Chapter Thirty-Two December 15 – January 10, 2007

This chapter is a more detailed itinerary than usual to give you some idea of the “whirlwind” Christmas holiday we have just experienced. Costas planned an action-packed two week tour. And what a tour it was!

It all began on Tuesday, December 19 when we boarded the early ferry in Mykonos. We were to drive north to Trikala where we would be met along the highway by Costas’ longtime friend, Thanasis. Thanasis greeted us and made us feel at home immediately. Once he had us securely in our hotel, he departed and we had a fun dinner at the local grill house behind the hotel. Trikala was all decked out for the holidays, and the lights and festive atmosphere put us solidly into the holiday spirit.

Costas met us the next morning, and our “Tour” started in earnest. The sun was shining brightly, so it made for a great day to visit Meteora, where the monasteries seem to hang in the sky as if by magic. The two monasteries we visited were “staffed” by very informative nuns and monks and their guidance added so much to our tours.


                       

Thursday Thanasis joined us again after our tour of the largest monastery in Meteora, Moni Megalou Meteorou. The cloudy, foggy day did not interfere with our visit to this magnificent edifice and its fabulous exhibits and museums. Thanasis gave us a tour of his cotton gin, which was running the season’s harvest from the surrounding area. As we drove around Lake Plastiras, Costas and Thanasis convinced us that it was really there but the fog was so thick we only had but a momentary glimpse of it. The ride was a real treat anyway.

Friday brought us at last to Thessaloniki. We had so been wanting to meet Costas’ family, and now here they were, in the flesh. We must admit to some apprehensions about meeting them; how could they ever be as wonderful as he? But our “concerns” were put to rest as soon as we met Maria, Amalia, and Sotiris. We were welcomed with such love and warmth that we knew immediately they were every bit as wonderful as he. Sharon joined Maria at Amalia’s ballet recital while John got acquainted with Sotiris as they walked through downtown Thessaloniki, which was all decked out for Christmas with lights and decorations everywhere. Sharon loved seeing Amalia perform; she was definitely the best of the troupe. Now it really felt like Christmas!


                        

The next morning we toured the newly rebuilt Museum of Archaeology. Here we learned more about Macedonia and its history. The exhibits told the story of how this area has been inhabited for thousands of years, with the city itself dating back to the 3rd century B.C. It is beautifully done. Costas and Maria urged us home early for a “rest” before the evening’s activities. We joined them and friends at the fabulous Milos Club to hear the up-and-coming band “Onirama.” We cannot remember such a good time; John even danced to the Disco music! But morning came very, very early as we didn’t come home until 5:00 a.m.

Sunday was Christmas Eve; we drove to Naoussa, Maria’s home town. There we met her parents, Amalia and Grigoris. Another late night, as we dined at the local country hotel with Costas and Maria, and Maria’s sister Elsa and her boyfriend, Jordan. The hotel is set in the beautiful Ag. Nikolas Forest, at the base of the mountain home of the local ski resort. The dinner was great fun, and we enjoyed listening to the bouzouki music and watching traditional Greek dancing. The dining room was packed with people enjoying Christmas Eve with their families.

Christmas Day was bright and clear, but without the expected snow. All through Naoussa local groups lit huge bonfires to warm the infant Jesus. Only in Naoussa do they do this; we saw it on the national TV News later that night.



                   

The day began with a visit to Maria’s cousins, also in Naoussa. Her uncle Konstantinos’ house was decorated as though it were in suburban Chicago, USA. He had lived in the USA for several years, and brought the traditions back to Naoussa with him. We met all the aunts, uncles and cousins on her father’s side of the family, and what a great bunch of people they are. One very cute nephew (about 11) insisted on sitting near us so he could listen in and practice his English. The Christmas Feast at Maria’s house was something out of this world. There was enough food to feed an army, and dishes upon dishes of local delicacies. (Even the pig was local!) Maria’s parents could not have been more gracious; they even wrapped presents for each of us. Later that evening, Maria’s other cousins came calling which meant yet another feast and warm family gathering. Such a wonderful way to spend Christmas!


                              
   
But we were not through. The next day we again went visiting and touring with the family. First to Edessa and its fabulous waterfalls. Costas’ friend, another Costas, took time out from his family to give us the personalized tour of the city. The water really defines Edessa as it runs through the streets on its way over the falls. At the bottom of the falls is the now-defunct hemp factory. This “modern” factory used the falling water to turn out hemp rope from 1912 until it closed in the 1960s, hemp rope being replaced by modern synthetics. The municipality has turned the factory into a tourist attraction, complete with restaurant, museum, and even a disco. Costas gave us a great tour of the factory, the old town and the falls; we even climbed down the cliff and walked under the falls as the water poured down all around us.


