Thursday, August 6, 2020

Greece ~ Beyond the Bougainvillea

 'You are living a charmed life,' commented a friend on a recent Facebook post of mine.

The Stone House on the Hill 

The comment was in response to this photo of bougainvillea on our Stone House on the Hill. It does show the serene side of life here. And I'll admit I prefer to write about and photograph the best parts of life here, often times omitting -- both in this blog and on social media -- the more negative realities of 'living differently' in a foreign country. 

We live above Agios Dimitrios

The last three years we've chosen to make our home in a rural area of the Greek Peloponnese, a place that reminds us of  those vast empty lands of the American Southwest. In the Mani, as our area is known, the sweeping and sparsely-populated wide open spaces are bordered to one side by towering peaks of the Taygetos Mountains and the Messinian Bay on the other. Small villages and isolated churches  are scattered randomly about the rugged landscape as if jigsaw puzzle pieces waiting to be put together. We are among a couple dozen expat Americans and several hundred expats from countries on this side of the Atlantic..

Most of the time our expat life here, while not always 'charmed', is a good one.  But we've learned that life in this Grecian paradise isn't always as perfect as I am guilty of leading you to believe it is.  So this week I'm focusing on the back story - life beyond that bougainvillea.

High and Dry

On the other side of the wall on which the postcard-perfect bougainvillea clings is our master bath. Its shower pan is lined this summer with rather unsightly mismatched plastic buckets - our crude attempt at recycling gray water. 

The Stone House on the Hill

When we bought our Stone House on the Hill and naively asked about its electric, water and sewage we learned that tap water was provided by 'the Municipality', DIMOS as it is called. It didn't occur to us to ask about the source, strength and guarantee of that water supply. 

We did ask those questions the following year when we turned on the taps and no water came out. 

The reserve tank is hidden by bouganvillea and oleander bushes

That was our introduction to water shortages in Greece. One of our first home improvement projects was installation of a 2,000 liter (528 gallon) reserve tank to provide back up to the 1,000 liter tank on the roof.  (Most homes being built now days have one or two reserve tanks, another for rain water and some even have gray water tanks. Fifteen years ago when our home was built that wasn't the practice.) 

Nevertheless, our reserve tank has served us well. It has been drawn down as the water supply diminishes in the summer but seldom did we go completely dry.  Well, that was until this year:

Our plumber and assistant  work on our water tank on the roof

With little or no snowpack in those towering Taygetos and little rain (which did make for a rather 'charmed' winter) we are experiencing one of the most severe water shortages to hit this area in recent years. The standard routine for DIMOS during scarce/low water times is to ration water by turning off the source of off water to one area and providing it to another for alternating periods of time. This year the balancing act of sharing water has been put to the test.  Many times there has been little if no water in many areas.

Adonis, our modern-day Water God

As I write this post we are waiting for the water truck to bring a supply of water. Our taps were dry again this morning. It will be the sixth truckload of water we have purchased from a private vendor in as many weeks. We've severely curtailed our water use this summer - taking dash-in-and-out showers, doing laundry less frequently and setting up a makeshift system of collecting gray water to use on desperately water-starved plants. I've let most of our garden go - tomato plants and sunflowers are withered and dead. Flowering plants are struggling.  The small amount of gray water helps keep the remaining plants alive. 

Water from our reserve tank passes through this filter to the house

Our lives seem focused on water or the lack of it.  I ask The Scout, 'Did you check the tank this morning? Can I do a load of laundry?'  Since learning one toilet flush uses 10 liters of water we flush judiciously. And let me tell you that COVID 20-second handwashing can use a ton of water!!

DIMOS released water 10 days ago for a day allowing our tanks to fill.. Today we again wait for the water delivery.  We've realized how much we taken this precious resource for granted. 

Refilling the water bottles at the drinking water faucet

Our drinking water comes from community fountains, believed to be spring-fed, located throughout the villages. Those community faucets provide water for drinking and cooking. This year as if the water shortage wasn't enough some residents began questioning the quality of the potable water. Water tests showed high levels of bacteria and no levels of chlorine. They've called on DIMOS for answers and help.

We went to fill the drinking water bottles today in the village and found the water taps there were also dry.

