Travels with Fernando: An Athenian Homecoming
For Fernando Barroso de Oliveira, traveling to Athens is never just another voyage; it’s a homecoming. Silversea’s Senior Cruise Director & President’s Ambassador to the Venetian Society may be Portuguese by birth and by residence, but his relationship with the Greek capital goes way back. It was his first home away from home and a place he has come to know as much as the locals.
And with Silversea’s recently-announced return to service itineraries in the Eastern Mediterranean starting June 18th, Fernando is particularly excited to see his beloved Athens take center stage. Departing from and arriving to the adjacent port of Piraeus, the 10-day round-trip itineraries will explore the Greek Isles, Cyprus and the coast of Israel. As the longest-tenured member of the Silversea family, Fernando is exceptionally eager to set sail again and welcome guests on board the brand new Silver Moon. The fact that this is due to happen in his beloved adopted home of Athens is the icing on the cake… or, perhaps more fittingly, the powdered sugar on the bougatsa.
As an adopted Athenian and lover of Greek culture, Fernando shares his personal history with the Hellenic capital, along with the best advice that his more than 45 years of experience can offer.
“I moved to Athens in November of 1974, after finishing my university and army service in Portugal. I was 24 years old! I had a house there, at the time I had an American girlfriend. We had a villa in a lovely area called Papagou, which was basically where all the navy admirals and army generals lived, and we rented a house from an admiral. We had a beautiful rose garden and mandarin trees, cherry trees… it was perfect. And I was working for a Greek company called Royal Cruise Lines, which eventually merged with Royal Viking in the early 90s. That’s how I learned how to speak Greek; I picked it up within a year and a half or so. For 20 years on and off, Athens was my home.”
For a city that has been continuously inhabited for roughly three and half centuries, much has changed in the past 45 years as witnessed by Fernando. Today, he sees Athens as a much more globalized city, a trend that is replicated in many other major urban centers around the globe.
“When I moved into my place there were no supermarkets. All we had was a little corner grocery store with a yiayia (grandmother), wearing a black scarf and black dress. And she sold milk, butter, cheese, ham, salt, olive oil, the occasional bottle of wine, some fruit, peppers, lettuce… it was like a general goods store and you found one in every neighborhood. Do you remember the little old lady in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding who kept saying: “Oi Toúrkoi, oi Toúrkoi! (The Turks, the Turks!)? She could be the owner of my grocery store when I first moved to Athens. Nowadays, you go to Carrefour or some major supermarket chain and the cashier probably also speaks English. Not in my days!”
Still, for all of its cosmopolitan and modern global charm, Athens staunchly and proudly retains its position as the center of Hellenic culture. Lovingly aware of the city’s advantages and limitations, Fernando wastes no time in going to the heart of what makes Athens special.
“You don’t go to Athens for the elegant avenues, beautiful villas, or stunning hotels… Athens is not that. You go to the Plaka, with its bistros and knicknack stores; you go to Monastiraki, with its bustling flea markets; of course the Acropolis is a must. You absorb all the wonderful archaeology in superb museums… Greece is all archaeological pieces. Anywhere you go diving, as soon as you reach a certain depth, you start seeing 3,000-year-old amphorae and God-knows-what, so many things there. And then there are all these marvelous tavernas….”
Whether you find yourself in the Plaka at the foot of the Acropolis, on the pedestrian streets that lead to Syntagma Square, or on the lively districts of Piraiki and Pasalimani in Piraeus, Fernando insists that the ubiquitous tavernas are the lifeblood of Greek culture.
“Typically I search for the unknown tavernas where there’s a whole bunch of Greeks and very few tourists. You break plates if you want to; when the music is good and everybody gets excited, you start cracking unglazed pottery plates or ceramic plates, on your head, on your knees on your shoulders or you take 50 plates and you smash them on the floor, and of course in the end they’ll charge you nicely for that (laughs).”
But more than plate breaking, the quintessentially Greek experience in a taverna has much more to do with ‘plate filling,’ especially given the country’s mouthwatering culinary heritage. On this very important topic, Fernando offers some valuable insights.
“You rarely ask for a steak in a Greek restaurant. It’s not a land for prime rib, chateaubriand or beef Wellington. Nor do I advise to go looking for nouvelle cuisine. Instead, look for a big, beautiful Greek salad, or horiatiki, made with generous chunks of feta cheese, loads of olive oil (no vinegar) and oregano on top of the feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kalamata olives. That’s always the best place to start. And then you have as the main course grilled calamari or a grilled barbouni, these little red mullets. Or, better yet, stick to all the meze; you can easily make a full meal out of those appetizers. You have tzatziki, tarama (a dip made with salmon eggs and a bit of mayonnaise), moussaka… so many great choices. And in an authentic Greek restaurant, forget about the menu. You go straight to the kitchen counter, and order fava, boureki, midia… order cheese or shrimp saganaki… And if you’re still hungry, then you go for a main course of fish or seafood.”
Clearly, food is a driving force for Fernando. And incidentally, this is a trait that he shares with the brand new Silver Moon, where Silversea’s new culinary program, S.A.L.T., is set to debut. “Greece offers a magnificent opportunity to showcase both the new ship and the new program. It’s such a wonderful combination. Sailing on Silver Moon, which happens to be the first one from our fleet returning to service, is in my opinion the best way to resume our cruises in style and to introduce our newest family member to a familiar audience in a familiar destination.
“And the itineraries are just ideal for S.A.L.T. because, if we were going to go to Australia or Costa Rica, there’s only so much you can do on the culinary front. But you’re in Greece! You have so many unique ports to discover. And for me, the Mediterranean is simply unbeatable. Yes, I love the Caribbean; I love Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Barts…. I love the water there. But there is nothing for me like the Mediterranean. The water is turquoise blue, there are no sharks, no saltwater crocodiles. The Mediterranean is peace.”
And while returning to Athens and the Greek Islands means going back home for Fernando, there is another familiar sight that he’s looking forward to revisiting in these inaugural Silver Moon itineraries.
“I’m going to see friends, local Greek friends, people who I’ve known for years and years since I was in my 20s, they’re all my age. But most importantly, I’m looking forward to having that overdue family reunion with our Venetian Society guests! They say that family we don’t choose, but we do choose our friends. This is the family I care for the most: the Silversea family.
“And it’s all about getting back on the ship to see them. I’m not made for land. I can’t stand being locked down; I’m not used to spending three months in a row in Portugal. It gets to me. For my sanity, when I’m onboard I need to go around 7 p.m. to the main bar, order my vodka on the rocks with blue cheese-stuffed olives –I call it holy water on the rocks– and I go around talking to guests. I’ve missed that so much! The gossiping, the interacting, the joking, the adventure of going to another port or seeing the same old port that I’ve been there 50 times…it’s always great, it beats being in the same town all the time. I’m ‘landsick.’ I miss traveling and I miss the people, and I know our guests feel the same way.”