Month Fifteen Recap

Where We’ve Been

Greece and Italy.

The Highs
  • Swimming in the Libyan Sea and taking long walks through the scenic hillsides of Crete.
  • Enjoying the views over the Italian countryside from the villa in Santa Maria del Molise.
  • Scoring seats in Business Class Elite for our 10 hour flight home.  It’s a completely different experience up there.  (An awesome one.)
  • Arriving back in Denver and reconnecting with family and friends.  It’s so good to be around familiar faces and be able to have long conversations without the internet phone service dying on us.  We still haven’t seen most of our friends yet, but we’re making the rounds one by one, and I can’t wait to catch up with everyone.
The Lows
  • Hitting our travel limit.  I wish I could say we ended our trip at exactly the right moment, but I think one week sooner would have suited us just fine.  51 weeks might have been the perfect amount – 52 was just pushing it.
  • Missing the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany.  So close, yet so far…but that’s okay.  Italy will be there when we are ready to go back for a third visit.
Things I’ve Learned

Spending a month in Europe was wonderful, but reminded us of how expensive it is compared to the rest of the world.  For example, we spent the same monthly rent to live in a 500 square foot apartment in Crete as we did to live in our two story villa with living room pool (and 2 hour daily housecleaning service) in Bali.  Similarly, it cost the same amount of money to rent a motorbike in Crete for a single day as it did for two full weeks in Bali.  These two islands both have their own charm, but it’s amazing to me how much further your money can go outside of Europe.  (Crete did have much cheaper wine, to be fair, but that’s about it!)

Also, if you rack up good karma being nice to people around the world, you just might get rewarded when you are ready to come home and need two seats on a really full flight.  That’s pretty good motivation to be nice :)

What’s Up Next

Finding a place to live in Colorado and settling back into life in the US!

The End of The World (Tour)

After three days in the Italian countryside, we left Santa Maria del Molise with no specific plan.  A stop at an internet cafe was in order (there was no internet access at the villa) and we needed to reconnect with John’s sister Julie to sort out our arrangements for flying home.

Our plan to get home was to take advantage of  Julie’s Buddy Passes (she works for an airline) and fly standby back to the US.  We had originally anticipated flying home the last few days of July, but when we connected with her it became clear that the flights were simply too full.  July is the height of busy season for flights to and from Europe, and it was possible we would have to bide our time for another week (or more) in Italy in order to catch a seat on a flight.

Perhaps most people would be happy to have an extra week to bum around the Italian countryside, but I assure you we were very much ready to come home at this point.  Adding another week to our itinerary felt overwhelming and exhausting.  There was a slim chance we might catch a flight the next day out of Rome, and both John and I perked up at the thought of getting home so soon.  While we waited for word from Julie as to whether or not that flight might have space for us, I spent a good 30 minutes scheming ways to cash in frequent flier miles to get us on a plane over the weekend as a backup plan.  We couldn’t handle another week of transit, and if Julie couldn’t get us home within a few days I was willing to take matters into my own hands.  With hope that something would come through in the next few days, we drove our SmartCar up to Rome.

Fortunately, we got the call from Julie late Wednesday night that if we were really lucky we just might get on the Thursday morning flight from Rome to Detroit.  It didn’t look promising (a family of four needed to not show up for their place on the standby list in order to make space for us), but it was our best option.  She made us a reservation, and we headed to the airport the following morning.

After returning our rental car, doing the dance through check-in, immigrations and security, John and I sat outside the gate and waited.  Standby passengers are called as the last people to board a flight, and as we watched groups of people boarding the plane we began calculating what to do if we didn’t get on.  If only one of us could make this flight, we planned for John to take the standby seat to Detroit while I would spend another night in Rome by myself and cash in miles for a flight home the next day.  If neither of us could get on, we’d take a cab to a hotel and I’d figure out a way to transfer miles from my sister so we could book two flights home.

