Sunny Sunday with Friends in Greece

Sunday morning in Voula came with plenty of sunshine and a sweet reunion with my best friend from college: my roommate of three years and sister-at-heart. It had been five years and two children since I had last seen her. My friend is one of the most loving beings I know, known also for her signature smile. It was the best feeling to see her again and spend a little time with her, now as responsible adults…

Her four little girls – three curly-haired like their momma, and one with straight black hair, like her daddy – greeted us in the church yard and swarmed as I gifted them with coloring books and colorful hair clips. Their brother wanted nothing to do with them, too busy burning energy by kicking a large yellow ball as hard as he could – and sometimes getting the ball stuck on top of the grapevine shading the benches around the church courtyard.

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After a while, we distributed the children to family to watch over them while we drove south of Voula, along the coast. We paused at Okeanis, a restaurant perched atop a beach with the same name. The drinks, as well as the conversation, were refreshing. The waters didn’t seem to be affected by the recent oil spill from a tanker in the area and the beach was abuzz with action. In the distance, a swarm of white sails like tiny sharks were following the instructions of the local sailing school.

 

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Refreshed by the drinks and the gentle breeze coming through the large open windows, we headed further down the coast to Aperanto Galazio, a seafood restaurant on Varkiza beach. We pulled in the sandy parking lot and walked a few steps to a waterfront table. The arugula salad we had was unlike any I had in the U.S. The roka leaves were large and deep green; their mild peppery taste was further augmented by the thinly sliced Parmesan cheese and nicely complemented by olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. The mandatory slices of ripe and juicy tomatoes fanned out to form a bright salad base.

But whenever by the sea, one must have seafood. I savored all that I could from a generous serving of pasta with muscles, octopus, and a giant prawn staring at me from the top of the heap. My husband didn’t say much as he cleaned out his plate of elbow macaroni with octopus, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Desert was Samali or Greek halva, a semolina-based sweet, toasted in oil and infused with sweet syrup, with delicate aromas of cinnamon and clove.

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After a while, we said good bye to our friends and headed to the Voula beach looking forward to a refreshing swim. We watched for oil before going in but couldn’t see any right away, so we immersed ourselves in the comforting waters of the Mediterranean, stepping gingerly over the slippery rocks lying on the bottom. When we came ashore, we figured out why the rocks were slippery: black tar was staining the soles of our feet… It seems that the oil had settled on the bottom of the sea. We tried in vain roughing our feet with sand. Then, I remembered the Dawn duck commercial! Didn’t rescuers use dish detergent to clean up the avian victims of oil spills? I told our host about it but she looked at me a little incredulously, as she hadn’t seen the commercial. Well, I am here to attest that the ad was correct: a drop of dish detergent did the trick and our feet were once again clean!

Next on the agenda was walk to Leoforos Vasileos Pavlou, a street closed off to cars and lined with restaurants and terraces, where everyone congregates for dinner, drinks, and to let their children play until late hours of the evening. But first, we stopped to admire the artwork of senior citizens in the area, who habitually get together to exhibit their crafts – not for profit but to share with the community. Our restaurant choice of the evening was Il Vero, an Italian affair, possibly because our friend is originally from Italy.

Il Vero menu

And when it comes to Italian food, pizza is a must. And, as our friend insisted, if you want il gusto vero (the true taste) of Italy, you must have the anchovies. So, we split the Napoletana (with anchovies, tomatoes, mozzarella, and a sprinkle of oregano) and Capricciosa (with tomato, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, and artichokes). On the side, we had a slaw salad with a green pepper dressing that was spicy just enough to awaken the taste buds. We relaxed into the evening with great conversations as we sipped on a chilled local white wine – the perfect ending to another day in Mediterranean Paradise…

Once Upon an Olive: Athens, Greece

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Six a.m. came early and with it our ride to the airport. We guzzled down just enough coffee to crack open our eyes and finish packing. The ride was smooth and we stopped a couple of times on our way to Otopeni, the main airport in Bucharest, Romania. The Greek welcome came in flight in the shape of a Melekouni sesame cookie, a traditional honey and sesame seed sweet bar, given in Rhodes at weddings or christenings.

 

The short flight from Bucharest to Athens landed around noon on a hot and steamy day. We paid the 6 euros for the bus ticket and embarked the X96 towards Pireus. At our stop, Nosokomio, we got off and proceeded to drag our roller bags down the noisy sidewalks towards my dearest friends’ home. The walk we now did 6 times, brings back good memories, almost like going home.

Our sweet friend was waiting for us with a large smile and warm embrace. The furry friends Rex and Bonnie were also glad to see us although they had just met us.

 

Our friends’ house is right across from the Mediterranean and on certain days, there is a fresh market right down the street. We didn’t want to miss out on the occasion so, after we dropped off the bags, we took a quick tour of the fresh market. The olives are my favorite: so many types and looking so amazing. We chatted with the local vendors – even if we didn’t speak Greek and they didn’t speak much English – and learned that the green olives are simply young olives, which turn darker as they ripen. I tasted some of each and triumphantly carried a bag of them home. The pomegranates were poised for a photo op and the vendor told me how to shoot their best angle: from above. He tossed a pomegranate to my husband as he wished us a good evening. What a warm welcome! I must learn some Greek…

 

As any true European welcome, food was on the agenda. Our Greek friends took us to George’s where the traditional Greek salad with a healthy helping of feta on top and a nice glass of red wine kick-started our dinner. We feasted on keftedakia with potatoes, eggplant spread, tzatziki, and steamed greens.

