Around Greece on a Vespa

A rough itinerary for the first half

May 2, 2011 by B Ruml

Our route during May and June before going to Turkey to join Helmut and Gisela’s tour in Kusadasi. We arrive on the ferry from Ancona (Italy) to Patras, take a few days out to visit the resort island of Zakynthos, detour to see Delphi and return to the Peloponnese to hit all the remaining highlights.

Here’s a link to our list-of-dates itinerary.

Byzantine monastery mosaics

July 2, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Sunday, June 26: Chios. Caught the ferry to Chios this morning (7am, ouch!), arrived at 11am and immediately went to the Turkish ferry office across the street to purchase our tickets to Kusadasi at 5pm that afternoon.

We then drove to the center of the island to a fabulous Byzantine monastery in the mountains with magnificent mosaics with gold that reflect the sun shining through the windows. A 19th century earthquake destroyed most of Chios Town and much of the monastery’s mosaics, but enough remains to impress almost as much as Ravenna’s churches.

Exterior of the 11th century church:

Since we had to wait until 4pm to go through customs and board the boat to Kusadasi, we planned, at 3:30pm, to try to have an FaceTime session with Wheeler, Kate, Julia, and Geneva. We sat in an internet cafe, set up the iPad, and at 3:30, Wheeler connected and we had a nice chat with them as the girls were eating their morning pancakes.

We killed some more time around town, then drove to the harbor and went through passport control only to discover that the Greek customs officer would not let the Vespa out because the owner’s name on its registration did not match my passport and I had no “authorization” from the owner. We could have asked Antonio to sign a piece of paper saying that we had his permission to use the vehicle, have it faxed to the customs agent, but weighed our options and concluded that the chances of further trouble in Turkey were too great — “You mean your authorization was not stamped by an Italian notary?” We decided to stay on Chios and explore some of the mastic towns which were said to be architecturally interesting and to spend more time at the beach before we making our next move to northern Greece.

We drove to the most distant (and most highly recommended) one: charming Mesta. When we arrived, B stopped at a taverna where the cook/proprietor was standing outside, so that I could inquire about where to find a room. She said that she would make a call; she spoke with someone and then put me on the phone to talk with a man (who spoke English) who had rooms for 50 and 35 euros. We took his name, written on a piece of paper, and drove in to find the square in the center or the “plateia” and after driving around endless narrow medieval streets with tunnels and arches, we pulled up to a few women sitting outside talking. I said “siggnomi” or excuse me, and asked where I could find who or what was written on the paper. The women (one spoke English because she had lived in Australia before she retired and returned to Mesta, where she was born) walked me to the main square, asking me all the usual questions: what is your name, where are you from, where do you work; B following along on the scooter. We arrived in the plateia, found our man, and his daughter showed us two rooms. The smaller (and less expensive) one was actually superior by our criteria and it could not have been more medieval.

We returned to the taverna where we’d first inquired about a room for dinner — good but undistinguished. B made the mistake of ordering the “Onion Blossom” because it is his favorite junk food and because it was so incongruous in that remote place.

Village of Mesta on Chios

July 2, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Monday, June 27: Mesta, Chios. Since we’re planning to leave the Greek islands on the ferry tomorrow and head for northern Greece, we decided to go to a remote beach on Chios today.

But first, B was excited to be able to fry eggs for breakfast for the first time since we left Cambridge. Here is his breakfast which he made in our little kithcen in our stone house in Mesta.

And then the beach. We were (almost) alone.

After an hour and a half at the beach, we drove to another mastic town, Pyrgi, and found a restaurant on the main square which was serving lunch. We were invited in to see the food prepared for today and chose a lamb, artichoke, lemon sauce and a rabbit dish, along with a salad. Here is the lamb:

Our friendly restaurant owner came over to chat with us and we learned that he had had seven restaurants in Maryland, and lived in the U.S. for twenty years before he decided to come back to Chios eleven years ago. Kostas (or Gus, as Americans named him) provided us with a colorful history of Chios and the fact that Christopher Columbus was said to have been from Chios. He pointed to one corner of the square (plateia) to help us locate the arch which leads to he entrance to the village church, since houses were built around the church and obstruct the entrance.

We walked around the neighborhood to get to the back of the church where it was visible.

