Tuesday, July 30, 2013

For Your Eyes Only: The Monasteries Of Meteora

The Roussanou Nunnery
James Bond's For Your Eyes Only was filmed here.  These bizarre granite nubs located 300 meters above the plain in Central Greece are truly a sight to behold.  Meteora literally means "midair" and this aptly describes both the hilltops and the numerous monasteries that are perched atop them.  I first learned about the Meteora Monasteries when I saw the cover of Frommer's guide to Greece.  The picture of a lone building sitting atop a cliff was intriguing and I wanted to learn more.  My research told me that 30 million years ago this entire area was a vast inland sea and when the waters receded, they left these rocks behind.  This would explain the gnarls, carvings, and swirling patterns that only erosion by water could create.

Long view

Close up of the water (and weather) carved rocks
It is believed that during the 10th Century monks first lived as hermits amongst the numerous caves that are a part of the hills.  As more monks came to the area the first monastery, the Great Meteoro, was built in the 14th Century by St. Arthanasios.  Fast forward one hundred years and there were 24 monasteries dotting the Meteora hills.  Solitary life was far from easy in these monasteries.  While the high altitude provides relief from the stifling temperatures in the summer, high winds make for very cold winter days.  Everything, from building materials to food and water had to be carried in.  There were two ways to reach the top of these hills; you could either climb steep paths or you could utilize a rope, basket, and pulley system to hoist goods from the ground to the top.  Both methods are still utilized today.

Now this holds a lot of wine

Today only six remain open to the public.  While a paved road now takes visitors to the base of each monastery, long treks up numerous steps are still required to make it to the top.  (As we learned, in the July sun, that means it is a very hot climb).  But as we discovered, the effort is well worth it.  We visited three  monasteries during our visit to Meteora.  Megalo Meteoro, or the Grand Monastery, was by far the largest.  The views from the top were breathtaking and we loved exploring the nooks and crannies that were open to the public.  We explored the vast wine cellar and discovered that these monks loved their wine as they had casks and barrels of all sizes.  The "old kitchen" while well equipped, looked like the preparation of every meal would have been  tedious production.  In the ossuary, which was filled with row after row of skulls, we saw the shrine to the deceased monks.  Upon entering the chapel, dark yet opulent and smelling heavily of incense, even Sidney immediately fell silent.  Back outside in the bright sunshine he perked right up as he spied a water fountain which was a welcome sight in the midday heat.
Dead monks

On the next hill over, we visited the Varlaam Monastery which while smaller than the Megalo Meteoro, provided us with amazing views of where we had been.  The visit to the Roussanou Nunnery required the steepest climb but the sweeping views made my initial fears worth it.  (This entire day was a challenge to this height fearing traveler).  While all of the monasteries were well kept, the grounds of the nunnery seemed more immaculate.  The building itself felt more compact and we didn't see any evidence of wine making on the premise.  Whereas the entrances to the monasteries had been manned by slovenly looking young men, nuns were at work in the nunnery collecting admission fees and monitoring the attire of visitors.  (Women are required to wear skirts inside all of the monasteries and those who weren't already wearing them were provided with scarves that could be transformed into hastily made wraps.  Men were supposed to be wearing long pants and as Glenn suffered through the intense heat in his we saw many men entering these holy places with knobbly knees showing).  We also witnessed nuns sitting in corners of the nunnery silently making handcrafts.

All of the Meteora Monasteries were impressive but what I found the most awe inspiring was the physical location of each holy place.  Perched upon the top of these hills, I continued to wonder about the effort and sheer willpower that constructing each of these buildings must have entailed.  Which option was better- trekking goods up the hill or hoisting them in a basket?  I couldn't decide which view was the most impressive: the top of the hills looking down provided one perspective but sitting at the bottom looking up was equally awe inspiring.  The sweeping view from our hotel room balcony provided yet another perspective.   I enjoyed all of the views.  Everyone says that the best time to visit the area is in the winter when the hills and monasteries are snow covered.  Now if only we can schedule a return visit to see if we agree.

