A silver lining of the pandemic has been the lack of visitors in historic sites, and May is a perfect month for exploring Greece, since it’s not too hot yet.
A recent road trip to the Byzantine city of Mystras involved a hike up to the fortress during which we only met a handful of other visitors.
Mystras is a fortified town in the Peloponnese, built in 1248 by Guillaume II de Villehardouin, ruler of the Frankish Principality of Achaea. In 1259, William of Villehardouin was defeated and captured, along with many of his nobles, at the Battle of Pelagonia, by the forces of the Nicaean Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. Two years later, the Nicaeans recaptured Constantinople, putting an end to the Roman Empire and establishing the Byzantine Empire. At this point, the emperor concluded an agreement with the captive prince: William and his men would be set free in exchange for an oath of fealty, and for the cession of Monemvasia, Grand Magne, and Mystras. Thus henceforth Mystras served as the capital of the Byzantine Despotate of the Morea in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which period the city prospered, culturally as well as practically, producing silk, citrus fruit and olive oil which were exported to Western Europe.
Wild flowers and butterflies were abundant, and the only sounds were the chirping of birds and the buzzing of bees.
It is a magical site, like so many others in Greece.
The city contains a number of beautiful churches, in different states of preservation.
And a view of the lovely Monastery of Pantanassa
An old map of the city
The hike made us hot and thirsty, so we descended to the village. After ice cold drinks under the shade of mulberry trees in the village square, we repaired for lunch to the village of Kastori. A small taverna with a garden full of roses at the back provided us with an excellent Greek salad and a simple meal followed by a bowl of cherries from their tree. This fortified us for another, this time shady, hike by a stream in the forest at the feet of the majestic Taygetos mountain.
It being TBT today, I thought I’d repost a seasonal article I wrote in 2015, for newer readers—old hands just avert your eyes. I remember I had lots of fun making all the drawings for this post. Here goes:
Christmas can be a tiring and frustrating time. We expect too much, we want everything to be perfect. Some run themselves into the ground, feeling it’s their job to provide that perfection for family and friends. Some expect to be surrounded by luxury and glamour, to be enchanted and entertained. Some just get depressed.
The image of the beautiful family, dressed to kill, with brushed hair and dazzling smiles in front of a tree dotted with tasteful baubles, or sitting around a table laden with a delicious feast is hardly likely to materialize. The gingerbread house will refuse to stay up, and will have to be propped up with cans of tuna. The kids will squabble over their gifts and make faces at the camera, having refused to wear the velvet ruffled garments bought for the occasion. The turkey will be overcooked, and uncle John will get drunk and insult his mother-in-law. Nobody will get the gifts they’d hoped for, and the glamorous party will turn out to be totally devoid of hot babes/dudes. And then the bills will start coming in. (Just an imaginary scenario!)
Perhaps the solution is to aim for less materialistic pleasures. Trying to think what those could be, I came up with the following, somewhat fanciful, list: of tips for the days to come.
On the first day of Christmas – Do something for yourself. A little treat: have a massage, go for a ride or a walk in the park. Take an hour off work for coffee with a friend.
On the second day of Christmas – Spend some quality one-on-one time with someone special: spouse, lover, sibling, offspring, grandchild, friend. Or even your dog.
On the third day of Christmas – Resolve to think three positive thoughts per day, every day. Or, to note three good things that happened. Or, to find three things to be thankful for.
On the fourth day of Christmas – Get four old friends together for a pizza and cards evening. Laughs guaranteed.
On the fifth day of Christmas – For the last full working week before Christmas, be cheerful at work. Smile and people will smile in return. Five days – it should be possible.
On the sixth day of Christmas – Find six good books to read. Browse in a bookshop, or go through the pile on the bedside table. Books take you away from your problems – they’re a door into another world.
On the seventh day of Christmas – Resolve to spend ten minutes each Sunday making a menu for the week. The cooking and shopping will become so much easier.
