In ruins

20180822_1121401532786495.jpg

On my day off I often walk into town on the old Kini Path. The bit I don’t like much is where you need to follow the tarmac road on its bends past the quarry.

But once I reach Alithini the trail is old and it meanders down into Ano Syros, past farm terraces and goats bleating in their pens. It is like a glimpse into another version of this island, away from the mopeds whizzing by, the traffic and the noise. Often I see no one else. But not always. There are fragments of the old ways of rural life, which still go on if you know where to look. On one of these walks I passed a man with a basket, it was the old woven kind that you see now in touristic oldie worldie stores. I see whatever is in the basket is is wrapped in a white cloth like muslin, is it cheese I wonder? Or bread? Or covering an ornate silver urn with his wife ashes in? Who can say and I won’t know unless I stop and ask questions to pry open the basket. But a short ‘Kalemera’ will suffice. That is the thing about observing the details, the differences; that is all you have to go on. The rest is all your own assumption and imagination.

But on I walk through spider webs and crunching over the bracken-like dry branches that lie scattered across the stone path. Small harsh reminders of a dry climate and the passing of an unusually dry winter. I can see a man ahead of me on the path, perhaps he’s been feeding his goats or collecting eggs from the hens. He strides purposefully carrying a plastic crate back to the car park, maybe into a battered flatbed truck and he’ll drive off to his apartment in the centre of town, placing the eggs next to yesterdays offering in a humming refrigerator with an ice-maker on the door. Is his connection to his family’s land reaffirmed by each morning’s rituals? Or is he wishing it all away and glad his grand-children won’t rely on these ways?

By the time I reach the bridge that leans over a dried up riverbed there is a man collecting figs. He stands at the side of the road under the tree, the soft tarmac is littered with spongy fruits spilling their red flesh. His arms are frames reaching upwards and his left hand acts like a basket stretched open to hold seven ripe figs. I pass treading on the drying mess, inhaling the decaying honeyed scent of late summer.

Entering the old medieval settlement at the Portera it is always the white washed houses and twisted streets you expect that wind up to the Catholic Church of Agios Nikiolas. But it is the silence I anticipate, a hushed quietness of early morning, the sound of a dove cooing and swoosh of a broom sweeping away papery leaves. It’s not a ghost town but its population has dwindled since the end of the WW2. All the people I encounter are older. At every turn there are a fair share of empty houses. Not always abandoned but many are shuttered up against the seasons. Even in August. Perhaps the owners no longer make their annual summer return to the family house. Some have for sale signs, some are even newer realty agents with logos and neat lettering. Some have faded POLEITAI yellow notices sellotaped onto their doors, others are just a phone number daubed on the remaining brickwork with paint. The weight of possession hangs heavy before any tourists wander up here. When they do they’ll sit coffee in the little square, listening to Rembetiko and take photos of the mules that are still used to deliver water and goods to the tavernas. Little pockets of white-washed Chora charm and bouganvillia spilling over doorways. A few new art spaces and cafes have opened up and younger people are moving up here now, which I think makes people pleased to see.

With time enough to wander I do. I am being followed round by a cloud that seeks home and connection, like a nostalgia for something I don’t yet know. This translates into a sadness when I see abandoned houses. The ones that look like people just walked away from them, shut the door and never returned. I peek into a house whose shutter has rotted away to nothing. On the floor lies discarded items, at first not noticeable for the layer of dust, but a boxy handbag sits upright by the door in my line of sight. It’s the type my grandma would have carried in the late 1950s. Small and boxy with a clasp on top – short curved handles. There are papers all over the floor as if before they left someone frantically was searching for something. A treasured photo, a lock of baby hair. The room is lit only by the sun steaming in through a gap in the rotting roof. The raw smell of decades of closed up stifled air intermingling with bare earth, seeping out from the window gap I can just about see into, through a gap 3 inches wide. All I can think of is a lady holding that handbag, clasped on her lap, hands folded over it. Proudly smiling, she is going somewhere, waiting patiently at a station.

Further up there is a grander house. Its door has been recently left swung open – vandals, a photographer or keen documenter of social history, the artistically inclined? The door gapes like a forlorn sigh in the breeze. Dust everywhere, circling down though the shafts of light from the shutters. A towel hangs on the rail in the farthest room. Blue paint peeling open to layers of rose pink and dusky orange. A suitcase lies open, sheets of music strewn and yellowing like it just coughed them out of its leathery bowels. A solitary shoe kicked off in a rush as the composer packed his violin and ran away to be with his lover.

