Occasionally a man finds himself perched on a donkey in Santorini, clothed in nothing but a pair of gym shorts and a makeshift cape fashioned out of a pornographic beach towel, and one particular verse from the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime” keeps repeating over and over in his head:
“And you may say to yourself, well, how did I get here?”
It’s interesting that the journey to this exact moment in time began with something as mundane as riding the Conchord Trailways bus from Portland to Logan Airport, more than a week prior. I recall being excited that the film being shown on the trip down was “The Princess Bride,” a dramatic improvement over previous bus rides, that have included such box office Ca-Ca as “Tron: Legacy” and “Patch Adams.”
I am on my way to Greece for 9 days of visiting wineries, sampling their wares, and, of course, devouring titanic amounts of food. I will be joining six of my fellow wine professionals, from both the wholesale and restaurant world, hailing from four different U.S. Cities, as well as the two owners of the wine import company that I represent, which happens to be one of the oldest purveyors of Greek wines in the country. Most of us will be meeting up in Vienna for the last leg of the flight to the city Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, but my “travel buddy” for the first segment of the trip is a guy I have never met named Tony, who lives in Boston.
I’m not sure why I never fail to falsely perceive the international terminal at Logan Airport to have anything interesting to do, outside of get really fucked up at everyone’s favorite pseudo-Irish airport pub, O’Brien’s. At least the bartender is friendly, and I chat her up while sipping Hornitos on the rocks as I await Tony’s arrival. I pause to reflect on why exactly I hate to fly so much, reaching the conclusion that waiting around, especially in lines, is torturous, and that once in flight I am no longer in control of the situation in any way, which freaks me out. This rationale helps me justify relinquishing complete control of my actions to tequila. I might as well have another.
Tony materializes just as I begin to knock back my third Hornitos, and before long we are both at ease with the knowledge that the person we are about to spend a lot of time on a plane with is not a complete asshole. I notice that Tony drinks Campari, which for some reason looks exceptionally delicious to me, so I decide to switch over after finishing a couple more tequilas and boarding our flight to Frankfurt.
Once aboard, I explain to Tony that I was unable to locate a Spin magazine to complete my traditional lineup of trashy magazines for air travel, which includes Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, and Star. Somehow, he manages to mask his disappointment with my grave oversight, and proceeds to situate himself for the long flight ahead. Once we are in the air, I boldly make the transition into Campari on the rocks before strapping on an enormous pair of “Studio Beats by Dr. Dre” headphones (yes, I’m that shithead) and attempting to drift off while listening to Hank Williams III.
Just as I am about to achieve success in this endeavor, I am jarred awake by the pretty Aryan stewardess and served a tray containing cheesy, overcooked pasta complimented by an equally mushy Caesar salad and a small piece of pound cake for dessert. Now fully lucid, I order a mini-bottle of what I deem to remotely resemble Tempranillo, as well as another Campari to chase it with.
The pilot’s voice comes over the intercom and regretfully informs us that there has been a mistake regarding headphones provided for the monitors directly in front of our seats, and as a result the in-flight entertainment will be displayed on one single, centrally located screen for all to see, and that unfortunately we will not be given a choice as to what we will be exposed to. After suffering through the new Muppet Movie, five more tumblers of Campari, and some pile of cinematic shit starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy called “Tower Heist,” we finally arrive in Frankfurt. Because of the time change we have yet to see sunset, so the inevitable confusion of “what day is it?” begins to set it, only to have any concern for the actual answer remedied by a massive can of Becks and a shot of terrible whiskey.
One of the best parts about European airlines is that the stewardesses don’t even bat a gorgeously made-up eyelash when you order alcoholic beverages at any time of morning. Perched in the seat next to me for the flight to Vienna is a man who seems pleasant enough, though he literally passes out mid-way through a sentence five minutes after take off. He remains out-cold for the entire flight, and I am forced to divert all fans in the row towards him in an effort to deflect his hellishly awful breath.
We land in Vienna and, after several failed attempts to get even a wink of sleep; I believe I am starting to show wear and tear. Allegedly the rest of our group will be on the flight from here to Thessaloniki, but it quickly becomes evident that we aren’t going to locate them until we get there. After searching up and down the terminal for about 15 minutes, we realize that the bar is cleverly concealed within a coffee shop. To commend myself for such strong detective work, I treat myself to a glass of Gruner Veltliner – because when in Rome one should always do as the most foolhardy of the Romans do. I exercise a glimmer of self-restraint when I notice a small castle built out of Jägermeister nips, allowing the structure to stay intact for the time being.
It would appear that I am on autopilot, as I actually feel quite even-keeled at this point, albeit a bit tired, as we climb aboard a small bus that transports us to the plane. I am definitely getting looks from some of the other passengers, who I assume are probably our fellow American travel companions but I want to be sure before I say anything.
The last flight goes quickly, the only thing I remember being some kind of smoked meat with boursin cheese as a snack. I’m certainly feeling a little bit poached, but I muster up the last of my energy when we land in Thessaloniki and seek out our friends. Tony looks to be doing better than me, if ever so slightly. Outside of customs, we meet up with Andrea and her mother Giotta, who are the owners of the import company, natives of Greece though they call New York City home, and the organizers of this expedition.
