School’s out for summer!

I hear from friends and family that it’s the end of term in the UK and finally schools are out for summer. Whenever I think of the end of term I hear the Alice Cooper song screeching “Skools out for EVER!‘” Schools here in Greece finish in mid-June, so for them it really is a long stretch of holiday before going back in in September. The local children are always playing around the village, zooming through the streets on BMX bikes, playing games and swimming on the beaches. It seems idyllic compared to when I think back to my childhood when those six magical weeks felt like an eternity of days spread out on the horizon. Mine were mostly at the mercy of UK summer weather and day trips to the coast, August bank holidays in Blackpool – and the longevity of the family joke “Beans or tomato’s, duck? Always delivered in a thick Black Country accent to impersonate the eccentric B&B landlady we stayed with near the North Pier aka ‘the posh end’ of Blackpool. Every few years these six weeks were punctuated by a holiday to Greece with my family. It was 1993 when we visited Crete and I came back with blond sun bleached streaks in my hair and freckles that joined up on my nose. There I was at age 11, the summer before starting secondary school when I developed a growing penchant for Greece. It was like the first kiss of a lifelong holiday romance with a country I just can’t break up with.

Also, look how cool I was with those 90s shorts on and I still dress the same…summer fashion has gone full circle!

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As holiday countdown starts for most families and the newspapers report on the gloom of fluctuating currencies (yes, pretty dire at the moment – every cent counts), it also the time of year wherever you turn there is a helpful list of things to pack ‘for the capsule holiday wardrobe’ and things that are the ‘must-have‘ fashion items for this summer. We met a couple last week who are travelling around the world over 12 months, starting with Europe and are here in Syros for a month. They only have hand luggage – yes, for a year! It’s really made me think about necessities. Since realising I have clothes and beauty items that I have discovered are entirely surplus to requirements. I have a pang of regret like I was tricked by that tiny voice of consumerism when packing for six months in Greece. A lot of what I brought was totally needed: jogging bottoms, yoga pants, jumpers, wool socks and a Northface fleece – absolutely needed for the cold Spring nights (and days, like the sullen afternoon in April I went out for a walk to the Aquarium in Kini just to stay warm). Then a lot really wasn’t necessary; dressy stuff just feels pointless –there are 3 dresses I may not even wear, just too ‘showy’, earrings and jewellery doesn’t get much of an airing, also that orange pair of H&M sandals – not even comfortable. Honestly though, most things clothes-wise seem to get a good use – but there is a full on staple of bikini/vest/denim shorts and flip-flops in regular rotation. But for anyone packing for a week or two in Mediterranean climes I would heartily recommend the less is more approach –think basics, mix and match dresses for day and evening, comfy trousers, shorts, vests and t-shirts – no heels, nothing bulky – cardie/jacket for the evening chill. A lovely friend of mine whatsapped me photos of her holiday purchases while in a sweaty high street changing room on Oxford Street – I tried to be constructive but shuddered at the horror of pre-holiday shopping!

