Monday, August 22, 2016

Things That Make Mytilene Marvelous

Mytilene- Lesvos' main town - has everything you want from an island and everything you want from a capital at the same time. There is the charm of a harbor filled with "trata" (brightly painted fishing boats) and a promenade of cafes curving around it, plus the cosmopolitan allure of contemporary culture and the grandeur of Belle Epoque prosperity. 

Cinematic Belle Epoque-

Mansions! Mansions galore. And not one kind of mansion either, but a whole panoply of European styles, of mansard roofs and deep eaves. Olive oil was expensive and Lesvos was rich in it. There was also wine, and leather- goods with a market. Foreign importers drawn to Lesvos for business built in the styles of home, as did wealthy Europeans drawn by the famous spas.

These mansions define a whole neighborhood- you feel like you're on a stage set, and probably a little under dressed. 

The Pyrgos Hotel
You could live the Belle Epoque elegance first hand and stay at the Pyrgos of Mytilene boutique hotel. We went for a coffee in the lobby- you feel glamorous just being in the salon with the soaring, ultra-ornate ceiling. It's the real thing- Maria, who invited us to her wonderful island, grew up next door - her mother used to come to dances here.

Big, Bold Baroque-

A house of worship that dominates the city scape - like Notre Dame or the Blue Mosque - sets a grand tone. Mytilene's skyline is defined by the dome of Agios Therapon cathedral, designed by Argyris Adalis- native to Lesvos, and a student of Ernst Ziller (the neo-Rennaissance Numismatic Museum in Athens, among many others). They both borrowed, and borrowed well. Agio Therapon has a grand baroque mood that- like the mansions- doesn't speak of Greece specifically but of a cosmopolitan vibe of European capitals in general.

Ancient Glamour-

The mansions of the Belle Epoque continue a much earlier tradition. Mytilene was a city of wealth from at least the 2nd C BC. We had a tour with Professor Giannis Kourtzellis of the Museum of Archaeology and couldn't stop marveling at the mosaic floors of elegant homes, including the dramatist Menander's. He filled out the corners of our imaginations with symposia and banquets. What also struck us? The reliefs depicting the dinners of the dead, held on the third and ninth days after death (days we commemorate still), and funerary reliefs for heroes- depicted on horseback. Most notable and unusual is the equestrian heroine- women were rarely depicted this way, but then this was found in Eresos (birthplace of Sappho)

And of course this arresting Praxitelous-

We learn that they're easily identified - he was known for the naturalistic "S" shaped pose of his figures. There were lots of them- originals in bronze, and copies in marble.

Fortress of Intrigue-

The best view of the city is wasted on this monumental fortress- Gatalusi's (one-time pirate) home (a wedding present along with the rest of the Island when he wed the sister of Paleologos' - Byzantine Emperor John V - is one of the largest and best preserved of the whole Mediterranean. On our tour with Archaeologist Georgia Tampakopoulou we only had eyes for the ruins and crests, and ears for her stories. She herself was inspired by the place- she had an intuition that led to the discovery of something that would have been lost forever. Visiting the site with her gave us goosebumps to be so close to the thrill of discovery. It is a tale of its own, coming soon.

The mingled crests of Galausi and Paleologos
and the seal of Constantinople

A Symbol of Welcome and People of Grace-

I grew up with a meaningful statue in the harbor by my house- it was for many the first sight of America. How perfect that Mytilene has its own Statue of Liberty-

This is a gift to the island from the people who emigrated from here to New York City. It could not be more fitting: Lesvos has been much in the news, here and around the world, because of how many refugees have passed through here. Ai Wei Wei's exhibition at the Cycladic museum in Athens has the crisis as a focal point, and the images recorded by many local photographers open the exhibition-

Photographs by Petros Tsakmakis
That is one of the reasons we are here- to see how the Island is dealing with this tremendous crisis and to show through our experience how it impacts a visitor's experience. It impacts it tremendously- if you want to be inspired by a population who responds to the need of others with grace, if you want to support an island that has done so much on behalf of us all, then you should come. The only concrete signs we saw of the refugee crisis were signs in Arabic- at souvaki places, and on the public buses. 

