yiasou

Greek flag

Little did I imagine that a sip of homemade strawberry liqueur would lead to an all-nighter across Athens, but there you go. Before heading to the airport for an early morning flight we managed to squeeze in cappuccinos on Syntagma Square (2AM), watch the ceremony of the evzones one last time (3AM), close down the bar at the Hotel Grande Bretagne (4AM), and oh yeah, pack. I’m impressed at my staying power. I’m even more impressed at his staying power. It’s going to make for one very long journey home, yet there’s no denying it’s a night I won’t soon forget. I’m going to need a vacation from this vacation. And so is he. Yiasou, Greece.

Share

papadakis

Papadakis - risotto with sea urchin and cockles

One of the many things I’ve so enjoyed about being in Greece is the quality of the seafood. (I should really use the plural because, as I’ve discovered, my nephew is as gastronomically adventurous as myself.) Besides fish, Athenians know how to cook all those other devilishly difficult sea creatures with a simplicity which brings out the full force of their distinctive flavors. So on this, our last night in Greece, I thought it only fitting that we splurge and have dinner at what is considered by many to be one of the best seafood restaurants in the city: Papadakis, in the upscale shopping district of Kolonaki. Sitting outdoors on a quiet, tree-lined block we leisurely munched our way through a seafood feast of lemon-dressed crab and baby lettuces, octopus simmered in red wine and honey, orzo pasta cooked with giant langoustines, and – kudos to the kid – shellfish risotto with sea urchin. A fitting end to the evening was delivered to the table following coffee and dessert: a decanter of homemade strawberry liqueur. Despite my best attempts on this trip to get a taste of alcohol to pass his lips, my nephew has assiduously stuck with Coca-Cola. Tonight, however, he couldn’t resist – and neither could I.

Papadakis - crab salad

Papadakis - octopus in wine

Papadakis - langoutsines and orzo

Papadakis - a digestif

Share

home sweet hotel

hotel grande bretagne lobby

Let me pause for a moment and give kudos to the fabulous Hotel Grande Bretagne, easily the best-smelling hotel in which I’ve ever stayed. Athens is a relatively modest and easygoing capital city, so it’s been quite wonderful to lay down at an old-school hotel that’s both meticulously appointed and attentive – without being solicitous – while lacking the pretentiousness that too often comes in such majestic surroundings. I’ve quickly grown accustomed to feeling not so much like an anonymous hotel guest, but a pampered resident. Yet beyond the beautifully intricate floor mosaics in the lobby, or the marvelous marble staircase which traverses eight floors in one unbroken sweep, it’s the GB’s rooftop bar and restaurant which has me seduced: I couldn’t imagine a better spot to sip masticha and ponder the apotheosis of Western civilization.

Hotel Grande Bretagne staircase

hotel grande bretagne rooftop

Share

second thoughts

pony and trap

The first sight we see upon docking at Aegina is a line-up of pony and traps waiting to tramp tourists around the main town. Uh oh. Perhaps the proximity of the island to Athens makes it more of a tourist hub than originally anticipated. (Even though by all outward appearances there seems to be at most five identifiable tourists wandering the esplanade, and the klatsch of carriage drivers are too busy smoking and talking to pay us any heed.) We opt for ice cream – pistachio, natch – and a pause to look at our options.

pistachio ice cream

Share

let’s go to that beautiful sea

aegina

The phrase “Greek Isles” summons up visions of an idyllic Neverland of ethereal sunsets, white-washed buildings, olive groves, turquoise water, and all the romance that comes from being shipwrecked on a remote island.  There are an astounding 3,000 such little Edens scattered across Greece’s corner of the Mediterranean, which means to each his own: everyone has their particular, or peculiar, favorite. The most famous are far afield – Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos, Corfu – but for the daytripper there are a few easy options close to Athens, too. The most popular excursion is one of those three-in-one boats, which stops off for about half an hour at each of three nearby islands. I wanted something a little more adventurous – and immersive. So, instead of going the package experience route, we decided to head off on our own via the fast ferry to the island of Aegina – without a map or an agenda and knowing little more than that it happens to be famous for its pistachios.

Share

shrimp saganaki

shrimp saganaki

Shrimp sautéed with plum tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, ouzo, and plenty of crusty bread to soak it all up. Enough said.

