Five Things (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of Five Things (Part 1) which you can read by clicking this link: Five Thing (Part 1)

6.) Excellent service. Eating out in Greece is not just a chance to eat delicious food, but to spend quality time with your friends and family. Similar in other European countries, you are never rushed to order or leave your table after finishing a meal. At cafes and bars you are usually brought the bill with your drink in order to keep tabs of what you’ve ordered over time, but at almost all other restaurants it is up to you when to receive and pay the bill. In addition to the leisurely meal service, you are almost always given some sort of a “freebie”. At restaurants, sometimes this could be a small glass of Raki (an unsweetened Turkish alcoholic drink) or a dessert on the house. Go to a bar and glasses of water are always first brought to the table first perhaps along with some snacks ranging from popcorn to full on veggie trays after you order. Finally, at cafes you usually get a sweet treat to accompany your coffee. All this excellent service comes with no additional cost as tipping is not the norm in Greece despite the occasional rounding up of the bill.

7.) All the outdoor space. From patio seating at Tavernas, street side cafes, and Polykatoikia style housing, the Greeks love to use their outdoor space. Even when we first arrived in January, space heaters were placed outside almost all restaurants, bars, and cafes so that their outdoor space could be used by customers. Many restaurants have their main building location with the kitchen and a few tables inside but with the main dining area across the street under the protection of the trees and some umbrellas. Almost all apartments in Greece are considered polykatoikias. Based off of Corbusier’s Dom-ino system of housing, these buildings have simple skeletons that can lead to multiple uses. All of these polykatoikias have balconies that look onto the street below. Having these street viewing balconies results in a neighborhood watch as people have their meals, hang their laundry, and take care of their plants. Whenever there is a loud noise outside on our street, half the people are looking out from their apartments balconies to see what the commotion is about. The result is an overall safer neighborhood at the expense of dealing with nosey neighbors.

8.) Not overridden with tourists. With the exception of the Acropolis and Syntagma areas, most of Athens is full of Greeks. I didn’t appreciate this until visiting Barcelona where it felt that everything there was made for tourism (Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the built up waterfront areas, even the main pedestrian street was lined with tourist shops). I felt like the only locals were those working at the shops and restaurants. This compares to the currently less popular tourist destination of Athens. Especially in our neighborhood of Pangrati, avoiding the tourist clogged streets can be easy. While these congested places do exist (Acropolis, Plaka, Syntagma) and are getting worse as the weather warms up, we more or less can decide when we want to venture into these areas or stick to our local neighborhood.

9.) The ever present Acropolis view. No other city can boast the same grand view of such an ancient site. With limited high rise buildings, the Acropolis can be seen from throughout the city. Our academic building has a fabulous view from the 3rd floor library and some students even have a bit of it in view from their apartment balconies. One CYA administrator said that she felt herself constantly closing her office’s blinds that reveal a view of the Acropolis reasoning that whenever she looked at it, her work felt miniscule in comparison. At the same time, it is hard to not be inspired by these great works of architecture that always keep you company as you wander around the city.

10.) Greek kindness. Amidst the economic and refugee crisis, the Greeks remain a joyful group of people that celebrate every day of life. Overall, our experience has been a welcoming one with many willing to go out of their way to help us out. Greeks are eager to talk to you to practice their English (at the expense of me learning Greek) and appreciate it when you attempt to use simple greeting phrases. While some Greek habits remain peculiar, most have good reasoning behind them that makes them a convivial bunch. If searching for a country filled to the brim with hospitality, look no further than Greece.

 

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Poet Sandal Maker

Before I came over to study in Greece, there were two things that I knew I would purchase during the semester: a Turkish rug and hand made leather sandals. Well, I left Istanbul with my carryon stuffed with two Turkish prayer rugs and I think that I will have to pay another visit to Melissinos before my time in Athens comes to an end. Melissinos the Poet Sandal Maker of Athens is a historic shop established in 1920 by Georgios Melissinos who passed the business to his son Pantellis, graduate of Parsons School of Design, who currently runs the workshop. Located off Ermou near the central Monastiraki Square, the shop makes tailor-made sandals and has attracted thousands of tourists, not to mention many celebrities.