After a hearty lunch, we rode back to Mesta to sit in the plateia which had WiFi access. B wanted to demonstrate what little effort is required to be connected so he caught me using the iPad with the bluetooth keyboard.

We were sitting just below a lovely, quite simply designed, Orthodox church.

Here are views of the town.

The door to our little house.

Taking the ferry from Chios to northern Greece

July 3, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Tuesday, June 28: Chios. We left Mesta at noon, rode to Pyrgi to have lunch at the same restaurant as yesterday. We ordered something different from yesterday, a handmade pasta casserole.

After lunch we headed to Komi, a beach town on the south coast of Chios, to spend the day before we catch our ferry to the mainland.

B was very happy relaxing under grass umbrellas at one of the beach tavernas (the iPad makes an enormous difference).

We decided to take the ferry for Kavala (accent on the second syllable) instead of waiting for the direct ferry to Thessaloniki which runs only once a week. It seemed like a better idea than hanging out on Chios for another 5 days.

After finally finding a store to replace B’s Teva hiking sandals which have been glued together for the past four weeks, we had a souvlaki pita at the harbor then drove onto the ferry at 9:30pm, and settled in for the 16-hour journey.

We’ve learned from the Greeks that if you cannot book a cabin, you find a comfortable spot on the sofa in the lounge and make the best of it overnight.

The coast between Kavala and Thessaloniki

July 3, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Wednesday, June 29: Agios Georgios. We drove off the ferry at 2pm and headed west toward Thessaloniki from the port of Kavala. The road was scenic since it followed the coast. We stopped in the beach town of Nea Peramas (which felt very Italian), walked into a hotel where the proprietor did not understand English so I reverted to Italian where my Greek was sparse, and it worked. The “Hotel Plage” seemed nice and I’d spotted a terrific shoe store next to it that I wanted to visit when it opened later in the afternoon. After considering the 50 euros a night room, we decided that we should get closer to Thessaloniki today.

We finally stopped about 90km east of Thessaloniki in Agios Georgios (another beach town catering to holiday crowds) and found a room for 35 euros.

Later that evening, as we were preparing to go out to dinner, I closed the sliding glass door and locked it since our porch was at street level. A few minutes later, B headed out to the porch, unaware that I had closed the door (it was remarkably the cleanest window we’d ever seen) and walked into the glass door, shattering it. I heard the loud crash, turned around, shocked to see the broken glass. I looked at B, who had several cuts on his knee. We washed off his knee, could see that the cuts were not too deep, so B put on his shorts and we left in search of dinner, not being able to find the owner of the apartments.

We walked the “boardwalk” at night and noticed that the menus were not only in Greek, but what B thought might be Hungarian. I suggested maybe Czech, but later on after hearing many foreign conversations, I said that these vacationers might be from Romania or from Bulgaria, which are directly north. Shortly afterward, B pointed to a license plate from Romania on the street. Of course, we’re in the Balkans, aren’t we?

Thessaloniki at last

July 3, 2011 by B Ruml

Thursday, June 30: Thessaloniki. Well, you might expect that a beach resort town would be underway by 9am but we had to search the entire place to find someone willing to make us cappuccino, and she had to interrupt her setting up work to do it. We packed up at an early hour (for us) and wondered what the reaction would be when we showed the manager the broken window. In true Greek spirit, he was more concerned with the cuts on my knee than the window and rushed to get some iodine to put on it. He called his boss who was supposed to “come right over” but after 20 minutes we paid for the room and left 100 euros for the repair with good feelings all around.

We took the old road to Thessaloniki rather than the newer limited access highway and found it typically empty and smooth going. After 45 minutes, we were anxious to have our mid-morning cappuccino but there was nothing for miles. After stopping three times to check out unpromising “cafes” (no espresso machines out here!) we finally came across a bakery which would not have been out of place in Athens. I selected a too-large assortment of sweets (we’d not been eating them so far):

And at least we cruised into Thessaloniki, sighting a large Carrefour and an IKEA on the outskirts. We had no idea where we should go but when we’d reached what appeared to be the center (hint: Starbucks on the corner), we stopped and checked out the hotel we happened to be in front of. We’d agreed that we though this was “the big city” we would not spend more than 60 euros for our room. You can imagine our surprise, then, when we were told that the room with double and twin beds, refrigerator, air conditioning, decent bath, etc. was 35 euros (we had said that we’d stay for several nights, which makes a difference). Sold! (We were very happy to have the extra buying power for meals! [see tomorrow!]

