Thursday, September 11, 2014

Island Impressions

My two days in Mykonos zoomed by with a lightning speed, and just after midnight last night I hopped to Thessaloniki. 

My first impression of Mykonos was not a favourable one. I found the party capital of the Aegean overcrowded and overdeveloped. Yes, the cubic white-washed architecture speckled with bright red gerania and magenta bougainvillaea is absolutely spectacular, but one can barely see it behind heaps of touristy stuff for sale, designer boutiques, bars and visitors themselves, who arrive in great numbers to enjoy the softer September sun and all-night beach parties. 


In contrast to the bigger, less commercialized, appreciably cheaper Naxos that has the same cuteness about its old town and gorgeous beaches, but half the crowds and the fuss, I wondered what people saw in Mykonos at all. 


As one proud Naxonian told me, Naxos feeds itself, but Mykonos has nothing but the famous windmills. 


True -- local agribusiness in Naxos is extensive, and they have their own potatoes, corn, many veggies and fruits, as well as meat and cheeses. There are as many butchers on the island, it seems, as there are Starbucks on Yonge street. I spent over three hours in the mountain village of Halki. It's tiny, so I wondered far into the olive groves and vineyards just to pass the time until my bus back into town.

One other thing that annoyed me in Mykonos is the myriad of motorbikes and those four-wheel quad buggies that pollute like hell and gave me a headache when I was walking to my hotel at night. 


My studio, although very nice, was not in the centre of town due to price considerations, and I huffed and puffed up a steep heel in the dark breathing diesel fumes with no clear idea where I was going. That was a mistake. Location, location, location. I should have stayed somewhere in a more favourable part of Chora, the main town, like these absolutely gorgeous Portobello Studios.


On day two, however, I reconsidered my position. First of all, I saw Mykonos in the morning, when the town was still fresh, and businesses took it easy. The harbour was beautiful, framed by its white boats and steep hills above. Old fishermen were mending their nets in front of a church, and locals were buying fish and veggies from the stands at the old port. 


I also realized that it's silly to arrive to a notorious resort and expect it to be quiet. When in Mykonos, do it like the rich and famous. So, instead of rolling my eyes at scenes like this -- it took the dude good 15 minutes to shoot a perfect picture of an orange juice against the sea,


and this one -- the lady pushed in front of everyone enjoying the sunset and insisted her derrière features as an obligatory compliment to the sinking sun


and chuckling at the cult of male genitalia -- Mykonos has been the destination for gay tourism for decades,


I went shopping, then to the beach to work on my tan and lounge on a comfy chaise with a glass of white wine. There I met a family of super-friendly Brazilians, with whom I ended up hanging out all day. In fact, we had so much fun, I missed my boat to Delos and, truth be told, made in to the airport just in time to check in my bag and board the flight. Phew, that was a close one :). 

Cheers to the good times!


Here goes my archaeological interest -- wheee. I swapped the third most important site in the whole of Greece and UNESCO heritage for a party, and haven't got the slightest regret about it. In fact, I was kind of bummed out I could not stay for the full moon bash at Cavo Paradiso the night after -- the famous Paradise Beach venue that often features well known European DJs. 

I now know exactly where to stay, eat, tan and party in Mykonos to enjoy the island as one should. In fact, I'm thinking that now that I know all the main Cyclades, how amazing it would be to do a grand return to all of them. Three weeks, perhaps, starting in Athens, then Crete (not part of the archipelago, but it's on the way), then Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos and Milos. 

Maybe not all of the islands at once, and not necessarily in this order, but roughly to follow this route. It's going to be really enjoyable to travel knowing the best spots and not waste any time looking around. A project for one of the years ahead??

More photo impressions of Naxos are on flickr in this album,

and an album on Mykonos is right here.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Half-sizing

Vacationing alone is not that bad after all. Most definitely, it's better than not at all. So far, the worst things about doing this solo are having to lug all your stuff with you every time you need to leave your spot, eating alone and answering questions why you're alone.

