Καλώς ήρθατε!

P1000519

That’s Greek for “Welcome!” and its literal translation is almost exactly that: “Well (good) to come.”  Our friends and relations have been greeting us that way since we arrived Friday, and last night the first full moon of our stay popped out from behind Mt. Gerania as if to add its own Καλώς ήρθατε!  We didn’t get the lunar eclipse that you lucky folks in North America got to see but the moon here certainly had all the color of a blood moon, and we were thrilled — as always — to see it.

 

The moonrise capped a sunset walk on the beach, which is now fringed with the wildflowers we love:

P1000493

 

Mt. Elikonas, the mountain we see from our balcony, capped with clouds  and underlined by an Aleppo pine, whose horizontal growth is a testament to the strong west wind:P1000497

 

Mt. Parnassos, home of the nine muses.  You can just see that it’s still snowy at the top.  There’s a ski resort on the other (northern) side.

P1000500

 

Mt. Gerania, from which the moon would soon emerge:

P1000505

 

The Panagia, freshly painted over the winter, against a backdrop of Melissi village on the left, and our own lovely Sikia on the right:

P1000513

 

Looking east along the beach at Sikia:

P1000514

 

And the rest of the moon dance:

P1000522

P1000526
Being welcomed back each year is one of the things we love about Greece but another of Greece’s charms is its customary leaving-taking, “Sto kalo,” which means “Go to the good.”   It’s a simple wish/command that operates on several levels and is emblematic of the love and respect that underlie this culture. Sto kalo.

 

καλό χειμώνα, Sikya

IMG_6171

Good winter, Sikya.  It’s the standard leave-taking in Greece at summer’s end.  As always, leaving is bittersweet; we’re anxious to see our family and friends in the States but sorry to leave our friends and family in Greece.  The weather this September was spectacular.  From the time we got back to Greece on 26 August until the morning we left (October 3), it was mild and sunny, warm enough for a swim, cool enough to lie on the beach without suffering.  Meals on the balcony have been a delight, and there’s been a very pleasant northwest breeze almost everyday.

The Sikya fleet maintained at least a shadow presence until the last day — a first for us.  And anglers were particularly active this September — both from the beach and in boats in the cove the activity seemed frenetic.  Our peeks at the catch buckets revealed some very nice panfish, a sea-change from the little gavros we usually see reeled ashore.  Adonis was his usual steady self, working out ceaselessly on the beach and in the sea but he, too, is different this year.  With his hair cropped short, and his beard grown out, he’s scarcely recognizable.  Susan said, “It’s like he’s had a head transplant.  I had to look at his body to make sure it was him.” Perhaps he’d take some consolation in that.  And the comedy show we refer to as The Mayor also saw a new act.  When we returned from our trip to Thessaloniki in mid September, the mayor’s boat, know to us as The Scow, was beached in the crook of the cove.  We thought perhaps the mayor had made a desperate miscalculation in attempting to save a few euros on winter docking fees.  Surely the surf would pound that part of the cove all the way to the seawall during winter storms.  But, indeed, The Scow was floating again a couple of days later, albeit a bit lower in the water.  And finally, during the last weekend, we saw a fishing boat giving The Scow a brisk tow in the general direction of the Xylokastro marina.  The mayor’s beach outpost, which grew to gypsy camp splendor this year, took on a decidedly neglected aspect, and the mayor could be spied sitting among the ruins staring disconsolately out to the spot in the cove where The Scow had formerly been moored.

The splendid, dreamy, ideal weather appeared to be coming to an end, however;  the rains had begun.  In the wee hours of 1 October we got a downpour which I estimated at an inch — the most rainfall we’ve witnessed in Greece.  By dawn, however, the sky was cobalt once again and a line of clouds drifted below the top of Mt. Elikonas, across the Gulf.  And the morning we left, in the dark of 4-blinking-30 AM, in a rented Suzuki SX4, I had my first opportunity in 6 months to drive in the rain on our way to the airport.

