Lemmings Afloat in Greece

A printing error in a sailing brochure price list, some fast footwork on the phone, and suddenly nine members of that loose collection of bikers sometimes known as The Lemmings were flying out to Greece to pick up our 50-foot yacht for a holiday in the sun.

After some initial confusion at Kalamaki harbour, the gear was soon installed on our boat, and after an evening’s jollity and some kip we were out on the ocean wave.


Today would be the longest haul, all day heading southward around the mainland, with lots of nice open space in which to get used to our new craft, and some time to waste drifting gently in the sun and swimming in the clear blue sea.

Remembering an earlier escapade, however, this time we left somebody on board when we went swimming, and thus avoided a repeat of the sight of our yacht, sails set but helmless, heading off into the sunset. But that is another story, and finally, tired and hungry, we arrived at the little island of Kea.

We were the only boat at the harbour, and the taverna was waiting for the fishing boat to get in, so we mooched about until it arrived. I knew that the Greek sea had been grievously over-fished, and I’d already been surprised by the desert-like nature of the sea bottom on my snorkel excursions, but I was still stunned at the tiny catch that the three-man crew carried ashore when they finally docked; two large fish and some scallops. Sure enough, once in the taverna, we discovered that the piscine menu was limited to “leetle feesh” or “beeg feesh”.

It was all remarkably cheap too, but next day when we came ashore for breakfast the owner was in a terrible state, because he had forgotten to charge us the £20 for the “beeg feesh”. The meal had been excellent and of course we were happy to oblige, and he was so grateful that breakfast was on the house. What a knife-edge some of these tavernas must live on.

After breakfast we pottered about getting supplies, and then I happened to notice one of those ubiquitous moped-hire stalls at one end of the sea-front. A few drachma later, we were heading out into the hills.

It was a glorious day, and we were just riding for the hell of it, bouncing down little goat tracks to admire the beaches, caroming off the inside of immense potholes and generally having a great time. The terraces were lush and green, the flowers were bright and cheerful, and the villages shone whitely in the noonday sun. We managed not to fall off, too.

That night we walked round the coast to a taverna in the next village, on the way climbing up to a tiny little chapel in the dark and admiring the huge millipedes that swarmed all over it. Much later, after another enjoyable meal, we staggered back again.

A Hike Across Kithnos

The next day, as we were setting out to sea, dark clouds built up and it started to rain, but we did well under sail and by the time we hit the island of Kithnos for lunch the weather was clearing up, and rather than messing about with the dinghy we just anchored up in a convenient bay and swam to the nearest taverna.

Engine, who had carefully been watching Cap’n Steve’s every move, and who was himself studying for the necessary qualifications, wanted to have a go at skippering the boat, so leaving him a skeleton crew the rest of us set off on foot across the island, intending to meet up with them that evening on the other side.

The town, Loutra, is built over a hot spring, and steaming russet-coloured water runs everywhere in channels down to the sea. There was a derelict roman-style bath at one end of the town, but a major health spa was under construction so I doubt the town is so sleepy any more.

The walk across the island was beautiful, and although we only had a fag-packet map copied from the pilot’s almanac we were confident that we wouldn’t have too much trouble finding our way. We didn’t in fact get lost as such (although sometimes we thought that we were), but the island slanted higher and higher toward the western end, until we stood on a high cliff staring down into the harbour far, far below.

Was that tiny blob our boat? Or was it another, similar looking one? If it was ours, then why were the sails lying on the deck? Eventually, with some difficulty we scrambled down the cliff and managed to attract their attention.

After some messing about with the dinghy we were re-united, to discover that the crew weren’t exactly unstressed, having managed to soak the genoa half way round, but apart from that the experiment had been a success. Since there was plenty of firewood lying around, a beach picnic followed, with copious quantities of alcohol and a lot of rowing back and forth with food and, later, drunken people.

Back to Kea

The next day we set off back toward Kea Island, and on the way it blew up a force 7 which soon had most of us feeling distinctly green. We lived, however, to reach the port town of Kavia, where we anchored up in the accredited visitor’s mooring and then watched from the shore in some trepidation as an immense passenger ferry squeezed past us to its own quay, luckily without incident.

