I put my shoes on but they were tight, too tight I thought. It took me a moment to realize that my feet were actually swollen. As many travel stories go a series of events led to a journey of more than forty-eight hours without sleeping in a bed. Our economy tickets on the ferry included sitting only but we were young and anyone can sleep sitting up, right? By the time we arrived at the port city of Patras, Greece we needed to sleep. In a bed.
That was 1982 and I remember parts of that journey like it was yesterday.
At that time Europe was a popular destination and a high school trip to Paris and London had given me the travel bug. My husband and I had explored the map and chosen several cities and countries we wanted to visit.
Back In The Day
Long, long ago…before we had Wifi, I mean internet, people actually used books and paper maps to plan and execute vacation travel. My copy of Let’s Go Europe was a trusty companion for our three month backpacking adventure. To lighten my load I ripped pages and whole sections from that book as we left country after country. At the very end of our trip I was even able to pass along what was left of that book to another traveller excited to find some helpful bits of travel wisdom.
Equally as important as my copy of Let’s Go Europe was a much smaller book, the Berlitz European Menu Reader. This tiny book listed authentic foods by region of every country along with translations to read restaurant menus. As newly married young adults we were fast becoming foodies and planned destinations around the local specialties we read about.
My First Authentic Greek Meal
It may be hard to imagine today but thirty-six years ago everyone had not heard of souvlaki, calamari and baklava. You could not buy prepared tadziki at the grocery store and Kalamata olives were a specialty ingredient. Thanks to our European Menu Reader I had a long list of authentic Greek dishes and I was determined to try them all.
We weren’t in Greece for too many hours before my husband, staring at the street signs, declared, “it’s all Greek to me”. But we did manage to find our way from Patras to Athens and secure accommodation. We were looking forward to sitting in a restaurant and eating some of the Greek dishes we had read about.
I don’t really remember the meal but I know we over ordered. We probably had Greek salad, tadziki with warm pita bread and flaky spanakopita triangles stuffed with spinach. There may even have been stuffed grapevine leaves or flaming saganaki. What I clearly remember is that we were full, very full.
Then our server brought the main course, two huge dishes of bubbling hot moussaka.
We laughed but we ate. That was our first restaurant meal in Greece and it was the kind of experience when you want to pinch yourself just to make sure it’s real.
The Island of Mykonos
Let’s Go Europe described images of Greece that we dreamed of finding. Clear blue skies, sparkling aquamarine waters and tiny whitewashed villages where donkeys, heavily laden with goods, sauntered down the streets. We chose Mykonos for our island experience.
Mykonos, a tiny island jewel somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas seemed just a little off the beaten path and appealed to us. Following directions from our Let’s Go Europe, we took a bus from the ferry to the end of the island and found Petinos Hotel. I remember standing at the front desk with my calculator in hand saying to my husband, “it’s either $10 or $100.” I redid the calculation and yes, a room in this hotel on a sandy beach overlooking the water was $10 Canadian per night.
Petinos Hotel was good to us. On our first evening there we met Peter and Donna, from Vancouver, British Columbia. These veteran travellers were on their second trip to Greece and we had lots of laughs sharing travel stories. They also had some advice for us. Stay away from the horrid wine that taste like nail polish remover, Retsina. Always bang your glass of ouzo on the table before you drink it, it’s the custom. The best coffee you can expect will be instant Nescafe, but you can enjoy it on your balcony overlooking the ocean. Lastly, they explained the string of three beaches starting right in front of our hotel. We agreed to meet in the morning and go to the second beach.
As we drifted off to sleep I remember asking my husband, “What if they take their clothes off at the nude beach?”
We never clearly had a plan for that. The idea of a nude beach was foreign to both of us at the time. I had vaguely heard of a nude beach in Vancouver, but had never been there or even thought of going.
The Second Beach
The next morning we climbed into a small fishing boat with about ten other people and headed off to the second beach. Peter and Donna had explained that our hotel was on Paradise Beach; a clothing optional beach. Super Paradise was the second beach and it was a nude beach. Anyone who didn’t get off the boat at the second beach was going to Elia, the third beach. It was the gay nude beach.
