My Sister’s Big Fat Greek Wedding

>Introduction

Around 15 years ago, my sister spent a year on the Greek island of Zakynthos (Zante) as part of her Zoology “degree” studying sea turtles. Now I know what you’re thinking… it’s another story of Shirley Valentine going off to a Greek island, meeting some Greek guy and falling in love and never coming back, but you’d be completely wrong. No, hang on, I don’t mean wrong do I? I mean right.

The news of her engagement was, of course, wonderful, and the idea of going out to see a proper Greek wedding (without all of the spandex that comes with the Mamma Mia panto) was very exciting. The only scary bit would be getting there. You see, the thing is, Zakynthos is served only by charter airlines. If I wanted to fly BA, I’d have to go to Athens and stay overnight before catching a 6am connecting flight to the island.

Still, for the purposes of providing an all inclusive set of reports on schofs.com, taking the rough with the smooth, I took the challenge and booked some tickets on First Choice Airways [shudder].

I would also be going with the full compliment of in-laws (Mother-, Father- and Sister-in-law), and while Emma was due to come as well, she couldn’t make it in the end. This was particularly unfortunate as she had spent months making Gail’s wedding dress.

Anyway, enough chatter from me – it wasn’t long before it was time for me to take my seat on Last Choice Airways… here is my story.

London Gatwick – Zakynthos in First Choice Star Class (economy)

The evening before our flight, we went to Gatwick with our bags to check in. Fortunately we live around 10 minutes away, so this was easy and meant we wouldn’t have to arrive early to queue the next day.

Our flight was at 7am, so I booked the taxi for 6am to take us to Gatwick, and having checked in already, we headed straight through security and into the departures lounge. I say straight through; in reality I mean 5 minutes to queue for security, and 15 minutes to have my bag searched by the slowest security staff known to man.

A quick visit to Travelex revealed they no longer offered BA miles on currency ordered from their Travelex.co.uk/.com websites. Pretty pathetic, although the rates for normal currency amounts were always next to worthless anyway.

I’d had a tip-off from a friend that I’d been quoted again in Business Traveller, and as my subscription copy had not been delivered yet, I popped into the British Airways Terraces (business class lounge) to pick up a copy, along with a couple of pain au chocolats and a few glasses of orange juice.


Our flight showed as boarding, so we started to make our way to the gate. Now, had I known that the walk to the gate would take the best part of 20 minutes (!) I’d have got an earlier taxi! I was beginning to realise why the flights were cheap – you have to travel most of the distance yourself on foot!

When I purchased the tickets, I paid an extra £12/person to ensure we sat together. We’d been allocated seats 6E and 6F, although the good news is nobody sat in 6D, so we had the row to ourselves.


Being 6′ tall, I find the economy seats on flights quite cramped. Sitting here on this First Choice flight, wearing my ankles for earrings, I began to remember why I put so much effort into trying not to fly economy, even on short haul hops. There was only one way to numb the pain. Champagne.

There is one thing First Choice does get right – their choice of bubbly. When our bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte arrived, it was beautifully chilled. I would have been annoyed if it hadn’t been, as it had taken more than 40 minutes to arrive! I can’t remember how much it was, but I remember being quite impressed.


Breakfast was served, though even the champagne couldn’t put a rose tint on the pathetic offering. The “croissant” was like a tasteless sponge cake, and the tea/coffee? Seriously, it’s one thing to offer a choice of tea or coffee, but I swear I had no idea which I was given.


The service, while slow, was at least friendly, though I’m sure all of the flight attendants were away on the day they were taught how to push a trolley without hitting every passenger on either side of the aisle.

We landed on time, and were the first through to the immigration hall, which was empty. Having collected our bags, we went out to meet the Avis car rental rep at her “office”.


The “office” apparently shuts at 1pm, which was cutting it fine as our flight was scheduled to land at 12:35, and could easily have been delayed.

