Syros: walking back in time

Last Friday we set off on a walk so it ended up creating its own nickname “extremehikingfridays” which obviously lends itself to some funny hashtags! At first didn’t mean for the day to be completely absorbed by a hike, but as we were enjoying exploring so much we ended up doing a full loop back to Kini, around 20k in total. Extreme-hiking lived up to its name!

We set off on the first bus from Kini to Ermoupolis at 9am, with a packed lunch, fruit and snacks and plenty of water to keep us hydrated. The route chosen would take us North out of the town, passing tiny hamlets of Richopo, crossing into Ferekidh’s Cave, up to the original settlement of Kastri and then onto the excavation site of Chalandriani. This combined a few of the existing trails mapped as 1, 2 and 3 which we thought gave us plenty of options for finishing it up with either a taxi or walk back to Ermoupoli.

The weather was warm and breezy, so not too hot for walking. But the first section was the ascent through Vrodado and the steps nearly defeated us!

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This leads up to Anastasi which is known as the Church of the Resurrection of the Savior. This blue domed Orthodox church sits astride the hill, opposite the hill top of Ano Syros where Agios Georgios the Catholic Church holds court. Anastasi is dedicated to “Resurrection of the nation”. Built in 1874 by the local architect Dimitris Eleftheriadis, it is very impressive with a mix of Byzantine and neoclassical elements. Once past the 200 step climb we set of walking out of the town through an area called Dhili. Here the houses are a mix of very old and newer constructions, and as you leave the confines of the urban area they start to have more land for agricultural purposes. Once we reached a Panacrandos Church, this is where the path of trail 1 started – the path is well marked and views here are spectacular.

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Outwards over the Aegean to Tinos and Andros, taking in Cape Armonos and Agios Demetrios which is the byzantine church looking out to sea and spectacular if you get to pass it on a ferry.  After a while on this barren stone path, we came across a tiny hamlet of Richopo where there are signs to Ferekidh’s Cave (or Pherecydes of Syros as he is also known). A philosopher known as one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, his work contemplated the importance of time (chronos) by using a heliotrope (sun-dial)  village of San Michalis (yep where they make Syro’s famous cheese).  but there is a bust of him in Ano Syros as well. His philosophical musings discussed metamorphosis and the underworld, as well as teaching Phythagras.

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Pherecydes was a complex character and very little of his written work remains – Scholars disagree on his work so this could be why signs point to his cave, yet the cave doesn’t receive historical site protection. This possibly goes some way to explain why the powers that be decided to build the municipal dump and recycling-centre less than a mile downhill from it! Which has sadly resulted in a million plastic bags are carried away on the wind from the dump and end up littering the amazing path around the cave – this was just such mess and made me pretty angry.

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You get plastic bags with every single purchase here. It would make a huge difference if they’re use was reduced and the authorities did more to protect the rubbish from blowing out of the site and ruining the island. Rant over!

You’ll see from the pics, it is an amazing cave. A real place of contemplation and solitude.

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From here we scaled inland to Plati Vouni, which is a rural settlement of themonia (houses) closely built together – many households still work on the land, keeping goats and chickens, bring water up from the wells and natural springs. We even spotted a few circular threshing floors as well, although at this time of year all the hay and wheat had been collected. Apart from electricity cables this area would have changed very little in the past 50 years, being very similar to Folegandros and other Cycladic rural villages we have walked through.

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Passing down through a valley we headed out to coast again on route 3, losing our way slightly as we were following this immensely valuable description of the walk. Reaching a lonely house, then the trail leads down and out to the headland to reach the remote beach of Ghilsoura. Even though remote, without a road to it or electricity cables, the house was occupied by a Greek family enjoying a drink on their terrace. We misjudged and took the turn too soon – luckily the family realised what we had done as we tromped through their land, and started waving and pointing us towards the right path! We exchanged pleasantries and thanks. If it wasn’t for their intervention, I am not sure where we would have ended up.

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The beach at Ghilsoura is magnificent and remote, with pristine pebbles lining the shore – we took a dip here and enjoyed our picnic. This would have been one of the two beaches invaders and pirates landed at when the only settlement of Syros was at the Kastri. We looked around at the back of beach where the trail was meant to rise up to the Kastri, but the path is almost completely hidden! It doesn’t make itself known until you are right infront of it and see the red arrows marking the path. The Kastri rises from the top of the summit making it the perfect place to spot any threats and by time any invader reached the top, they’d be tired!.

