Off the Beaten Trail: In Search of St. Nicholas in Russia

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Velikoretsky St. Nicholas icon, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow



Santa Claus is not from the North Pole. He is based on Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Myra, Lycia. This Greek/Byzantine city today is called Demre, in the Antalya province of Turkey.

            I had the unique opportunity of visiting Russia in late September through early October 2015, seeing the Byzantine Orthodox civilization of the North.  I visited sites of  Byzantine civilization in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod, the birthplace of Russian Orthodox Christianity. At Christmas 2015, there is a worldwide travel alert to Russia for a possible risk of travel due to increased terrorist threat (November 23, 2015).1   I managed to get out of Russia in safety.

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The Tretyakov Gallery has a St. Nicholas icon from the 12th-early 13th century.

A whopping 72% of the  Russian adult population identified themselves as Orthodox Christians in 2008.Every Greek family has a member or friend called Nick. Russian iconography that stems back to the 10th century gave me a new perception of this ethnically Greek saint.

My search for St. Nicholas began at St. Basil’s Cathedral (Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat)  Museum in Red Square, Moscow.  St. Nicholas of Velikoretskoye was in an illuminated case. It is a 16th century tempera on wood icon It shows St. Nicholas with scenes of his life.  In 1555 the icon was brought from Vyatka to Moscow. The name Velikoretsky  means “of the big rivers”.  St. Basils Cathedral is divided into ten inner churches. The southern church was consecrated in honor of  the Velikoretsky  St. Nicholas  icon.

St. Nicholas of Zaraisk, Tretyakov Gallery

We did not have the time to visit St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is associated with the Russian Navy and has two churches. The lower St. Nicholas church is located on the first floor. The main shrine has a 17th century Greek icon of St. Nicholas with a relic.8  The Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood has an 1890’s St. Nicholas the Wonder worker icon. Our main focus in St. Petersburg was the Hermitage, Peterhof Gardens and Catherine the Great’s Palace.

The Tretyakov Gallery has a St. Nicholas icon from the 12th-early 13th century, Tempera on Wood. This is the earliest surviving Russian icon. This is the Novgorod icon painting style, when Christianity was beginning. St. Nicholas of Zaraisk with scenes of his life is of the Rostov-Suzdal School of the late 13th-early 14th centuries. The only full length fresco of St. Nicholas with an open gospel, 1108-1113 A. D.  is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery.

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Only full length fresco of St. Nicholas with open gospel, 1108-1113 A. D., Tretyakov Gallery.

On a visit to the “Decorated Icon Exhibit” at Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow, and jeweled St. Nicholas icon was exhibited at the Fine Arts Center. The Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in the world. There is a side chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker with a prominent wall icon. “It is located in the south part of the gallery, for the country where St. Nicholas lived. Christianity came to Russia from the south, so the paintings in St. Nicholas’ side chapel illustrate the history of Christianity from the 3rd to the 9th centuries AD, before Russia’s’ conversion to it. It is here that one can see…..the theme of the Seven ecumenical Councils. St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, an ardent defender of Orthodox Christian doctrines, took part in the first Ecumenical council. That’s why these subjects are to be found next to those concerned with his pious life and Christian virtues in his chapel.”3         

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A jeweled St. Nicholas icon, Fine Arts Center, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow.

  The art of the Moscow goldsmiths in the 16th century is displayed in the Armory, Moscow Kremlin Museum. The art of fine enameling with large uncut stones is displayed in icons. “The folding icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker…is silver, but its cover is gold decorated with gems and pearls.”4

                We did not have the time to visit St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St. Petersburg. It is associated with the Russian Navy and has two churches. The lower St. Nicholas church is located on the first floor. The main shrine has a 17th century Greek icon of St. Nicholas with a relic.5  The Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood has an 1890’s St. Nicholas the Wonder worker icon. Our main focus in St. Petersburg was the Hermitage, Peterho  Gardens and Catherine the Great’s Palace.

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Side chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow.

            An eight hour round trip from St. Petersburg took us to Novgorod, near the Swedish border. “The Novgorod State Museum’s collection of early Russian painting is unquestionably one of the finest in the world…Highlights from the earliest period (11th to 13th centuries) include ..St. Nicolas of Myra in Lycia (St. Nicholas of Lipno). These are prototypical images of the 14th and 15th centuries. ‘St. Nicholas of Lipno’ icon painted by Aleksa Petrov in 1294 is the earliest dated Russian icon. The fact that it bears the artists’s signature gives it unique historical significance.” 6  A circular icon of St. Nicholas that is dated 13th-14th century? possibly 16th century is the first icon that came into view when we entered the icon section.The site shows St. Nicholas icons from the middle 13th to end of 16th century.

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Folding St. Nicholas icon, 16th century, Armory, Moscow

            Early Russian painting was one of the most significant achievement of this civilization. Byzantium with its capital in Constantinople had a unique splendor of artistic Christian art that impressed the Slavic tribes. The early Russians believed that they “knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We know not how to describe to you. The only thing we are certain about if that God makes His dwelling among the people there and their service is better than in any other country. We can not forget the beauty.”7 The Russian icon for centuries has been striving to reflect the ideal beauty of the heavenly world. 8

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Circular icon of St. Nicholas that is dated 13th-14th century, possibly 16th century, Novgorod State Museum.

