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Fishes and Food of Crete: An Awesome Aquatic Adventure

Fishes and Food of Crete: An Awesome Aquatic Adventure

Now, I think I have covered inland Crete pretty well, but a lot of you may be asking me “Isn’t Crete an island? When do I get to hear about the water?” Don’t worry, I’m getting to that. I will also mix in some recommendations 

Voluminous Vultures: Birdwatching in Crete

Voluminous Vultures: Birdwatching in Crete

One of the most fun things I did in Crete was go on a guided hike through the Platania Gorge. This spectacular gorge has a lot to love about it, but there’s one thing in particular that sets it apart from the rest of Crete’s 

Kapsaliana Cooking: The Meal That Changed My Life

Kapsaliana Cooking: The Meal That Changed My Life

I hate soft cheese with a burning passion. Or at least, I did, until a cooking class in Crete changed my mind. I was walking down a small cobblestone path through the abandoned olive mill of Kapsaliana, enjoying the gardens as I went to the outdoor kitchen for my very first cooking class. I was super excited, and after I crested the final step, I ran eagerly into the kitchen to see the ingredients I would be working with. All of them looked great to me, until I saw the plate of soft, crumbly cheese (fresh Mizithra, to be specific). After I saw that, I thought “oh great, why, of all the ingredients they could have chosen, did it have to be soft cheese,” and I suddenly doubted why I was there at all. However, since I was determined to try new things on our trip, I pressed on and prepared to start cooking.

After fixing the cheese plate with a baleful glare, I grabbed the fresh dough from the pile and prepared to make a Sfakianopita, a traditional Cretan hand pie filled with cheese and coated with honey and sesame seeds. I grabbed the rolling pin and began rolling the Sfakianopita dough into a thin, flat circle. The dough seemed to sense my hesitation about the cheese, and was reluctant to turn into the right shape, giving me more time to dread the step when I would be forced to add the cheese. Then, after carefully attempting to grab the cheese plate without touching the cheese, I poured it into the middle of my dough. At first, I questioned myself, thinking ”what have I done?” Eventually, I sucked it up and moved on to the next step, folding the dough into a dumpling-like shape, carefully avoiding the cheese like it would give me the plague if I touched it. Then, I got to take my anger out on it by flattening it with a rolling pin. At that point, I put the Sfakianopita into the pan, which was coated with olive oil, and delighted with the glorious sound of the cheese being fried as I coated the pie with sesame seeds and honey, and hoped that the flavor of the honey would be strong enough to smother the flavor of the cheese. Once the seeds started to toast, the pie smelled so good that I was actually starting to get excited to try my Sfakianopita.

Before trying the cheese

When the pie was done, I pulled it out of the pan and put it on a plate, enjoying the satisfying sizzles and splatters coming from the beautiful, golden-brown pie. Then, fearing that all my work would be for nothing and that I would hate it, I took a bite. The flavors exploded in my mouth, a detonation of beautiful honey, sweet dough, toasted seeds, and, to top it off, a beautiful, fried, cheesy flavor.  It was incredible, and the mild, slightly earthy element the cheese added was eye-opening, and mouth-wateringly good. I found myself wishing that I had made another pie, so that I could savor the experience for longer. I would make this dish again at home in a heartbeat, but, ironically, the only ingredient I can’t find is the cheese.

After trying the cheese
Dakos Salad, another wonderful dish I made during this class, and homemade Tzatziki
Hortopita, roughly translating to grass pie, with extremely fresh herbs and more soft cheese
Exploring Milos, You’ll Be Shore To Love It

Exploring Milos, You’ll Be Shore To Love It

While the best way to explore the entirety of Milos is by boat, if you want to explore the parts of the island that are not touching the coast, exploring by land is a much better option. Additionally, boat tours don’t visit every beach. Therefore, 

Milos: a Great Place for Boats (and Goats)

Milos: a Great Place for Boats (and Goats)

