MILAN AND GREECE

We took a car to Milan and were delivered directly to our hotel, the Hotel de Ville, just around the corner from the Duomo. After we stowed our six suitcases and assorted stuff, we went for a walk to the Piazza Duomo, then toured the Galleria given to King Victor Emannuel by the grateful citizens of Milan after the establishment of the unified nation of Italy. The two views are from outside looking in and looking up to the central dome and down two of the arms. The galleria is a massive mall with high glass ceilings, beautiful carved surfaces and magnificent paintings depicting the four seasons at the beginning of each arm. It was teeming with crowds shopping, eating and just sightseeing.





We walked on to see the famous La Scala Opera House, the largest in the world, but unfortunately found it in the middle of restoration. However, we were able to focus on the Piazza across the street that was dedicated to Leonardo Da Vinci and this statue with four of his disciples represented around the base.



That cute Italian chick with the white skirt in the lower corner is Betsy, in case you weren’t sure. We continued our walk into the Brera district which was empty as was most of the rest of Milan, until we stumbled on the art, film and sculpture academy. We were greeted by this statue of a nude Napoleon. Obviously, the sculptor took a great deal of artistic license. You’ll note the same young lady assessing the goods.



As we were leaving, we spotted this tribute to Napoleon that I thought was startling. You be the judge.



While the museum is said to contain Milan’s best painting collection, we decided to plunge onward and found ourselves, completely by coincidence at the Museum of the Risorgemento. This small collection portrays the history of the revolt in Italy from 1796 until the establishment of the State of Italy around 1870. In view of some of my reading on the history of Italy since our arrival, I really appreciated this fascinating display of artifacts, maps, paintings, models and diagrams from that period. Pictures were not allowed, so there is nothing to show. Still it was exciting, topped off by the fact that we were the only people there.

We returned to our hotel and rested up prior to going to one of the few restaurants open in Milan, “L’Assassino”. We had a great meal and then returned to the Piazza del Duomo and walked around through the crowds. The Galleria lit up at night was beautiful.



I also tried this shot of the Duomo, but it is hard to really do this massive structure justice with any photographs. The Duomo of Milan is the 4th largest cathedral in Europe after St. Paul’s in Rome, St. Peter’s in London and the Duomo in Seville, Spain. It was built at the expense of the Dukes of Milan and the marble that was used to construct all came from one quarry that was donated to the church by one family. I don’t know if they found a better place in the world beyond because of it, but the church continues to make a profit from the income generated from the quarry, so somebody made out well.



It is hard to explain how deserted the city appeared that first day. Although the area around the Duomo and the Galleria was fairly busy, we are told it was no where near the usual crowds. The rest of the city streets were as if it was deserted with hardly a car visible. On most streets, you could walk down the middle and never see anybody. Apparently in August, the city just empties out and everybody goes to the mountains or the shore. Most stores had signs saying they were closed, but many actually said where they had gone and some even showed pictures of the resorts or beaches. Weird.

Sunday morning we had a good breakfast at the hotel and then walked to the Sforza Castle, dating back over 700 years. It has been built, torn down and rebuilt repeatedly but has remained a central structure in the city for all these centuries, although it was originally part of the city wall. It was most recently restored about 100 years ago and now serves as the central museum for all of the city with collections from the many churches, castles and homes that no longer exist. The plaza in front is graced with a beautiful fountain that is a meeting place for the people of the city.



We walked in to the main courtyard and then into the museum that houses the famous sculpture by Michaelangelo known as the Rondinini Pieta, his last work that is incomplete. After having read “The Agony and The Ecstasy” and “The Pope’s Ceiling” it was fascinating to see a work that was incomplete as this. You could see how the sculptor was gradually chipping away at the marble block to reveal the statue he saw hiding inside.



From here, we walked through the large city park behind the Castle, the Parco Sempione, and over to view Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Fortunately, Francesco, the concierge in Bellagio, made reservations for us and we were able to get in. No photo’s were allowed, of course. It was clear to see how Leonardo really changed the nature of painting with the techniques he employed in this work. From here we went looking for an internet café since our hotel’s computer did not allow email from Yahoo. After spending at least an hour walking down endless empty streets with shuttered windows and stores with chain doors pulled down, we gave up and returned to the hotel, stopping for a really poor lunch at one of the bistros near the Duomo.

After a brief clean-up and rest, we returned to the Parco Sempione amidst the crowds of Italians who either couldn’t afford to leave Milan or just didn’t want to. It was a warm day and the humidity had diminished. We wandered through clusters of teenagers playing soccer, children riding on amusements, elderly sitting on benches or sipping coffee at outdoor café’s and past a large concert and eating area set up for those left in the city during the summer. We sat for almost an hour on a park bench just observing the ongoing display.



