Monday, April 27, 2015

A Very Greek Easter

It wasn’t too long after my Amsterdam trip that I found myself packing my bags again, but this time for a longer and (hopefully) more sun filled adventure. Days just seemed to be flying by at this point, and I was somehow keeping up with my course work and thesis work with no problem, so another 5 day trip didn’t seem to stress me out too much, even with only 3 weeks before all my final exams. Fewf. I must’ve been getting a hang of this Italian Oral Exam business.... Or my travel priorities were just higher (shh...), but I promise, I never compromised my studies!

Anyways, enough of that rant, let’s get to the good GREEK stuff! As you may or may not know, Easter is a BIG holiday in Italy. So naturally the academic calendar provides the students with a hefty break starting with Holy Thursday and finishing on Pasquetta, or Easter Monday. The best part about the extra three days, is that it make professors want to turn it into an even longer break, so somehow I managed to get away with Wednesday – Tuesday, free of class! Score! So I call Kelly up, we’re chatting, and the natural answer is GREECE. Especially since Catholic Easter happened to coincide with Greek Easter, so how lucky were we? Going to Greece on Greek Easter? Super fortunata, let me tell you!

The plan was simple, BLQ -> Athens, Port of Rafina Mykonos, Mykonos Athens, Athens BLQ, and that is ALMOST how it went down ;)

Kelly and I were BEYOND excited for our Greece trip, we always got along traveling, and seemed to be on the same page the majority of the time in terms of the dialogue “Do you think we should go out?” with two options for answers.... Option 1: Sharing a look of agreement, a yawn, and “Ya know, I’m feeling I’d rather sleep tonight” or ... a large grin and “so how about that carafe of house wine for 8 euro? Red or white?” And we were pretty good about keeping the answer balanced, so I think we did okay for ourselves.

We arrived!
Our first night in Greece, we took a bus from the Airport to Rafina Port (the bus stop at the airport was a STRUGGLE to find, and this was one moment when I was happy my travel companion was Kelly... she did not get discouraged or cranky!). Once we found it, the bus arrived quickly and we had nearly the entire bus to ourselves, and 4 euros later were dropped at our hotel back door, could smell the salty sea and could see the sun getting ready to set of the blue green horizon of the sea. We were given a room, and immediately we were happy, 60 euros got us two beds and a floor to ceiling sliding door with a view of the sea and port and a balcony... not too shabby... Oh ya, Breakfast included as well! #win. For dinner we walked down to the port to find us some Greek, and that wasn’t very hard. We settled on this cute and inexpensive place that had an upper level with a view straight out over the sea. My love affair with Greek salad began here. And when I say Greek salad, I'm not referring to the lettuce topped with feta, black olives, onions and tomato that Americans consider "Greek" salad, but I am referring to the REAL Greek salad which is a bowl of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and purple onion, scattered with black olives, and topped with a beautiful sliced brick of Feta cheese and a Greek dressing that is to die for and served with a basket of pita bread. NOM. Sometimes I really disprove of americanized meals. Hmph. Anyways, we had a lovely meal, wine, primo, and second for less than 30 euro, and enjoyed the company of our delightful waiter. With night one in the books, our stomachs were content, and we agreed bedtime was necessary so we could be checked out and on time to our ferry the following morning.

Lunch on the beach @ Mykonos
At breakfast the next morning we took full advantage of the free continental breakfast and snuck fruits and snacks in our purses for our long boat ride ahead. We purchased water in the port then boarded the boat, hoping to get some rays on the deck. Unfortunately, with the wind it was rather chilly and we weren’t quite prepared, but we made the best of it, huddled for warmth, and got a hot chocolate from the boat snack bar. The boat was filled with people, and we just couldn’t wait to arrive in Mykonos. A few hours later we began to notice land, and we checked our tickets excited that we were approaching Mykonos... as we expected the boat appeared to be nearly 30 minutes late to arrive, but that didn't bother us, we were in GREECE! We gathered our things and lined up to unload, strangely there didn’t seem to be a lot of movement toward the exit, but we weren’t complaining and were one of the first people of the boat. We deboarded and set out into the parking lot to find our ride from the hotel.
The house I'd like to buy and restore on Tinos

And that is when we realized there was no car waiting for us and that we were one of the first off the boat because apparently everyone else knew slightly more than we did. We did an about face just in time to realize the boat we had just stepped off of had quickly restarted its engines o and was headed back out to sea with all of those passengers who were too nonchalant about arriving at Mykonos and getting off the boat first like us!

