Growing, growing…gone

I am a gardener, a grower, an experimenter and in all of this I need that most resolute of skills – patience. It is the hardest thing to learn to wait.

But now as I write this after a day of work (and a lunchtime swim), the seeds have been sown. I wait patiently, twiddling my thumbs juggling words and waiting for Spring. I read the news online and see that the UK has been dragged out from the fog of cold. Months of unseasonable temperatures that have stunted plant growth, pushing back the harvest dates, slow sales at garden centres and Easter retail forecast in the doldrums. But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine. How suddenly nature can change the mood!

But here in Greece, following the later Easter weekend, Spring is trying its hardest to level out the temperatures. We have had hot days, like last Saturday when we, perhaps foolishly, walked to Ermoupoli in the hot 11am sunshine. But we have also had cold nights. Really COLD nights – wearing a fleece, jogging bottoms and socks, and under two duvets! Then yesterday we swam in the sea for a lunch hour dip, the sea is now warming up (or am I acclimatizing to its chill?) – but in 20 mins I had the outlines of my bathing suit beginning to imprint itself on my skin in red lines. These are such rookie mistakes. Yet, we keep on making them. Like spending close to two hours looking at ferry schedules to factor in some trips to nearby islands – a complex mathmatical puzzle that I didn’t have all the clues to or the patience for. Planning is like a guessing game. I had to give up in the end. It’s also feeling rookie the way I am forgetting my Greek. Manolis said to me this morning in the cafe that language is like a tool that rusts up over the winter and needs to be oiled by being practised again. I think was trying to make me feel better about my poor Greek skills by saying he forgets his English when there’s no tourists around to speak to. His English is way better than my Greek will ever be!  


Practice, practice, patience. These are the lessons of the day. I certainly don’t want to give up on is seeds. I have potted tomatoes, hot peppers, chives, sage, thyme, marigolds and cosmos. Some have popped up in the past 2 weeks, others I am giving the  benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I just leave them alone with damp compost they will start to find their own little way in the cold frame. Yes! I have access to a cold frame that is the perfect seed incubator. It is bliss to be able to have a place for them to just settle. I have been to the garden centre – oh what an experience, you know there are some women (and men) whose idea of heaven is a shoe shop or perusing expensive homewares. Mine is just a simple garden centre, let me loose amongst the pots and plants, lost in the herb section, going dizzy with the array of seeds. I’d like to say a Greek garden centre is really different, but not really. This one is compact but has a vast array of bedding plants and perennials, typically Mediterranean plants, everything from olives to  fruit trees – as well all the usual storage containers, hoses, and compost. I was with a friend with a car – so naturally got a few items!


I’m focussing on a small area for growing tomatoes and herbs, potted flowers for the terrace and lots of lavender for the bees. I bought two courgette plans and a chilli pepper as plugs – so hopeful I can either grow them in big pots or find space around us for them to flourish.

One of the things among many that has always fascinated me about Syros is the way the land is still used so productively. It’s fairly similar to most other Cycladic islands large flat terraces exist on nearly every corner of the island, many are so old that it must have been centuries since they were used. In villages the land is still used for small scale farming and domestic agriculture – goat grazing, sheep and cattle, chickens, fields of olives and grapes are most common, but also lots of vegetables in tidy rows. Right now the plots are full of green leaved potato crops grown over the winter and onions waving gently in the breeze ready to be harvested. It’s been a real privilege to be shown around in the village and have a nosy at what people grow, to be given explanations of what is being grown and grafted, when it’s harvested, the types and varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables. People are rightly proud of their love of gardening, you see it in every window box and on wide swathes of land that’s been worked on by generations of the same family and the sheer toil it takes. It is impossible to walk around without wonder and amazement, given the dry sandy soil and conditions needed to grow require so much water. 

These trees are often grafted as family trees with different varieties of lemons and citrus fruits. A hug array in view like pomegranate, pear, plum, lemon, orange, mandarin, almond and many fig trees. The olives and vines are probably the most productive – pressing for oil and preserving olives, and making all that deliciously syrupy krasi.

There lies an interesting story about climate change experienced on Syros – I have heard a few versions, so apologies for my ad-hoc interpretation and retelling in advance. During the Second World War’s occupation the islanders experienced a devastating famine – by the 1950s the Dutch horticulturists came with advanced growing techniques promising to increase yields and grow a wider variety of produce. Naturally many were enticed by the promise of growing more produce than just enough to feed their family. As Greece’s post war economy was recovering in the aftermath of war and political upheaval commercial opportunities focussed on domestic markets and shipping fresh produce across the Aegean. As a result, farmers all across the island invested in greenhouses and growing new seeds with wider varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse vegetables. I also heard a story about olives and the loss of a native grown olive from the village in the same period – but I need to save that until I know more. It sounds wistful ‘The last olive tree’ – but I need more time to unearth the tale. In some ways there was probably a short period when Syros became the centre of the horticultural industry in Greece. I have been told, that as far as the eye could see across the bay of Kini there were greenhouses in every plot. This may have lasted 10-20 years – but what happens when land is over-farmed? Not just the effect on soil, as its nutrients reduce, but when commercial scale production starts the sheer volume of water needed is vast. What happened here sounds like a result of not just a changing climate but also some bad luck thrown in too. Apparently by the mid-60s there was less rainfall every year, meaning that the reservoirs and irrigation sternas didn’t fill up. Water is a scarce resource on an island like Syros and especially so as drinking water was still being  brought to the island by boat until 1969 when it was the first Greek island to invest in a desalination plant. But the reducing rainfall problem was only compounded when the wells started to become salinated from sea water seeping into the groundwater course. All spelled disaster for the enterprising growers.

