Travels

Belgium

Michael turned 8 on November 14, so we spent a few days in the home of waffles and chocolate, two of his favorite foods.  Thanks to a school holiday in observance of 17 November, we had a three day weekend; we turned it into 4 and let the kids ditch a day of school.

We arrived in the old town of Brussels early afternoon, checked into our apartment and bundled up to go explore the city.  Christmas preparations are in serious progress — the little stalls for the markets are in place, an enormous tree got placed in the center of the Grand Place, and decorations are popping up everywhere.  It would have been fun to be there this weekend instead to see all the holiday glory.

It was chilly and grey but not bone-chilling.  Lots of plants were still alive — geraniums and pansies and other greenery looked happy right along side the pine garland.  We found a frites stand and shared some on a bench, with mayonnaise just like the Belgians do it.  Michael and Peter stuck with ketchup.  There was a waffle stand conveniently next to the frites, so the boys enjoyed a Belgian waffle.  They are works of art.  Then we wandered and explored the old parts of the city, found the Mannekin Pis, walked in and out of chocolate shops, through alleys, into a bookstore and then ducked into the Delirium Brewery for 2 beers (or was it 4?), 2 strawberry juices, 2 games of go fish and 4 rounds of photos in the booth next to our table.  Delirium’s Tremens is my new favorite beer, and yes it’s probably because of the pink elephant. I found out later that delirium tremens is actually a medical condition caused by a rapid withdrawal from alcohol.  These Belgians are quite funny – statues of things peeing throughout the city their award winning beer is named for alcohol withdrawal.

We had moules for dinner in Chez Leon, a Brussels institution. They were great.  Peter fell asleep with his head on Demetri’s lap.  The manager gave me a photo from 1904 of the entire restaurant staff (the Leon family); they’re on their 7th generation of leadership.

Friday morning we hopped the train to Bruges, which is more beautiful and fairytale-esque than Prague.  The city was occupied by the Germans in both World Wars but escaped major damage.  Markt Square is huge and gorgeous (also setting up Christmas markets, skating rink and the big tree) and looks like the old Europe visions in your head.  Its most famous landmark is a 13th century church belfry that has 48 carillons in it — with a talented, enthusiastic carillon player who delights the city with song after song. At one point he played Despacito, which was utterly amazing and hilarious.  In the middle ages, Bruges was the second largest and most important port in Europe and the city sits on canals like Amsterdam and Venice.  We took a boat ride around the city and saw the sites from the water.  A Michelangelo statue of Madonna and Child is housed in the Church of our Lady (Notre Dame) and there’s a medieval hospital that is now a museum and we saw a Picasso and Miro exhibit there.  We had a lovely lunch in a bistro off Markt Square and dinner in another fabulous little bistro where we got the very last table.

Saturday we wandered into a few more chocolate shops, took a carriage ride at Peter’s request, and hopped back on the train to Ghent, which is only slightly less beautiful than Bruges. It’s a university town and quite large, but the center of the old city is quite near the train station, so we locked our duffels up and jumped on the tram headed for the Gravensteen Castle.

Built by Philip of Alsace in 1180, Gravensteen was restored in the 19th century.  It’s humongous and the self-guided tour takes you through almost the whole thing.  There are a couple of rooms set up as torture chambers — a guillotine sits in the center of one of these rooms and there are displays of daggers, knives, axes around it, and a model of someone with his hands behind his back and a funnel in his mouth.  Michael’s artwork for the next couple of days was most certainly influenced by this visit, as he drew a guillotine with great detail, including the bag that sits in front that catches the heads.

We had more french fries on the street, a beer in an adorable bar and a waffle a few blocks down.  Nobody believed me but agreed in the end that a hot, plain waffle was much tastier than one covered in whipped cream or nutella.  We walked down Graffiti street, past more chocolate shops and churches, and boarded the train back to Brussels when it got dark.  We walked the 2 miles from the train station to our hotel near the EU and UN headquarters, passing the palaces and the city parks along the way.

