A Wanderful Beginning – Greece 1973

Setting off for the south of France, early summer ’73

6th October 1973(Yom Kippur)

I board a flight in London, bound for Tel Aviv, where I am due to help out on an archaeological dig at Caesaria on the Galilee. The plane makes an unscheduled stop in Athens and the captain makes a dramatic announcement: due to outbreak of war we will fly no further. Anyone who wants to can get off here, he informs us, then the flight will return to London.

I get off. And for the first time in my eighteen years of life I am truly alone. Nobody on the planet now knows where I am. For the next month I am free to do just whatever I want and am answerable to nobody.

I head to a travelers doss house near the Parthenon, full of other long-hairs like myself from northern Europe and America. Tanks rumble through the streets outside the windows in the evening; the military junta showing off its strength, I’m told.

Over the next weeks I will find myself pulled back to this place again and again, torn between urges to go it alone and need for company. A mysterious French girl holds court here, surrounded by her acolytes, smoking weed and hanging out. There is some sort of unspoken attraction between us but I will never have the opportunity or the courage to take it any further.

I take the ferry to Crete, roughing it on deck with many others heading for beaches or jobs as olive pickers, and then hitchhike over the mountains to Matala to join the hippies sleeping in the famous caves. Joni Mitchell had been here a handful of years before, writing songs I love. The company is jovial and dope-ridden and I am soon offered a spot to put down my sleeping bag. Loud cries and the smell of burning awaken us from stoned slumbers in the middle of the night. Amidst the confusion word goes round that the local police are smoking us out. We huddle on the sands and return when the action is over.

Next morning the whole scene suddenly seems shallow to me. Are we going to repeat this night after night? Didn’t I come here to explore, not just hang around in the comfort zone of beach and hash? I shoulder my tiny pack up over the cliffs above the cave complex and head north along an empty coastline. A friendly farmer gives me a lift at walking pace through the sunbaked olive groves on his ancient tractor. As the day wears on I become increasingly conscious of having no idea of where I am actually aiming for, and of starting to worry about where I will sleep the night. It is the first time real loneliness has ever touched a carefully raised boy like me.

I bump into a Spaniard who tells me that there will be a beach party tonight in Agia Galini further along the coast. I am vaguely and un-enthusiastically heading for it when the spirit of adventure overcomes me. As evening falls, I take a right turn up a desolate mountain road near Mandres, past a scary-looking military base and just keep on walking.

Over the next three nights I will sleep in a ditch, a mosquito-infested outhouse and amidst the drying onions on someone’s flat roof. I will plod through mountain scenery the likes of which a boy from gently rolling Kent could never even conceive, past peasants ploughing their stony little fields with donkeys; I will be fed in farmers’ homes and not meet another foreigner. Memories of the war are still very fresh: the older folk I run into want to know my nationality immediately. British? Smiles and cheers. “German not good!

Late afternoon on the dusty streets of the first town in three days I drink coffee and pore over my pathetic little tourist map. I seem to be heading back towards the north coast (the comforts of Athens are tugging at me) and there appears to be a road marked from here to Spili, a town on the way. I show the map to the café owner. He shakes his head. I persist. Shaking becomes more vehement: “Ochi, ochi, no road!” But I’m not convinced and point myself out of town in what feels like must be the general direction. Afternoon turns quickly to dusk; what began as a road turns gradually into a donkey track. As darkness falls I am surrounded by black mountains and can barely discern a path. I stumble blindly over a high ridge and see a few lights below me. Astonished locals drinking outside their village hall watch me approach from an impossible direction! I am given a hero’s welcome and a bed for the night.

The villagers are still discussing my exploit and patting me on the back next morning and a ride is arranged on the dead end road down into the plains. When a final hitchhike brings me to Rethymno I am suddenly engulfed by another aspect of Crete: flat sandy beaches, sunbathing tourists from Northern Europe and English beer for sale. Is that mountain road experience over already? It feels too soon.

After an unsatisfying few days back in the Athens dosshouse, where everybody seems to be stuck in exactly the same position – slumped against the walls and passing round a spliff – as they were when I left, I push off round the Peloponnese with the usual combination of hard walking and occasional rides. At the Mycenae archaeological site I slip back in after a guard closes the wire gate and spend the night among the ruins. Early the next morning before anyone else arrives, I explore underground passageways, and forbidden corners. Sleeping out in the great amphitheater at Ithoni, I am surprised by a thunderstorm and am rescued by a Dutch family in a VW camper.

They invite me to travel with them but are running short of time, so rather too rapidly I find myself back in Athens again. After some days pointlessly orbiting the scene around the French girl and pounding the streets of the city in frustration, the date of my flight home approaches. Hoping to catch a final taste of those first days in Crete I hurry off to Euboea, the closest island I have time and finances to reach. But is an increasingly disconsolate period. I pass time making a campfire on a beach, reading and re-reading Borges “Labyrinths’. Bemused local fishermen bring me bread, eggs and tomatoes but we have no language in common.

It is clear that by now I am simply lonely and desperately miss home and friends. But as I stamp back into town alongside the dry, crumbling hills and dusty construction sites and make for the airport, a sense of pride comes over me. I’ve made it! My habits as a walker amongst England’s soft green pastures have stood me in good stead: I’ve walked Greece’s bare boney landscapes; I’ve slept alone in wild country; above all I’ve caught the bug – wandering. From now on I’m going to make mine a wanderful life!

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