07 October 2006

May it ever remain so blissful

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 7 October 2006

Naxos, Paros, Mykonos, Santorini. If one knows the Greek islands - even if one has never gone there - then these are the Cyclades one knows. Tightly-packed, whitewashed cubist architecture, arid landscapes sprinkled with sea-spray, beach umbrella resorts and all that. Most everyone who goes returns justifiably effusive and exquisitely bronzed.

Yet the chief reason people flock to these Greek islands, rather than other ones, is that they have airports. How much better to visit a place, not because it hosts a Tarmac wasteland built for massive machines, but because you have friends there ready to host you. I happen to be just so blessed, with friends on Andros, the northernmost island in this glorious archipelago.

Andros has no airport. May it ever remain so, for this, the second largest of the Cyclades, benefits greatly from being cut off from the party-hungry hordes who fall out of the sky onto islands further south. Though it is the closest Cycladic destination to Athens, Andros remains splendidly quiet. Indeed, if not for the invitation I accepted, I would never have noticed it.

One sails from Rafina, near Athens. Ploughing across the azure Aegean for two hours, inhaling facefuls of the warm winds that whip over the surface of these waters, one begins to appreciate the vastness of the sea. When Andros appears, it looks scarcely habitable - a parched wilderness of bare, sun-baked rock and sparsely shrubby hillsides, rising from the blue.

Call it the other Isle of Man - andros, the genetive "of man" in ancient Greek - a retreat vastly warmer and drier than its equally windswept namesake in the middle of the Irish Sea. In fact the name may refer to Andros, grandson of Apollo, yet the isle of man it is.

Docking at the port of Gavrio, a big ferry nearly dwarfs the little port town, whose humble collection of white block buildings crowds on a horseshoe-shaped shore. One looks out upon an absence of large-scale tourist infrastructure, merely a row of caf├ęs and practical shops like the local greengrocer. The odd sign points to a small hotel. A small boy, reclining drowsily on the concrete pier, dangles a fishing line in the water while the new boatload of Athenians descends upon the ice-cream vendors.

To a visitor craving genuine, glamour-free vacation - in the true sense of the word - it is a vision of paradise.

My hosts occupied a house distantly overlooking Gavrio from a parched hillside, graced, here and there, by almond trees and gnarled olives. New houses, rising fast in some places, still remain too sparse to eliminate the feeling of wilderness. The Kyriakopoulous, unreservedly welcoming, opened their summer house to friends and friends of friends, lavishing hospitality upon all comers while setting an unchallenging pace of daily feasting, bathing, drinking, reading, conversing and resting.

Patterns of life throughout the long summer develop defensively around the siesta, guarding that vital hour of rest. Siesta becomes a need in the scorching midday, if one is to survive happily without air conditioning. Upon waking in the morning, I was mindful already of the fleeting hours remaining for coffee, a swim, conversation and lunch of meats, bread and dopio tyri, the outstanding local soft cheese. Soaring temperatures would soon force a retreat back to the house, curtains drawn against the sun, for a snooze. At second rising, inevitably it was time to start discussing plans for the evening, perhaps taking time for a second dip in the sea before heading to the market to buy dinner ingredients.

Then evenings stretched effortlessly into wee morning hours when light pollution would drop to zero and, under clear skies, Andros' vistas became visible again, bathed in starlight.

One need not do much to become absorbed by the physicality of the place. The potent mix of setting, activity and food proved immensely invigorating. To get the heart really pounding, better to drive through the rugged hills to Zorkos, a supremely secluded beach through most of the year, a crescent of sand at the end of a bay, framed on either side by steep rock piles that form a corridor out to the open Aegean - a proper strand, benefiting from the seclusion of a tiny cove.

Swimming for the open sea with friends Maria and Hari, crawling over the rotund swells that rolled into Zorkos bay, we cast ourselves adrift in a wilderness of crystal clear blue. A long sprint back to the beach left us panting and hungry, so we retired to an open-air taverna positioned above the sand and gorged ourselves on calamari, salads and a jug of local wine, swelling with simultaneous exertion and satiation. And meanwhile the lone waiter listening to his radio would have had Zorkos entirely to himself, had we not shown up.

The only regret I felt upon leaving Andros after a week was that I never even began to explore the island's substantial archaeological wealth. It is presumably a mistake all too easy to make while holidaying on any Greek island. But Andros has sites of especially timely interest, as one of them was revealed by archaeologists just one year ago - the remains of a large Bronze Age town, dating from about 1900 BC, with four well-preserved buildings so far uncovered.

There is also the impressive Aghios Petros tower, roughly 2,000 years older than the recent find - one of the best-preserved ancient towers in the Cyclades - and evidence of a long warring history which has seen Andros occupied variously by Persians, Spartans, Romans, Turks and Germans. The tower survived it all.

But Athens won out in the end. It seems plausible that the Athenians' desire to keep their island retreat to themselves may be the real reason why there is no airport - and why you have heard so little about Andros before.

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