The small cyclades – Donoussa

The small cyclades (Μικρές Κυκλάδες) are a set of satellite islands out from Naxos that are some of the smallest inhabited islands of the Aegean. The islands of  Iraklia, Schinoussa, Koufounissi (or Ano Koufonissi) and Donoussa make up the motley crew. They might be less well- known to tourists, but are certainly not undiscovered. Their charms are simple; beaches, relaxation and peace.  But their popularity is growing every year.

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We started the near day-long journey on the Aqua Jewel from Syros at 7am, (the replacement for the Aqua Spirit) this route gave us a 3 hour break for a long lunch in Naxos before hopping on the Express Skopelitis. To say this boat is a bit of legend might be an understatement; it’s been ran by three generations of the same family for 30 years bringing thousands of tourists every season. The historic ferry runs a loop connecting these ‘barren islands’ every few days, a life-line to bring tourists, food supplies and is certainly a big event when the small cyclades ferry enters each port.

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Given how ferocious the meltemi wind has been in recent weeks we were lucky with the weather as it was relatively calm and sunny. Koufonissi was the first stop on the 4 hour long trip, this being the most ‘popular’  island and from what I could ascertain attracts the bigger crowds, with more restaurants and places to stay – it is also better connected with a couple of regular high speed ferries each week. Schinoussa felt even less busy, as much of the island is out of view from where the ferry docked at Mersini with the inhabited Chora 1km further  uphill. On the ‘tour’ route of the Skopeltis we might not have experienced the other islands but it was impossible to miss the deep aquamarine of the sea and the pale sand – making these islands appear at first glance more like the caribbean than the rocky barren Greek Islands they are. Iraklia also similar approach – blue seas and beaches – only a couple of buildings visible at the port but has the largest land mass of the group at 19 sq KM.

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The 13 sq KMs Donoussa seemed like a dry-land paradise by the time the boat docked. What started off as calm waters was shattered after we sailed into a choppy stretch of sea out of the sheltered waters of Naxos and out to the wild open stretch of sea with Amorgos island in the distance . The tiny port Chora of Stavros is the main settlement of the island with a permanent year round population of around 200. It has just one handful of taverna’s and one supermarket – it’s as big of a slice of civilization as you’ll ever need. It being the first week in September we had booked ahead, apparently in August it’s impossible to get a room to rent without advance planning. The garden facing studio at Firoa Rooms was a good call (well done G, you do like booking trips!). The island might not be famous for sunsets of high-end cuisine, but what it does have in droves is peace and charm. The To Kyma Taverna sits over the harbour as an eatery, kafenion and general store,  it’s a family affair with mama in the kitchen and daughter waiting tables, serving as the heart of the village as locals play backgammon and wistful cats wander between the tables. We went here for a quick drink to acclimatise ourselves, but went back several times to eat – great food, no menu’s just whatever the ladies in the kitchen have cooked up that afternoon. We gorged on artichokes, stuffed tomatoes and rooster in wine. Delicious and incredible value.  

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In the blissful 5 days we enjoyed great traditional local food at Illiovasilema and Meltemi  as well as visiting Captain Georgios for seafood – sampling delicious stuffed Calamari and deep fried shrimps. There was probably 2 more places we could have tried in Stavros, but there’s enough variety to keep your palate satisfied if you were here a week or even two.  Although tranquil and free from mass-tourism, the thing I appreciated were the lack of cars. It was heaven just wandering about and never being passed by more than one or two cars.

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Walking on the island was great – well signposted and decent trails that make up the network of Paths of Cultural Interest. Most of them used to be part of the old mule roads that covered the island and united its four villages, Stavros, Mersini, Messaria and Kalotaritissa. We managed to do the three main hiking trails – the first day we went up over to the beaches of Kalotaritissa which you can do a nice detour up to the highest point of the Island at the peak of Mount Pappas – yes, we managed to time that badly with a particularly hot day and I actually thought I would die at one point on the climb up! But the views were well worth the pain!

