A summers chronicle when Champagne expert Richard Juhlin went to Greece & contemplates about the sun, the people, the landscape & an champagnes.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
The best I know is a pleasure-oriented holiday combined with equally pleasurable work in Italy, France or Greece. Me and my oldest friend Henrik and our grown children had a fantastically successful trip in Italy last year and already decided when we got home to Arlanda about a repeat in Greece this summer. We’ve been traveling together since we were teenagers, but last year was the first time we traveled with our grown children without car-sick women and toddlers, which definitely increased the opportunities for a little more advanced debauchery.
Last year in Italy …
Last year we got off to a flying start and ended the first evening in Piazza Duomo in Milan celebrating the Italian European Championship gold together with thousands of euphoric Italians. A little strange to note that the same Italy, just like Sweden, unfortunately misses this winter’s criticized WC in Qatar. In Italy’s case after a loss against highly modest North Macedonia. After the intense big city experience, we found the harmonious calm in perhaps the Dolomites’ best oasis, Hotel Forestis. Unfortunately the weather was not really on our side when we tried to photograph a couple of Champagne Hikings in normally grand settings this time shrouded in dense fog. A couple of fantastic vinothéque vintages of Taittinger ‘Comtes de Champagne Rosé’ were still great experiences in the ultra-fresh air despite minimal visibility.
At Lake Como we had a completely different kind of holiday and it is fascinating to see how different the faces of Italy can appear at a distance of a few miles between places and regions. The highlight at Lake Como was our dear reunion of our friends who created the world-leading chocolate brand Domori and chef genius Ettore at the magnificent world-class restaurant Mistral housed in Hotel Serbelloni in beautiful Bellagio. It was a late velvet night under the stars before we took George Clooney’s boat back to the other side of the lake. Tuscany with Pienza and Val d’Orcia was perhaps the top favorite last year. In the rolling historical landscape, we topped off the experience with an active holiday life at La Bandita that suited all ages. High up on a grand hill with a view for miles, we did the summer’s best Champagne Hiking with Cristal and with an unforgettable bottle of Dom Pérignon ‘P3’.
This year: Greece …
This year we enlisted the help of Sweden’s leading travel agency, Travel Beyond, because we are not at all as knowledgeable about Greece’s donut places. Initially, we thought to do like the vast majority and focus on some of all the beautiful and unique islands that the country holds. Maybe Zakynthos or Mykonos? However, we changed our mind for logistical reasons and decided to drive around mainland Greece. Henrik and I had a fantastically good recent memory when we were with my sister and photographed site no59 Meteora for the award-winning book Champagne Hiking. Then as now, we started in the country’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. This time with a Greek dinner in the harbor and an overnight stay at an Urban Chic Hotel. Both the town and the hotel were somewhat of a disappointment and not something I will try again despite a cozy evening of fine tsatsiki and perfectly grilled souvlaki skewers in the moonlight.
It would be better the very next day. Ever since I first saw Roger Moore fall headlong off one of the surreal cliffs in the blockbuster For Your Eyes Only, I‘ve longed for the dizzying heights of Meteora, and every time I read to my kids about Bamse‘s grandmother who lives on High Mountain, have I understood that the author Rune Andréasson must have had Meteora as a role model. The travel agencies talk far too often about »hidden treasures«, but when it comes to Meteora, it really is no exaggeration. Despite the fact that the unique mountain area in the middle of the Greek mainland is one of the world’s most beautiful and distinctly “drop your jaw” places, very few, apart from the proud Greeks themselves, have heard of the geological treasure. It was with a tickling feeling in the pit of the stomach that Henrik and I would show our children this unreal magical place. Would they be as impressed as we were? Would the place hold up for a return visit, or was it a magic that couldn’t be recreated?
Just like last time, the unreal stone pillars suddenly appeared without warning after a few curvy turns on an old donkey trail. Like gigantic soft rounded grey-black Darth Vaders in sandstone stood those insanely beautiful mountains that compete with China’s Rainbow Mountains for the title of the world’s most astonishing rock formation. When we arrived at our Meteora Hotel Kastraki, incidentally one of at least five hotels with the same name, we were relieved to note that the small village of Kastraki was safely nestled between the mountains and that we had an outstanding view of all its glory from our pool where Melker and I cooled us down after our sprint sessions and where Rebecka lay glued to further improve the already chocolate brown tan.