We were aware that many women go topless on European beaches but we hadn’t seen that yet. Walking along Super Paradise beach was a completely foreign experience for us. The men were au naturel and most of the women were topless. When we found a spot our new friends just shook out their beach towels, laid them on the sand and took off their clothes. Like it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
We looked at each other and after a long pause my husband said, “Well, I’ve never done this before”.
When we talked about our beach experience later we both thought the same thing, it was unlikely we would ever see these friends again. And so began our adventure of Nescafe mornings watching fishermen mend nets and beat octopus on stones to tenderize the meat. Afternoons were spent exploring the area and soaking up the sun at Super Paradise Beach. We walked every cobblestone street and loved watching the people go about their daily activities. With our 35mm camera we took countless pictures that represented island life to us. There was the iconic row of 16th-century windmills and the narrow stone staircases lined with flowering plants in olive oil tins. There were locals whitewashing their buildings or sitting in a chair to rest. And we will never forget the sunsets like this one at Sundown restaurant where they hang octopus to dry right on the patio.
Of course we ate and drank our way through town and I checked off every item listed in my Menu Reader. We passed on the Retsina in favour of the red wine called Domestica and I even tried their brandy, Metaxa. We drank ouzo and always banged our glass on the table before we downed it and we often closed the bar at night with our friends at Petinos Hotel. In this photo from left to right is; our friend Peter, the restaurant owner and my husband, Jim.
The end of the story is that we did meet Peter and Donna again. My fondest memory is one Christmas Eve, many years later, while I was wrapping gifts. The phone rang. I picked it up and the voice on the other end said, “I once lay naked on a beach with you.”
Greek Souvlaki in Athens
Sixteen years after that trip to Greece I had the opportunity to travel to Athens on business. I still can’t believe it myself. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
I took my husband and we planned a few days on either side of the meeting to visit the area. This was 1998 and the North American diet was all about heart health and low-fat. At home we had drastically decreased our consumption of cheese, tossed all those recipes for rich sauces made with whipping cream and used the smallest amount of oil possible to cook everything. I had already revised my recipe for Greek souvlaki and was certain there was no difference in the taste by using less oil.
On that night it was once again magical. Travelling across the globe in hours and suddenly walking the narrow cobblestone streets of the Plaka in Athens. Catching a breathtaking view of the nearby Acropolis spectacularly lit up at night on our way past sidewalk cafes and family-run tavernas looking for the perfect one. Once again we were so excited…just to eat dinner. As I write this it actually sounds crazy.
My most memorable experience from that first night in Athens was of eating souvlaki. I don’t remember if it was pork souvlaki or lamb souvlaki but I do remember it was swimming in oil. A delicious olive oil that I imagine was made from olives picked off of nearby trees. I have no idea if that is true but what I do know is that at that moment, on that night, it was the best souvlaki I have ever tasted. I’m sure the warm Mediterranean breeze, the palm trees and the lively Greek music that filled the streets all contributed to that exceptional meal. If you get the chance be sure to visit the Plaka district next time you are in Athens and have some souvlaki.
If you aren’t travelling to Greece anytime soon why not buy a good quality olive oil and make souvlaki. This recipe comes from The Best Book of Greek Cookery, a tiny book I bought in Mykonos all those years ago. I hope you enjoy it.
- 2 lbs pork or lamb, cut into cubes
- ½ cup good quality olive oil
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (about 1½ lemons)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano (never fresh)
- 1 lemon, cut into 8 wedges
Combine oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Pour over meat and marinate for 1 hour or over night.
Thread meat onto metal skewers. Grill until cooked through, approximately 8-10 minutes, turning once. Sprinkle with dried oregano and serve with lemon wedges.
Thanks to Sue for inviting me to share this guest post and relive a fabulous trip from a very long time ago.
Cinde writes the Everyday Gluten Free Gourmet food blog and teaches cooking classes in Calgary, Alberta. As a passionate home cook she encourages people to just get in the kitchen and cook. She began gluten free cooking in 2009 after a friend was diagnosed with celiac disease. By day Cinde is an Education Consultant with Alberta Health Services. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook or visit her online store and blog at www.everydayglutenfreegourmet.ca.