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Published: August 28th 2010
OUR BIG FAT GREEK VACATION
It had come time for Dawn’s kids to come home from staying with their father in Greece for the summer. After putting it off last summer, we committed to going to Greece to pick them up this time.
The journey started with booking our flight. We weren’t going to need a hotel since Dawn has friends and family there. We stopped by the travel agent only to learn that you had to have your passports with you to book international flights. Dawn was waiting for hers to be renewed which she did receive about two weeks later. So we went back to the travel agent. Unfortunately, we were disappointed with the service and the prices so we decided to book it ourselves through Continental’s web site.
We had to stick with specific return flights since the kids already had their tickets so we only had to decide on which flights to take to Athens. We ended up with a connection through Paris, switching from Continental to Aegean Airlines which gave us a six hour layover in Paris and saved us about one hundred dollars. Still, the tickets were about $1,500 each! Ouch. Travel
to Europe in the summer months is expensive!
So we became excited about the prospect of having a six hour layover in Paris which gave us enough time to jump on a train and see some sights. Our departing flight from Houston was at noon so we had plenty of time to get ready in the morning and get to the airport with ample time to have lunch at Pappadeaux’s in the terminal.
The flight to Paris was about 9 ½ hours and uneventful. Comfort and amenities on Continental is good but not exceptional. We were able to catch up on a lot of our reading material which we brought with us.
When we got to Paris it took us quite a while to figure out where to catch the train into the city. When we asked one of the flight attendants about where we could find a locker to lock up our carry-on bags we were surprised to learn that there were none. They had been taken out after 9/11. After considering canceling our little excursion we decided to go for it anyway since we had gotten so excited about it. So, bags in tow, we
headed for the train station.
We had to take an airport train to a different terminal and then catch the city train. In total it was an hour from the time we got off the plane to get on the train to Paris and then it was an hour ride on a very crowded train with poor ventilation. The tickets were 8.70 euros each, one way. In hindsight I wish we had checked to see if there was an express train that didn’t make all the stops along the way.
Sadly, when we got off the train near the Louvre there was a slight drizzle in the air. The temperature was comfortable but the rain put a damper on our short adventure. We walked a few blocks before we found the Louvre and walked all around it and in the courtyard all the while being grateful that we were not in the long, long line to actually go in. We took some pictures including a mandatory handstand picture of me in front of the glass pyramid.
When we got to the end of the courtyard facing the Champs Elysees we saw just how far it was to
the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and decided to just head back to the airport so that we wouldn’t have to worry about getting back in time. With some help from some British tourist we discovered that the nearest train station was just the other side of the Seine River but when we got there we found that it was closed. Rather than hunt for another train station dragging our bags with us and feeling very conspicuously like American tourists, we just went to the nearby taxi stand and rented a cab for 45 euros. This saved us some time and the potential discomfort of another very crowded and stifling one hour ride on the train.
We got back to Charles DeGaulle airport in plenty of time for our flight on Aegean Airlines. Dawn was very uneasy about this airline since their reputation was not good. Finding our gate proved to be an adventure since the tv monitors only listed a range of gate numbers not a specific gate. Even when we got to that part of the terminal the gates were unassigned. It turns out you just have to wait until it’s close to boarding time
to find out the specific gate you’re using.
We were pleasantly surprised by Aegean Airlines. The plane was brand new, the meal adequate and the employees pleasant. The three and a half hour plain ride and landing were exceptionally smooth. We were greeted at the terminal by Dawn’s ex, Nick, and her two boys.
From the air and on the ground, the landscape near the Athens airport reminded me of Phoenix, except for all the water of course. But once we got into town the hills, crowded conditions, and architecture reminded me of Rio. Nick and his wife, Maja, live in Pireas(also spelled Piraeus), a city just west of Athens.
