Other Cultures

Ejo #149 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Ziggy Attias

Chateau Orquevaux is a magnificent property perched on a hill overlooking the tiny village of Orquevaux in the beautiful French countryside.  With a population of about 70, the charming, centuries-old village was in grave danger of fading into obscurity, as its young folk flocked to nearby cities in search of a better life. 

That is, until Ziggy Attias came along and breathed life back into Orquevaux.  In 2015, he inherited the neglected property from his father, intending to fix the place up and sell it.  Instead, he very quickly fell in love with the Chateau and decided to transform it, and its gorgeous grounds, into a place where artists could visit and retreat from the world.  A place they could spend time with like-minded people, and find inspiration, creativity and collaboration.  A place in which artists could focus on their art, somewhere they could just be.  A place of peace and tranquillity, of breathtakingly pristine nature and an overwhelming sense of magic which radiates throughout the entire estate.  And so he created the Chateau Orquevaux International Artists & Writers Residence programme. 

I recently had the very great fortune of spending two wondrous weeks in residence at Chateau Orquevaux.  I shared those two weeks with twelve other artists; mostly painters but also a collagist, a photographer, a musician, another writer, a clay sculptor and a floral sculptor.  And while I was there I was very lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with Ziggy to chat about art, what being an artist is about, and his 100 year plan for the future of the Chateau. 

What is an artist?
What is an artist? I would say an artist is someone that can express themselves in the most honest way, the most vulnerable way.  I think an artist is someone that’s outside the box, somebody that is a free thinker.  There are a lot of people that call themselves artists that maybe aren’t.  The kind of artist that I’m attracted to is somebody who’s loose, not judgemental, somebody that accepts people as they are, and doesn’t try to put themselves on everything.  So they can be quirky, they can be a little crazy, all that stuff is okay.  But, if they want to be accepted, then they need to accept.  So to me, the purest way to be an artist is to be somebody who’s out there and free and expresses themselves, but also accepts that from other people.

So what makes Ziggy an artist?
I don’t really do any one discipline.  I would say my main discipline is manifesting something out of nothing.  So I’m an idea person. 

Like the Chateau?
Like the Chateau.  Seeing something from a little bit of a different angle than somebody else would see it. Obviously I didn’t build the Chateau, but I had an idea of what it could be.  I would say all the different forms of art that I’ve done, whether it’s film or jewellery or sculptural pieces or writing, I think I come at things from what I can do.  Because there’s a lot that I can’t do.  So my creativity, what I think makes me unique and gives me a voice, is that I find these cracks that other people don’t find.  I remove all that I can’t do and I see what’s left and then I have to be creative with that.

You know, I struggle with the term artist.  I know a lot of people do, and I think in my case, it’s because I don’t do any one discipline for long.  I tinker with everything, a lot of different things.  And there’s a lot of things I don’t do anymore that I do still think about.  Writing is something that I’m interested in, but it’s not necessarily easy for me.  

So that’s something you’d like to pursue?
Yeah, but not necessarily a novel.  All my writing is personal essays.  It’s always about my experience, and my experiences here at the Chateau.  And I feel like there’s something being built here that will possibly have historical significance.  So I think my writing is important in relation to that.  I don’t know if it’s important out there in the world, but in relation to what’s happening here in Orquevaux, I think I am an important part of that.  So I think my story’s going to be that I’m not an artist like a painter, who paints every day.  I feel like this whole place is my studio.  And at this point in my life, my strength is empowering a lot of artists, as opposed to me being in my own studio trying to make my mark.  I think my mark is in this giant studio that everybody gets to come into, and then hopefully they can do good work and then it goes out into the world.

So that, I see now, is much more important than me trying to make my mark on a specific creative endeavour.  You know, I think this whole bigger creative endeavour is more important than any smaller individual pursuit.  I don’t know if people necessarily define me as an artist on a day to day basis, even though I feel like I live my life that way.  I think my body of work will be my life.  And people will look back and they’ll see the different accomplishments I’ve had, different things I’ve done and put it all together and say, “Oh, he created art there”.  When you put it all together, I believe that there’ll be no question that, yes, that guy was an artist. 

What kind of training have you had?  Have you had any formal training or mentorship, or are you self-taught?
Everything’s self taught.  I didn’t know I was creative until I was around 21 or 22 years old.  I would say I was angry prior to that for a variety of reasons.  What happened was that I knew this guy who was a friend of the family, a neighbour, his name was David.  He was this angry guy, but he was a teacher, an art teacher.  And he made this thing with metal and solder.  I can’t draw, I can’t paint.  I can’t do any of that stuff.  And I was just really attracted to this thing that he made.  And it was like, can you teach me how to do that?  Which was a weird thing for me to ask, because there was no reason to think that I could do that.  But he said, well, if you’re serious, go buy these materials.  He wanted me to prove that I was somewhat serious. And I went to his house, I think we spent an hour together, maybe an hour and a half, and he showed me how to do soldering, which became, something that I turned, I believe, into an art form.

And because of that, I had a place to put this anger, which I wouldn’t even call anger anymore. I think anger is just one form of expression.  I found another way to express myself that wasn’t anger.  I was able to create something that people valued.  And I was able to turn that into jewellery, and it opened up my whole world.  And it opened up these doors of possibility.  So I would say that an hour with this guy gave me my whole life.

