Central Greece, about 2 1/2 hours outside Athens. . .and a world away from its big city bustle.

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Galaxidi, Greece

Charmed by this little town that until a few days ago had been nothing more than a word on a map, we are already contemplating a return to its serene little setting on the Corinth Gulf.

Last night as we sipped wine and watched the sunset behind the hills and mountains that encircle it, we listened to the church bells ring out across the town at precisely 6 p.m. – the loudest of which came from that big church you see towering over the town in the photo above, St. Nickolas, Agiou Nikolaos, one of five Greek Orthodox churches here.

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This morning we woke to the melody of clanging church bells announcing Sunday services on this second most special Sunday of the Easter Season. Later while strolling through town, we decided to drop in on services.

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If you’ve not attended a Greek service when visiting this country, you are missing the opportunity to experience first-hand a bit of its history and tradition.  It is a moving experience –even not understanding a word that is spoken by the priest or by the male congregants chanting the ancient Greek litany; those same words that have been chanted throughout centuries.

An incense haze swirls through the nave. Small prayer candles, lit by congregants, flicker in small groupings. On this Sunday the church was decorated with palm fronds and baskets of laurel boughs.

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As the service concluded, the congregants approached the altar to receive bread that had been blessed, similar to communion in our Christian churches. We sat and watched as the process concluded and members of the congregation took photos of their priest.

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One lady, after receiving her bread and blessing approached us and gave me her piece then went back and got one for Joel. I wonder if we Americans would be so kind to visitors in our churches?

I often remind myself how blessed we are to be able to travel and to be able to spend our days exploring this amazing country. 

Some days, like today, I don’t need to remind myself – others do it for me.

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Happy Easter week to you all. We head to Crete tomorrow – hope you’ll continue along with us there!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Patras to Nafpaktos ~ A Greek Road Trip

We spent last night  in the largest city in Greece’s Peloponnese: Patras. This city with a 3,000 year history is the port for ferries heading to Corfu and Italian port cities; a university town of some  200,000 residents.

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"Highways' cut through towns in The Mani

The big city stay marked the end of our first two weeks in Greece; the first week spent travelling between small villages and the second in the village of Kardamili.
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The town of Leonidio, Greek Peloponnese

We’ve been both spoiled  and smitten with those small villages as the result of our experiences there. The people we’ve met in the small towns both warmed our hearts and made us welcome.

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A clever marker in the town of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas) The Mani

Patras, was a shock to our slowed-down-small-town systems. “Pay me now” said the waitress at our hotel’s coffee shop as she served our afternoon cappuccinos.  Such words would never have been spoken in Kardamili and no eyebrows would have been raised had we sat for hours with those yet-to-be-paid-for coffees. 

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The Scribe enjoys a cappuccino in the Leonidio village square
In visiting Patras, we finally found a place in Greece that didn’t capture our hearts.  In all fairness to the city,there was a country-wide strike occurring yesterday so many stores were closed.  University students filled the very hip, upscale coffee shops that line the streets.

The town does have perhaps the most beautiful Orthodox Church, St. Andrews, that we’ve ever seen and some stunning neo-classical buildings like the renovated Hotel Byzantion in which we stayed (and will tell you about in a future post), but the city has been marred with graffiti and that, mixed with some empty squares and storefronts, gave some parts of the city a shabby feel.

So we moved on today driving across the striking Rio-Andirio suspension bridge that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese. We are now in Nafpaktos, a beautiful beach town that still has a stunning Venetian built harbor, castle and fortress.

We will be here for two nights then on the road again. . .back to Athens on Monday and off to Crete that afternoon.  Hope you’ll be with us!
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Porto Kagio - a town of five residents and we were the only tourists (more on that later)
The photos I’ve used in this post were taken during our first two weeks.  Linking up today with Nancie’s Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Traveler’s Sandbox. We finally have some good internet connection so bear with me if I bombard you with another post in a day or two!

