Outdoor cinema, The Mart, and where the heck is my Laiki?

I finally had the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor cinema in Athens last weekend. I’d heard this was a quintessential summer pastime in Greece, and I’ve always wanted to go. A group from the embassy met at Cine Chloe in Kifissia to see Victoria & Abdul. I was pretty exhausted from taking the kids on a very hot afternoon outing to Voltaki, an indoor/outdoor playground at Avenue Mall. But I am all about life experiences, so after getting my overtaxed toddler to bed, off to the movies I went!

By some miracle I found a parking spot in downtown Kifissia, and I arrived just as the movie was starting. I spied some familiar faces in the snack bar, so after nabbing some drinks and popcorn, we made our way down to some seats near the front with the rest of our group. We sat in a neat row of director’s chairs. As the movie played, we could hear the leaves rustle in the wind and a steady din from the nearby bars and restaurants. Dark theaters are cold and sterile, but this felt intimate and welcoming. You really got a sense you were watching something with an audience, much like seeing an outdoor stage production. And the temperature that night was perfect — warm enough for light summer clothing, but not so hot we were sweating. If you find yourself in Athens or one of the Greek islands from May-September, this is definitely worth your while.

This week I also finally had the chance to shop at The Mart, Greece’s very own version of Costco. I walked inside, and it was like I’d suddenly been transported to a warehouse store in the US. Wide aisles! Huge shopping carts! Floor to ceiling stacks of bulk items! Except here at The Mart you can get a 5-gallon tub of olives. Actually, I’m pretty sure you can get that at Costco, too.

gr42

I mean, look at that! Like manna from heaven. I almost cried when they told me I couldn’t get a membership. Apparently these deep discounts are for GREEKS ONLY. But thankfully they gave me a free day pass, and later I found out I can borrow a membership card from Philippia in the GSO at the embassy. One of the many perks of being a diplomat, along with VIP parking.

With this unrelenting summertime heat lasting well into September, I haven’t been to the Laiki in awhile. So when I headed down the street with my hobocart ready to pick up some fresh fruit, imagine my surprise to find the street completely empty. Where is my laiki?! I walked a little further and spied some ladies laden with heavy bags of produce, so I knew it wasn’t far off. Sure enough, a few blocks up and couple over, I found it. Huzzah! I guess it does make sense to move it every other year or so. I’m sure blocking the street every week wreaks havoc on the businesses there. I managed to find some of my favorite vendors, and most of them greeted me with a familiar, “Kalimera, ti kanis?” Good morning, how are you? And I would dutifully reply, “Poly kalla. Ef charisto.” Very well, thank you. That’s about all the conversation I can muster in Greek. Sad, I know, after almost two years.

As I left the hustle and bustle of the produce market, I found myself in the more peaceful clothing, hardware, and odds & ends market. Cleaning products, textiles, yoga pants, bras and panties — and apparently a random assortment of wheels. Down on the ground amid the bric-a-brac, I saw a small cardboard box full of wheels from lawn mowers, strollers, and Radio Flyer wagons. You truly can find just about anything at the Laiki.

Bike ride and a bath

20170914_111201935_iOS

It was a week for meeting new friends and saying goodbye to old ones…at least for a time. My biking and yoga partner in crime Joanna is off to the States for a few months, so we made a point of squeezing in one last bike ride on our favorite route through Sounio. This time we invited my new friend Rose along. Rose graciously loaned me her old road bike…and a bike shirt and some padded shorts. And she drove us down there with three bikes attached to her Jeep. She is seriously My Hero.

Last time we rode this route, I lagged behind because of my bike (Not that I was completely out of shape…ahem.) and we only went about 12 miles round trip before I cried uncle. But this time we went twice as far. I’d love to say I easily kept pace…but, no. Their superior bikes with clip pedals, and let’s face it, superior fitness levels left me struggling to keep up. So we decided it would be better if I set the pace in front.

And just like before, the views were breathtaking.

