Archive for March, 2014

29 Mar 2014

Unmelodious Ode to Raki

2 Comments Greece
 
 

Athens poured on her charms again — like sweet honeyed raki (ouzo without the anise) neat and warm into small shot glasses — and left us pleasantly smiling.

We trundled along on the metro, which is fast, cheap and clean. We met up with the random mob: the hotelier, the curators and the artists, and some strays we collected along the way for an exhibition opening at Sarri 12. This was no champagne affair. There was raki, cheap wine and chips; there were dogs and cats roaming inside and outside of the gallery, and an eclectic gathering of people.

Later, a group of us went in search of food. We found a tiny local restaurant in one of the quietest streets of Psiri. I have no recollection of anyone having ordered, but plate after plate of food continued to arrive slowly throughout the night until well after we were full. And with the food cam hot jugs of raki. Raki is supposedly the cure for all ailments. And after this past few days of driving in Crete, where we sat with our stiff aching backs, white-faced, fearful of the horror awaiting us around every mountain bend, we can confirm it is true. The raki worked. It is the miracle cure after all. We were relaxed again. Glorious ever so slightly blurry Athena.

A half-cut Dionysus, god of inebriation among other things

 

On Monday, before our boat ride to Paros, we wandered into Monistiraki for one last glimpse of the Acropolis. And while we were there we went to the Acropolis museum. Wow! It is new (less than five years old) and impressive, and built over the ruins of an ancient city. Peering through the glass floors of the gallery you can see the ancient city below. It has an incredible collection of sculptures and artefacts taken from the Acropolis. Above the museum, on the hillside, the Acropolis beams down upon it.

The Greeks are quick to point out, and rightly so — via a large multi-screen video presentation — that many of their marbles were stolen and now sit proudly in the British Museum, and they want them back. Naughty Lord Elgin, schoolyard bully. There is mounting pressure for the British Museum to return them to Greece and now with the opening of this museum the pressure has increased several-fold. Let's hope they win.

And now I am sitting on the terrace in the sleepy port town of Parikia on Paros. Earlier we went for a long walk through the narrow streets admiring the island houses. Everyone is busy painting, getting ready for the summer season ahead. There is something appealing about this simple island life, even the mundane chores, the annual trips to the hardware shop have appeal.

I come for the paint.

Which one, the blue or the white?

A bucket of each, efharistó polí.


 
 
 
 

My favourite graffiti discovery so far


 

26 Mar 2014

Five Days On Crete

5 Comments Greece

Early morning arrival Crete

Chania port

 

We slept on the nine hour ferry journey across from Pireaus, the ancient port, and click-clacked our wheeled luggage noisily through the silent early morning streets of Chania. Chania has a lighthouse and a marina and a charming old town. When it wakes it does so with a vengeance, but before ten am it is a ghost town.

There is no easy way to get around Crete at this time of year without a car, so rental car it was — a wheezy underpowered runt of a thing that seemed to make little difference whether it was in first or fifth. Crete is all mountain — in parts snow-capped, in parts arable, but mostly rugged. Winding around the narrow mountain roads — constantly changing gears, dodging oncoming cars, loose boulders, obstinate goats and unsavvy kids — is tiring and at times scary. The roads cut through the mountains but it is as if the roads are only temporarily there. Loose rocks signs are everywhere. It is a battle (another one) and it feels like the mountains are winning.

The landscape is breathtaking; unfortunately the roads are so narrow and there are so few turn-outs, it is rare to be able to stop and take photographs.

 

 
 

The last Australian troops departed from here after the Battle of Crete

 

Greek drivers drive, now there's an oxymoron. They don't so much drive as point and hope. Double white lines, invisible. We have been in worse places (Morocco, Argentina, Poland. Did I mention Morocco?) but normally we don't drive — we sit in the back seat with our eyes closed. Perhaps if they learnt to drive they could spend a little less time fiddling with their worry beads.

Greek architecture as a rule is not beautiful. Outside of the preserved touristy old towns, everything feels tired and unfinished. There is a reason. Everyone is in the preserved touristy old towns drinking coffee — 24/7. That's what Greeks do, drink coffee. And it is good coffee. Luckily, we came for the landscape and the history (and one or two coffees), and not the architecture.

It is an enviable history. Along the way we stopped at several ancient fortresses, but the highlight was to be Knossos for a taste of Minoan civilisation, also the ruins of Europe's oldest city (6,000BC). Unbeknown to us, Europe's oldest city closes on public holidays and everyone retires to the less ancient preserved touristy old towns to drink coffee!

