Monday, October 17, 2016

Thessaloniki: A Second Look

Cat at the 13th century Hammam

Ruth: We are spending our last four nights in Thessaloniki before flying home for a bit. I don't return to work until the 30th of January, so we will squeeze another adventure in after we have some time at home to pet our cat and reintroduce ourselves to family and friends. It will be fun to feed our own cat for a change. 

Now that I have gotten over the initial shock that Thessaloniki has no ferries, I can enjoy it for the many delights it does have. It is an interesting mix of urban sprawl, urban decay and dazzling ancient sites from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. It is also one of the best cities for bakeries, and trust me I have done a lot of research. The cheap eats to be sampled from the many bakeries range from feta and spinach filo pies to the most dreamy of chocolate mousse cakes. Of course there are also lots of varieties of delicious baklava. 

The weather has turned from the heat we had two weeks ago, when we were last here, and I am now heading out for our walks in a sweater and pants. Tomorrow wind and rain are forecast, with temperatures only a few degrees above those in Victoria. It is a quick transition in the Mediterranean, only two days ago I was still snorkelling. The sea temperature is still around 20 degrees, much warmer than our ocean ever gets around Victoria. 

Today we spent a lot of our time arranging to have our bikes boxed and transported to the airport. This is the part of any bike trip that is such a pain. Bikes are meant to be ridden, and with the airport just 20kms out it would be easy to do so, but the airlines want them boxed.  Grrrrrr!  We asked for advice on large taxis or minivans at the bike store where we got our bike boxes, which initiated a lively discussion in Greek between the staff and the customers. Yannis, one of the customers, offered to go and get his 1977 Chrysler hatchback to see if we could all fit. The test ride back to our apartment was successful, and he will be taking us to the airport on Thursday. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pedalling and Painting my Search for Mindfulness

Ruth: After learning to read, the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn is meditation. I am not good at it, and even this judgemental statement proves my point. I am impatient, squirrelly and squirmy when I am practicing my sitting meditation. It is 32 minutes long and after twenty I have to peek at my watch thinking it must be almost over. Frequently I don't make it through the session, with excuses running through my head like honey. Hummm...honey... goes so well on Greek yoghurt... perhaps I should have some right now.  

Living in the moment is very difficult for me; my mind thrives on instant gratification and a hyperkinetic gerbil race from one idea to another. I know, however, it is something that I need. It is also something that many of the students that I teach need desperately. As more and more research piles up supporting the role of mindfulness in stress and anxiety reduction I need to pay attention. But how can I introduce it into the curriculum if I can't even tame my own monkey mind? When choices are so abundant, how do I learn not to reach for my IPad and binge watch another few episodes of some idiotic but addictive show on Netflix?

I am still practicing meditation, but I get closer to a quiet and calm state of mind when I am either pedalling or painting. These are two activities that I do not rush. I can sit and paint a picture and my only thoughts are of the lines and colours that I place on the page. Well, that is not entirely true, there is a fairly loud inner critic that sometimes crashes the party screaming at me, "You can't paint," but even that voice is less common when I consciously make my painting an exercise in mindfulness rather than perfection.

Cycling has always been my best way to live in the moment. The rhythm of pedalling and the simple flow of time and terrain helps me to slow down thoughts and stay present. After 5,000 kms of pedalling across Europe, time is now measured in kilometres and hills rather than minutes and hours. I am not a meditation expert, artist or athlete, but at least I am trying hard to be present. 

The old town on Alonnisos. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Life in the Chora: Skopelos Town

Gordon:  A couple of days ago we cycled the 25 kms from Loutraki to the other, bigger town on the island, Skopelos Town.  This is the more touristy end of the island, but at this time of year you only know this from the size of the unoccupied waterfront restaurants.  Many tourist related businesses are already shuttered, and it seems that more close every day.  We were the last tenants of the season at our accommodation in Loutraki (although they said they would reopen for us if we passed through on our return journey) and it appears that we are the last occupants of our current apartment as well.  

