This story covers two weeks of island hopping in Greece. I have tried to capture the atmosphere of independent travel in this beautiful part of the world. You will soon realize that I and my wife Jude are totally hooked on the place!
25 July - 07 August
07 - 08 August
A slight jolt and we're moving at last; backing away from the gate. A three hour delay isn't that bad these days. After all, the airways are nothing more than an extension of the chaos on the British motorways. Our last flight was delayed waiting for the arrival of the captain who was stuck in traffic on the M56!
On this occasion we are quite happy to be delayed as it's more comfortable in Manchester Airport than sitting on a bench in the grime of Piraeus waiting to be allowed to board the ferry. We'll be cutting it fine though to clear Athens Airport in time for the express bus to Piraeus. There's no pressure on us, however, as we have not booked any onward travel or accommodation; if we miss the ferry we'll go somewhere else. That's one of the main attractions to this kind of trip - the freedom.
It's a pretty good flight. Well, it's only three and a half hours so it's bearable. No chance to sleep though with all the interruptions for feeding, duty-free etc. We're out of the airport at 06.40 and the bus leaves at 07.03.
The bus is on time but it's rush hour in Piraeus and we reach the quay side at 07.50, fortunately quite close to the Milos Express, the ferry we want to catch. We set off at double time, buy tickets at the kiosk and make it with minutes to spare. By the time we reach the sun deck the ramp is up and we're on our way.
I've never had any desire to go on a cruise, but Greek ferries are something I never tire of provided there's a few days between each voyage. A cruise ship it is not! It's like a floating Greek village with more than its fair share of tourists. Just like a Greek village, life goes on just as it always has with the foreign tourists being at best welcomed and at worst tolerated in a civilised manner. You never feel unwelcome or threatened as you do in many tourist regions of the world.
This boat is packed. We find seats - plastic patio chairs - eventually. They're on the sunny side and it's hot. According to the newspaper it's 98 degrees ad it feels like it until we get out into the open sea and it soon feels quite cool. This is a dangerous time for travellers with no suntan and no lotion. You can burn badly in eight hours without even realising it. We're well prepared and put on the factor 15. Now we can start to enjoy the trip.
One thing to be aware of if you are thinking about a Greek Island hoping trip particularly at this time of year is that the seas are surprisingly rough. The "Meltemi" wind blows incessantly in the Aegean area throughout July and August. There are spells of calm every few days but not for long enough for the sea to subside very much. You can't be certain of calm seas in the Aegean at any time in fact. We experienced some of the worst conditions on one May trip. If you are a poor sailor the Ionian Islands would be a better bet. Fortunately, neither of us has that problem. We actually enjoy a rough crossing.
We have been to Greece at least once every year since 1979. My first visit was in 1974 as part of my "Grand Tour" which took me on through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. I had fallen for Greece even then: I was drawn back from Cairo to spend the remaining time (and money) in the Cyclades Islands. It is somewhere you can keep going back to for this long and never visit the same island twice. We have visited several more than once, but at the last count we had spent at least one night on thirty islands. We'll never see them all - there are hundreds!
It's 10.45 and we have passed many islands by now but Kythnos, our first port of call, is approaching. There's always a sense of excitement at this time. Some of your fellow passengers are starting to gather their belongings together ready to disembark and there are repeated announcements over the Tannoy in Greek and English. Soon we are slowing down and turning in what seems an impossibly small port for such a large ship. The heat really hits you now as the wind drops and the heat from the land wafts across the decks bringing with it the wonderful aromas of herbs and pine mixed with the not so wonderful diesel fumes. The speed at which the ferry is docked, foot passengers and vehicles unloaded and loaded and released from its moorings again has to be seen to be believed. Without any exaggeration it is normal for a ferry to do this in less than ten minutes. It looks and sounds like chaos with much shouting and blowing of whistles but it is a precision operation. On a very small island, it turns an atmosphere of absolute peace into that of a major city for fifteen minutes either side of the ferry docking.