Aside: Once you notice the ever present mystery of the lone shoe, you’ll soon realise their prevalence; one sad hiking boot washed up on a beach, a solo boot thrown in a ravine, one trainer strewn on the highways miles apart from its partner, a canvas sneaker strung up by it’s shoelaces on telephone wires in inner cities…everywhere in the world is full of estranged pairs of shoes. In a house we moved into there was a solitary shoe decades old mouldering in the basement. I thought about it for months.

You see I’d never go in to an abandoned house. I couldn’t, it’s the right side of wrong to peek, but going in would burst open that rule. So I stand and look. Then get conscious that even by looking I am intruding on a life and a death and all the love and betrayal that goes on in what was and still is someone’s home. Everything that goes on in these rooms is the fabric of our own search for belonging and realisation of our mortality. Everything that remains is what is left of a life. I am drawn to abandonment, it is like the metaphysical partner of the idea of home.

20180822_131118182825915.jpg

So much of what happens is always a sign of the turbulent times we live in. This week we all heard the news that the Greek Crisis is now over, which seemed to pass like a rumble of slow thunder through the country without any fanfare. The end of the real debt-repayment will go on until 2060.

This news won’t immediately change the lives of the pensioners or the unemployed that are struggling. The man running the shop will still wring his hands at the end of the day and wonder how next year taxes can ever be paid in advance. The rural ways are in decline – it’s a split country, as the cities grow and villages are left without services and infrastructure. The economic is changing rapidly and Greece’s population is still in decline with lower birth rates and scores of young people moving away for better job prospects.

The houses which look abandoned are more likely up for sale as just a way of trying to reign in the assets against the Government’s ever increasing property tax hikes. It may be a land of ‘Kefi’ song and dance, enticing visitors under blue skies and white-washed villages– but it is also a land where it was, infinitely easier to shut the doors on empty buildings and let the ruins crumble, than try to rebuild and restore.

A country you love can be like a home, just like a history or story you don’t belong to can help you think about your own in a different way. Shine a light on the differences, the human sameness and all the grey shadows in between. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

Growing, growing…gone

I am a gardener, a grower, an experimenter and in all of this I need that most resolute of skills – patience. It is the hardest thing to learn to wait.

But now as I write this after a day of work (and a lunchtime swim), the seeds have been sown. I wait patiently, twiddling my thumbs juggling words and waiting for Spring. I read the news online and see that the UK has been dragged out from the fog of cold. Months of unseasonable temperatures that have stunted plant growth, pushing back the harvest dates, slow sales at garden centres and Easter retail forecast in the doldrums. But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine. How suddenly nature can change the mood!

But here in Greece, following the later Easter weekend, Spring is trying its hardest to level out the temperatures. We have had hot days, like last Saturday when we, perhaps foolishly, walked to Ermoupoli in the hot 11am sunshine. But we have also had cold nights. Really COLD nights – wearing a fleece, jogging bottoms and socks, and under two duvets! Then yesterday we swam in the sea for a lunch hour dip, the sea is now warming up (or am I acclimatizing to its chill?) – but in 20 mins I had the outlines of my bathing suit beginning to imprint itself on my skin in red lines. These are such rookie mistakes. Yet, we keep on making them. Like spending close to two hours looking at ferry schedules to factor in some trips to nearby islands – a complex mathmatical puzzle that I didn’t have all the clues to or the patience for. Planning is like a guessing game. I had to give up in the end. It’s also feeling rookie the way I am forgetting my Greek. Manolis said to me this morning in the cafe that language is like a tool that rusts up over the winter and needs to be oiled by being practised again. I think was trying to make me feel better about my poor Greek skills by saying he forgets his English when there’s no tourists around to speak to. His English is way better than my Greek will ever be!  