The last full moon of this year’s trip was while we were visiting Thessaloniki.  It was wonderful seeing it rise over the city but we missed sitting on the beach in Sikya, peering to the east every few seconds, until suddenly, finally, it’s there: larger and closer than we’d expected.

It feels like it’s time to leave.  Our apartment complex is virtually empty, and we’ve wished a good winter to many of our neighbors.  The plateia, so busy on summer evenings, saw only a few kids each night the last 4 weeks, and recently dwindled to none.  The silence, so fervently longed-for, now seems lonely.  We laid in bed this morning, waiting for the 3:00 am alarm, listening to the surf bursting on the beach (a rare treat), thinking of the changing seasons, of time passing irredeemably.  Time to get up and go.  Good winter, Sikia.

Santorini Sunset

IMG_3230

I can’t leave the subject of Santorini without mentioning the sunset.  People come from all over the globe to see it, couples spend a fortune to be married with a Santorini sunset backdrop, tourists stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Oia to view it from that picturesque point, and, at every good sunset of the summer, multitudes come from all parts of the island, virtually lining every open space on Santorini’s cliff-edge to see (and photograph) the glorious, ever-altering spectrum washed across the seascape.  It must be one of the most photographed sunsets on the globe.  I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it.  Here are a few of my photos — I wish they were better.

IMG_3239

IMG_3235That’s the southern-most point of Therasia out there, with Nea Kameni, the active part of the volcano, in the middle of the caldera.

Santorini: The Wine

IMG_5308A tasting at the Sigalas winery

Since it was the wine of Santorini that caused us to revisit the island, it seems only right that we give it its own blog post. Santorini wine is remarkable because the vines are cultivated in conditions that more or less preclude the growth of vegetative matter of any sort.  The vineyards are hills and slopes of volcanic pumice.  Any rain that might fall would drain through this stuff in about a second.  In any event, though, it doesn’t rain. One winery rep this summer told us that the last rain had been in May and the next one would be in November.  And, on top on the annual summer drought, there’s the matter of the sun.  It’s a merciless, desiccating, searing physical force that feels  like a giant broiler overhead.

One might add wind to this recipe for desertification but in the case of Santorini’s vineyards, light and moderate winds are a blessing because they carry moisture from the sea up the slopes to the vines.  And Santorini’s winemakers long ago developed a unique method of capturing that moisture.  Unlike vineyards elsewhere that grow grape vines supported on trellises, here the vines are trained in a circle, one branch on top of another, until a “basket” of living vine is created.  The grapes grow inside this basket, providing protection from strong winds, and the leaves overhead shade the grapes and help collect moisture.

IMG_5257A vineyard near the Argyros winery.  Not sure if it belongs to Argyros.

IMG_5258A single vine, about a month before harvest in mid-August.  A few grape clusters are visible on the left.

IMG_5267Here, you can see a few rows of the vine forming the base of the “basket.”

And, as it turns out, the arid climate and the soilless vineyards also provide some benefits to the vines.  First, the phylloxera virus that ravaged european vineyards and required they all be replanted with vines grafted to American rootstock never affected Santorini’s vines because the virus cannot survive in the pumice fields.  As a result, some of the vines on this island are thought to be 500 years old — the oldest in the world. Second, the grapes can be left laying on the ground without worry about rot or mildew.

IMG_4890A wine-aging cave dug into the pumice at the Art Space winery.

The king grape of Santorini is called Assyrtiko, and in the island’s volcanic soil it produces a white wine of stunning power and elegance.  Sharp minerality, citrus, and nose of the island’s wild herbs  make it not only ideal for sipping on warm evenings but also a marvelous partner to lamb and grilled seafood.  Other parts of Greece produce some assyrtiko but the examples from Santorini are singular and sensational.   Even more intriguing, these wines can be aged 5 years and more, although I’ve never been able to leave a bottle unopened for more than 2 years.

