Friday, 13 May 2016

A Walking Holiday in Embona, Rhodes

In early April, I had three days in the traditional mountain village of Embona. The weather was warm but not too warm. The flowers were all out and spring was at its best, and yet there was no-one around. I would spend my afternoons walking around Embona.

 

Attaviros

Attaviros (or Atavyros) mountain is 1,215 metres, the highest peak on the island of Rhodes. I didn’t have a map, but in the Attaviros Hotel they said it was easy to find the way up. I’d scouted out the first section the evening before, up a semi-paved road that twisted and turned amid tiny vineyards and wildflowers to a gate. I noticed quite a few shells from hunting rifles; in Tilos there’s a hunting ban, but here the hunting of hare and partridge and smaller birds was allowed in certain seasons. 
Having found a blog with directions, I set out around midday with cheese and halva, oranges and tomatoes and paximadia in my backpack. I followed the path over an iron ladder straddling a fence. From there, it was pretty much a question of following a shingle gulley with a steep gradient up the mountain.

Stopping for a rest in the shade of a tree, I looked down to see red earth and vineyards; then a patchwork of pine forest and olive groves from Embona to Kritinias Castle on the coast, then all the little islands towards Halki; there was a clear view of the port at Halki and the road winding up from it; and I could make out the steep triangle at the south end of Tilos, and beyond that Profitis Ilias.
Higher, the path began to level out and the terrain became lush with grass and flowers. Sitting on a rock ledge, I could still hear the kids playing in the school in Embona; but could also hear so many birds, see hawks gliding overhead and goats scrambling over the rocks. The view was panoramic along the northwest coast of the island.


Further on and up, the smooth, flat tops of the mountain peak were green, pasture-like, dotted with trees; then they fell away in layers of rock. Embona disappeared from sight and sound, too far below the steep mountainside. It was still and peaceful, just birds and buzzing insects. It had taken two and a half hours, with lots of stops to enjoy the views. I walked around the empty crown of the mountain to find the massively impressive ancient site of the temple of Zeus. Most beautiful of all to me was the view to the south – the mountain falling away into smooth ridges and a river valley, green and grey with grass and rocks and the dark green of the trees, and the musical clattering of the sheep’s bells.


  


A lovely footpath descends gently from here to Ayios Isidoros. I followed it for a little while, then joined the dirt track road that wound down the mountain – a long way home, but easier than the near-vertical shingle gully and it took me towards the coast as the sun was descending.  


When a truck drove past I realised I’d seen no-one else the whole afternoon on the mountain. Another truck drew up as I was leaving the pine forest and an old farmer offered me a lift; I was completely exhausted but it was only another five or so kilometres back to Embona, and a lovely evening, so I chose to continue walking, making a final stop at the little chapel of Ayios Georgios Sarantari and feeling very happy about my adventure. 


Kameiros Skala, Kopria Beach and Kritinia

I passed a very old woman doing her washing by hand in a sink in her front yard around 7am. I wandered around the village looking for a place with internet, and ended up at Anamnisis café, which looked fancy from outside but was nicely full of middle-aged men loudly discussing the price they get for their wine.
Picking up a traditional spinach pie from the bakery, I looked up at the steep, rocky mountain which bellied out into an inverse amphitheatre of rich soil divided into fields above the village. The people of Embona and Kritinias came originally from Kriti, or Crete. Maybe that’s why they picked a place with the pastures on the high mountain, fertile highland plains.
‘Is it possible to walk to the sea?’ I asked at the hotel. They said yes, it wasn’t far, directing me to start from between the sports ground and the cemetery. From there, beyond some ambiguous signage, a well-marked, wide track meandered gently down through pine forest. It was a little dull but easy walking for an hour or so, luckily as my legs were still a little weary from the day before. At what I reckoned must be the dam, the fragma, though it was dry and looked like a quarry, were piles of thin branches with string attached - trimmed vines, I realised. The path met the road and I turned left past farms along the coast.

