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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 18 of 18: 10/7/06 Athens to Casa Nuova

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Athens Bakery

We had such a good time meandering back up the Acropolis (yesterday’s ticket was still valid) and visiting the spectacular museum there, then back round and round in Plaka grazing on various treats and buying souvenir trinkets. Pictures of everything. Georgia standing in front of a wonderful wall of handmade sandals. Some of the graffiti, as I’ve said earlier, is much closer to public art than territory-marking. It’s always bizarre and post-modern but nevertheless very beautiful and exotic. Very different from what we saw in Italy. There needs to be a book dedicated to the regional variations in this most idiosyncratic and personal of art forms. We visited several of the outdoor museums of antiquity that were outdoor museums of antiquity when Napoleon’s army came through about the time the United States was born.

At a Gyro Restaurant a group of Canadians told us to order from the take-away window to save a lot of money. I recognized them from the computer room at the Attalos, so we invited ourselves to join them on the roof garden there for an al fresco picnic. We shared our collection of international jokes and they had to make a contribution: “Q: What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A: Canadians don’t tip.” Bob thought that was funny because, as a matter of fact, “Canadians are very good tippers!” he said.

As we sat on the veranda we could see a thunderstorm moving in off the water. No wonder the Greeks thought of Zeus as a hairy thunderer. The lightening flashes and distant booms were very impressive, especially with the Acropolis as a backdrop. After 30 or 40 minutes of preamble the rain let go all around us. And what rain! Buckets of rain. We moved, naturally enough, into the bar and continued visiting over many Mythos beer. One of the ladies was a breast-cancer survivor and shared a pink bracelet with Georgia. Awareness of death not only adds spice to life, it reminds us that life is short and we can either spend it on the couch in front of a football game or (if you seriously save up money) sipping Mythos beer on an Athens hotel rooftop in a thunderstorm with lightening flashes and peals of thunder all around the Acropolis. Very impressive, but still not our last gift.

Sunday, 10/8/06, Athens to Milan

The Alitalia jet from Athens to Milan served the best coffee! And the food was actually delicious, far better than the Aegean Airlines’ “Cheez Whiz covered Spam in a Blanket.” We spent the trip working on our trip journal, you forget things so very quickly. Even jotted notes can help you remember glories, so we quizzed each other on what happened where and tried to write it all down.

When we landed in Milan I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how to call our nearby hotel to ask for the shuttle bus. It was really embarrassing. I couldn’t tell how much the phone cost. I tried to ask at the information booth but she didn’t speak English well and thought I just wanted to use her phone. Like people everywhere she couldn’t believe that I didn’t understand how to use something that was so very familiar to her. All I needed to know was how much it cost and what numbers I needed to punch into the phone. After about four or five tries with the credit card (six or seven dollars eventually showed up on my bill!) I stopped a pedestrian, explained what I wanted and she showed me what numbers to punch, and showed me the slot where I was supposed to put my €.25, about a quarter! No wonder the information clerk thought I was an idiot. The hotel sent their van in about 10 minutes and five minutes later we were unloading our suitcases in a very comfortable room at the Hotel Ristorante Cervo, in the little village of Casa Nuova.

It was now about three or4 pm, but we were hungry and asked the desk clerk where we could get a snack. He said he doubted the café was open this early but showed us the little road into the center of town. Actually it was the only road in sight. You would have to work to get lost in Casa Nuova. We walked the four or five blocks and found the café, but it wasn’t open yet. At the next corner the road turned, and went through the house walls as if into a medieval castle, and we found ourselves walking toward the village church a half block away down a dusty little street.

I thought we’d see if there was an afternoon mass. We’d somehow not been able take mass as often as we had during our last trip and I was feeling somewhat guilty about that. The little church was dark and cool, with only the red candle by the ark winking in the twilight. We saw some other ladies also looking around and asked them if they knew of a mass. They directed us to the parish bulletin board where we saw a notice about a “Festa Castagnaccio” I recognized the word for “festival,” but wouldn’t recognize a castagnaccio if I tripped over one. Whatever it was it was happening today. To the right of the bulletin board, beside the church there was an empty parking lot and at the back of the parking lot someone had set up a large tent, rather like a circus tent. Under the tent we could see a food booth being assembled. I immediately started walking toward the tent. Georgia, careful one that she is, grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?” she demanded, as if there were alternative destinations in sight. I gestured toward the tent as obvious. “I don’t think we’re allowed in there” she said. As I’ve said somewhere before, I’m somewhat the “careless” one and Georgia is somewhat the “careful” one in our little bobsled team of life. There are times I just scare her to death, and there are times I can only look at her with amazement. Terror and Amazement: the two keys to a successful marriage. “Here we have a church ‘Festival’ obviously intended to raise money and we are people with money . . .” “Not much money,” she interjected. “How much money?” I asked. “We have €30,” she said, “and we ought to save 10 for incidentals at the airport tomorrow.” “Ok, that means we’ve got €20 burning a hole in our pocket,” I continued “and they, I’m sure, would love for us to leave those €20 with them!” She wasn’t listening. Whenever I start one of my witty and erudite pieces of badinage she tunes me out and hears only “Blah, blah, blah, wah, wah, wah.” Terror, Amazement, and the ability to tune out your spouse when they get pompous. “What are they doing?” she interrupted, looking at a group of four or five people sitting around a picnic table with tiny little short-bladed knives. They were making short cuts in lumpy, black, oversized acorns. At another table a couple were apparently eating these same nuts from a small brown paper bag. We tried to ask a lady behind the make-shift counter what was going on. Her English was no better than my Italian so she called over a high school girl to translate. The high school girl knew how to say “Good Morning” and “Good Afternoon,” but if you wanted to say anything else you were pretty much at a standstill. She must be paying as much attention in the English classes as I did in French. But she did gesture toward the back of the tent where a hairy-armed sweating man was stirring a huge witch’s cauldron with a canoe paddle.

