Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 28:: Oxi Day - Greek Parades and Pride

                               OXI Day - Poros
Oxi Day, October 28th, is a national holiday in Greece.  Throughout the country parades and celebrations are taking place and Poros is no exception.  Today's chilly temperatures, dark clouds and wind didn't keep residents from lining our main street and attending the ceremony at the war memorial in the heart of town.

Oxi Day commemorates the events that took place on Oct. 28,1940, when the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxes refused Benito Mussolini's demand to occupy certain portions of Greece that he considered strategic locations.  The story goes that with a single word, "Oxi" ('oh-hee') or "No" the request was denied by the PM marking Greece's entry into the war. 

Today's celebration, a rather simple affair compared to the descriptions of those that take place in the larger cities,  involved -- it appeared - every child on the island.  School children marched wearing white shirts and dark pants and skirts; their teachers - men in suits and ties, and women in dress coats and shoes marched to their side.  They were divided by grade with the youngest leading the parade.  Each group drew loud applause from the on-lookers.

A single, small uniformed marching band played.  The Greek Orthodox priest opened the ceremony at the War Memorial with prayers.  Pairs of school children, some wearing tradtional Greek clothing, placed wreaths at the war memorial.  We all observed a moment of silence.

Greek tourist guides say not to miss the observance festivities if you are in Greece - they are right.  We consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to share in the celebration.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall Harvest and Market Daydreams

Tourist season is coming to an end and harvest season is in full swing - it is a perfect time to be exploring the Peloponnese and the nearby Saronic Islands. 

One of the highlights of our trip is experiencing olive harvest.  Time and time again as we drove through the Peloponnese countryside Sunday we would come around a corner to find a mom-and-pop harvest underway. 

Large nets are draped beneath the trees to catch the olives. Branches were cut --  thus taking care of pruning and harvest at the same time, I guess -- and the branches shaken to release the olives onto the net.  The olives were then stuffed into gunny sacks.

We passed numerous old pickup trucks, laboring under the weight of stacks of sacked olives, as the harvest was taken to the cooperative processing plants that appear every so often in this area.

We opened the windows to inhale the pungent citrus air as we drove through miles of orange groves.

The abundant harvests of the area are reflected in the street markets held in towns and villages.

The street market held each Wednesday and Saturday in Nafplion stretches for blocks as vendors display their fruits and vegetables.  Zucchinis (courgettes) and aubergines (eggplants) carrots, cabbages and soft-ball-sized, vine-ripened red tomatoes are piled high. Leeks as long as yard sticks were piled like lumber next  next to mountains of fava and string beans. Huge bags of perfectly-shaped potatoes were offered for less than a euro.

In addition to oranges, pomegranites and figs, we were tempted by red- and green- grapes so vine-ripened they fell of their stems as I placed a large bunch into the bag the vendor held for me.  Liter and half-gallon sized plastic bottles are filled with home-made rose and white wines. (We tried the white in a liter bottle - we paid 2E - it was an excellent sipping wine).

Market prices are ridiculously low here; not like the prices we know at Farmer's Markets back home.  We strolled through the Nafplio market, restricting our purchases to an item or two that we would eat during our short time there. And then we begin daydreaming. . . if we were to live here a month or two each year, just think of the wonderful things we could cook at home  and how inexpensively we could eat. . .

It was an idea as tempting as the produce!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Foot or Burro? That is the question.

On the island of Hydra (Greeks pronounce that, 'eee-dra') in the Saronic Islands off the Peloponesse coast, there are no motorized vehicles - except for two small garbage trucks.  So when you step off the ferry onto its near perfect crescent-shaped dock you have two choices for getting to your hotel: on foot or burro. 

              Burro loaded with rebar in Hydra
Unlike Santorini where the burro chain greets the cruise boats and photos are taken of passengers riding up the steep hillside, here the burro is serious business.  They haul produce and people, lumber, dirt, supplies and their handlers sit sidesaddle leading their pack-string along the waterfront loading the items in preparation of heading up the steep, narrow pathways to the town's interior.

Our mainland roadtrip took us to Hydra for a night's stay Sunday.  We had planned to stay in another town on the coast but as with our philosophy of travel, when the opportunity presents itself, take it.  We passed a sign pointing through an olive grove that read "Hydra".  We followed the roadway and found ourselves at a tiny taxi ferry dock, and thought,'why not?'

We parked near the olive grove, packed on overnight bag and hopped aboard the 16-passenger taxi that whisked us across the channel for a delightful evening and morning visit to an island we would otherwise have missed.

