Greek winery tour: day four


[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]

Some of us rose early for a last dip in the Ionian Sea and found that the waves in the morning were even gentler than the evening before. Breakfast at the Mare Dei was nothing special: the usual buffet but put together without the expected care. The pastries were heavy, the fruit wasn’t flavourful and the orange juice tasted like it was made from powder. At least the coffee – based on others’ recommendations, I ordered Greek – was decent. So, a minor minus on an otherwise exceptional experience at the hotel.

We headed north on the E55. The land here is flat and rolling, mostly given over to farming. One of our group was a professional photographer looking to document the intersection between wine, food and lifestyle, and she had been hoping to find some farm fields to photograph. That’s why, about 30 minutes into the trip, just south of Lechaina, we pulled over at Το Περιβολι produce stand, which is run by a farmer couple whose fields, whence the produce came, stretch behind. Despite not speaking English and having to deal with customers, including truckers, who stopped to buy fruit and vegetables for dinner, they offered us slices of watermelon, probably the best of the trip, and were soon taking our camera-toter on a tour of the fields, yet another instance of the disarming hospitality afforded to visitors, especially when off the beaten tourist track. Those of us who stayed behind ogled the gorgeous eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and squashes, admired the jaunty garlands of dried gourds hung from the awning and purchased jars of the farmers’ golden brown honey with honeycomb: delicious and well worth the €5 price tag.

Back in the van, we continued northward a while then turned northeast, finally reaching the coast – here the Gulf of Patras – just past the town of Kato Achaia, then skirting around Patras, Greece’s third largest city and the capital of Achaea, before zooming past the stunning Rio–Antirrio bridge, which stretches across the Strait of Rion and connects the western Peloponnese to the mainland.

We were soon heading east on the E65 (aka the 8A), often hugging the coast, as the terrain was increasingly mountainous. Before long, just after the town of Diakopto, we left the highway and parked alongside the Gulf of Corinth in the small settlement – from what I could see, mostly a classy collection of restaurants and beach huts – of Paralia Trapezis, or Trapeza beach. We were shepherded into one of those restaurants, Ταβέρνα “Ο Μιχάλης” (O Michalis Taverna) where a long table on a covered terrace awaited us. While the meze, which included taramasalata, tzatziki, tomato fritters, grilled octopus and various salads, were uniformly delicious, the stars of the meal were the mains of stunningly fresh, grilled-until-black sea bream plated with lemon wedges and a few strands of vleeta. A series of Tetramythos whites were served, notes on which will soon be found on Brett happens.

Lunch over, we were unexpectedly given an hour to change into our swimsuits, head across the street and take a dip in the Gulf of Corinth. Though it wasn’t apparent from the restaurant, the setting here is magnificent in a mountains-meet-the-water kind of way. Verdant cliffs rise steeply from the sea to rocky crags. Across the gulf, more mountains form a seemingly impenetrable wall. The beach is covered with large pebbles so smooth they’re actually pleasant to walk and lie on. The pebbles also form the sea floor as far out as we ventured and would appear not to be hospitable to seaweed, urchins or other floor dwellers. The water is a sparkling turquoise near the shore, the most limpid I’ve seen anywhere. At one point, in up to my neck, I was still able to make out the fine details of my feet nearly six feet below. The water temperature was ideal and the waves were gentle. It was the best swimming of the trip.

Fed and refreshed, we changed back into street clothes and hopped into the van for the short trip to the Tetramythos winery, heading due south (at least at the start) and directly inland on the Pountas-Kalavriton road, winding up a narrow valley between steep slopes. And I do mean up. The gain in altitude was immediate and constant and within 15 minutes we were 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) above our starting point.

Like those on the north side of the Gulf of Corinth, these mountains, which form the spine of mainland Greece and the Pelopense, are extensions of the Pindus range, itself an extension of the Dinaric Alps, which lie parallel to the Adriatic on the west side of the Balkan peninsula. Here they rise steeply from the gulf and are separated by valleys – in some cases, gorges – that run more or less perpendicular to the coast. In July, in contrast to the verdant seaside, the mountains were parched, tawny and covered mostly by scrub (a major wildfire nine years earlier had stripped the area of its pine forests, which only now are beginning to regenerate). The effect, especially when the gulf was visible through the mountain gaps, was remarkably similar to parts of the California coast north and south of Los Angeles; when I mentioned this to Tetramythos’s winemaker, Panayiotis, he replied that I wasn’t the first to say so.

We continued up the highway, a little past the winery buildings and the nearby village of Ano Diakopto before turning onto a dirt road carved into the mountainside. Had we not diverted, we would have soon ended up in the town of Kalavryta, which lends its name to one of the local red grapes, and eventually at one of Greece’s main ski resorts on 2,355-metre (7,726-foot) Mount Helmos.

