Greece: calm amidst the storm.

The hardest part of travel is the first step.

True enough. It was a wrench shutting and locking the front door leaving home for a long journey. Had everything been thought of and done? Oven switched off? I’d checked that everything had been switched off. Doors locked? Likewise. Everything sorted that should be taken with one? Etc. And this was the most complicated journey I – or I and Mike my travel agent friend who’d be looking after my place – had planned. 13 plane flights – a real test of logistics and superstition – through 4 countries and places not exactly safe such as Kiev; luckily the undeclared war had remained in the east of Ukraine. Then there was that Java volcano that had taken out 4 airports – 2 of which I was supposed to be landing at – just as the Iceland one had shut down airports with clouds of ash. A friend called it “Dave’s apocryphal holiday” what with Greece and its economic storm being on the route too.

Also I was trying out a daring concept: travelling light to the point of putting nothing in aircraft holds; feeling that to do so on as many as 13 flights was asking for trouble with delayed or lost baggage. I’d come across ‘cabin max’ bags and although the weight allowance was only 7 kilos it should still be possible to squeeze 5 pairs of shirts, a similar number of jeans and shorts, socks, pants plus toiletries into one. Apart from that there was the large camera bag which in theory would be allowed too. Mike thought I was nuts but I was adamant about nothing going into the hold. I’d wash clothes whenever possible and wear more than one change of them if necessary to get through airports.

The hot climate in all 4 countries to be travelled through worked in my favour: no need for bulky clothing. One plastic mac and light pullover was all I took for rain and unexpected cold.

I needed the plastic mac on the first day, taking the bus and ferry to Portsmouth harbour station under a gloomy Gosport sky through streets drab with rain. Typical of England one can’t help thinking. It was just about the only time I needed it. Then I shared train seats to Gatwick Airport with 2 large ladies – there are a lot of them in this part of the world – plus their children.

At Gatwick the check in wasn’t open for another 3 hours. A dread of arriving too late at airports had led to miscalculation. I relaxed into the evening at a coffee bar with a magazine in an easy chair by a huge window displaying drizzle over a motorway.

Wearing 2 pairs of trousers I got through the first check in when it was time with no problem. The first hurdle was overcome.

Kiev was reached at dawn. There’d been riots here since I’d come to the city with a friend 2 years ago during a non existent spring with dirty great dumps of snow at the airport. Now Kiev seemed peaceful again in high summer, with breakfast in early morning sunlight at a spot in the great length of the departures hall. There was a 6 hour wait and there would be more of those.

On to Greece. Soon the plane was over alternating sea and country that began to look arid. Mountainous too. Had to be Greece.

Greece had been teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe – and dragging Europe with it – for months if not years. Were events waiting until I got there? There were likely to be large numbers of desperate people in Athens and I had a long journey from the airport to my place for the night that I regarded as vulnerable. It was my first time in Greece and one tends to be vulnerable after a long journey or flight to an unknown place – fatigue and sometimes jet lag -and therefore easy meat for anyone up to no good, so I followed a military strategy: seize the initial objective in strength and consolidate: get to the hotel ASAP without going anywhere else then secure valuables, shower, eat, booze, get a good nights sleep. Tomorrow’s the time – when fully rested and wide awake – to get out there and see what you can do. Maybe I was over-reacting but I’d sooner be safe.. and I knew of at least one case where a lady without this approach got lost, asked thieves for directions and lost her laptop to them.

Athens airport in brilliant potent afternoon sunlight, flanked by mountain sized hills . So far so good; despite getting here by one of the world’s most unsafe airlines – I learned later – via a country unofficially at war where an airliner had been shot down.

I’d never been to Greece before. I always tried to learn a few words of the local language of any country I was visiting but the alphabet – being different – didn’t help. It was still surprising how far one could get with the aid of signs at the airport and elsewhere, words similar to English or English adapted from these words: also tone and gestures. Also surprising how many people worldwide spoke a few words of English. The station was easy to find but there seemed to be no directions for Athens or its stations.

I still got on the right train because the airport was a terminus, I realised later. The airport slipped away through arid countryside but could still be seen for a long way because it was in a basin of terrain. After a stretch down the centre of a motorway – just like in America – there was the first change of trains.

Underground into Athens. Stay sharp on the Metro. But it was okay. Not too many people, station names clearly marked in and off the train and commendable maps in 2 scales at each station telling one what was above. One more junction and 2 more stops brought me to where I wanted.