A Cultural Interlude

On the following day we found ourselves heading back up the mainland coast toward Kalamaki and home. On our way south, we had noticed a classical temple standing on a bluff at Sounion, so this time we dropped in to have a look. It was pleasantly, well, classical, but it was somewhat of a surprise to climb up the cliff from the deserted bay and to suddenly encounter a tarmac road packed with tourist buses. We ignored them, and they ignored us, and after a look around we went back to our boat, upped anchor, and left.

Bareboat Flotilla Antics at Fokaia

At Fokaia we anchored up once more, but just as we were preparing to row to the shore we noticed the sails of a flotilla rounding the head. Seasoned veterans that we were, we soon noticed that these were enthusiastic amateurs, and that a dozen or so forty-five footers were racing dangerously quickly into the bay, spinnakers flying.

Swiftly we upped anchor from our exposed central position, and motored gently in toward the beach. From my regular snorkel surveys of the anchor chain and the bottom of the boat I knew that we had big flat wings on the end of our keel, so we chugged ever so slowly up the sloping sandbar until the wings kissed the bottom, and then re-anchored, hopefully safely out of ramming distance from the incoming hordes.

The lead boat came in fast, making a botch of getting the spinnaker down, but they were pointing at us and shouting to each other and too late we realised they must have been saying, “Look, there’s a fifty-footer safely anchored inshore so there must be plenty of depth, whatever the pilot’s manual says…”.

Then there was an interesting crunch and everybody on board fell over. The rest of the flotilla came in very very fast and tried to raft up with the first boat, and for a while it all got quite amusing.

Salty sea dogs of several days’ experience, we smiled quietly and climbed into the dinghy and rowed ashore to the taverna, although we could probably have waded.

Back to Athens

On the last day, with the wind behind us and the ugly outskirts of Athens appearing on the horizon, we encountered a school of dolphins which played around in our wake for a while before heading out to sea. We did try to get pictures, but they moved very fast so the few that I got were just bits of tail and flipper, and we will never know whether Mark got any good pictures because shortly after that he dropped his camera overboard. It didn’t float very well.

Three Men on a Train: 6 – Zakynthos

Welcome to Zakynthos

The island of Zakynthos loomed out of the sea mist ahead, surrounded on all sides by seas of the most incredible shade of blue. As our ferry drew closer, we could make out the harbour of Zakynthos town, crouching down against the water front, nestled under the vertical craggy inland terrain.

We had no idea what to expect. As this was the half-way point of our Grand Tour, we had decided to rest for a week on one of the half-dozen Ionian islands, and had more or less randomly picked this one according to the timetables of the trains and ferries available to us.

We knew that the island was about ten miles across, and we had a vague plan of hiking over the centre to the other side, to see what adventures awaited us. We were footloose and fancy-free, and the world was our oyster.

Within seconds of disembarking, we were approached by a man who wanted to rent us a moped. A few yards later, somebody else asked us the same question. Behind him, several more salesmen were queueing up. Shaking our heads – we had barely set off on our hike, and none of us had ever ridden a motorcycle anyway – we made our way past the clamouring touts, our backpacks weighing heavily as the sun beat down on our heads. About a hundred yards further on, we gave in and rented three mopeds for the rest of the week.


The search for the perfect beach

The concept of twist-and-go was simple enough, but the little 50cc machines weren’t really designed to handle a strapping teenager with an enormous backpack. We’d only travelled a short distance up the road before I discovered that pushing mine to 28mph resulted in a loud “bang” and the ejection of a fair bit of oil. I stopped to have a look but couldn’t see any obvious damage and anyway it was still running, so I decided to ignore it. However, while we paused to examine it, Andrew’s moped stalled and wouldn’t start again.

A friendly man came out of his house and pointed knowledgeably at Andrew’s carburettor, then went indoors to phone our hire shop. While we sat on the road and waited to be rescued, the his whole family emerged and sat down with us. We couldn’t understand a word they said, and vice-versa, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

After a while, the rental man showed up with a replacement machine, and we said goodbye to our new friends and putt-putted away to find a beach to sleep on. The first one wasn’t really what we were looking for, and then we got lost in the enjoyment of buzzing along deserted, winding country lanes, learning how to ride the little machines and occasionally “racing” the locals.

By now it was fully dark, and we found that the pitiful light from the tiny glow-worm lamps completely failed to allow us to distinguish between the sandy road surface and the sandy verges. While we paused to sort out a minor crash where Andrew had thought that the road went one way, and I had thought that it went another, an English couple showed up and gave us directions to a good camping beach. Straightening out our handlebars, we set off along a tortuously winding road resembling a quarry track bent into the shape of a stack of paper-clips.

