Travels

Evia

The island of Evia, or Euboea as it’s transliterated, has been on Demetri’s exploration list for some time.  It’s Greece’s second largest island, full of mountains, trees and even a few hot springs.  It’s easy to get to from Athens, too — a bridge connects the Attica peninsula to the island, and there are smaller ferries that you can take (with car) if you’re coming from elsewhere on the mainland. That’s what we did.

img_0097We left Meteora and drove to the little town of Glyfa for a 19 euro (4 people plus car!), 20-minute shuttle ride to the small port of Agiokambos on Evia’s northwest side where we docked, watched some little boys fish with a spool of fishing line and a hook (no poles needed thank you very much!) and headed east to the village of Agia Anna. Demetri found a small, beautiful hotel right on the 7 km long Agkali Beach.  Agkali looks to be of the best-known beaches on the island, but it felt private and secluded and may be the most relaxing place I’ve been to in Greece.  The beach itself is known as a ‘pebble’ beach. They were more like rocks: the coolest, most beautiful mix of colors.  Peter and I spent time two afternoons inspecting and collecting a bunch of different ones. The next day, Demetri found one that looked just like a human ear!  Cue several “I-can’t-hear-you” jokes.img_0101

Demetri invited Papou and Sandy to join us there and one morning at breakfast, Papou strolled in at an amazingly early hour. The boys loved having him with us.  Together, they shuttled from beach to pool, where Papou taught Peter to dive — really dive instead of belly flop. I think the kids had the best vacation of all: the hotel had a fantastic kids program with activities in their ‘magic forest’ all day long, games at the pool, soccer on the beach and movies at night.  They would leave breakfast, we’d drag them away for lunch and some swimming mid-afternoon, and they’d come back so we could head into the village for dinner.  Unless of course they were having dinner at the all-you-can-eat-souvlaki-or-pasta-with-fazolakia kids buffet.  While the boys were playing soccer and capture the flag in the magic forest, Demetri and I sat on in shady chairs on the beautiful, isolated beach and watched the lone ferry that travels from Evia to the island of Skopelos across the water.  Skopelos is in the Sporadic island group and is famous for being the film site of “Mamma Mia.”

You can’t really see it, but the photo above on the beach is a horse in the water.  Across from the hotel is a little farm with roosters and horses. Kyria Nancy offered a little field trip to magic forest kids to feed and brush the horses, which Peter took full advantage of, and she also took groups riding on the beach.  One day a group came by and the next thing we knew, one of the horses was swimming.  It was astounding.  The rider stayed on as the horse frolicked in the water.  It was absolutely beautiful to watch.

img_0076In terms of Greek history, Evia was the site of a famous battle with the Persians in 480 BC, at the exact same time that Leonidas and his 300 Spartans were fighting at Thermopylae.  The battle on Evia is said to be a draw: a severe storm caused both the Greeks and Persians to cut their losses and skedaddle.  Evia is also where the huge, famous statue of Poseidon was found by fishermen in the 1920s. The statue is a central piece today in the National Archaeological Museum.

We liked Evia so much that our three-days turned to six.  There was a great breeze so it didn’t feel too hot. We watched the World Cup finals in our pretty little room facing the sea, and we came home with good tans, magic forest crowns and fun paintings.

We’re back in Athens with the air conditioners getting quite a workout.  We swam here one afternoon and the water was so warm it felt like a jacuzziOur last set of visitors arrive today and we’re starting to separate things to pack, purge, and give away.  My mom sent photos of our yard this week and both kids are dreaming of barefoot soccer in the cool, soft grass.

Travels

Meteora

This fantastic rock formation in central Greece is evidenced to have been inhabited since the ice age. In the 9th century AD, some hermit monks dwelled in the caves and fissures; in the 14th century some 24 monasteries were built — some for monks and some for nuns. Six remain today and are open for visitation.

Seven hundred years ago, the only way to get up was via a series of ropes and ladders. This was both ideal and deliberate. The monks and nuns could control their ‘village’ completely, plus when threats of Turkish invaders increased as Byzantium began to wane, they could pull up the ladders to keep anyone (everyone) out.

Today there are stairs that lead up to each remaining building. Important art and artifacts were rumored to be housed here, including a finger of St. John and the scapula of St. Andrew. World War 2 saw quite a bit of destruction from Nazi bombs and much of the art was stolen, just like in many other places in Europe.

