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Saturday, June 26, 2010

European Vacation Part II: It's all Greek to Me!

We loved our stay in Macedonia, and our exit from the country was totally in character with our prior experiences there. The morning we left Popova Kula, we were told that our train would be late, so we lingered a little after breakfast, allowing me time to buy a little wine in the gift shop and Steve to take a quick tour of the winemaker's digs.

When we asked to call a taxi, the manager told us he would have the winery's driver take us to the train station in Demir Kapija. Uncle Tony got us all loaded up in the winery van, got us to the train station five minutes ahead, only to see the train already moving away from the station! OOOOoooohhh bummer, we thought, that's the only train of the day! (Actually, I think Steve used stronger language than merely "bummer.")
But Uncle Tony said "no worries," herded us back into the car and raced southward to Greece! After he saw a train track warning light that was still green, he knew we'd gotten ahead of the train and relaxed for the rest of the route to the border town of Gevgelija.

What a guy?! If not for Uncle Tony, we would have had to mope around at the winery for another day. I would've welcomed another day at Popova Kula, but we did have reservations that night near the monasteries of Meteora. We tried to pay him for the longer ride, but Uncle Tony wouldn't take our cash. Then we suggested he take it for the gas reimbursement and he conceded. He even loaded our bags on the train, and waved bye-bye. Such a sweetheart!

So, though the country has some issues with sometimes heavy-handed bureaucracy and other times the complete lack of it, the folks make up for uneven public services with their individual generosity and hospitality. The feeling that we're special is alien to us, but I could get used to it!

Our train crossing into Greece was nicely uneventful. We pulled in at the station in Thessaloniki, and realized to our sudden horror that we had failed to study up on the language and maps. I guess we assumed Rene could assist with a little bit of Greek, but lo, she didn't know a single word! We couldn't even say "please" and "thankyou!!" I felt like an idiot. When we got to the car rental place, our agent joked, "I'll bet it all looks like Chinese to you." Ha! More like greek! We soon learned that though we couldn't read a lick of signage, the symbols had a way of matching up with the ones on the map, so after early onset panic, we navigated our way down to the town of Kalambaka just fine.
The drive was beautiful: we drove right by Mount Olympus, and had no idea what that looming mountain was until we were able to decipher a road sign. And Meteora was no less impressive. Our first thought was that driving into the area was sort of like driving into Sedona, Arizona–which we've done many times. The main difference is that the tall red rock formations in Arizona aren't topped with religious monasteries!

When Rene first told us her plans for this part our our trip, we already knew a little about Metéora because we'd seen it on PBS at home: Rudy Maxa did a show about Metéroa and it's wondrous monasteries in the sky. However, in reality it's more like going to the Grand Canyon; you've got to see it to really appreciate the beauty.

Our stay in Kalambaka only lasted two days/one night, but it was lovely. It's a small, quiet town that caters to the tourists that visit the monasteries.

We stayed in a very unique and lovely old-fashioned, yet new, bed and breakfast called Monastiri Guesthouse (with yet another large tub that Rene fell in love with!) We got some great, authentic gyros and gelato in the town and while visiting all six open monasteries, we walked up and down enough steps to choke a mountain goat!

But it was all good. I encourage you to check out websites about Metéora; it is truly remarkable, and it's included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The trip back to Thessaloniki was equally gorgeous. We all were struck by the surprising familiarity of the landscape. We took a different route north through the farms and countryside of northern Greece, and after gazing out on the green hills, farms and woodlands around us it finally hit me – this reminded me of springtime in Northern California (with the addition of a few Turkish fortresses, of course!!)
It was not at all what I had expected. I remember seeing pictures and images in my old art history classes of the area around Athens: rocky, drier landscapes that just didn't look like this at all. What a pleasant surprise! I found myself revising my preconceived notions of Greece and glad that Steve had wanted to spend more time here.

We spent a couple of nights in Thessaloniki, birthplace of Aristotle and second largest city in Greece.

We shopped with Rene, ate our fill of squid and octopus salad on the waterfront (Steve's new favorite dish), visited museums and a Turkish bathhouse, saw a couple of rather tame protest events, and then said antío to Rene.

She had done a great job of keeping her parents on the run for eight days! Now we were ready to drop with exhaustion, and I'm sure Rene was ready to be rid of us.