The first is just annoying. Imagine you have a great table or a seat, you're comfortably settled, but you have to go wash your hands. You need to pick up all your belongings and, like a demented snail, lug it all to the bathroom. In the meantime, someone comes and steals your seat. Or a waiter comes and cleans your table prematurely. Or you need to ask him not to. Grrrrr.


This is one place, where you don't need to take anything with you. The tiny island of Schinoussa. No danger of theft whatsoever.

Eating alone is impractical and limiting in a country like Greece. Greek food is not made to be eaten alone. If you observe Greek tables, nobody orders individually like North Americans do. Everything is ordered "for the table" -- drinks, a salad, a few mezedes (small plates), one or a couple mains, depending on the party size. The food is then shared by everyone. The portions are huge, and eating alone means you can only get one thing. 


This is an appetizer-size plate of large kolokythokeftedes (fried zucchini balls). These are awesome, but very filling, and, like anything fried, no good for another meal. Only a very big eater would be able to down this whole thing as an appetizer. 

I cannot possibly eat a full salad, plus some sort of protein, plus polish off some wine. Did you see the size of those salads? They're massive and often come with rusks and cheese. 

This is a Mykonian 'salad' with local kopanisti cheese. It's a super stinky sheep cheese produced for 200 years only in Mykonos. Served on a barley rusk soaked in water, wine vinegar and olive oil and topped with tomatoes, oregano and olives. Kind of like Mykonian dakos.


I just ate it all (arrived to Mykonos this morning) and I think I'm going to skip dinner.

Side dishes, like horta (boiled greens with lemon and oil), also arrive in bucket-size bowls. Popeye with his love of spinach would be delighted. Meat too. In Athens, the daily special at the taverna where we were with Natalia was 'arni tou fournou' (slow-roasted lamb with potatoes). We considered it, but then changed our mind, because the plate was just too big for the two of us.


This is a bowl of fava (split pea purée with onions, olive oil and lemon) -- a specialty on Santorini and  Schinoussa islands. It's a delish vegetarian dish, and, again, a rather large serving.

I get around this gastronomic challenge by sweet-talking the restaurant folks into making me everything in half portions. Otherwise I won't even be able to try many of my favourite things. There are other benefits too. Grilled octopus is amazing in Naxos, but relatively expensive (it always is). Half-size is perfect. Besides, this downsizing allows me to talk to people and practice my Greek. They're usually quite understanding and mix and match for me. 


These are kolokythokeftedes again -- 1/2 portion, horta (steamed local greens) and 1/2 of the octopus portion.

I also pull out my blogger card sometimes. "Oh, I write a little about the traditional Greek cuisine, can you let me try a few different things here?" Alternatively, with the motherly older women, usually wives of restaurant owners, the sob story works better: "I'm here alone, poor me, I want to eat more of your amazing cooking".

Such problems do not exists in bakeries. You can buy three biscuits for something like 30p and no one would bat an eyelid. In ice cream parlours, you can also have two or three flavours for one scoop (never in Canada). 

In the last couple of days, Friday and Saturday, my half-sizing didn't fly. One meal ended up being mediocre. The taverna was very busy, and I think they just didn't want to bother with me. I ordered stuffed eggplants, and got this instead.



This looked and tasted like a fast food moussaka slapped together in two minutes. I don't like beshamel at all, and just ended up scraping it all off.  

Yesterday the restaurant refused to humour me at all. I wanted to have half a platter of small fried fishes (they fry them in batches, and who cares if they give me a full serving or just a half), and they said no. Boo. I got these pesto grilled mussels instead.


Oh well. You win some you loose some. The mussels were yummy actually. I should try this dish at home. 

It should be mentioned that the Cyclades are having an exceptionally good year. Greece as a whole had a 34% rise in tourists in the second half of the summer. I read this in the in-flight magazine. In Naxos, it's their first really big year, and they don't know how to deal with the influx of people. Prices has gone up a little, I was told, and hoteliers and restaurateurs are overworked. I didn't notice bad service anywhere, but one can feel it's the end of the season. The fatigue is apparent.

