Category Archives: backpacking

Thursday Doors, The Greek island of Symi

Symi 006

From the harbour we walked further up the Kali Strata towards the upper town of Ano Symi passing on the way dozens of abandoned once grand mansions that were built over a hundred years ago when Symi’s sponge fishing and ship building industries were both thriving but which fell into decline in the first half of the twentieth century when both suffered serious economic failure.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Other houses were damaged during the Second-World-War during the German occupation and empty shells stand adjacent to some, like the Pantheon, that have been restored.  Rules on restoration are very strict and this together with difficulties of access for modern vehicles (the only viable means of transporting building materials is by expensive donkey train) means that the cost of a restoration is often prohibitive and for this reason the whole process of regeneration is likely to take some considerable time.

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Entrance Tickets – The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Entrance Ticket - Leaning Tower of Pisa

There are two hundred and ninety four steps up a spiral staircase that take visitors up and which due to the absence of windows, and therefore orientation, is reminiscent of a fairground wacky house attraction, especially when although you know that you were ascending sometimes according to the extreme angle of the tilt of the building it feels as though you were going down at the same time, which, believe me, is a very unusual experience.

Mark Twain described it like this: “The winding staircase within is dark, but one always knows which side of the tower he is on because of his naturally gravitating from one side to the other of the staircase with the rise or dip of the tower. Some of the stone steps are foot-worn only on one end; others only on the other end; others only in the middle.”

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Greek Islands, Amorgos

Amorgos

After walking around the village we set off back to Aegiali and came across a group of walkers who enthusiastically showed us a short cut but it was down a tricky path and they had stout leather walking shoes with knotted laces and we had inadequate sandals with synthetic soles so we ignored the advice and stuck to the road instead.

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Greek Islands, Doors of Naxos

Naxos Door 02Naxos Door 03Naxos Blue Door

Greek Islands, Final Days and a Last Walk

cyclades-postcard

“… but God’s magic is still at work and no matter what the race of man may do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct – and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time.” – Henry Miller, ‘Collosus of Maroussi’

Leaving Tinos the Blue Star ferry made its way to neighbouring Mykonos where we would be spending the last two days of our trip before flying home.

Usually we choose to stay in traditional accommodation with average prices but for the last two days we had selected instead to stay at a more expensive boutique hotel just outside the Chora.  Actually, it wasn’t that expensive just a bit more than we like to pay and the result was that we were allocated a very nice room with a balcony and a Jacuzzi and a glorious view over the town and the bay.

Mykonos Street 1

By comparison the mini-bar and restaurant prices were ludicrously astronomical so it didn’t take us long to make a decision to take a walk back into the centre for an afternoon stroll, search for a sunset and then find a reasonably priced taverna for evening meal.

Now at the end of our holiday we challenged each other to record the highs and lows of the three week trip.  We didn’t agree entirely with each other but I think this list of highlights is safe enough to share…

  1. Amorgos was our favourite island
  2. Homer’s Inn on Ios was, as always our favourite hotel
  3. The gyros in Syros was our favourite meal
  4. Mountain tracks on Amorgos were our favourite walks
  5. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Andrew)

We struggled to make a list of low-lights but these were suggestions…

  1. Car hire in Amorgos
  2. Cruise ships in Mykonos
  3. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Kim)

The list complete we thought about our last day and agreed that it might be a good idea to try and break our walking record and see if we could crash through the ten mile barrier so we decided to start early and walk to Ornos where we had stayed two weeks previously and then on to Agios Ioannis and then return.

Walking in Mykonos

So, next day we did just that and immediately after a rather chaotic hotel breakfast we packed our rucksacks and set off.

It was late October now and the scorching summer weather was on the glorious tipping point into Autumn and there was a welcome breeze, well, wind actually, which made it a pleasant walk to the south of the island.  Once there we thought about a swim in the sea but the beach was still crowded with sun-worshippers cluttering up the beach so we passed straight through and on to Agios Ioannis where we stopped to swim for the last time this year and then to have a drink before retracing our steps stopping in Ornos on the way for a light lunch.

The taverna was next to the bus stop and there a middle-aged shabbily dressed American with grizzled grey hair and an extravagant pony tail was giving Greece travel advice to a younger woman who had admiring doe eyes and was hanging on to his every word as though he was Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller or Rick Steves.  Some of the advice was quite useful as it turned out but it dried up when the bus arrived and they climbed aboard and left.

We left shortly after and walked the two miles back to the hotel where we sat in the sun, arranged our suitcases ready for the journey home and enjoyed some time in the Jacuzzi.

mykonos-jacuzzi

For evening meal we had chosen a beach side taverna a little way out of the town (we needed the steps) and we presented ourselves at the agreed time of eight o’clock.  It was a busy restaurant and we were obliged to share a table with a couple from France who arrived shortly after us and were both clearly very drunk.  They ordered several starter plates and a bottle of retsina and then nibbled at the food and got seriously stuck into the wine.  They were generous with their food and invited us to share but I noticed they didn’t offer any wine.  They ate almost nothing but very quickly ordered a second bottle.

As we ate the American and his adoring companion walked by and although I am certain they had only recently met they were now holding hands.

