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Nymphaio > perhaps the most beautiful village October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland.
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Everything you’ve heard about Nymphaio is true. It really is the most beautiful village in northern Greece. But even if you’ve seen photos, nothing prepares you for the surprise of actually being there.

For one thing, its founders hid it so skillfully from prying eyes that there are no tantalizing glimpses from afar. Instead you ascend a seemingly interminable corkscrew of a road, practically straight up from the valley between Mts. Vermio and Verno, with the smokestacks of Ptolemaida belching in the distance and not a trace of habitation in sight. Even when you arrive at the gates of Nymphaio, there is only a large parking lot to greet you along with one elegant grey-stone building, Ta Linouria hotel/restaurant enclosed by a green lawn, a hint of what’s to come.

Unless you’ve booked at one of Nymphaio’s six small pensions, you must leave your car behind and walk up the hill to the village proper, for most of Nymphaio’s streets are off limits to the motor vehicle. Now you’ve reached the main square, fronted by the Neveska hotel/restaurant and flanked by a café, a shop selling traditional foods made by the local Women’s Organization, a psilikatsidiko (old-fashioned notions hole-in-the-wall), and a grassy area where horses may be grazing. The horse is to Nymphaio what the cow is to Delhi, and they roam at will, unfettered, and unnoticed, by the locals at least. Less blasé, visitors pursue them with their cameras.

Pleasant though it is, the square cannot compare to the houses surrounding it, every one a work of art, a poem in stone. Rising above them all, Nymphaio’s largest building, the Nikeos School with its clock tower, looks as though it has been lifted out of Basle. Lovely villages abound in Greece’s mountains, think of the Zagorohoria in Epirus, Metsovo, Pelion, all built by the master stone masons from the so-called Mastorohoria in western Macedonia and north of Konitsa.

But in none of those places are the homes so impeccably cared for, the cobbled streets so litter-free, the gardens so lush, the atmosphere so, well, unGreek. This is the kind of village you might expect to find in Switzerland, Austria, Germany or France, up in the Alps, right up to its tin-lined roofs, designed to encourage the snow to slide off.

Nymphaio is all the more remarkable because only twenty years ago two-thirds of its houses lay in ruins; only sixty inhabitants, mostly elderly, eked out a living there. For almost six hundred years it had prospered, as its Vlach citizens were among the most dynamic people in the Hellenic world. Whether as peddlers of meat, cheese, hides and weavings around the Balkans or later as jewellers and ultimately as tobacco and cotton tycoons in the Ottoman Empire and beyond, they seemed to have a Midas touch. They called their village, hidden but not immune to Turkish attacks, Niveasta, which in Vlach has three possible meanings: Nymph because of the sylvan setting; Invisible (Ni Vista); and Snow-covered (Nives Ska). It was renamed Nymphaio in 1928.

World War II, the Civil War and the flight to the cities that subsequently robbed so many Greek rural areas of their population also crippled Nymphaio. It might have remained a ruined relic were it not for the determination of a few visionary native sons, led by writer Nikos Mertzos and winemaker Yannis Boutaris, or as they dubbed themselves, “The Last of the Mohicans.” They energized the drive to restore collapsed buildings, repave the streets, and install vital public utilities.

But a pretty face is not enough to bring a village back to life, and Boutaris, with his experience in the wine industry, knew that Nymphaio needed to attract the new leisure class of weekenders in order to survive. With them in mind, he created a dream place called La Moara (Watermill in Vlach) just outside the village limits, close to the forest that cloaks the steep hills above it. Though it has only eight rooms, La Moara has acquired renown as one of the finest small hotels in this country. It was closed when I visited in early June, but luckier friends extoll its comfortable (but not glitsy) rooms, superb restaurant and warm, welcoming staff. It also has its own stable, and I’ve heard that riding through the woods around Nymphaio is another of the joys of staying there.

But it does shut on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we consoled ourselves in another traditional inn, Athina, 5 rooms in a lovely home new in 1900, with furnishings and décor as it was then plus all mod cons discreetly integrated. Its owner, Yannis Papadopoulos, told us to book way ahead on fall and winter weekends, Nymphaio is so popular with city dwellers bent on admiring autumn leaves or snowy landscapes.

But Nymphaio is not just a wonderfully executed reconstruction of a fascinating era, it is also actively fighting for two vanishing species. The Arcturos refuge for bears has nothing to do with wine and yet it too owes its existence to Boutari family. From its headquarters in Thessaloniki, Arcturos set up a sanctuary for dancing bears just outside Nymphaio in 1993, and another one for wolves at Agrapidia off the main road to Kastoria in 1998. They also run an environmental information centre/veterinary clinic at Aetos between the two. Not all the farmers in the area sympathize with their efforts; some even accuse Arcturos of releasing their bears and wolves into the wild to savage their livestock.

So, when you go to Nymphaio, make a point of visiting and supporting these important refuges. It is not often you can lend a helping hand while indulging all your senses so magnificently.

How to get there
Nymphaio lies 610 km north of Athens, west of Veria, east of Kastoria. The most direct route from Athens is via Larissa and Kozani; from Thessaloniki drive west through Yiannitsa and Edessa.

Where to stay
There are six small pensions in Nymphaio, none larger than 10 rooms. La Moara, 8 rooms, tel. 2310 287626; price includes breakfast and dinner; Ta Linouria, 10 rooms, tel. 23860 31133; Athina, 5 rooms, tel. 23860 31141. La Betlou tel. 23860 41282, Enterne tel. 23860 31230 and La Galba tel. 23860 31314 are other, slightly more economical possibilities. La Moara has its own stables but the other pensions can also arrange for horses and guides if you’d like to ride.

Where to eat
Besides Neveska and Ta Linouria, La Betlou has its own taverna, and the  Archondiko serves traditional dishes, too. But for a special meal, try Thomas’s Taverna at Sklithrou, on the main road to Kastoria. It’s known for miles around for its cava which lists almost 300 different Greek wines.

Related Links > http://www.yadeshotels.gr/en/hotels.htm

Koryschades traditional village guesthouses October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hotels Greece.
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Koryschades is a pretty village that nestles on a forested slope of the mountains of Evritania. It is only four kilometers away from Karpenisi, a town which is close to the Velouhi ski resort and gets invaded on winter weekends by hordes of Athenians dressed in brightly coloured ski outfits.

Koryschades escapes this entire bustle, it is quiet and laid-back and has an almost sleepy feeling to it. This has not always been the case. The village is well known for its eventful history, it was in the old village school that in 1944 the resistance against the nationalist army was organized and formed a left-wing government.

Several of the old village houses have been restored and converted into the Koryschades Traditional Guesthouses. The main building is situated in the central square and feautures the only restaurant in the village. It opens early for breakfast, a hearty buffet that includes fresh bread, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, homemade cake, biscuits, yoghurt and cereals. When it is not too cold, most guests sit out in the square that is shaded by a huge plane tree and sometimes during the weekends, while the last ones are still lounging over their cake and coffee, the first people already show up for lunch. The menu features typical Greek dishes, including traditional pies, salads and grilled and cooked meats.

The guest quarters are spread out over four village houses. While all of them are traditional in style, they vary quite a bit in terms of comfort and aesthetics. The most attractive rooms are in the two Anatoli Houses (one is a converted barn), all the way at the top of the village. They are not excessively decorated. Rather, it is their stone and wood floors, thick bare stone walls, and blend of rustic furniture and antiques (and fireplaces in some of the rooms) that lend character. Room number sixteen, a double with a fireplace, balcony and stunning mountain views, is probably the best of all. Other favourites are number five (a suite with two double beds) and number nine, a big room that can sleep three to four people.

Koryschades Traditional Village Guesthouses is a member of the YourGreece Network of Great Small Hotels

The rooms in the other two houses are generally smaller and somewhat less appealing. They enjoy the same amenities (television, mini-bar and telephone) as those in the Anatoli Houses, but are more sober in their décor and several of the bathrooms could do with a renovation. Room number two in the Arhondiko House, however, is particularly cute.

What all four guesthouses desperately lack is a space to sit and relax. Although most rooms are of ample size, they essentially function as bedrooms, and during the winter you especially miss having some other comfortable space where you can hang out. There is a small sitting room in one of the Anatoli Houses, but it is a little bare and not remarkably inviting. One place where you will be able to relax, albeit in a different way, is the small indoor swimming pool, a recent addition to the Anatoli Houses. It might be just what you need after a day on the slopes or mountain trails.

Related Links > http://www.yourgreece.gr/

Books > Great small hotels in Greece October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life Greek, Hotels Greece.
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A new book features a unique selection of small Greek hotels full of charm and character

Great Small Hotels in Greece presents more than a hundred exceptional hotels and guesthouses on the Greek mainland and islands. Author Jacoline Vinke chose them on the basis of character, atmosphere, size, style and aesthetics. She traveled all over the country to visit “candidate” hotels, and selected only those she would gladly go back or send her friends: small and charming hotels that make their guests feel comfortable and at home while offering them an enjoyable change of scenery.

The book covers a range of different kinds of places, including tiny stone-built mountain guesthouses, white-washed island hotels, centuries-old townhouses, country estates, and even some arty boutique hotels. Whether a hotel offers simplicity or luxury, is inexpensive or pricey, right on the water or high up in the mountains, small… or very small, each and every one included is worth the journey and is a destination in itself.

Great Small Hotels in Greece falls between a guide and an art book. Both text and colour photographs convey the atmosphere of the hotels and highlight what makes each of them special. The fusion of an entertaining read and striking photographs makes it an item to top a pile of coffee table books and be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in Greece, even when no immediate trips are planned. But the inclusion of maps, directions and practical information (opening periods, number and types of rooms, prices, credit card acceptance, breakfast hours, restaurant facilities, suitability for children, acceptance of pets, etc.) also make it a tool to take with you when setting off to tour Greece.

Please note that no payments have been accepted from hotels or guesthouses to be included in the book and that the text has been written without any participation of the hotels. The reviews represent the independent and personal views of the author.

The book is organised by region and the spread of hotels is as follows: 7 in Epirus, 5 in Macedonia, 22 in Central Greece, 15 in the Peloponnese, 6 on the Ionian islands, 6 on the islands in the Argosaronic Gulf, 26 on the Cycladic islands, 9 on the East Aegean and Dodecanese Islands and 17 on Crete.

Related Links > http://www.yourgreece.gr

Hellas Country Club October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hotels Greece.
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Mikro Horio enjoys a marvellous green setting on the slopes of Mount Helidona. As you walk around the village, you might notice that all the houses are relatively recent constructions. The simple explanation for this is that you are in fact in the new Mikro Horio. In 1962, most of the old Mikro Horio was destroyed in an avalanche.

It happened one Sunday morning at the time that most of the villagers were in church. The church withstood the avalanche and all the churchgoers survived, but the thirteen people who had stayed home were not so fortunate. The government helped the survivors to build new houses just a few kilometres from the old village. The assistance programme also included the construction of a hotel. It was owned and run by the municipality and there was nothing special about it, but it helped bring some tourism to the village.

Just a few years ago, the hotel came under new, private management and in a record time of only 45 days, it made a miraculous transformation from the rather unremarkable Hotel Hellas to the stylish and trendy Hellas Country Club.

After it reopened, the hotel instantly became a hot spot for Athenians. It is booked solid every weekend throughout most of the year. Only during the summer do things slow down a bit. It is not hard to pinpoint what makes the Hellas Country Club so popular. It offers an appealing balance of comfort, space, style, cosines and service that you don’t often come across in hotels in the Greek countryside. The only aspect you could possibly miss here is the personal welcome you get in small family-run hotels. The man who made the Hellas Country Club what it is today busy getting his next hotel off the ground, and leaves his young friendly and competent staff to run the place.

One of the main attractions of the Hellas Country Club is its huge sitting room. It is exactly what you would hope for in a place that calls itself a country club. Furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs, country style antiques and tasteful decoration, it simply begs to be used. It is a great space in which to sprawl out, particularly after dark when every corner has candles lit, and in the winter when you can warm your feet next to a well-stoked fire. The restaurant of the hotel is equally inviting. White slipcovered chairs provide an elegant touch to the slightly rustic decor. It is open for lunch and dinner and offers an interesting pallet of modern Greek/Southern European cuisine. At breakfast you will find a well-assorted buffet in the restaurant.

The 29 bedrooms and suites are more “club” than “country” in style. Imposing colour schemes (burgundy red, olive green and curry yellow), thick carpeted floors and plush furniture create an almost urban ambience. If you don’t step out onto your balcony to enjoy the mountain views, you could easily imagine you are staying at a first-rate city hotel. Then again, the suave bathrooms, fluffy bathrobes and well-stocked mini-bars contribute to a feeling of luxury that might be just what you are looking for during a little escape from city life.

Directions: From the centre of Karpenisi, follow signs for Koryschades and Megalo Horio. After about 15 km, take the turn-off for Mikro Horio. In the village you will see signs for the hotel.
Open: All year
Rooms: 20 doubles, 4 triples and 5 suites for three or four persons, all with private bathroom. Some of the doubles can interconnect to accomodate families. All rooms and suites are equipped with mini-bar, telephone, television, hairdryer and safe.
Prices: High/very high. Breakfast included.
Restaurant: Open for lunch and dinner.
Breakfast: Served from 8.00 to 10.30 in the breakfast room or in the bedrooms (extra charge).
Suitable for children, cots available.
Credit cards accepted: AMEX, Diners, MasterCard, Visa.
Dogs: Allowed upon prior agreement.

