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Flashback > Athens readies to host world June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
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Flashback > Remembering the days back in summer 2004 when Athens hosted the Olympic Games. The editor of HomeboyMediaNews is a proud member of the Athens Games Volunteers. 

The chatter of cheerful voices, the clatter of cutlery and the sounds of street musicians keep the Plaka, the historic heart of the Greek capital, humming until the wee hours of the morning. Its narrow streets and stairs, which wind their way up the side of the rocky outcrop on which the Acropolis perches, are lined with medieval buildings and 19th-century mansions. They're all being spruced up as the city gets ready for the Olympic Games in August 2004.

Meantime, school children throng the neighbourhood in search of a snack or souvenir after visiting the nearby ancient monuments or the area's museums and churches.

Tourists stroll through the flea market or browse the many shops in search of bargains in jewelry, leather goods, T-shirts and statues of Greek heroes and gods.

PEDESTRIAN MALLS

Most of the action takes place along two streets, Adrianou and Kydatheneon, which intersect just below the Acropolis. They've been turned into pedestrian malls.

The Children's Museum, Music Museum, Greek Folk Art Museum and Jewish Museum are on or just off these two byways, as are the area's better restaurants. The flea market is around Monastiraki Square. Off the square are Pandrossou Street, a remnant of the Turkish bazaar, with its jewelry and leather shops, and Mitropoleos Street with its outdoor eateries serving falafel, seafood and pasta.

Surrounding the Plaka are all the famous monuments, including the Temple of Olympian Zeus and its massive columns, Hadrian's Arch and the ancient Greek and Roman agoras or markets.

The Plaka is a great place to stop for a coffee and to relax and people-watch after visiting the historical sites. Its many hotels have good views of centuries of history.

The Greek Folk Art Museum on Kydatheneon is filled with colour. It displays traditional costumes, intricately embroidered garments, woven fabrics and disguise costumes.

The museum in the Greek agora has a selection of small bottles used in ancient times to administer the poison hemlock to prisoners condemned to die.

The Jewish Museum on Nikis Street just off Kydatheneon covers the history of the Jewish people in Greece.

FESTIVE AIR

The Children's Museum is an interactive place. It has a mock-up of a metro tunnel for youngsters to explore. It's on Kydatheneon.

In Plateia (square) Filomousou on Kydatheneon, the cypress trees are festooned with lights, giving it a festive air.

The square's Taverna Vizantino serves dishes like baked fish and rice which goes well with a glass of ouzo or retsina.

A door or two away is Taverna Damigos. The Damigos family opened the eatery in 1865. By early evening it's full of diners, their tables overflowing with Greek cuisine.

A specialty is cod fried in batter, and served with skordalia or garlic dip. It's washed down with retsina or ouzo, which is distilled from grape stems and flavoured with anise.

Above Damigos is Brettos liquor store, the oldest distillery in Athens. It's packed with old barrels full of spirits, and people sip its mild tasting ouzo at the bar.

Flower sellers, painters and craftsmen come to Filomousou square in the evenings to sell their creations. They set up stands near Cine Paris, where the rooftop screen provides a grand view of the Acropolis.

ANCIENT GREEK DESIGNS

Also near the square is the artist-owned Byzantino jewelry store. Its goldsmiths produce a variety of styles, including some based on ancient Greek designs.

The Plaka has some ancient artifacts. The Tower of the Winds, built under the reign of Julius Caesar, once had a hydraulic clock. Its frieze represents the winds and their personalities. 

The Choregic Monument to Lysikrates was built in 334 BC. Its reliefs depict the battle between Dionysos and the Tyrrhenian pirates. It's on Tripodon Street.

Athens also has a Muslim past, from when it was part of the Ottoman empire. The Fetiye Djami Mosque near the Roman agora was built around 1458 for the visit of Sultan Mehmet, a fan of Plato.

As for churches, one of the more lively ones is the 11th-century Agia Aikaterini, just across the street from the folk art museum.

