Monday, July 30, 2012

Hrysi Akti Taverna, Glyfatha

It was the day of our tram ride to Glyfatha beach that we stopped to have lunch at Hrysi Akti Taverna. We weren't exactly spoiled for choice as this appeared to be the only taverna in the area but it was right on the beach and there were actual white table cloths (as opposed to the standard sheet of paper clipped to the table with map of Greece printed on it). It was just what we were looking for that day.

The menu looked substantial, until we noticed most of the items had been crossed off the list. We've seen this on a lot of Greek taverna menus. At first glance you don't notice it, that's because the items that aren't available are not completely crossed out – just the price is crossed out. This way the menu looks good at a glance and stops you from moving on to the next taverna for something better. However, as this was the only eatery in sight we were happy to settle in and accept the limited menu.

We were very relieved to see that mini tiropitas were not crossed off the list. These are filo pastry triangles with a ricotta and tasty cheese filling then deep fried. They are soooo yum and usually come with enough for two to share. At Hrysi Akti you get six on a plate for 4 euros.

The menu also had a number of different salads – a nice change from the usual "Horiatiki Salata" which is your standard Greek salad. We went for the "Spesial Salad" which really had no description other than its typically Greek-spelled name. Not knowing what this Spesial Salad would contain, we decided to take a gamble on the mystery dish. At 6 euros we couldn't really go wrong.

Loaded with a variety of fresh lettuce leaves, tomatoes, spring onions and kidney beans, and topped with our favourite Greek cheese, kefalograviera, the Spesial Salad ended up being just what we were after. It was crisp and refreshing, the perfect accompaniment to the cheese pastries.

Often the bread you are served at a taverna is made on the premises, and the bread at Hrysi Akti certainly was. It was crusty on the outside and still warm on the inside. Perfect for dipping in a bit of olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Along with some cold Mythos beer and the "bad luck you have to buy it" bottle of water, this meal was light but very satisfying to be enjoying on a hot Greek summer's day by the beach.

Hrysi Akti Taverna can be found at:
Diadohou Pavlou Street, Glyfatha
Phone: +30 210 894 4191
Rating: 7.5/10

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Three Island Cruise

Well we've been in Limnos three days now and I still haven't had a chance to tell you about our last day in Athens, but I have a bit of time to spare at the moment while everyone is asleep for siesta.

It's incredible what you can do with technology these days. I've already written the blog post for that day, on location in the middle of the Saronic Gulf, and all I had to do this afternoon was copy the file onto a USB stick to transfer it from Tony's notebook computer to the main laptop which is what we have hooked up to the internet here at the Limnos house. Below is what I wrote on that wonderful day ...

This is too good to be true. I'm on a 120-foot catamaran cruising around the sapphire seas of the Saronic islands while writing this blog post. It has to be a dream ... Tony? Is this really happening?? "Yes, because if it isn't, I definitely paid too much for an imaginary frappe."

So here we are on a one-day cruise around the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina, just south of Athens. We have already seen Hydra, a hilly island with unique architecture, and we have just left Poros, a smaller island just a few hundred metres from the Peleponese mainland. We are now on our way to Aegina, known for its pistachio nuts, where we will take a bus tour of the island.

The weather today is just glorious, as it has been every day since we've been here in Greece. For some it is too hot, but for Tony and I it's perfect. The temperature averages around 30 degrees for most of the day, apart from the mid afternoon when it reaches around 37, but this is the time we are usually resting in the hotel so it's not such a bad time of day for us. At night it doesn't drop below 26 which is perfect for al fresco dining in Greece! The sky is eternally blue every day, with only a little haze on the horizon. Here on the boat there's a gentle breeze and the cool spray of seawater mist to take the edge off the heat of the sun.

Arrival at Hydra:

Arrival at Poros:

The Peleponese mainland of Greece is only a few hundred metres from the island of Poros. This is the village of Galatos on the mainland:

We are now back on the boat after visiting the island of Aegina, the second largest of the nine islands of the Saronic Gulf. Our bus tour of the island took us around some of the coast and then inland to a beautiful church, St Niktarious, made of marble, terracotta and mosaic.

