Greek Islands

I saw an advert in an English travel agent's window. "Greece £199". I wondered who would be interested in an advert that did not even specify where in Greece the holiday was, or even which airport the flight was to. Perhaps for some people Greece is Greece is Greece.

Greece has around 1425 islands. Or 1000 or 3000, or….. pick a number! When does a lump of rock become an island? Cynics may say that the number of islands increases when negotiations are under way with the EC for subsidies and grants. 166 islands (or 169, or…. depending on which book you read!) are inhabited. About 78 are connected by regular ferries or hydrofoils, and about 40 can be reached by beach boats or tour boats (in season). The other inhabited islands are lived on by goatherds or monks. Others may be owned by shipping magnates.

Of the 170 or so inhabited islands in Greece, major package companies visit only 12 to 18 or so. As an aside, it is interesting to see how different islands and groups of islands have found favour with different nationalities of tourist. On some islands, Greeks speak to you in English, on others the main foreign language spoken in German. In one suburb of Rhodes I found that all the adverts aimed at tourists were written in Scandinavian languages.

It is odd how difficult it is to recognise Greek islands from a distance. Difficult when you are on land, and even more difficult when you are on a ferry. The islands seem to be floating on the sea like charms on a bracelet. Often I cannot get them to tally with the islands shown on the map. The islands, Santorini, Anaphi Astypalia, Siphnos, Serifos and all the rest must have been there and visible - but they were impossible to identify. It was like trying to do a jigsaw with pieces of floppy jelly. The problem must be the difficulty of judging distance - all the islands seem to be roughly the same distance away - which of course they are not. It was also impossible to tell which islands were superimposed on others. And a small island seen from its long side looks as big as a large island seen from its narrow side. I started to doubt the accuracy of my map. Greek maps are now much better than when I first went to Greece. In 1981 the only maps I found were more cartoons than cartography and no two Greek maps showed roads in the same position. There were then rumours that accurate maps were treated as state secrets. I decided that the shape and position of islands were a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a copyright ploy so that if someone pirates a copy, the manufacturers of the original copy know that a copy has been made.

Ancient Greeks made maps (the Greek philosopher Anaximander of Miletus who died about 550BC drew the earliest known map of the world), so it is ironic to think that the Aegean was one of the first areas of the world to be accurately mapped. But look at the difficulty you had until recently in finding an accurate map of the area!

When I first went to the Cyclades in 1981 there were far fewer guidebooks available than there are today. I recall the only guidebook I took with me was the Frommer 'x dollar a day' guide to the whole of Greece. I had to find out for myself the information that is readily available in modern guide books. Guidebooks are available now not only to the whole of Greece, but also to the Greek islands, and groups of islands, as well as to individual islands.

At home in England, I used to yearn for the nomadic existence of an island hopper. These days my tastes (and years) are more mature. I have done a lot of exploring in Greece - now I like to head for a favourite part of Greece and relax. I want more out of a holiday than a couple of weeks sunbathing on a beach, surrounded by sun tan lotion, beer, and a pulp novel or two, I want to try to get a taste of Greece as it used to be before the arrival of mass tourism.

Why go to Greece? I see Greece as a temporary escape from the pressing demands of so-called civilisation at home. At one time, I used to get agitated at the delays in Greece when I first arrived, then relaxed after the first day or so and took things as they came. I try in Greece not to notice what time of day it is unless I have a pressing demand like a last bus or a boat to catch. Another thing, I never wear my watch in Greece, as however short a time I am out in the sun, I find that a white line develops on my wrist where my watch has been. If I do wear a watch in the sun, I find that however long I remain in the sun afterwards, the white / pink band remains. I put my watch into my waist bag and consult it only when necessary.

Some people try to tick off islands visited, rather like train spotters ticking off engines spotted. I would still like to visit new islands if I had a long time at my disposal. But on a two week holiday I like to spend my time mainly in one place. When I travelled around more, I liked to stay long enough to savour the atmosphere of an island. Not for me the "if it's Monday it must be Mykonos"

approach. I have still plenty more islands to visit and ones not seen for some time to revisit. There are still some groups of islands I have not yet seen at all. Much as I like most of the parts of Greece that I have visited, I have a soft spot for the Cyclades. For ages, I have been trying get round to visiting all the Cyclades. Gradually the list of the Cyclades I had visited extended. Finally, in October 1998, I reached Thirasia – I had visited all the Cyclades!

Planning trips I had felt like parodying Hamlet:
"To Kea or not to Kea
That is the question."
Should I complete my visits to the Cycladic islands this year, or shall I leave some new-to-me islands for another time? Will it be an anti climax to go on holiday without a new-to-me Cycladic island to visit? Time (and the ferry schedules and storms) would tell.
I almost always think that the island that I am on for the time being is "the best". I am usually reluctant to leave the island I am on, even when heading back to another island that I was reluctant to leave earlier in a trip. I also have both the temptation to linger and curiosity as to what may be lying in wait at the next island.

Much as I like visiting new-to-me islands, I also like going back to old favourites like Naxos and Amorgos. Going back regularly, you start recognising people you have met on previous trips, both islanders and tourists, and picking up the threads of local life after an absence.

