Island hopping! The word tastes good and perhaps it tasted even more exciting in combination with the words Interrail and backpacking during the 1970s. That’s when I, like so many others, started to travel by train to Greece.
Today, there are many wise tips on social media on how to get around the Greek Archipelago. It was not nearly as easy to get information in the mid-70s. When I read these contemporary tips today, memories of my (pre)historical wanderings and carefree roamings immediately come to mind.
So here are a few lines about the first trips I made to the country that became my favorite. My traveling there has continued since then and will hopefully continue for several more years.
1976. The first journey
Stockholm – Copenhagen – Hamburg – Munich – Milan – Bologna – Brindisi – Corfu – Athens – Ios – Sikinos – Thessaloniki – Amsterdam
Thanks to the Interrail pass, you could at that time in a cheap manner get around Europe and thus get the opportunity to see large parts of the countries where the card was valid. In 1976, the age limit for Interrail cards was raised to 23 years (from 20 I think) so I had a couple of years left to jump on the trains to the continent and eventually to Greece.
I started traveling by train already in 1975, but mostly in Spain and France. I often met a lot of other train enthusiasts who had traveled around Greece. They were thrilled by their visits to a country that had managed to get rid of the military junta just a few years ago and that breathed positivism, joy and opportunity. At the end of the summer, I found myself on the French Riviera and realized that neither time nor money would be enough to continue to Greece. But right then I made the decision. The next summer, the interrail journey through Europe would lead to the long-awaited Greece. And the following year, the dream became a reality.
Just like the year before, I was traveling alone. I still remember how exciting it was when the train left the platform of Copenhagen and finally I was on my way. That very special feeling of freedom, of having a month’s vacation ahead of you and no other plans than to take the easiest way to Greece by train. I always loved going by train and now I got a good dosage of this mode of transportation.
Train change in Hamburg, Munich and Milan and then on to Brindisi, down at the tip of Italy. Our train from northern Italy arrived in the middle of the night and the ferries to Greece only left in the evening, which meant I had to wait a whole day in Brindisi. However, this was not so bad as it turned out. I still remember Brindisi of that time as a pretty cool city, one of the oldest in Italy, I understand. But the next evening I excitedly jumped on the ferry to Corfu.
Corfu – the gateway
This island was my first contact with Greece and I was absolutely stunned! Already on arrival I was completely overwhelmed by the warmth and friendliness of the locals. Their curiosity and genuine interest made me feel seen, despite my young age, in a way I had rarely experienced before. And last but not least – the wonderful nature, the amazing beaches, with their turquoise waters, framed by steeply plunging cliffs.
Once in Corfu harbor, I joined a fairly large group of young people my age. We ended up at the Kontokali campsite, a bit outside the town, where there was room in a dormitory for a few drachmas per night. It was like being in a big family with young people from all sorts of different countries.
I did not know much about Corfu, or Κέρκυρα/Kerkyra, as it is called in Greek, other than what I had read in brochures from the Greek National Tourist Office. Like so many others, I rented a moped and saw much of the island. One day I also rented a car, together with two Swedes and a Norwegian. We discovered pretty much the rest of Corfu this way.
I remember there was a local feast the first night in the village next to the campsite. A fantastic evening where I learned to like ouzo, knock the bottom out of wine bottles and dance Sirtaki. Just imagine! Good start, I felt, on my first visit in Greece.
Retsina-wine I had more difficulty with this first year but I learned to like it a few years later, Slow but steady wins the race. I think I stayed 4 – 5 days in Corfu.
Athens – love at first sight
I quick began to realize that the journey through Greece would be marked by coincidences and by going with the flow. I was one in a crowd of young travelers who all seemed to be following roughly the same route: train to Brindisi, then ferry across to Corfu. After a few days, the flow took me to the port city of Patras, on the mainland of the Peloponnese, after which I continued east towards Athens.
In Patras, it was mostly a short stopover before the journey continued towards the capital and the archipelago that loomed far away on the horizon. But that feeling of freedom and adventure, not knowing where the journey would take me next, was a big part of the charm of the whole Greek experience. At that time, many people traveled to Greece through former Yugoslavia, but I still think the majority came via Italy.
I loved Athens from the first moment! My first accommodation in the city was near Victoria Square. Like so many others, I had received a flyer at Larissa station for the Athens Youth Hostel. But I moved away after a few days to a hostel closer to Plaka – Athens’ historic center, because that’s where you hung out and met people. I found a bed on a rooftop for a mere penny.
Plaka was nicely bohemian at that time, lots of music, maybe even a bit too much music, if you liked to sleep, but it was not something that really bothered us who were young at that time. OK, a lot of the music being played was, to be honest, absolutely awful, with blaring speakers, squeaky organs and choir synthesizers. But a great deal of it was also fantastic. Already on this first trip I became interested in Greek music, especially rebetiko.
However, it was soon time to start island hopping!
Island hopping to Ios
July was coming to an end and it was very hot in Athens. Now the Greek islands were really appealing. The original plan was to visit Paros, because I had heard from others that it would be nice. Maybe later also to Ios, which almost everyone I met told me was the coolest island. After a few incredibly funny days in Athens, it was time to head off to Paros, which I knew almost nothing about.
The old ferry Leto skimmed very slowly from Piraeus through rather large waves and after a number of slightly seasick hours she docked at the port of Paros. The small harbor looked very calm and peaceful. But almost none of my fellow travelers got off here. On a whim, I stayed on the boat to Ios, where, according to legend, Homer himself died and was buried.
I still remember the nice bay of Ios and the beautiful main village of Chora, sparkling like a white gemstone above. We immediately found a simple room to rent from an older Greek woman, it was located between the harbor and the village.
