GREECE TODAY!

“Greece today is all about history and food!”
Elizabeth Handley explores the cradle of Western Civilisation! 

– Part Two –

The island of Santorini (Thera/Thira) in the Cyclades archipelago was our next destination, chosen partly because of our knowledge of its name and popularity. These arid islands, scattered across the Aegean Sea southeast of Athens, harbour many delightful myths and legends. Naxos was the location of the Theseus and Adriane legend, Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and volcanic Santorini is rumoured to harbour the lost city of Atlantis beneath the turquoise depths nearby.

Today the ruins of many Mycenaen and Classical buildings can be seen on these islands, dating back 7,000 years BC. There are also dozens of churches and Byzantine chapels – many blue-domed – scattered in isolated spots all over the islands, as well as Venetian castle-fortresses – the latter sometimes no more than crumbling ruins.

The ferry (Blue Star line, departed Piraeus port at 07:35) was an experience in itself: a large and spacious vessel with a “Wimpy”-styled restaurant, snack and drinks bar, and expensive, lightly stocked shoplet. I watched agog as massive trucks laden with goods drove Jonah-and-the-whale-like into the cavernous maw at the rear of the ferry, doubtless taking supplies (and booze) to satisfy the tourist demand on the islands. Since the Greeks, experienced seamen to the core, have been plying the Mediterranean seas for thousands of years – since before Helen of Troy’s abduction launched a thousand ships – I felt confident that we would arrive at our resort safely. (The tragic Korean ferry disaster is fresh in all our minds.)

We made three stops on the way to Santorini – at Paros, Ios and Naxos – arid isles all –  before arriving at our final port at 4pm, 7 hours later. The journey was more colourful inside than out, with yowling babies, blaring TV’s with Greek soapies and World Cup soccer replays  (a moving map would have been more informative) , and various Latin passengers yelling into their mobiles while gesticulating wildly. Having seen a Russian woman doing a crossword on a plane last year, watching the black-clad widows doing them in Greek on the ferry was equally fascinating.

After disembarking from the ferry at Athiniós port, with a formidable crowd of jostling, baggage-laden holiday-makers, we craned hopefully for our hotel transfer.  Once again more enormous trucks, this time laden with palettes of neatly stacked marble slabs, trundled into the bowels of the ferry.

Alleyway_Fira_Santorini

The principle town of Firá (Thíra) was devastated by an earthquake in 1956, and subsequently rebuilt. Most of the winding cobbled streets are pedestrianised – and crowded with far too many tourists from the two cruise ships that anchor in the bay at dawn every morning. (Hopefully they will do much to boost the flagging Greek economy.)

The narrow arched streets are lined with dozens of expensive boutiques, colourful souvenir stalls, jewellry stores, and art galleries. Most are perched on the lip of the caldera – a C-shaped landmass which is all that remains of a once round island that blew up in 1450 BC. This gave rise to its name of “the prehistoric Pompeii of the Aegean”.

The two smouldering “satellite” islets, Palaiá (Old) Kaméni and Néa (New) Kaméni (the ‘’burnt” ones), nestled within the embrace of the bay, emerged in 197 BC and 1707 AD respectively. Both are still volcanically active, and here tourists can enjoy the hot springs and mud baths, or walk up to the volcanic cone of the latter.

Transport to our hotel with other travelers was in a minibus, winding up hairpin bends than run precariously along the cliff edge, and from which can be seen spectacular views over the cerulean waters of the bay. The alternative mode of transport is by mule – or on foot – for the penniless, super-fit, or tenacious. There is also a cable-car which descends to the port of Skala every 15 minutes – an Austrian-built system donated by a wealthy ship-owner.

The position of the town along the cliff edge means that the hotels, restaurants and bars with the best views are terraced, with dozens of steps on many levels – not ideal for the elderly, or those with gammy knees. This was the case with the Kavalari Hotel, pre-booked for us by Fantasy Travel. Our room proved rather “rustic” – more so than the (usual) exaggerated website had lead me to expect. But one can only enjoy the gentle charm of light blue shutters, white anglais curtains and wooden furniture, as well as a tiny terrace with a fabulous view over the caldera – especially at sunrise and sunset.

