Tag Archives: Greece

Holy Baptism

I was baptised on 14th November 1954. Being only five months old at the time I don’t recall a great deal about the occasion but I do remember attending a christening on the island of Ios in Greece in September 2009.

We had walked to a tiny beach we like and on the way back as we passed a church some preparations being made for a baptism and the building and all around it were being decorated in pink and white in readiness.  We enquired about the event and the lady in charge invited us to return at eight o’clock that night to see the ceremony and we agreed that we would.

We put on our best clothes and later we returned to the church to see the baptism ceremony of the little girl into the Christian Orthodox Church.  This is a major event in the life of any Greek family because of the numerous rites which accompany it, many of which go back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.

It was a lovely experience and now this holiday we had seen a funeral on Serifos, a wedding on Sifnos and a baptism on Ios.  A Greek baptism is a sacred and religious rite that is performed on a baby to cleanse the soul and renounce Satan.  It is a complex initiation that starts with an exorcism and officially ends forty days later when the baby is presented to the congregation to receive Holy Communion.

We weren’t able to stop for the full forty days and we began to feel a bit like intruders on a private family event so before it was all over we left the church and selected a taverna where we enjoyed another satisfying meal and a jug of red wine before returning to Homer’s Inn Hotel for a final drink on the balcony.

Island Hopping and Greek Ferries

I have been visiting the Greek islands on and off for nearly thirty years and island hopping for the last six and I have noticed that things are beginning to alter, and not always for the better either.  There are new roads being constructed on the islands and EU funded improvements to ports, traditional mini-markets are becoming supermarkets and the ferries are beginning to change.  New roads are fine and improved port facilities are good, personally I prefer the dusty old shops with surprises in dark corners but I have to say that I am really disappointed by the ferry changes.

This year there were new routes and unfamiliar boats and these were all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun.  They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality.  I understand that these changes are welcomed by the people who live on the islands, who now have faster and more convenient transport options and by the Greek Government who prefer a privatised to a subsidised service but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers.

I prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure.  One year we were stuck on Folegandros for an extra day when ferries simply didn’t turn up but a year later there was disappointing sense of reliability.

Once I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa (named after the monastery on Amorgos) and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful.  I used it again the following year but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus.  So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called Speedrunner or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.

Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible.  Finally only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and I used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and I really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a mythos, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by as though floating on the Aegean.   Next year I fear that the Agios Georgios will probably be gone too and journeys between the islands will be less enjoyable.

On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and see the captain at work and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the back of the boat (I believe they call that the stern) and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards.  It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors.  On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the efficient engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.

This regrettable change is driven by the desire to improve but is in part due also to stricter operating rules imposed on ferry operators after a disaster on 26thSeptember 2000 when the Express Samina Ferry sank off of Paros while the captain slept and the crew watched a football match on TV.  Several of the crew were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail and the General Manager of the company committed suicide when he jumped from his sixth floor office window in Piraeus.  There followed a crack down on safety, record keeping and passenger numbers and ferries that failed tough new safety checks were barred from operating.  Interestingly the Agios Georgios failed this test at first and has also subsequently broken down at sea!  After thirty-five years ferries are no longer allowed to operate so it is inevitable that within only a few years there will be none of my favourites left.

I am glad that I had a few years of travelling between the islands on the old boats and I suppose I will have to come to terms with the fact that these days have gone and in future there will be no option but to use the awful new ferries to get from place to place.  That is called progress I suppose!

Redundancy Money Well Spent

I have to say straight away that Skiathos is not among my favourite Greek islands that I have visited.  After redundancy and in between jobs I went to this little island in the Sporades in the summer of 2000 for a two week holiday with my brother Richard and his family and found it noisy, cramped and with just too many people around.  Skiathos is an airport island and therefore a package holiday destination, which brings in the football shirts and late night clubbers and I generally try to avoid these islands now.  It was lively and mad and these days I prefer laid back and languid.

Our hotel was called the Pounta and was close to Skiathos town about six kilometres away from the centre and when we arrived this seemed a perfect location, close enough to visit the town but far enough away to avoid the late night noise but we discovered on our first night that unfortunately this was not the case.  The hotel was in an elevated position overlooking the bay and the town and although at night there was a picturesque view of the shore line tavernas and bars with their pretty twinkling lights the noise came straight across the water seemingly increasing in volume as it passed over the bay, echoing around the hills and filling our hotel complex with booming disco beat that went on until well beyond the early hours of the morning.

