Travelling to the North of this diverse country has been a new experience for me. For those of you who read the first part of my double-header, I described my short but eventful visit to the mountain town of Metsovo in the Pindus mountain range.
As well as exploring the town, I enjoyed staying at the Katogi Averoff Hotel and Winery, member of Aria Hotels. Aria Hotels is a small family-owned boutique hotels and villas company and I’m now heading towards another Aria Hotel.
My next stop was about a couple of hours away in the village of Kipi. Kipi Suites is a boutique hotel in the small village of Kipi, in the Zagori region, which lies at an altitude of 800 metres – the lowest village in Zagori. Prior to the Balkan wars, Kipi was the central point of the region, but is now a quieter, more peaceful setting and just what you need after the long drive.
It’s early November and I’ve decided to take advantage of the low-season period as Christmas and New Year appear on the horizon. Having lived in Athens on and off for the last six years, I’ve naturally visited a countless number of the islands that Greece has to offer as well as the Peloponnese region. Although I say this with a shade of embarrassment, I had until now never explored the north of the country; a region which exemplifies the diversity of Greece with its mountainous terrain that one might associate more with Northern European countries.
Last summer, I went island hopping and beforehand I’d looked to see whether or not it was possible to find a hotel group that had bases on each island in order to have a familiar feeling of the accommodation. That’s when I came across Aria Hotels; a small family-owned boutique hotel and villas company. I stayed in 3 of their bases on the Cyclades islands of Serifos, Milos and Kimolos, which was a very enjoyable experience. Once I found out that they also had two hotels on the mainland, I decided to make the trek up from Athens.
The drive from Athens was admittedly a long one. The most recommended route is via the Rio-Antirio Bridge, which crosses the Gulf of Corinth. From there you make your way up towards the city of Ioannina. The much-anticipated new Ionia motorway/freeway is set to open early next year, thus cutting the journey time to from Athens to the northwest dramatically.
Metsovo is a town in Epirus located within the Pindus mountain range and is a popular tourist attraction particularly during the winter months. Thessaloniki, the ‘co-capital’ of Greece is a couple of hours drive away, which is partly why Metsovo is described as the ‘Arahova of the north’; (Arahova is a similarly popular mountain town located nearer to Athens). As you approach the main village, you notice the bright red rooftops nestled into the mountains, which adds to the scenic view.
The Katogi-Averoff Hotel & Winery, member of Aria Hotels is unique in that it is a combination of the two; in fact, it is a pioneer of the wine tourism given its location some 1100 metres above sea level. The receptionist, Eleni, welcomed me and she was eager to ensure that I was happy with my room, which was luxurious and very spacious. It also had a great view of the surrounding mountains. The hotel had a nice and cosy old-style to it, in line with the architecture of Metsovo, with the dining room adjacent to the inviting fireplace.
Something else that caught my eye at the reception was a special offer titled ‘The Food and Wine treasures of Metsovo’; a special offer over the weekend of December 2nd-4th, which entails a number of activities, such as visits to the Folk Art Museum of Metsovo and the E. Averoff Gallery. Also included is a visit to the winery next to the hotel, which also features the wine tasting experience that I had read of prior to making the trip. Additionally, you can also benefit from the great local food on offer, such as the Greek Breakfast; designed with the purpose of giving visitors the experience of local Greek products and local dishes the region has to offer.
After the long drive, I was looking forward to taking advantage of the local gastronomy, which Aria Hotels evidently pride themselves on. I went for a big portion of veal and rice, which was great. One definite suggestion is to go for the local cheeses as they combine very well with the native wine. The winery, right next to the hotel, is definitely my first stop, but that would wait until the next morning as I decided to opt for an early night.
After a good breakfast, again involving traditional products from Metsovo, I headed to the winery and took up the option of the 30-minute tour. Evangelos Averoff started the winery in the late 1950s and today it produces over 700,000 bottles per year. The winery houses over 1200 oak barrels. As the tour progresses’, you encounter works of art as well as a visual guide of the wine making process. In addition, there is also the opportunity for wine tasting, which makes for an intriguing tour all round. The Yiniets vineyards, on the slopes of Mount Pindus lie at an altitude of around 1000 metres making it the highest vineyard in Greece.