IMG_5212The tasting room at the Gaia winery.  Spectacular wine, too.

Santorini: Archeology

Akrotiri

Visitors to Greece tend to think of the mainland when it comes to the country’s vast archeological heritage but the islands are also peppered with fantastic ancient and Venetian sites.  On Santorini, the cataclysmic 1700 BC eruption that gave the island its astonishing caldera also created one of the world’s most unique archeological sites — Akrotiri.  Reminiscent of Pompeii, Akrotiri is an ancient town buried by the ash of an enormous volcanic eruption.  Unlike Pompeii, however, everyone had evacuated Akrotiri by the time the volcano blew and so no human remains have been found at the site.  In fact, the inhabitants had abandoned and then returned to the city several times as pre-eruption earthquakes became more frequent and intense.

IMG_4812-001

The excavated portion of the site is protected by a new, earth-covered roof that keeps it nice and cool inside while providing for light and ventilation.

IMG_5248-001

What one sees inside is the excavated portion of a complete ancient town, apparently occupied by relatively well-off traders and merchants who had no need of defensive walls.  Built right down to the edge of the sea, there was obviously no worry about pirates, either.

IMG_4815-001

The photo above is of a building called West House, in which were found some of the beautiful wall frescoes recovered from the site.  The door- and window-surrounds were made of wood because the inhabitants has discovered that wood timbers provided better earthquake resistance than stone.  Here, concrete has been cast to replace the lost wood, but painted to resemble it.   The window to the right of the door is thought to have been a shop window.  The large size of the window on the upper floor is another indication of the freedom from fear of invasion enjoyed by the residents.

IMG_4790-001

A set of the wall frescoes recovered from the West House and now preserved in the museum in Fira.  They represent a notable development over the Egyptian genre from which they derived in the amount of “white space” they employ, and in their purely decorative function.

IMG_3192

IMG_3201

A couple of the beautifully decorated household items recovered from the site.  Interestingly, both the turned-up spout of the one and double bowls of the other may have served the same function — helping to separate and settle-out the sediment in the wine or other liquid served from these pitchers.

IMG_4825

This area is called Triangle Square, and it is here that West House is sited.  The experience of walking the streets of a 3700-year-old town is hair-raising.

IMG_5226-001

Apparently not everything could be taken, and there are many pots and amphorae to be seen as well as remains of some wood tables and bedsteads.

IMG_4819

A reminder of the power of the earthquakes that accompanied the eruption, this entire set of stone steps broken in two.

Ancient Thera

After the eruption, the bleak, lifeless shell of Santorini went uninhabited, except for fishermen and sailors camping, for almost 900 years.   Then, in the 8th century BC, colonists from Sparta established a new city in a very different location.  Atop a virtually impregnable cliff with shear 400 ft drops, a classic Greek city was laid out along the ridge top on the eastern side of the island, just a few miles north of Akrotiri.

IMG_3067

From the plane, the site of Ancient Thera on the top of this enormous rock.

IMG_3387

And, from Ancient Thera, a plane coming in to land at Santorini.  The ruins of the theatre stretches down the hillside, maintaining the pattern of consistently beautiful backdrops I’ve seen in theatres across the county.

IMG_3391-001

Anafi island is visible in the distance.

IMG_4897

The ancient cemeteries were located on either side of the parking circle, on a saddle between the peak of Ancient Thera and the peak of Agios Georgios, just to the west.

IMG_5273

The view down to Kamari, the famous black sand beach.  That’s the airport at the top left.

IMG_3407The road up to Ancient Thera.  Twenty switchbacks — this photo doesn’t do it justice.

