ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
After touching down at New York's JFK airport at 7:30 last night, and then spending the night in an Airbnb room near the airport, it was a quick hop, skip and jump back to Raleigh this morning. We're finally home!
We caught an Uber back to Sarah's parents' house where we were reunited with this sweet face...
...and this box, last seen in Munich. We knew we could count on you, Germany!
Everyone wants to know what our very favorite place was, and we spent a lot of time thinking about it along the way. It's impossible to choose just one, so we gave up on that idea. We would reassess every few days, but in the end, we agreed that certain places and experiences left an indelible mark on our hearts.
Geirangerfjord, Norway (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
Its unparalleled natural beauty left us speechless. This fjord is harder to get to than many of the others, so it feels less overrun with tourists. The drive to the fjord is spectacular in itself, with waterfalls surrounding you in every direction as you wind through the majestic mountains. Our hotel in Geirangerfjord, Hotel Utsikten, really made the experience for us. Most visitors stay down near the water in the modern newer hotels, but we were perched high up on the mountain in a charming hotel with tons of character and an unbelievable view.
The opera in the Arena di Verona (Post)
Throughout the entire four hour performance of Aida, we sat on the stone steps and repeatedly said to each other, "This will be one of the best experiences of our lifetime." The ancient open-air arena is huge and feels so special, and the opera itself was probably the most impressive spectacle we'll ever witness.
Dubrovnik, Croatia (Post 1, Post 2)
Perhaps we fell so deeply in love with this city because we had no idea what to expect. We knew it had become a popular tourist destination in recent years, so we decided to check it out en route to Plitvice Lakes National Park (our main destination in Croatia). With its gorgeous natural setting on the sunny Adriatic coast and its ancient stone walls, it will charm anyone by day. By night, when the compact city's white walls and gleaming streets are perfectly illuminated, this place is pure magic.
Rounding out the top 10:
Vienna, Austria (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
Catamaran cruise around Santorini with evening fireworks (Post)
Renting a boat and island hopping off the coast of Hvar, Croatia (Post)
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia (Post)
Montepulciano, Italy and Tuscan food and wine (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4)
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany (Post 1, Post 2)
Baden-Baden, Germany (Post 1, Post 2)
The Next 10:
The dining and cultural treasures of Florence, Italy (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4)
Varenna, Lake Como, Italy (Post 1, Post 2)
Wine and an orchestra at night at Cafe Florian on St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy (Post)
Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre, Italy (Post 1, Post 2)
The main street of Heidelberg, Germany (Post)
Tiny Alsatian towns like Ribeauville, Eguisheim, and Riquewihr, France (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
Hallstatt, Austria (Post)
The beaches, wharf, and old town of Essaouira, Morocco (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
The town, beaches, and vibe of Mykonos, Greece (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5)
The Cotswolds, England (Post 1, Post 2)
Ostia Antica, Rome, Italy (Post)
Praiano, Amalfi Coast, Italy (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
Like Home Hotel, Bergamo, Italy (Post)
Hofbrauhaus, Munich, Germany (Post)
Sommerrodelbahn and Open Air Museum in the Black Forest, Germany (Post)
House of Terror Museum, Budapest, Hungary (Post)
Škocjan Caves, Slovenia (Post)
Hotel Akrotiri, Paros and driving an ATV around the entire island circumference, Greece (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3)
Our last day abroad! We woke up earlier than usual so we could get out there and explore, but we did take a few minutes to enjoy English tea and biscuits and this view from our hotel room.
Then we took a chilly stroll around charming Chipping Campden. Say that three times fast.
Blessed once again with uncharacteristically gorgeous weather, we spent the next 2-3 hours exploring equally charming neighboring towns in the Cotswolds region. Our favorite was the town of Lower Slaughter, which is rather more serene than its name suggests.
Then we headed back to Gatwick to catch our early evening flight. So long, Europe!
This was our only full day in England, and we were determined to make the most of it. We had decided to visit the Cotswolds region, a couple hours drive from London, on the advice of Sarah's brother, Jeff, and his wife, Ashleigh. We expected to be fighting rainy, gloomy weather because, you know, England. On the contrary, it was absolutely gorgeous and the landscape could not be more bucolic and picturesque. We loved every minute meandering through the countryside, except for those few minutes when we thought our fancy rental car might suffer an unfortunate fate due to being driven by Americans on the "wrong side" of the road.
