γειά σου (YAH-sas - Hello) - Greetings From Greece!

Some of our loyal blog followers may be confused by the title of this post. If you were expecting to see "The View from Vilnius", you are not going crazy. Yes, we had originally planned to take the Tauck "Russian Glories - Baltic Treasures" tour, but after Comrade Putin's excursion into Crimea, we decided to go elsewhere.

For those of you who haven't joined us before, welcome.  Through our blog, we hope you have all the fun of the trip--with none of the travel hassles, packing, physical ailments, or expense.  We're thrilled to have you on board.

So here we are in Athens, Greece.  We are doing this part of the trip ourselves (the itinerary map is below--Athens, Delphi, and Santorini) and then will catch the Tauck "Turkey, Land of Contrasts" tour starting in Istanbul.

Sunday, June 16 - Tuesday, June 18, 2014

A relatively short (for us) flight from Chicago to Frankfurt, a 2 hour layover, and then a 3 hour flight to Athens followed by a 30 minute ride to the King George Hotel got us in at about 2 pm. But it was about 6 am on our bodies! 

Our room overlooks Syntagma Square, which is where the National Parliament building is located. And looking in the other direction, we have a wonderful view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon! You'll have to trust us, because the photos don't do it justice (there will be photos later).

Meanwhile, Morpheus was calling to us, but we knew we could not succumb. Had to start to reset those clocks. So we got the standard neighborhood map from the concierge and headed out to do some preliminary sightseeing.  We walked up Ermou Street, which is lined with nice shops...yes, many international stores, but also many fine local ones. It reminded us of streets in Seville, Rome, Barcelona, Prague, Dublin.....but this does have a decidedly Mediterranean look and feel. We knew it was a long walk to and then up the Acropolis (and that was on our plan for tomorrow), so we just wandered through the maze of streets, catching tempting glimpses of the Acropolis every now and then. There were countless tavernas offering all of the Greek specialties.

Meze is similar to Spanish tapa: small plates with a mixed variety of foods.
And we saw many street-side stands selling the very popular sesame-bread rings called Koulouria.  

Athens, as a place where people have lived, dates back to 3,000 BC. According to myth, it was named for Athena who won a contest with Poseidon. Are there any other capital (or major) cities named for a Goddess?  Today, it is home to 5 million people.  Officially the unemployment rate is 21%, but our guide said it was higher. However, in the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area we saw very few empty storefronts. We all know the same can't be said of our cities in the USA.

After about 90 minutes of walking in the heat, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Adjoining our hotel (and owned by the same company) is the Grand  Bretagne (the old dame of Athens hotels), where we went for dinner at their Rooftop Garden-- known for its "best view in town" of the Acropolis. Actually, the Acropolis can be seen from nearly anywhere in town and it is amazing. Further, we just don't agree with those who poo poo Athens as a run-down urban sprawl-- not deserving of much time. We've been captivated so far and it would have been a mistake to miss it.

The meal was just as notable for the food as the view. Wendy started with cold ginger/garlic soup with a garnish of citrus cream.  My oh my. Then, she moved to the fresh grouper-- simply prepared with steamed vegetables. Delectable.
Wayne had roast chicken with gnocchi and vegetables...
...and finished with a dark chocolate cigar pastry served with dark chocolate sorbet; Wendy wrapped it up with a mouth watering almond cake served with berry sorbet. Any concerns we may have had about over-indulging (on the first day!) were going to be eliminated by our 8 hour walking tour on Tuesday.
We then hit the pillows and were out cold. Wayne did wake up at about 1:30 and just had to take a picture of the Acropolis lit up at night:
Actually, we juggled some things around and decided to split the tour over two days. We realized that eight hours was a bit ambitious even for us on day one.

The tour we had arranged was a combination Jewish tour of Athens and a classics tour capped off at the Acropolis. We started at the Jewish Museum of Greece  where we learned that the Jews have been a presence in Greece since the fall of the Second Temple (71 CE) - the Romaniot were the early Jews-- their descendants built Aytz Chayim (a synagogue we visited later in the tour, that was built in 1908 and recently renovated).

