Astypalea: Treasured island
It's a little speck in the Aegean that got lost in time. Richard Waters lands on Astypalea to discover sleepy ancient Greece and not a beery Brit in sight
Wednesday 27 July 2011
On the map, the 18km-long, butterfly-shaped island of Astypalea looks as if it is hiding. It is a mere speck in the Dodecanese group in the southern Aegean, and a five-hour ferry ride from Paros in the Cyclades. I arrived after midnight to encounter a man clutching a hotel sign, who offered to take me back to his pension in the island's main town of Chora.
Looking at the barren scrubland and black waters of the coast at night, it occurred to me that I might have made a mistake coming to this Stygian wilderness.
I'd long been on a mission to see as many of Greece's Aegean atolls as possible – but perhaps I was becoming nonchalant in the face of beauty by landing on too many of them, too often.
The main purpose of my journey, though, was to find something off the beaten track: an island free of lobster-red Brits clutching beers; a place more like the Greek islands I used to visit back in the 1970s as a child. Maybe I was asking too much.
However, come the morning and my first view of Chora, I'd recalibrated my gloomy predictions. Chora sits atop a steep hill and is dominated by a magnificent Venetian fort, which itself contains two brilliant-white churches. Like a composite of everything you imagine about Greece – sugar-cube houses clinging to the rock, blue-shuttered streets and crow-black figures in shadowed doorways – the vista is unforgettable by any standards.
With its distinctive windmills Chora is more typically Cycladic than Dodecanese, and like many hilltop haunts in the archipelago, it came about as a result of rampant piracy. The original town, Scala, is just down the hill, but when brigands appeared on the horizon, the islanders used to grab their things and head to the fort for safety. Eventually they lived in both villages, as is the case today.
As I nursed an espresso by the dock, seagulls wheeled above yellow fishermen's nets spread out to dry. An old man with a rumpled face smoked a roll-up. I looked around, just to check: no Stella-slugging lobsters, just a few ancient mariners.
The odour of freshly caught fish mingled with a distant scent of roasted coffee from a kafenion (coffee shop) as I made my way like Sisyphus back up that sheer stairway to Chora and the local town hall.
But for a cheery Greek Orthodox priest and a few seadogs playing draughts, the place was deserted. Through a fog of cigarette smoke the tourist clerk told me I'd already missed the midday plane back to Athens; happily, I was stuck here for another day.
And so one sunset merged into another as I found a deliciously cool room at the harbour-hugging Hotel Paradisos. Chora's most lively area is at the top of the hill by the kastro (fort), with its distinctive windmills. I stopped off at the Barbarossa restaurant on more than one occasion to sample their super-fresh meze, souvlaki and saganaki (fried cheese), between gawping at the amazing view as the town tumbled vertically into the blue.
There's also a great archaeological museum here (spanning from pre-Mycenaean through to the Middle Ages) with a lusty little bronze statue of Aphrodite. Indeed, the island is as drenched in history as it is sunlight: first inhabited by the Carians, then by the Minoans, and later still by the Venetians, Turks and Italians.
I hired a moped and threaded a lazy path across the island's citrus groves, cornfields and some of its loveliest beaches.
Astypalea doesn't have granular-fine sand; the beaches are mostly rocky or pebbled. But there's plenty of choice on this rugged isle. If it's a little life you're after, then Maltezana (named after Maltese pirates who settled here) is the island's busiest beach, while for true escapism Vatses beach can be reached only by boat (while there check out Negrou, a stalactite cave, once used by pirates in Byzantine times.)
Nudist beaches are located at Agios Konstantinos on the southern side of the island, and at Tzanaki beach, which is located near Livadi (also in the south-west).
In fact, you'd think Astypalea would be the next Rhodes, but there are few Brits here. Rather, it tends to be a magnet for arty Athenians in the know, such as those I chatted with over coffee. They're far from unhappy that few travellers from further away come here. The same can't be said of their views on Greece's present economic climate; all the talk centred around the austere, reformist measures in Athens.
Due to its isolation, Astypalea is not wholly reliant on visitors. Some of the locals live off fishing, agriculture and stock breeding. There's still something special and undiscovered about the place; it lets your imagination run riot. Shipwrecked on remote Vatses beach, I half expected the shallows to bubble with the rising form of Aphrodite.
Apart from beach-hopping there's not a great deal to do here, which is half the charm. After a breakfast of bread, chlori (mild local cheese) and jam made from crushed roses, at the homely Agonigrmi café (almost opposite the windmills in Chora), you should head to Kaminakia beach, accessible by boat. There is a rocky unsealed track to Kaminakia passing vertiginously through mountain meadows and goat herds – the kind of wild environment you might spot a Cyclops – but it's only for the intrepid.
Book-ended by granite grey boulders on one side and high cliffs on the other, the cobalt-blue bay is laced with turquoise. There's a little place there called Lila's Taverna that does a marvellous goat stew and delicious homemade kakavia (fish soup). Keep an eye out too for the local pougia (cheese pie) – it's bad for the waist but good for the soul.
Then, thoroughly roasted and sprinkled in sea salt, wind your legs into action for the evening ascent to Meltemi Café Bar for a pre-sunset beer. If you don't fancy the climb then Maistrali restaurant, tucked away in a backstreet by the harbour, offers everything from courgette balls, aubergine salad and grilled shrimps, to calamari, veal chops and rabbit in tomato sauce.
Eventually I did leave. My next stop was an island swarming with buckets and spades and strawberry-red Brits in fluorescent vests. Now I knew how special Astypalea was.
Athens is served by Aegean Airlines (0871 200 0040; www.aegeanair.com), BA (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; www.easyjet.com) and Viking Hellas (0871 644 8780; www.flyviking.gr). From Athens you can fly to Astypalea with Olympic Air ( www.olympicair.com). Alternatively, take a nine-hour Blue Star Ferry (00 30 210 891 9800; www.bluestarferries.com) from Athens' port at Piraeus. Local boats connect the island with Naxos, Paros, Rhodes, Kalymnos and other Dodecanese islands.
Hotel Paradissos, Scala (00 30 22430 61224; www.astypalea-paradissos.com) has doubles starting at €35, room only.
Greek National Tourism Organisation: 020-7495 9300; www.visitgreece.gr
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