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.
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.
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.
There’s more to the island than its party-happy capital — saddle up for a secret
Bubble cocktails at inventive bar MoMix
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!”
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.”
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.