See: http://www.kavalarihotel-santorini.com/

[For those averse to stepping it up or down to their room, rather stay at the Atlantis Hotel, also on the edge of the caldera in Firá town: http://www.atlantishotel.gr/ .]

Eléna at reception proved most kind and efficient; each evening she booked for us a good table at a rooftop taverna with stunning views over the bay. The first of these was  Argo, where we decided to sample the Greek starter platter of delicious mezédes (meze): deep-fried cheese croquettes, taramosaláta (a purée of salted mullet roe and bread crumbs or potato), aubergine and mushroom salad, dolmades/ntolmádes (vine leaves stuffed with rice, herbs and mince), tzaziki (yoghurt with shredded cucumber), deep-fried battered tomatoes, fava (mashed fava beans), and wedges of tomato and cucumber. This was followed by sea bass grilled with olive oil and lemon, with mustard sauce, and wild rice with pine nuts and raisins, and salad. The service here was excellent, with friendly, eager-to-please staff. (Pre-booking seems to ensure that your are treated like royalty, especially if you are staying at one of the more reputable hotels.)

Fortunately smoking is not allowed either indoors, or on restaurant terraces – with a few exceptions; 40% of Greeks smoke.  See: http://www.argo-restaurant-santorini.com/

The next day we hired a car and began our own tour of exploration. Colonised by the Minoans in 3000 BC, and named Thira by the Dorians who settled there in the 8th century BC, Santorini was renamed after St. Irene by the Venetians when they conquered the island in the 13th century.

Vineyards_SantoriniIt’s a very dry and arid island – more so than we expected – dotted with whitewashed settlements and tiny churches – some blue-domed, and the odd aged fig. Vineyards and olive groves lie along the terraced contours of ancient lava floes, sweeping down to the sea.

Wine tours are offered to tourists, to visit and taste the several vintners on the island, some (like “Libation to Santorini” with serious appetizers and a multimedia show.) Santorini produces some of the best wine in Greece. One website mentions “Santorini”, the assyrtiko wine of the island, “with a metallic acidity and unique features”. We noticed its slightly iron-like flavour – not entirely to my taste.

 

A_courtyard_Naxos_Old_Town          Bakery_near_Fira_Santorini_3

Here and there pink and white oleander bushes, and pots of geraniums outside dwellings, provide relief from the desolate landscape. The only animals in evidence were goats, a few cattle, wheeling seagulls and chirping sparrows. We were saddened by the many incomplete and abandoned building sites – villas, shops and hotels – evidence of the recent financial crash.

Black_volcanic_sand_beach_Kamari_SantoriniThe scenery is spectacular along the coast, with volcanic cliffs plunging down to course black sandy beaches – too hot to walk on. One of these is at the small settlement of Kalmari, where reed umbrellas shelter those not trying to turn a deeper shade of brown. I am always alarmed at the sight of the Scandinavians, who expose their lily-white (and beautiful flawless) skins to the harsh rays of the Mediterranean and African sun. Some do indeed turn a gorgeous golden brown, others fry to a lobster-red crisp, surely courting the deadly cancers acquired by such reckless behaviour in the name of fashion.

Cafe_Kamari_SantoriniCafés, boutiques with trendy swimwear, souvenir-and-postcard stalls, restaurants, tavernas and ouzeries line the short promenade which flanks the beach; prices here are cheaper than in Firá. ( A cookbook on Greek cuisine became my yardstick – a publication I eschewed in favour of my own choices sourced from the internet.)

There is no water on Santorini – all bottled water is imported from the mainland (you cannot drink the tap water). When I asked a restauranteur whence he sourced the water for his geraniums, he told me that they use desalinated seawater from a plant on the island.

There are many other recommended beaches on Santorini, including Perissa, Kamares, Koloumbos and Red Beach.