Santorini: Off the Caldera

Seven years ago, Susan and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on Santorini.  We stayed at one of the luxe places spilling down the cliffside above the caldera.  Our room was a cool cave dug back into the tephra, there was an infinity pool with astonishing views over the caldera, a cafe/bar with the same views, a guy to carry our luggage up and down the cliff steps (once he had wrested it from my hands), etc.  We generally stayed cliffside, walking around the big town of Fira, strolling Oia night and day, enjoying a spectacular anniversary dinner in Oia on the roof at 1800, walking — cautiously — along the trail that clings to the cliff face and stretches from Fira to Firostefani to Imerovigli and all the way around to Oia.  It was beautiful, spectacular, perfect.  Except it seemed to us that we hadn’t met any Greeks.  Apparently, as the tourist invasion intensified, the Greeks pulled back, with the business owners now hiring seasonal help from whatever country is cheapest and then decamping to Athens, and the other locals moving inland or to quieter islands.  It was like that Caribbean island owned by a cruise ship company — beautiful and soulless.  It wasn’t Greece, it was Tourist Land.  (We experienced the same conditions in Venice, where a local who is trying to raise her family there told us almost everyone had moved off the island as mass tourism — cruise ships in particular — had made the place increasingly unlivable.)  As far as we were concerned Santorini had all but ceased to be a Greek island, and we were very sad to discover that we didn’t want to go back.

By last summer, however, we had spent 6 years exploring the embarrassment of riches that is the Greek wine world and couldn’t help but notice that several of our favorite wineries were located on Santorini.  Our desire to taste the full expressive range of these wineries, and experience those unique instances of liquid glory in their native terroir led us to wonder if it would be worth a trip back.  We concluded that we might be able to do it in good conscience if we found a hotel off the caldera and spent our time away from the rim.  Susan found us a place that was not only run by Greeks but that catered almost exclusively to Greek tourists, and we had a wonderful time visiting wineries and seeing the rest of the island.  Here, then, are some photos of the island’s interior villages.  (I plan to post a piece about the wineries as part of this series.)

IMG_4861

There were 5 “castles” built on Santorini at various times in the last 800 years.  One was at the site of the cathedral that slipped into the sea in Oia, and another was in the central village of Emborio.  We visited the one in Emborio and, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Oia, almost had the place to ourselves.

IMG_4867

This castle consisted of a ring of houses whose exterior walls formed the defensive perimeter for the tower within.  It’s wonderful wandering around the rabbit warren of streets and passageways within.

IMG_4877

Of course,  there is always at least one church inside the walls as well.

IMG_4879

The tower.

IMG_5282

This is the village of Perissa, where we stayed, from way up in Ancient Thera.  It’s a small village, with a strip of cafes, tavernas, and shops along its black sand beach.  The church that stood just at the base of this mountain, St. Irene, gave its name to the island.

IMG_4972

Watch dogs at a leather shop in Perissa.

IMG_5307

We visited the little village of Amoudi, tucked under the cliff below Oia.  Its waterfront is lined with fish tavernas, and we were there for fish.  Boat excursions out to the active volcano leave from the dock here.

IMG_5305

IMG_3328

IMG_3334There’s a long set of stairs that you can walk or donkey-ride.  We drove on the road.

IMG_5316

A community of new houses being built to look like the traditional windmills.

IMG_4983St. Michael standing on some guy.  If that’s supposed to be the devil, he looks a lot like Barry Gibb.   This is from the church of the Virgin of Platsani, which was built in Oia to replace the cathedral destroyed in the 1956 earthquake.

IMG_4851The Red Beach, near Akrotiri.  Red sand/pebbles washed down from the cliffs make it a unique, and popular, place.

IMG_5171

We visited another old “castle” in the village of Pyrgos, the island’s highest village.  Pyrgos enjoys commanding views over most of the island, so this is where the occupying Venetians moved when they abandoned their initial castle on a rock outcropping in the cliff face (after an earthquake).  Here, we’re looking all the way down to the southern point of the island.

IMG_5184

IMG_5186

IMG_5159

IMG_5202

We visited a museum of traditional life on Santorini.  Here, a farmer’s wife shells fava beans with a hand mill.