On our fourth day in Greece, we got a car and headed south to the Sithonian peninsula, in the Halkidiki area.

There, Steve had found an American-owned B and B on the internet that looked lovely. The drive again reminded me of traveling through California, this time in the Sierra Nevadas! With pines and pink granite, wooded hills and blue, blue ocean views, it felt like I was driving around Lake Tahoe.

This must by why so many Mediterranean's gravitate to our western-most state. (Well DUH!)

The little town of Sarti was absolutely picturesque: white sandy beaches, lovely little outdoor tavernas, ancient olive trees everywhere, green hillsides rolling down to the deep blue ocean, and the wondrous Mount Athos looming across the bay.

Steve had done all the research for this part of the trip, so everything was a big surprise to me. The seafood, the ouzo, the little shops, the friendly people, and the gorgeous views all forced our stress levels down and our endorphins high — OPA!

Our hosts, Izzy and Chi Chi at SartiVista B and B, were a welcoming sight – English speaking and very laid back. They encouraged us to explore and wander their property and the town.

Chi Chi was from the midwest, loved quilting and made the most amazing breakfasts. Izzy was a Greek-American first-gen, who moved back home when he retired. They built a large home with great views on his father's land, started making their own wine and olive oil, and then turned it into a bed and breakfast guesthouse when they found that friends and family just couldn't get there often enough to keep them fully occupied.

Their story is perfect and you can see more at their website: SartiVista B and B. The only thing missing was a dry day to sit under the arbor for morning breakfast ... it was Springtime and rainy after all! But with wine from Popova Kula and a nice view of Mt. Athos from our patio, it was still a very special stay. I could see spending a few weeks in the company of Izzy and Chi Chi without ever getting tired of it. Like the website says; they helped make our vacation the best ever! 
Steve's research showed that Mt. Athos, on the peninsula next door, was home to many more amazing Orthodox monasteries. It is known as a unique monastic republic. So, the next day he booked a boat trip to explore the area. Tourists are not allowed in the holy places on this peninsula. Women are forbidden and men are only invited on pilgrimage, so the boat can't stop at the coastal ports of the monasteries. Instead it traverses from south to north along the coast, until it reaches the small town of Ouranopolis at the neck of the peninsula for lunch.

The boat was a surprise too: one of a fleet of three, the Menia Maria III leaves from Ormos Panagias on the northeast neck of Sithonia. It was outfitted like a big, black  pirate ship – we were nearly robbed by Johnny Dep's look alike! (The photo at left was taken by the staff photographer on board. Though I feel compelled to give them creative credit – © 2010 Menia Maria – it was highway robbery!)

There was a nice little snack bar on board, the outbound leg of the trip included historical commentary in English, German and Greek, we saw a few dolphins riding the bow wave, and the afternoon trip back included authentic Greek folk dancing – our pirate friend miraculously morphed into a Greek dancer with a propensity for stealing young dance partners from the main deck! Corny, but then they don't get as many Americans here as they do in the southern parts of Greece. I can tell they would love to see more of us!

Anyone want to go in on renting a Villa in northern Greece next May??

Next post: Visiting la famiglia in Italy, we learn about three patron saints, my grandparents' introduction to each other, the ancient Etruscans, and roman ruins are EVERYWHERE!

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

European Vacation Part I: More of Macedonia

Let me just say this outright at the start — our trip to Macedonia wouldn't have been possible without the help and coordination of our daughter, Rene. She planned all of our activities, from the restaurants and sites visited to the folks who would guide us when she wasn't available. Not only did she do most of the talking for us — after all, we can't speak a lick of Macedonian — but she corrected us on some very important cultural nuances as well. She was absolutely stunning as a tour guide, trip coordinator, and translator. If not for the career path she's already chosen, I would suggest she get into the travel coordinator business!

