Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas in Greece: Weird or Wonderful

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays. . .

‘Is is kinda weird to be out of the U.S. for Christmas?’ asked a friend of mine a few weeks ago.

After a bit of pondering, I answered, ‘No, not weird. More like wonderful. . .but definitely different.’

Christmas Day downtown Agios Nikolaos
This is far from being our first Christmas spent outside the United States; we logged a whole string of them years ago during our younger work-a-day life.Then it was done not so much to celebrate differently but to stretch the annual vacation days allotted us (a week in the current year, coupled with a week in the new year gave us a two-week vacation without depleting the year's supply.)

A church in a nearby village - closed on Christmas but decorated with orchids
A mix of retirement, few remaining family members and no holiday traditions with them, has encouraged the continuation of our Christmas vagabonding. Only two years ago, we ate breakfast in Cairo, lunch in Paris and rummaged through the cupboards of our Kirkland home for crackers and nuts for our 'Christmas dinner' after a very long day aboard airplanes. (You can get some great airfares flying on Christmas Day though!)

My home-made table centerpiece - olive boughs, berry bush boughs and ribbon.
This, however, is the first Christmas that finds us living outside the United States.
Our first Christmas as ex pats.
In Greece.
And, all that has been different about it, has made it rather wonderful.

Poinsettias for sale at our village grocery stores
In all honesty, we had a somewhat miserable week leading up to the big day. Boreas, the god of the North Wind and Winter Weather stopped by long enough the weekend before Christmas to knock out power in our area. We were reminded of how cold stone homes can with only a fireplace for heat, candles for light and no hot water. We became somewhat cranky. The Bah Humbug kind of cranky.

Wind was so strong it blew surface water on the sea and reversed wave action on the shore
Power back on - yay! Then that rascal Boreas returned a couple days later for a full two-day stay with continued gusts so strong they ripped green lemons and leaves from our tree, knocked a window shutter to bits and toppled and broke heavy planters filled with dirt and flowers. We lost power again. (Suffice to say, neither our language or thoughts were focused on Christmas.)

Damage done, Boreas moved on making way for Santa Claus, St. Basil (whose day is Jan. 1st), St. Nikolaos and others to take center stage.

Deck the trees with bags of olives, fa-la-la-la-la. . .

'Tis the Season of Olive Harvest

Living in a small Greek fishing village in the midst of Greece’s olive producing Kalamata region, does slow life’s pace. It is also a sharp contrast to the Christmas commercialism and expectations we knew in the United States. We have one dress shop, one bookstore, and two hardware stores that have remained open in the weeks before Christmas. A handful of restaurants are still operating. Most business have closed or severely reduced operations because owners are busy with their olive harvest -- the one activity that continues at a hectic pace.

Olives going into the processor come out sometime later as olive oil

So important is olive harvest that our local mailman quit delivering the mail last week for several days so that he could harvest his olives. Can you imagine that happening two weeks before Christmas in the United States? There’d be mass revolt and panic. Olive harvest is in full swing right now with the presses running long hours.

Christmas in Greece – Traditions and Celebrations

Christmas in the Greek Orthodox religion begins on Christmas Eve and continues until Epiphany, Jan. 6th. The day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem.Gifts are given on that day to symbolize the gifts of the Wise Men.

PicMonkey Collage
Christmas in Kalamata - the city was alive with shoppers and activity
With the stormy weather behind us, Christmas dawned with blue sky, sunshine with temperatures that allowed us to work in the garden and to take an outing to a neighboring village wearing long sleeved flannel shirts but no jackets. Christmas dinner was eaten at a local restaurant with another American ex pat couple, with whom we are good friends.

P1050910As I made decorations for the house, (one is pictured to the left) I chuckled at the thought of the four large boxes of decorations sitting in that storage unit back in the Pacific Northwest.

