Kea: trip report

I’m not always supremely confident on my own. Like most people in a group situation I can hide with other people. Just me on my own can be hard to get used to. The internal monologue going all over the place with the little voice of fear and doubt! But I like my own company, I enjoy being alone – not lonely, but happy on my own. Making all the decisions alone doesn’t happen as often when you are part of couple. Especially when you are one half of an indecisive couple – ‘shall we eat here? shall we go there?’ – we both respond with the ever-placid “I’m easy – whatever you’d prefer”. So when G got whisked off for a week, I was faced with the prospect of being left to my own devices and decisions! I initially thought eating a lot of cheese would be high on my agenda, but after thinking about it properly I saw this as an opportunity to do some solo travelling, a vacation with myself. Genius and still likely to involve at least making decisions involving Feta!

G was asked to go on a Paths of Greece mission to uncover some old paths in the north of the mainland, and with this time I wanted to go somewhere in the Cyclades that was simple to get to. Narrowing it down was a case of studying the ferry timetables. I chose Kea because it has some really scenic countryside as well as lots of hikes, museums to visit and bays to swim laps in, pretty little streets I can get lost in, and coffee shops I can write in…Oh I’ve just described almost everywhere in Greece! On Friday I waved G off on his internal flight to Thessaloniki, from there he was heading on the bus out to Kozani in the Western Macedonia region, all set for a big week-long hiking adventure to discover old trails and map out a hiking network. Our neighbour Niko lived in Kozani and gave G a pep talk before he headed off, explaining how in the winters it would take 6 hours to clear the roads to get to the factories, with vast coal mines and power stations that supply most the country’s electricity. From our conversations this week, I have heard some crazy things that G has experienced; from wild dogs, to goat farmers and even deer living in monasteries, they all deserve their own tales. It’s a fascinating region of what deserves to be called ‘real Greece’…If you follow him on Instagram you’ll know what I mean!  If you’d asked me 12 months ago would G ever get involved in something like this, hiking 12 hours a day and adventuring round with the Paths of Greece guys in a beat-up jeep, I would have said ‘NO WAY’. He’s proved me totally wrong and is a legend for it.

So he’s doing hard work for a good cause and I get to take myself on vacation. I appreciate the very speed at which time flies and these six months in Greece are no exception, so not wanting to forsake a missed opportunity I book a trip to Kea, one of our neighbouring islands.

It is a different type of island – yes, part of the Cyclades in name but not in style. As it’s very close to Athens, with regular boats from the mainland port of Lavrio, I hear that plenty of wealthy Athenians have country homes there and that it gets busier on weekends and especially in August when most Greeks take their holidays. Luckily I’m going there mid-week in July, eh? I wanted to stay in Ioulida (or Ioulis) as it is one of those classic Chora towns perched up high, but has none of the Cycladic white and blue houses we associate with these islands, an altogether different architectural style, more medieval and neoclassical with red tile roofs. In fact is seems to have more in common with northern Greece visually, and it has a similarity to towns I’ve visited on its neighbouring island, Andros.

It’s super tricky finding a place there normally, nevermind when you decide to book a few days in advance. There isn’t any hotels or apartment complexes in the town, although it looks like more are springing up along the beach areas and in the port, so I resorted to AirB&B. I have been having a bit of a moral dilemma about this recently, especially as this model is having negative effects on rentals for long term tenants. This is being felt especially in Athens, where subletted apartments are changing hands for a cheap amount, then AirB&B landlords are raking it in on a per night basis. Do the math, if you can get a basic apartment on a 12 month lease for 300euros per month and charge 30euros a night – there is serious (tax-free) cash to be made.  Now these kooky apartments in run down areas being tarted up cheaply for AirB&B, may have been the ones young people would have been renting, artists, creatives, you know the lifeblood of a city before gentrification kicks in? Imagine if Airb&b had been around at this scale when Hackney and Shoreditch was on the rise…who would have been able to live there? The sad fact is the sharing-economy is turning areas of cities into ghost-blocks of apartments packed full of short term tenants, while young people, who have been hit hard by the economic crisis are unable to snap up a cheap apartment. Like other cities, this has been cottoned onto by the Greek government who have only last week announced a taxation regime to combat the 3 million visitors estimated to be staying in AirB&B’s in 2017. Sadly, unless these lettings get included in tax filing, the only ones who benefit from the extra income are landlords and Silicon Valley profit margins. Anyway, I can see it both ways  – the Airb&B model works because it provide spaces to stay where there isn’t a hotel or tourist infrastructure – so a local renting a room out, as has been done for decades in Greece, very much meets this demand. For a fairly small island but regular connections to the mainland, it doesn’t get a ton of tourists. It has a steady influx of Athenian homeowners and families who have second homes there – so has enough hotels and apartments to meet the tourists it does attract. But I wasn’t having any luck on the regular websites and agencies and am certainly not in a position to pay over 100 euros for a room that I’d need a car to get to! AirB&B delivered the goods at a budget price, so this time it wins.

