My Greek Vacationfrom the Sunday, September 10, 2006 edition of the Austin American-Stateman - statesman.com
My Big Fat Greek Vacation
Isles and isles of Greece
Whether you crave the serenity of Syros or the merriment of Mykonos, there's a Greek island – with fabulous food and views – waiting for you
By Joe Nick Patoski
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, September 10, 2006
There are more than 2,000 islands off mainland Greece — 170 of them inhabited, and no two alike.
That was my conclusion 36 years ago when I visited my relatives in Greece for the first time since I was a baby. But earlier this summer, when I returned to my mother's country for the first time since her death, bringing along my wife, two sons, sister and brother-in-law, that truth rang louder than ever.
Take the islands of Mykonos and Syros, the scenes of this year's adventure.
Both are about 70 miles east and south of Athens. Both are dreamy slices of island paradise with the delicious contrast of dry, hilly terrain that looks a whole lot like high Big Bend country, only instead of being surrounded by endless desert, these bare mountains are surrounded by the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea, as clear as the Caribbean.
We already had planned to visit my Theo Christos and Thea Roussa on the island of Syros. Our family had stayed at the eight-bedroom spread that became their permanent residence 10 years ago, traveling with my mother, and found it to our liking. As far as we were concerned, we didn't have to leave Villa Roussa to have a great vacation. With a cushy hilltop perch between two beaches, with a sunset view overlooking placid waters that Homer once wrote about, why go somewhere else? No wonder Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt and their families tried to rent the place last year (Uncle Chris turned them down because it would have conflicted with their granddaughter's christening).
But before we left Texas, Theo Christos informed us we'd be spending a few days on Mykonos, too, at my cousin Loula's place. Just as some Austin people have lake places and vacation ranches and farms, Athenians have island places, it seems. Seeing both with kinfolk was an opportunity to compare and contrast, especially since the islands were so close you could see one from the other's port.
I'd visited Mykonos a long time ago, when I was a card-carrying member of the international "backpack set" and camped out in caves near Paradise Beach, when there wasn't much to the sleepy little island. Since then, Mykonos has evolved into a jet-set destination, and Paradise Beach is a 24/7 party.
Syros, my uncle kept telling me, was not like Mykonos.
Mykonos and Syros share many of the attributes that make the Greek Islands so alluring: clear, deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea; stunning coastlines with hidden beaches of every variety of sand and stone tucked into remote coves; placid panoramas of sailboats, yachts and fishing boats gliding across the water; impressive ports with picturesque waterfronts; and rocky hillsides with prickly pear and agave cacti, flaming oleanders, red bougainvilla, orange trumpet vine, pink and red hibiscus, and lantana of all colors. Thyme, fennel and capers grow wild in fields separated by stacked rock fences, and groves of olive, eucalyptus, pine and fig trees are present wherever you turn.
Both sport lovely tavernas, the simple eateries where families eat, drink and converse, an ideal setting to savor a communal meal and the Greek way of life. Dinner in the summer typically begins around 10 p.m. and winds up sometime after midnight.
Neither island has high-rises nor billboards; both are smoker-friendly. No-smoking areas are all but nonexistent.The similarities end there.
I have to admit, Loula's place on Mykonos was pretty swell. The last hillside villa on a road on the extreme southwestern tip of the island, the four-bedroom white stucco spread was straight out of Architectural Digest with clean lines and a Moorish-Mexican look with requisite swimming pool, cabana and private beach below, and a sweeping view of the eastern horizon.
But at the end, the nod went to Syros, a compact island about 12 miles long and four miles across with a population of 20,000. If Mykonos is known around the world for clubs that thump with the Euro-pop beat till 10 a.m., then Syros is the anti-Mykonos. Oh, downtown Ermoupolis is noisy at midnight on weekends, but by 3 a.m., its marble streets are pretty calm.
On Syros, tourism is a small part of an economy that runs on government, a large shipyard and agriculture (greenhouses litter the island interior).
Let the cruise ships descend on Mykonos and overwhelm whatever charm is left. Islanders on Syros point out that Ermoupolis may not be worthy as a major cruise line port o'call, but it attracts plenty of yachts and sailboats that jam the amphitheatre-shaped port on weekend evenings during the warm months. The smaller boats pull up next to the sidewalk cafes on the waterfront, and boat owners, captains and crew members gather around tables on their boats a few feet from the rest of the town sitting around their tables, and the whole island watches the street parade until well past midnight.
Mykonos architecture is all white sugar cube boxes — think Santa Fe, N.M., only bleached. Syros is two-story tree-shrouded 19th-century Italian mansions with rock and granite walls and red tile roofs, especially around Poseidonia, where my aunt and uncle live. The architecture and the local preference of referring to Poseidonia as Dellagracia reflect the island's strong Venetian influence, which dates back to the 13th century. Then again, some inland stretches could be confused for Tuscany if not for the deep blue sea in the distance.
The Mykonos crowd comes from all over the world. Syros visitors come mostly from Greece and in July and August, from Italy and northern Europe. When the high season is over on Mykonos, the island pretty much shuts down — so much for Bulgari jewelry, Italian gelato and Corona Beer T-shirts — until spring.
Syros, whose history dates back to the sixth century B.C. and the pre-Socratic philosopher Pherecides, stays open year-round for business and for pleasure, if that's what you're looking for.
