Thursday, 13 June 2013

Three Days in Pserimos: A Different Experience

Pserimos, one of the smallest inhabited islands in Greece, has an absolutely perfect white-sand beach shelving gradually into a shallow, sparkling blue bay. 

Unfortunately, surrounded by Kos, Kalymnos and the shores of Turkey, it’s inevitably become a stop on the day cruise itinerary. An hour after I arrived, the tour boats had come in and the tiny harbour was crowded with pinkish daytrippers wading into the sea or strewn across the cafes. Old folks beckoned me over to buy packets of herbs, and waterside stalls shimmered with things made out of shells. If I’d arrived on one of those boats and seen the island for only that hour, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Pserimos.

I’d arrived on the regular ferry, however, as a guest of Georgos Karaiskos, who’d taken me under his wing and invited me to pitch my tent under the tall pine trees of the scout camp he runs. I'd found his email address while hunting for information on getting to the island. We’d exchanged a few emails and I explained I lived on another Dodecanese island, Tilos. He’d replied:

‘Nice place, BUT wait until you see and stay for some days at Pserimos. Different experience!!... You will like it, and come every year.’

I hoped he was right; for now I needed a quiet swim, and followed signs to Vathi past a huge olive grove. Reaching the top of the hill, I was crestfallen to see the villa developments of Bodrum in Turkey across the water, a couple of fish farms closer to shore, and the beach full of debris washed in by the sea. A naked couple were clearly enjoying themselves, though, unperturbed by the wasps buzzing around a water-hole for goats. In spite of a rather unusual invitation to join them, I had a quick swim and left them to it.

I still felt Georgos’s claim was a bit of a stretch, but as I followed another path to Marathonta to see some more of the island, it grew on me. The gentle hills, the goats with huge twisted horns and clinking bells, gorse with yellow flowers, sage and thyme bushes; farm enclosures with dry stone walls reinforced with wood and recycled furniture (to keep the goats out); a farmer snoozing with his dog in the shade of a tree; gardens of fig trees and prickly pear, grape vines and flowers.

I decided to stay for a few days and get to know the place a little. And I’m so glad I did.

I got back to the village, strolled to the harbour, and now I had that soft white sand and clear, cool, blue water all to myself.

Georgos had recommended I eat at Sevasti Pikou’s taverna next to the church for good food and good prices – and it also drew in a local crowd – so that’s where I headed, tempting as it was to linger with my feet in the sand. The ‘fylla’, or vine leaves stuffed with rice, meat and tomato, were probably the best I’ve ever eaten, and there was home-made garlicky tzatziki and delicious slices of a huge fish called rina caught that day – the fisherman showed us the photo on his phone – sprinkled with the local herb throumbi and served with fried potatoes. Georgos joined me for a while and told me about his plans to build cabins at the scout camp for people to come and stay.

The smell of the pine trees around my tent was magnificent. I slept well, woke up with the roaming chickens and the crows. At eight a.m., the whole beach to myself again, I swam across the empty bay, then had coffee and yoghurt and honey on the beach at Themis’ cafe, watching the fishing boats coming in with octopus and sponges and fish. Pserimos at its best seemed hard to beat.

A couple of older ladies bobbed about in the water in their dresses and headscarves. Local men occasionally zipped about on little scooters, one with a goat in the trailer. There aren’t really any roads on Pserimos, just a few sandy paths and dirt tracks, but someone drives an army truck with a ram’s skull and horns on the fender.

Some thirty years ago, the population of the island was over three hundred; now only twenty or so live on Pserimos all year round, mostly old folks. But as summer starts and school finishes, it’s a wonderful place for kids and young people to come back to. The whole island is only a few kilometres long by a few kilometres wide, and great for walking.

To avoid the morning tour boats, I set out to walk to Grafiotissa beach, filling my bottle with water. The island has fresh water and it tastes delicious; from the beach I’d seen a young man drawing water from a well for his grandmother. The path was a little tricky to find at first, past goat pens, but then I was striding across hillsides full of purple-flowering thyme, with deep blue seas below. And within half an hour I got a glimpse of a spectacular sight. A long strip of white sand, rust-red cliffs, and half a small whitewashed chapel perched on top, the other half having fallen into the sea many years ago.

I passed happy hours alone at Grafiotissa. The view from the sand was of the quieter ends of Kos and Kalymnos, the deserted islet of Plati, and the occasional yacht floating by in the distance. In the courtyard of the newer church nearby were fragments of ancient carved stones, and five sheepskins hung to dry on a fence.

