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.
From Ios we were travelling now to the island of Syros and I had found a reasonably priced ferry ride for just €16 each. This was a seven hour journey (I suggested to Kim that she thought of it as a sort of cruise) stopping off at Sikinos, Folegandros, Naxos and Paros along the way.
I have been visiting the Greek islands on and off for over thirty years and island hopping for the last ten and I have noticed that things are beginning to change, and not always for the better either.
There are new roads being constructed on the islands and EU funded improvements to ports, traditional mini-markets are becoming supermarkets, bus services are being privatised and updated and the ferries are beginning to change. New roads are fine and improved port facilities are good, personally I prefer the dusty old shops with surprises in dark corners and the inefficient buses but I have to say that I am really disappointed by the ferry changes.
This year again there were new routes and unfamiliar boats and these were all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun. They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality.
I understand that these changes are welcomed by the people who live on the islands, who now have faster and more convenient transport options, but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers. I prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure.
In 2006 I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa (named after the monastery on Amorgos) and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful.
I used it again in 2007 but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus. So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called SpeedRunner, Highspeed or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.
Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible.
This year only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and we used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and we really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a mythos, listening to the gentle ‘sha sha sha’ as the prow scythed through the water cutting an arrow head of foam into the blue, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by.
On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and watch the captain plotting a course and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the stern and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards.
It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors. On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the modern engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.
This regrettable change is driven by the desire to improve but is in part due also to stricter operating rules imposed on ferry operators after a disaster on 26thSeptember 2000 when the Express Samina Ferry sank off of Paros while the captain slept and the crew watched a football match on TV. Several of the crew were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail and the General Manager of the company committed suicide when he jumped from his sixth floor office window in Piraeus.
I am glad that I had a few years of travelling between the islands on the old boats and I suppose I will have to come to terms with the fact that these days have gone but the journey from Ios to Syros on the Aqua Spirit was a reminder of those good old days.
To be completely honest I enjoyed it a whole lot more than Kim because after five hours or so at open sea her patience tanks began to run dry and she certainly didn’t enjoy the last leg of the journey from Paros to our destination port of Syros.
I know this for certain because she reminded me several times!
“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.
‘The problem is not that French is impossible to learn: you can hear it spoken perfectly in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. No, the real problem with French is that it is a useless language’. Jeremy Paxman (UK Journalist)
It was still very dark when we made our way down to the harbour and joined a line of passengers flocking onto the ferry Blue Star Paros which was throbbing away in the harbour and we made our way to the partially covered seating area on the top deck of the boat.
As the quayside rumbled with the sound of drag-bag wheels we watched from the deck rail we saw what resembled a sort of Pied Piper story unfolding as people emerged from rooms and spilled out of little side streets all heading in the same untidy direction and making their way to the boat.
It left on time and slipped noisily out of Katapola into a disturbingly rough sea and as the sun rose behind us the wind whipped up the foaming waves and sent them high enough to crash over the sides of the top deck covering our faces in a salty brine. The ferry lurched alarmingly from side to side and the Greek flag was cracking like a whip in the wind as though trying to detach itself from its pole as we sailed west making brief but frequent stops at Koufonisia, Schinoussa and Iraklia before arriving in Naxos in time for breakfast.
After eating we walked to the top of the town to find the Venetian Cathedral tour that was highly recommended in the Island hopping guidebook. We waited around in the courtyard outside the Cathedral and not a lot seemed to be happening and we wondered if we were going to be disappointed.
Eventually an old lady in an extravagant floral blouse and with a worn out old dog for a companion ghosted in from a hidden door in an adjacent room and enquired if we were there for the tour and we told her that yes we were.
She went to a great deal of trouble to explain that her English was quite poor and clutching her stomach she told us that her doctor had advised her against speaking in English because this made her ill.
I’m not a medical person you understand but this seemed highly unlikely to me and whereas conversely I may find it possible to understand that speaking German can give you a sore throat this woman had no credible explanation for a diagnosis of stomach cramps just through speaking English; but anyway as we set off she proceeded to speak perfectly even though it was in a hushed and croaky voice.
This was really excellent, we were the only people on the tour and we received an exceptional commentary all around the interior and the exterior of the Cathedral. But then disaster struck as a group of French people gate crashed the party and after a short debate about language preferences with these unwelcome latecomers she continued for the rest of the tour in about 75% French.
She apologised to us for that and lamented that “English people cannot speak French and French people will not speak English!” which, when I thought about it, was a very profound and accurate observation. This shouldn’t have surprised us of course, we know how precious they can be about their secondary World language so we just had to accept the inevitable and struggle to make sense of the French and be grateful for the few stale bread-crumbs of English that were infrequently scattered our way.
There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English. More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth). The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power in the World.
Actually, even in a foreign language, this was an excellent tour and the communication difficulties didn’t spoil it one little bit. Our guide swept us through a museum, a monastery and a simple basilica as we visited buildings and rooms that would simply not be accessible to tourists who did not join the tour.
In one room there was a pot-pourri of treasures that really deserved to be in a proper museum where they could be looked after properly. She dragged them out of boxes and held them in her frail hands and in a rhapsodical way accompanied by extravagant arm gestures as though she were conducting an orchestra kept imploring us to “look at this, look at this!”
At one point she opened an illuminated manuscript and declared it to be five hundred years old but she turned the pages over as though it was a copy of last week’s Radio Times. That sort of thing would never be allowed at the British Museum. No wonder Lord Elgin took the marbles back to London so that they could be looked after!
This was a brilliant tour that allowed us to see something that we would not ordinarily have seen. It lasted about ninety minutes and then she asked for just €2 each.
Now, I am not usually prone to impromptu acts of extravagance but this had been so really, really good that we gave her €5 each and still walked away thinking that we had bagged an exceptional bargain.
Our sojourn in Naxos was now almost over so we collected our suitcases from the bag storage depot and made our way slowly to the port and waited patiently for the Blue Star Ferry to arrive for our onward journey to Ios.
A quick preview of my stories about recent travels to the Greek Islands…