In case you are wondering, we walked to the pansion where we stayed for 35E a night. It was an easy walk, not far from the harbor.

It Just Doesn't Get Any Better. . .a Sunday Drive

"It just doesn't get any better!" has become an almost daily declaration of mine since heading to Greece following our Black Sea cruise.  Each new destination has me proclaiming, "it won't be better than this. . .view, moment, monument. . ." and then each new place proves that it can!

Sunday as we headed back across the inland and along the coast from Nafplion I think might have been one of those days that just don't get any better.

Our route from Nafplio took us through a series of small towns and miles of lush agricultural area; a checkerboard  of deep-green orange- and silver-gray olive groves. Rolling hillsides and valleys gave way to steep mountain peaks that we ascended on the twisty two-lane highway that took us back to the coastline we'd left five days before.

 It was an easy and quiet time on the roadway as Athenians hadn't yet begun their treks back to the big city so we had the road to ourselves, passing only a few orchard tractors and trucks along the way.  We stopped to admire the views - as good as Tuscany, we declared, if not better -- and that is saying a lot for the two of us who love all places Italian..

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Peloponnese Potpourri: People and Places

                             Nafplio from the Fortress
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in Nafplion and the Square below our room has come to life with weekend visitors from Athens.  The cafes are full, a game of soccer is being played by local children on one side of the marble-paved square and a street performer is entertaining other children and cafe patrons on the other side.  Laughter and conversations fill the air.

There's been so much to see and do in this area that we've used Nafplion as a base (staying five nights) and have taken day trips by car and explored the town on foot. . .driving in old Nafplion is a tights squeeze at best so we park at the port's free lot and walk a few block to our hotel (which is in a pedestrian only area anyway).

Americans Among Us

We realized a few days ago that we had gone for nearly a week without seeing another American; in fact that last time we had spoken to Americans was when we called out goodbye to our Florida friends at the cruise ship in Piraeus. 

Our first night here we met three delightful young American women who are studying in Athens and who were in town for a four-day study of the archaeological sites nearby.  Monika from USC, Soula from Michigan and Clare from Notre Dame gave us an introduction to the sites that we would be seeing and we had some good ol' football -- not soccer -- but football, talk from home.  We saw two of our trio atop the cliff at the fortress the next day and had hoped to cross paths again but it didn't happen.  "Yassis" to you all - hope to see you again one day.

Street scenes

People often ask us about places and begin with, "But what is there to see?"  Our short answer is "Life." And one of our favorite from this trip is the nightly scocer game that beings about 6 p.m. on the Square.  A group of tousle-topped boys gather and anywhere from one to three soccer balls appear.  The boys appear to be between the ages of 6 and 10 but often a grown man walking by will take a kick or two and last night a toddler - a bit bigger than the ball - wove his way in and out of the big boys.  It made for great entertainment - we can hardly wait for tonight's game!

Friday, October 22, 2010

In the Land of Legends and Myths: Mycenae

                                                   Lion's Gate - Mycenae
We are traveling through the land of myth and history.  The Peloponnese countryside -- less than 200 kilometers from Athens -- is awash in history; so much so, that we've had to pace ourselves by taking one 'time travel trip' each day back into history. 

We are not history buffs, nor do we know that much about Greek mythology.  But when you visit a place with ramparts dating to 1350BC -- yes, that is BC!-- there's no other word for it than: overwhelming. 

Once thought to be found only in legends and poetry, Mycenae was the most powerful city-state in Greece up to 1100 BC when it was destroyed by fire.  The site was discovered in the late 1800's - confirming the existence of a real city and people.

We entered the old city through the Lion Gate -- pictured above -- that dates back to 1240 BC and is considered the oldest sample of monumental sculpture in Europe.  The remains of the city's granary still stand as well a burial grounds and artists quarters.  Traces of grain were found on ceramics excavated there and now on display in the museum to the side of the city.  Finished beadwork, uncut ivory and gold leaf were found in the artists' quarters.

According to Greek mythology Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Dianae.  He employed Cyclops, mythical beings from Asia to build the city thus the style of architecture is called cyclopean. 

The museum off to the side houses display cases filled with ceramics and art found at the site.
The entry fee was 8E per person which provided access to the city and the museum.  There are restroom facilities on site as well as a snack bar.  And numerous fellow visitors were using canes to get around but easily managed the well maintained - but sometimes steep - stairways.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

999 Steps Up the Wall

The Venetian Fortress towers over Nafplion, another reminder of the time the area was under their rule. Its thick wall provided protection from invaders but these days the gates are open and the invaders come in the form of tourists.

