Sure, Sun, Sea and Beach, that’s what Greece is known for, that’s why everyone loves to spend their holidays in Hellas. Maybe a bit of classical culture, if you manage to fit it in while waiting for your flight in or out in Athens, right? Well, that’s only the obvious and mass-touristic part of the game, in order to stay at the top of travelers to-do-lists you need to show more. And that’s exactly what Greece is working hard to achieve, contrary to what most people abroad think the Greeks love to work hard to keep their country at the top.
Let’s start at the beginning, like: Athens Airport. That’s where millions of guest do arrive every year, eager to continue to above mentioned trinity of greek holidays. Or, another quiet popular choice, stay in Athens for some days, visit the Akropolis and some of the gems of the hellenistic era. Which isn’t bad for a start, but you’ll most likely find yourself queued up in the scorching heat of mediterranean summers. Unless you think outside of the box. Or, in that particular example, outside of the city walls or the periferiako respectivly, the ring-highway that makes up for the historic stonewalls as a clear sign of where a modern city ends. More or less, that is. As for Athens legally only is made up by the center of the metropolitan agglomeration most people call by that name. And then, there’s a lot of interesting places to detect if you leave the beaten track.
Okay, back to Elevtheros Venizelos Intl. Airport. In case you do prefer to book a window seat on the plane you might have already had a glimpse on what is an almost as important contribution of the historic athens city-state to our western society as democracy: the dionisic culture of wine! The great plain your plane has wafted above just a few moments ago still is home to a quite vast number of wineries though we cannot deny there was more of it. A lot! The so called Mesogeia, that fertile piece of land between the mountain ranges that protected them from enemies as well as bad weather arriving from the close seas, was one of the reasons Athens could prosper. Keep in mind that way back then a City had to make sure to have sufficient provisions to feed not only it´s soldiers but peasants and nobleman as well. So around what now is home to the airport, workshops and other necessities of the modern world there used to grow wheat, olive trees and, last but not least, vines. And for centuries, well, actually millennia, carts have been dragged into the city by horses or oxen. Only as recent as in the late nineteen-seventies the last bullock cart has catered it´s last load of wine to the tavernas of the city.
To be more precise: Retsina! That’s where the cliché meets reality, the essence that is associated with greek holidays all over the world always has been a faithful companion to greek cuisine. Still is, but not necessarily. And if, it has changed it´s character over the last years, the quality of the basic wines has improved significantly, many producers have reduced the doses of resin they add as it´s main reason for being, protecting the wine against the harms of heat and transport, is not an issue anymore. „On top of that, in the old days retsina had to be strong, 14% of alcohol used to be the norm. So harvest was late, grapes sometimes not at their best. And the resin helped to camouflage the faults“, Vassillis Papaiannakos adds. But that’s history, he has been investing a lot of work into the savvatiano variety and his retsinas made from it the last 30 years. Also he diversified early, planting red varieties like Merlot and Cabernet. And some years ago joined forces with four more Attica wineries to found the Wines of Athens and cooperate in marketing.
His idea to bring curious friends customers in contact with producers was thankfully adopted by the region of Attica and some more wineries and gastronomic entrepreneurs by creating a touristic product called the Attica Wine & Food Experience. I had the pleasure to be invited on a brief trip to get to know some of it´s highlights, arriving just in time to only miss the first rendezvous on the list. Which was -or: would have been- the impressive stone mansion of the Gikas winery. The Family has been involved in winemaking for four generations, taking over vineyards prior run by the Cambas family. Their winery was founded by Andreas Cambas in 1882, he soon started exporting to Egypt and, as early as in nineteen-thirties, introduced the art of cask-aging to the region. But while the Cambas Brand has been absorbed by the much larger Boutaris Gikas and a couple of other local vintners have continued to stick to their roots in attic soil. But not without thinking out of the box, in the case of Andreas Gikas that meant acquiring a degree in chemistry in Thessaloniki, going for an Oenologist’s certificate thereafter and establishing a wine lab in the families winery. And the next generation is doing likewise, his daughter Vasiliki did her studies in Bordeaux and Toulouse and at the University of Wine in Suze la Rousse. No need to worry about quality any more, you see!
The same goes for Domaine Vassiliou where George Vassiliou welcomes us in his up to date site in Koropi just a few kilometers north of Spata. The oenologist and winemaker represents the third generation of the family that established production in 1905. Apart from their premises in mesogeia they do as well produce red wines in the Nemea region but here in Koropi only whites rest in the barrels in the vaulted cellar underneath the modern production halls. Namely it´s various cuvées of Savatiano, Assyrtiko and Malagouzia varieties that mature here, as well as monovarietal wines from savatiano ranging from sweet to dry and – of course – a prototypical retsina. Plus a Fume that gets its subtle aroma – and name – from aging 6 months in smoked french oak. Noble as greek usually are the Vassilious had invited some other winemakers from their neighborhood like Vasileios Alagiannis, Sotiris Ginis and Evangelos Nikolou from Nemea so we could compare various fumés and other taste-a-likes of his wines – hard to tell which one was best!
