June, 2022

Days cling to the calendar. Unsung notes from an instrument we are yet to hear. Quick on my heels, shadows of winter are locked away. I scarper up the hill, running against the heat, the mopeds, the Gods mocking in metallic and gasoline prayer. I become steel and bone shattered. The blood-red moon keeps me awake with her whispers. I wake in a sweat and believe even the sad days of the week mock me with hours unformed. Dead bells ring out – stopped before the clanging reaches any further down the hill. 

Time is gossamer thin. Hours and days fall uninterrupted by any single billowing idea. I wash and scrub and paint, letting thoughts flicker as softly as moth wings. Fragile. Ready to break or carry me away. Birds sing and fall silent. Protecting themselves from becoming as tired as the bells – regular on the hour, on dawn and dusk. Those frequent bells have yet to show me their language, a way of reading the day. The first few nights in the house are filled with deep slumber, the kind that is exhaustion and satisfaction rolled into long hours of dreamless sleep.  On waking, I wander from room to room, surveying a small kingdom – a fiefdom of sorts. Up high invisible as pirates, hidden just like the lessons from history, of the people who lived here first and last. I still talk to them, asking what they think – of the things we saved, the things we changed. If they could speak, I’d listen. But the house only ever rings with silence. 

After Easter, the summer heat came early, reducing the scant garden patches to dry bracken and gravel. Outdoors are scrappy paint pots drying out, crumbling wood and dust. The flowers that danced bright yellow have died down to a quiet song leaving bare stalks and stumps, brown edged leaves becoming mulch for another season. There is something wrong with the olive tree. The woodlice prowl at night, taking over – only the day’s heat drives them back underground. Even the caper bush died. (I say traumatised by concrete and tile, it gave up on us) Part ruin, part rescue – we live with what is left and it is a joy.

I chase the dust around from room to room. Only to find a new layer of it settles overnight. Only the silence of the house is a saviour. We open windows and the morning light honey’s its way across the ceiling. We have no curtains so I dash from the bathroom with a towel grasped to my body. The daylight changes and the sunset makes the walls blossom in apricot. We sit outside on wobbly chairs and laugh after a day’s work, feeling as empty as a drum, all washed out and muscles sore, and hearts swollen with well wishes. It is done. We live here. Raw and empty and saying thanks with mumbled lips to a million things that went right and wrong in life that brought us here – to this moment, I say and drain the glass of warming wine.

The night settles long after the sun has set on the other coast and only then the sky turns violet and star-pocked with tiny lights. The buzz of cars and bbrrr zzzip of mopeds in Ermoupoli is far below. A woman’s voice echoes the alleyway with laughter.  Life is happening all around – every doorway once closed up is now open and voices musically drift out.  

We live here’ I say it again to help myself believe it. 

Sundays are a cacophony of bells dragging us from the edge of sleep – known and unknown, ringing out with uncertainty – overlaying each other in a chorus. Spoon small, sweet sounds. I make coffee downstairs and go upstairs to the balcony to sit – forgetting things, going back down – wandering, getting distracted – moving some trinket or other. The battle for space – between the old residents and new, it seems takes time. I talk to them, is this okay? Moving the old lamp into a new space. Better right, when it lights up the dark corner now? 

Silence. 

I hope they like what we’ve done. Brightening it up. Windows that no longer rattle and shutters that close, water that runs clean and a door that locks. A bathroom you don’t have to enter through the yard.  Upgrades – modern touches – nothing drastic. I pack up some more things; books, papers, cards – a picture of St Francis and a postcard of the Pope from 1973. A man’s photo stuck underneath a framed Virgin Mary icon, stamped 1956. I hide them like treasures under beds. This little archive of mystery collected by people I may never know. They live on and are part of the house, this neighbourhood – it’s life. The story it tells – just as we are and whatever future it holds. 

Nothing lasts forever. To savour the now in all it’s newness is enough. Just as paper crumbles and paint fades, dust will still swirl across the floor of the house long after we, it’s temporary guardians, are gone.

