“I would stare out the window at these telephone wires and think, how civilisation had caught up with me and I wasn’t going to be able to escape after all. I wasn’t going to be able to live this eleventh-century life that I had thought I had found for myself.” – Leonard Cohen
Katapola was tranquil, peaceful and perfect and at this precise time might possibly have been the most wonderful place on earth and we looked forward to our three days of perfection because apart from concrete, the internet and air conditioning this place probably hasn’t changed a great deal in a thousand years.
Amorgians have a history of preserving the past and resisting progress. There is a sense of collective defiance perhaps explained by the fact that during the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-41) the island was used as a remote place of exile for political prisoners.
Forty years ago the island didn’t have electricity, the tarmac roads that link the villages weren’t constructed until the 1990s and the modern ports which today welcome the large ferries are relatively recent additions. The island has a desalination plant now to provide fresh water but up until 2015 fresh water was shipped in and delivered by tankers.
We took the car to the Chora which cannot be seen from the sea or from the harbour but as we got closer we could see it above us like a fresh snow fall on top of a mountain. From the outside it doesn’t look especially promising but once inside the walls of the town it is a different matter altogether. The town turns in on itself in an introspective sort of way and inside there were narrow shady streets and lots of traditional cafés and tavernas where getting disorientated and lost is a certainty.
It was a lazy place where time goes by slowly and no one is in a particular hurry about anything. If this was Naxos or Ios the Chora would have been teeming with shops and fast food places but this was a local town for local people and completely unspoilt by the retinue of tourist shops that can be found on more popular islands.
We explored the streets and in a very stiff breeze climbed to the very top to the redundant windmills that overlook the town and the Venetian castle that is built on top of a rocky outcrop that soars above it and its mass of dazzling white buildings.
On the way back we were ready for a second stroll through the Chora where we ambled through the corkscrew of twisting streets returning several times to exactly the same place passing by several churches, the castle, blue doors, blue sky, shady vines and friendly cafés and I knew that this was my kind of town.
The Chora is rather like a hippie time-warp, slow, lazy, faded and bleached, pot plants struggling in the midday sun and appropriately slow mood music in the tavernas and bars – it reminded me of a favourite pair of old denim jeans and my battered blue t-shirt that I am reluctant to throw away.
The ambience is compounded by cultural traditions. Village life retains a centuries old pace thanks in large part to the absence of motorised vehicles. Old men while away the afternoons sitting in the summer shade chatting. The labyrinthine, narrow lanes are the province of donkeys and wooden carts. Displays of ripe fruit – tomatoes, figs, golden apples – stand outside the little stores, the local catch is brought into the harbour daily, the wine and the raki is plentiful, good and cheap.
As we wandered around an old lady dressed all in black asked for help negotiating some difficult steps and we naturally obliged and in return for our assistance she treated us to her life story and tales of Amorgian life. Her name was Limonique and she told us that after sixty-five years of marriage she was now a widow so I guessed her age to be somewhere around eighty-five or so.
With the hire car at our disposal we decided now to drive around the south coast of the island. I find that mostly it is good fun to drive a rental car but sometimes it is not. This time it was not. Amorgos is extremely mountainous and the roads sway like a crazy roller coaster around the peaks and the valleys and the mountain passes and in some places only seem to hang on by crumbling asphalt fingernails to the fragmenting rock and loose shale.
The car, a Chevrolet City Spark with an inadequate 800cc engine was hopelessly under powered and totally unsuited to this type of motoring and it was hard work constantly twisting and turning and forever shifting gears – mostly between first and second!
I had put some petrol in the tank but with the continuous high revs the tiny engine was like a hungry sponge sucking the fuel tank dry at an alarming rate and I became concerned as the needle started to sink like a stone towards the red zone.
And it was dangerous with precipitous drops with inadequate barriers to prevent a vehicle careering over the edge, oncoming vehicles driven by locals who consider it compulsory to text while driving and then unexpected livestock.
After an hour or so I gave in. I really wasn’t enjoying it and could go no further so after consulting with the navigator we turned around and headed straight back to Katapola where we parked the car and resumed walking.
There was a noticeable absence of English travellers but by contrast there were a lot of French people on Amorgos because this island was one of the locations for the Luc Besson film ‘Le Grande Bleu’ which self-opinionated film critics and French film-goers rave about but which turns out to be one of those hard to understand surrealist French non-event movies that goes around in ever decreasing self-indulgent circles until it finally disappears up its own aperture.
We waited now until nearly sunset time and then as the sun began to dip, the hills turn purple and the valleys flood with shadows we took a walk along the southern shore of the harbour, past an inevitable white church and an unnamed statue and as we sat and watched the sun fall into the sea and the sky turn purple through to black we looked back on our time in Amorgos and looked forward to moving on the next day to Naxos and then to Ios.