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Dating back to the Early Cycladic period the Kastri would have been not only a fortress to protect the islanders, but also a village where the daily ritual of life went on. There have been numerous excavations over the years including the discovery of the Acropolis area at the top of the site and a graveyard with about 600 tombs. Some of the ceramic vases, stone and metalwork fragments are held by the Syros Archaeological Museum and reveal it was a sophisticated society.

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The climb to the top reveals its charms and practicality – no pirate invader could make it to the top without being seen! The views from up high are its main vantage point – out to sea and inland across the island. To get a real explanation of the Kastri’s scale I found a good photo here . When you are exploring it you don’t get the full sense of its scale so was good to see that aerial image beforehand and wander round accordingly.

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Here we came across 4 fellow walkers which is a rarity on our travels. These Greeks asked us where we had walked from and were surprised to hear we walked all the way from the town (rightly so as we’d already done 8k!) They had parked their car at Chalandriani and walked over, which is a steep 30 minute which does make the site accessible for even non-walkers. But I found walking there past the smaller hamlets first gives you a better sense of the variety of landscapes on this compact island.

After this we scaled uphill to Chalandriani which is also a small settlement and site of a large excavation. A few houses remain occupied here and terraced land dominates the view.

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The excavations in Chalandriani started in the late 19th Century by archaeologist Christos Tsountas  and the findings from the village are considered one of the most important in Cyclades. Figures and pottery from this site are displayed across the world on loan from their home in the National Museum in Athens. I even managed to see some pieces from Chalandriani in the Ashmolean Museum on my last visit to Oxford. So it was great to see the site they came from – although there isn’t much to actually see here.

From this road junction where the trail 3 ended, we made the epic decision to walk back to Ermoupoli, but heading on an alternative route back that passed the settlements of Kiperousa, Senero and Finikia. Although this cut through on the road this is a stretch of the island that is fairly quiet especially mid-afternoon.

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Once you reach Finikia, this is a few old abandoned houses and newer farms which would have been in a valley, possibly with a Spring to supply irrigation. It has the tell tale signs of a seam of lush green trees growing through the middle of the valley. It was blissfully quiet and at the same time has a ghostliness quality to it, as you walk past you can imagine life in the abandoned 19th Century dwellings and mules using the paths marked by dry stone walls. All of the paths which wind up and down would have carried goods and livestock to the markets of Ano Syros.

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As the road corners towards Ano Syros this area is really interesting as it still has the remains of windmills. One has been kept intact and sits proudly overlooking the valley. But its doors are locked and marked by a sign saying it was restored by the Municipality. We took the steep path up to the peak of the hill where the remains of three windmills stand and then on to Alithini.

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The views here are breathtaking – from it you get a sense of all the histories of the island merging into one modern personality. From the medieval settlement, growing and expanding through the 18th Century in it’s industrialist heritage. Ermoupoli stretches out as a meeting place of both its the rural and urban populations, defined by many people who came as immigrants, changing the islands fortunes, religion, cuisine and culture.

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In Alithini, we found a path marked trail 10 which would take us up over the final hill, past the out of action wind turbine and down into Kini. This path is one of the sparse remains of the original path network that even up to the 1960s workers from Kini would have used daily. It has two options; Alithini to Kini or heading up to Aghia Varvara and then turning at Piskipio and down into the shipyards and factories of Ermoupoli – a route of 8k each way. Imagine that as a daily commute to work!

During the Italian occuoation of Syros in the Second World War, as vehicles were a still a rarity on the island, Italian soldiers would have used the old path network to solicit food from farmers and transport goods by mule. As you walk these routes which connect villages and churches on worn cobbles and marbled stones, sometimes with carved steps and bare earth, it impossible not to imagine the lives of those Syrians who walked them everyday.

By the time the sun was low in the sky we reached the bay of Kini. There was only one option, taking our aching legs and heading straight for a rewarding beer !

#extremehikingfridays watch this space for more adventures!

 

Food and seasonal eating

How have I been here this many months and not talked about food as often? Given that it is the one thing that is forever on my mind, I am surprised.

