Located between the Place de la Concorde and the Palais du Louvre, Le Jardin des Tuileries is one of the most popular, lively and beautiful public gardens in Paris.
Established by Catherine de Medici in 1564, Le Jardin des Tuileries was a playground and a hunting ground for the royals and the aristocracy. Over the ensuing century it was home to stables, a riding school and even a zoo.
Le Jardin des Tuileries became a public park after the French Revolution and by the end of the 19th century it offered all kinds of entertainment, with acrobats, puppet theatres, donkey rides and small boats sailing on its ponds.
Two notable historic buildings stand in Le Jardin des Tuileries. Designed by architects Firmin Bourgeois and Ludovico Visconti and completed in 1852, L’Orangerie was commissioned by Napoleon III as a greenhouse. It is now a museum of art and its specially designed oval gallery showcases Monet’ s best known work, Les Nymphéas.
The twin of L’Orangerie, Le Jeu de Paume, was constructed in 1861 to house Napoleon’s tennis courts. During World War two it was used to store works of art expropriated from Jewish families. From 1947 to 1986, when they were transferred to the Musée D’Orsay, it was home to a large collection of Impressionist paintings.
Le Jardin des Tuileries is yet another great Paris escape. Even though Parisians come in their thousands to enjoy its ponds, its fountains, its flowers, its trees, its cafes and restaurants, its entertainment and its art installations, there is always a tranquil spot to be found somewhere.
The best way to digest a large Greek lunch, when a siesta is out of the question, is, according to Cosmo, with a good walk. And the only way to explore the fascinating area that sprawls around the Acropolis, is according to any Athenian, on foot.
Close by and to the west of Monasteraki Square lies quaint, charming, picture-postcard Psiri. Zorba-esque music flows from the old taverna which line the streets. There’s an aroma of roasting lamb, warm bread, honey and strong coffee. Young Greek gods, in the guise of waiters, smile from the terraces of restaurants and cafes. Nonchalant locals and shutter snapping tourists mill in the streets. On the other side of Monasteraki is Plaka, “the neighbourhood of the Olympian gods”. Hailed as the Hellenic Montmartre, it shares the bohemian ambiance and picturesque appearance of its Parisian counterpart. Close packed houses press into the steep, narrow streets. Ancient ruins rise from the dry earth in fenced-off excavations. In shady squares local characters sit smoking in the sun and old men quarrel over card games. There are tiny shops selling souvenirs, gold, leather, furs and pottery, interspersed with neighbourhood grocers, fruit stalls, bakers and cake shops. There is a bath house. Olive trees and vines overhang bleached stone walls. Miniature gardens are crammed with lush green leafy vegetables and fat tomatoes.
Every evening just before sunset a soft purple light spreads slowly up Mount Hymettus and settles over Athens like violet crown. We watched it fade to indigo from a taverna in a back street of Plaka, high on the rocky slope of the Acropolis. A young singer crooned Demis Roussos’ My Friend the Wind”. Our wonderful day out with Cosmo had come to a close. He had taken us into his Athens, introduced us to its capricious gods, its mighty kings and its great heroes, as well its ticket and postcard-sellers, shopkeepers, chefs, baristas and waiters. He had shown us its famous places and its secret corners, shared its smells, tastes, textures and sounds. He had told us its stories. It was a sad, goodbye, with a firm, long grasping of hands, kisses on both cheeks, promises on Cosmos side to visit us down under and on ours to show him our Antipodes, to come back soon to Athens and to drop in on his sister-in-law, the best Greek cook in Australia, at her home in Mount Waverley, Melbourne.
The rosemary and bay leaves, crumbling now, are pressed between the pages of scribbled notes for this story in my diary, along with Cosmo’s card and the address of his sister in law.
Our tour of Athens cost 100 euros each. Our day out with Cosmo was priceless.
To find your Cosmo, ask the concierge or the doorman at your hotel – he’s sure to have an uncle, a cousin, a brother – Athens is like that.