In the dying days of the season the prices have become very reasonable.  We are paying 28 euros (about CAN$42) per night for the two level suite that we currently occupy.  It is located on a square on the waterfront, which we can observe from our three balconies.  It has a kitchen so we are doing our own cooking (liberally supplemented by local delicacies such as cheese pies, baklava, and the most outrageously rich cakes.)

While we are losing our interest in swimming in the cooling temperatures and agitated seas, there are clear advantages to travelling in Greece in this season.  The cooler temperatures allow us to plan walking and cycling excursions that extend through the afternoon, without fear of the heat.  

Yesterday I walked to the top of a nearby mountain (560 metres) on a five hour hike.  The walk followed an ancient stone path that has been refurbished in recent years.  Most of the area is covered in a forest of shrubs and Kermes oak.  Surprisingly, there are a few arbutus trees high in the mountains.  There are also a number of active monasteries in the surrounding hills, most established in the 17th century and now occupied by a single monk or nun.  I visited the Metamorphosis of Sotiros monastery on my walk, and was shown the gorgeous church by the resident monk.  There is a lush garden within the walls of the monastery, and a collection of monastic cells that would have accommodated a number of monks in more devout times.

Skopelos Town is a substantial Chora (the "ch" is pronounced like a strong "h") that has maintained its traditional appearance.  This form of organic, high density housing is an endless visual delight, and we have spent hours wandering through it.  Our outings are usually initiated by Ruth asking "Should we go Chora-ing?"  In some cultures this would be a strange suggestion from one's wife.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Life in the Chora: Glossa

Ruth: Most of our days here involve a late afternoon walk up to the hill town of Glossa. Gord and I happily spend an hour or two wandering around the narrow stone streets and steps that wind up the steep cliff face. We are now the only tourists in the Chora and the locals all greet us with a genuine warmth and are very pleased to know how much we like their town. Many have family or friends in Canada or the United States, but are very happy to be living here. The centre square is a tiny, leafy corner in front of the church where a few locals can usually be found waiting for the sunset. 
It is a wonderful place to sit back, sip a Mythos beer and review my extensive to do list for the day - paint, do yoga, eat, buy more cat food. If we don't move on soon Gord and I will be putting down roots. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Trip to the Swimming Hole

Gordon:  The musical film Mamma Mia was filmed largely on Skopelos.  There are numerous references to the movie in the tourist literature.  One beach is now referred to as the "Mamma Mia beach", and a small church dramatically located on a spire of rock at the edge of the sea is the "Mamma Mia church".  Whatever the artistic merits of the movie, the church of Agios Iannis is a gem.  

We cycled to the church for the second time today.  It is only an 18 km round trip, but it involves a total climb of about 500 metres.  The road to the church is a delight, climbing over the spine of the island, and then angling down to the sea on the other side.  The narrow, winding track is littered with fallen olives and lined with clumps of delicate, wild cyclamen blossoms.

A cooler airmass moved into the region a few days ago, reducing the daily high temperatures to the low twenties.  Despite the cooler conditions a swim in the sea is still very desirable.  We have a mask and snorkel with us, so we did some snorkelling in the crystal clear water near the church.  In a phrase familiar to Canadian ears, the waters in this area have been "over harvested".  As a result there is a dearth of life to be seen through a snorkelling mask, but it was lovely just to peer through the clear water at the limestone boulders and formations beneath the waves.

Even at the remotely situated Agios Iannis church we encountered a number of hungry, affectionate cats.  In what is no doubt a glimpse of our elder years, we always carry some dry cat food with us, so we were able to share with our new friends.

