— CNP

Greece

Watch out! A small greco-swede from the antipodes is once again sitting at a far-flung keyboard and composing ‘postcards’ that are far too long for the myspace generation’s attention spans ……

Flying from the third-largest Greek city in the world (Melbourne) to the largest Greek city (Athens) was always going to be a woggy affair. My fellow Hellenics, linked by thousands of years of culture and the smell of garlicky sweat, were mainly in family groups. There sat the father, pot-belly stretching and distorting the zipper on his shiny leisure suit; there sat the mother, chin resting on chin as her down-turned lips twitched with every plait she made in her daughter’s hair; ah yes, there the sebaceous children, their brows shiny with the heat of oncoming puberty.

On the plane, I was treated to not one, not two but four of these petulant pre-pubescent petals sitting around me at every compass point. The child of the South obviously struggled to fit his 4-foot frame into the cramped seating and found it necessary to kick my chair as though he were dancing like Anthony Quinn. Anyway, strong winds across the centre of Australia soon reduced my four friends to a mass of vomitous self-pity. And i did pity them … not even the sound of my southward torturer spitting out the last bile could bring a sadistic smile to my face. After all, it’s hard to take pleasure in other people’s suffering — especially when the smell of their suffering is creeping into one’s nose. Having niftily switched seats after Singapore, I found myself next to some temazepam-popping wasps who let me sleep all the way to Dubai.

I arrive in Athens in the early afternoon, giving me enough time to dump my pack at the hostel, step out into the scorching heat, wander through the laneways of Plaka and do the ubiquitous trip up to the Acropolis before settling down in front of a big TV with drunk Aussies to watch our boys get beaten by an underwhelming Brazilian team. Eh, what can you do?

Athens is a hot, polluted, stinky kind of a town in summer but i managed to check off most of the touristy necessities without strain. But i ask you, once you’ve seen one doric, have you seen them all? Ruins … schmuins. “Philistine!” i hear you cry. Well … whatevsona (yeah, cop that bilingual pun). So, before falling into Ancient Greek ennui, I decide to make haste for the island of Lefkada.

I wake at 5am, anticipating my alarm clock, and after a shower and a re-pack, i hoist my belongings onto my shoulders and step out into the tepid grey light of morning. The Plaka reclaims some sense of reality at this hour. Gone are the tourists, gone are the multilingual-charm-your-pants-off spruikers, gone is the delirious hubbub of a benign simulacrum. In its place, homeless men taking shelter on cereal packaging outside a jewellery shop, stray dogs with ragged coats and limps that give them the deadened look of returned soldiers, and handfuls of young Greeks returning home after a night of clubbing.

… over Syntagma square, down to the Metro, two stops, Omonia square, round the corner, Bus 51 arrives …

The woman at the hostel suggested taking a taxi to get to Bus Terminal A, but (a) I’m cheap and (b) public transport is so much more stimulating. Bus 51 seems to be going through a Minoan labyrinth of streets and i briefly wonder whether i shouldn’t unstitch my t-shirt and let the cotton unravel me a safe path back from whence i came. However, given that the driver is Athenian, we’re going around corners, through lights and down alleys so fast that we get to the Terminal before i can get my sewing kit out.

I find the ticket office for the bus to Lefkada and dutifully line up only to be told that the bus is full (it’s 6.15am and the next bus is at 1pm) but the man puts my name on a list, so i figure there’s still a chance and dutifully sit to ponder a Plan B. Hmmm, Plan B aint looking so crash hot … no booking in Athens and all the youth hostels are full, 1pm bus gets me to Lefkada at 7pm, which doesn’t give me much chance of sorting things out there. Blah blah. I shouldn’t have worried because while i’m worrying the ticket guy is calling out names and handing out the last seats on the bus. Springing into action, i bludgeoned my way past the Mongolian man in a strange leather vest selling massage seat covers by forcibly rubbing them against people, past the toothless “yiayia” selling Kleenex travel packs, past the bling-laden Greek-American woman talking loudly about real estate in Manhattan and into the view of the ticket guy, who, after some earnest hand-waving and pantomime on my part, issued me with a ticket.

Lefkada is an island to the west of Athens, in the Ionians, that is connected to the mainland by a narrow landbridge that was once a natural isthmus before those naughty Corinthians dug it out. Its centre is mountainous and green, its coastline spectacular and the west is fringed with beaches of incredible beauty and seclusion. It hasn’t given way entirely to the hordes from the north but come summer and there’s plenty of lobster-coloured blonde tourists paying their 3 euros for a sunbed on the east coast. Like the good contrarian that i am, i spurn the comfortable, warm waters of the east and seek out the west coast — open to the full brunt of the Mediterranean.