It got more dodgy from then on. The Youth Hostel linked ‘hotel’ was easy enough to find in the canyons of seedy grandeur of central Athens; but a disreputable looking character thought I was lost and attached himself to me while stayed alert. Though the streets weren’t empty they weren’t crowded so he didn’t seem to have an accomplice.

He drifted away and I found the hotel: a long flight of steps up to a cramped desk area. It was run like a Youth Hostel. Further steps up led me to a broad landing with tall imposing doors. It had been agreed that though the room had 3 bunks I was on my own and I was looking forward to a shower in what I expected was a large area beyond that door.

The only good things about the room were no one else being there and the air conditioning. There was no shower or loo but 3 bunks in a cramped sweaty space with a window opening on to a narrow waste at the back of buildings, the waste being a similar level to the window giving easy access from outside that I didn’t want. I felt better after washing myself as best I could in a basin but then a key opened the lock and there was a girl who said she was ‘cleaning.’ Late afternoon was an odd time to be doing that. This place didn’t feel secure. I was going to stay put apart from going to the loo across the hall . Tough it out with no food or booze. I was quite capable of doing that for one night knowing it was easy to eat and drink too much and abstinence teaches one to savour luxury afterwards. Tomorrow would be an easier day. It was possibly paranoid and I didn’t care, having lost a camera and mobile phone at another hostel. Security was paramount on this trip, especially at the start of it!

Meanwhile back in Portsmouth a friend had been kind enough to arrange a barbecue inviting other friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, the day after I flew out. It was going to be a long night. During the first part of it there was a party next door just to rub the point home. My time would come.

Early morning. I was told breakfast would be outside the building. The place it was supposed to be at was closed. Across the street was another place that was only good for a coffee. While there another young disreputable came up and begged for money. I’d been expecting this in Athens and gave in anyway – to a small extent – having brought plenty of Euros because of cash points drying up. There was a surprise here though.

“You speak good English.”

“I am English.” He’d come out here years ago from Sheffield and what with the economic crisis had been on the streets for awhile. Now this was interesting. He wasn’t violent, knew the score around here and – because I’d done him a favour – could be a good and fluent source of info. We chatted. It seemed that Athens was not dangerous as long as one used common sense. One shouldn’t throw caution to the winds.

I relished breakfast at a classier place further on, found the hotel where I was supposed to meet people at 11 am. and left the cabin max there.

There was still time to reconnoitre the Acropolis and get back in time for the rendevous. It was only a mile or two away and one of the main streets – the ‘Athinas’ – led straight there. Walking down it past a down and out sleeping on a bus stop bench I could see the high buildings and trees framing a distant high crag beyond and part of a temple was on top of that; though I was dismayed to see scaffolding up there too. I hoped if I got up there that refurbishments or repairs wouldn’t ruin the atmosphere of antiquity.

‘Acropolis’ is derived from Greek words meaning ‘edge’ and ‘extremity.’ From the map it looked as though it was on the southern edge of Athens centre. The whole thing was 150 metres high; a citadel of rock 300 metres across, crowned by a showcase of ancient Greek architecture and civilization dating back to almost 500 BC.

After ousting a tyranny in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC the Athenians founded the world’s first democracy as a radical solution to prevent the aristocracy regaining power; thus becoming the fabled and revered cradle of that political process. This first democracy promoted not only full participation in affairs of society but the kind of quality of life which prized personal development rather than wealth and possesions along with working all hours to get them. These ancient democratic Greeks might have had much to say about present day Britain regarding ‘aristocracy’ in terms of corporations and the super rich; market forces and the commercial world.

The road to the Acropolis was lined with substantial city buildings and trees so there was a fair amount of shade but when I penetrated a tourist area beyond and narrow uphill streets (stay sharp) modern buildings gave way to the older ones and ruins of antiquity, which seemed to reflect and build up the heat. Luckily I’d supplied myself with bottled water. One couldn’t rely on any water but bottled where I was and where I was going. I would need it.

I got into a kind of park with views of Athens and the odd temple. That being the marble Doric styled Temple of Hephaestus about a mile away. It looked complete enough to look much as it had done thousands of years ago. Much of the rest of the ancient architecture around here existed only as columns or blocks of pale stone. Anyway: I continued around the base of the citadel of rock hoping to find a flanking way up, but found that barred not only by gates with a pay booth – should have realised that would be so – but also a traffic jam of tourists although it was only something like half past eight. No chance of getting up there and back in time now, but there was time to continue the reconnaisance around the whole thing. The rear was even more forbidding: no way in and a massive sheer wall complimenting the sheer height above. How old could that be? At least it was good for photography along with secluded streets and exotic plants with some sporting flowers, a shaded restaurant in a downhill alley with the sun scorched city beyond, a small domed church with an ongoing service. It was a trial of endurance though because it was bloody hot! Thank God I had bottled water and you could get it easily here.

