With great anticipation, we left Athens with Evy to travel by ferry to her summer house, which she now rents out to visitors, on the Cycladic island of Andros. We knew very little about the place, but were assured by Evy that it was special and unlike the other Greek islands.
Evy was right. Andros is special. As one travel writer has said, ”Andros is a serious island.” This is not a place like Mykonos or Rhodes or the other more popular Greek islands, with flashy luxury hotels, and lots of bling, and touristy beaches for boozy partying. While there are lively little tavernas and beautiful quiet beaches with clear water for snorkeling that attract lots of visitors in the summer, Andros has no big resorts, and only a modicum of small-scale tourism. The second biggest island in the Cyclades after Naxos, Andros has been since the 19th century the home of Greece’s ship captains. Its main town on the east side of the island (called “Chora”, which means “main town”!) has many solidly prosperous houses and other evidence of its rich heyday. The east side, where the ferry comes in at Gavrio, has small towns with old-fashioned guest houses and summer homes. Andros in the summer is more likely to attract Greek families than the foreign party crowd.
Perhaps because of this history–one guidebook says that the ship captains and their descendants made a deal with the farmers on the other side of the island to keep out the worst of the resort folks–Andros has remained an authentically Greek island, with real residents who continue to live off the land and without enormous development. This means that one can still find untouched beaches occupied only by a taverna where local residents congregate, local produce and products sold in the shops, and all manner of livestock roaming the hills. George was thrilled to help out a farmer trying to capture his runaway donkey on the road; and the next day he saved a goat whose horns were stuck in a fence. Bee hives appear all over the hills, and we were able to special-order a fresh rabbit for dinner at the local restaurant in the town of
You can see that we’re excited by this experience: I’m getting ahead of myself in this narrative. Let me go back a bit to talk about Andros’s natural setting a little more.
Evy’s house is in the village of Aprovato, about 10 km. from the port of Gavrio–so one needs to rent a car to get around (there are several rental agencies right off the ferry
landing–we are now driving a Fiat Panda!). The house is up a hill that looks out over the sea; on a clear night, you can see the lights of Athens far in the distance. And here is the view from her veranda:
The hill is the site of Ypsili, an archaeological excavation of a large settlement that was there in the Geometric Age of the Iron Age–that is, the 10th century B.C.! As Evy says, one can sit at night and imagine the people who lived there so long ago. The photo above of the moon setting at dawn captures some of that cosmic feeling, too. Sometimes a bit spooky, actually.
The island’s coastline has continually sweeping vistas, and sometimes little roads down to beaches, and a whole set of well-marked hiking trails that lead to ruins or monasteries or the remains of watermills and windmills. Andros is also different than other Cycladic islands in that it has an abundance of water, with little streams and gushing waterfalls visible along the hillsides. The town of Batsi even has a channeled spring running along its steps through its neighborhoods; and springs provide places to fill bottles with water at several spots around the island.
Since we have been here in early, early spring–and a cold and rainy one at that–we haven’t been able to sample the waters for swimming, inviting as they have been. While the weather has been dismaying to Evy–”I told you to come later in the year!”–the biggest advantage, aside from no summer crowds, has been seeing the fantastic display of wildflowers. I just can’t get over the fact that snapdragons and iris grow wild here, springing out of the sides of walls and rockfronts. Daisies, chamomile, wild pea, thistle, and a host of other delightfully colored blossoms are bursting out all over the place right now.
Andros has two distinct architectural or structural forms. The first is the result of the geology of the island, and the other developed as a local aesthetic preference. Every hill and valley on the island contains amazing stone walls, built out of the shale rocks and schist that are readily available everywhere. The local builders have created amazing walls, usually without mortar, known as aimasies, that fit in so spectacularly with the landscape that it is difficult sometimes to distinguish the walls from either ruins or natural formations! This style has now been translated into modern wall-building, evidence of which can be seen surrounding the nicest hillside homes and hotels. Truly stunning.
The second architectural feature specific to Andros is their method of finishing their stucco buildings. At some time in the 19th century, or perhaps even earlier, Andriots began to create a striated ”sardine” surface on their exterior walls, whether for dovecotes (another delightful feature of the island’s landscape are these castle-like structures to keep pigeons and squab) or the finest houses. They have continued to use this method–apparently done originally with a thumb rubbed across the surface–a characteristic for which the island residents are proud.
The natural setting, then, is bucolic and alluring and beautiful, but with one major drawback: WIND. Andros is so blustery that it is known as the Isle of the Winds, and the neighboring island of Evia is supposedly the home the Aeolus, god of the winds. We have already experienced fierce gusts–the day after Evy left for Athens, the ferry didn’t run because the gales were 8 on the Beaufort scale. When the sun is shining, these “breezes” can be refreshing, and keeps the summer heat at bay. But if it is at all overcast or rainy, this windiness can be downright treacherous and bone-chilling. We have met a delightful couple who retired here from San Francisco–he is Greek-American, so can speak the language and they have built a home on his father’s inherited land. They are so enthusiastic about the place and are trying to persuade us that we should move here. It is extremely tempting, believe me, but I do think that the winds would get to me after a while. That is, of course, not the only hesitation, and we are aware of all the problems that could arise–but the possibility is seriously worth considering.
We had planned to be here for only a few days, then head out to other places, either in northern Greece or off to Istanbul. But we have become so relaxed, so enchanted, with this place that we have decided to stay for another week! This is the first time in our travels that we have been 1) in a separate house without neighbors in other apartments, or people to be responsible for; 2) not in an urban setting; and 3) somewhere that invites simply taking it easy. After 7 months in cities and on the road, I think we need a dose of nature and solitude.
That’s not to say that Andros doesn’t have community and culture. In Chora, we found–as only nerdy librarians can–an amazing library, based on the collection of Theophilos Kairis (1784-1853), an Andros native who became a priest, philosopher, and finally hero to the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s (he died in prison after being excommunicated from the Orthodox church for his “heretical” beliefs). He left his remarkable collection of books in all languages to his native town, where they are now part of a public library housed in a beautiful Neoclassical building that was once the home of one of those Greek sea captains who favored this island.
The town also has a first-rate archaeological museum, with excellent displays of artifacts found on the digs on the island, including a magnificent Hermes sculpture (a Hellenistic copy of a 4th-century B.C. original) found at Palaiopoli, as well as a quite edgy contemporary art museum, donated by the Goulandris family, another of the shipping magnates.
And, of course, there are the Andriots themselves. We were so lucky to be here on March 25, Greek Independence Day (celebrating liberation from the Ottoman Turks), which is also an important religious holiday, The Feast of the Annunciation. Just as it is in Australia on ANZAC Day, being in a small town for its festivities is very poignant and sweet. All the town’s children were dressed in traditional Greek costumes, the procession began at the church where everyone was blessed, and a town band played marches before the singing of the national anthem at the main square’s placing of wreaths on the memorial statue in honor of Andros’s war dead. Delightful.
Thank you, Evy, for introducing us to such a treasure of an island! We have been enriched. And what can beat an Andriot goat sunning himself to end this missive?