A bit of background:
Before the trip, I had run into my pals who own Trattoria Athena, an outstanding Greek and Italian restaurant in Brunswick, Upon finding out about my journey, they bet me a free dinner that I wouldn’t get a picture while topless on a donkey in Santorini. Chirs, the regional rep from the import company, witnesses this transaction and has warned Andrea. This explains why the first words out of her mouth when I meet her are “I heard we have to find you a donkey.”
We meet the rest of the group: Kamal and Steve are sommeliers from NYC, Kimberley is a wine rep from Chicago, and Steve K. is a wine rep from D.C. Everyone seems travel tattered, and as we gather our luggage a van pulls up outside to take us to our first objective. I am excited because shortly before I left, I stumbled upon a bright orange Nautica suitcase at T.J. Maxx, which I purchased while bearing the painful memory of lugging around 8 bottles of wine in a shoulder duffle when I was in France last year. Not only is my new suitcase easy to spot, but it also has alloy rims on the wheels, making me über-excited to take it on its maiden voyage abroad.
Shortly after piling into the rental van, we stop for gasoline. I observe that the grand total for filling the tank comes to 120 Euro, which seems mildly insane. This is about all I remember before passing out hard and waking up an hour and a half later, when the van comes to a halt. I am told I was snoring loudly, but no one seems even the slightest bit annoyed, rather they are amused. I take this as a good sign that we are all going to get along quite well.
We have traveled southeast towards the tip of a peninsula situated in the Mediterranean Sea, and arrived at Porto Carras Grand Resort and Casino. The resort also owns a large winery that is represented by the import company, which we are told we will see tomorrow but for today we should feel free to relax and enjoy ourselves. Natassa, the striking and personable export sales manager for the château, greets and escorts us to front desk of the hotel for check-in.
My room is spacious, with a private balcony overlooking the resort. Because almost every night of this excursion will be spent in a different hotel, I unpack only the essentials and freshen myself up before heading downstairs. I know that getting a bit of rest would be the prudent choice, but I am not here to make prudent choices. As I am seated on the patio overlooking the pool, Natassa emerges out of nowhere and joins me, ordering up a bottle of rose for us to sip as we get to know each other. She claims that she is hungry, and that I should share a club sandwich with her, which isn’t exactly what I’m in the mood for but honestly I would have probably agreed to eat a bowl full of salt and razor blades if she had asked me to do it.
Slowly, a few of the members of the group make their way down to our table, as well as two boisterous and entertaining women who work for the winery. This is where I am introduced to Giotta’s role as the motherly figure in the group, as she urges me to “not stop eating the club,” referring to the sandwich on the table that I have already been struggling through. It’s interesting that this philosophy of “You’re a growing boy, you should eat” continues to hold water when it is blatantly obvious that I do not need to do any more growing of any kind, whether we are talking about my gut or my ego.
We transition back to white wine and, after hammering down five more bottles of Malagouzia, a fruity and aromatic white grape that was basically brought back from the brink of extinction by Domaine Porto Carras, decide that it is now time to go swimming in the ice-cold Mediterranean Sea to revitalize. I go back to the room to get my shorts before meeting Tony, Andrea, and Giotta at the water. The beach is very rocky, and as I approach I begin a minor erosion/avalanche that propels me into water at a slightly more rapid rate than I’m comfortable with, but I roll with it and soon I am immersed in a cleansing ice-water bath that honestly feels a bit too amazing to be put into words. Unfortunately, upon trying to get out I run into the same problem of the rocky landscape not cooperating, causing me to take steps in a herky-jerky fashion while flailing my arms about for balance. I am truly the king of first impressions.
After relaxing in the sun by one of the numerous swimming pools for about 45 minutes, I am told dinner will be at 8. I notice that it is 6:30, so rather than crack another bottle of wine it would be a good idea to take a “power nap.” I am knocked out the minute my head hits the pillow, only to awaken to a clock that reads 8:07. I snap up and jump out of bed, realizing that I need to get downstairs immediately or I’m going to be in trouble. I am out of the room within two minutes, feeling quite displaced and disoriented, sensations that only intensify when I enter the hotel restaurant and am escorted by the Maître D to our table, making the realization that the entire dining room is ours exclusively for the evening.
I am seated towards the end of the table, directly across from Giotta.
“You don’t look so great,” she tells me, “you must drink Tsipouro!”
I am handed a glass of clear liquor and I put it back like a shot, coming to the conclusion that this is clearly the Greek manifestation of grappa. I am immediately poured another, which I consume equally quickly, causing a very pronounced burn in my chest. The wine steward appears by my side with a different bottle.
“This one is flavored with anise,” he informs me as he fills my glass. After finishing, I am back to life, and suddenly ravenous with hunger. Giotta seems pleased with this, and for some reason I begin imagining the scene in “Pinocchio” where Stromboli lures all of the children to Pleasure Island to indulge in all kinds of decadent behavior before inevitably transforming into donkeys.
The procession of mind-numbingly good food begins, with our “first course” consisting of fresh feta, tomato and cucumber salad, grilled octopus, grilled squid, fried squid, grilled prawns, cheese pie, fried anchovies, cod roe, and several other things that in my Tsipouro-induced state I fail to record. We drink bottle after bottle of Assyrtiko, and I find myself wrapped up in conversations that I only remember bits and pieces of.
