Orange Blossoms and Strawberries: April in Sykia

It’s now been a week since we arrived in Sykia, and we’ve been blessed with beautiful weather since the wheels hit the runway: about 70 every day, overnights in the low 60s, clear most days, calm to light breezes.  Yesterday we got a little skoni, the atmospheric dust that rises over the Sahara and blows north and east in the Spring, and today, about 100 drops of rain.  If this is the worst of it, we’re just delighted.  What a change from last year, when it was cool and wet and windy the first week in April.

Usually, in the spring, the seasonal river that flows under the plateia in front of the apartment runs like liquid mud into the sea.  This year, there’s a trickle of clear water running across the beach, and the sea is as clear as I can remember it at this time of year. Greece is famed for its clear waters, and on still summer days here we enjoy views to the bottom so far below it almost gives one vertigo, but this spring the clarity is remarkable.  I don’t know what that might mean for the reservoir levels in August, or for fire danger that same time of year but for now, it’s just gorgeous.

P1050486

 

We’re also happy to see a new, and popular, taverna has opened here in Sykia.  My guess is that the building held a taverna years before our arrival but now it’s been fixed up, painted, renewed, and reopened as Pyrgos Sykia (Sykia Tower), a reference to the old house of the Turkish bey (ruler) under which stands.  Word has it that the mezzes and tsipouro (grappa) are excellent, and we look forward to giving it our own review.   There’s also a new, stylish cafe in the village in the premises of a seasonal grill house that hasn’t opened in five years.  I don’t know when I’ll have the chance to “review” it but it’s doing good business now, and will likely be jammed in the summer.  After years of watching stores closing, it’s great to see these fresh green shoots of hope emerging from the gloom.

The highway under construction near the house is also enjoying a renaissance, in this case a second renaissance. We left with the near certainty that the work as far as our exit would be completed by the time we came back but this is Greece, and the fiscal paroxysms of last summer halted the work for months.  (And it would have finished years ago but for the original deficit cataclysm.)  Happily it is now proceeding at a fantastic pace and there is at least hope that when we leave we’ll drive out on the new pavement.

Returning here each spring means rediscovering some of the little delights that fade from memory over the winter.  One we’ve particularly enjoyed this year is the scent of orange blossoms.  A couple of property owners here in Sykia have small stands of orange and other citrus, and passing by these trees on our walks always produces sighs and extra-deep breathing.  Another special treat is the strawberry crop. Our greengrocer follows the crop from Crete in the far south to Macedonia in the far north, so we get perfectly ripe strawberries for months.  They’re already incredible, and we are looking forward to this continuing until the peaches start to come in.  Oh, the peaches…

P1050489

 

One of the great pleasures of being here, though, is seeing our friends and family again.  They’ve all told us that they’re doing fine, and they mean it, although it’s understood in the context of 24% unemployment and capital controls.  This time, though, I’m noticing that after 7 years, the recession/depression is beginning to feel like the new normal.  People expect the current catastrophe to continue indefinitely, and improve only very gradually, so they have adjusted their outlook accordingly.  The attitude now is one of making the most of a bad situation.  That’s a sea change from feeling crushed by macro economics, and, to my way of thinking, represents the beginning of the road to recovery.  It seems clear that Greece’s future will be defined not by the IMF, the EU, and ECB, not by the politicians, the bond traders, and the talking heads but by ordinary people doing what they’ve always done; finding a way, adjusting, persevering, and adjusting again.  To be sure, this does not represent the beginning of the end of the misery but, to me, it presents a possibility of a long, difficult climb out of the abyss.  And that’s the most positive I’ve felt about the situation in a long time.

Anyway, it’s a poor spring that’s devoid of promise, and we’re finding hope in its greatest reservoirs — nature and the human spirit.  As always, it’s great to be back.

 

PS: Not directly related, but if you have 6 minutes, you might enjoy this gorgeous video of the night sky of Greece, “Greek Skies.”  The videographer, Panos Filippou, spent a year of nights capturing stop-motion and time-lapse video of the sky, and he’s done a great job editing and laying a music track under it.  Enjoy: Vimeo Greek Skies  or YouTube Greek Skies

Kalo Kalokairi!

image

Now fully immersed in packing and preparing to leave, we’re casting our thoughts back over the last 3 months and trying to soak in enough of all the things we’ll miss to last us until we return.  It’s been an unusual season in Greece for us: our earliest-ever arrival and our earliest-ever departure.  And, while our neighbors and relatives assure us it was an unusually long and wet winter, it’s not a schedule we’re likely to repeat.

