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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My First Visit to Greece

"Happy is the man, who before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea"

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Church in Aliki, Paros

At the age of 57, I finally visited Greece! Not the mainland, but two of the islands, still very much Greece. The two islands we visited were probably as different as they get. Both part of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean sea, one was almost unchanged in the last 50 years with small guest houses and hotels, the other swamped by tourists form all over the world mesmerised by its instagram-perfect beauty.

A Room with a View

Santorini is even more beautiful in real life than in the famous promotional shots of the blue domed churches, white houses and stunning sunsets over the volcanic caldera. The buildings on the edge of the island in towns like Oia, Imerovigli / Ημεροβίγλι, and Fira / Θήρα are ridiculously pretty, mostly restored and immaculately maintained. The narrow coastal paths that wind through them, caldera side, are the most beautiful in the world. The sunsets are unparalleled in their perfection, morphing over a one hour period every evening through magical light displays, from light to dark, leaving you waiting for the following day's equally spectacular display in different tones and colours.

One hour of magic every evening.

But there is a big price to pay for this natural beauty. The day we visited the port in Fira, three large cruise ships with 10,000 people on board were arriving. Tenders bring them ashore and then the way up is via a cable car, a path or on a donkey. Most people sensibly chose the cable car, but with capacity for only 36 people each trip, you can do the maths and see the huge problem. In popular places, the streets and paths are crowded, with some people doing stupid things to get a better selfie. The roads are even worse. The island has 33 taxis so if you don't book the day before you won't get one. The buses are standing room only to popular destinations. And they know how to squash you in. The minibus drivers have an extraordinary talent for reversing down roads only a couple of centimetres wider than their vehicle. Santorini also has its own international airport which is currently being expanded. Expect it to get worse...

Coastal path where hotel rooms are built into the cliffs

Beautiful but over-commercialised. And even the shop keepers aren't happy. They told me that when there are too many people, they don't sell much as the tourists are too grumpy and too busy queuing for transport to buy. And that was in September. Imagine July or August! The season runs roughly from May to October and after that everyone shuts down for the winter. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff go back to the mainland.

I am going to end on a positive note: the food was amazing! Fresh, simple, beautifully prepared food is very easy to find, although you need to book at the better restaurants. My favourite dish was this greek salad; the feta, covered in oregano and olive oil, melts in your mouth, the tomatoes are sweet and tangy, the capers so mild that they taste like a delicacy and the caper leaves even better! The red onions are deliciously mild and crunchy too.

A Greek Salad

The only way to Paros, the other island we visited, is by boat or by internal flights from Athens or Thessonaliki. We took a two hour fast ferry from Santorini (which we thought we were going to miss because of the crowds and the chaos at the port). There were only a few passengers who disembarked in Parikia, the capital of Paros, and we soon saw that this island was very different. Just as Santorini is crowded, beautiful, commercial and expensive, Paros is quiet, natural, inexpensive and in some ways feels unchanged in the last few decades. A bottle of water in a beachside café was 5 times the price in Santorini. The roads are much quieter, everyone knows each other. Tourism is clearly important but it's not everything and in the main it's fairly modest.

Beautiful, empty beaches with warm water full of fish everywhere.

We stayed at a Yoga Retreat in Alyki Αλυκή, a town in the South West of Paros with less than a thousand inhabitants. There are plenty of fishermen with small boats who catch lobster, octopus and various fish. You can see the octopus hanging out to dry on boats and in front of restaurants. For the tourists there are a few shops and some cafés and restaurants with a genuine local feeling to them. The food tastes very home made and pretty much everything overlooks the sea and one of the three beautiful beaches in the town. 

Cafés, restaurants, shops and flats in Alyki.

On our day off, we visited Naoussa in the North of the island which attracts a lot of tourists in the summer. It is arguably the prettiest fishing port in the whole of Greece and well worth a visit. With a population of about 3,000, it expands to several times this in the summer and visitors are very well catered for with restaurants, cafés and tourist shops of every type.

Naoussa is perhaps the prettiest port in Greece

But for us, Alyki has the perfect mix of tranquility, beauty, beaches, restaurants whilst remaining unspoilt by modern mass tourism. Long may that last. One member of our group went back to visit a village on the east side of Paros that she had last seen 30 years earlier. She reported that it had not changed at all; she even recognised the chairs and cushions in the café!

Typical restaurant in Alyki

We were most impressed with the quality of the local wines from both Santorini and Paros. The vineyards are not much to look at - in fact, in contrast to beautifully manicured french-style vines, they look more like weeds. As it hardly ever rains, the vines get their moisture from the air so sprawl out rather than down for survival. They only produce a fraction of the grapes compared to more normal vineyards, but the quality can be quite excellent, particularly some of the whites that we drank!

Vineyards on Paros and Santorini look like this!

Well we did sail the Aegean Sea, but not in the best circumstances; we had to leave in a rush a day early as all ferries were to be cancelled due to the winds. We managed to get the last ferry which was quite luxurious. I chatted with a member of staff who told me the ship was 10 years old and when I appeared surprised, as it looked so new, he explained 'it was refurbished after the fire'. Our ferry had great difficulty docking at the port, due either to the windy conditions or a technical problem...

Tera Jet travels at 40 knots between the islands.

During our stay in Greece, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. It's a book about getting the most out of life. It is in many ways brilliant but hard to read, with a very 1940's attitude towards women which somewhat spoilt the book for me. As Penny Woods says in her 2011 Guardian review, "Far from being unputdownable, this novel demands you cast it aside and emulate its great Greek hero in living life to the full"

Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates in the 1964 film adaptation of Zorba the Greek

My favourite quotes from Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

'Look one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. "What grandad", I exclaimed, "planting an almond tree?" And bent as he was, he turned round and said "My son, I carry on as if I should never die." I replied "And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute". Which of us was right, boss?'

'Men meet and drift apart like leaves blown by the wind; your eyes try in vain to preserve an image of the face, body or gestures of the person you have loved; in a few years you do not even remember whether his eyes were blue or black.'

'While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness has past and we look back on it do we suddenly realise - sometimes with astonishment - how happy we had been.'

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