2018-04-19_09-05-04

Practice, practice, patience. These are the lessons of the day. I certainly don’t want to give up on is seeds. I have potted tomatoes, hot peppers, chives, sage, thyme, marigolds and cosmos. Some have popped up in the past 2 weeks, others I am giving the  benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I just leave them alone with damp compost they will start to find their own little way in the cold frame. Yes! I have access to a cold frame that is the perfect seed incubator. It is bliss to be able to have a place for them to just settle. I have been to the garden centre – oh what an experience, you know there are some women (and men) whose idea of heaven is a shoe shop or perusing expensive homewares. Mine is just a simple garden centre, let me loose amongst the pots and plants, lost in the herb section, going dizzy with the array of seeds. I’d like to say a Greek garden centre is really different, but not really. This one is compact but has a vast array of bedding plants and perennials, typically Mediterranean plants, everything from olives to  fruit trees – as well all the usual storage containers, hoses, and compost. I was with a friend with a car – so naturally got a few items!

2018-04-19_09-04-19

I’m focussing on a small area for growing tomatoes and herbs, potted flowers for the terrace and lots of lavender for the bees. I bought two courgette plans and a chilli pepper as plugs – so hopeful I can either grow them in big pots or find space around us for them to flourish.

One of the things among many that has always fascinated me about Syros is the way the land is still used so productively. It’s fairly similar to most other Cycladic islands large flat terraces exist on nearly every corner of the island, many are so old that it must have been centuries since they were used. In villages the land is still used for small scale farming and domestic agriculture – goat grazing, sheep and cattle, chickens, fields of olives and grapes are most common, but also lots of vegetables in tidy rows. Right now the plots are full of green leaved potato crops grown over the winter and onions waving gently in the breeze ready to be harvested. It’s been a real privilege to be shown around in the village and have a nosy at what people grow, to be given explanations of what is being grown and grafted, when it’s harvested, the types and varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables. People are rightly proud of their love of gardening, you see it in every window box and on wide swathes of land that’s been worked on by generations of the same family and the sheer toil it takes. It is impossible to walk around without wonder and amazement, given the dry sandy soil and conditions needed to grow require so much water. 

These trees are often grafted as family trees with different varieties of lemons and citrus fruits. A hug array in view like pomegranate, pear, plum, lemon, orange, mandarin, almond and figs..so many fig trees. The olives and vines are probably the most productive – pressing for oil and preserving olives, and making all that deliciously syrupy krasi.

There lies an interesting story about climate change experienced on Syros – I have heard a few versions, so apologies for my ad-hoc interpretation and retelling in advance. During the Second World War’s occupation the islanders experienced a devastating famine – by the 1950s the Dutch horticulturists came with advanced growing techniques promising to increase yields and grow a wider variety of produce. Naturally many were enticed by the promise of growing more produce than just enough to feed their family. As Greece’s post war economy was recovering in the aftermath of war and political upheaval commercial opportunities focussed on domestic markets and shipping fresh produce across the Aegean. As a result, farmers all across the island invested in greenhouses and growing new seeds with wider varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse vegetables. I also heard a story about olives and the loss of a native grown olive from the village in the same period – but I need to save that until I know more. It sounds wistful ‘The last olive tree’ – but I need more time to unearth the tale. In some ways there was probably a short period when Syros became the centre of the horticultural industry in Greece. I have been told, that as far as the eye could see across the bay of Kini there were greenhouses in every plot. This may have lasted 10-20 years – but what happens when land is over-farmed? Not just the effect on soil, as its nutrients reduce, but when commercial scale production starts the sheer volume of water needed is vast. What happened here sounds like a result of not just a changing climate but also some bad luck thrown in too. Apparently by the mid-60s there was less rainfall every year, meaning that the reservoirs and irrigation sternas didn’t fill up. Water is a scarce resource on an island like Syros and especially so as drinking water was still being  brought to the island by boat until 1969 when it was the first Greek island to invest in a desalination plant. But the reducing rainfall problem was only compounded when the wells started to become salinated from sea water seeping into the groundwater course. All spelled disaster for the enterprising growers.

Not much remains of the once booming horticultural enterprise but there are still a few farmers with greenhouses, but most have been abandoned, removed and the earth returned to more small scale farming.

A short-lived but intensive intervention has probably changed the land and fortunes of local life forever. But these long days of patience and productivity remain a beautiful sight on the hillsides where rows of olive trees sit neatly, while the hours of golden sun work to ripen fruit and vegetables.

I tell myself to be patient as I walk around these cultivated corners of paradise, one day…just one day.

