Polemicist on Holiday
By Michael House, FRGS
Michael House, recently named a Fellow of The Royal Geographic Society, characterizes himself as “a criminal defence barrister, traveler and travel writer who lived in Greece for three years in the 1980s, and has never fallen out of love with the country.” His major expeditions comprise trekking in the Altai mountains of Mongolia in the autumn of 2006, and a walking tour in the Simien mountains of Ethiopia. When not at the ends of the earth, House lives in London and Northamptonshire.
At first, everything went perfectly. I arrived at Heathrow Airport early and deposited my luggage at Aegean Airlines’ very efficient check-in desk. I was well looked after on the plane by a nice flight attendant who might, perhaps, have chosen a less vivid shade of lipstick.
We touched down at Venizelos Airport in the early evening, the sky cloudless, the late-September air pleasantly warm. The carousel was very slow—seven pieces of luggage made circuit after circuit in solitary splendor before a few companions appeared.
I left the airport and crossed the road to the Metro. Here was a problem I face every year and for which I can never remember the solution. There stands over the way a huge cube with signs on it. On one side, an arrow points to the Metro. On the other side, an arrow points to the Metro, but in the opposite direction. Confused, I tried the unlabeled lift, which led me, as it does every year, to the Metro.
I bought my 8-euro ticket to Monastiraki, an easy direct route. The carriage gradually filled with tanned Greeks and, by Syndagma, we were crammed tight. At my destination, I joined the huge crowd waiting to use the escalator and, a brisk 15-minute walk later, I found myself in the familiar shabby-genteel lobby of the Hotel Cecil in Athinas Street, my usual base. I had asked for a quiet room off the main street, and that is what I got.
I went up to my room in the antique lift and started to unpack, congratulating myself on a smooth, untroubled trip. As long as I didn’t sleep through my alarm in the morning, I would be on Iraklia for tea.
Unpacking, I realized with growing horror that my wallet had been stolen: a sickening and scary feeling of bereavement. After twice hunting through my rucksack and recognising the inevitable, I phoned to cancel my credit cards. I assessed the situation, and thanked Providence that my passport and the bulk of my cash had not been in the wallet. I calculated that, with careful budgeting, I could just get by. After paying for my room on Iraklia and ferries, I had about 40 euros a day to spend.
I went to the local police station. The duty officer was a young man in a T-shirt and jeans, sympathetic but unsurprised. Athens has changed, he said. I filled out a form for my insurance claim. (I returned two weeks later to see if anything had turned up. The officer opened a drawer full of wallets, purses and identity documents, and said, in effect, help yourself. No luck.)
I bought a gyro (lamb, chips, yoghurt, salad) and then went to bed. Couldn’t sleep of course, pillows too hot, cursing myself for my complacent stupidity and listing in my head all the documents that would have to be replaced back in England.
I eventually fell asleep and knew no more until my alarm went off at 5:30. I made my bleary-eyed way down to the Metro and bought a ticket to Piraeus. I crouched over my luggage, daring anyone to touch it.
Blue Star Ferries leave from Bay 7, opposite the station and slightly to the left. Blue Star Naxos was waiting for me, puffing smoke and disgorging trucks. I bought a ticket at the booth and thought about breakfast.
One of the joys of Greece in late September is the limitless supply of sweet white grapes. I bought a kilo for 1 euro and then walked up the gang-plank with all the other red-eyed travelers.
Iraklia Diary: Day by Day, A Short Stay, Off-Season
I sit at a table on the top deck sipping a glyko coffee as the ferry ploughs through a still sea. At the next table, a Greek mother slaps her little boy hard on the legs—very unusual for the godlike Greek male child to be chastized in any way. He sulks. The cloudless sky of 7 a.m. is now stippled with white wisps. Grey shapes loom on the horizon, pass, and are gone. Cigarette smoke drifts across the deck. The little boy, now forgiven, plays pat-a-cake with his mother. A woman sympathetically kneads the back of her seasick partner, head-down on his rucksack. There is a general stir. We are approaching Paros.
We pass two jagged rocks rising from the sea like broken teeth. People abandon their iPhones and tablets to jump up and take photos. The annoying electronic jingle that accompanies the lowering of the stern car ramp starts up. The line-hurlers throw down coils of rope to men waiting on the dock, and the ferry is secured. A bewildering variety of vehicles, from massive tankers to tiny two-stroke trucks, leaves and enters the giant maw of the ship. A host of travelers emerges onto the gangway. One man has brought his own plastic chair. A few late-comers accommodated, the ghastly tune starts up again, the ferry’s whale-like jaw closes, and we steam onwards to Naxos.
