Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Everyday Romance, Greek Style

There are a few nice dinner specials at the better hotels, but long stemmed roses are not seen more than usual, and I haven't seen a heart shaped box of chocolates yet this week. If you didn't look a a calendar, you could miss the holiday altogether.

Why would a country that is so in love with life ignore the holiday of romance? Because it's superfluous. Romance is for everyone, everyday.

Customs that shape the week, and rituals that shape every day, bring romance to life:

1. Toasting: In some countries, we clink glasses to commemorate special occasions, like Valentine's Day. In Greece, we toast pretty much constantly.

2. Laiki- the weekly street market: Meeting the farmers who feed us every week basis widens our circle of intimacy, reconnects us with the earth and the sky. This brings a sweet texture to urban life.

3. Superstition: Romance is the unseen magic of life. Here, there is lots and lots of unseen magic- blue eye charms (protection against the evil eye), spells to dispel spells, coffee cup readings that are sometimes eerily on target. 

4. Lunch: Hot food, bread, wine. And rarely alone. We share a meal with others, at home or out, almost every day, and we make a thing of it, take our time. Crumbs on the table and a little laughter.

5. Volta- Promenade: Especially in summer, after the siesta as the shadows grow longer, we dress up a little for the evening volta. There is a sense of occasion, anticipation, as the shadows lengthen- even on Wednesdays.

6. Coffee and Ouzo: So, we're having this economic crisis- probably you heard about it. People visit and wonder why the cafes are full. Because everyone adjusted- we make less, the cafe charges less, but we're still all together, enjoying life.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Loving Pelion- the Ultimate Greek Weekend Destination (Part I- Sunshine)

You know how they say it's about the journey, not the destination? In Pelion (in Greek- Πήλιο "Pilio") it's both. Called the mountain of the Centaurs, Pilio forms the curved peninsula that defines the nearly enclosed Pagasetic gulf. With the coves and rocky beaches of the open Aegean on one side, the gulf on the other, the snow capped mountain above, and the woods all around, getting from one place to another is a pleasure in itself. The best vacation deal in Greece is the 5.60  bus ticket from Volos to Tsagarades- the first half hour hugging the sea, then a steady climb through forests, postcard villages, and glimpses of the turquoise waters below. 

We're here on a special trip- our Travel Bloggers Greece Anniversary celebration, hosted by the hospitality group Spyrou Philoxenia and the Aglaida Hotel. John Grigoras of Spyrou Philoxenia has planned an ambitious and generous itinerary, which fills up even more as invitations mount. We get to meet a lot of wonderful people. Pilio can offer a staggering range of experiences over the course of a single day- here are some of ours-


This beautiful village overlooking the sea, snowy Tsagarada is our home for two nights. The well - maintained roads of Pilio are narrow, and few, navigated by the world's most skillful bus drivers. No superhighways mar the landscape. But there is an alternative transportation route: stone pathways - in use for hundreds of years - connect the villages. After a breakfast at the hotel of traditional dishes- cheese pies and στραπατσάδα -strapazada- the region's popular egg and tomato scramble eaten at any time of day - we set out for to the next village on foot. 

Hiking on a 17th C path-
Nikos, our guide from Trekking Greece, is very well-informed- he gives us some history of the region (he also gives us walking sticks to navigate our snowy path). The richness of nature ιs matched by rich architecture - Αρχοντικά - aristocratic homes speaking of a prosperous history rooted in the cotton industry of Egypt (fascinatingly boosted by the American Civil War- with the world's leading cotton exporting nation out of the picture, the already strong Greek industry lead the market). There is little Ottoman influence here. It was untouched until the 17th C, then Murad IV (Sultan reigning from 1623-1640), called "Murad the Hunter" for probably various reasons (he was notoriously brutal)- one of which was actually hunting- delighted in the wild boar, and the region itself and gave it as a present to his mother, forbidding anyone but locals (and the few Viziers who collected taxes from them) to live here. This quality of charmed separateness remains to this day.

Family trip- Daughter Mei Mei with Odysseas Asithianakis (son of Dimitris of 
Photography Traveler)
Marissa of Travel Greece, Travel Europe and Mei Mei
descending into a rocky cove.
It's an easy and exciting hike- a leisurely hour and a half if you don't endlessly stop to gaze and take photos, but of course we do- and you will too. The stone path- sometimes steep enough to be really glad Nikos gave us walking sticks- brings us through dense woods opening up all the time to dramatic sea vistas, waves churning in snug coves, waters so pale opalescent green from above you think it must be summer. It also takes us from the 17th C to the ultra-present- via ...Hollywood. 


