Just some skiing….

“Holy smokes!”  I breathlessly announced as I slid to a stop on one of the slopes at Bansko.

I looked at Chris completely perplexed, and was very reassured to see that, indeed, he was as exhausted as I was.  We both stood there and huffed and puffed for a couple minutes, looking down the slope and taking in our surroundings.

We had only skied about 20 turns on our first run, but our quads were already screaming, and we were totally breathless.

“Are we THAT out of skiing shape, or is this snow just REALLY heavy?”  I asked, laughing at the ridiculousness of our situation.

Afterall, we hadn’t really skied in a couple of seasons. The conditions at our West Coast hill on Vancouver Island, Canada, had been sporadic to say the least. The hill had had no snow, and the conditions unstable, so we never skied, and now we were paying for it.

We weren’t altogether surprised by this turn of events, as our morning had already started out quite interesting to say the least.

We awoke early to get to our ski rental shop, donned our gear quite quickly, and then crossed the street to take the gondola up to the base of the mountain. The hill opened at 8:00, and we were grabbing our tickets by 8:30. Already, there was a large line up that had formed, and we dropped into it eager to get going and make the most of our day.

Now, we have learned, the line up situation in Europe, is quite different than the line up situation in Canada. At least, that of which is in Bulgaria, Greece, or Italy.  Since it seemed the same in these three countries, I’m willing to generalize that it’s likely similar across the continent.

As we stood innocently in line, feeling just as eager to get going as everyone else, we started to notice some interesting trends. We noticed that MANY people outside the line, in fact knew MANY people inside the line, and it was common practice to throw your skis to whoever you knew, and either climb the fence to get into that spot, or go to the back of the line and push your way forward, all the while explaining that you know someone up front.

Obviously people would let others through, and it started to become quite obvious that the line was hardly moving, because of all the extra bodies coming into it.

The other thing we noticed is that there is literally NO personal space in line ups, and you just nudge and push and jostle your way through, until you finally get somewhere. We were part of a giant amoebic blob, like a school of fish, where each vacated space was immediately filled with some sense of urgency.

We remembered the days of Gabrovo, and our fun nightclub experience, where our host dragged us through the line announcing “We must be impudent if we are to get anywhere in life!”

The channel between fences, that the line up had filled was about 6 feet across, and we were located on the left side of it, against the railing. At some point I looked to the right and noticed a faster “current” of people floating past us. The people that had just been in front of us, we’re now 10 feet ahead in this new current. I elbowed Chris and said, “we need to get over there.”

In that moment, our lesson from Ahmed, our friend in Gabrovo, came forth, and we both became quite impudent ourselves. We pushed and jostled and wiggled our way over to the quick moving current, and sure enough, we were swept away, much quicker than the stale left hand section of the line.

The pushing and wiggling went on for about 45 minutes. We climbed 2 sets of metal stairs, in the same way as if we were walking on the ground. Everyone was so jammed together, you hardly had room to bend your knee, and your waist, in order to get up to the next step. Never mind the fact that everyone is carrying heavy skis, snowboards, and ski poles that were wildly flying to and fro. Also add this to the fact that walking in ski boots is difficult to start with, climbing stairs is an entirely different phenomenon.

At one point the lady in front of me teetered backwards, and I feared she would fall on us all below. At another point, a small boy behind me was exhausted by it all, and decided to pretty much lean his whole body onto me, trying to get some rest.

It was a challenge for the senses, and we were happy when we came to the top of the stairs and we could see the gondolas. However, this too was a test of our resolve.

There were about 4 turnstiles that people filtered off into to approach the gondola, and to scan their tickets into an automatic reader. Once scanned, the light would go green, and the turnstile would release, allowing you to walk through. I noticed the girl in front of me had walked through quickly behind the woman in front of her, and had actually gained access on the same green light, as the lady in front. I wondered how often that scam was played out to gain free access to the mountain.

We got through the turnstiles, and awaited the gondolas to swing by us. However, the pushing and chaos to get on them was again a new sensation for us, and it took us a minute to get the gumption to be able to force our way onto the lift, as the rest of them were doing. People were clambering every which way, and it made for a lot of banging, noise and chaos.

We collapsed onto the gondola, and Chris announced for the first time “I think it’s okay if we only ski one day.”  Ha!  We hadn’t even gotten NEAR the slopes, and we were already exhausted with it all.

We proceeded up the mountain, in typical fashion.  I had grown up near Sunshine Village, in the Canadian Rockies, where it was also necessary to take a gondola to the base of the slope. So this was very familiar territory to me. It turned out to be a nice transition from the crazy bustling below, and we arrived in much better spirits at the top.

Ready to go!
We exited the gondola station and were presented with what looked like a typical ski hill. We were immediately impressed with the mountain itself, and the runs looked to be very decent, even from that vantage point.

As eager as we were to get going, we hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and we were both  looking forward to some protein to fill us up and provide some much needed energy for what we were about to do. We eyed up the closest ski lodge, and immediately found the cafeteria. I headed straight to the start of the line up, grabbed a tray, grabbed some napkins and cutlery, and proceeded down the line.

Not once did I notice that no one else was in there. I just sauntered up to the windows, that should have been full of food, and stood and starred, mouth agape at the obvious lack of said food. Not one tray had any steaming goodness coming out of it. Chris came along and grabbed his tray behind me and I turned to him and said “Don’t bother.”

He too looked around completely aghast and horrified that there were no hot steaming eggs, sausages, bacon, or pancakes. You name it, WE WANTED IT!

We stood there staring in utter disbelief for a few moments, put our trays and cutlery back, and then proceeded to the cashier to see what the heck was going on.

“There is no breakfast here?”  I asked still stupefied.

“No, cafeteria opens at 11:00.”  She told us, seemingly confused by our inquiry.

“Is there anywhere that we can get breakfast around here?”  I asked in a quite desperate manner.

She shook her head, still not sure, it seemed, why we would be asking such absurd questions.

We looked around us at the shelves close to the cashier, and noted the choices available; Chocolate bars, coffee, beer and potato chips. So, that is what we had!

We had a mars bar for desert!
We headed over to a table and just sat in shock, picking away at our chips. We couldn’t believe this!  Images of bustling ski lodges came to our mind, throngs of skiers eagerly filling up on carbs and protein, making themselves ready for a big day on the slopes. Didn’t they know how much money they could make?  Didn’t they realize that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?  It was totally shocking to us both, and I still have half a mind to send them a letter to let them know what they are missing out on. Ha!

After finishing our, AHEM, “Breakfast”, we headed out to don our skis, and get at it!  There was a very busy lift to our left, but the one in front of us had very few people at it, so we decided to approach it.  We realized quite quickly why it wasn’t very busy.  There were warnings that it was for more advanced skiers, but showed both red and black runs (the equivalent to blue and black in Canada), so we knew we would be fine.  I was actually quite surprised, all day, that the majority of the skiers there seemed to be in the more beginner category.  I had had previous visions of super fast, great European skiers zipping down the slopes.  However, we only did see a few of those, but enjoyed the ease of lineups at the lifts for the more advanced skiers anyways.

As we got to the front of the small line, and reached the gate to get on the lift, a worker from the hill approached me quite solemnly and asked me to step out of the line.  Ummmmm okaaaaayyyyyy.  We both side stepped over to the side, and had no idea what was going on.  He asked for my ski pass, which is actually a plastic card that you receive, with a barcode on the back, that lets you scan into each lift you get on.  Of course, I gave it to him, and he took it into the small cubicle that sat next to the line up.  Chris was not impressed with this turn of events, and we both just felt helpless as we were desperate to get on the hill by now.  I managed to glance through one of the windows to see what they were looking at and THAT was when I realized what was happening.  There on their computer screen was images of the turn style that we passed through below, heading onto the gondola.  Peoples faces were on multiple camera screens, and I realized that they were looking for the girl that scooted through in front of me, and had gotten through on the ladies pass in front of her.  Because I was one of the people that was nearby, I guess they had noted my description, and were looking for the culprit that was scamming the hill.  I realized at that moment, that it is quite obvious that not many people were actually getting away with that scam, and that they had a much better control on things than I had initially realized.  The worker apologized profusely, gave me my card back, and let us get back to the business of skiing.

Wow!  What a trip!  We weren’t even skiing yet, and we had already been through so much!  Again, as our chair lifted us off into the sky, Chris repeated very seriously “We only have to ski one day.”

Finally on the lift!!
I now realize that we never actually did what this told us to do. We lifted the bar way too early.

