Remembering Greece

There was a program on BBC2 last night about Crete, the Minoan civilisation and the archaeological site at Knossos and I thought ‘I’ve been there’.

It was 1973 and life was pretty good. I was still working for Shell and earlier in the year it had sent me to Japan for a couple of months to support contract negotiations and then to The Hague on a course for four weeks. I had some foreign currency from both trips and a left over MCO (miscellaneous charges order) from the the former which were going to prove useful later. I was unmarried, drove a Triumph Spitfire and got paid enough to enjoy life to the extent that we did in those days. Come the end of the summer I was somehow able to buy a cheap return ticket to Athens and took myself off to Greece for a couple of weeks.

That was almost 40 years ago and life was different: no budget airlines and few package holidays, no mobile phones, internet or social media, and just three TV channels. I was paid something like £3000/year and that was at the upper end of the range for people of my age. You could get several pints for a pound and fill your petrol tank for a good deal less than a fiver.

I flew to Athens with no plans. Looking back I can’t imagine how I did it. Nowadays of course I’d plan it all meticulously as befits the J in my Myers Briggs INTJ classification. I had an evening flight and sorted out a hotel at the airport when I arrived.

I spent just a day in Athens but that gave me time to walk to the top of Mount Lycabettus, there is a cable car but I reckoned if I walked I’d earn a beer, and to have dinner looking up at the Parthenon. I discovered Greek Salad and drank my first Retsina, I guess that’s Greece’s contribution to the list of items which people from other countries can’t see the point of eating or drinking.

I don’t know what guided me but on the second day I went down to Piraeus and bought a ticket on a ferry to Mykonos.

I was travelling early in September which meant that it was the end of the season for families with just a couple of weeks left for students and other younger adults. That meant that I was never short of somebody to talk to and so it was on the boat. I sat on the foredeck and engaged with a few other Brits and we must have found something in common to talk about because we were stuck together for 5 hours. The sun went down before we got to our destination and when we disembarked in the dark onto the beach at Mykonos I found the equivalent to the airport hotel office in the presence of a bunch of Greek women touting for your, perfectly legitimate, lodging business. I chose one and was whisked away and found myself presented with a bed, one of three, in a property maybe 100m from the the port.

I’d look with horror now at the idea of sharing a bedroom with anyone except my family, certainly not a stranger. But in those days I seemed to take it in my stride and shared with two guys from Switzerland and France for a couple of nights or so and then a couple of Brits for another two or three. The linen was clean and there was a bathroom and for breakfast it was just a short walk down to one of the many cafes close to the sea front.

Mykonos Town is on the west coast of the island and I remember it was picture perfect: white buildings, a blue sky and non stop sunshine. Although there are beaches close by and all over the island I got the bus 3 or 4 times to Paraga Beach on the south of the island. However Paraga Beach was not the destination, you then either took a small boat or walked across the headland to Paradise Beach. A little further on there was a gay beach, Super Paradise Beach. I’m sure it’s all changed now

In those days the beaches were delightfully unspoiled. No development except for a simple restaurant with a canvas roof where you got drinks and excellent stuffed tomatoes for lunch. Paradise Beach was not empty but in no way was it busy or crowded, the same demographic that I’d met on the boat, and most people were naked, and unselfconciously so. This gave you the strange experience of meeting people in the town in the evening whom you’d only seen naked before!

There were lots of cafes and restaurants, lots of them down by the sea front and several others inland. I remember the Pelikan, there’s a Pelikan there now but I’m sure it’s in another place, which was a landmark place to meet.

The early 70s were the time that credit cards began to be introduced in Europe, they were already in common use in the US, and many of the more touristy shops on the island sported Access (the forerunner to MasterCard) signs. It was also easy enough to change money and cash travellers’ cheques and although the bank would change my one hundred Dutch Guilder note it couldn’t handle my hundred thousand Yen note! That would have to wait until I got to Crete.

I didn’t have any plans to island hop but bought a plane ticket with my MCO to take me down to Crete so after 5 days or so on Mykonos I flew on a Skyvan to Heraklion, Crete.

I guess I must have gone to the hotel desk at the airport when we arrived but somehow I hooked up with a Swiss guy who was expecting to meet friends in Heraklion. After looking at a couple of decidedly dodgy looking down market hotels we ended up a little more upmarket. I enjoyed dinner with him that evening and with him and his friends the following day but I’m not sure what I did in between. I’d like to think I checked out the archaeological site at Knossos because it’s only a couple of kilometres from the centre of the city. I can’t think what else I might have done.

The following day I took a bus east and looking at the map I must have gone as far as Malia where I stayed for a final couple of nights. There’s another archaeological site east of Malia and I do remember visiting that one.

In those days there were none of the modern hotels which have now been built in and around Malia and I stayed at a small one down the road to the beach. The beach itself was undeveloped with a simple cafe/restaurant and a pleasantly low number of people. Like Mykonos they were largely younger adults unencumbered by children. I enjoyed good food with them at the small restaurants on the main drag. There must have been American forces on the island and on the second night a car load drove up in a smart convertible and shared beers with us before returning to their base.

Next day was my last day and that meant a bus back to Heraklion, a rather bigger plane to Athens domestic terminal, a taxi to the international one, a longish wait and then British Airways home with a final connection by bus and then taxi to my flat. I remember the BA flight and the seating layout on the plane with seats at the front of economy facing backwards. No matter, you’re gin and tonic still tasted good.

I have no records of the holiday. I know that I took a camera with me because I remember taking one particular photo in Athens but I can’t find any of the photographs. Certainly I did not keep a diary so all that I can recall is dragged from my memory.

I think I’ve been back to Greece four times since. The first was a long lunch at the airport overlooking the runway and the Aegean Sea when I was in transit to fly on to Saudi Arabia in 1980. I attended a Middle East sales meeting in 1988 and then we had an excellent family holiday in Rhodes later the same year (photo). And finally I met a new Greek distributor in 1996 when the whole had turned full circle and once more I had dinner in sight of the Parthenon. This time though it was a rather more upmarket meal.

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