At the end of September in 2005 I boarded a Delta Airlines flight to Athens, Greece by way of New York. As I sat in the business class lounge waiting to board the flight to Athens, I joined many other people watching the latest news on hurricane Rita, a category five storm and one of the most powerful to hit the US in a century. (winds in excess of 155 mph) It was headed straight for Houston and oil refineries all along the coast of Texas and Louisiana were being shut down, affecting more than 25% of domestic production. Once on board the flight we were served dinner, beginning with a tasty Mediterranean appetizer, followed by a delicious Butternut Squash soup garnished with fresh pear and ginger. Then for the main course was eggplant ravioli in Pomodoro sauce, tossed with spinach, corn, and feta cheese, along with grilled shrimp – fantastic! The chilled glass of “Monte Gras Sauvignon Blanc” was a perfect partner. After dinner came a large cheese plate and a glass of port. By this time I was ready to lie back and catch some sleep as we crossed the North Atlantic. The sun rose as we made landfall over Scotland and a delicious breakfast of spinach quiche and spicy chicken sausage was served. Soon I saw the beautiful, steep limestone mountains in northern Greece, as storm clouds loomed in the distance. Upon arriving in Athens I took a shuttle bus to the “Palmyra Beach Hotel” in the small suburb of Glyfada, on the coast south of the city. That evening I had a wonderful dinner of local grilled Perch, and I was joined by the hotel cat, a young orange tabby named “Ouzo”. The next day I took some time to walk along the beach and discovered a couple of old railroad boxcars parked on tracks nearby that turned out to be headquarters for an institute dedicated to the protection of the sea turtles that nest on the beach. As I returned to the hotel I passed a lot of interesting small cafes, bars, and restaurants, as well as a new tram system connecting to downtown Athens. On the other side of the hotel was a large golf course surrounded by some very expensive old homes. But next to them was an empty lot filled with some old, rusty heavy equipment, including an old broken down steam roller! On the edge of the lot was a large old estate that had been abandoned for many years, but despite its age and neglect it still retained a lot of character and I’m sure it could tell a fascinating story. As evening approached I sat outside by the pool and sipped a chilled glass of local “Mythos” beer while the sun slowly set across the sea. In the distance, among all of the islands, ferries were busy making their way between them, and to the north were bright flashes of lightning over the mountains. The next day I took the tram into the city to visit the National Botanic Gardens which were once part of the Royal Palace.
It was a beautiful walk through the lush gardens along shaded paths that criss-crossed the huge park. On the far side of the gardens was the ancient archeological site of “Hadrian’s Gate” and the remains of the “Olympian Temple of Zeus”, from which there were spectacular views of the Parthenon shining brightly atop the Acropolis!
Then I had a delicious lunch at an outdoor café in the old city at the foot of the Acropolis, before taking the tram back to my hotel in the small neighborhood of Glyfada.
In the afternoon I joined a small tour to Cape Sounion following a narrow, twisting road along the rugged coast east of Athens. Arriving at the cape we had magnificent views of the remains of the “Temple of Poseidon” standing on the very top of a steep cliff overlooking the vast expanse of the Aegean Sea. Our guide was very knowledgeable of Greek mythology and told us the story of how the god Poseidon defeated enemy ships and saved the Athenians. The site was essentially a fortress to protect the shipping lanes to Athens.
As I stood in the bright sunshine that bathed the massive carved marble Doric columns, I had an absolutely stunning view of the Aegean Sea and the “Islands of the Cyclades”, which in Greek means circle. The tour was a highlight of my trip, despite the wild driving of our bus driver, who thought he was in a sports car rally! Back at the hotel that evening I had a delicious dinner of spicy lamb meatballs and “Saganaki” (fried cheese) outside on the terrace, which I shared with “Ouzo”.
The next day I joined my colleague Mary Jo and Adonis, our Greek representative, for a visit to the ancient city of Marathon where the Greeks defeated the invading Persian army in 500 BC, thus preserving the culture of Greece ever since. It’s also the site that established our modern day marathon race, based on the story of the Greek army soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 26.2 miles, to announce the victory! In the Greek tradition of hospitality, Adonis treated us to a lavish dinner by the sea and promptly ordered enough food to feed an army. But the dishes were delicious and shared with the local family of cats surrounding our table. After our dinner by the beach, Adonis drove us over the mountains to Hotel Caterina, a lovely boutique hotel in the fashionable northern suburb of Kifissia. Then we finished the evening sitting outside on the terrace with a glass of wine at the “Palmie Bistro” next door to the hotel.
