I don’t know what Bill Gates had for dinner last night, but I can guarantee it wasn’t as good as what we had on the Isle of Tzia, also known as Kea: two large plates of deliciously fried calamari, a giant horiatiki salad and Fix a cold beer at a table by the sea, watching the moon reflect off the sailboats.
The cost was 33.20 euros for two people, not including a decent tip, so the meal and beer was $33.68, but it wasn’t the price that mattered – although it was way less than a classy restaurant – but quality and setting.
The salad produce at Piiesa restaurant is sourced from local growers and the onions were so crispy they looked like a Granny Smith apple when bitten. You haven’t eaten a tomato in your life unless you’ve had one in Greece, but you’ll be spoiled because all the other tomatoes will taste like air after this.
The squid – a very full plate – melted with every taste slowly savored and fresh bread to dip in olive oil from the salad was all you needed to complete the eating experience.
And then when it couldn’t get better, it did – a neck-chilling zephyr of the sea, taking away the warmth of a summer night when you had time to remember friends past and gone and wish they could be at the board too.
This is why people are coming to Greece in record numbers, more than three times the population, and although Athens is bustling and Thessaloniki is cosmopolitan, the islands are where you want to be in the summer.
These don’t include the more overrated and overgrown ones, like Mykonos, also known as ‘Scamos’ because it scams visitors, and on Tzia you can sit on the beach in a deck chair with a chest full of beer on ice and looking the same. sun setting over Santorini, untrampled. Vacations go where people don’t.
There are hundreds of inhabited islands to choose from, but Tzia is a favorite as the back of Poisses beach is calm even in the height of summer, and there are private coves for even more privacy.
These islands range from the lush like Corfu to the arid, from the wildly busy and even dangerous, like the rogue island of Zakynthos, to a few where vehicles are not allowed, Hydra near Athens and Halki near from Rhodes, where you can rent a room by the water, get out of your house, take two steps and jump into a deep sea.
PASS THE SMOKED SALT
Then, of course, there’s the food, and even grumpy celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, infuriating the Italians, said Greek food was the best in the world because no matter what form it takes, Italians are just pasta and Greek food is so varied that the Italians cannot match it. They even buy Greek olive oil and rename it.
It is Nikos Kazantzakis’ most famous character, Zorba, who in Crete experienced the joy of Greek life and the way of living it. “I felt once again how much happiness is a simple and frugal thing: a glass of wine, a roasted chestnut, a miserable little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
Famous writers and singers have also found a muse in Greece, with Henry Miller declaring “Greece takes a lifetime to discover, but it only takes a moment to fall in love with it”, and Lawrence Durrell, who lived in Corfu and made her famous.
“The light from Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being,” Miller said.
The late British scholar, writer and soldier Patrick Leigh Fermor, who fought behind Cretan resistance lines in World War II, had a home in the Peloponnese at Kardamyli and was one of those who were charmed by the Greek way.
He said of Greece it brought “the feeling of being lost in time with geography with months and years flickering vaguely in perspective of inconjecturable magic”.
When the rich and famous talk about going to the “islands” in the summer, everyone knows they mean Greece and some – like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson – have homes on them, and the late Canadian singer Leonard Cohen had a home on Hydra for years and his family still visits him.
It would take a hardy soul to live on the most beautiful Greek island all year round, because the cold and dark winter months do not bring the magic of lounging on the beach in the summer, book in hand, but all the everyone must have one on their list.
You don’t have to be a writer, TV star, or celebrity to feel the essence of Greece and absorb the rare light that has a singular incandescence, or escape to an island for a weekend, a week or a month because despite the popularity of the country, it is still affordable.
Some come to dance on tables in Mykonos, or party, visit archaeological sites, soak up history and travel back through the eons to touch the hands of philosophers.
But the real reason is in places like Tzia or your own favorite island, even if it’s just a summer break where COVID is forgotten.
Now is the time to eat more squid.