Folegandros: Ano Meria and the Folk Museum

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There are always two sides to (most of) the islands and Folegandros certainly shows this in its interior village of Ano Meria. The name itself is quite a common one throughout the Cyclades, in fact Ano just means upper and Meria usually translates as side. ‘upper side’ doesn’t sound so romantic but a practical way of differentiating between the villages. In fact there is also an Ano Meria area in Syros which refers to just a few hills on the near-deserted Northern Coast.

As Folegandros has a great little bus service in the peak months, Ano Meria is fairly easy to explore and can be incorporated into many of the hiking trails. Before heading up there we were advised by a friendly café proprietor to ask about the Folk Museum’s opening hours in the municipal building in the Chora. I’m glad we did as it opens everyday in the summer from 5pm to 8pm, it would have been a long wait if we had got the 11am bus as originally planned! When you look at a map it is an area that hugs the main-road for quite a while in the middle of the island which means that you can see the coast from both right and left. The village doesn’t have a central platiea or square so meanders along without a real beginning or end. The bus will do request stops all along this stretch of road and it was good to see plenty of locals were using the bus too. The village houses seem to coalesce around the road and since it began life as nothing more than a simple donkey track, it has a sense of just springing up rather than any grand design. The area is where most of the island’s permanent population reside in the Winter and still home to nearly 150 residents, many of which still have farm land on the terraces and graze animals. As we wandered around we spotted lots of goats, sheep and donkeys. Donkeys are still used along the main road to transport people as well as harvesting crops – so don’t be surprised to see a few tied up along the road. There are three of four taverna’s spread out along the road, as well as a few decent supermarkets selling lost of fresh fruit and local products.

We stopped in a small tavern at the end of the village, before the road to Agios Georgios. After our coffee’s I popped inside to use the WC and was amazed to find hand made models of Greek ferries, I had a quick chat to the man working there who was mad about the ferries and made the models himself. Very impressive!

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Reaching the Museum is fairly easy as its well signposted from the road, the site is set back on a pathway and incorporates all the small jumbled buildings found on traditional themonia-settlements in farming communities. It is free to enter and its supported by the Folegandros Cultural Society, so they just request donations instead of an entrance fee.

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The guides who give each group of visitors a tour round to explain all the buildings and artifacts and their history. We were first to arrive and the young Greek lady who showed us around was superbly knowledgeable and fluent in English, explaining that her grandfather was from the island and she returned from Athens in the summer to work at the museum.

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Firstly you get taken into the oldest preserved farm-buildings which are all set out as they would have been in the 17th Century; it’s a treasure trove of terracotta pots used to store everything from wine to honey and olive oil. Numerous farm tools from this era are on display, the guide also explained the threshing circle using a mule or donkey to walk around to separate the wheat from the chaff.

There was also a grape press where men would stamp on the grapes and a rudimentary channel and tray cut out of stone to collect the liquid.

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She explained the really interesting history about how we all associate Greek houses with being white when really they left them as stone and mud in order to disguise them in the hillside from raiding pirates and invaders. White painting of houses came in later, for environmental reasons, white reflects the sun but it was also part of the large-scale tourism promotion in the mid-20th century and after 1974 all new buildings in Greece had to be repainted white by law. It shows a slightly darker side of how we normally see the Cycladic islands as being postcard perfect.

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The museum has two displays one of the 17th Century farm house and then the 19th Century farmhouse, which is more recognisable with smaller shuttered windows and three basic room, this time an indoor kitchen, living space for weaving and a workshop, as well as a bedroom.

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As you’ll see from the pics, it’s stuffed full of wonderful crafts, and artifacts that offer an insight into life on the island. Our guide explained that most family settlements like this would build a new house when they could and leave the older farmhouse to be turned into storage – which once you know this you start to see how many of the houses in Ano Meria and other villages show this similar evolution over the year; mostly a 1950/60s built house, often build next to an older dwelling – seeing it as more worthwhile to build from scratch than repair and modernise. This is one of the reasons there seems to be few traditional farmhouses from the last century still inhabited…but you do see plenty of the tumble down ones with ‘for sale signs’. The museum site also had a really well tended garden, build on slopes, with some particularly scary scarecrows too.

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The garden had a lemon tree growing in a traditional stone wall shelter to protect it from the ravishing winds – having seen the remnants of these tree-shelters on our walks it all made sense now to protect the trees.

The museum really is an interesting way to while away some time and learn more about the traditions and crafts of rural life in Greece. It is great to see more of the cultural preservation taking place in the islands and efforts to attract tourists who wish to experience and understand the traditions that go with rural life.

There isn’t a website for the museum but some details can be found here

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…