Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Venture to the Interior

(A selection of photos appears at the bottom of this post, just to [hopefully] whet your appetite)

After having ensured that we'd be able to get the bus back to Naxos Town in the afternoon (see previous post), we set off on Saturday morning to catch the bus and see some of the island's landscape away from the coast.

Fifteen minutes after leaving our room we arrived at the KTEL office near the port where our friend from the day before (when we'd enquired about the bus timetable) sold us our bus tickets and pointed us at a large green coach which was sitting out there on the tarmac. We were early and so picked up a couple of take-away frappés from the café nearby, the same one where the woman had tapped us for a couple of Euros. The warm sunshine held the promise of a good day to come as we sat on a bench and awaited the approach of the bus' departure time.

It's always the same here in Greece when you're waiting for a boat, a bus, sometimes even a taxi. It looks like you're the only ones there. No signs indicate that many people are going to join you once the bus arrives, or in this case the driver arrives to open the door ad let us on. There are precious few people about and those that are don't look as though they're remotely interested in the public transport that you're waiting on. Things soon change, however, when the bus, boat, etc. turns up. In this case, as we drained the last of our iced coffee up through our straws and jettisoned the plastic containers into a nearby bin, the hour of eleven approached and a man turned up and opened the luggage compartment on the nearside of the bus, which, as mentioned above, was actually a coach. No sooner had he done so than we casually approached the passenger door in expectation of his opening it and were soon under assault from all directions as tourists, Greek grandmas and other assorted locals carrying packages of all descriptions descended on us from out of nowhere. There was a young couple from China, their backpacks almost bigger than they were, there were two sixty-something German-looking fellas who might just have been an item, a young (and very brave in my opinion) French couple with a very young baby (see?), a selection of old Greeks of various shapes and sizes, there were young Greeks of both sexes all with headphones hanging out of at least one ear and all with their mobile phones glued to one of their hands, plus there was one elderly Greek bloke who quickly took up station at the door as the driver, having climbed in from his own side of the vehicle, pressed the button that caused that air-release sound which indicates that the door is about to open. 

Neither the driver nor this old bloke by the passenger door wore anything to remotely indicate any connection with the bus company. They both sported the ubiquitous denim jeans and the old guy had on a quite tatty woolen jumper over a frayed cotton shirt that had seen better days, probably a few decades ago in all probability. His white hair was cropped short and his skin was a deep wrinkled brown born from years of not wearing sun protection. 

One we'd finally made it aboard and wound our way back to a couple of seats just behind the coach's middle passenger door, after having let the old guy check and tear our tickets, the engine fired up and we were on our way. As the bus wound its way around a few backstreets before heading out into open country, the old guy came and sat across the aisle from us and smiled. My wife was sitting on the aisle seat and so she asked him his name. He told her it was Stefanos. Now having the opportunity to study him more closely we though that he could well have been only a couple of years older than us, but his lifestyle and in all probability a few decades of heavy smoking had taken its toll on his physique and skin.

He asked us where we were from and was soon immersed in conversation with my better half. I chipped in occasionally so as not to appear rude. He surprised us be telling us that he had no children, thus making it easier for him to accept the fact that we'd never really wanted them either, a fact that of course to most Greeks is anathema, if not totally imponderable. The village culture being what it is here, in all probability he'd had older (or younger, depending on their sex) siblings who'd taken so long to get paired up that he lost his chance. He lives alone in the large village of Filoti, which was our destination. He told my wife that he worked on the bus daily and at the time we took that on face value as true. Each time the bus entered a village, he called out to anyone who cared to hear the village's name and often got off the bus to assist some doddery ya-ya or other in their descent of the bus steps. One old woman, seated directly behind us, soon joined in the fray and declared on several occasions that Naxos was the most beautiful island in Greece. If I had a Euro for every time I've heard someone say that...

The conversation, now three-way, did become interesting though. The old woman declared that she'd been born in 1930 and thus was now 84. She had lost most of her family under the Nazis during the Second World War.

A note here about my use of the word "Nazi". The old woman continually said "the Germans", but I prefer to use the term Nazi. Why? Well, you may well be ahead of me here, but this is why: Lots of very nice German tourists come here nowadays and they're all from later generations that have nothing whatever to do with the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis all those decades ago. Had I been born a German, how would I feel about being continually reminded that my nation were the baddies during the largest and most deathly war in human history? The fact is that many elderly folk still remember all too vividly the events of the 1930s and 40s and thus probably have difficulty coming to terms with meeting German tourists today. I don't know if you've read the novel "The Book Thief" (there is a movie too I hear) but I would heartily recommend it. The story presents a side to the events of the war that we in "the west" all too often don't consider. It concerns some Germans living through the Nazi era in their own country and how they felt about the ruling powers at the time. The family around which most of the action centres are Germans who shelter a young Jewish man at considerable risk to their own lives and I found it both gripping an enlightening.

