Day 6: Day trip to Donoussa, or Express Skopelitis revisited
It was 6am on Thursday, and my alarm (or rather, my blackberry) was playing that familiar wake-up melody. You’ll never guess what I had on the agenda that day. There is simply no chance!
I wondered if the bakery was open at this early hour. I shouldn’t have. The smell of freshly baked bread and different kinds of pies – that smell they only have in Greece – filled every corner of the adjacent streets. Oh, the glorious morning! I walked in and demanded a freshly baked spanakopita, my Greek breakfast mantra.
“Are you leaving with Skopelitis?” asked the baker. Probably no camera-armed woman would wake up so darn early for any other reason. Yes, I was. I was taking that silly little boat again!
Here’s my excuse. As soon as I had realised I was stuck in Amorgos for a little longer than initially planned, I promptly booked a day trip to Donoussa, which was not too far away. The more Greek islands I will squeeze into the course of my eventful life, the better.
Donoussa is the most remote of the Small Cyclades. With around 150 inhabitants, it also is among the least populated. The population shoots up significantly during the summer though, as sun-hungry Scandinavians and naturists descend upon the island in flocks. Still, Donoussa does not see the same crowds as does the neighbouring Naxos or other popular Greek islands.
The Skopelitis crew visibly recognised me and welcomed back like an old friend. I headed straight to the top deck – the view of the sea, kissed gently by the new day’s sun, could not be missed.
As we sailed on, my impression of Skopelitis was improving by minute. The Aegean was milder than the previous time, and the voyage was much shorter. We reached Donoussa in just over an hour, and I set off to explore.
Donoussa: time to explore!
As said, Donoussa is very small compared to its Cycladic counterparts – the neighbouring monster of Naxos, the skinny outlier Amorgos and even the tranquil, undiscovered Sikinos. With the 10 hours I had on the island, there was ample time for walking and exploring.
Stavros – Donoussa’s main town and port – looked even more tranquil than Koufonissi Chora I had visited two days earlier. It took me quicker to find a supermarket though, selling – yes! – that divine canned Coke. The prices of food goods were a notch above those on Amorgos. On a tiny piece of land Donoussa is, most things are imported – even water. For the sake of public awareness, the island is full of signs urging the visitors and locals alike not to “waste the water” and to use it “for drinking only”. The few natural springs on the island are marked on all maps. I didn’t check if they still existed, though.
Some colourful boats
The summer season? Which summer season?
A quiet church in Stavros
I decided to hit the “Route 1” (not to be confused with the notorious namesake path on Amorgos) to Kalatoritissa, a village in the northeast of Donoussa. According to the map posted in the port (which I photographed for future reference), Kalatoritissa had a beach, which I could use to cool off after a strenuous walk through the hills.
Off to explore! Ready…
Needless to say that, compared to my previous day’s hiking experience, the walk was smooth in the least. Some views along the way – especially of Naxos across the water – were truly stunning. The only annoyance came from numerous black flies circling my feet and filling up the otherwise peaceful surroundings with their pestering aural accompaniment.
I wondered if the flies could be diverted towards some goats instead – but did not spot any despite endless evidence of their presence. Where had all the goats gone? This question followed me throughout the island. There were very few of them left indeed, and none wandering freely like they did on Amorgos. Perhaps the lack of water was to blame.
The road from Stavros to Kalotaritissa
Kalotaritissa turned out to be a cluster ten houses, of which half looked abandoned and the other half – in the process of active renovation. Such contrast. A rooster welcomed me with a squealing “cook-a-doodle-doo”, and chickens scattered away as I entered the village. The owners of a nameless, unexpectedly polished up taverna on the side of the road loudly greeted me. The promised beach turned out rather deserted and messy, with a couple of donkeys parked nearby. According to the adjacent sign, no camping or nudism was allowed here. Camping was permitted on the Kedros beach I was heading to later. There was no reference to where nudists could freely flash themselves, though.
A church I found in Kalotaritissa
After a quick swim under the awkward supervision courtesy of two silent donkeys, I retreated. There was still a long walk ahead, first heading south along the newly built, PAVED road. I asked myself if it was safe to walk there, and imagined that not many cars would be passing by on an island like this. In fact, there probably WEREN’T many cars on an island like this. I was good to go.
