Back in January a friend of Vicky’s (thanks again Anastassia!) told me about a little-known EU-funded programme that promotes adult education throughout Europe. I took a closer look at the courses offered under the Grundtvig Programme (well worth a look by the way) and saw an all expenses paid 10-day Greek course on an island I’d never heard of: Syros. I applied, I waited, I was at first rejected and then out of nowhere I was offered a place. I couldn’t believe my luck!
Although not that well-known amongst foreign island-hoppers, Syros has a long and interesting history. It is unique in Greece because it’s population is roughly half Roman Catholic and half Greek Orthodox. I believe it is also the only place in Greece where Catholics celebrate Easter on the same day as the Greek Orthodox church – something which the Pope himself endorsed (since, as you may have read in my previous post, Greek Orthodox Easter is usually on a different day).
During the Greek war of Independence Syros remained netural, which led to it becoming a safe haven for Greek refugees from Asia Minor and the islands close to Turkey. This influx in tradesmen and skilled workers, coupled with the island’s strategic position resulted in Syros becoming the biggest Greek port at the time. Hermoupolis, which takes it’s name from Hermes (the Greek God of commerce) and polis (the Greek word for city) became very wealthy and cosmopolitan. It’s buildings were developed mainly by German and Italian architects – this gives it a neoclassical flair different to other Greek cities.
The greek course was organised by the Vardakeios School of Hermoupoulis, which was set up and funded by the wealthy shipping magnate Ioannis Vardakis. They actually made a film about his life recently – it’s called God loves Caviar, and is supposed to be quite good. Participants from 11 countries across the EU took part, and their ages ranged from 24 to 76. There was a really nice mix of backgrounds too – ranging from a Spanish mechanic to a Lithuanian masseur!
I met everyone on the boat over to Syros from Piraeus, the main port of Athens. It was so good to have some hot sunny weather for a change, and I was really excited to be heading back to the Cycladic islands after nearly 11 years.
When I first set eyes on Syros it looked like an uninhabited desert island. There was simply nothing there:
But as the boat slowly curved round the island, Hermoupolis slowly came into view. I was immediately struck by how hilly the city was and how many churches there were (which, as Vicky pointed out, is hardly surprising for a Greek island…).
After stepping back on to dry land we were greeted by a guy in a dodgy old truck who had come to take our bags to the hotel – welcome to island life!
A coffee break later and we were taken for our first of many amazing meals, where we were introduced to staff and students from the school.
Feeling completely stuffed and in need of a siesta, we waddled up the hill to the hotel and were thrilled to see that it was right next to the sea.
I immediately headed down to the crystal clear water – the sweltering heat was starting to get too much. There were unfortunately no actual beaches near the hotel, but we did have a nice place to hang out – with steps down to the water and entertainment (in the form of whatever Apostolos, the local chap in charge and our soon-to-be best friend, was playing on his stereo).
Apostolos (with the shades) – can you get any cooler?
The next morning was our first day at school. Everything was amazingly well organised. We were given a briefing of what the next 10 days would involve (far too much to put into just one post) and then got straight down to learning. The level of the participants varied from virtually fluent to beginner, so I thought it would be tricky for our teacher Eugenia to teach us, but she did a brilliant job and the lessons were really interesting. In the first few classes we played simple games to ease us into speaking this rather tricky language:
And then we were given verb and grammar drills. Whoever the ball was thrown at would have to answer a question. For some reason it always seemed to come at me precisely when I didn’t know the answer. Typical! That’s Vardakis in the top left by the way…
Every participant was also given a textbook to work from and we learnt songs, made dialogues and gave presentations on our countries:
Although we only had classes for just over a week, we all made real progress and were able to chat in Greek by the end of the course. It was great to be able to learn new things in the morning lessons and then practice them later in the day! I still can’t believe how much we managed to cram into such a short time. We had activities every night (more details to come), ranging from cooking lessons to boat trips and dancing lessons to live music sessions – which would invariably be followed by food in a local taverna. It was exhausting and intense, but also an amazing experience that made the group very close. We arrived as strangers and left as friends.
And it was really nice to make friends with the staff and helpers as well:
We owed a lot to the course organisers – Melina, Eugenia and Anna:
On our last day some of us went down to the water one last time and posed with Apostolos and the Greek flag he so proudly raised and lowered everyday (we’re actually holding it upside down, but you get the picture).
As we pulled out of the port on our way back to Athens we looked back at the hotel and our daily hangout – our last memory of the island being the sight of Apostolos lowering and raising his beloved flag as a goodbye gesture. It seemed like a fitting end to such a great trip. Syros isn’t the sort of place you visit only once, and I know I’ll be back here some day soon.