Daily ‘bread-gate’ is just a fact of life here. By way of explanation, this is is the bread delivery at the village mini-market, which took me a while to figure out the intricacies of its schedule with a few questions and observations. Bread gets delivered from the bakery in town at around 8am – but if you leave it to after 9am to try get some they may have sold out, leaving you at the mercy of buying long-life sliced bread (acceptable only for cheese toasties in my view). Trick is it to get there at 8.15 in a scrum of elderly villagers to get the choice of loaves; wholewheat, seeded, crusty white, something ciabatta-like, sesame etc etc. Sunday is the day of rest so no bread deliveries at all, meaning people buy double quantities of loaves on Saturdays. Got it? G refuses to even participate in this ritual – he sees it as a weird thing ‘bread is bread’ (he would be happiest eating white sliced bread that tastes like cotton). But I stick to my principles in fetching in the bread, because fresh bread matters to me!

This week I have dedicated a lot of time to food, no I don’t mean hours gorging on it, well not ‘hours!’, but  time spent wandering around markets and shops, and looking for recipes. Last week I made Halva from a really simple 1 2 3 4 recipe (based on 1 part oil, 2 parts semolina, 3 parts sugar and 4 parts water) I kept it simple and omitted the raisins and almonds. But it was a tasty sweet treat and one I’ll make again.

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In a bookshop in Ermoupoli I bought a really facinating cook book from the Women’s Agrotouristic Cooperative of Syros who run the To Kastri Taverna. Enchanting Food Tales from Syros is exactly that, as it narrates short tales from 3 generations of the same family as the shared recipes are passed down. The stories are wonderful slices of life as they centre on seasons or local celebrations throughout the year, and the corresponding recipes are very seasonal: it includes everything from Magiritsa (Easter soup) to Vasilopita (St Basil’s new year pie), as well as favourites like Greek salad and stuffed courgette flowers. Loads of dishes I can’t wait to try out.

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This week we finally had one ripe red tomato that made it into a salad. Yes, it was unarguably the best tomato I have ever tasted. Despite the odds of a challenging garden and the climate,  it might be one of the few we manage so has to be enjoyed! On the plus side, my hand pollination of a courgette has led to one being a substantial size and ready for picking! Vegetable celebrations all round.

I think the seasonality of local fruits and vegetables has been what really interests me in cooking in Greece. When we first arrived we had fresh strawberries cheaply available, then Cos lettuces, followed by courgettes and local cherries in May and Apricots in June. Availability and price follows the seasonal harvest in a logical way. Its not impossible to get things from the bigger supermarkets here and you can get imported goods from all across the world should you need them. I can genuinely say I have learnt to appreciate this at the fruit market – scan around for the seasonal stuff and adjust recipes to match. August is great for nectarines, figs, peaches and melons are abundant , but you won’t find a strawberry for love nor money! By eating seasonally when produce is at its cheapest it does make a big difference. I am finding that the tastiest recipes always benefit from ingredients when freshly harvested, in the right season and are much cheaper than the UK.  I’ve made a lot of aubergine and courgette bakes with Kefalotyri grated and feta cheese on top – just fry the veg first in olive oil, throw in some garlic and chopped tomatoes, bake in the oven for 20 mins until the cheese melts and gets crispy. Perfect with a salad and fresh bread…I am obsessed! (it finds a way into every food photo)

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I am also in a phase of reading about the history of Syros, I ploughed through Sheila Leceours fascinating study of Ermoupoli during the Italian occupation, ‘Mussolini’s Greek Island‘ which reveals the mechanisms of Italian occupation and the tragic famine which resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths. It helps you to see Syros in a different light from the beauty we are shown as visitors, and understand its social and cultural complexities. Visiting the Industrial Museum last weekend also added to my enthusiasm. The museum houses a fascinating collection of tools, machinery and artifacts that show how advanced manufacturing, printing and textile trades were in this once flourishing town.

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Given that a plan to electrify Ermoupoli in 1900 was underway at a time when most towns across Europe were decades away from such modernity. It has really interesting history that is being brilliantly preserved and celebrated. It also has copies of Cicladi the daily paper printed during the Italian Occupation.

