Xaraki – the notes in my notebook.

I found myself in seat 1C on the plane to Rhodes. This is the seat at the very front, opposite the rear facing seat occasionally occupied by the lovely bespectacled air stewardess as well as being strategically placed to allow my right shoulder to come into frequent and in a few cases, intimate contact with the crotches, buttocks and thighs of  many of my fellow holiday makers as they made their way to the WC at the front of the aircraft. I drank coffee and red wine throughout the flight, ignored the couple in 1A and 1B, and arrived at my little studio apartment at a fork in the road on the way to Haraki village well before sundown.

I’m on the ground floor of a small two storey studio block, and the view from my nice secluded balcony, once you get past the typical Mediterranean shrubbery and small trees, is of the picturesque ruins of a crusader castle which crowns a small rocky hill to the east. I will catch the rising sun. Once I’d unpacked and showered, I started out on the 25 minute stroll down to the village, alongside the wide pebbled expanse of the summer-dry river bed. A lady called Evangelina had one of the two or three shops in town, just ten minutes away, and she was open to conversation so she instantly won the position of regular supplier of water, juice, Mythos, fruit and all other necessities. After returning to the studio and stowing my purchases I went all the way down to the village and took a stroll along the reassuringly petite seafront, which was in fact the entire village. Check it out on Google Earth!

One Taverna, Maria’s, looked promising so I later went there for dinner. I didn’t really fancy a full three courser so I just asked for a small selection of mezes and ended up with a table loaded with taramosalata, marides, feta stuffed sweet peppers, pitta and Mythos. When I’d finished they made me have a sweet Greek coffee and a walnut baklava with cinnamon ice cream. Maria kept coming over to ask if I was happy. Oh yes, Maria, I’m happy, especially when your young dark eyes smile sadly my way. I sat watching the stars come out over the distant shadow of Turkey and eventually made my way back to the studio. I’m in almost the first and last building in the village. Today I have travelled and eaten and drunk. Tonight I sleep well.

Thursday begins at dawn with a light breakfast of salad, cherry juice (hemo kerasiou, if we want to show off) and coffee, and then a brisk stroll over to St Agathi beach, a sunbed and umbrella strewn sandy expanse surrounded by rocky slopes and wind carved shapes in the stone walls. I laid my towel on the sand and went in the sea for a swim. The water was warm and the beach was quite deserted. I stayed there for an hour or so, swims alternating with drying sessions under the sun, until the first excursion boats started to appear around the rocky entrance to the bay. I’m happy to swim early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so the daily routine was decided there on the sand. Mostly.

Later, after showering and dressing, I went into the village for a lunch of peanuts and Fix beer, and booked a trip over to the barren island of Chalki for the following Tuesday, which was due to be my last full day in Greece and which I knew I’d be likely to spend moping if I didn’t have something to do. The place I’m staying at is twenty minutes from the village and the bay and the beaches, of which I have three to choose from. Heavily discounted last minute package holiday deals. I do them so you don’t have to.

Twenty minutes inland takes you to the main road and the bus stops, one of which will get you to Lindos and the other, eventually, to Rhodes town. I walked up to the bus stops to check out the bus times, which was a bit tricky as all I could find were the tattered, bleached remains of a 2012 timetable wilting in the dust. I just hung around, luckily there was a kantine van selling bottled water there, until a bus passed on the way to Lindos at about five past. Easy. You get to the stop at about ten to the hour and a bus should turn up sometime within the next hour. Hopefully. So Friday would be my day to go to Lindos, and I’d know by which time I got off on my return what time to expect the bus for Rhodes. Who needs timetables? I just needed water and a wee.

It was siesta time by now so after my two hour kip in the noontime heat I went back to Agathi beach for a couple more hours swimming and lazing. These moments, which spread slowly and lazily into hours, are the most sublime moments of my life. The only solid tie you have with the rest of the world is the room key in your zip-up pocket on the swim shorts. Baking in the heat and with only a light breeze kissing your skin, you are alone in the universe, only truly aware of your existence because of the drying salt on your skin, the sun burning into you and the sand beneath you. They are the only moments of true peace I can find and in my mind I stretch them out and they fill the days. That was enough of the sublime, so I made my way back for a shower and a late afternoon session of sitting on the balcony reading and drinking and admiring the view of the Italian girls posing in the gardens of the twin studio block across the way.

I thought it was about time that I explored Feraklos castle, for that is the name of the ruins on the hill, so I made my way along the path to Agathi beach and took the turning to the castle. There are a couple of tunnels running into the base of the hill, which I explored, and then I clambered up the rocky path to the summit. The castle is purely ruins and crumbling walls, which isn’t a surprise when you think how old the place is, but there are spectacular views along the coast towards Lindos, and I watched the 8.30 sunset from among the gaps in the masonry. Midsummer almost, but the days are shorter as we are so far south. All very picturesque. I went back down to Maria’s and had a stuffed squid followed by some lovely lamb chops for dinner. With Mythos, naturally.

