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.


Or extra-ordinary?

I have wondered if the space between ordinary and extraordinary is perception – how you feel about the thing, how your emotions guide you in that moment. Its fair to say I, like many in lockdown, have veered from ‘this is amazing, look at the tiny flowers, I can hear the bees buzzing and watch the sky change all day’ – to the doom of big questions I have no control over, like ‘when will this end / when will there be more vaccine doses / when can we escape the island/ when can I hug my parents’. Yes, I have huge gratitude for the move to Syros (despite the kafka-esque bureaucracy I am only just discovering!) and the luck in keeping some work and projects juggling along the past year. But the pandemic induced uncertainty has definitely taken its toll on my mood!

One thing that has kept me going is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – in the Winter any place becomes small and quiet, I found myself walking the same routes and discovering not quite a boredom, but an ordinary feeling of repetition, like I was no longer present. That this was a kind of life and I existed in it – but no emotions of note rose to the surface; it was neither good nor bad, no drama or excitement, just in the middle. Ordinary. 

Realising this was compounded by the smallness of life (a bubble of 2 sharing a living/office/everything space) and routine became the enemy. I have found the trick to make anything extraordinary is attention and mixing things up; jogging different routes around the village, swimming and walking at different times of the day. I walked to town at sunrise the other day – the sun rising as I passed one of the nuns on her way to Agia Varvara. So what if I take wrong turns and find new paths. Or new ways of understanding. Each day is different. Even if on the surface it feels the same, poke the feeling, question it. Do not accept it’s ordinaryness.

One thing I do love is how the little churches offer up quiet refuges on the paths. Someone always seems to get there early to light the candles, although I rarely see anyone else.   

The old ruins of an Ottoman era bath house (I think!) are a hidden gem in Ermoupolis, tucked away from view off a busy road. Sadly,  graffitied and neglected – there is little to indicate how old this or what it would have once been like painted in its full glory. But I imagine it would have incorporated water from the well or river (which once ran this way under the bridges at Lalakia). 

Now the days are flushed with change; longer, brighter, warmer. Orthodox Easter is on its way next weekend and although lockdown continues there is a sense of relief in the season changing.  Spring flowers bloomed early in February, only to fade with less rain the hills had started to look dry and yellow. But this weeks few days of rain have brought a fresh green glow to the hills again. The worst of winter has passed. Bringing forth the type of days you can feel the UV and slather on the factor 50. I feel relieved to have kept swimming, despite the chill and whinge at feeling cold – it always feels extraordinary and exhilarating.  

Bear with me for the excitement (I did warn you that life was really small!); the corner shop has recently expanded its offer of a wider variety of bread and veg – suddenly upping the village retail game. Although to counter this we’ve discovered the joy of fresh sugary donuts from the supermarket bakery section as a reward for the hour and a half round trip walk. Just an adult version of those treats your parents used for rewarding good behavior in the supermarket, that is how we live! I also have been cooking and baking a lot (I mean what other options are there?) and might just have perfected my recipe for lemon drizzle cake after many disasters. 

Although it feels like things are about to open; the Greek PM made some positive proclamations on telly last night – I don’t think we are quite in the clear yet. But some kind of normality is on its way. People running businesses have lived in this climate of financial doom for months and need certainty to plan. Tavernas and cafes will be keen to reopen outdoor seating on May 3rd and inter-island travel should be allowed after May 15th, meaning hotels and accommodation can open too.

There are even things about the lockdown ending I will miss (even after almost 6 months of it!). The island will never be experienced in quite the same way; there has been a magic in the wide empty beaches free of sun loungers and  people. Maybe more of us have discovered hiking and found new routes to explore. The quiet streets of the town with closed shops and cafes have possessed a kind of eerie wonder, at times it felt like wandering through a beautiful living museum of marble pavements, shuttered windows, and the odd crumbling mansion. It’s been a place to lose myself in time and again. Each time finding something extraordinary. Even traffic levels have  been lower due to the curfew,  allowing the air to be cleaner and roads to be a little safer for pedestrians. Maybe there were less people here overall, using less power – and maybe making less waste. Despite the positives, I suspect the pandemic has resulted in a lot more single-use plastic; disposable masks, wipes and takeaway cups. 

It is Earth Day today and I have been reflecting on the changing elements of the natural world; even now the warm sunlight is helping the pot plants and seedlings bloom on the patio. The borders we construct between man and nature are hopefully changing for the better. That impact is something maybe I notice more here on an island; a paradise hanging so delicately in the balance, so close to ruin, so sensitive to climatic changes and polluting infractions we all make with each demand; on land and space, the soils nutrient loss, the buildings infringing on the wilderness, the water we pump from the sea and pump back into it – the landfill that rises with each season’s influx of people. How complicit we all are in its downfall. Yet the difference one person can make might be small, but collectively it could be huge.   

Will I be sad when I no longer have to text 13033 before leaving the house?  Maybe I’ll miss wondering if anyone knows where I am. Or maybe I’ll wonder if anyone even cared where we all were in the first place. And in that itself there is freedom.