A walk through the town later in the day revealed what seems like a close-knit community here. There is also plenty to see. The Averoff Art Gallery, opened in 1985, contains various paintings and sculptors by Greek artists. The 15th century church of Agia Paraskevi along with the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos are also worth a visit. Lake Pigon is also worth a visit for those willing to drive a half hour or so. Although my visit came too early for the ski season, being an avid skier myself, I would have taken advantage by visiting the nearby Pindos of Karakoli and Politsies, at altitudes of approximately 1500 and 1600 metres respectively, and both offer varying levels of difficulty. Another must is to pay a visit to the Metsovo cheese factory, founded in 1958. The factory is known to constantly experiment and create new products to add to their already established ones. The notable local cheeses are Metsovone and Metsovela. Along with Metsovo’s renowned Katogi Averoff Winery, it makes for a great blend.
After a productive day of discovering what Metsovo has to offer, I headed back to the hotel for a light dinner accompanied by a glass of Katogi Averoff collection. I’m planning to leave early the next morning to make my way to Kipi Suites, a couple of hours away within the Zagori region. Something I’ve noticed about Aria Hotels, with this stay and my previously mentioned visits last summer, is that they retain their identity in each hotel, which is something that others lack, but at the same time each hotel offers something different. With that in mind, I’m intrigued to see what Kipi Suites, in the heart of Zagori, has to offer. I hope my first leg of the Northern Greece experience has whetted your appetite enough to read about my second destination in Kipi. Check out my blog for Part II, coming soon.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on the upcoming 6th annual conference of Giving Women, which took place in Geneva on October 6th.
Giving Women is a Geneva based network of women involved in philanthropy. Its aim is to build a community of informed philanthropists and to make a meaningful difference in the lives of girls and women in need globally. To this end over the last 6 years, Giving Women has organised a conference, which touches on important issues that affect the lives of girls and women living in underserved communities.
This year with the influx of Syrian refugees in to Europe, GW chose to address the effect that migration has on the lives of girls and women around the world.
Atalanti Moquette, the founder, commenced proceedings by stating that the purpose of the conference was to change the narrative, which has inspired, fear, hate and prejudice and to establish positive solutions for women and girl migrants.
Michael Moller, the Director-General of the UN in Geneva, spoke next. He referred to the recent UN summit on refugees and migrants held in New York and how all nations had agreed to take a much stronger stance in dealing with the issues. Tellingly, he pointed out that the current situation is ‘peanuts’ compared to what will happen in the future unless more effective action is taken. In addition to conflict, violence, and poverty, climate change will be an important instigator for mass migration, in the future.
Mr. Moller’s view is that the crisis has been badly managed from the offset with a combination of anti-refugee sentiment arising from the media coverage as well as politicians dithering rather than taking a stand. He is further angered by his belief that many politicians throughout Europe have stoked the animosity towards refugees by precipitating elections before finding the right solutions. He also questions the vocal claim that this is the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War; reminding us that there were in fact larger numbers who migrated during the 70s and 80s. He powerfully pointed out that the so-called huge volume of refugees entering Europe actually constitute little more than 0.2% of the 500m strong population of the continent.
The next speaker was Ignacio Packer of Terre des Hommes, a leading Swiss child relief agency committed to improving the lives of vulnerable children around the world. He stressed, amongst other things, that it is critical for the authorities of the countries that refugees are relocated to, to create the necessary places for them to settle.
The opening plenary concluded with a panel discussion with speakers from UN organisations, NGOs and civil society. All the speakers reiterated the importance of giving vulnerable girls and women a voice. Melissa Fleming of the UNHCR echoed Michael Moller’s comments pointing out that it is only now that refugees are coming in large numbers to the West that people realise that there are refugees in the world. When a member of the audience asked what we as a group can do, Brandee Butler of the C&A Foundation emphasised the importance of supporting grass roots organisations such as the ones represented at the conference
After a brief break, the participants had the choice of attending one of two smaller panel discussions. One represented the work of various associations and NGOs, who are working for the integration of girls and women migrants in Switzerland. The other panel made up of development workers and journalists from the field described what life was like for refugees on the ground.
