28 October 2012

28 October: Why I'm Proud To Be Greek

"Until now we would say that the Greeks fight like heroes. From now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." 
Sir Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister

28 October is one of the most important dates for every Greek around the world. This date does not only symbolise a national anniversary, but the fight of the whole world against oppressive powers.

It is a date that makes every Greek proud and epitomises the spirit of freedom and love for one's values, history and above all family. If you want to know more about why this date is so important, feel free to read further.

On 28 October 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Greece, Grazzi, visited the house of the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, to deliver a surrender ultimatum by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. When this visit took place, Hitler's forces had captured a large part of Europe, including Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Poland and Albania. Egypt and Ethiopia had also been captured or surrendered. France had followed by June 1940.

By July 1940 Hitler had informed his generals that the next attack would be against the Soviet Union. His plan was to invade the Soviet Union and then turn his attention to Britain. His main ally, Italy, had the task of making sure that no activities against Germany would take place by the Balkan countries. Unfortunately for Hitler, Mussolini did not like playing the part of the 'puppet' and decided to invade the surrounding areas.

Grazzi delivered the ultimatum which was to "allow Italian forces to occupy for the duration of the present conflict... certain strategic points on Greek territory." It concluded with the threat: "Any resistance encountered will be put down by force of arms." That force of arms included 2,000,000 Italian soldiers, 400 Italian warplanes and hundreds of Italian tanks and armored vehicles. Greece had only 80,000 soldiers, 30 WWI-vintage bi-planes, and no tanks whatsoever.

Despite the vast numerical difference, Metaxas' answer was brief and straightforward: "So it is war. I consider this demand, and the manner in which it is made, as a declaration of war," Immediately the newspapers run full pages of the answer, using only one word: "OXI", which means "No". To this day, the 28 October 1940 is known by all Greeks as "the anniversary of OXI".

On the same day, Italian forces began their attack on Greece through Albania. The Greek troops, with amazing success, seized the peaks of the mountains, let the enemy come into the valleys, and then poured down upon the invaders. They were soon making some of the most sensational news of WWII, giving the world its first glimmer of hope.

(click on the images to enlarge and read easier)

 "Our country, in which virtue is especially honoured, watches with admiration the struggle of the Greeks in Albania. We are so much touched, that, by letting aside every other feeling, we shout: LONG LIVE HELLAS!"
Mainichi Shimbun Japanese newspaper, 7 December 1940

Metaxas died on 29 January 1941, however by then it was evident that Mussolini was losing the battle. In March 1941 the Italians launch a second invasion attempt, only to be rebuffed again by mid-March. The first British troops arrive in Greece, without, however, heading north so as not to provoke a German attack. 

"In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the battle of Salamis Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds."
Charles de Gaulle President of the French Republic

On 6 April 1941 and with its ally embarrassed by a small Greek army, Germany formally declares war on Greece. Operation 'Marita', as it was named, was launched and German forces attacked Greece after crossing Yugoslavia. This was not part of Hitler's initial war campaign and, as it turned out, turned the course of the war to the Allied Forces' favour.

After 3 weeks of resistance, the German army enters Athens on 27 April 1941. A Greek soldier named Konstantinos Koukithes, knowing that the invaders would go to the Acropolis and raise the swastika where Greece's white and blue flag was still flying, decided that he could not bear to see that desecration. He went to the Acropolis, lowered the Greek flag, wrapped himself in it and jumped off the Acropolis, killing himself. Only a few weeks later two young men, M. Glezos and A. Santas, took down the Nazi emblem, which the occupying German forces characterised as an act of violence against it, and justification for harsh reprisals. 