It led to this, essentially.
It 100% led, to this.  Because I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the other creative endeavours.  I would’ve been a guy cutting grass, because I had a landscape company at that time, and I think I would have been successful at that.  I always thought I was going to be a businessman.  But that started to change as I found new ways to express myself.  So I was becoming worse at being a businessman, and better at being a creative person.  And then because I had to make a living, I always tried to find a way to mix the two, like how do I pay the bills, but do something creative, not just for the sake of money.

And so with the writing, what made you want to write or think that you could write? When did that start?
I think it started when I did a documentary about a Native American tribe on Long Island.  So when we were trying to figure out a direction for the documentary, I realised I knew nothing about them.  So I thought that the film could be my personal journey of discovering these Native Americans on Long Island.  So then you have to write about that, if it’s a personal journey, you have to journal it in, and that became the film’s narration.  So from that, I started to think about my life in different ways, and I would get into these moments where I would just journal.  And then when I came to Orquevaux, I knew I could write – personal stuff, it’s all personal, I can’t do fiction.  So I started taking the writing a little more seriously when I was here.  

So you continued journalling?
I never journalled regularly.  I think it’s more when you have hard times in your life, that you write.  But I started to figure out my place within the context of this job, or this life, that relates to the Chateau.  And I started writing, and I’m always nervous when I write.  I write from fear, like I’m always thinking I won’t be able to finish the piece, or it won’t have an ending or whatever.  So I build it sentence by sentence.  Because I’m afraid to go past the next sentence –

So you aren’t able to look forward and see the end?
I can’t.  I can’t do it like that.  I have to have a feeling about something, and I start writing and then hopefully in the first few sentences I’ll find a theme and a direction and that gives me the story.  And then I have to do editing and rearranging, because maybe some thoughts came too early.  I don’t just write it.  I’m like, oh, this story relates to that thought.  Then we can consolidate those two thoughts together, things like that.  And from that, I discovered that my writing always forms a circle.  There’s always an ending that relates to the beginning, and a theme forms.  So I get excited by that, but I also get nervous that I can’t do it again.  So I don’t write as often as I probably should.  I have a bunch of works in progress right now, and I have been tinkering with one, finishing a piece that I’m going to read to you guys tomorrow.

Ziggy reading for Literature Night in the salon.

I look forward to hearing it.  Tell me about something new that you are working on?
Well, I have an idea for a contemporary art museum here that I initially thought was going be in a building that I bought that’s near the church, but we just made a deal for another property which has about five acres attached to it.  So now I have this idea that in the future we’ll be able to build a real contemporary art museum from the ground up, with a large sculpture park.  And the park will always be open to the public.  Obviously we would run the museum, but the whole thing would be for the people, you know what I mean?  So when people come to Orquevaux to do the Cul du Cerf, which is the walk to the source [of La Manoise River], it can become more than just the Cul du Cerf here.  Orquevaux will also be this museum and it’ll be the sculpture park and you can bring your lunch with you, and there will be a performance centre and art studios and a gallery.  And I think that I can get some help from the government for that, but I don’t think it’s something that is going to happen for some time yet.

But it’s something you’re working on.
Yeah, definitely.  I like the idea of creating a museum.  The residency is the same way.  In many ways it’s the unknown artist.  So I like the idea of this museum that will be filled with amazing work and that’ll be the reason that people will come here.  To see all this new work that they don’t know.  And it’ll still be a beautiful experience, because it’s not the obvious.  It’ll be completely original, by the power of all the people that helped build this place.  And I think we can all create something amazing together. And I love that idea.

What goals do you have for the future? What do you want to achieve personally, artistically, professionally creatively?
I think there’s only so much I can do in my lifetime.  If I’m lucky I have 30 years, or maybe 35 years left.  So I don’t know how much of it I can achieve, but I do want to create an art village, and I’d love for it to be the whole village of Orquevaux.  And I don’t think, in my lifetime, that I’ll be able to get the whole village for the residency, but I think we can get quite a bit of it. And then I think the next generation will continue that.

Tell us about your plan for the village?
My plan for the village is to make a place that, if you love art, is really a one of a kind village in the countryside of France, surrounded by cow pastures and agricultural land.  It’s in a valley, and it’s this magical place with two castles and a beautiful church and art studios, and artists living everywhere and there’ll be music and art and sculptures.  It’ll be a creative think-tank, of all the arts.  So of course artists will want to come here, but if you’re not an artist you’ll also want to come here to enjoy it and to discover artists, and maybe collect work.  I want to create a place that is art driven.  And I think it’s a perfect size village, because it’s not too big, but it’s big enough.

