Thursday, May 29, 2014

Greece’s Tinos Island: Oh Come all the Faithful. . .

The magenta-colored carpet we were looking for was more a dirty tan.

But it was there, just as we had been told it would be. Stretching a half-mile uphill from the harbor in Tinos town – on the Cycladic Island of the same name – it provides a cushion, of sorts, for those humble pilgrims who crawl to the church at the end of this holy pathway.

Not just any church, mind you, but to the island’s centerpiece, the Holy Church of Panagia Evaggelistria of Tinos, or Our Lady of Tinos.
Panagia is the Eastern Orthodox title for the Virgin Mary. Evaggelistra, refers to the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel announced to Virgin Mary the incarnation of Christ.

More than a million faithful each year come to this island with a population of about 8,500 to seek blessings, healing, or miracles (all of which have been recorded as having been granted over the decades) from the Megalochari, (Great Grace), the unofficial name of the Holy Icon for which the church is home.

Unlike those faithful, we chose to walk to the church which gave us an opportunity to ’window shop’ at the many stores that line the route selling religious souvenirs. Others sell candles – huge candles as evidenced by their size in the photo below – to be use as offerings. They also sell ‘tamas’ metallic pieces that represent the reason for your visit. We’ve seen similar metallic pieces called ‘milagros’ or ‘miracles’ in Spanish offered at cathedrals in Mexico.

PicMonkey Collage

Why this Church is Special:

It’s believed that in ancient times, a temple to the Greek god, Dionysus, once stood on the site of the present-day church; a church considered to be one of the most important orthodox shrines of pilgrimages in Greece. But somewhere along the ages, the Christians came along and turned it into a church.


What makes the story more interesting is that the Megalochari which came to Tinos during the Byzantine times, is believed to have been one of three icons painted by Saint Luke during the lifetime of the Virgin Mary. . .many believe it’s miracle-working power came directly from her blessing it.

But the icon vanished when Saracen pirates invaded and burned down the church – back in the 10th Century.

DSCF1593It wasn’t found until some 900 years later after a nun named Pelagia, had three recurring visions about its location and convinced townsfolk of where they needed to dig to find it. 

They dug, found evidence of the temple, but no icon, so they quit digging.

Then a cholera epidemic hit.

Was it cause and effect?

Whatever the case, they resumed the digging and found the Megalochari on Jan. 30, 1823.

Sister Pelagia became Saint Pelagia in 1970.

At the bottom level of the church there are three vaulted arcades where the icon was believed to have been found. It is the site of many baptisms.


The church is a financially independent charitable foundation, governed by a 10-member committee made up of nine elected directors and the Bishop of Syros-Tinos.  It is operated separate from the other Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in Greece. It’s support comes from donations and offerings of the faithful – it is the donated works of art that fill the church’s museum and then some.

PicMonkey Collage

Photos are not permitted inside the church or of the hallways that lead to offices and the church museum, or apartments (which are used – free of charge – at three-day intervals by pilgrims). So I was left to photograph the intricate mosaic that makes up the church’s courtyard.

DSCF3856We spent three nights in Tinos as a result of some of that ‘novel research’ I am always promoting. 

You know we are both fans and friends of Jeffrey Siger who spends half of each year on Mykonos writing crime novels set in Greece.  His, “Target Tinos” with a plot-line involving this church had peaked our interest in the island.

And as we pondered our ‘next stop’ while in Mykonos, he was kind enough to give us a wealth of travel tips about Tinos.

We set off for Tinos aboard a ferry from Mykonos. Water is the only way to reach this island, which in retrospect, was the most ‘Greek’ of the islands we visited. By that, I mean we encountered many who spoke as much English as we do Greek. We were fortunate to be there during the off season and in fact, were but a few staying in the multi-storied hotel we'd selected on the water front.

It was also one of the most stunning Greek islands we’ve visited. The countryside was magical ~ We’ll take you on a tour of it soon.

That’s it for today’s Travel Photo Thursday. Head over to Budget Travelers Sandbox for more armchair travels. And if you want to do some novel research on Greece, check out Jeff’s book:

Hope to see you back here later this week. And, as always, thanks for the time you spent with us today! 
Also linking to:
Travel Photo Monday
Monday Mosaics

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hora Sfakia: An Afternoon at Despina’s

Some of the best travel memories are those made from life’s simplest pleasures ~ like that afternoon at Despina’s on the waterfront in Hora Sfakia, Crete.

