Once upon a time… In 1969, a friend from University and I took a year off school for a backpacking tour of Europe. We arrived in Greece in early March and were lucky to make friends with a group of ex-pats -- Brits, Aussies, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians -- who were living on sailboats in the yacht harbour in Piraeus. They worked in the charter business and we were soon sanding, painting, fixing toilets, helping the fleet to get ready for the summer charter season. Once the season began, we worked as deckhands on various boats. We spent a glorious summer living and working on boats and sailing around the Aegean.
In 32 years, I have never revisited this fascinating country and Susan is pretty tired of hearing all my old stories, so we think the time is right for a visit. Of the friends I made in the summer of 1969, one still lives in Greece and one has a summer home there. We are able to visit them and renew acquaintances.
We land at Athens airport on September 11, 2001 at 5:15 pm local time (10:15 am in New York). The taxi driver tries to explain that something terrible -- "sabotage" -- has happened in New York, but my rusty Greek fails to translate his story. When we arrive at our hotel, the desk clerk is watching CNN and we are stunned by the catastrophe which has taken place.
The Hotel Pikermi has its own claim to fame, having “hosted” George Papandreo during the military coup in April 1967. Papandreo was the Prime Minister at the time and the Colonels held him prisoner in the hotel for a month. There are framed newspaper clippings on display.
The next morning, we travel by taxi and ferryboat and more taxi and finally arrive at Matt and Lou’s house on the island of Evoia. They live way out in the countryside in a tiny village called Raptei. The taxi driver is very concerned about leaving us here and needs much reassurance that we do have friends in Raptei and that they are, indeed, expecting us! I must admit to a moment or two of apprehension as the taxi drives off. We make our way down a steep, narrow path, looking for a house we have only seen in a picture! We eventually spy its lovely white stucco and blue trim. Through a wrought-iron gate onto a beautiful patio and we are greeted at the door by the lady that’s known as Lou.
Years ago, while living and working in Athens, Matt and Lou bought a rundown old farmhouse. They spent years renovating it into a beautiful, charming little villa. We have breakfast on the patio (a very tart, plain yoghurt with honey, fresh fruit and meusli which is very, very good) with grapevines growing overhead to break the sun. The bunches of green and red grapes are just ripe for picking. They are incredibly sweet and so very fresh. The patio looks out over a tiny valley with whitewashed houses, 2,000-year-old olive trees, donkeys, goats and chickens. Way at the bottom of the valley, is the sea. Olive trees enjoy a peculiar status in Greece; they have their own property deeds. One may own a piece of property, but one doesn't necessarily own the olive trees that grow on it. Matt and Lou discovered this when a neighbour arrived one day to prune ‘his’ tree, even though it was on ‘their’ land. The view from the patio is breathtaking. Unlike much of Greece, there are lots of trees on Evoia and looking down the tree-lined valley out to the deep blue of the Aegean filled me with an overwhelming sense of peace.
I enjoy my first swim in the Mediterranean the day we arrive. It is very clear and astonishingly buoyant. I don’t think I could sink if I wanted to. The beaches are very clean and beautiful and, in this quiet rural area, not crowded. Curiously, there are no tides in the Aegean and somehow the sea seems more gentle than the Atlantic and the Pacific…you don’t get the roar of the waves, although I expect it could get a little more tense during a storm.
The lanes that run between the houses in the village were really built for donkey traffic and even though the cars are small, there is usually about two inches on either side to squeeze through. (Actually, they’re barely wide enough for my hips!) The roads also mostly go up and down at 40 degree angles. I am very impressed that they actually drive cars up and down them.
Evoia’s economy is based on olives, quarried stone (marble and slate) and meat and dairy products derived from goats and sheep. Many of the farms are small and poor and donkeys are still used for transportation and heavier work. In fact, twice a day, old Nikos and his donkey pass Matt and Lou’s house as they go to and from their fields. I feel as though I have been taken back in time. The sound of the donkey’s hooves on the roadway is as regular as clockwork. It will leave an incredible hole in the day when the pair of them are no longer able to make their journey! The few farmers left are very old – the young have all left for the bright lights.
