10 Highlights of a Greek Odyssey

Saying hello while you wave goodbye is a natural fact of long-term travel. No sooner have you become attached to one place, one person, than it is time to move on again. This blog is a tribute to moving on: 10 highlights that made our time in Greece rich, memorable, and ‘real’. Time to say ‘hello’ to Turkey and wave ‘goodbye’ to Greece.

1   Aegean Sunrise

There was no one else around when we stepped off the ferry in Igoumenitsa. It took a while to find our way out of the international port to the dock where the Corfu ferries depart. Nothing to do but wait. I felt chipper as I gazed into the fishy waters below, reverberating with the significance of our visit. Glad to be by the sea again. The cold thickened. Richie wrapped his blanket tighter around him. The bakery flung open its doors, and the sun rose. It was splendid! “Hello Greece we are here, please give us the best!”

2   Cold Coffee

Drinking cold coffee is a pass-time at which Greeks excel. Not wanting to be left out of the fun Richie and I adopted the habit promptly. In Greece, cold coffee is as much of a necessity as it is an indulgence: the only sane way to pass the murderously hot long afternoons when your Crocs melt faster than Icarus’s wings. Most cafes provide wifi so rather than spend your precious euros in a smoky internet cafe you may as well buy a cold drink while you check emails and travel forums. Quality and prices vary but what stays the same is the sweet, smug indulgence of being able to sit and wile away a few hours while the rest of the world deludes itself about the necessity of ‘work’.

Cautionary note: unless you want to support Nestle avoid the ‘frappe’ and go for the real arabicca deal, the freddo cappucino. 

3   Self Catering in Paliaxori

Who doesn’t miss home cooking when they’ve been on the road for long months at a time? Preparing meals at Angelo and Birgitte’s Epirot home was a pleasure. Angelo is a hard act to follow in the kitchen. “Help yourself to anything,” he told us in an email. Inside the cupboards we found jars of coffee and secret stashes of all his finest Little Greek Pie herbs and spices.

A strict regime of cooking, eating, Pimsleur Greek lessons and Euro2012 football prevailed. In the space of two weeks we left the village only twice: once to visit the fishmonger, and a second time to raid the farmer’s market in Filiates: grey mullet, salad, eggs, feta, olive oil, retsina and the fruits of the season, cherries & apricots.

The arrival of the mobile food van on tuesdays was a big event. The saucy village Yiayias assisted us in choosing the firmest eggplants, and were generous in bestowing bag fulls of their finest home grown olives. When we craved a sweet treat the white mulberry tree down the road obliged, and when that wasn’t enough we joined Maria on her patio for ‘sweet spoons’, syrupy preserved fruits, citrus peel and rose petals.

Needless to say, we departed Palixori happier and heavier than when we arrived. Richie arrived a lightweight, and departed a welterweight – he’s never looked or felt so good! “Kali orexi” (bon appetite).

4   Hiking in the Vikos-Aoös National Park

The Vikos-Aoös National Park is one of northern Greece’s hidden gems: 12,600 hectares of rugged peaks, gorges, rivers, Byzantine monasteries and traditional stone and slate villages. Travelling without a car forced us out on foot into the heart of the National Park. First stop was Monodendri and the Vikos Gorge (deepest in Europe), followed by the picturesque Papingo Villages and Aristi with its arresting Monastery of Panagia Spiliotissa.

In Vikos-Aoös the word “Wow” – naff at the best of times –  lost all meaning: gnarly plane trees, wild flower meadows, stone bridges and streams of turquoise water pushed the limits of our concept of Eden on Earth. The pinnacle of our expedition was a three hour hike along the Voldomatis River. The route was punctuated by unique microclimates where strange primordial species flourished – frogs, insects, ferns and flowers. Insofar as ever-changing scenery and unspoiled wilderness go, Viko-Aoös set the bar for me. When you experience nature on this level you can only wonder why we’ve created so many ingenious ways of despoiling it!

5   Seed Swap with Xenofon

Not everyone gets excited by the prospect of swapping seeds. Thankfully, Xenofon was our kinda guy. When our little pouch of seeds, gathered from Spain, Epiros and the farthest reaches of Norfolk and Yorkshire made an appearance on the kitchen table, Xenofon’s eyes lit up: white mulberry, carob, rocket… After a quick dash to his bedroom Xenofon returned with an armful of jars and packages. “Here, French wildflower mix,” he said excitedly, gesturing that we should take a ladle full of ‘sporos’ from the packet; next came sage from his mother’s garden, and acorns gathered during a recent walk in the forest. Fantastic!

Before leaving Xenofon’s apartment Richie did a round of the balcony, poking an assortment of vegetable and flower seeds into the soil beneath Xenofon’s oak, pomegranate, hazel and persimmon trees. Grow little seeds, grow, and make Xenofon’s balcony the envy of Ioannina!


6   Couch Surfing with a Greek Intellectual

I love people who own bookshelves! And even more so, bookshelves filled with interesting and obscure titles. As a Professor of Political Science at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University, Spyros had something unique to offer. Within minutes of arriving he had deposited the key to his front door in our hands, excused himself for going out (prior engagement), and issued an injunction to help ourselves to his extensive library of music, DVDs and books. There was stuff here that I’d never heard of, and never likely to hear of again.

That evening, when Spyros returned, we joined forces in the kitchen to produce a lavish dinner of salad, spaghetti, prosciutto and loukoumi; accompanied by debate about the future of Greece, capitalism and the world banking cartels. It made me feel sad.

