I wrote recently about some memorable big birthday celebrations I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the years. A 29-and-holding party in Bermuda, a surprise 40th party at home whilst working in Germany, a wild weekend in Soho for my 50th after an earlier fund-raising trek for World Vision up Kilimanjaro….
Well, I’ve come through the other side of my 60th and I reckon it may just have been the best yet. It all ended up being completely over the top, more like the so-called world series of baseball. Or the Queen. I’m exhausted, grateful, blessed….and officially old.
Round 1: Gill, my lovely missus, had said she was whisking me away somewhere for a long pre-birthday weekend. It turned out to be Cheltenham. For the last jump meeting of the season at the beautiful racecourse on Friday, and a spectacular Indian meal at Prithvi on Saturday….with old friends of various vintages arriving throughout a glorious weekend of surprises.
Round 2: 10th May, 60 years after my arrival in this often troubled but always amazing world. A low-key Italian-themed evening at home with family, friends and neighbours. Why Italian? Because I’m learning the language, because we love the country, people and food…and because I cracked open a few bottles of the rather special Sassicaia given to me as a leaving present from ex-colleagues.
Well, it started off low-key, but escalated into something dangerously resembling a party. I definitely felt 60 on the morning of 11th May…
Round 3: on 12th May, a group of 14 headed over to Greece for 5 days, as a belated celebration but also to show the natural beauty of hidden Zagori to family and friends.
(images below courtesy of Mark Melling, with the obviously less professional ones from my humble Samsung)
Collaborator and friend Mark and I have made the villages and people of Zagori the first project for our travel publishing venture Great Escapations. I had discovered it last July, Mark and I had researched and interviewed people there last October.
I hope old age hasn’t addled my senses, but I think everyone else fell in love with this magical area too, with its friendly people, healthy food…and tsipouro.
Too many adventures to list fully, but here are a few selected highlights:
- the Papaevangelou Hotel in Papigo…..Giorgos and his family have created a very special place to stay. If the natural surroundings don’t astound you, the level of service and quality of the breakfast surely will. Read about Giorgos’s story and meet him here
- a memorable evening at Anemi with lovely Lila and Pavlos serving up a feast for the senses, using food foraged from the landscape near Kato Pedina and cooked with love. The wine and tsipouro flowed, we shuffled around to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love, Pavlos whipped out his bouzouki and nephew Steve sampled Pavlos’s pipe collection. Read about Anemi, Lila & Pavlos and meet them here
- a walk down into the majestic Vikos Gorge on a glorious spring day. It’s a measure of how beautiful, calm and cooling the Voidomatis spring is that I was almost forgiven for underestimating how far it was from Papigo. Almost….
- the 3 hour hike up from Papigo to the 2,000 metre high Astraka refuge, sitting below the jagged peaks of Astraka and Gamila. Some went back to the village after this ascent, others ventured on, through a flower-strewn high Alpine valley to the mythical Drakolimni – Dragon Lake – still edged by snow and a mere appetiser for the even more breathtaking and expletive-inducing (thanks, Genovefa) main course….the yawning chasm towards Konitsa. Words really are not enough to describe the views that made our legs wobble and our hearts pound
- 5 brave souls swapped the luxury of cosy hotel rooms for a night in the mountain refuge. Nephews Steve & Dave, Dave’s girlfriend Lissy, Gill and I hunkered down in a dormitory – with a Bulgarian couple – after hearty bowls of spaghetti bolognese, tin jugs of local wine and a couple of games of cards, warmed by the stove as a hailstorm raged outside
- while others loved the rafting trip through the icy water of the Voidomatis river, Gill and I dropped in to see Lena at the agritourism venture Rokka. Despite being very busy running the Guest House and organising the first Wool Festival in Greece, Lena dropped everything to share some tsipouro and home-made meze with us, and to show Gill her 3 weaving looms. Such warmth and hospitality is an integral part of life in Zagori. Read about Lena, Kostas, Rokka and meet them here
And that was my hyper-extended 60th birthday. Well, almost….
Gill and I swapped the mountains for coast, and spent a glorious couple of days chilling in Lefkada, one of the Ionian islands, off the west coast of mainland Greece. The others were unable to catch a ferry back from Igoumenitsa to Corfu, because of national strike action…and ended up chartering a boat to get them across the Ionian, under cover of darkness and in fear of being found by the coastguard or striking ferrymen.
A fitting finale…..just sorry we weren’t there to share the refugees’ fun.