Meteora is in the middle; the Pindos Range is in the background

The morning view of the mountains as seen from
our hotel room

Night time perspective

Saturday, July 27, 2013

And We're Off

If only our route was this straight (or paved)

Last year when opportunities for travel arose, we were quick to get out of Albania and our little part of the world.  We visited Italy twice, made pilgrimages to Istanbul, Budapest, and Prague and spent our summer holiday exploring Scandinavia.  This year, however, we've been embracing the Balkans and discovering the hidden treasures that lie in this little part of Eastern Europe.   Today we head out on a two week road trip through northern Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia.  We're excited to explore this part of the world that just a few years ago we never would have dreamed of visiting.  With the exception of Greece, when we were growing up these countries either didn't didn't exist or were places whose conditions were so brutal that westerners just didn't thinking about visiting them.  But things have changed.

And now we're off.  I think I've packed everything but if I haven't I will only realize it later and by then it will be too late so we will do without.  Passports and the camera are in my purse.  Snacks are packed, batteries for various entertainment systems are fully charged, and this time we've remembered to bring along our CDs since channel surfing on the radio is frustrating at best.  For the most part we know where we are going.  Our hotels are programmed into our GPS and once we get across the Albanian border the GPS will hopefully come alive with maps.  (The entire country of Albania shows up as a big black hole on our TomTom).  People have joked that this trip could give the Griswold's family vacation a run for its money.  Maybe it will, maybe it won't.  Summer vacations are supposed to be about family time and making memories and that is sure to happen.  We may not know what is around the next corner but we're about to find out.

First stop:  Meteora, Greece.

Friday, July 26, 2013

An Issue Of Image

Following in true European summer tradition, we are about to set off on our annual two week holiday.  Last night, in preparation for our excursion, I decided to check out the hotels where we have reservations for the coming weeks.  Glenn always takes the lead in booking our hotels and, as he has yet to make a bad choice, I rarely bother to see where we will be staying prior to the rooms being booked.  As has been the case, all of the hotels where we will be staying look very nice online.  This time, however, I noticed something that I hadn't seen on the websites of other hotels where we have stayed.  Each and every site had too thin, scantily clad women gracing their sites.  Whether it was the lone woman taking in the night view from the balcony wearing the sheerest of "evening" dresses, or the one soaking in a jacuzzi, or yet another splayed across a satin sheeted bed, it would seem that sex is being used to market these otherwise respectable, name brand hotels to prospective customers.  This wasn't for a single hotel mind you; rather it was for several spread across four different countries.  Now I've done my share of traveling and this is the first time I've seen such blatant sexuality used to market reputable hotel accommodations.  And all of these "models" were women who look nothing like the typical ones I see every day.  Who exactly is the target audience?  Is the assumption that only men are making hotel reservations?  And speaking of men, where are they?  Are these women really traveling by themselves? And if so, who hangs out in their hotel rooms dressed as they are?

This marketing campaign has me thinking about body images and how they are perceived, used, and manipulated around the world.  A five star hotel in the United States is more apt to use the image of a sophisticated couple or a businessman or no people at all on their website while it seems as though single women are what sells in the same five star accommodations in Eastern Europe.  In fact, scantily clad women seem to be used to market most things in this part of the world (and others as well.  I know this phenomenon isn't unique to this region but it does seem to be a bit more over the top here).  From restaurants and bars to automobiles, soft drinks, and yes hotels, busty skinny women wearing little clothing are hawking products everywhere I look. What messages are these advertisements sending to today's young girls about what they should look like?  And more importantly, how do we as ordinary people counter the glitzy and sexualized images that come at us from all directions?

In my younger years I might have (and did) viewed these images and wondered what I had to do to look like these idealized women.  Now that I am older and wiser I understand that I will never be six feet tall nor will I be a size 2 and I am more than happy with that.  Do I love the way I look?  Some days I do while on others I don't.  Over time I've learned to deal with both the things I like about my body and the things I don't.  It isn't always easy when I look around me, but I'm doing the best I can.

