Sunday, July 18, 2010

Santorini and Crete

After leaving the farm on Paros, Ryan and I headed for Crete via Santorini. We were so excited to finally be able to see more of Greece and especially the Greek islands. We were so isolated at the first farm -- when we finally left it felt like we had just arrived in Greece!

In Santorini we stayed at a very hip campsite where we were able to swim and relax by the very nice pool. We mostly followed the island life of waking up early, going out to walk around Thira or take a bus to another area, coming home to take a long siesta by the pool or in our tent, and then back out again for the rich night life. One of our day time explorations included a winery where we took a 4 euro tour through the underground vaults where animatronic characters acted out scenes of Santorini's wine making history. It was hilarious! And absolutely wonderful being in the cool tunnels out of the blazing sun. After our walk through what seemed like a decaying Disneyland ride (there were some very old animatronics and some other characters were pieced together with pieces from clothing store mannequins) the tour ended with a wine tasting. It was incredible! Ryan and I have been extremely disappointed in Greek wines. They always tend to be WAY too sweet, light, or completely flavorless. However, these wines we tried were amazing. Now look, nothing will compare with Italian wine. Especially the wine we had in Sardinia which I will always believe to be the best wine in the world. But at this winery in Santorini, the wine really was good.

After a few nights in Santorini we left for Crete! Thank you a billion times over Mom and Ken for treating us with the room for a week! We stayed in Chania, Crete. A beautiful town that was run by the Venetians, the Turks, and the Germans (pretty much EVERY town in Crete has this same history). Luckily, the Venetian architecture stands strong in the main part of the city. It truly could be called a "Little Venice." Just to the west of the town center called Old Town, are the beaches of Nea Hora where Ryan and I stayed in a WONDERFUL hotel called Arocaria run by Mr. Photis. Photis was an absolute delight. We were situated directly across from the beach and had an incredible view from our balcony of the bay with its many islets. Restaurants, bars and cafes were the consistency of our neighborhood on the waterfront. At night Ryan and I would sit on the balcony after eating the amazing octopus stifado (that we cook from scratch!) and listen to the live Cretan music pouring out from the pier where the restaurants set up tables and chairs. It really was magical. Even more so were the 1 euro ouzos we would have while we listened to these incredible musicians! One of our friends, Antonis who we met at Ilias's bar on our return to Athens, said that the Cretans are Greek but that they like to think of themselves primarily as Cretans. They purposely try to do everything different from other Greeks. I have to say that was not hard to notice! The music, the food, the dancing, the overall attitude was completely different from anywhere else we had been. We went out many times to see live music. All the musicians were intrigued by us because we were so interested in the music. One night, they even had Ryan and I go up and play! It was wonderful. The farm on Paros had been such a trial and it was so nice to be able to be travelers again and to meet people! So again, thank you Mom and Ken for that wonderful, relaxing week!!!

Before we left Chania, Ryan made an itinerary for the rest of our time in Crete. We left our bags with Photis who said, "Of course! Leave your things. You come back in 3 days, 1 week, 1 month! No problem." We headed for the famous Samaria Gorge. 15 km long, the biggest gorge in Southern Europe! Yes, we hiked the whole thing and then I couldn't walk for 3 days. I'm NOT kidding. That thing kicked my butt! Luckily, at the time I had no idea it was coming and so we thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw the mysterious Kri Kri which are the wild goats in the mountains. This place was just absolutely amazing. The gorge can go from 30 meters wide to just 3 meters towards the end. And when you come to the end, the gorge opens out onto the sea and you think you can even see a little piece of Africa in the distance. But you don't really care at that point and just run as fast as you can into the water! We then took a ferry to a classic hippy beach town called Sougia. Although it was very small, Sougia had something that Ryan and I really liked and we still are not even sure what it was. It was just beautiful! Then we took another ferry to Paleochora. All these little towns in southwest Crete are connected through small ferry lines. The ride was simply breathtaking. Towering cliffs and hidden caves with the turquoise blue Mediterranean below. The pictures do no justice. The southwest of Crete has to be the most beautiful landscape Ryan and I have seen yet (even more than Corfu! Crazy right?!)

