Dedicated to Billie Cohen of Condé Nast Traveler.
The real joy of travelling is not in seeing things – the world is so overrun with images already – but in experiencing things, the magic moments are when we become someone different from our usual selves.
I was in slow, gracious Charleston, South Carolina for the Conde Nast Traveler annual summit where the great and good of the travel world, (and me,) are gathered together to discuss trends and best practices. Walking down King St which is the Park Avenue or Bond St of Charleston, I saw a lady with a small dog on a lead crossing Hasell, a major side road. Plumb in the middle of Hasell, the small dog stopped to pee.
The car turning from King St into Hasell stopped, waited courteously for the dog to finish, which took a while. Once the dog was all done, the lady smiled, bowed to the car driver, and thanked him kindly, the car driver called back “Y’all have a great afternoon,” the dog wagged its tail, the lady finished crossing the road, and the car resumed its left turn and went on its way. I stood watching speechlessly – In New York that dog would have been as flat as a pancake and smeared over 3 metres of road while the lady would have been stoving in the car windscreen with her handbag. And that is a perfect example of the joy of travel – what insights suddenly flash into our minds when we experience a different culture. When a dog has to pee, the world should wait for it. Graciously. Those magic moments.
What has this to do with the best taverna in Greece?
Patience y’all…. We are gettin’ there.
So I ask myself, – what are the insights that flash into our minds when we experience the real Greece?
I can answer it this way – Billie Cohen, the irrepressible truffle hound of Condé Nast Traveler, is hunting for news; the best this, the newest that, the hippest shop, the coolest bar, the hottest destination. I am always slightly stumped when asked this about Greece – there is very little new in Greece after so long, and it is a country that cherishes the old and longest surviving – Since Plato’s time, Greeks search for the essence and brush aside the ephemeral. Yes, a new, cool restaurant opens, but it will not be the newest, best, coolest restaurant next year, it might not even be the newest, best, coolest restaurant at the end of the summer, heck, it migh have closed down by November, so they don’t really think in those terms. To be honest, most tavernas are all pretty similar and all pretty good – wooden tables with paper tablecloths held down over the table edge by clips, a basket of fresh bread and olive oil plonked on the table, 3 cats winding themselves under your feet, the eternal game of trying to make sure the smallest cat gets its fair share of food, a passle of small children playing tag between the tables, the waiter shouting at them as he weaves his way out from the kitchen to the waterfront where the tables are, trying not to fall over them, the array of small plates that everyone shares, and then the complimentary squares of cake or sweets or candied fruit brought to you after you have paid. All the fish is freshly caught, all the oil is local, all the tomatoes burst with flavour, all the recipes have been handed down by the grandmother. It all tastes fine, and even better if you are barefoot, your skin is sun-warmed and sea-salty, and you are hungry from hours of swimming.
What is unique to each taverna is the relationship you build with it. Travellers to Greece often return to the same island year after year – they patronise the same taverna, become friends with the owner who might greet Lord Rothschild at his usual table with a hearty “Yiassas” and a clap on the back, who will give him his analysis of the political situation and tell him where he should be putting his money, who might take his guests’ children out fishing one day.
First time travellers will also, by the end of a 3 day stay on any island, have a favourite taverna, because they too will have built a relationship. They will have a taverna that they feel they have made their own, where they feel special, they will have experienced one of those magic travel moments that change you a little, that make you like life a little more, (like the lady with the peeing dog crossing Hasell St), that are the reason we travel.
The best taverna is the one you have a special relationship with – you have made it the best taverna, there is no objective best taverna. There is only Plato’s essence of Taverna. The best taverna in Greece is the one where you felt the magic.