Sunday, 11 January 2015

Goodbye


He left suddenly, unexpectedly, walking off into a cold winter’s afternoon. Where was he going? Was it possible that, after fourteen years, he could remember from whence he came and wanted to return?

His arrival was unexpected, too. A tiny bundle of matted fur curled up in the road outside our house, weighing no more than a ping-pong ball. That scrap transformed into a sleekly beautiful tabby who was the apple of our eye and the king of his domain.

Our world became his. He patrolled the garden perimeters with vigilance, keeping out interlopers with a bravery that was often foolhardy. Occasionally he would appear with ears bitten, scratched back and dented confidence, and then lay low until he felt back on form and able to rule his small realm again with pride.

For a stray, he never strayed. Not once. He never left his private paradise, our home. The only time his proud valour quavered was when he was forced to exit the front gate, safely boxed, on his way to the vet. Then he would cry and shake until the gates of home opened again, calming him instantly as they clanged shut against the outside world.

He must have known his time was near. Was it his pride that made him leave us? Did he not want to spend his final hours here, in his home, his Avalon? Whatever the reason, for the first time in his life, he voluntarily breached the walls of his kingdom and walked far, far away to a place where we cannot find him.

You didn’t let us say goodbye so I’m saying it now. We love you, Pookie, and will remember you always.






Thursday, 13 November 2014

Perusing Psirri

  

“Psirri, psirri, psirri, psirri”, repeat the name fast enough and you conjure up images of busy people passing on a succulent secret in whispers. In some ways, Psirri is a tasty secret, its often dark side streets hidden to many tourists who prefer to stick to the better-known, brighter alleys of neighbouring Plaka.

 But that’s a real shame, as this is one of the most interesting areas, both historically and culturally, in the whole city.

Psirri has known many incarnations throughout its long history. Even the origin of its name is lost in the jumble of time, some saying it comes from early settlers who came from the island of Psara, and others claiming that it arises from the wealthy Pseirros family who once owned much of the land in the area.


Understanding this part of Athens requires a little knowledge of modern Greek history; although inhabited in both antiquity and Ottoman times, Psirri rose to prominence during the Greek War of Independence because many of the heroes of the revolution built homes here. Their names are still commemorated today in the streets surrounding the main square, known as “Hero’s Square”.

The spirit of this fascinating neighbourhood carries on throughout the centuries. History and the present merge on Pittaki street, named after a nineteenth century revolutionary, Kyriakos Pittakis, and now adorned with a twenty first century
imaginative display of street lights produced by a local arts collective. All praise to the residents of Psirri for maintaining these lights, which remain shining nightly two years after installation- unusual in a city that often takes no care protecting new installations and initiatives.

Romantics might like to take a stroll down Thekla Street, where Lord Byron first spotted the Greek beauty immortalised in his poem as the “Maid of Athens”…and even if your soul doesn’t feel the pull of a poem penned in 1810,  it can surely appreciate the fine leather soles made by the famous poet sandal maker whose shop is also on Thekla Street.

The neighbourhood hasn’t always had a bright past, however. It gained notoriety following the war of Independence when many of its residents became more  armed and dangerous thugs than heroes of the revolution. One group of criminals known as the Koutsakavides were so powerful in the area they became a law unto themselves. The Koutsavakides had a fashion sense of their own, too, sporting long mustaches, high-heeled pointy toed boots (the precursor to the winklepickers, perhaps?) and tight trousers. They got their name from their odd gait (‘koutsos’ or lame) and were eventually suppressed at the turn of the nineteenth century by newly determined authorities who clipped the fifty year stranglehold the Koutsavakides had held over Psirri through humiliation tactics, cutting off the pointy toes of their shoes, shaving their mustaches and confiscating their weapons.

So it was that by the beginning of the twentieth century Psirri had gained a reputation for harbouring the underworld. it was here that Rembetika, the urban Greek folk music that sings of hash, heroin and poverty grew to prominence.                                  

