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A Dinner Fit for Jackie O

Christos Mediterranean Grille doesn’t look like much from the outside, sandwiched between Alihan’s Mediterranean Cuisine and Café Milano in the 100 block of 6th street in downtown Pittsburgh, but it packs a lot of character and charm into its menu and the 400 square-foot dining room.

Christos in downtown PittsburghYou might first think that the restaurant is a bit cluttered, as a lot of the big chains are, with this and that pinned to the wall for decoration, but upon further inspection you can see each item must have a special meaning and story for owner Christos Melacrinos, a Greek from the old country wearing the pride of his well-lived life on his sleeve.

The tables are small and seem to be rearranged to fit the seating needs of the moment. Only the smallest of gaps are left between your party and the one sitting next to you, in some ways providing the same communal experience you get at a big Greek family dinner.

The house red and warm pita started our meal at Christos

The house red and warm pita started our meal at Christos

The menu is filled with the staples of Greek dining: lamb, grape leaves, pastitsio, cheese pie, spinach pie and baklava. The wine is even served in a small cylindrical glass, just like in the tavernas along the beaches of Greece. We, of course, didn’t get the chance to sample the whole menu, but the large plate of cheese pie and the chicken kebab served with rice and string beans were excellent.

If you take a good look at the walls you will see photographs covering at least a hundred years of family history, some taken in Greece, others taken in portrait studios or at school. The glass-faced wooden hutch in the center of the room if filled with other knickknacks of family and Grecian past.

None of these items get the prominent placement of a collection of items dedicated to the memory of Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis. A Jackie O doll and the Life Magazine covering her wedding to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis are front and center. Why the fascination (beyond the fact that Jackie married a Greek man)? As a younger man, Christos was the personal chef of the former first lady and her second husband. He lived and worked aboard Christine, the Onassis’ super yacht (it was formerly a Canadian Coast Guard Cutter, but that’s another story).

This Pittsburgh Magazine clipping proclaims the Jackie O the best celebrity-inspired dessert.

This Pittsburgh Magazine clipping proclaims the Jackie O the best celebrity-inspired dessert.

When you’re finished with your dinner (all entrees under $14) Christos will come to your table and ask if you want dessert. You can hardly say ‘no’ as he explains with great pride the confection he created for the former first lady, and if you don’t believe him he’ll show you the clipping from Pittsburgh Magazine about the dessert. The Jackie O is a vanilla cake topped with Greek honey syrup, custard, whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon — all for $3. The generous slice of cake is so light it might float off the plate, and it tastes wonderful.

I like eating at places like Christos. I like going into a place with a story, a place where you can’t escape the pride an owner has for his business, a place where you know everything will be done to the best of the ability of the staff because cutting corners isn’t in their repertoire.

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Traveling Periodical-ly

I know this blog must be your very first read when it comes to travel information, but who do you read when you’re not reading us? If you don’t have a go-to source, we can offer these suggestions.

Afar Magazine is the bohemian magazine in the travel market. It serves to inspire those who travel the world seeking to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives (sound familiar?).

We have piles and piles of these!

We have piles and piles of these!

Travel + Leisure is the magazine for dreams. The destinations are often exotic and the accommodations are always top-notch. The magazine reviews the best-of-the-best in hotels and restaurants in each issue. I know the places and class level of travel are out of most budgets, but it’s fun to dream.

I was one of the first subscribers to Budget Travel when it made its debut. The pages of BT have changed a lot over the years, but it still provides some of the best information in the business. It’s the ultimate resource for the world’s savviest travelers. The current tips and tools come from some of the best travel writers and readers like you.

If you like sailing, boats, pictures of exotic locales, or adventure Cruising World is a great periodical for your collection. The magazine is perfect as a gift for the sailor in your life, supplying cruising advice and skills to help him or her navigate and sail safely in coastal waters, on lakes, or across oceans.

The pictures and storytelling in the pages of National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler may be the best in the whole world.  I, like many, used to collect National Geographic in the world before the internet (leading to many sagging bookshelves). I now have the magazine on the computer and my shelves are saved. Its sister publication, National Geographic Traveler, features the same trademark photography but focuses on what you need to know to get out and visit those places you used to only read about in the gold-bordered pages.

