The turtle makes a break for it, and other tales of derring do in Athens

After a week in Athens, I now feel that I am something of an expert on Athenian life and culture. My deeply considered thoughts are thus:

The worry beads look like fun. I’ve seen a lot of men working strings of beads this way and that. They spin them around, they play with each little bead. Each guy seems to have his own special ritual. I want a pair, but I will surely drive my wife crazy. Is this a guy thing? Do guys worry more than women? Who knows? I do know that I picked up a set for my mom, and I’m sure she’ll put them to excellent use.

Cold guys with worry beads.

Worried guy.

Worrisome, this worry bead thing.

Worrisome, this worry bead thing.

People seem chilly. Not socially, just physically. It’s been in the upper sixties and people are dressed for a space walk. The other day it was sunny and warm, and one guy was wearing a long sleeve shirt, a hoodie sweatshirt, and a puffy coat.

They smoke a lot here. Good heavens, the people smoke like chimneys. It is technically illegal to smoke inside restaurants and bars, but those laws are less heeded than the jaywalking laws in New York, or the helmet laws in Uganda. It’s best to get a table on the sidewalk and try to sit upwind of the rest of the city.

The service was gracious and lovely. People were friendly, they made us feel welcome, and they spoke excellent English. I do my best with Italian, French, Spanish, and Japanese, but Greek is a bridge too far. Thankfully it was not remotely a problem. Thanks, Greece, for learning my language!

I’m hooked on souvlaki. It’s filling, it’s delicious, and it’s dirt cheap. These are the grilled meat sandwiches served on pita bread and covered in substances that will give you dragon breath for a week. Here in Athens one becomes a connoisseur rather quickly. On our first day, I sought out (surprise, surprise) some place that I read about that is purported to have the finest souvlaki on the planet or somesuch (CRAP, CRAP, CRAP, I just remembered that I read about that in the New York Times as well. I am as shallow and lazy a traveler as they come. Damn.) No matter, we couldn’t find it. I dragged Janine through this plaza and that and we just couldn’t seem to find the joint. I also flatly refused to sit down at one of the touristy souvlaki places on Monastiraki Square. It would defeat the purpose to pay ten bucks for a souvlaki. It would be like paying twenty bucks for a pizza…oh, wait, never mind.

We finally settled for a little joint right off the square. The stuff they put on the vertical spits are called gyros (which is Greek for “stuff they put on a vertical spit,” I think), and you can have chicken or pork. I love the concept of chicken on a spit. They just stack a bunch of boneless whole chickens and run a spike through them and cook them forever. The fat drips down and seasons the meat and the result is incredibly juicy and chickeny. But the pork’s great too. Then there’s that weird lamb and beef paste that you see everywhere in New York. That seems sketchy, although I also like sketchy. Or you can get a skewer of beef or pork. Let’s face it, they’ll grill up their thumbs if you ask nicely and it will be delicious. Then they put it on a pita bread, but not that flaccid, emaciated excuse for pita we get in the states. In Greece you get a substantial, swarthy, vigorous Frisbee of bread that soaks up the juices and keeps things more or less intact. Then they add mystery spices, lots of raw onion, sometimes tomato, and depending on what meat you pick they add that garlicky yogurt sauce called tzatziki that makes your children’s breath back home in the U.S. bad even though you’re here and they’re there. And just for kicks they throw a couple of French fries on top. French fries? I find this to be the strangest part of the procedure, but who am I to argue? The thing is, if you eat it at 1 you won’t be hungry until the restaurants open at 8 or 9. All that for 2 euros. What’s not to like? We’ve had three souvlakis so far, including one at the joint I had been looking for in the first place, and they’ve all been slightly different but absolutely delicious. What a country.

Cheap, fast, and delicious. Souvlaki!

Cheap, fast, and delicious. Souvlaki!

Okay, I’ve been told that there are things to do in Athens other than eat, and that may be true.

In addition to eating ourselves into food comas, we have been attempting to do some historical stuff.

