The Main Events in Greece – Or Why I Went to Greece in the First Place!

I got to Athens early on a sunny day’s morning.  (Is it ever not a sunny day in Greece, I wonder??)  Because that evening I was attending a wedding reception in Kapandriti, way outside of Athens to the north (I think), I did not go to Athens proper but instead to the town/suburb of Kifissia, a very nice/upscale district to my eyes.  It was a lot closer to Kapandriti (though not super close) so it made sense to spend the night there especially considering that the wedding party could go quite late so it would help shorten the ride back.

I checked in at my hotel a few blocks away from the main street at Kifissia, which is loaded with shops and restaurants, near a square whose name escapes me but that sounds Greek to me… The hotel I stayed at was the Theoxenia House, related to the Theoxenia Palace.  I chose it based on Trip Advisor reviews which is quickly becoming a good way for me to determine things like this.  (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g1026500-d617814-Reviews-Theoxenia_House_Hotel-Kifissia_Attica.html)  It was functional for the 24 hrs I was going to be there.  I went off to explore and have lunch.  It was a very windy day.  As I sat in the cafe, they served me potato chips on a small plate when they brought me my glass of wine while I waited for my meal.  The chips mostly flew away due to the wind!  It was incredible.  As was my food.  A great way to start this leg of the trip and to set me up for a nap as I knew I was going to face a very long night of wedding partying.

I met up with a friend of the couple to taxi over to the wedding, a nice $42 cab ride to a winery in Kapandriti.  As we waited for the groom and bride, besides mingling, we went on a tour of the new museum the winery was about to open.  Though the tour was in Greek, a lot of the stuff they had was pretty neat (old grape presses, old machines used to make corks, old ways of bottling and corking the wine, etc.).

The winery’s grounds around the reception area

The wedding couple finally made their entrance (the actual wedding had taken place in Atlanta and there had been a very private blessing right before the reception with only the closest family) and the party began.  A very nice meal with lamb, pork, and many of the things I associated with Greek food.  Of course, there was wine galore and I had to work at managing my intake despite the pressure and the many toasts!  The family had prepared a great slideshow of pix from the Atlanta wedding so the Greece family members could see what had taken place in Atlanta since most or all could not make the trip over.  It was a great touch and for me great to see what has just transpired a week before though it felt like months before since I had in the meantime been exploring other parts of Greece.

Finally, there was the dancing.  Everyone was in the mood for a good time and a good time was had.  Especially neat for a foreigner like me was to see them do some of the typical Greek dances which I inevitably had to join and which I performed quite poorly.  Nevertheless, the crowd was so much fun, it didn’t matter.

Around 230AM or so, we rolled away as someone from the family offered us a ride back which was greatly appreciated.  I conked out as soon as my head hit the pillow.  Gladly, I had behaved well enough so the next morning was not a pain.  After getting ready, I decided not to hang around in Kifissia until the late afternoon family BBQ I was invited to go to, but instead to head into Athens proper and check in at the hotel where I would spend the next 2 nights.  I figured I didn’t want to lug around my luggage, much as it is made to lug around I suppose, to the BBQ, etc. and check in late that night.  I took a cab to make it easier and got to the Ledras Marriott where immediately, I felt like almost home with the standard Marriott approach, design and amenities (like the executive lounge).  It was a smart move as I could then just relax until the BBQ.  I had lunch and ended up at the rooftop pool, and later a nap.

Eventually I made contact with the group and started headed out of town again, first to Kifissia to meet up with someone else and then to catch a ride to Oropo, a town further away north than Kapandriti by the cost facing the island of Evia.

The marker shows where Oropo is in relation to Athens

The BBQ was at an aunt’s house in an area that would not qualify as rural but was not too urban, making it a very nice place to spend a late Saturday afternoon.  The groom and bride opened gifts as a sheep was rotisseried and the other food prepared.  The meal was a feast for sure!

As we were eating, the family found out I was single and unattached at which point they all became very interested in my case.  My friend told me:  “you are in trouble now!  they are making it their business to find you someone!”  Even Yaya, the elderly grandmother told me I was handsome, a good catch, and that she wished me happiness – all in Greek but at some point I got a sense of what she was saying and asked someone half-jokingly “is she proposing to me?” and the answer was “pretty much”!

