I hate it when this happens, but the following post is not in real time. Right now I am in Cefalu in Sicily, Italy, listening to John Lee Hooker, but here is what I had for you last week (with more to follow – I am doing my very best!):
It’s been a busy and brief tour since last I posted. After saying a teary goodbye to Amaliapolis – I’m sure my claw marks are still visible on the road leaving the village – we drove to Delphi, set in mountainous terrain under the shadow of Mt. Parnassus. Since then we’ve been to the islands of Poros and Hydra and are now in the final days of our Greek Odyssey here in beautiful Athens. We’re spending a week here, but Wednesday’s departure is approaching much too rapidly for my liking. It’s very easy to imagine never leaving.
Delphi was jaw-dropping, truly spectacular thanks to the ruins of the ancient Sanctuary of Apollo and the stunning mountain-scape that has cradled the site these thousands of years. As Llew said as we approached, seeing it, it is easy to understand why it was once believed to be the beginning of everything: the centre of the universe according to Zeus. There is something stirring in that ancient stone – here history is weightless, a ghost spirit slipping past you on the path.
Unfortunately we shattered the serenity for everyone when the Touring Toddler turned on the lengthiest and most spectacular tantrum of his short life. It began at the base of the Sanctuary of Apollo and lasted all the way to the stadium at the top. He fought and screamed and howled his way past the ruins of ancient columns both Doric and Ionic, past the Treasury, past votive stands, past the amphitheatre, past crumbling walls and temples. His indignant roar, his unbendable back arch, his signature ‘ground thrash’ all made a sustained appearance before the late afternoon crowd of weary travellers trying to enjoy the sacred and respectfully silent site.
Some people like retracing the steps of the ancients, knowing they are walking in the shadow of the past, but not our boy. No, the Touring Toddler prefers screeching past, kicking up dust clouds and scattering stones in his wake. Whatever gods still reside at Delphi were surely roused from sleep that day.
The village of Delphi itself appears to be in the grip of a terrible depression. It was deflating witnessing the struggle of so many businesses designed to profit from what is still a guaranteed stream of tourists; while it’s true there are visitors aplenty, perhaps they are staying elsewhere, and perhaps travellers are now less inclined to buy the cheap trinkets and overpriced souvenirs that so dominate Delphi’s shop windows. Perhaps that’s where our own austerity measures may be seen in effect.
We had a pretty ordinary lunch at the first cafe entering town – it has unbelievable views down into the valley below, leading all the way back out to sea, but the food was, well, bad. I know part of the reason it was vile is that we were smack bang in the tourist zone – suddenly it was wall to wall pizza and waffles. But the real shock came while scouting hotels for a room. We were only going to be there overnight, so there was no need of an apartment, and there was availability everywhere. A vacancy is one thing. What was so abjectly awful in Delphi was the level of desperation driving the prices down. One man – Nick – showed me a room and virtually chased me back onto the street lowering the price with every increasingly brisk step I took.
“Please don’t make me do that again,” I pleaded to Llew. “I can’t handle it. I feel personally responsible for that guy’s predicament. The guilt of not taking his room is making me feel sick.”
Sure enough, Nick leapt out to the street as we passed on our way back to get the car. I was mortified, rooted to the spot by shame and embarrassment.
“Nick,” I squeaked, “this is my husband, Llew. I’m sorry, but Llew has found us another hotel. But thank you, thank you very much.”
What was it, Nick wanted to know. What was it the other place had that his hotel didn’t have? We hastened to reassure him that our decision was no reflection on his property, just our own needs, but Nick would not be consoled. He wouldn’t let us leave.
Where was it? Which hotel, he pressed, which hotel had stolen us away from him? Llew and I looked at each other and shrugged. We weren’t even sure of the name. All we knew was that the room was light, spacious, had a great balcony and that the hotel itself was MUCH better suited to the Touring Toddler’s incessant explorations. We apologised, but still Nick would not admit defeat, insisting Llew inspect the room too.
“How much?” Nick wanted to know when they returned and Llew explained again that the other place was just more appropriate with a toddler.
“It’s not about the money,” Llew said.
It was the issue of ‘how much’ in Delphi that most succinctly captured the town’s crisis. I have never stayed in a hotel this cheap in my life. I am sure that I paid more for a bunk in a reeking backpackers’ when I did my obligatory European tour back in 1999, when the Australian dollar was the enemy of its people. Now that we are enjoying the unusual luxury and opportunity of something approaching parity with the euro, Llew, the Touring Toddler and I are simply part of a current mass invasion of the Continent. Someone told Llew a couple of days ago that Australians are the second highest visitor group to Greece this year, and I can believe it.