Share

romantic notions in the agora

temple of hephaestus - side view

In the middle of Athens, nestled under the Acropolis, is the ancient agora, once the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. Later, it would also serve as a marketplace, where merchants would set up their stalls in the colonnades of long, covered buildings called stoa.  (The Romans would go on to call this conglomeration a forum; we would call it a mall.) A large open area surrounded by buildings of various functions, the agora was a daily part of public life in Athens, whether you were coming to shop, pay homage to a particular god, visit the law courts, use the library, or even go swimming in the great bathhouse. Laying mostly in ruins today, the agora has the feel of an overgrown park or an English country estate. (I can’t help but think of Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and the Romantic notions of picturesque landscape architecture, constructed in imitation of wild nature, which was once in fashion and still survives in the gardens at many a stately British home.) Yet on the top of Agoraios Kolonas hill, keeping watch on the northwest side of the square is perched the Temple of Hephaestus, a well-preserved temple that remains largely as it was built. Like a Parthenon in miniature, it presents a serene sense of what this all must have looked like in the full-flower of antiquity.

temple of hephaestus - looking over the agora

temple of hephaestus

Share

turtles in the ancient agora

turtles in the ancient agora

Share

sunset, cape sounion

sunset at sounion

For a civilization so closely aligned with the Mediterranean, it is remarkable there are no temples in Athens dedicated to Poseidon, the god of the sea. However, on the rocky peninsula of Cape Sounion, which juts into the sea at the southeast tip of Attica, the Athenians built him a sanctuary – as well as two to the goddess Athena, patron of their city – that today stands as one of the most remarkably situated of all classical ruins. Built on the summit of the rock, which rises 200 feet out of the water, and surrounded by stout walls, the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion keeps watch over the great expanse of the Aegean. As you’d expect, it’s also a magical place to watch the sun set. Click the panoramic image, then click again for greater detail.

temple of poseidon

Share

what’s a bagel?

what's a bagel?

Greeks don’t know from a bagel, but on almost every street corner in the center of Athens you’ll find stands selling koulouria, a sesame seed-sprinkled bread stick-slash-roll. Athenians grab them on the go for a quick breakfast in the early morning while they’re fresh. But don’t be turned off if you see some still for sale after lunch – by afternoon the koulouria somehow morphs into a satisfyingly crunchy snack.

Share

the best pies in athens

the best pies in athens

The Greek word for pie is pita, which is not to be confused with pita bread. Usually an extra word is added in front of pita, so you get tyropita, which is cheese pie; spanakopita, or spinach pie, and so forth. These savory pies are sold in individual portions in bakeries all over Athens, but the best pies in the city – and possibly the most famous – can be found at family owned Ariston, which has occupied the same spot behind Syntagma Square since 1910. The store’s specialty are kourou pies, which is an odd name since I am pretty sure kourou is the archaic term for a statue of a naked male youth, made with a homemade phyllo dough containing yogurt and butter. Stuffed with salty feta cheese, the butter-rich dough crumbles in your mouth and makes for a scrumptious hand-held snack somewhere between a pasty and a pastry.

kourou

Share

tzatziki time

tzatziki

Thick Greek yogurt spiked with garlic, cucumber, dill and drizzled with olive oil: there’s never a bad time for tzatziki.

Share

big as all outdoors

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Though just fifteen columns of the original 104 are still standing, what remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus is magnificent. Its scale is colossal, and when finally completed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian after 600 years of stop-and-start construction, the marble temple stood as the largest in both Greece and Rome. (During the years of Athenian democracy, the temple was left unfinished because the Greeks of that period thought it anti-democratic to build on such a scale. Aristotle cited the temple as an example of how tyrannies engaged the populace in great works for the state and left them no time, energy or means to rebel.) Size notwithstanding, there is a grace to the design: elegant in their symmetry, the fifty-five foot-tall columns are capped by ornate Corinthian capitals which seem to open up towards the heavens like flower buds  A 16th column blew over in 1852 and is still lying where it fell like so many dominoes, giving me the feeling that it’s much impressive as a romantic ruin than it ever could have been as a temple.

Temple of Olympian Zeus - fallen column

Share

philopappos panorama

philopappos panorama

That curiosity atop Philopappos Hill turned out to be the marble mausoleum of Philopappos, a prince of the ancient Hellenistic Kingdom of Commegane in upper Syria, which was later annexed by the Roman Empire, and senator under Emperor Trajan. Dating to 116 AD, the tomb, opposite the Acropolis and within the formal boundaries of the city, shows the high position Philopappos had within Athenian society. (Indeed, for the six centuries prior to its building, the area was known as Mouseion Hill, or the Hill of the Muses.) Today, it makes for a relatively solitary uphill stroll to see the two-story monument and take in the unobstructed view of the Acropolis within the context of modern-day Athens. Or, if you’re a Greek teenager, the ideal spot to roll a joint in relative seclusion. As always, click on the panoramic image then click it again for greater detail.

philopappos view

Share

in prison with socrates

prison of socrates

Philopappos Hill, also known as the Hill of the Muses, is often overlooked due to its proximity to the more famous Acropolis. But the presence of a large monument at the summit – clearly visible from the Parthenon – called to us this afternoon and so we set out to hike to the top and discover what exactly was there. Meandering through the forest we came upon a series of caves with bars on them and realized we had stumbled upon something much more interesting than any monument; we had found the legendary prison of Socrates. And while I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss why Socrates was imprisoned, why he believed it would be unjust to try to escape, and why he drank from the cup of poison hemlock without protest, somebody was obsessed with the prevalence of bees buzzing around the entrance and so, unlike Socrates, we beat a hasty retreat.

IMG_1242

Share

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.