And how will that plan live on, after you’re gone?
It’ll be self-sustaining, and the question is whether it’s going to be a board that runs it.  It can’t be run by one person.  I mean, at the moment it is.  I have a team obviously, and it’s getting bigger, but right now I’m the driver.  But I think in the future, when I’m not here, it shouldn’t be a single person.  It should be a collective of some sort, and you could have a president and a residency director and all the jobs that relate to it.  Maybe it’ll be not for profit.  My first choice would be that the whole thing gets acquired by a big art university.  But then my concern is that they would just use it for their students.  I want it to be open to the world.  So the goal is to create something like that, and have it be self-sustaining, so that artists don’t have to pay to come here, because it shouldn’t be whether you can afford to pay for it or not afford to pay for it.  So we’ll see how it works out, but I’d like it to be open to everybody. 

Tell me about someone who inspired you artistically. 
I don’t think I have anybody like that.  I had a complicated relationship with my father, but I will say he was a person that just did.  So it was just, “do”.  I learned that if you want to do something, just do it.  Don’t worry about doing one thing a hundred percent, do lots of things at 80%.  Just keep moving and try to improve.  So I think that watching him as an entrepreneur and a businessman, it must have put those seeds in my head.  I’ve been like that ever since I was very young.  So some of that is just in me.  I think the world inspires me in different ways.  If I see something that inspires me, it can open up a whole world for me. And then, even though I don’t know anything and even though there’s obviously fear and anxiety attached to doing it, I don’t not do it.

Do you still get fear and anxiety about things?
Sure, all the time.  I don’t know how to do anything.  So whenever I want to do something, I have to just go and do it.  It’s the unknown.  From my life, I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  I’m always uncomfortable.  And when I get comfortable, I’m a little bored. And that’s why every day I have new ideas, and I want to push it further, and push it further.  And I think as resources grow I’ll be able to create some amazing things.  COVID pushed me back a bit.  We were in a good run and then it just pushed it back.  

So I don’t know exactly if I could say a specific person inspires me, but I would say open people inspire me, and people that are open to ideas inspire me, because I’m always looking for ideas.  I’m always looking.  I’m always scanning.  I’m like Robocop, always scanning.  We have all the artists that come here, and I’m just trying to figure out how do I harness all that energy, and then how do I express that energy in my voice?  

Finally, what advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting your artistic journey?  And parallel to that, what advice would you give to someone else starting their artistic journey?  And would it be the same advice or would it be different?
I wouldn’t wish my life on anybody else, because there were so many decisions that had to be made and I’m like a cat with nine lives or 50 lives.  I don’t wish it on anybody.  There were so many minefields, and some of those mines exploded.  I’m just lucky I didn’t lose any limbs, and I managed to get back on my feet and keep moving.  And we’re not all cut out to make those decisions, or to make it through that.  So everybody’s got their own journey.

For myself – and I would still give this advice to myself now because I still worry a little bit – I would say it’s going to be alright, don’t worry so much, just keep doing the work.  And I think that’s the advice I would give to somebody else too.  Just keep going, get up every day and do the work.  If you want to write, write.  If you want to paint, paint.  If you want to – whatever you want to do, you gotta do it.  If you want to make movies, then go get an iPhone and make a movie.  So I think just do the work and, every day try to improve a little bit on what that is.  I think that’s the advice.  And I would give that advice to myself too.  And I would say to myself, try to worry less.

Do you think you’d listen?
I don’t know how to not worry. You know what I mean?  Because it’s not just about the money.  There’s always something to worry about.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word, but I think that you need a little bit of fear.  You need a little bit of risk.  There has to be risk, otherwise you’re on autopilot.  There’s nothing exciting about just being able to do it.  There has to always be a risk involved to try to break new ground.

The amazing gang of artists at Chateau Orquevaux (13-27th May 2022). Photo courtesy of Andrew Putschoegl.

For another very enjoyable chat in which Ziggy discusses the artist residency and his hopes for its future, check out this podcast.

Ejo #148 – A Tale Of Two Cities

Dubai really is like no other city in the world.  Check out this post-covid promotional video if you don’t believe me. 

See, I told you!  Looks amazing, right?  Well, it actually is an amazing city, made even more remarkable by virtue of the fact that it has grown and developed out of nothing, in one of the least hospitable places on earth.  That the country even exists at all is testament to the vision of Sheikh Zayed, beloved father of the UAE.  And the city of Dubai, the shining star of all seven emirates, is evidence of the determination of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to transform the emirate that he rules over into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. 

In fact, Sheikh Mohammed has many ambitions.  His most recent philanthropic campaign is a drive to provide one billion meals to needy people in 50 countries around the world.  The Ramadan initiative, called “One Billion Meals”, aims to develop “long-term solutions to improve lives across the world, without any discrimination” by collecting donations from the public until enough money has been raised to provide the aforementioned billion meals to “women, children, refugees, displaced people and victims of disasters and crises”.  A noble cause indeed.  Unfortunately, the initiative does not include people living in the UAE, with the website explaining, “Charitable institutions and humanitarian associations within the country already engage in community campaigns and continuous projects that meet the needs of impoverished individuals and families in the UAE”.  Wonderful. 

Remember that video I showed you earlier?  Every single building you see in that clip, every swimming pool, every harbour, fountain, iconic building, highway, resort, metro, island, amusement park, aquarium, hotel and mall was built by the hands of immigrant labourers, predominantly from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.  It is through their blood, sweat and tears that this sparkly, shiny city was created and yet, for some reason, their faces are never represented in any marketing videos.  They get no kudos, they receive no recognition and they are shunted out of the way to live in hot, dusty, squalid labour camps, several men cramped together in a single room, the overpowering smell of garbage inescapable.  And that just really sucks because, despite being out of sight and out of mind, they are still here.  They are real people.  And they deserve a little bit of time and attention and kindness and respect, just like everybody else. 