I think, my habit of going to Greece in September should end with this trip. Mid-June will be better, when businesses are still rested from the low season and hungry for customers. In June, the islands will also be greener, which is always a plus.

By the way, can you imagine, it rained in Mykonos today? It hasn't rained since last winter, but it did today. Quite incredible. Should I by a lottery ticket?


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Aegean Blue

Yesterday I went sailing around Naxos and to the island of Schinoussa on a yacht called Annabella. This was something that I wanted to do the most on this trip.


I was so excited, I confused the time and showed up to the marina 45 minutes too early. Never mind. There was time for a hot tyrospanakopita -- a cheese and spinach pie. Totally indulgent. Only once a year in Greece.

Sailing is such a treat for me, and it happens so rarely. Being on the water all day was fantastic. The Aegean blue felt endless with the sky merging with the sea, and the water changing colours depending on the underlining sand or rock. Strikingly ultramarine, where rock is white, almost black in the coastal caves, pale baby blue at its shallowest, bright cobalt at depth and Caribbean turquoise along yellow sandy beaches.  


I sat on the very front of the boat near the anchor (you know, the "Titanic" moment place) with my legs through the rails, and waves slashed against my feet as the yacht sailed ahead. The sea was relatively calm. We watched for possible dolphins (whoever spots one gets a free beer :) and at that time I honestly didn't want anything else except remember this high forever. 

More pics are on flickr in this photo album.

We were 13 on the boat, plus the captain and his wife. It was a good mix of people aged between 30 and 60 -- from Norway, the US, Germany, Italy, South Africa and Portugal. A friendly crowd but pretty quiet, perhaps, because no alcohol was provided on board. 


Katerina, the captain's wife, took photos with a waterproof camera, and at the end of the day each got a cd full of them. It's actually a very cool service because you get totally crazy pics that you can't take yourself. Like this one.


Or this one. 


This was the best bit. Armed with water flashlights, we swam into a cave to look at growing stalactites and bats that hide in the folds of the cave ceiling. The cave is actually rather deep. I'm standing on a rock. The water filling the cave is a mix of fresh and salty, as there's a freshwater stream seeping from the ground. There aren't many bats this time of year, but there was one that quickly hid further into the belly of the cave following our excited screams. 

This was a totally awesome experience. My father, a geologist, would have loved it. 

The Mediterranean is salty and swimming takes little effort. You just bob like a cork. Swimming at a good depth, about 9-12 meters, feels very liberating, and the water is so clear, you could see the bottom and occasional fishes. 

For lunch, we sailed to Schinoussa -- one of the small Cyclades. Population: 150. It's basically a rock, pretty dusty this time of year, emerging from the sea. Apparently, it's popular with large yachts that arrive en masse earlier in summer. Some have their own helipads which jet their presumably rich and powerful owners around the Aegean. 


One thing must be said, it's very hot here this week. I saw on one thermometer that showed +37C in the sun. I braced self for climbing the steep path into the village and... someone gave me a lift :) That's Greece for you.

Everything is simpler here. Another example: today I forgot my sunscreen. Before too long, a beach dude who rents umbrellas to tourists shared his. There is wifi literally everywhere, even in Schinoussa, all you have to do is ask for the password. Most of the times, it the business's phone number displayed on the sign. I was also offered a free meal at a local church, as the people responsible for cooking there have some relatives in Canada. I didn't take them up on the offer, obviously, as there are folks who need it far more than yours truly. 

Lunch was delicious eaten at a small taverna in the port.


By the way, the food entry is coming. I just need to rethink it a little. 


On the way back, I steered the boat!!! "Just imagine you're driving a car", the captain said. Yeah right.


This is one driving license that would be fun to get!!