The never ending winter

After glutton days of carnival, Clean Monday arrives like a shiny diamond cutting through months of cloud.  Some went kite flying as tradition dictates out at the coast or on the green hills – some kids idly ran through the plateia just fast enough to make the kite lift a metre or two from the ground. A rare windless day. Washing hung out on rooftops and houses swept clean as the air sang with the promise of Spring. In the market the glistening tentacles of the octopus ready stretched next to bulbous fish. Taverna tables suddenly set outdoors for lunch marking the Lenten fast of sinless pleasure before the feasting of Easter. No meat, no dairy – nothing with a spine.

The weather held out for a day or two. Bright sunlight on winter tired eyes, relishing the feel of shedding seasons. Moving towards the light of longer and warmer days. Then the wind changed direction and the cold came back – the darkness too. The winter is never ending and in recent months the island was hit by not one snowstorm but two.  

What is positive is the greenness of the hillsides visibly quenched from all the delicious rain we’ve had. 303.0 mm in less than 3 months of 2022 the last time I looked – compare this with 181.6 mm for the whole of 2021. It’s a wet, cold and damp and windy and icy and cold and dark year so far. 

Kamara, Ano Syros – January 2022

Some days start off light. I am sprung wide awake before 7am and shyly opening the door to scare nervous cats who’ve been watching the birds flit around the ragged stumps of cut back bougainvillea.  The birds sing loudly, willing on springtime, nest building and flying back and forth fetching twigs with a prurient optimism. Weaving a home so when the warmer weather finally comes they will be ready. I admire their work ethic – feeling my patience drain with the waiting. 

The hills are lush with green vegetation, dancing yellow follows seem neon in the gloom.  There are days when hiking is possible and on one of these we found a carving on a rock. A lonely hillside memorial or a declaration perhaps. It’s on a path, not a well used one though – but must have taken a while to carve.

Carving, dated 1949.

We asked around. No-one seems sure.  Perhaps it’s to a soldier in the Greek civil war. Syros has more famous carvings at Grammata (letters) beach in the North. A place where ancient sailors marked thanks or prayers or declarations on the rocks.  The names of those who sheltered there or those who never made it home are scattered along the wide bay. Older than the island’s long-tail of memory.  Perhaps one could map the other markings; the names made by hands of those long gone – edged out of stone with knives or tools, like saxifrage that splits the rock. Proof that they were here once.  That would be something to know the why’s and who’s. 

My mind wanders, doom-scrolling  – opening tabs, closing them, starting thoughts, shutting them down again as fearful as hope in the darkness. I stop seeing. Not just the view, but the very things in front of me. The tea cup, the streak of sunlight showing up the dust, the way footsteps in the alley sound like drums.  Reading again the new words that sit heavy and fat on my tongue. Unable to remember them right at the moment I need them – I read and practise the letters – but my brain has a sieve-like approach to the lessons I take. Repeating, using and discarding them like crumbs. I learn. I unlearn. I learn again. 

This week the school bands are practising for Greek Independence Day on 25th of March. Given their dedication of a daily hour long practice and the sound as it rises up the town, the parade with all its pomp and military grandeur will be back on. Just like normal. A word we use now with such frequency. I forget I don’t know how it was before and find myself nodding along, smiling. Feeling blank and turned around, my back against the dark clouds.

By afternoon all hope of sunshine has been lost. I come back again to the path on a walk to clear my mind from the doom-scrolling fog. Counting stones underfoot, the springyness of grass and leaf, tumble of tangled root and unfurling tendril. The yellow and white flowers grasp upwards for sunshine – bobbing in the breeze. Even the pines are shimmering green and proud branches stretched outwards. They almost look like Christmas trees. Last August they stood like skeletons – stringy and bare after the droughts and extreme heat that persisted all summer. But now they shine. Sticky scent rising as I pass. 

The chickens have scampered up onto the wall again close to Sa Mikalis Church, where they peck and pose. I often see a man come past who shoos them back in the garden they belong to by shaking a bag at them. After they scatter he hops over the wall to collect their eggs. 

I walk on and the sun is about to go over the hill at Alithini, I climb to the top of the village, finding a spot to shelter away from the worst ravages of wind. I find more words carved into the rock. And more. I wonder if I am suddenly looking for them. Or is it that the words can only be seen in light, when the sky opens and the shadows are cast upon the rocks. 

1955?

I make promises to myself. To the wind, to the sun, to the clouds. I meditate on my lowliness, my thanklessness, remembering the skull and claw of time itself. Always seasons. Always light. Always dark. 

