Category Archives: Cyclades

Travels in Spain, The Colours of Villajoyosa

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The Costa Blanca is a stretch of coastline in the south east of Spain which is famous for attracting millions of visitors every year from Northern Europe.

The Spanish don’t mind that most of these visitors go to resorts like Benidorm or Torrevieja because there are others that they seem to keep exclusively for themselves.

One of these is Villajoyosa in between Benidorm and Alicante and after we had left the holiday hot-spot of Benidorm, all glass and steel and gleaming in the sunshine like a giant pin-cushion, we quickly passed from turismo to tradicional and called in on its nearby neighbour, just twelve miles or so away to the south from the Bling of Benidorm for a quiet afternoon stroll.

Villajoyosa is a wonderful place, an ex-fishing town, now a Spanish holiday resort of coloured houses with twisted rusting balconies, rattan blinds and decorated with washing lines and pot plants looking longingly out to sea and which reminded me of Burano in Venice, Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera and of Milos in the Greek Islands.

Gaily coloured houses that rub shoulders with each other and jostle for colour bragging rights that can be seen from way out at sea and which carefully guide fishermen home after a night working at sea, or so the story goes.

After finding a parking spot we walked along the side of Rio Amadorio, the water barely a trickle today, robbed on its way down from the mountains for irrigation, then through the narrow streets of pastel coloured houses decorated with pots of shrubs and Mediterranean flowers and on to the sweeping beach arching like a Saracen’s sword and a long walk along a fine promenade flanked on one side by the houses and the other by the crisp sandy shore.

It was a delightful place, close to Benidorm but a million miles away.  The combination of quaint old buildings with multi-coloured facades crowded into a labyrinth of narrow streets, a lively fish market selling off the daily catch and its pretty location on the mouth of a river by a sweeping caramel beach were all enough to further convince me that the east coast of Spain has a lot more to offer than I had ever previously realised.

The name Villajoyosa means city of joy and I can understand why – it is impossible not to feel happy here!

I realised that this was the Spain I am always hoping to find but don’t dare count on. Old men sat in the street playing drinking wine, women hanging out their washing on their balconies and keeping an eye on the menfolk below, children and dogs played in the squares and cats wandered aimlessly around.  I have been searching for real Spain in Castile and Andalucia and Extremadura and I found a slice of it here in Valencia which was most unexpected.

A bright yellow house leaned against a blue house with a bright green neighbour, across the street was a a red house and made the colour palette complete. A stroll through Villajoyosa old town in the sunshine certainly requires sunglasses.

Anyone care to take a guess what this is all about…

Or this…

And just how do they manage to paint these houses?

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Greek Islands, Doors of Santorini

Santorini Blue DoorSantorini Red DoorSantorini Blue Door 2

Greek Islands, Doors of Naxos

Naxos Door 02Naxos Door 03Naxos Blue Door

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, Old Doors of Syros

Syros Mansion WindowsSyros delapedated windowsSyros Greece Old DoorSyros Greece Old Door

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

Greek Islands, Ferry Ride from Ios to Syros

Greek Ferry

From Ios we were travelling now to the island of Syros and I had found a reasonably priced ferry ride for just €16 each.  This was a seven hour journey (I suggested to Kim that she thought of it as a sort of cruise) stopping off at Sikinos, Folegandros, Naxos and Paros along the way.

I have been visiting the Greek islands on and off for over thirty years and island hopping for the last ten and I have noticed that things are beginning to change, and not always for the better either.

There are new roads being constructed on the islands and EU funded improvements to ports, traditional mini-markets are becoming supermarkets, bus services are being privatised and updated and the ferries are beginning to change.  New roads are fine and improved port facilities are good, personally I prefer the dusty old shops with surprises in dark corners and the inefficient buses but I have to say that I am really disappointed by the ferry changes.

This year again there were new routes and unfamiliar boats and these were all high speed and modern and they are not nearly as much fun.  They are more expensive, have inside allocated airline style seats, in some cases no access to the outside deck and generally lack character or individuality.

I understand that these changes are welcomed by the people who live on the islands, who now have faster and more convenient transport options, but it is a sad day for back packers and island hoppers.  I prefer the uncertainty of missed schedules, the battle with the elements and the confusion and commotion associated with getting on and getting off in preference to the reliability, the smooth ride and the orderly airline style of boarding and departure.

In 2006 I travelled from Naxos to Ios on an old rust bucket called the Panagia Hozoviotisa (named after the monastery on Amorgos) and there was a real sense of adventure. It was two hours late and there was a force seven gale and the boat struggled through the heaving seas but it was an honest hard working boat and the journey was wonderful.

I used it again in 2007 but now it is laid up out of service in Piraeus.  So too the G&A ferries the Romilda and the Milena that used to run the western Cyclades but have now been replaced with charmless monsters called SpeedRunner, Highspeed or Seajet, boats named without thought or imagination and completely lacking any sense of romance.

Using the traditional old ferries was even more of an adventure because the island hopping guide advises that most of them should be avoided if possible.

This year only the Ventouris Sea Lines Agios Georgios was left and we used it twice, once between Serifos and Sifnos, and then from Sifnos to Milos and we really took pleasure from sitting on the open deck with a mythos, listening to the gentle ‘sha sha sha’ as the prow scythed through the water cutting an arrow head of foam into the blue, enjoying the sun and watching the islands slowly slipping by.

On the old boats it is possible to move freely from deck to deck, get close and see inside the bridge and watch the captain plotting a course and then at the other end watch the crew at work at the stern and a mad rush of activity when they came in to a port and then left again shortly afterwards.

It was noisy and fun with creaking ropes and rattling chains and the men looked like real sailors.  On the new boats there is only a monotonous hum from the modern engines and the crew, dressed in smart corporate uniforms, don’t really like you leaving your seat and wandering about unless you are going to the overpriced bar.

This regrettable change is driven by the desire to improve but is in part due also to stricter operating rules imposed on ferry operators after a disaster on 26thSeptember 2000 when the Express Samina Ferry sank off of Paros while the captain slept and the crew watched a football match on TV.  Several of the crew were convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail and the General Manager of the company committed suicide when he jumped from his sixth floor office window in Piraeus.

I am glad that I had a few years of travelling between the islands on the old boats and I suppose I will have to come to terms with the fact that these days have gone but the journey from Ios to Syros on the Aqua Spirit was a reminder of those good old days.

To be completely honest I enjoyed it a whole lot more than Kim because after five hours or so at open sea her patience tanks began to run dry and she certainly didn’t enjoy the last leg of the journey from Paros to our destination port of Syros.

I know this for certain because she reminded me several times!