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  • Shelley Dark

#18 Antío Elláda (farewell Greece)

I slept like a baby last night under the pink toile bed head. The Grand Bretagne is a gracious old hotel with a huge high-ceilinged foyer and ballroom on the ground floor. The architecture suits the ornate swagged curtain decor and massive central ottoman. Like many grand dames, it has its own personality. The staff are superb.

Last week I had a small balcony on the first floor overlooking Syntagma Square, the old palace which is now the parliament, and the Acropolis. This time, I'm on the sixth floor with a bigger deeper balcony.

The Grand Bretagne hotel was built in 1842 as a mansion in the insignificant and alternately dusty or muddy town of Athens, the capital of the newly independent country. Interestingly at the time of the revolution, Hydra had 28,000 population, Athens 2000.

The mansion was bought by the king's chef in partnership with a wealthy businessman in 1870, and renovated as luxury accommodation for visiting dignitaries. There were two bathrooms for the 80 bedrooms! A tunnel which joined it to the royal palace was recently boarded up.

photo courtesy Hotel Grand Bretagne

I love the rooftop bar and restaurant space, with a big outdoor terrace overlooking the Acropolis.

The hotel was Nazi headquarters in World War II, and home to fifteen hundred homeless during the civil war which followed. The history of Greece is littered with civil wars. I guess it 's a function of all the different ethnicities represented in this part of the world, including the Balkans.

The sixth floor rooms have their own check-in desk and butler service, espresso coffee or champagne to go. And the most delicious shortbread! Roses in my room, a gift of Pikromantola (bitter almond) liqueur from a distillery started in 1897, and the Grand Bretagne's dessert chef's own brand Arnaud Larher chocolates.

While I was waiting for my room to be ready I went down to the impressive basement spa with heated pool.

The day ahead was mapped out after discussion with Sotiris yesterday. The Benaki Museum (thank you so much Lucinda!) was top of the list, plus the changing of the guard with the goose-stepping black pompom slippers, the National Garden, and boutiques around the Benaki Museum area. My car for the airport was booked for 3.30pm and a 3pm checkout was available.

But I was keen to try my two genealogy contacts again.

I tried the first number. No answer.

I tried the second.

A voice, in Greek, but a voice! Demetrios. When he heard my voice, he switched to perfect English! He's in bed with the flu. How could he help me? When I told him, he said, 'Perfect. Hydra and the Greek Revolution is my exact area of genealogical specialty. You have come to the right place. I'd be delighed to help you. Send me a letter telling me exactly what you want.'

Can you imagine??? Isn't Maria a treasure, and how lucky to find this particular man?

'An email?' I asked. 'No,' said Demetrios. 'I am an old-fashioned man. I mean a letter.'

I sat down immediately at the laptop and wrote him a letter, detailing what I knew and telling him what I was looking for. Mina, the butler, had it printed and put into an envelope while I was out sight-seeing. I signed it when I came back, and she posted it this afternoon. How exciting!

The changing of the guard, which happens on the hour, turned into a débacle. I found out later the Israeli Minister of Defence was visiting, with troops lined up to greet him. An officious army officer shooed us away. 'Get out, get out! Back there!' he ordered, pointing his finger at the city corner. Pedestrians on our side were stopped. Yet the officer at the other end allowed people to keep walking along the footpath towards us.

photo courtesy Stanislav Amelchyts via Wikimedia Commons

I gave up on that part of the itinerary, crossed the street and walked on to the national garden.

This was originally the palace garden, thanks to Queen Amalia.

Queen Amalia lithograph author unknown courtesy Wikimedia.

She became the first queen of the new monarchy of Greece when she married King Otto in 1836. She spent three hours a day working here and planted these Washingtonia palms. If only she could see them now, 25 metres tall!

When I arrived at the Benaki museum a little after 10am, there were already three people waiting for tickets. The girl behind the counter was flustered, tapping and pulling at the ticket machine. She pushed back on her chair rollers to dive under the desk, holding on to the edge of the counter top to pull the chair back in to look at the machine again.

She ran one hand through her hair and shook her head, then looked up at us. Another attendant arrived, and together they gazed in consternation at the machine. The younger one hit it. They looked up again, embarrassed. 'Please. Come back later,' and we were waved into the museum. I returned hours later to pay as I left. The young woman was amazed.

I went straight to the floor reserved for the Greek War of Independence. No problem with photography here. I wonder why some museums allow photos, yet for others any photography is a cardinal sin.

I enjoyed the costumes worn by people of the era.

And many paintings - this one of a ship visiting Hydra at the time.

And the fallout of war. It's always the women and children who suffer.

A graphic and charmingly naive depiction of one of the naval battles.

And Lord Byron, one of Greece's greatest supporters.

If I'd lived then, I'd have liked this pair of pistols which belonged to a famous freedom fighter. I'd still like them!

This is an old photo of one of the mansions on Hydra. It was built in 1802 and pulled down in the early 20th century, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the hill on my apartment's side of the harbour - the opulent carved wooden architectural detail was removed and brought here.

This is the floor plan, heavily influenced by Venetian style. A ceiling and doorways have been recreated at the Benaki museum using the original wooden carving and panelling.

above: the cross is 1838, tobacco box undated, incredibly detailed gold and enamel belt buckles 2nd century BC, the snake ring 1st century BC, red stone bracelets 3rd century.

I'm always drawn to the jewellery!

Did you know that lustre ware was around in the third century? Fancy that!

I think that mosaics are nearly my favourite. This one is Byzantine. But how is it that mosaic pieces stuck down in Roman times are still adhering? Will mosaic tiling done today remain for another two thousand years?

Isn't this beautifully intricate embroidery on a 15th century altar cloth?

If you had a hankering for the family to keep your skull after you're gone, you could do far worse than this silver skull casket made in 1816.

I wandered the quite smart shops up the side street net to the Benaki and happened upon the windows of Galerie Tsangarakis with these two bracelets. I prefer the emerald one, don't you?

The pretty little cafés didn't tempt me for lunch.

I wanted have my last Greek meal looking at the Acropolis from the hotel rooftop.

The menu choice was very easy - five beautifully grilled scallops with superb kimchi, pureed potato, crispy onions, fresh apple sticks and bacon. Foodie heaven.

I'm sitting at the airport and it's almost time to go. I've particularly loved writing this diary for you. The pace has been leisurely in the calming whiteness of that bijou apartment overlooking the spectacular harbour. I've accomplished my mission and have a much better understanding of where and how our hero lived, and the politics of the time.

I'll be waiting impatiently for information from the genealogical society. And best news of all, a darling Instagram friend has written to say she's proficient at written Greek. She has offered to translate the book I photographed at the archives! What more can I ask?

My research will probably take until mid-2019. Then the real work begins. I'm looking forward to the next couple of years!

SPECIAL NOTE: I won't be writing a diary for next month's research trip to Malta, Andalucia and the south of France but I'll post photos on Instagram. I'll keep you up to speed about future diaries.

I'll remember the clusters of bitter oranges against the glare of white buildings and the blue Greek sky.

And Hydra. I'll always remember Hydra.

Until next time buddies, I wait you.

shelley dark, writer 

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