Dave and Gerry's Alonissos Island Information Site
Andrew Kerrigan's Alonissos Travelogue - July 2007
Alonissos Travelogue Part 1... Or - How To Go On Holiday|
In April of 2007, Germany experienced a remarkable heatwave. From the middle of the month on, temperatures soared into the high twenties and for a period of 6 weeks, we didn't see a drop of rain. It was around about this time, sitting by a lake, watching my wife swimming and sipping on a frappe, that my thoughts turned to Greece and my pending summer vacation. Where would I pass my five golden weeks in Elladha? I already knew that I would have to spend most of it by myself as my wife was feeling the squeeze after three years study on her Phd. She just couldn't afford the luxury of five weeks off -- and I couldn't imagine spending any part of my summer vacation in hot, sunny but landlocked Marburg.
So it had to be somewhere like the small, atmospheric, friendly islands with good camping opportunities that I had hopped around before I met Maria: something like Donoussa, Amorgos, Koufonissi, Anafi, Gavdos, Tilos, Kimolos, Karpathos, Lipsoi, Fournoi...
... that was the problem. I had pretty much exhausted the possibilities in this area, sometimes more than once. Or had I?
I had pondered the Sporades before, but had never visited the island chain. Like many aficionados of the islands, I used to land at Eleftheros Venizelos and get the first bus to Piraeus ... with the result that I had hopped only in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and some of the Northern Aegean islands. Moreover, those times that I did consider the group, I recall being put off by disparaging guide book reviews of the touristic horrors of Skiathos, the inaccessibility of Skyros or the infamous earthquake struck, vineyard ravaged and un-Greek Alonissos... Nevertheless, I was intrigued and, knowing how wrong guide books can get it, I turned to the internet for a second opinion...
...And that is how I met Dave and Gerry. There were many internet sites about the island of Alonissos but theirs excelled where it really mattered: it is informative, user friendly, entertaining, comprehensive and so obviously written from the perspective of a couple who have a great fondness for the island. I had to get in touch.
A couple of days after I sent them my congratulations on the quality of their site, together with a query re the campsites on the island, I received a friendly, informative and comprehensive reply together with a invitation to meet up with them should I find myself on the island during the summer. Now this initial contact had a quite magical effect on me. All this research about where to go for my summer vacation boiled down to one thing: I wanted to experience being on the island before I got there. One instinctively knows when something is right and this applies particularly to island hopping. Sometimes, you fall in love with an objectively unremarkable place the minute you step off the ferry. Atmosphere and the idiosyncrasies of subjective experience go a long way to colour one's experience of a place. So it was that on receiving this friendly reply, I had stepped off the boat and knew that it was to be Alonissos, 2007.
Alonissos Travelogue Part 2... OR It Doesn't Matter How Organised You Are, Some Greek Official Will Bugger Things Up... But What The Hell, It's Sunny!|
I more or less consistently subscribe to the belief that it is pointless to look forward to something 'too much'. Such an all consuming desire for things imminent and the calender watching it entails, can only limit your ability to live in the reality of the present. Nevertheless, I equally consistently find myself counting the days and searching desperately for ways to speed up the passage of time in the pre-summer months. Maybe it's because I'm a TEFL teacher and that by this time, I am almost convinced that half the words in the English language mean the same thing in the madness of continually approximating meaning through the twin beacons 'good' and 'bad'.
But I had an extra special reason to be restless in the run up to Alonissos, 2007. From late May on it rained almost relentlessly here in Germany such that by mid-July I had begun to suspect that the April heatwave was actually our summer, precocious though it was and that what we were now experiencing was an equally precocious Autumn. In fact, so pervasive was this sensation that I recall firing off an email to Dave and Gerry, nervously inquiring whether it was 'nice and warm' over there. In retrospect, as we look back at a summer when Greece was plagued by heatwaves, water shortages and devastating forest fires, this behaviour seems a little neurotic. But in my defence, I would say this: it is difficult to believe sometimes when you are lazing on a quiet island beach in late afternoon, where there is not a breath of wind and the sky above your head melts from deep blue through tourquoise to the fiery red hues of the setting sun, it is difficult to believe in such an environment that the heavy leaden skies of northern Europe could ever exist. The vibrant, heavenly light of the Aegean reveals a very different world.
