Chain reaction in the unspoilt beauty of the Cyclades

Hopping through the 200-island archipelago, Sankha Guha finds an enchanting region of Greece that offers a chance of beating the crowds

Kea rises from the sea like a skin-headed, rock tattooed beast.

Almost treeless and untamed, this is not the Greek island of sweetly whispering pines conjured by Captain Corelli or Mamma Mia! (filmed respectively in Kefalonia and Skopelos). To get here my boat has skirted the equally barren island of Makronisos, where the junta that ruled Greece some 40 years ago incarcerated its enemies. The prison island has been left unpopulated and undeveloped as a monument to those dark times. At first sight, Kea looks scarcely more welcoming, but that may well have been its saving grace.

From Lavrio, one of the ports that serves Athens, it is scarcely an hour’s crossing to Kea. In effect the capital is within commuting distance. But somehow the island has remained below the radar of rich Athenians seeking a weekend getaway until recently. Package tourism has yet to make any significant impact either. As I disembark at Vourkari there are a few small boats bobbing in the swell, a handful of sleepy tavernas, a grocery shop and a couple of bars. This, I am told, is the pulsing centre of nightlife on the island. I like Kea already.

Though it is one of the bigger islands in the Cyclades archipelago, Kea has a modest population of around 2,500. The capital, Ioulida, is not on the coast – a precaution against marauding pirates in less lawful times. Situated in a natural amphitheatre in the mountains, Ioulida is a vertical town of stegadi buildings which seem to have grown organically into and out of each other. Narrow alleyways run through residents’ homes as the contours take them. The steep hillsides and the random twists and turns would have posed problems for any would-be conquerors.

In early season when I visit,  Ioulida still belongs to the locals, though there is a smattering of souvenir shops to suggest the balance tips later in the year. The neo-classical former town hall forms one flank of the main square – its small-town ambition contrasts with the vernacular simplicity of the taverna opposite. On the terrace between these two landmarks, under a canopy of mountain ash trees, a long table is laid out. Tonight local businessman Christos is hosting a party and I am invited.

Iannis, the owner of the Ton Kalofagadon taverna, has the kind of girth that inspires confidence in a chef. He commutes from his kitchen a few metres away bearing simple but wonderful fare – highlights include a deeply earthy beetroot salad, a pork fry up with egg and tomato, and roasted aubergine stuffed with minced beef. The vegetables are all grown in the rotund chef’s garden and have been nurtured with evident pride and love.

The conversation ebbs and flows around the fortunes of Kea and Greece. How, I wonder, did this island escape development? Christos, a semi-retired Athenian who has adopted Kea, explains that Athenians are spoilt for choice; there are other islands more conveniently situated for weekends. Kea only began to be noticed about 20 years ago, which prompted a mini construction boom. And then came “the crisis” and it all stopped. A small black cloud seems to pass over the table. But laughter and banter reassert themselves quickly. “Life is good,” says Christos regularly and in the soft glow brought on by honest food and wine I cannot disagree.

The crisis is, however, all too apparent on a boat trip the following day. I am on my way to Karthea, one of four city-states of ancient Kea. I putter past some expensive-looking real estate perched on the west-facing cliffs, but many skeletal concrete structures are also evident, where developers have stopped work mid-project as demand has tanked.

Karthea itself presents a more noble ruin. Isolated on the south-east coast, it can only be reached by boat, on foot or on horseback. Aside from a couple of workmen and their pack animals, the site is empty. Its inaccessibility only adds to a brooding sense of mystery. Not much remains of the Temple of Athena, dating from the 6th century BC, or the other buildings of the Akropolis, but their location on a ridge that commands the twin bays of Mikres and Megales Poles on either side is evocative.

I close my eyes and try to imagine the deserted beaches as busy ports two and half millennia ago.

On the western flank of the Akropolis a 2,000-capacity theatre has been discovered. The site is being excavated in carefully defined rectangular plots. Within these deep trenches, the recently exposed tiers of seating are eerily well-preserved – as if awaiting the arrival of a ghostly audience.

On the ferry to Syros, reassuring humps of land are always in clear sight. You are never truly out at sea in the Cyclades – there are more than 200 islands in the group. Many are little more than rocks, but on this crossing the substantial outlines of Kithnos, Serifos, Gyaros, Andros and Tinos keep us company, their profiles changing with our approach and the angle of the sun.

Ermoupoli, the capital of Syros, is something of a shock after the somnolent pace of Kea. Seen from the sea, the density of buildings tumbling from the hills seems jarringly at odds with the promise of island-hopping. There are numerous sizeable churches (both Orthodox and Catholic), docks, shipyards, strutting civic buildings, hotels, banks and office blocks. The city is the administrative capital of the region and has a population of more than 20,000.

Overwhelmed by the noise and hyperactivity, I drive out of town, quickly climbing the central spine of the island. Instantly as I go over the hump normal service is resumed. Kini on the west coast is a fishing village with a handful of waterfront tavernas and a low density sprawl of maybe 50 traditional white houses.

