Travels with a Local
My hands turned white with the force of gripping the seat in front of me. With nothing but a windscreen between me and the road in front, I held on to the head rest tighter as the speedometer on the taxi climbed higher and higher, and the driver weaved more manically through the busy streets of Athens, ignoring stop signs and chasing red lights. It was the wildest taxi ride I’d ever been on, and even a few clicks on Youtube before the holiday couldn’t prepare me for the crazy driving in this country.
The heat on arrival in Athens was overwhelming. My partner at the time was an Athenean, and we were met at the airport by his aunt and cousin. From there it was an hour’s drive to his mother’s summer house, and I sat crumpled in the back seat listening to the argument about the air conditioning. Many Greeks decamp in the summer months to their second homes, somewhere in a small town or village, and generally on the coast. His mother lived in an area not officially recognised on a map: a collection of relatively new homes with no shops and little business. But it had a beach and that was all that mattered. I spent those first few days of our 2-week holiday failing miserably at the Greek language, missing out on half the conversation, and awkwardly trying to get along with my potential in-laws. The weather was divine though, and I enjoyed chilling on the balcony, watching some amazing sunsets, and tucking in to locally caught fish and savouring frappes.
One of the fantastic things about my Athenean was that he held a private pilot licence. He had a friend who worked in the Air Force, and on his day off, we arranged to rent a little Cessna and fly out to the island of Skiathos. So we turned up at a little airstrip outside Athens and the two of us, the friend and his girlfriend loaded up and took off. Greece is a beautiful country at ground level, but it takes on a whole new perspective from the air. We flew over forests, lakes, and mountains before hitting the sea. Unfortunately for me, my obsession with filming and taking photos out of the window resulted in an acute onset motion sickness, and I missed a good portion of the view whilst keeping my eyes tightly closed and concentrating on my breathing, desperate not to vomit in front of 2 people I’d only just met. It was embarrassing enough just cradling the sick bag. I managed, thankfully, to regain some composure to witness the approach to Skiathos over a myriad of little islands, and beautiful blue sea scattered with pleasure boats. It felt surreal to pull onto the tarmac next to a large jumbo jet filling up with tourists.
Skiathos was beautiful, but had a few too many Brits for my liking. I like to go on holiday and feel like I’m escaping all things British, so it is always slightly disappointing to travel for hours or days to find the place riddled with British tourists. It was a short walk into Skiathos town, and the place was crammed with locals and tourists alike. Having recovered from my motion sickness, I was starving, and the food was an absolute delight. I’ve often acknowledged how different that holiday would have been if I had not been there with a Greek. My grasp of the language was pathetic, and my stubbornness to avoid speaking English, meant I relied heavily on my partner doing the talking. With a local, the places that you end up going to and eating at are often very different from where the typical tourists go, and I definitely feel the reward is the most amazing food ever. The lunch we had that day in Skiathos was one of my favourites of the whole holiday, and I felt better prepared for the flight home that evening. It was another stunning flight over the islands and onto the mainland. It was very much a shame that large sections of the forest that we had flown over were destroyed in a massive bush fire just a few days later.
After over-nighting in Athens, we caught a bus north heading towards Volos. This time, we were off to visit the father’s holiday home in a little sea-side village, again missing from most maps. This little village round the coast from Volos, quickly became my favourite place in the whole country. The house we stayed in was amazing, albeit riddled with mosquitoes, and it overlooked a beautiful bay with crystal blue water. It was a mecca for seafood, and I loved every night dining out on the waterfront with most of the village people around us, savouring mezzes of all varieties and soaking up the warm evening air. This was a place that no tourist would know to go to, nor find reference to on any map or in any guide book, and yet here was the authentic Greek summer experience, and I adored it. The heat during the day got unbearable at times, and I struggled with the concept of taking siestas, stupidly ignoring advice to stay indoors and insisting on going for hikes round the coast in the heat of the day. My reward was verging on sun stroke on one occasion, and generally being eaten alive by every mosquito in a 12km radius. By the end of that stay, I looked contagious, such were the numbers of wheals all over my body. The language barrier was hardest with this side of the family, but yet we all had an amazing time together, and I was sad to leave at the end of it.
After another long bus ride back to Athens, watching the smoke from the forest fire advancing towards the city, we prepared for our big adventure out on the Cyclades island of Sifnos. We planned on hiking round the island and camping under the stars, and went prepared with hammocks and mosquito nets. Zipping across the Mediterranean in a catamaran, we arrived as the sun sat low on the horizon. By the time we had enjoyed yet another amazing meal, it was dark, and the mountain that we had planned on hiking over was invisible in the gloom. We decided to reverse our hike, and grabbed a taxi to drop us off in the middle of nowhere. The driver was bemused by our request: Greek people don’t hike – what were we thinking? It was a challenge in the dark to know that we were at the right track, but we waved the taxi goodbye and started hiking by torch light. It is amazing how simple noises are magnified in the dark to unknown terrors that may be hunting you down for a meal, and we got a bit of a shock when our torch light detected some pigs at the side of the track in a make-shift pen. The intermittent sound of dogs barking in the distance kept us wary, never knowing if they were loose, and how domestic they would be if they found us. Eventually, we grew tired, and in the dark, the hammocks were trussed to some trees and we fell asleep.
I was woken by rustling and scuffling around me, and peeked out to find us surrounded by a herd of inquisitive goats. With the benefit of daylight, I could see that we had erected our hammocks in a little copse, and the goats were foraging for food. Scrambling out and walking to the path, I was met by a stunning view of a dramatic coastline… and more goats. Following breakfast, we continued on our hike, skirting round to the south coast of the island and following beautiful rugged coastline down to secluded bays and beaches where we relaxed in our hammocks waiting out the heat of the day. Eventually though, a shower called us, and we hiked back to civilisation where we got stared at by the bikini-clad beauties on the beach as we trudged through them laden down with hiking boots, backpacks and hammocks.