Before long we stopped on a bluff with a breathtaking view down the valley to the gulf. Around us were bush-trained grape vines, browning clumps of grass, the occasional caper plant and a lone pine tree, a square of whose bark had been stripped away to collect the resinous sap for the winery’s retsina. The vines were vigorous and the grapes – about six weeks from harvest – were healthy, showing no sign of disease or infestation. While many of the nearby vineyards were neater and more terraced, the vines planted in rows, those of Tetramythos’s that we saw appeared more natural, even a little unkempt, and followed the natural lay of the land. Panayiotis discussed the composition of the mostly limestone soil, the need for irrigation and the challenges and rewards of farming organically in the area (Tetramythos is one of the few estates to do so). The sun was intense and the temperature hot, yet due to the low humidity and constant breeze, rambling through the vineyards and along the ridge lines in search of ever more stunning views was a moment of bliss. Lost in a golden landscape, bathed in golden light, it was hard not to be agog at range of geography and micro-climates we had encountered during our short tour of the Peloponnese. Whether you’re looking for beaches, mountains, forests, barren rockscapes, large cities, tiny villages, history, art, wines, food, high-end experiences or low-, the peninsula has it all. As a tourist destination, it must rank among the top in Europe.

After a tour of the Tetramythos winery (notes to be posted soon on Brett happens), we returned to the van and were driven to our lodging to deposit our suitcases and prepare for the evening. In addition to its vineyards and winery, Tetramythos owns an inn, located near the winery, and a small complex of so-called studios further up the road. We spent the night in the latter, a trio of two-storey, four-unit buildings. My apartment had a small living room with a wood-burning fireplace, a kitchenette, a bedroom with a comfortable queen-size bed, a bathroom with a shower and tub and a balcony in back, off the bedroom, that had sweeping views over the village and down the valley. In early July, we were the only guests, though they are reportedly full during ski season.

A short while later, we drove to the inn for a hop in the in-ground pool, a tutored tasting of Tetramythos reds and aged whites on a covered terrace perched on the valley side and an al fresco feast of meats and vegetables expertly grilled by the winery’s owners, including, once again, excellent lamb and lukaniko. The night air was warm and buoyant, the breeze caressing, the view stunning and the hospitality humbling. We didn’t want the evening to end but, of course, it did and we were soon collapsing into our beds, slightly dreading the early rise later that morning.



The surströmming party

Long ago, when I was 17, I spent a year as an exchange student in Sweden. This account of one of the more memorable meals I had there was written in the early days of the Worldwide Web, which is why I can no longer link to the sources of the quotations. I’m posting it now for reasons that will soon become clear.

“Hellooo?” Rune’s voice precedes him up the stairs.

Ja,” I reply, rising from my bed where I’ve been reading.

“Ah,” he says as he appears at the door. Mats and Eva, my Swedish “brother” and “sister,” hover behind him.

“Would you be so kind as to change into something fancier?” he asks in his impeccable Oxford-accented English. “We’ve been invited out to dinner tonight.”

Mats and Eva look at the floor, trying not to laugh.

“All of us?” I ask, immediately suspicious.

“No. Just you and me.”

“What kind of dinner?”

The siblings break into a fit of giggles.

“Well,” he says, “it’s rather hard to describe in English.”

Something is definitely afoot. The last time I’d heard him use that phrase was when I found him in the kitchen, frying slices of a big maroon sausage for lunch. “What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s rather hard to describe in English,” he said, handing me a plate and a jar of lingonberry preserves.

Later, after I’d eaten it, I learned it wasn’t at all hard to describe: flour bound with pig’s blood, a.k.a. blodpudding.

“I think I’d better stay home and study,” I say.

Nej, nej, nej,” he replies. “Meet me downstairs in half an hour.” He heads into his bedroom.

“Eva,” I say. “Where is he taking me?”

“To a surströmming party,” she stage-whispers. I blanch. She shrieks, turns and runs laughing down the stairs.

A little etymology. Strömming is the Swedish word for Baltic herring. The name derives from ström, the Swedish word for stream, which the schools of small silvery fish are said to resemble.

Sur is the Swedish word for sour.

Surströmming is the Swedish word for fermented herring.

Rune is waiting for me when I arrive downstairs. As we step outside, a taxi pulls up, the first I’ve taken in Sweden.

“You aren’t driving?” I ask.

He gives me a “duh” look and climbs in. Soon we find ourselves in a part of town I’m unfamiliar with, a new development full of comfortable houses the Swedes call villas. We stop in front of one that looks just minted.

“Here we go,” says Rune. “Lena and Thomas moved in last week. Tonight is – how do you say? – a housewarming.”

Rune rings the bell. A woman in her 30s opens the door and welcomes us in. Rune does the introductions. We are the first to arrive, Lena explains, taking our coats. We follow her to the plank-floored, off-white living room furnished with a mix of old and new pieces, including a sideboard on which sits a pitcher.

