Day 8: Final day on Amorgos: Tholaria, beach experiments and midnight sailing
Saturday was my last day on Amorgos, and I was going to take it seriously easy. The wind had calmed, and it was so hot the cicadas had been screaming to bursting point from early morning. I was glad I did my master hike the day before. The only remaining gap in my Amorgos discovery was northeast of Aegiali – towards Tholaria and a little beyond, less than 6 km one-way.
Aegiali’s fresh morning look
Tholaria and view over Aegiali far behind
I found Tholaria very similar to Lagada (it was meant to be, anyway) but with a larger church and somewhat less lively. Without spending too much time there, I continued along the famous “Route 4” up to the right turn to Lagada. Instead of heading to destinations known though, I followed a narrow path winding up left into the mountains. According to my mini map, it led to Taksiarchis chapel.
It didn’t quite. It actually led around a hill to the east of Tholaria, and then towards a radio antenna atop a taller hill. I spotted a deserted looking building halfway in-between and decided to take some rest in the shade of its walls. As I put my head over the fence though, a dozen of sheep jumped on their feet and hurried away in a panicking mass. I figured the place wasn’t as deserted as it looked.
Past the rather unassuming antennas (the ones on Syros were much more impressive – but then again, it is Syros that acts as an administrative centre of the Cyclades), I seemed to have found a new route. This one did not have a number, just yellow painted marks here and there. Multiple sheep accompanied my way. I even spotted one pig (!), the first one I had ever seen in Greece. I guess not all of that souvlaki is imported, then.
At last another white chapel appeared in the distance; it could only be Taksiarchis. The chapel was about the same size as Stavros; unlike Stavros, however, it had a key in the door. I scared off two sheep resting across the entrance, turned the key and briefly looked around the interior. It was as simple and unpretentious as other remote Orthodox churches I had seen in Greece. By that time, I had chased so many of them down narrow hiking paths, that I remained largely indifferent. I was obviously getting spoilt rotten.
That amazing beach experiment
My walking mission on Amorgos was officially over. Why the heck did I ever embark on one in the first place? I suddenly felt the urge for the beach and headed to Levrossos on the northern side of the Aegiali Bay. Its main difference from Aegiali’s town beach (Ormos) were the multiple pine trees very close to the water, providing that precious shade. Levrossos was also much smaller than Ormos.
I decided to stage a public experiment and spend a whopping SIX HOURS on the beach. My close friends would never classify me as a beach bum – but every rule begs for an exception. To say I was exhausted would be an understatement. My feet were in pain, especially the left one, where a blister had burst open during my Chalari expedition. One of my rib muscles on the left side was all sore, probably from the cliff jumping exercise back in Agia Anna. It hurt so much I could no longer sleep on the left side. I was only thankful that my earlier sunburns had by then safely turned into suntan and stopped aching. Except for my ears, where the skin had roasted in the sun and was agonisingly peeling off.
In short, I was happy but needed some rest. I had come to Greece for a holiday, after all!
And I am proud to announce, ladies and gentlemen, that my experiment was most successful. Six hours of sleeping on the beach interrupted by lazy dips turned out much, much easier to handle than I had ever imagined. In fact, I might start doing this more often!
Waiting for Godot. Blue Star Naxos, even.
After the sun had set, I only had to stock up on patience and wait – wait for my ferry to Astypalea. The boat’s highly unfriendly departure hour at 1:25am meant that I’d be sticking fearlessly around Aegiali well into the night.
I first discovered that the free wi-fi courtesy of Amorgos Municipality was available in Aegiali, too. That kept me entertained until the football game between Germany and Uruguay began. Needless to say that every self-respecting taverna was broadcasting the match. My shameless preference for Germany left me in the minority. Who would have thought that Greeks would be cheering so loudly for a Latin American team and get upset when a European team scored? I still do not understand. Fortunately for me (and that only table in the taverna, which later turned out to be occupied by Germans), Europe did win. Long live Paul the Octopus!
After the match, I arranged my netbook in front of the sea and waited. Although due at 1:25am, my Blue Star Naxos did not appear before 2am. Closer and closer it slid upon the waves, and I finally understood how naïve my worries about the wind were. Had I forgotten what proper Greek ferries were like? With its capacity for 1,400 passengers and 230 cars, Blue Star Naxos was indeed weather-proof. It didn’t even bother getting moored, merely opening the ramp onto Aegiali’s modestly sized quay.