Monday, April 7, 2014

A ‘Raki’ Road Ahead

Fire water.
After dinner drink.
An acquired taste.
A favorite!
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Raki served with dessert and usually both are complimentary
We might call these the Four Phases of Cretan Raki, also known by its longer and more formal name, tsikoudia.  In other parts of Greece, like the Peloponnese where we are this week, the clear liquid is known as tsipouro. Turkey’s version has a taste of anise seed.

I recall the first sip – now several years ago – reminded me of drinking medicinal rubbing alcohol, or a form of fire water.  Somehow we’ve moved to phase four: a favorite.

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Knossos on Crete - ancient Minoan ruins

Its production and history is traced back some three centuries – some claim it dates back to Minoan and Mycenean times.

Basically it is a strong distilled spirit with about 37 percent alcohol that is made from the must –residue of the wine-press.

It is said the best raki is that which is home-made although we’ve had what we thought tasted quite good (especially by the time we got to the second or third little glass) at local restaurants.

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Our waiter at Defini's in Chora Sfakia Crete joins The Scout in a raki toast, "Yammas"

While researching the beverage,I came across an article that says, “A few glasses of raki can make your head very clear, an effect which to my opinion is unique to it.  After you get to sleep it may happen you have special ‘raki dreams’ which can be more vivid than life; it feels like you are awake and very special things happen to you.”

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"Happy Hour" in Astros, a city in the Peloponnese

So far in this trip we’ve refrained from those tiny little glasses of liquid happiness. . .we will drink it when we get to Crete next week.  But I can assure you that we’ve consumed more than our fair share of Greek wine. . .wine like that shown above. It is table wine, sold in the half liter (above) and liter.  This indulgence cost us 2 to 3 euros, about $3 to $4US. It is some of the best wine to be had – Greeks have perfected ‘Happy Hour’. . .they just don’t call it that.

So until our next post, a toast to you - thanks for taking time to be with us today: “Yammas!”

We hope to link up today with Foodie Tuesday at Inside Journeys. Drop by there for other food and drink posts.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Greece: Searching for “That” Stone House. . .

Our travels in Greece the last week have brought us back to Kardamyli, the town on the west coast of the Peloponnesian central peninsula, that we first visited last year.

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Kardamyli, Greece
We returned to this village in The Mani; as we were as taken with it as had been the English-born writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and American David Mason. Both have written of its beauty. . .and both of them, like us, have been hoodwinked by its charms.

Think Tuscany and you’ve got an image of this area ~ only this is better, we’ve decided and we do love Tuscany.  From our balcony at Hotel Vardia we look over a lush green countryside covered with olive and orange groves stretching from the snow-capped Taygetos Mountains to the east  to the Messinian Gulf to the west. Mediterranean cypress trees are scattered about as if added with an artist’s brush.

We had planned to stay here for four nights but we’ve already extended that to seven (it is nice to travel as we do with flexibility built in). 

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One of the many we've visited so far in our search

You see, we are searching for ‘that’ stone house.
'That’ perfect house. . . to buy.
A second home.
A getaway.
A daydream.

And perhaps we are simply chasing a daydream. . .ahh, but for those of you who remember Bucerias, Mexico. . .you will know, perhaps not.

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Daydreaming. . .of possibilities
Many who know us well, won’t be surprised  when I say part of our day today was spent in a law office chatting with an Albanian contractor who has a home he wants us to buy (and his sister who helped translate) and two Greek lawyers, one of whom spoke English and translated the rapid-fire Greek answers to our questions. Note to lawyers out there: we were there for a half hour and there was no charge.

Later we were hiking a goat trail through an olive grove to get a better look at another house that had caught our interest.  And even if it is a daydream, it isn’t every tourist who can say they’ve had that experience, right?
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Lemon tree and artichokes abound this time of year
“You’ve been here before?” asked a shop owner two days ago, “and you are American?"  She shook her head in disbelief. “Americans usually come only once – they stay for two nights; they come with a tour, it is called Rick Steves, you have heard of it?”