Nicolas, Bishop of Myra, has always been the most admired saint, according to the book, “The Russian Icon” by the editorial Board of the Russian Orthodox Church. He prays for all Christians, helps people in misfortunes, protects travelers and quickly defends those to whom injustice has been made. His veneration in Early Russia was almost as great as that of Christ and Mary. Numerous churches were dedicated to St. Nicholas. A large quantity of icons were created in his memory. Russian proverbs show a deep faith in his power.9 Our roots are in Greece, a country plundered by conquests. My 2015 Russian trip showed me that our Byzantine inheritance lived on after the fall of Constantinople with, as the next generation of my family says, “with the Greeks of the North”.


  3. “Cathedral Of Christ The Savior (Ivan Fiodorov Printing Company: Russia, 2005), pp. 25-9.
  4. S. Goncharenko and V.I. Narozhnaya, “THE ARMORY: A guide” (Red Square Publishers:Moscow, 2012), PP.36-9.
  6. N, Grinev, “NOVGOROD THE GREAT” (Ivan Fiodorov Art Publishers: St. Petersburg,2004), pp. 48-50.
  7. Editorial Board of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Russian Icon” (P-2 Art Publishers: St. Petersburg,, 2011) p. 1,
  8. “Russian Icon”, pp. 2-3.
  9. “Russian Icon” p. 9.

Links: Tretyakov gallery

On the Road in Greece: Shopping in Corfu City


Sofia Foka Shop, Corfu City



Leaving St. Spyridon Church in Corfu City May 24rh, I saw a group of Greek stores. Sophia Fokas’ Store was colorful, with icons, colorful silver and costume Greek jewelry, religious items and linens. I young woman caught my attention. Presvitera Krina Elena welcomed me and described the beautiful linens. I have Greek crochet work of the 1900’s from Tseme, Asia Minor, that my Greek family took or created in Chios. I was intrigued by the Byzantine designs.

Sofia Foka Shop, Corfu City

“I will take you to St. Spyridon Church to see the tomb of St. Spyridon,” she said. “We will pray for health and prosperity. Every first day of the month St. Spyridon Church blesses Holy Oil and Holy Water. ” Presvitera Krina Elena is Romanian who is married to Greek Orthodox priest Father George Doukathes, a Canadian Greek. Her kindness and thoughtfulness illuminated her personality. She explained “we have three children who must have tutoring for university entrance exams.” It appears public education is not doing its job.

Sofia Foka Shop, Corfu City

“Many Russians and Romanians visit,” she said. “They believe in St. Spyridon and St. Nicholas. Many signs have Russian and Romanian writings.” She showed me a photo of her husband in a procession. I was able to get Holy Oil from proprietor Sophia Fokas that is not accessible in New York City. Sofia Fokas’ Store is located at 41 St. Spyridon St. Hospitality and kindness to the stranger is what I experienced. Do not listen to the negative reports. Now is the time to go to Greece.

Presvitera Krina Elena (left) with Sofia Fokas and traditional linen.




Sofia Foka Shop, 41 St. Spyridon St., Corfu, Greece, tel. +302661041748



travel agent Hara Armeni,,




On the Road in Greece: Comedy Presented in Tripoli

IMG_8548 (1280x690) (450x243)The Theatrical Group of the Primary Education Teachers Arcadia presented the comedy “Lies” or known as “The Lying Kind” by playwright Anthony Neilson at the Malliaropoulios Theatre from June 1 -15, 2017 in Tripoli, Arcadia, Greece. The theatrical group put their hearts into this performance in the mountains of the Peloponnese. The theater was filled with an enthusiastic audience. We were the guests of Professor Spiro and Evangelia Vardouniotis. They perform in different cities, presenting their creative skills.  The highlight of our trip to Tripoli is seeing their comedies, fairy tales and serious dramas. Their performances should be on u-tube for the Greek Diaspora to enjoy.IMG_8519 (1280x699) (450x246)IMG_8569 (1280x696) (450x245)

The dark comedy deals with extreme situations involving issues such as death, dementia, misunderstandings and complications showing how kind people who ‘lie” to remain kind. Dr. Alexios Vardouniotis, ENT surgeon, explained on Facebook “Arcadia’s teachers prepared their own “lie” in Malliaropoulio! The Arcadia Teachers’ Theatrical Team, after the end of the “Noah’s Family” performance, that was an enormous success, prepared for the premiere of their new production for adults this time. A few words about the project: Two police officers, “armed” English police, come to tell an elderly couple an unfortunate incident. It’s Christmas Eve and they are reluctant to uncover the unpleasant news. The whole issue requires special handling, but their kindness, the spirit of the days … things start to get confused. And as is often the case in real life, extraneous and improbable factors and events that we cannot predict lead our heroes to a series of terrible misunderstandings with sometimes moving and sometimes hilarious results …”

“Anthony Neilson’s comedy analyzes modern society with extreme precision, that has the audience laughing in unlikely situations,” said Dr. Vardouniotis. “The work is based on repeated misunderstandings that arise between the characters…. Through the laughter, the writer wants to convey the message that “Truth is always better than lie.” This is an explosive comedy, full of surprises and unexpected developments. The project is a structured game where every corner awaits you with a surprise. Through hilarious situations, intrigue and misunderstanding, the deepest truths emerge …”IMG_8675 (1280x693) (450x244)

