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The Decan Odyssey – India

It’s been a miserable December .The Orient Express on its way to London has come to a sudden halt in the night, thanks to snowdrifts blocking the tracks somewhere in the Balkans. Everything is deathly silent. The next morning, detective Hercule Poirot is called upon, for, on that eerily quiet night, a murder was committed on the train. The killer is still on the train, and it’s Poirot’s job to find him. Fast forward to 2016. The Deccan Odyssey, a train not unlike the Orient Express, is thundering along on its eight-day Maharashtra Splendour journey across Maharashtra and Goa, with me aboard it. Poirot, however, is nowhere in sight, and neither is a murder mystery.

There’s just me, biting my nails as I read my copy of Murder on the Orient Express, trying to figure out how the moustachioed detective will pick the murderer out from among the passengers. Although these two events are taking place nearly a century apart, one thing remains the same. Once you’re on board, it’s almost like you’ve cast away the vagaries of real life and stepped into a fantasy world of self-indulgence. It was American industrialist George Mortimer Pullman who introduced the world to the hotel on wheels, in 1867. It didn’t take long for his idea to catch everyone’s fancy, and, before long, the era of luxury trains dawned. The first of its kind was the Orient Express, which began its maiden journey from Paris and travelled across Europe. In fact, it was aboard this grande dame of train travel that mystery novelist Agatha Christie was inspired her to write her most famous work.

India only caught on in 1984, with the introduction of the Palace on Wheels. However, today, the country boasts a fleet of luxury trains, each more opulent than the other, and all promising to take their guests back to the golden age of royalty. Although much younger than the Palace on Wheels, the Deccan Odyssey offers an experience that is equally quaint. Everything about my journey on the Deccan Odyssey, from the very start, breathes history. We’re at Mumbai’s imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), where a red carpet has been laid out for us. It was the British who brought the railways to India, with the country’s first train running along a 34km stretch from Mumbai to Thane in 1853.

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You’ll get a red carpet welcome at Chhaatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

CST itself, a glorious Victoria  Gothic Revival structure, was completed more than three decades later, and continues to look as magnificent as it did a century ago. As soon as the train starts pulling into the station, a group of dancers assembles on the platform and perform the lezim, a Maharashtrian folk dance, to welcome us. Immediately, the cameras come out, eager to document the beginning of what we all know will be an epic journey. We’re spending eight days aboard the train, disembarking each day to experience a new place, beginning with Nashik, moving on to the stunning Ajanta and Ellora temples, then Kolhapur, followed by Goa and, finally, Ratnagiri, before heading back to Mumbai. The Deccan Odyssey is unlike anything else that runs on the tracks that exit Mumbai’s stations every day. With its polished metal and fresh purple-and-gold paintwork, this train turns heads —it’s the beauty pageant winner in a sea of plain Janes. Even on the inside, she’s a beauty—end-to-end carpeting, and , comfortable cabins, each equipped with a personal butler.

A walk down an seemingly unending narrow corridor running through several coaches takes me to my cabin, which, although a tad tiny, has all the creature comforts I could possibly desire. The wood-panelled room has soft ambient lighting and a bed I want to sink into. But before I do that, I peek into my en suite bathroom (on a train, can you believe it?), where I find fresh towels that smell like the morning sun. I’ve now been permanently ruined for regular train travel.

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The wood panelling, warm-lighting and plush beds in the cabins come together to form the perfect environment is which to catch some Zs

18 Tips to Plan The Perfect Winter

  1. Play in the snow
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Hagia Sophia in winter – Istanbul, Turkey

Northern European cities are accustomed to winter white-outs —from the epic snowdrifts that blockade the thoroughfares of Moscow, to the annual dusting on the spires of Prague. More memorable, perhaps, is seeing southerly latitudes transformed by an exceptional snowfall —believe it or not, Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and even Cairo have all witnessed the white stuff in recent years. More dependable than all of the above, however, is Istanbul, which has seen substantial snow for four out of the last five winters. Go in January for your best chance of seeing Ottoman domes adorned with a delicate snowy blanket, or to walk the bazaars of Eminonu as the call to prayer carries along the alleyways and flakes flutter silently down onto the shop canopies. Keep a keen eye out for salep — a warming winter drink served by merchants around the city, made from hot milk and the tubers of mountain orchids.