IMG_3288

On a side street in Oia.

Santorini: The Caldera

My impression is that when Americans think about Greece, the visuals that spring to mind are of the Acropolis and the islands.  (At least that’s how it was before the financial crisis.  Now I guess a news photo of some sort of chaos is included in the slideshow.)  And, when it comes to the Greek islands, the usual images are of the clubs on Mykonos and the caldera at Santorini.  I like to post about Greece from the perspective of an American living in an area relatively few foreign tourists visit but we’ve been to Santorini three times in the last 10 months, and it’s been suggested that I post something about this most touristy of all Greek islands.  Since I can’t think of a way to approach Santorini in a single post, I’ll put up several installments in the coming days (I hope), each dealing with an element of the unique experience that is Santorini.

And I’ll start with the blockbuster.  Santorini’s raison d’etre.  The feature that draws the hoards.  That which makes Santorini unique among Greek islands.  The caldera.

IMG_4961

In about 1700 BC, Santorini experienced the mother of all volcanic explosions, a blast that left a ring of three islands on the periphery of a gigantic caldera.  The biggest of the three islands, shaped like a backwards “C,” is Santorini.  Even standing on the rim it’s hard to get a feel for the enormity of the caldera but it’s about 7.5 miles on the north-south axis and 4.3 miles east to west.   The high point of the rim, the village of Imerovigli, near the center of this photo, is 300 meters above the sea.  The overwhelming majority of visitors to the caldera come to Santorini but a smaller island on the other side, Therasia, is also inhabited and welcomes day-trippers mostly.   In addition, two small islets in the center of the caldera have risen from the depths since the big bang 3700 years ago.  The volcano is still active, and dozens of boats daily take tourists out to Nea Kameni to see the volcano and swim in the adjacent hot water.

The photo above was taken from near the center of the backwards “C”, looking north.  That which looks like frosting on the top of the rim are the clustered houses of the villages that line the caldera. The northernmost village, barely visible atop the arm stretching to the left, is Oia, the most famous and most visited spot on the island.

IMG_4976

This is what makes Oia famous and infamous.  The exquisite beauty of the little whitewashed house against the deep blue sea far below.  And the hoards of motor coach and cruise boat tourists that squeeze themselves into the tiny village daily, usually traipsing after a cosmically bored tour guide who stops every minute or two to rattle off the memorized script in all the languages of the UN.  That viewpoint where they’re all standing or waiting to stand is the foundation of a cathedral that went careening into the sea during a terrible earthquake in 1956.  It’s the westernmost point of the island, and a dead-end, so once you’ve shot your selfie there you have to turn around and fight your way back through the throngs.

Looking to the southeast along the caldera from Oia.

IMG_5128

Looking northwest over Oia.  The cliffs beyond are the island Therasia.

IMG_5129

The locals use donkeys to haul tourists up and down the caldera steps.  There are also a couple of roads and a couple of cable cars from the ports.

IMG_4986

IMG_4988

A few more photos from Oia:

IMG_3262

IMG_3266

IMG_3267

IMG_3273

IMG_3294

How to handle the hoards:

IMG_3292

The lighthouse at the opposite end of Santorini from Oia:

IMG_5252

Sunrise, Sunset

We don’t often see the sun rise and set over the Gulf on the same day. Principally because I try to avoid the obscenely early hours but also because, from our balcony, the sun sets over the mountains behind us. Sunday was an exception because we got up absurdly early (what the coxswain on the ’03-’07 WAC crew team referred to as “the ass-crack of dawn”) so we could run before the heat of day. I grabbed this snap of the sunrise at its northern-most position on the horizon (in a few weeks, it will have moved south again and be hidden behind the building on the right).

IMG_20130630_061643_1

That evening, we went for a beer at a little beach bar in the pine forest near us, and watched clouds blow over the Gulf toward us as the sun settled below the horizon. No post-processing on this one.

