Je suis un fan

Photography: George Apostolidis.

 

Mandarin Oriental, Paris has just celebrated its first birthday. An oasis of contemporary luxury in the bustling heart of the fashionable Saint-Honoré district, to stay at this hotel is to savour modern Parisian style with a refined infusion of the Orient.

Paris Fashion Week was in full swing when our taxi plied its way slowly up the bustling narrow Rue Saint-Honoré to deposit us at the coolly understated entrance of Mandarin Oriental, Paris. Tucked between two grand old town houses, the approach to the lobby beneath a canopy of tiny glass lights – each sculpted as a butterfly – gives a first clue as to what’s in store. Inside the main lobby with its soaring grey marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s a second; a sculpture of a human form in two circles suspended in space.

We’ve arrived at a place of air and light – a location to free the body and soul.

The hotel’s design style takes its inspiration from the richness and modernity of the 1930s and Art Deco. The original building dates from 1928, and its 138 rooms and suites on eight floors are amongst the most spacious hotel rooms in Paris.

The welcome, like that experienced at all the group’s hotels was distinctive; warm and efficient. With all the fabulous creature comforts, it’s so often the staff, brought up in the unique Mandarin Oriental tradition, that makes staying at any of the group’s hotels a deeply satisfying and memorable experience.

We were graciously guided to room 514, a Suite Deluxe consisting of bedroom, bathroom, lounge and balcony overlooking the Rue Saint Honoré. With sliding doors separating its three areas and floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a large fluid space impeccably stylish and exquisitely furnished. Chic oriental touches and bold contemporary art, exude a feeling of understated contemporary glamour and luxurious exclusivity. “Look dad, it comes with its own iPad!” squealed my eight-year-old son son in glee.

The cutting-edge technology to hand, is of course bespoke – Bang & Olufsen as well as Apple, and three discretely-positioned widescreen TVs – including one seamlessly part of the wall in the stunning bathroom – offer state-of-the-art entertainment technology. My only concern was how would I ever get my son to leave this cocoon of luxurious technically advanced comfort. The indoor pool was the answer, part of the deeply tranquil retreat that is the hotel’s spa where subtle animated projections of butterflies in flight create a dreamlike world. Extending over two floors, the 900 square metre spa is one of the city’s largest.

Within this subterranean sanctuary, therapies developed by specialists in traditional Chinese medicine promote complete mind-body harmony. Evocatively titled treatments include Hu-Tieh Quan (the Butterfly Spring): a bath of warming ginger, uplifting mandarin and sacred frankincense followed by a soothing body mask and massage.

If all that holistic pampering makes you hungry, the hotel has two restaurants under the watchful eye of one of France’s most celebrated chefs – Thierry Marx, MO Paris’ Executive Chef; the gourmet Michelin-starred Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx, and Camélia, an all-day restaurant offering French cuisine influenced by Marx’s love and knowledge of Japan.

Spilling into an elegant courtyard garden, Camélia is also the venue for the sumptuous buffet breakfast: just what’s needed if you have designs on some serious retail fashion therapy.

The Rue Saint-Honoré is the heart of Paris haute couture and home to the world’s most famous fashion brands – Versace, Hermes, Chanel and Yves Saint Lauren, as well as newer kids on the block like the edgy Colette ‘concept’ store. They are all on your doorstep at Mandarin Oriental, Paris.

Whether you’re buying or just indulging in ‘lèche-vitrines’ (window shopping in French – literally ‘window-licking’), a stroll on the Rue Saint-Honoré is an experience not to be missed. But then if you simply want to pamper yourself chez Mandarin Oriental, the hotel has a fabulous optional extra that adds a new dimension to Parisian retail therapy. Not only will the concierge find any item you’ve set your heart on, but will arrange free pick-up and delivery to your room.

An up, close and personal encounter with Parisian history in all its magnificence is something that can’t be delivered – but it’s wonderfully close. Sitting in the capital’s premier arrondissement, you’re a five-minute stroll from two landmark Parisian squares – Place de la Concorde and Place Vendome. My son was less-enamoured with high-fashion and history but rather with simpler local delights. We headed to the Tuileries – the seventeenth century gardens that make up the central-most park in Paris; they have a funfair that he adored almost as much as our beloved suite.