  1. Do some shopping
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Jokkmokk Winter Market – Sweden

If the thought of stepping out of your front door to hit the January sales makes you shiver, then spare a thought for the Sami—the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland, who have braved temperatures as low as -40°C to attend the winter market in Jokkmokk every February for the last 400 years. Much more than just a market, the event doubles up as social gathering and cultural festival in the Swedish town, with music, food tastings and exhibitions filling the short winter days. Among the products on sale at the stalls are reindeer-hide shoes, traditional Sami knives and other, more airport security-friendly items like jewellery and knitware. Be sure not to miss reindeer races on the frozen lakes around the town — the animals are especially fond of veering off the course and galloping into crowds of assembled spectators.

  1. Try snowshoeing
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Snowshoeing in Balkans

The Dinaric Alps of the Balkans are the lesser-known cousins of the original Alps. Rising along Italy’s border with Slovenia, they run south beside Croatia’s jagged shoreline, reaching their grand finale at the snowy 2,694m summit of Maja Jezerce in northern Albania — the highest point in the range. Exodus has just begun offering snowshoeing treks in its shadow, biking through one of the least explored corners of Europe in the depths of winter. Lodging in rustic B&Bs, snowshoeing students spend days traversing alpine meadows and exploring tiny hamlets, thawing out with boisterous Albanian folk music performances come sundown. There’s also a short detour to the town of Prizren in neighbouring Kosovo, whose skyline is crowned with handsome minarets.

  1. Ice skate
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Ice-skating in Amsterdam

Most winters, Amsterdam has a claim to the finest ice-skating spot in Europe, with a large rink directly outside the magnificent neo-Gothic Rijksmuseum. But foremost in the prayers of every Dutch skater is the chance of a series of sub-zero winter nights – cold enough that one fine morning, everyone might open their curtains to see the city’s canals frozen solid. Last taking place in February 2012, the Amsterdam canal freeze is far from guaranteed, but it is always greeted with much fanfare. Once the ice is declared sufficiently thick, the whole city sets out onto the waterways: skaters pirouette next to ice-bound barges, pedestrians slip onto their backsides and cyclists steer gingerly beneath the red-brick bridges –  spires and gabled houses providing an unsurpassable backdrop.

  1. Take a hot bath
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Takaragawa Onsen – Japan

One happy side effect of Japan’s position on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ is the onsen – geothermally-heated baths that double as social clubs. Perhaps the most exquisite during the chilly winter months is Takaragawa Onsen, where rock pools steam in a snowy ravine in the centre of the Japanese Alps. Here, as in most onsen, basic rules apply: all but one of the pools are mixed, everyone bathes in the nude (although ladies can don a sort of apron) and you might be turned away if you have tattoos (synonymous with gangsters in Japan).

Providing you’ve hitherto resisted the temptations of body art and/or organised crime, you’re free to submerge yourself in pools beneath snowy boughs. Takaragawa’s alkaline waters are said to cure nervous disorders and ease digestive problems (hopefully not while you’re bathing).

  1. Enjoy some carols
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A carols concert in London

In the popular imagination, Scrooge’s London brings to mind cobbled alleyways, crooked rooftops and puffing chimneys. It might then come as a disappointment to learn that Dickens’s setting for the story is today among plate-glass office blocks and multinational corporations in the City of London. Fortunately, you can still find ghosts of Victoriana in the neighbourhood. Start with a swift pint in the Counting House — a Victorian boozer with a grand upper gallery and smoky timber surfaces close to Scrooge’s house in Cornhill — or else, head to the Jamaica Wine House, on the site of London’s first coffee house, and an establishment with which Dickens would have been familiar. In the wonderful Leadenhall Market, admire one of London’s finest Christmas trees, then — buoyed by Yuletide spirits — step into the stately church of St Michael’s Cornhill, whose bells Scrooge could hear clanging reproachfully from his counting house.

