Odyssey of a Greek great

Re­live the bo­hemian 1930s in Athens and on Hy­dra

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DO­MINIC GREEN

In Athens, all roads lead to Plateia Syn­tag­matos, Par­lia­ment Square, but none of them moves quickly. Vis­i­tors to the city that in­vented democ­racy bake in the square, wait­ing for the chang­ing of the guards with their fierce faces, goos­es­tep­ping gait and flounced fus­tanella uni­forms. The rit­ual ob­served, we retreat from the heat and traf­fic to the chic shops and cafes of the Kolon­aki neigh­bour­hood, or to the mu­se­ums clus­tered be­neath the north­ern slope of the Acrop­o­lis.

Kriezo­tou Street, tucked around a cor­ner near the north­west tip of Par­lia­ment Square, is typ­i­cal of mod­ern Athens. It’s a non­de­script res­i­den­tial pas­sage, con­nect­ing two busy av­enues. But the sec­ond house on the left is as uniquely Greek as the sen­tries’ cos­tumes. It’s a mu­seum cre­ated from the home and stu­dio of Greece’s great­est mod­ern painter, Nikos Had­jikyr­i­akos-Ghika.

Ghika was part of the so-called Gen­er­a­tion of the Thir­ties, a group of Greek writ­ers and pain­ters com­mit­ted to en­rich­ing the present by mod­ernising Greece’s an­cient glo­ries. Af­ter study­ing in Paris, where he had met Pi­casso, he re­turned to Athens determined to ap­ply the ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes and in­ter­lock­ing planes of cu­bism to the myth­i­cal land­scape and in­tense light of Greece.

To­day, his friends’ paint­ings adorn the lower storeys of his house, and six decades of Ghika’s work is crammed into the up­per lev­els, in­clud­ing oil paint­ings and draw­ings, books and manuscripts, mod­els for the­atri­cal sets and sketches for cos­tumes, and sculp­tures in­spired by an­cient minia­tures. At the very top, his stu­dio over­looks the tan­gled rooftops of mod­ern Athens.

No mu­seum visit is com­plete with­out a cup of cof­fee, es­pe­cially in Greece, where the bev­er­age is thick, sweet and fra­grant. Around the cor­ner from Ghika’s house is a 1920s gem, Zonar’s cafe, fa­mous for its prices as well as its pastries, in­clud­ing the dan­ger­ously ad­dic­tive galak­to­boureko, which is semolina baked in filo pas­try, then soaked in sugar syrup. A lit­tle fur­ther away, amid the bou­tiques and restau­rants of Kolon­aki’s bo­hemian fringe, is the more af­ford­able Fil­ion cafe, popular with the artists and writ­ers of mod­ern Athens.

To work off the galak­to­boureko, win­dow shop as you fol­low Ghika’s foot­steps down Lykav­i­tou Street to Lykavit­tos Hill. Best to take the rec­om­men­da­tion of Ghika’s friend, the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Henry Miller. He climbed the hill just be­fore sun­set for the view across the whole city. To­day, there’s a restau­rant at the sum­mit, Or­i­zontes, and the smog gives a grey and pink shim­mer to the soft­en­ing light.

In the late 1930s, Greece’s myth­i­cal past and af­ford­able present at­tracted an in­ter­na­tional bo­hemia. Among the first for­eign­ers to ap­pear was the nov­el­ist Lawrence Dur­rell, who had grown up on the is­land of Corfu. Dur­rell in­vited his friend Miller down from Paris. Miller spent only a few months in Greece, but as his The Colos­sus of Maroussi (1941) shows, he was deeply af­fected by its peo­ple and its light.

He was also en­chanted by Ghika’s friends — the critic Ge­orge Kat­sim­balis, a sto­ry­teller and gour­mand, who is the Colos­sus of his book’s ti­tle; Theodore Stephanides, the poet-nat­u­ral­ist whose at­tempts at tu­tor­ing are de­scribed by Gerald Dur­rell in My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals; DI An­to­niou, poet and ship’s cap­tain; Kon­stanti­nos Tsat­sos, the pro­fes­sor-politi­cian who in 1975 be­came Greece’s pres­i­dent; and, above all, the No­bel-win­ning po­ets Ge­orge Se­feris and Odysseus Elytis.

