Sunday, 22 April 2018

Do We know That Person?

Many years ago, in fact far more than I care to remember, we spent a few weeks in County Cork in the Republic of Ireland. Some friends of ours from our home town of Bath had moved out there and were renting a house along a quiet country lane a couple of miles outside of an, as until then, unknown small country town called Millstreet. Of course, all that changed when, totally unbelievably to us, Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993 and they hosted it in Millstreet. Even now it's almost impossible to believe that this was even possible, when you consider that Millstreet is a one-street town in a rural area far from anywhere. Even today, the population of Millstreet is only around 1,500.

Having just taken a stroll along the centre of town (although it's more of a village really), courtesy of Google maps 'streetview', I can see that the centre has barely changed since we were there, which was an also barely believable 43 years ago this year. But the environs and the periphery have expanded hugely and there are totally unrecognisable developments on all sides that didn't exist when we visited the place.

I only mention this because something that we found strange, yet ultimately wonderful, about rural Eire was the fact that everyone and anyone you passed on the street or road would wave at you. Everywhere we drove people would do this, even down to the farmer trundling along the lane on his tractor. Lots of people would get around from town to town or village by simply sticking out a thumb and anyone passing who had room in their vehicle would stop. It was the culture and we grew to love it. That aspect, I'm glad to say, is also true of southern Rhodes, where we live.

Thus our experience after only a couple of days on Patmos so far has reminded us of our time in Millstreet, because the natives here are seemingly every bit as friendly as they were in that humble Irish locale all those years ago. We can't walk past anyone without them wishing us a 'kalimera', or exchanging a 'yia sas' or two. Sitting in a bar or taverna, if other customers walk in, they'll nod and speak to us as if they've known us all of their lives. The first couple of times it happened, we exchanged perplexing glances with a mutual unspoken 'Do we know that person/those people?' passing between us.

We've already taken a few short walks along some country lanes and, if any vehicle has passed, the driver and/or passengers wave at us like we've been friends for years. It's taken us back, I can tell you. Not that the Greeks all over this country aren't in general a very friendly, welcoming lot, but here on Patmos it's a fine art, the art of making everyone feel at home.

On our first night we ate at the Pantelis taverna, along a small street one block back from the waterfront, near the main harbour. As it's still very early in the season, we were the only customers seated outside in the street. It was just about warm enough, at least until it was getting near time to leave. We enjoyed a superb first meal on Patmos of their special salad (pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, mini croutons, lettuce all dressed in oil and balsamic, plus lemon juice), kolokithokeftedes and gigantes. The waitress was a lovely girl called Katerina, who, since she wasn't exactly rushed off her feet, had plenty of time to natter with us, as she stationed herself at the doorstep, waiting to serve anyone else who happened to indicate that they may be coming in.

We covered a lot of topics and she even corrected my Greek here and there, for which I had to fight back the pride and thank her, of course. But one thing she said had us thinking, "she's having us on here, surely."

A couple of locals happened by at one point toward the end of the evening, and they hung around while Katerina chatted with them for a few moments. This must have been around 10.00pm. When they took their leave, she called after them "Kalo proi! [have a good morning!]" 

We caught her eye and laughed. "Yeah, funny!" We said.

"No, everywhere has its own slang and local ways of expressing things. Well, here it's a Patmian thing, in the evening when you bid someone goodnight, you say 'Have a good morning!' Seriously!" She appeared to be talking in all earnestness, but we were finding it hard to take seriously. Surely she was having a gentle laugh at our expense, to see if we'd fall for it maybe.

The following day we ambled about the place, taking everything in, enjoying the beauty of the scenery and expressing great approval at just how they seem to have recycling down to a fine art here, with all the colour-coded bins everywhere you look. In fact, I've been ticking boxes left right and centre since we got here: 

• Friendliness of the locals - box ticked.
• Comfy, modest accommodation in just the right location - box ticked.
• Lots of gorgeous backstreets, ideal for wandering around, in the area of Skala - box ticked.
• Prices for eating out and drinks - box ticked.
• Drinking water fountain for the public to fill up their bottles, easily within walking distance of accommodation - box ticked.
• Lovely traditional bakery also within five minutes of the front door - box ticked.

Apart from the beloved suggesting that she'd like it a little busier in the evenings (not bothered myself) we're fast falling in love with yet another Greek island.

Here are a few shots taken in our first couple of days...

Seems these white day-lilies are popular here. This show was stunning.

I had to allow the cheesecake to be forced upon me of course.

Meloi Beach, a mere fifteen minutes walk over the hill from our accommodation. This was early evening.