Around 2pm, less than an hour and a half from Embona, I reached Kameiros Skala where vehicles were making their way to the Nissos Halki ferry, which sat beside small wooden fishing boats. The water in the tiny, pretty harbour was blue and clear, and I thought how nice it would be another time to travel from Tilos to Halki and then on to here, and up to Embona. A triangular carving in the cliff and a few cave-like hollows I recognised as the ancient Lycian tomb, similar to the one in Kastellorizo.
There was a bus back to Embona leaving soon but I hadn’t yet had a swim. Just around the headland I was back at pretty Kopria beach, busier today. After an invigorating dip and a refreshing nap on the sand, I headed out, weighing the pros and cons of taking the same route back or risking a longer but more interesting alternative. Naturally opting for the latter – because one thing I’ve realised about myself is that I’d rather get a few scratches and scrapes than be bored – I wandered on and off the road for a little while, enjoying the late afternoon spring sunshine, a glorious view of the medieval Kritinias Castle perched on a rock overlooking the sea, the fields around all lush and green and lovely.



At the entrance to the village of Kritinias, a sign said Embona was 8km straight ahead. There wasn’t any particular reason to detour to Kritinias, but it seemed a shame to pass right by without taking a look. Maybe I’d get a frappe for energy. A dog lounged in front of a mechanic’s garage. Past a run-down square with an abandoned house was a café where a group of men and one woman were sitting. I shouted out ‘Yeia sas!’ and people waved and invited me over.
Well, I can’t now remember all the things we talked about but suffice it to say, I was welcomed like a long-lost friend. I was given tiny local calamari and fried cod, tomato with sea salt and bread, and a couple of glasses of home-made wine. We laughed and chatted. The lady who ran the taverna (‘Spyros’) gave me a swift lesson in preparing thick stalks of caper leaves for salad, which she first soaked in hot water from the tap overnight, pressing the capers down with a bowl to keep them underwater, before changing to cold water for another day, and then adding one dessertspoon of salt per litre jar of water for preserving them, with a touch of vinegar. Someone gave me a slice of lemon to eat, dipped in sea salt – wonderful.



The people were proud of their village and I thought again how sociable this country is and how much people care about the good things in life – meeting people and eating good, natural, local food.
When eventually I forced myself back onto the road, all payment was refused. And about a kilometre up the road, a truck pulled up and there was one of the guys, offering to drive me to Embona.

Around Embona

It was funny to be back in Embona seeing people I recognised from my visit a few years before, people I’d written about. I wished I had a copy of An Octopus in my Ouzo to show them. The next morning at the café, the owner – a big man wearing the biggest T-shirt I’d ever seen – asked about my work, and we discussed his interest in collecting books about beekeeping and honey in different regions. Here in Embona, I think he said, each bee can produce 25 kilos of honey per season.
The friendly old ladies in the tiny house next to the hotel were always busy; this morning the white-haired lady was cleaning and had sat some just-washed teddy bears on the front wall to dry, which looked rather surreal. Swallows had built a nest above the light fixture at the electrical goods shop, and flocks of swallows or martens swooped at the edges of the village. Lovely light spilled over the mountain as morning progressed. The group of cyclists staying at the hotel were getting ready to set out.
I was due in Lindos the next day and although some mad idea of walking and hitch-hiking there had entered my head, I had work to do in the morning that prevented such an epic adventure; I’d wander around the side of Attavyros instead. I enjoyed taking photos of all the different flowers, wandering along tracks through the fields; bees were going crazy on the sage flowers. 

