Πέμπτη, 19 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

Lefkas, a Picturesque Island Blended With Jetsetters


I was born on Lefkas, an island located between Italy and mainland Greece in the deep blue Ionian Sea. Lekada, as it is known in Greece, is one of seven islands that comprise the complex of the Ionian Islands and is situated a few kilometers south of cosmopolitan Corfu.

For me, my island has always been the center of the universe, the navel of the earth. I saw the light of day in the streets of its capital, the town of Lefkas. It is here where I ran and danced and suffered my share of cuts and bruises playing in the neighborhoods inhabited by the most welcoming and adorable people.

Lefkada town is all about magic. Entering the island by car over a movable bridge, you get the feeling that, with one snap of the fingers, you're back on the mainland. As you cross the bridge onto the island, you find yourself on a causeway with the azure blue sea on your left and the grayish waters of the lagoon on your right. The view remains etched in the mind of the visitor, creating an unforgettable first impression.

A little further down, the capital rises up with its brightly colored houses and their red and yellow roofs forming a lovely palette. The town, surrounded by the sea and the lagoon, sports a crowded western pier teeming with trendy bars while that on the east side is home to traditional tavernas and ouzeries offering up wonderful local specialties.

It is fringed by the beach of St. John, a unique stretch of all-white sand several kilometers long that is ideal for swimming and partaking in watersports. Here, amidst the refurbished windmills, you can sip the local sweet almond drink, or "soumada," while admiring the incomparable sunset in the soft dusk of summer or experience the twilight rising beyond the cliff side mansion of the Stavros family.

The eastern side of the island has the privilege of standing directly across the mountains of Aetoloakarnania, on the Greek mainland, that paint its waters with their golden colors. Small beaches and fishing villages adorn the winding coastal road, providing the visitor with a wonderful view of the small, "fjord-like" coastline.

Immediately south lies the town of Lygia, with its numerous fishing boats, and the village of Nikiana, with its many small, accessible beaches of pure, white sand. Further along, you find Perigiali, with its little bays, and Vlycho with its spectacular inlet resting beneath a tall, green mountain and offering one of the finest examples of the island's beauty.

A stop at Nidri, the cosmopolitan resort of Lefkada, is a must. Once a quaint fishing village, the town thrived in step with the persona of Aristotle Onassis who purchased the neighboring mythical Scorpios Island in 1963, married Jackie Kennedy five years later and transformed Lefkada into a playground for the rich. Legendary for his international "jetset" parties, Onassis also owned the adjacent, smaller island of Sparti which he used as a hunting ground to entertain his famous friends.

Today, Nidri is reliving moments of past glory as Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who recently bought Scorpios from Onassis' grand-daughter, Athena, begins preparing this exclusive paradise to receive elite company once again. Purchasing the bulk of his supplies and renovation materials from local Nidri shops, Rybolovlev plans to restore the beautiful homes on the island while, in turn, giving a boost to the local economy.

Eastward, the shoreline passes Sivota, a sheltered bay of staggering beauty, where the clear waters reflect the view of the surrounding mountains. Continuing on, bypassing numerous small, landlocked villages, you arrive at vibrant Vassiliki, at the southern tip of the island. Strictly a commercial port in the pre-war years, Vassiliki is, today, the offloading point for the large ferries crossing daily from Cephalonia loaded with toursists. Here-in sits the small hamlet of Ponti which is famed for its stiff breezes and has become an international meeting place for champion windsurfers and sailboaters.
On its western shore, Lefkada offers spectacular views and wild seas. Following the road from the village of Agios Petros, down towards the stunning Athani and past Exantheia, you can gaze as far as the eye can see, far beyond the deep, blue color of the Ionian Sea. Snaking along the coast, you come to Agios Nikitas, where you can walk the cobbled streets of this picturesque fishing village, breathe in the saltiness of the water and stroll along its beautiful, rocky beach.

Dancing among a panoply of beaches on the way back to Lefkada town, you can discover the renowned Porto Katsiki with its turquoise sea, the stunning Ekremnous with their open waters, the expansive Kathisma with its ivory sand and cosmopolitan bars and the calm, more remote Peukakia.
If you're a the true sea lover, hire a sloop to sail around the Island and admire the cape of IRAS with its quaint monastery and bathe in one of the countless virgin beaches.

