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Finding bliss on a Greek island > Skyros September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.
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The games people play on the Greek island of Skyros have nothing to do with fitness, stamina or winning medals. Instead, they’re all about conquering your fears, freeing your spirit and having the sort of fun you probably haven’t enjoyed since you were a small kid.

Skyros is a tiny dot in the Aegean sea. Bypassed by most backpackers on the island hopping route, it retains a kind of gentle, old-fashioned charm which is a definite drawcard. But that’s not why some people come here. Every two weeks over the summer months, and now also in winter, scores of people come searching for something far more potent: the secret of how to enjoy life.

Skyros contains Europe’s oldest holistic holiday centre. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the sea, the Skyros Centre celebrates its 27th birthday this year. Speaking as one who’s been to the Skyros centres in Greece, I think they should come with a caution: “Warning! This holiday could seriously change your life.” It’s serious fun. Uplifting, joyful, raucous fun. The sort that makes you want to kiss waiters, dance on tables, run naked into the sea.

I balked at the naked swimming, but there was plenty of dancing, and even a spot of very nice kissing. I also rolled down a hillside, plunging through scraggy gorse bushes and smelly goat droppings, laughing hysterically alongside Marina, an English lawyer in her 30s. When we reached the bottom, we both wanted to rush back up and do it again.

It’s easy to see why people are tempted to go. The Skyros brochure is crammed with courses run by experienced and sometimes famous tutors. Creative options like poetry, film-making, or short story writing fill up quickly, especially when names like Margaret Drabble, Steven Berkoff and Louis de Berniere run them. You can strut your stuff at a salsa class, try your hand at wood carving, practise clowning, jewellery making, singing and cooking.

The next day I’m horrified to find myself putting my initials firmly next to the Understanding Relationships course. The next two weeks are a revelation as I begin to shift old patterns and dump excess baggage that has weighed me down for years.

Our facilitator is an experienced family therapist who leads us towards greater self-awareness and self-acceptance. It’s powerful stuff (a box of tissues never lasts long) but we laugh as much as we cry and the friendships we forge are a source of lasting support.

The Singing For The Scared class has people harmonising like professionals; the phrase “sing to your heart’s content” suddenly makes perfect sense. I attend a couple of Greek classes, skip them when I’ve learnt how to order a glass of wine, and no-one minds. It’s up to you how much you want to join in.

This isn’t advertised as a singles holiday, but of the 26 of us there’s only one couple. Women outnumber men, and our ages range from early 20s to mid 60s. There’s a wonderful assumption at Skyros that anyone can do anything.

Accommodation is shared (unless you pay a single supplement) and it turns out to be better than expected. As for food, think yourself lucky if all you gain is 5kg. It’s freshly prepared, and there’s lots of it. Breakfast and lunch are taken in the courtyard, seated beneath the shade of an old pomegranate tree, with sweeping views towards the ocean. At night we all get together for a meal in one of the local tavernas, and we’re hard-pressed to spend more than $20 each, no matter how much we eat or drink.

We all discover we have hidden talents, and they’re evident on the last night when people sing, dance, read poetry and perform in a light-hearted cabaret that marks the end of an astonishing two weeks.

One of the last things we’re encouraged to do is write a letter to ourselves, which the staff promise to post six weeks later. Mine is sitting in front of me as I write. “Dear Me,” it says. “I never knew therapy could be so much fun.”

Where to stay: Overnight in Athens on Friday night is at the Dorian Inn Hotel. Travel to the island next day by coach and ferry. Accommodation on Skyros is pre-allocated and shared with one other. Contact: www.skyros.com for details.


Island of Santorini > A shining arc in the Aegean September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.
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The beauty of the Greek islands lies in the light, unlike any other in Europe. It is fiercer, stronger, sharper and silhouettes the mountains and the whitewashed houses in stark razorlike patterns against the sky. The sun plays havoc with the nooks and crags of the ocher landscape, tossing out long shadows that ripple across the arid soil. It turns the sea from opal in the morning to sapphire to gold, to silver and finally to dross before descending swiftly in a bright red ball.

santorini_oia.jpg  A crumbling church in Oia, on the island of Santorini.

