Armageddon in Alonissos: A late-season treat on a gem in the Aegean? No such luck...
Charlotte Philby is a writer and reporter at The Independent, currently based on the news desk after six years on the Saturday magazine. She has been shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for an undercover investigative into a website offering students up to £15,000 in return for sex. She has also written for cultural magazines including Dazed & Confused and NYLON and contributed to several books, among them a biography of French street artist Blek Le Rat. A mother and born-and-bred Londoner, she spends most of her free time working on her first crime fiction novel.
Friday 25 January 2013
It was a glorious plan. A blast of late-summer sun with three girlfriends on the idyllic Greek island of Alonissos, where my best friend's parents have a tiny house at the top of the mountain.
We were in our early twenties: childless, carefree and with an unhealthy yearning for mahogany-coloured skin. With its winding cobbled streets, endless sunshine and beaches, Alonissos offered the perfect setting for some pre-winter R&R.
Little did we know as we packed our cases, stockpiling bikinis and flip-flops (and not a single pair of trousers between us), that within 24 hours of touch-down, our island dreams would be drowned.
I had stayed on this relatively unknown gem in the Aegean sea several times before. With a population of 2,750, it is the smallest and least built-up island of the Sporades. In the old village at the top of a spiralling mountain, where our house stood, there were just two grocers, known locally as Fat Maria's and Thin Maria's. The few restaurants up here would be closed by this late stage in the season, with the owners resuming their winter jobs until a trickle of tourists started pouring in the following June. But the port, a short taxi ride from the village, would have cafés, bars and restaurants serving up fresh seafood and potent cocktails.
Flights in 2007 were running direct to Skiathos. In previous years we'd had to take a tiny smoke-filled plane from Athens to Skiathos before taking the boat 3km east, past Skopelos. I still have recurring nightmares of those journeys, in which I am chainsmoking Salem menthols and weeping into my friend's lap while that tiny ball of rusted metal thrashes through the sky.
This time, we boarded the connecting Dolphin boat, fresh-faced and giggling like schoolgirls at the start of a horror movie. That night we drank wine on the porch of our little wooden house along a dusty track overlooking the sea. By the time we awoke, it was Armageddon.
The floods that struck Alonissos that October were, according to locals, the worst the island had ever seen. It was as if all the Greek gods were weeping at once, forcing people to barricade themselves into their houses, sending rats flooding into the streets. In the process, washing out our hopes for a sunny sojourn.
Over the next few days, the rains came and went, and then came again. During the few minutes of the day when the sun reared its head, we laid out like shivering sardines on the damp patio outside the house. The rest of the time, with all the restaurants and cafés, bar a couple, shut down due to storms, we filled the hours in the safety of our home, wrapped in sheets and blankets, drinking gallons of retsina, plaiting each-other's hair and applying layers of fake tan like a dysfunctional Brady Bunch.
On our final night, we decided to venture to the port for dinner at one of the few open restaurants. We arrived in beach-shorts and by the time we left, the water was so high in the streets, the staff insisted on fashioning us matching coats out of bin-bags. We must have looked rather dashing, for as we stepped into the taxi our driver – who appeared around 103 years old – told us he was going to a wedding on the other side of the island: would we like to come?
It was one of the strangest and most wonderful moments of my life. When we pulled up, rather sheepishly, around midnight, the party was in full swing: people of all ages, priests and mechanics, dancing in circles around a sea of tables stocked with bottles of spirits and delicious food. We were welcomed like long-lost relatives by the bride and groom and their guests, who were blown away by our enthusiastic line-dancing.
When we finally left sometime after dawn, our ageing driver – who refused to accept a penny for the whole night – pulled a TV screen from somewhere on his dashboard and rocked out to a Shakira Live DVD all the way home.
By the time we awoke a couple of hours later to catch our flight, the sun was spilling in through the clouds. Perfect for illuminating our silhouettes as we threw up over the side of the boat, our bin-bags billowing in the wind.
More Greek idylls
* Rent a luxury villa for two in Corfu, a roofless ruin recently restored by a British artist. Villa Irita, in the hills near St Stephano on the island's northeast coast, comes with handmade mattresses in the bedroom, a wet room, and is surrounded by landscaped gardens centred around a dramatically-set swimming pool. sjvillas.co.uk
* Pack yourself off to a new yoga retreat, set on a private island off the coast of Athens, where week-long courses run from April to October, led by international instructors. Accommodation is in a restored, 19th-century, six-bedroom family home and food is veggie, based around sunny Mediterranean cuisine. silverislandyoga.com
* Five-star eco-conscious Sani Resort, on the mainland's pine-clad Halkidiki peninsula, comes with its own Wetland Sanctuary and is now offering guided bird-watching tours to spot species such as osprey, wood sandpiper, little ringed plover and short-toed snake eagle. The cost (£13) includes a donation to the sanctuary. sani-resort.com
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