Dinner was at Ristorante Il Coriandolo, a great spot with great food and a very good Barolo wine. We returned to the hotel to pack for our early flight Monday morning to Thessaloniki, Greece. We can’t believe we’re going to Greece. We awoke the next morning at 5:30 am and drove the 45 minutes to Malpensa Airport and were in Thessaloniki by just after noon. We were greated by Chris and Joanne Tsavalakoglou, good friends from at home who drove us and all our many bags in their small rental car to the apartment we have been lent by Vasili and Debbie Raptopoulos at 60 Tsimiski Street, right in the heart of Thessaloniki. What a change from Milan!! The streets are packed with shoppers and business people rushing on their way with countless stores selling high quality merchandise at really cheap prices. The city is beautifully layed out along the harbor that is filled with ships, Thessaloniki being the busiest port in Greece.



The city is one of the oldest in the remnants of the Eastern European branch of the Roman Empire, dating back as much as 10,000 years ago with the first signs of settlement. It was a central point for Alexander the Great who was born only a short distance from here and for the Emperor Constantine. As a result, there are castles and ancient ruins everywhere. The most notable is the White Tower on the edge of the harbor of Thessaloniki. It was the edge of the city’s fortifications. It was interesting to learn that it is called the white tower because in 1890 a fellow named Nathan Guelzdi, a Jew and prisoner, who earned his freedom by white-washing the entire structure.



We then walked along the promenade that runs the entire waterfront of the city and visited briefly at the Thessaloniki Jewish Center which memorializes the 50,000 Jews who were sent to the death camps from here in 1943. It was a sobering visit. We walked from there to a wonderful lunch with Joanne, Chris, Joanne’s sister Helen and Dmitri, the nephew of Vasili who gave us his apartment to use.



We then went to the Roman ruins in the center of the city that were discovered during a construction excavation 25 years ago. An entire forum was uncovered with a marketplace and shops. The city has decided to keep the structure intact and restore part of it for use by the residents for public events.



Then we decided to do something really exciting. Since we were in Greece and it turned out that the playoffs for the Olympic Soccer matches were being held here in Thessaloniki, we got tickets and went to the semifinal event between Iraq and Paraguay. We were surprised on arrival to find that our seats were in the middle of the Iraqi’s. At first it was kind of fun with all the excitement of the hundreds of Iraqi men screaming and shouting their support.





After a while, they got a bit unruly, booing every time the Paraguay team got the ball. We finally decided to move away from this area when there behavior got a little too scary, as you can see from this shot.



In any event, the Paraguay team was clearly better trained and more accurate with the ball and triumphed in the end. We made it home quite late, but it was a real thrill to be there. The next day we drove with Joanne and Chris to the Sani Beach Hotel and resort in the state of Halkidiki. This is Greece’s answer to Cape Cod except that the water is a beautiful Caribbean blue/green and it is much less crowded. Our room faced he ocean with a fabulous view.



We managed to negotiate towels and lounge chairs and spent the remainder of the day on the beach, finishing up with dinner in a small village where Chris and Joanne knew the owner. It was a great and very traditional Greek meal.

On Thursday, we spent nearly the entire day on the beach. I had a chance to windsurf on some of the most beautiful warm waters I have ever seen. Dinner was at a local very traditional Greek restaurant with musicians playing in the background. It was the best meal of the trip.



The next morning, Betsy and I took a long walk to the far end of the resort to go kayaking. We kept telling each other, “Can you believe we’re kayaking in the Aegean Sea off of Greece?” Every day we continue to be amazed at the wonderful experiences we have had. We left the hotel at 2 pm and drove back to Thessaloniki, a shorter trip this time because we didn’t get lost. Instead of moving back into the apartment, we managed to negotiate a room at the local 5 star hotel, the Electra, at a fabulous price and moved our bags over to a room with an amazing view of the city and harbor. This is the hotel on the right.



We had a great late lunch and then got tickets for the bronze medal match between Iraq and Italy. This time I wore a team Italy shirt so there would be no confusion about where I stood. I did leave off my stars and stripes hat for this event. I don’t know- something just made me feel this was a good decision. This game was much more boring with very little scoring. The Italians play mostly defensive ball and the Iraqi’s just seem to be incapable of scoring. But we still had a lot of fun.



