It’s been two years since we last holidayed in Vass, a place that has been our spiritual summer ‘home from home’ on the island of Levkas for some eight years now. Nestling in a very windy corner of the Ionian sea to the west of the Greek mainland, it’s a haven for windsurfers and sailors and, away from the sea, yogis too.
And now we’re back — and much remains the same. But so much here has changed too.
Not least of these changes is that the family Gremlin (that’s Yours Truly and Him Indoors to my newer readers) appear to have morphed into an altogether less-whimsical version of Gigi’s Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. For those of a younger disposition, the scene from this 1958 film told the story of two erstwhile lovebirds, remembering a long-ago first date with fondness yet somewhat comically not quite recalling the same details. Almost as if they weren’t remembering it at all.
‘We met at nine’.
‘No it was eight’.
‘I was on time’.
‘No, you were late’.
Altogether now: ‘ Ah yes… I remember it well’.
And so it went… the ‘Russian’ songs ‘from sunny Spain’, the ‘dazzling April moon’ though the month was June (and ‘there was none that night’), the losing of ‘a glove’ (‘it was a comb’), the friends they met whilst dining ‘alone’….
And so it is with us whenever we wander towards the still-bustling harbour, or back in the opposite direction towards Ponti… my wonder at the freshly white-concreted new jetty, reaching out into the bay, lampposts gleaming in the moonlight, his ‘no that was definitely there last time’… the missing palm tree beside the pool, behind which I would shield on my sunbed from the blazing Greek sun, ‘no, that was gone before’… the arrangement of tables at a particular quayside restaurant: ‘They were along that edge’… ‘No, they were over there…’ on and on it rambles.
Anyone would think we’d grown suddenly older. Or simply slipped into a long-forgotten ‘holiday mode’ we’ve not yet found the gears for.
It’s certainly taken longer than either of us expected to switch off the mental stresses of the last eighteen months and adjust to ‘the Greek way’. We’d forgotten, for example, how long it can take to order lunch — or anything really, at any time of day — and the more pressing your need for lunch to be delivered in a timely manner (a briefing meeting at the windsurf school, or an impending yoga class, for example), the more delayed will be the arrival of the component parts at your table, bit by painful bit, from menu through cutlery and bread to final flourish.
And the wine. I do love a rosé and the local Land of Levkada is very drinkable, and usually served fresh from a fridge in the dark depths of the kitchens. Kitchens which are invariably situated on the other side of the street from the tables, our hosts required to negotiate the constant stream of deisel-belching bikes and black-windowed 4X4s cruising through, these latter often going round three or four times in search of a parking spot a smidgen closer to their eventual table. In case we missed how ultra cool and loaded they look.
Anyway, lightweights that we are, we rarely drink a full bottle, generally requesting that the waiter digs out a cork (which usually results in the insistence that several yards of clingfilm be wrapped round the neck of the bottle, lest one of us should trip and spill a drop), so we can carry it back to the fridge ‘at home’ for later quaffing. Trouble is, we’re not quite catching up on the quaffing and our stock of surplus Land of Levkada is now jamming up the fridge to the exclusion of all else.
My change of tactic to simply ordering a glass of ‘house’ left a little to be desired too. Full to the brim (sorry but I like a bit of air in the glass) and not just unchilled, actually warm. Served with a side order bucket of ice with which to water it down. The following evening, at a different establishment, while our friends at a neighbouring table were busy shovelling frozen cubes into their white, our half litre of house red arrived perfectly chilled. You win some…
In other news, the port office that has been under construction for as many years as we can remember remains that way. The local grapevine (should that be olive branch?) has it that it’s actually finished but, shortly before completion, the local authority elections swept in a new regime. Those who had opposed its building in the first place are now in charge and have refused to allow it to open. No doubt it will join the many other characteristic concrete heaps around the place — some half built, some half ruined but every one bestrewn with graffiti, green stuff and cats.
Despite the lack of a port office, improvements to the harbourside have marched on apace. No longer do you risk a sideways mid-souvlaki tumble into the dock from chairs perched perilously close to the edge. Needless to say, this particular renovation was not designed to reduce the likelihood of an impromptu evening dip on our part, but to accommodate more yachts and it’s worked. Big style.
