The Greece I Long To Visit Isn’t On Your Average Travel Brochure

The Greece I Long To Visit Isn't On Your Average Travel Brochure
The Greece I Long To Visit Isn't On Your Average Travel Brochure

(Bloomberg) — At the moment, all of our plans are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. We’re sharing our ideas with you in the hopes that they will inspire you—and we’d love to hear what you are daydreaming about, too. Send us your ideas at [email protected], and we’ll flesh some of them out for this column.

Nikos Chrysoloras is Bloomberg’s Brussels bureau chief. When this is all over, he’ll be taking a slow journey home through some of the most beautiful—and undersung—parts of Greece. 

Longing for home after having found every possible excuse to leave it is the archetype of Greekness. “Naught is sweeter than homeland and parents,” Ulysses says in The Odyssey, and yet he spent the best part of his life wandering the world.

Millions born in the same lands later followed in his footsteps. Greece is a nation of emigrants, with a thriving diaspora whose members always dream of going back—but mostly don’t.

Nostalgia—a word rooted in Ulysses’s yearning to return—becomes more profound when we are at risk. That’s even truer now that Greece appears to be one of the safest places to be in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, having done a much better job than most at limiting the spread of the illness. Yet, the country is poised to pay a heavy price from the coronavirus: The obliteration of leisure travel this year will hit its tourism-dependent economy hardest, just as it emerges from the steepest recession on record.

So in this hour of peril for me and my country, I’d really go back, if I could, to continue my “work from home” in the sanctuary of my real home. It’s a stone’s throw from a pristine beach in the minuscule island of Serifos. But I can’t, not yet at least—not without putting myself and my loved ones in danger.

That won’t stop me from daydreaming.

I’ll keep my home-island daydreams private, as all the places to eat, drink, and sleep that I could take you with me belong to friends. I’d run into a whole bunch of ethics issues if I were to advertise them. And while there’s nowhere like Serifos for me, there will be so much Greek paradise for you when this viral outbreak is behind us.

What to Do in Athens

In mid-March, when Greece’s government started imposing the lockdown, it banned access to both ski resorts and beaches. Not many places in the world are blessed enough to have to stop people from skiing and swimming at the same time. While Greece enjoys the longest coastline in the European Union and one of the longest in the world, any journey there should start from Athens.

At the center of the ancient city is a square that epitomizes my country perhaps more than any island or beach. It’s called Monastiraki, where, along with a cocktail from the rooftop bars of A for Athens or 360, you’ll enjoy the view of the Parthenon that overlooks an Ottoman mosque, a Byzantine church, an ancient Roman market, a 19th century train station, the old town of Athens, and the chaotic flea market of today. It’s the weight of millennia packed in the space of a single city block.

After a stroll through the old town neighborhoods of Thisseio and Plaka—and the necessary visit to the Acropolis hill and its wonderful museum—you’ll want to enjoy fresh fish at the Michelin-starred Varoulko seaside restaurant. If the the catch of the day includes red mullet, order it. We Greeks consider it the king of fish dishes.

The experience will make you want explore more of the endless Athenian riviera, so if you have a second day, rent a car and drive all the way to majestic Cape Sounion, to swim below the cliffside Temple of Poseidon. The sunset there is what I’d call “Greece, Profound,” and the hour-long drive will be worth it.

I could go on and on about Athens. Its famed nightlife includes such bars as lavish Noel , where it feels like Christmas all-year round, or Clumsies, with its high-end (and locally sourced) cocktails, or Juan Rodriguez, with its otherwordly design. I could rhapsodize at length over how I dream of the grilled “mackerel for babies” at the Greco-Japanese Nolan restaurant, but it’s time to continue the journey with a road trip to the Peloponnese, the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland.

So rent a car, and let’s go.

