The Risks (and Rewards) of Winging It

Well, I’d say Tuesday was a change in plans – but I didn’t have much of a plan to start out with. After a trip to Ancient Olympia, I still had three nights to kill before heading to Athens. I was waffling between heading to Methoni and Napflio. Methoni is located down on the very southwestern tip of the Peloponnese and is most well known for being the home to a great castle that was once captured by the Venetians. On the other side, Napflio is significantly closer to Athens and was the first capital of Greece and another former Venetian stronghold. I decided to just wing it and let my fortunes fall as they may and end up wherever I end up. Travelling like this is equal parts exhilarating and nervewracking, with a healthy dose of anticipation and terror thrown in as well. Part of the reason that I wasn’t able to make a decision is that I didn’t have the information on transportation – I knew both locations would require at least two bus changes, but I had no idea where or what times the buses would depart.

Public transportation in Greece means the bus. And each region has its own bus – and even though they are all part of the same KTEL system – each regional bus operates on its own and doesn’t necessarily communicate with the others. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some of the buses have good websites with helpful information in both English and Greek, but the ones I was looking at have terrible websites, only in Greek. So I figured my best bet to figure out which bus I needed to take was just to ask at the station in Pyrgos, the main town that connects with Olympia.

With this plan in mind I set out from Olympia early, attempting to catch the 7:30 bus to Pyrgos. Due to the holiday schedule or misinformation, the bus didn’t actually come until 8:00. About 45 minutes later, I arrived in Pyrgos. Asking at the ticket counter, I was told the best way to get to Methoni would be to travel to Kyparissia and then from there it would be easy to get to Methoni. Despite what I had figured out from the guidebook and from the internet that would be easiest to get to Methoni from Kalamata (the next major town past Kyparissia), I went with the advice of the ticket counter and headed to Kyparissia.

Here’s where things go really off the rails: once I arrived in Kyparissia, I was told there was no bus to Methoni or Pylos (a larger town near Methoni), only to a town called Hora (sometimes spelled Chora). But the good news was, it was coming soon. So I got on the third bus of the day and headed to Hora. The minute I stepped off the bus, I realized I had made a mistake. The bus dropped me randomly on the street in what appeared to be the middle of town with no indication of a bus station or even a shop selling tickets. Of course there is no one around who speaks English, either. I decide to make a halfhearted attempt at hitchhiking – Pylos is only 21 kilometers away – but then it starts to rain.

After making a loop of the town trying to find something that looks like a bus station, I give up and park myself under a large umbrella near where the bus dropped me off earlier. After sitting here for another hour and a half, finally someone attempts to ask me what I’m doing there instead of just staring. From here, we figure out that the bus station is the convenience store I passed more than once – with a tiny sign and bus schedule in the window. Of course, there are no more buses in the direction I want to go for the day. So at this point my options are stay in Hora or get a taxi to Pylos. I decide to take a taxi and get this day over with. 25 Euros later, I’m in Pylos at a nice hotel (with a nice off-season price!). So it might not be what I planned for the day, but Pylos is a picturesque town (when it isn’t raining) on Navarino Bay, one of the largest natural harbors in Greece.

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Mysteries of Mystras

Mystras is an ancient Byzantine city located about eight kilometers from the town of Sparti and Ancient Sparta. While not as well known as Sparta, what remains is far more impressive. Located on the top of a mountain for defensive purposes, it served as the capital of the Byzantine holdings in the area during the 14th and 15th centuries. After that it passed through a few hands, notably the Venetians (from 1687-1715) and the Ottoman Empire. According to Lonely Planet it is “one of the most important historical sites in the Peloponnese.”

Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras

Ruins from the top of the castle at Mystras

The town is split into three main sections: the lower town, the upper town and the fortress (castle). If you visit, I would recommend starting at the Fortress Gate at the top and walking (or driving) down to the lower part to avoid having to walk back up. Even from the Fortress Gate, the hike to the top of the mountain where the remains of the castle are is brief but steep. The view from the castle ruins is amazing – not only can you see the ruins from the other parts of the town, you can also look out over the rows and rows of olive and orange trees, to modern Sparti and Ancient Sparta, and the mountains that shield the settlement on the other side.

