Daphne, when she heard what we were doing, recommended that it was better to visit in the afternoon, when it was cooler: to us that seemed a contradiction, because normally things get so much hotter after lunch, but she might have been right. We spray on sunblock and depart.
20 minutes of air-conditioned bus ride later.
Chris and I have been asking why we keep coming back to Greece? Everything is messy, half-working (in the ordinary places – not the expensive tourist hotels we never use) a bit dirty and very basic. I think it reminds us of a culture that used to exist in England when we were growing up: where people don’t have so much but are happy, everyone lives by ‘make do and mend’ and you have to use common sense instead of creating more and more regulations about how to live. The warmth, both of the climate and the people helps a lot too, though certainly not all Greeks will greet you with a smile, and they’re just as normal as anyone else, but there’s a believable spontaneity to their greetings. And the food does no harm either – mostly – though more on that later.
But despite the mess, dirt and building-site countryside it all kind of works and that’s, as much as anything, a reason to never want Greece to resemble Germany or Switzerland or even England.
We should have left the bus at the IKA building on the north side of Mytilini town as recommended by Iannis, but in a moment of indecision we missed the opportunity and dismounted about half way round the harbour in the south-central part of the town.
What’s Mytilini harbour like? Well, quite a lot like Marseilles, only warmer and with Greek Orthodox accessories instead of Roman Catholic ones. The open end of the harbour faces East, and coming from the North side this puts the water on our left hand side. There’s lots of colour from the shops and cafes around the outside, mostly yellows and oranges, and there’s a large ocean-going liner (Ocean Queen IIRC) moored up, plus all the usual fishing vessels, a customs ship and a couple of small-medium naval vessels with guns wrapped up. On the opposite side of the harbour there’s a long causeway that narrows the mouth, and at the end of that, a small building painted white and blue with a café restaurant.
Everything looks superficially the same, but there are a few changes, or maybe things we overlooked on our first visit. Some of the bars have girls in skimpy costumes (by Greek standards) to serve, and there are beggars and tramps, that we never saw before.
I could hear a loud voice over a PA from across the water as we make our way along, and joke with Chris about someone running a beach outreach campaign, for which I get a mild grimace. In the middle of the central section of pavement of the harbour we could see a crowd gathered, being exhorted in charged and emotional Greek, presumably to resist the government’s austerity packages. There were flags in various colours, a small bus, also in similar colours. A rounded and shortish male of about 30 with bushy beard and long curly hair in a ponytail in jeans and regulation black Tee shirt was trying to enthuse around 100 slightly bored looking people, despite the heat. Later on we saw them marching along the main street by the harbour, carrying flags and holding up the traffic. We also came across their rendezvous set up in a space behind the town hall: a PA consisting of a couple of large home-stereo floor speakers and a small amp playing that music peculiar to Mediterranean cultures which mixes deep sadness and stirring martial attitude.
It’s quite a task, threading through the streets running around the harbour – maybe the marchers had the right idea, taking over the roads. Almost every bit of frontage opposite the water is used for café space, and you have to choose between dodging waitresses and squeezing past ‘substantial’ old ladies with shopping in the narrow shady tunnel between the wall and the rows of tables, or walk freely in the sun in the road. Now that might seem the obvious thing except that the roads are full of myopic farmers in old, dusty trucks, lorries carrying building materials, enough teenagers of both sexes on scooters to scare a Bangkok native and older machismo Greek males on big, fast enduro bikes. The sheer volume of all these engines assaults the senses, and the scooters diving and weaving through the traffic very nearly assault the body.
After 50 yards of coffin-dodging on the road I spotted a narrow passage between 2 cafes and we left all that excitement and give ourselves to the shady confines of the pavement and the old ladies.
We navigated around about half the harbour before turning down a side road and onto the agora. Traditionally the agora was a mix of high street and market place where you’d buy and sell, and it’s still the main shopping street running through Mytilini. Chris observed that the Greeks like their shoe shops, and there’s certainly no lack of them. She also observed that the Greek girls seem to have similar issues to the English: there are fewer tall, slim and stunning young women than we remembered, and how figures have softened and grown. It was a great excuse to spot and point out just how many Greek lovelies there are still! We turned left up the agora toward the ‘posh’ shops and town hall.
Just past the turning we came across our first beggar. He’d lost an arm, but more disturbing was the damage to the top of his head, where a couple of deep indentations and a long scar were clearly visible. This looked for all the world like the result of military action, but if he was a soldier then why’s he begging? I had no change at the time, and now feel guilty for not leaving a small denomination note. I don’t know whether I missed it or not.
Further up the road lay the Greek Orthodox temple/church and the posh shops. On our first visit we bought ice creams from a very swanky confectioners there. The hall – it was too long, high and grand to be called a shop – was full of glass fronted display cabinets carrying the kind of cakes that are like eating chocolates (30+ euro a pop) amoretti, fancy biscuits, conventional cakes and, of course, ice cream. On this occasion we decide to leave it: the ices we had first time were not only eye-wateringly expensive, but also tasted of little but artificial flavours and sugar. The shop was also meltingly hot as a result of running all those refridgeration cabinets, so we left quickly, glad to be back in the relatively fresh air outside.
We made our way right round the harbour following the agora, then out onto the causeway that narrows the harbour mouth to take a couple of pictures before turning round and heading back.
Going the opposite way is interesting. Everything looks dingier and grubbier than it did on our first visit 2 years ago, and I’m not sure if it was the novelty then or, rather like looking at a polished surface from a different angle, simply coming from a different direction made it look scruffy instead of charming. About half way down there’s a couple of shops selling bridal gowns. It seems the Greeks know how to dress up a bride, because these are amazing confections of silk and lace and pearls, all carefully shaped and moulded at (no doubt) amazing cost.
Part way down the agora we came across another group of marchers, again complete with flags. Now here’s the bizarre thing. Running ahead of them was a mixed group of dogs, some large, some small, one with 3 ½ legs and, right at the rear and struggling to keep up came an old and really fat dog. It was just like something from Cats and Dogs, only lacking the feline element for completeness.
Mytilini town is built across a peninsula, which is low at the point it joins the main land, rising up at the end. Naturally various people have used the end of the peninsula for military purposes, and there’s still an old fort there that once held the Turkish garrison. Just outside and below the walls is a ruined Turkish bath house and a building that was last a brothel, also derelict, in decent walking distance for the soldiers. There was also once a harbour on the north side, and the ruins are still visible, complete with harbour wall and beacon to stop people hitting it.
Because the ground is low inland from the peninsula and the agora runs between north and south Mytilini we are able to walk across on a level road from one side to the other. When we reached the north harbour we crossed the road and sat in the nearest shady café. I can state now that we experienced first hand that society as we know it is beginning to crumble, for the people running the café apparently didn’t know what a ‘coke’ ‘cola’ or ‘pepsi’ was when we ordered. For various reasons we just missed our bus, and had to wait in the ‘warm’ sunshine nearly half an hour.
On the way we stop at the LIDL supermarket. There’s not a lot of ‘super’ in it, but prices for food are reasonable, though we forgot to buy the yoghurts we SPECIFICALLY wanted from there. Laden with more Feta, a funny salty cheese that doesn’t work for English palates, fruit and some plastic bread we then spent another nearly half an hour waiting because, again, we just missed our bus.
This afternoon we have been quietly sitting in our room. Chris seems to have acquired a urinary infection and my tummy was slightly in rebellion about the change to an almost vegetarian diet (Sunday I ate no meat at all). Things do seem mostly OK for me now, so maybe it’s time for a swim.