An interesting way to finish a visit to the Plaka is to walk through the Anafiotika neighbourhood. Its cluster of small white-washed homes on the slopes of the Acropolis have a Greek island look about them.

ACCOMMODATIONS: For details on hotels in Athens, visit www.greek-tourism.gr.  

GETTING AROUND: For car rentals and taxi tours, visit www.greektaxi.gr.  

MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Greek National Tourist Organization at www.gnto.gr

The best and worst of Athens June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
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Where the celebs hang out
Expect to find Royals, Hollywood stars and the super rich at the roof garden of the Grande Bretagne in Syntagma Square. Jack Nicholson and Julia Roberts will not be staying at this spectacularly renovated hotel (they have opted for equally spectacular villas along Athens' Apollo coast) but the GB has a guest list straight out of Who's Who.

Other celebrities will no doubt rub shoulders at funky Island, the eatery with the finest sea view in the capital. But the real celeb hang-out will be the island of Mykonos, where space at the heliport was reserved a year ago.

Best place to take in the city's ancient culture

Downtown Athens is an open museum. "There is no end to it in this city; wherever we walk we set foot upon history," as Cicero put it – a pronouncement that holds as much today as it did in 79BC.

For the Olympics the Greeks have united their Golden Age wonders in a giant archaeological park, and the best way to access them is a stroll along Dionysiou Areopagitou. This cobbled boulevard, one of the most beautiful (and most expensive) in Europe, is the central causeway in a 2.5km long walk around Athens' classical sites. Head for the pine-clad Filopappos Hill for an unrivalled view of the Acropolis – marble seats make the experience all the more celestial.

Where to go for a glass of ouzo (or three)

Once forbiddingly seedy, Psirri (the Soho of Athens) and nearby Gazi have undergone a radical transformation, replacing the increasingly gentrified ancient district of Plaka in terms of decibels and booze.

It was in the unromantic environs of Psirri that Lord Byron chose to lodge, falling in love with his landlady's daughter. And it is here you will find authentic ouzeries and bump into lacemakers and cobblers over pre-dawn cocktails.

Those seeking fresher air might head for the gargantuan bars-cum-nightclubs on the coast, which offer the ornate experience of all-night dancing with sea views.

How to beat the congestion

The Athens Metro is surely Europe's finest underground experience. Efficient, fast, cheap and ultra-clean, this subway system not only offers archaeology (displayed in most stations, wherever it was uncovered during construction) and contemporary art, it sings to you too. Music – sometimes classical, sometimes funky – accompanies passengers all the way to the tube. Constantly expanding, the subterranean network is connected to the airport (a 37-minute ride from Monastiraki in the city centre).

Biggest myth foreigners swallow about Athens

That it is Europe's most polluted capital. In fact the smog lifted about 10 years ago, after ageing fleets of cars and buses were withdrawn and industries were removed from the centre. More often than not the skies are not only clear but azure. Growing numbers of arts centres have added to the vibrant, cutting-edge spirit of a city that is also remarkably crime-free.

But anyway, best place to escape the bustle

The Saronic isle of Aegina, a mere 35 minutes away by hovercraft. Despite its proximity to Athens, Aegina tends to be overlooked by tourists but it is tranquil, verdant and quintessentially Greek.

Home to many in the arts scene, the island has fabulous walks and the best pistachio orchards. Its hills also hide one of the country's most extraordinary classical monuments, the temple of Aphaia, second only to the Parthenon in beauty and older by some 60 years. Aphaia, incidentally, was a goddess identified with Athena and Artemis and was worshipped almost exclusively on Aegina – she must have had something about the letter A (although her father was Zeus).

One thing every first-time visitor should do

It would, of course, be sacrilegious to come to Athens and not visit the "holy rock" of the Acropolis – if only to discover, as Freud did, that it exists "just as we learnt at school".

Seen from this vantage point, everything about Athens suddenly makes sense. Glimpsing the isles of the Saronic Gulf beyond the urban sprawl, one understands why the ancients chose Attica to build their fifth- century BC gems.

