Have Bag, Will Travel
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“… but God’s magic is still at work and no matter what the race of man may do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct – and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time.” – Henry Miller, ‘Collosus of Maroussi’
Leaving Tinos the Blue Star ferry made its way to neighbouring Mykonos where we would be spending the last two days of our trip before flying home.
Usually we choose to stay in traditional accommodation with average prices but for the last two days we had selected instead to stay at a more expensive boutique hotel just outside the Chora. Actually, it wasn’t that expensive just a bit more than we like to pay and the result was that we were allocated a very nice room with a balcony and a Jacuzzi and a glorious view over the town and the bay.
By comparison the mini-bar and restaurant prices were ludicrously astronomical so it didn’t take us long to make a decision to take a walk back into the centre for an afternoon stroll, search for a sunset and then find a reasonably priced taverna for evening meal.
Now at the end of our holiday we challenged each other to record the highs and lows of the three week trip. We didn’t agree entirely with each other but I think this list of highlights is safe enough to share…
We struggled to make a list of low-lights but these were suggestions…
The list complete we thought about our last day and agreed that it might be a good idea to try and break our walking record and see if we could crash through the ten mile barrier so we decided to start early and walk to Ornos where we had stayed two weeks previously and then on to Agios Ioannis and then return.
So, next day we did just that and immediately after a rather chaotic hotel breakfast we packed our rucksacks and set off.
It was late October now and the scorching summer weather was on the glorious tipping point into Autumn and there was a welcome breeze, well, wind actually, which made it a pleasant walk to the south of the island. Once there we thought about a swim in the sea but the beach was still crowded with sun-worshippers cluttering up the beach so we passed straight through and on to Agios Ioannis where we stopped to swim for the last time this year and then to have a drink before retracing our steps stopping in Ornos on the way for a light lunch.
The taverna was next to the bus stop and there a middle-aged shabbily dressed American with grizzled grey hair and an extravagant pony tail was giving Greece travel advice to a younger woman who had admiring doe eyes and was hanging on to his every word as though he was Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller or Rick Steves. Some of the advice was quite useful as it turned out but it dried up when the bus arrived and they climbed aboard and left.
We left shortly after and walked the two miles back to the hotel where we sat in the sun, arranged our suitcases ready for the journey home and enjoyed some time in the Jacuzzi.
For evening meal we had chosen a beach side taverna a little way out of the town (we needed the steps) and we presented ourselves at the agreed time of eight o’clock. It was a busy restaurant and we were obliged to share a table with a couple from France who arrived shortly after us and were both clearly very drunk. They ordered several starter plates and a bottle of retsina and then nibbled at the food and got seriously stuck into the wine. They were generous with their food and invited us to share but I noticed they didn’t offer any wine. They ate almost nothing but very quickly ordered a second bottle.
As we ate the American and his adoring companion walked by and although I am certain they had only recently met they were now holding hands.
It was a good meal, perhaps the best of the holiday? I don’t know, I can’t really be sure, but we enjoyed the musicians who played traditional Greek music throughout the evening and the amusing company. He danced, she chatted, they were clearly local celebrities and when it was time to go we said goodbye and as we left they ordered their third bottle of retsina!
We walked back and saw the American and his friend who were now walking arm-in-arm – the old man of the sea had clearly been hooked. Back at the room we checked the pedometer – 10.35 miles, we had broken our record and we were self-congratulatory about that.
On the final morning I was surprised to see no cruise ships in the harbour or the bay so anticipating that this might make a difference I made a final visit to the town. It was charming, empty, quiet, unhurried and delightful. Without hordes of cruiser invaders the little streets of the town had a whole different ambience and improved quality. I liked it so much I did at least two full circuits of the town and I was so happy to see it like this in the last few hours before returning back home.
We had enjoyed the Cyclades and agreed that we certainly wouldn’t leave it another five years before returning to one of our favourite places.
“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’
The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries. As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.
Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands. Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.
One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.
Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion. It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.
On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.
The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves. If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him. The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!
We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.
By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation. Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.
All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.
After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.
After the Herculean exertions of the day walking to the top of two high peaks and negotiating hundreds, maybe thousands, of steps we were in no mood to march a great deal further this evening and so rather than walk to the town or the harbour we stopped instead at a gyros restaurant (and I use the word restaurant in its loosest and most generous sense here) and ordered some fast food and some white wine served from a plastic bottle.
After two weeks we were ready for this and the really good thing about the Greek Islands is that there are no McDonald’s, Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken because fast food here is all about the gyros which is a Greek speciality (sold all over the World now of course) where the object is to cram an entire meal, meat, chips, vegetables and sauces into a pitta bread wrap and then try to tackle it without it falling apart and the contents dribbling down the front of your shirt or falling onto the floor.
Well, this was absolutely divine and I am not knocking all of the restaurants and tavernas that we had eaten in so far but it just might have been the best evening meal so far. We drooled over it, we described it to each other in ever-increasing gastronomic superlatives and we mopped our plates clean. Disappointingly of course this was fast food and it was all over in a flash and were back in the hotel sitting on the balcony and looking out over the lights of the town and the reflections on the water which spread and shifted like a kaleidoscopic diesel slick over the water.
The next morning over breakfast on account of the fact that we had completed two days intended walks in just one we had to make some alternative plans so we thought we might find the bus station and take a ride around the island.
Bus services in the Greek Islands used to be reliably unreliable but things have changed since our last visit and the entire bus service thing appears to have been privatised. Gone is the inefficient fleet of state-run cream and green coaches with their tatty seats, worn out curtains for shade, belching engines and groaning gear boxes and they have been replaced with a fleet of modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles with engines that meet EU emissions standards and have air conditioning, recliners and seat belts. The price to pay for this little bit of progress is that the new bus service is much less regular.
Those were the days – Serifos (2009)…
So we took the ride to the nearby village of Vari on the south coast. As we left the bus we instinctively knew that this wasn’t the sort of place where we would want to spend the entire day so we examined the bus time-table and noted that the next bus back was in forty minutes, which was too soon and after that an hour and ten minutes and we thought that we might be able to manage that.
To be fair there was a nice beach and we had a swim in the sea and then a drink in the water side taverna and then strolled back to the bus stop and waited, and waited, and waited and waited. The bus did not come so after half an hour we gave up and started to walk back to the taverna. Suddenly a bus appeared and we sprinted like Olympic athletes back to the bus stop only to have our hopes dashed and be told that this was a school bus and there was no way we would be allowed on that even though we had just given a whole new meaning to the term ‘school run’!
The driver told us that the next bus back to Ermoupolis was in about an hour so we wandered back to the taverna and ordered lunch and waited.
To be honest I wasn’t at all confident that there would be any sort of bus back at all but sure enough one eventually arrived and we thankfully got a ride back to the port.
It was our third and final night in Syros and because we had enjoyed the gyros so much the day before we just went back to the same place for our evening meal.
The following morning we had an early morning ferry to Tinos and then on to Mykonos so after settling our account we followed the steep path down to the ferry terminus and waited for the Blue Star to arrive. It turned up dead on time and Kim immediately stood up and started pushing her way to the front of the line.
Kim is from the North-East of England where most people have a lot of Scandinavian heritage but I swear Kim is an exception and has French blood pulsing through her veins because she just cannot be in a queue without wanting to get to the front of it.
When the boarding gates opened she did her best Lionel Messi impression and swerved and weaved her way skilfully through the crowds of people, scattering children and elbowing people aside if anyone dared get in the way. I have reminded her several times that it is all completely pointless because I am left way behind and eventually she will have to wait for me because I am the one with the tickets!
Anyway, we eventually got on board the Blue Star, made our way to the top external deck and watched as the pastel colours of Syros faded away behind us as the ferry made its determined way to nearby Tinos.