A Widespread Problem - No Solutions in Sight

Greece is known for the sea that surrounds it

An article highlighting the water problem in Greece appeared in National Geographic, May 2020. It carried a dire prediction by experts that unless some new sources of water are found (desalination plants are among the suggested solutions) Greece is going to find itself high and dry in the not too distant future.  The article points to a number of Greek islands where water demand is outstripping the supply. Seems like the same is happening on the mainland as well from our point of view.

In Greece, according to this report, households account four 14 percent of water consumption. It is one of the highest water users in the European Union with nearly 40 gallons (177 liters) being used per person, per day.  I can assure you not that much is being used by us this summer!

What A Bunch of Garbage!

Another less-than-charmed side of life is: garbage. Piles and growing piles of garbage.  

Do-it-yourself-garbage hauling is the practice here

We don't have curbside garbage collection in this rural land for several reasons: no curbs, narrow roads and homes scattered in such remote areas that it would take months to complete the pick up.  So we take our garbage to communal bins, usually located on the outskirts of villages and along highways.  We know when 'tourist season' is about to start because bin area is pristine.  But DIMOS seems unable to keep up with tourism's impact on the community's infrastructure and often garbage overflows the bins as it has been doing this summer.

Welcome to Agios Nikolaos - a contrast with my normal photos of town

A visitor to our village, Agios Nikolaos, will pass this garbage collection site on one of the roads leading into our village.  A sharp contrast to the beauty of the village itself, don't you think? We often wonder what tourists think as they drive into the village for the first time. We 'locals' don't like this sure sign of summer but protests and complaints to elected officials continue to fall on deaf ears.   

After the garbage bin welcome you arrive in Agios Nikolaos

We'd given little thought in the past to where the collected garbage was taken. We'd believed it was to a 'landfill' or dumping ground out in a remote area of the region. That was until a cry went up for help a few weeks ago went up from residents living just a few miles/kilometer from us alerting the entire area to a disgusting dumping ground a few hundred meters off  the main road and a residential area. 

Mounds of filth just meters from homes in our area

While nearby residents and other concerned citizens take their pleas for help in cleaning up and removing this dumping ground (alleged to be private property leased to DIMOS) through various levels of bureaucracy the putrid smells it generates are matched only by the thousands of flies that swarm among the piles of rubbish.

'Mounds of filth'

Our local landfill spills out beyond the fenced property on which it located

Again it isn't just our area of Greece, waste disposal seems a major problem throughout this country.
Back in 2013 the BBC News did a story on Greece with the headline being, 'Mounds of Filth'.  I suspect the tourism folks weren't pleased! From that article I learned that Greece buries 80 percent of its rubbish - and back then, that accounted for twice the European Union average.

The article went on to say that in 2005 the European Commission took Greece to court to force closure of 1,100 illegal landfills but eight years later 70 of them remained open.  Brussels launched a second case against Athens threatening a daily fine of 71,000 euros.  I suspect from the size of our local 'dump' that the threat of fine had no impact on behaviors.

Just this week a report appeared in the Greek City Times saying that by 2022 the island of Santorini plans to close 14 landfills and is opening a recycling facility.   Let's hope the idea catches on elsewhere. . .like in The Mani!

Beyond the Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea, oleander and olive trees icons of Greece

So as summer moves into its third and final month, tourism is picking up in our area. Home construction continues to boom with at least a dozen new structures visible from our Stone House on the Hill.  Business is picking up after the COVID lockdown and it appears at least a portion of the tourist season will be saved.   

Our bougainvillea and side deck

Parked cars line the beach access roads now. The temperatures are in the 80's and the sky is blue. Life is good in Greece for tourists and residents alike. . .but it isn't always charmed. I will continue to tell you of the wonders of life (the good does outweigh the bad) here but every so often I plan to provide a touch of the reality as well.  I know a number of you reading this are planning to move to Greece as soon as the world's situation allows.  You've asked our advice and today I offer one more piece of it: look beyond the bougainvillea.

Next week we are back to travel. We've got a palace just a couple hours away and I plan to take you there! Until then, thanks for the time you spent with us and where ever you are in the world: stay safe.  

Linking in the near future with:

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Greece. . .Now, as it was back then. . .

