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.

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How Darwin was betrayed

The man who knew: Richard Williams in 1916 as Commander No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. Photo: AWM A04556

“The planes came in from the south-east, and I looked up and they appeared to me like a cemetery, the white underbellies … coming across the blue sky. We fired and were terribly disappointed because the shells fell behind and below the planes. The fuses were powder fuses, which they found out later didn’t last long in the tropics. It was a big shemozzle the whole lot of it. The communications between the air force, the Americans, the army and the navy was non-existent.”

JACK MULHOLLAND
Anti-aircraft gunner, Darwin.

ON THE morning of February 19, 1942, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Williams finished a leisurely breakfast at the elegant, colonial-style Hotel Darwin on the town’s Esplanade. The 52-year-old former Royal Australian Air Force chief was on the last leg of a journey from his posting in London home to Melbourne.

A few minutes before 10am, as he waited for the local RAAF commander to join him on the hotel’s palm-fringed lawns, Williams reached for his 8-millimetre cine camera to record the scene: a bright blue sky, an anti-aircraft gun emplacement across the road – waiting for an attack that everyone in Darwin knew was imminent. As he did, waves of high-flying Japanese bombers appeared overhead, releasing bombs that glinted silver in the sunlight as they fell. Williams dived for cover in a concrete gutter, and it was from that dusty vantage point that he witnessed an attack he had foreseen for so long.

Exactly what went through the former RAAF chief’s mind as the raiders went about their deadly business, picking off targets at will, one can only guess. Williams was the RAAF’s pre-war commander who had drawn up detailed plans to realise a national air defence capability – plans that had been ignored.

More than 30 years would pass before the stoic, deeply loyal public servant shared his views publicly on what had occurred under Australia’s northern skies that day. ”No steps had been taken to form even one fighter squadron … we had nothing with which to effectively oppose them,” were his perfunctory comments in his pointedly titled 1977 autobiography, These are facts.

The bombing of Darwin by Japan on February 19, 1942, killed at least 274 people and injured hundreds more (famously, more bombs were dropped than on Pearl Harbour). Until now the narrative has largely been one of courageous improvised defence – acts of heroism in a battle against overwhelming odds – counterpointed by a breakdown in military discipline that led to some servicemen going AWOL immediately after the raid.

Less well documented, however, was the catastrophic failure of public policy that left Australia so vulnerable to attack 70 years ago – a failure, argues historian Dr Peter Ewer, stemming largely from Australia’s slavish adherence to Britain’s imperial defence strategy, and the refusal of successive pre-war governments to heed the advice of their most expert military adviser.

Ewer has spent 12 years uncovering how Williams’ advice was ignored, and the prescient air chief eventually sent into exile, undoing plans that would have given Darwin a fighting chance. ”There’s a lot of populist drum-beating about Darwin … but there are deep questions of public policy that have not been explored in the years since the event,” he says. ”And we have been diverted from the most important issue of all: the cause of the most significant national defence failure Australia has ever experienced.”

Ewer’s contention of a catastrophic failure of government is shared by others, including senior military figures and analysts. The bombing of Darwin ”was a situation in which Australia should never have been placed”, says Air Marshal George Jones, who took on Williams’ role as RAAF chief later in 1942, ”and I have always felt that those responsible were never properly called to account for it”.

In his book Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal, Ewer argues that the virtually unopposed attack on Darwin was the result of a series of ill-judged political decisions that left Australia effectively undefended in the opening phase of the Pacific war. He maintains that historians since have been reluctant to delve into the topic, revealing an enduring aversion to grappling with a painful truth. ”Given the descriptive interest in the bombing of Darwin, I find truly amazing the absence of a debate about why Australia was so unable to defend itself,” he says.

The level of disarray is made clear through the testimony of those on the ground that day.

RAAF Sergeant Lionel King was 18 years old when he sheltered in a slit trench at the RAAF base as the bombers struck. ”We were up there with virtually no defences,” King related 65 years later. ”I know it’s an embarrassment to the government at the time … this is why they imposed strict censorship. When you hear that the anti-aircraft gunners were using World War I ammunition, army regiments had five rounds per rifle. We as an air force unit had nothing, not a rifle. Darwin was caught completely unprepared.”

