Easily accessible by hydrofoil from the Athens port of Pireaus, Spetses exudes charm and a certain exclusivity. There is a ban on cars on the island which is a true blessing, especially in high season. Horse-drawn carriages are the main form of transport and the Neo Classical architecture of the town just adds to its natural beauty.
The ambiance of wealth and sophistication begins from its long maritime history, and it has become a favourite island among ship owners and well to do Athenians. Spestses is an island where mega yachts rub moorings with local caique fishing boats, and jet setters mingle with locals in waterfront tavernas watching the world go by.
There are two sides to life on Spetses for the visitor - one can dine at the traditional Greek taverna, or choose from one of the chic upscale restaurants serving European and Modern Greek cuisine where you might even be seated next to a film star or other famous personality.
For daytime venturing, water taxis are used as the primary transportation along the island so even getting to the beach is enjoyable. Pine covered hillsides give way to crystal clear waters and secluded sandy coves. A hired motor boat is a great way to explore the coastline and find your own secluded little bay for the day. Spetses is also a great jumping off point for exploring the other Saronic islands as well as the Peloponnese.Hydra and Aegina are reachable by hydrofoil and the Peloponnese is just 5 minutes across the bay by water taxi.
Then, within an easy drive are the significant archeological sites of Epidavros and Mycenae. The lovely town of Nafplion with its rich history and medieval castle perched above the town is well worth a visit too. We can help to arrange car hire or a guided tour for you.
For those travelling to Spetses, or any Saronic island Pretty Greek Villas can help to organize your transportation from airport to port for your boat departure. Keep in mind that there is a second way to travel to Spetses from the Peloponnese, just in case your flight and boat schedules do not match ideally. A drive of approx. 2 hours takes you to the southern Peloponnese and a short water taxi ride lands you squarely at your destination.
Although the temperatures have not risen to the summer highs, spring time can often be beautifully warm. Crete, being far south offers early sun and would be a great place to spend the Easter week. In autumn 2010 we visited Crete and were particularly impressed by what Crete has to offer in terms of value. Fiercely independent Crete, Europe's first advanced civilization and Greece's largest island, is steeped in Homeric culture with a richness of history that would take a life-time to explore.
We based ourselves in the region of Chania for the majority of our stay and also visited the fortified town of Rethymnon. Stunning architecture bearing the influence of the various civilizations that have occupied the island abound. Exquisite Venetian, Ottoman and Egyptian buildings, ornate fountains and shady courtyards, winding back streets juxtaposed against immense Ancient and Byzantine walls and colourful markets with a Levantine flavour characterize these historical port cities.
The food on Crete is exceptional and we ate dishes that are unique to the island. Snails and special cheeses, stews flavoured with honey, delicious bread and of course Crete's famous olive oil. We ate in picturesque tavernas and swilled down the delicious dishes with home-made wine and 'Tsikoudia' (Crete's Raki).
The coastline of Crete is a beach paradise offering mile upon mile of white and golden sand. Inland, rich fertile plains provide a perfect environment for the cultivation of fruit and olive trees and the heart of the island is mountainous and richly verdant, with age-old villages untouched by time that are steeped in folklore. This mountainous island has been the home of many a family vendetta and even today, strange feuding occurs in the more remote villages on the island. We didn't see any evidence of this outlaw behavior other than the odd road signpost that had been used for target practice. On the contrary, our Cretan hosts couldn't have been more generous and hospitable. We returned to the Peloponnese feeling that we had visited a very special and unique part of Greece.
A hearty and nutritious soup, this is considered to be the national dish of Greece, the staple food of the army and every poor man’s meal – so great for the crisis! It is usually made at home or at village festivals; do not expect to find it in many restaurants. It can become a substantial meal by adding pieces of pork, bacon or sausage and the kids will love it.
45g (1lb) dried haricot beans
150 ml (¼ pint) olive oil
400g (15 oz) can of chopped tomatoes (sometimes I use fresh tomatoes and blanche and skin them myself).
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 celery sticks with leaves on, chopped
Salt and Pepper
2-3 tablespoons of chopped flat leaf parsley
Soak the beans in cold water overnight.
Drain the beans, place in a large pan and cover with fresh water.
Bring to the boil and cook for ten minutes, then drain.
Cover again with cold water, bring to the boil once more, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1-2 hours or until the beans are tender but intact.
Add all the other ingredients, except the parsley and simmer for a further 30 minutes.
Add parsley, salt and pepper to taste and simmer for 1-2 minutes more.
