Monday, 13 June 2016

On the Way to Olympos

‘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.’

It seems perverse to be walking all the way downhill again several kilometres to a beach, but thankfully the scenery in the rocky, green, pine-filled valley is glorious, reminding me of the gorges of southwest Crete, and I have it to myself. My backpack is digging into my shoulders, so I offload a carrier bag of non-essentials (wishing I’d had less time for shopping in Rhodes) and leave them hanging in a tree to pick up on my way back tomorrow. The road seems to go on forever but finally the beach appears and it is a heavenly white-pebbled cove.

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.
It is a beautiful night. With waves lapping a few metres away, I can’t help falling asleep in the early evening, awakening a couple of hours later to moonlight and stars and a fishing boat coming into the cove. I sleep again, and wake to a gale-force wind whooshing through the pine trees and doing its best to blow the tent over.

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.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Sea Captains, Sea Bream and Swimming in Lovely Lindos

On my first afternoon in Lindos, I’d arranged to meet Karen and Claire from Exclusively Lindos at the relaxed Skala taverna on the edge of the sandy beach. Looking out across the little bay, we spent the afternoon laughing and swapping stories over a superb lunch that included fried calamari and tzatziki and a Greek salad with capers, plus three excellent cooked dishes: a spicy sausage dish called spetsofai, aubergine in rich tomato sauce, baked in the oven and topped with cheese, and one of my favourites, peas cooked with potatoes, carrots and herbs in olive oil. 
As the afternoon wore on we made our way through this feast and drank wine and the sun gleamed on the bay. We thanked chef Giorgos and the team at Skala, sending greetings to owner Sotiris who was working on his new restaurant in Lardos. I waved goodbye to my new friends for now and couldn’t resist slipping into the sea that lapped at the shore. As I swam, a light spring rain began to fall and the soft sunlight that emerged through the clouds afterwards was beautiful.

Just as New York isn’t really America, Lindos isn’t really Rhodes; it’s got a charm and magic all of its own. The village and its immediate surroundings have been protected from development because of the archaeological significance: it was a major trading and shipping centre as far back as the 8th century BC, pre-dating Rhodes town and sending a contingent of ships to the Trojan War. The Acropolis of Lindos with its temple of Athena may be older than the one in Athens, overlooking St Paul’s bay where the Apostle took shelter from a storm; the fortress around it was built by the medieval Knights of St John. The buildings are all in traditional ‘sugar-cube’ style and contained within the old village limits. Built around the edges of a hill with ancient ruins atop it and the sea on three sides, from the 1960s it attracted artistic types from all over the world.

I first stayed in a villa in Lindos in the 1980s with my family; a few years ago I returned in midsummer and sampled the restaurants and bars with my friend Hari. This time, Exclusively Lindos had offered me a stay in a ‘Captain’s House’ in the heart of Lindos for a few days in April. It would be a quiet time, I expected, since the season doesn’t really start until 1 May; and Lindos looked very pretty, the surroundings tinged with green.
The Captain’s Houses were the homes of the affluent merchant seamen of Lindos in the 16th and 17th centuries. Hidden behind high walls and grand doorways, they housed sizeable families and were decorated with Byzantine and Arabesque features and pebble mosaic courtyards. On my previous visit I’d seen the Papakonstandis Mansion. The Captain’s House accommodation offered through Exclusively Lindos is owned by a local family who handcrafted the interior woodwork. Off the courtyard are two bedrooms, a kitchen and the tall, magnificent sala, with its painted wooden ceiling and traditional raised platforms for sleeping and relaxing. To stay in such a place, part of the heart and history of the village, was very special.


The next morning I had Ayios Pavlos (Saint Paul’s) Bay to myself for a morning swim. 

My mum was flying over to join me at the Captain’s House so we would make the most of the few days. When she arrived, we went straight down to the bay for lunch at Tambakio, a stylish restaurant on the water’s edge. The tambakio was a tannery (‘tambak’ being the Turkish word for leather, apparently); they would slaughter the sheep or goats there and it had been used until World War Two; then converted into a restaurant thirty years ago, and owned by the same man who has two of the most popular summer clubs in Lindos, Antika in the village and Amphitheatro up on the hill. We ate tsipoura, a type of bream which was grilled and tasted delicious with salad and wine.

Later, we were invited to join a wedding reception at Yannis’ bar, and after dinner at Symposio – where we ate excellent lamb kleftiko (and Joanna, the chef, recognised me from my appearance on the Tilos episode of 60 Lepta Ellada!) – we were invited by new friends Giannis and Michalis for drinks and dancing at Socrates Bar, which usually has rock music except for Saturday nights when they play Greek music. It was a warm welcome to Lindos and by the early hours, it seemed it wouldn’t be such a quiet few days after all.

After a late start next day, we spent the day lazing on loungers and swimming across St Paul’s Bay and had lunch this time at the opposite side, the ‘kantina’, where the tiered patches of land around were planted with vegetables and herbs, and the olive oil, coarse salt and oregano were all local. It was another beautiful setting. In the evening as we availed ourselves of the internet connection over a lovely glass of wine at Giorgios’ bar, Joanna, the chef from Symposio, came by to offer us some of her home-made, delicious chocolates. We ate dinner at Calypso: another bream, this time with horta and dolmades. After a few intense days of walking in Embona, I was making up for it with plenty of dinners and drinks...
On Monday morning, I sauntered around the village just as little kids were walking to school, and bread was being delivered, hanging in plastic bags from door handles. Like the donkeys grazing in the car park, it was a nice reminder that in spite of the style and glamour, Lindos is also a simple Greek village. Once again, I had St Paul’s Bay to myself. In spite of a cool spring breeze and some clouds, the sun was warm and the sea beautifully clear. 

The weather turned rainy again in the afternoon, but Mum and I felt like stretching our legs so we walked around the coast towards Pefkos, up to the little church of Profitis Ilias and then to the thirteenth-century monastery of Ayios Giannis Meroglitis. 

It gave us an excuse to live large again in the evening, with a return visit to Symposio for a wonderful dinner: olives crushed with lemon; succulent kalamari fried whole; bread with tapenade and taramasalata; a salad of lettuce, rocket, tomato, cucumber, pomegranate, avocado and honey-roasted walnuts; a sea bream with a very light lemon-herb sauce; and fresh potatoes with sea salt. We’d had three days of sheer enjoyment in lovely surroundings, eating and drinking, swimming and dancing, with a peaceful Captain’s House to call home, and new friends to visit again.