|Posted by Egonne Roth on March 22, 2016 at 2:10 AM|
My great grandmother had a hotel in what is today a school in the Government Gardens in Cape Town. Every time I walk through that lovely green oasis in the heart of the mother city I feel sadness that ‘Afrikaneroord’, as the hotel was known, has been lost to the family. Some families lose their businesses for whatever reasons, but some manage to keep what is theirs and treasure it. Such a tale we heard on the Greek island of Aegina.
One evening in 2014 as we were dining on the terrace of the Vagia Hotel on Aegina, I was delighted to hear that we were truly sitting in a family hotel. It was a somewhat exceptional dinner: my daughter and her partner had cooked for us but we served it at the hotel because Maria, the owner and her two sons could not take the evening off to join us at our rented villa. Usually when we visit Vagia, we stay with them in the hotel. Both sons, Notis and Stylios, had successful careers elsewhere until the big economic crash in the country put many professional people out of work. “My father had died not long before and so it was good for us that we could come home to the family business and help our mother,” Notis had told me during our first visit to the hotel.
“Tell us the history of your hotel,” I asked Notis.
He settled his tall frame into one of the chairs, took a sip of wine and began. “My grandfather’s father was a black marketer here in this area. He used to lend people money and in exchange he bought their land until he owned large parts of what is now the village of Vagia.” As we listened all you heard was the night birds, the soft drone of the sea down the road and Notis’s deep voice telling a tale that I suspect few visitors usually heard. Stylios kept everyone’s glass filled with white wine or retsina while Notis checked his facts with his mother every couple of sentence and she seemed to add asides which we sadly could not understand.
“So my grandfather inherited a great deal of land which he in turn began to sell off. There where you saw those big houses,” Notis continued waving his hand in the general direction of the beach, “all that land used to belong to our family. So my father asked for some of the land in the shadow of the Temple of Aphaia to build this hotel and then taking a loan, he began to build here. First, this main building in the island style.”
“Describe what you mean by the island style?” asks one of our friends sitting at the table.
“Well, first the colour ochre and then the materials. You see the floor – that is Karystos stones which today you can’t get any more but it was once very typical. The best,” Notis smiles and his brother nods. Their pride and joy in this venture is obvious and fills me with a little envy. “Each room is a little different. Individual. Simple but honest.We’ve used wood. The architect designed this place so that it feels like home with unexpected corners.
Only later we added the building at the back. We run this business with very tight control. My mother does the baking – tonight she has baked carrot cake – the one you love so much,” Notis points at me.
“Oh it’s very good,” my daughter pipes up.
“But you haven’t eaten breakfast here yet,” says Notis.
“My mommy brought me a little piece,” she replies with a smile.
“Oooooh, so you steal out of my hotel,” says Notis wagging his finger at me. “My god, the next time you come here I will have to body- search you,” and his hands demonstrates very vividly what he will have to do. Everyone laughs but I feel a little uncomfortable. It is not something one does in this small family run business but Maria had dished me a piece of cake far too big and I had wrapped most of it up to take to Tamar. She winks at me.
“I will bring the kids for breakfast on Friday morning,” I tell Notis, “We’ve now gotten into bringing our guests here for their last morning before they leave.”
“You can be glad you are leaving on Friday,” Notis tells the kids. Actually only Tamar is mine but she brought her boyfriend, Dishen, who has been spoiling us with his delicious cooking. It has been a special time together and I find nothing good in their leaving.
“Why?” they ask, hardly able to believe there can been a good reason for leaving paradise.
“There is a big storm coming in on Friday. By Sunday I doubt that any boats will be leaving the island. Then you’d be stuck here – maybe till Wednesday,” Notis says. He turns to us. “You won’t be leaving your villa much over the weekend.” And I begin to figure out the implications for our domestic arrangements: Most of our guests stay in little outside cottages and have to walk past the pool to get into the house. We usually eat our meals around a table that seats ten on the back veranda.
“But first, you come on Friday,” says Maria, “and you have a nice breakfast here and eat my cakes.” She is so warm and inviting in her manner that one feels this invitation is more than just a business deal. She remembers small details such as that Judy does not eat pork and so, if there is ham in the toasted sandwiches that are sometimes served at breakfast, she will rush into the kitchen to make sandwiches with cheese and tomato instead. Everything served at breakfast is home-made by Maria.
“But no recipes,” says Notis with a grin.
“One of our other guests liked Maria’s chocolate cake so much, that every time we managed to eat here, she would ask for the recipe. We speculated endlessly what was in it,” I explain.
“Maybe I can come back next year and be your receptionist-cleaner,” says Mary Ann, another of our guests, with a dreamy look in her eyes.
“I think not,” says Notis, “Sophia’s been with us for eighteen years. She is not going away soon!”
Judy and I have come to know Sophia during our stays at the hotel – like Notis and his mother, she has a ready smile and is always looking for ways to make one’s visit more pleasant.
“You know, we want this place to be different from the other places here on the island. We look at the details. You see the wood and the furniture, the curtains… All the decorations are designed to make it feel homey so that our guests feel good here and want to return.”
Later as we walk back to our villa, everyone comments on what a distinctive ambience the place has and what lovely people they are.