Sunday, 26 May 2019

Island-Hopping on Wild Halki

The little island of Halki is a useful stopover on the way from Tilos to the north of Karpathos. It’s less than an hour on the Dodekanisos (a.k.a. ‘Spanos’) catamaran to Halki, where two days later you can pick up the big old Anek Preveli for a leisurely couple of hours’ ride to the port of Diafani, and the whole journey costs just over twenty euros.
Accommodation on Halki can be expensive, however; dog-friendly accommodation is particularly tricky, but luckily I found a new apartment available on Airbnb for a good price. For the first night, however, we’re heading to Pefkia to camp for the night. Wild camping is generally acceptable as long as you’re out of sight and leave nothing behind. Beyond the harbour, Imborio, Halki has a surprising wealth of wild, deserted places. 
Pefkia is somewhere I discovered after another wild camping night last year. Waking early in my hilltop hideaway, I’d made my way across to the flat area on top of the headland and found ancient remains, which I later learned were the remains of temples dedicated to the god Apollo. I suggest it as a place to camp before setting off the next morning to see the hermits’ cells at Kelia with frescoes from the ninth and tenth centuries. Ian agrees that it sounds a good adventure, and Lisa – well, our canine companion doesn’t have much choice but to go along with the plan.
It’s a clear evening, with views across the sea to the south of Rhodes and the north of Karpathos. Along the mountainside are old terraces. Dogs bark, cocks crow, and shepherds shout as they round up animals, their bells clanking. The start to the path is unmarked and hard to find. Rough and overgrown, it follows a wall and then the terraces above an area of pine trees, then up over rocks towards an old stone shepherd’s hut and juniper bushes with green berries. 
There’s a cool wind and it’s rockier than I remember, so we choose a place under a wind-bent Mediterranean pine, its needles softening the ground, with a touch of shelter from the dry-stone walls around. To save on weight for hiking, I’ve left the tent behind and have just a mat and sleeping bag. The mountain of Attavyros on Rhodes is now grey, the sea pale blue, the sky changing to mauve with a streak of white cloud.
By the time Ian has finished taking photographs and we’ve cleared the camp site of the worst rocks and are drinking raki, dusk is falling. Lisa’s sitting on a wall, alert for goats. We listen to the scops owls’ reedy high-pitched calls, like a short note played on a wooden recorder or whistle over and over.
The picnic we’ve brought is, frankly, a bit messy. We’re used to camping on a beach where it’s easy to wash in the sea, and we have limited water supplies for the next day. The chunk of graviera cheese is delicious but oozing after being out in the heat all day. I steer clear of the sardines and olives. Ian has decided that this would be a good day to try corned beef for the first time. I help him open the can, forgetting that it too has been out in the heat, and grease spills all over my hands. He takes a mouthful of the warm meat paste, decides he hates it and that I should feed it to Lisa. It does smell a bit like pet food.
Meanwhile, the wind has completely dropped, and we are plagued by a surprising number of mosquitoes considering we are up on a headland hilltop. Because of the wind and position, we didn’t bother to rig up the net and although I throw a rope over the branch above to hang it from, the positioning isn’t ideal to cover all the bases. The ‘natural’ mosquito repellent makes me feel sticky but doesn’t deter the buzzing and biting. We turn in early, at which point I find my new sleeping bag is way too hot, and Ian’s new inflatable sleeping mat makes loud noises every time he moves. I long for my tent, cannot settle and eventually move off to sleep fitfully on a sloping but smooth-ish rock which catches a bit of breeze. 
The morning is serene, however, with a golden light on grey walls and pines and junipers and mastic bushes, the only sounds a few goat-bells and the distant engine of a boat going out. The sky is pale blue with a few tiny clouds. None of us has slept much but I’m keen to set off while the day is fresh. 
From the flat field near the ancient marbles, we pass through a gap in the wall and follow what is barely a path along a hillside of rocks, bushes and scrub, with the deep blue sea far below down and views across to Symi and Turkey. There is no-one around, but plenty of signs that this steep land was once cultivated, with faint old stone terraces. 
Round shepherd’s huts on the hillside above blend in with the stones all around, so often the only way to make them out is the black rectangle of a doorway. When we stop to examine a tiny hut or kyfi, there is silence except for waves far below and birds unseen around us, and Lisa already panting in the shade.
Below, the sea is now turquoise and a flat coastal strip gradually comes into view as we progress, with very faint lines of threshing circles and walls, maybe a church. There’s no marked path, so we simply continue along the hillside. We negotiate our way around an enclosure with thorn bushes and broken rusted fencing, then cross a gully with oregano, butterflies, and euphorbia that has dried to crimson. I hope that we are descending to Kelia to see the hermits’ cells, but the stupendous sheer cliffs of the canyon soon tell me it’s Areta. 
We must have missed the descent we were aiming for. The spirits of the hermits didn’t want to be disturbed.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Easter, Neighbours and Old Stone Walls


The sun set on Easter – rather spectacularly, with golds and pinks and pale blues. Greek Easter is done and dusted for another year, though it won’t be truly over until the last firecracker has resounded like a gunshot, breaking the silence that reigns during these warm, still days, and sending Lisa whimpering into the smallest room in the house.