I am staying at Pino di Loto, a new development of just four apartments on the Rigouzzo family plot. They’re keeping it small and personal. Mum and dad can be seen fetching, carrying or doing odd jobs, while daughter (and manager) Terezdina fusses around guests like an indulgent mother hen. My room is simply and tastefully furnished. Despite the homespun ambience there is nothing scaled-down about the pool and terrace, which have glorious sunset views over the tight arc of Kini Bay and beyond to the receding blues of the Aegean.

Iannis and Nikos offer to show me around on their boat. It’s an overcast afternoon and though the water is robbed of its luminosity, it is nevertheless crystal-clear. I pass numerous pebbly beaches with no sign of human activity. It is hard to square such conditions with the buzzing town just a few miles away.

At the southern cliffs of Galissas Bay, I am dropped at the mouth of a vast cave. Rough steps carved from the bedrock lead to the 13th-century chapel of Agios Stefanos. In this wild and lonely spot, all that is missing is the presence of a bearded hermit to complete the time warp. I clang the bell as visitors are urged to do. The peals echo out to sea and are  answered by a blast from the fog horn on Iannis’s boat waiting below.

Later I return to the populated side of the island to loiter around Ano Syros – another Cycladic town built inland on a steep-sided hill to deter wannabe invaders. It is referred to as the island’s second town but it has been all but swallowed up by the conurbation of Ermoupoli. The alleyways here are even more densely jumbled than those of Kea’s capital but the concentration of large churches, monasteries and museums on the hill are indicators of Ano Syros’s size and sophistication.

Despite the complexity of the lanes, it is hard in the end to get lost. The only way is up if you’re starting at the bottom – or vice versa. Every corner turned reveals new and striking colour palettes – cobalt, terracotta, mint-green, duck-egg blue, cream and white. Ano Syros is good enough to eat. Some walls are even textured like nougat and as I trudge upwards the splashes of bougainvillea take on the attributes of raspberry syrup. In the heat I am re-imagining the entire citadel as a colossal ice-cream gateau.

The final island of the trip is Paros – the only one of the three that is substantially developed for volume tourism. Even here, especially pre-season, it is possible to lose the crowds. Paros has a gentler and more accessible coast compared to Kea and Syros. The beaches in the south are some of the most benign and family friendly in the Cyclades, offering the perfect opportunity to chill at the end of an island-hopping adventure.

Faragas Beach is small and discreet; there is no development here apart from some private villas. The iridescent water has a Caribbean intensity as the gently shelving sandy floor tilts almost indiscernibly towards the deep. Teenagers play ball games on the waterline, lovers frolic in the bath-like shallows, children explore the rocky outcrops and a  solitary yacht undulates a hundred metres offshore.

My cup of joy overflows when I find Thalassa Mou in nearby Piso Aliki. The restaurant is on a beach, but it is Anna Kouda and her chef husband Mario who are making waves here – collecting rave reviews since they opened last year. Their modern take on taverna fare is a revelation. For example, Mario reworks dakos – a traditional Cretan mezze – by crushing desiccated barley rusk to create the base layer, which is  topped with tongue-tingling home-grown cherry tomatoes and goat’s cheese made by his mother. The dish is best eaten fresh at the tables under the tamarisk plants at water’s edge.

On the balcony at the Poseidon Hotel in Chrissi Akti I watch a squadron of swallows swoop in and perform an exquisite aerobatic  display in the vast theatre of sea and sky. The hotel occupies a headland at one end of the Bay of Drios. The beach curves south in an impressive crescent. It has been named unimaginatively but with admirable precision – Golden Beach.

As the sun descends a sea mist rises from the water along the base of the other visible islands, which appear to be floating on clouds. Naxos is to my left. Drionisi, a tiny rock on the map, acts as a breakwater to the bay. Over the shoulder of Drionisi is the hump of Irakleia. In the distance I can just make out the elongated strip of Ios and to its right Sikinos. They feel like family.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Sankha Guha travelled from Heathrow to Athens with Aegean Air (aegeanair.com). Alternatives are available on easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com)..

Getting around

Ferries between the islands are offered by Nel Lines (nel.gr)  and Blue Star (attica-group.com).  Car hire is available through  Maistrali on Syros (maistraligroup.gr) and Galanakis on Paros  (gm-rentacar-moto-paros.gr). 

Staying there

On Kea, Porto Kea Suites  (00 30 22880 22870; porto kea-suites.com) has doubles from €109, including breakfast.  On Syros, Pino di Loto (00 30 22810 71504; pinodiloto.gr) has doubles from €150, including breakfast. On Paros, the Poseidon (00 30 22840 42650; poseidon-paros.gr) has doubles from €80, including breakfast.

More information

Visitgreece.gr

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
people

Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
Life and Style
Passing on: George Washington died alert, aware and in his own bed. This is the kind of of death most people would like to have
health
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tv
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Service Receptionist / Warranty Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion the Largest Independent Motor...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game