The performers include: George Kazantzidis; Vasilis Chronopoulos; Yiota Karydis; Bessie Petropoulou-Leivaditi; Spiros Vardouniotis; Panos Iliopoulos; Christina Arvaniti; Anna Zaferopoulou and others. The production and public relations staff are Frose Hatzopoulou, Fani Ziazias, Vasilis Nastos, Melina Hatzopoulou, Takis Roumeliotis, Anna Mpramou, Anna Mpeta, Maria Syriou, Eleni Koutou, Evagelia Marini and Nikos Salapatas. All information was taken from the program.IMG_8731 (1280x693) (450x244)IMG_8732 (1280x693) (450x244)

The Theatrical Group has participated from 2003-2016 in some of the following works: “Youth for a Dime,” As. Gialamas-K. Prenteteris: “Looking for a Liar,” D. Psathas; “The Woman Cardplayer,” D. Psathas;  The Seagull Brings Babies,” M.  Repas, 2 years; “A Crazy, Crazy 50 Year Old Woman,” A. Sakellarios; “Dust in the Eyes,” E. Lamp is;  “The Dream of the Scarecrow” E. Trivia, 2 years; “The Magical Pillows,” E. Trivia; “Odyssevach” X. Kalogeropoulou; and “To Slavia” (The Son of a Slave),” X. Kalogeropoulou.

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Dr. John G. Siolas (left to right) with Mrs. Evagelia Vardouniotis of the Production staff, and actor Prof. Spiros Vardouniotis.

Special acknowledgement is expressed to The City of Tripoli for their donation of the Malliaropoulios Theatre, Christina Sarantopoulou, Vasili Mpita; EAS REGION Athletics Federation Peloponnese, Acadia 93.8, and


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On the Road in Greece: Capital of the Ionian Islands

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Corfu city or Kerkyra (Greek: Κέρκυρα) is a city and a former municipality on the island of CorfuIonian IslandsGreece.

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Since the 2011 local government reform, it is part of the municipality of Corfu island. It is the capital of the island and of the Corfu regional unit. IMG_4361 (350x196).jpgThe city also serves as a capital for the region of the Ionian Islands.

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The city (population 24,838 in 2011) is a major tourist attraction, and has played an important role since the 8th century. The city has become known since the Middle Ages as Kastropolis (Castle City) because of its two castles.IMG_4370 (350x195).jpgIMG_4374 (350x194)

In 2007, the old town of the city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The municipal unit of Corfu city has a land area of 41.905 km2(16.180 sq mi) and a total population of 39,674 inhabitants.IMG_4376 (197x350) Besides the city of Corfu/Kérkyra, its largest other towns are Kanáli (population 4,086), Potamós (3,840), Kontokáli (1,660), Alepoú (3,149), and Gouviá (838).1





Ttravel agent Hara Armeni,,  Charitos Travel,

66 Ethniki Palaiokastritsas,
Solari, Corfu, Greece 49100 Tel: +30 2661044611, 





On the Road in Greece: Pentecost Litany Procession in Corfu City

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            I stumbled on a litany Pentecost Procession on my way to St. Spyridon Church. St. Eleftherios Church had the procession blessing all in the neighborhood. Chanting was inspiring through the old cobblestone streets of Corfu City.  IMG_4321 (225x400)

They carried the icons of St. Anna and St. Eleftherios.

      “In Saint Spyridon street (locally known as “το καντούνι του Αγίου” (Saint’s alley)) apart from the famous Saint Spyridon church, there is a smaller and lesser known one dedicated to Saint Eleftherios and Saint Ann. The church was consecrated in 1700, after being transformed into a religious establishment from a private house. It was built by  Theodorella Vervitsioti, daughter of Nikolaos Vervitsiotis. The church opened its doors in June of 1700 and it was renovated several times in 1765, in 1850 and in 1915. In 1714 Theodora Vervitsioti  donated the church to the grocers and cheese seller trade union. It was heavily damaged during the bombings of 14 September of 1943 and it was rebuilt almost from scratch in 1960.IMG_4316 (225x400)


There are 
three commemorative plaques on the façade commemorating the consegration, the renovation of 1765 and its rebuilt in 1960. ll the plaques were written in Greek. The oldest one is the most beautiful and splendid of the three.” 1                     




Hara Armeni,,

Charitos Travel,

66 Ethniki Palaiokastritsas,
Solari, Corfu, Greece 49100

Tel: +30 2661044611 

On the Road in Greece: Colorful Corfu City

The town of Corfu stands on the broad part of a peninsula, whose termination in the Venetian citadel (Greek: Παλαιό Φρούριο) is cut off from it by an artificial fosse formed in a natural gully, with a salt-water ditch at the bottom, that serves also as a kind of marina known as Contra-Fossa.IMG_3988 (350x166)IMG_4026 (350x167).jpgIMG_4252 (350x197)

The old city having grown up within fortifications, where every metre of ground was precious, is a labyrinth of narrow streets paved with cobblestones, sometimes tortuous but mostly pleasant, colourful and sparkling clean.IMG_4256 (350x191)

These streets are called “kantounia” (καντούνια) and the older ones sometimes follow the gentle irregularities of the ground while many of them are too narrow for vehicular traffic.

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Hara Armeni, excellent professional.

There is promenade by the seashore towards the bay of Garitsa (Γαρίτσα), and also a handsome esplanade between the town and the citadel called Liston (it) (Λιστόν) where upscale restaurants and European style bistros abound.

