Sometime around 850 B.C., the Greek poet Homer first mused about the seduction of a “wine dark sea,” forever linking Dionysian vines to the flaming colors of a Mediterranean evening.
Homer’s world has changed, though it’s still a picture of swaying rugged vineyards, flinty wave-cut shores and cracked pillars under endless skies. The people are warm. The food is incredible. The wine is flowing. History feels like it’s breathing on you. From Adriatic waves to Ionian sunsets, the lands of “The Odyssey” have kept their mystery, as well as lessons on living for the modern seafarer.
Athens is an ideal place to start venturing through the Old World. Today, the birthplace of western civilization is a massive city with nonstop traffic, challenged neighborhoods and a timeless café culture that can make you fall in love with its crush of hardened faces drinking from afternoon to evening. Tour books can tell you which museums and ruins to flock to; but mastering the art of living like an Athenian is something entirely different. To start with, Greeks don’t streak through dinner like American lightening — rather each meal unfolds slowly, allowing them to savor the sounds of the city and the nuances of the night.
The best experiences in Athens at dusk are the hideaways tucked into backstreets above the Roman Agora, quiet restaurants with olive trees wrapping through their secluded patios under towering views of the Acropolis, which the city illuminates like an ancient gold mountain under the stars. The best way to sum-up Greek cuisine is exquisite simplicity: These dining terraces fit that bill, offering flamed-licked pork souvlaki, salted olives, crisp spinach pie, tangy hummus and plenty of glasses of their house red wine, which is served cold and tastes like an icy Grenache mixed with Lambrusco.
For travelers determined to eat in the busy Plaka district — with its old Bouzouki players, smiling plate-smashing and groups of revelers fronting cafés — avoiding a tourist trap means finding a small joint at least five minutes from the action. Here, the modest family-owned tavernas won’t disappoint. Haunted by real Athenians, they’re known for succulent stewed lamb served in lemon and herb sauce, so tender that the meat flakes right off the bone. They also offer slow-roasted egg plant, cut with tomato sauce and onions and topped with huge chunks of feta cheese. They’re the kind of places where people will be laughing and guzzling Mythos beer until odd hours of the morning.
Down the way from them is an example of just how cosmopolitan Athens’s nightlife has become: ‘Cine Paris’ is an outdoor, rooftop movie theater that plays films from around the world. Travelers can fill up on cappuccinos and baklava in the lower cafés below before watching the visions of filmmakers from Paris to New York, all while surrounded by gardens, stone rooftops and the breezy, open night.
Hydra is the type of island the Greek refugee Ulysses could be blown onto and then never want to escape. East of Argos, Hydra is one of the most meditative, scenic and serene stops in the entire Peloponnese. The island has no automobiles, so its main modes of transportation are small boats and surly donkeys. The edge of the island’s port is lined with quaint cafes and busy seaside bars where locals gaze at yachts cutting over the crystal blue waves. Hiking trails riddle its scrubby, sun-blistered hills, and several lonely beaches stretch between its low brush and the water.
Amidst the whitewashed walls straddled by cats, visitors can find some of the best Greek dining in the region. Some of its peaceful tavernas have down-home rooftop terraces laced in hanging vines. If they’re owned by islanders, the restaurants offer fresh-from-the-waves seafood and the Greek staple moussaka, a baked casserole with stuffed layers of eggplant, beef and white cheese sauce. Moussaka is absolutely amazing with wine after a long day in the sun. It comes to the table in a steaming pan, its top firm and fluffy, while its body holds the juices without a hint of sogginess. Moussaka is a perfect motivation for late night walks along the windy port.
Hydra’s uncanny quietness has made it a haven for creative spirits. Painters, jewelers, sculptors and silversmiths have cave-like shops along the town’s narrow alleys. If you chat with these artists long enough, you’ll notice they spend their lunches dropping by small cooking hubs for “mezedes,” which are dishes meant to be shared. To have some, just look for the rustic white and blue tavernas that cook-up these island essentials. Greeks love seafood, and if you crowd around the right kitchen, you can grab plates of marinated sardines drowned in pools of butter, chopped garlic, oil, spices and lemon juice. You can also opt for the grilled Octopus, chopped into fat chunks with the tentacles’ suction cups blackened by heat and fried butter.
After lunch, it’s back to Hydra’s clutter of seaside cafes, kicking back, downing Ouzo and wondering why Americans have to live at hyper-speed.
Writers have argued about which is the most romantic city in the world: Paris or Venice? The debate will go on, but Italians know that Venice in the rain is like Paris in the rain — brooding, mysterious and captivating in its faded, ornate grandeur.
Venice is a cluster of wave-bound palaces. At night, darkness envelops the Grand Canal and streams of lamps and table candles along the water glow amber on the medieval arches and Adriatic balconies, until you can see the torched illumination reflecting on gentle waves cut by passing gondolas. It’s a city where you can spend an evening steering down crumbling corridors and across footbridges that drape silent, shadowed canals.
Between the Doge’s Palace, the Guggenheim and the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice holds some of the greatest art collections in all of Italy. It also has plenty of gritty Gothic churches lifting marble spires across its skyline. Crime is low in the city, but if you try to eat at any place called a “ristorante” near Saint Mark’s Square you will certainly be robbed. For delicious food at a reasonable price, seek out Venice’s small, indie-style “trattorias.” Some of these culinary treasures are along a back canal of Santa Maria – dining rooms that feel like family gatherings where the chefs make egg-heavy Carbonara with strong accents of bacon and light, phantom spices.
