Getting to Tolo
Peloponnesos is separated by a narrow isthmus from mainland
Corinthia and six other prefectures make up the area, each with its own coastline. Messinia is home to the city of
It was my sister's first time in
The flight was cramped. We left JFK at 9:30 pm and arrived in
By the time we sped out on the brand-new-highway that stretched all the way from the brand-new-airport (around 7 pm Greek time), the sun was going down over the hills. We sat in tired silence as the miles went by and gazed at the rocky terrain with sparse olive trees that was being rapidly replaced with urban sprawl. Though virtually all of the apartments and homes have balconies and terraces, many people don't like
We arrived at the dirty sprawling bus station to Nafplio just in time. The last bus was leaving in 20 minutes, at 9 PM! I almost wept with relief! We sat on the bench in front of the bus waiting for the doors to open. The station was not a good place to start a first-time visit; it was grimy and old. There were scrawny strays about scratching at fleas and little hungry looking gypsy kids trying to sell their small offerings. One boy put a scrap of paper on everyone's knee. It said that the kid's mom had died and he was hungry. The girl next to me gave him a coin and wouldn't take the package of tissues he had for her, so I did the same.
There was nothing to see of the land in the dark during the three hour journey to Nafplio. Em perked up a bit when we finally arrived at the winding paved streets of Nafplio and we caught glimpses of the stately, elegant buildings near the port. We got down from the bus and walked across the street to the taxi to take us on the last leg of our journey, 8 km to Tolo. The ride went by in a burst of speed and we trundled down the main street of Tolo looking for Hotel Romvi in the dead of night. The driver assured us it was just down an alley that he couldn't take the car down; we got out and set up our suitcases and rolled them down the little street to the sea. I had no clue which way to turn to find our hotel so I rolled on and headed for the waterfront. Em was deadly quiet behind me, I knew she was close to the end. As we slogged on I looked to the left where two men were having a late night snack on the terrace of a house. I left my bag and walked over to them. I said good evening and where was hotel Romvi? The younger one pointed down the beach to my left and the older one called me sweet girl and begged me to join them. I looked at the tomatoes and bread, the olives, wine and fish and was tempted, but Em was still out there fuming away.
So we set out on to the pebbly beach dragging our bags, I leading, Em trailing behind. There were lights about 100 meters to the left so I headed for them. As I came panting up to the lovely stone and wooden terrace I knew it wasn't Romvi but I didn't care. I hauled my heavy little burden behind me and burst up the steps into the drinks area where there were a few people sitting in front of a big beautiful bar, behind which I spied an adorable Greek bartender boy. A man rose up from the table and asked me if he could help me. I asked him if it was the hotel Romvi. By this time Em was up the stairs too and said: "I don't give a shit, we're staying here tonight!!" The man turned out to be the hotel owner, Kostas. He went behind the desk with Em to make the arrangements. We had come to Hotel Aris and stayed there the whole time we were in Tolo. I sat on a stool at the bar and stated my deep need for a glass of Krassi. The darling behind the bar, Bobis, asked me in Greek if I wanted white or red. Em glowered at me to come up but I wasn't going to budge until I'd had my reward. Bobis dashed around the bar to take all the bags up to our room that Kostas assured us was on the sea side.
When I finished my wine I slowly headed up the marble steps to room 302. Em was sound asleep and had already spread a good deal of her stuff about the typical Greek hotel room. There were the shuttered doors to the balcony directly in front of Em's bed. I quietly opened them and slipped out. The sea was right at my feet and unless you stood up at the railing and looked down, it seemed you were floating in the water. I left the glass doors behind the shutters open and the sound of the sea lapping on the shore lulled me to sleep.
Queen of Yogurt
Em got up before me and I heard her moving about. The light was peeping early morning blue around the shutters. Em went over to them and opened them wide. I heard her exclaim; "OH…..MY….GOD!!" and I knew she was hooked.
I jumped up and together we stood engrossed in the panorama. There were small, colorful fishing boats bobbing gently on the glassy azure sea. On the left the shore curved around, lined with hotels and tavernas. The sun was well up and shone on the water to sparkly blue intensity. The sky went on forever meeting the sea on the horizon that was displayed behind the dreamy green mountains of the mainland along the south. There was a little island directly in front of our balcony, with a small church perched on the crown of its one steep hill. And to our left was the curve of the small bay with another, larger island off of that. It was everything and more than I had hoped for, and Em was delirious with the view.
