Travel: Ferried back to the isles of white: As the Olympic Games start in Barcelona today, Simon Calder visits the place where they all began, in Greece. He jogs around the capital, sprints along the original Olympic track and checks out the islands

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
WHILE I was stuck in a muddy field on the Isle of Wight pretending to enjoy the last riffs of Hendrix, my less impoverished pals were flitting around the Greek islands. In the Seventies, wafting around the Aegean was a warm alternative to rock festivals. My fortunate friends returned with exaggerated (presumably) stories involving Japanese motorbikes, Lebanese drugs, Danish women and the occasional goat. But by the time I could afford to reach Greece, it seemed I had missed the boat. Mass tourism had begun and lager-like-Lowenbrau-makes-it was the main intoxicant.

The self-appointed travel guru at my Athens camp site urged a trip to Crete. I stumbled along at dawn to a dirty old steamer at Piraeus docks, and sailed hopefully all day. Travelling was indeed better than arriving at Crete, where a Nirvana ripe for adventure had given way to tourists on infernal Honda 50s shrieking their destructive way between Jerry-built hotels. I clung to a hot and sticky square metre of deck all the way back to Piraeus. And, because travel was surely not supposed to be fun, I returned to Britain on a bus that needed to be bump-started at every service station between Salonika and Streatham.

I was doing it all wrong. Crete is even more heavily visited these days, but Greece's largest island hides plenty of unspoilt corners. So, too, do the places en route. How much more pleasant to stop off at some of the rugged flecks which rise from from the perfectly blue sea. There are worse ways to travel than to float gently from one island to the next.

Island-hopping could come back into vogue; there is, after all, little danger of spending a night in the corridor sandwiched between a smelly Swede and the toilet as you might do on a train. British and Irish people tend to stop rather than hop, because so many islands are accessible on direct charter flights.

Some places are bruised by backpackers, hoppers and stoppers. But even the islands with the highest decibel levels and worst reputations have saving graces. Take the opportunity to compare and contrast.

The traditional way to get started is to make your way to Piraeus, the port fused with Athens. Here you can board any of the 50 or more daily departures. Expect to be given hopelessly confusing advice on how to find the right ship. You could avoid this bothersome business by taking a cheap charter flight from Britain direct to one of the islands and use it as a base for others. Paros, Mikonos or Rhodes are best.

A web of ferry, jet-boat and hydrofoil services links the islands with each other and the mainland. The island-hopper's bible is the Thomas Cook Guide to Greek Island Hopping, which has none of the stiff formality of the Continental Timetable. The compiler, Frewin Poffley, takes an omniscient view of the complexities of ferry timetables and laces it with gentle advice and good humour. The island of Salamis, he notes, 'has been in decline for 2,500 years' and the tourist boats which serve it 'are long past their sink-by date'.

The book contains schedules for every route, but Poffley observes that the region 'is not noted for achieving Germanic standards of timekeeping'. Be prepared for your planned itinerary to fall apart. Patterns of services are well established, but precise timings and routes vary considerably. Schedules are published only a few days in advance, and boats can be cancelled with minimal notice.

Furthermore, it is tricky to get a complete picture of the available services. Tickets are sold through agents, but none has access to all the boats. You may be assured by one agent, for example, that the only boat from Naxos to Paros is at 11am, when, in fact, there are several more sailings that day. Ask a number of agents before handing over cash.

Along with a ticket, you buy a bundle of imponderables. The departure time shown is merely an indication of when, in an ideal world, the vessel might set sail. Boats can leave 30 minutes early or an hour late for no apparent reason, or be cancelled altogether at short notice. Patience and flexibility are essential. Beware of the sudden Aegean squalls of the kind which impeded Odysseus.

Fares for each route are fixed by the government, and increase frequently. The price you pay bears no relation to the amount printed on the ticket, but this is the result of high inflation rather than a rip-off. The long overnight haul from Athens to Crete costs pounds 10. A shorter hop of two or three hours, such as Santorini to Paros, is about pounds 3. These fares are for 'deck' class. 'A' and 'B' classes provide a little more luxury for a lot more money, and prices on the Russian hydrofoils are twice as much.

'Deck' class does not mean you have to spend the journey out in the open, but it is often a good option under bright Aegean skies. To get your towel on the deck ahead of the Germans, board the boat as soon as it appears and stake out a space, forward of the funnel.