20170913_083138095_iOS

On the way back we stopped yet again at what has become our favorite taverna by the sea for greek salad and tzatziki. We wore our swim suits under our biking gear, so after a quick bite we went out for a little swim. The beach was very rocky, hard on my feet, but once we got in the water, it was gorgeous. I wish I’d brought my snorkel. Soon enough it was time to drip dry, put dry socks on wet feet (which was actually easier than putting on the bike shorts again!), and head back. We barely made it in time for the big kids to let out of school. Poor Rose got a lot of practice driving in congested Athens traffic that day!

I’m sad that Joanna will be leaving for the rest of the fall, but glad I found a new friend to bike with. I’ve even gotten inspired to try a new route by my house — apparently there’s a “secret” passageway under frenetic Kiffisias Avenue that opens up to a verdant, quiet, hilly neighborhood next to mine called Filothei. I spent Saturday morning hunting for a new bike helmet (which are a bit difficult to find for adults here…you rarely see anyone under the age of 12 wearing one), and I ordered some fancy padded biker shorts online. I may just have to ask Santa for a fancy new bike this year, as well.

The day after our bike ride I went to my regular Pilates class, which was a little more challenging with the sore muscles. I was delighted to meet another newcomer from the Embassy there, and I’m hoping to entice her to come out and bike with me as well as take Pilates at my favorite yoga place. I am determined to shed all of this weight I’ve put on since I quit nursing!

That evening I had a girl’s spa night unlike any other. Joanna made us a reservation for four at Al Hammam Baths, a traditional Turkish bath down near the Plaka. She told us to bring our swim suits and not eat anything two hours prior. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to the Intercontinental’s Turkish Bath in Istanbul years and years ago, but all I remembered was sitting in a hot room with James in our swim suits for about half an hour. This experience was way better. The four of us sat in the hammam for about 30 minutes, drenching ourselves with water from the taps if we got too hot, and lying on a stone pillar to relax. They had to shush us a few times — we are a chatty bunch — but soon we were relaxed and content. Then, in groups of two, they led us into another room of the hammam with two stone benches for us to lie on. As we lay first on our backs, then on our tummies, two rather buff and attractive dudes scrubbed us with exfoliating gloves, massaged our backs and limbs with bubbly olive oil soap, and even washed our hair. It. was. stupendous.

We finished the evening in the tea room with some refreshing Hibiscus tea and a bowl of Turkish Delights. A wonderful send off to Joanna, who I won’t see again until January. I will definitely be returning to the hammam, maybe for a date night — I saw they offered a couple’s package. But next time I’ll need to bring a bikini that unhooks in the back. My modest tankini was a bit awkward for the massage.

Note to self: buy a bikini. Second note to self: lose 10 pounds. Although, judging from the body types I’ve seen in bikinis this summer in Greece, that last one is optional. But with all of this biking, Pilates and Aerial Yoga, it’s a goal I hope to attain soon.

Best Beach in Athens Yet!

Last week I complained that the beaches in Greece have been a constant disappointment. Turns out I’ve just been going to the wrong beaches! Last weekend we met a couple of friends at a beach I’d never tried before: Avlaki Beach. And it was a perfect antidote to the previous weekend’s disappointment. The sand was excellent — fine grain, no pebbles — and the surf was gentle and shallow. My only gripe was the crowd. The lot was already filling up with tour buses at 10AM, and the place was packed with seniors. Old lady hair-dos bobbed by the dozens in the water as far as the eye could see, and just about every umbrella for the first four rows was already taken.

20170909_094522913_iOS

20170909_111248609_iOS

Admission was 5 Euros for adults, 3 Euros for children, and under 3 was free. Older kids could get a 10 Euro day pass to the inflatable, floating fun park on one side of the beach. (You could save a little money and get a one-hour pass for 6 Euros. It didn’t appear that anyone was checking to see who had paid for the day and who had paid by the hour.) The loungers weren’t in the best shape, but we didn’t spend much time sitting in them. There were also some cliffs on one side of the beach that older kids could jump from. A great beach for all ages!