The beauty of Sifnos was that it lived in a time that was not our own. Relatively untouched by the buzz of modern life, it was peaceful and idyllic, and reassuringly simple. Goats littered the landscape, and donkeys were still kept for pulling carts. The settlements were quaint, and only just beginning to be touched by the tourism scene, but it didn’t take much of a wander to feel that you were in the Greece of the past, and it was wonderful. We did several day hikes round portions of the island, including up to a monastery on top of the mountain overlooking Kamares, the ferry port. It was the hike that we had planned to do when we arrived, but it was worth the view to do it in daylight hours, and it was hard not to get lost in the blistering sunshine, never mind the darkness when there would have been no landmarks to keep our bearings. It was exceedingly windy at the summit, and it was delightful to get there to find some utensils and some coffee for making a cup of Greek coffee. Anyone who has drank Greek coffee will know that it tastes very different to what the rest of us would define as coffee, and frankly it fails to do coffee justice: it is gritty and very bitter. After a short break, we braved the cross winds to traverse the summit, hunkered down against the ground to avert being blown off the edge, and made our way towards an old mineral mine. The landscape resembled a scene from Star Wars, as we worked our way round the abandoned mine entrances, and picked our way down the unmarked mountain-side. Eventually we picked up a trail again, which took us down a relatively hidden, yet very steep path down the mountainside, and back towards Kamares. We approached the town as the sun was setting, and we treated ourselves to a dip in the hotel pool on our return.
Our final hike on the island took us round the west coast, past monasteries, both used and abandoned. It was surprising how remote some of the active ones were. We camped overnight hanging in an orchard, and both the sunset and sunrise were stunning from the hammock. I was rather sad to board the ferry and leave the island behind. For nearly 2weeks, my partner had been encouraging me to speak to people, forever lamenting that everybody in Greece spoke English and I would be perfectly understood. Waiting in Kamares on the ferry, I had decided to use my well-rehearsed Greek phrase for ordering a frappe (Greeks love their frappes!), only to be met with a response I wasn’t anticipating. I stared at her blankly, then looked in despair at my partner who just laughed at my misery. I felt particularly ashamed to discover that our waitress was Swedish, and was fluent in both English and Greek on top of her mother tongue. Another example (there are many from several countries) of my lament at being British and so poor at foreign languages. On the ferry back to Athens I gave in and decided to order (yet more frappes) in English. I went to the counter and addressed the guy in his early-20s, only to be met with a blank stare and a look of desperation directed towards his colleague. Thankfully his friend spoke fluent English, but I blushed none the less, and sheepishly pointed out to my partner that not everybody speaks English. Apparently, I found the only non-English speaking Greek in Greece!
Arriving back in Athens, we were bundled into a taxi with 2 other strangers, and taken for that most interesting taxi ride through the night-time streets of Athens. We had already experienced an interesting taxi ride in Volos where the driver told us not to fasten our seat belts (because Greeks don’t do that apparently), and then proceeded to drive us for an hour, mainly facing sideways conversing in Greek with my partner, and paying only vague attention to the road ahead, all the while maintaining a good amount of pressure on the accelerator. This time in Athens, I was squashed in the middle of the back seat with no seat belt, and only the head rests of the 2 front seats to grip onto whilst our madman of a driver negotiated the busy streets of the city at high speed. Apparently stop signs and red lights do not apply to taxi drivers, and any gap in crossing traffic was a challenge to push out. It was vaguely reminiscent of India, only the cars get up to a much faster speed than the tuk-tuks ever did. I worried with every emergency stop that I was just a hand-grip away from being sent flying through the windscreen onto the tarmac.
The last 2 days in Greece were a very rushed affair, trying to get round some of the historic sites of the city, mainly focusing on the Acropolis and the surrounding area. It doesn’t matter how much I travel, but I will always get excited to find myself at some well-photographed landmark, and have that pinch-myself moment of comprehension that I’m actually there! It was the same at the Parthenon, although I was slightly disappointed at the amount of scaffolding marring the site. One whole side of it was hidden behind immense steel scaffolds and platforms. That aside, the view from the Acropolis over the old and new sections of the city was amazing. It was bakingly hot, and there was a constant shimmer on the surface of the ground. Spending hours in the intense heat was hard going, and it was refreshing to finally sit down in the shade with a beer. By this point, I could understand enough Greek to freak out my partner. When he was chatting away to his friend, he turned to translate for me and before he got a chance, I related pretty much what he had just said. Incidentally, Greek, like many languages, is easy to learn on the ear, but the written language is a whole other ball game. Having said that, once you master the alphabet, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to read and write (I subsequently took several Greek classes in an effort to be more competent on any future excursions there).
I love wandering through foreign cities after dark and marveling at the similarities and differences to those Scottish cities I grew up in. I watched in awe at the controlled way that Greeks drink alcohol, a stark contrast to the rowdy, drunken behaviour that tarnishes the British social culture. Bars were packed out to the pavements, and drink was a plenty, but yet no matter how many streets and lanes we walked through, nowhere were there the signs of passed out drunks, or people peeing against every wall they could find. It was refreshing to find coffee shops open as late as the bars, something which I have always dreamed of in Scotland: somewhere social to go at night, that doesn’t revolve around alcohol. It was a fun place to be, just a pity the Athens stop-over was so rushed. I could have easily spent a lot longer immersing myself in local life, and the history of the place.
Looking back, it would have been an all together less satisfying holiday without a Greek at my side.