Greece has been the subject of much travelling on my part in the past, so there doesn't remain an awful lot left to visit - with the solid exception of the Greek islands, where I doubt even the most heroic traveller could ever hope to get round them all in a lifetime. so, it was to a few unknown Greek islands that this traveller made his way during the months of June and July.
A long-standing invitation from a friend and former colleague was the main reason form making Kalymnos the starting point. Kalymnos is a mid-size island in the Dodecanese, lying between the islands of Leros and Kos. It is more famous as a sponge divers island than as a holiday destination, but nonetheless a growing number of travellers are making their way to Kalymnos each year. There is only one direct method to reach Kalymnos and the D.A.N.E. sealine company seems to have the virtual monopoly on transport to and from the Dodecanese. Finding a ticket office in Peiraias can be a confusing experience. There are a myriad offices, each one smaller than the next and many offering the same services. I picked an office at random and tried to book a cabin for the longish trip: I met the first of many "sorry, sir, can't be done" that I was to encounter in my interactions with the shipping companies. I am past the age where a spot of deck, a sleeping mattress and bag, a thick novel and a bottle of ubiquitous mineral water will satisfy my needs for comfort and besides, I was travelling with my two equally fastidious sons who two Summers back had visited Thira (Santorini) in first class style... So, a cabin it had to be but it couldn't be done. Ours is not to question why, for this was Greece and the wonderfully arcane system of booking that prevails in matters shipping.
Third class deck tickets it had to be, then. If that wasn't enough, the ship was delayed for 6 hours "for mechanical reasons" and as we sat in the harbour at Peiraias watching the other ships leaving on time for their destinations the need for a cabin became all the more pressing. 'Cabins can only be issued once the ship leaves port' we were repeatedly told (I never found out why this bit of obtuse reasoning had to be...) but we did not know when the ship would leave, so we could not get a cabin. We did leave and eventually got a cabin, though it may have helped to have political connections to have made it easier.
Kalymnos is a beautiful and vibrant island and is fortunately not yet given over to the whims and desires of tourists like its neighbour Kos is. It is mountainous and, by default, picturesque. For those looking for beaches (and who is not in Greece?) Kalymnos is mediocre. Masouri offers probably the best in nightlife and beach life, but the sand is black(ish) [volcanic] and there is not much of it. By far the best kept secret is Kalymnos' little fjord at Vathi where you can dine on fresh seafood and within a few metres dive into crystal clear water from the little jetty. so far only the yachties and more intrepid travellers seem to have discovered Vathi. Like many islands that are more than mere specks on the ocean, you need transport to get around. My friend was kind enough to show us every corner of Kalymnos accessible by car as well as introducing us to traditional island life.
We took a local ferry from Kalymnos to Mastichari on the North coast of Kos, one the one hand to save time and travelling and on the other, to avoid the anticipated European hoards near to Kos town. Wise decision. Kos is tourism of the packaged kind: you either love it or hate it. I fit into the latter category... Kos lives for the Summer and apparently goes into hibernation once the last charter jet has left. It is nonetheless an attractive place with some nice beaches and still a semblance of island life, if you look for it. Our choice was Kefalos, on the far South-Western tip where we found 'rooms' for about 4,500 drachmas per night [one adult two children]. The beach was a stone's throw away, the ambience quiet enough, though with a fair sprinkling of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Essex accents to attest to the British presence. Club Med has seen fit to build a large complex and the far side of Kefalos bay, so it is quite definitely a beach resort.
We took a day trip to the volcanic island of Nisyros. This was a definite highlight. Nisyros is un-packaged tourism and caters mainly to day-trippers. It is undeveloped, almost pristine and very pretty. The visit to the volcano crater and descent into the caldera is the highlight of the visit to Nisyros. Sulphur splutters and fumes from myriad mini craters and some people cook eggs in the steam. No beaches to speak of, but a quiet and introspective place after the day trippers have left. A place I could spend a lot more time on.
The fourth island I visited was Milos. This turned out to be a most pleasant surprise. The choice of Milos was made on the basis of a small island close to Athens accessible by plane and that was *not* Mykonos. It was a toss up between Paros and Milos. Milos does not live off tourism. There are extensive mining holdings on the island which, though visible, have not (yet) ruined the landscape. It is an island for domestic Greek tourism and the more adventurous traveller. The tourist infrastructure is nonetheless reasonably well-developed and transport to the island is frequent and easy: three planes a day and numerous boats and hydrofoils. Two main centres - Adamantas and Apollonia cater for the visitors but the best (superb) beaches are accessible by caique or motor bike/car only. Palaiochori and *Provatas* are worth mentioning; both are on the South side of the island.
Cycladic cubic architecture dominates the villages of Trypiti, Plaka, and Triovassilos which collectively constitute the 'chora', or capital, high on a plateau overlooking one of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. Here, life is traditional and Greek and an ouzo and octopus snack taken in the little square of Trypiti as the sun sets over the Aegean is one of the memories guaranteed to linger long after you have returned home.
Milos and the other islands are in marked contrast to Greece's two main cities - Athens and Thessaloniki - for me too hot, too busy and to be avoided. Of the two, I guess Thessaloniki (Salonica) wins by a short nose. Athens is palatable in Winter when even the ubiquitous smog disappears and the brilliant white of the city suburbs sprawled across the Attica basin is a sight to admire. Salonica boast some wonderful and original restaurants (if you can find them) and prides itself as being at the heart of the traditional music revival. Salonica's best kept secret is a renovated factory called the Mylos (the Mill) now used as a concert venue, restaurant, ouzeri (ouzo club), discotheque and place to stroll and relax. This is for locals only: tourists are not to be seen :-))) The Mylos puts out a handsome newsletter with its upcoming attractions every month or so [only in Greek]. Don't miss the Mylos, if you make it to Salonica. It is close to the passenger shipping terminal.
Greece continues to lurch from crisis to crisis and is suffering from the drop in tourist income this year, but it *is* unique and offers something that you can not find elsewhere. If you can ignore the (superficial) squalor, the bureaucracy and the overall inefficiency, Greece and its islands in particular is a fine place to holiday.
Paul Hellander is a lecturer in Modern Greek at the SACAE, Adelaide, Australia.
(c) Paul Hellander