Monday, July 11, 2011
Greece the Cyclades- The Telegraph by Chris Heath
Book your Greece Holidays with the Specialist! www.bestofgreece.co.uk
A very interesting article about the complex of the Cycladic Greek Islands in the Telegraph by Chris Heath! Best of Greece has also made some slight changes to this beautiful article! Enjoy
I had never visited the Greek islands and, perhaps because of this, there has always been a Greek island of my imagination: an idyllic union of clear, azure water, rocky coves and barren hillsides, barely another creature in evidence aside from the occasional ambling donkey, one or two lizards scuttling out of sight, and the family who run the taverna nestled into the nape of a bay at the sea's edge that I'll always stumble upon precisely when hunger or thirst requires it. I'm not quite sure what inspired this idealised flight of fancy in the first place – a snatch of film, or a photograph, or something I once read, no doubt, though I have no memory of it – but in September I decided it was finally time to discover whether I could actually find anything like the Greek island experience that I'd invented in my head.
I was well aware that this might prove a foolish quest. A little research quickly told me that, for one thing, I was probably at least 30 years too late. Still, a little further research suggested that, if anything like my imaginary Greek island existed, my best chance might lie in some of the smaller islands in the group known as the Cyclades. So that is where I headed.
To reach them, the obvious place to begin is Mykonos, itself only an easyJet hop from London. Even before arriving there, I realise that Mykonos's role in my journey may well be to bear the first brunt of my unrealistic expectations, and so it proves. Though in different circumstances I am not averse to modest doses of this kind of neverending beach-party rave, it is the antithesis of what I'm searching for right now, and while there may well be a gentler Mykonos, free from the relentless exhortations of the Black Eyed Peas, I don't hang around to find it.
Anyone who plans to travel in any kind of semi-adventurous manner in the Greek islands has to grapple with the Greek ferry system. Reading up on the subject beforehand, it seemed daunting – the variety of competing ferries of different speeds and qualities, the non-transferable tickets, the complex and ever-changing timetables, and the unlikelihood that everything will anyway run as it is supposed to. (Hidden Greece, the travel company that has put together most of my itinerary, offers this unusual holiday advice in its guidance notes: 'To enjoy being in Greece it is best to adopt a sense of placid resignation.')
I hope that ferries won't be as tricky as it appears, but it's definitely not simple. Today my first leg is from Mykonos to Paros; the hotel kindly offers to transfer me to the ticket office on the way to the ferry terminal (naturally the ticket offices are not at the terminal), but even they get the wrong office and we have to backtrack to a competing operator. Then, after disembarking in Paros, I have to buy the right bus ticket and find the bus that takes one down the island to a different port, where I must buy a new ticket for the small ferry that takes me to my destination for the next two nights, the island of Antiparos.
Antiparos which is a small island right next to Paros Island seems pleasant enough – perfect for families who want to drink, eat, and bathe in calm, shallow water – but I have a rather frustrating two days there, walking miles in the baking sun up and down steep hills to remote coves that seem alluring from a distance. The first time I spot one, I briefly imagine that this is all it takes – a plane, a couple of ferries, a bus and some sturdy walking – to find Greek island paradise. I picture the scene a few minutes ahead: bounding on to the empty beach, stripping off my clothes, diving into the clean, translucent sea. And then, as I get closer, I discover the beach, such as it is, is made of some kind of dried and rather disgusting sea vegetation over which is scattered mounds of battered, washed-up, sea-weathered plastic. Paradise proves more elusive than that.
I hadn't particularly been looking forward to Naxos. It is the largest and most populated of the islands on my itinerary, and might well not be on it at all were it not the departure point for the smaller Cyclades. But, when I look back, Naxos will seem to me where this journey first begins to make sense.
The city of Naxos itself, where the ferries arrive, is big and fairly busy, but it still feels very different to anywhere I've been up to now. Its unusual tone is set by the large rectangular doorway, the Portara, supposedly the remains of an unfinished temple to Apollo built around 50bc, sitting on a headland to the north of the harbour as you enter it. On one side, white-spumed waves from the open sea batter enthusiastically; on the other, a gigantic Blue Star ferry sits in the still harbour.