Lunch on the balcony. That white chunk of soft cheese in the centre is homemade goats' milk cheese, left in our fridge for us by our lovely host Suzanna. Yes, she made it herself [OK, with a little help from a few goats, Vicki!].

This charming shot of a door threatens to end up in a frame on a wall somewhere.

This very old cottage sits up on the hillside above the harbour area. Pretty eh?

The walk from Skala back to our place. It takes about fifteen minutes. Interestingly, at the far end of the bay is the area known as Netia, where the taverna of the same name sits across the road from the quayside. In one TripAdvisor comment, someone suggest that you'd need a car to visit this taverna, as it's a fifteen minute walk!!!! Give me a break will yah?

Taverna 'H Netia"

This little beach is five minutes over the hill behind our place. It's the narrowest part of the whole island, see next shot.
The little blue dot is our location. The beach in the shot above is the one just above where it says Hotel Asteri
This evening, which is actually yesterday because I'm bashing the keys now at 1.30am, we ate at H Netia taverna and were pleased and charmed to have met Sozaki, who waited on us the whole time. He is a bit of a lookalike for the clever journalist Clive James (who'll be well known to UK and Aussie readers) and wrote the book on how to be a genial, attentive, kindly yet not at all in-your-face host.*

I asked him how long the taverna had been in business and he told us about seven years. I remarked on the fact that the quayside across the road looked fairly new and he replied that it had been constructed to reclaim the area from the sea. Prior to that quayside being built, the area where now sits the taverna had been under water. Again, the taverna is just visible in the Google Maps shot above [the orange knife and fork symbol], in the far bottom right, as is part of the fairly newly-constructed quay.

While we talked with the very likeable Sozaki, a couple of guests, evidently locals, got up to leave. They waved to us equally as much as to Sozaki, and he and they both exchanged a "kalo proi!" as they left the premises.

There you are then, Katerina had been telling us the truth.

*Yes, Vicki, we received the walnut cake as our freebie. Scrumptious.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Rhodes-Patmos, The Voyage

The trip and the boat with which we did it (click for larger view)

Just before we begin, I should explain that some of the narrative below is in the present tense and some of it's in the past tense. This is because I typed it in real time as we were making the voyage. Some of the narrative involves me talking about things as they were happening on board the boat, and some relates to events in the immediate past. Hope it doesn't confuse...

Thur 19th April. Set out from Rhodes commercial harbour at 08.30am sharp.

9.30am: Pulled into Symi, just an hour after the prompt departure from Rhodes. It was strange standing there on the upper outside deck of the Dodekanesos Express, scanning the harbour area for the modest little traditional apartment where we'd stayed many years ago. The sky was still leaden, although there were tiny cracks of blue appearing among the clouds overhead. Restaurant terraces were still enclosed with their polythene curtain walls and there was a distinct lack of pleasure vessels tied up around the harbour area.

Symi too.