But I am also hopeful.  During recent beach excursions I saw European women of all ages, shapes, and sizes enjoying the sun and sand.  While I was clad in what I consider my age and body appropriate Lands End swimsuit, everyone else was wearing much smaller and more revealing swim wear.  (Or wearing nothing at all).  And you know what?  I didn't see a single body that looked anything like the glossy images that stare down at us from billboards and websites.  Many of the women around me had sags, bumps, and wrinkles---the skin and bodies of real women--- but they weren't letting that stop them from enjoying themselves.  I found it deeply refreshing that regardless of the images that are so prevalent, so many of these women were comfortable in their own skins.  Perhaps media doesn't have the influence I think it does.  At least I can hope.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Discovering The Albanian Riveria: Dhermi

The best of the Albanian Riviera

The Albanian Riviera. If you aren't from Albania or haven't traveled through the Balkans, you have probably never heard of it.  Or maybe you read about the area when the New York Times featured the region in its Frugal Traveler section.  If you are familiar with the region and have been there, then you know what all of the fuss is about.  The Albanian Riviera extends from where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas meet at the coastal city of Vlore south to the border where Albania meets Greece.  Just over 80 miles in length, due to narrow roads, random animals in the road, and the sweeping views, driving its entire length can take hours.  (And this isn't necessarily a bad thing).  Approaching the area from the north means traversing a narrow hairpin road up through Llogara Pass then weaving your way down to the shore below.  On a clear day, the vistas more than compensate for the slow going. This area includes the coastal villages of Borsch, Qeparo, Himara, and Dhermi as well as the larger port city of Saranda and was recognized as a 2012 top value destination by Frommer's.  The mostly pristine beaches along this stretch of coastline are pebbly but the crystal clear water invites visitors to jump right in and forgo stepping on the rocks.  Many are inaccessible to all but the most sturdy of vehicles as are numerous castle ruins perched atop soaring cliffs.  The area is known for its rich olive oil and fresh seafood and due to the region's proximity to Greece, there are Greek influences in everything from the area's culture and language to its food.  Like the rest of the country, the history of this region runs deep; it has been settled, invaded, occupied, and been the site of battles since ancient times.  Albanian history cites an attack by Phillip of Macedonia (father of Alexandria the Great) on the village of Himara in 214 BC.  Now that is some ancient history.

View from the beach

We had been hearing about the natural beauty of the Albanian Riviera since we arrived here and had driven through on several occasions en route to other destinations, but had never spent a substantial amount of time there.  We always meant to really visit but other than lunches at roadside fish shacks or an afternoon exploring the cavernous Porto Palermo castle, the area had been nothing more than a view out the car window.  This past weekend we had the opportunity to spend the night (two of them in fact) and experience the area of ourselves.  We were the guests of a friend whose family has owned property in Dhermi since the early 1900s and as such, he was privy to the best spots in the village, introduced us to them and gave us a sense of what the area is really like.

I've often said that the best way to discover an area is to live like a local and that is what we did.  Sure you can see a lot when you rush from one historic or must see site to another but in doing so, are you really experiencing the area?  As guests in our friend's home we were able to sit on the balcony and enjoy the water views.  Whether it was a morning coffee or an evening glass of wine, the rising or setting sun and the cool breezes off of the water only amplified our feelings of tranquility.  Repeatedly we found ourselves wondering how we could still be so close to the hustle and bustle of Tirana yet feel a world away.  The air was so much cleaner in Dhermi than it is in the city and although the village is gearing up for the height of their tourism season, the pace of life around us felt sleepy and relaxed.  It was impossible not to join in on the feeling.  We spent the days lounging on the beach in a far off section of waterfront that had been under guard and off limits to all but the party elite during Communist times.  Even today, at the far end of the beach, it was separated from the more lively boardwalk-type area.  It was so easy to loll away the hours while just looking at the water.  Our meals were casual affairs filled with fresh fish and seafood that had just been pulled from the sea. It was so fresh, in fact, that we selected which fish we wanted from a still squirming selection that was presented to us on a platter.  (We also discovered that we actually know more people that we think here in Albania.  On two separate occasions we encountered Albanians we had previously met at other locations thus proving just how small of a country this really is).  In reality, our weekend was filled with doing absolutely nothing and it was just perfect.

