Posts Tagged ‘Greece’

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.


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 Wines of Greece

Tuesday, August 17th, 2004

With the 2004 Olympics being held in Athens, I thought the timing was right to taste some Greek wines. Greeks have been producing wine for over 2000 years, but in the last 20 years or so Retsina has received all the publicity. Retsina is a white wine beloved by the Greeks, but I feel it tastes like pine tar…perhaps it is an acquired taste. Greek wines have come along way since my early days of sipping Retsina, and there are major efforts underway to modernize their winemaking techniques and increase their distribution around the world.

There are more than 300 grape varieties grown in Greece, and to make it more confusing, the names of the grapes are near impossible to pronounce. There are however four major regions that produce some of the best wines.

Mantinia and Santorini are two regions known for their excellent whites. Moscofilero is the key grape from Mantinia, produced in the eastern Peloponnese. It is a floral gewurztraminer-like wine, and Domaine Tselepos and Nasiakos are two of the better producers. On the island of Santorini, Assyrtiko is the primary grape, and the wine is a crisp, mineral filled white. Argyros and Heliopoulos are two outstanding producers.

Naoussa and Nemea are two primary regions for red wines. Xinomavro is the important grape grown in Naoussa, a section of Macedonia, and the wine is a big, spicy red. Boutari and Tsantali are two of the better producers. Agiorgitiko is the grape from Nemea, a region of Peloponnese. These lush, plumy reds are typically enjoyed young. Gaia and Palivou are two producers to look for.

Note that 2002 was a very difficult growing season in Greece due to heavy rains, 2003 will be a much better choice. I have found several of the Greek wines enjoyable and quite reasonably priced. Keep an open mind toward Greek wines, they have made some major strides, and I believe they will continue to improve.

Lazing in Capri

Tuesday, September 16th, 2003

To travel to Capri is to escape to a magical island. Capri is small, only 4 miles long, but it is filled with limitless beauty: steep craggy cliffs that drop dramatically to the sea, mountains that dot the landscape, and fields of jasmine and lemon trees. Capri has also become a popular day trip for those staying along the Amalfi Coast, so as you arrive at the Marina Grande, expect a sea of tourists.

Many of the hotels are a 10 to 15 minute walk from the Piazzetta (main square), and provide a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle. Two favorites are the Punta Tragara perched over the Faraglioni rocks, and the Scalinatella, known for its superior service and the best al fresco lunch on the island. The Quisisana, owned by the same family as the Scalinatella, is a bit larger, but may be a good option if traveling with kids.

Many travelers return to Capri year after year for a little R&R in an atmosphere of chic yet casual elegance. The hotel pool becomes a tranquil oasis on those warm and sunny days. The island is filled with natural beauty, so it is worthwhile to go on excursions and explore. Villa Jovis is a magnificent place worth visiting. Perched high on a hill on the NE tip of Capri, it is the remains of the largest villa of Emperor Tiberius, and has majestic views of the island and the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno. The Giardini di Augusto are pretty gardens just outside the Piazzetta. It offers magnificent views looking south and west. From the Gardens you can continue along Via Krupp, down steep switchbacks, past beautiful villas, to the Marina Piccola. Lastly, but a bit more touristy, is to rent a boat and visit the Grottos. They are like nothing you have seen before.

The food on Capri focuses on fresh seafood. Pastas with clams, shrimp, or mussels are terrific. The pezzogna, a local delicate white fish, is outstanding. La Campannina is the best and most popular restaurant. The owner, Antonio, ensures superior service and fresh food. Da Tonino is also outstanding, excelling in fresh pasta and seafood, along with a huge wine list. After dinner sit at one of the cafes in the Piazzetta and have a gelato, or better yet, a sgroppino (a drink of vodka, prosecco, and lemon sorbet) and enjoy the people watching.