Athens – nothing works!

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s true what you see on the news! The four days we spent in Athens saw strikes of some sort or another. Unfortunately for us, we directly experienced many of them!

Three weeks ago when we left Athens for the islands, there was a metro and taxi strike which no one bothered to tell us about even though we had told the reception desk that we intended to leave at 6.30am to catch our ferry and hail a taxi outside. Next morning along with a few other hotel guests we were rushing around to find a private driver so we didn’t miss our rather expensive ferry! We paid double the money to this driver but at least we got to the derry a couple of minutes before the hatch started to go up!

We had learned our lesson and instead of relying on the locals, we checked a great website we found – http://livingingreece.gr/strikes/ – which meant we knew that the day we arrive back from the islands there was a metro and taxi strike too. As we had taken the telephone number of private car driver – Kostas -who had originally dropped us at the port, we called him a day before to book him to pick us up from the ferry and even texted and emailed him to give him our names.

Leaving the ferry we saw no sign of him so we called him again and he said the traffic is bad and that he’ll be with us within 20 minutes. 45 minutes later we called him again and he said the traffic was a nightmare and that he will only be another ten minutes. Over an hour later, he arrived and we got into the cab and saw there was in fact no more than moderate traffic on all the roads even though he said he had come from the same direction.This time he charged us even more $30 for a ten minute journey!

We had hoped to see the Acropolis but being so delayed we weren’t able to and were quite tired and just needed to lie back and relax at the hotel. When I tried to check in for our flight the next day, the wi-fi didn’t seem to connect so I went to the reception who told me that it was down and the mechanic couldn’t come til the next day because of the strikes!

We went to the only restaurant recommended by anyone near our hotel in Omonia Square – Alexander the Great – and had food which at best can be described as bland with service verging on insolent!

I thought I was being clever by booking a flight on the only day when the air traffic controllers weren’t striking. Though the metro next to our hotel goes directly to the airport, because of yet another Metro strike we took a taxi to the airport which took over an hour and when we did reach the airport we were told that our flight had a 3 hour delay because of the air traffic control strike the previous day. Our check in lady, who was decidedly miserable and gloomy at the same time told us that the 3 hour delay was the best scenario and that it’s likely to get further delayed. She said we were lucky the flight wasn’t cancelled!

We took this n our stride and went through the long line of passport control and found that for food and drink there is just one cafe which is overflowing with people waiting for their delayed flights. As we had only just come through, we went back to the passport control and asked to be let beack out again as we had several hours to kill and there were more options on the outside. The immigration control lady told us off and then gave us vague direction to go throguh the back of some shop and into arrivals, out of immigration and into departures. After an hour of looking for this exit, we managed to get out to departures where there was a bookshop, WH Smiths and 2 cafes. At least the airport was considerate enough to provide an hour free of wi-fi, though after that hour you don’t even have an option to purchase any more wi-fi. So we just sat back for the rest of our wait.

All in all, I am really disappointed. The islands are beautiful but nothing when compared to some of the experiences we have had this last year. I won’t be returning to Greece in a hurry!

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Paros – The end is nigh!

September 23, 2011 Leave a comment

You can see the Paros from the port of Naxos and it seems only a swim away but the ferry takes 45 minutes. That includes closing the hatch of the ferry, going around the island and opening the hatch again. Because the main port of Paros is in fact on the other side of the island from what we can see from Naxos. Arriving in the port, we did the usual trick of finding a nice lady who was advertising private rooms with wifi and arrived at ‘Marisa Rooms’ – a pleasant building but with ageing interiors. The wi-fi was great but the air-conditioning, the bed and the view from the balcony (of an abandoned half finished house) wasn’t really doing it for us.

We looked at our trusted Tripadvisor and called in on Anna Platinou the next day. Her little hotel is behind the market street in a quiet area and surrounded by trees. She insisted on showing us three rooms before we settled into a lovely one in the front with the balcony overlooking the olive trees beyond the little street. We settled in and went out for the whole day to circumnavigate the island. It only took three hours and we stopped at a few beaches on the way. The water has decidedly started to get cooler!

