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.

Milos

 

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

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!

Milos

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

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.

Milos

 

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.

IMG_20180622_204951_53020180622_12584220180622_14221820180622_122818

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

Gyaros – an island of ghosts

Giaros

In the past two weeks I have visited three very different islands. Four actually, if you could count Syros as well. All within close proximity and all with very different personalities. A friend recently said to me that choosing your favourite Greek island is like choosing your favourite crisp flavour, I think she’s right. It’s all down to personal preference.  Each has its own story and appeal. But not all islands in the Aegean are whitewashed buildings and beaches for holiday fun. One island that many visitors pass on the Andros – Tinos – Syros ferry route in the Cyclades and probably know very little about is Gyaros (or Giaros, or Giara).

It’s a rocky and arid island, with barely any natural resources and no significant mountains or rock formations. With a size of less than 23km sq this tiny outcrop manages to house a wealth of hidden stories. Even today 45 years after its complete abandonment, many of these stories remain untold and consigned to a history that many would rather forget. Between 1948 and 1973 under different Greek administrations it held up to 22,000 political prisoners.

Greece’s past doesn’t always rest easily with it’s present drive for tourism. So it is easy to see why the island has just fallen into ruin and visitors are discouraged. The red brick structures were almost invisible on the island until we got very close on the Agios Nikolas; the magnificent boat built in 1947 and chartered from Syros to take the group. The hiking group we travelled with had special permission to visit the island; it is off-limits to everyone without a permit, including fisherman who are forbidden to  fish near the shore as there are protected species of seals and wild birds that have flourished in its exile from human presence.  Although the site is currently managed and patrolled by the WWF under the Natura 2000 programme, visitors are strictly limited. Hearing about the history of the island from guides and about the wildlife preservation from the WWF representatives was invaluable.

Giaros

In the period after WW2 in the Greek Civil War 1947-1952 the island was used to build a vast prison to house the rebel fighters and dissidents . Like Makronisos island close to the port of Lavrio, it was far from the mainland and other islands, and crucially far away from critical eyes. These were not regular prisons – they were places of torture and forced labour.  In its first years of usage the prisoners sent to the island were split into the 5 camps around the 5 bays – initially to live in tents and dry stone constructions in all weathers; the furnace heat of the summer and cold and damp conditions in the winter. Under these inhumane conditions they were forced to construct the very prison which would house them.

Giaros

We heard from keen historians in the group that that once the prison was built, it had quite a limited time in use as was closed in 1953, but then opened again between 1955-1961, and then secretly used under the Military Dictatorship of the Junta from 1967-1974 – when the island was used to house Greek political prisoners and leftist dissidents. It was described by many as a concentration camp and ‘an island of the devil’.  Only when a German journalist took aerial photographs of the island which were published widely in the press that the Junta admitted its presence as an active prison. You can see the pics here. This eventually resulted in its closure and Greece was banned from the council of Europe on humanitarian grounds.

Giaros

We heard that the guards would know when the water supplies were due to run out and maliciously feed the men salty dried fish and dry foods – knowing that it might be days before a water ship reached the island in rough seas. There are no natural resources and rumour has it that the rats there ate metal, and grew as big as cats and were able to eat through barbed wires! There are herds of wild goats still roaming the island as well as hares and rabbits. It was such a fascinating island to have the privilege to visit – walking along the pathways between bays, there were ominous clouds and even when sunshine broke it was easy to image the horror of forced labour in the heat and dry of a summer’s day. This is a far off version of an idyllic Greek island.

Giaros

We were able to walk freely around the main buildings which were in a state of dangerous decay; the amount of dead goats in some building was astounding. The bones left piled up and dried out skins left to rest where they died.   

Giaros

The walking group gathered in the hospital wing, and then out round a path constructed to connect the bays – each would have formed a smaller separate camps. Each where the prisoners ‘lived’ in rudimentary conditions with small huts made of dry stone walls and in tents. Each day they worked under forced labour in the unbearable heat of the summer or cold dampness of the winter. There is also evidence of older buildings and fortresses from earlier inhabited periods. 

Giaros

At the outcrop of land on the furthest bay from the boat landing and main prison lies the graveyard. Given the number of prisoners housed here, it is surprising that only 16 graves are marked with rusting metal crosses and fading inscriptions of numbers. But perhaps less surprising to hear is that this was perhaps because when prisoners were ill and close to death they were taken to Syros. So for many, no record of their death on Gyaros exists. They died en-route or perhaps a few days later after they arrived  in hospital. Many would have been buried without ceremony in a mass grave. Here in the graveyard the group took a moment to remember those whose lives were taken by the island

To compare it to Alcatraz in California and other prison ‘museums’ I have visited would wrong – this was not a prison you could be granted release from once your sentence was served or even have hope of escape. Each detainee was forced through a ‘re-education programme’ of torture and starvation, and could only leave if they renounced their beliefs. Many of the people (and in the Junta period there could well have been women here as well) were leftist students, activists, writers and artists who protested against Military regime. They were often arrested in protests or turned in by the very people they knew and trusted. It was a complicated time in Greece’s history and certainly something I’d like to understand more about.

Giaros

We were allowed to see inside the main prison, which like many other prisons is laid out around open yards, and blocks containing workshops and kitchens. The roof was collapsing and everywhere debris and bricks were strewn across the corridors. Most of the captives were in dormitories in closely arranged bunk beds, only let out to work and perform labour. Here are only a few solitary cells, hidden in darkness, years of salt air blowing through corridors meant the doors have rusted open, as they were left.