But finally the day of departure came, and with a somewhat teary goodbye, I left my wife in rainy Marburg and headed south.
The journey from the Eleftheros Venizelos airport to Alonissos can only be described as smooth. After all, I had had about 12 weeks to prepare and had read and re-read (and printed out) Dave and Gerry's advice about this very journey many times. Sure enough we stopped at the Joe 90 cafe and sure enough our departure after much queueing was barely signalled by our driver -- such are the 'hazards' of travelling in Greece that can infuriate the one time visitor, while thoroughly entertaining those who are possessed of a hard won familiarity with the culture. I should also point out that the trip itself was a pleasure. Even though I was tired from a night flight on which I snatched all of 30 minutes sleep, I found ample energy to marvel at densely forested mountains, (makari na zoun akoma!), lakes and craggy limestone outcrops whose smooth pink to yellow rock and dark fissures stood out in stark contrast against the morning sun.
Only one, slightly awkward part of the journey deserves comment: the bus to boat transfer in Agios Konstantinos. I knew that it would be tight: the first bus rolls in to Ag-Kon at 8.45, the exact time that the first ferry leaves for Alonissos. Now this might not be so bad... if the bus dropped you at the ferry terminal and there was the opportunity to buy tickets quickly from a port-side kiosk for example... or the next ferry left within, say, an hour of the first; but neither of these were the case. As it happened, the next ferry left at 10.30, alright for some, but I really didn't want to wait. As for the ticket office, well it was in a square on the other side of a busy dual carriage way (in fact the main road north of Athens) with no opportunity for a pedestrian weighed down with a 20 kilo ruck sack to make it across the barrier of the central reservation by any means other than hurdling. As usual, it is that quintessentially Greek approach to organisation where the right hand doesn't know (nor give a shit apparently) what the left hand is doing.
In the end I made the connection,... precisely because I chose to hurdle.
But like I said, after years of travelling in Greece these things only serve to entertain... Besides, if I had got stuck for two hours in Ag-Kon I would have been hard pushed to find anything to do bar sip a frappe and read a magazine whilst looking at the sea... and isn't that what holidays in Greece are all about?
|Alonissos Travelogue Part 3... OR Just Because It's Better To Travel Than To Arrive Doesn't Mean It's Not Nice To Arrive In The End|
|I can remember a time, not so long ago, when a journey by ferry was an absolute joy. Not only were you outside, under the sun, up on deck with a 360 degree panorama of the Aegean and it's scattered islands, you could also enjoy that singular atmosphere of camaraderie which comes from being 'all in the same boat'. These days, however, I more often than not view ferry journeys as a necessary inconvenience. After all, the Aegean has long been the place where older vessels, no longer fit to serve in the North or Baltic Seas, go to cruise the more placid waters of the Mediterranean. By the time they find their way here, consequently, they have seen better days. Not to put too fine a point on it, many of the passenger ferries that link the lesser isles are great, loud lumbering beasts whose rusting funnels belch out a steady stream of acrid fumes that I can never seem to evade no matter where I sit. However, such aging vessels do have one saving grace.|
|Their names. Unlike the modern and sleek "Flying Cat 2", no one who has ever travelled on Dimitroula, Romilda, or Rodanthi can fail to feel at least a little tenderness for their dear rusting hulks. So passed my journey to Alonissos. Deprived of the most effective means of passing time (I had given up smoking some 4 months previously) I could only attempt to eat up the hours by snoozing in those areas of the ship less plagued by fumes, and fiddling with my ipod... Oh, and scanning the passing islands with my binoculars.|
|To wit, I must mention the astonishing verdure of Evia's northern coast seen here from the ferry a hour or so after leaving Agios Konstantinos: Unused as I was to seeing such greenery on the islands, this really impressed me. Later, on Alonissos, whilst discussing this impression with Greeks and other travellers, I was to find out that northern Evia is renowned for the beauty of its forests as well as its trekking opportunities. Indeed, so intrigued was I by this discovery that we made a snap visit to the island 5 weeks later on my last day in Greece.|
