By Marv Feldman, Col, USAF (ret)
We are living in extraordinary times with the Corona Virus, lock-downs and social distancing. Indeed, AMC is now only giving Space-A passage to Duty and Emergency Leave passengers, so this may be our last Space-A trip until things return to normal. We hope that day will come soon.
California to Greece
In late October 2019, after spending time with family and attending the 80th birthday celebration for Marvin’s sister in the (San Francisco) Bay Area, we headed to nearby Travis Air Force Base for the start of another Great Adventure to “wherever the wind would blow”. We assumed we would go west to Asia but a rare flight east to Europe was offered – how could we resist?
Lady Luck was with us as just hours after our arrival at Travis, we were on a USAF KC-10 tanker to RAF Mildenhall near Cambridge, England! We spent a comfortable night on base and our good fortune continued as the next morning we (the only passengers) were on another Air Force tanker (KC-135) to NSA Souda Bay, Crete (Greece)! We were initially disappointed that we could not get on-base accommodation but later realized this presented far better opportunities. The on-base billeting staff there referred us to a fabulous find in the nearby city of Chania – a 13th Century Venetian boutique hotel (once the French Embassy) which was a jewel and our room overlooked Chania’s stunning harbor. The charming receptionist there greeted us with almond raki (drink) and sweet snacks – delightful. What a wonderful introduction to this trip – great to be back in Greece!
After flying halfway around the world, it was a pleasure to relax Greek style. The Mediterranean people do it right – relax and enjoy – and that’s how we experienced “The Land of the Living”! Continuing our travels from cold rainy England to warm sunny Greece was a wise move!
Delicious Greek dinners with traditional Greek music, then comfortable nights’ rest, bountiful breakfasts (freshly squeezed orange juice and cappuccinos) at our hotel, strong Greek coffee and looking “just around the corner” at a leisurely pace, were just what we were seeking. And everywhere we went, we heard multiple languages from Northern European tourists who had run away from their already harsh winters to sunny, warm Crete. A delightful boat ride out of the harbor was perfect.
Friday night Jewish religious services at the beautiful little Etz Hayyim Synagogue, with about 60 attending from all over the world, was a wonderful experience. As the congregation was celebrating the synagogue’s 20th anniversary of its restoration, lots of other activities were part of the program, including a concert on Saturday night.
Our Chania stay in Crete was delightful – now off to explore other parts of Greece.
To prepare for our very early morning flight from Chania Airport, we chose to spend the night on base. We were shocked at the price of our tiny room ($100+) having none of the comforts of our in-town hotel with the exception of a laundry and airport convenience. How on-base prices have soared!
On previous trips to Greece, we explored Athens and several of the Mediterranean islands in the southern part of this country. For a new experience, we looked forward to northern Greek adventures.
From Chania, we flew (via Athens) on Sky Express Airlines to the island of Corfu (called Kerkyra in Greek), on the Ionian Sea, off the northwest coast of the Greek mainland (and almost a “stone’s throw” from Albania). Corfu had, over some decades, attracted royalty as well as writers and artists (e.g. Gerald Durrell and some Australian writers), much like Paris in the 1920s, and friends had highly recommended a visit here. We came to find out for ourselves.
Since we planned several days here, we decided to stay at an AirBnb private apartment. This was a good choice as it put us in a residential neighborhood, with (almost) all the comforts of home, allowing us to meet the locals and being close to transport and Corfu’s lovely Old Town.
Our first impression of beautiful Corfu – very favorable.
Corfu presented many surprises to us as we struck out on our own for sightseeing. Initially, we took a leisurely stroll from our little AirBnb apartment to Corfu’s nearby rather large and lovely Old Town, meandering around, stopping for coffee and lunch and seeing the vast numbers of tourists who had just arrived from six huge cruise ships.
Fortunately, most people spoke English even though Carole resurrected enough of her little Greek to be polite to the Corfiotes (locals). With an unlimited all-day (public) bus pass, we darted all over the Corfu Town district, enabling us to see stunning beach resort areas, traditional mountain villages and the splendid Achilleion Palace and its breathtaking gardens. We had no idea there was such a close connection with the island of Corfu (and the Palace in particular) that existed between Empress Sissi of Austria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany! Not even the hordes of tourists (again from cruise ships) at the Palace, could detract from this spectacular attraction.