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On the whole solo travelling is expensive, there’s no one to split things with (and share plates – yep, food portion problems!)  Hopping on a ferry at Syros was simple and I managed to tie in the times to the Hellenic Seaway’s Artemis boat on its regular inter-Cyclades loop – it’s slow boat and seems a bit more of a stinker than usual ferries. The engines pump out their fumes just above the outside deck where the seating area is and I always like to be out on deck if possible. Having travelled from Andros to Syros on the Artemis last year, I knew what to expect. It was a quiet and serene journey, the sun bobbing down into an orange glow just as we sailed past Kythnos. I shall rename it a sunset cruise, complete with Spanakopita for dinner. With the sun setting and the meltimi wind whipping my hair into my face, I thought life doesn’t get more glamorous than this!

As anticipated the Artemis travels to its own timetable, not uncommon for it to steadily build up a delay of hours over the course of its 12 hour inter-island loop. By the time I’d read for a while, spied on all the other passengers, stared out to sea and texted a few friends we had reached Kea by 11.30pm, close to 2 hours late. But my kind host, Irini texted to say she’d be waiting and not to worry. Phew, my next focus was the taxi I needed to get from the port Korissia up to the Chora where I was staying (Chora and Ioulis or Ioulida are interchangable names for the same town). As the ferry disembarked I focussed on where the taxi’s were waiting, after our experience at Andros last year, when we faltered at the taxi rank, then were forced to wait ages and then share one. I now make no apologies for being Greek about this – just get in the first taxi you see, any hesitation and looking for a queue is far too British. ‘Snooze you lose’. I was only carrying a small rucksack so sloughed straight into the first taxi, beaming “kalispera, sti Chora, parakelo!” as I landed on the back seat. ‘Ah, yes, no problem, please wait while I see” (this is something I’m used to now, I try to speak Greek, you hear my Greek-lish accent and reply in English- endaxi) He wandered up and down the disembarking passengers for a minute to see if anyone else was heading the same way and then headed back, resigned he wasn’t getting any other fares on this one. Sharing a taxi to the same destination is common practice in Greece, the difference being that all parties still pay the same fare, rather than splitting the cost…might not make sense to us but is very accepted practice here. As he hurtled up the dark hillside road, windows rolled down and dance music blared (that Rhianna track, Wild Thoughts, it’s everywhere, right?) I immediately noticed the smell of pine trees heady in the air which was so fresh and different to the smell in Syros.  Arriving at a new town at night alone can be a bit daunting but I saw Irini waiting as I got out the taxi, she was really sweet.  As it was a bit of mission to get to the house, through stepped streets and cobbled pathways winding upwards, we were both chatting away and getting out of breath! As we passed a few tavernas and cafés people greeted Irini, so it felt nice to be here with a local. She explained she works in the bakery and yes, she left delicious biscuits and cakes in the kitchen for me! The little 1 bed place was perfect, all whitewashed walls, and up-cycled antique furniture, and most importantly a view over the town. As it was late I just sat enjoying the view of lights twinkling below and people wandering around in the cooler evening air, before getting a good night’s sleep.

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I awoke early and was astounded by how beautiful the view was in daylight, the red terracotta roofs and all the houses a jumble of pinks, whites and stone hues. Each little building entirely different from the next in size and stature. The view spread out from the town all the way down the valley with its stepped terraces to the coast. The sun rises behind the village and because of the shape of the town built like an amphitheatre you hear the bells from all the churches, people waking up, opening shutters and chatting in the traffic-free streets. After enjoying a coffee (and biscuit) on the balcony, I felt like I needed a real introduction to the Kea and ventured out to explore before it got too hot.

