Kea: trip report

I’m not always supremely confident on my own. Like most people in a group situation I can hide with other people. Just me on my own can be hard to get used to. The internal monologue going all over the place with the little voice of fear and doubt! But I like my own company, I enjoy being alone – not lonely, but happy on my own. Making all the decisions alone doesn’t happen as often when you are part of couple. Especially when you are one half of an indecisive couple – ‘shall we eat here? shall we go there?’ – we both respond with the ever-placid “I’m easy – whatever you’d prefer”. So when G got whisked off for a week, I was faced with the prospect of being left to my own devices and decisions! I initially thought eating a lot of cheese would be high on my agenda, but after thinking about it properly I saw this as an opportunity to do some solo travelling, a vacation with myself. Genius and still likely to involve at least making decisions involving Feta!

G was asked to go on a Paths of Greece mission to uncover some old paths in the north of the mainland, and with this time I wanted to go somewhere in the Cyclades that was simple to get to. Narrowing it down was a case of studying the ferry timetables. I chose Kea because it has some really scenic countryside as well as lots of hikes, museums to visit and bays to swim laps in, pretty little streets I can get lost in, and coffee shops I can write in…Oh I’ve just described almost everywhere in Greece! On Friday I waved G off on his internal flight to Thessaloniki, from there he was heading on the bus out to Kozani in the Western Macedonia region, all set for a big week-long hiking adventure to discover old trails and map out a hiking network. Our neighbour Niko lived in Kozani and gave G a pep talk before he headed off, explaining how in the winters it would take 6 hours to clear the roads to get to the factories, with vast coal mines and power stations that supply most the country’s electricity. From our conversations this week, I have heard some crazy things that G has experienced; from wild dogs, to goat farmers and even deer living in monasteries, they all deserve their own tales. It’s a fascinating region of what deserves to be called ‘real Greece’…If you follow him on Instagram you’ll know what I mean!  If you’d asked me 12 months ago would G ever get involved in something like this, hiking 12 hours a day and adventuring round with the Paths of Greece guys in a beat-up jeep, I would have said ‘NO WAY’. He’s proved me totally wrong and is a legend for it.

So he’s doing hard work for a good cause and I get to take myself on vacation. I appreciate the very speed at which time flies and these six months in Greece are no exception, so not wanting to forsake a missed opportunity I book a trip to Kea, one of our neighbouring islands.

It is a different type of island – yes, part of the Cyclades in name but not in style. As it’s very close to Athens, with regular boats from the mainland port of Lavrio, I hear that plenty of wealthy Athenians have country homes there and that it gets busier on weekends and especially in August when most Greeks take their holidays. Luckily I’m going there mid-week in July, eh? I wanted to stay in Ioulida (or Ioulis) as it is one of those classic Chora towns perched up high, but has none of the Cycladic white and blue houses we associate with these islands, an altogether different architectural style, more medieval and neoclassical with red tile roofs. In fact is seems to have more in common with northern Greece visually, and it has a similarity to towns I’ve visited on its neighbouring island, Andros.

It’s super tricky finding a place there normally, nevermind when you decide to book a few days in advance. There isn’t any hotels or apartment complexes in the town, although it looks like more are springing up along the beach areas and in the port, so I resorted to AirB&B. I have been having a bit of a moral dilemma about this recently, especially as this model is having negative effects on rentals for long term tenants. This is being felt especially in Athens, where subletted apartments are changing hands for a cheap amount, then AirB&B landlords are raking it in on a per night basis. Do the math, if you can get a basic apartment on a 12 month lease for 300euros per month and charge 30euros a night – there is serious (tax-free) cash to be made.  Now these kooky apartments in run down areas being tarted up cheaply for AirB&B, may have been the ones young people would have been renting, artists, creatives, you know the lifeblood of a city before gentrification kicks in? Imagine if Airb&b had been around at this scale when Hackney and Shoreditch was on the rise…who would have been able to live there? The sad fact is the sharing-economy is turning areas of cities into ghost-blocks of apartments packed full of short term tenants, while young people, who have been hit hard by the economic crisis are unable to snap up a cheap apartment. Like other cities, this has been cottoned onto by the Greek government who have only last week announced a taxation regime to combat the 3 million visitors estimated to be staying in AirB&B’s in 2017. Sadly, unless these lettings get included in tax filing, the only ones who benefit from the extra income are landlords and Silicon Valley profit margins. Anyway, I can see it both ways  – the Airb&B model works because it provide spaces to stay where there isn’t a hotel or tourist infrastructure – so a local renting a room out, as has been done for decades in Greece, very much meets this demand. For a fairly small island but regular connections to the mainland, it doesn’t get a ton of tourists. It has a steady influx of Athenian homeowners and families who have second homes there – so has enough hotels and apartments to meet the tourists it does attract. But I wasn’t having any luck on the regular websites and agencies and am certainly not in a position to pay over 100 euros for a room that I’d need a car to get to! AirB&B delivered the goods at a budget price, so this time it wins.

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On the whole solo travelling is expensive, there’s no one to split things with (and share plates – yep, food portion problems!)  Hopping on a ferry at Syros was simple and I managed to tie in the times to the Hellenic Seaway’s Artemis boat on its regular inter-Cyclades loop – it’s slow boat and seems a bit more of a stinker than usual ferries. The engines pump out their fumes just above the outside deck where the seating area is and I always like to be out on deck if possible. Having travelled from Andros to Syros on the Artemis last year, I knew what to expect. It was a quiet and serene journey, the sun bobbing down into an orange glow just as we sailed past Kythnos. I shall rename it a sunset cruise, complete with Spanakopita for dinner. With the sun setting and the meltimi wind whipping my hair into my face, I thought life doesn’t get more glamorous than this!

