England & Greece Explored

Aug. 30, 2017

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We awakened on our last day in Kamena Vourla, where we stayed at the Galini Hotel and Spa, to find that it was raining heavily. One cannot even see the mountain range that is across the bay and the mountain behind the hotel has its top ridge hidden in the clouds. This is our last day before having to make the final drive into Athens, to catch our flight home the next day.

We arose slowly and decided not to shower but to simply get dressed and head downstairs for breakfast. Just as we left our room, a power failure occurred. We locked up and went downstairs anyway, to where they serve the buffet breakfast and dinner, an all-inclusive arrangement. There were several other parties sitting in the dark eating their breakfast. I was lucky to grab the last two fried eggs and stuck them on top of a cold piece of toast...and managed to find a few sausages that were still warm. Our coffee was lukewarm too, and there was no cream, I was told ~ but I think the lady was just not in the mood to go back to the kitchen to take a look...I knew they must have some because I had some yesterday!

The experience here has been very nice, and I was happy for my husband that he did not have to do any driving for a whole day. We swam in the pool and got a lot of sun, and I visited the Spa as well, to get my toenails redone - they had survived for 30 days and many many steps and could finally use an overhaul. We also visited the Thermal Waters located in the Spa and were permitted to spend 20 minutes in the hot mineralized water, apparently containing traces of Radon and Radiation. Hmm! Nevertheless, we went in and enjoyed our soak. It did not miraculously cure all that ailed me but it sure did feel good to have that heat in our bones. There was also an outdoor pool behind the hotel but it did not have any water in it on the first day, but on the second day it was full so we enjoyed another dip in the hot spring water again. I think being outdoors, it could not retain the heat as well but it was still quite lovely.

I am thinking about how some people rate their Hotel stays and Restaurant experiences. I believe it is rather like critiquing a singer and never giving them another chance. What I mean to say is, that many relay their 'rating' and allow a cold cup of coffee to lower the rating to 1 out of 5, when in fact this is the smallest technicality and the 'performance' would have otherwise been enjoyable.

We found this place, Galini Hotel & Spa, to be quite lovely and exactly what we needed after our long and busy travel adventures. The staff were very friendly and as accommodating as they could be, except the lady who would not bring cream. The facilities themselves are in need of some repairs, as I noticed building cracks, peeled exterior paint, loose wallpaper, half installed lighting, and wrinkled broadloom carpet, however the bed was comfortable, which was an anomaly from the rest of our experience, even in England. Even with Facility Manager and Interior Design experience, I can forgive all of the above, because the comfort of the bed wins my approval hands down. My tired hip and sore quads and calves and aching heels deserved and needed it, and I was very grateful. A power failure was the least of our worries and all we have left to do is to shower and pack up. (I was happy there was still some hot water by the time I got around to hopping in, but I showered in the dark, even managing to shave my legs!)

We are cognizant too, that in Greece's recent troubled economy, that there likely has not been much focus on Capital improvements, and we learned that some hotel employees in Corinth even had a period wherein they were not paid at all for two months, and recently had had another 6 month unpaid period, yet they still continued to work there. One could not afford to quit because there may not be another job to be found.

Now, we are on the bed, my husband closing his eyes and I am typing. I should be resting my eyes and not looking at a screen though, since my right eye is fluttering with a twitch and has been like this for a couple of days now. I am hoping it is only a minor lack of sleep that is causing this, and that it will go away once I've slept a full night, when we get home.

It is a two hour drive to Athens from here so we will not be leaving until Noon, since we cannot check in to our next Hotel until 2pm. So we are in no hurry to pack and in fact, packing will be a chore to do properly, one which we are leaving for our final day. We are bringing back some tins of honey from the village and this of course weighs quite a bit so we will have to redistribute our belongings to make sure each bag is within limits, and we may need to check more than the one big suitcase this time, for our trip home.