Crete > Villa Arhanes October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hotels Greece.
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Most people who come to Crete do not fail to visit Knossos -the archaeological site with the palaces of the Minoan civilization. Busloads of tourists descend on the site every day, and return to their hotels near the sea in the after­noon. If however they drove on a little further they would discover Arhanes, a beautifully preserved and protected village in a lovely rural area that is famous for its wine pro­duction. But tourists rarely come this way.

Οn the outskirts of Arhanes, a 19th century mansion was recently converted into a small hotel. It consists of six (attached) houses, facing an inner courtyard with a swim­ming pοοl and the cutest little kafenion. Quite surprisingly, for such a small place so full of character Villa Arhanes is actually part of a bigger hotel chain (the Maris Hotels), but this is something you barely notice while you are here as the only give-away is the Maris Hotel bathroom products. The houses are furnished in a no-nonsense, traditional style, which may be lacking a personal touch, but they do have plenty of charm, while comfort is guar­anteed.

The personal touch is definitely present in the welcome you get at Villa Arhanes. Yannis Gonianakis, who has been running the little hotel since it opened in 2001, takes care of it as if it was his own. He used to work in big resort hotels, where, as he has put it, “you have a smile on your face, without really smiling”. At Villa Arhanes, where he is the receptionist (without a reception), the manager; the administrator; the waiter and the cook, all at the same time, the smile on his face is sincere. He is a perfect host and takes a real interest in his guests. Proud of his origin, he loves to show what Cretan hospitality is all about, and you should absolutely let him spoil you with some of the meals he cooks.

Αll in all ,Villa Arhanes is a wonderful place to stay, with a very peaceful and almost surreal ambience. Ιn fact, when you walk through the entrance door; it feels like you step into the opening scene of a theatre play about people living in a village. Υοu can just imagine the characters stepping out of their houses to meet up in the small kafenion. It is rather a privilege to become part of this play where fortunately, all that is expected from you is to relax, have a cool drink by the pool and try some Cretan delicacies. And thankfully, there are on spectators, but just you and a few other guests.

Villa Arhanes has -two one-bedroom houses for two persons and three houses with two bed­rooms (for up to six persons).They are spacious and well laid-out with a fully equipped open kitchen, a sitting room with a fιreplace for the winter (only the Dionysis House does not have one), a large bathroom (with a shower), a telephone, an internet connection. a television, air condi­tioning, a hairdryer and a safe.

Since you have a fully functional kitchen at your disposal yοu may want to cook a few meals yourself, but you should not miss out on those that Yannis prepares. A great Cretan breakfast is served in the morning from 7.00 to 10.00, and if yοu ask for it in advance, you can also get lunch and dinner at the little kafenion. Yannis is an excellent cook (he learned everything from his mother) and prepares all dishes with locally produced organic ingredients (and lots of herbs) following the oldest Cretan recipes; his meals are as healthy as they are delicious.

Children are welcomed at Villa Arhanes and the layout of the apartments is indeed very practical for families (and cots are available). Kids will love the pool, but as the houses are quite close to it and people come to Villa Arhanes to enjoy the quiet, it is recommended not to let them ‘run and scream’ around the pool all day.

Villa Arhanes is the perfect place to stay if you want to visit the Minoan palaces of Knossos in the quiet of the early morning before the tour buses arrive (or later in the day after they leave), because the site is only at about a quarter of an hour’s drive from the mansion. Otherwise, it is a wonderful spot to unwind and relax by the swimming pool and to explore the lovely countryside. Ιn the evening you will surely enjoy the lively atmosphere in the village.

Villa Arhanes stays open all year round. (It is in fact a fantastic place to go to in the winter: you will be able to see Knossos at its best, without the tourists, and the houses are large enough so you won’t feel cramped if it is cold outside.) Prices for a couple start at around €85 per night, excluding breakfast. It is possible to book half- or full-board packages. Dogs are not allowed. Credit cards: all major.

Το get to the village, follow the signs for Knossos from Iraklion. After you pass Knossos, you follow the road and look out for signs for Arhanes. Υοu will first pass through Kato Arhanes, and then you will enter Pano Arhanes, where after the first few buildings, you will see a sign to your left for Villa Arhanes. Follow the signs (they take you around the village) and after quite a few turns you will see the hotel on your right.

