Sunday, 2 May 2010

Re-entering a Greek Island

Having been born into a relatively small and rural village in the English Midlands and then spending the bulk of my life working in towns in the North of England, re-entering Cycladic island life is rather like going back home to the village. It presents a nexus of uncomfortable emotions arising from familiarity set against strangeness. Re-establishing relationships, loyalties, friendships; resurrecting earlier routines. The islanders have, largely, looked inwards to island matters, island relationships, things which exclude outsiders. The returning traveller not only has to re-establish previous relationships but also reinterpret them in the light of new experience outside. Even those who remained on the island have not stood still completely. New friendships formed in the absence of old can generate frictions, jealousies, and psychological distance.

Kamares Port Road

It would be wrong to suggest that returning is not pleasurable. Quite clearly, it is. The first descent from the ferry ramps, drive down the docks and the port’s road past waterside tavernas and familiar shops is a bundle of heightened sensitivities, darting eyes, joy at a warm greeting, concern about not greeting someone who will feel snubbed, shock to find something has changed – the supermarket has a new shop front, the ticket agency has moved. And after this has been negotiated, there will be the positive distribution of largesse which is expected of the foreigner/tourist. Even our Greek ‘friends’ see part of the benefit to welcoming strangers is the investment they make in the local economy. Although we haven’t really been tourists for nearly ten years, we are still seen as a wealth to be enticed in to the restaurant, the shop. And we are English. We will be rich! Money will not be the problem it is to Greeks. We feel a strong, moral imperative to eat at least once at each of the port’s restaurants. Our Greek island friends feel exactly the same impulse. We would certainly be snubbing a business by not using it at all.

Kamares Port Road

Our friend, Spyros, buys his Television from one electrical shop and his fridge from another quite deliberately. You never know when you will need the support of one of these people, he reasons. May be it will be in something totally unrelated like a land boundary dispute or community permission to build but, in such a small world, one day you assuredly will need them on your side. Rule number one: avoid making enemies. Rule number two: do everything you can to make it look to the people you don’t like that you do. This is just politics on a small island scale but coming from the anonymous bustle of an English urban conurbation, we always take a long time to adjust.

Kamares Port Road

As we drive along the beach road to our house – 400 or so metres long – and slide back the huge iron gate, we are psychologically downsizing our expectations, our aspirations.And yet this is changing. The car goes into the garage and begins to disgorge the multitude of items deemed necessary for six months in Greece. This year it included a large, flat screened television, a wireless laptop, a sewing machine, 200 bottles of French and Italian wine, a cheese mountain of parmigiano reggiano, digital SLRs, camcorders, a library of books and magazines. This is supplemented by three huge boxes containing gardening equipment, sausage making equipment (Don’t ask!), six months’ supply of our favourite Breakfast and Assam tea and Colombian coffee, mouthwash and toothpaste which we can’t source here all despatched a week before by Parcel Force from Huddersfield.

Kamares Port Road

These imports should not be seen as a rejection of Greek style or taste or culture. We are not trying to recreate our English lifestyle in the sun. We have found that, when we are out of our native milieu, these small things help us to assimilate everything else around us more comfortably. We have not settled in Greece on some endurance course but because we love the style and culture around us but we have found that there are some things from England that we cannot do without. Apart from material things like Assam tea and bottles of Barolo, it is UK news and politics and Greek news and politics I crave. I am a news junkie. I have to know. I am restricted by my weak Greek. The only way I was able to slake this thirst was through a short wave band radio and the BBC World Service and, in tourist season, day old copies of The Times. Now the digital age is coming to our Greek island. For the past fifteen years I have lived on the net in England either in my job, for my job or at home. In addition, satellite television has provided endless news and political analysis to my heart’s content. I communicate by creating and maintaining websites, Blogs, through email and text messages by mobile phone. Now all of these things are available on the island. The only thing that is different is the experience I am describing.

Kamares Port Road

Saturday, 10 April 2010

From Huddersfield to Sifnos

The early days of the 1980s I have described. Living in Yorkshire for the past forty years, our route was always the same. Finish school on Friday afternoon; dash home and change; drive to Manchester airport down the M62 motorway for forty minutes and then board a cheap, Charter (later Scheduled) flight for Athens. The plane would, hopefully, land in Athens by 4.30 am and, collecting our luggage from the carousel, we would take a bus (later the metro) down to Piraeus. Ferries would arrive in Piraeus about 6.00 am and we would board by 7.00 am. The cheap and cheerful journey would go via Kythnos and Serifos dropping us at Sifnos in six hours (later five hours) before continuing to Milos and Folegandros.