So I want to show you their faces here. 

Dudes!

These are the men that the Sheikh doesn’t want to feed as part of his fancy One Billion Meals crusade because their needs are apparently already being met.  Charity, it would appear, doesn’t necessarily begin at home.  Or maybe feeding your own workers and providing them with better living conditions isn’t as strong a virtue signal to the world as a catchy slogan is (though in my humble opinion, it really would be).  So this Ramadan, as we have done for the last nine years, David and I and some of our wonderful, generous friends set out to provide these unseen men with a delicious, filling Iftar meal to break their Ramadan fast. 

Chaos.

I always get a kick out of being at these food handouts, witnessing the gratitude on the faces of the men, feeling the love that comes from giving to someone in need.  And this year did not disappoint.  This time though, there was a feeling in the air that was different.  Normally we hand out the meals from the back of a van on the street, but this time the meals, packed up in boxes, had been placed inside one of the dormitories.  That made it feel more intimate, and more personal.  We were in their world now.  It was also more chaotic than usual because guys from neighbouring labour camps had caught wind of the handout and swarmed the joint.  It always feels really bad that we can’t feed every single person who needs a meal, but that’s life I guess.  We were there to give food to the guys living in that particular dorm, and that was made a little tricky by the interlopers.  Eventually we figured out a system in which a representative from each room would approach and tell us how many men he was cohabiting with (usually between six and nine) and he would then be given the correct number of bags, each containing some dates, a piece of fruit, a bottle of water, some laban and a hot, tasty biryani.  That system seemed to work out OK. 

David and I stuck around after the food was gone because I wanted to take some more photos.  With the other volunteers no longer with us, we felt a little out of place, like we didn’t belong.  But I was never afraid.  On our way out, a few of the guys approached us and asked David and me if they could take selfies with us.  Of course we agreed, and before long we were surrounded by a throng of young men, taking photos, as if we were movie stars.  This was the first time we’ve ever personally interacted with the men we’ve given the Iftar meals to, and it was wonderful.  I hope to do it again next time, as it really made my day.

Our campaign to feed 2000 men was a drop in the ocean compared to the billion meals that the Sheikh wants to donate in his name, but for me what made this year so special were the fleeting human connections I made with those men.  I had the opportunity to chat to a few of the guys, and I made an effort to look as many of them as I could in the eye.  I got the chance to see them.  As people.  I smiled at a lot of them, and received many smiles in return.  And it was these beautiful smiles that truly uplifted me on that day.  The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has been quoted as saying “Even a smile is charity.”  And if that is the case, then it was I who was enriched by the experience.  Because I walked out of that camp absolutely elated and exhilarated, walking on air.  I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed knows the feeling. 

My beautiful husband.
Six men live in this tiny room. They were kind enough to let me in to take a photo.
At the end of a hot, sunny day, the stench gets pretty bad.
This young man should be out having fun with his friends, dating, dancing, living his life. Instead he is essentially an indentured servant, working 12-14 hour days to send money to his family.
This guy is my favourite. There is a fragility to him, but at the same time a steely eyed dignity. I wish him well.

Ejo #146 – Drunk In….. Milos and Sifnos

After coming back from Santorini, David and I were hooked on Greece.  We had some more leave coming up, so I immediately started researching some more Greek islands that we could explore.  I’d read great things about Milos, and did a deep dive on Airbnb, looking for an amazing villa to be our home base.  Perhaps because Greece had just come out of an extended lockdown, I really struggled to find any properties on Milos that ticked all my boxes.  Don’t get me wrong, there were some really nice places.  But mama wanted a pool, and mama was gonna have a pool.  It’s me, I’m mama.  Airbnb tried to be helpful by offering up pool villas on neighbouring islands, but I wasn’t interested as I was super keen to stay on Milos.  But no, Airbnb belligerently insisted that I just take a look at this one place called Asteria on Sifnos, the island next door.  Fine, I said, stop hassling me already, I’ll take a look.  And the rest is history because the villa was absolutely perfect, ticking all my boxes, and then some.  And that’s how it was decided that we would do a double feature and get drunk in….. Milos and Sifnos!

So, you know how I just said I couldn’t find the perfect place to stay in Milos?  I’mma backpedal on that, because I did find somewhere that was absolutely breathtaking.  OK, so it didn’t have a pool, but when you see it, you’ll understand how truly special it was.  It was a tiny house, called a syrma, dug into the rockface right on a secluded beach.  Traditionally, syrmas were built to protect fishing boats from the wild Milos winter winds, and were later adapted to provide housing and shelter for the fishermen themselves; or turned into small summer houses for locals. 

Our syrma is located at the other side of this super private beach.
A close up of our studio, dug into the rockface.
Inside the beautifully renovated syrma, looking out at the sunset and the exclusive beach.

