Voyage to Nisyros

The plan to sail to Nisyros – Georges, Mark, the salty dog Lisa and I – was thought up over beers on the rooftop of Mikro Kafe, and decided over a good dinner of tiny shrimp and courgette fritters at Blue Sky.

Georges’ partner Mona, being American, is restricted from travelling to Greece at present, so Frenchman Georges was at a loose end alone on his yacht. Mona gave us her blessing to go to Nisyros without her, as long as we didn’t have too much fun. I’m usually happy travelling by ferry and taking my time, without having to worry about what to do with ropes and sails. But it seemed too good an opportunity to miss – and it’s hard for me to pass up a chance to go to one of my favourite islands.

After a busy morning preparing, we set off just before midday with the sea a glorious clear blue, Georges giving Mark instructions on how to help with the anchor and leaping about to deal with the dinghy and various ropes. It felt exciting to be so close to the sea. A brisk cool wind was against us, so the engine did the work and we crashed through waves in an exhilarating way for a few hours, along the east coast of Tilos and then six miles to the south of Nisyros.

Pachia Ammos beach had a line of tents evenly spaced close to the shore, and shelters were dotted along Liess beach too, Greeks taking advantage of the free camping. We glimpsed Emborio up on the ridge before mooring up in Pali harbour. I’d been there with my dad the year before and seen locals gathering at Aphrodite taverna, so we headed there for lunch and found it already full. We feasted on chick peas baked in the oven in tomato sauce, stuffed vegetables and beetroot and the best chips any of us had ever tasted.

The hillside above Pali looks amazingly green, even in the middle of August when the islands are at their driest. Mike, the owner of Eagle’s Nest Car & Bike Rentals, where we went to find transport, explained it’s because the pumice soaks up moisture in the air.

Mike, a native of Nikia village, is a someone I definitely should have spoken to before writing the Nisyros chapter of my new book. Having lived in the United States for 30 years, he returned in 1999 and not only became involved with the local government but worked hard to protect the island’s eagles. He also raised funds, mostly from Nisyrians who had emigrated to New York, to restore monasteries around the island, the old school and the mayor’s office in Nikia. He raised most of the money to build the chapel high above the caldera where I first started thinking about the abandoned places in these islands, the people who left and those who came back.

At Mike’s suggestion, that’s where we headed first for a panoramic view. I offered to be the driver because I know the roads, though I immediately took us the wrong way, and stalled once or twice while getting used to the gears. As we headed around the rim of the caldera, Georges went quiet when I got distracted by cows browsing from the trees at the roadside, reminding me which one was the brake pedal as we took the precipitous track to the chapel. But it did have an incredible view straight down into the caldera and the craters, and for once there were no tour buses at all.

I’ve never experienced so many vehicles on the roads of Nisyros as I did that afternoon and evening, though – the island was full of Greeks, not least because it was 15 August, the festival of the Panayia, although the nights of dancing have been forbidden this year. We drove to Emborio and stopped at Apiria taverna, where a dozen tables were already set up outside by the ruined buildings for the evening’s celebrations.

We were all wilting in the heat, and in need of a swim, and perhaps Georges needed to forget for a while that we were nonchalantly wandering around an active volcano. We drove down the winding road to the coast again, parked at the entrance to Mandraki, then followed the sea to Hoklaki beach just in time for a sunset swim. Then it was time for an ouzo, the waves sending spray over us as they crashed up on the sea wall.

After a dinner of horta, goat cooked in the oven and veal in lemon sauce, Lisa helping us out to finish it all, we made our way back to the car, full and content. But hark… Music? I told the boys I’d be back in a moment, and followed the sound to a terrace, where I found some people I know sitting around a table, while a man played the laouto and sang. We were invited to join the company – two brothers with their wives and their 90-year-old father, friends celebrating a birthday. We had cake and raki and partisan songs… When we drove back to the boat in the early hours, we stopped to watch a group of young people dancing across the road.

The raki must have been good because when I woke in the cabin in the morning as it got light, my head wasn’t actually hurting. I went up on deck and slept some more in the cool air until people were up and about, then went off for a swim. Maybe the raki was still having an effect, though, because I felt slightly anxious about being followed and surrounded by a group of large bream… I got out swiftly and found some breakfast at the bakery overlooking the sea.

When we went to check that we had parked the rental car intact outside Eagle’s Nest the previous night, Mike was there and as we chatted, he told me more about the Pantelidis Baths a little down the coast. The reason for the abandonment of the thermal spa was a freak storm in the 1920s, destroying half of the building; in an effort to try to save it, the founder, Hippocrates Pantelidis, got sick and died. His children, not disposed to take over his grand venture, auctioned off the fittings and the land piece by piece. In the 1980s, a grandson spent 10 million euros restoring it, buying everything back, and was in the process of building wave breaks in front to protect the building from any other freak storms when a disgruntled neighbour decided to cause trouble, and the restoration had to be abandoned again.

We left at midday, hoping for just enough of a wind to let us sail swiftly back to Tilos. The sails were unfurled and we went up to five knots, six, seven… We detoured around the south coast to see the cliffs and rock formations, and the wind dropped and picked up, dropped again: five knots, then three, then two... There was manoeuvring of ropes and sails, until at last the engine had to be deployed, and the hoped-for crossing of an hour or so turned into three. I lay down and slept, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the boat… Lisa slept too, sliding around on the deck.

Finally the wind picked up again and Georges decided we should do the final stretch in style, so the sails were unfurled again magnificently and we swept into the bay. Reaching the marina, Georges opted for a narrow space with inches to spare. ‘Oh, I made a mistake,’ he said somewhat unnervingly. But it didn’t matter: he had been a splendid and generous captain, it had been a unique voyage to Nisyros and back.