Plates are cleared, and for the next course we are presented with whole sea bream baked in salt before the fish are whisked away to a carving station by the chef. We are presented with the filet, along with warm olive oil from their estate that has been infused with lemons, also from their own trees on the estate. The flavors are so pure and vivid, and I realize that I need to eat my fill of food like this while it is available to me. The fish is followed by a large assortment of ultra sweet and delicious pastries, bowls of yogurt with honey, and various fresh fruits.
One of the boisterous sales reps mentioned earlier, an aggressive, slightly burly woman in her 40’s, has taken a particular liking to me. She insists that I continue to drink heavily, and we move the group out into the open air of the patio to keep the party going. A half hour later, those of us fortunate enough to be facing the door are treated to the sight of who will forever be known as the “Ferrari Family.” A man, his wife, and two kids – completely decked out from head to toe in Ferrari hats, sweatshirts, sweatpants, fanny packs, and most likely key-chains and watches. It lasts for a split second, so I am unable to get a picture, but the image is permanently burned into my memory, I assure you.
Shortly after, most of us take leave and head back to our rooms, and on the way I receive harassment from Steve, who asks why I’m “leaving Cougarville behind?”
Before bed, I crack open the bottle of Syrah provided in my room, and get through about half before growing tired of jacking up my phone bill with long international calls. If you don’t count my quick nap in the van or before dinner, I think I may have been up for two days. Who can be sure in the midst of this kind of excess? I decide that I will officially refer to tomorrow as day two, and I order up a wake-up call from the front desk just to be sure I am not asleep for days.
My initial reaction to being awake is that of extreme disorientation. As I begin to scan my surroundings and piece together exactly where I am and how I may have arrived here, It become apparent that I may still be a touch fucked up from last night. The curtains are steadily blowing into my hotel room through the balcony door, that I seem to have left ajar shortly before passing out, in a hypnotizing fashion, encouraging me to lay still for a few more minutes. Further investigative measures reveal an open bottle of red wine, about 60% full, as well as what appears to be my shoes tangled up in my jeans from what was, no doubt, an impatient and ineffective maneuver to get undressed.
My instincts compel me to fumble around for my cell phone, which is securely lodged between the headboard and the mattress. I see that I have received a text from AT&T, its subject matter suggesting that passing out in a foreign country with data roaming still on may not be the best idea, unless I happen to have a fetish for $900 phone bills.
Though 6 hours of sleep is hardly sufficient after being up for what may have been 36 hours straight, I will have to make do as we are on somewhat of a schedule. I make my way to the shower, and as I pull the curtain back I am reminded of one of my least favorite European fixtures – the handheld showerhead. Luckily, this is one of the few on the entire continent that actually stays locked into the grip on the wall, and though it still aims low and forces me to assume compromising positions to be “in the line of fire,” I am able to finish up without harming myself physically or emotionally.
While getting ready, I begin to eye the half-full bottle of wine again. It seems like a shame to let it go to waste, and I figure that my mood could use a bit of mending, so I pour myself a slug. The overall wisdom of this idea comes into question as I tip up the glass and take a haul, when I realize that the wine is considerably warmer than I had expected. Because I am caught off guard, I initially forget to swallow, prompting a “fight or flight” reaction from both my brain and my stomach. My situation does not improve when the wine makes its way down the wrong tube, forcing me to guzzle water and, after the searing pain in my chest has subsided, administer myself a Prilosec. No more wine. For now.
After a brief inner monologue about resisting certain impulses when in the throes of a hangover, I am able to pull myself together and head downstairs for breakfast. Guarding the entrance to the sprawling buffet area, not unlike a friendly version of Cerberus, is the Maitre D that I met last night.
“Good Morning!” he bellows while shaking my hand vigorously, “I will bring you to your friends now!” He proceeds to escort me through the dining room, which is flanked on all sides with kiosks sporting an impressive selection of mostly American-style breakfast options, to our table outside on the patio. A few members of the group are already present, and as I settle in, Friendly Cerberus approaches me again and asks what I’d like for a beverage. When I request water, he gives me a look that implies “Obviously, but what do you want for an actual beverage.” I try to explain that I just want water, but he is not having a word of it.
“Coffee? No? Juice? No? Tea? NO?”
I am now suspecting that perhaps this man is trying to poison me, perhaps due to something I had said while inebriated during last night’s festivities. As he begins to repeat the “coffee?” option I am forced to act like I am not understanding his English very well and quickly excuse myself to the buffet area. Though most of the food looks quite good, I am not quite ready to commit to anything substantial yet, settling for scrambled eggs and a bowl of yogurt with honey. Over breakfast, Andrea and I continue to discuss the logistics of the upcoming photo-shoot with the donkey that will take place in Santorini. When I ask her exactly “How we are going to procure this donkey again?” her response it simple:
“We just ask somebody if we can use one.”
Unable to argue with her logic here, I simply nod my head in agreement between bites of yogurt, which is quite good, and trust that the situation will be taken care of. Today’s agenda begins with a tour of both the vineyards and winery of Domaine Porto Carras, starting with a brief tour of what is referred to simply as “The Chateau.” After checking out and congregating in front of the hotel, we observe a red Ferrari parked near our shuttle. This, no doubt, belongs to the Ferrari sweat-gear wearing family of poofter shitheads that we had spotted the night before. Next to that is an equally obnoxious white Lamborghini, which I believe I would need to ingest a steady diet of Hydroxycut over a three year period, while working out furiously, to even be able to fit my right leg into.