Climbing the limestone hill, however, is neither kind nor easy in the torturous Athenian heat. The trip should be made before noon or (gates permitting) at sunset. A night-time performance at the Roman Herod Atticus amphitheatre, beneath the Acropolis, is also a must.

And what to avoid like the plague

Do not go anywhere near either of the two KTEL bus stations – gateways to the Peloponnese and other provinces outside Athens. Home of rip-off taxi drivers, they are at best dirty and chaotic and at worst simply impossible to locate. One Athenian newspaper recently felt fit to describe them as "totally third world". If you really have to go, look up bus timetables on the web beforehand. There are English-language signs, so tourists are not apt to miss connections.

Top spot for a spot of sunbathing

Thanks to waste water treatment facilities, the entire coast is now blissfully clean, and there are lots of sandy coves, nooks and crannies on the road to Sounio. But undoubtedly the best beach is Halikiada on Agistri island, 45 minutes by hovercraft from Athens. Halikiada is Agistri's biggest bay and thanks to the strong Saronic current its waters are turquoise clean. Despite strong objections from the church, the pebbly stretch became Greece's first nudist beach in the 1970s. Its only rule is that you do not look down but straight ahead.

Best place for a free view 

Like that classic Athenian experience, the open-air cinema, you can snatch a view of some tv sports or your fave tv show from certain rooftops.

And for those with more expensive tastes

Classy Kolonaki, on the upper edge of Syntagma Square, has the most expensive coffee in the world and perhaps more fashion victims than anywhere else on the Mediterranean but it is the place to be if you prefer shoe shops and chic boutiques to handball and synchronised diving.

One last Athens oddity

Forget the Parthenon, take a real step back in time with the Greeks' love of tobacco. Even in Olympic Athens you can smoke practically anywhere. Priests puff in churches, doctors on hospital wards – and to ask somebody to put out their ciggy would be deemed absurd.

Athens fact file

Founded 850BC
Area 428 sq km
Population 3,192,606 (2001)
Percentage of national population 34%
No of tourists
14,179,999 (2002)
British tourists in 2002 2,858,360
Iranian tourists in 2002 4,252
Total medal ceremonies planned for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games 301

Athens > Architectural Primer June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.
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Although today we are able to study the remains of a great variety of ancient Greek buildings, the mental picture formed at the sound of the words "Greek architecture" is likely to be that of a temple, and a Doric one at that. Though no city in classical times (500 BC-355 BC) was deemed complete without its agora (or city-center), its defensible acropolis (acro = high; polis = city), its theater, gymnasium, and stadium, it was the temple of the city's patron god or goddess that was commonly given the dominant position and the greatest honor. The chief temple often stood at the highest point of the acropolis, the nucleus around which the city grew in safety, itself enclosed by fortification.

In Mycenaean Greece, 1,000 years before the classical period, the chief building of a citadel was the king's palace, as seen at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos. In these palace complexes the central feature is the megaron — a large rectangular room with the long walls extended to form the sides of an open porch, the roof of which was supported by columns. A single large doorway gives access to the megaron. In the center is a large hearth, the focus of the room: Around it, in a square plan, are four columns supporting the roof; in the right a raised platform for the royal throne. There are forecourts to these megara, and pillared gateways — copied from the Minoan palaces of Crete and replicated throughout Greek history. The Propylaea of the Acropolis at Athens (and of 20 other sites) derives from the Minoan gateway.

Clustered around the megaron and its forecourt are archive rooms, offices, oil-press rooms, workshops, potteries, shrines, corridors, armories, and storerooms for wine and oil and wheat — the whole forming an irregular complex of buildings quite unlike the precise, clear-cut arrangement that is later the hallmark of building in the classical period. This irregularity, characteristic of the Minoan palaces at Knossos, Mallia, and Phaistos on Crete, was one of the influences of that earlier and foreign culture on the Mycenaeans of the mainland.

