Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A Cuckoo, Just Between Ourselves

The sound of a cuckoo clock isn't something you expect to hear while dining in a traditional Greek taverna, is it. Two years ago, when we were last here on Naxos we settled on four regular places to eat and did them all in rotation, slotting in an occasional wild card along the way. We'd spent three and a half weeks here and so had become quite familiar with a lot of local folk.

There was one fellow who always greeted us as we passed his taverna when promenading along the water front, which here in Naxos town is a real treat, as it's a succession of bars and tavernas affording one a very extensive choice of where to sit and indulge. This guy was always courtesy itself and, OK, we know he's trying to get bums on seats, but in his case, owing to the sheer wealth of choice set before us, he never did get ours to sit on any of his. Yet almost daily he'd wish us a good day with a smile and never did try and exert any pressure on us. You know what many of these chaps do, they'll extend a hand behind your back, steer you toward their menu board and regale you with a list of their tasty treats, including the specials for the day. Before you know it they're thrusting a menu in your hand as they skilfully steer you to one of their tables and you're caught, hook, line and sinker. 

The man in question didn't ever do this, but always smiled and greeted us as we passed him by for yet another time. 

We landed on Naxos at shortly before 2.00pm on Monday April 18th and were soon being driven to our accommodation by Petros, one half of the husband and wife team that owns and run the Oniro Studios, where were we'd booked into the same room that we'd occupied two years ago. After having admired the wonderful view over the rooftops and out across the shimmering bay from the building's very tasteful rooftop terrace, then downed the complimentary beer that Petros had shoved into our hands in frosted glasses as soon as we'd arrived, we set about sorting out all the stuff in the cases, took a nap and then got up, went shopping and set out at somewhere around 8.00pm to go and eat for our first night.

We 'd decided well before we'd even landed that we'd take our first evening meal at the exquisite little backstreet taverna called "Metaxi Mas", situated in the Old Market area of the town. The name means basically "between ourselves". To reach it though, would entail our first promenade along the front in two years almost to the day and, sure enough, there was that fella outside his taverna and he recognised us, that snooty couple that never ever did take a meal at his establishment. I probably underestimate his intelligence. Surely he, like so many of his counterparts, knows full well that it's an impossibility for visitors to try every eatery in one stay here, there are simply too many. Whatever the case, we've decided that he's earned our patronage at least once this time around.

For our first night, though, it had to be the "Metaxi Mas." It's been two years and who knows how many tourists since we last ate there, but the moment we walked in the door the owner (well, TBH, there are several, all the same family, but the one I'm referring to waits at the tables) knew us instantly and welcomed us back to Naxos with a couple of cheek kisses and hugs. He was never Mr. Personality, but we remembered that he was always affable, smiley and attentive. We were well impressed that he knew and remembered us so well, but then, if you're a Grecophile, you won't be that surprised.

How often people who've not yet been to this country ask what it is about Greece that calls so many people back again and again. Of course there are so many things, but one of them has to be this knack that the Greeks have for making you feel like one of the family. The cynic would say, "Ah well, they just want to secure your loyalty so that they can expand that wad of cash in their back pocket." Sorry Mr. Cynical, but you'd be wrong. TBH, I'm a pretty regular cynic about a lot of things, especially most religions and definitely politicians, but having been fortunate enough to have had Greek relatives for over four decades now, and having been to this country countless times before moving out here well over ten years ago, I feel I have the qualifications to remark on their culture of hospitality. It is legendary - end of story.

In fact, what happened at the Metaxi Mas last night supports my argument. I didn't have the miscreant iPad with me, so some photos will appear in a later post [the one further down below is from 2014], but I'll tell you the story anyway for now. 

Why the "miscreant" iPad? I'll tell you - and it's driving me bonkers. I've always been a Mac man and still am. Apple products are generally extremely reliable, as you'd expect from the price you pay for them, but my iPad Mini is barely 3 years old and has taken to shutting itself down and sometimes re-starting (sometimes several times!!) without warning whenever it flippin' well likes. I spent an entire afternoon on the phone (free call, thank goodness) with an Apple engineer last week and we re-installed the software, restored the settings and did a few other things besides before she finally suggested that it may be a hardware problem and I'd have to have it sent back to Athens for diagnostics and repair. If I send it I'll be without it for weeks, a prospect that fills me with dread because my whole flamin' life revolves around that thing nowadays. Thirty years ago it would have been a Filofax, now, it's a tablet. At least a Filofax didn't misbehave like this. Aaargh!!

Anyway, I digress, but sometimes you feel better for talking about it, right? We ordered a green seasonal salad, some courgette rissoles, big beans and chips. We decided to wash it down with half a litre of the house rosé and our usual large bottle of water to keep us hydrated. We always ask for plain bread, not the dreaded garlic bread that so many tourists think is fab these days. The salad was delicious and perfectly dressed, plus the onions were fresh local spring onions, both in slices and strips, dead yummy. The kollokitho'keftedes (courgette rissoles) were every bit as tasty as we remembered from 2014 and the chips were hand-cut and done in local olive oil. As for the gigantes (the big beans), the ones you get at the Metaxi Mas are as good as you'll eat anywhere. Plus we really liked the slices of carrot (almost as big as the beans themselves) in the sauce too. You can see from the foregoing though that, as non-meat eaters, we're never going to be the best customers for any taverna when it comes to big money dining. This made no difference whatsoever to the genuine warmth from our host, who stopped by the table to catch up with our news on several occasions while passing.