Acropolis Museum

We decided to begin our tour of Athenian culture and history at the Acropolis Museum. This is an absolutely smashing museum, which opened in 2009. It sits just below the Acropolis (the site on the top of the hill that overlooks Athens) and has a great view of the Parthenon (the famous temple that dominates the Acropolis). The museum is modern and bright and takes a lot of the fussiness out of looking at old pieces of marble. It showcases a wide variety of artifacts recovered from the slopes of the Acropolis, it has some splendid sculpture, and it even has an extraordinary bust of Aristotle that was just discovered in 2005 when they were excavating the site of the museum itself.

Can you believe they just found this perfectly intact bust of Aristotle in 2005?

Can you believe they just found this perfectly intact bust of Aristotle in 2005?

There are other wonders – early in the process they realized that the museum was sitting on a valuable archeological site in its own right (people have been living in this neighborhood for the past six thousand years) so they built the structure on top of the diggings in a way that would allow the research to continue and which would let visitors observe the ongoing work. It’s nifty.

The dig under the Acropolis Museum

The dig under the Acropolis Museum

Finally, they have transferred the marble friezes from the Parthenon to the new museum in a full sized presentation of the Parthenon’s exterior. They are replacing the actual Parthenon with exact replicas, which may offend some. It’s a tough call. If you leave them out there they will be damaged by the elements and could be destroyed by earthquakes and such. Moreover, you can now look at these amazing sculptures up close in a controlled environment. But taking them away isn’t so great either. I’m not sure it matters. We’ll all be dead before the scaffolding comes down up there. Maybe our grandchildren will get to see a cleaned up Parthenon site. On the other hand, maybe not.

The actual Acropolis and the Parthenon

Armed with some context, we hiked up the hill the next day to see the place itself. It was nearing sunset, which made the visit even more lovely. Walking in the place of all that history is really something, but the story of how this amazing site has been plundered and mangled is quite depressing. The temple complex, which was constructed in 443 BCE, was pretty much intact until the 17th century, when bad things started to happen. In the mid-1600’s the entrance monument, called the Propylaia, was badly damaged when the gunpowder the occupying Turks were storing there exploded. Later, they largely dismantled another structure, the Temple of Athena, to shore up the hill’s defenses. Then, the Parthenon itself was bombarded by the Venetians in 1687. The final blow came when the Turks allowed Lord Elgin of England to walk off with many of the marble sculptures that surround the upper face of the structure. The Elgin Marbles, as they came to be known, are still on display in the British Museum. If you ask me, they should have hoisted Elgin up by his marbles, and the British should return the sculptures. The British position, as near as I can tell, has been, “Nanny nanny boo boo. We’re taking your marbles and you should go home.” Give back the marbles, Britain.

The loving couple at the Parthenon.

The loving couple at the Parthenon.

National Archeological Museum of Athens

The next stop on our archeological history tour was a visit to the archeology museum in downtown Athens. By this time you might imagine that we were maxing out on archeology, but in fact we were starting to get the hang of this stuff. There were thirty three galleries of statues, many of which I first saw in my textbook when I took my one and only art history class back in the 20th century. Despite all this truly impressive art and history, the highlight of the visit might have been the bold determination of this box turtle, which escaped the inner courtyard and was making its way into the exhibit without a ticket.

Turtle without a ticket.

Turtle without a ticket.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus

We wrap up our tour of old stuff with a visit to the Temple of Olympian Zeus, a massive site in the middle of town. There’s no museum, not much explanation, just a bunch of columns (including one that fell in a storm in 1852) and a few excavated outer sections. The lack of fuss is part of the charm, though. We shambled in late in the day, paid our two euros, and basically had the place to ourselves.

Temple of Olympian Zeus. Who thinks they should pick up the column? I'm on the fence.

Temple of Olympian Zeus. Who thinks they should pick up the column? I’m on the fence.

