A few years ago, I spent a week on a small boat, moving around a couple of Greek Islands. The seas were turquoise and the sand was white. ‘This is amazing,’ I thought at the time. And when I think back, I still think that it was an amazing place. I went snorkelling in crystal clear water and I roasted under a beautifully warm sun. Several years on, I went to another Greek island, this time at a colder time of year. This island was Zakynthos (Zante).
My initial impressions of Zakynthos were not positive. The main town seemed to stand for everything I hated; overly loud bars, flashy lights, and people trying to pull you into them. While I (very much) enjoy being in bars with people I can talk to, I’m not much of a fan of grinding up against sweaty people all night, regardless of whether or not I know them. And the conversation in these places…
Rather than staying in the main town of Zakynthos, I (we) rented a quad-bike for a few days and went to explore the rest of the island. It was delightful. It wasn’t the same beautiful beaches and clear waters that I had experienced several years before, but it was quite wonderful in places (and colder due to the time of year). I felt that I had the whole island to myself (and my companion), because everybody else was concentrated in that same one area around the flashy lights. We walked along cliffs, along the beach, and took the time to have a whole restaurant to ourselves, just because we could. The behaviour of tourists is quite curious. Wherever people go in the world, they all congregate in the same place. An Englishman on holiday who sees an ‘English pub,’ is quite often likely to go into it.
Swiftly returning to the topics of islands, I in summary, loved the Greek islands that I visited. Then I went to the mainland. Admittedly I went to Thessaloniki in the winter while I was hitchhiking, but Greece was transformed. No longer was it an idyllic paradise, but instead, a dreary country with very little going on (incidentally, Greece has the second highest rate of unemployment in Europe, behind Macedonia, according to the god of all knowledge, Wikipedia). And then I thought of the difference between island life and mainland life. I had seen it before in Malaysia and Thailand and here I was seeing it again in Greece. In fact, I had fallen in love with the island life – a relaxed way of living, soft white sands, and days of snorkelling when I had visited Thailand at the age of nineteen. I spent many happy days hopping between beaches, hammocks, and the water, and it was hard not to love this easy going lifestyle.
I asked myself, ‘Why should it be any different in Europe?’ And then I realised that – for me – it was a city problem. I don’t like cities. And when you’re on an island, cities are smaller and easier to escape from (living in Istanbul, a city of 14 million, I started to worry if I would ever escape).
I have never been keen on Germany and until recently, I had only visited very large cities. This summer I cycled through Germany and slept outside at night, taking the time to speak to people in the villages and guess what? It changed my opinions. I had a very pleasant time and I found parts of Germany to be very beautiful. But this was the road less travelled.
The mass of tourists will invariably head to the beach and party resorts on the islands, and the cities on the mainland. They will book a holiday through Direct Holidays in Halkidiki because it’s ‘popular for tourists’ or they may opt for Kalamata because they heard that it’s ‘untouched and peaceful.’ They will come, they will have ‘a wonderful week in the sun,’ then they will disappear again, leaving a trail of satisfied bars and restaurants in their wake. When they get back home, they’ll tell everybody that they had a ‘lovely’ time and that [INSERT LOCATION HERE] was ‘lovely, really really nice.’
Regardless of everybody else’s choices, I have learnt about mine. I will travel without a map, most certainly not with a guide book, and I will move away from the flashy lights. Be this on the mainland or on an island, it doesn’t matter. I will find the quiet and I will stay there for as long or short as I wish. This choice is not better or worse than everyone else’s; it is just different. And it suits me. If the above paragraph seems mocking, it is, but only because I choose not to travel in this way. If you wish to mock me for spending a month cycling across half of Europe on an old bicycle or for taking over two weeks to raft 271 km on the Danube when I could have taken a plane or train to get there much quicker, please go ahead. I’ll keep doing these things regardless because I can and I want to. I used to think that I preferred being on islands over mainland: I now realise that it’s cities that I hate and I feel affinity towards islands because they have smaller cities which are easier to escape.
Only by doing what we want to do, can we be happy. When someone offers you advice, most commonly, they can advise you only on what they would or wouldn’t do. So do whatever the hell you like to do and have a great time doing it.