IMG_5102

One of the things we love about this place is that we spend a lot of time outside, and on this day, that time extended from before dawn until well after sunset.

Patti Smith at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus

IMG_5018-001

Last Saturday, we went to Athens to see Patti Smith at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Athenian of the second century AD who built this 5000-seat structure on the southern slope of the Acropolis in 161. An odeon is different from a theatre in that an odeon is used for singing and musical performances, while a theatre is used for drama. Odeons are smaller than theatres, and were built with wood roofs (long gone, in this case). When you visit the Acropolis, you can look down into the odeon and, knowing that it’s used for musical performances during the Athens Festival every summer, it’s been a long-time wish of mine to take in a show there.

Susan made my wish come true with a Fathers Day present that included tickets to see Patti Smith at the odeon. We’d last seen Patti Smith in the mid-70s at the Cellar Door in DC. It was an electrifying show that made me re-think poetry, songwriting, and singing. That night has stayed with me over the subsequent damn-near 40 years, and I’ve followed her music ever since. But I’d never been able to see another concert. So Susan made real two of my dreams with tickets to the performance last Saturday.

IMG_5025

IMG_5026 We went in about 30 minutes before the scheduled show start.  That’s Sue sitting on the left.

The show itself was magical. The setting is beautiful beyond my descriptive abilities. The seats and stage floor were rebuilt with marble from Mt. Pentelis on Athens’ northern border, the source of all the Acropolis marble, in the 1950s. (Yes, seat pads were provided.) But the rest of it dates back more than 1800 years, and entering through those ancient arches is spine-tingling. The millennia of history accrued on the Acropolis and in the Odeon are palpable in that building, and I think most of us were awestruck just to be there. And, as if more portent were needed, the full supermoon rose behind the stage during the show.

IMG_5039

IMG_5043

IMG_5045

The band is excellent, with Lenny Kaye, the group’s lead guitarist from the beginning, playing as if the guitar were an extension of his consciousness, and Jay Dee Daugherty, also an original, absolutely masterful on the drums — powerful, creative, solid, musical. We were blown away when Patti introduced her two children as members of the band that night — her son Jackson playing guitar and her daughter Jesse on keyboard.

Patti’s performance was jaw-dropping. For me, it was as if those 4 decades had folded up in a time warp. She is 4 years older than me but she prowled around the stage just as she had done at the Cellar Door. At one point, she climbed down to the marble floor in front of the temp stage to dance, and invited the only-too-willing audience to join her. Her voice remains the same and her delivery is just as powerful as it was in the beginning. She fulfilled my wish with the fourth song of the night, Free Money, and went on to perform all of the anthems, including Horses, Ain’t it Strange, Barefoot Dancing, G-l-o-r-i-a, and Because the Night. She released an album last year, Banga, and based on what I heard her sing I’ll be picking up a copy.

IMG_5051

Patti’s commentary during the show made it clear that her imaginative energy is also undiminished. While celebrities are often tone-deaf or informed solely by news media when it comes to current events in Greece, Patti’s prophetic, oblique way of looking at life put her precisely in heart of the struggle with a determination to prevail with celebration, dance, song, and love.

IMG_5049

No one, including us, much wanted to leave after the show but eventually we milled our way across the floor and back through the stone arches. Once outside we found ourselves treated to the rare pleasure of a stroll under the Acropolis on a moon-lit summer’s night, a fair bit of magic in itself.

IMG_5057

Back in Sikia the next night, we sat on the beach and watched the “supermoon” rise again over the cape…

IMG_5076

…music still playing in our heads.

Drink Me

Drink Me

I am: Thalassitis (“of the sea”), made by Gai’a on Santorini of 100% assyrtiko grapes.

Character: Fully expressive of the island’s volcanic terroir. Bone dry. Honeysuckle nose. Stoney minerals, salt air, dried herbs, crisp citrus.

Dream date: pair with chincoteague oysters.