Few years ago we were given an opportunity to run a bar on a small Cycladic island called Folegandros for the summer season. We’ve never been to Folegandros before so we went to check it out in the middle of February to see what we are signing up for and we fell in love.
Folegandros is a tiny island between Milos and Sikinos on the ferry route from Athens to Santorini. There are just three settlements on the island, the port called Karavostasis, the Chora and Ano Meria and around 650 permanent citizens. The Chora is one of the most beautiful villages I’ve seen so far on the Greek islands, sitting on a cliff high above the sea and guarded from above by the church of Panaghia. It is the typical Cycladic village with narrow cobbled streets, small whitewashed houses adorned by Voukamvilia and Jasmine and taverns with tables outside on the square serving amazing food.
Well, in February, there was only one tavern open and the streets were occupied by the gangs of street cats waiting for the tourists to come and feed them. In general, visiting the small islands during the winter is a different experience. Everything is closed, the streets are empty and the villagers are checking every visitor suspiciously from behind the curtains. There is different light during the winter months, the air is clearer, the colors brighter and the sky full of fluffy clouds. The hills and fields are green and the beaches empty and there is more goats then people running around.
The island comes alive during the Easter (or Pascha in Greek) and it was one of the best Easter celebrations I have experienced so far. In general, I really like Easter in Greece with all the midnight church visits, traditions, family gatherings and most importantly great homemade food. In Folegandros the whole Easter celebration revolves around the icon of Virgin Mary, housed in the Church of Panaghia. On Saturday morning the icon leaves the church of Panaghia together with the priest and a group of the most faitfull and is carried to every single one of the houses or shops in Chora to give blessings and to ensure good luck for the following year. In return, the procession is offered sweets, wine or raki, then the already blessed join the parade and continue next door. Even though we were new to the island and didn’t know many people we were invited to every house and fed and watered so much that in the afternoon we could hardly walk. It was a great chance to see the way of life on the island and to experience the famous Greek hospitality. In the afternoon all the people gathered on the roofs around the main street in Kastro and watch the youngster throw fireworks and firecrackers down to the street. And it didn’t end there, on Sunday it was time for the blessings in Ano Meria and on Monday in the port.
After the Easter the island went back to its winter sleep. As on many other small islands the main summer season is only about two months long and the first visitors, usually the German and French hikers, start arriving around the end of May. There was one night when we were sitting alone in the bar playing Jenga when we saw some faces in the window. We went out to see what’s up only to find out that they were some lost goats eating our flowers. Another time some local kids passed from the bar just to inform us, that a ferry-boat is arriving to the port in an hour and everybody is going to watch because there was nothing more exciting happening on the whole island. This wasn’t the best time for the business but it was my favorite time anyway. The hills were still green and full of daisies and poppies and we had enough time and energy for wandering around the island. We were lucky enough to be able to visit the Chrisospilia Cave, a huge cave on the north-eastern side of the island only accessible from the sea and the sea caves south of the port. We also walked or drove to most of the beaches and enjoyed them quiet and deserted.
There are many beaches to choose from, all of them beautiful and most of them easily reachable by car or bike. However, the best ones are well hidden and can be accessed only by water taxi or on foot. Walking through the barren hills in the middle of the summer can be tiring and its nice to mix it up with the occasional boat ride. Anyway, I recommend walking to every one of the beaches described below at least one way for the amazing views and the feel of the countryside. The stone walls heated up from the sun, the ancient cobbled paths, the smell of oregano and thyme and the lizards running under your feet make for a great walking scenery. For all the walks in Folegandros we used the Terrain map and it was very accurate and descriptive.
There were three beaches in Folegandros that I particularly liked, the Katergo beach, Agios Nikolaos and Livadaki. For Katergo either take a boat from the port or drive towards Livadi. From there a path leads through the hills towards the sea. The last descent to the beach is pretty steep but the views from the top of the cliffs towards the beach are amazing. There is no spring or tavern on the beach so be prepared.
The beach of Agios Nikolaos is best accessed from Agali. From the beach follow the path leading up to the right among the taverns and then continue along the coast. There is another small beach called Galifos along the way, few small churches and a lot of goats. There was a tavern above the beach of Ag. Nikolaos with great food and even better view but its been a while since we’ve been there so I can only hope it’s still open. The beach was a favorite among the nudists and free campers so don’t be surprised to see few naked butts and some tents in the orchard behind the beach.
Last but not least is the beautiful Livadaki beach. Like Ag. Nikolaos, Livadaki can be reached by a boat from the port or Agali or by foot from Ano Meria village. There are two paths leading from the main road to the left down to the beach (when coming from Chora). We choose the first one and it was a huge mistake. The path looks fine starting from the Church of Panaghia Nissiotisa but once we reached the bottom of the valley we lost it in the bushes and we spend at least an hour trying to find our way through the scrubs. When we finally reached the beach Pro had enough and collapsed under a tree. But I decided to explore little bit more and walked to the Aspropunta lighthouse. The path to the lighthouse starts from the left side of the beach (when looking towards the sea) and continues on the top of the cliffs towards the lighthouse. The views of the beach are amazing and there is a huge cave about half way to the lighthouse. Even though it was was hot and I was exhausted this was one of my favorite walks on the island. We returned back to Ano Meria via the second path starting from the right side of the beach and passing from the church of Aghii Anarghyri which was easy to follow, wide and comfortable.
During the summer months we spent most of the time in the shop. There is a popular opinion going around that the Greeks are lazy, usually based on the fact that the shops are closed during the afternoon and their employees sit on the beach with frappe in their hand. The fact is that working the summer season on a Greek island was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. The season usually lasts for about five months with no day off and working 10-12 hour per day, morning and evening. I worked the summer season 3 times and I always really enjoyed the beginning but when August come I was tired and miserable and couldn’t wait to leave the island. My Greek co-workers on the other hand managed to go through the summer with unbelievable energy and good nature and even managed a game of raketball on the beach in the afternoon and few drinks after work, every single day!
There were some movie-worthy moments during that summer. First of all, we lived in the most charming and romantic house ever. Originally, it was a dovecot, tower-like building with small triangle openings on the top that can be still seen in many Cycladic islands, most famously in Tinos. Ours was remodeled to a cute little home with tiny kitchen and eating area on the ground floor, bedroom with build-in stone bed on the first floor, bathroom outside in the shed and the most amazing view of the Aegean sea and the neighboring islands. There were all kinds of weird insects running through the house and going to the bathroom during the cold and windy spring nights was a challenge but I would move back to our little dovecot any time!
Folegandros was also full of very peculiar characters. It was quite common to see the elderly riding their donkey to the orchard or to plow their little field with a bull and a plough. One time a basket weaver come to the island and we hired him to fix our chair. It was more expensive then buying two new chairs and he drank about two bottles of wine for free while working but he was so old school charming that we couldn’t resist. And then there was Madam Irini, a sweet lady who was running a small tavern / mini market in Ano Meria. Together with a home made food she was serving all kinds of gossips from all over the island and had an amazing ability to communicate with everybody no matter of the language they were speaking.
Folegandros is not a cheap island, there are no budget accommodation options and no camping sites. Eating out is expensive and even buying the basics from the minimarket cost twice as much as in Athens due to the small size of the island and the distance from the mainland. This is not the place for clubbing, stag parties or riding the banana on the beach. But if you are after the unspoiled beauty, history, tradition and atmosphere you won’t be disappointed.