Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hoorayus Piraeus!

Pleased to discover how easy it is to take public transit from the airport all the way to the Port of Piraeus with two fully loaded bicycles, we decided to celebrate with a delicious gyro and a look around the Port of Piraeus. Piraeus gets a bad rap, but we both enjoy the ethnic diversity of the area and the many small shops stocking unusual food stuffs. I'm a personal fan of the American House Toast sign. It seems they might give degrees in hamburgers? I'll stick to working on my gyro diploma.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Magical Mountains

We continue to be amazed at how different the Greeks of the north are. They are simply more rugged people. We are thrilled when, each time we talk about our route, nobody in the room bats an eye -they get it some of them have even done such things. They don't instantly direct us to the major tollway. Instead they steer us well off the beaten track suggesting roads with spectacular views, loads of curves, and little traffic. I can safely say that I love the mountains of Northern Greece. So many treasures are tucked into her folds.

If you keep your eyes peeled when riding from Kastoria to Zahorogoria you might even score a handful of wild strawberries. Windinging our way between the Grammos and Pindos mountain ranges we pedalled away from Kastoria through Konitsa only to end our northern passage with 18 switchbacks on our way to Zahorogoria's Megalo Papigo. This is a must ride destination. Look at those switchbacks! I counted 18 on our ascent. At 3'oclock in the afternoon heat of a Greek summer this was nothing to sneer at. Thanks to the fuel provided by the amazing cookies from the bakery in Konitsa we are finally in the much talked about stone villages of the Zahorogoria.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Greek Indulgences

What a contrast it was to pedal away from struggling Albania into the sumptuous heart of Greece's most luxurious handicraft centre in Kastoria.Nestled on a peninsula jutting into the placid waters of Lake Orestiada the town of Kastoria has been designing and producing highly sought after top end furs for centuries. Dropping into Kastoria after riding along the wild edge of the Grammos mountains felt entirely unlike a return to Greece.

Having read that accommodations catered mainly to upscale weekenders and people in the fur business we had planned to camp somewhere outside of the area, but after a cruise through twisty back streets lined with traditional 17th and 18th century mansions built by Kastoria's fur-makers at the peak of the regions prosperity, curiosity got the better of us and we asked around for inexpensive lodging.

The deal was sealed over coffee and cake with three of the most effervescent sisters in all of Greece. It was impossible to resist their enthusiasm and their pride in their hometown, not to mention the promise of a second generous slice of homemade cake. Hearing that the Byzantine era had managed to tuck over 70 churches into the backroads of the hilly, but tiny northern end of the peninsula of Lake Orestiada, we set out to see what a town full of furrier's mansions and Byzantine churches was all about. Prettiest town in Northern Greece? Possibly. Prettiest town in Macedonia? Definitely. We stayed two nights.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Kuc i zi

Meet Anna Hoxha and her mum Leonora:

Trying to imagine what a visit to Basil's pal Abner's ancestral town Kuc i zi might be like, I decided to have a look through my flash drive for any photos I might have that could create a visual link between us and Kuc i zi. Thank goodness I found photos from Abner's wedding including a photo of him and (our strongest link) his father. I shifted the photos to my flash card so that I could easily pull out my camera to share some hopefully familiar faces to any confused villagers while trying to pantomime our reasons for cycling up the dusty road into tiny Kuc i zi.

Of course the villagers were definitely confused by the arrival of two foreigners on heavily loaded bikes. At the t-junction at the end of the road we ran into a group of women and started with our few Albanian pleasantries and then our terrible mispronunciation of Abner's and his father's name . Nothing registered. I pulled out the camera and brought the pictures up on the screen. The camera was passed around and around getting more and more heavily layered with curious fingerprints. Still no recognition. Basil tried his Greek - nothing. A pretty young girl named Anna stepped up and tried out some Italian on us which we attempted to fumble around with by Italianizing our Spanish. Once she realized what we were doing, in perfect Spanish she asked us what it was we wanted. Relieved we explained ourselves and quickly Anna whisked us off to a beautiful stone house on the edge of the village to meet the family we sought.

We were dumbfounded as this was the first time our Spanish had proven useful in Albania and how strange it was to be using it in a tiny, tiny village faraway from any tourist destinations. We asked Anna where she learned her Spanish. Her response further stupified us, "Telenovelas every day between 4 and 7 - I never miss them". Wow. Could it be that there is an entire subculture of Albanian housewives who are fluent in Spanish because of Mexican soap operas? The thought delighted me.

Anna insisted that we spend the night with her and her family and acted as interpreter through a beautiful lunch at Abner's family's home. Much to our amusement, her excellent Spanish only waned over vocabulary that has no real reason to arise in the Mexican soaps.

We toured the town, saw the fancy new hotel and bar (furnished proudly with goods "made in China"), visited the family's orchard and vineyard, met the family cow who slept meters away from our room, enjoyed homemade butter, yogurt, and cheese and felt truly blessed for falling into a level of hospitality that simply doesn't appear often in the world today. We were at a loss for what we could give Anna ad her family in return until, at the last minute, Anna told us about different family member's aches and pains and how difficult it was to find things like aspirin in Albania. We dug out our first aid kits and turned over all the aspirin, advil, and tylenol we could find.

As we pedalled away from Kuc i zi towards the Greek border, we couldn't help but feel puzzled by the restrictions on such an obviously bright young woman as Anna. Because by sheer chance we held the "right" passports we are are able to cross many borders without so much as a second glance. Our dear Anna, on the other hand, would have a difficult time crossing any border. If she were caught slipping through the mountains into Greece she would be chased down by Greek policemen driving fancy new four wheel drives, she might be beaten and who knows what else before being detained and deported back to Albania. From our experience, it would be a gift for any country to have a person like Anna within it's borders andAlbania is very fortunate to have her.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Made in China

Today Albanians who return from working abroad are building monstrous homes and furnishing them with the latest and greatest “everything from China”. Having seen the quality of stone masonry and wood carving these people are capable of I am frustrated that they don't see what they are losing as they reach for “made in China” instead of “made in Albania”. As I admire the hand woven rugs that are hanging to dry in people's yards, I am saddened when I see these lovely rugs returning to their living spaces with the “made in China” rugs thrown on top. Pretty soon the whole world will be made in China.

Korce is a great city to see the evolution of Albania over 100 years in building styles. The older building is from the early 20th century, then, of course the worker's paradise, and lastly the oversized modern dream houses...

There are a few things that will be a long time changing like long coffee breaks and hospitality.

One of the charming curiosities of hospitality unique to Albania takes the form of slippers. If you are a plastic slipper maker then Albania is a market you definitely want to corner. Shoes in the living quarters just don't happen and bare feet are not tolerated for a single moment. This translates into plastic slipper paradise. No self-respecting hotel room is without them and every household has heaps for family members and guests. Don't you dare try to enter someone's home without borrowing a pair of slippers to laze around in!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker

Korce shops.

Korce Market

We took a few days to relax and enjoy Korce. The market is a wonderful place to lose yourself in a maze of fresh fruit and veg, used clothes, byrek sellers, butchers, fish, coffee shops, hardware, plastics, cleaners, candies, honey, and dairy products. We went home heavily laden with fresh fruit, cheeses, and a massive amount of butter and beeswax. There is no shortage of dairy in Albania. I had no idea how on earth we might finish the huge mound of butter being piled into a plastic bag for us. I had cherries on the brain and this massive lump of butter was threatening to impede my cherry consuming abilities. We had to find some bread and fast...