Our next Hotel is not right downtown in Athens, but apparently has a rooftop pool and dining area, so we hope to enjoy this at least for a bit this afternoon - and then venture down into Plaka for a romantic dinner. We fly at 2pm tomorrow, so it will not be an ungodly time of day to have to pack up and check out, but rather, we can do it at our leisure. This planning is all Aris's idea and he seems to have the drill carefully figured out to minimize effort and retain energy, thereby keeping his wife happy. <3

I now can say that I miss the comfort of our own home, and I am bubbling over with the new experiences that are ahead of me, in starting school! Right off the bat, I will have rehearals, recording time to schedule, final design for our CD cover to approve, and then our launch at the end of October! It is less than two months away now and I must work hard at my Russian lyrics and diction. Also in October will be an extremely fun Canadian Children's Opera Chorus Anniversary Concert to be part of, marking the first time I will actually sing inside the Four Seasons Centre. Hurrah! Not only that, but it will be wonderful to see some of the friends I made as a youngster, nearly 42 years ago. But on top of this, I will be attending my first classes at York University and I expect the learning curve will be steep, yet fulfilling. I look at it as a 'Project', and if I can manage a $10m dollar endeavour, I can certainly manage this.

Now, our first order of business in Athens will be to get a good cup of coffee, since I didn't finish mine at Galini Hotel, as there was no cream to be had. ;)

Aug. 15, 2017

We are home.  In the sense of longing for a place for over two years, looking at photos from past visits and thinking of the feeling of being there once again, we have finally returned.

Stepping down onto the tarmac I could feel the warm caress of the breeze on my skin, a welcome relief after two weeks of English weather.  It didn't take long until we had collected our bags and finished the process of renting a car, and we were off, on the road to the village.   After waking at 3:30 am, an ungodly hour, we had headed to the airport without a coffee until we arrived at the airport, wanting to ensure we did not miss our flight.   A direct flight from Manchester UK to Kalamata, Greece, it was full of British folks who were heading off on their vacation.  They are fortunate to be able to travel within Europe for a 'song' and we also partook of the inexpensive flight, to jump from the first leg of our journey to the second.
Initially having planned to land in the North of Greece and venture South, stopping in Meteora for some sightseeing, we changed our plans and decided it was time for some real relaxation after having trekked for over 700 miles in England and taken over 140,000 steps.   My dedicated husband stuck it out and shuttled us around so that I could visit churches and cemeteries and uncover my British roots.  Now in Greece, we would experience life for a brief time, the way his family has lived it for hundreds of years.
He had been drowsy during the flight, and seated across the aisle, there wasn't much chatting we could do, so he closed his eyes.  I listened to my music and watched the Russian phoenetics and Italian lyrics go by, but part of me wondered if he was also not feeling happy, perhaps not just tired but possibly a little bit frustrated with the hectic pace of the airport rush, and likely a feeling of guilt after having accidentally knocked my cherished cup of coffee over and all over my white linen pants.  I really wanted to finish that cup of coffee badly.   I let him sleep since I knew that he'd have to once again get behind the wheel of our rental car and drive the 2 hours via the mountain route from Kalamata to Sparta and beyond, into the village.   Only 40km but a 2 hour drive due to the winding roads going up one face and down another.  This time, instead of a small European SUV, we are in a compact little VW, and a 5 speed shift gets us zooming up the steep inclines and down the slopes and around the hairpin turns, some of them harrowingly close to the edge.
Here now, it is apparent, that the glory of Greece is inherent in her majestic mountainsides, and this pass is through some of the most stunning gorges, traversing under sheer cliffs of rock jutting on 45 degree angles out of the earth.  One can almost envision the upheaval of terra, when these mountains were born, they appear so raw and untamed, and you know that you are in the cradle of civilization.    At one point, we passed through a tunnel that had been hewn by hand out of the rock, right on the edge of the cliff, only one lane wide.   Around a few other corners, we encountered lush pine forests and olive groves clinging to the sides of the foothills.
It is a perfectly sunny day, severe clear as they call it, and the sun glints off the backs of the olive tree leaves, their shiny silver colour standing out against the red earth.  Cicadas brush their songs out, competing to be the loudest.  The sound reminds us that it is indeed hot, as the cicadas seem to function as nature's thermometer, the hotter it is, the louder they are.  The sound alone makes us FEEL hot.
The village of Tripi is high on the mountainside just on the approach to Mystra, leading to Magoula and then Sparti.   In keeping with our English Heritage tour, this was perfect, as it is the town that Aris's maternal Grandfather was born in, Nikolaos Kouvelos (Νικολαος κυβελος in Greek letters).   We were so thankful to sink our teeth into a true Xoriatiki salad, the ripe red tomatoes and chunk of feta cheese drowned in olive oil and oregano, fresh cucumber and onions ~ there were a few good salads in England but none could hold a candle to a true Greek 'village salad'.   A couple of souvlakia soon followed and also a plate of vlita, which is similar to horta dandelions but more leafy.  This is real and unadorned food, no need for sauces but with an array of flavour that could be nothing but Greek.   Our taste buds were more than ready.
After our respite, on we went, this time not planning to stop until we reached Petrina.  I fell blissfully asleep for this last 45 minutes of our drive and awoke just as the car slowed to make the turn off the main highway and begin the ascent into the first village on the route.
How thrilled Mitera was when we arrived, "καλοστα μου!!" she exclaimed, just as I knew she would.  She encircled us with her warm hugs and kisses and next we were greeting Patera.   "Είσαι καλα?", I asked him and he nodded his head in affirmation.   He looks different, full of energy, a spark in his eye.   I beat my chest and commented that the mountain air agrees with him and he grinned.    Then down the steps we flew to say hello to our favourite Thea, Maria.   Maria and Theo Louie are in the house next door, and it's always a pleasure to see them.   This time, they have family visiting, their son and his family, and their daughter and her family, and all of their children.   They are glowing with having a house full of 6 teenage girls and one boy!    All beautiful children, with classic Greek features and every girl has a gorgeous mane of wavy locks.    And even though we are 50 plus, Aris's parents are equally as delighted that we are now here with them.
I fell onto our bed and with the fan blowing over me, and Aris's voice wafting through from the porch as he spoke with his Father, I slept for almost two hours, the morning commute had taken the life out of me.
Venturing to the kitchen, I found the Corningware percolator and began brewing a fresh pot of Greek coffee, our favourite brand "Παπαγαλος" with the parrot on the front.   Topped up with the local condensed milk, I sipped the coffee out on the porch, listening to the conversation, picking up a few Greek words here and there, and watching the sun go down on the mountains in the distance.    The cicadas are silent now, it is dark, and we are invited inside to partake of a specially prepared dinner.   It was already in the oven when we got there, but we had already eaten, so it remained in the oven on a low heat for another few hours, cooking to perfection.  Roast Lamb, potatoes, zucchini, and chickory greens.    I am pleasantly but not overly full, completely satisfied.  For the first time in 13 days, we are home, eating a delicious home cooked meal, probably the best one we have had in our time away so far, and I look at my husband, finally at ease, his green eyes now bright, his sparkling humour in top form, and his skin already a couple of shades darker.  He is home.