"Historical justice forces me to admit that among all the enemies who stand against us, the Greek soldier above all, fought with the most courage. He surrendered himself only when the continuation of resistance was not possible any longer, and when he had no reason not to... However, he fought so bravely, that even his enemies can not deny their respect for him... Thus, the Greek prisoners of war were released immediately, having in mind the heroic stance of these soldiers. "
Adolph Hitler, Reichstag, 4 May 1941

"I forbid the Press to underestimate the Greeks, to defame them... The Führer admires the bravery of Greeks. "
Joseph Goebbels in his diary, 9 April 1941

"The brave struggle of the people of this relatively small nation, for the right to live without interventions by dictatoric states, calls forth the respect and admiration of all the nations who love freedom."
USA Congress 3 April 1941

On 23 April 1941 a decision was taken for the evacuation of Commonwealth forces to the island of Crete and to Egypt. The evacuation of some 42,000 soldiers was completed by 30 April 1941.

The island of Crete was an important strategic area for the Allied Forces. Possession of the island provided the Royal Navy with excellent harbors in the eastern Mediterranean. With Crete in Allied hands, the Axis southeastern flank would never be safe.

On 25 April 1941 Hitler ordered the invasion of Crete, under the codename Operation Mercury. The Royal Navy's forces from Alexandria retained control of the waters around Crete, so any amphibious assault was a risky proposition at best. With German air superiority a given, an airborne invasion was decided on. This was to be the first truly large-scale airborne invasion in the history of warfare.

The allied forces based in Crete at the time were 9,000 Greeks from the Greek Army. There was also a defense battalion made up mostly of transport and logistics personnel and remnants of the 12th and 20th Hellenic Army divisions, which had escaped to Crete and were organised under British command. The majority of the island's army had been transferred to the Albanian border's to fight against Italy and was cut off from returning to the island when Germany invaded Greece.

The British Commonwealth contingent consisted of the original British garrison and another 25,000 Commonwealth troops evacuated from the mainland. The evacuees were the typical mix found in any contested evacuation. Substantially intact units under their own command, composite units hurriedly brought together by leaders on the spot, stragglers without leaders from every type of unit possessed by an army, and deserters. Most of these men lacked heavy equipment.

On 20 May 1941 the full German assault on Crete commenced with air attacks followed by paratroops dropped on the four airfields. Some 23,000 troops and 600 aircraft were deployed. They suffered heavy losses. The British and Greek forces were short of equipment and fire power but knew the Germans were coming. They outnumbered them considerably.

Everywhere on the island, Cretan civilians, armed and otherwise, joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient rifles which had last been used against the Turks in 1821 were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. In other cases, Cretan civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns, and many German parachutists were knived or clubbed to death in the olive groves that dotted the island. In one recorded case, an elderly Cretan clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking stick before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute lines. The Cretans soon supplemented their makeshift weapons with captured German small arms. This was the first occasion during the war that Germans had encountered widespread and unrestrained resistance from a civilian population, and for a period of time it unbalanced them. However, once they had overcome their shock at these actions, the German paratroopers reacted with equal ferocity. Further, as most Cretan partisans wore no identifying insignia such as armbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints implied by the Geneva conventions.

Command in London eventually decided the cause was hopeless, and ordered a withdrawal. Over the next four nights, between 28 and 31 May, 16,000 troops were taken off to Egypt by ships. After 10 days of bitter fighting, tough allied troops and stubborn local fighters defending Crete succumbed to Nazi paratroopers dropped over the island's airfields by the thousands.

Crete fell in German hands, but not at a small cost to the Germans. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraeberfuersorge e.V.(War Graves Commission) stated 47,460 casualties at a cemetery located at Maleme. To this date, hundreds of German tourists visit the cemetery in Crete, where their relatives are buried.

The Allies lost 3,500 soldiers: 1,751 dead, with an equal number wounded, and an enormous number captured (12,254 Commonwealth and 5,255 Greek). There were also 1,828 dead and 183 wounded among the Royal Navy. After the war the Allied graves from the four burial grounds that had been established by the German forces were moved to the site of Suda Bay War Cemetery.

A large number of civilians were killed in the crossfire or died fighting as partisans. Many Cretans were shot by the Germans in reprisals, both during the battle and in the occupation that followed. One Cretan source puts the number of Cretans killed by German action during the war at 6,593 men, 1,113 women and 869 children. During the occupation Greece suffered some of the worst atrocities during the war.