Eurostar had whisked us in to Paris from London. We were there 48 hours, just enough time to scale the Eiffel Tower [tip: avoid long queues by getting there by 9.30am and walk the first two stages], take a boat trip along the Seine and of course, indulge in a touch of that retail therapy unique to the French capital.

Mandarin Oriental, Paris exemplifies modern, rather than classic, luxury, and it does so breathtakingly. The butterfly, that delicate emblem of rebirth and fleeting freedom runs discreetly throughout this sublime hotel; it’s a symbol that could not be more fitting for this oasis of chic refinement.

While only the fortunate few might be able to make a Suite Deluxe at the Mandarin Oriental their regular pied de terre in the French capital, for any discerning traveller every space here is an oasis to savour – a place to rest for exquisite nourishment before spreading your wings again.

Sensuous luxury – that doesn’t cost the earth

At Mandarin Oriental, Paris, providing luxury and fastidious customer service with environmentally sustainable practices is a seamless process

The hotel has committed itself to obtaining La Haute Qualité Environnementale or HQE (High Quality Environmental certification) – the highest standard for green buildings in France. As the first hotel in France to recognised for such a commitment to the environment, its eco-responsible policy approach saves between 20 and 30 per cent of its energy usage in comparison with a non-HQE building.

Child’s play

For families, Mandarin Oriental, Paris has created an experience to showcase the best of what Paris has to offer younger visitors.

Ideal for parents wanting to introduce their children to the city’s beauty and culture, J’aime Paris en famille allows families to improve their understanding of France and the French language in one fun-filled day.

Comprising an enchanting tour of the city’s most famous and child-friendly delights, the tour is guided by an expert not just in Parisian culture and history, but how to make it come alive for children new to the city.

After the day’s explorations, families can enjoy un goûter, a snack that French children traditionally enjoy at 4pm, which at Mandarin Oriental, Paris, is best enjoyed at the Cake Shop. Pastries and macarons will tempt the young, while a well-deserved glass of Bollinger awaits for parents at play.

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A very English Athenian

It’s in a quintessentially English setting, far-removed from her home in Athens that I’ve arranged to meet Sofka Zinovieff.

In the UK to promote her first novel The House on Paradise Street, the author, who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is the VIP guest at a literary event hosted by the five-star Calcot Manor Hotel – a luxurious country house dating back to the 14th century, set amongst the rolling Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire. Not that Zinovieff is any stranger to England’s green and pleasant land.

Born and brought up in London, she is the daughter of an English mother and Russian emigré father. As a student, Zinovieff studied at Cambridge University where she graduated with a first-class degree in social anthropology – the study of how contemporary human beings behave in social groups.

It’s that analysis that has underpinned much of her work as a writer. Her first book Eurydice Street, a Place in Athens was the story of her own acclimatisation to living in an adopted culture – Greece. The Red Princess –  the biography of her paternal grandmother- the remarkable story of a White Russian aristocrat who became an ardent communist in the Soviet Union.

With the American publishing house Simon and Schuster recently announcing that they are to publish The House on Paradise Street in the United States, Zinovieff’s move into fiction has taken her to her widest readership yet.

Taking the reader from the war-torn streets of 1940s Athens, to the partisans’ mountain caves of the civil war and on to the present, it’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Greece’s past, present or future.

The story is told through the voice of Maud Perifanis, a young English anthropologist who loses her Greek husband in a mysterious car accident, and then hears the  heart-breaking tale of her mother-in-law’s early life – caught in the brutal political tides of the Greek Civil War.

Is Maud the author in disguise? “People assume I am, she’s an anthropology student who went to Greece as I did, and married a Greek, but in character we’re very different.

“She becomes much more disillusioned with Greece than I could ever be, she’s more uptight, more classically English than I am.”

It’s a tale that could only have been told by someone with an intimate knowledge of the country and a passion for its idiosyncrasies.

“It’s difficult to sum up a deep and long-lasting love in a few words,” says Zinovieff, when I ask what she loves about the country that has been her physical home for eleven years, but spiritual home for half her life.