Higher and higher we climbed, wondering why we were going up when surely a beach should be down, until the road degenerated into a pile of rocks on a hill crest. It seemed that it was indeed a quarry after all.

We turned around, and tried a different direction. The evening wore on, and we were getting saddle-sore and tired. Eventually, in a village called Orthonies, Andrew met some children who said that we could camp in the grounds of their school. Since it was all concrete, we couldn’t pitch a tent, so we simply lay down on the ground.

In the interests of saving weight, we had all three of us made some personal compromises when we packed for the trip. David, for instance, had left his boots at home and wore only trainers, something that he had regretted when tramping around Vienna. My concession had been to leave my big heavy sleeping bag at home, instead opting for an orange plastic survival bag. This was all very well on the floor of a train, but desperately cold on plain concrete, and I woke next morning frozen and soaked with condensation.

I lay in quiet dampness, thinking about nice warming Hungarian Cherry Brandy, until the local church started broadcasting its service over a loudspeaker, which woke the others and we had a second try at finding the perfect beach. To cut a long story short, we did eventually discover a perfect little cove near Askos, and went for a welcome cleansing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.

The kindness of strangers

The scenery on the island was beautiful and varied, ranging from terrace-farmed olives groves clambering up the sides of the blue-tinted mountains, to wide flat vineyards, ever-changing vistas against the backdrop of an azure sea.

But it wasn’t the physical beauty that impressed us most. Everywhere we went on this fabulous island, we were welcomed with friendliness, humour, and unthinking generosity. At one small shop, we put our meagre drachmas together and bought mackerel, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. An elderly customer came into the shop, saw our haul, and handed each of us a thick crust of sweet bread. Thanking her, and not wanting it to go stale, we decided to sit down outside the shop and eat our lunch there and then. We settled down in the road and realised that we needed some fruit, so popped back into the shop to get some grapes. The shopkeeper quietly and without fuss popped an extra loaf of bread into my bag.

We returned a few days later to get the deposit on our fizzy drink bottles and to stock up on biscuits, chocolates, and more drinks. The kindly shopkeeper once again donated a fresh loaf of bread to the cause, refusing any payment.

On another occasion, David had run out of fuel, so I headed off to Askos to get some. There was no fuel station in the usual sense, but by pointing at things I was directed to a private house where they gravely mixed oil and petrol in my empty orange-juice container and then waved their hands around excitedly when I tried to pay.

I returned to the others, we redistributed the available fuel, and then once all the bikes were running, we went back to the same house to fill our tanks. David – who speaks Italian – heard somebody conversing in that language and asked if there was somewhere that we could change English money into drachmas. It turned out that we’d have to go back to Zakynthos Town for that kind of service, but we were invited in for a coke and our Italian-speaking friend sketched out a deal where he gave us the bank exchange rate for our tenner, less a pound for his expenses, which made everybody happy.

And then there was the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a kebab, and somehow ended up with pork, salad, chips and wine. When we had paid our bill, and got our map out to plan our nightly search for a beach to sleep on, the kindly owner insisted that we camp for the night inside the restaurant.

Fire on the mountain

After an enjoyable day hacking around in the mountains and swimming in the sea, we found ourselves running low on petrol high up on a pass. Partly to conserve fuel, and partly just for the fun of it, we freewheeled down the mountain with the engines off for about six miles. Half way down, we noticed that a bush fire had started and was blazing fiercely along the hillside, so we made a note to report it if we ever saw anyone, because this was in the deserted southern end of the island and we hadn’t seen another soul all day.  We rolled to a stop outside a small dark cafe, and I went inside to see if I could sound the alert. There were a number of men drinking in the dark cave of the interior, and none of them understood what I was trying to tell them. Eventually I dragged the owner outside and pointed up at the thickening pall of smoke and the flicker of red flame that was advancing closer with every passing minute.

Now he got excited and rapped on the open door of the cafe, shouting at his customers, who came tumbling out blinking in the evening sun. After a swift discussion they tumbled back in, and then emerged once more carrying tables, chairs, table cloths, glasses, and finally a large carafe of retsina, and we all sat and drank and watched as the sun set behind the flames.