  
I stopped at St Raphael and Nicholas church, whose unpromising exterior gave away nothing of the beautiful icon paintings within. Then, having reached a dead end at a fence, I cut through an overgrown area and – whoops – twisted my ankle a little. It didn’t seem serious but it did swell a little and there was a jarring pain when I put weight on it in a certain way. A sign to take it easy. I made my way carefully down to the road.
Two men by a truck shouted hello and we exchanged a few friendly words. ‘These are our sheep,’ one man said, indicating a flock under the trees. ‘Come back at Easter and we’ll make a barbecue!’
I loved watching the mountain change colour and shape as I walked along the road around it, passed only very occasionally by a pickup truck. I loved the smell of pine trees in the hot sun, and the clattering bells and complaining noises of the sheep as they noisily gathered in the valley below. I sometimes saw an eagle above, or hoopoes, and some big lizards. I’d come back another time and walk to Ayios Isidoros from Embona, maybe then all the way down the spine of south Rhodes to Prasonisi… For now, I turned back, resting for a while in the shade of a pergola over a spring, or sitting on a bed of pine needles, listening to the sound of the wind whooshing wave-like through the forest, building up and then dying off.
I reached the truck I’d passed earlier, but no sign of the two men, even though the radio was playing music. Then I looked into the olive grove and saw them sitting in the shade at a little table laid out with food and glasses. They beckoned me over, and thus I got to know Philippas and Christotomos. I sat on the earth by the roots of a tree and they poured me souma and gave me cheese and cucumber and salt to go with it, and I laughed at the wonderful scene.


‘They can’t take this away from us – not even Merkel!’
Philippas, the owner of the sheep and the olive trees, had left Embona to work with metals in Belgium and Austria; when he left around 1967, Embona had no electricity so he was amazed to see electric lights – ‘Not just in the house, but on the road!’ And he’d never seen a train before. But eventually he returned to Greece, for the good life, where you sit in an olive grove in the sunshine and wait for friends to stop by. At first he’d got a few sheep just to graze and keep the fields clear of grass, but when the flock grew he started to keep them professionally. He was zealous about getting a fair price for Embona lamb, and had even tried to set up a co-operative at one point. He was against the supermarkets taking too much, when it’s the farmers who have to be up on the mountain in the middle of the night if it’s freezing cold or it there are hunting dogs about that can kill baby lambs.
Christotomos, or Tommy, wore a brown tracksuit and traffic-cop shades. He was convinced I must smoke drugs because I seemed so happy. ‘A little wine’s enough for me,’ I said. ‘Ah, as the song goes: Wine, moonlight, and my boy…’ Eventually he got a call and had to leave, and we heard him say, ‘I’m busy, working…’
I stayed with Philippas and asked him if it was true that the EU had paid farmers to pull up their vines. He confirmed they had, four years ago, and that it seemed a pretty dirty thing to do during the economic crisis. People should have known there was something rotten about being offered money to do nothing, but many of the farmers were uneducated and simply took the offer. But a few families, whose children had been to school until the age of eighteen, had refused and were now doing well.
There was work for local people at the big hotels, he said; but he knew a couple who had worked all season and neither of them got paid. It reminded me of someone I know who worked for six months on new construction in Rhodes and didn’t get paid either. Times were tough; last time Philippas went to Rhodes town, he saw a friend who invited him for coffee at his home (instead of a café) and then sent his wife next door to borrow the coffee. In some parts of Rhodes, the local councils give out basic provisions to the poor families. At least in a village, one person might have potatoes that they’ll give to another in return for some goat, and so on.
Philippas’ grandson came by, and then another sheep farmer who wanted to discuss the prices for the animals they’d slaughter for Easter. Ilias had a village accent and lived up on the mountain and kept a pig and chickens too, and picked at food using the tip of his pen-knife, which he then stuck in the wooden table when he left for a while to feed his animals.
After sitting for a couple of hours, I continued back to Embona, thinking I should buy some honey from the café-owner. As I approached Anamnisis, the café seemed closed and he was occupied with unloading something from his truck, so I walked by. Then a girl ran after me and said her father was asking me to come and taste the honey.


