Greek folk dancing is part of the Zafiro Experience

There’s more to Athens than just spectacular ancient ruins, writes R. Gowri

IT’S summer at its most fervent. Helios the Sun God, is in his element, roasting the hordes of tourists swarming atop the Acropolis in Greece, bathing all in solar radiation.

I spy a lone olive tree mere footsteps away from the Temple of Erechtheion, on the hilltop plateau where the famed Parthenon stands. I run for shade. Nearby is the spot where Poseidon, the Greek God of the Sea, is said to have shot his trident into the ground, gifting the denizens of the Acropolis a spring of water.

Make that salty sea water. Oops. The legend goes that seeing this blunder, the virgin goddess Athena, stepped forward with her spear. She was vying also to become patron deity of the city. Wise Athena touched her spear to the ground. An olive tree sprouted (perhaps the very one I'm under now?) It provided fruit, oil, medicine and shade to the ancient dwellers. Athena won the vote and the city was named after her.

My first day in Athens, Greece, thus far has been among the ruins of the ancient Acropolis, which overlooks the undulating land below where the modern city lies. The ancient citadel with its many remarkable buildings stands as a symbol of Classical Greece, which has had such an impact on modern Western civilisation.

The Acropolis is a favourite stop on the tourist trail. The architectural marvel that is the Temple of Parthenon (447-432 BC) still astounds with its grace and fluidity. As I stand before it I can see the upheaval and damage caused to this architectural paean to Goddess Athena under the hands of various invaders and passage of time; the Parthenon had even served as a church and a mosque at various times. But she, still, is glorious.

On the way up the rocky hill, I pass other Classical Greece structures built during various eras by rulers and influencers: the Propylaea, the ancient gateway to Acropolis; Temple of Athena Nike (Athena of Victory); the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (161 A.D) on the southwest slope that remains a venue for concerts till today (the Foo Fighters rocked the Odeon on July 10), and the Theatre of Dionysius at the foot of the hill, where gladiator fights once took place.

If you’re not really into ruins, a good guide can make all the difference. Wrap your head around the tales connected to the Acropolis: a great king who was half-man and half-snake, a heinous murder and political cover-ups, an unknown soldier who ran 42km in full armour to tell of victory against invading Turks, hidden treasures, sisters who leapt to their deaths after a fright...

With a steady dose of Greek mythology and ancient history, the ruined structures are rebuilt in my mind’s eye, taking on the dimensions of Hollywood epics, and I am riveted and humbled. Our guide from Ganymedes Tours (www.ganymedes.gr) is an archaeology student and she makes our 2-hour-long scramble up and around the hill so worth the while. History wins the day, despite the Sun God’s best efforts to scorch us all.
WHAT Acropolis, several ancient structures dating to Classical Greece, a Unesco Heritage Site
COST 8 euros or 20 euros (the latter covers other sites like the Temple of Olympian Zeus).
GO when it opens at 8am as it can get very hot on the exposed hilltop in the summer months.
TAKE Hat, water and wear footwear with a good grip.
WATCH OUT for slippery marble steps and slopes without guardrails.


MORE OF GOLDEN AGE OF ATHENS

There’s plenty more to digest of Athen’s ancient history; just a short walk away from the Acropolis is the New Acropolis Museum. Here you’ll see the finds from excavation sites on the Acropolis on display, It’s a place art enthusiasts can admire the classical beauty of Greek sculptures at length. Five of the original six maidens of the Porch of the Maidens from The Erechtheion are here (a sixth is in the British Museum).

A 45-minute city tour by bus takes me past other places of historical importance like the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, Panathenaic Stadium (where the first Olympic Games of modern times were held in 1896), the National Library and House of Parliament.


NEW AND OLD

Modern-day Athens hums with activity but our group, sitting pretty in our air-conditioned tour bus, is seldom stalled by traffic jams. In fact the city reminds me of Penang island in the early 1970s, before the high-rises changed the skyline. Many of Athens’ city roads are flanked by tangerine trees, fruit now ripened by the summer sun. Small groves of lemon and olive trees green roadside junctions, touches of pastoral charm among urban structures.

Coursing through its city roads, I frequently catch glimpses of the striking blue Aegean sea. Low-rise apartments, in neutral tones, are cheered by window boxes filled with summer blooms. Athens is not new and shiny like some other modern metropolises, observes my fellow traveller. I, however, find the absence of the usual rash of skyscrapers refreshing and unintimidating.

Getting around and out of Athens is pretty easy these days, serviced as it is by the Metro, tram cars, buses and taxis. Getting out of Athens for a day trip to the coast can be done via the Athens Coastal Tram from Syntagma Square.

My short shopping stint takes me to the older part of Athens, to Monastiraki Square and its surrounds. It is an ideal place for lunching and people-watching, with its al fresco cafes. The flea market here consists of long rows of small shops huddled next to one another. These offer a huge variety of goods -- from tacky souvenirs to real good buys. Alas, I only have an hour.

Before stepping into the market lanes, I spy a little church of grey stone facing the metro station. The doors are closed but I ask a man standing by its steps if I may enter. I step into the church’s quiet, dim interior and gasp in delight. What dazzling artwork of the divine — beautiful frescoes, ancient Byzantine paintings and icons, candelabra so beautifully wrought... all golden and resplendent among the multi-hued walls and ceiling.

My eyes grow misty as I look upon the beautiful face of the Virgin Mary in one of the paintings. This little katholikon, the Panagia Pantanassa Church, has a history that dates back to a 10th century monastery that had stood here, and it is definitely worth a visit.