Hora Sfakia - Crete
Hora Sfakia, as I’ve told you in earlier posts, was a hub of activity in World War II, (click here for that post). These days this small quiet village on Crete’s southern shore is a stopping off place for hikers heading to or from the three nearby gorges: Samaria, Imbrios or Aradena. There are some people like us, who don’t hike, but simply adore the town and think a trip to Crete is incomplete without a visit here.

Because April's visit was our fourth here, we were looking forward to seeing folks we’ve gotten to know – or at least recognize – from our earlier visits.  Most of the shop keepers and restaurateurs call out greetings both to new-comers and ‘regulars’ like ourselves from their entryways in this pedestrian-friendly area of town.

One of the most welcoming is Despina the owner and operator of a small café and patisserie along the waterfront here. . . she’s also the creator of those wonderful goodies in the display cases pictured above and below.

Despina’s has been open year-round here for 15 years..  In the high season (summer) she opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. then she goes to work making the new creations that will fill her shelves the following morning. (She admitted that often times she gets but a couple hours sleep each night during the height of the tourist season.)


The temptations that fill the refrigerated shelves usually include the likes of her cheese cakes and apple pie, chocolate souffle, tiramisu cheesecake, mocha amaretto and traditional Kataifi, a pastry that looks like shredded wheat, stuffed with nuts and drenched in honey.  During our recent visit, however, it was a lemon cake in an incredible lemon sauce – both made from fresh lemons that kept calling out each time we passed.


In past visits our will power has steered us past her cafe, with just a tingle of the sweet tooth. Sometimes we’ve had coffee there or a raki the local 'fire water' or two to end our evening’s pleasures. We’ve managed to resist the Sweet Siren.


Like many of the restaurants that line the waterfront in this small town, the kitchen and inside seating is separated from the ‘deck’ seating by a walkway/driveway.  While not many cars pass by, when they do, they are close – but that just adds to the ambiance of the experience.


But this time that lemon cake was too much to resist.  I’d like to have shown you how big a piece it was that we shared, but I barely remembered to pull out the camera before we had wolfed it away completely. . .


That is our  Foodie Tuesday tale this week for our linkup at Inside Journeys.  Hope you’ll join us Thursday when we “Target Tinos”. (Yep, you have to come back to figure that one out.) Thanks for the time you spent with us today~as always, it is appreciated.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Greece Road Trip: Bridging the Gulf

The area in which we live in the Pacific Northwest is laced with rivers and lakes. The bridges that cross them for the most part are nondescript concrete structures lacking both style and personality. Little attention is paid to them - unless one collapses, as happened about a year ago on a major state highway. 

So, we didn’t give much thought to the bridge we would cross as we left the town of Patras in the Peloponnese and set off for Western Greece,  . . .that is, until we approached the Rio-Andirio Suspension Bridge


The bridge links the town of Rio in the Peloponnese to Andirio on the Western mainland, thus the bridge's name. Until it was built, ferries transported cars across this body of water where the Corinth Gulf meets the Patraikos Gulf. (While down the road that stretch of the Corinth Gulf and its narrow canal gets all the tourist-hype, we found this area to be equally deserving of attention.)


Its official name is the Charilaos Trikoupis Bridge, named after the statesman who envisioned it, although it is seldom referred to as that, even in guidebooks.


At 2,900 meters (9,514 feet – just short of two miles) in length, it is either the longest cable suspension bridge in the world, or tied for first place, depending on your source.


Construction began in 1996 and the toll bridge was inaugurated in 2004. The price of crossing it in a passenger vehicle is costly: $13-euros each way. But oh, what an experience it was, like driving through a giant sculpture.


Luckily the town in which we spent a night after crossing the bridge wasn’t far from it so we had a bit more time to enjoy this Grecian architectural wonder.

Map picture

Have you traveled across a memorable bridge? If so, where was it and what made it memorable?

Hope you’ll be back next week when we will make one ‘sweet’ stop in Crete on Foodie Tuesday. Until then, thanks for your time and happy travels ~

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Grecian Road Trip: By the Numbers

Go ahead. Admit it.

When reading or hearing about travel – no matter how inspiring the trip might be – doesn’t it spark a few questions that you’d really like to ask, but don’t know how to quite go about it. Questions like,

"How long were you gone?"
"How far did you go?"
"How much did that cost?" 
"How did you do that?"

We certainly have them. It's not just because we are nosy; knowing those things about other's trips can help us plan our future travels. Because so many of you've mentioned that you are either heading to Greece or have it on the bucket list, we thought today we’d tell you a bit about our trip by looking at some of the numbers:

PicMonkey Collage
Greece and Turkey 

Destination: Greece via Istanbul, Turkey. (Remember, last fall I tipped you off to a travel deal: The Scout, nailed us a $608 round-trip airfare (taxes, fees included) from Seattle to Istanbul on Lufthansa Airlines; a steal compared to flights to Athens averaging $1,200 per ticket. The internet deal was available for about a week.)

