Monday, June 26, 2006

Leaving Patras for Kefalonia

Monday, June 19, 2006

View across Gaios Harbour, Paxos
Paxos - Corfu Hydrofoil, Santa III

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Coming into land outside Gaios Harbour was like bouncing on a big cushion, bump, bump, bump and there we were at a swift comfortable halt. The sea plane taxied to the quay, secured alongside, engines slowed, switched off, we disembarked.

Although Paxos is a little island, at only 10km long by 4km wide, with a population of about 2,500 it feels deceptively large as it is heavily wooded. Legend has it that Poseidon, God of the Sea, created the island for Amphitriti, his wife. It is for this reason that the island’s crest consists of Poseidon’s trident spear at its centre. Amphitriti was a Nereid, of which there were fifty in total, being the daughters of Nereus, a sea deity, and Doris. Doris was the daughter of Okeanos, who was a Titan: one of the original twelve offspring of the Earth and Sky. Nereids lived in the depths of the sea and spent most of the time seemingly singing and dancing and otherwise having fun when not bringing up other Gods such as Hephaestos and Dionysos.
Poseidon had to chase Amphitriti quite a bit to gain her attention, she was having none of him initially. Poseidon was a bit of a rogue with the ladies and was constantly chasing after this one or the other and so, even if Amphitriti was his first love, she had to keep a close eye on him as he was always up to mischief when left to his own devices. In Homer’s Odyssey, it was, incidentally, because Odysseus had blinded the Cyclops that he incurred Poseidon’s wrath. Consequently, as Poseidon ruled the waves, it took Odysseus over ten years to get back to Ithaca: seven years of which, incidentally, he spent being wooed on the island of Lipsi (so they claim) in an all mod cons cave by the nymph Calypso – you know the sort of thing, fabulous sea view, endless red and white wine, roaring log fires and lots of fur rugs. Homer has it that Odysseus was constantly homesick and bleary eyed for Ithaca but, I suspect, that if faced with a choice of a young nubile nymph and old wrinkly Helen the 7 year thing is easy to get your head round: Poseidon or no Poseidon.


At Magic Holidays I meet Kate who has just moved here from Hertfordshire, or Hertfordsheeer as she called it. I buy an excellent copy of the Bleasdale Map, a 1:10,000 map of Paxos which is printed on thick heavy glossy paper and is the size of a small tablecloth. It is rich in detail in most respects and the Bleasdales, from the Isle of Man, have done an expert job, as a lot of the island has reverted to impassable jungle with the onset of post war depopulation.

Thank-you St Spyridon: The Paxos Walk of Death.

You will recall my map reading skills, but for some reason, after a lunch at Mongonissi Beach, no alcohol taken, I had it in my mind that I would put the Bleasdale Map to the test by going off the beaten track and head round the South Eastern Corner of the island to a mid-point and then return home to Gaios via metalled track. The initial part of this mini-expedition was satisfactory; I climbed up a rock strewn hillside to a survey point, looking out over the steep cliffs South to Antipaxos. A breathtaking view of unspoilt beauty. I picked my way along the now narrowing cliff to a fence line which I followed down a slope into a dried up lake bed. Nothing untoward there, although the map was quite clear that from now on I was headed into undefined territory like you get when you are in rainforest, as you do, where you can only guarantee your position by river junctions and mountain summits. There were no rivers on this section, just lots of ominous green where terracing had given way years ago to a wall of false summits made entirely of thick impenetrable maquis type bush.

There must, I reasoned to myself be a way through, a little path that the hare I had put up moments earlier would surely follow. There was a sort of Robinson Crusoe feel about this leg to come, a re-opening of land lost to time. That I would stride back into town, victorious, at the head of some long lost tribe of Paxiot hill men who believed that the sky would fall in on their heads and if you sailed too far past Antipaxos you would fall off the edge of the world.
Choosing my route, I started up the incline, taking little paths that snaked their way until they petered out and then hopping gingerly through the bush until I could locate the next little path heading further up the slope. Progressively the going began to get harder and harder, but nothing that I wasn’t used to after years of bashing through the African bush, Borneo rainforest, or the thick bamboo of the Anglo Sino Hong Kong Border. This was just a walk on a little Greek hillside!

I was only in shorts, but fortunately I was wearing, what a 1930s travel gazetteer would call, a stout pair of walking boots. You know, the sort of things you can hide super tankers in, not what you would wear at Auntie’s funeral, but will just about enable you to dance on the ceiling – if you really intend to, or in my case hold you to a cliff side.

