Sunday, January 11, 2009

Five Days in Tarpon Springs

Like so many others who have done “the crossing”, we were elated to see all the activity, pelicans, snowy egrets, commercial fishing boats, restaurants, sponge boats and people as we pulled into the village of Tarpon Springs on Monday, January 5th. It was a pretty ride from the main channel up the narrow bay with commercial boats on each side of us; we made our way to the City Marina—our home for the next four nights. The smells of the different restaurants made our mouths water! Cute shops right on the water—real civilization—yes!!! Color Kay and Diane very happy!

Side by side with “C-Life”, we quickly got both boats settled in our narrow slips and immediately hit the pavement. We were definitely in the thick of activity—and all just a few feet from our boats! We were located right beside the Sponge Factory Museum, sponge boats and several head boats—boats for daily off-shore bottom fishing that take individual passengers out on the Gulf. (“Head” boat means you don’t need to charter the whole boat to enjoy a day of fishing; you just buy a ticket and get on—they provide all the fishing equipment.) We had been told by other Loopers that this location—City Marina—was the best location for seeing and visiting all the popular spots in the area of Tarpon Springs which we would be interested in.

With 65% of the population being Greek in Tarpon Springs, it was no wonder we had landed in the thick of Greek food restaurants and culture. We chose for dinner Monday night, from a recommendation by recent Loopers, a near-by restaurant called “Hella’s”. As expected, it really was delicious—except that Louis ordered grilled octopus, thinking it would taste like calamari. At some point, Louis needs to tell everyone reading this blog what he thought of his meal. Let me put it this way—I’m proud of him for trying something different! We all got lots of laughs just from watching Louis react to the plate put in front of him and Robert pushing back in his chair away from the dish!

We had expected bad weather/rain on Tuesday (we did have high winds though), but the front stalled and it wouldn’t get here until Wednesday. We had heard that taking an hour’s trolley ride would be worth our time—and since the weather was accommodating us—we thought it a good idea. So off we went a couple of blocks to catch the trolley. Little did we know it was Epiphany Day—a Greek religious holiday—and that thousands of people would descend upon this town to watch the festivities. Our trolley ride couldn’t navigate the narrow streets packed with cars from all over the surrounding areas. So we decided to follow the crowds and see what all the hoopla was about.

Epiphany Day is always January 6th—it is the twelfth day after the birth of Christ and the day that John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the river Jordan. The Greeks celebrate this day with gusto! They gather in their neighborhood churches for a service at 11am, and then all walk in a procession around noon (with the priests in full robes and drummers leading the way) to a natural spring area/lagoon—located centrally to the community. (The largest church, St. Nicholas, was broadcasting its’ service to all of us gathered on a lawn at Spring Bayou just two blocks away.) We saw several men, women and especially children in their native Greek costumes too—just precious—more Kodak moments. And surrounded by thousands of on-lookers sitting on the steep, grassy lawn all around this small lagoon area, the celebrations continued. After more prayers and blessings from the singing and chanting priests, around 60 young boys (ranging in age from 15 to 17) all clad in black shorts and solid white tee-shirts raced down the steep, stone steps and jumped into the shallow lagoon. The boys then swam/raced to about 8 small boats, all tied together in a semi-circle, and tried to get on them. Several of the boats tipped over with too many youths trying to get into the closer ones and other boats sank from the sheer weight of too many bodies. It was fun to watch—people were laughing and yelling and there was so much excitement. (I felt like I was watching the running of the bulls in Italy!) After a few more prayers, the main priest threw a small, white, wooden—but heavy— cross into the lagoon and all the young men frantically jumped in the water in hopes of retrieving the blessed cross from the bottom of the waters. As is custom for 103 years now, the boy who finds the sunken cross is believed to have the greatest of good fortune/luck for the coming year. And as it turned out, the young man who found the cross was the fifth in his family to do so. (Talk about pressure!) His grandfather, his father, and two uncles all preceded him in their youths—finding the cross—a very “lucky” family indeed!