Our last evening with Matt and Lou is spent in a nearby village called Ameropotamo. It is very scenic and charming. Many Greeks come for here for vacation. There is a long tree-lined beach around a small well-protected bay. We enjoyed a beer right at the water’s edge and then have dinner in a lovely little restaurant. Service is interesting in Greece. Menus are all very similar and you are always served in a timely manner…but try to get the bill! You start asking for it early and often.
Next day, Matt drives us to Kimi, at the north end of the island where we catch the ferry to the island of Skyros. We take many detours and side roads. Matt shows us all the properties they had looked at before buying their current house, and we stop to visit his various friends and acquaintances along the way. We also go into a beautiful church in one of the small villages. Greek Orthodox churches tend to be very ornate which usually makes me feel that they are cold and untouchable. However, this one feels warm and inviting…maybe it is just the weather.
Skyros is part of the Sporades Group in the northern Aegean and a new part of Greece for me. I am enchanted by Skyros, probably because of the warm welcome visitors receive on arrival in the harbour town of Linaria. As the ferryboat backs into the dock, it turns broadside to a bar built on a cliff overlooking the harbour. This bar has patios on several terraces and a most incredible sound system. Incoming passengers are greeted with Gustav Holst’s Jupiter Symphony played at a truly awesome volume. Pretty dramatic and great marketing! Like everyone else, we dropped in for a visit and a bottle of lovely white wine from Crete. Skyros is a major source of beautiful pure white marble and we saw many quarries.
As we get off the ferry, the usual entrepreneurs meet us on the quay offering rooms to rent. A dignified elderly gent named Vasillikos leads us up a steep, narrow path to his house and shows us a very nice room. Unfortunately, the next-door neighbours are having a family wedding that weekend and relatives are arriving from all over Greece. Most of them are catching up on old times on their patio, which is just outside our window. Between their party, which lasts until the wee hours (and even through afternoon siesta -- is nothing sacred?) and the roosters, which start up just before dawn, it seemed like there is only about half an hour of peace and quiet in the whole night. Our host and his wife are very hospitable and offer us Greek coffee and biscuits each morning and I receive lovely bouquets of basil and jasmine from them. The sweet scent of blooming jasmine hanging off balconies and patios fills the evening air and adds tremendously to the ambience of this Greek town.
The next day we rent a small motorbike and set out to tour around the island. Two of us on a 50cc bike seems to be asking a bit much of the poor little thing, but it manages to get us there and back without visible signs of distress. Donkeys are treated much the same way, too. Although it does complain a bit when I inadvertently shift from third gear to first at 30 kph. It seems to be uphill both ways on this island! We visit the main town and explore tiny streets winding upward between tiny white-washed houses. We climb higher and higher and eventually arrive at the inevitable little white chapel on the highest point. Above that are the ruins of a Venetian castle called Skyros Palace. We arn't able to explore it because it was damaged in an earthquake in July and is still being repaired. On the way back, I am startled to see a sheer cliff next to the road with animals standing on it at various levels. As we get closer I realize that goats have found themselves shady ledges and are getting some relief from the relentless sun. It looks ever so much like a curio shelf! We stop at an isolated beach where there are only a few (one) topless bathers and have a swim. The sea is warm and crystal clear. I spend a lot of time picking up small bits of sea-polished marble. Unfortunately it isn’t practical to haul it around in a backpack for the rest of the trip so I regretfully leave it behind. The road to and from this beach is an obstacle course as we have to navigate around herds of goats and sheep resting on the road. I have forgotten how neat it is to swim in the Mediterranean. The sea is very salty and you float effortlessly. It is also very clear and I wish I had some skin diving gear.
