Hello again, all you Cretan Chronicle followers. We’re back in Colorado and I’m happy to announce my new website: http://www.melanieacrane.com. See you there!
Hello again, all you Cretan Chronicle followers. We’re back in Colorado and I’m happy to announce my new website: http://www.melanieacrane.com. See you there!
It seems appropriate that my 100th blog for Cretan Chronicles is also my last. Even as I write this, we have departed the island and are journeying across America to our home in Evergreen, Colorado.
I can’t even express the mixed emotions I feel as I think about our five years living on Crete and the realization that we won’t be returning, except for the few future visits we hope to accomplish.
My last day on Crete I wrote this journal entry:
July 30, 2014 When I look at photos of Kai and the rest of family and friends in Colorado, I know it’s time to return to the States and I am excited to see what God has planned for us there. But right now, as I look over the calm blue morning sea of Crete and take in the sounds of cicada’s songs and the lilt of Greek conversation around me, I feel a tug at my heart that feels like homesickness. I realize that in opening my heart to a new culture, I have also opened myself to the vulnerability of heartache. I have let Crete and the people here get under my skin and it all has become a part of me, shaping and changing me in ways I never imagined. So, it’s not without an ache of loss that I think about leaving this place. God has bless us immeasurably in our experience here especially with good friends (many of whom have moved on.) But I know that He has prepared us, fashioned us, tested us and refined us in this place of extreme harshness and beauty for His purposes.
What have I learned from my five years living in Crete? From the simple and curious to the profound and serious:
1. There is power in simplicity; freedom in the unencumbered; joy in living for each moment; peace in a slower pace.
2. There’s always time to visit a friend or extend kindness to a stranger.
3. Eat REAL food – if it’s wrapped in plastic or boxed in cardboard, avoid it.
4. Organized chaos works as long as everyone knows and abides by the rules. Case in point – driving the streets of Chania.
5. Be prepared to laugh a lot at yourself if you’re brave enough to try to converse in Greek.
6. America is a great country but it could (and should) humble itself and learn from other cultures.
7. The only true Christian nation is not identified within borders, but rather by the diverse community of rag-tag believers around the world who simply desire to follow Christ and belong to God’s Kingdom.
8. There is a reluctant beauty in the hard places.
9. I’m stronger than I thought I was but the more I learn, I realize, the less I know.
When we accepted this assignment with the US Navy at Souda Bay, Crete, we thought it was a two year stint. Sure, we thought, two years is just about perfect. Any longer might be a problem. So, we ventured ahead with a prayer on our lips for two things in particular…1. travel adventures and 2. a deeper faith. Watch out what you pray for. Seems we got what we asked for but it took longer than we expected. Now we look back and realize that two years would have cut us way short of the amazing blessings God had in store for us. We think about all we would have missed if we had left three years earlier. But we also think about what we missed back home in America during those last three years. Bottom line, what we have discovered is that you can’t live your life to the fullest if you are paralyzed by the past or fearful of the future. All any of us have is this moment right now and we are charged with living in this moment with wisdom and gratitude. What a pity to miss the beauty of the here and now because we are blinded by the “if only’s” or afraid of the “what if’s.” So, with that in mind, we forge ahead with great expectations of the next adventure, deep gratitude for the dear friendships left behind and a fresh wonder of the beauty in each moment. Who knows? Maybe the next blog will be “Colorado Chronicles??”
Happy trails, Kalo Taxidi and God bless,
Melanie and Richard
As I look back on the five years we’ve lived here, I realize that this comfortable feeling I have is because I’m settled in here and have allowed this place to get under my skin. This feels like a home away from home to me. Sure, I’ll never be Greek, I’m an American, but somehow I’ve managed to ease into the interesting lifestyle of Crete which is characterized by a slow, easy pace punctuated by bouts of extreme chaos. Hania, Crete will always have a special place in my heart mostly because of the people that have colored my experience here. Besides our many dear friends from numerous cultures, we have surrounded ourselves with some of the “best of the best” service people. You know how it is when you face a big move and panic because you just realized you can’t take your favorite hairdresser, mechanic or doctor with you? That’s where I’m at, and so, with a grateful heart I want to give a shout out to these wonderful people who started out as favorite artisans/merchants and ended up as friends because of their generosity and helpfulness. We’ll miss you!
