Greek winery tour: day three

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DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)

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.

GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
► DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

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Greek winery tour: day two

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DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)

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.

GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
► DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

Greek winery tour: day one

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DAY ONE: ATTICA

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)

GOING OVER
► DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK

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.

► GOING OVER
DAY ONE: ATTICA
DAY TWO: ARCADIA (EASTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY THREE: ELIS (WESTERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FOUR: ACHAEA (NORTHERN PELOPONNESE)
DAY FIVE: MACEDONIA
DAY SIX: SANTORINI (CYCLADES)
DAY SEVEN: SANTORINI AND ATHENS
COMING BACK