Sunday, 15 September 2013

Three Nights on Nisyros: To Be Continued...


We travel into the sunset, the huge fiery orb dropping slowly into the sea. Soon after, the Diagoras ferry is docking at Mandraki, Nisyros. Years ago, I stayed in the middle of the village, but this time I walk up to the first hotel overlooking the water. At Three Brothers, Antonis quickly tells me his best price for a room, and I beat him up an extra three euros to have a view of the sea, over a bamboo garden, with a church to one side and a hillside filled with prickly pear bushes behind. I swing the doors open to listen to the waves.



What I remember best about Nisyros is the way the waves crash up on the rocks and the walls and houses of Mandraki. I wander out and find them – but also the monastery lit up at the end of the village on the clifftop, and a brilliant crescent moon above. Big wooden balconies almost touching one another across tiny alleys, washing hanging to dry, groups of women sitting on the doorsteps, chatting, plant pots in every conceivable space. I'd forgotten how difficult it was to find the square, hidden in the winding alleyways.


At kafeneion Antrikos, two older ladies in almost identical blouses and cardigans sit side by side on a bench, hands crossed in their laps, hair nicely set and beatific smiles, soumadas in glasses in front of them. (Soumada's the local almond cordial.) One of them gets up and walks away from the busy cafe to answer her mobile phone, shouting to someone who is clearly hard of hearing: Stin Nisyro! Ena nisi! S'ena nisi! Nisi! Nai, ena nisi!... ‘I’m in Nisyros! An island! On an ISLAND! An ISLAND! Yes, an ISLAND!’ The kafeneion's slogan is ‘Varda Stenahoria’, an old phrase meaning something like ‘Sadness begone!’ The music is rebetika. Despina asks my name and Antrikos tells me he’s visited England – Liverpool of course, when he worked on the ships.



 


I think I'm on my way home to bed, but halfway back, appropriately enough, end up at a bar called συνεχίζεται, or 'To be Continued'. Set on a quiet part of the sea wall, it used to be an 'after' bar, but as of this year has started making the most of its fabulous setting, and now stylishly squishy chairs look out at the waves crashing up, lit up by pretty lanterns. Dimitris, the owner, makes me an apple cocktail I probably didn't need, and tells me about the island.


Next morning, I'm at Koklaki beach as the sun comes over the top of the cliffs. Black pebbles, volcanic rocks, wild and natural; a view of the green side of Yiali island – half pumice, half  obsidian.


  

 


About 25 turtles are nesting this year, I learned from posters last night, on the totally natural Liess beach. I decide to walk there, but en route am curious to see the old spa of Loutraki, with its ‘sodium chloride sulphurous natural curative baths’ according to the sign. It’s amazingly peaceful and I get talking to Georgos, 73, sitting outside, who tells me he’s been watching the fish in the little harbour there. Originally from these islands, he went to Australia as a young man. His father sent him there to get his brother back, but he stayed; when I asked if he’d come back home much, he counted off the precise year of every trip over fifty years. 


I'm glad I didn't rent a scooter as walking, I see birds of prey soaring over the slopes above, and at Palli the sea is so still in the harbour you can see fish glinting silver in the deep. Beyond Palli are volcanic stone walls in dark greys and reds. 


 


A road seemingly to nowhere stretches around the island. Pigs and cows, a warm ripe fig stolen from behind a fence. Finally beach again – roped off areas protect turtle nests. Cliffs are layers of pumice. Kit off, swim, read and fall asleep to sound of sea on empty stretch of beach. Disturbed by noise – what’s that? Ah, goats reaching for caper bushes on the cliffs above me, dislodging stones. 


Ready to leave, I'm curious to take a peek to see what’s over the headland – not expecting to find cows being herded from beach to hillside. 

 



I eat that night at Koklaki restaurant – for the wall paintings and the waves crashing up just below. Fish soup is recommended. What fish does it have, I ask. 'Fish for soup.' Silly question. It's delicious, and I can even have a small Greek salad with Nisyros goat’s cheese, which is superb – tasty, hard and crumbly. There are nice little chocolate treats at the end, home made. I watch the moon sinking as I finish the wine. Then I can't resist a nightcap at the kafeneion, and get chatting to friendly folks there. Even though I didn't rent a scooter from him, Manos buys me a second raki I definitely didn't need.


By the time the bus has climbed to the rim of the caldera next morning, I’m already feeling queasy and hoping the brakes are checked regularly. Nikia is breathtaking – stunning views across the blue sea to one side (and Tilos), and on the other side all the way down into the volcano. 



After an educational visit to the volcano museum, I relax in the utterly beautiful plateia - you can't call it a square because it's round. At kafeneion ‘The Gate’, I have kanellada, a cinnamon drink, with rice pudding. Panayiotis, whose family has run the café for 42 years, regales me with stories such as that of the local man who had many children. 'When you asked him how many children he had, he’d say fifteen – except for those outside the marriage!’ 



The village’s mini-market, where I hoped to pick up supplies for my walk, has just closed; so I have to settle for the most delicious moist slab of pear and chocolate cake from the restaurant near the museum. I need sustenance as I'm about to go 'off-piste', and follow a path goodness knows where. I wander through old abandoned settlements, and after my eyes have been opened by the museum, no stone is left unexamined: scoria or basalt?


I can’t resist walking down to Stefanos crater, to feel the sulphurous steam rising up from the fumaroles, and listen to the rushing of hydrothermal activity below the yellow crystals.




There's a café, so I go to stock up on water and find, unexpectedly, beautiful handmade soaps on sale, created using the natural herbs of the island. Dreadlocked Ellie, who makes them up in Emborio, helps me choose a path back to Mandraki, following a monopati which she rightly says I will lose and find and lose again, until I reach the dirt track near Stavros monastery, and wind my way back around the other side of the island past little chapels and farms, as the sun starts to turn everything silver and gold. 