Serve with crusty bread, olives and dry white wine.
*PGV Top Tip*
I always add the olive oil at the very end, but most people add it with the other ingredients. The good thing about adding the oil at the end is that the natural, raw flavours of the oil come through so you don’t actually use as much. You do however need the very best virgin olive oil and I would recommend coarse grain salt as well.
One and a half hours from Athens airport and forty minutes East of Patras, Achaia in the North of the Peloponnese attracted the Ancients for good reason.
The area is immensely fertile with bands of citrus plantations situated on the silt plains next to the sea. Above, lie olive groves punctuated by vineyards and surrounded by Mediterranean pine forest. 1000 metres above sea-level, cows graze on alpine meadows surrounded by spruce forests, littered with mushrooms and populated by wild boar. Goat herders drive their flocks to these highland areas in summertime when the heat below becomes unbearable. Above the 1800 metre zone when the spruce trees start to become sparser, the peaks of the mountains that reach up to 2500 metres are snow- capped and it is possible to ski until the end of April if the winter remains cold.
There are three mountains in Achaia whose concave formation plunge dramatically into the Gulf of Corinth below. Each mountain is separated by Alpine valleys and gorges where the scenery is spectacular. The seaside towns of Kiato, Derveni, Akrata, Egion and finally Patras are nothing out of the ordinary but the sheer beauty of the mountainous scenery is simply breathtaking.
This region abounds with charming mountain villages and with many archaeological and historical sites to discover such as Ancient Egira and Ancient Corinth. It is also within easy reach of other major sites such as Delphi, Mycenae, Epidavros, Olympia and Athens. Spring and autumn are fabulous times to visit this beautiful area. The mountains provide a walker's paradise and the many well-marked paths offer unique opportunities to the fell walker or rambler. Although these foot paths are well marked, they are deserted and you can spend the whole day with out meeting a soul. In spring the mountains become ablaze with wild flowers which open out in sequence. First the poppies arrive turning the mountains blood red, next yellow becomes the dominant colour, then the dainty anemones or 'wind flowers' and finally, the Judas trees with their dense pink buds. Wild greens, asparagus and artichoke can all be collected through these blissfully warm months under clear skies. In autumn comes a second flowering with warm weather bathed in a golden light. The mushroom season starts and the forest are littered with all types of species: Oyster, morel, chanterelle, boletus and field mushrooms can all be found up in the alpine forests of Achaia.
The mountain villages of this area lie untouched completely by tourism. Here you will probably find a square, the local church and usually a spring with cold, mountain water. Even the smallest and remotest of villages usually have a Kafeneion where the men drink coffee, discuss and play tavli around the fireplace. The mountain tavernas abound with delicious food, creamy feta cheeses, home-baked bread, dishes of wild rabbit, boar or cockerel, and sometimes even trout from the nearby river.
Wine has been pretty interesting to many people throughout the ages and should be one of the main ingredients in a successful self catering holiday, but where do you start in a country which exports very little of this wonderful nectar so the wineries and grape varieties are little know to foreigners traveling in Greece.
I was once stopped by a gentleman in Kefalonia who asked my advice regarding choosing a nice bottle of Greek wine to accompany the food his wife had prepared, he said that I looked like I knew what I was buying, though I am not quite sure what he meant by that! Normally, he would have known which variety and year were the ones to go for but in this little winery just outside Fiskardo, the man was lost. It is not so surprising since there are over 300 indigenous grape varieties in Greece although only 24 of them are of any great significance, producing wines for an international market. The remaining varieties end up being served in the little metal jugs that we find in the majority of tavernas throughout Greece that we foreigners collectively refer to as Retsina. This is a mistake of ours since Retsina is a wine that has been treated with pine tree resin which gives it a sappy and turpentine like flavour but the truth is that it all tastes pretty much the same.
The main point of this editorial is to focus more on the international quality wines than the ones that are served in metal jugs and Greece has its fair share of really excellent wine. Moscofilero, Assyrtiko, Vilana, Xynisteri, Robola and Rhoditis grape varieties produce the majority of the good white wines of Greece while Xinomavro, Agiorgitiko, Mandelaria, Limnio, Mavro and Ophthalmo are the names of the red grape varieties. Wine makers often blend these juices with more familiar grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay which are also all grown in Greece. So where does the average holiday maker start? There are several labels that are well worth looking out for. Here are some of them below.