I managed to overcome the moment when the little paths petered out entirely by taking to walking on the tops of the terracing stones that every now and again surfaced from the bush. I thought I had scored a real one over Mother Nature there, until the stones too disappeared just when I thought I was on a roll. I just disappeared quite inelegantly headlong into a clump of thorn, its spiked branches welcoming me into its arms like a long lost son. Regaining my composure, I picked myself up and stood back on the last stone, pretending that I had really meant to do that move of gymnastic grace and that I was now enjoying the view. Secretly, hoping that some far off twitcher was not splitting his sides laughing at the amateur acrobatics show he had just been unexpectedly treated to on the hillside opposite.
I decided to head further out onto the cliff line where previous experience indicated the vegetation was less and the paths more. This was to be the case for a bit, but there is no real point in taking a path just for the sake of taking a path – it really has to lead somewhere. By now, Mother Nature was on my trail, she had the taste of meat in her mouth, and my blood on her teeth, two of which she had left sunk deep in my leg. I was not looking my best after the fall, but really that was the least of my worries, I could sort the fashion bit out later.

Big bounds

After some big bounds, and a few leaps, I began to feel that actually I might be making headway and that the vineyards I was headed for on the map were perhaps not as far away as all that now. I had been going for over an hour, perhaps more. I reminded myself of the old axiom I used to teach recruits at the Guards Depot (yes, I actually taught map reading. I know, I can’t believe it either. I was just following orders. I suppose that’s why the Army gave you a book to read from, delivering lessons in such an authoritative manner that it sounded quite plausible that you really might know all the answers), “the map never lies!” Well, I assured myself, this one doesn’t seem to be too accurate in this particular corner of the island, with its swanky scales, compass roses, technical data in smart boxes and every inch of the island mapped out, except for this, my Bleasdale forsaken corner.

I reached the cliff top and jumped on to a wall. Wall on one side, bush on the land side, but beyond that bush, ooh, I think a path. I surveyed the view, tried to pretend that this really was the greatest of fun and decided that perhaps now was the time to push inland and head for the cultivated and bush free life that must be found in the vineyards, marked on the frickin map. The bush was a sort of natural man trap really and like Superman jumping the Gotham City rooftops, I cleared it quite easily. This was where my real problems began. I had inadvertently landed in a sort of natural sump. The “path” ahead of me now appeared closed by more thorn and bush and I was now well below the wall I had jumped off. To boot, my Superman powers of a few moments previous were now well beyond my capability as they would involve a truly superhuman feat of jumping 5 feet into the air to clear the thorn bush, now behind me. I was quite simply surrounded. “What is an officer to do?!” I thought. Cry? For goodness sake Harry, get a grip man, what if someone should see you. Hello, who? I only wish they would see me! Heavens, I would ball my eyes out if it meant someone might see me!

There was only one thing for it, go forward, I manfully decide. Shorts and a tee shirt are not cross country gear, well not this country anyway. And by now my legs look like I have survived an attempt by Sweeney Todd to get to know me intimately. I am totally surrounded by nature’s most ferocious spikes and thorns.

Excellent Publication

As I said the Bleasdale Map is an excellent publication, about the size of a table cloth and printed on heavy glossy paper, the sort you could spill strawberries and cream on and wipe it off and no one would be upset. At this point, I had one of those flashes of inspiration that my father would say “that’s what gets you through the War Office Selection Board for Officer Training”. The map was to be my Saviour – so, folding it out to its full table size, and holding it front of me, closing my eyes, I just pushed, pushed with all my strength and heh presto, a few massive cobwebs later and a lot of scraping noises and I was through:… to the next bush. Realising we were going nowhere, I decided to head back for my wall.

Back atop my wall, I at least felt I could see the lie of the land and pressed on Northward, in the direction of some windmills I could clearly see in the distance. They only looked to be a kilometre away and they were a good target to aim for. All mills have roads I reasoned. I was still not too concerned, as dusk was a long way off, I had plenty of water and in a tryst, I would be bounding along like a gazelle. Once I was out of this little hole I had inadvertently found myself in. Using dead reckoning to judge where stones would be, under the brush, I began to make quite good headway, until that is, the stones quite literally stopped and I was faced with a drop.

