Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Greece, Island hopping 2008, Ios

The only down side to the room in Amorgos was that we had to share the balcony with the occupants of the room next door and this turned out to be a young couple with a pleasant French man but a really pretentious and know it all Dutch girl who we took a dislike to. This made Kim a bit grumpy and when in the early hours there was music being played from another balcony close by she confronted another young couple who were smooching the last of the night away with a firm instruction to turn it off. This was all a bit unnecessary because it was about five o’clock and whilst I agreed that this was rather thoughtless of them it hardly mattered because we had to catch the six o’clock ferry anyway.

It left on time and slipped out of Katapola in the darkness and made way for a first stop at nearby Koufonisia where the arrival was accompanied by the rising of the sun coming up quickly behind us as we headed west. It was a very windy morning and the boat lurched from here first to the island of Schoinoussa and then to Irakleia, which was frustratingly close to Ios (our next destination) but then swung north and made for Naxos where we arrived at about nine o’clock and just in time for breakfast.

We spent six hours on Naxos before returning to the port to catch the Anek Lines ferry to Ios. Because of the weather the boat was twenty minutes late arriving and then it took the captain another thirty minutes to park it as he struggled with the strong cross wind that made docking difficult. I was about to scratch the Anek Lines off of my ferry list for the future but once we were on board it was nice sitting on the top deck with a can of mythos and I quickly forgot all about it as we settled down for the hour and a half crossing to our next island.

After Amorgos, which had been surprisingly green and fertile, Ios looked dry, brown and arid as we approached a landscape parched and baked by the relentless summer sun it looked uninspiring but we knew why we were coming back here and from the boat we caught site of our favourite beach and rustic taverna, the cliff-top walk and then, once we had docked Vagellis from Homer’s Inn who greeted us with genuine friendship. It is an interesting fact that Vagellis is obsessed with the weather and on the short drive to the hotel he gave us a forecast for the next few days. I understand why we in the United Kingdom are fixated with meteorological conversations but I don’t really expect it in Greece but he explained in great detail about wind directions and what difference that was likely to make to daily conditions. “Tomorrow will be sunny with a little breeze”, he explained, “and the next two days also, but after that I am not sure”. To myself I presumed a wild guess that this would also be sunny with a little breeze because generally in Greece I find the weather to be very, very reliable!

We had chosen to return to Ios for a five day stretch mid holiday for a relatively long period of rest and we wasted no time in getting into the familiar routine that we had established twelve months before. A visit to the pool (newly tiled), a swim, a glass of wine or two and then later a walk to the top of the Chora through the busy streets and to our favourite restaurant at the very top, the Mills, where there was grilled meat for main course and complimentary ouzo to finish the evening, and I do like tavernas with complimentary ouzo!

This year we really settled into our routine right from the start. Like first thing next morning. I always wake early when I am on holiday because the first thing I always have to do is check the weather; this is a huge responsibility and although it doesn’t take a great deal of preparation I can’t possibly hang around in bed too long. Weather checking in Greece is usually quite straightforward however because the blue sky and sun is generally very dependable and this morning there was nothing especially different to report.

Vagellis and his wife Antonia were up early as well and preparing the breakfast room when I went for a tray of tea and he immediately gave me a weather update which when analysed meant that today would be similar to yesterday and would be the same tomorrow as well.

After breakfast we walked down to the harbour and headed south towards our favourite beach. The road out of the village runs past the business end of the harbour and there were some brightly painted boats that had just landed their overnight catch and were negotiating sales with local people and restaurant owners in a babble of animated activity. It looked like a good nights work and the trading was brisk. The fish looked interesting and on closer examination of the produce it soon becomes clear why we have to put up with stock shortages whilst the most of the rest of Europe have such an abundance of choice, we are just far too fussy about what we will eat and our preference for fish is restricted to two or three species that we have fished into crisis and near extinction whilst people like the Greeks will eat a much greater variety of sea food. We like to buy our fish in little blue polystyrene trays without heads, tails or entrails and ready for the frying pan but here the trays were brimming with fish so fresh that it was still alive and flapping about and winking at the prospective purchasers who were examining it. The colours were fantastic, sparkling silver, gleaming green and radiant red and I looked forward to being reacquainted with one later on my dinner plate.

On the cliff top approach Valmos beach doesn’t look much it has to be said, just a small quiet bay with an untidy shingle beach and a sea bed littered with rocks that makes access to the sea quite difficult but there is a little beach taverna which serves possibly the best calamari in the whole of the Mediterranean. The little place is delightful with a shaded terrace that overlooks the beach and the little bay and it is run by an old woman who probably should have retired years ago and has a limited but interesting menu and with the sort of prices that I really like. Going to the beach and the taverna is part of the Ios routine and everyday we did the same things as the day before, walked along the same path, went for a swim, went to the taverna and sat at the same table and had the same delicious calamari and afterwards we walked back, picked up some drinks from the supermarket (which this year had been inappropriately modernised and spoilt for ever in my opinion) and went back to the pool for the afternoon.

The walk to Valmos is interesting because of the derelict terraces and dry stone walls that separate the hillside into individual plots of land. Ios is just one large inhospitable rock but as recently as only fifty years ago people here were scraping away at the thin soil and the stones to try and make a living or to feed the family by growing fruit and vegetables. There is very little useful land on Ios so this must have been almost unimaginatively difficult. Then in the 1960s visitors started to arrive and the enterprising islanders realised that there was more money to be made renting out the back room and it was also a lot easier than a twelve-hour day toiling under a hot sun. The terraces are all abandoned now to thistles and what other few plants can survive in a hostile environment and they are unlikely ever to be cultivated again.

As part of the routine at the end of every day we would go to the Chora in time to see the sunset over Sikinos to the west just in case it was any different from the night before. This involved a strenuous climb to the very top of the town and past a succession of small white churches that got smaller and smaller the closer to the top we climbed. Later, being creatures of habit, we visited the same taverna over and over because once we have found somewhere that we like I have to confess that we are reluctant to go anywhere else. On the second night we had a meal of red snapper and when it arrived on the plate I was certain that I recognized it from the catch of fresh fish in the harbour that morning and I am sure that it winked at me as I prepared to eat it.

Homer’s is a charming hotel and named (not after Homer Simpson, as I am sure many of the young guests may have thought) but after the author of the famous epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey and whose burial tomb is allegedly to be found in the north of the island. This is something else that I like about Greece. Very democratically, as you might expect, each of the islands seems to have an association with a god or a famous person, Aphrodite in Crete, Zeus in Naxos, Hippocrates in Kos and so on and this brings the visitors in. I like the way that in a sort of cartel sort of cooperation they have carefully shared them all out between themselves so that each one gets at least one deity or person of significant importance. We didn’t visit Homer’s tomb by the way because quite frankly I was a bit sceptical about its authenticity.

To add to the routine, Homer’s is popular with a lot of guests for repeat visits and on the first week in September there is a reunion of friends who return year after year. This was only our second year but already we were integrated as part of the Homer’s community and I am reasonably certain that we will be returning again. When we left at the end of our five days Vagellis presented us with a tea mug each, which represented our acceptance as Homer’s special guests. How nice was that?

On our final evening we did the same things but visited the harbour to double check the ferry times and we watched as the wind continued to bring in waves that tossed the little boats about on the water. It is around about this time of year that the weather begins to change in the Greek islands and instead of winds from the south bringing hot dry winds from the north of Africa they start to turn around and blow more unsettled and fresher weather from the north. I know all of this of course because Vagellis told me and he is a weather expert.

We enjoyed the routine of Ios because life is great when all you have to worry about is how well your suntan is coming along, when next to apply sunscreen lotion and how long must you wait for the next Mythos and that’s what we did in Ios. Except for the day that we went to Santorini…

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