We had a number of other fun adventures, most of which involved food or cocktails. We wandered the central market and looked at the sheep’s heads and piles of fish and then had a nice market lunch. We hit a few rooftop bars for our pre-dinner cocktail. (Is the economy rebounding? Maybe, the cocktails were almost as expensive as they are in New York.)

My favorite dish of the visit was at Melilotos, where we returned for a second visit, proving that I can choose good, cheap, and reliable over different once in a while. The dish that made me sing was meatballs in tomato sauce with tagiatelle. What? Italian food in Greece? Well, it was Italian with a twist – the meatballs were made with cinnamon and mint and I can’t stop thinking about them.

Today we are off to Istanbul. What should we do? Where should we eat?

And finally, my favorite picture so far:

Having fun with my selfie stick.

Having fun with my selfie stick.

Ciao, Italia, we hardly knew ya.

Hoo boy, are we tired. Rome is really, really fun and really, really tiring. Did I mention that we’re tired? Oh, and we’re full. Monty Python full. But happy.

After buying jewelry and eating pizza on our first night in Rome, we tried mightily to take advantage of as many recommendations as we could. Herewith are some highlights:

Villa Farnese

Villa Farnese. Cultural and convenient!

Villa Farnese. Cultural and convenient!

This was on nobody’s recommendation list, but this medium-sized palazzo in Trastevere had something very, very important going for it – it was just outside our front door. There are days when we just can’t seem to get ourselves out the door in the morning, and by the time we do it’s afternoon. Then we feel a little bad that we’re not being more efficient with our time. On such days we try to grab the closest bit of acceptable culture that we can. Villa Farnese more than fit the bill. The palazzo was built between 1506 and 1510 for a fellow named Agostino Chigi, who was a banker from Sienna and the treasurer of Pope Julius II. The house was acquired in the late 1500s by the great grandson of Allessandro Farnese, who was Pope Paul III during the mid-1500s.

Yes, kiddies, this was during the good old days, when Popes had mistresses and children and they ordered hits on their enemies and who knows what other nonsense. While I’m wandering off on this digression, permit me to take another detour. The reason all this Farnese business is interesting to us is that part of our routine these days is to watch at least one episode of the Netflix show Borgia each evening. (Thank heavens for the geek who invented the virtual private network, or VPN, which tricks Netflix into thinking we’re in Cleveland.) At first it was what passed as preparation for our visit to Rome, but now it’s just junk food – full of sex, violence, and opulence, the visual salt, sugar, and fat that keeps binge watchers satisfied. It has some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen, but if the wifi falters on any given night I start to get the shakes. To make matters worse, we’re watching the bad Borgia – the one with some guy from Philly playing Pope Alexander, not Jeremy Irons. This is the Costco pork rinds of binge television.

Where on earth was I? Oh, yes, Villa Farnese, which is not to be confused with the more important Palazzo Farnese across the river, which is now owned by the French government and is no longer open to the public. The Villa, while something of a lesser establishment, nevertheless has a really wonderful collection of frescoes, including a famous one by Raffaello.

Rafaello's famous cherubs.

Raffaello’s famous cherubs.

We also practically had the place to ourselves, which is always a challenge even in the so-called off season in Rome, and came away feeling that we had satisfied the cultural tourism gods.

Do not try this at home, gents.

Do not try this at home, gents.

The Vatican

What can you say about the Vatican that hasn’t been said? There are seven kilometers of galleries and it’s the fifth most visited art museum in the world. I’m also kind of a baby when it comes to museums. I have a short attention span, the dust makes my sinuses run, and after a few hours I’m ready to eat. Nevertheless, you can’t come away from the Vatican museum without being impressed or overwhelmed. You’ve got your Michelangelos, Caravaggios, Titians, Berminis, Raphaels, and basically all the Renaissance art and Greek sculpture you can imagine. And then there’s the Sistine Chapel, which is all it’s cracked up to be. After weighing all the good advice about how to procure the services of a guide, we ended up going the official route – for thirty euros you can get tickets to the museum and join a group led by an official Vatican guide. I suppose you pays your money and you takes your chances, but our guide was amazingly enthusiastic and quite terrific. Two thumbs up for the Vatican.