On the third day, after a breakfast of fresh bread with local thyme honey, I walked to Krevatia beach. ‘Tha berdepseis poli,’ said an older man in Manola’s cafĂ© (where the day before I'd feasted on squid grilled on the barbecue), when I asked about which path to take: ‘You’ll get very confused.’ He was right, but I wasn’t in a rush and this walk was perhaps the most beautiful yet. There was another lonely church surrounded by grazing goats, trees blown horizontal by the winds, baled hay. A green swathe of hillside dropped gradually down to a nice stretch of sand and pebbles, again deserted with clear, tranquil sea.


Later, eating roasted aubergines and courgettes, I thought of the things I now knew and loved about Pserimos, having spent a few days here. The birds nesting in the bell-tower of the church next to Sevasti’s taverna, and the food from Sevasti’s kitchen. The communal grove of eight thousand olive trees and the sound of the wind blowing through it; the smell of sage and thyme; the evening noises of the birds, and the bells of sheep and goats grazing. The people who stayed for only an hour or two missed so much. It was hard to wrench myself away in the end, and I swam as many times as I could across the sparkling, clear bay, taking in the pretty houses and hillsides.

The irony was that to get back to Tilos I had to connect to a boat in Kos, which meant leaving on one of the tour boats. But in the end, the crew dancing cheesily to Zorba on deck with a few game passengers was pretty good fun, I had to admit. Maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

Getting there

The Maniai boat (I’m intrigued that Pserimos has a boat named after the ancient demons of mad frenzy) leaves from opposite the Olympic Hotel in Kalymnos harbour at 9.30 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m. (daily from May to October; three times a week out of season). Tour boats leave Kos harbour around 9.30 a.m. in summer, stopping at different times in Pserimos, and leave by around 3.30 p.m.

Where to stay

Pikou Sevasti has rooms above the taverna (, (0030) 22430 29337), as do most of the cafes, and there’s Kalliston Studios at the corner of the beach (, (0030) 698 0389 276). Pikou Sevasti also sells ice and bread, and free showers are available to customers arriving by private yacht.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Rhodes: My Latest Favourite Things

As someone who lives on a small island, every now and then I have to take the ferry to a bigger island, Rhodes, to get some chores done. The list of things I need (or want) gets longer and longer until I have to wrench myself away from the beach and get on the boat. But because there's so much you can't get in Tilos, it’s a great excuse to shop – it’s like Christmas with more sunshine and less stress.

And so this week I dash down to the port with a giant suitcase. The quayside is crowded with people and inevitably friends ask, ‘Are you leaving?’ I grin and lift up the suitcase – empty. I’m going to run around Rhodes, filling it up, even though the only thing I really need is one piece of paper, a certified copy of my passport from the British Vice Consulate.

As always, I’m going to have a wonderful few days running around town, chatting to people in shops. People in Rhodes are really friendly. Before I lived in Tilos, when I was just passing through Rhodes to get to Tilos on holiday, I had no time for the bustling town, but now I appreciate it more and more. My friend Anna tells me that she sees me moving there one day, but I’m not sure I’d have as much fun if I lived there.

When people ask me where I’m from, telling them I’m English but live in Tilos is the conversation-starter. One day I glance in the window of a sports shop next to the hotel, and end up in conversation with the owner who tells me his father, who was from Kalymnos, was sent to teach in Tilos at the school, which was then in Mikro Horio (the now-abandoned village), during the Italian occupation before World War II. Apparently the Italians gradually learned to send the smart people to the little islands where they couldn’t cause as much trouble, so his father found himself in Lipsi and Tilos.


I’m in Mandraki, the area of Rhodes where the small boats like the Tilos Sea Star come in. Walking up the hill from the domed New Market (Nea Agora) and bus station with the Old Town on my left, I spot a new gift shop. It’s immediately clear that this isn’t your average tourist shop, but real arts and crafts. I’m a sucker for beautiful things and am drawn inside, where I get talking to Haritomeni.

She confirms she just opened the shop, To Doron (meaning ‘The Gift’), in late April. Her parents live in Rhodes but until recently she lived in Athens. I infer that this is another ‘Crisis Story’ – it’s nearly impossible for young people to make any kind of living in the capital at the moment, so she’s come to Rhodes and set up this business. And it deserves to do well, as the shop is filled with tasteful, original hand-made work from artists all over Greece, especially Crete. 


What’s more, they’re Crisis prices: very reasonable. There are little boats and shells and starfish made of bronze and aluminium for between 5 and 15 euros. Museum-quality reproductions of ancient Greek art in lovely presentation boxes from 12 euros. And ceramic bowls just perfect for some yoghurt or olives or tzatziki from 8 euros. There are plenty of pieces that are tiny enough that they won’t make your luggage overweight, either. It’s a great place to buy authentic gifts and souvenirs in Mandraki – and to support Greek artists rather than buying the made-in-China rubbish too often found in the Old Town.