We concluded a full day of touring with cool drinks, overlooking the turquoise Ionian Sea waters, an island church which features in many tourist posters, and planes landing right before our eyes at the airport below. Gorgeous!
Having darted all over Corfu Town, it was time to explore other parts of this large Greek island. By public bus, we hit several picturesque Ionian Sea resort areas on the island’s west coast, with their clear turquoise waters and rocky beaches filled with topless “bathers.”
With the onset of a major Greek national holiday weekend (October 28 – known as “No Day” – see Google!), we moved from our AirBnb to extend our Corfu stay. Fortunately, we found an elegant hotel (formerly a 17th Century nobleman’s mansion) in Old Town, with splendid views overlooking the seaside. This gave us a different part of the myriad streets and alleys of Old Town to explore, in superb weather, including Corfu’s lovingly restored historic synagogue (which lost almost all its congregants to the German Nazis in World War II).
A “must-see” was the Old Fortress (we climbed to the very top!) dating back to the 6th Century AD which has seen Corfu’s many occupants for centuries (Byzantine, Venetians, Ottoman, British, French, German, etc.), all of whom influenced life here – fascinating! And everywhere, we could relax in sidewalk cafes, frequently sipping coffee, enjoying cool drinks and magnificent views, dining deliciously, and even take in Saturday weddings (lots of glamorous guests) at various churches around town.
After a week on the magnificent island of Corfu, it was time to leave for more travels and discoveries throughout Northern Greece.
The four-hour bus/ferry/bus journey from Corfu Island to Ioannina, on the northern Greece mainland, was splendid – gliding by majestic island-studded waters by boat and passing through countless tunneled mountains by a good road. However, the best part was the friendly and most helpful Greek fellow passengers. These special new acquaintances even gave us warm hugs when we got off the bus in Ioannina.
Ioannina – what a bustling and interesting city! On this Greek national holiday (No Day), the streets, bars and cafes were abuzz, filled to capacity with happy locals (we were the only foreigners in sight), enjoying a spring-like October afternoon. At a traditional taverna where we had a delicious lunch, our waiter was an Australian-Greek who had returned here – we loved his hybrid accent!
Why Ioannina? We listened to the “locals” – Greeks told us what a lovely, vibrant small city it is (its university is highly regarded), set on a beautiful mountain lake; it was a good mid-way stopping point en route from Corfu to Thessaloniki, and there are many worthwhile attractions here – as we will describe below.
During our two day stay, we made arrangements to visit the centuries-old synagogue. Sadly, the Jewish community (once some 2,000) was rounded up and transported to German concentration camps in 1944 where they perished. Today, the very large synagogue is well maintained, although only some 38 Jews live in Ioannina, including its current Mayor.
On a brilliant, sunny day, we took a short ferry ride across tranquil Lake Pamvotis to the picturesque island and quaint village in the middle of the lake. There, we also took in the Ali Pasha Museum, covering Northern Greece’s history under this “benevolent despot” and Greece’s Revolutionary period (in the 1820s). In the museum, magnificent and elaborate silverwork was on display (Ioannina was famous for its silversmithing) – guns, belts, jewelry, etc.
Now off to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city.
After a four-hour bus journey, on a surprisingly modern motorway, through dozens of tunnels and over high bridges, across the wild and stark mountainous region of central Greece, we arrived at Thessaloniki on the northeast coast of the country. Also known as Salonica, Greece’s second-largest city (over one million) would be our “home” (an AirBnb apartment) for the next six days. Unfortunately, our arrival marked the end of two weeks of sunshine and blue skies, “welcoming” us to an early winter chill and rain.
In the city’s bustling center, we headed to the large Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. What an extraordinary museum, describing in great detail the city’s Jewish history, from pre-Christian days until the most recent times, when almost the entire community of 50,000 Jews were transported to the World War II Nazi Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps. Today, about 2,000 Jews remain here, with a couple of functioning synagogues.