Not to be deterred, we ventured through the mountains to the south coast, to Matala. It was cold and windy when we arrived. Only the caves, Matala's main feature, were open. During the Minoan period (a long time ago), they cut up the soft limestone rock and formed caves. The rock wall is like Swiss cheese, riddled with caves. They originally used the caves for burial tombs. Over the centuries they have been used for other purposes. In the late-60s and early-70s, the Matala caves became a hippy colony. Joni Mitchell lived there for a few months. When exactly she lived there is the cause of much speculation. There was so much sweet smoke (Indian weed) emanating from the cave mouths during this period that the side of the mountain resembled a steaming cauldron full of half-naked hippies. There was so much smoke that no one can truly remember! But that is another bygone era — nowadays all that remains, a few ageing hippies sitting down by the beach reminiscing and the shell of a kombi covered in painted flowers. At night, spotlights shine up eerily along the face of the mountain, leaving the cave openings staring out empty, bleak and black.

It's time to go back to Athens.

 

 
 
 

 

23 Mar 2014

An Idiot and an Alpaca …

9 Comments Greece

 

 
… there's a joke in there … somewhere. Athens has a creative colourful core, full of warm, weird and wonderful people, and like the oceans to Onassis, we attract them.

Take Thursday for example:

  • A self-proclaimed self-published poet with and old-worldly oud, dubbed Dimitriou, who first graced Greece this windless week.
  • A seldom swearing stand-up show-person from marvellous Melbourne whose onstage persona is a slatternly Slovakian called Svetlana.
  • Two considerate curators, one of whom whisked us out onto the streets for a private tour of Athens' spudding street-art scene, while the other validated our VIP status for next week's wacky artistry unveiling.
  • A mopish man with a speech impediment who I think was trying to tell me his hands were tied.
  • A hospitable hotelier who rumour has it has bought up half of Athens and more importantly bought us lunch.
  • A starving statistician on a vegan vacation who whiled away her weekend romping in Rome.
  • A Japanese classical concert violinist who invited us to an improv jazz jam in a bar no bigger than a bedroom.

And all of these people were real, except for one. Can you guess which one?

(The clue is in the photographs – click on a photo to view)

Al the a-list alpaca

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20 Mar 2014

Whatever you do, don’t flush

6 Comments Greece


Old men sit at cafe terraces. They are chatting, smoking, and drinking coffee. Subconsciously, they finger their kombolói (worry beads) deftly and noisily as if they don't have a care in the world. In the churches, women dart from artefact to artefact, kissing the glass cases, and presumably doing all their men's worrying for them. In Monastariki, sandal makers craft sandals as they have done for centuries — they never seem to go out of fashion. Backgammon sets fabricated from the timber of olive trees hang temptingly in shop-front windows. In bars, people, young and old, roll the dice like pros. Backgammon may have its origins elsewhere, but the Greeks play it like they invented it. Rugs — though not Turkish, a shopkeeper spits contemptuously when an American tells him she purchased enough rugs to last her a lifetime in Turkey last year — hang on racks gathering dust out on the footpath. Before long he has another customer.

There is an abundance of life out on the streets. The sky is blue, almost artificial. In the affluent suburbs, the streetscape is a burst of orange and green; the verge trees are plump with mandarins. It is springtime and people are smiling. I like it.

 

 
 
 
 

Then there is the other side — the underbelly. Every city has one; this one is perhaps a little more distended than most. From Lycavittus Hill, the city sits in a haze. Peeking through in the distance, the Acropolis beckons. Cutting the morning silence, a megaphone blares echoing its way up through the buildings, then another. There is a street demonstration somewhere below. We make our way down the hill determined to avoid the demonstration and reach the Acropolis, but no matter which way we turn the crowds and the riot police thwart us. The crowds cheer raucously: austerity measures, job cuts, who knows? I have trouble with the strange alphabet — reading their protest banners, getting stuck after alpha and beta and the odd slice of π. Sitting cross-legged at almost every corner, and staring up dolefully, are the beggars. While having a coffee we are approached five times. It is difficult to look them in the eye and say no, however it is impossible to give to everyone. In the parks, the homeless carry their lives in shopping trolleys.

Welcome to Athens, a city of contradictions.

Then, wow! There it sits, amazing, peering out at the end of a narrow street and towering above us, the ancient citadel — the Acropolis. All those old buildings: the Parthenon, the temples of Athena, the Propylaea; all in various states of preservation. Amazing for so many reasons. I mean if this was Perth, the Heritage Council would have rubbed its hands together and swung out its wrecking ball faster than you can say ευχαριστώ πολύ (thank you very much). But no, at least the Greeks are having a go. Sure, they have spent decades trying, even cocked it up a couple of times, putting iron clamps around the bases of the marble columns only to watch them swell and crack the columns, but they are getting there, albiet slowly.

The ancient Greeks were an impressive civilisation. Did you know they had a fresh water pipeline leading to the Acropolis more than 2500 years ago? But now, all these years later, try going to almost any toilet in Athens and there will be a sign telling you to throw your toilet paper in the bin because of the old and blocked up pipes — if only they hadn't gone and flushed their economy down there first. That's progress for you.