They’d collected honeycomb and gave me pieces to eat. Stavros showed me and his daughter the eggs; the queen can lay 2,500 a day in spring when there’s a lot of food, he said. We tasted the pale honey, made from a variety of spring flowers, and the powdery orange yiri. I asked about the darker pine honey and learned that the white foamy substance I’d been seeing on the bark of pine trees is a kind of bacterium, and the droplets hanging from it a type of honey. I’d learned so much today. I bought a kilo of mixed pine and thyme honey, strong and fragrant, which Stavros gave me for a very good price, instructing his daughter to pack a box of honeycomb for me as a gift.
At a little café next to the petrol station, I enjoyed the last of the early evening light and received an email from Karen at Exclusively Lindos about lunch the next day. I would be heading to a different part of Rhodes in the morning. I paid a euro fifty for my coffee which seemed a little expensive compared to the other café and I laughed, thinking of the guys in the field earlier saying when they went to Rhodes town and were charged three euros for a coffee, it stuck in the throat, wouldn’t go down… 
For days I’d just had picnic meals but I wanted to try Maroullakis Taverna in the middle of the village; it had seemed fairly busy every night, and I was feeling a little down about leaving Embona. I ate very fresh salad with creamy feta and good bread, and a mix of meat and cheese fritters, with some semi-sweet red wine; locals tend to prefer it to dry, and it’s growing on me. The tyrokeftedes or cheese fritters were like spongy little doughnuts with melted cheese inside, and the others were very meaty and full of herbs – delicious. Suddenly a man with a wild Afro-style hairdo and a denim shirt half-open banged on the door and made a grand entrance, carrying a bag of broad beans, which he distributed to all the tables before sitting down to tell a story about catching an eel. When I went to pay, I got into conversation with the proprietress, Irini (the restaurant had been in her family for 95 years), who gave me cakes for my bus journey in the morning.
The sun was coming up through cloud over Embona as I made my way north by bus along the coast. By midday, I'd be in Lindos and had another adventure to come.

Attaviros Hotel, Embona, Rhodes: 0030 22460 41235, 0030 694 262 9556
Proprietress: Vassilia Antonaki 
www.ataviroshotel.gr

Maroullakis Traditional Taverna, Embona, Rhodes: 0030 22460 41215, 0030 694 820 1220

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Rhodes Road Trip

At the start of April, after two days at Nikos Takis Hotel in the Old Town, Yiannis and I had another two days to drive around the biggest island in the Dodecanese – from Rhodes town at the northeast tip, down the coast road to Prasonisi at the southwest end, and back again around the other side with a detour into the mountains.

Rhodes to Tsambika
Twenty minutes’ drive south on the Lindos Road is Tsambika monastery perched high on a hill, where women would traditionally climb barefoot to the little church to pray to the Virgin Mary for a child – and then name the resulting child Tsampikos or Tsampika. It’s better known these days for the long sandy beach below, which gets packed in summer. But we turned off the main road to find it utterly quiet, just goats and cats, one shop just opening. It was a sunny but hazy, warm morning and we had swam far out in the pale blue water, looking up at the cliffs and down at the ripples of sand on the sea bed. 