As anticipated the Artemis travels to its own timetable, not uncommon for it to steadily build up a delay of hours over the course of its 12 hour inter-island loop. By the time I’d read for a while, spied on all the other passengers, stared out to sea and texted a few friends we had reached Kea by 11.30pm, close to 2 hours late. But my kind host, Irini texted to say she’d be waiting and not to worry. Phew, my next focus was the taxi I needed to get from the port Korissia up to the Chora where I was staying (Chora and Ioulis or Ioulida are interchangable names for the same town). As the ferry disembarked I focussed on where the taxi’s were waiting, after our experience at Andros last year, when we faltered at the taxi rank, then were forced to wait ages and then share one. I now make no apologies for being Greek about this – just get in the first taxi you see, any hesitation and looking for a queue is far too British. ‘Snooze you lose’. I was only carrying a small rucksack so sloughed straight into the first taxi, beaming “kalispera, sti Chora, parakelo!” as I landed on the back seat. ‘Ah, yes, no problem, please wait while I see” (this is something I’m used to now, I try to speak Greek, you hear my Greek-lish accent and reply in English- endaxi) He wandered up and down the disembarking passengers for a minute to see if anyone else was heading the same way and then headed back, resigned he wasn’t getting any other fares on this one. Sharing a taxi to the same destination is common practice in Greece, the difference being that all parties still pay the same fare, rather than splitting the cost…might not make sense to us but is very accepted practice here. As he hurtled up the dark hillside road, windows rolled down and dance music blared (that Rhianna track, Wild Thoughts, it’s everywhere, right?) I immediately noticed the smell of pine trees heady in the air which was so fresh and different to the smell in Syros.  Arriving at a new town at night alone can be a bit daunting but I saw Irini waiting as I got out the taxi, she was really sweet.  As it was a bit of mission to get to the house, through stepped streets and cobbled pathways winding upwards, we were both chatting away and getting out of breath! As we passed a few tavernas and cafés people greeted Irini, so it felt nice to be here with a local. She explained she works in the bakery and yes, she left delicious biscuits and cakes in the kitchen for me! The little 1 bed place was perfect, all whitewashed walls, and up-cycled antique furniture, and most importantly a view over the town. As it was late I just sat enjoying the view of lights twinkling below and people wandering around in the cooler evening air, before getting a good night’s sleep.

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I awoke early and was astounded by how beautiful the view was in daylight, the red terracotta roofs and all the houses a jumble of pinks, whites and stone hues. Each little building entirely different from the next in size and stature. The view spread out from the town all the way down the valley with its stepped terraces to the coast. The sun rises behind the village and because of the shape of the town built like an amphitheatre you hear the bells from all the churches, people waking up, opening shutters and chatting in the traffic-free streets. After enjoying a coffee (and biscuit) on the balcony, I felt like I needed a real introduction to the Kea and ventured out to explore before it got too hot.

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Although I was convinced I might have to leave a trail of cake crumbs to find my way back, I was too busy chatting when I arrived to notice where we were heading! But I soon got my bearings, down to the plateia and the impressive town hall building, finding a supermarket and buying some essentials to get me through a work day. That’s the beauty of being laptop and phone based, I can quite literally work anywhere with the internet and phone signal.

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After a day’s work on a super comfy chair and desk set up, I headed off to find the elusive Lion of Ioulis as the sun was low in the sky. Legends tell a few different tales about why this Lion has been carved from stone – some say it was carved as a reminder of the wild lions which once roamed in the countryside, others say it is a temple to remember the mimic tale about Kea’s origin as the island of water, known as Ydrussa and had a beautiful population of water nymphs, because of its beauty the Gods were jealous and sent a lion to destroy everything and the island dried up. Then to make it sound even more bizarre, as are most myths are with a twist, the islanders then begged Apollo’s son, Aristaeus for help, and built a temple to Zeus – the leader of all gods. This pleased them all and Zeus brought rain back to the island – therefore the Lion statue is a timely reminder of destruction and fate from the Gods. Perhaps that is why he seems so wise and weird!.

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I didn’t know all of this before I set off on the easy and well signposted 20 min walk from the centre of the village, but read up about it when I arrived. The lion is meant to date back as far as 600BC, yet signs have 1963 engraved on them protecting the surrounding space, with a gate and some whitewashed steps. So there must been a decision at some point to turn the lion into a tourist attraction. You do feel an eerie sense of stepping back in time on this walk, as you exit the village and past a few abandoned houses, it turns into just a cobbled pathway, past an impressive church and graveyard full of white marble statues to honour the dead. The lion sits surrounded by stepped terraces, a few donkeys and goats in the fields. It was a real place of solitude on an evening, apart from the animals, I didn’t see another soul.

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After such peace, I headed back into town to be amongst other people. I’d decided to take myself on a date for a drink after sunset, and then dinner in the highly recommended ‘Piatsa’ ran by a man called Yainnis. It’s the first place you come to through the ‘entrance’ to the Chora, only 8 or so tables outside and known for being good value local dishes. I happily sat in the midst of things. They were showing the football on the TV, so in between the taking orders, all the blokes from the taverna and the neighbouring cafe kept popping in to see the score.  A lively place as people met and took up tables, I enjoyed watching people pass while I sipped local red wine (not bad), sweet tomato-ey veal stew and an all important horiatiki salata , with Feta, of course.

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That’s the problem with eating alone, normally I’d have shared a side or starter, mixing and matching dishes to try things – I stuck with two dishes and it probably was a little bit too much. It was a great evening, I more or less was left alone to enjoy my own company, after all a female wearing a wedding ring wouldn’t exactly be the first person people would speak to. The waiter /owner was kind and even humoured my ordering in Greek. I’d highly the hearty food. I was alone but certainly didn’t feel lonely at all.

