I wrote this series of blogs a while back now. They have sat in obscurity in the darkest archives of my blog, and to be honest have never really seen the light of day. This year will be the 30th anniversary of my first trip to Greece, so I think it’s time to give them a little overhaul and get them out for the world to see. The series starts with my first ever backpacking trip. It was a different time, pre-modern technology, pre-digital all the photos are scanned versions of the original photos taken on film at the time. We were analogue travellers.
The truth is that it wasn’t planned, but that first forage into the unknown has turned into a life time love affair with a country that I feel compares to no other in both beauty and atmosphere.
I was 22 years old. My friend Darren and I had been planning to take a holiday together, my first real holiday overseas, yet we had done nothing more than organise our passports and book some time off from work. As the time approached I wondered if we would actually go. Suddenly it was the week before the proposed trip and still nothing had been organised. It got to the Thursday and we started to chat on the phone. Darren had asked his mother to look into flights for us, it wasn’t the same then, it was 1989 and the internet didn’t exist. Cheap flights could be arranged through teletext or out of the back of a Sunday newspaper. Late on the Thursday afternoon I get a call from Darren, his Mum had booked us two flights to Corfu, and we flew Saturday. We were going, we had no accommodation, but we were flying to Corfu in two days. I was both excited and a little worried at the same time.
The next day I went to the bank and changed some pounds into Drachma and travellers cheques. In 1989 there was not the widespread availability of ATM machines, and if there were it was unlikely a card from a UK bank would have worked in Greece, that came much later. This was a big event in my life though, the first time I had owned foreign cash as an adult. I felt like a wizened traveller all of a sudden, I was empowered with the freedom of knowing I was exploring the unknown, I was to step out into the world and see where life took me. Well I had two weeks in Greece booked anyway, and just about everyone went to Corfu in those days. This didn’t stop the myriad of feelings that were coursing through my body though. Not one little bit.
We flew into Corfu, Kerkira as it is known locally, at about 6 a.m. in the morning. The airport was quiet, a small rustic building in the early stages of its own development. After passing through Gatwick, this added to the exoticness of the trip, we were in the unknown. From the moment I stepped off of that plane, to the warm and fragrant morning air I was captured by Greece. I was locked in a spell that has lasted for 25 years so far, and has no hope of ever ending.
The air is different, the warmth and dryness for a start, but also the mixture of smells that hits you, the sea is part of it, the Aegean smells so different from the waters of the Bristol Channel I had grown up next to. But there is more than that, Wild Sage is a large element, but the entire plethora of Greek flora is sucked out of the ground and into the air to make you imagine you are immersed in some wonderful Mediterranean soup. You become just another part of the active ingredients of this aromatic blend.
We chose to walk into town that day, partly because we wanted to experience our first Greek morning, but largely because we were on a budget and didn’t want to get ripped off by a taxi driver. Of course I have learnt since then that Greece is one of the places you are less likely be overcharged for a taxi journey, but I didn’t know that then. I had just heard the usual stories. So we walked the couple of miles into Corfu town.
The run in from the airport is not the most amazing of trips, but to us, tired from a sleepless night, but excited about this new country, it was the most amazing experience of our lives. The sun was red in the sky, blurred by the morning haze casting a dreamlike quality over the entire scene. Everything was quiet, with just the occasional buzz of a far off moped disturbing the otherwise peaceful scene.
We found somewhere to have breakfast, Greece was a very cheap country in those days and we revelled in the low prices as we read through the poorly translated menus. Things seemed to have been written more from the sound of the words rather than any knowledge of the English language, but this just added a little humour to the experience for us. We still had no idea where we were heading, or where we would sleep that night, so after our meal we wandered along the ferry port and started looking for tickets. It was by chance that we found a ferry to Paxos, an island I had not even heard of before, but being big explorers now we took a chance and booked our fares. We had a couple of hours to spare so I had my first experience of exploring the streets of a Greek town perusing the shops and of course comparing the prices to those we were used to at home. The streets were narrow, the buildings rising up a few stories with balconies filled with the lives of the residents and laundry strung above us everywhere. It was so different than home. It was exotic and beautiful and it filled my heart with joy and my mind with ideas. A change in environment can extract such amazing emotions from inside you.