We must have driven through half a dozen towns on our way to a tour of the Chavenage House in the town of Tetbury. Tours are only offered a couple days a week, as the family and their spaniels still reside here, so we were lucky to be here on a tour day. All tours are given by a member of the family, and ours was led by the adult grandson of the current patriarch. This is one of the best tours we've ever experienced! The family is warm and welcoming, and they have a wealth of fascinating and hilarious stories to share about this gorgeous home's history. You don't want to miss the story about how a helicopter once landed on the lawn so its occupants could make it to Princess Anne's holiday party in her nearby castle. Or the one about how a giant stuffed boar came to reside in the billiard room, courtesy of a live auction and a drunk dinner guest. These days, the manor is frequently used as a filming location for British television and film productions, some starring such notable actors as Eddie Redmayne and Jamie Dornan. We can't recommend this tour highly enough, and we plan to return someday to do it again!
The Chavenage House has been in the family for centuries, and sometime in the 1800's Royal License required the property owner to adopt the surname "Lowsley-Williams" in order to inherit the estate. Thus, poor George ended up with quite a ridiculous mouthful of a name, but dems da rules.
Our adorably British tour guide...
After the tour wrapped up, we wanted to thank him in person but he rushed off. (We also considered tipping him a few pounds, but then thought better of it since he's a member of a family that owns a castle!) When we inquired with his aunt about when he might return, she said, "I think he just went to wet his whistle but he should return shortly." Oh, how we love the Brits! He did indeed return shortly with hot tea in a mug that said, "I'd rather be hunting." Hirsh thought this was so very bougie (slang for bourgeois - you're welcome Baby Boomers) and so perfect!
We're thinking about blowing this one up and framing it...
We got back on the road and continued to the town of Bibury to see the much-photographed Arlington Row.
Annnnd a little more driving around...
We eventually made it to the town of Chipping Campden, our base for the night, and checked into The Kings Hotel. Our beautiful room was on the second story, just above the bay window.
We capped off the evening with a stroll around the small town and dinner at Huxley's, a pub just a few steps from our hotel. This is a really neat place. It's very old and cozy, with stone walls, a low ceiling, exposed beams, and a large fireplace in the corner. We had a wonderful meal and enjoyed eavesdropping on the other customers who were having an intense conversation about dog breeding. One had even brought along her beautiful solid black and immaculately groomed Cocker Spaniel.
We were actually awake from the moment this day started. Since our flight out of Santorini departed at 12:30am, we spent the proceeding couple hours sleeping on the floor of the airport. We boarded our plane with a screaming toddler and obvious first time parents who hadn't figured out that the savings that come with an inconvenient flight do not outweigh the stress of an exhaustion-induced tantrum that come with a sleep-deprived kid.
When we arrived at the Athens airport about an hour later, we immediately raced to the bank of seats not separated by arm rests. Hirsh had researched this in advance, of course, and we found a nice couple of rows were we could sleep. Quite a few other people had the same idea, and those rows were hot properties!
Hirsh set the alarm for 7:30am so he could get up and explore the Parthenon. He walked for miles and miles in the heat and took plenty of pictures for both of us, so Sarah felt like she was there.
Hirsh returned to the airport just in time for us to catch our next connection, this time to Rome. The first order of business was finding food, and Rome's Fiumicino Airport has a gourmet dining option, the Antonello Colonna Open Bistro. We enjoyed our last taste of Italian lasagna and risotto and a mini bottle of wine, and knew we'd chosen the right place when we saw plenty of flight attendants eating there, too.
And there was one last stop for gelato...
Then we found our favorite ad ever because it features this guy. This guy. Is he the epitome of Italian swagger, or what?
For our third and final flight of the day we boarded a plane to London. We arrived at Gatwick airport at 11:30pm and experienced slight panic when Hirsh's passport didn't want to scan. After all our travels, the place we least expected to have problems was the motherland. We really didn't want to experience the fate of some of other unlucky travelers who were corralled into a pen in the middle of the large customs area while customs agents made "further inquiry." We've never seen anything quite like this public shaming. The computer recognized his passport at the last minute and we made it through!
We hurried to the car rental area to pick up our last rental car of the trip, and we made it with ten minutes to spare. When we entered the office, the two workers were actually playing rock-paper-scissors to see who would have to help us just before their shift ended. This offended us a little bit, but they were in a good mood and we were able to negotiate an upgrade to a Mercedes-Benz, which we then proceeded to drive to an Ibis economy hotel, as is our way.
After four nights in Santorini, it was time to check out of our hotel. On this final morning, we once again got sucked into an episode of Road to Avonlea and tried to convince the hotel manager to let us check out an hour late. No luck, unfortunately, so we packed up our stuff and headed to town. Our flight was not until 12:30am the next morning, so we had all day to wander around the town of Oia. Since the town is not that big, we walked very leisurely and enjoyed poking in and out of cafes, art galleries, and tourist shops.