It is the light of sculptors, not painters, who love the soft diaphanous hues and tones of Italy or France. Out of that light came not only the great statues of ancient Greece and the long, clean lines of the Parthenon, but the precise vocabulary for abstract ideas that gave birth to Western philosophy. The light is all. And in the Cycladic Islands it remains, along with the sea, a primal and overpowering element of daily life.

Of the many islands that lie scattered off the southern tip of Greece, perhaps none is more famed for its beauty than Santorini. Its present shape, an arch surrounding the volcanic peaks of Palaia Kameni and Nea Kameni pushing up out of the sea, was formed 3,500 years ago when an eruption wiped out all life on the island along with all the cities on Crete, obliterated in the towering wall of water that followed. About three-quarters of the land mass of Santorini vanished. Plato believed that it was the lost Atlantis. Today the island, 63 miles north of Crete, has a land mass of 30 square miles and 13,000 inhabitants in about a dozen villages. The population swells in summer, so that parts of the island are crowded and traffic clogs the narrow streets.

The rain of lava and ash that fell over the landscape for at least four days and blotted out the sun can be seen in the red, gray and brown layers in the cliffs that plunge dramatically some 900 feet into the sea. The eruption formed the caldera, the sparkling water-filled crater, seven miles across, that rests in the outstretched arms of the island that is now a harbor. The volcano, still active, huffs gently in the center of the caldera, its sulfurous jets spitting out from the porous rocks. There was a series of heavy eruptions from 1925 until 1950 that threw molten rocks into the night sky. The bays of the islands of Palaia Kameni and Nea Kameni have hot springs, popular with tourists, heated by the activity brewing beneath the water.

Certainly an advanced civilization, a worthy precursor to ancient Greece, was destroyed, as can be seen from the archaeological excavations on the island. The magnitude of the event haunts the island, from the ancient pottery shards found along the beaches to the layers of volcanic rock.

But that said, there are two Santorinis, each very different. One is for the backpacking, beer-guzzling students who in summer turn the capital Fira into a gigantic fraternity party until dawn and then crash in self-induced stupors on the black sand of the beaches of Perissa and Kamari. Fira has the feel of many such towns along the Greek coastline where developers have not been kept at bay, too many buses clog the streets and cruise ships disgorge thousands of sunburned tourists at regular intervals.

The beauty here has been marred by too many hostels and bars and the detritus of tourism, aided by the expansion of the local airport in the early 1990’s that permits direct charter flights. Hotels and villas line the beaches of Kamari and Perissa. 

Fira is cheap and it looks it. It must be hard to sleep there, given the heavy nocturnal activity. Bars don’t close until after the sun comes up. When I left for the airport shortly after dawn, having spent a week on the island, young men and women were still drinking in the central plaza or just beginning to saunter home. It looked like Florida during spring break.

But the other Santorini is quiet, refined and centered on the northern town of Oia, where the town fathers had the foresight to prohibit live music, keep the bars to a minimum and create zoning laws that catered to a different clientele. Most important, they did not allow the local population to be driven out. Oia is the most beautiful town on the island, and each night hushed tourists gather on the ramparts of a 13th century castle that was built by the Venetians to watch for pirates.

Through tourism, the town has recouped the prosperity it had in the late 19th century when it was a thriving port. The wealthy merchants and captains built large neo-classical homes out of red and black stones, with large verandas overlooking the sea. Many were heavily damaged in the 1956 earthquake. The modest, traditional homes built by the sailors on the island were barrel-roofed caves hacked out from the pumice. Long, narrow and with vaulted roofs, they are hundreds of years old.

The main street of Oia, Marmara (marmaro means marble), was paved in the 19th century with white marble flagstones. The street still separates these two quarters, of the sailors and fishermen and the elite. But all was in sad repair until 1976 when the Greek government began to restore historical and tourist sites.

The work in Oia was supervised by Voula Didoni, an architect who protected the harmony and beauty that makes Oia the crown jewel of Santorini. In the last two decades, most buildings have been lavishly refurbished as vacation houses and rental villas, and Oia is one of the most fashionable vacation spots in Greece.

In this village with fewer than 1,000 people, I saw mostly older couples. They strolled along the narrow, smooth marble street, past the white-washed cubes and blue domes or sat holding hands in the cafes. Oia’s jewelry and carpet shops are pricey, as are the restaurants that serve until after midnight.

