It’s bright and early in the village of Aperi, and the cafes on either side of the bridge are closed. One has been closed for a while and is looking for a new owner. Another should be open soon, says a man who’s taking a break from painting a wall to talk to a handful of men outside the pharmacy. He gives me a koulouri biscuit and says I can keep them company while I wait. The other men say that then he’ll never finish painting the wall.
Not wanting to interrupt the redecoration of the Aperi bridge, I ask if the spring water is drinkable and it is, so I fill my bottle, return to the road and start walking. When I made my way up from Ahata beach it was still cool, but it’s warming up. Minas, who has the hotel Anemos which I’ve booked into for three days, has arranged for a friend of his to pick me up on their way to Olympos around 9 a.m. There are few cars, considering this is the main road linking the south of the island with the north; it’s beautiful and peaceful but the hill is tough. I’ve put my heavy backpack down and rested a couple of times when a flatbed truck stops to offer me a lift as far as Spoa.An old man, who introduces himself as Vasilis, gets out and removes a recently slaughtered lamb or goat from the front; it’s just before Easter and several goat-shaped packages were being loaded on the ferry when I left Tilos. He puts it in the back with my backpack beside a pile of leafy branches. Mere minutes after we set off, we crest the hill I’ve been struggling up for the best part of an hour and start gently descending, and I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t keep walking to the top, especially since I’ve now missed the chance for some stupendous photos of a sheer rock face dotted with pine trees falling away to deep blue sea and a crescent of brilliant white beach. Vasilis tells me it’s Apella.
We chat and he tells me a lot of Karpathos people live in America and Australia and return every summer. As we speed along a winding cliff-edge road with stunning views, he asks if I mind if he stops to feed his animals and something else which I don’t understand. I say of course I don’t mind, hoping it’s something innocuous. We turn off up a dirt track into forest. He tells me to stay in the car as he pulls the branches off the back of the truck and feeds them to the goats, then disappears. When he returns, he puts a covered plastic tub by my feet, and I realise he was milking the goats.
We stop briefly again while he checks his beehives and a few minutes later we’re arriving in Spoa, halfway to Olympos, where he insists on treating me to a coffee at the kafeneio. We sit at a table on the road with a tree for shade, and I notice the name above the door is Koumpanios; it turns out Michalis, the owner, is related to the Koumpanios family in Tilos, the people whose house I rented.
A white van is parked outside selling dairy products from the tyrokomeio or cheese factory of Kasos, the neighbouring island. The owner and his daughter sit with us for a while and I buy half a kilo of strong, creamy graviera. They also have butter, dhrilla (a type of cream) and sitaka, a rich, buttery cream which is cooked for over twenty hours – like staka in Crete, but made without flour.
I update Minas at the hotel with my whereabouts so that the friend who’s offered a ride can look out for me; apparently they’ve been delayed. Then I set off along the road again, around the edge of a steep mountain. The sky’s covered with thin cloud but there are lovely views of peaks and old terraces and the sea below. Cars pass from time to time and eventually I give up on the arranged ride and accept one from a very friendly family in a truck. It already looks packed to the gills but Poppy, whose father is driving, insists I will fit and moves around some stuff, and I squeeze into the back seat with her two young girls and a little black dog.
Minas is waiting for me at Sophia’s café by the car park; he invites me to sit down with his cousin for a few minutes and then leads me through the village to my room. There’s a strong wind blowing and an amazing view out over the sea. I check if the water is OK to drink. ‘More than OK.’ The bed is a soufa, a mattress on a raised platform made of carved wood, with cupboard space underneath. It’s lovely.
The last thing I want to do is work, but a project has taken much longer than expected and I have to get online; I take my laptop and go to find a suitable café. A few minutes’ walk along a little alley I first meet Archontoula. She’s a tiny woman, seventy-something, wearing a thick black long-sleeved dress with a colourful apron and a black scarf tied around her head. She’s sitting outside a traditional kafeneion with framed photographs taking up most of the wall space, and simple tables arranged around the sides of the room. After we’ve chatted for a while she invites me in. I apologise and say I need to find somewhere with internet.
