Bella Travel


Hidden Naxos

For many people a visit to the Greek island of Naxos will involve walking up and down the harbour strip, and finding the quickest route through the small town to their hotel. They might perhaps take a trip to a few beaches south of the main port but few will actually explore the rest of the island which is the largest in the Cyclades group at 429 km2.

Fortunately for those who like to do more than sit by the pool, there is a tour which takes you into the inner regions of Naxos and proves there’s more to this island than first meets the eye. The Hidden Naxos Tour is run by British ex-photo journalist Stuart Thorpe who has lived and worked on Naxos for over 25 years.  The tour basically involves being driven around the island for a day with seven other people, and Stuart behind the wheel giving you the low-down on what makes Naxos tick. And there’s not a lot about Naxos Stuart doesn’t know.

He tells us the tourist industry on Naxos is so firmly ensconced near the Chora (or main town) this means cheap land for sale everywhere else. On our journey he points out buildings in progress dotted around the landscape, well the concrete structures at least. The concrete can take some time to dry out before the house can be constructed and finally painted in the typical whitewash with blue trimmings. He says whitewash is the cheapest paint to use which is why there are so many white buildings in the Cyclades islands. Its use is also practical as it reflects the heat better than any other colour.

Although Naxos relies heavily on tourism in the summer months (at least 15-20% of its income) it is largely an agricultural island and is famous for its potatoes. Another industry, though one Stuart says is becoming more expensive to run, is that of marble importing. Naxos has entire mountains made of marble which get slowly chipped away as the marble is removed in blocks and ground down into sheets.

Stuart’s tour takes us right through the heart of the marble mountains and even stops off at a marble producing factory. Be warned though, if you’re expecting pamphlets and guided tours you’ll be disappointed. When we arrived there was just a machine grinding down a huge block of marble and lots of marble slabs everywhere. The workers were nowhere in sight. Stuart explained it was such a long process that they’d probably set the machine running and gone home for lunch.

As we discovered, when we also stopped at a traditional taverna a bit further on, lunch can be a time-consuming process. No ready made food for us, the potatoes were literally being peeled in front of our eyes. This did give us time, however, to try the locally made wine which was very drinkable, especially after the second or third glass.

Hospitality is the one thing you may not find in some of the cafes and restaurants in the tourist area of Naxos, but out of that sphere it’s alive and well on the rest of the island. Home grown potatoes, Greek salad, olives and fresh baked bread with locally made olive oil were set cheerfully before us by the owners of the restaurant and we were even able to try a bowl of the lentil soup the owner had made for his lunch.  As we were leaving, the wife pressed apples from their tree into our hands which was a nice touch.

There’s lots more to discover on the Hidden Naxos Tour but you’ll just have to find out for yourself once you go on it. I found cheap tickets to Naxos from Athens flying Olympic Airlines, and Athens is a major tourist destination so you should have no trouble finding cheap flights going there from any city in the UK or Europe.


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Conversations in Greece

Not knowing the language when you’re travelling through Greece can make for some interesting conversations, not to mention interesting approaches, to make one’s self understood. This goes for the Greeks as well.

Here are a few I came across on my recent trip.

The ‘In Your Face’ Approach

The ‘In Your Face’ approach doesn’t work so well with the Greeks, confidence is alright but not aggression, although it can get you served before everyone else in a Gyros bar. The most striking example of this approach was coming off the boat in Santorini and encountering mass confusion as people tried to sort out which bus to catch. A bus driver was talking to a Greek woman when an Asian girl marched up to him interrupting their conversation and shouted loudly in his face “This bus? Fira?” Suffice to say the man was a bit taken aback, and didn’t reply straightaway. The girl said it again, even more loudly. To give the bus driver credit he handled the situation quite well, he slowly raised an index finger asking her to wait, continued his conversation with the other woman and then slowly nodded at the girl when he was ready.

The ‘I Want It Like This’ Approach

This also doesn’t work too well with the Greeks. They’ve done their best to cater to tourist whims but some of the finer points of how Westerners like their cuisine can be lost in translation. At a fast-food stand I overheard an American guy ordering a hotdog. He wanted to know if the sausage was ‘crispy’. Not understanding, the vendor mimed the length of the hotdog. The American guy insisted on knowing if the sausage would be ‘crispy’. The vendor looked blank. I wondered how the guy was going to mime ‘crispy’ but he gave up and settled for ‘no mustard’ instead. I hope the sausage he got was satisfactory in the end.

This reminded me of a snippet of conversation I’d heard the day before between a couple, also American, who were sitting behind me on the local bus. The husband was obviously displeased about something that had happened. Unfortunately I don’t know what exactly but he said “I hesitate to say the trip has been ruined, but it has been diminished”.  Perhaps he also didn’t get “crispy” sausages?