Throngs of people were getting off, zooming in-between cars and motorcycles. I wondered if anyone at all was determined to continue with me to Astypalea. Behind me seven more passengers were waiting to embark, all looking local. It seemed like I had made the right destination choice in Astypalea.
Finally we were allowed aboard. Blue Star Naxos shut its back doors and sailed off into the night. I watched the lights of Aegiali disappearing behind (view my full Flickr photo set for Amorgos). Goodbye, Amorgos, I truly had a blast.
Zafiris and my “lobster” age
My nostalgic thoughts were interrupted by a member of the crew, a middle-aged man with officer’s straps. I felt his gentle tap on my shoulder, and, looking back at him sleepily, was questioned, in English, about my age. “26”, I said in Greek. Just one week was left before my 27th birthday, but I was determined to defend my sweet 26 until the last breath.
The man turned to his neighbour, looking triumphant. The neighbour had thought I was 22, but my crew member argued that the girl was “like a lobster”. Excuse me? It turned out that Greek lobsters reach 1 kg in weight at the age of 25. Hence I should have been at least 25. Interesting midnight logic there.
The “lobster man” introduced himself as Zafiris and invited me for a coffee. Why not, I thought. Maybe he had more exciting sea life stories up his sleeve.
Instead of an open deck cafe area, we walked right into what appeared to be Zafiris’s office. Would I mind if he smoked, he asked. Of course I would mind, I said, half-joking, half-serious. It was illegal to smoke in public places in Greece, wasn’t it? Zafiris laughed. “It’s my office”, he said. “You say, the EU? Greece hasn’t had anything good from that EU”. I could bet many Germans would disagree, but made no further objections.
I was then asked if I was married. That’s a classic. Whenever you meet Greek males, they only ever seem to care about (a) how old you are and (b) whether you are married. The latter failing, the next question would then be WHEN you are planning to get married. I know these by heart.
Therefore, to prevent any more questions on the subject, I announced that I was not married and was not planning on doing so for another five years (randomly), as I had booked too many trips until then.
Despite my provocation, Zafiris didn’t look surprised. Was I a sailor’s daughter, he asked. Now that was a VERY good guess. How did he know? “Easy”, he said. “You are travelling on your own. It is 3am, and you’re standing on the top deck, staring at the sea. Your father must be a sailor”. Well, it was already an improvement on the lobster argument he gave me previously.
Thanks to an unexpectedly engaging encounter with Zafiris, the time flew by quickly. Before I could know it, we had arrived in Astypalea, and bid each other farewell. In the port, Dimitris from Kalypso Studios in Pera Gialos was already waiting for me, despite the ungodly hour. Pera Gialos (referred to as “λιμάνι”, literally “port”, by the locals – and, strangely, as “Skala” by Lonely Planet – update your records, guys) was once Astypalea’s main port but now only serves smaller boats. Agios Andreas, a rather unassuming concrete quay in a fishing village 7km north of Pera Gialos, serves as the island’s primary port. It welcomes larger ferries, including my very own Blue Star Naxos.
I thanked Dimitris for coming in the middle of the night. He brushed my thanks aside. Not a bother. The real summer season hadn’t started yet, and he and his wife Anna were happy to have visitors.
It was pitch-dark outside, which only exacerbated the effect when Pera Gialos and Chora (Astypalea’s two main towns and effectively merged in one) appeared out of nowhere, lit with a myriad little lights. It was simply beautiful. I told Dimitris I was so happy I came – to which he smiled and wished I could come again one day, for longer. Μακάρι!
Day 9: Sunday, sleepy Sunday: Astypalea in one day
Four hours of sweet sleep later (I called it, ahem, a night, at 5am), it was time to explore again. Outside was Sunday. I remembered hearing the church bells chime around 8am and walked out into the balcony to locate the source. Pera Gialos stretched down in front of me, around the harbour, and oh – there was a large church there. I could even hear the Orthodox singing from the still continuing service.
The butterfly-shaped Astypalea lies between the Cycladic and Dodecanese island groups. It formally belongs to the Dodecanese and was in fact the first island in the group to be invaded by Italians a hundred years ago. Astypalea remained under Italian occupation until 1947, when, together with the rest of the Dodecanese islands, it joined Greece. The island is effectively two rock masses connected by a narrow isthmus, which, at its narrowest, is only 100m wide. Its main settlements are Chora, which sits on a high-rising peninsula crowned by a Venetian Kastro, the port of Pera Gialos and a resort town of Livadi.