We made it back up to Chania to retrieve our bags and move on to the capital of Crete, Iraklio (Heraklion, Iraklion, etc. there are like 3 different names for everywhere!) We only stayed for one night and planned to move out to a little town called Anogia the next day. AFTER we visited the Minoan palaces of Knossos. OH yea, in Santorini we went to the Minoan museum and were BLOWN AWAY. The Minoans were AMAZING! There was no sexual discrimination, they ran a VERY democratic community, the artists were incredible, and they made amazing wines! Seriously, I became obsessed with these people. Even more amazing to me is that they knew the volcano in Santorini was going to blow. No bodies were found under the ashes of Akrotiri because the inhabitants had known the eruption was coming and evacuated to Crete. So, Ryan and I felt like we had an affinity with them because they had to leave everything behind and move out whether they wanted to or not. After we visited the ruins of the palace in Knossos we quickly made it over to the local bus station to get to Anogia. Anogia is a little mountain town best known for maintaining Cretan tradition and culture. Oh, and really good lamb. So we got to the Iraklio bus station only to discover that we had missed the bus. Oh no! We did not want to stay in Iraklio again, so we looked to see where else we could go. Hmm, what about Matala? The Lonely Planet Greece book has this to say about Matala..."Small village with famous Roman tombs that are caves along the hill side next to the beach. In the 1960's hippies came and lived in these caves." Nothing really exciting but I thought, "Hey, there's a beach! Let's go!" With Matala decided and only 20 min. until the bus left Ryan and I researched on the Kindle about this unknown place on the southern coast. "What? Joni Mitchell went there? WHAT?? 'Carey' was written about this place?! OH MY GOD! "MATALA MOON!!!"" I cannot even describe how utterly ecstatic I was when we boarded the bus. We arrived in Matala in the late afternoon and quickly found a nice little place with a kitchen for the night. First of all, these caves really are incredible. Not just in beauty BUT it's the one ancient site I've been to that, 1. you do not have to pay for 2. it's open ALL night! You can go in and think about the great Romans that are buried there or of how Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, AND Bob Dylan most likely slept there. We had an ouzo and toast to J at the real Mermaid Cafe which is now called Waves. We watched World Cup games at these very funky pirate themed bars, and we hiked over the hill to Red Beach which is only accessible by foot or by boat. It is, to this day, my favorite beach in Greece. Coming down the rocky hill you see one little shack selling beverages and snacks. It is a very open beach with naturists all along the water. Ryan and I of course joined in and realized everyone wasn't looking at us because we were naked but because we were the YOUNGEST ones there and we were not self-conscious whatsoever. The water was perfect and we spent the entire day there laying in the sun, jumping in the water, and then doing it all over again.

I will NEVER forget Crete and I certainly will never forget Matala. Sometimes this adventure makes me feel as if I'm doing it because I won't have a chance again. I've had to throw away that idea because there is NOTHING that is going to stop me from returning to Matala. Discovering how easy it is to travel here, how inexpensive it is to rent a little place for a week or two (or even a month!) in June or July has made me ask myself why haven't I done this before?! What has really stopped me? Every time we have arrived in a new place it has been overwhelming and difficult. But after only an hour or two we start to get our bearings and relax and have the most incredible time! It like getting in the water here. ALWAYS so cold (and you know what I'm used to...the PERFECTION that is Pensacola) BUT once you've let yourself jump all the way in, you wouldn't take back that jump if your life depended on it.

After Crete, we returned to Athens to begin a Work Away job with a guy named Vasilis. Next blog is about our crazy experiences there...and you won't want to miss it. Oh no.

Love to all! Finally, pictures of Greece are UP!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sardo Song

Sardinian Music

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Our First Greek Farm

Our first farm in Greece is on the island of Paros in the Cyclades chain of islands between Crete and mainland Greece. After three days in Athens we arrived on a ferry in the small town of Paroikia. The water is clear blue and beautiful, and the hills are sparse and dry, covered only with small juniper trees and bushes of wild sage and thyme.

We took a bus to the southern tip of the island, Alyki, where our host met us. Jim is a tall, middle-aged Englishman with long graying hair, and as we stepped off the bus he was sitting on a low rock wall by the beach, looking quite relaxed. He invited us to sit with him there for some initial chat. Jim and his longtime love Irini have spent most of their lives as working (and struggling) artists. After living in a collection of ruins on Paros for many years, they both came into unexpected inheritance, which they decided to use to create a grand creative arts retreat in a valley near the sea. This is where we are living and working now.