Although it always takes a great effort of willpower to leave this house by the sea after dusk, it felt important to walk to the village on Easter Friday evening and join the quiet procession in the dark to the cemetery (the kimitirio, the place for sleeping); to be with the community as we remembered loved ones lost this year and previous years, some buried here and some laid to rest elsewhere. The sadness of the occasion was somewhat leavened as villagers quibbled over whether the priest was being thorough in his prayers for everyone’s relatives and talked loudly over his quiet chanting. Then we walked back up to the church, where the faithful pass under the flower-covered epitaphio while the mischievous set off more little bombs. I’d been reading recently about how dynamite has long been associated with rebellion against overlords and other authorities on the nearby island of Kalymnos. In theory, it’s a fine thing. In practice, I’m with Lisa on this one and took it as my cue to leave.

The traditional thing for Easter Sunday lunch is, of course, roasting a whole goat on the spit; but having witnessed the kitchen end of this at close quarters while living at the taverna at Ayios Minas, I was happy to give it a miss. This year it would be salad eaten a la swimsuit on the terrace. The days were so warm that Lisa and I gave up on the late afternoon walk to the monastery on Saturday and turned off instead to Plaka for a second swim of the day. I think this was the first afternoon this year that I’ve truly wanted to linger in the water. The sea was flat and blue as we walked home. And as the sun was going down, I was nailing new screens to the doors and windows against mosquitoes. There aren’t many here, but it only takes one... 
Since this house at Ayios Antonis became mine last October, I’ve been slow at making changes, not wanting to be overly hasty in changing the spirit of the place. Certainly, since the place had been uninhabited for years, there were electrics to be updated and plumbing to be fixed or improved, all of which was completed by mid-January by local guys. With help, I’ve filled in cracks in walls where the rain actually made its way into the house, and cut back some of the overgrown forest that was the garden to reduce the actual danger of walking around it.

The next major job that needed tackling has been the fixing of the garden wall, bashed in and broken by marauding goats over the years that the property was empty, letting them tear at the trees with impunity. Last summer when I was hoping to purchase the property, since the owners were away in Athens I stopped up the gaps temporarily with anything I could find, from an old sink and rusty scaffolding to palm branches and timber, and stitching fences together using old bits of wire, all of which my neighbours Sotiris and Elpida laughed at since it wasn’t my responsibility. But there might not have been much garden left if I hadn’t done it.

It’s held up for six months, and as yet I haven’t planted much more than a tiny vegetable patch from seeds I had to hand, a flowering bush that I bought by mistake from a Cretan in a truck when I really only wanted potting soil, and an orange tree that I carried all the way from the hills of Rhodes, having bought it as a thank-you in return for some research, and which will be very lucky if it survives the salty windy off the sea. For now, I’m enjoying the abundance of poppies and other wildflowers, which the bees love, though Sotiris recommends I blast the whole thing with a farmako, chemical, in case of snakes. The fig trees have so far survived the flocks of hungry migrating birds. I’m sure the vines and the rest of the garden might start to appeal to goats again as the vegetation on the hillsides dries up over the coming summer months, and I don’t want to be invaded if I go away for a few days and take the guard-dog with me.

A few months back, a man who lives up the road offered his services in mending walls and fences, quoting a figure that seemed high but fair. But it was delayed first by his going away, then by my going away, then by my work and need to top up the bank account. And truth be told, I’ve been hesitant also because the walls that need repairing are beautiful old stone walls and I fancied having a go at restoring them without too much concrete. I’ve done a lot of staring at old walls as part of my new book project, and it would seem a terrible shame to spoil the original craftsmanship.

Besides, although figuring out what needs doing and how to get materials all seems overwhelming at times and it would be easier just to pay someone to deal with it, it’s in my character that I didn’t just want to hire someone to do the work for me; I wanted to learn about how to do it. I didn’t expect to become a master craftsman at dry-stone walls overnight, but I like to get my hands dirty. Having my own place gives me an opportunity to experiment and learn. 

