For many years, a common misconception has existed on the backpacker trail. Apparently if you want to visit stunning beaches and see charming hillside villages in Greece, you need to head to the Greek Islands.
I can categorically say that this is not true. Why? One word: Parga.
I’ve said on this blog quite a few times that I hate the whole ‘off the beaten track’ debate among travellers. Many popular places are discovered for a reason; basically, they’re wonderful. In Greece, that was definitely the case for me when I visited Santorini.
I visited Santorini because I knew it was going to be beautiful. I’d seen dozens of photos of the island before I got there myself; so many friends and strangers had vouched for it and not knowing much about Greece, I took their advice. I wasn’t disappointed. Not in the slightest.
I didn’t visit any other Greek islands during my travels in 2007; Santorini was enough and I figured that if I visited more, I’d just be comparing them against that first island. So I headed back to the mainland, thinking that I’d definitely be back in the region one day. I’d heard enough good things about Paxos, Paros and Crete to have me wanting more.
But now it’s seven years later, and I haven’t been back to the islands. I haven’t felt the need to, because I found Parga instead.
Parga is pretty much unknown by non-Greeks, except for a sprinkling of Swedes and Dutch who have been driving down to their little corner of paradise each summer for years. Some of them discovered the town after passing through on the way to somewhere else; one of the Greek islands, perhaps, particularly as Corfu is quite nearby.
I got talking to a Dutch woman on one occasion I was in town; I had a couple of hours off and was getting my hair cut (one of those annoying things you never have time for as a tour guide). About ten years ago, she had been on her way to Turkey when her car broke down near Parga. Her and her husband were taking the scenic route along the coast and had plenty of time on their hands, so they weren’t too upset about being stranded in Parga for a day or two, while their car was being fixed.
They never got to Turkey on that trip. They stayed in Parga for a month, and have returned every August since.
Parga’s a bit of a bugger to get to. It’s right out of the way on the west coast of the mainland; a seven hour bus ride from Athens. You have to come over a whole heap of mountains before descending down, down, down to Parga as if it sits in the bottom of a bowl. But once you get there – perhaps feeling a bit sickly after all the twists and turns – you’re treated to a little town that just doesn’t look like it’s supposed to be on the mainland.
Just like what I said about Thessaloniki, it really looks as if nobody told the people of Parga about the Greek debt crisis. My hairdresser, for example, wasn’t open when I went to pay him a visit. I’d been in Parga two weeks before, and he had definitely been open when I’d walked by. I asked the gyros man opposite if he knew what time the hairdresser opened. He looked at me strangely. ‘I don’t know, maybe four or five.’
This was PM, people. (He opened that day at six thirty, looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world.)
Parga is pretty small; all the little pensions would be no more than a five-minute walk from the beach. Basically it’s a jumble of little pedestrian-only lanes filled with tiny shops and restaurants heading down to the water, rising up, step by step, all the way up to the town’s fortress. At each step there would be a different business, whether it be a jewelry store, leather bag shop or terraced restaurant.
People would be stopping all over the place, taking pictures. But, as is often the case when you’re climbing to a viewpoint, the view gets better with every step.
At the base of the steps which lead up to the fortress, there are three gyros shops in a formation which I termed the ‘Gyros Triangle’. That would usually be our next stop. I got to know all three of the shops over the summer – one had delicious fries, the other such soft bread, and the third had the best tzatziki I’d ever tasted. All had perfect pork and chicken, that was a given.
I’d always take my group up to the fortress come sunset time and the only thing that got me up all of those uneven steps in one go was knowing that I had thirty-odd people behind me. Once we’d get to the top and I’d catch my breath, I’d get out my ouzo, pour some into thirty-odd plastic cups and we’d toast our incredible good fortune.
Parga never felt over-crowded. There was always space on the sandy beach, there was never any need to book in at a waterfront restaurant and there was always plenty of time to chat with waiters and shopkeepers. You could even swim-slash-wade out in the warm water to the little island in the middle of the bay, topped with a cute church. From there you could sit and look back to Parga, again with only a couple of others nearby doing the same.
As I said earlier, I hate whinging about places that have been discovered, as if it’s my right over others to travel places I’ve read about in the Lonely Planet or seen a photo of on Instagram. It’s just not helpful. What I like instead is really appreciating the places that due to one reason or another – in Parga’s case, it’s its location – haven’t drawn the huge crowds. When you find them, and get them, it’s like you’ve joined some secret club.
When the Dutch lady smiled at me knowingly that day in that lazy hairdresser’s salon, I knew she was inviting me to the Parga Club. I’d already been a passionate member of the Santorini Club for years, like many who have come before and after me. But you know what? There’s plenty of room for both types of membership cards in my travel wallet. I don’t need to choose one over the other.