As I walked into London Heathrow airport on 2 July 2010, I once again came to realise just how much of an airport chick I was. Have you watched "Up in the Air"? I swear by the last scene, where George Clooney’s character eyes the electronic screen with flight schedules, running through his mind that "tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids", accidentally catching the sight of random starlight overhead.
"And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over".
Same here. Airports and airplanes are my most beloved homes. Sometimes I feel I enjoy being in the airport even more than the actual time at destination. I waltz through Duty Free shops, spraying a perfume or two on my clothes and buying yet another cleansing lotion for my travelled face. I pop into that hip ladies toilet, where the loos are flushed by a gentle wave of a hand in front of a sensor. I have a coffee in a takeaway cup in the glorious view of the lit up runways. I page through endless travel guides in airport bookstores. I attack the junk magazine section at W.H. Smith's to get my monthly share of celebrity gossip, too. I send out all the text messages I owe to people long-since-last-seen, read up on my National Geographic and type up blog entries on my blackberry. I relax and catch up on life. There is simply no better place for that than an airport. Need I say more?
And this time I had an even better reason to enjoy London Heathrow. My flight was for nowhere else than Athens, Greece!
For those of you not familiar with that twist of my past, I used to live in Greece for eight months. I was even hoping to find decent employment there and stay longer – but got heavily disappointed in the opportunities (or the lack of such) the country offered, and left. I had not been to Greece for a year since. And, given how close I once used to be to the Greek culture, music and lifestyle, not being there hurt. I longed to go back.
My feelings were most mixed, however. When I left Greece a year ago, things there were still portrayed as going well. The mood in the country I was returning to was different. In the past year, Greece got crippled in the depths of a severe financial crisis and brought to the verge of close insolvency. Maddened by austerity measures agreed to by the government in an attempt to justify the international rescue package, the crowds went out into the streets, crushing every resistance on their way. In May this year, three people were killed during one of such demonstration protests in Athens.
This was the country I was returning to. Greece had not had it easy. I kept telling myself, however, that I needn't worry; I was only going back for a holiday. And, when it came to holidays, Greece was unbeatable. Summer in Greece, baby. Like here, nowhere.
During my 8-month stay in Greece, I had travelled the country well (view my full Greek photo collection). Regardless, there were still significant blank spots on my map – most notably, the island of Amorgos. Right on the edge of the Cyclades island group, it is somewhat outside the beaten track and is therefore quieter than its mainstream counterparts. The apparent drawbacks of Amorgos are the absence of an airport coupled with the island's relative remoteness from mainland Greece. The closest airport was in Astypalea, a Dodecanese island to the southeast of Amorgos. The best way back to Athens was to include Astypalea into my itinerary return to Athens with an Olympic Air flight. I could certainly tolerate a sea journey out to the islands; but it'd be good to speed up my return.
The plan was sorted. I would arrive to Athens in the middle of the night, transfer by night bus to Piraeus, sleep on a bench somewhere till sunrise, get my pre-booked ferry tickets issued, and sail off to Amorgos. I'd spend six amazing days and nights there, sail to Astypalea for three more, fly to Athens and fly straight to London. Bingo.
My strategy was to avoid passing central Athens by all means. For those of you who have never been there, the most precise description of Athens I could share is a concoction of ugly concrete buildings whirled up in an endless jungle, in an overheated city of five million, crowned by a cloud of contaminated dust (see an illustration here). The effect is exacerbated in the summer. I really do not recommend Athens to anyone – a glimpse at the Acropolis is fine, but make sure to head straight to Thissio station afterwards for a train to Piraeus and a ferry transfer to the islands. That’s in the summer time. In winter, head for the airport and fly right out. Seriously.
And it was the islands that I was heading to. I had packed up a handful of casual summer clothes, two changes of bikini, a stack of serious (and less serious) magazines, article print-outs, a large-scale map of Greece (and the world, to plan my future adventures), a Greek language book, a Toshiba netbook and – of course! – my Nikon. My activities for that holiday would include sleeping, photographing, splashing about in the Aegean, more photographing, filling up on spanakopitas (traditional Greek spinach pies), revising the Greek language, photographing again, reading, writing my blog and staring at the various maps. Oh, and did I mention photographing?
Man, what a holiday anjči was going to have. I was almost envying myself!
Back in Greece
As I approached my boarding gate at London Heathrow, I was surrounded by Greeks. Fragments of their different conversations were flying out of every direction. I felt excited. My subtle mission for the holiday was to revive my Greek. The already mentioned self-study language book was going to help bring my Greek to its former glory.
More Greeks joined me on the otherwise uneventful flight. At times, I had a strange feeling that I was returning home after a long break. I often feel the same when flying back to Latvia – the sound of Latvian language makes me nostalgic, I understand everything yet have to think first before building my own sentences. And I am not just a tourist, but know what I am doing.