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The next day I wanted to try out one of the hiking trails and Route 1 seemed the easiest as it started in the Chora and ended at the beach in Otzia – which would be a perfect spot for a swim and lunch, before getting the bus back. I wanted to have a look at the Archaeological Museum first before setting off and I’m really glad I did, as it was my only opportunity because it is only open 8-3pm. At a bargain 2Euro entrance fee it is well worth a trip, on two floors it holds a fine collection of artefacts from various excavations on  the island. Of particular interest was the statues found at Ayia Irini near the port village of Korissia. These 60 + fragments of Neolithic Goddesses or ‘Sisters of Kea’ as they have been called, were found a temple and have been the subject of much mystery. They are ranging from 6ft in height to smaller versions, large bosomed, mostly headless and wearing skirts and necklaces. They are quite a striking collection and I perhaps gave them extra gravitas as I’m reading The Power by Naomi Alderman, a rather dark and violent alt-reality about the shift to a female-centric society. If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean, if not – READ IT! These Goddesses certainly got me thinking that there could have been whole tribes of people in early civilisation that not only worshiped goddesses but were led and governed by female warriors.

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Inspired by all that I grabbed a delicious tyripita (cheese pie) from the bakery, loaded up on water bottles and set off on the trail. I really enjoy walking on my own as it gives me plenty of time to escape the chattering mind and get out into nature – although I do walk with a ‘spider/snake-stick’ which means that if you see me from a far I appear to be either brandishing a magic wand or blessing the path in front of me like an ordained priest. Really, I’m just waving the stick about to prevent me walking into cobwebs…ugh, I think (and hope) snakes are too lazy in high summer to attack! The paths were well marked and took me down from the Chora, past the Lion again and onto the spring at Veniamin which is a huge area with a marbled plaque and rows of drinking troughs. The Spring is still active and there is a huge oak tree for shade, from here the path is cobbled and flanked by dry stone walls and trails gently downward into the valleys.

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Originally this path would have connected the town to goods and traders ships which came in at the small inlet of Otzias. After nearly 2 hours walking (and no spider interactions – just a cricket flew into me and I yelped) I reached the beach – I hadn’t passed anyone apart from a woman on a donkey, presumably heading into town on her trusty steed.

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Some aspects of Kea really surprised me with its traditional ways, like donkey’s still being used for transport and the quietness of village life still going on in the same way as it has done for decades, despite being so close to the mainland. There is also a stark contrast such as the number of new build houses dotting the landscape once you head out of the valley, which made me feel a little sad when so many gorgeous building lay in need of repair in the Chora. But like everything, you can’t stand in the way of progress, especially when the country is still recovering from the economic crisis, although this week saw the reintroducing of Greek Bonds, a first since 2014 and some say a sign of a return to growth. I really liked the beach at Otzia, gravelly near white sand and shelving calm sea, sun loungers at one end and free benches at the other. The beach has a few apartments and hotels scattered around it, all fairly busy with a mix of mostly Greeks, French and Dutch. After a swim and sunbathe  I treated myself to a salad for lunch at Taverna Anna and sipped Fix beer in the shade while I waited for the bus back up to town.

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In addition to spending some time in Kea writing, I also wanted to keep practising my photography skills – amateur at the best of times, but G lent me his decent camera so I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets snapping away at decadent ironwork, abandoned houses and doorways…a growing obsession with the decaying grandeur of neo-classical buildings. Luckily Syros is prime hunting ground for such palaces, so I expect this interest to grow.

I spent my last night on Kea watching the world go by from the comfort of the outdoor seats at En Lefko on the main street. The town isn’t over-crowded as such, but does fill up after 9.30pm when people start taking up tables in the tavernas. I bagged a spot in the Kalofagadon restaurant overlooking the picturesque town hall. Enjoying another excellent dinner, this time tasty lamb chops and horta, followed by watermelon. This also scuppered my plans of having an ice-cream on the wander back to the house! I mean, what kind of holiday doesn’t have ice-cream factored in as a daily activity! Tsk – I had let myself down!

The next day I had blind faith in the taxi I had ‘booked’ by chatting to one of the drivers in the square, as the time crept on, 5 minutes ticked into 10 and I considered my options; 1) miss the ferry back to Syros – costly, 2) wander over to the table of men in the café and beg for a lift to the port, and before I had time to think of a third, my trusty steed arrived, no not the taxi driver I actually made this arrangement with, but the one who I met when I arrived. Phew! And before I knew it there I was back on the Aqua Spirit with a breakfast of Spanakopita, from Korissia’s traditional wood-fired bakery and a freddo espresso to enjoy on the journey back to Ermoupoli.

For those of you who pay attention, yes, I did have 3 pastry based meals in 4 days – don’t judge – I also could have had WAY more cheese.

Sadly, that might be my last Aqua Spirit journey as the boat is due to retire at the end of the month – I asked the ships purser when it was changing to the new boat (the ex-, he was vague “next month, sometime”. But having travelled on it quite a bit this summer, I was pleased to get the nod of recognition from the crew. They walk around the ship when it gets into each port to make sure the lost tourists get off at the right stop. At Kythnos he did his usual walk through, looked at me and said “Syro, neh?. I smiled ‘Neh, Syro’, and kept that smile long enough for the boat to reach Ermoupolis and see its twin hills swing into view. There she is, the Queen of the Cyclades and thought to myself, ‘home’…

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School’s out for summer!

I hear from friends and family that it’s the end of term in the UK and finally schools are out for summer. Whenever I think of the end of term I hear the Alice Cooper song screeching “Skools out for EVER!‘” Schools here in Greece finish in mid-June, so for them it really is a long stretch of holiday before going back in in September. The local children are always playing around the village, zooming through the streets on BMX bikes, playing games and swimming on the beaches. It seems idyllic compared to when I think back to my childhood when those six magical weeks felt like an eternity of days spread out on the horizon. Mine were mostly at the mercy of UK summer weather and day trips to the coast, August bank holidays in Blackpool – and the longevity of the family joke “Beans or tomato’s, duck? Always delivered in a thick Black Country accent to impersonate the eccentric B&B landlady we stayed with near the North Pier aka ‘the posh end’ of Blackpool. Every few years these six weeks were punctuated by a holiday to Greece with my family. It was 1993 when we visited Crete and I came back with blond sun bleached streaks in my hair and freckles that joined up on my nose. There I was at age 11, the summer before starting secondary school when I developed a growing penchant for Greece. It was like the first kiss of a lifelong holiday romance with a country I just can’t break up with.