Miaouli Square, the main plaza in Ermoupolis, two blocks from the waterfront, is a real public gathering place where kids run and kick soccer balls on the marble tile. The open space is surrounded by the Italian neoclassical Town Hall on one side, and sidewalk cafes on the other three sides — the perfect place to enjoy a thimble-full of strong, muddy Greek coffee and a plate of loukamadis, a Syros dessert delicacy of fried sweet dough drenched in honey and cinnamon that is popular throughout Greece. A small museum at the northeast corner of the Municipal Building has reproductions of human figurines with folded arms found on Syros dating back as far as 2,800 B.C. They look a little bit like the giant heads found on Easter Island in the Pacific and a little bit like the Oscar award. There also are other artifacts from the island.
A block up the hill is the Apollo Theatre, a 150-year-old small theater built on the same blueprint as La Scala Opera House in Milan. Farther up the hill Ano Syros, or High Syros, the splendidly tranquil medieval maze of whitewashed residences and cafés surrounded by narrow footpaths too tight to accommodate any transportation other than a donkey. The biggest difference between Syros and Mykonos was the pace of life, a point driven home when Aunt Roussa took us to a seaside taverna in Kini on a Saturday night and another on Delfini beach on the northwest side on a Sunday afternoon. Both were sublime locations, attracting people from the neighborhood to idyllic little settings meant to be shared by just a few.
Both were family operations. Neither needed signs to tell people where they were located. Open-air roofs were little more than bamboo stalks tied together. Each brimmed with soul.
The Kini taverna, illuminated with light bulbs reflected in the small bay's waters, was idyllic, with dogs sleeping under the tables and the daughter of the owner looking like a goddess as she paused, while waiting tables, to look out at the sea. The plates of tomatoes, peppers and onions, rocket lettuce, beets, minnows, fried potatoes, with everything drizzled in olive oil, even the grilled meats and octopus, and the divine conspiracy of garlic and yogurt that is tzatziki were exceptional. My younger son Andy observed, "We haven't had a bad meal yet."
Yet that meal was topped by lunch at the Delfini taverna the next day, where the beaming host of the Delfini tavern handed us menus handwritten in Greek on 3-inch-by-5-inch notecards.
We were all pretty content to lounge around my aunt and uncle's, going down to the nearby beaches or scootering off to discover a new beach. The best time was simply sitting on the back patio gazing out at the sea, with a small tilted rock island about a half mile offshore mirrored by a larger tilted-rock island in the distance by the horizon line. The sounds of laughing voices accompanied by the soft slap of paddle tennis being played on the sand on the beach below and the distant putter of a fishing boat pushing across Finikas Bay, which was described by Homer in the Odyssey and where the Phoenicians landed before Christ was born, was some of the sweetest music I've ever heard.
One of the most pleasant discoveries of this trip was learning that everyone has an island in Greece, or so it seems. Syros turns out to be Thea Roussa's island, where she was born and where her mother grew up; her father was from Santorini. The family island of the Cassalias, my mother's family, is Andiparos, a smaller island hidden behind Paros, which is within eyesight of Mykonos. Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt ended up renting a villa on Andiparos last year, after my uncle turned them down, my aunt told me.
Just when I thought I had two islands pretty well figured out, new ones were being added to my "to do" list. Then my cousin Loula's husband said I didn't really know the Greek islands until I went to his island, Hydra, closer to Athens, which he described as a bohemian, Greenwich Village kind of island. Sifnos was worth investigating too, he reckoned. Then other relatives started telling me how I had to see Santorini, Rhodes and Corfu, as well as Andros, Tinos, Naxos, Serifos, Kythos, Kea, Crete and Yaros.
Sheesh, not only did the relatives guilt-trip us while trying to feed us more food ("What, you don't like Greece? Why don't you eat?" and "Nicky, you're too skinny") just like in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," now they were feeding us island knowledge to make us want to come back.
If I have to spend the rest of my life checking their recommendations, the Greek blood that runs through my veins tells me I'm up to the task.
Patoski, former American-Statesman and Texas Monthly staff writer, is writing a biography of Willie Nelson.
If you go . . .
Lodging: Chain hotels and luxury resorts are not part of the Syros mix. But there are nice places, ranging from simple rooms starting at 15 euro ($18.75 a night) to elaborate villas such as Villa Roussa. (If all eight bedrooms in Villa Roussa were rented, the asking price last year, through an agency that takes a cut, was $9,800 a week.) A good selection of island hotels can be found at www.holiday.gr/place5.php?place_id=107.
Getting there: Delta flies nonstop to Athens from Atlanta with nonstop connecting flights from Austin. Numerous airlines have nonstops and one-stops from Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston Intercontinental, New York and Chicago. Our economy class tickets ran about $1,250 each for summer travel. The price starts dropping in September.
Ferries run several times a day between Pireaus, the Port of Athens and Ermoupoulis. Hellenic Seaways runs high-speed ferries, which take 1 1/2 hours in each direction, with tickets priced about $50 per person. Slower ferries, such as the Blue Star Line and GA Ferries, take about four hours and cost about $25 a ticket. Reservations are recommended, especially during summer. Ferry schedules and links for reservations are at www.ferries.gr.
You'll need transportation if you plan on moving around outside of Ermoupoulis. Rental agencies at the port have small cars for about 35 euro a day ($43.75) and scooters between 10 euro and 20 euro ($12.50-$25).
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