And that's when it hit us! “S***! This isn’t Mykonos! OMG, what are we going to do? If this isn't Mykonos, where are we? Wasn't ferry Rafina to Mykonos direct!? F***!” And that’s when some woman drove up next to us and saved the day. She asked us if we were lost and if we had intended to visit the island of Tinos. Kelly and I just stared at each other, eyes wide open, quickly did disaster assessment by questioning the woman about new ferry tickets, where to buy them, what the island we were on was, and if this was something most people did.  She didn't seem shocked that this had happened to us, and thankfully we weren't the only ones who had made the same mistake in the past, so with the Greek woman's consolation on Good Friday, we felt relieved and fortunate to have met her.  After collecting the right information to collect ourselves the woman drove off and left us to figure out the next step in the parking lot of the port.  Step 1: drop a few more F bombs, stare at each other in disbelief and then laugh our heads off. Step 2: ticket office. Step 3: explore.

According to the woman in the ferry ticket office we found, there was only one boat leaving later evening at 9:00pm that would get us to Mykonos by 9:30. We really didn't have a choice so we bought our tickets and the woman was nice enough to let us leave our bags in her office while we went to explore the island of Tinos for 8 hours until the next ferry!

As it turns out Tinos was the perfect mistake.  It was a much smaller island than Mykonos and more focused on religion. We got to sneak into a Good Friday mass at the church on top of the hill that was attended by what seemed to be the entire island. Grandmothers trekked up the steep hill to the church on their knees. Crowds stood outside the church as there were too many people to fit inside the church so they the mass played through outside speakers for everyone to hear. At the end of the ceremony everyone made there way into the small square church, the interior was so beautifully decorated with candles and other beautiful trinkets hanging from the ceiling and packed with Tinos locals with vibrant smiles and happy family vibes emanating everywhere. What intrigued us the most about the ceremony was the apparent bread breaking outside. Groups huddled around loaves of bread that were handled by the parishioners, pieces ripped off with their bare hands and passed around to the group. They ate and celebrated, Kelly and I sat and soaked in the experience.

Greek Salad #2
We then took the time to explore the rest of the island and the main city center that was so real and beautiful. The island did not have a tourist feel, but seemed to be dominated by local culture and religion. We walked through shops and spoke with store keepers, walked to a peninsula to catch a nice sea breeze then picked a restaurant stuck in the small bright white washed alley ways of the city. The food did not disappoint! Again, Greek salad, so fresh, so delicious. We tried a fish dish since it was Good Friday, and we also dared to try the Greek licorice flavored liquor called Ouzo and a local beer. The perfect lunch. After lunch we roamed the streets and came across a number of bakeries that were hard at work. We got caught peeking in the window of a bakery that smelled so delicious and the woman stopped us to let us each try one of the cookies they were packing up in gift boxes to sell. How nice, right? Then we ran across a coupe more ferry boat ticket kiosks and found out there was another boat at 5:00 that our woman failed to tell us about, and we didn't realize that it was possible there was more than one ferry company, silly us. So in a hurry we bought another ticket for the 5 o'clock boat to avoid staying on the island with no place to go until our scheduled boat at 9pm. We left to get our suitcase from the office we had bought our first tickets at and then we ran into another minor problem. The storefront was closed and no one was to be seen. It was around 4:00 so we still had some time to kill before panic mode, but once we remember that she might have said she'd be gone until 5, we began to panic. I guess it wouldn't be the end of the world to miss the 5 oclock boat in order to get our suitcases with us to Mykonos. But we had our minds set on this new plan, and we were going to to everything in our power to get that office re opened in time to make the earlier boat to Mykonos, so that we could make it to dinner on Mykonos as well.



The travel agency/ferry kiosk sat opposite a bakery, so as we continually dialed the phone number written on the agency door in hopes of a response, we also watched in awe as the Greek bakers carted loaves and loaves of Easter bread from one building to another. We finally got in contact with the woman at the ticket kiosk who promised someone would be down to unlock the storefront in time, and that calmed our nerves for a good 20 minutes. But as the clock ticked closer to 5:00 and we lost interest in the pastry shop behind us, we grew anxious, hoping the man would answer his phone and that he would in fact be here in only 4 minutes. We soon learned 4 minutes equals 24 minutes, he opened the door to the shop, we ran in and grabbed our bags and rushed off towards the port to make our boat. Fewf. We saw the same lady who had told us our mistake as we unloaded from the boat onto Tinos earlier that day, she was happy we enjoyed the island. 30 minutes later we were in the real port of Mykonos and the manager of our hotel was waiting in his BMW to bring us up the hill to experience the best and fewest dollars I've ever spent on a hotel. A gorgeous room with a view, modern, private patio and breakfast included at a facility that had a pool and bar, $96 for TWO nights! Unbelievable.