Over the last ten years Jim, Irini, and more than a hundred WWOOFers have constructed a massive garden complex with five guesthouses, numerous fountains and almond trees, olives, grape vines, and more. Everything has been built with the highest detail and craftsmanship imaginable, and they are close to finally starting their creative arts retreat. It is really one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. For the last week we have been busy working with rocks and concrete, mulching plants, and cutting weeds. The wet season is over, and almost every day has been hot with clear blue skies. It is wonderful after the long winter we've experienced here.

From the main house we can see far across the sea, across the numerous islands that form the Cyclades, and every night we watch the sun set over this mystical landscape. Some nights the air is very clear and everything glows in bright, solid colors as the sun sinks into the sea. Other nights a misty air settles about the mountains and the hazy red colors that illuminate the ridges create a Tolkienesque effect, like the mountains of Mordor or somewhere.

Here we sit with Jim discussing the state of the world from the vantage point of a "retreat," a word Jim used often on our first day to describe this place and his general outlook. Jim is a great talker, and loves to expound on his ideas about the modern world: how we work long hours in unrewarding jobs to make enough money to buy commodities that offer slight comfort in life, and one that is largely escapist. Meanwhile the privileged few grow wealthier, and the means of their accumulation are both sinister and sophisticated. At the same time, the products of traditional culture become mere commodities that quickly lose their depth of meaning. For Jim, the answer to these things may be in the form of retreat - which is what he hopes to accomplish with his arts center. By leaving behind the busy rat race and learning skills, real and practical skills, he believes people can gain a better sense of their own creative potential. At the same time perhaps they will learn to perceive the world more clearly, and in living closer to the land will learn to live without the products and entrapments of consumer culture. Jim has said several times that, "the peasants always get bad press," because they always live on the outside of the society that makes rules and doles out punishments. Perhaps the peasants had the good life all along, he speculates.

At any rate, we are living out his dream here. The work is definitely hard. But we are learning to handle it. The food is simple, but good. Gone are the two hour Italian lunches with wine and a good siesta afterward. Here we eat sandwiches for lunch and go back to work through the afternoon. It is a good change for us, and the times as well as the food Jim and Irini like to eat are virtually identical to ours. Irini is Greek and very hospitable. I think Medora and I both smiled when we first heard her voice, authentic Greek accent, earthy quality that Ilias has too. If you've ever seen "Never on Sunday," you know what I mean.

Paros is really a beautiful island, and we are looking forward to visiting a few other Cycladic islands such as Santorini, Delos, and Mykonos. The first ancient Greek lyric poet, Archilochus, was from Paros. There is something beautiful in thinking that lyric poetry was born on Paros and the surrounding islands. In fact, most of the lyric poets were from these islands, from Archilochus to Simonides to Sappho. The largely pastoral lifestyle would have made for a more introspective environment, while the desolate beauty lends a mystical feeling to the landscape. There is often a cool breeze blowing off the sea, and when it rustles the olive leaves it is almost natural to imagine the hand of some God behind it. The land is just so bare and prophetic, it seems that mystical creatures alone could ever be true natives of the island.

Website of Creative Arts Center...

Ilias the Greek

On our second night in Athens we were fortunate enough to meet Ilias, the owner of a small bar and our living introduction to everything Greek. We had spent that day wandering around the city on a Rick Steves tour, only to find that the Acropolis had closed at 3 PM. To compensate, we decided that we would hunt down some traditional Greek music that night. We took a cab to a place we'd read about only to find that it was closed as well. A bit dispirited, we started wandering back to our hotel. Medora had to use the bathroom so we ducked into a small bar, the owner barely nodding his head as we entered.

As I waited for Medora I watched the owner wander around performing his opening duties, scarcely acknowledging my presence. Some sixties rock played on his radio, and he was a man of middle height with a goatee and looked to be in his fifties. There was something reassuring about the place, the man and the music, so we decided to have a drink. In fits and starts, we slowly made friends with Ilias. First with questions about where to hear good music, the state of the Greek economy, etc. Finally Ilias came over with a picture of himself in his twenties. He was seated at a conga drum, long black hair and an outlandish hat bearing a close resemblance to a young Santana. So began our conversation that stretched across six hours, covering politics, Poseidon, the culture of the sixties and seventies, music, family, and Greek food.