I first walked down to the harbour. The place made remarkable contrast to Amorgos. It took me a while to find any foreigners at all. The couple in a sea side cafe looked un-local, for example. The other few people around could only be Greeks. That only confirmed my expectations; Astypalea is typically described to be much favoured by Greeks but virtually unknown to foreigners.
Pera Gialos, the quiet harbour of Astypalea
Bright and yellow in Pera Gialos
There were three large yachts moored in the harbour. The first one was flying the Union Jack, and I suddenly craved for my London home. The second boat had an Israeli flag but was registered in Southampton, UK. The third one sported two flags: Greece and the EU. Together, put up voluntarily? I wondered. That could only be Cyprus. Correct: Limassol, read the home port.
I walked up the narrow streets towards Chora’s two main sights: the eight wonderfully preserved windmills and the impressive Venetian Kastro. I had to disagree with certain travel guides classifying Astypalea as closer to the Cyclades in culture and architecture. With its endless Venetian motives and absence of those ancient, human-built stone walls criss-crossing the hills, Astypalea belonged rightfully in the Dodecanese.The famous windmills of Astypalea
A house in Chora
One of Chora’s quiet little streets
I think I preferred them to goats
The cross, the boat and the sea. Oh, Greece.
Astypalea, the sleepy island
The breeze had subsided, and it felt notably hotter than on Amorgos. I figured it was about beach time and took a bus to Analipsi (known locally as Maltezana), one of Astypalea’s most favoured bathing spots and some 8km northeast of Chora. It was once an outpost of Maltese pirates, hence the local name.
The bus continued to the airport, which was literally around the corner. Maltezana was quiet beyond imagination; local kids were playing in the sand, old fishermen were tinkering with their boats, and a handful of foreigners lazily occupied the rather numerous tavernas along the beach. The number of tavernas hinted that the place filled up substantially later in the summer.
He was very sceptical about the sea
I had the laziest swim in my life and returned to Chora. Somehow time flew by, and the evening was approaching. I decided to devote the remainder of the day to a leisurely walk. The rough map of the island provided by Lonely Planet indicated a hill route towards Agios Ioannis Monastery. The idea was a winner! I could even hope for a scenic hilltop sunset.
After creating my own katsikodromos up the hill (there was of course a paved road, but anjči does not look for easy solutions), I found the right path. Compared to my previous experiences in the Cyclades, this one was pleasantly even (once you reached the top, of course) and used by cars as well as pedestrians. It wasn’t paved, but one cannot ask for too much in life, anyway.
Chasing the sunset
The panoramic views onto Pera Gialos and Chora were unbelievable. I continued taking photos as I walked up to the lone-standing windmill on top of a hill. The road led on and on, evenly spreading out in front of me towards the hills. I could see the valley with the Livadi resort, the Eastern wing of the butterfly-shaped Astypalea, the artificial lake close to Livadi and both seas. Indeed, Astypalea lies between the Aegean Sea in the north and the Sea of Crete in the south.
Astypalea’s Chora in its full glory
The lone mill and Chora in the background
I passed by a small Orthodox chapel, found it open and lit a candle for my mother. I light a candle for my mother – the most amazing person and my best friend – in every church and chapel I pass by. The flame danced gently in the wind as I closed the door.
The path led me on to clusters of antennas, which looked more advanced the higher I got. All around me the goats were browsing like a myriad of moving tubular bells. The sunset hour was near. I wondered if I risked getting stuck atop a hill in complete darkness and should start heading back. I could see Agios Ioannis Monastery looming in the distance, but the gloriously red Mediterranean sun was already halfway down the horizon. To continue would be unwise; I turned back to Chora.
Suddenly car lights blinked behind my back. I was not the only person on the mountain at that late hour? The car approached; at closer look, the five people inside turned out to be Japanese. All of them synchronously grinned and waved as the car drove by. That was most grotesque. High up in the mountains, on a Greek island lost between the Cyclades and the Dodecanese, shortly after sunset, wind blowing around me and Chora gradually lighting up in preparation for the night. AND five Japanese people driving past. Idyllic, huh?
