Bathing with Herodotus

Faded elegance: the 1920s Aigli hotel at Edipsos, Evia, Greece.

Mike Sweet takes the waters in northern Evia, Greece.

The healing powers of Edipsos’ thermal springs in the north of Evia have attracted politicians and artists for centuries; millennia even. Less than two hours drive from Athens, the luxurious Thermae Sylla Spa Wellness Hotel beckons at Edipsos. Built in 1890 and lavishly restored recently, the hotel has direct access to the famous ‘Sylla’ thermal spring, which flows up through the nearby rocks.

The name ‘Sylla’ dates back to ancient times when the spring was a favoured haunt of Roman general Cornelius Sylla, who (on his days off from destroying the port of Pireaus in 86 BC) did his r’n’r in these parts. Emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius also de-toga-ed here, but the town and its thermal springs go back even further.

Herodotus, the truly ancient Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC, reckoned twenty-one days of bathing in the waters was the recommended dose, but then he didn’t have to put it on his Visa card!

The therapeutic properties of the springs are apparently a result of the metallic salts and trace elements that occur naturally in the water, particularly iron, calcium and magnesium. Heated some three kilometres below ground, the water reaches the surface at a temperature of between 70 and 85 degrees centigrade. Handy for boiling eggs, though I didn’t try.

Some of the more modest accommodation available in Edipsos gives a fascinating glimpse into early 20th century history, and the Belle Epoque of this loutropolis when the likes of Winston Churchill, Eleftherios Venizelos, Maria Callas, and Greta Garbo took the waters here.

The faded elegance of the Aigli Hotel, two hundred metres from the harbour, with its chic art-deco design, stands out proudly amongst the drab sprawl of the contemporary waterfront. Its modernist features are a must see for anyone even vaguely interested in architectural history. A modest renovation, retaining its precious design features would be an idea for this dusty jewel of a building.

Back at the Thermae Sylla Spa, the service, rooms and amenities are top-class. Fresh organic produce from the hotel’s own farm supply the kitchens. Refreshingly, particularly for Greece, there is a total ban on guests smoking in public areas.

A great gym and spa centre offering body wraps with algae and fruit, aromatherapy and shiatsu, sits above interior and exterior pools that combine thermal and sea water at a constant 28-30 C. A package booking at the hotel includes a free consultation with the spa’s resident doctor.

According to legend, Hercules would bathe in the waters of Edipsos before each of his ‘labours’ in order to relax and regain his strength. I know the feeling. I drove back with the E75 national road packed with fellow travelers returning after the weekend break. By the time we pulled off the highway with a sigh of relief towards our home in Kifisia, I could have done with another long soak in those ancient rejuvenating waters.

http://www.thermaesyllaspa-hotel.com

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Cretan Journeys: Return to the village

Mike Sweet reports from Vamos in western Crete, where a community has been revitalised by the vision of a generation who turned their grandparents’ homes into delightful refuges for discerning visitors.

Nestled between the coast and the national highway connecting Chania with Rethymno, the Apokoronas is a region often overlooked by the scores of tourist buses and hire cars running the gauntlet of the E75 national road, the frantic highway connecting west and eastern Crete. Apokoronas is a wide fertile plain extending from the foothills of the Lefka Ori, north to the coast,  with rolling hills where Cypress trees, olive groves, vineyards and orchards thrive. This is the Crete of a simpler age. A place where Arab pirates dwelt, where the Venetians ruled for more than three hundred years, where Ottoman forts still survey a land fought over for centuries.

The ancient indigenous economy of Crete, based on agriculture, only began to change significantly as recently as the 1970s. Mass tourism, like an irreversible chemical reaction, transformed the island physically and culturally forever. Today around fifteen per cent of all arrivals in Greece come through Heraklion and more than two million tourists visit Crete annually. But despite the adverse effects of this invasion, those who seek a quieter and more authentic experience in Crete can still find it, in a place like Apokoronas.

At the heart of the Apokoronas district is the village of Vamos. With a history reaching back into pre-history, it would be the mid 20th Century that saw Vamos, like so many villages in Greece, face a challenge for its very survival. Decimated by the exodus of a generation, which began in the 1950s, Vamos was in total neglect by the seventies. Many of its houses had become ruins and half the resident population, which had dwindled to 650, were elderly.

Vamos’ saving grace was that it was the administrative heart of the region, and its public services kept it from extinction. As the age of Cretan mass tourism dawned, Vamos went into a kind of quiet hibernation, waiting for a new age; a time when it’s simple, traditional ways would be sustainable once more. The catalyst for the butterfly to emerge would be artistic expression and particularly music.
Between 1982 and 1988, the children of the generation who had left Vamos returned, creating a series of summer music festivals that brought Greece’s most prominent contemporary musical performers to the village. George Dalaras came to Vamos, along with Maria Farandouri, Yannis Markopoulos, Haris Alexiou, Dimos Moutsis and a host of other leading Greek artists; it was a commercial venture but also a celebration of the village’s culture and very being.

Later, it would be a group of like-minded friends who had been involved in organising the festivals, who would go on in the 1990s to practice a kind of alchemy that reversed the downturn in the village’s fortunes, turning ruins back into simple, authentic Cretan residences for travellers who share a concept of ‘soft’ tourism.

