Day 4: Hiking, hitching, striking
My plan for Tuesday was to reach some of the villages west of Katapola and the Mouros beach. It was looking to be a good 2-hour walk, but I didn’t mind. Having asked a few locals for the walking path, I set off along the coast.
I must have misunderstood their instructions, though. The left turn to Lefkes village I was supposed to see never emerged. On I walked until I eventually reached a small lighthouse and some solar panels, marking the end of the path. It was surely best to turn back, right?
Look what I found while walking from Katapola to Cape Aspes
You should know me better; anjči never turns back. I searched the nearest slope with my eyes and noticed a narrow uphill path. There was my answer. As long as I was heading westwards, I couldn’t get it wrong, anyway. I momentarily wished I had better shoes than those Crocs flip-flops, and headed uphill.
Two hours later, I found myself still climbing over endless hills, having lost the first path and desperately trying to find any road at all. I was widely flexible to where it would lead. Anywhere, please. My legs and feet, unprepared for such walking experience, were mercilessly scratched and ready to claim defeat.
Finally, next to a lone goat shed overshadowed by a high rocky peak, I saw a road. It was a dirt road, yet it was obviously used by petrol-driven vehicles. Relieved, I started walking west.
Agia Saranda Bay
I walked on and on and on. Another hour had passed, and I saw a settlement in the distance. A real settlement of people, not goats! Finally there was some progress. At closer look, the place turned out to be Vroutsi, one of the villages I had put on my itinerary for that morning.
Vroutsi, the ghost village
As I entered Vroutsi, I wondered if anyone was living there at all. The houses and streets were quiet; all shops were closed. An abandoned, half-decomposed windmill was sitting quietly upon a hill, like a silent observer. It was a ghost village. My hopes of a cold can of Coke and a bottle of water might as well have been buried.
I was already on my way out of that God-forsaken place when I saw a taverna, “Ο Γιωργαλινής”. The door was open, and I could see the geometrically arranged dining tables inside. At first sight, there was no-one there; but wait, did I see a couple standing in the rear end of that silent establishment? To be fair, I didn’t actually see the couple. What I really saw was the fridge next to them – in which, there sat cans full of Coke. Cans of Coke and bottles of water.
Was it a mirage? Before anyone could stop me, I was near the fridge and pulled the doors open. “Πόσο κάνουνε”, I asked in Greek, “How much are they?” The woman stared at me. With scratched and dusty feet, jumping out of nowhere to stir their quiet existence, I couldn’t have looked my best. Eventually she charged me two euros, and we parted. I was so ready to leave that ghost haven behind, too.
The sign by the road read “Mouros beach”. And the road looked brand new, too. I assumed it had been built on the EU money, like, say, 90 percent of Greece. I didn’t mind, as long as the road actually led to the beach.
The first turn revealed a long, long way down a steep hill. Again? My day’s share of walking hadn’t yet been completed. There was no option to turn back, though.
As a small detour here, I must admit that I hate hitch-hiking. I guess it is a pride thing. Why should I beg anyone to give me a lift? If they feel like it, they should offer a lift themselves. My usual strategy therefore is to walk along the road, vividly miserable, and to hope someone will get the point. They normally do.
Several cars had passed by. All looked like rented cars driven by foreigners. Those cannot generally be relied on for offering lifts in Greece. Indeed, the only rides I have ever been offered there were by Greeks and, especially, Albanian immigrants.
My theory was soon confirmed. A car braked next to me, and four passengers asked me, in Greek, if I was going to the beach. Hallelujah. Where else do you think I was going on this hot day? I should have probably said I was merely enjoying a stroll downhill, in over +30C degrees, and not considering a swim at all.
I squeezed into the already full car. My neighbours asked where I had come from. Katapola. I had anticipated their reaction, and they duly jumped in their seats, KATAPOLA? Surely I must be exhausted? Well, I said, not really, it is only 12km away. Silence fell inside the car. During the time I spent in Greece, I got familiar with the locals’ general lack of understanding as far as walking for pleasure. As my ex-boyfriend used to say, haven’t we been walking for like 10 minutes now, I’m tired, can we have a coffee?
I didn’t hit the right side of the Mouros beach in the beginning. Having taken the wrong path, I ended up on a lonely stretch of pebbles – occupied by no-one else than a naked couple. Oops. It took me a while to figure out that I should have turned right, not left, from the parking spot.
The long search was eventually worth it. The pebbly Mouros beach was among the best I had ever, ever seen. It had everything – larger cliffs to jump off, huge caves to swim into and crystal clear water showing meters down. Everyone must go! I had never been closer to paradise in my life. Mouros beach is close to taking over (from Porto Katsiki in Lefkada and Lindos in Rhodes) as my favourite beach in the whole of Greece, officially. One day I’ll post the entire rankings here, too.