One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.” James Baldwin

To make a home

It’s been a few months since I posted here and much has happened. After a long and tedious process, the paperwork finally amassed into an orderly pile. On an unseasonably hot afternoon, we sat in the notary’s office wearing masks and with limits on numbers, the sellers took turns going in and out the office to sign. Once each page was signed – the house was ours.    

‘Here you go’… the agent said handing over a single key with a plastic tag with the family’s name on it. 

Up the hill to Ano Syros we walked. Sweating with one sad key in my hand. All I could think was – there are three doors, how can there only be one key? 

That was six weeks ago and Summer has now faded. In the courtyard of a closed cafe above the piatsa I sit on a bench and enjoy the last warming rays before the sunshine sinks away. I hear the bells,  chiming out the tune for a quarter to four, they are as grateful as I am that the sun is still shining in November. The land has become green again, day by day, nature reclaims by blade of grass and leaf, small pockets of crocus bursting open stems of saffron on the hillside, slowly slowly with each damp and cooler night, the winter green sprouts begin and the bees dash between flowers dancing in this false joy of seasons. 

I watch a black and red butterfly flit between the pink petals of bougainvillea in it’s last full bloom of the year. A few days ago I accidentally trapped a butterfly in the bedroom. It must have been caught snoozing on a shirt from the pile of laundry brought in, fresh and crisp from the line. I chased it gently round the room, cooing at it as if it were a bird, too frightened by its fragility to use anything other than my hands. I gave up after a few minutes, afraid it would be scared and hide somewhere only to wither away, but I shouldn’t have worried as the next day it was hurling its wings softly at the window pane. The butterfly knew when he was ready to leave. The second I opened the window it flew to freedom in the morning breeze. 

The wind has brought in stormy weather marking the colder nights and chillier days. A sudden change to jumpers and coats, winter boots. With the clocks changing, by late afternoon the sun is ready to bow down behind the hills to the West. Listening to the solemn silence of the alleyways and glad of the shrinking daylight, the slowing of time. 

Up here in the closed cafe, I have the view all to myself. The air so still that I could hear the man making the departure announcements from the deck of the Blue Star Ferry ‘Piraeus. Piraeus. Departing in a few minutes.’ Up here I can watch for pirates and invaders – while the town goes about its business. But many of the houses are just used for the summer, some have been restored, renovated, many have always been kept that way – with a fastidious daily sweeping of the porch and watering of the plants, feeding of the cats.  I watch a neighbour packing away outdoor furniture, tying up plastic sheets over the tables and stacking up plant pots. He’ll be back in Spring for sure. Just like the lady over the way, whose daughter came to collect her and take her somewhere else for the colder months. I make it sound like some place of exile – perhaps it is – but I see it as a refuge, rather than a punishment. 

The house we bought has taken a few weeks to get to know. It might have been unlived in for nearly 10 years, but it was anything but empty. The shutters had been closed up and plants left to die – inside the layers of dust coated every surface and peeling paint made patterns on the floors. The photos beside the bed, the umbrella on the hook in the hall. The towel in the bathroom. The jar of jam, next to a knife and a plate. As if the occupants left after breakfast one day and the house is still waiting for their return. This is how we bought it, just as we’d seen it in the visits with the agent; times thinking it through, trying to decide, nudging our way around the rooms, trying not to disturb anything.  

Of course I make up stories. Even if history is ordinary, it is no less important. The house is a story about a Catholic family in Ano Syros who owned the land and built the house, the people who lived there and and those who came to eventually sell it. The first few weeks were strange. Every time I went over and opened the door I felt there was something new laid bare in every room. It felt like we had intruded; opening drawers, chests, cupboards. Each thing I found I turned over in my hand imagining what it meant – for a few weeks I was a detective, filling in the blanks, drawing lines only to cross them out again. Every bill paid for the past 10 years was stuffed into a bag and hidden in a cupboard.  The hilarious false teeth in the glass cabinet, the ancient bottle of brandy under the sink. A nescafe jar from 2005. The neat stack of memorial cards kept from funeral services. A set of binoculars amongst the many crucifixes and dog-eared pictures of Icons tucked away in unexpected places. A drawer of string and wires, nails, padlocks – a methodical approach to tools and salvageable items.  I counted over 16 keys of varying sizes and none that fitted the upstairs door.