We learned about the current economic situation in Greece, and about the way things used to be in Athens in the golden days of the sixties. Despite the oppressive rule of the Colonels, Athens was a thriving counter-cultural city in those days. We've heard about this from Medora's parents as well, who traveled a lot in Greece then. With Ilias we lamented the way consumerism has turned traditional culture into a cheap, artificial commodity, and how that cultural efflorescence of the sixties appears to be a singular event never again repeated. But Ilias loved the blues and rock music, and waxed poetic about his desire to go to the only place in America that had any appeal for him, the place where the music he loves started: our hometown.

In the course of our conversation a few friends and regulars of Ilias came into the bar, which sparked a discussion of Greek food. All of them were very interested in our farming work here, and were polite but vivacious conversationalists.

As the night grew later we felt that perhaps it was time to head back to hostel, but then Ilias would walk to his cooler saying "now I do something special" and bring a beer for us to share. I had started with Tsipouro, a Greek version of Grappa. I soon realized though that he would go on filling my glass with the firewater unless I said something, to which he responded, "yes, I understand you...after awhile it is not so good."

Ilias is about the same age as both of our parents, but never had any children. Medora speculated later that perhaps that is why we all developed such a close bond in so short a time. We really developed an intimacy with Ilias that I would not have believed possible had I not actually experienced it. As we parted that night Ilias said, "I love you, I really love you" to us, and we responded as naturally as if we were talking to an old, old friend. Ilias promised to come to New Orleans, and we hope that he will take us up on our offer of showing him around.

In retrospect it is difficult to convey just what an impression Ilias made on us. For me he seemed to embody everything wonderful about the modern as well as the ancient Greek world. He was brilliant and intelligent, yet very passionate and would grow heated about politics and culture. He had utter disdain for religion and churches, but spoke in obscure, mystical ways about the power of the sea god Poseidon, in such a way that there was nothing ridiculous or incredible about it. He was a great listener and would respond to you in a way that fully involved what you had just said, and not just some thought he had been holding on to and waiting to say. It was as if he knew you very well, and could speak to you at your deepest, most personal level.

For us he was nothing less than our living Zorba, and I cannot imagine a better person to have met in Athens. I am in awe of the fact that it all happened, how sheer coincidence appeared to have led us to this crucial, fateful encounter.

Athens At Last!

Five months after arriving in Europe we finally made it to Greece on April 26th, flying into Athens. The city itself is a sprawling metropolis, much of it built in a haphazard way just in the last century, but the downtown area is quaint and beautiful. We spent the afternoon walking through the old town Plaka area to the base of the Acropolis hill, where the ancient Agora, or marketplace stood. Now it is a massive, fenced in park strewn with columns, crumbling walls, and giant stones. The temple of Hephaestus stands alone on the far side of the ruins in near-perfect splendor.

It was late in the afternoon as we walked the path along the Agora that leads up to the Acropolis. The sun would soon set and a bronze haze settled over the skeletal remains of the ancient city. A cool wind blew and the scent of pine trees filled the air. To be there at the moment was a convergence of information taken in over many years, of poetry and legend, of history and imagination, and now I found myself standing where it all happened. I saw the rugged land rolling in high hills on all sides, breathed the cool, heady air beneath the great blue sky. I understood what the ancient Athenians experienced at the most physical level: a landscape stripped down to the bare essentials; earth, sea and sky in their purest forms. Here they scraped a living from an austere, invigorating land and it made them resilient, hardy and intelligent.

The soft wind seemed to convey something ethereal and profound, the feeling growing of time having passed but the spirit living still. Most of the remains in Athens are mere rubble heaps compared to what still stands in Rome, but the force of the place is remarkable. I found myself asking again and again: why did so many revolutionary things happen here? Why did the fire start in Athens?


After staying up all night in Livorno we met up with our friends, Vic and Ady, to catch the ferry to Sardinia. We met Vic and Ady while we were working at La Rocchetta. For some reason they took a liking to us and offered to take us to their summer house in Sardinia in exchange for help painting the place. We readily agreed and on the morning of April 12 we boarded a huge ferry for the four-hour ride to Sardinia, where we stayed for ten days. Here's a summary of our experiences:

Our Hosts: Vic is a prodigy of aging - the sharpest 80 year old I have ever met. He is passionate about languages and Spanish flamenco, and has a mean strumming/picking style which he taught himself on guitar. Ady is likewise a model for good aging, ten years younger than Vic and another twenty years younger in looks and vitality. They met when she was only seventeen, and the worldly Vic swept her off her feet and they've been traveling the world ever since. Together they made a great couple to be with, enjoying good food, good drink and good conversation - like Claudio and Michelle, they were our kind of people.