On the eighth day of Christmas – Make a list of eight fun things to do in the coming months. Book a show, visit places you haven’t seen, explore the neighbourhood. Almost as good as a vacation (but one of them could be a weekend break).
On the ninth day of Christmas – Bake or buy cupcakes or cookies and distribute them. Food makes people happy.
On the tenth day of Christmas – Get ten people together and have a party. Don’t spend a fortune, or ages cooking – everyone can bring something.
On the eleventh day of Christmas – De-clutter. Find 11 things to donate, recycle or bin. You’ll feel so much lighter.
On the twelfth day of Christmas – Call twelve people and ask how they are. Listen to what they have to say. Not your buddies to whom you talk every day: the old friend you haven’t seen for a while, the elderly aunt who bores you, the acquaintance you heard has not been well. It will make everyone feel better.
I hope this list has amused you, if nothing else. Do I hear hollow laughs? Any other suggestions?
Gathering wild flowers? Chopping the last of the lilac blossoms off the bush, or picking the first roses? Stealing from the neighbor’s garden or buying bunches of tulips from the roadside stand?
Everything goes when it comes to making the May wreath, a tradition dear to Greeks. Some add olive or laurel branches, and a head of garlic, to ward off the evil eye. The wreaths will adorn front doors and balcony railings, slowly drying up until the time comes to burn them on bonfires on Saint John’s day (June 23rd). Family and friends will jump over the embers for good luck.
I started this blog a year ago, in June 2015: a place to rant against my pet peeves, but also to share the good moments of life in this troubled land, and to showcase its diversity and many beauties. And some of its amazing people.
To date I’ve notched up 105 posts, and accumulated over 10,000 views. I only post once or twice a week, when I actually have something to say. (Or I think I do). And that works out fine for me.
Those numbers would probably be sneered at by Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian, but who cares? To me, the biggest reward has been meeting you guys. I never imagined the blogosphere would be such a fun place. I love discovering new blogs, following my favorites, hosting guest bloggers, and writing guest posts. I enjoy sharing my photos and drawings. I love your comments and likes. Keep it up!
To thank you all, I’ve made a cake.
Last night I found the first gecko of this summer in my bathroom. I was so happy to see him (her? it?) that I took a picture on my phone – but he was so small, it did not come out well under electric light. So I decided to make a drawing – in this case, a lot larger that life-size, as he was only 3cm long. The ones we get here are very small, and a lot more elegant than in my drawing. The babies are translucent!
House geckos are considered good luck by most people, and they’re useful to have around, since they feed on mosquitos and other insects. In the winter they hibernate, and when summer comes, they show up on the walls or on the ceiling, sometimes emitting a high-pitched squeak, almost like the faint chirping of a bird.
Geckos have adhesive toe pads enabling them to scurry with ease along walls and ceilings. Looking at this little fella’s toes reminded me of Gollum – Tolkien must have been inspired by some similar creature.
Now that the meat-eating revel of Easter is over, people’s thoughts are turning towards showing up on the beach in a swimsuit. New season tomatoes are making their appearance, so what better than a traditional horiatiki salad, made with tomatoes, cucumber, thinly sliced onions and peppers, and cubes of feta cheese. A bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano, and you’ve got a light, nutritious lunch.
And for something more substantial, many turn to fish.
Fried white bait or little red mullet are delicious, but not particularly slimming – the best is a whole fish, simply grilled and accompanied by olive oil beaten with plenty of aromatic lemon juice.
When fish is fresh, sauces disguise its flavor, so unless you are in some fancy restaurant, you will usually get your fish plain. And yes, cooked with the head on, seeing as the best bits are the cheeks and the nape of the neck. A lot of non-Greeks find this gross, but it’s not as gross as another delicacy, the head of the Easter spit-roasted lamb! (from which I, personally, refrain.)
Having said that Greeks mostly eat their fish without sauce, I discovered that the ancients had invented a concoction called garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the cuisines of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Byzantium. It probably originated in Carthage, and Plato was the first to describe its disagreeable ‘rotten’ smell.