Every time I found another key I ran upstairs to the door wondering if this was the one. 

What was in the house is not just a story about what outlives us but also one about waste and consumption . The house is just a glimpse of Greece’s and Europe’s industrial decline.  Plates stamped with ‘Keramikos – Made in Hellas’. I counted 50- odd dining plates and glasses of every possible size and potential use. Greek people love to entertain, but I did wonder about the extent of ever using so many. More cutlery than a restaurant. Enough battered and ancient chairs for games of musical chairs with all the people living in the neighbourhood. What wasn’t stamped with ‘Made in Greece’, battered stainless steel kitchenware to plastic buckets and mop handles, looked homemade. There must have been a moment when everything that you needed you made or was manufactured here in Greece. Even the chest of drawers and the wardrobe had a furniture store’s name indecipherable to me. The broken trunk made in Athens. Hard to imagine the factories that now lie abandoned where textiles, shoes and household goods were all manufactured right here on Syros.  

As we start renovating sympathetically every single thing we discard in the house needs to be taken away by hand or mule. Everything we bring to the house needs to be carried there. I worry about how difficult it is living in a pedestrian only area without car access, every journey involves marble steps and steep hills. But before buying anything for the house we have to consider it deeply, and that can only be a good thing. 

We agreed from the start that it was important that we try to save and remake as much as possible. Weeks have been spent clearing, cleaning, sorting, recycling, giving things away – people have been kind with their time and I am always grateful for offers of help. The Soviet Union Encyclopedias have gone to the Municipal Library (thanks K for weightlifting 36 volumes down a hill!) The last stack of plates have been given away. All stuff that would otherwise be junked has been sorted – ‘Yia-yia’s things’ as a tradesman called them with a chuckle.  I am excited about restoring furniture; chairs to sand and recover; a two seater art-deco-esque sofa that I think is stuffed with horse hair, a small traditional chair that needs its reed seat re-threading (I need to find a chair repairman which used to be pretty common, or watch enough youtube videos to learn it!). Things that will keep us busy over the winter. Its exciting to be able to make a home here and scary as the hard work is about to begin. I know already it won’t be easy or quick – but we are willing to give it a go and somehow maybe that is what matters. And perhaps with some luck we will find the all the right keys…

After 6 weeks the house feels less like it belongs to someone and more like a blank canvas, one waiting to be given a new lease of life. On quiet afternoons I sit on the stairs imagining all the things yet to come; a bathroom, a working kitchen, deciding which room has the best view, discovering how cold it gets in winter, finding flowers to plant that will burst bright red against the clean of a fresh painted white wall; wondering who the voices belong to as they make slow steps in the alleyway, whether there is a way of learning which of the churches ring bells at which hour. I listen to the house, the tap dripping, the grains of plaster falling from dry cracks and a fly buzzing against the window. In the ether, in the dust, potential is a ghost that circles around each room – and I say a few words.  A prayer to something I am not quite sure of. Perhaps it is an idea, a lost thought, uncertain if I am saying goodbye to it, or yet to meet it.

Syros beaches

It feels a bit like Greece has been riding an endless wave of heat since mid-May on Syros. Now that holidays are upon us and the bus timetable is in full swing let me take you on a round-the-island-guide to cooling off at the best places to dip, dine and dawdle by the sea! Let’s dive right in!

For the townies there can be no better place to cool off than in the magic waters of Vaporia. Think old-world glamour with sprawling neoclassical mansions perched on the water’s edge; once the place for wealthy sea merchants to build their houses it still retains a neat balance of history with chic international vibes. The swimming platforms at Asteria might be concrete but the beauty here is all natural as the sea twinkles a perfect blue while shoals of tiny fish dart under rocks. It’s deep too, making it perfect place for diving. Get here early to nab a spot under one of the umbrellas and rub shoulders with the locals who have been swimming here forever – some even have little cave stores and shaded huts, where waddling ducks and well-fed cats join bathers parading across the walkway.  

