Monday, August 23, 2021

Hello, Thessaloniki! Wassup?

Though we've been to Greece several times, we hadn't visited Thessaloniki, and I knew nothing about it. Not even that it is the second largest city in Greece. I only knew that it used to have a large and prosperous Jewish community, which was wiped out during WW2.

Sitting in the taxi on our way from the airport into town, we drove through familiar-looking roads, shops, warehouses and garages. As we approached the big city, the view changed into a mixture of modern-day but somewhat rundown buildings, interspersed with smaller old or antique houses and other structures. Traffic became heavier, everything seemed taller and denser. 

And then we reached our destination. There was absolutely no place to park, so the driver just stopped, ignoring any honking,  took our bags out of the trunk, and  pointed to the narrow building, squashed like all others in-between two other buildings, on 59 Elftheriou street. It didn't look like a hotel. Because it isn't. It's simply rooms for rent -- some basic, some fancier. 

We had no idea how to get in. The glass front door was locked. Behind it we could see a small, empty lobby, with 2 elevator doors on the right and behind them a staircase. There were two gadgets on the wall next to the front door. One was obviously for typing in an entry code, which we didn't have; the other had a button to buzz Information, or Reception, or Zeus knows what. We pressed it several times but nothing happened. Luckily, someone was just coming out of the building, so we quickly dashed in, dragging our suitcases behind us.

Turns out that of all six floors, only numbers 5 and 6 make up Luxor Premium Suites. Eventually, a young woman met us on the fifth floor, we were given the code for the front door and for our suite, were told where to go for breakfast the next day, and we "checked in". No real lobby, no front or back desk, no coffee corner, not to mention a garden or a yard. No fuss. But a bit confusing for a newcomer.

On the positive side, the room was large, spick and span, aesthetic and comfortable, and the a/c did its job quietly. 

Our room, #501

We unpacked, and took note of the two relatively-high steps leading to the bathroom door. (Pleased to say we did not trip over it when going to the loo in the middle of the night.) The shower stall had a rim separating it from the rest of the small room, plus a shower curtain -- two items that may seem obvious to the average tourist, but turned out to be rather rare ;-) On the other hand, there was no high hook on which to hang up the hand-held shower head, which made things a bit awkward. But I forgave all, once I'd enjoyed the Natural Olive shower gel & shampoo... True, it wasn't my favorite brand (Olive Era), but it did the job. Another shortcoming that repeated itself in most other places we stayed at was the lack of enough hooks on which to hang towels, clothes, etc.

Oh, and very important: The room had a coffee nook; i.e., a corner with a small fridge (including two half-liter bottles of nero matillico), a Nespresso coffee machine, a couple of cups and glasses, and electric kettle. (Good thing Michael always brings his favorite tea, and I brought my fave botz (black) coffee.)

The view from the hotel window was, um, very urban, very typically Thessalonikian, as it turned out. However, there are quite a few other hotels and hostels in the area, because it is indeed very conveniently located, within easy walking distance of eateries, minimarkets, ancient landmarks, museums, pretty boulevards, and the seafront.

A room with a view?...

First things first -- a nap. Next -- a walk to a cellular-phone shop, to replace our Israeli SIM card with a local one. By sheer coincidence, the girl who served us was called Nina. She's originally from Georgia, and was delighted to hear that we'd been to Tbilisi and liked it. 
On the way to the shop (after getting a wee bit lost), we walked along one of Thessaloniki's famous ruins -- the Roman agora, which was built in in the late 2nd century AD.

And on we walked, from one impressive arch or church or historic relic to the next.

Worth noting:
1. The center of town is a mess, because of the digging for an underground / light rail system. Roads are blocked, dust and dirt abound. Mind you, any Tel-Avivian (or denizen of other nearby cities where our light rail shall one day pass) knows exactly what it's like.
2. Summer in Thessaloniki is hot. If you have any errands -- do them before 12 noon. From noon onwards it gets hotter and hotter. Around 9 p.m. it finally begins to cool off.
3. There are pharmacies everywhere. I don't know how they can all make a living, because there are so many of them on every street. (I encountered the same abundance in Georgia, see my post Georgia, it's the little differences, part 2.)
4. True, along the promenade there's a pleasant breeze... but no shade.
5. Of course, there are tourist traps with lots of colorful pants, scarves, shoulder-bags, backpacks, flipflops, hats... and prices are reasonable. As expected, I fell in love with an Accessorize butterfly-printed bag. But I was brave and resisted temptation. (Maybe next time...)
6. Foood! Is available everywhere. Delicious. Cheap. That first day, we had a light lunch at the Dia Tauta - grilled mushrooms, and a Greek salad -- a staple in every taverna. Good stuff! We returned to this place later in this trip. Warning: The food is salty. Which is fine for most people, but makes things difficult for those who must watch and limit their salt intake.
7. About desserts: In most tavernas, the menu does not contain a Desserts section. (You can always buy a Magnum in a minimarket on the way back to your hotel or hostel.) However, the kitchen does usually have some sort of small dessert, which they either serve without your asking, or upon your puppy-ish request. Once or twice it was watermelon cubes; other times it was a small glass, even smaller than a jar of Gerber's baby food, with some sort of home-made pudding with a layer of whipped cream on top. 