After spending some time at the Museum, it was good to turn to a happier event – the celebration of Carole’s special birthday at a good taverna for a traditional lunch!
Our AirBnb was within easy reach of numerous and impressive monuments, churches and archaeological remains: The 4th Century AD Roman Rotonda (once a church, then a mosque and now an exhibition space); the large 1st Century AD Roman Forum (Agora) which was the administrative center of ancient Thessaloniki; the 303 AD triumphal Arch of the Roman Emperor Galerius as well as his Palace; the 16th Century Jewish Hamam (Turkish Baths) – so named because most of its clientele were Jewish, and the 5th Century White Tower (an iconic seafront landmark and most famous as the city’s symbol). We saw them all!
We attended Jewish Sabbath religious services followed by elaborate meals at two congregations in Thessaloniki. We found to be very interesting and enjoyable, giving us a taste of the Jewish community there. On a pleasant Sunday, we joined thousands at the city’s recently refurbished seaside promenade, ending up with a bonus birthday lunch for Carole at a waterfront fresh fish restaurant. Super!
We had no idea that the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was born in Thessaloniki (when Greece was under the Ottomans) so history buff, Carole, wanted to see the house in which he was born (now a museum to his life) – again, very close to our digs and within the grounds of the Turkish Consulate-General. It was a most fascinating and worthwhile visit. We were glad we went when we did as a regular anti-Turkey demonstration took place there the next night – complete with yelling demonstrators and riot gear-clad police! We steered clear.
Now it was time to leave Greece’s “hippest city”, thus completing our Northern Greece odyssey.
After several rainy days in Thessaloniki, we headed out on a glorious, sunny day by the scenic coastal road, through upscale seaside suburbs to the city’s Makedonia Airport. from there we took an excellent one hour Aegean Airlines flight over the dazzling azure waters and many islands of the Aegean Sea to return to glorious, sunny Chania, Crete. Coming back (like old friends) to the hotel where we stayed some three weeks earlier, we strolled the promenade around Chania’s Old Venetian Harbor again, dining at a waterfront restaurant. Many hotels, shops and restaurants had closed as the tourist season wound down but it was nice to enjoy the (now) rather quiet town.
On our relaxing last day in Chania, we visited the excellent harborside Maritime Museum of Crete. It detailed the ancient (Greek, Roman Venetian, etc.) history and more the modern independence struggle, countless wars, and the German occupation of Crete in World War II. For us, it was amazing to realize this Harbor had been used and fought over for thousands of years.
As is often the case with our Great Adventures, getting home is an adventure in itself! Returning to Chania (Souda Bay) not only gave us a welcome return to the warm and sunny Mediterranean island of Crete, but it brought us to the vicinity of NSA Souda Bay again.
We had signed up for the regular Patriot Express flight from Souda to Norfolk and again, chose to stay on base, only for convenience of connecting with the very early Space-A opportunity. Fortunately, the few passengers who wanted to get on this flight were accommodated. With intermediate (and long!) stops at Naples and Rota, the journey took all day and night. We arrived in Norfolk around midnight and fellow passengers kindly offered to drive us directly to Norfolk Airport. There we waited until pre-dawn for our American Airlines flights (via Charlotte) home to Jacksonville – a marathon (pun intended) but amazingly successful trip back.
This adventure started with visions of Asia, but when there were no Space-A flights across the Pacific to the Far East when we wanted to travel, we seized the (rare from Travis) opportunity to fly Space-A to Europe, Indeed, we had incredible luck getting to Greece and returning to the USA – what a wonderful perk!
*New Discoveries –
While we had been to southern Greece and the islands there many times, we had never been to its northern area, including Corfu, Ioannina and Macedonia.
Looking just around the corner exposed us to new (for us) culture, food and scenery – a whole new world!
*Soaking in The Joys of Greece –
This was a relaxed, no rush trip. We stayed at each location as long as we desired (often as much as a week). When it was raining, we kept indoors (at museums, etc.); when the sun shone (most of the time), we were sightseeing. This gave us time for in-depth, meaningful exploration, looking (again) just around to corner to soak in Greece’s wonderment.
GREECE – What a gem!! It was, indeed, glorious!
Thanks for “coming along” with us.
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