Love and Travel – We’re not Lost…

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Going to Crete was mostly my idea. My mother and father came to Crete after they were married as a honeymoon, and then they just decided to live there until various circumstances brought them home (one of which being the discovery that I was on the way!) As this was my honeymoon I thought it was rather appropriate.

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After deciding we would put Crete into our itinerary, we next had to decide what we wanted to do there. In my very first search I learned of many beautiful caves that scatter the island, and as caves are entirely too fascinating to ignore, I demanded that we visit one. The closest cave to Heraklion is the Dikteon Cave in the Lasithi Plateau. It is also called the Psychro cave, named after the town in which it is situated. According to myth, the baby Zeus was born in this cave when his mother fled to it for his protection, fearing that his son-gobbling father would eat him. Sounds awesome, right?IMG_3451

I like atlases. They are very useful. Somehow with the invention of Google Maps, a decent atlas is really hard to get a hold of. Without internet access, Google maps is not nearly as useful as it normally is. I spent the previous night before our cave trip using the excruciatingly slow internet at the hotel to save map images on the iPad to help us navigate to Psychro cave. Why was I going through such “painstaking” trouble? To get to Psychro there is a bus from Heraklion bus terminal. It leaves on Thursdays. If Thursday isn’t your day, too bad. I didn’t want Shana to miss one of her most anticipated sights. It was decided that we would rent a car and drive out there ourselves.

We had not used a single “real” map of Greece at this point. We were surviving solely on bad free tourist handouts and the occasional Google maps where we could find wifi. Google maps over seas are also not as helpful as they could be. Nearly all local place names are in their native language and script. It was all “Greek” to me. Also, the way addresses are written in Greece are not exactly clear, sometimes they are simply two streets intersecting, and sometimes these streets do not even have names.

The Skoda Fabia is not a good car. It’s adorable that it tries so hard to be a good car. I was so proud of it at the end of day. Upon delivery of the rental car, the main thing the agent wanted me to know was that the car horn worked really well. Oh and this, “Take lots of pictures of car, outside.DSCF2757

This is good for you, protection.” He said this to me while demonstrating just how effective the horn was. Protection from what…?

Since my stick shift skills are terrible at best, Andrew got to drive. The interior of this one began to disintegrate as soon as I climbed in. Off we went with a small collection of tourist maps and some saved images on the iPad. Since it was delivered with the fuel gauge on empty, we needed to find a gas station.

Naturally, I started off quite confident in our plan. It was quite simple. Drive to the cave. Enjoy cave. Come back. EASY PEEZY LEMON SQUEEZY. I had done a not insignificant amount of map study the night before and could visualize the route we were going to take in mind quite easily.

The Greeks drive on the same side of the road as us, but that is all that their traffic laws have in common with ours. On Crete, lanes are very much a suggestion, as it is acceptable to pass other cars by any means possible, and pedestrians have practically no rights of way at all. The restaurants in Greece take up all the surrounding sidewalks adjacent to their property to set out extra tables and chairs; sometimes these sidewalks are across the street from the actual restaurant. So when you are driving through the local cafe areas, you must be watchful for rogue waiters crossing the street and wobbly tables and chairs placed precariously close to the road.   DSCF2755

At the gas station, I didn’t know much driving we were going to be doing so I had them fill up the tank. Filling up a gas tank anywhere in Europe is expensive. Back on to the road we went. I would have been playing music but since the Fabia had concentrated all of its working parts in the horn and 3 of the 4 engine cylinders, the radio was not an option.

Maybe all of this would have been more amusing to me at the time if I had had a decent map or an innate sense of direction. I had neither and since Andrew was driving he made me the navigator. I slowly realized that as we pulled out of the gas station and on to the freeway I had no confidence in my ability to lead us. I began to hyperventilate as quietly as possible so as not to attract Andrew’s attention to my fears. This proved impossible because Andrew can read every expression on my face, especially the wide-eyed look of panic I thought I was concealing.

