17. August 2004 · Comments Off on Attic Marathon: The Final Stretch · Categories: General

The trouble was the Athens/Saronic side of the Attic Peninsula was not that great for sea bathing. The English-language newspapers often published disconcerting notices, forbidding swimming or wading at such and such a place on the western shore, at such and such a distance from the sewage outfall. Not having the expertise to do tests on the waters at various beaches myself, I took their word for it; and conformed with my own eyes that the beaches between Vouligmeni and Sounion tended to be— even when not thickly crowded— strewn with trash, either brought in by the tide from all the ship traffic, or just dropped by the careless. Even the water looked murkier, to me.

And so, if I wanted to get out of Athens, this summer day, and spend it at the beach, I would head south from Glyphada, but take the road inland at Vula for Koriopi and Makropulion; a narrow, two-lane country road that meandered over the top of the hills that made the spine of the blunt spear-point peninsula, a road which wandered past a tall, medieval tower in the middle of a farmer’s field, between stone walls, and olive trees, and ended in the salt-marsh flats on the eastern shore by Vraona…
There were the ruins of a seriously crumbled classical temple complex there, so ruined that there was very little left above ground, the artifacts and remains of which put the lie to the assumption that the Classical Greeks didn’t artistically portray children. It seemed to have been a sort of dedicated shrine and boarding school for children, to judge from the sculpture found there, all the largest remaining bits were on display at a museum— a very fine, marble-floored museum, run up to a standard 1960ies architectural pattern, and on the occasion that my daughter and I visited it, almost completely deserted.

There was a tractor with some sort of agricultural implement hitched to it, in the otherwise empty parking lot. Presumably, the driver was the older man taking a bit of leisure in the foyer, chatting to the other man who seemed to be an old friend, and also concierge, ticket-taker and security, all in one. I paid over the couple of hundred drachma notes that gained us admittance, and the one-man museum authority waved us on, into the deserted, marble floored galleries, after a little admiration and sanctioned head-patting of my daughter. Children in Greece are universally cherished, admired, ritually adored and petted by all adults, all children— even the ones in the difficult stages of toddlerhood, who are apt to be snappish on occasion. My daughter is gracious and charming, having learned in the last few months that all local nationals—especially the older ones— are particularly soft touches, apt to deal out pieces of penny-candy, a drachma-coin, or a bit of extravagant adoration at the drop of a hat, or a blond eyelash.

The statues in the museum gallery are nearly as charming. The two most complete are a little girl, in classical draped robes, her hair gathered into a bun on the top of her head— but a little girl, cuddling a tame rabbit in her arms, and a little boy with a pair of pet doves, and a small dog at his heels— he holds one of the doves teasingly downwards, and the dog is sniffing at it, eaten up with curiosity. Such a little boy— snips and snails, doves and puppy-dog tails, realistically observed with wry humor and affection, and the little girl, cherishing her rabbit, borne up safely in her four or five-year old grasp. Children, they who are our dearly beloved hope for the future and our hostages to fortune, now and in the 5th century BC.

After the Vraona museum, I would go south a little, after a little time on the beach, for a late lunch in Porto Rafti. Kyrie George, my next-door neighbor tells me that a large portion of the British forces in Greece evacuated from Porto Rafti after the WWII German invasion—an evacuation as spectacular and dramatic as Dunkirk, even, and that Porto Rafti should have been as important a seaport as Athens, only it was a shallow-water port, and so fortune passed it by. Perhaps fortune did it a favor, leaving it small, and edibly charming, with a couple of built-up streets, and a small square, and a short esplanade where the fishing boats tied up every morning.

Kyrie Georgios had a theory that the very best food came from places where the cook had served as a cook in the Greek Navy. His theory is open to question and discussion; my own theory of gustatorial delight was that there was a powerful correlation between excellent food and the presence of thriving potted plants in a Greek restaurant. A place which displayed exuberantly thriving potted plants was, ergo, a place where they paid attention to small things…. After all, the best meal I had in Porto Rafti was eaten in a storefront restaurant, which boasted a fifteen-foot tall ficus by way of décor. Or it was the best until Penny and Georgios took me on a Sunday to their favorite, a tiny place with a large outdoor eating area, a place with tables under shady trees, a little way up from the quay and harbor, a place with a simple and uncomplicated menu: salad and crusty fresh bread, and fried potatoes… and fish.

At the edge of the paved dining area, there was a single table stacked with platters and metal tongs, next to a large metal chest of drawers, each drawer filled three-quarters full of crushed ice, and shoals of silver fish, ten or twelve inches long. Their eyes are still slightly bulging, and there is only the faintest smell of the salt sea from the drawers of fish.
“They buy every morning from the fishermen, right over there,” Georgios tells us, “And when the fish runs out… pffit. That’s it. They are closed for the day.”
He heaps a platter generously with fish, and hands it to the waiter, who vanishes in the direction of the kitchen. On a day like today, most everyone prefers to sit outside, under the trees in the open air, where it is always cool, and the light ocean breeze blows away most of the smoky smell from the kitchen.

In a very few minutes, the waiter brings us back the platter of fish that Georgios had selected so carefully, grilled to perfection, accompanied by nothing more than a couple of lemon halves. The silvery skin, lightly charred from the grill slides off easily, and the delicate flesh underneath is the essence of the sea… an utterly sublime and simple meal, eaten in the most perfect place for it imaginable. And that is where I would go, given a day in Greece this week, just to avoid the crowds— a simple meal in a quiet little place by the sea.

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