“Melancholia tou septembri” — it seems that every time you turn on the radio you hear the Greek version of the mournful old Italian song by Peppino di Capri. In this unprecedented year there might be more reason to be melancholic. But on the other hand, photos of crystalline seas still catch my eye in articles on finding the best beaches around Athens, or the best weekend getaways just as they appeared all through August. In this spirit we decide to go away for a few days to a nearby island: Kea, also known as Tzia. Here is the song in the original Italian, English translation here.
But before we get on the ferry, let’s go back to August for a moment, when we had to go into the city one day to pick up a document from the translation bureau near Monastiraki Square. The square, usually empty in August, was even more ghostlike this summer. A few tourists were looking listlessly at the Lonely Planet guidebook for Athens and the usual dogs were sound asleep, heads on their paws, in the shadows of the Pantanassa Byzantine church. On the metro, expressionless faces behind their masks, staring into space. With the translation I had to pick up, everything seemed to be in order — though I was a little wary, remembering my past experience in 1985. They had given me a whole new identity when they translated my birthplace Knoxville Tennessee as Knoxville Tunisia.
On our way to the translation office, on the edge of the Psyrri neighborhood (City Walks: Monastiraki and Psyrri) suddenly a street of blue and pink parasols catches your eye.
Am I dreaming? It’s the Little Kook tearoom of course, the king of kitsch with its summer decoration of a Mary Poppins theme. Leave it to Little Kook to spice up the crumbling buildings of Psyrri. Although kitschy and overdone, it is for sure some luscious color in the center of the city.
Little Kook makes you smile as it colors the sleeping city in August, but in September cultural events are actually blossoming. Athens was mostly a shadow of itself this summer. The Herod Atticus theater (Herodion), the magnificent Roman theater under the Acropolis had a handful of performances, but many are scheduled now for September, even October. No intermission, no refreshments, tickets must be bought earlier online. Be sure to have your mask with you.
Now, both in Athens and outside the city, theaters are having concerts and plays. Even for free performances, some require advance registration with email and/or phone number for contact tracing purposes. Other events just require you to get there a good hour early. So it was with the Athens Outdoor Film Festival, in its 10th year, which went ahead in June with only 10 films scheduled instead of the usual 20 or so. These are films shown against various Athens iconic backdrops, such as the temple of Olympian Zeus where we saw Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” The setting made even more mysterious the opening words “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” and Mrs. Danvers seemed even more sinister against the sight of the temple columns in the darkness.
Although I only made it to two of the 10 films this summer, we had a pleasant surprise when the outdoor cinema which some years ago had been in the schoolyard across the street from our house, returned unexpectedly one July evening.
The cinema had been at a location for cultural activities in the neighborhood, where dogs and cats roamed freely, where they had very long intermissions to sell hot dogs and popcorn, and if there weren’t enough chairs, you could sit on the stone steps — no one was turned away. This summer you were given a card with a number and only 150 people allowed. Some of the films had only 23:00 (11 pm) showings when we would invariably fall asleep at different parts of the movie. If I dozed off near the beginning and Elias at the end, then we could fill each other in on what we missed. This was the case with Hitchcock’s overly long “North by Northwest” with its apt and very descriptive Greek title “In the Shadow of Four Giants.” With the screen now taken down and the directors’ chairs carried away, the basketball nets have been put back and presto, it’s a school again.
And the Stavros Niarchos foundation cultural center started to come back to life. This past week was a tribute to Ennio Morricone, the beloved film music composer who died this summer. For five nights on the xefoto, the great lawn, films with his music were shown. I was wondering if/how they could socially distance the Lawn but in fact, isolating circles had been drawn all over, some for two, some for four. Who would think of that!
Other venues started to come to life. The Acropolis Museum front patio, usually the site of an August full moon concert, had been silent this year, but one evening featured a Mozart themed concert by the Athens state orchestra. So we joined others sitting on the steps distanced from each other, but a barrier had been set up in front of the musicians to keep a distance, making a muffled sound. The people sitting in the chairs must have acted superfast to make online reservations for a small number of seats.