We‚Äôd booked 2 cars for the four of us ‚Äì I‚Äôd booked a Suzuki Jimney convertible 4×4 for myself and sis-in-law, and her parents had booked a Citroen C1 in a tasteful shade of bright red. For the duration of the holiday, the Citroen was always referred to as The Flying Tomato.

Athenea Villas, Zakynthos

The directions were in almost-English, but in 20 minutes we’d worked them out and were heading up the long driveway to the Athenea Villas. The villas are on the south coast of the island near Keri Lake, and each had their own private pool.


We’d booked 2 villas, with Hannah and I in a two-bedroom villa, and Hannah’s parents in a 1 bedroom villa. Unfortunately when we arrived they’d made a mistake and prepared 2 single room villas, which I think it’s fair to say neither Hannah nor I were ready to agree to! It took them 3 or 4 hours to get the correct villa ready, but this wasn’t a problem as we could use the in-laws’ villa until then.


The villas were typically basic, but still pretty good for Greece. They weren’t without their problems though… The hob in our kitchen acted as an automatic cut-off for the electricity in the villa, and the provided hair dryer had all the power of an asthmatic ant. I was particularly impressed with the plaster-effect surround to the bathroom mirror, which was actually made of polystyrene.

We had no hot water, and the electrician said he’d come out later that day to fix it (and to my surprise they actually turned up!).

The pool was pretty small, although we did have 5 lilos which covered it entirely! The pool looked out over a lovely view of the sea, and there were also sun loungers and chairs provided.

Plugging my sister’s book

My sister (the one who lives out here and is getting married) has written a complete guide book to Zakynthos which has been a brilliant way to discover the island. I thoroughly recommend it (and would even if I wasn’t biased!) and anyone going to Zakynthos should definitely buy it!

Dinner at Kormis

My sister recommended a fish restaurant in Zakynthos Town, just on the port front. While they have a written menu, the way you order is by going into the kitchen and choosing the fish yourself. The owner talks you through what each fish is like, and takes your order as you choose. Hannah, our resident wine boffin, went off to talk through the different wines and I selected a few essential extras (like sides of chips :)


The food was stunning – cooked perfectly, tasted fab, and served in a way that meant we could each try each other’s selection. We also spotted a few of Gail’s books on display, and I mentioned that she was my sister and that she’d recommended the restaurant. This turned out to be a good move as they gave us a discount, which made the food taste even better!

It was probably our most expensive meal on the island (at about £40 each), but it was also our best meal, and when I think what we’d pay for it in England, it was an absolute bargain!


Dinner at Ladofanaro

The following night we met up with my family and some of my sister’s friends for a proper cheapy-Greeky meal out. As there were quite a few of us, and only one person had a clue where we were going, we went off in a convoy of 5 cars playing follow the leader.

This worked quite well, and we had full confidence in the leader… we turned down a side road which was fine for a good few miles, until we noticed it was starting to get narrower… and narrower… until we suddenly realised we were actually driving in a vineyard!

Now, when was the last time you tried to execute a 5 car reverse-J-turn in a vineyard? It wasn’t easy!

Eventually we found the restaurant Ladofanaro, and to be fair, it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere! There were at least 3 other groups of people there – and how they found it we’ll never know.


The food however was excellent – not posh-excellent, but Greek-excellent. I felt like I was in a Greek Taverna, eating Greek food, and drinking horrible Greek red wine… and I was!

The best bit? The whole meal came to £13 a head. I’d definitely go back, if it wasn’t about as easy to find as the island in Lost that is…

Taverna Dennis

You could be forgiven for thinking a restaurant with such a name was an authentic Greek taverna that had been on the island since the beginning of time… but you’d be wrong. The only thing worth mentioning about Taverna Dennis is that it’s at the crossroads of a few significant roads in the South of the island, so it’s a good navigation and point when giving directions.

We ate there one night, but certainly wouldn’t again. Tasteless microwaved food. If they have microwaves over there that is…

Try The Wine!

If someone said “give me one word to sum up your favourite wines” I’d say “Bordeaux”. You could ask me that question so many times, and I’m pretty sure it would almost never be “Greek”, but despite that, the sight of a roadside sign offering “Oil, Wine, Raisins 1km” got the better of us and we thought we’d investigate.