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Although I was convinced I might have to leave a trail of cake crumbs to find my way back, I was too busy chatting when I arrived to notice where we were heading! But I soon got my bearings, down to the plateia and the impressive town hall building, finding a supermarket and buying some essentials to get me through a work day. That’s the beauty of being laptop and phone based, I can quite literally work anywhere with the internet and phone signal.

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After a day’s work on a super comfy chair and desk set up, I headed off to find the elusive Lion of Ioulis as the sun was low in the sky. Legends tell a few different tales about why this Lion has been carved from stone – some say it was carved as a reminder of the wild lions which once roamed in the countryside, others say it is a temple to remember the mimic tale about Kea’s origin as the island of water, known as Ydrussa and had a beautiful population of water nymphs, because of its beauty the Gods were jealous and sent a lion to destroy everything and the island dried up. Then to make it sound even more bizarre, as are most myths are with a twist, the islanders then begged Apollo’s son, Aristaeus for help, and built a temple to Zeus – the leader of all gods. This pleased them all and Zeus brought rain back to the island – therefore the Lion statue is a timely reminder of destruction and fate from the Gods. Perhaps that is why he seems so wise and weird!.

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I didn’t know all of this before I set off on the easy and well signposted 20 min walk from the centre of the village, but read up about it when I arrived. The lion is meant to date back as far as 600BC, yet signs have 1963 engraved on them protecting the surrounding space, with a gate and some whitewashed steps. So there must been a decision at some point to turn the lion into a tourist attraction. You do feel an eerie sense of stepping back in time on this walk, as you exit the village and past a few abandoned houses, it turns into just a cobbled pathway, past an impressive church and graveyard full of white marble statues to honour the dead. The lion sits surrounded by stepped terraces, a few donkeys and goats in the fields. It was a real place of solitude on an evening, apart from the animals, I didn’t see another soul.

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After such peace, I headed back into town to be amongst other people. I’d decided to take myself on a date for a drink after sunset, and then dinner in the highly recommended ‘Piatsa’ ran by a man called Yainnis. It’s the first place you come to through the ‘entrance’ to the Chora, only 8 or so tables outside and known for being good value local dishes. I happily sat in the midst of things. They were showing the football on the TV, so in between the taking orders, all the blokes from the taverna and the neighbouring cafe kept popping in to see the score.  A lively place as people met and took up tables, I enjoyed watching people pass while I sipped local red wine (not bad), sweet tomato-ey veal stew and an all important horiatiki salata , with Feta, of course.

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That’s the problem with eating alone, normally I’d have shared a side or starter, mixing and matching dishes to try things – I stuck with two dishes and it probably was a little bit too much. It was a great evening, I more or less was left alone to enjoy my own company, after all a female wearing a wedding ring wouldn’t exactly be the first person people would speak to. The waiter /owner was kind and even humoured my ordering in Greek. I’d highly the hearty food. I was alone but certainly didn’t feel lonely at all.

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The next day I wanted to try out one of the hiking trails and Route 1 seemed the easiest as it started in the Chora and ended at the beach in Otzia – which would be a perfect spot for a swim and lunch, before getting the bus back. I wanted to have a look at the Archaeological Museum first before setting off and I’m really glad I did, as it was my only opportunity because it is only open 8-3pm. At a bargain 2Euro entrance fee it is well worth a trip, on two floors it holds a fine collection of artefacts from various excavations on  the island. Of particular interest was the statues found at Ayia Irini near the port village of Korissia. These 60 + fragments of Neolithic Goddesses or ‘Sisters of Kea’ as they have been called, were found a temple and have been the subject of much mystery. They are ranging from 6ft in height to smaller versions, large bosomed, mostly headless and wearing skirts and necklaces. They are quite a striking collection and I perhaps gave them extra gravitas as I’m reading The Power by Naomi Alderman, a rather dark and violent alt-reality about the shift to a female-centric society. If you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean, if not – READ IT! These Goddesses certainly got me thinking that there could have been whole tribes of people in early civilisation that not only worshiped goddesses but were led and governed by female warriors.