Have you ever found yourself looking for a nice, secluded island getaway, with as much beautiful scenery as Santorini (at least, according to the people I talked to), but without as many pesky tourists? Well, Milos is the island for you. It is a small 

History and Hoopoes: a Guide to the Wonders of Athens

History and Hoopoes: a Guide to the Wonders of Athens

Athens is a very unique city, with history readily available for anyone to see. It is like someone pulled the city out of a textbook, and made it come to life. The city does not just showcase the past, it is the past itself meshing with everyday life today. Even the thought of this is amazing, and it is something that works even better in practice. For instance, you can just walk off a side street with a convenience store and find yourself near the ruins of massive temple, with huge columns scattered around the foundation of a massive marble building. While just wandering around is fun, you will probably need a guide to help. I certainly did, after all! While I have no doubt you could enjoy the city without one, seeing a lot of the sights and learning all the history that you can in the time that you are there almost certainly requires a guide. The guide I used, Dimitria, was very nice, and knew a ton about the city. I, for one, highly recommend her tours for anyone interested in learning about the wonders of the city, because her tours can teach you everything you need to know about the city. Her email is dpapadopou@yahoo.com, and, if you would like to schedule a tour, email her.

The Temple of Hephaestus

For my Athens walking tour on the first day, I started in the new Acropolis museum. The way in was paved with glass windows looking down into an excavation site. It was quite impressive, as the museum was not just showcasing history, it was quite literally built on it. Understanding the past is an important step towards understanding the future, making Athens a city of knowledge. The exhibits on the first floor were amazing, with tons of ancient pottery and statues. The statues were particularly impressive, and although some were missing sections, they were still quite clearly excellently made. Most of these statues either depicted mythological Greek monsters, heroes, or Athena, however, some depicted the day-to-day life of Athenians. One particular set of statues once supported the Erechtheion in the place of columns, and one was actually missing for a strange reason. During Ottoman occupation of Greece, the British actually stole one of the columns, as well as some statues and tiles from the Acropolis. These statues are currently displayed in the British museum, and the Greek government is attempting to get the statues back. Until then, however, the museum is leaving an empty slot where one of the statues once stood in order to remind people of what happened.

Statues that once supported the Erechtheion.

After learning about the history of the statues, I moved one floor up to examine the statues and tiles once adorning the roof of the Parthenon. There were tons of beautiful tiles depicting a battle between centaurs and humans, and triangular frames filled with sculptures of the Greek gods and the contest for Athens. This particular legend involves Poseidon and Athena competing for Athens. Poseidon gave the city a saltwater well, and Athena gave the city an olive tree. The citizens supposedly chose the olive tree and dedicated the city to Athena. The sculptures were incredible, with some impressive art of the Greek gods. I was actually able to identify almost all of the gods in the sculptures, which I was quite proud of. This level also had a film about the history of the Acropolis, which was quite interesting, explaining the periods of occupation and how the Acropolis became so damaged (a Venetian shot a cannon at it and blew part of it up). The Acropolis was made in the 5th century BC, so it is quite old, and surprisingly well-preserved for its age.

The entrance to the Parthenon

After the museum, I went exploring in the other sections of the city. I left the area where the museum was situated and continued through the old town. The old town (the Plaka district of Athens) was quite pretty, with tons of red tile roofs and beautiful trees set along winding streets. I stopped at the ruins of the temple of Zeus, with massive columns marking where an imposing temple once stood. It used to be designed similarly to the Parthenon, only on a smaller scale, but now it is only a few standing columns and some fallen rubble. I walked back onto the streets and continued walking through the city. Then, I reached the Olympic stadium, and I was stopped dead in my tracks by the massive scale of it. The stadium was an enormous, multi-tiered affair in a giant horseshoe shape. The stadium was quite impressive, with its huge walls and enormous flagpoles, and it is an impressive historical site, even if that history is more recent than the Acropolis (the stadium was built in 1896).