Looks like the underneath of most chairlifts!
Our initial plan, for the skiing segment of our holiday, was to ski for 4 days.  However, we approached this cautiously, especially when we realized that the conditions were likely not the best.  We also knew that only 8 out of 17 runs were open, so after a few days, I can imagine that it would get quite repetitive.   Instead of buying a multiple day lift ticket, and committing to rentals for many days, we instead opted to just try it for one day.  Thank goodness for that.

We made it to the top of the lift, and realized quite quickly that the conditions were indeed not the best.  Our out of shape legs let us know pretty quickly that this heavy, wet snow, was going to make our day difficult.  Things did smooth out eventually, and the lactic acid in our legs eased off, but we were definitely tired, and had to stop quite frequently to catch our breath (maybe we can blame it on the elevation??)

An idea of the slopes. Totally decent!
One bonus of the hill, though, was the fact that there were ski lodges (ie. places to get food and drinks), all over the place!  After we figured out what was where, we would plan our routes accordingly.  The discussions went like this:  “If we take that lift up to that point, and then ski down to the right, we can get to that lodge and get something to eat.”  As soon as we had eaten, it became: “If we ski down that hill, and then go left at that turn, we can get a drink at that lodge.”

And so, this became our mantra for the rest of the day, and needless to say, we would only do about 2 runs in a row (or sometimes 1.5) and then would deem it time for a drink.

180 degree bar on the hill. It was a great place to watch the skiers go by.
Lovin’ the slopeside bar action!

I should let readers know at this point that the food and beverage on the hill was outrageously expensive!  The prices were comparable, if not more, than our hills in Canada.  However, we had planned for 4 days of skiing, and now were only doing one, so we decided that we may as well live it up!  The skiing wasn’t the best, and we even got RAINED on, but WE would have fun and make the most of it anyways!  Damn it!!

By 3:00 we were finished!  Finished in body and in mind, and were likely starting to get a bit tipsy by then.  We decided to beat the crowds and get down off the mountain before the gondola line up became the nightmare that it had been in the morning.

After limping in extreme pain (our ski boots were killing both of us!) back to the rental shop, we bid our farewells and headed off to Happy End.  Yes, the name was Happy End.  We have no idea if they actually GET the connotation of that name, but we were definitely very happy that it was over, and it was time for a celebratory drink (of course!).  We listened to some live music, laughed about our crazy day of skiing, had some dinner, and headed back to our hotel.

Hanging outside under heat lamps, and in some hanging swings. 

Looked like a stairway to a dungeon!

 

Such a great menu cover!  I wanted a sticker badly!
Awesome Chandeliers!
Great Band playing classic American Rock Covers.

 

Happy campers……or skiers!

That was that!  We had skied in Bulgaria, and quite frankly, we were very happy to not have to do it again.  We both surmised that if the conditions had of been awesome, we would likely do it all over again.  But, we were happy with what we got, appreciated the experience, and were ready to move on.

More fantastic architecture.
Inside a traditional Baltic restaurant, and the oldest building in town!
This guy was great!!
Mmmmmm Bulgarian candy!

Many meats were roasting on spits around Bansko.
We were meant to spend 4 more nights in Bansko, skiing of course,  but we cut our stay short.  We stayed for 2 more nights, took in more of the sights around town, and then happily headed back to Sofia to while away the rest of our trip in a familiar surrounding.  We were headed back to the Art Hostel.  The place where we started this incredible journey.  We had 4 days of rest and relaxation ahead of us, and we looked forward to just sitting and enjoying them, and not having the need to run around and see new places.  In retrospect, we were finished.  It had been almost 6 weeks on the road, and we were ready to go home.

Next up, 4 more days in Sofia and then our journey home!  Wow, what a trip it had been!

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One of the blogs I follow posted this this morning.  I hope you can find a cheap flight!  

January 13, 2016 – We’re all on the mission to find cheap flights,… I know I am. Over the past year, and after much searching, I have discovered several apps and websites that not only simplify the flight search experience but also get the prices I’m looking for. Here are some of my favs: Kayak.com/explore – (FREE […]
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Bergamo to Bansko!

When I booked our flight from  Italy back to Bulgaria, I found a good deal from Bergamo. I knew that the town  was nestled at the base of the Italian Alps, and I felt that it would be a good opportunity to get a glimpse of this spectacular mountain range. 
Unfortunately, it was again foggy and nearing dark when we were dropped off, so we didn’t get a good view of anything, that night, or the next morning. However, when we went out to dinner that night, we were surrounded by people in puffy jackets, and bearing brands such as North Face, Patagonia, and Deuter. Clearly, there was outdoor adventure near by, and we felt much more at home here in our grubby backpacking clothes, than we certainly had in the high fashion streets of Milan!

The casual wear, and the ski town atmosphere, certainly helped us to get in the mood for the next leg of our trip. The following day we were heading back to Bulgaria, and eventually to the popular ski town of Bansko, nestled in the Balkan Mountains. This portion of our trip is likely what spurred us along in choosing Bulgaria as a destination to begin with, and we had been eager to hit the slopes since leaving Canada 5 weeks earlier. 

It was actually quite shocking how many people we encountered, both before leaving, and since arriving in Bulgaria, that would ask “Why Bulgaria?”  

One of our answers was always, inevitably, “to ski!”  We always get mixed reactions to this. After all, we live in Canada, and I myself grew up in the famous ski area of the Canadian Rockies. 

Of course, there are other reasons we wanted to visit Bulgaria. Since hearing about it last May, we had been intrigued. The man we spoke to was from France, and he said that Bulgaria was beautiful, very friendly, inexpensive to travel, and of course, had good skiing.  The skiing part was just the icing on the cake. 

We had suffered through a couple winters of terrible conditions, and no snow at our local ski hill on the West Coast of Canada. We felt that maybe, just maybe, we would find the snow in the Balkans instead. 

We were also intrigued with a place that not many North Americsns visited. I tend to consider myself a bit of an explorer, and if nobody has been there, I am that much more eager to go and check it out.  And I must say, we were nothing but absolutely thrilled with Bulgaria. Around every corner we found interesting things to see, wonderful people to talk to, and just a happy-go-lucky sort of attitude all around. 

It’s no secret that the country is in a constant struggle to overcome it’s history. The heavy hand of communism is still in people’s minds, but there is definitely an appreciation of the opportunities that they now have. Like any where, and with every human on this planet, the vision of the “grass is greener on the other side” is a popular belief among many residents, especially the younger generation. Unfortunately a lot of them feel held back. Held back by limited opportunities, by a low valued currency, by an oppressed history. It’s difficult coming from a place where we have so much opportunity, and, in their eyes, wealth, to try and actually convince them that where they are is wonderful, just the way it is. Of course, we only got a glimpse, and we aren’t experiencing day to day life, of which I can imagine can be  quite trying at times.  BUT we both felt that Bulgaria is a wonderful place, and even talking with Australian expats who make a fraction of what they would make at home, felt that it was a very nice place to live.  

Never did we feel unsafe, or victims of the typical tourism targeted operations. They are fair people, and they still seem to maintain values that are somehow lost on the Western World. Appreciation for family, friends, celebration……all the things that are REALLY important in life. Money is something nice, but it doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. I hope that the future of Bulgaria can realize the gem that it is, and don’t fall victim to the over inflated, and many times false promises that more “advanced” countries can provide. 

But enough of that!  Let’s get back to the snow!

We had been following the snow reports like hawks while travelling around Greece, checking in to make sure that it was even worth trying to ski. Up until arriving in Italy, all it showed was 30cm, even at higher elevations. However, the rain we experienced in Italy, provided a much needed blanket higher up, on all the mountains in the region. 

Thankfully Bansko, and other parts of Bulgaria received a good amount, and we we’re beyond excited when our plane touched down to a winter wonderland in the country capital of Sofia.  

Bergamo to Sofia.
 The last time we had arrived, delirious with hardly any sleep in 36 hours and severely jet lagged, we had been slightly shocked by the state of some of the buildings we had passed on the way into the city.  This time, the snow, somehow, seemed to have softened the hard edges that we had experienced earlier. That mixed with our new found fondness for the country as a whole, gave us a feeling of coming home.  
Thrilled to see this flying into Sofia! A stark contrast from the month before!
 We proceeded to the bus station, from the airport, and headed straight 
into the mountains. We had booked one night in Blagoevgrad, before heading to our 5 night stint in Bansko. Unfortunately, much like Bergamo, we arrived near dark, and there was again a heavy blanket of clouds constricting our view of the nearby mountains. But, there was snow on the ground,  and lots of it. We had high hopes that we would actually get to ski after all! 
Stumbling around in the snow, looking for our hotel in Blagoevgrad.
 We left on the bus the next morning around 10:00 and arrived in Bansko about an hour later.  
Sofia to Bansko
 

After being in Greece during a tourism low season, we were actually very happy to see a hopping, bustling town. Shops, restaurants, bars, and everything in between were open(!) as throngs of people clad in ski gear wandered up and down the street.  

