Authors: Charles Blackstone
The cabin warmed again, with the bright sun streaming in. More snow piled on the mountains and the exponentially enormous pine trees and rendered the road perilous. Yet the Mercedes bus wheeled along, like a dutiful German, indifferent to the fluctuations. As we pitched and pulled, I had to press my right shoe into the plastic footrest to keep myself from falling out of the seat. We'd definitely driven back through time and into December. There was enough snow now to ski. The copy of
Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Izzy had discovered in a compartment of her suitcase and brought along for the four hours we were scheduled to spend on the route fell from her hands. The slam startled her awake.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Winter,” I said.
“Where the fuck do they grow the grapes?”
Trucks headed downward in the left lane came closeâvery closeâyet Mike impassively persevered. I tried to push the phrase
too fast for conditions
out of my mind.
In the back, Maddie, Dick, and Barry whistled “Sleigh Ride.”
“When were you going to wake me up, Hapworth?” Izzy asked. Her digital camera snapped away our vantage of the mountains, which was filtered by frozen and melting ice and snow on the window.
Another rig almost sliced off the left side of the bus. A small car zipped by in a blink. An orange salt truck lumbered ahead. Aside from the exteriors of vehicles that hadn't been already covered, the color was completely drained from this landscape. Everything that wasn't moving was white and gray. The windows began to fog. It was like we drove in an avalanche now. The brightness up here became surreal. We were pushing deeper and deeper into a white, soundless dream. The climbing had us level with the snow on the tops of trees we'd passed at their roots roadway rungs below when we'd begun plunging. Soon I couldn't see anything on either side of the bus.
Mike downshifted. The bus felt unsteady. It rocked a bit beneath us. A spray of ice brushed against the right side. I wasn't certain that the wheels were actually making contact with the slippery ground.
We passed over a river through which water tumbled. “Do you want to stop?” Mike called out in Greek. The first words he'd spoken the entire time.
After an uncertain pause, and without consulting anyone, George yelled back in English, “No, they don't want to.” I stared out the window in the same direction George peered. Black signs with faint white arrows lined the curve we were chasing.
When we reached the town of Metsovo, the storm began to recede. It didn't appear we were anywhere close to the winery. After a turn here, and a climb there, before long, we were pulling off the road again. Mike lit a cigarette. The smell in the cold reminded me of taxis I took on the Upper West Side growing up, or piloting the Mustang around the slick Hyde Park streets in college, late in autumn.
In the driveway of what looked like a ski lodge, we got off the bus. We clambered, snow engulfing our shoes, into the Katogi winery, which was also our hotel. We settled at tables around a small bar behind the check-in desk. Helen, a Katogi employee, began preparing coffee, Nescafe, and cappuccino to order.
The desk clerk gave Izzy a castle skeleton key, though the room we unlocked with it was quite the opposite of antiquity: flat-screen Sony television, aromatherapy candles, IKEA lamps, and other Scandinavian-inspired furnishings. Izzy washed her face and reapplied her eye makeup. I changed into a black T-shirt and a blue hoodie, lay down on the bed, and closed my eyes. I felt a hand shoving my shoulder a millisecond later.
“We have to go, Hapworth.”
“Yeah,” she said, and inspected her silver watch. “It starts at three.”
“Okay,” I groaned.
Helen, the staffer who'd first greeted us, gave a tour of the facility's lower levels. She described the history of wine production here in Metsovo. In the late 1950s, Evangelos Averoff, an admired intellectual and onetime prominent politician, had planted their first Cabernet Sauvignon vines on the slopes of the Pindus Mountains, down the Balkan Peninsula. These inaugural grapes were crushed and fermented and bottled in the cellarâ
âbeneath Averoff's house. Given the region's low-temperature climate and consistent humidity, the basement offered effortlessly ideal conditions for aging. It continued to do so for its current armament, consisting of hundreds of French oak barrels. The winery here also served as a local resort hotel.