The Peloponnese grows about a quarter of the grapes used in the production of Greek wine and is predominantly red wine country. Nemea uses the Agioritiko grape to produce a spicy, well structured red while the highly prized Mavro Daphne of Patras offers a dark, oily fortified wine. The Mantinea region produces a fruity white wine using the Moscofilero grape, which is a particular favourite of mine. The best wine makers can be found in Macedonia, the most famous being the Boutari winemakers who sells its wine both nationally and abroad under the label John Boutari & Sons. Yannis Boutari himself makes high quality red wine in deliberately small quantities and markets them under the label Kir Yianni. Constantin Lazaridi created a very modern estate in 1992 which aims to produce wine of international class. Laziridi winery is located in the Drama region. Markovitis estate focuses on organic methods and the Gerovassiliou winery develop French wine culture and aims to produce the same very high quality wine.
Many of the islands offer really good wines, the most famous being Kefalonia, Santorini, Paros, Samos and Crete. It is believed that the first Mediterranean vineyards were found on Crete and the practice of wine making was taken by the Minoans to the islands of Santorini and Paros. Due to the strong winds that blow up in the Aegean, the grapes are not grown high on trelaces but low, on the ground, in basket like shapes. The volcanic rocks of Santorini collect moisture from the sea at night and release it gradually throughout the day to the vines. This unique micro climate is responsible for the production of the best white wines of the Assyrtiko grape variety. One of the grapes most frequently grown in the Attika region is the white wine grape Savatiano and it is from this grape that some of the best white wines in Greece are produced. The grape produces distinctly robust and full of character wines that are relatively low in alcoholic content. Hatzimichalis, Fragou, Vassiliou, Strofilia, Semeli and Megapanos are the names of the more renowned estates in the Attika region.
Lying South of Athens and very easy to get to, artistic, bohemian in style, a ‘hang out’ for the stylish, sophisticated and sometimes famous, Hydra is definitely a place well worth considering as a summer destination.
With the prices of air-flights to the Ionian soaring, it’s worth taking advantage of the cheap offers made by budget and schedule airlines that arrive into Athens International. The new Proastiakos railway as well as the Metro terminate in the airport building so it is very easy to reach the port of Piraeus to catch an interconnecting hydrofoil that will whisk you within 1½ hours to Hydra. All forms of transport are prohibited on Hydra so no need for car hire. The island has benefited hugely from this ruling – no smelly engines or noisy mopeds to interfere with the simplicity of life and the peacefulness of the majestic surroundings.
One must be prepared to walk in Hydra since all properties are located across three hillsides and most of them are at least a 10-15 minute climb. Once up, sitting on your veranda, the views are just superb and the tendency is to remain there sipping your preferred beverage and enjoying clean air and blissful silence.
The coastline of Hydra is mainly rocky and the sea is a cool temperature and crystal clear. The municipality has installed swimming ladders so it is easy to gain access to the refreshing waters. However, the local kids prefer to access the sea by their own means. With deep plunge pools to cushion the impact, the children leap from the rocks into the sea with huge grins on their faces, only to repeat the hilarious procedure again and again and again...
The villages of Kamini and Vlychos lie to the west of Hydra town and can be easily accessed by water taxis or by local caique boats found on the quayside in front of the clock tower. All have pebbly beaches so ‘jelly’ shoes are recommended for those with tender feet! Good local food is served in the tavernas which are dotted along the coastline.
Further west is Bisti Bay, a favourite for snorkelling and exploring. A wonderful thing to do is to search for the black spiky sea urchins, break them open and guzzle them in oyster fashion with some lemon juice, olive oil, crusty bread and of course some chilled white wine.
There are other secrets to be found on the nearby island of Dhokos which, like all the other suggested places, are best accessed under the experience of one of the local caique boat captains. They aren’t too expensive and it is ‘a must’ for at least one day of a holiday. The seadogs know the secrets and can steer you in the right direction!
Autumn and springtime are fabulous seasons to visit Greece especially if your interests extend beyond the beach. Hydra is a choice destination for an alternative holiday and the network of walking paths that line the inland offer a walker’s paradise.
Most of the paths are dirt tracks mainly used by the donkeys. GPS compatible OS maps are available in many of the shops that line the harbour so with a hand held device it is very hard to get lost. The island is long and narrow so it is easy to explore the heartland which is dotted with monasteries and a profusion of flowers especially in the spring.