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Our friend Hubert recommended this really interesting church, which began its life as a Roman bathhouse and was converted to its present use by Michelangelo in 1563. This wasn’t a bathhouse like in an Al Pacino movie, though. It is said that the Baths of Diocletian could accommodate three thousand Romans at any given time. In fact, the church, which is massive, was built just from a portion of the bath complex, the frigidarium, the cold bath. There was also a caldarium, which was a pool heated by a big furnace, as well as other pools and rooms and spaces where Romans could be Roman together.

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The church also has a nifty meridian – a long line built in the floor that is aligned with a hole in the roof that serves as a giant sundial calendar. I wasn’t particularly good at math or science, and I’m always mystified at feats of genius like these.

Finally, the thrifty part of me always loves the free churches. 🙂

Gallery Borghese

Our friend Hillary recommended the Gallery Borghese, a palazzo built to house the art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was Pope Paul V’s nephew. After the pope’s election, Scipione was made secretary to the pope and the head of the Vatican government. Borghese used the position to make himself and his family very wealthy, and he spent some of his booty on art. In other words, the Borghese family made the Borgias look like the people on Duck Dynasty. And hoo boy did they collect art. The place is stuffed full of paintings and sculpture, the highlights of which are extraordinary sculptures by Bermini, who makes marble look like silk. They do a decent job of managing the crowds there by selling two hour tickets and then clearing out the gallery at the end of the period, like they do at baseball doubleheaders these days.

A pretty good Bernini.

A pretty good Bernini.

That’s it, you ask? Um, yup, basically. We were also invited to spend our last two nights in Rome at the very nice digs of a friend of a friend, which was delightful. We were also invited to crash a reception. Thanks to our very efficient packing, we were ready for such an occasion – Janine looked lovely in her cocktail ensemble, and I even had a jacket and tie in my bag of tricks.

Of course, we also had to eat, and I include a couple of quick reviews.

Ditirambo Ristorante

This place sits just off the Campo de Fiori near our apartment in Trastevere. We waltzed in without a reservation, got the only available table, and were treated to a gracious and quite delicious meal. We started with a simple salad of shaved fennel, oranges, and pomegranate. Our primi was the classic Roman pasta tonnarelli cacio e pepe. It’s as simple as gets – they make a sauce out of cheese, black pepper, and the starchy salty water the pasta cooks in, and this version was spectacular. They call it tonnarelli because the pasta, which is basically a fat spaghetti, looks like a tuna. (The Italians are so evocative. There’s a pasta called orecchiette, or “little ears,” and a dish called strozzapretti, or “strangle the priest.”) The main was a splendid suckling pig – roasty, crispy, and just the right amount of fatty. Dessert was a lovely sponge cake topped with a poached pear with a dandy pasty crème on the side. The service was gracious and lovely and the food was terrific, and with a bottle of delicious pinot nero from Alto Adige, the whole thing came to less than sixty euros. Go there.

Hosteria da Corrado

Our host in Trastevere recommended this one. There are various levels of fanciness in Italy – ristorante, trattoria, and the homey osteria. In many of them, like Hostaria da Corrado, there’s no menu. You sit down, somebody rattles off maybe two or three choices for a starter and a main (in Italian, natch), and you’re off to the races. We had another classic roman dish rigatoni all’amatriciana, which is a tomato sauce made with cured pork jowls (close your eyes and it’s just really good bacon), and a thin pan-cooked steak that they hammer to a medium well, but which was fatty and salty enough to be somehow perfect. This is cooking like you wish your grandma did, and you have the benefit of watching locals come and go. The owner knew each of his customers (except us and one other brave table) by name. it was a little slice of Roman life.