Damouchari cove- site of scenes from Mama Mia- is really more like a film set than nature. 

It's a cold January day, but the generous Greek sun is already heating up the golden rocks, begging you to take off your jacket, even wade a little- providing a sharp contrast for the winter pleasures of the afternoon.

On our way, we get another taste of mountain hospitality. Zagora is all plane trees and stone houses, smoke from wood stoves in the air, gray slate roofs and a pretty church. We are given a warm welcome by Sakis of the Hotel Owners Association of Magnesia with a classic Pelion lunch at Patis- wild mushrooms, σπετσοφάι- spezofai- (sausages with peppers and tomato), some greens we love and have never seen before and have to ask the name like three or four times until we get it right- τσιτσίραβλα- tsitsiravla are the leaves of a wild pistachio shrub, pistachio in color, too, served with a small handful of chopped garlic. It would seem bold but the table is covered with individual serving size bottles of τσίπουροtsipouro- the region's even bolder spirit.


Not to be confused with Chania, the Venetian town of western Crete- that one is Chaniά; this one is Chάnia. Zagora has a light dusting of snow. As we zig zag up the mountain, the landscape whitens, branches bent under the weight of the snow. The cleanly plowed road has walls of snow half a story high and the sky is like a pearl. When we arrive at the ski resort, we climb a mountain of plowed snow- no slush, no dirt just- while powder that squeaks when you walk on it and makes perfectly packed snowballs. I've heard you can see the sea from the snowy peaks as you're skiing but nothing has prepared me for what that actually looks like- pure white with the sea shimmering gold in the distance.

After a stop for coffee at the charming mountaintop hotel Manthos, and the cutting of the Travel Blogger's Greece Vasilopita (the Greek New Year's cake with a coin hidden in it for good luck) we wind down the hill in the dusk, time for one last stop.

Church of Agia Marina, Kissos
We reach Kissos in darkness but the snow covered charm shines through in the night. Chrysoula of Travel Passionate has been to the Church and says it's wonderful. (Is it open though? No matter- this is our driver's village and he can find the priest if the church is locked). It is wonderful-  

The church is rustic and modest from the outside- stone and a slate roof characteristic of Pilio. But open the doors and it is  all opulence- Pilio wears its wealth discretely.

Travel Bloggers Greece were guests of the Aglaida Apartments- a collection of cottages and small buildings all in traditional Pilion style situated in a stunning location with views to the sea. We were equipped with a kitchenette, phone, and television.
The hotel's traditional slate roofs, with the Aegean in the distance.
Pilio in winter is cold- if you visit in the snowy season (and you really should- that combination of the Aegean + snowy peaks is out of this world), bundle up. But don't worry- a roaring fireplace and a warming tsipouro are never far away.

Next up- Pilio in the rain, and endless dining- a romantic winter Sunday.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fashion and the Colors of the Inauguration

Fashion is a tell. Given that ideologists who claim the moral highroad – your more zealous socialists and Christians for example– fall so short of any thinking person's notion of an ideal, I'm using another yardstick: not ideology, but Style- elegance as its own virtue.

By this measure, an event so disappointing to so many, for reasons arguably more substantial than palette, often fell short. But there were a few wins, on both sides of the aisle.

Red, White, and Blue (Or in this case, bleu, blanc, et rouge):

We could start with red- our commander in chief and that blinding tie. But like much else in life, it's all about the girl- Mrs. Trump. The Jackie Kennedy cut of that dress and jacket was regal, especially when the jacket came off at luncheon, revealing nothing but more austere, becoming modesty. It was pure class, with a pleasingly militaristic edge of discipline- very nearly kink- underscored by the gloves, to say nothing of the point-toed, slender-heeled shoes. Restraint is always in excellent taste- here, in the restriction to that single shade of blue.

But the wrong shade. Among so many, many more significant things I might have wished were different, I wanted life in that blue- something juicy, something that quenches. I wanted a blue I would gaze at for its own sake, a touchable blue, a blue like the Tiffany's box Mrs. Trump presented to Mrs. Obama (a classy, warm gesture). This was a cold and clammy blue, lifeless, rather than a shade cool and refreshing.