Backpacker exists to help readers explore the boundless wonders the natural world has to offer. Backpacker Magazine includes advice on the best gear, trails, training and great hikes near and far. I grew up hiking and backpacking (my parents’ property backs up to the Appalachian Trail) and the gear and advice that’s offered in its pages is great for the novice and experienced hiker and camper.

Traveling may be what I’d like to do full-time, but while I’m still forced to live in reality I’ll turn to these sources for inspiration between trips.

Did I miss one of your favorite magazines? Tell me about it!

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A Wow Moment

I was going back through our archives and realized there was one adventure that we haven’t talked about much: my adventure to Egypt.  When my little sister was even littler, she was fascinated with history and Egypt in particular. I — being her wonderful big brother — made her a promise, if she was still interested in Egypt when she graduated high school we would go. So, 10 years later, we were walking in the land of the pharaohs. We went with a small organized tour group of about 10 people from all over the world.

We saw dozens of amazing historical sites all over the Nile valley. Though it is almost cliche, one of the sites that still astounds me today is the Pyramids of Giza and our trip inside the largest of them all, the Great Pyramid (also known as Khufu’s pyramid). You can see the massive stone structure from miles away across the Nile as you hop on the crowded highways of Cairo. The Giza plateau sits 62 feet above sea level and the Great Pyramid rises 455 feet above that, letting it dominate the landscape. I’m not going to get into the theories of how and why these massive geometric tombs were built; I’ll simply focus on my own experience.

The best time to arrive at the complex is as early as you can manage it. The pyramids have been a major tourist attraction for about 5,000 years now. We arrived just as the park opened, exited the minibus on a large, dusty dirt parking lot and were hurried to the entrance of the tomb. We were told we could take pictures and look around outside later.

(L-R) Zachary (brother), Andi (Sister),Zeke (me)

(L-R) Zachary (brother), Andi (sister) and Zeke

We entered the tomb through a 3 ½ foot wide, 4 foot tall shaft, which descended at a 30 degree angle. If you’re over 4 feet tall you need to duck and keep your balance by holding onto one of the rope hand rails running along the smooth stone walls. The uncomfortable walk seems like it goes on forever, and just when it begins to feel intensely claustrophobic the passage opens up into what is known as the King’s Chamber. The room is roughly 35 feet by 17 feet and has a flat stone ceiling rising 19 feet overhead. The walls were covered with graffiti (where names have been carved into the undecorated walls), much of it hundreds of years old, made by grave robbers and early European explorers. The room still felt large as our whole tour group examined the walls and posed for pictures in front of the massive stone sarcophagus. The broken and undecorated sarcophagus is actually larger than any of the entrances to the room and must have been placed inside as the pyramid was being built.

The wow moment for me was not as much for the amazing age of the structure, or the miracle of its construction, but the weight of the situation. The estimated weight of the building is 5.9 million tons. There was at least 2/3 of that over my head. The structure had been solid and unmoving for 5,000 years, placed together with such precision that the space between the stones, some weighing 80 tons, was only 1/50th of an inch. I know it’s a simple idea, but to me it was mind-blowing a feeling that even with all my words, I have trouble articulating.

We were in the chamber for around 15 minutes, just us, our little group, before heading back out the same way we came in. If we were not alone the 3 ½ foot wide shaft would have been open to two-way traffic.  I shudder to think of the claustrophobic feeling of a crowd of people coming in as we came out. We were given plenty of time to take the pictures we were promised (when we bought our photo permit as we entered the park).

The experience is one that my sister, my brother and I go back to again and again as one of our most amazing adventures. It’s an experience we all recommend to everyone.

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A Walk Around DuPont Circle

DuPont Circle Sign

DuPont Circle in North West Washington, DC is probably one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. You can’t walk a block without coming across a restaurant, bookstore, bar, or club. The active, open and alternative nightlife is often what draws the college crowd from across the city.

One of the most amazing things about this neighborhood is just that, it is a neighborhood. The area, bounded by Rhode Island Avenue, NW and M and N Streets, NW on the south, Florida Avenue to the west and Swan Street to the north, is a living, breathing neighborhood where people live, eat, shop and work. The community has an interesting history, too, as one of the earliest planned communities in DC, and is a monument to the architecture of the gilded age of the 1880s.

The marble fountain in the center of the circle.

The marble fountain in the center of the circle.