We visited two of the monasteries, on a day with a good bit of cloud cover. The views from the tops of the rocks was, of course, terrific. In one place we had a silence contest so we could all imagine what it was like to live there in utter quiet. I lost.

We have seen photos of Meteora and though the photos really do show what it looks like, it was really cool to see them in person.

We arrived at Meteora on Sunday, after spending the weekend just outside of Kamena Vourla with Thodoris and Mina and Mina’s lovely parents in her mother’s village. We had two great days at the beach and in the beautiful water, paddle boarding and swimming and resting. Back in the villlage, Mina’s mom cooked up a storm for every meal all weekend! Soufflé for breakfast, spinach pies, homemade pizza, kontosouvli, chicken and potatoes in the oven, roasted lamb, fazolakia, sautéed eggplant, sautéed zucchini, Horta and lovely desserts. All of her produce and herbs were local and from the village. She sent us on our way with some freshly dried oregano and a black cherry spoon (Greeks call it ‘sour cherry’) sweet to enjoy with yogurt.

Central and Northern Greece is quite pretty. At a few spots, the big mountains and vast valleys looked like Colorado. In fact at one spot, if we didn’t know better, it seemed as if we were rounding the corner on 285 into South Park. We listened to another installment of Magic Tree House and lots of Rolling Stones.

Where our road trip takes us next, we’re not sure. Ioannina maybe. Or Evia. We’ll see.

Travels

Crete

Lots of famous Greeks hail from the Mediterranean’s 5th largest island: writer/philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, painter Domenico Theotokopoulos (El Greco), Greece’s premier statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, King Minos, and of course Zorba himself.

Crete is a beautiful, fascinating place.  We first visited in 2011, spending a week on the beach with a 20 month old Michael. It was the ten year anniversary of 9/11, which ended up being insignificant.  However, Tripoli had just fallen to rebel fighters and Gadaffi was in hiding.  The large NATO base on Crete had several fighter jets a day taking off and heading to Libya, a short 600 miles away.  Little Michael was thrilled to have so much plane action while he played in the sand.

Crete separates the Aegean from the Sea of Libya.  It was once the center of the Minoans, the earliest known civilization in Europe, who inhabited the island from about 2700 – 1400 BC.  King Minos was its ancient king, who ruled from his palace at Knossos, the (amazingly preserved) ruins of which lie in the central northern coast of the island. Minos is most infamous for demanding Athenian youths to feed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.  The Minotaur was half bull and half man, who met his end at the hands of Theseus.  It has been questioned if Minos was a real person instead of a mythological character, but there’s no real conclusive evidence.  “Minos” may have been a title like Caesar or Pharoah.

The Minoan civilization was discovered very recently — early 20th century.  They had a large navy and established a great deal of trade throughout the Aegean into the Cyclades islands, Egypt, Cyprus and Anatolia.  The civilization’s best art is preserved on Santorini before the volcano destroyed the island.  The Minoan civilization declined between 1400 and 1100 BC when the Myceneans came into power and took over the Minoans sea-based empire.

What makes Crete so nifty, in our opinion, is that it has its own culture.  It’s definitely Greek, but with an intensified spirit evidenced in its history and its food and drink. Just looking at the lists of famous Cretans tells you so.  The Cretan resistance in World War II performed an astounding number of feats, including the capture of a German general from right in the center of the Nazi occupation.  The famous Churchill quote, which goes something like, “we used to say Greeks fought like heroes, now let it be known that heroes fight like Greeks,” came from the Cretan warrior spirit known for generations, but shown to the modern world in the Second World War.

As an aside, if you’d like to learn more about the Cretan strength, endurance and nutrition, pick up a copy of Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall.

In addition to its razor-sharp mountains and numerous gorges, Crete boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean.  In January, we planned a trip there with our dear friends and Denver neighbors, the Lundstroms.  They arrived just as school ended in Athens and that night, we loaded 8 people and our car (packed with paddle boards and other beach equipment) onto the overnight ferry, arriving in Chania at 6 am on Saturday.

img_9756The owners of the house we rented were incredibly gracious and allowed us to check in (very) early: 7:30 am.  They met us there with warm bougatsa, fresh fruit and a shot of raki. Raki is tough any time, but 7 am sends you to the moon. I don’t remember why we didn’t nap that day … but instead we picked up Russell’s rental car, shopped for groceries, played ping pong, swam in the pool and headed to the Chania harbor that evening.  Chania is Crete’s second largest city.  It’s a lovely town with old Venetian walls and a beautiful lighthouse in the harbor.

