• hydra … our summer’s first and last port of call

    November 1st, 2017

    As stated before, I love islands. At their best they are little capsules of bliss. On an island you accept the fact that there is a disconnection from all that mainland hustle and bustle. You’re cut off. Which is a pleasure …  and while I am happy that there are more far islands left in this grand world to discover, my current favourite is Hydra. I am not alone. Far more distinguished company have resided or worked here – Leonard Cohen, Jurgen Teller, Sofia Loren among others. We had a celebrity sighting with a Game Of Thrones star. I’ve been twice and predict a return at the next earliest date.

    Although the amphitheatre arrangement style of the architecture of the port may be overshadowed by Santorini’s iconic and relentlessly photographed scene, Hydra doesn’t lack for charm. Strict codes preserve it from crass developments and ugly architecture. This is, for my money, exactly what I hope for on a Greek island. The fact that the port-side town lacks motor vehicles or even bicycles is a huge plus. Want to lug your bag up the hill, you have two options: shoulder the burden or hire a mule who line up, truculently, each morning to assist in the unloading of various goods at the port. They might not be the happiest islanders but their toils are greatly appreciated by a snap-happy generation of instagrammers as well as seven-year-olds who delight in being given a ride to the hotel along with overstuffed suitcases which don’t easily roll along on cobblestone streets.

    Given its proximity to Athens, (1.5 hours on the Flying Dolphin, 2.5 by Flying Cat) it’s a big favourite for casual weekenders as well as the elite traveller. The full spectrum of hospitality is available. We sampled two distinctly different properties. The rather grandiosely titled, Hydrea Exclusive Hospitality (at which the first four photos of this post were taken), located on the western edge of the harbour, is a magnificent perch, everything a romance seeker could expect style-wise from a design hotel. We also stayed at Miranda, an old captain’s mansion, which has its own old-world charm and much less “exclusive” prices, and where our welcome included another ubiquitous four-legged islander: a white and ginger street cat, we very creatively dubbed, Ginger. Hydra probably has the friendliest and most well cared for population of cats we have encountered so far, also much to the delight of the seven-year-old set.

    In terms of quality food and drink, you don’t have to wander far. Good, honest fare abounds. Side streets, in particular, offer a host of family owned and operated options. Eat whatever is featured on the daily menu. Fresh produce and other close-to-source ingredients make such dishes sing. Also sweet, sun-kissed tomato sauce with a hint of cloves make dishes such as rooster in sauce, or meat balls and sauce a daily craving. A side of fresh cut potatoes never hurts either.

    The most difficult question of the day is where to dip ourselves into the Aegean. There are fantastic places arrayed cliff-side to drink, take in the sun and plunge into Poseidon’s blessed pool. Yet some mornings the wind picks up and forebodes the need for a sheltered cove, in which case there are also beaches, usually requiring a 20-30 minute stroll, or a shuttle boat – if you don’t feel the need to exert yourself. When we wanted a beach our preferred choice was the Four Seasons (not the chain), which also comes highly recommended as a boutique hotel. It’s about 45 minutes on foot but the westerly walk features plenty of scenic places to stop and enjoy a refreshment or two. If speed is of the essence, there’s a regular shuttle boat every 30 minutes. While we can’t attest to the suites — having not stayed there — the food and the cheerful staff constantly deliver. Personally, I prefer to remain closer to the harbour, and so, from 10:00 AM most mornings, our favourite was the cliff-side, Spilia (pictured two frames above), where the super-friendly and talented bartender-barista, basketball aficionado Aggelos (pictured immediately above), hosted us with such natural good grace we almost felt like locals.

    As the sun moves westward, we almost always find ourselves at Hydronetta (shots 1, 3, 4 , 5 below) which means mermaid, for aperitifs. Just around the point from Spilia, the sunsets are a thing of legend. And despite some occasionally melodramatic playlists, we never felt the need to break with tradition. The sheltered cove was perfect for a dip on all but one evening where only yours truly felt comfortable venturing for a swim.

    After nightfall and a good dinner at somewhere like Kryfo Limani (Secret Port) or Pardosiako (Traditional) there’s always time for a digestif or two at Amalour, or you can head back to the port and enjoy a perennial favourite, Pirate Bar. But the music is really good at Amalour (immediately below) so don’t rush. In terms of atmosphere, the western portside Papagalos (Parrot), right below Hydrea E.H., is also good place to zone out next the gently bobbing yachts.

    While the season is now over for most of our preferred haunts, we’ll be kept warm with memories of a summer bookended by Hydra’s eternal magic. Thank Poseidon for the welcome tide that brings you ashore on Hydra. We now look forward to our return.

  • the wonder of the pinewood

    January 19th, 2014

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    In Istanbul it’s increasingly difficult to remember that our world isn’t comprised entirely of concrete and glass. Luckily this city has a few surprises left in store. One of which is only a few hundred meters from Haci Osman Metro station. Rough and unkept, unlike Emirgan Park or Belgrad Forest, is a large, and largely unused, pine wood. Although it’s open to the public, it’s not open to cars — although, unfortunately, it did seem to be open to the  odd motorcycle.

