It has certainly been a few months of interesting climate changing weather. Just when there was a burst of sunshine and the sea started to feel almost bearable for swimming, there it was… a dark cloud over the horizon and a northern wind sent to chill and soak. Like a reminder to not take anything for granted – even the change of season! We headed off on a mini-adventure the week before Greek Easter, tied in with UK Easter days off. By the time we reached Kythnos on the Artemis Ferry the wind seems to have whipped away the storm clouds and the sun appeared again. We are the only foot passengers to depart and other new passengers join the boat here and replace us in greater numbers, a crowd of school kids jostling in excitement and another orthodox priest (ever been on a ferry journey without a priest? nope). We have been given instructions by the lady who runs the place we are booked to stay, but she’s been called away with family emergency. We find a taxi, the only one waiting at the port, up up we go on sloping road, magnificently handled at each turn. Heading to the peak in the middle, a small traditional town called Dryopeda – population 400 and shrinking every year. We’ve been told a girl will wait the cafe, it’s the only one you can’t miss it. She isn’t there, but unalarmed we wait in the unhurried quiet and take in the view. Dyropeda is named after the first settlers, the Dryopes who were forced out of their lands and then settled on Kythnos. It is a traditional farming island with small settlements, evidence of this was everywhere – beautiful lush hillside, but very few trees, windmill remains on the ridges. It does get a fair bit of tourism in the summer, especially at the beaches and seaside villages like Loutra, famed for its thermal baths.
After a while the cafe man comes out and says ‘follow me’ and we do without asking. Trusting folk so we traipse behind him into the maze like streets and up to a house next to the tiny Evangelistria Chapel. They key is in the door of course. He lets us in to the little stone house, traditionally decorated, even with an old singer sewing table, a wrought iron bed tucked away in a recess in the sala room and a stone kitchen – modernised but with touches of its past on the antique furniture and white lace curtains. Like all traditional village houses the windows are small and walls are thick – the house stays cool in summer. But in winter an even now in April it’s cold but we are thankful of an electric heater and electric under blankets on the bed. He promised to come back with batteries for the air-con later. The view from the tiny square kitchen window is magnificent over to green hills – I swear I see a rabbit hopping on the hillside.
Beckoned by the sun we take a path that follows an old and uncleared trail up to the Church of Konstandinos and Eleni. It passed a lush valley with water still flowing in brooks from the recent rains. There was even frogspawn in the old springs.
I say it all the time but this year the spring flowers are exceptional – the blood red of the poppy standing out against a sea of bobbing yellows and white, the greenest green leaves and billowing tall grass. The fields here are full of goats, sheep and horses munching away on this bounty. The trails aren’t well marked and we are breaking through undergrowth to reach the church – a beautiful view greets us.
But because we know – and we are always warned – about snake season. Yet despite the hiking we do snakes have evaded us so far. Or we have evaded them. Not this time. G sees one in front of him – he shouts snake, I don’t see it. It scatters (or slithers?) he is strangely calm, I freeze, like a loon and scan, I want to see it too. Even though we don’t know if its a biter – we bolt, over the gate breathless and hearts beating loud, fear in our mouths. The first Φίδι (fidi) and not even time to take a snap.
The village in the afternoon is quiet – but the supermarket is a hive of activity doing a stocktake so I ask which tavernas are open. The boy who is sent to serve us looks at me and takes a deep breath like a gas fitter about to tell you the worst news about your boiler. ‘Well, there is one open. But only later tonight – after 9′. Thanks we say. This happens a lot over the next few days as children are sent to speak to us. ‘Ah a foreign tourist, send the child to practice his English!’ It’s nice in a way – family ran and kids pitching in to help out and learn.