Cosmo swung away again, deeper into downtown Athens.
Monastiraki, where we came to rest, is a shifting, vibrant mix of tourists with day packs and runners and Athenians in their Sunday best. Architecturally, it is that blend of ancient, old, new and newer still, which makes up modern Athens. The Acropolis stands against the distant skyline, so the Golden Age of Greece is part of every Monasteraki vista. The last few columns from Hadrian’s magnificent library mark the time of the Romans. In the centre of Monastiraki Square is a beautiful little 17th century church, where black-clad widows, oblivious to the shuffling tourist crowds, pray and light candles to their icons. Nearby, an 18th century Mosque, from the time of the Turks, is now home to the museum of traditional Greek ceramics. A colourful bazaar, selling everything from reef sandals to amphorae, spills through its streets. Traditional taverna and coffee shops stand alongside pizzeria and fast food joints.
Having delivered us safely into the hands of his friends in the restaurant on the corner of the square, Cosmo disappeared. But just like Cosmo, the friends knew what we would like and what would make us happy; olives, dips and pita bread, a crisp white wine, dolmades, Greek salad, soft, sweet Greek bread, moussaka, souvlakia, a tart red wine, coffee and baklava, according to custom, with the compliments of the house. Under the watchful and encouraging eyes of the waiters and chef we ate to a determined finish. But, then Cosmo reappeared and insisted on marsala for Madame and ouzo for Monsieur, with a little halva on the side.
In our morning with Cosmo, we had steeped ourselves in the world of the ancients. It was time now to step back into modern Athens.
Back down in the city Cosmo stopped, waving off blaring horns and impassioned appeals, in Syntagma Square. Here, in 1843, the people of Greece received their first Constitution from the reigning monarch King Otto, hence the name, Syntagma which means Constitution. Today the busy square, with its shops, cafes, restaurants, shops and offices, is the centre of modern, commercial Athens.
Just across the road is the Greek House of Parliament. Completed in 1838, the grand neo-classical building was originally the palace of the first Greek kings. In front lies the tomb of the unknown soldier, watched over by the Presidential Guards or Evzones. Cosmo had timed our visit to catch the spectacular changing of the guards, when the new watch marches in and the old watch marches out, with great pomp and ceremony, in their deep blue jackets and pristine pleated skirts, on stiff high-thrusting white-stockinged legs.
Alongside Parliament, the National Gardens are a lush stretch of nature with lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers dubbed by Athenians “the green lung”. The cool shady paths and the glint of a distant pond beckoned but a stroll in the park was not on Cosmo’s itinerary and we swung away again, deeper into downtown Athens.
Surrounded by the bunches of rosemary and branches of bay leaves which Cosmo had picked for us from the gardens of Kaiseriani, we set off, higher up the mountain for “the best coffee in Greece”.
Cosmo’s friends’ (or were they family?) café was a tiny wooden cabin in a clearing among the pines. In a minute kitchen, a constantly shifting and uncountable crowd danced around one another from stove to oven. As time allowed, they came to the counter to smile and shake our hands. With a coffee that smelt like a thousand years of accumulated grinding, growing and brewing expertise in one hand and a honey-soaked cake that looked like a mortal sin in the other, we settled at a table under the pines. Around us old men harangued one another over their cards while families, on Sunday outings, seemingly with every branch and extension, laughed and shouted at the children playing on the thick carpet of pine-needles that covered the red, hard-packed earth.
Higher again, on Hymettus we stopped and looked out at the other mountains of Attica; Philopappas Hill, home of the muses to the ancients, with its monument to Philopappas, benefactor of Athens and Lycabettus, Athens highest hill, with the chapel of St George at its summit.