It was lucky I had Bleasdales in my hand at the time as I really had no choice to stop, faced unannounced with a 10 foot plunge in all directions. Quite what happened next I am not too sure. The stone I was stood on, sort of objected to my being there and simply gave way, indicating quite harshly that my legs and consequently me too, would follow – seaward into Mother Natures arms or the nearest gull’s nest some way below. Mother Nature was waiting for me, teeth all sharpened and glistening, but the good old Bleasdales, folded into a neat cushion like thick pad of cartographically empty detail that was my particular corner of Paxos (such a lovely place, I reminded myself as I plunged headlong) provided me with the ultimate in air bags as I plummeted into the bush and rock below. I know I screamed or whined a little at least. When I recovered myself, the map had a dramatic hole in it, about where my head would have been, where it instead of me, for a change, had been impaled on the spear like thorn. Balancing on gorse roots, themselves clinging for dear life to the meagre top soil this barren rock in the Aegean would permit, I drew breath and examined a ripped and bleeding arm and gashed thigh. All was just fine, of course, because my sunglasses were still on.

Pause for water, catch my breath and then skirt round my one time rocky viewpoint, now a shadow of its former self and, using creeper as a sort of Tarzan swing, I manage to get myself back to some more terracing a few metres further ahead. I may be holed, but I am making way, I thought to myself. I was beginning to get just a bit worried, progress was really painfully slow, in more ways than one, and this was getting a little serious. Another fall like that and I could be lost for days. Who would miss me? “The search for the missing Englishman, Harry Bucknall, continues today,” I imagined the World Service hissing about the Globe. “Mr Bucknall, in his early forties (do you have to?) was last seen on the Greek Island of Paxos a week ago and apart from a piece of torn clothing found near an old building site has n’t been seen for over a week”. The combined forces of the Greek Navy, Air Force and Paxiot Police called out to look for me and there I would be, ready buried under a pile of old dry wall stones and camouflaged by thorn, half eaten by ants.

More wall and I start on again. I have no option, this is me against nature now and I am not giving in. To date, I had only used the Belasdale map as my weapon against this real life barrier to Sleeping Beauty’s castle, in my particular instance, my little room back in “downtown Gaios”. Again, the stones ran out on me and I was faced with a real problem, more thorn, big time. I hadn’t been on the island more than a few hours to know that Saint Charalumba was the patron saint, but what I did know was that Saint Spyridon was the patron Saint of Corfu and he seemed to be good at helping people out in a tight spot, as he had done last in 1716 when the Turks invaded Corfu and were beaten off by a numerically inferior force under command of Count Matthias von Schulenburg. I prayed to St Spyridon to get me out of this Bleasdale forsaken spot. Nothing grand you understand, in fact I couldn’t even kneel (are you joking, I would be fish food in minutes), just a few muttered words.

Thorn Ahead

The map I could use to lay over the thorn ahead, but, you see, where I had ended up, that only gave me one leap and then where? A flash of inspiration from St Spyridon who answered my very real plea for help: get the rucksack off. Sticking the bottle of water down my shorts (nice to meet you Madame, where have you been all my life?) I could then use the rucksack as another stepping stone and leap frog my way in conjunction with my now well trodden map. Sir Walter Raleigh eat your heart out.

Like Indiana Jones, I bounded across the wall in death defying leaps, sweating and bleeding but jubilant that I was on the way once more. St Spyridon to the rescue for, seemingly in a matter of bounds, there I was, on a wall, overlooking a derelict yard. No thorn just a big gaping gateway leading to the heart of the island. I was youth reborn, leaping off the high wall and nearly jumping the five feet I needed to about two hours earlier in the joy at my release from this living hell that I had found myself trapped in. There would be no need for the Hellenic Coast Guard to scramble, my Times obituary could be put safely back in the bin and life would go on for this hapless traveller and sometime explorer of unknown corners that only the most foolish would want to try to repossess from Nature’s claws.

Walking purposefully, it was hard to cover the fact that visibly I was returning to civilisation looking like a survivor of a forgotten army, fresh out of the jungle. Covered in sweat stains, tears in my shirt, what hair I own matted and mangled, bleeding, cut and gashed to ribbons it must have seemed to an innocent bystander that I had been stuck for a number of turns in a revolving door with Zorro.

I made my way to a little deserted beach, dived in the soothing water and let the sea water clean my various and many incisions. As I surfaced, I was suddenly aware that all the rocks below me were covered in a velvety fur; there was a distinct smell in the air. I then noticed a large pipe, presumably direct from the villas above, its dripping end protruding ominously out of a bush….

Fish Supper at Costa’s Taverna….

