Sunday, July 27, 2008

The island with two names

This is my 4th attempt at telling you about our Greek island holiday in May. So what if it took me having a week off to recover from surgery to get the thing finished? The point is it's here. And it's long. You might want to get comfortable for this...

It was only the second week of the Summer season when we flew to Zakynthos... or Zante. Take your pick; both names apply. After a week on the island I was still confused; everything there seems to have an alternative name!
We landed on a Saturday evening and the place seemed deserted, from the shiny new mini-airport to the dusty streets outside. Arriving at our apartment complex in the town of Laganas (a.k.a. Lagana) did nothing to dispel that first impression. The bar was closed and the only person in sight was a guest who had been there a week. She kindly pointed out that the keys were in the doors and our room numbers were penned on our Welcome Packs, saving the small group of travellers that we were from spending the night on sun-loungers surrounding the swimming pool, under the stars. Only not stars really, since shortly after our arrival it rained, in the way that monsoons rain.

Happily, by that stage, we had settled in and headed out again and Hubby and I were comfortably ensconced at a bar just down the road. The further down the road we looked, the more obvious it became that Zakynthos was, in fact, not closed; it was just a bit early in the season and the unwashed masses had not yet arrived.
That would happen in a week or two.

Our plan of having a quiet drink that first evening drowned in a cauldron of beer, Sambuca and Gin. I had forgotten the way of the Greek Islands - whenever you buy food or drink, you get something back for free, i.e. buy a beer, get a free Sambuca. We had a great evening, befriending the young lady from Liverpool who ran the place. She was more than generous with her servings and when it was time to close the pub she had us join her two doors down in the night club run by her brother. I didn't do so much clubbing as sitting on a bar stool, yakking my head off with with the British ex-pats about what it was like living there. I was doing research, you see, for a book I was writing. OK so I haven't actually started writing it yet, but it's amazing how much people will tell you when they think they're going to be a character in a novel!
(And I really do intend writing something set in the Greek islands, I promise; I cannot lie to people!)

I have no idea what time we stumbled back to our apartment; I do recall being really glad we hadn't gone further down "The Strip" than we did.

I thought "The Strip" was a good name for the street we were on. It ran about a kilometer further from where our apartment was and ended on a beach that stretched for miles in both directions. We walked that street the next day - slowly, and stopping often for refreshment in deference to our hangovers. There was no shortage of places to eat and drink. Night clubs, bars, restaurants and fast-food joints jostled each other for position. Dotted in-between were clothing and curio shops, selling all the things that tourists love to buy - beach wear, sun lotions, insect repellents and trinkets made of shells. Not to mention jewellery, which is really reasonably priced in the Greek islands.

It probably should have taken us 15 minutes to walk to the beach. It took us half a day. We weren't in a terrible hurry since the previous night's rain had left behind a low ceiling of cloud so sunbathing wasn't really an option.

ONE END OF LAGANAS BAY

Once we got there, it took us the rest of the day to walk back the way we had come, stopping along the way to indulge in some KFC - great hangover food, indeed!

By dinner-time we were feeling human again and I was in the mood for some Greek food, which I love. The restaurant we chose did not disappoint. I gorged on Tzatziki and garlic prawns while watching the passers-by through the open shop-front. Surprisingly, considering the previous night's over-indulgence, I even enjoyed the wine, although I didn't have enough of that to mask the discomfort of my lumpy pillow that night. Well, we wanted a cheap holiday and I guess you get what you pay for!

The next morning we finally got the sunshine we had been waiting for, so we rented a 650cc Yamaha for the day and set off in search of adventure. The island is small enough that you can ride all the way around in a day, stopping along the way to see the sights. The bike rental place - one of dozens - supplied a map with a number of different suggested routes, depending on how long you wanted to be on the road.

Our first stop was the Damianos caves, set into the side of a mountain and reached by twisty roads through some old, run-down villages. Evidence of the last earthquake on the island, in 1953, was obvious by the many ruined buildings that were never rebuilt. The caves were, well, holes in the side of a mountain, really. The jury is out on whether they were worth the short hike to see them.
From the caves we followed the narrow road through vineyards, olive groves and stone walls to the bluest water on the planet at a place called Porto Limnionas.

There we sat on the mountainside and laughed - some people were filming what we presumed was a music video down in the cove; two men wearing bright pink suits were singing, accompanied by a guy on a trumpet, another with a guitar and a third with a tambourine. A handful of models were dancing and whooping and generally going berserk in front of the makeshift stage. Meanwhile we couldn't hear any actual music! It was really funny to watch the fake revelry going on in this beautiful place.

BLUEST WATER ON THE PLANET? YOU DECIDE.

Our mirth soon dissipated when we climbed back up to the restaurant above, only to find that said film crew had commandeered the entire inside of the place; duffel bags, clothes and various props were strewn across the tables, chairs and floors, forcing us to go elsewhere in search of lunch. You see, one can't just eat at any old place when in the Greek islands; one has to find a place with a view, or ambiance, or something special. Mealtimes are an experience. Being surrounded by skinny peoples' bikini tops was not the sort of ambiance I had in mind.

