Crete is an island as unnerving and necessary as love. Tough though it can be come summertime to dodge the heat-seeking hordes from the north, it’s still a worthwhile place to while a way a week or more to get a feel for Greece beyond its wonderful but cramped capital and the by-now cliche Greek islands like Santorini and whatever flavor-of-the-month isle as anointed by the glossy travel mags your Aunt Selma still swears by. Crete doesn’t have time for what’s trending because it is timeless. It’s mountains, sea, kri-kris and gods, and once in a while it’s a great hotel too. One in particular, the five-star Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort, will make you sweet on Crete, says Anthony Grant.
There are regular flights between Athens and the two Cretan cities of Heraklion and Chania, and they are typically take just a half hour or so. On my most recent visit, I flew to Chania on the island’s north coast, then took a very clean and modern bus forty miles east to the historic seaside town of Rethymno. If you want to rent a car, go with the best, Voyager. Without much luggage, I could have explored Rethymno’s old Venetian harbor and twisting lanes right away but the mood board called for something breezy, beachy and sweet: so I took a short taxi ride to the Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort. Comfortably ensconced on a curvilinear green velvet canapé, I was offered a Cretan iced tea and caramel pop. More, parakalo!
One of the best places to stay anywhere in Crete, the resort is designed like an island village in characteristic Mediterranean white, with individually decorated rooms, suites and villas, many with mesmerizing sea views.
And some eclectic touches…
Breakfast at Grecotel Caramel is not just a meal, it’s an event. Above, fresh baked cookies and other gourmet Greek nibbles. There’s a hot buffet and other foods stations as well.
Yogurt anyone? Greek yogurt with homemade jams and honey, maximizing your yum.
Regarding those sea views…take a look:
Grecotel pioneered five-star service in Greece. Personalized service is second nature.
Did somebody say raki? Agreco Farms is Grecotel’s premium line of gourmet products from its own farm. Actually my favorite item from the range is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Speaking of stuff that’s intoxicating, did you know that when you book a villa at Caramel you can have it fragranced just for you? I’d suggest the signature Caramel scent.
We’ll get back to the farm in sec. Crete is about emotion, not chronological order. While a room in the main building suited me just fine (it looked similar to what you see in the photo below), note that if you take a villa you can have a beachside gazebo set up for you at no extra charge (otherwise it’s 50 euros extra). Villa guests get comp beach bags too.
I met a lovely donkey, who I called Christos, at Agreco Farm. He looked happier to me than most Democrats I know. I wanted to take him home with me…who wouldn’t? But with these new TSA regulations our rendezvous was destined to be but a fleeting one.
Agreco Farm has animals, fruit trees, open fields with views to the Mediterranean Sea…
Yes, so, unlike any other hotel or resort in Crete (unless you can prove otherwise), this one has its own farm – you can’t get any more locally sourced than that. Agreco Farm, set on 100 ocean-view acres in the lush hills above Rethymno. Up there under the sybaritic Cretan sun, manager Nikos Lyronis showed me how to pick a wild artichoke right from the field and eat it. He also introduced me to a kri-kri, the wild goat of Crete. I fed the goat before sitting down for a six-course organic Cretan feast with Charalabos Gialtakis, the Grecotel Caramel hotel manager. It was the perfect opportunity to sample Agreco’s delicious olive oil, wines and cheeses along with more full-bodied Cretan fare. This kind of farm-to-table dining experience, at the farm itself, is a rarity in travel today and gives you a new perspective on the Greek palate.
Some of that amazing olive oil I mentioned. And it appears that Christos the Donkey’s modeling career is moving ahead at a faster clip than yours truly’s. My #sad!
Delicious olives and artisanal Cretan cheese are even more delicious savored al fresco.
Stuffed peppers, stuffed zucchini and my favourite, stuffed Cretan tomatoes.
Grecotel was one of the pioneers of Greek tourism in the post-war era so it’s no surprise that standards here are high, and nothing feels like formula. With its mix of beachfront villas and family-friendly junior suites, you will get that personalized, five-star feeling whether you are Brad Pitt or a family of four. (Did I mention free kids’ dining in the Tasty Corner?) I could go on but will direct readers instead to the fine website…in a minute.
During my too-brief stay in May, I had as my neighbor Greek pop singer Natasha Theodoridou (pictured above left) – and as usual, the place where the “locals” check in too is most assuredly where you want to be.
I missed Theodoridou’s concert in Rethymno because by the time I had dashed into town to take some photos of the old Venetian architecture (the whole of Crete once belonged to Venice) and savor some chocolate-dipped baklava, I barely had time to make it back to
the property for my revitalizing facial treatment in the excellent spa, the Caramel Wellness Centre (bye bye airport grime!) followed by a swim at the nice, clean beach.
