Amorgos: hiking in the clouds

I hadn’t seen The Big Blue so didn’t know what to expect. In the pre-instagram age of the late 80s Jean Luc Besson’s film catapulted this small Cycladic Island community onto the tourists radar. Even 30 years later people still visit to plunge into deep blue waters. Numerous places to stay are named after variations of film’s title as well as an annual ‘Real Big Blue’ diving competition. This was all lost on us. We went to discover Amorgos’ rugged land, famous hiking trails, not just the blue sea.

The early start in the island capital’s Chora coincided with dawn shuffling over the grey sky. We packed our rucksacks with supplies for the long hiking route #1. Stepping out into the eerie village  we were greeted a wild moan of wind rushing through the streets like an omen. Hadn’t we come here for the Hellenic sunshine?

The first part of the walk seemed easy, down a cobbled traditional stone path, seemingly headed right into the Aegean. Instead it dipped into a tarmacked road and became a car park at the famous whitewashed Monastery clings dramatically to the rocky cliff face. Panagia Hozoviotissa has captivated worshippers and travellers since the 11th century. Described eclectically as a chest of drawers by one intrepid explorer in the 1800s – it still holds true as a revered place of Orthodox worship.

“Bonjour, Ca’va?” a voice came from a hobbit-sized doorway. We were greeted by a monk laying out skirts for the women visitors to wear. Respectful dress codes still apply. Most visitors are French or Italian, so he practices less English. He chats in between offering a shot of honey infused raki and a bite-sized Loukoumi. We tell him of our hiking plans and he is surprised we are taking such a long route, ‘you are strong, right?’ he says doubtfully looking at our slight frames. Smiling he waves us off with “Kala Tichi” Greek for good luck. Between the dark clouds rolling in from the mountains and the doubt from the monk, I feel only trepidation as the rugged path stretches before us. The full route is 20km to Aegiali – the sign post states 4hours 40mins. We take this with a big pinch of greek maybe time!

After a sharp ascent and narrow drop to the sea, we keep pace traversing a shrubby plain weaving in and out of gigantic boulders. The 4 other hikers are crossing the opposite way, it becomes apparent we are doing the hike in reverse. The path direction less travelled.  Traditionally the Orthadox biers of Easter are taken in procession across the island from Aiegali to be laid the Monastery. Stopping off at every church on the way to give blessings. Hiking the path backwards perhaps is fitting in summer. The wild goats don’t seem to mind. As we reach the peak when the path converges, the clouds are descending fast, I feel like they are whipping round us and making the morning seem like a foggy winters eve.

20180828_10394820180828_102814It warm but the sun is nowhere to be seen. Never mind the big blue, this visibility means we can only see about 10 foot in front of us. Soon a clatter of goat bells clang harmoniously and we round a corner to see a whole herd emerging out of the clouds.  They converge round us unafraid and bleeting.

Onwards high above the roads and scattered farmhouses that remain in this harsh landscape. Past vast terraces of land once cultivated for wheat and grains, vines and olives. Reaching the abandoned village of Asfontylitis marks the half-way point in the middle of the Great Strata path. Although a couple of the houses are restored, village life hasn’t changed here in centuries. We saw two men carrying water from the well helped by their sturdy mules. The church marks the centre of the settlement, they waved kindly at us, probably used to stray hikers nosing around. Some amazing rock paintings of stick men appeared on large stones as the path veers left and up – were they a warning?

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We took a lunch stop after the vast valley of Oxo Meria facing the tiny chapel of Agia Mamas. Two men stood around in the shade. Soon one was whitewashing the church walls with a long extended brush. The other took photos with a rickety clicking digital camera. This must be the proof of their mornings work. How else would anyone know if the painting at been done, the church was a good few hours walk from any of the main roads.  Only hikers or mules would be witnesses to the new coat of paint.

Finally around 5 hours later we took the final decent down the path into Aiegali, the clouds seemed to part as if by magic and the sun blazed down.  There was no question then, the big blue sea beckoned us for a cooling dip.

Perhaps we were learning what the fuss was about after all.

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In ruins

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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.

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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.