The F/B Pegasus in Kythnos Harbour

In the last ten years a number of things have changed. Firstly, the introduction of fast, hydrofoils has halved the time although they are much more susceptible to poor weather and are cancelled rather capriciously. Secondly, we began to drive to Greece and stay for a month and a half at a time. This has culminated in our retirement last Summer when we spent three months on Sifnos and this year when we will spend six months. Of course, this has only been possible because we bought land and built our own house.

As we prepare to leave for Greece next week, I will try to catalogue the journey. Living in Huddersfield, we drive an hour down the motorway to board the P&O ferry bound for Zeebrugge. This is a fairly basic old ferry with mediocre accomodation. To compensate we book a 'luxury' cabin which means you get a double bed, a settee with fridge and coffe/tea making facilities and satellite television. There are good restaurants on board. When we went in peak season it would cost us £550.00 return. In low season it is just over £300.00. The boat leaves at 7.00 pm and arrives in Belgium the next day at 8.30 am. At least we are well rested by the time we disembark.

The P&O 'Norsea' Hull/Zeebrugge Ferry
Normally we would just drive like bats out of hell direct to Ancona - a distance of 920 miles. We would leave Zebrugge at 9.00 am, reach Switzerland by 6.00 pm and stop just short of Ancona by 2.00 am the next morning. After a few hours sleep in the car and a wash and brush up followed by breakfast in an Italian service station outside Bologna, we would drive the last three hours to Ancona port and tumble into an extremely expensive luxury cabin for the twenty two hour journey down the Adriatic to Patras on the Greek Peloponnese. Now we are retired it is different.
We are going to enjoy the journey for its own sake. We will have two stops en route with 5½ hours driving in between. 5½ hours after leaving Zeebrugge, we will arrive in the Medieval Alsace town of Colmar for our first night.

Petite Venise-Colmar
After another 5½ hour's driving, we will stop in the Italian city of Modena, home of balsamic vinegar, for our second night.
Modena, Italy
Our third day of driving is less than three hours into the port of Ancona where we will take the Anek Lines ferry down the Adriatic to Greece.
Ancona Port
There are basically three existing Ferry companies plying passenger trade between Italy and Greece:

Superfast is probably marginally the better quality but, ultimately, we decide according to timing of departure and arrival and price. In High Season, a return trip for two with car has cost £750.00 - £1000.00. Thsi year, travelling April/October it only costs £340.00. It really pays to be retired.

Our Anek ferry leaves at 5.00 pm and gets to Patras at 12.30 pm the following day - a journey of just under 20 hours. On arrival at Patras, we will stay at one of our favourite hotels - the Patras Palace - which is exactly opposite the dock.

Hotel Patras Palace

Early breakfast and then over the Corinth Canal and down to Piraeus - a 3 hour drive - to the port. We will take the Sifnos-based company's hydrofoil, Agen Speedlines- SpeedRunner IV -to Sifnos. It will take about 3 hours 20 minutes and cost €157.00

Greece Today

Although I am sure it is partly because of my familarisation with the city but Athens is a much nicer place to travel to. This has got to be partly down to modernisation. Flying in to the new airport is a pleasure. Getting the Metro from the airport is quick and simple.

The Metro from the Airport

We have moved on from budget, 2 & 3* hotels now. Back in the mid 1990s, I came across a book by a man called Austen Kark. It was called Attic in Greece. Austen Kark had been Head of the BBC World Service of which I was an addict in Greece. His wife was Nina Bawden, a writer of children's fiction which I had read to kids for twenty years. Kark's book was about a love of Greece and taking his wife back there, discovering a wrecked classical house in Nafplion, buying it and 'doing it up'. These were people of real substance - highly successful novelist and Director of the World Service. They sought out all the finest materials like pure, white Corinthian marble for the bathrooms and expensive terrazo for the floors. They constantly worried about how much they were spending but they spent extravagantly.

Each time a serious decision had to be made, their architect in Athens would phone them in London and they would be on the next Olympic Airlines flight. They would stay in Athens at the Electra Hotel. I loved the book which was telling their story interwoven with Greek history and politics. It set in me an ambition to do something similar. We started on achieving our ambition by looking for land to buy on Sifnos in Easter 2000. Austen Kark died in the Potters Bar rail crash in which Nina Bawden was seriously injured in 2002. We went on to build our house in 2005.