“May I pour you a Tom Collins?” Lena asks.

“Yes, but only a small one for our American friend,” Rune replies.

The doorbell rings and Lena soon escorts three more guests into the living room. Once they are settled, she excuses herself saying that she and Thomas must finish their preparations.

The conversation, or what I can follow of it, is friendly yet formal in that way peculiar to Scandinavia. At one point my attention wanders and I look through the sliding glass door into the back yard. I am surprised to see our hosts standing on the deck in their shirtsleeves – it is November after all – and even more surprised that Thomas is spraying water from a garden hose onto Lena’s hands.

“Rune,” I say, giving him a nudge. “What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s difficult to explain.”

“Give me a break! What are they doing?”

“The theory is that if you open the cans of surströmming like that, the water catches some of the gas and carries it into the ground. They’ll also leave the open cans outside for a half hour or so… Er, why don’t I freshen your Tom Collins?”

Surströmming is a specialty of northern Sweden. Its origins are shrouded in the distant past. Only herring from the northern Baltic, which are said to have a special flavour due to the water’s low salinity, are used. The herring are fished in the spring just before they spawn. Once caught, they are rinsed but not gutted. A typical recipe reads:

When the herring has been rinsed, it is put in a kolfat for a day or more, so that the water is drained; it doesn’t matter if the fish becomes soft. For each firkin of fish, take 7 marks ground salt at the beginning of summer, but 6 marks in the autumn, and mix it and the fish in a large container, stirring with the hands. Then pack in barrels and cover with salt. When the barrel has stood uncovered for 8 to 14 days, put the top on and turn the barrel over. The herring will go sour, but take care to make some holes with a tap so that you can air it during fermentation.

(This recipe was written down by the ethnologist Hülphers in the town of Härnösand in 1780.)

Fermentation allows the fish to be preserved with a minimum of salt, once a very expensive commodity.

These days, surströmming is packed in shallow cans about six inches in diameter. As the fish ferments, it produces gas, which causes the can to swell. By fall the top and bottom of the can are noticeably convex (the surströmming is considered to have reached its peak at this point). By the following spring, the cans are shaped like balls and explosion is a danger.

A schoolmate told me that his brother once drove home from university during a late spring heat wave with a can of surströmming in the trunk of his car and the unthinkable happened.

The car had to be scrapped.

Lena and Thomas come in from the deck, a strange odour trailing them. Two open cans sit on a table outside.

“Did you warn the neighbours?” one of the guests asks.

“It’s a new development,” Thomas says. “We don’t have neighbours yet. That’s why we decided to do the party now.”

The doorbell rings. “That’ll be Gunnar,” Lena says. “My, my, he’s late.”

A few minutes later, Gunnar enters the room, looking flustered. After the mandatory round of greetings, he sits down.

“I’m late because I lost Lena and Thomas’s new address,” he explains. “I called Information, but they didn’t have the number.”

“The phone’s going in on Tuesday,” Thomas calls out from the kitchen.

“Well, anyway,” Gunnar continues, “I knew the general neighbourhood and I knew what we were having for dinner. So I had the taxi driver let me off down the street and I followed my nose to the right house!”

“Brilliant, Sherlock,” says Lena. “Now, why don’t you follow your nose into the dining room?”

Serving advice from a Swedish surströmming site:

All of the people who is going to participate in the dinner must sit close to the can when opened and they should as soon as possible inhale the smell. If you are more than 20 feet away from the can, you will not be able to inhale a concentration big enough. This is the trick—you must as quick as possible so that you strike out your smelling sence. Now you are ready to start eating!

We guests are seated three along each side of the table, alternating men and women. At each place is a large plate. Smaller plates are at the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions. A snapps glass of aquavit and a tumbler of pilsner are at noon. Baskets of a matzoh-like bread, tubs of butter, plates of sliced onion and bowls of steaming fingerling potatoes are placed strategically around the table. Thomas leaves then reappears carrying a tray on which sit two cans. An overwhelming stench, nauseatingly putrid, fills the room. The cans are placed in the middle of the table. After a few doubtful minutes, I can breathe again.

Lena asks me for my plate. It returns bearing a small fish that looks dull, limp, a little sad.

There is, I am told, a proper procedure for eating the delicacy. First, you butter a piece of bread and place it on the small plate to the left. Then, using your knife and fork, you gut the fish and place its entrails on the small plate to the right. Then you cut a piece of fish and spear it with your fork, followed by a piece of potato and a slice or two of onion. Now, take a bite of buttered bread. Then eat your fish, down the aquavit, drink some beer and Bob’s your uncle. You’re ready to repeat the process.