Our round-trip flights between Istanbul and Athens were about $250 US per person – still less than a direct flight to Athens and gave us a chance to explore Istanbul.
Incidentals: $40 US for two Visas, valid for 90 days to enter Turkey (purchased at Ataturk Airport after arrival in Istanbul).

Yikes! Unbelievable Checked Baggage charges: 25-euro ($35 US) per bag to Crete from Athens on Aegean Airlines; 35-euro ($49 US) per bag Athens to Istanbul on Olympic Airlines.

Near Leonidas - Peloponnese Greece

Duration: 42 nights. A three-week road trip through the Peloponnese, a week in Crete, a week in the Cyclades Islands, couple nights in Athens, five in Istanbul.

Transportation: eight airplanes, five ferries, four rental cars.

PicMonkey Collage
Greek ferries

Ferry travel in Greece isn't a cheap way to get around - but it is fun, more comfortable than airplanes and doesn't require any security screening!  We traveled by 'fast boat' those sleek modern hydrofoils that nearly sail over the water, by the larger cruise-ship sized ferry, and the small one that is legendary on the southern coast of Crete. Prices, in euros, ranged from $4 US (Sfakia to Loutro, Crete) – $70 US (Tinos Island in the Cyclades to Athen's port of Piraeus), depending on ship and destination.

PicMonkey Collage
Our 'wheels' in Greece

Rental cars: On the flip side, those itty-bitty cars we rented did seem reasonably priced, averaging about 22-euros a day, everything included. Note: None of our rentals required an International Driver's License.   Those little cars fit those narrow, winding roads well. On several occasions we squeezed past on-coming vehicles, maneuvered around goats or cattle lazing in the road, or inched our way through small town streets.

Gasoline. . . Gasp!  Prices ranged from $8 US - $10 US a gallon.  It sometimes took 50-euros, or $68 US to fill the small tank.

This room cost 40-euros a night, kitchen, large bathroom and deck  - Ios Island Cyclades

Accommodations: We stayed in 15 hotels.  Prices varied but were generally in the 35 - 40-euro ($48-$55 US) range and the places were charming. Most had kitchenettes which allowed us to eat a couple meals 'at home' each day - a real money-saver. The least we paid was $38 US for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with fireplace and sweeping views in Astros, a town in the Peloponnese. The most, at $200 US a night, was the five-star hotel (booked on Expedia and still a deal compared to regular prices) a block of Syntagma Square in Athens where we spent two nights.

Greek style Greek Salad - Heraklion, Crete

Food and Drink: This is where the travel dollar savings are unbelievably good in Greece!  We spent about 22-euros ($30 US) which paid for multi-course meze meals, a half-liter pitcher of wine and tips.

Porto Kagio - Peloponnese
Wine: for 3-euros ($4.50 US) we purchased excellent wines in one-liter plastic bottles at farmer's markets and grocery stores. The 'fancy' glass bottles with corks could be had for 7-euros and up.  For 3-5-euros we drank half-liter pitchers of wine at restaurants.

Two 'filter coffees' - Tinos Island, Cyclades

Coffee: Greece has gone coffee crazy in recent years and coffee shops proliferate in cities and small towns alike.  Cappuccino and filter (pressed, usually) coffee for two was 5-6-euros.

Street Market open daily - Heraklion, Crete

Street market shopping: It was a joy to do our grocery shopping at local street markets. We saved an enormous amount of money and had some of the freshest, best tasting food imaginable.  Two examples:  strawberries 3-euros ($4.50 US for a kilogram, 2.2 pounds) and oranges, fresh picked, 1-euro per kilogram.

Mykonos Island - Cyclades

What are the questions you wish bloggers and travel writers would answer about places? (BTW, if you've got questions these numbers didn't answer, send them our way.  If you have some money saving tips for future trips, add those as well.)  That's it for today - as always, thanks for your time! Hope to see you again soon!

 Linking up with Travel Photo Thursday and Mosaic Mondays and Travel Photo Monday.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Turkish Simit or Greek Koulouri: By Whatever Name. . .

. . .the fact is, it is yummy!

One of my favorite foods when eating in Greece is the ‘koulouri’ or in Turkey, the ‘simit’.  It is basically the same food, just known by different names.