Classic Marina Experience-

What's an island without a marina? What's a marina without a yacht club? What's a yacht club without a great kitchen, and some Frank Sinatra and Amy Winehouse? Those are not questions we had to answer, because we spent several happy hours at the Marina Yacht Club with its adorable, unpretentious, and surprisingly young owner Eirini, enjoying all those things. We tried dish after dish- all playful, delicious, but honest and real- exactly what you want to eat as the masts cast ever longer shadows. Best soundtrack, best wine glasses, best view, best hostess. Go. Tastes like holiday.

We loved this little city, crammed with mansions and little boats, with its beautiful museum and outsized cathedral, and its boutique hotel and dining by the docks. We loved the people most of all - for their culture, warmth, and virtue. Lesvos is a perfect holiday destination, and Mytilene is the first taste.

For information on visiting Lesvos, try this site:

More of Lesvos:

A fabulous party at the EVA distillery in Mytilene where we got to know Lesvos' classic drink:

The Ouzo of Lesvos: Essentials

Molyvos is the Greece of your Dreams

Falling in Love with Lesvos: One Perfect Day
Read More »

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Food, and a little Love- Mana's Kouzina Kouzina

You can find out a lot about someone's character when they are under pressure. Nations, too. The crisis has revealed some very fine qualities in the people of Greece: a deepening of the appreciation of community, of heritage, great resourcefulness, and not least, a determination to enjoy life, every day.

Fortunately, all of these qualities are edible. You can eat them at family tables all over Greece. Or at Mana's Kouzina Kouzina, where every dish has a pedigree, integrity, a delicious piece of heritage on a plate. (Why "Kouzina" twice? There is a beautiful little sea turtle that lays its eggs on beaches. It's called the Caretta Caretta, and it's endangered, a little like the cuisine Mana's seeks to preserve). 

Mana's Kouzina Kouzina has an inspiring story- it's the story of what is going on all over Greece now. On account of the crisis, Stefanos Spathas- like so many people- felt compelled to start something fresh and new, completely from scratch. All the places that slowly later opened on this now thriving square around the Church of St. Irene has a similar story. That makes for an incredible energy and optimism.

Drink local-

I love what Manas does not serve almost as much as I love what they do serve- this is a little multinational-free universe. What they do have? Greek brands only- small producers of superb drinks. If you grew up in the US, Greek soft drinks- packed with vibrant fresh juices and sometimes made with natural springwater- will be a revelation. Even our beloved imported Orangina is bland by comparison. Better still there are the beers. 

Greece has many new small breweries making interesting beers. Stefanos' son, Giannis- beer sommelier- has put together one of the largest craft beer menus in Athens. We try a smoked porter from Chios, a weissbier called Odyssey with a sweet after-taste, and Ali, a non-pasteurized IPA from Thessaloniki. 

There are also Greek spirits- ouzo, tsipouro, raki, and wines by the carafe:

Eat Local-

All of the products here are from small and medium Greek producers- great quality s one reason, supporting the community another, but also every region has specially protected items- cheeses for exampe- something so specific to the terroir and culture both that they are treasures in themselves. 

Cook... not so local.

Greece, though not large, is very, very complex- there are a lot of terrains and traditions, micro-cultures, heritages. One island's most celebrated dish may be unknown on another; the mountains and their flocks have warming cheeses and meats, the sea is full of sweet, delicate Meze (for ouzo). Stefano travels, goes into kitchens and asks questions and tastes and tries, bringing back to the restaurants authentic things. The chef, Dimitris, has a good hand with them. This is Pastizada, from Korfu- a braised rooster in tomato and sweet spices over pasticcio macaroni. Except you see it is not- this is mesta, a hand-rolled pasta from Chios, instead- a little artistic license is an opportunity to celebrate an authentic product from another place.