Behind us the hills rolled away, rocky, wild and without shelter. We thought of our fathers and uncles, their cousins and friends, wandering country like this, during the disastrous World War II campaigns of Greece and Crete. This foreign soil seems so far in every way, from the lush, green, bush-cloaked hills of their New Zealand homeland. How did they survive? The truth is that many perished. Many were taken as prisoners too. But many somehow lived through the ordeal. Many, too, were saved by courageous and generous ordinary Greek people, probably pretty much like Cosmo.
It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments, while the traffic banked up honking behind, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo.
We swept across the city, past the Hospital Evangelissmos (the best in the world, according to Cosmo, where his friend was diagnosed, treated and cured of a condition which had baffled doctors across three continents) We cruised through elegant up-market Kolonaki, where trendy young Atheneians flock to hip cafes (drinking coffee which, according to Cosmo, disgraces the name) We idled in traffic outside an avant garde gallery (filled with sculptures which, according to Cosmo, would have had the ancients turning in their graves) We sped away again past a row of chic international fashion boutiques (charging a fortune for clothes, according to Cosmo, which are out-dated in one season) We climbed steadily upwards and the town fell away behind us
High in the folds of Mount Hymettus, Cosmo turned into a rough driveway, pulled his secret “parking rock” from under a bush and wedged it behind the back wheel of his car. We followed him up through the overhanging trees to Kaiseriani, hidden, like a secret treasure, among the cypress and olive trees. In ancient times, Kaiseriani was the Sanctuary of Aphrodite . Later, Athens earliest Byzantine Monastery was built on the site, The name Kaisierani, meaning healing waters, comes from the spring, tapped here by the goddess of love, before mortals walked these hills, and famed for its curative powers (especially for afflictions of desire, potency and infertility) In the time of the Emperor Hadrian, the Romans channelled water from the spring to supply the city of Athens below. When the monks established their monastery in the 11th century AD, they funnelled Kasiseriani water through a stone Ram’s head in their courtyard.
While the monks have long since abandoned Kaisierani, the monastery is still imbued with their austere, disciplined and deeply religious presence. The simple life they led is stamped on the place. Plain crucifixes hang on the walls of the small, dim cells. A bare, scrubbed table runs the length of the refectory. Business-like earthenware urns and pots stand neatly next to the stone oven in the kitchen. There’s a lingering smell of yeast, with an overlay of dust and ashes.
If the monks living quarters are Spartan, their places of worship are most certainly not. There’s a rich scent of beeswax and incense. Light beams in from high arched windows. The main chapel, dedicated to the presentation of Virgin Mary at the temple, is strikingly and lavishly painted with images dating back to the 16th century, of the Holy Trinity, Christ, the apostles, the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, on black backgrounds. Next to the main church stands the exquisite, intimate Chapel of St Antonios.
Although the era of the gods is long gone, the spirit of Aphrodite is still strong in Kaiserani. Befittingly for the sanctuary of the Goddess of love, it has highly romantic and deeply sensualambiance. It is the perfect setting for proposals, weddings, trysts. In the secluded courtyard the air was still, heavy and scented with pine, rosemary and bay. Heat shimmered on the flagstones. Low, mid-morning shadows softened the sun-whitened edges of the buildings. Bees droned from bush to bush, dry leaves rustled to the ground and birds called from tree to tree. Water trickled from the ram’s head pump.
I could have stayed there lost in contemplation forever …
Next post Part 3, A day out in Athens with Cosmo; Coffee in the hills
We stood on the steps of the hotel and took in the panorama of blue and white – the sun-bleached stone houses rising in thick layers across the slopes of the low, rocky hills and above them, against a flawless, early morning sky, the pale cliffs of the Acropolis, crowned by the towering columns of the Parthenon. We had one day, one frustratingly, almost insultingly, inadequate day to explore Athens. How could we cram thousands of years of civilization, history and culture into twenty four hours, less if we planned to sleep? Where should we start? How should we start? As luck would have it, the doorman had an uncle, who had a taxi…
The doorman’s uncle was an imposing, bronzed figure, with a head of thick white hair, a gravelly voice which rang with conviction, a hearty laugh, an enthusiastic handshake and a profile which would have looked well on an antique medallion. His name was Cosmo. As a young man, Cosmo had worked, married and raised his family in Australia. He had returned to Greece twenty years ago, to settle and enjoy the prime of his life, sharing his home in the hills or his villas in the islands with friends and showing his city to tourists. He knew Athens. He knew Australians, New Zealanders too. He knew what we liked and what we wanted to see. He knew what would make us happy. No worries!