Similar versions of this bread-shaped-like-a-huge-donut can be found throughout the Middle East, including Serbia, Egypt, Lebanon and the Balkans. In each place, it is called by a different name. The creations originated centuries ago.

By whatever name, it is one of the cheapest foods to be found in both countries in which we traveled this spring. Depending on your point of view, simit or koulouri is either ‘street food’ or ‘fast food’ (and one of the healthiest fat-and sugar-free fast foods to be eaten.)

We were introduced to the Turkish simit a few years back while exploring the port city of Trabzon, Turkey, (where the photo above was taken). I was so impressed with my new food find, that I wrote about it and had to show off the one I was eating – still warm out of the bakery oven. (Click here for that post).

At a cost of about one Euro or a Turkish Lira (about $1.25US) these baked dough circles encrusted with sesame seeds are so filling that it is easy to eat one for lunch or breakfast. (They are probably great with a bit of jam on them.) We’ve always eaten them on-the-go; purchased from street vendors in both Greece and Turkey who set up carts like the one pictured below.  This enterprising salesman on Ermou Street in Athens had added donuts to his offerings, but they weren’t selling as fast as those sesame wonders.


This fellow also served variety of koulouri, which was new to us. It was filled with chocolate – not an overly sweet chocolate and with a consistency of cake frosting. Those lovelies are stacked on the center right in the photo below. (We split one of them for ‘lunch’ and ate on it all afternoon – as a little went a long way.)


While researching the history of simit and koulouri, I came across a two-year-old web article  that said the Istanbul Simit Tradesman Chamber had petitioned for an international patent for the circular creation to be officially known at the Turkish Simit.  I found no follow up reports, so that will remain a mystery unless one of you kind readers can update us on that initiative.

By whatever name. . .my favorite new flavor came from a small bakery in Mykonos, Greece. It was there I discovered the wonders of the apple-filled koulouri. It was heavenly! Again,purchased for ‘lunch’ but it lasted all afternoon. BTW, if I had to choose between this and apple pie, this tasty morsel would win, hands down!


We came to expect those simit/koulouri vendors and their carts at ferry ports and tourist attractions and along city streets. The most enterprising salesman though was the man who passed us on the Galata Bridge as we walked over Istanbul’s Golden Horn. He was selling to the fishermen who lined the bridge:


Have you tried these tasty treats or something similar? Where did you eat them and by what were they called?

We are linking up this week with Inside Journeys Foodie Tuesday and Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Monday. Hope you’ll come back again later this week for another serving of our Greek and Turkish travels. As always, thanks for your time and your comments!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday Snippets: Greece Has Got Talent!

We had the good fortune to meet a number of interesting people while traveling through Greece.  As most of you who travel will likely agree, some of the most interesting things happen in the most unlikely settings. . .

Syntagma Square - May 1st 2014
We’d set out on foot to explore Athens on that May 1st Labor Day; a holiday of sorts when many workers were ‘on strike’ and gathered in Syntagma Square. Others simply weren’t working and most stores were closed.

We strolled the pedestrian-friendly Ermou Street that leads from Syntagma Square (and fronted our hotel) then looped our way through tree-lined boulevards and past small urban parks.

However as we walked through the popular-with-tourists-area of Plaka we were drawn to an art and jewelry store - first by the window displays and then by a friendly employee whose smile was sunshine.

We weren’t really shopping for anything, we told him. . .didn’t need anything else in the suitcases.  He didn’t mind – ‘take your time’ – he said as he explained the intricacies of various objects.

The conversation was the usual: Him: Where you from? How long are you here? Us: Were you born in Athens? Where are you from?

And then somewhere in the chit-chat we learned he was a singer – a real-live singer. He is hired to sing at weddings and other celebrations and has regular weekend ‘gigs’ at a few places he named for us. Elvis, Frank Sinatra . . .he can sing them all.  And to prove it he broke into song, singing Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” for us right there in the middle of the showroom.

The Scout with Nikos Georgas
And then Nikos Georgas, who is in his late 50’s, told us that he was named the 2010 winner of Greece Has Got Talent, (a show much like the American version)  At that news, I told this Grecian crooner I had to take his photo so he insisted The Scout pose with him.

We had liked a couple of objects and told him we would think about them and perhaps return. He replied, “That’s fine. I am a singer – not a salesman.” And then added, “When you get home you can find me on You Tube.”