Butterflies in the trees

It’s July, no scratch that. It was and now it is August and the sun melts one day into the next, like ice-cream pooling at the foot of a screaming child. I used to think August was a yellow month, it marks a peak of summer, the light starts to fade and days do become shorter. But now I think it is orange and dusty because of the wild Saharan winds blowing over the islands. Each day ticking past with that sunset closer and closer. Family have visited us and we tried to show them the things we like, and places we go. But time together was what mattered most over the touristy things to do. The sea is warm now so we swam on busy beaches and even my mum went swimming for the first time in years. I was witness to her frolicking in the waves and I have to call it that, she had a childish grin and giggled. She even managed to get just the ends of her hair wet and ruin a good straw hat. I think it was worth it. I haven’t seen my mum properly get in the sea in 15 years or more, maybe 20. It was a brilliant holiday, a Greek Staycation of the finest order. Time off work and lots of eating out and wine and good conversations and stories.

I thought a lot while the family were here – and they gave me lots to think about, in a good way. Not just considering what they think of how we live here, but also how my life is so different from theirs was at my age. We talked about choices and acceptance – it has changed so much from one generation to the next, what was a wild adventure in 1960s, is now a common place weekend away. What was a safe career choice back then doesn’t exist now – house prices, global economic gloom, climate change are all a reality that affect us all.  I wasn’t sure how but it seems like choices that are available have made us expect more from work and life, and as a result are more anxious.  A pervasive fear about what success should look like, or feel like, is perhaps not a balance between ambition, expectation, obligation and gratitude. Perhaps it is just a fabled Arcadia.

It reminded me of an overheard conversation a few weeks ago. Three people, shared a table set out with tiny white cups of Greek coffee and glasses of water. A loaf of fresh bread, perhaps brioche, was being slowly eaten as they talked, hands tearing the bread into pieces.  They are much older than me, but spritely animated with hair in various shades of grey bobbing up and down in my eye-line. It is one man and two women.  I have an espresso freddo to keep my notepad and pen company in the shade of  Maouli Square at noon. There could be no better place to spend time than this. Under the shadow of the Ernst Ziller designed Town Hall, a plateia of marble, both extraordinarily historic and splendidly grand. My dad agrees with this when he visits – he’d sit there all day watching the pigeons if we’d let him. Each of the three are taking bites of the bread and slurps of coffee between slow and long proclamations in English, Greek and a few words of French. They are talking about their families. “Everyone talks about money as if it’s the solution” one of the two ladies starts and they listen. The other lady eventually responds nodding “In this life it is difficult, it should be difficult, things need to be valued” The man chips in “they want another house, a new car, a holiday not one but three times a year.  Pah, it never ends”. Their conversation turns to grandchildren – ‘always wanting more, toys and fun parties and things to possess’.  I gather the gist only from the English they use with the wringing of hands that this is a worry. A familiar generational difference the world over. Each generation tricked or cajoled into the lifestyle trappings affordable to only the privileged few. ‘Isn’t health and time worth something now? she says.

I try to swim in the morning when the beaches are quiet.  There are regulars with rituals to observe. ‘Kalo Banio’ they call to one another ‘have a good swim’. The couple who hold hands and set their towels out under the same shade every day. They arrive by car, although I suspect  they don’t travel far. There are two old men that arrive at the same time, in similar worn baggy shorts and greet each other like old friends. They discard their plastic beach shoes neatly next to each other as they chat. I imagine they are talking about the current, the swell of the sea and its deep mysteries with intricate detail that could only be gleaned from a lifetime of summers spent swimming here. There are three women who wave at the men ‘Yassas’ as they bob and chat in the water. Their faces hidden from glare by their white cotton hats. It is a ritual of daybreak. That cleansing swim to ward off ills and keep going against the tide of time.

We are 2 days into 10 days of land-sitting for our landlord. It’s not an arduous task, just watering the fruit trees and crops, looking after the chickens. For me; it’s bit of a good life fantasy to have something like this one day. Yesterday we went to the field in late afternoon, which is really what in the UK we’d call early evening,  when the sun is lower in the sky and the days heat is starting to dissipate. Walking though the fruit trees at the back we disturbed a lot of butterflies, as they started to fly around us and G immediately panicked thinking they were moths! It was quite a sight to behold. Somewhere between 30 or even 50 pairs of orange and brown wings fluttering in different directions. All flying out from under the shady canopies of the dark green leaves of the citrus trees. It was the type of sight that would have been amazing to capture on a photo, but it wasn’t a time I had my camera.