-- to be continued! --

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Excellent Free tour in Lisbon - Maggie

... so on our previous visit, way back in 2002, we just wandered and blundered on our own. It's very easy to blunder in Lisbon, no previous experience necessary. This time, we wisely decided to take advantage of the free guided [walking] tours. You are, of course, expected to tip the guide at the end of the tour; that is made perfectly clear up-front. But I assure you that it was worth every penny, or rather euro-cent.

We signed up online (duh!), see, and chose the option called Centre - the heart of the city. The meeting place was none other than my fave "Benetton Square" (see previous post), next to the Fernando Pessoa Sculpture, and the guide would be carrying a blue umbrella.

Nina & Fernando Pessoa. Note T-shirt, indicative of balmy weather
 Not surprisingly, the statue above was drowning in tourists that morning... so we moved a few meters away, to the statue of the poet Antonio Ribeiro, smack in the center of the square:

Maggie, a.k.a. Margarida, was absolutely great. An energetic young (27) woman with good English (acquired, apparently, from watching TV!), a sense of humor, a people person (a must for a job like this!), well-versed in the history of Lisbon, full of ethical and moral insights, and slightly hyperactive :-)  Not to worry -- she didn't tire us out too much...

The Amazing Maggie, w/blue umbrella over right shoulder
The tourists (mostly couples) were from London, Brazil, Romania, Namibia, Germany, and New Zealand.
Frankly, I didn't remember any details from our previous visit to Bairro Alto, the so-called Bohemian part of town with its endless bars and restaurants; and definitely didn't know any of the local history. So it was all new and fascinating stuff.

After two and a half hours of energetic walking, standing, looking around and listening, the time came to say goodbye, at the huge Praca do Comercio:

Thank you, Maggie!
Along with the above photo, Maggie sent us all a list of non-touristy restaurants and bars, the ones that the locals favor. She also included vegetarian restaurants, because there's always a demand for such.
However, by then Michael and I were both hungry and tired, and settled for a pizza nearby, before taking the Metro back "home" and collapsing for a good siesta.

Which doesn't mean we didn't profit from Maggie's recommendations! In the evening we took the bus to o arêgos, which unfortunately has no website, but you can read about it both on TripAdvisor, see here, and on Facebook, on this page. It was delicious, and very reasonably priced.

Next post: about our second walking-tour. Coming soon. Or soonish :-)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Hello Again, Lovely Lisbon!

Bertrand Bookstore - est. 1732, Chiado district
As often happens when you’re touring a foreign country, your host – or tour-guide, waiter, or receptionist – asks you:  Is this your first time in [Timbuctoo]?
As you’ve gathered, this wasn’t our first time.
“No,” one of us would reply, “we’ve been here before, seventeen years ago. In October 2002.”
The youngsters never failed to stare at us in amazement: “Wow! It’s changed so much since!”  I’d smile in amusement. Sure, 17 years is a big chunk of an under-thirty person’s life. Lots of things didn’t exist 17 years ago. But what does exist are my handwritten travel journals; specifically, the one from our previous Spain-and-Portugal trip.

Of course I re-read it before this trip, and also took it with for reference, for the fun of it. And guess what? In essence, not much has changed.

Luckily, we learned from experience and didn’t drive into Lisbon. Downtown is still a maze of narrow cobbled streets, with cars, buses, trams and pedestrians pushing through with no consideration for anyone. Everyone wants to use the same street at the same time. Pedestrians happily ignore traffic lights and just charge ahead, in competition with the vehicles around them. Yep, that’s as true now as it was then. Only now there are also electric bicycles and scooters! Almost as bad as in the center of Tel Aviv!

This time, we arrived at Lisbon Airport and boarded the Metro, (one large suitcase and two trolleys) taking the linha vermelha [red line]  to the end, then transferring to the linha azul [blue line] for one stop, since my old notes reminded me that the Parque stop was closer to our hotel than the Marquis de Pombal.  Yes, we’d booked the same hotel we stayed at in 2002! Hotel Avenida Park, Av. Sidonio Pais 6. We remembered it as a small but pleasant place. To do it justice, it has been refurbished since. But it was still convenient and fairly quiet. Do you want to know whether I recommend it? – Sure! Just take into account that the rooms with the double bed (~140x190 cm) are quite small, whereas the Premium rooms are larger but have twin beds. The cost is the same. Next time I’ll know to order the larger room, and just move the beds together. (I did ask the receptionist and he said that’s doable.)
Bed very close to the wall

Not much space for sun-salutations...