For this excursion we are to be joined by Natassa, the export sales executive for the winery, as well as the vineyard manager. As our shuttle rolls towards the Chateau we cross through the yacht-laden marina, which, of course, incites the prerequisite “We can’t close our eyes to the plight of the city. Kids, you noticing all this plight? Ok roll em’ up!” reference in relation to the alleged state of the Greek economy.
The Chateau itself, actually an old monastery situated into the side of a mountain, has been graced with such prominent vacationers as Salvador Dali and Brad Pitt, and boasts absolutely stunning views of the both vineyard and sea. The upkeep of the interior is meticulous, having been updated with an interesting array of eclectic furnishings. After making our way through the courtyard and up to the roof patio. We come upon a swimming pool that has become host to thousands of tadpoles, and as I stroll around snapping photos, I find that Natassa keeps coincidentally getting in the way of my “nature shots.”
From the patio, a steep and winding staircase leads down to vineyards dedicated for the growing of Assyrtiko, a white grape indigenous to Santorini and known for it’s bracing acidity and fruit characteristics. The vines are arranged on slopes in slate soil, surrounded on all sides by either ocean or woodlands. The sun beats down on me, and though I am starting to feel a bit sick and hungover, there is a strange feeling of calm that begins to come over me. No matter how uncomfortably, stiflingly hot it gets, I find myself simply accepting it, allowing it to “happen to me” rather than immediately seek the familiar comforts of an air-conditioned vehicle. This feeling would continue to heighten throughout the trip, eventually manifesting itself again when I arrived home and prompting numerous trips to the beach throughout the summer. Trust me, this seems pretty normal for most people but is most definitely out of sorts to anyone that knows me.
After touring the winery, we are ushered into the tasting room, lined by long wooden tables that have been decked out with several stems at each place setting, along with tech sheets for notes and platters of startlingly delicious, sesame studded breadsticks. The head winemaker, a Chilean gentleman whose name escapes me, leads us, with Natassa’s help in translation, through a progression of twelve wines. The highlight of this experience is my first exposure to Malagouzia, a grape that was actually brought back from the brink of extinction in the late 20th century by Domaine Porto Carras. It produces soft, aromatic whites not unlike Malvasia, in my humble opinion.
After the tasting is concluded, I help myself to a few more glasses before the long ride ahead to our next appointment. Shortly after, while utilizing the bathroom reserved for visitors to the tasting room, I notice that someone had blatantly pissed into the small trashcan next to the toilet, managing to fill it about a quarter of the way. I remember staring at it for a moment, and my first assumption being that maybe something is wrong with the actual toilet. I then realize that If I were to run into someone who doesn’t speak English as I am exiting the stall, there is a strong possibility that they will think that I have done this and there will be no way for me to explain that it wasn’t me. The language barrier also prevents me from informing the employees that there is a trash bucket full of piss in the men’s room, as I do not want to risk them a tragic misinterpretation that may suggest, “Look what I did!” I exit the bathroom without incident and decide to let the situation work itself out.
As we ready for departure to our next destination, the mountainous region of Drama in the Northeast, we are presented with gift bags holding small bottles of the Tsipouro that we had enjoyed in large quantities last night. For precautionary measure, I tuck them safely into my luggage as not to be tempted to crack one open during the two-hour drive to Drama – for which I will be seated in the back of the van right next to a window that doesn’t open. After about 45 minutes of Andrea careening around twisty roads in increasing elevations, I miraculously pass out instead of vomiting, awaking only as we pull into a gas station/rest stop of sorts. As I saunter towards the entrance, desperately in need of the world’s largest bottle of mineral water, I am eyed up and down by a gaggle of what I assume are cops right out front. I politely return the favor on one particularly hot clerk/waitress, who is wearing cut-off jeans, a gothish haircut, and a look in her face that implies she has no idea who Bauhaus is but she would enjoy fucking all manner of guys that her parents would hate.
After ingesting a full liter of water in about 45 seconds, I feel brand new. Andrea asks if we would like a snack, and a few minutes later I am clutching a piping hot, flaky cheese pie. It is important to note that the Greeks are fucking obsessed with both cheese and pie, especially the combination of the two. Every meal, and I mean EVERY meal, has some kind of cheese pie. It may be spinach, or it may be plain, but goddamn it, there’s going to be some cheese going off up in this pie or else someone is getting exiled from the village for eternity. By the end of this trip, I will venture so far as to say that I may have actually uttered that I would be “happy to not eat cheese again for a long, long time.” I didn’t mean it; I was just in the moment.
We pile back into the van and continue towards Drama, which is very close to Bulgaria, where we hook up with winemaker Nikos Karatzas at Ktima Pavlidis. Both the winery and vineyards are flanked on all sides by mountain range, with one particular slope being emblazoned with a massive white cross, made from shards of limestone. Ruins of a Dionysian temple are also adjacent to the site, quite appropriately. The design of the winery itself is very modern, and features an absolutely brilliant tasting room, which sits between glass walls right in the middle of the barrel room.