Corfu “Festival Takis”’s best friend on Paxos is Costas, who runs a delightful little taverna called Takka Takka. At Takis’s suggestion I stroll down for dinner. Costas, a burly handsome and very friendly dark eyed man, welcomed me to his restaurant where he invited me to have the speciality of the house that night. Fish. Scorpios. Before I had said, the important lines of “I cant stand fish”, I had for some God given reason willingly obliged saying that I would really look forward to this treat. Costas disappeared, me slapping myself about the face for my mouth’s blatant disobedience to the brain’s distinct orders.

Beaming, Costas reappears shortly with a large white dish overflowing with a huge sea bream, equally beaming at me too. “The Speciality of the House”. I hate fish. This massive red skulled spikey monster sat on a platter big enough for ten people to row in and I had to eat this, …this thing. Bones protruded everywhere, like the decaying wreck of a ship on storm lashed rocks. Suddenly I am back at prep school; Friday lunches and Arctic Convoy survivor Commander Eddis insisting that indigestible bone ridden cod is eaten in its entirety. A continuous stream of wretching and vomiting little boys tearing out of the Dining Hall, glasses clutched to gaping mouths as they desperately try to reach the sanctuary of the lavatory in time to unload their disgusting stomach exiting cargo in time. The alternative being to sit by the radiator and chuck the stinking meat down there, but most of us didn’t have such luck. From those days on, fish has never really done it for me.

Gorgeous blue eyed waitress

As I write this, Vicky, a gorgeous blue eyed waitress comes up, “Don’t you like it?”
“No, I love it,” I lie badly, “I am just writing that’s all”, as I point to my notebook, hoping for the earth to swallow me, and my fish up, send me back to that cliff, anything, please just get rid of this fish.

Attack the fish, it’s the only thing for it. I have to confess, it is quite delicious and I can see why it is the speciality of Costa’s house, but it remains fish and like Shakespeare’s House of Capulet can only be despised, for ever.

This horrible head, staring at me in rosey defiance, its arced mouth smiling at me like Beelzebub’s grin “in a special cream and onion sauce for M’sieur”. I wish I was writing a book in America or New Zealand, beef and lamb on the menu there, but I have landed a blue whale on my plate and now, oh hell, the spoon has fallen in the dish and I have to touch this thing that looks like it escaped out of a horror movie.
A ginger cat is sat next to me. Perhaps he likes fish? How do I get the fish to the cat without Costas, who is perched like a camp guard at the bar, seeing me doing the dastardly handover? I can’t.

The pink scaley skin pulls off in delicate strips to reveal white fleshy neatly lined chunks of meat, just too gross to consider putting in my mouth. Open the mouth, train in the tunnel, that’s right. I chew once, may be twice, I am near passing out you understand and then swallow – fast. Now, one mouthful for the Queen, one for the Duke of Edinburgh…President Bush too I grimace? Please not President Bush, Clinton if I must, but please, please not President Bush. Ok, that’s one side done. Large glass of wine.

Topside done

Topside done, how do I get at the meat trapped, on the other side of the skeletal fence lying before me that is this undersea animal kit, which really should be in a museum, as far away as humanly possible from me. Touch it and I will be sick. Bayonet it! I attack with a knife, the wretched thing wont break. Then, a wrench and suddenly the fish head gains a life of its own, shooting off the plate in a bid for freedom and the sea and on to the floor. Keep calm, Harry. I am nearly standing on my chair screaming for my mother at this point. May be the cat, may be the cat will get it. Where is that cat? The cat’s gone. Sod it. Napkin, pick up the head in a napkin. Back on plate. Oh shit, the waitress is back!

“You like it? It’s good?” she charmingly enquires.
“Oh yes thank you”, surely I must go to Hell for that one, “I am just writing that’s all” I insist, not letting on that I am about to run for the door begging forgiveness of the good Lord and directions to the nearest Macdonalds. Paxos is too small to get away with that, damnation and hellfire.

Despite my conditioned fears, it really is delicious, I reason with myself, but, it is still fish and I cannot forgive it for where it came from, presumably only this morning. I would rather be pickled in beetroot, my other love in life, that and doing my tax return on New Year’s Eve than this.

