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Greece: Sunshine, Civilization, and Supermodels


By Joshua Shapiro

The National Archaeological Museum fronts a vast plaza and boulevard in central Athens. Unadorned and sparsely attended, it houses Greece’s national patrimony, a retained past that avoided plunder or expatriation to its wealthier brethren like the British Museum in London or New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

On a wall is a fresco is of a young boy holding strings of fish.  Ancient Greeks were crazy about fish.  They adorned countless pottery and murals with paintings of their favorite catch.  Compulsive gambling, unbridled womanizing, and hosting elaborate seafood banquets were the preferred means to squander family fortunes.  Such a premium was attached to fish that the first patents in history went to Syracusian cooks who gained one year rights to prepare their new recipes exclusively.  Greeks still cook their fish better then anywhere else.

The boy is rendered with an individualism and vitality that will not be seen again until the Italian Renaissance.  But the fresco, found on the Cycadic island of Thera, the modern-day Santorini, in an excavation of the ancient town of Akritori, is over thirty-five hundred years old.   What remains of that island are 1000m high cliffs overlooking an 800 meter deep caldera that makes for dramatic sightseeing.

The price of establishing a outstanding venue for future tourism was a cataclysmic event that felt through most of the Mediterranean.  Thera self-destructed in a volcanic explosion around 1560 BCE.  The result was similar to a meteor impact. The cataclysm generated earthquakes and massive tidal waves. The ash darkened the sky, turning day into night. Scholars have tried to tie the event to accounts of the sinking of Atlantis and accounts of the Flood in the Old Testament.

Towns like Akritori, on what remained of the island, were buried under 60 meters of volcanic pumice.  Fortunately, Thera’s inhabitants must have anticipated the catastrophe and evacuated the island as no skeletons or transportable personal possessions have been found in the excavation of Akitori.

Akritori was a rustic outpost of an ancient superpower based 60 miles away on Crete, today referred to as the Minoan civilization. With details highly speculative and obscure, prehistoric Crete was actually more fascinating than the fantasy world conjured in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Centuries before the Jewish Exodus, at the time of the very earliest Egyptian dynasties, Crete was the center of the earliest European high civilization.  What remains are a handful of ruins on Crete and Thira.

Athens, routinely credited as the birthplace of Western civilization, assimilated and mythologized earlier Cretan civilization in creating its own, much as Imperial Rome later built on and adapted the culture of classical Greece.  In Greek myth, Crete was the birthplace of Zeus and home to the nymph Europa, whom he abducted from the Near East.

Each year, twelve of the fairest virgins in the Aegean were taken to Knossos, now known as Heraklion, placed in a vast maze, and sacrificed to the Minotaur, a terrifying creature, half-man, half-bull.  The hero Theseus killed the mutant monster and with the help of Ariadne, the beautiful daughter of King Minos, the  eldest of Zeus’ sons, escaped with her from the Labyrinth, only to quickly abandon her on his return home to become founder-king of Athens.

At the turn of the century, Sir Arthur Evans, a wealthy eccentric Victorian scholar and collector of carved stone seals, who believed in an historical basis for the myth, acquired and excavated Knossos.  In the six-acre, multistory, mazelike building he uncovered were artifacts reflecting the great wealth and refinement of an ancient, previously unknown society – finely dressed stonemasonry, extraordinary polychrome murals and pottery, gold vessels and jewelry, and bronze weaponry and armor.

The Minoans lived a luxurious existence in vast unfortified palace complexes. Their culture was literate and used movable type to print clay tablets with their unique form of pictographic syllabary to keep accounting records.  As the pre-eminent seapower, they policed the entire Mediterranean, suppressed marauding pirates, promulgated wise laws, and received tribute from vassal states.  Their bronze weapons secured them a peace unencumbered by fear of attack by land or sea.  Minoans had ample fish, a wealth of olive oil and wine, abundant lumber, produce, and flocks, and magnificent crafts – assets that helped them dominate world trade from Egypt to Spain.

Minoan women evolved their own unique, sophisticated fashion.  Murals depict their colorful fabrics, intricate jewelry, and fancy hairdos.  To maintain high standards of cleanliness, their homes and palaces had fresco-decorated bathrooms equipped with underground pipes, both supplying fresh water and draining waste.  Using newly invented bronze tweezers and other innovative beauty implements along with the traditional stone palettes for grinding face paints, they endowed themselves with dramatic eyes and rouged cheeks, lips, and aureole.

The Minoan past saturated our stay in Crete as thoroughly as olive oil marinated our Greek cuisine. When it came time to leave Crete and call to check our status on the wait-list at our hotel in Thera, I was informed we could be accommodated.  Sotto voce the desk manager added, “The photographers from Sports Illustrated are here.” A long pause. Finally, I broke the silence,  “What about the models?” “They are here too.” Oh.

Now, this was highly amusing. The last time we had taken a beach vacation, I unexpectedly found myself jogging on the hotel treadmill next to a highly successful supermodel slash product spokesperson, with a very visible beauty mark.  In fact, she dined alfresco at the adjacent table.  And I believe that her CV at some point included modeling swimwear.

What fascinated this dumb boy was her plainness without her makeup.  Clearly, her renowned look depended on the energy she deliberately put out and the complimentary efforts of the photographer, stylists, and lighting assistants to capture and enhance it.  Allure, I gathered, is much like an electro-magnet, able to be instantly switched on and off, rather than a fixed lodestone of attraction.