We loved the inside-out gemista (stuffed vegetables)- it's actually the homey classic trahana- a rustic tiny pasta of grain and yogurt, with the vegetables mixed in:

Celebrate... also not so local-

We're a group of travel bloggers (TBG), either from Greece by birth, or lovingly adopted by the country in the meantime. We were all here to have a get-together and meet our newest member Gabi (from Italy!) and also Kyriaki, a friend we met in Lesvos, to do an interview for her and her colleague Eirini for Greek TV (which we learned is in San Francisco). In short, an international group brought together by the irresistible magnetism of Greece. Greece's magnetism is edible, too.

Dessert made for lingering (and a little philosophy)-

Kunefe, a katifi filled with melted cheese,
toasted in butter, drenched in syrup, and served warm.
Dimitris comes up with a whole tray of things for us to try- a still warm kunefe (from Asia Minor), an orange syrup pie, rich chocolate cake, and a galatopita- a gentle "milk pie" like a custard with maybe a little semolina holding it together. "What's in the pie?" one of us asks him.

"Just milk, and a little love."

That is the heart of it- everything is made with a little love here, and you can taste it. 

Mana's Kouzina Kouzina is open for breakfast (!), lunch, and dinner, in the shady square of Agia Irini on the pedestrian street Aeolou.

Mana's Kouzina Kouzina, 27 Aeolou, between Kolokotroni and Athinaidos
210 325 2335

here's the site-

This authenticity is not an experience visitors often have- they may have the tastes, but not necessarily the meaning. Mana's Kouzina Kouzina preserves edible heritage. 
Read More »

The Beautiful World of Wine at Ktima Gerovassiliou

We're gazing out over part of the sixty-three hectares of vineyard at Ktima Gerovassiliou. The sea lies beyond them, just out of sight. 

But it plays its role, in the mildness of the winters and in the temperate summers cooled by its breezes. The soil is sandy, rich in sea fossils. The vineyards teem with life- 28 species of birds thrive among the vines. Come mid-August, these vines will all be harvested by hand. Good wine needs good grapes, and harvesters with a careful hand and skilled eye. 

Suggestion of a vine by Kostas Tsoklis
Moon by Kostas Varotsos
We, too, are in good hands- with our guide Dimitra Bazaka, whose degree in fine arts enriches the narrative. Wine and Art are both creative expressions of truth, and Art is integral to the experience of Ktima Gerovassiliou- throughout the vineyard and grounds are contemporary sculptures from Greek artists of note, commissioned for the site by Mr. Gerovassiliou. This beautiful expanse stared out as a family vineyard of 2.5 hectares. Vangelis Gerovassiliou, after working as an oenologist at Domaine Porto Carras, returned to the family vineyard with his wife Sonia Tziola Gerovassiliou and in 1981, started to renovate, his first production of a grape close to his heart.

Of the varieties in Greece, Malagousia- making a white wine full of ripe fruits and fragrance and flowers- is special. Well, this delicious grape was nearly lost to time(!). A professor at the Aristotle University rescued it, and Vangelis Gerouvasileiou was the first to vinify it- an important contribution to the world of wine. The vineyard's first production, in 1986, was a blend of Malagousia and the Greek varietal Asyrtiko.

More grapes were added over time- both Greek and international- to the whites Malagousia and Asyrtiko (a varietal of Santorni) were added Viognier, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. The reds are the Greek Mavroudi, Mavrotragano, and Limnio (a grape with a pedigree, referred to even by Aristophanes in the 5th C BC), joined by Syrah and Merlot. 

We visit the wine making facilities, marveling at the industrial beauty of the vats, the extra layers of riveted stainless steel providing added insulation-

The juice becomes wine here in these tanks with automatic cooling systems, before (in the case of the Reds) being transferred to wooden barrels for aging. We also see crushers, separators (to separate out the grape skins), a pneumatic press that pumps out the juice, a bottling machine- modern perfections in the making of an ancient thing.