The old woman seated behind us on the bus was soon relating about how the Italians had proven to be benign conquerors, having behaved in quite a civilized manner and, by the time they left under a pact with the Nazis which the latter failed to honour, had in many cases become friends with their Greek subjects. Yet she said [to quote her] "The 'Germans' were barbaric. They left us all to starve, taking all the food for their troops. If anyone raised a hand against them, twenty villagers would be rounded up and shot..." and so on. Thus I substitute in my mind the word "Germans" for "Nazis", since it's not good to tar all of that nation with the same brush. I only refer to this at all because there are still so many people who remember what happened and this old lady was one of them. She lost all her immediate family under the Nazis and has lived alone in her village ever since. She has no one to leave her house to when she dies, a fact which seemed to preoccupy her. Her village was Halki (pronounced with the emphasis in the last "i" and not as with the island of the same spelling, where the emphasis is on the first syllable). This village is reputed to have once been the capital of the island and, interestingly, is situated almost slap bang in the middle of the island geographically. She took delight in telling us repeatedly that her village is "the third most traditional village in all of Greece." Quite what she meant by that we couldn't quite put our finger on, but never mind.

Once she'd descended the steps of the bus at Halki, with the able assistance of both my wife and old Stefanos, both of whom were required to ensure that both the woman and her assortment of bulging bags and packages found their way safely to the roadside, Stefanos seized the opportunity now afforded to regain the initiative in the conversation. Having told us that he lived in Filoti, it then seemed a good idea to him to invite us to his house. Had we been staying nearby we might well have considered accepting the invitation, but since our visit to the largest village on the island was going to be a one-off, we secretly resolved that we'd decline.

Something that made it even less a likelyhood was the fact that he told us that they'd be slaughtering a few goats for "Pasca" (Easter) and wouldn't we like to witness the whole event? Umm, why does that idea not appeal? Especially to a couple of vegetarians?

Once on the subject of slaughtering animals, Stefanos asked about Rhodes, since my wife had told him that we lived there. He's never been and one of his first questions was, "and do they have slaughterhouses on Rhodes?" Of course, you would want to know that wouldn't you? Never know when such knowledge may come in handy, eh?

The countryside, as we wound our way along tiny roads that twisted and turned and passed through villages that had me wondering whether the bus driver may have smeared Vaseline along the sides of the vehicle to get it between some of the houses, bore evidence of much cultivation. Not only do you see the ubiquitous olive groves everywhere, but huge fields of potatoes. It was at this point, as our elderly guide helpfully confirmed that we were indeed looking at potato plants in everlasting rows along the bottoms of some of the valleys, that my wife chose to grant me a pearl of wisdom that hitherto she'd been keeping to herself in all the years of our marriage - the fact that Naxian potatoes are famed through all of Greece. I mean, c'mon, what other secrets may she be keeping from me, eh? Not only that, they're known for their cattle too. On Rhodes we don't see cows very often, but here on Naxos, they're much more common. That no doubt accounted for old Stefanos wanting to know about Rhodean slaughterhouses.

Finally, about an hour and a quarter after leaving the harbour front in Naxos Town, having passed through a selection of villages like Galanado, Biblos (Vivlos), Kana and Ano Sagkri, Damalas, Vournouria, Halki, Akadami and Keramio, we pulled into Filoti, which boasts a population of some 2,000, large indeed for a village in the hinterland. The village sprawls along the side of a steep hill and has a rather pleasing central "plateia" which offers a good selection of tavernas and bars, even a couple of branches of the larger banks in Greece too. Civilized indeed. As you enter the village the lanes leading off to your left rise up steep inclines, whilst those to your right drop away quite steeply too.

Having climbed down from the bus we immediately found a couple of seats in one of the café/bars and ordered a couple of frappés. I know, you knew I was going to say that didn't you. There was a smattering of "old boys" of the village in each establishment (each loyal to their 'local' no doubt) so we didn't need to think too hard about which one to choose. The nearest sufficed. I have to say (and indeed did, to the proprietor) that I here enjoyed the best frappé I'd so far consumed on the island.

A few pics of the central plateia area....