The boat stayed quayside for only five minutes while passengers streamed off and some others streamed on board. We watched as our old friend Haralambos disembarked. We'd spotted him in the passenger lounge only minutes after boarding at Rhodes. Haralambos is probably nearer to 70 than he is to 60 now, and we have fond memories of his kindness going back years. When I used to do the Symi excursion, every week during the season for probably more than five years, I'd often sit in his harbour-front café-bar and enjoy a drink while waiting until it was time for our boat to depart for the return to Rhodes. I was never once allowed to pay for a drink. Even when on occasion Yvonne-Maria would come too, he wouldn't hear of us paying him, although only now and then would any of my guests come in to join me or us.
About ten years ago now, we spent a few days over there during November with our good friends Timotheo and Sylvia. We'd stayed in a tiny hotel half-way up the Kali Strata, run by relatives of Sylvia, and we'd watched from our balcony as the whole width of that steep, stone stair-walk had turned into a cataract, as torrential rain had fallen during one of the days we were there. We'd waited in Haralambos' bar early on our last day for the ferry taking us back to Rhodes and, even then, while we were effectively on a short holiday, this kindly man wouldn't let us pay for our hot chocolates and croissants. We still remember the reason why he seems in a perpetually melancholy mood. He lost his wife while she was still quite young and he never really got over it. He has a beautiful daughter, whom we'd met once or twice while she was assisting in the bar, but it's quite clear that he'd had a good marriage. He'd been deeply in love with his life-partner and has never ever taken up with anyone else.
When we boarded the boat at Rhodes and caught his eye, even before we'd found ourselves a couple of seats, he'd smiled and nodded, at least 'smiled' to the extent that he is able. My wife went over to talk to him while I deposited our bags on a couple of seats and she asked if he realised who we were were. After all, we hadn't seen him in probably nine or ten years.
“Of course,” he replied, “Of course.” I asked him about the serious floods and mudslides that Symi had experienced early this past winter and he told me that 15 cars had ended up in the water around the harbour area. As I stood up on the top deck and scanned the natural amphitheatre that is Gialos, with the flat calm waters not even lapping at the stone quayside, as I took in the beauty of the neo-Venetian, pastel-coloured shuttered houses, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like, because now it all looks just as it always did to me; only with an air of expectation. The season is just awakening, the blue umbrellas are already in place on what we used to call Nos Beach, but which I believe nowadays has been renamed I don't know what. Several of the waterside tavernas are still all closed up, the terraces where they will soon position their tables and chairs looking forlorn, wintry, bereft. But soon now, all will be vibrant again, with bronzing bodies and rattling souvenir stands, with taverna staff doing their thing and trying to get passers-by to take a seat and partake of their fayre.
Soon the leather shops, the sponge shop and the jewellers will all be explaining why their wares are so worth purchasing and I found myself thinking, as the klaxon sounded and we slipped quietly away from the quay, it is good. The islanders will soon be earning their living again.
I also found myself thinking, as we headed north for the next stop, which would be Kos island, “I wonder if we'll be harassed by any Turkish gunboats on this trip.”
10.45am: Approaching Kos. At the risk of offending some, I was never much taken with Kos. Many years ago we took a last minute holiday there late in the season. The weather had been perfect, but the apart-hotel where we'd stayed was just a tad too 'touristy' for us and its location nothing to write home about. Maybe that was why we hadn't liked the island very much. We had hired a car and gone exploring, and yet we'd never found quite what we usually look for on a Greek island.
The wind was warm, but very strong as we approached Kos. These are some of the students referred to in the narrative.

Kos harbour. No protection from the elements it seems.

Just about to tie up at Kos.

There were one or two positives though. We discovered a rather nice café-bar in the corner of a large square at the back of the main town, some way away from the harbour area. Here was where the local youth and young business-types would sit and, even back then, tap away on their phones while their fredo espresso sketos sat, expectantly perspiring condensation on the tables in front of them. On the far side of the square from this bar was the market, where all kinds of dried herbs and spices could be bought. There was also a small taverna, which was kind of like a house with a walled courtyard, situated half a kilometre or so up a lane behind the town, where one of the delicacies were courgette flowers, deep-fried in a kind of batter. We only discovered it because a couple of friends who'd holidayed on Kos a year or two before we went there recommended that we seek it out.
Apart from that, though, we had no desire to re-visit the island.
As the boat approaches and I'm typing this, there is traditional music playing on the ship's tannoy and a bunch of young male students are getting into the spirit of the thing by linking arms over each others' shoulders and dancing in the aisle. This sizeable party of teenage boys and girls boarded along with us at Rhodes and it looks, from the way they're preparing themselves, like Kos is their destination. They're a boisterous, enthusiastic crowd who, like most groups of Greek young folk, are always eager to show respect to others. Pass a few of them on the stairway, for example and they'll defer to you, or always thank you if you allow them to pass first. Greek students and school kids don't wear uniforms, they wear whatever they want, which usually means blue jeans which seem to have been sprayed on (and that includes the boys these days) and, in the case of the girls, skimpy low-cut tops that would have had a British teacher in a lather and sending them home to change into something much more appropriate for a day's learning in the classroom.
Just to illustrate how polite the Greek students are: there was a sizeable gaggle of them in my way, as we approached the rather bleak, seemingly exposed and, as a consequence, rather unwelcoming quayside at Kos, thus preventing my getting up the stairs so that I could go out on deck and watch the proceedings as they all disembarked and the next load of passengers came aboard. I had to ask four or five boys and girls to make way for me to squeeze through. I never worry about such situations, because they were all (as I expected) only too quick to hand each other out of my way with plenty of “by all means” and “sorry sirs” as I passed among them with a few polite “excuse mes”.
Although it's very early in the season, it's nevertheless amazing how many languages we heard being spoken by the newly embarked passengers. We heard Italian from what was evidently a group of keen cyclists (of course they were wearing all the correct 'gear'), German, French and even a couple of American “Oh, my Gods” were in the mix, as people came and stood in the aisle, scanning for potential places to sit. There was no lack, since the main salon had only just been vacated by the large student party.
Then, once again within five minutes, the ramp was up and we were on our way to Kalymnos.
The mysterious case of the Kalymnos man who has a package for a head.

Kalymnos, during the approach.