Not much remains of the once booming horticultural enterprise but there are still a few farmers with greenhouses, but most have been abandoned, removed and the earth returned to more small scale farming.

A short-lived but intensive intervention has probably changed the land and fortunes of local life forever. But these long days of patience and productivity remain a beautiful sight on the hillsides where rows of olive trees sit neatly, while the hours of golden sun work to ripen fruit and vegetables.

I tell myself to be patient as I walk around these cultivated corners of paradise, one day…just one day.

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.


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. 


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. 


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! 


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!


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!


A postcard from Nafplion

I have talked about my love of Greek public transport before. In a land of mopeds and car drivers, sometimes the pedestrian can get a little disenfranchised in Greece. But when you’re a tourist you can act like one with aplomb and zip around the country on a bus or train to see how things are. That’s what we have been doing for the past week. Although given that the Peloponnese train line hasn’t ran since 2011, I had to settle for the sturdy Ktel bus for a mode of transport to explore Naplion and the Argolis region.

Heading out of the city centre after storing most of our luggage in Athens, we embraced travelling light and on a budget by attempting to walk from Elaionas Metro station to Kifisou Bus station, where all the Ionian and Peloponnese busses go from. A walk that’s eminently doable on safe-ish roads on an industrial estate and across two motorways, but I wouldn’t recommend it with luggage! I started to get a bit huffy when it took longer than the google map ’20 minutes’, but a kindly man in a wheelchair who was begging at the intersection waved us in the right direction. I wouldn’t say it’s a tourist highlight walking through an industrial setting but could demonstrates the reality of a country still in financial crisis, despite what the sunshine PR says and Instagram perfection shows. Once you take a turn onto the pedestrian walkway (!) next to the National road there is a tiny 17th Century Byzantine chapel of Agia Nikolau sitting sunken just metres below two Mercedes garages and narrowly rescued when the road was built – I didn’t have chance to take a pic but you can see its magic here. That seems to sum up some things in this country, the old and new, not quite in harmony but jostling for space in the bustling chaos.

The journey out of the capital takes in some fine sights, like the boat yards and power stations as the coastal motorway goes by a number of toll-roads, towards Corinth and Isthmia (from Isthmus, which means neck in ancient Greek). The Corinth Canal is a wondrous engineering feat and one I had wanted to see for a while. It not only created a boom for Greek Shipping and export trade, but it also forever changed the fortune of the island of Syros. Once the canal was finished in 1893, after many attempts, cutting the journey time between Italy and Athens in half which meant that Pireaus grew to become more significant than Syros for shipbuilding and trade. This post Corinth period towards the late 19th Century changed Ermoupolis forever, until then the city had been the centre of Aegean trade with its unrivalled steamships and industry. Although the canal is a fine example of engineering endeavour, it really is incredibly narrow at 21 metres wide. When you see it from the bridge as you drive over that having it as a one way system for boats makes perfect sense. I didn’t even get chance to snap a photo as we trundled by!


Once out into the hilly countryside of the Argolis region the fields are full to bursting with ripe orange trees and the straight lines of creeping vines. Oranges were on nearly every tree – some rotted and fallen to the ground. I’m not sure if this has something to do with farm subsidies that make it better for farmers to let them rot than sell at such a low price…either way quite a sad sight to behold.


Nafplion was Greece’s first capital city, a significance not lost on the fact that we arrived just before the celebration of the Greek Independence Day on March 26. Nafplion has memorials to many of the fighters in the War of Greek Independence, as the city was held by the Ottomans for over a year before their defeat. The Church of Saint Spyridon is the site where the first Greek Head of State Ioannis Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831. It’s a place of history, warfare and politics. Here we experienced Greek Independence Day in all its rousing enthusiasm, with the Sunday parade attracting a lot of people from all over the region to line the streets.

The first day was spent exploring the town, which is as majestic as it is soaked in history. It is famous with tourists and Athenian weekenders for its terracotta hued houses and pretty Venetian mansions that line the grid streets of the old town. The newer side is more run of the mill typical Greek urban sprawl, but that shouldn’t put visitors off. Its charm really does lie in its ability to be one of those places that feels calm and invites you to while away the hours just wandering around.


We opted to stay in a little converted building that was like a little log-cabin and had its own friendly cat resident called Molly. Complete with minature kitchenette and a luxurious duvet for the chilly nights, it was a perfect hideaway for two.


