Category Archives: Cyclades

The Island of Ios, Farming and Tourism

On the Greek island of Ios the walk from the busy harbour to little Valmas beach is interesting because of the derelict terraces and dry stonewalls that separate the bony 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.  This must have been incredibly hard.  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 giant thistles growing like candelabras 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.

The Boss Bar on Santorini

I like Greece and I like Greek tavernas, they are almost always friendly inviting places and the food is inexpensive and good value and it rarely disappoints. I like the carefree ambiance and the complete lack of formality, outside wooden tables and rattan chairs, check tablecloths, extensive menus and unhurried waiters. I like the cheap paper table covers so you can spill food and drink without worrying about being asked to pay the laundry bill, I like the certain company of scrounging cats and I especially like those with live bouzouki players running through the familiar catalogue of traditional Greek music and always starting and finishing with the obligatory ‘Zorba’.

My favourite Greek taverna, without a shadow of a doubt, was the ‘Boss Bar’ on the island of Santorini in 2004.

It was an untidy little place right on the beach at Perissa and on a fortnight’s holiday we dined there most evenings and when we felt obliged to try somewhere different, just for a change, we almost always wished that we hadn’t and went back there later for a final drink.

The ‘Boss Bar’ really had been an excellent place, the staff were attentive and friendly, the food was good, the beer was cold and the prices were reasonable.  There was always complimentary ouzo to finish the evening (except when there was complimentary melon which quite frankly wasn’t so good) but the place had my fullest recommendation.  On my fiftieth birthday a very substantial meal for nine cost only €85, I left a hundred, the owner refused such a generous tip, I insisted, and he completed our meal with at least €25 worth of complimentary sweets and drinks.

I returned to Santorini on 6th September 2006 but was devastated to find that it had gone, probably because the owner had been far too generous with the complimentary ouzo.

Holiday Chance Encounters

One September evening in 2009 Folegandros in the Greek Islands we were in the Chora at an outside table at our favourite restaurant when I glanced across to the party sitting next to us and instantly recognised someone I knew from work.

This was a real shock because Folegandos is a tiny lump of rock in an inaccessible place in the western Cyclades and pretty much the last place that you would expect to bump into someone you know.  In 1989 we met some people who lived on our street in Disneyland, Florida and in 1992 we unexpectedly came across our next door neighbour sitting by the side of the swimming pool at a hotel in Menorca.  We were surprised by these two incidents but then again thousands of people go to Florida and Menorca but not many people I know have even heard about Folegandros so this was a real jaw dropping moment.

It was the Chief Executive of the County Council and he was with a small group of people.  He knew me, we had attended meetings together but although I flashed him a smile of recognition he looked blankly back because although I recognised him he didn’t recognise me disguised as I was in my holiday clothes and with my annual attempt to grow a beard.

I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation which was almost entirely work related and he punctuated this with mobile telephone calls to the Leader of the Council.  I found this intriguing because who talks continuously about work when on holiday?  Even though Kim and I worked at the same place we had a strict rule that work talk was off the list of things to talk about.

After an hour or we finished our meal, settled our bill and prepared to leave but I was not going to go without saying hello.  I wandered across to his table and said something like ‘Hello there, fancy seeing you here’. It took him only a couple of seconds for the penny to drop and I sensed his discomfort immediately. After the initial shock of being interrupted in a way that he couldn’t possibly imagine he regained his composure, said hello and introduced me to his press secretary!  There was no way that he was going to be able to explain what he was doing in Folegandros with his press secretary and although with the befit of the consumption of several Mythos I was prepared to continue to chat Kim sensed that it was embarrassing and she led me away, back to the bus stop and to our hotel in the port.

We laughed and giggled and filled in the blanks for ourselves about just what he might be doing here with a work colleague and I decided that we would return to the Chora in the morning because my hunch was that after a night thinking up a good excuse he would be looking for us (it is only a small place) to give us an explanation.