In time for Easter

The ferry from Pireaus was simpler this time. In fact everything we do now is strangely predicated by this statement; ‘ last year’. Which hangs on every action like a shadow in the midday sun. I know I feel less fraught and nervous about it all now I am here. For months we have had the questions from well meaning loved ones and negotiations with work stuff to deal with. It has been worth it. Things will be different and change is inevitable. After last year’s inventive skateboard / suitcase transporter incident which involved a hill and a tantrum, our luggage a little more streamlined. No more wheelie massive body bag, which has been resigned to the end of its travelling life. Everything we need, nothing we don’t, well so far at least.

Even in this Easter week, we have had glorious days of sunshine that feel like summer but it’s cold at night. Duvets and extra blankets are needed – as are warm socks to keep out the chill. It won’t stay like this but Spring has a way of tricking you every time.

I do love the thrill of the ferry ride, its escalators upwards to the desk when you arrive. Not quite the grand treatment but I do appreciate the welcomes you receive from the staff with their Blue Star waistcoats. Makes the idea of ferry travel somehow like a cruise. Although I’ve never been on one – I’ve seen enough of  Jane MacDonald’s attempts at promoting them on that TV show to have a good idea 😉 We bustled through the port under darkness and onto the ramp, were the man pointed us to the Mykonos bag storage section. Of course he imagined that most tourists in March would be heading there. “Oxi, Syros parakelo” “ahhh, endaxi” he looked surprised. Loading our 4 neat bags on the shelf and headed upstarts to get coffee.

20180328_100110

Instead of a golden sunrise full of pinks and oranges, when we left the mainland there was a dull slump of dark grey into light grey. A nothing sunrise. I was okay with that. The Blue Star left the smokey harbour and crazy traffic behind, half empty or half full with passengers depending on how you see life. To me then, as the wind whipped round the deck and setting sail across the Aegean, it was half full.

There is a magic moment when the boat comes towards the port at Ermoupoli just a few minutes after the captain sounds the horn echoing across the island and the Church at Agios Dimitrios replies by chiming its bells. It then turns to let the two hills come into sight in all their pastel shades tumbling into the blue sea and stretching upwards to green hills in the distance. It gets me every time – even in the grey patched clouds this time it looked spectacular. 

2018-04-07_05-23-28

Arriving back in the village was a little like time travel – the same turns, twists and views from the taxi.  Finding warm welcome’s and hello’s, noticing new things as we stumbled blindly retracing our steps like survivors of a small but significant storm. The past week has been both strange and familiar at once. Getting into the swing of life again here, settling into familiarity and making a home.  Separating out the week for work, shopping tasks and buses into town. Enjoying time with friends and neighbours, sampling new places and old favourites.

We took time out for a walk to Aetos beach last Sunday under clear blue skies and a howling wind. It was funny as we both had completely forgotten how to find the right path, we remembered the jumper tied to the post and the gap in the wall. But then we went too far and walked through a threshing circle before looping back and starting over. 

20180401_124219

Eventually we found the right path, it looked like not many had walked it as the bushes were so overgrown. This meant we were rewarded with Aetos beach to ourselves and it was the best place for the first swim. Bracing and brave would be two good words to describe it! 

2018-04-07_05-20-05

Since then I have swum a few more times at Kini beach. As it is Easter week there are plenty of people here as the Island prepares for one of its busiest times. Last night we ate a feast of calamari and fava; as its traditional to eat seafood during lent (nothing with a backbone) and only eat meat after tonight’s church service – when the magritsa soup is cooked. Not quite sure if I’m up for making lambs entrails soup yet, maybe next year… As traditions go, Easter certainly goes with a bang here and there will be fireworks near midnight after the services to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We have been given red dyed eggs – so can battle them in a cracking match tonight!

20180401_145233

At this time of year there are beautiful wild irises dotting the paths, bees buzzing in bountiful flowering sage and wild thyme, a wonderful reminder of nature’s hold on the seasons. In these weeks after the Spring equinox and the shift to summer time it feels right to celebrate change, growth and rebirth. 

Happy Easter – Kalo Pascha!

2018-04-07_04-52-06

Now in November

I have been doing many things over the past 6 weeks, but one of them hasn’t been writing this blog. I have been distracted, open mouthed and furiously plotting. I picked up my old copy of Now in November by Josephine Johnson on Saturday as I sat down to write. Having not read it since university, I was overwhelmed as these lines really centered my thinking.