Also, look how cool I was with those 90s shorts on and I still dress the same…summer fashion has gone full circle!

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As holiday countdown starts for most families and the newspapers report on the gloom of fluctuating currencies (yes, pretty dire at the moment – every cent counts), it also the time of year wherever you turn there is a helpful list of things to pack ‘for the capsule holiday wardrobe’ and things that are the ‘must-have‘ fashion items for this summer. We met a couple last week who are travelling around the world over 12 months, starting with Europe and are here in Syros for a month. They only have hand luggage – yes, for a year! It’s really made me think about necessities. Since realising I have clothes and beauty items that I have discovered are entirely surplus to requirements. I have a pang of regret like I was tricked by that tiny voice of consumerism when packing for six months in Greece. A lot of what I brought was totally needed: jogging bottoms, yoga pants, jumpers, wool socks and a Northface fleece – absolutely needed for the cold Spring nights (and days, like the sullen afternoon in April I went out for a walk to the Aquarium in Kini just to stay warm). Then a lot really wasn’t necessary; dressy stuff just feels pointless –there are 3 dresses I may not even wear, just too ‘showy’, earrings and jewellery doesn’t get much of an airing, also that orange pair of H&M sandals – not even comfortable. Honestly though, most things clothes-wise seem to get a good use – but there is a full on staple of bikini/vest/denim shorts and flip-flops in regular rotation. But for anyone packing for a week or two in Mediterranean climes I would heartily recommend the less is more approach –think basics, mix and match dresses for day and evening, comfy trousers, shorts, vests and t-shirts – no heels, nothing bulky – cardie/jacket for the evening chill. A lovely friend of mine whatsapped me photos of her holiday purchases while in a sweaty high street changing room on Oxford Street – I tried to be constructive but shuddered at the horror of pre-holiday shopping!

Summer beauty routine
In the past 4 months away I have not only relinquished the overstuffed beauty bag with its various lotions and potions, stripping back to basics. First to go was my love of garish nail varnish, which just cannot withstand the reality of handwashing loads and daily applications of mosquito repellent, as well as gardening. I don’t miss it at all and my nails have never been in better shape – I have also ‘almost’ quit biting the skin around my fingers as a nervous habit…almost. Given that I thought I’d have to go to a hairdresser at some point, I have instead decided to let my hair go and do what the bloomin’ heck it likes. Apart from a treat of frizz ease every once in a while and some ‘silver-purple-shampoo’, my hair seems to relish the humidity and stays soft, in salty tousled curls. I have reached what beauty editors could describe as ‘untamed beach hair’ without the help of any products. Okay, I admit there may have been some lemon juice involved but that’s all-natural! The hair-straighteners still mock me from afar, having only been used once to ‘iron’ a shirt. All you really need is basic shampoo’s, a better grade conditioner and decent shower gel. Most branded beauty items are expensive here – nivea – johnsons – elvive,  all around twice the cost of at home. So I frugally scour the supermarkets and Lidl for special offers, having recently discovered the joys of the French-brand Le Petit Marseillais which is reasonably priced and paraben free, so I am embracing their shower gel and moisturiser. My other essential item is bio-oil- few drops on the face for a treat or dose on any dry patches of legs, elbows etc. Less is definitely more. Sometimes I think that my lax attitude to personal appearance is weather dependent – it’s hot, so why bother. But I think I have also been slightly freed from the tyranny of my appearance. I generally spend less time near a mirror, maybe I ‘look’ but I don’t ‘see’ my face under the same level of scrutiny I once gave it. Every day back in London you are accidentally confronted with your own reflection from a range of unflattering angles, from glimpses in the train door, the chrome toaster in the work kitchen, shop windows, hopping on the bus and the under the neon lights of the tube, then reflected down through ceilings as you stand on escalators, the revolving door of the office, and especially in the work toilet mirror checking your eyeliner in between meetings…it’s impossible not to be horrified with your sallow skin and tired eyes every hour of the day. But here, I have a mirror in the bathroom and one in the bedroom – and they don’t get much attention. Not that I have somehow lost interest, I think it just doesn’t matter. I might wear mascara once a fortnight and go ‘BOOM’ that makes your eyeslashes POP! But I like my lines, my ruddy red cheeks, the freckles that have joined up and the wild-hair (I saw a photo G took and said, “wow I have actually turned into Charlie Dimmock” and was quite pleased). The downy blond hair on my arms and legs is so bleached, I couldn’t bear to mess with it and I went through a phase of not shaving because I had a theory that the mossie’s bit hairy legs less often…I was wrong!  I seem to be reminded of the First Aid Kit song lyrics to ‘Heaven knows’ which captures this kind of daily obsession women face about their faces, especially as we age; “you spent a year staring into a mirror, another one trying to figure out what you saw, paid so much attention to what you’re not, you have no idea who you are”. I am about to start reading Selfie by Will Storr – so expect further thoughts on this soon. Anyway I digress – this piece was meant to be about summer beaches and bloody well not worrying what you look like in a bikini and it’s gone all over the place.

On body-confidence
I think I hate that word, ‘body-confidence’ it jars with me – wear what you want and enjoy the beach. Having spent a fair amount of time on the beach this summer, I can make the following observations from the shores of Greece.

All bodies are ‘beach-bodies’ and the Greeks are a nation poised for summer at all times. They enjoy the hot weather in all its glory, the sea, the beach, ready to pose, to swim, to tan (apply your factor please!) and even play slightly annoying bat and ball (the Greeks love this – it’s like a competitive sport!) Also, this year there is particular trend that must be gathering pace across every Mediterranean beach, yes, following on from last-year’s horror that was the inflatable pink flamingo, this year we have an even wider range of inflatable novelties direct from China. So far I have witnessed; ink iced donuts, ice cream lollies, white swans, and even 5ft unicorns (I shall not name the guilty purchasers you know who you are and you loved it!). Please avoid with care or harpoon these nasties at will!

