Thursday, May 4, 2017

Carpe Diem, Greek Style

Dawn at Eumelia- a Laconian Ideal.
One of the best things about living in Greece full time is the relative tranquility of the spring and fall, the experiences this makes possible, the connections to the rhythms of the existing culture which get covered over in summer by millions of people- often seeking, ironically, just those rhythms. The off-season experience of Greece is often more authentic, more intimate, and that is why it is one of the things I write about, here, and elsewhere. The tourist may seek sun and, often, excitement- nothing wrong with either and in summer there's plenty of both. The traveller, on the other hand, seeks authenticity. But these travellers are sometimes academics, or sometimes parents, or both- people whose holidays, though not short, coincide with the peak season.

The yard outside Dionysus Aeropagitou in Kolonaki
Finding your own private Greece in the high season:

If you find yourself visiting during the high season, you will still find intimacy and stillness in the off peak hours- some of the best in the Greek summer day. Eos- the Goddess who brings the dawn, is famously- and here in Greece, still- described as rosy-fingered. More recently, Lawrence Durrell goes on and on about it:

"The days dawn fine and cool this time of year... their crisp, dry felicity is almost shameful. Wilde would have said something nasty about nature imitating art, but in truth the Greek dawn puts words to flight, and painters out of business."

It's dawn on the Ioanian islands he describes, but it could just as reasonably even be Athens- although hardly cool in July, it is never cooler than it is at 6 am. The birds will wake you- the cicadas are still sleeping at this hour. The old men- skilled in art of carpe diem- are up before daybreak and their cafes are already open. Have a Greek coffee with a thick head of foam on it, "sketo" (no sugar), listen to the rustle of newspapers and the gossip of the morning while the shadows are still long. Or take a daybreak swim- although no matter how early you go, the old men will have beat you to it there as well.

If you have an agenda- and you surely do- greet it at once. Be the first at the Parthenon, before the stones have heated up from the sun. The longer shadows will make for more striking viewing, and there won't be a third as many people as there will be an hour later. If there's any hour suited to contemplation at the Parthenon in summer, this is the only one. (I fell asleep here when I was 14- having not been in Europe but 10 hours, I was still jet-lagged). This surely holds just as true for Knossos. 

Move on to another activity before the great heat sets in. By noon, you could be starting a long lazy lunch, and there is no shame in wine or ouzo at this hour, especially if you were up with the birds.

Mid-day ouzo meze at Dexameni
A rest at Eumelia before the most delightful wine tasting, ever.

You'd think it's the heat that makes the siesta so attractive, but really it's two other hallmarks of the mediterranean mid-summer. "The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being." Henry Miller exaggerates not one bit- and, though glorious, it is not easy to hold up to illumination of such intensity. No Greek house is without shutters to create a refuge from the light of midday, and the quality of the darkness cut through with little knife blades of blinding white on a parquet floor is palpably quenching.

The other thing that will put you to sleep is the cicadas. They are as loud as the light is bright, but their song is so hypnotic that if they stop all of a sudden, which sometimes they do, the silence wakes you like a slap ringing in the air.

Siesta, ideally, is more than a nap. Wash your face, undress, lie between white cotton sheets. Even without wine at lunch, those cicadas will knock you out cold for the most intense sleep you will experience all year- nothing to do with the unconscious hibernation of winter. After vivid dreams, most of which you will remember, you'll awake well before sunset, pleasantly disoriented, and with enough time for an evening swim or dressing for "volta."

Fresh from a deep sleep, enjoy the second morning of the day- a coffee is not out of place. There will be plenty of time for it to wear off.

Dexameni, again- ideal any time of day.

Most romantic restaurant in Athens- Point α- with Travel Bloggers Greece

Promenade- "volta"- is still very much the thing. No one really schlumps around much after 6 pm. Although there are no set rules (heels, a tie), dress as though you will be constantly running into people you like and that they will be asking you to join them for an ouzo, because that is what pretty much always happens. You might want to go to a performance in an ancient theatre, or an outdoor concert, or maybe just a film, seated in deck chairs nestled in white gravel among climbing jasmine, under the stars.  Or there's dinner- late, light, and long- mainly an excuse for conversation and ouzo. Not surprisingly, Lawrence Durrell also weighs in on the pleasures of the Greek night: "It seems a crime to go to bed early in Greece, and even the little children are allowed up very late, so that when they turn in they sleep a really dead-beat sleep, instead of spending the night whining and sucking their thumbs, as so many northern children do." You'll sleep this same dead-beat sleep too, for a few short hours until you wake, refreshed, to another rosy-fingered dawn

Intermission of Carmen, at the Herodotus Theatre

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Guiding Architects- Touring the Beautiful Architecture of Budapest

One of the great things about the Mediterranean lifestyle is that you can so easily slip away from it for a quick, strong dose of Mitteleuropa. An 11 o'clock brunch of feta and eggs in Thessaloniki, and just four and a half hours later I was looking out at the Danube from my balcony at the Gellert.