But repose was what I sought. And in Oia it was possible to find privacy and solitude, as well as unmarred vistas of the sea. I had time to read, bask in the sun and dine on two meals a day of fresh bread and coffee and, late in the afternoon, fresh fish, tomato salad and the slightly bitter and inexpensive white wine that is the hallmark of the island. The cuisine is simple, consisting mostly of fresh fish, olives, bread and tomatoes.

Santorini is desolate. Its arid soil offers little other than tomatoes, eggplant and grapes, and even then the vines grow no more than a foot from the ground. They are kept low to the soil to absorb the dew as there is no rain for at least six months. The fresh branches are plaited in autumn between the older branches, making the vines look like upturned wicker work. This formation protects the plants from the winter storms. Most of the men on the island made their living as sailors or fishermen, although tourism is now the largest industry.

The sun in summer is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. Shade was hard to find in July and the town shut down in the blistering waves of heat each afternoon. There were slopes outside Oia on the walk down to the beach where under foot I was able to scoop up ancient pottery shards, some with black lines of paint slashed across the ocher chunks. I steered clear of the major tourist spots and was willing to walk, so I always found desolate stretches of rocky coast where I spread out my towel, smothered myself in powerful sunscreen and read away the day. The rocks on most of the coast line are large and uneven but the water is clear and inviting..

I stayed in a whitewashed villa carved out of the rock that belonged to Triantafyllos Pitsikalis, a former Greek seaman, who owns the Chelidonia Traditional Villas with his Austrian wife, Erika Moechel-Pitsikalis, and their three boisterous boys. My villa was simple and clean, with a small kitchen, sitting room, domed bedroom and two patios with umbrellas and tables, one completely out of public view, that looked over the caldera. It had a new air-conditioner, and although it was smaller than others, it had more privacy. 

Each morning, I had my coffee with fresh bread and honey on the patio. I heard nothing but the noisy chatter of seabirds. I made my own breakfasts and usually ate a late supper at one of the fish restaurants.

There is no shortage of places to stay on the island, up to the exclusive Tsitouras complex outside of Fira where rooms cost more than $600 a night. I found the Chelidonia Traditional Villas through friends who had stayed there. It is best to deal directly with owners or rely on guidebooks with establishments that have been checked out in advance. I loved the simplicity and intimacy of the Chelidonia villas, as well as the care taken by the owners over detail, despite their keeping a respectful distance. When I needed a new clothesline, Erika told her husband to make sure it could be taken down so as not to mar the view. But when I came home that night, after walking the five-mile ridge from Oia to Fira, I noticed it indeed had hooks so that, when not in use, the line could be removed.

Chilling out on a volcanic island in the Aegean

Where to Stay > During the off-season, in the fall and spring, rates at villas drop by about 25 percent. At Chelidonia Traditional Villas, tel 22860 71287, fax 22860 71649, www.chelidonia.com, the nine villas run by Triantafyllos Pitsikalis and Erika Moechel-Pitsikalis do not have some of the amenities that other more upscale villa complexes have. There is no pool and there are no telephones in the rooms or breakfast or bar service. But the villas offer a good location, efficiency and privacy, as well as a reasonable price. The villas have daily maid service and air-conditioning. Each also has a kitchenette, bathroom and terrace overlooking the caldera.

The 20 units at Fanari Villas, tel 22860 71007, fax 22860 71235, www.fanarivillas.com, are clustered around a small swimming pool with a bar that serves breakfast and a light lunch. It has amenities of most upscale hotels, including color televisions, safe-deposit boxes, coffee makers, hair dryers and kitchenettes, and some rooms have a tub or Jacuzzi. It is located at the tip of Oia, where many tourists gather to watch the sunset. 

Canaves Oia, tel 22860 71453, fax 22860 71195, www.canaves.com, like Fanari Villas, is a more upscale collection of accommodations. There are about 35 villas overlooking the sea that come closer to traditional hotel service. It has a small pool, a bar and breakfast and lunch service. Tastefully furnished rooms have telephones and minibars. 

Where to Eat > Restaurant 1800, tel 22860 71485, www.1800.gr, in Oia, is in an old ship owner’s stone mansion built in 1800, with authentic decorations, Mediterranean cuisine, and a roof garden with view of the caldera and sunsets. Reservations are required. Also in Oia, Restaurant Skala, tel 22860 71362, has a huge terrace with caldera view and a kitchen that uses mostly local products. 

