I left Folegandros under a storm cloud. Not emotionally, of course, but an actual storm cloud. Always worrying when you're about to undertake a sea voyage (Yes, I know. It's a hardly a voyage but I thought it would add to the drama) which involves Greek ferries. High winds and high speed catamaran's aren't exactly best bowling buddies, but my minor apprehension was short lived as the wind dropped and I was on my way. I always spend the extra few Euros on Club Class on these occasions. It's far more peaceful upstairs, away from the masses. There's a small bar serving good coffee, sandwiches & snacks and there are also pretty (Not pretty) clean loos, especially by Hellenic Ferry standards. There's and air of excitement on these little island hops (Not voyage) as the white foaming wash scuds past your window, as you try to figure out which island you're currently passing and wondering whether it's worth a stop there on your next trip. I'm heading north to the large Cycladic island of Naxos - Famous for ... potatoes. This I found intriguing and I must admit to pondering as to just how good could they be?
After 4 or so hours, with a few stops along the way, primarily at the party island of Ios, not famous for its potatoes in any way, I arrived at Naxos Harbour, and ahead of me, quite a long taxi ride to Aliko Beach and the Finikas Hotel at Pyrgaki. Naxos Town was perched high on the hill overlooking the harbour and the 'Portara' - the ancient arch that welcomes you upon arrival. Naxos looked enormous after Folegandros and as we drove, leaving the gleaming white town behind us, I couldn't help but admire the scenery. High hills or low mountains, depending on your heritage, interrupt the skyline on your left, while miles and miles of golden sandy beaches and the turquoise blue of the Aegean beckon you to your right. Eventually the main road turned into a sandy track which separates the hotel from yet another stretch of golden sand and silver shingle.
I was welcomed by a very friendly chap called Dimitrios. Apparently he was the new manager of Finikas and had been charged with upturning the hotel's fortunes. He was very keen to know my opinion about everything and I began to wonder if everyone got this very personal treatment. I'd never had my opinion so sought out and was only too keen to join in.... Not that I was starved of conversation in any way. The hotel itself was immaculate but with very few guests. The pool area was magnificent, but the chilly start to the season seemed to be putting people off from actually using it. The grass was lush and green, the palms were tall and impressive and the restaurant & bar were incredibly welcoming. All in all, I couldn't have been happier with my choice. I had chosen to stay well away from the town for a very good reason but I can't remember for the life of me what that reason was. maybe it will come back to me as I drink. there must be a reason.... There's always a reason.
My room was sparse or minimalistic but in the Greek tradition, it had a lovely balcony overlooking both the pool and the beach, and I promptly made myself at home. There was another sniff of upgrade about it but as I hadn't been told that it was, I just considered it to be a very decent room indeed. I showered and changed and after a small relax on my balcony, taking it all in, I headed down for an Aperitif and a beer.... and a wine, before hopefully enjoying my dinner.
I wasn't going to do much tonight after the travelling, so a simple meal and an earlyish night would do me fine. The restaurant was at the front of the hotel, in an annex away from the main building. Beautifully welcoming, with a beach view and a slightly North African vibe, I settled in again. It soon became apparent that there really were precious few guests and so I would only have myself for company, and by that I mean, instead of people watching, I would have use the 'me' time annoying my friends on facebook as company. After a Fix or two, I ordered a selection of mixed tapas, including some lovely courgette fritters and a Spaghetti Pomodoro. I know it's not exactly Trad Greek but the manager Dimitrios had made a point of letting know that the chef had trained in Italy and both were keen to get my opinion on the food as soon as I had finished dining ... and even during my meal. The chef was introduced to me after I had finished, and whilst grinning like a Cheshire Cat at my rave reviews, she proceeded to shake me firmly by the hand whilst bowing. It all seemed a little over the top but I was tired and I thought little more of it.