Not everything can be captured and stored away in a digital file, sometimes the memory is good enough to last.

Islands of Industry part 2: Milos

 

You will have definitely seen Milos, it perhaps exists in people’s imaginations long before they visit it. Its images infiltrated your vision when you think about that Cycladic Greek paradise with azure blue seas and white sand, the contrasting colours of fisherman’s houses right at the sea and boats bobbing in the harbour. Milos has all of this and a whole lot more, which is why it’s having a bit of a moment. This is a good thing for the Miliots haven’t been reliant on tourism – so it’s a supplementary activity. It has been a steady industrial island, with a history of mining and mineral extraction plants since the turn of the Century. In fact the mines here contribute about 5% of Greece’s national GDP.

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I had ‘ummed and ahh’ed about Milos – for the reason that it’s getting lots of coverage in tourism press, so is building a following, not yet on the Santorini / Mykonos scale, but on its way as tourists add in Milos to an island hopping route. It has a ton of high speed connections too. That’s why we went in June before it got too busy. I was finding it tricky to secure somewhere relatively good value quite last minute. There is a lot of ‘boutique’ places which 10 years ago I suspect had meaning, now is a tired trend in hotels that often means double the price for some white painted furniture (sorry!).

As we’d just stayed in Kimolos, being blissful and low key, the inter-island hop to stay on Pollonia for 4 nights on Milos was super simple. The Panagia Fanomerini boat actually runs all year round and the mine workers use it to commute to work between the two islands. Although the timetable had just that day changed, hence a ‘will it / won’t it’ panic about whether there would be a 12 midday service or wait until 5pm. The café waitress offered to help us and a few conversations later soon established it was on at midday as promised. Like everything in Greece, having ‘travel-faith’ always helps (taxi’s turn up on time, boats run, people offer lifts).

Arriving in Pollonia was certainly a contrast to sleepy Psathi. Pollonia is a little harbour and swathe of sandy beach fringed by tamarisk trees, it has about a dozen café’s and restaurants on the front, from souvlaki houses to higher-end cocktail bars. Kind of traditional but feels well established for tourism as most of the buildings have sprung up in the past 10 years or so. But the traffic was a little crazy, lots of ATV, quads and mopeds buzzing around! When we rocked up at the travel office to check in to the apartments, the sales girl spent too long trying to tell me how I definitely needed a vehicle to see the island properly. Pah, we have legs! It’s not that I don’t trust us as drivers, its more I don’t trust other drivers – especially younger kids who maybe don’t drive mopeds normally.

We stayed in the Eleni, which was clean and quiet and just a short walk from the seafront at Pollonia. And more importantly close to breakfast at Kivotos ton Gefseos (the ark of taste!) which did amazing homemade honey, cakes and ice creams. We even ate breakfast there one day; eggs and bacon in the gorgeous paradise garden.

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So Pollonia is right next to this huge benzonite mine, which I think most people don’t even realise as they sip cocktails on the seafront and work on their tan. The island has been well mapped into 6 routes with descriptions here. As it was too windy to head to the beach, G decided on route 4 as it sounded like one of the most interesting and different hikes you can take. It covers a vast area still in use mines along the cost and interior sites.

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It starts in Polllonia, heading out the back of the village on a well –marked road. For the majority you are on unfinished roads with mining traffic. We did this on a Sunday and given everything else is closed in Greece, it was astonishing that trucks worked tirelessly up and down this road. The mine and processing plants form a vast area belonging to S&B Industrial Minerals whose main product in bentonite, used in clay and concrete manufacturing. The truck drivers have painted personalised trucks (like ‘the yellow dragon’) and given the strangeness of people wandering around a dangerous site, they were friendly too.  Waving at us, not to scare us away which is what I feared!

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This isn’t an ideal hike for everyone, the only other walkers we saw were a French couple, the lady was not having a good time and hated walking on the roads with the trucks. They stopped twice and asked us a few questions, eventually abandoning the hike before reaching its real highlight.