Restaurant Sunset, tel 22860 71614, is at the small fishing port of Ammoudi. The tables are at the pier, and it is very pretty at sunset. It specializes in fresh fish and seafood, and delicious appetizers. 

Cafeteria Pelekanos, tel 22860 71553, www.pelekanoscafe.gr, is on a terrace with a 360-degree view. It serves coffees, drinks, sweets and light meals. It has a nice veranda that overlooks the caldera.

There are various simple taverns in Oia, such as Thomas Grill, tel 22860 71769, which offer meals for economic prices. Souvlaki or chicken (from a coal grill) with potatoes, salad and wine. They pack meals to take out.

Sightseeing > Boat trips, including the sunset tour with Bella Aurora, tel 22860 24024, are very pleasant. The boat is a replica of a 19th-century Greek schooner. You board at the Port Athinios at 3:30 p.m. and return about 8. Tickets and information about other tours are available at tourist offices.

In Oia, it is worth visiting the Naval Museum, tel 22860 71156, a restored ship owner’s villa in back of town hall. It honors the maritime history of Oia with ship models and old photos. Books about Oia and naval history are available.

Beyond town hall on the way to Naval Museum, the Traditional Weaving Mill sells handmade carpets and curtains. Visitors can watch girls weaving. The carpets are priced by the meter.

Sigalas Winery, northeast of Oia in the middle of wine fields, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in spring and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. June through September. Take a guided walk through the winery with wine tasting or enjoy a glass of wine, and do taste various local cheeses and local specialties served per plate.

Day and night on Mykonos, Greece September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Gay Life, Greece Islands Aegean.
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The hottest Greek island offers a host of beautiful beaches as well as the promise of an exciting night out after the sun goes down. 

mykonos_view.jpg  The Cyclades, after the Acropolis, is what Greece is famous for. Picturesque and unique, each of these islands in the Aegean south of Athens has a different flavor and landscape.

Mykonos is known for its wide sandy beaches; its large, cruisy gay population; and the quaint town of Hora, with windmills and designer shops. Santorini is spectacular, with its volcanic terrain, whitewashed villages stacked on a mountainside, and infamous mules lugging supplies up the hundreds of stairs from the old port to town. Folegandros is one of the last sleepy and nontouristy islands left in the Cyclades. You can hike for miles on its rugged hills and not see another soul, and you can lounge on beaches where only a handful of visitors venture each summer. So close to one another yet so different, these islands offer a very unique experience. Combining the three would give you an incredible Greek island vacation.

mykonos_caique.jpg  Super Paradise Beach, the gayest on Mykonos, is the second stop on the caοque from Platis Yialos

Mykonos: Decadence & Debauchery Unlimited > So you’ve heard of Mykonos, the quintessential Greek island, the jewel of the Cyclades with its windmills, whitewashed villages, and outstanding beaches. You’ve probably also heard of the nude beaches, the dancing in the streets, the all-night parties at Super Paradise Beach, and the infamous 12 Gods circuit party that goes on day and night for almost a week in early September. Mykonos is all that and much more.

Gays from all over the world (very few lesbians) converge on Mykonos, men of every shape and size, of every age, race, and profession. Germans are statistically the most frequent visitors, followed by the British. This is a very seasonal island—nothing is open before Easter or beyond the end of October. The best months are May, June, September, and October, when the island is at its gayest, the weather perfect, and everything less expensive. July and August are very crowded with a mixed tourist crowd. Hip young Athenians escape the city and come here too, and it gets so crowded that walking in the small village of Hora is immensely frustrating. Some travelers complain of the noise and traffic; others say the gay scene is too much like an endless circuit party. But the great thing about Mykonos is that with so many beaches, all large and sandy, with sparkling blue water, you can still find some peace and quiet if you want. But in the end, Mykonos isn’t about reading a book under a beach umbrella, it’s about decadence and debauchery (you’d be better off reading somewhere cheaper, anyway). The rhythm is party until dawn, sleep until noon, then hit the beach, dine at 10 p.m., and repeat.

EXPLORING MYKONOS > You don’t come to Mykonos to soak up Greek culture. There really isn’t much here in terms of archaeological sites except the sacred island of Delos nearby. Mykonos is for the hedonist looking for sun, sea, and nightlife. The main attraction is the men. Men from all over the world, old and young, blond and dark, single and married, and certainly the curious. Men hold hands and even kiss in the tiny streets while old Greek women out shopping for vegetables pretend they don’t notice. Or if they do, they roll their eyes ever so slightly, knowing there’s not much they can do.

