Dining out

We frequent our local fish shack all winter, too, when the interior is cosy and your clothes end up smelling of fried fish, and sometimes salt spray hits the windows. But now they’ve put their tables out, by the rocks.


Its name is Xypolitos, meaning ‘barefoot’.

Fishbones and wine. When darkness falls, they switch on the lights.

 

A blue evening. Around fifteen minutes away from where we live. Worth the drive?

Some news

Summertime living makes things seem less grim, especially if one can get away for a day or two. For Greeks, though, life continues to be a struggle, with ever-rising taxation, constantly changing rules and laws, and a failing infrastructure. A quick glance at the papers reveals the following:

– The dramatic worsening of the Italian economic crisis has put a damper on the government’s hopes to stage a smooth exit from the bailout program in August. The political earthquake in Italy has caused shivers in the whole of Europe, given that its economy is the third largest in Europe, and nearly ten times larger than that of Greece.

 

Consolation

 

– In Lesvos, refugee arrivals from Turkey have not abated, resulting in the hotspot of Moria being inundated by 7.300 people (for 3.000 places). There have been clashes between migrants from Arab countries and Kurdish residents over religious differences, and hundreds of people have dispersed over the island, sleeping rough in parks and woods. Fearing for their safety, they are refusing to return to state-run camps. Plans have been made for the creation of more reception facilities, but the local authorities have reacted forcefully against these. It is true the islanders have borne more than their fair share of this burden, but nevertheless  immediate solutions must be found.

 

More consolation

 

-Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition Kyriakos Mitsotakis presented his business model for the country. His message was: No to more taxes and social contributions, yes to investments and new jobs, but also to healthy entrepreneurship. Amen to that? Well, I’m not getting my hopes up, we’ve heard this before. Many times, by all sides.

To end on a better note, there is something we can be proud of:
In its annual report, the European Environmental Agency has said that 95.9 per cent of all coastal bathing waters in Greece are of excellent quality. Off to the beach, then, to drown our sorrows in the crystal clear waters.

 

A beach in Thasos, Greece


 

Catch a boat to an island

From most places in Europe, at least, Greece is a very accessible destination. A couple of hours on a plane (around four for the furthest countries) and you’re in Athens. Starting this month, there are even direct flights to some islands, such as Corfu and Crete.

 

June is an ideal month to visit: cool enough to wander about ancient sites, warm enough to swim. Still green, but with summer blossoms such as oleander and bougainvillea in full bloom. School’s not out yet, so it’s still pretty quiet and prices are lower than in the high season.

There are plenty of things to see and do in Athens itself, and there are many beautiful mainland sites worth a visit, such as the Meteora or Mycenae. However, one of the most fun things to do is catch a boat to an island.

 

Get a room by the beach.

 

Watch the sunset. Wispy clouds and lavender mountains.

 

Sit by an ancient olive tree.

 

Eat outdoors.

 

These pictures are from Thasos, a large, wooded island in the North Aegean. But with a couple of hundred inhabited islands to choose from, there’s something for every taste.

 

Gulls follow the boat.

 

 

Have I tempted you?

An orange sky

Any Greeks still doubtful about climate change are becoming more convinced as yet another cloud of dust from the Sahara hits Greek skies.
Athens, known for the pure blue of its Attic sky, is covered in a yellow haze, and people are going around coughing or hiding their mouths behind handkerchiefs.

 

Source:Google

 

Things have been even worse in Crete, because its proximity to Africa means the dust is denser, turning the atmosphere bright orange.

 

Source:Google

 

We have always had this phenomenon when certain climatic conditions prevailed, but it would occur only occasionally. In the last few years it is becoming more common and happens several times per year. According to scientists, it will probably continue increasing with time, as climate warming becomes more intense.

The dust cloud is not toxic, but it is extremely unpleasant and can cause breathing problems in people suffering from lung conditions such as asthma.

This is what the sky should look like at this time of year!

Almond blossom

‘Estia’ means hearth

In Ancient Greek religion, Estia or Hestia (/ˈhɛstiə/; Greek: Ἑστία, “hearth” or “fireside”) is a virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state.

It was a difficult start to my road trip to the seaside town of Galaxidi. The rain poured down, washing out the view on all sides. A few bare branches were the only things visible as I tried to keep the car from aqua-planing on the turns. A two hour trip took a while longer but, as we emerged on the top of the mountains above Itea the sky cleared and a few rays of brilliant sunshine pierced the clouds.

 

 

The view towards Galaxidi

 

The charm of Galaxidi was restored, and so was my mood, over a cup of mountain tea taken at the hotel with some of the other visitors. We were all here for the annual cutting of the traditional vasilopitta at the Estia Agios Nikolaos, (https://www.estia-agios-nikolaos.org), a community where adults with special needs live, work and share their free time together with those caring for them. In this, Estia Agios Nikolaos is quite unique, and not only in Greece. It is also one of the few such communities worldwide which is not affiliated to one particular religious faith, and this inclusiveness is the main point of attraction for people all over the world who come to live and work here, making Estia a vibrant and exciting place.