Five and a half hours out of Piraeus, we pass the familiar arch of the temple they never finished and pull into Naxos harbor. Arriving at 1 p.m., I have an hour to buy my Iraklia ticket and have a snack. I cross the pitted concrete jetty to the seafront road, turn right and look for ZAS Travel to my left under the walls of the castle. My 7-euro ticket in my pocket, I eat my gyro lunch on some shady steps leading up to the Old Market.
The Express Skopelitis sits at the end of a causeway parallel to the jetty the big ferries use. The old-fashioned interior of the lounge has not changed from last year—green and orange plush seating below pistachio window curtains—a decorator’s nightmare, but cosy.
A gentle sea on a big ferry becomes a choppy sea on a small one. The boat rocks and sways en route, but deposits me safely on Iraklia at 3.30 pm, the sole visitor.
Anna, a large friendly woman, meets me on the quay and insists on dragging my heavy bag up the slope to her car. “I run a supermarket,” she says. “I’m a strong woman.” The room in her compound, Anna’s Place, is a bargain at 20 euros a night, although the TV reception is dreadful and the air-conditioning doesn’t seem to work. But it is comfortable, with a balcony overlooking the port and, most important, a fridge. There is a well-equipped shared kitchen at the top of the complex, although Anna has rooms with a kitchen as well.
First impressions of the island are most favourable: lots of paths, good walking, a few remote beaches. The impressive island map provides detailed coverage of the paths, each with its own number, marked at regular intervals on the trail. I stop off at Anna’s supermarket to stock up with breakfast goods: coffee, bread, yoghurt, honey, butter, eggs, bacon, sugar.
I dine at a taverna, To Pevko, just down the road, with old-fashioned rush-bottomed chairs under a venerable fir tree. Melitsanasaláta, moussaká and ena tetárto krasi (eggplant purée, moussaka, and a quarter-liter of wine): food good, wine dreadful, authentic Greek folk music playing in the background.
Awake at 7:30 and prepare breakfast in the communal kitchen. The deep silence is broken only by the distant chug of a returning fishing boat. A brindle kitten, inquisitive but wary, finishes up my yoghurt and honey, licking the cup clean and wandering off with a blob of yoghurt on her nose.
Then, off to Livadi beach, a 15-minute walk downhill from Anna’s. Livadi is a long beach of fine sand and gravel. Set in a deep bay below a ruined castle and settlement. There is plenty of shelter from the sun in the clumps of bushes behind the beach, where the skeletons of several campsites remain. The sand shelves gently in to a shallow, rock-free sea, especially at the south end. There is a volleyball net, and someone has constructed two elegant cairns in the sea. The beach is clean, with many large rocks for wall-building purposes. The only alien object I find is a 5-drachma coin dating from 1990 (the year I left Greece to return to England and my criminal law practice) bearing the profile of Aristophanes. The weather is perfect, with a slight breeze, visitors are in single figures, and the cafe at the north end is still just about functioning.
I spend the afternoon sitting on a bench at the back of the town beach, reading and enjoying the sights, including a beautiful golden retriever digging holes in the sand, coming out of the sea and shaking itself dry over its owner.
In the early evening, I climb to the ruins of the heights above Livadi beach. The foundations of the kástro are said to be Hellenistic, but the site has never been excavated. The ruins date from the prehistoric to the medieval period, although the settlement was not finally abandoned until the 1930s. Collapsed houses are visible inside the curtain walls, with vaults, cisterns and threshing floors in the vicinity.
Little is known of Iraklia’s history. These islands were thought to be bases for pirates preying on shipping routes, and too vulnerable for permanent settlement for many hundreds of years. In the 18th century, Iraklia belonged to the great Hozoviotissa Monastery of Amorgos, and it was incorporated into the Greek state in 1832. Along the road past Livadi beach towards Panaghia (the old Chora, the main island village), the path cuts back to the left just before a broken white marble shrine. It is not an easy path, and long trousers and stout shoes are recommended (there are venomous snakes on the island). The compound is extensive but, apart from the view, not worth a detour unless you’re a fan of ruined castles.