Beyond the airport and on the south west corner of the island are some lovely beaches but all rocky so we decided not to swim there. Further along, the road curves and you can see Naxos across the waters. The eastern coast has golden sandy beaches and seemed to be popular with the tourists and we stopped at one called Golden Sands to have a look. The beach was quite small and narrow but with soft sand and the water was clear. The taverna by the side had three older men chatting and we took a quick look at the menu. Menu on the Greek islands doesn’t vary much and when you have seen one, you have seen all with few exceptions. The veal chop was at €22; the moussaka at €15 and a Greek Salad for €10. They were empty at the height of the lunch hour so we set off again.

We decided to go through the interior to return to the our room at the port. There are ancient marble mines and very little else. We came to a lovely looking village perched on top of a few hills called Lefkes where we decided to stop for lunch. A taverna hung precariously on top of the hill which also
featured the main square and we took a table by the ledge. As we ordered we had a couple of wasps hanging around us. After ordering we noticed more
and our waitress brought a brown burning powder in a bowl and left at our table which had wafts of smoke coming up from it. Apparently a deterrent. Below us was a slope with an orchard and that was probably the cause for this. Despite the burner, we still managed to get one or two wasps constantly badgering us which did take away from enjoying our meal. The moussaka at this place was the best we had anywhere.

On our last day, we scooted across to the other side of the island to a peninsula called Santa Maria. There is a lovely little beach with, surprise,surprise, beautiful transparent waters. Seeing the port of Naxos across the sea where we spent a happy week, we took a moment to reminisce back on our entire year hand then swum in the sea for good measure.

The next day we boarded a ferry heading to Athens.

Goodbye the Cyclades!

Cooking in Naxos

September 21, 2011 5 comments

Milos was nice but just didn’t keep our attention and staying as we were, right by the port, the allure of jumping on a boat to visit yet another island

View of Santorini from our ferry

seemed irresistible. So we booked the longest ferry from Milos to Naxos which took four hours but stopped off at Folegandros, Santorini and Ios amongst a few others islands. Though we didn’t visit these places, we did admire them from the port and with the exception of Folegandros and Santorini, didn’t feel like we were missing anything much!

Arriving into Naxos, as was the case at all other islands, we walked off the boat and only outside the port and across the street behind a traffic police woman was a line of people advertising rooms and studios. Greece has recently passed a law for pedlars to stay out of the port because the local hotels complained they were losing customers. I can’t understand why the local hotels also couldn’t send in a peddler but I guess it wouldn’t pass as a done thing for 4* and above hotels. But customers looking for that will have either pre-booked or won’t be swayed by the pedlars pushing studios and apartments. Yet another Greek mystery.

Sunset from our terrace

A particularly pushy male peddler of middle age and sagging middle wouldn’t let us go and at one point elbowed a young lady who was trying to attract our attention. Though we had a couple of hotels in mind, this made us circumnavigate the girth of the big guy to ask the lady what her rooms were like. She was pleasant and had an honest style about her and before long we were in her car being driven to the old town just up from the port. In the end we settled for a room above where her mum lived and it was a little attic conversion but very light and airy with a huge terrace overlooking the sea.

Renting a scooter we had a great couple of days in Naxos and decided to extend our stay

Landlady in her kitchen

for another two days at the end of which we really liked it and ended up staying a week altogether. In that time we saw the island, visited beaches, ate at lovely little tavernas and were looked after by the Mama downstairs. She sent us dome lovely food in a dish and we instantly saw what was so great about Greek home cooking! Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines hollowed out and fled with a scrumptious mixture of fried veal, rice and thyme and cooked slowly in the oven till the juices start to run. She gave us a plate straight out of the oven and we had some and left half for later in the fridge. Cold (and hungry from a night out) we found the dish even more delicious.

In fact it is at this studio with a little kitchenette that we did the more cooking than in the previous six months. We cooked napolitana sauce with the fresh and juicy tomatoes available here. We sprinkled our food with the variety of herbs which just seems to grow everywhere in Naxos. You never need to buy fresh herbs here, just take a large branch off, go home and dry it as was demonstrated by Mama.