To speed up my return journey, I took out my iPod. Soon the wind blasting in my ears was joined by the Cypriot genius of Michalis Chatziannis. I danced on the dusty mountain road lit by the final accords of the dramatic sunset, and sang along. Chatziannis’s “Μόνος μου” (“On My Own”) was a special treat. I almost lost my voice as I joined in, emotionally, on “μόνος μου, μόνος μου, άδιος μπρόστα ο δρόμος μου” (“on my own, on my own, the empty road in front of me”), which was very topical indeed.
Another car passed by, this time a pickup Toyota driven by three Greek girls. I signalled them to pass by. It was a gorgeous post-sunset spell on top of a wonderful walking path, and I didn’t need a lift.
After an hour, I saw the small chapel where I had earlier lit the candle for my mother. I pulled the door open to see if it was still burning, and caught its final moments of fading light. It felt magically calming. Somehow I knew I would make it back to Chora safely.
It was almost pitch-dark when I returned to Chora and settled in for the night. The World Cup finals were on but turned out so tearfully boring that, for the first time in my life, I fell asleep in front of the TV. When I woke up, the Spaniards were already shaking the cup in the air, which could only mean one thing. My last recollection was getting up and twisting the old-school, ancient antenna for better view of the Spanish joy.
Day 10: Final day in Greece
I woke up ready to leave the country straight away. It felt like I had been on the road for much longer than ten days. I was home-sick, work-sick, colleagues-sick and everyday-routine-sick. Sad, you say? All the good things are best is small quantities – even holidays in Greece, even with the great time I’d been having.
My bus to the airport was not until 2pm, though. I decided to have my final Aegean swim that summer – in Livadi town, 2km south of Chora. Ok, technically the Livadi beach already belongs to the Sea of Crete, but the difference is indeed a technical one.
Like Maltezana the day before, the beach was lovely but nothing special. Local elderly community were sitting in the water up to the head and catching up on the latest gossip. Already on Amorgos – and my Greek Odyssey of 2008 – I noticed that the locals would mostly go to the beach either in the early hours of the morning, or after 7pm. Astypalea was the same, except there weren’t many non-locals to start with. (View my full Flickr photo set for Astypalea)
I arrived in Astypalea airport (old-fashionably sign-posted in places as “Αερολίμνη” rather than “Αεροδρόμιο”) just in time to see an Olympic Air flight depart to Rhodes. I was worried if I’d miss the check-in with only one hour remaining until my own flight, but was actually among the first passengers to arrive. The airport was comically small, beating Kerry airport in Ireland, my previous champion in the category.
No, really, it IS an airport
Our Bombardier Dash 8. Not to be messed with.
In fact, Kerry would be a Copenhagen Kastrup compared to Astypalea. The Greek airport had a single check-in desk and gate. The luggage belt was supplied in a quantity of one, too. I could almost jump over the flimsy fence onto the runway (of which there was obviously only one). And, unlike at major airports, taking photographs was not prohibited at all. Or perhaps it was, but no-one cared.
Printing facilities were visibly exotic to the drowsy little Astypalea airport. Each boarding pass had been hand-written beforehand, as had luggage tags. Mine were picked out of a neat stack, and duly handed over. Impressive! It was going to be the first Olympic flight in my life, and such an exciting one already.
Size did not come at the expense of service. Onboard our Bombardier Dash 8 (a retro little aeroplane with groovy external propellers and a capacity for 37-39 passengers), we were offered the drinks and snacks to beat every domestic flight British Airways ever flew. Bravo, Greece!
One may ask why Olympic ever bothers to fly to places like Astypalea – surely it cannot be profitable? And profitable it isn’t. Like a number of other remote island destinations, Astypalea is served by “άγονες γραμμές” (non-profit lines) as a subsidised public service. The flight prices tend to be very reasonable indeed. As my ex-boyfriend (a Greek) popularly explained, if there were no flights to those remote islands, “Turkey would come and invade them”! So it must totally be worth it.
I met that same Greek ex-boyfriend at Athens airport before my London departure. How come most of my truly best friends are my former boyfriends? Failed relationships may actually be better than the ones that work.
From my London-bound plane, I watched the familiar shapes of the Attica peninsula sketching up in the sweltering haze below. My Greek holidays were over for this year – but I would no doubt be coming to Greece again. And again. And again. I may have a love-hate relationship with Athens; I may have failed to settle in Greece for life; I may sometimes refer to Greece as merely a “holiday destination”. Regardless, I have left a part of myself there. And I will continue returning there, for the rest of my days.
Until next time then! Γειά σου, Ελλάδα μου.