Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Three Days in Finland?

We found it back in July, after I'd met someone there who wanted a signed copy of 'Jacaranda Tree' and, as we were sitting on the pool terrace chatting I thought to myself, "I could do with some of this." So, when I got home I went on line and checked out the web site for the Cactus Hotel and noticed that they had an offer on for October. Since it was nearing the end of the season one could book a room with a sea view for 30% discount, so I up and booked us three nights. Thanks Ann Marie!

We usually take a short break before the season ends if we can, fitting it around our various work obligations, and in the past have gone to Halki, Crete, Kalymnos and a couple of other hotels in Rhodes town. It's great going to a hotel in town because whatever we pack isn't going to get thrown into an aircraft's hold, so we can just chuck all kinds of stuff into the car and off we go. It wasn't until we went down for breakfast on our first full day at the hotel that we noticed that we'd effectively moved to Scandinavia, Finland to be precise. All the guests were tall and blond and they all sounded to us a bit like the Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show. Now I've met lots of people from Finland and they're not all like Kimi Raikkonen. Most are, in fact very personable, but we did find their choice of breakfast a little strange for our tastes. I mean, sliced cheese, lots of sliced processed meats and white wine...for breakfast? And what's with fried eggs and sliced oranges - on the same plate? Hmm. 

Now I wouldn't want to stereotype, but I found it heard spotting anyone among those other guests who wasn't overweight. Small wonder quite a few of the fairly good quality sun beds around the pool were broken. No offence intended, merely observing.

Anyway, we parked up the car, traipsed into the hotel lobby with that much 'stuff' I was surprised that the staff didn't take us for squatters and kick us out as soon as we arrived. Luckily they didn't and we made it up to our sixth floor room and took in the stupendous view.

It's odd and admittedly somewhat contradictory I suppose, but we were 'up' for a spot of pampering and luxury and this fitted the bill. I'm the first to champion what I often go on about, you know the 'real Greece' of check-tableclothed tavernas, donkeys with old women riding side-saddle, little village kafeneions with old men playing dominoes or backgammon over their Ellinikos. I'm the first to champion Retsina and kalamari, a spot of impromptu Sirtaki between the tables if the right kind of music comes on. I love those rickety old chairs perched oh-so-close to the water's edge where you can sip your ouzo and stare out across the Greek Aegean and experience that clarity of light that's so peculiar to the Greek islands. All that stuff is, of course, what people coming here ought to experience.

Yet I have to say that there is another 'real Greece' that's just as valid as the one I've just described. During our evenings at the hotel we strolled down to the Old Town to eat and afterwards found ourselves enjoying an end-of-the-evening nightcap in one of the buzzing pedestrian streets of the new town that's crammed full of modern café-bars, all full of the young and beautiful people. There's one street in particular (Theodoraki) where we really love to sit. You can feed off the sheer energy in that street, lined as it it is with modern inviting-looking tables and chairs whilst thumping music oozes out from the open-fronted premised into and out of which the waiting staff flit endlessly. Groups of elegantly-clad people sit and talk excitedly in that way only the Greeks seem to do, some (although not as many as it used to be, thankfully) with one hand at the end of a forearm that's pointing vertically from the elbow and a smouldering cigarette glowing at the end of the fingertips.

Theodoraki, Rhodes Town, after midnight, October 21st.

Here you can sit and order a Metaxa that will arrive in a brandy balloon that's never in its life been violated by being shoved from below up against an optic measure. You know, those little devices that fit under inverted spirit bottles in bars. Here you still usually get a quintuple for the same as you'd pay in the UK for about a thimble-full. Sitting there at midnight a few evenings ago, it was inevitable that we'd draw comparisons with the culture, or lack of it, back in the UK. In a street crammed with hundreds of people there was no aggression, no tension in the air. There was no drunkenness, in fact many were still drinking freddo espresso at midnight. How they can do that is beyond me. I don't sleep well as it is. If I drank coffee at any time after about 3.00pm I'd be running around the garden all night; or, in this case, the balcony of my hotel room.