The seven hour ferry journey turned into a seven and half hour ferry crossing on account of high winds and rough seas and by the time the Aqua Spirit finally docked in Syros at about seven thirty in the evening we were glad to get off. Kim especially so!
After a little difficulty we located and approved our accommodation and with the rosy glow of a sunset over our shoulders surveyed the town from our balcony as roosting birds chattered in the tree tops, bats began to swoop overhead and the lights began to flicker on one by one. We thought that we might like this place.
In the morning a sunrise invaded our room as golden light leaked through the gaps in the shutters and the curtains and woke us early which gave us plenty of time to shop for breakfast in a nearby bakery and to arrange our schedule for the day.
In contrast to most of the Cyclades Islands Syros is a busy port with an important dock yard and ship building industry. It flourished after the Greek War of Independence of 1821 and for a while was the most important and most prosperous city in all of Greece.
There are two important areas of the city and as were here for two days we thought we might visit one each day. Ano Syros is the old medieval district built at the top of a steep hill and Ermoupolisis is the post 1821 development built in the neo-classical way of Venetian style villas and a practical grid pattern of streets that rises steeply and dramatically from the water’s edge in the port.
Neither were far away but both involved a demanding climb up a never-ending set of steps to get to the top because Syros is what I describe as a vertical city.
We thought we might start with Ermoupolis and walked first to the main square and a massive city hall building appropriate to its status as capital of the Cyclades region of Greece. It is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the Cyclades with marble footpaths cascading like a hanging garden and a large statue of Andreas Miaoulis , a hero of the Greek War of Independence.
From the square we moved into the back streets and began the slow steady climb towards the top. It was relatively easy at first but soon became exhausting in the hot sun and we started to slow down and tackle the ascent in sections of fifty steps at a time, stopping at each milestone for a break and a breather. There must have been a thousand steps – it felt like ten thousand.
As we walked we passed villas and mansions in various states of disrepair, too expensive to renovate because restrictive planning laws insist on exact restoration due to their historical and cultural importance. Instead it is cheaper to build new properties so these neglected fine buildings steadily decay and collapse. One day they will be gone and that will be a real shame.
As the day continued to get hotter, shutters were thrown back like butterfly wings basking in the sunshine, washing hung steaming from open windows and every doorstep had a sleeping cat for decoration.
Eventually we reached the very top and the Greek Orthodox Church at the peak and found a bench to sit down and look down and simply admire the view. A handsome town of pastel shades tumbling all the way down to the port and on an adjacent hill the sister village of Ano Syros challenging us to continue our walk and complete both climbs on the same day.
As we started back down we were undecided about that and at a point where we really needed to make the decision we stopped to consider the prospect. Kim was all for going straight back and leaving the second climb until tomorrow but this didn’t make sense to me because we were already half way there and would have to do the same thing all over again the next day.
As we debated our options a Greek man came by and intervened and interpreted our dilemma as a desire to walk to the second mountain peak and although he spoke no English, and the pair of us no Greek he made it clear that he was happy to act as our guide and beckoned us to follow him to Ano Syros and at the time it seemed rude not to!
So that is how we came to tackle both climbs on the same day. The steps to Ano Syros were steep and irregular and the climb was difficult and demanding and with stops becoming all more frequent it took us some time to reach close to the top where we were happy to find a bar and stop for a while for a drink before carrying on to the Catholic Church of St George at the very pinnacle of the climb.
Going up was hard on the thighs but coming down was tough on the knees and it took us some time to identify and negotiate the least difficult route back to the main square where we were happy to stop again at a bar for some time where we looked back at the twin peaks and congratulated ourselves several times on our achievement and I wrestled with the conundrum of when they build a village on a mountainside do they start at the top and work down or at the bottom and work up?