Summer beauty routine
In the past 4 months away I have not only relinquished the overstuffed beauty bag with its various lotions and potions, stripping back to basics. First to go was my love of garish nail varnish, which just cannot withstand the reality of handwashing loads and daily applications of mosquito repellent, as well as gardening. I don’t miss it at all and my nails have never been in better shape – I have also ‘almost’ quit biting the skin around my fingers as a nervous habit…almost. Given that I thought I’d have to go to a hairdresser at some point, I have instead decided to let my hair go and do what the bloomin’ heck it likes. Apart from a treat of frizz ease every once in a while and some ‘silver-purple-shampoo’, my hair seems to relish the humidity and stays soft, in salty tousled curls. I have reached what beauty editors could describe as ‘untamed beach hair’ without the help of any products. Okay, I admit there may have been some lemon juice involved but that’s all-natural! The hair-straighteners still mock me from afar, having only been used once to ‘iron’ a shirt. All you really need is basic shampoo’s, a better grade conditioner and decent shower gel. Most branded beauty items are expensive here – nivea – johnsons – elvive,  all around twice the cost of at home. So I frugally scour the supermarkets and Lidl for special offers, having recently discovered the joys of the French-brand Le Petit Marseillais which is reasonably priced and paraben free, so I am embracing their shower gel and moisturiser. My other essential item is bio-oil- few drops on the face for a treat or dose on any dry patches of legs, elbows etc. Less is definitely more. Sometimes I think that my lax attitude to personal appearance is weather dependent – it’s hot, so why bother. But I think I have also been slightly freed from the tyranny of my appearance. I generally spend less time near a mirror, maybe I ‘look’ but I don’t ‘see’ my face under the same level of scrutiny I once gave it. Every day back in London you are accidentally confronted with your own reflection from a range of unflattering angles, from glimpses in the train door, the chrome toaster in the work kitchen, shop windows, hopping on the bus and the under the neon lights of the tube, then reflected down through ceilings as you stand on escalators, the revolving door of the office, and especially in the work toilet mirror checking your eyeliner in between meetings…it’s impossible not to be horrified with your sallow skin and tired eyes every hour of the day. But here, I have a mirror in the bathroom and one in the bedroom – and they don’t get much attention. Not that I have somehow lost interest, I think it just doesn’t matter. I might wear mascara once a fortnight and go ‘BOOM’ that makes your eyeslashes POP! But I like my lines, my ruddy red cheeks, the freckles that have joined up and the wild-hair (I saw a photo G took and said, “wow I have actually turned into Charlie Dimmock” and was quite pleased). The downy blond hair on my arms and legs is so bleached, I couldn’t bear to mess with it and I went through a phase of not shaving because I had a theory that the mossie’s bit hairy legs less often…I was wrong!  I seem to be reminded of the First Aid Kit song lyrics to ‘Heaven knows’ which captures this kind of daily obsession women face about their faces, especially as we age; “you spent a year staring into a mirror, another one trying to figure out what you saw, paid so much attention to what you’re not, you have no idea who you are”. I am about to start reading Selfie by Will Storr – so expect further thoughts on this soon. Anyway I digress – this piece was meant to be about summer beaches and bloody well not worrying what you look like in a bikini and it’s gone all over the place.

On body-confidence
I think I hate that word, ‘body-confidence’ it jars with me – wear what you want and enjoy the beach. Having spent a fair amount of time on the beach this summer, I can make the following observations from the shores of Greece.

All bodies are ‘beach-bodies’ and the Greeks are a nation poised for summer at all times. They enjoy the hot weather in all its glory, the sea, the beach, ready to pose, to swim, to tan (apply your factor please!) and even play slightly annoying bat and ball (the Greeks love this – it’s like a competitive sport!) Also, this year there is particular trend that must be gathering pace across every Mediterranean beach, yes, following on from last-year’s horror that was the inflatable pink flamingo, this year we have an even wider range of inflatable novelties direct from China. So far I have witnessed; ink iced donuts, ice cream lollies, white swans, and even 5ft unicorns (I shall not name the guilty purchasers you know who you are and you loved it!). Please avoid with care or harpoon these nasties at will!

The beach is a microcosm of the world at play. From the perma-tanned aging ‘Adonis’ in his tiny speedos to the teenage boys showing off at beach volleyball, sucking in their six-packs for photos. The pasty-newly arrived-holiday makers with sunburnt shoulders, snoozing after a bottle of retsina at lunch, hands clasping heavyweight novels in the shade.  I have watched elderly couples in their 80s holding hands and helping one another wade into the waves, paddling about without a care in the world. Their creaky joints relieved by the weightlessness in the sea. Ladies swimming in little groups wearing floppy sunhats and gossiping as they tread water – these old-timers care not what they look like, but are proud to be enjoying the sea.  I have seen babies and toddlers scream with both delight and fear as they paddle for the first time and learn to swim on this beach. Teenage girls, veering from shy to flirtatious in their skimpy 2 piece newly purchased swimwear ready to parade and tan. There is a growing trend for very skimpy bikini’s this year, high cut thongs and it takes a kind of sassy bravado to wear this style which I respect. But is surprising how popular they are in such a conservative country such as Greece. Those bums certainly attract attention! I have also seen a fair share of everything else on some of the ‘clothing optional’ beaches. Embracing the full spectrum of shapes, sizes and sheer grandeur of the human form is what being beach ready is all about. The best way to get over the body fascism that is peddled by the fashion industry and clothing lines to sell swimwear, is by celebrating what real bodies look like and what real bodies do. They save lives, make lives, give pleasure and pain, they grow, they heal and most of all, they change.