Speaking of ancient things, we now visit the museum- a wonderful introduction to the history and role of wine in life: you can come away from a visit to the vineyard with a deepened appreciation for the role of wine in life without drinking a sip. I first heard about the corkscrew collection from my daughters, who came here on school trips. They were dazzled. 

In fact, this collection of corkscrews (although, at 2,600 examples, this is one of the worlds' largest collections) is but one aspect of the greater vision of celebrating the tradition of wine growing. Mr. Gerovassiliou started collecting the tools of viticulture, bottling, and barrel making 40 years ago. Next to the wine aging in barrels in the quiet (wine is alive, and it hates noise) semi-darkness is a splendid collection of history of wine in our lives.

It starts with the beauty of bottles and vessels, including amphorae such as were used to transport wine in ancient times. These were found by divers off the coast near the vineyard(!)

We also see the development of the shape of the wine bottle, from the "onion" style of the 17th and 18th centuries on beautiful opalescent glass-

to the bottles we know today.

Then we see the history of wine in ancient Greece- vessels used to blend the wine with water (these were called Krater- necessary as the wine was much more potent than our wine today), to serve the wine, and the cups from which it was drunk. We also learn who was drinking it (men only), and where (at symposia- social gatherings where men drank together, socialized, enjoyed music, and explored specific topics).

The displays have been organized by museologists. The fabled corkscrews line two walls, divided by mechanical and non-mechanical. Additionally, and fascinatingly, they are displayed in glass cases in socio-cultural groupings exploring consumer habits, trends in leisure and luxury, and artists movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"The Corkscrew of Consumerism"- promotional corkscrews 
In the Style of the Post War World
The next room has the tools of wine making- shears,

grape crushers, barrels, bottle racks-

Lastly, we see delightful homages of the role of wine in our lives through beautiful moments in film:

Now we return to the tasting room and visitors center, a contemporary structure with sides open to the vineyards. There is a shop filled with books on wine, many sponsored or published by the winery including a fairy tale for children to be introduced to the story of wine from vineyard to bottle. There are also recipe collections, poetry and verse inspired by wine and events at the winery.

Next, we will actually taste everything we have seen and thought and felt. The wines themselves will have a post of their own.

Ktima Gerovassiliou is very close to Thessaloniki- check their website for visiting hours, tastings, tours, and special events.

A Tasting Room among the vines

More fabulous experiences of Wine in Greece:

Eumelia: The most delightful wine tasting ever.

Wine tasting in the land of the Divine at Ktima Kourtis.
Read More »

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thessaloniki's Archaeological Museum- the Sacred, the Secular, and the Surprisingly Familiar

Laid-back Thessaloniki rests on the most cosmopolitan pedigree in Greece. The ruins of the palace and Imperial complex of Galerius share the main pedestrian center with the cafes and all night fast food of the students' quarter, and his triumphal arch is everyone's favorite meeting point before a night out. At the beginning of September, we bring our blankets, pic-nic baskets and bottles of wine to the lawns Ancient Agora to listen to bands and watch movies among the ruins. Two of the Mosques of the Ottoman era- the oldest (the 15th C Alaja Imaret) and the newest (the 1898 Geni Tami) have exhibits and installations and art events throughout the year. Old factories have become concert halls and old warehouses are now museums of photography and contemporary art. The past is so incorporated into our daily life you would almost think we don't even need an official museum of archaeology to tie it all together.

But we have one- Thessaloniki's small (compare to Athens', which is tremendous) manageable Museum of Archaeology is crammed with the all fabulous stuff from the rich areas right outside the museum. You can go in knowing pretty much nothing at all, and leave knowing a great deal, thanks to a logical layout and signage with full and fascinating explanations. The public and the private come together to give a vivid picture of Ancient life.

Imperial City-

The Roman empire was vast, necessitating a tetrarchy, with Diocletian ruling the East, Marcus Aurelius the West, and their respective junior emperors, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus.