We visited a wonderful classic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which reminded us of the legendary Shakespeare and Company in Paris. It's cozy and cavernous and a true book lover's dream.
There's even a rooftop reading terrace with a really distracting view!
We had delicious pre-sunset drinks and appetizers at Pelekanos, then they promptly kicked us out at 6:00 to make space for the people with sunset reservations. It seems the entire island's economy and culture are shaped around the nightly sunset!
Then we raced to our sunset view perch from last night and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.
We spent most of this day by the pool. Well, we started out by sleeping in far too late and scanning the television for any English program we could find. We couldn't find BBC World News, but we did discover a program called Road to Avonlea, a delightful and wholesome Canadian television series which is an offshoot of Anne Of Green Gables. This series apparently aired in the US in the 1990's, but back then most American teens were too wrapped up in Dawson's Creek and other such nonsense to recognize true quality. Anyhow, I digress...
The majority of the day was spent by the pool. Not nearly as luxurious as our pool in Paros, and unfortunately facing the less scenic side of the island (hotels with pools on the Caldera side of the island cost a small fortune), the water was sufficiently wet and we had a nice time.
Having learned from our mistake the first night in Santorini, we got an early start to town for the nightly push-and-shove to secure a prime sunset view. If this is shoulder season, we shudder to think what the crowds look like during the height of the summer. We walked all the way through town to the end of the road and started to descend the hill when we found the perfect spot! We had to help each other over a not low wall and sit precariously on a small ledge on the roof of another building, but it was absolutely perfect. No one could sit in front of us to obstruct our view, and no one could sit directly behind us. Thank goodness for the relaxed rules in Europe, because it was the opposite of safe.
We finally spotted Santorini's famous donkeys!
And we enjoyed watching the boats race toward the horizon, just as we had done two nights before...
...then they all raced back to the harbor. That sky though!
We descended the loooong staircase from the top of the hill down to the harbor for dinner at a highly recommended seafood restaurant, Katina. We had a great table right at the edge of the water, and Hirsh had to go inside to select which particular fish they would cook up for us. We chose bream, which we weren't familiar with but it was the least expensive of a pricey lot and freshly caught. It was pretty good!
After a long relaxing day on the water yesterday, we did the opposite today - an exhausting day exploring the island on foot. Since we'd already seen Oia, we focused on the neighboring town of Fira. A 20 minute ride on the local bus dropped us in the heart of Fira and just a few steps from one of the most memorable feeding spots of our entire trip, Lucky's Souvlakis. The gyros here are just perfect: authentic, simple, cheap, and delicious! They're so good, we ended up eating here three times in four days, and we would've done so even more often if we didn't have to get there by bus.
Uncomfortably full, we started the long and scenic trek through town and along the coast. It was a really, really hot day and we didn't get very far before we had to stop for gelato.
And then we suffered one of the great tragedies of our trip when one member of our team expired. It may not be apparent to everyone reading our blog, but there are three parties along for this journey: Hirsh, Sarah, and our selfie stick. Yes, it's true that not very long ago we, too, made fun of selfie sticks and the people who used them. We bought one (well, two, so we could have a backup) for this trip and now we are true believers. We will never travel without one again. Anyhow, not only did the selfie stick die, but it suffered the fate Sarah dreads most - decapitation.
Once we resigned ourselves to the reality that there was no way to repair it, we tied the head to the body with its cord (you know, so they wouldn't be separated) and settled on a final resting place of a trash can with a view of the sea. Over the course of almost three months, we had developed an unhealthy emotional attachment to this stick and truly had a hard time just leaving it in a trash can. It had been everywhere with us: Norway, Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Morocco, Croatia, and now Greece. It was one very well-traveled selfie stick. It was like our "Wilson" from the movie Cast Away. So we had a little memorial service and said a few nice words, then we left the stick propped up out of the trash can so it could enjoy the beautiful view.
We had to move on, and we had no shame turning back a few times to look at our beloved stick as we walked away, but at least we had these gorgeous views to distract us...
We walked and walked for about four hours. If you look at the picture below, we started at the edge of town waaaay over to the right. It helps that there's lots to look at along the way, but it was still a long walk and Hirsh did the majority of the work. When we found ourselves faced with a very steep hill or a long stretch of stairs, Sarah would just hop on Hirsh's back and off we went. Passersby love to offer unsolicited comments and we've heard everything from, "There's a real man," to, "He's a keeper," to, "That's cheating."
