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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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! 

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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!

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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!

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Syros: walking back in time

Last Friday we set off on a walk so it ended up creating its own nickname “extremehikingfridays” which obviously lends itself to some funny hashtags! At first didn’t mean for the day to be completely absorbed by a hike, but as we were enjoying exploring so much we ended up doing a full loop back to Kini, around 20k in total. Extreme-hiking lived up to its name!

We set off on the first bus from Kini to Ermoupolis at 9am, with a packed lunch, fruit and snacks and plenty of water to keep us hydrated. The route chosen would take us North out of the town, passing tiny hamlets of Richopo, crossing into Ferekidh’s Cave, up to the original settlement of Kastri and then onto the excavation site of Chalandriani. This combined a few of the existing trails mapped as 1, 2 and 3 which we thought gave us plenty of options for finishing it up with either a taxi or walk back to Ermoupoli.

The weather was warm and breezy, so not too hot for walking. But the first section was the ascent through Vrodado and the steps nearly defeated us!

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This leads up to Anastasi which is known as the Church of the Resurrection of the Savior. This blue domed Orthodox church sits astride the hill, opposite the hill top of Ano Syros where Agios Georgios the Catholic Church holds court. Anastasi is dedicated to “Resurrection of the nation”. Built in 1874 by the local architect Dimitris Eleftheriadis, it is very impressive with a mix of Byzantine and neoclassical elements. Once past the 200 step climb we set of walking out of the town through an area called Dhili. Here the houses are a mix of very old and newer constructions, and as you leave the confines of the urban area they start to have more land for agricultural purposes. Once we reached a Panacrandos Church, this is where the path of trail 1 started – the path is well marked and views here are spectacular.

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Outwards over the Aegean to Tinos and Andros, taking in Cape Armonos and Agios Demetrios which is the byzantine church looking out to sea and spectacular if you get to pass it on a ferry.  After a while on this barren stone path, we came across a tiny hamlet of Richopo where there are signs to Ferekidh’s Cave (or Pherecydes of Syros as he is also known). A philosopher known as one of the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, his work contemplated the importance of time (chronos) by using a heliotrope (sun-dial)  village of San Michalis (yep where they make Syro’s famous cheese).  but there is a bust of him in Ano Syros as well. His philosophical musings discussed metamorphosis and the underworld, as well as teaching Phythagras.

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Pherecydes was a complex character and very little of his written work remains – Scholars disagree on his work so this could be why signs point to his cave, yet the cave doesn’t receive historical site protection. This possibly goes some way to explain why the powers that be decided to build the municipal dump and recycling-centre less than a mile downhill from it! Which has sadly resulted in a million plastic bags are carried away on the wind from the dump and end up littering the amazing path around the cave – this was just such mess and made me pretty angry.

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You get plastic bags with every single purchase here. It would make a huge difference if they’re use was reduced and the authorities did more to protect the rubbish from blowing out of the site and ruining the island. Rant over!

You’ll see from the pics, it is an amazing cave. A real place of contemplation and solitude.

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From here we scaled inland to Plati Vouni, which is a rural settlement of themonia (houses) closely built together – many households still work on the land, keeping goats and chickens, bring water up from the wells and natural springs. We even spotted a few circular threshing floors as well, although at this time of year all the hay and wheat had been collected. Apart from electricity cables this area would have changed very little in the past 50 years, being very similar to Folegandros and other Cycladic rural villages we have walked through.

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Passing down through a valley we headed out to coast again on route 3, losing our way slightly as we were following this immensely valuable description of the walk. Reaching a lonely house, then the trail leads down and out to the headland to reach the remote beach of Ghilsoura. Even though remote, without a road to it or electricity cables, the house was occupied by a Greek family enjoying a drink on their terrace. We misjudged and took the turn too soon – luckily the family realised what we had done as we tromped through their land, and started waving and pointing us towards the right path! We exchanged pleasantries and thanks. If it wasn’t for their intervention, I am not sure where we would have ended up.