Yves Klein Nike of Samothace
Blue hit its high note at the inaugural ball. After a dowdy afternoon, Mrs Pence was radiant in sophisticated "Yves Klein" blue. Apart from the color's source, this was homegrown chic. The designer? Designers actually- a collective of dressmakers working out of a small shop called “Something Wonderful” in Broad Ripple, Indiana (her home state) designed the gowns of all the Pence ladies. A beautiful message.

Ivanka Trump with her golden hair was elegant in cream; Tiffany was less fortunate, looking more washed out than bold in a shade of bright white. But most striking was that, although seemingly dressed as a unit, the sisters failed to coordinate: the eyes of world on them, they stood in chromatic discord rather than harmony, several shades away from striking a pleasing counterpoint to each other. Their body language mirrored dissonance. Like the shade of their stepmother's superb dress, it was a cold elegance.

A third beautiful head of blonde hair was Jackie Evancho's, The singer of the national anthem, she was another prominent young woman at the inauguration whose entrance was followed, and her outfit- also a double breasted coat in dead white, made an unwitting theme of whiteness itself. Only the most paranoid leftist could think this was a statement- even on a subconscious level. But against the background of the race related turmoil that characterized the divisive pre-election climate, the three prominent blondes in all white struck an odd note.
(Mrs. Clinton- also a blond- looked better than she ever did during the campaign. She was simply splendid in cream as well.)

This is a powerful, even dangerous color- when it's right, it's all warmth and courage, and when its wrong, it's clownish. It's also the symbolic color of the Republican party, so you'd think they would get it right. And on the third try, they did.
President Trump's tie was that clownish shade of red- more brash than bold, a color we also saw on the collar of Kellyanne Conway's bizarre red, white and blue military coat- more of a costume, really- sort of like the nutcracker. In stylish contrast was five year old Arabella Kushner, looking fabulous in a deep red coat with a big bow at the neck, like a little Audrey Hepburn.  Mrs. Obama was beautiful in her textured coat with broad lapels in a rich garnet. But then she hasn't hit a false shade since charming us in that yellow dress and coat she wore to her husband's 2009 inauguration. (And that casual chignon just barely coming undone was just that approachable elegance that is the best of American style).

On the opposite end of the style spectrum, what about that switching up to shimmering gold curtains in the Oval Office? The nation that produced Elvis and Liberace will probably recover.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Perfect Visit to the Acropolis

The Acropolis is at its most majestic at the edges of the day. 

A favorite family photo captures me at the Parthenon,  chin on my chest, asleep.  We had arrived the night before, our first time in Europe, had bad tea and rolls at the President hotel in that dining room in the basement in the light of the "rosy fingered dawn"- this was a trip with a syllabus. It was not adolescent ennui- just jet lag. That first visit to the Parthenon is an amazing thing, especially since, up until the day before, my experience of the past had reached no further back than Colonial Williamsburg.

Visits after that were less moving. The present intruded: necessary scaffolding, the clanging of machinery, and just so many people in such vivid summer attire.

But on recent chilly Sunday, under a dramatic sky, the monumentality of it all came back. It was crowded, but stark, visitors- many of them Greek- bundled up against the first cold evening. Above the murmur of the crowds was a crisp, patriotic sound- the enormous flag, rippling and snapping loud in gusts of high wind.

At sundown, the sites close. Guards, lots of them, advance all around from the perimeter, blowing whistles, tightening the circle of visitors. It was a glorious night, and- in a way that never seems to happen in a museum, for instance- a bond arose among the visitors, many lingering at the edges of the radius, slowing the process down for the group. It was like we were waiting for something, and it wasn't the sunset, because it had just happened to gasps and flashes. In the reluctant stroll to the Propylaia, we were unexpectedly victorious, our exit blocked rather than hastened.

Always on a Sunday

On Sundays, the Evzones (the Greek Presidential Guard), dressed in traditional uniform, ascend the Acropolis in a formal procession, accompanied by the military band playing the Greek national anthem. They raise the flag in the early morning, and come again at sunset to take it down. These two symbols of the glory of Greece coming together- ancient heritage and the rebirth of Greece (the Evzones wear the uniform of the revolution) is unexpectedly moving.