It is well known that the Greeks are very animated people and they love telling big stories with great emotion and drama. Our tour guide was no exception. With crescending and descending inflections in his voice, he told of the story of Zeus and the baby he had with Aegina on the deserted island of the same name. In order to populate the island with people so that their child would not grow to inhabit the island alone, Zeus ordered that all the ants of the island would be transformed into human beings. Don't you just love Greek mythology? We were also told that Aegina was where the first coin of Europe was made around 480BC.

Aegina is also famous for its pistachio nuts. I love pistachios, or "fistikia" as they are called in Greek. I'd never seen a pistachio nut tree before and part of our bus tour was to visit some of the pistachio farming areas of the island. We were also encouraged without subtlety to purchase nuts from only one particular store at the port – most likely the tour guide's sister's business!

As the boat rocks from side to side, I can see the reflection of the sea in the screen of the laptop, slanting one way then the other. It's such a relaxing motion the sway of a boat. We are here on the top deck with around 15 other people. There are tables and chairs under a large canopied area with a drinks and snacks bar decorated with plastic tropical fruit. Playing in the background is Julio Iglesius, I can smell someone smoking a cigar, Tony is sitting opposite me at the table with a beer, and all around me is that sapphire sea. All we need to see now are some diving dolphins. It all sounds really tacky, but it's actually really, really wonderful.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Aunty Aliki

Tony and I are in Limnos now but I haven't finished blogging about Athens yet! We did so much over those six days it has been hard to keep up with blog entries!!

On Tuesday we took the train to the suburb of Zografou to see my mum's first cousin, Aliki. I met her for the first time 20 years ago and this time around she still looked exactly the same! She was VERY excited to see us and to meet Tony. She was especially impressed with the fact that this German-Scottish man could speak Greek (and very disappointed that her Greek niece could not!) I think I'm going to have to do something about that ...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Delphi Day Trip

Tony was keen to visit the place the programming language he uses to write his software was named after – Delphi. I was keen to visit Delphi for a very different reason. It is an ancient town situated amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in Greece, in the alpine region around Mt Parnassus, the second highest mountain of Greece at 2,500 metres above sea level.

Delphi is the site of the Delphic Oracle where in the classical Greek world, wise answers would be given to all kinds of questions, and is also the site for the Pythian Games, one of the precursors of the modern Olympics, starting in 776 BC.

In the late 1800s, excavation of the site uncovered a settlement that included the Temple of Apollo, a theatre, treasury buildings, a gymnasium and stadium. Many statues and other artefacts from here now reside in the modern Archaeological Museum of Delphi on the same site.

The pictures will tell you more about this place than I could ever describe. It was a day of jaw-dropping awe for both of us.

This beautifully preserved plate has not been touched up or restored in any way. The ink on the plate is the original ink in all its brilliance, as it was when it was found – the intense blackness of the crow is most impressive.

It's amazing where you will find a cat in Greece. This old one didn't look out of place amongst the ruins of Delphi.

Alpine village of Arahova, near Delphi. This is a very popular skiing destination for many Athenians in the winter.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kuzina taverna, Thissia

The first episode of Lyndey and Blair's Taste of Greece documentary series (screened on SBS) featured Lyndey cooking in the kitchen of Kuzina, a contemporary Greek restaurant in Adrianou Street, Thissia, just west of Plaka. Tony and I were keen to eat at Kuzina on our second night in Athens, having seen the feature story on SBS earlier this year.

Right next door to Attalos where we'd eaten the night before, we were more than happy to once again embrace the atmosphere and Acropolis view of Adrianou Street.

Kuzina is a little more expensive than most of the other restaurants along Adrianou Street, but still very reasonably priced compared to what you'd pay in Melbourne, averaging around 10 euros per dish which at the moment is the equivalent of less than $12 Australian.