Following the tasting, we had dinner in town with Sotiris Sotiropoulos, the winemaker, and Katogi's managing director, another Sotiris, who also happened to be Averoff's son-in-law. The wood-paneled restaurant was decorated with iron and copper plates and brown tapestries, and reminded me of a Viking meal hall. From there, we went to see Averoff's house. It had been turned into something of a Metsovo history museum. We strode, single file, past sculptures and paintings, animal pelts and primitive tools, a medieval kitchen on one floor, a room containing a desk staged with pens and papers and a telephone on another.
In the Katogi hotel lobby bar, Helen brought out a large bottle of ouzo. She seemed to have an infinite supply of energy, despite the late hour and the long day we'd shared. The sight of the tray of small glasses she presented next prompted Dick and Maddie to say their goodnights. George, Barry, Izzy, and I sat at a rounded booth and drank and chatted with Helen. She shared enthusiastic anecdotes about Averoff and Katogi. I was touched to see how moved she was by the lore. After she poured the
, she asked about my line of work. I told her about some of my sillier restaurant concepts, like the Quiet CafÃ©.
She was clearly intrigued. “So people, they do not speak?” she asked.
“Exactly,” I said. “That way guests can concentrate on what they're reading.” I could see Izzy shaking her head in my peripheral vision. Thanks to the ouzo, I didn't register it as hostile and continued forth.
“How do they make their orders?” she asked.
“In a separate part of the cafÃ©.”
“And nobody hears them?”
“No. It's, like, across the hall.”
“We're still working out some of the details,” Izzy interjected.
Wednesday, March 26
Breakfast at one thousand six hundred sixty meters was an
alluring and jeopardous bounty. There were spanakopita rectangles and slices of breads and cakes and flaky pastries on one table, ham and sausage and cheese and hard-boiled eggs and an assortment of teabags on a second adjacent. That afternoon we had a flight to Athens, where we'd board another plane that would take us to the island of Santorini. With a few free hours this morning before travel, we could dine here at the hotel, for once without stint, and later, do some things that didn't involve tasting wine.
When we finished, we got on the bus, which lumbered into Metsovo's town. There we lazily toured the Averoff Art Museum. The museum had a collection of ancient-era Greek paintings, as well as a number of rooms displaying the work of modern artists. I was struck by the skillful strokes and poignant symbolism of an oil depicting a male figure bowing his head to a healthy green tree, which leaned toward him. Between man and tree there was a bond, electricity moving in both directions, a communing between intellect and nature. It seemed to aptly convey my connection to this Mediterranean land that I was discovering. The Averoff staff gave us catalogues to take home, thick, bound coffee-table volumes that we appreciated receiving, even if our oversubscribed suitcases wouldn't.
At the foothills of the snow-blanketed mountains, we dawdled while Mike the driver, in a proper gentleman's hat and long coat and small black gloves, affixed chains to the tires of the bus. The hulking vehicle had no chance of making it back up the hill without some reinforcements. To while away the time, we wandered souvenir shops. I browsed a store's magazines. There were a number of English titles, in addition to the primary Greek offerings, on the spinning kiosk:
Truck and Machinery
Art and Decoration
DVD and CD Mag.
George disappeared for a while and came back with exciting news.
“The Olympic torch relay is coming through the square.” He pointed at a makeshift stage at the top of some stairs leading to a park. “The lighting's in ten minutes.”
This explained the throngs of people that had been gathering since we got to the museum. They'd filled in the open cobblestone-paved areas around the parked cars and lined the pedestrian paths police kept clear for the proceedings. Dozens of children waved plastic Chinese and Greek flags. I had an unobstructed view of the cauldron that the traveling canister of flame was to kindle.
Everyone watched silently, triumphantly. Izzy put her arm around me, and we stood together while the ceremony took place. Every step was carried out meticulously: the coterie of runners behind the torchbearer moved in time, paused synchronously. I struggled to hold back tears. I couldn't even comprehend exactly
was so profoundly affecting. And there it was. The cauldron lit up and the flame had made its first official stop.