The earliest visitors will take in the procession in the freshness of morning, in the relative solitude before the crowds arrive. The evening visitors will have the advantage of the hush the sunset invariably invites. 

If a Sunday proves impossible, a visit at the very beginning or very end of the day is still the most rewarding. The low sun, the stillness of the hour, makes for a contemplative mood, no matter how crowded.
The Karyatids know best.
The visiting hours for the Acropolis change seasonally- check before your visit.

The Acropolis and other monuments and museums are free on the first Sunday of each month, from October to March.

More Monuments at Sunset:

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

The Acropolis Museum by Night

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Best Food Experiences in Greece- A Dining Journal from 2016

It's very hard to get a bad meal in Greece; I didn't have a single one all year. The bar is high. But these meals were memorable- elegant or simple, they were marked by something personal and authentic.

Lobster Macaroni, in a wet bathing suit, on a day trip from Eumelia to Limeni, Peloponnese

I'm willing to bet that pretty much anything tastes great after a swim in the clearest cool waters of the most dramatic cove the Mediterranean has to offer, and also that pasta with lobster would be delicious in a basement in Cleveland. But having it while still wearing a damp bathing suit, in the shade, overlooking the sea, and drinking chilled white wine with people you really like, is the very essence of Greece.

Anything at Chez Violette, Exarchia, Athens

My first meal of the year was a New Year's Eve dinner with my mother and younger daughter at Chez Violette- a restaurant so warm and so real it is the essence of a Greek experience. What did we have? I really don't remember, and also who cares? Everything is always delicious but they are so charming and welcoming that the perfect onion soup gratin or salad with warm chevre is besides the point. That meal set the tone for the year.

French fries, Archangel, Almopia

"Mountain Potatoes, Archangel"
After a hike and a visit to a monastery in beautiful high altitude Archangel, our hosts in Almopeia brought us to the taverna in the town square. We warmed our hands over the wood burning stove, drank red wine, and ate french fries that were so good we asked if the guy they bought the potatoes from would sell us a sack. He came back and we bought some.

Galatopita, Mana's Kouzina Kouzina, Athens

Mana's Kouzina Kouzina opens onto everyone's favorite square in Athens- Agia Irini. It's also a crossroads of cuisine- traditional recipes from all over Greece are revived from obscurity. Better still, they are made with ingredients sourced from small and medium Greek producers. It'a all authenticity here, free of mutinational blah. Try bold all natural Greek made sodas that put Orangina to shame, or better yet a Greek craft beer picked by beer sommelier Giannis. Why have the galatopita, a milky sweet nourishing custard in a shell? Because of the recipe- according to chef Dimitris, "It's just milk, and a little love."

Goat with trahana, Gastrodromio, Litohoro

Fairly famous, Louis Vuitton-guide-endorsed chef Andreas Gavris impressed us with an imaginative menu of modesty- beans, anchovies, inexpensive cuts of meat served over pasta's humble cousin- trahana. Amidst an economic crisis and an influx of over half a million refugees, a menu free of ostentation was in supremely good taste, and one of the year's most elegant in every regard.

Ouzo with Mezze, Maria's cafe, Asomatos, Lesvos

Lesvos was the trip of the year. We visited many places, but we somehow felt like we lived in Asomatos, even if just for an hour or two. At Maria and Stratos' cafe, we had ouzo and koromila, beets, olives, and cheeses, one- rich and crumbling- was made by Stratos' mother, from her own sheep. She was radiant.

"Olives" at Point α, Athens

You can't get a better view of the Acropolis. But the centerpiece- olive branches by a jeweler- draws a second glance. The olives are not metal though- they look almost velvety. "Take one" Jenny our hostess says. It's not velvet- it's frost! A layer of green olive oil sorbet coats my mouth, then there's a rich, savory olive ice cream I enjoy for a moment longer. It's served with rustic whole wheat bread, like you would have if you were eating under a plane tree at your aunt's house if your aunt were from a village in Crete with a wood burning oven. Not such a fanciful analogy- the team of two chefs are from Crete. At the core of the fantasy at a dinner at Point α, there is pure, beautiful truth.

