Tuesday, May 31, 2005

There and back again - part 1

We had an amazing weekend in Greece. M was able to leave around noon so we had Gushta, our regular taxi driver, drive us to the Macedonian border where we were picking up the rental car. It was wonderful to get out in the countryside and leave the dust and pollution of Pristina behind. The rental car people met us at the border and took us into Skopje to complete the paperwork. M, D and I were traveling with our friend Elvira, whose husband John is a colleague of M's here, and their daughter Emma. John was meeting us in Skopje, but got a bit delayed, so we ended up having a nice lunch at the local McDonald's while we waited. Double cheeseburgers, fries and happy meals all around!

We left Elvira and Emma at a local hotel to wait for John, then headed for Greece. The Macedonian countryside has something for everyone - mountains, rivers, farmland, gorges, tunnels and country villages. The mountains are much higher than anything we have on the East Coast of the US -- probably comparable to the Rockies, actually. Some of the peaks had snow on them. There were masses of bright red poppies all along the roadside for color, and every so often there was a picturesque little village, complete with donkeys, sheep herds and a horse-drawn cart or two.

We got a little lost when we got near Thessaloniki, mainly because roads in this part of the world don't necessarily go by numbers, you mostly follow place names and of course, we missed the English sign for T'niki and we don't read Greek. So we took a stab in the wrong direction. Luckily, I finally got to put my days as a sorority girl to good use, when my knowledge of the Greek alphabet helped us to identify that we were headed toward Athens. We turned around at a toll booth and headed back - right into a torrential downpour. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is more stressful on a car full of weary travelers than driving in heavy rain, in an unfamiliar city/country, trying to read signs in not just another language but another alphabet, following sketchy verbal instructions to "head toward the airport, you can't miss it" (which usually means you will), while in the back seat your 3-year-old chants over and over "want to swim in the pool." But after finally finding the airport and a nice policeman who spoke English, we eventually found the Hyatt. Thank goodness it was worth the journey!

Saturday we went into Thessaloniki with John, Elvira and Emma. We split up for the day as they wanted to shop and we wanted to sightsee. The city is an ancient Byzatine port city, but cleverly combines the old with the new. Saturday is a major shopping day and the stores are very cosmopolitan and hip, as are a lot of the people who live there. We saw a couple of the attractions, had some coffees at a waterfront cafe, and did a lot of walking around. There are ruins, excavations and ancient churches everywhere. Unfortunately, most of them are closed sites and a lot of them are informal garbage dumps. Strange to see a stone wall a couple of thousand years old next to a dumpster of garbage, discarded boxes and maybe an old appliance or two.

Another incredible attraction was the local farmer's market, which was about three square city blocks of people selling every kind of foodstuff you could imagine. Piles of fruits and vegetables, stands with sacks and sacks of nuts, herbs, spices, candies, pastries, cases of baklava, meat pies, spinach pies, cheeses, and of course, meat. Fresh fish laid out on huge trestle tables, sides of beef ready for carving, pork, chicken... food everywhere. Food heaven. I wish we had something even remotely comparable in St. Pete. At the end of the day we met up with our friends for dinner at a local restaurant. The food was to die for - grilled haloumi cheese, fried red peppers stuffed with feta, garlick-y potato slices grilled and topped with tzatziki, meat pie, lamb meatballs on pitas... it was probably one of the best meals I've ever had. D, unfortunately, slept through the whole thing. But she'd had a slice of Greek pizza and a bunch of pastries earlier. I'd drive down again tomorrow for the pastries - and the market.

Next post - Halkidiki here we come!

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