Too bad they don’t stay longer, we thought. They, too, would likely be seeking ‘that’ house for themselves.

We've had some problems with the blog in recent days so I hope to be back soon but if not, I will as soon as we are able.  Watch for daily updates on Facebook and Instagram.  Hope to link up with Travel Photo Thursday (if I can figure out when Thursday is in South Korea vs. Greece - we just had daylight savings time here so we are now 10 hours ahead of West Coast America.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

From a Place Called the Peloponnese

I write today from Poulithra, a small coastal village in the Peloponnese. It is a rather enchanting sort of place; but then to our way of thinking many such Greek villages are just that.  We fell under this village's spell last year and returned Friday after spending our first night in another charming town, Astros, some 30 miles north of here.

By now we’ve decided that marathon flight day/night/day of 24 hours plus, to get here was worth it, although at the time we weren’t sure.

Having picked up a rental car the size and the color of a ripe cherry, we’ve embarked on a road trip that will take us through both the history and hidden corners of this part of Greece.

Our route – still not cast in direction or dates - will take us back to old favorite places and yet lead us to new discoveries ~ the entrance to Hades, among them.

 We are well off the “American’ tourist track. It is a shame more of our fellow countrymen (and women) don’t venture into these postcard perfect areas that draw hordes of European travelers in the summer months. The tourist season in Greece kicks off with its Easter holiday week and continues through summer.

But  now the villages are blissfully quiet, streets are empty but for the locals who call out greetings to each other and the two American tourists who stroll in their midst.

The air is filled with bird song and the scent of orange blossoms. There’s still a nip in the early morning and evening air.  We stroll along narrow streets to tavernas to dine each evening – the sky a star-lit umbrella. We are still among the early eaters – dining at 8 or 9; Greek diners begin arriving after 9.

We’ve re-couped from the jet-lag that always packs a punch for  the first few days. We’ll be back on the road again come Monday. Hope you’ll come along with us. And this weekend, take some time to stop and smell the flowers ~ we are!

[Travel Tip: I wrote our last post in Istanbul where we spend the night en route to Greece.  That routing  saved us about $1,000 in airfare costs – thanks to a deal The Scout found on We used a free night stay coupon at the Marriott Courtyard and the airfare to Athens was about $125 for the both of us. And we’ll spend a few days at the end of the trip visiting that fascinating city – a double win, to our way of thinking.]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Istanbul Arrival: What a blast!

We were reminded yesterday that travel is always filled with surprises.  Some a bit startling. 

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Having left Seattle some 20 hours prior to our arrival in Istanbul (the overnight stop in our trip to Greece) we were enjoying the fresh air outside the Istanbul airport and watching the hypnotizing traffic: taxi horns honking, buses jostling to edge near the curb, drivers weaving between them.

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Arriving Istanbul
Mesmerizing to our jet-lagged brains as we waited for the Marriott Courtyard shuttle van to pick us up. We also noted a police car, lights flashing that seemed to be chasing waiting taxis from the curb. Parking violations, we reasoned.

Then it occurred to us the street had cleared: no vehicles were arriving, large groups of waiting travelers were at curbside. Traffic was stopped some distance away.

A fellow traveler joined our waiting group and said, “'It’s a security issue,” he explained. “They are holding traffic for a half hour or so.”

And so we waited. Then. . .

KA-BOOM! from the far end of the Terminal.

Yep, a security issue alright.  Something suspicious was blown up.
Traffic resumed.
Our shuttle arrived. 
You might say our arrival here was a real blast.

More from Greece. . .when we get there!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Greece: A honey of a destination

Greece, quite literally, is a honey of a destination.

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Athens, Greece from our airplane 2013

As we prepare to return this spring to the Peloponnese, Crete and other yet-to-be-determined places we know the one common treasure we’ll find is their liquid gold. . . honey.

In Greece, honey is infused into soap and shampoo. You can find it in beauty products from face cream to foot lotions. We’ve even used wax balms on our lips – thanks to those industrious bees who produce the honey.

