A traditional host in Zakynthos, Greece

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When we told the taxi driver to take us to Malanos Restaurant where our couchsurfing host would be waiting for us, he knew exactly where we meant.  “Ah yes that’s a well-respected restaurant here.  One of the oldest in Zante town and one of the few on the island that stays open for locals all winter.”  He handed us a card for the restaurant and there on the front our host’s name was printed.  Nikolaus.

Niko showed his gregariousness immediately with a generous welcome and an invitation to take a seat in his down-to-earth restaurant as he rushed back into the kitchen to finish up his midday work.  The place seemed quaint and un-bothered by the fuss of over-contrived atmosphere.  The buzz of the cicadas and the breeze moving through the cedars was all the atmosphere Milano’s needed.  Quaint indeed but we did not know the bustle of energy we’d soon see as locals came from all over for their late evening meals, chatting in the orange light of the restaurant until well past midnight.

When Niko finished his midday work he took us up a marble stairway along the side of the building and showed us our guest room above the restaurant. We had plenty of space, air conditioning and our own bathroom.  A nice place to rest from the surprising heat of Zakynthos.

Niko would not let us pay for our first three meals at Milano’s despite the obvious high quality of the food.  “You shouldn’t pay on your first day!” he excused at first.  By the second day though, he still tried to brush off any request for the bill.  At last we insisted.  After all, the food was the finest around.  A bold statement I know, but I’m confident of this.  All ingredients were fresh and local, many of them coming from the garden right across the street.  Local feta cheese and golden olive oil seemed to garnish everything.  It took us a meal or two to realize that, unless otherwise instructed, each meal would begin with a deliciously fresh greek salad and would end with a plate of cubed watermelon.  We apparently can’t keep up with the appetite of greeks.  Octopus, grilled sardines, okra in stewed tomatoes, tomatoes stuffed with rice, eggs poached in tomatoes and herbs…everything was phenomenal.  And each day the menu changes to accomodate which fresh ingredients were available.  Because of this constant change, guests are invited to come back into the kitchen to receive a personal “tour” of the menu.  This was incredible to me.  I can not imagine a restaurant in the states inviting guests to view the kitchen let alone view the food as it’s cooking.  No secrets in this kitchen.

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Aside from offering delicious food every day, Niko also helped us to see Zakynthos in ways we may not have managed to otherwise.  He speaks about his island with passion.  You can awesome trust the advice of a local who is passionate about their home.  Not to mention Niko has friends everywhere.  When Drew said he’d like to rent a scooter, he had a friend who would rent us one for a great rate. When we said we’d like to see the hidden beach (apparently called “Smugglers’ Cove”,) he had a cousin with a boat.  And each morning despite the demands of his popular restaurant, Niko would pull up a chair and trace his finger along a little map of Zakynthos, pointing out the places we might want to visit, adding little notes as to what we might expect.

By the time we left Zakynthos I felt like there was just no way to thank Niko enough for the part he played in our experience.  While his restaurant kept him too busy to join our daily excursions, each day was book-ended with cheerful conversation, even if just for a moment as Niko would plop himself down at our table and take a rest.  On the night his restaurant featured local musicians we rolled in just after the performance’s start at 9:30.  We were tired and dusty from cliffside roads and ready for a good meal.  As we entered the room Niko’s brother in law gestured to us.  He directed us to a little table with a “reserved” sign on it.  He indicated that this seat was ours.  I noted to myself that Niko managed to make us feel like special guests even in a room packed with old friends and neighbors.

Thanks Niko.  I hope I get to repay you by hosting you in the states sometime.

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