As it turned out, the Universe was conspiring with us for a change, that day. The Yamaha blasted effortlessly back up the steep, twisting road we had travelled and bore us quickly to the next stop on the map: The town of Exo Hora (or Exo Chora, whichever strikes your fancy!).
It appeared to be little more than a junction with a few houses; it's claim to fame was the oldest Olive tree on the island, at somewhere around 2000 years of age.

It turned out to be so much more. Opposite the tree (which actually had to be pointed out to me, believe it or not!) was a square containing the Taverna Cafe Bar "Dafnes" where the tomato and cucumber in the Greek salad exploded with freshness and flavour, the feta cheese made my mouth water for more and the effect was so good I was even tempted into eating a couple of the olives. (As it happens I still don't like them, but you get the picture.) Our 'meal freebie' turned out to be freshly sliced apple sprinkled with cinnamon, one of those perfect taste combinations - like bacon and egg, or coffee and chocolate.

Birds tweeted in every surrounding tree, Greek music played out of the café and only the odd tourist car or bike passed on the road, and as I sipped the thick, bitter Greek coffee after my meal a sense of calm and happiness enveloped me. I had found a place of peace.

Our bellies full and our souls rested, we set off once again on our journey of exploration. The roads were perfect - or rather, the bike we were on was perfectly suited to the roads. The engine burbled effortlessly as we practiced our motorized dance, leaning left and right as we dove between olive groves, cypress trees and stone walls, negotiating the bends with care and gleefully accelerating on the occasional straight. Warmly pressed up against my husband's back on a motorcycle as we adventured through the unknown made me about as happy as I can get.

The directions on the map became a little hazy at this point but we managed to stop off to investigate at least one of the old monasteries mentioned before finding our way to a viewing point atop a cliff overlooking The Shipwreck. So determined was I to get a photograph of the shipwreck on the beach about 300m below that I forgot about my heights 'thing' and stepped out purposefully onto the little metal platform to get the best view. It was little more than a gangplank with a handrail and I had only taken 3 steps when my mind and body almost parted company, one of them saying, "You're perfectly safe," and the other, "Aaargh!!!! I'm going to fall down there and die!!!"
Fortunately, whichever of the two was talking sense won out, saving me from utter panic and embarrassment before the bus load of German tourists who were all queued in an orderly fashion to take their turn at getting the same photograph I managed to take.

SHIPWRECK BEACH

I like to think the effort was worth it.

By 4pm the wind had picked up and we still had a long way to go. Dave was also a bit concerned about the petrol situation. The pumps in Laganas were dry, bearing paper signs reading "No Petrol. Strike On."
So instead of travelling the entire length of Zakynthos, we cut across the traversing mountain range. It turned out the Universe was still on our side for there, in the middle of nowhere, we happened upon a large gas station that had plenty of petrol - probably due to the lack of passing traffic! With the tank full we relaxed a bit and continued Eastwards through the endless miles of olive groves and the national park, loving the bendy bits that seemed designed purely for motorcyclists' enjoyment.

We were relieved to find it was warmer and less windy on the other side of the mountains. Having set out in warm sunshine that morning, we were wearing only light clothing, most unsuited for the stormy weather that was starting to brew along the West coast. Small villages and yet more olive groves flashed by, until at last we reached Zakynthos town (a.k.a. Zante. Why??!) Civilized sign-postage escorted us to the port, a small bay with a serene surface, where two large ferries and a couple of boats lay obediently at their moorings.

PORT AT ZAKYNTHOS

We rode almost to the end of the road and parked the bike. It seemed a long time since lunch. Vines crept up wooden posts and formed a roof overhead, casting a deep shadow on the slightly faded green and white checked tablecloths. A teenager with a shy smile brought our iced coffees and food: Gyros for Dave and hot apple pie with cream and ice cream for me.
Yum.
Yum.
Yum!

The fading light forced us back onto the bike and we set off back towards Laganas, detouring through Kalamaki to check out the beach there.
We never did get to see that beach. No sooner had we passed the point of no return than enormous drops of rain began to thwack! on our helmets. We abandoned the beach idea and found the turnoff to Laganas, making a mad dash along the long, straight road that joins the two resorts. Massive gusting wind stung us with sand as we raced the purple-grey sky that had appeared over the sea. Big, heavy drops started to pelt us as we returned the bike to the rental place and walked back to the apartment; we made it indoors just as the monsoon-style rain swept over our holiday once again.

The next two days were non-days. We did some shopping up and down the strip, in between rain showers, and spent some time on sun loungers next to the pool, where we made friends with a British couple staying in the apartment two doors down.
We had one particularly good meal at a restaurant called Sirocco. There was entertainment, too - we watched with amusement a couple across the road who were having an argument. We couldn't hear what they were saying over the music pumping from "Bar Code" but their body language said it all; she in a peacock blue bubble dress, blonde hair coiffed, one arm in a sling and her nose in the air as he apologised profusely and continuously for all he was worth. She was having none of it. Talk about high maintenance..!

