Tag Archives: Piraeus

Mastiha in Microlimano

I first met Mastiha one evening in a tavern in Microlimano, the smallest of the three historic  harbours of Piraeus, just south of Athens.

A yacht hovers outside Microlimano
A yacht hovers outside Microlimano

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.

 

A closer look at Piraeus

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.

Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port
Fast ferries leaving Piraeus port

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!

 

The Greek Riviera, Part 1, Piraeus

From the Port of Piraeus, 7 kilometres south of Athens, to the ancient ruins of Sounion, 70 kilometres further on, lies one of the loveliest stretches of coastline in the world. It’s the province of magnates, oligarchs, tycoons and celebrities as well as sun-lovers and fun-lovers. They call it the Greek Riviera.

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While Piraeus doesn’t have the golden sands and beach culture which attract schools of sun-lovers, it does draw its share of magnates, tycoons, celebrities and fun-lovers.

Shipping Magnate Aristotle Onassis installed his fleet in Piraeus after the Military Junta of 1967. Oligarchs park their super yachts here. Easycruise, the maritime branch of Easyjet, sails in and out of Piraeus.

The hilltop neighbourhood of Kastella is one of the most desirable in the Aegean, the kind where the rich and celebrated hang out in gorgeous mansions with million dollar views.

Fun-lovers frequent the tavernas, restaurants and night clubs of Microlimano. They come to play in Allou Fun Park.

So, start at Piraeus and then follow the coastline along the Greek Riviera.