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Spiros Petas, driver (right) with friend

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The origin of the name Liston has several explanations: many former Venetian cities have a square of that name, coming from a Venetian word meaning evening promenade, but it can also refer to the closed-list aspect of an up-scale area reserved to the nobility registered in the Libro d’Oro.1






Ttravel agent Hara Armeni,,

Charitos Travel,

66 Ethniki Palaiokastritsas,
Solari, Corfu, Greece 49100

Tel: +30 2661044611 


On the Road in Greece: Architecture of Corfu City


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The old fortifications of the town, formerly so extensive as to require a force of from 10,000 to 20,000 troops to man them, were in great part thrown down by the English in the 19th century.

IMG_4267 (400x210)In several parts of the town may be found houses of the Venetian time, with some traces of past splendour, but they are few compared to the British Neoclassical housing of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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The Palace of St. Michael and St. George, built in 1815 by Sir Thomas Maitland (1759–1824; Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands) is a large structure of white Maltese stone. Near Gasturi stands the Pompeian style Achilleion, the palace built for the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and purchased in 1907 by the German emperor, William II.IMG_4270 (400x206)

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Contact travel agent Hara Armeni,

Charitos Travel,

66 Ethniki Palaiokastritsas,
Solari, Corfu, Greece 49100

Tel: +30 2661044611 

The hungry don’t get fed… — Cristian Mihai

Imagine this fancy restaurant. Michelin stars, whatever. The opulence. The faint aroma of dishes most of us never heard of. The kind of people who frequent such a place. Now, imagine there’s this guy who’s been broken by life. By some bitter circumstances. It doesn’t matter what happened, exactly. What we do know is he’s […]

via The hungry don’t get fed… — Cristian Mihai

On the Road in Greece: Life in 2017


Scorpios, Aristotle Onassis’ former island in the Ionian sea.

Hospitality, kindness, generosity, courtesy and respect for seniors were my experiences with the Greek people on my May/June 2017 Trip. Our approximately three-week trip encompassed Athens, the islands, Peloponnese, Epirus, Albania and Central Greece. Prices in hotels, restaurants, taxis, shops and excursions have been reduced. The economic war has not affected the warm welcome of all.  They have problems. It does not affect their genuine interest in making the tourist happy. Now is the time to come to Greece!

Learn the Greek culture, not by hanging out with tourists. We lived and communicated with the working middle class, youth and seniors.  Do not believe the News, guidebooks and internet information. The TRUTH is different. The biggest MYTH is tips. The guide books recommend giving a certain percentage. Persons in the tourist industry depend on it. An Athens Venizelos Airport snack bar has a tip tray. “Years ago, tourists would give tips,” said a snack bar worker. “No longer.” The #93 bus from the airport takes you to the Ktel bus depot at Kifissos Street for 6 euros. Living like a Greek opens a new world.

I have been travelling for the past three years in Greece. 99% of the time tips were not given to excursion guides, taxis, restaurants and hotel staff. We were the exception, following the American standard of a 15 – 20 % gratuity if pleased. Our philosophy: give directly to persons having economic difficulty, not an institution.

The stereotype promoted by certain politicians of the “unindustrious Greek”, no longer applies in 2017. Greeks know how to work hard. When work is over, they leave it behind. They go out and know how to have a wonderful time, talking, singing and dancing. Being in a Greek speaking environment, whether you are fluent in the language or not, is fun.

When we arrived in Athens, May 20th, we had a great stay at the Amalia Hotel at Syntagma Square. The staff helped us sightsee and solve cell phone issues. Remarkable in all our requests. The breakfast was great. Pavlo, our taxi cab driver from Tripolis, Arcadia, drove up to Athens to take us to Tripoli. This is our third year at the Mainalon Hotel. The entire staff treated us as a family.  My husband, John, stayed at the Mainalos Hotel, overlooking the mountains for 21/2 weeks, while I travelled. The Manchester Massacre at the Ariana Grande Concert in London took place during our stay in Greece.

I had an encounter with a gypsy, tripping on cement. Fortunately, I survived with a swollen left face.  The local merchants helped me up and showed sincere concern. This is the Greece one doesn’t see on the news. I wanted to go to Corfu and take an excursion to Agia Saranta and Greek Epirus in Albania. I wanted to understand the roots of Billy Litos and former students. I opened a line of communication with Hara Armeni of Charitos Travel agency. She took personal care of my itinerary, giving me the best price. Hara arranged a stay at the Cavalieri Hotel in front of a beach in Corfu town. Hara personally arranged my airline boarding passes. Travel agent Hara and her network watched over a senior citizen travelling alone. She visited me at the Cavalieri Hotel for coffee. “My son, Panos Giochalas, is studying the clarinet as a musician in Athens University,” she said. She personally answered all my needs.

The miniseries “The Durells in Corfu” was filming in Corfu City in late May. I toured the major sites of Corfu city, such as St. Spyridon Church, saw a religious procession, the Asian Museum, Mon Repos and other sites. Shopping at Sophia Foka’s store with Presvitera Krina Elena was a cultural experience.

Pontikonisi, Corfu.

I had a minor incident at a Kiosk. The owner did not give me back my cheap phone, claiming it was hers. Beware of kiosks and only deal with authorized cell phone dealers. The Wind store dealer helped me. The young Greeks have a respect for tourists aiding them in all incidents.