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The beach at Ghilsoura is magnificent and remote, with pristine pebbles lining the shore – we took a dip here and enjoyed our picnic. This would have been one of the two beaches invaders and pirates landed at when the only settlement of Syros was at the Kastri. We looked around at the back of beach where the trail was meant to rise up to the Kastri, but the path is almost completely hidden! It doesn’t make itself known until you are right infront of it and see the red arrows marking the path. The Kastri rises from the top of the summit making it the perfect place to spot any threats and by time any invader reached the top, they’d be tired!.

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Dating back to the Early Cycladic period the Kastri would have been not only a fortress to protect the islanders, but also a village where the daily ritual of life went on. There have been numerous excavations over the years including the discovery of the Acropolis area at the top of the site and a graveyard with about 600 tombs. Some of the ceramic vases, stone and metalwork fragments are held by the Syros Archaeological Museum and reveal it was a sophisticated society.

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The climb to the top reveals its charms and practicality – no pirate invader could make it to the top without being seen! The views from up high are its main vantage point – out to sea and inland across the island. To get a real explanation of the Kastri’s scale I found a good photo here . When you are exploring it you don’t get the full sense of its scale so was good to see that aerial image beforehand and wander round accordingly.

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Here we came across 4 fellow walkers which is a rarity on our travels. These Greeks asked us where we had walked from and were surprised to hear we walked all the way from the town (rightly so as we’d already done 8k!) They had parked their car at Chalandriani and walked over, which is a steep 30 minute which does make the site accessible for even non-walkers. But I found walking there past the smaller hamlets first gives you a better sense of the variety of landscapes on this compact island.

After this we scaled uphill to Chalandriani which is also a small settlement and site of a large excavation. A few houses remain occupied here and terraced land dominates the view.

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The excavations in Chalandriani started in the late 19th Century by archaeologist Christos Tsountas  and the findings from the village are considered one of the most important in Cyclades. Figures and pottery from this site are displayed across the world on loan from their home in the National Museum in Athens. I even managed to see some pieces from Chalandriani in the Ashmolean Museum on my last visit to Oxford. So it was great to see the site they came from – although there isn’t much to actually see here.

From this road junction where the trail 3 ended, we made the epic decision to walk back to Ermoupoli, but heading on an alternative route back that passed the settlements of Kiperousa, Senero and Finikia. Although this cut through on the road this is a stretch of the island that is fairly quiet especially mid-afternoon.

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Once you reach Finikia, this is a few old abandoned houses and newer farms which would have been in a valley, possibly with a Spring to supply irrigation. It has the tell tale signs of a seam of lush green trees growing through the middle of the valley. It was blissfully quiet and at the same time has a ghostliness quality to it, as you walk past you can imagine life in the abandoned 19th Century dwellings and mules using the paths marked by dry stone walls. All of the paths which wind up and down would have carried goods and livestock to the markets of Ano Syros.

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As the road corners towards Ano Syros this area is really interesting as it still has the remains of windmills. One has been kept intact and sits proudly overlooking the valley. But its doors are locked and marked by a sign saying it was restored by the Municipality. We took the steep path up to the peak of the hill where the remains of three windmills stand and then on to Alithini.

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The views here are breathtaking – from it you get a sense of all the histories of the island merging into one modern personality. From the medieval settlement, growing and expanding through the 18th Century in it’s industrialist heritage. Ermoupoli stretches out as a meeting place of both its the rural and urban populations, defined by many people who came as immigrants, changing the islands fortunes, religion, cuisine and culture.

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In Alithini, we found a path marked trail 10 which would take us up over the final hill, past the out of action wind turbine and down into Kini. This path is one of the sparse remains of the original path network that even up to the 1960s workers from Kini would have used daily. It has two options; Alithini to Kini or heading up to Aghia Varvara and then turning at Piskipio and down into the shipyards and factories of Ermoupoli – a route of 8k each way. Imagine that as a daily commute to work!