On several occasions throughout the year, the U.S. Navy brings its ships, and its randy seamen, for a weekend getaway on Mykonos. (Don’t ask and I won’t tell why they picked Mykonos.) But you can imagine the mayhem of locked-up “straight” boys and the confusion they and their hosts endure. Yes, Mykonos does get zooey. And everything seems to be about sex, gay and straight and whatever. There’s a feeling, especially on midsummer weekends, that the town is overrun and everything is out of control. You wait for a table at restaurants, you wait for a drink at the bar, you wait to take a few steps trying to walk in the streets, and then wait for a taxi.

However, barely a few miles away are empty stretches of beach waiting to be discovered. You can have the best of both worlds on Mykonos: You can enjoy the cruising and the dancing. You can watch the queens posing in the square and the navy boys chasing local girls (not many of those). But right outside of town you can spend an evening on a quiet beach just listening to the waves and counting the stars with the man of your dreams.

mykonos_windmills.jpg  Windmills line the hilltop to catch the breezes.

You’ll probably hear of Super Paradise Beach, the gayest on Mykonos, long before you arrive. The second stop on the caοque from Platis Yialos, it’s a secluded stretch reachable only by boat or four-wheel-drive vehicle (and scooter, if you’re into potential suicide and permanent back damage). If you arrive on the small boat, you’ll notice that on the right side of the beach the scene is a hetero and partly nude meat market and the left side almost exclusively gay and mostly nude. You can just imagine what goes on at all hours among the rocks and cliffs and trails behind the beach (of course, you’re not interested in that, are you?). The music blares, it gets real crowded by early afternoon, and the boys like to stare. Don’t expect any seclusion, just lots of cruising action. The Super Paradise Restaurant and Bar (open daily 11 a.m.–9 p.m.) is right above the beach on the rocky cliff and has a small freshwater pool. In addition to all kinds of cocktails, the bar serves fresh fruit juices. The restaurant is a bit overpriced for its mediocre food; expect to pay 9E ($8) for drinks and 19E ($20) for a meal.

 mykonos_beach.jpg  The boys in the sand.

PARANGA > A 10-minute hike from Platis Yialos or the first stop on the caique if you request it when you buy your ticket, Paranga Beach is a beautiful stretch of sand big enough for you to choose the spot you want according to your mood. The south side is calm and sedate, with many people reading and lounging in the nude. Here you’ll find many returning visitors and local gays who don’t want to deal with the crowds at Super Paradise. You can rent a chaise lounge for 3E ($2.75) and an umbrella for the same price. It’s a very mixed beach, with equal numbers of gays and straights. On the north side, the tavernas play music and serve drinks. The Barbra & Yannis Restaurant and Bar (tel 22890 23552; open daily 11 a.m.–9 p.m.) serves excellent homemade Greek food at amazingly reasonable prices. Have lunch at one of its tables in the shade of the grapevine before venturing back to your chaise for an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing.

PARADISE > Between Paranga and Super Paradise, Paradise Beach is the second stop (sometimes the first) on the caique (or buses run several times a day from the south bus stop). This is the hetero version of Super Paradise. Here music blares, and the young and the seemingly straight party day and night. You’ll find mostly northern European tourists and American college students, beer in hand. It’s a fun, boisterous crowd if you’re into the Mazatlan-meets-Mykonos spring-break scene. A large complex with a beach bar, pool, and restaurant, Cavo Paradiso (22890 26124; open daily 10–2 a.m.) is on the hill above the beach. There’s also a gym where you can pump it up with the college boys. On midsummer nights, parties are held here, and the whole beach resembles one huge disco, with people dancing on the rocks, on the sand, around the pool, and on the cliffs around the beach. The dancing and drinking continues until way past sunrise.