The excursion to Albania went very smoothly. The coordination with Hara and her associate Natasha was exceptional. They accommodated my need for a bland, salt free diet. The Albanian tour guides Matilda, Tomi with the Greek bus driver Lambi, showed us the entire country side. The Butrin Archaeological site was memorable. Hara and her associates in Corfu and Albanian supervised an extraordinary tour.

Achilles dying, Achilleion, Corfu.

The day after I left Corfu, an upsetting incident occurred on the island. “An unprecedented challenge occurred by high school students from Albania who had taken an excursion to Corfu. They sang a nationalistic song that talked about “Great Albania”. They claimed that Corfu is Albanian! The incident was immediately known on the island, with the result that no hotel would accommodate them. They returned to their country… At the same time, Albanian nationalists in the villages of Northern Epirus carried out an overnight vandalism business. They downloaded Greek flags, burned them and then sprayed all the Greek inscriptions in the villages of Moursi, Livadia and Alyko…. targeting Archbishop of Albania Anastasios…”We ask the Albanian state to designate” persona non-grata “as the agent of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios, who holds the Albanian Orthodox Church hostage in order to revive Greek chauvinistic plans.”1 Politics destroys people. I had a great time in Corfu. I plan to contact Hara of Charitos Travel Agency in 2018 for another excursion.

Dr. John Siolas remembering family roots at Paleopyrgo, Arcadia.

I returned to Tripoli and enjoyed the company of Prof. Spiro and Evangelia Vardouniotis, Dr. Alexios Vardouniotis and his spouse Kanela Karampela Vardounioti, Psychologist/Ph.D. candidate with their children Spiro and George. Tripoli is cool and in the middle of the mountains. The provincial cities are where a person sees the Greek soul. Philologist Pitsa Gerou Macarouni with her husband Christo Macarouni took us on a tour of Levithi and our village of Palepyrgo. Her historical narration was memorable. We had a great traditional dinner at “To Hani tis Kandilas” is a family tavern restaurant operated by Niko Xiroyanni. “Seeing the village church built by your family is a religious pilgrimage to a Holy Place,” she said. Poor villagers created a religious edifice better than their homes, to uplift their souls. KEM bags are comparable or superior to designer labels. I bought three bags from KEM Tripoli.


Kapogiannis Tours in Tripoli arranged a three day stay in Heraklion, Crete in the heart of town at the “El Greco” Hotel. I missed my flight. Kostoula and Maria Kapogiannis saved my trip, along with my Koumbara Evangelia Vardouniotis, arranging for a later flight. Maria, my friend of two years, guided my entire trip for three days with advice on the phone.  Dr. Ioannis Papadakis, told me not to worry about my teeth problem, from my accident in Tripoli. He was there in Heraklion to help me. The El Greco Hotel is in the heart of Heraklion close to all attractions. They have a great breakfast, clean rooms and hotel staff. I could walk to all sites. The bus to Knossos cost 1.25 euros one way. At Knossos, I shopped Greek dresses and novelties at Vergina Sun, the corner shop opposite the bus stop with destination to Heraklion. Aristea was my saleswoman. She is an international saleswoman who works with Gonitsa and owner Giannis Voulgarakis. Crete is known for its raki, that a person can only bring through customs labeled. The best raki is home made. Giannis and other businesspersons kept offering me raki. Quite an experience. Makrina’s shop” at Dedalou 23, Iraklion had a fascinating novelty store with olive wood icons and Cretan made products.

Knossos, Crete

I explored the real side of Crete with guide/driver Simon of Safari Club. For 75 euros, we visited interior villages, olive groves, the Lasithi Plateaus, Zeus Cave and Tree and a great barbecue at Taverna Zorba. I watched with interest that not one tourist in our group gave Simon a tip. These guides depend on tips. I gave a generous tip. I kept buying Cretan products that I did not need and could not get through customs, just to help the villagers. Everyone kept treating me raki. Crete is the raki paradise of the world. A great trip. Just if you are 69 years old, like me, do not attempt to climb a rocky mountain to Zeus Cave. Walk up the paved road or use a donkey.  I fell two to three times.

Ioannina Island, Ioannina, Epirus.

I was very slow and needed two men to help me get on a donkey for the return trip. We were at the edge of the mountain trail. I was petrified with fear. George, my donkey trainer told me “Maria is my beloved donkey,” he said. “I have a younger donkey called George, Jr. I cultivate olive groves.” He relaxed me, making this a memorable experience. I also over tipped because I made it off Zeus’ Cave. The young professionals were upset over my lateness. They wanted the fabulous barbecue with unlimited raki and wine. I had to apologize. They were English tourists. Everything went well after dinner at Taverna Zorba.

In my remaining time, I visited north, east and southern Peloponnese in one day tours with taxis and excursions. My last full evening in Tripoli was at the Theatrical Group of the Primary Education Teachers Arcadia. They presented the comedy “Lie in Lie” at the Malliaropoulios Theatre from June 1st to 15th, 2017. Professional, hilarious and enjoyable. A digital presentation of key scenes was shown on a screen in the theater’s entrance.

“Lie in Lie”, the Theatrical Group of the Primary Education Teachers Arcadia.

