‘So you’re moving to Athens as well,’ they laughed, before chinking another glass in recognition of my apparent inability to sit still at the moment.
‘No, I’m not moving to Athens, just Tangier this year,’ I assured them, before we settled in for dinner.
I know, it does seem as though I’ve been on the move quite a bit lately.
Those taunts in jest were made a week ago in Paris, at what was supposed to be a quick dinner and a catch up over drinks before I hit the shores of Greece. A long night of laughter and too many glasses of wine followed with friends whose acquaintance I made at the Sorbonne towards the end of last year – an understandably pessimistic bunch, they listened intently as I told them all about my journeys through Morocco and plans to spend more time in Tangier over the next twelve months.
The following morning, before the birds had found the chance to tune their voices in time for morning song and the sun had woken, stretching her arms in time to deliver a new day, my alarm sounded at 3.58am with the ferocity of a fog horn, or a siren hailing an emergency. I was bound for Athens to meet my parents for two weeks in Greece, in particular Crete, on a trip that was born from a dinner of fresh salmon and salad in Australia just over two months ago, before I returned to Paris for (what was supposedly) another year.
‘Shall we do it?’ we sang in unison between bites, resulting in a spontaneous email being sent to a smattering of their friends who had shown an interest in retracing the steps of the likes of Paddy Leigh Fermor and Australian, Jim Carstairs, on an island littered with wildflowers, goats and sheer cliff faces.
In that moment we weren’t to know that Tangier would kidnap my heart just a handful of weeks later, and that our journey to Crete would become not only a special reunion together but also, perhaps our final rendezvous for 2018.
On Sunday morning, my father rounded the corner of the Athens Gate Hotel in all his colourful glory, followed shortly by my mother – chic as ever, who immediately requested a mineral water upon learning of our preordered gin and tonics. It was heaven to hug them tightly and enjoy rapid chatter, no one daring draw breath in fear that we miss something. Later that evening we enjoyed dinner overlooking the temple of Zeus under a perfect night sky, joined by my aunt and uncle as well as a very dear friend of our family who had all flown in that day. The following morning, joined by another wonderful couple who’d arrived late the night before, we returned to the birth place of civilisation, as we paid a visit to the ancient ruin of Delphi on the same day that I celebrated my 39th year. This was a moment so special and one that will be hard to forget, as will the conversations had in the car that transported us there and back.
Athens is a magnificent city that I’d not visited for 20 years, and as I rounded corners in the beautiful, private garden of Sparoza on Tuesday morning, enjoying views towards the mountains in the company of the garden’s custodian Sally – a charming Englishwoman of more than 80 years- I was reminded of the beauty that is earned with age, in both people and landscapes.
At Sparoza, paths were strewn with cuttings of lavender – ‘I grow tired of making piles while I harvest the lavender’ Sally quipped, as she trod on clippings under foot releasing a scent that transported me back to childhood- before adding that the olive trees in her garden are simply ornamental, ‘talented hands are required elsewhere- there is little time to harvest the olives’. I pondered their age, ‘are they old?’ I thought out loud, ‘Oh no, they’re only 50 years,’ Sally replied, as she took my hand and showed me more plantings in her Mediterranean garden designed to survive the harshest of conditions – allowing it to retain an effortless air in keeping with all that she is, and remains determined to embody, in all of her work.
The past few days have seen our group double in size, with more arrivals of friends as we reached the island of Crete and better still, the Doma Hotel late on Wednesday afternoon. When I spoke to one of my sisters during the week, I explained that my life is becoming reminiscent of the Best Marigold Hotel, one of my favourite films and one that I could watch over and over after developing a deep love for all of the characters following my first viewing a handful of years ago.
Built in the late 19th century, the Doma Hotel overlooks the Bay of Chania. The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki. In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind. The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following a brief German occupation during the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.
‘We must stay at Doma,’ Dad announced as we began planning our journey, ‘it’s one of my favourite hotels in the world’.
By Wednesday afternoon, cars began to draw in and the characters reminiscent of those from the Best Marigold spilled out. Sensible walking shoes, greying hair, suitcases lightly packed and loud voices filled the foyer. Breakfast of homemade marmalade will be served on toast from 7.45am each day, gin and tonics are enjoyed from 5pm, do we need a car, yes we do, or do we? Are you happy to dine out each night, yes we are, but where?
Following check in, I ricocheted to my room where I was met by the young manager of the hotel. Dying to lie down on my bed I stood instead, swaying upright, as he explained that he understood me well, ‘You are so young’ he told me, as I eyed off my single bed under sweeping shutters dying to be opened, ‘all of these people older than you, they ask so many questions!’.
Crete is a wonderful place, made even better by my travel companions and the two, incredible sisters who live at Doma and still have an active role in the day to day running of the hotel. On arrival, I spotted someone in a dressing gown gliding down a hallway well after midday, hair damp following a swim in the ocean below (I suspect Ioanna), and this morning at breakfast I enjoyed the most delicious toast and homemade marmalade I ever did eat.
As we drove around the island on Thursday, spilling down gorges before stopping for moments of reflection for those who fell during times of war – Crete is a place of harsh conditions and ultimately, survival- it became more apparent than ever, when harvesting lavender and life en general, there is so much to consider. Brakes were slammed on, causing a near rear ending of our convoy of cars, as an exotic wildflower emerged from ancient earth, or a goat trod in our 21st century path.
All worth admiring, all worth pondering.
More to come…
Pictured: with two of my favourites, reunited in Athens.