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Tochni is just few streets apart November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Cyprus Limassol.
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Head inland from Cyprus’s hedonistic coastal resorts and you’ll discover a relaxing world of tinkling cowbells, pretty villages and friendly locals

As we pulled up outside our cottage, I could barely believe my eyes. Only 20 minutes after escaping from the clogged seafront at Larnaca, where legions of lobster-pink tourists were marching the streets in search of the cheapest “two-for-one” drinks offers, we had arrived in the tiny village of Tochni. Here was a Cyprus that, until recently, I hadn’t realised still existed. I had been under the impression that the island was all overcrowded beaches and high-rise hotels. Yet this was one of the prettiest villages I had ever seen.

Scattered around the hillside was a higgledy-piggledy collection of stone houses, strung together by one meandering street that wound its way up into the foothills of the Troodos mountains. It is so quiet here that the locals claim they can hear a car coming from three miles away. As we entered the village, a “welcoming committee” of grey-haired Cypriot ladies in black dresses lined the street outside open doorways, sewing lace and swapping stories as they had done for decades. A gentle breeze stroked our skin, bringing with it reminders of the day’s earlier heat; somewhere in the distance we could hear the clanking of a cowbell, the lowing of cattle and the sound of cicadas chirruping in the bushes. This, we would learn, was as noisy as it gets in Tochni.

However, while it might seem like a world away from the package holiday swarms, Tochni is conveniently close to Cyprus’s historical sites and beautiful beaches. Located in between the southern coastal hot spots of Larnaca and Limassol, it is just five minutes away from the A1 motorway; turn left and you head straight to the capital city, Nicosia; turn right and you’ll end up in Coral Bay and Paphos, on the island’s west coast. Despite the fact that not many people seem to know about it, including most of the Cypriots we asked on the way, Tochni has been inhabited for over 1,000 years. For much of that time, life has trickled along at the same pedestrian pace you’ll experience today.

For various reasons, however, the population of the village dropped drastically in recent decades, to the point where Tochni’s community was in danger of disappearing altogether. It began in 1974, when the village’s Turkish residents fled their homes and headed to the north, after the island’s invasion by Turkey. Although many of these houses were subsequently filled by Greek-Cypriot refugees, in the reciprocal exodus to the south, a large number of them are still empty today. The problem of Tochni’s shrinking population was exacerbated by the fact that its younger residents were moving to more urban areas like Larnaca. Those that remained were mostly elderly; Tochni was in danger of dying out. Thankfully this trend is now changing, as a result of one man’s vision.

Sofronis Potamitis, who grew up in the nearby village of Kalavasos, set up a company called Cyprus Villages 10 years ago. It began buying up abandoned cottages in the area, and turning them into traditional-style holiday homes, as part of a government scheme to inject new life into rural Cyprus. Unlike the huge development projects which created many of the resorts that we’re more familiar with in Cyprus, Potamitis aims to give visitors a taste of traditional Cypriot life.

Having been in Tochni only an hour, we made our way along the narrow main street, waving to the lace-making ladies en route, to the post office-cum-general store. While browsing the shelves for some holiday beer, Christos, the store’s owner, presented us with two glasses of fresh lemonade. “How long are you staying?” he asked, with a warm smile. “You’re going to love it here.”

Our cottage was located at the bottom of the village, in a cosy courtyard with a pool. The entrance was via an ancient wooden door, and steps so worn by centuries of feet that they had dimples in the middle. There were three other little houses in the complex, but each one was shrouded by vine leaves and bright pink flowering bushes, so it felt as though we had it all to ourselves. The cottage was simple but homely; a little four-poster bed, lounge, kitchen and bathroom are all you really need for a week of epic book reading, interspersed with dunks in the turquoise pool. There are only two restaurants in Tochni, but the food is magnificent at both.

My favourite was the Tochni Taverna. A steep, winding path takes you up from the market square, past several families of fluffy kittens and ramshackle houses, to a leafy terrace overlooking the streets and surrounding hills. The stifado, melt-in-the-mouth chunks of beef cooked in red wine with onions and cinnamon, is fantastic, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of visiting a friend’s home. However, if you can’t face the climb you could always grab a table at Nostos instead, which is conveniently located at the bottom of the path. The tables outside allow you to witness all the crucial comings and goings in the village either in Christos’s shop, opposite, or the church next door.