Women be stressin’. To be fair and despite my confidence, I had only a very rudimentary understanding of the road we were going to take. I knew we had to turn right and it was shortly after a small city on the left. Thankfully the lack of roads in general made navigating a little easier as there fewer opportunities to really screw it up. After a couple false alarms I found the turn that went up to the Lasithi plateau.

After finding the appropriate mountain road, we began to climb slowly up in to the mountains surrounding the plateau. The decision tree looked something like this, Left, Left, Right, Right, (A, B, A, B, Select, Start … just kidding). I didn’t know the names of the roads but because it was a mountain there were very few roads to choose from.IMG_3408

For being what felt like a rather isolated area, there were luckily lots of road signs telling us we were going the right direction. Honestly, if it wasn’t for these signs, I can’t be sure we would have found the place. I was starting to feel much better about our rental car decision, although being on the passenger side meant being the closest to the edge of the windy mountain road, often bereft of guardrails. A couple times we had to pass another car and I was certain that these roads were not meant for two-lane traffic. Does holding your breath for extended periods of time qualify as an ab workout?

Getting to plateau was easy enough but finding Psycrho cave was a bit more challenging. It was so poorly labeled that it seemed like they were having a contest for worst placed road signs.

Since we had driven all the way out there I insisted that we explore the area to “see what we could see.” I decided that we should go check out the other cave in the valley called Tzermiado. The road on the Lasithi plateau basically does a big loop and Tzermiado is almost exactly opposite Psychro. I came to regret this decision since the Tzermiado cave is not set up for visitors. It’s a dark pit surrounded by wasp nests with no lights and a trail that is in disrepair and overgrown. Tzermiado was follwed by some…shall we say not so pleasant roads in the back country areas of Lastithi.  Eventually we ended up back at the exit of the valley and stopped for lunch while we considered our next course of action. We had a car… we should go wine tasting. We still didn’t have a decent map of Crete but considering my successful navigation of the morning adventure how hard could it be to get to the wineries?IMG_3473

It was quite difficult.

On our way back down from Lasithi we got stuck behind a truck carrying a load of hay down the narrow mountain road. Despite all that the ancient civilizations of Greece and Crete had accomplished for math and science, physics was not on this truck driver’s strong suit. The hay bale was so tall that as he started to ascend a relatively steep hill all of the hay fell off the back of his flat bed nearly landing on the hood of our poor little Fabia and completely blocked the road. Good thing I wasn’t tailgating! As Tyche would have it there was a short dirt road bypass that got us around the failed hay physics experiment.

The directions to Lyrarakis contained streets with no names and old country roads that were not exactly labeled. Using only our free map with city names, no freeways, we managed to take a wrong turn somewhere.

I will take full responsibility for this. We made like… I don’t even know, twenty wrong turns. We got a very scenic tour of central Crete south/southeast of Heraklion. The drive would have been lovely had I spent more time actually looking around and not concentrating on the next Y-intersection. We probably spent a solid hour or so driving aimlessly, all they while I insisted I knew where I was going.IMG_3494

We still had not reached the winery we were intending to go to and then I realized that reading the signs and tourist map would be much easier if I had a compass, and luckily there’s an app for that! I finally figured out which way we should be heading, and with the help of a few conveniently placed winery signs we found ourselves heading through rows of Syrah and Plyto grapes.

Well… she figured out an easier way for me to figure out where we were going…IMG_3499

We found the central tasting room, which did not appear open, and my heart sank a bit until we saw another car that had been parked near by heading towards us. A woman who was one of the tasting room managers had stopped by to check on the property and was happy to show us around and give us a tasting.

After a great tasting session we now had the challenge of somehow carrying around 3 bottles of wine in our luggage but we also had an unforgettable experience that doesn’t take up any room in our suitcase.

It is important to understand that in my opinion, we had the pleasure of carrying 3 bottles of wine in our luggage. And all that unforgettable experience stuff too.DSCF2743

We found our way back to the hotel, dropped off the car and found some dinner.

I feel like this may gloss over what maybe one of the single greatest feats of parking in the history of mankind. Parking the rental outside the hotel was no easy matter (neither was staying alive on the streets of Heraklion).