Martina at Elke’s hair salon – I’ve NEVER had a better haircut or so much fun getting to know my hairdresser. Can you fit in my suitcase?
George at Blue Planet Bikes in Kounipidiana – thanks for keeping us rolling and for sharing your bicycle expertise and enthusiasm with us.
The Traxalakis family baristas at our favorite “Feel Good” coffee cafe in Souda Bay – great service, great coffee, great, BIG smiles! I wonder what else they put in their coffee because they’re always so HAPPY…and it’s contagious.
Margarita and Mixalis Kerdelas at Margaritas Shop in Chania – we love visiting you in your shop over a cup of tea or raki. Your talented artistry is second only to your hospitality and friendship.
Eleni, the “modestra” (seamstress) – So much love sewn into every one of her beautiful creations, and always a sweet smile to match her sweet spirit.
Angeliki – the long, relaxing, amazing pedicures – WOW, just WOW.
Eletherias, the cobbler in leather alley in old Hania – he is almost as old as the city but still working hard at making boots and shoes that will last long after he’s gone.
Theodoris, the carpenter extraordinaire – your impeccable style and attention to detail make you a artist to be admired.
Stavros, Costas and staff – Vets in Kounipidiana – From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for all you do for the animals on Crete; Both pets and strays are treated with respect and care, which is an admirable feat considering the number of ferrel cats and abandoned dogs on this island.
Petros – the “Eye Guy” in Kounipidiana. Professional, friendly and so accommodating. He always goes the extra mile in customer satisfaction.
Maria and family at the Sunset taverna in Tersanas – I will SOOO miss our meals of mushroom pie and Xarma beer under the grapevines.
Manto, the beautiful and talented artist/hotelier in Paleohora. A visit to our favorite beach town in all of Crete was always highlighted by your hospitality and your smile.
Babis, the “sweetest man in all of Crete” and the extraordinary creator and host of Villa Kerasia, our favorite B&B – elegant charm and THE best place for R&R on the island.
Thank you all for the years of service and your smiles of friendship! And on those days when you feel like you’re going to melt from the heat of summer and you need a quick getaway, grab a cold frappe, sit back and enjoy these photos of your beautiful island in the winter. Click on the photo to make it bigger….Feeling cooler already…
Warm regards, Melanie and Richard
“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”–Giuseppe Verdi (Italian composer)
LAKE COMO, ITALY
The clock is ticking and as we anticipated our departure date of July 31st from Crete, we decided to squeeze in one more short European travel adventure. The pressing dilemma – where to go???? We always talked about returning to Croatia for a summer biking excursion or to Isreal for a tour of the Holy Land but we only had five days and needed to relax. Eventually those nominations lost to the magnetic pull of northern Italy. Not only is it beautiful and scenic (and delicious,) but it was a great opportunity to visit some good friends in Vicenza. We squeezed every last drop of fun and relaxation out of every minute.
When we arrived in Bergamo/Milan airport we took a train to the eastern leg of Lake Como. (Note re: Italian train travel – expect the unexpected, the unpredicted and the miscommunicated – enough said.) Arriving in the little village of Abbadia Lariana on the lake in the late afternoon was a huge reminder that we’d left the heat of Greece behind. The moist chill off the lake was enough to cause us to be thankful that we remembered our jackets. First stop off the train – a local cafe for a good strong cup of Italian espresso which sweetened our mood and made the train mishap a distant memory. We settled into our lakeside B&B (Le Colombine) and put on our walking shoes to trek the short walk to the next village on the lake – Mandello.
Stopping by a local bakery/market, we stocked up on dinner – breadsticks, cheese, and fruit. We topped it off with a bottle of wine from a local cafe and set up our picnic on a waterfront park bench. Afterwards, a short ferry ride back to Abbadia under the setting sun was magic.
The next day we awoke to sunny skies and significantly warmer temperatures – perfect for our full day of boating, walking and sightseeing this area of the lake. First stop, Bellagio. A beautiful city on the lake crowned by palaces and gardens. No wonder so many tourists flock here – that, and the hopes of a George Clooney sighting – none today for us, but plenty of other attractions to see.