II. Lavrio and Tzia
Throughout the summer, constant articles in the Greek news, with beautiful photos told us of “the most beautiful unspoiled beaches around Attica!” “Four of the loveliest beaches to spend your weekend!” “The hidden jewel of east Attica!” We decided in August to find one of the “jewels” for a change, as we tended to go to the same beaches all the time: such as Nea Makri with its Caribbean look of palm trees and its colorful chairs from the “Amor de Cuba”cafe,
or Porto Rafti or Loutsa. We thought to explore the area between Lavrio and Sounion on the southern coast of Attica. It was an unusually cool day, with some clouds, with even a “chance” of rain. This was in early August, when both of our children happened to be visiting us, a treat as rare as the unseasonable weather.
Outside of Lavrio, 60 km from Athens, we stop to visit the ancient theater of Thorikos, from the late 6th century B.C., said to be the oldest in the world. Excavated by the American School of Classical Studies, in 1886, it’s up on a hill looking down to the Bay of Thorikos. Ted and Suzanna are not above scrambling up the steps to take a look from the top, like they used to do when they were younger.
Now heading to the city of Lavrio. Actually the only thing I knew about the town was the refrain from a song by composer Manos Hatzidakis: poios ein’apopse o tiheros, sto Lavrio yinetai horos (who’s the lucky one tonight, at Lavrio there’s a dance). But lucky to be in Lavrio? It doesn’t have much going for it, and apparently never did.
Known as the oldest industrialized town in the world, from ancient times the city was known for its silver mines, the revenue used then to finance wars. And who was working the mines? Slaves undoubtedly. By Roman times the mines were exhausted and the town fell into ruin until pretty much the late 19th century when it became used for steam powered mining works, and so it continued its industrial look. The town was so depressed looking in fact that as Matt Barrett tells us in his description of Lavrio, film director Theo Angelopoulos used it for his film “Ulysses’ Gaze,” as a stand in for war torn Sarajevo. To be fair, much has been done lately to give it a new look (restaurants, museums etc.) but it’s still not on most people’s list of must-visits. There’s an archaeological museum and a large marina.
The town might be a little unattractive, but the beaches around it are lovely such as Punta Zeza, with its calming views of yachts on their way to or away from the Lavrio marina and tamarisk trees for shade. We noticed huge apartment complexes on the hillsides next to the beach. Were these year round or just summer places, we wondered.
The weather has been nicely holding out for us so far but the clouds are getting darker. We take the coastal road back to pass by Sounion. By this time, you can smell rain in the air. The parking lot for the temple is usually full of tourist buses in the morning, or for a sunset visit. At this hour it’s very quiet. Dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea, the Temple is on a cliff jutting out to the sea.
There’s an intriguing theory that the ancient Greeks, proficient as they were in mathematics and astronomy, made a so-called “sacred triangle” of the Temple of Poseidon, the Parthenon and the Temple of Aphaia on the nearby island of Aegina, all built in the 5th century BC. It does look like a planned isosceles triangle all right. Pretty intriguing.
Everyone looks for the initials of Lord Byron, carved into one of the Doric columns, but now you can’t really walk along the temple itself, so you need a pair of good binoculars to see anything. The legend goes that King Aegius, who mistakenly thought his son was dead, drowned himself in this spot, giving his name to the Aegean Sea. You can make your way down the path to take a dip in the Aegean yourself.
Sounion has a lot of memories for me over the years, as it was always the place to take tourists, and a nerve wracking place with young kids, trying to prevent them from getting close to the cliff edge. Part of the whole experience of visiting Sounion is to eat fish afterwards by the water, which we fully intended to do, but the weather had other plans. As you drive up the Athens Riviera, you pass Legrena, Anavysos, Lagonisi, and there right outside Varkiza, where we planned to sit on the beach and eat at the naval club taverna, the rains start, and with it, immediate flooding and suddenly we can’t see a thing in front of us. Between the traffic and lack of visibility, we crawl home. By this time the sky has cleared and we go out to a neighborhood taverna for meat instead of fish.
