Category Archives: Greece

f o l e g a n d r o s

[ yacht “tramontana”, crossing from sifnos to folegandros, greece – 22:05 saturday 5 september 2015 ]

i’m sitting on the foredeck of a yacht gliding through silky black water surrounded by an explosion of stars. the warm air flows over my skin. the massive silhouette of folegandros island blots out the sky to starboard. the lack of even a single light visible on the island thrills me, suggesting a barren wildness remote from civilisation. the sun set a couple of hours ago, a molten red disc dissolving into the azure horizon.

i arrived in mykonos four nights ago with my friend derek. after a day’s entertaining exploration on quad bike we took a ship to pafos and picked up the yacht. at this time of year the meltemi brings a constant northerly blast through the cyclades islands. however we managed to choose a freakish week when the air is completely still. it feels like a karmic trade-off for the superb winds i had sailing with dad last week in cornwall.

so the sails remain resolutely furled and we proceed by motor. but there’s still the same joyous freedom and autonomy of living afloat. from pafos we crossed to sifnos where we coincided with a one day gathering of folk dancers and musicians from all over greece. i was fascinated by the trance-like music of the pontiac culture, originating from the shores of the black sea. after the formal performances the musicians carried on playing in a local nightclub. we staggered back to the yacht as the sun was rising.

tonight we’ll anchor off folegandros. then in the morning derek and i will leave the yacht and try to find somewhere to stay on the island.

[ galifos, folegandros – 19:55 monday 7 september ]

having tried to moor in the main port and been turned away we finally anchored just after midnight in the bay of angali on the south of the island. in the morning we woke to find ourselves surrounded by spectacular cliffs and stony hillsides. derek and i came ashore and took the footpath around the coast to galifos where we’d heard there were some rooms. we found two simple white buildings containing ten bedrooms and a communal kitchen, in complete isolation above a small beach. one was available so we took it. now i’m sitting on our terrace overlooking the bay, shimmering violet in the deepening twilight. a paraffin lamp on the table behind me provides the only illumination. there’s no electricity.

folegandros is everything I dreamed of. the landscape is mercilessly stony and barren, sliced with vertiginous precipices and ravines. the island is seven miles long but has a permanent population of fewer than seven hundred. the air is pervaded by an intense silence, broken only by the rustle of wind in the scrub and the lap of waves.

my days here have been spent walking, taking photographs with the rolleiflex, swimming naked in the turquoise water until my limbs ache and sitting on rocks lost in the stark sunlight. it’s been sublime.

this journey has made me think a lot about how and why i travel. i don’t look for it to be easy or predictable. when i travel i seek to be tested, place myself in uncomfortable situations, learn new things about myself, get inside different cultures, pursue elusive goals. i prefer only to have a minimum of fixed points and not to know much about where i’m going. for the current trip i didn’t make any plans until a week beforehand. at that point i decided to spend a week with my family in cornwall then a week somewhere different. i didn’t book the flights to greece until a few days before departing, by which time derek had decided to come too. he’s one of few people I know who prefers to make travel plans at the last minute.

we reserved a place to stay in mykonos an hour before taking off from gatwick. i’d booked the yacht a few days earlier but without any idea where we’d be meeting it to go aboard. for folegandros all we had was an intriguing three year old photograph of a sign advertising rooms without electricity.

this has been my first trip for more than ten years where i haven’t brought a laptop. in the past i always felt the need to be prepared in case a crisis blew up with one of my businesses. this time i felt a strong urge to leave that responsibility behind and it’s been fantastically liberating. i did have my telephone but even that has been kept switched off most of the time. i’m writing these words on the phone now. i’ve avoided connecting to the internet except for a few occasions when i needed to check a timetable or confirm a booking.

tomorrow i catch the ship for athens. i’ll spend one day there before making my return to london.

