Harry Buck­nall spends a grown-up gap year in Greece

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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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Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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