My Greek Odyssey

By John Humphrys, Daily Mail

Last updated at 11:13 14 June 2007


Sand is something I've never quite seen the point of. When it's too hot, you can't walk on it without burning the soles of your feet, and when it's windy, it gets in the sandwiches. That is my sole abiding memory of sunny Saturday afternoons on the beach at Barry Island in South Wales when I was a toddler: jam sandwiches so full of grit they crunched when you chewed.

Yes, it's true that children enjoy playing with sand - but not for long. You can dig only so many holes and watch only so many castles being knocked down by the waves. Very small children realise quickly that it's more fun to throw the stuff - preferably into the face of other very small children.

I grant you that sand can look pleasant from a distance, but close up it just looks like, well, sand. They say every snowflake is different. Maybe it's true of grains of sand, too, but I wouldn't put any money on it.

And who could bother checking? A snowflake drifting gently to earth has a beauty and a grace. A grain of sand is just a bit of grit that was once a bigger piece of rock.

Pebble beaches are something else again. I'm prepared to bet that every pebble on a beach really is different. Have you ever found two that look exactly alike? Precisely.

It's not just the shape - thin ones, round ones, long ones, chunky ones - it's the colours. A pure white pebble worn down to a perfect smoothness by countless years of being battered by waves is a thing of beauty.

And you can do things with pebbles. You can throw them into the sea: skim the small, flat ones and see how many times you can make them bounce, set up games of target practice and see who can land most in a floating bucket. The possibilities are endless. OK, pebbles can be tough on the feet, but so what? You wear plastic sandals. Problem solved.

No, forget about sand: a pebble beach wins on almost every count. So where is this attack on sandy beaches taking us? It is taking us to one of the most glorious corners of Europe... to a place where the mountains really do come down to the sea. To a place so steeped in history you can scarcely round a bend without coming across another archaeological wonder.

To a place where local farmers make their living from cultivating olive groves of trees a thousand years old, sweet-scented lemons and oranges, pomegranates and figs and, of course, grapes. To a place where the most overworked clichÈ in the travel business takes on real meaning: the sense that time has stood still.

This place is the Peloponnese. If you have only the vaguest notion of where it is - or even none at all - you are not alone. Let me give you some idea.

Technically, the Peloponnese is the name of the peninsula south of the isthmus of Corinth that makes up the southern half of Greece.

It is easier to think of it as the bottom bit of Greece that looks like a hand with three fingers and an oddlyshaped thumb.

But what has this to do with my attack on sandy beaches? Well, I have left the most serious indictment of them until last. To misquote St Francis of Assisi: 'Where there is sand, let there be tourist development.'

There is a simple equation in the travel industry. Golden sandy beaches plus sunshine, plus reasonable access by air from Britain, equals lots and lots and lots of holiday resorts.


Channel 4 newsman
John Humphrys winds down
in Greece

Think Costa Brava. When I first went to Spain for a holiday 40 years ago, there were small fishing villages and a few tourist developments - by which I mean high-rise hotels, pubs selling British beer and grubby cafÈs offering full English breakfasts for a couple of quid. Now... well, you know as well as I do what has become of Spain.

In the most beautiful areas of the Peloponnese, there are still small fishing villages - and that's it. No tourist developments at all.

Being a total news junkie, I tend to judge a place by how easy it is to get a British newspaper. If every shop in town sells them, forget it: you may as well holiday in Skegness.

If you have to spend the best part of a day trying to find a three-day-old copy of the Mail, the word 'unspoilt' can be applied without contravening the Trade Descriptions Act.

My favourite part of the Peloponnese (I like it so much I'm building a house there) has a bay of surpassing beauty. It is surrounded on three sides by hills dotted with a few small villages, olive groves and citrus orchards, grapevines and wild herbs.

Climb the hill a little way and you look out across the Argo-Saronic Islands of the Aegean. Climb high enough and in the distance you will see the massive sprawl that is Athens. Time it right and you will watch the sun set.

Yes, I know the sun sets wherever you are, but not like this. At this time of the year it's as near perfect as it gets, the darkening red reflected by the sea, gradually creeping towards you until you feel embraced by it.


Swap Spain for Greece to avoid the beach crowds, advises John

With a bit of luck, you will see leaping dolphins breaking the surface in one of the most elegant displays nature has to offer.

I have a friend who swam out to watch them, and they came to play with her, nudging her gently, racing away and then racing back to nudge her again. She's never been quite the same since.

The sea is perfect for swimming with or without friendly dolphins. I understand the appeal of waves. I have always envied real surfers riding majestic breakers - but in much the same way that I envy those young gods who can run a mile in four minutes without breaking a sweat, while I struggle to jog around my local park without actually falling to my knees.

I'd love to do the surfing thing, but it just ain't gonna happen. I like my sea to be calm and entirely free of dangerous currents so that I can swim (slowly and inelegantly) miles out from the shore without worrying about whether I shall manage to get back again. When I am out there, I want to see fish swimming in water so clean you can spot a baby snail crawling across the bottom 50 feet down.

That is how it is in the Peloponnese. There is no pollution for the very good reason that there are almost no people.