Mouros, the perfect beach
I must note here though that I am not generally seen as a beach bum. Best beach or not, one cannot possibly stay on any beach for over two, maximum three, hours, right? The clocks were ticking, and I suddenly felt like leaving my Aegean paradise. I wondered who could drive me up the hill. It was the peak of the heat, and people were moving towards beaches, not away – if moving at all.
Rather than waiting for a miracle to happen (like, a helicopter to come down from the sky especially for me), I started walking uphill. Bad luck; not a single soul was there to pick me up. I reached Vroutsi and turned towards the Chora. “11km”, read the sign. Oh well, at least this time I didn’t have to step off the main road. My feet had suffered enough from all that off-road hiking business. And, in the worst case, I’d only have to walk 11 km. Oh, and then another 5 km to Katapola. Peanuts.
After a couple of kilometres, I had changed my mind. The sun was brutal; the road dusty; and there was a lot more of the same ahead. Even cows along the road stared at me, speechlessly, their “faces” reflecting the same question. If cows had blogs, I wonder what they’d write there about me.
In the meantime, no car was stopping. Motorcycles with hugging couples came in great supply but could not accommodate the third (odd) passenger. Some cars carried muscled and tanned Greek guys, who raised hands to greet me as they passed. Did they think I was just casually walking there for pleasure? Offer the lady a lift, will you? Oh, you won’t. Bye for now.
I had almost given up all hope when another car passed by. Or did it really pass? It slowed down next to me. A family of three was inside. The father asked “Chora?” Thank God. I was heading to Katapola, but Chora seemed close enough. No, I wasn’t Greek, I was Latvian. Were my guardian angels Greek? They were French. French! My “foreigners-never-pick-up-hitch-hikers-in-Greece” theory had been destroyed. I didn’t mind at all though; in fact, I was quite relieved at the discovery.
We chatted along the way. The family came from Toulouse and was extremely friendly. Their son Jaurice looked about 12 and very eager to practise the English they had taught him at school. The mother complained loudly about the state of the Greek economy. Apparently, fewer French were travelling to Greece this year, as a sign of protest. Why should they rescue an ailing economy which is not their own? They wouldn’t pay for Greeks to retire at 55, not even with the tourist money.
Like me, the French family preferred quieter islands, and were heading to Folegandros next. What was my favourite Greek island? Sikinos, I said without missing a beat. A peaceful Cycladic jewel with stunning beaches, amazing views and an impressive hillside Chora, Sikinos was definitely my favourite. It sounded like my marketing efforts were well-received, and Sikinos will welcome three French visitors this year.
We were getting along so well with the French that they had changed their plans and driven me all the way to Katapola. I asked them where they were heading. Aegiali, my next base on Amorgos. I was going there that evening to stay for three nights. I looked at my watch. The next bus to Aegiali was leaving in four hours.
And then I stepped over my pride. An opportunity like this came once in a lifetime. I asked the French family if they could please, kindly, in the name of hospitality, wait for me to pick up my luggage and take me along to Aegiali, too? And they agreed. It was my lucky day!
After 20km of stunning sea views, we reached Aegiali. I bid the friendly French farewell and walked inside the Pelagos hotel. “Πού ήσουν/Where have you been?” asked Sofia, the owner. That was the last thing I ever expected. She went to Katapola earlier looking for me, and I wasn’t there. Wow. Just when you spend hours begging God for a handful of crumbs, He has a cake in mind! There was actually a designated person sent to collect me in Katapola. I guess they could start warning people beforehand, or something.
A victim to a Greek strike
My room at Pelagos was a notable upgrade from the Katapola experience. It may not have had that elusive wireless Internet – but what it did have was a real arch-type balcony. With a sea view. And a beautiful orange curtain, flying at the whim of the fresh sea breeze. I really wished I was staying in that room for longer than just three nights.
And God really heard my prayers.
As I was checking for ferry connections from Astypalea to Kalymnos on my blackberry (just in case I decided to go), I was suddenly flooded by abundant, screaming headlines announcing a fresh general strike in Greece. The date was the 8th of July. Ferries from Piraeus would be cancelled. Olympic Air flights would be grounded. I thanked the skies that my voyage to Astypalea was not until the 9th July.
Yes, it fell on the 9th July, at 2:15am. The Blue Star Naxos ferry was leaving Piraeus in the early hours of the 8th July – the day of the strike. Aegiali was its final stop before Astypalea. There was no doubt that the ferry had been cancelled. I was doomed.