Skyros is a really attractive little island and, afterward, we think we might have stayed a few more days. We leave Skyros on the ferry back to Kimi and catch the bus to go back to Matt and Lou’s. Their village of Raptei is not on the main bus route, so we get off in the small village of Lippora where the road to Raptei branches. We find a kaphenion where several people are sitting around having a mid-day refreshment and asked when the next bus to Raptei would come. As is always the case in Greece, everyone is very extremely helpful and we get many answers to our question:
“The bus is leaving now!”
“There will be a bus in two hours.”
“The next bus isn’t until 5:00 pm.”
“There might be a bus tomorrow.”
“There is no bus to Raptei!”
There doesn't seem to be any urgency to catch the bus and since, by this time, we are very hungry, we asked if we can get something to eat.
“No, No, of course not! This is a kaphenion, not a taverna!”
(A kaphenion serves coffee, ouzo and beer and wine, but not food). So we ask if there might be a taverna in the village where we can get lunch.
Again, everyone is extremely helpful:
"There is a taverna across the street."
"There is a taverna down that way."
"There might be a taverna at the other end of town."
"There is no taverna in Lippora"
I guess we look hungry and distressed at this point, because the next thing the owner of the kaphenion invites us in and tells his wife to prepare lunch for us. We are served the same food that they are having for their own lunch -- a typical midday meal in rural Greece: excellent homemade french fries (Nowhere in the world are french fries better than in Greece!), then an omelet, cooked and served with a lot of olive oil, and containing a very large quantity of goat cheese (and maybe some goat hair). The farmer’s salad was very good and the local bread is always excellent. Our meal was served country-style, on one plate with utensils for each of us. Bob neglected to mention the little deep-fried sardine-type fishy-thingies! They are called meridas: basically battered, deep-fried minnows, complete with fins, head and tail. Nice and crunchy and actually very tasty! Ugh…I can’t even try them. I have eaten many meals like this one in my previous time in Greece. Nobody ever accused Greek food of being haute cuisine!
Fortunately for my stomach, (we might have to eat supper there, too!) we find a cab, willing to take us to Raptei for a reasonable price.
We hurry back because Groovy John is due to arrive from Athens to spend the weekend at his vacation house next door to Matt and Lou. John is another of the interesting people that I met in Piraeus in 1969 and who I was greatly looking forward to seeing again after all these years. Fortunately, I had warned Susan that he is called Groovy John because sometimes he is not! He is mostly interesting and charming and has a lifetime of great stories to tell and he is certainly never dull or boring. However, to say that John is occasionally known to drink to excess and act like a jerk, would be understating the case. He does not disappoint! When he first arrives, he and I have a great visit. We reminisce about old times, catch up on the doings of people we both knew and generally tell each other entertaining lies about our respective lives and accomplishments. A couple of hours later, when we collect him to go for dinner, he has made a serious beginning on his weekend’s wine consumption. Unfortunately, he gets into an emotional rant about the tragedy in New York and nearly bops Bob in the nose! Just because I make a disparaging comment about George Bush -- how was I to know that John was a rabid Republican? This is a guy who has lived in Europe since 1956 and took out Greek citizenship a few years ago. Matt said just two weeks earlier John said he had given up on America completely and now considered himself a Greek!
Shortly after we order our meal at the restaurant, John decides to walk home. Matt drives slowly in the dark expecting to find John along the way. Sure enough, he stumbled off the path in the dark and is having a little snooze in the weeds. We transport him to Matt’s place and then John sets off to navigate the last 100 meters or so to his own house. Unfortunately, he deviates from his intended course and walks smack into a stone wall. It sounds like somebody dropped a watermelon! We check on him the next morning and he seems in good health except for an enormous goose egg on his forehead and a variety of abrasions and contusions on the rest of his person. It is really gratifying to discover that at least some things in Greece haven’t changed in the last thirty years!