‘Den sou leo psemmata,’ she says firmly in a voice built for shouting more than whispering. ‘I won’t lie to you. I don’t have internet.’ I’m not at all surprised and I’m embarrassed that I need it. ‘But you might be able to pick up the community internet from the church. Go inside and try if you like.’
So I sit down in the corner and it works. I order a beer and it comes with a plate of dark green olives, some good bread and a plate of mousmoula, a soft orange-coloured fruit. Archontoula sits in the corner with a bag of wool threads in different colours which she plaits into a string. When I ask her about it, she gives me a necklace with a tassel at the end. You can keep your keys on it, she says. Her headscarf keeps slipping down and she continually has to re-tie it around the top of her head.
A man arrives, tall, hefty and chestnut-skinned with a luxuriant moustache and twinkling eyes. Archontoula introduces her husband, Philippas. She tells him who I am and that she didn’t call me in, I came in of my own accord; it seems an important point. The kafeneio is called Kriti, or Crete, because Philippas’ father lived in Crete for a long time; also because Venizelos was from there.
Eventually I ask if there’s anything more to eat and she gives me bean soup and a tomato and cucumber salad with bread and olives. The price is minimal, and when I protest she says it’s ‘because we got to know one another’. She says I should stay for Easter if I can. I’ll have to look into the boats and connections tomorrow. Her husband says they’ll find me a ride to Pigadia whenever I need to leave.
This is the start of the story of how I became lost in Olympos.
A Greek couple arrive, visitors from Patras, and Archontoula gives them a shot of raki. She offers one to me too.
‘I can’t,’ I say, ‘I’m working.’
‘Just one!’ she says.
When I leave around lunchtime, it’s suddenly so windy I can hardly stand up. The supermarket is closed, but someone tells me the lady who owns it has just gone across the street to the pharmacy, so I wait and sure enough she opens up again, so I buy coffee and a notebook and toothpaste. As I leave, a man’s hat blows off and we laugh. He asks me if I arrived on foot yesterday – he saw me as he went past. He says if I want a ride I need to do ‘auto-stop’, otherwise people think you prefer to walk.
That afternoon, sitting in Parthenon café surrounded by more old photographs, I finish the piece of work that has gone on and on. Then I go for a walk. I’m sure it’s partly relief at finishing that project, but I’m practically in tears as I walk around Olympos village, out to its edges on the mountains and down into the valley.
The physical setting, with the sheer mountains rising up, and the way houses and windmills cling to the slopes and ridges. Can there be a more beautiful place? Sometimes it reminds me of Santorini (but before it was discovered); sometimes I feel I’m in the Himalayas or Machu Picchu. Everywhere I turn, there is something surprising and spectacular. The colours of the stone itself – green, brown and white – and the houses – white, blue, yellow – and the way they are decorated. The terraces with olives and figs and vines; from across the valley I looked back to the village and saw a boy leading a goat by a rope; a woman in black picking fruit from a tree; another sitting in a field with her goats. And I love the beautiful dress of the women, black with bright embroidery, black headscarves and high leather boots; and the way they smile. The angles of the steps, the sun setting into the sea.
Arriving back in the room I glimpse myself in the mirror looking rosy-cheeked and windswept. I crawl into my very comfy bed on its raised wooden platform with a window out to the sea, and fall happily asleep for a while. When I wake, relaxed, it’s evening and I hear the church bell close by. The big church is lit up for the service, and inside are old frescoes and gilded wood and huge, brilliant chandeliers, the sound of chanting and the smell of incense.
Archontoula heats up artichokes and potatoes for me, the food I watched her prepare in the morning; with herbs and olive oil in tomato sauce with that hard, white, salty local cheese, and olives and bread and a glass of cold water. There’s no fuss; it’s all just done simply and beautifully.