I blame John Fowles and his Magus for it, for waking a longing in me for the raw, burnt and somehow melancholy beauty of the Greek islands. Yes, Mr. Fowles, you’re to blame for making me fall in love with an almost mystical, hallucinatory image of the beaches and cliffs of the Hellenic isles, with their scarce pine trees, the pink and white oleander flowers and the bluest of blue swimming spots. I’ve yet to cure my longing, though this year has been my second immersion in this very unique world.
Last year, at the beginning of August, we landed on the island of Crete and while nature’s raw, rough beauty did not disappoint, our choice of accommodation in Hersonissos was not the happiest one. The town was packed during peak season and the main street was full of shops selling the same old trinkets, souvenirs and beach supplies as any airport shop there would. The beaches in town were small and not particularly relaxation-inducing, with the constant bustle of noisy, partying tourists just a few meters away. Luckily enough, we relied on the recommendation of the hotel staff and ended up going daily to a beach a few kilometres away, which was very popular with locals and that was worth every minute of walking through the scorching heat to get there (even a short bout of heatstroke one afternoon) – crystal clear water and nothing but the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. Overall, the feeling I left with was sadly not the one I was searching for, this was not the Greek islands I had been made to dream of. I needed more.
So this year we returned, this time to Zakynthos, in the small village of Argassi. We had a short moment of disappointment when realising the beaches were small and not well maintained (déjà vu, anyone?), but some detective work lead us to the wide, sandy beaches on the South-East side of the island. It was a 15 – 20 minute drive down the winding coast, which offered some spectacular views. But then there was the extra time added by waiting for the bus. Do not expect buses to be on time, I can tell you that; the timetable you see in every bus station is strictly a rough guide. All in all, I found the Zakynthos experience to be undeniably immersed in more of the Greek authenticity I was after. No opulence, no luxury, but impressively friendly people, making you feel welcome at every step.
The Mediterranean buildings, whitewashed beauties wrapped in the shade of greenery, adorned with potted oregano and basil.
A million shades of blue.
Surreal swimming spots.
Let’s not forget the ports…
And the fishermen…
…and the boats at sea.
We even had the chance to live through a celebration of the local church’s patron saint. Let me tell you, it’s quite a unique affair: while the service is going on inside, booths are set up right in the church courtyard and in front of the church, in the street where you can buy traditional food (mostly sweets, from what we could see) and all sort of useless knick-knacks are sold. Once the service ends, there’s a brass band waiting to do their thing and it all culminates with a Greek music concert (no religious songs, mind you) also taking place in the church courtyard.
I won’t even get started with the insanely huge portions of food. It drove me crazy that we always ended up leaving so much finger licking delicious food on our plates because we just couldn’t eat that much. One time, the waiter was even worried that we didn’t like the food and kept asking us if there had been a problem, since we left almost half of the portions on our plates. We were in culinary heaven, but could not eat a single olive more.
There’s more to the real, authentic Greece than a couple of weeks allowed me to experience. Surely, the Greek islands are a destination one can’t ever say they had enough of or are bored of. Perhaps not next year, but in the years to come, other marvels born from the sea are on my travel wishlist. Like the indeterminate ending of The Magus, my love affair with the ever present light and the savage landscape of Greece has not yet found closure.