We ordered a nice lunch for a decent price, and it was served promptly. The girls had a fabulous time digging in the sand, and the older boys raved about the fun park. Liam isn’t much for daring-do when it comes to water, so he stuck close to the shore. But he couldn’t get enough of this sand. Not quite as good as Siesta Key in Florida, but certainly getting there. I’m hoping during the week the parking and crowds will be less of a problem, which will make this beach hands down my favorite so far.

While we were there, another friend recommended another beach close to Glyfada that she claimed had even better sand and was even closer to our house. Where have these beaches been all my life?! September is my favorite month for Greek beaches, especially during the week while the older kids are in school.

Two kids, one adult at a resort…and I survived.

Saturday the kids and I embarked on a little adventure…an all-inclusive resort in the Peloponnese for Labor Day weekend. I’d taken Liam on a similar vacation when he was three in Florida, and despite the challenges (we were potty training at the time, as I recall), we had a lot of fun. I was hoping to recapture the magic.

Turns out that taking TWO kids on a beach vacation is about FOUR times more work. Coupled with our lackluster opinion of the resort, and the weekend was pretty much a bust.

The afternoon started out promising. Our room at the Barcelo Hydra Beach Resort was much bigger than expected, and we had three beds plus a proper crib for Violet. But when I sat on the beds, I realized only one of them was even remotely comfortable. I seriously thought they’d mistakenly put the box springs on top of the mattresses. Liam claimed the bed by the window, the only soft mattress, and I wasn’t about to argue with him. So I was already dreading bed time.

We headed to the beach for the late afternoon, and the kids had a wonderful time digging in the sand. It was rockier than I would have expected from a resort, but the Greek beaches have continually disappointed me, so I should have known. My recent vacation at Grand Cayman and our time in Florida have made me a bit of a beach snob, I’m afraid.

I was indeed impressed by the variety at the buffet — the kids could eat somewhat nutritiously while also indulging in french fries. And they had wine on tap, so everyone was satisfied. I wish my kids were a little older and more capable of getting their own plates. Liam can hold a plate, but couldn’t seem to get the food onto it. And Violet couldn’t manage it at all, though she certainly tried. (“Put the plate back where you found it, Violet!”) I spent most of our time ferrying food back and forth to our table, like that mom on A Christmas Story who hasn’t had a hot meal in eight years. At least the views from the dining room were lovely.

I had originally planned to book us a ferry from the resort to Hydra island for a short excursion, but much to my disappointment, there weren’t any ferries until Tuesday evening. The helpful desk receptionist suggested we take a ferry from a stop 15 minutes down the road, but after consulting the times table, I realized I’d be trapped on an island for eight hours with two children, one of them in serious need of a nap. No thanks!

Instead, we rented a sun bed and sat on the beach all day. Conveniently, I had received a coupon for 16 Euros for joining the Barcelo’s rewards club, which just about exactly covered the cost of a sun bed rental. If I’d been staying longer, I would have been annoyed by this little financial jab — pay for an all-inclusive resort, then pay extra for the only spots in the front row on the beach. But staying on a Sunday in the off season has its perks — we easily secured a bed in front of the beach bar. There wasn’t any wait service (another gripe), but I could easily run to the bar for snack and drinks while the kids played in the sand. The kids had another enjoyable day digging in the sand, though our spot was even rockier than the day before, and every foray into the surf left my feet aching from sharp pebbles. Liam wouldn’t swim by himself, so I was constantly in and out of the water. A few Mai Tais later and I didn’t mind it too much.

We spent a little time at the pool, which offered some lovely views. Liam wanted to swim to the very edge near the ocean, so I dutifully followed him while Violet screamed in my ear. Apparently she wasn’t in the mood for swimming.

After we’d had our fill of the sun, we cleaned up and took the camera on a walk about the resort. I got some great photos despite Liam and Violet’s sour moods.

The walk was hillier than I had expected, and it didn’t take long for the heat to drive us back into our room. We had to wait around for dinner to be served at 7:30. I regret not bringing more food of my own, or at the very least snagging some food when they decided to serve it.