You arrive at a table here and within a few seconds a polite attentive waiter will take your order and you can sit back, in late October in nothing more than a long-sleeved t-shirt, and people-watch for Greece. It's magic. It may not be the 'old' Greece, but it definitely can be termed the 'real' Greece. OK, I'm sure that this applies to some degree all across the Mediterranean, but you know what I mean. There weren't a lot of people in that street on this particular evening that were even more than half my age, but it didn't matter. Squeezing past some young person to gain access to my chair I was not surprised to see them move their chair slightly and say "signomi" as I passed, and with a smile of apology. It wasn't even their fault anyway, it was simply a proximity issue. One can't fail to note the difference. I find so many people in the UK these days to be of the 'swagger' type. They're saying with their body language 'I'm somebody. Don't mess with me.' The amount of alcohol that gets consumed is also of some concern, not least because of the way it affects the folk who are drinking it.

Tell you what too, apart from an excellent evening spent (inevitably) in the Odyssey taverna in the Old Town, we also enjoyed a very good meal at the modestly sized taverna called 'To Megiston'.

More about that in the next post.

Back in the hotel, after a ten minute walk along the sea front and up past the Casino, we squeezed into the lift with a couple of portly (I'm being kind here) Scandinavian ladies. Every time I enter a lift (elevator) and find myself facing the other occupants, especially in a small lift where it's quite difficult to turn around, I'm reminded of the old Woody Allen scene (can't remember which movie it was now) where he did the same and, in order to hopefully break the ice, he said, "I expect you're wondering why I called this meeting." Classic.

Instead I smiled and enquired, "So, where are you from?"

"From Finland" they replied. 

The conversation ended there. I couldn't think of anything else to say. The thirty seconds before they exited at their floor were very long indeed. But at least my face muscles didn't ache from the smile I sustained throughout.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Strolling in the Sun and a Scandinavian Surprise

Yesterday I was in town on my regular excursion ("Rhodes by Day") which, as you can tell then, is still running, and I decided to do the Moat Walk. I always try and do at least an hour's power walk to avoid spending the entire five hours sitting around. Not good for the middle-age spread or indeed the circulation.

The last time I circumnavigated the entire moat was when I did the "Rhodes For Life" charity run in November a couple of years ago. I hadn't actually walked it for a long time before that. On the way into town I usually tell the guests on the coach about how impressive the old town walls are. Completed in 1465, one can only get a true impression of the sheer scale of the whole thing by walking the moat, so I decided to refresh the old memory on the subject.

Thus, this post is primarily a lot of photos (that's a lot of photos!!) taken during my moat walk of Tuesday October 17th 2017. Temperatures around 26-28ºC, wind light. Off we go then (there's a map at the end)...

(For some odd reason, even though I tried to upload these in the correct order, they seem to have shuffled themselves somewhat. If I try moving them around they lose the 'click for a larger view' facility, Hopefully most are where they should be, but if not, just bear with it folks...)

Not long after entering the moat from the gate behind the taxi rank, you turn a corner below the imposing wall of the Grand Master's Palace and see this gate. Going through it, you enter the 'Sound and Light' garden. See next photo and also previous post.

The 'Sound and Light' garden, recently heavily pruned to allow visitors to roam again. Hard to believe that just to the left through those trees is the New Market and Bus Station street.

That's the bridge across to the St. Athanasios Gate

You come across these quite often. barely large enough for a man to get into. Seems they may be access to an underground quarry beneath the medieval town.

Just around that next 'bend' is the gate of St. John

Yeah, this one ought to have been at the top. It's the uphill section soon after you enter the walk. The Grand Master's Palace is above left.

Rounding a bend at the top of the climb past the Grand Master's Palace, you get the first glimpse of the widest section and the bridge leading to the Gate d'Amboise.

Beneath the bridge leading to the Gate d'Amboise.

Standing, staring at all this, it seems incredible that it all could have been completed in a couple of centuries. Really must check out where they could have got all the stone from too. Underground quarry a clue I suppose.

Beneath St. John's Gate

Approaching the Melina Mercouri amphitheatre a little way down from St. John's Gate. I noted that the further I went, the fewer the number of pedestrians! Seems a lot of people give up part-way around.

Closer still to the Melina Mercouri Theatre.

What an amazing place for a concert. Really must try and do one some day.

By now you are only a couple of hundred metres from the exit near the commercial harbour.

The exit gate can now be seen in the distance.

A good link to information about the medieval town and moat is here.

About half an hour's easy stroll after entering the moat at the South end of Mandraki, you reach this exit, beside the Akandia Gate... 