I am 35, I have cellulite, I am no perfect 10, but quite frankly I have never felt better on the beach. I feel the first step to being comfortable is defining your own body by what it can do rather than how it looks in a bikini – I can swim a kilometre, run a 10k and sometimes, hike up to the top of a mountain without passing out.

No matter what I dress it in, my body would always rather be in the sea than sat on the sidelines.

And wherever you go this summer don’t forget the suncream!

 

 

Folegandros – trip report

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Arriving on the ever-reliable Aqua Spirit from Syros into the port at Karavostasis (which I think literally translates as Boat place) is a little underwhelming, one can’t really believe this is it…

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Just 2 rows of old and newer buildings, a small bus shelter and the port police station. Then your eyes scan leftwards and see a tiny beach, all white pebbles and aqua blue sea. No sunloungers in sight, just a few tanned bodies and children jumping in the sea. Bliss!

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We had arranged to stay in the Chora, which is the main town 3km from the port. On an island that is 32 square kilometres and only has three settlements, visitors to the island are clearly wowed by how tiny and barren the landscape feels. We took the trusty island bus up to the Chora,  1.80E a journey and runs every hour or so in peak season, you can see how this is a perfect island to explore on public transport and by foot. Despite this, there numerous mopeds and cars hire places around should you want to, but I did hear that there is still only 1 or 2 taxi’s on the island. It seemed that most hotels and apartments run their own little shuttles picking people up at the port and back to the Chora or the second inland village, Ano Meria.

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I can’t really claim this island is off the beaten track anymore – that might have been truer 10 or 15 years ago, just on the fringe of discovery. But now it’s a bustling place that is evidenced by several new build all-white-boutique-hotels (I have been an observer of the personality-free phenomena in Greece for a few years now – it starts off all white washed, chrome fittings and bleached wood peppered with Instagram-style marketing and tanned bodies). Quite frankly I think it may be a regrettable trend that says nothing of the true eclectic personality of Greece. Blame the Mykono-isation of tourism, ‘build it posh and they will pay’ from Marbella to Amalfi these styled hotels are everywhere. I hope that most travellers to Greece seek something more laidback, a place that tells of history, the land and most importantly its people. Folegandros is a beautiful island, it’s streets are full of colour that juxtaposes the light and shadow, the aquamarine sea, and white pebbles, blue shutters, dark wood and terracotta. You see this on the cobbled streets of the Chora.

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Once the bus had dropped us off we easily found the Anthia Hotel, over the road from the local government building and bus station. We were welcomed into a simple but very clean double room with a ground floor terrace. We were lucky to book a room in advance as we only found this 2 weeks ago, and struggled to find anything for less than 80E a night. The Anthia is a family run place, close to the entrance to the Castro and one of several recently built smaller hotels near the entrance to Pounta Square. Although no stunning views to speak of, I was placated by having plenty of bougainvillea and terracotta pots over-flowing with greenery on the hotels terraces. That is one of the thing that struck me about the island was the sheer dry barrenness of the rocky landscape. The Chora sits 200 metres above the sea perched  in its whitewashed splendour and domed churches, yet below are terraces and miles upon miles of drystone walls that criss-cross boundaries across the horizon, spiraling downwards into the turquise Aegean sea.

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It is almost unfathomable how this land was once cultivated with terraced vineyards, olives and arable land, not to mention the time it must have taken to dig out terraces, and build all the dry stone walls and stone paths that still remain connecting the islands beaches, churches and farming hamlets. Like it’s neighbour Sikinos there is a very raw beauty to this place that hasn’t been changed too much yet by tourism and I hope it stays that way.

