Sunday, 19 October 2008

Greece, Island hopping 2008, Amorgos

One of the reasons for going to Amorgos was that for Christmas last year Sally bought me a book about the top islands in the world to visit and Amorgos was one of them. We arrived at the port of Katapola in late afternoon, left the ferry and looked for our accommodation. Although there were a number of room owners to greet the boat ours wasn’t there so, feeling adventurous, we tried to find the place by ourselves. This was about 50% successful because we found the rooms but there was no obvious reception. Back at the harbour another room owner stepped in to help and telephoned the contact number for our hotel. That is one of the really nice things about Greece, everyone is so helpful, and even though we weren’t staying with them they were all prepared to provide assistance and one man even followed us on his scooter for some distance just to make sure we were all right.

As we waited for the owner to arrive to collect us we spotted the Express Skopelitis at berth in the harbour and we were indeed pleased that we hadn’t made the journey on the choppy sea in what looked to be a very, very small boat.

What a fabulous Amorgos turned out to be and we were immediately glad that we had chosen to come here. It was a place of contrasts, there were expensive modern yachts in the harbour and people with plenty of money but the town was completely unspoilt with a couple of old fashioned mini-markets, a shop with products from Amorgos and a good selection of tavernas all along the harbour front.

We had a good room that was small but reminiscent of Sikinos the previous year and the rooms had a roof terrace with a good view of the harbour, the boats and other peoples washing. It was a lovely room with a generous balcony and a good view over the tree filled garden. The place had blue stairs and terraces and decorations of seashells and sticks. After we had settled in and spent some time on the roof terrace we walked to the back of the horseshoe shaped bay and watched the sunset as the evening swept in and turned our thoughts to dining arrangements.

There was a lot of choice but we choose really well and at the Corner Taverna (it was on a corner obviously) we enjoyed a tasty meal of local lamb and as we finished our jug of wine we made a decision to stay here for an extra night and immediately made the necessary arrangements. The place 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, mobile phones and air conditioning this place probably hasn’t changed a great deal in a thousand years.

I especially liked the mini-market that had a good selection of odd shaped fruits. Although ugly they looked interesting but none of them would have made it through fruit police quality control at Sainsbury’s because supermarkets at home have imposed upon us a requirement that all fruit must look as though it has been artificially manufactured rather than grown naturally in the fields and everything has to look the same and conform to a corporate code of shape, size and colour. Fruit and vegetables weren’t meant to be like this, and anyone who doubts that should go to Europe and see how they do it. Conformity is so boring and it is a great shame but it no longer is it possible to open a bag of carrots and be amused to find one that looks like a bent willy or discover a tomato that looks like a fat ladies bottom. We cannot laugh at our vegetables any more and that is a shame. And just to make matters worse, British supermarket fruit and vegetables taste bland and disappointing compared with their misshapen European counterparts.

The next morning after breakfast had a harbour side café we walked to the coach station for the scheduled ten o’clock bus across to the other side of the island to the Byzantine Monastery of the Virgin Mary Chozoviotissa, but the driver was working to Greek time and the confused crowd that began to build up all had to wait until a little after ten-thirty when he finally arrived for work. There was an old lady waiting for the bus who was clearly homeless because she was wearing her entire wardrobe, was carrying a couple of plastic carrier bags with all of her possessions and also explained to us (in Greek, which made it difficult) that she had spent the previous night sleeping on the beach. It was about a half an hour journey across the island and then another half an hour slog on foot up a rocky path on a very sharp incline to reach the entrance of the monastery. Once there it became immediately obvious that we were going to have some difficulty visiting the interior because we were deemed to be inappropriately dressed. We had shorts on and apparently Monks don’t like shorts. They don’t mind short dresses, denims or cropped trousers but they don’t like shorts. We attempted deception but that didn’t fool them so after a humiliating rejection we had to make our way all the way back down. I was a bit cross about this I was sure that God wouldn’t turn people away like that and was reminded of the story of ‘suffer the little children’ and was left wondering what makes monks so picky? So we left not knowing if we had missed anything special (I suspect not) and made the way back to the bus stop for the return journey.

