A swing through Seattle to meet one of my consultants at a wine bar? Sure - did that a few weeks ago. Make your own artisan, organic, whatever pizza with hipsters (and clients) in LA - yep, two weeks ago. Micro brews with team in Portland, Dallas, San Francisco and Spokane - just last week. Late-night fancy dinners at Michelin-star restaurants around the world - too many to recall.
And while I enjoy my work, my teams and my clients (and the travel and fancy meals that go along with it), there's a lot to be said about going somewhere where you have a connection, keeping it simple and catching up with family. That small difference can surprisingly elevate a gyro eaten in a smoky bus station or a lamb chop grilled on a small fire to a level that rivals anything the world's top chefs can dish out.
So for the later part of my current trip, I made that small adjustment. Shifting from Corporate to Big Brother mode on Wednesday with a flight from Zurich to Thessaloniki to visit Mara, Arthur, Nik and Kat.
Arthur picked me up and promptly flooded me with Greek culture as we walked along the waterfront, taking in the nice weather and watching the college students from the numerous local universities take in the sun - and take over nearly every seat at every coffee shop we saw.
We then grabbed a quick bite before jumping into the car for the three hour drive over to Kalampaka. We headed inland through fields and the countryside, followed by a gentle incline with snow-covered peaks on all sides to remind you there's a lot more to Greece than Santorini.
As we entered Kalampaka, a quaint small town emerged with locals that look like they came right out of 'central casting' for an old, Greek town (yes, I realize this comment is a bit ethnocentric). There were small shops, a couple squares, pedestrian zones, a fountain or two, and lots of places to buy a cell phone. But what really caught my eye were the huge lit-up rocks that tower over the town - and which only loomed larger as we got closer and closer to Arthur and Mara's house.
We drove toward the rocks until we couldn't drive forward anymore. That's their place. And being late at this point, we simply had a quiet night, enjoyed an Alpha beer, and strategized a plan for the morning.
I woke up a little late the next day in my room at the Koka Roka (the small guesthouse Arthur's mom, Arthur and Mara run next door). But after a few cups of coffee, I was back up to speed and soon found myself in the car with the whole family en route to our first adventure (and great meal) of the trip.
About an hour outside of town, and about 2,000 meters up, the countryside and rocks give way to peaks, canyons, and lakes which also happened to be covered in a few feet of snow (at least).
Arthur snaked his way through narrow two lane roads made into single lanes thanks to the snow plows, past rural villages struggling to maintain their existence, and by new hotels geared toward Athenians who need a break from city life - until a minuscule sign indicated we'd reached our destination: a fish farm.
Not just any farm, mind you, one that also figured out more people would come if you also cooked the fish (like us), so they opened a restaurant on the same spot.
Thanks to the snow, we had the place to ourselves and Nik and Kat lead the charge, devouring spectacular feta, salad, fries, this type of bread/garlic spread, trout, sausages and steak. Ate way to much and had to skip dessert - went outside and threw snowballs with Nik instead.
With our stomachs full we turned around and headed back for our next adventure (and the conference call I couldn't get out of - hurray for Koka Roka wifi!).
While we were gone, Arthur's mom, Katerina, had been prepping some lamb to treat us to that evening. Once I wrapped my call, I walked into the tavern to the to a heavenly barbecue smell of meat seasoned only with (I'm told) salt, oregano, red pepper, black pepper and lemon.
There must be another secret ingredient because the lamb was amazing. I use those spices all the time but my results are no where near hers.
Again the kids lead the way with the lamb chops. If I hadn't distracted baby Kat a few times, she probably wouldn't have left any for me!
Once again, too full for any desert so I taught Nik checkers instead - and he quickly figured out how to beat me.
The next morning, Mara walked me to her favorite coffee shop to power up for our big day hiking the monasteries. After a few rounds, Arthur met up with us, drove us around the rocks to the Meterora monastery and dropped us off to hike back to Kalampaka.
These aren't ordinary monasteries - these are perched on impossibly high cliffs, barely accessible, many requiring elaborate pulley / elevator / rope / ladder systems to access. Mara and I went into Meterora and then walked by a few others as we made our way back.
You'll have to look at the images below as I'm struggling to really articulate the spectacle.
Walking down the footpath, we were met halfway by Arthur, Nik and Kat who were trying to ambush us and, more importantly, hurry us up because the pastichio (sp?) - a type of Greek, deconstructed lasagna - was getting cold.
This time, I got ahead of Baby Kat and got my fill (but she did swipe all the cucumbers from the salad). After lunch, we simply rested our legs and enjoyed the sun at Koka Roka - until I had to do another conference call I couldn't get out of (hurray Koka Roka wifi!).
With my final call out of the way, it was getting time for me to head to the airport (via a 3 hr bus to Thessaloniki). Arthur and Mara packed up me, Nik, and Kat - swung by a Gyro stand and sent me off on the bus smelling like onions, tsatziki, and pork. Fellow passengers must have loved me.
I now find myself at the airport, waiting to head off to Zurich and Amsterdam before getting to my most important place - home and Leslie, Andrew, Owen and Sarah.
But I'm already looking forward to when I can come back and add another great meal to my all-time best list!