One of these, maybe…but all singularly cinematic!
Photo courtesy Anthony Grant with special thanks to St George Lycabettus Hotel, Athens.
Attention four-star and five-star hotel hoppers: You know you’ve seen it there, lurking in the closet above the logo-emblazoned single-use slippers and plastic laundry bag. Your first reaction is probably something like, “Hey, that’s a really nice looking shopping bag!” to be swiftly followed by something like, “But hey, why did they stick a shopping bag in the hotel room closet? After all, it’s a hotel room, not a shop.” Followed, after a fumble as you reach out to touch it — thick! sturdy! glossy! — by a third wave of reactions: “What am I supposed to do with it? Am I supposed to use it? Am I allowed to keep it?”
Damn you, hotel shopping bag! You come on so innocently but really the angst that follows, sometimes it really is too much. We’ll think about you later, and about how you sit there in the dark night after night branding yourself in silence after we Instagram that room service menu that faux-tantalizes us with the promise of $28 challah French toast plus 15% room service charge, no gratuity included. . .
After all, when in your hotel room you’re supposed to think of other things like the bed or the bathroom or leaving your hotel room to go out and explore, or about things like airports and train stations and taxis and packing and unpacking and packing again and yes, that’s when your mind turns once again to that quixotic creature in your temporary closet, the monogrammed, or sort of monogrammed hotel shopping bag. Could you–I mean what if you—could you seriously even—why yes, I even have, and more than once!–think of it as a complimentary complementary suitcase? YES! YES! YES!
But like most pairings, what at first seems like a natural match can drift into the domain of delusion, and end up as a downright pain in the derriere.
Allow moi to tripsplain: Let’s say you’re in Paris. You arrive at your hotel with your favorite suitcase. After a day in Paris you buy a couple souvenirs. After two days you’ve acquired a bunch of new stuff in a variety of shopping bags, some nice, some just cheap plastic. After three days you’ve accumulated so much crap because you’re such a … that you’re contemplating buying an extra suitcase but–why should you when that sweet hotel shopping bag beckons? Just use it as that extra suitcase! And impress all those losers in the security line (you know, the tightwads who wouldn’t spring for TSA Pre) with the fancypants paper imprint of the Park Hyatt or Ritz or wherever you just had your (hopefully not too woefully scripted) luxe chain hotel experience.*
*Because the hotel shopping bag phenomenon is not widely seen outside the larger luxury hotels, although there are exceptions. Anyway…
Just do it! DOOO IT! Grab that bag! But hold the 420, it smells bad. Do it like so: think stacking.
That’s a hotel shopping bag from the lovely Sofitel Athens Airport Hotel, which made it through round one without a hitch: it’s pictured above, on top of my carry-on, in the lobby of the St. George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens. Shopping bags and cross-town taxi rides make for easy bedfellows.
Making it to round two, i.e. getting through airport security, is another matter altogether.
The problem is this: if like me you have seen the hotel shopping bag as a cost-free substitute for an extra suitcase, you will proceed to pack it up like one. Only it isn’t one, which will became painfully evident as everything falls out of it once you tilt it over to send it through the X-ray machine.
But let’s suppose you didn’t overstuff it and it does make it through the security process intact. It’s surely going to get scuffed between the terminal and the tarmac, so once you finally get home, if you’re going to try to impress your neighbors or fellow grocery shoppers with that hotel brand-emblazoned shopping bag, it’s fine but it will be clear that you are no Kim Kardashian, not even Dubai-dwellin’ LiLo and that you had no limousine or VIP service, that you did all the heavy lifting on this trip yourself, and that despite the glamorous patina momentarily conferred upon you by the ever-flirtatious hotel shopping bag, your dreams are as tattered as it is now, and you are still a loser.
Oh God damn you, hotel shopping bag!
Do you have a Hotel Shopping Bag story of your own? Great! Keep it to yourself.
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.
From the Parthenon to the pyramids, nothing conveys man’s imprint on the inexorable sweep of time like ancient ruins. Romantic, mysterious and more or less falling apart, they are the true thrillers of the traveler’s landscape.