Chez Violette
Kalidromiou 69, Athens 
210 384 5974

Manna's Kouzina Kouuzina
Ailolou 27, Athens
210 325 2335

Ag. Nikolao 36, Litochoro
23520 21300

Point α
Rovertou Galli 4, Athens
210 923 6832

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Inspiring Destinations in Greece: 2016 was all Beauty and Character

2016, a year of sadness and loss in so many ways, was generous in experience and inspiration. When you blog and write about travel, experiencing is the very core of the vocation, and the year was rich in it- from the grittiest of ouzeries to five star rooftop gourmet heavens, we had many fabulous experiences. 

It's not the beauty that keeps Greece fascinating: it's the fact that the beauty represents an ideal. It has been a hard year for many in Greece, and throughout Europe, for the people already here and for the refugees being welcomed every day.  Reflecting on the many wonderful, authentic experiences I had, a handful stand out.

It all comes down to character. 


Giorgos- our host, guide, and friend -
on a dirt road high above the sea, 
the most beautiful and remote place we visited all year.
The longing strains of Amanes reveal a part of the island's exotic, elusive identity 

Skala Eressos- world's most romantic beach. But no need to take my word for it:
When I look on you a moment, then I can speak no more, but my tongue falls silent, and at once a delicate flame courses beneath my skin, and with my eyes I see nothing, and my ears hum, and a wet sweat bathes me and a trembling seizes me all over."-Sappho
By the measure of character and beauty both, Lesvos was the destination of the year. Some friends and I from Travel Bloggers Greece were invited on a unique trip to experience the beauties of an island whose shores have welcomed over a half a million refugees (more like 600,000). That was the true beauty - the grace and compassion. Tourism on Lesvos has suffered. This dynamic woman, Maria, invited us to stay at their Natura Studios in Skala Kalloni. Her husband Giorgos took us all around the island in a 4 wheel drive, sharing their lives with us. Angeliki and Vassiliki from the regional authority arranged our airtickets, Eva distillery a celebration of the island's culture, Gabriela a wonderful day in Molyvos. We fell in love with Lesvos, an island that represents the best Greece has to offer on every level- nature, history, music (amanes), the refined pleasures of ouzo, charm, and - best of all - grace.


Charlene, just learning that the suicide bomb we heard had killed ten people. 
The year started with sadness. My first morning ever in Istanbul was also my first brush with the brutality growing around us. We could hear the explosion at the Blue Mosque, then a long silence, then sirens, then helicopters. After such a traumatic event, our main impression remained the gracious, refined behavior of the people of Istanbul, an inspiring example of living life with grace.


Our otherworldy winter paradise in Evia
Right after Istanbul was our Anniversary get-together, for which I had no heart after Istanbul. Voula Karat and the family at Thermae Sylla gave us an experience that was therapeutic on every level, and it was a joyous occasion. Being with blogger friends made all kinds of sense- embrace life, and share the experience.


Pater Illarion inspires with a message of banishing misery and
embracing joy in everyday life
Almopeia is a quiet region in the north of Greece, known in the city chiefly as a destination for therapeutic hot springs. They are open all day and night, and an hour's drive will bring you. This makes them a wholesome cap to an evening of excess: that hot waterfall pounds the effects of any ill judgement right out of you. But on this trip, I found rejuvenation not in the falls, but in the words of a priest. He had found that in replacing "I have to" with "I want to" grace and joy has filled his life. I tried it- it works.


Marilena, our sommelier, was literally bursting with life- 
The most engaging wine tasting ever.
In July, my friend Janet and I visited Marilena and Frangiskos to share in the vision of their bio-dynamic Eumelia. Frangiskos left an EU job in Brussels, drawn by the creative possibilities of living in harmony with the environment.  Theirs is a constant evolution, giving rise that extend to philosophies touching every area of life. And don't imagine some Guru/cleansing thing- we had an abundantly great time- pure joy. My most recommended trip for 2017 would be their fully curated (and sumptuously catered) "Experience, feel, taste Laconia" week.


Olga and Natalia of the Pikrolimni Cultural Society 
The last trip of the year was local- Kilkis, landlocked and not even remotely touristy. Kilkis is known for its livestock and dairy, the fish of its lakes. We found serenity (Greece's Haiku Destination), endurance, and, indeed, wonderful hospitality. At Pikrolimni was the warmest of all; we arrived at the cultural center to find a grill smoking and a long table set up. They shared their cuisine with us- local Pontian specialties like piroshkis, and dark delicious wine.  It was the highlight of our trip. That is what Greece does at its best- make you feel truly welcome.

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