Folegandros is a short SeaJet ride from Santorini - 30 minutes, give or take .... or 3 hours on a diesel powered time machine.... I say time machine because it's like the 70's as soon as you step aboard. It can also take 3 days as well, if the wind is blowing, which is likely at the end of the season but you just have to chill when this sort of thing happens. The Greek Islanders are well used to this sort of thing and you'll be well looked after wherever you may be stranded. If you can't get out, nobody's getting in. Unless they're on a plane which is possible.
Folegandros is tiny - about 19 kilometres by 5 at its widest point. I chose here because of the peace and change of pace it offered after Santorini. There are only a little over 700 inhabitants Folegandros and the hope was to step back in time, so getting here by ferry would certainly fit. Santorini was a throbbing metropolis compared to this small, steep and arid haven.
As a destination, it has two claims to fame, the first is that its Chora, closed to road traffic, is a unique example of having three beautiful adjoining town squares and the second, that the Chora itself is perched high on a vertical cliff face with nothing but the blue Aegean 200 metres below. Actually, you can make that three things, if you include the unique Castro within the town. The brightly painted furniture and spring blooms, including hibiscus and bougainvillea, offer the visitor a rich palette of welcome, these brightest of colours often offset by the pristine whitewashed walls.
I had chosen to stay at the family run Anemomilos Apartments high up on the cliff edge, and I couldn't have been happier with my choice.
At the time of writing, the options weren't extreme regarding places to stay, but Anemomilos was a delight from start to finish and as lucky as I've been on my travels, it would be hard to pick more friendly and hospitable hosts. The apartments are organised into three types of suite. I had chosen a blue suite that had unrestricted views of the island facing north and out over both the sea and monastery as well. In fact, the view form the loo is still one of the best I've known, and should you find yourself dwelling there, you could be forgiven under such circumstances.
Once I had settled in, Aperitifised myself on my balcony whilst watching the magnificent sunset, I set out my itinerary for the next few days, and Item 1 was to explore the Chora. There were only really a handful of people staying on the island and I knew fairly early on that we were all going to be bumping into each other on a regular basis..... Not that we were really going to coordinate or catch up for cocktails or anything. We were all on our Honeymoons don't forget and had other ideas.
The Chora was a delight and after a few liveners in some of the small, pretty bars, I settled in for dinner at one of the small family run tavernas just off the main square. Panathinaikos were playing, and the match was being shown on the tv on the far wall and I settled in to get a bit of the local atmosphere..... Just me, the chef and the waiter. This may not be your idea of the perfect honeymoon but I was glad of something to watch other than my photo editing suite or other people canoodling.
The owner didn't really leave the front of house and left all of the service to his son, and when I say front of house, this was in essence a hatch behind which he boasted and turned a selection of meat cuts over a wood fire. The rendered fat turned to juice, which turned to vapour and smoke as it hit the open coals. It was this smell that lead me to the place. It's something that Trip Advisor can't help with. The smell was wonderful as was the pork.
Some simply grilled stuffed capsicums, a side of oregano roasted potatoes and that was it. After the complimentary Tzatziki to begin, this was all I needed. Washed down with football accelerated Mythos beer, I was very content indeed. The 50 cats that joined me, also seemed very happy with the arrangement also, although they didn't get much out of me.
The town was quite except for a few pockets of diners in one of the adjacent squares and some local kids playing in the alleys and tormenting the cats. You could see young friends gathering, mooching, as familiar with each other as you can possibly be, and I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like to grow up in such a place. I imagine that their must be a certain age group that yearns to get away, but to put this into perspective, to what? Why give up this island life for Athens or the mainland. Why give up the beaches and spectacular cliffs, the family hearth, the lifelong friends, and the peace. Be careful what you wish for, I say; Surely the 9 to 5, broadband Internet and high rents for tiny boxes aren't really worth it.
During my many visits back to these islands, I was to discover that many young people had left but they had returned. Part of this must have been due in no small part to the financial situation on the mainland but after a certain education in the ways of the world and a big slice of reality, this small island and many others like it, are a place to return to as quickly as possible. If you return with some balance, some experience and a greater understanding that bigger doesn't mean better, then all the better.