img_7239We looked forward to their visit for months. Michael and Peter were thrilled to have friends from home and it was fun to see them pair off in different combinations for the week. Peter has always adored Max, the elder statesman of the kid group, and Sam and Michael are in the same grade and have an easy friendship.  This time, Michael and Max spent time together talking about & watching the World Cup, and one day Sam and Peter hunted for all kinds of sea creatures.  We had dog paddle races, surfed on the paddleboards on a windy afternoon, snorkled, boogie boarded, flossed, swam a lot and tried to make goats faint. Sam kept a list of all the different animals & creatures we saw.  One day, Lundstroms went to Knossos to see the palace and Fefeses hiked in a small gorge.  We got rained out; they didn’t … and were happy for the cloud cover.  That night we enjoyed homemade spaghetti thanks to Russell and a bottle of red wine thanks to our sweet hosts.

The palace of Knossos was the largest of its time and was the seat of power for the Minoan civilization. The main building covered three acres and when you include the out-buildings, it totals five acres. The palace had bathrooms, a drainage system, an enormous center staircase, a cult ritual room, 16 storage rooms and a theater for 400. 

img_9781Sam had a great idea to try different beaches and then on our last day go back to our favorite one.  In all, I think we did four different beaches in 6 days.  Midweek, we caravaned over the mountains to Elafonisi beach, ranked in the top ten worldwide.  Elafonisi has pink sand, black rocks, and bright blue shallow water.  Demetri and Max nicknamed it “Gucci Beach” because it was so … fancy. We swam and boarded and snorkeled for hours.  The beach we went back to was Stavros, famed for being the location shoot for Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn. We also swam at Marathi Beach and Loutraki Beach.  We ate lots of souvlaki and watermelon and consumed our fair share of apricots, cherries, coffee, raki, Pringles and cold Greek beer.  Demetri, Russell and Max had two sessions of “Death by Pushups” and “Death by Squats.”  Apparently neither was as fun as it sounds.

Our week together went too fast but it was so awesome. We ferried back to Athens Groundhog-Day style, arriving again at 6 am. The kids played with the castles and knights on the patio until it was time for them to depart.  I’m sure they arrived back in Germany with a lot of extra sand in their bag.

 

 

Greek life, Travels

May-hem, in the best way

The past 6 weeks have flown by frighteningly fast.  My friend Julie told me a new word to describe the end of the school year: May-hem.  We have a little June-hem in Athens as schools don’t let out until around mid-month.

We’ve had a fun, if fast, month and a half though.  At the end of Race2Adventure,  Carter and Mike joined Demetri for the Formula 1 race in Barcelona.  Later in May, Demetri headed to Nice for one of his top three bucket list items: a Formula 1 race in Monte Carlo.  He snuck onto a yacht and met a cornerback for the Chiefs.  Then he headed to Italy, toured 2 ferrari factories, bought some fantastic balsamic vinegar in Modena and watched wheels of parmigianno-reggiano get shined in Parma, where they play classical music so the cows don’t get stressed. The following weekend, Thodoris and Vassilis joined him in Mugello, Italy — hometown track for Valentino Rossi – for the MotoGP race.  They won a ride in the safety car and got to see the track.  While the dads and uncles were enjoying Bologna and Florence and a massive bistecca fiorentino, Anna and the kids and I spent the weekend together, first at Zappeio and the National Garden in downtown Athens, and then at a playground in Faliro right next to a burger place.  We had lots of ice cream that weekend … and met Captain America.

And, best of all, our friends who promised to visit have started to arrive. Mark and Christina came for a few days before their Mediterranean cruise, bringing a Costco double-pack of Cholula sauce for Demetri.  Then, Mike, Lori and Josh came to Athens for a few days pre-island tour.  We flossed at the Acropolis and SUPed along the Athens Riveria, and I had a run/walk partner for 4 mornings.  Then Jane, Kim, Nikki and Lucas also spent time in Athens before their week-long catamaran cruise in the islands. Today, Russell, Christine, Max and Sam come in by way of Germany, and we’ll all head to Crete for a week of paddleboarding and beach time.  And at the end of the month, Allison, Haley, Reeves and Ryan are coming for 4 days before their Italian holiday.