We walked the beautiful gardens of Villa Melzi, window-shopped the pricey tourist area, and enjoyed people watching. But our favorite stop of the day was the town of Varenna, across the lake from Bellagio. We preferred the more laid back local feel of this historical city and it was refreshing to leave the crowds of Bellagio behind to enjoy our pizza in the Piazza San Giorgio before walking the beautiful gardens of Villa Monestero.
We liked Varenna so much that we scrapped the plans to visit anywhere else and spent the rest of our day and into the evening in this lovely town, walking, talking, breathing in the essence of old Italy.
The first thing I noticed about old Bergamo (Citta Alta – upper city) as we exited the funicular railcar was that it is so tight it’s almost impossible to get a photograph of anything bigger than a shop door. With the exception of a large piazza and vistas from the Fortezza on the hill, most of Bergamo is squashed into tiny alley ways, proud but tired old buildings and cobblestoned pathways. Of course this only adds to its charm and we were enchanted by the this medieval city immediately.
Bergamo is a hill city typical of northern Italy that has spread from its middle slopes upwards and downwardsof levels terraced on a hill. The lower city Citta Bassa is the thriving bustling modern Italian city with an airport and train station. The Citta Alta above the new city is accessible by car, bus, foot or funicular and this is where the old historic city sits and offers most of Bergamo’s interesting sights.
Still another funicular ride (or walk) took us up to the San Viglio Castello. Not much to see here, hence the quiet lack of tourists but it does offer a tremendous view over the city.
An afternoon in Bergamo left us wanting more but we had a train to catch to Vicenza so we headed out in a rainstorm squeezing ourselves under one cheap umbrella purchased hurriedly from a street vendor.
Verona is a quintessential romantic Italian city – and not just because it is the home of the two most famous star-crossed lovers in history. Sure, the big tourist draw is Juliet’s balcony over which she sighed, “Romeo, O Romeo…” which is tucked back into a small courtyard packed with people, vendors and the acclaimed wall of “lover’s locks”. But Verona’s charm extends throughout this old city divided by the Adigi River and connected by picturesque bridges reminiscent of a mini Florence. The small cobbled streets, ancient walls, Venetian and Roman ruins, churches, courtyards, monuments and the remarkable Arena Roman Amphitheater are all a part of Verona’s history and acclaim to fame.
We particularly enjoyed Verona because we experienced it with some good friends from America who were living in Vicenza. We spent a day wandering around the streets together, taking in all the sights, sounds and, of course the tastes of Italy.
The Peloponnese is a leaf shaped peninsula hanging off the southwest coast of mainland Greece and is famous not only for many archeological remnants of a history that rivals Crete’s Minoan ages, but for its natural beauty from mountain tops to lush valleys to pristine waters. We had always been told that the Peloponnese was one of the most beautiful parts of Greece so we checked it out for ourselves in May of this year. Packing up the bicycles on our car, we departed on the ferry from Kissamos port in western Crete and arrived 8 hours later in the old port of Gytheio on the Peloponnese. It was an easy drive to our first destination, Monemvasia, a medieval fortified town built on the lower and upper sites of the huge rock that juts out of the sea off the coast.
As we rounded the corner and Monemvasia came into view it was easy to see why this place was nicknamed, “The Gibraltor of Greece.” This giant rock formation was severed from the mainland by an earthquake in 375 AD and remained an island until a causeway was built in the 6th century. In its prime (15th century) it was home to 50,000 and was an autonomous city-state with a lower town (working folks) and an upper town (aristocracy). Today, the lower town is restored and within the walls of the castle are quaint cobbled streets winding around to small homes, pristine churches, Venetian architecture marked by the famous St. Mark’s lion emblem, surprising views and hospitable shopowners.
The upper town is in ruin except for the beautiful Agia Sofia (13th century) but sadly the ascending path up to the town was closed due to restoration purposes. Our decision to stay at a small hotel on the mainland was a good one as we had a knock-out view of ‘the Rock” from our balcony over the sea (Hotel Pramataris). In the morning, we rode our bikes across the causeway to the West gate entrance where we parked them and continued on foot into the fortress walls. We spent most of the day snooping around old Monemvasia, stopping at the museum, chatting with the locals, perusing through the little shops and finally enjoying a fresh fish dinner at a terraced taverna called Matoula.