Aug. 11, 2017

Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York UK
The centre is Norman, originating in the 12th Century, with the South side from the 14th Century. The North side was updated in 1823, but before that, my Fourth Great Grandparents were Married in this Church, on February 21, 1799. They were William Bilton & Hannah Stokes. <3

Aug. 8, 2017

We got out of London just before a Marathon started and our street would be closed.  It was an easy drive out of the city and quick to find the highway.  Mind you, Aris is fearless and just goes...we didn't have our phone GPS working with any voice giving us directions, mostly it was me looking at my map which hadn't downloaded properly... but we made it!  The highway doesn't really give you much of a glimpse of the countryside but in some spots it does and it's simply beautiful.   Rolling hills and fields with wheat, cattle grazing, sheep, and then the villages; red rooftops and chimneys and the old churches are easy to spot.

Heading into Canterbury we drove past the first part of the stone wall surrounding the old town and then made our way back inside the walled city after looking at two or three places that had no room.   To our incredible luck, we were at the heart of the village and right next to the gate leading to the Cathedral, when Aris noticed a green TripAdvisor sticker and he disappeared inside, leaving me standing in the square.  That's when I actually noticed the gate to the Cathedral grounds!  Next thing I knew he was pulling me inside to check in and we passed over a trap door at the threshold and up a set of crooked stairs.  Actually, EVERYTHING is crooked.  And what would have been separate buildings or homes initially are all now joined on the interior, so you can see original exterior walls, steps up or down as you pass from one building into another, and the cobbled together rooftop accesses and pathways in the back, with a view of the Cathedral tower looming up in behind.  We were told that our lodgings were in the "Hospital Wing" of the building where they tended to anyone who would have had the Plague at the time...

Our bedroom at the Cathedral Gate Hotel had a floor with at least a 3" hill in it from one side to the other, nothing was level.   But it had a charming 4 poster bed, lovely windows, and a private bathroom.   We had asked if the bed was comfy upon booking it and Aris made a wisecrack about a straw bed... turns out it did have a lovely duvet but the mattress itself may as well have been a piece of lead, which would have matched the leaded glass windows and the lead roof tiles!   Not a very good wifi signal, as a result.  We locked up our stuff and headed to the Cathedral, which we then learned was 'closed to Visitors but you can attend the Evensong', which we did!    It was a lovely service and with a visiting Choir entitled Lyra Davidica and they did a wonderful job.  

