Greek ambassador on collecting art, riding the Athens metro and why Bulgarians and Greeks are so similar
If there is a single trick to open up people's hearts and minds for Greece and things Greek it is Portokalopita, the deliciously different Greek pastry which combines in almost neoclassical proportions shredded phyllo with orange and cinnamon syrup to keep it beautifully moist. Dimitrios Chronopoulos, the new Greek ambassador in Sofia, must have known this, and his wife, Efi, is ready with her excellent Portokalopita the moment we sit down for a sip of Greek coffee at the comely Greek Residence in Central Sofia. Expectedly, and understandably, we feel confident to get on first-name-terms within a few minutes.
Dimitrios: For a short time I was lawyer in Athens, but then I joined the diplomatic service, back in in 1984. Since then I have been enjoying a profession full of challenges and experiences.
Efi: I have worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an administrative staff member since 1993. In addition to the ministry's services in Athens, I have also served abroad, at Greek embassies, consulates and at the Permanent Representation of Greece to the EU.
Apart from diplomacy, how do you spend your time? Do you have any hobbies?
Dimitrios: Reading books on history. Gardening and mountain climbing are my hobbies. Collecting art, especially paintings, gives me particular pleasure. Strolling through the streets in the various neighbourhoods of Sofia and visiting open-air markets satisfies my curiosity and helps me learn the social behaviour of the average Bulgarian citizen. I know Bulgaria as a diplomat through numbers and politics, but I am interested to know the human soul of the country and the way of thinking and acting of my neighbours.
Efi: I love reading, traveling and learning foreign languages. I try to spend a lot of time with my family, cook their favourite food or play board games with my children.
What expectations do you have from your posting in Bulgaria?
Dimitrios: I would like to learn everything about the country, make friends and contribute to further promoting cooperation between Greece and Bulgaria. Today Greece and Bulgaria are going through a mature phase of their relations, free of the historical burdens and stereotypes of the past. Only one problem exists in our bilateral relations and it is is how to further promote these relations in all fields, and strengthen the friendship between the two peoples.
Bulgaria is a beautiful country with an attractive landscape similar to that of Greece. Mountains, plains, seaside and the Danube invite me to explore them. The coast in the Black Sea will be my first destination next spring. I visited already the Rila Monastery. Bansko and Borovets will follow. I am very interested to visit also Vidin, Ruse, Stara Zagora, Sliven, Veliko Tarnovo and Kardzhali. However, my first next destination will be Plovdiv, European Capital of Culture 2019.
Efi: I try to get to know every country I serve in as much as I can. So in Bulgaria, too, I intend to travel all over, visit monuments and places that will help me to get to know the history and the culture, and also make new friends.
Imagine you had a Bulgarian friend visit you in Greece. What three things would you recommend them to do?
Dimitrios: First, I would ask them to feel at home and enjoy Greek hospitality and food. Second, in Athens I would recommend to visit the new Acropolis Museum, a masterpiece, and the new Basil & Elise Goulandris Museum of Modern Art. Third, I would suggest visiting sites in the mainland of Greece such as the monasteries at Meteora, Prespa Lake and the environments in the region of Western Macedonia and the unique beauty of Peloponnese in the south, the region of my family's origin.
Efi: In summer, I would encourage them to alternate their vacation between mountain and sea. Ideally, they should enjoy the sea and the tranquility of a small island with fresh seafood at the small fish taverns by the port, accompanied by ouzo , or "ouzaki" as we fondly call it. But they should also spend a few days in the mountains, like in one of the small villages in the Pindos mountain range. In winter, I would suggest visiting Delphi and spending a few days in cosmopolitan Arachova or in Metsovo, a beautiful mountain village in Epirus, enjoying local delicacies. Also, for younger (and not only) friends, the nightlife is intense. A variety of entertainment is available at night, like theatres, restaurants, nightclubs.
And what three things will you advise them to be careful about?
Dimitrios: I would suggest to avoid trying to behave as a local and act as a Bulgarian. They will soon understand how similar we are in our Balkan identity. I would also recommend them to try visiting destinations and tourist sites off the beaten track, avoiding overcrowded tourist destinations like the islands during summer time.
Efi: I agree with my husband. If I had to give visiting Bulgarians a more practical piece of advice, it would be in Athens travel by public transport, as distances are long and traffic is high. I would recommend taking the metro. Some of the central metro stations show excavations which were revealed during the construction of the subway that it's worth seeing. The Guardian has written in the past that "Athens metro is not just a subway, but a train going through a museum".