After we settled in, it was getting to be lunch time and we lucked into an alleyway with several bustling tavernas and an ouzeri (which, we’ve learned, serves food with ouzo). We settled for the taverna since we were not very hungry. We had some very interesting leek fritters:

and a nice version of baked feta. (We’ll be making both at home.)

When we asked for the check, we were offered dessert on the house and for some silly reason did not decline, as we usually do. Well, we got a very crispy waffle with ice cream and whipped cream: about as typical a Greek dessert as possible.

After lunch we went exploring and I found a shop which makes engraved items (irresistible to me) and decided I needed a better fob for the Vespa keys;

Deb found a shop selling all sorts of beads and purchased a fine set of coral spheres to make into a necklace of the sort we had seen in the flea markets in Italy.

At dinner time, we decided to return to the ouzeri, principally because we’d seen another party enjoying what appeared to be a cheese fondue, with ouzo to wash it down, of course. We ordered a fancy ouzo:

and one of the two fondues on the menu (the Devil’s fondue). Mistake! It was really a stew of pork, nicely spiced with real heat — but I wanted cheese!

One of the real puzzles about Greece is the minuscule size of the paper napkins dispensed at restaurants. So I decided to demonstrate the silliness of it:

Again, asking for the check produced an offer of dessert on the house but when we declined we were given two small glasses of what tasted like a cherry digestif:

Walking home, we had to marvel at the convenience of the Greek method of parking scooters: wherever you want! Here’s a photo of our Hotel Ilios with the Vespa (circled) just outside the front door (Starbucks on the corner):

[3175km; 35; 26; xx]

Knockout meal (in a museum restaurant!)

July 3, 2011 by B Ruml

Friday, July 1: Thessaloniki. We woke up this morning determined to see the town. But first, we took advantage of the Starbucks on the ground floor of the hotel (reception is one floor up).

We hopped on the unloaded Vespa (quite a difference) and headed across town to the Archeological Museum, generally considered to be the top sight. The 1960s building, said to be the finest modernist building in town, was quite bad but the exhibits, reinstalled in 2008, were well done. The big star was a room full of gold jewelry found in various graves in Vergina. We saw enough gold laurel wreaths to last us for a long while and every other sort of jewelry (as you can tell, not my thing).

We had saved the Museum of Byzantine Culture (next door) as our second stop because the guidebooks said that it had a very well regarded cafe/restaurant. So, before looking at the museum itself we went to the restaurant and were astonished at the fine design and high-end decor. When we looked at the menu, it became clear that this was more like The Modern, the fine dining restaurant at MoMA, than any normal museum restaurant: buffalo mozzarella in a caprese salad, etc., etc. The table setting was by far the finest we’d seen:

We asked our friendly waitress what was good and she recommended the white snapper at 34 euros a plate. We decided not to go that far just yet and ordered the fish tartare — absolutely outstanding (take that Eric Ripert!):

The fennel ravioli with shrimp — again, world-class with squid ink pasta:

The least of our dishes was the “lamb meatballs” which we would have described as kefte with fries:

Our real tipoff abut what we were in for came at the beginning of the meal when our waitress brought an amuse-bouche of fish soup. Excellent with a very refined brunoise technique. Note the dill, a magic ingredient around here:

At the end of such a fine, satisfying meal, we didn’t feel we could do the museum itself justice so we left it for tomorrow.

[3190km; 35, 54, 83]

Saturday in Thessaloniki

July 4, 2011 by Debra Dawson

Saturday, July 2: Thessaloniki. We returned to the Museum of Byzantine Culture which featured 10 rooms, beginning with columns, capitals, and other components of the early church, from 400-700 AD. One of many capitals:

And a silver reliquary box:

We had lunch in the museum cafe for the second day in row. The scene:

Two highlights: the amuse-bouche of gazpacho:

and the grilled octopus (the best of five versions we’ve had):

Between 7 and 7:30pm we decided to visit one of the most important sites in the city, the 7th century Ayia Sofia, the largest Byzantine church to survive in Thessaloniki. When we arrived, a large wedding party was inside and outside the church so we had to wait until the ceremony was over before entering the church. In the meantime, the female wedding guests were worth the price of admission. I was reminded of “Sex and the City, the Movie” with one woman’s outfit topping the next. The dresses and shoe pairings were a sight to see. We didn’t take photographs but it was a colorful scene. After the bride and groom exited the church and guests threw rice, we were able to go inside. The mosaics were in great condition and although the Orthodox priest and the maintenance crew were anxious to close the church (they turned out the lights 20 minutes before the posted closing time) we were able to finally see the interior.

