A father and son visit Greece’s Small Cyclades islands, little-known compared with neighbour Naxos, and all the more charming for that
I had two reasons for coming to Greece – if it makes sense to need reasons to take a late spring break in the sunny and little-visited Small Cyclades. First, to have a few days of father/son bonding with Felix. Ten years old seemed about the perfect age: young enough to wonder at the newness of things, mature enough to translate this wonder into conversation. In preparation, he and I bought some ridiculously expensive father/son matching swimming trunks, thus establishing a theme of boys-on-tour camaraderie. And second, to see if I could persuade Felix to get excited by Greek mythology – even, ambitiously, to see if we could end the week having a conversation about the respective merits of the Iliad over the Odyssey – which he would consume in accessible comic-book versions.
The jumping off point for the Small Cyclades is Naxos, reached by taking a flight to Mykonos then a ferry or hydrofoil.
In the Odyssey, Ariadne’s journey to Naxos was rather different. Her father, King Minos of Crete had smashed the Athenians in battle and forced them to give up their young men and women as regular sacrifices to the terrifying half man/half bull Minotaur. Then Theseus arrived, posing as a victim but on a mission to slay the Minotaur. Falling in love with him at first sight, Ariadne supplied Theseus with a sword and a ball of wool for finding his way back out of the labyrinth. But Theseus, once his mission was accomplished, dumped Ariadne and left her stranded on Naxos. Some versions have a happier ending, where she becomes the bride of Dionysus, the anarchic god of wine.
Naxos doesn’t feel particularly Dionysian these days. Much quieter than its more fashionable Cycladic neighbour, the knowingly cosmopolitan Mykonos, Naxos is far less geared to mass-market tourism. Not having an airport of any international significance nor a port capable of receiving those towering multi-storey cruise ships, it sits gently in its own cultural micro-climate.
Blessed with an unusually good supply of water, its central regions are lush with geraniums and dog roses and the island is famous for the quality of its food. This generates a degree of self-sufficiency that insulates it a little from the chill winds of economic austerity that have created so much social havoc elsewhere in Greece.
In the mountains, it’s a place of goats, shepherds, and tiny, solitary, whitewashed churches. In the town, the quayside was abuzz with hormonal teenagers on scooters staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. It felt romantic, in an unflashy way, without a hint of fleshpot about it. Even Ariadne wouldn’t mind being stranded here.
But the overly generous hospitality was making me feel more Homer Simpson than Homer. On the main drag of Naxos Town, along the harbour, a long line of restaurants are fronted by generally unpushy, but nonetheless still slightly off-putting proprietors, enthusiastically seeking to drum up trade. Judging by the simple evidence of bums on seats, Meze2 was doing something right, so we resisted the temptation to retreat up the hill into the calmer atmosphere of the medieval city, and allowed ourselves to be looked after by the friendly, bodybuilding owner.
Felix looked suspiciously at the menu, obviously disappointed at the absence of margarita pizza. Earlier in the day, up in the mountains, we had come across an old guy skinning a goat strung up on a tree. Mistakenly, I started a conversation with Felix about this being the reality of food – I wanted to encourage him to think past the packaging of most of what he consumes. But the whole blood and carcass thing wasn’t working for him, and once we had sat down to eat, I began to fear I had made a rod for my own back. But not a bit of it. As I got started on a delicious whitefish and dill salad, he tucked into fried calamari with genuine enthusiasm. He wasn’t quite ready, though, for baked cheese, with all its smelly and delicious gooeyness.
From then on, time spent in our villa was recovery time between meals. The specialities just kept on coming: tuna sashimi, a whole cow’s head roasted in the outdoor woodburning oven by our ebullient host, Ioannis Margaritas (Felix was unpersuaded by that one), more grilled cheese, sardines and the local potatoes, widely considered the best in Greece.
On top of this came an endless supply of raki, which I always thought of as Turkish but seemed to be drunk more commonly in Naxos than ouzo. But when even Felix started to echo back the word yamas – “cheers” in Greek – I knew it was time to catch the ferry to a simpler existence, away from the blurry influence of Dionysus.
