It’s nearly time to leave Zákynthos. Our year-and-a-half-long odyssey to Europe is nigh-on over. What a time we’ve had! And yes, I can feel another book about Zákynthos, or better, about the whole trip, coming on.
When we got back here, after leaving Ireland, and spending six weeks in France and Italy, people were busy with the trígo, the grape harvest. Yiayia and Pappou’s (and, I suppose, our) friend Yiorgos, who looks after Koukla House when none of us are here, would come by with bags full of grapes for us. Despite our best efforts each evening after dinner, however, they’d inevitably accumulate in our fridge faster than we could eat them, and start to split and go off. I didn’t like throwing food out on the compost heap that someone we knew had grown and been kind enough to bring to us but if the bugs and the birds could benefit from the trígo, then good, because we couldn’t keep up. Not without putting ourselves off grapes for life.
Fires raged in the dry dog days of late August around the village of Kilioméno, up in the mountains. I’d sit on the balcony with a frappé, half reading, half watching the red and yellow firefighting planes as they came off the mountain, droning low overhead in pairs, their shadows following the contours of the garden behind our house, shading the vines and fig trees. I’d walk quickly through the house to the sea-facing balcony on the other side and watch as they descended over the Gloria Maris Hotel to splash down and shave a layer of Laganas bay off into their tanks, banking up and over the beach back for their trek inland, over and over, the one always about ten seconds behind the other, to disappear into the haze towards the tall column of smoke on the mountain of Vrachíonas. At night we’d watch the pilots being interviewed on local TV, and I’d think – that takes guts: those men are heroes.
In early September, still high season, friends we’d made on the outward leg of our trip last year, when we had yet to reach Greece or Ireland, came to stay with us. It had always been our idea to make a network of safe houses and friendly outposts in Europe that we could use again some fine day, and not just to wander around rootless, taking photographs of cathedrals and bridges, going back at the end of each day to some chain hotel. So when we couchsurfed last March at Birgit and Felix’s place at Obernsdorf, near Salzburg, on the Austria-German border – ‘Silent Night’ territory – we offered them, like we did to (nearly) everyone we stayed with, the use of the downstairs apartment here in Koukla House if they ever felt like coming over.
Unlike last year, when the main square in town, Solomou Square, was a shuttered-off building site, the town was looking mighty fine those long evenings in September. The museum had reopened, Kokkinos Vrachos had reestablished itself as the café to be seen at, and the guy outside Alektor taverna was in irrepressible form. Out on the town one Friday night we let him sweep us off the main drag of Plateía Democratías into the restaurant, to a table beside a young Japanese couple instagramming a squid. Two guys played sweet island music on guitar and mandolin. Bravo! Who wouldn’t fall in love with Zakynthos on a summer evening such as this? “That’s not Zakynthian music.” Tina said. Someone always has to ruin it. She recognised some old ‘60s soundtracks to Aliki (the Brigit Bardot of Greece, kind of) movies. Those potboilers were, and still are, a staple of the Bozikis home in Brisbane.
Over the years we’ve always kept a few quieter spots on the island up our sleeve, places to retreat to in the summertime madness or to show off to visitors. Limniónas has probably always been our favourite, a rocky inlet down a winding and eroded path dropping away from Ágios Léon, a village with not much in it save an olive press and a workshop selling olivewood candle-holders and cutting boards. And, of course, a taverna or two. But the village’s serenity was deceptive, as we found out when we finally crested the point overlooking the inlet having driven there one morning with our Austrian friends only to find the parking area full and the previously cosy and inconspicuous taverna spread halfway down to the water’s edge. A lot of Italians, a lot of Bulgarians (according to Birgit, who identified the language we were hearing). Sadly, Limniónas had been discovered. It used to be quiet; a spot for locals to come to and jump off the sagging and broken platforms used by the fishing boats into the deep water. But that was then. Back then, Trip Advisor wasn’t the homogenising steamroller it is now. According to the young woman who served us in the Selene taverna back up in the village after our swim, it’s become the number two must-see spot on the island, after Shipwreck Beach.
While the Salzburgers were here, the island experienced some fierce storms, storms that I’m sure jarred with their expectation of what a summer in Zante would look like. One morning during a storm, we watched a waterspout menace Laganas Bay, losing sight of it as it made landfall right over the main strip.
The Mum arrived around then, overlapping for one night with the Salzburgers, and brought with her more heavy storms. I had to drive out twice to the airport the night she arrived, since unbeknownst to me her plane had been sitting on the tarmac in Dublin airport for two hours when it should have been flying over the Alps. The pilot had informed everyone that there were turtles on the runway at Zakynthos airport: obviously the standard line among crews for when the weather here in Zante prevents planes taking off. Mum came with cash to spend and a gusto for the tavernas. Her largesse knew few bounds. We tried two new ones – Dennis and Porto – and enjoyed two old favourites – Aperitto and Skloubou’s. We’d been the very acme of austerity up until that point, but if she wanted to eat out, then we were happy to accompany her.
Hunting season started with a bang at the beginning of September. Tradition dictates that men don camouflage pants and sit in hidden lookouts in olive groves early in autumn mornings, waiting for the opportunity to shoot turtle doves, trigónia, which have stopped off temporarily on one of their great migration paths south to Africa. By now, their ammo spent (or their interest, or indeed the poor trigónia), it’s quiet again, but we occasionally come across the hunters’ stations, littered with fag ends and shotgun cartridges, in the groves around us as we make our way around the lanes and dromákia of Koukla.
Now Mum’s gone, and the weather’s begun to cool off. You can go for longer walks. One morning we drove down to Gérakas beach, at the very end of Vassilikos peninsula. Our mission: to locate the Nazi gun bunkers high on the hillside from where they would threaten any putative allied landing into Laganas bay. Hard to reconcile such violence with the tranquility – boats aren’t allowed off Gérakas on account of the loggerhead turtles – we beheld from the shoulder hills of Kanónia, as the area has since been named because of those same guns.
In the evenings nowadays we even have to dress up warm now to stay out on the balcony and watch the light fade across the bay on Vassilikós in the evening.
There was no music group for me this time – the Maestro, whose mandolin and bozouki music troupe I managed to join last year, was away for most of my time this year. But we did catch up with most of the people we met last year, and we’re feeling like we fit in more and more. Of course, never having had to work here, we know we’re tourists – just passing through. But on a good day, managing to have a chat in rough Greek with a shopkeeper or a taverna owner, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like we belong here. Like we might do another entire season here, like the magic one we spent last year.
We’ll be leaving Zákynthos on Friday, spending three days in Athens, and flying back to Brisbane on Monday.