Kythnos looks like our sort of place. There's an attractive port set in a deep sheltered bay. The crescent shaped waterfront area is lined with trees hiding numerous restaurants and cafes. You can see everything from the top deck of a ferry and it helps you to get your bearings. This is particularly useful when you are deciding on which islands to visit on the return journey. There is one dreadful eyesore here, right in the middle of the village. Looking imposing and incongruous in the extreme stands the Hotel Poseideon - a high rise monstrosity which appears to be derelict to make matters worse. How did they ever allow this to be built. If there's a "knock it down fund", we'll contribute!
Before we have the time to take it all in we're on our way again. Next stop Serifos at 13.00. It must be good, half the passengers are getting off here. There's a bustling little town with some excellent looking beaches in view, and a wonderful backdrop of mountains.
We're getting tired now. We haven't slept since we got up early on Friday morning for work and it's now Saturday afternoon. There's little chance of sleeping on the boat and anyway we don't want to miss anything!
An hour or so later we dock at Sifnos. A much larger island with good roads. Not particularly attractive from the sea but that doesn't mean a lot. We can see that there's a busy bus service, so it would be easy and cheap to get around.
Kimolos is next. A typical small Cycladic island with a tiny port and a chora (hill village) of cubic buildings perched on a hill in the distance. There's little development in the port area so you would have to get up to the village to find much life. There's certainly no tourist trappings here and few people leave or join us.
From Kimolos we pass close to the north coast of Milos and circle the island in an anti-clockwise direction until we reach the port in the south. This is a busy port with a great deal of traffic. It's obviously a working island. Numerous quarries are visible, scarring the landscape. It's easy to see why this isn't a favourite with tourists but first impressions can be misleading.
We continue our circumnavigation of Milos and then break away to the south west towards Folegandros which is soon visible in the distance, its towering cliffs emerging dramatically and vertically out of the sea. We pass very close to this northern coast and can see the Chora standing on top of the cliffs like icing on a cake. As we round the top of the island we enter an inlet but can see no sign of the port. We had been expecting something like we had seen on the other islands but when it came into view it was just a small fishing hamlet with a pebble beach - picturesque, but suddenly I realised just what a remote island this was.
My limited command of Greek tells me that the port's name - Karavostasis - means boat stop which seems pretty accurate. We disembark with some relief after such a long journey (it's now 17.10 and we still haven't slept) and more than a little trepidation. There won't be another ferry for a couple of days, so we're stuck here whether we like it or not.
There's a bus at the end of the quay which is full already with tourists heading for the Chora to snap up any available accommodation. I didn't think we were that slow getting off the boat but then we're not as young as most of them! It's often better not to rush, however. Let's get our bearings, have look around the port and decide what to do. The port is actually very pleasant, quiet and should be a good place to stay, particularly as there is a regular bus service from here to the Chora. We walk up the hill for a couple of hundred yards and spot a sign outside a shop offering rooms. A quick word with the owners who are leaning over the balcony overlooking the road and before we have time to think about it the lady is leading us along the beach road and out of the village towards a seemingly derelict structure.
Things are not looking too good at this stage but we know better than to take anything for granted in Greece. As we get closer we can see that it is one of those uncompleted grand ideas which Greek families launch themselves into not always with the advisable level of forward planning. They build the structure of a large house and complete a small section of it, sometimes the ground floor and sometimes the first floor, and add to it as funds allow. It can take generations! In this case a concrete framework had been erected over the top of the original single storey farm dwelling. This originally attractive home had now taken the form of a bombed out office block and appeared by the faded colour and eroded condition of the concrete to have been in this state for some years. However, in spite of all this the room we were offered was clean, had an en-suite bathroom and was quite acceptable. We took it with no hesitation and were left alone with no request for a deposit or ID; I suppose we were unlikely to escape!
I checked my watch to find that we have only been on the island for twenty minutes and we were already settled in our new home. We needn't have worried.
We could have just slept but we needed a drink and something to eat so we went straight out again and headed for the first bar to check out the island's real exchange rate. Prices do vary considerably from island to island and we always use the Amstel rate - the price of the ubiquitous 500ml bottle of Amstel. It's a Dutch beer brewed under licence in Greece and has long been the national beer of Greece. I'd love to know how many bottles are sold annually in Greece. Anyway, the price was between 400 and 550 drachma depending on the type of establishment, which at 480drs to a pound sterling is roughly £0.82 - £1.03. This compares extremely well with the last couple of years when the exchange rate was not so favourable, so we're happy. There's something about the first beer on a new island and I soon forget my tiredness. Jude couldn't wait to try an ouzo again. Our supply ran out months ago: it's an acquired taste but once you've acquired it .......!