The Chora became increasingly quiet, and after a win for both Panathinaikos and the house, and after a highly vocal talk about football, I returned to Anemomilos but picked up some provisions on my way, and when I say provisions, I mean Lay's oregano crisps - By the way, as an Arsenal supporter, football conversations always become vocal but I love these conversations. These fans have grown up with their teams. No mock United, Real or Barca shirts here. This is the real deal. You support your nearest team, the team you grew up with. Fair wind or foul.
After a walk that must have taken all of 3 minutes, I made myself comfortable on my veranda and watched nothing go down, nothing rise. I saw no shining lights, no fireworks, no Taj Mahal (I wasn't expecting to, to be honest), and no body. I'm not sure I could see anything other than the far off twinkling lights of small farm houses, the pitch black night and Campari before me. I was having a break from Ouzo. I could hear the waves lapping gently on the rocks 200 metre below, and this was wonderful. I was quickly finding out that even though sharing such moments would be great, I was experiencing them at a very personal level. I was noticing everything. I had the time and inclination to notice everything. I'm far from the perfect travel partner but one thing I do is care for the wellbeing of others, that they are happy, content and doing what they want to be doing. Sometimes this can interfere with the moment, or my moment even. Nothing was getting in the way of the noises, the aromas and the colours I was was experiencing on this trip.
Breakfast was eaten by the pool, overlooking both the severe drop below, and straight down the spine of Folegandros - The little white horses scuffing the fallen rocks before rejoining the wonderfully calm Aegean. I don't know why this is my most favourite of seas but it is. Maybe it's the light, maybe it's the history, maybe it's a simple as the location but it's a magical word to me. For other it's the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, but for me it's here.
Today was photos or to be more precise, hiking. I don't hike, I go on long walks, but let's call it hiking for the added sense of drama. I don't wear specialist hiking shoes or clothing that makes a noise. Nothing that guarantees my safety should I fall down a well, or get important parts of me caught in a wet, piercing squall. I'm still an old pair of trainers kind of man.... or desert boots..... Today was desert boots.
I needed no map, no compass nor sat nav neither. Walk out of town without falling off a cliff and you're on your way - Half way up the island, as it narrows to its ballgown waisted thinnest, there will be a beach to the west. Go there - swim, lunch, then continue on your way.
As I was approaching the islands waistband, I spied a short cut and went for it. The signpost made no sense to me whatsoever, and could be a recipe for Saganaki for all I knew. In the distance, I could see one of the most sinister looking donkeys I'd ever seen. Standing there like an ancient sentinel. the Donkey Sentinel of Doom I thought. Maybe thats what the signpost was indicating - The life expectancy rates relating to each of the Guard Donkeys. i dismissed almost entirely as an option, was very brave, and on I went.... Even if this would mean walking along ploughed fields, cobbled paths and talking up to ominously well positioned donkeys. I couldn't speak to donkeys in English, so Greek donkeys were going to be a complete mystery to me. I made small talk with them nevertheless ... I was on holiday after all. They became friendly enough towards me to allow a snap or two and after a quick 'toodle pip', I marched on.
Quickly, the terrain was began to get rougher, most definitely. The atmosphere too started to change at this point, and a swirling maelstrom started to form out to sea. So preoccupied was I in the fantastic light conditions for photography, that I had neglected to twig that black clouds and swirling wind are usually bad news when you're only dressed in a pair of old desert boots and a polo shirt.
Further to this, what I described to my donkey friend as a tornado was heading for the coastline and more importantly, directly at me. At about a mile off the coast, it was continuing to head in my direction. Later on, a rather earnest friend of mine of fb pointed out that it was merely a waterspout or some such and wouldn't touch me if I remained on dry land, but I didn't know that at the time, and coming so soon after my run in with the donkeys, it was all becoming very biblical. Book 3, Chapter 6, Verse 11 - Donkeys. (See Coveting they neighbours ass).
I could see an old farmhouse way below me, blocking me and the beach, still a kilometre or two away, and I was beginning to have my doubts that this shortcut of mine was allowed. Suddenly from the direction of the farm I heard gruff yet hysterical shouting. Clear as you like. In any language this was an angry farmer. I don't know what 'Git orf moy land' is in Greek but if it contained a loaded gun or a rusty axe, I could hazard a guess. The shouts became increasingly more frenzied. Much stick waving could be seen, or was that shotgun? I hoped briefly that it was, as I had the high ground and could surely outrun a toothless prolly in a pair of antiquated wellies.
