Syka is the Greek word for fig. And just this week the figs are getting to the grocery stores and better yet, the fruit stands. Yesterday I drove with Papou to Markoupoulo, a town near the Athens airport where most of the figs come from. (First we went to a farmers market on the way to get olive oil, homemade pasta and nuts — I found a Costco-sized bag of cashews for half the Costco price!) Papou likes one particular Syka man on a road outside of town next to a a temple dedicated to Artemis. They spent a minute negotiating and guessing each other’s ages and then we bought a case of green royal beauties. They are sweet, bright red and incredibly delicious. He threw in a couple of black ones saying they’re better than the green ones and that I’ll come back next week asking for only black. Demetri says he’s going to eat only figs in August, so this case should last us through tomorrow. Along with fig season comes grape season, and the peaches will be good for another month, much to my delight. And the karpuzi — watermelon — is in season through September.
Demetri attended a language class on Syros, the capital of the Cyclades this last week. The class was great — he was the only US citizen in the group — and he was out each day around 2 so he could do his homework and enjoy some of the island.
There is a bit of money on Syros and it’s well populated — 22,000 or thereabouts, with most of the folks living in the city of Ermoupolis, named for Hermes, the wing-footed god of trade and business. It was the busiest and most important port in Greece for many years, even more so than Piraeus. There is also a great deal of culture in the city, including the pretty Apollo Opera House, modeled after La Scala in Milan. Demetri and his dad saw Madam Butterfly one night while we were here.
The kids, Sandy, Peter and I spent most of the days at the swimming pool at The Sunrise Beach Suites in the beach town of Azolimnos. In the evenings we enjoyed Ermopoulis and its pedestrian walkway streets, the Plateia Maniouli square, and the churches of Agios Nikolas (the patron Saint of sailors) and the hilltop Church of Resurrection.
Syros is different looking than other Cycladic islands. It has a lot of Venetian influence in the architecture, and the city of Ermoupoulis is almost all neo-classical architecture instead of the traditional Cycladic look (though there are lots of that for sure). Syros is the one island that was never occupied by the Turks — it was under Vatican protection for years and there is a strong catholic culture on the island. The Catholic Church (St. George) on the opposite hill of the orthodox Church of the Resurrection, has been destroyed and rebuilt FIVE TIMES on the same spot. Lighting hits the bell tower rather frequently.
Papou, the kids and I spent a morning in the medieval town of Ano Syros which is home to St. George, another Agios Nikolas (St. Nicholas) and winding narrow streets and a cafe with a spectacular view.
Our fabulous week came to an end with the arrival of the Naxos Blue Star Ferry, which took us back to Piraeus yesterday. Two weeks of island living was great and we’re already planning our next trip! Rhodes is in the plan for August, maybe Kos and Patmos as well. More on that later.
On the 6 hour ferry ride from Milos to Syros by way of Kimolos, Sifnos, Serifos & Kithnos, I finished The Full Catastrophe – Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos, a journalist and former WSJ reporter. His book, titled after a line from the movie Zorba the Greek, describes the longstanding corruption in Greek politics and how it helped lead to the debt crisis, the dependence Greece has on Europe (Germany in particular) and the animosity for same. Angelos’ writing is funny – particularly in his descriptions of the people he met and interviewed, and the book goes into depth on the changes in Greece that have emerged in the wake of “the crisis,” as all Greeks call it, and not many of them are good. The chapters on immigration and nationalization are particularly fascinating. This is my 5th visit to Greece and this book explained much of what I’ve seen and not understood both politically and culturally. Angelos notes, and I completely agree, that Greece remains a must-visit country. The people are generous and kind, and the country is beautiful. The financial and political future, and whether Greece can enact profound political change and become more self sufficient is the question that Angelos raises. If you’re at all interested in this topic, give this book a read. It was terrific.