Behind sits the old town of Naxos on its small hilltop, and far behind that looms the summit of Mount Zeus, the highest point in the Greek islands. Inside the causeway that arcs out to the Portara, some stone steps lead down into the water for bathers. It doesn't seem a popular swimming spot – aside from me there is only an elderly Greek man and an extremely old Greek woman in a bathing cap – and it has none of the remoteness I hanker for, but there is something agreeable about the hodgepodge of quaint, historic, busy, ghastly and serene that surrounds you as you float, and I'm already beginning to like it here.
The island is too big to explore easily on foot so in the morning I rent a car (€25 for 24 hours; insurance not mentioned). I head northwards, keeping as close to the west coast as roads will allow, taking the occasional dead end to the ocean, always looking out for a beautiful and deserted beach or bay.
I stop for a while to clamber around the ruins of the Tower of Ayia, and shortly before the island's northernmost tip I spot a promising small bay far below, and make my way down a series of increasingly discouraging dirt tracks. The last hundred feet I have to do on foot. The beach is not without a little of the manmade flotsam I'm beginning to think of as the predominant indigenous Greek island species, but once I'm lying face down in the water, the sun's refractions forming magical shifting tessellations on the rock and sand below, I find that I'm not too bothered by that, or anything else.
Reinvigorated, I head onwards. One of the decisions I've implicitly made is that I don't plan to spend my time on the Greek islands trudging from antiquity to antiquity (if what I'm after is not quite modern Greece, nor is it Ancient Greece), but I am keen to see Naxos's fallen kouros.
Marble for statues was quarried in Naxos, and there are three famous examples where near-completed figures were abandoned on the ground. (The most common explanation for this is that a fault was detected in the marble, though it's also suggested that the customers who commissioned them may have died before completion. Interpretations change with the time in which they're made, of course. Nowadays one's instinctive hypothesis might well be '40 per cent government spending cuts'.)
The most famous of these abandoned kouros, a near-finished male nearly 30ft high, dating from the seventh century bc, lies on a hillside in the north of the island near Apollonas. To be honest, it's a little less impressive than I'd expected – as pitted and weathered as it is, incomplete and abandoned for so long, it looks a little like a giant papier-mâché model made by a kid who lost interest in the project when he realised how difficult arms were to do.
The principal goal I have set myself for today is to climb Mount Zeus, something the guide-books agree takes no special expertise but some substantial effort. Particularly under this sun. In early September not only do the holiday crowds thin but the temperatures are also supposed to drop. Not this September. Throughout my trip, the midday hours will be unseasonably baking – never below 26C – and so I've adopted a rhythm of saving my greatest exertions for the hours after dawn and before dusk.
Today, I set off uphill at 4.45pm, but it is still breath-stealingly hot. It's a long slog, too, and I only arrive on top at 6.15pm, the time I'd marked as the latest I should begin my descent. But the view is mesmerising in every direction. Back behind me, over lower mountains topped with small churches, I can see the town of Naxos. Far in the distance, more than 50 miles away, is the edge of the Greek mainland. Ahead, I can see islands splattered over the sea including, close by, the four of the smaller Cyclades where I plan to spend the next few days: Iraklia, Schoinoussa, Koufonissia and Kato Koufonissia. (The view goes both ways, of course. Just as the islands seem close to me from here, for the next week I will able to look up from almost anywhere I am on these islands and see this summit rising in the distance.)
Inevitably, I end up starting my descent far later than I had intended, and, coming down, I relearn several obvious and important lessons. One is that it is a lot easier to find your way up a mountain to a single point than to retrace your steps down over the complicated and sometimes befuddling three-dimensional curves that make up this planet.
The other even more obvious lesson is: when you hurry you make mistakes. Skipping from pointy boulder to pointy boulder, my left boot tiredly, clumsily, catches on a piece of rock I hadn't seen. I go over in stages, and even as I topple, I am imagining a night on the mountain, and stretchers. I come to rest a little scuffed and scraped and stretched, but basically fine. Further down I take my mobile from my trouser pocket to check the time and discover that a spear of rock has completely pulverised it, and presumably would have otherwise skewered my thigh. Lucky.