The southern view of Llogara Pass

After any trip I always feel a sense of sadness when it is time to pack up and return home.  I call it a post vacation let down.  Despite of, or maybe because of, our only being away for two nights, I left Dhermi desperately wanting to experience more of it. It was so idyllic that I wanted to spend more time just sitting and absorbing the sun, sand, and fresh sea air. But all is not lost; we've consulted our calendars and are planning a trip back this fall. I've been told that the area is even more beautiful at that time of the year and I can't wait to go and see it for myself.

And of course, no trip to the beach would be
complete without a few rocks being thrown

Friday, July 19, 2013

Little Pitchers Have Big Ears

I'm raising a little boy. As such, his current obsessions include cars, trains and airplanes.  From watching their wheels go around while playing with cars and constructing a maze of tracks throughout the living room for trains to providing detailed (bi-lingual) descriptions of what one needs to do in order to fly on an airplane, Sidney spends hours fixating on these modes of transportation. Upon boarding a hydro-ferry recently Sidney saw the seat configurations and proclaimed that it was just like riding an airplane.  He really is such a boy!  In many respects this works out well for us since the lure of an airplane or train ride during an upcoming trip is enough to prod my otherwise pokey boy into picking up his toys, cleaning up his room, or even finishing his dinner.  (I am not ashamed to admit that, on occasion I will resort to bribery).  Yes, travel by any of these modes of transportation is just that exciting for him and we take full advantage of it.  Because of this, all is well until it just isn't any more.

During our recent trip to Greece our hotel was situated near the airport. While most people would probably be turned of by this, the location worked out well for us since it provided hours of anticipatory entertainment because you never knew when a plane would land or take off and you had to be on the lookout.  A routine quickly developed.  Sidney would first hear the plane then upon spotting it would shriek with excitement and point at the sky to inform everyone within ear shot of the airplane.  His excitement became a joke amongst our group and soon everyone was on the lookout for the next airplane.  During our final night on the island we were playing the same game during dinner.  At one point during the long evening a conversation a few chairs down from Sidney turned to the recent crash of a U.S. military plane in Afghanistan.  The voices were low and I was only hearing bits and pieces of the conversation while Sidney appeared to be focusing on eating his dinner (and playing with a match box car) so I didn't give the conversation much thought.  That was until one of our fellow diners spotted an outbound plane and alerted Sidney.

What did my airplane loving boy do? Instead of pointing and yelling with delight he looked at me with tears in his big blue eyes and informed me that it was bad and the people on the plane were scared. Using his hand, he then mimicked the actions of a plane taking off before abruptly changing direction and crashing onto the table next to his dinner plate.  All conversation around us stopped as we quickly assured Sidney that the plane and its passengers were safe.  He nodded and returned to his dinner but with the spotting of the next plane he again stated that the passengers were scared.  When this pattern continued for the rest of the evening and started again the next morning, I began to wonder how I could address this fear. 

As our (bad) luck would have it, later that morning our group toured the grounds of the Gjirokastra Castle which includes the remains of a 1950s era U.S. military plane.  Our English speaking guide shared the original story of how the plane came to be there (the Albanian military shot down the insurgent aircraft) then the real story (it had mechanical trouble and was forced to land). I don't know how much of this Sidney heard because he was focused on the "broken" plane in front of him.  Glenn and I quickly ushered him away from the wreckage but the image had already been set in stone in Sidney's young mind.  Once home, and still pondering how we should proceed with Sidney's new found fear, we made the mistake (?) of turning on the television to try to catch up on the news.  And what was the first image we saw?  Nothing other than the burned out wreckage of a crashed plane sitting on the runway at the San Francisco airport.  We quickly shut off the television but I fear it wasn't fast enough since Sidney was in the room.  Even two weeks out from our trip Sidney still talks about airplanes being bad, the broken plane, plane crashes, and people being scared.  As if this wasn't bad enough, in the same two weeks we have heard and seen stories about a freight train exploding in Canada and a commuter train crashing in Paris.  To my knowledge Sidney is still oblivious (I hope at least) to these incidents since, while he still likes to crash his trains while playing with them, he hasn't indicated that he is afraid to ride them. In fact, he even asked if we could take a train to Poland this fall instead of an airplane.  (The answer is no since Albanian trains really are that scary). We just need to make sure it stays this way.   