The syrma that we stayed in had been beautifully renovated by the most welcoming hosts we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting on Airbnb.  Giannis and Anna, treated us like family right from the beginning.  Giannis met us at the beach and carried my ridiculously heavy suitcase 130m across the sand from the carpark to our little house.  They regularly kept us topped up with fresh water bottles and provided us with eggs and olive oil from their farm.  Even though we were there for just four days, I totally fell in love with Anna, who reminded me of my beautiful aunt Toula.  Her visits totally made my day, watching her wave and call out to us as she jogged across the sand with various local delicacies that she’d made for us.  One day it was a delicious halva cake, another it was watermelon pie.  I was avoiding carbohydrates but still tried all her offerings because it felt like they were made with love.  And I would do it again. I choose to eat the way I do because it makes me feel better, and because I know it’s healthy.  But food still has a special way of connecting people, and of transcending nutrition.  Food is a means of communication, of showing emotion and of bridging gaps.  If someone offers me something that they made for me, I will eat it.  Firstly as a show of respect, but secondly because I choose to partake in the ritual which is being performed.  I want to be involved, and I choose to be open to new experiences.  I want to experience it all.  It’s one of the reasons I love to travel so much. 

My new BFF Anna. One of the warmest, most loving humans I’ve ever had the pleasure of being hosted by.
The delicious semolina halva that Anna made for us. ♥

Giannis and Anna’s syrma was absolutely gorgeous.  It was small, but perfectly formed, and more than spacious enough for the two of us.  And the best thing about it by far was that it was literally right on the beach.  We slept with the doors open every night, falling asleep to the sibilant sound of the waves lapping on the shore.  I feel so lucky that we had the opportunity to stay in such a beautiful place.  We swam in the crystal clear waters of the private cove several times a day.  We were in heaven. 

Right outside our door.

Our first (and last) dinner in Milos was at a seafood restaurant called Astakas, located right on the beach.  I remember the first dinner far more clearly than I remember the last, but more on that later.  I might have already mentioned that when you go to a taverna in Greece, you can get some pretty good house wine, which is normally ordered by the kilo (or half kilo).  I really love this concept because it totally smashes the illusion of wine snobbery.  Wine ordered by weight.  What’s not to love about drinking wine from a barrel.  It’s what I grew up with, and (after dipping my toes into some wine snobbery myself) it’s a philosophy I’ve come to fully embrace.  And when you’re in the right place, a place like Astakas, you can actually get some incredible local wine by the kilo, and that includes Assyrtiko, our favourite Greek grape.  After our Santorini trip David and I learned the trick of ordering a bottle of sparkling water, two glasses of ouzo and half a kilo of white wine as soon as we sat down at any restaurant.  Boom!  Take note and make sure you do the same next time you happen to find yourself on a Greek island.  The few times we were told (down a waiter’s nose) that wine wasn’t served by the kilo and that we had to order a bottle of wine instead, we knew we were in the wrong place.  Greek food isn’t fancy, it’s not supposed to be fancy.  It’s simple.  It’s delicious.  It’s food for the people.  And the people want wine by the kilo. 

Astakas restaurant by the sea.

After a blissful night’s sleep, we awoke to the sound of the waves at our front door.  Serenely beholding the beach that we had all to ourselves, we waded into the sea for a swim.  And it was glorious.  The syrma was truly one of the best places we’ve ever stayed.  It was simple, but still so special.  Honestly, money can’t buy that kind of exclusivity.  We spent the morning on our deck, overlooking the water, soaking it all in and taking it easy.  For lunch we headed to Medusa taverna, a short, ten minute drive away, where we were treated to a fantastic meal overlooking some of the clearest and bluest waters I’ve ever seen in my life.  Once again the taverna was a simple, family run affair but they served what I think is the best food on the island.  We indulged in fava, a Santorini classic dish of mashed yellow split peas, drizzled with a phenomenal olive oil and served with onion slices, fried local goat’s cheese smothered in the lightest honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds, freshly caught mackerel cooked on a charcoal grill and drenched in lemon juice and spectacular grilled eel and octopus.  We ate to bursting, kicking back and enjoying the vibe of sitting at a beach taverna with nowhere to be and nothing to do.  And then, when we asked for the bill, they brought us a generous serving of loukoumades, a Greek dessert which is basically deep fried dough soaked in honey syrup.  Can you believe I managed to refrain from eating these tasty treats the first two times we came to this fabulous restaurant, allowing David to demolish them all himself.  I am happy to admit that I did try them on our third visit, and OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!  They were scrumptious. 

Beautiful Medusa restaurant, our favourite taverna on Milos.
Tender and delicious grilled octopus.
Freshly caught, grilled sardines.
Local grilled goat’s cheese, and split pea fava (bottom left)
Delectable grilled mackerel.
Complimentary loukoumades. Eight of them, 😉
Very happy customers.

After lunch at Medusa, we walked down a dirt track to what I think is perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in my life, Tourkothalassa beach (which translates to Turkish beach).  There was hardly anyone there, so we stripped off (as we are wont to do) and waded into the spectacularly clear water.  I remember treading water and looking around me and thinking that I was in the most beautiful place on earth.  And I became emotional. About being in Greece, and loving it as hard as I did. About finally connecting with my heritage in a way that I’d never been able to do while my parents were still alive. About losing both of my parents. I ached for them to see me there, to know how much I loved their birthplace. I ached for them to be there with me, floating in paradise.