Like many European cities, Pireas and Athens are very crowded and life has to adjust accordingly. Thus, small cars, small homes, and narrow streets are the norm. Nowhere did I see this more exemplified than in the gyrations Nick had to go through to pull his small VW SVU into his underground garage. It had a curved driveway making anything larger than a Mini Cooper needing a shoehorn to get in. Mostly, the cars we saw were European: Renault, Citroen, Pugeout, Seat, VW, Mercedes, BMW, etc. We
did see a few Fords and Chevys but no other American cars.
Another way that the overcrowded conditions effect every day life is that resources are more scarce. Water and electricity are used more sparingly than in the U.S. Conservation is just a way of life there. Clothes driers are uncommon but mostly because hanging clothes out to dry is just ingrained into the culture. Many homes have solar heating for water. Dishwashers are also rarely used in homes. Air conditioning is used but sparingly. Something else you will notice on the streets is automated recycling centers to turn in bottles and cans.
Nick and Maja have a nice third floor apartment on a hillside with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean Sea. The sun was beginning to set by the time we got there. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset sitting on the balcony and then gorged ourselves on souvlaki. It was our first traditional late night Greek meal but definitely not our last. Included in every meal it seemed was a traditional salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, olive oil, and a slab of feta cheese. Greeks eat dinner very late and long; ten o’clock or so
and for two or more hours. Lots of food and lots of discussion make mealtime very important in the Greek culture.
We had plans to go to the Acropolis the next morning before it got too hot but those plans fell through when we slept until 1:00pm! The long plane flights and 8 hours of time zone changes had taken their toll on us. So that afternoon we took a walk down to the harbor and main shopping area of Pireas. The weather was hot and humid. Not as hot and humid as Houston, but hot and humid nonetheless. Greece is experiencing its hottest summer ever. The waterfront is picturesque and the harbor loaded with huge yachts that don’t ever seem to get used.
August is traditionally a month for Europeans to take a holiday and this resulted in the streets being relatively empty during the day. At night the city comes alive with people shopping and eating.
Sadly not much of the city’s old architecture has been preserved and many of the buildings are scarred with graffiti in both Athens and Pireas. It is so pervasive it’s as if they don’t try to control it. Many
buildings are in disrepair, especially since “the crisis”. Everyone refers to the recent financial crisis that faces the world and has hit Greece especially hard in that way.
Change is coming to a culture that has been used to providing many social services but now, since they are part of the European Union, they can’t print their own money to pay for them. Retirement age will likely go up for many which can be as early as age 45. The highest tax bracket is 45% but tax collection efforts are not strong or effective.
Thursday evening Nick and Maja showed us around the area in Athens known as La Placa where there are many shops and restaurants. It seems all the restaurants have outdoor seating and some are only outdoors. It is all very touristy and there are some good ancient ruins to be seen as well as a nice view of the Acropolis which is lit up nicely at night.
We stopped at one of these outdoor restaurants and had the traditional salad and kabobs which are chunks of chicken, beef, or pork on skewers. Coca-Cola is the soft drink of choice in Greece and, as
all seemed to agree, it has a little extra kick to it that American Coke doesn’t have. We decided it had a little extra carbonation. Amstel seems to be the most popular beer. We tried to stick with water since it was so hot and we were sweating regularly and it seemed we were eating too much so we wanted to cut back on calories where we could. Once again our dinner started about 10pm and lasted about two hours.
Friday morning we headed for the Acropolis before it got too hot. Dawn and the kids had been there many times but it was my first time. It costs 12 euros to get in and it is a pretty good hike up a steep hill to get there but it is well worth it. The Parthenon, which is the main temple atop the Acropolis, is about 2,500 years old and it, along with the other structures on this plateau which overlooks the city, are undergoing some major restoration. The Erechtheum, the Theatre(Odeon) of Herecles Atticus (where Yanni did his famous “Live at the Acropolis” concert), and the Propylaea are other sizable structures at the Acropolis plateau. Don’t forget your
camera on this part of your trip! Not only are the ancient ruins amazing but the views from up there are great!
The new Museum of the Acropolis is also well worth the 5 euros per ticket. It is very close to the Acropolis and is constructed in a way to provide a close-up view of a partial re-creation of the Parthenon and a great view of the actual Parthenon at the same time. This is also a great area to do some shopping for some of those traditional Greek souvenirs.