We also stopped a couple of time for swimming and were back to the port around 6 pm sleepy from the sun and with a crust of salt on everything.

Something must be said about the people on the boat. There were interesting conversations to be had with Norwegians (smoked salmon and petroleum) and gender-based roles in Greece (one of the Norwegians was a woman psychiatrist), Italian community in Canada and impossible traffic fines in Italy (with the Milanese), strip clubs in Montreal (the couple from the NYC were newlyweds, and the guy went for his bachelors party to Montreal). 


The character from Portugal is a separate story. He was the only one unpaired except for me, and I had a feeling he really wanted to strike a conversation. The opportunity came at lunch. We talked a little about food, where he professed his great love of meat. I asked him if he liked fish too, particularly sardines. Portuguese, you know. He announced he detested sardines with a passion, because they're so hard to work around, all those bones, the head, very complicated, too much work, the smell, etc. In contrast, sole was a fish he could eat because it's very simple: "You just take off the skin and it's good to go".

I asked him if he preferred women in the same manner, i. e. very uncomplicated, when you can just take something off, and she's ready to go, as opposed to the tricky sardine types. This was the end of our conversation. He never spoke to me again :)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Mikri Vigla

Naxos is beautiful. Its principal town, Chora, is perched on the slopes of a hill topped by a Venetian castle. Typical Cycladic white-washed houses line narrow and winding streets leading their way from the castle to the bustling seafront promenade. It reminds me a little of Rethymnon in Crete, but more low-key.

I have not had a chance to explore the old town during the day yet, as today was a bit odd. Since I don't do anything that requires a mental or a huge physical effort, I'm never tired to go to bed at a reasonable hour. So, last night I stayed up till about 3 am, and this morning blinding sunlight woke me up at 8. This is a view from my studio. Not too bad, right?


I lounged in bed a little longer, then got up for breakfast.


Naxos is the biggest and the greenest of the Cyclades. It grows a lot of its own produce, including exceptionally tasty melons. I got one last night and cooled it in the fridge for the morning. Yum!!

I eventually stumbled out my comfy abode, where crisp white sheets make you wanna just lie on the bed and stare outside, and made it to the seafront bus stop. The hotel owner gave me some recommendations as to the best beaches, but I lost the map, where he wrote them, so I just told the bus lady I wanted "Mia omorfi paralia" (a beautiful beach) and she sold me a ticket to Mikri Vigla.

The bust took some 45 min to do whole 18 km. Jeez. I felt a bit dizzy from the ups and downs of the road serpentine, and loud local ladies going on and on on their cellphones. The beach, however, turned out to be gorgeous.


Stretching for miles...


There may have been barely 50 people along its entire length. So wonderfully empty.

Some strong waves too, which caught me off-guard, which explains the bit of seaweed stuck to my glasses.


I got a LOT of sun! I wish I could bottle it up and use on dreary winter days, like a rechargeable battery. I also tanned really quickly and didn't burn (huge accomplishment, as this was around 1 pm. Very hot.) 

There was also a beach taverna, where I went to clean up and chill with a frappé. Naxos is full of middle-aged Germans. No one is bothering me, no one thinks I'm from Russia, no one is trying to sell me a fur coat. It's paradise. In fact, people are divided between thinking I'm a Greek Canadian (good) and Italian (far fetched, but there are lots of Italians around too).


The way back was incredibly sleepy. I would have dozed off, if it wasn't for this older couple from Athens. The man wanted to talk to me incessantly. He was very boorish, and I didn't like the way he imposed himself and professed strong opinions on everything, including his poor wife, who was very pretty and delicate, and visibly subdued by his caveman personality.

Gawd. I can't believe she has to endure him 24/7. Eventually the man gave me his contact info in Athens inviting me to call them any time from now to eternity whenever I'm in the capital again. I promised to return in years with a bunch of kids (ahaha). Okay, that was actually a nice gesture... I have to admit, it's lovely how Greeks are so hospitable this way.