On the integration panel, Véronique Thouvenot, of the Millenia Foundation spoke about the programme that is in place in Lausanne to help pregnant women who arrive in Switzerland, not speaking the language and without any family or friends to support them. As a result, midwives work to make sure that they receive information regarding their pregnancy in their native language. Another member, herself the daughter of immigrants to Sweden, talked about her work in Swiss schools, which resulted in the students creating a film documenting the stories of some refugees in Switzerland.
One of the most moving presentations was given by Annie Sparrow, a medical doctor who works in Syria. She described the horrors lived by families and particularly children still in Syria, whose access to health facilities is shrinking by the minute. Her plea was not to forget these people destroyed by this pointless conflict.
On a more positive note, Katy Migiro a journalist with the Thomson Reuters Foundation told of her trip to a camp in Kenya accompanying the education activist, and Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who received international attention following her miraculous survival in 2012 when she was barbarically shot when she was just 15. She described how excited the kids at the camp were, telling Malala how she had inspired them to pursue their ambitions.
Dr Grabska from the Graduate Institute described her findings on the reasons and motivations for the decisions taken by young adolescent girl migrants from Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sudan. The outcome of her research was that migration offered these young girls an escape route from often violent and abusive situations. She emphasised how important it is not to see migrants as victims but rather as agents of their own destinies.
The closing plenary focused on what had been discussed throughout the afternoon and how things can move forward. The true scale of the crisis was laid bare by putting to bed misconceptions and scare-mongering myths largely invented by politicians and the media. There is no doubt that much needs to be done and changing people’s attitudes towards the crisis is of utmost importance. It is a global issue and the situation will worsen in the coming years unless governments and the general public take the right course of action.
Additionally, there were many discussions on the solutions available to improve the lives of those refugees currently in the numerous refugee camps around Europe; particularly for helping women to feel safer. The conditions that some are forced to live in at present must be improved.
The unique quality of the Giving Women conference was in the diversity of both the audience and speakers. The animated discussions over a well-deserved glass of wine and food reflected the incredible opportunities for collaboration amongst the group. Working together, whatever the objectives are, always makes for stronger results and you certainly felt a general feeling of optimism coupled with the acceptance that much needs to be done.
I found Rebecca Eastmond of JP Morgan, one of Giving Women’s main sponsors, summed things up very well by emphasising the fact that if everyone plays a small part, however small that is, when you add it all up that things really can change.
On a personal note, I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend such a worthwhile cause, which was a most beneficial experience. Seeing the work and progress that the organisation has achieved under Atalanti’s leadership was uplifting, given the mainly negative coverage that the refugee crisis has brought. While I knew beforehand that more needs to be done, this and many other organisations are making concerted efforts to send out the message.
I’m definitely in island hopping mode now. For those of you who read my first two articles describing my visits to Serifos and Milos, thanks for checking in once again – this time for my final stop. The next destination literally was a hop as the island of Kimolos is situated just 1km from north-eastern Milos.
It was just a 20-minute ferry ride from Apollonia (the nearest point from Milos) to Kimolos on the local ferry. I arrived early evening. While it is significantly smaller, both geographically and in terms of population, I find these islands to be more picturesque.
Howdy again – and thanks – to those of you who remembered to return to my tour of the Cyclades. To those of you who read Part I – and to the newcomers – welcome to Part II.
Just a brief recap; my first destination was the island of Serifos. From visiting the main town, Chora, to paying a visit to a few of the numerous beaches, it certainly left an impression. I was also pleased with the research I did prior to leaving Athens, where I live, on choosing great accommodation in Aria Hotels ariahotels.gr/en/. They have various Boutique Hotels, Guest Houses and Villas. While they’re presence is mostly around various islands, they also have two Boutique Hotels in Northern Greece as well.
My next destination was Milos, an island that has to be on the list. A few facts before we get started; Milos has one of the largest natural harbours in Mediterranean Sea. From the countless beaches, a spectacular one in particular, to Sulphur Mines, Ancient Sites, Museums, and picturesque sea front villages, the to-do list should no doubt be lengthy. For me though, this visit is just a short one, so I had my work cut out.