Finally, in time, I realised I’d circumnavigated the Acropolis and went back up Athinas to the rendevous hotel, past a drunk lying face down on a grating with a glass of beer nearly drunk beside him. A representative of the Athens science fiction group rather than a casualty of Greek economics perhaps? Knowing the amount of alcohol my friends consume.

Back at the hotel a young fellow proposed a market survey on tourism. Tourism, one thing the Greeks had going for them, was threatened by the economic storm and resulting cashpoint problems. I was early so there seemed enough time to co-operate. While this was going on people assembled and I had to hurry the guy up towards the end. Such is the nature of market surveys.

I was meeting people here for a Skyros holiday which in my case involved a 2 week writing course. Skyros Holidays were ‘alternative holidays’ involving health, well being and the creative arts.  Skyros holidays had a strong Greek connection because they were compatible with Greek philosophy and one of the 2 founders was Greek: Yannis Andricopolous, Ph.D. A former political journalist and editor he’d become an author. I was glad I’d read a trilogy of his regarding the present commercial/political status quo and the freedom to some extent from that through Greek virtues; it seemed to confirm a lot of what I thought. I’d met Yannis too, at their Isle of Wight Skyros base for weekend breaks, celebrating a New Years Eve there. Skyros holidays were present in places as far flung as Cuba and Thailand but we were heading for Skyros Centre on Skyros Island.

The holidaymakers were mostly – or nearly all – women; I chatted to a few from Ireland. The coach showed up.

After we finally got clear of Athens we were on high ground. Greece is a country of mountains, though the ones around Athens and further north had the shape of giant hills, clad in dusty pine woods, olive groves and frequent habitation. It was also a country of views, panoramas of faraway mountain and sea fading into blue haze.

A stylish white car ferry was our boat for the first ferry crossing. A few accompanying sea gulls made for great photo opportunities. I love the way they just glide up and hang there in the air, as though waiting to be photographed.

The countryside on the other side seemed to be more of a holiday zone. With a ferry terminal looking like a resort and a now and then secluded bay with sunbathers. Otherwise it was more or less a repetition, with its mountainsides and arid heaths.

Then the ferry to Skyros Island. A bigger stretch of sea with the mainland disappearing into the sky behind us and the mountains and hills of Skyros materialising out of it on the forward horizon.

There was a minute port called Linaria´. There was a ride to where we were staying on the other side of Skyros.

A white cuboid inhabited rock outcrop the size of a town on the side of a mountain. That’s the appearance of Skyros town from one viewpoint. We got into it at the other end, where the road became a lane at an open square, dwindling past shops, restaurants and bars into stepped passages and steep alleys. There was hardly a level bit of ground anywhere. The white canvas of the architecture picked out the details of door and window woodwork, wrought iron railings and stairs, chairs, and shops with their wares. Most of all the green of plant life, isolated often against the white but crawling over buildings and curtaining off them in the form of vines: an occasional surprising statement too of exotic tree or mass of brilliant purple or crimson flowers. All set off against the brilliance of white buildings and hot blue sky above. Perfect for a photographer.

Then there were the inhabitants: The local jabber and melodic chatter along the main street of wares and bistros, sometimes almost linked to the frantic newsround buzz and screech of insect communities in the greenery. Scrawny but graceful cats lying or watching in their miniature neighbourhoods. Children with flawless brown skin wandering fearlessly through the sun. Stunted but formidable old women dressed mostly in black sussing out the incoming lunatics of the Skyros Centre losing themselves up and down the wrong passage and directing them to the asylum. Yes they warned me. It was easy to lose your way here and I loved it. One of our group later called the place enchanting. A word that might be improved upon accuracy wise but I haven’t been able to do so.

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After walking through most of the town we were suddenly at the centre. Through an arch in a white wall and down some steps was a paved area;- a terrace with big long solid tables shaded by a framework; all rich brown wood. Exotic plants were everywhere but even the massive fronds of a palm didn’t obscure the view beyond a low broad wall: beyond an open slope lay one of the few flat parts of Skyros framed by hills and the slope we were on, speckled with white buildings and greenery stretching to the sea, almost as pale as the late afternoon sky.

