Paxos in the 1970’s

 

Tzekos Supermarket 1970's

My father first came to the little island of Paxos in the early 1960’s – sailing around the Ionian islands with my mother and two friends. They only spent a few days on the island but my father was taken with the friendliness of the islanders, the simple lifestyle (no electricity and no cars in those days) and the island’s unspoilt, natural beauty.

Soon after this he left the BBC and started a package holiday company called Greek Islands Club, intended as a means to spend time on Paxos.

In the 1960’s visitors to Paxos could stay at the few simple rooms of the San Giorgio Hotel in Gaios, three rooms in the Gaios house of beautiful Eleni and the Paxos Beach Hotel, which had only just stopped being a Club Med cluster of straw huts.

With the help of Panagiotis Protogeros, my father persuaded the owners of five very old and very unlived-in houses, close to the Gaios waterfront, to lease them to Greek Islands Club for five years. Panagiotis was the only plumber on the island – he installed bathrooms inside the houses (a revolutionary move for Paxos). My father, mother and I brought out furniture and fabrics from England (many Land Rover journeys) to prepare the houses for holidaymakers wanting an out of the ordinary escape from Med resorts.

By the early 1970’s our Greek Islands Club Paxos programme had grown to 20 houses. No pools, no pretentious trappings and a lot of hard work, not made easy by the dictating military junta.

Aged 18, I looked after our Paxos programme while my father and mother ran the London office above a Wimpy Bar on The Strand. I have many fond memories of Paxos in the 1970’s – some of these memories I captured on film but sadly a suitcase containing all my Paxos photographs disappeared on a flight back to England.

A friend, Laurie Collard, was a frequent visitor to Paxos in the 1970’s and he took many photos of the island and the islanders. Some of his photos have been made into prints and were exhibited at the Loggos gallery (the old customs house next door to Taxithi Bar) a few years ago. I hold the originals and will put them up on our Facebook page over the next few months, for those who are interested in a glimpse into a 1970’s Paxos.

The photo reproduced in this blog shows Nicos Kangas (Tzekos) outside his Loggos shop. Nicos was our Loggos “agent” and worked tirelessly to make sure that every visitor to his island was treated and looked after as a friend. In the doorway is Spiros Mastoras, who ran a hardware store which is now the kitchen for Stelios’ Aste Doue tavern. They are both very much alive and in good spirits.

Olive pruning

Paxos olive grove

Have you ever wondered why some olive trees are regularly pruned whilst others are not. There appears to be a different culture of olive cultivation from island to island, region to region and country to country.

Does the pruning affect the quality of oil?

Stanley Stewart wrote in Times Live the following piece about Paxos olives:

“I walked between tiny hamlets in the interior, through olive groves, steeped in sun-flecked shadow, threaded by dry stone walls, and silent but for the rising drone of cicadas. Olives are the key to the Paxiot character. Olives have meant that, for centuries, no one had to do very much.

It was all down to the Venetians who ruled the island for 400 years until the Napoleonic wars. The Venetians had created an inflated market for olive oil by persuading the women of North Africa that nothing would make them so beautiful as bathing in the stuff. To take advantage of this market, they tried to persuade the Paxiots to plant olive trees. When persuasion didn’t work they offered them one drachma, the equivalent of about £75 in today’s money, for each tree. The islanders promptly planted a quarter of a million.

They have been living off this burst of industry ever since.

“In the old days, if you had 300 trees,” a man told me over coffee one morning in Gaios, “you didn’t need to work. Now the price of olive oil has fallen, people need jobs. They call it progress.”

If olive trees were cathedrals, the Paxos trees would be Notre Dame – elaborate, vast, gnarled, very ancient, and heavily buttressed. They sprawl fantastically. Apparently their owners only bother with pruning every other decade at most.

Paxos’s approach to the whole olive business is not so much laid back as completely horizontal. In most parts of the world, olive harvests usually take six to eight weeks. In Paxos, they can take seven months. The islanders don’t pick olives. They spread nets and wait for them to drop, venturing out now and again to collect the windfall and send them off to press. It is an admirable approach.”