Now you know why every Greek in the world is proud of his country and never forgets this special date. One very important point to add, however, is this.

History has recorded that the losses suffered by Hitler in the Soviet Union lead to the final allied assault in Normandy (D-Day) and won the war. Very few historians have pointed out, however, that the reason Germany lost the battle against the Soviet Union was the fact that Hitler delayed his plan in order to invade Greece and by the time he turned on the Soviet Union winter had arrived which made it extremely difficult.

At least two of the main figures in WWII have given their dues to Greece for this.

"If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been."
 Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

"The Russian people will always be grateful to the Greeks for delaying the German army long enough for winter to set in, thereby giving us the precious time we needed to prepare. We will never forget."
Joseph Stalin, in an open letter read over the air on Radio Moscow short wave on numerous occasions during the war.

If you want to know more about Greece during WWII, including the atrocities it suffered and its resistance during the occupation, there are many books you can buy online, some of which I highly recommend:

Inside Hitler's Greece by Mark Mazower: Eyewitness accounts and archived information, detailing the German occupation of Greece and the rise of the resistanse movement.

Ill Met By Moonlight by W Stanley Moss: A classic account from one of the officers who took part in one of the greatest escapades in WWII, the kidnapping of General Kreipe , commander of the Sevastopol Division in Crete.

There is also a film based on the book:

The Fall of Crete by Alan Clark: A detailed analysis of the 10 day battle of Crete

There is also a great movie on the subject:

The following link from the BBC website also has recollections of the events from war veterans posted in Greece: WW2 People's War - Greece

24 September 2012

3 Days in Paris

I decided to write a blog about a trip I took almost 8 years ago with my girlfriend, Mac. This particular trip has lived and will live in our memory forever, not because it was in Paris, but because it was something between a comedy, a disaster, a romance, an attempt to impress gone horribly wrong...it can certainly be a lesson to all those of you who plan to take the person you fancy on a holiday in the hope to earn 'points' in your quest for their heart.

You see, at the time we took that trip we were not dating yet and we travelled as two people that fancied each other and took their time to get to know a bit more about one another. It's what happens when a hardcore traveller like me decides to go on a long weekend trip with someone who prefers to mix sightseeing with leissure and entertainment. What happens when someone who does not mind walking around for 15 hours shares a trip with someone who does prefer long breaks for eating, drinking and a chat.

Here we go then! You can enlarge the photos below by clicking on them. You can also visit the websites of some of the restaurants we visited by clicking on their name.

First Night

We arrived in Paris at 11pm, so no time to do anything else but have dinner at the popular with the late night crowd, "Au Pied De Cochon", at 6 rue Coquilliere. This restaurant is open 24 hrs all week, its interior and staff are elegant and its cuisine delicious. In the company of a few glasses of beer, Mac started with asparagus in a special sauce, while I opted for the duck liver fois gras.

For main course, Mac decided to play it safe with slices of duck with shallots, while I risked and tried the signature dish of the restaurant, 'Pied de cochon grille', which was a grilled pig's trotter with béarnaise sauce. Despite the sound of it, it tasted really good. Not something I will be eating everytime I am hungry, but it was certainly worth a try.

For dessert, I dived in the delicious profiteroles soaked in hot chocolate sauce, and did not have time to even check what Mac had for dessert. How rude of me!!!

This is a photo of "Au Pied De Cochon, at around 1am!!

Pied de cochon grille (photo curtesy of the restaurant's website)

Its heavenly profiteroles (photo curtesy of the restaurant's website)

Day 1

What Mac didn't know was that I had secretly planned the trip so that we could win the marathon competition. This involved a gruelling 10 mile walk in full gear, under scorching temperatures and with minimum of food. What I didn't know, is that she was very dangerous when hungry.

The morning started with a walk up to the famous avenue Champs Elysees and a first stop at the cosmetics and perfume emporium "Sephora". It certainly was a woman's palace, with hundreds of perfumes, and cosmetics. A female can easily spend a weekend there and still come out with nothing !! Then off to the famous Arc De Triomphe where without yet any breakfast we both climbed its endless number of stairs to view Paris from the top, as the lift was under maintenance.

