“This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town. Where you keep me dreamy and never let me down.”
As a Greek-American “city girl” growing up on the East Coast, I dreamed of jet-setting summer vacations out west in Los Angeles. Instead, every summer vacation was a pilgrimage back to the “homeland.” I had plenty of time to daydream about shopping on Rodeo Drive while enduring the 200-km, three-hour drive south of Athens, past the Isthmus of Corinth, through mountains and down the winding coastal roads of the Peloponnese to my father’s hometown of Leonidio.
The town could not be more of an antithesis to trendy L.A. There is no glamorous “Hollywood” sign. Instead, the signs in the town bear the local dialect, Tsakonian, which is the only living descendent of Doric Greek. Leonidio sits at the end of the Dafnon Gorge, where it spreads out along the wide Dafnon River on the coastal plain facing the Myrtoan Sea. No island it seems can outdo this short shoreline for the diversity of its beaches. From the large, smooth-pebbled beaches and secret coves of Livadi, Lakkos and Poulithra to the small pebbled beaches of the harbors of Sampatiki and Plaka, the waters are crystal-clear blue and perfect for snorkeling.
The area is also becoming a popular destination for rock climbers, who come to scale Kokkinovrahos or “Red Rock”. Trekkers and hikers can enjoy the beautiful trails up Mt. Parnon leading to mountain villages like Aghios Vasilios, Paleohori and Kosmas, under the watchful eye and grace of Elona monastery, named in honor of the Virgin Mary and cradled on a steep cavernous mountain side, striking everyone with awe at its sight.
“ Summer closes with the annual celebration of the Tsakonian eggplant, which showcases the local Tsakonian culture, dances and cuisine under the star-studded sky over Plaka harbor.”
The summer season kicks off when renowned artists and chefs arrive in Leonidio for the Melitzazz festival, a colorful, international gathering that transforms the town into an open-air bar and takes street food to new heights. Music and dancing become one amid the scents and flavors of local and global gastronomy. Summer closes with the annual celebration of the Tsakonian eggplant, which showcases the local Tsakonian culture, dances, and cuisine under the star-studded sky over Plaka harbor. The area fills to capacity, with visitors also arriving by sea, on yachts from nearby islands, such as Hydra and Spetses. The summer weeks in between are filled with swimming, beach parties, late lunches at seaside tavernas, and dinner and cocktails at the day cafés turned nightclubs.
My favorite time of year in Leonidio is Easter, which is celebrated with a spectacular display of sound and light. During the Midnight Vigil on Holy Saturday, fireworks and countless balloons are launched over the town, lighting up the sky for hours. By the time church services have ended and midnight Easter dinner has been served, the surface of the sea is carpeted with colorful sheets of paper, a reminder of the grand spectacle.
As an adult I’ve traveled extensively, and for the last 15 years I have spent more time in Greece than in the US. I now long for the winding roads that lead me to the stone chateau that sits on a small cliff overlooking the sea, built by my grandfather nearly a century ago in Livadi.
And I take pride in sharing my filoxenia with my family, friends from all over the world, and fellow Greek-Americans, who have always boasted about being from the more popular island destinations of Greece, yet have found Leonidio’s hospitality, history, traditions, architecture and natural beauty so alluring. And although I have been to Los Angeles a few times, I realize there is no other L.A. that I would rather be in than my own Leonidio, Arcadia.
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