Saturday, May 30, 2009

Athens Shopping - From "Gucci" Glasses to Lambs' Heads

(Click on the photos to make them larger.)

The best shopping in Athens is outdoors. We walked down Hermou, the pedestrian shopping street, past the chic dress shops and the gypsies begging and selling this year’s crazy gimmick—round rubbery liquid-filled tomatoes and piggies that smash into a completely flat puddle when you throw them on a smooth surface, then slowly reform themselves back into a round ball (with ears and legs, in the case of the pigs.) We couldn’t resist and I bought two at a euro each. (Sadly, a Euro now is $1.40) Sorry—no photos of the tomato and pig, but they’ve already provided hours of fun for the whole family. They’ll probably be confiscated at the airport because they’re filled with liquid.

Some of us bought “Gucci” and “Ray Ban” sunglasses from the African vendor near the MacDonald’s on Constitution Square before he gathered up his entire stock of glasses attached to a sheet, folded up the large cardboard box that was his table – all in one smooth movement -- and slipped away, Next we admired hand-painted flip-flops on display for a reasonable seven Euros a pair. Farther down, in the Monasteraki flea-market section, we bought necklaces and bracelets with the sparkling Evil Eye symbols that make such great gifts. (I got myself a new one that resembles a diamond-encrusted fish with a dark blue eye for its body.) These little symbols are meant to protect you from the Evil Eye, which can attack you and ruin your day even if someone innocently compliments or envies you.

We walked over to the central Meat and Fish markets near Omonia Square to do a little photo shoot. It’s a photographer’s heaven although the meat market, especially, doesn’t smell that good—sort of like the lion house at the zoo. You should really get there around 7 a.m. Unfortunately we got there close to noon so the displays were thinned out.

In the photos above you can see the entrance to the cavernous fish market, a seller of lambs and a pretzel seller. The collage of the wares from left to right are: shell fish including octopi, sardines, Fagria fish, crayfish and a grotesque display of lambs head. (In Greece the honored guest at a dinner party is given the lambs’ eyes to eat.)

Another photo collage shows a flower shop, a shop with bizarre dress dummies, Ellas—full of touristic knick-knacks, and a seller of patriotic stuff including the Greek flags.

We also stopped at Brettos—a photogenic store selling wine and liquors—to buy a Havana cigar for Nick for Father’s Day.

At the end of our shopping odyssey we waited for a subway at the Omonia metro stop and watched as, on the opposite side of the track, a young man snatched a shopping bag from a woman who began screaming for the police (who were in good supply on the floors above because of a bomb scare the previous day.) At first everyone watched him run across the platform, then as he ascended the stairs, two Greek men launched into action and ran after him. The train came so we never knew if they caught him

In Athens, shopping is always an adventure!

Next: Mykonos—Island of pelicans, vegetable sellers and weddings

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Highlife and Hotels in Athens!

(Click on the photos to make them larger)

Our family odyssey around Greece will take us from luxurious accommodations to budget boutique hotels (which Eleni is researching for a travel article) to roughing it in mountainous villages huts. Right now in Athens it’s luxury — the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Constitution Square -- a historic presence in the center of town since 1842. (During WWII someone tried to assassinate Winston Churchill — who had come to rally the Greeks against the Nazi occupiers-- by placing a bomb in the hotel basement, but it was discovered in time.) Now the basement is the site of a world-class spa – incense and steam-filled grottoes lined in semi-precious stones and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

From the balconies of the GB, as the hotel is fondly called, you can watch the sunset behind the Acropolis and, in the other direction, the hourly changing of the Evzone guards in front of the Parliament building. A new pair of Evzones march up every hour and do a little dance with the retiring pair, in their pleated fustenella skirts and pompomed shoes. On Sunday at 11:a.m. they do a more elaborate changing of the guard with a full cast as tourists snap photos and feed the crowds of pigeons.

The GB was closed down for several years right before the Olympic games in 2004. When it re-opened, it had added a roof-top pool and a roof-top bar and restaurant and a lot of new amenities while keeping the best of the antiques and paintings from its Victorian past.

Yesterday, daughters Eleni and Marina and I walked from the hotel down Hermou (the pedestrian fashion street) and into Monasteraki (the flea market section), then over to the area of Omonia Square which houses the central markets.