That evening I managed to trick Liam into sleeping in the big bed, so at least I could enjoy a soft bed for one night. Of course, I also had the annoyance of a hot room. I complained in vain at the front desk about the thermostat stubbornly locked at 25C — a balmy 77F — apparently a hotel policy. One of many cost-cutting measures that left me disappointed in this resort. We were also limited in the number of towels we could have for the week. It wasn’t a problem for our short stay, but I would have been annoyed by this if I’d stayed the whole week. Who wants to bring a sandy towel back to their room to reuse the next day?

I had considered staying an extra night, but by Monday we were ready to just be home. Besides, you’d have to pay me to sleep on that hard bed in that hot room for one more night!

The road less traveled

I found myself thinking about our first day in Athens as I drove from my dentist’s office near the airport down to the embassy. I have bleary memories of these beautiful hillside vistas, and as I peered out the window I could see the vast city below. We went through a few tunnels, and then suddenly there was the Acropolis in the distance. It’s funny — I’ve never had occasion to drive on that road again until the other day. It was called the Imittos Ring, and as highway driving goes, it is one of the most lovely drives in Athens. I would imagine most tourists approach the city this way. It was a nice little drive down memory lane.

Tomorrow the kids and I are off on a journey of our own. James had to travel to Africa at the last minute, so I decided to book us a couple of nights at a seaside resort in the Peloponnese. When Liam was three I did a similar thing in Florida, and it was one of the most lovely mini-vacations I’ve ever had. Our Greek resort provides all-inclusive food and drinks, three private beaches, and excursions to a Greek island, so it promises to be even more luxurious than Florida. However, I am a little nervous about the drive down with car-sick prone children (I have Dramamine at the ready!) and the sleeping arrangements with one child afraid of the dark now, and one who can’t stand the light on when he sleeps. Sigh. I wonder if the staff will let me take a bottle of wine to my room before bed?

The kids wanted to watch Toy Story 3 this morning, and as I’m blubbering through the ending, I’m reminding that I need to cherish these amazing years when they are so young. Sure, vacations might be a hassle, and they may drive me crazy sometimes, but these sweet little years won’t last forever. I plan to bring my Nikon, so stay tuned for some (hopefully) nice photos of the kids in my next post.

A rare solo night out

The embassy hosted a beer-tasting event Friday night at a beer cellar in the city center called Barley Cargo. James was just getting back from Rome the day before and leaving for Nairobi on Sunday morning, so it was a hard pass for him. But he graciously offered to watch the kids while I went. (By “graciously offered” I really mean “graciously accepted” after I whined that I never get to go anywhere fun anymore.) For 22 Euros we got a pretty generous pour of six beers, plus two bonus beers, and several courses of hors d’oeurves.

After each sample went by, the bar owner would give a short presentation about the beer we were tasting, sometimes inviting the actual beer-makers on stage to talk. At one point, while tasting a lager, he said, “We know how fond you Americans are of lagers,” which elicited a hearty boo from my table. You know how I feel about light lagers. (I should have been born in Germany.)

I was fashionably late — having been here almost two years, I’m on Greek time — so I missed the first couple of food courses. But I managed to snag some delicious mushrooms that appeared to be cut, squashed flat with a hammer, seasoned and grilled to perfection. As for beers, they were all tasty — predictably, the last better than the first — but my favorites were the Xarma Dunkel Lager (from Chania-Crete Island) and Septem 8th Day IPA (from Evia Island). I recently discovered the Septem Sunday’s Honey Golden Ale, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

Summer is a time of upheaval for the US Embassy — some families take their home leave, some families leave for good, and some families are just arriving — so this event was a great opportunity to connect with friends I hadn’t seen all summer, and to make some new ones, as well.

I’m not a fan of parking in the city center, so I took the bus and train there and back. I rarely have the opportunity to stay out late on my own in Athens, so this was quite a treat. At Syntagma Square, I noticed some guys throwing floating glow sticks up in the air, just as they did at San Marcos in Venice. I guess those guys are everywhere!