A few parting shots from delightful Rethymno:
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Admit it: you thought all the ruins were in Athens. You thought that Thessaloniki — if you thought about it at all — was a place where there was a lot of good stuff but not much in the way of ancient relics, right? Wrong!
Much as you might like to party like Paris Hilton on a Greek island all summer, you know that there is more to see in Greece than Mykonos. Athens has cultural wealth and sun to spare, but the pull of Thessaloniki is something different. The Greek capital sometimes succumbs to a touristy vibe that is altogether absent in Greece’s second city, just 190 miles to the north. That makes Thessaloniki, which is the capital of Greek Macedonia and named for the half-sister of Alexander the Great, something of a secret.
The city’s past is denser and more layered than a flourless dark chocolate cake and sometimes as bittersweet: Students of Second World War history will recall Thessaloniki as a place whose large Jewish population was decimated by the Nazis. Did you know that this city was home to the largest Jewish cemetery in the Mediterranean until the Nazis destroyed it? It may not seem easy to destroy 300,000 tombstones, but the Germans made quick work of that — and that was the “nice” part. In 1943, virtually the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki, numbering 46,091, was hauled off to Auschwitz in cattle cars — a couple of which are preserved on the periphery of the city’s train station. There were 19 meticulously organized transfers. Only 1,950 Jews would return to the city of whose fabric their community had been a vital part for more than 21 centuries.
In certain periods in time, it was the one of the highest populations in the city, especially after 1492. The first Jews came around 140 B.C. from Alexandria, the so-called Romaniote Jews. The arrival of almost 20,000 Jewish newcomers deported from Spain, though, was what altered the face of the city. Through their skills and abilities, the (‘Sephardites’) revived the wounded Thessaloniki after its conquest by the Ottomans and contributed to its commercial ascent. In 1870, the 50,000 Jewish residents constituted 56 percent of the Thessalonian population, while in 1941, 36 synagogues were fully functioning. The city’s oldest synagogue burned in the 1917 fire that leveled much of the historic center. The Nazis destroyed all the others save one, the Monastirioton Synagogue, which was built in 1927 and has been beautifully restored. I went inside to take a peek: very light and bright.
LADADIKA, THESSALONIKI, GREECE — Think Pink. Or green, yellow or cooling blue. Pink was on my mind however because of what had just happened an hour or so before I checked into what is easily the most charming (is it still legal to employ that word?) boutique hotel in Thessaloniki. And this is because, as my Aegean Airlines flight came humming in low over the still-as-glass Thermaic Gulf (a northern finger of the Aegean Sea that tickles the underside of Greece’s second city), the sun alternately emerged from then disappeared behind pillowy banks of sunset clouds in 16 shades of gray, presenting itself in a single, glowing pink beam that progressed with all the stealthy affirmation of cat paws over the ribbon of water, setting it on pink Turkish delight jello-y fire. In other words, pretty gosh darn pink.
That is why I was somewhat relieved to find my room was done up mainly in teal and blue, because that particular day in May no spin on pink decor could have been a match for what the Macedonian sun had so marvelously cooked up before giving in, like me, to the night.
I arrived so late I didn’t realize all that was going at the hotel and frankly, I hadn’t even looked at the hotel’s very good website. My bad, I know, but it was late and I was tired and that’s why I was relieved to find the room was fresh and new, the bathroom immaculate and the bed super comfy. I didn’t even realize until the next morning that the room came with a big private balcony, too.
Of course, I hadn’t come to Thessaloniki to spend a lot of time in my hotel room: my mission was actually to pack in as much history, and particularly Jewish history, in the 24 hours available to me ahead of my virginal flight on Ryanair. Having the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki across the street was reminder enough that there would be no time for slacking off. Which is a shame, because not relaxing in Thessaloniki borders on criminal activity.
So another room, the “Copper Room” was across the hall, and looks in part like this:
The hotel features a Garden Bar which does double duty as the breakfast space and as, well, the bar. I took some time to study the libations menu which had been placed in my room. I was stunned by the range of coffees and artisanal teas on offer.
The coffee menu, and another guestroom.
The Garden Bar is the kind of hotel bar where locals and hotel guests mix easily and breezily. I mean, would you expect anything less in a city where there are giant outdoor fans to keep you cool in the heat of summer? I’m not kidding! Look! See?
Breakfast was perfectly proportioned and really good. Mine looked like this (not pictured, my coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice: I was really thirsty!)
And here’s a view of the main seating area. Colorful!