You can re-enter the old town here, just metres from the exit of the moat.

Rather than entering the Old Town at the Akandia Gate though, I decided to skirt the walls past the commercial harbour and re-enter via the much smaller and less easy to find Virgin Mary's Gate. On my way around I gazed up at a couple of huge cruise ships...

This one caught my eye because...

Now, forgive me if I'm wrong, but should the 'h' be in that word? Must admit to having laughed aloud when I saw this!! Apologies to my German (Deutch) readers. Actually, I had a few guests from Germany on the coach, who proved to be good sports when we drove past this on our way out of town and I casually made mention of the apparent spelling mistake! OK, British humour I suppose.

Entering the Old Town again through the Virgin Mary Gate...

Later, I exited the Old Town through the gate that most people use, Eleftherias, which sits between Mandraki and the Old Fishing Harbour. As I approached the courtyard just outside the archway leading out of the Old Town, I was aware of a live concert going on there, and the music was "Dancing Queen" by Abba. Hmm, I wonder...

Now, as it happens I have an old friend called Mehmet who used to work with me on the Halki trip some years ago. He's the mainstay of the Abba tribute band Abba Dreams that plays all over the island. He plays keyboards. Ηe's bald as a coot and wears a very dodgy wig. I've no idea which was Benny and which was Bjorn, but he was one of them!! As the band came into view I was pretty delighted to see that it was indeed Mehmet's band. The two girl singers were sensational. In fact, since the last time I'd seen them perform at Pefkos By Night some years ago, all the personnel have changed except Mehmet. This bunch were the biz, if slightly out of context! I have to say that apart from the scale of the thing, you could easily have been listening to the real McCoy.

That's him!! Arrest him for wearing a dodgy wig!

TBH, the crowd was larger than it seems from this shot, as lots of people were standing on the roadway beside me.

Coming full circle, as you enter the moat from the old gate to the rear of the taxi rank at the south end of Mandraki, you pass a souvlaki joint that has tables on both sides of the path. To the right it's all table cloths and tourists, but on the left the tables are bare wood and seem to serve as an acceptable kafeneion for a few 'old boys'...

And, here's a map of the Old Town, courtesy of the Municipality of Rhodes:

I'm sure you know the drill. Click on it for a larger view.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

On Parks and Plates

Things are looking up in the parks and gardens around Rhodes Town. Everywhere you look it's getting smarter, tidier, neater and well tended. What can be going on?

Well, apparently, one of my Greek friends living in Rhodes Town told me that this year the local municipality has finally decided, after several years of simply leaving the parks and gardens to go wild owing to budget restraints, to 'sub out' the care of the parks and gardens to a private contractor, who's certainly been getting on with the job from what I can see.

When I sat down to write this post I fully intended to post a photo which I was sure I'd taken of a rather clever and extremely large 'bouquet' of flowers which is on display as you cross the bridge from Mandraki harbour to the Eleftheria Gate...

This photo courtesy of Wikimapia
If you were to stand just there on the right hand side and gaze down at the garden below that parapet, that's where the bouquet is situated. A lot of work evidently went into its construction and lots of people stop to take a photo as they cross that bridge. I could swear blind that I'd done the same, but could I find it when I sat down to write this? If you'd like to come back to this post in a few days time I'll hopefully have corrected my oversight and snapped a photo of it, which I'll then insert about here.

And my thanks go to Roger and Christine Sharp, who came with me on one of my excursions recently, for sending me these (first 2)...

And this one's courtesy of my correspondent and long-time 'fan' Annette Robinson
The area where they used to put on the old Sound and Light Show (the signs are still there advertising the now-defunct spectacle), just down and opposite from the Top Three bar and right across the street from the bus station ticket booth, was looking decidedly like a dense section of jungle up until a few weeks ago, but now it's all been cut back so that the walkways are negotiable and in fact there are pedestrians to be seen ambling along the pathways in there. The only problem is, the main gates which used to allow entrance to the show are still chained and padlocked. I wonder whether anyone even knows how to find the key any more! There is, however, access from the moat and that's how people are getting in there at the moment.

The walkways here were completely invisible before the parks contractors moved in. Now it's a very different story. (My thanks again to Roger and Christine for these two photos, this and the one below)

All in all, a markedly better vista for tourists and residents alike, who were subjected to a display of complete natural chaos up until recently in many areas which ought to be beauty spots, including Rodini Park.