But, on with our Macedonian adventure. After the night at the Irish Pub, I was pretty worn out. We took a leisurely drive through Skopje to meet the folks at the Peace Corp headquarters, picked up one of Rene's PCV coworkers, and struck out for the southwestern part of the country. We were headed for Lake Ohrid, home of some of Macedonia's most beautiful scenery and resorts.
Our PCV guest was great company, and told us a little about his work in the town of Struga, his exploits around the lake, and his home in Texas. I was beginning to learn that the young people who go to work in the Peace Corp truly are the créme de la créme of our American exports — this nice young man was no exception. Every one of Rene's friends was generous, smart, respectful and witty. I loved hearing how they had adapted to their temporary homes. Though they seemed a bit starved for the attentions of fellow Americans, they also seemed well adjusted to their new surroundings, and had definite plans and goals. Steve and I were continuously impressed by this new generation of leaders. Make no mistake, I fully expect that these youngun's will be doing much more remarkable work in the years to come, no matter where they end up.

Upon reaching Lake Ohrid and dropping our friend near his home in the lakeside town of Struga, we checked in at our new hotel, Villa Sv. Jovan in Ohrid. This lovely, tudor-style hotel is a renovated building in the heart of the old town center, decorated in the traditional manner of wealthy old Macedonian lake homes. The rooms were well equipped, their was a lovely dining room downstairs and we even had a bathroom to ourselves! Rene even got a little "mother-in-law's" room of her own. The generous proprietors were Jovan and Lidia from Kumanovo. Jovan himself, who immediately became a close friend, escorted us to the restaurant on the water's edge and suggested we try the town's favorite dish: lake trout.

And we did! It was a lovely dinner, with fresh salads, local Macedonian wine and the promised fresh-caught trout. Another one of Rene's friends from Struga joined us, and upon finding out that we were having the trout, mentioned that perhaps we might not want to order it again the next day. Why? Apparently, this species is considered endangered in Macedonia! Well, no wonder the price was nearly that of an American entré. We'll never know for sure, though, as later we were told by another helpful native guide that this might not have been the trout species we were told it was. Or, perhaps the same species, but caught on the Albanian part of the lake, where evidently there's no such endangered designation for this treasure. Oh, how complicated things can get in these small countries!!?
The next day, we learned firsthand why Rene had told us to be ready to be flexible. After a short coffee break with more of her PCV friends, she announced that because of storms and the resulting "slight chop" on the lake, we'd be skipping the boat tour she had planned. Instead, she took us on a walking tour of the town of Ohrid. It was actually great fun visiting the fortress on top of the hill, a few more old Orthodox churches, an archeological ruin, and shopping the tourist stores. We ran into the most interesting "experts" along the way.

Lake Ohrid has been a sort of spiritual center for a very long time. I read somewhere that it was sometimes known as the Slavic Jeruselum. This is a well deserved name: there are at least 365 spiritual sites or churches situated around the lake. One sharp lady, whom Rene had met on a previous trip, had written a book about the history of the Macedonian Orthodox churches at Ohrid. She was a Ph.D, and took us on a wonderful tour of one of the newly preserved churches, explaining the allegorical histories and stories in the frescoes, and how the different regimes over time had squelched, but never taken away, the soul of the people and their religious beliefs. She was at once professorial and eccentric, spiritual and earthly, and yet her narrative was extremely interesting. I don't think I've ever had a tour of a church like that one.

We ran into another man, (who later became known as "crazy freethinking guy"), who offered to explain a little about the ruins at the base of the hill. His theories were quite a bit "looser" than those of the Ph.D., and we soon wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into. At the end of his short "tour" we gave him a small donation, as he answered a call on his smart phone, and gave me his website address! My only regret is that out of respect, I didn't take a picture of him. He was the most interesting looking character study I've seen in a long time — a real Ichabod Crane type, with the hunched over, monk-like look that would be at home in the peasant folk paintings of the 19th century. I kept wanting to ask him if he was really a character actor, pretending to be a crazy scholar! I'll soon forget exactly what he taught us, but I'll never forget his appearance.

The day was a mix of sun and storm, made even more nuts by the fact that every time we walked out of a building it started to rain; while we were indoors the sun would come out. Didn't matter though, we had some potent home-made hooch to keep us warm! No one could resist giving us a bottle of their personal favorite. I think we were given three liters of the stuff until we finally said, "no more!"

Ohrid is famous not only for endangered trout and free-thinkers, but for a type of freshwater pearl made from the lake. These pearls are not made by oysters, but rather from the scales of a local fish called the Plasica. It's a bit of a mystery to me how the scales become pearls, but there were many jewelry stores selling creatively set and designed pieces made from them. Here's a site with more about the Ohrid pearl. I know Rene's planning to go back to get herself a little booty from the lake.