I walked over to the shop with a friend on a Sunday to finally get myself a pair of these highly desire sandals. The shop was filled with about ten other customers including one of our classmate’s family who was visiting from the states. We were handed a brochure that showed pictures of about 25 different pairs of sandals ranging from €35-50 and we were asked which ones we would like to try on. After guessing my correct shoe size, I tried on a pair of the “Aeolian 2.” I immediately liked them and decided that this was the pair I wanted to get. The straps were then adjusted (similar to how Chaco straps are pulled tighter or looser) and then nailed down so that the sandals fit me perfectly. The straps were punched with holes so that they could be fastened and then the excess was cut off. The whole process took about twenty minutes even with the store being filled with other customers. We both paid in cash (paying with a card is not a thing in Greece). It is worth noting that both the Poet and his helper speak some of the best English that I have heard at a store or restaurant. Overall, a wonderful no-stress situation. Hopefully these sandals will hold up over the next month and I will be back in May for another pair.

Crete (Day 3)

Our final day in Crete began with us departing for Margarites village. This village is known for the production of beautiful ceramics due to the high quality of clay that is found nearby. We visited one particular ceramics shop for a demonstration on creating works on a potter’s wheel as well as showing us some “trick pottery” that has been created for many centuries in this town. The town is filled with many ceramic shops, a dangerous thing for those of us who were supposed to be traveling light. We had time to walk around and explore many of the shops before heading to our next destination, the Arkadi Monastery.

The Askadi Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox monastery located in central Crete. I enjoyed this monastery with its Venetian baroque church that was different from the many Byzantine style churches that are scattered around Greece. This particular monastery played an active role in the Cretan resistance of Ottoman rule in the mid 19th century. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming Ottoman forces, the Cretan blew up barrels of gunpowder choosing to sacrifice themselves rather than surrender. Due to the large amount of women and children that would have sought refuge in the monastery, this event gave us an eery feeling at the otherwise bright and sunny day at Askadi. Apparently sacrifices such as these were common throughout Crete and parts of Greece during the arrival of the Ottomans, but due to the large amount of deaths that occurred here (943) it attracted the attention of the rest of the world. We then traveled to the town of Rethymno, one of the northern port cities, for lunch where we got a gyro and walked by the water.

Our final site tour was at the WWII Allies Cemetery in Souda. The cemetery is beautifully upkept with a peaceful view of the water. About 1500 graves of British, Australian, and New Zealanders soldiers and officers exist at the site. Most notably is that of John D. Pedlebury, a British archaeologist who was the archaeological commissioner of Knossos and played an important part in counter-intelligence in WWII. We ended the day with a walk around the port town of Chania before taking the overnight ferry back to Athens.

Overall, Crete was more beautiful that I expected. There was significantly less modern architecture and a fair amount of beautiful neoclassical buildings in many of the towns we visited, compared to the polykatoikia filled Athens. I enjoyed visiting all the seaside towns on the northern part of the island as well as traveling through the mountainous interior. It was also great to check of the ancient site of Knossos off my bucket list. If we had more time I would have loved to hike some of the Cretan gorges and ravines, but perhaps that will happen at some other time in the future.

Crete (Day 2)

Our Saturday began with breakfast at the hotel, departing by bus at 8:30 for the Diktaion Andro Cave in Lasithi. After about an hour drive we hiked up to the top of the mountain where the mouth of the cave is located. Many myths surround this cave, the most popular being that this is the location Zeus grew up. Many offerings and human bones were originally found around the bottom of the cave which is covered in stalactites and stalagmites with a small lake at the very bottom. The cave cooled down in temperature as we descended the concrete steps, giving us a break from the hot Cretan sun.

Our next stop was the small town of Plaka (not to be mistaken with the Plaka neighborhood in Athens). Here we immediately got on a small boat that ferried us to Spinalonga Islet. This small island was the site of both Venetian and Ottoman fortifications until it was later turned into a Leper colony for the citizens of Crete. Serving as an almost Alcatraz of Crete, members of the Leper colony lived on the island as late as 1957 when the last patient left the island after a cure was discovered for their disease. The island was beautiful with views of the mediterranean and of Plaka in the near distance. After a tour of the island we headed back for lunch where we were able to eat fresh octopus as we sat at a restaurant right on the water. With over an hour before we were to head back to our hotel, we went to a nearby rocky beach. The water was cold but clear, I opted to view it from the warm dry shore.