“What attracted me in the beginning may have been the stereotypical things – the beauty, the light, the history, but when you start a life in another country you go through a kind of rebirth.

“You start as a baby and grow up, you become somebody else, and you see your past and your life before very differently, especially if you’re young as I was, in my early 20s.”

Zinovieff confides that one of the most liberating aspects of reflecting on her English upbringing was deliverance from the British class system.

“In England, by the way someone has finished their second sentence you’re able to determine where they’re from, where they went to school, all that sort of thing. I find that very off-putting,” she says, in her very English and disarmingly precise way.

While the book invites readers to reconsider their views on Greece past and present, it particularly addresses Britain’s involvement in Greek affairs seventy years ago. Did she set out to change hearts and minds on the subject? “I don’t like the idea of fiction trying to be didactic, but I did feel like opening up that area,” she says.

Depending on one’s position, as the Second World War ended, Britain either saved Greece from the evils of communism, or behaved like a brutal imperialist. Zinovieff says she doesn’t take sides but in the novel there is a deliberate inclination to explain and reveal injustices, particularly those perpetrated on the Left.

“I was surprised when I found out more about the Dekemvriana – the events in Athens in December 1944, which I found shocking.

“It seems to me extraordinary that within weeks of the Nazis leaving suddenly there was the British army killing the very people they had been comrades with before.”

The affect of the civil war and the schism in society that followed it, is the underlying narrative in The House on Paradise Street and one partly inspired by her husband’s family history, “but only in the way that a spark can lead to a fire,” says Zinovieff.

“I’d been interested in the war for a long time and then coincidentally cousins of my husband received the remains of their deceased aunt back from Romania. She had been a partisan on the Left during the war, operating near Lamia. Quite a bit of the story is set there.”

To Zinovieff, the recent infamous actions of a Greek Neo Nazi MP, is a shocking contemporary manifestation of the political dysfunction conceived during the civil war.

“To have facists slapping communists on television is a sign of something deeply unhappy in the society. “In Greece, politics is a deep-seated emotional activity played out within families. Often it’s almost irrational. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent times.”

As a widely published author Zinovieff has been one of Greece’s great defenders during a period of sustained international media criticism.

“Greeks have felt like pawns a lot in history and that was something I wanted to explore in the book,” she says. “They felt used. If you look at the crisis in recent years, yet again they feel they’ve been done down by outside powers.”

Her next book will revert to her original calling – non-fiction, once more to mine the rich seam that is her own family history.

This time she is setting out to explore story of her maternal grandfather Robert Heber-Percy, Mad Boy as he was known, who in his twenties had a remarkable and intimate relationship with the english aristocrat, diplomat and composer Lord Berners, twenty-seven years his senior.

“When he met Lord Berners in the mid-1930s, my grandfather was a mad young man of 21, very good looking,” says Zinovieff.  “They met at a house party. Berners took Mad Boy back to his beautiful country – a wonderful Georgian villa in Oxfordshire.

“They were an unlikely couple. Berners had been a diplomat in Constantinople and Rome during the First World War. Highly cultivated and creative, he wrote music for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and had friends as varied as Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.”

Through their remarkable lives Zinovieff will recreate the exotic bohemian world they inhabited and reflect on the paradoxes of pre-war English cosmopolitan high-society.

“In a way the book will be about how I feel towards Berners, because to me, he’s a sort of great-grandfatherly figure, even though I never met him.”

Zinovieff’s new book is the telling of an extraordinary family history. But then the tales told by this English Athenian author are far from ordinary fare.

Perfect Paxos

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Surrounded by sparkling blue waters, elegant harbours and tranquil bays, Paxos is rated as one of the world’s Top Twenty Great Escapes. But then it’s always been a place for a good escape: legend has it that Poseidon created Paxos by bashing Corfu with his trident to create a peaceful getaway for himself and his partner Amphitrite. Perhaps his actions were partly a premonition of the port of Corfu in the 21st Century – disgorging thousands of camera-clad tourists, or pale holidaymakers from northern Europe, descending in their droves in the charter jets that arrive continually from dawn until midnight at Corfu airport.