The procession came right down the path above Kelly's right shoulder
We quickly got settled and got a recommendation from the hotel owner for where to eat dinner. Since, it was Good Friday there was going to be a procession through the center of town, so he recommended a restaurant with outdoor seating along the procession route, and his rec was spot on for our first night in Mykonos! Taverna Nikos was perfect. Literally, the white wash contrasted with a red pergola and grey stones beneath our feet was picturesque. We sat outside with house wine, calamari, greek salad and a great seat on the parade route. The night was chilly, but it was perfect to be outside amongst the festivities and all of the others brave enough to eat outside... I love europe for that!  We enjoyed dinner, saw the procession then did a quick walk through town then headed to grab a drink along the water. We had a fun time conversing with some very nice Austrians who shared a table with us at the bar and before we knew it it was past 1:00am. So we headed back up the hill to get some much needed sleep, we were psyched for our first full day on Saturday.

Fish fry and fries!
We slept like babies in what seemed like luxury to us, then when we awoke to bright blue skies we couldn't have been happier. From our room's deck the white washed city of Mykonos and the picturesque windmills stuck out brightly and beautifully against the bright blue sky. We took our time eating breakfast and getting ready, then we descended down the hill, the first stop was the windmill located a close 100 yards from our hotel that we could see when we looked down and to the right from our hotel, with the other 5 windmills lined up on the left side of the city as we looked down upon it from our hotel. We took our time basking in the sun with the windmill at our back. You could see for miles and miles, and we searched the sea for the island of Tinos that we had mistakenly stopped at the day before. From there we continued to descend into the old city center of Mykonos, following the whitewashed pathways and curved white walls wherever they took us.  The city was not large so before we knew it we had reached the center and were weaving in between small shops, grocery stores, cafes and bars. We took our sweet time strolling the little alley ways and peaking into the white washed shops. We were also lucky enough to run into two of the famous Mykonos city Pelicans. What a sight! The sunny side of the town was lined with fancy bars on the beach, so we decided to have a snack and a drink there and to pretend like we weren't poor students for just an hour. It was worth sitting and soaking up the sun as waves crashed on the beach right before our eyes. What a peaceful day! The rest of the day met a similar tone. We strolled slowly through the town. Made it over to explore the five huge windmills on the other side of town and found a supermarket and bakery where we picked up some local Greek wine, some fruit, snacks for aperitivo on our hotel room terrace and a loaf of Easter bread (tsoureki) to enjoy the next morning. 





Moussaka
Kleftiko
Around 5:30 we hiked back up the hill to our hotel to prepare for the night leading into Greek Easter. We enjoyed our wine and snacks as we watched the sunset from our hotel patio. What a beautiful scene! We decided that we wanted to eat dinner before Midnight mass because we just weren't going to make it, so we found a nearly empty restaurant in the heart of the city who was willing to serve us and set up as if expecting a large crowd.  Tables were set with red checkered tabled clothes and each place setting was adorned and equipped with an egg dyed red. We'd later ask for a tutorial on how to smash the eggs and determine whether Kelly or I would be the recipient of good fortune and health. We went the more traditional route at this restaurant. We asked the waitstaff of Taverna Marco Polo which dishes they would recommend that would be traditional for Greek Easter and they landed on two items, Moussaka and Kleftiko, but also reminded us that if we were trying to have a traditional meal, we wouldn't be eating until the crowds came after midnight mass and that we should also return the next day for the lamb roast in the square. We admitted we were too hungry to wait, but appreciated their advice and the two dishes ended up being delicious! With enough food in our bellies, the waiters explained tsougrisma to us. Which is the egg cracking tradition and the reason why you see so many red eggs around Easter time. You essentially take your egg and use one end of it to tap the end of your opponents egg, and if you crack all of your opponents eggs then you'll have good fortune for the new year... Kelly won this battle -- unlucky for me!















