This is Sparta!

July 24, 2012

Finally…Sparta!

Without a doubt, Sparta is the most beautiful metropolitan city in Greece.  I’m connected in many ways, but hands down, you can’t compare Sparta ( or Sparti as we Greeks say ) to any other city. With a main street lined in palm trees, a fantastic platia (town square) that is unaffected by traffic, a stadium where wonderful concerts take place, stylish stores, modern cafes, etc, Sparta is one of my favorites.  This small, ‘do-able’ town is easy for families.  Home to some really great hotels, Sparta has served as my home base for years.

With our ultimate destination, Vassara, only 20 minutes away, taking time out in Sparta to grocery shop, visit the banks, shop in the stores and enjoy some great nightlife has always been my pattern.  There’s a very lovely hotel named “Menalaion” that has a courtyard swimming pool for its guests.  This is a perfect place to stay if you have children. While many rest in the afternoon, or take ‘mesimeri’ (siestas), the pool at the Menalaion provides a refreshing oasis of fun for families. I’ve stayed there for the last two decades, each time very pleased. They’ve remodeled the place now, and the rooms are wonderful, air-conditioned, with flat screen tvs (not that  you’ll be indoors except to sleep).

From Sparta, there’s many places to make as day visits, including Parori, Gythion, Mistras, etc. But we’ve got to get shakin’ as the holiday of the Transfiguration will quickly be upon us. August 6th is the date, and as Vassara is the home of Agio Sotiri, (Church of the Transfiguration), we’ve got to get to the village for the first of August’s feast days. Leading up to the most holy day, August 15th, when we celebrate the dormition of the Virgin Mary, and finishing with August 23rd, when Vassara celebrates with its famous ‘panayiri’ festival, there’s a lot of celebrating coming our way!

In Sparta, though, we load up  our prepaid European cell phones, exchange money at the bank, visit grocery stores and get the car packed up for time in the village. While you’re there, don’t forget to visit my friend, Dimitri, who sells the best pork kabob in a  pita you’ll EVER eat. Loaded with fries, and served with a side of mouth-watering garlic bread, go see him. His store is just across from the fountain, across from St. Demetrios church. He’s got blue chairs and red/white checkered tablecloths. When you’re done, go two stores down to my friend Ruli’s stationery/book store. He’s from Vassara, and opened his store, Rizontes a few years back. Along the same strip is a salon called “Artistic” that is owned by Perry. Just ask anyone locally, they know Perry. Fantastic salon services at your disposal. Ok, we’re getting our business done. Almost time to head to the village!

A stop in Nafplion

July 18, 2012

Ok travelers, as we head out of Athens, on our way towards Sparta, we’re going to stop in Nafplion, a beautiful, quaint port town that has as much charm as history. Rick Steves highlighted this spot on his overview of Greece, and for good reason. Nafplion is a PERFECT day trip that has it all! Visit the ancient fort, and test your endurance by climbing the many steps to the top for a remarkable view. Or, hang back by the water, and enjoy a gorgeous sunset.

Unique, artistic shops surround the streets that run a perimeter around one of the nicest ‘platias’ (town squares) I’ve ever seen in Greece!  There are wonderful, clean and friendly hotels that make up a row of accommodations to travelers that decide this town is too beautiful to leave at the end of the day. My favorite is a hotel called, Hotel Athena. It’s newer, very clean, affordable, and the staff is wonderful!

 

Enjoy a delectable meal with the freshest of seafood caught just that day at any of the cafes that line the ‘platia.’  After dinner, a stroll through the storybook streets is a perfect kiss goodnight to this unforgettable town. Naufplion is a must, and just too beautiful to pass by.  Worth the stop, for sure!

On the road again…..

July 11, 2012

Ok everyone, pack it up. It’s time to leave Athens. We’ve enjoyed the shopping, Monastiraki, Plaka, the museums, the delicious food, charming cafes that make the BEST coffee,  and the Acropolis.

 

But now the time has come to get a little ‘country’ in our step.  Lets head out of this bustling city, and get to the heart of Greece….Peloponesse.