Akrotiri_Archeoplogical_site_SantoriniMost fascinating is the ancient archeological site of Akrotíri, once a Minoan outpost on the southwest tip of the island – and the best-known outside of Crete. (Be warned of a car park charge – as for many similar services on the island – of €3 – minus the guarantee of protection against theft; and beggars who dress like tourists.)

French archeologists discovered Minoan pots there after an eruption in 1866, but it was Professor Spyrídon Marináthos who unearthed the entire city in 1967 – wonderfully preserved after some 3,500 years under tons of volcanic ash. The whole excavation site is covered by a most impressive, vast wooden roof, which also shelters visitors from the blistering sun. We walked along fly-over platforms which give marvelous views down into houses two and three storeys high, many still containing pithoi (large ceramic storage jars), a mill and a pottery. It is all an incredible revelation from the 16th century BC.

Many of the beautiful frescoes, with impressively skilled brushwork, are now housed in the new Firá Archeological Museum, and at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. The absence of human and animal remains, and treasure, suggest that the inhabitants were probably warned by seismic activity before the catastrophe, and fled in good time. One golden calf, the size of a woman’s fist, was left behind, however, and discovered in a wooden casket within another wooden chest – since burned to cinders. I could just imagine that its loss would have been one of those “Oh sh*t!” moments (to its owner who fled in haste) in the history of catastrophic Acts of God. Most areas where organic material had been destroyed by the heat (such as wood), have been filled in by modern builders with concrete supports and metal trusses.

Ancient Thíra is another archeological site, situated atop a high cliff above Kamari, and it is the foremost post-Minoan (Dorian) settlement on the island. It was recolonised after the great eruption in 1450 BC, and the ruins, excavated by the German archeologist Hiller von Gortringen in the 1860’s, stand on terraces overlooking the sea. Most of the ruins date from the time of the Ptolemies, who built the temples to the Egyptian gods in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. There are also Hellenistic and Roman remains there, and the 7th century vases discovered there are now in Firá’s Archeological Museum.

Oía is another beautiful town, situated on the clifftop at the northernmost tip of Santorini, and the first to be sighted when approaching by sea. The ruined kastró (fortress) there is most trumpeted in the tour guides as the place to be – on the edge of the abyss – when the sun sinks behind the caldera every evening. White and pastel-coloured houses with red pebble walls cling to the cliff face with the famous shaftá cave houses and blue-domed churches. There are still a few Neo-Classical mansions left, built by ship-owners, and a marble-paved pathway skirts the edge of the caldera all the way to Firá. Staircases lead down to Arméni and the nearby fishing harbour of Ammoúdi, with its floating pumice stones and red pebble beach.

Dinner that night was at Volcano Blue, also perched above the edge of the caldera. I was grateful for wrap I had brought, as the brisk breeze off the ocean – while a welcome relief from the day’s scorching heat – was still a bit chilly.

This time we chose to share a seafood platter and sample the bounty of the Aegean. This included  mussels, prawns, sea bass and grilled cuttle fish. And as if this weren’t an inelegant sufficiency, our host brought us a slice of delicious cheese cake and a glass of dessert wine respectively – on the house. (“Please take our card, and give us a good review on Tripadvisor!”) No guesses as to who had the cake.

See: http://www.volcanoblue.gr/  And yes, 10 out of 10 on Tripadvisor to this super place, where “the awarded chefs cook with passion, and give soul to the local products”. The maitre d’ collects cigarette lighters, so do take him one from your own country, should you happen to pass that way.

Winding donkey path up to Fira, Santorini

Our second morning was spent exploring Firá town on foot, visiting the small museums and churches, ceramics shops and an icon workshop. The Megaron Gyzi Museum houses memorabilia, manuscripts and documents, and before-and-after photographs of the island at the time of the devastating earthquake of 1956.

The large Greek Orthodox cathedral is dedicated to the Ypapantí (the Presentation of Christ in the Temple), and the pale apricot-coloured Catholic Cathedral of St. John, has an ornate clock and bell tower. This church, with its convent, are legacies from the time when the Venetians controlled much of the Aegean Sea. Agios Stylianós clings to the edge of the cliff (mentioned in the DK Eyewitness guide book as ochre, but is actually now painted white.)