The hotel was nice enough with gardens and a large terrace, breakfast room and bar and two swimming pools but the rooms were cramped and faced south so became unbearably overheated during the hot July days and without air conditioning were especially stuffy and uncomfortable at night when we couldn’t open the windows because of the noise.  I shared a room with Richard and some nights it was just too hot to sleep so we had some very late drinking on the balcony listening to the hedonistic activity across the way.

Reviews-Pounta_Hotel-Skiathos_Sporades

It didn’t really matter about the hotel because this was one of the most sociable holidays that I have ever been on with an exceptionally friendly group of people choosing to holiday on Skiathos at this hotel at the same time and we spent some lively days around the pool and some lovely evenings in the town enjoying great Greek cuisine.  Our favourite fellow holidaymakers were Pete and Julie in the room next door.  They always had a far fetched tale to tell including my personal favourite about drifting out to sea on a Lilo bed and nearly being run down by a passenger ferry.  They were good company and not just because Julie had a most impressive surgically enhanced bust that she struggled to keep contained within her tiny bikini top.  Richard and I used to chat with them for hours at a time!

Greek Island of Thassos

Thassos is the most northerly of the Greek islands, twenty kilometres from the mainland and the city of Kavala, in that part of Greece known as Macedonia, which is where we flew into before transferring to a ferry boat for the short crossing over Kavala Bay and arriving in Liménas, the main town on the island.  Thassos is a medium sized island and we were staying at Liménaria which was just about as far away from the port as it was possible to be on the island so we had to stay on the transfer coach for another hour before we reached our destination.

It was only a budget hotel and we had been allocated a family room which seemed to be at sub basement level and not very thrilling or welcoming.  I was sure I could have persuaded the others to ‘make do’ but then we discovered a corner full of insects and with everyone refusing to unpack their bags I had to negotiate with the Italian owner revised accommodation arrangements which for a few extra drachmas moved us to much more acceptable rooms on the first floor with a nice balcony overlooking the beach and the sea.  This was easy to do because it was early in the season and there were only one or two rooms occupied anyway.

If the hotel wasn’t the best on the island there was compensation by way of the location because it stood at the back of a wide spacious beach that faced south over a perfectly blue North Aegean Sea.  It was an excellent beach that was made up of large grains of marble white sand and lots and lots of tiny sea shells and calcium deposits that was perfect for sitting on without it getting everywhere and good too for beach tennis and frisbee.  There wasn’t a lot to do on the beach so after beach olympics we devised a competition to make food sculptures from the tiny shells and we became so good at it we began to consider turning it into a business.

The sea was deliciously warm but we had to share it with lots of small jelly fish, I don’t think they were the stinging variety and Sally and Jonathan amused themselves by catching them through the strings of a tennis racket and collecting them up in plastic beach buckets.

In the evenings we would make the short trip into Liménaria, the second largest town on the island, for our evening meal.  It was a functional little place with Italianate style houses with iron balconies painted in pastel shades of lemon, lime, cream and rose.  There were a few tavernas with lots of empty tables and grateful for what little business there was and we found a couple that we liked best and alternated between them.  Many places were still closed so the town was quiet in the evenings with just a few bars still open for business so most nights we would have a final drink and then go back to the rooms to sit on the balconies and enjoy the view of the moon over the sea.

Liménaria is a relatively recent development that started to grow at the beginning of the twentieth century based on the mining industry. Mining companies dug for calamine and iron ore and in 1905 a metallurgical plant was erected for processing and iron ore mining became especially important during the years 1954-1964.  Since 1964 there has been no mining activity on the island and the only useful product left now is a low grade marble. Dominating the town were the dilapidated headquarters of the mining company Speidel called the Palataki, which I think is being restored now but was in a sorry state in 1998.  One night a local man found a piece of discarded marble and drew a picture of the Palataki on it in charcoal.  He gave it to us as a souvenir and it still sits on a book case amongst other holiday souvenirs.

There was only very little to do in and around Liménaria so in the middle of the week we hired a red jeep so that we could get around the island and see what else there was.  We did quite well on this deal because we hired it for three days but due to staff shortages they delivered it to us the evening prior and explained that they couldn’t take it back until a day later.  They apologised for that and asked if that was ok and naturally this arrangement was quite acceptable to us.