Winter here is nothing either of us can complain about but we saw enough to understand what the locals dislike about it.  Cool, wet, and windy conditions when you’re longing to be outside is annoying.  Leaving the ridiculous weather Washington had this February, we were overjoyed to find the precipitation was liquid rather than frozen.  The temperature in the unheated apartment when we arrived was 62.  With overnight temps dropping only to the low 40s, we were more than willing to put on jackets to down our morning pot of tea on the balcony. But 4 of the 6 weeks before Easter were wet.  We had to postpone our trip to Mani until the third week just because we wanted to explore it without raincoats.  And dining al fresco was problematic because anything hot cooled before even we could wolf it down.

The six weeks since Easter have been almost idyllic, though.  Perfect springtime temps with highs in the 70s, puffy clouds, and mostly gentle breezes.  We’ve had few short showers, a few days of strong winds, and the normal occurrences of Saharan dust blown north by high-altitude winds.  But since Easter we’ve turned off the heat, opened the windows, and most days we ate three meals outside.  Appreciated a few bottles of wine out there, too

P1040453

In my first post this year, when I said nothing had changed in Sykia, I forgot to make note of the significant tree cutting and replanting work that had been done on the Sykia side of the Pefkias (Pine Forest) that is the pride of the neighborhood.  A lot of activity there has helped diversify the forest, reduce fire danger, and improve the health of the established trees.  I also neglected to mention work on the Sykia portion of the new highway.  The bridge over the stream that runs near our apartment has been finished, and the over/underpass where the new highway crosses the railroad has also been completed, although the approaches to it have yet to be started.  We are full of hope for what we might find when we return next year.

It’s been a difficult season for the economy, which has slipped back into recession, and has suffered four months of uncertainty about the future.  We’ve swung between optimism and despair with the winds of the rumor mill but we are currently hopeful that a long-term agreement will be reached this summer, and that that agreement will put the country on the road to a lasting recovery.

P1040084

This year we noticed for the first time that orange trees flower while still  holding ripe fruit.  While great citrus is crazy-abundant here, we also enjoyed excellent strawberries for virtually the entire three months…and they’re not fading yet.  We noted the progress of the tomato crop almost from day-to-day, and are savoring near-perfect flavor and aroma right now from a local crop. Korinthia is famous in Greece for its table grapes and raisins and, while we missed the grape harvest, we took full advantage of the raisins; consequently, we are unlikely to ever open another box of Dole’s.

P1040121

We could put up a catalog of small discoveries and big memories from this year’s trip.  I particularly remember visiting the astonishing church of a long-gone monastery on the mountain high above Mariolota, and realizing that we could see our breath inside.  Outside, the temps were probably in the 60s but the thick stone walls held winter’s freeze tight, and I got a new appreciation for the monks who once rose before dawn to chant and pray in that beautiful ice-box.  We were also shown the lovely Flisvos Marina near Athens, and then amazed by the maritime museum it contains – imagine a full-scale trireme, with oars extended!

P1040099

After years of noting the loss of one shop after another, this year we took particular pleasure in seeing a host of businesses that, rather than shut down, chose to up their game.  New paint, new decor, new tables and chairs, new menus, new spirit, new attitude go a long way to reassuring everyone here that it is possible to make a go of it, even now.  The tourists like the fresh look, and the locals like it even more.

So we leave feeling good about the prospects for our village, and for Greece.  We wish our family and friends here a good summer, Kalo Kalokairi, and look forward to seeing them, and the mountains across the water, when we return again to this magical land.

P1040596

State of the Vines, pt. 2

P1040587

My first State of the Vines post goes back to March 12, two months ago.  I’d intended to update it sooner.  I’ve been glancing at the vineyards as we drove by but haven’t had the chance to stop for a photo without trespassing, which I’m not inclined to do.

We had the opportunity to visit the G’aia winery in Koutsi on Saturday, May 9.  It was especially delightful because it is prominent in the tiny pantheon of our very favorite wineries, and because, as far as we know, it is only open to visitors twice a year – once in the Fall for the Great Days of Nemea festival, and once in the Spring for an event called Open Cellars that includes wineries across Greece. G’aia’s official tasting room is at its winery on Santorini, and is one of the island’s highlights.

The first State of the Vines photo is from a vineyard on the flatlands, close to sea level.  This vineyard is in the mountains, at an elevation of 1800 ft., so it’s probably a couple of weeks behind the lower vineyard.  Nonetheless, the shoots are a couple of feet long, and the vines are covered in leaves, many of them full-size.  The weather finally turned spring-like about a month ago and when that happened we noticed the shoots start, and then jump from day to day.

I won’t be able to post additional State of the Vines updates this year but I hope to pick it up again next year with at least two more updates from later in the season.

Tasting notes: The 2012 G’aia Estate has just been bottled, and it holds the promise of a legendary wine.  It has the finest, most symmetric structure I’ve ever experienced.  And it’s beautifully proportioned – big and satisfying without being overpowering.  Achingly, it’s going to take a lot of patience to get the best from this wine. I’m going to try to resist opening a bottle for two years, and I expect it taste young even then.  Opening way in advance is going to be the only way to handle this one.  Good thing there’s a lot of other wine to keep us busy ’til then.