The west coast has only a handful of villages and getting to the beaches requires a bit of effort. So, in a rather indulgent move, I hired a car — a small, bright green Kia Picanto — an indulgence qualified by the fact that i planned to also use the car as accommodation, washing line, storage locker and companion (indeed, the quasi-Iberian “Picanto” suggested something of a Don Quixote-Sancho Panza relation). Anyway, Sancho and i got ready to fight those dastardly windmills by quickly reminding ourselves how to drive a car, how to drive a manual and how to do it all on the other side of the road. Got there eventually and, 10 minutes later, I’d managed to park around the corner from the rental office at a supermarket to stock up on water, water and more water. I then proceeded to get lost, as i’d planned to i might add, because i thought it best to get used to the car in the main town before venturing too far. For a moment i considered spending the next four days closely exploring just the block of Lefkada where i rented the car but soon i was on my way up into the hills to the small village of Karya, where i lunched out on the plateia shaded by plane trees, overlooking a verdant valley. Not a bad start.

From Karya, Sancho and I wound our way down a stack of hairpins to a beach on the west coast called Megali Petra. The water was a lustrous turquoise, the pebbles a smooth white and the land and sea tussled with each other over limestone boulders that must have been tossed down from the mountains by an angry Titan some millenia ago. Only a handful of bathers were in attendance and as the sun dropped further and further i was left by myself. Floating in between the rocks, the sunset swell gently lolled me up and down and, as the sun’s warmth faded behind the haze, i rested in a nook of rock which exuded the day’s heat back into me. With darkness came the mosquitoes and i made my bed in the car’s busy interior before watching the lights of the ferries plying the Adriatic cross the horizon in apparent stillness.

I woke at dawn, ate the juiciest peach ever, took to the beach before anyone had a chance to join me and felt all the luckier for it. As the sun rose higher and the old bronzed French nudist couples began dotting the beach, Sancho and I left for further adventures in the cooler climes of the mountains. Stopping at a little taverna further down the coast, i briefly fooled the owners into thinking i was Greek (obviously my pronunciation isn’t as bad i thought) and they expressed their gratefulness for a Greek (“enas ellinas”) amongst the usual foreigners (“xenous”) but after managing to pick out those words, i got lost in a cascade of consonants and had to fess up.
Having shaded myself from the harsh zenith of the sun, i arrived at Porto Katsiki (the comical and rather suggestive translation being “Goat Port”). Alas, there was nary a goat or naughty sailor to be seen. However, there was the most spectacular and blissful beach i’ve ever set eyes on. Vertical cliffs rise up from a wine-glass bay of gently lapping water. The pebbles are gentle and white and, as one paddles through the crystal clear water, one can look back at the cliffs and see small seabirds swirling about the nests perched on the slightest crag in the rock face. Just too good.

I spent two nights parked atop the cliffs at Porto Katsiki and continued my daytime drives around the island. My driving got very good with practice and i quite enjoyed the hair-raising, single-lane, cliff-top snake-bends that tended to scare the day-tripping tourists. I did wish that i had a CD or two with me because, whether i was picking up Greek or Italian radio, it was largely europop trash that i had to listen to and i found myself deliriously re-wording Enrique Iglesias songs with nonsensical choruses (who would have thought that “Bailamos” could become an ode to Spartacus). I also developed an allergy to Belgian drivers and they drove me to consider that equivocal country’s place or misplace in the world. Are they kind of French, or are they kind of German? They don’t know, and neither do we. Chocolate they’re good at, sure, but i can’t think of a single decent eurovision entrant from Belgium in the two decades i’ve been following it. That’s right, they’re flying under the international radar with their neutrality and their fancy beers and i’ve had enough!

Right, back to it. After four days of beaches, villages, sun, salt and nothing to eat except fruit, local wood-fire bread and horiatiki (greek salad) on Lefkada i had to say goodbye to this little idyll and once more do the six hours of bus trip back to the capital. This time on the bus i was seated next to an elderly Greek woman who’s eyesight was obviously still very keen because she could spot a church, monastery or wayside shrine some kilometres in the distance and cross herself twice before i even got a chance to see it. As the hours went by and my restlessness increased, i began to play a kind of “where’s wally?” game of trying to spot the orthodox institutions before she started to cross herself and, as we approached Athens, i was actually subtly nudging her and pointing them out with my eyebrows to make sure she got to cross herself for every one of them … I mean, He/She is watching us everywhere right? Nothing makes a bus trip go fast quite like playing with the pious. Naughty.

Back in Athens, i stayed at a hostel further out from the tourist spots, which gave me and the Arizonan girls i met a chance to watch the World Cup and hang out with the local kids and Balkan migrants at some untouristy haunts over a glass of Mythos. The next day, i managed to sneak into see the Parthenon for free just for the sake of doing something before heading off to the island of Rodos to meet me old man, John.

That’s where i’m at now. Surrounded by more tanned and toned Scandinavians than you can find on the shelves of an adult bookstore — it’s most disconcerting. Ahem … having seen Australia ejected from the Cup after a criminal case of refereeing, we just ate and drank away our sorrows with retsina, ouzo, and fresh seafood. Tough life eh? Tomorrow, it’s off to the ancestral island home of the Polias dynasty, Symi — the island where my Greek grandparents were born, and given that my grandfather (Vasilios, “Bill”, “Frog”) passed away only last week, the timing couldn’t be more fitting. After a week in Symi, it’ll be off to Turkey for a week with my favourite Dutchman, after which i might just grace your inboxes with another epistle.