City culture or island life? I still can’t decide.

Greece-&-Turkey-special(from The Sunday Times 08/02/2015)

My love for Greece began as a holiday romance nearly 40 years ago. I was a teenager and landed in Athens one blisteringly hot day in August with my mother and sister. It was only my second time out of England.

In spite of the dust, chaos, traffic and signs in a language and alphabet I didn’t understand, I was immediately enchanted. Perhaps it was the brilliance of the blue sky and the dazzling pale stones of the Acropolis, or simply the sight of swallows dipping and diving in the all-embracing warmth of our first evening there.

The charm that held me in its spell intensified when we sailed to one of the Cycladic islands. Paros, with its narrow streets of whitewashed buildings and bright splashes of bougainvillea, seemed a paradise. (Admittedly, the only real thing I had to compare it with was Bognor Regis.) We spent the day swimming in the crystal-clear sea and collecting tiny shells that were scattered across the pale sand. In the evening, we sat in waterfront tavernas, where dark-eyed waiters served generous slices of moussaka, fresh feta, sweet crimson tomatoes and huge smiles of watermelon. I had my first taste of Greek yoghurt.
It was thick and white, like cream. There was nothing like it in an English supermarket in those days.

Since then, I have travelled to Greece a hundred times or more. Turkey came later: I’ve taken a month-long overland trip in a minivan, crossing the plains of Anatolia. I’ve jumped off Mount Babadag to paraglide for an hour at 3,000ft, spying turtles in the sea below. And Istanbul is one of the most thrilling cities in the world. The restaurant bill in Turkey always comes as a pleasant surprise, too.

For me, however, if it were a choice, it would be Greece every time. I struggle to say whether I prefer the islands or the mainland. A particular city or a village? What do I love most? Is it the landscape or its ancient culture? The beaches or the mountains? The food? The climate? The people? It’s no single one of those. They are simply inseparable.

As a student, I travelled around the mainland on buses and slept rough on beaches. In between then and now, there were years of holidays in resort hotels, which were reliable and safe options for our small children. There have also been mid-range villas on the islands and mainland, and, most recently, a short stay at the Amanzoe, in the Peloponnese, which cost a staggering £750 a night.

It’s tempting to fly to Athens, then get a ferry straight out to the islands — but it would be madness not to make the hot climb up to the Parthenon and follow this with a visit to the cool spaces of the Acropolis Museum below. The milling crowds of young Athenians queuing for tables at Monastiraki, near the flea market, make the economic crisis seem far away. Likewise Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, which got so far under my skin, I set a novel there.

When I look at the list of 20 islands I have stayed on, the astonishing truth is that no two are the same: volcanic, otherworldly Santorini; lush Corfu; sweet-smelling, pine-covered Spetses; quiet, car-free Hydra; rugged Cephalonia; peaceful, spiritual Patmos.

I have the biggest space in my heart, however, for Crete. A few years ago, we bought a house there. Everyone said this was insane, and it was, given that the Greek economy was sliding to the edge of an abyss. But there have been no regrets. The island has everything: mountains, gorges, plateaus, beaches, ancient palaces, Venetian harbours and dozens of small towns and villages that still hold fast to a way of life that has never changed. A plate of fresh sardines served by the water in Moxlos, eastern Crete, is the definition of simplicity and perfection. Summer days here comprise little but swimming, eating, reading and backgammon, with night-times often spent watching stars shoot across the sky. After all these years, I feel I have only just begun. There are so many islands I have yet to visit (Skiathos is on my list this summer), walks to be done, seas to be swum, museums to be visited. My appetite for Greece will never be sated.