: c :

m y r t o s

[ 12:34 monday 29 august – myrtos, crete ]

seated atop a wall in the shade of a lemon tree. barren scrubby hillsides ring the horizon around me. i’m waiting for the bus to ierapetra. who knows when it will come.

doves coo assertively in counterpoint with the dry scrape of cicadas. an occasional cock-crow or snatch of laughter drifts out from the village. across the road a man climbs a ladder and starts picking grapes. i arrived here three days ago because i missed a bus to the place i thought i wanted to go.

my previous despatch, written by the roundabout in iraklio, left a couple of gaps which i want to fill in. i left kampos at seven o’clock on thursday morning and spent the next twelve hours traveling. eastward via kissamoss, hania, rethymno; then southward across the plains to agia galina and phaestos.

shortly after kissamoss the package tour resorts started springing up and soon formed an unbroken strip along the coast. this kind of mass tourism puts me in a dark and misanthropic state of mind. wherever i look i see the gaudy death of the human spirit. i find it painful to see.

i had great hopes of phaestos, the second largest minoan site in crete. sir arthur evans turned. knossos, the largest site, into a kind of archeological disneyland in the nineteen twenties; enthusiastically rebuilding large parts of the palace complex. hence my choice of phaestos, which was spared his attentions. but here too the ruins had been heavy-handedly tidied up and the cement was all too visible. i suppose i came seeking some sense of “logos”, of reaching back through four millennia to touch the civilisation who lived here. the site was spectacularly located on an isolated hilltop with fertile plains all around. but i found myself completely unmoved by what i found there. i left on the first bus for irakleo, deep in my own thoughts.

after spending the night in irakleo and missing my bus the next morning i picked myrtos on the spur of the moment and started out. passing beyond agios nikolaos and turning inland through the harsh sun-baked mountains we finally left the resorts behind. it felt as if a shadow lifted from me and i was filled again with excitement. ierapetra, europe’s southernmost town where i changed buses, was small and unpretentious. an old fellow was snoring propped across two chairs in front of his shop. i went to great lengths to get a photo without being spotted.

from ierapetra to myrtos i travelled in a battered old bus hung with good-luck charms. a dozen chattering villagers and their shopping were clustered sociably at the front. a crazy old fellow sat beside me. from time to time he touched my arm, stared and muttered softly. i smiled reassuringly and muttered nonsense back at him. the hillsides west of ierapetra were striped with polythene-covered greenhouses, the most intensive agriculture i’d seen in crete.

drawing into myrtos i felt a peculiar sense of arrival, as if this was the place my journey had been leading to. there’s nothing outwardly exceptional about the village. just a cluster of bougainvilla-draped concrete cubes on the fringe of a shingly bay. a little old stone church nestles in the middle. four hundred people live by agriculture and tourism. one baker, two supermarkets, a shop selling trinkets for the tourists. a row of tavernas behind the beach that shut down in winter. streets punctuated by plane trees under which black-dressed old women sit, watch and cackle together.

wandering with my backpack along the deserted main street a  lady with a strong face emerged from a doorway, saw me and demanded “you looking for room?”. “maybe” i replied. she said “follow mylta!”. so i did, up a side street, through a door and up several flights of stairs into a light-flooded apartment. three-quarters of the wall area was glass. the furniture was simple but carefully chosen and positioned. i laughed and put down my bags. she brought me coffee and biscuits.

that evening i sat writing and drinking raki in a small taverna on the street below my eyrie. there were ten people eating and conversing at a table to my left. one of them took out a guitar and started tuning it. another produced a bazouki. they started playing, then another person began to sing. a drum appeared. then a flute. i sat listening, captivated, my first encounter with cretan music. from the standard of the performance i assumed they were professional musicians, but afterwards the taverna owner told me that the people on the table were his family. four of them were returning to work in athens the following morning having spent the summer together in myrtos. the dinner was a celebration to mark their last night.

i discovered there was an old minoan settlement on a hill beside the village. one afternoon i set out along the narrow thorny path winding upwards from the roadside. soon i noticed the outline of walls, a walkway paved with smooth-worn stones, a mysterious circular structure. as i climbed higher dressed stones and walls seemed to poke out from every bush and shrub. scrambling up to the summit i found a large paved terrace and a row of much larger rectangular stones, presumably the ceremonial centre of the complex. the view was magnificent, mountains on one side and sea on the other. i was completely alone. it was everything i’d hoped phaestos would be. the sense of time and history was overwhelming. i remained there until the last chink of sun had disappeared behind the mountains then descended to the village in the gathering twilight.