After this feast, a cousin of the bride who was our ride back, told us we were going to another cousin’s BBQ that night.  My jaw dropped.  I could not comprehend how I would stuff another morsel of anything in me.  And here we were headed to another BBQ!  We made it over to the house overlooking the town and sea from a distance.  We had a few beers, hung out with the very friendly cousins, and eventually helped start the fire to roast the lamb.  I was not understanding how after the long night the night before, I was going to make it this night when the fire was just getting started.  Much to my relief, our ride announced we were heading out as he needed to go.  Though I was definitely enjoying myself, I was a relieved, I must admit.  And the trip back to my hotel began.

These experiences have given me a much greater appreciation of Greek culture and Greeks, beyond the Greek union protesters which seem to define what being Greek is these days to those of us too far and too unconnected with Greece or Greeks.  Being of Latin background myself, I am quite familiar and comfortable with the friendliness and warmth that I received from my friend’s Greek relatives.  I miss those things living in Atlanta/the U.S.  My trip was well worth it even if I had not done anything else that be a part of the celebration of my friends’ marriage thanks to the experiences I had with this family.  Efjaristo poli, Stelliani and Tom!

A Wedding in Bulgaria

Early this year, one of my cousins told me she had to go to Sofia, Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding and that she was hoping her Dad or another cousin would go with her.  My ears perked up and I offered that, if neither could go, I may be able to go with her.  Bulgaria, that’s a place I remember from my childhood, pre-Berlin Wall fall, as a very Stalinist-type of state (some say even more than the USSR itself), tight with the USSR right along with East Germany; a big mystery to me as a curious child.  Wow, how would the place feel close to 20 yrs post Wall fall…

Bulgaria, Sofia, national theatre, alexander nevsky cathedral, orthodox church, view from above, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The Bulgarian National Theatre and a smallish Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the background

As Usual, Planning Is Half the Fun

About a month and a half ago, my cousin confirmed that indeed she didn’t have any takers yet on the trip so I signed up for it.  Cool.  Bulgaria.  Knowing not much really about Bulgaria, my mind filled up with the possibilities.  And there were intereting places nearby that I wouldn’t mind exploring… Macedonia, Serbia, Romania.  Could I fit something else in the trip…  (Oh, and how would it be not only with a place whose language I didn’t speak but also with an alphabet I didn’t understand.)

However, travel logistics ended up settling the matter for me.  I planned to use a free ticket with my frequent flyer miles but the options were limited.  First, the miles couldn’t get me all the way to Sofia and back given limited seat availability for free tickets.  Second, it sure was going to be nicer if at least my cousin and I coincided on the flight into and out of Bulgaria to ease the planning and to not travel alone.  Third, the return flight to Atlanta offered the option of going elsewhere as a complement to the visit to Bulgaria.  While I had time to research things, I also didn’t have all the time I would have needed to explore 100 different ways to do the trip.  So, of the possible ports of departure from Europe, Copenhagen offered both a convenient itinerary plus getting to see a place I had not been to, perfectly meeting requirements!

I had much less time to research what I should do while in Bulgaria outside of the wedding-related events but I managed to get a travel guide and do some brief reading…  Fortunately, the wedding folks had connected all travelers with an apartment renting company in Sofia that they knew so that solved our accommodations logistics – always cheaper to stay in an apartment plus it offers the benefits of full kitchen, washer/dryer, TV with cable, and wi-fi.  Not bad for 26 euro/night per person!

The Wedding Events

The main purpose of the trip to Bulgaria was the wedding so I will describe a little bit what that was like.  The bride, who lives in the US, is Bulgarian-born while the groom is American.  The wedding, therefore, was planned quite similar to what I am used to.  My cousin was the maid of honor so that immediately placed us in the pre-wedding events (parties, rehearsal).  The bride picked us up at the airport and took us to our apartment which was located in ulitsa Gurko.  A smaller but busy side street in Sofia quite close to key government buildings and the key tourist attractions of Alexander Nevsky Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the National Theatre and other key sites.