But the megaron is Greek. The king's megaron, indeed a "great room," was essentially only the ordinary man's house built large; in some ordinary houses, as at Priene, the same megaron is found. And when the shrine ceased to be a mere house-chapel in a corner of the palace complex, as at Knossos, and the god was given a house of his own, his temple had the ground plan of that porched megaron. In its full development there is a porch, or maybe a room, also at the rear, and around it all runs a peristyle of columns. Thus the Greek temple is literally the god's house, intended not for the assembly of worshipers, but as a great room to contain the statue of the god.

The early temple builders found that sun-baked brick strengthened by horizontal and vertical timbers, if set on a stone footing, was a suitable material even for large buildings. This construction is seen at Knossos (circa 1900 BC) and at the Temple of Hera at Olympia 1,000 years later. The columns of the early temples were made of wood, and, later, when marble began to be used, constructional features appropriate to the use of timber were copied as decoration in the new material. It seems likely that the triglyph, the three-part stone slab set above the column and also above the space between columns in the Doric order, originates from a decorative wood slab that protected the beam ends of the ceiling from rain and rot — particularly when one looks at the six stone guttae always fixed below it, which seem to represent the six wood tre-nails, or pegs, that kept the slab in position. And the fluting of the Doric column is reminiscent of the grooves that the long strokes of the adze would make as the woodworker cut away the bark of a tree trunk before erecting it as the column.

If the origins of the Doric order are a matter of guesswork, this much is clear: that the Greeks used an elementary formula of vertical and horizontal lines of stone, so refined with skill and taste, with strict rules of proportion, that the total effect is one of balance, symmetry, and power. At the highest development, they added a series of optical corrections to ensure that the human eye, easily misled by the effect of light and shade in alternation, saw the whole as an apparent pattern of truly horizontal and vertical lines. In fact, with the application of these optical corrections, the entire building is made up of subtly curving or inclined surfaces. These refinements called for mathematical ability of a high order in the design and for extreme skill on the part of the masons.

In the Parthenon (5th century BC), the slight swell (entasis) and inward slant of the columns makes them seem straight-sided and vertical (which they are not); actual straightness would cause the eye to see them as waisted, and if vertical they would seem to be inclining outward. Also, without its slight upward curve, the steps of the platform (stylobate) would seem to sag under the line of standing columns. In short, the Greek mind took the simple idea of the upright and the crossbar, the child's building-block technique and, in developing it to its zenith in the Parthenon, produced a masterpiece that still informs us about those ingredients in a building that make for serenity combined with power, repose with majesty.

Marble was the perfect material for buildings in which sharp edges, clear-cut outline, precision, and the beauty of uncluttered wall surfaces were desired, so that each part, functional and decorative (the sculptured metopes and pediment), might do its work, and the horizontal members could lie without stress or mortar upon the supporting verticals.

The Doric order continued in use in Hellenistic (350 BC-215 BC) and Roman times, but it is easy to distinguish Greek from Roman Dorica. The later architects dared a wider space, enough for three triglyphs, between columns; they used a base for their columns, whereas a Greek Doric column rests directly on the stylobate; they economized often by omitting the fluting in the lower part of a column (where damage most often occurred); and they reduced the size of the capital most meanly. All these Hellenistic and Roman "improvements" are seen in Delos.

The Ionic order came to mainland Greece almost certainly from Asia Minor and the islands, when the Doric order was well established both there and in the colonies of Magna Graecia (southern Italy). Ionic columns have bases; the flutes have no sharp edges to them but are separated by a substantial fillet; the columns are more tall and slender; the capitals with their beautiful spiral volutes decorative; the architrave has lost its alternating triglyphs and metopes and, in Greece proper, has a frieze of plain or sculptured stone, in Asia Minor a string of dentils to suggest the beam ends of the ceiling. If the feeling of the heavier, more austere Doric order can be described as masculine, then the Ionic is certainly feminine (and very lovely), especially suitable for such smaller buildings as the Erectheum and the Temple of Nike on the Acropolis of Athens.

The Corinthian order came later. Its first appearances were in the temple at Bassae (circa 430 BC) and in the circular building (tholos) at Epidauros (360 BC), where one of the perfectly preserved capitals can be seen in the museum. It is decorative and graceful, and one may contrast the simplicity of its sculptured acanthus leaves and their slender tendrils with the complications bestowed on the Corinthian capital by later Hellenistic and Roman architects, in their constant striving for magnificence.