The slow, steady clomp of the hooves against the ages-old stone paved passage ways of Hydra town announced the pack's approach.  Now, as it was done 'back then', we stepped aside and let these beasts of burden carry on the island's tradition of transportation. 

A common sight on Hydra and island keeping equine traditions

Equines - horses, donkeys and burros - have always transported both goods and people on this small island in the Saronic Gulf.  Even in this age of technology, they continue to do so. There are no privately-owned cars, trucks or bikes here. One of the island's endearing charms for us, is its nod to history by continuing its reliance on animals. 

This island, with only one harbor town and a few smaller villages scattered about, has only three motorized vehicles: a small garbage truck, a small truck for hauling and an ambulance. For that matter it has only one or two short stretches of  roads  wide enough to accommodate the small vehicles.  Even taxis are in the form of boats . . .or horses!

A common sight in Hydra town

The island's main commercial area wraps around its picturesque harbor.  Most tourist accommodations and private homes are housed in centuries-old buildings snuggled side-by-side on the steep hillsides that frame the harbor. Many of them are accessed by narrow passageways and stairs; just the right size for a pedestrian or an equine. 

Supply barge arrives and it's time to distribute the goods

One of our favorite times here is in the early morning when the supply barge laden with everything from pallets of bottled water to construction materials arrives. The muleteers, or as they are called in Greek, the agogiatis or kyratzis, and their animals are ready. The distribution begins.  During our recent visit it took two days to get all the supplies offloaded.

Might be hauling his own dinner off the barge

Since back in the time when pirates plied the waters and the town was centered on the hilltop, these steadfast steeds  have carried people and parcels to those upmost reaches of the island. Many continue to be outfitted with the same style wooden saddles as those used decades ago for goods transportation .

Loaded and headed to the construction site

I was a bit surprised when researching this post, to learn that there was a time when 40 percent of Greece's donkeys were found in the southern Peloponnese; as that is the same area where we make our home these days. There, like on Hydra and elsewhere in Greece, the animals hauled goods and people over the kalderimi's, those narrow stone roads that linked villages in early times. They were used to plow the fields and as the power source in grain mills and olive oil presses.

The supply barge is met by teams of pack animals in Hydra

With the advent of motorized vehicles and construction of wider asphalt and concrete roads, the use of animals has, since the mid 20th century, been diminishing.  What was startling -- and dismaying -- was learning while researching this post was that the numbers of animals themselves has also severely diminished.  

In an on-line article about equine in Greece, Giorgos Arsenos, assistant professor at the Aristotle University of Veterinary Medicine says that the numbers of donkeys had fallen from a half million in the mid 1950's to just over 18,000 in 1996. I was unable to find more current figures.

Step aside the pack train is coming through

Luckily, the Municipal Council of Hydra and the residents there see the value of this time honored  animal tradition and are continuing to foster it in a manner that is both humane and practical.  

Yes, even the kitchen sink!

As animal lovers, we are always concerned about the treatment of animals and in the case of the equines on Hydra, I can assure you that the animals waiting at harbor's edge to transport tourists and luggage have sunshades provided and plenty of water.  As you make your way through the passageways back from the harbor it is always a delight to happen upon a few bales of hay, one of their many feeding stations.  

Since what goes in must come out, we can also vouch for the fact that at the first dropping from an animal the entire pack is stopped, the manure is scooped up by the muleteer and carried away in leather packs attached to the animals backs- we suspect - to later be used as fertilizer.  

Morning coffee floor show on Hydra Island

The welfare of the animals is also monitored by the combined efforts of HydraArk, an animal lovers group on the island, The Municipality of Hydra, The Greek Animal Welfare Fund and Animal Action Greece. These four entities provide annual visits to the island of a team made up of a dentist, veterinarian and a farrier who provide free of charge exams for all the animals.

Too cute for words in Hydra - old style saddle

If visitors to the island is concerned about a particular animal's welfare they are encouraged to contact the local police who are in charge of investigating any abuse reports. I suspect few reports are made  as the equines and the island's cats are among some of the most pampered animals we've encountered in our travels in Greece.  But the tale of the cats is yet another story for another time. . .