Sunday, we relaxed, did laundry, went for a swim and drank some more beer. I explored Matt and Lou’s terraced gardens and went for a walk in the village…two rolls of film later!
On Monday morning, Groovy John is driving back to Athens and he offers to give us a ride. He seems little the worse for wear. Bob and John visit some more on the ferry crossing. John joins me at the rail for a time and somewhat indignantly points out a cloud in the sky! I laugh and say I figure it is only there so we know where the sky is, because the sea and the sky are pretty much the same colour.
John and his wife run a travel and tour business. Their latest venture is an “Antiquities and Vineyards Tour”. They take a group to visit an archaeological site each morning and then tour a local winery in the afternoon. It sounds like a great idea. Certainly Greece has no shortage of fascinating historical sites and there is a burgeoning cottage winery industry with some truly excellent vintages.
John drops us near his home in Voula on the coast and we catch a bus into Athens. We get off the bus in Syntagma Square, in the centre of Athens and for the first time I feel like I am on familiar ground. The American Express office where we backpackers used to pick up mail is now a McDonald’s and the outdoor cafes where we used to sit and read our mail are largely gone. However, the Hotel Grande Bretagne and the Hotel Georges V still loom around the edges of the square (and we still can't afford to stay in them.)
We had booked a room in the small, older Hotel Attalos and we make our way there without difficulty. The hotel is comfortable, air-conditioned and has a rooftop bar with a beautiful view of the Acropolis and Mt. Lycabettus. A short walk takes us to the neighbourhoods of Monistiraki and Plaka, right at the base of the Acropolis, which are the oldest and most interesting parts of the city. Originally, these were working-class neighbourhoods of artisans and workshops. Nowadays, they are mostly filled with tourists, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. Still it is an interesting and pleasant part of the city, with narrow streets, few vehicles and lots of things to see and to buy.
We get up early and set out to see the sights of Athens. From our hotel, a twenty-minute walk, mostly uphill, takes us through Monistiraki, past the ruins of Hadrian’s Library, alongside the Ancient Agora and up to the rock where St. Paul converted the Greeks to Christianity. It is quite a climb at 30 degrees Celsius. Stray dogs and cats can be seen everywhere: sleeping in the shade when they aren’t making a living schmoozing the tourists! Up again, through the Propylae (gate) and onto the Acropolis. The Parthenon is timeless and never fails to impress. We are both over-awed by the size and majesty of the structures. When you come from a country where anything over a hundred years old is considered pre-historic and consider that these buildings have been standing in the brilliant Greek sunshine for more than 2,500 years, it takes your breath away. We visit the small but excellent museum and marvel at the lifelike marble statues and carvings. Also amazing are the acres of relics, pieces and artifacts, numbered and waiting to be fitted into the puzzle as the ruins are restored piece by piece.
Leaving the Acropolis, we visit the site of the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Gate, (that Hadrian really got around…he has a wall in Britain too!) which I had passed on the bus many times but had never stopped to visit. Every where you turn in Athens there is an archaeological site. It must be a nightmare to excavate for the foundation of a new building because bits of marble pillar and statues keep turning up. They solved the problem nicely when building the magnificent new subway system. The stations became museums! The artefacts, which were uncovered during the excavation are on display amid crowds of commuters. The walls show cross-sections of the many levels of civilization which are buried one on top of another. These are not representations of an archaeological dig - the subway station is actually in the middle of an archaeological dig! Absolutely spectacular!
After wandering around the city for a few hours, we are feeling like “…mad dogs and Englishmen, out in the noonday sun”, so we venture into the National Gardens for a break. Here are trees, shady paths, park benches, a small zoo and most of all some relief from the sun and the heat. Of course, at this time of day, any sensible Greek would be home having a siesta, not tramping around the city.