Ristorante Compagnucci

Finally, we end on a meal that kept on going. Ristorante Compagnucci is a neighborhood place out by the Appian Way that was recommended by a friend. We made the minor mistake of just asking them to bring us what they thought was good without placing any volume limits, and the food just kept coming. Fried anchovies, more pasta all’amatriciana, octopus and green bean salad, and some kind of fish. It was all great, but way too much (how DO people eat this much this late?) although the highlight of the evening was the server. Her family owns the restaurant, and she only works there once in a while. Her English was good, and we struck up a very nice conversation. The short version of the story is that we invited her and her family to visit us if they make it to San Francisco. Such is the way of travel.

And that’s Italy. There’s so much to do in Rome, much less Italy, that I always leave feeling exhausted but strangely unrequited. I have seen the Sistine Chapel, though, which was the goal in the first place. And we ate pretty well.

Next up – Athens, and then Istanbul. If you have suggestions, please weigh in!

Arrivederci, Sicilia! What we loved, and what we’ll never understand.

The thing about being a fish out of water is that people are walking around on their two legs and breathing air, and being a fish, you spend a lot of top flopping around on your side trying to get some water in your gills.

Traveling in any foreign country requires embracing the unknown, which can be uncomfortable. There’s the language difference, of course, but adjusting to the rhythms of life can be just as difficult. As I’ve noted, shops open and close with little rhyme or reason. As in many European cities, they close at lunchtime, which is remarkably civilized. Shopkeepers go home for lunch or a nap, or something, then stay open into the evening. This is just dandy, except when you want to mail a package at 2PM. I wandered past the corner grocery on Wednesday at 3 and it was closed at midday, it was closed on Wednesdays, and they were closed for some kind of vacation – the Sicilian trifecta! Today, the supermarket was closed at 2. The supermarket! Restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 or later, although I’m told that in Argentina they don’t start the party until after 10.

Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed watching Sicilans park their cars. This would never fly back home.

"Parallel" parking in Sicily

“Parallel” parking in Sicily

I will also never wear a man purse.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

We made a grudging farewell to Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

We were sad to go because we had just started to find our groove there. We knew where the good restaurants were and we had our sights set on a few others. The other night we wandered into this really cute place that felt like a tapas joint in Madrid. There were lots of wines by the glass, and plates of meats, cheeses, and just yummy stuff in general. The hosts were gracious and friendly and the tiny café was filled mostly with young, hip locals who were having a dandy time. Places like that just make you happy. As promised, we returned to the ridiculously good deli (which was even better the second time, if you can believe it) and felt like regulars. (I had a moment with one of the busboys last time when he cleared a small piece of bread off our table and I started crying. It took him a second to get the joke, and then we all had a nice chortle. When we came in again it was like an old friend had come back.)

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

The aftermath

The aftermath

Then we pushed on for Noto – a city that is said to represent the best in Sicilian Baroque architecture, and which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2002.

Noto

Noto

Things started slowly when we couldn’t find our apartment. It’s in the center of the old city, just behind the famous Duomo, but 1) we were having trouble negotiating the one way streets and alleys, and 2) our host neglected to mention that our apartment is on an unmarked alley off a long street of stairs. Having been failed by google maps, we triangulated on what we thought might be the place, and eventually connected with our host, who speaks even less English than we speak Italian. After an hour of driving, walking, and crawling in circles, we finally walked through our door. And yes, there was the tiniest bit of bickering.

The town itself reminds me of a wedding cake – it looks pretty good, but it feels like it lacks a bit of substance. The people seem kind of standoffish, and once you’ve walked the length of the main street, you’ve kind of got the place covered. To be sure, the architecture is quite amazing – there are more palazzos (palazzi?) than you can count, and, like everywhere else we’ve been, they are charmingly crumbly without actually falling down.

Our day at the museums was entertaining without being terribly educational. The Notoans (Notoites?) need to up their museum game just a bit. On the one hand, you can wander into a gem, like the jewel box theatre in Noto called the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo. It’s pretty new – it was built in 1870. It’s one of those theatres with all the boxes, like in Amadeus. Our visit continued our tradition of visiting theatres without actually seeing any theatre. It was also singularly uninformative. There was no commentary, no information, no nothing. You show up and a guy points you to the theatre, and you go in a look around and take pictures. That was about it. We also had the place to ourselves, so we could have climbed into one of the boxes and taken a nap.