Central to Ewer’s thinking is a need to re-appraise the career of the ”father of the RAAF”, Richard Williams, who forecast the air attack that devastated Darwin 16 years before it took place. How Williams was undermined, depriving Australia of its most prescient defence planner, is key, says Ewer, to understanding what did and didn’t happen in Darwin in 1942.

BORN in 1890, in South Australia, Williams was the son of a copper miner whose family had migrated from Cornwall. His military career began at 19 when he enlisted in the South Australian Infantry Regiment before joining the army.

In 1914, he became the first graduate pilot of Australia’s inaugural military flying course at Point Cook in Victoria. Two years later, as commander of No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, he was deployed to support the allied advance on Palestine.

His actions in the Middle East are the stuff of legend. Awarded the DSO for gallantry, the young aviator’s duties included providing air support for Lawrence of Arabia’s irregular forces fighting the Turks.

”Williams’ work in Palestine is little known, but he was a world-leading pioneer of air power, and he understood how to apply engineering and technical solutions to the tactical problems he faced,” says Ewer.

With the formation of the RAAF after WWI, the young wing commander was appointed its first chief of air staff in 1921. Four years later he drafted a paper titled ”Memorandum regarding the air defence of Australia”, which became a blueprint for the RAAF’s structure as an independent service.

From the outset, however, Williams was on a collision course with key political leaders. Rather than integrate the RAAF into Britain’s imperial defence system, he took as his starting point the need to secure mainland Australia, identifying a force structure needed to fulfil the role – 30 squadrons with 324 aircraft. The advice was ignored by successive governments who allocated the lion’s share of spending on the navy, in line with imperial defence agendas.

In September 1926, Williams began a remarkable voyage. He climbed into the seat of a fragile De Havilland biplane on the Point Cook runway where he had learnt to fly, and began a 16,000-kilometre round trip to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He wanted to see for himself the topography of the islands and sea routes that would be crucial in defending Australia in a future war. The voyage, made two years before Charles Kingsford Smith first flew across the Pacific, would inform his thinking on Australia’s defence for the rest of his life.

By contrast, as the war with Japan drew closer, Stanley Bruce’s Nationalist government, and then James Scullin’s Labor administration, looked for comfort to ”Fortress Singapore” – the cornerstone of Britain’s imperial defence for Australia. By the 1930s, the Singapore Strategy, based on the notion of British naval power, reigned supreme, despite its many dissenters in the Australian military, including Williams.

Dr Alan Stephens, official historian for the RAAF, supports Ewer’s contention that the politicians of the day got it wrong. ”I blame the politicians and the fact that we were focused on naval defence. In the inter-war years we put something like two-thirds of our defence spending into the navy. When war started in the Pacific, the navy was of very little use to us.

”It was obvious in the 15 years before the war that the way to stop a potential invader was by air power. We simply didn’t give priority to that aspect of our defences, and we should have.”

Stephens notes that Williams was ”a prickly, puritanical kind of person, which a lot of people found annoying, and he made a lot of enemies over the years. He was highly intelligent, extraordinarily demanding, and he stood up for his beliefs against great opposition.”

What made Williams unique, Ewer says, was his ability to combine strategic vision with detailed technical awareness. In 1933, Williams visited Britain to find an aircraft with an amphibious capability that could meet the RAAF’s needs for maritime reconnaissance. He found it in a plane for which the Royal Air Force showed a distinct lack of interest – a single-engine amphibian known as the Seagull. Williams set about modifying the design and contracted 24 production examples. Within months, the RAF had ordered 168 of the modified planes and renamed it the Walrus. It would go on to play an important role in both air forces.

Three years later, an aircraft developed far from the aviation industries of Australia’s ”mother country” would prove the most controversial procurement under Williams’ leadership. In early 1936, to the astonishment of British defence planners and their Australian acolytes, the RAAF recommended Australia’s newly formed Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) build an American-designed aircraft to be known in Australia as the Wirraway.