Despite all my irrational fears, Andrew managed to help me realize that we would never be “lost” as long as we were together. We might not be exactly on track, but that’s just because we are taking the scenic route…

The only Americans in Plzen

Great Synagogue – Plzen Beer Museum – Tower of St. Bartholomew – Drive to Prague – Old Town Prague – Private beer tasting – Prague pub crawl

After another terrible hotel breakfast of cheese, bread and cereal, we walked toward the main square of Plzen via the Great Synagogue, which is an impressive structure. It is the largest synagogue in Czech and the second largest in Europe. After a peak inside, we headed to the Beer Museum which is near the Pilsner-Urquell brewery and focuses on the creation of pilsner lager and its effects on beer and the town of Plzen. While the museum itself might have been a little lifeless, we ended up next to a private group who had paid for a guide in English, so we conveniently got to follow close by and listen to the informative commentary. Hopefully no one noticed us eavesdropping, but it’s not our fault for understanding English.

THE pilsner

THE pilsner

After we sampled our free Pilsner Urqell that came with the museum ticket, we walked over to the main square to climb the tower of St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral. While a decent ways up, the skyline of Plzen isn’t all that exciting. Plzen in general wasn’t all that exciting to us, it has some nice areas but feels a bit run down outside of the main square. We loaded up on pastries and some local snacks and decided to drive for Prague that afternoon, a little over an hour north.

Other than lots of bad Czech music on the radio, the drive to Prague was uneventful and we arrived around 1:00pm and dropped off our bags at the Hotel Hastal (not a hostel, pronounced haz-STALL). It was now time to drop off our rental car since Prague is extremely easy to walk about. This proved more challenging than expected, since we had to drive through Old Town which is loaded with locals and tourists who have the right of way at every corner. When you would stop to let a few people cross, thirty more would follow. It took five minutes just to get through one light. We wondered why anyone would attempt to drive here and looked forward to being pedestrians again. With a few more challenges we managed to fill up the gas tank, return the car in one piece and walk back to our hotel through Republic Square.

Side note: From what we have gathered of the Czech language, words that are adjectives or describing their origin end up with the letter “y” at the end. For example, Budweiser beer served in Budejovice becomes Budejovisky. So on a map, the main plaza is called Republiky Square. But somehow this rule also ended up being applied to lots of Czech to English translations, making for some pretty funny looking signs including: Salaty (salad), steaky, deserty, drinky, and bagety. Sometimes the “y” denotes a plural, but it is still hard not to laugh.

Plzen

Plzen

Our hotel had some brochures for local tours, and we found a beer tasting at 5pm being led next door so we signed up and walked over. In a small courtyard with an even smaller bar, we met Andre who was Czech, spoke wonderful English and loved beer. Since no one else had signed up for the tasting, we enjoyed seven beers and a private lesson in Czech beer tasting and Prague breweries. Also because Andre was the first Czech who we could really talk to, we asked him loads of other questions we had about the country. We took up about two hours of his time, so we let him get ready before the bar’s pub crawl that evening, which he encouraged us to join. With the promise of lots of travelers to talk to and free alcohol for an hour, we signed up, of course!

We learned that the bar was owned by a tour company who payed and accepted volunteer guides to do all kinds of guided tours and beer tastings in English and Spanish. We chatted with another guide named Paul who worked with the company, originally from New York, and he walked us to his favorite pizza place in Prague while giving us all kinds of advice and interesting information. He was a teacher and also a master sommelier, go figure, so we also chatted Czech wine. We parted ways and enjoyed some terrific Italian style pizza before heading back to the bar to meet up with our pub crawl.

This pub crawl takes place in Prague every night. And we learned later that it’s not even the only one in Prague. Ours was on a Thursday and it was still packed by the time we started at 9. As promised, the bar was open for free beer and vodka for one hour and we had a chance to meet some other Americans, Scottish and Englishmen, and of course Australians. It was fantastic to finally have some human contact besides each other, although I think we were among the oldest there and definitely the only married couple. The pub crawl guides took us to three bar/clubs throughout the night (you pay in advance for your admission) ending at a five story dance club, the largest in Europe. It stays open until 5am, but we petered out around 1:30 and made the walk back to our hotel, spirits lifted to finally not be alone in our travels.