Originally, the first capital of modern Greece, Nafplio is now a popular destination for visitors to the Peloponnese as well as Athenians looking for an easy weekend excursion away from the big city. The charming and busy old town with a spectacular waterfront has so much to offer it’s easy to see why so many people who have been here refer to it with a dreamy smile on their faces…”Ahh, Nafplio…magical!”
The medieval town was protected by three fortresses, the Bourtzi, a pint-sized castle in the middle of the harbor, the Akronafplia (oldest part of the city) and the impressive Palamidi fortress which crowns the cliffs above Nafplio and dominates the city.
The last two fortresses are both are accessible by car but more fun on foot or bicycle. We headed out on our bikes soon after we checked into our B&B (Andromeda Pension) which was conviently located in the old town two blocks from the main square. The ride up to Akronafplia was unfortunately spoiled by a monstrosity of poor taste – an abandoned old 60’s style hotel built by the Greek government during the dictatorship. But turning a blind eye to this graffiti-covered weed-infested concrete beast , we continued peddling up and were rewarded with stellar views over the city and the Argos bay. The view here was rivaled easily by the other famous fortress and the highest point in Nafplio, the Palamidi Fortress which was a huge Venetian citadel housing seven self-sufficient forts built in the early 18th century. Energetic walkers can access the fortress by trudging up the 999 stone steps on the west side but we defaulted to biking the ascent – still quite a workout.
Another surprising discovery was the well-used path that skirted along the coast around the base of the Palamidi fortress and ended at the expansive yet secluded beach of Karathona. It was a beautiful 4K late afternoon ride with the waning sun reflecting low over the sea on our right and the high cliffs of Palamidi glowing above us over our left shoulders. Couples and families were out enjoying their “volta” (afternoon walk) sharing this scenic path with a few joggers and bikers.
The rest of our visit in Nafplio was spent wandering around the old city, dropping in on museums, engaging in many conversations with the hospitable locals, roaming around the busy Saturday farmer’s market, sharing numerous gelatos and cappuccinos, indulging in fresh fish and cold beer every night, and riding our bikes wherever we could find a good pathway.
An easy 45 minute drive east from Nafplio took us to the archeological site of Epidavros, a therapeutic and religious center of the ancient world (6th century BC) mostly famous for its magnificent theater. Renown for its near-perfect acoustics, it is still used today for music and theater productions including the annual summer festival of ancient Greek drama. We visited this magical site in the cool of the late afternoon. A couple of small school groups hastily (and loudly) blew through finally leaving us with a peaceful silence that was permeated occasionally by the sounds of the birds and breeze playing in the expansive space of the amphitheater. It’s easy to feel very small in a place like this.
Our last night in Nafplio we did our “volta” at a relaxed pace around the marble paved waterside promenade and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Nafplio on a summer evening.
We ended up at a the Noufara Taverna in the bustling, marble paved Syntagma Square and watch the night’s activities unfold over a great salad and pizza – magical!
HOPSCOTCHING TO ATHENS
Our overnight ferry from Pireas Port in Athens didn’t depart until 9pm on Sunday so we had all day to wiggle our way north from Nafplio and visit the many sites of interest along the way. First stop – ancient Mycenae, home of the renown “Cyclopean” walls. The Mycenaean civilization dominated Greece during the late Bronze age (1700-1100 BC) and this particular settlement boasts walls made of huge stones that encircle an enormous hilltop city of palaces, treasures and tombs for the ruling class.
2nd stop: Nemea, home to arguably the best wine region in Greece nestled in a lush green valley with a surprising ancient sentry.
3rd stop: Ancient Corinth, a vast Roman city which enjoyed prosperity (and a reputation for the sins of licentious living) as a trading port providing the shortest route from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy. This site was all but deserted when we arrived and as we walked around the ancient stones and columns it seemed to be a sleeping giant now forgotten by the archeological community.
But the lack of crowds was pleasing and we enjoyed imagining St Paul walking the streets, working with his friends and preaching every Sabbath at the meeting place. It was here that he wrote the epistle to the Romans, founded the Corinthian church and was hauled into the court to defend himself and the gospel he preached (Acts 18:1-17).
