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The Greek islands are a haven July 29, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands, Greece Islands Aegean, Greece Islands Ionian.

Rich in history, culture and good food, no wonder the Greek islands are a haven for the visitors.

  • Picture this: The beach is crammed with bodies beautiful and fringed by power boats and luxury yachts. The restaurant has a shabby-chic look with white walls, simple wooden furniture and a DJ mixing ambient tracks. Lunch begins with a glass of champagne, then moves on to sea urchin soup and salmon, accompanied by a delicate local sauvignon.
  • Now this: At sunset, the locals gather at the harbour for the nightly volta, or promenade. Mustachioed men with weathered faces finger worry beads; elderly women in print dresses stand and gossip as the light fades. Half a dozen backpackers sit drinking beer at a cheap cafe, chatting.

You might think that these two scenes took place on two different Greek islands, or at least many years apart. But no: this was Mykonos on a single day this year. As I made my way back to my hotel, I paused to reflect on what so many years of travelling in the Aegean has taught me: the more Greek islands change, the more they remain the same.

And it seems tourists, can’t get enough of the Greek islands.

The picturesque fishing villages, the stunning scenery, thousands of years of history and the amazing food are all part of the appeal. I think curiosity brings people to the Greek islands. Most people have some sort of image in their heads about the islands, but their point of view generally changes once they have actually experienced it.

Tourism arrived here in unusual circumstances. In the 1960s, the construction of the country’s first resort hotels on Corfu was encouraged. At the same time, in Crete, itinerant hippies were taking up residence in the caves at Matala. Celebrities such as Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens joined them, and ushered in a country-wide invasion by independent travellers. Even today, visitors divide neatly between resort/villa types staying in one place and backpackers/wanderers on the move.

In the early days, the backpackers probably had the best of it. Greece’s resort hotels were bland affairs modelled on those of Spain, but with comparatively poor facilities. By contrast, the wanderers thrived on the very lack of organisation. They island-hopped by local ferry, staying in the suddenly ubiquitous “rent rooms” hastily added on by locals to their own houses, and eating at village tavernas. Greece in those days was an exotic, if exasperating place.

I remember, as an 18-year-old backpacker, arriving at Santorini on a ferry packed with kindly, noisy islanders. No one spoke English. The tourists disembarked, only to find, too late, that this wasn’t Santorini after all but a neighbouring island called Anafi.

A friend and I stayed on, living in a room above the only taverna, being fussed over by the locals. Visitors were still a novelty then and the word for stranger was the same as that for guest.

When we eventually reached Santorini some days later, we stared up at the famous caldera in disbelief. The scale of the cliffs was astounding; the village perched crazily on the top. It seemed incredible that anyone could live there.

But by then, I had already discovered something about Greek villages: no matter how austere or unforgiving their location, their atmosphere is thoroughly human. Bougainvillea and geraniums hang from the walls of houses; whitewashed patterns are painted on stone steps; tiny squares are lined with cafe tables. It’s as if the Greeks have learned how to balance the drama of their landscape with everyday human requirements.

Santorini, like the rest of the Cyclades group, is most people’s idea of a typical Greek island. Stark denuded hills; inland horas, villages of white cube-like houses, a tiny harbour with fishing boats and homely tavernas. But there are, of course, many other types of island.

In Corfu, I discovered a landscape rich with olive groves planted by the Venetians, and a town boasting both elegant 19th century French architecture and an English cricket pitch.

The Dodecanese had dry limestone outcrops, such as Symi and Kastellorizo, so close to the Turkish border that you could almost shout (or swim) across. In the Sporades, thick forests carpeted mountainous interiors and goat herders steered their charges down dusty tracks with sing-song voices. Then there was the breadth of historic sites. A classical Acropolis at Lindos in Rhodes; Ottoman mosques on the harbour front at Chania; Roman columns, Crusader castles, Venetian forts, neoclassical mansions. Out of all 1500 Greek islands (200 of which are permanently inhabited), it would be a struggle to find two that were anything near identical.

Now, coming back I was struck more by the similarities than the differences. All the islands have certain common features. Plain but comfortable rooms (or these days, luxurious, but rustic villas). Mini-markets selling everything from olive oil to aspirin.

Tavernas with paper tablecloths and an abundance of wine; and menus comprising mezedes of tzatziki and taramosalata, and more substantial dishes of moussaka, chicken or meat.

There are easygoing and friendly staff (not wage slaves, but working for a percentage of the profits) offering a universal welcome, including to children.

Indeed, the fairy lights strung above their doors give the tavernas an innocent, child-like aspect, as does the background presence of tinkly rembetika music. In these respects, the islands are essentially no different from what they were years ago.

For visitors, island life comprises a series of straightforward activities. You find a beach with shade. You hire a boat and putter up and down the coast. You swim and snorkel in some of the clearest water in Europe. You sunbathe, you eat and you read.

Set against a background of translucent light, life seems pared down to essentials. Island-hopping, too, is largely unchanged.

At each picturesque harbour, a coffee-drinking, chattering, backgammon-playing throng await the day’s ferry. Eventually a ship’s funnel sounds somewhere around the headland. There’s time to finish your drink at leisure, pay and stroll across to the quay as the boat approaches.

Then you’re off, across a deep-blue sea, with seabirds following the boat and, if you’re lucky, dolphins leading it.

In recent years, hydrofoils and sea planes have made many crossings faster, but they can’t compete with the ferries for atmosphere. But atmosphere can come at a price. Safety standards have improved, but not as much as they might have.

Other changes have taken place. Over-building, overcrowding and loutishness have all taken their toll. Many once-peaceful villages, even whole islands, have expanded into noisy and boisterous resorts.

The explosion of villa holidays in the islands in the early 1990s raised the bar in terms of accommodation. A second, more recent boom has seen the advent of both small boutique hotels, especially on Crete, Mykonos and Santorini, and larger five-star family ones.

And higher-spending holiday-makers mean better cafes, bars, restaurants, witness Mykonos, with its outpost of London’s fashionable Nobu, and suitably cool clientele.

Crete and Corfu, where tourism began, have fared differently.

Corfu, having seen off the lager louts of the 1980s and enjoyed a return to upmarket tourism (earning itself the sobriquet “Kensington-on-Sea” on the way), now seems to be gaining ground again with the newly created Corfu Trail.

All-inclusive resorts are springing up, channelling money away from local communities.

Crete. I revisited the village where I had spent a summer a few years ago. The cafeneion is still there, as are the old houses I remembered. They have been joined by a dozen or so rooms for rent, a clutch of tavernas, an internet cafe and a small hotel.

However, black-clad women still call to their grandchildren in the streets; old men still roll dice in the cafe; while the young people, both male and female, now make a volta through the village at sunset.

There’s a sense of modest advancement, moderated by tradition.

I sat with my Greek island essentials, a glass of ouzo, another of water; a plate of olives, a view of the sea and sky, and exulted. As I said: the more Greek islands change, the more they remain the same.

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