We took a taxi back to the apartment and were lucky to find one who spoke some English and was honest enough to take the shortest possible route.
Upon returning we had enough time to catch a short nap before Dawn’s friends, Nick and Joyce (half the men in Greece are named Nick it seems), arrived to take us to Chalkida. (sometimes spelled Halkida, pronounced Halkeeda) We were going to spend two nights in a hotel there close to their apartment and the new house they are building. It was about an hour drive. Part of the city is on the mainland and part of it
is on the island of Evia(sometimes spelled Euboea) which is the second largest of the Greek islands. (Crete is the largest). The narrow Euripus strait that separates the mainland and the island of Evia has a peculiar characteristic. The water changes direction about every six hours and can be viewed from the “old bridge”. There are two bridges in Chalkida that connect the mainland and the island of Evia; the old one which is very short and the new one which is much larger. The old one also has a unique way of sliding out of the way for boats to pass.
We went straight to the hotel Almira Mare which turned out to be a real gem, especially for the price. It is in the area called Aghios Minas and sits up on a hill just across a narrow street from the water to provide beautiful views from the rooms. At about 100 euros per night it was a real bargain for Greece in August. Like most hotels there it included breakfast.
After getting settled we hit the streets to go shopping. I had forgotten to bring a swimsuit and found a good one at a store
named “Glou” which is a nice chain of men’s stores in Greece. There is a nice pedestrian only shopping district with old buildings and narrow cobblestone streets that gives you that old-country feel.
That evening Nick and Joyce brought their two daughters with them to treat us to a unique dining experience. There are two very nice restaurants where you can sit inside or across the street on the beach right at the waters edge. Everyone chooses the latter as did we.
This is the kind of atmosphere that could make you want to move to Greece. Even though there were a lot of diners there, this part of Chalkida is a little bit away from the crowds and very quiet. It was a beautiful evening and there we were dining on traditional Greek food at our table on the beach under the moonlight sipping ouzo. Per Wikipedia, Ouzo is an anise flavored aperitif. That means that it is a licorice flavored liquor, very strong, at least for this lightweight drinker, and meant to be mixed with water and over ice as our gracious host demonstrated.
Saturday Nick and Joyce took us and the girls on a
day trip to the other side of the island to one of their favorite spots, Petries, where there is a quaint little restaurant called the Fish Taverna - Klimaki which sits atop a cliff overlooking a tiny little beach in a protected cove. What incredible scenery there is in this part of Evia! This is a spot only locals know about because it is in a very remote location far from a city and on the Aegean Sea. The drive took us through some small villages and by some breathtaking vistas and normally takes about one hour from Chalkida.
The water was as clear and warm as pool water. The beach is sandy except near the water where it is more like gravel. First we had lunch at the taverna which has an outdoor eating area covered by a lattice full of grape vines. From our table we had fresh breezes and great views. At this restaurant you can pick your fish if you go to the kitchen. They are served whole as they are at all Greek restaurants so having some surgical skills to remove bones is an advantage. There was also the traditional Greek salad and, of
After a fabulous lunch we went down to the beach to swim, snorkel, float, and sun. It was the high point of the trip. The clear water and a beautiful setting make for a delightful afternoon. There are very few fish to see for snorkeling purposes but it is still a treat. The salty water makes it very easy to swim and the water is nearly still.
On the way back we stopped in Amarynthos to walk along the water and eat ice cream. It is a sleepy little village with a nice waterfront in which to relax by. The drive back seemed to go much quicker and we back to the hotel in an hour. This gave us time to recover before our next outing, dinner.