Immediately the Australian government faced British objections, most of which rested on the alleged harm it would do to equipment standardisation between the RAF and RAAF.

”The Wirraway was an outstanding example of pioneering technology transfer between the United States and Australia,” says Ewer, but he adds that Williams’ insistence on promoting the national interest above Australia’s traditional ties with Britain created ”huge political tensions”.

The Wirraway would eventually go into production at CAC’s Fishermans Bend factory in Melbourne, but the political backlash would eventually bring down Williams and set back by years Australia’s ability to build combat aircraft suitable for its own defence. ”His commitment to an independent national interest eventually was too much for empire loyalists in the Australian government to take,” says Ewer, ”and there’s no doubt that they set out to discredit him.”

In late 1937, Archdale Parkhill, defence minister in the Lyons government, lost his seat at the general election and with it Williams lost his political protector. Immersed in procurement plans, Williams’ attention was increasingly being diverted by a growing political crisis over the accident rate in the RAAF. In February 1936, an RAAF plane at an air show in Tasmania had killed two civilians. A year later, a cross-country flight by the RAAF was blighted by five accidents, in one of which a pilot died. Though investigations of these and other cases confirmed either pilot error or technical failure as the likely cause – and the crash rate was no worse than the RAF’s – Williams’ political enemies saw an opportunity.

In April 1938, under fire from the Labor opposition which used the accident rate to attack the Lyons administration’s defence credentials, the government announced that former RAF chief Air Marshal Sir Edward Ellington would be invited to ”inspect” the Australian air force and ”report on its preparedness”. Ellington’s private secretary later vouched that his boss, who had risen through the RAF as an administrator and who had no operational experience, ”knew little about aviation”. Williams would later share his conviction that the instigator of the Ellington review was the Lyons government’s treasurer, Richard Casey.

The same year, Williams produced what would be his final assessment (as RAAF chief) of Australian air defence needs. He specified three possible passages a Japanese naval fleet made up of aircraft carriers would take to carry out an attack – a direct attack on Darwin was one. To counter the threat, Williams proposed the establishment of land-based aircraft at the vital northern port and went on to craft design specifications for a more powerful, armed version of the Wirraway to do the job. Again his plans would not be acted upon.

On January 16, 1939, the government released a statement accepting the recommendations of the Ellington report, which criticised the RAAF’s accident rate, discipline and training. The announcement added that the RAAF’s chief of staff ”could not be absolved from these criticisms”. Williams learnt of the judgment when reading the newspaper the next morning. “This was the government’s method of communicating with me,” he would later write tersely. The same day the Australian Defence Ministry told him that, having accepted the report, it was, ”politically expedient for the government to send you to England at the present time”. Exiled on attachment to the RAF in Britain, Williams left the stage.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation that had so raised the hackles of the British was deliberately sidelined and the Australian government poured its manufacturing resources into building a British-designed bomber – the Beaufort – under the terms of a deal with Britain.

At the outbreak of war in Europe, Air Vice-Marshal Charles Burnett – a British officer in semi-retirement who had been Williams’ junior commander in Palestine – was appointed his successor. Burnett’s advice to the government was that there was ”a continuous lessening of the probability of an attack on Australian territory by Japan, and therefore the possibility of carrier-borne aircraft operating against this country is remote”.

In April 1940, on Burnett’s recommendation, the Australian war cabinet cancelled Williams’ plans for a national fighter defence force. ”Burnett was the most disastrous figure in the history of the RAAF,” says Ewer, ”and his ineptitude cost lives at Darwin.”

Burnett’s technical incompetence was certainly notable. After Williams’ axing, the RAAF received a full briefing on the new technology of radar. Two complete radar sets were delivered to Australia. The first, which arrived in September 1940, was sent to Sydney University as a research curiosity, because ”no practical use” could be found for it. The defenders of Darwin 18 months later received no effective warning before the bombs fell.