Today, Sifnos, which had no banks when we arrived, now has three. It has automatic cash machines. People use credit cards in local businesses. The old OTE closed down and was replaced by a purpose built facility which even has pay phones outside. Of course, they were too late in their changes. Everyone goes round with a mobile phone clamped to their face. Mobile phone masts are all around the island. Where there were dirt tracks, there are now metalled roads although the edges are a little flaky. There are more car rental companies than I can list and products in some of the newer 'supermarkets' allow us to live almost as we would in Britain. Of course, the downside of this is that prices have also evened out although it is still possible to eat out with a half litre of house wine for £25.00. Hotels now are almost obliged to provide, televisions, fridges and fans (or air conditioning).

Travel to and from the island has become much faster but much more expensive. In 1984 it took six hours by ferry to travel between Piraeus and Sifnos. Today it can be done in half that time. In 1980 we bought a paper ticket for about £12.00 one way. Today we take our car. All ticketing is computerised to prevent over-booking but it costs us £150.00 for two with a car. This makes quick trips to Athens something which have to be booked with a little caution.

High Speed Catamaran - 3 hours Piraeus/Sifnos

The health service on Sifnos is infinitely better than it was. When we arrived in the early 1980s, there was a Health Centre in the capital staffed by nurses and a trainee doctor. Now there are Government and Private doctors. There are three dentists and a Medical Testing Centre where I can go to have my blood coagulation tested. Just to give it a homely, island slant, the Centre is run by the harbour's baker who works in the Clinic in the morning and the bakery in the afternoon. I don't say that to diminish him. He is a fully trained Medical Scientist who left Sifnos to train in Wester Europe and who worked in Brussels for a number of years before returning to his island home. He also makes very good bread.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Modernisation of Greece

Costas Simitis from Piraeus was prominent in Greek politics for two decades from the mid 1980s. Following the 1985 elections and his election as a deputy to the Parliament, he became Minister of National Economy; he undertook an unpopular stabilization program, trying to curb inflation and reduce deficits. He was leader of PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement) and Primeminister from 1996 - 2004. In this time he bent his labours to bringing Greece fully into Europe. I always thought of it as moving Greece distinctly from East to West.

Simitis brought the economy to a point where crucial tests were passed allowing Greece into the Eurozone in 2002. This brought enormous benefits to Greece in the good times. It was hard to drive around Sifnos in the first decade of the new century without coming across huge blue signs bearing the European Union ring of stars and a long row of digits signifying the millions of euros the EEC had provided for the building of a dam, for the creation of a road, for the provision of a desalination plant, etc.. At the same time, islanders would smile wryly about such and such a hill farmer raking in hundreds of thousands of euros in EEC subsidies for making some cheese nobody ever saw. On the other side, the Greeks constantly complained that adoption of the euro had led to an all round raising of prices.

Although he resigned shortly before, Simitis presided over the Olympic effect. Having made the whole country deliriously happy and proud by being awarded the Olympic Games, Simitis used it to effect real infrastructure modernisation. Elefthérios Venizélos Airport was opened in 2001 to much scepticism. It is a fine airport. Certainly, it is a much more successful experience than Manchester Airport. The modernisation of the Metro link with Piraeus was begun and is just drawing to a close. The capital's great tourist attraction, the Acropolis, has spent years clad with scaffolding but has finally emerged to survive another thousand years. Hotels redolent of the worst 1960s Greek style were upgraded to embrace the new millenium. A spanking new museum, The Acropolis Museum, has been created to celebrate it and provide a tourist focus.

Acropolis Museum

In the wake of Simitis departure, a number of state owned industries have been sold off. Shipping has been opened up and the equivalent of the aviation industry's 'Open Skies' policy is rumoured to be coming. The state owned carrier, Olympic Airlines has finally been sold off and been reborn as Olympic Air. This had to be forced on the government by the EEC against much prevarication and opposition. Even as I write, ex-Olympic employees are still fighting for compensation. The old telecommunications giant, OTE, a moribund entity if you ever saw one, was partially sold off. Formerly a state owned monopoly, since July 2009 Deutsche Telekom is the largest shareholder of the company. Unfortunately, in order to effect this, Telekom appear to have accepted pre-conditions which keep existing placemen in the positions until retirement. This is symptomatic of Greek workers demands. I saw a report of a workers protest in Athens recently and demanding 'jobs for life'. It is the sort of demand that could never be made in Britain apart from the ultra-left. I believe, although I have yet to substatiate this, that some public sector workers are paid additional payments if they have to carry files upstairs in their building. I understand that many Greek workers are payed one or two additional month's salaries in loo of holiday pay.