During the Italian occuoation of Syros in the Second World War, as vehicles were a still a rarity on the island, Italian soldiers would have used the old path network to solicit food from farmers and transport goods by mule. As you walk these routes which connect villages and churches on worn cobbles and marbled stones, sometimes with carved steps and bare earth, it impossible not to imagine the lives of those Syrians who walked them everyday.

By the time the sun was low in the sky we reached the bay of Kini. There was only one option, taking our aching legs and heading straight for a rewarding beer !

#extremehikingfridays watch this space for more adventures!

 

Saints and celebrations

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In Kini there is an annual festival of Agios Petros (Saint Peter) which takes place every year on June 29th on his  Saints Day. St Peter was an Apostle who was a fisherman so it makes sense that a tiny Greek Orthodox Chapel was built for him, perched above the rows of boats to keep a watchful eye on the local fishermen.

It was certainly a hot day and evening for such a festival, the temperature yesterday peaked at around 36c Although we went swimming late yesterday, people stayed on the beach late to watch the festival procession and cool off in the sea. It is forecast to be 44c in Athens this weekend – impossible to imagine but this heatwave is seeing some of the highest temps in Greece for over 10 years. I have to be thankful that we are luckier here in the islands, but this heat is really unusual. Even the garden is melting, tomatoes wilt in the sun and I have seen locals laying sheets out to shade their vegetables from the heat!  We have had a few internet outages and the power also went off the other night, a click and the air-con went off which prompted me to wander outside to see utter darkness across the hills. But wow the star-lit sky looked incredible. Everyone seems to be blaming these powercuts on the humidity and heat, so fingers crossed they don’t continue.

Yesterday’s event started at a stiflingly hot 7pm with the Orthodox service in the Chapel. I’m sure less than 20 people can actually fit inside, so many people gathered outside and on the steps below fanning themselves and cramming into areas of shade. The harbour had been decorated with bunting, flags, tables and chairs laid out while the band was setting up. After the ceremony, the Orthodox Priest blesses the icon of St Peter and it is walked in a procession down the hill led by local dignitaries and some of the children we recognised from the village. After it reaches the port the fun really started, when the Priest and his helpers carry the icon onto a decorated fishing boat and sail around the bay to bless the waters. One boat led with the revered icon and another six or so decorated fishing boats followed until there was a little flotilla of vessels circling the bay, they were followed by youngsters in little sail boats from a local sailing club. Flares were set off and whistles blowed in celebration. I captured a few pics of the event below.

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After the blessing and serious bit, it was time for the Greek feasting and frivolity. If one thing is for sure, it is that locals and visitors alike love to share in the jubilant dancing and feasting that comes with Greek village traditions. As the sun set over the bay, the temperature cooled slightly, the grills fired up cooking sardines and souvlaki, stalls selling Loukamades (deep fried donuts), wine and beers flowed. There was a live band, fireworks and a display of traditional dancing from the local cultural organisation.

It seemed like everyone came down to see what was happening, regardless of faith,  to meet people they know and catch up. Local families came to celebrate and enjoy the feast, while tourists wandered through the crowds to soak up the culture,from babies to the elderly, these sorts of events bring everyone together, and this was especially true with the dancing that went on late. The music just brought everyone up to dance- holding hands, learning the steps, from teenagers to the older generation, who I must say really do know how to move! I even was bravely coaxed into joining in, which was so much fun, even though the steps are always confusing.

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Plus, I finally discovered that everyone DOES know all the words to Markos Vamvakaris’s classic “Frankosyriani“; the love song was sang by an older man who got up from the crowd, everyone joined in and a few older dancers struck out the leg-slapping, slow floor sweeping moves of the Rembetiko masters. We snuck away just before 1am, sweat glistening on our faces and mosquito bites on our legs. Still the music was nowhere near stopping and people still had energy to dance wildly into the hot night.

I hope Agios Petros was impressed.