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    A few hundred meters from the entrance, you begin to lose sight of anything but the stands of pine. A blue sky looms overhead, and sunlight filters through the branches. Soon the city disappears, and aside from the wail of the occasional siren, you hear little more than the wind through the trees. Stray a little from the beaten paths and you’ll soon feel the soft springy carpet of pine needles underfoot. It’s then that you can occupy yourself with the important things in life — such as locating the perfect pine cone.

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  • Turkish Coffee: a fuzzy kind of feeling

    July 16th, 2012

    Do you ever have experiences you’re not sure how you feel about? That’s the fuzzy sort of thinking I have about Türk Kahvesi. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’m ever going to stumble out of bed, shouting, “Don’t talk to me until after I’ve had my first sip of Turkish Coffee!” And yet there’s something very intriguing in a Turkish coffee—even if you don’t use the remains to penetrate the ripples in space-time with fortune telling. Read More…

  • Cathar Country

    July 12th, 2012

    It’s often strange to think that this region of France we’re now in was once the site of one of Europe’s bloodiest persecutions. Hundreds of years ago this was the land of the Cathars, a religious group who believed that the material world was the creation of Satan and that worldly possessions were something that should be abandoned. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church feared their growing sway over people’s hearts and sent in the Inquisition.

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  • Summer Elixir

    July 2nd, 2012

    For some of us, summer isn’t always the holiday we want. Or sometimes it’s too much of what we want—sun, drink, late nights. That’s why when I’m feeling like I’ve overdosed on any or all of these things, I resort to my favorite seasonal elixir, which helps me detoxify physically and mentally. The key ingredient here is fresh turmeric root, something which is not always easy to find in Istanbul. I’ve tried with the powder, but don’t seem to enjoy the same feeling afterwards. Fortunately, as I was watching cool little video the other day, shot by I noticed that the natural food and organic supplier in Besiktas, Kirkambar, had some on the counter. Read More…

  • Weekday Escape: Atatürk Arboretum

    May 15th, 2012

    In Istanbul green space is at something of a premium. In fact, I read somewhere recently that it’s as low as six square meters per resident. So if you’re like me and have an unusual schedule to keep, or are a gentleman or lady of leisure you might just appreciate the Atatürk Arboretum in Bahçeköy. For a couple of TL you can stroll about at your leisure—whereas on weekends and holidays you need to be a member get your dose of naturally filtered air. While the occasional rampaging student or a gardener with a verge trimmer might shatter the trilling birdsong, there are plenty of paths to explore.

    This will be a great retreat on sweltering midsummer days, when the city atmosphere is thick with particulate. The first thing I noticed was the air, which I gulped down like water. It tasted of flowers.

  • No other place: Yeniköy

    May 14th, 2012

    Is it the architecture of yalilar, and konaklar? Your broad boulevard of plane trees? The secrets promised in your hidden lanes latticed with vines?  The glimpses  granted through spiky gates? The crumbling stone walls, the tucked away churches. Is it the wash of sea air through the fragrant leaves? Or the light that paints incredible texture on wood and stone, slanting low in the evenings?

    Could it be the meetings you’ve brought me? The welcome sound of familiar voices? The cups of coffee, the glasses of wine? Is it your slinking alley cats, eyes flashing between the grass? The street dog who beats her tail into the pavement every time I pass?

    Perhaps it’s all of these things, Yeniköy. But there’s one other thing that makes you indelible. You’re my daughter’s first home. Now there’s no other place. It’s strange, even though you’re with me, I’m missing you.

  • Japon Bahçesi

    April 26th, 2012

    One of these days I will be lucky enough to visit Japan during cherry blossom season. Until then, however, I’m lucky enough to have discovered this wonderful little gift from the city of Shimonoseki, Japan to Istanbul. Since 1972 the cities have been sister cities because of their similar landscapes and straits. This park was built about 10 years ago to commemorate the friendship in Baltalimani, not far from the Sakip Sabanci Hospital.

    The three weeks I spent in Japan a few years ago were nothing less than incredible. Since then, I have a radar for anything reminiscent of Japan. This is the perfect place to take a book or a loved one (or both) and a flask of green tea, and relax and spend a few hours. Don’t know what it’s like on weekends but it is very quiet weekdays. It’s especially nice if you’re a parent because the grass is clean and with the exception of the pond there are limited dangers for the small ones. Sof and I made blossom boats to float on the pond.

    Thank you, Shimonoseki.

  • A Dream Named Thessaloniki II

    April 3rd, 2012

     

    I’m still wandering down the corridors of memory. Stumbling perhaps. It’s a dreamy place I’m in and I’m not yet ready to relinquish it. Thessaloniki, Salonika … what was its magic? Was it the right amount of decay versus newness? Old visions merging into the new? The people? Perhaps it was the space in which to walk, empty but not vacant.