Greece in the 1980s

When we first started travelling to Greece we thought of it almost as a Third World country which is strange for a Classical Civilization. In fact, our first trip to Greece which was in 1981 co-incided with Greece being admitted to the European Economic Community. Of course, I was viewing the country from an inexperienced tourist's view point. I had little to compare it with other than parochial Britain. The ruling party and Primeminister throughout the 1980s were the leftwing PASOK and Andreas Papandreou.

Andreas Papandreou

Of course, the country was still reeling from the rule of the right wing Junta which had been overthrown only seven years earlier. As rooky tourists, our first impression was of a country balanced between East & West - Eastern (almost Asian) influences from smells of cooking to sounds of music abounded. In actuality, we began to realise that there was distinct and sharp polarisation between right and left across the country which was largely held in check but which spawned extremist factions at the fringes of society. As we became aware, anarchy is rarely far from the surface in Greek society and this is what we are currently seeing in the Athens riots of 2009 and the worker's response to measures to solve the economic crisis of 2010 being put in place by George Papandreou.

George Papandreou

In some respects, Sifnos was still struggling into the Twentieth Century when we arrived. Mains electricity had only arrived twenty years before and 'Town' or Mains Water was only restrictedly available. In a pre-mobile age, there were only four public telephones (all in the capital and none in the port) situated in an old OTE building (now the site of Gerontopoulos Cafenion) with only two available for international calls. In tourist season we would stand in queues of foreigners struggled to explain to their families back home the island-hoppping experience, frequently having to shout SIF - NOS, SIF - NOS when asked where they were phoning from by people who had heard of little more than Athens, Corfu, Crete & Rhodes.

There was a car rental firm but tourists spent their money sparingly and wealthy Europeans were not the mainstay of the tourist crowd. Like any Greek island, battered old Mercedes taxis plied their trade but there was a fantastic and cheap but comprehensive bus service that we used in the early days. Island hotels invariably served an old fashioned Greek breakfast of bread, jam & cheese with a piece of cake plus orange juice and coffee. The rooms were spartan. Usually, you were lucky to find more than two coat hangers in a tatty, old wardrobe. The beds would be singles, low, wooden, slatted with crisp, white, slightly threadbare sheets and only one pillow each. Comfort there was not. No fans. Air conditioning had not been heard of. No fridges. No televisions. Often there would be a couple of white, plastic chairs to be taken out on to a minute balcony and, to make the whole place really homely, there would be an awful representation of an idyllic Greek scene badly framed on the wall.

Of course, the Euro was a long way off and the Drachma was weak against Sterling. We genuinely had to try hard to eat and drink £5.00's worth of food at one sitting. Food was fairly unexciting and basic but fried Calamari was new to us in the 1980s. Unlike now, Greek Salad was very inexpensive. Most tavernas served their own 'rot-gut' wine but a bottle of Demestica was desperately cheap and delightfully quaffable. Everything was served on tables covered in colourful tablecloths covered by plastic sheets held down by clips or stretched elastic. Almost without exception, the chairs would be tradional basket weave with protuding wooden corners that cut off the blood supply to your legs before the meal was half finished.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Being Our Own Travel Agent

It means so little now but back in the 1980s people were astonished at our daring to make our own arrangements. The norm was to go to a High Street Travel Agent, to sit at a desk on the wrong side of a computer screen and to wait for the professional to tell one what was available. On reaching agreement in the 'shop', interminable phone calls would be made to engaged numbers for the booking to be confirmed in 'real-time'. We, on the other hand, would comb the brochures for lesser known islands - islands that Greek travellers now would find passé. We visited Zakynthos & Corfu in the Ionian chain, Rhodes, Symi, Kos & Nyssiros in the Dodecanese chain and Naxos, Milos, Sifnos, Serifos, Paros, Folegandros, Andros, Kimolos, Syros & Kythnos in the Cycladic chain. The game would be to beat the brochure price by purchasing all the elements - flights, transfers, hotels - individually ourselves. It was an easy game to win. A phone, a fax machine and a copy of Lonely Planet's Greek Islands allied to armfuls of brochures and there was no stopping us. We spoke little or no Greek but we got by.

Most people that we knew would book two week holidays. As a teacher, I challenged that immediately. Our first trip to anywhere was three weeks in Greece but it took us quite a long time to move away from the budget airlines. We would just look for the cheapest way to get to Athens, flying through the night on a Friday and arriving early on Saturday morning in time for ferries to the islands. Invariably this would mean getting to Piraeus by 6.30 am on Saturday. Avro was a company we used a lot in those days. It went out of business for a time but is now resurrected. They were and are today a conduit for cheap charter companies. We ended up on Russian, Checkoslovakian as well as ropey, old English planes but we got there and that was all that mattered at the time.

