7 days in Greece

Well, a week in to this adventure and where do we find ourselves? Back in Athens and ready to roll on to Delfi. I awoke this morning to the buzz and beep of traffic, we are staying in a studio sandwiched between Ormonia Square and Exharia, not the prettiest of places in Athens. But rather interesting, revealing a different side of the city away from the Plaka and tourist shops, here in the belly of the city lies a diverse set of characters, immigrants, travellers, and rough street hustlers jostle for space. On Tuesday night we were kept awake by some sarky street ‘ladies’ plying their trade and shouting at passers by in stuttering Greek until 4am. Many of the areas scruffiest streets are a mix of once beautiful neo-classical mansions, now seemingly abandoned and left to decay, but many have balconies adorned with flowers like an oasis amidst 70s apartment blocks adorned with angry anarchist slogans and families living side by side. All of urban Athens as a melting pot, a diverse side of the city displaying all its grit and complexity. We ate at a great Cretan restaurant last night in Exahria ‘Oxo Nou’ – lively and great food, a pleasant reward after a days work.

Athens - Kalabaka

Since arriving, its been a journey of many parts making the week seem much longer, having hopped from place to place. The first 3 days were spent in the Plaka area of Athens, revisiting some bars and tavernas we enjoyed on our first visit a few winters ago. I took an early morning walk up to Anafiotika, one of my favourite areas of the city – built by the islanders of Anafi. Its whitewashed streets perfectly peaceful in the early sun and nothing but a few cats to greet me as I climbed towards the Acropolis.

Athens - Kalabaka

After a few days in Athens we headed on the ‘most chaotic train trip ever’ to Kalambaka in Thessaly, to visit the monasteries in Meteora. We hiked upwards to the strange rock formations, wandered through spring meadows and forests – gazing upon the most beautiful views across the flat plains of farms and snow peaked mountains to the north. I used the time wisely and tackled a fear of dogs and heights!

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We leave for Delfi this afternoon a three-hour adventure on the Ktel bus service. I feel alive and my eyes are open.

Sikinos, Cyclades August 2016

Sikinos is a little off the grid. And I think i’m safe in saying that it’s okay with that. In fact I think it would rather stay that way. When you are an island with only a population of less than 300 permanent residents, why ruin a good thing?

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It felt like being let into a secret, feeling bleary-eyed and weary after a 7 hour ferry journey on the Artemis in choppy seas. As we stepped off into the port, the tiny village of Allapronia stood shining in the night as Mr Lucas greeted us and a rambunctious Italian family, proudly whisking off our luggage to his harbourside apartments. Once the ferry departed the lights disappearing to the dark horizon, the engine noise, chaos and hum of arriving vehicles all dissipated, so we walked in silence, only serenaded only by the cicadas and wind rustling the trees as we walked along the path.

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After a late dinner of gyros pita at one of only two harbourside tavernas and a few beers on the balcony listening to owls hoot over the bay – it was a treat to wake up to bright sunlight and the sea lapping beneath the window. I sat on our balcony, sipping coffee watching a few yachts moored in the bay and the seagulls stalking the sea for small fishes. Blissful! Our apartment was traditionally decorated in Cycladic hues and thoughtful eclectic decor, the real deal clincher was a huge window opening out onto views of the bay. This was ideal for boat watching (I’m developing a fascination with Greek ferries). There was nothing more distracting to do but listen to the waves lapping below, read, and reflect. The owner described it as ‘the best apartment in the small Cyclades’ I wouldn’t even argue – it was.

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Sikinos is a small island, and as such even in August we felt part of a place that wasn’t filled to the brim with visitors, but was busy enough to feel buzzing. Some Italians and Greeks with holiday homes, a smattering of Germans and few Brits, and locals going about their normal lives. It didn’t feel, like other islands I’ve visited, that all was on show for the tourists. It just gets on with it, no fuss – even on the main beach in Allapronia bay, with it’s lovely shelving sand falling into shallow blue water, backed by tamarisk trees, has a play park taking centre stage on the beach. In keeping the community park ethos, as all beaches belong to the municipal authority,  it exists without the blight of sunbeds for hire and has umbrellas with park benches spread out along the shore,  ensuring that everyone shares and sits to chat, whiling away the hours with a picnic while children roam freely running along the bay.

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The community feel extends throughout the island, and it being  August we were lucky enough to visit while the island’s summer festival took place. Events range from poetry reading, music recitals and art displays, in Chora the main village perched on the cliff with sugar cube splendeur,  the town hall acted as gallery. In it  we saw some facinating amatuer photography and artwork.  Some captured traditions, including a set of great photos documenting a herd of sheep being swam round in the shallow sea in Spring to wash the lanolin off their woolly winter coats. A very affable gentlemen who led the project explained the photos and talked about how they would be kept on permanent display at the schools so the children could understand more about their past and the island’s traditions. It left us feeling warm and wonderful, and that wasn’t just the kind gesture of offering tsipouro or wine to the visitors! That just is part of the collective generous spirit of the islanders. There was a sense of unity there, and given its size and population that entirely makes sense. Everyone stopped and had time for one another. It was blissful sitting in a cafe, lingering over a frappe and watching everyone stop and chat. From the baker leaning over her counter to the teenagers being chastised for leaving their bikes strewn on the square. The centre of the village has all you’d ever need: an ATM, medical centre and a school, the formal square was built by the Italian’s when they occupied the island. Crucially tourism and traditional life manages to co-exits; they didn’t seem to mind us tourists dropping in and wandering through the whitewashed streets, watching their basketball games, being present in their lives momentarily.