We continued to wait as the gate agent started calling the names of standby passengers ahead of us on the list.  When the family of four was called to the desk for their boarding passes, we were pretty certain it was over.  There couldn’t possibly be space on this flight for us.  We continued to wait, but I began thinking more seriously about how to find a hotel in Rome.  Apparently we racked up a lot of good karma around the world, however, because fortune smiled down upon us.  When the gate agent called our names and handed both of us boarding passes, we were elated.  So elated, in fact, that we didn’t notice that not only were we sitting together on the plane, but we had scored two seats in Business Class Elite.  (Julie assured us this never happens.  Especially when you are trying to fly home from Italy during the busiest travel season in Europe.  We had seriously good karma.)

As we settled into our gratuitously comfortable seats and received our glasses of pre-takeoff sparkling wine, we toasted to Julie for providing us with such an incredible end to our spectacular journey.  (Business Class Elite is absurdly awesome.  Five course dinners, full duvets and pillows, seats that recline 180 degrees, endless cocktail service…there were perks we didn’t even know to take advantage of until Julie told us about them later.  It’s a completely different experience up there.)

10 hours later we arrived in Detroit and maneuvered ourselves to an airport vicinity hotel where we would crash for an overnight layover.  We spent more time than you would expect appreciating the potable tap water, plugs that didn’t require a converter, and being able to speak English to every friendly person at the hotel. Suffice it to say, we were thrilled to be back in the US.  The following morning fortune smiled down on us once more as we scored the last two standby seats on a flight to Denver (despite being told by Julie later that we shouldn’t have gotten on the flight.)  Serious thanks go out to Julie for scoring us such amazing flights home during such a hectic travel season (and for so cheap!)

In total we spent just 5 days in Italy. We didn’t make it to the Amalfi Coast or to Tuscany, as we had planned, but that was okay with us.  Italy will be there for another time when our desire to travel is a little higher and we can appreciate it fully.  For now, we’re just happy to be back in the US visiting family and friends and beginning to recreate our lives in Denver. Without intending to, we flew home to Denver exactly one year after we left – arriving home one year to the day and nearly to the hour later.  We couldn’t have planned it more perfectly if we’d tried.

This marks the last post from the road, but upcoming recap posts are in the works.  Stay tuned for the best photos of World Tour and a recount of the winners and losers from our trip!

Robin - August 15, 2013 - 2:00 pm

So pleased to hear you got home safe and sound. I look forward to the recaps and ‘best of’ pictures. Your blog has been thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring.
Robin

Santa Maria del Molise

Italy should have been the icing on the cake that was World Tour.  John and I have both visited Italy before on previous European adventures, and we were looking forward to 7-10 days of gelato, cappuccinos, and beautiful countryside.  Unfortunately, 0ur visit to Italy was far more brief than we originally intended – partially because of our need to be flexible to catch a flight home, and partially because we were just so ready to head back to the US.  It turns out 51 weeks of international travel just might be our limit.

After flying into Rome from Crete, we picked up our rented Smart Car and hit the road.  Our target was Santa Maria del Molise, a small town of about 500 people nestled into the countryside southeast of Rome.  My brother-in-law’s uncle owns a villa there, and he had graciously agreed to let us stay there for a few days to enjoy stunning views and Italian hospitality.

We knew our appetites for travel had faded significantly when the beautiful drive through the countryside felt more like a burden than a blessing.  The drive from Rome should have taken about 2.5 hours, but with our not-so-speedy car and inability to properly follow the driving directions, it took us about 4.5 hours.  While someone on a 7-10 day trip in Italy might have found the drive charming and simply laughed at the mix ups and enjoyed the journey, our travel spirits had pretty much deflated.  We could no longer appreciate the beauty of a drive through Italy, and instead found ourselves frustrated and exhausted upon our arrival in Santa Maria.

To add to the travel weariness during our three day stay in Santa Maria, John wasn’t feeling too well.  As a result, we didn’t do much other than cook with tasty local ingredients and read on the terrace.  We only managed one trip of sightseeing, thanks to my brother-in-law’s family who escorted us around the countryside for a few hours and showed us the sights in many of the small towns nearby.  I do love small European towns, especially the doors and windows.  You just don’t see things like that anywhere else.

And of course, the sweeping views of the mountains and the valley were gorgeous.  The villa where we stayed had a similar view from the terrace.

