Our journey to Amorgos involved flying to Santorini for an overnight stop. It was night to get the same cheerful taxi driver we’ve had on similar stops and to be put in the same small friendly hotel near the caldera, run by a former submarine captain. One night is enough these days, the town is swamped with people from the three or four large cruise ships which lay at anchor below. We had a good meal with a grandstand view of the sunset. It used to be “click click click” but now everyone uses their phones. A shame so many people only use the bars for a drawn-out drink till they get their sunset picture. The meal was twice what it would be elsewhere in Greece but we expect that. Among the beggars were several (or the same one with several pitches!) children playing small accordions, “Never on a Sunday” very badly, ie in my key! The way up from the cruise ship dock is by cable car (for the sensible), donkey (not for animal lovers) or on foot (for the fit or foolhardy). On the way back to our hotel we passed the queue for the cable car which snaked round the block. We reckoned some of the folk there would be lucky to be back on board by midnight!
Next morning the same taxi driver took us down to the ferry port. He was concerned that a Swiss lady sharing the trip didn’t have a hat to wear while waiting for the ferry so delved into a bag and gave her a free promotional baseball cap. The usual fight to get aboard the Seajet and find a space for our luggage, turf some locals out of our seats and settle down for the one hour journey to Amorgos (the return would take us seven but that’s for later!).
Our host, Nikitas, who with his wife, Galina ran the 10-room set of studios met us at the port Katapoli and we drove almost the length of the island to the other port Aegali where we were staying. We were impressed by the quality of the rooms, well-maintained. Everything worked. The shower even had a curtain and a 3” lip so the bathroom didn’t flood! The only drawback was lack of a kettle. There was a very slow one ring burner and a traditional Greek coffee brika (small pot). To brew an early morning cuppa took forever and one mug at a time! We should have known and packed out travel kettle.
The island suffered depopulation in the 1830s when a disastrous forest fire destroyed the timber which was the main export. Earthquakes in the 1950s drove more people abroad so now there were fewer than 2,000 permanent residents in 4 or 5 villages. Most of the terraces were abandoned but plentiful water in the aquifer and many springs meant herbs, shrubs and olive trees remained fertile.
We had our first evening meal in the small village plateia, boasting a Roman pillar among the modern walls. Later on the beach we saw Roman walls where an ancient dock had been. There were the usual kiddies running around and single sex teenage groups on their phones studiously “ignoring” the groups of the opposite sex! We were given large breakfasts every morning which always included something sweet fresh from the bakery or Galina’s own kitchen: even galaktoboukio and bougatsa on occasions (yes, I’m back trying to walk it off now). We were impressed with the size of the village beach. We had envisaged having to hike to smaller nearby beaches to avoid the crowds buy it was large, sandy and mostly devoid of sun loungers and umbrellas. We quickly discovered that most of the families and younger people stayed at the village end where most of the bars and cafes were. At the far end by the Roman walls there were about a dozen loungers in various states of repair and tamarisk trees for shade. We always managed to get a couple of loungers (no charge or obligation to buy). We had taken beach mats but these days getting UP from them isn’t easy! There was also a cafe attached to a set of rooms which owned the loungers and was handy for midmorning refreshments and lunch. One day the waitress even served on inline skates! It was clearly the “geriatric” end of the beach. I was pleased to see recycling bins and lots of exhortations to avoid littering, the curse of some islands. One large group using the beach studios were Greek ladies of a certain age whose organiser was getting increasingly frazzled at they failed to obey any of her instructions! “No, leave your luggage at Reception, I TOLD you. Where is...?”
Our room balcony was small but gave us great views to beach and harbour and sunsets. We were pleased to see a notice at the beach asking people to put rubbish in bins, not in the sea, no nudism and the presense (sic) of pets and other animals on the beach was forbidden. Well the goats obviously read better that the cats and dogs (some of the latter with owners attached) who disobeyed the notice.
The village eateries were all very good, lots of local dishes. The menu read could enjoy shacked coffee, beaked feta, fisherman’s rise, fried squibs, sepia ,Amorgian lamp (brilliant!), squeaker, fried merrow and distaff. I enquired what “croaker” was. It was a small shark (delicious). “Not ‘vatrakos’ (frog) then?” I quipped. No reaction! I felt calling the soft local cheese “malaka” might have been descriptive but not encouraging!