The Nowadays Cuisine of Thanjavur – Tamil Nadu, India

It’s believed that sambhar was first created in Thanjavur in the kitchens of the Marathas who ruled over the region for nearly two centuries. Sadly, none of the restaurants here seem to serve traditional Thanjavur Maratha food anymore, but everything else is so good, you won’t even mind.

ANBU MILK BAR

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The server at Anbu Milk Bar put on a show for you before handing you your glass of iassi

This blink-and-you-miss-it stall has been around for over 40 years. Come here in the morning and you’ll be greeted by a line of people standing in front of it. Wait and you’ll earn yourself a glass of thick, frothy ‘Bombay lassi‘. Return at night for the badam milk. The server scoops out a glassful of the fragrant stuff and makes a great show of pouring it into a glass, topping it off with a dollop of cream.

DHIVYA SWEETS

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Take a break from South Indian fare by digging into piping hot samosas at Dhivya Sweets

Dhivya Sweets might otherwise go unnoticed, but, come evening, you’ll find pretty much everyone returning from work heading straight here. While the 30-year-old eatery serves everything from sweets to packaged snacks, it’s the freshly-made fare that keeps people coming back  for more. Ask for the delicious masala sandwiches, or the piping-hot samosas. Don’t go too late – they run out pretty quick.

SAHANA

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You’ll need to settle in for a long nap after demolishing the thali at Sahana

The meals at this restaurant will have you asking for a second (or third) helping of rice. The thali comes with sambhar, vathal kuzhambu (berry curry), poriyal (dry veggies) and kootu (gravy veggies), among others. If you’re breaking for lunch, this is a good place at which to fuel up.

VASANTA BHAVAN

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The ghee roast dosa at Vasanta Bhavan comes recommended

This vegetarian restaurant is a Thanjavur institution. Enjoy a hearty South Indian breakfast- pick the masala dosa, with a flavourful potato filling, or the ghee roast dosa – fried to crispy perfection. The menu features North Indian and ‘Chindian’ dinner favourites too, but stick to southern staples.

SRI VENKATA LODGE

Reportedly one of South film star Sivaji Ganeshan’s favourite places at which to eat in town, this eatery does only vegetarian fare. The owner’s a friendly chap and will regale you with interesting tales if you show interest. Try the puli sadam (tamarind rice) in which the mustard-and-chilli tempering smoothly cuts the tanginess of the tamarind.

THILLANA

This upscale multi-cuisine restaurant inside the well-known Sangam Hotel has a good selection of South Indian dishes, but of the kind you won’t find gracing the menu of many eateries in the area. Try the meen poondu kozhambu, a delicately-flavoured Chettinad-style fish curry, or the Malabar chemmeen curry, which is a north Kerala specialty featuring prawn in a mildly-spiced coconut curry.

Vallonne Vineyards, Nashik, Maharashtra

More than just vines

You’re fascinated by the cherry red colour, and the gentle, tinkling sound of the liquid hitting the crystal, completely oblivious to the gleaming steel tanks around you. At Vallonne Vineyards, you sit mesmerised as wine is poured into a sparkling Bordeaux glass for you to sniff, swirl and roll around in your mouth. You can discover the flavours on your own or the person conducting the tasting can tell you whether the notes are fruity, floral, spicy, woody, or a combination. Either way, the hour-long tour and tasting at Vallonne Vineyards is a lot of fun.

On this getaway, you can learn about the journey of grapes from vine to bottle  and decipher the nuances of a dry or sweet wine from the people who do this for a living. Teetotallers needn’t worry — it’s perfectly acceptable to spit the wine out after a tasting. Should terms like ‘terroir’ and ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ not be a part of your vocabulary, no one will be surprised given that wine making in India is a recent phenomenon, which is why owners of wineries in Maharashtra and Karnataka offer familiarisation sessions.