Not even Easter yet and places look shut up – it’s fine, we’ll cope we talk between ourselves. Worst case scenario we’ll eat a sweet crepe and ice cream for dinner from our mate at the Cafe. After venture out half-believing sudden crowds would emerge from doorways and fill the cobbled agora street and huddle outside cafes with children playing in the streets at dusk. We are wrong. It is cold and damp, a wind scuttles through the streets and even the fiercest cats hide away. There are 4 men drinking coffee in the cafe, we order beers and our friend returns the remote control with new batteries. Eventually we brave it to the place the boy in the shop told us about. It’s a old style grill house and we enter with trepidation at first. It looks like a child’s birthday party is happening in one corner as a long table is inhabited by over excited almost teen kids with cans of pop and sticks of souvlaki being brandished like swords as they play music on their phones. A young boy gets sent over to take our order – dragged away from his friends at the table. We try to speak Greek and he replies in his best school English.
A woman comes in hurried, holding a cake, smothered in white cream icing and chocolate sprinkles. She presents it to the table, kisses her boy and returns helping herself to plates in the back and a dozen forks. His grandma enters – more kisses for the birthday boy on each cheek. More arrivals and another table hastily set just in time for singing. Someone hands the mother h a lighter. A Happy Birthday song in Greek, loud and overdrawn and then they try in English, a few unsure of the words, following along. All filmed on phones, snap-chatted to those not here – whatsapped to cousins in Athens, a brother in London. These kids, like everyone now, are always connected. This world draws them like invisible thread and will one day call them out from here to other places. Other futures.
The next night we locate another eatery which is open. Inside, the warmth greets us with food smells hovering in the air. Again a no menu place we are the only customers apart from a man who eats alone watching the news channel on a TV in the corner. The elderly owner lady hobbles over and tells us in half-greek, half english what she will serve us. “Meat, chips, horiatiki salad. Neh?’ – Krasi, neh? – it’s like ordering the best mystery dinner ever. We wait and watch her in the kitchen chipping potatoes and loading them in the deep fat fryer – she loads up a tray with glasses and cutlery and brings it over with the wine and beer. She prepares a salad for us, goes back, slices bread, brings it over. Every time she hobbles back to our table I feel a pang of guilt about her ankle which is bandaged and her advancing age – it looks like her husband has passed away. Photos of them smiling, decades ago with clambering children on their laps adorn on the wall. A single photo of him close up stands next to a icon of Jesus. I want to say, ‘you have a sit down tell me where everything is and I’ll fetch it.’ But you just can’t. She just carries on.
The man pays and leaves. We are served steaming plates of rabbit stifado (kuneli) served in the traditional fashion, complete with bones and bits of liver and heart with whole onions and cloves glistening in the rich red sauce. It is delicious and we are thankful for ‘real food’ and warmth. Crepes for dinner sounded like a good idea, but this is better. The lady sits down to rest a while at our table as we pay the bill – we share some conversation with her, where we are from she tells us proudly this is her place, she has lived in the village all her life. It is a good life. What more is there. With good wishes for the upcoming Easter we part and head off into the night.
The village is just waking up and people are out the next day painting white outlines on the cobbled walkways and repairing doors. The Katafiki Cave is kind of open, as in the gates were open and you could see down to where the cave opens and the steps end. But a sign on the door says ‘Do not enter the caves without a helmet and a guide’ there’s no one around despite appearances. So we hover taking photos but not venturing right in – there’s no lights on down there either so decide he’s probably just on a break. But we don’t go back to check.
I like to just wander villages like this – admiring the stillness, listening to everything breathe, the birds chirping in the trees, the sweep of the brush as a lady piles up rust coloured leaves. The stories in each street over hundreds of years are all hidden here somewhere.
A pause at each one in turn; every roof on a house a dream, a shelter, a nightmare, left to rot, a birthright, a millstone, brought back from disrepair – all on fragile foundations. The cracking panes and stone walls crumble, photos mouldering in the frames. The salt on the door handle corroding until it no longer turns.
We leave and take the Adamantios Korias Ferry to Sifnos – a different world awaits.