Early Sunday morning, Peter rolled off his bed and hit his mouth on the nightstand. He chipped his right front tooth, cut his lip and did something on the left side, maybe just an injury to the gum or maybe to the tooth itself.  Poor fella, not the nicest way to wake up.

We’re back in Voula and coming down off the carb high. Peter’s mouth is much better; the pain and swelling has reduced considerably and the tooth is not moving. The pediatrician said it sounds like just a cut and reminded me that this is a baby tooth so even if it’s damaged, it’s not long for this world anyway. And then she gave me the name of a dentist.

Greek life, Travels

Χιοσ

Chios (Χιοσ), is Greece’s fifth largest island.  Situated in the north Aegan, Turkey is just eight nautical miles away.  It’s the birthplace of Homer.  It’s probably the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Its history goes back to the Neolithic period and Chios’ claim to fame is its mastic trees.

Most of the Greek islands (e.g., Syros, Milos, Skiathos, Hydra) are a summer destination for most of Greece and half of Europe.  They are insanely fun, busy and crowded until September when they essentially close up until the following May.  Some islands, like  Chios, have a thriving agricultural base, and are busy, productive islands with year-round inhabitants. That was the draw last week when Demetri and Papou spent three days here.

Chios was conquered by the Genovese.  The village of  Kampos has many 13th century mansions that each had huge walled orchards for citrus fruits. Lots of these farmers came to the US in the 19th and 20th centuries and started citrus orchards in Florida, then returned to Greece after building their fortunes.

The island has an interesting history regarding the Genovese control. Chios was a republic of Genoa (invaded and settled by them) and there is a lot of evidence that the island is most likely the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, as many various documents from/about him say “republic of Genoa” and not city of Genoa, which is in Italy.  The Columbus (Kolombos) family name in Chios goes back 700 years and there’s a house marked as his birthplace.  There’s a lot of controversy around his origin and there are a lot of books written about where indeed Columbus was from with significant evidence that he was not the son of an Italian wool farmer.  Most interesting is that Columbus kept 2 logs – one fake and one real.  The ‘real’ one, which has been used to verify his discovery of San Salvador and to clear up discrepancies about it, was written in Greek.  The ‘fake’ one was written in Italian. Matt Barrett, a prolific Greece travel writer, reviews a book on his website that he believes answers the question about Columbus once and for all.  It’s a fun read.

Chios mastic is produced on the south side of the island by 24 villages. It’s been harvested for almost 3000 years. Hippocrates used it to treat colds, bad breath and to prevent digestive issues. It’s still used in gum, cosmetics, pastries and liquers — the drink has a wonderful woody, pine smell.  We enjoyed it in Milos many evenings this summer. In 2014, we enjoyed it as a spoon sweet after lunch in Kalamata.

Mastic sap drips from the trees and forms little teardrops.   The drops are hard, but they soften as you chew. Mastic was a great source of wealth for hundreds of years. Everyone wanted it – Venetians, Genovese, Turks.  During Ottoman rule, the penalty for stealing it was execution.  Oh, and Columbus was known to patch his boats with mastic.  Ahem.

There’s a cool Byzantine village called Anavatos, which translates to ‘you can’t walk up here’.  Now that the place is in ruins, it was easier to explore than a few hundred years ago.  In 1822, nearly 75% of the island’s population was killed in a battle against the Turks during the War of Independence; much of the battle took place near this village.

One of the best parts of island travel is the local food and learning what influences their cooking.  One afternoon, it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner.  Papou and Demetri stopped in a little town and found an ouzereia — a little cafe with mezetes, ouzo and coffee. There were 7 men sitting there with ouzo and coffee, not speaking to each other. They were all watching some sort of reality fashion show on television.  The owner had just made a cheese pie.  Cheese pies in any form are delightful. Fresh cheese pies are phenomenal.