Just like last time, our first walk around town was confusing… There are beautiful boulevards, huge plazas with gorgeous statues, columns and arches; an assortment of shops, both la-di-dah and unassuming; plenty of cafes, tabernas and restaurants; and more tourists than locals, it seemed. Like last time, we bought a 3-day unlimited public transport (Metro & bus) pass; though this time you did it at self-service/automatic machines, rather than having to buy them from an actual clerk; and this time the queues of [mostly young] tourists were unbelievably long. The default instructions are obviously in Portuguese, but you could opt for English and probably a few other languages; and the announcements while on board as to the next station etc were made first in Portuguese and then in English. And speaking of English – this time, too, we were delighted that the TV channels broadcasting English shows/series do not dub them into Portuguese. What a relief. Can you imagine Leroy Jethro Gibbs or Sheldon Cooper speaking Portuguese?...

And a propos Portuguese: To this day, I haven’t been able to master more than three expressions in this language… Obrigada/obrigado (“thank you”), bom dia (“good day”), and por favor (“please”). I can decipher some written words, but for the most part I can’t pronounce them properly, nor can I follow a native speaker. I feel a total failure as a would-be linguist L

I don’t remember exactly what the breakfast room at our hotel looked like in 2002; though I had a mobile phone, it did not have a camera. People didn’t go about constantly clicking-and-posting. But my journal does mention the coffee machine that made all sorts of very strong coffee. Well – the current machine is obviously a newer model, but it sure has many options and the coffee is still very strong!
Coffee machine & hot water
I resorted to the same ploy as previously: Nearly-fill your cup or mug with milk/water, then add a shot of coffee.

Re-decorated breakfast room w/diners (No, I don't know them...)

Redecorated breakfast room
On the second day of our first visit, after hours of wandering and sightseeing, I found myself at the spot which was to become my favorite hangout: Benetton Square, or as it is better known, Largo do Chiado.  What is it that makes this square so attractive, so adorable?... It seems to have an ambiance all its own. The fact that musicians, some of them darn good, perform there for tips, might be a contributing factor. 

Performers at the center of Largo do Chiado

Musician at Largo do Chiado

Musician, with Benetton as backdrop :-)

Also, it’s not as grand as Praça do Comércio nor as dizzying as Praça do Rossio with its wavy cobbled design. But more about that in my next post. TTFN!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

New Orleans' best attractions

 ... that is, aside from the ubiquitous, marvelous jazz scene!
As promised in my previous post, below are the two sites that impressed us the most. Obviously, New Orleans has more to offer; but there's only so much one can do in four days.

The National WWII Museum is unabashedly didactic. Not that I blame them; they state their educational mission right on the front page of their website; it is a huge undertaking, in partnership with Arizona State University. It is anything but "merely" a museum.  
Personally, I didn't come to learn more about WW2; I came to see how that complex period is displayed. The management and the designers went to great lengths to make the concept of war and the reality of this specific war as tangible and explicit as can be, without actually scattering disfigured dead bodies around... It is aimed mainly at the younger generation, and is intended to be visited several times, by students accompanied by teachers. I hope it is accomplishing its purpose.
As it happens, I wasn't dressed for the occasion. By which I mean that I wasn't prepared for the icy air-conditioning. So I couldn't bear to spend much time there. I hurried through "battle scenes", trenches and weapons, aiming for the more open pavillion, which was also closer to my heart: the "Warbirds" display of old aircraft. Can't help it -- I'm partial to fighter planes of every sort. As I mentioned in one of my Alaska trip posts, my father worked for the Israel Air Force most of his life, and used to take me with him to "his" air-force base occasionally, where I got to see IDF aircraft up close and personal, from old Pipers and Dakotas to the French Mystere and Mirage. So I like old airplanes, and took more pics than you care to see, so I'll be brave and limit myself: 

B-17E-BO Flying Fortress "My Gal Sal"
The museum has a world-class collection that contains something for everyone; whatever your preferences are in art, you're likely to find some "nice stuff", to put it mildly. The docent who took us on a short tour, for instance, chose to concentrate on the Photography category. Sorry to say I don't remember a word of what she said. After the tour, left to our own devices, we wandered, gaped and gawked until we were dizzy and needed some fresh air. 
Wise move.
Mirror Labyrinth, Jeppe Hein
Even without the statues, the garden is beautiful; as it says on the website, it "... is located within a mature existing landscape of pines, magnolias and live oaks surrounding two lagoons". 
As you can see from this map, there's no way you can do it justice in one visit. (What else is new...) 
History of the Conquest, Hank Willis Thomas
Diana, Saint-Gaudens, Augustus
Whether you prefer modern, abstract art, mind-blowing original creations, Greek/Roman looking torsos, or intricately decorative works, you'll find them all here.
  Naturally, we took pictures like there's no tomorrow. Even though our mobile-phone photos aren't as good as the ones provided by the museum. Nonetheless, we were enchanted by this sculpture garden, and I'll just upload a very few favorites, in the hope of whetting your appetite.


Overflow, Plensa, Jaume