Arriving in Milos was easy enough. The convenient aspect of island hopping is the regular ferry services on offer, flying dolphins or catamarans zig-zagging their way around the Cyclades. I rented a car quickly from the main port, Adamas, and made my way to Tripiti, a small village about 15/20 minutes away. This time I was looking forward to my first experience of staying in a windmill. It was situated on a hill and was clearly visible from afar. Quite a few windmills dot the landscape here, but most look abandoned. This one was anything but. As with Serifos, it was comfortable and well located.
What to do? Where to go? It’s early summer in Athens and the July heat is in full swing. It’s been in the mid-30s since last month. Not that I’m complaining. Having been born and raised in London, I’ll take the heat without too much of a problem. To add to that, this past year has been an eventful one personally and I always find that travelling to new places is a great tonic and a chance to look back on certain events and at the same time look ahead.
One of the wonderful advantages of living in Athens is its proximity to the countless islands the country boasts. So I have some time off now and decided to focus my attention on the Cyclades in the western Aegean. The word derives from the ‘Kyklos’, which is Greek for circle because the islands form one. The most well known in terms of tourism is probably Mykonos. I decide to go for the quieter ones – the ones that have retained a sense of simplicity. When you go to one of those islands, in a way it’s almost like stepping back into the 70s or 80s with their somewhat basic infrastructure.
First though, I wanted to look for a hotel that I could book with for the entire journey. It helps to be able to find some continuity when it comes to accommodation, especially when travelling from one island to another in a short time frame. After a few searches, one kept cropping up; a relatively new family-owned chain called Aria Hotels; ariahotels.gr/en/. They have a modest number of Boutique Hotels, Villas and Beach Houses. I guessed quality and not quantity.
As I gaze out of the plane window, the pitch black slowly begins to give way to the dawning of a new day. The stunning sight of red and orange appearing on the horizon is a familiar sight to travellers of trans-atlantic flights heading back towards Europe. For me, it’s an image permanently seared into my mind because I witnessed it countless times during my teenage years. So, being that young, I wasn’t the average businessman on his way home from a meeting across the pond. It was, in fact, due to having to make many trips from London, where my family and I lived back then, to Chicago for a series of operations I had to do to reconstruct my nose owing to the various conditions I was born with.
Travel and adventure shows, films, documentaries. Whichever of the three, there are countless ones of differing quality on our screens today. However, a largely unknown fact is that there are many more of them that for some reason or another, whether it be down to financing or some big shot TV commissioning Editor who thought he or she knew better, never made it onto the screen.
For the last six years, that has slowly changed thanks to the Adventure Travel Film festival. Austin Vince and his wife, Lois Pryce, created the concept; two people who are very familiar to adventure travel given their experiences; Austin is known to many motorcycle enthusiasts for his definitive doco ‘Mondo Enduro’ – it was famously the inspiration for Ewan MacGregor’s subsequent trips. Lois, besides being a fellow long distance motorcycle traveller, is an internationally respected travel writer and journalist.
It’s a Monday. I scour the large cafeteria and opt for a table in the centre of the room. It’s late morning here at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. I take a look out towards the large veranda. Beyond that, a monument gazes down on us – an everlasting symbol of Ancient Greece. The Parthenon has taken a few beatings over its three plus millennia of existence, yet it has survived those beatings such as the bombing it suffered in 1687 during the Great Turkish War.
With Greece still in the midst of the financial crisis – it’s coincidentally the morning after another protest in nearby Syntagma Square – it’s easy to dreamily gaze at this magnificent temple with defiant thoughts that this country will survive the hardships of recent times in the same way as the Parthenon withstood its obstacles.
Other than being here and feeling patriotic, I’m actually here to meet two budding entrepreneurs who have recently embarked on a new venture and they arrive soon after me.
On May 8, 1943, 149 pupils at the First Boys High School in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki were officially ‘expelled’. In the following months they were transported, along with their families, to concentration camps – the vast majority to Auschwitz. Only six survived, most of them hiding in Thessaloniki, and only 2 survived the concentration camps.
While the whole world is aware of the atrocities that took place during the Second World War, what has always astounded me is how recently, historically, the horrors of Nazi Germany took place. Only 72 years have passed since the majority of Europe was reduced to a pile of rubble due to the barbaric views of one individual.