Bustling coffee shops spilled into the streets.
  
Lovely Balkan architecture abounds!
  
 
First glimpse of the ski hill coming in on the bus!
 
We weren’t sure what to expect of Bansko.  With most major tourist destinations, the locals complain that it is over developed and over commercialized. While we definitely noticed that prices in restaurants were higher than the rest of the country, we didn’t feel that it had lost its charm. 

Our bus definitely dropped us off in the “new” area where shiny hotels and apartment buildings look to be under constant construction. But as we wound our way up the hill, to our accomodation, we were greeted with absolutely adorable, and quaint little streets, of which, by now, we realize is typical of most places in Europe. 

   
  

We found our hotel quite easily, and were thrilled that it was a quintessential, picture perfect little Balkan ski lodge. We got ourselves checked in, and then headed out to explore the town. 

 

Love the Balkan charm! This is the door to our ski lodge.
   We initially set out to track down ski rentals so we would be all set up for the morning. The first shop we walked into, the young lady behind the counter recognized my 2010 Vancouver Olympic pin on my jacket. She had competed in the Biathalon at those Olympics and was keen to know if I had volunteered or participated. I told her that I was only a spectator. 

We got to talking about skiing abilities, so they could match us up with the proper gear, and I explained that I’m not a professional, but have been skiing since I was three years old in Banff. I then asked her if she had ever been to Banff. She told me no, she had only been to nearby Canmore. 

Ack!!!  That’s where I grew up!  Being 20 minutes from Banff, Canmore was the greatest place to grow up. And, it was home to the 1988 Biathalon and Cross Country events during the Calgary ’88 Olympics. The town features a world class Nordic Center, which was built for the games, and is still a very popular training facility, and hosts numerous international competitions to this day.

OF COURSE she had been there!  She knows a local cross country skier named Chandra Crawford (who’s mom was my hairdresser growing up) and is also familiar with a friend I graduated with who has medaled in the Olympics for cross country skiing, Sara Renner. 

She then went on to tell me that her Dad actually competed in Biathalon in the ’88 Olympics. Now, this is where things get really cool!

My mom was an Olympic volunteer and was the chairman of the Athletes Village in Canmore. She physically met every athlete that competed there!  

Of course, her dad was there, and he explained what he remembered in very broken English. Here I was, practically a world away, on the other side of the planet, and I was speaking to a man who had already met my mother, almost 28 years earlier. 

 

So great to meet new friends!
 THIS is the beauty of travel!  THIS makes the world infinitely smaller. THIS is when we stop to realize that we are all connected. The networks a person creates, and the people you can meet when you take the time to hear a persons story can be astounding. 

Then it hit me! These are the clues that life sends to tell you that you are on the right track!  I like to think of it as fate, synchronicity, serendipity, or whatever word you use to describe it. It’s when the world just lines itself up, a everything falls into perfect place for those perfect moments. 

It made me feel that this trip was indeed meant to be. By not travelling for so long, I had stepped off my track for a brief stint, but I was back!  And I was on top of the planet!  

Tomorrow we were going to ski in BULGARIA! 

 We hit the hay early that night, with eager anticipation of hitting the slopes. Finally, after 5 weeks of waiting, our time had come!

Stay tuned to hear about our interesting skiing experience!

Italy in a wink ;)

As the fireworks exploded over the Piazza in Reggio Emilia, our group of friends exchanged hugs to officially bring in 2016. I hugged Jasmine, we gave each other an extra squeeze,  and she said “I’m glad you are here.”

It had been about 5 years since I last saw her in the town we both lived in. One year before that, she had moved to Italy to chase an Italian man that she had fallen in love with in Canada. She was an English teacher there, and students arrived from all over the world to experience the Canadian culture and learn our language. One of them caught her eye, and her heart, and very quickly, she was off, chasing him across the globe. 

I had been telling her for AT LEAST 4 of those years that I wanted to come and see her, and experience her new found life. I was incredibly proud of her for taking such a leap, and chasing her dreams. I marvelled at her courage, and her belief that across the world, she could carve out a better life for herself.  

I was certainly NOT surprised to find that she had INDEED found the life of her dreams, but I was a bit surprised that she DEFINITELY is an old Italian soul at heart. I couldn’t imagine seeing her more happy, content, and at peace with her surroundings, as I experienced during our visit. 

For many reasons, the original relationship that brought here there, was no longer. But she had found new love, and this I can see, is love that will last. She is now in very high demand as an English teacher, commanding a very reasonable wage in a country where the economy is definitely not what it once was. She has declared Reggio Emilia “her town”, and every where we went, she would hug and kiss and wave at familiar faces. One of her ex students we met declared her “the best English teacher in the city!”  Her Italian is so flawless that friends she has had for years, are still just realizing that she is Canadian and her native language is English. Yes!  I would say that she has found her groove alright!  

We arrived in Milan, still reeling from our experiences in Greece, but feeling better after our 2 complimentary (small) bottles of wine on the plane. We are sure that the old Italian lady sitting next to us, was a little disgusted with our drinking at 9:00 in the morning, but we were certainly beyond caring about that.  (I’m also realizing that by now, many of my readers are starting to see a trend in our behaviour. Yes, we do like to drink!)

  We caught the train from the Milan airport that would take us to the Milano Centrale train station, where we would then catch the train to Reggio Emilia, a city of 170 000 people, close to the more major center of Bologna.  

Happy to touch down in Italy!
  
Milano Centrale Train Station.
  
Waiting for our platform to be announced.
 As we rode the train to Reggio (as the locals refer to it as), we were very aware of what time it was as we had noticed that nobody was announcing what station we are arriving at, during the previous stops.  Therefore , we devised that it would have been very easy to miss our station, as we had no idea where we were or what we were looking at.  A couple minutes past our scheduled arrival time, the train came to a stop.  It was just a concrete platform a ways away from the station but we got off anyways, hopeful that it was the right place.    
Milan to Reggio.
 

 
Sure enough, once we entered the station, we saw the familiar name on a sign and felt immediate relief. Jasmine (but I prefer to call her Jasi) was there to pick us up a few minutes later, and we were off to explore Northern Italy!

As it was December 30, Jasi and her partner Raffaele, or affectionately referred to as Raffa, were finished with work for the next few days, so we were able to do some exploring together. Her brother and his girlfriend were also coincidently visiting her at the same time, and the 6 of us rented a mini van together, to be able to have the freedom to drive around and see the sights. This would also ensure saving money on individual train tickets, and make our schedule more flexible. 

New Years Eve we explored around Reggio, taking in sights and learning various tid bits about the city. For example, the Italian Flag was designed and made in Reggio, and the ever so popular, world renown cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano, or better known as Parmesan, was invented there, both of which bring great pride to its residents, fondly referred to as Reggiani.   

Upside down Christmas bicycle lights, and of course, PIZZA!
  
Beautiful archways abound!
  
One of the many amazing buildings in one Piazza.
 The Italian architecture and beauty of the streets was something that we had been eager to see, and we were not disappointed. Within the city Center, where Jasi’s apartment was, there is very limited car usage, making it a mostly pedestrian friendly zone. In fact, in most Italian communities, you need to go through an extensive proof of residency to be able to actually get a permit to bring your car into the Center of the city. Of course, with many things in Italy, there is a fee attached, which likely deters lots of people who, thankfully, do not bring their vehicles into the ZTL (zona traffico limitado), and park them in one of the many parking lots dotting the City Center outskirts instead.  Because of this, it was nice to wander around without worrying about tons of cars flying everywhere.

We meandered from Piazza (central gathering squares) to Piazza and marvelled at the sights as we went.  

These grande promenades link storefronts and bustling coffee shops.
  
Very pedestrian friendly.
  
Plenty of huge, beautiful doors!
 We had decided to experience New Years from one of the near by Piazzas, and then to mostly celebrate back at their apartment. We loved the local feel if it all.  Families, the young and the old, counted down and then danced waltzes to the local 5 piece orchestra that played while fireworks lit up the sky and many bottles of champagne were uncorked and consumed. It was a wonderful cultural experience. We took it a little bit easy as the following day Raffa’s family was to host us for a traditional Italian meal at their home.  

A fitting display for the birthplace of the Italian flag.
  
Countdown!
  
Happy Revelers!
   