A Journey Across the South

There’s no better way to start exploring the rugged beauty of the peninsula than from the Costa Navarino resort. It’s a huge estate near the Kalamata International Airport, which includes everything from world-class golf courses to olive plantations and vineyards. My stay at the five-star Romanos hotel there a few years ago was the stuff that dreams are made of. A breakfast from heaven featured everything you can possibly imagine, including some of the best jams I have tried. At lunch and dinner, its restaurants serve crisp wine produced at the estate and what is probably the most expensive (and tastiest) souvlaki in the world. I had actually planned to go again this June—to try the adjacent Westin—just for the sake of revisiting this estate and its wonderful beach, with the great hotel service. But the virus ruined my plans.

Close to Costa Navarino, there’s a beach—or should I say the beach. It’s called Voidokoilia. (Just google its images, and you’ll instantly start dreaming of it for your next holiday.) Its perfect semicircular shape is what distinguishes it from most beaches you have seen. The sandy paradise is a short drive from Costa Navarino, but the roads in the Peloponnese aren’t great, so I advise you rent a comfortable car.

I’d continue the road trip eastward, with a stop at the Mani peninsula, the most rugged of Greek landscapes. It’s a mountainous terrain with stone-built villages and very narrow roads leading to pebbled beaches. This area is the land of the ancient Spartans, people as defiant as history suggests.

You can stay at the picturesque  town of Areopolis, with its bougainvillea-planted alleys and stone houses. There are plenty of restaurants there, but be wary of places that look as if they are made for tourists. Or you can pick the wonderful 100 Rizes seaside resort, where I stayed last summer and which I highly recommend. It’s isolated, with a private beach and easy access to wonderful small beaches around it. Hike all the way to craggy Cape Tainaron, the southernmost tip of the Balkan peninsula. Myth has it that these were the gates to the underworld, and the lighthouse feels like one. On the way back, don’t forget to stop and swim at the pebbled Halikia beach, where you must—you really must—try the seafood (including “shrimps saganaki”) with ouzo at the tavern called 7 Adelfia.

Then enjoy a cocktail at the nearby port of Limeni, with its transparent turquoise waters, where I have watched the most beautiful sunsets of my life. It doesn’t get more authentically Greek than that. Consult your map applications, because the drives I suggest are long, and you may want to split them among several days.

A Route Through History

Eastward we continue, to the fortress town of Monemvasia. Accessible only to pedestrians from a single gate, its medieval alleys are full of mystery and wonder, like a set that Game of Thrones producers ought to have used. When I visited, I stayed at Kinsterna, a restored Byzantine mansion that’s a true jewel of Greek tourism. Surrounded by olives and vineyards, it’s an ideal place to see where medieval lords lived. Enjoy the rooms that remind you of (and probably were) cellars but somehow feel pleasant, swim at the wonderful pools, and relax at the spa just a short drive from the sea.

On the way back to Athens, I ‘d detour a bit for a stopover at the historic town of Dimitsana in central Peloponnese. Like my country, I’m half-islander, half-highlander, and Dimitsana is my mother’s home town. It’s one of the most characteristic specimens of the mountainous side of Greece, which tourists unjustifiably ignore. Surrounded by conifer trees, you can enjoy unspoiled traditional stone architecture and hike in the area’s beautiful forests and nearby villages.

Near Dimitsana, there’s a now-deserted village called Panagia, in which sits a tavern called Zerzova. I’ve tried many cuisines in several countries, and I’m a fan of good food, be it from a street canteen or a Michelin-starred fancy place. Nowhere have I tried anything remotely close to Zerzova’s traditional dishes.

All good daydreaming, of course, must come to an end. On the way back to Athens, I could see from the motorway the endless rows of docked tankers and bulk vessels off the coast of Attica, a reminder that even today, millennia after the journeys of Ulysses, Greece continues to rule the seas, controlling much of the world’s commercial fleet.

I remember the words of Nobel-laureate Greek poet Odysseus Elytis: “My country an enduring ship.”

We love our homes, but sometimes they hurt us. What hurts me the most in my own is that many of us forget it was once us  Greeks— our parents and grandparents—who sought refuge from poverty abroad. Please consider donating to the UN’s refugee agency in Greece, which is helping people in even more dire need for help in this pandemic. 

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