Before we went to investigate we thought we might need a little fortification. “Vino roso?” Georgia asked. “Si, e bianca,” she replies. So we get a glass of each, and were surprised to see that they drew the wine directly from some little wine barrels. No bottles at this festa!

We wandered over to see what’s in the cauldron, probably stew of some sort. But no, it’s the mysterious little lumpy acorns. We asked what they are called and are told that these are the mysterious Castagnaccio I wouldn’t recognize if I fell over them. Chestnuts! Roasting over an open fire. Very cool, and Jack Frost isn’t even nipping at our noses, though it is getting cooler and we didn’t wear our jackets to the festival. We didn’t expect to be gone from the hotel very long.

We sat at one of the tables and sipped our wine. The high-school girl brought us a bag of the chestnuts hot from the fire. The little slits give you a way to open the nut without chewing through the husk like a squirrel. Interesting flavor, but very dry. Kind of nutty, but softer than I expected. Dryness was the main thing. You could almost feel the nuts sucking all the water out of your system. They were not salty, of course, but definitely increased your thirst. They wouldn’t begin serving food for another hour and a half. I chased my wine with a large mug of beer also tapped from a large keg. Mmmm! I thought it was only the Germans who knew how to do beer. Wrong! And beer does a really good job of moistening chestnuts. We finished our free bag and bought another. Another beer or two and it wasn’t just the weather that seemed to be getting a little nippy. “We’d better go get our jackets,” my careful sweetie said. Made sense to me. It was still thirty minutes until they started serving and a brisk walk back to the hotel might clear my unaccountably fuzzy head. Must be all the chestnuts.

In the parking lot a teen-aged boy had set up a booth of some sort. Looks like “go fish” to me where kids are given fishing poles and told to drape the line over the screen where they can catch something. The boy rattled off his spiel to us as we walked by. I told him in my best drunken dialect that we only speak “very tiny” Italian. The boy’s eyebrows nearly climbed off his forehead, “English!” he exclaimed wiping his face as if to clear away his own cobwebs. He jumped up and down and turned around in an effort to force his hard-won English proficiency to the surface of consciousness. No use. He looked for all the world like he bit his tongue. His stuttering and stammering augment the impression. He wiped his face in distress trying manfully to force the words out. It’s hopeless. He knew he knows what he wants to say but can’t say it. Isn’t that just the way? The poor Mrs. Atkinsons of the world try diligently to teach us how to say “You just drape the fish line over the curtain and you’ll catch something” and all we end up remembering is that there is some way to say what we want to say but we have no clue what that way is. In mercy, I handed him a euro and he gratefully handed me a fishing pole. On my very first cast he talked to the cardboard waves and we miraculously caught a bag of rubber balls that our granddaughter will enjoy, and a bottle of shampoo that I know we won’t be able to take on the plane. We thank him for the gifts and he proudly tells us we are “Welcomed.” The 10 minute walk back to the motel to pick up our jackets and drop off our booty does help clear my head.

A line began to form while we got our jackets. There’s a menu, handwritten on poster board hung from the ceiling. The prices were all clearly marked but there’s a mistake, everything was written in Italian! Georgia recognized “Calamari,” and still stung by her vicious sneak-attack in Patmos she knew what she wants to order. I’m at a loss so reverted to the “Questo e questo” style of pointing at things, and got a pitcher of red wine. We handed them our money and they gave us a piece of paper with a number on it. Luckily the number was written in “English” but they were calling them out in “Italian.” Sigh. We were going to starve.

A friendly Italian man said we should sit and wait and watch for our number on an electronic sign. It worked! We didn’t starve! Our pitcher of wine came first. First things first, you know. And this pitcher was not a “carafe,” it was a “PITCHER!” What a great appetizer wine makes. Loosens your tongue and everything. Pretty soon we were showing pictures of our kids and grandkids to the people around us, and they were doing the same. We were slipping into and out of Italian and they were slipping into and out of English. It’s like Pentecost all over again. We seem to understand each other perfectly. In vino veritas.