Before departing, do not forget that you have a duty to visit the monastery of Phaneromeni, perched on the hill, high above the capital, guarding the precious image of the Virgin Mary and giving hope to the weak and courage to the strong.

Should you enjoy the journey, you will want return to the magical island of ancient Pegasus, again and again, as many have before you, to get to know the locals and become acquainted with a new Greek generation of Dorians and Ionians.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Πέμπτη, 12 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

Sifnos, the Island of Wild Beauty and Food Tasting!



Photos :Courtesy Vangelis Rassias

Justine Frangouli-Argyris
The Huffingon Post

 Greece is a country of many islands, each boasting its own unique morphology, architecture and culture. The Cyclades, a group of twelve remote islands in the midst of the Aegean Sea surrounding the sacred island of Delos in a circular formation, are renowned for their "jet-set" destinations of Mykonos, Santorini and Paros.

However, it is well worth the effort to venture "off the beaten track" and visit some of the lesser known jewels of this Aegean archipelago. For, it is here, where the tourist masses have yet to establish a presence, that the visitor can discover the true splendor of the Cyclades.

This summer, I was fortunate to land on the hidden paradise of Sifnos, an island of wild beauty yet, at the same time, with a unique nobility. Hugging the sea but sporting steep mountains that stand naked in its midst, Sifnos immediately attracts for the ruggedness of its spectacular scenery.

Apollonia, the capital, with its classic white-washed houses dotted with Aegean blue and other soft shades that blend to form a soothing pallette, appears as if perched on a ledge, overhanging the ocean and offering an unforgettable panoramic view.

Artemonas, with its cobbled streets and predominantly larger structures, stands proud in its urban nobility. The expansive residences, with their large fenced yards, are pristine examples of Greek Neoclassical architecture. The wealth of the local churches, with their important byzantine icons and frescoes, are proof of the town's financial superiority, owing to its historical ties with the shipping trade.

The Kastro, a past capital featuring medieval fortifications, is, perhaps, the island's most picturesque village, resembling a living museum and overlooking the tiny cove of Seralia with its tiny fish restaurants.

Sifnos may not be blessed with a panoply of beaches like some of its more renowned neighbors, but it posesses a few very beautiful and easily accessible ones that house good services. The extensive Platis Yialos, for example, has fine, dark sand and brandishes small hotels and beach bars that offer parasols and lounge chairs at water's edge.

At the less-organized Vathy, where many yauchts are docked, the transparent waters allow the wader to gaze at the teeming marine life underfoot and to enjoy the sight of the quaint fishing village across the bay.

The sandy beach at Kamares, with its calm waters, is home to many shops, bars and cafés and doubles as the official port of the island, where the visitor is first welcomed.

Over the course of the summer, Sifnos hosts many cultural events. A splendid affair to which I was invited, the 7th annual Festival of Cycladic Tasting, is a three-day gastronomic exposition of Cyclades delicacies, many of which I had no idea were purely Greek in origin.

An intricate part of the celebrations is an event organized by the Cultural Association of Sifnos. "Sifnos makes the table," is dedicated to the memory of the famous Greek chef, Nikos Tselemendes. Born in the town of Exambela, Tselementes went on to international stardom by showcasing the flavors and products of his beloved Cycladic cuisine.

On exhibit were twenty separate kiosks, each displaying local agricultural specialties and offering up appetizers, indigenous wines, and Sifnian pastries. Visitors could even partake in the many cooking demonstrations that were a sight to behold.

The evenings were capped off in the central square of Artemona where local music abounds and island dance troupes performed. A stunning highlight was the annual reincarnation of the traditional Sifnian wedding that originated at the home of Tselementes and weaved its way through the narrow streets to the great square, signalling the conclusion of the festivities.

"Apart from traditional food, the Cycladic islands proudly display local agricultural produce chiefly cultivated by a new class of young entrepreneurs trying to succeed in a country that has been devastated by the economic crisis," confessed to me the President of the Cultural Association of Sifnos, Maria Nadalis.

