In the summer of 2019, I spent a splendid week doing an island a night amongst the Cyclades of Greece. It’s long been my intention to write down what I saw, did and felt, and, albeit after a year or two, I’ve finally got some words down. Here they are.
At 12:30 in the morning, West Hampstead Thameslink hardly rivals where most of the awake population are. In all honesty, it’s quite dull. That’s why it was nice when the train came to whisk me off to Gatwick. The train wasn’t much better. The most enduring quality of the train ride was the sheer brightness of the lighting. Maybe its effect was augmented by its juxtaposition with the midsummer dark. I’m firmly of the belief that there was something abnormally bright about those lights though. The bright was so oppressive that I had to put on my sunglasses to counter it and avoid a migraine. That must have been a sight: some scruffy teen with a patchy beard and fledgling mullet accompanied by a purple backpack, wearing a sweater and cargo shorts, and sunglasses, inside. They probably thought I was either hideously intrepid or downright odd. Really, I like to think that I was a marriage of the two.
Due to the idiosyncrasies of the Sunday night Thameslink timetable, I arrived at Gatwick a cool five hours before my flight would take off. The crossing from the train station to the North terminal was annoyingly seamless. It would have been nice to kill some time on a malfunctioning monorail shuttle. Gatwick, in a similar way to the Thameslink, yielded few activities. So, I decided to visit the least glamorous locale of the reasonably new airport: the smoking area. It resembled a bus shelter, just without a road next to it. The persisting smell of ash lingered despite the wind and jet engine induced air currents. I thought only carpets could be tarnished so permanently in this way, but apparently stainless steel is no different. I wish I could remember how I occupied myself for the next three hours, but since I can’t, the answer is probably doing fuck all. I do have some hazy memories of phone calls to various drunk friends having a better time than me, a smoking Greek doctor and the multi-faith prayer room. Evidently, there are some things that science just can’t answer.
Evidently, there are some things that science just can’t answer.
The flight was uneventful, I slept right through. Actually, it could have been eventful, I just wouldn’t know about it if it were. We always talk about going to a hot country and the heat smacking you in the face as soon as they open the plane doors, but even so, no amount of mental preparation can ready you for the roundhouse kick of the Mediterranean August heat. Suffice to say, I was pleased to be leaving towards the islands. My task was to get to Lavrio within three hours, which I did. It took ten minutes to actually find where the bus was, and I got on it ten minutes later. Efficient. The ride was an unspectacular tour of what Attica had to offer besides Athens. Again, fuck all. Think closed down auto-repair shops and a weird number of furniture stores, all with bored, tanned people smoking on plastic chairs outside. Greek Greece, you know.
If anyone ever tells you to go to Lavrio for a reason other than getting a ferry, respectfully decline the invitation. It’s not that it’s bad, unpleasant or dangerous, it’s simply completely unremarkable. I spent an hour wandering its streets in search of water and remember literally nothing. I did obtain water though. My memory kicks back in on the approach to the port. Ferry terminals are always barren, intimidating places smothered in asphalt if it’s relatively prestigious, concrete if not. This was a concrete port. For twenty minutes I was the only one there, sitting on some discarded rubble watching the big container ships make their way through the strait between the mainland and Evvia, presumably on their way to Thessaloniki. Then it all started happening. Three ferries arrived at once, as did a hundred or so vehicles. As is always the case with Mediterranean affairs such as this, chaos reigned. The noisiness of your horn determines how quickly you get on the ferry, the queue is a fractious social institution. Yet I, unencumbered by a metal housing and nimble-footed even with three litres of water in tow, navigated my way to my ferry. To my horror, right opposite the dock was a shaded pedestrian area with a convenience stand where all my fellow carless comrades were. I refused to check if they sold water.
The ride was an unspectacular tour of what Attica had to offer besides Athens. Again, fuck all.