Back in Heraklio, we had our souvlaki before sitting down at an outdoor cafe to watch a soccer game on television. We later walked down to the water again before heading back to our hotel for the evening. After the ancient site/museum heavy Friday, this day was a good since we were able to see much of the Cretan countryside and areas further away from the city we were staying at.

Thessaloniki (Part 2)

Our third day in Northern Greece involved a day outside the city. We began by visiting the Pella Archaeological Museum and Site. Pella is best known as the ancient capital of the kingdom of Macedon during the time of Alexander the Great. I loved seeing the beautiful pebble mosaics that were on site under large coverings and then the reconstructions in the museum. Typically when we visit a site all the sculptures and finer details are removed and put into the museum so it was a treat to see these works of art still in their original locations. Our next stop was to the Lefkadia Tomb, also known as the Macedonian Tomb of Justice. Discovered in 1954 and restored in 1998 this tomb is fascinating with its painted depictions of Greek gods and is believed to have belonged to one of Alexander the Great’s bodyguards. This is the first underground tomb that I have seen with such an intricate facade. Even though none of the elements are structural, I found it interesting to see Greek architecture interpreted into their beliefs of the afterlife.

Our next two stops included the School of Aristotle and the Nicholaos Park in Naoussa. While it can be debated as to whether or not Philip II actually hired Aristotle to tutor the young Alexander and it can be questioned as to if this was actually where they held their lessons, the site was beautiful and filled with happy stray dogs. We walked along a path following the stream to visit some small caves and enjoyed the sunshine before moving on to our final stop of the day. The Nicholaos Park in Naoussa reminded me of an American summer campsite with all the wooden structures and small river running through the area. We ate lunch outside at a restaurant with a lovely wooden deck. I ordered the “πέστροφα” or trout that was the perfect freshly cooked meal to enjoy at the park.

Our fourth day was unique because we were able to choose which itinerary we wanted to follow. I selected a tour of Thessaloniki’s history through the Ladadika Quarter and the Port where we learned about one of the city’s preserved neighborhoods that is now filled with restaurants, cafes, and bars. Featuring Dutch architecture the Ladadika used to be where sailors arriving in the port would go for food and company. The tour of the port featured a look at the first pier which has turned warehouses into museums and restaurants, similar to other cities whose shipping industry has died down in the past century. With the afternoon free I climbed up the White Tower, one of Thessaloniki’s most recognizable monuments, for a view of the waterfront. For dinner, we tried an Armenian restaurant that we all loved. While it was similar to Greek food, different spices and herbs were used to flavor the food that made it different from our usual fare. We tried their kempaps, cheese, Armenian bread and salad. All delicious.

Our final day involved a strenuous bus ride back to Athens. We first stopped at Vergina to look and the ancient tombs, supposedly of Philip II and Alexander the Great’s son, but our professors begged to differ on these identifications. Nonetheless, the underground tombs were amazing to see along with all the ancient artifacts that were displayed. Our final stop was at Thermopylae, the site of the battle of the 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas against the Persians. While the coastal pass used to have the sea come up to the hillside, the water level has since gone down and is now a few kilometers away from the site. Finally, we completed our final bus ride back to Athens exhausted from our week of site seeing in Northern Greece.

 

Thessaloniki (Part 1)

Our third and final program trip occurred this past week. Our journey consisted of a long bus ride to and from the Northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Known as Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki is a college city with its large university and is filled with many restaurants, bars, and cafes. With its waterfront location that help lead to its rise in power, today its residents and visitors enjoy its views from the pedestrian walkway that extends for miles directly alongside the water. Northern Greece differs dramatically from Attica with its combination of tall lush mountainous regions to sections of large flat plains that lend well to agriculture. This trip allowed us to experience both a different city while at the same time exposing us to more of the beautiful landscapes of the Greek countryside.

We departed from Athens on Tuesday, April 5th stopping at the small mountainous town of Ambelakia for lunch and a tour of the Schwartz Mansion. Back in its heyday Ambelakia produced a beautiful red dye from a special flower that only grew in that region. Tucked into the side of a mountain the village has been in decline since the Industrial Revolution replaced the naturally occurring dye with the chemically produced. What remains is a quaint village with a dwindling population…the perfect quiet stop to break up a long bus drive.