The flag on the hillside - just in case anyone wondered which country they were in.

Kalymnos gets ready to 'bustle'.

11.45am: Kalymnos. Now this is more like it. Kalymnos harbour and town is so much more cozy and welcoming than Kos. You sail deep into a protected harbour with a huge breakwater and the two sides of the town, built around the base of some impressive hillsides, shelter you, much like Symi only on an altogether grander scale. Once the ramp goes down, all hell breaks loose yet again. People stream on and off (once the crew-member standing on the end of the ramp gives the signal) and three-wheeled pickups do six-penny turns on the apron, leaving black rubber curves behind them, one heading off with a cellophane-wrapped sofa balanced precariously on its only-just-big-enough flat bed.
Looking up at the hillsides above the town, you catch sight of a huge Greek flag painted on to the bare rock a couple of hundred feet above the rooftops. The Greeks don't want any chances taken. This is the front line with Turkey and, in view of the current ratcheting up of tensions by the Turkish government, which is currently hell-bent on provoking their near neighbour over sovereignty disputes about lots of the islands in this area, they want everyone to be sure about which country you're in.
The Greeks, rather like the Americans, have always been keen on hoisting the national flag anywhere and everywhere they deem it appropriate. I have to say, though, that I get the distinct impression currently that there are even more of them dotted about the place than normal. As in the USA, many Greek homes sport the flag hanging from a pole attached to the corner of the building, or springing upwards from the garden wall, but I see them appearing on harbour walls, on hotel roofs, in fact lots of places where perhaps in the past they might not have bothered. You can put this down to the Turkish provocations, that are rumbling ever on and on and getting ever more aggressive in the process.
Once again, after a very quick turnaround, we were off again. Next stop will a favourite island of ours, Leros.
Leros next...

Coming in to Agia Marina, Leros.

Agia Marina, Leros. The blue building is where we stayed many years ago.

Leros again.

Leros expects...

There is a video to go here, but '' said it was too large to upload. 
So I've posted it here instead. the caption would have been: "The Italian cyclists decide it's easier cycling on dry land than at sea..."

Leros again.

12.40pm: Leros, Agia Marina. It was lovely to tie up here again, albeit for a very brief moment. Leros is a truly hidden gem, largely because of the time it takes to get here if you're travelling from another country. We took a couple of holidays here some years ago and I talked a little about it in the first “Ramblings” book, “Feta Compli!”. The accommodation in which we stayed was easily visible from the boat and fond memories came flooding back.
Of course, tell a Greek you're going to Leros and he or she will immediately assume that you're either quite bonkers or you have a relative who is. Leros is home to the most famous “trelokomeio” in Greece. The word means 'madhouse'. In decades past it was a disgrace and a shame to the country, owing to the awful conditions in which the patients were forced to live. When we went there for our holidays, however, which would have been around the early 'noughties', we had a few long conversations with a guy called Nikos, who worked in the hospital as a male nurse. He also doubled as a waiter in a taverna, which was how we came to know him.
Nikos told us how they'd campaigned for years for more funding and the right to clean up the place, and give the patients more dignity. He said that much had improved and there were already in place, even then, activities to help stimulate the mental powers and abilities of the patients. If you go there for a holiday you'll be hard-put to find out where the place is though, because even now they tend to keep its location a secret. This is primarily because of the stigma that mental illness still carries within traditional Greek communities. You can imagine, with the in-breeding that goes on in small communities on small islands there is a naturally higher incidence of mental and physical disabilities than in a larger community with a more extensive gene pool.
When we took a holiday on Samos once, we decided to take a day-trip back to Leros, for old time's sake. The girl behind the counter in the booking office in Pythagorion, on Samos, looked at us incredulously when we said we wanted tickets for Leros.
“What do you want to go there for? Are you both mad?” She asked, with a deadly serious look on her face.
Frankly, in my opinion, if you're a true Grecophile, you'd be quite mad not to want to sample Leros.
Anyway, it's Lipsi next, and then our destination, Patmos, with an ETA of around 1.20pm. Judging by the trip so far, we'll be getting off this boat right on time.
Hmm, little Lipsi didn't light our candle.

Lipsi again.

1.10pm: Lipsi. Yes, it's very small, yes it's sleepy. To be honest, though, looking at the waterfront on Lipsi, we both decided that we could probably forego the experience of a day trip here. Maybe we were misjudging it, but the place looked to us to be sort of, all right, but not spectacular, and thus we said to each other almost in unison, “Nah, maybe we'll give it a miss.” Perhaps the very picturesque waterfront at Halki, which is not a stone's throw from where we live, spoils us for other tiny islands.
Patmos, from our balcony at Suzanna Studios.