I’m completely in love with this island. It has many interesting beaches, adorable towns, cool topography and a nice little port. Like Santorini, it’s on a volcano, so the soil is rich and the rocks are a combination of frozen lava, volcano ash and red Sulphur. Our first day was very windy so we drove to Paleohori beach on the south side of the island where the wind wasn’t as bad. There we found a great taverna on the beach with beach chairs and umbrellas. Sirocco, the restaurant, had a volcanic sand oven that cooked much of the taverna’s food. The smell of Sulphur was strong in certain places, there were little hot springs under the sand (evidenced by a constant stream of little tiny bubbles under the water) and in certain places, if you stood too long, your feet would start burning. Michael was promoted to Deputy Safety Patrol Manager after a daring sea rescue when he thought Peter had drifted too far out on the inflatable turtle. I happened to agree with Michael and swam out to get Peter, when all of the sudden the turtle’s flipper was ripped from my hands by a tiny blue-masked snorkeler with little tan feet. Because I was behind the turtle pushing it to shore, I never even saw Michael coming. I just saw his tan little feet paddling back with the turtle’s other flippers firmly in his grasp. Peter, as usual, enjoyed the ride.
We took a nifty day-long catamaran trip around the island, as the most beautiful places to see are best by boat (and difficult by car). I was sure the kids would go overboard, but the captain assured me that in 22 years of sailing, it’s never happened. We saw the ancient town of Klima, the rocks, caves and beach of Sarakiniko; the largest catacombs outside of Rome; 8 dolphins swimming around and under our boat, the famed pirate-haunted rocks and caves of Kleftiko beach, and a church on a mountain that marks where Aprhodite o Milos (Venus de Milo) was discovered. We anchored 4-5 times and jumped in to swim in water so clear you could see your feet dangling above the sea floor that was 20 feet down. Demetri swam through caves and tunnels.
Friday, we took a day trip by ferry to the island of Kimolos, a 25 minute ferry ride from Pollonia beach where we stayed, and spent the afternoon on the white sand Prassa (“chalk”) beach, making sandcastles and climbing into rock forts.
We also spent lots of time in our beautiful house in Pollonia, where we could walk down the rocks and be in the water. One day the water was calm enough that we all tried the Stand Up Paddle board – even Peter – and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening taking turns on it. Michael was a natural from the first moment he stepped on. I had a good teacher (Demetri) who told me how much I would fall the first time out and how to get off and on – and how to jump off when I did fall without having the paddle board equivalent of a skiing yard sale (which I did only once).
We toured the ancient theater and stadium which sit below the Venus de Milo discovery site and just above the ancient village of Klima. Michael and Demetri also went into the the catacombs – 200 graves and 6000 buried (my grandfather would say “ahhh, bunk beds.”)
Each evening we enjoyed the cute strip of tsarotavernas (fish taverns) and psistariás (grill taverns) and found a favorite spot, Molos, with servers we befriended who brought us a drink of mastica and the kids a bowl of bubble gum ice cream after dinner. One kind server made sure to have us visit their sister restaurant (right next door) so we could eat the fresh red snapper that was being pulled off the boats.
Milos is one of the ‘undiscovered’ islands – not very built up, and no cruise ships yet. An article in Conde Nast Traveler earlier this spring spotlighted Milos and there were lots of Americans in the hotel (maybe the only traditional hotel in Pollonia) we stayed on our last night. Milos is beautiful. I can’t wait to come back.
We took our first jaunt into Athens proper tonight to see the Akropoli (Acropolis) with the full moon. We drive to the subway station in Glyfada and then take the train into the city. The Athens subway is beautiful – the 2004 Olympics infused a lot of money in to Greece’s infrastructure and the subway stations in the old city were renovated to look like museums, with antiquities (friezes, pottery, sculpture) in glass cases in the stations. We walked along the theater, through Thesion where we stopped for dinner at a very hip rooftop place, and then decided to have dinner instead in Monasteraki where psistariás abound – some of which are more than 100 years old. (With two exhausted kids, this would be faster than a rooftop hipster joint, though I do want to go back there for mezetas!). It’s an understatement to say the view did not disappoint.
We spent Sunday in Marathon (26.2 miles from Athens, naturally) with cousins Anna, Vasillis, Giorgos and Katerina (or as the boys call her, Baby Katerina). Giorgos is the same age as Michael and Katerina is almost 3, so not at all a baby, but … she was a baby when we met her and the boys needed a way to decipher Anna’s mom Katerina from Anna’s daughter Katerina. We swam at the beach in Marathon and then had dinner together. We all had a great day, maybe our best yet. We left early – 7 pm – to avoid the beach traffic that starts around 9. Early flight to Milos Monday!