There was a welcome and a briefing about where we would be staying. I was introduced to one of the old ladies who offered a place nearly back at the commercial part of the town. Up two flights of steps and through a solid door was a sizeable high ceilinged room with a coffee table & chairs, TV, small doors on the left to a balcony and ornate plates on the right wall. Later I learned that plates on a wall in a Greek home could be a sign of status. Before me was a kitchen the same size as the bathroom to its right, with shower;- over that was a level near the ceiling with steps come ladder ascending to a double bed. The windows were small giving a dolls house come eyrie feel to the place. The balcony added to the feel of an eyrie with a view over flat rooftops to arid though partially wooded hills. It projected over the way we’d just walked to get here; within jumping distance of the rooftops. I wondered about security but I learned that Skyros just wasn’t the kind of place to worry about that. The perils of economics aggravating crime had been left behind at Athens and the old small television reinforced this by appearing not to work. I didn’t worry feeling that one of the pleasures of travel was a temporary change giving a fresh look at life. It would be interesting and healthy to abstain from a TV and the world outside for a fortnight.

I’d travelled widely but had never stayed anywhere quite like this before. The same could be said of the town. It was the opposite from the pretentious grossly overpriced housing estates of the UK enforcing conformity. White walls appeared to be the only conformity here. The houses, small from the outside, seemed roomy enough and their closely knit adaptation to every level encouraged creativity and intimacy. It was well;- enchanting could be one way of describing it.

The idyllic feeling continued when we met at the centre for the evening meal and the first taste of Greek cuisine, definitely good for you. Drink including alcohol was available too up another flight of steps on the Skyros Centre building to the left of the entrance. One was relied upon to leave money there and it worked. While we relaxed under these influences into twilight deepening towards night and lights began to sparkle out on the plain we learned more from staff members Richard, Clare and Ari. I’d met Ari on the boat: an American from New York he was sociable and a comic at the meetings. Anyway;- Skyros town was built on the side of a volcanic plug, which explained the huge rock above us. It was built on the other side from the sea to confuse pirates or raiders anyway and the up and down convoluted layout of the place was perfect for defence and ambush. Just as well the weather was good now because when it rained any path and passage became torrents of rainwater. So there was no artificial drainage; the sort of thing that made one think the place should be a slum but there was a sense of neatness and order here, somehow it all worked. By the way, a path going down the slope below went to the beach which was surprisingly close, just round the shoulder of the slope we were on.

There was a monastery up above us on the rock, the volcanic plug itself. Maybe it was that which gave a touch of Tibet to the place though I’d never been there. There were no soaring snow capped mountains or ethereal waterfalls cascading into chasms but for me the Skyros Centre took on aspects of a cross between Shangri La and Rivendell; maybe because there was a great view in an idyllic setting and – like Frodo and company at Rivendell in Lord of the Rings – it was the calm before the storm to come; the awesome adventures for me were still to come after leaving here.

Morning. They would all be lovely ones here. After nearly totalling the TV by losing my balance on the stairs or steps I was on my balcony looking over the rooftops at my first morning on a Greek Island. Too late for morning yoga but that was optional and my first week of the two was going to be more holiday than work which meant more drinking and less exercise.

Breakfast was at 8.30. A meeting of discussion, information and compliments would follow without lasting long. Then there’d be a little time before the courses which would finish at lunch. Time to get to know the layout of Skyros Centre more: kitchen and lounge/library on same level, massage room – handled by the yoga teacher – and a comfortable meeting room up the steps where the drinks were. Ari – a psychologist – led the meeting where we got to know each other better, including names, in theory anyway. I’m worse than most at remembering names, especially when the weekend after we arrived I still hadn’t got my writing course tutor’s name right. Embarrassing.

Maybe it was because Mez gave us plenty to think about. A lecturer and author she was an energetic and creative tutor, setting short timed themed writing which was often entertaining. There was ‘homework’ though that was not really compulsory and sometimes not discussed the following morning. There was plot structure and aspects of writing a novel and marketing it. All discussed seated around one of those big tables with the view.

I was the only man in the writing group of 6 women and Mez. The same was true of the ‘Life Choices’ group which Ari ran in the meeting room. It made for a good last email to my SF friends back in Blighty along the lines of ‘loads of women and booze in a place like Shangri La.’

Then there was the art course. Only one person on that. She and the tutor retreated up to what I thought was a large garden shed with windows on the other side of the terrace from the centre. It was the Art Studio. I felt for the tutor, Amanda, somewhat: a lady from Brighton she was a good conversationalist and found me interesting too.