Most of Athens seems to be under construction, reconstruction or restoration! While there is definitely a big push on to get ready for the Olympics in 2004, they are also taking advantage of an influx of money from the European Union. It is a bustling city with a gazillion small vehicles all driving as fast as possible. Cars can be found parked on traffic islands, poking out into intersections and tucked into the strangest places. Scooters and motorcycles are extremely popular and often have whole families riding on one scooter. They make the most efficient use of the space between the lanes of traffic! I honestly don’t know how they don’t get killed weaving in and out between the cars. buses and trucks. Traffic jams are particularly entertaining. They involve buses, taxis and motorcycles and voluble and lengthy debates, shouting and arm waving. The solution is invariably obvious to everyone involved.… but no one will admit to recognizing it until everyone has a had a chance to participate in the debate. Then the taxi backs up, the bus moves forward and traffic resumes its normal chaos.
We watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers wear the traditional Greek costume of the Evzones, which seems very strange to us: A red pillbox hat with a long black tassel, a short, pleated skirt, long white woollen stockings and bright red shoes with fluffy black pom-poms. This was considered the ultimate in macho male costume in its day. While on guard duty, the soldiers stand absolutely motionless, just like at Buckingham palace. The ceremony is very impressive, almost like watching ballet. (There are lots of pauses and toe pointing etc. It really does remind you of ballet!) They march in a very slow, exaggerated, formal step, holding an arm and a leg high and motionless between strides. The relief marches in, exchanges places with the old guard and the relieved soldiers march away. It takes about twenty minutes altogether and is quite spectacular.
We spend some time wandering through the streets, checking out the shops and generally marvelling at all things Greek. We peer in shop windows at authentic Greek embroidery and recognise that each island has its own style and design.
We take the Electric Railway to Piraeus to catch a ferryboat. I am looking forward to Piraeus because that is where I spent most of the summer of 1969 and I think it will feel like home. Not! Piraeus is barely recognisable to me. It is so busy and crowded, the streets are so choked with traffic that nothing looked even remotely familiar. Passilimani Yacht Harbour where our boats were moored is filled with huge, expensive motor yachts. One yacht has three decks and a garage at the stern! Inside, along with a crane to lift them out of the water, is a runabout, a seadoo and a zodiac! Truly incredible! There isn’t even one familiar-looking sailboat to be seen. Apparently, the charter businesses has all moved out of Piraeus to cheaper locations down the coast. These huge power boats all have permanent, professional crews on board and there is nothing left of the friendly, informal, ex-pat community of sailors, travellers and generally interesting people from all over the world that I remember. Oh well – at least there’s still Groovy John!
We take a Flying Dolphin to the island of Poros. This is a big hydrofoil that rises up out of the water on its ‘wings’ and zooms across the sea at about fifty miles an hour. It looks like a giant, prehistoric insect skittering across the sea. They are comfortable, spacious and air-conditioned. You can usually get a meal and beer and there is often business class and VIP class! We travel economy with the majority of the population, the dogs and the backpackers. A trip that I remember taking several hours on a regular ferryboat only lasts an hour and ten minutes.
Poros is very picturesque. The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel and all the boat traffic has to pass near the shore. Some people refer to it as ‘Little Venice’. Sitting in a sidewalk café, we watch ferries, little fishing caiques and charter yachts moving back and forth in a constant parade. Every few minutes, little passenger boats shuttle back and forth to the mainland. Poros is a very busy little place with all the coming and going! I might like it better if the lady we rent our room from is not so…..so in your face. I get the impression that she has a mighty high opinion of herself….not necessarily shared by the other business owners in the town!
Poros is a popular overnight stop for the many charter boats, which operate in the Saronic Gulf. These boats are mostly Beneteaus, Jeanneaus and Bavarias. They all have roller-furling headsails and most of them have in-mast furling mainsails. Although the odd one is as small as 32 feet, most of them are 36, 42 and even up to 60 feet. The quay starts to fill up in the late afternoon and by 6:00 pm there are few berths left. Since many of the skippers have never "med-moored" -- dropping an anchor and backing in to the quay to tie stern-to, it can afford quite a lot of entertainment. The entertainment continues in the morning as they inevitably get their anchors tangled up. Occasionally, someone has to go overboard to straighten out the mess! Fortunately there isn’t much by way of danger in the Aegean and the water is warm so it is not terribly unpleasant!