The old adage really is true.  You never know what children will hear.  No wait, I take that back because they hear everything.  My lesson from all of this?  Assume Sidney will hear and see it all even if he appears to be oblivious.  And now we have to figure out how to counter his newly found fears.  I know I can't shelter him from every tragic event and the day will come when I have no control over what he does and doesn't see and hear, but in the meantime I want to protect him. I want my airplane and train loving little boy back.  I want him to feel safe and excited about these modes of transportation.  Heck, if need be, I'll even join him in playing airplane for hours on end. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Island Hopping In The Ionian

A waterfront church
Earlier this month, during our trip to Greece, we spent one amazing day boating between Corfu and the nearby islands of Paxi  and Antipaxi.  Mythology has Poseidon, God of the Sea, on a quest to find a peaceful haven on which to take refuge, creating these islands by striking his trident on Corfu. Today, these smallest of the Ionian islands, are known for their sun, sand, olive groves, and wine.  (What's not to love?).  They are located just seven miles off the coast of Corfu and eight miles off the coast of  mainland Greece and lacking air service, the only way to get to these islands is via boat--either private or charter-- which means smaller crowds and a slower pace than Corfu, their more touristy big sister.  And as it turned out, visiting these two green gems was the highlight of my trip.

Inside a cave looking out
Excited for what the day held in store for us, we slathered ourselves with high SPF sunscreen and set off on our chartered boat early on the morning of the 4th of July.  Even all these years later, the Mainer in me still expects the air to be foggy and cold when I am out on the water -- even if it is the middle of the summer.  Instead, we had full sunshine and a light breeze that made the weather just perfect for a day on the water.  We enjoyed the requisite morning and afternoon coffee breaks on shore first in the village of Lakka then in the island's government seat of Gaios.  Perhaps it was the early hour but Lakka felt quaint and sleepy during our morning visit.  Its small harbor had its share of multi-million dollar yachts and sailboats but an equal number of small fishing boats and water taxis were tied up at the pier.  We sipped iced coffee at a small cafe run by Brits while looking at the boats bobbing in the harbor.  During our late afternoon visit to  Gaios , I found this village to be more colorful and busier with bustling restaurants, gift shops, and a noticeably larger number of  people.  I loved both of these harbors and wished we had more time to explore all the narrow streets had to offer.  But we didn't have time and that was actually OK since what we did in between our two Paxi port calls was so wonderful.
Exploring the coast

Pulling out of Lakka we hugged Paxi's rocky shoreline and explored the numerous sea caves that dotted the shore.  The sheer cliffs plummeted down to water that was so crystal clear that I could look through meter upon meter of the aquamarine liquid all the way to the sea bottom.  The sight really left me breathless.  To me, the color and clarity of the water rivaled that of the Caribbean.  Our boat was small and the very able captain was able to pilot us through the narrow caverns of numerous caves.  I thought this was just so cool.  The water was just as clear here and its reflection off of the cave walls created a spectrum of blues, greens, and purples.  Inside one cave the more adventurous amongst our group had the opportunity to go swimming.  Glenn jumped right in and this ended up being the highlight of his day. He also swam to shore, returning with a pocket full of pebbles for Sidney, whose throwing them into the water and watching them sink ended up being the highlight of his day.  We explored a few more caves before heading out across the narrow waterway to our next stop, the island of Antipaxi.

