Greek notes in Sicily

Pretoria fountain. Detail

 

The Ancient Greeks left their mark everywhere – everywhere in the known world, or Oecumene, a Greek geographical concept describing the inhabited parts of the world. They were merchants and traders, and they were the first to colonize Southern Italy, where they founded Magna Graecia, which included the island of Sicily. They first started living there in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and, since then, Sicily has seen the passing of many civilisations, the remnants of which form rich layers in the tapestry of the island. Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic – they are intertwined in many ways.

 

 

In Palermo, a city which teems with the same variety of faces one probably came across all these centuries ago, driving is a hazardous affair. In the old town, the streets are so narrow that even a small car brushes the houses on either side, where open doors reveal the trappings of daily life – a woman ironing, a baby in a high chair – while tourists walk in the middle of the road gawping at the sights, and scooters edge past without slowing down at all. There are no sidewalks, and road signs are cheerfully ignored by all and sundry.

 

 

In the Piazza Bellini (above), three Churches surround a paved square.
San Cataldo, an austere Norman structure made of grey stone (seen on the right), and Santa Margarita del Amiraglio, (on the left) whose enchanting interior combines astonishing Byzantine mosaics with an elaborate baroque centre.

 

View of the church with the baroque part at the altar

 

The mosaics are literally breathtaking.

 

 

Below is a view of the dome with mosaic of the Pantokrator.

 

 

The byzantines did like their gold!

 

 

And the decorative details are also beautiful.

 

 

Through the window can be glimpsed the façade of the third church, Santa Caterina, on the opposite side of the square. Its interior is a synthesis of Sicilian baroque, Rococo and Renaissance.

 

 

Behind Santa Caterina, Piazza Pretoria boasts a fountain which, while it is not Greek, I could not resist photographing, since it is decorated with a series of marvelous carved animals, all different and sporting exquisite expressions on their white marble faces.

 

Pretoria Fountain. Detail.

 

The Petoria Fountain was built in Florence, but was sold to Palermo in 1554.

 

 

Due to the nudity of the statues on the top of the fountain, considered shocking at the time, the square became known as Piazza Della Vergogna, or Square of Shame.

 

I love the contrast of the naked statues with the once-beautiful but decrepit building behind

 

In Taormina, the Greek Theatre was built in the 3rd century BC. An incredible 100.000 cubic meters of rock were moved for its excavation, and it could seat over 5000 people. In Roman times it was renovated and enlarged and the brickwork of that era still survives today. As with all Greek theatres it has brilliant acoustics and is regularly used every summer for opera, concerts and plays.

 

 

The view from the gods includes brilliant sunsets and the majestic cone of the Etna volcano, which is the largest on the whole Italian peninsula, and the tallest volcano in Europe. The Greeks considered Etna to be the forge of Haephaistos (Vulcan) who used it to create thunderbolts for Zeus; it was also the home of the giant one-eyed monster, Cyclops.

 

Panoramic photo from Google

 

Syracuse (Συρακούσαι) and Selinunte (Σελινούς) were also cities founded by the Greeks, whose names were often mentioned in the reams of Ancient Greek text – Thucydides, if I’m not mistaken – which we had to translate at school, with a cheat sheet under the desk (bought at the local stationers’). All those complicated wars and sieges would have been brought to life if the school had organised a trip to Sicily for us.

In Selinunte, the temple dedicated to Hera is majestic, larger than most found in Greece.

 

The entrance to the site

 

It is difficult to imagine it painted in blue and red, as it was in antiquity.

 

Of the three temples on the religious site at Selinunte, this is the only one to have been partially restored.

 

 

Through the columns, one can glimpse wonderful views of the sea.

 

 

This is  the smaller of the three temples on the site, the third and largest being probably dedicated to Zeus.

 

 

The columns have imploded and are tumbled in heaps, with greenery and brambles growing amongst them.

 

 

The photo below shows the sheer size of each hewn pillar.

 

 

Further from the religious site stand the remnants of the Acropolis and the old fortified city. Selinunte, whose name derives from the Greek selinon (Σέλινον) for the wild celery which grows abundantly here and whose image they used on their coins – was a thriving town comprising, at its peak, more than 30.000 inhabitants , excluding slaves.  As was inevitable, they were involved a series of wars with their neighboring cities.