AGARARI & ELIA > Side-by-side Agrari and Elia beaches, the third and fourth stops on the caοque (or take the bus to Elia during high season from the north bus station), are large and sandy and perfect for a quiet afternoon of swimming. Agrari is mellow, and Elia has a variety of tavernas and bars and offers windsurfing, water-skiing, and parasailing. For lunch or drinks, the Desire Restaurant & Bar, at the northern end (22890 71207; open daily 10 a.m.–9 p.m.), has fresh salads and cute waiters. Expect to pay 8E ($7) for drinks and 12E ($11) for a light meal (the octopus salad is delicious). Watermania, on a hillside behind Elia (22890 71685), is a huge aqua park where a party atmosphere reigns daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are two huge pools, a variety of slides, and boat rides. Admission is 12E ($11) for the day.

KALAFATI & KALO LIVADI > You’ll need a scooter or car to get to the less-crowded Kalafati and Kalo Livadi beaches, but there’s limited bus service from the north bus stop. On days when the Meltemi winds blow hard, Kalo Livadi is your best bet, since it’s one of the few pebbly beaches on Mykonos. In Kalafati you’ll find the new Paradise Aphrodite Beach Hotel (22890 71367), with 148 rooms and a large pool; doubles begin at 150E ($138). Despite its hugeness, it’s a good place to have lunch and a swim. The beach is sandy and over a mile long and has the cleanest water in Mykonos.

ORNOS > The closest good beach to Mykonos Town is Ornos Beach, where buses from the south bus stop run every half an hour. Lined with tavernas, restaurants, bars, and hotels, it can get packed in high season. This beach is usually overrun with families and tourists on package vacations, and there’s absolutely no nudity. But it’s still possible to have a nice swim and people-watch while you relax on your chaise, costing 3E ($2.75) for the day.

PLATIS YIALOS > Platis Yialos, to which buses run every 20 minutes from the south bus station, is the hub of beach life in Mykonos. This is where the buses bring hordes of people every half an hour to catch the caοques to the outlying beaches. The sandy beach is jammed with taverna after taverna and hotel after hotel. Only visitors staying in hotels seem to swim at this beach, for it’s just too busy most of the time. If you’re staying here and have asked for a seafront or sea-view room from any of the hotels, be prepared for noise. Many visitors hoping to hear the waves from their beach hotels end up with screeching scooter noise and clanging dishes instead.

OTHER BEACHES > The beach closest to Mykonos Town on the north side is Aghios Stephanos, with many hotels and tavernas. It’s too crowded to be enjoyable. Farther north, accessible only by car or scooter, are several pretty beaches. Take the road north heading to the town of Ano Mera (the only other town on Mykonos apart from Hora) to get to Panormos, the largest and most popular of the northern beaches. The Panormos Restaurant, on the hillside (22890 25182; open daily noon–11 p.m.), serves fresh fish. Close to Panormos are many small coves and secluded beaches. Aghios Sotis is the farthest beach north reachable by car and is gaining popularity with the local gay population; nudity is permitted.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT > On Mykonos, there’s a thin line between straight and gay. You’ll always find gays at the straight bars and vice versa. Even the patrons at the gay bars are usually only about 70% gay. As Jody, co-owner of the Montparnasse Piano Bar, put it, “There’s always enough variety that my mother feels comfortable here.” Until midnight, that is. Midnight is the magic hour, when anyone with any gay interest heads to the “square,” in front of an old church, one street in from Taxi Square on Matoyanni Street. There are three bars: Pierrot’s, Manto’s, and Ikarus, the three most famous gay bars in all Greece. Most of the posing, cruising, and drinking actually happens right outside the bars, on the square. By 1 a.m., the crowd is so thick it takes quite a bit of shoving and pushing to squeeze through the Lycra T-shirted boys to get inside to the bar for a drink (talk about a contact sport).

Where are the gay men before midnight? There’s only one happening place, and that’s the Montparnasse Piano Bar in Little Venice. It’s most fun between 10 p.m. and midnight, before the boys start thinking of going dancing and looking for other pursuits.

Note > All indicated prices are in Euro (equivalent in US$) and were good at time of before going on publication only. Please check before making any arrangements.

Why we need to listen to the words of Euripides September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Europe.
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David Greig, whose new version of The Bacchae swept the Edinburgh festival, explains why we need to listen to the words of Euripides now more than ever

I hadn’t been working on my new version of The Bacchae for long when I came across some lines that resonated very strongly with me. In the chorus, the Bacchae sing a hymn to the good things that come of accepting Dionysus and warn of what happens to those who don’t. In the middle of this song, they sing: “To sophon d’ou sophia.” It’s a piece of Euripidean wordplay that Ian Ruffell, in the literal translation I adapted for the National Theatre of Scotland production, rendered as: “Wisdom is not cleverness.”

