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Elegant old walls and cobblestones in lovely Sighnaghi

From Sheki, Azerbaijan we did a 3-hour car trip over the border into Georgia and on to the lovely hilltop town of Signhaghi. Much more welcoming to tourists than Sheki, this town’s cobbled streets were bustling with life. We took an immediate liking to Georgia after the mild deprivations of Sheki.

After trying a couple house wines we stepped up to this bottle of “Friends’ Wine” (very local) at The Terrace restaurant. Big improvement.

A tiny town in itself, Sighnaghi serves as something of a tourist gateway to Georgia’s wine country. Georgia has long had a reputation for its winemaking. When I studied in the Soviet Union 32 years ago, whenever you saw wines they were from Georgia (though most people drank vodka). So we were looking forward to trying out the local brews.

The first couple tries were not a success at all. We’d have a glass of white with lunch or a carafe of red with dinner, and they were close to disasters. Then we climbed up the pricing scale a little and started to fare better. Once you get into the $8-10 a bottle range (in a restaurant) the wines started to do alright. Lesson: Even in Georgia, if the wine is running around $1 a glass, you might be making a mistake.

The highlight of our visit here was a day trip to see my old friend from Iowa, Sarah Dietch. We worked together for Senator Harkin years back, and Sarah is now doing a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Telavi, just an hour from Sighnaghi. It was great fun to come to Telavi to have a nice lunch and catch up on Georgia, politics, the Peace Corps, and various Harkinista friends.

Meeting up with Sarah in Telavi

Hiking up to The Terrace restaurant with great views above Sighnaghi

The atmospheric streets leading out of town

A memorial in the charming town center

The view from The Terrace restaurant

We think Georgian food is one of the best cuisines of the former Soviet Union

Weather during our stay was just gloomy enough to give the town a great atmosphere

How’s this cemetery for atmospheric?

After lunch with Sarah we paid a visit to this massive 900-year old plane tree in Telavi

Jim came across some fun graffiti

Romantic Georgian architecture under gloomy skies

A streetscape in Sighnaghi

More autumn gloom

The Acropolis from the breakfast area on top of our hotel

We’ve been to Athens quite a few times. Whenever you come to Greece you are very likely to fly into or out of Athens — or both. Because it is the epicenter of one of the world’s great historical civilizations, you usually spend a couple days doing the obligatory sights. Those would include the Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum, the museum of archeology, and a few other good ruins.

Jim glows at a great rooftop restaurant with fantastic food that we’ve been to several times

But we’ve done all of those things multiple times, and this time we just didn’t feel like doing any of them. So we were very bad, very lazy tourists.

I think Athens gets kind of a bad rap. Many people do make their one- or two-day stops here, including those obligatory visits to the top sites. And then they kind of dismiss it as a destination unto itself. But since I first came here 34 years ago, I have always really liked this city. It has a gritty kind of beauty. It has great food (but beware the many tourist traps; do your research). And it has a very cool nightlife scene. It’s a city that just has a ton of cool spots to have a drink or linger for hours over an espresso.

Unfortunately, our lazy visit ended on a negative note. After a nice lunch at an Indian restaurant, Jim’s wallet sort of inexplicably disappeared. He had used it to pay the lunch bill. And then we walked a short 10 minutes back to the hotel, at which point he noticed it was gone. Only two things could have possibly happened in that short window of time. He might have left it in the restaurant — but they claim they never saw it. Or he got pickpocketed — though the streets weren’t remotely crowded, so that seems so unlikely. We have a bad feeling that someone in the Indian restaurant kept it for the cash. Nobody has made any attempt to use the credit card or ATM card, so it doesn’t seem like a professional job. Ugh! So much hassle to deal with those things now!

Our hotel had a great rooftop bar with views of the Acropolis, so we encountered culture from a distance

On our other evening out we stopped at one of the cool bars in one of the cool neighborhoods that makes me love Athens

This is the kind of grittiness that makes Athens tick

After a month in Cyprus and Greece we were actually getting a little tired of Greek food, so we had our last lunch at an Indian restaurant. At this moment we are happy because the food was great. Too bad a lost wallet was in our immediate future.

Traveling with Bart and Ann is effortless fun. Here we are making the best of a day of unpredictable weather.

After our stop in Heraklion we met up with Bart and Ann again and travelled east to a fairly low-key resort town called Elounda. The town was okay, but the surrounding area was really beautiful. The Spinalonga peninsula juts out from the mainland near here, forming a gorgeous bay. Beyond the peninsula, Crete’s eastern mountains loom, so that views in every direction feature bands of various shades of blue. The bay is dotted with beaches in various directions, so you are never too far from a good swim.

Coffee time

High atop Spinalonga island

Two things did go wrong with our visit here. First was the weather. This is my fifth visit to Greece, and I’ve rarely ever encountered anything other than hot, dry weather. It almost never occurred to me that anything else existed here. And September is supposed to be an ideal time to visit. But we just had a few days of moody, rainy, grey weather, with an occasional respite of sunshine.

The second problem is that we rented an apartment on AirBNB that turned out to be a loser — one of those that looks much better in the pictures than in real life. Jim and I generally avoid AirBNB because of the wild unpredictability of what you get. But Bart and Ann are bigger fans, and it can be fun sharing a house with friends. But this place just felt crappy. Two of the three bedrooms were on an entirely subterranean floor, with the only light coming from the below-ground portion of a light well. These rooms were dark and depressing. Furnishings and towels and bed linens felt like cheap hand-me-downs from someplace else.

But none of this could stop the four of us from having a great time. We beat the weather by playing lots of cards. We survived the poor-value apartment by making lots of jokes. And when the weather took a surprise turn for the better we reveled in the sunshine on a wonderful beach. And of course we talked politics incessantly, as we are wont to do with these two.

And last, but not least, we also visited a leper colony. Spinalonga island is not just any leper colony. It’s an island dramatically situated in the bay with ruins of a 16th century Venetian fortress, later Turkish reinforcements, and the town that served as many as 1,000 resident lepers in the early to mid-20th century. Best leper colony we’ve ever been to.

A beach taverna in gloomy weather still has a certain charm, as taken in by a pensive Ann

Frolicking on the beach under moody weather

The pool and terrace were the nice part of our house, especially on the morning when the when the weather started to turn our way. The photos on the AirBNB site were all taken from masterly angles so that you had no idea these ugly electric wires were there.

Once the weather turned nice we settled on this amazing beach. That’s Spinalonga island, the former leper colony, on the right.

Approaching Spinalonga island on a ferry

Climbing among the fortifications on Spinalonga island

Jim reaches the summit of the island

One of the dramatic entrances to the leper colony

Jim poses with his namesake in a chapel to St. George on Spinalonga island