Now in November I can see our years as a whole. The autumn is both like an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with a blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.”

Johnson’s first person narrative tells the struggles of a poor white tenant farmer family battling with nature, religion and social class in the Great Depression. Although only 24 when it was written, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and fair to say coming 5 years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Johnson was ahead of her time.  It is an emotionally raw and illuminating read, written from the daughter’s perspective in the landscape of the dust bowl. It felt like a good opener to remind me of the power words can have. 

The 11th month of the year marks my birth month, so it also calls for beginnings as well as endings. I always think of November as a reflective brooding time, the shorter days slowly folding itself into Christmas and then a new year. There has been a lot of catching up and family time in the past few weeks, and generally aligning ourselves back into a rhythm that we had lost. I have relished being back in a fully operational kitchen, I even baked a Greek honey and almond cake. As well as trying to replicate the souzoukakia recipe from Stou Zaloni’s. They weren’t bad!

2017-11-07_09-11-01

Now in this November I found myself walking along Regent’s Park with a dear friend in the biting cold on a Sunday afternoon. We walked and talked. Catching up conversations about work and ambition, life, love and all the stuff that chatters around our brains in-between. I hadn’t felt that absorbed for a long time, as we crunched golden leaves beneath our feet and squinted in the sunlight. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, breathing it all in and bathing in daylight. After our taxing walk we found a cosy pub and shared more long conversations over pints and stodgy food. Proving that this is a time for reflection, we managed to put the world to right over kind words and ideas.  This is autumn loveliness at its finest.

I am lucky to have been able to walk through St James Park on the way to meetings. Dawdling a while to stare at the ducks around the lake, admire the tourists posing and see how the fig trees are getting on. One of which is reported to be the biggest specimen of Ficus carica (brown turkey) in Britain. I always wonder if the figs are tasty from that big old tree. One day I’ll check them out in season. 

2017-11-07_09-12-04

I didn’t really appreciate how glorious fig trees are before with their deciduous vast flat leaves. I always thought of the fruit first rather than the tree. How the overripe figs would fall and collect in sad splatted piles, smelling sickly sweet while they rotted. Often they were pillaged by giant ants marching in a line of military precision. I ate dried figs at my parent’s house a few weeks ago when they opened the box of Kini figs from Theresa. They had been sun-dried in the traditional way with sesame seeds with a bay leaf on each layer and wrapped in tissue paper.  Their sweet taste made me feel sad and happy all at once thinking of summer.

2017-11-07_09-11-43

I do miss the fig trees that leaned over our garden in Syros. By now their leaves will have also turned into shades of golden rust. I keep seeing pictures on social media of northern Greece where the forest leaves are aflame in all the radiant hues of autumn. A November walk in the Greek hills sounds about perfect right now.  In Greece the olive harvest is always traditionally done after the first rainfall. Spreading out the nets and raking through the tree branches to make the ripe olives fall, it’s back breaking work. I might sit in an office all day but that’s no comparison to the hard labour of the olive farmers.

I had got used to having a lot of freedom over how I spent my time, which manifests itself in getting frustrated over the constrained time squeezed into work.  I relish snatches of time being alone on the train and staring up at the sky whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I miss the sky , the big ol’ blue Hellenic sky – the sheer expanse of the horizon. You don’t get big horizons like that in London… even from the top of the Sky Garden it looked pretty grey. 

2017-11-07_11-17-38

I think it is the light and colour I miss the most. I leave in the dark gloom of dawn, a train ride through terraced streets with hues of brown and mud coloured buildings flashing by. If it’s cloudy all day before getting dark at 4pm, a whole day can go by in this strange wishy washy landscape without seeing anything bright and inspiring.

DSC_0233

Compare that London grey smudge with the palette of Ermoupoli in its candy coloured houses and pale blue domes, bright skies and sea of turquoise, dotted with terracotta, bright pops of pink and  emerald green. I have been cheering up the dark nights by sorting some of my pictures from walks around the town. These are just a few of my favourites.

DSC_0156

DSC_0165

DSC_0161

DSC_0208

DSC_0067

The weather certainly won’t be as nice there now as I remember it, but everyone will be starting to hibernate for winter as  the grey skies and stormy weather sets in. But I can look over these pictures to remember the light and hope it keeps me going through the dark days of November. 