We were not supposed to take photos inside the Cathedral but we were permitted a few in the entranceway after having attended the Service.   Of greater interest to me, seemed to be the grounds, the exterior of the church building itself, and the ruins of a Monastery that had stood there before.  The gardens planted in and around the property are beautifully tended and my heart had a story starting almost immediately... 

The story of this Cathedral is long and there are many, but the one of greatest intrigue is that Thomas Becket was murdered there.  Ordained at Canterbury in 1162, he disagreed with Henry II about policy...and was henceforth murdered in the very Church.  When his body was taken and laid to rest, it was found that he was wearing what appeared to be a hair shirt, which was full of lice and other creatures and would have been incredibly itchy, and was meant to be a means of constant self punishment.   He was declared a Martyr.

We stopped for a very late lunch after learning about this and ate at a charming little place on the river, called The Weaver's Inn, wherein we at roast beef and lamb with Yorkshire pudding.    Then we walked about town and up along the river, taking a few more photographs.  Neither of us slept very well, perhaps the thought of ghosts or the Plague again kept us awake.

Waking up we decided to partake of the Continental breakfast offered by the Hotel instead of venturing out anywhere else.  They brought cereal and yogurt and heaps of fresh fruit and croissants and toast and butter and coffee...it was divine and we were full and ready for the road.

Onwards to Stonehenge!  We walked through the fields instead of taking the shuttle bus in to the site and were glad that we did so, getting a feel for the landscape.  It's not just a site where some random stones are upright... there are many unusual indentations in the land all around it, and other markers and stones as well.  Woodhenge!  We did not get to see this but we did notice several mounds which appeared to be burial sites.    Since there are a lot of people visiting Stonehenge and it's a quick, guarded path to walk around its perimeter, we could not really just sit there all day quietly and contemplate it the way we might have thought to.  To me, the way to truly feel the energy from that place would be to stand naked at the centre of it, and feel the wind and the rain, and watch the sun rise and fall, the stones casting their shadows about.  Think about it, it is dated to 2500BC.  What would you have been wearing then?  ;)

We traveled into Salisbury proper after this and found ourselves at the Rose and Crown hotel which was right on the river and had a room where you could see the steeple of Salisbury Cathedral across the river.  We knew we had a treat in for ourselves the next day, but we just had to take a walk into town and go around the Cathedral that evening.  So we donned our slickers and grabbed our umbrellas (now becoming the norm) and wandered into town.   Massive, it loomed up and we were in awe, looking up at the spire and wondering aloud whether it was as big as Canterbury or not.  Certainly, Canterbury is different because it dose not have a steeple, just square towers.

We ended up finding dinner again at Byron's Proper Burgers and, encore un fois, downed a milkshake, which Aris swore he would not do again!  And then trundled off back to our room to collapse.

The Rose and Crown has a medieval front but more modern furnishings.  We were not without luxury on this night and had a more comfortable bed!   And their buffet breakfast was just fine.

We then set out for the adventure of a lifetime, one I will not soon forget ~ a tour of the Cathedral and not just any tour of the floor/building, but one of the upper rafters and all levels of the bell tower.   It was incredible!!   We were educated about the type of stone that was used and where it was from, how the timbers were selected and using mortise/tenon joinery & doweled together, how most of it is oak but some pine trees were used, what the properties of lead are and how it behaves on the roof.   In the rafters, we saw that on the North side the wood slats have no gap because it doesn't heat up as much as the South side, but on the South side there are gaps in the wood so that the lead tiles can breathe when the roof becomes warm.

Some timbers are over 18" x 18" and have split apart and are now being held together by iron strapping.  Some have been replaced.  Curved ones are carefully selected from curved trees and split so that they are used symetrically across from one another for balance.  The tiny, spiral staircases that go up into the bell tower are of newer wood, thankfully, as are the floors - but that didn't ease my feeling of thinking we would all fall through and that would be the end of us.

Incidentally, no murders have taken place in this Cathedral, that we are aware of.

We were permitted to go outside at the second level of railings around the bell tower and take a look across Salisbury and the surrounding countryside, where we could actually see the site of the Old Sarum, a raised, circular mound and moat that once had a castle and the original cathedral building.   If you'd like to learn more about it, this is a good site to read:  http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/castles/sarum.shtml

Salisbury was everything we thought it would be, and more.  To view the photos I took, I welcome you to my Facebook Album, where they are captioned.  http://www.bit.ly/2uqtxH7   If the intent of these Cathedrals is to get closer to God, then it has been achieved.