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The walk takes you  over some spectacular scenery to the tiny settlement of Kalotaritissa which has one taverna and 5 occupied houses. The beaches were clear and clean and we rested a while to enjoy a swim, before exploring further beaches and the cape. Then we walked back which the climb was steep again, but the sun was lower in the sky and behind us. We also had a chance to have a look at the old mines on the hillside, these were once a huge industry for the island swelling its population into the thousands but closing in the late 1930s . What remains of the mine Spooky and full of goat bones, forcing me to wonder if old goats take themselves off to die quietly in caves?

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The second full hiking day we did the route that connects Stavros to Mersini to then onto Massaria. This is a varied route taking inland hillsides across to the Spring at Massaria.

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Then on to the amazing beaches at Livadia, and the hidden bay of Fikio. The swimming was perfect, so clear and blue.

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We agreed that this might have been one of the best beaches we’d swam on for sheer out-there-photogenic-ness-in-real-life!

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We had some map issues where we couldn’t locate paths but eventually found our way back on the trail to see explore the old windmill and then down to Kedros beach. We swam in the wreck of the Orion, an old WW2 German boat which was sunk by allied forces – just the hull remains decaying in the bay but still a fascinating place to snorkel.

 

Donoussa isn’t quite the land that time forgot, it has enough facilities to keep the more peaceful travellers occupied. It thankfully doesn’t have any big hotels or music clubs and retains a small-island atmosphere is reminiscent of a by-gone time.  As tourists we only get to see a small part of an island and experience it in a moment in time, Donoussa has bags of charm and lIke many islands it has suffered from dwindling industry and opportunity, and now turns its hand to tourism to boost its island economy. Over time it has attracted new generations of islanders, returning to set up apartments and businesses. While we were there a village wedding took place on a Saturday, everyone came out to wish the couple well. It seemed like most of the locals attended or were involved in some way, a reminder of what a close-knit community the island still has and one that I hope remains.

 

What also makes the island unique is a tolerance to that hippie-vibe that tolerates naturism on (most) beaches, there is also a blind-eye turned to free-camping with a surprising amount of tents on the areas behind Kedros and Livadi beaches. This all seems friendly enough, but my only criticism to this is the outward appearance of the tents on the landscape. I know it sounds mean as free-camping trumps an organised beach-bar pumping out music and paid for sunloungers, but it would be better if it was confined to one area like Kedros beach, but we more than once we came across tiny coves with 2 tents taking up the whole beach space. Fair enough, like the first one on the beach rule you can set up wherever you want  – but if some people are there for weeks. This little aspect jarred with me – especially when we went on walks and found little piles of rubbish left over from camping and those intolerable wetwipes left in bushes (no they never biodegrade). Free-camping is great for tourism and the island and environment, if you are responsible and leave no trace.   

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On our last full day we walked out to Aspro Cavo – the cape of the island which stretches out with some amazing rock formations. It is a very barren lunar landscape, with rocky little pools of water forming salt crystals in the sun and driftwood dotting the landscape . That evening the wind was started to whip up a storm which turned our farewell to the island the next morning into a rather eventful mission.

 

To say the journey back to Syros was a little rough might be the understatement of the year. The Express ran 2 hours late as it made its way from Amorgos, once onboard we hunkered down below deck while it was battered by waves and Beaufort scale 7 winds for a long 3 hours back to Naxos. Main thing is we survived and weren’t sick (thank you miracle travel tablets and tuc crackers) – I cannot imagine how the hardy crew keep going in all weathers!.

 

Now, back on Syros and into the September slow-down of the season, I am keen to just realx and enjoy life on dry-land.

Weekending in Naxos or “how I accidently ran a 10k”

Rewind a month and we are sat in a sports bar in Athens watching the Everton game – I know, I can hear the judge-y tone now. In a city of such history and culture, how does one want to watch an English game? But well it was for work and pleasure, a project Graeme is working on and after all Everton are his favourite team. That is how we roll; the morning spent appreciating the foundations of democracy at the Agora in Monastiraki and now football on the telly, a nice contradiction of highbrow / low-brow and everything in between.  So Graeme had been eyeing up the Cyclades Trail Cup, a series of trail races planned on various islands over the summer. The first one was on Naxos, just a short hop from Syros and took place on May Bank Holiday, so we figured a few days escape to another island would fit in with working hours and a good excuse to do some sightseeing.