 

Our b&b, the Hotel Nostos

Everyone had dinner together at a wonderful seaside taverna. I sat next to Clara (German, speaking fluent Greek) and Maxime (French, having just signed up for his second year, rapidly improving Greek), two vivacious and inspiring young people, who talked about their work with enthusiasm. Also present were numerous locals, such as the pharmacist who donates all meds for the community, and a lady who provides fish from her fish farm once a week. And, making a star appearance, was Estia’s first baby, Mia, born to a couple who work as carers – a source of endless fascination and delight for all.

Next morning, after a delicious breakfast of home-made delicacies and a walk in the port, we drove to Estia, where everyone was gathered in the assembly hall.

Music and songs. The man playing the trumpet is the Estia gardener.

The festivities started with a couple of songs  (this video might look as if it’s facing sideways, but it will right itself once you click it. The mysteries of technology…)

Then the cutting and sharing of the vasilopitta.

 

 

We visited the ceramics shop, where colorful creations were on offer.

 

The wonderful vegetable garden,

 

complete with scarecrow,

 

and free-range chickens.

 

And finally one of the four residences, which in total cater for 45 people, of whom 22 have special needs (at the moment there is space for two more.) In ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ all the members live in small family structures, which comprise 6-9 special needs guests, 2 to 3 professional caregivers and 2 to 3 volunteers.

 

 

The entrance with its cats and box of fresh home-grown veggies.

 

A cozy living area

 

Complete with music corner

 

Fireplace

 

A large dining table for communal meals

 

A lovely kitchen

 

And a well-stocked larder.

 

We went on to visit another building which is used for various activities, fronted by a shady terrace for barbecues and ad hoc concerts. This doubles as the Kafeneion (café), a gathering place for Sunday coffee with the locals and evening parties.

 

A brand new kitchen, designed by an architect friend and donated by IKEA (the floor had been freshly washed), will be used for the new bakery and pastry workshop.

 

And there is a loom for weaving

 

Maren, who is German, is responsible for one of the houses and took us on tour, while explaining that the residents really look forward to their activities each morning after breakfast: either working in the garden or in the pottery and jewelry workshops.

The afternoons are devoted to music, exercising, walking, and in the summertime, swimming in the sea nearby. Besides the staff, there are professionals (most of them on a volunteering basis) providing specific therapeutical activities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, gymnastics and music therapy.

During the weekends, individuals can choose the activities they would like to participate in. There are various artistic and spiritual pursuits on offer, in connection to the local communities, such as outings to musical events, theater and cinema, church attendance and participation in local celebrations. Every Sunday late afternoon, the entire community gathers in the Kafeneion for cake, music and games, often hosting visitors from the local community.

Each new resident is taken in for a month’s trial, to see how well he or she will fit in. Most adapt well, some don’t. After the extensive mutual screening there is a mandatory period of at least one month when the potential resident returns to his/ her home so that each side, resident, family and the Estia team can calmly make up its mind. Sometimes parents find they miss their child too much, and prefer to keep them at home.

Residents join in on outings and trips whenever possible and have even been abroad, which I found impressive, due to the logistic problems needing to be solved.

The cornerstone principle of ‘Estia Agios Nikolaos’ is that “each person is unique and can be helped to develop his or her unique capabilities in a nurturing environment via creative work, artistic stimuli and direct interaction with nature.” Efforts are made to treat each person as an individual – the girl who made a friend in town goes for sleepovers to her house and is allowed to invite her in turn, those who don’t like to sleep after lunch are not made to have a siesta, and so on. Such an anthropocentric approach is quite revolutionary in what remains, in essence, an institution.

 

The view from the entrance

Giovanna Kampouri, the president of the foundation which supervises the organizers, explained the community’s vision:

For our residents with special needs, Estia Agios Nikolaos is often their only family and home. Many of them do not have a family that can care for them, and very sadly, most will face the trauma of losing their parents. It is our mission to be able to provide them with a lifelong, stable and loving home. The biggest challenge will come when the first residents will age (in the case of those with Down Syndrome, with dementia). We are now starting to study what it will take to build our 5th home, with special facilities for this group. We need to solve many issues for this, in addition to money, and particularly Greek legal requirements and infrastructure.

On a day to day basis, in the middle of the crisis, Estia has not only survived but managed to thrive, thanks to the love and generosity of an ever widening circle of supporters in Greece and abroad. I believe that this is thanks to its message of inclusiveness, which is filling a growing need in all our societies (to balance the opposite trend of nationalism and xenophobia) We are thankful for this, as we need to continue and to expand our possibility to provide life-long care for our residents. Due to the crisis, the ability of many of our residents to compensate for the patchy payments by EOPYY(social security) been reduced, and we have been able to fully cover this and to even offer full ‘scholarships’ to new residents from every part of Greece.”

And of course, the work is never done. There are plans for acquiring more animals, such as bees and a donkey, building a wood-fired oven, planting olive trees.

I left feeling invigorated and inspired – some truly remarkable work is being done here. If you want to know more, and meet the principals of this story, watch the wonderful video made by Marianna Economou.