Dinner was at Palia Gefera or “The Old Bridge” and, you guessed it, it is right by the old bridge in downtown Chalkida. It is a popular spot for gyros, the traditional Greek wrap stuffed with meat, veggies, and even French fries. Once again, it was a late dinner that lasted a long time but with friends and atmosphere like that you enjoy every minute.
got back to the hotel we walked around the waterfront a little bit and indulged in an ice cream treat while we sat on the stone wall that is just a few feet from the water. There were some diners quietly chatting and finishing up their meals on the beach. The occasional car went by but other than that it was quite peaceful. If you want to be close to a city but still be able to enjoy a quiet serene spot this is a good choice.
The next day, Sunday, was our last in Chalkida. We decided to try out the pool in the morning. They have a kids pool, an adult pool, and a Jacuzzi. There were just a couple of other people there so we enjoyed some nice quiet time and sunshine. Our friends joined us a bit later and we planned out the rest of the day.
Nick and Maja and the kids came to pick us up later at the hotel as we checked out. We were going to have a traditional Greek lunch withthe other Nick’s family at their apartment. But, first he took us on a tour of the house they
are building. It is a grand place, four floors in all including the garage. It is a high tech house where the temperature, locks, and lights can all be controlled from a smart phone. The structure is solid concrete with a Spanish tile roof and spectacular views of the water which is just a couple of blocks away. He is in the business of providing solar heating systems for homes using panels on the roof to heat water which then provides not only hot water but the heating for the entire house when needed and even running pipes through the floors to both heat and cool. We can’t wait to go back and see it completed.
Nick and Joyce are living in an apartment building in the center of town that is owned by Nick’s parents until the house is completed. The elevators in Greece, like everything else, are small. So most of us took the stairs up to the apartment to meet Nick’s family and settle in to the Greek experience. It was like a scene from “Our Big Fat Greek Wedding”. The men sit around the dining table and discuss politics…I think, but then, who knows because
even after four days of immersion into the culture I still could not make out anything they were saying. It was literally “all Greek to me”. Greek is definitely the most difficult language I have ever encountered.
The women prep the meal and serve it, unless you are a guest in which case you are not allowed to help. There was souvlkai, spanakopita(spinach pie), Greek salad, lamb, Moussaka(eggplant), pastitsio(not sure) and more. An hour later after we had stuffed ourselves out came the nuts and another round of drinks. By now the kids had dismissed themselves to play board games. About a half an hour later dessert came out. Everyone was served two pieces of a mouse cake, one chocolate, one white. Everything was spectacular.
After a quick trip to retrieve some clothes I left in the closet of the hotel room we came back to more drinks. Then it was time to head back to Pireas. We said our goodbyes to our wonderful hosts and hit the road.
When we got back we packed our bags and relaxed a while until it was time for dinner. We weren’t very hungry though, still feeling satisfied from our
three hour lunch. But the kids wanted to show me Goody’s which is the local fast food hamburger chain. So we walked down to the waterfront area of Pireas and had some good ‘ol burgers and fries. The smallest burger was a little bigger than your typical McDonald’s and costs about twice as much. The fries were very good. They also serve more traditional Greek food. The quality was good and they seem to compete quite well against the American fast food chains of McDonald’s and KFC that are also right there. The food was served on real plates and they gave us real silverware, more evidence that conservation has a higher priority there than in the U.S.
We walked back to the apartment and settled down for our last night. With our flight at noon we didn’t have to get up very early but since it takes almost an hour to get to the airport we left at nine. While checking our baggage we were informed that our departure was delayed and enough so that we were going to miss our connection in Newark. This gave us about a three hour wait before we could board the plane.
Then we had to sit on the tarmac for about 45 minutes because of some VIP’s plane that was about to land.. It was a nice flight with the latest in personal entertainment at each seat. It was about a ten and a half hour flight to Newark. When we got there the weather was bad and the connection to Houston was also delayed.
By the time we got back to Houston and caught the parking lot shuttle and drove back to my house it had been 25 hours since we left Nick and Maja’s place. Then, Dawn and the kids had another hour long drive to their house. Needless to say it took all of us a couple of days to recover from the jet lag and sheer exhaustion of that trip.
In the end we were glad to be home and also very glad to see that all that late night gorging on all that fabulous food hadn’t put any weight on either of us!...
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