Sure enough, next morning as we scoured the town we came across him after only a few minutes.  He had had time to recover from the shock of the chance meeting and he did talk about his holiday and how this was his favourite Greek island, he was interested to know how long we had been there and where we were going next but he never offered any real explanation about his travelling companion and the reason for her being there with him!

First Attempts at Greek Island Hopping

“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.”                                                                                                                                        Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

Very close to Mykonos is the island of Delos, an interesting archaeological site that we visited one day during the first week of our stay on Mykonos.  Allegedly the birth place of Apollo it is the epicentre of the Cycladic ring and an uninhabited island ten kilometres from the holiday island, and is a vast archaeological site that together with Athens on the mainland and Knossos on Crete makes up the three most important archaeological sites in Greece.

Delos was well worth a visit but here are two bits of advice, firstly don’t miss the last boat home or else you will be stuck on the rather remote island all night long and secondly take plenty of water and a snack because there is only one small shop on the island attached to the museum and it is meteorically expensive!

On another day during the first week we took a ferry ride to Paros and I think that it was sitting on the top deck of the ferry enjoying a mythos in the sun that was the beginning of my fascination for Greek ferries and island hopping holidays.  We didn’t stay on Paros for any length of time, just long enough to wander through the back streets of this very busy town, a sort of hub of the Cycladic ferry system, have a drink and a meal and then a return journey to Mykonos.

Having acquired a taste for using the ferries to visit other islands we took a trip during the second week to the intriguing little island of nearby Tinos, which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries.  As we approached the port we could see that not being a tourist island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.

Tinos is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.  Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as sign of devotion.  It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a strip of red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds.

On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.  The shopkeepers could speak no English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves.  If you have a bad knee or an ankle then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm, an elbow picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and leave it their so that God doesn’t just forget about it after you have gone.

We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.  By coincidence the icon was found on the very first day after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation.  Inside the church it was hard to find because it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.

After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the return ferry to Mykonos.

Mykonos and Shirley Valentine

One of my favourite films is Shirley Valentine, the story of a woman who has a life changing experience when she goes on an unexpected holiday to the island of Mykonos, so it was inevitable that I would have to visit there one day.

I wasn’t expecting it to change my life in any similar dramatic way however when we visited the island in July 2005 and went for a two week holiday to the tourist resort of Ornos Bay on the south coast of the island.  From the moment we arrived the sun shone continuously and we had a long lazy fortnight baking under the Aegean sun and walking back and forth from beach to apartments located about two hundred metres behind the busy coastal strip of bars, shops and tavernas next to a strip of golden sand decorated with beach umbrellas and brightly coloured beach towels.

We stayed at the Anemos Apartments and they were excellent, pristine white with tiny balconies and brown shutters, in a quiet location of the main road that led in one direction to the wide sandy beach and in the other towards a busy road that went to the lively party town of Mykonos, or Chora.

We didn’t stay in Ornos all of the time of course because Mykonos is an interesting and lively island with plenty of things to do and see.  First of all we had to visit the nearby beach of Agios Ionnis, which was the principle location for Shirley Valentine with the hotel she stayed at, the beach where she enjoyed wine and sunsets and of course Kostas’ taverna where she worked after staying on beyond the end of her holiday.  It was all fairly recognisable but this was ten years after the film had been made so there had been one or two changes here and there and it has to be said that the taverna with the proud sign outside looked completely different following an obvious refurbishment and make-over.

Mykonos town is a lively place and one of the top tourist attractions in the Cyclades, not as spectacular as Santorini, as historical as Naxos or as dramatic as Ios but with an enviable location facing west with the town rising up from a gentle shelving crescent shaped bay full of traditional fishing boats competing for moorings with pleasure boats and rich men’s yachts.  In the typical Cycladic town of narrow streets and whitewashed houses there was a generous mixture of expensive cosmopolitan shops and cheaper tourist stores, pricey restaurants and affordable tavernas, chic modern bars for young people and tourists and traditional cafés for the local men.

