Usually I’d be three coffees in by now – one in the room, two more at breakfast – before I’d even consider setting foot outside my hotel door. So the arrangement at our hotel here in Syros, where breakfast means crossing the road to a tiny bakery to pick up a pastry, then popping next door to the local coffee shop, seems like an effort so early in the morning.
Plodding towards the café in a caffeine-deprived haze, doorstop-worthy wodge of spanakopita (spinach pie) in hand, I pass half-a-dozen wooden tables spread across the pavement, where men in varying degrees of advancing age sit debating the issues of the day. Already, one trio is facing off over hands of dog-eared cards, a stack of well-worn tavli (backgammon) boards behind them.
As I order my ice-cold freddo espresso – it’s mid-August in the Greek islands, and the heat is already rising – a white-haired gentleman at the next table smiles a toothy, puzzled grin. Clearly, a pale-faced solo female traveller is a surprising addition to the usual crowd.
In fact, I’d wager one of those hands of cards that, of the few Brits who ever get around to visiting Syros, fewer still would come across this out-of-the-way café and strike up a conversation over coffee in mismatched ceramic cups.
I mumble “kalimera”, unsure of my attempt at a Greek “good morning”, and through faltering language and a few smiles, he points out his home across the square, and explains that this is how Greek men always start the day (by escaping their wives and gossiping with friends, it seems).
I’d go on to see the same faces each morning, making for a far more colourful start to the day than any bland hotel breakfast (and saving me from the strange, slow torture of the “served” buffet at my hotel back in Athens), while pumping much-needed cash back into not one but two local businesses, struggling after months in stagnation. Much of this trip – the first departure of Intrepid Travel’s new “retreats”, a series of shorter tours designed with Covid-19 measures in mind – was about recognising how much value tourism brings and breathing life back into local coffers.
That said, it was unlike any other escorted tour I’ve ever done, including with Intrepid. There was no packing up each morning, moving on every couple of days to the next stop.
That has its advantages if you’re looking to pack in as many sights as possible, but this slower-paced itinerary was based in one place – the Cycladic isle of Syros – with activities including a day trip to another island. There was more beach time than you’d expect on an escorted tour, making it more like a hybrid between a guided tour and a beach break. After months in lockdown in a one-bedroom London flat with no outdoor space, the chance to combine cultural experiences with a few hours on a sun lounger was an appealing prospect.
We had started off in Athens, our group of six – all seasoned aficionados of the escorted touring world, having clocked up 75-plus tours between us – coming down to the first day’s welcome meeting in masks. Luckily, that was a short-lived requirement.
Once we’d filled in the now-obligatory health form declaring ourselves free of Covid symptoms and, to the best of our knowledge, contact with other cases, we were able to ease up on social distancing or mask-wearing within our group. We still had to keep face coverings handy for taxi rides, ferry journeys, museums, shops and other public spaces where masks are mandatory in Greece, but with most activities based outdoors, it felt perfectly safe to wander along mask-free.
Athens was, unsurprisingly, quieter than I’ve ever seen it. Ambling through the winding graffiti-lined streets of the Plaka district and Monastiraki Square, it was a chance to appreciate the Greek capital without scores of tourists.
The same was true of the Acropolis – gone was the long, snaking queue of cruise-ship passengers. Instead, we strolled straight in, managing to get those people-free pictures normally reserved for the keen beans first through the gates at 8am.
After lunch overlooking the ancient agora – one of those pinch-me moments where the simple joy of souvlaki and chilled white wine in the sunshine becomes a heart-lifting, hope-filled experience after being off-limits for so long – came the ferry journey to Syros.
Instead of taking the train to Piraeus port, as usual on this type of tour, we hopped into a private transfer, one of the small adjustments designed to minimise risk and put some work the way of taxi and transfer drivers reliant on the tourist market.
Life on board the ferry was as bonkers as always, whatever country you’re in – two guys playing guitar in one corner, another stretched out asleep across a row of hard-backed chairs, and one family boarding with a dog and a bright-yellow budgie in tow – albeit with a somewhat hit-and-miss approach to mask-wearing or the 1.5-metre distancing rules.
On arrival in Syros, it was clear this wasn’t a typical tourist island. The port is busy, thriving thanks to its shipbuilding industry, while the capital, Ermoupoli, throngs with locals and domestic tourists alike.
Spend time wandering its winding cobbled streets past bougainvillea-draped balconies, and you’ll see a living, working island where visitors can come away feeling they’ve actually got to know Greece a little. We stopped by a tiny workshop making local sweet loukoumia, a fixture with every cup of Greek coffee served here, to meet Aggeliki, whose grandfather set up the shop in 1932 and where they’ve been making it by hand ever since.
Then there was Yiannis, owner of our family-run hotel, who was kinder and more helpful than many staff at any big-brand property.
Sure, it’s got its beauty spots, from sparkling blue seas lapping at stone-built houses in Vaporia to the Venetian-built hilltop town of Ano Syros, full of narrow, meandering alleyways and sweeping island views. But the real beauty here lies in getting to know Syros itself, drinking coffee in a pavement café or listening to local rebetiko music as you tuck into mezze in a taverna – and that’s worth more than any sea view.
Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com/uk) offers a five-day Greece Retreat: Syros Island tour from £780, including accommodation, ferry transfers, visits to Naxos and the Acropolis, breakfast, one dinner and a tour leader; flights extra.