I take a bite of bread and, with all eyes on me, raise the loaded fork to my mouth. I chew. The taste is nothing like the smell nor is it very fishy. In fact, I rather like it. And the potatoes are superb.

Det är bra,” I announce to smiles.

“Don’t talk,” Rune whispers. “Drink!”

The aquavit burns my throat but cleans the palate. (It was the one time during my year-long stay that I enjoyed the taste.) The beer has a cooling, thirst-slaking effect.

I repeat the process once more, finishing my herring. I ask Lena for a second fish and am greeted with bravos all around.

“The only thing,” Rune says, “is that you have to switch to the traditional drink for minors.”



The wave of nausea returns.

“Can we compromise on water?”

Of course, the adults don’t stop drinking and soon become very merry. Most guests eat four herrings. I wonder what will be done with the leftovers. More beer, much more beer, is drunk.

Lena begins clearing the table and takes the plates into the kitchen. We hear her “oh, no!” over the diners’ din. A few minutes later, she returns, carrying a somewhat burnt fruit cobbler. Thomas follows with a coffee pot and a pitcher of cream for the dessert. The cobbler is served and Lena refuses the complements that are her due, so Gunnar stands on his chair and sings an improvised Ode to Burned Desserts and Their Cooks, with everyone joining in on the chorus. Lena acknowledges the thanks with a smile.

The doorbell rings. Thomas returns and explains that it’s the first of the taxis they’ve arranged to transport us home. First to arrive, Rune and I are also first to depart. As hastily as is possible at a Swedish dinner, we thank our hosts, wish everyone farewell and trundle off into the chilly night.

Greek winery tour: day three

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]


We had another full day ahead of us and had to be ready to go by 8 a.m.

Breakfast at the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel was a small buffet prepared by the woman in charge, who was friendly but didn’t speak English or French. It was the most home-cooked breakfast of the trip and probably my favourite: wedges of a frittata-like, sausage-studded omelet, roasted tomatoes, country ham, fresh orange juice, yogurt, mountain jams and honey, a small selection of breads and pastries and good coffee. We ate on the terrace, surrounded by trees in the fresh mountain air: a delightful, tranquil moment.

We were soon on the road, traversing the Peloponese (which took only a couple of hours), heading south on the E65 until about 50 km north of Kalamata and then west on the E55 to the Ionian coast. The landscape was greener than I’d imagined it would be and the going was easy.

Major highways in Greece are well planned, well marked and – a treat for us Quebecers – smooth. (We were told this was one of the benefits of EU membership.) Signs are in Greek with Latin transcriptions. Turnoffs for ruins and other tourist sites are clearly indicated. In some places, especially around Athens, some traffic directions in English are also provided. Of course, secondary highways and roads usually have signs in Greek only, but the pace on side roads is slower, leaving time for deciphering.

From what I could tell, native drivers, at least the ones outside Athens, are competent and considerate. Slow vehicles often moved to the shoulder to let faster vehicles pass. I don’t recall hearing a single honk during our travels outside the metropolitan area. In short, highways are unintimidating; non-Greek-speaking visitors need have no hesitations about driving on them.

Our destination winery was the Mercouri Estate near Pyrgos but we got there via a detour to Ancient Olympia, the site of original Olympic games.

Outside the entrance to the historic site sits a town devoted to tourists. And to go by the size of the parking areas and the scale of the restaurants, tourists must be legion, not that there were hoards at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. Still, we managed to score some decent coffee – mine an espresso freddo, an espresso on ice – in one of the large main street restaurants. Here as elsewhere, the style was more traditional Italian than third wave, but the drinks were made with know-how and care.

A ten-minute walk down a tree-lined boulevard and over a mostly dry river bed brought us to the entrance to the archeological site, which sits in a narrow valley surrounded by forested hills and mountains. There we met our guide, a Dutch expat historian now settled in Greece. Informed, engaging and professional, she made our tour of the compact site even more special, as she was able to add details – about the placement and design of the buildings, how they were used, how the ancients viewed the games and place, how athletes were rewarded, how cheaters were shamed and so on – that the brochures and information plaques didn’t provide. Even today, the site feels hallowed, and entering the stadium through the arched passageway where Plato, Herodotus and Alexander the Great, among many others, once walked cannot but fill one with awe.

The archeological museum on the site is a must-see, well worth the price of the extra ticket. Among the many artifacts it contains are a number of magnificent sculptures, including much of the pediment of the Temple of Zeus, and an imposing statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Here, too, having an art historian as a guide provided insight – remarks on the differences between the Greek and Roman styles of sculpture, for example, and why the latter was inferior – that would otherwise have been lacking. This was the first time I’d visited a historic site with a private guide and the difference it makes is enormous.

