Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Monemvasia ~ The Spirit of Place

'Spirit of Place' (or soul) refers to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place.
-- Wikipedia

On a hauntingly still November night, we spoke in hushed voices as we made our way along the twisting, dimly lit stone pathways that serve as streets here.  Our footsteps, our words, our mere breathing seemed to amplify and bounce off the stone walls and walkways. Homes were shuttered and most businesses had closed for the season so there really was no one to disturb as we made our way through the darkened village. 

Cruise ships were no longer stopping for brief visits and bus loads of tourists that can fill the tiny streets were finished for the season. The village was settling in for a winter's hibernation. We were among maybe a handful of tourists who'd opted for a late autumn visit. As we made our way down to the seaside and back the only sounds were an occasional stray cat's cry or the rustle of drying leaves. After the sun had set, following the village's maize of uneven pathways, and stairs became a game of discovery as we'd turn a corner and find ourselves in a small plateia, plaza, or sometimes at the entry of someone's private home. . .never quite the place we thought we'd be.

On this dark autumn evening we were walking through history and surrounded by what Lawrence Durrell would likely call, 'the spirit of place'. We were in Monemvasia, a centuries-old village in the Greek Peloponnese.

Monemvasia, Greek Peloponnese

Referred to as Greece’s 'Gibralter' by some, its name, Monemvasia (mah-nem-VAH-sia) means 'single passage' and dates back to a time of Venetian occupation here. The Venetians are credited with building a single paved walkway to the landmass that is said to have broken from the mainland during an earthquake back in 375 A.D.  They called it 'Napoli de Malvasia', the French named it 'Malvoise' and English writers have referred to it as 'Malmsey'.  By whatever name, it is one of our favorite ‘finds’ in the Peloponnese and a favorite road trip destination.

Today a paved road on a 200-meter-long causeway leads to its entry gates. You can park along the causeway or back in Gefira (Yefira) or New Monemvasia on the mainland.  Visitor accommodations can be found there or within the walled city itself, often referred to as the Kastro, or castle.

Monemvasia from the sea

We opted to stay in the old town and couldn't help but get caught up in its history which is as much a zig-zag affair as the twists and turns of its pathways.

brief history (I'm leaving out many details): Founded by the Byzantines in the 6th Century, it remained under their rule for 700 years until the Franks came along and took over. Then another round of battle and the Byzantines got it back. In 1419 the Venetians came along and later sold it to the Ottomans in 1715 but then came the Russian-Turkish War in the 1700's. . . and finally. . .in the summer of 1821 it became part of the Greek State.

In more modern history it played a role in World War II with the New Zealand 6 Brigade successfully evacuating from there and the Germans using it as a place for injured soldiers to recover.

Donkeys and humans with hand-carts make deliveries here
To visit this wonderful old walled city, you do need to be able to walk - and walk on uneven surfaces.  In fact walking is a reason to visit the city that was built on two levels; the lower level on which we stayed and explored and the upper level at the very top,  known as the Fortress of Goulas, where there are ruins of homes and cisterns and a still-standing St. Sophia, Byzantine Church. 

The upper level has been under restoration since our first visit some four years ago. It has recently opened to visitors, but hadn't at the time of our visit.

Traveling through the lower village you will be sharing the right of way with burros and humans with hand carts who transport products and goods  through its narrow passageways.

Stray cats charmed the few remaining tourists
Even with the upper level not open during our visit, we were able to burn some calories as we explored its winding routes. One route lead high above the village, not quite to the fortress level but high enough to afford us some spectacular views  none-the-less.

A passageway in Monemvasia

With its expansive views of the sea and protected location we could understand why so many wanted to claim it as their own through the centuries.

View from above the village
Heading out in a different direction and angle we followed a path and stairway combination that lead us to the water's edge.

Seaside in Monemvasia

“It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you -- are you watching yourself in me?' Most travelers hurry too much...the great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly -- but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling...you can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle, you'll be there.”
Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings edited by A.G.Thomas

PicMonkey Collage
Our accommodations

While many hotels were closing for the season, The Scout, had done his research and found us this stand-alone suite right in the heart of town for a mere 45-euros a night. We had a restaurant right across the street, and two coffee shops a quick walk away.