The wave got the top of the "T"!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Shifting to Low Gear on Skopolos



Ruth:  We are staying in an apartment on the quiet, less touristy end of Skopelos island overlooking the Port of Loutraki.  It is just below the old and largely unspoiled town of Glossa. We have already extended our stay from three to five days, and I would happily remain here even longer.  Our break on the island has been full of day trips to beaches, monasteries, and lighthouses. Each trip starts with a climb up to Glossa, at 250 meters, and descents and ascents on our return. The beauty of having completed such a long trip is that these climbs now seem manageable, especially with my bike Wanda's lowest gear. Skopelos is much lusher than other Greek islands we have visited, with pine forests coverning most of the high areas.

We cycled over to Ai Giannis, a church on a high pinnacle of rock made famous by the musical film Mamma Mia. 

We always bring our bag of cat food on our walks and rides, and yesterday we must have fed at least 30 felines. Life is slow and relaxed here. The locals emerge at the end of the day to watch the sun set over the water and the neighbouring island of Skiathos. They also appreciate the beauty of this place. 


Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Byzantine World of Thessoloniki

Ruth:  Squeezed into the 1960's urban sprawl of Thessaloniki is a wealth of Byzantine churches and monasteries. No less that 6 of them are Unesco listed, dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries. That some of the mosaics and frescos survived fires, earthquakes and the Ottoman conquest makes them even more precious. Many of the churches were converted into mosques, but the glittering mosaics (sometimes) remained safely encased in a layer of plaster. 

Gord and I have always loved Byzantine churches, so this city is a wonderful treat. After a morning of exploring the churches we spent the afternoon in the Museum of Byzantine culture.  It has a beautiful, well curated collection.

At the grocery store yesterday morning Gord slipped a small bag of cat food in with our provisions.  With a cheeky smile on his face the same bag emerged from his backpack whenever hungry cats or kittens appeared.

 This morning we took a train, for the first time in almost three months, to Larissa. From there we cycled the 60 km to Volos, but unlike Thessoloniki, Volos actually has ferries! We have tickets to sail for Skopolos tomorrow. 

Down to the Aegean: Thessaloniki - a port without ferries

Ruth: Although our original plan was to head to the Black Sea, our love of Greece and the turquoise waters of the Agean made our line across the continent turn a hard right in Romania. Thessaloniki seemed like a good goal, with all of its Byzantine sights, and with the option to slow down, roll onto a ferry and relax on a Greek island. No one told us it is a port without any ferries!! Sure those cheap Ryan Air and Easy Jet flights seem like great options until one day you wake up and realize there are no boats in your harbour! OK, there were a few clues of trouble on the horizon that I ignored. Every time we tried to access ferry schedules on line no sailings appeared on any of the days we tried. I repeatedly complained to Gord of the enormous need for computer programmers in Greece so that they could get these Ferry booking sites up and working. No worries, we will just find the information we need down at the port when we get there. Well I have already given away the punch line. But I am ahead of myself, and to really understand how hard the news of no ferries hit us you have to understand how our day unfolded prior to our Ativan in Thessaloniki.  I have now had a night's sleep and enough Mythos beer to tell the tale. 

It was going to be an easy ride down to the sea after a couple of long days crossing the ridge that divides Macedonia and Bulgaria from Greece. As we pulled out of the town of Kilkis an older man tried to encourage us to take another route to Thessoloniki, but I was confident that my planned route was best. After all, it was going to be a short easy ride, so why not take the gently hilly route?  It turns out the flat area I saw on the map was flat because I failed to download the topo maps for Greece. In fact, northern Greece is actually quite hilly.  Our first 15 kms were a roller coaster cutting across the grain of mountainous terrain.  After crossing the third river, and noting on the map that there were three more to come, we knew we had our work cut out for us, but at least things would flatten out as we neared Thessaloniki. NOT SO!! To avoid the $#*!! motorway our route  took us on a dirt track up 350 meters vertical, mostly pushing the bike. We were beyond tired when we finally caught our first glimpse of the sparkling sea. The day was one of our toughest, but it was also very beautiful. A recent rain in Northern Greece and Macedonia had transformed the area into a lush countryside bursting with fall flowers.

We were only in Macedonia for one day, but I was struck by the number of Massey-Fergusons still working the land.