“If you only read one book,” said Spyros on the last day of our visit, during a resource-swap that defied every law of copyright, “make it this one.” The book to which he was referring was Caliban and the Witch. I’ve since begun reading it. Extraordinary. History as you’ve (they’ve) never (let you) read it before!

There was no time during our visit to attend one of Spyros’s lectures on opera and politics, but there was just enough time to burn some CDs: choral arrangements from the middle ages, Andreas Scholl arias and an album of Armenian folk music. As we took with one hand we gave with the other. Richie’s 320 gigabyte hard-drive was still hot from working overtime when we said goodbye:  a new collection of audiobooks, ebooks, documentaries and permaculture manuals was now waiting on the desktop of Spyros’s computer.

7   Athenian rooftop BBQ

It takes a special person to get up at 6:30 on a sunday and fetch two people they’ve never met from a train station. Mitsos and Emily did one up on this, offering us a home for 4 days and an experience of Athens that you cannot put a price on. Within twenty four hours of arriving we’d been treated to a swim at the beach below the Temple of Poseidon and an Athenian rooftop barbecue. We were ravenous. When would it be ready?

Friends and siblings arrived for the celebration – 8 of us in total. There were sausages from ‘the village’ (whose village?), a rustic Cretan bread and tomato salad, horta, feta, olives, chargrilled fish and a peach and apricot flan! Between tastings Mitsos showed us the way to his secret rooftop garden, where basil and zucchinis were growing out of raised beds made from recycled timber pallets. It was a wonderfully convivial scene around the table – flickering tiki torches, sultry breeze, homemade wine, wafts of fish from the grill and ample amounts of nimble conversation. “Nostimo” (delicious!)

8   Athens Acropolis

A visit to the Acropolis was the syrup on my baclava, the mastic in my ice-cream. Mrs Humphries, my high school ancient history teacher was on my mind as I caught my first glimpse of the venerated rock. One never knows how these experiences are going to effect you. For me, it was the culmination of a great deal of study, learning and imaginative identification. The gods and goddesses have not abandoned Athens, nor have the philosophers. Socrates is back! He performs nightly in a courtyard at the foot of the Acropolis. We scored two of the best seats in the house for his trial; a production of Socrates Now by the Helliniko Theatro. Why you lot found him guilty is a mystery to me… he spoke more sense than anyone I’ve met in a long time and had some pretty good ideas about how to move beyond the ‘crisis’. When are we going to stop shooting the messenger, and reach for the stars?

Note: Yannis wants to bring his production of Socrates Now to Australia. Do you know a venue or host who would be excited about connecting with Yannis? If so, get in contact with Elliniko Theatro!

9   Learning how to erect a yurt

We’d slept in them, we’d studied in them, we’d celebrated in them, we’d lusted after them, but we’d never erected a yurt on our own. At Horo in the Peloponnese we had a chance to do just this – 4 times over. To start with it was a lot of fiddling about. We poured over the instructions, learning the lingo and speculating over which pieces fit where. It became apparent that we’d both benefit from a crash-course in tying knots. We persevered, laying concertina wall frames and tapering spokes on the ground, sorting wall canvas from roof canvas and generally feeling our way.

It was a good feeling seeing the pieces coming together – battening down the hatches until everything felt secure and ‘locked in’. Casting the crown cover over the top was a thrill – it felt as if we were raising the mast of a great ship or putting the capstone on a prehistoric stone monument. Finito! Richie and I felt so confident with our handy-work that we moved our bags from the tent and took up residency in the 10-foot yurt. Pity it’s not as easy to build a functioning intentional community as it is to erect a yurt!

10   Swimming, Castellorizo

Castellorizo, pearl of the Dodecanese, homeland of my Yiayia. It was always going to be special – my first visit to the island – and it was! And who better to share it with than Richie. We may not have solved the island’s land-fill crisis, or its water and food dependence, but we sure had a good time exploring. Swims in particular were a special time for me – bringing to mind my mother, my aunty Zeny and my Papou, who are all avid swimmers. Cousin Kate sent an email informing me that the place I’d chosen as my very own ‘swim spot’ was the same place she and Matt had chosen for ‘marinating’ the year before. Special! Even the turtles turned up to join us. Swimming in the waters off Castellorizo is the closest I’ve ever come to being baptised – heavenly!

I had a false belief

I thought I came here to stay.

We’re all just visiting,

All just breaking like waves.

The ocean made me

But who came up with love?

Push me pull me,

Push me

Pull me out…”

– Eddie Vedder, ‘Push me, pull me’


Filed under Books, Culture, Earth Care, Food, History, Social Justice, Travel

8 responses to “10 Highlights of a Greek Odyssey

  1. The very reason I decided not to write a blog about Greece is that I could never capture it like you can my love xxxxxxxx Beautiful words for beautiful times xxx

    • Nina Gartrell

      You did write a blog about Greece you big wollum-burger! And it was beautiful. But thanks for the ego-stroke! Oh, for a sip of Voldomatis water…

  2. Kay

    Wonderful,I so enjoy all of the blogs and photos, I cant wait for the book! Loads of love and hugs Kay xx

  3. Christina

    You’ve brought Greece alive to me again Nina and Rich.

  4. Lyn Langbein

    Hi Nina
    You are know how to transport someone from their little unit in Narrabeen to yours with words and your amazing pictures. Think of often. xx Lyn

  5. hhoffman.pt@gmail.com

    Love the change of format Sis…am speechless xxxx

  6. Katie

    Ninny, I just loved reading this. You’re keepin me green with envy! Loads of lovin xx Cuz Kate

  7. unlike you Nina…words escape me! AND I am left breathless!

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