“Timeless little hamlets”
And I was right. On the entire stretch to Mersini village, I saw no more than a couple of cars. And, now that I think of it, it was in fact one and the same car. Oh, and two cement trucks! What is the probability that TWO cement trucks meet on the same road on Donoussa, right on the spot where anjči happened to be walking at that very moment? I considered the occasion a lucky sign. Both trucks beeped, which I first mistook for being addressed to me. Wrong; it was the drivers’ way of saying hello to each other. As if it wasn’t enough, they both stopped (blocking the whole road, of course) and immersed into a long discussion about life. Two cement trucks side by side, in the middle of nowhere! I only wish I had been smart enough to take a picture of that, but alas.
The road from Kalotaritissa to Mersini
I continued to Mersini, “a timeless little hamlet” as described by Lonely Planet. Mersini must be one of the best-kept secrets of the Cyclades, officially. Like a flower, the village opened up to me gradually. It stretched down the hill, first showing nothing more than a few abandoned houses (classic in Donoussa, as I’d already figured). Further down though, some beautiful, newly whitewashed and painted constructions emerged – crowned by two extremely tempting tavernas, “Η κόρη του Μιχάλη” (“Michalis’s daughter”) and “Τζι-τζι” (free translation). The view towards the Livadi beach was inspiring, but I decided to return to my route – briefly stopping to look around a local church, Agia Sofia. Not to be confused with that in Istanbul, of course.
Mersini: a secret well kept
Agia Sofia, Mersini
A car passed me by and a lady inside offered a lift. For once, I could refuse, as the walk wasn’t too hard. The car had “Τζι-τζι ” on it, and I figured the lady must have been from that taverna in Mersini. Next time I’m definitely stopping for a meal!
My next stop was Messaria, another little hamlet lost in the hills. It was not even at the Kalatoritissa level of liveliness. I could hear some human presence from one of the houses, and the rest (numbering about 10) looked completely abandoned and half-decomposed.
I hiked to the top of the village and found the “Route 3” (“Route 2” from Mersini to Messaria almost fully overlapped with the paved road, so I preferred the latter). It wasn’t too long – by my standards, anyway – before I reached my ultimate destination, the Kedros beach.
Kedros beach, the hippies’ haven
I could immediately see that the permission to camp was taken very seriously here. The entire approach to the beach was pinned with tents, mostly in the shaded area under the olive trees. An old Japanese man was plugging his electric boiler to a socket in the ladies bathroom and heating up a jar of water. To the left, two naked men were playing rackets. To the right, a naked French couple was putting swimming suits on their children (interesting). Some pet dogs were zooming around. Two Greek girls with spike hair and tattoos were playing cards. More tents and canopies were put up right on the beach – in a single line, as, according to the set of rules posted on the door of that hapless ladies bathroom, a second line of tents was not allowed.
In a nutshell, I hadn’t exactly hit the most conventional of beaches. I remembered the Lonely Planet describe Kedros as being frequented by “naturists” (the politically correct term for nudists), but the sign I had seen in Kalatoritissa earlier had almost convinced me otherwise.
Anyway, with its stretch of fine yellow sand and a secluded natural harbour, the beach deserved dedicated attention regardless of the company. And I still had a few hours to spare before Skopelitis would collect me. I chose to stay and enjoyed some blissful swimming and a peaceful sleep on Kedros. I did feel mixed about watching naked people running back and forth in front of my nose, though. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned.
Kedros beach, not for the narrow minded
The beach was a 20-minute walk from Stavros, and it was time for me to join a group of (Swedish) people waiting on the quay for Skopelitis. The sea breeze had notably intensified, and I was already prepared to camp for the night (not at Kedros, emphatically). Finally we saw the boat – or was it really our Skopelitis? The boat in the distance was obviously struggling against the waves. Every minute, a huge wave would break in front of it and cover it whole with splashes. Like this:
What do you mean there’s a boat there?…
It’s come after me
It was our Skopelitis indeed. The passengers getting off were soaked, scared and exhausted. A Greek woman shook off water from her hair and sarcastically wished us all “kalo taksidi” (“good journey”). Goodness. Was the Skopelitis breaking all the sailing rules in the world by venturing out in this gale?
Onboard the ship, soaked luggage was piled up on the top deck. The surviving passengers were clutching the metal handrails with shaking hands. All rubbish bins had been turned over, and fresh vomit was covering the rear part of the deck. It looked like the Skopelitis was back to its old self!
We were lucky, though. The voyage to Aegiali was south, not west – so, minus some scary swaying, we got away easily. I didn’t envy those who continued to Katapola, however. Seriously, no more Skopelitis for me. Those people navigating it must be crazy! Or they’re just Greeks.