 

Old Athens

Today Athens is a large, bustling city with a population – suburbs included – of over three million. It has its own particular Greek flavor, of course, but it also has many common characteristics with other European capitals: a lot of traffic, pollution, the usual ubiquitous shops, restaurants, cafés, museums, opera houses, theatres, squares and parks.

Athens, however, is a relatively new city, which evolved, in the 19th century, from a regional town of the Ottoman Empire to the capital of the new Kingdom of Greece. After the liberation from the Turks, it was a ruined and semi-abandoned town. But King Otto, the young Bavarian prince sent over by the Allies, declared it a capital, and in 1834 its reconstruction began, under architects Stamatis Kleanthis, Edouard Shaunert and Leo von Klenze, the king’s counsel.

It was then that the neo-classical buildings which even now give the city distinction were erected, starting with the Royal Palace, which was paid for by King Otto’s father, the king of Bavaria, as a personal loan to his son. In 1934, after extensive renovation following two fires (the royal family had meanwhile moved to a new palace), the building became the House of Parliament.

 

 

The University of Athens was designed by the Danish architect Hans Christian Hansen and built with financial support from the king, the king of Serbia and various prominent Greeks.

 

The Athens Cathedral was also initially designed by Hansen, but finished by Greek architect Dimitris Zezos, who added Byzantine aspects. The church was partly built using material from abandoned Byzantine churches.

 

There were many other public buildings built at that time, as well as private residences.

Fast forward to circa 1917, after the first war, when the following photos were taken by our French Allies.

Cattle at the temple of Hephaestus.

 


Cooking with a view of the Acropolis.

 

A neighborhood near the center.

 

A shopping street with a mosque in the background.

 

 

Buying grapes. Some men still wore traditional clothing.

 

Children playing in the streets of Plaka, beneath the Acropolis.

 

Coffee in the garden of Zappeion. In the early twentieth century, Athens was still a provincial town of circa 180.000 people.

 

Constitution Square: The large white building on the right was built in 1842 and since 1874 houses the Grande Bretagne Hotel, where history has been written many times over and  which is still  today one of the  great luxury hotels in the world. In 1888 it was one of the first buildings in Athens to have electricity installed.

 

One of the main commercial thoroughfares, Stadiou Avenue, in 1935.

 

During WWII, Athens came under German occupation.

 

German tanks in Athen.

The city suffered great destruction and famine, exacerbated by the civil war which exploded following liberation from the Germans, and which raged until 1949 (my parents always told us this was much worse than the German occupation).

 

A British soldier in Athens during the civil war.

 

Children singing carols in the early 1950s. Ill-fitting coats, heads shaven against lice, but at least these two have shoes on.

 

The ice-cream man. Many years later, a man on a bike pushing an icebox still came into the park where we played when I was a child. I vividly remember our excitement, and the smell of the ice as the heavy lid was lifted, and we bent over the box to make our choice: vanilla or chocolate, on a stick or in a cup. It was a real treat.

This is far from pretending to be a comprehensive overview of the long and complicated history of Athens. I just happened upon these old pictures and thought they gave off a charming aroma of time passing.

Syntagma  (Constitution Square) then…

And now…

All images are from Google. Since most are old, it was difficult to attribute credit.

A black day, a black tide

As if Greece was not plagued by enough problems, it is now the site of an unprecedented ecological disaster, following the sinking of an oil tanker near the port of Piraeus.

The Agia Zoni II sank on September 10 while anchored in calm seas and carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. The ship’s cargo spilled into waters where dolphins, turtles, seals and a variety of fish and sea birds feed and live. Oil slicks have extended from the island of Salamina, near where the tanker went down, to the entire length of the Athens coast.

 

Image from naharnet.com

 

The Greek government is being accused (as usual) of a slow and inadequate response to the crisis, which it (obviously) is denying.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund has filed a lawsuit over extensive pollution to the coastline around Athens. The environmental group’s Greek branch filed the lawsuit in the port city of Piraeus against “anyone found responsible,” a common practice when a party that could be held legally accountable has not been identified formally. Mayors of affected coastal areas are also threatening to take legal action.

Environmental and wildlife organizations have been posting instructions on social media on how members of the public should handle any stricken wildlife they come across, as well as phone numbers to call for help. As for the members of said public, they have been denied one of the great benefits – or saving graces – of living in Athens, that is, access to sandy beaches with clear water. The end of this season is shot, and who knows what the long-term consequences will be? This will also affect another Athenian pleasure, eating locally caught fish in little tavernas by the sea.

This disaster comes at the end of a summer beset, as usual, by wildfires which consumed another chunk of precious forest around Greece and the islands. There again, the authorities were criticized for being more disorganized than ever. At the moment they are engaged in heaping blame on each other – the opposition has asked for the resignation of Ministers concerned, etc – while spouting various inanities, such as, ‘In a month the beaches will be cleaner than before.’ Nobody is amused or convinced by this. Greece’s greatest assets are its natural beauties, and it is very sad to watch these being destroyed.

Below is a video taken by a drone, which shows the impact on usually pristine beaches

 

It is still unclear why the ship sank. Its owners insist it was seaworthy and that its documents were in order.