After dinner we headed down into the town back towards the beautifully decorated Greek churches
Candle Lighting
Street filled with people for Midnight Mass
we had seen earlier that day. The streets were packed with people and vendors trying to sell candles for a dollar. Normally, I am not one to buy from the street folk, but it seemed like everyone crowded in the street had a candle and that they were purchasing from those walking around, so we said what the heck! The streets were so packed we had a hard time getting close to the church. We fought our way through so we could stand on a staircase a couple doors down from the church with a view of the front door 50 feet away. It was amazing how many people were there waiting for the end of the mass. As the clock struck midnight and the mass ended, people set off fireworks literally right next to us and we thought we had been bombed for a couple of seconds after being partially deaf, then the singing reached the streets and along with the singing and the procession came the lighting of the candles. It was magical to see the flames spread so quickly down the tiny alley ways of the city, strangers passing their light onto the next, including Kelly and myself. It was such a beautiful moment and we were lucky to have been in that tiny white washed city to have that experience!


After that we decided it was appropriate to check out the night life in Mykonos which rumor has it, was beyond fun. So we went out to test that theory, and we had a rather successful night of dancing on Greek Easter, followed by a nice relaxing Sunday on the island, including a dip in the sea! Despite a big setback, Mykonos was a beautiful island and we were fortunate enough to experience it on Greek Easter. We ate well, met nice people, got some dancing in, and even sat poolside at our gorgeous hotel and made a quick dip in the sea by the port. Our relax vacation was over and we were off to Athens to determine whether it really was dirty and unlikeable or a fine city to visit full of antiquities.

Gyros
We arrived in the dark around 9:00pm after a long boat ride from Mykonos to Rafina and a bus ride from Rafina to Athens center. Determined to walk, we found a newsstand that was selling maps, figured out where we were and that the walk to the hotel was Do-able and we were off without hesitation. Our hotel wasn't anything special, but we did have a view of the Parthenon very far off in the distance and it was illuminated upon our arrival so we were pretty content. We got settled then went right to bed to prepare for a big day of sightseeing.

Parthenon
A typical sight in Mykonos
We woke up early to get breakfast and then head towards the Parthenon, the acropolis and the Agora. The path we walked from our hotel did not give us a good vibe and in combination with grey skies our first vibes of Athens were quite negative. To further make things worse for me, the ticket office refused to give me a student discounted ticket, so my day and perception of Athens was just off to a bad start. The day remained grey and so did my attitude. It was very interesting walking through the ancient Agora (old marketplace) and walking up to the Parthenon I was so excited, but the amount of construction and scaffolding, especially against the grey sky, really took away from the effect I was expecting of the ancient sight. I was bummed. And we were hungry as well. We walked down the opposite side of the Parthenon in hopes of stumbling upon a decent place to eat. On our way we ran into the temple of Zeus, pretty neat, and also stumbled upon Syntagma square.  Since it was Easter Monday, not a lot was open, so we hoped to run into a restaurant near the square. We had some luck on a street with Cafes and decided we just had to do it cause we were so hungry. My greek salad was disappointing but at least the hunger problem was resolved. Just after we left, we ran into the part of Athens which must be why people like it, and finally it was coming together. We had just walked the outskirts of the center and finally landed upon the good stuff! We found a Starbucks, shopping, little stalls and many little restaurants that looked cool. This was the Athens we had been searching for, and now we knew where to come back to for Dinner! We strolled these fun streets leisurely as well. We saw ancient sight after ancient sight and continued on. Athens was a city truly rich with culture and it was amazing to see it all!  We had a nice dinner on this super cute street with many other restaurants, followed by a mandatory crepe purchase from the creperie across the street.  The next day we spent our half day in Athens exploring the many halls of the National Archeological Museum of Athens, that we happened to get into for free with our IDs.  It was truly incredible to see the amount of artifacts they have from ancient times and that a lot of it was found in the middle of the ocean and yet is still in tact. Our day and a half was a little short to get to know Athens, but we felt we had a good grasp on the city and we were content with the way our Easter vacation played out. The best part of it we both still agree on was that big mistake of stopping over in Tinos. All in all, we met a ton of nice people and really got to be a part of Greek culture and see how Greece worked at the time of the Parthenon and the Agora. All very neat!
                                 
p.s. Please excuse the extreme tardiness of this post. It's unacceptable! But better than no post at all!