Giaros

Light fittings falling from the ceilings and the remaining plaster work slowly peeling away like layers of an onion skin. Smashed window panes swung in the breeze and shutters hang from hinges. All around I felt a sense of sad dislocation – like the building itself just wanted to heave its weighted mass into the ground. To let go of the pain it has held in the walls. Each brick forcibly placed there under duress by the hands of men persecuted for belief by their own fellow country man. A deep sadness remains. Could there be a more poignant reminder from history for the current time we live in?

Giaros

Zen and the art of tomato growing

We came back from Paros on the Artemis. It chugged its way into Ermoupolis just after midnight on Sunday. I couldn’t have been happier – not because we were back in Syros, but I was just happy and thankful to be able to head off on little adventures like that. The boat was quiet and we spent the time on deck watching what must have been a fishing fleet out in a circle formation. It was spooky as we were just able to make out the mast lights, intermittent red and green flashes in the inky darkness of the sea. We just had two nights to explore Pariaka, the islands main town and felt like we crammed a lot in. It was busy and nice to be among so many tourists. We did lots of people watching and idling time in cafe’s hearing voices from around the world, including a lot of young English backpackers as well. On the recommendation of the apartment owner, we went to Pete’s Place on Krios beach on Sunday. I swam in the turquoise sea and found a wallet sinking underwater into the rocks. Luckily it didn’t take much of my detective skills to deduce it belonged to the panicked man going through his belongings on the sand. He looked bemused when I strode over to return the dripping wallet.  ut he was thankful to have it safely returned. I like Paros, it’s a nice island with lots to see, and has some great restaurants and beaches, don’t miss the Panaya of Ekatontapilian – the Byzantine church. And if you are wearing shorts like me you too get to borrow a tartan wrap skirt to preserve your modesty and respect the place of worship. Plus, it kept me nice and toasty in the 30c heat! Although don’t make the same mistake of walking out to the Asclepeion – the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo on the other side of town, as the site is all cordoned off due to falling rocks. But we did instead get a nice swim at little beach and a tasty lunch instead. 

It’s been a funny few days this week. It isn’t all stand up paddleboarding, gardening and dream making here –  in between work and play, there has been a lot of thinking. It seems to be that worry befriends you in moments of weakness and makes a mockery of each silly and happy thought. I was struggling this morning so I went swimming. I ended up swimming a full length of the bay in front crawl. That doesn’t sound like much but it was to me. Front crawl is my arch-nemesis, I have struggled to master it for years. The trick is in breathing and matching your strokes, with a head turn to ‘sight’ the shore. Today I followed the curved lines mapped out in the sand underwater by waves and the rituals of ocean floor creatures. Through shoals of small silvery fish. Each breath expelling tiny bubbles. My arms gathering strength as they ploughed through the waves.  I felt much better. If everyone went for a swim everyday, I am convinced we’d all be happier, healthier and in harmony.

I think my anti-waste mentality has exaggerated recently – ‘must not let things go uneaten’ I repeated like a mantra baking plum cakes and apricot loaves. Boiling up jars of apricot preserve will last for months. And if life (or a kind landlord) gives you courgettes; roast them, grate them, stuff them and even make cakes with them! Although not all is rosy in the garden plot; the tomatoes are proving tricky – blossom end rot has hit some of my crops, possibly water related or perhaps a fungus? Either way there might be a sad struggle to get some decent fruits this year. I walked back from the field my heart and head were full of doom about the tomatoes. Then I stopped.  

It was early, a morning like any other with the sun just peeking over the hills in the East and started inching its rays through the valley. Soon it would be hot. But now there was a cool damp stillness in the air. I listened to the breeze blowing through olive tree branches and traced the hum of a motorcycle passing a curve on the road miles away.

My fixation on the tomatoes unjust fate was unworthy of such attention. So what if each tomato rotted from the inside, slowly turning from green to brown and withering on the vine. It was something I couldn’t control or change, or worry about. I don’t need the tomatoes to feed me, I don’t sell them for income.  If I was simply annoyed that my energy and patience was being wasted on something frivolous and unfruitful. Yet, it only took a moment to look upwards and take in where I was to remind myself that this was it all. Under a blue sky sits mountains and rocks which will outlive me and all my worries. If this is the worst thing that can happen to me today, I am the luckiest person alive. Acceptance that harvests will fail, change will happen and not everything can be saved and stored away. It isn’t the simple fact of life but a way of giving into a life of simplicity.  

Like anyone I keep googling and looking at my phone for answers – brains turning to mush as we flit from one distraction to the next. There lies a tale of tragic modernity. There is no greater waste than looking for purpose or meaning where none exists. I don’t want notifications and gratification of my worth –  I scroll through Linkedin or instagram it makes me feel lost – not connected. I don’t know what my next step is (guess what, that’s okay!) and feel a need to return to the surface of things. Sometimes the surface of things begins where you least expect it.

In thinking about this I was reminded of a free verse poem penned by Jack Kerouac in one of his letters to his ex-wife. It took me a few readings to get it -I have time, it is #freelancefriday after all;

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks don’t see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

I’m not a massive fan of pancakes – but maybe you’ll find me singing in my kitchen baking cakes.

At dusk the tzitzikas will start singing- their presence marks the high heat of the months ahead. It is just a week before midsummer stretches out the daylight hours into evening’s orange glow. In the midst of every day is life. It is not just in adventures and wild ambition. It is nestled between the door that slams in an unexpected gust and the fridges that hum and click. The cockerels that wake up and commence crowing at 2am.  It is in the clocks that tick and the angry silent face of time passing us by. Life is in as much of these daily rituals as it is in the moments of joy and wondrous awe we seek. It is also in the hours we let ourselves get drawn into worry and pain. I’m learning to let each one go.