The start of a great love affair...
It began a love affair with the country that took me back year after year, and when I started travel writing this would sometimes turn into several times in a year.
The first travel article I ever wrote, and sold, was about a package holiday I took on Rhodes.
I went on to write guidebooks to the Greek mainland, to the Greek islands, and to individual islands like Crete and Corfu.
I contributed to Dorling Kindersley’s two Eyewitness Guides to Greece and I eventually received the ultimate accolade: I was asked to write the National Geographic Traveler Guide to Greece.
I had no idea that all this lay ahead, of course, when I paid my first visit to the country. Back then, with little money, I joined a group trip, driving overland from London in a van and camping out.
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A group adventure
What an adventure! Somewhere in the mountains of what was then Yugoslavia, we crossed the border into Greece, and I was positively bursting with excitement.
Then after a few miles of bliss, the van broke down. We were in the middle of nowhere. This was way before mobile phones, so we waited and eventually a guy on a motorbike stopped.
He was from the next village, where there was a garage – he kindly offered to zip round and send the mechanic out with his truck.
Later we found ourselves sitting in a taverna, eventually getting the unfortunate news that the repair would take several hours and we’d never make our next planned stop.
One of the locals brought along a friend of his who spoke English, and when our driver asked if we could camp somewhere nearby, the friend said absolutely not – we would stay in his apartment.
There were about ten of us, so the men put our sleeping bags on the floor of his bedroom, and the women shared the living room.
In the morning he cooked us all breakfast, we collected the van (the mechanic had worked all night on it) and he waved us on our way, a man who had opened his door to complete strangers at the drop of a hat.
We were all overwhelmed by the kindness, and it was a perfect introduction to the country where I’ve experienced such generosity of spirit over and over again.
It was only later I learned that the Greeks have a word, xenos, which means both ‘stranger’; and ‘guest’ at the same time. If you are one, you are automatically the other.
I’ve lost count of the number of generous gestures I’ve received over the years. Even if I’m staying in a busy beach resort town, I’ll often go walking inland in the countryside.
And even in areas that could be excused for being tired of foreign visitors, I’ve been invited into people’s homes and offered food and drink. This is always with nothing expected in return other than some shared company and talk.
A very special time to visit Greece is at Easter, which the Greeks celebrate more than any other holiday during the year. My first Easter visit was on the island of Rhodes.
I was on my own and I popped into the same bar for a pre-dinner drink the first two or three nights I was there. The barman asked if I’d ever experienced a Greek Easter. I said I hadn’t, and he promptly invited me to spend it with his family.
After the bar closed late on Easter Saturday, we drove to his village at the very southern tip of the island, drove up to see a nearby monastery, and his family found a bed for this unexpected visitor without batting an eyelid.
On Sunday we all had a picnic on the beach, there was much food and wine, music from a portable record player plugged into their car, and dancing on the sand.
Unforgettable. And we were back at the bar in time for him to open up again on Sunday evening, not missing a moment’s service.
Driving in Crete one time with my wife, we stopped when we saw an old man sitting outside his house with some carved wooden spoons for sale. They were beautifully made so we bought one.
There must have been an offer on them as he gave us a second one for free, and gestured for us to sit down. From his kitchen he brought out yoghurt and a fresh honeycomb from his beehives. It was delicious!
Eventually we drove on. It was a brief encounter but has stayed with us forever. And we still use the spoons.
Anyone who has been to Greece will know what I mean. If you’ve not been yet you won’t know till you go. But be warned: you might be starting a lifelong love affair too.
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