A short drive – no more than half an hour – took us to the focus of the day: the Mercouri Estate. Set on a gently rolling plain on the edge of the Ionian sea, the winery comprises a complex of buildings dating back to the mid-1800s and filled with antique furnishings and equipment; walking into them is like entering another era. A beautiful park lies between the buildings and the Mediterranean. An abandoned Italianate mansion, where the owners once lived, exudes a melancholy air of sophistication and elegance and begs to be restored. Touring the estate’s small museum, which houses artifacts once used on the site (old farming and wine-making implements, school room supplies, posters from the 1800s and early 1900s advertising maritime passage to New York and Montreal, etc.) is like stumbling upon a magical attic that has been sealed for decades. It is, in short, one of the loveliest agricultural homesteads I’ve seen. Time there seems suspended, life seems sweet, the past is present. Our wine tasting (the notes for which will be found on Brett happens) and lunch under enormous umbrella-like pines, a gentle sea breeze refreshing the heavy air, peacocks calling nearby, was a moment of grace due partly to the setting but also to the owners’ gracious welcome.

As if waking from a dream, we climbed into the van for the short ride up the coast to the Mare Dei Suites Hotel. Arriving there was like entering another dream. This, too, is a time-suspending place, albeit one whose allure is of a different, resolutely modern era. The site is magnificent: a steep natural ampitheatre with wild, scrub-covered hills above and on either side and a small cove with a perfect sandy beach – reportedly one of the Peloponnese’s finest – below, the clear Ionian Sea lapping at the shore, the island of Zakynthos rising in the distance. Perched on the hillside, the suites are a cluster of small buildings connected by paved walkways and stairways. The architecture is clean and angular. The dominant hue is white, though foliage and brilliant touches of colour abound. With a separate, recessed entrance, each suite feels secluded and private. The interiors are high-ceilinged and spacious (mine was three times the size of a standard North American hotel room), sparsely but stylishly decorated. A king-size platform bed with a firm mattress dominated the tile-floored room. Above it hung a large abstract painting. One corner of the room was given over to a small sitting area with a love seat, low table and two chairs. A small kitchen sink, refrigerator and bar with stools occupied the adjacent corner. The seaside wall was floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding glass doors that open onto a well-furnished private deck nearly as large as the room. The bathroom – mine had an enormous shower, others had tubs – was as large as many bedrooms. I assume my suite was one of the more expensive panoramic variety, as the view over the Ionian Sea was breathtaking, especially at sunset, and the sea was near enough that I fell asleep to the sound of waves and the tang of maritime air. Swimming, whether in the sea or the large pool, was excellent. Despite one or two quibbles (see the soon-to-be-posted Day Four report), this was a place I’d love to return to and spend a few days unwinding.

Dinner that evening was a lacklustre meal saved by the setting, wines and excellent company, in particular Vasilis Kanellakopoulos and his two sons, the owner-operators of Mercouri Estate. Tellingly, I neglected to ask for the restaurant’s business card, so I’m uncertain of its name or even location (after bombing around the area on Google Maps, I suspect it may have been the Vriniotis Hotel and Restaurant in Katakolo). It and a neighbouring drinking and dining establishment were perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean with stepped terraces that take full advantage of the magnificent view. As was the case nearly every evening, we ate outdoors. Here though, almost without exception, the food looked better than it tasted. The Greek salad, for example, included chunks of fresh fruit and nuts and a sweet balsamic vinegar dressing, and some in our party were convinced the fries had been frozen. Ultimately, the fare seemed like it was aimed at tourists. Still, the wines, all from the Mercouri Estate, were delicious. What’s more, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging and the camaraderie tangible. The Kanellakopouloses are open, engaging and worldly; for example, Vasilis and I spent several minutes chatting about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, not a book I would have expected any winemaker to have known about, let alone read. A memorable dinner then, but more for the surroundings and the delightful companions than the food.

We left around midnight and soon found our way to bed. It had been a very long but very special day.


Greek winery tour: day two

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]


A buffet breakfast was provided at the Sea Sight Boutique Hotel and, indeed, at most of the places we stayed. They nearly always featured a selection of juices, fresh fruit, cold cereals, yogurt, sweet rolls, bread, bacon, sausages and/or ham and spectacularly flavourful eggs. Vegetable dishes like baked beans and ratatouille also made regular appearances. With only one or two exceptions, the coffee was good and often excellent.

corinthcanalBreakfast consumed and bags packed, we climbed into the van. Our destination: the Peloponnese, where we’d spend the next three days. We skirted Athens and Piraeus and took highway E94 down the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the peninsula to the mainland. Just before reaching the Corinth canal, we left the E94, jogged west on highway 8 and crossed the canal on the Korinth bridge, parking in front of the south-end strip mall that houses the Canale Restaurant. We walked back onto the bridge for the magnificent if dizzying view of the narrow, steep-sided canal far below us. The mall was filled with tourist gewgaws but provided an ATM and facilities for a welcome pit stop. The coffee bar served a credible espresso too.