[3210km; 35; 56; xx]

A desultory Sunday

July 4, 2011 by B Ruml

Sunday, July 3: Thessaloniki. Sorry to say that today we gave up on Thessaloniki. For the third time, with plenty of research behind us, we drove up to the “Upper City” which is supposed to have some terrific old buildings and preserves some of the ambiance of the olden days. For the third time, all we could find was more broken down neighborhoods sitting within the clearly visible ancient walls. On the way back, we tried unsuccessfully to find one of the laundromats we had learned of at the tourist office.

We spent the rest of the morning in Starbucks (on the hotel WiFi which was far superior to Starbuck’s WiFi) getting up to date on our posts — sorry about that delay; we’ve had trouble with our laptop 3G key and couldn’t find WiFi for many days.

For lunch, we returned to the busy ouzeri from Friday and tried to have the fondue we’d seen others eating. Closer, but not really a fondue: pork cubes in a medium cheese sauce:

We also selected a spinach-arugula salad with oranges with a pomegranate dressing which is worth trying to duplicate:

As usual, we were given dessert on the house, this time two:

Deb had a delightful call from Niki which brightened our day. In the evening, we returned to the “happening” area near the waterfront to try to get something memorable to eat. No such luck!

[3230km; 35, 37, 34]

Museum alert! Stunning!

July 8, 2011 by B Ruml

Monday, July 4: Vergina. Well, today just goes to prove that if you don’t like what’s happening now, wait until tomorrow. Or, things average out; really.

We left Thessaloniki in a funk: I wanted to make a quick pass through the market to get some more pistachios but Deb declined [Deb: because it was time to check out]. It was a boring drive through the plain west of Thessaloniki, most of it on a divided highway where we were constantly overtaken by drivers who were indifferent to Vespa-touring Americans. We did have a happy stop at a parking area where two food trucks (kantine) were serving their customers who stepped over a stairway constructed over the metal retaining wall.

The menu:

We had the usual souvlaki and beer.

When we were almost to Vergina, we wanted a cappuccino and stopped at a roadside gyros joint to inquire; they pointed across the road at what was unreadable from the road but turned out to be a very sophisticated Italianate bar with a mammoth espresso machine. Very good cappuccino put us back in the mood.

We arrived in Vergina, a farming community until the Royal Tomb of Phillip II was discovered in 1977. We checked out the completely dead high-end hotel and negotiated a 40 euro rate. Then off to see the Tomb. I had no idea of what to expect and, lo and behold, one of the finest museums I’ve ever visited. (Right up there with Vaux-le-Vicomte and the Byzantine chapel at the de Menil Collection in Houston for unknown great tourist sites.) An extraordinary installation of the stunning grave goods from Philip’s undisturbed tomb. Particularly memorable were the ivory likenesses of Phillip and Alexander: The museum has only been open for 16 years and surpassed even the Mycenaean treasures we’d seen in Athens. Here’s a poor photo of some small ivory figures which decorated a wooden couch (356BCE!!):

We spent a long time in the underground museum built under the 200-meter-wide burial mound. The labeling was excellent and the magnificence of the items exhibited could not have been greater. All in all, worth the journey to this rather remote spot.

[3333km; 40; 20; 52]

At the base of Mt. Olympus

July 8, 2011 by B Ruml

Tuesday, July 5: Litochoro. We left the quiet village of Vergina and drove south to Dion, an archaeological site famous for its baths and provincial museum. We arrived at 3:00pm as the museum was closing, but we did take a few minutes to look at the tavernas and couldn’t resist photographing what is very common on the English menus.

We rode on toward Mt. Olympus, settling in the village of Lithochoro in the foothills. We found a charming family-run hotel with a room overlooking the quaint square with a fountain.

At the grocery store, B found the dark cherry liqueur:

and a wonderful little plastic ice-cube tray for those refrigerators without one.

[3433km; 45; 18; 43]