                   Stairway to the fortress
There are two ways to get to the fortress:  by vehicle or on foot. On foot means a climb up 999 stairs that zig-zag up the face of the cliff that I have pictured at the start of this post.  Yes, we walked. 999 up and 999 down. . .and that just got us to the fortress, then we climbed more steps and ramps that criss-cross the interior and lead to jaw-dropping views. Tourist information varied, one place said 850 stairs and others said 999 - I counted. The bigger number is correct.

We did it with several 'breathing stops' on the way up. People who suffer vertigo might not want to make the climb, but then they shouldn't be going to the fortress if they don't like heights.. I have to be truthful and add that we both had wobbly knees by the time we returned to the roadway at the base of the cliff.

Each time we do something like this we comment that it is 'pretty good for people our ages'.  That brag was tempered by a man we met heading up as we were heading down.  The elderly white-haired man (much older than us) was dressed in slacks, dress shirt, sweater vest, jacket and used a cane.  "Bon Jour, Madam" he called out to me as I passed.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Room with a View

             Syntagmatos Square from our room
Sometimes, we've decided, it is simply luck. 

No amount of research can turn up a hotel as perfect as one that you simply happen upon.  Such is the case with our 'room with a view' in Nafplion

After finally getting a rental car (thanks to our new friend, Dimitri on Poros, who managed to rouse Pops  Rental Car across the channel when no one else could) we set out in our small Renault on the coastal route, then heading inland for a bit and arriving about 6 pm in the  port town of Nafplion (also called Nafplio and Nafplia).

We had had mixed reviews of Nafplion prior to our arrival:  a German couple told us to skip it, they were so disappointed; yet, the tourist brochure said it was a 'fairy land'.  We are voting for the latter now that we've been here a day - in fact ,we plan to stay here a few days longer.

This city, once the capital of Greece, was under Venetian rule many centuries ago.  The old city, where we are staying, has such a heavy Italian influence that its easy to forget you are in Greece - as evidenced by the town square we overlook. Bouganvillas drape the small cobbled side roads that lead to the main square we overlook..

We happened upon the Hotel Athina on the corner of Syntagmatos Square and inquired about availability - although with its location we expected the rate to be astronomical. . .wrong. They offered a room with breakfast for 50E a night and as we climbed the stairs (no elevator here) Joel asked if any rooms might look out on the square. 

Not only do we have a room with a view - but two views, one balcony looks directly over the square and the other looks back on the Venetian fortress (more on that soon).  Yes, the price is 50E a night. 

And I am heading out to the balcony soon to sip some Greek white wine that we bought today at the farmers market for 2E a liter from the little lady who makes it.  Yes, sometimes, it is simply luck.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Off to the Peloponnese

   Spetses harbor with the storm approaching
After a downpour on Monday that kept us an extra day in Spetses, our day today dawned bright and sunny and we are off to the Peloponnese, mainland Greece -- we think anyway.

We will backtrack to the island of Poros, hop the ferry across the channel and hopefully find a car rental that is open on the other side and if not hop the local bus with our intended destination being Nafplion.  I am adding intended because we are winging it this portion of the trip. . .the ferry we planned to take this morning was cancelled due to weather and "Pops Car Rental" doesn't answer the phone.

We've learned to be flexible on our travels - we will go where we go today and I'll write from there when we get there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rain-soaked, sun-drenched Saronic Islands

                             Sea and sky blend somedays
We set out after our cruise for Aegina, (aye-ena) the closest of the Saronic Islands to Pireaus on a day so gray that the sky and the sea merged into a bleak panorama and arrived at its charming harbor town under threatening skies.  The skies cleared and we spent two nights in a charming 200 year old mansion converted to hotel some 25 years ago.

We chose Spetses island for our next destination - about two hours from Aegina by slow ferry and we set out on a day as gloriously spectacular as our previous trip had been gray.  And we have fallen under the charms of this place and will spend our fourth night here tonight before setting out to explore the mainland.

Saturday afternoon we explored the island on foot - 9.5 miles later -- we had crested its highest peak and  walked among olive groves and pine forests.  This is the island where author John Fowles lived and worked when he wrote his epic, The Magus.

We have had sun and blue skies and last night a storm moved in that lit the skies with lightening strikes, thunder boomed and rain came down in sheets.  Today the rain continues.  I sit in the lobby of the one hotel still open that has internet access -- the only woman in the lobby, by the way and certainly the only one with a computer -- awaiting Joel who has visited the local barber.