After an hour and a half on the road, we reached the Ioannina airport. We gathered our brochures and tasting notes and other accumulated detritus from the in-cabin stowage compartments of the bus. Mike returned to us the luggage he'd stacked neatly in the rear hold. Then it was time to say good-bye to our driver. We'd been together so long that it was a little sad to know we'd have to go on without him. I, of course, could only communicate how crucial I felt he'd been to the journey thus far by shaking his hand. Once Mike had finalized some details with George, he got back into the bus. He pulled the Sprinter out of the small airport driveway and was gone.
We checked in and passed through security. The plastic tub-seated chairs we took looked like leftovers from the 1970s. I was still thinking about Mike. “I wonder if he's going to miss us,” I said to Izzy.
She smiled at me. “I'm sure . . . he's off to his next tour group. You know?”
I looked around. There were Dick and Maddie, a few rows away. They worked at reorganizing their parcels, which had been disrupted during the security screening. There was Barry, who stood by the pay phones, holding a bag of oregano-flavored Ruffles. He appeared incredulous as he counted the coin euro change from his snack bar visit. There was George, on his cell, a vision of equanimity, our leader.
“We meant more to him than just any old tour,” I said.
When we landed in Athens, we claimed our baggage from Aegean, checked it once again, and settled into an Olympic Airlines flight to Santorini. Izzy put her head on my shoulder. I leaned my head against hers. We both closed our eyes. We got in around eight and reunited with our things. Outside, George hailed two taxis. A BMW with a more capacious trunk took Barry, Maddie, Dick, and their profusion of baggage. Izzy and I got into a Mercedes. George gave both drivers the name of the hotel, Laokasti, in Oia, and climbed into the front seat of our car.
“Ee-yuh,” George corrected, after I mispronounced the name of the village. “The âo' is silent.”
Our driver added that Oia was considered the most beautiful of the Santorini villages. It was situated eleven kilometers away from Fira, the capital, at the top of a cliff. Oia offered visitors an impressive view over the Palia and Nea Kameni volcanoes, which sat in a geological formation known as the Santorini caldera, as well as of the Thirassia island.
Across a cracked tile veranda and through a garden of olive trees and fragrant herbs, we located the seafood restaurant where we'd have dinner, Saltsa, which sat along the water. Our reservation was for a perfectly locally acceptable nine
Izzy and I took places in the middle of a long table that had been set for fourteen. It stretched from one end of the restaurant, beside the bathroom, to, nearly, the other, by the main entrance. I sat facing the kitchen's window, which was festooned with flogged octopi that dangled from brass hooks. The winery we'd visit the next morning, Sigalas, had sent reps to greet us. Some of our Boutari friends, whom we'd met last Friday night in Thessaloniki, were also here. They'd brought with them some local sommeliers and wine spectators.
The party emptied several bottles of Boutari Santorini while the courses came out and circulated. This Santorini wine was made from Assyrtiko grapes, andâperhaps heightened by our new geographyâtasted lush and rich, like ripe pear and apple and cream, with spicy and smoky notes. Izzy remarked that the wine was a perfect match for the foods we had, the charcoal-grilled seafood specialties for which this region was famous. I ate octopus risotto; grilled sardines; cod in a cornflower crust, done with caramelized beetroot and fava beans in garlic; and fillet of bream with crawfish sauce. For dessert, there was panna cotta with strawberries; chocolate mousse; and
, an ice cream served with caramelized rose petals.
Back at the hotel, Izzy took off her clothes in the bathroom. She lay on the made bed in a white terrycloth robe of unknown provenance.
“What do you think of Dick?” she asked me. Her voice was a little tremulous, shaky from drink.
“I don't know. He's growing on me, I guess.”
“You realize if I went to work for him, we'd move to New York.”
I said nothing.
“And you don't want to. I can tell.”
“It's not that I don't want to, Izzy, it's justâ”
“Do you know how much money I could make with him? Way more than from that stupid restaurant and the TV show. No Chef Dominique to take seventy-five percent of everything because he was under the impression that he was the most important part of the equation.”
“I still don't know how you ended up with that shitty of an arrangement.”