In time for Easter

The ferry from Pireaus was simpler this time. In fact everything we do now is strangely predicated by this statement; ‘ last year’. Which hangs on every action like a shadow in the midday sun. I know I feel less fraught and nervous about it all now I am here. For months we have had the questions from well meaning loved ones and negotiations with work stuff to deal with. It has been worth it. Things will be different and change is inevitable. After last year’s inventive skateboard / suitcase transporter incident which involved a hill and a tantrum, our luggage a little more streamlined. No more wheelie massive body bag, which has been resigned to the end of its travelling life. Everything we need, nothing we don’t, well so far at least.

Even in this Easter week, we have had glorious days of sunshine that feel like summer but it’s cold at night. Duvets and extra blankets are needed – as are warm socks to keep out the chill. It won’t stay like this but Spring has a way of tricking you every time.

I do love the thrill of the ferry ride, its escalators upwards to the desk when you arrive. Not quite the grand treatment but I do appreciate the welcomes you receive from the staff with their Blue Star waistcoats. Makes the idea of ferry travel somehow like a cruise. Although I’ve never been on one – I’ve seen enough of  Jane MacDonald’s attempts at promoting them on that TV show to have a good idea 😉 We bustled through the port under darkness and onto the ramp, were the man pointed us to the Mykonos bag storage section. Of course he imagined that most tourists in March would be heading there. “Oxi, Syros parakelo” “ahhh, endaxi” he looked surprised. Loading our 4 neat bags on the shelf and headed upstarts to get coffee.

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Instead of a golden sunrise full of pinks and oranges, when we left the mainland there was a dull slump of dark grey into light grey. A nothing sunrise. I was okay with that. The Blue Star left the smokey harbour and crazy traffic behind, half empty or half full with passengers depending on how you see life. To me then, as the wind whipped round the deck and setting sail across the Aegean, it was half full.

There is a magic moment when the boat comes towards the port at Ermoupoli just a few minutes after the captain sounds the horn echoing across the island and the Church at Agios Dimitrios replies by chiming its bells. It then turns to let the two hills come into sight in all their pastel shades tumbling into the blue sea and stretching upwards to green hills in the distance. It gets me every time – even in the grey patched clouds this time it looked spectacular. 

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Arriving back in the village was a little like time travel – the same turns, twists and views from the taxi.  Finding warm welcome’s and hello’s, noticing new things as we stumbled blindly retracing our steps like survivors of a small but significant storm. The past week has been both strange and familiar at once. Getting into the swing of life again here, settling into familiarity and making a home.  Separating out the week for work, shopping tasks and buses into town. Enjoying time with friends and neighbours, sampling new places and old favourites.

We took time out for a walk to Aetos beach last Sunday under clear blue skies and a howling wind. It was funny as we both had completely forgotten how to find the right path, we remembered the jumper tied to the post and the gap in the wall. But then we went too far and walked through a threshing circle before looping back and starting over. 

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Eventually we found the right path, it looked like not many had walked it as the bushes were so overgrown. This meant we were rewarded with Aetos beach to ourselves and it was the best place for the first swim. Bracing and brave would be two good words to describe it! 

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Since then I have swum a few more times at Kini beach. As it is Easter week there are plenty of people here as the Island prepares for one of its busiest times. Last night we ate a feast of calamari and fava; as its traditional to eat seafood during lent (nothing with a backbone) and only eat meat after tonight’s church service – when the magritsa soup is cooked. Not quite sure if I’m up for making lambs entrails soup yet, maybe next year… As traditions go, Easter certainly goes with a bang here and there will be fireworks near midnight after the services to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We have been given red dyed eggs – so can battle them in a cracking match tonight!

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At this time of year there are beautiful wild irises dotting the paths, bees buzzing in bountiful flowering sage and wild thyme, a wonderful reminder of nature’s hold on the seasons. In these weeks after the Spring equinox and the shift to summer time it feels right to celebrate change, growth and rebirth. 

Happy Easter – Kalo Pascha!

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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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A week of being a tourist