Lindos to Prasonisi
We stopped to look out over the white village of Lindos with its acropolis and castle on a hill still green from winter. I’d be coming back here on my own later for a few days, so we continued. The road was quiet. We sped past Lardos with its huge hotel complexes (not my favourite thing) and then a stretch of coast with a mish-mash of architectural villas, and down into South Rhodes, an area I had never explored. The landscape began to show a more rugged beauty – windswept fields, wild beach – and became hillier approaching Kattavia, pretty with green fields and endless spring flowers. We crested the final hill.
Prasonisi is a tiny island attached to the southern tip of Rhodes by an hourglass-shaped stretch of sand. It’s a popular windsurfing site in summer, a ‘Natura Park’ conservation area with just a tight little enclave of rooms and restaurants. Strange, then, that as we drove down towards it we passed the construction site for a new power station for Rhodes. Poor Prasonisi. Those who protested building it here with their ‘Save Prasonisi’ campaign had placed a sign down on the sand, but construction seemed well under way.
The beach didn’t look at its best either. Beaches bear the brunt of our pollution of the seas with plastic and local residents work hard to clear away the rubbish that washes up during winter so that beaches look beautiful in summer. A young British couple who arrived in a rental car looked shocked by the sobering state of the sand, and a couple of weeks later I’d meet an Australian couple who reacted the same way. What a gateway to Prasonisi.
Across the sand the island itself, however, with its gentle hills sweeping down to the sea somehow retained an untouched beauty, a feeling of being removed from that world, simple and unadulterated. People had made little piles of rocks among the scrub and flowers and there were lovely views down to the sand spit and blue bay. And looking back to a beautiful, unspoiled headland with interesting rock formations, I caught a glimpse of the very ancient site of Vroulia.
We walked back to it and as we soon discovered, here up the slope of the headland rose a series of thirty buildings leading to an open-air sanctuary with two altars, a meeting place and a fortress with perhaps an offering table. It’s said to date back to around 700 BC, one of the most important early settlements. I have to admit, in case you visit, that the entrance was fenced off in early April and I had to follow a path around the cliffs to see it (Yiannis waited in the car); but for someone with a passion for ancient sites, it was exciting to see this site I’d never heard of before, in a place that felt to me very powerful, looking out to the tip of the island.


We drove back to sleepy Kattavia, a small village with an enormous church built by those who left to start new lives in America. It was now well into the afternoon. Penelope’s restaurant was open, run by a friendly Russian woman who said they were open all year to cater to the people working on the power station. Yiannis asked her how the people of Kattavia felt.
‘Better they build it! New hotels are opening all the time. In the summer we need seven fridges just for this place. Imagine how much power the big hotels need!’
We ate excellent stuffed cabbage leaves, horta and moussaka, then drove north.
 Kattavia to Lahania
From the coast we turned inland and up into the hills of south Rhodes, where once-cultivated terraces were now thickly blanketed with pine trees and green bushes and liberally sprinkled with white and pink flowers. Suddenly a wonderful view of the long ridges of Karpathos rose from the mist over a flat-calm sea.
The road long, winding, empty road led all the way to Mesanagros. A lean dog approached and dropped a stone at my feet. When I walked on, the dog picked up the stone in his mouth and dropped it by my feet again, looking up expectantly. Yiannis picked up the stone and threw it; the dog flew to life, retrieved the stone and lolloped back to drop the stone at Yianni’s feet. And thus we made our way around Mesanagros.



It was a pretty village with a lively group of local men in the kafeneion – but no rooms to rent. They told us we’d find rooms in Lahania and so we continued through green hills dotted with chapels.
There are two places to stay in Lahania; one is in the rooms and restaurant run by the priest and his wife Chrissy, where we stayed. The Greek Orthodox Church says that a man can’t become a priest and then marry; but a married man can become a priest. The priest of Lahania had already had a career as a barber in Baltimore and was married with children and a business when he returned home and became a man of the cloth. He swiftly showed me photos of himself in Dutch and German guidebooks.
Lahania (which means ‘the cabbage plant’) was actually a rather handsome and once prosperous village with grand stone doorways to homes hundreds of years old. At dusk, we stood on the balcony of the taverna Platanos by the church, listening to many birds singing in the lush valley below where a path led towards the sea. Swallows flew overhead. Then we returned to the priest’s place for a drink.
Once the village had 800 people who worked the fields all around, with the port of Plimmiri below; by the 1960s it was busy with foreign tourists; now many of the well-restored homes were owned by foreigners. The local folks of Lahania still grew some watermelons and potatoes and wheat, and grapes for wine, and thanks to a dam, they had water. And they were making money from the power station people.
‘We need it, because of the new hotels being built in Plimmiri, for thousands of tourists. It won’t pollute – they know how to do these things these days.’
Chrissy was frying potatoes for the family and gave us a plate to go with the wine. Their little grandson trundled by on a toy truck full of potatoes, and the priest tried to teach him to sell us the potatoes. But the boy refused, close to tears. ‘They’re mine!’
After a night of being woken by the heating unit cranking into life I got up early, scratching my insect bites. Tiptoeing across dirty bits of carpet, I found no hot water the bathroom, a used bar of soap and a clump of hair on the shower cord. I skipped the shower and went straight to the breakfast of a frothless Greek coffee slopped into the saucer, with processed bread, margarine and cheese slices served by Chrissy who, like the priest, had a few little smears and spills on her clothes. We got on the road, laughing about our memorable night in Lahania.
Monolithos to Ayios Isidoros
We drove all the way back through the hills again, passing the dirt track that follows the spine of the island. Back down on the coast were flat wheat fields edged by stark rocks.
On the way from Apolakkia to Monolithos there was a long limestone ridge above a pine-filled valley leading down to blue sea. Monolithos bristled with signs (‘Best View!’) to lure in daytrippers and I was tired, so we drove past the castle built by the Knights of St John on a steep rock poking up from the hillside and then parked and walked down a steep, shingle path to beautiful Ayios Georgios beach, where we swam in clear water then fell asleep on the sand.  