Lavrio featured in our plans once again in our visit to the island of Kea (known among Greeks as Tzia) for a few idyllic (certainly not with melancholia) September days. In contrast to the main port of Pireaus – loud, brash, dirty, bustling, full of fast foodadika and sidewalk vendors of bags, sunglasses, hats, watches, cell phone covers, etc., Lavrio is a quiet port, but boats only go from there to Tzia and another island, Kythnos. The other Attica port, Rafina also has boats to the western Cyclades, like Andros, Syros, Tinos and Mykonos, the Cycladic island chain so named as they form a circle around the ancient sacred island of Delos. From Lavrio to get to Kea, only an hour away, you sail past the whole length of Makronissos, (“long island”) an absolutely dry uninhabited island with an infamous history. It’s full of cement prison blocks, used as a place to exile political prisoners, both during the Greek civil war after WWII and during the military junta (late 60’s, early 70’s). A dark chapter indeed in Greek history.
Your first sight of Kea/Tzia, against the barrenness of the cliffs, is the lovely faros or lighthouse built in 1831 in traditional Cycladic style, white with a blue dome, and next to it, the church of Agios Nikolaos.
The small hotel we’re staying at, “United Europe,” is a short walk from the port. The couple Vangelis and Despina, having lived in many places of Europe, named it to show their “vision.” They’re a pleasant young couple who rigorously followed the rules on masks and cleanliness. Right before our arrival, they had just picked a basket of figs from their tree and told us to help ourselves. I made myself at home in the garden.
Kea, the name in ancient times, is named for one of the inhabitants from the 11th c. BC, Keos, a son of Apollo. (The name Tzia dates from the Venetian era). Legend has it that the island was originally a very fertile green place with the name Hydrossa (water) and inhabited by water nymphs. Then once again those jealous gods especially Sirius, the god of the dog-star, made it dry and barren (as other Cycladic islands). Looking up at the barren hills, you certainly can’t imagine that it ever was a green island. The inhabitants looked for the rising of the star in the summer – if it rose clear, that meant good fortune ahead, if not, pestilence was on its way. The islanders also asked for cooling breezes, which there seem to be plenty. As any Cycladic island, Tzia is prone to the meltemi, the cooling north wind. But there’s another part of the legend, that a lion destroyed the island. Perhaps that ties in with the smiling lion carved into the rock that we’ll see later.
Especially at Otzias, the northernmost beach, but protected from the winds, is where you really notice on the hillsides what look like boxes of dark stone, not so much the traditional white with blue shutters on other Cycladic islands. Undoubtedly the builders want to use local materials, the local stone.
You can see some communities of what look like boxes with no balconies and mostly in earth color stone.
And we wonder why anyone would want to live alone or in a little cluster high up on a brown barren mountain. From our hotel balcony, you can see this house all alone in the dry hills.
Sometimes in house clusters you see a lot of green in just that spot. This explains the water trucks constantly making their way up and down the mountains,
and no wonder everyone says you need a car on Tzia! How else to get from your mountain house to anywhere? We’re stubborn in this respect – we like the footloose feeling of freedom, walking down that “open road,” and not taking a car with us on island ferries but renting one if we need it, or using the island bus system.
Another thing we noticed is that next to many “boxes” built on the hills you see a little church. More churches than you’ve ever seen on any island! One reason might be that it marks the land that you want as really yours for if there’s a church there, no one can claim it.
The only places you see lots of trees are the beaches, with the almerikia (word for salty—almiro) These are the tamarisk, or salt cedar trees, so called because they can withstand dryness and salt water. They’re amazingly hardy trees with very thick roots and not affected by the winds, with a kind of stringy feathery look to the branches. They give wonderful natural shade, as we see on the beach at Gialiskari, about a 15 minute walk from the port.