The service is noticeably more attentive, the waiters taking an interest in their patrons and striking conversation that isn't just about where you are from and how long you are in Athens. The freshly-baked sunflower seed bread and water promptly arriving at the table, with the addition of a small plate of herbed olives and virgin olive oil.

The menu is impressive, by design and content. Their quirky logo and illustrative typography instantly appealing, but it is the creative, left-of-centre food on offer and the care taken in the descriptions of the dishes that catches your eye. My eye was instantly drawn to the zucchini minted cheese balls with yoghurt sauce, and Tony couldn't go past the grilled meatballs with sumac, pitta bread and spearmint sauce (both dishes 10 euros each). We also went for the salad of wild greens with dill, basil, fetta, tomatoes, capers and bagel croutons (8.50 euros).

The flavours were a refreshing, modern take on the Plaka staples, and dishes were plated up with restaurant quality finesse. Tony loved his meatballs, describing them as having a middle-eastern flavour, my zucchini balls were lovely and the tomatoes were the sweetest and juiciest of those tasted so far in Athens. The only disappointment was the presence of just one small crouton found in the salad, however this certainly won't stop us from coming here again.

Kuzina can be found at:
9 Adrianou Street, Thissia (just west of Plaka)
Phone: +30 210 324 0133
Rating: 8.5/10

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Athens beaches and Acropolis Museum

When Athens hosted the Olympic Games in 2004 a lot of money was spent on infrastructure, public transport and general beautification of the city. The coastal tram system was installed with three lines servicing the eastern and western beaches of Athens. I'd taken the eastern beaches ride with my dad back in 2004 and was keen to take Tony to show him another side of Athens. "The beaches are beautiful and there's lots of really nice places to eat" I reassured him.

The coastal area of Athens is a bit like Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne with the shipping ports in the west (Piraeus) and the trendy shops and beaches to the east.

The eastern trip is about 50 minutes from the city passing through many different neighbourhoods of Athens for the first 30 minutes, then travelling along the waterfront for the remainder of the ride. Yes, the beaches are beautiful, and surprisingly, the water is as blue here as it is on the Greek islands, but the "lots of really nice places to eat" seem to have disappeared. We went right to the end of the line and the only place to eat was a beach bar with an entry fee of 5 euros and only light snacks on the menu. The girl at the gate recommended we go back six stops to Glyfatha. She convinced us that Glyfatha was the place to go, "Very nice beaches and lots of places to eat".

Well, either we got off at the wrong stop or she was playing a joke on us because we hopped off the tram to find yet again, not a lot of places to eat. In fact, there was just one. Which was quite ok to be honest. Hrysi Akti Taverna (review coming) was right on the beach and had lovely food and cold beer. And of course the main purpose of our little tram ride adventure was to see some of the suburbs of Athens, which is exactly what we achieved.

The Acropolis Museum was our next "must see" to cross off the list. This is an impressive piece of architecture, built just 300 metres from the Acropolis, and designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi with Greek architect Michael Photiadis. The whole museum is suspended over a huge archaeological site, supported by more than 100 concrete pillars, with large areas of glass floors revealing the excavations below.

The museum exhibits the Parthenon sculptures in their entirety - some are the original works, others are replicas of those that now reside in the British Museum. Many of the antiquities found at the site at the time of excavation are also displayed in the museum.

The relief sculptures of the Parthenon frieze depicting the Panathenaic procession are exhibited in continuous sequence along the perimeter of the third floor of the museum. The second photo below is one of the original pieces from the frieze.

The afternoons in Athens are hot, around 38 degrees each day, but leaving the air conditioned museum to get back to our hotel for siesta was something that needed to be done, even if it would be a difficult task. The walk back to the hotel from the museum is only around 15 minutes, but with heated marble all around you (everything in Athens from the footpaths to apartment balconies is made of marble) it's like a 15-minute walk through a square kilometre kiln. And our burnt skin is evidence of that!