For his part, Mayor Andreas Babounis hopes that the festival will continue to flourish and eventually become international in scope. "Our aim is to further communication and networking amongst the Cyclades and every year we invite representatives from some other island groups in order to promote interaction between our individual cultures. Our ultimate goal, however, is to give a wider connotation to the event and, at some point in the future, have European participants showcasing their cuisines."

Sifnos, the island known for its chick pea soup, or "revythada," and local wild sheep, or "mastelo," is, truly, a rare paradise that captivates with its wild beauty and offers the best of the reputed Aegean good life.



Follow Justine Frangouli-Argyris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Justinakion

Τετάρτη, 4 Σεπτεμβρίου 2013

John Catsimatidis, a people's man

Justine Frangouli-Argyris

What can be written about John A. Catsimatidis, the boy from the small Aegean island of Nissyros in the Dodecanese, that hasn’t been penned already?  Arriving in New York at the tender age of six months, folded in his Mother Despina’s arms alongside his Father, Andreas, in search of a better tomorrow, John is the embodiment of the ‘American dream.’  

What can be said about the entrrepreneur who began as an assistant in his friend’s uncle’s grocery store in Harlem that hasn’t been heard many a time?  For, from those early days, John has gone on to conquer the business world and is presently ranked as the 132nd richest man in the United States, according to Forbes.

This past January, his story became national in scope as John declared his intention to run for the Mayoralty of New York City, setting his sights on the Republican nomination at this month’s primaries and, eventually, hoping to capture Gracie Manor, on November 5th.  

John Catsimatidis was born on the Greek island of Nissyros in 1948 and emigrated with his family to New York City when he was six months old.  He spent the past forty years of his life building his company from a single grocery store into a conglomerate with vast holdings in real estate, energy and aviation.  He still retains ownership of Manhattan’s largest supermarket chain, Red Apple Stores, but this represents only a tiny slice of his empire that has been estimated at $3 billion according to Forbes, although, as John claims, “it is actually between $3 and $5 billion.”  Before annoucing his candidacy for Mayor, Catsimatidis denounced the poor quality of the declared and presumed candidates and stated that “he was willing to spend whatever it takes to win City Hall.”

John may be reputed as being “tough” but those who know him closely describe him as a “man of the people.”  True, given his role as businessman, investor and dealmaker, he is renowned for being a hard-nosed negotiatior but he prefers to describe himself as a devoted father and a passionate citizen of his beloved New York.

To know John personally is to know a man who has raised his children “hands on,” rising at dawn to prepare breakfast and to share in their most serious conversations at the morning table with his charming wife, Margo.  To have lived close to the Catsimatidis family is to know that, even today, with the children having become young adults, they cotinue to be showered with love and attention.  Vacations are still planned in unison and the family, although great American patriots, continues to honor the culture and land of their origin, the distant Nissyros, as one.

To walk with John in Manhattan is to realize that he is intricately familiar with every building, every sidewalk and every stone in town.  To travel with him by car, to the Bronx or over the bridges to Brooklyn or Queen’s, is to hear him describe      
how he hopes to reshape the city, revive the New York World’s Fair and make the metropolis “the capital of the world.”

John Catsimatidis is not an accidental successful entrepreneur.  Originating from an important family in Istanbul, Turkey, where his grandfather was chancellor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, his mother, Despina Emmanouillidis, was educated in French and graduated from the renowned School of Rhodes.  It was she who shaped him with kindness and devotion and through her deep knowledge resulting from her classic education.  His intimate beginnings are well known to me as I have authored the fictional biography of his mother, For the Love of Others.  

In a few days, John hopes to obtain the Republican nomination for Mayor of New York and, should he succeed, it is my belief that his persuasion and gentle demeanor will lead him to City Hall.  Once there, John is adamant that municipal policies will take their clue from the everyday citizen, not from individual interest groups.  He will bring along his patriotism, his cosmopolitainism and his management skills as well as his unique ability to touch people’s hearts.

In my opinion, with John at the helm, New York will have a true people’s mayor who will make it the shining light of all the world’s great cities!