This being one of my austerity days, I cook myself a tomato omelette in Anna’s kitchen and retire early. As I write this over breakfast, the 7:50 Blue Star ferry has just left for Naxos. On Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, in season, visitors can take a half-day trip to Naxos, coming back on the 2 pm Skopelitis. (I’ve just given my brindle kitten a grape, which she is batting and tossing in the air.)
Saturday morning: I set off to walk to Panaghia, which was built out of sight from the sea to avoid predations by pirates. I walk for 45 minutes, reveling in the soft, brown silence of Cycladic hillsides. Where the road swings sharply to the left and starts to climb, a well-preserved mule path (kalderimi) makes a short cut to the top of the ridge. To the left is a ruined windmill and Aghios Mamas Church, said to be the site of an Early Cycladic settlement.
I enter the village. Not a sound is to be heard until a chained dog sees me and goes berserk. A man rides past on a donkey (no vehicles are allowed within the village – theoretically). To my left is a craft shop, closed until next season. To my right, the taverna To Steki (the hang-out). A house window advertises Pilates classes. Bizarrely, the town medical centre is situated here. Kittens abound.
Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make Iraklia walker-friendly. I set off to climb the island’s peak, Mount Papas (420 meters, or 1386 feet). If that doesn’t sound high, try it. I keep on the main street through the village, ignoring signs for Profitis Ilias, the famous caves (see below) and a remote beach. A recently laid stepped path gives way to a steep and tricky goat path. It is impossible to get lost, since there are regular large cairns with the Number 1 on them. The track takes me to the plateau, which rises gently along the ridge to the summit. There is nothing to see at the top except a concrete pillar with rocks piled atop it . . . and innumerable islands and islets in every direction. I have a mid-morning snack, carve my initials and the date on a rock, and set off down the ridge. There are difficult stretches: stout footwear essential; 90 minutes up and an hour down.
I have lunch at To Steki in Panaghia – a Greek salad (horiatiki salata) with superb goat’s cheese.
My afternoon exercise is to climb to Profitis Ilias church, at around 350 meters (1150 feet). It’s an easy climb in terms of accessibility, with clearly cut steps after you turn right off hiking path Number 2. But it is steep and hard graft, so allow 45 minutes. At the church, I locate the hidden key, but can’t get it to turn in the lock, so I simply enjoy the panoramic view of all the Lesser Cyclades (except Donoussa, far to the north).
Saturday. My birthday. Sunny, with strong winds. I walk out to Panaghia, then follow a totally pointless concrete road, no doubt paid for by the European Union, down to Turkopigolo beach in the far south-east of the island. Halfway there, I am passed by a white van driven by a priest, his flowing beard as grey as his gown, who gives me a lift down to the sea.
The beach is wholly pebbled, with a large cave at the left end and a jetty with several little fishing boats moored. The priest shoos a herd of goats off the beach, walks to the far end and, to my astonishment, starts taking off his habit. When he has stripped to his large, white drawers, hardly distinguishable from his large, white body, he goes for a swim, still wearing his black stove-pipe hat. I suppose a pappas cannot bathe at a frequented beach: he must retain his dignity.
Sunday morning. Very hot. The jackhammer that has, all this week, been carving out a terrace on the ridge between Aghios Georgos and Livadi beach, is silent. A fry-up for breakfast, cooked in the best Cretan olive oil. Anna’s kitchen is a major plus.
I walk down to Livadi Beach to be greeted by a euphony of goat bells as two shepherds drive a huge flock across the sand. The morning is spent indulging my two favorite beach activities: wall-building and cleaning up. The latter activity is rewarded when I find a euro coin in the sand. Two dips in the sea, amid shoals of little silver fish. At the other end of the beach, a man rides past on his donkey the traditional way, side-saddle, with his heels drumming on the rump of the unfortunate beast. By midday, the sand is too hot to walk on, so I retreat to the port.
The water round the jetty is limpid, the seabed clear. Schools of sprats swim back and forth, as well as black and grey fish and linear schools of miniature swordfish.
There is a lot of bird-life on the island. On the mountain paths there are rusty signs: “No shooting.” Good to see that here: unlike on many other islands, the wholesale slaughter of birds is discouraged here.
Monday morning: I visit the famous caves. I meet no one in the initial 2.5-hour hike except an old man on a donkey. The best route is from the path at the south end of Panaghia, down into the valley west of the village, and then steeply upwards around the shoulder of the mountain. I encounter a viper on the path, about 6 inches long with black-and-grey zigzag markings, small and easy to miss: walkers need to watch where they put their feet. The island’s other snake is the rat-snake, presumably a good deal longer.