A favourite hike is along the west coast of Hydra to a Byzantine village called Episkopi. The walk along the coast road is reasonably flat, until you arrive at the little harbour of Palamidas, then the route goes inward and upwards through a lush forest of pine trees. Following the track you arrive at a little group of houses, surrounded by olive groves.
The local people respond warmly to a friendly smile and a greeting of "Yasou". Generous invitations are often made, to sit for a while and enjoy whatever has been prepared that day. Remember that the local wine has quite a kick and the only way back is by foot!
Whether we are out at a taverna or dining at home, there is one constant on the table. The production of cheese in Greece dates back over 6,000 years. The ancient poet Homer describes the production of cheese, like feta and kasseri, in his epic works. Greece is still an important producer and exporter of a wide variety of cheese today, with the majority of the production coming out of Northern Greece. Most Greek cheese is made from sheep’s or goat’s milk since such a mountainous country cannot support vast herds of cattle.
Many countryside housekeepers still make their own cheese using traditional methods. Straining the heated milk through a cheesecloth, allowing to stand and then slicing to release more whey. The word feta means slice in Greek and it is from this part of the process that the cheese gets its generic name.
It was produced to be able to withstand time without being refrigerated. The salt and liquid in which it is stored help it maintain freshness even in warmer conditions. You can buy feta packaged or you can get it from the delicatessens or supermarket deli straight out of the barrel and most regions produce their own local version each one varying in taste from the other. Feta is excellent in salads, baked or served on its own as an appetizer. It is a standard side dish with any Greek meal.
Types of Greek cheese
Kasseri cheese is also commonly used. Made from sheep’s milk it is a mild, semi hard, pale yellow cheese that has a tendency to be slightly oily. It is a little salty and slightly pungent, but has a sweet finish. In Greece, Kasseri seems to have taken the role of mozzarella. It is easy to slice and use for sandwiches, as well as chopping in small cubes for hors d'oeuvres, added to pizzas, omelets or baked in filo dough to make cheese pies. Thessaly, Macedonia and Mytilini are renowned for their Kasseri production.
Mizithria cheese is produced from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It is available in two forms. You can buy a fresh, sweeter Mizithra that is very soft, resembling a ricotta cheese. Sifnos Island produces Mizithria locally and it often replaces feta in their horiatiki salata (Greek Salad). Aged Mizithra is firm and quite salty. As a hard cheese that doesn’t melt very quickly, it can be easily grated and added nicely to pastas and as a top off to other cheesy dishes.
Graviera cheese is a personal favorite! It is a light yellow, hard texture, wheel cheese with an external rind that is very versatile. Naxos and Crete are most widely associated with this particular type of cheese. Crete uses sheep’s milk to make their famous Graviera, while the Naxos version is made from mostly cow’s milk. It is excellent served as an appetizer and adds a zing to anything. It can be fried up saganaki style, served in salads, grated and used in combination with most other cheeses for things like stuffed peppers or on pasta. It can even be sliced and added to a sandwich to give it a richer flavor. The flavor is fruity and nutty with the Cretan varieties having a heavier caramelized taste.
Kapnisto Metsovone is one of Greece’s only smoked cheese varieties. It makes its way to our dinner tables from the village of Metsovo, in Northern Greece, 1200 meters high up in the mountains. It is a mild, smoked, yellow, semi hard, wheel cheese that is known for its high quality. It is delectable by itself, but also goes perfect in a sandwich or served as an hors d'oeuvres with smoked salmon or crackers.
Kefalotiri is made with a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk and sea salt. It has a tangy, sharp taste and is dry and salty. In some seasons, the cheese is almost white, but also appears again in a golden yellow. The texture is very hard, therefore, is primarily used for frying or grated and added to stews and sauces. Kefalotiri is made in several regions of Greece, including the Ionian and Cycladic Islands.
Kefalograviera is made from sheep’s milk and is used similarly to Kefalotiri. The flavor is between Graviera and Kefalotiri. Often fried for ‘saganaki,’ grated or used as a table cheese, it pops up often in a Greek meal. Western Macedonia and Epirus are large producers of this type of cheese.
Other cheese worth mentioning are Anthotiri and Manouri which are similar to the soft Mizithra. They are often used in pastries or served with honey as a dessert.
Part of the fun of traveling in Greece is sampling all of the great food. Wherever you travel in Greece, ask what cheese they produce locally. In the villages, some even make their own at home! Greeks are always proud of their local production and more than willing to let you have a sample to taste. You will find that there is something different to try just about everywhere you go. Just when you have declared your favorite, you will stumble across something new!