The ferry was uneventful, and I know it this time. Out of the three ferries all leaving to the same island at the same time, I was on the uncool one. Nonetheless, it proved perfectly sufficient for the one hour crossing to Kea and sold cold beer. As you’ll find out later, the ferry approach to an island is a true first impression. You can scope out the vibe instantly from about half a kilometre out. Kea is a barren, empty island and its port town, Korissia, consists of a small waterfront strip and nothing else. From afar the light (not picturesque Santorini white) buildings did actually resemble the surf atop a wave, at least more so than anything that could be called a town. I disembarked and went straight to a café on the waterfront – not that it could have been situated anywhere else. Another cold beer and the first bit of relaxation I had had in 18 hours. A Greek salad too.
Kea is the Greekest island in the Cyclades, as in barely any foreigners go there. Its location only an hour’s ferry from an Athenian port makes it a favourite of Greek families looking to get out of the city. There are two main towns on the island, Korissia on the sea, and Ioulis nestled in the hills. Other than that, there are a handful of beaches dotted between imposing mountains and just a lot of unused scrubland. My campsite was by a beach at Pisses, a few kilometres down the east coast from the port. In my guidebook it said that Kea did indeed have a bus service which served Pisses three times a day, although there was no trace of said bus on the internet or in the minds of any of the locals I asked. The best I got was from my server at the café, who answered, “Ah yes, I saw it once, a while ago”. My first taste of Greek mythology.
You can scope out the vibe instantly from about half a kilometre out.
I was knackered and it was getting late, so I did what any sensible adventurer would do and took a taxi. The bright lights of Kea Camping were beckoning me. Greek campsites are a unique scene, not because of the clothes lines, screaming children and angry parents gruffly shouting “Christos, here now!” (but in Greek), but because of the ground on which you camp. Accustomed to the soft mud or grass of a British camp spot, either in a field or clearing, the dusty, gravel floor came as quite a shock. The only thing that appeared to make sense was the abundance of trees dotted around the barren plain, though god knows how they managed to grow in that. I found a nice shaded spot and set to pitching the tent. The Vango Helvellyn 200 is a relatively easy tent to pitch solo, but what was not easy was, mallet-less, attempting to drive the pegs into the compacted dust that constituted the ground. A stone is no substitute for a mallet, as I found out. A stone can be a substitute for a peg though. Tent secured, it was time to do some proper exploration.
The beach at Pisses was not your stereotypical golden sand, palm tree paradise. The sand was almost dirt-like and interspersed with many pebbles. Yet this didn’t make it at all unpleasant, in fact, it was quite a refreshing change from the Mediterranean (or indeed British) norm. Even at 7 the beach was relatively lively: families lapping up the last rays of sun, old men still fishing off the embankment at one end, a dissatisfied windsurfer returning to his jeep. It was interesting that my first experience of the islands was of the sort that native Greeks are expelled to, driven away from the big names of Paros and Mykonos by annoying tourists and high prices. As I sat on the embankment, next to the row of fishing rods, and looked out over the beach, hillside and sea I felt a contentment new to me, the anxieties about being a clueless 17 year old alone in Greece seemed lesser, but paying for the taxi still annoyed me.
Pisses has one dining option, a single family-run taverna by the name of Pinessa. It was only 100 yards down the road from the campsite, but the dark was frighteningly intense. Having spent months on end in London, I had forgotten the purity and inkiness of real night. Guided well by my phone torch, I was sat down on the terrace of the restaurant. There was some sort of big family get together on the table in front of me, and then some couples and a smaller family were also dotted about. Predictably I was the only one dining alone. The waiter asked if I was writing a novel. His flattery was then cancelled out by him calling me a ‘pussy’ when I ordered the humble 50ml bottle of Ouzo. To order and drink 200ml of high proof spirit alone and neat didn’t quite compel me as one of my options, although this appears not to be the Greek way. My puny portion of Ouzo was accompanied by a generous helping of souvlaki, over which I pondered what to do with the rest of my time in Kea. I paid the bill and set off back to the tent, struggling to contain my excitement at the opportunities of the ensuing week. But the booming, jovial laughter of the Greek family many more Ouzos deep than I washed over and stuck in my ears, and summoned me sweetly to sleep.
Featured image description: stone archway ruin on the coast overlooking the beach