It’s enough to make anyone fling his trident, and it’s just as well he did, because Paxos, and its tiny sister island Antipaxos, are sparkling gems set in this part of the Ionian, and if you know where to go, there is much that is serene and magical in these islands off the beaten track.

The pioneers of tourism in Paxos were two Brits, Eliot Watrous and Patrick May, who first visited the island as servicemen in WWII. After the war, Watrous went on to create the Greek Island Club, one of the first travel companies that began to open Greece up to the British and European tourist market.

By the 1980s tourism had replaced olive oil production as the mainstay of Paxos’ economy. Today the permanent resident population of Paxos is around 2500. In summer it rises to 10,000 and the sleepy port of Gaios is transformed as tourists arrive in droves on day trips from Corfu and the Greek mainland. On the waterfront is the office of Yannis Avranitakis, born in Paxos in 1953, Avranitakis has established Gaios Travel as one of the island’s most successful small businesses, offering quality accommodation, car and boat hire – all with a sensitive personal touch.

Yannis’ insights into tourism on Paxos are enlightening. “We don’t need more tourists,” says Yannis. “We need a different kind of tourist.” And what he means by that, is tourists who want more than the packages offered by the big tour operators – visitors who want to explore aspects of Paxos’ rich culture and environment so often ignored.

I soon got a glimpse of what Yannis means: a stroll along the port brings you to the Paxos Municipal Museum and Gallery, an elegant neo-classical building that houses an extraordinary collection. The exhibits include the traditional Paxiot dowry gift of ‘leg-stirrups’ for the bride, to attach to the marital bedposts for that extra something to help the baby-making process. Now you can’t find those at Ikea!

Some of the most interesting items in the small museum are the remarkable paintings by the Paxiot artist and priest Christodoulos Aronis (1884 -1973). A 1908 graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Aronis specialised in portraiture and landscapes as well as religious paintings. Many of his commissions adorn in churches in Corfu and Paxos, and in some of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the UK where he spent the latter part of his life. The paintings at the Paxos museum are the single largest collection of his work in one location and show his most personal figurative and landscape work.

Less than six kilometres to the south of Gaios is the tiny island of Antipaxos. In peak season many flock to this tiny pristine isle (with an area of just 5 square km) on day trips from Corfu – heading out on packed sightseeing boats to swim in the crystal clear waters for which the island has become famous.

My advice is to steer clear of its most famous beaches like Vrika and Voutoumi where every day in the high-season you’re likely to find yourself too close for comfort with others wanting to experience the Ionian’s most perfect beaches. Go for a walk; you’ve got every chance of getting a beach to yourself.

I was lucky enough to stay the night and savour Antipaxos’ delights without the daytime invaders. With very few properties on and a resident population of not many more than 30 owners and their families, this is the ultimate getaway location.

Yannis invited me to stay at the stone and timber house he recently finished building on his family’s land – an elegant property on high ground that took eight years to construct. After a 20 minute boat ride we tied up at the tiny harbour of Agrapidia in the early evening, and soon Yannis was introducing me to his neighbours, all of whom are winemakers. The island is famous for the quality of its wine, with the oldest and largest commercial producer being a local priest Papa Vangelis. Plots of land passed down through the generations are separated by rolling hills of vineyards and joined by a few meandering lanes.

We headed off into the warm evening to toast the sunset on the rooftop terrace of Vasilis Vlachopoulos, a former merchant ship captain, who having sailed the seven seas, now prefers to tend his vines on this idyllic isle. And who can blame him. Perched on a hill with sweeping views to the south we sat on his rooftop verandah as the sun set.

To the west, a vast expanse of the Ionian sea and hidden beyond, is Italy. If ‘sublime’ was a word invented to describe one experience, one place, one time; then it would be sitting in good company on that simple terrace that late summer evening, and as the light began to fade, sharing the sweet fruit of the vines which surround us.

Though rooms and villas are available to rent on Antipaxos, they are in short supply, so best to book early. Contact Gaios Travel or Lychnaria Paxos Accommodation for details. The author is grateful for the assistance of the Municipality of Paxos, Spyros Bogdanos, Yannis Avrantakis of Gaios Travel and Faye Lychnou of Lychnaria in the research for this article.

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

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!”

