Central Europe - Greek Islands

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  • Paros is just lovely - the architypal blue-and-white Greek island. We had lots of time to explore around the port of Parikia, walking right around to the headland chapel of Agios Fokas. We also went up into the central highlands to walk the Lefkes to Prodromos trail, along the old Byzantine road.

    One other day trip took us out to Antiparos - not as dramatically beautiful as Paros, but there was a pleasant little town, and we managed quite a long walk a good way around the island before cutting back through the centre.

    Naxos is another stunning Cycladian island. When you arrive almost the first thing you see is a windmill, and the main city of Hora is a web of steep cobbled alleys, with a wealth of little shops and cafés. Like Paros, Naxos had relatively few tourists, and we could wander around the streets without having to battle our way through masses of people, as would be the case in high season. One of the most iconic sights in Hora is the Portara, the remains of the ancient temple dedicated to god Apollo, which dominates the skyline.

    We were staying out near St George beach, but could easily walk into the port when we wanted a different choice of places to eat, or to skindive down below the Portera.

    I was very keen to do some walking on the islands, so we caught the bus up to Halki and found one of the loop trails that wind around the hillsides. The trail took us firstly to a small Byzantine church, just out of the village, then on to Agios Georgios Diasoritis church, out amongst the olive goves. We then looped back, visiting two ther little chapels on the way. Finally, we walked on to Filoti for a very late lunch before catching the bus back to Hora.

    I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday while we were on Naxos, and elected to do another walk - this time we took the bus to Skado, then walked down to Apollonas, on the coast. This walk goes through private property - most of it is across land running goats for a cheese-maker, so you have to open and shut gates as you go. It was a great walk; not difficult, but with stunning scenery. True, we did get a little off-track a couple of times. We spent about an hour picking our way through a densely-scrubbed terraced hillside, hopping from one goat trail to another, when we totally missed what should have been a Byzantine trail that looped back around the hill, but we generally found the path from my roughly copied directions, and it was a wonderful birthday.

    Our last walk on Naxos was along the beach stretching away from Agio Anna. We walked out from Hora via Agio Prokapios, which was mainly along the road, but once we were out on the beach the walking was just fine, and the sand stretched out ahead of us, inviting us to go further and further.

    Mykonos wasn't a place we really wanted to stay, but it is the easiest place to use as a base to visit Delos, and it was on our route towards the north Aegean islands. We round a room in our normal fashion (look for someone holding up a sign at the port) and found ourselves in huge family room in a perfect location, right in the middle of the old town. In the event, that was the only good thing about our accommodation; we had the neighbours from hell, who came in each night at about 4AM, partied up on the roof terrace immediately above our room, yelled, tried to get into our room, and carried on until after sunrise. This tells you something about Mykonos - it still had tourists, unlike most other places we had visited in Greece. The streets teemed with people and the place was living up to its reputation as a 'party island'.

    Having said that, Mykonos is another beautiful island, and Hora is a lovely town, with endless little twisty passages, lots of blue-and-white buildings, chapels at every trun, and iconic windmills on the skyline.

    We had only one short day to see Delos, and it isn't enough - the site is huge, and if you are prepared to walk out the side trails there are so many places to explore. I've seen bad reviews of Delos, critical of the organisation of the site and the lack of amenities, but we found it wonderful. We were fore-warned, and carried lots of water and a little fruit for lunch, so we were self-sufficient and the only critisism I have is that the last boat back to Mykonos left at 3PM and we would have liked another couple of hours on Delos.

    We had been advised that the only port in the Cyclades that provided a ferry service to the northern Aegean was Syros, so that was our next destination, but only for a few hours - then we would go on to Samos. All of this had to take place on a Friday - the only day that a ferry ran between the island groups.

    Well, the Friday thing was correct, but we went to Syros, spent the day wandering around the town, and when we finally got onto the ferry (much later than the advertised time) it promptly sailed back to Mykonos!