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The original “King of Beers”

Dominican Cloisters – Town Square – South Bohemian Museum – Masne Kramy – Budvar Factory Tour – The road to Plzen.

The weather was cool and crisp and we had a chance to really enjoy the peacefulness of Budejovice as Shana and I walked around and just sort of absorbed the town. We walked through the local catherdal which had a photography exhibition that focused on woods around Ceske Budejovice. Also connected to the cathedral is the Dominican cloisters. These were a peaceful if not run down reminder of just how old the town really was. Despite being looking a bit worn I thought they were beautiful and full of experience.

Window in the cloisters

Window in the cloisters

After the cathedral and the cloisters we wandered essentially aimlessly around the town stopping here and there. Probably the best was the local bakery where just about everything in the glass case looks amazing and is under one dollar. Pretty much anything you could ever want from a bakery we ended up with: some cold cheesy bread with bacon baked into it and Shana got a giant chocolate dipped donut. We eventually made our way to the Museum of South Bohemia but found it to be closed for renovations. Our experience so far with the smaller Czech towns however led us to believe that all the exhibits would not have English translations and we would not get much from the museum any way.

We made our way back towards our hotel and decided to stop at the most famous restaurant in Budejovice, Masne Kramy. According to one of the brochures, no visit to Budejovice is complete without having a bite to eat at Masne Kramy. We found this to be a bit dubious in that the restaurant, while fine and certainly edible was not a life changing experience. We paid our bill and headed back to the hotel to get our car and drive out to the Budvar brewery.

Budvar was basically the whole reason we stopped in Budejovice. All Czech towns have two names, one in Czech and one in German. The German name for Budejovice is Budweis. As you can imagine the beer that is brewed in Budweis is called, you guessed it, Budweiser. This little brewery which is state owned by the Czech government has been in a lawsuit for over 25 years with the Anheiser-Busch company about the Budweiser name. Budvar was forced to fight a trademark lawsuit in just over 60 countries. In America the beer is called Czechvar, everywhere else it is called Budweiser. They also brew a lager beer just for the locals which keeps the traditional Czech name, Budejovicy.

Budvar entrance

Budvar entrance

The tour was awesome although not anything I hadn’t seen on any other brewery tour. We did learn some very cool things about Budweiser (Czech). First off Budvar uses an artesian well for all their water in production and is some of the cleanest water in the world. The company has also built the price of recycling into every bottle and almost all of the beer companies use a government standard bottle. A huge part of Budvar’s operation is to collect the used bottles, steam clean them and then refill them. The Budvar brewery still adds hops by hand despite producing over two hundred and fifty thousand hectolitres a year. Finally, lager style beer (light golden color) is much harder to make that an ale or stout beer. Lager (German for “cellar” or Lezak in Czech) beers have to sit for nearly one hundred days and sometimes two hundred at very cold temperatures before it is ready to drink. Ale fermentation takes a much shorter period of time and can be done at high temperatures. They poured us a sample right out of the cellar at 2 degrees celsius. It as the coldest beer I have ever tried and tasted amazing. After we wrapped up the tour with a walk though of the bottling facility we hopped into our ugly little Ford and started the drive to Plzen.

Throughout the Czech Republic we had been slowed down by roadworks of some sort and the drive to Plzen was a windy two lane free way with slow downs that took you though small Czech villages, road construction and getting stuck behind tractors in a no passing zone. One of the strangest things we’ve seen is the road warning signs for dager ahead; a giant yellow sign that has two grim reapers on it. These signs that in Czech (I’m just guessing here) read, “If you drive like an asshole your death is imminent.” or something like that.  These signs are up with good reason. The Czech drivers themselves are not bad but the roads are narrow and are highly trafficked. The Czech drivers are not like the Greeks who sort of laugh in the face of danger and purposely dive like maniacs but given that a long line of cars forms nearly every five kilometers behind a large truck or van, the passing in the oncoming lane becomes a huge gamble.  We made it Plzen just fine despite some rather tense moments on the freeway.