The breakfast spread was pretty standard from what I'd experienced-there were hard boiled eggs, some kind of sandwich ham and processed cheese slices in the warming pans. Fresh sliced bakery bread sat near the rolling toaster machine with heaps of jelly packages and butter next to it. Fresh coffee was served in a pot on the table and there was a big juice machine dispensing ice-cold orange juice. But then I saw a huge glass bowl of pure creamy yogurt. It looked closer to soft, smooth cream cheese, a dense satin white. On one side were two big bowls of cereal flakes, flat and crunchy, to spoon on top. One was plain and the other had chocolate swirls. On the other side of the Queen of Yogurt bowl were large thick green glass jars with big cork tops that held preserves with a middle jar of deep amber honey. There were apricot, cherry, orange, and peach preserves, all made locally. I scooped some yogurt into a small glass bowl, put a couple of spoonfuls of the swirled flakes on top and dolloped on a sweet spoonful of the jewel umber apricot spread. I grabbed an egg, figured out how to toast a piece of bread, and carried my first meal in
Bobis was there at the bar, handsome and flirtatious and ready to come flying over it for our every whim. He spoke English, as most everyone does in
Frappe is another, mostly, only-to-be-found-in-Greece treasure. I order mine gliko me gala (sweet with milk). It can be not sweet with no milk, but I think for the full effect it needs both. It's made by putting a spoonful of Nescafe in a tall narrow glass, adding sugar and a small bit of water, just enough to make a thick muddy mixture. Then it's whirled with a milkshake type blender blade to very dense satiny foam, turning a deep mahogany brown with three times the volume. Ice cubes are added, a little more water and canned milk. Served with a straw it's pure sweet coffee magic, lighter then a milkshake but just as creamy rich.
Later that morning we stopped at a little chachka stand to look at postcards. I loved the ones of bewhiskered weather-beaten village widows, or the grinning wrinkled fishermen with their two tobacco stained teeth poking out. Some pictures were randy. Perfect, glistening female behinds stuck up in the sand or a Greek god in a wet thong that perfectly silhouetted his prodigious presentation. Em wanted to get one of two stubby Greek statues dueling it out with their giant johnsons. Then she found the ice cream shop right up the street from the hotel. Its location was exactly noted and we tasted the mango and mint. The mango tasted like mangos–perfectly– in cream and the mint was true to the herb in ice cold delicious sweetness.
In the afternoon we headed for the beach and turned almost immediately to settle on a lovely wooden terraced taverna, up a few steps from the sand. It had big shaded tables on two different levels– all the tables with a splendid view of the sea. The afternoon was notable for its delicious salads, and because we received undivided attention from the tickled-with-my-Greek proprietor. I ordered a Greek salad and an Octopus salad while we looked at our other choices. The wine I ordered from then on was whatever the house wine was; half a small carafe of chilled white served with a tiny little juice glass. It was never more than 3 euros. It was a perfect amount for the day and I love local Greek wine. It's light and sunny and not too sweet. I don't like Retsina, it tastes of tar, and anyway it's more expensive then what they have locally.
The salads arrived: Country Greek Salad is always made of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, green peppers, olives and a chunk of feta on top. Olive oil and vinegar are served on the side while there is already oil bathing the vegetables in the bowl. A little vinegar is all that's needed but you don't want to get any on the feta. What makes it so special a dish in
We sat with cool breeze washing over us in the brilliant sunshine and talked of
The shrimp came whole, fat and nestled in a satiny thick tomato sauce redolent with garlic, lemon and oregano; olive oil made it all glisten. Mine had feta cheese for even more richness. We used our fingers to catch them up and open them to suck out the sweet meat and soaked up the sauce with fresh baked bread. I started to get that warm feeling of satisfaction from the wine and the food while the magic of the light, the view and having my sister there with me imbued the moments with bliss.
It was close to eight when we woke up from a nap and headed to the bar, a bit late for the norm. The light was doing its twilight thing and my memories of other Greek twilights charged awake as I took in the moment. I recalled why it was my favorite time of day. The sun was down and the light was a muted grey-blue which exactly reflected the color of the sea. The sea was as calm as a mirror, so calm and so exactly the color of the evening you could not tell where it ended and met the horizon. It was just one big muted staggering blue essence that nurtured the yellow lights coming on along the bay and turned the mountains to indistinct outlines. Everything just kind of blued out, lasting through all the transitions of shades from light steel blue to, finally, deep indigo.
Bobis explained as he poured my wine that he was a "toy-boy." I asked him if he didn't mean "boy-toy?" He said it didn't really make any difference; he was a boy that we could play with! And we met Eleni, the daughter of Yannis the other brother owner. She was 18, pert and saucy and very Greek. Em fell in love with her.
We also had to meet Aris. He waitered in the dining room and on sight of us immediately decided that we'd never be able to resist him. He oiled over to introduce himself and started right off way to close. He was one of those men who will never have the least concept of how odious they are. I have to give him credit for trying; and he did the entire time we stayed. We came up with Aris-dodging-maneuvers but he usually snuck up and caught us unaware.