    The ferry was (originally) due to arrive in Samos at around 3:15AM, but we had a cabin, and intended to get at least a few hours sleep. Great idea, but we were located right over the anchor, and the crashing noises that came as the chain rattled out each time we pulled into a port ensured that we had little rest.

    We arrived in Samos at around four-thirty in the morning. The port was busy with refugees, confusing in the dark. The port at Vathi was a couple of kilometres out of town, so we walked in, and found an obliging hotel with a man who let us check in early. It was obvious that we weren't going to get any more sleep, so we spent the morning wandering around the waterfront. Mid-morning we caught a bus to Pythagorion, hoping to see the Tunnel of Eupalinos, the Church of Spiliani with its chapel in the cave, or the Heraion of Samos. We passed groups of refugees walking to Vathi, having landed further down the coast.

    Pythagorion was a lovely little town, but the lack of local buses proved to be a real nuisance. We walked out to the Tunnel of Eupalinos, only to find it closed for maintenance. We did get to see the cave chapel at the Church of Spiliani, and play with the seven cats which seemed to be the only inhabitants of the associated buildings, but by that time it was far too late and too far to walk to the Heraion, so we decided to do that the next day. But...the next day was a Sunday - no buses anywhere. So we walked up into old Vathi, and took another walk up the coast past Gagou beach, where, to our astonishment, there was a monk seal laying on a day-bed!

    Come Monday we gave up. the Heraion wasn't open, and there were no buses out there anyway. We cut our losses and went to Chios. The travel agent who sold us our ferry tickets warned us that the boat might be swamped with refugees, and that the shipping company advised that we buy the more expensive numbered seats. We did that, and boarded the huge car ferry, built to take hundreds and hundreds of passengers, to find that there were only two cars and less than twenty passengers!

    Chios presented some of the same problems with public transport, but we worked our way around it. We walked up the coast to Vrontados and back, and explored Chios town, with its castle, but we were really keen to go out to the mastic villages. I'd planned to walk between Pyrgi and Mestá, but the lack of buses made it more-or-less impossible to see the towns and complete the walk - we would have to catch a bus back far too early. We decided to go to Pyrgi one day, then the next day we would go to Olympi and walk to Mestá from there. All went to plan; we spent a day going to Pyrgi and walking all around the village. It was quite closed down, and we were lucky to find a single café open for lunch - it closed very soon after. The next day we took the bus to Olympi, expecting to walk along the road to Mestá, a prospect that didn't really appeal to either of us. Luckily, there was a sign for trail between the two villages, so after looking around the town we cut off towards the hills on a path that wound through the mastic groves and up through a pass to Mestá.

    Mestá is the best preserved fortified village, difficult to get into and out of. We more-or-less circumnavigated it before finding a gate, and once inside, having wandered around the twisty streets with their tunnels and branches, then sat and eaten lunch in a miraculously open restaurant, we were totally confused as to how to get back to the bus stop. Eventually we found someone to ask directions of, and emerged back onto the road to get the bus back to town.

    Refugees were still pouring into the town. The UNHCR had set up a camp in the local park, and people who didn't fit there were finding somewhere to camp wherever they could. Some people had tents, but many just slept out in the open, although it was cold, and light rain set in at night. It was obvious that something was finally being done to help the refugees - they were being processed and given papers, and a special ferry (the biggest ferry we have ever seen) was put on to take people to the mainland. We watched for over two hours as thousands of people filed onto the ferry. It was very orderly; children were subdued, and the few people who had incorrect paperwork were the only ones panicing, as they raced around in the night trying to fix the problem.

    Despite the departure of all those refugees by ferry the town was still thronging with Syrians the next day, although we did think that you could notice some difference in the numbers.

    We had decided that Chios would be our last island; although we had expected to go to Lesvos we were aware that there were enormous numbers of refugees on the island and, from our personal perspective as tourists, the lack of transport was frustrating our attempts to see places that appealed to us. On a cool rainy day we left for Turkey.

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