With hindsight, perhaps the fact that the sign was hand painted on a piece of wood that was probably once part of someone’s barn should have given us some idea of the what lay 1km down the indicated dirt track…

I don’t know who was more shocked at our arrival at the “wine tasting venue”, but we’d come all this way, so we thought we’d give it a go…


I won’t even begin to describe the complexities and fruity overtones that were going on in each of the red, white and erm, green wines on offer. I can however say that this particular vineyard is definitely a schofs.com exclusive, and is unlikely ever to be covered by any other globally-trusted breaking news site!

Panicked by the realisation that we really should buy something, our eyes fell upon some bottles of oil they’d also produced. We felt confident that these didn’t need to be tasted, so we parted with a couple of Euros and were soon on our way.

Laganas

Laganas (or Slaganas as we fondly referred to it) is the ‚ÄúBrits Abroad‚Äù part of the island… you‚Äôre generally only allowed in this part of town if you or your children have achieved at least 2 ASBOs in the last 3 months.

We ventured into Laganas once, but only because it had a cash machine. We did however notice a sign for one slightly disturbing night club… just what audience does ‚ÄúThe Babies Bar‚Äù cater for?!

The Island Drive

We were out on Zakynthos during October, when the weather was bound to be pretty unpredictable. Unfortunately for the first few days of our stay it mostly rained.

With grotty weather, there isn’t really much you can do other than explore the island, so we climbed into the Suzuki Jimney, grabbed a copy of Gail’s excellent book, and followed one of the island tours she’d mapped out.

The route (Tour 4 in the book) took us all around the island, through small villages, past a few typical roadside shops, and also to stunning sights which make Zakynthos such a picturesque island.


We decided to stop for a coffee en route at the Sunset Taverna. It offered a great view point, and the coffee was to die for. Literally. I tried a sip and have to say that any more could easily have cost me my life.


Though for much of the tour it was misty, the sun really came out when it mattered most – at the shipwreck.


We grabbed lunch at a roadside taverna called Taverna Anastasia. We hadn’t planned to stop there, but as we’d been driving through the village, Anastasia waved frantically from the taverna to encourage us in!

After the joke that was the coffee stop, we were very pleased to find that Anastasia did us proud. The meal came with proper chips (something the Greeks seem to find very hard!), she treated us to a dessert of raisins in honey, and to top it off she gave me a flower as we left… it was very sweet!


While driving around the island, I really felt I got a feel for the capabilities of the 4-wheel drive we‚Äôd hired. In a nutshell, it was crap; officially the worst 4×4 I‚Äôve ever driven. You can choose whether you want to drive in 2 or 4 wheel drive. Nothing strange there. This effectively gives you two options ‚Äì slide around the road with no control (2 wheel drive) or drive without the ability to turn any corners or cover any distance without the gearbox smelling (4 wheel drive). I feel my road test was thorough enough to know not hire one again‚Ķ its only benefit was that it was a convertible‚Ķ but that just wasn‚Äôt enough to make up for its inability to function as a car.

Wedding Day!

The big day had finally arrived. Hannah needed to get her hair done, and she‚Äôd arranged an appointment with an English speaking hair dresser. What she hadn‚Äôt banked on was that on the day itself, the English speaker wasn‚Äôt actually there, and the girl doing her hair only spoke Greek…

The plan, as it turned out, was for Hannah to tell the English speaking lady over the phone what she wanted… and then pass the phone over to the Greek lady who would then be told what to do in a sort of Chinese Whispers fashion. What could possibly go wrong?!

Meanwhile, I decided to go to a small cafe I’d found just up the road which did a lovely latte and pain-au-chocolat.