In December 1941, two weeks after the Pacific war began with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, the first combat aircraft to be designed and built in Australia first appeared, not in the skies but on the drawing board. It was all much too late. The Boomerang, a protege of the Wirraway, would not see operational service until 1943.

Under Burnett’s watch, the RAAF concentrated on the newly introduced Empire Air Training Scheme to train Australian pilots to resource the RAF in Europe. ”To do so, Burnett cleaved the RAAF in two,” says Ewer. ”As a result, after two years of war, the RAAF faced its greatest trial with no fighter aircraft, no heavy bombers and no radar equipment.”

The subsequent royal commission failed to look into the policy decisions that had led to the lack of defence, concentrating rather on the breakdown in military order. Justice Charles Lowe’s report concentrated on the lack of co-ordination between civilian and military authorities, the delay in warnings on the day itself, and the lack of leadership in the panic that followed.

”It was over and done within six weeks, and as soon as the Curtin government received the report, cabinet ordered that it be suppressed,” Ewer says. ”Look at the extent of the official American reflection on Pearl Harbour. There was a congressional inquiry still issuing reports in 1945 for public record. It was still being investigated. The comparison couldn’t be any more extreme.”

Williams was to spend most of the war overseas. After secondment to the RAF, he headed the RAAF’s office in London before a posting to Washington. At war’s end he was forcibly retired and appointed Australia’s director-general of aviation. He was knighted the year before his retirement in 1955. Sir Richard Williams, KBE, CB, DSO, died aged 89 in Melbourne on February 7, 1980, and was given a full air force funeral.

His autobiography gives the only glimpse of his frustration at his treatment at the hands of his political masters. ”There were times when I believed I was being treated inequitably,” he wrote with typical understatement, ”… not by my own ministers but by prime ministers, both Liberal and Labor …

”I wondered what had been gained by my graduation at the army and the RAF staff colleges as well as the Imperial Defence College – or indeed by obtaining a first-hand knowledge of this continent and its adjacent islands. For neither Liberal nor Labor government sought training, knowledge or experience of this sort in those appointed [RAAF] chief of staff during the war.”

Historian Alan Stephens believes that if Williams had been backed, the course of history could have been very different. ”If he’d been given full political support, by early 1942 we could have had a strong anti-maritime air force that would have made an attack by Japan totally unfeasible.”

In 2005, Williams’ Australian Flying Corps wings were carried into space on the space shuttle Discovery by Australian-born astronaut Dr Andy Thomas. Four years later, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation was launched to strengthen Australia’s national security by ”advocating the need for forward-looking policies which take full advantage of the potential for air power to shape and influence regional security”.

”These are worthy tributes to the best military strategist Australia has ever had,” Ewer says, ”but an even better one would be for us to inquire into the lack of national self-confidence that blighted our pre-war defence planning and which contributed to the awful trauma of Darwin.”

Michael Sweet is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.

Dr Peter Ewer is the author of Wounded Eagle – The bombing of Darwin and Australia’s air defence scandal (New Holland) and Storm over Kokoda (Pier 9).

Talking surface language with Nick Hogios

Security is tight at Toyota’s design studio in Port Melbourne. It needs to be: the sleek and seductive designs conceived at Toyota Style Australia are not for prying eyes. With the long lead times of car design and the intensely competitive nature of the global automotive industries, protecting against leaks of images and information, is something that Toyota takes very seriously.

Once past security with my ID tag attached, Nick Hogios ushers me into, if not the inner-sanctum, then a meeting room close by. We pass a scale model of a sleek, sensuously-lined car. Perhaps later I can get a photo of Nick beside it, I suggest. Nick lets me down gently: “That one’s not for public consumption just yet.” Nick joined Toyota Australia in 2002.

This quiet achiever rose through the ranks to become Manager of Design three years ago. He now leads a studio that has become a significant part of the Toyota machine, designing state-of-the-art vehicles for the domestic and burgeoning Asia Pacific market.