Here I should make some Wildean statement about how budget should never be a consideration in matters of gastronomy or travel, but nah. I will simply mention instead that Colors is a casual 4-star hotel with “21 cleverly designed rooms, the freshest cocktails and spot-on body rejuvenation all under one roof.” Replete with a “guest-centric approach…and coolest crew in town that will make you feel right at home. You will get to enjoy sweet stylish comforts and speed-of-light fast Wi-Fi. Make COLORS Urban Hotel your base camp to discover the city.” Which I did — and so should you!!
COLORS Urban Hotel is located at 13 Tsimiski Street, the heart of Thessaloniki.
My principal fear is that it will never be as good as the first time.
True, I never intended to fly Ryanair, the Irish low-cost carrier that has generated more passenger horror stories than perhaps any other airline today barring United. Recent work assignments tethering me to Greece, I had sworn silent allegiance to Aegean Airlines, which is now more or less the official carrier of Greece. Supporting the Greek economy, yadda yadda.
But after flying Ryanair #3565 non-stop from Thessaloniki (SKG) to Copenhagen (CPH), I’m not so sure. After all, mistaking brand loyalty for a virtue is slightly un-capitalistic, no?
Whatever. The slightly complex truth is that both carriers are doing good and interesting things (as opposed to Delta and United who with their crazy Basic Economy tactics are doing really dumb things), meaning the competition that’s been brewing for a while is about to heat up. I knew it the second I saw a Ryanair jet disgorge a full load at Chania airport, of all places. But after all, what had brought me to Thessaloniki in the first place? Why, a lovely Aegean A320 that had swooped in sweet and low over the shimmering Thermaic Gulf from an overheated tarmac down in Heraklion, Crete. Even if there was a ferry around that covered that ground, you wouldn’t want to be on it. The boat from Piraeus to Heraklion alone is a nine-hour ordeal, but I digress.
Aegean has got Greece covered. And yet…
The state of the hobbled Greek economy is such that there is no Greek carrier that connects New York with Athens. #Tragic, right? Like we are supposed to sit back and be tickled that Emirates has stepped up to fill in that yawning gap? Hmm…do they allow Israelis on board their American-built aircraft? How about homosexuals? Oh, as long as they don’t kiss and frighten the children? We’ll wait for the marketing people in Dubai to get back to us on that one…
So Ryanair sweet baby, you pretty much had me at that 46€ one-way. I mean really? Fifty bucks for a fairly long, three-hour flight that was basically the perfect fit for my transatlantic connection on Norwegian, minimizing my wait time in the sleek Scandinavian dungeon that is CPH airport? SOLD! Bear in mind that the lowest fare around the third week in May from Athens to Copenhagen non-stop on Aegean was $121, plus add an additional 30€ for a bag and boom, you’re looking at $150. With that in mind, I sprang for the Priority Leisure+ fare on Ryanair, which included one checked bag plus seat selection and priority boarding–none of which were options on that $121-ish Aegean fare.
And before you know it, because your time is always cruelly up quicker than you think in the Mediterranean (don’t even get me started on Tel Aviv), there I was at SKG, with my boarding pass pre-printed and in hand so as to avoid a frankly insane 50€ airport check-in surcharge and maybe it’s just because people really are nicer in Thessaloniki (what is this, like the Phoenix of the Balkans or something? People smiling at 6AM and stuff? Weird). Suitcase whisked off, easy. One last smack-me Greek coffee, Oh God am I going to miss this place, and off to the gate and there are a ton of people in line and I can barely deal, but hey, for once I don’t fucking have to because with my Priority boarding I sail right past ’em and before I know it I’m on board and plopped down in aisle seat 7C. A pretty Greek lady offers me a mint. Was that ridiculously easy or what? No wonder they call it easyJet!!
Oh wait, this is Ryanair…well who can mind these details when you’re losing your religion/virginity/brand loyalty? Seriously though no matter what you were doing the night before or who you were doing it with, there can be no mistaking the interior of a Ryanair 737-800 for any other airplane. The wet lemon yellow and navy blue color scheme was obviously designed by your mother-in-law the night she swallowed the absinthe “by mistake.” We are talking not subtle. We are talking about the safety cards actually plastered onto the seat backs in front of you and seats that don’t recline.
But hell, we’re also talking seats with thicker cushions for your weary ass than comparable ones on easyJet or Aegean. Not quite JetBlue caliber but hey, this is not America (oh wait, isn’t America the place that gave us this single-ply tissue of an airline?) and frankly these seats are not that bad at all. Dammit, I’m not unhappy!