Once again, the tables have been fastidiously set for us, and as we are seated Nikos launches into his presentation. In addition to traditional Greek varietals, he also works with grapes such as Tempranillo and Chardonnay, of which we are given the privilege of tasting multiple vintages side by side. These wines, also in my very humble opinion, are far superior to those we have tasted earlier on, and I begin to transition into a much better mood, simultaneously coming to the realization that I am now fucking starving. After touring the winery, Nikos is bringing us to dinner at a “nearby” (actually 45 minutes away, but then again, everything is far away from everything else here) eatery. However, there is talk of visiting some kind of cave beforehand, and I am forced to feign disappointment when we find out that it has already closed for the day and we are to head straight to the restaurant.
After yet another long, windy drive up mountain roads, we arrive at a restaurant that is literally in the middle of nowhere. Chestnut trees and mountains surround it, and we are the only patrons at this particular time. Not only are we the only customers, but also I fear that we may be the only living souls, outside of the restaurant staff, for 200 miles. I still, to this day, have no idea what the name of the place was. Nikos is clearly a friend of the owner, who guides us to a large table on the patio. With windows on all sides, this accurately simulates the sensation of dining right in the middle of a mountain range.
Multiple bottles of wine are at the ready, beginning with Nikos’s Assyrtiko. The procession of food begins, starting with a amazingly fresh cucumber and tomato salad, the quality of the latter being absolutely mind-numbing almost every place I eat them in Greece. A simple dish of foraged mushrooms that have been sautéed in olive oil with a bit of vinegar are meaty and chewy in texture, with a flavor so deeply redolent of the earth that I would swear they were just picked five minutes ago.
Sautéed long peppers, similar in appearance to the Hungarian wax variety, are deceptively fiery, though the heat comes and goes quickly, especially when offset by healthy gulps of the Assyrtiko. This meal’s version of feta pie is baked until golden and bubbly, with a bit of vinegar added to balance the richness of the cheese and dough, and the last element of our “first course” is eggplant that has been stuffed with spiced meat and baked, giving the contents an almost custard-like texture.
Andrea launches into a story about the last time Nikos visited the United States, when apparently her husband got him so fucked up that he could barely walk, and proceeded to tell any girls at the bar who would listen that he was “The most famous Greek winemaker in the world.” Judging from what I have tasted of his wines thus far, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is actually regarded as a well-known fact someday.
We take a brief intermission between courses, so Tony, Steven, and I grab a bottle of wine and head to the outdoor deck to survey the sunset over the mountains. Though this sounds romantic, I can assure you that the subject matter of our conversation is quite the opposite. Steve joins us and relays news that apparently there is a 2-month old horse just roaming around out back, so naturally I am curious to see what the fuck a 2-month old horsey looks like. On the way to the area of the sighting, where Andrea and Kamal are perched on a fence next to a wild rosemary bush, a rough looking band of cats hanging out by the dumpsters distracts me. Within two seconds of hanging out with these furry little swashbucklers, I have forgotten all about the stupid baby horse, far preferring to spend time making up my own story about how these cats braved mountain ranges, not unlike Frodo’s treacherous voyage to Mordor, to claim the land that was theirs by birthright.
Andrea, who prefers to once again further discuss the merits of the donkey photo shoot, snaps me out of my alternate dimension. It is collectively decided by the group that we need to procure olive branches of some kind, with which to “garnish my head” for the portrait.
We then make our way back inside for the main course, just as two elderly women materialize at the table bearing large copper kettles. This turns out to be wild rabbit stew, braised until falling apart in olive oil, herbs, and onions. Holy shit, and I know that I will say this a lot before all is said and done but, I have never tasted rabbit this good before. Because it is wild, it possesses a far more pronounced, almost slightly gamey flavor – which is thrilling alongside the tangy onions.
Also on the table is ridiculously tender braised beef with peppers, nestled into platters with Israeli couscous and showered with paprika, as well as plates of perfectly seasoned french fries, perfect for dipping into the meat gravy. I alternate freely between the various bottles of wine that litter the table, though my wine buzz is being severely dulled by the eating frenzy. Once again, rather than get carried away, I force myself to register the setting, take deep breaths, and enjoy myself. I don’t think that anyone would argue with me when I say that Oxygen is equally as important as water during any proper week of bingery.
As both the meal and our collective energy levels dwindle to a dull roar, we bid farewell to the crazy restaurant on the side of the mountain and get back on the road towards our hotel in Drama. For the rest of the trip, we have two vehicles – the van, piloted by Andrea and holding 6 of us, and a small car driven by Giotta that accommodates the other three. Nikos leads us back to the main road before taking his leave. I am riding in the van this time, and on the way back conversation shifts to Bulgaria and their known association with selling women into a life of prostitution. I launch into a rant about the merits of this business, saying that the best thing to sell would be a product that you can also fuck if you happen to be in the mood. Before anyone has a chance to retort, a pack of about eight wild horses comes barreling out of the darkness and into the road, narrowly missing our van by about 6 feet. This, of course, causes everyone to forget about my commentary on business ethics, as we begin the legend of the “Bulgarian horses that run a prostitution ring of their own.” It is only about an hour afterwards that the surreal nature of this encounter becomes reality, and we are able to talk about how “We almost ran into a pack of wild fucking horses!”
The Hotel Grand Chalet is actually quite nice, and once again, appears to have been exclusively opened for our group because it is devoid of other clientele. The bar area looks promising, so after ditching suitcases in our rooms I am joined by Tony, Kimberly, and Steve at the bar for a few nightcaps.