Monemvasia, Peloponnese

We marveled at the mix of old and new. Our suite offered Wi-Fi and modern amenities yet we were in an ancient building. The remains of some buildings in the village look as if they'll barely stand another second, yet we know they'll likely be around much longer than we will.  The oldest church in the village, St. Paul's, was built in 956 and houses its museum (well worth a visit!).

Modern restaurants and stores fill ancient structures
On the day we sipped coffee on this roof-top, the wind was brisk but the views were spectacular.

PicMonkey Collage
Hidden treasures around every corner in Monemvasia

If you go:
Monemvasia is about 190 miles from Athens, or a five hour drive.  From our home (an hour south of Kalamata), we made the near 80 mile drive in just under three hours. Roads in the Peloponnese are pretty much two-lane non-divided highways so driving times take a bit longer than you might expect.

Greek KTEL buses travel daily from Athens Kifissos bus station to Monemvasia via the cities of Sparti or Molai, and the trip will take about five hours. To get to the Kifissos bus station take bus 51 from Omonia or X95 from the Athens Airport.

Map picture

That's it from The Stone House on the Hill this week. We love having you join us on our part-time ex pat adventures in Greece and greatly appreciate the time you spend with us. Hope you'll be back again next week and until then our wishes for safe and happy travels to you and yours ~

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday
Photo Friday
Travel Inspiration

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Greece: A taste of wine country

About half way between the Athens airport and our Stone House on the Hill, the freeway slices through the northwest corner of the Peloponnese and its wine country. It’s an area so large that its  Greece’s largest geographical wine appellation. As we have zipped through it on a four-lane divided highway at 120 kilometers an hour we’ve caught glimpses of some of the vineyards that have made this area famous but really had no idea of the beauty to be found just a few kilometers beyond this speedway. 

Nemea wine country
Wine country really needs more than a passing glance from a speeding car, we've said time and time again. Just like the wine produced here, it should be savored, siga, siga, as the Greeks would say. Slowly, slowly.

Following Greek wine roads
We decided a couple weeks ago to do just that and spend a night in wine country en route to the Athens airport. We wanted at least a taste of the area that produces some of our favorite wines from Moschofilero (mos-koe-FEE-le-row) white wine grapes and Agiogitik (ah-your-YEE-ti-ko) red wine grapes. Agiogitiko means St. George’s grape and is named for the small St. George’s Church located somewhere within the appellation.

Map picture
Wine country is an easy two hours from Athens
We weren’t headed to any specific winery, although there are more than 40 within the Nemea appellation. We were off to a village named Kefalari, (not to be confused with another village to the south in this same region of the same name, I might add). The population of our destination, Kefalari, was 380 residents back in 1991 and probably a few less than that now. We had a reservation at the Arhontiko Kefalari Guesthouse.

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Arhontiki Guesthouse Kafelonia
While we’ve had a glorious sunny autumn in the Peloponnese we timed our outing for a cloudy misty weekend. The colors weren’t as vibrant as they would have been under a bright blue sky but the weather muted and softened the landscape and darkened the village adding a bit of a mysterious feel to this short sojourn of ours.

Vineyards near Nemea town
The appellation has three sub-zones and traveling from the flat lands surrounding the town of Nemea where we'd left the freeway, we took the local road that wound its way through tiny villages named Dafni, Kastraki and Asprokampos as we climbed in elevation toward our destination. The growing zones stretch from an elevation of 800 feet above sea level to 2,600 feet (250 – 800 meters).

Winding roads loop through Nemea wine region
Past wineries and vineyards we went. At one village we passed a group of hunters congregated in the church parking lot. Dressed in camouflage gear and armed with rifles they were either preparing to set forth or had just gathered after their hunt.  Aside from that group we saw few humans on that early Sunday afternoon.

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Directional signs are easily understood - both in English and Greek
Wine grape growing in the Nemea region dates back to at least the 5th Century B.C.
Greek mythology tell of the half god Heracles who was sent to Nemea to slay the Nemean lion.  The ancient Greek wine made here, Fliasion, was known as ‘the blood of Heracles’ after that tale. It is a nick-name still used for Nemean red wines.