George Hadjidakis was one of those friends, and a founding member of Vamos Traditional Village established as a co-operative in 1995. Brought up in Athens, George recollects childhood holidays at his grandparents’ home. “We were here every summer and what I remember most is the feeling of freedom I had, and the chance to explore nature.” Hadjidakis went on to study mathematics in the University of Athens, but the pull of Vamos was always there. “We thought the cultural events held in the summertime were not enough. We wanted to do something to expand the whole thing, to give a financial perspective to the area the whole year round.” The co-operative began by renovating the ancient homes of their grandparents; buildings originally constructed between the 18th and early 20th century were turned into guesthouses; an art café, performance space, a crafts shop and a taverna.

Today Vamos Traditional Village comprises twenty-five cottages and another ten in outlying villages. Some of the more luxurious villas sleep up to eight people and come with outdoor pools. All have been re-built in traditional Cretan style using local materials. Accommodation can be booked by the night, though most visitors book weekly blocks.

Part of the co-operative’s vision was to help revitalise the village’s economy by creating other businesses beside the accommodation. The traditional taverna I Sterna tou Bloumosifis run by Spiros Frantzeskatis serves some of the best value cuisine in western Crete using local ingredients. Their mouthwatering menu features mezedes like stuffed zuchinni flowers, freshly made taramosalata, and creamy fava. From the wood-fired oven, treat yourself to lamb with artichokes, slow roasted pork, or rooster with red wine and pasta. Topped off with a drop of Tsikoudia (the fiery Cretan Raki) on the house, every meal here is one to remember.

To Liakoto, the art café nearby puts on regular exhibitions and live music featuring an eclectic mix of contemporary styles from Rembetika to modern jazz. Beyond the enterprises set up by the co-operative itself, the village’s other businesses have benefited greatly from increased visitors; the grocer, the baker, the single supermarket, and the traditional cafés in the sleepy main square. It’s that sense of a real, living, breathing community, which you become part of when staying in Vamos that lies at the heart of this venture’s success.

The co-operative’s plans for the future are modest; an organic market garden to supply the guests and a hostel-style villa suited for the budgets of young people. The early summer of 2011 sees Vamos Traditional Village host hands-on classes on cooking Cretan cuisine, and in a return to its roots, a series of week long celebrations of drama, poetry and visual arts.

Although George Hadjidakis wouldn’t say no to more properties, the co-founder of this Cretan experiment in soft tourism is happy to keep things on a modest scale, avoiding over-commercialisation of the concept. “I don’t want to make it that big. There’s a danger in that. We don’t want to be Coca Cola!”

Cretan Journeys: Elixirs of life

It’s a short drive from Chania into the natural beauty of the Armenoi district in western Crete and a relief to be away from the kitsch of Chania’s old town, which in April attracts the first streams of tourist swarms. They mill through the alleyways, past the shops selling ‘Miss Kitty’ towels and the other globalised tat that blights today’s most popular tourist destinations.

They search for something picturesque, ancient, serene. Perhaps some feel they have found it here, but discerning travelers will find far more rewarding experiences to be had close by. Thirty minutes away, turning south off the national road to Rethymo at Megala Chorafia, you are thankfully, in another world.

The road to the village of Maheri weaves through groves of avocados, oranges and olives, as it rises into the foothills of the majestic White Mountains in the distance. A hairpin bend in at the end of small valley leads up to Maheri, and on the one road upon which the village sits, Roula Kastrinaki, creator of Kamares is outside to greet new arrivals.

Roula Kastrinaki, originally from Chania, began work on Kamares 20 years ago with her partner Costas whose family has lived in Maheri for generations. Their simple but elegant  terracotta stone houses comprise five apartments and three villas overlooking the serenely peaceful plain of Apokorona. In the distance the Ottoman castle of Koules looks out towards Souda Bay, swallows glide and swoop, darting into a nest in the kitchen on the ground floor, and below in the  gardens organic fruit and vegetables grow in profusion.

Last year Roula was persuaded to run as the Green party candidate in the local elections, but she points out that she has no major ambitions to be a politician, preferring the role of citizen campaigner for change. In November  she  will be involved in a new environmental project aimed at protecting the unique marine eco-system that exists south of Crete, in between the tiny islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula – the southernmost isles of Europe.

A kindred spirit, Manolis Kindelis owns and manages a farm 3kms south west of Chania that his grandfather bought in the 1900s. Built more than 350 years ago, Metohi Kindelis is today a working organic fruit farm of 3.5 hectares. Manolis remembers visiting the farm as a child when it produced mandarins and olives.

Today the organic orchards grow strawberries, nectarines, apricots, pomegranates, oranges, and grapes, mostly for the Crete market. The large stone Venetian farmhouse, with an inner pebbled courtyard and dwellings where farm workers and their families once lived, has been converted into simple but superb accommodation.

Look out of the tall windows of the Kynthia guestroom to the courtyard below and it’s Tuscany that you see. Inside, high ceilings, period furniture, a fridge stacked with organic delicacies, and hidden in an antique Chinese armoire, a CD player with Manolis’ eclectic mix of jazz, classical and new age titles.

This is no formulaic five star experience. Here imagination and sensitivity ensure that the farmhouse remains true to its origins, while just the right creature comforts are on hand.

Perhaps the real magic of these special life-enriching places is that a kind of alchemy has taken place. The history of the simple village of Maheri, its traditions, its lore of the land, and its relationship to nature has been re-cast. No less so, at the Kindelis family’s ancient farm. Manolis Kindelis and Roula Kastrinaki share an understanding of life and nature. It’s a vision as rich and healthy as the elixir-like olive oil made at Kamares, and the succulent fruit of Metohi Kindelis.