The next day, Friday, I decided to catch the bus to Lindos and got to the bus stop with ten minutes to spare. The first bus to appear over the horizon was the one headed for Rhodes town, so I ran across the road and hopped on board, heading North for the capital. I wandered around Mandraki Harbour and the Nea Agora, and lit a candle in the Church of the Assumption on the harbourside. I stopped at a stall for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and drank it sitting on a bench looking at the tourists and the boats and being glad I was alive, then made my way to the old town for a lunch of pitta gyros and beer which wasn’t Fix or Mythos. Rhodes old town is one of those places where I can wander for hours, and I did, visited the castle, the gardens, a few churches and climbed the Roloi clock tower but I couldn’t enter the Hamsa Bei mosque because I didn’t have any socks. No shoes, but no bare feet. The rules. I simply lurked outside for a while and did a little more wandering before catching the bus back to Haraki, where I sat on the balcony with a cold one, thinking of going for a swim. Which thought I then acted upon.

So after a refreshing swim and a lounge in the sun, I had an even more refreshing shower and realised that it was getting dark and food would be needed soon. I thought I’d try somewhere different for dinner so slid unobtrusively past Maria’s and wandered the front, finally deciding on a place called Kapetanios, which had an ice cabinet outside laid with some mighty tempting looking fish specimens. One of those places you find where you choose the fish you want, the waiter weighs it and tells you with a smile how much the beast will cost. My red mullet weighed in at €27 which, with a dish each of lightly spiced potatoes and grated vegetable cake, a beer , a coffee and a shot of burning raki was increased to €33, turned out to be my most expensive but one of the more satisfying dinners of the week. So, after wandering back up the hill through the darkness and the sound of barking distant dogs and a brief chat with Tone Alone, a holiday maker from BwermingHAM who was staying two doors down from me but who I only ever usually saw and grunted at in passing, I sat through the rest of the warm evening out on my balcony with Mythos. I was admiring the stars holding their own above the distant low glow of the village, a gentle cooliong breeze was blowing and I thought that I might take a walk along the clifftop path to the neighbouring village of Stegna, five miles distant in the morning. Damn but this holiday is just so relaxing, dear reader of mine. I wish you were here to share it with me.

Saturday, midsummer, dawned at about twenty to six and it was already hot. So after a quick breakfast of salad, juice, coffee and more juice, I set off for Stegna, past Agathi beach, where I found that a steel mesh fence blocked the path. So after bypassing it by clambering up a crumbling rocky hillside goat path, I regained the main path, which was pitted with a dozen or more mysterious grave-sized holes cut into the solid rock. Grave sizes being suitable for all ages from babies to full grown. I wish I knew what it was all about. By following the goat paths, easily found by the gaps in the spiny maquis and the regular piles of nutty brown pellets of goat poo, I soon found myself hanging off the cliff face and resolved to be a bit more careful in future and not to rely on the average goat having the same sense of self preservation or middle aged clumsiness as I have. There were many lizards, and goats, and I later heard that you’re likely to see vipers there, but I failed that observation test. The views were grand, especially behind me, where you could see the distant white smudge of Kalathos at the far end of the bay of Lindos, and the acropolis on its hilltop a little way beyond that. Stegna still seemed as distant as ever, and after sitting in a long-disused tumbledown stone shepherd’s cot and drinking the last of my water, I took one more walk to the cliff edge for some photos, looked around some caves in the hillside above me. I decided there was no real reason to continue on to Stegna and so decided to forget about climbing the last steep rise before descending to the village. A hill too far at 38C. Behind me, along another path, which led roughly in the direction of Haraki, I’d noticed a small white-washed chapel in a fold in the hills. ‘I’ll go there’, I thought.

Half an hour later, after wandering among the dusty olive groves I found myself in the cool interior of  the chapel, a 15th century grotto dedicated to St George, which had a fresco of the saint slaying a rather ineffective looking dragon on one wall and an interesting collection of icons on another. I sat in the semi darkness for a while thinking about stuff, left a couple of coins on the papa’s bench, and bolted it all up behind me. I then watered a nearby olive tree and returned to the studio for a shower and a siesta. A quite unproductive morning you may think, but one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

That night I had a seafood saganaki and a grilled sea bream for dinner at Maria’s. Maria loves to say sorry every time she comes to my table, and to ask me if I’m happy. Manoli, her brother, calls me his friend and brings a bottle of Mythos as I take a seat. Every meal finishes with a pastry and a Greek coffee which is good.

I awoke on Sunday morning to find that I’d left the flap of the freezer compartment open, which had frozen all the contents of the fridge. So I roughly chopped the remainder of my tomato and onion and fried them till soft in olive oil, then crumbled the semi frozen feta over it and had a Greek fry up for breakfast. It was going to be even hotter today, and there were voices all around so I decided to go for a brief walk along the village beach. I looked properly at the long pebbled beach leading South to Kalathos, so went back to the studio, changed into the swim shorts and returned to spend Sunday on a new beach. This one’s very pebbly indeed, and there’s a small white church nearby. The Greek girls maintain a prim distance from the churchwhen they go topless. I thought you’d find that fact interesting. After a couple of hours of swimming and tanning, I went back up to the studio for a siesta and the promised phone call home to speak to my lovely Anita. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon repeating the morning. Swimming, lounging, swimming, etc. etc. After showering, I went down to Evangelina’s shop to get some bits to take home and spent a while on the balcony reading.