Sunshades for the horses waiting for the ferry

That is it for this week from very hot Greece. Summer has arrived.  The country continues to monitor COVID19 numbers and face masks continue to be a required part of  this 'new normal' world in which we find ourselves.  We hope where ever this reaches you, that you are safe and well and at least doing some armchair traveling! Hope you'll be back with us next week  and as always, thanks for your time!

Linking soon with:

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

In Greece ~ So, where you from?

'So, where you from?" our waiter asked as he set the cappuccinos to the side of the hand sanitizer bottle and ash tray; the ubiquitous centerpieces of outdoor tables at restaurants and cafes in Greece these days.

Coffee on Hydra island 

It is a question so routinely asked of us in our travels in Greece that we didn't even think about our answer. We are assumed to be tourists, never residents.

'We live in The Mani,. . .Peloponnisos," replied The Scout, adding, 'we are originally from Washington -- the state, that is -- in the United States.'

'Americans! I thought so!' exclaimed our server as if a mystery had just been solved. 'But you live here! I had wondered how you got into the country.'

Hydra, a Saronic island

It was a good question on his part because travelers from America aren't yet welcome in Greece or elsewhere the European Union for that matter.

The conversation took place shortly after we'd arrived on the island of Hydra (also Idra, Ydra) last week. The island had been a scheduled stop on our June 'holibob' but we were a bit too early. Hotels and restaurants there hadn't opened yet following the COVID19 prevention lockdown that kept Greece closed most of the spring.

Our home to Hydra in less than five hours

Since we can get there with a short road trip of four hours and a ferry ride of 30 minutes we decided to complete the 'holibob' with a three night stay last week on our favorite Saronic Island.

While we consider ourselves fortunate to be able to travel (and know that many of you reading this aren't yet able to do so), I must say there is a definitely a 'new normal' to it in this country, where we live as American expats.

Masks on public transportation - new normal for travel in Greece

The new normal includes the absence of tourists coming from America. The Covid19 numbers in the United States have landed it among countries on the 'not invited list' in the European Union. A mid-July review of that list, didn't change things - the list will be reviewed again on July 31st.

 As a result of that action American, Delta, Emirates and United Airlines have cancelled their summer flights linking Athens with a number of U.S. gateway cities.

No wonder our waiter was wondering how we'd managed to get in!

Our waiter explaining the fresh catch to 'the American'

The following evening at a restaurant overlooking the Saronic Gulf, the waiter serving us (pictured above) also asked, "So where you from?"  We gave the same response.  He flashed a big smile and said, 'You are the first Americans I have the pleasure of serving this year!'

View of the Saronic Gulf from the Sunset Restaurant - Hydra

So good was the meal and the setting that we returned to the restaurant the next evening. This time the waiter quipped, "Ah, I have the pleasure of serving the first Americans again."  We suggested he could count us twice - once for each visit. We all laughed but then he said, in an almost wistful tone, "Where are the Americans?"

Every table has a view it seems on Hydra

COVID19 prevention efforts have negatively impacted tourism here. Visitor numbers are down. Officials quoted in Greek media say they hope to see an upswing in August and an extended season into September and October.

Summer, especially on Greek islands, is decidedly a busy time even in times of less tourism. While there were many tourists, there were far fewer than we recall seeing during our summer sojourn to Hydra last year.

Metoxi ferry connects mainland with Hydra

The small Metoxi ferry that the we take from the Peloponnese mainland to the island was running at 30-minute intervals during a portion of the day last summer. On this trip it was running on the off-season hourly schedule. And five of those hourly runs each day had been cancelled.  We took the 10 a.m. Saturday ferry back to the mainland, had masks ready to put on until we realized we were the only two passengers on the boat.  We sat outside at the back of the boat. Two crew members were at the front. Three people were waiting to board the ferry on the mainland side.

Self distancing not a problem with fewer tourists - Hydra Island

Greek tourism folks are predicting that COVID19 is going to result in at least a 20 percent reduction of Greece's tourism revenue; a  revenue that was between 18 and 19 billion euros last year. Tourism accounts for about 20 percent of the country's GDP.