It´s a lot easier to understand that you are having a non-plus-ultra moment at the next stop of our brief tour d´attica. Even Lord Byron could not resist scratching his name in the marbles of the majestic Temple of Poseidon at Cap Sounio. Even when – no: especially when you arrive just in time to witness the sun disappearing beneath the waves of the lead-colored Sarronic Gulf on a windy late December day under clouds as dark as Theseus´ sails. It always is an unforgettable sentiment, be it on a long bright summer evening, even better so, when the moon seems to just have waited behind the Cyclades to rise above the aegean sea in the east and the elegant, still surprisingly white sacred building on the conspicuous promontory of the Attica peninsula shines brightly like back then in the times of Pericles.
Back then neither Sokrates nor Lord Byron would have had the possibility to drive back Posidonos Avenue to Athens in less than an hour. so i would have recommended them to just hike the few kilometers back to the village of Kato Sounio and find shelter at Taverna Sirtaki. Contrary to what a name like this suggests it is a decent family restaurant prepared to cater to whoever passes by at whatever time of the year. And Giagia (grandma) Maria is the ver smiling captain of the kitchen, whatever is leaving her kingdom is definitely going to make her guest happy. Sokrates probably would have found a bed thereafter at the barracks near the temple, you might as well. That is not in the humble shacks the ordinary personal lived in the Golden Age that you still can see, but it Cape Sounio Grecotel, the luxurious Hotel that has put them on display in front of the breakfast terrace after they discovered the archaeologic site whilst building.
Our final destination for that evening was the InterContinental Athens, conveniently located to reach the Akropolis Museum and the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center the next morning. Sure, you have to see this places once you’re in town, plus, let’s say the nearby Onassis Cultural Center, the EMST, the National Archaeologic Museum – well, you see, there’s more 5 star sights in Athens than you can do in the usual 3 days stopover between islands and flight in or out. And that’s just the city, now we are getting to know the surroundings, trust me, you need to stay a bit longer to just get an idea of what Attica has to offer. And I’m not yet talking about the sheer endless beaches, countless islands or near mountains where you even might ski, if you dare. But every time i return after a year or something new has popped up, and that’s not only restaurants and bars.
So besides some apparent „must sees“ our guide had to show the group he even surprised me with an incredibly interesting tiny museum. It was founded and initially funded entirely by Kostas Kotsanas, a teacher and headmaster of an adult education center. It is called Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and does bold and simply give an idea about the high-tech inventions of the ancient hellenic world. From Plato’s alarm clock, the first wake-up mechanism in history to the first automatically opening and closing doors at a sacrificing temple, Heron’s steam machine, an automatic maid, the first robot ever to a machine gun firing arrows at a speed of one per every five seconds all the exhibits not only are presented as replicas, all of them actually do work perfectly fine! Mr. Kotsanas and his Son actually also rebuilt a version of the Antikithyra Mechanism, supposedly the first analogue computer in history, constructed in the first century B.C. just to get lost at sea few years later. The wreck of the ship it sank with on its way from Rhodes to Rome was discovered by sponge divers in 1900 off the coast of Antikythira, to really understand the function and significance of the mechanism kept dozens of scientist busy all of last century. On the contrary to that one all the other objects on display at the museum are self explaining, if not there’s always Mr. Kotsanas Jr. to explain them. You may even touch and use them, in my eyes it´s one of the best museums you can visit with your kids. Not only in Greece!
Another first worth visiting for me was the Pyrgos Vasilissis, the Queen’s Tower in Ilion. That neighborhood in the western suburbs until now definitely was not on my to-do list, probably it was even more quiet in the middle of the 19th century when Duchess Amalia of Oldenburg was sent to Greece to become queen consort of Greece through marriage to Otto of Bavaria in 1836. It must have been a disenchanting experience for Amalia when she arrived in Athens after her husband had moved his reigns capital here from Nafplio, as at that time Athens was merely a village, nothing like she would have expected from the stories she was told by her philhellenic teachers. But, as opposed to her husband, who was regarded a heretic alien sovereign imposed to the greeks by the British and the Rothschild bank when they finally got rid of the Ottomans, the Greeks did actually like the young Duchess, be it mainly for her beauty.
And she, in turn, loved Greece, it´s nature and culture, as a reverence to her new homeland she created a romantic folksy court dress that soon was worn by a lot of affluent women on the balkans. After an attempt to kill her and her intervention to pardon the assassin from being hung the public sentiment started to change in the bavarians favor, in turn Amalia tried to assimilate and work for the improvement of the peoples situation in Greece. One of her ideas was to foster agricultural progress, so she initiated a model agricultural facility in her country manor at the banks of Kifisos River. And while her husband brought in Mr. Fuchs, his personal brewmaster, who still lives on in the name of Mpirra Fix, she started diary farming, bavarians are, as we know, quite familiar with cows. And then there was all the rest you, and Queen Amalia, would think appropriate for a real farm, orchards, vegetable gardening, beehives, chicken and, of course, vineyards. Actually they were the first plants she had put on her land, with the help of experienced winemakers from Megara that were brought in to make sure the task of serving their own decent wine at the royal banquets would be reached. Fertilization, by the way, was enhanced by the faeces of horses retired from court, like that the poor old animals managed to avoid ending at the knackers.