Sika!

P1040338

Sika means figs in English, and I’m posting this photo of some sika growing nearby because our village, Sykia (or Sikia or Sikya) means fig tree.  In the age of sail, seaside villages often took their names from some distinguishing feature of interest to mariners.  Fresh water was always a concern, so there are villages called good water, lots of water, dry, etc.  Navigation was an equal concern, and being able to locate one’s place on the map required landmarks, so other villages are named for whatever was most visible from the sea — the next village is called Xylokastro for its wooden castle or single castle. I doubt anyone out in the Gulf could spot a fig tree on the shore, so I assume our name promised that, at a minimum, figs could be had here.  The village just east of us, Mellissi, would advertise the availability of honey. During the Ottoman occupation, the local Ottoman chieftan (bey) built a large house on the highest point of our village shore.  The house included a tower, possibly a minaret, and so the village was renamed Pyrgos (tower).  The tower was toppled when independence was won, and the name reverted to Sykia.

 

I’ve learned that our village also has some ancient history, which isn’t too surprising in this part of Greece but all I know is that villagers digging in their gardens have found ancient artifacts. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned recently is that, into the Ottoman era, the sea extended right through the middle of the present village, almost back to Geliniatika, the village  adjoining Sykia to the south.  This revelation suddenly made sense of some landforms in the village that seemed odd but had not inspired any critical thought.  It appears that sediments washing down from the hills above gradually silted in the anchorage, which would have included the site our apartment, and that the Old National Road, running along the beach, serves as a dike to keep the sea from reclaiming the land.

 

I’ve just learned most of this detail about our part-time home from Sykia’s delightful and surprising website, Sykia.gr. Well designed, interesting, and useful, the site includes an excellent, full English translation and some very nice photography.

 

The website notes that, by legend, the fig tree for which the village was named stood on the hill by the bey’s house. There’s now a taverna at the foot of that hill called The Courtyard of the Bey, and I find myself walking the village trying to imagine the outline of the harbor, boats moored out in its center, travelers sitting at tables under the trees, and sailors carrying casks and crates down to a pier. It’s a new dimension of Sykia for me, and it comes thanks to the efforts of some of my approximately 600 neighbors to tell the story of this place.  We’re beginning to feel as if we’re a part of this sweet village.

Wildflowers

One of the major reasons we like to be here in early spring is because wildflowers bloom in virtually every open space, including the beach.  Having only seen the place in high summer — when sun, drought, and heat turn even the weeds to dust — our first spring in Korinthia amazed us with its profusion of greenery and vibrant color.  An early trip to Mani a few years ago delighted us with its even more profuse wildflower display.  In summer, Mani resembles nothing so much as the surface of the moon, so the heady, urgent rush of blooms one sees there this time of year is as startling as it is delightful.

We drove down to Mani last week, and spent our hours there traipsing around as much as our legs would stand, snapping photos to reassure ourselves that we’d actually witnessed the astonishing scenery it offered.  Here, then, are a bunch of those photos.  Sadly, I don’t know the names of any of these plants — a possible area of future research for us.

Our first stop was Kardamyli where we looked up from our parking spot and were treated to this display tumbling down the cliffside before us.

P1040206

Driving south from Kardamyli, I stopped along the road to snap this arrangement of rock and floral extravagance.

P1040210

We enjoy walking the roads and trails around our b&b outside of Aeropoli.  We shot these in the fading light of our first day.

P1040213

P1040216

P1040217

P1040219

 

P1040223

 

This is the road to Aeropoli, the main village of this part of the Mani.  In summer, the road, the shoulder, and the rock walls are just shades of grey.

P1040226

The next morning, we set off to walk the Tigani peninsula.  The cliffside plateau at the tip of the peninsula is covered in the ruins of an old Frankish castle.

It took us almost an hour to get out there.

P1040235

Looking left (south) on our way down, we had breathtaking views of the Cavo Grosso, the dominant landform in this part of Mani.

P1040236

Down the hill, and ready to cross the peninsula…

P1040240

These are the ruins of a basilica within the walls of the castle.  Open tombs in the basilica’s floor, and open cisterns scattered across the castle grounds make this a tricky place to walk, especially when the wildflowers cover the footholds.

P1040242

P1040245

P1040246

P1040254

These tiny white flowers were growing between the pebbles of the road we walked and drove to access the trailhead.

P1040265

The purple flowers growing everywhere have small, curving pedals that give each bloom the appearance of a tiny orchid.

P1040271

As much as we’d like to revisit these scenes every couple of weeks, part of what makes them special is their impermanence and rarity.  Early spring in the Mani is a precious, brief interval in the otherworldly, stark beauty of that landscape.