Busy week visiting schools and getting infrastructure (read: wifi, telephone and balcony railings) into the apartment. We met our landlords, whose parents owned the apartment we’re now renting. We also did practical things like buy laundry baskets, brooms and mops, nightlights, a coffee maker, etc. Clothes dryers aren’t common so we hang laundry in the sun. It seems everyone has a utility/laundry porch here, just like we have laundry rooms in the US. We have slick little Miele appliances – a washing machine and the coolest three-rack dishwasher.
School visits were very interesting. We visited 2 Greek private international schools, where English is the primary foreign language (an hour a day of instruction) and 2 other schools, one American and one British, where the language instruction is the inverse. We’ve decided that Greek school will be the best way to immerse the kids in the culture and learn the language. Could be a bumpy ride at first … luckily we have Papou to help tutor us. We also bought picture books with letters and sounds at the toy store so we can start learning. Greek lessons can’t come too soon for me – I mistakenly ordered a coffee “scato” when I should have said “sketo”. After the bartender recovered from laughing, he explained that sketo is no sugar, while scato is ‘um, shit.’ I assured him that I did not want poop in my coffee, just milk and he told me to come back in an hour for more instruction. Maybe I’ll stick to beer – they’re just one word orders.
Spent several evenings in the Voula Plateia, or square, which the kids love. Papou bought them scooters so they can buzz around just like the scores of local kiddos. I don’t know how crashes don’t happen every five minutes with kids on bikes/scooters and waiters with huge trays walking from the restaurants to the outside tables, but I haven’t seen one yet! The square is busy every night and Fridays and Saturdays are incredibly busy. The kids’ (and probably mine too) favorite restaurants are the psistariás, or grill restaurants, which serve pork or chicken kalamaki (bamboo skewers) and kebabs (a long skinny spiced meatloaf). They have other things too – salads, horta (boiled greens with lemon and olive oil – completely wonderful), gyros. French fries abound. I convinced myself that the fries must be cooked in olive oil, this is Greece for goodness sake, thereby making them healthy, and then I saw a gallon of corn oil. Sigh.
Voula and its neighbors – Glyfada, Vouliagmeni, Varkaza – are the closest beaches to Athens so lots of city residents flock to the area on the weekends. Dance clubs abound and on weekend nights you can hear the beat of the music and see the spotlights. There are also lots of beach ‘clubs’ where you pay a fee to get in and you get 2 chairs and an umbrella. We went to the beach in front of a place called Balux, a club/restaurant/bar set up like a house with tons of different rooms. No beachwear allowed inside; nice clothes only, parakalo.
Demetri and I were married 12 years ago today. The heat has been fierce the last few days — 39, 41, 43 degrees (98-103 Farenheit!) The ‘sea’ as the Greeks call it, is at the end of our street, so today we grabbed goggles, towels and shoes and walked right down. The water is already so warm that you’re glad for the pockets of cool water that find you every so often. We swam for a while, found some shade under a tree and then walked home. Cousin Theodoris came to visit for a while, and Papou and Sandy offered to babysit the boys tonight – they walked to the square for dinner and ice cream. First, however, Papou drove us on our date; very reminiscent of a high school dance. Demetri and I had a really lovely dinner at Matsuhisa Athens, which lucky for us is not in Athens, but rather in Vouliagmeni, the next town over and about 10 minutes away. It opened earlier this Spring. The restaurant sits on the water and the cocktail special was a watermelon martini – perfect for a day when you honestly believe you’re melting right where you stand. We tried a bit of everything including the signature black cod with miso – a recipe that appears in a lot of magazines and on a lot of menus, but if I understood right, was invented by Nobu Matsuhisa himself.
Twelve years has gone by in the blink of an eye. We first came to Greece together in 2006 for a delayed honeymoon. While I imagined all kinds of adventures when we were first engaged and planning our life together, I could have never imagined that we’d be doing something like this. Demetri is the smartest, funniest, most intentional person I know. Everything he does is in the name of our family and we all owe this grand (the grandest!) adventure to him.