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Its not all textbooks and cookbooks, I have also been reading a lot of ex-pat books about Greece. This is a whole genre – one you buy one, Amazon then makes a point of telling you about the 100 more they recommend, having read a few, I can say they are of varying quality and intrigue. The latest one by Rob Johnson  A kilo of String is quite a fun and informative book about how he and his partner, Penny moved to the Peloponnese to buy an olive grove. All very fascinating vignettes about the tribulations of the olive harvest (horrific, back breaking work apparently!) As the title reveals, string is another thing bought by the kilo here in Greece. Like wine and olive oil – measured out in a fashion that closely resembles a litre (almost but not quite).  Anyway what I liked about Rob’s book is that he references a great motto which I think sums up Greece for a lot of people who live or spend time here. “Everything is difficult, but nothing is impossible”  Its a nice reminder of just getting on and focusing to get through the difficult bits of life. It’s also a bit more optimistic than a Greek saying “Τι να κάνουμε” – which translates as “what can be done?” Often overheard when Greeks talk about difficult challenges, and politics, more often than not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders to display the futility of it all…

As the season winds down and the yellow glow of August light fades, whatever happens after the summer is likely to be difficult. Until then we have each day – the sun will rise, I will fetch bread, we will eat and enjoy the fruits of Greek life at its fullest.

Like growing the courgette and tomato on a barren patch of land, however difficult, was not impossible after all.

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How to solve a problem like tourism?

It’s funny when you meet people here and they ask, “So what brought you to Syros?” (by this I mean English speaking people, Greeks are way more relaxed about the why’s – no need to explain) “A plane! and a boat!”  is my stock sarcastic answer. But no, really, we came here only for a few days last August and though “mmm, this is nice, isn’t it?” thinking about which Island we’d spend 6 months on when we finally but the bullet and made it happen. We figured a few practical things came first, not just beaches and hiking but a bigg-ish town with things like supermarkets, culture and healthcare (sensible) but also somewhere that wasn’t at the mercy of infrequent ship connections or a place that everyone rocked up to on July 1st and left on September 1st. We wanted to experience an all year round island, where Greek people live and go about their lives, not just waiting for the first boat-load of tourists to arrive. And that’s what you get with Syros. Of course, we are in the midst of its busiest few weeks in August, where everyone who has family here or a summer house descends in droves or arrives from Athens to escape the furnace-like temperatures of the mainland. Syros doesn’t feel spoiled in anyway by tourism now, it feels gentle and unassuming, fitting in with the character of the island. But that might not always be the case.

There has been much talk this week in the media about tourism and its most negative effects on highly visited areas like Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik and Santorini. The locals are quite rightly refusing to stand by and see their cities and towns blighted by insensitive tourism development that contributes nothing environmentally, socially and economically. From AirB&B driving up rents, to new 5* star hotels creating super-rich ghettos with non-Greek staff employed in droves. There has always been a tension in places that have high levels of tourist numbers, often incoming cruise ship passengers who bring little to the economy in the 5 hours they are bussed between the sights. Or those areas which have heavily invested in all-inclusive hotels, like the many that now line the shores of Greek Islands. These have without a doubt negatively affected the local bars, cafes and restaurants as visitors rarely leave these enclaves.

Last night we watched the Greek news covering the crack-down in Corfu on drunken British tourists ‘ruining’ once calm villages, one local they interviewed described them as doing nothing more “than drinking, being sick and staring at their phones” Cringe. But the solution presented is that they want Corfu to go upmarket. Which is fine if you also have match that with a decent budget provision for travellers who don’t wish to assimilate into ‘Westminster by the Sea’ and rub shoulders with ex-PMs holidaying in their villas.

The tension between welcomed types of tourism and those perceived as unwelcome is an interesting dichotomy. It is not new to see how one group of tourists moves between the spectrum of firstly being welcomed, actively marketed to and then into being demonised and ‘blamed’ for a social / moral breakdown by the media. This is often weighted heavily with its association of UK based class structures and what type of holiday’s are affordable and desirable. Regardless of the fact that Tristram is just as likely to be vomiting after his A-level results in Kavos, as Trevor is. This is also being played out here in local news narratives about drugs and protection rackets on Mykonos – but I doubt that would make the UK news.

Such problems are not unique to Greece but do require quality solutions if the country wants to continue to attract the diversity of tourists from around the world. There is often lots of talk about how may resorts really changed its fortunes by focussing on high spend tourists paying over 400 euros a night for a hotel room. Yet little consideration of the impact this has had on the town and locals. Not everyone is sat there counting money as each boat rolls in…tax receipts will tell you that.