Masks are required on public transportation including high speed ferries

Greece finds itself in a delicate balancing act of opening up tourism for those many whose livelihoods depend on it while maintaining a determined approach to COVID prevention.  Just reading headlines last week we found celebratory stories about the first flights arriving at regional airports appearing next to headlines reporting spikes in the numbers of COVID cases.  Here a spike is considered going from a daily -countrywide count - of say, 24 cases to 50 or 60. It happened a few times since borders were opened and as a result, prevention measures have been stepped up. A mandate to return to wearing face masks in grocery stores was issued on Friday evening.  The populace has become a bit relaxed and it was time to tighten up again. Now, if caught not wearing a mask, we will be fined 150 euros.

Masks, I should add, are also required on public transportation, ships, planes, beauty salons, all offices and clinics providing medical services.

Just today a two-week closure of several border crossings with neighboring countries has been announced for non-essential travel. Again, a spike in numbers prompted the action.

Hydra harbor at nightfall
After I last wrote about the prevention measures taken at the Costa Navarino resort, I was asked if we were able to enjoy ourselves with such protocols in place.  The answer is a resounding, 'Yes!'  It does keep COVID19 at the front and center of awareness, but it also reminds you that prevention is being taken seriously by the Greek hospitality industry.

In other words, we have felt safe traveling in Greece.

Until next time. . .

We had plenty of time to think about travel during those long months of lock-down. One thing that became obvious was not to put off taking trips while we are able to do so.  We know how quickly opportunity can be taken away. And the headlines continue to remind us of how fluid the situation and how easily such lockdowns can be put into place, thus ending travel again.

Our thoughts are with those of you who are still traveling by armchair - we wish you well. Stay safe. Thanks for being with us today. Hope to see you back here soon! We hope you'll add a comment or send an email and let us know how life is going in your part of the world ~

Linking soon with -

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday

Monday, July 6, 2020

In Greece ~ The Trip Decades in the Making

The trip we took last week, one might say, has been decades in the making.

For that reason, 'The Trip' we envisioned was going to a memorable one. It was the kind you think about for months in advance, pondering which destination would be 'the most special' - giving little regard to costs or logistics.

Four decades in the making 

'The Trip' to be taken in 2020 was our 40th wedding anniversary celebration. Special was the operative word in planning it. Those big ones don't come around often and at our age you don't know how many more are in the future. So, 'the something special trip' included visions of elegant cruise ships and/or exotic destinations.

Then 2020 was ushered in by COVID-19. . .


Upon reflection, maybe we should have expected such a major unexpected turn of events, as we'd had a similar jolt to our wedding plans as well.

Back in 1980 -- just weeks before our wedding -- Mount St. Helen's blew her top and buried our central Washington State town in a layer of ash. At the time questions swirled about whether or not more eruptions were coming, if we would be able to get anyone to the church with the thick layer of ash covering the town, if guests could even travel to attend the event. There was also the question of: was ash hazardous to one's health?

For a time only essential workers were allowed out -- newspaper reporters of which I was one -- were among those workers. Because of the potential  health dangers we workers wore face masks when outside as a precaution. Sounds a bit like current times, doesn't it?

Just weeks before our wedding in Yakima, Washington

Fast forward four decades: We are now American expats living in Greece. As you know from my writings this spring, Greece took swift and somewhat draconian measures to curb COVID. As the lockdown lingered, and our world shrank, our anniversary plans were reduced to hoping restaurants might re-open so we could simply go out to dinner in the village. (I've written in earlier posts about how the pandemic lockdown changed the way we look at life - and this is a good example of that!)

Restaurants were closed during lockdown - take out was 'dining out'

However, lockdown success resulted in low COVID numbers in Greece.  That fact allowed the country to start opening to travel in early June. Hotels and restaurants are slowly coming to life. Luck was with us as the luxury resort - Costa Navarino -- re-opened June 19th, nine days before our anniversary.  And that, we decided, would be the anniversary destination!

Costa Navarino - In the time of COVID

As one follows the two-lane agricultural road through villages, olive and orange groves and vineyards that make up the most western 'finger' of the Peloponnese, the idea of ending up at five-star luxury resort seems rather farfetched.  But this posh place has been a showplace in Messinia since the first guests were welcomed in 2010. It wasn't until last year that we 'discovered' this oceanside oasis.