My final three-day excursion was of Lefkada, Epirus and Central Greece with Kapogiannis Tours of Tripoli. Kostoula Kapogiannis was the tour guide. For 160 euros, I saw places I never dreamt of. At Lefkada, we took a boat ride and saw Onassis former island of Scorpios. We stayed at the “Asteri Metsovo” overlooking the Pindar mountains, near the Albanian border. This was my year of seeing Albania. The second day, we went to Ioannina, learning about Ali Pasha, a famous historical figure. The third day was spent at Greek Benefactor Tositsa’s museum, famous Vrellis Wax Museum and Cemetery of MesolongiGreece (Aitolia kai Akarnania) of Fallen Greek Heroes.

Our last day in Greece was spent in Athens at the “Parthenon Hotel”, in the heart if the Acropolis. This is an outstanding hotel. I have been trying to get a reservation for two years. Each time it was booked. Mr. Koursiaris, Yiota and staff were exceptional. Yiota for two days tried to arrange problems with my return Delta flight. She accomplished it. They have a wonderful breakfast. My last evening’s touring was with my friends Erica Haralambithou, Doris Christopoulou, old friends from the late 1970’s. Erica was our guide at an Archdiocese Symposium program in 1977. We have an active friendship. Her Father, Dr. Haralambithou, was President of the Maraslios Pedagogical Academy (a 2-year Community College of Pedagogy), in Athens during the 1960’s. Her mother was a medical doctor. Doris was a trained opera singer married to the late Legislator Mr. Christopoulou.  Her daughter, Ioli, received her Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A memorable evening in an authentic Greek atmosphere. We visited the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens in the Fix Building. Modern art was interesting and enlightening.  The Stavros Niarchos Park is a vital green space, a breath of life for Athens and an important addition to a city with the lowest per capita green space in Europe. A respite from urban concrete and a marvel of architecture.

Lord Byron, and Cemetery of Mesolongi. Greece (Aitolia kai Akarnania)

In my travels the past three years, there exists a culture and political divide among Americans in group tours. Being with Italians and Greeks made the tour group experience with local guides enjoyable. Tour guides are unofficial ambassadors of their countries. The three days in Iraklion, Crete was a time of island and national mourning for a revered political leader, Constantine Mitsotakis of Chania Crete. The media described the state funeral as “The Last Farewell of Mitsotakis”. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, his son, and President of Nea Democratia, the opposition party, was seen constantly on air with his mother, Dora Bakogiannis. The tragedy of the “Manchester Massacre” took place. Horrifying! That time, I opened the Greek TV channel ANT1 to suddenly hear “America First” by President Donald Trump, regarding the United States’ was going to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron replied, “make our planet great again.” The Greek news care only about one fact: cutting of pensions and the mortgage loans to the European Union.

I spoke to Greeks of all ages and vocations. They had a positive outlook on President Donald Trump. Comments included these thoughts: “He is a good man, a businessman who cares about his country.” “He is not a politician.” We need someone like Donald Trump not our current politicians who think of themselves first.” “What can Donald Trump do to hurt us? The damage has been done by the European Union and the previous U.S. President.” Not one negative comment expressed about President Trump. In fact, persons said “Our News is wrong from politics to the economy. They cannot even diagnose the weather correctly. Fake News! We close the news programs, no longer listening.” “We know we are walking off a cliff concerning our pension in one year.” The old are being abused with these cuts, that are causing a humanitarian crisis among the local population. Many said, “this is worse than any other period in Modern Greece.”  In late May and early June, students were taking exams for entry into universities. The cafeterias, restaurants and retail stores had personnel who were university graduates. Many were grateful to have a job.

– Stavros Niarchos Park.

There was an atmosphere of melancholy regarding the future. Future cuts are being enacted on pensions. A retired university educator had a pension of 2,000 euros. It has been cut to (00 euros. Under the new austerity program, it will be reduced to 700 euros in 2018. A traditional restaurant owner said “we should not have rebelled in 1821 (Greek Revolution of freedom). We have never been free. They (European Powers) put our Revolution leaders in jail or paid fellow Greeks to assassinate them. Other Powers have controlled us.” On the other hand, an educated person said, “if you borrow for forty years, you must spend the n3ext 40 years repaying the loans.” Greeks are going to garbage cans searching for leftover food. They cannot afford to buy food to live. A housewife explained “The credit companies and banks called every day. They begged persons who were naïve to take out loans and credit cards. No one thought of how they were going to pay back loans when they were not making the correct salary. I never took out loans because I knew I could never pay them back.”

One morning at my Asteri Metsovo hotel room, I heard a bishop on Epirus T.V. say “We will endure this trial.” The Greek ship-owners complained that the “cutting of pensions is demoralizing the Greek people. The state sponsored Greek Orthodox Church and Ship-owners are wealth. They can solve the economic crisis easily by paying off the interest on the loans. As of now, only words and no action. As a woman traveler alone, because my spouse wanted peace and quiet in Tripoli’s Manalo mountains, I was aided in my travels by two travel agencies: Hara Armeni of Charitos Travel Agency, Corfu and Maria and Kostoula of Kapogiannis Tours, Tripoli. Local Greek travel agencies are unknown jewels. Using the local bus system of Greece helped me cut down on transportation costs. Local taxis have reduced their fares from ten years ago. Greek restaurants and hotels accommodated my salt-free, rice/grilled chicken diet.