“After the furrowed grey wastes of the water surrounding our islands (The UK) the huge vivacity of the Mediterranean never ceased to astonish. Here it was splashed all-over with plum-coloured stains of weed-beds among which bald rocks just below the surface were brilliant uncut emeralds (and) water thrashing in the deep coves rose and fell, uncovering and submerging great shining boulders…” – Norman Lewis, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
When in Greece in September we always make space in the itinerary for Ios because this is where we meet old friends and return to the best hotel in the Cyclades– Homer’s Inn!
Our normal routine on Ios is to spend the day around the port and on the beach and then visit the Chora for the sunset and for evening meal. This year to be different we decided to visit the main town in the morning to see what it was like during the day.
Actually it wasn’t so nice and whilst the evening darkness disguises all the evidence of clubbers and boozers it was all viciously exposed early in the morning. Discarded bottles and cans in the corners and clubs and bars that look glittery and inviting in the gloom looking cheap and nasty in the cold light of day.
We walked to the top and admired the views of the port and on the way down stopped to talk to some fellow travellers. As we exchanged stories I saw what I thought was a lizard but quickly realised that it was a snake. Olive brown and about a metre long it slithered by and disappeared into a tiny crack in the steps. Later I made enquiries and was told that a local naturist had reintroduced these serpents to the island and that they were poisonous.
I am all for preserving the natural environment but that is just plain daft, as daft as Eugene Schieffelin introducing the starling into the USA or Thomas Austin releasing rabbits into the Australian outback. Daft also because although there is a medical centre on Ios for anything serious the only treatment is on the mainland and a snake bite would mean airlifting by ambulance back to Athens.
We walked around the steep and narrow streets and arthritic crooked alleys as far as the abandoned windmills and through the shops that line the main street through the village and then back to Homer’s Inn down the dusty track and after a short sojourn went for another walk to the harbour and along the coast road to the little church on the headland.
The road out of the village runs past the business end of the harbour and there were some brightly painted boats that had just landed their overnight catch and were negotiating sales with local people and restaurant owners in a babble of animated activity.
It looked like a good night’s work and the trading was brisk. The fish looked interesting and on closer examination of the produce it soon becomes clear why we have to put up with stock shortages whilst the most of the rest of Europe have such an abundance of choice; we are just far too fussy about what we will eat and our preference for fish is restricted to two or three species that we have fished into crisis and near extinction whilst in Greece, as elsewhere, they will eat a much greater variety of sea food.
On top of the church there was a Greek flag that was flapping uncontrollably in the wind and trying desperately to separate itself from the pole that was hanging onto it.
The blue and white flag of Greece is called ‘Galanolefci’, which simply means ‘blue and white’. Originally it was blue with a white diagonal cross but the cross has now been moved to the upper left corner, and is symbolic of the Christian faith.
Being a seafaring nation, the blue of the flag represents the colour of the sea. White is the colour of freedom, which is something that is very important to the Greeks after years of enslavement under foreign domination. The nine stripes of the flag each symbolise a syllable in the Greek motto of freedom: E-LEY-THE-RI-A-I-THA-NA-TOS, which translates literally into ‘Freedom or Death’.
There were preparations at the church for a wedding and a christening and later Kim returned to see the wedding and I joined her later for the baptism to see the ceremony of a little girl being accepted into the Christian Orthodox Church, which is a major event in the life of any Greek family.
A Greek baptism is a sacred and religious rite that is performed to cleanse the soul and renounce Satan. The baptism is a complex initiation that starts with an exorcism and officially ends forty days later when the baby is presented to the congregation to receive Holy Communion.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to stop for the full forty days and we began to feel a bit like intruders on a private family event so before it was all over we left the church and returned to the harbour and instead of going to the Chora, tonight we ate next to the fishing boats that were being prepared for another night at sea at a place called the Octopus where, at pavement tables next to the fishermen, we were served excellent food and fresh fish that we had seen being landed just a few hours earlier.
We stayed on Ios for four days and then prepared to move on to the island of Syros.