They found an excellent restaurant in Chios town and ate there both nights.  They had fazolia, cannelini beans in tomato sauce with local mandarin oranges and it was fantastic.  The soutzoukakia, traditional meatballs in tomato sauce, had some turkish influences with cumin.  Also excellent.  Stifado, historically made with rabbit, is braised beef cooked for hours.  This restaurant made it with chestnuts (which have just come into season) and it was the best thing they’ve eaten in weeks.

 

Greek life

17 November

Greece was a mess after World War II. The Germans occupied Greece from 1940 until the war ended in 1944.  From 1944 to 1949, Greece was in a civil war basically over communism. It was early in the Cold War — British and Americans were trying to contain communism; Russia was trying to expand.

The 1950s economy was pretty bad.  Thousands of people died from famine during and as a result of WW II; thousands more died during the civil war.  As a result, people were leaving the country in huge numbers. Things started to get better in the 60s with upticks in construction, tourism and manufacturing, some say thanks to western influences.

Greek modern political history is like a tennis match.  A monarchy was established in 1832 after the War of Independence.  It got rid of the monarchy in 1924 and restored it again in 1935.  In 1936, the king appointed Ioannis Metaxas (the one who said “Oxi“) prime minister; he was a fascist with a right wing regime; he died in 1941. In 1952, a new constitution declared Greece a parliamentary democracy.

In 1967, a group of military officers seized power and until 1973 Greece was being run by a military dictatorship called the Regime of the Colonels or the Junta.  Elections were called off indefinitely, civil rights pretty much vanished, politicians were jailed for their beliefs but oddly enough the economy did pretty well. The US and other western powers supported the Junta; anything to prevent the spread of communism. A fairly strong anti-American sentiment still remains with some Greeks.

Said all that to talk about November 1973.

On November 14, students at the Athens Polytechnic University (Polytechneio) began gathering to protest and demonstrate against the Junta.  Citizens from Athens and other parts of the country joined the students to demonstrate.  The government assembled military equipment and police in order to stop the demonstrations and sent a tank crashing through the gates of the university to crush the revolt.  24 people died; shot by military police.  Close to 200 more were injured.

This uprising is widely held as the beginning of the end of the Junta.  In 1974, after a counter- coup (maybe 2), the military dictatorship collapsed and a a parliamentary republic was established.  That’s what Greece has today.

As a result of the 17 November uprising, an ‘academic asylum’ law was put into place, banning police entry of any kind onto college campuses no matter what.  The law was abolished in 2011 after people took advantage of the law for protests against Greece’s austerity measures.

November 17 is a holiday for all educational institutions in Greece — from preschool through the university level.  Most schools hold some sort of memorial in honor of the day — our school holds theirs the day before so the 17 November can remain a holiday.

Greek life, Travels

Kalavryta

Kalavryta is a ski town in the central Peloponnese, with a lovely square, nice bakeries and restaurants and cute houses and buildings.  It was under Turkish rule from the mid 1400s on, with the exception of a 30 year Venetian occupation.  Kalavryta, specifically the Agia Lavra monastery just outside the town, is where the Greek Revolution launched in 1821.

It’s also the site of a horrific Nazi massacre of the second world war.  In December 1943, 80 German soldiers were captured and held prisoner by Greek resistance fighters.  Most were executed; the few who survived got word to the Nazis, who sent troops to this quiet little town for retribution.  On December 13, the Nazis separated males 12 and older from women and children.  More than 600 men were taken to a field and executed by machine gun. Fewer than 15 survived.  The Nazis placed the women and children in the school house and set it on fire.  They managed to escape, though much of the city caught fire after that, and the Nazis burned what was left the following day.  Two victims of the massacre were named Fefes — they were cousins and great uncles of Papou’s.   The memorials to this tragedy are unbearably sad, especially a sculpture of a woman and her two children dragging her husband out of the field.  Names of the dead are inscribed on the memorial that sits above the town; every year on 13 December, the city reads the names of the victims.

