Thursday, December 30, 2004

Christmas in Athens - Brandy in Salamis

Richard's watercolour of Salamis
Saturday 25 December 2004 
Christmas Day

Breakfast at Flocafe at 9.00, just as doors open. It's one of the few places open on Christmas Day and there is soon as steady stream of Athenians coming in. Elegant young women in sunglasses, fathers and sons, young couples... If only it had been this lively at the restaurant last night. A croissant and cafetiere sets us up for the day. In Greece they call cafetiere coffee gallika which means 'French'.

It's a beautiful morning so we walk through the National Gardens to the Anglican Church but decide at the last minute not to attend the service. Instead I suggest going to the island of Salamis. This turns out to be quite an adventure, involving tram, train, bus, taxi and ferry and all the modern Greek I can muster.

We see a new stadium built for the Olympics, and also Piraeus the port of Athens. Piraeus appears in the opening sentence of one of my favourite books, Zorba the Greek. 'I first met him in Piraeus.' I have stolen... er... I am paying tribute to this famous first line by making the first line of book ten very similar: 'I first met him in Corinth' Apparently Kazantzakis wrote this first line in Salamis. Yay!

Piraeus is not pretty, but Perama is downright ugly. Such a shame. It is is in a superb setting. We catch the ferry from here. The big boats run every 15 minutes and a ticket costs less than E 2. Dirt cheap. The port where we disembark isn't much better. We run to the only taverna which seems to be open. Richard has a beer and I have an oily choriatiki. Hey! Christmas lunch! I ask the owner where the cars off the ferries are going. He says many Athenians have villas on this island or go to lunch in pretty villages. He suggests Selinia and points out the bus that will be going there shortly.

Selinia is sublime. Blue transparent water, a blue and white church, and a kiosk that sells batteries. But apart from kiosk man, it's totally deserted. At that moment a businesslike brown dog come up to us and tells us where to go: a little hippy restaurant on the seaside. He hangs around to keep an eye on things while we have our Christmas pudding: big Greek coffees and brandy and a ginger biscuit.

As soon as the sun goes it gets chilly so we move inside and watch a hilarious Greek soap opera for a while.

As the ferry chugs back into Perama a huge almost full moon is rising behind the hills where once Xerxes sat on his throne and watched the Greeks massacre his men at the Battle of Salamis.

We get back to Athens at dusk and wander into Plaka where we find a lively restaurant called Ydria. It's in the Palea Agora square, next to the Roman Agora. All the trees are lit up and it's packed with Athenians. Although the night is chilly all those umbrella heaters make it very toasty. We have one of the best meals yet and I'm surprised by how reasonable the bill is. The waiter brings us a complementary digestif and Christmas sweet. The digestif is clear and it a tiny shot glass so at first I think it's grappa. But as soon as I taste it I know it is mastiha! This is the liquid version of ancient chewing gum made from resin which only grows on the island of Chios. The waiter says I'm the first tourist to guess what it was. However, I should know. One of my main characters in book nine, The Colossus of Rhodes, is always chewing mastic gum like an annoying American tourist.

A great ending to a very different Christmas. We've already decided to make this a regular thing. Next year Christmas in Morocco, to research The Beggar of Volubilis and the year after in Egypt for The Scribes from Alexandria.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

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