The orchestra.
 We arrived at the family home around 12:30, and were immediately welcomed with open arms. It was 2016, and everyone was in a festive mood. Although, we didn’t speak the language, Raffa’s relatives knew a bit of English, and Jasi translated for us when needed.  (I’m bummed that I didn’t get any photos to remember is event.)

We had an incredible meal that lasted over 3 hours, several courses, and many bottles of wine. I knew that Italy in general had a bit of a thing for food, but I never really realized that it’s (Italy’s) actual THING IS FOOD!

Every Italian community has a specialized food item that comes specifically from their region. Certain types of sausage or cheese, and many times a whole dish, belongs solely to the community that invented it. We also learned that specific sauces go with specific types of pastas, and heaven forbid if you mix them up!

It just so happens that other than being Reggios best English teacher, Jasi is also, likely, Reggio’s most informed officianado on Italian food. She travels around Italy as much as possible and experiences each local dish as she does it. In fact when we were in Milan, we both had the Risotto Milanese, Milan’s specific risotto made with its own unique sauce. While we were there, I had pestered her to write an Italian food blog on her experiences, and I still hope she does it. (Hint hint if you are reading this!!)

Our meal at Raffa’s parents’ house was very special indeed. Being that I don’t eat wheat, his mom and sister, went out of their way to make me gluten free dishes, and also bought me some gluten free, freshly made baguettes, which are surprisingly available in a couple different bakeries around the city. Such a treat!  There was so much happiness and joy, and even with language limitations, there was plenty of laughter as we exchanged stories and jokes all round. And Uncle Sergio, who with broken English told us many things, proved to us that he is QUITE the character. 

We felt so lucky and thankful to have had a real Italian experience such as this!  I have said it before, but it bears saying again. Travelling is such a wonderful way to bring people from different cultures together. It makes the world a smaller place when we take the time to talk with people from different backgrounds, and to experience their traditions and customs. It makes you realize that we really are just one, one unique being that walks the planet, however, all in different ways. It’s a beautiful thing!

We pretty much rolled out of Raffa’s families house, and all fell into heavy afternoon naps. We really only woke up for a small snack, and then hit the hay again to prepare for two full days of sight seeing. 

Day one we were off early to Florence.  We drove through rain and wet weather to get there, and unfortunately through plenty of fog, which meant that we didn’t get to see the famous rolling hills and fields of Tuscany, the province that contains Florence. Jasi told us that there really isn’t much to see in the winter anyways, and like most places we have been on this trip, we were told to come back in the summer. 

Back in Canada, friends had informed us that Florence was really worth seeing, and they were not mistaken!  In fact, Forbes has declared it one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982.  

  

Florence’s Duomo (church).
   
Is it just me or is this guy being rude;)?
   
Carved marble pillars and cast bronze doors.
  
Wonder how many times this knocker has been knocked??
  
Dante’s House
   
Known for its culture, renaissance art and architecture and its numerous monuments, it is home to approximately 382 000 people within the city limits. It attracts millions of tourists every year, and in fact, I could have sworn there were millions of people there that day!  I’m sure half of Italy, and many other tourists, had decided that the Saturday after New Year’s Day, was the perfect day to visit this lovely city. We jostled around and bumped around with hoards of eager tourists ecstatic to see the fabulous sights it offered. 

Despite the foul, wet weather, we managed to see many famous Florence sights, do a little shopping, and of course, had a wonderful Italian lunch. Our restaurant even had gluten free pizza and pasta!  I felt completely spoiled all round.  

  

No visit to Florence is complete without walking on the famous Ponte Vecchio.
  
Massive statues everywhere!
 I must admit that being allergic to wheat, had me quite concerned that there wouldn’t be much for me to eat in this famously wheat filled country. However, Jasi had informed me prior to coming, that there were plenty of gluten free offerings, and she was certainly correct. One just DOES NOT starve in Italy! This, I’m sure would certainly be the biggest crime against humanity in a place that worships food at every level. (However, as with every country in the world, I’m sure they do have their problems with those less fortunate, and I’m sure many may actually be starving, so please don’t take this too literally, or think that I take it lightly.) 

Veggies are everywhere!
  
Yum! GF PIZZA!!
  
Beautiful displays.
 At around 4:00 pm, we declared ourselves wet and sight see’d out (if that’s even a thing), and headed back to Reggio. We were all eager to get back by 7:00 for happy hour at one of Raffa and Jasi’s local watering spots Mexicana, where they offered half price drinks for happy hour. Their signature drink is the “Hurricane”, featuring 5 different types of rum and a bit of juice for flavour. They are definitely delicious, and they definitely make you feel like you have been hit by a hurricane after a couple! 

Hurricanes from below!
 It was a great day, but we knew there was more to come!  The next day we were off to Milan, and then Bergamo, where we would be flying back to Bulgaria from, the day after that. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Milan. Of course I knew that it was the home of much fashion, high end clothing, run ways, and shopping. I think I actually envisioned the city to be one, modern, giant shopping plaza, with the likes of Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton and Prada emblazoned on the sides of buildings.  Although these shops did exist, I was delightfully surprised to find that the historic city Center, also has a huge history (duh), and features many spectacular sights itself. 

The Duomo, a term for an Italian church, was absolutely mind blowing. In fact, while writing this, I was not surprised to find that when I typed Duomo into Wikipedia, to provide the link above, that the feature picture is in fact Milan’s Doumo. I certainly cannot imagine a more fabulous Cathedral than that building. 

    The entire structure is made out of marble, and bronze. The detail of which the carvings are done, are absolutely mind blowing, and I felt obligated to take a bazillion pictures to try and prove my point. Thank god for digital is all I can say!!  Be thankful that you only get to see a few here, and believe me it is painstakingly difficult trying to pick just a few! 

The portion of the bronze door that everybody touches. The tarnish had been rubbed right off revealing the beautiful bronze below.
  
All bronze under the tarnish! MASSIVE! And check out the carved marble around the door!
  
All marble. So many faces!
 We also wandered around looking at other cool sights, including the Castello Sforzesco (Castle Sforza), that was built in the 15th century. We ate roasted chestnuts, and drank mulled wine from the street vendors, and floated along, lazily taking it all in. We had another wonderful Italian meal, and as stated before, Jasi and I ate Milan’s signature dish, Risotto Milanese. Delicious! 

A bit of an optical illusion with the archways leading elsewhere
  
Entering the castle.
  
 
I’m thinking that is where the royalty sat, looking down on the commoners.
 
 
One shopping plaza we passed through. Notice the brand names and the Swarovski tree! it was covered with hundreds of crystals!
  
Balconies of Milan.
  
Lunchtime with wonderful people and amazing artwork!
 
Unfortunately, we knew our time was short, and we needed to head off to Bergamo, so that Jasi and Raffa (her brother and his girlfriend had opted out on the trip to Milan) could get back to Reggio in time for another meal with his parents. We parted ways with much sorrow, but all so thankful for the absolutely wonderful few days that we had spent together. As Jasi told me, the Italians love to fuss over their guests, and never rest until they are sure they are completely happy and satisfied. I can attest once again to Jasi being an old Italian soul, because we both left feeling very satisfyingly fussed over!  

Our Italian experience had gone by as quick as a wink!  But we have both gotten a taste for more. Like most places we have been on this trip (except for the one certain island that I’m sure you can guess) we look forward to returning.  Next time will be longer!  I can imagine that Italy has so many more secrets to reveal. Thank you soooooooo much Jasi and Raffa for such a wonderful introduction to your exquisite country. WE WILL BE BACK!!

Next up, we are heading back to Bulgaria for our ski holiday in Bansko!  Skiing in the Balkans, another great start to the New Year. 

Please just let us leave!

If you have read about our Santorini experience (Santorini or Bust(Ed)! part 1 & part 2), you likely won’t be surprised that we had no qualms with leaving. 

Don’t get me wrong!  It’s an absolutely STUNNING place, and I would still be dying of curiosity of what it looked like in real life, if we hadn’t have gone there to see it, especially since we were already so close. 

But, when we woke up the morning of our flight, we just REALLY wanted to get the heck off that island!

The day we were leaving Paros Island, to come to Santorini, we asked the ferry company what the schedule was like back to Athens. 

We had 2 options. One of them was a 14 hour ferry ride, arriving in Athens at around 8:30pm, and the other was an 8 hour ride, arriving at 11:30pm. 

We discussed the options, and quite frankly didn’t like either one. The 14 hour option left first thing in the morning, meaning a whole day spent on the ferry, and the 8 hour option got us in very late at night, making it awkward to get to our Air BnB that we had booked. Plus we would be flying out at 8:00 the next morning, and already knew we needed to be on the metro by 5:30am. 