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Each wine reveals its best aromas at a certain temperature

Even if wine appreciation is not the main agenda on this trip, your spirits will lift as soon as you come upon the property’s wide, open vistas. An undulating landscape of neatly-laid vineyards, untamed shrubbery and paddy  fields meets the Mukhne Dam reservoir, set against a backdrop of the Sahyadri mountain range. As you stand on a terrace abutting the onsite Malaka Spice restaurant, a pleasant breeze plays with your hair, setting off a cascade of ripples in the water and paddy fields, and causing the trees to sigh. Swifts glide in tight circles and dive in graceful movements resembling trapeze artistes. Soft music wafts from the restaurant speakers and you involuntarily smile as you drift into a happy space.

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Photographs at Malaka Spice offer a peek into Vallonne Vineyards’s journey

When your reverie is broken by the demands of your stomach, move back into the restaurant, lined with photos portraying the journey of Vallonne Vineyards and that of Malaka Spice. A postprandial walk around the property will take you past rows of vines where you can spot birds like red-wattled lapwing, robins and bulbuls foraging for insects. From December to February, you might even spot migratory ducks, kingfishers and other birds that are drawn to the cooler climes and water bodies during this time.

Unlike a day visit, a stay at Vallonne allows you to truly relax and enjoy a view that is undeniably captivating — so much so that it’s reproduced on some of the vineyard’s labels (one Japanese visitor came to these vineyards looking for the place he saw on a label). A mere 10-minute walk takes you to the edge of the reservoir where all you hear is the sounds of nature. Lose yourself in the rustic environs — pluck veggies or grapes in season, or milk a cow, or cycle around the property and stop at Upper Vaitarna Dam’s scenic catchment area to admire the imposing mountains, freshly-ploughed fields, and huts that are witness to a lifestyle very unlike your own. If you crave more action, Vallonne Vineyards has a tie-up with Drumstick Lagoon, so you can take a short drive (9.3km) for an invigorating dip in an infinity pool or pump up the adrenaline with adventure sports like rock climbing, ATV rides and more. The property plans to add a pool, eight more rooms, and a vino spa over the next year. A stay at a vineyard can, after all, be about much more than just vines.

WHERE TO STAY

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All the rooms come with private balconies and beautiful views

Vallonne Vineyards: Scenic views and peaceful environs lend Vallonne Vineyards the perfect aura to calm an overworked mind. The building itself seems unremarkable from the outside till you step into the guest rooms. Of the four rooms, two (Premium) offer views of the Mukhne Dam reservoir and Kavnai Peak, while the others (Regular) offer views of the lawns and countryside. Between the rooms is a spacious living area in which you can chill, browse through some of the magazines and books placed there, or have meals if the restaurant is occupied. Simple elegance defines the property’s decor, and original vintage posters of liquor advertisements remind you of its vineyard association. The rooms have air-conditioners, but no TVs or wi-fi.

WHERE TO EAT

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The grilled Veggies Javanese taste yummy with peanut sauce

There are no restaurants within walking distance, so the onsite Malaka Spice restaurant is your best bet here. It does a good Indian breakfast and decent Southeast Asian meals. The soups and starters have an upper hand over the main course. It exclusively serves Vallonne’s range of wines, sold by the bottle, not by the glass. The Tom Kha Soup and Top Hats served with peanut sauce are delicious. Do try the Roti Kanai, which pairs better with the curries than the slightly sweetish Rotijhala. The variety of curries is limited and a bit mild, so, if you prefer spicy food, do inform the chef while placing your order. The Choco Lava Cake is to die for. The service is good, but you need to allow time for the food to be prepared.

SHOPPING

Choose from white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, or reds like Syrah-Merlot or dessert wines like Vin De Passerillage.

