Sunday, 14 July 2013

July 8: Hop hop hoppa

(Photo: internet)

There’s a new trend in the travel world: social travelling! While cruises remain popular, it seems that people may be tiring of the all-inclusive holidays, which are a disaster for the holiday regions. Now it’s back to holiday roots: booking a room with locals and discovering your holiday destination with a local.

Maybe children have finally listened to their parents’ stories about how, in the Sixties and Seventies, they spent their holidays island hopping in Greece. Then you travelled to Athens by train or plane and from Piraeus you took the ferries out across the Aegean. There was no internet in those times. You just went to the Greek Tourist Office to get a map and started dreaming of all the islands, following the thin red striped line of the ferry routes across the light blue sea on the map. Most likely you would just chose a group of islands or a faraway island as a destination. Little symbols on the maps indicated if there were archaeological treasures to be seen and the number of roads gave an indication of how busy the island could be. You just picked an island and from there you would see what happened.

When the boat anchored in a harbour, half of the village would be waiting on the quay to welcome the visitors: “You want room, nice room at sea!” I bet that no one was ever left alone on the quay. By donkey cart or little old vans you would be transported to a pension, most of the time, just a room in the house of your host. And if you disliked the room, you’d just tell them that you had to travel further on and looked for a better one. When your hostess did not provide the food, there would be a local taverna just around the corner. If that was not social travelling . . .

Nowadays charter flights look more like cattle transports and that’s why taking a boat is so much nicer. It’s pure magic to sail toward mysterious islands that are trying, siren-like, to seduce you, to discover a bunch of dolphins jumping alongside the ship, to enjoy colourful sunsets, or just to listen to the keel of the boat splitting the waves, together with the monotonous humming of the ship’s motor.

Of course it can happen that a boat fails to sail. It happened recently to the neighbouring island Limnos; for weeks they remained without a ferry connection with Thessaloniki, Kavala and Lesvos. Not a nice situation because the island depends on ferries also for the carriage of goods. If you weren’t prepared to take a plane, the only solution was to do some mini-island hopping: from Psara to Chios and Lesvos.

Today in the early morning haze an enormous cruise boat came along. I wondered because it was weeks ago that I last saw a passengers ship passing by, but I was waiting to see the Ionian Sky which was supposed to pick up stranded voyagers from Limnos. Just half an hour later I heard the well known rumbling of an old ferry approaching and there it was, already a day late: the boat that from now on will connect Mytilini with Limnos, Thessaloniki and Kavala.

Another nice aspect of ships is that you can trace their history through the internet. The Ionian Sky started her career in 1974 as the Sapporo Manu in Japan, was rebaptized as the Sun Flower Sapporo, in 1998 was bought by a Greek shipping company and named again, this time as the Ionian Victory and sailed between Venice and Ancona to Corfou. When she again was sold, she moved to the other side of the country and was named Blue Sky and now her name is Ionian Sky.

The Greek island people all know the boats by heart and name them when talking about them. This is quite different from the world of airplanes: not all planes have names and only very few are known by them, for example when they became famous because of history, like the Enola Gay, a bomber who dropped the first atom bomb above Hiroshima in 1945.

But let’s keep to the story. Times have passed when, in summer, you’d see an equal number of tourists and travelling island people on a ferry. Greece as a holiday country has become a lot more expensive and tourists are not as adventurous anymore. You’d think social travelling will make island hopping popular again?

227 islands of Greece are habited, and most can be reached by boat. How many more destinations you want? The islands are divided in groups: Crete, Cyclads, Dodecanese, Sporades, Iionian islands, Saronic  islands and the Northern Aegean islands which consist, alongside Samos, Chios and Lesvos, of smaller islands like Psara, Ikaria (where lots of people reach the age of a hundred years), Oinousses (small island group of wealthy shipping tycoons), Ai Stratis and Lemnos (known for its excellent wine) with their sand dunes, and the green pearls Thassos and Samothrace (although these last two islands officially belong to East-Macedonia and Thrace).

You might think that charter travels to Lesvos (and many other small islands where there is no mass tourism) are a bit of social travelling because most hotels and restaurants belong to locals, just as the excursion guides are mostly local. I admit that island hopping is more social travelling, because then just like the locals you share the ups and downs of the ferries and you can visit the small islands which are not on charter maps.

So who wants to go island hopping? Just as in times past, ferries continue to sail, beaches still glitter under a hot sun, the sea is still sky blue and most Greeks are as hospitable as they used to be. The Northern Aegean Islands, still undisturbed by mass tourism, are an ideal area to start island hopping. And even if the ferry doesn’t sail because of a storm or another cause, who is afraid of being stranded on a beautiful Greek island?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

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