Just before Mandraki, I stop at the ancient defence wall, now restored; up here somewhere are ancient cemeteries, where folks were cremated with vessels of oil, wine, honey, figs and olives. Path down into the village, ending up under the monastery of Panayia Spiliani, where I jump into the sea.

Later, beautiful music spills out of a doorway, and I wander down steps to find To Kazanario, a wine bar/ouzeri in an old building whose huge arches open out into a garden bordering the villagers' allotments. They have local wine – hard to find on sale – smooth and dry, amber-coloured, delicious. And tiny, delicate calamari from just across the water in Kos, served with potatoes sprinkled with herbs, and a salad with a huge slab of feta. I realise the music is now live, and when I go to watch the group of young people sitting around playing for fun, I’m invited to join them. It’s another late night.


One of the brothers is serving breakfast in the morning, but keeps going down to the water to check his fishing line, and brings in little fish to feed the cats. 

At the archaeological museum, I must have dozed off, sleep-deprived, listening to the long list of things that were prohibited – photos, bags, copying down more than a few words of display text – and thus missed or not understood the prohibition against sketching. So my enjoyment of the museum is spoiled - not only can't I study the pieces by drawing them for my diary, but I'm condescendingly reprimanded. But in the end they have done me a favour, as leaving swiftly I head instead for a couple of hours at Koklaki beach, swimming and dozing and examining strange rock formations.


By 2 pm when I drag myself away, equilibrium restored, the ferry ticket offices are closed, except for one, where I explain to the friendly lady that I’d sort of been hoping I’d left it too late and would have to stay. ‘I shouldn't have sold you a ticket, eh?!’ she joked. Sitting with a cool glass of soumada at the port café, I glimpse my ferry just about to take off without me, and make a mad dash to catch it before it pulls away. 



But there's no need to worry - after all, Nisyros is less than an hour from Tilos by boats that run all year round. 

As we approach Tilos, my new friends Andreas and Luisa ask me to tell them about it, and as I point out parts of the island (that road leads up to the monastery, and there is Plaka beach, with its peacocks, and that's Skafi beach, near my house, and up there is an abandoned village, with an amazing music bar...) I realise I'm excited and extremely lucky to be going home to Tilos.

And more new friends welcome me back to Tilos at the kantina, asking me to sign my book! Thank you to our Swedish and Scottish friends, and to Deborah and Maggie and Eileen... Those who fell in the honey with Tilos a long time ago, and those just beginning.

My discovery of Nisyros - and Tilos - is 'to be continued'.

*

Ellie's natural, handmade soaps and other products are at: http://lavandulasherbs.blogspot.gr/







Friday, 13 September 2013

Mixing Travel and History: Two Books


Countless times I’ve wandered past the casino in Rhodes and the Turkish cemetery, without knowing Lawrence Durrell’s associations with what was once the British administrative headquarters after liberation of the island in 1945. Nor did I know that Rhodes new town was created when the Turks expelled the Greeks from the Palia Poli in 1309 – no wonder the locals prefer the new town.

RHODES: A NOTEBOOK is the latest in a series by Richard Clark, and is a real pleasure to dip into. Combining a travelogue on a sailing trip around Rhodes and nearby Symi with general essays on Greek history, language and culture, it provides rich insights into the well known and lesser known places of the island.

There’s a poignant note about the Valley of Butterflies, or Petaloudes, and he’s made me determined to get to Monolithos this winter. I think travellers en route to or from Tilos might find overnight stops in Rhodes less painful with this book in hand (or loaded onto the e-reader).


If you’ve read CRETE: A NOTEBOOK, then you’ll find some material is repeated here (understandably, as the book is aimed at different readers) but for someone like me with a mind like a sieve, it provided useful reminders. And I gleaned a lot from the notes on Greek culture. I loved this, which I hope he won’t mind my quoting here, showing that Greek rejection of authority applies even when riding a motorbike:

‘It is interesting that the main reason for not wearing crash helmets is not the heat or even a casual disregard for road safety… The real reason is that it is compulsory to wear one.’


Conclusion: well worth a read – and don’t miss the Crete book too. Clark lived in Crete and has travelled all over the island, and the book made me long to see some of the places he describes so lovingly.


When forced to leave Kosovo, the place she had fallen in love with, and return to England, Elizabeth Gowing became more than a little obsessed with the figure of Edith Durham, an Edwardian writer who had travelled in the region a hundred years earlier. Finding parallels with her own story in Edith's, Elizabeth found herself on the trail of this fascinating and brave character who needed only her tam o'shanter to shield her from the sun on treks through Albania's Accursed Mountains.

Elizabeth's journey to get to know her Edwardian counterpart is a journey through museum archives and letters, hunting for clues in libraries and catalogues, as much as through places ('Turn right at Mozart,' says a curator, and she wonders if this is how directions are given in heaven). It is woven with an extraordinary level of fine detail, like the embroidery on a pair of traditional Albanian slippers or a piece of silver filigree, craftmanship that she marvels at along the way.

The result is a quirky mix of biography, travel and history; it begins gleeful and humorous, and as she wanders the inner chambers of the gloriously bizarre Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, places where you might find an Inuit suit made of seal intestine, looking for a wolf’s tooth amulet, I read slowly, savouring every moment. As she gets deeper into the topic it starts to have a whiff of academic obsession, circling back on passages she remembered before, meandering through notes and asides on the workings of modern Kosovo, I wondered whether Elizabeth was lost forever in her obsession. Thankfully, she comes to the end of her search with an understanding of her own way forward.