The most famous residents of Mykonos are the pelicans which waddle around the streets, their wings clipped to prevent then flying away, going from one restaurant back door to another in anticipation of fishy scraps from the kitchens and stopping every now and then in a good natured and obliging way to have their photographs taken with the holidaymakers.

Mykonos is one of the most popular of the Greek islands and the down side of this is that it is more expensive than most and that is especially true of the most picturesque part of the town, a collection of old fishermen’s houses built right up to the edge of the sea and known as ‘Little Venice’.  Fishermen don’t live there any more because these gaily coloured buildings are all bars and restaurants and to use them and enjoy the stunning views one has to be prepared to pay elevated prices.  We weren’t of course but we did eat at an adjacent taverna with a good view of the houses on one side and Mykonos’ famous windmills on the other as we sat at the same table as Shirley did in the film and enjoyed an evening meal with moonlight on the water and gentle waves harmoniously rearranging the pebbles on the beach.

The fortnight in Mykonos was a good holiday and maybe I will go back one day but for now I am happy to backpack and wander among the islands using the ferries to transport me around rather than be organized on traditional package style holidays.

Greek Islands I have visited

Ernest Steel, School Crossing Patrolman

In April 2003 the School Crossing Patrol service in the UK celebrated its 50th anniversary.  Britain’s first Patrol, a Mrs Hunt was appointed by Bath City Council in 1937 to work outside Kingsmead school.  Despite the bombing raids, Mrs Hunt continued to work throughout the Second World War, moving to a new site with the children when the building was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942.

Experimental Patrols appeared in London in the 1940’s and Traffic Wardens were used to assemble children in Dagenham in 1949.  The idea proved very popular and other boroughs in London began to follow suit, leading to the Metropolitan Police deciding that this was something it should adopt and take over.

Patrols were formally recognised in Britain by the School Crossing Patrols Act in 1953 and allowed to operate across the country and the School Crossing Patrol Service in London officially came into being with The London Traffic (Children Crossing Traffic Notices) Law of 1953.

My Grandad Ernie was a school crossing patrol man in the 1970s.  He was Londoner and worked as a bus conductor on the old London double-decker Routemaster buses operating from the Catford depot in South London.  I can still remember him in his dark blue London Transport uniform with his red conductors badge and his leather satchel slung over his shoulder walking home from work in a jaunty sort of way all along Barmerston Road back to the flat my grandparents lived at, at number 50.  Grandad Ernie liked to have a drink (or two) and would always give my dad (who was a hopeless drinker) a headache after a night out and he used to smoke forty Embassy cigarettes a day until the doctor told him to quit or die.  He spent a lot of time sitting in his favourite chair watching the horse racing on the TV.

He was a really nice man but he never quite seemed to have the time for or the understanding of children that my other grandad (Ted) used to have.  He was generous and kind but just didn’t seem to have the time to spend with us on all of the trivial things that the other one did.  So it was a bit of a surprise when, after he had retired and moved to live in Rugby, that he became a lollypop man!

His first assignment was on High Street in Hillmorton but after they moved to Lower Street he had a transfer to Abbotts Farm shops where he used to see children across a stretch of dual carriageway near the Jolly Abbott pub.  The children seemed to like him and he would often come home with impromptu gifts.  Dad and I used to drive past him every day when we went home from work for lunch and he was always embarrassed to be caught holding a child’s hand because this exposed him as a softie when he had worked quite hard on his image of not really caring for the company of kids that much.

I like the picture of him on duty, it was taken by the local newspaper, the Rugby Advertiser, but I don’t know why.  I like the way he has got his raincoat on over his white coat which sort of missed the point about it being white for health and safety reasons! I posted it on a ‘I rememmber Rugby’ page on Facebook and lots of people responded to it saying how they remembered him and I was surprised by that!

He was a good man. He died in 1977 aged 75.