While you could easily spend a whole summer here indulging in people-watching and page-turning, there’s a lot to do if you want a more active holiday. As part of the “agro-tourism” programme run by Potamitis, you can spend the day picking your own olives and grapes, or even head up into the hills with a goat-herder who will teach you how to make halloumi cheese. I decided to go cycling. Next to Tochni Taverna is Zypernbike, which runs guided rides around the area. Tochni is surrounded by other picture-postcard villages, and a bike encourages you to get off the main tourist thoroughfares.

My ride began at Zypernbike’s sister centre, which is based at the Aldiana Hotel, near Alaminos, half an hour’s drive from Tochni. Our three-hour jaunt through the heat-haze and dust began on the road towards Mazotos, before our guide led us onto a stony trail that descended into Alaminos itself. From here we followed the undulating landscape as it climbed up to Anafatida.

From then on it was a fairly easy cruise back towards the coast and onto a sandy path, which ran parallel to an inky blue sea frothing with white caps. If riding bikes and herding goats sounds a bit too strenuous, there are plenty of other things to see and do around Tochni. Five minutes’ drive from the top of the village is the Neolithic settlement of Choirokoitia, a Unesco World Heritage Site where you’ll find the remains of houses dating back around 9,000 years.

Indeed, the whole of Cyprus is littered with ancient historical sites, from the Baths of Aphrodite in the north-west corner, through the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates on the south-west coast, to the monastery at Ayia Napa in the south-east corner. And, thanks to the dual carriageway running along the south coast, you could even squeeze them all in a day. However, when the temperature is hovering around 40C, it’s all too easy to plonk yourself on the beach instead. Fifteen-minutes’ drive from Tochni is Governor’s Beach, a beautiful stretch of gently shelving sand with gin-clear water.

Hard though it is to believe, time flies when you’re occupied by indolence. After a week of reading The Count of Monte Cristo, and evening strolls along the lanes surrounding Tochni, it was suddenly time to leave. Despite vowing not to tell anyone about my Cypriot secret, I’ve been blabbing about it ever since we got back. Hopefully, though, it will still be as quiet when we return back, soon again.

GETTING THERE > Larnaca is served by Cyprus Airways (www.cyprusairways.com)  and by Eurocypria (www.eurocypria.com) from various regional airports. 

STAYING THERE > Cyprus Villages (www.cyprusvillages.com.cy) offers seven-nights in Tochni from £130 per person. 

FURTHER INFORMATION > Cyprus Tourism Organisation: www.cyprustourism.org

Initiatives make the Greek capital more outward-looking November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.
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This is not the first challenge to the Athens town-planning model, which was turned in on itself and with its back to the sea. The foundations for change were laid ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games with the positioning of sporting facilities along the seafront from the Faliron Delta to Hellenikon and Aghios Cosmas, not to mention proposals made by forward-looking town planners since the 1960s.

The center of gravity has been shifting toward the south in an unplanned way for the past 10 years, chiefly by means of new cultural infrastructure along the major arteries that lead to the sea.

What could not be understood in the 1960s is now taking place out of necessity. For the past decades both roads, Pireos and Syngrou Avenues, have seen a steady increase of venues for culture and entertainment, some of them very ambitious, the most notable of which are the Foundation for the Hellenic World’s cultural center on Pireos and the House of Arts and Letters being constructed on Syngrou by the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation.

Powerful gesture > What this expansion toward the sea needed was a powerful gesture, such as the Niarchos Foundation’s dramatic offer, which foundation board member Andreas Drakopoulos announced to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on October 27 in a letter. The establishment of new premises for the National Library and the National Opera is a vital initiative.

For a start, there is the sheer scale of the project. The two buildings, covering an area of 60,000 square meters, will dominate the 24-hectare site, most of which, around 14 hectares, will be fashioned as a green area, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural and Educational Park, which will host cultural, educational and recreational events.

Location > By their very nature, such large-scale projects develop an unexpected dynamic, all the more so when they are implemented in areas where town-planning arrangements are still fluid, as at the Faliron Delta.