As much as I tried to get some sleep on the plane, I spectacularly failed. Despite a week of sleep not exceeding 5-6 hours a night, my whole system was too excited at the prospect of being in Greece again. Instead, I decided not to waste any time and religiously studied Greek. A female flight attendant looked at my book with interest. Then she looked at me, and I could swear I remembered her face from one of my recent flights. At this rate, I will soon start recognising the entire British Airways on-flight crew.
We finally landed, with a small bump. The airplane burst into applause. It seemed that the majority were Greeks heading home and dying to get out of the plane, energetically. Despite it being the ungodly 3am.
As instructed by the Internet, I caught bus X96 straight to the port of Piraeus. The bus runs along the western coast of the Attica peninsula, foregoing central Athens. Still sleepless, I arrived in Piraeus at 4:30am and wondered what exciting activity I could undertake. My boat was scheduled three hours later, and it was still dark and menacingly empty outside. I examined various options, after which I settled on a wooden bench and took out a junk magazine I picked up while passing through the Business Class cabin of my BA flight.
I almost fell asleep when a group of (proper) homeless people nearby started playing an artful improvisation of football with a broken metallic piece. I had no choice but to wake up and seek other means of entertainment. I started by colouring my nails. Bright pink, as it was summer time. I then brushed my hair and teeth. I changed my clothes. I bought a bougatsa (Greek custard pastry) and some water. I got my boat tickets converted from online reservations to hard paper. And, when I contemplated replaying the whole sequence, the morning shone through, my Superjet high-speed boat arrived, and I proudly took up my snob front seat. Always book early for the hippest seats with a view of the glorious Aegean, folks!
From Piraeus to Katapola
I generally enjoy travelling by sea. Therefore it was only when I noticed a member of the crew handing out paper sick bags when I realised that the voyage was not the mildest. Several Swedish children around me were pressing the bags to their faces and generally looking miserable. I sympathised.
Next to me sat two Australian girls. One was actually occupying my assigned seat, but I decided to close my eyes. Freshly out of high school, the girls were travelling around Europe for 10 weeks. Ten freaking weeks! I wish we in Eastern Europe had grasped the concept of gap time travel a lot earlier. When I got out of high school, the whole talk was only about how soon to start LIVING PROPERLY, e.g. working. Jealous for the Aussies, I reminded myself how I had caught up on gap breaks during my 8-month holidays in Greece two years ago. Victoriously so.
The Australian girls got out in Santorini, like most other passengers. Amorgos was promising to be more of an authentic experience! In fact, for an 8-hour boat trip to get there, it better had been.
I finally reached Katapola, one of Amorgos's two key ports. My hotel, Minoa Apartments, was a few steps away from the quay. I greeted the owner, Anna, in Greek – only to be told she was in fact Dutch and living in Greece for 15 (!) years. Living a dream, no doubt.
My little room was exactly what I wanted for a holiday. It was basic butt had a balcony and even – surprise! – free wireless! The wireless was in fact provided by Amorgos Municipality and was unreliably Greek in the way it appeared and disappeared at whim, changed speed with the wind and generally entertained. It was officially the most elusive wireless in history, but occasionally work it did.
Outside, the visitors and locals alike were one mass of football supporters, occupying Katapola’s central cafes. Argentina was playing Germany. I was tempted to join the rest of the town, but a brief look at the Aegean guided me otherwise. Germany scored the first goal within minutes, and I felt they could safely be left without my supervision. I headed to Ammos, a small beach within Katapola.
The beach may not have been the best one I had ever visited, but I really could not have cared less. The Aegean had not changed one bit since I last visited Greece. Every blow of the wind brought the magic fragrance of a Cycladic island – that semi-dry smell, a mixture of pine, fish, olives, salt and sea. I was truly blessed to be back!
And I had surely chosen a great island to visit. The first inspection revealed only a few Scandinavian families, some couples and not many other tourists at all. It was definitely not a party island and was wonderfully full of locals. I walked around Katapola for a couple of hours, taking plenty of pictures.
The next football game (Paraguay – Spain) was kicking off, but the sleepless previous night was no joke. I departed to my room, searched in vain for my pyjamas (I couldn't have remembered to pack everything, could I?) and called it a day, pyjama-less. My first full day on Amorgos was approaching!
Day 2: Exploring the best-known sights of Amorgos
One of my worst habits is setting the alarm clock while on holiday. It's like a curse. I spend the day before planning what I want to do, invariably decide that sleep does not fit into the programme, and cut it shorter. In the course of the day, I typically come to realise that I could have easily slept longer. But that's another story.