Cold dip selection followed by a sole for dinner, this time accompanied by a jug of very satisfying red wine.   Night night.

I went to Lindos on Monday. I missed the bus at the first attempt, but made it at the second, so I’d already walked three miles by the time I sat in the air-conditioned cool of the vehicle. I wandered the old village for a while and enjoyed a late breakfast of chicken gyros and fresh orange juice. Then, following the tell tale trail of donkey poo, I made the ascent to the acropolis, which has great views and lots of history. Columns, carvings, statues, heat and dust, that sort of thing. I love it. Back down in town, the bus driver lied and said he couldn’t stop at Haraki as he had to go up to the village of Masari. I didn’t feel like arguing, so sat in a nearby kafenion for an hour over a frappe until the next bus came. I got the girl in the ticket kiosk to write HARAKI on my ticket, just to be sure. So, back to the studio for a shower and a kip, as usual.

I’d had a few chats with a Geordie couple staying in the village, who’d recommended a taverna owned by Chef Tommy, so I thought I’d let Maria down again and eat at Tommy’s. Oh dear. As I was gnawing my way through my grilled octopus starter, I resolved never to eat anything within 50 miles of Co. Durham, if this is the sort of stuff the inhabitants recommend to innocent strangers. Octopus, while it has to hang out to dry for a while before cooking, should still be succulent and juicy. The one Tommy gave me, if it was a human, you’d stick it on a drip and hold a damp sponge to its parched lips. I’ve chewed softer leather. The main course was a mixed grill, not really a traditional Greek dish but I shall not go into the worse details. I don’t usually leave food on the plate in restaurants, especially if they’re in Greece. Tommy probably thought I must have been very full before I sat down. The best bit of the meal was the large tumbler of grappa he forced on me as I asked reluctantly for the bill and even more reluctantly paid it.  A big black dog followed me up the hill to the studio. Luckily it wandered off towards the dry river just before I arrived, so I didn’t have to think of any excuses why I couldn’t let it in with me.

Tuesday came and it was my last full day, and I’d booked the trip to Halki, so I picked up by coach and got taken to Kameiros Skala to catch the boat, the Nissi Halki, just in case we forgot where we were going. I was chatting to Sharon, a gorgeous Welsh girl who was our guide for the day, and she told me about the island’s delicacy, Halki Shrimp, which are fried in the shell and you eat everything bar the spiny little bits of shell at the tail fan. I resolved to not leave the island without trying a dish of them. It’s a beautiful, barren island is Halki, with just the one settlement, Emporio, which clings to the sides of the hills which rise from the seafront. So after spending a couple of hours wandering the maze-like lanes, and climbing the hill to the three ruined windmills which line the crest, and then taking the back road down past the chicken and sheep farm to the peaceful village cemetery where the marble stones and slabs guard their sleeping charges, and the sea sparkles through the pine trees which surround it, I wandered back for lunch.

And I found myself in the only taverna on the island which didn’t have any shrimp. So, purely to be polite, I had a bowl of tzatziki and a fresh grilled pitta, and a large Mythos. I walked it off and climbed down the steps between two houses on the shore line, dangling my weary feet in the cool water and watching the spiny black sea urchins creeping ever closer. Then I went to another taverna and had another lunch, this time of of Halki Shrimp. With another large Mythos. Sharon came and sat with me a while and we had a good chat. A lovely day.

When I got back to Haraki it was still only about five or six, so I took a brisk wander down to the beach for the last swim of my holiday, which I dragged out until the sun got low. I had to go to Maria’s for my last supper, and I had a table of mezes; a bowl of calamari, another bowl of tzatziki, and a dish of grilled vegetables and my last Mythos of the week. Manoli gave me a dish of baklava and ice cream and cinnamon, and Maria gave me a lovely Greek coffee and a lovelier hug and a chaste but ever so lovely kiss and she asked me if I’ll ever go back to Haraki. I think I may.

Wednesday morning arrived and I thought I’d go to one of the places that did breakfast as I was hungry and you can’t get much in the way of a good meal at Rhodes airport. Bacon and egg and toast, cappuccino and orange juice. As I was walking back up the road, Maria saw me and I had to have a last frappe with her, and we said goodbye again.Then I went into Evangelina ‘s and said goodbye, then I bumped into Tone Alone, we had a long chat and said goodbye, he was there until Saturday and didn’t know how he was going to wake up for a 4.30 am pick up. He didn’t think much of my suggestion that he didn’t bother going to bed the night before. He’s in his late sixties and he’s been travelling these islands every year for over fifty years. Tone Alone, one day I might be a bit like you.

On the flight home I sat with a lady called Carole and her half Polish step granddaughter called Weronika. We chatted and played a good word game that Weronika taught me, and which I will in turn probably teach my grandchildren. Cheap air travel. It expands the mind and enhances our lives. It does mine, anyway.