The view from Medusa’s carpark – you can see Tourkothalassa beach on the far left.
The number of deserted, essentially private beaches in Greece is what converted me from being someone who was never really into beach life (ugh, I hated sand) into a real beach bunny. When the beaches are like this, how on earth could you possibly resist?

One of the most famous of Milos’ beaches is Sarakiniko, a whitewashed rocky beach resembling a desolate lunar landscape that was formed by strong winds and waves sculpting Milos’ unique white volcanic rock.  We swam in the deep, frigidly cold channel but didn’t stick around for too long.  Being such a stunning spot, the beach was overrun with couples and groups taking videos and photos of themselves, and each other, to post on social media.  It lent the place a kind of circusy vibe which was at odds with how beautiful it was.  Don’t get me wrong, we took plenty of photos of ourselves.  To be honest, I probably would have stuck around if there had been a tavern at the beach, but since there wasn’t and since I was getting hungry (and thirsty) we decided to take off and head back to our fave taverna, Medusa for some more delicious food and wine. 

Spectacular Sarakiniko

Since we were in Milos for only four days we didn’t really get to explore the whole island, especially as we spent so much time at our syrma, chilling on our own beach.  I’d definitely love to go back to the island sometime and get to know it better.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that we only went to one bar on Milos, and that bar was Yankos.  Oh my god, Yankos was nearly the end of me.  It’s not a fancy cocktail bar at all, more like an all day dining joint that has a very dangerously strong cocktail happy hour.  At €6 a pop, we sat down for drinks one afternoon, and when I got up several margaritas later I could barely walk.  I don’t remember much of what happened after that but I do know that we walked up the road to one of the best seafood tavernas in town for dinner, Mikros Apoplous.  I’m not super proud of what happened next, but in the interests of transparency I’ll recount it as best I can.  We sat down and ordered a few small dishes and a whole grilled fish.  I was pretty drunk, but I’ve been drunk before and I know how to comport myself when I’m in that state.  Usually.  This time, however, I was not able to comport myself, and the world just kept on spinning, very dangerously.  I guess I decided that the best course of action for me to take was to leave, because I just got up and took off down the road, shouting something about having to go home.  I have no idea where I was going, I just knew that I had to go, selfishly leaving David to deal with the aftermath.  He graciously explained to the concerned waiter that I wasn’t feeling well and that of course we would pay for the meal but we had to go.  They told him that the fish was nearly ready to serve and would we like to take it home with us.  And so we ended up back in our syrma, me feeling much better, standing over the kitchen bench and absolutely devouring the magnificent grilled fish with our hands. Not a bad end to the night, all things considered.

The next day I woke up, appropriately feeling like arse.  There’s always a price to pay.  I know that, I’m not an amateur.  I sucked it up as we packed up, checked out and headed into town to pick up our ferry tickets to Sifnos, the next destination on our adventure.  When we arrived at the ticket office we were told that the only ferry of the day to Sifnos had been cancelled.  WHAT???  Ferry schedules are notoriously unreliable in the Greek islands, and we’d known that when we booked.  But Sifnos doesn’t have an airport, so ferry was the only way of getting there.  Feeling pretty dejected we sat under a tree in the town square trying to figure out the best course of action.  We needed to find another place to stay for the night in Milos as the syrma wasn’t available.  And we’d have to ask the car rental company to extend our rental by another day.  I also had to contact Philippos, the host of the gorgeous villa in Sifnos, to let him know that we wouldn’t be there until the next day.  It was all a little stressful.  I am not the most spontaneous traveller in the world.  I schedule a lot of time for spontaneity, but the framework of my holidays need to be in place well in advance.  I’m talking about tickets, and I’m talking about accommodation.  Of course I can handle a minor glitch like a cancelled ferry, but it does stress me out. 

David had the wonderful idea of going to Medusa taverna for lunch, making it our third visit!  And it was perfect.  We ordered our favourite dishes and plenty of wine and, feeling more relaxed, I set about trying to find a solution to our problem.  It was actually Philippos who offered to get in touch with a friend of his who owned a speedboat to come and pick us up from Milos and take us to Sifnos later that day.  The cost of this private charter was an extortionate €300.  David and I debated it for about two minutes and quickly decided, fuck it, let’s do it.  I mean yeah, we could have saved some dough and caught the ferry the next day, but that option felt lame.  Catching a ridiculously expensive speedboat was way more badass and when faced with the option of doing something the lame way or the badass way, you can bet I’mma pick the badass way. 

Happy badasses. Bye-bye Milos, hello Sifnos!

So, we arrived in Sifnos, rented a four wheel drive and made our way to our very secluded villa, in the middle of nowhere.  Oh my god guys, this place was just astounding.  We were staying in a five star property in one of the most barren, wild, isolated places I’ve ever been to.  I’m not sure if it was because of covid, or because it was the end of the tourist season.  Or maybe it was just Sifnos.  But I think that for the entire ten days we were there we spoke to only a dozen people.  It was serene, it was peaceful, it was quiet (oh, so quiet).  It was magnificent.  And I wish we were still there now.  David loved it so much that he seriously contemplated buying the adjacent villa that was for sale next door.  Sadly we didn’t have a spare €700,000 lying around.  Oh well, it’s nice to have dreams. 