There was a long wait so instead of waiting in the bus shelter we decided to walk along the road to the beach at Aggi Anna where the bus turns around to go back to the port. Based on the earlier delays to the schedule I calculated that we had plenty of time to achieve this and we set off down the twisty road. To our horror we were only about three quarters of the way to the bottom when the bus appeared, bang on time, and we had to get a bit of a wiggle on to make the connection. Actually we had to do a bit more than just hurry up and the last two hundred metres turned into a full sprint under the full midday sun.

On the way back we stopped off at the Chora, which was a really good decision. From the outside it didn’t look especially promising but once inside the walls of the town it was a different matter altogether. The town turns in itself in an introspective sort of way and inside there were narrow shady streets and lots of traditional cafés and tavernas. 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 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. Descending through the mazy streets and alleys there was time for a beer with tasty canapés where we agreed to come back the following day before getting the bus back to Katapola and an excellent lunch at the Corner Taverna.

In the afternoon we took a walk out of town along a track surrounded by vines with grapes fresh for picking and where local men rode along on mules as their preferred form of transport. On the way back we were turned away from another Orthodox church (because we were still wearing shorts) so we gave up on sightseeing, purchased some local wine from the Katapola mini-market and spent the rest of the day on the sun terrace. In the evening we walked along the south side of the harbour chasing the sunset and later we chose an alternative taverna and regretted it even though we had another good meal to end the day.
The next day we woke early and after breakfast took the bus all the way to Aggi Anna and spent a relaxing morning on a lovely beach with crystal clear water and excellent snorkelling. There were a lot of French people on Amorgos because this beach was one of the locations for the film ‘Le Grande Bleu’ which they all raved about but which turns out to be one of those hard to understand surrealist French non-event movies that they are so good at.

After a couple of hours we were ready for a second visit to the Chora where this time we planned to have lunch. We ambled through the corkscrew 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. In and around the tavernas there were lazy cats, which in between trying to look cute for diners with leftovers were concentrating on looking for a shady spot and simply snoozing the day away.

Back in Katapola there was a great deal of activity this afternoon because the holiday season for Greek people ends promptly at the end of August and as this was the last Saturday of the month there was a mad scramble of vehicles queueing all the way down to the harbour and competing with hundreds of chattering foot passengers to get a big Blue Star ferry back to the mainland. The little harbour was in complete chaos and I wondered where all of these people might be coming from. It turns out that Amorgos is one of their favourites and it is in fact so brilliant that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Greeks would like to keep this place to themselves for as long as they possibly can.

On the final day on Amorgos we took a long walk around the north side of the harbour past blue doors and blue domed churches and across pleasant secluded beaches and finally arrived at a hard to reach bay where normal access is by boat from the harbour but our route was over the cliffs that required the sure-footedness of a mountain goat because one false move and there was a fifty metre drop into the sea via the rocks. It was a bit untidy and it was unlikely to achieve blue flag status (there are none on Amorgos) but there was a fantastic sea with a gently gradient to the deep clear blue water with an abundance of fish for snorkelling amusement. But early afternoon the beach was getting rather full as more and more boats pulled in and disgorged their passengers and there was a stiff breeze beginning to stir so we walked back, had a drink in a bar next to some resting fishing boats and then simply let the rest of the day slip through our fingers as we sat on the sun terrace and were buffeted by the wind that continued to get stronger and we started to worry about the ferries again.

I phoned the Homers Inn on Ios and Vagellis confirmed that he would meet the ferry at five o’clock the next day and provide transport to the accommodation. This was very helpful and obliging and I couldn’t help wondering how much longer this sort of hospitality is likely to last. Greek islands must have been very different places thirty years ago and I expect that they will be similarly unrecognizable in another thirty and I just hope that I will be here to find out.

After a final meal at the Corner it was time for an early night because tomorrow there was a scheduled early start and a ferry back to Naxos and a short day on that island before going on to Ios.

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