Torso of Dea Roma- personification of the city of Rome
The Cuirass (breast plate and back plate fastened together) of an Emperor,
with relief of Gorgons and Nereids riding seahorses,
and Dolphins in the waves

We see the (very large) Imperial glory in the Museum's outer room. 

Sacred Life-

In the first gallery, we are plunged into the spiritual life of the 1st C AD. If you have ever been in an Orthodox church and seen the Tamas on a miraculous icon, it will familiar-

This offering is in gratitude for the Epiphany of the Gods. 

The cult of Isis was wide spread

Here is an Aretology- representing the Goddesse's virtues (Aretes). They were many:

And all things any of us would want.

Sacred meets Secular-

The division of the sacred and the secular was less defined than in our world today. The Pythian games were held in honor of Apollo every four years. People flocked to the city to see not just athletic and musical competitions, but also gladiators, and combat with wild beasts.

These tokens functioned as a free ticket for honored guests
Later on, in the 4th C AD, the Hippodrome was built, integrated into the Galerian complex. It held 15,000 people, coming to see the same sorts of spectacles. These Gladiator and wild beast combats were wildly popular, but also expensive to put on. These were nearly exclusively for the Imperial cult, this itself- the worship of an Emperor as deity- showing the same seamless blending of the sacred and secular.

The mood of decadence and reverence continues. One of my favorite objects is this-

That's Dionysus embracing a satyr, made around the time of the Pythian games. What's that coming from the top of his head? This is a Trapezophoron- a table support(!) that would make a banquet of a bunch of grapes. Evocative table supports such as these have not gone entirely out of fashion:

Of the twelve Gods of Olympus worshiped in Thessaloniki, Asclepius and Dionysus were especially popular- both had tribes named after them. In the case of Dionysus, also a neighborhood-

Our picture of the first centuries AD in Thessaloniki is filling out now, and it is not a dull one- banquets at tables with the tackiest most fabulous table-legs you can imagine, blood shed at sacred brutal games attended by thousands, processions of Phalluses.


Not all public gatherings were as sensational- there is also a magnificent 2nd C AD Odeion, still almost entirely intact, at the west end of the Roman marketplace. The aristocracy would gather here for performances of theater and music, and for poetry readings. It was decorated with statues of the muses, and of a wealthy patroness.

The Richness of Domestic Life- 

The picture becomes fuller still with the displays of private and domestic life. Thessaloniki had a great mosaic workshop, and floors of wealthy homes and baths were often decorated with mosaics-

We read of their diet- The Romans favored spices and sauces. From inscriptions we know that the among the aristocracy the diet was rich in variety- fish and shellfish, venison, rabbit, pheasant, and chestnuts, almonds, pomegranates, and figs. We know they held symposia, gatherings of urban elite to exchange ideas, and that they listened to the flute and the kithara, and that the flute- accompanying symposia, theater, and rituals, was also used to give pace to the strokes of rowers and the marching f soldiers. The mosaics have survived, but the paintings have not- walls were covered with frescoes. We can imagine the colors though, because they survive on fragments and on other objects:

We even know they smelled nice, from accounts of "myropoles" (merchants of fragrance), from the beautiful perfume vials found in tombs, along with hair combs, diadems, make-up in small pots. Cura dabeit faciem- "care boosts beauty" (Ovid, The Art of Love) is quoted in the museum's display.

An hour or two will give you an intimate glimpse of the rich and intricate life in our beautiful city of the first centuries AD. You will leave with some understanding of how they celebrated, what they did for recreation, how they dined, what they thought was beautiful, and most importantly, what mattered to them. You may find, as I did, that (excepting maybe the combat with wild beasts and processions with phalluses), it is a very familiar world.

The Museum is open seven days a week, from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm.

More Thessaloniki:

Kinda Blue- Searching for the Roots of Rebetiko

The Lives of Others- Villa Bianca

Open House- Falling in Love with your Hometown
Read More »