Cristos, the very short wiry chef came out and begged to cook something for us, like an eager whippet. He told us that he used to bartend at the hotel way before Bobis and before he became the head chef. He mimed how he used to do a striptease on the bar wearing three or four g-strings so he could whip them off without ever having to show his magnificent utensil.
I asked him if he had Marithakia-little tiny fish served whole, no more than half a finger-length long and half a finger wide. They are lightly covered in flour and pepper, sautéed in olive oil then served piping hot and crispy with lots of lemon. He scampered off to return ten minutes later with the perfect rendition. They are so wee that you don't notice the bones or fins or scales, it's just a fresh crunchy small taste of the sea, tangy from the lemon drenching. Em was thrilled and munched most of them up in a flash, adding to her consumption speed record. I was able to grab a few at the borders of the mound.
Slovaki in Pita
We headed up to the street intending to have ice cream and a walk. We strolled passed the Gyro stand that also made Slovaki in Pita. A funny kind of regimentation exists in food establishments in
Em and I sat at a little table out on the stone walkway and ordered one Slovaki in Pita just to try. Lo and behold Aris oozed up and planted himself, panting with amour, into the chair next to Em. We gave each other our "OK then…" look and picked up the pace. Slovaki in Pita is a fast food in
Our second morning in Tolo we sat on the sun drenched veranda, content after having answered the siren call of yogurt and enjoying a Frappe that Bobis whipped up for us; sweet like we were, he said. He obligingly put on some music I carried around in my daughters grungy pink Scooby-doo CD carrier. We spent the morning bobbing on the terrace to Carlinos Brown, Cesario Evora, Bombay Beats, Aretha and James Brown.
We set out to visit Nafplio for lunch having already decided upon "Slovakian in pita." We made a scheduled primp stop in the room, dodged Aris by going straight out the front door, and sailed forth to a warm fragrant day. The weather in Tolo in May is perfect if you don't care about swimming and even still, when we'd taken off our shoes and tested, toe deep, the temperature of the water the very first morning, it was warm enough if swimming was your major thing. I'm fascinated with the quality and clarity of the water in
Going up and along the coast on the bus to Nafplio provided us with spectacular views of the rocky or white sands of the shore with green pines climbing the hills and Bougainvillea climbing the houses and churches. We got off right where we had arrived the first night. There was a gorgeous little park with winding stone shaded streets and alluring shop windows to look at, which we hadn't seen in the dark, as we headed down to the street running along the waterfront.
Our quest for Slovaki in Pita began in earnest as we walked along the waterfront with all its lovely restaurants. It was here that the "rule of the Greek eateries" really kicked in. The best seats at the port were, of course, the Kafeterias. Slightly further off the port were the Tavernas that had Slovaki but only on a platter. We were pointed towards the center and to the corner Gyro stands but we wanted the view so we ended up in a Taverna. I directed Em towards the Mussaka and Pasticcio on the menu that are so country traditional. They are not my usual picks but Em and I decided we should give them a go so she'd know what I was talking about when I cook one of them at home then give her the recipe so she can lose it.
The dishes were fine when they came and very rich. Mussaka, the most well known, is layered eggplant, thick ground lamb in a cinnamon tomato sauce then béchamel that is golden brown on top and creamy the rest of the way through. Pasticcio has the same meat filling, or it can be made from ground beef, tube pasta, and béchamel with salty tangy Kefaloteri cheese melted and bubbling on top. Both of them had a deep sheen of olive oil and were delicious. We couldn't finish either one of the squares we were served. They weren't all that big, just very rich and filling.
A little car with a loud speaker traversed the harbor road and the lady inside yelled out the directions for where to go to be one with the People for the coming labor strike on Wednesday. There were wandering gaggles of cheeky Greek girls, chattering and giggling to each other as they passed with midriffs exposed and drastically highlighted hair. Lean craggy men drifted by, tossing their worry beads and eyeing all things female, while earnest looking hiker types went about with long athletic strides, their huge backpacks making me exhausted.
Back in Tolo we decided to go to Hotel Romvi for dinner since it was a nice spot on the beach. But it was down to the bar first, of course, for some chatting, cocktails and sunset gazing-it was at the lighter pinkish silver time with lots of shades to go. Bobis went into high prankster gear and indulged all our picture taking demands, happy that we had to take shots of him with us too. He'd come up close and wrap a strong young arm around our waists and say sexy funny things. He also let us in on the content of the muttered conversations he held head down over his cell behind the bar. At that point in time he had 3 girls he was juggling by text message, email, and phone. It could get very confusing he confessed.