"Don't you get bored coming back to the same place?" people sometimes ask me. No. It is like coming to another home. You do not get bored with your own home. It is like a comfortable old shoe. When I come back, I feel that I am picking up from where I left off on a previous visit. It is rather like listening to, say, "The Archers" after several months of not listening. You soon pick up the threads of the story. I sometimes wonder who is in "my" room at Eleni's in Naxos or Dimitri's in Katapola. I have to keep telling myself that the rooms have a full life even when I am not in them, yet when I go back it is almost as though I had never been away. On a small island with few visitors and infrequent boats, you soon get to recognise everyone, tourists and locals. A stable community that adds to my enjoyment of a holiday. But perhaps some people might miss the spice of change.

I have been to Greece so many times, yet I hardly know the Scottish islands: a day on Rothesay, a day on Rhum, and a trip round St Kilda. One holiday I met a family from the Shetlands (hello Jessica!). I have been to Amorgos countless times, yet never once visited the Shetlands. When on holiday in England I used go to the Isle of Wight. Byron's "Isles of Greece" was once parodied in "Punch" (some time before 1929, when the parody was reprinted in "Aegean Civilisations", edited by Sir Henry Lunn):
The last verse reads:
When Jones is at a loss to show
Where certain islands ought to be,
How well to whack him hard and low
And say, "The pain is worse for me,
To whom the Cyclades are quite
Familiar, like the Isle of Wight….
I, too, can say that the Cyclades are as familiar to me as the Isle of Wight.

I have visited remote Greek islands that most Greeks never visit - but have never been to the Hebrides. The Shetlanders had asked Eleni about Folegandros. Eleni knew nothing about Folegandros and said "Ask Susan!"

Often I find the best plan is, of course, to know the islands you would like to visit before setting out. But do not be too set in your plans. If to get from A to B involves a marathon set of connections and overnights in islands you did not intend visiting, you may be better changing your plans to flow with the available ferry routes, and leave the islands you missed for a later holiday.

Naxos and Amorgos are different, and to try to compare them would be like comparing chalk with cheese. They both now have a veneer, in many places a very deep veneer, of tourism. A few years ago I would have described Amorgos as quiet and old-fashioned, and Naxos as more - cosmopolitan is the wrong word. Worldly but in a civilised way perhaps best described it. Scratch the surface of the tourist veneer, you need to go less deep out of season, and you will still find these qualities.

I want to find the old-fashioned Greece. Greece as it used to be before the tourist invasion. Greece as it was before British lager louts arrived (although I am pleased to say that they have not reached the Cyclades, at least at the times and places I go to). I do not want islanders to live in the poverty they endured in the past. But there is a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater - if that is the right metaphor, and losing what tourists come to see.

Relax, walk, take photographs, read, eat and drink. It may not sound much, but Greece is such a relaxing place you soon start to feel you belong there. Even when I have only been here in Greece day I feel just so relaxed. A weekend away is never long enough, as you know on the Friday night that you have to set back on the Sunday evening and you never fully unwind, as it is not long before you'll have to wind up again. And your spring needs to be fully coiled for work on the Monday. I only arrived in Greece yesterday morning, and on Amorgos yesterday afternoon, yet I feel fully relaxed - and almost wish I had never got to leave. But I know I must go back to England eventually. And I would hate to see Amorgos in mid season when it is overcrowded. I would not mind seeing it in winter. (I have now visited Amorgos in every month except January, July and August. In November it seemed as if winter had not started, and in February it seemed that winter had ended!). I am glad it does get busy in midsummer, as there are few enough ways of making a living on the island.

When I look at a place today, I try to imagine it as it was in the past. In larger resort areas, there is more to discard. I remember a small book I picked up years ago at Pompeii, with photos showing Pompeii as it is today, and a transparent overlay showing an imagined reconstruction of the site. I try to do something similar in Greece, trying to imagine these resorts without that overlay of modernity. In some of the smaller islands, there is less of an overlay to imagine away. On the really small islands - like Koufonissi - there is much recent development associated with tourism. It is hard to find the heart of the island to leave behind when everything else is stripped away.

So often the weather is good, too good, too hot, idyllic blue skies etc, but it is the bad weather, the really bad weather that sticks in the memory. Some places I have only seen in the rain. If I had seen them in better weather, I may have come back with sunnier memories.

I like visiting islands out of season. For the most part, only the all the year round shops and tavernas are open, and those are the ones I like to use. It is quieter; the food is what locals rather than tourists want to eat. And I can try to ignore signs that the island is busier in the summer. Owners of some "seasonal" bars etc. will be titivating them up ready for the start of the season. Others may live elsewhere during the winter months and only come to the island nearer to the peak season months. In the spring, the islanders are enthusiastic and cheerful to the few early season holiday-makers. Later in the season, some may become blasé.
One's enjoyment of a small island does to some extent depend on the nature of one's fellow visitors. When there is only one place to eat (and sometimes only one place to stay), you are inevitably thrown into close contact with other visitors, people whom you might not choose to associate with at home. Once calling in at one of the small Cyclades on the way from Katapola to Naxos on the Express Paros two Englishmen got on board, more drunk than sober, steadily downing cans of beer, and dancing to music played on their headsets, and made me think that there are some people I would not want in the room next to mine.

Most of the tourists I meet are very pleasant people and I have mentioned them by name. A few others are less pleasant. Occasionally you meet the same tourists again on another visit.

Watching the change on Greek islands caused by tourism (or because of tourism) is like listening to news broadcasts every half hour. Unless there is a major occurrence, the change between the news in each broadcast is barely perceptible. Listen once a day and you will notice the changes more readily.

Enough talk about Greece, it is time to pack…………..