by Stephen Bayley, The Telegraph, July 7, 2017
To a surprising degree, mainland Greece is unexplored, although these things are always relative. I was in the part of the eastern Peloponnese that tourist guides call “the friendly Argolic Gulf” – and if only I could have found someone on the deserted streets, their friendliness might have been be tested. I was also at a waypoint in the continuing business of getting lost, one of travel’s mixed pleasures.
Two hours out of Athens, the GPS signal had faded and we’d been forced to rely on an ancient Mondadori map which my wife picked out of a Venetian dustbin earlier this year. It covered the entire Greek mainland on a scale of 1:1,750,000, which is not useful if you are looking for small turnings.
Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote that in Greece, “there is hardly a rock or a stream without a battle or a myth”. Except perhaps near the little town of Kranidi, which we circled three times. According to our destination’s charming but rudimentary, sketch-map, Kranidi has a Lidl, a post box and a cement works. Of battles and myths there was nothing to say.
After several more circuits of increasing futility, when images of the labyrinth came to mind, we were rescued by a sweet man on a moped who showed us the way and fully demonstrated the advertised local friendliness. And the way was, indeed, down apparently unnavigable tracks which moments before we had rejected as hilariously unlikely or simply impossible. Still, when the cocktail hour beckons, a rented Nissan Micra can become a formidable off-road tool.
Yet on the way to the Argolid Peninsula you pass battles, myths and sites in a number to please even Leigh Fermor. The sublime Corinth Canal, an unrealised classical project, is a Greek contribution to the modern world. Soon after, there is Epidaurus and its glorious theatre. You can divert to Nafplio, the old capital with a pretty port dominated by a looming castle. A Venetian architectural presence gives the town a cosmopolitan feel: port-side is an enfilade of cheerfully busy restaurants. We were told Savouras is the best, dutifully went there and have no reason to doubt it.
On this journey, you pass close to the Lion Gate at Mycenae. And you pass through Nemea, the taming of whose lion was Herakles’ first labour. Its fur was impervious to weapons, a little like the 11lb of citrons we bought at the roadside. Classical, they were not.
The Argolid has several seaside towns of which Porto Heli is the most famous and most ugly, although many rich Greeks choose to live here, including King Constantine, who perhaps enjoys its Wild West mood. You need to cross Porto Heli to find the little port of Kosta, departure point for pine-clad Spetses.
A few weeks before the season began, we were sitting on a deserted deck sipping white wine, admiring the sun-dried cars while we waited for Mihalis, the water-taxi driver to arrive. He was on Greek time. Me: “What time can you pick us up?” Him, shrugging: “Whenever you like.”
The 10-minute ride is great fun: as you bash over the waves, the Poseidonion Grand Hotel comes to dominate Spetses’ Dapia, or New Harbour. It was built by a Spetsiot shipper who returned from the United States full of architectural ambition. Grimly neoclassical, it was inspired by the InterContinental Carlton Cannes Hotel in Cannes and The Negresco in Nice, glittery standards in littoral bling, although it lacks the warmth and glamour of either. Traditionally, customers were summering Athenians hunting quail and turtledoves. Today, the customers look sad.
Eventually, this same Sotirios Anargyros built a school that was an Eton-Harrow replica, now shuttered, where British author John Fowles and his fictional alter ego, Nicholas Urfe, once taught. Fowles found the silent Spetses interior so beguiling that it was the setting, as the island of Phraxos, for his magical novel, The Magus. The Villa Bourani is the real-life house of Maurice Conchis, the Magus himself.
From the hotel Fowles called the “obese” Philadelphia, it’s a 20-minute walk past shops selling surfer schmutter and novelty soaps to Tarsanas, where we ate “small fish fried… particular to Greece” in a lovely, ramshackle boatyard set around a small inlet, listening to someone hammering a hull while we thought of Leonard Cohen.
This is because next door to Spetses is Hydra, where Cohen bought a house for $1,500 (£1,160) in 1960, met Marianne the muse and wrote Bird on a Wire in his boho exile: he was celebrating the arrival of the telephone. “Having this house makes cities less frightening,” Cohen said.
Facing Hydra across serene and placid water is Ermioni, the ancient Hermione, the most attractive of the Argolid’s seaside villages and in summer the busiest. You sit at Kavos taverna admiring the island of Dokos, inhabited only by shepherds and some specially hardy Orthodox monks, perhaps frightened of the city.