The neighborhood is centered around DuPont Circle, a traffic circle and park at the intersections of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut Avenues.

Note: Wherever two state avenues intersect in DC it results in a traffic circle.

The circle was originally called Pacific Circle and had a statue of Rear Admiral Samuel Frances DuPont in commemoration of his civil war service. The statue was later replaced in the 1920s by the massive two-tiered marble fountain you see today.

DuPont Circle

The statues represent the Wind, the Stars, and the Sea.

The statues represent the Wind, the Stars, and the Sea.

The two kinds of houses that predominate the neighborhood are palatial mansions of the gilded age and two- three- and four-story rowhouses mainly built during the 1900s.

Many of the homes have been converted into apartments.

Many of the homes have been converted into apartments.

The Whittmore House (also known as The Weeks house) is presently home of the Woman’s National Democratic Club 1892. The copper-covered oriel bay is punched and tooled (see photos below) and gives hint of the industrial age and designs that would follow. The rest of the house is designed in the American Shingle style, setting it apart from the French style predominating the neighborhood. It also has the honor of being one of the first houses in the district with electricity.

The Whittemore House

The Whittemore House

The detail of the punch and tooled copper.

The detail of the punch and tooled copper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Perry Belmont

The Perry Belmont House

The Perry Belmont House easily stands out among the stately manors of the community. Designed in the Beaux Arts style in 1901, the house sits on a trapezoidal lot designed to take advantage of the space. The stately former home of Perry Belmont takes the form of a freestanding pavilion in a French style. The interior is filled with iron fixtures from France, wood from Germany, and marble from Italy. It’s eclectic, and somewhat odd when you consider that the former congressman was also the ambassador to Spain.

The building was home to lavish parties in the winter months for the Washington elite, and in 1919 housed Edward, Prince of Wales, as a guest on a state visit. Belmont, a freemason, sold the home to the masons and it’s now the home of the Order of the Eastern Star.

The unfortunate thing about many of the historic homes in DuPont Circle is they are not open to the public. So you’ll just have to do what I did and admire the architecture from the outside. (You may want to wait for warmer weather. It would be much more pleasant with temperatures above zero.) You may be able to contact some of the buildings that have been turned into embassies or businesses and work something out on a one-on-one basis.

 

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England Bound

With the holidays winding down it’s time for Amanda and me to start planning our winter break. Most of the time, Amanda gives me a budget of a couple thousand dollars and we escape to some place with crystal clear water and warm temperatures. I can’t express how much I look forward to running away to a tropical oasis each year.

But, this year is different. We made a promise we intend to keep; and that means we won’t be getting off the plane and feel a warm breeze in our face.

We'll be exchanging our dollars for British pounds in 2015.

We’ll be exchanging our dollars for British pounds in 2015.

We’re planning a trip to England. Yes, England — the rainy island — in February. If you’re concerned about miserable weather, well, you’ve got that kind of right. The temperatures that time of year tend to be in the 40s (the island rarely gets snow). The average temperature for that time of year in our home base in Pittsburgh hovers just below the freezing mark.

The other hang-up that comes to mind is, “isn’t that expensive?” Well, yes, it is compared to Mexico or the Caribbean. We will have to double our budget to around $4,000 about half of that is just the airfare. I already know it will take me hours of searching for the right flights in order to keep those tickets to $1,000 apiece.

We’re planning on spending two nights in London (at about $150 a night or below) so we can catch one or two of the city’s highlights Amanda hasn’t seen. We then plan on renting a car (from preliminary estimates, the cheapest part of the trip so far) and heading to the southwest coast, stopping at Stonehenge along the way. I do suggest to anyone visiting England to make the trek to Salisbury to visit the ancient monoliths. The simple stone circle will take your breath away.

The main goal, and the entire reason we are skipping the sun, is to visit some friends. I have known Kate for years, and she and her husband recently opened a bed and breakfast, the Anchor Inn, next to his family’s pub. We plan on staying there a few days and catch up on the last several years as well as explore the small seaside towns and villages.  So, that’s it. I’ll keep you all in the loop as the departure date is set and the prices we plan on paying and the reality of what we are getting for the price.

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You Drop What?