The beach is a microcosm of the world at play. From the perma-tanned aging ‘Adonis’ in his tiny speedos to the teenage boys showing off at beach volleyball, sucking in their six-packs for photos. The pasty-newly arrived-holiday makers with sunburnt shoulders, snoozing after a bottle of retsina at lunch, hands clasping heavyweight novels in the shade.  I have watched elderly couples in their 80s holding hands and helping one another wade into the waves, paddling about without a care in the world. Their creaky joints relieved by the weightlessness in the sea. Ladies swimming in little groups wearing floppy sunhats and gossiping as they tread water – these old-timers care not what they look like, but are proud to be enjoying the sea.  I have seen babies and toddlers scream with both delight and fear as they paddle for the first time and learn to swim on this beach. Teenage girls, veering from shy to flirtatious in their skimpy 2 piece newly purchased swimwear ready to parade and tan. There is a growing trend for very skimpy bikini’s this year, high cut thongs and it takes a kind of sassy bravado to wear this style which I respect. But is surprising how popular they are in such a conservative country such as Greece. Those bums certainly attract attention! I have also seen a fair share of everything else on some of the ‘clothing optional’ beaches. Embracing the full spectrum of shapes, sizes and sheer grandeur of the human form is what being beach ready is all about. The best way to get over the body fascism that is peddled by the fashion industry and clothing lines to sell swimwear, is by celebrating what real bodies look like and what real bodies do. They save lives, make lives, give pleasure and pain, they grow, they heal and most of all, they change.

I am 35, I have cellulite, I am no perfect 10, but quite frankly I have never felt better on the beach. I feel the first step to being comfortable is defining your own body by what it can do rather than how it looks in a bikini – I can swim a kilometre, run a 10k and sometimes, hike up to the top of a mountain without passing out.

No matter what I dress it in, my body would always rather be in the sea than sat on the sidelines.

And wherever you go this summer don’t forget the suncream!

 

 

Folegandros: Ano Meria and the Folk Museum

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There are always two sides to (most of) the islands and Folegandros certainly shows this in its interior village of Ano Meria. The name itself is quite a common one throughout the Cyclades, in fact Ano just means upper and Meria usually translates as side. ‘upper side’ doesn’t sound so romantic but a practical way of differentiating between the villages. In fact there is also an Ano Meria area in Syros which refers to just a few hills on the near-deserted Northern Coast.

As Folegandros has a great little bus service in the peak months, Ano Meria is fairly easy to explore and can be incorporated into many of the hiking trails. Before heading up there we were advised by a friendly café proprietor to ask about the Folk Museum’s opening hours in the municipal building in the Chora. I’m glad we did as it opens everyday in the summer from 5pm to 8pm, it would have been a long wait if we had got the 11am bus as originally planned! When you look at a map it is an area that hugs the main-road for quite a while in the middle of the island which means that you can see the coast from both right and left. The village doesn’t have a central platiea or square so meanders along without a real beginning or end. The bus will do request stops all along this stretch of road and it was good to see plenty of locals were using the bus too. The village houses seem to coalesce around the road and since it began life as nothing more than a simple donkey track, it has a sense of just springing up rather than any grand design. The area is where most of the island’s permanent population reside in the Winter and still home to nearly 150 residents, many of which still have farm land on the terraces and graze animals. As we wandered around we spotted lots of goats, sheep and donkeys. Donkeys are still used along the main road to transport people as well as harvesting crops – so don’t be surprised to see a few tied up along the road. There are three of four taverna’s spread out along the road, as well as a few decent supermarkets selling lost of fresh fruit and local products.

We stopped in a small tavern at the end of the village, before the road to Agios Georgios. After our coffee’s I popped inside to use the WC and was amazed to find hand made models of Greek ferries, I had a quick chat to the man working there who was mad about the ferries and made the models himself. Very impressive!

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Reaching the Museum is fairly easy as its well signposted from the road, the site is set back on a pathway and incorporates all the small jumbled buildings found on traditional themonia-settlements in farming communities. It is free to enter and its supported by the Folegandros Cultural Society, so they just request donations instead of an entrance fee.

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The guides who give each group of visitors a tour round to explain all the buildings and artifacts and their history. We were first to arrive and the young Greek lady who showed us around was superbly knowledgeable and fluent in English, explaining that her grandfather was from the island and she returned from Athens in the summer to work at the museum.

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Firstly you get taken into the oldest preserved farm-buildings which are all set out as they would have been in the 17th Century; it’s a treasure trove of terracotta pots used to store everything from wine to honey and olive oil. Numerous farm tools from this era are on display, the guide also explained the threshing circle using a mule or donkey to walk around to separate the wheat from the chaff.

There was also a grape press where men would stamp on the grapes and a rudimentary channel and tray cut out of stone to collect the liquid.

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She explained the really interesting history about how we all associate Greek houses with being white when really they left them as stone and mud in order to disguise them in the hillside from raiding pirates and invaders. White painting of houses came in later, for environmental reasons, white reflects the sun but it was also part of the large-scale tourism promotion in the mid-20th century and after 1974 all new buildings in Greece had to be repainted white by law. It shows a slightly darker side of how we normally see the Cycladic islands as being postcard perfect.

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The museum has two displays one of the 17th Century farm house and then the 19th Century farmhouse, which is more recognisable with smaller shuttered windows and three basic room, this time an indoor kitchen, living space for weaving and a workshop, as well as a bedroom.

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As you’ll see from the pics, it’s stuffed full of wonderful crafts, and artifacts that offer an insight into life on the island. Our guide explained that most family settlements like this would build a new house when they could and leave the older farmhouse to be turned into storage – which once you know this you start to see how many of the houses in Ano Meria and other villages show this similar evolution over the year; mostly a 1950/60s built house, often build next to an older dwelling – seeing it as more worthwhile to build from scratch than repair and modernise. This is one of the reasons there seems to be few traditional farmhouses from the last century still inhabited…but you do see plenty of the tumble down ones with ‘for sale signs’. The museum site also had a really well tended garden, build on slopes, with some particularly scary scarecrows too.