A house in Athens

A house in Athens

The house Diligianis built. 19 Levidou, Kifisia.

An elegant long-handled knife sits under glass at the National Historical Museum, the old Greek Parliament in Stadiou Street, Athens. Beside it lies a leather bag with a monograph. It reads Diligiannis. This personal effect of a late-19th Century Greek politician Theodoros Diligiannis would have passing interest for most, myself included, but for the fact that the knife – which could so easily be an ornamental letter opener – was used to murder its owner.

Diligiannis, who was prime minister of Greece twice, was assassinated on the 13 June 1905 in revenge for reforms he had taken against gambling. His attacker, a professional punter, stabbed the politician as he was entering parliament.

The villa that Diligiannis built in the northern suburb of Kifisia, has for the last three years, been my home. The plaque beside the iron-gated entrance to the garden shows his dates – 1826 to 1905. It often causes passers-by to pause, perhaps to reflect on Diligiannis’ place in Greece’s political evolution.

At the time the house was built in 1850, the fashion for the Athenian establishment was to escape the stifling heat of summer in the metropolis, to Kifisia, fifteen kilometres to the north. Today’s owner of Diligiannis’ retreat is Lilaka Kritikos, the widow of an Azerbijani Greek businessman who made his fortune as a trader in Cameroon.

The house and the grounds in which it sits, were bought from the Diligiannis family by Kritikos in the 1970s. Lilaka lives in the apartment built by her husband beside the property. “It was a house  paysan for the summer – not a grand villa. It was a ruin when we bought it,” says Lilaka, who spends much of her time at a second home in Paris.

The house at 19 Levidou is near the swanky shops of central Kifisia, where the well-heeled sate their craving for expensive branded fashion accessories, seemingly immune to the deterioration of the economy. But business is down for the traders in Kifisia. Walk up Diligiannis’ street to the Kefalari Plateia, and you come to Trikoupi Street named after Diligiannis’ nemesis, the modernizer Charilaos Trikoupis.

The enmity between these two men, who vied for the leadership of the Nationalist Party, defined Greek politics in the late 19th Century. Living at this intersection of political history, one can’t help but reflect on today’s Greece, beset by its huge economic and social challenges, and with a political landscape as fractious and polarised as Diligiannis’ time.

As the second decade in the 21st Century gets underway, Greece is in limbo. For the first time in generations, young people face a future of fewer opportunities than their parents. Confidence in politicians has eroded completely, tarred by the irresponsible actions of past governments of all persuasions.

Deep resentment and loss-of-face is felt by Greeks at having had to go cap in hand to the European Union and IMF. Downtown, a world away from Kifisia, tensions are high.

A recent report by UNHCR has described Greece’s treatment of refugees as a humanitarian crisis. Vigilantes bully the immigrants that have nowhere else to go. A few days before Christmas at the church of Aghios Pandeleimonas near Exarchia, a classical music concert took place attended by the Greek President and Archbishop of Athens.

It was a brave, symbolic event, to encourage tolerance of immigrants and the issues they face. Outside and inside the church there were protesters urging against this call for toleration – many of the local resident protesters were infiltrated by extremist nationalist groups. Greece’s largest right-wing political organisation Xrysi Augi (Golden Dawn), with their Nazi salutes and rhetoric of intolerance, took close to twenty per cent in recent local elections.

The summer of 2010 was long in Greece. It seemed to last until year’s end, but as Christmas arrived, so did winter. With a sudden, chilling force, snow fell on the houses of Kifisia. These are times to wrap up warm, gather strength, and do what you can to prepare for better days.

The villa Diligiannis built was used to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation seventy years ago. Today, as racism stalks Athens streets, it is a time for courage and humanity; a time to denounce the fascists, to fortify a society under immense pressure, and to offer a safe-house to those  in need.

Beyond the Beach: Poros revealed

The Villa Galini, Poros: holiday home to Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and Marc Chagall.

There’s a moment as a passenger on a small ferry in Greece, when just as you leave the quay, the world begins to gently move around you. For a second or two you are the still centre of the earth itself. As we glide away from Galatas for the five-minute journey to Poros, the cooling sea breeze in the narrow strait blows away any fatigue you may have from the drive down. You begin to feel your bio-rhythms slowing, your heart lifting. Moving sedately towards the terracotta-roofed dwellings of Poros town that tumble down the hill below the clock tower, you know the holiday has really begun.