Tomorrow I will write about our day trip to Delphi which was a spectacular excursion of ancient history and beautiful alpine scenery. That's right, I said alpine ...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Attalos Restaurant, Thissia

After a long first day in Athens we were looking forward to finding somewhere to eat and watch the people go by. Adrianou Street in Plaka is where you will find countless tavernas, restaurants and bars with glorious views of the Acropolis. There are so many eating places to choose from here – all of them busy and most of them serving traditional Greek fare at very reasonable prices. We settled for Attalos because Tony liked the wooden chairs and I could see fried cheese balls on the menu.

The restaurant has a neo-classical facade, common architecture for this strip of tavernas. The interior is decorated with traditional artefacts, including a whole wall of bouzouki guitars, but in the summer months nobody sits inside.

Every Greek taverna meal starts with obligatory bread and a bottle of water. You don't order these, they just appear at the table whether you like it or not, and you have to pay for them. But at 1 euro each, who's complaining. The bread is also a good filler before you order any food, helping to regulate what to choose from the menu. The cheese balls however were a must, no matter how much bread was consumed beforehand. Tony was also eyeing off the Rooster in Red Sauce.

I'm a sucker for anything cheesy and the Greeks do a very good fried cheese ball, usually made with a strong heady cheese combined with mozzarella, rolled in bread crumbs, then deep fried. Served hot, crunchy on the outside and oozingly delectable on the inside, the cheese balls at Attalos (4.50 euros) were some of the best I've tried. There were six on the plate, each about the size of golf balls, served on a sprinkling of crisp lettuce.

We were filling up quickly after the bread and the cheese and Tony was glad he decided not to order the Rooster in Red Sauce. We ended up sharing a traditional Greek salad of black olives, tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum, onion and a slab of fetta cheese (5.50 euros), and a plate of "yemista" (6.50 euros) which is stuffed tomato and green pepper, served with baked lemon potatoes. The stuffing mixture made up of rice, spring onion, dill and mint was a little on the oily side, but the potatoes did well to soak that up.

The service at any Greek taverna is slow, particularly when it comes time to attract the waiter's attention for the bill. Their strategy is to ignore you once you've ordered your meal, to try and keep you in their establishment for as long as possible to keep the place looking busy. Attalos was no different and I think we ended up staying there for around five hours. The food was delicious though, and the atmosphere was as lively and joyful as any taverna along Adrianou Street. The air was warm, the beer was cold and we had a beautiful view of the Acropolis. I can't think of a better way to spend a long, leisurely evening.

Attalos doesn't have a website but you will find it at:
7 Adrianou Street, Thissio (which is just west of Plaka)
Phone: +30 210 321 9520
Rating: 7/10

Sunday, July 22, 2012

First day in Athens

The downside to a relatively decent amount of sleep on a long-haul flight is ending up with elephant legs. Fluid retention of the ankles from not moving around on the plane is a painful condition to endure if you want to spend your first day in Athens walking around the cobbled (the VERY cobbled) streets of Plaka.

It was an 8.00am arrival in the capital city of Greece, and stepping off the plane to inhale that familiar mixture of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke always puts a smile on my face. "We're in Greece!" We were so excited to be back in the country that is close to my heart and Tony has grown to love.

We piled our luggage on to the X95 bus for the 45 minute journey from the airport to the centre of Athens at Syntagma Square. At 5 euros this bus trip is great value, and the drop-off point is only a ten-minute walk to our hotel.

We are staying at Athens-Cypria Hotel, just off Ermou Street which is the main pedestrian shopping mall of Athens. The mall leads you to the lively flea markets and tavernas of the old part of town called "Plaka", the home of the Acropolis. The streets are lined with lottery ticket vendors, stray dogs, buskers and gypsies selling everything from fake Louis Vuitton handbags to packets of tissues. There's noise, food, music and lots of tourists. This is the place to be if you want to experience an intense dose of Athenian joy.

After checking into our hotel we ignored our bodies' cries for sleep and headed straight for the cafe downstairs for our first frappe. Cold, black coffee in a tall glass, finished with a thick layer of crema and ice cubes. It's so European. Everyone drinks them here. It's so refreshing to see people preferring these over a beer. Even the young'ns love them, right into the night when the city really comes alive and the nightclubs are pumping, hoards of confident 20-somethings sipping on their frappes, loving life without alcohol. Such a different culture to Australia.