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The view from the massive mine makes it all worth it. They have even made a viewing point shelter where you can sit and enjoy the view. And it is quite an amazing view which really reminds you of the sheer scale of mines like this.

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After this stop the trail returns to the rural farming fields and olive groves that one gets used to in the Cyclades. It heads out to the coast in a loop so we extended the walk through to the beaches at Pachena, where we ate a picnic lunch on the lunar landscape and tried to swim in the huge waves crashing on the shore. We contined the walk to Kambos and the caves at Papafragos- where we saw a few people idly ignore the crumbling rocks and warning signs to take slightly eye-watering photos leaning over ledges! Heading back into Pollonia, we passed an abandoned looking garden Nursery owned by the mining company – where apparently they grow plants to help stabilise the rock shelves and re-green the land.

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Milos is a unique place, its geology and coastline are unique. That’s why going out on a boat trip seems to be one of the definitive experiences on the islands .But when I found a day trip offered on kayak this seemed like a much better experience than being trapped on a crowded boat for 6 hours!  Rod who runs Kayaking Milos, a geologist and Australian ex-pat knows the islands coastline like an expert having lived on Milos for over 20 years. The day trips are 9.30-4pm, with snacks and lunch, tons of help and guidance for new and novice kayakers. He plans routes based on the winds and currents each day, so our small group went out at Aghia Kiriaki on the south coast and kayaked about 13k on the water – which sounds like a lot but it is entertaining and informative, so you don’t notice the exercise! (well not much, but my arms were tired the next day!) The route took us past Tsigrado beach, which can only be reached by climbing down the rcks on a rope ladder. Yikes, I was much happier seeing it from the safetly of our double kayak. We explored the coast, team work all the way, paddling through caves and sulphur springs. Stopping for swim breaks along the way, firstly at Firaplaka and then lunch at Gerakas beach. All breathtraking views and a really interesting way to see the island up close.

Milos

Milos

Although it is a relatively small island it has a lot to do. Not just admiring the interesting industrial landscape and geology – of which there is plenty. But there are also stunning beaches and traditional tavernas. Like the one very close to our apartment in Polloonia, called Liofyto – a fab open air terrace set in a lovely garden. We fed our holiday bellies with a local speciality of lasagne with veal, tiganes pork bites and green salad with mustard dressing. The place was full of Greeks and locals celebrating a babies christening late into the evening.

Other nights we found some great seafood at Enalion on the sea-front– a sun-dried octopus with tangy fresh lemon and chickpea salad. I’d also recommend the souvlaki place on the main road, so cheap and so tasty. Luckily we balanced exercise and eating on this trip!

Even if you have a week on Milos there is probably a lot to see and do, contrary to belief you need a car or moped, or ATV, the islands bus service is frequent so you can get by without.

Here is my top 5 things to see and do:

1.Go hiking
Choose one of the 6 mapped routes to experience the island on foot. With 75 beaches to explore by foot, boat or vehicle, it is still possible to find your paradise. Despite the popular ones being Sarkoniko with its white lunar landscape and the caves at Kleftiko, there are dozens more to see off the tourist trail.

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2. Walk down to see the restored fisherman’s houses at Klima
Most are painted in colourful hues and used as holiday homes. This would have been the islands original port for the ancient city of Melos.

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3. Visit the Catacombs just outside Trypiti
Here outside the smaller settlement of Trypiti is a wonderfully preserved catacombs – the best in all of Greece apparently. Only 4 euros entry and you get a guided walk through, where the roots of plants hang spookily from the ceilings of the two open chambers. It’s well maintained and shows an interesting explanation of the islands shift to organised religion as orthodox buriels were established. There is a ton of interesting graffiti there too from as early as the 1920s

Milos

Milos

4. Explore the site of the ancient city of Melos and see the amphitheatre
The area is well signposted and explained. On the way you’ll see the marked spot where the famed statue of the Venus di Milo was found in the 1820s. Now in the Louvre in Paris, she is an interesting claim to fame from the islands past glory in the ancient world.

Milos

Milos

5. Wander around the streets of Plaka
Although I didn’t find it the most atmospheric of Chora settlements you can see in the islands, it is undeniably pretty, well maintained and has lots of interesting shops, bars and café’s.