Plzen is a much bigger city that Budejovice and did not really have any of the same charm. We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and had a quick stroll to try and plan out our next day. We stopped at a restaurant called 12 Degrees where I had some fantastic roast rabbit with cabbage salad but Shana was a little disappointed with what she thought was going to be cuts of beef and vegetables and ended up with a greek style kebab which sort of looks like everything that you shouldn’t eat. We called in early night, tired after the driving and got some rest before we went out and explored Plzen the following day.

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Krum-love

Vienna Westbanhof – Lunch on the Vltava river – Chesky Krumlov Castle – the Old City – Drive to Ceske Budejovice – Walking tour – Czech wine tasting

Around 8AM we left Hotel Mate Dependance gladly and made our way to the Westbahnhof train station to pick up our rental car. Much to my dismay I did not receive a funky looking euro car but a Ford Focus station wagon, mainly because it was the only one that could leave the country that also had GPS. After our last rental car and the guess work involved in driving on Crete the GPS was the way to go and we pulled out of the lot after I had the attendant switch everything to American English. Also a bit to my dismay after we had already left the station we noticed the GPS was not functioning correctly. It took a good solid 40 min before we got it working appropriately and then went back to the hotel to pick up our bags and off to Czech Republic we went.

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov

Getting out of Vienna was a bit hectic but once we got on the main freeway it was smooth sailing through the small hamlets and country villages of northern Austria and eventually into south bohemia. A startling change occurred, on the side of the country road there were prostitutes waiting to get picked up by anyone crossing the border into the legal grey area that is the Czech republic. Prostitution is neither explicitly legal or illegal in Czech Republic and that is obvious the same way it is obvious at a border crossing between Nevada and California. We did not pick up a prostitute if you were wondering.

Once we reached our first destination, Cesky (CHESS-key) Krumlov we wanted to get out and walk around the old city, see the castle and have some lunch. The GPS attempted to take us directly through the old gate of the city and I’m pretty sure I drove into a plaza that was not meant for cars. However no Czech police were standing by waiting for me when I was able to make a U-turn and actually park in an appropriate area and walk into the old city.

River going through Chesky Krumlov

River going through Chesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov is an amazing place. The town is incredibly well preserved, has some incredible views, a castle that is situated on a cliff that overlooks the medieval town and has  the Vltava River running between the cliff the town. The castle was “small” by Hapsburg standards but has a fantastic watch tower, a real moat with live bears in it and some stunning views of the surrounding valley. The small old town itself is very charming and picturesque with its own cathedral, city square and lots of shops and restaurants right along the river. We sat and had our first Czech meal which was a plate of roasted game, dumplings and pickled beets and cabbage. We also tried a traditional Czech desert called a trdlenik which is a cinnamon roll that is baked around a rolling pin the crust is very thin. We spent several hours walking the castle and the old town before hopping in the car and driving to Ceske Budejovice.

Ceske Budejovice (Chess-keh Booj-yo-VITS-say) is the home of the Original Budweiser beer and is a very small urban center just north of Cesky Krumlov. Budejovice was not as picture perfect as Krumlov but it had a very elegant and cosmopolitan charm to it for being such a small city. Our hotel was right off the main square adjacent to the Domincan cloister and the original moat that surrounded the city. There are lots of wine stores and tasting rooms in Budejovice which we were very surprised by. We ended up trying some Czech whites and one red that was phenomenal and went out for a surprisingly authentic italian dinner. After the long day of driving and dinner, we were ready for bed because the following day we were going to see the Budvar brewery and bottling plant…

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We’re not lost… Lasithi and Peza

Lasithi – Dikteon – Kronion – Kounavi – Alagni

We’re not lost, we’re just taking the long way…

Going to Crete was mostly my idea. My mother and father came to Crete after they were married as a honeymoon, and then they just decided to live there until various circumstances brought them home (one of which being the discovery that I was on the way!) So I have always felt a need to see this place that enchants so many non-locals to stay and make a life with the Cretans. As it is also my honeymoon I thought it was rather appropriate.