The sell-everything-you’ve-ever-needed shop in Allapronia plays the centre of port life – a mother and daughter run this with efficiency: bill paying for the locals, tourist info for rooms and facilitating taxi-type lifts for lost yachtsmen. We witnessed a rather glam English couple anchor their boat and then rock up looking for a taxi to take them to a bar in Chora – presumably they had been mis-advised – although there is one lively bar that passes as the islands epicentre of nightlife, there is little else even the peak of August. and no taxis on the island at all. But  a few calls a later, and the couple had time for a glass of wine in the taverna before a car arrived to whisk them up the hill to Chora.

This sense stepping back in time was exactly was we were seeking, as we sunk in easily into an island which only has a handful of tavernas, cafes and bars – there’s a keen sense of life just ticking over rather than a hurried pace of money-making and vying for attention. Of course, the everyone work hard running the apartments and meeting visitors at the ports as the ferries arrive in their haphazard  frequency, but it seems as if they aren’t too worried about the infringement of large-scale tourism. No high-rise developments, no swimming pools – just lots of open sky and empty hills, near deserted beaches for relaxed amusement and quiet contemplation.

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We enjoyed some great meals in Taverna Lucas right on the front. As we were staying in Lucas Apartments it went without saying that we were always met with a smile and chat by the family members . The local version of Horiatiki Salata (Greek Salad) took some beating – feta was replaced with soft tangy local goats cheese, adding in fresh capers and herbs in abundance.  In Chora we sampled both of the side-by-side restaurants near the square; To Steki tou Garmpi and  Klimataria on alternate evenings, enjoying the simple menu and daily specials of goat in lemon sauce, garlicky tzatziki and homemade meatballs.

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Walks were our primary distraction and motive for the trip – highlights of the week were hiking up to Chora and Kastro to Moni Zoodohou Pigi, along some of the best preserved cobbled moni paths (donkey paths ) I’ve seen. The the paths are signposted and mapped with numbered routes thanks to brilliant work of the paths of culture project ran by  Elliniki Etairia– Society for the Environment & Cultural Heritage. This group have worked tirelessly to preserve, map and promote the excellent range of routes across many of the smaller Islands.

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The expansion of  the island’s road network from a single tarmac road from the port to Chorio only happened recently and grew to a few more uneven roads out to Ag Georgios, the Winery and the ruins of Episkopi temple. All are worth visiting, but a car isn’t necessary if you’re prepared to use the very efficient and friendly bus service (up and back to Kastro/Chora every hour). The network of paths cross the island and in a matter of minutes you can leave the villages behind and be on your own, listening to nothing but goat bells and dogs barking. It all evokes an overwhelming sense of barren beauty, only the small churches dotting the hillsides to punctuate the view.

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We enjoyed several afternoons at Dhialiskari beach – where the church of Agios Nikolaos sits – it’s a well signposted 30 min walk. Its an unspoilt bay with jsuy umbrella shades and no facilities – perfect for diving off the rocks and snorkelling. The island also has beaches at Ag Georgios that you can reach by a regular boat service from the port.

When out walking you’ll notice is the imposing landscape, terraced ledges with stone walls for cultivating grapes and olives at dizzying heights. The island was once known as Oinoe (Island of Wine)  in ancient times and famous for grape growing across the region and beyond – we enjoyed plenty of decent wine and pleased to see the revival of the tradition with the opening of the Manalis Winery which we didn’t have time to visit but it’s definitely on the list for next time. After 7 magical days I was sad to say Andio!

The only downside to Sikinos was its tendency to suffer from the Meltemi wind in August and September. This is the prevailing north wind that blows through the Cyclades island in Summer – this wasn’t an alien concept to us, we’ve experienced it in the islands before where it had a much needed marvellous cooling effect. But in Sikinos it seemed to take on a new form – once the sun set, the wind howled through and became cold and damp, whipping through the streets in Chora and the sensible travellers among us were prepared with a fleece jacket. I however, only had a cardigan! Brr!

That’s the surprising thing with Sikinos – it draws you in;  you have to make the effort on the ferry to get there (at best 2 hours to Santorini -at worst 6 hours from Athens). It’s not the immediate breathtaking beauty that starry neighbours Folegandros and Santorini might have, but it welcomes you, encourages you to slow down, bathe in its peaceful glory and forget the world.

 

Holding on to the holiday feeling

It doesn’t matter how long to escape your everyday for, it seems just a matter of hours back and you will soon find yourself feeling as if you’ve never been away. I often wonder how long its possible to retain the holiday feeling. Not just the tanned glow, but both its physical and emotional manifestations in ones mood and outlook.

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Skin is soft and buttery, hair blonder, smoother from kinder water and fresh air. I have to confess to avoiding that first post holiday shower -fearing not just the tan washing away – turns out is just the sandy coloured dust making you glow – but the feeling wasjhing away too. Anything to hold on to that holiday buzz. Not checking work email, just sliding along with sand in between your toes, thinking about a glass of wine at sundown rather than how long the pile of washing will take to sort, hoping the garden has survived a drought spell and wondering what is left in the fridge. Life is fast, it rushes by and sometimes a holiday is exactly we need to remind ourselves what matters.

I do think its something we can all benefit from;  slowing down, taking stock, living in the moment, looking outside ourselves away from screens and cities.  I’m making a promise to myself – the sand has washed away and the freckles fading – I might be standing on a packed commuter train in golden Autumn sunshine but in my heart and mind I’m standing in the sand looking out to the Aegean sea.

 

If anyone knows another secret to keeping the holiday going do let me know, it will certainly help get through the winter months ahead!

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