Champs Elysees from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

The other side of Champs Elysees, with La Defence in the background

Under the Arc de Triomphe

By that time, Mac reminded me that not even a leaf had touched our lips yet all morning, so we headed off for lunch. We enjoyed a couple of club sandwiches at the highlight place of the Champ Elysees, 'Lasserre' and then headed off to continue the Paris-London walk marathon.

We headed off towards the river and passed by the Grand Palais, Petit Palais and had a quick look at the most beautiful bridge of Paris, Pont Alexandre III. The Petit Palais is a museum housing a rich collection of portraits, art, books and porcelain. The exterior of the enormous Grand Palais is a combination of an impressive classical facade of stone and Art Nouveau ironwork. The building has a striking roof of glass and huge bronze statues of flying horses. The large glass exhibition hall houses the national gallery.

Petit Palais

Pont Alexandre III

At this point, I realised that monument walking was not really Mac's idea of a weekend in Paris, so decided to quickly make a de-tour and bring her to Avenue Montaigne, where all the designer labels have their stores. An area approachable only to those with a winning lottery ticket, we at least admired (and sometimes laughed at) what the shop windows had to offer, from labels such as Hugo Boss, Dior, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Prada, etc etc etc

Despite a sign of a smile, the lack of rest and additional food was a bit too much for Mac, who continued to bare the course, without asking for a pit stop to change tyres (sorry, shoes). That meant that the walk continued into square Place de la Concorde with its famous Egyptian obelisque at the centre and into the Jardin des Tuileries, the massive gardens that lead to the Louvre museum.

Place de la Concorde

Jardin des Tuileries

By that time, the blisters started appearing on Mac's feet, so a quick stop into a cafeteria in the gardens was very welcome. Then, a quick visit to the hotel for change of shoes. It was already 5pm, so the last stop was in the famous cathedral of Notre Dame past the castle of Conciergerie and the Ste-Chappelle. Luckily for her, they were both closed after 6.30pm, so there was no time to see their interior. A quick inside stroll in Notre Dame and then we both hopped into the Batobus which sailed along the river Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. 

Notre Dame

Inside Notre Dame

During the mini cruise, Mac was clearly tired and rather than take on the scenery from the river, she was making plans on how to throw me in it. We arrived in the Eiffel Tower around 8pm and joined the massive queues for the lift to the top floor. (Editor's note: At this point, Stam warned Mac that the wait could be longer so it might be better to go for dinner and come back tomorrow) (Mac's note: I wanted to go to the top that evening, so I could get the opportunity to throw him off the tower).

Finally, around 9.30pm the lift took us to the 2nd floor of the tower, where we had to queue for longer, waiting for a lift to the top floor. However, the sunset made up for all the wait. Once at the top floor we admired the view of Paris by night but soon after we were too hungry and tired to stay for long, so we queued for the lift to the bottom.

Eiffel Tower as seen from its second floor

View from the Eiffel Tower

One of the lifts of the Eiffel Tower
Watching the sunset from the Eiffel Tower

It was already 11.30pm and a taxi brought us to the lovely, traditional restaurant of Cremerie Restaurant Polidor, at 41 rue Monsieur le Prince, owned by a scary massively built woman. The food however was exceptionaly nice (we finished it at world record time). We both started with a scrumptious lentil & liver duck soup, and finished with big portions of steak dishes. The highlight of the meal was Mac tasting a slice of 'andouillette AAAA grillee', which translates to a grilled sausage made from tripe. It was not really her cup of tea, so I (used to it as there is also a similar Greek dish) took care of it. The red wine was also worth its price.

Inside Cremerie Restaurant Polidor
It was the end of a very actioned packed first day. While Mac went to bed and started dreaming of ways to run back home, I fully charged my nuclear powered battery.

Day 2

Learning my lesson from the previous day, I decided to skip the sightseeing and firstly make amends for Mac's blisters. And what a better way, than give the lady all the chocolate she wants!!!!

