Reflections on Greece

We spent 252 days in Greece. The longest we have stayed in any country on our travels so far. Time and geography meant that we had so many opportunities to explore a country that in so many ways feels unlike one homogenous land. Its different regions have such distinct identities, landscapes and histories and it was a real privilege to spend so much time there.

The Greeks

As I sit down to write our reflections on our time in Greece the country is reeling from the unimaginable horror of the forest fires which rampaged through a section of its mainland coast. A rising death toll and hundreds of lives inexorably changed. A national tragedy that is currently so raw and those left behind so angry and broken but one which also demonstrates in the most horrible of circumstances the spirit of Greece that we have grown to know and love.

For the country that gave us one of the world’s greatest civilisations, that gave us democracy and government, has since lived through periods of some of the most unimaginable adversity, repeated foreign occupation, the horror of war from external forces followed quickly by violent internal conflict. Learning more about the country and its people we are left in no doubt that it those very experiences that have shaped a nation whose pride is unbreakable, spirit determined and resilience strong.

From the unfathomable bureaucracy of getting our permit to sail in Greece with its many stamps to sitting drinking raki and discussing the economy with an old friend. We’ve met some real characters and heard lots of stories of everyday life in Greece – the impact of the financial crisis, their relationship with their neighbouring countries, the impact of tourism (or lack of it) and environmental concerns (or lack of them). But mostly we heard that they really hate paying taxes and that they really love an official stamp!

What we know about the Greeks is that they are a people who can and will pick themselves up from the ashes of razed villages like the people of Anoiya, Arkadiou and Melidoni.

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That, and they really hate paying their taxes!

Gods, myths and monsters

We had all good intentions of reading Homer during our time in Greece and understanding more about the Greek myths while we were in the places they were set but the truth is we got busy reading a lot more modern stories of Greece and never quite got round to it. We couldn’t help but bump into a few characters along the way though.

 The exceptionally kitsch museum at Katakolo tried its best to teach us the paleoarcheological origins of monsters like the Cyclops, Medusa and the Minataur and as we rounded the Peloponnese we found the entrance to Hades but no three headed beast.

We bumped into gods, Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon, all over the place, taking care to pay special respects to Poseidon for looking after us on the sea.

And goddesses too – Hera, Europa, Athena amongst them.

We followed a bit of Odysseus’ epic voyage but got all confused about where he actually came from. Was it Ithaca or Lefkas? We left none the wiser.

We will read some Homer though sometime, if only to relive our own journeys in Greece.

Food and drink

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Greek food does not necessarily set the culinary world on fire but it certainly wasn’t quite as boring as we remembered from our previous holiday. We developed firm favourites from the often very similar menus and found some regional specialities along the way.

The Greeks don’t really do breakfast. A bit like the Italians, its a quick coffee and a croissant but actually some of our most memorable meals in Greece were breakfast – the cheese stuffed pancake smothered in honey that powered me up to the Turkish castle above Limeni in the Peloponnese, the Cretan banquet that Akis treated us to on our arrival in Chania and the beautiful cool, smooth yogurt that became an on board staple with local grown fruit and honey.

Gyros – both the traditional kebab meat and vegetarian version (essentially a chip butty with tzatziki) – and the ubiquitous savoury pastries – cheese and spinach pies – provided cheap and easy lunches on the go. On board Pintail Greek salad has always been a staple whichever country we’ve been in but we certainly perfected it during our time in Greece – its the sprinkling of dried oregano that makes it.

Fresh, local produce was everywhere – a gift of eggs delivered by our taxi driver, Nikos, in Katakolo, the strongest cheese made by farmer turned harbour master, Vasili, on Paros, fresh almonds from the tree of sponge diver Nikolas on Kalimnos, oranges and honey bought on the roadside on Rhodes. And the tastiest, fresh tomatoes in every market.

There were plenty of the more unusual specialities – snails on Crete, sun dried octopus on Poros and the most delicious mountain greens on Paros.

From his first souvlaki in Argostoli to the meat feasts at our favourite “coloured tables” restaurant in Agios Nikolaos Stefan definitely got his meat fix in Greece whilst the vegetarian options did not disappoint. We (perhaps too) regularly feasted on tapas style spicy cheese dip, courgette balls, gigantes (“big beans”) and saganaki – just a dish full of melted cheese loveliness.

Who said Greek food was boring?!

And how did we wash all that food down? With rather a lot village wine – which is often not as bad as you would think given it often comes in a recycled plastic bottle although there were a couple of times when even Stefan found it completely undrinkable. Greece also enabled me to continue my daily coffee habit even in the hot weather with the introduction of the freddo espresso (iced coffee) which I learnt to order “medium” (one sugar).

We will take a way a couple of new recipes for the galley – mushroom and chestnut casserole from Vamos on Crete, big beans from just about everywhere – and some pretty raki cups from Margarites but it might be a while before we have another Greek salad!

Islands

Greece has around 6000 islands, 227 of which are inhabited, and although we did our best we visited only 29 (only 28 if you don’t count Lefkas as an island and if you also count some that we just anchored off and didn’t actually step foot on).

From the big islands of Crete, Rhodes and Corfu with their very own distinct identities and histories

to the prettier, smaller islands with their own style and feel – like Leros, Sifnos, Ithaca and Poros

and the more rugged and wild Kasos, Tilos and Patmos

to the uninhabited tiny specs of rock that offered an incredible sense of isolation and the very best swim spots.

Whether in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese or the Ionian we always found towns and villages full of narrow, stone paved streets, bright squares and interesting corners to be explored.

The price for all those islands to be explored was never really being alone on the water but it was a price well worth paying for sharing them for a while. For every Sivota there was a Dhia.

Churches

Anywhere you are in Greece you will be in sight of a church. It might only be a tiny chapel, maybe even only a miniature shrine, but it will be there and you won’t have to look far.

The Orthodox Church is ever present in the Greek landscape and in the lives of the people. Almost everywhere is named after one saint or another which sometimes makes navigating a little difficult.

The Greeks don’t appear particularly devout in their Christianity. They don’t necessarily go to church every week. We’ve seen people sitting in cafes or walking along the street watching services on the television or their smartphones. But the customs, traditions and rituals seem intrinsically intertwined with their everyday lives.

And the Christian festivals are BIG business in Greece. We had left for Turkey and missed Greek Easter but got a taste of what it might have been like at Carnival at the beginning of Lent. Birthdays come second to celebrating name days and there’s a blessing for just about everything, including the marina we spent winter in.

Cats

If there were a lot of churches, it sometimes felt as though there were more cats than anything else in Greece. It was impossible to sit down for a meal outside (and sometimes inside) without attracting at least one, and usually more, hopeful feline. At one table in Vlikho Bay we were surrounded by at least four who conspired to half inch the skeleton of my fish and pulled it off with such speed that we almost didn’t see it go!

 

They really were everywhere – in the souvenir shop, in the ancient synagogue, even trying to stowaway on Pintail –

which was great for our cat-loving guests!

We loved our time in Greece but after so long and as the Ionian got so very busy on the water we were really ready to leave. Which is a shame because it is a country that gave us so much. Kiosks on every corner, old men playing backgammon, a soundtrack of goat bells, white buildings against blue sky, olive trees to the horizon are just some of the memories we will take away with us.

And we managed to leave without seeing a single plate being smashed!

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