I’m not certain who started it, my guess is probably the New Years Eve Times Square party in 1908 when they lowered a crystal ball down a pole starting at one minute to midnight to celebrate the beginning of the new year. Since then all over North America other towns have decided to drop their own balls (and/or other items) to ring in the new year. The ball or ball substitute often is chosen to be unique to the local culture, so here are some that can make you question the word “culture” like an anthropologist observing a lost civilization.

Eastport, Maine – Maple Leaf

The folks of Eastport, Maine drop a Maple Leaf down a flag pole at 11 pm to celebrate Midnight in the Canadian Maritime, who are on Atlantic Time, then drop a “Great Sardine” to celebrate in Eastern Time in Freeport, Maine.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – Peep

The peeps in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (home of everyone’s favorite marshmallow Easter treat) drop a 100-pound glowing yellow Peep. The Peep drop is part of a festival known as Peepfest to celebrate everything we love about the creations of Just Born Quality Confections.

Plymouth, Wisconsin – Big Cheese

Well don’t ya know, the people of Plymouth, Wisconsin gather for the Big Cheese Drop as they munch on complimentary cheese hors d’oeuvres and watch an 80-pound decorated cheese wedge descend from a ladder truck to great applause.

Hagerstown, Maryland – Donut

You’d imagine Homer Simpson would be a big fan of this one, in Hagerstown, Maryland -The Donut Drop. The main square in this western Maryland town becomes the center of attention as a massive donut is lowered to celebrate the new year. This just in: This year the donut will drop into a massive cup of coffee.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Ball Raise

We couldn’t leave our new hometown off the list, could we? Pittsburgh’s countdown to the New Year doesn’t lower anything; the ball is raised. The ball atop Penn Avenue Place goes up, and then the fireworks go off. You knew there’d be fireworks, right?

Wherever you are and whatever you drop (or raise) we hope you have a happy and safe New Year.

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Passengers Behaving Badly

These days, I feel like it’s noteworthy if I can make it through a flight without being astonished (and annoyed) by the behavior of some of my fellow passengers. You’ll find plenty of examples on the Passenger Shaming Facebook page that leave me shaking my head.

Up, up and AWAY!

A video posted by Amanda Changuris (@amandachanguris) on

Why do some people turn into toddlers having temper tantrums when they travel? Science suggests there’s a psychological root to the problem: the feeling of being out of control. It’s no excuse, of course, but at least it makes sense. Someone else is driving, you have to obey a long list of rules (including some that may seem ridiculous), you’re crammed in a small space with a bunch of strangers — it’s not ideal all around.

If you’re traveling this week, try to remember — and avoid — these bad behaviors:

Disrespecting Others’ Space

Tight quarters make some people push the boundaries of ‘their’ space. Ever witnessed any of these?

  • Headrest grabbers — if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a passenger grab a headrest as he or she tries to get in or out of the row I’d be a wealthy woman. Unless that seat is empty, do your best to leave it alone. I was finally asleep on an international flight last year when someone grabbed my headrest and pulled my hair on his way out of his seat. I wasn’t pleased.
  • Armrest hoarders — I sat next to one on a short flight home on a business trip. He contorted himself in very interesting ways so he’d never leave either armrest free. Honestly, it made me laugh.
  • Kickers — from kids (or even adults) kicking your seat from behind to fellow passengers kicking your feet (yes, that’s happened to me), flailing about seems to be a common response to a sardine situation. Just don’t, okay?
  • Aimless aisle dwellers — I was on an international flight with a woman who thought nothing of standing in the aisle for more than an hour … with her derriere in another passenger’s face. I completely understand needing to get up and move during a long flight, but respect  that there are people around you.

Are you picking up on a theme? Be aware you’re not the only person on the plane.

Abusing the Flight Attendants

I kid you not, these things have actually happened in front of my very eyes:

  • A passenger filled out his customs paperwork incorrectly — twice — and proceeded to tear the forms into tiny pieces and scatter them on the floor. Just… why?
  • The same guy had trouble with his in-flight entertainment system and yelled for the flight attendants to come set it up for him, repeatedly. Notice he yelled; no call button needed when you can bellow!
  • On a flight to Athens, Greece we flew with a group of college students who got so incredibly drunk the police were called to meet them at the gate when we arrived. Having a drink (or even a few on a long flight like that) is just fine, but save the all-out bender for after you land.

We’ve all witnessed awful behavior while traveling; what was the last act that astonished you?

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