The first port of call was a leather sandal basement stall in the flea market – I needed some new thongs. I'd bought a pair from the same shop last year and knew I was on a winner, so this time I bought two pairs while Tony practiced his Greek on the spruiker at the entrance of the shop.

We went for a bit of a wander around the market lanes, Tony found a t-shirt printing shop that he would later come back to with his USB stick that contained an image of a Dr Seuss character from one of his childhood books to have transferred to a t-shirt. The markets are still thriving, despite the economic problems. We know the country is going through hard times with unemployment at 25% and people having to now pay very high taxes, but tourism certainly doesn't seem to have been affected by the crisis. Bum-bag laden people are everywhere, armed with multiple shopping bags all having a good time.

The heat was quite stifling, around 37 degrees, and elephant legs don't go very far under these conditions so we made our way to the nearest shaded taverna we could find to relax with a cold beer – it would be un-Australian if we didn't.

By 2pm we were utterly exhausted and it was time to give in to our new way of life for the next six weeks and head back to our hotel for a nap. They call it siesta here in these mediterranean countries. For a period of around 4 hours, from mid-afternoon to early evening, all the shops close and everyone goes to bed. At 7pm it all comes back to life, like a brand new day. Everyone is refreshed and ready to take on the night for more food, fun and frivolity. After a few hours sleep I still felt like an elephant but not one to waste time when on holiday we headed back into the laneways of Plaka to find somewhere to eat.

We'd been watching the re-runs of Lyndey and Blair's Taste of Greece documentary series on SBS earlier this year and I remembered an episode where they visited a taverna called "Kuzina" in Plaka. The point of difference for this place was that it explored a different take on traditional Greek cuisine by introducing flavours outside of the safe tourist pleasers. We'd not had a chance to look this place up yet but decided that before we left Athens we would find out where it is and make a booking. In the meantime, on our first night in Athens we would eat at Attalos Taverna on famous Adrianou Street - this street is jam-packed with tavernas, one after the other. This will be my first official taverna review which I will post here in the next day or two.

Whilst enjoying our meal, we were discussing the plan to find and book a table at Kuzina, and concerns were raised that since it was featured on the documentary it might require weeks of advanced notice to secure a booking. It was also possible this place was not within walking distance from our hotel. While pondering and observing the other tavernas filling up around us, I was admiring an interesting logo design at the eatery next door. A set of hand-drawn letters arranged in a block shape with a sketch of a chef's hat underneath. "KU" on top, "ZI" underneath ... oh my god it's Kuzina. Of all the hundreds of places to eat in Plaka, there it was right next to us!

It was a big day and it was time to get back to our hotel for some much-needed rest and recuperation. We have another five full days to enjoy in and around Athens. On the agenda is a day trip to Delphi, a three-island cruise, a visit to my mum's cousin Aliki, the Acropolis museum, the southern beaches of Athens, and the Hellenic American Union campus (this is the school Tony's been learning Greek online with). Lots to pack into five days but looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful part of Greece.

Tony on the X95 bus from the airport to central Athens:

Chaotic traffic of Athens (smoking while riding a motorbike is obligatory in Greece):

Pedestrian shopping mall, Ermou Street:

Speaking Greek with the sandal shop owner, Plaka:

Young busker on the streets of Plaka:

Stray dogs are now part of the scenery in Greece, having taken over the territory once dominated by cats. There is a government program that looks after these dogs, capturing them for health checks, desexing and registration, then releasing them back on the streets to be fed by tourists and locals. For strays, these dogs are relatively healthy and seem content with their place in the streets, pretty much keeping to themselves:

Selling balloons in Plaka:

Waiting for our first beer:

Their population is diminishing but a few cats can still be found in the Plaka district:

The streets are quiet and the shops are closed during siesta time: