Throwback Thursdays: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

In October 2015, my friend Emily asked if I would be interested in tickets to the upcoming Harry Potter play in London. Of course I was! She proceeded to wait in a “virtual line” for six hours. She originally wanted to obtain tickets for Summer 2016, but by the time it was her turn she was offered tickets for late October 2016. A whole year away! Nevertheless, I was thrilled, it was no question, we took them!

Finally, a year passed, we collected our tickets and found our seats. At that moment, it finally hit me that we were in f*ing London to see the new Harry Potter play! I felt like we won the lottery.  It was totally a “pinch me” moment. The play was in two parts, over two nights – the first part was on the 20th and second on the 21st. I made sure not to read anything about the production or the book so I wouldn’t be disappointed if it turned out “just okay”. Everything from the cast, costumes, set and special effects were fantastic. Going into it without knowing the details of the story made the play even more magical. And, did I mention we had awesome seats? It was such an incredible experience that our Christmas card for 2016 had a picture of us in front of the theater. It wasn’t the best picture, but it was a moment in 2016 that captured pure joy.

Speaking of amazing plays, and fun stuff happening in the West End….the critically acclaimed Hamilton play is making its way to this side of the pond in Fall 2017. This time around it was my turn to wait in virtual line to get tickets as soon as they went on sale in late January 2017.   By the time it was my turn, I snagged tickets for January 2018. A full year away…again! So excited and can’t wait to share our experiences of it early next year!

We did other London things too.  Hubs and I took the time to have high tea at Claridges, which was really nice and relaxing. After trying many afternoon tea places over the years, my favorite is still at the Connaught Hotel. Other than the play and high tea, we didn’t really have anything else planned except to eat! We went back to some of our favorite eateries and found a few new places to try.

 

Darling Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik has been on our bucket list even before our move to Europe. Hubs and I have heard nothing but great things about Dubrovnik. After four and a half years, we finally made our way “next door”. Austrian Airlines flies non-stop from Vienna to Dubrovnik, seasonally. It’s definitely not the cheapest option, but most convenient – a ten hour drive vs. a 75 minute flight.  We’ll take the flight, thanks.

We landed and quickly started our journey to the city. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of Dubrovnik, it literally took our breath away. Our driver was kind enough to stop for us to capture that moment from the road along the cliffs overlooking the city.

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As soon as we got settled into our AirBnB, we set out to explore the city. We didn’t want to do too much as we had a Game of Thrones tour the next day.

Hubs and I became Game of Thrones fans during our first few months living in Vienna. We binged watched the first two seasons before the start of the third. A lot of the filming takes place in Northern Ireland, Spain, and Croatia. Dubrovnik is the primary backdrop for Kings Landing. The locations tour was fascinating and we had to use a lot of our imagination due to the CGI add-ons. The Red Keep is completely digitalized, but you can see the foundation they used. We got to see the famous sights for some of the iconic scenes from the show, such as, Cersei’s walk of shame, the Purple wedding, Myrcella leaving for Dorne, etc. It was great to get a feel of how much work goes into filming just one scene. At the end of the tour, we had the option to visit a very touristy shop that had a replica of the Iron throne. As cheesy as it might seem, I had to take my turn and try it out!

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The rest of our time in Dubrovnik was spent climbing A LOT of stairs. Steep and sometimes cumbersome- anyone with leg/knee problems would have a really tough time. I felt like my legs were going to give way a few times, especially in the heat.

We also did a day trip to the island of Lokrum. It’s the closest island to Dubrovnik, only a 15 minute boat ride from the old harbor. An old monastery on Lokrum is the set for Qarth. The island’s native inhabitants are peacocks and rabbits. People mainly go there to swim, sunbathe, kayak and hike. We only stayed for a couple hours, but could’ve easily spent the whole day there if we had more time.

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Overall, I’d say Dubrovnik is a great long weekend getaway- but if you want to take your time and see other places nearby (Bosnia, Montenegro and other islands), it could easily become a one or two week holiday. I’d also recommend going during shoulder season. We were there just as the cruising and high season started and seeing people being herded like sheep with their paddle-holding guide leading a large group of (loud, rude, shouting) tourists can be overwhelming, especially in such high concentrations.

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Throwback Thursdays: Hunting for Polish Pottery

I’m going to restart my Throwback Thursdays series to backtrack and blog about the adventures we took over the last year or so. Those who follow me on Instagram have seen glimpses of what we’ve been up to. It’s the only platform of social media that I use consistently these days.

Hubs and I like to make use of the office holidays he gets here, and this year the dates all happened to fall on a Friday or Monday – perfect for long weekend getaways. At the beginning of May 2017, we went on a road trip to Poland. Our first visit to Poland was in summer of 2015, and we went to Krakow and Auschwitz.

The itinerary this time was Boleslawiec and Wroclaw. If you recognize the name Boleslawiec, then you know it’s world renowned for its unique pottery – in this case, think of everyday dishes bowls, mugs, etc… Many military wives and expats who live within an eight hour drive have gone on weekend expeditions (yes, multiple!) to buy heaps of this stuff.  When I mean heaps, I mean American sized SUVs/mini-vans filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of the pottery. The parking lots were filled with Jeeps, Odysseys, etc. These were dead giveaways of the presence of American military wives since they usually ship their vehicles from the states during their time overseas.

I first heard about the Polish pottery when I happened upon other expat wives blogging about day and weekend trips there. It piqued my interest and I started to do the research. Boleslawiec Pottery is only made with locally sourced clay only found in that particular region of Poland. The intricacies of these hand painted and handmade pieces are just exquisite. There are many collectors and it’s super expensive to buy authentic pieces outside of Europe. Hence, the reason why people come here to buy Costco amounts of this stuff. It’s so affordable to buy it in Poland. I love the fact that it’s dishwasher, oven, microwave safe AND super sturdy. There are many categories of the pottery and usually people buy GAT (quality) 1 or 2 for the above mentioned purposes. The other categories (below 2) are usually just “for show” or decorative pieces. As you can see from the pictures, I had a bit too much fun.

 

I also should mention that it was our very first time trying homemade Pierogis. I also had this savory potato pancake-like dish with goulash stuffed inside. OH. MY. LORD, comfort food at its best! So delicious! My mouth is watering even as I type this.

Onto to Wroclaw! We spent two nights in this charming little city. It’s often mistaken for Warsaw. What was really nice is that it’s not crawling with “English speaking” tourists-yet. Most locals couldn’t speak or understand English-which was quite refreshing. Hand gestures and pointing were greatly appreciated. We loved going on a “scavenger hunt” for the famous dwarf statues of the city. Did you know that there are over 400 of them dotted throughout the town? We found 40 of them during our short stay.

Poland has really captivated us and I have a feeling we’ll be making more road-trips back to explore more of this lovely country!

A unique Parisian souvenir

Ever wish there was a way to take the best travel pictures without having to resort to using a selfie stick, or hoping another tourist will take a picture of you and your loved one(s) and be able to capture the picture just right? Whenever Hubs and I travel, I have no shame in asking people to take pictures of us. Yes, I’m one of those semi-obnoxious tourists. But in my defense, I’m very polite about it and doesn’t just shove my camera at someone.  Plus, I always offer to take a picture in return for the other person. I usually look for someone who has a DSLR camera around their neck, because they’d most likely take a better picture than someone with a point-and-shoot or a smartphone.   Unfortunately, that theory only holds true a little more than half the time. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, and selfies usually only capture our two big heads and barely anything else. Growing up, my mom always said “if you’re not in the picture, then you were never really there” and it has stuck with me ever since. She makes a good point though. When Hubs and I look back in 50 years, we’d want to remember all the things we’ve seen and experienced. Pictures of that random flower in the park is not going to jog our, probably, foggy memories of exactly where we were.

So when we were in Paris, about a month ago, I arranged for a professional photographer to take pictures of us at the famous sights of the city. It was a belated wedding anniversary gift and I am going to use some of the pictures for our holiday cards this year.  I received them this week and she did such a fantastic job! I am so in love with our pictures. I can say that this tops any souvenir I’ve ever gotten from our travels.

And if you’re wondering, none of the pictures below are in the holiday cards 🙂

 

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Paris is always a good idea

Ahhh, Paris! When mentioning the ‘City of Light’, people tend to think romance, art, Eiffel Tower, and all the other stereotypes that they associate with this city. This visit was more special than the first time I was there. Hubs had never been to Paris (or France) and I would be experiencing it differently this time around.  My first visit was on a mother/daughter trip some years ago, as part of a whirlwind European tour. Fall is my favorite season, because of the crisp weather and beautiful colors of the trees. Add Paris into the mix, and I would say it’s close to an extraordinary combination.

We opted to stay in the 11th arrondissement and had easy access to two metro lines to easily transit to the rest of the city.  Hubs is a huge fan of public transit in any city we visit.  You should see the glee on his face when we’re able to get from point A to point B without the use of a taxi (he loathes them). The Paris metro and bus options are dense and effective. I prefer it over the London Underground.

During my first visit I did all the touristy things like going to the Louvre, Versailles, etc. So Hubs and I planned this visit a little differently. We explored numerous neighborhoods, ate lots of amazing food, and saw all the typical touristy sights. In my opinion, getting lost in the different neighborhoods in Paris is the best way to see it.

Food and tasting tours have become sort of “our thing” now.  We’ve done one on most of our trips. And in Paris, a food or wine tour is an absolute must! We went with a food one. Our guide taught us a lot about how and where Parisians shop. It was cool to learn how to read the label on the products to know what to look for. For example, we learned a thing or two about chickens.  Chickens are all labeled with details to inform the consumer with exactly what they’re getting.  The labels would indicate where the chicken came from, the farm it was raised on, whether the chicken had been raised on one farm for its whole life, and what it was fed.  A whole lot of information, one which Americans might associate with a Portlandia scene about a chicken named ‘Colin’.  The chickens, based on their quality, can range in price all the way up to 20€ per kg.  Which is about 10$/lb.  Supposedly you do get what you pay for, so the top quality chickens do taste the best.  Also, it is customary to leave the neck and heads on the chickens when you buy them, so the consumer can know for sure the breed of chicken. After the walking part of the tour, we were whisked away to a secret spot with our small group and tried all the little items our guide had picked up and described along the way.  My new favorite cheese:  goat cheese with truffles. It was so creamy and had the consistency of American cream cheese. Incredibly delicious. On the flip side, I know I don’t like pâté – of any type (and I’ve tried plenty).  It’s an acquired taste from I’ve been told.  I choose not to believe it.  

I would say that I have quite an obsession with macaroons. I’m not a fan of the brand Ladurée . It’s too commercialized and not handmade anymore. They have locations everywhere including New York and even Taiwan. Pierre Hermé is another huge brand, but his macaroons have different and unique flavor combinations. He went to Japan and some of his flavors are inspired from there. We tried about five different brands and out of all of them my favorites were Pierre Hermé and Un Dimanche à Paris. The latter brand is still a small boutique specializing in chocolate and macaroons; all their items are still handmade.

Our 6th year wedding anniversary was in September, so I decided to secretly arrange for a professional photographer to snap pictures of us during one afternoon in Paris as a gift. I thought it was one of the best things we did in Paris. Hubs loved the idea of having those pictures as souvenirs. It’ll be a few weeks before we see the results, but it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.  Our photographer was an American and her husband is a French national.  It’s really neat talking to other expats we come across and hear how they’ve adapted to life in a different world.

While in Paris, you must shop! And that I did. During our travels, I usually bring back a piece of jewelry or art from a local artist. In Paris, I coordinated with a local a few weeks before we arrived to take me to boutiques that specialized in small Parisian designers.  I wanted to find a few pieces of jewelry to spice up my existing wardrobe. It was such a unique and successful experience.  There were no tourists along our three hour journey in the little boutique shops, so I really felt like a local. Hubs went and did his own thing during this time, hehe.

In the end, I have fallen even more in love with Paris (if that is even possible!). Hubs and I can’t wait to do another long weekend in the City of Light!

 

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Til the cows come home

The state of Tirol in Austria has been on our list since we moved here and just got around to it this week! I’m still a bit “giddy” from our trip.  The main draw for us this year was to attend an event called Almabtrieb. It’s German for “cattle drive”. In the alpine regions of Europe, farmers lead cows up to alpine pastures to feed during the summer. When autumn comes around, the cows are led back down to the valleys. This is a celebrated tradition and has become popular to tourists and locals over the years. I purposely picked a weekend where Hubs and I were able to experience three different ‘Almabtriebs’ in three small villages.  As you’ll see, I went a little overboard with pictures and videos.

I was tickled with joy when the cows paraded into town with massive bells ringing, some of which were decorated. If there weren’t accidents on the mountains, the cows would be decorated elaborately with garlands. In all the Almabtriebs we saw, there were no accidents.  When the cows were finally herded to their temporary destination after the village celebration, they are then returned to their owners to graze on grasses in the valleys. Spectators then retreat into tents for food, beer, music and awards. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Aside from the cows, we explored the beautiful landscapes of the Austrian Alps. We’ve never seen grass in such a beautiful shade of green.  The high alpine lakes are also brilliantly clear, clean, and a lovely shade of green when seen from above. It was breathtaking how you could see forever in the valleys and every turn was more gorgeous than the last.