Not sure about the drachma for each tree planted – I think it was a Venetian ducato (ducat).

The Paxos olive trees, up till about 20 years ago, used to yield a crop of olives every other year. This was abruptly changed when it was decided (against the wishes of the Paxiots) to spray the entire island to eradicate an olive blight. The Paxiots say that the present annual harvest is not as good as in the years when it was every two years.

I’m not an olive oil connoisseur but the Paxos olive oil looks good, tastes good & by golly ….

Catch Your Own Whitebait!

1. Book a holiday with Ionian Villas to stay on an uncrowded Ionian island.

2. Buy a medium-sized round Tupperware bowl (lid not needed) & a piece of cloth/muslin and some string.

3. Order chicken for dinner at one of the waterfront tavernas. Take the chicken bones home with you.

4. Put chicken bones in Tupperware bowl. Stretch cloth over the open bowl and tie it securely around the sides with string. Make a hole in the centre of the cloth the size of a 5p piece.

5. Pack swimmers, lashings of feta cheese, oil, bread, chilled retsina and the bowl of bones and head for the beach.

6. Submerge bowl in the shallow water and leave resting on the bottom.

7. Check to see how many fish have entered the bowl & empty fish into a plastic bag and start again.

Simples.

A taste of the Ionian islands

I was once managing director of Greek Islands Club. When we had offices in Old Isleworth it meant a 2 hour drive from home in West Sussex and then a 2 hour drive back home. The M25 was my companion and pacemaker. I now look after Ionian Villas from our home in a little Dorset village and occasionally tune in to radio traffic reports to see how my companion of old is faring. Not too well by all accounts.

My wife and I travel round the Ionian islands for 3 weeks in April/May and 3 weeks in September/October. Refreshing perks of the job but also very important to give knowledgeable advice to prospective clients and to retain good personal links with all our property owners. A plate of grilled octopus by the sea beats the M25 snarl-up any day.

This May we spent Greek Easter on Paxos and then took the hydrofoil to Corfu and then a SkyExpress prop plane to Kefalonia – the ubiquitous grilled octopus at Sami port and then a 30-minute ferry to Ithaca, where we stayed at Dexa Beach House just a few steps away from the beach.

Dexa Beach - early morning

Ithaca hasn’t been tamed or compromised by tourism – it has a beautiful wild side, hidden hamlets, inquisitive locals – many with a lingering Australian or South African twang (many fled Ithaca during the civil war after the 2nd World War), a welcoming lack of coastal development and stunning views from mountain top monasteries.

Back to Kefalonia where we stayed at the superb Avra Suites – above sandy Makris Yalos beach. 5 Star accommodation with only the sound of the sea and the occasional sea bird. Memorable breakfasts procured from the owner’s garden of fruit trees, strawberry patch, vegetable garden and the magic touch of Eleni the creative chef.

Avra Suite breakfast

Then another Sky Express plane hop of 15 minutes to Lefkas (via Preveza airport) where we stayed at Villa Yasmina – above the west coast with our own theatre of an orchestra pit of silver olives, a stage of Ionian sea and a backdrop of oooo – arrrrr sunsets.

Villa Yasmina

On Lefkas’ east coast port of Nidri a ferry takes 25 minutes, passing Skorpios and other small islands, to reach the tiny island of Meganissi. We stayed at Villa Arenaria – a few paces away from a secluded beach. Vasco, the ever-smiling owner, is half Greek and half Florentine.

Sky Express then took us to Corfu where we met up with Jan Manessi, who owns The Manor House– possibly the most beautiful house in the Ionian.

View from our favourite cafenion just outside Corfu Town

Life’s a Greek Beach

Villa Arenia on Meganissi

Most people’s prerequisites for a relaxing Greek island holiday will include being close to a beach.