Wandering down the hill, we came across a number of beautiful buildings and lots of remains of what were surely beautiful buildings a mere 700 years ago. A majority of the ruins have been restored and many are still in good shape. There are several churches, a palace (currently closed for restoration), as well as a number of walls and built terraces to keep everything (and everyone) in their place. The museum is small but worth a quick look.

View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta

View from the castle at Mystras, looking out towards Sparta

Restoration work has been underway since the 1950s. The ruins were named a World Heritage Site in 1989, including the castle, the palace, the churches and the monasteries. One of the monasteries, the Monastery of Pantanassa is still functioning. When we visited, we mostly saw cats but we did see one nun (who then tried to sell us some dish towels). The modern town of Mystras caters heavily to visitors, with many tavernas and small shops and is located just down the hill about two kilometers.

This site is well worth a visit if you are in the Peloponnese. While it might not have the name recognition of Sparta, the ruins are in much better shape and there are great signs explaining the city and the buildings, as well as about life in the Byzantine Era in general. Mystras is well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee.

 

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Two Weeks in Greece….

The biggest question I have been getting from friends and family is “What are you doing in Greece?” so allow me to explain: I am working here for about seven weeks facilitated by a website called HelpX. This website is aimed at people who want to work while they travel; saving money and giving you a chance to get get to know a place beyond hitting the tourist highlights. HelpX is similar to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) but is not limited to organic farms. Non-organic farms, hostels, small businesses, and families are able to post listings offering room and board in exchange for various work. My first placement is as a general farm and house worker, primarily focused on gardening. My second placement, beginning the first week of November on the island of Corfu will be similar, but focused on picking olives. This answers the follow-up question of how I can afford to stay in Greece for seven weeks: my costs are very low as my room and board is covered for the majority of the time.

The second most common question I have encountered is “Why Greece?”. This one is harder to answer, but I’ll try: I’ve always wanted to travel to Greece, partly because of a fascination with lost cultures, history and a love of beautiful scenery. So when I began looking at options, Greece was at the top of the list (along with Italy and Croatia). I soon realized that October/November was olive-picking season so there were lots of opportunities. Thus my decision was made.

After being in Greece for two weeks, life has settled into a bit of a routine. Each morning I get up about 8 am and eat a breakfast of milk and cereal. Work starts about 9 am, and varies by the day. For first week, I spent a day working on removing leaves and pruning grapevines and other jobs have included walking the dog, building a new fence, and helping move furniture and other items. We have a morning break for tea (perk of staying with a British family) and lunch about 1:30. Then it is back to work until about 5:30. I have been attempting to start jogging again (though being in a mountain village makes it difficult since everything is uphill) so I usually go for a quick jog before dinner at 7 pm. Most nights it is early to bed since we are usually exhausted after a long day of physical work.

For the last week, my primary job assignment has been working on the garden. The family I am staying with was in England for about a month before I arrived – so the garden was pretty neglected and overgrown with weeds. The first thing was to clear out these weeds, as well as the summer crops that were past their prime. I spent about three days clearing weeds with a heavy traditional hoe (ulukasu for my Zambian friends). Although heavy, it gets the job done. I also tilled the soil with a roto-tiller to really get it mixed up. Next up was getting some cool season crops into the garden, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce. I planted seeds for kale, radish and corn lettuce. Hopefully over the next two weeks they will become established and in a few weeks start producing.

So that’s work; what about fun? On the weekends, we usually work a half day on Saturday and have Sunday off. Last weekend, my fellow helpers and I went on a hike from our village to the next village over, about eight kilometers away. It was a beautiful hike, although it was pretty steep and difficult at times. We ended at the taverna in the neighboring village, where a couple of Greek beers and some souvalki (Greek meat kebabs) were enjoyed.

Looking down at the lower city of Monemvasia from the upper city

Looking down at the lower city of Monemvasia from the upper city

On Sunday, we all took a trip to the beach. We headed to the town of Monemvasia, which is a Byzantine town on the top of a huge rock. There are two parts to the town, the upper town, which is the historical part and the lower town, which is modern but still build in the the historical style with authentic materials as much as possible. The town is on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the east coast of the mainland. Unfortunately, the upper town is currently totally closed for restorations until the end of 2015, so we weren’t able to see the ruins up there. We walked around for awhile, enjoying the view of the town and the sea and doing a little shopping. Despite being October, southern Greece is quite warm so we even went for a swim. Movemvasia is a beautiful town full of history, culture and beaches.

