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A wine-soaked odyssey

This is the most classical expression of the Muscat grape,” says Yiannis, my host from the Union of Wine-Making Cooperatives of Samos – a northern Greek island – and he is probably right.

My mind, though, is elsewhere. I’m thinking about one of the finest drinking sequences in English literature.

In Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), his masterpiece about Greece, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor tracked down a fisherman in Kardamyli called Evstratios Mourtzinos, whose family name suggested possible descent from the last Byzantine dynasty. The fisherman welcomed the Englishman with a brimming glass of ouzo, and Leigh Fermor embarked on a once-upon-a-time daydream that saw the Turks returning the Byzantine empire to the Greeks. Suddenly there was a vacancy on the emperor’s throne and the search for an heir began.

Unaware of his English guest’s wild imaginings, Mourtzinos wittered on about grey mullets while his wife chopped up an octopus tentacle. Leigh Fermor, swept along by a third ouzo, saw doubtful claimants to the Byzantine throne rejected one by one: the Cantacuzeni, the Stephanopoli de Comnene of Corsica, the Melissino-Comnenes of Athens…

I am welcomed, after the acclimatising vin doux, with a brimming tumbler of the Grand Cru. “You’ll find this less sweet,” says Yiannis. “We send it to the Vatican.” Bright topaz glows before me, then disappears in a warm haze.

“Now you must try the Anthemis,” Yiannis says firmly to me, pouring another tumbler of chestnut blonde wine aged in oak barrels for five years. “This is our champion wine.” And so it tastes.

More ouzo, meanwhile, for Leigh Fermor. After his fourth glass, everything was clear. The humble fisherman from Kardamyli was the rightful claimant to the throne. Preparations were made for his coronation, simple clothes were exchanged for cloth-of-gold dalmatics, diamond-studded girdles and purple cloaks.

“The fifth ouzo carried us, in a ruffle of white foam, across the Aegean archipelago and at every island a score of vessels joined the convoy.” But Leigh Fermor, reeling after a sixth ouzo, was oblivious to the fisherman’s stories of storm-tossed seas. “Loud with bells and gongs, with cannon flashing from the walls and a cloud-borne fleet firing long crimson radii of Greek-fire, the entire visionary city, turning in faster and faster spirals, sailed to a blinding and unconjecturable zenith.”

The ouzo bottle was empty. The briefly crowned emperor was a storm-stranded fisherman again. The impromptu drinking bout, and with it the dream, was over. “We stepped out into the sobering glare of noon,” wrote Leigh Fermor.

I later stumble out of the Union of Wine-Making Cooperatives, squinting in similarly chastening sunlight, struggling to put a hard morning’s work behind me.

What a wonderful island is Samos, far from the sun-seeking hordes of the Cyclades, the Sporades and the Dodecanese. How clever of Zeus and Hera, Antony and Cleopatra to seek out this quiet corner of the Aegean – a temperate, mountainous island of pines, vines and olives – for their romantic dalliances.

Ahead of me on this wine-soaked itinerary lie the silent ruins of the Temple of Hera on Samos, a sole upright column – all that is left standing of what was once the finest temple in the Aegean. To the east and underground is one of the more remarkable and least celebrated monuments of ancient Greece, the Eupalinos Tunnel, designed to bring water from the Ayades spring to the walled city.

After the wine-tasting, I feel I have earned a few days of sybaritic laziness in Marnei Mare, a destination of luxurious secrecy on the west coast of the island. Samos has not yet been overrun by tourists, with the partial exception of the resort towns of Pythagorio and Kokkari, but you would be hard-pressed to find more agreeable seclusion, down to your own magnificently wild, private beach.

You can fly to and from Samos, but what’s the rush? Boats ply these gentle waters as they have done for millennia. Why blaze across the sky when you can slide smoothly through the sea? I am bound for the north. So slowly, in fact, that it takes the best part of 24 hours, surrounded by chain-smoking Greek passengers, staff and skipper, to reach the amphitheatrical port town of Kavala.

Until fairly recently, few visitors to Greece would bother venturing this far north. Athens, the islands and the Peloponnese are all well-trodden ground to the undeserved neglect of the northern mainland. Macedonia and Thrace tend to be left to scholars, archaeologists and only the most ardent ruin-hunters.

Over the years I have had my fill of fallen piles of stone in Athens, Samos and the Peloponnese, not to mention the obligatory diversions to Delphi and Thessaloniki. But, leaving Samos, there is still time for a pilgrimage to a place in Kavala that will satisfy historians as happily as it does hotel connoisseurs.

Imaret is as much a monument and museum as a grand hotel. Built in 1817 by Mohammed Ali, founder of the modern Egyptian state, who was born in Kavala, it was once a school, hammam, offices, prayer hall and soup kitchen. Today it is the only hotel in Greece operating inside a historical building, the madrassah students’ cells exquisitely restored into rooms of unspeakable refinement in courtyards lined with orange trees. A few years ago, it was rotting on the hillside of Panagia, bleakly overlooking the sea and a rugged congregation of hills.

Then along came Anna Missirian, a woman with deep pockets and a passion for Egypt. Seven million euros later, and one of the finest restorations you are ever likely to see has transformed the place beyond recognition. Come here for a weekend and you’ll be tempted to stay a week.

In between endless volleys of cigarettes, the elegant Missirian, bristling with diamonds the size of pearls, keeps a beady eye on her guests. Tales abound of plutocratic visitors sent packing for failing to show due reverence.

“The Imaret isn’t a hotel,” she says. “It’s a monument. And everyone who comes here has got to remember that and treat it with respect.”

I’m in no position to argue. Now Samos is a distant memory but the drinks, once again, are flowing fast. “We have the finest selection of malt whiskies in Greece,” Missirian purrs, pushing one my way. This country has honed hospitality into a fine art. The candlelight flashes upon brilliant crystal, diamonds sparkle, glasses clink and I settle in for a long night.



Marnei Mare, Samos, tel: +30 2273 030830,

Imaret, Kavala, tel: +30 2510 620151,

Samos wines:


Strangers in paradise

If you’ve never heard the word philoxenia before going to Greece, by the time you return home, you’ll know what it means. Not so much because there are any number of hotels, restaurants and travel agencies that rather unimaginatively use the name, but because Greek hospitality hits you from the moment you enter the country.

“Known as filoxenia (literally love of the stranger or guest)”, writes Sofka Zinovieff in Eurydice Street, her lovely memoir of relocating her family to Greece, “hospitality is still considered a national characteristic of the Greeks”, one that can be traced back several millennia to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

In the Middle East, one almost comes to expect it: the constantly humbling invitations to break bread with a family that can barely afford to feed itself. In Europe, you might think such kindness to strangers had, in the 21st century, gone out of fashion. As a rule it has, yet Greece remains the delightful exception.

Roaming around the country for a month, I had to fight to pay for drinks, dinners or lunches. After one particularly riotous dinner in Athens, where the retsina flowed with abandon over several hours, I remonstrated with my companions – a group of bibulous students and academics – to pay my share. “Xenos!” came the emphatic reply. The foreigner was not allowed to pay. And as for inviting someone to dinner, forget it. You may as well tell a Greek the Elgin Marbles belong in London.