Camping on foreign grounds

One Journal editor’s first-hand account of uncovering a hidden gem

Angela Hickman
Image by: Angela Hickman
Angela Hickman

Backpacking with a tent and a sleeping bag was something that raised a lot of eyebrows when I did it two summers ago.

“Isn’t it kind of heavy?” people asked. “How do you have enough room for all your stuff?” But whatever extra weight it added, or space it took up, being able to carry accommodation around with me proved both financially savvy and the key to unusual travel destinations.

During the seven and a half weeks I spent travelling around Europe, the first four with my friend Amy, I camped four times: three times in Italy—Rome, Florence and Venice all have excellent campgrounds—and once in Greece.

The campgrounds in Italy were, with the exception of the one in Rome, like large outdoor hostels. They catered to the hostel crowd and the campsites in Florence and Venice both offered pre-erected private tents for people who didn’t have their own.

The campground Amy and I stayed at in Greece, though, was entirely different. If it hadn’t been for a lucky travel book exchange in Italy, we would never have known the place existed.

We had taken the ferry from Ancona, Italy, to Patras, Greece, without any real plan. We knew we wanted to stay on an island for a few days before heading to Athens, but we didn’t have any island in particular picked out. Sitting on the sidewalk with the guidebook open, we discovered we could take a bus from Patras to Zakynthos, the southernmost of Greece’s Ionian Islands.

The bus, which included a short ferry ride, cost €13 and, according to the sign at the bus depot, would only take 45 minutes. Looking at the guidebook for accommodation, there was a one-line entry about a campground at the southeast tip of the island called Camping Tartaruga. Assuming a campground in Greece boasting a small private beach was probably worth taking a gamble on, we booked tickets.

During the 20 minutes or so before we caught the bus, Amy and I took advantage of the opportunity to reassess our food supplies. We’d been trying to buy as much as we could at grocery stores, rather than eating in restaurants. We had a bit of bread left, as well as jam and cheese. The combination, a jam-and-cheese sandwich, had become a staple meal and we set about making the rest of our bread into sandwiches. It was hard to say when we’d be able to later and Patras was so hot the cheese had started to melt.

We gathered quite a crowd of on-lookers, some amused and some very disapproving, but by the time the bus arrived and we got the bags loaded, our sandwiches were made and packed away again.

After arriving on Zakynthos we picked up some groceries after getting off the bus—some juice, fruit and cookies—just enough to get us through the next few days. The campground said it had a convenience store, but we weren’t sure what that actually meant. After briefly considering renting a car, Amy and I found a taxi to take us to Tartaruga—about 25 minutes down the road. After turning off the main road and following a dirt track for a few minutes we arrived outside a low bungalow. We pulled our backpacks out of the taxi’s trunk and looked around.

Greece in the summer is hot and it was over 40 degrees when we arrived at the campsite. Grass there might have been all burned away by the sun and the ground was just hard, dry, packed dirt littered with leaves and twigs from the olive trees. We couldn’t see the beach.

After talking to the owners, a retired Austrian couple, we learned the beach was at the bottom of the hill. Following the dirt track the taxi had taken, Amy and I walked down the hill. The track was deeply rutted, as though at some point water had roared down it, and sandy. It was incredibly steep as it wound down the hill and through the olive grove, but at the bottom was a beach with some chairs and a dock jutting into the perfectly clear sea. If I had seen the place in a postcard I wouldn’t have believed it.

After sweating our way back to the top we decided a spot by the sea was worth the prospect of hauling our packs down to the bottom and back up. By the time the tent was set up we were exhausted from the heat and climbing the hill, so rather than going back up to the top to have dinner, we ate jam and cheese sandwiches and then went swimming.

Even after dark the water was warm. The air was still and the water was so salty it held you up whether you wanted it to or not. Tired but too wet to go back to the tent we lay on beach chairs, laughing at how lucky we were. After we’d arrived we’d realized the guidebook Amy had traded for in Florence was a few years old. We hadn’t even called ahead to see if the campground existed and there we were, lying on the beach in Greece and paying €7 a night for the privilege.

In the end, we only stayed for two nights but we seriously considered cutting into the time we’d planned for Athens to stay one more day. In the end though, the bus to Athens only ran three times a week and we had to go or Amy would have missed her flight. Still, if I had to spend time lying on a beach, it would be back on Zakynthos, at the bottom of an olive grove, eating apples and jam and cheese sandwiches.

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