We didn’t have a tree as only large artificial ones were for sale in the large supermarket. (And legneds say that Greeks have a tradition of decorating small wooden boats instead of - or in addition to a tree - to honor Saint Nicholas/Agios Nikolaos the Patron Saint of Sailors as well as the fishermen and sailors themselves.) Next year I'll look for a boat to decorate.

We didn't have presents to unwrap. (The Scout got a new chair and I got a new kitchen faucet.)

I didn't cook a big dinner. Nor did I bake anything.

It really was a very different – but remarkably refreshing way to spend the day.

On January 6th, one of our favorite ceremonies, the Blessing of the Water, takes place in our villages. It commemorates the baptism of Jesus by Saint John in the Jordan River –also referred to as Theophany (God shining forth or Devine Manifestation) or Phota (Lights). which was when the Trinity was revealed.

Christmas Goodies

The 12 days between Christmas and January 6th are considered a time of feasting (as many of the devout have fasted during Advent). Anything celebrated with feasting is right up our alley! Several of you have asked in particular about the cookies and sweets, so here you go:

Christmas treats from our neighbors
We are blessed to have a lovely Greek family living not far from us whom we turn to in times of disaster (like losing power) and we took them a gift box of bakery cookies. They had a gift box of cookies for us – all homemade! Kourabiedes, are holiday butter cookies, Melomacrona are honey cakes and Thiples are fried dough strips with honey and walnuts. To tell you they were magnificent is an understatement.

PicMonkey Collage
Crhistmas cookies for sale at our favorite Kalamata bakery
Different – yes! Wonderful – definitely! Delicious – unquestionably!

PicMonkey Collage
Christmas Day comes to a close in the village but the celebrations are just starting
We close with one of two greetings used here this time of year. Prior to Christmas Day the greeting is Kala Christouyenna (kala is 'good' and Christouyenna refers to Jesus’s birth). After that, the greeting becomes Chronia (Xponia) Polla which is commonly used as a birthday wish but is used as well at the New Year!

We thank you for the time you spent with us knowing that for many of you, this continues to be a hectic and busy time of year.  We hope your travels are healthy and happy until you are back with us again next week!

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

Monday, December 18, 2017

Exploring the Nile ~ ‘Just like Bogey and Bacall. . .’

It had sounded so simple. . .an on-our-own island tour. In Egypt.
You know. . .'just like Bogey and Bacall' . . .(yes, I know they did Key Largo; bear with me):

It felt so adventuresome as we set out to explore a bit of The Nile in our hired boat, that I found myself humming the tune. . . . ‘just like Bogey and Bacall’. You know how some places just feel so extraordinarily fantastic that you know it must be a movie setting? Well that’s what this part of the Nile River was like.

Since arriving at the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, we’d felt as if we were traveling in a time warp - back in the ‘golden age of travel’ - so why not imagine being the lead characters in some old black and white mid-20th century adventure film?

Our first stop: Elephantine Island, that bisects the Nile in Aswan. It beckoned each time we walked out on our hotel balcony; especially at night when street lights cast a mesmerizing glow on the river.

Elephatine Island from our balcony
From our balcony we had a near spot-on view of  the excavation site of ancient Abu, an important customs point and trading center dating back some 3,000 years BC.

Ancient Abu Egypt

On this sunny morning we planned to travel around the island by boat but begin our outing by exploring the island and its two villages on our own.

It sounded so simple. . .

We'd start from the Museum at the entry to the Abu excation site and walk north meeting up with our boatmen at the only hotel on the island, the Movenpick. According to our Lonely Planet’s Egypt guidebook:

“Siou and Koti villages lie between the ruins in the south and the Movenpick Resort. . .A north-south path crosses the middle of the island and links the two villages.”

Easey- peasy, we thought. Even better, we’d be away from the tour-touts along the river’s corniche that swarm like the area’s flies, offering river tours, land tours and combination tours. We didn't want a tour. We didn't want a guide.