The classical Greeks rarely departed from the straight line and the rectangular plan; only a few circular buildings have survived — for instance, the Tholos at Delphi, the "folly" of the family of Philip of Macedon at Olympia, a temple at Samothrace built by Queen Arsinoe, and in the Agora at Athens, the building where the executive of the day lived.

Athens > Acropolis now June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Athens.
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Over the last few years there's been a quiet seachange in attitudes towards Athens. Where once people made a brief stop en route to the islands to peer dutifully through the smog at the Parthenon, they're now stopping longer, or staying in town, to experience a vibrant contemporary city.

The bad things about Athens are getting better, and some very good things are starting to kick in. Public transport improvements include a new airport and a positively attractive new Metro, a suburban rail network and a tram; partly as a result the pollution problem has diminished. Meanwhile, areas such as nightlife-central Psyrri and boho beat Exarchia are flourishing, joining tiny Kolonaki and touristy but sweet Plaka as eminently strollable neighbourhoods. The gasworks, foundries and factories of once-industrial Gazi are being reborn as cutting-edge arts and nightlife spaces, while the antiquities are benefiting from renovations and museum upgrades.

Athens still has its problems. It lacks green spaces (millions of trees promised for the Olympics have failed to materialise), and the roads remain a battlefield (this is the only city in the world where a green man can mean "don't walk"). But it's friendly and relatively crime-free, and its quirks and urban uglinesses are part of a distinctive character that will attract city-savvy visitors who have had enough of the self-styled fabulousness of other European capitals. Even the Olympic Stadium is now an attraction. 

A perfect day
In the heat of summer, you'll need to start your day early to beat the midday sun.

Breakfast
Pick up a street koulouria (sesame-seeded bread rings sold on stalls), or a savoury filo pie, like the locals. If you have time and feel up to the scrutiny, head to Kolonaki, find an outdoor table and order a frappé, a foam-topped iced Nescafé that's tall enough to linger over during the obligatory people-watching ritual (try Exarchia for a mellower mood).

Sightseeing
This is dominated by the antiquities and cultural museums, supplemented by street-wandering, shopping and frequent relaxed refreshment breaks. A joint ticket allows you to spread your visits to the major ancient sites over a week, which is advisable to avoid overload (and too much sun). Aim to get to the Acropolis as soon as it opens (8am in summer) to avoid the crowds and the harsh midday light.

Lunch
The foot of the Acropolis is ringed with restaurants, some naturally mining the tourist seam of red-check tablecloths and set meals, but many very good both for traditional and creative Greek food, with lovely shaded terraces. There's no shame to eating in a taverna (or mezedopolion, serving lots of smaller dishes accompanied by ouzo): their fresh, local ingredients, wine from the barrel and community role bely their naff package-holiday reputation. That's as long as you find a good one. Look for Greek diners, eschew the shills calling you in and take up any invitations to look in the kitchen.

Afternoon
You'll likely be up late – Greeks seldom dine before 10pm – so an afternoon siesta is a good idea. Alternatively take an air-conditioned wander around one of the heavy-hitting classical museums – the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art (Neophytou Douka 4, tel: 210 7228321, cycladic.gr), the Benaki (Koumbari 1, 210 3671000, benaki.gr) or, the newly renovated National Archaeological Museum (Patision 44, 210 8217717, culture.gr).

To avoid overload on classical culture, visit one of the Gazi area's modern multi-arts spaces; to avoid overload on culture, go to the beach – a string of both private and public run from a couple of miles south of the city. Or take a dip at the Hilton's chic new pool (open for a day fee to non-residents, Leoforos Vasilissis Sofias 46, 210 7281000, athens.hilton.com).
Evening
The quintessential Athenian evening's entertainment is watching a play or concert in one of the outdoor auditoria, the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus or the modern and modernistic Lycabettus Open Air Theatre. Both are venues for events in the Athens Festival (May-September, hellenicfestival.gr), comprising dance, theatre, music and ancient Greek drama, the latter a memorable experience despite the language barrier (and the occasional performance is in English).