When I mentioned this to my Swedish neighbour Marita, who along with her husband is also a hands-on person who likes doing things in old-fashioned and eco-friendly ways, they were all for helping to rebuild a section of wall with minimal concrete. They even had a concrete mixer and could teach me how to make it. I managed to buy cement and I already had some sand, because the man who sold this place to me was a builder and never threw anything away. ‘If you’re not so religious you want to go to church,’ said Marita, ‘we’ll start on Monday.’

And so, on perhaps the hottest couple of days of the year so far, we started re-building a wall. We were rather glad none of our Greek neighbours were present to tell us what we were doing wrong. We spent a morning digging rocks out of the earth and hefting them up onto the wall. Marita and I chatted throughout, comparing Swedish and Old English, and noting that the bees are getting into holes in our houses and leaving piles of pollen. Her husband - who pretends not to speak English - took it upon himself to mend my hosepipe, making the evening watering much easier. Ian helped me to remove the debris that had been covering gaps in the rusty fence and got down on hands and knees to dig for more stones. Lisa, after some initial excitement, lay around in the shade, and occasionally inspected the wall for lizards. I thought about how in the old days, neighbours used to help one another to build what they needed, and I was profoundly grateful to have people nearby who still believed in that.

Sotiris came back from Rhodes and pronounced that our work looked all right. He spat now and then as he talked, but I don’t know whether he was deflecting the evil eye or just swallowed a fly. He told me again that I should cut down all the grass in the garden, adding that it might attract mice as well as snakes. But later another neighbour came by and agreed with me about keeping the poppies for now. She told me that when the plum trees in the garden were watered, Pantelis used to give away buckets of them to the neighbours. This garden has a history. And I have a bit of responsibility to look after those plum trees.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Last Day in Astypalea

The cheese man isn’t there. Maybe because it's Saturday, although a few days ago at the cafĂ© he said, ‘Any day, just come here at ten.’ The door of the kafeneio is padlocked, and on a table by the door are some remains from the night before, I guess: a glass, a bottle and a cigarette lighter.

A few evenings before, I ate a delicious saganaki here, local cheese lightly pan-fried. Panayiotis the owner, wearing leather boots, his black beard knotted under his chin, asked if I liked it and said if I wanted to buy some, he could call the man who makes it.

‘What I’d really like,’ I said, ‘is to go to where he makes it and see how it’s done. But I don’t know if that would be possible.’

The kafeneio in Maltezana was in ruins until Panayiotis decided to fix it up. Panayiotis' father was from Astypalea but like many families from the island they lived in Athens. Panayiotis grew up in the city and did building work, but there wasn't much going on with the economic crisis so ten years ago he came here and restored this kafeneio. He kept the original stone building from 1956 but added his touch of colour. The fishing and farming village has only eighty permanent residents, though plenty of tourists stay here in the summer. In February it is calm and sleepy. A guy came in for a coffee. A woman played with her phone. The dogs sniffed around, looking for food and attention. 
As I was finishing the salad of tomatoes and paximadia with lots of oregano and olive oil, a large man in a rain jacket walked in and sat by the wood-burning stove with a beer, and Panayiotis said, ‘This is the man who makes the cheese.’

The cheese man was talkative and full of stories, like a lot of the people I've met here. He used to work on boats, but since retiring from that he raises sheep and goats, and he makes cheese regularly from Easter onwards, though just in small quantities at this time of year when the animals need their milk to feed their young. The fresh, unaged cheese is called klori. He keeps about five hundred animals.

‘We had a big problem when it didn’t rain for the last three years.’ Without rain, there’s no grass and they have to buy feed. This year there’d been plenty of rain, and clear streams were flowing down the hillsides into the dam. ‘There are twelve and a half thousand animals on the island,’ he said. ‘They mostly belong to the church. But there are farms with animals all over the island.’ He reeled off a list of places. Astypalea is a small island with only three villages; most of these places are in the hills. 

It's a beautiful day and perhaps it would be a shame to be indoors all day watching milk boil. Maybe he’s out on a fishing boat instead, catching calamari… Since the kafeneio is closed, I have a coffee at the taverna overlooking the sea instead. I can make the most of the sunshine and go for a walk and maybe a swim. Just along the coast there are fishing boats, a church with a dovecote, a path covered in mauve, purple and blue flowers, and the remains of a mosaic floor from the fifth century AD, the late Roman/early Christian era. It’s only my second trip to the island; maybe next time, I’ll catch up again with the cheese man.