Last stop: the Corinthian Canal, a deep cut through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth that once connected the Peloponnese with mainland Greece. Construction of this canal actually was started by Emperor Nero but was not completed until around 1893. Four miles long and 26 feet in depth, it now serves as a passageway connecting the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea as well as a hot spot for bungee bridge jumpers.
We boarded the ferry in Pireas and settled into our cabin about 9pm. It wasn’t long before the travel exhaustion, the smooth sailing and the growling lull of the boat engines took effect and we slept soundly until our morning docking at Souda Bay in Crete.
The months of March and April flew by in a whirl of nightmarish activity. I really debated as to whether or not share the last two months on my blog. I mean, this is really close to my heart and home. Cretan Chronicles started out as a personal archive for family/friends to share our experiences during this great adventure of living abroad. It quickly morphed into a travel/food/adventure/entertainment blog with a touch of whimsy and curious musings. But, in between those moments of blogging interest, the unexpected happens, and that is truly the stuff of life. So in an effort to keep it real, I venture ahead to share my experience in hopes that you will gain some insight, encouragement and hope.
Spending a month in a Pediatric ICU with a critically ill/injured baby will change your life forever. Emotions are all over the map from the heartbreak of anguishing moments to the heartwarming acts of kindness. Both can bring the strongest of men to their knees and the hardest of hearts to tears. In a word – overwhelming. On March 4th, my sweet, 9 month old grandson was suddenly and without provocation, attacked by the family dog. He was air-lifted to Children’s Hospital but due to the loss of blood and serious injury especially to his skull, he was not expected to live. It was a horrific event no one could have imagined especially since this particular dog was so loving and protective of his family.
We braced ourselves for the worst, but as the next hours went by, we began to witness the first of many miracles to come. Fast forward, two months…After eight brain and plastic surgeries, Kai has been moved from ICU into his room on the rehab floor where a team of therapists work diligently with his parents to maximize the healing of his brain with activities and manipulations that will retrain him and hopefully stimulate new pathways around the damaged areas of his brain. He is doing remarkably well and has been deemed the title of “miracle baby” in the hospital. If you are a praying man/woman, we would so appreciate your prayers for this little man and his parents. He is a strong and brave little soldier and is an inspiration for us all. He has a long journey ahead of him but we have seen so much evidence of God’s hand on Kai and know that He has big plans for him.
I’m now back in Crete, daily phoning or Skyping family at the hospital and wishing I could be home in Colorado now more than ever. I absolutely LOVE traveling and hope to continue to satisfy my wanderlust, but when things like this happen, you begin to put things into perspective. It’s time to go home and be with those people who bring such joy into my life and be a source of encouragement and comfort to them in return. As we wind things down here in Crete, I realize that there will be many items on my bucket list that will have to wait. In the meantime, we still have a couple of more months to revel in those moments of goodness that come when you find some unexpected pleasure in meeting new people in new lands as well as appreciating old friends and finding comfort in the familiar places.
A vacation on an island? In the Mediterranean? In the winter?? Yes, yes, and YES. Although it’s probably not for you if you just want to lie on a hot beach or lounge by a swimming pool the whole time. Or if you love crowds, lots of action and nightclubs full of partying patrons, then sizzling summer is the time to visit Crete. The summer heat is perfect for indulging in anything that involves activities in or on the water and you won’t want to venture too far away from it. But as beautiful the water is, there is so much more just beyond the beaches and the time to discover these things is during the off-season.
If you’re looking for a chance to really get to know the island, explore, taste and experience at a leisurely, relaxed and deliciously sublime pace, then make your reservations for November through May. With the cooler temps and fewer visitors, the island breathes with a different rhythm and a more interesting medley of colors, sounds and scents.
When a winter storm sets down over the island it usually brings violent winds, sideways rain and dramatic lightning but the storms are short-lived and reap the most amazing views of snow-covered mountains, double rainbows over the sea and a crashing symphony of chaotic surf. And when the sun reappears, it’s the perfect time to get out and hike, bike, camp or beach-comb.
