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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.
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.
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