Air travel is a curious thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a novice, I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years, but it never ceases to bemuse me. One minute you’re at some soulless U.K. airport at stupid o’clock, with seemingly endless groups of bleary people – wide-eyed kids trailing ‘trunkies’ and lads on their way to ‘the best week ever’.
After gulping down some ghastly beverage that purports to be coffee, you try to engage with the proposition of purchasing cosmetics or even alcohol, at an hour when you would normally be in the latter stages of R.E.M. sleep. And for some reason, in the second decade of the 21st century, this is perceived to be absolutely normal. Then, after being catapulted at barely comprehensible speeds though the sky (for the life of me I can’t work out how planes stay up there) you arrive in another place; that incredibly sunny, somewhere else that we northern Europeans long for all winter. We are, at last, ‘on holiday’.
It’s an even more peculiar experience when you suddenly find yourself back in a place you know really well, back to somewhere that you speak the language, a place where you ‘get it’; back to somewhere that was once and, in many ways always will be, home. Shedding the English skin and resuming the Greek alternative, does take some readjustment. All that in the space of a few hours.
And then of course, ‘Greece’ is not just one place – its a country of widely differing landscapes, dialects and cultures. There’s that tourist Greece, all scrubbed up, slightly sanitised and with the rough edges smoothed off – the one that’s all ready for mass, public consumption
Then there is rural Greece. The one of graft and toil; the one that battles with the elements and the constant disruption of fire and frost. The one of age-old tradition; the one that nurtures the crazy, bewitching landscape, that makes us go weak at the knees and captivates us every, single time – hook, line and sinker. Then there’s urban Greece – with its gritty combination of concrete and silk, of poverty and wealth, that can be a really difficult square to circle. But if you can see past the chaos of city sprawl, you will find a place that endlessly engages, enthrals and entices.
Over the last three weeks, we have seen a bit of most of those types of Greece and, every now and then, one word kept springing to my mind – meráki. Famously, it is a term that defies an English translation. We don’t have a single word to express this notion of dedication to the task; this taking pride in an action, however humble or grand. The fanatical devotion to doing something right and that the meticulous execution is not dependant on any outward acclaim; it is the act, performed to this level of perfection, that is in itself enough reward. And finding meraki alive and kicking will always be a marvellous thing to encounter.
Leaving our UK home at 3 am, we arrive in Thessaloniki just after noon. Airport-embraced by good friends we are transported to their idyllic, beach-side house in Cassandreia. Lunch is a tiny bit surreal; us still in our English travelling clothes and slightly punch-drunk from lack of sleep, but there we are. Our table at ‘Sidera’ in Possidi is next to the sea and, guided by our friends, Alex and Electra, lunch is ordered. There is whole chargrilled aubergine, served with or without garlic – the taverna owner’s expression tells us that choosing the version ‘without’ shows a serious lack of judgement.
We must have a portion of marinated ‘gavros‘ Greek Sushi’, Electra calls it. Sea-fresh and acid-cured, the filleted anchovies slip down a treat. At this delightful taverna that could put many famous restaurants to shame, the house wine is delectable. It’s a moschofilero but they are thinking of swapping to a new Greek sauvignon blanc and we are asked to sample it, to see what we think. Our response is unanimous – stick with the moschofilero. They bring the most simple and sublime of starters – slithers of crisp courgettes, fried in the lightest of batter. Following the idea of sushi, my mind goes to the crispy lightness of tempura.
Next comes a beautifully chargrilled and spatchcocked baby cod. Here, in Macedonia, this method of cooking fish is known, curiously, as ‘gouna’ or ‘fur coat’ – the only one I will ever be seen with, for sure! Everything is perfect – perfectly cooked and perfectly served by the husband and wife team that run this seaside taverna. This is meráki encapsulated – nothing less than perfect will do.
Up in the mountains a few kilometres away, the tiny village of Agia Paraskevi is totally charming. The air is heavy with the sent of fig and jasmine and, for the first time ever, I taste sweet, white mulberries picked straight from the tree. Agia Paraskevi has suffered the fate of many mountain villages – not enough people to maintain the numerous houses. The empty ones, however, provide a melancholy beauty to the place. Coffee is required and we sit at the village café along with a handful of locals. Needing something sweet too, we are offered no less than four types of traditional spoon-sweet, made by the owner herself. We ponder between cherry, orange and more but I plump for the one made from the fragrant Firiki apples from Pelion. It is firm and sweet, and slightly caramelised. It is another embodiment of meráki.
For five days in Cassandreia we are bewitched and siren-sung by this gorgeous place. There is swimming, hours of conversation, evenings of star-gazing, beach walks, village visits and meals. The food is good; home-cooked with love, intuition and meráki. We are lulled at night by the sound of the waves, only a few metres from our window. Sleep has never been more sound or more restful.
But all good things come to an end, they say. Next stop – Athens.
Taverna Sidera, Possidi, Halkidiki, Greece.