The boat took a while trying to dock, failed and eventually let the passengers run across the unsecured stern ramp. On to the safety of the shore! I screamed triumphantly as my feet touched the ground. The time was approaching 9pm, but all I wanted was to sleep. I could not remember the last time I was so exhausted in my life. (View my full Flickr photo set for Donoussa)
Day 7: Thank God It’s Friday! Hiking to Lagada, Theologos and Stavros
It was Friday, but I had completely lost the sense of what day of the week it was. I had only been gone from London for seven days, the days were rushing by – and yet it felt like at least a month had passed. Thanks perhaps to how full, different and interesting every day was.
The wailing outside confirmed that the wind had strengthened further. At 6 Beaufort, it was still nowhere near the gale I had experienced on Naxos two years before, when the wind speed reached 9 Beaufort and my boat to Mykonos was cancelled.
Would my Sunday morning boat to Astypalea still run though? To be on the safe side, I consulted my father (a sailor of 30 years). He laughed as he explained that my Blue Star Naxos was indeed an “ocean ferry” and would run “in any weather”. Relief. And, just to calm me down even more, Blue Star Naxos emerged in the glory of the morning (heading towards Piraeus), albeit two hours late. Oh well, better late than never.
I turned my eyes away from the sea and focused on the path ahead, numbered 4. “Route 4” connects Aegiali with Lagada village, continues to Tholaria village and passes Aegiali again on its way to the upper side of the Aegiali Ormos (Bay). It is indeed the most popular walking route on Amorgos – at least judging by the number of hikers I saw there. Or perhaps we’d just been reading the same Lonely Planet.
The Lagada village welcomed me with a long stretch of dug up streets – new water pipes were being laid. As I continued uphill, the village unveiled into a pretty Cycladic settlement, with traditional architecture, quieter tavernas and cafes (than Aegiali or Katapola, say) and amazing views onto the Tholaria village, on top of a hill across the valley.
“Route 4” was signalling a left turn, but I had planned my day differently. I could always visit Tholaria the next day – for now though, I decided to take the full advantage of a wonderfully cooler, windier weather to do some real hiking. After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for: “Route 5”.
As to discourage me, the route’s two key landmarks were clearly signposted at the start: Theologos Monastery (3km) and Stavros Church (7km). Seven kilometres, one way?! When I was already barely alive after hiking non-stop for a week? I told myself I would be taking it VERY easy and had a full day to walk 14 km (+3km to return to Aegiali) as slowly as I pleased. That seemed to work, and I began my ascent.
In the middle of nowhere, I came across one of those wooden boards the Greek authorities put up to display the information on public improvement projects. That board revealed, in Greek, that the “renovation of the Lagada – Theologos walking path” had cost 25 thousands euros.
Seriously? The walking route looked no different than any other I had seen in Greece. And it was only 3km long. Now that was money well spent. Hold on, I thought as I noticed a brand new, shining, bright yellow rubbish bin nearby. In the middle of absolutely nowhere, there it proudly stood, amid the goat excrements! Perhaps that’s what dragged up the renovation costs so much. A precious rubbish bin, no less!
I continued along the jagged rocky path, which mercilessly led further and further uphill. It evened out briefly, zigzagging under oak trees in a narrow, shaded passage between high stone walls. It seemed like I was in a fertile part of the island. Vegetation was all around, some of it visibly looked after. They say that the best honey on the island in produced there.
I reached the small St. Barbara chapel and took a quick look inside (the key was in the door).
Agia Barbara chapel
The trees became more scattered as I was nearing the end of the valley. Then the road split. On my right, red paint across a large stone signalled “Stavros”. And on my left – on my left I saw this:
I had reached the first landmark of my epic hiking exploration – the 4th century Theologos Monastery. Compared to the famous Hozoviotissa, Theologos Monastery is not as easy to reach and is therefore relatively unknown of. In my opinion though, it was a shot more interesting than its more glamorous counterpart.
Goats all around were rising on their feet as I approached, their bells jingling – but, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, those goats knew their worth. They didn’t flee but slowly encircled me instead. A few even looked ready to confront should I become hostile. Needless to say that I didn’t. I even told them some rapport-building phrases in Greek, but they didn’t seem to understand. Maybe they spoke a different dialect.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Hey, folks. Look whom we’ve got here.”