Then I came back to my senses and realised that it could just as easily be a high velocity sniper's rifle, and not just a random shotgun. The Greeks were legendary for their shooting skills during the last war and and he had probably been keen to see if he still had what it takes.... Even now as a steady handed octogenarian with a trespasser to deal with. Island Law I thought. I hadn't seen a policeman since I had arrived on the island and so it was probably easier for the authorities to either turn a blind eye to instant reparation for crimes against or to actively encourage a hands on approach to instant justice. Boy, was he angry at me. He was certainly getting closer, there was no denying it. There weren't any noticeable tree stumps for him to rest his weapon on. This was the Cyclades after all and there's barely a tree anywhere to be found here. To become WWll crack shots they must have rested there rifles on the prone or bent-backed elderfolk. One can only wonder at what toll them the recoil would have taken No wonder they wear so much black. I thought about approaching him and maybe offering him some sort of payment, but I wasn't sure if everyone was as partial to oregano crisps as I was, and so quickly thought better of it. There was nothing else left to do. I was a man after all, and a man who intended to live either as long as possible or until The Arsenal next won the league, so there were many, many years ahead of me left yet. So, I did the manly thing. I turned and fled, back the way I came.
It turned out that I fled far too slowly, or took too much time taking photos of that bloody donkey, that held me in it's now sadly gaze for so long, for he, the Flailing Farmer of Folegandros was upon me. He, complete with his smelly gang of hairy cohorts, were only yards away now. With little fight left in me, after both the shock of the tornado and the silent hail of bullets that surely only narrowly missed my ever trembling internal organs, I gave in. I pinned myself against the dry stone wall. A wall that was surely to bear my epitaph, or at worst, one of those sad little posies that's often left at the scene of terrible accidents.
Here, I waited for my inevitable and hopefully quick end. With my eyes closed tightly, I waited for the blows to rain down upon me. The smell of death now filled my nostrils with his gang of angry vigilantes bleating furiously. "Yassou" he said as he and his goats shuffled past. He hadn't been shouting at me at all - It was his goats. He'd been calling them for milking, or gloating or some such. I had imagined the whole thing - He couldn't give a toss if I was walking along the side of his roughly ploughed field. This was not only Greece, it was Folegandros, and you can do as you please, .... just as long as you're happy and no one gets hurt.... This terrible misunderstanding had taken me back to the 'Main Street' and I felt stupid, save for the fact that I was right about his teeth.
I continued along the road, passed a row of three windmills, to the beach that was pretty rough & ready actually but that was the point of Folegandros. You can't wish to step back in time but expect all of the luxuries and amenities that your well healed and more popular cousins sport. There was a small taverna near the beach where I refreshed, said hello to the other two Honeymooners on the island and promptly left, back up the hill, turning left and continuing my explore.
The island became terraced. Crops clinging to the steep fertile slopes but ultimately, I was getting tired. I walked back, arrow straight apart from the road winding in every which way. The day was becoming long and the light was becoming exceptional. A photographers delight.
There had been no storm. The clouds scudded past and all that remained in their stead was the golden glow of a Cycladian afternoon. Stark, bright banks of light hit every possible surface that could reflect. The shadows and dark sank away and provided perfect contrasts. It was fascinating just how much detail it was picking up. I still haven't known anything like it to this day. Not in a photographic sense anyway. I have seen magical, wondrous light on numerous occasions - how could I not have, having been where I've been - this was something else.
It kept on it's course of ethereal wonder until I bumped into 3 drunk, middle aged American women swerving arm in arm drinking from a couple of bottles of wine. We stopped, had a little dance, they enquired where the port of Karavostasi might be and they were gone. I have absolutely no idea where they had been, why they were drunk in the middle of a winding country road or what they hoping to find in the tiny port, but they seemed happy enough and so I left them to it.
I was pretty tired and so had another quiet meal in the Chora, watched the fabulous sunset over the hills that I had walked that day and strolled the near empty streets of the Castro.