It was stunning weather outside, but I still decided to check the weather forecast for the rest of the day in the Internet Cafe… Hmmm… heavy thunder storms…

Once Hannah‚Äôs hair had been permed to within an inch of her life, we went on to the church to take a few photos before the Wedding. Hannah was the official wedding photographer, and with the service being in the evening it was handy to get a few shots while it was light. I also experimented with my own unique photography approach…


A few hours before the big moment, we headed over to take some photos of Gail getting ready. It was a big moment as my wife, Emma, had made the wedding dress, and with Gail living in another country it wasn’t easy and easy job! Fortunately, she looked stunning.


I‚Äôm not sure what I was expecting from a Greek wedding… but then I don‚Äôt think that Gail or Kostas knew either! It was certainly a little different from the traditional English wedding.

The Bride and Groom walked into the church, followed by the congregation. As there were no reserved seats, you could see everyone trying to leg it to the best seats – it’s the closest thing in adult life to playground British Bull Dog!

There were two priests, one sang in Greek (yes ‚Äì sang), and the other sang in English. The Bride, Groom and bridesmaids stand in the centre of the church on a raised platform while the priests sing at them. This goes on for about half an hour… and then someone comes round and gives us all bags of rice…

Then everyone on the platform walked round in a circle while the whole congregation pelted them with the rice! All credit to the priests who continued to sing whilst shielding themselves with their holy books!

After the singing and rice throwing came to an end, all of the Greeks went outside for a smoke while Gail and Kostas posed for a few photos. After that it was off to the restaurant to stuff ourselves silly with food and booze!



The day after the wedding Gail and Kostas hosted a BBQ for all friends and family at the house that they‚Äôre having built… which they were assured would be finished in time.

If I‚Äôm honest, and I know I might be being a bit of a perfectionist, but I wouldn‚Äôt necessarily call it finished…

A Day With The Nieces

On our last day on Zakynthos, Hannah and I took my nieces, Elly and Cori, out for the day. It was good weather so we headed straight for the beach, which never fails to bring out the kid in me. Within minutes I was begging the girls if we could all go out on jet skis!



After lunch at the beach taverna, we pulled the roof back on the car and headed for a drive around the island. It was fab weather, and the island seemed so different to earlier in the week when the weather wasn’t nearly so nice.


Before heading home, we decided to stop in at an ice cream bar Zakynthos Town… which, I was, erm, of course forced to do against my will.

Zakynthos – London Gatwick in First Choice Star Class (economy)

The day to return home arrived, and so we drove back to the airport and dropped off the hire car. The return procedures were quite… simple. Park up leave the keys in the car. I‚Äôve heard of more secure methods!

We arrived at the check in desk one and a half hours before the flight, so I was a little surprised to hear the words “Sorry sir, check in has now closed. You should have been here 3 hours before the flight to check in, we cannot accept arrivals this late”.

Considering I could see the rest of the check in crew sitting just behind the desks in their coffee room, I wasn’t exactly impressed. I took out the tickets for our flights and had a look at the useful information section. “Check in is available from 2 hours before your flight and closes 1 hour before your flight’s departure”. I handed the tickets to the check in lady, entered smug mode, and said “I think you’ll find this contains some useful information”.

Minutes later we were checked in, and as good as it felt, I couldn’t help wondering if we’d ever see our luggage again.

Once through security, we had a quick look around the duty free shop, which consisted largely of fags and vodka, and then sat and waited for our flight.

The flight back was… unremarkable. We boarded more or less on time, and we had seats 5A and 5B. Unfortunately this time somebody had 5C, so we were stuck in our seats which felt more cramped than ever.

As I glanced around from my seat, I couldn‚Äôt help noticing just how dirty the plane really was… I‚Äôm no clean freak, but when was this plane last cleaned?


Fortunately the view outside was much nicer, and as we flew out of Zakynthos we had a fabulous view of the islands.


Service on the flight home was quiet. Being the end of a holiday for both the crew and passengers, I don’t think any of us were feeling particularly jolly.

On landing IRIS was open, and Hannah and I were the only ones to use it. It‚Äôs a strange feeling when the doors of the IRIS gate close behind you… the trip is officially over… and it‚Äôs back to work the next day.