It was here that I drank my very first ouzo. I instantly became a fan, which the proprietors found entertaining. One thing led to another, and it seemed but an eye-blink before it was full dark and we started preparing to set up our tent on the nearby village green. Our new friends the cafe owners pointed out that they already had a tent pitched permanently there, and offered to lend it to us for the night. Thanking them profusely, we moved in and found that it was a trailer with double beds; complete luxury!

David’s nemesis

David has a thing about insects, and a particular hatred of wasps, against which no reasoned logic will prevail. While exploring the southern end of the island, we stopped at a waterfront cafe in Ormos Korioy where, sitting at an outside table, we ordered three large pork chops with trimmings.

It wasn’t long before a curious wasp appeared. It buzzed in a desultory fashion around our plates and was about to continue on its way to look for more waspy fare, when David started shouting and swatting at it. This made it more curious about what he was defending, and it became more insistent. By the time Andrew and I had finished our meals in unmolested comfort – apart from choking with laughter – David’s plate was surrounded by fifteen excited insects, with the man himself cursing loudly and bashing away at them with napkins and cutlery. In the end, he had to abandon his lunch to a sea of yellow bodies.

When it became time to pay, Andrew suddenly realised that he had left his money belt at our last swimming beach, so he and I rode off to retrieve it while David held the fort at the restaurant. Luckily the belt was still jammed into a rock crevice where he had left it. Andrew decided to celebrate with another swim, so I returned to a rather hungry David, who had calmed down somewhat now that his crawling plate had been cleared away by the bemused staff.

We ordered fizzy pop to pass the time until Andrew returned. As soon as David opened his bottle, a wasp arrived at full speed and with incredible precision dived straight down the neck. Giggling as David cursed, I managed to extricate it from the bottle with a straw. It walked around looking stunned, then shook off the sugary nectar and launched itself straight at David, who took off at a run. When Andrew arrived, I was speechless with laughter and David and his pursuer were starting their third circumnavigation of the restaurant.

Lumps, bumps, and pointy things

All of the bikes were by now looking a bit worse for wear. Mine had a soggy chain-tensioner and a tendency to rattle and spit oil. Andrew’s was difficult to start and so he tended to leave it running all day. David’s sucked fuel at an alarming rate, so that on three separate occasions he ran out and one of us had to go in search of supplies. Each of the machines also showed signs of being dropped, from bent controls to scratches to a smashed headlamp.

The damage was not just restricted to the machines. We were all new to motorcycling, and we were wearing oversized backpacks and riding underpowered mopeds in shorts and T-shirts on gravel roads. It’s not surprising that we endured a number of minor bumps and scrapes, and between us we sported a good selection of minor gravel rash on hands, arms and legs.

Having thoroughly explored the northern and southern corners of this triangular island, we proceeded eastward to the more populated areas near to Zakynthos Town. It was on a blind hairpin near Port Zorro that Andrew performed his most spectacular dismount, propelled face-first through the gravel by the full weight of his backpack.

Some friendly locals brought a bowl of water so that we could clean up his rather ugly gravel rash, but Andrew was not seriously injured and it was all a bit of a joke and a lucky escape until we found that he had forgotten to get inoculated for tetanus. We got directions to the nearest hospital, but when we got there we were told that we should have brought the serum with us, as they didn’t keep stocks on site. We could buy them at a chemist, but of course the chemists were now closed, so we headed up the mountain for the night.

In the morning we returned to Zakynthos Town, and Andrew popped into a chemist for some antibiotics and his tetanus jab. He came out carrying a small package and looking a bit perturbed, and it transpired that the assistant had given him a loaded syringe and mimed that he had to find somewhere quiet and stick it in his backside. Perhaps wisely declining all offers of help, Andrew disappeared behind some bushes and emerged a little later, slightly pale and shaky but with the job done.

A bit of spit and polish

It was just as well that we had returned to Zakynthos Town for Andrew’s medication, because my bike was now running very rough indeed and wouldn’t go faster than 12mph, and I reckoned there was very little life left in it. We parked as quietly as possible around the corner from the hire place, and strolled innocently past to sneak a look at the gleaming machines lined up outside the shop. Then we returned to our battered, dust-coated wrecks, with their fractured headlamps and bent pedals, leaking oil and petrol, and gave up wondering if anybody would notice the difference.