Our goal was to make it to a little chapel at the edge of town with the best panoramic views. We were almost there when we came upon a beautiful Greek wedding in progress at the Church of Anastasi! We waited patiently outside the church gate for the bride and groom to make their appearance. Notice, also, the Chinese couple having their engagement photo session on the terrace above. Santorini is a very popular destination for engagement photos and we saw so many couples doing just that while we were there.
We finally made it to a small church in the village of Imerovigli, at the edge of Fira, where we secured a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
We hurried back to town to make our 8:00 dinner reservation and took a few more snaps along the way.
Dinner was at a wonderful restaurant in Fira called Salt & Pepper. Owned and operated solely by a husband and wife team, where he does all the cooking and she handles reservations and serving. There was no sous chef, no hostess, no cleaning person. It's just the two of them and they do an outstanding job. We found the restaurant on TripAdvisor, of course, and were very glad we made a reservation in advance. At least ten groups of people wandered by looking for a table while we were there and they were all turned away. We didn't have a chance to chat with the husband, but the wife is a real trip. She's a no-nonsense kind of lady who's seen and heard everything and she definitely gives it to you straight. She didn't hesitate to tell us what we would and wouldn't like and even how much wine she thought we could handle. We surprised her.
Yesterday when we checked into our hotel, Maria's Place, the proprietor immediately gave us a rundown of what to see and do in Santorini. She mentioned the popular Greek Isle day cruises and presented us with a number of brochures from various companies. As luck would have it, today (Saturday) was going to be the annual Ifestia Festival - a celebration of the still active volcano's eruption 3,600 years ago. We knew about the volcano but had no idea about the annual festival, so we really just lucked out with our timing. We weren't planning on taking one of these cruises, but when she mentioned that the festival culminates with an over-the-top fireworks display (best seen from the water, of course), it took us about two minutes to decide to secure our reservation. This was the single most expensive thing we did on this trip, and maybe the single fastest decision we made, but it was worth every. single. penny. The company picked us up at 1PM from our hotel, drove us to the port, and we spent a gorgeous day on a beautiful catamaran with a relatively cozy group of only 16 other tourists and three crew members.
The cruise route took us first to the warm springs on the edge of the volcanic island, where we both jumped in for a swim. We then stopped at the Red Beach and the White Beach (both named for the color of their sand), where Hirsh jumped in for a little snorkeling fun. Sarah was busy enjoying the unlimited beer and wine and snacks on board and chatting up the other tourists. We met two friendly Australian couples and an adorable honeymooning Iraqi-Canadian couple. Included in the price of the cruise, along with the ever important booze, was a delicious barbecue of chicken skewers, shrimp, stuffed grape leaves, and other Greek specialties.
The fireworks show was one of the most impressive we've ever seen, and watching it from a boat with the beautiful Greek islands surrounding us was pure magic. It really felt like a dream, and we didn't want to wake up. We were on that boat from 1:30-9:30pm, and loved every minute of it.
We were bummed to leave Akrotiri Hotel this morning. It's been such a wonderful place to relax and recharge, we really wish we'd booked four nights instead of three. Oh well, next time. After yet another delicious breakfast, we took one last nostalgic photo of the gorgeous view and then the hotel's shuttle driver whisked us away to the port.
We had about 20 minutes to hang around the port before boarding the ship, so we stocked up on some last-minute souvenirs and Hirsh made a mad dash to the Panagia Ekatontapiliani ("Church of 100 Doors"). You know he can't miss an opportunity to see a sight and maybe learn something. We've been a bit spoiled though, because after all the beautiful cathedrals we'd seen in Italy, he said this one was OK.
Our first view of Oia, Santorini from the boat!
...and Fira, Santorini
Immediately after arriving at our hotel, we checked out TripAdvisor and reserved at table for later in the evening at the top-rated Floga restaurant. We thought we'd treat ourselves to a lovely meal at a restaurant with a gorgeous view of the Caldera. Well, the food and service were incredible (we both developed a crush on our impossibly adorable waiter), but we didn't luck out with a great view this time. It's OK though, because we knew we were lucky to get a table at all on such short notice. Some of our fellow diners ordered meals that were served on dramatic beds of steaming dry ice or literally on fire as they were brought to the tables. Each time this happened, everyone stopped to watch and we were all highly entertained and impressed, if not also a bit jealous. Hirsh had lamb shank and Sarah had salmon, both artfully presented. A feast for the eyes and the stomach!
Oia's beautiful hillside lit up at night. The camera phone doesn't begin to capture it.
Pool day! This hotel's pool is so beautiful, we decided to hang out here all day. The staff was just as warm and lovely today as they were when we first arrived. Even the sandwiches were perfect. We really can't say enough good things about this hotel. Thanks, Jeff!