Vaporia, Dec 2018
The walkway to Asteria Beach, May 2017

Take yourself on a self-guided swimming tour past the pastel hued architecture – stone ruins of shipping warehouses jostle with fabulous restorations – all provide a balancing contrast to the blue dome of St Nikolas. For those in need of curated comfort with upscale drinks after their swim head further along to Ciel bar which is open day and night. If the steps are too much take a rest stop at Sta Vaporia for coffees and all day dining with views across the water. The newest opening here is the Hotel Aristide with nine magnificently elegant suites blending eco-design and luxury in a restored neo-classical mansion. Check out their chic rooftop bar for sunset cocktails.

Azolimnos, June 2021

First stop on the round the island bus beach tour is the small but perfectly proportioned Azolimnos. Here you’ll find a handful of bars and tavernas as well as sun loungers, cafe’s and a small convenience store. The small beach is sandy to the left and rocky to the right. It often has a prevailing breeze from the East in summer making it cooler and the sea a little wavy. 

For those who want a little work with a reward, head right at the bus stop following along the road, past a small harbour of fishing boats. This turns into a walking trail that hugs the coast granting some great scenic views as well as interesting flora and fauna. Here you can find secret coves like Fokiatres perched under the cliffs, BUT this comes with a warning as parts of the path need cautious steps. Last month (June 2021) it looked like parts had land slipped over the winter, so use caution on paths and keep inland at a comfortable distance from the edge. Some coves and swimming spots need a scramble – so not for the faint hearted! After 20 mins walk from Azolimnos you’ll see Santorini Beach with a dirt track accessible by cars / mopeds. This is still fairly isolated but has a changing cabin and four parasols. But bring supplies as it’s still a good trek from any kiosks.  

Santorini beach, July 2021

After Santorini, follow the same coastal path and you’ll reach Fabrika in under 10mins walk. It is a nice clear sand beach which is fairly shallow for children and on calm days brave swimmers can reach a little island with a miniature chapel on. It has a few parasol shades but no facilities or cafes. It’s a local kind of place where families staying close by meet up and can get crowded by late afternoon (which goes without saying for all Greek beaches in August!). Fabrika also has a tiny harbour for fishing boats.

From here a short walk will take you out to the headland at Katergaki. Not a beach in the typical sense but a dramatic rocky place to swim in clear water ideal for snorkelling and diving. Feels remote and wild, more like swimming in an extremely deep and clear lake when the water is calm. One of the unofficial-official nudist areas; but not intimidating and always mixed with all types of bathers.     

Next up is Vari – which although being the biggest residential area on the island has a small beach with lots to offer; shallow waters, lifeguard patrol, disabled access and numerous bars and tavernas to choose from. It’s a bit pushed for space for those who don’t wish to have a sunlounger from one of the cafes. Head right next to the Vari Beach Hotel (now closed) to find a spot in the public section. But otherwise a great place to while away an afternoon.

Vari, July 2021

Swim over to the jetty and boat house underneath the imposing Goulandris Mansion – built in the 1970s by the former owners of the Neorion shipyards in a slightly gaudy style of a castle. It’s a great place to practice dives – as all the children who congregate there in a competitive spirit will attest!   

Next along the coast is Achladi linked by my unofficial award for ‘Best Pavement in Syros’. To walk here from Vari you get to enjoy the only uninterrupted pedestrian space on the island (or indeed the Cyclades?) It is brief at less than c.400 meters but extremely delightful for joggers, walkers, baby strollers and wheelchairs users. Just don’t expect it to lead any further than the turn to Achladi bay. The translation means Pear- which I guess describes the curvaceous scooped bay.  It has one hotel, The Emily, a few sun loungers and the Achladi Taverna  – all are pleasant and the water is calm for swimming. It’s probably the smallest proper beach so it can get easily crowded. But what is wonderful is that the headland opposite is wonderfully barren and rock strewn so feels wilder than others.

I have to confess I haven’t swam at Mega Gialos beach, but promise to rectify that soon. This area spreads out across the coastal road and its beaches are small shingle and sand beaches strewn with shade from tamarisk trees. I always think it has a kind of remote island feel. There are just a couple of summer taverna’s here – but nothing that makes it feel too resort-like or built up. Lots of locals swim here in the mornings and offer a laid back unpretentious vibe. 

