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

In time for Easter

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

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

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

20180328_100110

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

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

2018-04-07_05-23-28

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

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

20180401_124219

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

2018-04-07_05-20-05

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

20180401_145233

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

Happy Easter – Kalo Pascha!

2018-04-07_04-52-06