We do a day trip to Spetsai and the ferry stops briefly at Hydra on the way. The port of Hydra is a pretty little town, which was already a jet-set destination in 1969. It is very picturesque and has no cars or other vehicles. All transportation is accomplished by donkeys and mules. The town is nestled all around the steep sides of its tiny harbour. Fortifications and cannons still guard the entrance just as they have done since 1820 when the Hydriotes battled the Turks to win their independence.
Spetsai was one of my favourite islands and I always felt very comfortable there. It has a very nice laid back atmosphere, not so obsessed with tourism. Spetsai was the home of many wealthy sea captains in the days of sailing ships and they brought prosperity to the island, which is reflected in the many large elegant houses and the relative sophistication of the people. The Speziotes also fought fiercely against the Turkish occupation and contributed greatly to the eventual achievement of Greek independence. One of the traditions on this island is the amaxi, or horse-drawn carriage. We hire one and clip-clop around the cobblestone streets. I remember, when we would hire these carriages to take us to our favourite taverna in Aghia Marina, the next village, a few kilometers away. For some reason, I have few clear memories of coming home from Aghia Marina. We wish we had stayed a few days on Spetsai, instead of just a few hours. Very clean with an impressive amount of new construction going on, this community still builds caiques (traditional Greek workboats) and maintains an active boatyard. These houses that are going up are not small and inexpensive. It would not surprise me that they are retirement homes for wealthy Athenians or even Europeans.
On Friday, we ferry back to Athens for a special treat: a performance of the Royal Hellenic Symphony in the Herod of Atticus Theatre. This open-air amphitheater is situated on the south slope of the acropolis, right in the shadow of the Parthenon. The (marble) seating has all been restored but the backdrop to the stage is the preserved ruin of the original theatre. I once attended a performance in this theatre and I was delighted that I could share this awesome experience with Susan. The Symphony presented “The Planets” by Gustav Holst (see Chapter One) and it was truly spectacular. There is something really exotic about listening to this kind of music under an open sky with stars overhead and a warm, soft breeze. It makes you feel special!
The next morning, we are up early to get to Piraeus and catch the 8:00 o’clock ferry to our next destination. The island of Santorini made a big impression on me in 1969 and I have been trying to describe it to Susan for many years. She wants to see it and I am keen to go back.
Santorini started out as a typical cone-shaped volcanic island like nearly all of the Cyclades islands. Sometime around 2,500 B.C., it erupted in a cataclysmic explosion. Almost one-half of the island literally vapourized, leaving a giant caldera, which the sea rushed in to fill. Today, what's left of the island consists of one large crescent-shaped piece and a couple of small islands around the rim of the caldera. On the side facing the caldera, the cliffs fall nearly a thousand feet sheer into the sea. The main town of Phira perches precariously on the very edge of the cliff. The other side slopes gently down through farmland and small villages. For an excellent description of Santorini and its history see this Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santorini
It is believed that the eruption of the volcano and the resultant tidal waves brought about the end of the sophisticated Minoan civilization on Crete and created the legend of the lost city of Atlantis. It certainly has created a vigourous and profitable tourism industry on modern day Santorini.
We spend three busy days in Santorini. This island makes wonderful wine, has splendid views and lots of clothing-optional beaches! Drinking wine in a bar on the edge of the caldera at sunset is an unforgettable experience. It is a little like sitting on the edge of the world and being able to look into the next one: mystical! I feel like I am in the midst of Myst or Riven.