Our adventure begins. . .
The man at the museum ticket booth pointed to a gate that led into a goat pasture when we told him where we were headed. By the time we reached the gate, it had a gatekeeper: a tall, slim-built man with graying hair, clad in a white galabeya (the long flowing robe worn by many men in this desert climate). He flashed a smile, showing a single front tooth. “Welcome,” he said, “I am the Mayor. I will show you my village.”

Our tour begins 
Despite our protestations, he insisted he would show us the village - and not just out of the goodness of his heart. “How long you want? Half hour or hour?” Half hour is 75, more for an hour.” 

We took the half hour option as it was clear we were going no where without the Mayor. 

Nubian House - how 'tourist' would this island be?
Our first pause was at an obvious tourist attraction a 'typical Nubian House', which was closed. Had we wanted, the Mayor would have had it opened (undoubtedly at a cost). When we declined, he set off with us in tow to see his village. Now, weeks later, we are still wondering where that simple sounding ‘north-south path’ was that the guidebook mentioned.  Like entering a maze, the dusty pathways twisted and turned through the town. We hadn't gone far before I was completely turned around.

A main 'road' path through town
At one turn a woman clad in a full body burqa, slit opening for her eyes, lowered her head and covered her face completely as she got close to us. A bit further and around another corner we passed three burqa-clad women sitting and visiting on the concrete steps of a home. One was using a stone mortar and pestle to grind grain. They ignored our passing. We came upon the first retail business, a grocery store,  I told the Mayor I wanted to take a photo. The woman running the store stepped out of camera range. This place was shaping up to be the 'real thing' - not a tourist village by any means.

The village grocery store. . .
Past open doors into homes with the barest of interior furnishings. Yet many wore colorful paintings and Nubian designs on their exterior walls. Proud of his village and a fountain of facts about it, our guide/Mayor would point out places I should photograph including this home with a crocodile skull hanging above the door.

“Crocodile!,” proudly pointed out the Mayor, "it brings good luck.”

PicMonkey Collage
Crocodile head above the door for good luck, check.
“So can you think of any of our friends – any body we know – that would want to be here with us right now,” The Scout asked me.  “None that I can think of,” I truthfully answered, chuckling at the thought.

PicMonkey Collage
Coffee anyone?
The Mayor asked if we’d like a Nubian coffee – we declined, explaining we’d just had coffee. As we approached the coffee shop, I was glad we’d passed on the offer. Just as I was glad we declined his offer for water from the village jugs outside the mosque.

Got thirst?
We did get a chuckle when after winding our way through dusty neighborhoods, past garden plots and pastures, we saw something so incongruous with the the setting that it couldn't be possible, but there it was:

The village museum
The village museum – which was also closed – had earned a flag of distinction from TripAdvisor!

Were we finally on that north-south path?
Our private tour ended right on the dot and the Mayor bid us farewell pointing us north, with a right turn, followed by left and another right to reach the hotel. We think we might have been on a portion of the ‘north-south’ path.  We managed to end up on a few dead ends before finding the hotel, where we were most happy to see our boatmen waiting for us. . .we were ready to set sail on The Nile.

The Nile River awaits. . .
We had it all
Just like Bogie and Bacall
Starring in our old late, late show
Sailing away to Key Largo. . .

That’s it for this week.  Our wishes for Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah and Happy New Year to you and yours! Again, our thanks for the time you spend with us. Safe and happy travels. . .and next week we’ll tell you about Christmas in Greece.

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunday at the Souk: Spicing up life in Egypt

Souk: Arab marketplace or bazaar.

Just saying the word ‘souk’ conjures up images of exotic spice displays with pungent scents filling the air and tiny shops with dark interiors selling goods straight out of the tales of Arabian Nights.

Spice for sale in Aswan, Egypt
Sometimes though, those conjured images are better than reality. So we set off to find out just how exotic this Egyptian souk would be. It was a blue-sky Sunday morning with temperatures in the pleasant low-80F as we reached our destination: Aswan's Sharia as-Souq, a market that stretched for several city blocks. Shops opened onto the street, their displays creating a colorful pathway and assuring us this would be as good as imagined.