 

After a short walk, we rested at a café terrace with a café freddo and a healthy discussion about life.Freddo

The evening came with a live outdoors concert on the beach of Glyfada. The mayor of Glyfada reassured the audience that the recent oil spill from a nearby tanker didn’t affect the local waters. The concert went on past the time we left and our first day in Greece concluded with a refreshing shower and a much-needed long sleep.

Ciao, bella Italia! (Part 1: Rome, Orvieto, Florence)

Everyone should go to Italy at least once. I have always heard people singing its praises but until recently, I didn’t get around to visit and see for myself. So, in the fall of 2014, after a long and difficult year at work, my husband and I decided to take this long-awaited and well-deserved Italian vacation. We wanted to take a sample of the country, a bit of both the north and the south, scoping out places where we’d like to return and spend some more time.

A Taste of Italy: August 28-September 4, 2014

We flew from Knoxville to Atlanta and then to Rome at the end of August, which is the end of the high season in Europe. The weather is still great but the crowds are thinning out, as everyone is going home and getting ready to go back to work or get the kids back to school.

ROMA (ROME) – arrival

From the Fiumicino airport, we took a bus to go to the train station. The magnificent Coliseum appeared out of nowhere as our bus zoomed around the roundabout and sped along towards the Termini.

We followed our plan of leaving our two large suitcases at the station and retrieving them on our way out, and quickly repacked our bags. David, my husband, had read that it was € 6 per day, so one week would have been reasonable. However, the reality was: for each piece of baggage it was € 6 for the first 5 hours, and then € 0.90/hour for the next 7 hours, and € 0.40 for every additional hour after that…no, grazie.

The train station reminded me a lot of the Bucharest North Station but that certainly didn’t help me getting around…. We were completely lost when it came to what train to catch and where to find information. I blamed it on the lack of sleep – crying baby on the plane, super-tight and uncomfortable seats – funny how planes now have all the electronic bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi connection above 10,000 feet but you can’t really recline your seat and you have to pay $ 65 to get a Preferred seat (gaining you a whopping 4 additional inches of space…) – ridiculous. But I digress. We bought tickets and then ran around the station, trying to find the correct line only to get back to where we started and wave our train good bye…. We spent somewhere between one and two more hours trying to switch our tickets. Then we made sure we read the panels located at the end of the platforms for the correct line.

While we were waiting, a group of Italian policemen asked us a favor; there was a woman who needed to get on our train and she needed help. The three policemen kept explaining to her how to get to her destination but she kept forgetting and asking over and over again. My husband seized the occasion and asked one of them to help us call the B&B in Orvieto and let them know we were arriving late. One of the policemen was kind enough to let David use his cell phone (we couldn’t figure out the calling card situation) and chatted a while with David, expressing his desire to someday visit Philadelphia and watch a WWE fight. Meanwhile, a group of seemingly intoxicated men came by, drinking from a large bottle of wine or some other lightly colored liquid. One of the policemen thought about approaching the group but decided against it. The group walked anyway. The policemen seemed very nice and a bit laid back.

ORVIETO

In Orvieto, we dragged our luggage up the street, loudly, on the cobblestone street to our lovely and quiet B&B. Sant’Angelo 42 (bborvieto.com) was as advertised: charming, quiet, and welcoming. Giulia, our host, prepared a delicious breakfast for us, complete with home-made marmalade and wonderful coffee. It was interesting to see the Etruscan ruins beneath the B&B’s floor, right at the entrance, as a welcome from history.

So, after a long trip and a rough beginning, we adjusted to being on vacation and to Italy. We enjoyed the hill-top small town and the beautiful yet still very hot late August weather. We walked around a lot and struggled to adjust to the time difference. I loved hearing (and understanding) the languages around me, including Italian. As bad as my Italian was, the locals still understood it better than they did English. Some waiters seemed intimidated if approached in English and some avoided us. They didn’t seem as accommodating as in Greece or Spain but maybe it was just an outlier event.

We learned the natural way of things in Orvieto: breakfast, walking/shopping, a nice siesta between 1 and 3 p.m., more walking and shopping between 3 and 8 p.m., followed by dinner between 8 and 10 p.m. dinner (people dress up for dinner), and a late night gelato, socializing, and strolling along the cobblestone streets, under the moonlight.

I had to give in and shop at one of the local ceramics store. I loved the pretty yellow and blue hand-painted pottery and the store owner was very nice. Some of the pottery was meant for gifts, so I didn’t have that much buyer’s remorse.

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During one of our evening strolls, we witnessed some of the Italian passion: tears from girls fighting with their boyfriends, passionate kissing in the middle of the sidewalk, fights between an unhappy customer and the funicolare ticket sellers, and one overheard by the entire town of Orvieto through an open window – part of the charm.