What makes a perfect dose of Mitteleuropa? For me, architecture and urban planning. Budapest had money when it mattered- historicism run almost amok, proportion ideal, but as to scale... well, when my mouth fell open on seeing the Parliament building on the Pest side through the windows of the tram #19 in Buda, 

the man across from me said "Truly. It is a little embarrassing, so very big...." But- jaw dropping grandeur aside- I wanted history, I wanted context, and most of all I wanted to know what makes Budapest, Budapest. I wanted identity.

With Architect Arne Huber of the Guiding Architects team, I will see- and feel- just that. A hallmark of Budapest is texture- not metaphorical texture but actual, physical texture. The contemporary station of the metro I took to get here was warm and rich in poured concrete and that earthy oxidized steel like Richard Serra uses- I couldn't take my hands off it. The Főutcája- "main street"- beginning at Kálvin tér where we meet greets me right away with the same sense of textual counterpoint- granite for the street, and softer, warmer travertine for the pedestrians. This walk will take us through many facets of the city's style. 

1867 is a pivotal year in the history of the city. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise brought about the Dual Monarchy (a single Head of State- the King of Hungary and Emperor of Austria as one), a huge increase in autonomy for a Hungary previously under Military dictatorship, all aspects of life under Austrian control. It also meant there was money- the 1870's, '80's and '90's were a period of monumental building in Budapest- itself born in this very era, with the merging of Buda, Óbuda (old Buda) and Pest. The city had a population of about a million at the time- making the grandeur per capita ratio pretty extreme- the number and size of opulent buildings are suited to a city many times larger.

What was going on right before that? Lots of large scale, 2 story buildings and Baroque churches.

The 1890's saw the onset of private building commissions. It also saw the advent of advances in construction technology. These combined- there was a new freedom from the historicism that dictated the style of public buildings, and with that, the means to realize this new aesthetic. Arne Huber has cleverly directed my attention to a dull, multi-story parking garage as he gives me this background information. I'm here primarily for the Secession experience; I have some idea of what to expect. When we turn around, Szervita tér #3 surprises me all the same, its facade entirely of curved glass, the weighty (in every possible sense) most improbably supported. It's beautiful.

Ármin Hegedűs' (the name means "violinist") building, originally a luxury department store with office space above, illustrates a lot about things I already know about. Then Arne narrates the mosaic for me, the missing piece that makes it beautiful.  The heroic mosaic is not an abstraction of ideals but a very specific construct of Nationalistic identity. The central goddess Hungaria is victorious, flanked by national heroes Ferenc Rákócz,  leader of the early 18th C uprising against the Habsburgs, and Lajos Kossuth, freedom fighter in the revolution of 1848. Radical structure and avant garde style unite to convey a deeply patriotic message, and that is what makes the Hungarian Secession interesting- it is, in essence, a double secession- forging aesthetic identity against the prevailing historicist styles, and a distinctly Hungarian identity against a past of partial subjugation to Austria. Next door, the Jonas' brother's building winks at Vienna though, in a very pleasant take off of Otto Wagner's Postsparkasse- the visibly attached panels coating the iron frame. 

At the heart of a Secession tour of the architecture of Budapest is Ödön Lechner, father of a distinctly Hungarian Art Nouveau. In his wildness, he gets called "the Hungarian Gaudi" a lot. I mention to Arne that he is at least as innovative, and why aren't we talking about "the Catalan Lechner"? Arne sheds some bright light on the issue- it is not so much a stylistic issue- reliance on tile aside- but a nationalistic one- as Gaudi worked to develop something distinctly Catalan, so Lechner forged a Hungarian identity, as opposed to an Austro-Hungarian identity. Key to this was materials. The "great plain" covers much of Hungary- this is not a nation God built of granite or marble- it is built of earth. Tile, therefore, is the indigenous material, and one which can express a distinctive identity- folkloric, and often whimsical. There is also lots of glazed brick- a local, and democratic, material. I mention the appeal of so economically accessible a building material - "Yes. But also- Lechner grew up next to a brick factory- there was a deeper, more sentimental attachment to the material." His early Art Nouveau Thonet ház - heavy on the Gothic, but not heavy- the curtain wall clearly bears no weight, and is a space for exploring pattern, with a very William Morris feel- Glazed brick is used here to glorious advantage.