I pulled up cheapoair.com on my mobile, just to see what flight prices might be as an alternative option.  I found a flight through Ryan Air that was going to cost us collectively about $60 more than if we were to take the ferry. We felt at that moment that it was a justified expense, and would get us in to Athens at 9:30am, a much more appropriate arrival time, and only a 50 minute flight.   Sweet deal!  We were stoked with our decision, and I booked the flights right away. 

So, the morning of our departure from Santorini, we had to fork over another 15 Euros for an airport transfer through our hotel. A taxi MAY have been cheaper, but likely not, and the bus…..well, we didn’t exactly trust the bus schedule anymore. Again, it was an inflated price for the length of the trip, less than 10 minutes. 

Now, we do realize that we weren’t exactly on Santorini during an ideal travel time. Although the off season is nice for lack of people, I can imagine that things run a lot more smoothly when it’s high season, and also not the Christmas season. I’m quite sure that it would be a wonderful vacation destination, although likely still quite expensive.  We just chalked up everything to another learning experience, and will try not to make the same mistakes again. 

Either way, we were off to the airport!

We arrived in plenty of time and immediately saw our line to check in. We approached the desk and the lady asked for our boarding passes. I said I didn’t have them as we had booked online with my cell phone. She told us that an email had been sent telling us to check in online and that it was mandatory. You either needed to have a printed boarding pass from your computer, or you can check in with your mobile, and just show her the boarding pass on your screen, and apparently that is good enough. (However, we later learned that ONLY European Union citizens are able to do the mobile check in option with Ryan Air.)

Now! I have traveled on many different airlines (but as stated before, not in many years), and had never HAD to check in online before. Often times you can do it IF YOU WANT TO, and that is what I assumed the email was all about. Quite frankly I didn’t even read it. 

She also informed me that we hadn’t paid for our checked luggage. Okay……guess I missed that memo as well in the booking process. Whoops!  She crossed our name off of some list, filled out some papers for me to give to the airport services lady, and then directed us to her desk.  

We arrived at the counter and gave her our paperwork, still stunned with what the heck was going on. This certainly was not anything I had experienced before. She typed some stuff in a computer, and looked up to me. 

“That will be 224 Euros.”  She said. (PS. This equals $360 CAD!)

Whaaaaaaaaattttttttt??????   I think my eyes literally bulged out of my head. 

“What???  How much did you say??”

She repeated the number and then went on to explain that the “printing” of the boarding passes would be 50 Euros each, and the luggage was 62 Euros for each checked bag. She also told me that the instructions were very clear on the email that I should have gotten. 

I looked at Chris who was now red with anger and completely beside himself. Who am I kidding?  We were both beside ourselves with anger. What the hell was it going to take to get us off of this, what we had now deemed,  godforesaken island???

After a brief discussion about forgetting the flight all together, and catching the ferry instead, I sheepishly slid my VISA card across the counter at her. She HANDWROTE 2 boarding passes for us, happily charged our card and we proceeded to our gate. 

Not much was said between us getting to the gate and getting on our flight. We were both exhausted and stunned with the crazy turn of events that the last few days had presented, and couldn’t help but think we had somehow been punished for not sticking to our original plan of going to Peloponnese. However, what was done was done, and we were just happy to get off the island, and continue on with our journey. 

 

Goodbye Santorini!!!
 We had a spectacular flight to Athens and I marvelled at the views of the islands below. I couldn’t help but think that we would have to return to Greece some day to see more of what this country is about. But would need some time to recover from this trip, that’s for sure! 

Such a spectacular view!
   
We spent the night in Athens at the Air BnB I had booked while on Paros.  It was located in an entirely different part of the city, and it was a much calmer and more peaceful neighbourhood than what we had experienced in the down town section, close to the Acropolis.  

The Monastiraki metro station.
  
Lots of plant life on the balconies in this area of Athens.
  
Lots of trees and a much quieter neighbourhood.
 Having timed our journey on the metro from the airport after arriving from Santorini, we knew that we needed about an hour and 10 minutes to get back to the airport the next morning. 

Our flight was at 8:20, so we figured if we caught the metro around 5:30, we would get to the airport close to the recommended 90 minute advance arrival time. 

Unfortunately, we underestimated our walk to the metro, and also stopped to grab a coffee, so we didn’t get there until about 5:50. We bought our tickets, good for 70 minutes, and we were off. 

We caught the train, and started the process of heading to the airport. Our one train change went smoothly, and we knew that we were on our way. 

However, about 5 stops away from the airport, our train stopped, everyone got off and the lights turned off. ‘Ummmmmmmmm…….okay, I guess we better get off as well.’ I thought. 

Chris WAS NOT impressed as we stumbled off with our bags, completely confused. To make matters worse, when we exited the train, a digital sign hung above us announcing that the next train for the airport would be there in 24 minutes!

Ack!!!!  Now things were getting worriesome!  It was now 6:30, and we had another 15-20 minutes to go on the train before we got to the airport. We were both annoyed by these changes in our plans, but at that point there wasn’t much we could do about it. Trying to catch a cab would likely take longer, and we didn’t want to start trying to find alternatives. 

Chris was incensed!  I don’t think I have ever seen him quite so angry!  We both felt that if we missed the flight because of this, we would start swimming to Italy!  By now we wanted out of Greece so bad, it wasn’t even funny. 

And to top it off, our 70 minute tickets that we had purchased, would be expired by the time we got to the airport. I couldn’t help but think that that would be the real icing on the cake!  But, in the state I was in, I wouldn’t wish trying to deal with attempting to charge me for an invalid ticket, on my worse enemy!  I briefly thought about running up the stairs while we waited, to purchase tickets that would lengthen our validation time. But I dismissed it hoping that if in fact we got asked, they would let us off due to this unexpected turn of events. 

We sat and sat and stared at the digital clock, counting down the minutes one by one. Of course, it wasn’t exactly 24 minutes, and the clock would jump from 9 minutes, to 10 minutes, and then back to nine again, and so on. I think it finally arrived at about 5 after 7:00. 

We finally borded the train and proceeded to the airport, with much relief that we were finally on our way.  However, after about 5 minutes, the train stopped and sat in the dark tunnels, somewhere under Athens, for what seemed like eternity, but was likely only 5 minutes. 

Chris and I just kept looking at each other in disbelief, but encouraging ourselves to take deep breaths. We had a plan to move as fast as we could towards the check in counter, as soon as the train stopped. 

I don’t even know exactly when we got there, but we jumped off that train and took off as fast as our legs could carry us, with the huge backpacks on our backs. By then I had reasoned that what will be will be, and we just needed to move!

We checked in and got our boarding passes from the electronic kiosk, then proceeded to the counter to check our baggage. Of course, there was a fee (although thankfully we were now flying with Aegan Air), and I slid my Visa card to the lady, not even wanting to know what it was costing. However, she did announce that it was 30 Euros each. 

I said that was fine, and felt like saying we don’t care anymore, JUST GET US OUT OF HERE!!

She said “This charge is only  good for one way.”  We laughed and both exclaimed at once “Oh we only intend to go one way!”

By then we were not only officially done with Santorini, we were absolutely FINISHED with Greece altogether!

She told us boarding was at 7:40, at which time I let out a bit of a laugh because guess what!?  It was 7:40 right then!!!

We zoomed off to our gate and cleared security with ease, thankfully!  We arrived as they were announcing boarding for first class. We had enough time to hit the bathroom and that was it!

As the plane took off, we high fived each other and celebrated the fact that we had made it!  We were getting the heck out of there, and were bound for Italy. A whole new adventure awaited, and we knew that it was all downhill from there!

Next up we spend 4 nights in Northern Italy to spend New Years with a good friend from Canada!

Santorini or Bust(ED)! Part Two.  

We awoke early the next morning, determined to make the most of our second day touring around Santorini. Having booked the rental car would allow us to freely see everything that we needed to. 

We got our car around 8:30, with no problems, but when we were about to drive off, the attendant explained the gas situation to us. 

“Yes, the gas is on empty, but you only need 10 litres to drive around the whole island.  So put that in and you will be fine.”

At least that is what I thought he said, Chris thought he said 10 Euros, which, we both decided would likely make more sense. The gas was 1.69 Euros/Litre, roughly $2.50 Canadian. YIKES!! Either way, it was not the typical rental agreement where you just fill it up when you are finished. 

We filled up first with 10 Euros and the blinking empty indicator bar moved up one notch. Good enough, as long as it stayed there, we felt comfortable that we wouldn’t run out. Chris had decided the night before that I was to be the one to drive. He doesn’t do the whole ‘erratic’ driving thing well, and we had seen enough of the crazy driving going on while we walked around, to make him realize that I would be more likely to maintain a cool head, and get us off the island without some sort of road rage incident. 