By driving up prices, aiming for exclusivity, there is a whole market of families, budget senstive, culture seekers, hikers and environmentally conscious travellers that will be priced out of visiting places this beautiful country. Not least the vast swathes of domestic tourism that places like Syros rely on. Imagine a Greece that Greeks can’t afford to visit – that might not be too far off already.

A strategy attracting the tourist euro at all costs is doomed to fail. Not every island economy needs to be polished for ‘Mykono-isation’, because sadly, tourist trends change and it is impossible to keep building to keep apace. I can guarantee that every village by the sea on every Greek island has at least one hotel that was once busy that stands abandoned with a forlorn looking ‘Poleitai’ (for sale) sign stuck on the side. These hotel-tombs stand not only pepper the landscape looking unloved, they symbolise the failure of a complex market reliant on a range of factors from partnerships of multinational travel companies, currency exchange, and even the cost of airline fuel. The internet may have changed how we travel and book holidays, but ignoring the local economy and considering sustainability will always have dire consequences, for the local and visitor alike.

Greece as a country has changed vastly in the past 40 years – not just politically and socially. Its major economies have faced further decline and tourism has always seemed like an obvious answer. At present PM Tsipras, for all his socialist leanings, has cut pensions and welfare, moving to high taxation in an effort to appease the balances of EU debt. But employment in tourism isn’t a year round job. It won’t be a solution for the 25% of the population currently out of work generations out of work and highly qualified graduates. Tourism feels like a quick fix, a band-aid on a broken leg.

I can only tell you how I understand and know Greece, I have no claim on this country like a native. I have my own relationship to it as a visitor and it is part of what I like doing, like a hobby or a thing people list in their linkedin profile “Going on holiday to Greece”.

I could list places in Greece I’ve been to – but what does that tell you? Or I could tell you one tiny thing that happened to me on each Greek holiday – like a mosaic slowly being assembled over time. A piece here and there. Not life changing but a tremor along life’s noisy path. The way memories feel and can be evoked; you can immerse yourself in them, get lost all over again in pine scented, hot sticky days, the meltimi blowing sand in your face and walking under starlit skies. So many people feel the same way – people that come back to Greece time and again to rediscover a country that is always changing and revealing its charms in different ways.

My first visit as a tourist was to Crete in 1993. I am sure my mum agonised for weeks over the booking of a two week package holiday in a branch of Lunn Poly (travel agents on the high street remember them? or teletext holidays?  pixel text offers!). From what I vaguely recall we flew from Manchester into Chania and were bustled onto a transfer coach to a little village by the beach called Aghia Marina. Staying in a traditional whitewashed apartment block that was stuffed with dark wood furniture and Cretan textiles.

My parents had first visited Greece in the late 1970s and ventured to Paxos in the Ionian, which at that time was undeveloped with very few tourists. In fact they have a ton of wonderful anecdotes about drinking homemade wine and making friends with locals.  So I imagine it was quite a different experience to head to Greece’s biggest island on a package tour with two kids in tow and the constant entertaining we needed. Without fail we went on a family holiday in ‘factory fortnight’ aka last week in July / first in August,  I remember the beach being huge miles of white sand and the sea being quite wavy, but the village was compact and we only had to walk down the road to find a few taverna’s and a supermarket. There wasn’t much more to it and the simplicity at which you can escape a grey northern town to enjoy a few weeks of life in the Grecian suns was a revelation to my 11 year old self.

All the kids from the apartments would congregate in the evenings and play pool in the bar after we came back from dinner. It was amazing we were allowed to stay up late! There were often powercuts in taverna’s, as the island was just about coping with the big influx of visitors in August.I recall one evening we ate in a ‘Garden Taverna’, literally 3 tables in a Yia-yia’s garden, with a hand painted sign and no menus. We ate surrounded by wild-eyed cats and getting eaten alive by mosquitos – my dad got struck by a wave of nausea (wine related?) which involved him sneaking away back to the hotel taking my brother with him. This left me and my mum alone to face the lady-owner, “of course he loved your food, great – thank you’ mustering as much British politeness as we could whilst speedily walking back to our apartment! I remember teasing my brother who developed some crazy obsession could happily spent 14 nights of a holiday eating bright-pink taramasalta and beef stifado every night, then rating his holiday on which eatery had the best versions of these two dishes.  Greek waiters entertained us with jokes, giving us alcohol free version of shots and old ladies pinched our cheeks in shops. It was a country to which felt timeless and open with possibilities. Fields of fig and olive trees, where rural life seemed to co-exist in harmony with these new tourists.