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Roadways through the wine country
The village of Kefalari, sits  at an elevation of 770 meters, at the foot of a mountain named Ziria. The mountain is said to be the birthplace of Hermes. Its location is near the Killini Mountain range and Lake Stymphalia; both areas offer outdoor recreational activities. Winter mountain snow activities like snow-shoeing are also popular in the village's alpine-feeling surroundings.

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The ever-present herd of sheep

Entertainment here was provided by a herd of sheep crossing the road as we entered the village and an enormous mountain dog watching them.

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Mountain dog in Kefalari
The village appeared deserted when we arrived. . .as did our guesthouse, which is located just off the main square under the village’s 150-year-old plane tree.

The guesthouse’s front door was locked  but we roused a maid who was cleaning one of its eight rooms.  She summoned the owners daughter, Elena, who spoke English and greeted us warmly.  Our room, for 60-euros a night this season, had a small balcony overlooking the square and an in room fireplace, the wood had been set for us. (It also had modern heating and air conditioning units, an en suite, and wi-fi).

PicMonkey Collage
Our room
Built back in the 1880’s as a private home for a man who made his fortune selling agricultural products, it was, according to Elena, burned twice by the Germans during the war and then fell into disrepair.  Her family purchased it and after a two-year renovation opened it as a guesthouse in 2007.

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Flowers were still blooming in early November
We explored the village and had cappuccinos at the nearby Kafenion. It was one of two businesses open, the other was a taverna/cafe a block from the square. Later we returned to the kafenion for a glass of wine. After sunset it seemed to become the gathering place for the village’s men who were watching a soccer game on its small television. They paid little mind to having me, the sole female, among them.

PicMonkey Collage
Village at night
We’d found the village to be charming in the misty afternoon and it turned downright enchanting at night!

PicMonkey Collage

The next morning we stuffed ourselves at the buffet breakfast that included a hot omelet and homemade jams and preserves. The buffet was served in the main lobby/sitting room (included in the room rate). Then it was off to Athens but we will be returning to wine country again and maybe next time we’ll even visit a winery!

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Note: Wine tourism in Nemea isn’t what one finds in California, Oregon, and Washington in the United States.  Here the area still has a very country, agricultural feel to it. Many wineries are open by appointment only. But the countryside is beautiful and worth including if you are planning a trip to the Peloponnese.  Consider staying in a small village as we did or Corinth, a larger city only 20 miles/35 kilometers to the northeast; Nafplio is about an hour’s drive to the south.

The owners of the guesthouse we stayed at also have the Armonia Boutique Hotel, a couple blocks from the guesthouse. Information can be found at: www.xenonasarmonia.gr  Room rates there were 106-euros a night.

That’s it from The Stone House on the Hill this week.  We’ve been in a rush to finish some major projects before it is time to pack up and do the ‘Schengen Shuffle’ again – our 90 days tourist visa limit is soon approaching. Again our thanks for the time you spend with us and thanks much for sharing our posts with others! Look forward to being back next week so until then, safe travels to you and yours!

Linking this week with:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In Greece: Close Encounters of the Ex Pat Kind

“I want your life” commented a FB friend on a sunset photo I’d posted.
“How do I get your life?” asked another.
“We are coming to visit!” any number of people have told us.

I’ve thought of those comments often the last few weeks – both during those Facebook-photo-moments while soaking up the afternoon sun on the deck AND at other times when having what I’ve termed ‘close encounters of the ex pat kind’. . . the kind that don't make it to my regular updates on Facebook nor have they been discussed -yet - on this blog.

Lazy afternoons spent here at The Stone House on the Hill
For those of you first time visitors to TravelnWrite, we are part-time ex pats from the Seattle suburbs who’ve bought a slice of rural Greece in its Peloponnese to call our home for a part of each year. Our stone home is nestled at the edge of our small olive grove, not far from a picturesque Greek fishing village. City to country. United States to Greece. This new lifestyle if full of new experiences and encounters.

Agios Nikolaos, our village
And since our blog posts have activated the travel bug in so many of you who've been regulars here, that I thought I should, in fairness, tell you about things other than star-gazing and sun-worshipping that make up our ex pat life at The Stone House on the Hill. Take that afternoon shortly after we’d returned this fall. . .