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The garden had a lemon tree growing in a traditional stone wall shelter to protect it from the ravishing winds – having seen the remnants of these tree-shelters on our walks it all made sense now to protect the trees.

The museum really is an interesting way to while away some time and learn more about the traditions and crafts of rural life in Greece. It is great to see more of the cultural preservation taking place in the islands and efforts to attract tourists who wish to experience and understand the traditions that go with rural life.

There isn’t a website for the museum but some details can be found here

Folegandros – trip report

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Arriving on the ever-reliable Aqua Spirit from Syros into the port at Karavostasis (which I think literally translates as Boat place) is a little underwhelming, one can’t really believe this is it…

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Just 2 rows of old and newer buildings, a small bus shelter and the port police station. Then your eyes scan leftwards and see a tiny beach, all white pebbles and aqua blue sea. No sunloungers in sight, just a few tanned bodies and children jumping in the sea. Bliss!

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We had arranged to stay in the Chora, which is the main town 3km from the port. On an island that is 32 square kilometres and only has three settlements, visitors to the island are clearly wowed by how tiny and barren the landscape feels. We took the trusty island bus up to the Chora,  1.80E a journey and runs every hour or so in peak season, you can see how this is a perfect island to explore on public transport and by foot. Despite this, there numerous mopeds and cars hire places around should you want to, but I did hear that there is still only 1 or 2 taxi’s on the island. It seemed that most hotels and apartments run their own little shuttles picking people up at the port and back to the Chora or the second inland village, Ano Meria.

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I can’t really claim this island is off the beaten track anymore – that might have been truer 10 or 15 years ago, just on the fringe of discovery. But now it’s a bustling place that is evidenced by several new build all-white-boutique-hotels (I have been an observer of the personality-free phenomena in Greece for a few years now – it starts off all white washed, chrome fittings and bleached wood peppered with Instagram-style marketing and tanned bodies). Quite frankly I think it may be a regrettable trend that says nothing of the true eclectic personality of Greece. Blame the Mykono-isation of tourism, ‘build it posh and they will pay’ from Marbella to Amalfi these styled hotels are everywhere. I hope that most travellers to Greece seek something more laidback, a place that tells of history, the land and most importantly its people. Folegandros is a beautiful island, it’s streets are full of colour that juxtaposes the light and shadow, the aquamarine sea, and white pebbles, blue shutters, dark wood and terracotta. You see this on the cobbled streets of the Chora.

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Once the bus had dropped us off we easily found the Anthia Hotel, over the road from the local government building and bus station. We were welcomed into a simple but very clean double room with a ground floor terrace. We were lucky to book a room in advance as we only found this 2 weeks ago, and struggled to find anything for less than 80E a night. The Anthia is a family run place, close to the entrance to the Castro and one of several recently built smaller hotels near the entrance to Pounta Square. Although no stunning views to speak of, I was placated by having plenty of bougainvillea and terracotta pots over-flowing with greenery on the hotels terraces. That is one of the thing that struck me about the island was the sheer dry barrenness of the rocky landscape. The Chora sits 200 metres above the sea perched  in its whitewashed splendour and domed churches, yet below are terraces and miles upon miles of drystone walls that criss-cross boundaries across the horizon, spiraling downwards into the turquise Aegean sea.

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It is almost unfathomable how this land was once cultivated with terraced vineyards, olives and arable land, not to mention the time it must have taken to dig out terraces, and build all the dry stone walls and stone paths that still remain connecting the islands beaches, churches and farming hamlets. Like it’s neighbour Sikinos there is a very raw beauty to this place that hasn’t been changed too much yet by tourism and I hope it stays that way.

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Folegandros appealed to us because of the hiking and the opportunity to explore the villages on the island, Chora and Ano Meria do not disappoint. Chora has a wonderful part of the village with the original Castro (Castle) settlement with its little rows of terraced 2 up 2 down houses – some of which are restored as little houses and some lie abandoned, but this gives a nice mix of life, colours and flowers. You can still see village life going on as it has done for centuries. Just wandering around the village in late afternoon or early morning is a wonderful quiet experience when the shops are closed and just a few people sit in the cafes and taverna’s in the main squares drinking coffee and playing tavli.

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Also like many places in the Cyclades the sunsets are something special and many people walk up to the Panagia church, up an easy 20 minute winding path at the highest point of the village to enjoy the view. After this nightly phenomenon the squares come alive and people jostle for the best table at the bustling taverna’s. It is as if hundreds of people descend on the village from nowhere! But its good to see tourists in such droves, we noticed mostly French, Scandinavians and Italians were there in July.

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The food we enjoyed was matsata, a local pasta of thick deliciously soft ribbons usually served with sweet tomato stew usually with goat, rabbit or rooster. (I enjoyed goat matsata thoroughly!) Most taverna’s brought over caper dip with bread; a delicious salty spread, perfect with olives and cheese.  The islanders are also famous for a soft cheese known as Souroto, which is similar to other local cheeses I had tried in Naxos and Sikinos, each islands gets its own unique version. Luckily the island’s bakeries make delicious cheese pies with Souroto, which are almost foldover pasties with courgette, onions and seasonal herbs like dill and mint. The daily trip to the bakery before we set off on hikes provided tasty and portable lunch options.

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We did two big loop hikes while we were there; the first being from Chora to the beaches and back, we set off at 10am in fairly warm but windy weather, down out past the old well and spring under the cliffs. This part would have been all terraced agricultural land and still retains much of that character and wonder as you wander through.  Once reaching Agios Savvas and crossing over out to the three old windmills above Vorina beach – which is marked as Trail 1 on the ever reliable Topo Map of Folegandros. We decided to make this into circular route by veering across an old trail which was only marked by red dots but curated excellently on this website here

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This trail then took us past the Angali road and up over the hills to an abandoned settlement of Giorgi t’Aga, with the most impressive wild cactus just sprouting free in the middle of an old house. This route didn’t seem as well trodden as we spent time picking our way past overgrown dead plants and weeds. It then joins trail 2 and veers gently down to Agios Nikolaos beach – once an uninhabited hippie beach, now has two tavernas running off generators and people arriving on boat trips. We stayed to swim and eat lunch, having that dreaded conversation no one wants on a day long hike; “Have you got the suncream?” “No, I though you packed it?” then realising it is hanging in a plastic bag back in the hotel room. Yet we had supplies of water and food to last all day, but no way of reapplying suncream! I great fear of my northern skin, I stuck to wearing a cap and tshirt for the rest of the day!