The “You Didn’t Ask” Answer

Whether you end up lost or didn’t get what you ordered, quite often the standard Greek response is “You Didn’t Ask!” This also tends to be the answer if you don’t do things in the way they should be done.  This happened to me in the post office when I mixed up the “to” and “from” addresses on a package I was sending overseas as there was no indication which address lines were for which. The woman therefore, thought I was sending the package to Greece and didn’t charge me enough. When I pointed out the mistake she huffed at me and I said “How was I to know? I am not Greek”. “Yes, but you didn’t ask!” she replied stonily. This stumped me. It was true, but I hadn’t asked because I didn’t know I was doing it wrong.

A variation on this can be “I did ask you!” this was used on me when I said I didn’t drink coffee and the waitress brought me coffee.

Although communicating in Greece can be frustrating at times, you’ll get what you want (or a variation of it) and also get where you need to go eventually if you’re patient and polite. It helps to learn a few Greek words as well, like “yiassas” (hello), “parakaló” (please) and “efkharistó” (thank you) and “signómi (excuse me).  Being courteous may not work in every situation, believe me there will be times when you lose your cool, but most Greek people will respond pleasantly if you’re pleasant to them.

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Service With A Smile on Ios

You don’t need to stay in a five star hotel or dine in the best restaurants to feel well treated and looked after.  Sometimes all it takes are a few simple touches to give you a nice experience when you’re on holiday.  The most important thing is a smile because when it’s lacking you really notice it.

My recent experience on the Greek Island of Ios is a case in point.  My host, Katerina, meets me at the port, and transports my luggage by bicycle, her riding, me trotting along behind. She asks where I’ve come from, where I’m going. She explains a bit about the area when I say I haven’t been here before. She smiles, and smiles some more.

At the studios she runs around explaining how everything works, there are free bottles of water in the fridge, and mosquito strips for the mozzy light. She’s apologetic about the wifi and says it only works downstairs, but then organises a makeshift table and chair so I have an outdoor office. She brings me homemade pastries. She says if I need anything to call her on her mobile and she will come within ten minutes. She gives me a map, and shows me the outside light switch. She then leaves, smiling.

All this takes place within half an hour but already I feel at home, comfortable, armed with directions, food, internet connection and well treated. The next day she brings me a homemade pasta dish, baklava and an orange.

Not that I would expect all places to deliver this kind of service but it really doesn’t take much just to give a smile and say a few pleasantries. It really could be the difference between a guest leaving an excellent review and a poor review, or choosing to avoid an entire island in the future.

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Life on a Greek Island

My first day solo on Salamina.  Life on a Greek Island definitely isn’t boring, although everyday tasks are somewhat difficult when you don’t speak Greek.  Posting a parcel for instance.  How was I to know that the ‘to’ address goes at the bottom and the ‘from’ address goes at the top when they’re both on the same side?  The woman at the post office thought I was posting a parcel to Greece and got huffy at me when I said it was going to New Zealand.  “It is wrong!” she said.  “I’m not Greek, how am I to know?” I replied. “You didn’t ask!” was her answer.  Nothing really to say to that.  I hadn’t asked, I had assumed – incorrectly.

This sorted (by buying another bag, re-addressing it and buying more stamps) I cycled to the market which was spread out down near the port.  After the post office experience I was too scared to buy anything but tomatoes, but there were all sorts of vegetables, fruit, fish, clothing, textiles and the essential must have – Greek music cds.

Cycling on round the port road I stopped at a small beach with stunted palms trees and blue wooden seats.  The water was acqua and so clear I could see fishes swimming around.  A local woman waded slowly out to sea and I heard her exclaim as she took the first plunge.  But the water wasn’t cold, it was verging on lukewarm as I found out soon enough.  The water is also so salty that it makes you very buoyant, you basically can just sit there and you don’t go under.  Of course if it gets in your eyes that’s a different story.

After swimming I got some bread, milk and fruit at the local supermarket and pushed my bike up the hill back to the house for lunch.  This was nearly consumed by hungry kittens as I left the table briefly to go to the kitchen.

Half-way through lunch I heard a mewing sound coming from the next door house which was now empty for the autumn. On inspection I discovered a tiny tabby kitten who had been abandoned by its mother.  I climbed the fence to discover although cute it hissed and spat like a wild tiger.  Reluctant to get scratched by a feral kitten, I hurried across back to the house to get it some milk. The mewing continued for a couple of hours. I got it some water, it looked at me with big frightened eyes and then spat at me.  Not knowing what to do I rang my house-sit owner.  She explained that this was what it was like in Greece, there were many kittens and though she had saved some it would probably die.

It just seemed too cruel.  I refused to let it go.  I got it some canned cat food as well.  It hissed and didn’t look grateful.  Later on I checked on it and it was gone.  Either the mother had returned to claim it or the neighbours had gotten tired of its mewing and disposed of it.   I really hope it was the former.