Haritomeni (I like the name – it means ‘lovely, graceful, blessed’) tells me she had a wonderful holiday in Tilos a few years ago. She stayed by the sea in Livadia but went all over the island visiting the monastery, Eristos, Megalo Horio. ‘It’s a disgrace that the museum isn’t known all over Greece, all over the world,’ she says, referring to the bones of the dwarf elephants, the last elephants in Europe. ‘I was embarrassed I didn’t know about it!’

After leaving the shop, I continue up the hill to Avgoustinos where I sit in the lively open-air restaurant and have a massive, tasty gyros pita, big salad and a beer (for 9 euros).


OK, not many people have a story about buying printer ink cartridges. But I do.

I like to buy from Cartridge World, partly because it’s an easy way to recycle the cartridges, but also because they’re so much cheaper. But when I call to check what time they close, I find out the shop’s moved a little further out of town – too far for me to walk. When I ask about buses, the man on the other end of the phone asks where I am, and I say Mandraki. ‘No, where exactly?’ Er, the Hermes Hotel. ‘OK, I’ll be there in ten minutes.’

A charming (OK, say it, good-looking) young man in black comes to collect the cartridges, and brings me what I need later in the day. If that ain’t service, I don’t know what is.


The young woman who helps me find good underwear in Intimissimi has a cool haircut, so I ask her where she has it done, as I need a trim. (I’ve still not found someone who cuts hair in a way I like – would the next person to visit please bring me a Toni and Guy hairdresser?). Before I leave my favourite underwear shop, she asks if there’s a branch of Intimissimi in Tilos. I grin, imagining scantily clad mannequins in the square in Livadia. ‘I’m guessing you’ve never been to Tilos?’ But actually she has, several years ago; all she remembers of Livadia is that the place was deserted until noon. I tell her we actually do have a really good clothes shop (To Sokaki - see the Tilos Life page on this blog), but no international chains, thank goodness.

The man I talk to in the health food shop, where I buy maca root and find a town-centre source for wine from the village of Embona, says someone in his family has a house in Tilos but they find the people unwelcoming; even after living there for two years, they've never been invited to anyone’s house. I explain that it’s certainly not that people are unwelcoming or unfriendly. It’s just that people keep themselves to themselves more on a small island, I think, as you need to keep some kind of privacy. 

I go to the hairdresser for a trim and we spend the first half hour of the appointment talking about what I do, and e-books and copyright, and how I can perhaps help out another client of his who has written something. It’s more of a social visit than a haircut.

For dinner, I try the Symi Kafeneion in the New Market, near Indigo (and the deli or pantopoleio where I sometimes buy cheddar or prosecco). It’s been there for sixty years – the beautiful, raven-haired woman who runs it informs me that it was first her grandfather’s, then her father's – but has recently been spruced up with a lick of paint and a meze menu. I order an Alfa beer and a delicious plate of roasted vegetables drenched in garlic vinaigrette, mopped up with half a loaf of moist, springy bread. Yum.


On Thursday morning, I go for a swim before breakfast. It’s of course nothing like as nice as swimming in lovely Tilos, but I like the fact that locals go for their regular morning swim in Rhodes, especially the older folks who tend to chat to one another in the water – it’s that social thing again.

Mid-morning, having bought a tent, a kettle and some seeds and seedlings, I discover a street market just outside the Old Town on the south side, near the Gate of St John. It’s a slightly smaller version of the Wednesday and Saturday market that takes place near the cemetery. Restraining myself from buying too much, I choose olives and peppers and small local peaches, just in season. I buy a carnation plant and a jasmine plant for a few euros each (I am turning into my mother). I am smiling and receive a marriage proposal and an elopement proposal.


I get back to the hotel, and in the afternoon I go out again to pick up my new set of glasses, and I think I’ll go back to indulge in something nice from the gift shop. But I realise I’ve hit the retail wall. I’m all shopped out. There is no shopping left in me. I have lost the will to shop.

But I’ve got the certified copy of my passport, done my blood tests, bought my brown rice and ticked off a long list of needs and wants, and I’ll be back in a few weeks. And maybe one day when I win the lottery (OK, I don’t play the lottery, but my equivalent – when they make the movie of Falling in Honey) I’ll have a little pied-a-terre in Rhodes. Ah, but then I wouldn't get to chat to lovely Nikos in the Hermes Hotel...

To Doron is at 23 Alexandrou Papagou street (tel. 22410 20144)