Pain­ters know all about place­ment and space. Ghika’s house was two min­utes’ walk from the Apot­sou Ar­cade, and one of his group’s favourite ouzeris, a bar de­voted to ouzo and the philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions that en­sue. Apot­sos, where An­to­niou, fresh off his boat, would meet the Kat­sim­balis cir­cle for a noon­time ouzo, is now Cel­lier Le Bistrot, an up­mar­ket restau­rant.

Miller would have hated this sur­ren­der of art to com­merce. Per­haps he would be con­soled by Athens’ most ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of wines by the glass.

One day, Se­feris and Kat­sim­balis took Miller to Ghika’s house. The painter’s can­vases, Miller wrote, were “as fresh and clean, as pure and naked of all pre­tence, as the sea and light which bathes the daz­zling is­lands”. A few days later, Ghika took the trio of writ­ers to his an­ces­tral home on Hy­dra.

The house had 40 rooms, some of them “cool dun- geons” buried in the hill­side, oth­ers as large as “the sa­loon of an ocean liner”. On the ter­race, Miller and Ghika sat up over whisky, dis­cussing the monks of Ti­bet. Be­fore con­tin­u­ing his tour of the is­lands, Miller wrote the first draft of The Colos­sus of Maroussi.

Af­ter 1945, a new set of vis­i­tors be­friended the sur­vivors of the Gen­er­a­tion of the Thir­ties. They in­cluded nov­el­ist and clas­si­cist Rex Warner, whose Men and Gods re­mains a use­ful retelling of the Greek myths; Ed­mund “Mike” Keeley, whose In­vent­ing Par­adise re­lates the story of the Gen­er­a­tion of the Thir­ties; and, most fa­mously, the travel writer Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor.

Alexander’s Bar at the Ho­tel Grande Bre­tagne was this group’s home ad­dress. Alexander’s has not just sur- vived, but pros­pered. In 2012, Forbes mag­a­zine called it the best ho­tel bar in the world. For earth­ier plea­sures, two of the era’s favourite tav­er­nas sur­vive nearby in the Plaka, the old­est part of Athens.

A short walk from the Ghika mu­seum is Tou Psara, serv­ing tra­di­tional Greek food in two old man­sions with a shaded ter­race; nearby is an­other old leg­end, the Pla­tanos Tav­erna.

Leigh Fer­mor met Ghika in 1946, when the artist vis­ited Lon­don for his first Bri­tish ex­hi­bi­tion. Ghika, Leigh Fer­mor re­called, seemed “the most English of Greeks, el­e­gantly dressed, se­ri­ous, charm­ing, ap­proach­able”. In 1954, Ghika lent his Hy­dra house to Leigh Fer­mor and his com­pan­ion Joan Eyres Mon­sell.

“It’s a great white empty thing,” Leigh Fer­mor wrote, “on a rocky, cac­tussy hill­side among olives and al­monds and fig trees.” The house was perched on a hill­side so steep that he felt as if he were living in one of Ghika’s paint­ings. The sea seemed to stand “bolt up­right” and the town be­low seemed tilted “to the an­gle of those Byzan­tine back­grounds”.

In the 50s, Ghika be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned, with ex­hi­bi­tions in Lon­don, Paris and New York, and membership of the Royal Academy. In 1961, he left his wife for a Bri­tish woman, Bar­bara Hutchinson. It was Ghika’s sec­ond mar­riage and Hutchinson’s third, her pre­vi­ous hus­bands be­ing the bi­ol­o­gist and Bri­tish MP Vic­tor Roth­schild, and Rex Warner, who, hav­ing di­vorced Bar­bara, re­mar­ried his first wife.

The ac­tors in th­ese com­plex ex­changes took them in bet­ter spirit than Ghika’s house­keeper on Hy­dra. Loyal to the first Mrs Ghika, she burned down his house. Ghika never re­turned to Hy­dra, and died in 1994 at the house in Kriezo­tou Street.

be­naki.gr

The cre­ative draw­card of Hy­dra, top; Nikos Had­jikyr­i­akos-Ghika in his stu­dio in 1990, above left; the artist’s home and now a mu­seum, above right; Zonar’s cof­fee shop in Athens, be­low

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