This is when things get very strange.
The innkeeper, whom I remember to slightly resemble a cross between Tony Shalhoub and Alan Cumming, is also our bartender. As we slaughter Campari after Campari, it becomes apparent that the Alan Parsons song Eye in the Sky has been playing for quite some time now. We also make note of the bar decorations, which include a vase that appears to be filled with kitty litter, walnuts, and Christmas decorations, not to mention unmarked bottles on shelves filled with a creamy white liquid that I, naturally, deem to be cum.
After the 4th time the song plays, we are all starting to lose it a bit, and I hypothesize that perhaps this cassingle is the only music available at the inn. By the 6th time we are all in on the verge of laughter-induced tears. Bizzaro Tony Cumming approaches, smiles, and asks if we would like another drink? We say yes, and he obliges in a pleasant manner. As we begin to sip, he excuses himself to a side room, where he proceeds to angrily scream in Greek at the top of his lungs for a solid 4 minutes, presumably at someone over the phone.
We are trying SO hard not snicker as he makes his way back to the bar. Because disaster is imminent if we don’t get the fuck out of there, we ask for the check. Right as he drops it, the song plays for the 12th time and I can no longer keep it together. We each toss in an excessive amount of money to excuse our behavior before cackling our way back to our quarters for much-needed sleep.
This bartender will forever be known from that day out as “Conniption Charlie.” God love him. Tomorrow we get out of dodge and make our way back towards Thessaloniki with a pit stop in Nauossa. We will be watching for the Eye in the Sky.
Though I have slept quite comfortably, and for a full seven hours, at the Hotel Grand Chalet, I cannot help but recall my wildly fucked up dreams about scenes from my childhood set to the Alan Parson’s Project. Even though the “Eye in the Sky” influenced my adolescent years minimally, I suppose that this is what happens to your brain when it is subjected to a particular song for a drawn-out and upsetting period of time.
After repeating my least favorite holiday carol, the one about “simply having a wonderful Christmas time,” to myself about fifty times over whilst in the shower, I am finally able to move on from the dream-plaguing lullaby that I would consider the lesser of two evils at this point. I pack up my things, and head down to the dining room for a quick breakfast before departure.
The group appears to be slightly in disarray, with Kamal currently not present and Kimberley sporting a look that implies “I am really fucking sick and I don’t feel like doing a goddamn thing.” Apparently Kamal is suffering the same fate, and is currently laying down in the van, presumably praying for death, judging by Kimberley’s condition. Obviously, everyone’s first thought is food poisoning, but that idea becomes increasingly unlikely due to the fact that we all shared out of every platter at dinner the night before. Plus, though Kimberly is in rough shape, there is a certain kind of “COMPLETELY out of commission” that food poisoning causes that leads me to believe that her affliction must be viral.
Needless to say, neither of our wounded soldiers is particularly excited about the three hours of driving ahead of us, so Andrea and Giotta take us in search of a pharmacy, where potent drugs are available over the counter. We find what we are looking for on the outskirts of Drama, as well as a place to fuel up the vehicles. I observe an elderly man, whom I nickname “Anorexic Wilford Brimely,” pumping gas, and hypothesize out loud that he would probably “gum anyone in the van for about 2 euro.” Before anyone has a chance to prove me wrong, the sick ones have been piled back into the van and we are off to enjoy several solid hours of barreling around corners while going uphill and ignoring lanes, on our way to the winegrowing region of Naoussa. For the queasy, this is probably not unlike the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Wonka is transporting the remaining golden ticket holders on a hellish boat ride through a tunnel, complete with imagery of both snakes and Slugworth himself
When we finally “stop the boat,” we find ourselves at a gas station waiting to meet up with Apostolos Thimiopoulos, a rising star in the realm of Greek winemakers and our host for the afternoon. He arrives in a jet-black Audi, wearing large sunglasses, perhaps from Prada or D&G, which compliment his Caesar-style haircut and sideburns. He signals for us to follow him, and we are off once again, up twisty roads through vineyards bearing the all-important grape of the Naoussa region, Xinomavro. Translating to “sour black,” all wines claiming the Naoussa AOC must be entirely comprised of this grape, which is reminiscent in many ways of Nebbiolo from Piedmont. I wouldn’t recommend you tell the Greeks that, though.
On the way up, the caravan pulls over for us to get out and observe the vines. Though Kamal and Kimberly have been administered medication, they are still having considerable trouble trying to act excited about walking up steep, slippery hills towards the vineyards. I, on the other hand, am having trouble due to my usual lack of prudence when it comes to proper footwear. Dress boots with leather soles are simply not vineyard attire, but I make due despite acquiring a few scrapes and bruises on my hands and knees.