The hills are dotted with little towns, some with as few as 200 inhabitants.As we toodled about these towns, our guides spouted out facts to us in Italian.  Neither John nor I speak Italian, but we do speak pretty good Spanish.  Many words in each language overlap, meaning I could actually understand about 60% of a language I don’t actually speak, which was a rather nice surprise.  Whether or not they could understand us is a different story, but it’s amazing how far speaking Spanish with an Italian accent can get you.

At the end of our brief stay we headed back to Rome in preparation for our return to the US.  Details about the big finish of our trip coming next!

Sitia

We’d been planning a motorbike excursion around Crete all month, but kept putting it off.  It was the only ‘touristy’ thing we wanted to do while staying  in Greece, but we were waiting for a non-windy day so that riding would be more comfortable.  It appears there are no non-windy days in Crete.  Since we are leaving in just two days, it was time to buck up and hit the road.

The winds were strong, but the views were still glorious.  We decided to take an hour long ride to the port city of Sitia, on the northern side of the island (we’ve been staying on the southern coast.)  The countryside of Crete is full of beautiful groves of olive trees and rocky, arid mountainsides.I’m pretty sure this was the worst motorbike we’ve ever rented – the engine was crazy loud and spewed exhaust, it only had one rearview mirror, the gas gauge was broken, and the blinker didn’t work. ( At least it was also the most expensive one we’ve ever rented.  Ah, Europe…)  Fortunately, John is an excellent driver and maneuvered us up and down the hilly roads and through the winds without problems.
The road was pretty empty, so we could make frequent stops for photography.  (If I’d had that luxury in New Zealand, we never would have gotten anywhere – we would’ve stopped every 10 minutes for more photos.)Despite being relatively traffic-free, however, the roads are still prone to accidents.  Wherever there have been fatal accidents along the side of the road, people place these little churches as memorials (similar to how people in the US place crosses.)  Some of them are very elaborate and feature portraits of the deceased, others are rather simple.  The one below is of average ornateness.  They are rather beautiful to see alongside the road, but whenever we would see a few too close together it made me a little more weary of the stretch of road we were passing.  I suppose that means they are achieving their goal.Its incredible how loud the insects are in this area.  Usually you can hear them loudly at night, but less so during the day.  (In Bali the insects were so loud at night that I couldn’t sleep the first two nights we were there because of the noise.)  Around here they are buzzing and chirping all day long so loudly that I could hear them over the sound of our noisy motor.After about an hour, we arrived in Sitia.  With a population of 9,000, Sitia is a thriving metropolis around here.  (Remember we live 20 minutes outside the town of 800 people.)  It even has a stoplight and a proper Supermarket.  But we did not go to Sitia to see the stoplight – the real draw for us was the beautiful waterfront with several restaurants and cafes.

 John and I stopped at a lovely cafe for lunch and enjoyed some great local flavors, including a Sitia salad (not the same as a Greek salad at all), and a cheese and honey pie that was divine.After lunch we returned to the southern coast, where I snapped a few photos of the ocean just down the road from our apartment.  This part of the coast is rocky and steep, but the waters are intensely blue and clear.We swim at a different beach, but the water there is just as clear and vibrant in sunshine.  I think John will really miss swimming in it everyday when we leave.  Greece may have made a beach lover out of him after all!

Our time in Greece has been exceptional, but I’m ready to leave our tiny apartment and explore something new.  Tomorrow we leave our place near Makrigialos and head for Heraklion, the big city on the island.  From there, it’s on to Italy – our last stop of World Tour!

Hannes Uys - July 25, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Your images of Greece is just sublime Tracy!

Makrigialos

Makrigialos, Crete is a small town.  With a population of just 800 people, this small former fishing village sits between the more popular resort destinations of Ierapetra and Sitia.  Our condo lies a twenty minute walk out of Makrigialos (not toward either resort town, but rather along the isolated coastline.)  Once again, we’re living rural and loving it.