The next morning was bright and blue and once again found myself in the restaurant, only this time for breakfast, which apparently is quite normal. The buffet spread was impeccable and I was pleased to see other guests enjoying their morning feast. They all looked like fellow Honeymooners to me, so at least we had something in common. I was set upon once again by the sunny yet shadowlike Dimitrios, who asked after my welfare and my thoughts ... on everything, and I duly obliged him with both. The most alarming thing about an otherwise relaxing breakfast was the gentleman who kept sending his yoghurt back to be 're-served' as there was too much in the bowl. Back and forth it went until the amount in the bowl was to his liking. Why he couldn't just leave it, i'll never know. He probably knocked off a star on Trip Advisor because of the large portion size. Very odd... His new wife didn't bat an eyelid so I presumed that she was already well versed in his quantitative peculiarities. The waitress, refusing to pour it all over him, was stoic, and I made a mental note to tip her ferociously before I left. It was a note I later ... mislaid, however.
For no good reason that I can think of to this day, I decided to walk the coast of the South West quadrant of Naxos. Along these splendid and mostly solitary stretches of honeyed sand and bristling brush, to pretty much as far as I could, and then head back. Hoping once again to hitch a ride in the back of some dilapidated truck or on the back of a world weary donkey. It was a beautiful day and a great plan. Dimitrios waved me on my way, first checking that I had both water and my wits about me, and off I trotted. Not before noticing a man attempting to rake the beach. Blimey, I thought. Rather you than me.
Worryingly, the first point of interest I came to was an old rusted up signpost in Greek, apart from being in a foreign language, the sign was unreadable due to the rust but you would swear that it warned of mines or unexploded ordinance. It was a warning I should have heeded. With only a smattering of daunt about, in I went, like some thirsty downed pilot in an old black and white war film. For the first few miles I stopped frequently to take photographs and to mop my brow... Usually with one elbow on my knee and a foot on a rock whilst gazing out into the horizon. I must have been watching too many movies.
Danger - Minefield !!!
As I walked, the photos became less frequent as it was all so beautiful, it was hard to know what to leave out. On and on the beaches came and went. In and out of the dunes, occasionally broken up by the appearance of a derelict building or two.
I hadn't seen another soul for hours, and these beaches weren't the sort that I expected. They were completely unspoilt, and by unspoilt I mean that there wasn't a welcoming bar or taverna to be seen anywhere.
Occasionally, I had to sit down to rest - Naxos was beginning to feel enormous. Far away in the distance I could see a small clutch of buildings that looked like they might house beer or maybe even a light Greek salad, and this little mirage of hope became my focus. I was sweating quite furiously now and with my water long gone, the stroll was becoming a bit of a trial. I couldn't wait for an ice cold bottle of Mythos as my reward and taxi home. When I finally arrived, this little cluster of buildings were closed. There were a few people milling around but it was a strange little place. Huge dunes and wispy grass that behaved more akin to razor blades that anything that I'd ever deemed to call wispy before now.
Forlornly, I decided to return to base, defeated but I couldn't possibly manage the walk back across the sands. I was knackered. The main, albeit, winding road south was my best bet, and that dilapidated truck or weary donkey. Again, the scenery was truly beautiful but when would I come across somewhere to shelter and rehydrate? The roads wound and forked and the signposts were misleading. Often sending you off down little sub-tracks that would eventually lead you back to the same road only a few hundred metres on. There were no trucks, crappy or otherwise, that were actual capable of movement, and quite obviously Naxians were far more keen on growing potatoes than donkeys.
On I went until finally I came to the familiar sandy track that lead me to Pyrgaki, and to Dimitrios, standing with concern on the front stoop, staring out into the distance, as if looking for a familial fishing boat after a very ... stormy storm.... Probably. Before I fell through the open doorway, I saw the same man, diligently still raking the enormous beach. There, I thought, is a man who might have had a worse day that I had, then he gave a hearty "Yas", a wave, and continued to rake ... and annoyingly, to whistle a happy tune.
As the sun began to sink, the light turned an incredible shade of apricot and the landscape warmed to the thought of night. I pulled out my camera for the last time that day, walked into the fields behind the hotel and took a few for the road. Thankful for the day.
I had been walking for 8 hours, mostly without water or food and when I finally collapsed on my very springy bed and my wifi kicked into action, I discovered to my horror, that the beach I had walked along for most of my recent life , was called Sahara Beach. To this day, I still cannot understand how it got it's name.