It was a good meal, perhaps the best of the holiday? I don’t know, I can’t really be sure, but we enjoyed the musicians who played traditional Greek music throughout the evening and the amusing company.  He danced, she chatted, they were clearly local celebrities and when it was time to go we said goodbye and as we left they ordered their third bottle of retsina!

Greek Dancing

We walked back and saw the American and his friend who were now walking arm-in-arm – the old man of the sea had clearly been hooked.  Back at the room we checked the pedometer – 10.35 miles, we had broken our record and we were self-congratulatory about that.

On the final morning I was surprised to see no cruise ships in the harbour or the bay so anticipating that this might make a difference I made a final visit to the town.  It was charming, empty, quiet, unhurried and delightful.  Without hordes of cruiser invaders the little streets of the town had a whole different ambience and improved quality.  I liked it so much I did at least two full circuits of the town and I was so happy to see it like this in the last few hours before returning back home.

We had enjoyed the Cyclades and agreed that we certainly wouldn’t leave it another five years before returning to one of our favourite places.

Ios Unique Restaurant

Greek Islands – Tinos, St Pelagia and Pilgrimage

tinos-pilgrim-statue

“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries.  As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.

Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands.  Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.

Greek Doors 2016 (3)

One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.

Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion.  It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.

On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.

The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves.  If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him.  The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!

pelagia-of-tinos

We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.

By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation.  Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.

All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.

After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.

 

Greek Islands, Syros and the Twin Peaks

Wall art Cyclades Greece

The seven hour ferry journey turned into a seven and half hour ferry crossing on account of high winds and rough seas and by the time the Aqua Spirit finally docked in Syros at about seven thirty in the evening we were glad to get off.  Kim especially so!

After a little difficulty we located and approved our accommodation and with the rosy glow of a sunset over our shoulders surveyed the town from our balcony as roosting birds chattered in the tree tops, bats began to swoop overhead and the lights began to flicker on one by one.  We thought that we might like this place.

In the morning a sunrise invaded our room as golden light leaked through the gaps in the shutters and the curtains and woke us early which gave us plenty of time to shop for breakfast in a nearby bakery and to arrange our schedule for the day.

Syros cyclades

In contrast to most of the Cyclades Islands Syros is a busy port with an important dock yard and ship building industry.  It flourished after the Greek War of Independence of 1821 and for a while was the most important and most prosperous city in all of Greece.

There are two important areas of the city and as were here for two days we thought we might visit one each day.  Ano Syros is the old medieval district built at the top of a steep hill and Ermoupolisis is the post 1821 development built in the neo-classical way of Venetian style villas and a practical grid pattern of streets that rises steeply and dramatically from the water’s edge in the port.

Neither were far away but both involved a demanding climb up a never-ending set of steps to get to the top because Syros is what I describe as a vertical city.

We thought we might start with Ermoupolis and walked first to the main square and a massive city hall building appropriate to its status as capital of the Cyclades region of Greece.  It is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the Cyclades with marble footpaths cascading like a hanging garden and a large statue of Andreas Miaoulis , a hero of the Greek War of Independence.

Andreas Miaoulis Syros Cyclades

From the square we moved into the back streets and began the slow steady climb towards the top.  It was relatively easy at first but soon became exhausting in the hot sun and we started to slow down and tackle the ascent in sections of fifty steps at a time, stopping at each milestone for a break and a breather.  There must have been a thousand steps – it felt like ten thousand.

As we walked we passed villas and mansions in various states of disrepair, too expensive to renovate because restrictive planning laws insist on exact restoration due to their historical and cultural importance.  Instead it is cheaper to build new properties so these neglected fine buildings steadily decay and collapse.  One day they will be gone and that will be a real shame.

As the day continued to get hotter, shutters were thrown back like butterfly wings basking in the sunshine, washing hung steaming from open windows and every doorstep had a sleeping cat for decoration.

Eventually we reached the very top and the Greek Orthodox Church at the peak and found a bench to sit down and look down and simply admire the view.  A handsome town of pastel shades tumbling all the way down to the port and on an adjacent hill the sister village of Ano Syros challenging us to continue our walk and complete both climbs  on the same day.

As we started back down we were undecided about that and at a point where we really needed to make the decision we stopped to consider the prospect.  Kim was all for going straight back  and leaving the second climb until tomorrow but this didn’t make sense to me because we were already half way there and would have to do the same thing all over again the next day.

Ermoupolis Syros

As we debated our options a Greek man came by and intervened and interpreted our dilemma as a desire to walk to the second mountain peak and although he spoke no English, and the pair of us no Greek he made it clear that he was happy to act as our guide and beckoned us to follow him to Ano Syros and at the time it seemed rude not to!

So that is how we came to tackle both climbs on the same day.  The  steps to Ano Syros were steep and irregular and the climb was difficult and demanding and with stops becoming all more frequent it took us some time to reach close to the top where we were happy to find a bar and stop for a while for a drink before carrying on to the Catholic Church of St George at the very pinnacle of the climb.

Going up was hard on the thighs but coming down was tough on the knees and it took us some time to identify and negotiate the least difficult route back to the main square where we were happy to stop again at a bar for some time where we looked back at the twin peaks and congratulated ourselves several times on our achievement and I wrestled with the conundrum of when they build a village on a mountainside do they start at the top and work down or at the bottom and work up?

Ermoupolis Syros Cyclades