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Inspired by all that I grabbed a delicious tyripita (cheese pie) from the bakery, loaded up on water bottles and set off on the trail. I really enjoy walking on my own as it gives me plenty of time to escape the chattering mind and get out into nature – although I do walk with a ‘spider/snake-stick’ which means that if you see me from a far I appear to be either brandishing a magic wand or blessing the path in front of me like an ordained priest. Really, I’m just waving the stick about to prevent me walking into cobwebs…ugh, I think (and hope) snakes are too lazy in high summer to attack! The paths were well marked and took me down from the Chora, past the Lion again and onto the spring at Veniamin which is a huge area with a marbled plaque and rows of drinking troughs. The Spring is still active and there is a huge oak tree for shade, from here the path is cobbled and flanked by dry stone walls and trails gently downward into the valleys.

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Originally this path would have connected the town to goods and traders ships which came in at the small inlet of Otzias. After nearly 2 hours walking (and no spider interactions – just a cricket flew into me and I yelped) I reached the beach – I hadn’t passed anyone apart from a woman on a donkey, presumably heading into town on her trusty steed.

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Some aspects of Kea really surprised me with its traditional ways, like donkey’s still being used for transport and the quietness of village life still going on in the same way as it has done for decades, despite being so close to the mainland. There is also a stark contrast such as the number of new build houses dotting the landscape once you head out of the valley, which made me feel a little sad when so many gorgeous building lay in need of repair in the Chora. But like everything, you can’t stand in the way of progress, especially when the country is still recovering from the economic crisis, although this week saw the reintroducing of Greek Bonds, a first since 2014 and some say a sign of a return to growth. I really liked the beach at Otzia, gravelly near white sand and shelving calm sea, sun loungers at one end and free benches at the other. The beach has a few apartments and hotels scattered around it, all fairly busy with a mix of mostly Greeks, French and Dutch. After a swim and sunbathe  I treated myself to a salad for lunch at Taverna Anna and sipped Fix beer in the shade while I waited for the bus back up to town.

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In addition to spending some time in Kea writing, I also wanted to keep practising my photography skills – amateur at the best of times, but G lent me his decent camera so I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets snapping away at decadent ironwork, abandoned houses and doorways…a growing obsession with the decaying grandeur of neo-classical buildings. Luckily Syros is prime hunting ground for such palaces, so I expect this interest to grow.

I spent my last night on Kea watching the world go by from the comfort of the outdoor seats at En Lefko on the main street. The town isn’t over-crowded as such, but does fill up after 9.30pm when people start taking up tables in the tavernas. I bagged a spot in the Kalofagadon restaurant overlooking the picturesque town hall. Enjoying another excellent dinner, this time tasty lamb chops and horta, followed by watermelon. This also scuppered my plans of having an ice-cream on the wander back to the house! I mean, what kind of holiday doesn’t have ice-cream factored in as a daily activity! Tsk – I had let myself down!

The next day I had blind faith in the taxi I had ‘booked’ by chatting to one of the drivers in the square, as the time crept on, 5 minutes ticked into 10 and I considered my options; 1) miss the ferry back to Syros – costly, 2) wander over to the table of men in the café and beg for a lift to the port, and before I had time to think of a third, my trusty steed arrived, no not the taxi driver I actually made this arrangement with, but the one who I met when I arrived. Phew! And before I knew it there I was back on the Aqua Spirit with a breakfast of Spanakopita, from Korissia’s traditional wood-fired bakery and a freddo espresso to enjoy on the journey back to Ermoupoli.

For those of you who pay attention, yes, I did have 3 pastry based meals in 4 days – don’t judge – I also could have had WAY more cheese.

Sadly, that might be my last Aqua Spirit journey as the boat is due to retire at the end of the month – I asked the ships purser when it was changing to the new boat (the ex-, he was vague “next month, sometime”. But having travelled on it quite a bit this summer, I was pleased to get the nod of recognition from the crew. They walk around the ship when it gets into each port to make sure the lost tourists get off at the right stop. At Kythnos he did his usual walk through, looked at me and said “Syro, neh?. I smiled ‘Neh, Syro’, and kept that smile long enough for the boat to reach Ermoupolis and see its twin hills swing into view. There she is, the Queen of the Cyclades and thought to myself, ‘home’…

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