Fortunately there are ancient laws within Greece to restrict building close to the sea and “private” beaches do not exist. It is not easy therefore to find an island retreat above the sea, which is close enough to hear lapping waves from a private terrace.

There are however, a few in the Ionian Sea which will appeal to those wanting to dip a toe from their Greek holiday home:

On Paxos, Villa Skipper’s terraces extend to sea and look out to the mountains of the Greek mainland.

On Ithaca, Dexa Beach House nestles amongst olive trees just a few steps away from a beach where possibly the Phoenicians left Odysseus at the end of his journey.

On Corfu, flamboyant Villa Azzuro has a small cove just below its colourful gardens.

On Kefalonia, the The Avra Suites look down through tall pine trees to the soft sands of Makris Yalos beach.

On Meganissi, Villa Arenia sits just above a sheltered beach on an untouched coastline in a wilderness of olive groves.

If you are looking for a special holiday escape close to the Ionian sea – try Ionian Villas.

Easter celebrations in the Ionian

Spring has sprung in the Ionian – temperatures are nudging 20 degrees. Greek Easter is late this year, May 5th – Easyjet and Ryanair April and May flights provide the perfect opportunity to see how the Ionian islanders celebrate it. Easter in Greece or “Paska” is THE most important (and loudest) celebration of the year.

For Greek Orthodox Lent, those who so wish will abstain from eating meat and dairy products for seven weeks. On Palm Sunday churchgoers are given a cross made of palm leaves and the strrets leading to village churches are strewn with palm fronds and flowers. Holy Thursday is egg dyeing day. Good Friday is a holiday and most shops and businesses are closed and restaurants do not serve meat dishes. The procession of the bier of Christ is held on Good Friday evening. Led by a band or choir the bier is normally draped in a gold cloth and decorated with fresh flowers. The procession passes the local village churches.

On the Saturday night the festivities start in each village square – an occasion for all the family. It starts with the Resurrection mass where the Priest and the Church Elders form a procession and the ceremonial candles are lit. At midnight the intoning priest is drowned out by firecrackers and fireworks. Friends, family and strangers are embraced and greeted with the words “Christos Anesti” – “Christ has risen”. After this, everybody goes home for a meal of “margueritsa” (traditionally a lamb’s innards broth) – the fast is over. If their candles are still burning, a cross is made above the doorway with the soot from the wick, to protect the house for the coming year.

Easter Sunday is the official end of Lent and the fasting turns to serious feasting. Goats and lambs are turned on garden spits from early in the morning; the family wine is brought out and the dyed, hard-boiled eggs are cracked – a similar principle to conkers, where you hit the other person’s egg and the one that breaks is the loser.

Easter by candlelight

Paxos Springtime

The winter rainstorms in the Ionian are over and there is now an explosion of colour as the Spring sunshine turns warmer and warmer.

Olive grove terraces are filled with fresh bracken, wild gladioli, asparagus and freesias. Roadsides are lined with white convonvulus. Flowering myrtle bushes crowd ancient donkey paths. Inland walks unlock heady aromas of wild herbs crushed underfoot. The sea takes on a more inviting translucency.

Taverna and cafenion tables and chairs are slowly brought outside. Walls of peeling plaster are given a lick of whitewash. The first crop of oranges appear on the grocery shelves.

East coast Paxos

The photo was taken by Alex Watrous just a few days ago on a Paxos walk along the coast.

The Elgin Marbles Debate

Browsing in a second hand bookshop in Sherborne I came across a book: “Through Greece and Dalmatia” – published in 1912 to show “a diary of impressions recorded by pen & picture by Mrs Russell Barrington.”

When Mrs Barrington was in Athens she wrote: “The most glorious jewel in the crown of Athens – the Parthenon – in the dazzling fair light of the morning sun – the finest edifice on the finest site in the world, hallowed by the noblest recollections that can stimulate the human heart.”