|I saw was enough to convince me that a walking holiday on Evia may well be on the cards for next year. (While the fires which blighted Greece in the summer of 2007 did affect considerable regions on Evia, fortunately, they did no significant damage to the forests of north). All this, however, was an afterthought. At the time, I was as yet unsure how to react to this verdant landscape. Yes, it was impressively green... but wait a minute... that's not any Greece I recognise! For so long I had associated holidays in the islands with the parched lunar-like landscapes of the southern islands. Whilst they do not exactly conform to the accepted idea of a desert island paradise (not only do they have no palm trees, they more often than not have no trees... period), they do have a stark beauty which exerts itself ever more strongly with each subsequent visit. Quite simply, I was used to associating the pleasures of a holiday in the Aegean with a certain kind of landscape... and it didn't matter how impressive these views were, I felt a little... displaced.|
A couple of packets of chewing gum and a paximadhi or two later, I woke up from a fitful snooze to admire the impressively rugged coastline and peaks of Skopelos from close up as the ferry prepared to make the final turn toward nearby Alonissos. Here at least was a feint echo of something that I was used to... exposed limestone rock cliffs interspersed with scree and boulder strewn stretches. The ferry turned... and at last Alonissos swung into sight. Green. Out came the binoculars once more.|
I knew roughly what I was looking at from the maps that I had studied and was able to make out the village atop a ridge above the south coast and the scattered southern beaches below. As the ferry drew nearer, I tried to find the campsite, which I knew was somewhere on the south east coast. But it was no use: the tree cover was just too thick. And then there was no more time to contemplate Alonissos from afar. Despite the captain's thick Greek accent, the wind and the dodgy tannoy, there could be no mistaking the message: "Would all passengers whose destination is Alonissos kindly make their way to the exits." Down in the belly of the ship, the doors opened slowly to reveal... the open sea: we were still turning, eventually to back up against the port. As is always the case, the wind had died down now that we were next to land and the temperature had risen noticeably. It had been cool in the morning at Agios Konstantinos and now that it was mid-afternoon, the familiar relentless heat of the Greek summer greeted me like an old friend.|
Soon the door was fully open and I could see what I could hitherto only expect.
It was nice... very, very nice.
Disembarking from the ferry, I finally stepped out onto the port. There was the usual hustle and bustle as rooms were touted and passengers vied with vehicles for a way off and on to the ship simultaneously, but Patitiri does indeed please at first sight. Enclosed by steep, markedly striated yellow limestone cliffs on two sides, the town winds around the calm bay. Whilst not the quietest or smallest of places (and let's not forget that I am used to THE quietest and smallest of places!) it was in ample possession of that most important of qualities: atmosphere. The guide books had indeed got it very, very wrong. It was high summer on the islands and what presented itself was a lively and thoroughly charming little port side town, the kind of place where one could sit quietly and comfortably in a harbour-side cafe and pass a good hour or so just soaking it all up.
I didn't have time more to form a fuller impression; the campsite jeep was about to leave. So off we rattled past the brightly painted fishing boats tied up under the cliff, past the central harbour-side cafes, through the winding whitewashed alleys draped with shocking violet bougeanvillea, up onto the narrow winding road flanked by thick scented pines... and all the while a million hot cicadas crackling away.
Alonissos Travelogue Part 4... OR Not Just An Island, But A State Of Mind|
I have, through experience, come round to the opinion that the best time to arrive at one's destination is in the early evening: such are the demands of travelling that one is more often than not in need of 'a nice lie down' at the end of it all; on the other hand, such is the excitement of having a new environment to explore that it is equally nice to do some low key wandering when one arrives, if only to nose about and get one's bearings. An early evening arrival time accommodates both of these needs, whilst, one might feel, simultaneously revealing one's new home in the kind, calm colours of an early dusk.
For my part, I arrived at the campsite on Alonissos in the early afternoon, and so, it seemed, was stuck with more time than energy until the close of this long, long day. But, as fortune would have it, I was about to waste some time... spectacularly.