The monasteries were originally 24 in number but today only six remain, which is perfectly sufficient to add an extra dimension to the landscape in the seamless meeting between nature and civilization. The first Great Meteoro Monastery was built as early as 1340 when the Greek Orthodox monks sought protection against the Albanians and the expanding Koran-faithful Turkish Empire. The impregnable monasteries were built one by one until the 17th century without blueprints, stone by stone. Thus, despite countless earthquakes, some of the oldest and closest ones still stand and amaze and delight even today.
Although the mountain peaks are numerous, it is easy to quickly botanize and map the perfect vantage points. The winding roads go very smoothly up to all the points where the light at different times is optimal for capturing the shadowy figures drawn on the mountain sides. Henrik and I also remembered very well where we had been last time and decided to drive the official location from the book one night and find a new hoisted view the other night.
Champagne Hiking on the mountain
I have to confess one thing. When we made the book, we usually had three different types of champagne at each place and chose the most suitable one. As Meteora was the penultimate location we photographed I had already selected Larmandier ‘Vieilles Vignes du Levant’ for the location and in the book it says this is the perfect choice which is not quite true. Certainly a great champagne, but there are better places for this magnificent grower champagne. The champagne that gave us the greatest experience was instead ‘Cuvée William Deutz Rosé’, which has already found its place in the book on Skagen’s beach. This time we were going to try the 2002 ‘Cuvée William Deutz Rosé Vinothèque’ which I know still has a youthfully flamboyant fruit and is laced with majestically ripe notes.
However, it didn’t start out so well. I was carrying a giant, filled to the brim, ice bucket wearing my most slippery shoes when the slope towards the steep made my legs auto run straight towards the cliff, before Henrik stopped the crew with a careful rugby tackle without spilling a drop and perhaps more importantly without I flew out over the ravine. The experience was outstanding this time too. The champagne was as if cut and cut purely aromatic, but also the color came to be tailored as the sunset painted the rocks with an increasingly rosy shimmer. Henrik brought out his blind test champagne, a 2006 ‘Cristal’ which was almost as perfect, but reverse order would probably have been better. The children were, to say the least, as enthralled as we were and they promised their nostalgic fathers to bring us here with their children and our grandchildren when we are really old. A slightly religious place that you can see in our Friday Champagne film. Not as emotional but even funnier was that word spread quickly among nearby tourists who apparently found Champagne Hiking online and recognized me. So the ending took place with spectators as you can see in the picture inserted next to this.
The second evening we found a new Sunset Hiking which you can also watch as Friday Champagne film with 2004 Louis Roederer ‘Blanc de Blancs’. A place that was also hauntingly beautiful, but far from perfect as the rock we chose turned out to be an overcrowded tourist spot where we crowded like puffins on the ledge. Perhaps we are a bit critical, as the community when you huddle on a rock during devotions with like-minded people waiting for the spectacle of nature is reminiscent of the wonderful atmosphere before an outdoor concert. In addition to the crowding, the carelessness of parents is a factor that shocked us. 5-year-olds in slippery shoes were allowed to dangle their legs against the precipice of the abyss in a terrible way. I shudder just thinking back to how dangerous it looked. How many fall every year?
Before we were done with Meteora, we had time for a Selosse Rosé Hiking and a picnic spontaneously orchestrated by our lovely waiters at the hotel. The first evening we were overwhelmed by Christo’s incredible speed. He was really everywhere. How did he manage? Day two we got the trick. He had a twin brother!
We left unreal Meteora with a satisfaction and curiosity about the next place Costa Navarino which the former Greece professional Olof Mellberg warmly recommended us to visit. The drive through the Greek mainland was considerably more comfortable than expected as high road quality and empty roads gave us time to soak up the beautiful and unusually green landscape with all its historical remains from one of humanity’s foremost civilizations which underpins so much of what we defend today .
The wealthy Greek shipowner Vassilis Constantakopoulos (1935–2011) had a dream to return to his beautiful birthplace in the fall of his age and build the optimal resort with world-class golf courses. Vassilis didn’t quite see his entire project completed, but is still regarded as a god by the locals who now boast one of Europe’s premier resorts. A plant has brought a lot of income and jobs to the formerly poor end of the peninsula on the south-west coast of the Peloponnese. Constantakopoulos signed an unimaginable 1,600 different contracts and bought 2,500 hectares of land along the coast before the big dream came true.