Our route to Costa Navarino

We are still giddy over post-lockdown travel freedoms so instead of the short two-hour route, we took a meandered drive around the point.  It is an area rich in history - and even in pre-COVID times wasn't overrun with tourists. The drive takes one to Koroni on the eastern shore; a once important port for Venetians because it was on the trade route with Middle Eastern crusader kingdoms. It, and its sister city, Methoni, on the western coast were known as the 'eyes of the republic' during the centuries this area belonged to the Venetian Republic. Each town offers tourists a castle dating back to those ancient times.

Costa Navarino might be considered the area's modern day palace for pleasure set on some 300-acres overlooking the Ionian Sea. It is home to the Westin Costa Navarino and the Romanos - both participating hotels in the Marriot Bonvoy hospitality empire. We don't golf, but that doesn't keep us from enjoying the views that extend over the  resort's two golf courses.  There is a spa, two pools, a variety of restaurants - all of the sort you'd expect to find at a high-end resort. This one offers a picture-perfect golden sand beach.

Golden sand beach at Costa Navarino

We hadn't set foot inside the lobby before we were reminded that travel during COVID19 is a whole 'new normal'. Protocols (mandated by the Greek government) are strict and fines and punishments are severe for those hospitality establishments not adhering to them. We suspect many may be with us for sometime.

Social distancing - 2 meters apart throughout the resort

Social distancing reminders were visible throughout the resort beginning at the entry to the hotel.

Temperature taken and awaiting check-in

While awaiting our turn to enter the lobby, two staff members wearing gloves and face shields greeted us with warm welcome and a question, "May we take your temperature?"  Once we cleared the temperature check we found ourselves separated by plexiglass windows from reception desk clerks  (all of whom were wearing face shields and gloves). Contactless credit cards were requested. 

Contactless is the new word in travel

Contactless seems to definitely be a 'new normal' for travel. 

Take your own temperature machine - future of travel?

Our room was spacious, the large deck offered views of the sea and the place was so clean that I didn't use any of my cleaning wipes I now routinely pack these days. 

Sanitized might be the room feature of the future

Our welcome gift last year was a bag of sea salt harvested at the resort.  This year we had a gift bag of disinfectant liquid, antibacterial handwipes, face masks and information on how to reach the hotel's onsite COVID19 doctor (one of the government's mandates for large hotels). 

Our wellness welcome gift

(A bit later a bottle of wine, sterilized wine glasses and a box of the hotel brand biscuits were delivered to the room as a welcome as well.)

Hand sanitizer machines on the beach

We followed set routes throughout the resort for exit and entry, no longer just veering off to ask a quick question at the reception desk - distancing was taken most seriously. Hand sterilizers were abundant and placed throughout the resort -- including the beach!

Scout moving hair from forehead for temperature check

Costa Navarino is a gated resort so when returning from an outing we were warmly welcomed back after providing a room number -- and this year also having our temperature taken  -- then the gate was raised. 

Love in the Time of COVID-19

I have to tell you that while it felt somewhat different (and this report might make it sound horrendously different), our stay was lovely.  High end and cheerful service from staff who were masked and gloved and working in temperatures in the 90F/30C range.  Accommodations that were clean and luxurious. It might not have been among our envisioned destinations a year ago, but we couldn't have chosen a better 'special' place.

The Flame Steakhouse - Costa Navarino

About that special celebration. . .The Scout had had his heart set on a steak dinner to celebrate the day.  The Flame Steak House Restaurant in the Golf Club didn't let him down.

Celebrating 40 years of new adventures

And who would have thought that we'd be celebrating our 40 years together as expats living our Stone House on the Hill near a delightful fishing village called Agios Nikolaos in the Greek Peloponnese?! My gift from The Scout ,a fishing net with four fish - one for each decade - couldn't have been more perfect!

Next week I'll be telling you about another palace . . .that of King Nestor's. . .it is just down the road from Costa Navarino.

As always thanks for the time you've spent with us today. Stay safe and stay healthy ~

Linking soon with ~

Mosaic Monday
Through My Lens
Travel Tuesday
Our World Tuesday
My Corner of the World Wednesday
Wordless Wednesday


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