The next day, after breakfast, I walked up to the Panagia Kimissi monastary that dominates the skyline and the cliffs high above the Chora. Incredibly beautiful it was too, but the thought of schlepping up here every day wouldn't exactly fill me with glee if I was from around these parts.
From there I walked the southern coast as, best I could, before arriving at the there little harbour of Karavostasi.
Here a found a little bar/taverna on the pebbled beach and ordered a Red Donkey beer from the Santorini Brewery and made myself at home. Helen, one of the owners of the bar, made me a very special Mezze plate; cheese, stuffed vine leaves. anchovies, olives, bread etc and I couldn’t have been happier.
The fishermen were busy mending their nets and setting themselves up for the mornings fishing the next day, the weather was clear and the beers were cold. I was the only customer for several of the hours I was there, and before I knew it, Helen and I had exchanged our life stories and were firm friends. At one point, a yacht pulls in and a rather baffled looking 'manservant' walks over to us and asks "Is this it? There's nothing here." To which Helen replies, "There's plenty here, you just don't see it, but more importantly, you're not here." I squirted Yellow Donkey beer out of my nose. The owners of these yachts just sail around for months but they refuse to get off them in case they get mugged.
Helen's kindness and manner I still remember with great fondness, and I hope to revisit one of these days. I will just be another long forgotten punter but thats okay. It was a lovely afternoon.
After a few more soporific beers, Helen organised a lift back up to the Chora for me. This meant clambering into there back seats of a semi open topped little three wheeler with one local fisherman and a worker from Eastern Europe. We talked football all the way, the wind in my hair, by bag clasped to my chest and the biggest grin you could imagine across my face. These little moments….. They aren’t big news, they don’t really even deserve a mention but my god, they do make you smile. I remember the ride vividly, as being both death defying and exhilarating. I also remember it being very, very welcome.
I arrived back at Anemomilos, collapsed on the bed and had a big nanny nap. When I awoke, the sunset was beginning to drop and the room was bathed, once again, in magical amber light. I picked up my camera and began to take a few shots. They are some of my favourites. Still drowsy from my sleep, I can’t say the settings were perfect but the moment caught for posterity means the world to me.
I showered, relaxed with another Campari and Orange out on the veranda and went into town one again, in search of perfectly cooked spit roast pork and a cold beer.
The next day was to be a day of rest. I walked into the village to buy some fresh bread and goodies from the bakery that I had been recommended, so I could make myself some lunch after my morning spent reading by the pool.
The whole day was pretty much spent there, in and around Anemomilos and my hosts were more than willing to feed me daiquiris all day long.
After the day was nearly done, I wandered the streets of the ever increasingly beautiful Castro and Chora of Folegandros and readied myself for my last evening here. It really is spectacularly pretty here. The flowers and facades are life enhancing in there brilliance, and the little lanes and closely packed houses are a constant delight.
I dined on souvlaki in one of the main squares beneath the facade of an ancient chapel, beneath the trees and amongst my inquisitive cat friends.
Mythos was quaffed and I wanted a big night. There were plenty of bars around but they were all empty and my interest wained. It wasn’t party night, obviously, but that was no bad thing. Tomorrow, I had to pack and catch the SeaJet to Naxos. I returned to the apartment, ate the remainder of my stock and drank a toast to this fabulous little island, whilst once again, fearing out into the inky night.
Checking out was quite a sad moment. I certainly vowed that I would be back and that I wouldn’t think of staying anywhere else. They really do look after you and are very proud Anemomilos, and well they should be. Utterly lovely.
In summary of Folegandros; It really is a delight and a throwback to how these wonderful islands must have been before the advent of mass tourism. Please go - It's beautiful, but don't complain about its simplicity once your there. Relax and enjoy the peace, the colour and the light. I understand that because of the beauty of the Chora, cruise ships are beginning to unload their bustling cargo here, ever more frequently, and this is a disaster. Now will come the crappy trinket shops and the reality of the place will quickly disappear. It really isn't for them. The thought of relaxing in one of the tranquil squares when the rampant hoards of souvenir hunters and selfie sticks arrive, doesn't bear thinking about. If i'm there when that happens, then I will makes sure I'm somewhere else at the time. By the pool, dodging death with the donkeys, exploring the coastline or simply enjoying a beer, on a pebbled beach in a bar in Karavostasi.