Desolate, but beautiful. You can see our villa (and the one next door) at the top of the olive tree on the right hand side.
The stunning Asteria (which means stars, in Greek).
The view from the pool, which we spent hours and hours swimming in, often accompanied by an ice-cold bottle of mastiha.

Because of all the reasons I already mentioned, we didn’t go out to eat that much.  Most restaurants had either not opened at all, because of covid, or had already closed for winter.  So we ate at home a lot.  We picked up some portable, single-use BBQs at the general store and we’d grill some local pork, eating it with some homemade tzatziki and locally grown tomatoes.  I was in my culinary element.  And we drank our body weight in mastiha, a specialty Greek liqueur seasoned with mastic resin, giving it a unique flavour.  Mastiha, glorious mastiha.  So much mastiha.  Mastiha for breakfast, mastiha for lunch and mastiha for dinner.  That’s how we do! 

The ubiquitous mastiha shot glasses by the side of the pool.

We made the trek to our local beach a few times during our stay.  Unlike Milos, where we could step onto the beach directly from our accommodation, the beach in Sifnos was a 20 minute steep walk from our villa.  Totally worth the sweat.  Normally there are two tavernas that operate on the beach, but they were both closed for the season so most of the time we had the entire place to ourselves, which allowed us to indulge in some skinny dipping (coz you know how much I love to take my kit off!!).  There’s truly nothing like feeling that somewhere as special as Vroulidia Beach is exclusively yours.  And it’s completely free.  A billionaire might spend a shitload of money trying to achieve the same level of privacy and exclusiveness and never find anywhere near as exceptional or unique.  We were living large. 

Swanning around in my canary yellow kaftan. Told you we were living large.
A hard earned thirst deserves a refreshing Greek beer.

There was a small fishing village about a ten minute drive from the villa that had two seafood tavernas still operating late into the season, and we tried them both during our stay.  Both sourced their seafood from the daily catch brought in by the local fishermen.  On our first night in Sifnos we tried H Ammoudia, and had a fantastic meal, complemented by super friendly service.  We ate at Cheronissos Fish Tavern a few days later, trying the home made fish soup (just like my Mum used to make!!!).  It was divine.  So comforting and delicious.  It made me so happy to be sitting on the shore’s edge, eating food from my childhood.  Sadly, at each restaurant we were the only customers on the night, and I felt so sorry for the owners who must have really suffered during the covid lockdowns.  I know that a lot of places never re-opened.  It felt good to know that we were doing our part to help the economy by eating and drinking and being merry in Greece.  We were always welcomed with open arms and treated to the warm and generous Greek hospitality that I grew up with and which David has come to love and embrace. 

💙🤍💙

Every morning at around 8am, David and I would be woken up by the sound of bells ringing near our bedroom window.  It was the local goatherd, a wizened old man in his eighties, leaning on his crook and guiding his beautiful goats up the mountain for them to graze.  It was a beautiful way to wake up and start the day.  A couple of times we caught him on his way back in the afternoon, and we would have stilted conversations about the old days and how much things have changed in his lifetime.  It was wonderful to be able to interact with him, despite not having possession of all the words that I wished I could use.  That was the beginning of my desire to better learn my mother-tongue.  What cemented that desire was our wonderful housekeeper Sofia, who was tasked with coming to the villa three times a week to clean up after us and to keep the place tidy.  I don’t know why, but Sofia appeared to fall in love with me instantly.  Perhaps it was because I was Greek-Australian.  Perhaps it was because I could speak a few words of Greek to her.  Perhaps it was because I am pretty loveable.  I don’t know.  But she really took to me and I really took to her, and we got into the habit of sitting down for a coffee and a chat for half an hour before she did her chores.  I say a chat because, even though we were communicating, I found it really difficult.  I KNEW the words I wanted to say, but oftentimes I just couldn’t find them.  Sofia didn’t know any English, but between the two of us we still managed to understand each other, with her offering suggestions when I would get stuck halfway through a sentence.  I resolved then to re-learn Greek so that I would never again feel so helpless when trying to speak my first language.  I’m grateful to Sofia for being so friendly and loving, so generous with her time (and with her freshly laid eggs, honey and home made yoghurt).  I feel so lucky that my heritage offers me the opportunity to experience things in a way that other tourists in Greece never can.  I’m seriously #fuckingblessed, and I know it. 

Hello goats!!!

We ate some tasty food in Sifnos, but if you were to ask any local what dish the island is famous for, they wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s the revithada.  It’s a really simple chickpea dish that requires the investment of quality ingredients, time and love.  Traditionally it was made by the women of the island who would fill clay pots with chickpeas, olive oil, onions, garlic and lemon, allowing it to slow cook overnight in a wood oven so that the dish would be ready to eat on Sunday after church.  I know you’ve had chickpeas.  Everyone has, right?  But you have NO FUCKING IDEA how good revithada is.  Stop arguing.  You don’t.  Not until you go to Margarita restaurant in Artemonas and try their revithada.  The end.  No more discussion.  Oh, and don’t forget to have a cheeky ouzaki before you order the main course.  It helps to whet the appetite. 