Our meal at one of the small tavernas overlooking the port was excellent - tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip), Greek salad (tomatoes, cucumber, olives and feta cheese with olive oil dressing and a sprinkling of fresh oregano), imam (stuffed aubergine) and roast chicken leg and fried potatoes. It's Saturday night and it's so quite except for the bouzouki music drifting from the kitchen. Oh, it's good to be back on the islands.
You will need Real Audio Player to play this file. It can be downloaded from www.real.com The unmistakable bouzouki music
A nightcap at the "Axtee" hotel bar - a balcony overlooking the bay - and home to bed - we've been up for thirty eight and a half hours!!!
It's not quiet for long. The doors and windows banging in the wind, the refrigerator rattles and buzzes as it switches itself on and off every few minutes, there's a car alarm in the distance and the owls are hooting. It doesn't keep us awake for long, but then it's cockerels before dawn. They're all around us in wonderful surround sound, but we sleep for over twelve hours regardless and wake up to a wonderful hot day with a fresh breeze and an impossibly blue sky.
Sunday 26 July
We're soon up and about and after breakfast at the aptly named "Meltimi Restaurant" in the village we set off on foot along the coast road to find a beach. The beach at Livadi about 1km along the road is nothing special but it's good enough for our first morning. After a couple of hours we retreat to the little restaurant at "Camping Livadi" behind the beach for a plate of spaghetti and a couple of Amstels. O our return to the village I catch the last couple of laps of the Austrian Grand Prix on the TV in the grocery shop - Hakkinen, Coulthard, Schumacher , another good day for McLaren.
We decide it's time to see the Chora so we jump on the next bus. Unusually, the driver is extremely careful and steady on the 10 minute climb and the Chora look very promising as we approach. We would not be disappointed and the views over the cliff from the little square were unbelievable. I tried not to think of my vertigo as I took some photographs of the jagged rocks towering out of the sea way below.
As we walk through the narrow streets - too narrow for vehicles - into the centre of the village I'm glad I have brought plenty of film with me as I just can't resist the church domes and bell towers against the blue of the sky. The Meltemi is doing its stuff. Mini-tornados whipping along the alleys carrying assorted debris with them. Summer dresses lift Munroe style to the amusement of onlookers and horror of occupants.
Antiparos claims to have the only complete kastro in the Cyclades. Not true! This one is arguably better and it certainly serves its purpose of providing a hiding place against invaders better.
Inside the Kastro
Once inside there's an eerie calm; the wind has dropped and the invading tourists are notably absent, apart from ourselves of course, but we are travellers rather than tourists! We almost missed the entrance and if we hadn't known that there was a kastro I'm sure we would have missed it. There are in fact three entrances, one through an archway on the right as you round the first right hand corner as you walk into the village from the bus stop square, one about fifty yards further on and the other, an arched passageway (or tunnel) about five feet high and perhaps thirty foot long, at the far end passing through a wall wide enough to contain dwellings on two levels. The concept is very clever: the surrounding terraced buildings all back onto a hidden interior "mini-village" with rows of buildings in an interior block. Many of these are now derelict but the outer buildings are inhabited and many have been tastefully restored. It is to be hoped that local entrepreneurs will take on the take of restoring the remaining buildings to their original condition. I would be surprised if they didn't. The sketch below was drawn at the time. I have just replaced my scribbled text with something legible.
"Turbo Service from Nikolas"
That's the message on a sign on the restaurant marked "A" on the map. I don't remember the name but you can't miss it as it takes over about half the square. The statement is certainly accurate and has to be seen to be believed. We were entertained by him serving eight or nine tables on his own (efficiently) whilst directing roof repairs! The makeshift raffia awning tied to the surrounding trees with wire and string had formed itself into the shape of an aerofoil and was doing its best to take off on the wind like a giant paraglider!
Take-off came progressively closer with every gust and just before the clientele upped and ran to safety Nikolas called out his trusty helpers - the kitchen crew - to effect repairs. Armed with a length of wire and a decidedly dodgy pair of step ladders the chef attempted to secure the one end of the aerofoil to the overhanging branches while the other end flapped violently in the strengthening wind. We were treated to this floor show throughout our surprisingly good meal. It's usually windy on Folegandros, so this must be a regular show. If you visit the island don't miss it.
