Together in a land of ancient history, fresh fish, seductive sightlines, and, yes, economic crisis
By Sebastian Smee
ATHENS — On our first night in Greece, my father took four of his grandchildren, his two children, his wife, and his daughter-in-law to dine at a hotel that routinely has its marble steps hammered into pieces that are then thrown at riot police.
This happens, of course, during the popular demonstrations that have increased in frequency in Athens over the past two years. The protests forced the hotel in question, the Grande Bretagne to repair its front entrance six times in 2011 at an uninsured cost of more than $600,000. To protect against tear gas the hotel staff dons gas masks; the guests put towels under the doors.
Welcome to Greece!
Cue the film reel running out. Turn on the lights. Reinstate disbelief.
All I’ve said so far is true. But as anyone who has been to Greece knows, I’m pandering to a false idea. I’m giving you front page, headline, crisis tourism Greece. Which is not at all the Greece I visited. So let’s — shall we? — start again.
The Grande Bretagne is a luxury hotel on Syntagma Square, the epicenter of political and commercial life in Athens. Because of its position (the name “Syntagma,” meaning “constitution,” commemorates the constitution King Otto was forced by the Greek people to accept in 1843), and because of its checkered history (it has hosted both Winston Churchill and the Nazis, Maria Callas and Greta Garbo), the Grande Bretagne is intimately entwined with modern Greek history.
As a symbol of affluence, it inspires resentment in political agitators. But it has also inspired more benign forms of yearning — notably, in a young archeological student called Michael Smee: my father.
During a year he spent studying at the British School of Archaeology in the ’60s, my father used to dream about eating at the Grande Bretagne’s rooftop restaurant — partly, no doubt, because he was poor, but just as much because it boasts spectacular views of the Acropolis.
It was under the Acropolis that he later proposed to his Swedish girlfriend — my mother. The two have returned to Greece many times since. But it was not until April that they got to dine at the Grande Bretagne.
The occasion? The safe arrival in Greece of nine members of our family, ranging in age from 4 (my daughter) to 68 (my father), from opposite ends of the globe — Sydney and Boston.
This was a three-week vacation my father had planned for years, and which he and my mother were generously sponsoring. They wanted us to discover a country they have always loved. (Youngest and oldest were both due to celebrate birthdays in Greece, adding to the all-around excitement.)
The plan was to stay overnight at the airport hotel, then drive in a convoy of three rented cars to a house on the rugged coast of the Peloponnese, near the island of Poros.
But not before getting a taste of Athens itself.
And so, our night at the Grande Bretagne. Perhaps it was our jetlag. Perhaps it was the effect of the expensive wine. But out on the terrace, overlooking Athens, with an astonishing sightline to the illuminated Acropolis, one breathed in an atmosphere of unassailable calm.
And that’s the strange thing about Greece right now. It is a country facing a crisis, without doubt. Unemployment is perilously high; fear, insecurity, and a sense of injustice are in the air; the future — after a period of considerable prosperity and optimism — looks grim.
Who knows what the coming months and years hold? But for now, violence and crime, although reported to be on the rise, are still nowhere near as high as in the United States. The Greeks themselves, we found, are warmly, casually, universally hospitable. And a block from Syntagma Square — let alone in the rest of the country — there’s no sign at all of the civil unrest that dominates perceptions of today’s Greece.
. . .
On the Peloponnese, we stayed in a modern, open, whitewashed house with a pool and views of the sea and mountainous coastline beyond. It was built by John Humphrys, a BBC television foreign correspondent, with his son Christopher, who lives in Greece.
John wrote a book about the experience: “Blue Skies & Black Olives: A Survivor’s Tale of Housebuilding and Peacock Chasing in Greece.” I’m told it’s excellent. Certainly, our kids were thrilled to catch sight of the peacock in the book’s title. His name is Henry, and he never did get caught.
We used the house as a base for adventures, which, over the course of our two-week stay, became increasingly ambitious. But they began modestly: lunch in the nearby fishing village of Methana.
When we wandered into an empty restaurant called Jimmy’s Fish Tavern, a woman who introduced herself as Rula took us to a fridge out back to inspect the fish her husband had caught that morning. (His boat lay at anchor close by.) Pretending kindly to consult, she determined she would use the head to make soup and would grill the body. Our labors complete, we wandered off for pre-prandial coffees in a neighboring cafe while she set to work.
We returned, sat down outdoors, and over the course of the next three hours, lazed our way through one of the most enjoyably indolent meals ever, with cats slinking around in the middle distance, brightly painted boats lapped by placid waters across the road, and Rula rolling cigarettes at a nearby table between courses.