He gave us Athens, its ancient monuments, their history and their stories; the Arch of Hadrian, the gateway to the benevolent Emperor’s new Roman Athens; the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest in the ancient world, conceived by Peisistratus and completed by Hadrian 700 years later; the beautiful marble Panathinaikon Stadium, built in the 4th century, where the first modern Olympics took place in 1896. He gave us the Acropolis, the ancient citadel, propped up with scaffolding now, still but dominating the cityscape and still haunted by the spirits of the ancient gods. He left us to wander at leisure through the ruins of the “glory that was Greece”, to the architecturally perfect Parthenon, the sanctuary and the theatre of Dionysus, birthplace of drama; the theatre of Herodeion, home of the annual Athens festival; the Agora, the political, commercial and religious centre of the ancient city; the high slippery limestone rock of Mars Hill, once Athens’ highest court, where St Paul first preached the Gospel in AD 51. He gave us the cemetery of Kerameikos, the oldest and largest in Attica. He gave us the capricious gods, the mighty kings and the super heroes who shaped this great city.
It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments while the traffic banked up honking around us, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo.
I first met Mastiha one evening in a tavern in Microlimano, the smallest of the three historic harbours of Piraeus, just south of Athens.
Although it was a warm Autumn evening, the restaurant had its terrace awning drawn down against the breeze that was rattling the masts of the yachts moored off shore and tossing restless breakers down on the beach.
We were the guests of some local gentlemen who spared nothing in sharing their hospitality. It was a long dinner of numerous courses and as many different accompanying wines. In the sheltered terrace, with the sound of the breeze and the waves, the smell of grilling seafood, the glow of candles, gentle Greek music, lively conversation, it was cosy and convivial. Just when I thought we had sampled almost every possible dish and drink that Greece had to offer, our hosts introduced Mastiha.
It came in a shot glass, in the shape of strong liqueur that slipped down the throat like liquid fire, smouldered in the belly, spread a warm glow through the veins and finally burst into the brain like a meteor.
The essential ingredient of this potent liqueur is an aromatic resin, also called mastiha. It comes from the tree known in Greek as “schinos” and in Latin as Pistacia lentiscus. Incredibly, although the tree grows in other of Greece and the Mediterranean, it is only in the southern part of the island of Chios that it produces mastiha. The resin emerges, in drops shaped like tears, from cuts made in the bark of the trunk and branches. It is then left to air dry and harden on marble dust.
Mastiha holds an important place in Greek tradition, both culinary and cultural. It is used in numerous ways. For many years it was enjoyed mainly as a chewing gum. It was also a popular summer treat known as ipovrihio or submarine – a thick taffy, served by the spoonful and dipped in iced water.
Mastiha is still enjoyed as chewing gum and dessert. For many, especially on Chios, it is an aperatif of choice, often over ouzo and in some parts of Greece, it is served instead of brandy, at funerals. Nowadays, Mastiha is also the main ingredient in over 300 food, cosmetic and health products and its fame has spread far and wide.