Our first destination was the famous Akrotiri  archeology site. An ancient Minoan civilization site that was believed to have been buried in volcanic ash in the 17th century, perfectly preserving the structures and artifacts that the citizens used at the time. The really cool thing is that not one human remain had been found, which means they had a very organized evacuation planned, before the volcano fully erupted. 

I had read about this in our Lonely Planet guide.  The words used to describe it were “Gob Smacking”, and I was very excited to see this spectacle. It was REALLY the only sight that I had pre-planned seeing while on Santorini. 

We wound our way through rolling fields and along the edge of the Caldera, taking in the scenery. Signs directed us easily to the site, but when we arrived it looked very quiet, and I realized that it wasn’t open yet. 

There was a gate with a sign so Chris went and looked at it. He came back to the car and announced, “It’s closed on the 25,26,27th.”  

“Oh no!”  I announced, immediately followed with, “Oh, wait!  It’s the 28th!”

He looked at me perplexed and returned to the gate. “Oh, it’s closed on Mondays.”  He said on his return. 

Aaaaaargh!  How annoying!!  I was so sad to not be able to see this ancient sight. I creeped the car out of the parking lot thinking “Now what?”  I felt like a rug had been pulled out from under me. I drove slowly, staring out the windshield with a mix of utter astonishment, and total disbelief of our terrible luck. To top it off, the gas indicator had resumed its blinking ’empty’ status already, which made is both very uneasy.

 This initiated the first of many discussions about whether or not we thought we had put in enough fuel or not. We tried to calculate how much we had put in compared to litres back home, and how many days that would have lasted etc. It was decided that at some point, we should put 5 more Euros in, which would bring the total LITRES added to nine, a happy medium considering neither of us were 100% sure what the rental guy had said. 

Hmmmmmm okay, moving on. 

We followed the road back out and went to another town called Pyrgos. I had read that it was a village worth seeing, and we wanted to find a coffee shop or something that was open. 

Pyrgos is perched on the top of a hill that is capped with an old Castle at the top. We started to ascend up some stairs from the road, and were greeted with incredibly cute and quaint little walkways winding their way up the hillside.  

The alleyway we walked up at Pyrgos.
 People lounged outside their homes, along the passageways, and it was impossible for us Canadians, who have the luxury of huge yards and much privacy around us, to not feel like we were somehow trespassing. We would say hello in a shy quiet English, embarrassed to still not know the Greek version after our two week Wwoofing stint.  
A lady sits on the stairway in front of her house.
   

   

The tunneled entrance to the castle.
 
They didn’t really seem to care that we were there stomping around in their village, but they certainly weren’t into making us feel welcome either. Like I said, it did feel like some sort of strange trespassing.  

Reminds me of Middle Eastern architecture.

   
 We made our way up to the top where the Castle was located, and took in some fabulous vistas below.  

Looking North on the island. Oia is in the far distance while Fira is mid island.
 After going back down and having some coffee (and Ouzo for Chris) we decided to go to the very Southern tip of the island, where there was a lighthouse, to look at the view of the Caldera from that vantage point. As we were still a bit bummed with missing Akrotiri, we just sat in the car and ate a snack, taking in the view, and didn’t even hike out to the lighthouse. Which I now regret a little.  

Looking North along the Calderra edge
 I think it’s safe to say at that point that we both felt a little deflated. It was 11:00 in the morning, and without being able to see Akrotiri, there wasn’t a ton left for us to do with our day. 

The mix of emotions was very strange indeed. We jumped from sadness and frustration, to immense gratitude for what we were looking at, to regret for possibly missing something special in Peloponnese. 

We sat and stared at the view for a bit and then headed off to Kamari, and the sight of Ancient Thira. This was to be another popular archeological sight, located on the steep slopes of a mountain near Kamari. I had also learned that Kamari had black sand beaches from the lava rock, always worth checking out. 

Because it is located at ocean height, and on the opposite side of the Caldera edge, Kamari itself is probably one of the more popular beach destinations. It wasn’t much of a surprise that the town would be pretty quiet at this time of the year, clearly not beach weather. 

We drove through town pretty quickly and pulled up to the beach to get out and take a look at the sand, and stretch our legs for a bit.  

Black sand composed of many different bits.
 We were part of only a handful of people wandering around, and the beach front buildings were completely borded up and much to our disappointment, the mini golf was closed, which would have helped us to at least kill some time. 

We could see the spectacular sight of where we were to go to see Ancient Thira from the beach, and I eyed up the steep switchback road with much intrepidation, I must say.  

The dark green section is the scary switchback we are about to drive on.
 We knew that before heading up that road, we DEFINITELY needed to put the 5 Euros of gas in. We proceeded to the nearest gas station and the attendant literally squeezed the pump for 30 seconds, and we were done. To our utter disappointment, the blinking empty light did not go away, but we felt a bit better about the situation anyways. 

We headed over to the start of what may be the scariest road I have ever driven on. Of course, the sign at the bottom announced that we were entering Ancient Thira, and that it too was closed on Mondays. Neither of us were surprised by this, but the road was open, so we proceeded up anyways. 

At the start, the road had a small 2 foot high median at the edge, which made us both feel a bit better. The switchbacks were literally stacked on top of each other, and there was hardly any room to pass, had another car been in sight. Thankfully we only came across one other vehicle, and it was at the top when we were leaving. 

I hugged the cliff side as tight as I dared, and Chris mentioned a couple times that he was concerned about our tire getting caught in the foot deep gutter that ran down that edge. Although that would have sucked as well, we both agreed that the alternative on the outside edge was far worse. Especially when we reached the top 1/4 of the road, and there was no median, and the asphalt was crumbling away on the side, falling into the abyss below. “White knuckling it” doesn’t even begin to describe what my body was doing. Maybe more like “entire body seizing up from utter fear” would be more accurate at this point.  

  

A taste of the switchbacks nearing the top.
  
The bottom portion heading up. Notice the nice wall on the outside?
  

Somehow we made it up to the top, mostly because turning around WAS NOT even an option. The top platform was pretty much just big enough to hold a few (like 4) cars, and I was incredibly thankful, again, that we weren’t fighting traffic and many other cars that I am sure the high season brings with it. 

We got out of the car, after checking the parking brake about 4 times. We walked up the hill to the gate of Ancient Thira, just to see if we could see something. Of course, we couldn’t, but my body was happy to relax a bit and my shaking had subsided somewhat.  

Thank goodness for small cars! This is the top.
  
Looking West to the Calderra.
  
Looking East over Kamari.
 The views below were breathtaking, and we could see Kamari and the East coast below us, as well as the Caldera edge and the rest of the Island beyond. We took a few minutes to capture some photos, and then decided to head off. 

As we discussed leaving, my body automatically resumed its seized up state, as I realized the going down part may be incredibly scary, likely scarier in fact. I put the car in first gear, and we slid down the mountainside like a slug sliding off a plant, barely breathing, let alone talking, the whole way down. 

By now, we had officially seen everything we needed to. The only road we hadn’t been on was the alternative route (the one the taxi didn’t take the day before) to Oh Yeah (fuc?ing Oia!) that ran along the east side of the island.   We thought we “may as well” take the road, and see if we could find a place to stop for lunch on the way. By now it was about 1:00, and we were both getting hungry. 

We passed through Fira, and followed signs pointing to the East, that said Oia. We got about 3 km when we came to what looked to be a happening town that may have an open restaurant. We parked the car and walked around for a bit, not finding anything. We finally ducked into a little convenience store and asked if something was open. The young girl inside said “No, only in Fira there are open restaurants.” 

Oky doky!!  We headed back to Fira for lunch. While there, we ate in a beautiful spot with a lovely courtyard. We discussed the possibility of just dropping off the car and wandering around Fira some more, and not bothering with the other road. As we ate I just got more and more frustrated with the whole scenario, and finally said that we have the car, we may as well use it to see whatever else there is to see.  

The beautiful restaurant we ate at.
 We set off again on the road to Oia. We wound and twisted our way through lovely green fields, and caught glimpses of the Aegan Sea to our right. 

At some point, we were following a car, probably a little too close. It wobbled slightly to the left and by the time my brain had a chance to react, a pigeon walked from the ditch, DIRECTLY INTO my front right tire. We felt the bump, bump and I looked in my rear view mirror to see a burst of white feathers erupt from the back of the car. 

“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh” I wailed, immediately putting on the brakes, frantically trying to figure out if we should stop, or keep, going or what. 

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”

“What do I do?  What do I do?”  I said over and over. 