Before long we were on the ferry, cruising through the dark green waters and constantly looking out for the land mass we were about to be introduced to.
Paxos turned out to be a tiny little Island a barely noticeable spot on the map a couple of hours South of Corfu. We arrived in the port town of Gaia and stopped for some food. Gaia is a beautifully traditional Greek town nestling between the pine trees and olive groves, with a small central square by the harbour mostly filled by the chairs and tarpaulins of the two dominant tavernas. We called them the green chairs, and the red chairs from that point on. The reason is pretty obvious of course. We ate traditional Greek food, and washed it down with Dutch beer, and had our first real indication of the pace of life as we waited for both service and our bill for what seemed like an endless time. We also had our first real experience of the toilets as well which was a rather less than hygienic arrangement, with paper overflowing from small bins, festering in the heat and mosquitoes circling constantly in anticipation of their next meal. All this we took in our stride though, for we were adventurers and we were all about new things.
From there we secured our bed for the night. We walked along the coast a little and found a suitable secluded beach. We had always planned to sleep rough, but did not want to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves so wanted to be a little out of the town. One thing the Greek islands have is an abundance of small secluded beaches and here we based ourselves for most of the holiday, sleeping on the uncomfortable rocks in our sleeping bags, all exposed flesh doused in Mosquito repellent. We would rise with the burning sun in the mornings, and swim in the small bay, the Ionian Sea taking care of our personal hygiene needs. The cool morning waters entirely still, apart from the occasional passing fishing boat, the engines chugging away as they made their way back to port after a night casting nets on dark waters. Our only motivation to move was once hunger set in or the night’s water supply ran out, and we packed up and lugged our overly heavy rucksacks into town for our breakfast and toilet needs.
It was an idyllic time. It never rained once, clouds were rare to see, but always burned off as the heat of the day rose up from the rocky hills. The day would bring colour to the waters, which would change from a sunblest orange in the mornings to a deep aquamarine in the afternoon, the tiny waves sparkling like a million diamonds as far as the eye could see. Only in the afternoon would you feel a breeze as the heat of the land fought against the cool of the sea. Small white horses would appear to tip the growing swell offshore and force the mind and body back onto the beach where the sun fought relentlessly to tarnish everything with its glare.
It wasn’t all spent on beaches though. We explored the island on mopeds, riding bumpy roads through the groves and forest to discover small towns nestling along the coastline, Loggos and Lakka made fabulous havens for long afternoon lunches in the enforced solitude an airport less island affords. Serene Afternoons spent in the Ionian sun.
We had met other people around the central square, and a small community of British came together to ensure you were never really alone unless you wanted to be, and the day we hired a boat and circumnavigated the whole Island we were blessed with young beautiful woman to share our journey.
Evenings were extremely social with everyone meeting by default in the red and the green chairs, the locals blending in with us so we made new friends that were to be revisited on future trips. It was here we practiced our meagre Greek language and perfected the few phrases that have assisted me to befriend the Greek people for over two decades now. Food was eaten, beer was drunk, we tried every Taverna in town one by one, and the group grew as our holiday went on.
The journey back to Corfu was sombre, and with badly aligned travel times we ended up sleeping off the night before in a park along the Harbour front. We were exhausted by the time we reached the airport, but a moment of our time had not been wasted. Boarding the flight back to the UK I shed a tear for the country I had fallen in love with. I was always going back, it was in my soul now, yet something more had awoken in me. I have been back to Greece so many times since then, but I will never forget the exquisite utopia of my first travels in the Ionian. Something changed in me that day, a reminder that as a child I had been fascinated by the world, and had always planned to see it. It was going to be a little while before I did, but that first journey was line I drew in the sand. It was the benchmark for my expectations of life.