You know what? We did. And here’s a link to the winning announcement – it is in Greek, but you will understand it no matter what language you speak – do check out this amazingly talented man. Stick with it for a sample of his many songs.
Have you ever had a similar unexpected pleasure in an unlikely place? We’d love to hear about it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Road trip Greece: Porto Kagio in the Peloponnese

“. . . the main road cuts across the peninsula to the tiny east-coast fishing village of 
Porto Kagio, set on a perfect horseshoe bay.

A looping road led to Porto Kagio  

The village’s three competing accommodation options are in as remote a place as you’ll find anywhere on the Peloponnese.”
Lonely Planet guidebook

Akrotiri Hotel
With only three hotels, we’d emailed a couple of days in advance of our arrival and secured a reservation at the Akrotiri Hotel pictured above.  We should have paid attention to that part about ‘remote a place. . .’ and not worried about needing that reservation.

Porto Kagio
As we descended into the port, the narrow paved road that had looped us down the hillside became a rocky beach. The photo above shows the ‘main road’ of the aptly described, remote village. Didn’t take us long to figure out that we were the only tourists . . .in fact, we seemed to be among only a dozen villagers. (Despite the remoteness cell phones worked for those who had them and we had strong wi-fi connections.)


So deserted the place seemed as we drove into the village, we were somewhat surprised to see that our room – 40-euros-a-night -- was charming and had a large (by Greek standards) en suite bathroom.  That price included breakfast. (One of the best breakfasts we had on this trip, with egg, tomatoes, feta wedges and olives, I might add.)

Once we dropped our bags in the room we set off to explore this port that we had all to ourselves. Here are some of our discoveries:

A trail that led up and over a craggy knoll to a small chapel overlooking the sea ~


The chapel door was ‘locked’ with a simple hook so any visitor/worshipper could enter with ease.

PicMonkey Collage

The harbor was as picture perfect as the guidebook had described it, just a bit lonely in this early spring, on the cusp of tourist season.

On the far distant cliff-side there appeared to be other villages; we pondered how one would reach them. . .I zoomed in with the camera lens for a closer look.


It was a tranquil place, almost a spooky sort of tranquil, as though time had stopped here. It came to life for a moment with the arrival of a boat in the early evening. . .


Then it quieted back down to its slumber state. We sipped wine. Had some dinner. Stared out at the tranquil bay. And continued our explorations the next day. Lonely Planet described it well, it was as remote a place as we’ve ever stayed in Greece. It might well be one of the most memorable as well.

Map picture
That’s it for this week’s Travel Photo Thursday. Head over to Budget Travelers Sandbox for some more armchair travel.  Thanks much for the time you spent with us! By the way, what's the most remote place you've stayed?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Istanbul: One Sweet Taste of History!

Our four nights in Istanbul came no where near satiating our sensory experiences. Although we made a valiant attempt. Too many sights, sounds, smells and tastes will simply have to wait until ‘next time’!

On our quest to ‘see everything’ we logged 9.5 miles on our pedometer our first day in town and agreed that we had earned a visit to the popular confectionery  “Hafiz Mustafa 1864” just off Taksim Square.


At the time, we didn’t know anything about the place other than it tempted with confectionery treats that made your mouth water just looking at them. The photo below is only one small section of one of the many displays:

From a history page in the menu, we learned that this candy store got its start 150 years ago during the early years of Sultan Abdulaziz’s reign of the Ottoman Empire.


Founder Ismail Hakke Zade came to Istanbul to be a money lender. He began making a candy called, “akide” a type of rock candy in the basement of his shop.  It wasn’t long before his son Hafiz Mustafa came up with another creation, ‘pogaca’ – palm-sized buns served with or without filling. The two items were hits and the rest, as they say, is history.


Hafiz took over the business and by the early 1900’s had won 11 European medals for confectionery creations. Over the years the location has been renovated and updated but still has a wonderful historic feel to it. During our brief visit we watched the tables pictured below fill completely and lines three and four people deep were continuous at the take-away counters.

The menu itself was a treat - a small volume complete with photos and descriptions of candies, cakes, pastries, teas, and coffees. Its cover features the Hafiz Mustafa logo with the word, “Istanbul” written in Turkish.


So, in what did we indulge? We had a ‘filter coffee’ (meaning regular coffee) and a cappuccino and. . .


This is chocolate mousse with sponge cake at the bottom. The sprinkles on top are chocolate, coconut and pistachio nuts. The picture doesn’t show the size of this serving - it was a bowl, not a dish – it was huge and easily shared by two.

If you find yourself in Istanbul, be sure to visit this ‘historic site’ for one sweet taste of history! For hours, menus, location and time visit their web site:  We are linking up today with Inside Journey’s Foodie Tuesday.


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