This wasn't just a tourist attraction, this was where locals shopped
Turns out Sunday morning was a slow time at the market as many shops were closed. There were still so many open and beckoning that we were on sensor overload by the time we emerged a couple hours later from this commercial area a few blocks back from The Nile River.

Merchandise arrived
Without crowds of locals in which we could blend in, we stuck out like the tourists we were. Here I should note that we took guidebook recommendations seriously though and dressed ‘conservatively’ with long dark travel pants and long sleeves for me, short aleeves for The Scout. I kept my small camera in its bag only pulling it out for an occasional photo. Still, the vendors had us pegged and called out:
“Hey, lady! What you want? You want spice?”

Shops lined the street in Aswan's souk

“Bon jour, welcome to Aswan!”  We were welcomed in French and German.

'Where you live?' Greece, we replied, causing each questioner a moment’s pause, then a quick, 'Kalimera!' The few times we said we were Americans, the jovial response was, “Welcome to Alaska!” (it seemed to be some new ‘clever’ phrase, as they used it often).

Souk shopping to spice up life in Aswan
And yes, for those wondering: we felt safe!  I don’t think we’ve found a welcome anywhere in the world to be as warm and genuine as that with which we were greeted in Aswan. Everywhere we went. By all whom we met. We were made welcome. The souk was no exception.

Now there are the tourist touts who will offer you taxis, tours, boat rides and shopping deals but even they, who can be as pesky at times as the flies that populate this city, were kind, chit-chatty people. Everyone we encountered spoke  English . . .and many it seem speak German, French and Spanish and a few, Greek.

From farm-to-table gardens here
The spices did fill the air with their pungent scents. Vendors would sprinkle spice onto my hand and have me guess its name and purpose. Vegetables – cabbages in particular - were huge and tempting. Caged birds, butcher shops and fish displays – all of which attracted those pesky flies were less appealing.

Nubian woven items 
Nubian baskets, scarfs and skull caps, swords and daggers and African masks all left no doubt that we were definitely in Africa.

Colorful displays filled the streets - Aswan, Egypt souk
Walking the full length of the market was not difficult. However the street surfaces were uneven and sidewalks pretty much non- existent.  Those that did exist were uneven and not easy to navigate.  Cars parked outside the souk area are within inches of each other so often times you must walk a distance on the street to even get to the sidewalk.

The sights and sounds of the souk never disappoint
The souk didn't disappoint. It simply added to that magnetic pull that Egypt has on us. Our flights to and from Cairo were two hours or less from Athens. Aswan was another hour's flight south.  It is a shame, as we’ve said before, that tales of terrorism continue to keep tourism in a slump. For Americans the exchange rate is 17 Egyptian pounds to $1; making the place a shoppers paradise!

I'm still in that Scheherazade mood, so I have more tales from Egypt coming up in the next few weeks and hope they'll tickle your travel bug.

Whereever you are we wish you and yours happy and safe travels. As always, thanks so much for the time you spend with us!

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Egypt: Where Enchanting and Exotic Meet

There is something about the plane landing after dark in Egypt where the vast stretches of darkened desert provide a backdrop to the exotic feel of the adventure. It has a lonely sort of mysterious feel about it; there's no doubt you are leaving your comfort zone behind.

Our plane taxied to a stop some distance from the terminal - even though it appeared to be the only on that had landed in some time - and we traveled the last few hundred meters on a bus.

We were definitely excited but were feeling bit disorientated and vulnerable as we made our way through the empty arrivals area -- following a man we'd just met -- to collect our bags and have them checked through customs. He was also the one who would get us to our hotel.

Boats on the Nile in the evening's light - Aswan
Such was our arrival in Aswan, Egypt.

(And I have to admit we’d arranged transportation with our hotel so that man we were following was their representative. Well worth the $45US we spent for that service as it was a bit more complex than we'd been led to expect.)