We were based at Amanzoe, a hotel-resort of fabulously incongruous modernity revealed, after a gruelling journey, with all the force of myth. The Nissan’s air-con was feeble and, sweaty, we watched with delight as security gates glided silently open. An idea of sanctuary came to mind. Amanzoe is as high as high-concept hospitality reaches: the site includes a library. Indeed, in our room – I am sorry, I mean “pavilion” – the 2009 edition of Loeb’s Hellenistic Collection: Philitas, Alexander of Aetolia, Hermesianax, Euphorion and Parthenius was evidently unmolested. A curator, for surely Amanzoe is curated more than merely managed, may have over-estimated the erudition of most visitors. The Japanese Toto lavatory with several different programmes and functions hitherto unimaginable except to surgeons is, perhaps, of more interest to most guests.
This is just one of Aman Resorts’ amazingly laid back, but micro-managed, hyper hotels bringing Architectural Digest values to neglected sites since 1988. Founder Adrian Zecha has sold out, and Aman is owned by Russians, but Ed Tuttle, an American who has lived in Paris since 1977, has been involved with Aman since the beginning. He is the architect of Amanzoe, rather as God is the architect of the universe. But I suppose if you must have a controlling intelligence, it’s good for that intelligence to have fine taste. Guest pavilions are 120 sq yd inside and the same outside. That’s to say extravagant: many decent London houses have less space.
Linen, carpets, drapery, service, furniture, facilities, atmosphere, amenities, discretion, light and space are exquisite. Tuttle has created an architect’s impression of paradise, a sort of Doric McHeaven with reflecting pools under the Argolid azure, propped here with site-specific classical details, peristyles, pediments and artful arrangements of amphorae and lekythoi. If you ordered ambrosia, they’d be served in these vessels.
Leigh Fermor intended to write only a single chapter on his travels in the Peloponnese, but in the end produced Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) the generous book that made his early reputation. It’s true: there is a lot to see and ponder hereabout. Hero or chancer? Great prose stylist or pretentious windbag? Sometimes Leigh Fermor’s dense and over-wrought style spoils the view and you can have too much of his Maniots of Corsica, the great Morean klephts and St Nikon the Penitent. Or the cliff-hanging monasteries of Prodromou. Still, I find he travels with me everywhere in Greece, bidden or not.
For example, next door to Amanzoe, en route to its Beach Club – a curiously precise 3.9 miles (6.3km) away by shuttlebus – is a farm owned by two brothers, one who keeps goats, the other sheep. Demonstrably so. A helicopter with a Russian visitor interrupted my preparation of a fine PLF-style metaphor while contemplating such manifest symbolism.
I am no sucker for globalised grande luxe, but Amanzoe offers a very nearly perfect experience in wonderful contrast to its rustic setting. The sole objection is that you do feel a little curated, but this is better than feeling abused or ignored. They watch your room’s card entry system vigilantly and the maids invisibly slither into the chamber the moment you leave (heaven must not have rumpled sheets).
Here you cannot speak of flaws, but it becomes anguish in Paradise when the Cretan lihnaraki (brioche), Taigetos Mountain God tea, Ancient Wheat Mix and tiganites (pancakes with honey) do not arrive quite as promptly as you hoped at breakfast. Certainly, an interesting locavore sensibility informs all the very good cooking at Amanzoe, although the poolside bar goes Asian-fusion after dark. Search me.
Alas, Leonard Cohen’s $1,500 remedy for urban anxiety is no longer available. Instead there is masticha. The ancients recommended it as a specific for coughs, stomach disorders, bad breath and poor skin. That may well be. Moreover, I accept that it is made not from resin bled off the mastic trees of Chios, but from the tears of Saint Isidoros who was tortured there.
Anyway, a seat on the terrace with a view of gentle countryside where honey is the cash crop, 23C, the maids invisible, a memory of sautéed anchovy with pickled cucumber garlic aioli and squid chips still in mind, a setting sun and a glass of masticha is as close to the next world as I expect to get on this one. Or, at least, in the Argolid.
Red Savannah (01242 787800, redsavannah.com) offers a five-night stay in Amanzoe from £2,394 per person, including five nights in a Pool Pavilion on a bed and breakfast basis, return flights with easyJet from Gatwick to Athens and economy hire car.
Sea Taxi: Mihalis Panagiotis, 00 30 693 242 1101
Tarsanas fish tavern, Old Harbour, Spetses ( tarsanas-spetses.gr )
Kavos, Akti Mitseon, Ermioni (00 30 275 403 2152)
Savouras, 77 Bouboulinas Street, Nafplio Port (00 30 27520 27704)