The amount of work in Rodini Park is probably going to take years, but they have made a good start. (My thanks again to Roger and Christine for these two photos also)

Some years back, a Greek friend living in Asklipio surprised me by tootling past us on a moped while we were on one of our walks, whereas usually he drives a little Volkswagen Polo. Not long after that we walked down the lane past his family's allotment, which is on the quickest route to the beach on foot from our house. Hey presto, there was Basili's Polo, parked up and without number plates on it.  

"Hmmm," we thought, "that's odd. Maybe he has a mechanical problem and has decided to take it off the road." 

Here in Greece vehicle plates are under much tighter control than in the UK. You can't just amble into a car accessory shop and have a couple of plates made up, they are all manufactured under government control and each plate carries a hologram to prevent illegal copies being made. In fact, every vehicle license plate here belongs to the government. That's why when the austerity first kicked in and lots of Greeks found that they could no longer afford to drive their cars, there were huge queues of folk returning their plates to government storage centres, because as long as you keep the plates you're liable for the road tax, to get the vehicle tested and to have insurance. There were regular video clips on the TV news showing racks of shelving in Government owned stores all loaded down with car number plates. Cars without plates were to be seen parked up on plots of land all over the country, 'mothballed' while their owners awaited the day when they felt they could once again afford to run the thing.

As it happened, as we walked past Basili's VW, he emerged from the gate of the allotment across the lane and we asked him what had happened. At the time there was a hare-brained scheme that had been introduced to have a one-way traffic system in the village of Lardos. Thankfully, after a couple of years and various permutations the whole thing was scrapped and we all went back to squeezing past each other along the parked-vehicle-clogged Lardos streets without much of a problem.

Unfortunately, Basilis told us that he'd inadvertently driven into Lardos the wrong way on the first day of the scheme being tried out. No sooner had he proceeded to go a hundred metres or so along the street, than a Police officer pulled him over, inflicted a fine and confiscated his plates for a month. The worst of it was, this jobsworth was a school friend of Basili's, but would brook no argument. Basilis was off the road for a month and that was final.

See, that's what they do here, the Police take your plates. Under normal circumstances it has its advantages when you think about it. I mean, in the UK, if some twonk is driving dangerously, maybe under the influence for example, he can be banned from driving, but since his car still has plates he can very often simply drive illegally and, unless he's unlucky enough to get spotted or stopped, the rest of Joe public is none the wiser. Here, the Police whip out a screwdriver and take your plates. You drive anywhere without your number plates and it's very obvious very quickly that you oughtn't to be on the road. See what I mean?

In fact, just last week while I was doing one of my power walks whilst in town on an excursion, I saw a Police car behind an illegally parked vehicle and the officer was actually in the process of whipping off the plates with his trusty screwdriver. Imagine that owner coming back to his or her car and seeing the plates gone. Oops. To be honest, I have very little sympathy, because illegal parking is inconsiderate and all too often causes jams.

Maybe they ought to think about a similar system in the UK, eh?

And finally, here's a candid shot I took in yet another part of the Old Town that I hadn't previously explored until this summer...

Funny, but I get an irresistible urge when looking down this street, to say :"Ee were a great baker were ower Dad..." Anyone not from the UK will not understand that at all!!

Happy motoring!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Still There if You Look Hard Enough

My better half on the left, with some close friends of many years who visited the Platanos Taverna with us just last week.

The village of Lahania (sometimes spelt Lachania in the Roman alphabet) is a little hidden gem. I've written posts about it before, most of which contain photos. Here are a couple of links to these:

Lahania, a study in doorways
A Lazy Lahania Morning
Village Views

...and here a a few more shots taken off season...

It's rather sad, though, that in winter you can roam the village and hardly encounter a soul, since so much of the village is now either comprised of empty houses or properties given over to tourist rental, but the beauty of the place as an old traditional village is undiminished. Of course, you may be lucky enough to bump into the old 'retired' papas, George, who always has a sparkle in his eye and an offer of a free drink or slice of melon should you see him in the kitchen of his taverna (situated on the 'main' road through the upper part of the village) with his wife and son, preparing vegetables for the table.