On arrival at the caves, footsore and weary, I realize I haven’t brought a flashlight. There are two caves here, set in the cleft in the cliffs. In a cypress tree above the whitewashed entrance hangs a handsome church bell. The main cave, Aghios Ioannis Prodromos (St. John The “Forerunner,” or Baptist), may only be entered by crawling, but is said to open up into a large chamber with stalagmites and stalactites, with further chambers behind, never properly explored. I don’t go in. The guidebooks say the caves are well worth a visit. There is a festival annually every 18th August.
Farther west on the trail, I see below me a charming little beach on Alimia Bay. The map claims there’s a path, but I can’t find it. There’s nothing for it but to manoeuvre my 64-year-old body in a slow, undignified scramble down the cliff-face. I make it, finally, and am rewarded by an attractive sand and pebble strand, clean and with a gently sloping rock-free seabed. I have it to myself after a motor-yacht in the bay takes itself off.
Leaving is equally difficult. There’s a large walled compound behind the beach, but no obvious path, so I criss-cross the cliff until I finally clamber up to the main path. That beach is best approached by a vessel; it should be easy to wade ashore from a boat.
I follow Hiking Route 6 up the west coast of the island. The next beach, Voukaria, is a sad disappointment, effectively a rubbish dump. Cleaned up, it would be a pleasant spot, but instead the islanders use it for disposing of large items of junk.
Then, back to Aghios Georgos, about 10 miles in total over some of the toughest terrain in Europe. I run out of water en route. Back at my room, I drink bottles of lemonade, chocolate milk, sour cherry juice, Coke and a frappe . . . and do not move for two hours.
Tuesday: yesterday’s heat wave has given way to thunder, lightening and heavy rain from the west. Anna’s husband can give up his daily watering of the flowers and fruit trees for a while. The intensity of the rain perhaps explains why there is so much greenery on Iraklia compared to its neighbors. The westernmost island in the group, it gets the weather first. At midday the storm passes, and normal sunny service is resumed.
Wednesday: day trip to Naxos. Blue Star Paros 8 a.m.; back on the Skopelitis at 2 p.m. The back streets of Naxos town are delightful to wander about in. I am disappointed only that the second-hand bookstore I found on my last visit, in 2009, is no longer here. I encounter a rarity in Greece, two cats that actually want to be stroked.
Friday: ferociously windy, with waves lashing the shore. My bathing priest apparently hails from the great monastery of Hozoviatissa, on Amorgos. He is conducting some sort of ceremony at the burial-ground on the hillside this morning. I watch the Skopelitis rocking and juddering alarmingly on the jetty, while the crew exhorts people to embark and disembark quickly, as the ferry’s car ramp scrapes across the concrete. My hostess Anna is on the scene, capturing newcomers under the nose of her chief island rival, Alexandra, who owns the taverna where I eat. She drives her booty up the hill in triumph. Anna has 13 rooms, ranging from the cheap and cheerful (20 euros), to the deluxe, with kitchen and separate bathroom (50 euros).
Dinner in my favourite taverna: a mixture of the old and the new. Good food and plenty of it, when the attention of mother and daughter can be enticed away from playing computer games on their laptops.
Sunday: a beautiful day, apart from a ferocious north wind. After a while, it creates feelings of paranoia. In my imagination it specifically targets me with its malice and spite, trying to spoil my day.
Lunch: the knuckle end of a Greek loaf, drenched in Cretan extra virgin olive oil, with a bunch of grapes, washed down with white wine. A meal for the gods.
In the afternoon, I visit the windmill above the port and unwittingly stumble upon a short cut to Panaghia village, unmarked on the map, and avoid the steep climb from Livadi Beach. As follows: exit Anna’s gate, turn right and right again, up the hill. Turn right immediately before Maria’s Studios and head up towards the phone tower. Pass the windmill and keep going towards a new building, where the track disappears. Cross a broken section of wall to your left, and follow a much narrower track past the Villa Glavkos (with its reproductions of the Keros Harpist and the Keros Flautist on the gate posts) and head down the road. Much nicer than an asphalt road.
Last day on this delightful island, where there is nothing to do except eat, drink, sleep, walk, read and talk. Just how a Greek island should be. Back to Athens for a couple of days. As reported earlier, neither my wallet nor its contents had been recovered. I can’t get away from crime, even on vacation.
Essay/Photos by Michael House, © Michael House, 2014.