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10 Things That Change Once You’ve Lived Overseas

Originally posted on Taking Route:

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The rewarding experiences one gains from living life overseas can sometimes be crowded out by the inevitable struggles that come with the full, expat-life package. But it’s through those struggles and challenges that you discover more about yourself and the world around you. You embrace lessons learned and broaden your horizons. If you’ve ever lived for an extended amount of time somewhere other than your home country, then you’ve probably experienced some if not all of these changes while living abroad.

1. You are constantly learning and unlearning language. I’m no expert on the brain, but I have a suspicious feeling that my brain regularly shuts the door on certain native-tongue-vocabulary words so that my search will lead me to the word I’m looking for in my newly acquired language. That’s all fine and dandy; that is, unless I was really hoping to find the word in my native language. It’s…

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It’s All Greek to Me

I arrived in Greece after forty hours on the ferry, very grateful that I had planned ahead enough to book a hotel in the port town of Patras. Luckily, the hotel had a late breakfast and a checkout time of noon. I headed into town to check things out and do some last minute errands, like buying a sim card and withdrawing some cash. Patras is a fairly big town, the capital of the South Peloponses. However, signs of the economic trouble in Greece were prevalent, with lots of boarded up windows and empty storefronts. However, I was able to do everything I needed to do with little trouble, although I did quickly learn that not many people spoke English and all of the signs were in Greek.

Greek is especially tricky since it uses its own letters, which look totally different from the Latin letters we use in English. Adding to the confusion is that there are different letters for lowercase and uppercase and some letters look similar to the Latin letter but aren’t the same (for example both Ρ and ρ are pronounced as ‘r’). I’m fairly familiar with the uppercase letters from all my friends who were in fraternities and sororities, but that hasn’t been overly helpful since I don’t really know what Latin letters they correspond to (although I did figure out Σ is S).

Troubles with language aside, Greece is beautiful. I took a bus from Patras to Corinth (Korinthos) which traveled along the coast for most of the journey, allowing for some great views. The second bus from Corinth to Sellasia cut through a couple of protected areas, full of mountains and trees. The family I am staying with lives about half an hour from Sellasia, and about an hour from Sparta (yes, that Sparta) in a small village.

I haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore the village yet, since it has been raining heavily since yesterday afternoon. Before that I started working on removing the grape leaves from the vine and will work on pruning them once the rain stops. I also chipped in and helped squeeze some grapes that the other helpers harvested. There are two other helpers here, a couple from Spain (the girl is Spanish and the guy is English). The grapes that I was working with will just be made into juice for our consumption, while some of the other grapes will be made into wine for household consumption. Our hosts, Phil and Shema and their daughter Annabelle have been really great and very welcoming. I am looking forward to working with everyone for the next few weeks.

While I’m here, I will also be helping out with the garden, hopefully we will be able to get a few cool season crops (spinach, kale, broccoli) going. The weather here is similar to that in D.C., possibly a little warmer, since we are in the southern part of Greece. Most of the days will be in the mid-seventies, and hopefully with less rain!

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Tales from the Adriatic Sea

Deciding to take the ferry was a decision I made out of convenience, economy and most of all, curiosity. I’d been on plenty of ferries before (including several on this trip in Cinque Terre and Lake Como), but never for more than a couple of hours and I had been been on cruise ship. This ferry promised to be a combination of cruise ship and ferry, departing from Venice and arriving 33 hours later in the Greek port of Patras.

In Venice, I saw several large ferries and hoped that Anek Lines also departed from the Port of Veince. However, this is not the case and Anek Lines departs from the Fusina Terminal, located back on Italy’s mainland. However, there is a small shuttle ferry that travels back and forth once an hour, since many people live there and work in Venice or stay there during their visit to Venice (it is significantly cheaper). After walking about a half an hour to the station, I got on a small ferry across to Fusina. About 25 minutes later, we landed there, and I was still hopeful that the Anek office would be close. No such luck. The Anek Lines ferry was docked about a 30 minute walk from where I was. With no taxi or shuttle bus to be found, I had no choice but to saddle up my stuff and get to walking. I cursed how much stuff I had and remembered what I heard somewhere that no matter how little stuff you think you have, it’s always too much in Europe.