If nothing is scheduled, go and see a film (in the original language) at one of the many outdoor open-air cinemas, a hugely atmospheric experience especially at Cine Paris (Kydathinaion 22, Plaka, 210 3248057), where the Acropolis in the background competes with the screen for your attention.

If you do things
We'll take the sites of ancient Athens as givens. Beyond that, don't miss the climb up Lycabettus Hill, eastern counterpart of the Acropolis and providing an awesome view of it, along with the whole of the Athens basin, particularly at sunset. You can climb a winding path through an agave forest or make use of the new funicular. And catch some shopping.

There's an upgraded rail service to Athens' port, Piraeus, which, combined with fast hydrofoil crossings, means that it is entirely, gorgeously possible to pop over to a nearby island for lunch. Aegina is the closest, 30-40 minutes away. The boat drops you at tiny Aegina Town, where you can shop for sponges and local pistachios or visit the fifth-century BC Temple of Apahaia eight miles or so east before eating a demonstrably fresh seafood lunch at one of the tiny restaurants by fish market, a block away from the taverna-lined shore.
Where to stay
Athens' hotel scene has been given a much needed boost, thanks to the 2004 Olympics which have prompted a rash of refurbishments and renovations, and the opening of two design hotels – Life Gallery and Semiramis – which will no doubt spawn copycats as the boutique concept catches on. There are good choices at all levels and generally speaking rates are highly negotiable. At expensive hotels you can expect discounts of at least 25% and even up to 50% simply by asking for 'special offers' – especially downtown hotels in July and August when upscale visitors tend to avoid the centre. The same applies to mid-range hotels which regularly rent rooms at 15-30% below the rack rate. It is harder to negotiate at budget hotels. With this in mind these prices are a general guide.

Grande Bretagne
With its grand Victorian facade, the Grande Bretagne would not look out of place at one of the more upmarket British seaside resorts. Built as a mansion in 1842, it was transformed into the city's first hotel in the late 1800s and remains the grand dame. It has hosted countless dignitaries and celebrities and in 2003 made history again as the venue for the European Union's historic enlargement ceremony.
· 210 3330000, Double €350.

Art Gallery Hotel
At the other end of the (physical and financial) scale is the Art Gallery Hotel, a small family-run property within walking distance of the Acropolis – which can be seen from the top-floor bar/lounge. A mishmash of old family furniture and paintings from a local artist who used the house as a studio. Recently spruced up.
· 210 9238376, double €80-114.

Hotel Plaka
Minimalist and sleek without being cold and good value for its type. Rooms are smartly furnished, quiet and spacious and the roof garden offers great views of the Acropolis, as do some of the rooms.
· 210 3222096, Double €125.

Grand Resort Lagonissi
If you want a beachside retreat within reach of the capital, this is an impressive new resort about an hour's drive from downtown Athens. As the name suggests, it's a large resort, set on a peninsula with 16 well-kept beaches, numerous restaurants and even a chapel. The design is sleek with clean lines and handmade furniture.
· 22910 76000, www.grandresort.gr. €390 per room inc breakfast.

Where to eat & drink
Tavernas and other traditional Greek restaurants remain a worthwhile force, but Athens' contemporary eateries, serving both Greek and internationally inspired food, can hold their own against those of most European capitals, and Michelin has noticed. There are few drinking holes as such; this is not an alcohol-soaked culture. That isn't to say there is no nightlife – far from it. Funky DJ bars, fashionable cocktail haunts, and Greek pop music and rembetika (blues) joints keep the city (and, in summer, its seaside suburbs) going until well past the small hours, often outdoors.

Athinaikon
An Athens institution, this mezedopolion has a four-page list of reliably fine meze, including some tempting fish and seafood choices, at low to medium prices.
· Themistokleous 2, 210 3838485.