True to Venetian tastes, these trattorias also serve up peppery seafood cioppino stew, loaded with shrimp, clams, muscle and squid. Bearing the final mark of a good trattoria, they’ll have no shortage airy, flavorful red wine, served cold in liter vases.
It is worth noting that Venetians have immense pride in their sinking city. They’re friendly to travelers who are civil, but they have no issues confronting strangers who act the fool. Don’t be surprised to watch attendants on the Vaporetto berate people in Italian for slamming their bags into other pedestrians, or not watching children near the water. Be it foreigners or Italians, the Venetians have no tolerance for public idiocy.
Exploring Venice’s canals with the right gondolier is paramount. A guide worth his oars can bring you right up along the weathered mansions once owned by Marco Polo, Casanova and Lord Byron. Gondoliers posted near Saint Mark’s Square are within walking distance of the Church of San Giovanni in Bragora, filled with a stirring collection of Renaissance paintings and statues. Better still, the neighborhood has a spattering of chic little trattorias. Some of these cozy spots play American jazz and exude Italian charm, serving up a bowls of gnocchi and beef cooked in bologna sauce and sharp cabernet wine. The hardworking chefs can also drop a whole-baked, salt-crusted sea bass at your table, leaving it staring up with charred eyes as you inhale the café’s nitro-flame, homemade grappa.
Dubrovnik and Corfu
The Venetian Empire once stretched well into Croatia and the western Greek islands. Today, sailing down the Adriatic Sea, travelers can take in the amazing cultural nexus points left from that era. Croatia’s Dubrovnik is probably the most surreal Medieval setting in the entire Mediterranean — a walled castle-city looming on the edge of the water.
Americans may better know Dubrovnik as where HBO films its King’s Landing scenes for “Game of Thrones.”
Croatians seem to understand there’s a difference between tourists and travelers: A tourist spends a few minutes on top of the ancient wall and then heads to the glutton of gift shops to buy postcards and cheap shot glasses. To be a real traveler, I recommend sea kayaking along the rocky outer walls of the castle. Keep in mind the Croatian kayaking guides hate each other, and have elevated their personal grudges to the level of assuring each prospective customer their rival is sure to drown them in the bay. It’s not uncommon for the kayaking guides to call the police on each other. In fact, watching the operatic drama between the guides is some of the best entertainment in the old quarter. Once you’ve picked which fast-talker you’ll anchor your fate to, the wave-tossed views of Dubrovnik, and the high, wooded mountainsides beyond, are breathtaking.
Croatia is also rising in the world of Adriatic wines: On the jagged back alleys of Dubrovnik, you can see what the excitement is about inside its vino bars. Dim, snug and intimate, these caves pour regional wine flights and glasses of Boris Violic and Kitokret. There’s usually Euro-hipsters hanging out at them; but all the same, it’s the best bet for experiencing the area’s “sunlight held together by water.”
Sailing south of Dubrovnik, you come to the island of Corfu, a sliver of Greece where the art and architecture of Venice is everywhere. Corfu has sunny beaches, a stone fortress and slightly creepy Roman-Byzantinic church modeled on an Athenian temple. And if you catch bad weather in Corfu, there’s always the food. Along the sloped walkways of city, you’ll find laidback taverns built on tasty dishes, stray cat-watching and afternoon relaxation. The best taste of the sea at these hectic hideaways is a dish called Shrimps Saganaki, a bowl of crawlers soaked in a tomato, basil, lemon, feta sauce and then stirred with spices — the mix is like a salty vodka sauce on Greek steroids.
The waiters here can also hand you thinly sliced pork gyros topped in cool, biting tzatsiki, which pairs perfectly with Tsantali Payavn wine.
In the southern reaches of the Aegean Sea, just above the Sea of Crete, is a barren, lava-charred paradise in the sun called Santorini. Antiquity’s first great mariners lived on its calm vistas of brush and rock. When the island’s volcano triggered a world-wide cataclysm halfway though the second millennium B.C., the innovative Minoans who had made it home passed into Greek legend — probably inspiring Plato’s Atlantis — and the island itself transformed into today’s shattered landscape of charred cliffs and parched plateaus — a high, broken desert caught between cerulean waves and crystal blue skies.
Most travelers enter Santorini through its main city of Fira, which is stacked with cafes, taverns, wine bars, donkey handlers and churches, all lined across a herculean ledge overlooking the sea. But the island’s best moments are found to its far north and its far south. In the north is Oia, a pearly white village of bleached walls, old stone and piercing azure domes against the horizon. The town is nearly blinding in the sun, while its spellbinding classicality makes you feel like you’re in a living piece of art.
At the furthest southern point of Santorini are Minoan ruins that date back to the great destruction. Similar to Pompeii, the city of Akrotiri was forever preserved by the volcano that ended it. Today, this archeological site represents the oldest ruins from the ancient world outside of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Walking twenty-minutes from Akrotiri you can find Red Beach, a green, glassy shield of water lapping against crimson boulders and a rust-red cliff. The sparse beach in this unearthly setting allows for some of the best swimming in the entire Aegean. The path to Red Beach is empty and dusty, save for wind-wrecked vineyards on the hills and a few men roasting corncobs on fires in the afternoon heat; but when you arrive at the cove of sun worshipping, it can alter your consciousness: The volcano that erupted centuries ago transformed this piece of Santorini into a harsh, riven picture of blood-colored soil. When you stand on its sand, looking out to the glimmering expanse of the Mediterranean, you see the same possibilities Homer did when our heritage of art and literature was first starting — you see a bright, open world that seems virtually limitless.
Scott Thomas Anderson also writes and produces the documentary podcast series on travel and culture, ‘Drinkers with Writing Problems.’