One of our favorite biking areas is around the area of Stylos, a little village located just east of Hania near the popular beach resorts of Kalives and Almyrides. We usually park at a friend’s farm and bike on a secluded dirt road that follows the river and weaves in and out of orange and olive groves. Taking the paved road also leads us on a hilly ascent to out of the way villages above the coast and we always marvel at how much more we see and experience on the saddle of a bicycle as opposed to the seat of a car.
There are so many amazing hikes on this island it’s hard to know where to begin. Our favorites include the day hikes of Irini Gorge and the ridge above Meskla. For shorter versions with different sights we like the area around ancient Polyrinia and the monastery hikes to Agia Kyriaki or Agia Gouverneto.
Camping on an empty beach is pure magic and this year we ventured west with friends to Falasarna for a short overnight camp. We shared our site with a friendly cat, set up two small tents and enjoyed a quick dinner while watching the sunset over the water. Later that evening, with the campfire crackling in front of us and the waves gently breaking behind us, we stayed up much later than anticipated. How do you tear yourself away from those moments?! The next morning we rose early to get some nice photos before packing up and leaving nothing behind except our footprints.
Simply put, Crete is an island with so many diverse attractions, it’s a shame that most visitors don’t venture any farther than the nearest beach bar in the summer and don’t even think of coming to Crete in the off-season.
But my favorite time of year is when the bright green clover carpets the landscape and the wild thyme blooms. The herds of sheep and goats provide a constant lullaby of tinkling bells and sad bleating. The skies are painted with storm clouds and rainbows. The empty beaches sport virgin sands and collections of shells washed up from the recent storm. These things and a bottle of good wine or hot cocoa shared between friends in front of a warm fire makes you believe that there’s nothing “off” about the off-season on Crete.
By all means, when you come to Greece, go to Athens. The Acropolis and its state-of-the-art museum is a must-see. Walk the old Plaka area, visit the quaint and quirky shops and indulge in the excellent cuisine. That should take a day… or two at the most, then get out of the city and breathe! Unfortunately, Athens is one of the most polluted, dirty cities in Europe and even the Greeks will tell you apologetically, that Athens is not a city to linger in too long. Instead, head north into the heart of Greece. There are little villages still steeped in traditional ways and hospitality, stunning landscapes of mountains and valleys and sea, and the interesting and vibrant city of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, with an expansive seafront promenade and everything a city has to offer.
Like any city, Thessaloniki has its industrial, seedy side, but the old city is a representation of a place where the old meets the new with surprising success. It is a city trying to come of age with a splendid mix of Greek tradition and European style after a stormy history of foreign occupation, war and tragedy. As recent as the last 100 years, Thessaloniki was plummeted into an era of World Wars, German occupation, Jewish ethnic cleansing, a massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey and the Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 which destroyed much of the city and left a quarter of the population homeless and unemployed. And while the city hasn’t been immune to the effects of the present financial crisis, Thessaloniki is a testimony to the resilience of the Greek culture.
On our recent visit there, we found some of the most stunning Greek Orthodox churches, old Roman ruins, traditional Macedonian architecture, Ottoman monuments and a street market (Modiano Market) dating back to the early 1900’s and still cranking out goods and fresh produce. The landmark monument of Thessaloniki is the White Tower and it is a perfect first stop on the city’s tour as it houses an excellent museum with fascinating information and exhibits depicting the colorful history of Thessaloniki. There is an area once famous for its tailor and seamstress businesses and today there are still remnants of these fine establishments. The old Jewish quarter with its narrow, cobbled streets and modest living quarters is a quiet testimony to an age gone by.
But turn the corner and you’ll find artsy cosmopolitan stores and multinational cafes buzzing with the day’s activity, brightly lit and surprisingly trendy. A perfect example of Greek tradition with a European flair is the cafe, MIA FETA – a feta-tasting bar complete with a plethora of olive oil dips and pairing wines. Brilliant!
Not far from the central Aristotelous Square is a very popular deli/bakery called simply, BLÉ. The mouthwatering display of breads and sweets takes confectionary art to a whole new level. We happened upon this haven of tasty temptation after an awesome lunch at an Italian restaurant with a french name, TRE MARIE, very popular with the locals for good reason. After much deliberation (“No, we couldn’t possibly…No, we really shouldn’t….; Yes, we MUST. We’re HERE after all!…”) we decided to split (wisely) the perfect chocolate soufflé – warm and slightly crispy on the outside with a gooey flow of dark chocolate lava on the inside. I wanted to take a photo but neither one of us wanted to stop indulging long enough to snap a picture.
