Saturday, 8 June 2013

Greece: Astypalaia, the white nymph of the Aegean Sea

as soon as you set foot on this hospitable land you will instantly feel the calm vibrations that will  wash off all the anxiety and preoccupation.

(updated with links!)

by Kon Hans

Deep in the Aegean Sea, in the borders between the Dodecanese and Cyclades, a glorious lady, an Aegean nymph, stretches out her wings, wide over the waves, while her crown, ancient and splendid under the sun, rises proudly and shines like a lighthouse day and night, visible for all to admire.  It is the "Chora" (main settlement of an island) of Astypalaia, one of the most beautiful in all the islands of Greece. Familiar white Cycladic houses mixed with the Dodecanese character, pulled tight together, blend marvellously with the environment as they seem to pour from above, from the Castle, like pure white lava that engulfs the hill all around.

The Chora is certainly the most famous attraction of the island and will require most of your time and your admiration, but also the rest of the island with its famous and remarkable shape as a "butterfly", with its small coves, beaches, islets, its mysterious caves and numerous paths is generously offered for exploration.  The legend wants the island as the only island in Greece without snakes, "ehthron einai tis ofesin" (in ancient Greek meaning “an enemy to the snakes”) by the words of Aristotle, but at the same time it is believed to host a dragon in its innermost part, in the Dragon's Cave or “drakospilia” (in Greek).  

An island with a mysterious power, some call it magnetic field like its nearby sister island of Amorgos, while others believe that it is something deeper;  you, on the other hand, as soon as you set foot on this hospitable land you will instantly feel the calm vibrations that will  wash off all the anxiety and preoccupation.

The Chora and the Castle of Querini

"Agios Georgios" (St. George) in the Castle
Once you settle down either in Pera Gialos (the old harbor and a more economic option) exactly below the Chora, or in the Chora itself (a more expensive option but with spectacular view), or in Livadi (more touristic) or even in the famous camping of the island (one of the most organized campings in all the Aegean), you should then start ascending to the Chora. High up there, right beside the beautiful mills, lined up as if waiting another Don Quihote, let your gaze wonder at the unblemished Cycladic architecture and the infinite Aegean Sea far below.  

At some point, in the midst of the magic alternation of the pure white and blue around you, your gaze will meet the greyish Castle of Querini standing proud, high above the Chora, the last jewel in the crown of the nymph Astypalea: it is your next destination.  The climb among the alleyways is in itself an artistic travelogue with the inspiration awaiting you in every corner, but the destination is even more exciting. 

"Panagia" (Holy Mary) of the Castle
The view from the Caste is unique, while the windows of the restored Venetian settlements are like frames of paintings of outstanding beauty, like a living museum where the exhibits are masterpieces of nature itself.  These settlements, the so-called Castle-houses, collapsed in their majority in 1956 along with the entire north-east side of the wall, when a tsunami as high as 25 m. hit the Island as a result of a strong earthquake.  Since then, there have been multiple intents of restoration from the authorities, not worthy though of the beauty of this citadel. Unfortunately, here also the lack of information with multilingual texts, with marked paths and other infrastructure, degrade even more the tourist value of this unique place. 

Chora of Astypalaia
After leaving the Castle, you can enjoy a more leisurely walk in the Chora and refill your energy by trying the “pougia” ("pouch" in Greek,  a kind of sweet pastry in the form of a pouch), “chlori” (a salty kind of cheese), or toffees with local honey and saffron and other local delicacies.  Some nice taverns and restaurants with a distinctive colour to enjoy these specialties are “Ageri” and “Barbarossa” in Chora while most of them are down to Pera Gialos, like “Akrogiali”, “Australia”, or the “Maistrali”

As the sunset arrives be sure to pay a visit to the unique terrace of “Archipelago” and taste its exceptional confectionery  where especially at night with the exquisitely illuminated Chora in front of you like a gem beneath the moonlight, you will live a magical experience that will accompany you forever. 

Sunny beaches, gloomy caves

Sea view from above
After you indulge in all the delights that the Chora has to offer, it is time for the charming beaches, the magical trails and the mysterious caves that await your visit.  The beaches are mostly pebbled, and many are quite small, you will not find here the Caribbean colours of Koufonissia, or the large sandy beaches of Rhodes, but the beaches of Astypalaia have this authenticity that you find in a landscape without much tourism, the calm and remote beauty waiting to be discovered. 

The largest are in Pera Gialos and Livadi (the most organized), and also in Marmari, in Steno and Vatses (further away), then there are the small and relatively easy to access as isTzanaki (a nudist beach), Papou, Agios Konstantinos, Maltezana and Schoinontas and finally there are the more remote beaches like Kaminakia, Psili Ammos, Agios Ioannis and Vathy – some of them more easily accessible by boat.  However, the beaches that really worth a visit require a beautiful ride by boat through the waves in order to reach the small islets of Koutsomyti and Kounoupa and dive in their clear emerald waters. 

If during the exploration, you get hungry and you happen to be at the small charming beach of Kaminakia, be sure to visit “Linda’s Tavern” for excellent homemade recipes, and do the same in “Analipsi” at Maltezana beach or in “Gerani” at Livadi. Last but not least, you should make a descent into the mysterious depths of this place, either in the Cave of Negrou at Vatses or the Dragon’s Cave (Drakospilia) at Vathy, both easily reached by boat, where maybe, deep inside their ancient darkness, you will feel the slow beating of the heart of this unique island.

Published in KATHIMERINI ©, on July 7, 2013 (transl. & edited from greek, original here )

Chora by night

Windmills in Chora 

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