My first visit to Greece was in April 1971. I was 16¼. Although I’d just dropped Greek for Spanish at A Level (and never regretted it), I was still studying Ancient History and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of spending three weeks in Greece if I could help it.

My former schoolteacher Eddie O’Hara, subsequently a Labour MP, had the ambitious and slightly mad idea of taking a dozen teenage boys to Athens by rail, then on to the major archaeological sites as far as Crete. What was in it for him? A free holiday. My parents, as well as those of my classmates Andrew, David and Paul, generously agreed to fork out.

Eddie was a genuine scouser from Bootle: a fervent Everton fan. But appearances can be deceptive, because he was very well read and had studied at Magdalen College Oxford. He couldn’t abide our headmaster, Welsh rugby legend “Big” John Gwilliam, which is probably why he’d moved on from Birkenhead School a few years before.

It was a great experience: an eye-opener. We travelled from Liverpool, via London, Calais, Milan, Munich and Belgrade, sleeping on the train – if at all – and finally arriving in Athens three days after we set out. Then on to Marathon, Sounion, Delphi and Corinth by minibus.

The Parthenon and the temple of Athena Nike: I’m modelling an orange T-shirt from C&A

We drank the odd glass of retsina, ate packed lunches of hard-boiled eggs and cold, greasy squid, and played whist for hours at a time. On the overnight ferry to Crete we ran into a pack of posh girls from a Swiss finishing school. They were from South Africa, Venezuela – all over the place.

Not the sort of people we usually hung around with: privileged, confident, multilingual

We caught up with them again in Phaestos and Iraklion and exchanged postcards for a year or so.

South African Janet

Somehow our group acquired a young female journalist who sported a fetching canary-yellow trouser suit. Later we discovered she’d been writing for a national newspaper about our antics, with a few discreet changes here and there. Despite the occasional episode of laddish behaviour, such as when we went AWOL in Athens one night, we all returned safely to Birkenhead.

***

Since then I have been back to Greece eight or nine times – twice in each case to Crete and the Ionian islands but mostly to the mainland. When you mention going to Greece on holiday people often ask “which island?” I like travelling around by ferry but don’t fancy spending two weeks holed up on a tiny island where there’s nothing to do except eat, drink and sunbathe, and I’m not one for nightclubs. You can do all that on the mainland too, but there’s so much more. If you include the Aegean sea, Greece is a bigger country than you might think, stretching from Italy to Turkey – that’s a long way west to east. And yet the population is only 12 million.

Anne and I spent four consecutive summer holidays in the Peloponnese (technically an island since they opened the Corinth Canal) in the 90s. We had such a good time we kept returning, always exploring a little further.

I cannot recall one bad moment

In the ruined Byzantine city of Mystras, 1997

What I particularly love about Greece is that you can visit a wonderful archaeological site in the morning, enjoy fresh, home-cooked food at lunchtime, then rest up and find a beach or little cove for an afternoon swim.

More than anything, I love the friendly, helpful people. They want you to enjoy yourself. Rarely are you pressured to spend money if you don’t want to. It is quite normal to share a couple of dishes if that’s all you want. The portions are invariably huge.

Someone said to me recently that they had no desire to visit Greece because it was so busy. They must have been joking. Early July is still low season and you’ll never have to queue for anything.

***

This year we decided to fly to Thessaloniki, spend three nights seeing the town then drive south to the Pelion peninsula (home of the centaurs, though we didn’t see any). Thessaloniki (Salonika) is highly recommended. The Roman ruins, the Byzantine churches with their mosaics, the markets and good-value restaurants.

Fifth-century mosaic in tiny Hosios David church, Thessaloniki

Everyone should go!

On our way south we stopped at Vergina to see the Macedonian Royal Tombs – a treasure only discovered in the 1970s!

Solid gold burial casket holding the bones of Philip II

Pelion is where a lot of Greeks choose to spend their summer holidays. Hot by British standards, yes, but a lot cooler and leafier than Athens. Most of the peninsula is composed of a substantial mountain which you have to drive over and round on hairpin bends which can be a little narrow for comfort. I have never spent so much time in second gear. All κῦδος to the mighty Fiat Panda.

The windy roads of central Pelion

But it is worth the strain. The villages are beautiful, as are the beaches. We rented a house in a mountain forest for three nights, near Milies.

Isolated house near the village of Milies

Then we drove on to Papa Nero beach near Agios Ioannis and rented a small house right at the far end of the beach.

What a view!

View of Papa Nero from “our” terrace – p.15 of the Rough Guide shows the same view!

As you see, it was hardly packed. What tourists there were seemed mostly to come from Eastern Europe: Romanians in the main, plus some Serbs, Bulgarians and Ukrainians.

And finally, for just one night, to the small town of Litichoro, at the foot of Mount Olympus, home of the twelve gods.

Mount Olympus (c.3,000 metres at its highest point) near Litichoro

We did take a walk but it was pretty hot and we were too tired to spend all afternoon walking and scrambling in the mountains. A beautiful and serene place, though, with the sound of a river often heard in the gorge below.

That evening we looked at the weather forecast and saw that there might be thunderstorms in three or for days. It would have been interesting to see Zeus’s thunderbolts in action, we joked. But be careful what you wish for, because last night there was a terrible storm in Halkidiki, on the far side of Thessaloniki, that killed six people.

Further reading!

There are thousands of books about Greece. Here’s two short ones by the inimitable Patrick Leigh Fermor that will inform and entertain you.

Mani and Roumeli by P.L. Fermor

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