There was no washing machine in my kitchen; which meant I would be picking up some powder myself, scrunching my clothes around with that in the sink and hanging them up anywhere I could to dry which wasn’t too difficult in this kind of heat. Hadn’t done it this way since crossing Africa in 1978. All part of the fun of being here.

The only part that really wasn’t fun was having to put used toilet paper in a bin by the loo instead of down the same. The Greek ones were small enough to get bunged up if one did that. It went completely against my instincts of not leaving the worst samples of oneself around for others; particularly maids, whose job could be demeaning enough anyway. But this was the rule in Greece and its worst aspect for me. Not that Greece should be singled out. The loos in Indonesia and the Philippines would have the same design and the same rule that applied in Greece applied in Thailand. Let’s change the subject now this explanation is behind me, as it were.

The afternoons were ours to play with. The Greeks had a pretty prolonged siesta judging by the shops closing at 2 pm and not opening until 7. I went to the beach past 3 cats taking it easy under a park bench – well it was the same as that – at a junction. I called it Lazy Cat Corner. (Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner ranch.)

At the beach I witnessed a ship in the sky! No really; It looked like that! The haze was such that the blue of the sea blended into the sky without a horizon and it was almost as though Skyros was floating in the sky. An incredible effect but I didn’t have my camera. Sometimes it seems the best photos are the ones that got away.

Turn left out of the Skyros Centre instead of right – down to the beach – and one goes uphill. That way is the ‘Manos Faltaits Museum.’ Manos Faltaits was an artist whose style reminded me of Modigliani. The museum was housed in the Faldai family residence and was almost more of a multilevel warehouse than a museum. Chock full of costumes, paintings, embroidery, antique furniture, ceramics, daggers, cooking pots and vintage photographs: a history of post Byzantine Greece to the present day, preserving tradition.

It was also on the site of an ancient temple. And there was a naked male statue – like ‘David’ – on a pedestal; that the women made a bee line to have their photos taken under this example of manhood, much to my amusement.

After the museum there was a break on a terrace shaded by vines, with a fantastic view of the plain and sea which still looked like the sky.

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Shangri La? Rivendell? How about simply a Greek paradise. Backed up by a great meal at dusk and beer that went down very well in a nearby restaurant with a view, followed by a drunken trek home through the steep labyrinth of Skyros.

I was down on the beach the following day with camera but the seamless blending of sea and sky had gone. Going back up the incline was a killer in the heat.

Meanwhile back at the Lazy Cat Corner Ranch the moggies were laid out by the heat into identical corpse positions along the ground under the bench, by the time I trudged back up there. I was feeling the same way myself what with the incline I’d just come up so I didn’t blame them, renaming the place Dead Cat Corner. It became known as such.

The heat had the opposite effect on the Cicadas or whatever insects were making the racket. A nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge-nadge noise that was almost loud enough to interfere with the writing group what with readings and so on. It would seem to be even louder than what I’d encounter in the tropics later. One of these insects was found camouflaged to look exactly like tree bark.

The writing group continued its good work anyway. Which included mine even after I’d been kept awake in the small hours by Greek youths partying under my place with what sounded like toy cars running down inclines. The following morning I’d warned Mez that I was likely to be slow witted but she thought highly enough of my stuff to say I should be kept awake more often. I told her I’d try not to make a habit of it.

Sometimes we’d eat out, there being many places to chose from. The same applied to drinking; the most memorable evening being the cocktail evening trawling the beach bars. That would coincide – Ari told me – with a full moon being up over the sea so I took my camera along.

Talk about a great evening. I’d no idea what I drank but it was all nice and the effects were extremely pleasurable. It also either helped me take good photos or didn’t harm my attempts at it because I got some good mystical ones of that full moon; the sky displaying the pastel hues of the afterglow of sunset. Once in awhile one comes across a fragment of heaven on Earth where the place is not only beautiful but has an otherworldly feeling and the company’s good. Skyros was it.

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Well into the night we had great seafood at a restaurant at the other end of the bay where there was a small harbour. Several of us then tried skinny dipping we were that loosened up from normal inhibitions. I’d make it an offence to spread them, regaling everyone at the restaurant with how I hated that word ‘inappropriate’: “a mealy mouthed pusillanimous kiss of death office politician’s charter of a word from the curse of political correctness” were the words I used, or similar. After the holiday I told a lady that people fond of using that word should be sentenced to loss of love life for an indefinite lingering period. Anyway it was unlikely that people could see us from the shore but one had to be careful of submerged rocks or concrete in the harbour.