In the morning I took a taxi to the airport to board a flight to Bucharest, Romania to visit the staff of our Romanian office. While I waited in the Aristotle Onassis lounge at Athens airport, I had the occasion to visit the restroom and discovered a very interesting “self-cleaning” toilet seat, which I had to try out. Then it was a short 1 ½ hour flight with some great views of the Black Sea coast before landing in Bucharest.
I spent the next two days working in the office and conducting a technical workshop at the local user conference. Soon it was the weekend and my Romanian hosts arranged a tour to the Transylvanian Alps north of the city. As we drove through the old town of Brasov we saw the historical “St Nicholas Church”, the first church in Romania, having been established in the early 12th century. The old church was also the site of several wedding parties that day. As we were leaving Brasov we passed the ornate Palace of King Carol I, which is famous for its massive, intricate wood carvings.
Our destination for the night was the ancient town of “Sinaia”, which derives its name from Mount Sinai in Egypt where a group of Orthodox monks from Romania settled centuries ago at St Catherine’s Monastery in the remote desert. As we entered the town the predominance of very unique and distinctive architecture, that looked a lot like a witches’ hat, was evident everywhere and so typical throughout the region of Transylvania. After checking into our old hotel that resembled something out of the 18th century, I took a walk through the old town. There were lots of small shops everywhere selling gorgeous embroidery and crochet, also typical hand crafts of Transylvania. (an observation: almost every woman seems to be wearing very pointed shoes that look quite uncomfortable) That evening I shared dinner in the hotel with my Romanian colleagues.
The following morning, as a light rain fell outside on the cobble stone street, we had breakfast in the huge old dining room that was decorated with massive, heavy purple curtains covering the majority of the windows. (again, very typical of the Soviet style) Later, as we walked through the narrow streets and rounded a corner, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by several beer gardens and tents where all sorts of meats and vegetables were being grilled. Needless to say, the aromas were wonderful and we had to stop for a beer and sample the local food. Further on was a large park with huge old Hickory trees cloaked in beautiful gold leaves of autumn. Near the park was the home of Romania’s most famous composer, George Enescu, who studied in Paris during the late 1800’s before making his home in Transylvania. From the room where he would sit at his piano, there was a lovely view across the valley to the steep mountains, gently embraced by the mist. Leaving Sinaia we drove through the heart of the Transylvanian Alps to the small village of Bran where the castle of the infamous Count Dracula still dominates the landscape overlooking the village. (it was often used in the summer as a royal residence until 1940)
Naturally we had to take time to visit the castle and hear the tales surrounding Count Dracula and his predecessor “Vlad the Impaler” who gained his fearsome reputation from an obsession with “impaling” his enemies on tall spears mounted in the ground just outside the castle wall where everyone could see. Nearby the castle was a fascinating open air museum with many traditional old houses from small villages throughout Transylvania. It was like walking back into the 16th century. Later in the afternoon we stopped at a new mountain resort for lunch of traditional borscht, together with cabbage rolls stuffed with ground lamb and corn mush, which was delicious.
After lunch we stopped at a small stand on the street for a delectable local pastry coated in beet sugar and cinnamon, which was then baked over an open wood fire. As evening was approaching we drove to the city of Pilesti along a narrow winding road following the summit of a long high ridge. It was a very scary ride as cars were overtaking each other at high speed on blind curves! And amidst all of this insane traffic were horse drawn wagons, wandering cows, and pedestrians on the road. (I counted myself lucky to have survived the journey) It was a very rural area of small villages alongside the road every few kilometers, and at one point the traffic came to a screeching halt as a wedding party was dancing in the middle of the highway. Despite the harrowing journey, the views of the mountains, valleys, and small alpine villages were beautiful.
As we finally reached the new autostrade that would take us back to Bucharest, a brilliant sunset greeted us. And despite a sudden burst of heavy rain as we entered the city, we were able to make it to the airport in time for me to board the flight back to Athens and on to Los Angeles. Relaxing in my business class seat on the Delta Airlines flight the next day, I reflected on my experiences in Romania, a old country of people with a long history and distinctive culture, who are now standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future, which is not always an easy situation to be in. But the warmth and hospitality of the people will surely overcome the challenges they face. I felt fortunate to have experienced a bit of this most fascinating and unique corner of the world!