Andrew and David started hammering out some of their bent metal with rocks, while I went round wiping off the encrusted dirt and fluids with a pack of paper hankies that David had found in his backpack. Once we’d got the poor things looking as clean and straight as possible, Andrew – whose machine had fared the worst – gave his an extra shine with sun-tan oil, and we putt-putted gently around the corner to the rental shop.

The guy barely batted and eyelid, merely charging Andrew an extra fiver for his busted headlamp and bent pedal. We counted this as a favourable result, and went off to celebrate in town before the ferry office opened.

Three Men on a Train: 5 – Athens

Ancient Athens

After somehow escaping the worst horrors of the infamous Belgrade Express, we finally emerged onto Greek soil and stood blinking in the hot sun of Athens.

As had become customary on this trip, Andrew and David wanted to buy souvenirs, so we took a subway to the Flea Market, where I hung around on a street corner with our packs while the others went shopping. The market was a deafening mixture of large motorcycles and shouting men selling just about any possible item that you could imagine. The hot sun was wonderful, although by the time others came back, the sweat was pouring out from beneath my hat and down my back.

Shopping duties done, we visited the Acropolis, the ancient citadel high above the city. Perhaps the most famous building there is the Parthenon, an ancient temple which was being rebuilt when we arrived (I noted in my diary that it would be impressive when the work was complete, but when I returned 15 years later, the scaffolding was still up).

From the Acropolis is was a hot hike in the midday sun to the Agora, once the civic centre of ancient Athens. Now it is a wide area of ruins with an interesting museum of salvaged statues and columns at one end, and the almost complete Temple of Hephaestus at the other. We caught the temple just as the sun was setting, and prevailed upon a friendly tourist to take a picture of us.

Patras, Kyllini and beyond

We realised that we had given ourselves far too little time to explore Athens, but it was getting late and we needed somewhere cheap – or preferably, free – to sleep, so we caught a train to Patras. We arrived after midnight, and the whole platform was lined with the sleeping forms of other interrailers, all waiting for the morning train. We set up our sleeping bags and set about preparing our dinner. Although Greece wasn’t as expensive as northern Europe, it was still much more expensive than the Eastern bloc, so rather than try to dine locally we laid out the last of our Hungarian provisions. Our knowledge of written Hungarian was shaky at best, so we weren’t entirely sure what was in the cans that we had brought from Budapest. In the event, we feasted on sardine sandwiches and chicken-flavoured baby food. Well, it could have been worse.

We had a pleasant sleep on the platform and then I was grateful for a wash in the station bathroom. From my diary, I see that this was also my first encounter with squat toilets, which I found simple enough to deal with, especially when wearing a backpack because I could rest it against the wall behind me to take the weight off my calves.

Although we were up and about at first light, some of the other interrailers were still asleep when the station opened. These unfortunates were unceremoniously and vigorously woken by the station master, who was clearly used to finding comatose bodies when he came to work, but who didn’t want his station to look like a doss-house when the first train arrived.

While waiting for our train to Kyllini where we intended to catch a ferry to Zakynthos, we were accosted by one of those travelling Americans that you bump into from time to time. His story was that he had retired at 40 and made his living buying and selling yachts, and had spent most of his time since travelling from country to country and (if he was to be believed) picking up girls. Before he left, he introduced us to a group of three girls travelling together, which caused much embarrassed eye-rolling among the six of us.

The Kyllini train was wonderful. The tracks ran straight down to the sea and just sort of petered out into the sand, at which point we climbed down directly onto the beach. The sun was high in a perfect blue sky over golden sand, and we felt that we had truly arrived in the Greece of picture postcards.

It was lunch time, we had skipped breakfast, and there was a restaurant close at hand. Of course we spoke no Greek, but Andrew and David hatched a plan to use some of the phonetic translations in the Interrail Bible. They proudly pronounced their syllables, and were escorted into the kitchen where they were invited to select the raw ingredients for our meal. When they returned to our table, they still had no idea what they had ordered, but when it arrived it was a very tasty dish of grilled purple squid with a tomato salad. Unfortunately it was also extremely expensive, blowing our budget for the day.

Later that afternoon, we secured tickets on the MV Martha (costing a mere third of the price of our lunch), and climbed onto the rooftop deck as she set sail for the Ionian island of Zakynthos.