I distinctly recall landing in London in 1999 to the surprising news that Australians were universally regarded as the biggest tight-arses on the planet… it didn’t gel with what I knew of my fellow Antipodeans – generous people by nature – but I now realise it was entirely due to the crushing exchange rate at the time. I always say it was like putting your savings in a pile and setting it alight – Australians had to count their pennies because each and every one was costing three and a half times that. I think northern hemisphere visitors to present day Sydney may just know a little more keenly what I am referring to.
Currently things are much better for us in the UK and Europe and Australians are making the most of it. So. Back to Delphi. By the time we managed to extract ourselves from Nick, he had dropped the room price to €35. The other guy’s room was €35 including breakfast. If I could find a hotel that cheap in Australia, I guarantee it wouldn’t be somewhere I’d ever want to stay, and it certainly wouldn’t have views or be walking distance from one of the most significant sites in the country.
We were parked up on the curbside unloading the car when Nick rode up the street on his vespa. He slowed, taking in the full scene, noting the offending hotel and the final confirmation of our betrayal. After several agonising seconds watching us unpack, Nick sped off, his face a fury, his shoulders hunched over the handlebars.
We’ve been in planning mode here in Amaliapoli, trying to push through all the administrative requirements of the next stage of the Grand Tour so that we can get back to the more pressing issue of enjoying our final week here. Oh, the lump in my throat when I think about leaving. I have been so happy here.
One of the waitresses at the beachside taverna we favour mentioned late Friday afternoon that there would be a dance show over at the small village port, which sits on the opposite side of the bay. Kick off was 9 pm, she said, so I looked at the Touring Toddler a little doubtfully and said we’d definitely try. It’s always a punt trying to take the TT out past his bedtime (although this week he seems to have switched to a much more Grecian program), but we figured it was worth a shot.
Candle bags lit the way from the road, and a healthy throng of locals and annual holiday-makers packed the available area. A huge circle of chairs defined the dirt dance floor, and with every seat taken, the rest of us formed standing rings behind. A full moon rose over the beach end of the bay, so low and bright in the sky, its reflected glow stretching right across the water all the way to the port. The moon’s golden path, swaying gently with the current, made me wish that we could, for an evening, all dance on the water, for there could be no more inviting ball room than that still and starry night.
Still, what we got wasn’t bad either, an exuberant burst of song and dance that mesmerised those children not already performing (the TT included) and set all the adult toes tapping. ‘Grease Lightning’ kicked off the show – daggy but fun – and what a blast it was seeing half the village waiters and waitresses strutting their stuff, all coiffed and polished, spinning and dipping with the best of them. Next the young kids swarmed into the circle, stomping, running, giggling and grinning their way through a traditional Greek number, before the teenage girls strode confidently into the centre for a ‘Pink Panther’ number. The hour-long concert ended with the saucy tango, which transcends all language barriers, everywhere and always. Rapturous applause was the reward for all their hard work and preparation, faces everywhere beaming brighter than the moon.
We wandered with the dispersing crowd back down along the lamp-lit bay, past the still busy cafes and restaurants, just about bursting with affection for this place and its people. I am really, really going to miss it. As I write this, the TT is having a nap and I am stretched out on the couch with the gigantic window bringing the view teeming through. It is the loveliest place with the most bewitching view: the small island that sits swimming distance from the bay, the glorious blanket of blue sea and the mountains rising up majestically across the gulf. It eases something in me that is otherwise generally wound too tight. I am utterly charmed by this village and this vista – I shall remember it always and expect to yearn for it just as long. Islands be damned; Mitzela is divine.
We leave here Sunday – reluctantly – and the plan is to go to the ancient site of Delphi, then, yes, an island for a couple of days, then on to Athens, where we have booked an amazing-looking place on AIRbnb that is right in the Acropolis zone. Devastated though I am to be leaving here, I am very excited about Athens. It’s a real gap in my Ancient City CV and I can’t wait to see it and immerse ourselves in the local neighbourhood for a whole delicious week of architecture and history. I just felt a bolt of pure joy at the prospect.
And then it’s goodbye Greece, I’m sad to say, though what an inspired decision this leg turned out to be. We’re taking an overnight ferry to the port of Bari on the Italian east coast, and from there flying to Palermo in Sicily, where we’ll be collected by the nephew of the couple whose apartment we’ve booked and driven to Cefalu. In researching our options for this next leg, we both became a little infatuated with Cefalu, so let’s hope our intuition serves us as well there as it has here. I’ve never before made it to Sicily despite a couple of trips to Italy so I am DELIGHTED to be getting there now. It looks like Llew’s parents are going to join us there for a week, too, before they continue on to Norway and we make our way to Roma, glorious Roma, city of my soul, in time for my 40th birthday. Now that’s what I call a plan.
After that, I’m afraid the music stops. We’ll have to face up to all the boring stuff like jobs and bills and mortgage. But let’s not linger there now, not when the sun is shining, the sea is blue and we still have this week in Mitzela…