On all the organized beaches, the side with the seabeds and umbrellas is nearly empty and the side with the trees and benches is full of kids playing, who seem to be “parked” with their grandparents, as the island attracts a lot of retirees, but is also very much a family island. Such organized beaches, which have showers, changing rooms and toilets, are found on the northern and western sides of the island. It’s the eastern side that has “wild” pristine beaches and seas, many of which are reached only by dirt roads or footpaths.
From Gialiskari beach it’s another 5 minute walk to Vourkari port. Yachts dock in this former fishing village where you can still see fishermen preparing their nets.
There are tavernas and cafes looking over the small dock area. At the little beach, nobody seems to be swimming, as it’s swampy and marshy looking. If you continue walking past the ducks,
you get to the prehistoric settlement of Agia Irini, named for the little chapel next to it. (I couldn’t find when the chapel had been built – had it been built on top of the ruins?)
Of course in the bronze age, it wasn’t called Agia Irini (“Saint Irene”). Inhabited from 3000 BC, the end of the Neolithic age, it reached its height around 1,500 BC and was kind of a hub between Minoan and Mycenean worlds, a center of trade and culture. Eventually the site was wiped out by an earthquake. There wasn’t much to see actually – they’re still excavating and it seems that the finds, like clay figurines of priestesses, jars, clay ovens, etc. are displayed in the Archaeological Museum in Ioulis, the capital of the island. From Agia Irini a footpath leads to the lighthouse mentioned earlier.
Kea is full of footpaths. Many of them originate in the old capital of the island known as “Ioulis” or “Ioulida,” named for a pagan priestess. Interesting that the capital is named for a pagan and a prehistoric settlement is given the name of a saint! “Ioulis” might be the official name but as with other Cycladic islands, the capital is known as “Chora” or “Hora” and was always built up away from the sea, from the main port down below, to protect it from pirates. In some islands, you can get to Hora from the port by walking up a number of steps as in Syros or Serifos. Here’s Hora in Serifos with its dramatic white houses snaking up the hill as seen from the port.
In other islands it’s too far up to walk, as on Milos, Sifnos or here on Kea. In fact, you can’t see Ioulis/Hora until you’re practically there. In all the island capitals are shops with lovely clothes, whitewashed stone roads, exquisite restaurants. (We note that here in Ioulis/Hora there’s no souvlaki place). Here the village unfolds like a patchwork quilt of all sorts of materials in different colors, unfortunately a little fuzzy.
As with all the island hill capitals, cars and motorcycles are left below the town, as well as buses and taxis, and you walk up. Because of no cars, life changes slowly. You walk through the main “road” past the archaeological museum, an elementary school and past the giant chess board, where later kids were moving around the pieces.
We continue walking up up up. “Are we going the right way to the lion?” we ask a shopkeeper. “Just follow the green.” he replies, pointing to the green markings on the stone. Follow the yellow brick road! It’s after 6 pm and the heat is slowly lifting with evening breezes as we make our way. We breathe deeply. There’s the smell of thyme, and we see fig and olive trees. Below us donkeys graze. (If you keep walking, the ancient stone footpath will take you to Otzias beach, nearly 2 hours.) From afar you can make out the lion, but you don’t really realize what it is until afterwards.
About 15 minutes along the path, you see a sign for the famous liontari, then you descend some steps and there it is, a smiling lion made out of granite, 20 feet in length, 6 meters or so, estimated to have been carved around 600 BC. Here it is up close.
The mystery is the smile. Mona Lisa wasn’t the only mysterious smile in art; back when the lion was carved in 600 BC it was the Archaic period in Greek art and the figures of kouroi (young men) and korai young women were always carved with what’s known as the “archaic smile.” So why not a lion! And we still speculate, does that smile mean well being or is it just a pose with no meaning? Take a look at the peplos kore (girl with peplos covering) at the Acropolis Museum.
My friend Nancy, who’s a classics scholar, told me more about the archaic smile and the later classical period straight lips. You never see a person’s teeth, as that signifies craziness or possession of a demon. Medusa for example is characteristically shown with her teeth. I wonder if that held true as well for the lion, who looks full of well being and happiness.