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After enjoying this beach we set off along the well warn path that connects the string of beaches, Galifos with its rooms to rent with no electricity and on to Angali. I understand this was once just a small beach and now grown to a small collection of places to stay and taverna’s, although there isn’t a shop or kiosk, there is bus connection to Chora. We stopped in at the near empty Fira beach for a swim, before starting the late afternoon ascent back to Chora via Christos Church. All of this section is marked on the path with regular ‘FI’ letters (for Fira), so makes it easy to follow back to the main road, although tiring and steep.

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Once on the main road we went past Stavros Church, which has a phenomenal balcony perched over the road. Feeling quite sun-beaten and weary we chose the road way back to Chora – which isn’t terrible as the traffic is fairly sparse and some people still travel by donkey here. Rounding off the walk with ice-cold bottles of Fix beer in a shady café back in the Chora…a good 14km in total meant that that night’s hearty  dinner was well earned, as well as the shots of rakimelo!

Folegandros has plenty of routes to attract both casual and serious walkers, in fact there is decent selection of routes on websites by just searching as well as on marked trails on the Topo Map and a free map of Ano Meria which has a further 4 trails that start and finish in the village. It was actually one of the best served islands for options for walks we have been to for a while – although we didn’t see many other walkers but as it was July this was understandable. In Chora we noticed posters and a stall for a crowd funding campaign ‘Folegandros Routes‘  to formalise the routes and preserve paths, and eventually have architectural plans to build a huge 3km pedestrian walkway, for wheelchair and pushchair access from the port at Karavostatis to the Chora. This seemed like a very ambitious development and one that would require not just a vast amount of investment, environmental surveys and marketing to ensure the nature and character of the island remain preserved for the future. It will be interesting to see if this gets the go-ahead. It also feeds into my pet-peeve about Greek roads – if only there were built with pedestrians in mind, this would mean they can easily be adjusted for wheelchair access if the safe space was already there!

After a more restful day, we then got back hiking a 16km route. Starting with an early bus up to the end of Ano Meria to set out on Trail 5, which was also marked LV towards Livadakia beach. It descends down some incredible views, past ruins of themonia (farmhouse) settlements and distant churches. The quality of the paths and trails are also pretty good with old stone paths, cobbles and steps cut into the rocks. After about 50 minutes walking Livadakia beach is a real sight to behold as you near the cliff edge and it opens up to a spectacular aqua marine inlet and white pebbled bay – with giant 10 foot tall cairns build by some adventurous souls.

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We were’nt alone here either, despite not seeing others on the way – a couple of boats bobbed into sight and dropped people off. The beach doesn’t have much shade or any facilities so do come prepared. After diving in off the rocks into the cooling waters, we enjoyed a lunch of bakery treats and just-in-season nectarines. Once rested we set off and ascended the scary rock steps up the cliff face which despite my vertigo, weren’t as bad as they looked from below! The path then meanders around the hill inland before splitting to go to wither Agia Fotini or the lighthouse at Cape Aspropouda – we went to the lighthouse first as it looked so lonely out there. Built in the early 1900 it has a gothic almost Victorian era turret with a view over the cliffs. It has been unmanned since 1986 when solar powered panels took over from the two lighthouse keepers, since then in its been left in a state of mild neglect and the front shuttered window hangs loose. You can peep in and see old furniture remaining like museum pieces in what was once the bedroom. Pretty spooky and fascinating place to visit, and one imagines how cold and windy a winter night must have been out there!

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After that we hiked uphill back towards the village, over terrace hills and more recently used farmland. Once at Agia Fotina, there is an unfinished road which sadly must have destroyed the old path back to the Windmills in Ano Meria.

After a swift but well needed rest stop for ice-cream at the mini-market we headed through the village and out on the main road towards Vorina beach. Once at the start of the old trail, it gets very steep downhill, but the rocks have been cut into sharp steps so makes the walk do-able but tough. Apparently these were the old steps where mules would bring up rocks cut out of the cliffs for building all the way up to the Chora. This must have been painful and back-breaking work for animals and humans alike! The scramble is worth it as you reach a squally north-facing beach with huge waves and emerald green sea. We didn’t swim properly here but sat in the shallows letting huge waves cool us down and enjoyed the tranquility before preparing for a heart-quickening workout to get back up the steps!

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I’d certainly recommend Folegandros to anyone wanting to get off the beaten track and see a windswept Cycladic island that has developed sensitively in recent years, but doesn’t want to lose its traditional character and nature. As it attracts rather well-heeled types with its ‘boutique-hotels’ in high-season and we found all the accommodation to be a little pricey. But it is certainly a treasure to be explored and offers so much more than a ‘beaches and cocktails’ destination. I’d love to come back in Winter and experience the quiet time, which our hotelier described as “nothing to see, nothing to talk about…I walk through the town and see only cats”. I’d say it sounds perfect!

I’ll follow up with a piece on the wonderful Folk Museum we visited and some more highlights soon…

A summer reading list

Everyone loves a reading list, maybe. I didn’t really start off with a list or even any grand intentions for my capacity to spend time reading, although I did wonder whether a 100 book challenge for these six months might be fun. But soon realised the pain of compiling one might take the joy out of it all. So my reading list is a kind of organic ‘see what happens’ and a bit whimsical, but always open to suggestions and recommendations. Thankfully I was generously given a kindle voucher which has been my savior! 😉

So this is some of what has been keeping me busy over the past few months, and I think it is almost on the order I read them. Given that I read Zorba over a 2 week period and its less than 250 pages I wouldn’t exactly say I am powering through these!