The flight attendants? Young and pretty and professional. The coffee? Should you want some, it’s by Lavazza. For a small charge but hey, Italian coffee on an Irish plane from Greece to Denmark? Fuck yeah, I’m in. And liking it. Not liking the fragrance trolley that’s being shuttled up and down the aisle with all the calculated abandon of a Rachel Maddow monologue, but hey everybody’s got to sell. Doesn’t mean ya gotta buy.
Although, with the fifty or so bucks I saved over competing fares in my pocket, I just might have.
The author paid $101 for his ticket on Ryanair from SKG to CPH in May.
“Music starts where language stops…This is true, but although music is something too big to be talked about, it can be served forever and respected with humility. Singing, for me, is not an act of pride, but merely an attempt to rise towards those heights where everything is harmony.” — Maria Callas
Now that social media has catapulted us to a new dark age where millions know how Kendall Jenner eats a KitKat but need a Google Doodle to remind them who Maria Callas is, it seems like a better time than ever to deep dive into some of the more rarely seen facets of the great diva’s life and art. And appropriately enough given Callas’s Hellenic heritage, one venue in the Greek capital has gone all in.
Or out, depending on how you look at it. But clearly the B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation in Athens is the place to be for both seasoned Callas fans and the culturally curious alike. Now through October, many of the soprano’s effects are on lavish display.
Obviously Maria Callas, the Greek-American soprano and most justly celebrated operatic diva of all time, needs no introduction. But aren’t you kind of curious about what the diva wore? Oh, I know you’ve seen the old photos and those Youtube clips drop clues, but it’s not the same as seeing the carefully crafted and often surprisingly colorful couture of Milan design great Biki up close.
A recent show at The Museum at FIT in New York on the gowns of Adrian, the designer who dressed Greta Garbo, was a fitting reminder that high fashion was a truly an art before style was cheapened by the likes of Instagram and debased by fashion shows sponsored by (and frankly more or less beholden to) German car companies. I won’t go so far as to say you can hear Callas through her clothes, but there is something poignant about looking at the packaging that, while not the thing that transfixed audiences, certainly did its part to keep those ovations standing.
But don’t be mistaken: Maria Callas: The Myth Lives On exhibition, which was inaugurated by the Greek President, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, on May 15 at the stately B & M Theocharakis Foundation in Athens, is not simply about a flash of fashion. It’s a window into the life of La Divina herself. Fashions figure prominently, of course, but there is also jewelry, rarely seen photos, VIP airline luggage tags and other items on loan from the private collection of Nikos Charalampopoulos that bring you tantalizing close to the inner life of a star.
All the objets on display are have not been randomly chosen but rather relate to Callas’s artistic career: a postiche (made of her own hair) that she wore for many of her stage performances, the gloves she was wearing for the legendary Visconti production of La Traviata, books with music scores and parts, and of course the outfits for her recitals (including elements of the outfit she wore for her Herodion recital and her shawl) and for high society parties too, during her Onassis years.
Now, the fact that the President of the Hellenic Republic opened this show should tell you something about the special significance of Callas to Greeks. Beyond her extraordinary artistic talent, to which her style and glamour were ultimately just footnotes, it was what Maria Callas represented that made her so much larger than life. In an interview with the Greek newspaper LIFO, exhibit curator Fotis Papathanassiou said, “We wanted to remind people of the extent not only of Callas’s greatness but her Greekness too. In the 20th century we saw the spirit of tragedy embodied through the art of opera,” he adds, evoking how in the 18th and 19th centuries Gluck and Wagner respectively “returned to the source” and noting Renaissance efforts too to imitate the ancient tragedies. “In terms emphasizing the dramatic plot, to almost therapeutically working society and creating catharsis in the Aristotelian sense, Maria Callas served these dimensions like no other. Callas brought the tragic roots back to opera in the 20th century. It was a mystical coincidence that she was Greek.”
International, cosmopolitan, regenerator of ancient Greek tragedy, which is to say a good chunk of the foundational art of Western civilization. And a creature of impeccable taste, too. Refined. Elegant. Check out this gold Bulgari number…
And wait, are those personalized matchbooks from some of the world’s finest hotels?
Yes they are. A famous score of La Traviata, Aristotle Onassis’s favorite flytzani (small coffee cup), items from the Onassis yacht, Christina. There’s a lot to take in on the three floors of the Theocharakis Foundation, which has for now become the closest thing the world has to a Maria Callas museum. In Athens, this show that sheds a new and nuanced light on a cultural legend is one that should definitely go on your (yes!) don’t-myth list.
Maria Callas: The Myth Lives On runs until the 29th of October, but note that the Foundation stays closed during August (from 1st to 28th).
The B. & M. Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music is located at 9 Vassilissis Sofias Ave and 1 Merlin St, across from the Greek Parliament building in Athens. Check out their Facebook page here.