In between all that, Peter played a sheep in the year end school play, Michael performed a traditional Greek dance in the end of year school play and he was elected MVP for the basketball team yesterday. We had fun birthday parties for our classmates, a lovely fish lunch with Michael’s friend Tasos and his family: Katerina, Makis and brother Ares; lunch was a gorgeous halibut that Tasos’ Makis caught the previous afternoon.  There were two Naxos cheese and wine parties and a park play date with our fun, awesome neighbors Panayoti, Irini and little Anna, and Lionel Messi appeared on a bag of potato chips.

Last ride on the school bus tomorrow. Bring on summer.  Bittersweet for sure.

Photo collage of the May-June whirlwind below.

 

Greek life, Travels

Mycenae

My friend Roberta – we met in junior high soccer – came for a visit last week.  All by herself, which disappointed Michael and Peter since she and her husband have three fabulous daughters who both my boys adore.  Since Roberta had been to Athens before, we decided on a few ‘second visit’ things to do, like the Elias Lalaounis jewelry museum (a fave), and the Benizelos (Μπενιζελωσ — not to be confused with Venizelos) mansion, a quick trip to Nafplio, Epidaurus and Mycenae.

The Benizelos mansion is really neat.  Nestled in between shops and tavernas on Adrianou Street, it sits just in front of the Roman Agora.  Built in the 16th century, it’s the oldest surviving house in Athens.  It’s a typical urban nobility house from the Ottoman period. The upper floor is sort of a labyrinth made of timber.  The home’s most famous inhabitant was Revoula Benizelos, later martyred as St. Philothei, a woman who after being widowed very young, started a monastery that gave shelter, food and care to the poor and also provided refuge to slaves and Muslim women who had converted to Christianity. The Turks killed her for that in the late 1500s; she is one of the only saints to have been martyred during Ottoman rule.

Our next stop was Mycenae, home to the ancient civilization renowned for its technical advancements as well as artistic wealth — which played an important role in the development of classical Greece and its culture.  The ruins of this fortified citadel date back to 1600 BC and the most impressive element of Mycenae are its tombs, in which archaeologists found jewelry, weapons and tools, plus things that came from other parts of the world: ivory, tin, even lapis. The Myceneans were among the first to use bronze and it was here that the first pieces of the Greek language, preserved on Linear B tables, were discovered.  Mythology says Mycenae was founded by Perseus who employed the Cyclopes to build the city walls from rocks that no human could lift.  It’s also said to be the inspiration for Homer’s epic poem. Its most famous king was Agamemnon, who helped his brother Menelaus rescue Menelaus’ wife Helen, during the Trojan War (yes, that Helen).  Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra had two children, Orestes and Electra.  After Clytemnestra and her lover murdered Agamemnon in the bathtub, Electra and Orestes spent years working to avenge their father’s death.  I think I have this right.

Now, I knew this story from high school English class and the great play by Euripides.  In the 19th century, archaeologists found the bronze burial mask of King Agamemnon … and they excavated the bathtub he died in.  Turns out Agamemnon may not have been a fictional character at all.  You can find this mask in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

 

Travels

Mosques, fortresses and cathedrals

For the last 5 nights of our trip, we based ourselves in Madrid, wandering through the grand El Retiro Park, eating tapas and exploring the old part of the city. On our way from Seville, we hopped off the train in Cordoba in the pouring rain. We made our way to the Mezquita, Cordoba’s huge mosque-cathedral, which was built as a Visigoth Christian temple in the 6th century. With the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century, it was divided and used by both communities. By this time, Cordoba was the western Islamic capital. UNESCO calls the Mezquita “a testimony to the ancient alliance of art and faith.” Beautiful words that summarize it perfectly. The roof of this dazzling, enormous building is supported by 800+ columns, many of which were recycled from Roman and Visigoth buildings. In the 1500s, the mosque was destroyed to build a cathedral. We splurged on audio guides for the Mezquita mostly because they had a special kids’ tour. I listened to one kid segment about the mihrab and it was so well done. The adult version assumed the listener knows the Muslim faith — and I really don’t. I think the kids listened to almost all of the chapters before turning their audio guides into light sabers and walkie talkies.

Our next half-day trip was a 27 minute train ride to Segovia. In Roman times, it was a military base in need of water, so Trajan’s engineers pulled water 9 miles into town from a nearby river. This massive 2-level structure (2500 feet long; 118 arches) is dry-laid, which was as impressive then as now. Spaniards claim it could still work today. We walked from the aqueduct to the Plaza Mayor, the town center, which used to be the local bullfighting venue. Today it has a big market with the usual produce and the biggest olive and pickled vegetable stand I’ve ever seen.

