7 mins

Tapping into Greece’s heritage with… Julia Bradbury

TV presenter Julia Bradbury sits down with Wanderlust to discuss her new Greek Islands series, and returning to her roots on the island of Chios...

Julia in Corfu (Julia Bradbury)

How did the Greek Islands series come about?

It came about with me sitting at my kitchen counter thinking about my Greek roots, my Greek mother and the more than 40,000 words in the English language whose etymology is Greek – expressions like “Midas touch” and “Halcyon days” all stemming from Greek mythology and becoming everyday language. 

The Greeks have had a huge impact on all of us. You know everyone says, “Oh, what have the Romans done for us?” Well, for me it’s “What have the Greeks done for us?” They’ve given us [or significantly contributed to] philosophy, geometry, astronomy, navigation, the first robot…

So I wanted to do a series that explored it a bit, and I thought it’s time that my mum had a bit of the action on TV because my Dad’s got all the glory for the walks.

What was it like returning to your roots?

Chios Island harbour view (Shutterstock)

Chios Island harbour view (Shutterstock)

So me and my mum end up on the isle of Chios, which is where my grandparents are from originally although they emigrated to Wales.

We’re all fascinated by their roots and what a culture shock it must’ve been to leave this little Greek island and head into the port of Cardiff so it was lovely to go back to Chios.

They are the world’s exporter of mastiha – you probably would’ve heard of mastic glue – which is that really sticky stuff which is sealing your bathroom to the wall as we speak.

Mastiha derives from the mastic tree. The people of Chios harvest the resin and they turn it into just about everything. You can chew on it and it has healing properties. It’s just this wonder product. 

Sap from a mastiha tree (Shutterstock)

Sap from a mastiha tree (Shutterstock)

They put it in everything: coffee, biscuits or you can just lick it from a spoon like my mother did. And it’s managed to make everyone on the island wealthy.

Everyone is somehow involved in the mastiha trade even the old yayas (grandmothers) who sit around these little wooden tables sifting through the first harvest, talking and singing.

You cannot compare it to our generation of octogenarians. They don’t look that old and the community is so different; it keeps them alive and gives them a purpose. This was a passion project and it was a really magical experience for me.

Had you been to the Greek islands much growing up?

Well yes, I mean, we couldn’t afford to go very much, but the trips were peppered throughout my childhood to visit my grandmother. And I remember those moments. My grandmother lived in this two-bedroom cottage and had a shipping container with ‘Bedroom Three’ on it.

I loved being in there. I remember her lime-painted pathways, which I would help paint and there were kittens everywhere. I have good childhood memories there, which makes doing the programme more profound.

Did anything surprise you?

Corfu beach and the blue Mediterranean (Shutterstock)

Corfu beach and the blue Mediterranean (Shutterstock)

Well, first of all the contrast of all the different islands – it’s so distinct on every level. Corfu has been invaded many times over the years by the Italians and the Turkish.

I was surprised by the impact of the Italians because it was like being in Venice. You think you’re going to emerge into St Mark’s Square. It’s also got a cricket team and 17 marching bands.

The beaches of Crete are world famous and beautiful and the interior has these enormous valleys where they grow everything.  And then you go somewhere like Santorini where, in the late 60s there was no electricity, and it has now become one of the biggest luxury destinations in the world. 

There are hotel rooms that cost 4,000 euros per night. We don’t want anywhere to suffer from over tourism and a lot of the Greek islands are looking towards Santorini and thinking, “Well we don’t want to do that. How can we make this more sustainable?"

Is sustainability important to you?

The white houses of Santorini (Shutterstock)

The white houses of Santorini (Shutterstock)

Yes. I plant trees for carbon offsetting. I do also try in all of my films and stories to cover green issues and raise awareness – like I did in Santorini where tourism has a knock-on effect on plastic pollution. I think plastic pollution in the Mediterranean increases by 40% every summer. I met this one man and he’s got this charity called Enaleia.

The fishing industry in Greece has been decimated by overfishing and a lot of the fisherman aren’t aware of the plastic problem so they’re picking up the plastic in their nets and then just chucking it back overboard. It’s bonkers when you think about it. His charity pays them to fish out plastic debris and it then gets [upcycled] into socks and things.

Because Santorini is volcanic, it’s got the potential to go the same way as Iceland with renewables which is very exciting. I’m also trying to promote advancement in the aviation industry, which now accounts for 2% of carbon emissions.

There are so many things that could be done, and it’s about putting pressure on the airlines to reduce their single-use plastic, to use a different fuel – there’s a new fuel they’ve got now which might get you in 10 minutes late to your destination, but reduces carbon emissions by 60% – and I think people would be happy to factor that in if they knew the good it was doing. 

What were some of the highlights of travelling to the Greek islands?

1,700-year-old Greek olive tree (Shutterstock)

1,700-year-old Greek olive tree (Shutterstock)

The beauty of it is completely surprising. I focused on trees, especially the olive grove, with these two amazing boys who had taken over their family business and turned it from being a mass producer of olive oil to a bespoke specialist producer of this wonderful olive oil that you drink – rather than drizzle on your tomatoes. 

I interviewed them up a 1,500-year-old olive tree – you can imagine the size of it – and the trunk was big enough to walk up so we all sat on a branch.

What was the walking like?

Julia Bradbury in Corfu, ready for a hike (Shutterstock)

Julia Bradbury in Corfu, ready for a hike (Shutterstock)

The walking is gorgeous, really off the beaten trail. Crete is amazing for walking. 

They have a hike through one the longest gorges in Europe, which goes through Crete and above and beyond where you’re walking in the footsteps of the Minoans. 

And I did some walking in Corfu in a little village called Old Perithia – people will recognise it because it’s mentioned by the Durrells.

And Santorini, if anyone wants to do hiking in Santorini, there’s one man on the island called Niko who’s incredible.

There are these amazing trails that the Santorini tourist board never spend money, so I was a bit frustrated, but nevertheless we went on a walk and it was just stunning.

You’re walking along and there’s a fig tree and a fennel tree and all these lovely wild herbs. 

What’s next for you?

Well in terms of what I want to do next, I want to go back to Greece. Because with the series, although we go off the beaten track, we’re showing some of the well-known parts, too.

We purposelessly want people to feel familiar with the names: the Corfus, the Cretes, the Santorinis. But there are over 6,000 Greek islands and I want to go and explore; I want to see some of the little unspoilt ones.

If there was one place on the series you could go back to?

That’s so hard. It would either be back up the tree with my olive oil boys, or back to the boat with my fisherman brothers in Skiathos.

The Greek Islands with Julia Bradbury is available on ITV Player now

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