By Athena Lucero
When my small tour group reached Xylocastro, a seaside village of 5,800 inhabitants on the Corinthian Gulf in Greece, I was already smitten with this romantic region.
About a two-hour drive northwest of Athens and a hop, skip and a jump from Corinth, enchanting Xylocastro is where the beach and the pine forest meet. No wonder it's often called the most beautiful resort town on the northern coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, or simply, the Peloponnese. Throughout history the area has attracted intellectuals, writers, artists and poets.
Xylocastro means "castle of wood" and was named for the wooden hilltop watchtower built by the Venetians who settled in the area during the 13th century. Through time, the once densely wooded area was almost completely cleared so that the land could be cultivated for growing grapes. Thank goodness for its "useless" sandy soil, the pine forest of Pefkias on the beach remained untouched.
Pefkias today stretches along the clean and pristine beaches between Xylocastro and the neighboring coastal village of Sykia. It's a protected habitat with varieties of plants, trees, insects, birdlife, and small wildlife where hiking and bicycling are allowed, but not cars.
We stopped at City Hall, where the mayor of Xylocastro, Elias Andrikopoulos, welcomed us like friends. Housed in a 19th-century mansion painted pale yellow and surrounded by wrought-iron gates and with the rich blue sea as its backdrop, the municipality's offices felt more like an aristocratic residence.
As Andrikopoulos shared the town's attributes - the sea, the mountains, a ski center, ancient monasteries and the pine forest — he exuded deep pride in the "hard-working, dedicated and hospitable people of Xylocastro."
Together we strolled along the quiet marina (that later would come alive with the town's famous nightlight), greeted a friendly fisherman who showed us his morning catch, then paid respects at the magnificent Byzantine Church of Agios Vlasios, designed after the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens. With views of the heavenly gulf, it was named after Agios Vlasios, the bishop of Sevasteia and the patron saint of Xylocastro.
And while walking the lush grounds at our hotel in Sykia, curiosity got the best of me. I couldn't take my eyes off the pink stone villa that was once the summer home of Angelos Sikelianos, one of Greece's most admired poets and playwrights of the 20th century. Built in 1916, he lived in the villa with his first wife, Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, an American from New York. The dynamic couple was a force in the arts when they founded the Delphic Festival with the goal to bring people together from around the globe to encourage communication and mutual respect through music (Byzantine concerts), folk art and sports reminiscent of the ancient Pythian Games.
Two Delphic Festivals were held, in 1927 and 1930, at the archaeological site of Delphi funded entirely by the Sikelianos. The festival had reached international acclaim, but the financial burden of the extravagant fete broke the bank - and their marriage. Their noble contribution to humanity is a pride of the region's history. In 1949, three years before his death, Angelos Sikelianos was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the couple's home in nearby Delphi is now a museum.
By the late 1950s the Sikelianos villa was purchased by ship owner Spyros Typaldos, considered the pioneer of Greek tourism. Today the villa is part of the Sikyon Coast Hotel property, where large portrait drawings of Angelos and Eva adorn the serene glassed lobby that frames views of the Pefkias forest directly outside.
In the 21st century olive orchards and vineyards continue to grace the landscape in nearby Melissi, a testament to the area's rich agricultural legacy and proof that leveling the forest wasn't necessarily for naught. Here we met winemaker Dimitris Liakopoulos whose grandfather started the family's organic wine and olive business, and Panos Kloutsiniotis, maker of Ladolea extra-virgin olive oil. The men have known each other since childhood and now represent the next generation of farmers and creative entrepreneurs passionate about continuing the labor of their ancestors and respecting traditions. After all, wine and olive oil have nourished the gods and mankind since forever.
Liakopoulos and Kloutsiniotis invited us for wine and olive-oil tasting by the poolside of Lido Hotel (owned by the Liakopoulos family), where guests can take private tours of the vineyards and olive orchards, learn about organic farming methods, and even partake in the fall harvest, winemaking and olive-picking.
Kloutsiniotis "indoctrinated" us with a crash course on olives: "Start pruning in January, harvest in early November when olives are green ... and by December the olives turn black as aromas become sweeter and more delicate." The intensity of a grape's flavor is judged as mild, medium or robust. And the more robust an olive oil, the more nutritious it is.
With that we were eager for the hands-on part of our lesson. It's a bit like wine-tasting. But rather than the five S's — see, swirl, smell, sip and savor - we swirled the tiny cup of oil to release aromas, then slurped to allow the aromas to coat the mouth, then we savored the liquid gold.
"Olives grow on the flat terrain of Melissi while our vineyards are on terraced slopes in the mountains," said Liakopoulos. "It's the only way to keep the vineyards cool at night because there is no ocean breeze like in California!"
And that evening in Melissi could not have been more perfect as gentle waves lapped onto the pebbled beach just feet away. We tasted a range of Greek and international reds and whites, including two that I would call favorites — the Liakopoulos Estate's refreshing "Theenee" made from the Roditis grape, a white variety native to Greece, and the family Syrah, "Kyllene," with flavors of spice and "red forest fruit." Greek wines have come a long way during the last decade, Liakopoulos explained, thanks to the number of "well-educated Greek winemakers who went abroad to study great winemaking."
Visiting this region, I discovered that 80 percent of the country's geography is mountains - and I couldn't wait to make our way to Trikala Korinthias, an ancient settlement of three mountain villages in Ziria, the massive mountain range above Xylocastro (known as Kyllini in antiquity), where eight of its peaks reach higher than 6,500 feet. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Hera and Hercules, "the strongest of all mortals," lived on Kyllini. And the god Hermes was born here. He was the god of many things, including travelers and hospitality.
And while many rarely say Greece and skiing in the same breath, the sport is alive and well in mountainous Greece, and Ziria is among its top ski resorts.
A lasting memory in Trikala was when our group stopped for refreshments and a pop-up cafe suddenly unfolded. Two small tables and plenty of chairs were passed through the window of a tiny grocery store to the narrow road outside. There we sat on the roadside at almost 3,000 feet above sea level with a basket of bread, a plate of fresh feta cheese in olive oil, a salad of tomatoes and olives, grapes and divine Corinthian raisins that we grabbed by the handful from a huge plastic bag. Unpretentious and straight from the heart. That's what I call poetry.
WHEN YOU GO
For complete information about Xylocastro and Greece, visit www.visitgreece.gr. My accommodation was Sikyon Coast Hotel Resort: www.sikyoncoast.com. Liakopoulos Estate: www.liakopoulos-estate.gr
Ladolea Olive Oil: www.ladolea.gr
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.