Once on dry land, most people find a Room (the capital R is to distinguish it from the accommodation in hotels, which is more expensive). Or a Room may find you: on many islands touts greet every arrival of a ferry. A reasonable place might cost pounds 5 per person with bathroom, but don't expect hot water. If the tout is desperate, try to beat the price down to pounds 3. It can pay to search out a place yourself. Each of the following islands is easily accessible from Piraeus and has good links with other islands. They vary in size from Naxos, about the same as the Isle of Wight, to Spetses, one-twentieth as big.

AEGINA

AS a first-time island, Aegina is ideal - only pounds 2 and 80 minutes from Piraeus. You can sail to one coast, cross the rolling hills in the centre of the island, take in one of Greece's greatest antiquities, then get the boat back from the other side. The local economy is based more on pistachio nuts than tourism, so visitors are not seen purely as a source of income. Aegina town is colourful and pretty, with good, cheap restaurants and friendly bars.

Inland, the 2,500-year-old Temple of Aphaia stands magnificently on the summit of a windswept hill. It overlooks the faintly ridiculous resort of Agia Marina, the Saronic Gulf's answer to Blackpool. Here you can find an English breakfast more easily than a Greek salad.

ANTIPAROS

THIS island is best as an antidote to the crowds across the water on its alter-ego, Paros. A single rough track runs 10 miles south from the scruffy quayside through bare, desolate moorland to a huge and ancient cave. A day-trip can be rewarding, but only a hard-line recluse would want to stay longer.

HYDRA

A DRAMATICALLY beautiful island free from motor vehicles, Hydra is too picturesque for its own good. The town is squeezed into a narrow ravine which doubles as a pretty harbour. The main moneyspinner is selling overpriced jewellery to day-trippers. Only an hour by hydrofoil from Piraeus, Hydra can get maddeningly crowded. Some people visit just to gawk at the rich and famous who make the island their home. Take an energetic walk away from the hordes and into the hills. Transport is four-legged, which raises the intriguing prospect of Joan Collins's donkey rubbing noses with Leonard Cohen's ass.

IOS

THE pretty, whitewashed capital becomes a drunken madhouse after dark. You may think this is the worst or the best feature of Ios. Homer is reputedly buried on the island, and must be spinning in his grave at the hedonism which gets going around midnight. Ios is cheap, with a cheerfulness bordering on desperation.

Yet during the day, the capital of Ios is quiet and elegant. As the drinkers slink away into the dawn shadows to await gargantuan hangovers, the stoical locals go about their business. Close by is a fine crescent of beach, virtually deserted. Towards teatime, I asked Dave, a chartered accountant from Dublin, why he missed the best part of every day. He said the magical hours from midnight to dawn made it all worthwhile: 'They say in Ireland that you come back white from Ios.' For him, a night on Ios is more exciting than a year of accountancy.

MIKONOS

IGNORE the tatty tourist handouts, such as the flyer for the Skandinavian Bar and disco: 'Words cannot describe its beauty and its entertainment unless you are found in the actual environment, itself.' Mikonos deserves better. The island is popular with gay people, a fact of which four youths from Nottingham were unaware when they booked their beachside villa. 'It's full of fooking queers here,' one expleted into his Heineken, while his companions ignored the bare beach bums and battled with the Sun crossword. For all but practising homophobes, Mikonos is blissful. Quaint and tiny streets criss- cross the old town, and the decaying old waterside quarter resembles a particularly delicious corner of Venice.

The rest of the island ranges from smooth to rugged like a carelessly crumpled duvet. Paradise and Super Paradise beaches (both predominantly gay male) are well named. The worst feature is the airport, placed so that aircraft fly low over the best beaches and the main town. But the charm of the island and the gentle tolerance of its people make Mikonos magical.

NAXOS

THE largest island in the Cyclades, Naxos has towering landscapes framed by long, empty beaches. It is one of the few places where traditional Greek hospitality towards strangers has survived. The absence of an airport (although one is being built) means the island is uncrowded. It appeals to those who find hiking more rewarding than lazing.

In Walking Tours on Naxos, Christian Ucke adopts a proprietorial manner about the island to which he returns every year. He is a 50-year-old Bavarian physicist, whose affection for the island is entwined with precise directions for a selection of walks. In the wilds of inland Naxos, the scientific accuracy of his guidebook is to be commended.

PAROS

THE scenery is lovely and the nightlife is lively. Paros is larger than most Greek islands - the same size as Anglesey - so it can absorb the thousands of visitors who fly or sail in over the summer. The worst irritation is a preponderance of sub-Eurovision music booming from the discos. The island is notable for its fine white marble. This stone was used in antiquity for the Venus de Milo statue, and to build Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.

The main town of Parikia suffers from being the hub of the Cyclades ferry system, with the constant bustle of boats. Beyond it you can visit a butterfly garden, seek a gentle beach or eat excellent seafood overlooking the preposterously pretty port of Naoussa - perhaps the single most picturesque place in all Greece.