Almost back at the car, I allow myself a few minutes to hobble inside what is known as the Zeus cave, where, according to legend, the young Zeus was hidden. He had to be secreted because his father, Kronos, having being told that one of his sons would dethrone him, was in the habit of eating his newborns. In Zeus's case, Kronos was tricked into swallowing a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead. This cave, incidentally, is only one of several in Greece claiming this honour. I like the idea that there are competing claims as to where something that didn't really happen happened; the squabbles of mythology.
The smaller Cyclades are most conveniently connected by a modestly sized ferry called the Express Skopelitis, which travels in one direction between them on most (but not all) days during the summer months. The first stop on leaving Naxos, and hence my first destination, is Iraklia. At sea, I read in the guidebook Greek Island Hopping about Iraklia's principal settlement, Agios Georgios: 'The village boasts all the usual lack of amenities…' I'm the sort of traveller whose heart soars at the sound of 'lack of amenities'.
Once I've settled into the Sunset Rooms – a few minutes' walk out of town, where I stay on a ridge that provides an attractively desolate view – I hike across to Livadi beach, stopping on the way back for some food at an open-air restaurant overlooking the harbour.
In the reading I'd done before coming here, the Greek island food is often mentioned as something of an impediment. The omnipresence of octopus on the menu is one of the common drawbacks people refer to, but I'm rather fond of it. Greek menus are often criticised for being narrow and predictable, and they can seem that way at first glance, but I eat far more interestingly than I expect to.
There are the unfamiliar local greens I discover, for instance – I particularly like horta, a tasty, stringy vegetable, and the slightly spicy leaves of glistrada. And the same dish, anyway, rarely turns out to be the same dish. I order octopus pretty much every day, and it is never prepared exactly the same way. Sometimes I'll be given two or three huge tentacles, sometimes marinated, sometimes oily, sometimes slightly spicy, sometimes on a bed of something unpredictable, sometimes not.
Other times it is thinly sliced. This evening's, in Iraklia, comes in small chunks in a light olive oil and garlic sauce. (One other small upside of ordering the octopus: the waiters always seem rather surprised, and pleased, rather as though I've chosen to say something complimentary about the Greek flag.)
When I set off on a long hike the next afternoon, there is not a single cloud in the sky. My route – taken from Dieter Graf's Walking the Greek Islands: Eastern & Northern Cyclades, which becomes my bible on this trip – guides me through a deserted inland village where birds spookily perch on wires. I am heading for some caves at the far end of the island.
One of these, which can be entered only by crawling through a low opening, has a ceremonial importance to the islanders, who all gather here each year for a church service on August 28. Inside, there is a small altar, a flame still burning; other spent candles sit on top of stalagmites deeper in. In the entrance, to save one's knees, someone has kindly put down the world's dirtiest carpet.
It turns out that on Sundays there are no ferries to my next destination, Schoinoussa, but eventually I find myself negotiating with a man sitting outside the supermarket cutting up a squid, and manage to charter my own inter-island ferry for €20. I have no pre-booked accommodation, but Grispos Villas, which I see advertised on a telegraph pole in the harbour, turns out to be a fortuitous choice.
The bay it sits above is more beautiful than the ad allows, and my room leads out to a small balcony from which I can survey it all. The long beach below has a few chairs on it, but there are fewer than a dozen people along the whole stretch, and it's fairly delightful. I read, snorkel and doze, then retire to the hotel's outdoor restaurant where I have a lazy lunch and some wine from the owner's brother's Schoinoussa vineyard. (One more thing I like about eating in the Greek islands: more often than not the design of the paper tablecloths is of a map of the island you are on. Often these are more detailed than those in the guidebooks.)
There's not much to do on Schoinoussa – you can explore the island on foot, as I do extensively; swim in the sea; lounge by the sea; eat; drink. I imagine some might find it a little boring. It's the kind of boredom I could tolerate for quite some time. And when, after two days here, I head on, my bill for two nights' board in the nicest room I will stay in on this trip, two breakfasts, two lunches, one dinner, sundry drinks and my ferry ticket onwards (the hotel owners turn out also to be the local ferry agents) is less than €150.