Sunset on The Nile - Aswan, Egypt
He led us to a van parked some distance from the terminal building and then joined us and the van's driver for the trip to the hotel. After we'd traveled some distance along more darkened expansive desert we noticed traffic slowing to a stop for armed guards ahead of us. They were looking into vehicles and opening trunks. He explained this was being done because our route into town led us across the Nile River and we were about to cross the old Aswan Dam.

A darkened desert. . .armed guards. . .Aswan Dam! Nile River! It all added to the mystery and the out-of-the-ordinary feel of this travel adventure. We were definitely back in Egypt, one of our favorite travel destinations.

This time though we were spreading our wings beyond Cairo’s 'comfort zone.'  This trip we are spending most of our time in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. . .in the land of the Nubians.

Image result for map of egypt

Land of the Nubians

The Nubian region stretches from southern Egypt into Sudan. It is believed the first Nubian civilization was in this area now known as Aswan as long as 5000 years B.C. With so much history here, there are plenty of museums and archeological sites to keep us busy. Not to mention two islands to visit, the Nile upon which we plan to spend some time and of course, who could come to Egypt and not shop in their enchanting souks?

Old Cataract Hotel - Aswan, Egypt
One thing that drew us to this city was our desire to stay in the Old Cataract Hotel. It had a large role in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.  Built in 1899 by Thomas Cook, the old hotel as well as its ‘new wing’ built in 1961 underwent a major renovation in 2008 and reopened in 2011. We are in one of the 76 rooms (along with 45 suites) that are in what was the original hotel, now called the Palace Wing.

Lobby area Old Cataract Hotel - Aswan, Egypt
I’ve struggled to describe this place as the words, 'old world charm', 'exotic', 'elegant' and 'magical' are so cliché sounding but sometimes those are the only words that work to describe a place like this. It is simply enchanting and staff members dote on guests. It's as though we've re-entered that golden age of travel for which Cook originally built the place.

PicMonkey Collage
Our room - Old Cataract Hotel - Aswan, Egypt
We splurged a bit booking a room with a view of the Nile River, although the garden view rooms have beautiful views as well.  But when in Egypt, and staying at this hotel in particular, it seemed we really should be viewing the Nile River. . .and do we ever!

Our room with a view - Old Cataract Hotel - Aswan, Egypt
We lucked out and also are directly across the Ruins of Abu on Elephantine Island. That settlement dates back some 3,000 years BC.

Ruins of Abu - Elephantine Island Aswan, Egypt
While it is difficult to pull ourselves off our deck and the amazing show created by the every-day activities on the river, we have visited the souk (or should I say, 'run the gauntlet' of the souk) and have been out on The Nile. Today we had an adventure when we set off to explore the Nubian villages on Elephantine Island on our own and ended up on a guided tour led by the self-proclaimed mayor of the village. A memorable experience but one we agreed most of our friends would not have enjoyed.

I'd hoped to have some Agatha Christie mojo rub off on me but with so much I want to tell you about this place, I am feeling more like Scheherazade  – so be prepared. I don't have 1,001 tales for you but I've got many more coming from this enchanting Land of the Nubians.

Old Cataract Hotel Gardens and entry - Aswan, Egypt
Following last week's post, a number of you've sent wishes for a safe trip and others flat out expressed concerns for our safety in Egypt. And we thank you who took the time to write or comment for caring about us. What saddens us is that a group of terrorists can so negatively impact tourism in this country and keep so many travelers away.

We have been traveling on our own and have wondered through Aswan’s souks, along its main roads, and through Nubian villages -- and never once have we felt unsafe or threatened. In fact, just the opposite - we've been warmly welcomed. We’ve been thanked for visiting. People are geniunely flattered that we like their city. 

We've barely touched the surface - and we'll definitely be back!

That’s it for this week from Egypt.  Safe travels to you and yours and thanks for being with us. We hope you'll be back next week  ~

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


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