After a lengthy car ride and a few convenience store sandwiches, we stopped for the night in Leicester, staying in the Mercure 'Grand Hotel' ~ a beautiful heritage building but a tiny room.    We dropped our stuff off and found our umbrellas and set out in the pouring rain for a walk about, seeing the outside of Leicester Cathedral and then settling back in for the night.   We left Leicester early the next morning and hit the road for the long trek North to York.  


Aug. 6, 2017

The size of London is not something that one can come to grips with unless one is standing in it ~ and then, the feeling of being very small comes washing over, and it's not just the size, it's the enormity of what has unfolded here over time.  I won't pretend to say I know much about that but I certainly do marvel at the little I do know, in that it was started so very early by the Romans, endured the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the constant sacking by Scots and Vikings, Royalty that plotted and killed one another, marrying cousins and such, Two World Wars, a Great Fire...and Jack the Ripper.  

Our footsteps took us through narrow chases and up and down worn steps, past higgelty piggelty half timber construction and then past massive churches and structures built in Romanesque and Gothic design, and of course the classical Roman and Greek forms - it seemed everywhere we looked there were facades of Ionic columns and Pediments.   One of the largest we did see, was that of the Royal Museum.

The outside of the building is classical indeed and yet as soon as one steps inside, we are greeted by an indoor atrium, consisting of a modern building in the centre of its courtyard, with a glass roof spanning from its circular walls out to the original structure.  It's quite a sight to see and 'brilliant' in its design and purpose, since it houses washrooms, coffee shops, and souvenir shops with beautiful merchandise.

On the main floor of the atrium you'll find a regular fast food cafeteria with pre-made sandwiches and yogurt and a lineup a mile long... but if you hike up to the third level you'll find a sit-down restaurant with a lovely menu that includes a High Tea after 3:30pm.   I ordered Prosecco and a plate of delicate salmon with sprigs of watercress, capers, a boiled egg, and pickled red onions, all served on a pretty plate and with Sheffield sterling silver cutlery.  Aris ended up choosing a ham pate as a small appetizer which came with some chutney and mustard.  A side of sourdough and unsalted butter topped it off.   I washed it down with a Coke after that, as I was not only tired, but drowsy from the Prosecco!

Controversy swirls around several of the items in this Museum, since it is felt by many that several items were 'stolen' from where they originally belonged.  I might be inclined to align myself with those thoughts except that we know little of the governments of some of the countries from whence these items came at the time ~ were they equipped to even want to preserve and restore their own antiquities?   Perhaps Lord Elgin did Greece a disservice but it's only been in recent years that Greece itself did anything to preserve and restore the Parthenon.   London's safekeeping of the antiquities that were taken from Greece and Egypt and other countries is still a valid preservation and the location means that they are accessible by many more than would see them otherwise.

At any rate, we viewed incredible items from Mesopotamia and Anatolia, Assyria from as early as 10,000 BC.    We encountered the mummified body of Cleopatra, remnants of Greek ruins found in Turkey, a figure from Easter Island, some of the findings from the dig at Sutton Hoo (uncovered in England in 1939) the one Caryatid from the Erectheon, and several pieces of the frieze of the Parthenon... and my favourite ~ the Rosetta Stone!!   

We finished our day by walking up Haymarket past Piccadilly again, and found a Japanese restaurant just a bit off the beaten track, named Yoshino ~ a humble location down a small alley, with a minimalist interior, but the food was presented perfectly and with panache...Japanese presentation is always perfect, but this seemed to outdo the most beautiful presentations I've seen.  We each ordered the 2 course plate for L26.  They brought us a pork dumpling, then a bowl of miso soup, then a plate with assorted sashimi, sushi, and salads, including soft shell crab, and marinate tuna belly!  I chose a glass of Plum wine (very sweet and I loved it) and Aris had sake which he also enjoyed.   The service was very polite and helpful and the washroom smelled of jasmine.   Go, if you like sushi!   

Knackered, we headed back to our hotel but had time to stop on the way back at a Patisserie Valerie to grab a pecan tart, which we ate while sitting at the edge of Trafalgar Square, watching passersby for amusement.   We had to pack up early as the next morning we were scheduled to leave the city and make our way South/East to Canterbury.