Saturday, November 19, 2016

Cape Sounio, and the Passionate Delinquents of the 19th Century

"If you haven't been to Sounio, then we're not discussing anything else." My friend Chrysoula, also a travel blogger, was decisive; it was not so much advice as an injunction.

Watching the sunset from the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounio is one of a handful of ultimate Greek experiences where nature and history show each other off. 

Cape Sounio is remote, maybe an hour from the city along an ever narrowing road that hugs a rugged, winding coastline. 

Why build such a grand temple in such a wild spot? Because of the wildness. Don't imagine it peaceful, bathed in golden light. Winds funneled through the straight between Andros and Evia, and more winds from the strait of Chalcis made this this last of challenging seas perhaps the most treacherous. Who can say how rough the seas would have been were it not for this temple to pacify Poseidon. Only after passing the temple in safety could a ship reasonably look forward to coming safely to harbor.

So imagine those earlier travelers while you applaud the sunset (really- everyone claps spontaneously- this is the most festive of group archaeological experiences), the sea benign and serene below. 

But nothing sells an attraction like celebrity guests. I had heard that Lord Byron had inscribed his name somewhere on the temple. Given his services to the nation, it's not so unreasonable he left this mark; it adds a welcome layer of history. 

And it wasn't just Byron. The lower portions of the temple are covered with deeply etched dates, names, initials. These are not some hoodlums with cans of spray paint and fat magic markers. They were hoodlums armed with chisels and hammers, and, over the decades, there were lots of them. The idea of raising a tool to antiquity seems deviant. But it wasn't Greece then, it was the Ottoman Empire. Greece was a cherished idea in the hearts of the people who traveled out to this remote cape, yes deface antiquity, but also to attach themselves to something timeless and monumental, something that in some cases, they ultimately brought back to life. Given the advance preparation needed (the hammer, the chisel, the horses and cart... or maybe a sailboat?), this must have been a requisite activity on the Grand Tour (and for some Greeks). You can imagine them writing of it in their journals- the journeys, if less treacherous, by no means convenient, the remoteness, the success of their endeavor. Maybe this passionate vandalism was a rebellion that in spirit played a role in a much greater one.

To go to Cape Sounio:

There are many organized bus trips that will get you there in comfort, but this is the time to rent a car and hug the curves of the Athens Riviera.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Style and Substance- Vintage Fashion at Yesterday's Bread, Exarchia (Athens)

Exarchia- haven of ruthlessly independent creative activity- makes me homesick, for a time as much as a place. There is no Starbucks, no Accessorize, no multi-national faux culture or ersatz style. In short, welcome to 1980's Manhattan.

Although I adore watching Sex and the City, it has ruined my beloved city's reputation. I love the fun and the fantasy and Patricia Field's marvelous vision, but there's a vibe of trying way too hard that is very not Manhattan, and particularly not downtown (the word "downtown" automatically embodying the ethos from Taxi Driver to Paul's Boutique). Of course we put in effort, but it was organic, indigenous, creative, and above all, pretty cheap. The very few new things in our wardrobes came from the designers themselves (Betsey Johnson still had stalls at street fairs, and I could afford to shop there with money I earned babysitting), or from Capezio (leotards and butter soft ballet slippers- meant for hardwood. After a week on grimy sidewalks we were essentially barefoot), but most of our clothes were from flea markets and vintage shops- bed jackets (worn over a leotard, with old jeans and ballet slippers), fedoras, ball gowns (also to school), pegged black jeans from Trash and Vaudville and t-shirts we cut the necks out of (my favorite was from The Specials)- these were our school clothes. From Patricia Field's shop on 8th street, we bought boxes of face powder from Japan. It smelled like cherry blossoms.

So, back to Exarchia-

Charlene my older girl and I were on a trip to Athens a few years ago, and she was at this perfect age where she was starting to understand what she wanted to project, but she had trouble finding the raw materials. She got a Hell Bunny dress covered in playing cards in London on the way to San Francisco, some frilly knickers thing at Dark Garden (custom corset shop) in Hayes Valley (SF), and a Series of Unfortunate Events - mood dress in Edinburgh when she went for the Fringe with her dad, but the rest was pretty much McBershka. You don't really want to find a piece of yourself in a multi-national mega shop.

So anyway there we are on Benaki- in this sweet neighborhood that, like '80's Manhattan, doesn't need to try too hard- and she sees this poster in the window of the furniture repair shop- a Betty-Pagesque girl with a '50's dress and '40's shoes was standing in a distinctly Exarchia doorway. She does a little squeal- real girl, real clothes, real style. There was a name- Yesterday's Bread- and an address- Kalidromiou, close to where we were staying, a block or two from the square. 

That's where we met Strato and Daphne, who, although we have seen them less than a dozen times, are very much a part of our world. Each of my girls found a piece of themselves in this shop, like they could finally realize a vision that had only been abstract up to then. The store is made for this- just enough organization to find what you need- rows of men's jackets, rows of dresses, etc., and just enough chaos to make it feel like a you broke into the wardrobe room of a theater- steamer trunks of scarves, of corsets.   We stayed a couple of hours our first visit- she tried on lots of things, refining and self - defining as she did. After a while, Daphne could see where she was going and helped her get there. Charlene got lots of stuff, a vintage one-piece, shirts, dresses. 

I got a dress too- full skirted, shawl collared, self-belt, that I wear all summer, and a leopard cape I wear all winter.

Another time Charlene came back with a burlesque/circus dress, ruffles, trailing at the back, short in the front, very Panic at the Disco. It's not conventionally practical, but on the other hand, when you need it, you really need it- nothing else is going to satisfy that mood. We like a sense of occasion in our household.

Mei Mei went a few years later, at that exact same time in her life when she was deciding how she wants to look. She got a kelly green polka-dot skirt, some vintage pin-stripe converses, and a beaded satin evening bag, shaped like an owl. She wore them all to tea at the Grande Bretagne:

Mei Mei in Exarchia on her way to tea
Getting ready for school
On our next trip, my mother bought her a floor length strapless black lace ballgown, and a mauve velvet hat. She wore the dress to her beach party for her 18th birthday, and many times before and since. My mother also bought a bold babushka scarf for herself, like the kind from the Ukranian stores on the Lower East Side.

So why all the stories? Because clothes matter. You can have an all night beach party for your 18th birthday in a dress from the H & M, but something will be missing- clothes are a part of your history, as essential for defining who you really are as a costume is for a character on stage. How does vintage help in the the quest for figuring out who you are? For one thing, wearing clothes that already have a history of their own can give you a head start. Fashions recall eras, and all the things that belong to them- philosophy, design, politics, and, not least, music. Also, things are a lot more special when there is just the one, not hundreds, in the city.

Check Yesterday's Bread's facebook for their store hours. From the square of Exarchia, go on the mostly pedestrian street Tsamadou until you get to Kalidromiou (3-5 minutes)- make a sharp right and it's just a few steps up. (If you're visiting the Archaeological museum, it's right near by).

I didn't mention the prices-  they are very, very good, but that's not why you would come.

You could think of them as rescuers of fashion. They're also rescuers of dogs- met Beer, the wobbly legged baby pointer Daphne found:

Beer sent Fiona a bandanna:

Yesterday's Bread
Kalidromiou 87-89
210 881 1233

More pleasures of an authentic life in Athens-

Not so Ancient Athens- a mysterious antiques bazaar near the fish market

Community and Culinary tradition (Food, and a little Love- at Mana's Kouzina Kouzina)
Read More »

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 »