Saturday morning I went to Shabbat services at the local synagogue. It was quite an experience. There was a security guard with a loaded machine gun at the door and a plainclothes policeman who had to inspect my papers before I could go in. The congregation met in a beautiful Sefardic style room about 40 X 80 feet with a central bimah and ark at the Eastern end. There were 16 men including the Rabbi and myself and eventually another 6 women behind the Mechitzah (curtained wall). Most of the men ranged from their early 60’s to well into their 80’s, though there were a few younger faces. I was given an honor with an aliyah and had a chance to speak with the Rabbi after services. He is quite young, originally from Athens and told me there are now about 2000 Jews in Thessaloniki, most older but some children and younger families. He moved here to try to help this community recover, something it seems to have done intermittently since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the beginning of the community here. Obviously, because it was Shabbat, no pictures could be taken, but it would be impossible to convey with photographs the impact on me of my visit to this small flowering of Judaism in a community that had been crushed and left for dead under the boot of the Nazi’s just 60 years ago.

Betsy and I went off to do a few errands. We met up with Chris and Joanne and did some shopping. Having your personal tailor with you when you look for clothes is about like having your doctor with you when you go on vacation. At least that’s the way we both felt about it (Chris and I). While the prices and quality were amazing, the merchants here don’t generally cater to a tourist trade, so it was impossible to ship things home. Since we have not a stitch of room in our bags, we decided to pass on some fabulous purchases. We had a chance to walk through the local markets. This had a real Arabic flavor with fish merchants, butchers, spice sellers and hard goods merchants hawking their wares to the dense crowds of people.









Oh, and yes, we mustn’t forget the olive market in Greece.



After lunch, we said goodbye for the day to Chris and Joanne and walked around town a bit. We went to the docks to a museum to see an exhibit of artists with influences tracing to their associations with the Greeks that includes several well known and previously difficult to see Chagall paintings. Unfortunately, they remained difficult to see because the museum curator decided to make some changes to the exhibit and shut it down without notifying any of the local tourist offices. We still had a chance to see this amazing jelly fish off the edge of the pier while we waited to get in to the museum. This jellyfish was at least 18 inches across. It was the larges I have ever seen.



I also was able to get a great shot of Thessaloniki from the dock that shows the mountains behind and the enormous extent of this remarkable city. The photo excludes the very extensive seaport that is to my back in this picture.



We went out to dinner alone to a nice restaurant on the waterfront and had a great bottle of Greek wine. Based on the recommendations of the NY Times in June, we have been quite comfortable ordering Greek wines and have not been disappointed.

Sunday morning we were picked up early by Chris and Joanne, once again turning their entire vacation upside down to show us a great time. We drove first to Dion at the base of Mt. Olympus to view the archaeological site. After the amazing sites we had seen in Sicily, the lack of organization, documentation and reasonable maintenance of the area was disappointing. I think Chris was more disappointed than we at the lack of attention to such an important national site. We made up for it though with our next visit to Vergina, the site of a massive archaeological discovery of the tombs of Philip II of Macedonia, the man who united the entire region and was killed paving the way for his son, Alexander the Great. First, the site was beautifully and tastefully done with a sensitive and easily visible display of the golden jewelry and body armor as well as the assorted weapons, silver pieces and coins. Although photographs weren’t allowed to prevent the accidental use of flashes, I did get this shot of the golden crown that was left in the gold chest with Philips remains.



After that we drove to Chris’s home to have lunch with his 79 year old mother who prepared an unbelievable lunch.



We sat outside in front of their house under a bay leaf tree with Chris, Joanne, Chris’s brother Taso and his mother. We drank local wine, ate her homemade stuffed cabbage, meatballs and salad and sat back to enjoy Greek village life on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. It was a wonderful time and we will cherish the memory.



Afterwards we drove to a nearby orchard and picked plums and nectarines that we brought back to eat and save for another day. Here is Betsy with Joanne cleaning out the orchard.



After I reviewed Chris’s mom’s medical history with her and made some recommendations for here upcoming visit with her physician, we drove back to Thessaloniki to Joanne’s aunt’s house to watch the finishing ceremonies for the Olympics. We spent part of the evening out on the porch with cousin’s, aunts and uncles, brother and sister-in-law, friends and their newly adopted kitten and then went inside to watch the TV. We shared fresh watermelon and assorted fruit and delicious Greek pastries. Seeing the end of the 2004 Olympics in Athens while sitting with a family of Greeks who were overwhelmed with emotion at the event’s success is an experience that is hard to describe. We are surprised enough to have found ourselves here in Greece this summer. Chris and Joanne Tsavalakoglou, by giving so much of themselves and welcoming us into their extended family made this a trip we will never forget.

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