It was free to sign up, Graeme registered for the Dionisos distance which was 10.8k of gruelling hills, on cobbled paths and historic trails in the mountains of Naxos. I ‘ummed and ahh-ed’ for at least an hour – then signed up for it too, thinking I could try to do a bit of training, a few short runs here and there. Maybe my knee wouldn’t starting yelping in pain after 25 minutes running as it usually does in the gym back home. And anyway, the 30th April seemed a long way off when you are sat in a bar cradling a pint of Mythos on 4th April.

Then fast forward a few weeks, we are living in Kini, Graeme had been taking it all relatively seriously and doing a few 5-6k hill runs to nearby Delfini and around the tracks over the bay. All I had managed was 2 short 20 minute ‘jogs’ around the sea front.  So getting up early last Saturday to catch the 7am Aqua Spirit to Naxos was a breeze, a chilly but clear sunrise greeted us over Ermoupoli as the boat set sail.

The ferry firstly stopped at Paros then glided into Naxos Harbour. By the way, if anyone is as much of a ferry geek as me – the old Aqua Spirit, although built in Greece in the early 2000s as the Andreas II has the air of a much older boat thanks to the rusty exterior and 90s pleather seats. I did the quick background research while enjoying the journey and discovered it was briefly sold to Sweden and operated as a floating supermarket, aptly named Mr Shoppy One. It was then sold back to Greece in 2011 and operated by the old NEL line, and after they collapsed it was bought by Sea Jets GR as the only conventional ferry in their fleet. I swear this amused me so much thinking it has been a floating supermarket. I even bravely went to ask the ship’s purser about it under the guise of asking for a printed copy of the timetable (geek in action)– “he shook his head and said ”no you are mistaken this has always been a Greek ferry”. I’m not convinced. Google told me! Maybe it’s a cover up they get briefed on before each sailing “Don’t talk about Mr Shoppy” It’s probably a clause in their employment contract. Determined, I then spent the next 10 minutes before we embarked looking for evidence of its former life. Only a fading warning sign written in Swedish was hanging over the exit. It’s definitely one of the most significant mysteries in maritime history… one to follow up on, I won’t sleep until I know the TRUTH!

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Anyway, arriving in Naxos was a bit of sensory overload, as it felt very touristy, if a little jaded – signs everywhere in English and lots of hotels, tourist shops and car hire places. I had just gotten used to having most things written in Greek in Syros, instead Naxos seafront had a plethora of names like “Zorba’s Greek Tavern” or “Captains Cocktail Bar” ‘Happy Hour 6-8pm Screaming Orgasm 4 Euros! It wasn’t bad in any way – just different. Luckily, we didn’t have time to wander and get lost, as we were greeted at the port by the son of the apartment owner and he walked us 10 minutes towards St Georges beach area, where the Galazia Studios are located. A really lovely place, blue and white shutters, plants everywhere. As there are just 10 rooms,the owner kindly said that as we were early in the season he upgraded our basic studio on the ground floor to the top floor luxury room. Which was a nice surprise! – soft blue furnishings, flat screen TV, newly painted bathroom. Perfect. When we were checking in, his mum offered us fresh lemonade, and for breakfast left us fresh eggs from their chickens on the farm (which I spent ages asking her about), as well as giving us a jar of homemade orange marmalade when we departed. Great traditional hospitality.

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As the race wasn’t until Sunday, we had the whole afternoon to explore. After refueling on a tasty lunch of meatballs, rice and salad with Naxion cheese, we wandered up to the Chora. This is the town’s oldest part which has a fantastic labyrinthine streets snaking up to the Castle. We found time to explore and visit the fantastic collection in the Archaeological museum. I particularly enjoyed all the plants and flowers everywhere in charming little Cycladic streets – perfectly postcard pretty.