The preparation of garum is described in Roman and Byzantine texts. Small fish, left whole with their intestines, were mashed with salt and set to ferment in the sun. The mixture was occasionally stirred with a stick and finally filtered through layers of fine cloth, to make a condiment used to flavor meat and game, as well as fish and seafood.
Archaeological digs have brought to light garum production plants on the coast of North Africa, Portugal and elsewhere on the Mediterranean. These were placed far from inhabited areas because the smell was horrendous! The finished product, however, was supposed to have a pleasant, spicy odor. Garum was also known as liquamen, or hallex, and prices varied according to quality.
Apparently the nearest equivalent we have nowadays is Worcestershire sauce.
How’s that for the irrelevant information of the day?
We haven’t had much of a winter this year – it’s been mostly mild. A little snow on the mountains. Central and Northern Greece had a few bad days, with lots of snow, and roads shut.
I hope we get more rain before the hot summer months set in, but the first signs of spring are here, and they are hard to resist.
The almond trees are in bloom.
Anemones come in all shades of pink and mauve, from almost white to fuschia, from palest lavender to purple. They can even be bright red, like poppies. They’re lovely in bowls around the house.
Daisies and other wild flowers are popping up.
The first kumquat. It’s in a pot outside the kitchen door.
In the Greek Orthodox tradition, Christmas ranks second to Easter, but it is still a very important holiday. For the devout it is preceded by a period of fasting so food, unsurprisingly, plays a major role in the festivities. But more of that later.
In Greece, Santa Klaus or Father Christmas is Agios Vasilios (Saint Basil) – so gifts are opened on his name day, January first.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day children go from house to house singing the Kalanda (carols whose name comes from the Roman calendae, the first days of the month) and accompanying themselves on small metal triangles and sometimes harmonicas. They knock on doors asking ‘Na ta poume?’ – ‘Shall we say them?’ They are rewarded with money, sweets and sometimes dried figs and other fruit. Then the householders wish them ‘Kai tou xronou’ – ‘Again next year’. They will do the same on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but the carols are different.
Of course, the quality of the singing varies a lot. I’ve opened my door to blond little angels with voices to match, tinkling away on their triangles – and, a few minutes later, to hulking, spotty teenagers who expected to be paid for playing the Kalanda on their smartphones!
As far as decorations are concerned, there is the yearly debate of the Christmas tree versus the wooden ship. Changing fashion tends towards one or the other. The modern Christmas tree came to Greece with the country’s first king, Otto of Bavaria, who ascended to the throne in 1833; it did not, however, become popular before the 1940s. Some Greeks still consider it a foreign import, although use of decorated greenery and branches around New Year is recorded as far back as Greek antiquity, and there is evidence that some sort of Christmas tree existed in the Byzantine empire.
The ship, by contrast, is viewed as a quintessential Greek symbol. Greeks have been seafarers for thousands of years and the country is still one of the world’s leading shipping nations. Children on the islands sang – and are still singing – Christmas carols holding illuminated model boats.
The Christmas ship is made of paper or wood, decorated with small, colorful lamps and a few, simple ornaments. It is usually placed near the outer door or by the fire with the bow pointing to the interior of the house. There are many symbolic connotations attached to it: love of the sea, welcome to those returning from a voyage or honouring of those away at sea and a token offering for their safe return. With golden objects or coins placed in it, the ship also symbolizes a full load of riches reaching one’s home. However, it also has connotations of partings and absent husbands and fathers, and that perhaps is why the tree has found favor with many.
Some households still display the traditional shallow wooden bowl of water with a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Once a day, the cross and basil are dipped into holy water and used to sprinkle each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Kallikantzaroi away from the house. Kallikantzaroi are ugly and malevolent sprites which emerge from underground to bring trouble to families.
Outdoors, streets, stores and homes are decorated with garlands of lights and illuminated ships or trees. Town streets are full of people doing their last minute shopping of presents while carols are played everywhere, adding to the festive mood. In most major towns, there are concerts, theatrical performances and other cultural events promising wonderful entertainment.