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Folegandros appealed to us because of the hiking and the opportunity to explore the villages on the island, Chora and Ano Meria do not disappoint. Chora has a wonderful part of the village with the original Castro (Castle) settlement with its little rows of terraced 2 up 2 down houses – some of which are restored as little houses and some lie abandoned, but this gives a nice mix of life, colours and flowers. You can still see village life going on as it has done for centuries. Just wandering around the village in late afternoon or early morning is a wonderful quiet experience when the shops are closed and just a few people sit in the cafes and taverna’s in the main squares drinking coffee and playing tavli.

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Also like many places in the Cyclades the sunsets are something special and many people walk up to the Panagia church, up an easy 20 minute winding path at the highest point of the village to enjoy the view. After this nightly phenomenon the squares come alive and people jostle for the best table at the bustling taverna’s. It is as if hundreds of people descend on the village from nowhere! But its good to see tourists in such droves, we noticed mostly French, Scandinavians and Italians were there in July.

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The food we enjoyed was matsata, a local pasta of thick deliciously soft ribbons usually served with sweet tomato stew usually with goat, rabbit or rooster. (I enjoyed goat matsata thoroughly!) Most taverna’s brought over caper dip with bread; a delicious salty spread, perfect with olives and cheese.  The islanders are also famous for a soft cheese known as Souroto, which is similar to other local cheeses I had tried in Naxos and Sikinos, each islands gets its own unique version. Luckily the island’s bakeries make delicious cheese pies with Souroto, which are almost foldover pasties with courgette, onions and seasonal herbs like dill and mint. The daily trip to the bakery before we set off on hikes provided tasty and portable lunch options.

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We did two big loop hikes while we were there; the first being from Chora to the beaches and back, we set off at 10am in fairly warm but windy weather, down out past the old well and spring under the cliffs. This part would have been all terraced agricultural land and still retains much of that character and wonder as you wander through.  Once reaching Agios Savvas and crossing over out to the three old windmills above Vorina beach – which is marked as Trail 1 on the ever reliable Topo Map of Folegandros. We decided to make this into circular route by veering across an old trail which was only marked by red dots but curated excellently on this website here

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This trail then took us past the Angali road and up over the hills to an abandoned settlement of Giorgi t’Aga, with the most impressive wild cactus just sprouting free in the middle of an old house. This route didn’t seem as well trodden as we spent time picking our way past overgrown dead plants and weeds. It then joins trail 2 and veers gently down to Agios Nikolaos beach – once an uninhabited hippie beach, now has two tavernas running off generators and people arriving on boat trips. We stayed to swim and eat lunch, having that dreaded conversation no one wants on a day long hike; “Have you got the suncream?” “No, I though you packed it?” then realising it is hanging in a plastic bag back in the hotel room. Yet we had supplies of water and food to last all day, but no way of reapplying suncream! I great fear of my northern skin, I stuck to wearing a cap and tshirt for the rest of the day!

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After enjoying this beach we set off along the well warn path that connects the string of beaches, Galifos with its rooms to rent with no electricity and on to Angali. I understand this was once just a small beach and now grown to a small collection of places to stay and taverna’s, although there isn’t a shop or kiosk, there is bus connection to Chora. We stopped in at the near empty Fira beach for a swim, before starting the late afternoon ascent back to Chora via Christos Church. All of this section is marked on the path with regular ‘FI’ letters (for Fira), so makes it easy to follow back to the main road, although tiring and steep.

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Once on the main road we went past Stavros Church, which has a phenomenal balcony perched over the road. Feeling quite sun-beaten and weary we chose the road way back to Chora – which isn’t terrible as the traffic is fairly sparse and some people still travel by donkey here. Rounding off the walk with ice-cold bottles of Fix beer in a shady café back in the Chora…a good 14km in total meant that that night’s hearty  dinner was well earned, as well as the shots of rakimelo!

