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 (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

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


  1. Love to read about your ramblings. The pictures you can almost smell and feel the sun warming your back.