A middle-class businessman told me unbelievable information on the refugees’ economic status. “The Eu gives them free housing and a stipend of 440 euros a month,” he said. “Meanwhile, Greeks work long hours to earn the same amount of money.” My internet research unfolded the following facts at “A sequence of events beginning with the record number of people who flowed into Greece in June 2015 and culminating in the photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi woke the world to the refugee crisis. The effect of that awakening was to tip the entire humanitarian complex toward Greece, sending resources tumbling out of the developing world into the European Union. It prompted an unprecedented number of international volunteers to descend on the country, the UN refugee agency to declare an emergency inside the European Union, and the EU to deploy its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe for the first time. In the process, it became the most expensive humanitarian response in history, according to several aid experts, when measured by the cost per beneficiary.

Exactly how much money has been spent in Greece by the European Union is much reported but little understood. The online media project Refugees Deeply has calculated that $803m has come into Greece since 2015, which includes all the funds actually allocated or spent, all significant bilateral funding and major private donations.

View of Athens from the top of Stavros Niarchos Park.

Nevertheless, the $803m total represents the most expensive humanitarian response in history. On the basis that the money was spent on responding to the needs of all 1.03 million people who have entered Greece since 2015, the cost per beneficiary would be $780 per refugee. However, the bulk of these funds was used to address the needs of at least 57,000 people stranded in Greece after the closure of the borders on 9 March 2016, and on this basis the cost per beneficiary is $14,088.

Officials from the EU’s humanitarian operations directorate, Echo, believe the payout per beneficiary was higher than any of their previous operations. One senior aid official estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted….

For the established groups already working in Greece, the sudden influx of funds was both welcome and destabilizing. Metadrasi, a Greek organization known for training interpreters and caring for unaccompanied minors, had experienced staff poached by bigger new arrivals on the scene that could afford far higher salaries.

The head of Metadrasi, Lora Pappa, believes the tide of money transformed refugees into “commodities” and encouraged short-term responses. “They [international organizations] were looking at how to show a presence in Greece. This led to some wasting the chance to spend constructively.”

Her rueful conclusion is that “sometimes money can do more harm than good”.2

I saw an unhappy businesswoman in a small shop. I decided to buy. She unfolded a horrific story. “I have handicapped and sick family members,” she said. “I pay rent for my home and store. The gypsies and illegals open stands at 9 p.m. They undercut my prices. The worse is our government. I applied for housing aid. They refused. Only the refugees are supported. My religious faith is saving me. Everyday something positive turns up. I endure.”

The crowded cafes are now part of the scene of Greek life. An American said, “they all have money to go out and spend.” The truth is this: young and old spend 1 to 3 euros to socialize. They get out of their apartments to forget their problems. My refugee grandmother’s philosophy was “when you have problems, spend on a luxury item so you can endure. It creates a positive outlook and hope for the future.” Sound advice that helped us overcome and prosper.  That is what the modern Greek is attempting. I found Crete to be suffering economically. I kept buying small items, that I knew I could not bring through customers, to bring a smile on persons’ faces. A proud people, Cretans would give me raki, olives, olive oil and trinkets. It is a matter of honor.

Hospitality, kindness, generosity, courtesy and respect for seniors are why I keep going back to Greece. People make a place. The Greek culture welcomes all. Ask anyone what is their dream vacation? Going to Greece and the Greek islands. This is a dream of middle class Americans. Now is the time to take the economic plunge and see these extraordinary people. A Greek hospitality belief is that God is in disguise of a stranger. “God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”
― Nikos KazantzakisZorba the Greek



Links and Services:

Taxis:   Pavlo, Tripoli,

Dimitrios Tsiogkas,  Tripoli,6983666366

Vasilis, Athens, welcomes all Arcadians, 6977774035

Cafes: Dimitsana, Spiros Sergopoulos Kafenio (Café), 3722522007

Mani – Areoupolis, Mikro Café


Mytilene Before the Refugee Crisis

A One-Day Adventure in Mytilene

by Catherine Tsounis

“You will take the ferry to Mytilene from Chios City at a budget price,” said Argyro and Eleni of Sunrise Tours to tourists Despina Siolas and Susan Atzchiger. “It is a two hour tour ride. Enjoy the Mediterranean Sea.” The height of the tourist season was after August 15th. “I went to two tourist agencies at the harbor asking them in Greek for a day tour,” explained Despina. “They both told me to go to Samiotis Tours.”

John Samiotis, the owner of Samiotis Tours, greeted them with a smile. A magical day excursion unfolded. Yanni, the tour guide kept them entertained in Greek with his colorful personality, aided by his wife Varvara (Barbara). Tour 2 left at 10 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. for the price of 30 euros. Their itinerary was Agiasos, Panagia Agiasou, Karini, Plomari, Agios Isidoros, Perama Bay of Geras. Susan, with the help of Despina’s Greek translation, enjoyed the warmth of the Greek people.