Agios Nikolaos, The Mani
I had decided to rearrange the glassware and cups that share a shelf in our somewhat limited kitchen cupboards. Having cleaned and lined them last spring, I figured this to be about a five minute project. (Stop reading here if you have a delicate stomach and skip to the next tale. . .)

Kitchen at The Stone House on the Hill
Being my height, it wasn’t until I was tip-toeing on a kitchen chair that I had a full scope view of the shelf and what appeared to be -- in polite terms --  mouse ‘droppings’. [ “Dropping’ = excrement, ca-ca, poo-poo, or worse.]  By whatever word you choose, it was there: a layer of it sprinkled across that new previously spot-less shelf lining of mine.

Enough droppings to indicate it could have been the site of a rodent convention, as a matter of fact. Climbing onto the counter and looking a bit further into the cupboard, I found a hole where the cupboard should have been attached to the stone wall -- the entryway for the little critter (or critters from the looks of it). Thankfully the cups and glassware had been upside down. But still . . . thoughts of those roaming rural rodents had turned my stomach. My few minutes had turned into hours as The Scout was called into action and blocked their entryway and I washed and sterilized the cupboard’s contents and shelves.


New flower garden - blooming basil, front left
We’ve been renovating two garden plots that were home to over-grown aloe vera plants. The two succulents that look much like cacti, had pointed spikes as painful as a cactus. Removing them was like removing small trees. (We moved them to the olive grove where they can grow as large as they want.)

Last spring after the first aloe vera was moved, we’d planted a Greek basil in its place. Greek basil lives year round and can grow to five feet in height.  Its leaves are tiny in comparison to Italian basil. The September storm had knocked our basil to the ground so on a fine fall day we’d purchased and installed some stakes.  I’d buried my face into that delicious pungent smelling herb to get the twine around it and the stakes . . .

Praying Mantis courtesy Wikipedia photos
As I pulled back I realized I had missed by inches burying my face into the Praying Mantis that had made the plant his home. It was one of my first encounters with the little creature that looks like a small dinosaur or enormous grass hopper, with a triangular head resembling those drawn by animators which depict outer space beings.  This one stared us down and no amount of swiping was convincing him to move. For a bug, their forearms are enormous (they are carnivores and catch and hold their prey). Another close encounter of the ex pat kind. The Scout had to deal with that one.

After my heart quit racing, I thought again about writing this post. BTW, that photo above of a ‘European male’ is courtesy of Wikipedia photos – I chose not to take a close up photo!


Hauling wood - a regular activity each fall
What is a post about close encounters if I didn’t mention scorpions. . . we’ve had now three encounters with them. Two alive and one dead but even dead scorpions can spark an instantaneous adrenalin surge. And those little stinkers love our wood pile! We wear gloves now – leather, nice thick leather gloves and use a bit of care when hauling wood or working in the garden. Those cute little pink floral cotton garden gloves of mine are history.

Not all our experiences and encounters have fallen into the 'gross-me-out-genre'.  Many are downright charming and are what we love about this place. Many involve learning the ways things are done in a new culture and a country where life is lived differently than one which one might be familiar.

Take getting our mail for example. We have no street address, and we have no post office box- we don't even have a post office here for that matter -  yet we get mail regularly.  It is delivered to our local taverna of course!

PicMonkey Collage
Freda's Mail Corner in her son Gregg's Plateia in Agios Nikolaos
The one practice here that we’d become used to on our travels so didn’t strike us as peculiar, leaves many first-time visitors shaking their heads: it is dealing with used toilet paper. Here it is not flushed, it is deposited into small garbage bins next to the toilet. When the little bin is full of the stuff, the bag inside is tied up and taken to the community garbage bins.  We’ve seen this TP disposal method used in other European countries and Mexico and it seems quite normal. For many it is an encounter to remember!
Speaking of garbage, we make regular garbage runs as it isn’t collected at each home as is the practice where we live in the United States.

PicMonkey Collage

We usually tie the garbage run in with the water run. The drinking water comes from one of many public faucets found along the roadside in the villages below us.  (The water out of the tap is far too 'mineral' tasting (much like Arizona). Should you find yourself a guest at our house you’ll undoubtedly get to experience a water/garbage run first hand! Now, how often when you travel do you get to do that??!!