Blue Star Ferries made me wait before picking up the phone. I decided to speak English and regretted immediately; my Greek was a million times better than the operator’s English. Anyway, correct, my ferry was cancelled. I could take an earlier one leaving in just about six hours (not an option, clearly) or the one on Sunday, 47hours after the original departure. Indeed Astypalea was not the most popular island destination in Greece, and therefore not particularly frequented by ferries. I wondered how many non-Greeks had actually heard of it.
I was raging. What were those Greeks thinking of themselves? The previous general strike was only a couple of weeks ago. It was then when hundreds of tourists sat stranded in Piraeus, while the clueless southerners were trying to prove something to someone. Seriously, guys. The country is 20 percent dependent on tourism. Following the Athenian riots and the general European dislike towards all things Greek, the travel bookings for Greece are already down 10 percent this year. Are strikes really the best way out of the crisis?
On the other hand, I kind of understood the Greeks. If Germany was subsidising my indolence, I, too, would have a strike every now and then. Oh, how I would knock myself out.
After the initial outburst, I calmed down in a flash. My situation was indeed manageable. Without any discussion, Pelagos agreed to have me for one night longer; I could tell the bookings were down. Blue Star Ferries replaced my ticket for Sunday. Kalypso Studios on Astypalea were apologetic (for their government, I bet!) and reduced my booking to two nights. What was I going to do on Astypalea for 3.5 days, anyway? The island did not even have many decent roads. In short, it was all for the better. I was just hoping my Monday flight from Astypalea to Athens would go ahead. I really needed it to connect to my BA return to London.
The administrative matters solved, I could explore Aegiali. It was a lovely tourist town, more developed than Katapola and much livelier than Chora. Its main selling point was a large sandy beach. I walked up to a small village called Potamos, a short walk up from Aegiali, to watch the sunset. On my way, I noted the beginning of a hiking path to the mountains. That was my plan for the day after. For now though, it was bedtime.
Through my half-sleep the next morning, I could hear the awakening Swedish kids. Or perhaps they were Norwegian? In any case, early wake up they did (as kids do), and their parents got all vocal, too. Since I was wide awake by that time as well, it only made sense to join the crowd.
I immediately hit the walking path I had seen the evening after. It had “Route 1” on it and led from Aegiali to the Hozoviotissa Monastery. I did not intend to do the entire 20 km route, though. About halfway in-between, the map indicated a small path shooting off towards the southern coast of Amorgos and ending at Chalara beach. I thought it would be a good idea to get there, relax, and return – or, possibly, walk across the island to Agios Pavlos beach and catch a scheduled bus to Aegiali from there. I definitely had options.
At the start of my route, I bumped into an old couple. They were the only people I had met on that off-road adventure. The man smiled and addressed me…in German. I wonder what gave him THAT idea? I responded, in German, and wished them both “viel Glück bei der Weltmeisterschaft”. Germany was playing Spain in World Cup semi-finals that night. The next minute I asked myself if the couple were perhaps Austrian, not German, and whether I had just made an “αρχιμαλάκα” (here, a great fool) of myself.
Relief – the lady was indeed German, not Austrian. We exchanged a few German phrases when the man switched to Greek (probably trying to catch me unprepared), in which we duly wrapped up the conversation. At the end, asked whether I was Greek or German, I almost apologetically admitted that no, neither, I was actually from Latvia, but it wasn’t normal for Latvians to speak Greek at all, in case they were wondering. They looked visibly lost. As did the German football squad later that night, but let’s not run ahead of the train.
I walked on past the small Agios Mamas chapel, circling the barren hills. It was notably windier than in Aegiali. Goats were meeing from under every second tree, and lizards were sneaking about under my feet. The views over the Aegean were magnificent. “Route 1” was really a jewel of a walk.
Agios Mamas chapel
Close to the highest point of the route, the path ran through an actual goat shed. I climbed over the fence into the segregated goat area, loudly greeted its hairy populace and forced an old rusty door open to exit. Without missing a beat, the path continued on the other side.
Three hours from starting the route (it took me much longer because of frequent photo stops), I had reached the Asfodilitis settlement. A wooden sign for Chalara was pointing the opposite direction, though. Had I missed my turn? I looked back and located a small serpentine path running downhill. That must have been me. The queen of goat(road)s
As if to prove me wrong, the path only remained such for a hundred meters or so, later turning into a “katsikodromos” in its best definition. A “katsikodromos” literally means “goat road”, but the English translation does not do justice to that uniquely Greek concept. Greeks often use the word sarcastically to describe a poor quality kind of road.
And there I was – on my “katsikodromos”, looking down towards the sea. It was at least 3km walk, no less. Should I stay or should I go?
Being the anjči this world knows, of course I chose to go. I was already sweating mercilessly in the day’s peak heat, and the water below looked tempting. And what’s 3km when it is all downhill? As for the return hike, I would worry about that later. Without further ado, I began my descent. It’s a looooong way down
Are we there yet?