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

The drive from Mumbai takes a little less than four hours. On the way down, stop for a loo break and tea or snacks at Food Hub off the Mumbai-Nashik highway. On the return journey, you can stop at Food Way on the same highway.

SAFETY

External roads are not well lit, so avoid walking outside the property at night. Shut doors and windows before it gets dark, else mosquitoes and bugs become uninvited guests in your room. As with any other place in a natural setting, snakes coexist with humans but no bite cases have been reported.

MEDICAL AID

A first-aid kit is available on the property. Minor medical ailments can be treated at a local clinic in Sanjegaon, 1.5km away. Serious cases are referred to Wockhardt Hospital in Nashik, 51km away.

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

Guest rooms are reached via stairs and have balconies, so parents of toddlers need to be a little watchful. While there are no TVs, there is ample space for kids to play outdoor games, and badminton equipment is provided. Cycles are also available for guests’ use (free). If kids would rather stay put, there are board games. Bring books along though, as the collection here might not interest children.

GOOD TO KNOW

Visit between February and April for grape harvesting and wine production, while December to February is good for bird-watching. The property also hosts a grape-stomping event in the month of December (charges vary as per the amount of grapes used).

Shopping in Jodhpur, Rajasthan – India

HEY, BIG SPENDER!

Those who love to shop love Jodhpur. Antiques, handicrafts, fabrics, footwear — you name it, and Jodhpur will have it, probably tucked away in a restored haveli. What’s more, the city is simpatico to lazy shoppers. Nothing opens till about 11 am, so you can sleep in, enjoy another cup of masala chai and set forth, wallet quivering in anticipation. But, if you’re a morning person, or god help you, travelling with one, your best hope is The Museum Shop at Mehrangarh Fort, opening at 9am, and a must-see microcosm of Jodhpur’s many offerings. After a steep hike up Mehrangarh Fort, you’ll be ready for some calm contemplation over polo- themed T-shirts, clothing for women and kids, ittars, knick-knacks with Jodhpuri motifs, tea bags, eclectic books on Rajasthan, and bags and purses in native fabrics. There is also a small selection of paintings by local artists, and, on the way out, stalls selling handicrafts like block-printed and bandhini fabrics, and mojdis. Artisans at these stalls are rotated on a monthly basis, but are asked to keep their prices to a given range, so ask to see the fixed price sheet before making a purchase.

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Lalji Handicrafts is a second home for film stylists and set designers, with movies like Vanity Fair to its credit

Another must-visit is Lalji Handicrafts, an emporium of antiques and furniture. You can spend hours here just walking past myriad shelves of cigarette and other advertising posters, perfume bottles, enamel doorknobs and peacock-shaped handles, and even vintage buttons and postcards. The staff is helpful and honest about pointing out the differences between ‘antique’ and ‘reproduction’.

If your trip is a little longer, forego visiting the MV Spices outlet at the fort in favour of its outlet in the Clock Tower market area. Let the friendly owners offer you a tea-tasting session, tell you about the sourcing and grinding of their organic teas and spices, as well as the history of this family-run firm, while your senses are beguiled by the heady aromas of cloves, cinnamon and the pungent Mathania chillies, which are sold only in powder form; deeply red and almost oil-free.

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Mathania chillies are sold everywhere, but ground to a fine powder at MV Spices

Down the road from MV Spices is a place containing the secret behind that Jodhpuri swagger: India Tailors, purveyors of finely-crafted Jodhpuri polo breeches, jackets and more. They cater to customers as elite as the Jodhpur royals, with effortless, exact fits based on measurements alone. Happily, they are also open to custom-making Jodhpurs, and, thus, swagger, for women too.

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Sambhali Boutique’s washable, adorable stuffed toys are great for gifts

Of course, as unfairly as usual, women have more options in the Blue City. Like the Sambhali Boutique, where you’ll find clothes, bags, all made by underprivileged women and girls, trained and supported by the Sambhali Trust. Vibrant fabrics and careful stitching ensure that you’re doing some good to your closet and your karma.

