A MODERN ODYSSEY
Harry Bucknall spends a grown-up gap year in Greece
TAKING a gap year at 40 initially did not seem like a sensible idea. I had a good business, a nice flat and everything was relatively rosy, so it still beats me why I chose to jeopardise it all. I suppose I should blame my cousin’s girlfriend, for it was she who largely put me up to it. Two years ago, over lunch on Mykonos, I blurted out that someone should write a book about travelling around the Greek islands. Don’t know why I came up with the idea; I just did. But of course it seemed a ridiculous notion, really; totally impractical, so I thought nothing more about it and returned home.
Then, one October evening, I scribbled an itinerary, from Venice to Istanbul — more a romantic ‘‘ what if’’ than anything else — and the more I doodled, the more the idea grew on me: 2000 islands, the Aegean and all that history. It would be a modern odyssey. A few months later the project had begun to consume my every waking moment and home seemed like a prison cell by comparison, dull and tiresome. I talked about it to friends and discovered that far from being derisory, they were full of a furtive longing to come too.
One senior partner in a top public relations consultancy confided that were it not for school fees he would have joined me. So I began to plan and to save in earnest.
The Greek islands were meant to be visited by sea. Why else would the Greeks have placed a folly like the portal for the temple of the Delian Apollo on a hillock overlooking Naxos harbour? So it seemed right that I should begin my journey on a boat. I left Venice on a ship bound for Crete, looking the Campanile straight in the eye.
Ferries come in all shapes, ages and sizes. My favourites were the old boats, belching black smoke, reeking of diesel and held together by paint and goodwill; chaotic passengers piled high like left luggage. The worst were the hydrofoils. Being a passenger on these old Russian machines was a disorienting experience, like being driven at speed in a tumble dryer with a large brick in it. At least they keep the sickbag industry alive.
But the ferries were a piece of cake compared with the uncharted waters of Greek travel agencies. You need a degree in obstinacy to get anywhere with them and they presented one of the biggest challenges of my year out.
Money was also a worry. During my gap year at 19, I never had a budget — just a bag of money, a ticket and a handful of addresses — but this gap year was different. This time, I didn’t want to slum it as completely as I had done 20 years previously, so I confess that at times I treated myself to the odd week somewhere really splendid, such as Pandeli’s Taverna on the island of Marathi, where I did nothing except swim, eat myself stupid, drink everything in sight and sleep. And while I did my best to take buses, there was the occasional ‘‘ Sod it, I’ll take a taxi.’’
The worst dinner I had was on Symi, where I ate the best meal in Greece but was served by a waiter with the compassion of the Addams family.
And the best? A plate of sausage and chips washed down with cold beer in the little harbour of Neapoli, after a shattering 18-hour bus journey.
What was my favourite place? I had favourites everywhere: Kefalonia with its impressive mountains, the magical medieval walled city of Rhodes, the delights of Amorgos, partying on Mykonos and the tranquil beauty of the monasteries of Mt Athos.
On Skyros, where Rupert Brooke is buried, I got caught in a landslide.
On Delos, with its poorly labelled piles of ancient marble and endless statuary, there were so many tourists I worked out that it would be possible to enter a building on an English tour, listen to the French group and leave with the Italians. Swimming off Kythera, I was chased out of a cave by a monk seal.
At the end of my year, I was ready to come home. Was I changed? I don’t know, but I do think that I am now a more contented 40-year-old, rather than a 20-something living in a body twice its age.
And what did I achieve? Well, a journey that few have undertaken and that was the envy of every Greek to whom I spoke.
I visited 36 islands and every island chain, not to mention the Greek mainland and Turkey, too.
I completed a journey of more than 7200km in 183 days, a total of 314 hours continuous travel: 55 sea passages on 32 ferries, three hydrofoils and one fishing caique, a seaplane, one twin-prop aircraft, 11 buses, two trains, an open-top Land Rover and a duck-egg blue 1963 Morris Oxford. The Spectator
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