Waking early one morning we visited the port. There is a massive gateway standing right up on a hillock which seems like it’s framing the town and is in fact the remains of a site which pre-dates Acropolis. Having taken

Adonis impressing old ladies

photos we climbed down to find a bit of the shore where a number of older women were getting out of their clothes to go for a swim on the rocks. There were no younger people or indeed any men around the bay. Next thing I knew, Craig was getting out of his t-shirt and jumping into the water. The ladies looked up with a start. Craig swam out to the sea and emerged out of the water a few metres out and the ladies gasped with pleasure. From there Craig returned by wading into the water with the ladies admiring him like he was an Adonis come out of the sea.

At this point thoughts of the end of the year and what we’ll do when we reach home started to occupy my mind and though it hasn’t been quite as long as a year yet, I manged to convince Craig to start thinking about our return.

We started to apply for jobs and decided we needed to head home. That meant we needed to reach Athens for a flight. Between Athens and us stood one great big barrier however – not just the desire to stay away but also the island of Paros. The second largest (after Naxos) of the Cyclades group and invitingly close!

Categories: Food, Greece Tags: , , , , ,

The cats and colours of Milos

September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

From Sifnos we headed to Milos where after an hour of searching we found a lovely little converted garage of a studio owned by an Austrian lady who was very keen on inductions. She spent half an hour around the 15 ft square room to show us how the windows closed, the air-conditioned was turned off and

Feline friendly at our studio

the bathroom door opened. Having thanked her profusely on showing us how to operate every day objects, we settled in and even took a trip to the local supermarket to buy some provisions.

That evening Craig cooked a napolitana sauce with the juicy tomatoes, olive oil, capers and basil we had bought earlier and we sat down to a scrumptious meal. As our converted garage of a room didn’t have its own terrace, we threw open the doors and the window and claimed the little street outside as ours. With views to the port and little to no traffic, we created our own terrace taking out chairs and a small table. We talked to passers-by and even had a couple stop by for a glass of wine with us.

The Greek islands are overrun by cats. Unlike Asia where there were dozens of street dogs claiming rights on each corner, the Cyclades seems to be full of wild cats. Well fed cats as we found out when we saw a cat coming down from the steps above us and running down the street with a large fillet of sole in his mouth chased by all the neighbourhood cats. A few minutes later our landlady came shaking her head and lamenting the loss of her dinner.

The highlight of our stay was visiting the little fishing village called Klima, on the other side of the headland from the

Colourful fishing village of Klima

port. Klima is a row of fishing huts perching dangerously close to the rocky shoreline but charming in that the doors and windows are painted in bright primary colours. The place feels deserted and I am not sure how much in use it is for it’s original purpose, but when we visited there were hardly any other tourists and the sun shone brightly on the colours. It was magical!

Much of the Eastern side of the island is taken over by sulphur mines and the Western side has no paved roads. This makes just the central shores and inland parts accessible easily. We were able to see those parts in two days and though pretty in a rugged kind of way, we were ready to move on to another island.

Incidentally, being an active user of tripadvisor forums, especially whilst travelling, we both found some of the Milos destination experts very proud to the point of defensive about the island. That left a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths but onwards and to the next island of Naxos

The prettiest bay in the Cyclades – Sifnos

September 16, 2011 3 comments

Having boarded a 7.30 ferry from Piraeus (Athens) we reached Sifnos three hours later on the Speedrunner4. Following around the coastline of the island we turned into a bay – Kamares – the major port of the island. The town curves around the sheltered bay which, though a port, has transparent turquoise Dinner at the taverna on Kamares baywaters. Apparently it’s one of the cleanest beaches in Greece. Shuffling out of the port with our backpacks, we went past several cafes advertising rooms and stopped by to ask for vacancies. After a few restaurants we came by a lady who took us up the hill and showed us a studio with a balcony looking out over the bay.

Kamares and the entire Sifnos island in general is exactly as you might have imagined if you had never been to a Greek island. A curving bay inclining gently inland with whitewashed buildings of  restaurants all along the seafront and houses perched higher up the hill. In fact we never saw a building which was not white in all of Sifnos. The shutters are all painted the same bright blue too and you wonder whether there is a law against using any other colours. More likely that the islanders want to preserve the traditional vista given that tourism accounts for almost 100% of their GDP. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very pretty but I wondered if no one on the island might want say a red house or a black door.