We had booked another excursion for our last full day on the island and the Universe was once again our friend as we awoke to clear blue skies, at last. The sun was doing its best to devour the last of the night-time chill as we boarded a bus to Zakynthos port, where we were shepherded aboard a triple-decker tourist boat with, it was rumoured, a swimming pool on board. It took a full day to circumnavigate the island. It wasn't exactly a luxury cruise; we were packed like sardines onto rows of plastic seats but you know what? It was a great day, by the end of which we had formed a cameraderie with the people around us; the salt-of-the-earth middle-aged English couple, the couple from Eastern Europe somewhere (they were really wrapped up in each other and didn't actually speak to anyone else so their origin was something of a guess), the Irish family whose kids were naughty but completely lovable and the elderly couple opposite who reminded Dave and I of what we might look like a few decades from now.

I took dozens of photographs that day - there were just so many beautiful photos to take!

This proved reasonably difficult from a moving boat because really, a beautiful photograph is probably 85% viewpoint and it's difficult to maintain a viewpoint when moving and rocking.

We stopped a few times; twice for a swim in the cool blue water. The first swimming stop was at Shipwreck Beach, 300m below the site of my near-death experience (You call it exaggeration, I call it creative license!)

YEP, I STOOD AT THE EDGE OF THAT CLIFF TO GET THE OTHER PICTURE!

The golden sand and unbelievably blue water looked idyllic. Up close it was a different story; the water was freezing and the beach was made up of trillions of tiny pebbles that took great pleasure in prodding and poking the underneath of my feet in a manner that caused me to walk like I was balancing on a tightrope. Not my most elegant moment, but worth every stab of pain, when I eventually found a comfortable spot on my towel on the beach. The beach was deserted when we arrived, and within a few minutes our boat, and one other, had unloaded its passengers and there was barely enough room for everyone. Half an hour later we were back on board and the beach was once again pristine; I was most amused at this periodic human flooding of the beach!

We motored around, just off the coast, gawping at the many caves and how the landscape changed from one side of the island to another.

The captain took us in to see one or two of the deeper coves and then actually took us inside one of the larger caves.

(The picture is of the other boat doing the same thing - ours was roughly the same size & shape but obviously much cooler!)


We tried looking for turtles but it was still a little early on in the season. It seems the turtles know the water is still too cold there at that time of year, unlike unsuspecting tourists from Ireland.

It was a beautiful day all around; there's something terribly calming about being on the water in the sunshine and seeing so much beauty. Despite the long day we were well up for a meal out with our friends from the apartments, and after yet another mouthwatering Greek meal (can't get enough of that Tzatziki!) we all went clubbing. I may have looked like an old, floppy granny compared to the skinny young bodies that were dancing for shots on the bar counter but I didn't care. I'm sure if my step-children had been there they would have, but as it was I shook my bones and made like I was a teenager again!

Because that's what Laganas is about; it's like one big nightclub, a place of loud music, drink and debauchery at the southern end of what is otherwise a sleepy, ancient and beautiful Greek island.

Aah.... so the island with two names appears to have a split personality.
I get it now.

9 comments:

BazL said...

Nice writing T, sounds like my kind of holiday. Did you buy some nice stuff? Love Lee xx

mississippilinda said...

Terri you are crazy!! When I seen your photos on flkr I was wondering if you was on top of a cliff to take that shot. It sure made a gorgeous photo though!!
You always describe your vacations to where I feel like I am there. Thanks for the mini get away this morning.
xoxoxo

Anonymous said...

You've done it again....fed my travel-bug! I'm adding Greek Islands to my ever-growing list of places I would love to see one day.
Mom

angel said...

i have no doubt you totally held your won whilst clubbing like a teenage rock star!
great post and SPECTACULAR photos terri!

Terri said...

bazl - Got a few things... like I said, jewellery is cheap there :-)

mississippilinda - You're welcome and yes, in retrospect I am crazy for getting that photo but by the time I realized I was crazy I was already past the point of no return LOL!

mom - At last; that should be at the very top of your list.

Angel - That's me, thirty-something teenage rock star :-D

kattbox said...

Hey there! I'm finally doing some blog reading catch up and you have me green again. You went to the Greek Isles and a Clapton concert! That's not fair! Oh, wait, I went to Italy.

I started a new blog to bore everyone with my travel adventures. If you wan to take a lookie:
http://kattstravelbox.wordpress.com.

And you have a great eye for photies, Terri, cliffs and all.

Jax said...

Hey Terri,

This is a great read and about time too!

Sounds like a stunning holiday spot...hmmm maybe a good place to move to.

LiVEwiRe said...

To be honest, I never had any fascination with Greece. Until I began reading about your trips there and seeing the gorgeous photos. Not so long ago on the Travel Channel, they had something on abuot one of the places you visited and I could recognize it by your photos! =) Man I need a vacation. Glad you enjoyed yours!

Terri said...

Katt - "oh wait, I went to Italy"..? That's two intercontinental trips for you in the last year, if I'm not mistaken!

Jax - I don't know about moving to Zakynthos. Maybe one of the other islands but I don't think that would be my first choice. Just my opinion.

LiVEwiRe - Cool, my photos are famous! Well ok that's probably stretching it but Cool anyway!