Near to the square are a few more remnants of Greece’s past, including Hadrian’s Library, the Roman agora (gathering place) and the Tzistarakis Mosque (1759), now housing Greek folk art.
What’s good at Monastiraki Flea Market: Organic essential oils (at half the price back home), hand-crafted leather goods, customised sandals, varieties of olive oil, Mediterranean nuts, herbs, spices and dried fruit, religious art embellished with gold-leaf, hand-crafted soaps and music instruments, old books.

Bargain whenever possible.


GRAPES AND HERITAGE FARMS

The second evening I take a 45-minute ride by bus from Athens city to the oldest wine producing region, Mesogaia, still in the Attic peninsula. In the town Pallini lies the very gorgeous Wine Museum. Mouseio Oinou is a low-rise stone building, framed by arches, past which lie a wide blue pool and sculpted waterways bordering a stretch of lawn embellished by a huge weeping willow at one end.

The museum was established by the fourth generation Markou family to cherish and honour their ancestors who first opened the vineyards in the region in the 19th century. Private guided tours are by appointment.

In the underground museum are the old wooden barrels, hand carts, chillers and implements used in grape harvesting and wine production at the beginning of the century. As I listen to the family history and see the faded photographs of the once humble abode of the ancestors and the toil that went into their beloved land, it becomes obvious the generations had persevered through some pretty tough times.

The Wine Museum also hosts events in the beautiful grounds including wine tastings, corporate functions and weddings. Our scheduled dinner, catered by the pool, is a feast of sumptuous treats, including a whole salmon baked in a jacket of crusty dough. Red and white wines from the Markou family vineyards are served, delightfully light and refreshing. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the hospitality of the accomplished Markou family,


DANCE LIKE A GREEK

My third day in Athens is packed and by mid-afternoon, I’m hot and spent and somewhat unenthusiastic about the Greek cooking class listed in the itinerary. The blue sea keeps taunting me every corner we turn and has me yearning for the beach but my transport deposits me at a museum-restaurant-events club in Attiko Alsos in the suburb of Galatsi.

This all-in-one outfit is termed by the management “The Zafiro Experience”, and to be sure, it is a pretty well thought-out introduction to various aspects of Greek culture and traditions.

The museum tour has our diligent guide tirelessly explaining artisan methods of production in pre-industrial Greece — the old olive press, the stone mill that runs on water and grinds grain into fine flour (you actually get to try this yourself). There are walk-in exhibits of tradesmen workrooms like the cobbler’s, lamplighter, coffeemaker, tailor and so forth.

Zafiro’s (www.zafiroexperience.gr/en/) is large, set amongst lovely landscaped grounds with trellises of flowering plants and fig and olive trees. A restaurant/cafe bar on its higher ground offers the best view this side of Attica, perched high above Athens.

But I am pulled away to put on my apron and gloves, to help turn out Greek kitchen staples — old-fashioned bread baked in the wood-fired oven, hoiratiki (traditional Greek salad) and moussaka. It’s hot work but the chefs are good fun.

My companions and I finish just in time for the evening show and our handiwork is served along with other Greek culinary favourites, with free flow of wines, There is live Greek folk music and then the best part as the famed Dora Stratou Dance Theatre members troop in to perform several Greek dances, including the sirtaki.

The entire event space is now filled with diners from various tour groups and everyone gets pulled into learning the steps, shouts of “opa!” (Greek celebratory cry) ringing in our ears. The finale? In true Greek tradition, we smash plates on the floor. Opa!
THE PACKAGE
A neat way for families and friends to experience Greece’s artisan history, food, music and dance — a celebration of life, the Greek way! Food is good, not great, but with all that’s going on, you have to make allowances. If you’re a solo traveller and would feel lost among the hordes of merry-making strangers, there’s the cafe bar with its magnificent hilltop view of Athens.


GREEK KITCHENS

GREEK food equals to absolutely delicious Mediterranean cuisine — of grilled meats and seafood, fresh greens, olives and nuts, wonderful thick creamy yogurt and fine olive oils. An absolute delight for those who love “clean-tasting” foods. I certainly do. Never did I miss the chilli and belacan, not here.

My picks in some of the charming Athens tavernas:


4 Brothers at Mikrolimano Port-Piraeus: Harbour-side eatery that serves tasty quality seafood. Enjoy the amazing sunset and harbour view as you dig into various preparations of very fresh seafood, and meats. Recommended: The meaty, battered fried whitebait, fried calamari, fried zucchini (...in fact, fried anything, they have the frying down pat so you don’t get that greasy taste in your mouth) and the grilled Gilthead Bream.


Bairaktaris Restaurant at Monastiraki Square: Opened in 1879, frequented by celebrities and political figures, this busy taverna is famed for its souvlaki and lamb chops. Prices are reasonable and service is fast. Recommended: The grilled shredded lamb and chicken gyros meats have pretty wonderful textures with their crunchy skin and soft flesh. The tender and juicy lamb meatballs are another delight. Can’t say the same for the lamb chops, although the owner recommended this.


Mourouzis Tavern, B’2 Georgaki V Street, Kalyvia Thorikou 190 10: Dating from the 1920s, it’s a magnet for meat eaters. Excellent roasted meats (best lamb roast I’ve had anywhere) with accompaniments of tzatziki, Greek salad and sweet potato fries. Portions are very generous. Lamb on the spit is Euro 30 a kilo, and individual portions Euro 12.

Not to be missed if there’s a chance to drop in here. Around a 20-minute car ride from Athens Airport, 45 minutes from Monastiraki.


Note: Pork is a popular meat in Greek cuisine and halal restaurants are not very common. I was told the safest bets would then be the several Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants around Athens.

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