Finance should never be a limiting factor to what we can do in life. It was with this notion in mind (and with little money) that I headed to Greece with my good friend of nearly a decade. With me, I had a small backpack containing little more than a hammock and a sleeping bag – pretty much all one needs in life.
It was late at night – close to midnight – when we arrived in Athens. We headed out of the airport, stuck our thumbs out, and soon hitchhiked a lift. The friendly young couple who were kind enough to give us a lift then toured us around the centre of Athens, ate dinner with us, and dropped us at the ferry port so that we could head towards the islands. We waited all night with a can of beer and when morning came, boarded a ferry to Naxos, an island we knew nothing about.
“Twenty euro a night,” “Fifteen euro a night,” the hotel owners screamed at us upon our disembarkation. We squeezed past them in the roasting midday heat and began walking south. Hitching a few rides where we could, we escaped the buzz of the main city and made our way to the eastern beaches where we intermittently swam and walked with our feet in the sea.
It became immediately apparent that the majority of people on this island like to sunbathe naked. And as far as demographics go, people aged from late teenagers through to the very elderly, with an extremely heavy swing in the direction of pensioners.
By nightfall, we had found only one place that seemed quieter than most, so we decided to spend our night hammocking under a wooden gazebo that was part of an expensive hotel. The sign proclaimed that it was private property, but I am much of the opinion that if a space is not being used and you do no damage (leave no trace), you should be allowed to use it. We strung up a double decker hammock, cooked dinner on our beer can stove, and I slept in the highest positioned hammock of my life, falling asleep to the sound of the sea lapping at the shore a few metres away.
The next morning, we rose early and continued walking south along the coast. It wasn’t even midday when we stumbled across yet another part-built villa complex. All over Greece, there are both homes and holiday accommodation for which construction has commenced, but not been completed. I am told this is due to the financial crisis, Greek laws dictating that you build on land or loose it, and many other factors. I do not know which is correct, but I do know that it is not uncommon to see buildings such as these. Almost all of them are for sale.
My friend and I headed into the incomplete complex to investigate.
As it turned out, one of the villas had a completely tiled floor and a balcony that offered fantastic views over the water below us. My initial thought was that we should keep moving as we had travelled only a short distance, but sometimes you do not have to change what you have to find something better. Sometimes you have something that is already rather great. And it was.
Outside the villa, we found a curious hose pipe leading to a tap on a wooden stake. I ran the water and tasted it. It seemed clean enough and was cool, good to drink. After around thirty seconds, the water ran hot and for the two weeks that we lived in this big, free Greek villa, I drank from the hose pipe and occasionally washed myself in its warmth.
Just five minutes walk from our villa was a toilet that we could use freely and even closer than that – less than two minutes away – we had access to an almost private beach. We couldn’t have asked for more.
Outside the villa was a collection of prickly trees. They were strong and it was from these that we hung our hammocks and dried our clothes. Our campsite was completely obscured from the path below and allowed us privacy as people passed us, oblivious of our presence. We then used this camp as a base for our belongings. We explored north and south, swimming each day, and indulging in local produce – most notably, feta, stuffed vine leaves, and tsatsiki. And local red wine of course.
On the balcony each evening, we could sit and talk and write and drink and do absolutely nothing at all while the sun danced along the horizon before us, lighting it up dramatically with amber then fiery glows.
Around the island, we soon found out that we weren’t the only squatters. Many of the local four-legged residents had decided that the part-built villas offered them a pleasant respite from the sun.
The more we explored, the more we found unfinished buildings. There is something about a human creation, no longer used that I find fascinating. I was reminded me of my time on Jeju island where I explored an abandoned movie set, an abandoned circus, and an abandoned luxury resort. Except that these buildings had never been finished.
There was one particularly large construction that caught my eye, an unfinished, two storey hotel complex. It seemed to be crumbling, but I was intrigued to see if it would be a better base for us to live. I begun to climb the walls, pulling on a metal wire, only to dislodge a large clump of mortar above me which fell and struck my head. I slumped to the floor, dizzy and hurting, my neck bleeding ever so slightly, feeling very sorry for myself. This would not be our new home.
Back at our villa, life continued peacefully for the duration of our stay. Sometimes we explored on foot, sometimes we hitchhiked, on one day we hired an ATV to explore larger distance at our leisure.
While riding the ATV, we got to see more variation of Naxos than we had previously seen. It turned out to be a fairly arid, but dramatic landscape of mountains and small villages. As someone who grew up in rural England, I never tire of a peaceful and beautiful world.
The old way of life had not been lost in many places and I am happy to have seen the side of the island that has not been dominated by tourism. In parts – notably the beaches – tourism dominates. The villas are symbolic of this and all over the island, I found documentation and petitions attempting to halt the construction of holiday homes because development is strangling the locals. [Click the image to the right to enlarge it and see details of one such petition.]
The following piece of graffiti proclaims “STOP BUILDING NOW! SAVE THE NATURE!” and seems strongly evident of how many locals feel. I also saw many pieces of graffiti fighting against the increasing introduction of swimming pools. They struggle for fresh water without this burden.
To me, a tourist, the island was pleasant and peaceful. I will remember the quiet days of reading, scribbling thoughts, swimming in the Mediterranean sea, and drinking local wine. My life there was a simple one, like the lives lived by many of the locals. I will never forget the tired horse and the ‘tireder’ man who traipsed up the steep streets with building materials, only to turn around and fetch more. In the mountain villages the streets are impassable to vehicles and the homes truly are built of stone and sweat. This lies in stark contrast to the modern holiday villages with their expensive bars and fancy swimming pools.
I went to Greece with the intention of enjoying myself and relaxing without the need for vast sums of money. I feel that my experiment was a success. I had little, I enjoyed lots. I left only footprints. For the people who live on this island, life continues and many of them will struggle for many years to come. I hope one day a balance can be found – a balance that supports both the local people and the wealthy tourists who come to enjoy this island. I do not know what that balance will look like, but we have to believe that it is possible because when we stop believing, all hope is lost.
But to you, if you have little and you feel confined to wherever you live, know this – you are not. A sleeping bag and a hammock (in a warm climate) is all you need to go and have your own little adventure. Pretty much everything else you need you can acquire for free (read this post). I hope you have the best of times.
You may also be interested in reading these posts related to this article:
My big, free Greek villa – where we lived for two weeks
Friendship begins with hitchhiking – how my friend and I came to be on Naxos
The Avant-Garde Life – a kick up the bum to your own adventure life