The Olympic Stadium

On the way back, I passed through the botanical garden, which contained some pretty birds and trees with huge canopies spread over the path. These birds included, oddly enough, parrots. Yes, you heard me right, there are parrots in Athens. The other strange part is that there are actually a lot of them. It is not just the occasional parrot, they are all around the gardens. The plants in the garden are also impressive, making the area a nice forested park with trees and some flowers. There is even a little pond with some turtles in it. After I left the park, I emerged near the monument to the unknown soldier. This is a monument near the gardens, with an engraved stone wall behind it. This monument is not actually dedicated to a specific soldier, and is instead dedicated to the cost of war. Every hour, there is a changing of the guard ceremony that is quite impressive to watch. At eleven on Sundays, there is a larger changing of the guard, complete with the outfits worn by the military at the time the monument was created. These changing of the guard displays are quite busy, but are an impressive spectacle for anyone willing to endure the crowds.

The next day, I woke up and went on another walking tour with Demetria. This time, I met her outside the Ancient Agora. I just expected some ruins in the Ancient Agora, which would have still been cool, but it had some impressive bird life, too! Specifically, Hoopoes, which are one of my three favorite birds in the world. That is a pretty high bar, considering that there are around 900 species of birds in Europe alone. In case you didn’t know what a Hoopoe is, (and don’t worry if you don’t, most people have never heard of them, let alone know what they are) let me tell you. A Hoopoe is a small orange bird with black and white wings and a massive orange and black crest on their head. They have large, checkered wings, and crests larger than those on a cockatoo, even though the bird itself is about half the size of one. They are beautiful little things, smaller than a dove but larger than a finch, and have so much character. I could have watched the one I found forever, but I wasn’t there for the birds (unfortunately). I went to the temple of Hephaestus next, and it was a beautiful temple, and was still almost perfectly preserved to this day. Another interesting place in the Agora was the prison where Socrates died. Sure, it was just a ruin in the ground, but it is historically significant. On my walk back from the prison, I spotted another Hoopoe walking around near the ruins. An additional unique thing about these birds is that usually, small, colorful birds have smaller beaks. But not Hoopoes, these things have massive beaks that look more suited for wading birds than ground feeders.

The Temple of Hephaestus

The Temple of Hephaestus

Hoopoe!

The Temple of Hephaestus

Hoopoe!

Hoopoe!

The Temple of Hephaestus

After the Ancient Agora, (which I would have stayed in for a lot longer if I could have) I began walking up to the Acropolis. The walk up was quite difficult, with very little heat and a lot of heat. At one point, I found a spot under a tree, and rested there for a little bit, because I knew the shade would be hard to come by. About halfway through the walk, I lucked out and found another Hoopoe on the ground. This one was not particularly shy, and walked towards us, turning its funny little head to look at us, then digging in the ground for more food. This was the most photogenic Hoopoe I found, and therefore my favorite. After the Hoopoe, I continued walking up the hill to the Acropolis. When I reached the gate, I spotted something strange, cats. There were stray cats sunbathing around the Acropolis gate, mostly near the ticket boxes. Once I got my tickets, I began the ascent up to the door, and stopped to see the theater. This theater (dedicated to Dionysus) was quite impressive, and is huge. It actually used to be indoors, but the roof was destroyed, and it is now used as an outdoor theater instead. To this day, the theater is still used for concerts and other performances.

Hoopoe!

Hoopoe!

Hoopoe!

Hoopoe!

As I crested the final few steps to the Acropolis, I got my first view of the temples on the hill. They were enormous, with massive columns of chiseled limestone and huge stone blocks. The temples would have been cool even if they were smaller, but at the scale that they were built on, they were incredible, filling the hill with huge, magnificent architecture. The temples were extremely impressive, however the Parthenon was still being repaired due to the Venetian cannon shot that hit the temple during the Ottoman occupation, as well as natural decay. There actually used to be a golden statue of Athena in the temple, but unfortunately, that is now gone. Even damaged, however, the temple is an imposing sight, and the setting is amazing, built on a massive hill overlooking all of Athens, giving you a bird’s eye view of the whole city. The Erechtheion was amazing, too, and was also better preserved. This one had the column statues, and had a huge, beautiful olive tree out front. After I investigated the temples, I didn’t linger on the Acropolis for too long (it was far too hot up there) but I did take a good look over the city, and it was an impressive view. Believe it or not, there actually used to be a superstition about the Acropolis, saying that birds did not fly over it. I do not believe birds avoid it because the area is sacred, but rather because of an extreme lack of food on the top of the hill. It just makes more sense that way.