But head down to the 'bottom' of the village to the old square with the restored church and clock tower and there, beneath a huge old plane tree you'll spot the tables and chairs spilling out of the Platanos Taverna, tucked away in the corner, almost as if it wishes not to be found. 

We ate there not long after first arriving here twelve years ago and it's changed a little since then. Yet still it is reminiscent to me of a bygone era, the days when the proprietor would scribble your bill in pencil on the paper tablecloth, when you'd be invited to go into the kitchen to chose your meal because there was no printed menu. In fact, the first time we went there that's exactly what happened.

Nowadays, of course, it would be illegal for the staff to scribble your bill from memory on the table cloth, often rounding it down once they'd written down all that you and they can remember. And they now have printed menus too, but for all that the feel of the place is 'old Greece', the days when tourism here was in its infancy. It has no sea view, but part of its terrace does overlook a wonderfully unspoilt hinterland valley that contains precious little of anything that's man-made. Eat there in the twilight of the early evening late or early in the season and you're liable to witness a few deer emerging from the shadows to go foraging amongst the wildness.

If you want to get a feel for the place, do click this link and take a look at some of the photos on their website's gallery page. Sitting at a table in the corner of the square though, is a quintessentially Greek experience. All around you is history, speaking to you from the old fountain set into the wall on the other side of the square, from the whitewashed walls of the houses and courtyards, from the old church with its tower that stands beside the taverna. Just up a narrow lane is the old olive press.

Eating at the Platanos you have to realise that they still serve up the food in the traditional way. Greeks have always eaten from the common plate. It's a habit that goes back centuries, in fact to Bible times and beyond [check out 1st Corinthians 5:11], and it's a very important way of demonstrating friendship. If you eat around a table and each one present picks their food from a common plate it signifies that you are all friends, you are viewed as family. You don't eat with enemies when you share the common plate. Thus, whatever you order is prepared with this custom in mind. We foreigners are so used to eating out and ordering our own starter, main course and dessert, but this isn't how the Greeks do it. They'll order a selection of dishes, all of which will be placed in the centre of the table and everyone tucks in from there. That's why Greek restaurants, at least the genuine ones, always start with an empty plate at each place. You fill that plate from what's before you in the middle of the table. Everyone around that table has all the food in common. 

Thus, we ate last week at the Platanos with a family of good friends with whom we go back many years. In fact the children will not thank me for telling you that Maria [Yvonne] and I remember them all too well as tiny toddlers, whereas they're now in their twenties. If you order, say, moussaka or pastitsio in a tourist restaurant, it'll come very much à la Johnny foreigner mode, with a few vegetables on the plate too, maybe a little salad, more than likely with chips [fries, guys]. In the old traditional way it'll come on a plate all on its lonesome. That's because you'll have already ordered a plate of salad, maybe some vegetables like gigantes, fasolakia, you get the idea. Your fellow diners will want a slice too in all likelyhood. But then, since all the food is in common that's OK, that's fine. It's how it's done.

Remember, too, that in a traditional taverna they'll have cooked something different from the menu every night. Thus the waiter who brought us our menus proceeded to show us from the dishes listed which were 'on' that evening and which were 'off'. This is why it often pays still to ask to go into the kitchen and have a look. They don't mind in the least. Just don't utter a groan of dissatisfaction when you see that some dishes aren't 'on' when you go, it's how they do things and it's proof that the food is indeed all home-cooked. Go another night and something else will be 'on'.

Thus our friends, who were eating at the Platanos for the first time, encountered a steep learning curve. I'm happy to say, though, that they all thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and the size of the helpings, and were soon into the spirit of the thing. We order bottles of Retsina, which as you'll probably know usually comes in 500ml sizes rather than 700 or 750, the regular wine-bottle size. With all of us well stuffed and after three bottles of Retsina plus a couple too of water, the entire bill for six people came to a few cents over €67. Needless to say, we left €75.

So, if you're ever in the south of Rhodes and can navigate your way to the square at the bottom of the village of Lahania, I can recommend the Platanos taverna. Only - just remember, don't expect your food to come all dressed up with side salad or vegetables. Why not try it the Greek way anyway? order up a selection of dishes and then all tuck in together. You'll not only be eating the true Greek way, you'l be cementing a fast friendship between one and all.

PS. This is the sign that greets you when you visit the loos at the Platanos...

I didn't say that!!