    Modiano Market. A vast roof above, still functioning stalls. Vegetables. Eggs. Meat. Cheese. A burst of voices, laughter. A flash of a smile. Then a beautiful silhouette. Her heels clatter on the stone. Her shadowed figure merges with the light at the end of the corridor. Cafes, tavernas, mini ouzeri clustered beneath the decrepit canopy.

    More signs I can’t read. This is intriguing. I want to come back. But it is shuttered at night when I return though, drowned in shadow, and locked. Next time, stay for lunch.

    The architecture of dreams. The crumbling and the cracked. The smooth walled and restored. Soaring ceilings. Fresh paint. Just the right amount of quirk.

    A wine bar named after Hermes, the first craftsman, the first intelligencer, the first alchemist. Didn’t sample the food, but the beer works. The dining locals seem pleased. A crowd worthy of more than a glance. Animated faces. Families. Couples. Cigarette smoke shot through with late afternoon sun. This too is a place worth returning to.

    An interesting couple. He’s black clad, alternative, she’s pretty, flashing eyes and a crinkling burn scar on her arm she makes no attempt  to hide. They are backlit, spotlit almost, in the window. They are having too intense a conversation for me to interrupt. I’d like to take their photo, but the mood between them isn’t right, it seems. There’s a debate, maybe about trivial matters, maybe something serious. Best to leave them in their bubble.

    Thessaloniki light. It penetrates the windows, the buildings, the cracks. It has space to illuminate and bring alive anything it washes down on. The air  moves too. It is not thick or heavy, but fragrant with the sea and the perfume of trees. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the cigarette smoke never chokes or cloys.

    The photography museum. A well curated collection by Greek talent shooting the vastly different places across the Middle East, from Dubai to Cairo in a converted warehouse building. Just the right amount of despots and the downtrodden. A suitably stark cafe with a terrific view of the passenger terminal quay. More parents and children. A toddler kicks the table, shattering the peace with his father’s coffee cup. Nobody minds.

    Back to The Met. An international crowd. Greek. Turkish. Arab and African. Japanese. All dressed in expensive, well fitting clothes. Late afternoon drinks. I’m always greeted in Greek. I like this. English has infiltrated too much of the world, stolen too much of its mystery. I like hearing other languages, like codes waiting to be broken.

    The sun is falling. Time to put the camera down. Another dream awaits me in the room.

    This one I won’t photograph.

  • A Dream Named Thessaloniki

    April 2nd, 2012

    It has excited my imagination for some time, but I know very little about it. I know it’s Mustafa Kemal’s birthplace, but ironically not part of the great modern state he created. It’s often compared to Izmir. Its history, rich, significant … Greek, Roman, Ottoman, 20th century, Jewish. It’s a port city, Aegean, named after the princess born on the day of a great Macedonian victory.

    To hell with guidebooks. Wander. Get a vague sense of direction and then to let all five, or is it six, senses lead me. I don’t want anybody else to discover for me. Why not relinquish the burdensome anxiety that something will be missed without Fodor’s or Lonely Planet?

    Yes, I have expectations, but seeing how close one’s imagination stands up to reality is another pleasure. Thessaloniki … Salonika … Selanik? doesn’t disappoint. There are echoes of other port cities, Izmir, Beirut, common architectural details like shuttered windows, but this is a city with its very own feel. Perhaps it’s the imprint of that vast and important aforementioned history.

    The Greeks are a far more resilient people than the images on the nightly news would suggest of late. Despite their recent economic woes, the locals here seem very much up to the task of appreciating the kind of wealth that only their geography can provide. Everyone is concerned but overall, I sense resigned calm, not panic, not depression. Why waste sunlight and spring?

    Other things I notice … the choice of a single species of tree for each of the central streets. Sunlight spilling down on the wide sidewalks, filling the cracks in the cobblestone malls. Corners and alleys alive with a kind of decrepit charm. But mostly space … space without excess emptiness. Spaces creeping with interest and imagination. It’s not a big city, not especially crowded, but there a lot of places where the inhabitants can go out and enjoy themselves. And they’re full to capacity. Metal jugs of wine. Grilled sardines. Grilled cheeses. Clinking plates. Cigarette smoke spiraling up into the air. Greek voices suddenly penetrated by clamorous Turkish ones. The streets, the city continue to replenish themselves.

    Atriums. Passages. Shafts of blue colored light and then Hermes Bar. High ceilings, tall windows, long late afternoon light. More cigarette smoke. I need to find this place again. Is it fate that I’m brought to a bar named after the God of all alchemists? And no, I can’t tell you where it is, the card is in Greek. But its location is no longer a mystery withheld from me. It will not dissolve like a dream.

    The vastness of the Aegean washes in empty except for a handful of freighters. Olive trees toss in a salt-tinged breeze. Orange trees hang heavy with fruit. Children play at their parent’s feet. Teenagers gather to greet and gawk at each other across Aristotelous Square.

    Time to find another glass of wine. The economy is not thriving. Life is.