After deciding we would put Crete into our itinerary, we next had to decide what we wanted to do there. In my very first search I learned of many beautiful caves that scatter the island, and as caves are entirely fascinating I demanded that we visit one. The closest cave to Heraklion is the Dikteon Cave in the Lisithi Plateau. It is also called the Psychro cave, named after the town in which it is situated. According to myth, the baby Zeus was born in this cave when his mother fled to it for his protection, fearing that his son-gobbling father would eat him.

Dikteon Cave

Dikteon Cave

Sounds awesome, right? Wouldn’t everyone on vacation to Heraklion want to see this? Apparently not, since there was only one bus a week that guided visitors to this spot, and it included Knossos Palace which we’d already seen. So what to do now? A taxi was out of the question, so Andrew suggested a rental car. Seeing as we also wanted to visit some authentic Cretan wineries which were not on any tour, this seemed like the best way to do everything. Luckily our hotel had a rental car service, so we booked one for Sunday and decided to leave around 8 in the morning.

On the road to Lasithi

On the road to Lasithi

Since my stick shift skills are terrible at best, Andrew got to drive our little white Skoda Fabia, a compact Czech car whose interior was falling apart. Since it was delivered on empty, first thing was to find a gas station. I should preface all this by telling you that we have had no real maps for Greece up until this point. We were surviving solely on bad free tourist handouts and the occasional Google maps where we could find wifi. So the night before Andrew had plotted out our route as best he could and had highlighted it on a free map app on his phone. Problem was that this map had no detail: no landmarks, virtually no street names and the ones that were named were completely in Greek.

Also, the way addresses are written in Greece are not exactly clear, sometimes they are simply two streets intersecting, and sometimes these streets do not even have names. So off we go with this and a couple more free tourist maps. Sunday is definitely a better day to drive, as lots of shops are closed and people seem to be attending church or resting at home. The Greeks drive on the same side of the road as us, but that is all that their traffic laws have in common with ours. Lanes are very much a suggestion, as it is acceptable to pass other cars by any means possible, and pedestrians have practically no rights of way at all.

The restaurants in Greece take up all the surrounding sidewalks adjacent to their property to set out extra tables and chairs; sometimes these sidewalks are across the street from the actual restaurant. So when you are driving through the local cafe areas, you must be watchful for rogue waiters crossing the street and wobbly tables and chairs placed precariously close to the road.    Maybe all of this would have been more amusing to me at the time if I had had a decent map or an innate sense of direction. I had neither and since Andrew was driving he made me the navigator. As we headed out towards the freeway I slowly realized that I had no confidence in my ability to lead us and began to hyperventilate as quietly as possible so as not to attract Andrew’s attention to my fears. This proved impossible because Andrew can read every expression on my face, especially the wide-eyed look of panic I thought I was concealing. As Andrew tried to reassure me, we ended up on the right road with the help of some local signs and I began to feel a little better.   We arrived at the Dikteon cave in the early afternoon and it was relatively quiet. We opted not to take a donkey ride up the 200 meter hill and hiked instead. While not in the full heat of the day, it was still warm and getting warmer by the time we reached the top, but this was all forgotten as soon as we entered the cave. At least 20 degrees cooler if not more, the cave descends to a small pool below and all the stalagtites and stalagmites glisten with moisture. Inside is lighted with fluorescents that depart an eerie green hue to everything, and other than the sounds of other tourists, it is completely silent.

There are no sidewalks in Greece, just sidewalk cafes

There are no sidewalks in Greece, just sidewalk cafes

While only containing one “room,” it is spectacularly beautiful and impressive. I was starting to feel much better about our rental car decision. We grabbed lunch and decided to head out to find a winery called Lyrarakis, directions to which contained streets with no names and old country roads that were not exactly labeled. Using only our free map with city names, no freeways, we managed to take a wrong turn somewhere. While we hunted for street signs, we found small red signs directing us to a winery. It wasn’t the original winery we were looking for, but the signs said it was open and their directions were a heck of a lot more helpful than any map we had. So we followed them behind a small town named Kounavi into the vineyards.