While waiting (and waiting!) for the 421 bus, I saw a car just brimming with passengers pull up on the other side of the street. The driver hopped out, walked around to the back, opened the hatchback, and a lanky young man crawled right on out of the trunk! No one at the bus stop flinched as I practically guffawed. Business as usual here in Athens!

My house is about a 25-minute walk from the Metro, and after waiting for the bus for half an hour, I decided to hoof it back. Maybe I could stop by this wine bar by my house that I’ve been meaning to try. Of course, about 15 minutes into my journey, the 421 blew right past me. Oh well. It was a nice night for a stroll. Outdoor restaurant seats were still packed at 11. Shops were closed, but the pedestrian mall was still heavily criss-crossed with foot traffic. On a quiet little side street I passed by Wine Not?, but it appeared to be closed. I couldn’t tell if it was closed for good, or just closed for August…hard to suss out sometimes. There wasn’t a sign, which you’ll usually find on businesses closed for August. Looking online, there’s no mention of them closing for good or for August. I didn’t actually try the door, so perhaps they were open after all! Curses! I guess I’ll have to appeal to some girl friends to come try this place with me. Winos unite!

Koutouki Cave

Liam learned a new word today: spelunking. A mere 30 minutes from our house is the largest known and, according to the brochure, “one of the most beautiful” caves in the Athens area. Situated on the eastern slope of Mount Hymettos, it was first discovered in 1926 when a goat fell down through the entrance. Ha! I love it already!

We arrived at Koutouki Cave with a few friends and their kiddos. Liam was the oldest and most sullen. Eight going on thirteen, this one. But as we waited for the 11:30 tour–tours go every hour on the half hour from 8:30-3:30, seven days a week–we admired the view of the valley, hills and sea from a platform at the cave’s man-made entrance.

20170823_082059677_iOS20170823_082237106_iOS

20170823_082047619_iOSI stealthily snapped a photo before he could run away. Violet sat in her stroller having a snack attack. We bought tickets for 2 Euros, and all of the children were free. Inside we had to ditch the stroller…much to Violet’s dismay. Ah, two. Gotta love it. She eventually settled down, and our intrepid group set off through a winding staircase path as our friendly guide illuminated all of the features of the cave with a flashlight. He told us many schools have field trips there, so he catered the information for the little ones.

Let me just say that I stand behind the assertion that this is one of the most beautiful caves in the region. Glittery stalactites and columns fill every cavern, and it is truly a wonder to behold. Our guide gleefully pointed out shapes that the rocks had formed — an ice cream cone, a lion, a camel — and the kids could easily reach out and touch the formations around them. Violet walked for a time, but mostly insisted on being carried while whimpering about her lost stroller, so I didn’t get any photos inside the cave. Just as well…an iPhone would hardly do it justice.

Our tour lasted about 30 minutes, and the highlight was definitely the soaring ceiling below the natural entrance where a goat accidentally fell in and the locals discovered the cave. There were many questions for our guide about this goat. Violet kept looking around making “baaa” noises, expecting a goat to pop its head around a rock formation. Liam wondered if the goat fell all the way to the bottom, some four or five stories below. Our guide said the floor wasn’t nearly so deep back then, so the goat was unharmed. Tectonic shifts are thought to have created this natural entrance…the goat hole, if you will. (*snicker*)

The temperature in the cave stays at a somewhat chilly 17 Celsius (62 F) all year round, so I’m glad I brought light jackets for the kids. I brought a sweater for myself, but all the a walking and toddler carrying kept me pretty toasty. Both kids seemed to enjoy the tour, which was great for school aged children, but also fun for little ones with so much to see and touch. The cave was well lit, and the stairs were easy to manage. I read that they’d recently re-paved the floors so they are less slippery.

We had a great time spelunking, and I highly recommend this activity for kids, especially for hot or rainy days. Because this is Greece, and there doesn’t appear to be a website for the cave, it’s best to call them at 210-923-2358 to confirm opening hours and tour times. Happy exploring!