Kostas, the owner of Psarotaverna Kathestos is at the plateia waiting to greet us with a smile and a moped. He zooms off. We follow. After a short drive along the seafront he motions for us to park, and soon we were ascending by foot the steps that lead to the Limeri House, our accommodation for the weekend. It’s a hike to reach but great for the cardiovascular system if yours can take it, and the return on your physical investment is well worth the effort.

The newest holiday property developed by Austrian architect Marie-Luise Andoniadou, who fell in love with the island ten years ago, the cosy and luxurious Limeri House sits high above the eastern end of Poros town, with a truly glorious view down to the harbour, across the strait to Galatas and the Anderes mountain range. After a leisurely dip in the cool welcoming pool, and having torn ourselves away from that same view from the deep end, it’s time to explore.

The journey to the lower part of the town can be taken at a less severe angle, taking you through a maze of narrow lanes and stepped pathways. As you near the commercial centre, small shops and tavernas begin to appear more frequently. Once near the water, idling the day away in the cheerful cafes and tavernas that line the waterfront, or heading off for a beach are not unpleasant options, but if you are in search of history and culture, Poros has both in spades.

Cross the bridge which divides the small volcanic island of Sferia from the larger forested island of Kalavria, then take a left along the road that winds westward along the seafront towards Russian Bay. Soon a beautiful red-ochre neo-classical villa with green wooden shutters, and elegant stone-columned balconies appears on higher ground to the right. Hiding behind the coniferous trees and overgrown shrubbery is the Villa Galini. Built in 1894, the villa exudes the elegance of a bygone era, and has a rich and important artistic heritage. Those who stayed here, before and after World War II include George Seferis, who wrote about the villa in 1946 in his poem ‘A house by the sea’.

“Houses frown or smile or even grow stubborn with those who stayed behind, and those who went away…now that the world has become an endless hotel”.

Other literary luminaries who spent time here include Kosmas Politis who wrote his first novel ‘The Lemon Grove’ on Poros in 1930. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller looked out from its terrace. Marc Chagall painted beneath its eaves. The villa is now, as then, privately owned. Sturdy chains and padlocks on the gates confirm there is no public access currently to this precious setting that inspired those artists.

Follow the road past the Villa Galini for 3 kms and you come to Russian Bay. This site was given to Russia by Greece’s first President, Ioannis Kapodistrias, in gratitude for Russia’s assistance in the Greek War of Independence. In 1828 Poros was the location of a meeting of the great powers, when Kapodistrias met ambassadors of England, France and Russia to define the borders of the modern Greek state following the defeat of the Turks.

Largely built by convict labour in 1834, the Russian Bay station remained a Russian base and trading post until its ignominious end in 1917. Crews of the two ships on station mutinied against their officers in support of the Bolshevik Revolution and decided to return to Russia. Before getting underway, they discharged their guns on their previous refuge. The station remains in ruins to this day.

For the earliest traces of human civilisation on Poros, you must retrace your steps, and head up a few kilometres to the high north-east of Kalavria, to the flattened ruins which are all that remain of the Temple of Poseidon, where the orator Demosthenes took refuge in 322 bc having been pursued by the King of Macedonia. Though there is little to see of the ancient temple that dates possibly from before the 6th century BC, (most of the stones were removed in 1760 to build a monastery in Hydra which is now the town hall, it’s a beautiful place with a haunting serenity. Swedish archaeologists began working on the site in 1894 and research on the site continues today.

Back in Poros town,the sleepy, unassuming archeological museum holds a collection of fascinating findings from the temple site, Ancient Troezina (Trizina) and many other nearby sites.

At Limeri House the sun has set. My four year-old son looks west from our balcony above the harbour, across the twinkling lights of Poros town, to the boats scurrying to and fro in the strait below, and Galatas in the distance. “It looks like Christmas” says Alexander quietly, enchanted by the surrounding panorama. Poros has unique gifts and precious heirlooms for all to share. For those looking for a tranquil escape with a cultural edge, look no further.