I’ve had a lovely week – that word lovely is so English isn’t it? Lovely, not just great, but something that sits straddling somewhere between ‘good’, ‘nice’ and ‘charming’. Anyway I don’t believe there is a Greek equivalent for lovely so we can just stick with ‘Poli oreas’ (very nice)! My parents visited Kini and it was great to show them around, especially to hear their take on observing the place we call home for the summer and the different things they noticed. They enjoyed eating in the local taverna’s and cafe’s, having a walk around the area and stopping for espresso freddo became a daily treat. I am now on cracker rations after eating so much delicious food and partaking in far too many rounds of ‘miso kilo aspro krasi, parakelo’ (that’s half a litre of local wine). But it was fun to visit Ermoupoli with them as well and not to be there on a vegetable shopping expedition as is usually the case when I pop into town.  Even through I had promised a direct bus there from Kini, it was okay once I had got over my mini-tantrum at the change of bus schedule from direct (15mins) to circular all-village loop which takes 50mins. After all it’s Greece and things change at the drop of a kolomboli bead, I hope they appreciated the scenic bus tour round the Island; like a freebie tour of all the villages thrown in! Once in Ermoupoli we had a quick wander round the shops for gifts, after all it is named after Hermes the God of Trade and Commerce. At my Dad’s impatient request a visit to Miaouli Square was called for, after watching it on the Webcam and waving at us more than a few times, my Dad was thrilled to have achieved his ‘dream’ of visiting the platiea in real life!

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It’s a great place to get a feel for how Syros was and grew as the centre of the shipping industry in the 19th Century with its impressive neoclassical buildings and town hall, which remains the administrative centre of the Cyclades Islands. We enjoyed a lovely lunch in the sunshine at Ελληνικό Καφενείο (Elliniko Kafenio) just on the square, an excellent chicken salad with figs and manouri cheese, some small bites of delicious olives and cheese. This was a perfect place for people watching on the square accompanied by another miso kilo of krasi. Afterwards we wandered past the Apollon Theatre to Vaporia, which is the area where many rich sea-captains and traders built neoclassical mansions in the 19th Century to demonstrate wealth and prowess; expanding the town as a vast trading centre and shipbuilding empire from its original Medieval and Frankish settlement of Ano Syros.

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Vaporia is a beautiful sight to behold and I loved showing my parents the place G and I sat when we arrived in back April, the place with the perfect view that made the journey, the suitcase incident and the stress of the months past just disappear. This view is framed by the blue domed roof of St Nicholas Church, the orange and pink hued buildings perched on the azure aegean sea.  In recent decades the area has been developing slowly since most of the mansions were left abandoned after shipping fortunes halted in the late 19th Century when Pireaus overtook as the major shipbuilding port. Recently some buildings have been restored into small hotels, some apartments are now inhabited, but others lay in waiting.

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But overall there is a sense that this is beauty yet to be discovered, not showy or flashy but just at its own pace, like the swimmers and sunbathers dotted on the bathing platforms relaxing in the late afternoon light, they were in no rush to be anywhere else. I understand that Vaporia is where locals swim at sunrise and sunset – I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful to frame the day than diving in and seeing the grand architecture around them. My mum even said she’d love to spend a holiday in Ermoupoli wandering the streets and shops, a perfect city break. I think that’s why I love Syros, because it has the full contrast of wild barren trails in the north, pretty beaches and villages, as well as this enticing town full of cobbled streets to get lost in and cultural treasures to discover.

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While I was playing badly at being the tour guide this week, we also went to Ano Syros for the evening and enjoyed a little wander around the whitewashed , stopping for a drink in the Markos Vamvakaris square, next to the museum dedicated to the island’s most famous musician. Vamvakaris, simply known as ‘Markos’  was a Rembetiko musician made famous in the 1930s for incorporating the bouzouki instrument into this Greek underground music which speaks of lost love, rebellion and is called the ‘blues’ of Greece. He was born in Ano Syros and his most famous song ‘Frankosyriani’ in which he sings of a Catholic Girl from Syros. (Apparently most people on the island will know this song off by heart and sing along…I’ll let you know). After drinks that night, we headed to the only Taverna we could find open and ate a deliciously hearty meal of veal, pork and chicken dishes overlooking the town as the sunset and dusk turned into twinkling streetlights.

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This time last week we walked to Delfini beach in the drizzling rain and jumpers, luckily after the rain the weather started heating back up again in time to enjoy afternoons on the beach before they left!

As we took my parents to the port to say goodbye on Friday, we have been started feeling the heatwave that has hit Greece and I am pleased to say unlike most sun-worshipers I won’t be hitting the beach until late afternoon or evening. I sit here inside at 3pm in the cool luxury of air conditioning as the mercury soars outside to 31c in the shade. It’s so hot I only managed a walk this morning instead of a run (mainly to work of all the holiday-food and drink!) Even yoga on the ‘shaded’ terrace has become Bikram-like. So yesterday we had gardening and ‘crafternoon’ which was more like see-what-we-can-do-with-all-this-driftwood-we-keep-collecting. Rest assured, from yesterday’s results we won’t be opening an Etsy craft store anytime soon! But I am pleased to celebrate that today has seen the first ripe cucumber to be picked from the veg bed. Cooling cucumber salad is on our menu tonight and G has ‘invented’ chamomile iced-tea (it’s delicious!). With this I think we are ready to tackle the first summer heatwave!