But it also was home to skilled craftsmen who lived productive, law-abiding lives working predominantly in the leather and soap making businesses. Many of these families came from Naxos, and even today, if you visit the main square in Easter week you will be overwhelmed by dozens of Naxiots selling lamb and delicious Naxos cheeses.
                                                                                                                              
Architecturally, Psirri is an intricate mish-mash of its past.

Its industrial history is morphing into new guises as many of the old factory and workshop buildings throughout the area have been re developed and sold as loft or gallery space. 
Many of the mansions built after the war of Independence now house museums and cultural centres. 

And keep your eyes peeled for some beautiful iron worked doors and quite a few twentieth century Art Deco and Bauhaus apartment buildings.





There are dark alleys and boarded up, decaying buildings that shadow Psirri’s murky past and show its darker face.

Turn the wrong corner and you might see evidence of drug use, homelessness and civil discontent.

But that’s not a reason to dismiss this wonderful quarter. There is also a myriad of lively bars, intriguing shops, restaurants and homes that have been lovingly restored. This is not a cold, uncaring part of town. Here, residents know each other and greet each other daily.

What makes Psirri so endlessly fascinating to me is that it is a kind of microcosm for modern Greek history and it is as vibrant, individualistic, engrossing, creative and engaging as the country itself.



Thursday, 7 August 2014

Skorpios has a sting in its tale

One of the sandy beaches

The island of Skorpios lies off the coast of Lefkada in the Ionian Sea.  A serene, green oasis surrounded by the bluest of waters, the island was recently purchased by a Russian billionaire and was once the holiday home of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

It appears to be a little bit of heaven on earth but its story is not one of perfect happiness.....

Great wealth, as we all know, is no guarantee of contentment and Skorpios has seen its share of  struggle, grief,  loss and heartbreak.



'Ari' Onassis bought the island for around $10,000 in 1962.  In those days it wasn't the manicured retreat we see today complete with helicopter pad, sandy beaches, grassy lawns and several houses.

Then, the island was nearly barren and Onassis forested it by importing nearly 200 varieties of trees. There was no natural water supply so he had to buy a small neighbouring islet to provide Skorpios with water.  Reportedly, he also had to ship sand in from Salamis island near Athens to create enough beaches to give easy access to the sea.

Callas and Onassis on Skorpios
The island became a holiday retreat for two of Onassis greatest loves- opera star Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy.  Callas was said to be heartbroken when Onassis broke up their relationship to marry the former US First Lady  in October, 1968.  (Callas never recovered from the separation and died a lonely death in Paris a few years later.)





The island was Jackie's favourite place. She often spoke of how much she loved the colour of the Ionian Sea and the fragrant flowers that grew everywhere. It became a sanctuary where she could fully relax and not worry about who might be watching her. Even so, Jackie and Aristo, as she called him, never really lived under the same roof for any length of time and their marriage was allegedly a turbulent one.

Ari and Jackie's wedding on Skorpios

Patrol Boat

Imported sand!

 After Onassis' death, the island passed to his daughter, Christina, and then on to her daughter, Athina Roussel.  Both Onassis' son and daughter died tragically young and never really spent much time on Skorpios. They are buried there, though, alongside their father in the family mausoleum.






Athina grew up out of Greece and has shown little interest in her mother and grandfather's country.  Recently, she sold Skorpios to Ekaterina Rybolovleva, daughter of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

This would not have sat at all well with Onassis, who stated in his will that the island should remain in the family as long as they could afford to cover its maintenance expenses. According to the will, if his descendants could not cover the upkeep costs, the island should be donated either to Olympic Airways or to the Greek state.

It is currently not a friendly place to visit as patrol boats circle the island twenty four hours a day warning visitors to keep their distance.  To underscore this point, signs are posted on the shoreline at very regular intervals.

Keep Out!

 It's hard not to wonder if the Rybolovlev family will have better luck with their island than the Onassis family.  Certainly, the legality of its sale is being debated in Greek parliament and there could be serious repercussions if the sale is pronounced illegal.