Our B&B (COLORS CENTRAL) was located in the funky and hip urban area of Thessaloniki called Ladadika. This area was electric with late night energy (thank goodness for the “Sleep Bug” app) and there is always something to do, see, eat, experience here. On our arrival, we ate in typical Greek fashion at 11pm and the place was just warming up. We discovered that probably the only time this area sleeps is on Sunday mornings.
We finished off our trip by renting a car and heading further south towards the city of Katerini and Mt. Olympus. The clouds hung low in the sky and as we worked our way up the Mt. Olympus road we entered into a dense heavy fog and it became increasingly difficult to see even the road in front of us. We stopped to turn around but went through the same gyrations as before (“No, we couldn’t possibly…No, we really shouldn’t continue on…Yes, we MUST. We’re HERE after all!) So, forging on ahead, we turned a few more blind corners and suddenly burst through the top of the cloud and into clear skies.
Our determination was rewarded with a great hot meal at the trailhead taverna followed by a nice hike up onto the slopes of Mt. Olympus – wonderfully reminiscent of our home state of Colorado.
As we headed down to sea level to find our B&B for the night, we grossly underestimated the distance to Elatochori, and navigating new terrain in the dark was “exciting.” What a welcome we had, though, when we finally spotted the ALSEIDES BOUTIQUE HOTEL in Elatochori, a popular winter destination especially for skiers. We entered the old stone lodge and our spirits were instantly lifted by the warm welcome of the hostess and the hot fire in the great room’s massive fireplace. Her mother fixed us a “snack” (Greek style snack = big dinner) and after lingering in the main room we finally retired to our own beautiful room, made up a fire in our fireplace and fell asleep to the sound of NOTHING except the crackling of simmering logs.
The next day, after a more than generous breakfast, we headed out to do some exploring on foot. The village of Elatochori is very near a ski area and the terrain is hilly with numerous trails through the woods that make for a great hike. We meandered along the riverbed for a while, over little wooden bridges, up to a waterfall and eventually back to the village. We could understand why people are attracted to this area for a winter getaway but couldn’t help but wonder how beautiful it must be during the summer months. Perhaps a return trip for us???
“So stinkin’ FUN!!!” So well put by my five-foot, fun-loving, bundle-of-energy friend, Silvia to describe our visit to Vicenza, Italy. The Mabie family is hands-down one of our favorite families on the face of the earth. Imagine two great people with three awesome kids each as individual in their gifts and personalities as the other. The kids are encouraged to work hard and play harder as modeled by their parents. We first met them when they were stationed in Crete and now they are enjoying the perfect mix of the spice and sweetness of life – La Dolce Vita – in Vicenza, Italy. As expected, they have all dived into the new culture with vigor, not wanting to miss anything – sounds like my kind of people and all the more reason to visit Italy again!
Vincenza lies just west of its other more famous cousin Venice, and although it can’t boast about streets of water or San Marco Square, the area has its own charm of old Italian architecture, palaces, towers and piazzas. The only thing missing is the hoards of tourists. Vincenza itself is more of a typical small Italian city. In Silvia’s words, “Vicenza is the epitome of Italy to me. It has a country, small town feel, but also the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities. The townspeople are passionate about their history, and welcoming. I also love the fact that within 45 minutes we can be in either Venice or Verona and either discover for ourselves and teach our kids about the culture, traditions and history of these beautiful cities that most people only dream about visiting.”
The Mabie’s home is nestled outside of Vincenza in a quaint little village called Quinto Vicentino. As different as our experiences were each day, our morning routine was always the same – a walk down into their village to the local coffee shop/bakery for a rich cappuccino and croissant – no better way to start the day. After that, we would all pile into their minivan and sit back and enjoy having our own private tour guides complete with the entertaining commentaries of three energetic kids ages 7-10.
Our visit to the city of Vicenza started out with a stroll into the city center where we discovered, oh happy day! a chocolate festival. Dozens of tents were set up each displaying a plethora of shapes, sizes and flavors of chocolate creations for the passerby to sample.