When you are 11 years old and inhabit that strange hinterland between childhood and adolescence, 2 weeks feels like forever. That was the summer before going to ‘big school’ and that time seems to have burned on my memory as a magical place. That summer the small town world I knew was breaking open in the sunshine, with the allure of blue skies and the scent of pine trees.

The following year we went to Rhodes, to the small village of Pefkos (which means pine tree) which was just starting to expand from a beach and small road of taverna’s into the resort it is today. This time we flew from Newcastle, less of a drive to the airport but the downside being it was a night flight. This meant arriving at Rhodes airport in the early hours of the morning so the coach transfer was a total ramshackle bunch of families tired and tetchy children needing sleep, mixed in with drunken 20-somethings going to Faliraki.

Driving in sheer darkness, suddenly the coach pulls up infront of what looks exactly like a building site and lurches to pull up in front of the ‘BILLY Apartments!’ where 3 blokes are standing on the balcony mooning at everyone on the coach! Oh how we laughed afterwards, but at the time I think my parents tried to shield our eyes in horror!’ If you remember the 90s was when it all started to build in party resorts like that and the 18-30s model took over.

You can imagine what pleasant moods my family were in arriving at our hotel in peaceful Pefkos at 4am – I recall refusing to sleep and annoying my mum to the extent she agreed to walk to the beach with me at 7am just get me to shut up. I then proceeded to get burnt to a crisp that morning. Sweet Karmic revenge.After dinner one night, I have a distinct memory of sitting with a coke-float (our newly discovered favourite treat) in a bar watching an English girl who worked there. When the tourist police turned up she sat at our table and she pretended we knew her! It was THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING EVER! How dramatic and exciting, working in a bar in Greece, sunbathing by day and then being a waitress by night…how exotic, how amazing, I thought…the imaginary walls of the small town I grew up in were beginning to crumble like feta cheese.

After more family holidays to Zakynthos and different resorts in Crete and Rhodes, by the time I was 17, me and a friend managed to be trusted to go back out to Rhodes for the summer to find jobs in Lindos, where we had made friends the summer before. We spend our time working in bars at night and sunbathing by day for a few months of a wildly hot summer living in a studio with no air-conditioning! Not learning how to say anything useful (or inoffensive) in Greek and spending all our drachma’s on gyros. A ‘cultural trip’ which I repeated the next year with a different mate and different Island. On Kos, in the bustling bar-street all night drinking culture was one that I did not really enjoy, all around us was carnage and bar crawls. Which evokes a memory of sitting on the balcony our apartment watching a girl vomit down the street below. I was quite thankful to head back to the UK when my A level results came out and escape to the comparative calm of Freshers Week. It was the best of times and the worst of times for Greece to make money from tourism and for tour operators to exploit this ‘yoof’ market. It was also around the same time those fly on the wall shows like ClubReps on Sky TV were made – which was essentially the best PR to get plane loads of teenagers signed up for drunken bar crawl holidays. Alas, most of the profits went back into the pockets of UK operators too.

But Kardemena, like Faliraki, Malia and Kavos, as well as countless other places have to be been forced to change and grow up. Tourism is imminently competitive and there were years in the mid-to-late 2000s where whole swathes of UK package tour operators went bust in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving Greek owners out of pocket and in some cases ghost towns of accommodation built at the peak, now left in ruins.

I think maybe this was one of the reasons I didn’t come back for a few years as it wasn’t the Greece I liked. But when G and I met, our first holiday together was to a small island called Thassos, which reignited the Hellenic flame. It was a last minute week away in late September in a village called Rahoni. The unpredictable weather meant we battled with rain for half the week, which meant that frogs hopped across the road on the way back to our near-deserted hotel in an end-of season feeling village, and scorching sun for the other half! We also encountered a fearless bat on these nightly walks home which flew into G! The Thassos we found was enchanting, green and lush, with really friendly people and completely deserted beaches.