But the moody majesty of the Roman Forum or Acropolis is hardly secret. Even the deserted streets of Pompeii and rock-cut temples of Petra, in Jordan, draw big crowds. Tourist invasions can’t dim their appeal, but many ruins that rank among the world’s best are both stunning and blissfully unsung.
Prime example? The Roman colosseum at El Djem, in Tunisia. It’s a bit smaller than its famous cousin, but surprisingly more intact. Then there’s the Valley of Temples in Agrigento, Sicily. Its Greek temples are some of the best-preserved in the world.
There’s a modern attraction to bygone civilizations regardless of where their remnants are found. But when it comes to ruins, the allure of classical antiquity is hard to resist. “The lone standing column, the broken column, has had metaphorical status since the 18th century,” says Claire Lyons, Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. According to this expert, that singular status has to do with nostalgia, resilience and the judgment of history.
It’s an assessment that resonates with archaeologists in the field. “To me, the notion of ruins is a romanticized one stemming from early engagement with the ancient world,” says Jeffrey Becker, Managing Director of the Gabii Project, an excavation currently underway near Rome. “Whether they are grandiose or famous ones or simply the banal, they have a lot to do with our interaction with the past … and retain their power to provoke and intrigue us.”
Lyons says some of the best-known ancient sites are based on the great capital cities. “They’re capsules of history embedded in these locations,” she says, adding that “ruins are excavated to remove the later history — the Roman Forum had at one point become a pasture — and expose one period.” But some ruins stand out regardless of archaeological activity. “In Tunisia, Sicily and other places, there are so many intact, unplundered sites and intact landscapes: southern Sicily was largely off the radar even during the time of the Grand Tour, but there you have some very suggestive, intact sites where you get a real sense of what it was like to be in a sacred space.”
Another place where the sacred meets the structural to dramatic effect is at Delphi in Greece, with its legendary oracle dedicated to Apollo and sweeping mountain vistas. “There is a power there, and people must have perceived it,” says Lyons. “The place is beyond words.”
Like those fabulous restaurants with no signs, other ruins off the beaten track beckon. Becker is partial to the city of Norba, near modern Norma in Italy, with its polygonal masonry walls. “This is a place for me that is evocative not only of the period I study (Republican Italy), but also possesses the power of an amazing landscape and the opportunity to experience the archaeological remains in their setting,” he says.
Then there are expansive ruins like Leptis Magna in Libya and Baalbek in Lebanon. Aspendos and Aphrodisias are spectacular Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey, each somewhat dreamier than the more heavily trafficked Ephesus.
Ultimately, the power of ruins, beyond the history they reveal, is their power to stir the imagination. “Ruins evoke contrast between what is lost and what is retained, and between civilization and nature,” Lyons observes. “There is something quite poetic about them in that sense.”
If you have not yet been to Athens, fear not, for Athens may have already been to you: no need to recite the contributions Greek culture made to our rube American one, for it would be a long night indeed. The first time I came to Athens as an adult there was some political buzz in the air, but coming from a Middle East hot zone I found the atmosphere oddly fascinating. You might even say I came for the politics and stayed a while longer, on account of the secret byways of the Plaka that never ceased to charm me, and the artistic treasures peering out imploringly from behind glass cases in museums…the chiseled Athenian faces of innate cosmopolitanism and beguiling smile, for the promise of things I knew I could never fully know, for the promise of more mastic-infused cocktails…
Intrigue is intrinsically part of the Greek DNA. I interviewed an expert on Greek yogurt and afterwards he didn’t invite me for a coffee (and oh, there are some fetching coffeehouses in Athens!), but he offered to take me to a voting booth. Fortunately my observer status meant that I didn’t have to take sides in the political game of chess, but how intriguing it was indeed to get all electoral in the place where democratic voting as we know it was born. Just the day before, I had revisited the renovated Museum of the Stoa of Attalos and seen the relics of virginal democracy: the psephos or pebbles used to vote and ostrakon, the potsherds used for ostracisms. So many centuries later, the basic mechanics remained the same; only the tools had changed.