I then passed by a big supermarket, where I gawked at local and other cheeses. Smelly culinary heaven right there, under the counter. You know, you can bake eggplant with tomatoes and garlic in a clay pot, and top it with a strong kefalograviera? It's one of the local ladera specialties. Ladera is a category of Greek dishes made with copious olive oil ('ladi' means 'oil' hence the name ladera), often vegetarian, made with pulses and veggies).


I got some light stuff for a very late lunch, including Naxos feta and big-ass tomatoes that pack three times more taste than the Ontario variety.


And by about 6 pm I napped :) Hey, I'm alone. Don't need to justify anything to anyone. If you want to have a laugh, I can also tell you that I dozed off with a dark cotton garment bag on my head, because I forgot my sleeping mask at home. The bag is a perfect replacement, unless you need to look sexy. 

This explain why I haven't seem Hora in daylight. Just too busy leading the exciting night life and sporting garment bags as head gear.


Tomorrow, though, I must be back on schedule. I'm off on a full-day sailing trip and need my beauty sleep :)

Kali sas nihta! Have a peaceful evening.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Morning at the Acropolis Museum

My flight to Naxos is late. The good thing is that Athens airport is probably one of the best airports to be stuck at. Another upgraded legacy of the 2004 Olympics, the airport is just as the Athens subway -- spacious, clean and new. It also has great shopping, which is where I wasted an hour or so, and many awesome gourmet food outlets, mainly Greek and Italian. I'm finding it a challenge not to eat literally all the time :)

I am floored by how many carbs Greeks seem to consume at every meal. In the morning and at lunch, everybody seems to be eating a large pastry of some kind (usually phyllo stuffed with spinach, ham, cheese or a combination of the above), and at lunch -- a baguette, a sandwich, gyros or another pastry. Many of these things are eaten on the run. Not quickly, but literally on the go, while walking. At the same time, many also drink frappe and smoke. Very efficient, to say the least.

Despite these (visibly) unhealthy habits, the Athenians looks good, especially younger people. There are relatively few overweight folks, thought I cannot say that Greeks age very well. I guess, the sun is hard on the skin, and then decades of smoking and tyropitas probably add up.


I missed breakfast time at the Acropolis museum, as I wanted to throw my stuff back into the suitcase and check out before leaving, so I followed the locals and snacked on the run on the steps of the National Library (above). Another kolouri eaten, sold to me by a guy with a brother in Toronto. We parted like relatives.


The museum experience was spectacular. It is such a fantastic place, where your mind rests and contemplates on bigger things in life. The architects did an amazing job making the most out of the location (over the actual archaeological site, just below the Acropolis itself) and using the sunlight to its best advantage to highlight the building's simple elegance (see here for more info).


The museum is not overloaded with stuff, which makes the collection manageable. You can spend an hour there and make it worthwhile, or five, if you're a real antiquity buff. The place basically hosts the artifacts found at the Acropolis excavation that could not be left outside -- fragments of columns, statues, bases for offerings to gods, vases, wall pieces, etc. Most of the artifacts are fairly large in size, and you move through them quickly. 


I envy this Dyonisos dude. He still looks good after all those years and non-stop drinking since what, 8th century BC?

My all other photos from the museum morning can be found on Flickr. The mobile blogger is giving me real grief in terms of formatting and links. Please don't judge all these ugly extra spaces, oversized pictures and jumping fonts too harsh. I'll fix them on return home.

So, I did my rounds (for some time, I strategically glued self to the tail end of a group with a private guide, thereby eavesdropping on her most interesting lecture), then visited the gift shop and went up to the restaurant for lunch. I ended up buying a few things at the shop, as I think it's important to support museums. The entrance fee is only 5 euro for adults. Compare this with North American museum fees of $25-30, and it becomes evident that they are heavily subsidized. 