On our second day we noticed from our balcony that a small stage was being erected on the harbour car park made from beer crates and old pallets. We had wondered why the harbour wall was stepped. It doubled as a performance space. Lights and speakers followed. While we had our evening meal we could see groups of people in a variety of local costumes. By the time we finished our meal the harbour seating was packed. We stood on the edge and saw the performances by three groups of dancers, separately and together, with music from fiddle and 2 bouzouki players and singers. At a table near the band other ladies in local dress were cooking up some sort of honey sweet which was distributed to the audience together with wine. The whole thing was free.
We found the bus service very reliable, they even put on an extra bus when people needed to get to the other ferry port if the first one was full. Previous experience of such timetables helped as the impression of lots of buses was really two buses going all over the place, and if you wanted to go to D you caught the bus from A to B, stayed on while it went to C and then on to D. I think it even confused the driver as he once charged us much less than we expected.
Above the port were hill villages linked by winding roads and ancient stone-paved donkey/mule tracks. We’ve got the system cracked now we’re no longer spring chickens. We catch the bus up, explore the village, have a refreshment , find the start of the donkey rack and walk down. The first one from Thorali to Aegali had a spring half way down where donkeys (and walkers) could refuel. It was about 2 miles and took us, with stops for water, breath and photos, about an hour (the signs suggested 30 minutes) . We wore our walking shoes as advised in the walking guide written by a British resident and our sticks (some walks much too ambitious for us) and were, of course, passed by locals wearing flip flops and runners as we carefully picked our way on the uneven surface. Memories of a work colleague who broke a hip on a remote Greek island were always in my mind.
All the inland villages had the protective covered streets roofed with ancient beams, typical of the Cyclades. On some islands the paving stones were edged with white. On Amorgos a lot of the streets were decorated on the surface with flower, fish and abstract designs.
We tried to do a walk after every two or three days on the beach. Usually picking a cloudy day which inevitably was bright sunshine by the time we were mid-walk. From the end of the beach we could walk along the coast to a couple of small beaches and up a long set of steps to a little church (locked, like almost all the island churches). A white-painted Greek capital from an ancient column was part of the decoration of the church. Another bus journey took us to the old capital Chora. We explored, had a coffee and then failed to find the start of the donkey tack to the monastery. We made the mistake of following two young men who had asked directions and seemed to know where they were going. When they met a fence and set off across country on no path, we chose to follow the road. We met them again where they had also met the road much nearer to the monastery. When we passed the other end of the donkey track we decided it would have been too rough and steep any way. By then the monastery was closed for siesta until the evening. When she viewed the 247 steps up, with sheer drop to the sea (the monastery is essentially a large cave with an 8-story facade built across it) Sheila decided she was glad it was closed as she gets mild vertigo . However, there WAS a bus stop by the monastery car park and we went down to Katapoli port by bus. We reasoned (correctly) that if we got on the bus back at the terminus we would be more likely to get a seat than if we tried to get on at Chora. Down in Katapoli we settled in a cafe for lunch. Next table were a group of men with musical instruments and T-shirts in Polish. Suddenly they launched in sea shanties, many of which we knew from our years following The Spinners, Corries, Clancy Brothers and Dubliners. It seemed only polite to join in the choruses, although they sang some of them in Polish. They played guitar, fiddle, whistles, kazoo in a part-full water glass (must try that) and (be still my beating heart!) washboard. They told us they were called Wild Rover, were from Gdina and were about to head off (if their leader could drag them away from another beer!) by yacht to Serifs, their next gig on a Cyclades tour.
Our bus wheeze worked, we got a seat. It amused us that the bus driver expected everyone to have the right change though the prices were not listed and he had one of those old change trays full of graded coins. Back in the village another tavern was featuring live music from a trio- guitar, bouzouki and female vocalist. Not, very good, we thought, perhaps it was open mike night. One night we even left the tavern in a shower of rain! It didn’t last. On the whole the tavernas didn’t give our freebies after the meal, but when they did it was usually rakomeli, the honey- raki combo which is a bit sweet for me. The colour varied from clear to brown, depending on the ratio of honey to raki. One night one young waiter was serving about 20 tables on two floors, doing everything while the boss just manned the till and still remained cheerful.