We arrived at Thessaloniki around 5:00 with the evening free. My roommates and I took advantage of the long walkway that extends along the water and went for a run. Even though Thessaloniki is a young city with many other students our age enjoying the seaside views, there did not appear to be too many others running. Not to mention running while wearing shorts and tshirts…the Greeks prefer to wear tight fitting leggings or sweatpants leaving us feeling slightly uncomfortable being the only ones revealing our knees despite the 70 degree weather.

While Greek food is absolutely delicious, Athens often comes short of offering a greater variety of cuisines, in particular, Mexican. With Thessaloniki catering to thousands of twenty-somethings, there seemed to be a greater variety of dining options which brought us to our dinner selection. El Burrito did the trick with offering some much needed guacamole, margaritas, quesadillas, and every other Mexican staple. Since we were visiting another part of Greece instead of another country we felt little regret abandoning our usual Greek staples of souvlaki, gyros, and olives.

Our second day in Thessaloniki involved a walking tour of many Roman and Byzantine sites. We began with the Gallerius Complex, commissioned by 4th century Roman Emperor Galerius, which included the Palace, the Arch, and the Rotunda. While the Palace is no more than a few ruins, the Arch and the Rotunda still exist. Made into a Byzantine church after the fall of the Roman Empire (along with everything else old in Greece), the church boasts beautiful mosaics with bird and floral motifs. The Arch of Gallerius also remains intact with its marble sculptural panels depicting a victory over the Persians. Afterwards, we completed three quick tours of different Byzantine churches throughout the city (Acheiropoiitos church, Aghia Sofia, and Agios Demetrios).

With the afternoon off, we decided to take a sunset boat ride around the port. Many large shipping boats floated out in the harbor as we rode past. The waterfront was filled with many people enjoying the warm weather with their friends and family. All of the cafes and bars facing the water were packed full of those getting their late afternoon drinks. We spent the rest of the evening sitting near the water by the White Tower, one of the most popular spots in Thessaloniki.

Marble Carving

This semester I have been lucky enough to take marble carving classes on Tuesday evenings with some other CYA students. The studio is located in Pangrati about a 5-10 minute walk from CYA and my apartment. We began our first session admiring previous works completed in the studio. Some were carved by first timers, others by those that work in the studio full time. Regardless, all were beautiful. Afterwards, we sat down to books filled with images and previous projects so that we could start to get an idea of what we might want to carve. Subjects ranged from Athenian owls to more contemporary designs. I decided on a stylized version of an antefix, inspired by my Greek architecture class. An antefix is an upright adornment which terminates the tiles of the roof. In grand buildings, such as the Parthenon, these antefixes could be extremely large and elaborate. We worked on drawing out precisely what we wanted our carving to look like on paper and then traced this onto carbon transfer paper. From this we taped the transfer paper onto a slab of marble that roughly fit the dimensions of our carving. Finally, we traced over one more time so that the lines were transferred onto the marble itself. From there we were able to start carving.

I began carving my slab at the start of the second class. We were told that it would take about two full sessions to get the hang of using the hammer and chisel. Seven sessions in and I am still no master but I did eventually get the hang of using these two tools. The hammers are relatively all the same with some having larger or smaller handles. You can use whichever one fits your preference. As for the chisels, we work with about five different types. Some were used for removing large chunks of marble to create a high relief while others carve the finer outline details. My favorite one to use comes to a large point at the end so that you could chip away large pieces at a time. Completing the details can be strenuous so it was nice to get the chance to simply hack away.

Around 9:30 our marble carving session comes to an end and we are treated with wine and delicious food. Everybody eats standing around their carvings blocks chatting about the difficulties of our sessions (how we think we might be getting carpal tunnel, all the dust we are inhaling, chips of marble flying into our eyes) but we all enjoy ourselves, our class, and our wonderful instructors. With only one class left of our eight sessions, I am almost done with my carving with just some tidying up and smoothing out of the surfaces. I think it goes without saying that this class has taught me the true talent needed to complete all those ancient statues and carvings in the architecture that I am studying.