 

 

In 409 BC, the Segestans, with whom they had been fighting, asked for help from the Carthaginians, who were of Phoenician descent and based in Tunis. They crossed over in a fleet of 100.000 men and laid siege to the city. Finding the inhabitants unprepared for such an assault, they breached the walls, lay waste to the whole town and massacred 16,000 people. A further 5000 were taken into slavery. The survivors eventually came back but, despite various attempts to rebuild, Selinnte never regained its former status.

 

The ruins of the town. Main Street. Selinunte was built according to an urban plan dividing it into blocks.

Trying to imagine what it must have been like, looking over that beautiful sea and seeing the Carthaginian fleet appear over the horizon.

 

Sicily is a large island and there are many more places to visit, such as the Valley of the Temples in Syracuse. It is home to around five million inhabitants and is a melting pot of a variety of different cultures and ethnicities, including the original Italic people, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, Lombards, Spaniards, French, and Albanians, each having contributed to the island’s culture and genetic makeup. It also boasts stunning scenery, great beaches, friendly and hospitable people and fantastic food.

Foodie footnote: Apart from great olive oil, honey and tomatoes, Sicilian produce includes lemons and pistachios. The refreshing lemon granita is to die for, as is the pistachio ice-cream and semi-fredo. You are offered all kinds of fresh fish and shrimp, caponata made with their delicious aubergines, food with oriental touches such as chickpea fritters and, among the endless variety of pasta, a dish I’d never tried before: linguine with lemon and pistachios – absolute heaven on a plate. And a final unmissable – the cannoli: crunchy biscuits tubes filled with whipped ricotta in many flavors (including pistachio, of course!). And, last but not least, one must not forget the delicious local wines.

New-style Q&A – the multi-talented travel agent

After a break of a few months – I was not feeling inspired – I am resuming the interviews, but in a more free-form manner. I might include people living abroad, and perhaps modify the questions a little.

What better way to start than with the irrepressible Andonis Radistis, a free spirit and lover of adventure, who describes his life with such enthusiasm. In his own words, then:

 

Tell us a “little” about yourself (Andonis put the quotes around ‘little’)

Born and raised on the Greek island of Skopelos was both a blessing and a ‘curse’ for me. A blessing because there is nothing more beautiful and pure than growing up in one of the prettiest islands that Greece and the world has to offer. Having a carefree childhood without the pitfalls a child and then a teenager could be faced with when growing up in a city. Adjusting to each season on an island; from summer, (full of visitors, sun and the sea), to autumn and the winter, (dead quiet), makes you a stronger person.

A curse because there is something about the salty air on a Greek island. The never ending horizons and the many tales of adventures on raging seas. All this made me want to seek new worlds, people and challenges from an early age. I made a promise to myself to begin my journey and start quenching my thirst for the world as soon as I finished school.

Andonis's birthplace, Skopelos
Andonis’s birthplace, Skopelos

My adventures began with a road trip to the UK and a person I hugely admired. Ended up staying there for 5 years, studying and working to make ends meet. The US was next and the beginning of yet another exciting chapter in my life. This was my year out for work experience, as part of my degree. What an eye opener that was. I remember feeling like I stepped on a different planet, when I walked out of Logan Airport in Boston. Upon completing that year, and heading back to the UK, I remember making yet another promise to myself. I needed to return back there and live the American dream for longer.

The universe conspires to assist you when you really want to achieve something. 2 years later, I was on another plane and heading back to the US. A two year contract and a working visa, sent me to the American south. On a tiny dot of an island in the middle the Gulf of Mexico this time. This was an equally mind-blowing experience, both in terms of work as well as personally. I met some amazing people down there and will have fond memories that will last throughout my lifetime.

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It was brooding in my mind though. The idea of returning to Greece was getting overwhelming. During this time, I realised that no matter how good a time I was having I couldn’t be away from my beloved country. I even had a newborn nephew that I did not get to meet until he was 2 years old!