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Feta cheese bake in phyllo then smothered in honey, sesame seeds and onion

We’ve drizzled it by thick spoonful onto fresh-made Greek yogurt for breakfast. We finished our evening meals with complimentary servings of fresh fruit slices topped with it or pieces of cake soaked with it.
While honey is commonly found in every region of Greece, each region’s product has a slightly different taste and characteristics. 

Busy as Bees. . .

As we drove narrow roadways that curled and climbed through the rugged terrain of both the Peloponnese and Crete -- each is a honey producing area -- it became a contest of sorts to spots hives we passed along the way.
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Roadways aren't for the faint-hearted
By the numbers there are some 1.3 million hives and 25,000 beekeepers responsible for the 12,000 tons of honey produced annually in Greece.

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Orange groves/harvest in the Peloponnese

Luckily we will be returning to Greece, during the ‘honey season’ which generally begins in March and continues to the end of November in the southernmost areas of the country.

During this time hives are moved from field to field and slope to slope. The moves provide the seasonal flavors to the honey – orange blossoms in May, wild thyme in July, forests in September and Heather fields in both May and September.  Honey is harvested after the feeding periods to capture the best flavors.

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Wild thyme lines a Crete hiking path
We will be making our fifth trip to Crete – we can’t resist its charms.

Or is it the the thick, hearty thyme honey we’ve discovered in southern Crete that keeps us returning?

It’s a flavor unlike any honey we’ve had anywhere else. We’ve commonly referred to it as our ‘nectar of the Gods’.

Honey of the Gods. . .

However, it was in Poulithro, a coastal village in the Peloponnese – at the Hotel Byzantinon, where we were, last year, introduced to a honey blend so rich in flavor and beautifully colored (an almost pearl metallic highlight) that we understood completely why it is called, “Melithion” which means, ‘honey of the Gods’.

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Melitheon - Honey of the Gods

Christos Kritsidimas, son of the hotel owners, said his family had been buying the honey and serving it as part of the breakfast they provide with a room rental. “The guests kept asking where they could buy the honey. They wanted to take it home.”

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Christos and George Kritsidimas
Talks began with the honey suppliers and Christos, who formerly worked in the banking industry, began Vasiliki, his  new company that produces and markets, “Melithion” and soon other varieties of honey.

“Vasiliki,” he explained has a double meaning. It is both his mother’s name and synonymous with royalty. “We think of this product as the Rolls Royce of honey.”

Melithion is a blend of primarily black fir tree honey dew and Thyme nectar, with combinations of smaller amounts of herbs and local flowers contributing to its unique blend, including Arbutus, Maple, Heather and Tea.

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The Black Fir grows at the 1,500 meter (4,921 feet) elevation in the Mainalo mountain range that towers over the Peloponnese southwest of Tripoli. It’s a distinct species in the fir family and produces a honey known as Banilias (vanilla) – it is the only Greek honey to carry a Protected Designation of Origin. This honey is considered an excellent source of essential trace elements include potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron – as well as numerous vitamins.

“Our particular variety of honey provides a perfect balance in taste with the vanilla being less sweet and the thyme being sweeter,” he explains. “It is delicately smooth in flavor with a butterscotch taste at the end.”
The black fir tree honey dew is a resin produced by microorganisms in the tree trunk. Its production is easily affected by the high elevation’s cold and wet temperatures and the harvest is difficult and costly. For that reason, the production of Melithion honey was limited last year to 12,000 jars.

GreecePt12013 228Since Vasiliki’s inception four years ago, the marketing and distribution of honey has been the company’s focus. Christos has taken the brand to trade fairs throughout Europe and hopes to grow its presence in the United States as well.

Melithion can be purchased on-line at, a premium Mediterranian gastronomy shopping experience. For us, it’s another ‘honey’ of a reason to return to Greece this spring!

Linking up:
Foodie Tuesday at Inside Journeys


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