What goes hand in hand with intrigue but drama, and it struck me that Greek elections are just a moving part of the capital’s built-in drama epitomized by the Parthenon, the city’s guiding light since the mid fourth-century BC. And like the much newer Acropolis Museum, it’s a must, but a starting point, too.
Wandering around the ancient Agora, you can’t help but feel like a sleuth, literally stumbling upon ruins half-hidden by olive trees. With the Acropolis looming above, you’ll find the Museum of the Stoa of Attalos here, as well as the stunning Temple of Hephaestus. To get an idea of how the ancient Athenians flirted, schmoozed, bought and battled, head to the National Archaeological Museum for its vast collections of ancient painted black figure and red figure vases. Officially, it’s pottery, but the detail and passions depicted on these ancient vessels gives them the power of poetry.
Of course, the museum is filled with plenty of other good stuff, too.
Moving on: the posh Kolonaki neighborhood, which begins at the northern perimeter of Syntagma Square (home of the Greek Parliament), is worth shopping stops for Apivita, the Greek skincare powerhouse with products emphasizing honey, and Stelios Parliaros whose “sweet alchemy” has made him Greece’s star pastry chef. A cultural gem here is the Benaki Museum, with exhibits that chart the rise of Athens and its central place in the history of Greece, from the classical era through the Greek War of Independence. Nearby is the sleek Museum of Cycladic Art, with its collections of ancient artifacts from the Aegean archipelago. The more money-minded should revel in the Numismatic Museum of Athens, closer to Syntagma. Here, in the restored 1878 mansion of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the coins once tossed by the likes of Aristotle and Pericles — a lot of them — are beautifully displayed.
Ermou Street is Athens’ busiest shopping area and home to the Hondos Center, which stocks enough beauty care goods to make Aphrodite dizzy. This part of town is chock full of appealing restaurants and cafes. Check out the little square of St. Irini with its buzzy spots like the Rooster Cafe. Most bars feature Greek wines as well as libations infused with signature Greek spirits like mastiha, sourced from gum mastic that grows on the island of Chios, and much tastier than it sounds. Then there are the irresistible loukoumades, little Greek doughnuts. Try the ones at Loukumami, near St. Irini on Panepistimiou St., where you can douse them in honey, chocolate or even mastiha cream.
The slightly scruffy Monastiraki district is adjacent to the Plaka and still in the shadow of the Acropolis, but altogether different in spirit. Here, you’ll be trading touristy tavernas for modish bars and bistros, while outside hipsters nurse frappes (Greek iced coffee, made with Nescafe instant coffee but, again, yummier than you might think) in one hand and smartphones in the other. Some look as if they’ve just raided clothing stores like No Name or its vintage shop next door on Athinas Street. Come evening, they’ll slip down into the metro to take it one stop to Kerameikos and the Gazi district, a former industrial area that’s now the epicenter of Athenian nightlife. On any given night there, you’ll see (and hear) how today’s Athenians take to partying as intensely as they do to politics – if not more.
Where to stay
The busy street it’s located on may be nondescript, but inside the 79-room New Hotel is the polar opposite. Owner and arts patron Dakis Joannou enlisted a Brazilian design duo to give the hotel an eco-chic imprint. The location, between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, is unbeatable and the hotel’s breakfasts are among the best in Athens. A stay at the fine O&B Boutique Hotel Athens puts you a little closer to Gazi.
Where to eat
Street food in Athens, from the humblest gyro to tasty pink pistachios from Aegina, is some of the best in Europe and a great value, too. Of course, there’s more, and you should make the time for it. One of the most intriguing tables in Athens is Mani Mani, where the menu is a contemporary take on the traditional foods of the Peloponnese. Think pork tenderloin with orzo, manouri cheese, figs and honey, and delicious wines from the Mani region. For a more casual meal, try the eclectic Mama Roux, one of Athenians’ favorite spots for brunch.
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from a balcony at