About 15 kilometers outside of Kalavryta is the very cool “Cave of the Lakes.”  Several different fossils — including a hippopotamus — have been found in these caves that were discovered in 1964.  50 different bat species make their home here.  The path through the caves is on a metal suspension bridge, as from November to March, the caves fill with water and have a bunch of natural waterfalls. At one point at the far end of the caves, there is a stalagmite (ground up) that connects to a stalactite (ceiling down), which is very rare.  One centimeter of rock takes 100 years to form.  Cameras aren’t allowed.

We ate well (again!) in these pretty mountain villages.  At one point, Peter finished a bite and sighed, “boy I love lamb.’  It’s especially good cooked for hours in the oven with lemon and oregano.  Kokoras (rooster) with tomato sauce and red wine is fantastic & served with a huge side of spaghetti, much to Michael’s delight.  One taverna’s specialty was a hortapitaki — sauteed or boiled greens with dill and some local cheese baked into a phyllo.

In other news, there is a suicidal bird that keeps flying into our apartment.  Demetri and Papou are out of town for a few days so I’ll be camped out in the bathroom.

 

 

 

Greek life, Travels

Pelopponesian road trip 2

Since Oxi Day is a national holiday, we took advantage of the three day weekend to road trip around our favorite area of Greece — the Peloponnese. In our summer visit, we spent time in the northeast section (Korfos, Epidavros, Portocheli).   In 2014, we spent almost a week in the southwest corner (Pylos, Kalamata, Stoupa, Vivari, Nafplio).  This time, we focused on the south-central and southeast parts — the two ‘middle fingers’ of the peninsula. Demetri, Papou and I picked the kids up at Μπασκετ (basketball) after school, car packed, snacks ready, music cued.  To get to the Pelopponese, you must cross the Corinth canal — which is really cool no matter if you are watching from the bridge above, or the lowlands on either end, which we did this time. We waited for a cruise ship come through right next to us – you can see it on the right side of the photo of Peter in the Oxi Day post.

Our destination was Monemvasia,  a castle town that everyone we know who has visited absolutely loves.  One of my mom friends said it’s the most romantic place in Greece – and not to worry it’s even more romantic in the rain.  We had blue skies all weekend and it is indeed spectacular. The town is carved out of the back of a huge rock that sits in the sea.  In Medieval times, locals avoided attacks because the city wasn’t visible from the mainland; the only way to reach it then was by boat.  Now, there’s a causeway paved from the mainland to the rock, which is how the city got its name: Monemvasia means ‘single entrance.’ It’s been occupied by nearly everyone — Arabs, Normans, Turks, Venetians — so it wasn’t successful in staying entirely hidden.

There is a walled city at the bottom and the remains of a medieval city at the top. Views are spectacular no matter where you are.  We loved hiking up and around the old city and we stopped for coffee at a cafe that faces the sea while the boys played and hiked in a little protected area.

We then drove to the quiet, little island of Elafonisos, which is said to have some of the best beaches in Greece.  Papou and Sandy spent a weekend there in May.  We knew that most of the island would be closed for the season, but we took the 15 minute ferry ride anyway and watched the boys ninja warrior themselves across and over rocks at the shore.  We got back on the last ferry of the day and got back in the car.

The next couple of hours we were diverted by car trouble.  Earlier that day, a warning light came on telling us to add antifreeze.  We stopped to do that, and somehow, the radiator cap didn’t get tightened. About five kilometers later, we heard a clunk, and that was the end of the cap.  After Elafonisos, we stopped a gas station where one of the mechanics fashioned a cap for us.   Then, close to the top of the mountain pass we were climbing, a red light came on telling us to stop the car.  The new temporary cap was gone.  Demetri and Papou turned the heat on, put some water in the radiator, and we coasted down the other side of the mountain in complete silence.  We went back to the service station where they had put the original top off in there and 4 mechanics inspected the car. They had no caps we could purchase, so we figured we’d call the Greek equivalent of AAA the following day.  We bought a lot of antifreeze and slowly drove back to Monemvasia, and had dinner in a grill house and played at a park.  We got back to our hotel, the kids got ready for bed and Demetri went back out to the car and found BOTH caps on the skid plate.  Road trip back on!