We visit Lechner's first building in Budapest. Honestly I'd have passed it without looking up, and having it pointed out I can't see what is radical until Arne points it out- the rhythm is radical- symmetrical, yes, but rather than the standard AAAAA, or even AABAA, Lechner has his huge windows to the sides, for a unique, and then radical, BAAAB rhythm. 

Our tour ends in a grand and tranquil square. The enormous Beaux Arts building flanking the whole of one side is the former Stock Exchange is "available." The world's prettiest US Embassy- Secession style- is off to one side (and cannot be photographed). Just behind the Embassy is Lechner's Postal Savings Bank, a highlight of the city but you can get no distance on it. I went to the roof of St. Stephen's the next day to do so, but too much distance by far.

It is a glorious thing- opulent, esoteric, and deeply democratic with its use of brick and tile. There is a motif- the beehives allude (sweetly) to the building's purpose. The building embodies the deep sense of identity- and whimsy- that characteristic of this classic European capital.

We ended our walk with a coffee in this glass pavilion in Liberty Square,
 a few steps from the Postal Savings Bank
For a tour like mine, or many others, contact:

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A March of Remembrance: Thessaloniki-Auschwitz

Some time ago I was speaking to an elderly gentleman in my neighborhood. He shared a memory of some older boys he had grown up with. They told him about the day the Jews were rounded up. It was so sudden that they didn't even lock up their houses. The boys wandered in. Of all the shocking things, what struck them most was that the food still warm on the table, and there was no one to eat it.

Sunday was a march of remembrance. We met at Eleftherias square, where the Jewish community of Thessaloniki was gathered before they were marched to the freight cars that took them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thessaloniki had been home to the most vibrant Jewish community in southern Europe. At 96%, the loss was the most devastating of all European cities, including even Berlin.

Of the 4% who survived, some emigrated, some stayed. We are left with a few glorious villas, our central market and ferry terminal (by Eli Modiano), the Stein building with its globe on top, looking over the very square the Jews were deported from. We also have a museum, and a lovely Synagogue, but we no longer have any vivid sense of the presence of a Jewish community among us. That is a deeply painful loss to us all.

I thought about that story of the boys finding the food still warm on their neighbors' tables on Sunday morning, as I rubbed a chicken with lemon halves and put it in the oven on low heat with some potatoes. I thought about it because I realized what it meant- that I could leave lunch in the oven, and go on the march of remembrance to the train station, knowing I would be able to come home again, take the chicken out of the oven and have it with my family.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

In Volos, Drinking Tsipouro is an Art Form

I love it that the vagueness, the occasional freewheeling chaos of our little Mediterranean paradise disappears just where you'd expect it the most. It may be pandemonium at the supermarket or the post office, but never where you have a drink in your hand- (see Mastering the Art of Greek Drinking for more on this particularly useful aspect of Mediterranean finesse)

Alcohol in Greece is always accompanied by food (and more importantly still, by companions). At a classic kafeneio, an ouzo (an art form of Lesvos) is called an ouzo mezze- meaning the glass of ouzo very often automatically comes with a small plate of bites, kind of like a Greek Tapas. Otherwise, there will be "ouzo plate" on the menu- a oblong metal dish with a surprise mix, but almost always including various cured and salted fish that are the perfect counterpoint to the sweet anise kick of a cold and cloudy glass of watered down ouzo.

In Volos, the combination of spirits and tastes has been elevated to an art form- a perfectly curated experience in which nothing is left to chance, or even choice. In Volos, Ouzo gets an upgrade to Tsipouro, ouzo's high octane cousin- made not with neutral spirits like ouzo is but rather with distilled grape spirits (like grappa). Tsipouro is served "με" (with) or "χωρίς" (without)- this being anise and often other secret botanicals to round out the flavor. You definitely want "με"- it's strong and complex, but just let it have its way with you, and you are in for a great evening.