The morning started with a hot chocolate drink at the 'must visit' Angelina at 226 rue de Rivoli. We both tried the signature products of this popular tea salon. 'Le Chocolat Africain' was a jug of traditional real thick hot chocolate served with a pot of whipped cream, so you can make your own cup. It tasted fantastic and can make any woman forget her stress and her man (Mac's quote).

To make sure I was not forgotten, I fed her a 'Fragilite Pistache' which was a slice of dessert with pistachio flavour. I even offered a slice of another signature dessert of that place, 'Mont Blanc', a meringue base piled with chestnut puree and whipped cream. 

Inside Angelina

Enjoying 'Le Chocolat Africain' (photo curtesy of Google)

Mont Blanc (photo curtesy of Google)

After this amazing way to start the day, we took the metro (yes, you read correctly, no walking unless absolutely necessary) to the hill of Montmarte. The train brought us exactly at the foot of the hill overlooking the famous church of Sacre Coeur, and a little lift brought us to the entrance of the church, where we admired a view of Paris from that high point.

Sacre Coeur

A little tiny mini walk brought us to a small bar, where we had a quick beer. We then enjoyed walking around the hill of Monmarte, admiring the views of Paris and the tiny streets with little shops and places to sit and have a drink. Another very small minute tiny walk brought us to a small, cosy brassiere for lunch. The place was called Francis Labutte, at 122 rue Caulaincourt, and the owner with the same name was over the moon to see that I had a paper with a review of his restaurant.

From then on, the service was very friendly and Mac enjoyed a large salad made of rice, green peppers, eggs, sweet corn and cheese, while I tried the 3-cheese platter with home made bread to spread the cheese on. A bottle of red wine accompanied the meal, followed by two shots of liquor offered by the owner and two espressos.

After that, we used the metro to arrive at the corner of rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy, where the famous cabaret Moulin Rouge and its red windmill are based. Unfortunately, all tickets for that night's performance were sold out. (Editor's note: Stam was only made aware that Mac wanted to see the show last night, despite asking her over a month ago what she would like to see in Paris). (Mac's note: My feet have got massive blisters you know, and it's all his fault).

Mac outside Moulin Rouge. 
Mac felt a bit guilty for complaining a bit yesterday, so she dragged me to go and see a monument I wanted to see. We took the metro and went to the business district of Paris, La Defense, where the massive Grand Arch is based. Although very modern, La Grande Arche cannot be other then impressive. The construction to this immense arch began in 1955 and is still developing. Made of glass and white Carrara marble the arch is actually a huge cube (110m) in which the Notre Dame Cathedral can fit easily. The arch is housing offices of French government and international companies, but also galleries, a library and a restaurant.

Grand Arch

After a few quick photos, it was time to devote the rest of the day to leissure. Another metro took us to square St Germain Des Pres, where we had a coffee at the famous Les Deux Magots, at 6 Place St Germain Des Pres, the once legendary hangout of the intellectual elite such as Sartre, de Beauvoir and Giraudoux. Inside the café there are two statues of magots (Confucian wise men) that give the café its name. My girlfriend had the honour to sit in the space where Simone de Beauvoir, the famous philosopher, writer and friend to Sartreu, used to sit.

Mac sitting at Simone de Beauvoir's seat in Les Deux Magots

After the quick coffee, a stroll to the opposite street and another drink at the famous Café De Flore, at 172 Bd St Germain. It's the most famous café in the world, especially famous for its patrons such as Sartre (he wrote his trilogy The Roads To Freedom, there), Picasso, Camus and Apollinaire.

Cafe De Flore (photo curtesy of Wikipedia)

The weather was cold and rainy by that time, so we decided to head off for dinner. I could not find the place I was after, so by chance we walked in a small cosy bistro full of locals and with a live jazz band playing in the corner. The name of the place was Captain Nemo and its owner told us it was open 24hrs, as well. Over the sound of jazz, Mac enjoyed a large starter of herring over boiled potatoes and dressing, while I opted for the cold salami platter. Then followed massive portions of beef in mustard sauce for me, and grilled chicken for Mac, enjoyed with a couple of bottles of red wine and followed by shots of alcohol, compliments of the owner.

