Archive for September, 2004

Athens – the Olympics Return

Thursday, September 30th, 2004

Ancient Greece was the first place to hold formal sporting competitions, and it was also the birthplace of the Olympics as we know it today. Perhaps the most famous run in history was by Pheidippides who ran from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens to relay the word that the Persians were defeated. The marathon race this year followed much the same route as that famous run. You have to congratulate the Greeks on this year’s Olympics, the venues were spectacular, the security was outstanding, and the people were so warm and welcoming. Athens was a tremendous location to hold the 2004 Olympics, and the historical significance of this event made it even more special.

Flying into Athens I was truly impressed with the beautiful new airport, the new highways, and how the general infrastructure was modernized. But even more amazing is how this modernization took place while preserving the historic sites. Living in NYC we think that old is a building that was built in the 1950’s, and think our civilization started when Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Indians in 1626. So, it is hard to fathom life in 500 B.C. But during that time, under the reign of Pericles, one of the most historic sites in the world was constructed – The Acropolis.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

You can see the Acropolis, high up on a hill, from many vantage points in the city. But you cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of this building achievement until you start to ascend this hill; you actually get goose bumps. The sheer size and the incredible condition of these ancient structures is truly amazing. As you reach the top of the hill, you walk up the steps and through the Propylaea, the glorious entrance designed by architect Mnesikles. As you reach the top step the Parthenon comes into full view. This temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Athena, was built of white marble, and is the crown jewel of the Acropolis. The size, beauty, and harmony of this magnificent monument was a true fete in early architecture. The Ancient Theatre of Dionysis was another highlight of the Acropolis. It is the oldest of all known theaters in the world, and Greek tragedies were performed to crowds estimated to be as large as 17,000.

The Erchtheion

The Erchtheion

The Erchtheion is another spectacular structure. This temple was built in 420-406 B.C. and is quite unique in that it does not have the typical symmetry of Greek architecture. It is built on two levels, and the two porches have no relationship to one another. The smaller porch on the south side is most famous because six Caryatids (figures of maidens) support the roof. The dissimilarities of this temple may be explained by the fact that different parts were dedicated to different gods.

The Acropolis is certainly the historic highlight of Athens, but it is also exciting to see that much of Athens is new and alive. The Plaka is an area downtown that best illustrates the new culture. Syntagma Square appears to be the crossroads of the city with buses, taxis, and scooters coming from every direction. Around the border of the square are five large hotels, and the center of the square is a small park. One night this park had a live concert, and mayhem would be an understatement. The streets that spoke off the square head into the heart of the Plaka, a historic district which is filled with jewelry stores, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and of course several historic sites. The streets are narrow and winding, and become more interesting as you get away from the large thoroughfares. One evening I had the pleasure of eating at Daphne’s in this district, and the food was outstanding. We feasted on Tsatziki (cucumber & yogurt), Taramasalata (Greek style caviar), Spanakopita (spinach pie), calamari, lamb, and sea bass. The highlight, however, was Moussaka that was served in a small ceramic crock. It is a mix of lamb, eggplant, onion, and spices topped with mashed potatoes and baked, it was simply heaven.

Cove near Piraeus

Cove near Piraeus

The Piraeus is another interesting area that is located on the western side of the city. It runs along the coastline and is home to many marinas, coves for fishing or swimming, fish restaurants and night clubs. Shipping is big business, and there are thousands of ships ranging from tiny fishing boats to the major cruise ships like the Queen Mary II. During the day, people are swimming off the rocks, or enjoying a seafood lunch overlooking the sea. But as night falls, the bars and restaurants fill up, and the music starts. The Greek people are very warm and alive, and this becomes most evident after the sun sets. Restaurants are jammed till midnight and the clubs rock till dawn. Many of the nightclubs are quite unique with sofas set-up on the beach and large swimming pools located right next to the dance floor.

The Greeks certainly know how to enjoy life, and I am not sure if I ever met a group of people as proud of their heritage. They are very aware of their historic contribution to he Olympics, and you could clearly see their pride in hosting this year’s festivities. It was good to hear that the number of nations participating in the Olympics continued to expand, and Iraq was one of those new countries. As an American, I was thrilled to watch the events. Michael Phelps, and the women’s softball and soccer teams certainly gave us plenty to cheer about. But feeling the hospitality, the camaraderie, and hearing the different cultures root for their nation was what made this so special. Perhaps the most touching event at the games was during a track and field relay. The team from Greece was in fifth, and the crowd started to cheer “Hellas Hellas”. As the Greek team surged from fifth to second the energy was explosive. The history, the people, the excitement, and most of all, the Games made this a once in a lifetime experience.

Corfu

The islands of Greece are a vacation paradise. Mykonos, Santorini, and Rhodes are three islands south of Athens that are probably the best known, but there are hundreds of other Greek Islands that are breathtakingly beautiful and steeped in history. Corfu is one of these little gems; it is one of the northern most islands just off the coast of Albania. This island dates back to the time of Homer, and many countries had an influence on its history. But even more spectacular than some of its historical sites is its natural beauty.