Ambela, Sept 2019

Round the next bay is Ambela – a small beach with just one simple Taverna. A classic swim spot to relax and then have lunch at the Ambela taverna. The area has been developed in recent years as more villas have been built on the headband and cars now park ridiculously close to the beach, but can still be fairly quiet in even in high summer. The steps down make it feel like a retreat as well as a reward after the walking effort. 

I am assuming you are back on the bus – easy enough to hop from one beach to the next if you are armed with a timetable and a willingness for short adventures! To get to Agathorpes, you need to get off the bus after it stops at Poseidonia. Just when the bus heads towards the coast again, you’ll spot the Di Mare Hotel on your left and before the bus goes to turn left the driver usually yells ‘Agathorpes’ loudly as otherwise it’s easy to miss! Once off the beach you’ll see one of my favourite crumbling houses perched right on the harbour to the left of Fetouri beach (if anyone knows the history of this place, get in touch – it would have been spectacular once, right?) 

Feuturi has a few shades and loungers belonging to the Di Mare Hotel, but if you want golden sand go to Agathopes. The beach has an expensive beach bar, Ono, which (to some) is a little too showy. Love it or hate it, make your own mind up. But what compensates for the over saturation of sunbeds is that the beach is actually wonderful golden sand and clear turquoise seas. Pitch up early to get space on the public side.

There are a couple of tavernas here and even more heading back towards Finikas and Poseidonia. Like many places Syros suffers upgrade-fever. It spreads like a ‘blandemic’ – symptoms include the over use of grey decor, white painted chairs and unimaginative pan-European menus.  For something traditionally Greek try Meltemi, tucked above the little harbour and opposite the Naval Base, for classic freshly cooked dishes and simple, seasonal and delicious food. 

Fetouri on the right and Finikas in the far left.

Onwards from Agathorpes is Komito; get here by walking the road along the coast for under 15mins. Here you’ll find a tree fringed beach with a few shades and a beach cantina with watersports. Hidden someway back behind the fields are the decaying ruins of a magnificent residence once built by a wealthy shipping merchant, Count Diakiakis in the early 1900s. You can see some photos here on another blog – like many other mansions in Poseidonia (Delagrazia) they are of great architectural interest and I particularly adore that sense of decaying grandeur, emblematic of the island’s unique cultural and social history. I hear the Diakakis building is protected by the Ministry of Culture, but the site has been up for sale for an eye-watering amount for years. Of course it would be amazing to save the structure – but without public funds an investment of that scale comes with a cost, likely a resort development, unless done sensitively could risk the character and impact. 

From here there’s a decent 40min walk right across the headland to the lighthouse at Viglostasi, passing interesting rock formations and wild barren hills. The views from the tip of the cape where the lighthouse is perched are spectacular and you pass through ruins I imagine may have been the original stone built lighthouse or an ancient fort structure. And you might spot a daring smiley face painted on a rock…

Coming up in part two, explore the beaches of Finikas, Galissas and Kini.

Then onwards to Apano Meria and the wild north coast beaches of Varvaroussa, Aetos, Lia and Grammata.

Where is your favourite beach on Syros?

Giaros Island Exile

Last week I made another visit to Gyaros, the angular jutting rock island that sits just a few kilometres from the west coast of Syros. It was a hot unrelenting day with barely a breath of wind which seemed fitting for the inhospitable nature of the place. In three years since I last visited, the former prison island hasn’t changed much, a few more collapsed walls and perilous roof sections in the main prison, smatterings of new graffiti scratched in walls. More goats and sheep seem to be reclaiming the decaying spaces, as we walked hawks circled above and rabbits raced in the wild grasses.

The islands past may be dark. But it’s future is in flux. It is protected now under the NATURA framework but since 2011 it has been considered as a site for development and plans to use the island as a site for wind turbines are causing friction.

The island is a case study of rewilding in action; without human disturbance nature wins. The fish and seal colonies can thrive, wild birds and small mammals can breed without the threat of being hunted. But at what cost does this future come? What is lost if wind turbines are exiled here? How will the island’s past compete with its future? It right to let the prison buildings decay without memorialising what happened here?

I left the island with more questions than answers; drawn to the barren rock again as a stark reminder of human capacity for inflicting pain and intolerance. The ways we tell ourselves it is easier to turn away, rather than confront. To stand by, rather than act. To believe it is not our story to tell – to let each life, human or animal, fade into dust, without asking why, or if they even mattered at all.