On the first day with the car we drove around the east coast of the island and visited the villages and the best beaches stopping off at Pefkari, Potos, Alyki (our favourite) and Skála Potamiás, reputed to have the best beach on the island.  On the second day we went west along a more rugged coastline along a road that clung to the edge of the mountains as they tumbled down to the sea through Tripiti, Skála Sotira, Pachýs and finally Liménas, Thassos town, where we stopped for lunch and explored the bustling streets and the busy harbour.

On the last day with our own transport we drove inland through once great pine forests that had been devastated by the big forest fires in the 1980s, which had destroyed the largest part of the forests resulting in the sad extinction on the island of the wolf and the jackal.  After the forests we drove through fields and prosperous looking farms because Thassos has some of the richest soils in the Aegean islands and produces large quantities of fruit, honey, olives, olive oil and a famous white wine.

When the week was over we returned by coach to Liménas and then once more by ferry to Kavala and on the way back we declared the holiday a success and Thassos a place that we would definitely return to one day.  I have now visited twenty-five Greek Islands but this one remains securely in my favourite top five, which are: Sifnos, Amorgos, Folegandros, Thassos and Ios, in that order.

The Kingdom of Greece and my Greek Travels

Click to preview book

Following the War of Independence a protocol signed on May 7, 1832 Greece was defined as an independent kingdom. The Ottoman Empire was indemnified in the sum of 40,000,000 piastres for the loss of the territory. The borders of the Kingdom were reiterated in the London Protocol of August 30, 1832 signed by the Great Powers, which ratified the terms of the Constantinople Arrangement in connection with the border between Greece and the Ottoman Empire and marked the end of the Greek War of Independence creating modern Greece as an independent state free of the Ottoman Empire.

I am glad about that because Greece is my favourite place in all of Europe.  For me the very best way to see the country and the islands is to hop on a ferry and drift between them setting down now and then to enjoy the history, the people, the food, the ouzo and the Mythos!

These are my journals about the places I have visited:

http://apetcher.wordpress.com/greek-islands/

Which one would you choose?

           

Athens and the first Modern Olympic Games

Our plan was to go first to the Acropolis and the city guidebook advised getting there early to avoid the crowds. We did as it suggested and got there early (well, reasonably early) and it was swarming, I mean really swarming! Obviously we weren’t early enough. I can’t imagine what it is like when it is really busy!

We visited the hopelessly inadequate Acropolis Museum; It was small, hot and stuffy and overcrowded with lots of pushing and shoving, and there were so many treasures to show but it was smaller than a corner shop; later we saw the buildings where the famous marbles used to be before Lord Elgin pillaged them for the British Empire 200 years ago, he just hacked the statues off the buildings with saws and sent them back to the England where the 56 sculpted friezes, depicting gods, men and monsters are kept at the British Museum. Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who ruled Greece at that time and the Turks gave permission for the removal without consulting the Greeks.

We walked past the city museum but didn’t have time to go in and then to the original Olympic stadium of the modern games which opened on April 6th 1896 and which looked perfectly useable to me. I don’t know why they had to build another one in 2004 when this one was completely adequate. And that gave them a lot of trouble as well because they nearly didn’t get that finished on time; what a good job they didn’t need the Acropolis for the 2004 games!

In the afternoon we went to the temple of Dionysus, another unfinished building and there wasn’t much going on there either. What the Greeks need are some builders from Poland to come over and get the jobs completed. Everyone says that that the Poles are the best builders in Europe at the moment with fantastic productivity, I’m sure they would have this placed finished in no time.

The day was really hot by now and the afternoon temperature in the city was rising all the time but we carried on as best we could. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that! I specialise in speed sight seeing but even I was beginning to flag and I had a bit of a sweat on now but hopefully no one had noticed? Around the back of the Parthenon we walked through a collection of interesting whitewashed sugar cube houses, that looked curiously out of place and resembled those on the Cyclades and we read later that they were in fact built by workmen from Santorini who came to Athens many years ago to find employment during a building boom in the city.

We arrived at the Greek Agora, which is the equivalent of the Roman Forum in Rome, but we had been walking now for almost six hours and really couldn’t do much more so we had to give up after only seeing less than half of it. Sally had a bit of emerging sunburn with vivid white strap marks but Charlotte was well protected under all that factor 30! We took some shade and applied some cream and then we walked back to the hotel stopping off at a little shady pavement bar next to the Roman Agora, another Mythos for me and iced tea for the girls.