Friday night the bachelor and bachelorette parties took place.  Sorry, I can’t tell you what happened.  You know the rule… what happens in Sofia, stays in Sofia…  Actually, since there was only a small group of visitors attending the wedding (and a couple of those never made it due to the ash-related airspace closures), the bachelor party was a dinner with the father, father-in-law, uncle-in-law and brother-in-law.  Since my cousin was going to be busy the entire day, the bride offered me participating in the bachelor party though I had not yet met the groom (and had just met the bride at the airport).  Knowing I had nothing better to do and wondering how it would be, I decided to go.  We drove to the outskirts of town to the Eleganza Hotel (a nice hotel in case you are looking outside of the city) to eat at its restaurant since the in-laws knew the owner.  The food and restaurant were very nice and we enjoyed good conversation (at least, those of us who shared a common language since some of the inlaws didn’t speak English; I assume they had a good conversation among themselves!).  I avoided drinking rakia as I knew it could get out of hand given how one of the inlaws was downing it…   It was good to meet the groom and his dad since I was going to be seeing them the next couple of days and I was very glad I went.  From what I hear, the bachelorette party consisted of spending a whole day in a salon, having some drinks and other entertainment.

Saturday was time for the rehearsal.  The wedding church was Saint Sofia, a beautiful church close to the larger Alexander Nevsky Church.  After the church, we went for coffee at the Cafe Vienna next door to finish discussion of logistics, etc.  That evening, we all met up at a nice pizza restaurant outside the city center.  I had grown to love the shopska salad so I had that and a pizza that I shared with my cousin.  The shopska salad is cucumbers, tomatoes, dill and a large serving of sirene cheese, a white cheese made from cow and sheep milk (or so we were told).  I think it was my favorite culinary discovery for the trip!

The Wedding

I got to the church 5-10 mins before it was supposed to start but, not seeing anyone and after confirming in my mind that I was indeed at the right place, I moseyed over to see the magnificent Alexander Nevski Church.  I was not going to have time to explore it in detail but at least I wanted a mental picture.  It is such an amazing church on its exterior yet quite austere inside for such an imposing structure.  The juxtaposition may not have been accidental, I suppose.

Anyhow, back to the wedding since that is what this blog entry is about…  Not being orthodox and not speaking Bulgarian kept me from understanding all that was going on but the ceremony seemed rich in tradition and a high reliance on everything 3.  The rings were crossed by a wedding party member in front of the groom and bride 3 times before they were placed on their final spot on the respective hands of the couple.  The couple walked around the altar 3 times.  The crowns they were to wear were crossed 3 times too.  The priests’ garments were bright orange and gold, pretty spectacular.  The bride looked gorgeous.  The wedding party stood behind the couple in line the entire ceremony.  And the guests stood the entire ceremony.

Petals were thrown at them as they walked outside of the church and a wedding party member passed around sweets on a tray in front of the church.  All part of the traditions and I liked them.  The greeting line for the couple and key wedding party members was held right outside the church before the couple did the pictures.  People brought flowers that they handed the bride.  An old lady was walking around the crowd asking for money until she figured out that her best strategy was to stand at the end of the greeting line right after the bride and groom.  It was hilarious and a good fast assessment of her market’s conditions!

The Reception

Before the reception, we headed to the Arena di Serdica Hotel not far from the church.  It is a magnificent hotel built on top of old Roman ruins (the town was called Serdica back then; I didn’t know but Sofia is one of the oldest capitals in Europe).  The lower levels of the hotel below the lobby open up to the lobby so everyone can see the Roman ruins below the hotel.  The cocktail was held at the lowest level among the ruins and with a band of musicians playing classical music.  It was a perfect setting for the post-wedding cocktail.

Sofia, Bulgaria, Serdica, hotel, Roman ruins, history, architecture, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The basement of the hotel kept the Roman ruins uncovered – great ambiance!

From there, once the bridal party arrived and partook, we left for another hotel to the reception.  The hotel was in the city but a little beyond Alexander Nevsky.  The meal was phenomenal (I had a rabbit-based appetizer and fish for the main course).  Traditional music alternated with music I knew from the States and Latin America making the party quite fun.  The traditional flower bouquet toss took place as well as the local “bread contest” between the couple.  In this contest a massive piece of bread is placed above the couple’s heads and they must wrestle it from each other.  Whoever takes the largest piece will “rule” the household.  The groom won and I heard the bride say “I am not happy”.  🙂

I greatly enjoyed getting to go to a wedding in Bulgaria even if the wedding was a blend of cultures.  In this global world, this will become more and more the norm but I was pleased to see local traditions will not die off any time soon!  Cheers to the happy couple!

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