 
Refreshed, we drove on, up to the slopes of Attaviros, the island’s highest mountain.
Since my first visit to the village of Ayios Isidoros a few years back, I’ve wanted to return and we hoped to stay the night; alas, the community guest house was being fixed up for Easter so we couldn’t. But we stopped for lunch at To Aletro, where swallows were building a nest in the wooden beams over the terrace.
I looked out over the hills we’d driven up from. One day, I thought, a walk from Kattavia to here… The owner of To Aletro pointed out a tiny pointed hill far in the distance: Zambika. It felt like ages since we’d stopped there. He said you could walk from here to the top of Attaviros, or down to Profilia.
We ate a good Greek salad, potatoes from the oven, and delicious chickpea fritters (revithokeftedes). The village’s own wine from last year was already finished, he said. ‘The European Union gave farmers here money to pull up their vines, and the small farmers who kept their vines but don’t have their own winery and sell the grapes to CAIR, wait two years for their money.’



Ayios Isidoros to Embona
It’s not far around the mountain to Embona, where we would stay for the night; but we took a long route through the rolling green foothills and past the dammed river, the fragma that’s so important for the water supply.
At one stop, I found the antler of a deer, a couple of feet long: the dama-dama or fallow deer of Rhodes live around here. At another, while Yiannis took photos from a river, I walked up a hill full of flowers – a dozen or more different types. We passed through Apollona, surprisingly lively and with seemingly nothing for tourists, just a little village surrounded by farmland. Thankfully there are still places that way in this middle part of the island.






Arriving at Embona, the wine-making centre of Rhodes, we settled into the lovely Attaviros Hotel where I’ve stayed before, and went up the road to Merkouris winery where Anastasia gave us some to taste; they avoid using chemicals so it’s close to organic. Yiannis was going back to Tilos the next day with the car, so I bought ten litres of white athiri and ten of red amorgiano – it works out much cheaper by the box – plus a litre of stronger semi-dry for something different. It felt good to be back in Embona. We wandered around the mountain village; it has over a thousand inhabitants but since it was Sunday evening most restaurants were closing early, so we went for pizza.
I had a few days before I was expected in Lindos, and hadn’t yet decided where to go. I’d been thinking of going to Karpathos, but decided to wait until I had more time (and now I’m glad I did – stay tuned!). I’d thought of going back to Pserimos and Petroula said her father would take me across from Kalymnos in his boat, but if the weather turned windy I could get stuck there. Why not stay in Embona? Yet I didn’t want to miss the chance to finish our loop of the island.  

Embona to Rhodes
And so the next morning we descended the mountain on a winding road, passed the medieval castle at Kritinias and just before Kameiros Skala we turned down to Kopria beach. It’s an unpromising name – kopria is manure – but the tiny cove of white pebbles was sublime. The best yet. I’d drive with Yianni to Rhodes town, then take the bus back to Embona in the afternoon for a few days of writing and walking…