Once I finally arrived at the station, check-in was pretty painless. I had arrived early as the directions on my ticket said to be there at least two hours before the scheduled departure. After a quick security check, I was on the boat. I decided to do a little exploration before it got too crowded. I just got a seat (no cabin), but I had access to all the other parts of the ship, including the top deck, bar/restaurant and common areas. I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a swimming pool as the internet promised, but everything else looked great.

We were scheduled to depart at noon. About 12:30, there was an announcement that the port was too crowded and we would depart at 15:30 Grecian time (we were also informed that Grecian time was valid on the boat). Settling in for a delay, I started reading my second book of the trip (the first was already 90% finished when I got on the boat). Four hours and the finished book later, we finally departed from Fusina (Venice). A few hours in, I decided to check on the internet. However, I was informed that they were out of internet cards and I couldn’t get online. Oh boy, this might be long journey. I finished my second full book of the trip and went to bed.

Similar to a long plane or train ride there was a sensation of movement even though you couldn’t always feel it, you knew it was there. Occasionally, the boat would shift to remind you that you are not on stable land anymore. This is similar to turbulence, catching you off guard and making you stumble a bit and your stomach do a little flip the first time. Watching the sun set on the top deck, I could empathize with early explorers – nothing to be seen in any direction but water that seemed to drop off the edge of a flat planet.

The seating arrangement was pretty loose, with everyone claiming several seats. At any time there were people napping on the floor, across multiple seats or even sitting up. The quest for comfort was a no-holds barred quest, with people sleeping on whatever they could find. If I ever do this again, I’ll bring a pillow.

The food on the ferry was similar to a high school cafeteria. The line was self-serve and options from hamburgers to pasta and salads was available. While nothing special, it was good break from the cheese and crackers I’d brought. I finished my third book. I napped. I wrote postcards. I finished a fourth book. I napped. I ate. Started a fifth book.

Finally we arrived in the port of Patras about 12:30 am. At this point I was very glad that I decided to book a slightly nicer room in Patras to recover from the ferry journey. After calling a taxi (I joined up with two other travelers headed into town), I arrived at my hotel a little after one. As you can imagine, I was quite happy to have access to my own shower, a proper bed, and of course the internet (not to mention ground that didn’t move under my feet). Next stop is my home for the next three and a half weeks, in the Southern Peloponnese where I will be staying and working with a Greek family.

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Italy Days 11 and 12: Venice

Departing from Como, we had to head back to Milan on the train to get to Venice. We actually took a train, took the metro across Milan, and then took another train to Venice. After arriving at the train station in Venice, we got our first taste of Venetian life: the water bus. Operating the same way as a regular bus, the only difference is that it is a boat. With a route through the Grand Canal, we got our first view of Venice.

Venice is a truly unique city, somehow appearing out of the water itself. The streets meander over bridges and crisscross through plazas and squares. Navigation can be a bit tricky since not every street is connected by a bridge, so if you miss your turn, it might be a while before you get another chance to cross the water. We made it to our hostel with no problems (an Italian first!). The rooms are pretty basic, but in a good location close to San Marco and other attractions in the city.

We wandered around a bit and took in the layout of the city as much as possible. Venice is a city of boats. Boats of all shapes and sizes travel the canals of Venice, from the small gondolas full of tourists to the mid-size speedboats common for residents, the water buses and taxis, and the large ferry boats and even bigger cruise ships. There are no vehicles in Venice, even the police and emergency services use boats to get around.

That night, I had my first opportunity to try one of Venice’s signature dishes: cuttlefish served in its own ink. A cuttlefish is similar to an octopus or squid (complete with tentacles), and the ink has a mellow favor that is vaguely reminiscent of the ocean. I had mine that night with tagitelle pasta (long, flat noodles) but it is served with risotto or polenta as well. I really enjoyed this dish – not surprising as I do love calamari and octopus!