After a quick sleep I was recovered - I'm nothing if not resilient, and returned to the restaurant. Rehydrated sufficiently enough not to remember a thing about it apart from this. I was finally going to find out what all the fuss was about regarding Naxian potatoes. I'd seen enough of them growing today to be able to allow myself the privilege of actually eating one. Sliced lengthways like big wedges, they had been roasted in the their skins with olive oil and oregano, and they were incredible, and easily the best potatoes I have ever eaten, then or since. It's difficult to imagine these things being so good. It's only when we realise that a lot of the produce we eat today is completely manufactured, watered down versions of what we should be eating. "Tasted better in the olden days", they say... Well, this was like stepping back in time. With a cracking pork cutlet, they were just the job, and I thought you ought to know, totally, totally delicious.
The next day, as I watched bowls of yoghurt being returned to the kitchen, I decided that I would take a cab into Naxos Town and have a bit of an explore. Not quite as big an explore as on the previous day but an explore nevertheless. I was very brave, if not intrepid.
Again, it was a perfect day and I was in high spirits. The hotel manager once again saw me off, and might as well of patted my hair straight and given me a packed lunch. The taxi arrived and duly dropped me off at the harbourside. Then the cabby wrote his number down on a piece of card and informed me that he was to be my driver for the duration of my stay.
I firmly believe that Dimitrios had employed him to never let me out of his sight. I thanked him and I was off up the steps to the old town of the new town of Naxos. The old, old town (Halki) being up in the mountains somewhere, but that was for another day. Naxos town is, and I say this with all due deference, beautiful.
Half winding alleyways full of immaculate and colourful bars, pristine cafes & shops, and half meandering empty paths full of cats and pots of brightly blooming geraniums. It's an absolute delight.
I took a lot of streetscape photographs here but was struck by the sheer volume of cats. They were everywhere. This was their town and they let you know it. It was like walking into the wrong side of the tracks. A cat's eye is never off you here.
I lunched on Gyros and then found a wonderful little bar called 520, that stretched out on to the roofs of the buildings below and afforded the drinker perfect views out across the bay towards Paros and the harbour activity beneath. Here I stayed for quite a while. The Fix came and went, as did the many and plentiful bowls of salty crisps and I began to get that afternoon drinking fuzziness that I love so much.
It was actually slightly earlier in the afternoon than I thought and it occurred to me that I could possible fit in Halki (Chalki) today and so, very kindly, the barman lent me his phone and I called my cabby, to whisk me off up into the mountains and the ancient town of Halki. On the way we had the following conversation.
Me - "Why are there so many cats on Naxos?"
Him - "So minny rats?"
Me - "No, cats".
Him - "No cats?"
Me - "No no. There are cats, but why... are there... soooooo manyyyy cats.... on the I......sland (breaststroke motion)?
Him - "So minny rats?"
Me - "No, cats!"
Him - "Rats yes!"
Me - "CATS!"
Him - "So minny rats on Naxos?"
Me - "Oh for fu....... Cats! I just wondered.... No, not wondered... I...... ask ... you. Why so many cats? Loads of cats.... everywhere (emphasised breaststroke motion). Why?"
Him - "You hask cats, I say rats? We have minny, minny rats."
Me - ".........Ohhhhhhhh, raaaaatttts..... Because of all the raaaats. I getya. Rats........ Just here will be fine, Drive."
Halki is a small mountain village, in essence. Ramshackle in the most part, with a central high street and a few friendly cafes scattered here and there.
Beyond the town was the Byzantine Church of St George. Almost cast away, down a long forgotten and overgrown path. Again, not a soul to be seen anywhere. It was actually very eery but ultimately quite sad. This had been the ancient centre, and now it was very much in decline.
There are some very lovely squares and picturesque streets, and it is a photographers paradise, but it was making me feel quite melancholic. Although, the absence of tourists was a treat for me, this place is never going to survive without them. I refreshed with a Nescafe Frappe, next to a gently purring cat or two and as the drizzle began to fall, I once again summoned my 'driver'.
I arrived back quite late to Finikas but sufficiently enough in time to rush into the restaurant to order my dinner; some potatoes as entree, a roast potato main with a side of potatoes, followed by a bowl of fresh potatoes to finish. I once again spent the evening alone with just a bottle of Santorinian wine, my iPad and some increasingly concerned facebook friends....