On Antipaxi we disembarked and spent several hours playing in the azure water and lazing on the small beach.  Sidney's initial dismay that there weren't any rocks to thrown turned to delight when he discovered that sand is even more fun to play with.  This island is tiny and with roughly 60 or so summer residents, sparsely populated.  Our little beach was anchored by two ramshackle restaurants serving freshly grilled fish and meat.  The entire vibe was low key and relaxed. The water was refreshingly cold but the sun was hot and we staked out our beach chairs and just relaxed.  The beach was a fine white sand and not marred by a single piece of litter. (You know I have been in Albania too long when a lack of litter and debris is the very first thing I notice about a beach).  I'm not even a "beach" person but I felt like I had discovered a little piece of heaven and loved every minute of our time there.  So much so that I even donned a bathing suit for the first time in years and actually went in the water.  And I enjoyed it.

Lunch time view- Antipaxi Island

Waiting for lunch to be delivered

One last look- Antipaxi

Of course, all good things must come to an end and all too soon it was time to hop back on our boat and return to Corfu.  We took our time returning however, stopping to explore a few more caves and taking an afternoon coffee break in Gaios.  Lulled by the rocking of the boat and tired by all of the sun I think everyone napped during the return trip.  I know I did.  The day was just the type of relaxing and fun filled one that you should have on vacation.  As I mentioned earlier, it was the 4th of July and while we didn't experience the traditional American style cookout and fireworks displays, we didn't miss any of it.

This was how clear the water was


Monday, July 15, 2013

On Loan

In many respects my current life is temporary.  Or at least that is how I feel.  We are temporarily living in a country in a house that is only on loan to us.  Even most of the furnishings aren't ours; from the rugs and lamps to our dining room table and the chair I am sitting in at the moment, we are the temporary inhabitants of this residence that was selected for us.  Come January,  we will move out and in a matter of days someone else will become the new occupant of our Drexal furniture filled home.  Whether we are members of the military or the foreign service, such is the life we have (unknowingly?? knowingly??) signed on for.  With each move we know we are only there for the short term before we move on again.  So how does one put down roots when you know they will be so shallow?

This is a question I have been contemplating lately.  Perhaps it is because the annual summer migration known as PCSing (permanent change of station) is upon us and so many of our friends are packing up, picking up, and moving on.  Some are returning to the United States or to their home countries while others are heading onto new foreign adventures.  For the moment we are staying put and watching new people migrate to Tirana and put down their own temporary roots.  And everyone does it in their own way.  Some people arrive, unpack quickly and go about making their new house their new home.  They buy new accessories to customize their standard issue furniture, paint their walls to match their personalities, and quickly integrate themselves into social circles as though they have been their all their lives. Others live out of their moving boxes, unpacking only as needed, keeping to themselves, and biding their time until they too will be moving on once again.  

When we arrived two years ago, we did a combination of these things.  Due in large part to our super efficient housekeeper, all of our boxes were unpacked and homes found for our belongings the day they arrived.  We quickly hung our family pictures to personalize the otherwise generic walls, swapped out our standard issued mattress for the pillow topped one we had brought with us, and filled the kitchen with the scenes and smells that reminded us of home.  (My Kitchen Aid mixer is always the first item that is unpacked and put to use since in my mind, a kitchen just isn't my kitchen unless this bright red appliance is perched upon a counter).  With the exception of additional transformers, we didn't, however, buy anything that is specific to our current house.  Having learned the hard way that the framed print that is perfect over one mantle won't work in a house without a fireplace and custom drapes are only appropriate for the windows they were designed for, we arranged what we already owned to work in our current situation. It wasn't a perfect match but it was good enough for the time being.  Or so we told ourselves.  We immediately immersed ourselves in our new jobs and routines, quickly made new friends, and settled into our new lives but somehow this move was different from the onset.  Whereas before I felt as though staying put at the end of an assignment was a remote possibility, I knew that here, for better or worse, there was a firm end date in sight.  And I feel as though this thought has never been far from my mind.  On both good days and bad I have reminded myself that this situation is only temporary.  This certainly isn't any way to live and I have reminded myself of this over the past two years but I still haven't been able to shake the "its only on loan" feeling.  

