A cool, fickle breeze sends autumn leaves tumbling down the road on a Saturday night. A dog howls. Surrounding hillsides are hushed and dark. In the modest Taverna To Meraki in Mikrohori, Thanassis and Eleni Mantas and their 26-year-old son Alexi are busy serving patrons with simple, hearty food.
Sweet mountain greens drizzled with olive oil and lemon, known as horta, the ubiquitous horiatiki Greek salad, grilled lamb chops, garlicky tsatziki, piles of potato fries sprinkled with dried oregano, and jugs of red wine.
To Meraki is the local taverna for my friend Jenny who has a country home nearby. Some customers have driven 35km from the centre of Athens to be here. It might seem odd Athenians would drive so far for uncomplicated fare easily found closer to home.
There’s a special reason for their visit. This tiny village has a big talent.
Wine flows and chatter grows louder. Alexi brings the food from the kitchen, moving quickly between tables. To Meraki used to be buzzing like this every Saturday night, but the Greek economic crisis dealt a crushing blow to many small businesses. Nights like this now happen once a month.
the bouzouki player
When all meals are served and wine jugs refilled, Alexi sits down and picks up his bouzouki. Friend Giorgos on acoustic guitar and vocals accompanies him. Songs and music of love and loss, tradition and culture, triumph and tragedy, of exile and homecoming – all the things that make Greece what it is – fill the room.
Alexi’s fingers fly across the strings. The staccato sound of the bouzouki quickly makes everyone clap to the rhythm. The bouzouki is the descendant of ancient Greek and Middle Eastern instruments. From the 1950s it became the instrument of popular traditional culture, and the vehicle for melancholic music of rembetika, the Greek version of the blues.
Bouzouki is made for dancing.
At To Meraki customers are off their chairs and on their feet. This is what they’ve come for. Men and women dance the tsifteteli and hasapiko solo.
The power and emotion of Alexi the bouzouki player’s music is channelled through their movements. It’s an entirely unconscious act. There’s no showing off. This comes from the heart. They’re in the zone.
Strangers and friends, Athenians and locals, then dance together in a circle, in simple repetitive steps practiced in tavernas, bouzoukia, weddings, festivals and village squares all over Greece. These dances are almost unchanged over hundreds of years.
Alexi and Giorgos continue playing without a break as the dancing becomes more frenetic. Then Alexi’s dad Thanassis takes the floor. Customers kneel at the perimeter, clapping him on. It’s also a mark of respect for the dancer. This usually shy man skips, taps, stamps and jumps with confidence and grace. His feet are flying. Nimble, energetic steps of a man half his age.
After four hours of food, wine and dancing, Jenny and I reluctantly leave our friends and say kalinikta (goodnight).
“What?! So soon?” Someone says.
As we fade into the night Giorgos is still singing and Alexi plays on.
CHECK LIST FOR ALEXI AND TAVERNA TO MERAKI
- Taverna To Meraki is open every evening except Tuesdays
- To reach Mikrohori from Athens, take the Attiki Odos (National Road) and turn off at the sign for Kapandriti
- Follow the sign to Kalamos, then turn right for Mikrohori
- Mikrohori is so small if you blink you’ll miss it, but the To Meraki sign is clearly visible from the road
- For reservations call 22950 56341 (mainly Greek spoken)
- There’s a roaring fireplace during winter and outdoor seating for summer nights
- Food will cost about 30-35 euros for two with two jugs of wine
- Alexi Mantas plays one Saturday night each month – reservations recommended.