It was my first full day on Amorgos, and I decided to wake up at 8:30am, or 6:30am UK time. Imagine my devastation when I dragged my eyes open in the morning and found the time to be 9:30am! The alarm switch was not set to ON. Was my entire day going to rack and ruin as a result?
As it happens though, it took me ten minutes to get ready just in time to catch a bus to the main town of Amorgos, Chora. And I needn't have woken up so brutally early, anyway!
Chora was truly a wonder waiting to be explored. The village is the medieval capital of Amorgos dominated by a 13th century Venetian castle, the Kastro. It is situated 400m above sea level, high enough to be sometimes surrounded by the clouds. The little streets labyrinth further south towards the windmills. There are more churches in the village than houses (or so the locals claim), including the smallest chapel in the whole of Greece, Agia Irini.
From Chora, I followed the Lonely Planet advice and walked 2km to Hozoviotissa Monastery, enjoying some breath-taking sea views along the way. An 11th century structure built by Alexius Comnenus I, the Monastery is no doubt Amorgos's best known sight. It is built into the rock, and its white-washed walls make a marked contrast both with the darker background and the sparkling blue Aegean. A handful of monks still live in the Monastery.
At the time I visited, the Monastery was closed for a siesta (or "μεσημέρι", in local speak) – but, according to the "Please be decently dressed" sign on the entrance door, I doubt I could make it inside, anyway.
At that point, I had been hiking for a few hours straight and was ready for a dip in the sea. I headed downhill to Agia Anna beach. The beach is among the most popular on Amorgos, not least for its wonderfully clear water and the stunning views over the Hozoviotissa Monastery.
My heart started beating faster as I spotted a rock rising out of the sea like a natural diving platform. I could honestly spend a full day doing little more than diving off cliffs into the sea. A few blond Swedish kids had already claimed the rock as their own, calling "kom igen, kom igen" to encourage each other. I added my non-blond head to the party. Wow, had I missed hopping off a rock to my glorious Aegean!
Whoever said that time passes slowly on the Cyclades – it never does for me. Hours fly by like minutes, and days turn into snapshots. I barely had a couple of good dips when the day became evening, and I caught the last bus from Agia Anna to Katapola.
Back in town, I decided to take a leisurely sunset stroll along the beach. The seaside road led me into a quieter eastern part occupied by a few tavernas slowly opening for the night. I peeped into an old cemetery there. Greeks are known for taking great care of their departed ones' graves, which was visible even in a cemetery as small as Katapola's. Suddenly my eyes fell on a rundown, neglected grave. The parasite green plant had long since outgrown its space and was threatening neighbouring graves and the path nearby. A foreigner must be lying there, ran though my mind. It was. "Ferdinand Haller", it read on the cross. "In Gute Erinnerung. Deine Freunde".
In Gute Erinnerung, my first full day on Amorgos day had come to an end.
Day 3: Day trip to Koufonissi
When the alarm clock went off at 5:10am the next morning, my first reflex was to ignore it. It seemed early even for my standards. Was I on holiday or what? Unfortunately (or rather fortunately in fact), the alarm had been set for a reason – my little Express Skopelitis boat was leaving for the Small Cyclades.
The so-called Small Cyclades ("Μικρές Κυκλάδες") are a group of smaller Cycladic islands between Naxos and Amorgos. Only four – Iraklia, Schinoussa, Ano Koufonissi and Donoussa – have permanent population. Also noteworthy is the uninhabited Keros. Some of the most precious archaeological discoveries in the Cyclades were made there, including the flat-faced marble statues which later inspired the likes of Picasso. The Small Cyclades are known for excellent beaches and isolation from the rest of the holidaying world that is the Greek islands. Indeed, the mass tourism is yet relatively unknown there.
"Sounds interesting!" I thought as I caught the sight of Express Skopelitis boat at Katapola the night before. The boat starts its journey early in Katapola, where it docks overnight. The longer route then takes it to Aegiali, Dounoussa, Koufonissi, Schinoussa, Iraklia and finally Naxos – and back to Katapola the same day. Which is exactly what I was going to do up to Koufonissi! Hence the early awakening.
Express Skopelitis: Beware
A quick look at the sea got me rather worried, however. I am no expert in raging seas, but I have definitely taken my fair share of short- and long-haul ferries. I mean, we have quite a few criss-crossing our own sea, the mighty Baltic. And the Aegean that early morning left a lot to be worried about. The water surface looked like a jar of water African women carry on their heads. The jar certainly stays still, but the water inside it sways from side to side, forwards and backwards, never settled and always menacingly aiming out. That kind of sea we were going to sail out to, on our flimsy joke of a vessel.
And it had suddenly occurred to me that the journey to Koufonissi was going to take 3.5 hours, one way. Somehow the whole affair did not look as much fun anymore – but there was no way back. Out to the sea we sailed.