Then back in a bar in the early hours I danced salsa with Amanda who later told me I was brilliant. How this should be so was mystery to me. I’d not only not danced salsa for 15 years but wasn’t that good when I did! Perhaps it was the cocktails; but I was told not to say that.

I’m not sure how I got back up the mountain not only to my eyrie but up that ladder to my bed! But I made it and somehow could rouse myself early enough the following morning to photograph a man sweeping the shadowed street cum alley below my window, while – remote from his toil – the early morning sun highlighted the hills out of town. Did he do the whole town on his own or were there others? Either way that was why Skyros town was tidy.

There was another place on the island for Skyros holidays: Atsitsa Bay. A drive across the island there went through hills wooded with pine. There was also a strange tree I’d never seen before. A stunted oak might be the best way of describing it. Another small plain was to the north west, like the one before us at the centre. There was a military airfield there; Skyros being central in the Aegean Sea.

Atsitsa Bay seemed to consist of a hotel on one side and the Skyros holiday resort on the other, apart from the ruin of a dock consisting mostly of a double pillar that stuck up like a sea stack at the entrance to the bay. There had been a railway there from a mine on the island. Otherwise it was a delightful rocky cove with pine woods.

The resort spread through subtropical vegetation on different levels; though it wasn’t on a mountain like Skyros town. The odd sculpture helped give it the feel of a hippie sanctuary and life was largely freewheeling here. One could chose from a great variety of things:-
Landscape Art.
Yoga.
Windsurfing.
Singing.
Meditation.
‘Passionate Living.’
Mosaics.
Abseiling.
That was one variety for a 2 week holiday but there were many others.

There was a beach party in a neighbouring cove. One could walk there but some swam. Sure enough there was drink and company there. As for swimming this Greek holiday and my further travels would see me catching up on years of neglect of that.

Once again Ari was a good source of info. for some great photography. The sunsets were good here he told me and though I missed sunset itself I got a few good ones of the declining sun burnishing the sky and sea into bronze and gold. The dying glow of the western sky at dusk was good too with the ruin adding a great silhouette throughout.

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Then there was food and drink and an audience for a Hollywood writer waxing enthusiastically about where we were and how good it was for creativity. A celebrity on top of everything else. If only mankind could slow down from the commercial rat race into more of this kind of life.

Nor was that the only trip there. They were good at organising trips at Skyros Centre. The 2nd journey there involved a boat trip. Another halcyon time: of cruising round a remote part of the coast in the sun, witnessing a beached boat wreck as big as a house and contorted strata on the cliffs;– a fantastic sight. I got spectacular photos of that cliff strata; like a geology lesson on the forces that build fold mountains. This is an active area regarding that and there was a notice about earthquakes at the centre.

And then there was the swimming.

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There was one place in particular. A secluded cove free of humanity apart from us, with beautiful turquoise hued sea. It was as though a swimming pool had morphed into this small bay. The waters were incredibly clear; which happily went against my feeling that the Mediterranean region might be a trap for pollution.

The worst thing that happened here was the laptop I’d brought refusing to delete junk emails or send any home by the end of the first week . I was cut off which could worry Mike. I hoped it was the wifi here but suspected it wasn’t. The bloody thing was now wasting time that could have been spent at the beach and had been nothing but trouble since I bought it in June, wasting time that could have been spent learning how to take great photos with the Nikon instead of good ones.

We were coming into the 2nd week so it was time for yoga to calm the nerves; at the cost of getting up earlier. It was on a rooftop within sight of the centre going towards the beach, still with the view. Trouble was there was only one way in and out and one of the old ladies along the route kept letting her small vicious psycho yapping horror of a dog loose to attack the yoga teacher’s dog, more graceful, probably a greyhound. This resulted in some lively Greek slanging matches while other little old Greek ladies in black emerged in sinister fashion from doors in white walls to watch the fun. I felt guilty about its humorous aspect for it was serious enough to have us band together to run the gauntlet of what I called Yapping Dog Gulch until we reached the friendly territory (or couldn’t care less territory) of Dead Cat Corner.

There were a few trips I’d been looking forward to. One of which was with Ari up the steep alleys to as close as we could get to the monastery. I’d been nagged by one woman about getting flip flops like everyone else rather than wear hiking boots, but one had to watch ones step with the up and down nature of this place, hiking boots were good for grip whereas flip flops were useless and it was folly to risk injury when I had real challenges in front of me; all for the sake of fashion!