Spyrou Philoxenia arranged a trip to gorgeous Pelion for our Travel Bloggers Greece anniversary last month. On our last day, we got to experience the classic Volos Tsipouro ritual. Grigoris Fanoulas of Let's Go "live like local" experiences, invited us to Lepi ("fish scale"), a Volos Tsipouradiko right on the water. We loved the modern decor, we loved the classic dishes, but most of all we loved the element of surprise.
Grigoris of Let's Go explains the ritual
These bottles were wasted on Mei Mei- she had an orange soda.
At this as at all Tsipouradika, the tsipouro is served in individual single-serving bottles. With each bottle comes a plate- the first plate with the first bottle, the second with the seond, and so on, such that if you are two you have two different dishes- the first and the second- and a progression of dishes; if you are four, the third and fourth as well. The dishes are planned to offer variety, balance. They progress to the more elaborate (but, octopus is frequently the first or second dish), so to have the complete experience, you need to make an evening of it. The price for round one is the same as the price for round eight, regardless of the dish.

At the Symposia of Ancient Greece, the wine- a much heavier drink that our wine today- was mixed with water in a krater- a handsome, shallow, footed vessel. The ratio was usually part wine to three parts water, but the host of the symposium was in charge of the ratio- in charge, effectively, of the strength of the drinks.

The tsipouradiko experience is like that- letting someone else curate your evening. The portion size- larger than a tapas, slightly smaller than a regular taverna order- is perfectly calibrated to be the ideal amount of food to temper the effects of the alcohol, but not temper them too much; you should gradually reach a pleasant plateau, and stay there. This is not a pub crawl, or a tailgate party. It's the successful intersection of culture and experience.

Salty fried in the shell Crab are better than any dessert
Smoked fish of every kind makes a perfect Tsipouro meze
I ask Grigori about the ideal experience, and he doesn't miss a beat: "Five tsipouro each over a period of three hours, for locals." No hesitation. I'm loving the lack of ambiguity, although that could partially be the second little bottle and the fried in shell crab. They offer the experience as one of the "live like local" activities of their company- some people may be shy about diving right in: "For visitors, we recommend three tsipouro each, over a two hour period." 

The best part, of course, is the conversation- over three hours, you can explore topics with leisure, punctuated by the clinking of glasses throughout the night.

Volos with its port and sailboat harbor is a short and pleasant train ride from Thessaloniki, and a beautiful city. A visit to a Tsipouradiko is all pleasure, and all culture-

Try Lepi:

And live like local for creative, authentic cultural experiences:

More on Pelion:
Rainy Day Pleasures in one of Greece's loveliest regions

The Ultimate Greek Weekend- from "Mama Mia" beach to a snowy mountain.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

What's the Best Time to Visit Mykonos? Have it all to yourself in March

March in Mykonos is all anticipation- buzzsaws and oil paint. Construction zones turn into fully stocked boutiques, literally overnight. The Nepheli, first cruise ship of the season, is arriving in four days. 

But, until then, we have the place to ourselves.

I'm thinking it's the perfect time to see what real Mykonos is like, because this is an unreal place, where the Louis Vuitton is right across from the public grammar school, and the kiosk sells bubblegum, cuban cigars, and splits of Asti- dry and demi-sec. 

I was here once in August, three days during which I heard Lykke Li's "I follow rivers" not less than 40 times (2011, for those of you who have lost track of the decade's better Sommerschlagen). I'm listening to it right now on youtube, while the rain is pelting the windows. What's Mykonos like when you strip away the pop and the passarella? 

You have to dodge a lot of tricycles- the little kid ones, and the ones workmen navigate the picturesque alleys with, stacked with sacks of cement and 10 liter buckets of white paint. Paint- people are wielding paint brushes dipped in white in every alley- painting walls, the spaces between the stones to set the stage for a Cycladic fantasy. Sawdust fills the air. It feels and smells exactly like a theatre production three days before opening night, sans actors- round the clock work- no tension, but no one is taking a break either. The few cafes that are open are still empty.

But the churches are full- even for Greece, there are a lot of churches, none larger than a 2 family house. The icon of the virgin was waked down in a procession from Ano Mera- the island's inland, hilltop capital- on the feast day of St. Theodoros, and will be staying at the church of St. Kyriaki until the feast day of St. Lazarus.