Syros: walking back in time

Last Friday we set off on a walk so it ended up creating its own nickname “extremehikingfridays” which obviously lends itself to some funny hashtags! At first didn’t mean for the day to be completely absorbed by a hike, but as we were enjoying exploring so much we ended up doing a full loop back to Kini, around 20k in total. Extreme-hiking lived up to its name!

We set off on the first bus from Kini to Ermoupolis at 9am, with a packed lunch, fruit and snacks and plenty of water to keep us hydrated. The route chosen would take us North out of the town, passing tiny hamlets of Richopo, crossing into Ferekidh’s Cave, up to the original settlement of Kastri and then onto the excavation site of Chalandriani. This combined a few of the existing trails mapped as 1, 2 and 3 which we thought gave us plenty of options for finishing it up with either a taxi or walk back to Ermoupoli.

The weather was warm and breezy, so not too hot for walking. But the first section was the ascent through Vrodado and the steps nearly defeated us!

20170827_114423

This leads up to Anastasi which is known as the Church of the Resurrection of the Savior. This blue domed Orthodox church sits astride the hill, opposite the hill top of Ano Syros where Agios Georgios the Catholic Church holds court. Anastasi is dedicated to “Resurrection of the nation”. Built in 1874 by the local architect Dimitris Eleftheriadis, it is very impressive with a mix of Byzantine and neoclassical elements. Once past the 200 step climb we set of walking out of the town through an area called Dhili. Here the houses are a mix of very old and newer constructions, and as you leave the confines of the urban area they start to have more land for agricultural purposes. Once we reached a Panacrandos Church, this is where the path of trail 1 started – the path is well marked and views here are spectacular.

20170818_104237

20170818_112353

Outwards over the Aegean to Tinos and Andros, taking in Cape Armonos and Agios Demetrios which is the byzantine church looking out to sea and spectacular if you get to pass it on a ferry.  After a while on this barren stone path, we came across a tiny hamlet of Richopo where there are signs to Ferekidh’s Cave (or Pherecydes of Syros as he is also known). A philosopher known as one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, his work contemplated the importance of time (chronos) by using a heliotrope (sun-dial)  village of San Michalis (yep where they make Syro’s famous cheese).  but there is a bust of him in Ano Syros as well. His philosophical musings discussed metamorphosis and the underworld, as well as teaching Phythagras.

20170818_111223

Pherecydes was a complex character and very little of his written work remains – Scholars disagree on his work so this could be why signs point to his cave, yet the cave doesn’t receive historical site protection. This possibly goes some way to explain why the powers that be decided to build the municipal dump and recycling-centre less than a mile downhill from it! Which has sadly resulted in a million plastic bags are carried away on the wind from the dump and end up littering the amazing path around the cave – this was just such mess and made me pretty angry.

20170818_112026

You get plastic bags with every single purchase here. It would make a huge difference if they’re use was reduced and the authorities did more to protect the rubbish from blowing out of the site and ruining the island. Rant over!

You’ll see from the pics, it is an amazing cave. A real place of contemplation and solitude.

20170818_113726

IMG-20170818-WA0002

From here we scaled inland to Plati Vouni, which is a rural settlement of themonia (houses) closely built together – many households still work on the land, keeping goats and chickens, bring water up from the wells and natural springs. We even spotted a few circular threshing floors as well, although at this time of year all the hay and wheat had been collected. Apart from electricity cables this area would have changed very little in the past 50 years, being very similar to Folegandros and other Cycladic rural villages we have walked through.

20170818_122754

Passing down through a valley we headed out to coast again on route 3, losing our way slightly as we were following this immensely valuable description of the walk. Reaching a lonely house, then the trail leads down and out to the headland to reach the remote beach of Ghilsoura. Even though remote, without a road to it or electricity cables, the house was occupied by a Greek family enjoying a drink on their terrace. We misjudged and took the turn too soon – luckily the family realised what we had done as we tromped through their land, and started waving and pointing us towards the right path! We exchanged pleasantries and thanks. If it wasn’t for their intervention, I am not sure where we would have ended up.

20170818_130433

20170818_131802

The beach at Ghilsoura is magnificent and remote, with pristine pebbles lining the shore – we took a dip here and enjoyed our picnic. This would have been one of the two beaches invaders and pirates landed at when the only settlement of Syros was at the Kastri. We looked around at the back of beach where the trail was meant to rise up to the Kastri, but the path is almost completely hidden! It doesn’t make itself known until you are right infront of it and see the red arrows marking the path. The Kastri rises from the top of the summit making it the perfect place to spot any threats and by time any invader reached the top, they’d be tired!.

