Odyssey of a Greek great
Relive the bohemian 1930s in Athens and on Hydra
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.
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