Part way through the meal I was slightly non-plussed to hear a cuckoo sounding the hour at 9.00pm [plus, as it transpired, a few more times as well]. Now, before I explain further, I ought to describe the Metaxi Mas if you've never been. It's up a tiny backstreet in the Old Market area of the town and the street outside is so narrow in places that you can stretch your arms out and lay your hands flat on both opposite walls. This photo is one I took back in April 2014...

The taverna is about as traditional-looking as anyone could wish for, with old stone walls, lovely shuttered windows with lace hanging in them, suspended from brass rods, positioned half-way up the glass. There are old pictures and brass lamps on the walls and inside a very old wooden-lath and beam ceiling, stained and polished to look clean and tidy. The street outside is the most essentially Greek whitewashed street you could ever wish to walk along and all in all the atmosphere is precisely what people come to Greece to experience. Even the taverna sign hanging outside is designed to look old and is full of character, giving the right impression as to what kind of dining experience you'll have if you eat there.

So - not, then, the kind of place where you'd expect to find a cuckoo clock. Only after hearing the little bird's call did I glance up at the wall opposite our table to see a traditional a cuckoo clock as you could hope to find in a little Swiss chalet, mounted there in all its glory. The clientele was peppered with Greeks, always a good sign, but also there were a couple of middle-aged women speaking what we thought to be ether German or Dutch sat below the clock. Perhaps an indication of how it may have got there. I must ask him next time we visit. I'll report back in a while.

As we ate and began seeing more space emerging on all the plates before us, our host turned up, having seen that we'd finished our wine, with a second half litre of the rosé. On the house. Now, we'd actually made a decision this time around because in the past we've been in the habit of having a little drinkie-poo out on the balcony before setting out for the evening, to not have a real drink until we're at the table. We're trying to be good and exercise a modicum of moderation of course. Oh, and before I forget, how delighted we were to have the wine turn up in one of those little pink aluminium jugs. I don't like the increasing trend these days of tavernas switching to glass carafes, it's so, well ...French. We're in Greece and we want our draught wine in a little pink aluminium jug. It's how things are meant to be in the natural order of things. Of course, when you get another 500ml for free, your resolve re moderation does tend to weaken just a tad.

So, freebie number one, a free half-litre of the house rosé. Now, I'll not say that it's the most wonderful rosé you'll ever taste. But it is locally produced and rather resembles on the palate a mixture of Retsina and rosé, which it may quite possibly actually be. No matter because it's well chilled and tastes better with every top-up of your glass. This though again is the problem with eating out here when someone's being nice to you. Try as you may to not drink too much alcohol, the odd are stacked against you. In the end you think "can't look a gift horse" etc. and pour yourselves more water in the hope that it'll dilute the wine a bit.

OK, so we seemed to be coping, the dishes were finally cleared away and we asked for the bill. After a further five or ten minutes our host passed with arms loaded with plates for some other table and we reminded him about our bill, to which he replied with a smile, "Siga siga!" and carried on with his work.

We weren't all that bothered, we were, after all, on our first night out of a total of 16 and so wanted to get into "well-chilled out" mode. Our host seemed to sense this and so was determined not to have us waltz off into the night too early. Before long we were helping the four Malaysian girls seated behind me as the patron was trying to explain to them what was in the free plate of chocolate halva he'd placed on their table along with their bill. His English didn't extend to "sesame seeds" and their Greek was non-existent. After a delightful conversation with these girls, who told us that this was their first visit to Greece after always having wanted to come here and that they'd be off to Santorini next, after another day or so, we said goodbye to them as they upped and left and our host placed freebie number two on our table. Our very own helping of chocolate-flavoured halva. Ah, well, we didn't have a plane or boat to catch after all.

As we popped the final crumbs of halva into our mouths we again signalled to the man that we'd perhaps like to pay now and he walked by with another "siga siga" and no bill was forthcoming. So we settled into eavesdropping the conversation on a nearby table where a group of local Greeks were setting the world to rights. After one more reminder that we'd really like to pay now because we were tired and needed our beds (yet a fifteen minute walk away) he relented and brought us the bill along with freebie number 3, a shot of ouzo for each of us. Placing these on the table, he again said, "Welcome back to Naxo and have a really good time. So nice to see you both again. How is life on Rhodes?" There ensured another brief conversation during which we discovered that here on Naxos just like on Rhodes the residents are worried because of the lack of winter rainfall. The water situation may indeed become critical as the summer wears on, so we mutually expressed concern and agreed that we'd all manage somehow.

The bill? We'd eaten so much that it was going to prove difficult to rise from the table, consumed a litre of the house rosé, plus a couple of shots of ouzo and the bill was €23.10. I dropped him a fifty note and he brought us 27 in change. Needless to say we left a healthy tip and promised that we'd see him again in a few days.

We're rather ecstatic about our first day back here on Naxos. Not at all in cloud cuckoo land either.


  1. Great! But, a 'modicum of moderation' ? What can it mean? I suspect you don't know either !!

    1. I suspect I know who's behind that comment and I don't like your incineration occifer.

    2. Sorry forgot to sign it!