Decidedly rickety, yet quite picturesque jetties, Skala bay, Patmos

Same again.

1.25pm: Patmos. Just a few minutes late and after a fairly choppy crossing, we docked at Patmos and were met on the quayside by not only some bluer skies and bright sunshine, but also by our host, the welcoming Suzanna, and her daughter Sylvia. They led us to their modest old hatchback and we were soon loaded up and on our way the extremely short drive long the front to our accommodation. Arriving as close as one could get in a vehicle, we were led up some steps a short way to the gate which gave into their courtyard, and then up the steps to our very own and completely private balcony. Yup, we'd died and gone to heaven.
Our rooms are right there in the middle.

That's our private little balcony (which nevertheless has a substantial table and 4-chair dining set on it), up the steps.

Suzanna had left some homemade cheese in the fridge for us, along with half a dozen eggs, a bottle of water and a couple of cans of beer. No sooner had we deposited our cases on the bed in the bedroom, than she'd offered us both a frappé and also pointed out that sitting on a dish on the kitchen worktop in our apartment, there were four of her very own homemade cheese tarts, under some clingfilm. I say 'tarts' because, although they're savoury, they resembled a sweet pastry to look at, and not the traditional tiropita that the words 'cheese pie' would bring to mind.
A welcoming frappé and nibbles from our lovely host, Suzanna.

The apartment is wonderful. Exactly what we'd hoped for, and the view from the balcony (which is private enough to sunbathe in the 'nuddy' if one so desired) is to die for. The kitchen is fully equipped with everything we're going to need, including decent sized fridge-freezer, a kettle, a toastie-maker and plenty of glassware, cutlery and crockery.
While the better half took a nap, I found that I couldn't sleep (maybe owing to having imbibed a frappé after midday), so I took off for a reccy. First impressions of Patmos? Simply wonderful. Everything that we look for in a Greek island for a getaway break. These photos don't show much human presence, but then they were taken during siesta time, and it is still only April...

Pantelis Taverna, where we enjoyed our first evening meal much later. More next post.

We've landed on our feet.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Counting Our Blessings

The other evening we took a half-hour walk through one of our favourite routes in the forest and olive groves behind the house. The photos below were taken very late in the day, which explains why the totally clear sky looks somewhat milky in places. But don't they show off just how fortunate we are to be living where we do?

I have to say that, as we did this walk, which included a hike up to the top of a crag that's got a 360º view from the top, we found ourselves expressing true gratitude for the wonderful natural environment that's just outside our front gate. We also got a superb view of a couple of deer just a couple of hundred metres from home on the way back. Sorry, I didn't get a shot of the deer this time, because the very limited zoom on my camera wouldn't have shown you much.

Nevertheless, Hope you like these, I love them!

In places the wild flowers are a carpet at the moment.

This is just a square foot of ground at my feet. If you study it, you'll see it's a riot of different flowering plants, so small you could easily miss them.

These thistles may look unfriendly, but they can grow to head-height and produce stunningly beautiful flowers.

Ooh, look. I believe I found a wood-nymph!

That's the crag that my 'wood-nymph' of a wife is sitting on top of in the photo above this one. This is taken from across the valley, but it's hard to get the perspective with a camera.

Green at this time of the year, or what? 

Almost at the top of the crag.

View from the crag out to sea.

As above, only from a standing position on the top-most rock. The terracotta tiled-roof you can see on the house on the ridge, that's our next-door neighbours' place. Ours is tucked into the hillside below and to the left of it.

Some aspects of the views on this walk shield one from seeing anything man-made. At such moments it's hard to imagine that not three km away there are tourist hotels.

I think the ruined "crofter's cottage" in the foreground adds immeasurably to this aspect. The winding lane is part of our circular route.

Who's THAT? How did HE get in shot?

Beginning the descent from the crag. The ruined cottage is again visible, centre right.

A zoomed shot giving a better view of the old 'croft' cottage.

And finally, as the sun's last rays show off our bottle brush as it approaches its very best showtime, This is, of course, my better half in the garden.
My sister-in-law's first husband's father was a nature-lover. He had a lovely bungalow in the Quantock Hills with a superb view of the Bristol Channel and he kept bees and made his own honey. His name was Don, and I found him a lovely man. He used to come to an Aegean island (often Samos) every April for a walking holiday. This was back in the days when I'd only ever been to Greece in the summer months. I could never quite grasp why he was so enthusiastic about these walking holidays.

Now, with Don having passed away, and hence my opportunity is lost, I'd love to tell him that I completely get it.