As we ascended we learned that the wealthier or more favoured Greeks lived on the upper slopes whereas the poor were down below; which explained the weeds growing in the byways below my place. But the route we followed seemed to be often up the side passages of houses and I expected a challenge of the private property nature only to emerge at picturesque junctions.

Churches and small places of worship exist at random spots in Skyros. One at least had a bright blue dome reminiscent of what I’d seen in Kiev. That might have been the one where a funeral was held lasting for a day at least; I was walking up the main shopping street and became aware that I was threading my way through a real crowd of people dressed in black. They were there when I went back that way later.

There were more cats. These looked healthy enough so maybe they were upper class ones. Cats in Skyros tended to be on the slim side though and I’d seen a few in bad condition. In the past things were rough for them until there was a drive for more humane treatment. The Dead Cat Corner cats had a small bowl of something so apparently someone was looking out for them.

The monastery – or it’s outer parts – was a study in photographic still life: an arched passage led up to a courtyard with rich brown pots and their plants and an occasional small tree set against the sunlight and shadow steps and white buildings, with magnificent views beyond. There were a few bells too. A service was in progress in the dark ornate interior of part of the monastery. Packed with the locally devoted. I felt like an interloper. This society was only carefree and creative up to a point; religion was more in evidence here than in Britain.

After that the descent. Although Skyros can be a confusing labyrinth there aren’t – as a rule – dead ends. So it was the kind of place where before long one can surprise oneself with an “ah I know where we are now.”

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That evening I had a meal with Ari and Amanda. Skyros comes alive at dusk with bejeweled lights and conversations at bars, bistros and restaurants galore. It’s got the perfect climate for it. After a hot day here there’s nothing better than to unwind in the evening with a beer or two and Greek cuisene when there’s no need to put more clothes on because it’s going to stay comfortable in a ‘T’ shirt all night. Carefree relaxation for all. Nice to have a table overlooking much of the nightlife too, as ours was.

The 2nd trip was to Rupert Brooke’s grave. Yes this notable First World War poet was buried on this island. I’d already referred to – or played on – that at the writing group to their amusement. My travelling alarm clock that was like an old friend became the first casualty of this campaign when it was dropped out of the camera bag on to the cobblestones and stopped working. So:-

Now I’m defunct think only this of me.
That in some corner of a foreign field
There lies a clock of England.

It was a journey across the whole of the island. Skyros is actually two islands joined into one, an enthusiast at Atsitsa Bay told me. I could believe it from the map and from the scenery. The other southern end of the island could be seen from the beach near Skyros town: a great mountain bulk like a gigantic hill descending in precipitous slopes and cliffs to the sea. The central part of the island was the narrowest part; consisting of a flat bottomed valley hinting at fault lines and a possible join of geology. The southern mountain being different terrain from the north;- massive, high and barren, in contrast to the jumbled hills and extensive pinewoods of the north.

There was a place in the valley where we visited dwarf ponies – and a foal – which are indigenous and unique to Skyros. Then the road wound up around the mountain bulk with views of silhouetted promontories and islands set in a dazzling sea.

Rupert Brooke’s grave was set in a secluded olive grove, surrounded by green railings which together with a low white monument formed a fence around his grave. His famous poem was inscribed at the front. He died from an infected mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli when he was 28. What an age to die from something that insignificant, in its early stages anyway. Though many were dying tragically younger than that then. When I was 28 I crossed Africa but would live to have many more adventures and achievements, though there was time too for more frustrations and disappointments. The only thing death has taught me is the importance of making the most of life or having a happy one as long as one’s able, physically or mentally.

There was a bay at the end of the valley on our return where we could have a swim and supper at an open air restaurant. The drink flowed and one of our party had octopus, the size of the tentacle prompting another to exclaim “was that hacked off when it attacked a village?” An Irish girl who didn’t drink but was a comedian took drunken photos of me judging by the angle. Another fun filled evening. Make the most of it for poor Rupert’s sake.

Towards the end of the stay I decided to explore the plain below with my camera to the far coastline, hoping to link up with the others on the beach while returning; but I fell against the coffee table back at my digs breaking what looked like expensive china. At the centre Ari was on a never ending phone call so that delayed my worried report. I was sure I was in for financial damage but was told not to worry and – inexplicably – was not charged anything; which I think should be a recommendation for Skyros holidays.

