A Feast of Greek Pleasures

By Rick Steves
Fresh octopus, Gerolimenas, Greece
In seaside tavernas throughout Greece, the seafood is fresh as can be. (photo: Rick Steves)
Traditional dancers with restaurant guests, Nafplio, Greece
Wherever you are in Greece, ask locals where you might enjoy some live music and dancing. (photo: Ruth Ann Rouse)

It's a joy to surrender to the Greek way of living. Greece's welcoming people, mouthwatering food and drink, and joyful music and folk dances make it easy to immerse yourself into the easygoing lifestyle.

When I'm in Greece, I eat as the Greeks do. Around 9 p.m., I head to a taverna and order a medley of mezedes (appetizers) and share it family-style. The selection, while predictable, never gets old for me: garlic dip, fava bean dip, tzatziki dip (made from yogurt, cucumber, and mint), or all three on a single serving platter; fried eggplant or zucchini; Greek salad; and big grilled peppers — red or green — stuffed with feta cheese.

Most of my meals also include something from the sea, such as grilled calamari or octopus, sardines, or a plate of fried small fish (three inch), very small fish (two inch), or very, very small fish (one inch). With three-inch fish, I leave the head and tail on the plate (and try not to wonder about the once inky, now dry black guts). With the smaller fish, I leave nothing but a line of greasy fingerprints on the fringe of my paper tablecloth.

In Athens, I enjoy visiting Central Market, where many locals come to do their weekly grocery shopping. It's a living, breathing, smelly barrage on all the senses. You'll see dripping-fresh meat, livestock in all stages of dismemberment, and still-wriggling fish. The fruit and vegetable stalls, just outside the market, are flanked by shops selling feta from the barrel and countless varieties of olives.

My favorite stop at the market is the Karayiannis Ouzo Bar. This fun place, in the middle of the fish market, is a memorable setting for a drink and snack. And it's cheap. About €3 gets you an ouzo (anise-flavored liquor) and little plate of mezes to enjoy at the bar while taking in the action.

Just as important as food is religion. Ninety-five percent of all Greeks consider themselves Orthodox, even if they rarely go to church. Orthodox elements appear everywhere. Icon shrines dot the highways. Orthodox priests — with their Old Testament beards, black robes, necklaces, cake-shaped hats, and families in tow — mingle with parishioners on street corners. During the course of the day, Greeks routinely pop in to churches to light a candle, asking for favors. Even local teens who seem far from religious make the sign of the cross when passing a church.

Easter is a big deal in Greece — and not surprisingly, food plays a big role. Easter is not Easter without lamb, often eaten as part of a huge after-midnight feast. Wandering through a village one Easter, I noticed every family seemed to be roasting an entire lamb on a spit. I'll never forget watching the lamb go limp when my host withdrew the skewer. He then laid it across a chopping block, pulled out a big cleaver, and, in about two minutes, reduced the entire roasted lamb to two platters of meat.

When celebrating special events, especially at weddings and baptisms, Greeks love to dance. Popular dances include the graceful kalamatianos circle dance and the syrtaki, done with arms outstretched or thrown across one another's shoulders as immortalized by Anthony Quinn in the film Zorba the Greek. A few dancers might get carried away, "applaud" by throwing plates or flowers, and then dance on the tables into the wee hours.

Music is not only for special events — it's part of everyday life. Wander through any town on a weekend summer evening and there's a decent chance you'll come across musicians sitting around an outdoor table playing traditional folk music on their bouzouki (a long-necked mandolin). When the weather cools down, they move inside to tavernas to entertain the late-night local crowds.

Greeks tend to show hospitality with drinks — often ouzo. You don't drink ouzo straight; instead, you add ice or water, which turns the ouzo from clear to milky white. When Greeks really want to show hospitality, the drink is tsipouro. Similar to Italian grappa, this brandy-like firewater is about 40 percent alcohol and makes ouzo seem like kid stuff. The last time I had it, I had a hard time holding my camera steady as I took "going local" to a very tasty extreme.

But that's part of the appeal of this place. When in Greece, sometimes it's best to put down the camera, ditch the plans, and join in the fun.