Once back in Greece, I enjoyed the rest of the summer before I headed straight into my Military Service, which got me into the Greek Navy for a year. A little older than most, I quite enjoyed the carefree year I had there. Try explaining US adventures to 18-19 yr olds: the great times I had in Key West and how it felt to be living in one of the most sought-after holiday resorts in the world. Clubbing, the night scenes of Miami and seeing the sun rise in a convertible while driving on the ‘7 Mile Bridge’. Needless to say, I was the ‘let’s have coffee and fascinate us with your experiences’ kind of guy. I really enjoyed that role for the year!

Straight after Navy duty, I headed to Athens to pursue my career in the Hotel Industry. Worked for a Multinational chain for about a year before I was asked to be one of the Executives in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Being part of the Torch Relay Team. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to this – it was my kind of challenge.

A few weeks later, I found myself organising exciting stuff for the Olympic Games. Locating and inspecting hotels all over Greece, in all the places the Olympic Flame had to stay the night. My team started the Games with the huge tour of the Torch Relay. We were on the road for almost 45 days. I will always remember the feeling of actually running with the flame myself and the goosebumps I got throughout the whole 500 meters I ran. The cheer from the crowds on the sides of the streets. The Opening Ceremony inside the Olympic Stadium, and how the flame was brought in and the ceremony started. Writing about it brings back those sacred moments I was privileged to have experienced.

The glory days passed much quicker than I thought. It was the 30th of September and the last day. Packing up the Athens 2004 Headquarters was an experience in itself. I felt a different person. All my colleagues felt the same. We had shared some amazing moments that would never be forgotten.

I didn’t let anyone discourage me those days with the stress of finding another job! I sent out a few CVs, attended a promising interview; 3 days later and by the end of the 1st week of October, I found working for a sweet boutique hotel in the north suburbs in Athens. I hadn’t even had time to fully rest.

 

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Fast forward to about 1 year later and another new beginning! Yes I know, I hadn’t grown tired of changes and challenges yet, (and not for many years more). I wanted to create my own business on my beloved island of Skopelos and live my own dream. Once back, I made my plans as carefully as I could, and 2 years later, we were opening the family business. Skopelos Country Villas was a dream come true. Comprising two self-catering Country Villas with private pools, idyllic location and breathtaking views, it meant holidays in Skopelos would create beautiful memories for many harsh winters ahead. We first operated in the summer of 2007 and hopefully we will still operate for many more years to come.

During that time I also worked in another hotel locally, and almost 4 full years went by where I practically did not set foot outside the island. Subconsciously, I was already making plans for another adventure by that time. I felt that I had finished the hard part of building the family business and since that part was over, I was left without something adventurous to do.

But, as they say, be careful of what you wish for! Life has an interesting way of granting you your wishes sometimes. A few months later I was on a plane heading somewhere I had never really thought of going, let alone live there.

My plane landed in the Middle East, (Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to be exact). I was literally embarking on a luxurious motor yacht for an experience that changed my life, (in a ‘fall flat on your face’ kind of way). I had a posh title and was in charge of Hotel Operations & Provisions – everything looked promising. This place is ideal for those seeking to redefine their life values. Mine were re-evaluated in many ways and made me appreciate life even more. My experience there lasted for almost 2 years. Travelling with a multitude of personalities on board to cosmopolitan and high end places in the Med, was something to remember. Going back at the end of each travelling season to the harsh reality of the Middle East was certainly overwhelming to say the least.

Working aboard floating palaces, the endurance and self perseverance that one has to discover and unleash somehow, are vital. The fact that the work was at sea, where totally different elements of survival play a key role in everyday life, was another matter.

Then, after another stint in Athens and one more in the U.K., I ended up in Skopelos once again – back to safe grounds and familiar waters.

What were the major difficulties you’ve faced in the last five years?

As most people who live in this beautiful country, I’ve been hugely disappointed with its gigantic bureaucracy that has no end. The incredibly heavy taxation that was imposed overnight on small businesses and individuals which continues to increase without any viable strategy. The decimating of entrepreneurship and how unsupportive the government is of young people who want to start a business of any kind. Seeing my parents’ pensions cut down drastically without any logic whatsoever. Feeling massively frustrated every time I try to use any public service to do anything bureaucratic.