Athens Metro Pickpockets

On 10th January 1863 London became the first city in the World to open an underground railway line and began a trend for travelling in long dark tunnels.  Whilst this makes for convenient transport it also provides an environment for thieves and low life pickpockets.

2009 was the fourth year of taking the Athens  metro and I have never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in any of the previous three years but this time something was different.  Syntagma station was busy and felt dangerous and edgy and when the train arrived we had to force our way onto unusually crowded carriages.

As soon as I got on board I knew something was wrong and this is how they did it.  At the very last moment a group of three or four young men rushed onto the train causing mayhem and confusion and pushing and shoving and moving other legitimate passengers around.  In the melee we were separated so couldn’t watch out for each other and I knew instinctively that something was going to happen in that carriage.  In hindsight it is easy to see that we had been targeted, we had been on holiday, we were off our guard, weighed down with bags and the way that Kim was looking after her bag made it obvious that there was something inside that she would prefer not to lose.

One man stood by the door but then I sensed that he was determined to stand next to me and he pushed in and stood so close I could smell his body odour and it was most unpleasant.  I knew what he was doing but luckily I was wedged in a corner so I gripped my wallet in my pocket in a vice like white knuckle grip and turned away from him so that he couldn’t get a hand to my right side where my wallet and my camera were.  He knew he was rumbled, gave up and moved on pushing and shoving the other passengers as he went.

Kim was stranded in the middle of the carriage but I could see that she was clutching her handbag tight to her chest and I felt reassured that she too was being extra careful.  Suddenly I noticed that she was bothered by something and was examining her ring.  One of the thieves had placed a bit of wire around the stone and had pulled it so hard that it had bent the ring and it had hurt her finger.  She said that at the time she thought it had been caught in a zip or a strap from someone’s bag but this must be a well practiced diversionary tactic because at the moment she reacted he managed somehow to open the zip of the bag and remove the first thing that he found.  All of this happened so quickly and at the next stop they were gone and so was Kim’s camera.

Apparently the Athens metro has become notorious for thieves so wouldn’t you think the police would do something about it, these guys are so easy to spot and it’s certain that haven’t got a ticket.  Instead they prefer to swagger about in groups walking around Monastiraki and the Plaka and being completely ineffective.  The Foreign Office web site now advises “Most visits to Greece are trouble-free, but you should be aware that the tourist season attracts an increase in incidents of theft of wallets, handbags etc. particularly in areas and events where crowds gather”.  I can’t imagine that this is good for tourism and I am surprised that Greece isn’t tackling this problem and cracking down hard on offenders but it seems that it isn’t a priority.

Thinking about it now, what surprises me is why they would target people who were so obviously on their way home, suntanned, grubby and footsore and with all money spent on the islands, surely it would be more lucrative to rob people on the way out!  This reminded me of the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they were guarding a payroll delivery – ‘No one is going to rob us on the way down – we haven’t got any money on the way down!’

This incident rather spoilt the holiday and we left Greece with a sour taste in our mouths. I suppose it might have been worse, the thief didn’t get her purse or our passports that were also in the bag and without those we would have had an extra night in Athens to endure but for Kim the loss of her camera with all of her holiday memories( including her favourite of the naked man on the beach on Ios) was a real Greek tragedy.  Even the camera was unimportant except for the little chip inside with over seven hundred pictures that cannot be replaced.  I know that this has hurt her badly, she rarely mentions the holiday now, can’t bring herself to look at my very similar pictures and I wonder if next year she will even feel like returning to Greece which until this incident has always been our favourite place.

I console myself with the thought that hopefully the thief wasn’t a Greek and he was disappointed to only get a camera when he probably hoped he had stolen a purse.  I hope he develops a horrible incurable disease and has a short, painful and miserable life (preferably behind bars)! And when he finally dies and gets to Hell (as surely he will) I hope he has to spend eternity in a cold damp corner with his head in a bucket of shit!


We did return to Greece the following year but we certainly didn’t stop off in Athens on the way to the islands – we flew directly to Rhodes instead.