Greece has changed over the 20-odd years I have been visiting. As a child, as a teenager and now a thirty something woman, I want different things from holidays and it still manages to offer that. Sadly, over the years, my handle of the Greek language has only marginally improved!

I have been lucky enough to have an annual (and sometimes more) pilgrimage to Hellas. From weddings on Santorini and Rhodes, to a cheap week in Crete, I have made it my mission to find tasty taverna’s and off the beaten track beaches.  July and August are great for holidays, even islands like Paxos have quieter beaches and peaceful walks through pine forests. Even Lefkada which is a favourite of Greek tourists is a delight in Summer. We spent 10 days in June on Skiathos without a care in the world, with white stone pebbled beaches and aqua blue seas to dive into. We spent wonderful weeks visiting abandoned villages on hiking trails in Tilos and watching the world go by on Halki. Having discovered the joys of off-season travelling we have spent a magical Easter in Patmos walking through fields of wild Spring flowers and being the first ones swimming in April. We also explored Athens at Christmas climbing the Acropolis in the cool December sunshine. Sometimes these have been package tours, but mostly independent flights and accommodation.

When planning I often refer exclusively to my mum’s dog-eared copy of The Which Guide to Greece and the Greek Islands which is easily my go to reading to find the perfect island to holiday on. It’s hugely out of date, printed in 1994 and gives references to a million things that one hopes still exist. My approach is this – if the book describes a village as horrid or un-touristy, its bound to have had a makeover since then, also pay attention to the places it doesn’t mention it at all – like Kea, definitely go visit! ! If memory serves me correctly it describes Ermoupolis as ‘a seedy port and town that has seen better days’. I see it as a litmus test of how islands have changed! There will always people who say things like “well 20 years ago there were no sun-loungers here and it’s packed now” it certainly isn’t the ‘olden days’ of living off a 1000 drachmas a day and free-camping on the beaches. Since they joined the euro in 2002, prices have escalated for locals and tourists – but I am thankful it isn’t expensive as the UK.

I also spent at least an hour yesterday perusing Google maps on the street views of places I stayed years ago– Aghia Marina has sprawled into its neighbouring reports of Platania and Stalos…similarly Tsilivi and Pefkos now have grown exponentially to have streets of taverna’s, cocktail bars and fast food joints. Change for Greece has not necessarily been a bad thing, but its economic reliance on the tourist economy can be, as the market gets more competition from countries within the EU. Sensitive development and tourism infrastructure need to consider the impact of what happens when tourism stops, learning lessons from the past  – islands can’t be one trick ponies in July and August, then dormant for 10 months of the year. Jobs need to be created in industries that are sustainable.

What makes Greece special is that every corner of Greece has something to offer the visitor and it also has millions of people that come back year after year to experience its warmth, of both its climate and its people. Wherever you roam in Greece it holds beauty, charm and hospitality. Each island and region has its own unique landscape and history, it takes time to discover and with over 227 inhabited islands there’s plenty left to explore. Maybe it is harder to find that perfect spot away from the crowds. But perhaps that’s the trick – visit off season, be brave and bold, go where you haven’t seen a million instagrams of the same view or read about it in Conde Naste Traveller or the Guardian, travel the mainland and the lesser visited islands. Just go.

I think back to the Greece I found first and the one I know as an adult, and fundamentally it has the same character, appealing blue skies, friendly faces, sunshine and a simple way of living. Back then I remember we were given figs by Phillipo who ran the taverna at the top of Pefkos beach. I am glad to see this sense of Filoxenia (the hospitality of welcoming strangers or foreigners) hasn’t changed. I visited our neighbours in the village the other morning for coffee and took them some halva (sweet semolina cake) I made. I left with a bottle of wine, a bunch of homegrown rocket and a branch of bay leaves to dry in the sun. We have also received an almost daily bag of figs from our landlord. Greeks bestow gifts not because they feel compelled to, but honour means you share what you have because you have enough to share– it is as simple as that. Couldn’t we all learn to less greedy and more generous, as tourists and as humans? Take time to understand the place you visit and leave no trace.

Here I am in the middle of the Cyclades, trying to figure out what makes Syros tick and what to do with a 2kg glut of figs – chutney and jam, is the answer.

If only everything else has such a simple solution.

Kalo Mena Ávgoustos (Happy Month for August!)