The island of Poros just around the corner from my favourite bay is a picturebook example of a Greek island: pretty little whitewashed buildings with red roof tiles clustered around a harbour packed with small boats.

And all it takes to get there from the mainland is a water taxi: only one euro there and back. It's a little gem.

If the Peloponnese were just about beaches and sea and charming villages, I would have limited interest in the area. Indeed, I would probably go to one of the islands. God knows there are enough of them and, contrary to the impression you might get, they are not all full of English morons getting drunk and being sick in the gutter. Naxos, for instance, is delightful. But the Peloponnese has mountains, too.

Greece is the second most mountainous country in Europe (after Switzerland, obviously) and where there are mountains, there are valleys and river gorges and, in this case, some breathtaking walking.

My ideal holiday spot is somewhere you can swim in the morning, go off for a walk in the hills, and come back for another swim in the evening, ideally taking in a few ancient ruins during the walk. That pretty much sums up the Peloponnese.

First, a word about the weather. It gets hot. Very hot indeed at this time of the year. Not even mad dogs go out in the midday sun. They stay in the shade and sleep.

For my money, the best months for walking are in winter (the highest mountain is a respectable 7,900ft and at that altitude you get snow) and early spring.

During spring you get the flowers. I am old enough - just - to remember when farmers in Britain grazed their animals on ancient pasture, applied no fertilisers or weedkillers and allowed a thousand flowers to bloom. There is nothing lovelier than a meadow alive with wild flowers. They have almost vanished from Britain, but they are everywhere in Greece, and they lift your spirits like the first shower of rain after a long drought.

But I am also a sucker for river gorges, and there is none more spectacular than the gorge created by the Lousios river in Arcadia. Yes, that's what I said: Arcadia. Or Paradise, if you prefer. This is the ancient land immortalised over the millennia by painters and poets.

Those of you who have seen the Poussin painting of Arcadia in the Louvre will know where I have been. I walked there recently with my son, Christopher, who plays the cello in a Greek orchestra and speaks the language like a native. It didn't stop us getting lost.

It is inevitable that you will get lost in Greece for the very simple reason that there are no maps. That's not literally true, but those maps that do exist are - how can I put this? - imaginative rather than accurate.

Forget Ordnance Survey types with satellite positioning equipment; this is more small-child-withcrayon. You will, I promise, get lost. And so you should. It's part of the pleasure.

Christopher and I stayed in a charming little town above the gorge called Dimitsana: tiny houses of soft stone squatting on top of each other along steep cobbled paths winding up to a square at the top of the hill. There was a settlement here before Christ, but the town is famous for its role in the rebellion against the Turks.

The Turks ruled Greece for four centuries (one of the many reasons why they are hated to this day) and the local archbishop was the first to raise a Greek flag in defiance of the invaders in 1821.

The Lousios river is not easy to reach from Dimitsana but it's worth the effort. Occasionally, you spot a cluster of wooden buildings hanging from the sides of the gorge, like ancient nests for very, very big birds. They are monasteries.

You can only wonder at the skill and dedication of the men who built them so long ago. Perhaps they situated them so high up the sides of the gorge because they wanted to be nearer God. Perhaps they wanted to be safe from their enemies.

Today, they are welcome havens for the weary walkers who manage to reach them and sip from the icy water flowing from the taps in their courtyards, or rest in rooms carved deep into the rock.

Even older than the monasteries - many centuries before Christ - they built the ancient town of Gortus at the bottom of the gorge, where it begins to open out on to a plain.

It is the most extraordinary archaeological site. In any other country it would be guarded and roped off, and there would be a man in a peaked cap selling admission tickets. But not in Greece. We found it more by luck than judgment.

Signposts? You must be kidding. And we had it to ourselves, to wander around, to admire the sophisticated plumbing system and wonder at how anything built so long ago can have survived for so long.

Above all we marvelled (and here's that word again) at how unspoilt it is. We protect our ancient sites here at home partly because we fear what mindless vandals might do to them otherwise.

There are no such fears in this part of the world. You have the sense that history is respected.

Or maybe it's just because there is so much of it. It is not uncommon to wander into a field and find an ancient statue lying on its side - damaged only by the ravages of the weather over the centuries but not by the hand of man.

What you have to keep reminding yourself is that this ancient land has seen it all. Greece's first major civilisation, the Mycenaean, dominated the Peloponnese in the Bronze Age.

During classical antiquity, the Peloponnese was at the heart of the affairs of ancient Greece.

It was involved in the Persian Wars, then followed the Peloponnesian War, 400 years before Christ. It fell to the Romans a few hundred years later, and then it was ruled by the Byzantine Empire.

Six hundred years ago, the Ottoman Turks came. That was the last great invasion by a foreign power.

So far, the Peloponnese has mostly been spared the modern-day invaders: the massed hordes of foreign tourists who are capable of creating more environmental and cultural destruction than any of the earlier invaders.

Perhaps I should not be writing this. Perhaps it will encourage the invaders. But I doubt it. Not enough sand, you see.

Travel Facts

British Airways (0870 850 9850; flies to Athens from £149 return. Hertz (08708 484848; www.hertz. offers car hire in Greece from £146 per week.

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