24 year old Rybolovleva is said to have paid around £100 million to obtain a one hundred year lease of the island.  How much time she actually spends there remains to be seen.

 





Onassis certainly visited as much as he could,  and he still casts a long shadow on this island idyll.  Much of the interest this tiny piece of Greece generates is due to the myth surrounding his legacy.  It seems fitting, then, that a statue of 'Greece's Last Tycoon' stands in the town of Nidri on the island of Lefkada, forever staring out across the bay at the place that brought him both immense joy and sadness.


Perhaps the bad luck that dogged the Onassis family will not shadow the Rybolovlevs.  But there is already evidence that Skorpios has not lost its sting and its tempestuous history could continue on.  Apart from questions from the Greek state over the legality of sale, Rybolovleva's ownership of the island was challenged by her mother, Elena, as part of an ongoing divorce case involving her parents.



Rybolovelva at the 'Pink House' on Skorpios




Friday, 13 June 2014

Aristotle's Lyceum



If Homer was correct in writing that “the souls of the dead come to the Meadow of Asphodel where the phantoms of those whose work is done abide" then surely Aristotle’s approving spirit must be roaming here among the asphodel in the grounds of his lyceum.

Founded by Aristotle in 335 BC., the lyceum was known as a Peripatetic School (from the Greek word peripatos, which means stroll) as it is believed that Aristotle liked to stroll through the school’s tree filled groves discussing philosophy and the principles of mathematics and rhetoric with his students.

 
This inspiring site was excavated by archaeologist Effie Lygouri in 1996 and first opened to the public in June 2014.  The idea is to integrate the Lyceum into Athens every day life as part park, part historical reminder of the city’s glorious past.

As this is the remains of a peripatetic school it is especially meaningful to have created a natural looking landscape, and as I entered from Rigilis Street one of the first things I noticed were tall grasses rustling gently in the breeze and the sound of birdsong. Even the sound of traffic on nearby Vasilissis Sophias Avenue became a distant hum as I got closer to the excavations. 
 
Aristotle was himself a student of Plato and, although he was Plato's most promising pupil he held opposing views on several fundamental philosophical issues. These beliefs led him to found his own school and it was here in this incredibly significant spot that he developed and taught his own method of inductive and deductive reasoning, observing the workings of the world around him and then reasoning from the particular to a knowledge of essences and universal laws. 


 
The Lyceum was a school of unprecedented organized scientific inquiry and, In a sense, the first major centre to put forward the modern scientific method. It was from here, too, that Aristotle wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects including politics, metaphysics, ethics and logic.


  
It wasn’t all intellectual pursuits for the fourth century BC scholar, however. Athleticism was highly valued and there are the remains of baths, a gymnasium and a palaestrae where students would box, wrestle and compete in the no holds barred pankrateion.


It seems as if history has almost come full circle here....with its well-tended walkways lined with sweet smelling thyme, rosemary and lavender Aristotle’s Lyceum is once again a spot for walking, an oases of calm, a setting for reflection, and still- perhaps most importantly- a place for learning.



Thursday, 22 May 2014

Take the Beach Train with the Athens Metro!


 How many years has it been since an advertisement captured your attention and fired your imagination? Can you recall a time when an ad campaign seized massive notice and people would hum a jingle or quote a catch phrase or line? Perhaps not, because those days are long gone and our world now moves like a speeding train flashing split second images across our consciousness.

Jaded and over stimulated by a plethora of images, facts and data, it is amazingly refreshing to feel truly wowed by anything any more.  But these 'Outside Project' ads  on Athens Metro system take you back to those 'Wonder Years' when a commercial still packed a punch.

The Newtons Laboratory have created a stop and stare, in your face (or in this case, at your feet) all out, can't be missed experience.  Taking Greece's beautiful sea into a hot, sweaty commuter train is pure genius.  You can't help but admire the creativity that's gone into their creation and then wonder at the technical expertise of the very real looking sand and sea that laps against the sides of the carriage.