Follow the winding road from Sambhali to Bibaji Churi Wale, one of the oldest bangle sellers here, where a charmingly irascible Bibaji, or Abdul Sattar, will help you choose bangles by colour, budget or style as generations of his family have done for the women of the Jodhpur royal family. Crystal, glass, lac, plastic and plain metal bangles abound in the shop, in every size possible.

You can explore Jodhpur’s other shopping areas, too — simply slather on some sunscreen, hike up your Jodhpurs, and swagger out.

WHERE TO STAY

Devi Bhawan: An oasis of calm situated near the airport, this hotel combining the virtues of heritage and modernity, and offers a swimming pool and tranquil lawns.

Haveli Inn Pal: This 18th-century haveli- turned-cosy hotel offers rooms with lovely views of the lake or fort. Stained-glass windows, traditional enamel furniture, red-tinged architecture and a central location make it an ideal place.

Ajit Bhawan: Originally built for the brother of the erstwhile Maharaja of jodhpur, Sir Ajit Singhji, this luxury hotel offers 20,000sqm of landscaped, imperial living style in its rooms, tents and suites.

WHERE TO EAT

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With glorious views of Mehrangarh Fort, an evening at Panorama 360 will revive you

Make a pit stop at Shahi Samosa to sample Jodhpuri delicacies like the onion and potato kachori or the mirchi bada.

Janta Sweet Home nearby is also known for its kachoris as well as desserts like jalebis and imartis.

For dinner, you have two great choices that offer fine views of the lit-up Mehrangarh Fort in the evening. Indique has an Indian and continental menu with a decent selection of cocktails and liquor. Panorama 360 in the same complex, but with a slightly better view due to its height, features a primarily Indian menu.

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

Jodhpur isn’t very large and you might not be too far from your hotel room at any point. However, nature is cruel and twisted thing. Places of interest like the fort have clean  loos and Sambhali Boutique offers restroom facilities, but do carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you – these are not easily available here.

MEDICAL AID

There is no dearth of good hospitals in bustling Jodhpur. Kamla Nagar Hospital comes recommended.

GOOD TO KNOW

Virasat Experiences offers the Bustling Bazaars of Jodhpur walk through Tripolia Bazaar, which also incorporates visits to block-printing and tie-dyeing workshops.

Top 6 Hotspots To Visit In Greece

1. Athens

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Start your journey in the cradle of Western civilisation, getting to grips with both ancient history and startling innovations in the restaurant and bar scene

With the grace and poise of a ballet dancer, one clogged foot is raised steadily into the air. The leg to which the foot is attached extends with equal measure until it is entirely straight. There it hovers, dead still, until the limb is brought down with sudden force, the stamp of foot on pavement like the shot from a pistol.

It is one small p art of a ceremony that takes place every hour outside Athens’ parliament building: the changing of the guard. The soldiers, in beige kilts, red berets and pom-pommed clogs, remain resolutely focussed, even as sweat rolls down their faces and spectators dive in for photos.

The city seems made for drama. In the alleyways of nearby Plaka, waiters invite diners into their restaurants with promises of plate-smashing, while men noisily slap down backgammon counters in smoky bars. Down streets paved with marble and shaded by orange trees, crumbling columns and arches rear up like ancient ghosts. They are but a warm-up act to the main stealer of limelight in the city, though: the 2,500-year-old Acropolis that presides over Athens from a hill right at its heart Built as home of the gods, with a temple devoted to Athena at its core, the survival of the complex is due in part to its ability to change purpose over the millennia, from temple to mosque, church to harem. Now, it serves both as a Greek history lesson brought to life, with archaeologists and tourists alike gathering to wonder at the ingenuity of its makers, and a romantic backdrop for the couples who gather to watch the sunset from the olive groves of nearby Filopap pou Hill.