A short ride took us to Archaia Nemea, one of the four sites – along with Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia – of the Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece. It is also where Hercules completed the first of his 12 labours, killing the Nemean lion. Temple of Nemean ZeusBoth the Temple of Nemean Zeus, today with nine soaring (three-storey high) Doric columns, and the stadium of Nemea with its masses of oleander (used for athletes’ crowns), vaulted tunnel entrance (with 2,000-year-old graffiti), banked earth “bleachers” and sweeping view southward over the valley were places where time seemed suspended and the ancients not so distant, an impression no doubt enhanced by our being the only people present. The small archeological museum on the site is well worth a half hour of one’s time.

At Nemea we connected with Yannis Tselepos, our host winemaker for the day, and soon found ourselves in one of his prize vineyards, a hilltop parcel a stone’s throw from the Gaia Winery.

restaurant_kavosOur next stop was the town of Isthmia, on the Aegean coast just south of the canal’s east end. The destination: Kavos 1964 (Κάβος 1964), where we had one of the top meals of the trip. Situated seaside on a low bluff and shaded by tall trees, the restaurant’s outdoor tables, some under a pergola and others in the open air, overlook the clear turquoise water of Isthmia bay. Kavos specializes in local seafood and our feast included wild mussels, octopus, marinated white sardines, “white” (uncoloured) taramasalata, sea urchin roe, Greek salads with and without feta, sautéed gambas and a glorious platter of linguine with mussels, razor clams, roasted tomato, garlic and parsley. Dessert, which came after some of us took a quick dip in the bay, was fresh watermelon and cups of mastic ice cream topped with myrtle preserves. Tselepos sparkling and still whites made a fine accompaniment. The seafood was of a freshness Montrealers can only dream about and every dish was flawlessly prepared. A restaurant entirely worth the detour, especially as English and French are spoken.

We then headed south into the Arcadian highlands, driving past the Tselepos winery near Rizes to the tiny mountainside village of Ano Doliana, southeast of Tripoli. The landscape here is much greener than in Attica, with trees and undergrowth abounding. Actually, in one or two places the side of the road had been washed out by torrential rainfall a couple of days before.

Ano DolianaSitting in a forested natural amphitheatre at a little over 1,000 metres on the north slope of Mount Parnon, Ano Doliana is a magical place: a cluster of mostly old buildings, many of them stone, with steep, switchbacking cobblestone streets barely wide enough to admit our van. Ano Doliana was originally a summer village where locals living in Kato Doliana on the valley floor could escape the oppressive heat. Indeed, we found that, even in high summer, it was good to have a sweater or hoodie to don in the evening. These days, the village serves much the same function as before, though less for local valley dwellers than for visitors from Athens and other cities in search of a cool weekend retreat. On a Tuesday, the village was virtually deserted and I and two others in our party were the only guests at our inn.

That inn was the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel. The 1821 refers to the year of both the inn’s construction and the start of the Greek war of independence, which began in the Peleponnese, with nearby Tripoli being the first major city freed from Ottoman rule. A rectangular stone building that once served as the village’s primary school, the hotel has a large flagstone terrace at the entrance, a foyer with a soaring, wood-beamed ceiling and spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, several with thick stone walls, that, modern conveniences aside, transport you back to another era. The effect is both rustic and elegant. The bathrooms I saw had showers but no tubs, the rooms a four-poster bed with a comfortable, firm mattress, a desk, a small utility sink and a counter with a coffee maker. The valley-side rooms and terrace have valley views through the trees. What’s more, the village is exceedingly quiet, especially in the evening. As an escape from the hubbub of city life, you could hardly do better.

The rest of party stayed a short walk away in another old stone inn, Erasmion. All gave it thumbs-up, though to go by their descriptions, it was, building aside, a somewhat more typical modern hotel experience, albeit one that afforded an impressive view over the plain of Tripoli.

After settling in, we descended into the valley for a tour of the Tselepos Estate and a technical tasting of its wines, the notes for which are posted on Brett happens. Night was falling as we left the winery and climbed back into the mountains, ending up at a traditional taverna, To Dragoúni (Εστιατοριο Ψητοπωλειο Το Δραγούνι), several kilometres – along twisting mountain roads – from our inns but still within the boundaries of Ano Doliana. It was one of the only times we ate indoors, as the mountain air was too cool for al fresco dining. The fare included piperopita (similar to spanakopita but made with red peppers instead of spinach), zucchini omelette, Greek salad, a kind of porchetta (the restaurant’s specialty: salt-cured pork flavoured with citrus and roasted), more excellent Greek fries (these possibly cooked in local sunflower oil), sautéed greens (possibly foraged), house-made bread and, for dessert, honeydew melon, watermelon and a dense nut cake served with morello cherry preserves. Wines from Tselepos and other estates flowed. Down-to-earth, welcoming, authentic and, most importantly, delicious, this felt like another gem only locals know about.