Athens’s jazz hub welcomes in the new season October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Music Life Live Gigs.
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Athens’s jazz hub welcomes in the new season with eclectic offerings

Barbara Mendes will return to the club

Athens’s jazz hub the Half Note Jazz Club is about to welcome in the new season and open its doors once more. This season’s program includes lots of interesting concerts, ranging from Gypsy swing to 60s sounds and acid jazz.

The Groove Collective will mark the start of the club’s season tomorrow with hip-hop, drum‘n’bass, funk and Latin sounds. The multinational ensemble, which will perform until October 12, first appeared in the early 90s, playing at New York’s famed Giant Step club, and within a few years had created an explosive fusion of jazz and dance with emphasis on hip hop.

Well-known trombone player Fred Wesley and his quartet are set to perform the following week at the club, October 13 to 19. A member of the acclaimed J.B. Horns and responsible, to a large extent, for the sound of great soul man James Brown, Wesley pushed funk to its limits and made it extremely catchy.

Gypsy sounds will take over the club’s stage soon afterward, as guitarist and violinist Dorado Schmitt will follow until October 26 for six memorable nights of Gypsy swing. Popular Brazilian singer Barbara Mendes will close October with a program that will combine Brazilian music with jazz and pop. Equipped with a powerful and emotional voice reminiscent of her country’s rich musical heritage, Mendes started her career when she was just 6 years old, singing in festivals alongside her mother, well-known singer Marisa Rossi. At the Half Note she will be accompanied by guitarist Andre Valle, bassist Mauricio Oliveira, pianist and keyboardist Renato Fonseca and drummer Pedro Mamede.

November will open with Balkan brass sounds by Boban Markovic’s band, which gained a following for its participation on the soundtracks of Emir Kusturica’s films (“Underground” and “Arizona Dream”).

The ensemble mixes Eastern tunes with funk, resulting in an explosive celebration along the lines of modern jazz and is booked to perform in Athens from November 3 to 9.

At The Half Note Jazz Club is at 17 Trivonianou Street, Mets, Athens, tel 210 9213310. Shows start at 10.30 p.m. Mon-Sat, 8.30 p.m. Sun.

A cartoonist’s smiling world October 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece, Arts Exhibitions Greece.
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A one-man show on the work of the reputable artist Jean-Jacques Sempe has finesse and magic > Musicians are protagonists in much of Sempe’s work.

French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempe never trained at an art school but was determined to become an artist from an early age. He was only 20 when he received an award for young talents. This was in the early 1950s, when Sempe created “Nicolas” his famous character which later became the protagonist of the series “Le Petit Nicolas” with illustrations by Sempe and texts by Rene Goscinny.

International acclaim soon followed, making Sempe, who is now 74, one of the most reputable cartoonists of our times. The inimitable, elegant style of his work comes through the exquisite drawings that are presented at the Nees Morfes gallery.

One of the unique aspects of Sempe’s work is that in it everybody will find something to relate to. His cartoons often depict nothing more than a snapshot from an ordinary, everyday life. Yet, the subtleties of meaning that come through are so rich that the viewer will find himself riveted by each drawing.

An old lady standing with her three suitcases in the train station of a provincial town, a man in front of a lone corner Parisian building, a bearded man looking out at the sea from the top of a hill: These are simple scenes to which Sempe has injected a sense of sophisticated humor, subtle irony and tender sweetness. Comparable to Jacques Tati’s films, Sempe’s work brings out the subtleties in just about everything around us and captures the essence of human characters and dispositions with just a few sketch lines.

His drawings rarely have captions but when they do, they are as spare and sophisticated as his illustrations. In one of the drawings, two tiny figures are depicted against the background of a towering, exhibition hall. The woman bends over the seated man who apparently is one of the museum’s guards. “J’aime beaucoup ce que vous faites” (I like very much what you do) is the caption. The image is filled with irony.

Sempe sympathizes with his lonely figures yet also ridicules them for their vanity and the bourgeois want for order in which they are often trapped. Bourgeois values are often attacked in his drawings. But Sempe’s commentary on political and social reality is always filtered through the most ordinary, mundane aspects of life. That’s partly what makes his drawings filled with such truth, grace and enchantment.

Jean-Jacques Sempe at the Nees Morfes gallery (9A Valaoritou street, Athens, tel 210 3616165) through October 14.