The Parthenon

The Erechtheion

The Erechtheion

The Erechtheion

The Parthenon

Speaking of food, there was not a lack of good food in Athens, in fact, there were tons of good options. Some of my favorites included Smak (a shop for pengyri, a dish similar to pizza), O Thanasis (extremely tender souvlaki), Portatiph (a treat shop with perhaps the best desserts I had there, with an exceptional bannofe and pistachio velvet cake), Ama Lachei (for tapas, or small shareable dishes and some very cute restaurant cats that would also love for you to share your plates), and 2 Mazi (an excelent dinner place with exceptional dessert). All in all, if you couldn’t tell, Athens has amazing food! A trend in Greek food is that rather than overcomplicating their food, they use simple, high-quality ingredients for most things. Greek food is all about the simple things done well.

SMAK

Athens is a wonderful city, rich in flavor (metaphorically and literally) and history. If you want to be transported into history, you should go to Athens, as you can get all the beautiful temples and ancient history without losing the convenience of being in a city. It is like traveling back in time, but taking everything from today that you would miss with you. Athens blends the past, present, and future in a very special way, which can be found nowhere else, and should be visited at least once in your life.

From Birds to Bobcats: Wonderful Wildlife Watching in Point Reyes

From Birds to Bobcats: Wonderful Wildlife Watching in Point Reyes

Point Reyes is an amazing place, with some of the most impressive biodiversity I have ever seen. Just by taking a quick drive along the main roads, you can tell it is a haven for nature. There are tons of birds, as well as a 

The Unbearably Fun Grand Teton Experience

The Unbearably Fun Grand Teton Experience

I really liked the birds in Grand Teton National Park, but I get the feeling that some of you are waiting for the mammals. Therefore I will acknowledge the moose in the room with this post (elephant didn’t seem quite right for a post involving 

Beaks by the Peaks, Birdwatching in Grand Teton

Beaks by the Peaks, Birdwatching in Grand Teton

While Yellowstone is amazing and has the unique aspect of geysers, if you are just interested in wildlife, and can’t BEAR me talking about geysers, here are some wildlife posts just for you, fresh from Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton National Park is an incredible wildlife hotspot, with everything from bears to Baird’s sparrows (a small and quite cute little bird). Since the park is large and has lots of wildlife viewing spots, it might be best to take a guided tour early on in order to learn where to go to find the wildlife you’re looking for. Just remember, I don’t want to sound like your mother, but don’t be the tourist who tries to take a selfie with a bear, and don’t forget to both respect the wildlife and to bring bear spray.

Sparrow

So, to start things out, I would like to mention a few details, just so you know. If you decide to take the same tour we did, the tour company is Ecotour Adventures, and we had to wake up really early to start the tour. Now, for the more interesting parts. Our guide for our bird-focused tour, Tyler, was extremely knowledgeable about the local birds, and although I get the sense he doesn’t get to do many bird tours, he is very good at them. Our tour was extremely successful, and we got to see tons of different species of birds. Part of our key to success on the birding tour was the fact that we didn’t stop for any other wildlife, and literally ignored a moose to attempt to find a sapsucker (a type of woodpecker). Also, I have an important tip for wildlife watching in Grand Teton, if anyone asks you what you are looking at, tell them that you’re birdwatching, even if you aren’t. And, unless the person you’re telling knows our guide, Tyler, they will probably just drive off without asking any more questions. This trick is quite effective at driving off tourists, and if anyone stays, they deserve to see what you’re looking at.