Balthazar
A gorgeous, expensive restaurant and bar in a neo-classical building. In summer, the courtyard opens up and the well- and fashionably heeled come to sip cocktails. Good contemporary Greek cuisine.
· Veranzerou 27 & Tsocha, 210 6441215.

Interni
With a sister bar/club on fashionable Mykonos, this minimalist space epitomises contemporary glamour. Leather couches and cocktails start the evening, R&B and ethnic lounge take it to the 4am close time.
· Ermou 152, 210 3468900.

I Psyrra
A tiny and wonderfully relaxed bar decorated with spoils from the nearby flea market. A hip, studenty crowd spills out on to the pavement to sip rakomelo (a traditional island hot toddy).
· Miaouli 19, 210 3244046.

Jimmy & the Fish
It's not cheap, but Jimmy & the Fish stands head and shoulders above the other seafood restaurants on Piraeus's pretty harbour of Mikrolimano. It's stylish, with a well-made menu.
· Akti Koumoundourou 46, 210 4124417.

Mamacas
Serving traditional Greek cuisine in a modern context, Mamacas generates a hip atmosphere that attracts the local in-crowd to its pastel-painted dining rooms.
· Persefonis 41, 210 3464984.

Moorings-Varoulko
A few miles south of town, this simply decorated beachfront restaurant is the home of Michelin-starred chef Lefteris Lazarou and his innovative fusion seafood dishes.
· Vouliagmeni Marina, 210 9670659.

Platanos
August Platanos toes a strict trad taverna line. Its dignified staff serve straight-down-the-line cooking to tables in a simple front room and the tiny, secluded square outside. Very atmospheric.
· Diogenous 4, 210 3220666.

Red & Votanikos
The two restaurants of the Athinais Complex, a silk factory turned modern cultural complex. Red is the heavyweight, serving complex modern Mediterranean dishes; Votanikos offers more casual courtyard dining on recipes from around Greece.
· Athinais Complex, Kastorias 34-36, 210 3480000, athinais.com.gr.

Way to go

Getting there: Spata airport (Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport) is 18 miles east of Athens. Two buses run round-the-clock services into town: the E95 (to Syntagma Square) and the E96 (to Karaiskaki Square in Piraeus). Metro (Monastiraki, Syntagma stations) and Proastiakos Suburban Rail also connect the Athens city centre with the airport.

Further information: Greek National Tourism Organisation: www.gnto.gr.

Books > ‘Salonica, City of Ghosts’ June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.
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Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950
By Mark Mazower, 512 pp., Knopf, $35

Salonika is one of the world’s proud second cities, its fate often subject to the edicts and mores of capitals hundreds of miles away. Over the last 500 years, its citizens have adapted with varying degrees of enthusiasm to rule by a changing cast of overseers: from the 15th to the 20th centuries, by Istanbul (then Constantinople); after 1912, by Athens; and during the genocidal madness of World War II, by Berlin.

In his remarkable work of scholarly excavation, Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University, has peeled apart the dozens of layers that underlie Salonika’s past and that, he contends, many other scholars as well as politicians have wanted to ignore or obliterate. From letters, diaries, memoirs, travelogues and other unofficial documents, he reconstructs a society of dazzling ethnic complexity and exoticism.

A thriving port and a crossroads between Europe and Asia, Salonika under the Ottoman Empire was a place where the color of your headgear or shoes signified whether you were Muslim, Jew or Christian, Mr. Mazower writes. The sultan was ostensibly in charge, but for centuries the dominant figures in the city’s commercial life were Jewish merchants and rabbis. On the Sabbath, the wharves would be empty.

Even after the city turned more Greek in the 19th century, pockets of Albanians, Bulgarians, and Turks continued to call Salonika their home.

For women, who by both Jewish and Muslim tradition, were kept veiled or hidden away, it could be a peculiar existence.

As the Ottoman Empire declined toward its ultimate collapse in World War I, Salonika came under Greek rule. But political movements, such as Zionism, were not popular with many of Salonika’s Jews who had thrived under Ottoman rule and feared the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe. This foreboding turned out to be all too justified. Salonika’s Jews were deported to the death camps in 1943, and about 95 percent perished.