Marina near Corfu town

Marina near Corfu town

I visited Corfu on a small cruise ship that pulled into the harbor at dawn, and it was sensational. The sun was a red ball just creeping over the horizon, and the soft light added a tranquil glow to the island. The marinas along the shore were filled with sailboats that bobbed back and forth with the tide. Small ochre buildings with red slate roofs dotted the rolling hills that were covered in evergreens. As we approached the harbor of Corfu Town , the largest town on the island, you see a huge fort called the Old Fortress which was used to guard the village. It is interesting that this Old Fortress was cut off from Corfu Town by a moat, and that the chosen people lived within these walls for centuries. Corfu Town was under Venetian rule till 1780. As you look at the architecture of the town you are reminded of Venice by some of the winding streets. The French influence is also apparent; the main square has many formal gardens, and the Liston Building was designed with great arches to resemble the Rue de Rivoli. The British also left their mark on Corfu, right in the center of town is a cricket court.

Corfu Town is a mix of quaint shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Walking through the town is fascinating due to its long history and all the countries that have influenced its architecture. There are many elegant buildings, mansions, palaces, monuments, flowered squares, and a couple Byzantine Churches. This town is on the eastern side of the island where the land slopes gently to the sea, palm trees line the roads, and flowers add a burst of color.

View of Paleokastsa

View of Paleokastsa

As you venture to the western side of the island, it becomes very mountainous with exceptionally lush landscapes. Vegetation is much more prevalent on Corfu than other Greek Islands due to its northern location. There are over three million olive trees on the island, and this greenery adds such richness to these mountains. The roads over these mountains are narrow, and as you reach the western side of the island the vistas of the sea are very dramatic. I visited the town of Lakones which consisted of a few touristy shops and a café. But what made this town interesting was that it was perched on the side of a mountain with unbelievable views of Paleokastsa, a town spread over 6 coves. The emerald green water contrasted with the rugged grey rock coastline, and the sight was awesome.

Although Corfu is only 58km long and 27km wide, the narrow roads can make distances feel much longer. I remember a friend recommending not to visit the island of Capri in Italy on a day-trip, but to stay for a week so that you could experience the remote areas of the island away from all the tourists. I believe much the same could be said about Corfu, as you distance yourself from the tourists you can understand the culture, appreciate the history, absorb the natural beauty and become mesmerized in Nirvana.

The Oyster Bar

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Last week I was in Grand Central in New York City around lunchtime and thought I would revisit The Oyster Bar. This restaurant first opened in 1913, and is a New York institution. I had this hankering for fried oysters, and I thought this would be a sure bet. I had not been to The Oyster Bar for over 20 years, but I thought if any place should excel at oysters, this must be it. Walking into this restaurant you can’t help but be in awe of the famed vaulted tile ceiling designed by Raphael Guastavino. The décor of the restaurant is “no frills” . The seating area to the left of the doorway has red checkered tablecloths. To the right is a simple linoleum countertop similar to a luncheonette. I thought it was a retro look, and it gave me the impression that the restaurant’s primary concern was not ambiance, but was about serving the best fresh seafood.

After a bit of a wait I received the menu, and as anticipated, it offered a wide selection of oysters and other seafood. I ordered the fried oysters that I had been craving. I also asked for a glass of Gruner Veltliner. The waitress asked “which wine?” Then she asked “what number is it?” My enthusiasm now plummeted very rapidly, as expectation was being overshadowed by reality.

The bottom line is that the oysters were barely better than the frozen ones you can buy at a supermarket, and the service was poor at best. What a shame!

Worth Seeking Out…

Tuesday, September 28th, 2004
  • Whether you are making a tomato sauce or a vegetable soup, one staple for your pantry should be a tomato paste. I like Amore double concentrated tomato paste that is sold in a tube. The packaging increases its shelf life, and the size is very convenient.
  • Winter squash are in season. Although there are many varieties, I use acorn and butternut most often. Roasted squash is a great alternative to potatoes or rice, and is just as easy to cook.
  • Keep your eye open for good wine sales this time of year. Retail stores need to reduce their inventory to make room for new vintages, and may be offering your favorite Bordeaux or Super Tuscan at a discounted price.
  • Although I must have a half dozen guide books on Rome, I find none better than Rome In Detail published by Rizzoli. It certainly discusses the major sites, but more importantly it also addresses those hidden gems off the beaten path. The book is organized by neighborhoods, nine in all, with clear detailed maps, suggested walking tours, and many highlighted cultural attractions.

Wine of the month: Langmeil Cabernet Sauvignon ’01 Barossa Valley ($21)

Monday, September 27th, 2004

Langmeil is an Australian based winery in the Barossa Valley region. Wines from the Barossa Valley are typically big robust wines with plenty of fruit, and this Cabernet Sauvignon is a prime example of a well made wine from this region. It is a deep red wine with lush fruit and good structure. The rich dark berry layers are perfectly blended with hints of chocolate and vanilla. The fine tannins add depth to the wine, but do not overpower it. This nice balance makes it a good food wine that will pair nicely with red meats or hearty stews. This wine can be enjoyed this winter, but will also age beautifully over the next 10 years.