6.10.2011

And now for a place I liked


Skiathos town had no shortage of quaint, cobblestone streets.

Greece.

Just that word in itself conjures images of crystal-clear water, romantic ruins, and maybe a nice slab of feta cheese. And all of those things were on Skiathos, but it was more than that.

Lalaria Beach.

As you'd expect, the water was this amazing clear blue near the shore, clearer and deeper and more vivid even than what I've seen in the Caribbean. It was almost mesmerizingly beautiful, especially in places like Lalaria Beach with its signature rock formation, only accessible by boat. We went there on an all-day boat tour, which is also where I got my share of ruins.

Mosque in the Kastro.

These weren't ruins from Greek antiquity, but rather what remained of a medieval town, built up on a cliff that prevented pirates from ransacking the town. We reached the beach below the town on the same boat tour that took us to Lalaria, but then had to hike up the cliff in order to see the town. The short but sweaty hike made me really feel the desperation that must have led the people of then-Skiathos to opt to built their town in such a remote and impossible place.

As for ruins from Greek antiquity, well, Skiathos doesn't have any. I did feel a bit like I missed out on those in skipping Athens and some of the other sites in my chosen itinerary. But strikes and riots in Athens while we were traveling made me feel a bit better about my choice to skip out on it this time and return in some future trip. And, regardless of how you feel about it, the reality is that many of the treasures of Greek antiquity aren't actually in Greece anymore. I'd already seen some of them, such as the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, in the British Museum, and I saw more this time around in the Louvre. But if those are the sorts of ruins you're looking for, you'll need more than Skiathos in your itinerary.

For me, though, spending time on a Greek island like Skiathos was more than that. For one, although I've spent time on many Caribbean islands as part of cruise ship stops, this is the first time I've really stayed on an island for any period of time, and what really struck me was how local the economy, and by extension, the food chain, were.

It really did feel like much of the island's economy existed to support tourism, either directly or — through the agriculture that provided food for the grocery stores and restaurants — indirectly. We were impressed in Ireland at the freshness of the eggs, and that you bought them non-refrigerated from the grocery store shelves. On Skiathos, though, you actually woke up to the sound of a rooster crowing (and then listened to him continue to crow all day, because roosters are, apparently, stupid), and when you bought the eggs off the shelf, they sometimes still had feathers stuck to them.

Greek Salad.

It was abundantly clear that food on the island was based on fresher and more local produce than what we get in the United States, even with the movement to buy more food from local farms. Take a Greek Salad, for instance. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and olives with a nice slab of spice-dusted feta on top. No need for any other dressing aside from maybe a sprinkle of olive oil and balsamic, because the vegetables were so fresh and flavorful combined with the mild, creamy feta. It's not something you can pull off with the hothouse tomatoes you buy in your local chain grocery store.

Seafood, too, was fresh and caught off of tiny fishing boats, not giant trawlers. One evening while we were having dinner at a taverna in town, a fisherman brought in his catch, and it was instant drama. People from all of the nearby restaurants started crowding around, watching the catch as it was unloaded, and then standing around the fishmonger's in vaguely intimidating poses. We watched as one man scored an eel from the fishmonger's, and then walked over by the water and proceeded to gut and slice it in front of an audience of disgusted-but-fascinated tourists.

Drama at the fishmonger's.

If you take all of these fresh ingredients, it's very difficult for things to go wrong, and indeed, Skiathos was the site of many of my favorite meals during the trip. I couldn't stop eating Greek Salads, but most memorable was the Moussaka at Diamond, a little outdoor restaurant down the road from our house. A fluffy but decadent layer of b├ęchamel sauce over a slightly spicy and super flavorful mixture of tomatoes, meat, and other goodness, this stuff was so good we swooned when we ate it the first time. Then we went back again a few days later.

Moussaka.

So the good of Greece was memorable, but so were the people. We'd expected open friendliness in Ireland last year, and not really got it, but here people were always exceedingly kind and interested in us. Maybe it was because we were, for once, a rarity as American tourists instead of British (the island is extremely popular with British tourists, which is why flights out of Gatwick were so easy for me to find). Maybe it was because tourist season was just starting up, and they weren't worn out yet. But whatever it was, the people of Skiathos were a real delight.

As for island living, it suited me quite well for a short period of time. Knowing that I had such an aggressive itinerary in England and France, and coming off of an extended migraine that started to clear up as soon as I saw the view from our house (funny how that works), and got even better once I slept off the jet lag, I was content to just chill out in our lovely house, explore the town a bit, and of course, hit the beach. Oh yeah, and dance a bit when, on our last evening on the island, Tommie, Jeff, and I went out to dinner and ended up staying for "Greek Night," which was unquestionably touristy, and yet still fun.


That's not to say that I wasn't inappropriately delighted when I got back to England and realized that now that I'd left the island's weak plumbing, I could once again throw my toilet paper in the toilet instead of a special trash can beside said toilet. I was. I am fairly sure I was the most giddy person in the women's bathroom at Gatwick Airport. But as much as I love urban spaces and strong plumbing, I had experiences on Skiathos that I never could have had in England or France.

Standing by a bus stop in the warm Greek sun, watching an old man with leathery skin walk by with his old, bony donkey and his most important possessions strapped to the saddle, alongside a large plastic bottle of water that had obviously been refilled many times before, smiling and responding to his greeting of "yeah-sas." That's the sort of thing that only happens on a Greek island, and I think someday I'll be back. Probably not to Skiathos, though — there are just so many more to explore.


No comments: