Sifnos in Spring

I was in Sifnos back in April. Even now as the wings of summer have opened and danced rays of golden honey warmth across the longer days, to me now that feels a long time ago. A lifetime ago in which I had a persistent cold and snotty nose that wouldn’t budge and a penchant for wearing socks in bed. Both afflictions have thankfully been cured by summer’s eventual arrival. It took a while didn’t it? And No, Sorry I Can’t Keep Talking About The Rain In The UK – it is awful. I know. I know! Everyday I wake up to sun here I do a little sun salutation vinyassa and give Greece a mental and sometimes physical, high-five of thankfullness. It is indeed the small things that make a difference.

So Sifnos was a place we’d wanted to visit for ages. Some call it the perfect Greek Island, a timeless place of mystery and charm. Great for hiking, cultural events, pottery, rural valleys, charming towns, culinary delights – it did not disappoint at all. In fact going there in April before Easter was perhaps what made it really special, places just had a kind-of-shrugging-off-the-winter feel. Everywhere we went was coolly quiet and calm, some places were just opening up, laying out chairs and sweeping off the dead leaves, chasing out the ghosts of winter. As the ferry shunted into Kamares port, the flowers were in bloom and hills were green, the island was lush and inviting after all the rain.

The rolling hills between Kastro and Apollonia

We, of course, went there for the hiking which was top class. Well signposted, cleared trails of a wide variety of distances to beaches, churches and inland valleys. Particular mentions are deserved for the old path to Agios Sostis past the ancient bronze and gold mines, which now seems to be home to no-one else apart from colonies of goats. This beautiful view cascades down a steep path and out to a barren landscape where a church is just perched right on the rocky edge of land, lapped by the frothing sea. Naturally death defying for me to walk down and had to scrunch down a survival cheese pasty in the shade of the church before making it back up the steep hill. But the weather was cool and the rewards were empty trails and timeless Greek island scenery.


We loved exploring the Kastro after the walk to the waterfall which was in full flow. I imagine walks like these are much different in high summer, but at least then you get rewarded with swimming. The church of the seven martyrs was also spectacular as it perched out on rocky precipice with a winding path connecting it to the land. I imagine the streets of Kastro get a bit crowded in summer but in April some cafes and bars were open, but not all. Climbing back to Apollonia along a beautifully preserved stone trail – which passed by ancient olive groves and terraces dotted with falling down houses. This was my hiking heaven. I am now obsessed with pigeon houses and Dovecotes, I dream of renovating one into a tiny house.

Also – the food! Revithia (chick pea soup), Sardines, Horta – local cheese with figs – after all the exercise (and my snuffling ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ approach) it meant we tried a few of the foodie places too – despite very quiet evenings we ate early at Cayanne, a little pricey but amazing food. Well put together and as a treat, seemed worth it. Wild salad leaves with strawberries in a balsamic cream, caper dip and bifteki stuffed with cheese.

We ate one night at Kafenion Drakakis – a place that had been in the village since 1860 and as tradition dictates still serves meze and ouzo. The small room and courtyard had been recently redecorated but the ephemera of its history still adorned the walls. Black and white photos of men gathered around tables and images of the island scenery long before the holiday houses were built. Modern art and rembetiko music jostle for diners attention. Places like this are becoming popular -making new traditions out of old; one foot in the past, a nod to their history and one foot in the future; whitewashed chairs, locally sourced seasonal dishes and bottles of craft beer. The difference is simple in who they are serving it to. Those men who drank here are long gone, as is the small island rural economy that sustained them. In order to survive people and places have to adapt and it won’t ever be to everyone taste or price range. I get a bit sad to admit it, but no Greek Island can ever be timeless.

I really do like Sifnos. I can see why people love it and visit again, although it is starting to get a reputation as a place where the very chic international jet-set go, (that’s just not my interest or price-range) it still retains a unique charm which I found beautifully inspiring and atmospheric. It certainly wasn’t beach weather so all the renowned beaches like Platis Yialos stayed unexplored for us. So maybe we will have to return in summer! But this notion is the same for any Greek Island (in fact any destination). Anywhere you’d describe as idyllic and serene won’t necessarily be anywhere near that in August. But I really liked its rural feel and traditional life – farmers out herding goats and travelling by mule along the old paths.

We stayed in Apollonia in a little studio complex where the lady brought us Greek coffee and homemade biscuits when we arrived. It was a great central place to just wander and explore with no real plan. Through Pano Petali, Kato Petali and Artemonas, the villages that just blend into one another as you wander. Small cafes on squares and churches on every corner. The locals often said hello and everyone seemed friendly, like the older ladies we saw painting the outlines of the narrow steps that cascade through the maze of streets. I wondered what it felt like for them to see and hear so many visitors walk past their houses, taking photos, admiring the views and scenes. We are just visitors in their timeless land of change. The architecture in Sifnos is typical – from small cubed Cycladic houses, both old and new renditions, to the crumbling grandeur of Venetian mansions, reminiscent of Ermoupolis on a much smaller scale. A little garden centre on the street corner was stocking up with plants and flowers ready to wow in window boxes.

It is an island with an interesting mix of traditional and modern; like the Lakis Kafenion which is on the main square opposite a few boutique and artisan craft shops, old and new seem to jostle along nicely. I’ll leave you with some photos, sometimes images say more than words ever can.

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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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

Serifos: a trip report

It is a funny thing that we have replaced weekends on long train journeys across the UK with long journeys on ferries for weekends away. It’s a nice shift and also wonderful to be able to have lots of different islands so close, but I do miss the reliability of a train service from A to B, taking a required amount of time. Ferries here can be frustrating, islands are close but yet SOOO FAR as they take quite a bit of figuring out when you can get there and crucially, get back. Syros isn’t on many of the same routes as the fast boats which connect the most popular islands like Santorini and as we wanted to do a couple of more trips before the end of summer (*wails*) we finally chose Serifos and then Donoussa for the following weekend.

I’ll admit my tardiness to writing these blog posts – life has a habit of getting in the way, even here when everything is stripped back to simplicity, work got a bit complicated and poured over into non-work time. I take full responsibility for letting this happen. Saying no and switching off is hard. But I’m happy to say my notebooks are stuffed with ideas and words, so not letting that go was a good priority.

On 27th August we had a late ferry booked for Serifos, taking the Artemis is always a gentle exercise in expectation management. It was 2 hours late in to Syros but we filled the time with a delicious pizza at Amvix opposite the ferry terminal. Arriving into Serifos post close to 11pm wasn’t so bad, the harbourside restaurants were full and lively, which given the serene aspects of the island this was a nice surprise. We stayed in the Medusa Apartments – really spacious and modern place near Livadaki beach with a wonderful view from our terrace.

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Serifos is quite haphazard and scrappy, I mean that in a genuinely affectionate way. The old town, Chora sits up on the hill and you can tell that development in Livadia, the port’s expansion into having more tourist facilities has been quite recent and unplanned – by this I don’t mean they are all shiny and new – they are just cobbled together nicely, in a way I find comforting and natural rather than imposing. On an evening this all comes alive with restaurants and tavernas  all along the front.

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There are few but not many older buildings, the town hall and high school in the middle. But the area is dominated by the newer low-rise accommodation blocks, like the one we stayed in have been built outwards on plots behind Livadakia beach. It’s compact and all walkable, and isn’t over developed at all. There is 3 or so decent supermarkets and a couple of bakeries – which I visited for croissants and pastries for breakfast.

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After breakfast on the terrace we decided to venture up to the Chora on the well marked path that connects Livadia. It was so windy, the Meltemi was at full gust and whipped around us as we walked up the 4.8k old cobbled path that starts at the back of Livadia. The climb was a bit gruelling, and we were warned by the man who ran our apartments who said most people got the bus up there and walked back down the path! Not one to follow convention we decided to walk there and back!

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It is a perfect example of a Chora settlement, perhaps not as picturesque as others I have visited – but did feel more historic and authentic. As you climb the path, you pass churches and monuments, as well as the old school house and  the folk museum (which was closed as it was a Monday) but they have a mini amphitheatre area out the back for performances and such. There are lots of varieties of architecture, ranging from very ornate venetian in style, like the beautiful Town Hall to many of the traditional single story whitewashed dwellings. The Kastro area at the top is well preserved 15th Century example of a medieval settlement – the views were incredible, right out to Sifnos and Kythnos. But the wind was howling through the streets and sounded very eerie even in the middle of the day.

The Chora does not appear to have any obvious places to stay, but looks like some of the houses have been renovated for tourists. It does have a few good restaurants and bars tucked away, where we sipped greek coffee and gorged ourselves on pancakes. Graeme enjoyed his first ever savoury crepe and I went sweet with the most nutella and banana ever stuffed into one pancake… all calories were needed for the journey downhill!

A few days on Serifos were restorative – after the day walking we rested on the beaches, swam in clear blue sea and sheltered from the ferocious wind. There is plenty to choose from across the compact island, all with soft pale sand and safe waters for swimming. 

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We sipped ‘happy hour’ gin and tonics at the people-watching heaven of the Yacht Club and enjoyed some great food in Livadia. One worth noting was Metallio (named after the mines which used to be the island’s main industry) – this place is tucked away from the harbour, in an older building with tables on a raised terrace. The menu is stripped back just a few dishes on offer for starter and mains, but well thought out local food with a more gastro feel. We managed to sneak in early without reservations (they are always full so we were lucky), enjoying a range of excellent meat dishes, liver and onions (yes, just like my grandma used to make), mini chicken souvlaki, veal steak,  local goat with aubergine mash and a really decent organic retsina. Highly recommended as something a step up from traditional taverna fare.

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Our last day saw the wind bring clouds over the island and some very rough seas for the return leg back to Syros – we spent the hour before getting on board the Artemis  necking travel sickness tablets and eating crackers!. Glad to say we survived this one – but it was nothing compared the the adventure the following week on the Express Skopelitis in beaufort scale 7 winds!

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It was a relief to back on dry land in Kini this week. It has been nice getting back to work and tidying up the garden, making plans and enjoying the time.  All the signs of change are coming into view; sun loungers are being piled up on the beach for next year and two of the seaside cafes have closed already. The busyness of summer is starting to be replaced with cooler temperatures and less people, not only have schools gone back in the UK but schools here went back yesterday too. I woke early this morning to see that dew had formed in the trees overnight, this level of damp humidity overnight meant that towels stayed wet on the line.

All these signs are pointing to Autumn and with that a change in the air…

 

Kea: trip report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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