One of the best things about living in Greece full time is the relative tranquility of the spring and fall, the experiences this makes possible, the connections to the rhythms of the existing culture which get covered over in summer by millions of people- often seeking, ironically, just those rhythms. The off-season experience of Greece is often more authentic, more intimate, and that is why it is one of the things I write about, here, and elsewhere. The tourist may seek sun and, often, excitement- nothing wrong with either and in summer there’s plenty of both. The traveller, on the other hand, seeks authenticity. But these travellers are sometimes academics, or sometimes parents, or both- people whose holidays, though not short, coincide with the peak season.
Finding your own private Greece in the high season:
If you find yourself visiting during the high season, you will still find intimacy and stillness in the off peak hours- some of the best in the Greek summer day. Eos- the Goddess who brings the dawn, is famously- and here in Greece, still- described as rosy-fingered. More recently, Lawrence Durrell goes on and on about it:
“The days dawn fine and cool this time of year… their crisp, dry felicity is almost shameful. Wilde would have said something nasty about nature imitating art, but in truth the Greek dawn puts words to flight, and painters out of business.”
It’s dawn on the Ioanian islands he describes, but it could just as reasonably even be Athens- although hardly cool in July, it is never cooler than it is at 6 am. The birds will wake you- the cicadas are still sleeping at this hour. The old men- skilled in art of carpe diem- are up before daybreak and their cafes are already open. Have a Greek coffee with a thick head of foam on it, “sketo” (no sugar), listen to the rustle of newspapers and the gossip of the morning while the shadows are still long. Or take a daybreak swim- although no matter how early you go, the old men will have beat you to it there as well.
If you have an agenda- and you surely do- greet it at once. Be the first at the Parthenon, before the stones have heated up from the sun. The longer shadows will make for more striking viewing, and there won’t be a third as many people as there will be an hour later. If there’s any hour suited to contemplation at the Parthenon in summer, this is the only one. (I fell asleep here when I was 14- having not been in Europe but 10 hours, I was still jet-lagged). This surely holds just as true for Knossos.
Move on to another activity before the great heat sets in. By noon, you could be starting a long lazy lunch, and there is no shame in wine or ouzo at this hour, especially if you were up with the birds.
You’d think it’s the heat that makes the siesta so attractive, but really it’s two other hallmarks of the mediterranean mid-summer. “The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being.” Henry Miller exaggerates not one bit- and, though glorious, it is not easy to hold up to illumination of such intensity. No Greek house is without shutters to create a refuge from the light of midday, and the quality of the darkness cut through with little knife blades of blinding white on a parquet floor is palpably quenching.
The other thing that will put you to sleep is the cicadas. They are as loud as the light is bright, but their song is so hypnotic that if they stop all of a sudden, which sometimes they do, the silence wakes you like a slap ringing in the air.
Siesta, ideally, is more than a nap. Wash your face, undress, lie between white cotton sheets. Even without wine at lunch, those cicadas will knock you out cold for the most intense sleep you will experience all year- nothing to do with the unconscious hibernation of winter. After vivid dreams, most of which you will remember, you’ll awake well before sunset, pleasantly disoriented, and with enough time for an evening swim or dressing for “volta.”
Fresh from a deep sleep, enjoy the second morning of the day- a coffee is not out of place. There will be plenty of time for it to wear off.
Promenade- “volta”- is still very much the thing. No one really schlumps around much after 6 pm. Although there are no set rules (heels, a tie), dress as though you will be constantly running into people you like and that they will be asking you to join them for an ouzo, because that is what pretty much always happens. You might want to go to a performance in an ancient theatre, or an outdoor concert, or maybe just a film, seated in deck chairs nestled in white gravel among climbing jasmine, under the stars. Or there’s dinner- late, light, and long- mainly an excuse for conversation and ouzo. Not surprisingly, Lawrence Durrell also weighs in on the pleasures of the Greek night: “It seems a crime to go to bed early in Greece, and even the little children are allowed up very late, so that when they turn in they sleep a really dead-beat sleep, instead of spending the night whining and sucking their thumbs, as so many northern children do.” You’ll sleep this same dead-beat sleep too, for a few short hours until you wake, refreshed, to another rosy-fingered dawn.