Throughout The Bacchae, Euripides contrasts the two different ways of experiencing knowledge. One is the intellectual, rational, linguistic knowledge we might call “cleverness”; the other is a more organic knowledge born of physicality, instinct and custom, which we might call “wisdom”. So wisdom is not cleverness. In fact, though, even the terms “cleverness” and “wisdom” seem too simplistic for the opposition that forms the spine of this great play. It is best brought out in the long, witty scenes between Pentheus and Dionysus. Pentheus is “a clever and persuasive man”, but he is not “wise”. He comes to embody a cluster of attributes that are held in opposition to Dionysus, the god, hero of the play. Pentheus is wholly male. Dionysus is both male and female. Pentheus is Greek. Dionysus is foreign. Pentheus is “rational”. Dionysus is “playful”.

Dionysus was the last god to arrive in the Greek pantheon. It has been suggested that his assimilation to Olympus came with the arrival of wine in Greece. Wine originated from Persia, and the Greeks felt unsatisfied that a substance central to their culture should be foreign. So they devised their own god of wine, Dionysus, who, although born in Greece, was not recognised by his family and hence was exiled to Persia. There he converted the foreign barbarians to his religion. Finally, he returned to Greece at the head of a band of foreign women worshippers, the Bacchae, and claimed his rightful place among the gods.

The cult of Dionysus quickly became one of the most important in Greece and spread throughout the ancient world. As well as being the god of wine, he also became the god of dance, of music, of “otherness” and, most crucially for The Bacchae, of “release”. One of the god’s key names is Bromius, which is usually translated as The Roarer. I found that the word “roarer” sat badly in an actor’s mouth, and I don’t feel the English word “roar” conjures the right sense of ecstatic release, so I chose to call him The Scream. With this word I wanted to capture the fearful power of “release” and also its strength. It brought to mind, for me, Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy or the screams of teenage girls at Beatles concerts. It also had connotations of effeminacy that seemed to connect with Dionysus’s crossing of gender boundaries.

Dionysian “release” comes when worshippers gather and take part in sacred dances in the wildness of the mountains. In the play, Pentheus associates these secret dances with sexual orgies. He worries that the women of Thebes, his women, are being corrupted by the new cults. His old adviser, Tiresias, contradicts him:

Dionysus doesn’t force women to have sex, Pentheus, no, when the women dance their bodies are, for once, their own. God’s gift to do with as they please.

Tiresias makes the point that Dionysian release, whether it be through wine, sex or dancing, is a release from the constricting bonds of our own selfhood. Dance worshippers transcend the boundaries of their own bodies and become one with the god, one with each other and with nature. In this moment of ecstatic release they become part of The Scream.

Like all Greek tragedies, The Bacchae was written to be performed in Athens, at the festival of Dionysus. Dionysus was also the god of theatre, after all, and the performance of plays was an important part of his worship. The festival playwrights would create works to compete for prizes in just the same way as ancient Greek athletes would compete at the early Olympic games.

As I worked on Euripides, I came to realise that he was using a very new technology when he wrote for the stage. He was inventing the rules of this new medium and breaking them as he went along. Compared with the complex stagecraft we have available to us today, The Bacchae might seem simple, primitive and sometimes even crude: the action happens offstage, the choruses do not “move the action on”, and scenes remain as static dialogues. But the basic storytelling is full of drive and energy, and in every scene there is a moment when we get a real sense of the playwright’s delight in his own stagecraft. A good example of this is the scene where Dionysus persuades Pentheus that he should put on a dress to go and spy on the women dancing on the mountain.

Pentheus is desperate to see what happens on the hillside when the Bacchae worship their new god, but he refuses to experience the dance himself. He wants to gain access to Dionysian sexual mystery, “to see everything”, but he is afraid of losing himself. Dionysus suggests that the best way to see the mysteries without losing himself would be for Pentheus to dress up as a woman. The prince is worried: “Dress up as a woman? But, I’m a man!” Eventually, his desire to see overcomes his fear and he goes offstage, into the palace, to look for a dress.