Last time we lived in a rural area was in Bali, where the views included rice terraces and volcanos.  Here in Crete, we enjoy views of dry mountains, rows of olive trees, and the perfectly blue sea.  For our month in Crete we rented a one-bedroom unit in a time-share style condo complex nestled into the hillside.  While the unit itself is tiny (IKEA style tiny), it provides us all the basics we need for the month: solid internet, a stocked kitchen, and a balcony with a partial view. The complex has two big pools for us to use, and just a five minute walk down the road is a nearly empty pebble beach with crystal clear blue waters.

Below is the view from the rooftop of our condo building.  You can see the rooftop of the building across from us, complete with plant life and seating areas, and just beyond it the corner of one of the two large pools we have at our disposal.  Our unit didn’t come with choice rooftop seating and gardens, but we’re still enjoying views of sunset and mountains from the balcony.

I make the 20 minute walk into town pretty much every day.  It’s nice exercise, and we usually need more provisions from the grocery store (I can only buy what I can carry back.)  The rest of these photos are scenes from the walk to the local grocery store.  It’s really more like a mini-mart, but that’s what you get in a small town.

Along the road to Makrigialos are several farms.  One is home to several sheep and fields full of watermelon.  Other farms host goats, ducks, and chickens and there are more greenhouses full of tomatoes than I could count.  Tomatoes are in such high production that every time we visit the local market the nice lady adds three to our bag for free regardless of whatever else we’ve purchased.  Every time it happens I’m thrilled – do these people know how much organic farm fresh tomatoes cost in the US??  And they’re just giving them away??  Score one for living in rural Greece.

An adjacent field is full of white grapes.  The owners of this field run a tiny produce stand on the front porch of their house, where you can see them hanging out all day watching the world go by.  They sell fresh picked cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and peppers.  It’s the perfect place to visit if you need Greek Salad ingredients.The same produce stand also sells the bottle of wine on the left below, sold in a repurposed water bottle with a piece of paper taped onto it.  The bottle (which contains the equivalent of two standard wine bottles) cost about US$9, so John thought we should give it a try.  It was like Greek moonshine – very strong and dry, and not really something you’d like to drink much of.  The bottle on the right, however, is the exact opposite.  Just a little classier than the homemade version, this white wine is made locally in Crete, sold in a similar plastic bottle (with a real label) and costs only US$3.50 (again for the equivalent of two standard wine bottles.)  Despite being the cheapest wine I’ve ever consumed, it’s fantastic.  Two Buck Chuck, eat your heart out.
Just down the road from the grapes is a grove of olive trees.  The local olive oil here is exceptional, as you would expect.


Beyond the farms and up the hill, nearly into town, is the one big resort in this area.  It’s an all-inclusive type of place that blasts music at the pool and has hordes of yellow umbrellas crowding the beach.  There appear to be a lot of people staying at this resort, but they never seem to leave it.  Occasionally I’ve seen resort guests patronizing local restaurants, but for the most part the surrounding town is empty of tourists.
Down the hill on the other side is the beachfront of Makrigialos.  This town is hardly party central and the sea in this area is calm and nearly wave-free, which means most of the people you see on the beach and in town are families with small kids. The main strip of town, with it’s view over the sea and mountains.  Unfortunately, a number of storefronts and restaurants appear to have recently gone out of business.  I can’t be sure that this is because of recent economic issues in Greece (and the associated drop in tourism), but it would be my number one suspect.  Fortunately, the bakery/chocolate shop in town didn’t go under.  They’re stuff is delicious.
There are a lot of cute tavernas in town, but after weeks of eating in restaurants for every meal we’ve been happy to stay in for nearly every meal.  The raw ingredients available in Crete make cooking easy and far more appealing than most menus we’ve looked at anyway.  The one exception is a local Gyro joint where John routinely purchases boxes of cut Gyro meat which I later stuff into sandwiches or add to his meals.  It’s easier than trying to cook my own, that’s for sure.

John and I have already managed to while away nearly three weeks here in Crete, living at a delightfully slower pace than the last several months allowed.  We may or may not get to exploring around the island a little more in the next 10 days we have here.  It just depends.  I’ll keep you posted if we do anything interesting, otherwise just assume we’re living the good life swimming in the ocean, eating free tomatoes and drinking inexpensive wine.  :)