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It’s not often I have regrets about Greek Islands, but I do with Milos. I wish we had had just maybe one more day there so we could have visited the Milos Mining Museum in the capital Adamas as I understand it wonderfully weaves together the islands history and industry. Next time, there definitely has to be a next time!

Islands and lands of industry Part 1

I am writing this on the Blue Star Patmos as it weaves its way in the blinding July heat to Syros. It’s not as if the days in the UK weren’t the same temperature but I am adamant it’s a different type of heat. The fields across the SE and parks in London have yellowed, looking more like the end of summer rather than midsummer which is normally lush, green and bursting into flower. On the journey from the Airport down to Piraeus the suburban train it passes through some of Athens most industrial areas– I find them mesmerizing. Not just the trains warehoused and rusting near Lefkas Station, but the miles and miles of factories and even the crossings are still man powered rather than automated.

The train extension down to the port of Piraeus only opened in March so the track and stations are brand new. I can’t deny it’s a great service connecting the airport and port in under an hour – much less fuss than the Metro, which involves changing trains and less risk of traffic than the X96 bus.

As it rolls into the outskirts of the city, the brand new trains whoosh past the old rusting trains in the warehouses with falling in roofs and open battened down doors and windows. Hammered plywood and road signs for makeshift barriers. The train windows smashed, metal bent graffiti tagged and name of the brave scrawled over doors – I have no idea about this yards history or why they look so forlornly abandoned. The trees have grown in between the carriages and through the gaps in the rusting tracks, even sidings have been overtaken by creeping weeds. Nature is reclaiming it slowly season after season. The yellowed grasses and palm trees raggedly losing old brown branches and drying out in the sun. Trains seats gather dust in their graffitied tombs. As the train speeds by I see the breeze flapping patterned sheets on balconies that sit side by side in buildings that don’t match, thrown up in a rush next to older more palatial houses, now in a state of decay. The alleys are strewn with bike parts and toys, this is another Greece. Perhaps like a country within a country. This isn’t the world people come to see – it’s a gap between the past and the future. Its uncharted territory – a filament of light trapped in time, a glint, a door to what was and will never be again. A small act of reminding, like a tug on a thread to unravel.

The hand drawn railway barriers, loaded with weighted bricks are wound down and up to stop traffic. Otherwise it’s a free for all pedestrians, cars and bikes crossing over the tracks. The man stands next to hut or a brick house and whoever is on duty operates this all day and night – I imagine people don’t notice this much. This is probably the same in every big city, the areas left to their own fate once the businesses close up, sites for sale or rent.

The light in Greece is phenomenal – as soon as the boat races out of Piraeus and out of the bay of Salamina. The haze gives the coast line an ethereal glow. Cranes and processing plants look like oblique structures of beauty. The tankers and tug boats lined out at seas even look full of adventure, like a fleet ready to take battle. Why doesn’t the coast in Kent look like this? It is the Aegean light, basking an incandescent veil over industrial ugliness.

I wanted to tell you about Kimolos and there I was distracted with one thought colliding with the next. Easily done.

So Milos and Kimolos sit next to each other like two very different colleagues in the Cyclades. Some islands are sisters I think, but these two have their differences. Both in outlook and beauty. The Artemis on her faithful inter-cyclades loop was our steed to Kimolos first. Its beauty as an island isn’t right there on display, it needs discovering – it isn’t showy as you arrive, it’s a typical Greek island with a port, a strip of beach and flat low rise buildings painted white. We got whisked up to where we were staying by a friendly local who gave us the keys and a warm welcome to the island. The village is known as the Chorio – it’s the only real town settlement on Kimolos and turned out to be the best option to base ourselves for 4 days. The village has a sleepy ordinary feel, like everyone is going about their business –especially wandering through it at 1pm when small groups of elders sat chatting in the café that lined the square and children played in the shade. What I found lovely was the sense that despite it being June the island was just waking up and getting ready to open for summer tourism. There were 3 of 4 café/bars were painting and laying chairs out in the nights we were there. Many of the houses in the village are inhabited rather than tarted up for tourism and rentals or second homes. But that’s nice, why rush if most people only visit in August anyway. Which is a good thing to keep things smaller and more off the beaten track. The ‘tourist’ roads have only recently been built – given that the island still has active quarries and perlite mines, industry has always been the driver for infrastructure.