Before our arrival to beloved, Vassara, there’s a few necessary ‘stops’ to make, and they are well worth our trouble.  Since we’re headed right past a few great places, we must take the time to enjoy them. We’ll soon head South, and stop at Naufpion before heading into Sparta. Just outside there is also ancient Mycene, home of Agamemnon. Fantastic ruins there. This is nothing more than a few hours journey, so there’s plenty of time to make it a day trip, and enjoy the sites along the way. Also, just past Tripoli, on the road into Sparta, is a little known road stop cafe, called Arthamis.  Back home in Chicago, we dream of the food made here. I don’t know why this small, rest stop would be home to the best marinated pork souflaki found in Greece, but it is.  In fact, we just don’t consider ourselves ‘in Greece,’ unless we make the trip official by eating here. You can’t miss it. The sign is large, and stands out on the mountain road from Tripoli, just as you enter the outskirts of Sparta. Stop there. You wont regret it.

Next entry…some great pics of our stops along the way out of Athens…..Naufpion, and all its charms. Stay tuned.

Going for a dip!

July 7, 2012

Late afternoon is the perfect time for a dip in the pool at the Grande Britagne.  Enjoy the more tolerable weather as the temp has cooled off, and don’t forget to order a basil flatbread pizza from the bar. Delish!  Warning – the pool is filled with salt water….takes some getting used to, but truly, this rooftop oasis is amongst the most unforgettable pools of the world as you overlook ancient ruins and the city of Athens while swimming.  We relax at the pool now in preparation to leave this bustling city in the coming days, and head down to Peloponnese for the heart and soul of our vacation. (Things won’t be this luxurious in the village, but none the less fun and exciting!) In the meantime, however, relish the comfort of this world-class hotel and all its glory.

Ok, so this is a big subject to cover….coffee! You can’t last a day in Greece without Greek coffee – either served hot (traditional Ellinikos cafes) or cold (Frappe), Greek coffee runs the country. In the heat of summer, Frappe is the way to go in the afternoons and evenings, but in the morning, it’s a real, traditional cup of Greek coffee that’s going to get you up and going. More important than taste, however, is the ‘way’ Greeks drink their coffee. No paper cups or to-go coffee mugs in this country. They wouldn’t hear of it!  This is the land of ‘sit down and ENJOY your coffee!’  So, having your morning ‘Joe’ is more of an experience…an event…than ‘grabbing and going.’  While America ‘Runs on Dunkin,’ the Greeks know what it means to stop what they’re doing and sit down with a friend, at a table, with a china cup, and have a cup of coffee like a human being. I know, we’re all too busy in America to make time for this, but much like the English have preserved the art of Tea Time, the Greeks know what it means to share a coffee.

Since last summer, after 7 consecutive weeks in Greece, I must confess, I am unable to drink American coffee anymore. I’ve tried. Sadly, I was a regular at the McD’s drive thru, but now, after a long summer of sitting and drinking Greek coffee the way it was meant to be enjoyed, I can no longer drink badly brewed American coffee out of a paper cup while driving. I’d rather wait until I can take the proper break from the day, and get my caffeine fix in the traditional art form.

A friend of mine last year teased me all summer about how we Americans flood Starbucks stores (I admit, I love my Starbucks latte – but only if I stay to enjoy it out of a real cup and saucer), and pay close to $5 for a coffee served in a paper cup and drink it while we drive to our next errand.  Surely, one can argue that Americans are ‘do-ers’ and we don’t always have time to stop our world for ‘coffee.’ But just think about it….next time you want a cup. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit at a real table, with a real friend, and drink excellent tasting coffee out of a real cup? Life is too short to miss these moments. Even if you’re alone, there’s nothing better than gathering your own personal thoughts over your daily coffee while you take a minute to breathe! Smell the coffee. Taste the coffee. Enjoy the coffee. Then, you can get up and start running again.

Since Frappe is another entirely different subject, I’ll only cover traditional, hot ‘Ellinikos Cafes’ this posting.  We’ll talk about frappes later. They made a big impression on me the first time I had one when I was 14, which is why I had to mention frappe drinking in Seasons of Sun. (Chapter 6)

For now, catch this video of the way real, honest to goodness Greek coffee is made….the way our great-grandparents made it. Be sure to drink it like the video shows, out of a nice cup, and NOT while driving! Enjoy your coffee….real coffee!