In the morning, we attempted to go see San Marco. However, it was closed for a service, so we headed to the Doge’s Palace. The Doge was the elected ruler of the  leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice for more than a thousand years, with the last Doge abdicating the title in 1797 as Napoleon’s forces took over the area. The Doge, similar to the Pope served for life after being elected by a council of forty. The Doge’s Palace showcased the private rooms of the Doge and his wife, as well as the council chambers. The palace was not just home to the Doge, but also the seat of democracy and justice (including the prison) in Venice. The Doge’s Palace also includes the Chamber of the Great Council, which is one of the largest rooms in Europe.

We decided to take the advice of my friend Jen and headed to a restaurant she said had been her favorite, not just in Venice, but in Italy. With that ringing endorsement, it was hard to say no. Plus the restaurant was in a new part of town so it gave us the perfect reason to do some more exploring. During our walk across town, we cross the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal. This is the most well-known bridge in a city with a dearth of bridges. Once the center of city life, the bridge still bustles with tourists and shops. The restaurant we went to was in a much less touristy part of town, which was a nice break from the selfie-taking masses around San Marco and Rialto Bridge. At lunch, I had another opportunity to try the cuttlefish ink pasta, this time with spinach noodles. This made the ink look even darker – but tasted delicious!

After lunch we headed back to San Marco, where the line out the door was too intimidating. We decided to brave a slightly shorter line and head up the campanile. This campanile was the easiest to climb – it had an elevator. The view was great, you could see the Doge’s Palace, San Marco and the square, across to the island of San Giorgio, and to different parts of Venice.

The pass to museum also included entrance to several other museums on the square, including the Correr Museum. This museum showcases where Princess Elizabeth stayed for several years, as well as more recent Venetian history (by more recent, I mean only 200 years ago). Most of the furniture and the decor in the museum was not the original, but congruent with the time being represented. It was another great museum. We also took a quick look through the Biblioteca and the Archaeological Museum.

That night, we decided to explore another new part of town, Castello. This was suggested by one of this blogs readers (I have readers!) who used to live in Venice. Thanks to TravelinKait, we headed over to this area and were not disappointed. We started at a great bar that I found on TripAdvisor. Here we decided to try the famous Spritz for an apertivi (pre-dinner drink). This drink is prosecco and liquor – usually Campari or Apertol with a splash of soda water. We started with the Campari one, since Campari is from Milan. Garnished with an orange and a green olive, the drink was bitter but refreshing. Next was a pre-dinner cheese plate and a try at the Aperol spritz. Garnished the same, it wasn’t as bitter but was just as refreshing.

For dinner, we went to another highly recommended restaurant from TripAdvisor. I just had the vegetable soup (vegetables had been lacking on this trip, sorry Mom!) and Chelsey finally got her own cuttlefish ink pasta. As we were finishing our wine, the owner of the restaurant came out and serenaded the remaining crowd with a few Italian songs. Deciding we weren’t quite done for the night, we headed back to the first bar for a few more drinks. The crowds here were good, but not overwhelming, and the prices were better than closer to San Marco or the Grand Canal and the food was better as well. It was a great end for Chelsey’s last night.

The next morning we got up a little early to try and beat the crowd to San Marco. However, we didn’t move fast enough and were again turned off by the swarm in front of the church. After a quick breakfast snack of canoli, we did some last-minute shopping and cappuccino drinking. On the way back to our hostel, one of Chelsey’s dreams came true when we watched a gondola pass by with musical accompaniment. We didn’t take a ride in a gondola as we were priced out at 80 Euros for 30 minutes. Then Chelsey packed up and headed back to Rome for her flight that night.

Now alone, I tackled the few remaining items on my to-do list before I got on the ferry headed to Greece on Saturday morning. I did a load of laundry at a Venetian lavenderia (laundry mat). I figured out how to get to the port where my ferry would depart (it was back on the mainland). I wandered around for awhile and found a supermarket to stock up on snacks for the boat. I ate a quick lunch in two parts – a slice of pizza (surprisely good for all the terrible things I’d heard about the state of pizza in Venice) and salad in a random plaza later that afternoon. Knowing I had to be up early to get out to the ferry station, I called it an early night after a nice dinner of traditional Venetian octopus salad (octopus, lemon juice, parsley and bell peppers). Next up was a 33 hour ferry ride to the Greek port of Patras.

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