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Changing of the guard at the parliament building

There are different gods to worship these days. At Brettos, Villy Saraidari, resplendent as Athena in an electric blue dress, pours clear liquid from an oak barrel and places the glass on the marble counter. A photo of Mr Brettos, who founded the ouzo distillery in 1909, hangs in the room that has changed little since. Villy fell in love with the place as a customer, and now indulges her passion for its many types of ouzo from behind the bar. “We have people come in who are 70 years old and they start crying. They remember being here as lids,” she says. “It still has the same spirit, the same history.”

In Gazarte, home to the old city gasworks and a rapidly changing nightlife, bartenders are somewhat less respectful of tradition. `People said when we started that this was a terrible idea, that the Greeks only like what they already know,’ says owner Thodoris Koutsovoulos, sitting under a fig tree in the backyard of MoMix, an operation that is part theatre, part laboratory, part bar. Cocktails are presented in solid, wobbly bubbles that explode in the mouth, in chewy, deceptively alcoholic lozenges, or in glasses that swirl with dry ice. The place is full every night.

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Bubble cocktails at inventive bar MoMix

Round the corner from MoMix, there is no grand announcement for Funky Gourmet: just a nondescript door and a doorbell. Head chef Georgianna Hiliadaki, her blonde hair in wild curls, makes sure all the drama comes out of the kitchen. Placing a lamb’s tongue in a gold-painted sheep’s skull, part of a dish called Silence of the Lamb on the flamboyant tasting menu, she says, “Diners come because they want an experience. It’s not just going out for dinner, it is like going to the opera.” The approach has earned Funky Gourmet two Michelin stars, and endless bookings of its nine tables. Here, it seems, the Athenian love of performance has reached its zenith.

2. Mykonos

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There’s more to the island than its party-happy capital — saddle up for a secret

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Bubble cocktails at inventive bar MoMix

bike ride.

There’s a deceptive calm  to Hora town at midday. A few people drift between the boutiques, staring at Gucci watches or Chanel sunglasses through the windows, or loll on restaurant terraces, iced coffees and plates of steamed mussels on order. The twisting flagstone alleys that tumble down to the seafront, built to block the wind or to baffle the pirates who swept through the Cyclades hundreds of years ago, are largely quiet. Above town, the seven windmills that feature on so many of the island’s postcards lie dormant. There is little hint of the role they played in creating vast wealth for their owners: the grain they milled was once so valuable, it was known as ‘white gold’.

Come late afternoon, all changes. Troops of people emerge from b&bs housed in the tightly packed white buildings of Hora, the blue of their painted shutters matched only in intensity by the sky above. They squeeze down streets now merry with the sound of chatter and music, heading to the harbour for cocktails and the catch of the day. Little Venice, a wall of merchant’s houses hanging over the sea, is the sunset location of choice; a forest of selfie-sticks is hoisted endlessly in front of it as day edges into night.

From amongst the tourist hubbub, local culture peeks out. Candles are still lit in the town’s many churches each morning. Men still gather at the shore with a fishing rod each evening. Nikoleta the weaver, dressed all in black, stills earns her living at an ancient loom in her seafront workshop. “Of the next generation, only my daughter knows how to use this old thing,” she says, a cheerful smile on her lined face. “She wants to keep the tradition going. But I say, you cannot eat tradition!”

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Vioma farm in the interior of Mykonos

Dimitra Asimomyti might well disagree. An islander by birth, she left to make a new life, returning to her parents’ vineyard when the recession hit. “A friend tried to persuade me to take over my father’s business but I was never interested,” she says, pulling on a bike helmet. “The wine is not my passion, it is his. And then I thought of my idea. I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night.” Her idea was to many her love of cycling with her desire to show people a part of Mykonos far from the circus of Hora. She leads tours from the family farm, Vioma, taking guests down quiet country lanes banked by stone walls, behind which fig trees grow and goats bleat. With the light turning gold, cyclists are rewarded with a picnic of homemade buns and cups of wine on a remote beach. Sharing the sunset here is but a group of three horse-riders from a neighbouring farm.

