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Neon was just an inert gas with no known uses until electricity came along and lit it up. The neon sign was born and we've been putting up with it ever since. The McDonalds Neon sign controversy in Castlebar is a classic example. Planning permission said no neon sign outside the premises but BIG sign erected - and all lit up. Our Town Council, or UDC as it was then, rushed to put a stop to this travesty and did absolutely nothing? Visit Phoenix Arizona - mcdonalds there have discreet m signs about 6 inches high on the outside of adobe-style buildings - so why can't Castlebar be a little discreet - I bet they eat just as many burgers and fries in Phoenix as Castlebar? Same in Kilkenny where they put restrictions on signage - highly prosperous town with a great tourist industry. Neon signs are not necessary for business to survive.
Recently though I came across what is the absolute, the best, no-sign location on Earth. Strange too that this is also a highly commercial, efficiently commercial - perhaps one of the most commercial places on Earth. It's so slick that you don't even begrudge them the money. Even more unusual is that transport in this idyllic spot is by donkey, boat or simply shanks mare. Your bags (and you too if you dare) carried to your hotel on the back of a donkey - €6 euros for 400m or so to the Angelica Hotel (its sign was a small, discreet plaque on a whitewashed wall) €67 euros a night for the room booked over the Internet. The picture on the website looked good but you never know until you get there. But it in this case it lived up to expectations.
|No cars transport on Hydra is by donkey or pony|
At night a string of bulbs lit the waterfront and pale streetlights (tungsten) light up the narrow whitewashed streets. No high rise here - apart from the many steps rising up the steep hill that surrounds the port of Hydra. Hard work to reach the top in the sun especially.
|Peaceful waterside evenings|
Hydra is about an hour and a half from Piraeus (Zea Marina in summer or the main marina in the off season). Fares are about €28 from Piraeus return. Buy a ticket at the Blue Dolphin ticket offices and an hour and a half later you are in another world - on an island in the Gulf of Saronika - completely free of neon signs. The ferries take longer but are probably cheaper. In contrast, Athens, which has to be one of the worst places for billboards and signs especially on road to the new airport some 30km from Athens. And as for car traffic and smog - even at midnight on weekends the traffic crawls around central Athens at less than walking pace belching out a nice cocktail of benzpyrenes, and tiny PM10 and PM2 particles that settle deep in your lungs.
What a contrast on Hydra (you are still in the same country remember) where neon belongs to another world and shanks mare, donkeys, ponies and hand carts carry people and goods from place to place. Crystal clear Aegean water surrounds you and a gentle sea breeze washes across everything; clean and unpolluted. The port of Hydra is completely man-made but it is idyllic and beautiful. You feel like you are part of a watercolour as you look at the wash of colour behind you.
|You feel like you are in a painting|
Water taxis, carry people to the beaches at the other end of the island, fishing boats putt-putt back and forth gathering lobsters, red mullet and shellfish for the tables in the many restaurants in town to feed the hungry tourists and locals.
|Fishing boat heading to sea - great fish restaurants here.|
All day long there is nothing to do except work up an appetite for the evening meal so you sit watching the harbour sipping coffee or nibbling on a Greek salad (a slab or two of feta cheese on top of tomatoes, cucumber, onions and olive oil of course).
|Bringing home the groceries|
The big 'yachts' without sails parked - the Nanou a barque of 35m white hull, brass and chrome - a crew of six polishing, polishing non stop. Who owns it? Is that them over there with the Ouzo or Black Russian trying to avoid the sun? The damned Internet spoiled that - Google found the Nanou in seconds. It turns out it's just a brokerage yacht and anyone can rent it out for a mere $65,000 a week. The occupants seemed to be a group of octogenarians from LA.
|Not a neon sign or billboard in sight - Why can't Castlebar be like this?|
Every so often a bigger ferry, hydrofoil or large two-master ties up and disgorges a throng of Japanese, Italian, American or German island hoppers. They swarm about for a short hour or two buying jewellery riding donkeys video cameras whirring and then hop back on board when the ship's whistle goes. They're on to the next island. After the last schedule hydrofoil at approximately 5:30 pm though, peace really descends.
|Beautiful whitewashed streets|
Only locals and overnighters remain and the serious business of eating and drinking begins in earnest. In April at least peace descends at this stage - it may be different in July or August. The Sunset café looks to the West where you can watch the sun setting over the sea during cocktail hour. Flights to this neon free zone? In April 2002 Air France regular flights were just over €400 . Regular BA flights to Athens were something like €550 euros but book ahead on a package deal flight for cheaper flights (Ask Castle Travel for the best deal). Add the €27 euros for the ferry, plus accommodation in a hotel or B&B rooms - these will vary with the season of course and booking ahead certainly advised for the busy times in summer.
|Spring flowers on the Greek Islands|
Spring and Autumn are the times but Spring has the advantage of flowers - Greece really parches in the summer. You could do worse than to chill out for a week or so on Hydra away from the bright lights of Castlebar! You know of course that Ne, the symbol for the element Neon, is the word for yes in Greek!
|Blue Dolphin hydrofoil reversing out of the harbour|
Coming next Sodium the salt of the earth
Previous Element: Fierce Fluorine
© Copyright 2006 by the author(s)/photographer(s) and www.castlebar.ie
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