Outdoors and indoors with the kids

I recently discovered two great outings for the kids, one outdoors and one indoors. Perfect for fall when one can never be sure what the weather will bring. Until fairly recently the thermometer was still topping 90 in the afternoon, but last week we got a healthy dose of fall, so Violet and I decided to meet some friends for a stroll around National Garden.

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The National Garden, located in the city center near the Temple of Zeus, is a relatively recent addition to the Athenian landscape. Built in 1840, it originally contained 500 species of plants, but due to the dry climate, many of those original species died off. Though it’s a nice oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city, like many things in the city, it was a bit down-trodden in places. The kids delighted in the little caged animals — birds, ducks, chickens, turtles and the like.

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But while I can assume that the bridge overlooking the pond was once picturesque, the shallow, scummy water was hardly inviting for any ducks…or humans. (Though I was told in the summer that Greek mothers will sometimes encourage their children to swim there. Ick.) Perhaps there was another larger, more well-kept pond somewhere in the garden. We let the children lead the way, so we missed a lot of the garden’s features. What we did stumble on was a very well-maintained and spacious playground, and the girls had a fantastic time there.

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National Garden may not hold a candle to Central Park, but if you’re looking for a safe spot in the city to let your toddlers roam free, this is the ticket.

Today, Columbus Day, James and I decided to take Violet out for a day at the Playmobil FunPark in Kifissia, about 20 minutes north of our house. What a delightful little play space for youngsters! Admission for the three of us was 8 Euros — perhaps a little steep, but there were so many toys set up all around, we thought it was worth it. Violet was entertained all the way to nap time.

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There were zoo animals, farms, castles, Roman gallies, Egyptian pyramids, tree houses, princess castles, swimming pools, and even the Ecto 1 and firehouse from Ghostbusters. There were space shuttles, planes, trains, little doll houses, and so much more. We grabbed a sandwich in the cafe at lunch, and Violet had her own little toddler-sized table to eat on. We practically had the place to ourselves, and we wished we could have brought Liam with us.

And, of course, there was a huge gift shop. Violet picked out a little fairy action figure and a doll house set with a bathtub, and we got little figure playing electric guitar and a hot dog cart with Slimer from Ghostbusters for Liam. Needless to say we’ll be going back there with Liam on his next day off from school. (I imagine the place is mobbed on the weekend, and that is definitely NOT Liam’s scene. Maybe over Thanksgiving, when the American school is off, but the Greek schools are not.)

Time to get this girl a bike helmet

Last Sunday I got up early and biked through the “secret” passage to neighboring Filothei…and it was glorious. Hardly a car in sight, and the maze of hilly streets proved both interesting and challenging. Best of all, I came across a lovely little playground that had a structure perfect for a two-year-old.

Until now I never would have considered taking Violet in the baby bike seat that has been gathering dust in our basement. But I had to remind myself that when I bought this seat, way back when Liam was 18 months old, I used to cross six lanes of traffic on Georgia Avenue, then share the road on some back streets to get to the trail head in Silver Spring. And there was that time I got REALLY ambitious and took him on the Metro for a bike ride on The Mall. Compared to that, this was gonna be cake.

First, Violet would need a bike helmet. She’s been begging for a pink Peppa Pig one, but Hello Kitty was the best I could do. She didn’t mind one bit.

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Next, I had to get used to the balance. It’s been a little while since I had a kiddo on the back of my bike…though maybe not as long as you’d think. I was still seating Liam back there to ride the trails in Wichita when he was almost six. One of the advantages to having such small children is they almost never exceed the weight limit no matter their age. Even though it’s been a few years, my body remembered…just like riding a bike, as they say!

And then we were off! There was considerably more traffic at 11:30 AM on a Friday, but nothing I couldn’t handle. There were just a couple of dicey spots where I had to share the road, but drivers always slowed way down, and most of the time I could find a little nook to duck into while they went around. I actually felt a bit better riding against traffic on the one-way roads. I know that’s a big no-no, but it gave me more time to find a nook if I could see the cars coming toward me. And once I got into Filothei, the streets got wider and less busy.

I wish I had a video of Violet’s reaction. She LOOOOOVED it. She had her own little bell to ring, which she did…often. And I had a near constant commentary about the trees and the cars and the people we passed. “I like the bike very much, mom,” she said after a long, “Wheeee!” down the hill.

We met another mom and her son at the park, and they told us there are several other lovely parks in Filothei that we could probably bike to. I’m so tickled we’re finally getting back on the bike. Some of my fondest memories of Liam at this age were our little bike outings and picnics in DC and Orlando. I’m looking forward to many fun fall outings with Violet this year.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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!