So it’s the 2nd of August – I know, already!! Yesterday we wished everyone we met ‘Kalo mena’ the traditional Greek first of the month greeting. Happy month, happy year, happy summer, happy days…they have it all covered here.

The garden is well, it’s hanging in there and still growing… there has been a few mistakes and the weather is hot, pretty windy and never wet. Almost the exact opposite of Kent. The mistakes are rookie ones, mostly in planting timings…all just a little late!

But let’s be honest somehow this is a spectacular thing to behold, considering I didn’t not even know whether I could get some plug-plants or even compost when we first moved in, I have surprised myself! People gave us plants and I eventually found the garden centre, which was really good and sold most things a UK one does, but without the cafe!

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I like the overall visual effect of a veg patch and flowers in pots, which have immensely been helped by these mad night scented nictonia variety which over May and June sprouted out of nowhere!

They did somewhat ruin my initial ideas of having a lovely flower bed at the side. But you can’t control nature and as intended, they thrive in the hot and dry conditions. As does the Aloe, which we have ton of in pots and in teh ground and the geranium’s which I made cuttings of too, it hardly even needs looking at. I often walk past an abandoned-looking house that has a lovely row of geraniums that are happily flowering away in pots. The gate is totally overgrown so I suspect they aren’t tended to at all but are just happy in their willful neglect.

I think that’s the thing with gardening it really is a  combination of luck and weather, and even the stars aligning sometimes. Especially when you are challenged by the unknown, The Greek Garden is an experiment, if you build it they will come. Well, not quite but sometimes people pop round just to take a look at what we have created in an otherwise barren corner of poor soil..which does makes me happy! It is mostly thanks to the plants from Tony and his sister Theresa, who have been so generous in their local horticultural knowledge.  The garden plot is a triumph over adversary, sown with  good intentions.

It’s a mixed bag so far..

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Tomatoes, I have 2 green tomatoes (in August!) which look like plum varieties, I like the air of mystery with these as they were given as a seedling gift when we moved in. Lets hope they ripen soon otherwise this will be the lowest yield in my entire tommie growing career (of 4 years..) Plus I have to put up with whatsapp pictures of my Dad’s courgette harvest success and it is only a matter of time before they include tomatoes too. But we have enjoyed the spoils from neighbours, gifts of juicy cherry tomatoes and always have cheap plump beefsteak tomatoes in the fruit & veg markets, so I am always tomato-sourced!

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I have three plants in the patch and two in big pots which I feed with some kind of tomato feed – so I will live in hope.

Courgettes are another issue, I just don’t know what I am doing wrong…or have done wrong. Every time the plant sets fruit it grows a few inches..i get all hopeful ad then it yellows and shrivels, this is either a pollination problem or watering inconsistency which is causing blossom end rot combined with a calcium deficiency in the soil (likely). I have 3 courgette plants and I see bees around but maybe it is pollination, the male and female flowers aren’t bonding…save the GR bees! Or more likely it is inconsistant watering, I soak the whole veg patch nightly, perhaps this is too much or too little! I don’t know! Tomorrow I will try to get some male flowers and assist with this delicate task to see if that improves fortunes…

The Trombochino is okay, but nowhere near fruiting (8 weeks the seller told me at Chelsea!). The Aubergine has flowered once, and fruit didn’t set, But a second flowering should see this happen.

The big success is the chilli pepper plant – it is happy and productive! Its chilli’s are red and tasty but not TOO hot.

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The cosmos I grew from seed are no where near as happy or productive as ones I grew in Kent. These are from the seeds I saved from last year, but they are pretty in a plant pot and attract these amazing Iphiclides Podalirius Butterflies. Sadly the 10 or so seedlings I planted in the soil got eaten by something – a snail, perhaps?

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The marigolds from seed are mental…like long leggy crazy-tall little shop of horrors. But they look interesting! Herbs are all happy – mint, basil and oregano especially so. The cat likes to lounge in between the plants so she’s pretty pleased we are here.

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The olive tree is producing fruit and our landlord brought round a dish like thing that hangs in the tree and attracts a little bug which then eats the other bugs that spread disease. No, not really sure either, but anything that avoids pesticides is all right with me. The empty lot behind us has figs and grapes ripening that trail over the wall – definitely on our side, so maybe we can scrump a few of these!

For now, I get to tend to the little patch, worry about its fruits and surprises. But mostly I sit back and enjoy the peace.