The half a dozen bays around the island are towns with identically painted houses but their own feel – Kamares is a port; Platis Ghialis boasts the majority of the high-end accommodation; Faros is tiny with food shacks around the small bay; Cheronisos is at the bottom of a steep rock face. All have a tavernaor

A fishing boat at Chirosenos bay

three serving identical menus of Moussaka, Souvlaki, Greek Salad, Imam (baked aubergines), Okra, stemmed weed and grilled meat. All also advertise fresh fish but as you may have read in the previous post these start at €45 per kilo and steeply rise for a decent fish. Strangely the quality of the food at each taverna is pretty similar too though I guess there isn’t much you can do with grilled meat or baked vegetables. All tastes fresh and go down very well with a glass of the local vino which comes in the quantities of kilos (Greeks don’t seem to differentiate the words for solid and liquid measures!).

We enjoyed Sifnos very much and in retrospect (now in Naxos), should have spent a little longer there. But it was our first Greek island and we were excited to see more.

If you are thinking about visiting the Greek Islands, especially the Cyclades, you could do worse than spend time in Sifnos. Kamares is a very pleasant bay, with excellent swimming, a couple of good restaurants and great studio apartments. Many regard it as the prettiest bay in the whole of the Cyclades.

Tourism – the salvation for Greece?

September 11, 2011 4 comments

For months, news of the slowly degenerating economy of Greece has been absorbing headlines around the world. The same disease which struck otherwise stable economies in last few years gripped Greece in 2009. Like lemmings following each other over the edge, the Greek bankers lent more money than they saved and fell into the dark pit of recession.

Great food and views but at what price?

The government responded by introducing austerity cuts which angered the public workers and sent them striking all over the place. Around the world, perhaps for the first time, Greece was in the news every day. Riots in Athens. Then there was the sympathy vote from the western world. Let’s go to Greece on holiday to save their poor souls.

Last week, whilst in India, we decided that Greece was a convenient midway point between Delhi and London where we could drop anchor for a while to check out the employment situation before heading home. Not too close but still on the same continent. With the stunning islands of Cyclades on the doorstep, we spent less than 12 hours in Athens before boarding a ferry out to Sifnos. We nearly didn’t make the ferry because we woke up to find that no one had bothered telling us there was going to be a strike by taxi workers and metro workers. More about it here – http://tinyurl.com/ferry-to-sifnos

We had found Athens expensive, as we had expected to. Having spent the past ten months in S America and Asia, we were always going to be shelling out more in Europe. What we didn’t expect was prices similar or more to London. A cup of tea at a stall was €3. Compare this to Rs.5 of India (around $0.05) and the difference is you can get 60 cups of tea for the same price in India as for one in Greece! A new measure has been invented -the Chai Wallah Index!

Having paid the $50 per person fare to get on the Speedrunner 4 hydrofoil, we sat back and enjoyed the view from the ferry of the many islands we passed before disembarking at the stunning bay of Kamares in Sifnos. We found a room to stay and hired a scooter to visit the other parts of the island. When seeing the room, and still in the mood for haggling from Asia, I was quickly and without much effort able to negotiate 50% off on our room. It was odd because though not high season, the island wasn’t empty. I guess they try their luck on anyone who wont haggle.

Jumping on the scooter, we headed out to see some of the other beaches of the island and stopped for lunch. The beach was lovely with loads of fish swimming in it. We sat down outside a beach shack and looked at the fish menu and our jaws dropped. Most fish were at around €60 per kilo. The cheapest  was mackerel at €35 per kilo. Mackerel is a plentiful fish aching to jump into fishing nets. You’ll get a kilo for maximum £7 in England.

That night, we decided for the length of our stay on the island to make our own breakfast of fruits and yoghurt so went to a mini supermarket to buy a few things. We picked up a carton of Greek Yoghurt, one peach, two bananas and eight figs. The bill came to €20. The figs themselves were about €8. Next day on our outing on the scooter, we saw hundreds of fig trees on the side of the roads with figs just hanging on the branches over-ripe and rotting away.

Another morning we decided to go to the sea front to have a cup of tea and use wi-fi. A cup of tea was €3.50 or you could have English Breakfast (cup of tea, fresh orange juice, basket of breads with butter and jam, two eggs and four slices of bacon) for €7! So for €2.50 you can have an entire breakfast added to the cup of tea. Makes sense!

A greek salad is €6, a plate of lamb chops is €8. A bottle of water is €2, half a litre of wine is €2. They are crying out for a pricing consultant or they’ll drive the only thing keeping the economy – the tourist – away.

Moan over.

The best food in the world?

September 6, 2011 6 comments

I admit I am probably a little biased given I was born in the capital, but surely everyone agrees? Delhi features a plethora of cuisines but the one which is true to Delhi is extraordinary. Having travelled in many countries on all the continents, my (very personal) opinion is that it is the best!

As the capital, Delhi has attracted migrants from around the country and the fifth, sixth and older generations have not only brought their own food but influenced the local cuisine. Being a cosmopolitan city, Delhi boasts some of the best restaurants in the country. World cuisines are featured in many hotels and restaurants and are amongst the best you can eat in India.

Chinese is a very popular cuisine, whatever the political relationship between the two countries. On more than half of the menus in Delhi you are likely to encounter Chinese options. This time around I saw even street vendors selling chow mein noodles in Connaught Place. Closely related in terms of taste is the recent entrance of momos -a steamed or fried dim sum filled with meat or vegetables and a Tibetan import – which seems really rather popular amongst the youth. I tried one and though pleasant, it couldn’t beat the delicious dim sum in London’s China Town.

Aloo Tikki - Spicy Potato Cakes

Greater Delhi is roughly the size of South Wales and far more densely populated. It has at least half a dozen different centres of town and everywhere, including in the local neighbourhood market, you will find Punjabi cuisine. Punjab, lying in the North of the country, has a similar flavour in cuisine to Delhi and indeed is often seen by outsiders as the cuisine of Delhi. The chicken or mutton is portioned into large pieces on the bone, then marinated with delicate spices such as cardamom, clove and cinnamon whipped into the local yoghurt called curd before barbecuing in a clay oven – the tandoor. Tandoori food is accompanied with a side of onion and chilli garnish called laccha along with a mint chutney. A popular chain of restaurants called Pind Balluchi (or Park Balluchi in Haus Khas area) has been doing good Punjabi food with a flair for picking reasonably busy shopping areas and decorating the interior of the restaurants in scenes of Punjab village life.

For Vegetarians there are many options within the Punjabi cuisine. Cholle Bhature is a dish of spiced chick pea curry served with a deep fried bread made with self raising flour kneaded with yoghurt. Sarson ka Saag – a puree made with mustard leaves is a typical farmer’s lunch eaten with thick corn bread dripping in purified butter. Punjabi food is traditionally served with a glass of lassi, a sweet yoghurt drink much like Yop. Much of the cuisine tends to be ‘heavy’ in terms of fat and carbohydrates. No wonder then, when you look at the history of work within Punjab – hardworking farmers and soldiers.

South Indian cuisine is another popular food in Delhi. Though Kerala’s cuisine varies from Tamilnadu’s – both are southern Indian states – both are flavoured with a heavy use of coconut, rice and fish. Whilst Delhi is land-locked and several hours by air away from coast; the south with hundreds of miles of coastline is gifted by nature to produce tonnes of rice and fish. Of all the southern food, in Delhi the most popular by far is the mighty Dosa – a large thin and crispy rice flour pancake. Mashed potato delicately spiced with onions, Nigella and mustard seeds is folded inside this giant pancake and it’s served with a delicious bowl of sambhar – a soup of lentils and vegetables – and a small bowl of coconut chutney freshly grated and mixed with chillies.

If you visit Delhi today, you will find many restaurants specialising in Western cuisines. Italian food is very popular here. But you will find British pub style food, French, Greek and Mexican too. Disappointingly though not surprisingly there are a large number of American chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC which have shoved their way into the neighbourhood food markets to get in on the increasing size (yes, both population and waist lines) of the middle class of Delhi. But as they say, where there is demand, there is supply. Alarmingly, I read an article in the local newspaper about the decline in exercise, the increase in the purchase of personal laptops and subsequently an increase in the reported cases of obesity amongst the under 18s in Delhi.

Gol Gappe - Edible water bombs!