In the case of the Niarchos Foundation’s initiative, the radius of influence extends to Hellenikon, since the construction at the hippodrome site will coincide with the development of the Metropolitan Park at Hellenikon. Both projects are scheduled for completion in 2013. Notable is also the fact that currently the Athens Metro is expanding its lines, under construction, to reach Hellenikon.

Above all, there is the nature of the venues. These are not just any buildings but prestigious complexes of great symbolic value. The history of cities, especially in modern times, is full of examples of such that were used to implement long-range urban refurbishment projects. If a building of average size, such as the new Benaki Museum, can put Pireos Avenue on the map, one can imagine the impact of a 20-hectare culture park.

Starting point > At the Maximos Mansion last Friday the intentions of the foundation, previously known only to the prime minister and the government, were confirmed. Before the donation can be formalized, the government and the foundation must sign a memorandum of cooperation that stipulates each participant’s role and spheres of responsibility.

“We are interested in getting those guarantees that will ensure the best possible operation of the projects,” said the foundation’s executive director, Epaminondas Farmakis.

The guarantees will concern matters such as the appointment of appropriate staff, security and cleaning systems for the buildings and better public transport links. At present, the site is served only by trams and buses. Solutions must also be found for issues related to ownership status, land use and any town-planning factors that could cause foreseeable problems. The land belongs to the Economy Ministry, while the Ministry of Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) and the Athens Organization are responsible for managing it.

The site has been designated as a green area in which venues for culture, recreation and entertainment are permitted. The municipality of Kallithea, in which the site lies, still plays a key role. Several months ago, YPEHODE Minister Giorgos Souflias informed Kallithea Mayor Costas Askounis about the foundation’s initiative.

Though the negotiations allow room for optimism, no definitive agreement has been reached. Askounis wants to secure the maximum possible benefits for the municipality, claiming at least 3 hectares of the former hippodrome site and other space on the shore of Faliron Delta. “All the issue must be resolved by signing a detailed contract. We are in favor of a joint approach to the seafront and the hippodrome,” says the recently re-elected mayor.

It will take at least a year for the cooperation memorandum to be signed, and 6-7 years to complete the construction work.

City boundaries move south November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.
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The deindustrialization of Pireos Avenue and its transient architectural wealth have given the city new sites and pushed its notional boundaries further south.

We saw this in the summer with the Athens Festival. The inclusion of the Tsaousoglou factory complex and the Irene Papas drama school among the buildings used for the festival familiarized many Athenians with hitherto unknown venues in the city. As Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis stated, the ministry is negotiating with the National Bank which owns the Tsaousoglou factory estate, for the use of the entire complex. And the five listed buildings on the property may also be used by the revitalized festival.

Things are not quite the same on Syngrou Avenue, which has benefited from a new dynamism on the seafront. Apart from the National Museum of Contemporary Art, for which work on the site of the old Fix factory is due to start in December, private enterprise has played a leading part. The Alexander S. Onassis Foundation is building its House of Arts and Letters; a few months ago the Cinema Park multiplex opened the latest three-dimensional, interactive programs for pupils; and the Eugenides Foundation’s planetarium is a constant.

The first Village Roadshow multiplex on the coastline opened last Friday in the Faliron Delta next to Media Markt, and Babis Vovos is building a shopping mall on the site of the recently demolished Elfinco building.

Athens opens out toward the sea November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.
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Athens opens out toward the sea with new cultural infrastructure on the way > Niarchos Foundation funds National Library and Opera in Faliron

Major changes are in store for Athens if the stated intention of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to fund two high-profile cultural venues on the old hippodrome site bears fruit.

Building new homes for the National Library and National Opera at the Faliron Delta in a culture park of international standards will have wide-ranging impact. The creation of a massive new hub for entertainment, recreation and culture on the city’s seafront will alter balances that have shaped the city for almost two centuries.

The Culture Ministry announced last Wednesday that the new buildings in Faliron are to be included in a broader network of cultural sites, the most significant of which are the former Royal estate at Tatoi, the Acropole Pallas Hotel on Patission Street and the Tsaousoglou factory on Pireos Avenue.

Toward a new monumental architecture? November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Architecture Greece.
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Last century, Athens turned in on itself. Despite the huge sprawl of the 1950s, the look of the city harked back to earlier decades and modest ambitions, even during the euphoric development of 1955-67. A city on the European periphery by conviction and choice, 20th century Athens did not have any vision for itself. It was being chosen to organize the 2004 Olympic Games that marked the awakening from its introspection.