Saturday, we drove south and west and south again around the coast and into the Mani peninsula. Mani’s terrain is rugged with rocky mountains and lots of olive trees. We stopped for lunch at a fish tavern in the harbor town of Gerolimenas. We ate lots of local fish paired with nice, cold ouzo and sat next to the water watching the black rain clouds.

Maniots are thought to descend from the ancient Dorian civilization and their reputation is tough, fierce, independent. The most common housing in Mani was a fortified village made of house towers where they could defend themselves from invaders.  There are a view of these villages that still exist; after lunch we drove to one called Vathia, which is one of the best preserved towns.  Most of the homes have been abandoned, though there was one that had a courtyard with pretty well maintained plants and new doors with screens. We walked up, through and around the dirt paths imagining what it would be like to live here. We stopped in the large-ish town of Gytheo on the way back, walked in the harbor and played foosball and air hockey on the patio of a tavern.

Sunday, we took a coastal route back north, stopping to see a huge shipwreck called the Demetrios. Next was another harbor town for a coffee. Peter was ninja warrioring and fell in the water but it wasn’t deep.  Then we made our way to a very cool village called Leonidio where we watched climbers scale these long, vertical rocks.  We had Sunday lunch in a taverna facing the water — roasted chicken in lemon sauce, roasted goat in lemon sauce, imam (roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions) and more ouzo.  We headed back to Athens through mountain towns, and found a beach town that we’ll come back to in the Spring or Summer where the water is crystal clear.

There is so much to see in this pretty region of Greece and it’s full of cities that we all learned about in history class: Tripoli, Sparta, Olympia, Myceanae, Thermopylae.  I can see Mrs. Miles’ handwriting covering the entire blackboard with the day’s lecture in 10th grade ancient and medieval history class.  The coastal towns are all pristine and adorable and the swimming is some of the best in the world. We scoped a few places to return to this spring when it’s beach time again.

Our next Pelopponesian stop will be Kalavryta, home of some of the Fefes family.

 

Greek life

The 2018 Olympics are underway!

On October 24, the torch for the 2018 winter games was lit in the city of Olympia and began its week long journey across Greece.  505 different torchbearers ran the relay with 20+ welcoming ceremonies in different cities around the country.  Monday, the torch arrived at the Acropolis, and yesterday, the final hand off ceremony was held in downtown Athens at the Panathenaic Stadium, the site of the first modern Olympic games in 1896.

The torch relay spreads a message of friendship, solidarity and peace around the world.  Yesterday’s ceremony began with a dance routine from the Greek gymnastics team Olympiada Thakomakedonon. Then, Korean dancers and singers performed, followed by the Greek presidential guard raising the Olympic, Greek and South Korean flags, and finally a youth choir sang the national anthems of Greece and South Korea.  At that point, the flame entered the stadium, carried by a South Korean gold medalist speed skater.  He handed it to a Greek olympic skier who lapped it around the stadium before lighting the cauldron.  Greek and South Korean dignitaries both spoke — in Greek, English and Korean — about the honor the games brings to the world and to their countries.

The ceremony was not very crowded, but it was certainly international.  Around me I heard French, Korean, Italian, English and Greek.  A few school groups were there in uniform and waving Greek flags.  There were also a lot of Korean folks there, waving flags and cheering loudly.  It was 90 minutes of pure joy and I had tears in my eyes more than once.

After the ceremony, Demetri made his way down to meet the Greek American runner, Dean Karnazes, who was one of the torch bearers and another Greek athlete.  (Go to Demetri’s facebook page to see his photos and videos — he had the ‘real’ camera and they’re great!)

The flame lands in South Korea today to begin its 100-day journey to PyeongChang.