‘Karpathos! Olympos! Oreia! Den echo paei, alla…’I was hearing this a lot. Everyone said Olympos was beautiful but no-one had been.
It required quite a commitment to get there from Tilos. Although I could see Karpathos on the horizon from Megalo Horio, it meant juggling ferry or flight connections, stopover days in Rhodes or Halki. The port of Diafani in north Karpathos, which serviced Olympos, was damaged so I’d have to disembark in the southern port of Pigadia and make my way north by land. Buses only ran twice a week; it was too early for excursion boats; taxis cost an arm and a leg for the hour-long drive. Renting a car seemed an expensive solution. Maybe I wouldn’t make it to Olympos after all…Yet the film and still images I’d seen of the remote village high on a mountain looked stunning.
I decided to go the week before Easter when I had a pet-sitter for Lisa who was happy to stay as long as I needed. Olympos was said to have retained many traditions and I wanted to arrive before the Easter celebrations to witness everyday life.
‘Olympos,’ said one shop owner during my weekend stopover in Rhodes, where I interspersed work with shopping and seeing friends. ‘I have clients from there – interesting customers.’
‘What d’you mean?’ I asked, laughing.
‘You’ll see. Come back and tell me when you return.’
That evening I went to Mikro Kafe on Pythagoras, down the road from Kristina’s Rooms where I had a lovely place for a couple of nights.Dimitris, with sharp-cut hair and a tailored shirt, came from the north of Greece and studied old coins but had started working as a bartender since he wasn’t making money selling antiques. Yiannis bought me a drink and they both confirmed that Olympos was the place to go in Karpathos. Manolis then joined us and said they made leather boots in Olympos and the women were in charge of the money. I said I might stay there for Easter, or might not.
‘Karpatho!’ said Dimitris, shaking his head. ‘Fai-nono, fai-nono.’ Food-sleep, food-sleep. Nothing else. ‘You’ll come back fat!’ He stuck out his elbows to suggest how fat I was going to get with all that food and sleep. Then he made me a white rose out of a napkin, but Yiannis screwed it up jealously, so Dimitris bought me a real one and Yiannis bought some more drinks while Dimitris cooked me a feast of sausages and eggs. ‘You must come back to Rhodes for Easter. An den ertheis, tha ginei hamos.’And so around 2 a.m. in late April, full of good food and wine and with a big smile on my face from the company of all the new friends I’d made in Rhodes, I went back to Kristina’s Rooms for my backpack, then walked past Mikro Kafe and waved, continued past crowds standing outside bars where music was playing. I thought how happy I was to have come to live in Greece. What a life. I walked down to the port to wait for the ferry, the Preveli.
It’s a bright, sunny morning and on the big old ship Preveli, sleeping bodies are randomly laid out like the aftermath of an accident. The engine thrums as we pass down the coast of a magical-looking island. Karpathos, from here, seems to be one long and impenetrable mountain ridge. It looks like something created for a film like Lord of the Rings using special effects.Although most Greek people I’ve spoken to about northern Karpathos say ‘Ah, it’s beautiful! But I’ve never been’ – as if it’s some distant realm instead of just a hop from Rhodes – my English friend and my Australian friend brought me back to earth by saying, ‘Ah, I wonder if it’s as good as it was when I was there twenty years ago?’ Marc Dubin in the Rough Guide grumbled years ago that it was no longer the place it had been. I wonder how I will find it?
The other foreigners I met on the dock in Rhodes in the middle of the night waiting for the Preveli were continuing to Crete: an intrepid old Scottish couple and a very talkative young Latvian, on his way to work at a resort for the summer, who was sorely disappointed when I said I wasn’t joining him at the bar but going to get a few hours’ kip. When I asked the crew, as I boarded, what time we’d arrive in Karpathos, they looked panicked and said, ‘Depends what time we leave here!’ Crowds were pushing up the gangway as massive trucks drove off. I found a spot for my camping mat (not under the stars but under the stairs) and slept well.There’s no other land in sight, just that long ridge with a road cut into it and the occasional village gleaming white, up high. It seems like a long, straightened out Santorini. As we close in on the south of the island it’s clear how rugged it is. It seems all beaches and mountains: my kind of place.
We enter the harbour.
I previously saw Pigadia when I travelled back from Crete on the Preveli, and was bemused by the density of low-rise apartment buildings; today the bay is a brilliant blue and the water invitingly clear, but this isn’t the Karpathos I came to see. I take a card from a taxi driver in case I need one. I find out the next bus to Olympos isn’t for three days and I realise I haven’t brought my driving licence even if I did change my mind about a car. I’m too happy to be concerned by any of this, though. I’m on an adventure, and the sun is shining.I call Minas, the man I’ve booked a room with in Olympos - surprised to hear an American accent - and explain I’ll just get there when I can, hoping I can shift my booking; he says to check at the supermarket in case anyone is driving up but they shrug and say they don’t know of anyone going up this morning. While there I ask half-jokingly about walking to Olympos over a few days and a woman says that’s definitely not possible. I have a feeling she doesn’t really know, though, she’s just guessing. There’s a bookshop selling maps but it’s Sunday and it’s closed, so I copy a basic map from the wall of a car rental shop into my notebook. Then I set off walking, to see what happens. After a swim off a sandy beach, I head out of town on foot.
I leave my backpack at the gates of a church at the bottom of the village of Aperi. I’ve been hiking uphill for several kilometres in the warm sun. Aperi seems a prosperous modern village surrounded by well-kept chapels and fields, and I ask a woman beside a gleaming new car if there’s a shop. She directs me to the taverna by the bridge, To Gefiri, where an older man makes me a gigantic pita gyros filled with meat and chips and tzatziki and salad; in fact, he makes me two, one of them to take away for later. There are no rooms to rent in the village, so I ask about camping on Ahata beach, and he doesn’t think it will be a problem. Another man comes over to chat, Nikitas, and when I tell him I live in Tilos he says, ‘Say hello to the owner of the Spanos ferry and squeeze his cheek from me.’
I set up the tent which Edward gave me and have a good swim. Then I turn on my phone and send a message to Minas, saying ‘Am camping on Ahata beach for the night.’ He calls in response and I half-expect him to tell me it’s not allowed, but instead he says, ‘It’s a clear night and should be beautiful, lots of stars…’ He’s also arranged for someone to pick me up at the road tomorrow and drive me to Olympos to stay at his hotel.
Shivering, I stuff everything into my backpack and then carry the empty tent, now flapping around and trying to take off, into a more sheltered spot in the lee of the cliffs. It’s less picturesque, next to an old caravan with its windows broken, but the tent feels less vulnerable. I put on as many clothes as I can, snuggle back into my sleeping bag and sleep until morning.