The prospect of creating emblematic buildings for the National Library and the National Opera at the Faliron Delta with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation raises these issues again.

It brings the relationship between architecture and private sponsorship firmly back into the spotlight. It consolidates the city’s opening out toward the sea. And it creates monumental landmarks to be used for purposes of great symbolic value.

Nearly all of Athens’s 19th century public buildings were paid for by private individuals: Zappeion Hall, the Vallianeios Library, Athens University, the Varvarkeios Market, the Metsoveio Polytechnic, the Marasleios School, the Gennadius Library, the National Bank, Evangelismos Hospital, the Archaeological Museum and the Panathenaic Stadium are just a few examples.

Architecturally, Athens missed the 20th century. An endless mishmash, it had no points of reference to attract international interest and inspire action and creative energy.

In the 1980s, when the international trend was for new monumental architecture, which brought cities and areas out of obscurity, Athens remained inward-looking. Greece will never have its own Bilbao, but at least Athens can accept a new concept of architecture that demands self-assurance and faith in the future.

An improved outlook for Greece’s tourism industry November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Tourism.
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An improved outlook for Greece’s tourism industry and new incentives boost investment in high-class hotels

The improved prospects of Greek tourism over the last two years and upgraded investment incentives have rekindled the interest of investors in the construction of top-class hotels. In 2005, out of a total of 9,036 Greek hotels, there were only 155 five-star and 944 four-star hotels, with a total capacity of 56,888 beds. So far this year, of the 221 applications for construction and expansion of hotels approved by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) under the incentives of the latest development law, 126 were for five-star and four for four-star hotels, with total capacity of 22,473 new beds. In contrast, 95 of the applications approved concerned three-star hotels, with total capacity of 3,974 beds.

The trend, if maintained, will confirm that the center of gravity of the Greek hospitality industry has shifted from the lower categories to those of higher quality. In 2005, the GNTO approved just 48 applications, representing a new capacity of 6,435 beds, of which 26 were for four and five-star hotels and 22 for three-star facilities. An analysis of the 2006 data reveals that interest in the construction of new, high-class hotels is particularly strong in the island areas. Of the total capacity of 22,473 four and five-star beds approved this year, about 18,500 were on the islands, particularly in the Dodecanese and on Crete. In particular, of the 126 applications approved, 38 concerned the construction of new or the expansion of old units in the Dodecanese, accounting for half the proposed new capacity in both categories.

Apart from hotels, in the 2005-2006 period the GNTO also approved architectural designs for 26 conference centers, three golf courses, three ski centers and 19 thalassotherapy spas. As a result of the improved investment climate in the sector and following three revisions of the Competitiveness Program under the European Union subsidized Third Community Support Framework investment plan, the absorption rate of the program has risen to 53 percent from just 7.9 percent in March 2004, according to Tourism Ministry figures. The government has approved 460 applications, representing a total budget of 917 million euros, of which the subsidy is 400.5 million euros. New jobs are projected at more than 2,600 posts. Tourism Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia has said tourism will continue to hold a prominent place in the new revised development law, to come into force on January 1, 2007.

Provisional data show that the number of British visitors to Greece in the first nine months of the year was slightly up compared to last year. Regarding projections for 2007 from bookings up to 15 days ago, Greece shows the lowest drop vis-a-vis its main competitor destinations, which will translate into a higher market share of the British tourism market. A survey conducted at Athens International Airport shows the number of arrivals from Britain slightly down in the January-September 2006 period, at 141,552. The average number of days of stay of British visitors was 11, of which four were spent in Athens. The tourism industry’s top annual event, the World Travel Market fair, opens in London today.

A new take on Longus’s myth November 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts Events Greece.
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Cezarijus Grauzinis and Dimitris Tarlow collaborate this season in ‘Daphnis and Chloe’

Lithuanian director Cezarijus Grauzinis and Greek actor Dimitris Tarlow join forces at the Poreia theater. The Lithuanian director chose to stage the Greek AD 3 novel by Longus, ‘Daphnis and Chloe.’ ‘There is a huge difference between the theater you see through the eyes of an aggressive image and aesthetic and that which you see from the heart,’ says Grauzinis.