And now we have entered into our six month countdown and the temporary feeling is turning into a sense of reality.  Instead of focusing on the now I'm focusing on the future.  Instead of hanging pictures from our most recent trip on the wall I'm thinking about saving them for our next temporary set of walls.  After all, why mar the concrete wall with a hole that will only serve a purpose for a few short months?  As friends who have lived in the same house for decades comment on my nomadic lifestyle with both envy and horror I wonder how I really feel about it.  I find myself wondering what it will be like to finally settle into a "permanent" house and put down real roots.  Will it be a relief to finally unpack knowing another move isn't on the horizon or will I feel an itch to move on after a few years.  Only time will tell since that day is still years in the future.  In the meantime I'm focusing on what is coming up next.  I'm telling myself that three years is a long enough time to establish roots.  Maybe they won't grow real deep but perhaps they will be deep enough to feel somewhat permanent.  We'll once again have the opportunity to choose our own house instead of having one assigned to us and our furniture will be our own.  We'll have three years to unpack, settle down, and make our house our home and our neighborhood our neighborhood.  So the real question I need to ponder now is how to make it happen.  How do you really establish roots on a compressed timeline?

Monday, July 8, 2013

So Close Yet A World Away: Discovering Corfu

Monastery bells
My blog has been silent this month since we spent this past week in Corfu, Greece exploring the island, immersing ourselves in Greek food and culture, and simply relaxing.  We had been wanting to visit Corfu and the opportunity to do so arose when the military attache association here in Tirana, under the guidance of the Greek attache who is a native of Corfu, decided to organize a trip to the island.  Group trips make me a bit apprehensive and as we set off I wasn't sure what to expect but I can clearly say now that the trip was amazing and I loved every moment of my Greek island adventure.

This northern most Greek island in the Ionian Sea is just 18 miles from the shore of the southern Albanian city of Sarande, but being there felt like it was a world away from our temporary home.  Whereas Albania feels arid and brown Corfu is incredibly lush and green.  Locals complained about the condition of the roads and infrastructure but from what we saw, it is light years ahead of those in Albania.  Greece may be in the midst of an economic crisis but we saw little evidence of this as we mingled amongst other throngs of tourists.  Multi-million dollar yachts floated in aquamarine coves, shops were bustling, and it felt as though the entire island was open for business.  In fact, this island's economy is heavily driven by tourism and from the restaurants and shops to historic sites, everyone we encountered was warm, welcoming, and hospitable.  Since Corfu is in the heart of the Mediterranean I was already familiar with the meats, cheeses, vegetables, and olives for which the region is famous. What I didn't know was that Corfu is most well known for her hundreds of thousands of olive trees that cover most of the island.  In addition to the cured olives and olive oil that we readily sampled, olive wood products were readily available for purchase.  (And yes, we also brought home a few of these beautifully marbled souvenirs).

Monastery entryway
So what did we do while there; we played tourist of course!  Under the knowledgable expertise of a local tour guide we toured the UNESCO designated Old Fortress of Corfu Town and meandered through the maze of streets in the city's pedestrian zone.  We explored monasteries dating back to the 1200s, toured the Achillion Palace which was once home to Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, frolicked in the crystal waters off of Paleokastrisa, and took in the sweeping views from the top of some of Corfu's highest peaks.  (We also spent an amazing day island hopping between Corfu and neighboring islands but that is a post for another day).  We enjoyed long leisurely meals of local specialties overlooking the ocean and discovered some really good Greek wines.  And as is the case with any good get-away, we also had plenty of time on our own to explore the island or to do absolutely nothing.  Sidney loved wandering through the pedestrian friendly streets of the old city, wading along the beach and throwing rocks into the water, and watching airplanes take off and land from the nearby airport.  As adults we enjoyed all of this too but more so, we loved unplugging (we only had the weakest of interest signals in our room), relaxing, and just enjoying the atmosphere.  In fact, one of our favorite evenings of the week involved a local bottle of wine and dinner from room service eaten on our ocean front balcony.  It really doesn't get much better than this.  

Because pictures say it better than words can, here is a sampling of the amazing sights we saw:

Aquamarine water


The sculpture garden at the Achillion Museum

Everything was made of olive wood at this shop in the
center of old Corfu Town

An old motorcycle waiting for its rider to return
outside of the walls to the Old Fortress

Crossing into the Old Fortress