Saturday, February 20, 2010

Carnival in Patra, Greece

Last weekend Patra hosted it's famous Carnival celebration which, after Rio's Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans is supposedly the world's third largest Carnival. It's a chance to indulge before the sacrifices of Lent take hold. They do throw a big party! Thankfully we had a break in the rain Saturday night so we didn't get soaked. We've had rain almost every day since I arrived three weeks earlier.

The manager of my client's Patra office, Dionyssis Kantas, arranged for us to join one of the groups that marches through the streets of Patra in costume for Saturday night's parade. This involves wearing custom-made costume; our was called "Every Which Way". Hundreds of groups, some with over a thousand people and each with it's own distinct and elaborate costume, marches through the city with music blaring and revelers watching, blowing whistles, drinking wine, and throwing confetti.

After the parade Dionyssis invited us to his flat in Patra where we sampled his homemade wine while waiting for after-parade party to begin at a bar called the Beer Society. Apparently it's called by it's English name even by the Greeks. It started at 11:30 pm. That's right - it started - at 11:30. It was fun, and several of my colleagues joined us there. Amy and I ducked out around 2:30 am to avoid turning into pumpkins, but Dionyssis partied til 5 am. I'm too old for that, I'm afraid.

On another parade on Sunday afternoon includes floats, many of them overtly political satires, although the political humor was lost on us. We brought the kids for this parade and joined our friend Dawn Lawrence and her three boys to watch. On Sunday the adults skipped the costumes but Dionyssis generously loaned the kids costumes for the day, which made it much more fun for them.



Sunday's parade lasts all afternoon and past dark, and the Carnival festivities end with fireworks and the burning of the "king of the carnival" on a barge in the bay. The King is a large paper mache' bust of a king figure. The rain was steady most of the evening -- so much that the King refused to burn properly, and kind of fizzled out. We watched the rainy climax from the comfort of our apartment rather than joining the thousands of drunk revelers under their umbrellas.

Fortunately Monday is a National Holiday - Ash Monday - so everyone can sleep off their hangovers. It's a tradition to fly kites and eat salt bread and a special kind of cake.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Monastery of Mega Spileou

Last weekend I visited the Monastery of Mega Spileou (Great Cave) in the mountains southeast of Patras with my colleague Bob Sarni and his wife Kari. The whole place is being remodeled but a very old chapel is intact with faded frescoes on the ceiling and an icon of the Virgin Mary supposedly created by St. Luke. The setting is spectacular, and the drive into the mountains is scenic, passing olive orchards, vineyards and small hillside villages.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Egio, Greece

Along with Bob and Kari Sarni and the Lawrence family, I spent some time on Saturday morning in the small port city of Egio, Greece (sometimes spelled Aigio) while waiting for a ferry to take us across the Gulf of Corinth en route to Delphi.

The Greeks seem to be fond of building churches into cliff faces, and I took some photos of one such church in Egio.

Greece - Chapter One

I landed at the Athens airport on January 24 along with five of my colleagues and some of their family members, and proceeded to drive our convoy of three rented Ford Focus cars westward for two and half hours to the seaside village of Longos (sometimes spelled Logos or Loggos). Thankfully, National rent-a-car upgraded us all to a larger class of car, or the eleven of us and our luggage wouldn't have fit. In Greece, a Ford Focus is pretty spacious.

Longos is a sleepy village, especially in winter. It consists of an orthodox church, two tavernas, a few mini markets, and a bar, plus a smattering of nearby vacation homes (all vacant this time of year) and mostly shuttered hotels. We're staying at the Harmony Hotel Apartments, a nice place - recently constructed - about 150 meters from the beach. They filled the pool for us, but water temperature is still shockingly cold.
Brad with Kieran (my colleague's son)

The village looks a bit run down, with many half-built and shabby buildings, plenty of graffiti and litter - I would say it's nice from far, but far from nice. The place does manage to retain a bit of charm, though. Kari Sarni and Dawn Lawrence, who are wives of my colleagues, have made friends with the local baker and butcher (but no candlestick maker that we've found yet), demostrating the Greek's well-founded reputation for hospitality.
An odd fisherman's cottage with a tree growing through the roof

Greece is suprisingly mountainous, and the mountain ranges rise up straight from the Mediterranean coast, so their elevation is quite impressive. Mt. Hermos, about 30 km away and home of Kalavrita ski area, rises to 2340 meters (7800 feet). Yes, there is snow in Greece. A fair amount of it recently. We've had rain on the coast all but two of the twelve days I've been here so far, which translates to snow above about 1000 meters. At our apartment on the coast, I've had to scrape ice off the windshield twice this week.

Our first night our hotel host introduced us all to the best of the villages' two tavernas, a tongue-twisting place called Metexetasteoi (using the closest Latin equivalent of the Greek letters). The taverna's chef (and I presume owner) is a flamboyant fellow named Evangelis. We asked him to bring us an assortment of appetizers and main courses. We quickly learned that Greek tavernas are very generous with their servings, and we stuffed ourselves silly with food and wine, but not before starting the evening with a round of honey-sweetened warm Ouzo, which is surprisingly tasty.

The Metexetasteoi taverna in Longos

Driving in Greece is a contact sport, and the pesky traffic laws are merely mild suggestions. The shoulder on the main highway - two lanes only - has been adapted to serve as an extra lane in each direction. Passing on blind curves is expected. If you're driving any less than double the speed limit you'll likely find someone riding your bumper - until they pass you on a blind curve and play chicken with oncoming traffic.

This week a bunch of Greek farmers decided to protest government plans to reduce or eliminate farm subsidies by blocking the main freeway out of Patras, where we work, which bumped our evening commute from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. It seems the Greek police couldn't control the situation so it went on for three days. Thankfully all is back to normal now. It seems the Greeks may have fudged the numbers a bit to join the EU and it turns out their public debt exceeds EU limits so now the government is proposing a variety of austerity measures. The silver lining for American visitors is that the turmoil is strengthening the dollar against the Euro - even if only slightly.

I have just six weeks to go in my temporary Greek home. I'll try to make the most of it.