By the way, the menu is one of the best we have seen anywhere in Greece and particularly for vegetarians. It's imaginative and vast. Also, there's plenty to keep you and your family amused apart from the floor show. In addition to the usual backgammon boards, there are other boards games, cards, a Greek language course and a "take the ring around the wire without ringing the bell" game to test the steadiness of your hand after sampling the local retsina (resinated white wine). Retsina, by the way is another (easily) acquired taste.
Our meal comprised bruschetta, the Italian style garlic bread with olive oil in place off butter; tzatziki, the Greek dip of yogurt, cucumber and garlic; vegetable moussaka, pork steak in creamy sauce; fried potatoes; 1 Amstel, 1 ouzo, 1 lemonade and 1/2 litre of retsina. The bill? - 7150drs.
Monday 27 July
My calf muscles have tightened up. I'm out of condition and despite the fact that my pack weighs only seven kilos, rushing up and down the stairs from deck to deck on the ferry has taken its toll. So we decide to have an easy day. We've bought a map of the island and see that the bus will take us to the little fishing village of Angali which has a fine sandy beach. What the map didn't show was that the bus stop for Angali is on the main road about a mile from the beach, the road down to Angali being too narrow and steep for the bus to negotiate! I soon find that calf muscles are important for preventing the leg from collapsing in a forward direction when descending an incline and mine are reluctant to perform this function. I am having great difficulty staying on my feet but nevertheless we're soon on the beach. The beach is quite busy, so after a quick look around and a drink we decide to follow the cliff path to see if we can find a quieter spot. The climbing seems to stretch the calf muscles and in the considerable mid morning heat, they are loosening a little and I'm starting to enjoy the walk. As you can see from the picture, the scenery is quite a distraction.
It's only a short walk to the next cove and we settle on the pebble beach for a couple of hours of sunbathing and snorkelling. The beach is sheltered from the wind and consequently it's hot and the water is warm and clear - wonderful. Back to Angali for a late lunch at the little taverna clinging to the cliff at the side of the beach and then it's the dreaded climb back to the bus stop. We set off at 16.50 for the 17.15 bus. Some enterprising locals with donkeys offer to take us up the hill and I am tempted but the calves are no problem when climbing to we decide to walk. We make it, hearts racing, at 17.10.
Why are buses always late when you are five minutes early and early when you are one minute late? The road runs along a narrow ridge with the road to Angali on the sheltered southern side and a steep cliff down to the sea on the windward northern side. While I wait the fifteen minutes to take the picture of the approaching bus a hawk hovers over the cliff, perfectly still until suddenly it dives into the scrub far below after some unsuspecting prey.
Back at the port, it's a quick shower and change and out for a meal. We decide on the closest restaurant, the Poseidon, about 200 yards from the Farm and far enough for my suffering legs. The meal of tzatziki, xorta, kolokithakia, pork souflaki, 2 Amstels and a litre of retsina set us up for a good sleep and after ten minutes star gazing with the binoculars (the sky's rarely this clear at home), we retire at 23-45 feeling that we've done the day justice.
Tuesday 28 July
Over our breakfast of yoghurt, honey, a peach and a Fanta on our "patio" we try to make a decision on our next island. Sikinos?, Milos?, Kimolos?. It'll depend as much on the boat timetable as anything, apart from the fact that it is going to be difficult to drag ourselves away from such a wonderful location. We decide to leave it for the moment - there's no rush.
Went down to the local pebble beach opposite the Poseidon Retaurant for a couple of hours sunbathing and swimming; quite pleasant until a Greek family descended on us one by one and gradually took over our spot under a tree. We always find it amusing the way this is done. We were obviously on their bit of beach, the one they had occupied every other day. Eventually we retreat to the village.
Checked the ferry timetable and changed some US dollars we brught back from Barbados in May. 297 drs / Dollar.
Strangely (or typically!), tickets can be bought at the port office next to the large sign telling us that all tickets are now computerised and must be purchased from the office in the Chora!
................To be continued .............. Back to Home Page