Two islands, a few hundred yards from each other, bear the name Koufonissia. One, Kato Koufonissia, is unoccupied. The other – officially Ano Koufonissia, though the 'Ano' is seldom used – is my next stop, and I approach it with some trepidation. I know it is by far the most densely populated of the smaller Cyclades, somewhere that has been famous as a secret gem of a holiday resort long enough to have been spoilt. I am right, and I am also completely wrong. Koufonissia is full of people, and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants, and more spring up each year, and yet I love it from the minute I arrive.
It's hard to explain why it seems to work so well. There are loads of people here, but it is as if they have each made a pact not to spoil it for everybody else. And then there is the colour of the water – the kind of incredible green-blue that, strangely, I haven't seen on any of the other islands, as close as they are and as similar as they seem to be geologically.
I hire a bike and head anticlockwise around the coast. There is a road some of the way, then a track, and then the kind of cliff path that I suspect doesn't see bicycles very often, but I persist, when necessary walking, or even carrying the bike. Each beach seems more gorgeous than the last, and each person I pass seems to me to have an air of quiet elation. (Possibly pushing it on this front are the couple down on the rocks in one cove joyously doing eccentric, flabby, naked workout exercises.)
But it is its twin, Kato Koufonissia, that has been carrying my hopes, the place that might offer the kind of Greek island experience I'd imagined. Though it is officially empty, I knew that there were some holiday homes, and a little goat-herding. I also knew that there was a taverna there, open only in the summertime, which was served by boats ferrying daytrippers.
Other than that, despite scouring the internet, books and newspaper archives, I could find very little specific information. I loved the idea of waking up in a Greek island where people didn't really live, and before leaving London I'd searched for any way to stay there – a bed in a goat-herder's hut, even – but in vain. So I'd been asking myself whether it would be a good idea simply to try and find a spot of sand there to bed down under the open sky and enjoy my own private Greek island for the night. (I'd also tried to determine whether this would be legal, without finding a clear answer.)
The boat that takes daytrippers back and forth several times a day lets me off at a small jetty, from which a path leads inland past the taverna. It's late afternoon, which means that I avoid the worst of the sun but don't have long to find a place to sleep. After walking northwards for about 20 minutes, I discover a tiny beach with a short cliff behind
Between the rock face and the water there's no more than 10 feet of sand, so it's not perfect, but it'll have to do. I unpack my sleeping bag and heavier supplies, and have a quick swim – partly for pleasure and to cool off, but also to get a better sense of my surroundings and to check for any hazards I might not see if I go in the water later on. After drying off, I leave most of my stuff there and march back to the taverna.
The dining area exists in a kind of covered, walled-in patio – you feel as though you are partly inside, partly outside, but there is no sense that you are on an island, deserted or otherwise. It's as though when you stepped over the threshold you had been transported to somewhere else entirely. The one piece of information I have gleaned from my reading is that it is famous for its goat dishes, so I order what I really want – some fresh fish – but also a portion of one of the goat stews.
An English-speaking waiter advises me that the most traditional of these is the goat with potato and cheese, so I choose that. It turns out to be memorably good – the meat, speckled with rosemary, is rich in the way that lamb is when you eat kleftiko at a good Greek restaurant, but with a deeper, less sickly taste. Between courses the waiter tells me that the island is largely uninhabited because, after some ancient relics were found here in the 1990s, further development was forbidden.
Back at my beach, I lay out my sleeping bag. As the light fades I take a longer swim, return to my bed, make a sand pillow for my head and a kind of shallow trench for my body, and await the dark. There are all kinds of reasons why we don't do things like this more often – convenience, climate, security, habit – but, in the right circumstances, sleeping out underneath the stars is one of life's great pleasures.
We see them twinkling above us often enough, but not often do you get the chance to lie on your back and allow the visible universe to appear before you, let the stars come out one by one, like a sky full of dozy Cyclopses slowly waking and opening their eyes – the largest first, as though their brave example gives the others enough courage, the Milky Way being the mob who turn up last of all to see what all the fuss is about. Amid the stars, Venus, bright and low to the west, soon sets, and not long afterwards Jupiter rises in the east.