From there we walked into the Segovia cathedral which stands high up from the plaza. It’s a beautiful building in the “flamboyant gothic” style and is Spain’s last major gothic building. The Alcázar (fortress) stands at the far end of town and looks like a fairy tale. In fact, it’s rumored to be the inspiration for the Disney castle.

And our final trip was 30 miles south of Madrid to Toledo, a medieval city that’s still inhabited, busy, communal – even though nothing modern has been built. In the 80s, the whole town was declared a UNESCO site. For several hundred years, Toledo was an important Roman transportation hub; the Visigoths took over when Rome fell, and then the Moors came in the 700s, and ruled until the Christians took over and made Toledo Spain’s political and religious capital until Charles V (or maybe Philip II?) moved the capital to Madrid in the 1600s. Spain was neutral during World War II, so didn’t get bombed out like the rest of Europe. Churches, castles, fortresses by and large are terrifically preserved.

Toledo has a gorgeous cathedral (the 4th largest in Europe), a very pretty, old synagogue, a beautiful monastery and a great Museum with beautiful grounds dedicated to El Greco.

It’s fascinating to learn how tolerant the Moors were of the people they ruled – and we found this in all three of these cities. Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together harmoniously in one community – eating the same food, dressing the same – the only difference was their religious traditions. That is until 1492 when Spain unified as a Catholic country and demanded the Moors and Jews convert or leave.

We have learned enough Greek to recognize it and know what people are saying. We saw a few Greek tourists in Spain – Peter was delighted with himself when he’d greet them with a “Γεια σας!” The Greeks were pleasantly surprised to get a nice, unexpected hello. And a Spanish woman today called him Guapo. He knew what it meant as the boys have been watching “Ferdinand” on every train ride.

Michael climbs everything in site. He did 100 laps around a the roots of a huge 300-year old magnolia and today scaled a wall and slid down a no parking sign pole. He’s also styling his hair. How did he get to 8 so fast?

Two weeks gone in the blink of an eye. Kinda like the last 10 months.

Travels

Seville

After the Americas were discovered, Seville was the economic center of the Spanish empire, because its protected up-river port had the monopoly on trade. These new riches helped Spanish culture flourish in the 17th century.

Most of the major sites are within walking distance of the city center. The enormous cathedral, originally a mosque built by the Almohads (Moors from Morocco) in the 12th century, is best viewed from a rooftop somewhere — while you get a sense of the size as you walk past it, seeing its top outline takes your breath away. It’s the third largest cathedral by footprint (1- St.Peter’s in Rome; 2-St. Paul’s in London) in Europe and the largest by volume. Its bell tower was originally a minaret; in the 1400s the Muslim ornaments were changed to Christian symbols.

We toured the Real Alcazar, the royal Palace, commissioned by Pedro I to be built within the palaces that were originally constructed by the Almohads. Pedro’s palace was completed in two years; later monarchs e.g., Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, added their own grand touches. It’s still used today when the Spanish royal family visits Seville. Water — fountains, ponds — is everywhere, symbolizing the greatest Muslim gift you can give. The bright tile work, carved ceilings and grand marble wall carvings are astounding. You don’t see this moorish influence anywhere else in Europe and it’s gorgeous. The grounds are also spectacular; some 5 acres of plants including a labyrinth, and several walking paths. We ran across two new packs of ducklings on our walk.

Seville’s main green area is the Parque Maria Luisa, formed by former palace grounds. We hung here for a lot of Sunday – along with thousands of joggers, bikers, scooters and a bunch of people who just finished some sort of race. We also caught some terrific flamenco in Plaza de Espana, a pretty tile-laden square in front of the old palace. Sunday night we went to a Corrida de Toros (a bullfight) — no doubt the most controversial tradition in Spain, but one very ingrained in Sevilla culture.

People go to Sevilla for the city vibe. Bizet’s Carmen was from here. Sevillans know how to have fun, as evidenced by the gazillions of girls’ weekends and bachelorette parties touring all the sites. Tapas are the only food game: eat one or two, have a beer and move on to the next spot. It’s simple food designed for quick stops. Lots of beef and pork, fried fish galore, and the tastiest spinach and garbanzo dish ever. We left Seville in the rain in search of the next mosque-cathedral just an hour north.