Thanks so much for being with us as we experience life as part time ex pats in Greece. A special thank you to those who noticed our absence last week and wrote to inquire how we were doing. (We were out of the internet world for a bit). But now back at The Stone House on the Hill for a few more weeks, the adventure continues. We’ll be back next week and hope you will be as well. Until then, thanks for joining us and wishes for safe travels to you and yours~

Linking up this week:
Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Greece ~ Where Autumn Comes in like a Lion. . .and Lamb

"Listen!  the wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves,
We have had our summer evenings, now for October eves!"
-  Humbert Wolfe

The wind which began last evening continued through the night. Its gusts have unrelentingly rattled the window shutters and pummeled our doors. The rain that threatened yesterday has made good on its promise today. I am wrapped in my flannel robe as I write on this dark, chilly October morning.  This time of year the sun doesn't make it over the mountain behind us until after 8 a.m. 

View from the Stone House on the Hill on a stormy day

I suspect we won't see it at all today. And to believe that two days ago I was wearing shorts and basking in the afternoon sun on our deck and later that day we sat outside at the local taverna sipping krasi, wine at sunset.

Sunset sipping wine in Stoupa village
This autumn's weather in the Greek Peloponnese, The Mani specifically,  is proving to be much like last year: both a lion and a lamb.

PicMonkey Collage
How are gardens grow in the autumn
Autumn is a time for gardens to flourish. Blooms are no longer punished by the intense Mediterranean summer sun. Garden stores are selling tiny truck garden plants for winter garden harvest – we only wish our time here would be long enough to plant and harvest them. Our flowers are in full bloom, these photos taken within the last week and all but the Lantana (bottom corner) are growing at The Stone House on the Hill.

Autumn leaves begin to fall. . .
Yet, there is no doubt that autumn is preparing the area for winter’s arrival. . .

A cloudy October day
We had two sets of guests last fall, one came in late October and we sat huddled together in The Stone House on the Hill waiting for a break in the wind and rain to go explore the countryside.

A November morning
The second set arrived in early November and we explored the area in our shirt sleeves under sunny, warm skies.

A number of you have told us that you are planning to visit ‘someday’ and some have asked,  “When is the best time to visit, when is the weather the best?” 

Late September Stoupa beach
We prefer -- and recommend -- the spring and fall but I checked a couple of travel sites to see what other travel writers have to say. While they are speaking of Greece in general, it pretty much echoes our thoughts:

September view from our deck at The Stone House on the Hill.
Frommer’s Travel Guides say, “. . . that the best time to visit is Greece is spring and early summer (mid-Apr to mid-June) or autumn (Sept to mid-Oct). This way, you'll avoid the summer high season, with its inflated prices, hordes of tourists and high temperatures (heat waves of 100°F/+40C are routine)."

Another site, greek-travel.gr points out, “December to March are the coldest and least reliable months, though even then there are many crystal-clear, fine days, and the glorious lowland flowers begin to bloom very early in spring.”
Approaching Kalamata airport - Taygetos Mountains
Airfares, like the weather, are usually better on these shoulder season months than in the height of summer tourist season.  But those of you thinking of flying directly to Kalamata should keep in mind, that flights here operate primarily during high season (late spring, summer, and into October). We just managed to catch one of the season’s last on British Air from London in September.

British Air flies from London to Kalamata in the spring and fall
Speaking of travel, regular readers know that travel to other destinations in Europe and beyond, was one of reasons we bought a home here Well, I wrote this post at the end of last week because I knew we'd be on the road this week -- our first such close-to-home trip in Europe. We flew to Rome from Athens on Monday, (two hours and 10 minutes gate to gate)  and we set sail on the Celebrity Constellation on Wednesday.  If you want to take a look at where we are off to, just: click this link

Thanks for spending some time with us during these blustery autumn days in Greece’s Mani. It is currently gorgeous weather in Rome, but they are predicting rain showers tomorrow.  Lion and Lamb, it seems, everywhere this fall.  We’ll be back as shipboard internet allows in the next few weeks. Hello to our new followers who wrote us such nice messages about our blog last week (you know who you are)!  To all of you, wishes for safe travels~

Linking up with:

Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday
Travel Photo Thursday – 
Photo Friday
Weekend Travel Inspiration


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