After a brief tutorial, spoken in Apostolos’s very proficient English, on the magic of Xinomavro, we pile back into the cars and continue the ascent towards Thimiopoulos winery. Upon arrival, we observe a house situated across the street that looks like it has been bombed in about ten wars, though it is a fascinating sight. Apostolos claims that he has tried to buy the property several times, without success, which peaks my curiosity as to who the hell is resisting him here? It must be some very, very serious sentimental value at work, well, that or there is some kind of lost Nazi treasure buried in tunnels directly underneath…
At the winery, Apostolos introduces us to his mother, who has spent the better part of the last two days overseeing the preparation of what is to be an amazing lunch. A picnic table has been set for us, but first we are to take another forty-minute hike through the vineyards as the sun beats down on this swelteringly hot day. Kamal sits this one out. Up hills and along the perimeters of forests, we see the ancient and gnarled Xinomavro vines that produce the fruit for Uranos, what was, up until recently, the only wine made at Thimiopoulos. Now Apostolos makes a second wine called “Young Vines,” a lighter, fruitier style that comes from…. you guessed it – the younger vineyards of the property.
As we make our way back down the dirt road that leads back to the winery, Apostolos’s mother is coming at us from the opposite direction at a rather brisk pace, holding what appears to be a napkin. When we cross paths, she locates Kimberly and, with Giotta’s help, begins insisting that she must eat the fresh feta to settle her stomach. Of course, Kimberly repeatedly attempts to politely decline, but the maternal instincts of the two ladies refuse to back down. I have to say that I felt really, really bad or Kimberly while watching her face as she forced down the feta, thought I was thoroughly enjoying the small portion that had come my way. This stuff was the real deal, unbelievably fresh and lemony in flavor, and completely unlike anything I had tasted as of yet on the trip.
Back at lunch table, Apostolos has assembled a multitude of bottles for us to drink while we enjoy the feast. I am admittedly a touch nervous being without two members of the group, as it is the Greek way to ply guests with unnerving portions of food and booze with the expectation of cleaned plates and empty glasses. Kamal has yet to rejoin the group, and Kimberly sits next to me, politely declining each time anyone tries to pour her any wine.
We start out with what a rosé, somewhat of a hobby project for Apostolos, as we dig into the first course. There is spinach pie, of course, as well as cucumber and tomato salad, green olive salad, roasted marinated red peppers, and more blocks of superlative feta – along with the usual baskets of bread and tubs of tzatziki made with yogurt from their sheep. All of the vegetables are from the gardens, accentuated with dizzying good olive oil, and the spinach pie is a impeccable balance of flaky crust and creamy cheese and spinach. Everything is so simple and so perfect, two descriptors that I will make liberal use of before this story is done. I use a small bit of restraint, knowing full well of the magnitude of the main course. We transition into another prototype wine, this one produced without the preservative qualities of sulfites, and the group agrees that it drinks like Cru Beaujolais, making it ideal for an afternoon such as this.
Amidst the loud and sometimes jarring calls of peacocks running about free, it is now time to pour the Uranos, of which Apostolos has provided three different vintages for sampling. The wine is loaded with flavors of black currant, plums, and a subtle hint of smoke, as is characteristic of Xinomavro. We are presented with an enormous platter of whole, roasted baby lamb, from, as Apostolos points out, the pack of animals we had walked by on our hike an hour ago.
The meat falls off the bone at the touch of a fork, and is dressed only with olive oil and rosemary. There are also french fries, as well as, my personal kryptonite, a mountain of rice and super-fresh lamb offal, with the organs no doubt belonging to the beast on the platter. I dig in with gusto, shoveling down loin, kidney, liver, and heart like there is no tomorrow. Conversation all but ceases between Tony, Steven, Steve, and I as we hungrily tear through the spread. Kimberly excuses herself to lie down just as Kamal re-appears to observe the group, though continuing to decline offers of sustenance.
Though I never want this meal to end, inevitably I begin to run out of steam, along with the rest of my comrades. Mother, as predicted, seems more confused than disappointed, especially when we decline to take the food with us on our three-hour journey back to the airport at Thessaloniki. She assures us that dessert is still on the way, and for a breather we ascend the small, uphill walkway towards the winery, where Apostolos allows us to sample both Uranos and Young Vines out of barrel. Kamal is finally partaking, albeit gingerly, at this point. It’s amazing what a small, garage of an operation this is, with everything still painstakingly hand-bottled.
We make our way back down to base camp, where dessert has been plated in two courses, the first of which are peaches, that apparently Naoussa is quite famous for the quality of, served over more of the fresh yogurt. The intense flavor of the fruit catches me a bit off-guard, and I find myself forgetful of how full I am as I finish every last bit. The syrupy sweet homemade candies served afterwards are definitely a bit much for me, but I nibble to be polite.
We are scheduled to depart soon, and after accidentally crashing into the hobbit-sized kitchen while in search of the restroom, I am directed up the front steps into the house. When confronted with the door, however, it initially appears locked. When I express my concern, everyone treats me like I’m a fucking idiot, making knob-turning motions in the air and explaining that I need to “turn and push-it.” Of course, this motion is what one usually employs when opening a door, so when it doesn’t work a second time the mother finally comes up and effortlessly lets me in. Not satisfied with the group’s current opinion of my mental health, I close the door behind me when I go back the table, insisting that Tony and Steve give it a try. Needless to say, vindication is mine.
The next leg of our journey involves a short flight from Thessaloniki to the city of Athens, where we will be staying the night before stabbing westward. At the airport, I split off from the group with Giotta, who escorts me into the duty free shop.
“You people love your Campari, so why don’t we get a big bottle?” she continues, “It just seems crazy to keep paying the high prices if you people love it so much.”