You think there will be this tourist fantasy Mykonos in the picturesque harbor, and that the "real" Mykonos is somewhere else. But the seafront of the Chora (in Greece, the main town of an Island is called the "Chora"- with a super-soft "ch," like in "challah") has a double life- as Greece's ultimate status promenade, and as a place to smack octopus on the pier (100 times makes it tender). When the boat from Delos gets in- that's just a couple of times a week- men and women with sacks of wild greens they gathered on the sacred grounds disembark along with the three or four tourists.

And every day that the boats can leave harbor- winter and summer- the fisherman sell the dawn's catch from a kiosk of marble slabs right in the sand-

They share the beach- one of the most coveted, prestigious stretches of waterfront in the Mediterranean- with five or six pick-up trucks filled with tomatoes that, thanks to the dry cycladic soil, are heavy with flavor even in early March, and sacks of wild greens:

And they'll still be here for melon season, too. 
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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pelion is Gorgeous in the Rain- things to do in Zagora, Kissos, Vizitsa, Milies, Portaria.

Pelion is dazzling in the sun, but it takes a rainy day for it to really shine. We found the dramatic snow-capped mountains-meet sea scenery and postcard-perfect villages even more romantic in the rain. 

Have a Tsipouro in Zagora-

Whenever it rains at home it feels like perfect weather for red wine. Well, in Pelion, it's perfect weather for Tsipouro- the distilled grape spirit, usually scented with anise- a sort of turbo-ouzo. In Pelion, it is served in individual bottles- maybe so you can keep track?- and always enjoyed with meze or classic dishes. We loved Tsitsiravla- a wild local green served with a shocking amount of garlic:

cutting through garlic seems to be one of Tsipouro's many marvelous properties.We had enjoyed the classic Pelion dishes at Patis.

Bella Aglaida of the Vizitsa Women's Cooperative gave us a tour of their workshop,
and jars of ethereal 'glyko koutaliou' to take home. We also bought more Tsitsiravla!

Visit the Vizitsa Women's Cooperative:

A beautiful thing in Greece: groups of women in rural regions form their own organizations to preserve recipes and local food ways- museums of edible culture, taste memories, and delicate skills. Vizitsa's cooperative started five years ago- local women invested their own money to create a workshop and kitchen where you can take lessons and shop for local handcrafted foods, like the "glyko koutaliou"- spoon sweet- made with local fruit.

Kissos and Milies have fabulously beautiful Churches:

Agia Marina of Kissos
From the outside, they look like village churches- white painted walls, the classic slate roofs of Pelion. It's like opening a jewel box- the Churches are surprisingly opulent inside. This is a testament to Pelion's wealth (much of that from the cotton industry of Egypt, which they developed), and discretion- Pelion was a privileged area in the Ottoman period, but still....

We had an excellent tour of the Church of the Archangel, built in the early 18th C- the interior the work of a single monk from Mt. Athos, who took 33 years (as the life of Christ) to paint it. Years of soot had covered the frescoes almost entirely in blackness. An earthquake had revealed the genius of an underground acoustic system.

St. Christophoro as depicted with the head of a sheep,
emphasizing the beauty of his soul 

Portion of the ceiling of the Church of the Archangels, Milies.

Take a train-

TBG Family mothers and daughters- here we are with Passion for Greece
There is a narrow gauge (60 cm!) steam train between Ano Lehonia to Milies that will take you for a scenic ride in the mountains. Guess who built it?! Here is a clue:

Love Song, 1914

Evaristo De Chirico- father of the artist Giorgio

Visit Portaria-

Yes, even in the rain. Portaria is high on a mountain and I have heard the view is outrageous. We really didn't miss it- it was all damp grey romance with those fabulous slate roofs

Dine in front of a roaring fire in a classic Mountain Inn-

At the Kritsa Gastronomy Hotel in the plateia of Portaria, you can taste the best of the region- classic dishes like sausage of wild boar, roast pork in sauce, wild greens with eggs. Refined mountain dining- worth going for the meal alone, and the kindest hostess! The Kritsa Gastronomy Hotel is a destination in itself.
Eleni Karaiskou, our hostess at Kritsa, and her fantastic chef
We experienced all of these things thanks to the great planning of John Grigoras of Spyrou Philoxenia, who arranged our bloggers trip. We stayed at the Aglaida Apartments- traditional architecture and fabulous views!

From Mama Mia beach to a snowy peak- the Ultimate Greek Weekend.

Where is Drinking elevated to a form of art? Drinking Tsipouro in Volos.
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