It had been a long day and we were beat. We bid farewell to the Tseleposes and were soon in our beds, welcoming Hypnos’s embrace.


Greek winery tour: day one

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]


Our plane landed at 7:30 a.m., so we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our hotel. We were met at the airport by the owner-winemaker of the first winery on our tour, Vassilis Papagiannakos, who led us to a couple of his vineyards in Markopoulo, just southeast of the airport. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by fig trees, pistachio trees and grape vines, cicadas droning in the background.

Even early in the day, the temperature was warm and rising fast. In this part of Greece, the weather in the summer varies little from day to day: sunny, hot (mid to upper 30s), dry and very breezy. The wind is sun-driven and so is strongest in high afternoon and dies after sundown.

Aleppo pines and Agiorgitiko vines (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)In one of the vineyards was a small chapel built in the 11th century using stones recycled from far older buildings, including maybe an ancient temple or two. Nearby, a low slope was crested by magnificent, centuries-old Aleppo pines, broader than they are high – bordering on umbrella-shaped, in fact – with coarse ridged bark and long, not very fragrant needles. The resin from the species is considered the best for retsina production.

“You see those fig trees,” said Vassilis, pointing to a large orchard across the narrow country road. “In a few weeks, you’ll be able to buy the fruit in Montreal. The farmer has a near monopoly on supplying Greek figs to the vendors at the Jean Talon Market.”

We were soon back in the van, on our way to Porto Rafti. We passed though Markopoulo’s town centre, with its attractive square and cafés with outdoor seating. In contrast, the outskirts along the highway were a little suburban blightish: a broken string of small strip malls and small businesses with parking in front, rendered less jarring and incoherent than their North American counterparts by the low level of flashiness and the buildings’ similar architecture. The amount of English on business names, signs and billboards was surprising, especially to someone from Quebec. There were also a large number of shuttered stores and abandoned buildings and construction sites – a direct result, I was told, of the Euro crisis.

Our first night was spent at Sea Sight Boutique Hotel in Porto Rafti on the Aegean coast, today mainly a resort town for Athenians. The hotel proper is located on the inland side of a small, two-lane highway that parallels the shore. On the sea side is an open-air pavilion with a bar and dining tables, a rocky beach covered with imported sand, lounge chairs, palm leaf umbrellas and the beautiful Aegean, turquoise at the shore, teal and navy blue farther out. Sea Sight Boutique Hotel, Porto Rafti (photo: Theo Diamantis)Steep-sloped capes on both sides of the bay frame the view; just around the north cape is where the ancient Greeks assembled to launch their attack on Troy.

The beaches here are open to the public. That being said, if you install yourself on one of the loungers or the sand, you’re expected to buy a drink or snack from the bar. The swimming was splendid though the waves and floor – covered with sharp-edged rocks – made entering and leaving the water a challenge. A tip: wear flip-flops on your way in and out, remove and slip them under the waistband of your swimsuit once in.

Sea Sight is a small hotel and some of the rooms do indeed look out over the bay, though mine didn’t. The staircase and doors to the suites are outdoors and all rooms have private patios or balconies. Furniture and fittings are modern and stylish if, in places, a little worn. The beds are comfortable, temperature control is individual and, in July, the air-conditioning is welcome. My efficiently designed bathroom was fitted with a deep Jacuzzi-style tub and handheld shower wand. The staff speak English and are friendly and helpful.

Lunch in the beachside pavilion was a fine affair: a selection of meze, including octopus, sea urchins, Greek salad, expertly fried zucchini and eggplant, tiny shrimp and larger prawns, followed by impeccably fresh, impeccably grilled fish with vleeta on the side, all watered with Papagiannakos whites. Fresh watermelon and peaches were offered for dessert. An espresso from the beach bar was expertly pulled.

We were given the afternoon off to swim, bathe and nap, and told to assemble at 6 p.m. As a result, and despite hardly sleeping on the plane, jet lag was not an issue.

At the appointed hour, we piled into the van and headed to the architecturally stunning Papagiannakos winery on the outskirts of Porto Rafti for a tour and formal tasting, the details of which which will be found on Brett happens.