Eleni was there playing a game with dice and a box with numbered wooden slats on one end that she flipped down as she tossed the dice. I found out later that the game had been invented by Kostas. The slats were numbered from 1 to 9 and were all in the up position on the wire strung through them and attached to the sides of the box at the beginning of the game. One person rolls the dice and can flip down one or two slats to add up to the number rolled. The object is to get all the slats down before you roll a number that adds up to more or less of the remaining slats. The number that is left at this point is your score and the next person takes their turn. The lowest score wins of course. Every so often you could roll the dice and all the slats would end slapped down with the ultimate score of zero. It's quick and addictive as I found out later but then we just enjoyed Eleni's patter and made her take pictures with us. Cristos whipped out of the kitchen with a small plate of Fasolia Gigantes that I had asked for to present to Em. Fasolia Gigantes means big beans and these beans weren't but they looked delish anyway. They were. Em, who loves beans, was again thrilled and delighted by this next new dish and though the pleasure rapidly disappeared into her gullet I was able to indulge a bit as well. It's a simple dish where white beans, they should be really big white beans, are baked with fresh crushed tomatoes, onion, parsley, olive oil and maybe a bit of tomato paste. The sauce is rendered to a thin, light red consistency that is still rich with olive oil and uncomplicated fresh flavor. The beans are done to tender but not mushy perfection. They are served at room temperature or slightly warm and the best thing to eat with them is a nice hunk of Feta if you can scoop up a small bit with a spoonful of the beans.
We set off into the gathering blue and down the short stretch of shore to the open taverna of the Hotel Romvi. Right in front was a little jetty with a small fishing boat it's only occupant. It had the usual bright blue cabin and the high white sides but it was like a toy. The postcard ready fisherman, with his wild long hair and beard and his foul weather headgear loomed above the little cabin. The only other occupant, and taking up the rest of the space, was a large, bounding, young Labrador-in-the-mix-somewhere, dog.
As we sat down to face the last glimmers of the twilight and ordered we watched the self-consciously-quaint-fisher-fellow and his dog. The dog was nothing if not an enthusiastic representative of his kind and paid absolutely no attention to his owner who was sternly telling him to come back from his furiously barking foray on the beach. After a lot of running around, the doggy grin of the animal only getting wider and wider, he was firmly tied by his exhausted and not-in-top-picturesque-form-anymore owner, to a large chunk of cement. It looked to weigh close to forty pounds. As we dug in I looked up a moment later to see the dog tear-ass down the pier effortlessly dragging the block at top speed and grinning wildly. He and the
Our last day, on the way to an internet café, we finally found our Slovaki in Pita place. It was on the street, of course, but you could see the turquoise sparkle of the sea out the back of it where there were tables on a Bougainvillea strewn terrace. We headed there for lunch and I decided it was time to sample some Taramusalata. Em was not enthusiastic when I told her that it was a fish-roe dip but I had noticed that the place was all family run which meant there was an older Greek woman doing the cooking somewhere. We ordered a Slovaki in Pita each, Em's' was chicken and mine pork and I ordered the Taramusalata with a side of grilled Pita. When it came it was a much deeper pink then I was used to and not pale and fluffy either. It was heaven!! So fresh it had no fishy taste to it and spread on a hot wedge of Pita with a slice of juicy tomato on top it disappeared into Em at an astonishing rate. She was still able to rave about it around mouthfuls though. When I asked the lady serving us, in between running after her 3 year old twins, who had made it, she said her mother. The mother came out and bowed slightly as Em and I waxed ecstatic. I asked her how she made the dish and she verified what I had told Em; fish roe, lemon, onion and olive oil. Many times white bread soaked in milk then squeezed is added and that is where the fluffy-ness comes in. It was the best Taramusalata I had ever had, no joke, and we tried it again a couple of times in other places and didn't get even close.
Soutzoukakia and Maritha
We had decided to eat at the Hotel on our last evening there, and hope some action presented itself around the bar later. Kostas had our table set up right next to the bar and with the best view of the beach. As we sat with Bobis and had a pre dinner cocktail (Em actually ordered a screwdriver!!) we could see Aris lurking in lascivious anticipation of being our waiter. We thwarted him anew by deciding to just eat at the bar. Cristos came himself to suggest we have the Soutzoukakia (meatballs) in an Ouzo tomato sauce. We ordered more Marithakia as well. I'm sure they didn't know that I knew the difference between Maritha and Marithakia because when they came this time they were more the size of sardines, still delicious but the bones were discernable and Em didn't like this aspect. But that is what Maritha is and I love it…and this time got to eat most of it myself! The meatballs were served with those fabulous fresh cut fries, puffy, golden, and crisp. Em made up for lost time by handily devouring the delicious rich and savory meatballs declaring them another winner while I munched on my fish heads.