Who hasn’t sat in the pub one night, shooting the breeze, coming up with ideal jobs and hair-brained schemes that will either make them happy, or make them rich?
We all love to dream, but few of us wake up the next morning and put those ideas into practice. Thankfully, the Varrias family did.
When you think about it, the idea makes perfect sense. Take a beautiful, sunny and relaxed tourist destination and instead or relying on a sea front position or swimming pool, pitch at a niche market: in this case, board gamers. It’s a growing market, while players tend to be educated and well behaved, as well as sociable (at the least within the confines of their chosen hobby).
So, last summer, the Varrias family opened the doors of Alea Apartments for the first time. It’s a block of around 15 apartments (some with sea views, as pictured above) which all have small kitchenettes, bathrooms and two well lit and shaded gaming areas – plus a collection of more than 300 board games to drool over.
I’d not been to the Greek Islands before, as I’m not a hot weather fan – hence booking off-peak (coinciding with half term from the school Zoe works at).
I booked flights to Athens, thinking we’d be fine to sort out local connections nearer the time. If you’re thinking of doing the same, be warned: off peak, this can be a chore: ferry services to the islands are running at a minimum and timings can be tricky. It’s definitely worth checking into options available from closer international airports (Mykonos and Santorini), or considering staying a night where you fly into to break up the travelling a little.
That said, on the way out, the trip was 100 per cent smooth (if a little long!). The flight and connection to Athens’ Piraeus Port went smoothly, while the four-hour ferry to Paros was smooth, comfortable and blessed with a beautiful sunset.
If you’re not keen on long ferry rides, there are much shorter options from the other two airports (you can get them lasting under an hour), while quicker ferries and also internal flights are available from Athens if you can time them right.
We were met at Paros’ port (Parikia) by Simon and Maria Varrias, who had generously offered to pick us up once we found out the bus service would’ve stopped for the night before we’d arrived. This seems the perfect time to talk about these guys, as they’re an integral part of why it was such a fantastic trip.
Alea Apartments are owned and run by the Varrias family: parents Aristides and Maria and sons Dimitris and Simon (there may be more of them, but these are the ones we had contact with).
They are all incredibly well educated and unbelievably friendly and welcoming, giving their time freely throughout the trip well above and beyond our expectations. All the guys have great English too, and what Maria lacks in language skills are more than made up for with enthusiasm and baking ability!
Simon (half of him expertly photographed by me on the right here) was our main point of contact throughout the trip and essentially became part of our group. We were lucky, as it was the first week of the season and we were the only group booked in, so he could give us his full attention. But even so, we couldn’t have expected the level of service we got: being driven to the beach, taken on swim/fishing trips and a tour of “the church of 100 doors” in Parikia (and this was a fraction of what was offered).
The church tour was given by father Aristides Varrias (pictured above), a sculptor particularly renowned for his work with Parian marble (translucent and flawless, it was used to make masterpieces such as the Medici Venus).
After visiting the church they took us to the old mines where the marble used to be brought up, before taking us back to their family home for coffee and a look at his workshop – well beyond the call of duty. He also talked us through this beautiful sculpture he was asked to create by the council of Parikia, which stands proudly in the central square (right).
During the day, when not on excursions, we simply enjoyed the town of Naoussa and its wonderfully named local beaches, big and little pepper. In high season it’s a bit of a clubber destination, but during the day and early evening it’s a pretty, tranquil and relaxed traditional Greek Island town with some great jewellery shops and restaurants.
While not spectacular, the beaches were more than adequate for us and there were many more around the island (both more popular and secluded, depending on your tastes) for those who wanted to seek them out (car and bike hire, alongside taxis, were all simple options).
I hadn’t been in the sea for years (OK, decades), but despite a bit of an early June heat wave (it got up to 35 centigrade in the sun while we were there) I managed to get in there three times. Even an unfortunate dumb ass moment with a sea urchin (I’ll be picking bits out of my fingers for weeks) on my first swim didn’t dampen my spirits. It really was lovely.
When not in the sea, and often while others were sunning themselves on the beach, I could be found back at the apartments in the shade reading board game rule books (nerd, me?!).
I won’t go into much detail about the board game collection here, as I’ll save it for a Geek List over at BGG (link to come once it’s finished). But as it’s one of Alea Apartments’ main USP it certainly merits a mention.
Unfortunately due to a very blurred image, I can’t show you the main wall of games, but this at least gives an idea of the extent of the collection which has been constructed mostly by Dimitris (sadly we did not get to meet, as he was away doing medical exams – next time!).
This part of reception holds mostly the smaller card games, a wall to its left holds about 150 big box titles, while other games are stored elsewhere. And you don’t have to be a board game enthusiast to enjoy the collection. There are simple games, party games, drinking games, brain games, all sorts – and Simon was more than happy to teach us the ones he knew.
If there is something specific you want, it’s worth mentioning it in advance so they can have it on site when you arrive. It might also be worth getting them to check which languages the rules are in too – several games I opened up were only in German or Greek. Simon was happy to teach games he knew, or to try and find rules online, but having them pre-printed would’ve been useful.
While I’m talking negative, there were two very small niggles with the trip: the Wi-Fi and the kitchen facilities. Describing the Wi-Fi as ‘intermittent’ would be generous, while the kitchenware on offer was sparse at best (have you ever tried flipping fried eggs with a table spoon? It’s an art, I tell you). However, that’s as bad as things got.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m giving the Alea Apartments on Paros a massive thumb’s up. The Varrias family set out to offer two things beyond the normal: an impressive board game selection and hospitality above and beyond the norm. I’m happy to say they achieve both of those things with flying colours. All seven of us have vowed to return, most next year and the rest probably the year after, which speaks volumes.
Of course, even if you don’t end up going and simply want to support this great idea for a holiday destination, you can simply go and give them a ‘like’ on Facebook.
I’ve already started plotting next year’s trip, and with lots of new games promised to add to its already impressive collection, I look forward to building on the nine new games I learnt this time (several of them taught to us by Simon – cheers mate!).
But before then is the Cambridge Folk Festival; a bank holiday weekend in the New Forest, Hampshire; my first trip to the world’s largest board gaming fair in Essen, Germany; another visit to Devon; a weekend in Goteborg; plus at least one Tesco Clubcard/Avios fuelled city break in an as yet unnamed European city.
But I can safely say that, already, the trip back to Paros and Alea Apartments is the one I’m really looking forward to. And hey, Simon – I expect you to have learnt the rules to Twilight Struggle by the time we return!