Before I can agree and grab a bottle she pulls me over towards the large wall of wines, explaining a bit about each producer to me. I express interest in a bottle of ouzo, to which she replies “You want ouzo? Your crazy! Come with me…”
Next thing I know I’m at the counter of what slightly resembles an Au Bon Pain, where a man hands me a large cup of ouzo with one ice cube. I try to pay, but Giotta, in her ever-accommodating fashion, waves me off. Not one to argue, I walk away and down my glass quickly. Satisfied with the result, I return to the counter, sans Giotta, and use my newfound grasp of ordering to procure another.
After three, I am ready to fly. While waiting to board, I am reminded of how absolutely stunning the stewardesses of Air Olympia are, a fact that is driven home brilliantly during the “safety presentation,” which occurs practically on Steve’s lap, as he is seated in the front row, performed by a 6’ 1” brunette whom I can only remember as “a fucking knockout.”
An hour later we land in Athens, where we are to check in at the Sofitel situated within close proximity of the airport. I particularly enjoy this chain of hotels, as it is modern and quite comfortable. Though I don’t prefer to admit it, I am starting to feel a bit “off,” which makes me nervous, so I decide to resort to a plan of “drinking as much as I possibly can, to ward off the sickness.”
Kamal and Kimberly decide to call it a night, while the rest of the group heads out to Andrea’s favorite souvlaki joint, Xaxos. She admits that there is actually a better one towards the center of Athens, but that neighborhood has since become considerably more dangerous in recent years. Xaxos is in a decidedly more affluent neighborhood, and while we are searching for parking Steve and I consider the logistics of actually picking up one of the various “Smart Cars,” bascially a glorified golf-cart created in the name of high gas prices for sure, and carrying it down a block and into the middle of the street, while Andrea assumes their spot. At the very least we want to kick one of them onto it’s side.
Xaxos has outdoor seating and, because the absolutely perfect weather, is a total madhouse. I will say that there is something incredibly persuasive about the combination of Andrea and Giotta, and perhaps all Greek women in general, that constantly allows for us to beat the odds and be seated without much of a fuss. My stomach is definitely starting to kick, so I insist on getting several large, cold beers to the table as soon as humanly fucking possible to begin employing my “strategy.” Though they do not immediately make my stomach any better, the large bottle of ironically named “Fix” Lager is friggin’ delicious.
Andrea does all of the ordering, and soon we are staring down plates of grilled pork and chicken, as well as stacks of pita, french fries, and various “magic” condiments. She has also ordered each of us a “composed” pita, mine being filled with chicken, tomato, and tzatziki. Accepting the knowledge that I may not potentially be enjoying another meal that much for a solid day after this, I eat with reckless abandon and it is delicious.
As we are finishing it is about ten O’ clock, and there are still whole families filing in for dinner. Seeing this, Giotta insists that we simply cannot go back to the hotel at such an early hour, suggesting instead a bar right across the street, on the waterfront. No point in arguing here…
The best way to describe this bar would make the most sense to denizens of Chicago – it’s the kind of place with lots of outdoor drinking that’s filled with the kind of assholes, though far more attractive assholes, who hang out on Rush Street. Those unfamiliar can use the magic of the interweb to see what I mean. Once again, Giotta somehow scores us a table right by the water, though it is still dirty and we must stand and wait for what felt like an hour before someone comes to deal with it.
I’m not sure why, but certain members of the group (Tony) delegate me to go investigate the bourbon situation. Bear in mind that not only am I not feeling well, but I’m quite self conscious in this setting, prompting me to basically stand in front of the bartender and look straight through and around her, saying nothing, checking out the lineup of bottles. Still saying nothing to her, I walk back to the table and admit to Tony that “I was too distracted to really get the job done, but I think they have Jim Beam.”
The waiter shows up, and thought the first few drink orders in our group of six go smoothly, everything goes haywire when Tony decides that the best course of action in this Greek nightclub is to order an “Old Fashioned.”
Obviously, the waiter asks him to repeat himself twice, before Giotta tries to chime in and explain to this poor guy about the process of muddling orange, sugar, and cherries before Tony realizes that even if this order were to actually hit the bar, he would soon be drinking what was most likely the world’s most disgusting Old Fashioned ever created. He blurts out “Tangueray and Tonic!” and the relieved waiter turns to me.
I must have got my brain all fucking tied up in knots laughing at Tony’s order, because I place a similarly idiotic one when I decide that I’m in the mood for a Cognac. They only have Courvoisier VS, which I request simply for the reason of not prolonging the waiter’s experience for a second longer. My drink arrives and not only is it sweet and cloying, but it’s also quite warm. After two sips, I presume no one is looking and gulp the entire thing down, struggling not to vomit and definitely making “that face.” Steve’s laughter clues me in to the fact that maybe I was not so subtle.
After twenty more agonizing minutes, we have finally called it quits after one round and are on our way out. After the Cognac I am REALLY not doing well, but I manage to stay composed until I get back to my hotel room. It is really a shame that I was in such a rough way because this suite was quite attractive, with what was easily the largest shower and most comfortable bed of any room we would stay in (and this is not to say that our accommodations were not consistently nice, it’s just that the Sofitel was extra comfortable).
I finally fall asleep at around three, fearing for the worst, come morning. Of course It would be my turn to get sick when we have a full four hour drive ahead of us.
I will push through and drink another day.