When I eventually got my tent up, and had secured it fastly at each of the four corners by stringing up the frame to heavy rocks, and when I had at last located and unpacked such necessities as toiletries, inflatable mattresses, torches, candles, sleeping bag, psatha, wine, etc. and made myself thoroughly comfortable by dragging substantial logs and boulders over to my little patch to serve as ersatz tables, chairs and shelves, only when I had organised my pitch entirely to my satisfaction did I decide that I didn't like this spot after all and that I should move lock, stock and barrel to a quieter spot some fifty metres or so away in the corner of the campsite next to the perimeter fence.|
Such comic indecision, I'm sure you'll agree, is a prime symptom of the stress of modern life. Yes, I was finally out underneath vast scented pines, within a 2 minute amble of the sea, with the sun and the breeze on my skin, and with no one to answer to but myself for the next five weeks... but, there is a certain knack to relaxing, and I was still too used to running about with a 'to do list' in my head that I just hadn't got it yet; in short, I needed a little more time to adjust.
All this I recognised in myself only too well, and so, facing the unenviable chore of relocating with knowing self-mockery, I made a little drama out of a crisis and diverted myself for another hour... or so. The tent finally up, the mattress inflated, stones and logs arranged into ersatz furniture, and a string strung twixt adjacent pines to serve as a clothes line (the ultimate 'territorial pissing').|
As you can see, the campsite near Patitiri has in abundance that most precious of resources: shade. Indeed, I could, reasonably comfortably, snooze away until ten o'clockish without being boiled alive... as is usually the case. However, what really made it for me was that it was quiet.
In the second photo you might just be able to make out the nearest tent to mine away in the distance (they, incidentally, were really lucky, as not only did they find the most private of pitches, they could also see the sea). It was high season on the islands and this site was easily big enough to accommodate those curious and clued up campers who, like me, had made the crossing. Not only this, but attracting the curious and the clued up, it was also possessed of a wonderfully laid back atmosphere, the kind of place where you could pass your whole visit either in monastic silence or in mingling with fellow campers in the open-air communal kitchen area.
The facilities, admittedly, were basic, but no more so than is standard where it really mattered: the showers, were clean, with a decent water pressure, and had hot running water at the peak post beach period of around 5pm; the toilet block, though mostly equipped with "Turkish toilets", as the Greeks call these holes in the ground, were new; likewise the outdoor cooking area where there were plenty of fridges, sinks, bins and electrical sockets to cater for all. A nice little touch here, I thought, was a communal cool water tap in which spring water was chilled to an impressive extent - ideal for quenching your thirst on arriving home after a baking days walking.
If the Patitiri campsite can be faulted, however, it would be by more discerning residents who would notice and mind the fact that it is located about fifteen minutes walk from Patitiri proper up a fairly steep but asphalted road (a short cut exists through the pines which is really beautiful); or that it has no shop, nor sandy beach. But if you want to experience the peace and quiet of the outdoors, and prefer to string together your swimming opportunities in a days walking, then this might well be for you.
So, there I was, all organised and this time with about three hours till sundown... so what shall I do now?
Like I said, I wasn't used to being on holiday yet and still felt that I needed to be worthily engaged in pursuing some end. Now that I was finally settled with no boats to catch, nor tents to put up, now that I could simply sit outside my tent in the early evening sunlight, I felt kind of... aimless. I fiddled with the array of distractions I had brought with me for just such moments: my ipod, the binoculars, newspapers, my fishing rod, books, diaries, radios... nothing seemed to do the trick and give me that precious sensation of involvement that I desperately needed...
There were three hours till sunset when I left my tent, a little bottle of retsina tucked under my arm, bound to eat up as much time as I could on the beach. Instead, I arrived back at my tent with the last rays of daylight fading from the sky, an empty bottle dangling from my fingers, and a look of quiet satisfaction of my lips having walked a good ten kilometres or so round the South coast of the island. For the next ten days, I forgot my array of distractions, I didn't need them. All I needed was to walk.
Alonissos Travelogue Part 5... OR A Walkers' Paradise|
You need to be in the right mood to walk. Sometimes it takes time, and your initial steps can feel like nothing so much as an incovenience, something to be tolerated along the same lines as going to the gym. At times like these, the destination dominates as the only end: the cessation of all unwanted exhertion. In contrast, when you do find yourself in the right state of mind - and let's face it, it is not a mood that is easily cultivated - the end is at all times immanent; present and perpetually fulfilled with every step. Possessed of this awareness, one needs no encouragement to keep going for to do so is constantly to reach one's goal.