After half an hour or so enjoying the excellent frappé, as well as glancing nervously in Stefano's direction (since he'd sat down at the same bar as us) hoping he wouldn't insist we join him for a session of slicing the throats of a few goats, we arose, paid the host and set off to explore the area on foot. It was around 1.00pm and the bus back to town was due to depart at 4.30. So we ought to have plenty of time to explore.

The first direction we took was up a lane leading through the village to the mountain above. At this time of year the roadsides and countryside in general is abundant with verdant growth and wild flowers. It really did feel like walking in the English countryside much if the time, with some variations in the plant life around us, granted. As the lane rose up above the village we passed the old washing station, a stone building with open-topped cisterns inside its archways, in which once the villagers would wash their clothes communally, before the advent of piped water and drains. Emerging well above the village we took in a spectacular view across the island's interior to the blue Aegean in the distance...

Having satisfied ourselves with that view we traced our way back through the labyrinthine streets of the village to the main road passing through its middle and set off down hill from the square to walk a circuit of other villages. A most enjoyable, if somewhat tiring, walk of about 15 kilometres followed, during which we passed through some of the villages that we'd driven through on the bus. Everyone we passed was friendliness itself and we even took advantage of a public well, where locals turned up to top up barrels with water for their sheep and goats (one pick-up even bring a clutch of sheep with him in the back), to wash our hands after devouring a couple of delicious brown rolls stuffed with boiled egg mayo from the eggs (2nd batch!) that our landlady Georgia had given us.

By the time we staggered back into Filoti to order a well earned Fix beer in the café across the road from the one we'd first visited, it was approaching 4.00pm and still the sun shone out of a cloudless sky. Half an hour remained before the bus was due. It had been a magic experience. As we supped our cold drinks my better half spotted old Stefanos sitting not too far from us. We didn't want to upset him, as he was a nice old guy, but we didn't want our ears chewed off right now, so we just proffered a friendly wave and he returned it, arose from his seat and made his way in our direction.

"Oh shoot!" we both thought, but just as he drew closer he was hailed by a fellow "old boy" who bade him sit down at his table. He threw us an apologetic shrug, to which we did our best to respond with an "aw shucks. never mind, eh?" type expression in return and gratefully watched him sit down with his friend.

No doubt about it, the countryside on Naxos in April is breathtaking...

Something I didn't mention before the photos. Just before we came back into the village on our walk, we passed an olive grove to our right and our attention was drawn to what looked like a goat hanging from a branch of one of the trees. It looked like a goat because that's exactly what it was. As we stopped to look, drawn irresistibly by a desire to be sure we knew what we were seeing, we could see clearly that there was a man setting about the carcass, which was hanging from its hind legs from above head-height, with a sharp knife while his wife stood and looked on. A large pool of blood was soaking into the dust beneath the carcass, which had evidently been killed very recently. the man worked away methodically with his knife as we became aware that we weren't the only audience.

Just a few feet below us and actually within the same olive grove, a couple more goats, including a young kid, also stood and watched in rapt attention, as their probable former family member was systematically butchered for the 'Pasca' table.

I don't know how intelligent goats are, but I could have sworn I saw a look of resignation about their future prospects written across the faces of our fellow observers of this scene.

I wonder how many goats, sheep, and pigs no doubt, will die in this few days leading up to the Greek Easter weekend. Still, can't say we haven't witnessed firsthand a way of life that goes back for thousands of years. 

The irony wasn't lost on us that we'd escaped being witness to Stefanos and his friends slaughtering their goats for Pasca, only to see it right by the side of the road a couple of hours later!

Once the bus turned up, just a few minutes after 4.30pm, we fully expected Stefanos to join us for our journey back, but he remained seated and sent us a wave as we departed. A couple of days later, yesterday, in fact, as we were walking to the jetty for our trip to Santorini, he was there again seeing people aboard the Filoti bus. We were left with the feeling the he doesn't really actually work for the bus company, but they let him do his little bit of shepherding anyway, because it gives him a reason to get up in the morning. We kind of hope that's true in a way, as it would be nice to think that they're considering his welfare in such a way, wouldn't it.


  1. Be very careful, John, that your loyal following of Rhodophiles do not desert you! What a wonderful illustration of Naxos you have given us, both photographically and textually. It sounds as though your holiday has proved to be all, if not more than, you hoped for.

    1. Yea well you know me, generous to a fault. Can't expect everyone to only ever come to Rhodes. Let them go elsewhere now and again, as long as they come back, of course!! Got to give the rest of this marvellous country a plug now and then.