Orvieto was a good base for us for a day trip to Firenze (about two hours by train) but we underestimated how late we would return and failed to consider that the funicolare would be closed. We wanted to walk up the hill to our B&B but we were informed that it was a 20 km walk, so we decided that waiting 30 min. for the 10:20 p.m. bus was a better choice than walking in the dark for 10 miles. We thought that most places stayed open until midnight so we set out to find something to eat. We didn’t have much luck – apparently, most places want to close down after 11 p.m. and two places we tried basically ignored us…. We finally found a busy bar (across from the pottery shop) and the terrace was full, as everyone was watching the soccer match (gioco del calico) on TV. David was about to become the Hunger Hulk, so I pulled out my emergency Italian. I told one of the waiters Voremos mangiare qualcosa (not too far from the correct vogliamo mangiare qualcosa). He said Certo but that the only space they had was inside. It turned out that the inside space was plentiful and we had it all to ourselves. We had a pizza Capriciosa, with cheese, ham, sausage, radicchio, and topped with an over-easy egg. We also had some red wine and agua naturale (not frizzata). Of course, like in other European countries, people like to stay and talk for hours instead of rushing through a meal, getting the check, and leaving. So the waiter took his time checking back with us but he was more than nice and accommodating. We finally left around 2 a.m. We slept in on Saturday, had a cappuccino, and an espresso with two pasti and took it easy during the rest of the day.

Cappuccinos and pasti (pastries) in Orvieto were great! So was the thin crust pizza with lots of creative toppings. The Bellini I had was simple, yet delicious: Prosecco and fresh peach juice. We had some Orvieto area wines and we enjoyed them. I prefer red wines usually but I found the white wine I tasted to be delicious and better than the area reds: it was light and buttery, with a smooth finish. Chianti area is not far from Orvieto (about two hours north, with Montepulciano wine area within an hour’s train ride). There is a lot left to see in Orvieto. It seems like every time we turned on a different little street, we discovered yet another thing, a great panorama or a historic dwelling.

I think that it’s definitely worth going back to the area and maybe renting a car, exploring the wine country and Orvieto in more details. In between Montepulciano and Orvieto, Castiglione del Lago looked like a place I might want to visit too.

FIRENZE (FLORENCE)

One day in Florence is hardly enough time…. So we wanted to see Il Duomo. Getting tickets was a more complicated endeavor than it should have been. We walked to the monument but couldn’t find the ticket place nearby; we walked back to the church across from the railway station in hopes of finding it, only to turn around and finally find the place on a side street before reaching Il Duomo plaza. The tickets were € 10 each. We walked over to Il Duomo and stood in line for maybe one hour. Finally, we were moving and going inside. There were two ticket scanners and when I tried scanning mine, it didn’t work. Not to hold up the line any further, I told the guard that the ticket office must have given us the wrong tickets and that we’d be right back after we went to set them straight. Back at the side-street ticket office, we showed the attendants our “bad tickets” and had another precious moment when the guy told us with an amused but benevolent smile on his face that we were trying to use Umbria bus tickets…. Somehow, I had grabbed the wrong tickets from my small but sneaky purse. Oops – scusa, colpa mia…. We walked back to Il Duomo and made it inside. The cool air was a welcome respite before climbing to the top. The ascent was long and steep – I was the color of Pomodoro by the time we emerged from the narrow and twisted staircase onto the rooftop – but it was totally worth it! The view was amazing and gratifying!

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After such great turmoil and effort, we were famished. We didn’t have a lot of time before catching the train back to Orvieto, so we looked around nearby for a casual bite. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk very far to find All’Antico Vinaio, and have the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever tasted – EVER! I had freshly baked bread with cured wild boar meat, artichoke spread, pecorino cheese, roasted red peppers, and greens. For € 2, we helped ourselves to some wine. We sat on a bench across from the small place where they made the sandwiches and savored the taste of Italy.

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(photo above courtesy of All’Antico Vinaio)

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[pause to reminisce; mouth watering…. OK, I’m back]

Next, we saw Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo for a nice overview of the città.

Back at the train station – lesson learned earlier – we made sure to pay attention to the train track number, which of course, changed at the last minute…. Luckily, David noticed the switch, which was only to the adjacent track, and we headed back to Orvieto.

…to be continued (next, Verona, Venezia, and more)

Beaufort, SC: a cute little town by the sea

In May 2015, we got away for a quick trip to the beach. I have heard about Beaufort, SC from HGTV, I believe, and then I have read about it in Coastal Living. It was described as a quaint little artist town by the water, so I really wanted to check it out. We always go to Charleston but this time we ventured out about an hour and a half to check things out. Beaufort was indeed a cute little town. We went to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and had lunch at Plums restaurant. I tried the soft-shell crab sandwich – the special – and I didn’t really like it. The shell was not as soft as I would have expected it to be but the drinks and the view were great. We walked about, in search of the haunted Castle, a 19th century classic house. Get the story from the locals: www.beaufortonline.com/the-castle-in-beaufort-sc.

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Carriage stepping stone

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Two dogs, one real, and one ceramic.