Greek tragedies would be performed in the daytime, in the open air, to an audience of up to 15,000 men. By all accounts these audiences were noisy and participative. Fifteen thousand men, that’s basically a football match. Imagine 15,000 men, on a hot afternoon in Athens, watching this new play called The Bacchae written by the most senior writer of his day. The play is reaching its climax when Dionysus, who has had all the comedy so far, calls for Pentheus, a straight man in every sense of the word, to re-enter for the climactic dialogue. At last Pentheus enters, dressed like a princess, with the plaintive, eager line: “How do I look?”

Pentheus, dressed as a woman, is being humiliated on his way to a horrible denouement, all because he refuses to lose himself in the dance. How many of those 15,000 men would see themselves in Pentheus? How many would feel uneasy about seeing this parody of masculinity and femininity played out in front of them, blurring boundaries?

This moment, for me, holds the key to the contemporary meaning of The Bacchae. It is a play by a man, about men, for men. Throughout, Euripides shows that the values associated with masculinity, rationality, logic, control and articulacy, do not cancel out the “female” Dionysian forces of emotion, instinct and physicality. Pentheus constantly associates Dionysian attributes with women and foreigners. “Greek men know better,” he says. He believes real men can and must defeat these Dionysian forces. But Pentheus is wrong. The chorus warn him: “Intellect must always submit to the power of the scream.” Pentheus cannot defeat the Dionysian because it is already within him. Euripides shows that if you do not recognise the Dionysian spirit within yourself, or in your society, then it will surely return and destroy you in ways more horrible than you can imagine.

As a drama student at Bristol University in the late 1980s, I was a little late to belong to ecstasy culture, but I do believe that for a brief moment sometime around 1990 there was something truly Dionysian abroad in Britain. Illegal dances held in the open air, in nature; strange new songs that encouraged the participants to lose themselves in each other; and a culture in which masculinity and femininity evaporated into something much more ambiguous, open and strange. Of course, that culture quickly degenerated into a horrible consumer parody of itself. But there was a moment, I think, when something transcendent, something sacred even, something Dionysian, was part of popular culture.

Whenever a Greek tragedy is revived today, the question is asked: “Why now?” For me, Euripides’s concerns remain as relevant as they were 2,000 years ago. There are still men who would control women in order to bolster their shaky sense of self. There are still men who are lost because they refuse to lose themselves in dance. And so we still live with the psychotic and uncontrolled violence that will appear whenever a repressed Dionysian force reasserts itself, as it always will.

The Bacchae is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, until September 22. Box office: 08700 500 511.

US fire chief defends Greek Govt over blazes September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece News.
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The top fire expert in the United States has defended the Greek Government against claims it should have done more to stop a recent spate of forest fires that claimed 66 lives.

US fire chief Tom Harbour has been in Greece offering technical support and advice including helping to track down arsonists.

The Government has always said many of the fires were deliberately lit and Mr Harbour supports this view.

“The fires that you read about here in Greece almost always are human-caused or arson fires,” he said.

“Mother nature with her lightning typically brings some moisture, typically strikes ridge tops. She doesn’t go down to the bottom of a ridge, she doesn’t pick the windiest driest day to start a fire.”

Tram link with Voula opening September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Transport Air Sea Land.
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Transport and Communications Minister Michalis Liapis yesterday inaugurated the extension of the Athens tram to the southern suburb of Voula during a test run on the new route.

The 670-meter extension of the tram route, from Glyfada, is scheduled to open to the public in the first half of October, Liapis said.

The new route is expected to attract some 2,500 new passengers in addition to the 60,000 commuters already using the tram. Apart from facilitating residents of the southern suburbs, the extension will provide a connection to local beaches and the Asklipeio Hospital. From the new terminus, at Asklipeio Voulas, a trip to Palaio Faliron will take 29 minutes, to Nea Smyrni 36 minutes and to Kallithea 39 minutes.

A total of 11 million euros was spent on building the Voula route, which has been lined with more than 150 trees and 450 bushes. An extension of the tram to Piraeus is scheduled to be built by 2010, the Ministry has said.

Cyprus tourism spending September 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Tourism.
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Tourists’ spending in Cyprus from January to June increased by 2.3 percent year-on-year to 395.5 million Cyprus pounds (US$919.8 million), the Statistics Department said yesterday.

In June alone, revenues from tourism totalled 121.4 million or 3.2 percent above the respective month of 2006.