When I finally broached the good news to my better half, my marching orders were clear: no pictures, no staring, and certainly no chatting up the models.  Fortunately the fashionistas didn’t cordon any part of the 39-room hotel or preempt the casual holiday charm of our visit.

The models bore a strong resemblance to the visibly ribbed, wasp-waisted youths depicted in the beautifully preserved murals excavated down the road in nearby Akrotiri.  During the days, after an early breakfast of a partially nibbled muffin and a sip of juice, they left for previously scouted scenic vistas on the island with their entourage of bikini wranglers, to pose for the day’s shoot.

But late afternoons found models curled-up by the hotel pool. If the Minoans of Crete favored the bull and those of Thera, the dolphin, Sports Illustrated models probably hold cats as their mascot.  Why else would the catwalk be their occupational focus?  Models demonstrate a pronounced feline bearing beyond catnapping in a sunny spot.  Proud, poised, and accustomed to meeting the world on their own independent terms, they generally avoid people but love coddling and attention.  My research never revealed whether these creatures of comfort purr during an extended scalp rub or love chasing chipmunks as much as our Abyssinian.

One night, a half-hour after the other six in her party were seated, a model came to the restaurant and took her seat at the head of the table.  Then waving her slender arms in expansive gestures, she regaled her friends with stories of her career until she closed the restaurant.  Her narrative had a faintly Germanic accent.  My wife, who has an ear for these things, placed her as coming from the remote Eastern European Duchy of Bulimia.

Classical Greek thought eschewed any notion of gender equality.  Women held a fixed and clearly differentiated role in the male-dominated society – either porne or common whore, kept for pleasure, hetaera, the concubine or courtesan for attending day-by-day to the needs of the body, or the wife for producing heirs and standing trusty guard on household property. But certain Greek hetaerae transcended rigid social convention and attained celebrity not just for their renowned beauty and for the lavish gifts they received, but for their wit, business acumen, and political influence.

Courtesy Sports Illustrated
Courtesy Sports Illustrated

Marketing mavens claim bare flesh, babies, and pets are the most engaging components of any advertising. The million magazines that jump off the newsstand rack each February prove that SI models are experts in “product placement.” [Santorini Sports Illustrated]

SI women are like fantasy hetaerae.  Projecting the illusion of availability and companionship, they are actually astute businesswomen – traveled, sophisticated and composed.  Rather than the sophomoric attachment of their fans, they have a professional detachment for the “show business” they have mastered.

But no matter how fetching their poses, the SI lasses were no match for the more attention-grabbing girls of ancient Crete that we had seen in the National Archeological Museum. Minoan cult priestesses, discovered in Minoan palace ruins, were modeled into delicately wrought figurines.  Beautifully portrayed with long graceful limbs and extremely narrow waists, they wore colorful, floor length flounced skirts and precursors of wonderbras – cinched, short-sleeved bodices that exposed, cradled, and projected their prominent, full breasts.

Snake Goddess.
Snake Goddess.

But rather than offering a mere come-hither look, these women displayed a awesome command of Eros, standing calmly gripping or entwined by vipers.  In their day, they mediated between men and the fearsome and incomprehensible forces of nature. Might future archeologists encountering pictorial fragments of SI  calendars infer that the eye-candy in billowing spinnakers depicted daughters of Poseidon, sex goddesses of some alien fertility cult?

I never got to share my Minoan musings with any of the models on Thera.  But I did get to cook for them.  Once my wife went off for several hours to visit a local arts center. Rather than sitting around and reading while waiting for her, I convinced the very kind but bemused chef at the hotel to let me do all the grilling for the poolside restaurant that evening.

Branzino, aka sea bass.
Branzino, aka sea bass.

The European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) had in ancient Greece the reputation of being the smartest fish, as it was the most difficult to catch. In France and Germany it is termed the wolf-of-the-sea. In northern Italy is the branzino. In Greece it is the lavráki. It is so rare to catch one that there is an expression “I caught a Sea Bass” (epyasa lavráki) that roughly translates as “I got real lucky”.
Grilled fish ala Villa Vedema:

  • Chose the freshest, whole three-pound branzino,
  • Bast with a mixture of extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of flour to seal in its juices,
  • Prop the fish atop several julienned strips of raw potato to keep its skin from sticking to the gridiron,
  • Lightly season with salt and fresh herbs,
  • Cook on a hot, charcoal-fired grill for 15 minutes, turning once,
  • Fillet and plate with a grilled vegetable kebab, half a grilled tomato, and a lemon slice.

Enjoy with your wife or favorite supermodel.


Joshua Shapiro, a New York–based writer, has pinboned salmon for David Bouley in New York City, staged with Gérard Vié at Les Trois Marches in Versailles, made dinner for the models of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot in Greece, and turned out rice paper rolls and crispy pancakes with Nicola van Heemsbergen in Vietnam.
Joshua Shapiro, a New York–based writer, has pinboned salmon for David Bouley in New York City, staged with Gérard Vié at Les Trois Marches in Versailles,
made dinner for the models of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot in Greece, and turned out rice paper rolls and crispy pancakes with Nicola van Heemsbergen in Vietnam.
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