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After a low-key evening that consisted of dinner the Oasis Taverna (hearty giovetsi and moussaka) and refusing shots of tsipuro (previously unheard of!) and then falling asleep before 10pm. On Sunday we were up early to meet at the port for participants to be bussed up to the starting point of the race Ano Potamia. It was a hair-raising bus journey, I kept munching on chocolate croissants worrying about energy levels…

Once we arrived at the start, piling out the bus, I faffed, procrastinated, I kept going over everything “I have the wrong trainers, my Nike Zooms are not made for cobbled stones and vertical climbs” – I was wearing 2 pairs of Primark socks instead of my sweat resistant ‘proper’ running socks. Anyway I felt all unprepared and Graeme went into a little stressy pre-race mode where he paced around trying to block out my whiney conversations, which were rightly ignored. I figured it out – gave myself a good talking to and heeded the race organisers advice, “if you walk, do so on the right.” I just thought, I am doing this to finish it – not win, no PB, just finish without death or injury. Who cares if you come last – looking around at the lithe Hellenic bodies around us – I mean, the Olympics wasn’t invented here for no reason, the Greeks are athletic, straight up competitive types. Well, not everyone, there were plenty of us ‘normal’ folk there too’ a bit tubby, in badly fitted sportswear straight from the shop, oldies, youngies and I guess everyone in-between. The bus had taken us high into the hills, this was a rural Naxos at its most scenic and traditional – and you couldn’t beat the location of the start line at a beautiful tavern underneath the pine trees. Luckily the clouds were in our favour and the temp felt cool.

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Siga siga (slowly slowly) that was going to be my race motto. Graeme sped off after the starting countdown, it was just a throng of caps, neon vests, red and blue t-shirts and drum-banging enthusiasm! I kept to my own pace, convincing myself I couldn’t run very far. I started off with a trot, but as the course was narrow firstly weaving through the cobbled streets and then upwards towards the hills on old goat herders tracks. There wasn’t much room for over taking anyway, so I kept up a pace that felt comfortable and right for me. I think I exclusively looked down at my feet for the first 15 minutes, not even a solitary glance ahead or up at the views as we climbed, but eyes firmly on my feet to make sure I didn’t slip, or trop on the wildly uneven surfaces. The whole race was a feast of jagged rocks, undergrowth and wildflowers, dirt roads and lizards darting for cover. I just focussed on breathing. One foot in front of the other.  It was a rhythmic mediation, breathing and keeping my feet going. I often read about ‘mindfulness’; the concept of focussing on the present moment – this was it in action, like a revelation, all I could think (or perfectly not think) was breathe / move!  A combination of existing only in that moment, there was no time for thinking about the people I was surrounded by, or a spilt second to consider how everyone else was faring. That was the most pure form of presence, one that considered only survival and purpose.  A base instinct sure, but one I relished in through the course of 10.8 kilometres of pure exhilaration and exertion.  I kept going, uphill and downhill, sometimes overtaking others and sometimes I stepped back to catch my breath and let others pass. As the course weaved back into the villages and weaved through the terrain, locals and race supporters shouted encouragement, offered water the course certainly didn’t allow for a full pelt sprint anyway, unless you were half man half goat. Even Graeme who kept up with some of the winners, said most people trotted, walked and ran – a winning combination. He managed to finish in 1.20 coming 15th (impressive) and I was thrilled with finishing around the 1.50 mark. A finisher at least!

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All in all it was a brilliant race – I got to experience wild moments alone on the course at some points where I looked up and saw the bare rugged beauty of the landscape, unchanged in centuries, hills jutting precariously, then scrambling downhill past old aqueducts. Being neither overtaken nor having company was incredibly liberating out in the wild high up parts of the course, a reminder that you race this life only against yourself, you create competition to spur yourself forward. I need to step away from holding that life achievement barometer against certain milestones. The course is continuous – I need to be present…I also need to just dig in. I want to take that feeling of being in the race mode with me – treasure it and know that I can call on this hidden strength to compete and complete any challenge I choose. Stop panicking and just do. Perhaps in life the best things are just experienced in the moment, not over-analysed and overthought, they just are.