After a few hours sampling the Sunday evening Parisian style, we headed off to a jazz place, Caveau de la Huchette, at 5 rue de la Huchette. Following the stairs down an old cavern cellar, we spent the night listening to a live jazz band, and joining young and old punters swinging their way on the dancefloor. Unfortunately, being Sunday, it closed at around 2.30am. It was time to say goodnight for the last time to Paris.

Caveau de la Huchette (photo curtesy of Google)

Day 3

I was still feeling guilty for the first day, so decided to make this a nice ending day to the trip. After checking out and leaving our bags at the reception, we had a quick coffee and pastry at a little café and headed off to the most famous department store in Paris, Galleries Lafayette. If you want to keep your woman happy, then take her on a shopping spree at this amazing department store. While you can sit down with the other males in the designated sofas, have a chat, read a paper and admire the amazing building, the wife/fiance/girlfriend can spend her/yours credit card and bring the bank manager to a premature heart attack. The amazing interior and the amount of clothes, bags and shoes seemed to have the desired effect on Mac, who could not resist purchasing a pair of tights.

Inside Galleries Lafayette

Another view of the interior

After a stroll along its many floors we decided to tick off another 'must do' in our list. Lunch at the gorgeously set Allard, at 41 rue St Andre Des Artes, where we had frog legs for lunch. Fried in garlic, they were amazingly tasty and well deserving the effort. The restaurant was also decorated with old memorabilia and having lunch there was as if you were back in the late 1800s. The meal experience added to this.

Frog legs...mmmmmmm, delicious!

But no time for rest. Off we went to Cimetiere Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, and one of the most famous cemeteries in the world. Located in the 20th arrondissement, it is reputed to be the most visited cemetery in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to the graves of the those who have enhanced French life over the past 200 years.

Many famous people are buried in the cemetery, such as Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas, Delacroix, Moliere and many others. The grave we were after was that of Oscar Wilde and after a pleasant stroll amongst the masses of other graves, the peace and quiet of the cemetery, the variety and stature of the tombs under the shade of the trees, we arrived at our destination.

Mac was overwhelmed to be there, touching the tomb of Oscar Wilde, as she is a big fan of his. I was looking jealously and decided on turning gay, if that was what it had to take to please her so much. (editor's note: Stam has since decided against that course of action).

Cimetiere Pere Lachaise

A moving tomb in the cemetery

The tomb of Oscar Wilde. Note the lipstick marks left from people visiting and kissing his grave as a sign of respect

There was still enough time for another 'must do', so off to the Louvre museum and a quick dash to the room where the famous Mona Lisa was exhibited. It was a surreal experience to be within metres of this painting and we both took time to realise that we were actually there. Being Greek, I had a few more seconds to drag Mac to see the famous statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the 3 'must see' exhibits of the museum, together with Mona Lisa and the Aphrodite of Milos.

Posing next to the Mona Lisa. I think we make a great couple!

The Winged Victory of Samothrace

Inside the Louvre Museum

One of the ceilings in the museum

But we could not say goodbye to Paris, without a last cup of chocolate from Angelina. So in we went, and the maitre immediately recognised us and sat us on a table. (editor's note: The maitre looked at Stam first, so it was clear he recognised him), (Mac's note: dream on mate, it was me).

While enjoying another jug of the heavenly drink, another maitre brought a second jug (!!!), compliment of the first maitre for us being regulars at the place. (editor's note: Stam accepts defeat and agrees that without Mac he would be still waiting for a table).

Full of the memories of that chocolate treat, and full of blisters, Mac followed me to the last few miles of travel to the airport and then back to the UKl. It was a great experience, even if it started with light injuries.

A final note: Most reviews claim that Parisians, and especially waiters are very rude. We found this to be a complete nonsense and in fact, we were amazed with the politeness of them all. Obviously Paris is a large city so we did not get to see many of the other sites. However, after a few days of recovering, me and Mac both agreed that it was a great experience. (Editor's note: Stam and Mac had since enjoyed many other trips abroad without further injuries).