She then goes on to say “A feeling of shame creeps over one with the thought that in the dingy, foggy precincts of Bloomsbury, the gloomy prison of the British Museum, the English have incarcerated so many of its glories. Ah! that those matchless sculptures had been left blooming in their beauty under these cloudless skies, warmed, as if to life, under the rays of this sunshine – the smile, it would seem, of their own especial gods. We are told we should console ourselves with the thought that the actual work by Pheidias and his pupils is better preserved in our Bloomsbury dungeon than had it been left in its birthplace. Still, standing here, face to face with the wreck of their original dwelling-place, and thinking of the dark, depressing, foggy atmosphere of their present habitation, we feel as we do when a lark is encaged, and, protesting, we are told it would probably have been killed by a hawk, or ensnared by the poulterer, if it had been left its liberty.

That Lord Elgin did well to seize them, and preserve them from utter destruction, no one can doubt; but now that their right preservation would be as much secured on the Parthenon as in England, surely England should rise to a generous magnanimity, and return the originals to their right home, and substitute casts for them in our Museum.”

The Elgin Marbles

Paxos – more than just a pretty face

Paxos olive groves

 

When my father and I started up Greek Islands Club on Paxos in the late 1960’s we arranged holidays from the beginning of April until the end of October.

In more recent years the islands, including Paxos, have experienced a shortening of the summer season. Both tour operators and charter flight airlines are not able to risk a poor uptake on holiday bookings during May and October.

As a general rule the colours and warmth of Spring in the Ionian arrive up to a month earlier than in northern Europe. As I write this I have just been emailed a photo of our Paxos mimosa tree exploding with fuzzy yellow blossom. Friends spent this last Christmas on Paxos and swam in the sea every day.

A small group of Paxiots have put together the beginnings of a programme called Off Season Paxos. Local islanders and specially invited guests will introduce whoever is interested to the island’s many attributes in a personalised way, which is not possible in the hotter and busier summer months.

From 11th March to 26th March 2013 a group of locals are offering to share their beautiful island with a more intrepid visitor. Everyone involved is doing so on a voluntary basis and visitors will only have to pay for board and keep.

There will be guided walks, yoga sessions, cookery lessons, theatre and dance, Greek language lessons, traditional songs from local musicians and impromptu activities involving most of the island’s villages.

Tavernas, normally only open during the May to October season, will offer specially prepared dishes during the two weeks.

For more information have a look at Off Season Paxos

Looking for a honeymoon beach house?

 

Dexa Beach House

When planning a honeymoon many people will want a Caribbean beach destination. I wouldn’t want to put a dampener on this but here are some important considerations when comparing the Caribbean and a Greek island as a honeymoon destination:

Travel expense: a flight to the Caribbean costs a lot more than to Greece.

Travel time: A whole day is needed to get to the Caribbean & the same on the way back plus the ensuing days of jetlag lethargy.

Indigenous food: I have been amazed at how little food is produced and served at Caribbean resorts – there appeared to be a dependence on imports from USA.

Cost of staying at the water’s edge: usually very expensive in the Caribbean.

Island hospitality: it often requires inginuity and a bit of hard work to get to know native Caribbean islanders.

Caribbean sunsets: they tend to be early & are over very quickly.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Caribbean and have had some memorable holidays there but to give you an example of why a Greek island should also be considered, have a look at Dexa Beach House on Ithaca

A flight to Kefalonia is needed (3 hours) and then a ferry to Ithaca (30 minutes). There are just two houses here – just 15 metres from a beach. Olive groves on either side of the houses.

Siestas come easily to the sound of cicadas and lapping waves. A small cantina at the other end of the beach serves local snacks and the nearby port of Vathy has waterfront tavernas offering a delicious variety of cuisine using local produce.

Dexa Beach House costs £500 per week in May and £590 per week in June.

Anywhere you venture on Ithaca you will be greeted by a smile and if you have the time, locals will ask where you are from – many of them, like their forefather Odysseus, have returned from faraway places.

Summer sunsets on Ithaca go on and on and on. The evening light gives an intoxicating warmth to the colours of the sea and olive trees.

It’s all quite romantic.