The Places: We arrived at the port of Olbia in the early afternoon and had our first glimpse of the Mediterranean island terrain, hilly and ruggedly beautiful, a shepherd's paradise. We drove across the entire island that afternoon and arrived at Vic and Ady's summer house in the southern part of the island, close to the capital city of Cagliari. The house sits in a half-circle of condominiums all deserted in April, looking out at the sea. The nearby town of Pula is a sleepy little place, but much changed in the last twenty years through the influence of tourism. The sea was still pretty cold for swimming, but very clear and deep blue. We took numerous little trips to see the ancient lighthouse dating back to Roman and Phoenician times, standing on the edges of steep cliffs looking out over the sea. Although much has changed in Sardinia, it is still possible to see herds of goats or sheep walking down the road, the shepherds willing to sell fresh cheese from their cars.

The Wine: Sardinia is one of the few places in Europe where the Phylloxera aphid did not destroy many of the ancient vines. As a result, all the Sardinian wines have a distinctive flavor that is delicious and cannot be found elsewhere. The island is also noted for its longevity and some have traced this effect to the daily consumption of local wine which is especially rich in the OPC class of antioxidants. For more on this read Roger Corder's book, The Red Wine Diet. Corder is a legitimate scientist and researcher, and I think the title must have been a conceit of the publisher to capitalize on the inexhaustible appetite for titles with the word "diet." In fact, I'm thinking of writing my own entitled "The Ancient Greek Diet: How Barley, Feta and Wine can make you fit as Apollo and smart as Socrates."

Music: The highlight of our trip was an afternoon spent at a locals bar in Pula, the sort of uniquely Italian cafe/bar where old men sit for hours talking. We were an odd sight there, three travelers outside of tourist season taking turns playing our guitar, Medora and Erin drinking Pernod in honor of Hemingway and Henry Miller. Curiosity soon overcame shyness and a revolving assortment of local characters came over to chat with us. The afternoon wore on and more people took up places out front. The owner tried out a couple of Italian pop songs on the guitar. The sky darkened and rain seemed imminent when the owner's friend appeared, who'd been summoned to play some Sardinian music. Suddenly everyone ushered us inside the cafe where they started to sing the "song that never ends," an alternating verse-chorus song where people take turns improvising verses and singing the chorus all together. The song is a battle between two sides, singers from one making jokes about the other that send everyone into hilarious laughter. We never could quite make sense of the cryptic Sardo dialect, but we were pretty sure that a few verses were at our expense, probably because I was foolish enough to enter the battle by improvising a verse.

We had many good meals with Vic and Ady, especially large lunches in the relaxed Italian fashion. We are so grateful to them for their generosity and friendship. It really was a wonderful and spontaneous opportunity, and we thank them for it.

Catching Up

So we left off with us about to go to a farm in Tuscany before going on to Sardinia, with ambitious plans to continue on to Sicily and Tunisia before finally working back to Greece. Well, the farm in Tuscany was great but we only stayed there a week, deciding in the end that if we had to wait to go to Sardinia, we might as well wait with our good friends at La Rocchetta. So we spent a happy week with Michelle, Claudio and Dani, where Medora's friend Erin spontaneously joined us.

On April 11th we took a train to Livorno, an old port town where we would catch the ferry to Sardinia in the morning. We wandered around asking at hotels but couldn't find a room anywhere. Eventually we settled in at a little bar outfitted like an old pirate ship where we wrote collaborative poems and made friends with the owners. They assured us that Livorno was a safe place at night, so we stayed at the pirate bar until closing and then walked over to the local fisherman's cafe, which was just opening for the early risers.

At dawn we met our friends and took the ferry to Sardinia, where we stayed for ten days. The proposed trip to Sicily and Tunisia looked too expensive so we opted to spend a few days in Rome before catching a flight to Athens. We stayed there a few days, and then took a ferry to the island of Paros, where we are now. So that's the general outline of of the last month and a half, and the following entries will go into more detail.

Check out our new pictures! They cover the time of the big lunch at La Rocchetta with Scott and his group, our travels with them to Florence and Venice, our time at the farm in Tuscany, Erin's arrival at La Rocchetta, and our trip to Sardinia.

Of course, right when we arrive in Greece Medora's camera stops working. Hopefully we will have pictures of Greece soon though.