yesterday i felt oddly restless. it took me some time to figure out that i was basically lonely. i’ve had much less interaction with other people than i usually do when i travel. i don’t know why. maybe i needed some solitude. but yesterday i felt a strong need to connect with someone.

once i realised this i started feeling anxious that no opportunity would arise. but of course it did, just at the moment i least expected it and in a form i could never have imagined. yesterday night was intense and exhillerating and full of significance for me. maybe i’ll write about it sometime, but not now.

this evening i plan to take the overnight ship from irakleo to athens. tomorrow afternoon i fly back to london. these are probably my last words from greece. so, andio.

k a m p o s

[ 21:15 thursday 25 august – irakleo, crete ]

i’m sitting by a busy roundabout whilst sardines are grilled on a brazier in front of me. how good is that!

so, i made it to crete. my dawn bus from methoni to kalamata was half an hour late which meant i missed my planned connections. but it turned out there was an alternative route via sparti. this involved the most vertigionous mountain route, the very mountains from which the ancient spartans used to toss any babies they judged imperfect.

from sparti there was indeed a connecting bus so i got to gythia in time for the weekly ship. i crossed the causeway to the pine-covered islet where paris and helen consumated their ill-judged affair and had a sneaky skinny-dip whilst i was waiting. there was a fierce westerly wind and the ship arrived three hours late.

i slept through the whole crossing and woke as we were docking. it was three in the morning. the nearest settlement, kissamo, was several miles away. i started trudging along the road with my rucksack. after half a mile i spotted a cove below the road with a big old pine tree sotwenty minutes later my tent was set up under the tree and i was settling down to sleep.

the tree provided such effective shade that i didn’t wake til eleven. emerging from the tent i encountered my first cretans, an elderly couple who seemed slightly put out to have their morning swim intruded upon. i greeted them cheerily, had a swim myself, then packed up and continued on my way into kissamos.

my first requirement was coffee. having had a succession of unpalettable experiences i tried a different tack and ordered a “greek coffee” on the central square. revelation! what arrived was a bitter dark brew in a little copper jug, already sugared. it was delicious. i thought that greece had no coffee culture but i’d just been ordering the wrong stuff.

i studied the bus timetable and bought a ticket to a village called kampos. i knew nothing about it but it was the final stop on the farthest-flung route so it seemed like a good place to go.

getting there involved another hairpin adventure with spectacular views over the wild coast and pounding surf far below. i was the only passenger left by the time the bus got to kampos. i stepped off into a tiny mountain village, perched at the head of a verdent valley descending to the glistening sea. the bus turned round and started its journey back. the silence was only broken by the occasional braying of a donkey.

i got myself a room in a taverna, took a shower, then asked the bar-keeper which path to take for the coast. he looked at me with surprise and asked if i was going on foot. i replied emphatically that i was so he told me which turnings to take.

it was a trek, but it was magical. after following the valley down for an hour i stumbed upon a tiny whitewashed church in the mist of the trees. there was nobody around. palm leaves were placed around the door. a big rusty key was  waiting in the lock. i turned it and the door creaked open. unbelievable. the walls and ceiling were covered in byzantine frescoes, crumbling but still largely intact. the figures were simply painted but invested with great intensity. i felt moved to be there, alone with the wind and the passion of the men who applied these pigments a thousand years before.

to the side of the church was a rocky chasm where the ground fell away vertically to the valley floor far below. i felt sure this powerful point in the landscape was the reason for the church’s existence.

continuing down the path below the church i found myself pushing through much denser vegetation, nourished by the hyper-fertile soil washed down the valley by aeons of winter storms. wild vines twined through the trees and i picked off a bunch of perfectly ri grapes which i munched as i continued.