We wanted Marina, who works in product design, so see a couple of the crazy new Classical Hotels, where Eleni and I have stayed. The Classical Baby Grand is, according to the brochure,, the “newest, hippest and most attractive spot in town.” “Fourteen international artists from the fields of urban art, graffiti design and illustration turned Baby Grand in the heart of Athens into Europe’s most exciting and creative city hotel.”

These artists have designed rooms—with wall murals and crazy furnishings—around cartoonish themes (there’s even a Spider Man room.) When we stayed last year we were in a jungle-themed room with a fake plush tiger-skin throw across the bed. Jungle noises could be heard in the halls, lamps in the bar were tiger-heads and ostrich tables projected from the walls. In the photos above you’ll see Eleni and Marina getting to know the gorillas in the foyer. The reception desks on the floor above are made from mini-Cooper cars.

The trendy restaurant “Meat Me” in the hotel was closed—preparing for an event, so we walked over to a sister hotel, the 2 Fashion House Hotel—equally modern and innovative in design and themed around fashion (You can see the blueish balconies lined with fashion shots in my photo.) There we had a cappuccino freddo and then headed into the teeming central Meat and Fish markets for a photo shoot which I will show you tomorrow (Viewer discretion advised.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Blog is Back! Sunday in the Park with Joan

(if you click on the photos they get bigger)

I haven’t written an entry since the weekend of "Brides and Pirates in New Orleans" and that was about six weeks ago! But I haven’t given up on the travels of A Rolling Crone.I had several writing deadlines and a hurricane of activity getting ready for our family trip to Greece but the deadlines were met (pretty much) and now I’m in Athens with Eleni and Marina waiting for Nick to arrive. Then we’re off to Mykonos for a wedding but I’ll tell you about that then.

Right now I want to celebrate Central Park the way it looked about four weeks ago. Everyone in Manhattan, young or old, flocked into the Park to savor the briefest but most glorious season in New York as Spring burst into bloom. There were horseback riders and bikers, brides and painters, boaters and picnickers, bands and singers and comedians and lots of pets. Nearly every year I visit the Park to photograph this evanescent miracle. This time I started off from daughter Eleni’s apartment on 80th and Third, stopped by Eli’s for an old-fashioned sugar cone, admired the flowers outside the brownstones. (One of them –double size—was just bought Madonna for a reported 40 million dollars.)

Into the Park by the Metropolitan Museum with background music by African steel drums. Children and their parents climbed over the Alice in Wonderland Statue (I used to take my kids to story hours there) and the statue of Hans Christian Anderson (I think that’s who he is—hence the goose?) On to the toy boat lake where you rent a remote-controlled sailboat. I headed toward the big lake and the Boat House Restaurant. (We had such fun there at a recent lunch watching Eleni’s godson Demosthenakis feeding everything he could get his hands on to the GIANT gold fish and turtles who live in the lake.)

Outside the Boathouse were a bride and groom posing under a blossoming cherry tree, and sunbathers and artists galore on the banks of the lake as rowboats sailed past. On to my favorite spot—Bethesda Fountain, watched over by the Angel of the Waters. (Those are healing waters-- you may remember the important role of the Angel in the TV version of "Angels in America".)

For forty-five years Central Park has been part of my life. Back when I was single, I was at a press party at Tavern on the Green when the first great New York Blackout hit. As we sat by candlelight, Nick, who lived nearby, came to rescue me. (That was the good black-out when everyone behaved valiantly. The second blackout—the bad one, when there was looting—was in July 1977 when I was married to Nick and in New York Hospital with a new-born Marina. The only lights visible in the city were in the hospitals, with their own generators.)

My kids grew up with the Carousel and the pony rides and the Children’s Zoo—I was there with other mourners when they closed the Zoo for its makeover.

Just last summer I stood in line for hours one summer morning at the DellaCorte Theater to score FREE tickets to a wonderful outdoor performance of the rock musical Hair—forty years after I saw it for the first time. The revival was magical. Now it’s on Broadway. And definitely not free!

They call Central Park the lungs of the city but to me it’s always been its heart.

In two days—photos and a celebration of Athens.