The Small Cyclades are a group of six main islands (and dozens of tiny ones) between Naxos and Amorgos to the south-east. My yoga-loving hippie friend Lucy begged me not to write about them, fearing it would encourage more people to discover them and thus disturb their unhurried charm. The beauty of these tiny islands is that they are so empty – outside high season, at least. Long undisturbed beaches, not a soul in sight, perfect sand that slopes gently into the sea without that annoying barrier of sharp pebbles on which to stub your toe, improbably clear turquoise water and not a postcard shop for miles.
First stop was Koufonissi, a one-village island, local population 370. Once the haunt of pirates, it is rocky and arid, punctuated with cliffs and caves and little inlets from the Aegean creating natural swimming pools. It could have come straight from the pages of the Boy’s Book of Adventure.
But the appeal is as much to me as to Felix. If I ever have to do a Lord Lucan and flee the country, this is where I’ll head. With a basic room about €35 a night, the only reason this glorious corner of the world is so empty is because it generally takes more than a day to get here from the UK. A flight to Mykonos, then a ferry or hydrofoil to Naxos, then a slow boat that drops in at several islands, like a number 55 bus.
The two-and-a-half-hour crossing on the Express Skopelitis ferry from Naxos to Koufonissi can hardly be counted as part of the travelling though; it’s more a part of the decompression required to reset one’s clock to a slower rhythm of life.
There are no shops or taxis, no fancy restaurants, no X-box. Half a mile across the sea is the legendary island of Keros, once thought to be the doorway to Hades, and now uninhabited except for teams of visiting archeologists from Cambridge University picking through the rich remains of Bronze Age Cycladic history.
After two days spent mostly sitting in the cafe/bar on Finikas beach with a pile of books, salt and sun tickling my back, and a Campari and soda by my side, some organic Ritalin-like alchemy (I think it’s called nature) has fully altered my emotional time zone. And, for a man whose first priority is usually the strength of the Wi-Fi signal, this takes quite some doing. The change is complete when I realise, first to my horror and then to my delight, that I cannot remember what day of the week it is.
In August, the population of Koufonissi is swelled by 5,000 tourists – mostly Italian and Greek – and room prices rise to €70. But in May, June and September, this place is just perfect. I hear that the local fishermen catch lobster and Dimitrios, the bar owner, happily drives over to the village to pick me up a real beauty for tea. His black labrador cross runs alongside his van. Abandoned on the island two seasons ago (is being stranded here becoming a theme?), and now adopted by the bar, the dog goes everywhere his master goes. Felix and I, however, are moving on.
Quieter and even less developed, Iraklia, population 170, lies about 10 miles to the south-west. From our guesthouse, high on a hill, the numerous tiny islands spread out over the Aegean are almost unreal in their beauty. This is a Greece I had not expected. Quiet, secluded, almost cut off from the rest of the world. A solitary donkey wanders past, without any obvious supervision.Nungwi Village
This feels like it might be a degree of isolation too far. In the absence of any public transport, the hotelier picks us up from the ferry and is available to run us down to the village or to the beach as required. I feel slightly uncomfortable about this, prefacing every request for a lift with various extended apologies for “disturbing you” and “sorry for being a pain”.
I begin to miss having control over my own movements, but eventually give in to the joyous and unselfconscious drifting of the life of a child. Dossing around is what we used to call it. Suddenly I notice that I have found some temporary release from the urban labyrinth of cares and concerns that squats over my working life. I am entirely comfortable in the moment, without much thought to past or future.Nungwi Village
Felix sits on the jetty, legs swaying aimlessly a few feet above the water. Small fish are darting in and out with as little apparent purpose as our day so far. Steep, dramatic cliffs focus the sun in our direction. We think about making a sculpture out of driftwood. For the first time in ages, I am released from any anxiety about purpose or achievement. Who cares when the car comes to pick us up?
“I prefer the Iliad, Dad. More battles.”
I disagree with his conclusion. But now our twofold purpose in coming to Greece is achieved. I kiss him on the head and reach out to hold his hand.