Winter layers and prayers

Each day in lockdown gets less surprising, but what has kept me going has been the unpredictability of the weather. It’s been a mixed season on the island, so each day is a mystery unfolding that starts with staring out of the window, cross checking the weather forecast and dressing for all the seasons! As clouds gather in billowing plumes as the sun rises, I am left wondering what kind of signs are these. Planning a day inside or a long walk, and always if possible, a swim; a run to the supermarket in between rain showers. Life feels close and present, immediate and subject to change. That’s been a good thing.  

Normal Christmas (what even is that?) was not an option so we decamped from the coast to stay in Ano Syros. A few weeks tangled themselves into a joyous longer stay where I got used to scaling steps and seeing the world from the hill – watching the solitary shadows of light dance along the worn cobbles. The rituals of living in the oldest part of the island were a good reminder of what’s important; even if that meant it turned fetching drinking water into a near daily adventure and battling the cascading waterfalls flowing down the marble steps when it rained. 

Up and down the hill I trudged reminding myself of the strength that lies in belonging to the family of things. Order, history and belief. Long lean threads of life walking down stone paths and forever repeating. Out to the valley at Finikia, past the Springs – fallen leaves mulching in the damp earth. The stones marked by worn indents in holding the tide pools of years unknown. The path green soaked in growth and newness creeping over old Winter, shedding darkness from the edges of days. The smell of petrichor rising from the earth. 

Το άρωμα της βρεγμένης γης μας μεθάει γλυκά 

(The scent of the wet earth makes us drunk with sweetness)

The cold slap of footsteps on the path outside the house became a clock ticking- with so few people living there I found the noises familiar after a while. The mule’s steady clopping hooves – the builders chatter; the women leaning over the balconies to share news as they hung the washing out. After a while these sounds join the bells of each church and sound like music. Little orchestrated symphonies of daily life. 

It became easy to deduce the same person headed out to work – realising how that fact of leaving the house at a certain time, appointments and plans had become as rare as knowing what day it is. Those days past when schedules would have to be set; early showers and grabbed lunches from fridges, catching buses and trains, walking out onto dark streets waiting for dawn to signal out the day. Reading snatched pages of books of crowded trains, breathing in the scent of warm bodies and their breakfast.   

Other people have almost slipped into nothing more than memory – a conversation in person is snatched – brief hellos, requests at the bakery (the lady calling me Koritsi mou every time), simple and gracious passings of the time of day, the air is cold, the sea is warm; just a handful of words come out of my lips to anyone outside the house.  

Everyone recognises Ano Syros as the upper town. The medieval settlement dates back as 1202 when the first iteration of St George’s was built.  He’s seen a fair few makeovers, but since the 1830s its been the same recognisable broad peachy coloured Cathedral on the peak.  What I like about this town within a town is that it is and isn’t a ‘typical cycladic chora’ – it does have elements of whitewashed houses and blue domed churches, winding stone streets and shocks of pastel shades and bright leaves of bougainvillea, but it’s history and identity has been forged over many centuries of Catholisim since Frankish rule. Leaving a legacy of a greater concentration of Catholic worship in Ano Syros than any other. Much of this is reflected in its architecture which is as confusingly layered as it is diverse. No house looks entirely alike; balconies and terraces are jumbled, stone work and pastel hues compete with white wash, so none look entirely out of place. Each house built upon the next, walls leaning in to one another and layered over; ancient dry-stone walls competing with modern concrete. 

Ano Syros is possibly the only place in Greece with a Catholic church dedicated to Saint Sebastian.  In medieval times, Saint Sebastian was regarded as a saint with a special ability to protect from plague, and devotion to him increased when plague was active. 

In fact I was reading up about how well Syros fared in the Spanish Flu outbreak 1918. Apparently the enterprising nuns at Agia Varvara, the imposing Church on the road down to Kini took down the icon and brought her to Ermoupoli. For months the icon was displayed in Miaoulis Square to save the inhabitants of the island from Spanish flu. Whether you believe it was good timing or religious intervention, when Spanish Flu cases reduced they managed to get enough donations to start the building of the larger church of Agia Varvara after that. If you haven’t seen the icons and painting there I’d recommend a look – the original icons and ceiling painting are as beautiful as they are brutal. Saint Barbara is often the patron saint of soldiers and miners, used to protect those in battle or using explosives – which given that the site of the original church lies on the Ermoupolis – Episkopio – Kini path which leads to Varvaroussa beach (after Delfini) where other stone quarries were sited, I have wondered if there is that connection. Perhaps the miners and quarrymen stopped in on the way to pray? 

Perhaps if there’s ever a place to spend time in a pandemic, it’s a place that has already survived the plague, alongside a variety of epidemics like cholera, the black death, smallpox and the Spanish Flu. Alongside wars and invasions from pirates – whatever history has thrown its way Ano Syros has seen it all before.  Each crisis layered over and rebuilt, evolving into the place it is today.