20180622_20143920180620_17214420180620_17183620180622_105735It is sparsely populated – less than 600 islanders live their year round. There are a few small apartments and rooms to rent and so tourism is increasing. But no major hotels, or complexes. Plenty of people also day-trip there from Milos, via the small ferry that connects the two islands at Pollonia. Now an island bus connects the beaches with the Chorio and does a loop a few times a day. We eschewed the formal travel options and got our hiking boots on to explore.

20180620_142732On the first afternoon we found what ended up being our favourite swimming spots at Kara and Groupa. Both these places are less beaches and more pretty places for swimming from the rocks. At Kara there are beautiful boat huts carved into the rocks by fisherman. Framed by a natural pool for swimming It was late afternoon when we swam here on the first day and after a family packed up their picnic we were the only ones there. Nothing but little fish to keep you company in the deep blue reflected in the white sand and stone, and the fisherman sitting to repair their nets.

20180621_14060120180621_11432220180622_094210Walking to Skiadi Rock the next day was a great hike, it takes you out the back of the village, passing farms and out into the wild landscape. It was a beautiful trail, well-marked and also passes the remains of the Kastro settlement high on the hill and through old paved mule trails. We didn’t see another walker at all which was surprising given that the route is so well signposted and fairly manageable for all abilities. There is more detailed route maps to be found here: https://www.kimolos.gr/en/tourism-at-kimolos/walking-routes/detailed-outlines-of-hiking-routes-in-kimolos-island

The rock at Skiadi has been formed through two types of rocks. The softer rock is been eroded by the wind and the harder rock is more resilient and remains as canopy over the top – hence its mushroom shape. We picnicked here on traditional pastries and then climbed down to the deserted beach at Mavrospillia for a swim. Then on to Ellinkia where the remains of a submerged ancient city lie near the shore. Our untrained eyes didn’t see much. But it’s never the less a pretty and remote beach with only a few sunbathers and swimmers.

The beaches on Kimolos are all quiet different, some shingle, some stone and some white sand. A few have nice traditional tavernas on like Kalamatsi and Aliki beaches, which we also walked through as part of the Skiadi hike. It ended up being a full days hiking, 14k but with plenty of stop offs and swims. An evening spent feasting on goat stew and local cheese in the To Kala Kardia (the good heart) was a perfect way to refuel and recuperate.

Kimolos has a strong mining industry, like Milos and to this day still has active mines, including the perlite mine at Prassa. We walked there from Choria along the coastal road, passing the small harbour and bay at Agia Minas which we couldn’t find much about but looks like a man made boat landing cut into the rocks. It has much older stone buildings and the remains of stepped rocks, which look like there have been quarried and build up in walls and terraces to prevent the land from slipping. (if anyone can tell me what went on here, I’d love to know)

Before we reached Prassa we took a nosy around the Therma Loutra (thermal baths) – which were just two concrete covers over natural thermal springs that go into sea. One had very hot water and the other cold. Apparently you take buckets from each and make a bath in the thermal spring water in the bathhouse, which looked closed up from what we could see. Interesting to see anyway!

At is at the stage in the road after Loutra that the industry and working life of Kimolos meets tourism head on. Cars and ATV’s jostle for space on the unfinished road, while trucks from the perlite mine trundle up and down all day. Perlite is a natural mineral rock that is heated at high temps to increase absorbency and is a key ingredient in growing media like compost. The beach at Prassa is made of Perlite – small white shingle / sand which makes the sea take on a magic turquoise colour. It was much busier here with day trippers from Milos and boats parked in the bay.

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It is easy to see why people visit this beach – it stands out for its clean water and perfect blue colours, it has loungers and a beach bar so suits everyone. It is just really intriguing to be so close to an active mine and be lounging about while this all goes on. Given that Milos and Kimolos have hardly any unemployment at all compared with the mainland and mining contributes around 40% of the economy here, and 50% coming from tourism (mainly in Milos). Mining and tourism are strange but vital bedfellows.

Next stop… Part 2: Mining in Milos