The museum restaurant has a jaw-dropping view on the Parthenon from one side and Lykavittos from the other, and a fully authentic Greek menu offering traditional dishes from various regions of Greece. It lists things you won't always find at a conventional taverna, including a variety of mountain teas, regional cheeses and inventive salads. I took a green salad with 'Greek prosciutto' and berry vinaigrette. It came with a side of delicious bread with seeds and herbs. Really good.

Only the service disappointed slightly -- no water refills, and impossible to get salt and pepper. I had no time to wait around for the missing waiters, as I had to run back to the hotel to get my stuff and go to the airport.

P.S. Am now safe and sound in Naxos, my pit stop in the Aegean for the next four days. It's so beautiful at night, it took my breath away. More adventures coming right up...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cafés and Kolouri

My hotel, Athens Way, has a wonderful terrace with a view on the Lykavittos Hill and Exarchia rooftops. It's sandwiched between the bohemian Exarchia and the hill itself, and it's a far better neighbourhood choice than Omonia, where I stayed on my last visit here in 2011.


The terrace totally makes up for the fact that the breakfast is of the kind frequently practiced by Greek hotels -- shabby. It always puzzled me why hoteliers in a country where a litre-size bucket of Greek yogurt costs less that 2 euros, and gorgeous in-season fresh fruits are aplenty, feel compelled to feed their guests canned peaches, white toast and anemic plastic-wrapped pastries. Could it be possibly a  conspiracy to get rid of everything that remains unsold in supermarkets?

Okay, maybe I'm being too tough. There were also some cold cuts and boiled eggs, but overall, breakfast had slim pickings. I am also drinking Nescafé (!), as filter coffee was worse than Tim Hortons. Whatever. No big deal. This morning I got some yogurt, fresh figs, peaches and a big kolouri to instill some nutritional value and taste into the breakfast.

  
I love these simple unsweetened rings of dough, crispy on the outside and soft inside. They're covered in toasted sesame seeds sort of like a large featherlight bagel. Kalofagas has a fun and informative entry on kolouri. They are so good, I replaced my lunch with another olive-stuffed kolouri. I reckoned, an all-carb 'lunch' was not too bad, considering it was after climbing the steep Lykavittos.


The climb was sweaty but not unpleasant, especially after it stopped raining. Who would have thought it will rain in Athens on September 2??!! And it was real rain too, it lasted for a good hour. Rain is much needed here, and it ended up being quite refreshing. Going up a steep hill is not fantastic in 30°C. 

From the top one could see as far as Piraeus and some of the closer islands. That is the Acropolis, of course, on the picture. After coming down, I just spend the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around the city. I am now so familiar with the Greece, I don't feel like buying souvenirs or compulsively taking photos of everything. I feel like simply floating around, enjoying some good food and drinks, and taking things easy. 

Frappé is in the essential part of that :)


I don't know why I ever stopped making it after leaving Cyprus. It's delicious. I should get one of those small electric frothers and make this at home each summer. 

Miss Good Fortune threw another crazy good coincidence into my path that other day. It turns out, I have a friendly face in Athens!!


This is Natalia, a friend of my Ottawa friend Andrea. She's Greek and she lives in New York City, but this week she's with her family in the Athens suburbs of Voula. We met up for dinner in out one of the many traditional tavernas, and it was super to catch up.

Not to mention, the meal was too good to eat alone. The obligatory slab of feta on horiatiki, large enough to kill the restaurant's resident cat, should it accidentally fall down.


Unsurprisingly, a totally amazing meal.

The neighborhood of Psyri was hopping, again with every chair and every café full. Natalia says this is in part because of high unemployment and because many young people live with their families and hence don't spend anything on the rent and food. Naturally, one begs the question how come unemployed people have resources to go out this much. Another part of this phenomenon is cultural, of course. It's just what people do here. I would also add weather to this. Try sitting outside in the café in subzero temperatures or under pouring rain. Canadian winter quickly pulls the lid on the cafe culture (but then again, the French do it somehow in the colder climate).

I am wrapping up for today. A morning at the Acropolis museum is awaiting me tomorrow.