A Village Called Mariolata

Last weekend we visited a little village on the northern slopes of Mt. Parnassos, thanks to a generous invitation from Sue’s cousin to stay at the house he’s built there.  Parnassos is the huge mountain we see to the north, looking straight off of our balcony in Sykia.  If you followed that line north, you’d arrive first at Delphi, then you’d cross the top ridge of Parnassos, and finally descend the other side to Mariolata, about 45 miles away.   Of course, the Gulf of Corinth is a big part of that 45 miles and, without a plane or an amphicar, it took us 3.5 hours to drive around the Gulf to his house.

Mariolata is on the floor of a high valley, about 400 meters above sea level, between Parnassos and Mt. Kallidromo to the north. If you continue north across the valley and cross over Mt. Kallidromo, you quickly arrive at Thermopylae, the site of the Spartans’ famous battle against the Persians in 480 BC.  (Geographically inclined readers will wonder how going north from Parnassos would take one to the shore of the Aegean, site of Thermopylae. The answer is that the Aegean shore takes a huge westward diversion at that spot, forming the Malian Gulf, the body of water at Thermopylae.)

Sue’s cousin built in the upper part of the village, at about 500 meters, and enjoys this spectacular view of Mariolata, and across the Kifissos valley to Mt.  Kallidromo.

P1040123

Mariolata traces its history back to ancient times and, after the Persians slaughtered the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, it was one of the villages they destroyed on their way down to Athens.  Ancient ruins can be seen in the town today.

P1040129

Until about 1960, Mariolata was sited up on the mountainside in a deep gorge served by a lovely mountain stream. That’s when Mother Nature  dealt Mariolata another savage blow, turning that stream into a raging torrent that destroyed the village again.

P1040137

The government provided the village funds to rebuild, and the villagers decided to move the village out of harm’s way, down to the valley floor.  Remnants of the old village can still be seen on the mountain side.  This old house is now used as an animal pen.

P1040131

New arrivals in Mariolata, including Sue’s cousin, have built up on the mountainside but well clear of the gorge that flooded.  The upper part of the village includes this pretty plateia and the church of the nativity of Mary.  That feast day is September 8, and Sue’s cousin tells us the entire village treks up the mountainside to participate in the celebration.

P1040178

One of the great joys of visiting the village is taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to walk in the countryside.

P1040177

This nice gate encloses a vacant lot, the house, I suppose, having been relocated below.

P1040175

Spring was just beginning when we visited Mariolata, and there were wildflowers blooming all along the roads and footpaths.  We were especially happy to see the almond trees blooming.

P1040161

Sue’s cousin took us to an abandoned monastery, high up the mountain on a forestry road (I’d estimate the altitude at about 700 meters).  The monastery’s church, dedicated to Mary “Queen of All” (Pantanasa), dates to the 15th century.

P1040191

 

The interior is completely covered with period frescoes, which were badly damaged in 1942 when occupying Italian troops shamefully set the church ablaze.

P1040185

The church is unusual in that it features two domes.  At first it appears that the church was built in two phases but indeed it was intended to have double domes from inception.  In this photo, the lower dome’s central fresco depicts Mary Pantanasa and the other dome, above the nave, depicts Christ Pantocrator, the usual subject of orthodox domes.

P1040184

I peeked through the open door of the iconostasis, and found sunlight streaking through the slit window in the sanctuary.

P1040180

There was no snow at the elevations we visited although plenty was visible along the summits and high ridges of Parnassos, and meltwater was streaming down the mountainside everywhere.  One night the temperature dropped to freezing, reminding us that snowfall is a regular feature of winter in the village.

Mariolata is one of a string of 4 villages along the road that skirts the big mountain on its northern flank.  Sue’s cousin showed us all of them, each prettier than the next, and gave us the opportunity to sample the region’s food and wine as well.  It was the ideal way to say farewell to winter while spending precious time with our family.

State of the vines

IMG_20150312_114950

One of the great pleasures of our time in Greece is watching Spring arrive, and nowhere is that more evident than in the vineyards.  Taken today, this photo of a vine in lowland Nemea shows the growth stage we’re used to seeing when we arrive; carefully pruned back, dormant, and ready for the return of Spring.  In just a few weeks, vines here and all over Korinthia will be showing long green shoots and, just a few weeks after that, leaves over the entire vine.  While we focus on wine, Korinthia is also famous in Greece for its table grapes and raisins.  The region is checked with vineyards, producing fruit we enjoy, in one form or another, year round.

Our trip today took us to the Skouras Estate, a fine winery in a beautiful setting.  Just as a level-set, climate-wise, here’s a shot of a lovely magnolia in front of the winery.  Back in wilds of Maryland, our magnolia won’t show like this for another 6 weeks.

IMG_20150312_112915