That night must have seen the arrival of several new guest as the place was jumping... Quite literally. Honeymooners no doubt. These old style spring beds on tiled floors, don't really make for a quiet night's sleep at the best of times... Just turning over in them and you're likely to wake yourself up, but to have a few floors and a few corridors of ferocious shagging going on in them, well, you have no chance. It felt like the whole hotel was being ripped from its foundations - Like an old steamship's hull being ripped apart at the seams during its final Atlantic storm. Squeaking they weren't, squawking they were. Later, I was to pass this information on to Dimitrios during our habitual morning debrief.
I took the boat to Paros that day. I had been to Paros as a romantic, skint young man and thought it wonderful. It's were my initial love of the Cyclades originally stirred. So this was not only to be a day of sight seeing, but also a pilgrimage to visit my younger, skinnier self.
The ferry was an old noisy diesel that a so evocative of those earlier trips, and the scenery majestic. It wasn't a long sailing and pretty soon we were pulling into the enormous bay that wraps it's arms around Paros town. It was already completely different to how I remember it.
Once I had disembarked, I quickly tried to find my bearings, to find a point of reference but no matter how hard I searched it couldn't be found.... Except for my paradisical little beach that now, for some strange reason, seemed to be sporting a sewer outlet or some such. I couldn't find the old hotel, or the open air cinema, which had been etched into my mind as something akin to an orangery come amphitheatre, the cafes were gone, and to be frank, the whole town had a down-trodden, ill kept feel about it. The early season in the Greek Islands brings to mind bran new whitewashed walls and baskets of hanging flowers, but this, this was something else altogether. I found this too, a little saddening and so I waved down a passing charabanc ( I went to the bus station and waited for a bus that would get me somewhere else and back in time for the ferry home to Naxos) and headed out to the altogether quainter harbour town of Naoussa.
This again wasn't exactly buzzing but I loved it. The fishing boats were plentiful, the harbour busy, the octopus were drying and the brightly painted cafe chairs were exactly as they should be.
The buildings were crisp chalk white as was the sky. I found a little beachfront restaurant called Taverna Glafkos and had one of the most lovely plates of food I've eaten. Just some simple grilled chicken and vegetables and a snowy white lemon sorbet. I had a little time for some photographs and headed back to Parikia in plenty of time to board my ferry.
I must admit, Naoussa is a lovely little town and would be my preferred choice if I were I ever to stay on the island again.
It had turned into a beautiful evening back in Naxos, via a couple of small bars, I found my way back to bar 520, with its cool interiors and even cooler views and settled in. Here, I watched the sun set, the
ferries come and go and tourists doing their thing. The night had turned dark yellow, and it's funny how individual light can be. You would think that it's basically the same time and time over, or at least as repetitive as basketball commentary but it isn't. When I'm scanning through my very extensive photo library, I know exactly where I am by the general colour of the light and sky. It is a very magical thing, that.
I got drunk and ate lots of crisps. I can't for the life of me remember what I did for dinner, or how I got home. You can bet that it involved both potatoes and a cabby though.
The next morning was departure day, and on to the last leg of my phoneymoon. Dimitrios greeted me warmly and as pre-arranged, he asked for our final debrief on how he could improve the hotel and my views on what were already in place. He had surmised that I was a travel Writer very early on, and this was why he had been both attentive and in need of my opinion. It then slowly dawned on me that this must have been what had been going on all along on this trip. A solitary, young...ish, middle aged man, drinking heavily, talking to himself and with nothing but an iPad and a Leica for company..... It reeks of travel writer come food critic. The upgrades were sinking into place. I had had the best of everything and this was undoubtedly why. This was amazing news and one that I would take most advantage of at my last port of call, Mykonos. Strange to think though, that here I am, now a travel writer and food critic. I bid my farewells to the gently weeping Dimitrios, climbed into my cab for the last time and headed back into Naxos Town to await my Seajet. This I did my having a second breakfast, more Nescafe Frappes, a few beers and, having stashed my luggage somewhere safe, like in plain view, I walked off to visit the famous Naxian Gateway 'Portara' and contemplated a swim.
I liked Naxos enormously. I'm not sure it was going to make my true Honeymoon, should that fate ever befall me, like Folegandros, it isn't really a Honeymoon destination..... It's more just for a holiday. Albeit, a wonderful one. I will definitely be back to visit... but I don't expect my cabby, the cats or Dimitrios to remember me.