Daytime in Santorini is something else again. Every tourist in the world is here. The streets and sidewalks are crowded and to get away, we rent a scooter and get out of town. For a couple of days we manage to see most of the island and find some little places that arn't quite so packed. I cannot say I particularly enjoy riding an 80 cc scooter up and down the hillsides...I seem to have a thing about heights! The road to the new port at the bottom of the cliff is the most hair-raising thing I've ever seen. They built a road with switchbacks from the top of the cliff, straight down to the edge of the sea at the bottom. And they drive full-size buses up and down!! The corners are widened just enough so the buses can make the turns.
Tucked away under a cliff at the very end of the island, we find a small village called Ahmoudi. The tiny harbour is full of little fishing boats and quaint cafes and restaurants perched right on the quay. Bob says it is more like he remembers Santorini 30 years ago. A walk up a hill and around a corner brings us to a rocky and picturesque bay that looks like a scene out of Peter Pan. We return to the harbour for dinner…I eat chicken, while a large octopus steams on a platter behind me. The restaurants do their cooking on outdoor grills.
The next day we scooter to the other end of the island. The highest mountain is at this end and we motor up as high as we can get. The view is spectacular and at one point we are looking down on the incoming jets at the airport. This end of the island boasts the famous Red Beach and the equally famous Black Beach. Different volcanic sands have created the distinctive coloured beaches. I was a bit dismayed to find them dotted with lounge chairs and umbrellas. Bob, on the other hand, was delighted to find them dotted with nubile nude sunbathers. It is the strangest thing – women sunbathe topless, and then put their tops back on before going for a swim.
Our next destination is Seriphos but we have to overnight and change ferries in Siros. Although it is unplanned, we spend most of a day there. Our ferryboat is broken down and leaves from Siros 11 hours late. I would like to mention that pinning anyone down to a specific time that the ferryboat was likely to be repaired was very similar to determining if there was a bus from Lippora to Raptei! This is by far the hottest day we experience, so of course we hike up the hill, in the middle of the day, to visit the Catholic church at the top. I nearly expire and drink several gallons of water at a cafe on the way down. We stumble upon a Commonwealth War Gravesite...mostly casualties from WWI British supply ships. It is very well maintained and we wander around for about half an hour. I take some pictures of gravestones with some interesting verse and waste a fair bit of time (mostly because it was shady) trying to take pictures of the tiny lizards that scurry to and fro in the plants and flowers..
The main town of Hermopolis is the capital of the Cyclades province of Greece and is quite large for an island town. It is very clean with wide streets and interesting neo-classical architecture. Beats me...looks like Brighton, England except it is not nearly as green. Siros was one of the first islands to expel the Turks and as a result became a haven for entrepreneurs, artisans and intellectuals fleeing from the oppression of the Ottoman empire. Siros developed into a thriving centre of trade and commerce while the rest of Greece remained a Turkish-dominated backwater. The prosperity of those days can still be seen in the large, elegant public buildings, the wide streets and the size of the city. An interesting aspect of Siros is that the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions exist in relative harmony. From the harbour, you look up to two mountain peaks behind the town: the one on the left has a Catholic church perched on its tip and the right one has an Orthodox church. Pretty impressive symbolism!
Finally, at 7:00 pm. our ferry boat is repaired and we move on to our next destination. Seriphos is a smaller island and does not attract the masses of tourists that some other places do. Seriphos was one of the islands I especially wanted to revisit. I sailed into the harbour at dawn in 1969, and ever since, I have been carrying a mental picture of a perfect conical mountain peak with a white church perched on the very top. The white-washed houses of the village were clustered all around the church. This classical Cyclades-style village is called a chora. The village was built at the top of the mountain for protection from pirates. In 1969, there were only half a dozen houses and a ramshackle taverna at the harbour. It takes me a little while to put things in perspective this time. The mountain peak and the chora is still there and just as beautiful as ever. The problem is there is now a small city of restaurants, bars, and hotels all around the harbour and there are new houses and hotels built all the way up the hill between the harbour and the chora. I found that if I squinted my eyes and concentrated real hard, I could almost make it look the way I remembered it.
