Never has a country held such unforgettable yet profoundly different memories for me. I’ve been to Greece three times over the last twenty-odd years and experienced three very different countries. Looking back, I get the feeling that it wasn’t the country that changed so dramatically, it was me.
Here’s my story of Greece, immortalised in my living room with a set of 3 personalised maps.
My love for Greece began in 1992. I was a 22-year-old university student with a group of good friends on the island of Ios in the Cyclades. Getting to Ios was easy, leaving proved to be harder.
1992: The Endless Summer on Ios
Andy sent a tequila slammer sliding down the wooden table towards me. My forfeit. I looked around at the circle of tanned youthful faces of our crew, all grinning at me. Besides the friends from home, I’d met the rest on Ios. On Ios friendships were made fast. We were bonded by having a summer free from responsibility and being up for whatever fun Ios would throw at us. And Ios always delivered.
Our only connection to the outside world was a sporadic postcard home to say you’re alive. There were no mobiles, no social media, no internet. Nothing to get in the way. That summer we lost ourselves in time, with days and nights flowing like the Retsina into one another, filled with laughter and stories all about last night. This was the fairground ride of our youth with the record stuck on Moonshadow by Cat Stevens and no one daring to touch the needle for fear of it all coming crashing to an end.
We still reminisce about that summer. Graduation and jobs were on the horizon but Ios wasn’t the place to look up. A two-week holiday of island hopping had turned into an eight-week marathon on Ios. We saw no reason to leave and didn’t until we’d wrung every last drop of fun out of the island and were broke and hitchhiking back to England. Tonight though was another night and another story in the making. The glass of frothing tequila came to a halt in my hand. The table fell silent. I knocked it back, pulling the involuntary tequila after-grimace to the delight of the crowd.
After Ios, it took me another 15 years to return to Greece. Maybe it was the lingering taste of warm Retsina that put me off. Or the feeling deep down that the summer of ‘92 would never be beaten.
2007: Shipwrecked on Symi
“The windlass is broken!!” I bellowed down the walkie-talkie to Bill. He couldn’t hear me above the howling wind. His drenched blond locks blowing in the gale like madman. I didn’t mention that after so many aborted anchoring attempts the anchor motor was on fire. I emptied a bottle of water on it and it hissed at me and the flames extinguished. Phew.
A few hours earlier the six of us were enjoying a leisurely lunch of freshly caught snapper after a week of glorious sailing and swimming in Aegean. In the last hour, the perfect sailing holiday with old friends had been turned upside down by the infamous Melteni that blew from the North West during the summer months. The wind had come out of nowhere and with such force.
I was the least experienced sailor of our crew. Both Roz and Bill were skippers and Sarah had sailed the Fastnet. Right now we all knew we were over our heads. Reversing a 46ft yacht into the only remaining spot in Symi harbour at night with a 50-knot crosswind was proving impossible. The port was packed with boats whose crews had studied the weather charts that afternoon rather than enjoyed a long lunch. They had moored up for the night and were sitting at their restaurant tables overlooking the harbour out of the wind, sipping local wine and eating delicious Symi Shrimp. We were the evening’s entertainment.
Bill put the motor in reverse and once again we attempted to back up between the enormous old timber Turkish Gulet and catamaran. Another squall hit us, pushing the bow off course and without the anchor to slow us down, we careered towards the concrete pier. “Too fast, stop!” yelled Sarah from the back of the boat. But it was too late, there was a sickening crunch of fibreglass as the stern hit the quayside. Bill slammed the gear shifter forward to full throttle. The old diesel engine roared and the yacht lurched forward throwing Sarah off the back of the boat into the swirling harbour waters.
She heaved herself up a mooring rope on the portside, shocked but miraculously unhurt. She was probably glad to be onshore. Meanwhile, we were back out in waves, being buffeted about like a shuttlecock. As we approached again, the captain of the Turkish Gulet had obviously seen enough of the mooring debacle. He threw us a rope and hauled us towards his boat. Over the next 20 minutes, he bound our yacht to his Gulet like some disobedient pet.
The next morning the sun rose to unveil the prettiest port in the Aegean. Symi’s amphitheatrical harbour is lined with stunning neoclassical architecture dressed in elegant cream and beige. There are few things in life more pleasurable than enjoying a Greek coffee with old friends in a picturesque port after a night of near nautical disaster.
2015: Family Bliss on Kythera
“Yanis?” Noone appeared to be in the old farmhouse. Stacked around us were hundreds of colourful wooden beehives, paint faded and peeling into the cracked Kythera soil. They were all eerily empty. No bees. No buzz.
Leo and Enzo ran between the rows, barefoot and tanned, hair bleached by saltwater. Before leaving Kythera, I was determined to visit Yanis the Beekeeper and had dragged the family to the centre of the island in search of him. My friend James had been there 2 years earlier and said it would be worth it. Kythera is a bit of an effort to get to, requiring a boat ride from the tip of the Penopolese Peninsula, but it is heavenly. There’s a different beach for every day, luminous sapphire waters to dip in and out of, and rocky crags and valleys to explore.
The island is full of picturesque villages, our favourite was blessed with the wonderful name of Mylopotamos. We had spent the last few weeks in a state of family bliss, soaking up the peace and tranquillity of an island lost in time and free from much tourism. We spent the evenings in the open-air tavernas, shaded by tamarisk trees, feasting on salads with smoked aubergine, crispy filo parcels with feta drizzled with thyme-infused honey, braised lamb shank and grilled prawns. We’d come here with no real expectations and had been quickly seduced by the island’s natural beauty and pace of life.
A man appeared from the farmhouse and approached us. He was tall, wore a straw hat, small round glasses and was holding an old rag. I introduced myself and asked whether I could buy some of his honey. A sadness fell upon him. He explained that the drought had killed all but two beehives so there was no honey to sell.
He ushered me into the farmhouse where the air was thick with the scent of freshly waxed furniture. In the corner was a three-metre-high copper vat. Scattered on the floor were boxes of empty honey jars. Yanis told me that in a normal year the vat would be full of honey. This year there was enough to keep the remaining bees alive until the January rains. It now made sense why the Mylopotamos market was almost empty of local fruit and vegetables. Einstein predicted that if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man. This isolated little island, seemingly a paradise, was proof.
Yannis opened the tap at the base of the vat and the thick amber liquid flowed into a small terracotta pot, catching a ray of sunlight from the window. Nectar of the Greek gods. He broke off a chunk of bread from the basket on the table and urged me to dip it in honey.
James was right, it was out of this world.
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