Each region tends to have its own Christmas traditions. For example, in the villages of northern Greece, the man of the house chooses the sturdiest pine or olive tree branch he can find. This, named Christoxylo (Christ-wood) is put in a newly cleaned fireplace to slowly burn over the whole twelve days of Christmas. This is symbolically meant to warm the baby Jesus in his cold stable, and also to keep out the Kallikantzaroi who supposedly come down the chimney.
A lot of the traditions have to do with food, of course. The Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike, and especially by those who’ve followed the 40-day Advent fast.
On almost every table there will be a round loaf of Christopsomo (Christ Bread), decorated on the top with a cross, around which are dough symbols representing whatever it is people do in life. Fishermen will decorate the bread with fish, farmers with lambs, and so on.
For starters you might get a fresh, colorful salad of green leaves and red cabbage sprinkled with pomegranate seeds; a lemon-chicken soup called Avgolemono; home-made pies and pastries made with spinach and feta, pumpkin, or meat; or cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice, in an egg-and-lemon sauce.
The main dish is pork or lamb, cooked following some regional recipe, or perhaps wild boar; or a roast turkey with a mince, pine nut and chestnut stuffing.
In most parts of Greece, pork was the meat of choice at Christmas, a pig being slaughtered specially for the occasion and cooked in many different ways according to the traditions of the area.
Last, but not least, are the sweets: Diples, crisp fried pieces of dough drizzled with a honey syrup; Melomakarona, made with semolina, cinnamon and cloves, dipped in honey and sprinkled with chopped nuts; Loukoumades, deep-fried puffs of batter also served with honey; and Kourambiedes, buttery, crunchy bites flavored with rose water and dusted with flurries of icing sugar. In the islands they also serve Amygdalota, a kind of almond cookie.
After the meal, at night, some people choose to stay home and watch a Christmas show while others prefer to party the night away in nightclubs and bouzouki joints.
For some great traditional Christmas recipes, click here.
The photographs of the lovely food were kindly supplied by Cake&Cookie co, who make all kinds of delicious cakes, cookies and deserts, and also do catering for various festivities. Go on their site and your mouth will water!
While the last of the pomegranates are splitting on branches now covered in bright yellow leaves, the oranges are ripening.
It’s olive picking time.
Soon the newly processed oil will be on our tables, and what better way to appreciate its aromatic flavor than as a dip for fresh, crusty bread. Bread and oil, with maybe an onion added – the poor (Greek) man’s caviar!
The cyclamen have been replaced by pale blue crocuses and tiny green orchids, as well as the first anemones, fooled into flower by the unseasonably warm weather.
We took advantage of this to visit the Haris Estate where, amongst other cute creatures like bantam hens and miniature ponies, they keep alpacas – yes, alpacas in Attica! They hang about, looking woolly and making a high-pitched ‘mmmmmmmm’ sound – really too adorable! I want some!
We also went to a dog show where a friend was exhibiting her champion ridgebacks. There was the usual hilarious array of enthusiasts with their pooches, from a huge white Pyrenean mountain dog to the tiniest, fluffiest, pristine Pomeranian. The dogs were all beautiful (otherwise they wouldn’t be there, I guess), there were lots of kids milling around, music, souvlaki at the canteen. Everyone was enjoying themselves.
It’s still been warm enough to have lunch by the sea – outdoors! Note the kid in a t-shirt. As we ate, someone on a paddle board went by. No wind, so no windsurfers today – but quite a few swimmers. The sea is still warm, warmer than it will be in early June.
As we head into winter, it’s good to make the most of this beautiful weather.
Speaking of poor man’s caviar and looking at the photograph of food, I wanted to mention the guest post, called Postcard from Greece, which my friend Nadya invited me to write for her blog, The Exceptional. I re-blogged it without managing to write a few words – this is the first time I’ve done a re-blog, and I must have hit the wrong button! I wanted to thank Nadya for asking me, and to urge everyone to wander over and take a look at her blog about her life as a PhD student and mom.