The first place we went on our birding tour tour was the fish hatchery outside of town. This seemed like an odd place to look for birds, but Tyler explained that not only was there a pond nearby, some fishing birds liked to raid the hatchery for a free meal. When we showed up, the pond was empty except for a few waterfowl, but there was a kingfisher nearby. This kingfisher was holding a fish fresh from the hatchery pool, still flopping in its beak. It sat on the pole of a nearby fence for a little while, then flew off, still carrying the huge fish in its beak.

Kingfisher

After the hatchery, we traveled out into the plains, looking for a good place to stop and see sage grouse. On the way out to the sagebrush, we saw some pronghorns, which look a lot like goats, but are actually a type of sheep. They are also extremely fast, to the point where they have almost no land predators. One of their few predators happens to have the advantage of flight (large eagles). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any being chased, but they were still super pretty, and had awesome horns and eyelashes. When we reached the sagebrush, we were rewarded with tons of sparrows, of multiple different types, and a super pretty meadowlark. Shortly after getting out of the car in a grouse spot, we saw a horned lark. It was quite pretty, but the really cool part was the sage thrasher that showed up on a ridge not far from us. Tyler was quite intrigued, as he had never seen one around this area. By the end of the grouse outing, we still hadn’t seen any grouse, but we did see a green-tailed towhee, which was Tyler’s favorite bird. Not only is it rather rare to see a green bird, this one was somehow cute and elegant at the same time. It was a small brown and gray bird with a long, green tail. After the sagebrush areas, we got onto a dirt side road on our way back to the main loop. Before we reached the main road, though, a northern harrier skimmed by, then disappeared into the distance like a gray phantom. Northern Harriers are extremely elusive, especially the males (which are light gray, and are often known as the “gray ghost”) so we got quite lucky to see one.

Pronghorn

Meadowlark
Horned Lark
Green-Tailed Towhee

Sparrow

The next place we went was a secret spot that Tyler had found. We went into the forest, with the beautiful trees rising like giant spears into the sky. This trail had tons of birds on it, with everything from the yellow warbler to the harry woodpecker, and even some Swainson’s hawks flying outside the forest. The harry woodpecker was a rather bedraggled bird, with some very messy feathers, but it was cool to see it all the same. We thought we heard an owl at one point, but after entering a clearing in search of it, we discovered that it was a stellar’s jay making an owl-like noise. Even though I had my hopes up that we had found an owl in the forest, I have to hand it to that jay, it was an incredible mimic! It could even fool me and Tyler (I consider us to both be relatively competent birders). You may have noticed that I tried not to give a comprehensive description of this forest area. That is because it is Tyler’s secret, and I doubt he would like it if I just told you where it is.

Hairy Woodpecker

The last spot Tyler took us, which was home to some awesome birds, is the marsh outside downtown Jackson. It might seem like a strange place to look, considering that it was at the edge of town, across from a restaurant with a moose statue outside, but this marsh is home to yellow-headed blackbirds, which are extremely pretty birds with butter-yellow heads. The marsh is also home to red-winged blackbirds, which are extremely pretty, and some types of marsh warblers (we heard them, but never saw them, maybe you could be lucky enough to find one)! There were also hordes of Canada Geese and quite a few magpies!

Red-Winged Blackbird

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Ducks

While you might go to Grand Teton National Park for the bears or the moose, the place has a ton of unique birds too. Don’t worry, I’ll get to the moose situation soon, but until then, you should definitely check out the birds of the area. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and find a sage grouse! I certainly wish I did, but it was great even without them!

Venting About Yellowstone

Venting About Yellowstone

Now that I touched on the wildlife, you might be wondering “what about the geysers in Yellowstone, aren’t those the main event?” Well, here you go geyser enthusiasts, this one’s for you! Yellowstone has several fabulous geyser basins, including Midway Geyser Basin, West Thumb, the