Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zakynthos 1, London 0

12 days on a Greek island, and I'm a changed person.

We stayed on Zakynthos, one of the Ionian islands, the next one over from (maybe) the more well-known Kefalonia, which attracts an altogether more middle-class kind of tourist. Zakynthos is definitely the smaller, poorer cousin who has, around its southern coastline at least, in the town of Laganas, decided to give up its day job and embrace a life of beer, football, sunburn and chasing tail.

We arrived not in Laganas, but in Alykes, on the north eastern side of the island, sandwiched between two holiday resorts very popular with Brits. Although vastly preferable to the resorts frequented by beer-swilling, strip bar clientele, sporting custom-made 'LAGANAS STAG DO 2010' t-shirts and surviving on a varied diet of both McDonalds fries and kebab shop chips, it was still not what we were expecting and was somewhat annoying to begin with. We had come to see Greece, not Blackpool on holiday. Although not as developed as other parts of the island, nor were there any fairground rides or penny-slot machines, it was enough to remind us that learning to drive, and the independence that comes with mobility, is important. Especially when trying to find The Real Greece and escape the package tour and 'egg and chips, please' Brits that favoured the island.

Luckily for us, the place we stayed was a delight - quite a haven in the midst of the resort of Alykanas, the larger and more brash of the two towns we straddled, complete with bars called 'D.N.A.' or 'Two Fit Birds' or whatever. Alykes, the smaller and more serene of the resorts, was still replete with full English breakfasts and more world cup screens and England flags than you could shake a stick at.

We managed to ignore most of that. We'd planned to see the best the island had to offer - nesting beaches for endangered loggerhead turtles (caretta-caretta), incredible blue caves made by the erosion of soft limestone cliffs around the island's north coast, framing perfect azure waters, and to try as much authentic greek food as possible.

Look! A real live caretta-caretta swam under our boat!

The studios we chose to reside in were called Anna Studios, run by a marvellously friendly couple from Dagenham and Suffolk, Ian and Sarah, (who met whilst working in the prison service), and were utterly unlike anywhere else I've been. Once you've stayed there, with Ian, Sarah, her son Fraser and their dogs, cats, chickens and geckos, you feel a little bit like one of the family.

We've certainly never experienced such warmth and hospitality that seemed so effortless. From our first email exchanges, to being met by Sarah at the airport, to being asked to sit and eat with our hosts at an evening barbecue, we've never felt so completely welcomed by any other place we've stayed.

The studios themselves were clean, well-appointed and comfortable. Ours was stocked with bread, some jam and butter, teabags and milk upon arrival. Sheets and towels were changed regularly and we were given a fan as soon as the temperatures started to climb. The rooms were suited to couples or small families - private but close enough to chat with your neighbours if you wanted to - and the pool was big enough for a proper dip, with pretty gardens surrounding it.

What we liked most about the Anna Studios, however, weren't the gardens, or the pool, (or the truth bar by the pool), or the fresh eggs from the roaming hens, or even the great location a 10 minute stroll to the wonderful beach at Alykes. It was the feel of the place, which encouraged you to do those things that we find are so often lacking in our busy modern lives - talk to other people, make new friends, and find the opportunity to truly relax.

In those last few days there, I felt my limbs lengthen, my heartbeat slow, and myself opening up to the many possibilities of alternative futures - that with 'one auspicious and one dropping eye' - no longer include London.

I'll let the pictures speak - they're better than words in this case.