But the town is best early in the morning, before the night-revellers and the sun have risen, when it is quiet, cool, and scented with flowers. The locals are our buying fresh loaves sprinkled with sesame seeds at the bakeries, and sweeping and washing down the side walk outside the jewellery stores. (Where does that beautifully wrought gold come from? South Africa? And the precious gems? Surely not from Greece?)

The ferry trip (again Blue Star) to Naxos from Santorini takes just over two hours, and it was for us again another enjoyable voyage in which people-watching was as interesting as the passing seascape.

Day_drive_around_NaxosThe name of this island – greener than the others in the Cycladic group, and the largest – conjures up two images: the popular wallet-friendly Classical music label, and the myth of Ariadne and Theseus. The latter was immortalised in an opera by Richard Strauss, composed in two versions in 1912 and 1916 respectively. The soprano role is notoriously grand and challenging. (I heard Joyce Didonato sing the role of Composerat Covent Garden a few years ago, with energetic vitality.)

In Greek mythology Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. He put her in charge of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, where human sacrifices were made as part of reparations either to Poseidon or to Athena, (depending on the version of the myth.) It was she who helped Theseus find and slay the Minotaur – using a ball of yarn to find his way back out of the labyrinth – thus saving several sacrificial victims. He then abandoned the heartbroken princess on Naxos, and headed back to Athens. In other versions she married Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine – and of ritual madness and ecstasy (Bacchanalian orgies), who took pity on her.

The first striking sight upon entering Naxos Town (Chora) harbour is the Portara (Great Door) – a monumental marble portal on a hill, connected to the quayside by a causeway. It is all that remains of a temple to Dionysus who had spent some time there during his youth, dallying with the local nymphs. But many Naxions believe that this was the palace of Ariadne, and that the Portara was the entrance to the bridal palace. Now most scholars believe that the temple was dedicated to Apollo.

This temple was built by the tyrant Lygdamis (522 BC), and when he died, construction ceased and demolition began. Over the centuries the marble was taken away to build other monuments and buildings, including the cathedrals in Naxos Town. Fortunately the massive posts and lintel of the Portara were two heavy to move (about 20 tons each), and they remain there today, as both a familiar landmark, and as a stark reminder that grandiose building projects also fell on hard times during the 6th century BC.

Again an efficient islander was waiting for us at the quay – courtesy of Fantasy Travel, name board held aloft – and ferried us and several other visitors to our lodgings.

Alkyoni Beach Hotel, also chosen by Fantasy Travel, has an excellent location at the end of the beach of Naxos Town. Each room is tastefully decorated in the Greek island style, with a large bathroom and small balcony. There is a pool, a sunny restaurant with poolside bar, and tables outside for breakfast, and a host of other services. See:http://www.alkyonibeachhotel.gr/

Unfortunately there were problems with the water-heating system, which we thought might be partly solar heated, and we had cold showers both nights. Blank looks and inactivity from Louisa at reception was more annoying than the temperature of the water  – which is actually bearable in that sultry climate. Also be warned about the laundry service: €10 per bag, which returns clothes washed but un-ironed, in spite of the sign at reception advertising “Wash and Press”. Complaints were in vain, and I was told to contact the laundry myself – presumably in Greek.

But Louisa did recommend a good taverna on the seafront for dinner that night, and booked us a table: Irinis.

Tables with blue-and-white checked cloths are set out beneath vines, and offer a wonderful view over the little harbour, and the sunset. The Portara is a favourite spot for tourists to see and photograph the famous sunset, as well as the whitewashed Myrditiotissa chapel. Situated on a islet leading off the quay, it was built in 1207 by the Venetian Marco Sanudo, then the ruler of the Venetian Duchy of the Archipelago, and a nephew of the Doge of Venice.