Each year we would spend a couple of weeks on Sifnos and then try to fit in another island on a second trip. Always Athens would be the hub. We found that hard. Three star hotels in the Plaka area were basic to say the least.

The Aphrodite Hotel (now relaunched as Hotel Central) was clean but spartan and rather noisy.

The Plaka Hotel , although much improved now, was similar but had a great view from its roof-top bar:

Our favourite in the 'Budget' days as poor young teachers was the Athos Hotel which was cheap, comfortable and accessible.

Usually, on the way out, we would arrive at 4.00 am at Hellenikon Airport and pray that our luggage would appear within the next hour and a half on one of the carousels. Just to keep us on our toes, they would switch carousels without telling us and the herd of dog tired travellers would roam from one end of the Hall to another. When it did finally appear through the trap door, we would race through the Customs Gates and out to the first Piraeus-bound bus.
If we were lucky, a bus would leave before 6.00 am and we would be in Piraeus harbour for 7.00 am. Absolutely shattered after flying through the night, we would try to catch a little sleep on a port side bench only to be woken up by the rough tongue of a stray dog looking for company. Tickets were sold from a 'barrow' at the jetty of the ferry in those days. It was a roughly scribbled paper counterfoil for a tourist class seat on the F/B Ionian or the F/B Kimolos. These were to be replaced by the F/B Sifnos Express from Ventouris and the F/B Milos Express. Most of these boats were ex-cross Channel ferries. The Milos Express, for example, was built by Swan Hunter in 1969 and finally went to the breakers' yard in 2003.

F/B Milos Express
The ferry would dock at about 6.00 am and we would be allowed on by 7.00 am. Tourist Class provided aircraft-type seats in huge lounges which would rapidly fill up with hoards of incredibly noisy and active Greek families who would fill rows of seats with bags and then go off walking round the boat. This would go on throughout the six hour journey to Sifnos via Kythnos and Serifos. Leaving by 8.30 am, we would be at Sifnos harbour by 2.00 pm although that last 40 minutes from Serifos always seemed so slow and long.

View from the Ferry of Sifnos Harbour

On dry land, we dragged our bags down the port road and past the waterside tavernas now in full flow with midday lunches past the ticket office of Agean Thesaurus, past Hotel Stavros and then on past the 'Supermarket' of Moshka & Apostolis, past Joy's Ice Cream Parlour, past the Jewellers and the Boomerang Newsagency, past Pizza John on one side and the Captain's Bar and Captain Andreas' Fish Restaurant on the other, past the tacky tourist trinket shops, Sifnos Car Rental and Dionyssos Restaurant and Disco all the way to Hotel Kamari where we stayed and were looked after by the fearsome Margharita - Stavros' Mother.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Early Experiences in Greece

After our first three weeks in Zakynthos, we were hooked for life. We sometimes have looked back and regretted that but there was nothing we could do. We were in love with the feel and smell of Greek Island life. The cock crowing in the early morning sunlight; the donkey braying across the valley, the goat bell tinkling on its way up the mountain, the monotonous, melodious, gravelly rise and fall of the ebbing sea on the shore; the unbelievable cacophony of ciccadas in the oleanders; Greeks shouting at Greeks as if they were on separate islands and had to make themselves heard, the throaty roar of a motorbike bouncing off the mountain side; the scent of citrus and cinnamon mingling with frying oil and acrid tobacco: all these things and more combined to entice us, seduce us, encapture us for ever.

And then, of course, there was the sun - that mystical giver of life. As William Blake wrote:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

Nothing so poetic, I'm afraid. For us the sun is not Yorkshire. We sought it out for that reason. The sun was a central reason for choosing Greece. We tried Zakynthos (1981), Corfu (1982), Naxos and Milos (1983) and then while staying in Britain in 1984, I began to send for Greek Holiday brochures. I was looking at the brochure from Freedom Holidays and a topless girl caught my eye.

She was illustrating an island in the Cyclades called Sifnos. I decided that instant we had to visit and, in 1985, we went for two weeks in June. We loved everything about this beautiful island. In 1986 we went again in June (booking through Timsway Travel) and then returned under our own steam in the August of that year. August 1986 marked the turning of the tide. Never again did we book anything approaching a 'package'. The usable internet was still ten years off but I would do the analogue version of 'search'. The newspapers and travel agents shelves would be scanned for every possible company providing Greek Holiday travel. Every brochure would be sent for. Increasingly that was narrowed down to every 'specialist Greece' brochure but, even so, there were up to twenty of them. Perhaps you will remember some of them:
You will see that only three of them are still in business.