Mytilene harbor (HCS staff)

Mytilene’s Statue of Liberty welcomes all at the harbor entrance. Fishing boats, cars and motorcycles dotted the picturesque coastline. “Mytilene is a great sophisticated island with many olive trees,” said Susan. Tour guide Yanni explained that “there are over ten million olive trees. We are the #1 producer of olives, more than Cyprus. Mytilene is the third largest island in Greece. Crete is three times larger and has ten million olive trees.” Studies show that olives and olive oil lower levels of bad cholesterol. The Mediterranean diet is well known

Plomari, the major ouzo producer of Greece, was their first stop on the way to the beach resort of Agios Isidoros. They saw the old and modern distillation mechanisms for ouzo. “Five generations of the Barbayannis family produce ouzo,” said Susan. According to the Barbyannis website, “the picturesque settlement of Plomari, Lesvos technology harmoniously co-exists with history and tradition.” The tourists were amazed by the century old black and white framed photos. Some photos included: “Popular Festival at the Country side of Plomarion in the end of the 19th century”; “A cafenio customers at Plomari in the 1900’s”, “Ouzo Barbayanni: The Tresure of Plomari” and others. “Barbayanni ouzo began in 1860,” explained Despina. “The best ouzo is Aphrodite. I was impressed with the front page of the newspaper “Laikos Agon” that was framed. The headline was ‘Long Live the Liberation of Mytilene’. The second headline is ‘Long Live Venizelos, November 10, 1912. Long live the Planter of Hellenism, Eleftherios Venizelos.’ They just love Venizelos on this island.” It is now one hundred years since the liberation of Mytilene from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars. The 1912 wars brought the northern Aegean islands into Greece.

1912 Liberation of Mytilene newspaper. Photos by Susan Atzchiger and Despina Siolas, Md./Ph.D.

Agios Isidoros Beach

Wood chandelier, Panagia Agiassos

Along the road, they saw posters of the Eleni Paparizou Concert in Mytilene Fortress. “All over our destination, singers such as Alexiou, Glykeria, Plutarchos and others were having major concerts,” said the tourists. A visit to Agios Isidoros was their next destination. The famous beaches of Mytilene with hotels dot the coastline. “The beach has pebbles like our beach in Mattituck, Long Island,” observed Despina. Many have compared the North Fork of New York’s Long Island to the coast of the Aegean islands. Susan, a fourth generation American, marveled that “there is no sand on the beaches. But, there is a lifeguard. The sea is blue.” Everyone has their own perception of Greece’s beaches. Agios Isidoros Beach has a “Good Behavior Code” poster. “The Blue Flag has been awarded to our beach, because it follows the conditions of the European Program,” said a beach poster. “Clean Sea. Clear. Care for the environment.” Islanders are modern in their ideas. The Bay of Geras is known for its fishing with the village of Perama on the coastline.

They stopped at an Agiasos Taverna advertising traditional foods with homemade yogurt and rice pudding. They enjoyed kolokithakia (small stuffed zucchinis), mpourekakia (fried ham with cheese) and Mytilene kolokithoanthi (stuffed zucchini flowers A wide array of traditional vegetable and cheese dishes were offered at reasonable prices. The taverna looked like a postcard: square tables with white tablecloths, blue country chairs, and canopy of grape vines surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation. A shaggy dog gave them a thoughtful glance.

“Agiasos is known for its wood carvings, ceramics and Church of Panagia Agiasos,” said Despina. “The church is known for its wood carved chandeliers and intricate woodwork. A wall inscription describes the role of emperor Valerios in the creation of Panagia Agiotisa.” In 1170, Constantinos Valerios granted the monks of Karya permission to erect the Church of Panayia on the elevation where the holy relics of the monk Agathon lay. The monk brought the icon of Panayia (Our Lady) that was painted by Luke the Evangelist, from Jerusalem. The Church was rebuilt three times. The tourists visited ceramics and wood carvings shops. They enjoyed seeing a cheese shop selling ladotyri. It is a unique cheese product made only in the island of Lesvos. The cheese is preserved in olive oil and produced since ancient times.

Ceramics, Agiassos (above), ladotyri (left)
Matt Barrett in his Lesvos guide at historical made observations not commonly known. “Like other great cities, Mytilene is built upon seven hills and is full of history,” he said. “Mytilene is in fact one of the most culturally enlightened cities in Greece perhaps due to its proximity to the coast of Asia Minor where the ancient Greeks flourished until 1922 when they were forcefully evicted by the Turks. Many of these Greeks had property in Mytilene and many Mytilenians had businesses in Asia Minor. For this reason the museums are full of interesting remnants of the last three thousand years of history and the town itself contains monuments, houses, churches, schools and other buildings from the various historical periods.”

“We stopped by the home of Theophilos Chatzimichael in Karini,” explained both tourists. “Theophilos lived in the cave of a giant tree. His paintings are on the walls of the local taverna. A picturesque fountain, bridge and ducks are nearby.” Theophilos drew the themes for his paintings from the traditional life, mythology and folklore. He painted in coffee shops, houses, churches for a plate of food. He died in extreme poverty of food poisoning. Theophilos was honoured for his work after death. A museum of his works is in Varia, a suburb of Mytilene. They enjoyed frappes and ravani at the local taverna with Theophilos’ paintings. A nature trail was nearby.

Theophilos cave

Tourists visit Wood shop, Agiassos

Sunrise Tours of Chios gave them excellent advice, leading them to this magical day in Mytilene at a budget price. Mr. John Samiotis welcomed the American tourists with warmth and genuine friendship. “Despina, give your mother this book on Mytilene,” he said. “The book ‘Lesvos, Nature, Traditions, culture and People’, published by the Nomarchia (Province) of Lesvos, will give her an insight in our island. This is the reality of travel in Greece. When one wants to escape and gain a positive outlook, go too Greece, the land that welcomes all travellers.

Links: Samiotis Tours – Barbayannis ouzo factory. – Matt Barrett’s Lesvos Guide

(Posting date 17 September 2013. Photos furnished by author, except Mytilene harbor.)

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