finally the path emerged onto a stony beach where the breakers were growling and crashing. a couple of ruined houses stood at the back of the beach. i found a sponge torn from its roots by the waves, its black membranes still intact.

the sea was too rough to swim but there was a sheltered harbour which offered enough shelter to go in. afterwards i dozed on the rocks whilst i dried out, then began the walk home.

at the taverna everyone seemed to know where i’d been and felt i needed to be fed. the plates put in front of me included wild vegetables from the mountain and, to my great delight, seaweed.

later on i was joined by a bearded fellow who didn’t look cretan. this was gijs van amstel, a dutch pschoanalyst-turned-writer who had decided to make kampos his home five years ago. he was an intriguing character, intelligent and slightly crazy. i admired his courage. he was the first outsider to come to live in the village and that can’t have been easy. i sensed his relationship with the villagers was not straightforward.

m e t h o n i

[ 23:10 monday 22 august – methoni, greece ]

rather than going straight to piraeus i decided to stay saturday night in athens. after dumping my chattels in an hotel i ate on a street terrace half way up the acropolis. the lights of athens glittered pleasingly below, particularly after several glasses of pungent retsina. on sunday morning i picked my way through the massed tourists in the flea-market by monasteriou. an old man was pushing an ancient pianola along the street, cranking the handle whilst croaking what sounded like a completely unrelated song.

by mid-morning i was ready to move on, but again i didn’t go to piraeus. i took a taxi to the bus station serving the pelopponese and got on a bus  to kalamata. i was the only non-greek on the bus, which i took as a good sign.

kalamata was deserted when i arrived. i walked off and found myself in a disused railway siding. five graffiti-covered steam locomotives were abandoned there, along with some elderly carriages and a two-car diesel set from the fifties. it didn’t seem to be a museum. there were no explanations and the exhibits were conspicuously uncared-for. it looked like the trains had just been left there when they were no longer needed and finally the whole line had been closed. rather surreal.

i had a cup of undrinkable coffee in a cafe by the port where old men were alternately playing cards and watching loud football on tv. then i returned to the bus station, where i learned from a gruff official that there was only one more bus that day and its final stop would be methoni. so i got me a ticket for methoni.

the village has just two streets, one of which was crammed with people eating and drinking when i arrived at ten last night. weaving through the diners i halloed an old lady sitting on a balcony above a sign saying “school of english”. she beckoned me come to a gate and twenty minutes later i was set up in a tiny apartment under her house. she and her husband made a big fuss, furnishing me with watermellon, home-dried currants, chillies and sage. what more could a chap want.

methoni is dominated by a huge venetian citadel built in the fourteenth century, when venice was the dominant power in the eastern mediterranean. it stands on a promentory with a sandy bay on the eastern side, a rocky coast extending northward and a mountainous island opposite. swimming off the rocks this afternoon there was nobody else in sight for several kilometres, incredible for the middle of august.

methoni’s an inspiring place but already i feel restless. i learned today there’s one ship a week from gythos to crete and it leaves tomorrow afternoon at four. if i catch a bus at six o’clock tomorrow morning i should be able to make connections in kalamata and inios and get there in time. but the timing will be tight. i’d put my odds at fifty-fifty.

: cH :

a e g e a n

[ 01:20 saturday 20 august – shipton street, london ]

for several weeks the need to escape has been bubbling up inside me. i’m getting stale. on ferragosto (the fifteenth of august) gabriele phoned to tell me he was going to the island of linosa, a rock in the middle of the sea between sicily and africa, and there was room for me. i leapt at the idea, but after several days hunting in vain for appropriate flights and ships and finding everything booked i admitted defeat.

so yesterday evening i booked a flight to athens. a taxi will arrive to collect me in four hours. i’ve packed my tent, a few clothes, a mosquito net, a couple of books and a great many rolls of film. i plan to go straight from the airport to piraeus and get on whichever ship seems like it’s heading in an interesting direction. santorini and crete seem like strong contenders, but i’ll wait til i get there.

i return at the end of the month.

: c :