Folegandros has plenty of routes to attract both casual and serious walkers, in fact there is decent selection of routes on websites by just searching as well as on marked trails on the Topo Map and a free map of Ano Meria which has a further 4 trails that start and finish in the village. It was actually one of the best served islands for options for walks we have been to for a while – although we didn’t see many other walkers but as it was July this was understandable. In Chora we noticed posters and a stall for a crowd funding campaign ‘Folegandros Routes‘  to formalise the routes and preserve paths, and eventually have architectural plans to build a huge 3km pedestrian walkway, for wheelchair and pushchair access from the port at Karavostatis to the Chora. This seemed like a very ambitious development and one that would require not just a vast amount of investment, environmental surveys and marketing to ensure the nature and character of the island remain preserved for the future. It will be interesting to see if this gets the go-ahead. It also feeds into my pet-peeve about Greek roads – if only there were built with pedestrians in mind, this would mean they can easily be adjusted for wheelchair access if the safe space was already there!

After a more restful day, we then got back hiking a 16km route. Starting with an early bus up to the end of Ano Meria to set out on Trail 5, which was also marked LV towards Livadakia beach. It descends down some incredible views, past ruins of themonia (farmhouse) settlements and distant churches. The quality of the paths and trails are also pretty good with old stone paths, cobbles and steps cut into the rocks. After about 50 minutes walking Livadakia beach is a real sight to behold as you near the cliff edge and it opens up to a spectacular aqua marine inlet and white pebbled bay – with giant 10 foot tall cairns build by some adventurous souls.

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We were’nt alone here either, despite not seeing others on the way – a couple of boats bobbed into sight and dropped people off. The beach doesn’t have much shade or any facilities so do come prepared. After diving in off the rocks into the cooling waters, we enjoyed a lunch of bakery treats and just-in-season nectarines. Once rested we set off and ascended the scary rock steps up the cliff face which despite my vertigo, weren’t as bad as they looked from below! The path then meanders around the hill inland before splitting to go to wither Agia Fotini or the lighthouse at Cape Aspropouda – we went to the lighthouse first as it looked so lonely out there. Built in the early 1900 it has a gothic almost Victorian era turret with a view over the cliffs. It has been unmanned since 1986 when solar powered panels took over from the two lighthouse keepers, since then in its been left in a state of mild neglect and the front shuttered window hangs loose. You can peep in and see old furniture remaining like museum pieces in what was once the bedroom. Pretty spooky and fascinating place to visit, and one imagines how cold and windy a winter night must have been out there!

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After that we hiked uphill back towards the village, over terrace hills and more recently used farmland. Once at Agia Fotina, there is an unfinished road which sadly must have destroyed the old path back to the Windmills in Ano Meria.

After a swift but well needed rest stop for ice-cream at the mini-market we headed through the village and out on the main road towards Vorina beach. Once at the start of the old trail, it gets very steep downhill, but the rocks have been cut into sharp steps so makes the walk do-able but tough. Apparently these were the old steps where mules would bring up rocks cut out of the cliffs for building all the way up to the Chora. This must have been painful and back-breaking work for animals and humans alike! The scramble is worth it as you reach a squally north-facing beach with huge waves and emerald green sea. We didn’t swim properly here but sat in the shallows letting huge waves cool us down and enjoyed the tranquility before preparing for a heart-quickening workout to get back up the steps!

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I’d certainly recommend Folegandros to anyone wanting to get off the beaten track and see a windswept Cycladic island that has developed sensitively in recent years, but doesn’t want to lose its traditional character and nature. As it attracts rather well-heeled types with its ‘boutique-hotels’ in high-season and we found all the accommodation to be a little pricey. But it is certainly a treasure to be explored and offers so much more than a ‘beaches and cocktails’ destination. I’d love to come back in Winter and experience the quiet time, which our hotelier described as “nothing to see, nothing to talk about…I walk through the town and see only cats”. I’d say it sounds perfect!

I’ll follow up with a piece on the wonderful Folk Museum we visited and some more highlights soon…