Anyway, after this late start I descended to a hike past subtropical gardens and white villas to that far coastline; a scenic dazzling one especially to the west where there was a national park. Beyond the harbour were 2 more places of worship: one carved into a whitewashed corner of a huge rock, another on a rock outcrop offshore. The Greeks are a religious people or seem to be. Then the journey back past a spectacular eroded rock: many picturesque views of boats and bathers in beautifully clear water, with Skyros town on the slopes of the volcanic plug beyond and the awesome cliffs of south Skyros much further, but I was too late for some of those bathers to be the people I’d got to know.

The writing course was more or less wound up with a reading of work we’d done on the novels – short or otherwise – that we’d been preparing. It wasn’t a success for me although my descriptions of ‘dragon’ wildlife and jungle I’d been writing about were admired. I was having a bash at an SF fantasy extrapolated from the jaunt I was about to attempt. The trouble was I got bogged down in a quicksand of describing the planet concerned. Obviously planets fascinate me but I hadn’t put enough ‘human interest’ into it; according to the women. I’d noticed that they were better than me at putting themselves into other people’s shoes as it were, complete with emotions. I wondered if women tended generally to be better at that?

That was only one way of looking at it though, I felt later. It could be tedious trying to follow their stuff too, which often appeared to delve into the minutiae of people and their problems. It reminded me of soap operas which made me feel claustrophobic. ‘Let me out of here to the world outside!’ I wonder sometimes if soap operas and too much emphasis on what can go wrong with people is making us lose sight of alternatives? Is actually educating us into behaving badly? An alternative for me is to lose myself in the beauty and scale of the natural world. One example was being comforted by the fantastic tapestry of stars in a desert night sky reminding one of the true scale of things and reducing human affairs to their true proportion: ‘that big.’ (Tiny.)

The subject of feminism had also come up. It seems to me to be a broad church and I support aspects of it, or women’s rights anyway;- such as birth control, equal pay structures and last but not least equal educational opportunities. I get the impression though, that some feminists are not interested in equal rights but want to swap one power game – male dominated society – for another;- female dominated society. Worst of all are the puritanical feminists who seem to condemn men as being potential rapists and are hell bent on imposing no freedom of speech and a society of inhibited fear.

At least there was little puritanism in our group when Mez set us a final bit of fun in which we had to deliberately include as many sexual innuendos as possible. I played along with a piece based on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a cabaret that evening and my offering followed the raunchy example of one of the women in the group. Mez publicly complimented me the following morning for not getting upset when they got worked up reading out the innuendos. (Why should I?) “Oh I thought it was wonderful,” I replied. “Just took awhile getting my head round it.” Laughter.

Our last night was a slap up meal at a restaurant in the town square. The waitress who served us had worked at the centre and gave me a big kiss when she arrived with my pizza. That – and the illuminated merrymakers eating and drinking all round the square – reinforced the feeling that Skyros town was one big fun palace; but I had an early night for it was time to leave.

My new travelling alarm clock went off. I heard a suitcase being trundled along the alley below in the night, went out on to the balcony and hailed one of our fraternity making his way zombie fashion to the centre rendezvous.

At the other end of town there was still noise and drinking at the clubs and bars. When do the young ones sleep in this place? Traces of dawn were coming up as we left.

“I’m off to the Misty Mountains, Rohan and Mordor” I exclaimed to Clare; to whom I’d explained my sensations regarding Rivendell. Well not exactly, but I was going to hunt dragons. (Don’t miss the next episode.) We saluted each other when I was on the deck of the huge ferry. Dawn came up as we left Skyros.

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Back in Athens everyone was flying home so I had with an afternoon to explore the Acropolis. The magic of such places can be imagining a different world with some props and the more info. the better. But! It was blighted by refurbishments. The Parthenon was a cage for construction junk and they even had a light railway up there. Talk about saving a ruin from becoming a ruin by ruining it. I consoled myself with the panoramas of city and landscape while thinking of an old Cliff Richard song ‘The Next Time’ that was filmed with the Parthenon in the background. Part of ‘Summer Holiday.’
“And heartaches such as this
Will just be ancient history.”

Back at the dump I was staying in though they had a room with a shower and a view this time.

Onward. Thousands of feet over holidaymakers in Greece. Greece had been a good time and the first stage was completed without mishap. Only 11 more flights to go.
© D Angus 10 15

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One Response to Greece: calm amidst the storm.

  1. Very nice David, thanks for reflecting on your Skyros Holiday.

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