Throughout the days we were there the Saharan dust storms we just hitting Crete in the south, making the skies turn red there. But the weather in Napflion seem ominous and shifting under grey skies, with all the seasons in one day. I spotted an abandoned hotel when we walked through the old town – I am just a little more than intrigued with ruined buildings which you do see a lot of here. If you haven’t heard of Xenia Hotels before, they were hotels built across the whole of Greece as part of an ambitious infrastructure programme by the EOT to attract tourists. It started in the 1960s and went on up until the early 80s when most of the architecturally modernist (and some say ugly) hotels ended up sold off or sadly, abandoned. Some apparently still operate under the Xenia name. There is an Xenia Hotel in Andros Town which sits derelict we came across a few years ago. In Napflio, despite being open until just the early 2000’s this Xenia monument sits ghostly and graffitied. Despite its decay, it has the best views over the town beach, Arvanitia from its position at Acronauplia which is the oldest part of the fortified city. We explored the shingle beach here (and another abandoned bar/nightclub) and there was only one swimmer – and it wasn’t me as I decided the wind was too cold for my first dip of the year!


One of the must-do’s is a walk up to Palmiadi Fortress. I must confess this was a scary experience for me – the vertigo held off on the way up, but reared its nagging head on the way down! There were no handrails and after 999 steps to the top, admiring the views and the medieval castle architecture…all of a sudden it kicked in and I found myself getting dizzy and sitting down for a rest, the taking it a step or two at a time, then is little but of bum shuffling. Luckily it didn’t last – G took one look at me and uttered ‘pull yourself together, it is fine!’ with that boost I seemed okay. After lunch we followed the coastal trail all the way to the next beach, 3km away at Karathona – which is a stunning walk next to the sea and along the pine-tree lined path, which has cliffs used by rock-climbers (nope never tried that either, thanks!). Later when we were enjoying a post walk beer G confessed that it was a big fear that he’d have to coax me all the way down from Palmiadi or call the fire brigade! Neither seemed the best option. I must work on the old vertigo…


Although Nafplion has enough to keep most entertained with its museums, shops and picturesque cafés I’d totally recommend venturing out. Not only does the region have some of most visited archaeological sites, it also has pretty villages and vineyards in Nemea.


On the Saturday we took the trusty Ktel to Argos. Legend has it that the bird flew over Argos with one wing over its face to shield its eyes from the ugliness of the town. The lady who we rented the place from said a similar thing when she asked what we planned to do for our 5 days; “why would you go to Argos, Napflio has all the beauty!” she laughed. It sounds like this rivalry persists even now. In Argos we wandering through the town, a little less grand and more real than its rival, and eventually found a path up the peak to Larissa Castle. It was a moment when I was reminded why I love this country, as we headed off the road and onto an unmarked trail that wound upwards through an olive grove. There were spring flowers bobbing their heads in the sunlight, poppies in their vibrant red and wild white daisies scattered on the path. This was truly a pastoral slice of rural Peloponnese life when we came across a shepherd herding his flock across the hills and exchanged pleasantries ‘Kalimera’.


Apart from a family who were just leaving, we had the castle to ourselves with its layers of medieval walls, sunken churches and turrets to explore. I sat quietly and absorbed the solitude of the place in the sunlight. Not a sound of human life, just birds, sheep bleating and the buzz of bees collecting pollen for the honey the region is famous for.


On our return through Argos we ventured to see the Ampitheatre, which was free to visit, impressive but overlooked by many tourists who prefer the bigger sites. We wandered through the town market with stalls laden with piles of colourful fresh vegetables, flowers and fruits in the central platia. We then found ourselves engaged in a protracted dialogue with an elderly Greek lady with a gold tooth and a big smile. G let her walk past in a gentlemanly manner as she was laden with shopping, but this led to an interaction of many words but little understanding! We are convinced she asked us where we were from, what we were visiting and we replied appropriately (we think)…but after that, our collective understanding of Greek was challenged beyond comprehension. She gesticulated wildly and we stood there smiling and nodding wondering when it would be appropriate to escape!

On the way back we took the bus to Tiryns (Tyryntha) half way between Argos and Nafplion. It is a significant example of a Mycenaean archaeological fortress site which was built with Cyclopodean walls and featured several dams for water collection. It was super quiet and ghostly nearing 2pm when we arrived (3E entrance and only open until 3pm in the winter). There are still ongoing excavations of the megaron of the palace of Tiryns and reconstruction work to the inner walls. This site was solitude compared to our visit to Mycenae (Mykines) a few days later, which was so crowded, full of busloads of tourists and much more expensive with its 6E entrance fee. But we found that teh Ktel bus took you directly to the site entrance, despite what the guides and websites advised – which saved us a long walk! Mycenae does have very specific treasures, like the Lions Gate and the Bee Hive Tombs…which were incidentally full of bees and wasps!



The food in Nafplion was exceptionally good, although a little more expensive as it’s rather touristy. But away from the front there are lots of traditional places to eat. Aiolos was a highlight where we restored our energy with hearty beef stew and fresh boiled horta, followed by orange cake and local tsipouro.

Despite the mixed weather it’s been the perfect first part to a Greek adventure. But I still haven’t had an ice-cream and still haven’t had a swim yet. What kind of holiday can I even call this?