At Irinis we sampled flogeras – deep-fried pastries stuffed with feta, red pepper and herbs, followed by pork slouvakis (kebabs with the skewer removed) and “mixed salad” (the usual greens, plus finely sliced leeks and grated carrot), and stuffed cabbage leaves (beef mince, rice and herbs) respectively.

Our generous host then proceeded to ply us with desserts – with his compliments: delicious milk tart and slices of chilled clementines and green apples drizzled with honey and a shake of cinnamon, rounded off with glasses of Petoiva. (Free desserts have come to suggest a manner in which to ensure a good review.)

See: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g189431-d1839132-Reviews-Irini_s-Naxos_Cyclades.html

The next day, after an excellent buffet breakfast (cold cuts and cheeses, fruit, pastries and cakes, toast with home-made peach and apricot jam, and honey, tea, coffee and fresh orange juice), we hired a car, and set out to explore the island.

After eventually finding our way out of Naxos Town which is fraught with narrow one-ways, we emerged into beautiful countryside where terraces of olive, fig and citrus groves and vineyards are supported by dry stone walls. Like Santorini, Naxos is dotted with dozens of tiny Byzantine chapels, mostly dating from the 9th – 16 centuries. Many are beautifully decorated inside with elaborate frescoes funded by wealthy patrons – indicative of the prosperity of Naxos during this period. Restoration work has revealed multiple layers of frescoes, some of which have been carefully removed to the Byzantine Museum in Athens. We found all the chapels we tried entering locked, sadly due to increasing theft.

This island was first settled in 3,000 BC, and was a major centre of the Cycladic civilization (of which there is a museum in Athens.) It was also the first island where marble was used. This abundant material we found almost everywhere: paving, walls, coping, guttering, side walks, statuary, temples, and furniture.

Hidden_gem_-_Naxos_Town          Lush_Tragea_Valley_Naxos

The Venetians conquered Naxos in 1207, and the numerous crumbling ruined castles and turrets, and those still in use as glamorous residences, are to be seen all over the island. One such is the Baseos Tower/Castle, about 2km east of the village of Sangri, built originally as the Monastery of Timios Stavros (The True Cross) during the 17th century, and abandoned by the monks during the 19th century.

We enjoyed pulling over into one of the many designated viewing spots on the edge of a cliff, reached via yet another winding hairpin, and scanning the verdant Tragea (Tragaía) valley below. There, in the centre of the island, abundant farming takes place, and the little villages have Byzantine chapels built by the locals centuries ago. The sounds of goat bells and bleating, church bells, and a rooster crowing, carried to us on the welcome cool breeze, along with the scent of wild thyme and rosemary. All around is the penetrating screech of cicadas – a sound associated with scorched bushveld and seaside scrub in my country. One such spot offers a fantastic view of Zas (Zeus) Mountain (3,300 ft), topped with a tiny white church reached by a narrow winding track.

Old_hilltop_windmill_Naxos           Overlooking_Chalki_Halki_Naxos

Here and there stand groups or lone ancient stone windmills on a hilltop, the canvas sails long since perished and scattered to the winds. There are also many picturesque villages nestled in the hills on Naxos: Chalki (Halki) lies in the centre of the island, and is graced with decorative Venetian architecture and the old Byzantine Fragópoulos tower in the centre. Here we stumbled on a Kitron distillery – its seal intact by government regulations – where the liquor is made from the leaves of this giant lemon-like citrus fruit. I bought a bottle of Rakomelo (meaning “honey” in Greek: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rakomelo ), a delicious liqueur made from grapes, flavoured with honey and cinnamon, and, I thought, a touch of cloves. (The shop lady wrote Psimeni on her card.) Large slabs of lamb were roasting on a spit in the centre of the town square, which is shaded by a magnificent plane tree; the delicious aromas of roasting lamb mingled with the scent of herbs and coffee.