After the Almabtriebs ended we headed to our next destination, Innsbruck.  It was our jumping off point for a few activities, and Hubs had never been to the city.  I visited it a few years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother.  I didn’t remember it too well, so it was nice to refresh my memory.  We only had one sunny day there and made the most of it.  One of my best friends has raved about rodelbahns (think of a bobsled track with roller coaster rails) that she and her family go to every year. That gave me the idea to find one near Innsbruck, in Tirol. Hubs and I had the opportunity to ride one in a nearby ski village called Zillertal. It was so fun! But, I was a bit bummed that they hadn’t yet completed the installation of the camera thingy catching you enjoying the ride.  Maybe next time.  We also had a fantastic Tyrolean lunch perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the valleys.  Did you know that Swarovski Headquarters are in Innsbruck?  I sure did.  Hubs did not.  He was kind enough to put up with the tour and had coffee in their cafe while I “looked around”.

We took our time driving back and in each small village we passed through we would look for cows, slow down, roll down the windows and listen for the distinctive “clang, cling, clong” sounds of the cows in the field.  It was a memorable road trip and if we get the chance to go back to Tirol, we’ll be sure to be there with bells on.

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The detour that almost didn’t happen

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night

Even up until the day we were leaving, Hubs and I were going back in forth if we wanted to go see Auschwitz. We’ve been to Dachau and weren’t sure if we wanted to put ourselves in that emotional state again. We are so glad we decided to make a go for it. It was sort of on the way back to Vienna and we both said we would have regretted if we had not gone. It was very emotional going to both sites. Did you know Auschwitz was made of three main camps and 40 sub camps? I knew it was the largest, but didn’t realize just how big it was until we were there. Hubs and I managed to visit Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Auschwitz I has the famous gate with “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free). It was really something to see first hand and really know that the psychological torture for the victims was utterly relentless. We only walked the grounds there briefly and decided not to take pictures of each other there, out of respect. We don’t believe it’s a place to come and get your “happy face” pictures. We toured a gas chamber and crematorium for only a few seconds. The emotions were too much.

Auschwitz II:  Birkenau is probably the most infamous of the Auschwitz cluster of concentration camps. The old rail line that leads in through the center gate is still there for the world to see. Hubs and I always knew Auschwitz II was big, but, really, it’s humongous. We learned about this place in history classes, but to see it in first person was overwhelming, humbling, atrocious, sad, etc…There are not enough words to describe the feelings and sensations standing on the same platform where Jewish people from several European countries, transported like cattle, disembarked packed rail cars in a unfamiliar, hostile, land. Separated into two lines – one to live, and one to die – only hours after arrival.  How could evil this horrid be permitted to exist in modern times?  One preserved railcar still remains on the tracks, displaying how people arrived and the deplorable travel conditions. On one side of the camp 15 prisoner barracks remain, restored, so the world cannot forget. Behind that row of 15 around 105 more existed, only the chimneys are left behind. Near the end of the war, when Germany was near defeat, the German soldiers tried to destroy and cover-up their atrocities. Like children who knew they were doing something wrong, but wanted to cover it up to avoid punishment.

Like I said before, I’m glad we did it. As we were leaving, we had to stand on the tracks leading into the camp one last time to ‘take it all in’. If you’re ever in that part of the world it really is worth the trip. Both sites are free to enter, and guided tours in several languages are available.

The pictures below are ordered by Auschwitz II, and then Auschwitz I:

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Captivating Kraków

Ever since our spontaneous weekend of renting a car and driving to Venice to meet a friend, it encouraged us to take more weekend trips that are drivable from Vienna. Krakow was always on my list of must-see places and it was only about a five hour drive. We took advantage of Hubs’ “summer hours” at work and got on the road around 4PM on Friday. We made good time, despite the traffic and road work we encountered in the Czech Republic. To put it in perspective, it was about the same driving time from Baltimore to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Krakow is undeniably beautiful. It’s so rich in history.  Again, I think it’s one of those cities that people tend to overlook when planning their European holiday. We chose to stay in the Jewish quarter, which is about a 15-20 minute walk to all the sights the city has to offer. Since we only had one full day and a morning in Krakow, we packed in as much as we could without feeling overwhelmed and grumpy. Rynek Główny (the main market square) was gorgeous and impressive. It’s the biggest medieval square in Europe. We got suckered into taking one of the carriage rides, which I read was a “must”. It was nice and gave us a nice overview of old town, but like Vienna, it was pricey. On the order of $40 for a 20 minute, non-narrated, carriage ride. If that’s your sorta thing, make sure you start early, before 10am. It’s cool in the summer mornings and there aren’t too many people, yet. Later in the day, the market square was jam packed.

