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 Latin and Ancient History.

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. We would be away for three weeks. 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 with an accent to match. But appearances can be deceptive, because he had studied at Magdalen College Oxford, and was very well read. He couldn’t abide our headmaster, Welsh rugby legend “Big” John Gwilliam, which is probably why he moved on from Birkenhead School.

It was an eye-opener. We travelled to Athens from Liverpool, via London, Calais, Milan, Munich and Belgrade, sleeping on the train – but not very much – and finally arriving more than three days after we set out. Then on to Marathon, Sounion, Delphi and Corinth by minibus.

We drank beer, retsina and ouzo, 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 Institut Bleu-Leman Swiss finishing school. They were from South Africa, Venezuela – all over the place.

South African Janet: 50 years on, does she still believe in apartheid?

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 two.

Somewhere along the way our group was joined 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 safe and sound to our dear parents. I recall that we bought Eddie a ballpoint pen as a thank-you gift, which I presented to him on the train back to Liverpool. RIP Eddie O’Hara.

***

I have been back to Greece eight or nine times: twice each to Crete and the Ionian islands, but mostly to the mainland. When you mention holidays in Greece people usually ask “which island?” I enjoy travelling by ferry but don’t fancy two weeks on a tiny island where there’s little to do except eat, drink, swim and sunbathe. I’m not one for nightlife. You can do all those things on the mainland too, but there’s so much more. If you include the Aegean sea, Greece is a much bigger country than you might think, stretching from Italy to Turkey – that’s a long way west to east. 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 love about Greece is that you can visit a wonderful archaeological site in the morning, enjoy fresh, home-cooked food at lunchtime, then find a beach or quiet cove for an afternoon swim and siesta.

More than anything, I like the friendly, helpful people. They genuinely want you to enjoy yourself. Rarely are you pressured to spend money. It is quite normal to share a couple of dishes as the portions are invariably huge.

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

***

This year we flew to Thessaloniki, spent three days seeing the city, then drove south to the Pelion peninsula (home of the centaurs, though we didn’t see any). Thessaloniki (AKA Salonika) is highly recommended, with its Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, 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. It is hot by British standards, but 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 are often a bit tight for comfort. I have never spent so much time driving in second gear. All κῦδος to the Fiat Panda.

The winding roads of central Pelion

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

Isolated house near the village of Milies

Then we drove on to Papa Nero beach at Agios Ioannis and rented a small house 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 can see, it was not busy. What tourists there were seemed mostly to come from Eastern Europe: principally Romanians, 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 over the mountains. A beautiful and serene place, with the 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 four days. It would have been interesting to see Zeus’s thunderbolts in action, we joked. But be careful what you wish for, because on that night there was a terrible storm in Halkidiki, on the far side of Thessaloniki, that killed six people.

Further reading!

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

Mani and Roumeli by P.L. Fermor

One thought on “Why I love Greece

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