The other mystery is if there were actual lions on Tzia then; according to one version of the historical myth, there were. Apparently the mainland during that time was full of them.
We’re the only ones around in this peaceful landscape, though on our return we greet a couple of solitary walkers. The road looks as if it was made for a donkey and sure enough, as we make our way back to town, we see an old woman riding a donkey – talking on her cell phone. Later we see her donkey tethered and waiting for her.
It’s such a delight to walk in Hora with the colors and well cared for flowering plants.
Elias’ blue shirt matches the blue shutters.
Every Cycladic island capital has a “kastro” (castle) or remains of one on the highest part, and so we push our weary feet just a little more. But there’s no sign of a kastro, just the golden color of the sky, in the approaching sunset over the sea.
On the site of the kastro is a former school, turned into a gym! We do notice lots of abandoned houses in the village with peeling wood. But still, plenty of houses are fixed up. It couldn’t be easy with the building materials having to be brought up from the parking area by donkey. Besides houses, there are a number of artist studios here; apparently Kea attracts a number of artists. Painter Alekos Fasianos in fact designed the entrance into Hora. With all the walking, by this time we’re starving. Ahead of us is Kalofagadon (good eating), with its tables overlooking the valley and the sea.
We have the most succulent spanakopita ever and their specialty, stuffed zucchini with ground meat with rice and herbs in an egg lemon sauce.
The island didn’t seem to have many visitors, but Hora now is crowded. A line of people wait to be seated. Many with houses on other parts of the island come here to take a walk and eat with the beautiful view. Besides Greek, we hear a little German and French.
The island restaurants have gotten so much better than they were years ago. At the port in Korissia one evening we eat at the Steki (the place). In the pleasant dry air, the row of tables in the open air goes quickly.
The fresh calamari with feta is delicious, as is the eggplant rolled with tomato sauce and feta, and tomatokeftedes (tomato balls)with a yogurt mint sauce.
After the meal they bring us a Tzia delicacy, a “kormos” a chocolate and biscuit dessert in the shape of a log with a touch of liquer. Not only is the food wonderful but so is the view of the port with an extra treat, the rising of the full moon.
Very few people know and love Kea/Tzia as much as Andrew Horton, whose house is a little further down from the Steki in the harbor. Acclaimed screenwriter, professor emeritus of film studies and author of 30 books on film and screenwriting, Andy’s ties with Greece go back to 1966 when he came to Greece from the States to teach at Athens College. His friends in the 70’s, he tells me, were “happy to find an island that wasn’t full of Mykonos type tourists…it was just simple, Greek, friendly and full of history and festivity.” Andy, his wife Odette and two year old son first lived in Hora in the late 80’s, which he writes about with respect, love and humor in his memoir “Bones in the Sea,” also the title of a lovely film documentary directed by Alexandra Belagrati about his connection and love for the island, where he has also brought many groups to visit. And not only his feelings for Kea, but for Greece in general. Andy admitted that inevitably changes have occurred in the years since they’ve been in Kea, noting for example that many wealthy Greeks have built villas with swimming pools on hilltops everywhere (so the houses that look like boxes as you look up from the beach are actually villas!) Here he is enjoying lunch on the terrace in front of his house, but not this year as unfortunately travel restrictions kept him and Odette back in Oklahoma. Hope you can make it next year Andy!
When we left on Friday night, waiting to get the ferry back to Lavrio, hundreds of cars kept pouring out of the boat, most belonging to Athenians visiting their houses for the weekend. The yacht owners had already left the port in anticipation of the weather forecast for a meltemi, the cool north wind that whips up the seas. So, Kea/Tzia: stark beautiful scenery, lovely beaches, quiet, friendly folk, delicious food and wine, everything you could want in a Cycladic island but one that’s definitely been “discovered.” Not to forget a mysterious smiling lion. Back in Lavrio the sun has just set over the marina. The days are getting shorter.
There it is, the old “melancholia tou settembri,” unwelcome and uninvited. Keep it away with a smile — just don’t show your teeth.
Coming up: fixing an old country house