Sadly, for us, this has meant those last few hours in a day — generally spent idly sipping warm rosé whilst gnawing our way through olives and bread and tzaziki, and watching the sun play gently out across the harbour — are no longer quite so endearing when faced with row upon row of sailors’ smalls. But hey. This is progress, yes?
But regular readers will know I have sought out the absurd in order to amuse. For all its foibles, we love this place still.
For the warmth of the sun — and the locals who host us (even Mr Grumpy in the supermarket), who genuinely remember us from year to year, often prompting our order before we even know it ourselves.
For the cooling wind across the water and the shimmering mountains both behind us and across the sea, beyond Cephalonia.
For those traditional Greek salads, bursting with flavour-full tomatoes, red onions and feta, sprinkled with olives and capers and oregano, which always taste soooo much better than anything we can replicate at home. And I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried.
For the new generation of young restauranteurs now edging the quality of their offerings away from the standard ‘salad, rice and cold soggy chips’ accompaniment to just about everything. There’s a different culinary mood about town and it’s good, yet still authentic.
For their wonderful menu typos, with their ‘cruncghy’ salad and ‘rise’, all displayed — in one case —on the same parchment menu pages bound in a faux leather folder as five years ago, now battered and curled with the turning of a thousand hungry fingers, various items tippexed out and overwritten. No fomite fear in evidence here. One of those tippexed items, we were intrigued to note, was the so-called ‘sex drive juice’, its component parts still faintly visible beneath: banana (of course), live yoghurt, watermelon and honey. Now simply plain old ‘watermelon’. Perhaps it didn’t live up to its promise.
For their whole quirky, ‘manyana manyana’ vibe which gradually reels you in and lulls you back towards equanimity, ready for that journey back home and real life.
Speaking of which. Covid…
Right up until the last moment, we still weren’t sure whether our trip here would come off. And even if it did, I felt almost apologetic mentioning that we were headed abroad. Whether we have been foolish to do so, of course, remains to be seen but so far the experience has been a good one.
Greece has been on the UK ‘amber’ list for some time and there was always the danger it would flip to red. Our holiday here was booked back in autumn 2020, in the hope things would by now be fine and never imagining for a moment we would still be in Covid’s grip. It was only in late July, long after our balance would have normally been due, that we were asked to confirm and pay. We had twenty-four hours to decide. Given that Greece was allowing those who are double vaxxed to travel without having to quarantine at this end, we decided to go for it. Not without a few hoops to jump through, however.
Before leaving the UK, we were required to secure PCR tests for our return, proof of which we need to complete our passenger locator form, within three days of going back to the UK. We are also required to take a Covid test here, before our flight home and this is kindly being covered by Wildwind, the company we travel with, and was deducted from our final balance.
The Greek passenger locator form, required before we left home, proved interesting, losing a little something in the translation. Completion of this would, we were told, generate a QR code that we would receive up to 10.00pm UK time the night before our flight out. In the event, this arrived immediately on completion of the form, leaving us wondering whether a second one would arrive the night before. It didn’t. Anyway, QR code successfully scanned at both Manchester airport and on arrival at Preveza. Job done.
We were also advised to download the NHS app with proof of our vaccination status (and to have print-outs handy) to show in bars and restaurants but, so far, this hasn’t been required except at the airport, both at check in and on arrival in Greece (where we were met by not just customs officials but a wall of police officers. Okay three, but even so.)
Restaurant staff here wear masks and they’re required in shops and supermarkets but, save for the odd blue ‘chin strap’ — why does nobody ever wear them in the manner of a head band, I wonder. Far more fetching — there is little evidence that Covid exists.
Our path through Manchester airport seemed easier than usual, our Easyjet flight out practically empty, just us and two other couples in the first eight rows. Fingers crossed there’ll be no pings and last-minute hitches to contend with on our return but then that’s the risk we chose to take.
Doubtless, by next year, things here will have changed again and some recollections — as someone far wiser than me quite recently said — may vary. If this year is anything to go by at least.
And by August 2022, who knows where the world will be with Covid and other wars. It hasn’t escaped our notice that while we are able to enjoy this tiny corner of peace and relative tranquility, there are many thousands not too far from here, just across those shimmering mountains, who might never experience that feeling again, who will not remember these last two weeks with joy.
That the accident of our births has provided us the opportunity to misremember with a smile — and write about it freely here — we are deeply grateful.