20170818_141646

Dating back to the Early Cycladic period the Kastri would have been not only a fortress to protect the islanders, but also a village where the daily ritual of life went on. There have been numerous excavations over the years including the discovery of the Acropolis area at the top of the site and a graveyard with about 600 tombs. Some of the ceramic vases, stone and metalwork fragments are held by the Syros Archaeological Museum and reveal it was a sophisticated society.

20170818_145624

The climb to the top reveals its charms and practicality – no pirate invader could make it to the top without being seen! The views from up high are its main vantage point – out to sea and inland across the island. To get a real explanation of the Kastri’s scale I found a good photo here . When you are exploring it you don’t get the full sense of its scale so was good to see that aerial image beforehand and wander round accordingly.

20170818_142208

Here we came across 4 fellow walkers which is a rarity on our travels. These Greeks asked us where we had walked from and were surprised to hear we walked all the way from the town (rightly so as we’d already done 8k!) They had parked their car at Chalandriani and walked over, which is a steep 30 minute which does make the site accessible for even non-walkers. But I found walking there past the smaller hamlets first gives you a better sense of the variety of landscapes on this compact island.

After this we scaled uphill to Chalandriani which is also a small settlement and site of a large excavation. A few houses remain occupied here and terraced land dominates the view.

20170818_154523

The excavations in Chalandriani started in the late 19th Century by archaeologist Christos Tsountas  and the findings from the village are considered one of the most important in Cyclades. Figures and pottery from this site are displayed across the world on loan from their home in the National Museum in Athens. I even managed to see some pieces from Chalandriani in the Ashmolean Museum on my last visit to Oxford. So it was great to see the site they came from – although there isn’t much to actually see here.

From this road junction where the trail 3 ended, we made the epic decision to walk back to Ermoupoli, but heading on an alternative route back that passed the settlements of Kiperousa, Senero and Finikia. Although this cut through on the road this is a stretch of the island that is fairly quiet especially mid-afternoon.

20170818_160909

Once you reach Finikia, this is a few old abandoned houses and newer farms which would have been in a valley, possibly with a Spring to supply irrigation. It has the tell tale signs of a seam of lush green trees growing through the middle of the valley. It was blissfully quiet and at the same time has a ghostliness quality to it, as you walk past you can imagine life in the abandoned 19th Century dwellings and mules using the paths marked by dry stone walls. All of the paths which wind up and down would have carried goods and livestock to the markets of Ano Syros.

20170818_165914

20170818_164832

As the road corners towards Ano Syros this area is really interesting as it still has the remains of windmills. One has been kept intact and sits proudly overlooking the valley. But its doors are locked and marked by a sign saying it was restored by the Municipality. We took the steep path up to the peak of the hill where the remains of three windmills stand and then on to Alithini.

20170818_172429

The views here are breathtaking – from it you get a sense of all the histories of the island merging into one modern personality. From the medieval settlement, growing and expanding through the 18th Century in it’s industrialist heritage. Ermoupoli stretches out as a meeting place of both its the rural and urban populations, defined by many people who came as immigrants, changing the islands fortunes, religion, cuisine and culture.

20170818_175642

In Alithini, we found a path marked trail 10 which would take us up over the final hill, past the out of action wind turbine and down into Kini. This path is one of the sparse remains of the original path network that even up to the 1960s workers from Kini would have used daily. It has two options; Alithini to Kini or heading up to Aghia Varvara and then turning at Piskipio and down into the shipyards and factories of Ermoupoli – a route of 8k each way. Imagine that as a daily commute to work!

During the Italian occuoation of Syros in the Second World War, as vehicles were a still a rarity on the island, Italian soldiers would have used the old path network to solicit food from farmers and transport goods by mule. As you walk these routes which connect villages and churches on worn cobbles and marbled stones, sometimes with carved steps and bare earth, it impossible not to imagine the lives of those Syrians who walked them everyday.

By the time the sun was low in the sky we reached the bay of Kini. There was only one option, taking our aching legs and heading straight for a rewarding beer !

#extremehikingfridays watch this space for more adventures!