There was a car behind me that was also following quite close to me, close enough in fact that he likely got a puff of white feathers all over his windshield. He had stopped and pulled to the side of the road, and was now getting out of his car to go check on the situation. As it was a pretty narrow road, I felt that it wasn’t smart to stop, we were already 100m or more away, and hopefully the other guy would make sure it was out of its misery, if nothing else. Although, based on the whole scenario, I don’t think there was any suffering going on.

“Why, why, whhhhyyyyy did he do that?” I asked the universe (of course referring to the pigeon, and already deciding that it was clearly MALE.)

We decided that it MUST have been suicidal!  What else would possess it to do that?

“Wwwwwaaaahhhhhhhhh” I continued to wail. Still completely shocked and horrified by the whole situation. I couldn’t help but think if we would have just dropped off the darn car, the poor pigeon would still be alive (although if it WAS suicidal, I’m sure it would have found another innocent bystander to successfully horrify!)

We continued to drive the coast line to Oia, then headed straight back to Fira, completely defeated and OFFICIALLY DONE with Santorini!  We just wanted to go back to our room, and curl up in little balls, fly out the next morning, and be done with it!

We dropped off the car in Fira. Of course the guy wanted to turn the key to look at something…….the blinking gas light perhaps??  Still not sure on that one. Either way, they asked if we were sure we were finished, as it WAS only 3:00 after all. 

“Oh yes, we are finished!”  We both announced with much gusto. They tore up our damage deposit slip and we were off. 

As we walked away I mentioned something to Chris about the fact that I supposed there were no pigeon feathers stuck to the undercarriage, or I’m sure they would have inquired about it. 

We decided that the sun was shining, and we may as well take in the stunning views of the Caldera once again. We headed out there, and were thrilled to find that more places were now open, than had been on the weekend. We managed to sit on a balcony with a spectacular view, and we had a drink and let the warm sun shine down on us for a while. Not much was said between us as we both just stared at the view and contemplated what had transpired over the last couple days. 

 

Enjoying the warmth of the Santorini sun one last time.
 
I think the sun helped to cheer us up, as we had regained a little bounce in our step as we left. Or maybe, it was just the booze. Either way, our mood had improved and we were already starting to recover, mentally,  from our crazy Santorini adventures. 

We walked back towards our hotel and found a great dinner spot that we hadn’t gone to yet. This place turned out to be the cheapest, and best spot that we had been to since arriving on Santorini. By now we had over spent our budget by a lot, and we were very happy to save a bit of money for our last night (but of course also wishing we had found it sooner.)

Just around the corner from our hotel was a little convenience store. As we walked by, I decided that we needed to get something to help us forget the crazy day that we just had. We ducked in quickly, and came out with a tiny, cheap bottle of Ouzo. The plan was, in my words; “We are going to go back to our hotel, and we are going to drink this and celebrate that WE CAME to Santorini!  And we are going to be thankful for this trip!  And we are going to put this whole crazy show behind us damn it!!”

As we rounded the bend, we were presented with the mostly full moon, left over from Christmas. There was a small pullout off the road, a concrete wall to lean on, and a spectacular view before us.  As the moon glittered off the ocean, we stopped, drank our tiny bottle of Ouzo on the road side, and marvelled at the spectacular place we were in, and how lucky we were to be alive!  

But wait!  We haven’t left Santorini yet!  Stay tuned……..we are not quite finished. 

Santorini or Bust(Ed)! Part One. 

Santorini was interesting to say the least! I will put in a warning here that both parts 1 & 2 will likely be long and epic recounts of our visit.  But, I can also assure you that they will be interesting and entertaining reads!  

———–

Our initial plan after Wwoofing on Paros, was to head to Peloponnese , another area of Greece, to stay with a man that we met through the Couchsurfing network. We had been in contact with him from Canada, before we left, and had planned to either stay with him a couple days before Christmas, or a couple days just after. He has an olive farm, and it was harvest season. Although it wasn’t a Wwoofing arrangement, we told him that we would be happy to help him on his farm solely to learn about harvesting olives. 

As the holidays drew nearer, we became more and more concerned with travelling by bus, or by any means for that matter, during the hectic holiday season. We had visions of 4 hour bus rides with standing room only, or just madness trying to get on buses that were already full. We were both quite concerned with getting back to Athens, and then not being able to get to our final destination. The online bus timetables were very hard to figure out, and the website itself warned us that schedules changed all the time, and were unpredictable. 

With only 3 days to spare, and no information to find on length of travel times to get to our destination, we decided to head to Santorini, a fairy tale island that I had seen many pictures of, and a very popular tourist destination, almost year round. Plus, it was only a 2.5 hour ferry ride away, and we had managed to secure a hotel room for $34/night through Air BnB.   

Our ferry route starting from Paros on the top left, to Santorini at the bottom.
 
    

The day we arrived was absolutely spectacular!  The sun shone bright and we had wonderful views of the magnificence of the island as we pulled in on the ferry. As many of the main towns are built atop the rim of a Caldera, the buildings drip impossibly off the edge, like icing sliding down the side of a cake. 

Initially the white tips far above us looked like snow capped mountains. As we got closer, individual structures came into focus, and many of us on the ferry marvelled at the magnificence of it all.  

Snow capped mountains?
   

The hotel offered us a free pick up when we arrived. The road to the top of the Caldera was pretty awesome. It is a series of switchbacks that lead higher and higher, and it seems that the road was as significant of an engineering feat, as the buildings that hung off the cliff side above us.  

The view of the road from the ferry.
  
Looking out the back window.
  
The ferry we came on below.
 As we had arrived at 3:30, we were very eager to drop off our luggage, and get out to Fira, the capital city of the island. It is here where the majority of the fabulous spectacle resides. We walked the 20 minutes into town, took a left when it looked like we were close, and were greeted with a spectacle indeed.  

  

Hard to describe in words!
  
 Tiny little passageways wound their way up and down stairs, and around bends as we wove our way through the town. Each buildings roof became the foundation for the one above it, or it became a large patio or pool, where you could sit and while away the day, staring at the fantastic scenery below.  

We were greeted by these church bells as we approached the edge.
    
 Around every corner, a new and equally incredible view would simply take our breathe away. We were both equally ecstatic, in that moment, that we had made the decision to come to Santorini, instead of heading to Peloponnese. 

As it was Boxing Day, many places weren’t open, and we weren’t sure if it was a slow season thing, or a Boxing Day thing, but the sun was starting to set and we had really only found one restaurant that was open, and that had a view of the Caldera and the setting sun beyond. It was definitely on the expensive side for us, but we rationalized that it was the Christmas season after all, and maybe we deserved to spoil ourselves a little, and for a moment, forget about our low budget travelling goals.  

We really found the perfect spot!
  
The name of our restaurant shaped out of Oregano, on a plate of authentic Greek Moussaka.
 
The meal was fantastic, and we had Ouzo and wine, and marvelled at what an amazing place we were in. The sun set turned out to be the best one that we had for the three nights we were there, so we definitely nailed the perfect spot on the perfect night. 

The next morning we had a bit of a late start (likely due to the Ouzo and wine the night before), and headed out for breakfast around 10:00. It was a bit of a challenge to find something open, as now it was not only still technically the holidays, but it was Sunday. Many bakeries were open offering up delectable treats, but unfortunately I am allergic to wheat, and it’s just not worth it for me to eat it when we are trying to have a good time. It really does have the capacity to put me in the foulest mood, and I’m quite often not satisfied until everyone around me is in a bad mood as well. Doesn’t exactly make for holiday fun, if you know what I mean!?

We ended up finding a nice place serving omlettes, and we both left satisfied. We happily walked off into Fira, to catch the bus to another cliff hanging settlement called Oia, the second largest community on the Island. 

As we had two days to explore, and Fira is pretty much the mid point, we decided to do the North end, mostly Oia, on day one and head South on the second day to take in many other sights that we wanted to see. Having had a late start already, we were happy that we only needed to see Oia that day. 

We walked for about 10 of the remaining 15 minutes into Fira when we realized that we had left the passports in our hotel room. 

Now!  Call me paranoid if you must, but there is ONE THING that you do not leave lying around when you are travelling, and that is YOUR PASSPORT!  We both felt that we really needed to go back and get them. Unfortunately, this set us back quite a bit in our day, and it ended up being, unbeknownst to us at the time, the decision that really messed up our plans. 

We went back and grabbed them (yay!), and then set off for the bus stop near our hotel. When we had been given the ride from the Ferry to the Hotel, our driver had shown us the stop and told us that the bus will take us to Fira and Oia, and it comes every half hour. Okay, good enough we thought. We were sick of walking, and a bus sounded like a good plan. 