Today, Costa Navarino is an ultra-exclusive world cut off from everything. Everything is here and everything breathes quality. The golf courses are world class and it’s no wonder considering that Bernhard Langer and José María Olazábal designed the meticulously maintained courses. I’m not a golfer but rode along in the buggy as a caddy and couldn’t resist trying my hockey-inspired swing a bit mischievously and following the ball’s long journey through the surreal landscape. It was so lovely to just stay in this environment that I can imagine starting with it for myself otherwise a bit too non-physical sport in the fall of age. So far, I prefer to work out in the gym and here there were several gyms, tennis courts and even a soccer field where I drilled my hard-working son at a camp designed together with Bayern Munich of course.
Through the care of Travel Beyond, we managed to get two rooms at Romanos which is the finest part of a joint complex with Westin and Mandarin Oriental. Here are 20 restaurants with high tails in different styles. Are we craving Lebanese, Japanese, Greek or Italian tonight? The level of service is improbably high everywhere despite the fact that the area is gigantic and the amount of people within this mini-country is considerable to say the least. The children thought this was paradise with endless choices and frequent switching between bathing in the deepest and cleanest part of the Mediterranean and the pool complex or the private pool that each room is of course provided with. Henrik and I grumbled a bit about the overcrowded breakfast facility which, despite its high level of raw materials and selection, breathed a bit “All inclusive” and we didn’t suspect a hint of a charter atmosphere. We also didn’t really think that any of the good restaurants really reached star level and that is undeniably a minus for us. After swimming and training, the evenings always started with a Champagne Hiking on the beach as you can see in the videos we made for Friday Champagne before we went to the meeting place, the big square around which most of the restaurants and bars were located.
Costa Navarino offers so much more than just sports, gastronomy and royal accommodation. The entire coastline is dotted with fjord-like coves and the cultural heritage stretches back 5,000 years, but we have to admit that we missed out on all that glory as this part of our tour was spent entirely within the gates of Costa Navarino.
Across the Peloponnese
We saw all the more as we passed across the Peloponnese reading a Greek history book at each new monument we passed. We also managed a short stop in Olympia before we had lunch at a small farm in Kalamata, Europe’s leading olive district. Such a beautiful and endless rolling landscape with millions of olive trees of hundreds of different varieties and qualities. The landscape changed and became increasingly dry and monotonous as we approached the smelly suburbs of Athens. Traffic chaos and air pollution greeted us before our GPS showed us that we were in the middle of town at the Royal Olympic Hotel. Was it really the right hotel? Was it like this in the middle of the traffic chaos? Yes, it turned out that the hotel was just as good as the pictures promised when Henrik finally succeeded in the feat of parking our ride to the minibus. Above all, there was a cooling pool oasis and an otherworldly beautiful restaurant terrace with an astonishing view of the Acropolis rock and the Parthenon. My stomach was a little upset after a bad burger at the resort, but when I saw that they had a 2005 ‘Cristal’ and a ‘Romanée-Saint-Vivant’ on the wine list, I couldn’t resist ordering them both with our slow-cooked lamb with tsatsiki and grilled haloumi . A wonderful restaurant hike where you could feel the wings of history at the same time as the sun went down and colored the world-famous chalk-white pillared building bright yellow and orange. The alarming fire belt we saw in the other direction had an even more intense color. Greece has actually had an unusually cool and rainy summer, contrary to what Swedish newspapers write, but the nice cooling wind has caused the fires to spread faster than usual.
The next day we did something we never usually do. We jumped on a “hop-on hop-off bus” and sat like packed tourist herrings with headphones and soaked up the city’s rich history alternately in the solar gas and alternately under the roof. We managed one last sprint session in the park together with a surprisingly large number of Europe’s only parrots before finishing at Greece’s best restaurant. Two-star and strictly Francophile-oriented Spondi with a month-long waiting list quickly conjured a table for us when the Champagne Club was whispered in an email. Our outdoor table under the stars in the velvet night was euphoric all on its own. Add to that a cannonade of vintages from Louis Roederer and a controversial bottle of 2000 Dow ‘Vintage Port’ and completely outstanding food that probably deserved 3 stars in the famous guide and you understand that we rolled home more than satisfied our final night. When the others had gone to bed, I sat and philosophized on the balcony and made my comparisons between our beloved Italy and newfound Greece. I came to the simple conclusion that the similarities and differences meet in a wonderful way and that the world would be an incredibly poorer place without all the contributions that these two giants of history gave and will give us in the future.