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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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  • haha the pirate of menia maria is my friend :)im greek.. nice foto...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/12/2012 2:20 AM  

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