We got there at about 12:10, so I figured that we had 20 minutes to wait for the bus. There was a paper schedule hanging on the pole, and sure enough, it looked like buses ran every half hour. We sat and waited, and waited, and waited until finally it was 12:40. I looked at the schedule again, and finally deciphered that the bus we were trying to catch, was only going to get us to Fira anyways, and we would have to pay again, and catch a second bus to Oia, once we arrived there. The schedule I was looking at said that the next bust rom Fira to Oia was at 1:00.  I realized that if we started walking, we would make it to that one.  My suggestion started our first argument of the trip, as we were both a bit frustrated with the situation, and Chris felt that I was just being impatient. However,  we ended up walking to Fira, but not without some name calling first. 

We walked as fast as our long legs would carry us, and made it to the bus station at 5 to one. We walked over to the empty ticket booth, thinking we needed to buy a ticket there, but were instead presented with a CURRENT bus schedule that said the next bus to Oia was at 2:30! It was a MUCH more condensed version of the schedule we had seen earlier, clearly one for the holidays, or the low season, we aren’t exactly sure. To top it off the last bus to come back from Oia, looked to be 4:50. Our day of exploring was now getting shorter and shorter!

Wow!!  We were really not impressed by now. Not too mention that the whole time we walked the strip that the “every half hour bus” was supposed to run on, it never passed us once. AND if the passports wouldn’t have been left in the room, we would have been able to catch the 12:30 bus (or so we thought at the time.) Aaaargh!  

We both took deep breaths and decided that maybe we should look around Fira a bit more, and get a coffee or something to kill some time. 

Right next to the bus station was the taxi stand. We thought it couldn’t hurt to ask them how much they charged to take us to Oia. We asked one of the drivers and he said 18 Euros, roughly $27 Canadian. Eeeeek!  Compared to the 1 Euro bus fare, we didn’t want to spend that much. I told the man we would take the bus, and he replied “bus every 2 hours.”  

“Ya ya we know.”  I said over my shoulder as I waved back at him. 

So, we meandered around Fira some more, had a coffee and headed back to the bus station. This time there was a man sitting in the ticket booth. Always a good sign!  We asked him for a ticket to Oia and he announced proudly that the next bus is at 3:30!  WHAAAAAAAATTTTTT?????  He told us to look at the schedule again, and clarified that it was Sunday. 

There in the VERY bottom, teeny, tiny corner was the, even more condensed, Sunday schedule!  And it did in fact say 3:30. Oh man!  Oh man, oh man, oh MAN!! We were beside ourselves with frustration!  A whole day wasted, one of only two on the island. It was very aggravating!  

I decided that I wasn’t having any of it!  As stated before, I am terrified to miss something, and we were going to see Oia if it was the last thing we did. DAMN IT!!  

We marched off to the taxi booth, and took the damn taxi after all. I gritted my teeth the whole ride I’m sure. The taxi driver tried to tell us that he would drive us back for the same price. “What time do you want to be picked up?” He asked. 

“No thank you, we will take the bus back at 4:50.”  I quipped. 

He chuckled and said “okay.”  I’m sure full well feeling the wrath of my bitter mood. 

We arrived in Oia, or as Chris would call it “Oh yeah!”  Earlier in the day when our hostess at the hotel asked us where we were going that day, I said “Oia” (pronounced oy ya). 

Chris said “No she wants to know where we are going.”  

I again said “Oia.”

Chris repeated his sentence “No, she wants know where we are going.”  

Finally, completely annoyed at him I basically yelled “YES! WE ARE GOING TO OIA!”  

Apparently, he kept thinking that I was just saying “Oh yeah,” each time, which would have made no sense what so ever. But alas, the name was born, and it has stuck ever since. 

And it’s kind of funny because we happen to say “oh yeah” ALOT. So now pretty much every time we say it, we remember Oia. Which, definitely comes with some mixed feelings all round. 

After a measly 10 minute drive, we arrived in Oia, being dropped off at the same place as where we were to catch the bus. I immediately overheard tourists discussing the bus schedule, and I noticed them looking at the wrong section of it, not the Sunday schedule. I went over to point out that there was in fact a Sunday section, and read the schedule again. According to THIS schedule, the last bus went back at 3:50. Huh??  We were sure the man in Fira had told us 4:50. However, it was clear that we best be there by 3:50, just in case. 

Okay, this meant that we had an hour and twenty minutes to see the place. We set off, still annoyed (however, I wouldn’t say more annoyed, as I think we were at the maximum level of annoyed was at that point, and anything else just started to seem ridiculous and ALMOST laughable,) to see what we could of Oia, in such a short time.  

We headed towards the Caldera and were presented with a very similar view of what we found in Fira. Mostly white buildings spilled off the Calderra edge. However, there was a VERY distinct difference, it was absolutely dead!  Nothing was open and very few people were walking around. Soooooooo, pretty much nothing to see or do anyways.  

At least there were Donkeys to see!!
   
Very simlar views, but pretty awesome none-the-less!
 AWESOME!  We had gone through ridiculous grief to get here, and there was nothing to see or do anyways!  However, we did find ONE restaurant that was open, and we were both hungry, so we decided it best to avoid getting the ‘hangries’ on top of it all. 

Once in the restaurant, Chris recognized a family sitting down, that had been on the ferry with us when we got to Santorini. It turns out they were American, so we sat down at a table near them and started chatting with them. I mentioned that we had had a bit of a frustrating day and told them about our difficulties with the bus schedule. They were anxious to know when it went back, so we told them that we were ‘pretty sure’ it was 3:50. 

They informed us that they had hiked to Oia from Fira, on a trail that ran along the rim of the Calderra. We had known that this was an option, and had briefly discussed walking there earlier in the day when the bus schedule kept getting later and later, but we weren’t sure how long it would take. I asked them, and they said it was roughly 2.5 hours. We looked at the time and decided then that we would walk back. We felt that we had come all of this way, and dealt with so much frustration, to see nothing, that we may as well make something out of it. We had water, a headlamp and good hiking shoes on, so we were set. 

After the Americans left the restaurant , an Asian  man sitting behind me had over heard our conversation about the buses. He showed me a picture that he had taken on his iPhone of the ORIGINAL schedule that we had looked at at the first bus stop that morning, and asked me if I could decipher it for him. I was quick to let him know that that one wasn’t the right one, and the last bus from Oia was at 3:50. He thanked me profusely, and I felt VERY satisfied that I had AT LEAST helped some other travellers get back to Fira that day. 

We set off on our hike at about 3:30, knowing full well that we were in a bit of a race against time, to avoid walking mostly in the dark. 

The view of the calderra edge.
Looking down on that day’s ferry headed back to Athens.

The dark part is solid lava and the green is lichen growing on top of it.
 We were immediately presented with absolutely stunning views of the steep Calderra edge. We kept a brisk pace, but stopped periodically to take pictures and marvel at the scenery. We climbed three separate mountain peaks (about 100-120m climbs), and on top of each one was a small church. All but one, had no roads to them, and they were clearly still in use as they were very well maintained. We were totally impressed that people would climb the hills to go to church.  

Tired of working out the lower body:)
  
Oh Yeah!
  
 The majority of the walk was uphill as Fira’s elevation is quite a bit higher than Oia’s.  By now we were announcing “Oh yeah!”, each time we started to ascend again, which was generally followed with some mumbling rendition of “fuc$king Oia.”

In general we were quite light hearted about it, and despite getting very tired, and having sore feet and legs, we were happy that we had decided to walk back. At least we accomplished SOMETHING that day!  We found out later that it was a 9.7km hike, and we finished it in roughly 2 hours!  Yes, we were motoring! 

Looking back to where we had come.
  
Some sort of bunker??
  
Ya, I don’t think Chris will fit in that door!
 We arrived to the outskirts of Fira just as it got dark enough to need a light, so we were safe and sound with the lights of the streets to guide us the rest of the way. Our sole mission was to get to a restaurant. Our feet were aching and our lunch had worn off. We were going to eat, and then get a good nights sleep for our big day of sight seeing the next morning. WE were going to get an early start and NOT make the same mistake as we had that day. 

In fact, as we passed through Fira, we passed a rental car place with an open door and a man sitting behind the desk. We decided on the spot that NO BUS SCHEDULE was going to impede our plans the next day!  We would show them!  We would be IN CONTROL of our getting around!  

There was one car available and it would cost 30 Euros. Done!  We paid a small deposit with a promise to be back when they opened the next day to pick it up. 

We had a nice dinner close to our hotel, and after fell into a very solid, deep sleep. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear about the rest of the Santorini story. Yes, the epicness continues……….