Some would argue that Mughlai cuisine, the food of the royal Mughal courts is the true cuisine of Delhi and it’s true to the extent that it’s very popular in Delhi; that this city has influenced the cuisine more than any other, and that the best Mughlai restaurants in the world can be found here. The rich butter curries of meat, naan bread, use of nuts and dried fruits shares it’s origins in Afghanistan and Iran.

Moti Mahal is a restaurant featured in Paul Merton’s recent series exploring India. I have known about this restaurant since I was a child. It was heralded as the best Mughlai kitchen and I had been wanting to go back their since I was a child. This time I got the opportunity. Not far from the backpacker’s district of Pahar Gunj, an unassuming little entrance opens onto a courtyard and before you know, you will be invited in and sat at one of the tables, galley style. The open air restaurant features a small stage on which an ensemble of musicians and a singer sit legs folded. A harmonium, a sitar and a tabla play with the ghazal singer. The harmony is matched in the food which is served – finely sliced ginger, grated garlic, fresh coriander and chopped chillies lend flavour as well as mouth-watering aroma to the food.

Kulche - stuffed bread cooked in a tandoor

To start, we ordered a seekh kebab – chopped mutton mixed with spices and shaped lengthways with the skewer in the centre. Seekh Kebabs are traditionally eaten with a Roomali Roti, which requires some skill to prepare and as this was available on the menu, we ordered it. Through the window in the kitchen I spied a chef making it. Roomali Roti is a bread rolled out so thinly by throwing it up in the air that it would make the pizza throwers of Naples blush. The roti is so large that it is cooked on a huge wok which sits on the fire upside down. The thin roti needs less than 10 seconds to cook on each side and is folded like a handkerchief (the Hindi word Roomali) before being served. You tear a piece of this roti, add a seekh kebab, ,mint chutney and freshly chopped onions with a squeeze of lemon and roll the whole thing up like a sausage roll and you’ll have one of the most delectable tasting mouthful of food in the world!

Only one cuisine in my eyes wins the accolade of true Delhi food -the street food. It’s cheap, it’s tasty and it’s what the masses eat everyday. My true purpose of visiting Delhi was the quest of sampling the best of what the street vendors have to offer.

The Delhi Metro now goes to Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar. In between these stations you will find the densest crowds of people going about their daily tasks of lifting heavy boxes, pushing hand-carts, calling out to the crowd to sell their wares, shoving, pushing, walking, running, eating. All in good nature.

The first food vendor I came past, by luck, was the the food I had been dreaming about for a long time! Pateela Matar. These are peas very similar to mushy peas of England and are boiled and kept in a very large pateela, a brass pot sat on a low heat. When he gets an order, the vendor takes a ladleful of

Fresh Lime Soda

the boiled peas onto a leaf (shaped into a bowl), adds fresh ingredients –  lime juice, chopped onion, chopped tomato, grated ginger, sliced green chillies, chaat masala and tosses it all up. This bowl of deliciousness is served up with a dry flat bread called a kulcha. Rickshaw wallahs, hand cart pullers, shop attendants, children after school, and tourists alike crowd around the pateela to get a taste of this incredibly fresh and tasty food. You can eat a bowl of matar and two  kulchas for Rs 10 or 15 pence of the British money.

The best thing about street food in Delhi is that none is so filling that you can’t stop by at the next vendor and drool!

Having licked clean my leaf of all the peas, I walked further along to find a man selling something that is hardly ever seen outside the square kilometre of old Delhi. A true local food – kulle. These are large potatoes boiled and sliced in half lengthways. Some of the flesh is then scooped out to make room for the peas mixed with masala and lime to be filled in. Again, very fresh tasting food which I highly recommend you seek out when in this area.

As I walked further, I saw other childhood favourites. Among them was fruit chaat – freshly cut chopped seasonal mixed fruits tossed with a black chaat masala and lime juice – delicious and healthy; mooli – long white radish split in the middle and sprinkled with lime and black salt; and everyone’s favourite gol gappe, a thin pastry in the shape of a flying saucer which you tap on the top of to make a cavity in which you fill a small spoonful of potatoes, chick peas and spicy sauce and put in your mouth whole – like water bombs – it’s an explosion of flavour!

To the brim, full of food, I made my final stop at the Lime Soda man to help digest the day’s bounty before climbing into an auto rickshaw to be taken home happy and content with life!

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