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Did anyone in particular inspire you or help you?

I was extremely lucky to have met some pretty amazing people from quite an early stage in my life. These people I met either came into my life for a reason, a lifetime or both. They are the people I call my ‘stepping stones’.
Apart from my family (my parents and my three sisters), who needless to say supported and helped me every step of the way, these people came into my life and ‘pushed’ me forward in ways I hadn’t at the time thought of. They inspired me to think outside the box. They encourage me to take the next step forward. A few have passed on to the next realm, and are carrying on the inspiration, (like Sara and Terry), others I’m lucky to still have around, (like Eileen). They have shaped my past and will continue to shape my future, (like Madge and Toula).

All of these amazing people laid down ‘stepping stones’ along my path and helped me either in my career, my personal life and sometimes both. Has anyone else noticed they are all female? 🙂

What are your hopes/plans for the future?

I would really love to see my new venture, The Travelling Cookie, take off, so I can stand back some years from now and be proud that I helped travellers visit our beautiful country. I am also hoping that I can offer some great trips to Greeks, to visit other, favourite parts of the globe, (like the US).
In addition, I would like our family business, (Skopelos Country Villas), to continue being successful and have guests exploring this small paradise!
I would also like to stand back and say how I have now conquered the world and travelled to roads less travelled around the globe! I guess part of the reason for starting The Travelling Cookie was so that I could also help myself as well as others travel more.
Additionally, I have a new project in the works, SITEnDESIGN , to express my love for web design. An avid supporter and contributor of the WordPress Content Management System I started learning and experimenting with this ultimate web design and development tool in order to rebuilt the family business website. I never looked back since, and have built a number of websites, both for personal use, (my website), as well as for business use.

 

Why leave this?
Why leave this?

Have you considered leaving? If so, where would you like to go, and why?

Leaving? My God, do I need to leave again? No thank you! I think I did my fair bit of leaving during the past 20 years of my life 🙂 After all this, I can safely say that no matter where I’ve been or may one day go again, (perhaps), I could never be far from Greece, the sweetest of all countries, (for me anyway), for more than half a year.
Despite all the difficulties, frustrations, disappointments, uncertainties! Despite everything that is going on or may still happen to us in the future, no one can steal this beautiful, eternal light. The light that makes us shine from within and gives us strength to continue.

Are you actively doing anything to help with the situation? Is there something you would like to do?

I would like to think that I am promoting Greece through The Travelling Cookie, my newly opened, Online Travel Agency. In collaboration with 3 big Travel Companies in the UK, (The Travel Network Group, Independent Travel Experts and Travel Trust Association), I am actively promoting Greece as The Destination, especially for UK and USA travellers looking for summer holidays.
Although The Travelling Cookie is still in its infancy stage, I have hopes that it will grow and be able to eventually stand tall and promote Greece in a wider market segment. Focusing on Personalised Services, (having such a huge hotel background will definitely help on this), I strive to provide excellent customer service throughout the trip planning process.

How do you see Greece in 5, 10 years?

I don’t think that there are many people that have this kind of foresight for Greece. Being an optimist of course, I would like to think that a huge change will take place in the political stage. I would love to see capable leaders take over. Leaders that will primarily care for Greece and its people – not just for banks and the imposing of new austerity measures.
Leaders that will be able to stand tall and defend the country, not surrender it to money-lending sharks who ruthlessly keep asking for more and more!

How do you cope with obstacles and frustrations in your everyday life ?

To survive in Greece nowadays you have to be resourceful, (although resourcefulness is a great trait to have anyway). I tend not too get too discouraged by bureaucratic obstacles that much, and when I do let frustration take over, I just leave my ideas aside and try again in a couple of months/years.

I also try to find ways around whatever it is I’m after – see if a similar, plan B can work for me. Then, there is a great saying too: ’Things happen or not, for a reason’’…so if I’m faced with too many frustrations/obstacles, maybe my plan is not meant to be. At least not for the time being!

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So, if you’re thinking of a Greek vacation, or if you want to explore Europe, the US or anywhere else, Andonis has the resources to make it happen for you!