I doze a little, and when I semi-wake just after midnight I see an orange-white shape I realise to be a huge cruise ship or ferry on the far horizon. Drifting back to sleep, my over-worrying brain even wonders whether a boat like that could cast a wake as far as this, though I also drowsily chide myself for being over-fanciful.
Sometime later the noise wakes me, a much louder crashing. In the dark I can see the white spume by my feet. The waves come to within two inches of my sleeping bag as I hurriedly move everything as far up the beach as possible. Though I can think of almost nowhere else I would have rather spent the night, it's also easy to see why some people would rather not. Two competing impulses, wonder and worry, ricochet back and forth inside my mind, and it takes some time for sleep to reclaim me.
The journey home is a subject of its own. It begins the moment I put on my backpack the following morning and take the first step up the rocks away from that beach, still nearly two days from London. I will backtrack to the taverna for breakfast, and sit opposite a big red and black Che Guevara banner I hadn't noticed the night before as I eat the meal offered – a warm, dense rectangle of cheese pie and coffee.
Afterwards, I will march west, where I will discover, about 10 minutes past my camping spot, a much bigger beach where I would have been much more comfortable and safe. Onwards, just past the crest of the second of two steep hills where a decrepit old building is surrounded by goats, I will meet an old man coming towards me, riding side-saddle on his donkey, and behind him, far below, a golden beach arcing away.
At its far end, in the distance, I will see signs of where other people camp over the summer; long-term visitors. But I won't go over there – partly because I don't want to disturb their peace, mostly because I don't want to disturb my own. Instead, I will clamber down to the sand and swim at the near end of the beach in the shimmering turquoise water until the boat that comes to drop people off at the beach, and which will take me away, rounds the headland. After that, there will be 36 hours of boats, ferries, buses, aeroplanes, funnelled together with more and more people returning from their own very different Greek island adventures.
On the final, huge, crowded ferry that takes me to the mainland I will sit next to a cheery youth with his leg bound in clingfilm, covering what appears to be a fairly serious scooter mishap, just above the words tattooed on his foot in an unusually jaunty font: born to be goofy. I hope he found the fun he was looking for, but I'm very glad that I was looking elsewhere.
That was the journey home. Before that, I awake at 6.45am on my own private beach in Kato Koufonissia. The night worries have evaporated, leaving only the wonder. I open my eyes to see a single wispy, heavenly cloud in the pale dawn sky above me, one that appears to me as the unmistakable shape of the ghostly helmsman of a flying ship.
Actually, to be absolutely precise – and I find this slightly embarrassing as well as a little weird, but it is the truth – I realise that what I'm specifically reminded of by the white wisps overhead is a particular drawing in a superhero comic I read when I was about 10 in which the Flying Dutchman was a sailor in limbo who actually flew his cursed boat through the sky. It's an image I'm unaware of ever consciously thinking about in the intervening decades between turning the comic's pages and awakening here. And yet now, looking at the sky, this is what I find myself thinking about.
I'm not the type to read anything much into this, neither as mystic symbolism nor Proustian epiphany, perhaps other than as a demonstration that both the world outside and the mind inside will throw as many curious surprises your way as you have the time, openness and appetite to receive. That's one reason to travel, and one of the best: often people go thousands of miles in hope of finding a little freedom in themselves.
Also, perhaps, they travel to find parts of the world that somehow correspond to the images in their head. Travel feeds us new memories, but it seems to me that it helps us make sense of our old ones too. In some ways the Greek island of my imagination began to fade as soon as there were real Greek island experiences to take its place, but as best as I remember it, it was very little different to what now surrounds me this blissful morning.
I lie on the beach for a while, staring at the sky, then slip straight out of my sleeping bag into the water, swim out a little way, dive underwater and then float in silence as the sun edges over the horizon to join me, thinking nothing much more than how glad I am to be here.
Book your holidays to Greece and the Greek Islands with the Greece specialist since 1973! www.bestofgreece.co.uk