More than almost any other holiday destination, visitors to the Greek islands have a habit of returning year after year. Whether they go back to the same island and the same accommodation, or make a point of visiting a succession of different places, there’s something about the Greek islands which captures the imagination of holidaymakers and has them eagerly coming back for more.
Perhaps it’s to do with filoxenia, a Greek word introduced to me on my first visit to the islands; it translates loosely as ‘love of foreigners’ and goes some way to explaining the hospitality I encountered time and time again when folks stopped to talk to me and share their stories, their advice and even their food.
Talking of food, most visitors to Greece will tell you in no uncertain terms that it is one of the highlights of any Greek holiday. So what can first-time visitors to the Greek islands expect when it comes to eating out?
Typically dinnertime on the islands will involve a meal at a taverna. While some islands have the odd fancy restaurant, it is the tavernas which offer the most traditional Greek dining experience. Dishes tend to be simple, with the magic ingredient of the food being its freshness; on a recent visit to Greece I had one taverna owner bring out a large bunch of wild oregano (some of which had gone into my salad); with a broad grin he explained to me that he’d picked it on his morning walk that day. Tavernas tend to be family businesses – often the father and older males will catch the fish, the mother (or grandmother) will be in charge of the kitchen, and their kids will work as waiters and waitresses.
If your experience of Greek food is restricted to taramasalata and moussaka in sealed packets from your local supermarket, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise; the fresh flavours you’ll enjoy in a taverna will render those dishes almost unrecognisable from the mass-produced attempts, and will stay in your memory long after you’ve left the Greek sun behind and returned to the routine of filling your shopping trolley back at home. And top it all, prices are usually very reasonable – especially with the current pound/euro exchange rate. In most places there will be at least one member of staff who speaks some English, so don’t be afraid to ask them for advice on fresh catches and local specialities.
Eating out is not just about the food. Greece has its own vineyards, and the wines they produce can be surprisingly good (I say surprising, because we don’t often see Greek wine on the UK supermarket shelves). And then there’s the setting: many tavernas are clustered around the island harbours – the fish can never be too fresh! Grab a table which looks out to sea, and enjoy the sunset and evening lights while sipping a glass of wine and waiting for your dinner to be freshly prepared. Even in September it’s often warm enough to be comfortable in a short-sleeve shirt well into the evening. Meals are never a rushed affair, and once you’ve adapted to the island pace, you’ll have no reason to hurry.
by Andy Jarosz