The other holidaymakers were predominately French including two large groups there for a wedding. One of the local tavernas closed to redecorate in white drapes for the occasion and another closed to supply the cooks while two extra buses were laid on to take guests to the church.
One morning on our way down the 40 steps from our room to breakfast (just sayin’- we reckoned we didn’t need to do the monastery steps!) we spotted a young cormorant fishing from the rocks below. Judging by the droppings on the rock it was a regular spot. We saw it several times. There were fishing boats big and small in the harbour (including one from Kalymnos!) and always fresh fish available. The other walk we did was DOWN from Langada where we stopped for a drink. The church was open and being got ready for a big festival, bringing out the brasses and carpets for cleaning. I went into the village shop for a small bottle of water. The door said “come in we’re open”. I went in, the shop was deserted, the tv was on and the ‘phone ringing. Was this the start of a horror film? After a few minutes the owner came puffing in with a load of stock (it was a car-free road, the delivery van was some walk away! On the way down we passé an olive grove and the trees had a “necklace” of small gourds hanging from them. Any ideas? Was it to indicated they had been or needed pruning (usually a paint mark) or to deter pests, or indicate ownership? Back at the beach I noticed among all the piles of plastic stuff Greek families take to the beach was aplastic waterpolo net in use by some teenage lads. When we reached “our” end of the beach someone was filling the hotel pool from the sea with a hose attached to a chopping trolley. I felt it should have a buoy attached to warn swimmers. The tavern cats and dogs enlivened lunch by having a fight (cats) and then being treed by the dog who then sauntered away.
On the day we left Nikitas drove us to the ferry, dropping his mum off at the clinic in Chora on the way and disturbing lots of goats on the road en route. We had lunch in the same Katapola tavern (no singers this time) and the staff kept us updated on the ferry bad weather delays (the strong Meltemi wind had been whipping the sea up for some time). We finally left an hour late. The journey was scheduled to be 5 hours as it called at several islands (including Naxos TWICE). The boat had to go slower than usual and several of the passengers were suffering. The poor steward was up and down with bags, mop and bucket. We finally got to Santorini in the dark.
Our local agent had put us in a different hotel for the night, much larger, near the main roads, with a pool (room tax 1 euro 50 a night whereas the other one was 50 cents and the Amorgos studios included the tax in the room rate). The reception staff were off hand to the point of rudeness and our room was up and down several sets of steps and contained 4 beds and a balcony that looked out on an airshaft. Still only 1 night. 10.30 by now so we set off to find a meal. S said: “We’ll eat at the first place we come to”. That turned out to be a Mexican Taco bar. So we went to the next one, an unprepossessing fast food-looking downstairs called El Greco, but we were met cheerfully, welcomed upstairs where s few people were dining. The food was very good, friendly service, and despite traffic noise we were happy. They gave us free glass of Chios mastika (the resin-based spirit redolent of chewing gum) to send us on our way. Breakfast the next morning was OK. Mostly large noisy French tour groups eating at refectory tables, we found one for 2 in a quiet corner. Then after the reception grudgingly checked what time our agent had booked the taxi for we were met by the same cheerful taxi driver and off to the airport. Effusive farewells from him, S got a kiss on both cheeks (at 70, the girl’s still got it). Only a handshake for me (I must have lost my mojo).
Queues outside the terminal organised for each flight looked promising. Oh no! Once inside the usual chaos. Weigh your bags then take them back and wheel them to X-ray and loading. We escaped the crush by going to the upstairs lounge/cafe where there were seats. Flight called, speedy borders called. Priority and Speedy boarders led outside into fenced off area. Waited. Waited. Buses came and took non-speedy boarders to plane. We boarded LAST, all overheads full, our cabin bags had to go under seat (fortunately we don’t take huge hard ones, just soft rucsacs).
Flight attendants apologised, it was ground handlers’ cockup and heads would roll (yeah!). Back at Gatwick no queue for passport control, our bags off fairly quickly, an hour from landing we were at the car. Now only 9 months to wait before our next Greek trip, 2 UK and one Italian short breaks to keep us sane till then.