We spend our first day lazing about drinking beer and swimming in the sea. This clothing-optional beach included men so I had my turn! We rent a scooter the next day and find beaches that only have footpaths leading to them. (It must be a motocross scooter!) Tiny villages are the norm here...I think we manage to visit most of them. The island is very fertile and has probably been farmed for thousands of years. It is very, very hilly and the hills are all close together creating the illusion of a circle. The hillsides are terraced and they look like giant outdoor amphitheaters. It is really very beautiful! We are also treated to the sight of a four-masted tall ship anchored in the harbour. I nearly miss its departure but do get a distant view of it under full sail. What a pretty, pretty sight!
We discover that iron has been mined on Seriphos since prehistoric times. The mines only ceased operation in 1964 and one end of the island is dotted with old shafts and the remains of machinery, conveyors and structures for loading ore onto ships. It is fascinating! One small village has a large neo-classical building, which is now abandoned and falling down but which one day must have been beautiful. It was the office of the mining company and the elegant residence of the manager.
We would like to stay one more day on Seriphos, but we think it best not to take a chance on the ferry breaking down again, so we head back to Athens on Saturday. We spend Sunday visiting more ruins and walking through the flea markets and shops of Monistiraki and the Plaka. We even visit the Archeaological Museum. The exhibits are extensive and spectacular, but the people who work in the museum are RUDE! This is Susan’s first real exposure to the Greek civil servant mentality.
Sadly, we bid farewell to Athens and the quaint old Hotel Cecil…it has an open cage elevator in the centre of a spiral staircase…and head out early for the airport. We want to be sure that we have plenty of time to get through the security checks and so on, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York. It turns out not to be too much of a problem…made easier by the fact that we mailed pocket knives and nail files home so that we don't have to worry about them. They do spend a few minutes discussing my long, wire hairpins and bobby pins and then decide they don’t pose much of a threat. They’re not that valuable but they are a bit hard to find in Dryden and I’ve had them since the early 70’s! The trip home is long but uneventful and our critters are delighted to see us.
Everybody asks me for my impressions on revisiting Greece after 31 years. Of course, it has changed a great deal. In 1969, Greece was a poor, third world country, ruled by a military dictatorship. The people were unaccustomed to foreigners and often seemed not to know how to deal with us. Today, Greece is very much part of Europe and many of the people are as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as any Europeans. After all, the country now hosts millions of tourists every year and is part of the European Union. On the other hand, if you go way off the beaten track, you can still find remnants of the Greece that I remember. Some of the small villages on the island of Evoia are pretty much the same as they have always been. You know you are in the back of beyond when you see villagers butchering a goat on their front step; the blood running into the street! The countryside and the islands are still quaint and fascinating. The sea is still incredibly blue, the food is still unmistakably Greek (It is often very goaty!!!) and the retsina still tastes horrible! The retsina was not that bad but then I don’t think I sampled the best of it…or is that the worst of it?
There were no pretty girls in Greece in 1969! This is no exaggeration and my friends who were there confirm my impressions. Well, times certainly have changed! Everywhere you look there are astonishingly pretty girls. In all likelihood, the gene pool hasn’t changed that much in only thirty years. Presumably, sophisticated European clothing, makeup and hairstyles make a world of difference, not to mention modern attitudes. And the cleavage! I never saw so much cleavage in all my born days! I’m pretty sure that most Greek bras are constructed of rebar and Kevlar.
The saddest change to me is the deterioration in the air quality. The horizon is obscured by a brownish haze in every direction. You used to be able to count off the islands of the Cyclades all around the horizon: Kea, Kithnos, Seriphos, Siphnos . . . . Now you can barely see the next island, looming dimly in the haze. Matt said he didn’t really notice it, probably because it has gradually worsened over the years. It struck me as a dramatic change.