POROS

A DULL island, strictly for the trainee island-hopper. Poros is the closest island to the mainland and a good introduction to the quieter side of island life.

SANTORINI

THIRA, as the island is also called, retains a crumbling majesty. The original island was the visible portion of a huge volcano, and may have borne the city of Atlantis. Its heart was broken in a cataclysmic eruption in the second millenium BC. Ash from the explosion has been found as far away as northern Europe, and the resulting tidal wave wiped out the centre of Minoan civilisation in Crete. All that remains of Santorini is the cracked rim piercing the Aegean with human settlements clinging to the blackened soil. Nothing can prepare you for the stunning sight. The only living to be scraped in Santorini is in tourism. Every field of vision is picturesque, from the whitewashed town to the austere slopes of the volcano. Sunset from the ridge of the crater is one of the greatest sights in the world.

SPETSES

'LONELY in the extreme' is how John Fowles described the island. He taught at a school here in the Fifties, and used it as the setting for The Magus. He recounts the excitement on learning that 'another Englishmen had landed from the Athens steamer'.

Forty years is a long time in tourism. The British have made Spetses their own. A forest fire has devastated much of the south coast, but the wonderful beaches on that side of the island are intact, including one where the seduction in The Magus took place.

Spetses is well placed for hoppers to visit the mainland - only 10 minutes and 30p away. From here you can reach the ancient sites of Epidavros and Mycenae after a marvellous drive through the mountains. Village Greece has been largely eradicated from the islands, but it survives in countless communities on the mainland. Wizened old men manipulate worry beads for no greater stresses than the rate of growth of the olives or the chance of drawing a duff domino.

After sampling a Greece that is a world away from Euro-standardisation, you may vow to stay on the mainland next time.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE: Greece is easy to reach from Britain. The disintegration of Yugoslavia has effectively closed down the old land route, but some air fares this summer are so low that the Magic Bus would have been priced off the road anyway. I paid pounds 89 for a return flight in early July from Manchester to the Greek capital through Thomson Air Fares (081-200 8733). The company is not reducing fares for the rest of July, but may do so in August. Usit (071- 730 2101) has return flights to Athens for pounds 159, or Salonika for pounds 119.

Olympic flights arrive at the West Terminal of Athens airport, all others at the East. Although they share the same runway the two are separated by a five-mile road journey covered by bus 19 (50p) or by taxi ( pounds 3). Each terminal is connected with Syntagma and Omonia Squares in the city centre and the two main bus stations by express buses (50p). They leave every 20 minutes during the day, and hourly between midnight and 5am.

Accommodation: I paid pounds 9 for a room at the centrally located George's Guest House, 46 Nikis Street (322 6474). At this price you don't get soap or towels, let alone an en-suite bathroom. The National Tourism Organisation of Greece in London provides lists of more comfortable places.

Getting around: Bus tickets (22p) must be bought in advance from designated street- corner kiosks - periptero. The most important service is the green express bus between Athens (Syntagma Square) and Piraeus.

The underground line has a flat fare of 22p. The funicular to the summit of Licabettus Hill operates 8.45am-12.45am daily, fare pounds 1 return.

Greek literature: There are plenty of guidebooks on Greece available, perhaps more than for any other country. I took 10 around the country and islands. Six were quickly consigned to the bottom of my rucksack, but the survivors made good fellow travellers.

Groc's Companion Guide is a straight-talking survey of about 90 inhabited islands written by Geoffrey O'Connell.

The Michelin Green Guide refers to its colour rather than any environmental pretension. You wouldn't buy it for its humour but it packs the facts, with lots of solid information and excellent maps. Michelin is hesitant to offer opinions beyond its star rating of sites, but the Rough Guide series thrives on subjective advice.

The Footloose Guide also aims at the independent, adventurous traveller, and visits many of the same haunts.

Michelin Green Guide, 1991, pounds 6.95; Groc's Companion Guide to the Greek Islands, ABE, 1990, pounds 9.95; Greece: the Rough Guide, Penguin, August 1992, pounds 9.99; The Footloose Guide: Greece, Simon & Schuster, 1992, pounds 7.99; Walking Tours on Naxos is available for 25 marks from Jurastr 4/RG, D-8000 Munchen 19, Germany.

A good source for books on Greece is Hellenic Bookservice, 91 Fortess Road, London NW5 1AG (071-267 9499; fax 071-267 9498).

Further information: National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (071-734 5997).

(Photographs and map omitted)

Comments