There are footprints in the sand at water's edge and a few seashells lay scattered here and there.  Sitting in the carriage, I wondered how my fellow passengers were reacting to the images- were some annoyed by them, longing for a holiday they couldn't afford?  Were some of the foreigners heading to the airport saddened by them, thinking they would miss the Greek seas and beaches?  There must have been a few that were smiling inwardly, secure in the knowledge their holiday on a much loved island was booked.


The outside of these beach trains is much more pedestrian but still cheery. Images of surfers, beach bunnies and fun in the sun cover the entire length of the train.  As I watched my train speed out of the station, it dawned on me that this wonderful campaign has a fatal flaw- it is so eye catching and interesting, you completely fail to notice the product it is promoting. I was brought down to earth with a bump when I learned that, as it turns out, all this innovative campaign is for....a lottery scratch card!


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

My Little Pony



Sometime in the late seventies my mother bought a Pony. And no, it wasn’t one of the hoofed varieties but a shiny red, made -in -Greece quasi jeep with a really odd gear stick and a Singer sewing machine of an engine.


Although sceptical at first when faced with this odd looking vehicle, I have to admit it proved to be one of my mother’s best buys ever and one that we would all come to love and respect.

The Pony was the perfect transport for island life (my mother had a house on Skiathos) and could boldly go where practically no car had gone before. But it was not quite so ideal for long distance journeys and maybe deciding to drive three of us from Greece to England in it was a tad overly optimistic on our part.

We progressed through Italy with little difficulty- as long as we slowed down to let almost every single HGV or lorry overtake us safely we were just fine.  We quickly saw that failure to reduce speed produced a strange ear popping skid towards the hard shoulder, so after a few near misses we metaphorically doffed our caps to the 'big boys' and slowed to snails pace. 

In France we encountered a new challenge, discovering that a 2 stroke 600cc engine simply couldn’t propel the car forward when faced with a steep incline and a strong headwind. This test of the Pony's horsepower occurred on an auto route and I remember we just had to pull over and wait for the wind to die down before attempting to reach the top of the hill!

Headwinds notwithstanding, we slowly but surely made it all the way to the UK. Arriving somewhat triumphantly at Dover, we were greeted by an incredulous customs officer who wasn’t quite sure if he was witnessing a trio of eccentrics driving a golf cart or the latest in some unknown form of home made technology. I remember that he called at least four of his colleagues to gape at the spectacle, though, before waving us past a gathering crowd of onlookers.

As my mother had some paintings that she wanted to bring to Greece still in store in England we duly packed them into the back of our stalwart little Pony. There seemed to be room for some household items so my mother added those too. Noticing that the suspension appeared to be holding up under the strain, she bought a stone fountain and chucked that in as well.

Praying that we would have good tailwinds and that we wouldn’t meet too many headwinds, we set off back for Greece. It might have been foolhardy to trust in the overloaded Pony’s brakes and suspension by traveling down the Grand Corniche into Monaco but we survived the test and then probably considerably diluted the high aesthetic of luxury vehicles usually parked on the streets of Monte Carlo for a few happy days. Our Little Pony had turned into a real pack horse and we could only sing its praises.

The Pony did ten years or so of sterling service for us, and was then sold on Skiathos to a friend who managed to drive it off a cliff. Both he and the Pony survived (happily) and the car was dragged back up onto the road, fixed, and put back into circulation!

First generation Pony-Citro├źn like ours were made until 1983 but Pony cars disappeared altogether in 1992 after the National Motor Company of Greece (Namco) suspended production of their second generation Super Pony.

What a surprise, then, to see that these amazing cars are trotting back to the production line.  The 2014 new generation of Pony should be great news for anyone who wants an economical, sturdy vehicle….ride, Pony, ride!

If you are interested in learning a bit more about these Greek made vehicles, try visiting this web site: The Best From Greece

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