Chora offered lots of fun bars and cozy taverns that served good food at a mouth-watering price. There I ran into a lot of familiar faces both from home and new friends I had made during the trip.
Every evening at sunset you could listen to classical music at the Ios Club bar, a wonderful musical experience in the warm dusk light. I went swimming like most others on Mylopotas beach. I absolutely do not regret that I went off on Ios, because the days on this island were outstanding funny and festive, but after five days I was completely exhausted.
Onwards to Sikinos
One of the days before returning to Athens, I made a day trip to the nearby island of Sikinos, together with some Swedes. It was probably the hottest day of the whole trip. We missed the mule transport to the main village of Sikinos and got stuck in the harbor. The owner of the only open tavern said he had no energy to cook as it was too hot. We also did not manage to walk up to the village because of the heat.
However, we could take drinks out of the freezer where a number of pilsners lay together with a bunch of fish. I began to understand that this is how it could be in Greece. Simple, charming but sometimes also a little … annoying. But the fish-scented beers kept the mood up. In the end, the owner of the tavern served us small snacks, but it was just when the boat was about to depart back to Ios. Pretty fun, when you get some distance to it all.
Return trip 1976
Back in Athens, I took the opportunity to visit several of the attractions, had time to sleep in a few more hostels, before it was time to get on the train together with the small group of Swedes who had gotten to know each other during this trip.
First stop to the north was Thessaloniki. Unfortunately, we did not get a good feel for the city on this first visit, largely because we were hit by a huge thunderstorm where lightning struck all around us. A bolt of lightning hit a power pole that started to burn just a few meters from where we were and it became pitch black in the surrounding neighborhoods. A tremendous thundershower made us quickly jump on the train to northern Europe a day earlier than we expected.
The train was as full as only a train in the former Yugoslavia could be. A girl in the company was robbed of her passport on the train (in the sleeping cabin) in the middle of the night, which put her in trouble. The Germans would not let anyone through without a passport. But it was solved when the German police made sure that we did not belong to Bader Meinhof and after visiting the Swedish consulate in Munich for a temporary passport.
The trip ended in Amsterdam. My first thought upon returning to Sweden was to start saving for a new trip so that I could go island hopping in Greece again next year.
The month-long wandering was the absolute coolest trip I had made so far in my life!
1977. Second journey
Stockholm – Copenhagen – Hamburg – Munich – Bologna – Brindisi – Corfu – Athens – Ios – Thessaloniki – Halkidiki – Amsterdam – Stockholm
My second trip to Greece followed pretty much the beaten path from the previous year. Train to Brindisi with various changes and then the ferry to Corfu.
Campsite Kontokali was not nearly as nice this year. Already the year before, some guests had problems with the manager. He was particularly rude to the Italians, who often traveled in large groups. In my opinion they were very nice people, but he got stuck on the fact that they were singing socialist songs like Bandiera Rossa etc. This was explained when I went to pay for my stay and saw that he had a large photo of former dictator Papadopoulos on the wall. That came as a bit of a shock. After an argument between the owner and especially the Italians, many of us left the campsite.
It was a pity as most of us had enjoyed very nice days in Corfu. But this time I got time to see a bit more of the beautiful old town.
Then I headed off to Athens again, a city I really enjoyed the year before. It was a pretty long stay in Athens this time. I spent quite a lot of time up on the Acropolis rock. Despite the large amount of tourists, it was magical to sit up there (which it still is).
Also the Lykavittos hill got a couple of visits again. In addition to the view from these two hills, it is also pleasantly cool there when the city is at its hottest.
Already in 1976 I became very fond of the central food market in Athens, Varvákios Agorá, as it is called in Greek – on Athinas Street. I love food markets. This time I was there daily and sometimes even at night – the market is open around the clock – when you could eat patsá/πατσά, a soup from pork leg and belly. I had to try this, as Greeks said that you did not become “day after” if you ate the soup before going to bed. Do not really know if it is true. However, I have eaten patsá, or some variant of it, only once more since then.
Plaka and Monastiraki were also this year the places where everyone met. Other areas I liked in Athens were Thissio and Psyri/Ψυρρή. The latter neighborhood was at that time full of workshops, with craftsmen, shoemakers, carpenters, etc, mixed with simple taverns and small cafes. Very far from today’s restaurant- and tourist-dense Psyri.
In 1976 I also ended up at the fantastic tavern Diporto (which means two doors). A place I have returned to several times. A must experience, located near the central fruit and vegetable market. Back in the 70s, it was run by a father and son. You can read more about the history of Diporto here. It is still a very popular place today. Pretty much the same menu every year. Fasolakia (broad beans in tomato sauce), some kind of soup, grilled sardines and maybe something more, but always simple, very tasty and cheap.
Ios, Halkidiki, Yugoslavia
After city life in Athens, the desire for swimming and sun was strong. It was time to go island hopping again. I spent 5 – 6 days on Ios, where it was crazy partying, just like the year before. Although it was fun, I had a longing for smaller places, not as intense.
Soon it was time to head home. In order for the trip not to be identical as the year before, I chose to stay a few days in Thessaloniki. From there, I also hitchhiked a couple of days in Halkidiki (Kassandra Peninsula), before heading back north with the train through Yugoslavia.
After this second trip to Greece, I decided that from now on I wouldn’t get sucked into the current, but start discovering new places on my own. I thought I would return to Corfu and Ios but that has not yet happened. There have been so many attractions in Greece, but mainly I fell for the favorite, Amorgos. More about this amazing island in the next installment of the wanderings on the blog.