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazanzakis – a beautiful, heart-breaking and insightful read by the Cretan author. If you have seen the film, or even just think about the Zorba Dance whne you think of Greece, I implore you to also read the book as it is a marvelously poetic piece of work. The novel contrasts the intellectual life of thoughts and words we get from the narrator, with the actions and mayhem of Alexis Zorba, who becomes the inspiration for the narrator to realise he must live life to the full. This is where G and I get the ‘be more Zorba’ mantra from. Also Kazanakis writes the novel with a Greek protagonist narrating which actually works much better than the downtrodden English man in the film version. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to understand some more of this beautiful county and its changing landscape in Greek rural society in the late 1940s. It’s not a ‘fun’ read but it’s a great adventure nonetheless.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – amazingly well written autobiographical book by a brain surgeon from the US. It charts his life and death after learning that he has terminal cancer, the thought processes it takes to accept and challenge his fixed ideas about his life plan. The beauty of his memoir is in fact how Kalanithi learns to how to live by accepting his own death.  I heartily recommend this to anyone looking for something contemplative to read and think about holding on to precious moments. I bawled by eyes out for at least the last 10 pages. Amazing and life affirming.

Death by Any Other Name (short stories) and For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life by the Greek author Daphne Kapsali were quickly devoured over days! Beautifully written, thought provoking short non-fiction life reflecting pieces mostly set on the Cycladic island of Sifnos. Her first self published work 100 Days of Solitude is a collection written when Kapsali gave up her life in London and spent 100 days in Sifnos, writing a hundred little reflections on being herself and creating the freedom to live as a writer.  You can tell I love it, huh?

Talking of books based in Greece there seems to be a theme emerging. I downloaded The Illegal Gardener by Sara Alexi – quite a good fictional story set to a backdrop of an English woman escaping to Greece after a divorce and finding an unexpected alliance with a gardener she employs and befriends. He is an illegal immigrant from India and it contrasts her life of ease with his painful journey and struggle. I also powered through Girl Gone Greek by Rebecca Hall one afternoon at the beach. Perfect accompaniment  to waves lapping at the shore; a light-hearted tale of an English teacher spending the summer in northern Greece and discovering new things about Greece and challenging her own ways of thinking. On a recommendation I downloaded Passing Thyme by the journalist  Gordon Coxhill who it seems lot f people in Syros know as he spent many years living in the 90s – it’s a nicely written book, and captures a time before many people ventured here but probably only appeals to people who know and love Syros, or those who look back fondly about ‘the good old day’s’ of Greece’. It is well written and evocative, but has some ‘tittle-tattle’ aspects of people he knew and I can imagine not all were favoured by his rendition of events when it was published. It’s pathos and tragedy reminded me of “This Way to Paradise” by Willard Manus, which is of a similar memoir style but set in Lindos, Rhodes in the 1960s.  Whilst in the ‘Greek’ phase I was gifted a paperback copy of Who pays the ferry man? By Michael Bird, its based on his 1980s TV show set in Crete as an English man returns to find lost love and settle old scores after fighting there with the Greek partisans during WW2. I’ll honestly say I hope the tv series was better than the books – its incredibly predictable and a bit stale!

 I also powered trough the Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan; again a perfect feel-good tale when you need a fascinating page-turner with mystery as well as romantic twists and turns.

I have also dipped back into Dave Eggers who I love his earlier work like  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which is his memoir about raising his younger brother in San Francisco following the deaths of both of their parents, as well as Zeitoun, based in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and You shall know our velocity.  So with good confidence, I read The Circle from 2013. It was a suburb contemporary novel about internet data dominance in a fictionalized silicon valley social media giant. A great thought provoking and timely read about reality, technology and the internet’s dominance in our lives. I have read that is is now a film starring Emma Watson as the protagonist Mae…mmm, I don’t think I‘ll rush to see it. So feeling in an Egger-esque mood I then picked up The Heroes of the Frontier, not quite post- apocalyptic but set very on the edge of societal breakdown, his narrative is led by a tough female mom of two, excellently characterized and like Mae in the Circle, Eggers seems to be able to tap into the female psyche and write strong believable protagonists, and is something his writing suits.

The Girls by Emma Cline was just outstanding, and I know I am way behind the curve as this was touted as the summer read of 2016! Cline is incredibly talented, whether she is worthy of the status bestowed upon her by publishers only time and follow up novels will tell.  But here she captures the heart of teenage rebellion in her masterful fictional retelling of the 70s cult Manson murders. It’s creepy and complex, the dark scenes of distress that really get under your skin with the way she characterizes female teenage desire and obsession. I can’t recommend highly enough!

There has been  a few  false starts with books that I hope I will end up finishing such as A Brief history of Seven Killings by Marlon James (just didn’t grab me enough) and Zero K by Don Delillo (I struggled with empathizing with the strange protagonist in a sci-fi tale of brain preservation, felt coldly unemotional)– both had such good promise (and rave reviews).

I am just about to finish the mammoth American Gods by Neil Gaiman – I quite enjoyed stardust and given that will be a TV show it is certainly getting mass-appeal. From the outset there is an enticing premise in this epic novel with Gaiman’s magical play on myths and legends – steeped in Norse mythology, Far Eastern legends and even leprechauns, Gods from the old world have been living silently in America for centuries and now threatened by modern monsters of worshiped by the masses, they must battle it out as ‘the storm’ is coming! Sounds quite far-fetched, but its protagonist is a mortal ex-con named Shadow, he seems like an archtypical muscle hero but as the story unfolds Gaiman weaves him into a fairly interesting character. Perhaps this will make me want to watch the show too – the novel is quite episodic with grand battle scenes, so I expect it will translate quite well to TV.

Other books I am itching to read this summer are:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Capital by John Lanchester (a friend gave it to me so I have to read it)
  • Eleni by Nicholas Gage ( a Greek classic)
  • Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

I think the kindle works well for some books, but I do enjoy the feel of a real book in my hands. Luckily, there is also a book swap in the village so will definitely sniff some books out there too!

I’d love more recommendations, especially classics I should try. Why not, I think I have the time…