On the way back I bought a cheap bottle of local red wine from an untidy little back street mini-market and we returned to the hotel. No one wanted to share it with me so I had to drink most of it myself but couldn’t quite manage the full bottle all in one go. We changed and went out again into the Plaka to eat. This time we choose a taverna adjacent to the first in a picturesque tree lined square. I had probably my best meal of the holiday, a lovely grilled chicken with fresh vegetables with especially memorable baked tomatoes. The girls had salad (again). And there was Greek music and dancing including our first Zorba of the holiday, which was really good.

A Life in a Year – 14th November, Holy Baptism

I was baptised on 14th November 1954. Being only five months old at the time I don’t recall a great deal about the occasion but I do remember attending a christening on the island of Ios in Greece in September 2009.

We had walked to a tiny beach we like and on the way back as we passed a church some preparations being made for a baptism and the building and all around it were being decorated in pink and white in readiness.  We enquired about the event and the lady in charge invited us to return at eight o’clock that night to see the ceremony and we agreed that we would.

We put on our best clothes and later we returned to the church to see the baptism ceremony of the little girl into the Christian Orthodox Church.  This is a major event in the life of any Greek family because of the numerous rites which accompany it, many of which go back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. It was a lovely experience and now this holiday we had seen a funeral on Serifos, a wedding on Sifnos and a baptism on Ios.  A Greek baptism is a sacred and religious rite that is performed on a baby to cleanse the soul and renounce Satan.  It is a complex initiation that starts with an exorcism and officially ends forty days later when the baby is presented to the congregation to receive Holy Communion.

We weren’t able to stop for the full forty days and we began to feel a bit like intruders on a private family event so before it was all over we left the church and selected a taverna where we enjoyed another satisfying meal and a jug of red wine before returning to Homer’s Inn Hotel for a final drink on the balcony.

 

A Life in a Year – 26th September, Island Hopping and Greek Ferries

I have been visiting the Greek islands on and off for nearly thirty years and island hopping for the last six and I have noticed that things are beginning to alter, and not always for the better either.  There are new roads being constructed on the islands and EU funded improvements to ports, traditional mini-markets are becoming supermarkets and the ferries are beginning to change.  New roads are fine and improved port facilities are good, personally I prefer the dusty old shops with surprises in dark corners but I have to say that I am really disappointed by the ferry changes.

This year there were new routes and unfamiliar boats and these were all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun.  They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality.  I understand that these changes are welcomed by the people who live on the islands, who now have faster and more convenient transport options, but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers.  I prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure.  In 2008 we were stuck on Folegandros for an extra day when ferries simply didn’t turn up but in 2009 there was disappointing sense of reliability.

In 2006 I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa (named after the monastery on Amorgos) and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful.  I used it again in 2007 but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus.  So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called Speedrunner or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.

Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible.  This year only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and I used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and I really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a mythos, listening to the gentle ‘sha sha sha’ as the prow scythed through the water cutting an arrow head of foam into the blue, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by.   Next year I fear that the Agios Georgios will probably be gone too and journeys between the islands will be less enjoyable.

On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and see the captain at work and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the back of the boat (I believe they call that the stern) and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards.  It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors.  On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the efficient engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.

This regrettable change is driven by the desire to improve but is in part due also to stricter operating rules imposed on ferry operators after a disaster on 26th September 2000 when the Express Samina Ferry sank off of Paros while the captain slept and the crew watched a football match on TV.  Several of the crew were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail and the General Manager of the company committed suicide when he jumped from his sixth floor office window in Piraeus.  There followed a crack down on safety, record keeping and passenger numbers and ferries that failed tough new safety checks were barred from operating.  Interestingly the Agios Georgios failed this test at first and has also subsequently broken down at sea!  After thirty-five years ferries are no longer allowed to operate so it is inevitable that within only a few years there will be none of my favourites left.

I am glad that I had a few years of travelling between the islands on the old boats and I suppose I will have to come to terms with the fact that these days have gone and in future there will be no option but to use the awful new ferries to get from place to place.  That is called progress I suppose!