I stopped many times along the way. The views around me were getting more breath-taking by minute, but there wasn’t much left of my breath, anyway. The “katsikodromos” soon disappeared, and I continued down, jumping over thorny bushes, climbing over ancient stone walls, scratching my legs brutally and generally risking sliding down any moment. The terrain was changing continuously. I could not relax and soon felt really tired. Hungry, I regretted having only brought two peaches with me. I had really hoped Chalara was more civilised than that.
Finally, with shaking feet, I reached the sea. The rocks created a natural tiny harbour, where the water was playing in the sun, changing colour from navy blue to bright turquoise. Several large cliffs sat in the sea in front of me. I was hoping to see the so-called “Petrified Pirate”, the main landmark of the Chalara beach, but those stones all had different shapes. There was no sign of beach anywhere, just rock formations rising out dramatically out of the Aegean. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. All the better for it, I thought. At least there wouldn’t be any other people around.
Little did I know! The next minute I spotted a couple of naked men in the distance. They emerged from behind a massive rock and vanished again. Hoping I was not as desperate as to start seeing naked men everywhere, I watched for a while longer. The men were real. How on earth did they get here?
It was too late to regret; I badly needed a dip. Did I actually need a swimming suit? Those two men did not acknowledge the fact of my presence in any way. I might as well enjoy my first ever naturist swim. Into the blue, into the majestic Aegean! It was one of the best swimming experiences of my life.
Greece ROCKS. Literally.
A few hours later, I finally decided to cut my bliss short and surrender to civilisation. Unfortunately, the two naked guys felt like leaving, too. They got decently clothed (at least that) and embarked on the path I was just about to take. That wasn’t fun. Last thing I wanted was to share my half-joy, half-pain of an ascent with someone. Surely I wasn’t having a lone holiday to start joining random other people? Especially the two guys I had seen totally naked on the rocks. I had to find another route, urgently.
Walking along the shore, I spotted a few goats on a hill above me. The goat excrements under my feet confirmed the presence of – you guessed it – a katsikodromos somewhere! I grabbed a bush nearby and pulled myself up. And up, and up. The goats evaporated as I approached. No-one stands in the way of anjči.
“Somebody, carry me. Now.”
I took baby steps up the hill. When I lifted my eyes, there seemed no end to steep, rolling mountains. I wondered how I had got myself into this. Couldn’t I have just stayed on the lovely public sandy beach in Aegiali and not put myself through this unthinkable torture?
Deep inside, I was of course enjoying the situation. It’s part of my masochistic entertainment during holidays. Any other type of activity automatically qualifies the holiday as “wasted”.
I grabbed another stone and felt a splinter penetrate my pointing finger. Bummer. I obviously hadn’t been paranoid enough to bring a needle! It took me a few minutes to suck the little irritant out of my skin, with success. Triumphantly, I lifted my eyes. Around me was the most unimaginable view. The large rock I was sitting on was like a throne, and borderless Aegean was sparkling in the sun all around. I can’t believe I was close to missing such beauty because of an insignificant little piece of wood in my finger. The story of my life!
That promised view
I continued labouring uphill for another hour, in sweltering heat. Until I stopped and screamed, in all languages I had ever learnt, that I couldn’t take this any longer. That I was not going to move an inch further. That I didn’t know what I was doing down there when the rest of the holidaying population was having a tonne of fun on organised beaches.
After my linguistic genius finished echoing in the surrounding hills, I listened. There was no response. My usually successful “I-can’t-go-any-further-carry-me. Now” card was useless. No-one was there to carry me, and along I waddled, cursing my stubbornness.
Finally, I began reaching the hump of the most threatening hill and noticed a deserted goat shed. A shed! Sounds almost like “shade”, and that’s what I badly needed. I walked inside and sat right down, careful to avoid the black little balls goats invariably plant wherever they go. I leant against the cool stone wall, closed my eyes and thought of the sea. The cool blue Aegean. And of a can of chilled Coke. I’d press it to each of my cheeks before opening.
As I touched the doorpost, a huge stone fell off the top and plummeted towards my feet, which I barely removed out of the way. I got the message and zoomed right back into the heat.
The journey back along the familiar “Route 1” seemed to take forever. The Agias Mamas chapel, the herd of goats, the Nikouria islet, the Potamos village and – at last! – Aegiali. I had almost come to believe I might never see it again. I headed straight to town beach for a well-deserved dip – and that long-awaited can of Coke. I think it was the best quality Coke I had ever tried. They must have a secret recipe there on Amorgos.
Sunset over Aegiali
(Continued in Part III)