“I am not a monuments expert,” says Dimitra, back at Vioma, serving a feast of cured ham, tomatoes piled high on rusks, just-made cheese and honey fresh from the beehive. “It is local life I love to share.” Dad Nikos and mum Helena potter about the terrace, pouring more wine and loading plates with small almond and lemon cakes. Panagia Tourliani, the monastery that owns the land here, is just visible, perched high on a hill beyond the rows of low-lying vines. Standing guard, too, and forming a chain to the sea, are the crumbling watch-towers that once protected the fields and farmhouses from raiders. “I like to go to Hora now and then,” says Dimitra, as a lightbreeze ripples down the valley. But here it’s a completely different side to the island. Here, you see our heritage is very dear to us.”

3. Paros

paros-greece

It’s time to take to the seas on a traditional fishing boat, before enjoying seafood feasts, local wine and a beach for every taste back on land.

“Paros is the ark that saved the Malvasia grape from extinction,” says Savvas Moraitis, standing in the stone cellar of his winery in Naoussa. “We were the only place not affected by the phylloxera that wiped it out in the rest of Europe.” He pours a glass of Malvasia and takes a sip. “See, it is clean and crisp, just like the sea.”

The ocean is never far from the thoughts of Parians, even when talking about wine. The sea breeze, limited freshwater and loose sandy soil create a terroir unique to the islands, producing wines different to any in Europe. In pride of place in the Moraitis winery sits a model of Seveasti, the boat that once transported their produce all over the Aegean, setting sail from a nearby beach. “The sea is why anyone on this island is here,” explains Savvas.

Down in the harbour, a shortwalk away, white-haired men sit chatting on benches from dawn to dusk, rising occasionally to check their fishing lines. Costa, a retired engineer from Athens, spends six months of the year on the island. “This is my work now,” he says, gesturing at the water. “I fish, I eat fish, I watch the fishing boats come in.” He is not the only one drawn to such simple preoccupations. As the shadows start to lengthen across the cobbled quayside, the tables fill at restaurants that sit barely a metre from the water’s edge. Waiters hang octopus from the doorways to advertise their wares, and sardines, lobsters and red mullets are put on ice at high tables, to the immense frustration of local cats.

Fishing boats come and go, puttering out from the harbour, past the fort that once protected the town from pirate attack. In unlikely homage to those days, the familiar skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger flag flies over several of the town’s bars, their interiors liberally decorated with fishing nets and glass floats. Customers flit in and out, seeking a position closest to the water, trailing snorkels and beach bags.

Most spent the day dispersed around the island, on the hunt for a beach that’s just right. Everyone has a different definition of what that means on Paros. There are sandy beaches accessed by clifftop paths lined with heather and buzzing with cicadas. Beaches where children search through rock pools, keeping their catch in plastic buckets. Beaches whose rocks have magic exfoliating powers when rubbed on the skin. Beaches where teenagers play keepy-uppy before heading out to windsurf. Beaches with parasols and pedalos, and beaches where there is nothing but pebbles, the gently lapping waves and the wide sky above.

Olivier Kindinis maintains, however, that the very best beaches can only be reached by boat. The owner of activity company Paros Adventures, he has teamed up with local skipper Ilias and his converted fishing boat, Rofos, in a mission to reveal the hidden coves and islands of the Parian coastline to summer visitors. “I’m a city boy originally,” says Olivier as the Rofos eases over the crystal-clear waters of the Blue Lagoon, its sandy bottom clearly visible 14m down. “But being by the sea, you wake with a smile on your face.” The boat passes Nikolas Church, built on an islet in honour of Paros’s fishermen, candles in its windows doing the job of a lighthouse on dark nights. Drawing into a sheltered bay ringed by tall cliffs, Ilias cuts the engine.

“If you come to Paros and don’t go out on a boat, you miss the whole point of it,” says Olivier. “You miss all this.” He gestures at the luminous water, sun bouncing off the surface like diamonds. The only spectators are the swifts circling above. It’s impossible to resist diving in.