After the cross celebration, everyone started walking away from the lagoon. We wound up eating a late lunch in another Greek restaurant—the local’s favorite, “Mama’s” (Kay got her Greek fried cheese—yum!) Again, everything was delicious but very crowded this Epiphany Day—and we decided that since it was so late, we would not have dinner but walk up after dark and eat pastries for “dinner”! What a hoot—we’ve never done that before—we hadn’t been enticed at all after either huge meal to order dessert, but we knew we wanted to sample the beautiful/delicious pastries from the three fabulous bakeries before we left here. So, we each ordered 2 desserts—I had tiramisu and chocolate chipped canolies (sp.?). Louis ordered carrot cake and an éclair. Have I said yet that when we get home from this trip that both Louis and I are joining Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous?! It’s sad, but true.

An interesting thing happened to us earlier Wednesday morning when we were both working outside, Mary and Bob Drake from Soundings magazine walked up to us and asked to interview both “C-Life” and “Bella Luna” for an upcoming issue on boaters enjoying Tarpon Springs! They both stayed around for almost an hour, Bob taking pictures and Mary writing frantically in her steno pad—what fun we had, Robert, Kay, Louis and I all eagerly talking about our fabulous journey—and someone was actually listening! Louis eventually pulled out several Soundings magazines we had on board and Mary turned to an article she had written and lo and behold, Louis had dog-eared the page! I really think she was delighted and impressed that it was interesting enough to us that we had ear-marked that particular article—one on Saint Simmons Island in Georgia, where we plan/hope to stop on our way home. It will be interesting to see what Mary has to say about us when the article comes out later on this year—she said it would be in an early winter publication—and I do so hope Bob took good pictures—especially of me!

Thursday morning we finally got our trolley ride, after two other attempts. Of particular interest were the three neighborhood churches all within easy walking distance. So after lunch, Robert & Kay & I (Louis was going back to wash the boat) took off to visit these churches—stopping by the Spring Bayou to hopefully get a chance to see the manatees which had been there earlier on our trolley ride. As hoped, they were still there and we watched and watched as they came up for air in the shallow spring. Slow and gentle and huge, one even had a baby—which was sticking very close to its’ mother. What fun—now I can say I’ve seen a manatee up close and personal! And the churches were very special too—one was a lovely, small “neighborhood” Greek Orthodox--Saint Michael--and the other was the large Greek Cathedral--St. Nicholas—with beautiful guilt, paintings and many stained glass windows—the church that had broadcast the worship service on Epiphany Day. The third church was a small Unitarian Universalist Church featuring George Inness, Jr’s wonderful, huge paintings.

On our way back to the boats, Kay and I stopped at Mykonos restaurant for a glass of wine and a beer for me and I got the fried smelts, which I had been wanting to try ever since I saw a plate of them go by at another restaurant. Very small, very tasty and lightly fried, I was glad I hadn’t missed this wonderful Greek specialty. To their credit, Kay & Robert & Louis all tried one, but they didn’t like them—so I got the whole dish to myself—yum! And I’ve decided if we ever get the opportunity to go back to Tarpon Springs, we’re going to eat at Mykonos first—definitely the best of the three Greek ones we tried.

We’ve decided to eat on the boat tonight (Kay’s cooking soup) and tomorrow (Friday) we leave for fuel and an overnight in Clearwater, then two nights in St. Pete (Saturday & Sunday) and on Monday move across Tampa Bay to spend a few nights in Apollo Beach with our dear friends we’ve traveled with so much throughout this trip—Peggy and Guy Leverett on “Southern Comfort”. They have graciously offered us and the Creeches the use of their dock and their neighbor’s dock for a couple of nights’ layover and a special visit with them. “Southern Comfort” completed the Loop just a few weeks ago before Christmas and they now have earned their gold Looper flag—congratulations, Peggy & Guy!

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