A bone

A bone. Suck it, find it in your mouth, stick finger in, locate it. It’s gone again, move the tongue around, find it again, stick finger back in mouth, grab it. Take it out and place it elegantly on the plate as gracefully as a swan landing on water I tell myself repeatedly, not like you just found Grandma’s denture in the rice pudding. Another bone, this one is a big one. Now all of a sudden I am in Bonesville Arizona, population, I don’t know, but we are talking hundreds here. A bit of fin too, its webbed tentacles all crispy and spiney. I’d rather be sprayed with baby vomit than endure this. The table next door are having a family photo, you know the sort where they all crowd round one end of the table and the waitress does the honours. Well, oh Happy Family, check your photos, watch for the bloke in the background, 7 o’clock of Dad: it’s me trying to bond with scorpios, my friend for the night Mr. Seabream himself, or bits of him anyway. Sorry for the face, I tried to smile.

Trying to clear the plate, it’s bones everywhere: big ones, small ones, spinal columns, just bones. The Queen Mother choked on the horrible things didn’t she? Got to get that plate clean. Where’s that cat? Where’s Costas more important? St Spyridon where are you?
By now, my table is a sea of discarded napkins, all neatly wrapping some boned offering or some piece of putrid freckled pink skin. The fish is now dissected and stacked neatly at one end of the dish, but there’s still meat enough for a family of ten. Thumbing through the dictionary, I find the Greek for delicious is “YEFSTIKOTATOS”.
I whisper it through my teeth, thankfully, at the waitress as she clears my plate knowingly.

Mayor Spiros Bogdanos of Paxos.

I hurriedly shave for the Mayor, something I had not done for a good few days. I meet him in his office on a late Friday afternoon. He is the only one in the small building at that time. A neat, precise, sensitive looking, friendly man, he has an ornate ring on his finger, a gold chain around his neck and his glasses give him a learned look. Long grey hair tied in a pony tail hangs low down his back and a beard perhaps really makes him look like a reformed libertine than community leader. His shirt, all pink and lime check is most attractive I think to myself. Don’t know why I bothered to shave. His desk is piled with papers and perched precariously on top of these, like a triumphal mountaineer, is a laptop.

He is very interested in his laptop and continually glances at it while it occasionally pings and bongs at him demanding his attention seemingly more regularly than mine. It’s usually a television, I am beginning to get used to the distracted answers, the sideways glances: a trait I used to believe was exclusive to the Arab world rather than on the fringes of Europe, but then that rather explains, in a slightly tangentental way the regionality with which you must look at this part of the world, rather than try to understand it in the context of its separate component parts.

He tells me that Paxos has around 200,000 tourists a year and that environment is his main concern. The island now has two desalination plants, he beams.
Ping ping. I ask a question.

“Sorry?” he asks me to repeat it as the email he was reading got the better of his attention. “Oh, er, yes, and we are installing a new sewage system for the dirty waters”.

He goes on to talk of the two music festivals that Paxos holds every year in May and September and a further musical meeting in July which comes under the Cultural Association of Paxos. Paxos, you see, was the Cultural Village of Europe in 2004, Aldeburgh was the cultural village for Europe in 2003, did I know that?

“No,I didn’t”, I confessed, suddenly feeling culturally rather manqué.
I ask him about what he is doing to curb development on the island, especially as it is so small.
“We are, er, restricting building to certain areas only and specify how the buildings should look. For examples, er, we stipulate that only the correct coloured pantiles can be used for the houses.”
I ask him about the derelict and run down old Residency, a fine Venetain building, further extended by the British in the 19th Century.
“Actually, we don’t own this building, but it’s a very pity as we are interesting to buy this building. It’s our own story too you see.” He goes on emphasising the historical importance of the building to the island.
He explains that his family, whose origins are Byzantine, have lived on the island since the 16h Century.
“And what did you do before becoming Mayor?” I enquired.
“I ran a building supplies company, which because of my position, my brother now runs for me…”
I smiled wryly, how very convenient I thought.

After dinner, knowing it was my last night, Costas would not let us leave without the statutory glass of tsipuro. I seem to recall I groaned at this point, but conceded that not to join in would be rude, especially after the hospitality and generosity he had offered me. From under the bar he produced a battered plastic bottle with the words tsipuro clumsily written on it, in thick black marker pen. Large glasses of the Devil’s Water were poured and gasping for my breath, making amiable platitudes and gratitudes, we cleared this not inconsiderable alcoholic hurdle placed before us. Clasping Costas firmly by the hand, both as a gesture of sincerity and to stay upright, I bade him farewell. In the street, I gave Jean a big hug and warmly wished she and Brian well on their way. Strange to think that after such an intense few days together, we will probably never meet again. How many times will this repeat itself on this journey, I wondered somewhere in my marinated head as I staggered home.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Air Sea Lines Take Off to Paxos from Gouvia Bay

View from Villa Nathalie, Corfu across to Kerkyra