Always ouzo.
And then wine.
And once you’re suitably hydrated: the revithada.
David and I usually order the same roster of dishes at tavernas, but we thought we’d try something different at Margarita,
ordering this beetroot dish which just blew me away with it’s fresh, zesty flavours. It pays to live on the edge kids.

I want to make a special mention of a very idiosyncratic bar on Sifnos.  A place that I would say is my favourite bar in the entire world.  I’m talking about Bar Kavos Sunrise.  One evening we headed to Kastro, where the Church of the Seven Martyrs is located, hoping to find a restaurant open for dinner.  We were disappointed.  Everything was closed and the town was deserted.  But I’d read about a bar in the area and thought it would be worth a shot to see if it might be open.  We walked up many stairs, dodging multiple cats trying to trip us up, and eventually we came upon a tiny terrace overlooking the sea with a spectacular view of the lightning and thunderstorm brewing offshore.  We shooed some cats off a table and sat down figuring that since the lights were out, we must be out of luck.  But astonishingly, after a few minutes a 200 year old man wearing tiny jean cutoffs and exuding a helluva cool vibe sauntered out and asked us if we wanted drinks.  Did we ever!!!  He told us we could order mojitos or mojitos.  So we ordered mojitos.  He went back inside, turned on some lights, and five minutes later we were presented with the strongest mojitos we’ve ever had.  Plus an extra 60ml each of rum in large shot glasses.  I’m not a huge mojito fan, but these were the strongest, tastiest mojitos I’ve ever been served.  I instantly fell in love with this bar, but going to the toilet was what clinched the deal for me.  There were seven or eight cats roaming around in the loo.  There was no lock on the door and there was no toilet paper.  I had to stretch my legs over two or three kitty litter boxes full of shit, and the toilet itself was nestled between four or five cat boxes (some of them occupied).  It was horrendous.  But SO GODDAMN CHARMING!!!  I am so here for places that do their own thing, and do it well.  Our Cubaphile owner/bartender doesn’t give a shit about anything except serving good, strong cocktails.  He doesn’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks, and in the process he’s created exactly the kind of place that stands out in a world full of cookie cutter blandness.  When we paid the bill we tried to give him a tip, but he vehemently rejected the extra money, murmuring “Capitalista” under his breath.  He did, however, accept our offer of buying a round of rum for him and his friend, who’d turned up with some food for the old man.  The four or us did shots together, clapped each other on the back and vowed to meet again.  I intend to keep that promise.  I just need the old dude to stay alive. 

Best bar in the world.
The bar goes through a lotta rum!! Pictured here is the good Samaritan who brought the owner some food for dinner. What a great guy.

Most of the people we saw in Sifnos were at the harbour, at the restaurants and bars we frequented there. We went to Meropi right on the water, a couple of times, and had some good food, good wine and good vibes.  We also went next door to O Simos for a frappé fix and a chance to catch up on our epic, trans-continental backgammon competition, the winner of which is known as Master Of The Universe (I’m winning). 

Lunch at Meropi.
Patates tiganites (aka hand-cut, fried potatoes), bamyes (aka okra stew), kolokithokeftedes (aka zucchini fritters) and some fried anchovies at the back. All delicious.
This shit is serious.

We also dropped in at Old Captain bar a few times, where the hospitality and the liquor were both free flowing.  One of the owners, Yiannis, took a liking to us, free pouring us drinks and insisting that we try his White Russians, which we initially declined, not being great fans of the drink, but then eventually agreed to.  Which is fantastic, because I have never had a White Russian so tasty.  It pays to be open to everything. Good times were had at this bar, but because we usually had to drive home we could never really let loose.  That is, until the last day when we dropped the car rental off around the corner, plonked ourselves, and our suitcases, under a beach umbrella and told Yiannis to keep the White Russians coming until our ferry showed up.  It’s no stretch to say that we were completely fucked up on that ferry ride back to Milos. 

Chilling at Old Captain Bar.
Best. White. Russians. Ever.
Our last day, waiting for the ferry. Two hours later we were three sheets to the wind.

Which brings me back to Astakas restaurant, and the final dinner of our island holiday.  I remember none of it.  All I remember is the tiny little kitten that attached itself to me.  I don’t normally fuck around with stray cats but this little guy was so cute, and so small I couldn’t resist.  He literally fit into the palm of my hand, and I spent most of dinner cooing and playing with him while he sat in my lap.  David was not impressed.  And I was not impressed with the nasty case of ringworm that the little fucker gave me.  Lesson learned.  Another lesson learned?  Don’t take your shoes off and wade into the water outside your accommodation when you’re off your face.  Coz bitch, you’re gonna fall in and get wet.  Good times, drunk in!    

Yes, I am crazy. I did lug a 3kg Sifnos rock back to Dubai in my luggage, starting a trend that would result in a beautiful collection of boulders from Sifnos, Skiathos, Zakynthos and Naxos.