Our house was half an hour from the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus. Pictures don’t prepare you for the vast intimacy of the place, its crisp acoustics. Our kids clambered madly up and down the marble steps, stopping only when a group of French college students began acting out Greek myths in mime.
Here, as elsewhere in Greece, my father (who wrote a thesis on Greek theater and its original audience) was the perfect guide.
Two days later we drove to Mycenae, and the stirring ruins of Agamemnon’s palace. After inspecting the massive beehive tombs at its base, we explored the ruins of the palace itself, then descended to the Treasury of Atreus, a stupendous construction, with, above the entrance, the heaviest lintel stone in the world: 120 tons.
The island of Poros was a 15-minute drive and a five-minute ferry trip from the house. As an antidote to wandering through ancient ruins, it was perfect: lazy atmosphere; good ice cream; pedestrian pathways leading up through houses, churches, and the occasional outdoor restaurant; every man-made thing painted in that eye-rinsing combination of blue and white — so characteristically, so seductively Greek.
We took a ferry one day from Poros to Hydra, a favorite island getaway for wealthy Athenians, known for its absence of cars and a scenic coastal pathway, skirted with wild flowers, leading from the main port to the villages of Vlychos, Palamidas, and beyond.
The advantage, by the way, of traveling through Greece with a father who speaks quite a lot of Greek and knows the country’s history, from Perikles to Papandreou, is that he is your father, so he and Mom are always happy to baby-sit.
My wife and I made the most of this the night we returned from Hydra. We drove to the town of Galatas, just across the water from Poros. We found a harborside park seconds before running headlong into a Good Friday procession. The town’s entire population seemed to be walking in it. We joined up on foot, purchased candles along the way and, to the accompaniment of an amplified dirge, meandered through the whole town, part of an oozing, chattering throng.
Not your average night on the town. But strangely electrifying.
Greece’s Byzantine ruins are in many cases more spectacular than its ancient Hellenistic sites, as we discovered on an overnight excursion to Monemvasia.
The village itself is huddled against the steeply rising coast of a small peninsula, linked to the mainland by a causeway. You leave your car parked along a road outside the town, enter through a medieval stone gateway (the Greek words “mone” and “emvasia” mean “single entrance”), and find yourself in an enchanted town.
Most visitors are day trippers, well catered to by the trinket trade. But we stayed overnight and made use of the cool, misty morning to climb up a steep path to the ruins of the old Byzantine fortress above. Bewitching.
The Byzantines certainly loved their high-up, heavily fortified perches: A similar climb awaited us at Mystras, where a breathtaking complex of ruins sighing back into nature trickles down a steep incline. And then a few days later, in Nafplion (my parents’ favorite Greek city) we climbed the 999 steps of the spectacular Castle of Palamidi, built by the Venetians in the late 17th century.
So much climbing sounds punishing, and in high summer I’m sure it would be. But we were blessed by mild weather, and the kids, spurred on by each other, loved it.
I should say something about the food, but frankly it is all a blur. Almost every day, we sat around eating for hours. We always ordered too much, but hardly ever regretted it because it was so good. Fresh, palate-cleansing salads, superb feta, fish, octopus, olive oil, tomatoes, potatoes, pastries dripping in honey . . .
In Athens we stayed in a beautifully converted apartment in Psirri, a central suburb 10 minutes’ walk from the Acropolis. From the front door, you turned left and found a high-end bakery and a street of lively restaurants and cafes. Turning right, however, you encountered a different scene: idle men standing in small groups in doorways; others squatting and shooting up in the street.
I’m glad we stayed here. Through the apartment’s Australian owner, Dean Hewett — a charming, self-appointed impresario who lives half the year in Athens and is eager to dispel misperceptions about the city — we were introduced to a fascinating community. We met affluent commercial gallery owners, anarchist street artists, the managers of a local Goth bar, a novelist, an art critic, a German accountant, and an elderly couple who sold garlic by the box load from an aromatic room immediately downstairs.
We did all the things one should in Athens: the Parthenon — an indelible event in anyone’s life — and the nearby Acropolis Museum; the National Archaeological Museum; the funicular to the top of Mount Lycabettus; the superb Benaki Museum; the Temple of Hephaestus; the Panathenaic Stadium; and, outside of Athens, the site of the great battle of Marathon and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.
All of this I will remember, all of it I hope to revisit. But just as much, I will remember being with eight other members of my lucky family in a vast and modern city full of other people, other families, getting on with life, in every imaginable circumstance.
Photo by Stephanie Smee. Caption for photo: Nina Schoff swims off the island of Poros.
Source: The Boston Globe, 10 June 2012