An influx of Sephardim (Mediterranean Jews) moved to Greece at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Approximately 5,000 Jews remain in Greece today. Other significant Jewish communities throughout Greece (historically) included-- but are not limited to-- Corfu, Crete, and Salonika. The museum did a nice job of capturing the historical arc of the Jewish community here with many ritual items as well as a thorough treatment of the resistance effort during WWII. The Jewish tour also included a visit to Beth Shalom-- another synagogue-- this one built in the 1930s. We were surprised that the synagogue completely withstood the destruction inflicted on other Jewish communities during the war.  One sidebar: Both the synagogues we visited were traditional, meaning they are not part of the World Union for Progressive Jewry (a burgeoning sister movement  to the Reform Movement  in North America). Additionally, we learned that in traditional Sephardic worship, the women sit upstairs whereas in Romaniot worship, they sit on the other side of a latticed wall. The last component of the Jewish tour was a visit to the Holocaust monument--dedicated by Elie Wiesel. Set in a garden, the monument included seven different stone pieces shaped like a broken Star of David. This is to represent that Jews have been scattered, but still have a central place. Each piece has carvings of locations within Greece where Jews played an important role-- whether as a community or in a battle.

(You should be able to read either the Hebrew or the Greek: (Synagogue) Aytz Hayim - Tree of Life)

Beth Shalom

Holcaust Monument

The classic Grecian (and Roman) part of the walking  tour included: the Agora (marketplace)-- both Greek and Roman,

the Stoa (a column-lined shopping mall, much like that found in St. Mark's Square in Venice; note though that the columns are not original and reconstruction was funded by the Rockefellers),

the Temple of Hephaestus, blacksmith (and sword maker) of the Gods (and, actually, the best preserved temple in Athens), 
the Tower of the Winds, a unique 8-sided building that also functioned as a sun dial and water clock, 

and the Museum of Kerameikos (with some impressive 2,500 year old sarcophagi).

We also stepped into a store that sells 160 kinds of Greek wines and has them displayed quite impressively!

And, of course, lunch! We stopped for cool drinks (it was 35C-- equivalent to mid 80s and very sunny) at an outdoor cafe (in a string of same that went several blocks)-- overlooking the ruins of the Greek agora on one side with an ongoing excavation (partially staffed by American students) on the other -- with the Acropolis overhead. We had a thoroughly traditional and fresh (not what you would except from a tourist restaurant) lunch-- Greek salad, tzatiki, fried zucchini, chicken souvlaki, and meatball (which was actually like a very delicious grilled burger made with ingredients we would put in meat loaf!).

All of this was led by our superb guide Laura Giannola.

We then went back to the hotel and rested up...for dinner!

We walked to a place called
Το μυρμήγκι και το κρίκετ, or, in English, The Ant and the Cricket. It is a popular spot both with tourists and with locals. It features all kinds of authentic Greek dishes. When we sat down they brought us each a shot glass of ouzo and a bowl of mixed olives! (Those were free, but the bread was E1.50!). Someone really enjoyed her drink!!!

 We started with some fried Gruyere coated with sesame seeds and honey. Sounds strange, but sooo delicious. Also a plate of marinated fava beans with some hummus-like moosh. Tres bien! Then Wendy had moussaka (had to try it!). It was not at all like what it is in the States; more like a shepherd's pie.

Let's just say it was not her favorite dish of all time.
Wayne went with the simple grilled sea bass. It was very tasty....

...but the accompanying "greens" were quite gross.
The funny thing was we were eating the olives and the bread and our hands were getting greasy from the oil, but there were no napkins (or silverware). When the waiter came to take our order, he showed us that they were in a drawer in the table!!! Guess everyone is supposed to know you should take your own.

They had desserts, but we opted to go to a pastry store we had passed on the way to the restaurant. There we each bought one small piece of baklava (pistachio for Wendy, chocolate for Wayne). Again, this was not like the thick, heavy pieces we get at home. Each of these was no bigger than the top joint of your thumb, and just hundreds of ultra-thin layers of flavor and honey. Yes, to die for!

So ended our first full day in Greece.

Tomorrow (Wednesday): the Acropolis, the new Acropolis Museum, and a cooking class!!!!!

Love to all,  w and w..........

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