They met two years ago in Vilnius, Lithuania, and arranged a meeting for September 2006 in Athens. One may wonder what business Dimitris Tarlow had in Lithuania in the first place, but the young actor has been scouring theater festivals in the former Eastern bloc for years in search of potential collaborations.

The greatest fear of the 40-year-old Tarlow, who also became a father recently, is becoming rooted to the same spot for the rest of his life. As such, ever since he took over the directorship of the Poreia Theater, his main concern has been not to put on nice tidy plays, but interesting ones.

Lithuanian Cezarijus Grauzinis, a former student of Andrey Gontcharov, Mark Zakharov and Tadashi Suzuki on the other hand, is the new artistic director of Helsinki’s Viirus theater. With baggage in hand, Grauzinis is also the founder of the Cezaris Group theater company in Vilnius and a visiting professor at the Malmo and Helsinki theater academies in Sweden, as well as a tutor of seminars and workshops in Finland, the Netherlands, Latvia, Romania and the Faroe Islands.

The Lithuanian director’s decision to stage the Greek AD 3 novel by Longus “Daphnis and Chloe” came as a surprise even to Tarlow. “I understand that it is a part of classical education and I was a little embarrassed that he knew it and I didn’t. Reading it, I realized that this bucolic romance between an innocent boy and girl in the pastures of Mytilene set in contrast to what is happening today is a juicy subject for theatrical research. Grauzinis wanted a contemporary take on the work, without role-sharing,” explains Tarlow. “I agreed for another reason too. Lithuanians have a very strong relationship with nature, they used to be pagans, and today they continue to propagate wonderful legends, fairy tales and a look at the world that is a little bit elfish. The novel has a lot of these elements and with them a sense of humor and stunning wit. It is also interesting to see how a foreigner, especially one from a country like Lithuania, sees this Greek myth.”

Grauzinis explains the reasons behind his choice: “Seeing as ancient Greek literature is the basis of modern European theater, I was interested in doing something related to ancient Greece. I remembered one of my favorite books as a child. And it is a rare and unique opportunity to direct ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ in Greece.”

However, the director is clear on one point. “This is not the story of those two children in the pastures of Lesvos,” he says. “Nor is an attempt to reconstruct the life, rituals and traditions of the people of AD 2 in Mytilene. The audience must make do with the attempts of a group of modern people to approach this story through their times.”

How can such an innocent tale be presented in such cynical times? That is the focus of the performance, “without any intention of criticizing modern society vis-a-vis the absolute innocence prevalent in the novel,” says Grauzinis. “As I tried to convince the actors to play out these simple, naive stories on stage, I discovered that a sense of self-protection kicked in. They were constrained. And what is the natural reaction to this? We started being sarcastic about what we were doing so we wouldn’t become emotionally involved. Getting involved in something emotionally means that you are left without defenses. And that is dangerous. It is like being nude. So, at rehearsals, I decided that the performance had to be based on this feeling.”

To enhance the apparent simplicity of the play, Grauzinis has applied a very basic body language. “There are no acrobatics, no aggressive theater,” he says. “Simple movement in combination with the text and the tempo invite the audience to use their imaginations. There is a huge difference between the theater you see through the eyes of an aggressive image and aesthetic and that which you see from the heart. We are not trying to excite the audience’s optical nerves.”

This down-to-earth approach is the same Grauzinis takes in all his collaborations, even though he spends so much time up in the air, traveling from one commitment to another. But the Lithuanian director says he enjoys this mixture of cultures and all these collaborations, which can only be achieved through extensive travel. “I don’t expect to be readily accepted, but conflict does not intimidate me,” he says. “I have big ears and can hear which ideas of mine are not accepted or whether people understand my sense of humor or not.” As a director, how does Grauzinis differentiate between good and bad actors?

“The only difference between a good and a bad actor is that a good actor continues to be interesting off stage,” he says. “An actor can be a bad person. I, however, select people I respect. Two months of rehearsals is a big chunk out of your life to spend with people you don’t like.”

Poreia Theater, 3-5 Trikoforon street and 69 Tritis Septemvriou street, Victoria Square, Athens, tel 210 8210991.