Presently still almost everything has remained the same, except for the fact that Greece is a democracy by now and has no need for royals any more. Still, the original vines are being manured by compost and horse leftovers, by now the horses are ridden for fun, of course, the grapes are made into wine by the current owners and marketed under the label „Tour la Reine“ by the Seriperi Family who has done a great job preserving the Queens heritage sticking to her plan to create a showcase farm outside of town. Well, by now you’ll find yourself amongst one of the most densely built areas of Athens, obviously without a big deal of planning, in fact to enter the idyllic premises you first have to find the giant Jumbo Toy Store, at least that one is easy to spot by it´s colors, drive around it´s back and spot the sign „Kentro tis Gis“. This one, the center of earth – or:soil – actually is a non profit organization dedicated to tell kids a bit about how they might get involved improving the environment and, maybe, help saving our planet in the end.
The overbuilding of the greater Athens area definitely is one of the great challenges people here are facing, traffic-wise the new metro and suburban train lines created ahead of the Olympic Games and extended ever since have brought a yearned for relief. Funny, how long it took to continue a public transport project that actually started as one of the first metropolitan railroads in 1869, that is only 7 years after King Otto’s abduction, by the way, only to be opened by Queen Olga, the Russian wife of the next king, George, him being born in Copenhagen. This metro, the „Elektriko“, connected the harbor at Piraeus to the lofty neighborhood of Kifissia whereto, since it´s opening, wealthy Athinians moved their summer houses. Still Kifissia is a neighborhood the crisis has apparently never hit, hence a lot of Hotels catering to local business travelers are situated here. In fact, in case you are planing to explore the Attica peninsula and Mesogeia you might consider to put up at one of the Hotels of the Yes Group, like the stylish 21, the colorful modern Semiramis or the aristocratic Kefalari Suites. Any one of them has it´s own unique style, representing the modern greek approach at heartfelt hospitality and you’re just minutes away from an experience one would not normally associate with Athens.
Like the quarries of Penteli, where the famous white marble was sourced in order to build the unique temples of ancient Athina like the Parthenon. In case you are puzzled how on earth they might have transported the huge blocks of stone all the way down to the construction site i would like to refer you back to the Akropolis Museum Shop where they sell a wonderful book for kids that explains everything about that effort. On the other hand, now that we’re already that far, let’s not get back into the cities hustle but travel down the south-slopes of Penteli. Heading towards the Sea we’ll pass some of the wineries we already know, but instead of indulging in dionisic treats again this time we’ll take a closer look to the early history of that fertile region. From as early as 2000 BC a small hill near a river mouth and the sea just a couple of kilometers east of the Papaiannakos Winery was inhabited and fortified in Helladic and Mycenaean times. The cult of Artemis Brauronia connected the sanctuary here with the Acropolis, was held every four years and was called the Arkteia, from „arktoi“, the female plural of bear. Yes, it was young girls calling themselves she-bears having fun, fooling around in the name of a goddess! Of course just in order to make sure Artemis, who was regarded dangerous for expecting women, would be distracted and they would give birth safely. If so, their clothes were dedicated to Artemis, if not to Iphigeneia, conveniently worshiped in the same place.
The site at Brauron is a magic place indeed, quiet and moist, even in summer. Which does not apply to the next one, the Kazba Bar Kouzina in Porto Rafti. Here as well girls dance and fool around barely dressed in summer, but they’re at a stage prior to having thoughts on pregnancy, although they sometimes should. In summer Porto Rafti is one of the many villages around the city where you spend the hot days and warm evenings, first at the beach, later on a deck like the one at Kazba. That’s where Greece lives up to tourists expectations, but even on a grey day like the one we have had the pleasure to visit a greek taverna by the sea is definitely worth the drive. Especially in the case of Kazba, as this family run tavern actually doubles as a classy bar and top notch restaurant, it´s just what greeks love to call „low profile“, that is it´s not a show-off but does surprise you once again when food is served. Of course you will go for the seafood in a place like that, especially off season the choice is great, the quality of the dishes Chef Konstantinos Mousis and Nikos Kontos compose is excellent. And in case you are lucky and the sun comes out make sure to have some of their glika, i.e. sweets with your coffee outside! Like that you will most likely understand why some people – okay, few, but I’m definitely one of those – will tell you, that Athens is indeed one of the best cities you could possibly live in all over Europe!
You’ve got an abundance of history and culture, beautiful landscapes, an incredible sea that’s actually really clean, as you can tell when you look into the crystal blue water in front of you. And on top of that the sheer plethora of gastronomic treats and potable delights you may enjoy is second to none. To be honest, i don’t mind if you don’t trust me, although the greeks do love to share it is good to know something not everybody has realized. Yet.