Wisely, Mr. Mazower does not use Salonika’s mixed heritage to impart lessons about tolerance among three major faiths. Instead, his tale seems driven by admiration for the richness of urban life in one particular spot, along with a sober understanding of its relentless tensions.

If Salonika is a city that you’ve passed over in your travels or reading, this book will make you want to rectify that mistake.

The Greek Taverna June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Food Culture.
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A cozy food stop to experience.

Usually the interiors of the taverna are quite stark and simple. Greece’s colors of blue and white are dominant all throughout the place. The walls are plastered with posters of beautiful scenery, and the windows are covered with light lace curtains that dance along with the breeze.

This is definitely not a fine-dining resto. A taverna is the Greek equivalent of a high-class carinderia that offers good-quality food.

The tasty, authentic Greek cuisine, the taverna’s cozy ambience and the warmth of its staff make the visit well worth it.

First, try the Ouzo, an alcoholic clear-colored drink made from anise. A shot of Ouzo is poured into a glass of water. This makes for an authentic Greek appetizer. If you prefer, try ouzo on the rocks.

For starters, try the fresh-baked bread paired with Tzatziki, a dip made of yogurt, garlic and olive oil. Prepare for the dip’s strong flavor.

The Greek Salad has fresh greens and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and topped off with black olives and feta cheese. The olive oil and olives are from plantations in Crete, or Kalamata. Taste a generous serving.

For the main dish, taverna’s bestseller is the Moussaka, made of eggplant, potatoes, zucchini, minced meat, eggs, wine, béchamel sauce, and cheese.

Other must-tries are the Lamb Fricasse, a stew of lettuce, onions, butter, dill eggs and spices; Grilled Lamb Ribs that come with vegetable sidings or oven baked fries; Cabbage Rolls with minced meat, rice and spices; and the Pastitsio, spaghetti with minced meat and béchamel sauce.

To cap off the experience, enjoy a serving of Baklava pastry with a cup of Greek coffee.

Greek Wines > Boutari June 8, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Wine And Spirits.
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If you drink the occasional bottle of Greek wine, you’re probably familiar with Boutari.

In fact, you could even be excused for thinking that Boutari is the Greek wine industry, given its exposure at the LDB, whose entire Greek quota is made up of no less than a dozen Boutari products.

In fact, the representation is justified, as Boutari, which some refer to as Greece’s Mondavi, has for many years been driving that most ancient of wine producers’ modern revival.

In some ways, Greece reminds us of Chile in the ’80s, manacled by a reputation for bulk wines, despite the fact that today’s quality continues to improve by leaps and bounds. This penchant for “good and cheap” is only reinforced by most Greek restaurateurs, who seem disinclined to introduce their diners to several interesting wines that do exist or prefer to just stick to Ouzo. Hopefully, though, things may be about to change.

When respected Boutari senior enologist Dr. Yiannis Voyatzis recently showed us some excellent mid-market tastes, some of which are already on local shelves and others which, no doubt, soon will be.

– Pinot Noir drinkers looking for good value should consider picking up a bottle of Naoussa Boutari 2004, which is made from Xinomavro, and has some definite Pinot characteristics: light to medium bodied with bright berry notes and definite cedar notes over good acidity. Very food friendly, great with tomato sauces, and well priced.

Boutari Agiorgitiko 2004: Think barbecue for this quite layered, plush and plummy drop with vanilla and mocha tones and a spicy end. Let it breath. 

– With summer knocking and more seafood on the menu, consider Boutari’s 2005 Moschofilero, a surprisingly complex white that starts out soft, even slightly sparkling, with floral notes giving way to a gentle citrus and melon palate. 

– If Greek restaurants don’t snap up the standout white of this tasting, we’re certain that others will. Kallisti 2004 made from Assyrtiko, grown on Santorini on unusual, cylindrically trained low vines to thwart the wind, is broad and complex, with distinctive stonefruit, nutty and tangerine notes wrapped up in restrained French oak. Superb . . . .