I became enamored by the traditional Polish pottery/dishes I kept seeing around the market square. The items were hand-made, hand-painted, and were of excellent quality. Hubs thought the items very unique as well, but frowned at the seemingly high center-of-town-prices. I did my research a little later and found a small locally run place over in the Jewish quarter. The sales lady there was fantastic. She carried the same items from downtown, but the prices were at least 25% cheaper. Plus, she only carried items which she researched to be reliable pieces. She mentioned she would occasionally make trips to the factory to see items being made first hand, so she would be knowledgeable about what she was selling in her store.  I may have went a little overboard, based on looks from Hubs, but I don’t know if we’ll ever have the opportunity again. I am definitely looking forward to putting our new pieces to use and replacing some of our older items.

After the pottery adventure, we aimlessly explored the Jewish quarter.  We walked along the picturesque river and crossed on the fancy pedestrian bridges. The Jewish quarter is sort of like the “hipster” part of town.  Lots of unique little shops, cafes, and cute little restaurants. We found a neat little ice cream place. They had some very odd flavors, but were done well( beer, gorgonzola, and rose). Just after the ice cream we happened upon St. Joseph’s church, the one which looks like it could be a castle. The architecture was amazing.  We wanted to take a peek inside, because that’s what you do when you see old churches. As we got closer we heard singing and people talking inside the church, on a Saturday. We stepped inside and realized there was a wedding going on. Since we were uninvited guests we stood at the back and watched for a few minutes, trying to understand what was going on. It seemed like a traditional wedding ceremony. It was a cool experience being there, watching, and listening. After we left there we made our way back into town, feeling uplifted by the joyous occasion.

 

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A Moment of Spontaneity

When an old high school friend contacted me via Facebook on Thursday saying that she and her husband were in Europe, the conversation went on about their itinerary and so on. When I mentioned it to Hubs around 7PM the next day, he asked where they would be this weekend, “Venice”, I said. Since Hubs has never been to Venice and my friend was this close, we quickly contacted our dog’s sitter to see if she would take him in last minute. Then, we scrambled to book a car and hotel room.  All within an hour on a Friday night. I told my friend that we would be making the roadtrip to see her! It turned out that I booked us at the same hotel as they were staying! How crazy was that?

We jumped into the car in the early hours of Saturday morning, dropped off our dog, and were on our merry way to Venice. It took us seven hours, but it was worth it to reconnect with an old friend and meet her other half. We had a wonderful time with them. The following morning, we got an early start to take in all the typical sights of Venice for Hubs, some shopping for me, had lunch, gelato and headed back home from Venice around 2pm in the afternoon, for another 7 hour drive.

Yes, it was a whirlwind trip over the weekend, but it was so much fun! Hubs and I have never done anything this spontaneous before. We are big planners and this was something completely new and exciting for us. Maybe it should become a habit?

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Spectacular Santorini (Part One)

Santorini is a beautiful island in the Aegean Sea. It’s a caldera that is shaped into what it is today because of a volcanic eruption that happened in the 16th century. There are no words to describe the beauty of Santorini. Just imagine white washed buildings, not a cloud in the sky, friendly Greeks and the bluest of blue waters and it sounds like heaven doesn’t it?

Another perk of living in Vienna? Direct flights (during high season) into Greek islands that otherwise would have needed a stop in Athens. All it took was a two hour flight to get to paradise. Amazing! There was quite a hiccup on our flight there, but we got to spend the next few days in a beautiful place. It was so relaxing, our five days felt like double that.

We stayed in the capital of Fira. The iconic blue domes can be found in the town of Oia (pronounced e-ya). Hubs and I explored both extensively. There were buses you could take from one town to the other, which was quite convenient (and cheap!). We also spent a morning exploring one of the many beaches on the island.  Santorini is not really known for its beaches. If you’re looking for white sandy beaches, you’ll be disappointed. The beaches are pebbled with volcanic rocks and coarse sands.  Getting in and out of the water can be a challenge if you don’t have water shoes. Plus, the bottom drops off very quickly, but you can see the bottom up to 10 feet or so.  Hubs ended up wearing his flip-flops in the water to protect his feet from the rocks.

The sunsets every night were magical and left us in a silent awe. The food was amazing. The hospitality of the Greek people was a nice change from Vienna. All in all, it was a great vacation and hopefully we can return again in the future.

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