At last we came upon a small building atop the vines, where an elderly man missing more than one tooth was seated outside, smiling and patiently waiting for us to park. We greeted him in Greek and he seemed very excited until he realized that “Kali sperah” is one of the only phrases of the language we know. He asked “American?” and laughed. He led us inside where an older women, we assumed was his wife, also greeted us and had us sit. They poured three wines for us, and we exchanged lots of awkward gestures and smiles trying to convey information to one another. The wines were excellent, as we hoped they understood by our delighted “Mmmmms!”    They gave us a tour of their facility with another couple from New York who had managed to find the place. We thanked them profusely (the only other Greek phrase we know) and headed off to try our luck again with the other winery. I realized that reading the signs and tourist map would be much easier if I had a compass, and luckily there’s an app for that! I finally figured out which way we should be heading, and with the help of a few more conveniently placed winery signs we found ourselves heading through rows of Syrah and Plyto grapes. We found the central tasting room, which did not appear open, and my heart sank a bit until we saw another car that had been parked near by heading towards us. A woman who was one of the tasting room managers had stopped by to check on the property and was happy to show us around and give us a tasting.

The vines from Stilianou

The vines from Stilianou

She was originally from Holland but now lived in Crete with her husband. She spoke four languages, one of which was very good English so we were thrilled to be able to ask about the wine and learn more about Cretan viticulture. She was glad to have young people so interested in wine, so she opened up pretty much every bottle they had available and brought us tomatoes picked from her garden for a snack. We sat for at least an hour and tried many varietals we had never heard of, let alone could pronounce. Everything was delicious, unique and affordable. The Greeks must not understand how much we pay for wine in America and therefore don’t have exaggerated prices like Napa. At the previous winery we walked away with a 2004 red blend for about $16, and at Lyrarakis we bought two bottles of white for six euros each, around $8.

While we now have the challenge of somehow carrying around 3 bottles of wine in our luggage, we also had an unforgettable experience that doesn’t take up any room in our suitcase. We found our way back to the hotel, dropped off the car and found some dinner. Despite all my irrational fears, Andrew managed to help me realize that we would never be “lost” as long as we were together. We might not be exactly on track, but that’s just because we are taking the scenic route…

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Vannin’ in the vines

You may already know this but a 12 passenger van is actually quite a large vehicle.  They are small enough where on the freeway or parked you don’t really notice them.  When you are driving it feels like piloting an aircraft carrier with four half filled water bottles for wheels.  The 880 freeway from Oakland basically felt like the entire universe was conspiring against anything larger than a smart car and the two lane roads, gravel parking lots and randomly placed rocks all over wine country were no picnic either.

The whole crew (pictured below) met up at Asti Cellar no.8 where we parked and climbed in to the van to head off to our first vineyard.

Tate is a clever girl

Tate is a clever girl

Ridge was first on the list.  A place with an elegant tasting room and a really nice seating area to just enjoy the scenery.  The rest of the crew was able to sip, slup and swallow but since I was driving I had to practice my spit technique.  Lets just say that it looked like a small dog hemorrhaged all over the bar around the spit bucket but not actually in it.  However I did keep my shirt clean.

Next up was some tasting at Silver Oak of Alexander Valley and a fantastic array of “vittles” that Shana had picked up that morning for our lunch.  We had a private area set up on their patio in the shade and personal service.  Silver Oak poured us generous tastes of their great library wines form 02 and 05 and some new releases from 07 and 08.  Fantastic stuff.  As our tip I got the Jurassic Park theme stuck in our server’s head.  You’re welcome.

After our picnic at Silver Oak we headed to Clos du Bois where Shana and I thought we had discovered a cool place to take a picture, I said, “I want to take a picture up here… and then climbed up the ridge… “never mind its ugly.”  Just a big pile of dirt.  This was followed by short drive to our last winery of the day, Fritz Underground Cellar.

Fritz had some good wine but I think most of our group had to take the tasting room manager’s word for that and we had to skip the tour because we were pressed for time to get back to the B&B for the wedding rehearsal.  All in all it was a great day of wine, friends and me singing opera in the car.

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