Something similar can be said of the difference between a good and a bad book: the feeling 'I've started it so I must try to finish it even though it feels like I'm dragging my eyes through treacle" or "I'm so caught up in this book I wouldn't notice even if my pyjamas went on fire." So it was with my walks on Alonissos. From that first night when I arrived back late to my tent, a little tipsy, but a lot satisfied, right up until I when left the island ten days later, I hardly stopped walking. However, this was not only on account of my mood.
Alonissos is a walker's paradise.
This term is often overused, especially in relation to the islands; but let me tell you why I believe it to be particulary apt in this case. Alonissos is covered in pines. This, as I have explained in earlier posts, I found a little discomforting at first as such verdure didn't seem to lend itself to the wilderness landscapes of the cyclades. However, very shortly after beginning walking that first evening, I understood that the pines dramatically enhanced one's experience of the landscape by appealing to the full range of one's senses. Not only could you appreciate their colour, or the texture they lent to the more distant slopes, but at all times you were surrounded by their heady resinous sent and the crackling cacophonous din of a million hot cicadas. For me, the impression resulting from all this stimulation was of being constantly aware of the environment. I no longer had the opportunity to get distracted by the vestiges of my work-a-day preoccupations; nothing could compete with the imminence of such a landscape. The geography of the island too makes it an alluring walkers location. Lying just off the mainland coast, the last in a chain of three major islands and surrounded my smaller satellite isles.
The coastal views, depending on where you are positioned on the island, can consist of either the distant peaks of Evia, the low lying forested flanks of Skopelos or Peristera, or various scattered isles whose darker forms against the light blue sea seem to describe a 'hat' or 'a wedge of cheese'. Indeed, keeping track of these little isles as I moved between kopses of pines, or in and out of olive groves, was to prove an entertaining means of estimating my progress. On dry land too the geography proved most interesting, particularly with reference to the numerous narrow inlets and bays, most notably at Steni Vala.|
|These form a feature of the coastline and provided the happy walker with frequent opportunities to cool their feet in a clear calm sea. Further inland, Alonissos cannot rank among the most mountainous of islands: the highest peak rises to just under 500 metres and, with the exception of some coastal cliffs on the western side, there are few rugged slopes to attract those who like to mix their walking with a little clambering. However, like the rest of Greece, Alonissos is definitely hilly and presents in its more extreme contours 'a damn good challenge'.|
|As for flora and fauna, I saw precious little of the former - it being the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers of recent times - but I am told that as with most of Greece, Spring, and to a lesser extent the first rains of Autumn, see the island awash with wild flowers. What I did see in the way of flora however was a wide variety of wild herbs and particularly, lush sprigs of wild sage. As for the wildlife, the island is famous for its marine park and certainly it is not altogether uncommon to see dolphins and monk seals in the quieter waters of the north coast.|
On the mountains, on the other hand, the big attraction here as with other locations on the Aegean, is the rare Eleonora's falcon. For my part, I didn't encounter any of these exotic species but did have the good fortune to be tracked by two circling birds of prey for almost an hour whilst descending through thick pines en route to Tsoukalia. It seems from their intermittent shrieks and dogged pursuit of their quarry that I had unwittingly intruded onto their patch.|
Walking-wise, Alonissos does have a lot going for it; but perhaps its greatest asset in this area is an extensive network of well marked and well maintained paths. Unlike other so called "walkers' paradises", there is no secret about how to gain access to and exploit the landscape of Alonissos ... far from it. Before I left Germany, I had found, after the briefest of internet searches, this site on walking in the Aegean and the writers' Alonissos pages:
As you can see, the writers are themselves enthusiastic walkers, with a great eye for detail and have created in these pages a superb guide to the best walks on the island (with one notable exception, of which more hereafter). And as if this wasn't enough, long term residents Bente Keller and her husband Elias Tsoukana have seen to it that the islands beauties are accessible to anyone possessed of 11 euros, a sense of adventure and the ability to read a simple map with their excellent guide book "Walking on Alonissos: A walking and swimming guide."
All things told, with the time, the energy, the inclination and the resources, one could do far worse than to opt for a walking holiday on Alonissos. This was just the fortunate situation I had found myself in as I left my tent early on that first morning with a bag packed for a days walking.