Afterwards we travelled around 10 km south-southwest to the old-town section of the village of Kouvaras for a memorable dinner on the streetside terrace of Gavrilis Taverna (Γαβριλης Ταβερνα), a butcher shop cum restaurant, where you pick your meat at the counter and they cook it to order. The dishes began arriving within minutes of our sitting down: tzatziki, tirokafteri, whole wheat bread and Greek salad with delicious feta on the side, all an ideal match for the excellent Papagiannakos retsina. There then appeared a platter of lamb pluck (offal, including lung) that had been chopped, tossed with flour and fried in local olive oil – a dish that conquered the resistance of even the most squeamish among us – followed by grilled “mother of lamb” (mutton) and Greek-cut lamb chops (some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere, Greek-cut or not) with sides of almira and the first of several memorable encounters with genuine Greek fries (fairly thin potato wedges placed in a frying pan, covered with cold olive oil and heated, the initial cool-temperature cooking followed by medium-high browning acting like a one-step version of double frying). A sweet old dog was loitering in the street below the terrace; we tossed him a few bones. There followed terracotta pots of sheep’s milk yogurt generously laced with very herbal local honey and studded with rehydrated raisins and chunks of quince. Plates of fresh watermelon – this part of Attica is a main source of the fruit in Greece – brought the meal to a close.

This family-run restaurant, not mentioned in any tourist guides I’ve seen, provided the perfect ending to our first day in Greece. Unpretentious and authentic, featuring top-quality local ingredients simply and knowingly prepared, served graciously with a minimum of fuss and eaten convivially outdoors on a balmy summer evening: the genius of Greek dining.

Markopoulo figs (photo: Theo Diamantis)


Greek winery tour: Going over

In early July, a group of seven Montreal wine and food geeks, including me, travelled to Greece to visit six wineries in as many regions in seven days. The trip was arranged and paid for by the wineries concerned with assistance from the European Union and the Greek government; I offer all of them – especially the wineries – my warmest thanks. In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be posting reports on the estates visited and many wines tasted on Brett happens and on everything else here. As the hotels and restaurants, some of them far off the tourist track, were chosen by the winemaker in each region, they can be considered recommendations from locals in the know.

What to take
In the summer, the generally hot, dry weather and casual dress code in all but the fanciest establishments mean you don’t need to pack much. Comfortable walking shoes, sandals and some flip-flops for the beach are the only footwear required. You’ll also want a couple of pairs of shorts and a selection of t-shirts, preferably light coloured. Pants of some sort are a good idea if you’ll be spending time in the cool mountains. A sweater or hoodie is also welcome in the mountains or even on the islands on some of the windier evenings. Men might want to make the pants chinos or slacks and to pack a short-sleeved buttoned shirt if they plan to dine at tony restaurants. Women might consider packing a summer-weight dress or skirt for the same purpose. Sunglasses and a hat are virtually essential, as are a swimsuit and a quick-drying towel if you plan to spend time on a beach.

Buying a couple hundred euros before heading over will let you hit the ground running. If you run out of cash while there, ATMs that accept foreign credit and debit cards are found in many cities, towns and tourist spots; the exchange rate is good, the service charges are reasonable and the withdrawal limits imposed on Greeks in the wake of the euro crisis don’t apply to foreigners.

I don’t carry a mobile phone but everyone else in the group did and had no problems texting, instagraming and calling with theirs.

Flying there
Our non-stop flights between Montreal and Athens were on Air Transat. It’s nine hours going over and an hour longer coming back. Heading east, we were on an Airbus 323-300 with 2-4-2 abreast seating in economy class. Having long legs and hoping to catch some shuteye, I paid for an extra legroom seat – specifically 4H, an aisle seat next to the window seat in the first row behind the club class section. Unlike the four seats in the middle of the row, which faced a bulkhead wall, a half-length privacy curtain was all that separated the side seats from the club class seats in front of them. This meant I had enough room to stash my backsack under the club class seat and still stretch out. A strut under that seat did interfere with lateral movement, a minor impediment that didn’t apply to the window seat (4K), which had more forward legroom than most first class seats do and which, along with 4A on the opposite side of the aircraft, must be the top pick for those not travelling club. Other advantages of sitting in this row were the relatively little aisle traffic and being first in line for food and drink service.

Air Transit recently upgraded the interiors of their aircraft and the new economy class seats are comfortable enough. Seatback screens with USB and earphone ports are provided. The entertainment system is serviceable, though you won’t find any art films among the choices. The food – a selection of sandwiches – was forgettable and hard to unwrap (even the flight attendants complained about the wrapping).

Athens airport
Athens International Airport “Eleftherios Venizelos” is a clean and modern facility constructed for the Olympics. It’s less of a shopping mall/food court than many North American airports and prices, even after you’ve gone through security screening, are reasonable (unlike at YUL, where 500 ml of Evian costs $5 and a pint of draft beer runs $13). Getting around is straightforward though necessitating quite a bit of walking, and there are some bottlenecks, most notably at passport control. Still, we were loading our suitcases onto our van within an hour of landing.

The airport is located east of Athens, and a high, steep hill, long ago stripped of its covering pine forest, separates it from the city. Though we didn’t use it, there is a subway station at the airport with a direct if pricey (€12) connection to downtown.