So after my first trip to the Ionian Islands I had been captured by the beauty and the serenity of both the country and the people I had found. My first thought that following summer was to return, and that I did, with my girlfriend at the time. And then I went back again and again. Each summer I would pick two weeks in the heart of summer and head out to Corfu with a rucksack and some money, accompanied by my brother, friends, whoever felt up to the journey. I was obsessed, and each time I would travel a little further, eventually taking in all the islands, Corfu, Paxos, Anti Paxos, Lefkas, Ithaka, Cephalonia and finally Zakynthos.
Each Island held its own charm and beauty, new towns to be explored, with fresh beaches to sleep upon in abundance every day. Eventually though, I moved away from the beaches and instead haggled for rooms by the night, in guest houses, above restaurants, in people’s homes, wherever I could find a bed for the night, and hopefully a warm shower.
Of course it didn’t always work out the way you planned. There were showers that turned out to be hose pipes running from tanks on the roof. There were rooms where the smells from the food cooking in the kitchens below attracted mosquitoes in such great numbers, and with such incredible blood thirsts that no amount of repellent could ever protect you and the nights were spent twisting and turning in the heat, scratching every part of the body, with you waking each day with a fresh set of little red marks etched out upon the skin. Nights spent awake, listing to the high pitched whining sound of the tiny wings hovering above your head, just waiting for that moment when they would attach themselves to their chosen piece of exposed flesh and take their fill. None of this mattered to me though; well not after the sun had risen again. My days were spent exploring utopia, and the nights were always short as bedtime never came early. There was too much fun to be had. When all was said and done though, there were always more beaches if the accommodation was not up to scratch for the beaches added something more that transcended comfort alone, and the breeze kept most of the mosquitos away.
There is something deeply satisfying about waking up in the morning light, unprotected from the elements, but still perfectly comfortable in a country where summer rarely brings a rainy day. You surface before the sun is up, the light hazy and golden, a little mist in the air that helps to dampen down the sound. Eventually the sun appears as a sliver of red above the horizon, rising from the sea like Poseidon waking from his aquatic slumber. The sun rises slowly and its colour tints the entire surface of the sea, eventually sending a beam of golden light across the mild wake. It extends glistening to the shoreline at your feet, an arm of the gods reaching out to shake the cold of the predawn hour from your body. You walk calmly into the water, avoiding the rocks and sea urchins, and stretch out into a silent breast stroke that carries your naked body out past the headlands of the bay into the open sea. There you can float on your back, a private moment in the calm of the day listening to the cockerels sounding their alarm call to the island beyond.
At first my sheer presence in these lands was enough, the simple pleasure of just being there occupied my needs, but then the need to explore, to understand the country further and reach further through the Islands started to drive me forward and to start learning in more detail about the people and places around me.
The Island of Paxos for example, is largely dependent on its export of Olives. This is a common theme in the Islands. Travelling around the dusty roads you would come across rotund women dressed fully in black, laying nets out beneath the trees to catch the ripened fruit as it dropped. Others would be stood on ladders in the trees picking the fruit from the branches. Life has existed in this way for centuries, and the burden of harvest has always fallen to the black dressed widows that are so common to see in all of Greece. Paxos also has a bustling tourist trade despite its lack of an airport, with the harbour at Gaia often filled with big expensive yachts. The highlight of the season being at the end of July when the whole of Italy seems to holiday at once, and huge flotillas of these yachts drift down the Adriatic to the Ionian Islands for a communal holiday that fills the guest houses and restaurants to the maximum. Big money is spent for those two weeks, and Gaia is transformed with its cosmopolitan visitors. As a backpacker in cut off jeans you find your carefully budgeted funds and meagre tips are hardly worth the time of day to the waiters any longer, and your service time is extended even further as you are naturally prioritised down the list. Gaia comes to life for these two weeks, the restaurants full, the beaches crowded and the fight for available rooms intensified. Then suddenly, overnight the town empties as the armada returns to its home shores and you wake to a quiet sleepy town once again and are left wondering if it was just a wild dream as the Gastbyesque party leaves nothing but the windblown remnants of a good time once had.
On my second trip I explored Anti-Paxos as well, a tiny Island nestling to the south of the main Island. No one lives on this Island which is nothing more than a rocky hill perturbing from the sea with just enough room for a few goats to graze on the hardy plant life. There is a beautiful beach there though, a small idyllic cove with emerald waters so perfect that you cannot avoid but take a swim. Boat trips run across the short distance from Paxos, and the ferries that bring the tourists down from Corfu often stop there before heading back to Gaia. I have been known to thrown myself from the top deck, pulling off the best swallow dive I can as the boat moors up for a welcome stop, hot and weary from my travels the waters bring instant perfect relief.
We ventured further that trip, stopping at Levkas for a couple of night as before ending up on Cephalonia, perhaps my favourite of all the Islands. Levkas I explored more in later years so I will come to that later, for me the end destination was important as I was to return to Cephalonia many times, and once travel had got into my soul completely I was to live and work there.