As I was standing innocently by the starboard minding my own business, the real fun began. A huge wave split into a myriad little pieces which the cheeky wind obligingly threw all over the boat. I have to say I found that kinda fun. For the next couple of hours, I entertained myself by opening my arms wide towards the splashes of every new wave. The other passengers (a handful of fellow enthusiasts – the rest had safely boarded the Blue Star juggernaut earlier) eyed me with a sort of sympathy – which I knew I deserved.
Soaked with salty water, I finally departed to the top deck to spend some time imagining I was in fact navigating the boat. It could really be me, as Skopelitis was swaying from side to side beyond any imagination, well on the way to scoop a board-ful and go down with us all. I was seriously scared. How come the captain ever allowed the boat to sail in this wind and rough seas? I sat next to a life ring and ran several scenarios through my head. My planned reaction to imminent danger would be to grab the ring to myself and keep good hold of Nikie, my camera. If someone tried to separate us, I would hit them on the head with that lantern thing attached to the ring. I don't know about you guys, but my Nikie is not going down into the Aegean. Especially with THAT boat.
But nobody was hit on the head in the end. We had arrived at Ano Koufonissi. My feet touched the ground, and I solemnly promised myself I would not take the Skopelitis again in my life. Other than seven hours later, for my return journey to Katapola, of course.
Ano Koufonissi (referred to as simply Koufonissi, as Kato Koufonissi is uninhabited) is the smallest (3.5 sq.km) and the most densely populated island in the Cyclades group. Don’t get too excited though; its population barely approaches 350 people on a good day.
My first impression of Koufonissi was shared by a small Swedish boy. When we were passing Koufonissi on our way to Amorgos, the child gasped, enthusiastically "Där vill jag bada! (That's where I want to swim!"). I couldn't agree more. The waters surrounding Koufonissi looked beyond this world, playing in the sun in all their crystal-clear, emerald glory. I could barely wait to dive in.
But I had to spend some time exploring the main town, Chora. In vain I searched for a supermarket, which was eventually pointed out to me by a kind soul of a moustached, old sailor. The supermarket itself looked like a miniature warehouse carrying a highly unintuitive selection of food products, cleaning substances, car parts and even small pieces of furniture, mixed randomly around the inside. The place was presided over by an elderly lady, with clout enough to compensate for the modest size of her establishment. She didn't need much convincing to let me take a photo of her, "στη δουλειά" ("at work").
Beach hunting on Koufonissi
I then went off searching for that perfect beach. Koufonissi was truly blessed in that department. One beach followed another, and looking better the further east I walked. The beaches were soon replaced by secluded coves, which the visitors willingly occupied for a combination of privacy, shade and natural swimming spots. Fantastic!
Finally I found a cove which looked less easily approachable and had therefore survived settlement before my arrival. I conquered it by walking along the narrow stone path into the sea and then making my way into the cove, partly crawling along the rock. It was worth every bit of effort, as I had never had a better swimming experience! Sincerely recommended.
Out of my paradise, I watched the other visitors passing by. All followed the same algorithm: drew together for a discussion, briefly watched me, searched with their eyes for my possessions, had "how the heck did she get there?" written across their faces, eventually screamed "eureka", pointed towards my entry path, hesitated – and invariably walked away. I was really beginning to think my little cove was magically protected from the rest of the world in its inapproachability.
Until an elderly couple proved me otherwise. He and she did not walk away. Instead, they began their approach, slowly but surely, towards my settlement. She kept stopping and calling her husband to turn back, but confidently he tread on. Soon they had taken the place in a little niche next to mine. Respect!
After a few hours of eternal bliss, I left and took a walking tour of the rest of the island. I first continued east towards Agios Georgios, enjoying more amazing sea views and eventually reaching one of the most incredible beaches I had ever faced in Greece. I then turned inland to take the paved road back to the port. Except there was no paved road at all, just a dirt road imitation. Not a single car passed me by during an hour-long walk. A random goat screamed out occasionally, but that's about as much welcome as I received. Truthful are the travel guides who claim Koufonissi "the place to get away from it all!"
I returned to Chora, which by then seemed no less than a grand civilisation. Compared to the rest of the island, the port was indeed bustling with life! (view my full Flickr photo set for Koufonissi)
The little Skopelitis began looming on the horizon. I wondered if my return journey would be as rough as that morning. And man, was it even worse. The sea looked like it was against us – and the Skopelitis was no match. After the first hour of re-playing the "let's get wet in the splashes" game, I fell asleep on the deck, woke up from the boat's malicious swaying, held on to my camera and prayed. Not the best 3.5 hours in my life. I promised myself I would NEVER honour the Skopelitis with another visit. Ever, ever. (Continued in Part II)