Georgia tells me the calamari is delicious. I’m sure that whatever I had it was delicious too, but about that time a large family group sat down beside us. Mario introduced himself to us. He also introduced us to his Wife, his Sister, his brother-in-law, “My good friend, Mario,” his children, and his grand-children, some subset of which were also Mario. He seems to work for the government in international development but his English was not impeccable and my ears seemed to be stuffing up with chestnut residue. All the sounds seemed to be coming from a great distance. There was a lot of laughter, the tent was now stuffed with people and Mario tells us the dancing isn’t going to begin for several more hours. He insisted we try little bits of everyone’s dishes. Everything was marvelous, unpronounceable, unforgettable, and I’ve completely forgotten them. All, that is, except for the “butter Stew” he insisted we taste.

He had a pile of what seemed to be barbecue or hash in a tomato sauce on his plate and insisted we take a forkful. When I asked what it is he replied that it is “Burro,” which I know is Italian for “Butter.” It certainly doesn’t look like butter so I say “Burro? Mooooo!?” and he laughed, “No, Burro, EEEyah, Eeeyah,” and waggled his fingers above his head to simulate long floppy ears. Donkey?? We’re having donkey stew? Georgia looked surprised. Mario, thinking we might be upset hurried to reassure us that “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s not Italian donkey, it’s from Bulgaria!” For after-dinner Mario goes to the counter for some caffe correcto, corrected coffee, corrected with liquor that is. When he returned he also brings us little glasses of limoncello, the syrupy, lemon flavored liquor that will put you on your backside in a heartbeat even without caffe correcto. I think Mario must be playing a game of “Let’s get the tourists drunk.” He won. Hands down. I don’t remember anything else from that evening except walking back down a little darkened Italian village street singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!” and leaning heavily on my sweetie, who seemed to be wobbling a good bit as well. Georgia says she remembers our taking leave of Mario, and his good friend Mario, cordially thanking them for letting us briefly join their extended family. I hope we did. What a gift that welcome was. And I hope we can be that hospitable and kind to strangers.

Sunday, October 8, 2006, the flight home

Up early, with a large complimentary breakfast at the hotel and a quick zip over to Malpensa. As we approached Newark Airport we saw the beautiful fall colors of New York State. Home is a very beautiful place.

So what did we learn from this “trip of gifts?”

  • Twenty euros is not enough pocket-money for the Casa Nuova Chestnut Festival. Thirty euros is perfect.
  • “Family” is a very fluid category, somewhat related to your gene pool, but also intimately connected to where your heart is located, or who steals your heart.
  • “The past” is a very foreign country and why people did what they did back then is almost impossible to determine, as if I could even give the reasons why I did what I did last week.
  • It is a very humbling and yet very exhilarating to walk around in the places where your ancestors walked.
  • You have more than just family ancestors. All of us have spiritual ancestors and philosophical and cultural ones as well.
  • Puccini, Socrates, and the Acropolis, all at once are almost too beautiful to stand.
  • The best kinds of answered prayers are those you didn’t even know you were praying.
  • The ocean is full of things that will sneak up on you.
  • Current German leaded stained glass is wonderful, Italian current leaded glass is okay, and Greek is nonexistent, but they laminate wonderfully.
  • Caffe correcto and limoncello after a PITCHER of wine and several mugs of beer is too much alcohol for one evening, at least too much before the dancing.
  • Two brown bags full of roasted chestnuts will plug you up for weeks.
  • It’s ok to eat a donkey you are not personally familiar with.
  • Terror, Amazement, Deafness, and the ability to selectively over-ride your spouse’s decisions are good for a marriage.
  • Any marriage that survives longer than a weekend is successful. Any marriage that lasts 38 years is both a blessing and a miracle.

(The End)

Places We Stayed
Hotel Landhaus; Altenbergstrasse 4+6; 3013 Bern, Switzerland; Phone: 031 331 4166
Oasi Regina Pacis; #6 Via Dei Pellerano; Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy; Phone: 0185 286 842
Koala Hotel, 21 Harmilou Street; Kos Town, Kos, Greece; Phone: +30-22420-22897; e-mail: patadimi@hol.gr
Siroco Studios; Chochlakas Bay, Patmos Island, Greece; Phone: 22470 33262 or 22470 31878 or 2247031378
Attalos Hotel; www.attalos.gr; 29 Athinas Street, Athens, Greece; Phone: 011302 10321 2801-2-3
Hotel Marie; 28 Themistokleous Street, Kos Town, Kos, Greece; www.marie-hotel.gr; Phone: 0030 22420 25160
Hotel Ristorante Cervo, Casa Nuove, Italy, Phone:0039.0331.230821 (near Malpensa Airport)

Sights
Restaurant Kreuz; 3305 Iffwil, Switzerland Phone: 031 761 02 26

Resources

Castle Brown

Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre

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