Our next day was another day of travel, but since the country is small and there is lots to see, Rene had arranged a private tour guide to drive us to our next destination in his car, with historical oratory along the way. Now, really, who could afford this anywhere else in the world? But in Macedonia it was a very reasonable way to go from point A to point B, and I can say that by the end of the day our guide Daniel had become yet another close friend of ours. He even knew "crazy free-thinking guy!"

Daniel first took us to a historical/archeological site known as the "Bay of Bones," a prehistoric pile dwelling settlement on the lake. Apparently, prehistoric Macedonians found that building over the lake made it easier to defend themselves against the bad guys: namely big prehistoric bears! These folks lived in the Bronze and Iron Ages — 1200 BC to 700 BC, so bear repellent probably hadn't been discovered yet. As expected, Steve's pulse quickened when he saw clay pottery in the museum, but I was glad to see it wasn't for sale.

Daniel then took us to a small river that fed into the lake. This river had unique geological features that he was able to point out with considerable scientific knowledge, such as bubbling spring-fed sands, and quicksand. After a boat ride, and lunch at the riverside restaurant, we headed over the top of Mt. Pelister to Lake Prespa and beyond, ending at the small town of Demir Kapija.
Daniel gave us a running historical and geographical commentary along the way which kept things interesting. We found ourselves commenting at how well the roads were holding up at one point, only to hear that the roads built by Tito's political prisoners (aka: volunteers!?) were the best! Certainly, you won't get that kind of in-depth background info from your iPhone touring app.
After a stop at the resort town of Bitola, we headed on to Demir Kapija, our final destination in Macedonia. This small town is home of the famous Popova Kula Winery. We were very pleasantly surprised to see this beautiful Napa Valley style winery out in the countryside. The setting is gorgeous; set near the top of a low rise of hills, vineyards all around, a view of a small river and the startling vista of the "Iron Gate," or Demir Kapija in the near distance. The story of how this winery got it's start is no less dramatic than the scenery around it. It has even been reported in a great background story on CNN, in much better terms than I can say here.

Rene had made reservations in the finest of the winery's hotel rooms, and arranged for the perfect-sized group wine tasting experience in the Priest's Tower at the top. She invited three of her friends to join us so that we had the entire room to ourselves: an invitation to act slap-happy if I ever saw one.

One of these intrepid tasters actually has taken on the daunting role of English tutor to the employees and staff of the winery — daunting I tell ya! Imagine hanging out all day in a beautiful priest's tower, teaching a difficult language to poor unsuspecting students while having to occasionally partake a sip or two of the latest crush — just to be polite of course. Oh the horror. This is just my personal observation, but service in the Peace Corp isn't for the faint of heart!

Our sommelier is knowledgeable and patient with us!
The winery is in full production, with the latest equipment and quality wines produced from 11 varieties of grapes.


Though the evening started out on a sophisticated and upscale note, after 5 bottles things had gotten decidedly low-brow! 

With the help of Rene's friends I learned some interesting new dance moves, which they call "noodle-arms." (Not to be confused with "catfisting," a form of noodling that results in a 20 lb. catfish attached to the end of your arm.)

My takeaway from this trip to Macedonia is that the country is young. This is not to say that it's history isn't absolutely ancient! But as a country with it's own identity, it is just beginning to find it's voice. The people we met have found a very strong sense of nationalistic pride, and they are happy to share it with great pleasure and assurance. From having the red-ist poppies and best little apples in all of Europe, to being the only place in the world where you can get a certain variety of wine, and having the most churches in one small setting, this love of all things Macedonian is present everywhere. Even though they are experiencing some hiccups with their startup as a country, I am hopeful that this great pride can be channeled in positive directions. I believe this is one of the reasons that Rene's organization is there, and she is learning so much more than she's aware. Her experiences will stay with her for the rest of her life, and she will be richer for it.

Next post: We leave Macedonia for Northern Greece. Green hills, olive trees, great gyros, Ouzo, octopus salad and monasteries everywhere — on mountaintops, on cliff faces, and precariously perched on massive towers of stone. Mamma mia!

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