Windmills_Naxos          Halki_Naxos

Nearby is the unusual Panagia Drosianí Church (Our Lady of Refreshment or the “Dewy Virgin”) which dates from the 6th century, and the domes of which are made from field stones. Locals believe that the Virgin ended a severe drought on the island shortly after some beautiful frescoes were painted inside (7th century), one depicting St. George and the dragon. Some believe that the name refers to the icon of the church seeping or weeping every time the village is in danger:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g189431-d524554-i17293437-Our_Lady_of_Refreshment_Church-Naxos_Cyclades.html

Apeiranthos_Naxos_1          Apeiranthos_Naxos

Apeíranthos is the most enchanting village, with marble-paved streets and 14th century towers built by the Venetian Crispi family. It was colonized during the17th and 18th centuries by Cretan refugees fleeing Turkish oppression, and who came to work in the emery mine nearby. We enjoyed exploring this atmospheric little settlement, with its narrow winding streets and hidden gems, such as a stone, wooden-hatched bread oven in a corner bakery. Small shops there sell local products such as honey, dried herbs, pottery, hand-woven goods and wooden utensils, made principally for the coach-loads of tourists that stop there during their island tours.

Honey_and_herbs_-_Apeiranthos_NaxosBy mid-afternoon we were hungry, and “lunch” on a verandah overlooking a lovely valley was toasted sandwiches and “honey balls” – a generous mound of deep-fried batter balls dripping with honey and a shake of cinnamon. Two young Englishwomen at the neighbouring table ordered chocolate honey balls, and theirs arrived heaped with a rich aromatic chocolate sauce. Conversation ensued – how could it not? – and we enjoyed a merry gathering, also with an Israeli couple nearby, sampling each other’s delectable Greek delights.

By this time it was very hot, and a swim at Pigaki Beach, advertised as quiet and beautiful, and reached by means of a shocking dirt road, was our next stop. We soon discovered the reason for the beach being so “quiet”: there’s a sudden drop-off soon into the shallows, and a powerful backwash that could sweep unwary swimmers out of their depth. We contented ourselves frolicking in the shallows of large sun-warmed rock pools, taking care to avoid the black spiny sea urchins lurking in their depths. The route back to the main road took us through a forest of juniper and cedar, and more abandoned building works, this time for a seaside hotel – further indication of the financial crisis.

 

Demeters_Sanctuary_Naxos

Pathway_to_Demeters_Sanctuary_Naxos

This magnificent Classical temple is believed to date back to the 6th century BC. As Demeter was the goddess of grain according to Greek mythology (Ceres to the Romans), farmers built temples to her close to arable areas. Excavations have revealed that it was used for sacred purposes since the late Mycenaean Era, a time when worship of the gods took place in the open air. With the arrival of Christianity during the 3rd century AD the temple declined, and it was turned into a Christian religious center, with a small chapel built in the center. This chapel was dedicated to Agios Ioannis (Saint John), and was made from the marble of the ancient temple.

The church was probably destroyed in the 6th century A.D. during an invasion by the Arabs. It was rebuilt in 1977 in a southern location.?The remains of the ancient temple of Demeter were discovered by the archaeologist Nikolaos Kontoleon in 1949, and excavation work took place from 1976 -1995. Parts of the temple were found all over the area, but much of the marble had already been stolen. In the mid-1990s, a group of German archaeologists partly restored the temple to its former ancient glory.

Dinner that night was at Meze 2, also overlooking the harbour. Our over-hearty (and rather surly) host invited me to go and chose our fish from a large tray-table filled with ice and various fish, and insisted that the sea bass would be the best choice. I found the flavour too subtle, and almost tasteless. Having not booked in advance, the service was not as good as our previous dinners on the islands, with moments when we were rather neglected. But free desserts again came with the bill – cheese cake of some sort, and liqueurs. A large TV screen dominated the taverna – a predictably common sight during our Greek adventure as World Cup fever gripped the world – and mesmerized diners groaned or cheered at the antics of these modern-day gladiators.

Cathedral_-_Naxos_Town          Enjoying_a_150-year-old_piano_in_the_Venetian_Castle_museum_Naxos_Town

Our last morning was spent exploring Naxos City (Chora/Hora), especially the museums, churches and buildings in the old town, clustered in and around the labyrinthine alleys and tunnels of the old Venetian castle – the Kastró. These include the 16th century Catholic Cathedral, Archeological Museum and Venetian Castle Museum.