                   


Lunch was in a great taverna in Ag. Athanasios. This formerly-abandoned mountain village has recently been resurrected as a vacation village for the nearby ski center. Here we were just over the border from what was formerly Yugoslavia. Also, here were more friends of Costas and Maria. (Is there nowhere in Greece they do not have friends?) We visited with the friends in their newly-completed villa and nestled into warmth of the fire. A long, but wonderful day.

“So,” you say, “are there no antiquities in this part of Greece? You haven’t mentioned a museum in ages.” Ha! You have no idea! This is, after all, Macedonia. And Macedonia is home to Alexander the Great, so antiquities were surrounding us on all sides. Just as though to prove the point, the following day Costas and Maria took us to Vergina. And Vergina is where Alexander’s father is buried. I say “Is” because the tomb was found completely intact, with the bones of Philip II just as they were placed in the tomb in 336 B.C. Here we walked in Alexander’s footsteps, as they say in the brochure. The tomb exhibit is simply amazing, and anyone coming to Greece has to put this spot on the top of their “Must Do” list. The artifacts found in the tomb are displayed (very well, as usual in Greece) just as they were found, and the treasure is spectacular. The funerary wreath alone is worth a fortune; the gold work is exquisite.


                     

After lunch in a local ouzera, we had a quick walk around Veria. Veria is an ancient city in its own right, but is somewhat overshadowed by the wonders of Vergina. There is one “wonder” for which Veria still stands alone: Revani. This unique dessert is made from a secret recipe that is handed down from generation to generation, and it is made better here than anywhere else in Greece. It is said that the last family member to hold the secret recipe refused to marry for fear the recipe would be divulged! Whatever the secret, it was great!

On Thursday our first stop was the area Aristotle used as a school when he was tutor to Alexander. (Yes, “that” Aristotle, and “that” Alexander.) We walked through the area, which is just off to the side of the road set in among the fruit farms. No big deal. Then we toured the ruins and museum at Pella, the capital of Phillip’s and Alexander’s Macedonia. Along the way, we took in some ancient Macedonian tombs that were found when they were building a modern road. What else is buried here? Who knows? After another “feast,” this one a sort of “farewell luncheon” at Maria’s parents’ house (how wonderfully they treated us!), we drove back to Thessaloniki. And collapsed. But only for a moment.

Next day was another tour to visit Costas’ “other summer house” in the seaside resort of Sani. This is where we’ll bring Seraphim in the spring, and it is quite a fabulous place. The house is nestled in among the pine trees and is gorgeous. In May we will take Costas and his family and friends sailing for a few days. Maybe we’ll even host a party!



                    

Sunday was New Year’s Eve, and we spent it with Costas and his family (of course), and dinner was again a feast. And all of it scrumptious. Costas’ father and his wife were with us and we now know where Costas gets his intense interest in American politics. The evening was a wonderful way to conclude a year like no other. As we reflected on all that has happened to us this past year, how far we have come and how much we have experienced, we find it almost too good to be true. We started out in Sabaudia twelve months ago, and now we close out the year in Thessaloniki. Ottavio and Costas have given us so much, if only we could somehow let them understand how much they have enriched our lives.


                   

Thursday morning we left Thessaloniki, tired but filled with experiences to digest. We have had a fabulous time, and are glad we had this time to be with Costas, Maria and his wonderful family. Their generosity and hospitality are hard to believe. But we had more ahead of us. Costas helped us map out a return that included a stopover in the Pelion Peninsula. Because we got an early start, we had the afternoon to drive around the mountain taking in the sights. The charming villages of Portaria and Makrinitsa began the tour, then we headed up the mountain to the ski resort at Hania. Unfortunately for the skiers, but fortunately for us, there has not been much snow, so the roads were clear and the crowds light. We secured the last available room in a small hotel in the converted Karagiannopoulos Mansion. The mansion was built in 1791, and the restoration was very tastefully done; we considered ourselves lucky to find a room. In the evening we strolled through neighboring Milies and dined in the local taverna. What a way to start the new year!

Before leaving the Pelion, we took another walk through Milies in the morning to get some photographs. The rest of the drive to Rafina was uneventful; the ferry was on time, and packed with people like we have never before seen it. When we drove up to the house, Fredo came up to welcome us home (and to make sure we were not burglars). The house is as we left it; clean and secure.

Result: The lives of two American visitors have been forever enriched by the experiences of this journey. The sights, the history, the art are all embedded in their minds. And the people in their hearts.