A Life in a Year – 13th September, The Island of Ios, Farming and Tourism

On the Greek island of Ios the walk from the harbour to Valmas beach is interesting because of the derelict terraces and dry stonewalls that separate the hillside into individual plots of land.  Ios is just one large inhospitable rock that has been baked hard in the sun but as recently as only fifty years ago people here were scraping away at the thin soil and the stones here to try and make a living or to feed the family by growing fruit and vegetables. 

There is very little useful land on Ios so this must have been almost unimaginatively difficult and the owner of the hotel, Homer’s Inn, Antonia told us of her memories of life before tourism.  She told us how each islander, including her father, had a personal plot and would attend each day to manage and tend the land.  They had to carry all of the water to the side of this cliff and the only way to achieve this was by using a donkey. Then in the 1960s visitors started to arrive and the enterprising islanders realised that there was more money to be made renting out the back room and this was also a lot easier than a twelve-hour day toiling under a hot sun. 

The terraces are all abandoned now to thistles and what other few plants can survive in a hostile environment and they are unlikely ever to be cultivated again.  There is no one to look after them or protect the heritage, each year parts of the walls collapse and disappear and soon they will be gone altogether and that will be a sad day.  Although no one will ever see it again I like to imagine what this hillside might have looked like fifty years ago with farmers scratching away at the ground, donkeys patiently waiting to return to the town and fishing boats slipping in and out of the harbour below.

A Life in a Year – 10th September, A Quad Bike Against All Advice

On 10th September 2008 we woke to a glorious morning on the island of Milos and after a cup of tea I walked briskly into the town to hire a vehicle to transport us around.

I found a place and negotiated the hire of a white, sport model, quad bike, but before being allowed to proceed with the hire I had to undergo a short driving competency test to satisfy the renter that I was safe to go out on the open road.  He explained that as a rule English and French people were generally ok, but Italians, who think they know all about scooters and bikes, are not so good and are liable to fall off and injure themselves sometime during the day but the Americans, who know nothing about them at all, are absolutely hopeless and are very liable to crash and cause a multiple pile-up within seconds.

I passed the test but I couldn’t help but feel a total hypocrite because I have always told my children for safety reasons not to do anything so rash as ride a scooter or a bike like this when on a holiday but I had total disregard for my own advice and was completely euphoric about driving around like Peter Fonda in Easyrider on my four wheels as I returned to the hotel.

Once on the open road the first thing that we had to do was to negotiate our way out of the harbour and this involved a steep climb to the town high above the seafront and this proved quite difficult because it soon became obvious that the quad bike that I had rented was hopelessly underpowered.  It was only 50cc and completely unsuitable for two people, the steering was light because of the weight distribution, handling was a nightmare and it was inevitable that within only a few minutes we had our first near death experience when the thing refused to take a tight hairpin bend with two of us on board and we had a confrontation with the driver of an impatient mineral lorry who was not minded to be very helpful.

I was very careful after that because the thing was very difficult to control, it was hard work, essential to keep your wits about you at all time and the slightest road undulation resulted in wobbles and panics all the way to our first stop.

With some relief we stopped at Sarakiniko beach, which is one of the famous picture postcard sites on Milos.  It was approaching midday and we walked around the sleepy village of Pollonia and up to the top to the inevitable blue domed church and an uninterrupted view of the nearby island of Kimolos.  We left and returned back along the coast road stopping frequently to admire the colourful rock formations, the pretty beaches and the excavations at the Papafragos rocks all of which were along the route.  To be honest I was glad of the frequent stops because I didn’t feel too confident about the quad bike and the way it was behaving with the pair of us, and our luggage, on board.

In the middle of the day we arrived at the main town of Plaka, which overlooks the port of Adamas below and we parked the bike and walked into the little streets of the busy town.  Next to Plaka was the village of Trypiti that had restored windmills and Christian catacombs that were sadly closed due to excavations and an ancient Greek amphitheatre that we missed because it looked like a long way to walk in the blistering heat of the afternoon.

After a couple of Mythos I was much more confident about the quad bike so we left the high level towns and returned again to the beaches on the north of the island and then we had our second near death experience when we stopped for a photo opportunity and I left the bike in reverse and when I started off again almost tipped us backwards into the deep ravine that had provided the backdrop for our dramatic biking pictures that almost proved fatally to be our last.

Later we rested and recovered from our biking experience and debated whether to use it again to return to Plaka for evening meal, but after we had reflected on the earlier dangerous incidents we decided instead to leave it safely parked up and stay instead at the harbour.