Like most religious structures in remote Cycladic locations, the Theologos Monastery was locked. It was also uninhabited – and highly inspiring in its seclusion. I climbed a ladder up to the roof and realised I could get all the way to the dome topped by a while marble cross. It had been my long-term dream to touch a cross at the top of a Greek church. I didn’t need a second invitation; the feeling was absolutely fantastic.
On top of Theologos Monastery. I touched that cross!!
It was time to continue to Stavros, and I returned to the crossroad I previously saw. The stepped road led steeply uphill, past the grazing goats and around the mountain. Wondering what the turn would bring, I hurried along for about 30 minutes. The opening cliff-top view was beyond words!
To the right of where I was standing, I could see the line of the path I was supposed to follow. I was hoping it was not as dangerous as it looked. Good thing I was not scared of heights! The path was closely hugging the Krikelos mountain (821m), plunging abruptly on the other side, hundreds of meters down into the troubled, intense blue, Aegean.
The further I walked, the stronger the wind was. On my left, there was no return. On my right, the Krikelos rose firmly towards the ever-changing, torn clouds. I was hoping there would be no surprises along the way. Picturesque photo locations are fine, but I was planning to return to London in one piece at some point.
Eureka! I made yet another turn and, instead of facing a further stretch of that never-ending path, saw a whitewashed roof ahead. I had reached the Stavros Church!
The church was built for the miners who worked in Metallio, a bauxite mine 700m down from Stavros. The mine was first closed in 1943, briefly re-opened in 1970s, and permanently abandoned in 1981. Some 150 people used to work there, most commuting (on foot) daily from Lagada and Tholaria villages. “Route 5” is in fact the old path the miners used to come to work, year by year.
My first reaction was to run triumphantly towards Stavros – but the wind had other plans. Unprotected by any obstacle on its way, it hit me on the face, pushed me back and risked blowing my camera – and myself – into the zipping abyss behind. That high-mountain wind was no joke.
Therefore I decided to crawl towards my target. If not rise my flag on top of Stavros, I at least had to touch it before starting my (victorious) descent. And I reached it. And touched it. And sat down in its small yard. And drank some celebratory mineral water by its conquered walls. And took some pictures.
Stavros AT LAST!
The clouds overhead were moving with remarkable speed
After all of which I saw a curious pair of eyes peeping over the walls of the yard. What? I was not the only conqueror of Stavros that day? Enter another solo female hiker. Respect.
Climbing any further in that wind would be a suicide. I gave the girl a dry smile (Stavros was MY idea in the first place) and left the territory, amid the maddening winds. Not to give my rival the (wrong) impression that my approach had been anything but that of a victor, I proudly marched into the wind. I got nearly blown off a cliff as a result, but my reputation was saved.
The return journey was surprisingly quick; it was partly because I already knew the way and partly because it was all downhill. Luckily so, as I don’t think my legs would have taken any more uphill activity that day. If they could talk, they’d probably scream.
Back in Aegiali two hours later, I had a quick dip in the sea and barricaded up in the hotel to rest. My room looked strikingly un-cleaned, which was strange, even for Pelagos’s standards (they had not been too regular replacing my towels and emptying rubbish – let alone changing my sheets). I guessed that Sofia, the owner, had forgotten about the extra day I was staying.
My guess was correct; I soon heard a knock on the door. Sofia ignored my Roman-style clothing (you might remember that I had safely forgotten my pyjamas in London) and begged me to please move to another room. She had forgotten I was staying longer (told ya) and let the room out to someone else. Someone else who was meanwhile waiting downstairs. Could I please just move across the corridor to this (she opened the door to demonstrate) wonderful, freshly cleaned room?
I had lived in Greece before. Agreeing to things had a price. The new room did not have (a) a balcony; (b) a drying rack; and (c) a hairdryer, as far as my single-look examination could reveal. Sofia agreed that this one would come cheaper. The deal was sealed, and I changed rooms. Bye-bye, sea view, bye-bye, Swedish children first thing in the morning, hello, clean sheets.
I finally dragged my weary feet out for a sunset stroll. It was my one but last evening on Amorgos. I was feeling I got used to this friendly, quiet island. I started recognising several Swedish families on the beach and in town. I learnt some of the locals’ habits, such as walking dogs at a certain hour. In tavernas, I enjoyed playing the “spot-a-foreigner” game (first and foremost, they order individual meals rather than share small mezes, like the Greeks). I felt a little sad to be leaving the following day – but the best thing about any holiday is that it actually comes to an end.