We are staying in a charming hotel for 35E per night - having been convinced by the owner, Petros, when we stepped off the ferry that it was a great place.  He was right - we hope to return someday.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Of Beys and Beyans

We had four stops in Turkey: Kusadesi, Istanbul, and then on the Black Sea coast we visited Trabzon and Sinop.  We thoroughly enjoyed the sights, sounds, smells that signaled we were visiting places far from home.  The call to prayer that echoed at regular intervals, the spices, the colors, the people. . .we agree that it would be fun to return to each of these places and spend more time (especially Istanbul) than a cruise stop permits.

We don't know Turkish though - unlike with Greek words, where we know enough to at least be polite in greeting - so in Turkey we were limited to polite smiles, head nodding, gestures and in some cases, total gaffes.  And I must admit, I was the worst offender:

When visiting mosques all must remove their shoes before entering, all are to be appropriately dressed (no bare arms, shorts or inappropriate clothing) and women must wear head scarves. 

While in Trabzon we decided to visit an impressive mosque in the heart of the bazaar area. 
We both removed our shoes. 
Joel entered the mosque while I stayed outside wrapping a scarf around my head.
An elderly Turkish man spoke to me and gestured upwards.  I followed the gesture and admired the ceiling.
He repeated the statement and gesture.
I looked again and turned to him, bowing slightly and said, "Beautiful, simply beautiful." (in English) and then followed Joel into the mosque.
We sat side by side and admired the interior.

As we walked out to my total mortification I realized what the elderly man had told me when I saw a woman heading upstairs to the women's section, clearly marked "Beyan" with an arrow pointing up the stairs.

We've learned two Turkish words this trip: bey (men) and beyan (women); and they won't soon be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bye to a Bleak and Blustery Black Sea

            Sea and sky were the same color
We sailed out of the Black Sea on Tuesday, arriving in Piraeus sometime in the early hours of the morning Oct. 13th, Greek time.  Our cruise went far more rapidly than the calendar indicates; it doesn't seem that 12 days have passed since we were beginning the adventure to new ports of the world.

Our cruise provided many adventures, wonderful discoveries and more history than one can absorb in a single trip: we visited the lands and sailed the same seas that centuries ago were home to Romans, the Ottomans, Jason and his Argonauts, just to name a few.

The bit of history we weren't prepared for was discovering a bit of my history as we made our way to Russia.

"Excuse me. . ." a lady called out while I studied the various food choices on the Lido deck one lunchtime.  As I turned, she continued, "but, are you from Washington?. . .You are Jackie aren't you!?"

She was a bit grayer in the hair and used a cane to steady herself (a bad knee), but I recognized her instantanously:  the mother of one of my best high school buddies!  It was at their Italian home in the central Washington town where I grew up, that I first ate real homemade spaghetti, it was with her daughter I celebrated my Sweet 16th. 

She and her husband were on the cruise celebrating their 58th anniversary and my good buddy - whom I hadn't seen in decades - was with them.  We renewed a friendship and shared history stories - ours - that kept us all amused and entertained during the dark and dreary days.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gray Skies over the Black Sea

The Black Sea is living up to its name: it is a dark - and today - very dreary sea.  We've had heavy clouds and last night a heavy rain as we crossed this body of water en route to Sochi, Russia. I write this from the ship anchored just off the Russian coast.

We didn't clear the wait-list for the shore tour - in fact, it turns out we weren't on the wait list after all - so we will 'see' Russia from a distance.  The authorities are strict here: you are either on a tour or you hold a Russian Visa, we don't qualify on either account so will take photos (and add to the blog later) of the shore and the two ships that seem to be 'guarding' us as tour groups tender to the shore.

The cruise continues to provide some fascinating stops and tomorrow we will be back in the land of passports and shore passes.  Today will be spent watching the deep dark waters and sky that surround us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Having one HAL of a cruise!

We write from İstanbul.  Sitting in an İnternet cafe usiıng a Turkish keyboard. Cruise has been great so far. We have zig-zagged across the Aegean with stops ın Kusadesi, gateway to the land of St. Paul and then back to Volos, Greece where Jason rounded up his Argonauts and set out to find the Golden Fleece.  From there to Thessoloniki. Greece where the father of Alexander the Great is burıed.  We have had a great look at history. 

Will add photos and more detail when we are back to the land of the wireless computer.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Setting Sail

We are off to the Black Sea

We are off to the Black Sea.  The Westerdam is in port.  We will board in the early afternoon and set sail at 5 p.m.  We quite literally bumped into our Florida friends this morning on a Piraeus street corner. W.e met them on the Westerdam when we were assigned as table mates a few years ago; what a perfect way to renew a friendship aboard the same ship 
Contemplations are done - the cruise is about to begin.


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