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

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We also had a hilarious visit to the Palazzo Ducezio, which houses the Noto city offices. The tour consisted of a visit to the Hall of Mirrors, which now serves as a meeting room for official city business and such. The ceiling was painted in 1826 and restored in 2001. It’s lovely, but I felt a little like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. A woman led us into the room, and said, basically, here’s the room, and then she stared at us. We went, we looked, we left. We also toured another palazzo that houses a rather sad collection of paintings with mildewing mattes and other underloved pieces of art. Janine and I found ourselves tallying up the value of each visit, kind of like one of those ladies of a certain age you see on the Upper West Side bus – you know, with the fur coat – might. For our five dollar ticket, we figured the art collection at about a dollar, the hall of mirrors at about a quarter, and theatre came in at, oh, two bucks. You win some, you lose some. On the other hand, in Ortigia we saw a real live Caravaggio in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia for free. It’s also free to look at the outsides of the buildings wherever you go, so there’s that.

On the other other hand, if you try to take a picture of Elmo in Times Square, he’s liable to tackle you to the ground and start beating you if you don’t give him a buck or two. So maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Ok, enough with the culture and onto the food.

We’re leaving Sicily tomorrow, and the food has been distinctive and really great, so I thought I’d try to remember the dishes that stood out.

At that little tapas place, we had little rectangles of cheese that turned out to be ricotta mixed with honey and orange juice and baked in the oven. Baked ricotta – who knew? Those made me weep. They were creamy, sweet but not too sweet, and they made my heart sing (after I was done weeping). We also had eggplant parmigiana that was just eggplant sliced thin and stacked like a lasagna and cooked with a simple tomato sauce and topped with ricotta salata. So simple, but killer.

Janine says that the Pasta Norma I made when we arrived in Forza was the best she had in Sicily. All you need are good eggplants – you chop up eggplants, cook the bejeebers out of them in olive oil, add tomatoes (they add ricotta down here, but I didn’t have any) and top with ricotta salata. Good stuff.

One day we went to the local market in Ortigia and bought some of those jumbo prawns we’ve been devouring whenever we have the chance.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

Janine made a great pasta with eggplant, tomato, and peppers, and I broiled the prawns simply with garlic, oil, and salt, and I must say, they were as good as any we’d had. It stunk up the apartment, but it was worth it.

Our dandy dinner.

Our dandy dinner.

By the time we reached Noto, we had acquired a medium-sized collection of condiments and marinated things. (We can’t help ourselves. An entire shelf of our refrigerator back home is dedicated to pickles, olives, and other condiments). We had bought olives, marinated mushrooms with mint, sun-dried tomatoes and capers with oregano in oil, and we still had some of Janine’s pasta sauce. I had the contours of a chicken dish in my mind as we pulled out of Ortigia and we found a butcher shop that was actually open and I bought half a chicken. When we arrived in Noto, the kitchen had almost no equipment, but inexplicably, it had a tagine. So Sicilian Chicken Tagine it was and I’d have happily paid real money for it at a restaurant. Sadly, we forgot to take a picture.

There were other great things – the arancini (deep fried rice balls) and the anchovies marinated in orange juice, vinegar, and sugar in Taormina, the cannoli at Giuseppi’s place in Forza, and all that great, cheap, flinty, bracing white wine.

Finally, on my deathbed (after I’ve had a Peter Luger steak), I will ask for one of those mini mozzarella balls in cream topped with olive oil and ground pistachio at Fratelli Burgio in Ortigia, and I will refuse to die until I get one.

It is on to Rome, where if I don’t finally see the Sistine Chapel I will go on a hunger strike which will make my blog entries considerably shorter. What are your favorite things to do in Rome?