I very much enjoyed a guided tour of the latter, during which I was invited to play a 150-year-old (and very out-of-tune) piano, brought there by the Della Rocca family in the 19th century. Their handsome old tower house is part of the present-day group of 19 townhouses within the old fortification built in 1207 by Marco Sanudo. It is filled with beautiful antique furniture, and crockery, glassware, utility items and personal effects. There is very much the sense that the inhabitants have just stepped out for a while, and that’s because they had. The owners – direct descendents of the original aristocratic Italian owners – continue to live there for a few months every winter. The tour was concluded with complimentary glasses of Greek liqueurs – Ouzo, Retsina (wine flavoured with pine resin),three different flavours of Kitrón and Rakomelo; my ensuing explorations of the romantic Old Town took place in a heavenly, rose-tinted cloud.

The Catholic Cathedral dates from the 13th century, and here the descendents of the Della Rocca family are buried. The Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the Mitrópoli Zoödóchou Pigis dates from the 18th century. Another building within the Venetian fortification precincts was the French school. The most famous pupil thereof was the Cretan novelist Núkos Kazantzákis, the author of Zorba the Greek.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikos_Kazantzakis.) This building now houses the Archeological Museum, which has the best collection of Cycladic marble figurines in Greece, as well as some beautiful Roman sculpture and mosaics.

Lunch was on a taverna balcony overlooking the harbour: delicious deep-fried courgette fritters, and salad. I was again struck by the generosity of the servings, and, unable to finish my fritters, I had them wrapped to take away as a snack for our fast ferry trip back to Athens that afternoon – this time with Highspeed 4 (only 4 hours.)

Once back in Athens (at 9pm), our transfer drove us to the Herodion Hotel – near but not in Plaka – where the reception staff are efficient, but the rooms businesslike and unromantic.

Dinner made up for this let-down (as usual the website was exaggerated) – another rooftop taverna with a view of the Acropolis in the picturesque Anafiotika district: “Greek home cooking”: lamb and beef respectively, “cooked in a clay pot” (probably akin to a romertopf), with cubes of rich haloumi cheese in the delicious tomato and onion sauce. A dessert of honey-drenched baklava topped off our last supper in Greece – a wonderfully idyllic experience under the warm stars of an Athenian night.

Tripadvisor has done much to ensure high standards in most hotels and restaurants; it has become well known that one bad review can sound the death knell of such establishments overnight. We often saw Tripadvisor-recommended certificates in the windows of various eateries, and knew that with the stamp of approval of our fore-runners, we could be sure of a decent meal and service – for a good price.

Sadly the financial crisis is all too evident everywhere, as a dearth of the usual Roma beggars so prevalent in Europe attests, (and which are now so numerous in wealthy Scandinavia.)

Overall we found the Greek people helpful and friendly, eager to teach us their language, and share with us the stories and legends of their area. Sometimes it’s delightful to discover that the myths and legends of Homer and his contemporaries are as much alive today as several centuries BC – if in a modern milieu.

When is the best time to go? For swimming in the sea – from June onwards, though we already found it far too hot then, and becoming busy. At all costs avoid peak season in the Mediterranean lands: July and August. The heat and tourists are unendurable. April-May, we were told by the locals, is a good time to go, when the islands are ablaze with spring wildflowers. Or September-October, when the heat and crowds have abated (i.e. when all the schools in the northern hemisphere have re-opened.) Winter in Greece is not too bad either, with Athens in December similar to a Johannesburg winter: crisp and not too cold, but sunny. Of that you can almost always be certain in Greece: lots of glorious sunshine – and FOOD!

* Moussaka Recipes:

About.com: http://greekfood.about.com/od/eggplant/r/moussaka.htm
Taste.com: http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/24751/classic+moussaka
BBCFood.com: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/moussaka

 

This article was first published in Showcook.com.


 – Read Part One –


 

 

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