Most of Vicenza’s structural wonders are credited to the architectural genius of Andrea Palladio and include the Basilica Palladiana in Piazza dei Signori and the Teatro Olimpico, the first indoor theater in the world. This theater was designed to represent the classical Roman theater and was constructed by Palladio between 1580 and 1585. When Palladio died during its construction, another prominent architect, Scamozzi, took over the project and contributed its most impressive asset – an elaborate wood and stucco three-dimensional stage set designed to give the illusion of a long street scene from the classical era. This set was such a technical accomplishment that it was never replaced and is still used today.
Not far from Vicenza is Marostica – a typical walled city that lies beneath the shadow of its imposing castle fortress. One of the interesting characteristics of the large piazza in Marostica is the giant chessboard etched into the paving stones where an elaborate game takes place every two years using live performers as chess pieces, including horses and knights. A walk up to the fortress ruins was rewarded with a stellar view over the city and the landscape beyond.
Another day we took a road trip up into the hills to a village called Valrovina, where we relished a phenomenal lunch at the popular Melograno Restaurant and then walked around the postcard pretty little town.
Our nights were spent mostly relaxing in the Mabie home making homemade pasta, enjoying good Italian wine or coffee and playing games with the kids – Farkel “pro-move!” Our visit to Vicenza was made special not so much by the places we visited or the things we did but by the people with whom we shared those times. Mille grazie, Mabie family!
One of the best ways to really appreciate where you live is to play host to friends who come to visit your “neighborhood.” Such was the case last October when our friends from Colorado made the long trek across “The Pond” to see what was so special about Crete that we would still be here after 4 years. Truth be told – we’re still here because the ongoing shenanigans in the US government make finding employment stateside very difficult. But for now, we are grateful to have a job and the longer we’re here the more attached we have become to this unusual island that hums with the hybrid intensity of modern-day tourism and ancient traditions.
Scott and Gail arrived on a Saturday and we hit the ground running. There was a “cooking class” for the local women (and men) in the village near us where we learned how to make the delicious traditional Sfakiapita. Originally from the Sfakia region of Crete, these Greek pies filled with sweet mizithra cheese, hot off the griddle and drizzled with honey are a delicious treat reminiscent of Mexican sopapillas.
A day spent roaming the old Venetian city of Hania always makes me smile. The old stone buildings and little alleyways tucked back into the shadows of the old fortress walls create a maze of cobbled walkways perfect for inspiring a writer’s imagination or a photographer’s trigger finger.
And if you really want to be inspired, just take a road trip outside up into the hills where you will see the “real Crete” and things beyond your imagination.
We took off for a few days to do one of our favorite road trip loops heading to the south coast. We stayed our first night at Stephanos Village Apartments in the high village of Mirthios. The hotel is one of our favorites not only because of the warm hospitality or the delicious Greek meals or the comfortable, quiet rooms. The view over the Libyan Sea is an ever-changing, jaw-dropping buffet of color and intensity.
We managed to tear ourselves away from poolside the next day to play in the surf at the expansive Damnoni Beach as well as a visit to the nearby Moni Preveli – a picturesque monastery with a riveting history (search “Moni Preveli” to read previous blog posts.) As we walked the hushed corridors and courtyards of the monastery grounds, we felt as if we had stepped back in time. That is, until one of the monks, cheerfully grabbed Gail’s ipod and began giving a tutorial (in English!) on apps that he was particularly fond of. Totally blew my image of the monastic lifestyle. But as savvy as he was on technology, he still wouldn’t let me take his photo.
Looping north we arrived at our next destination, another favorite B&B – Villa Kerasia – otherwise known as Babis’ Place. As always we were warmly greeted by Babis and the peace that oozes from this perfect Cretan gem in the mountains just outside of Heraklion (search “Villa Kerasia” to read previous blog posts.) A visit to the local winery, a hike to a chapel perched high on a cliff and a delicious meal prepared by Georgia finished off a perfect three-day getaway before heading back to Hania and home. Scott and Gail were a blast to be with and I know they enjoyed their visit as much as we enjoyed having them here. The tearful goodbyes for the girls were tempered only by the fact that when we finally do return to Colorado, they will be there and we’ll have lots of catching up to do in their neighborhood as they help us rediscover Denver!