If you recall the tune of ‘The Road to The Isles’ as in
‘Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go……….’ and substitute: ‘By Pserimos (0) to Astypalea(1) and Amorgos(2) I will go, Iraklia(3), Naxos(4), Paros(5&6) Despotiko(7)…….so to Siphnos(8), Milos(9), Seriphos(10), Delos(11) and Siros(12) etc’ you’ll get an idea of where we have been this last month. How different these Islands look when approached from an unfamiliar angle, going north up, south down or crisscrossing, the aspect and my impression of them changes. The familiarity of previously visited islands is comforting. I realise distances are relatively small and how close we are to Athens, to Italy and to the fabulous continent of Europe. The song goes on about smelling ‘the tangle o’ the isles’, I haven’t a clue what a ‘tangle’ should smell like but I could definitely identify a Greek island anywhere by its distinctive smell, it’s sage and lemony thyme and hot dust, it’s souvlaki cooking in a wood fired oven, it’s the salt of the sea.
Oh so wonderful to be back in Greece, Turkey is very pretty, we skim the edges, the people are friendly but I never felt as unconditionally welcomed or at home as here in the Cyclades, the central group of islands in the Aegean. Full of history; ancient unimaginable explosions, so massive they resulted in the calderas of Thira and Milos and created this scattering of islands, of sophisticated Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, of Venetian, Genoese, Ottoman and pirate occupations that have all had their influence as the wealth and importance of individual islands fluctuated through time.
The charm of the islands is their quirkiness, their similarity yet individuality; sleepy Astypalea, eco, modern yet traditional Siphnos, laid back Milos, they have their own character and all have ferries in common. In this part of the Aegean ferries are in abundance. On the dock anticipation builds, queues of people and/or cars, depending on the ferry, signal an imminent arrival, a distant ‘hoot’. Almost before the ramp hits the quay, there’s a millisecond hushed pause, then the rush is on, scooters coming and going, packages clutched between knees or balanced as one hand steadies the load behind. There will be bananas in the mini market tonight.
Having visitors, we see things afresh. We had old friends Terry and Wendy Earl with us for a week as we circled in the Cyclades – see 1-6 on the map! Every island we visited was so different and of course it depended upon the anchorage, so that in Amorgos we went to the isolated west end, nothing but goats and the occasional back packing sunbather and we revisited the wreck that made its appearance in the film ‘Deep Blue’.
In Astypalea, where they arrived they managed to track down the only taxi on the island when our rendezvous had gone a little awry.
The museum curator is also a fisherman; I spy him on a boat mending bright yellow and orange nets. People multi task, in Astypalea, Elias the man who has the power to turn water on and off, connect you to electricity should you wish and whisk your dirty laundry off to heaven knows where, he is not of course the same as the man who takes the details of the boat and the money for your stay on the harbour wall. Elias drives road machinery by day and is only available in the evening, not good enough for some yachtsmen who were impatient for fresh water and created quite a scene. Elias struck a typical Greek pose, arms out, palms open, little stamp of the feet, ‘listen mister, what’s the problem, I give you water, I finish my job, I fall off my scooter (drawing up his shirt to show newly tended wounds), I come as soon as I can, what’s the problem’
In the Serifos Post Office while waiting for a stamp an old man needed reassurance that he didn’t have to pay anything more, the negotiation or whatever was worrying him was finished, it was almost a personal counselling session carried out with kindness and understanding, no rushed or impersonal transaction, there is consideration in this community.
I watch a dog in the water playing ‘keepy uppy’ with the swim buoys; cafes and restaurants split by roads, the chairs a cheerful mix of reds, blues, greens all freshly painted for summer; the Choras on top of the hills, by day white cubes sprouting through the rock, by night creating shimmering bracelets and necklaces around the darkened hills, the church bells, the hoot of ferries; fisherman spend hours in the shade of the canopies on their boats mending nets and drinking coffees supplied by the nearby cafe.
Naxos was the only island that struck a discordant note, perhaps they are jaded with tourists. However it was redeemed by a great find by Andy, the Venetian House museum which was so interesting and as we finished the tour and went down below to see the cellars we came across a beautiful, white skinned, red haired, blue eyed beauty, definitely not Greek ‘to be sure, I don’t really know what I’m doing here’! An Irish colleen, in love with Greece, dispensing raki and other goodies on behalf of a local producer.
Islands without airports are different again and must adapt to keep tourism healthy, one such is Siphnos, where the luggage of new arrivals is trundled along the beach in a wheelbarrow, and water laps the steps of a small studio for rent and where we saw a dog, a golden retriever, navigating his master from the rear of a kayak. They went right out to sea and I’m sure when they returned the dog was wet, but looked happy.
I finish with the final verse of ‘The Road to The Isles’ and a photo of a big fish snared in netting as Selkie Dancer is made safe for the younger generation. Louise, George and Lucy are joining us soon!
‘The blue islands are pullin’ me away
Their laughter puts the leap upon the lame
The blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews
Wi’ heather honey taste upon each name’