In a warm, light-filled studio in a narrow street in Scarpa, Little Venice, Nikoletta Xidakis works away at her loom, surrounded by stands of bright yarn and shelves of seductively soft woollen shawls, scarves and rugs. She has plied the weaver’s trade here for over 50 years. A collection of cuttings from international newspapers, in shades of fading yellow, speak of her talent and the fame it has. earned her
Mykonos has always been a weaver’s island. Archeological finds here have shown that even in ancient times, textile production was significantly developed. By the 17th century the weavers of Mykonos had won considerable fame. Over the next three centuries the textile industry grew until by the mid 1900s, it involved most of the island’s women. There were over 500 looms at work on the island. Mykonos textiles won international awards. Highly prized, they were sold abroad and used to decorate the Royal Place in Athens. With the advent of Tourism in the 1970s, a new market opened up. Weavers set up stalls in the streets of Chora and opened their workshops to the visitors. Textiles from this era, comprising over 500 different designs, can be seen in the town’s Folklore Museum. Inevitably, with industrialization, traditional textile production, which once supported so many families on Mykonos, declined. One by one the island’s looms fell silent. Nikoletta Xidakis is now one of the last two traditional weavers left on Mykonos. You can find her at:
Little Venice, Skarpa, Mykonos Town, Mykonos 84600
You might be tempted to race through Piraeus, bound for the docks and the fast ferry that will carry you off to an Aegean island paradise, but it’s well worth stopping, even for a day.
Take a trip up to Kastella. This steep hill has been inhabited since the 26th century BC, when it was known as Munichia. At the time Piraeus was a rocky island called Halipedon, or salt field, because of the boggy, often submerged, salt field which connected it to the mainland. In 511 BC Hippias fortified the hill and four years later it became an outpost of Athens. During the boom times in the early 2oth century, the hill was developed as a prime residential area and its elegant neo-classical mansions were built. Today Kastella is one of the most prosperous and attractive neighbourhoods of the city, with a panoramic view over Athens and the Saronic Gulf.
Take a look at the ports. By the 5th century BC, silt had obliterated the salt field, Piraeus was now part of Athens and, with its three deep water harbours, it was highly desirable. In 493 BC, Themistocles began to fortify Piraeus and in 483 BC, the Athenian fleet moved in to build the ships which snatched victory from the Persians at the Battle of Salamis three years later. Next Themistocles constructed the port, created the ship sheds (neosoikoi), and started work on his famous walls. By 471 BC, Piraeus was a great military and commercial harbour, serving the mighty Athenian fleet as a permanent base. Although the Themistoclean Walls and neosoikoi were largely destroyed by the Spartans in 404 BC, some remains can still be seen, along with the Skeotheke (an ancient storehouse for shipping gear) and the Eetionia, a mole in the entrance to the harbour.
Explore the ruins of the ancient city in the basement of the cathedral of Agia Triada and the ancient Theater of Zea next to the Archaeological Museum. Step inside the Archeological Museum, to see the four bronze statues which were unearthed at a construction site near the Tinaneios Gardens and the hand which was discovered by workmen laying pipes.
Take a stroll around the Piraeus town, through streets laid out by the architect Hippodemus on his famous “Hippodamian” grid plan in the 4th century BC. Browse in the shops along the central avenues of Piraeus, Iroon Polytechneiou and Grigoriou Labraki. Marvel at the grand 19th century Neo-Classical public buildings.
Stop for a break in one of the tavernas or seafood restaurants along the waterfront at Mikrolimano or Piraiki. Sample a local beverage, a Mythos, a Restsina or a Mastiha perhaps (more of Mastiha in my next post)
Take in a movie at Village Park, the largest cinema complex in Greece. Browse in the shops, dine and drink in the restaurants and cafes.
Drop into Allou Fun Park, the latest and largest amusement theme park in Athens, for rides and attractions, restaurants and pastry shops.
If you’re passing through in late February, you might catch the Ecocinema International Film Festival, which starts with the Three Kings’ Way Festival, a riot of costumes and entertainment. In summer, you could catch a concert (Greek dancers, folk music and bands) at the open air Veakeio Theater in Kastella, or any time of the year see a variety show at the Menandreio Theater, or as Delfinario
Finally, check out the giant 21st century vessels as you sail out of Piraeus, the largest seaport in Greece, one of the largest in the Mediterranean and one of the top ten container ports in Europe. It’s impressive!