Nick was born in Sydney in 1974. His father Stelios arrived in Australia as a teenager, from a village near Argos in the Peloponnese. Anna, his mother, was born in Egypt, her parents were  originally from Kastellorizo and Symi, migrating with her family as an infant. They set up home in Sydney’s Paddington, then Brighton Le Sands (where Nick was born) before settling in the Sutherland Shire, “which back then, wasn’t very European,” says Nick, “they paved the way.” “Dad had cafes at first and then worked in the building industry.” Nick speaks of his family’s experience as, “a typical story”, counting himself, “very fortunate that my parents were extremely hard-working. They encouraged my brother Basil and I to do what we wanted to do.”

Basil went on to study architecture, but would later give up the profession for music, becoming an award-winning composer and sound designer. Attending the local public schools, Nick’s own creative passion for design, surfaced early.

“I’ve been drawing since I was six. Some people are inspired by buildings, but for me it was the motion of a car and the promise that every year there would be a new one that came out that looked even more futuristic. I guess I’ve always been a future-thinking person.”

Having made the connection between his passion for drawing, and the technical processes of industrial design, Nick bumped up his sciences from Year 9, firmly focused on pursuing a higher education course that would lead to his chosen profession. In 1992, he enrolled at the University of New South Wales to study Industrial Design.

Four years later, he had duxed his year and graduated with Class 1 Honours. After uni, Nick freelanced, before winning the Young Designer of the Year award in a competition organised by Ford Australia and Wheels magazine. His winning entry was a design for a Falcon in 2020, “which seemed so far into the future back then,” says Nick, who was then invited to join Ford as a junior designer in Melbourne.

Promotion to a senior designer position followed two years later. In 2002, Toyota realised a long held ambition to create a design studio in Australia, that would not only interpret the company’s design vision for the domestic market, but in time, the wider region. Nick was in the right place at the right time.

“I always had a desire to work for a Japanese company. Japan has come up with amazing ideas and products,” says Nick, “though it was as a massive culture shock.” “Toyota has a very specific culture, a set of rules almost, called ‘the Toyota way’, and you live by that, you’re trained in that, and have to practice it. It’s a very powerful tool.”

With two design studios in the United States, one in Europe, and a number in Japan, Toyota’s only Australian design facility has increasingly focused on Asia. “We’ve just completed a major facelift on the Fortuner model for the Asian market that took about two years. They’re very pleased. Early sales are up significantly. The new design gave it a much more premium, fresh and strong feel.”

“It’s anything and everything – the Fortuner is an SUV, the Aurion, sold as a Camry in Asia, is a saloon, so we go right across the range,” says Nick. “A full model change from first pencil sketch to production is about four years, sometimes it can be shorter”.

And what of the design process itself, I ask. How do you begin designing a world-beating car? “As a rule of thumb, proportion is number one, how it’s proportioned out is extremely important, if it’s not proportioned correctly the car’s not going to be right, no matter what follows.”

“We get information from planning teams, we get engineering ‘hard points’ and we get the chief engineer’s vision. Then it’s our job to put all those things together and propose designs.” “People often say ‘you must know so much about aerodynamics’ and the truth is we don’t. We have people who provide us with that information. We’re dedicated to making the cars look as desirable as possible for the intended demographic.”

As Nick describes the workflow that comes together to create some of the world’s most popular automobiles, there’s an almost evangelical impetus to Nick’s mission as a designer. “I love exotic sports cars, but to me being able to design a more mass-market car that is driven by thousands upon thousands of people, and seeing them use it and enjoy it, is the most satisfying part of the job.”

“Good design has to be global now, it’s in the nuances of the design, where you can tailor it to certain markets, and that’s an interesting challenge,” says Nick, who ends our conversation with a telling and very appropriate remark. “One of the most powerful notions Toyota holds dear is called Kaizen, which means ‘continuous improvement’. It doesn’t matter how good you did it last time, you have to continue to improve.” But meeting the next challenge and seeking improvement is nothing new for this driven designer. Evidently, the Toyota way is Nick Hogios’ way.

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!”

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.