A room with a view of Chora from Ampelos Resort. Ampelos
As an independent 50-plus woman who loves exploring off-the-beaten-path,
Jeann Linsley finds this adventure to be a perfect fit!
Like countless travelers before me, I had picked up a Berlitz phrasebook before my first trip to Greece in 2005. Greeks were so impressed and friendly when I used the little Greek that I knew then that I was highly motivated to continue learning – not an easy task after age 50.
In 2012 my second Greek trip took me to Folegandros, truly an island for “Slow Travel”, devoid of parties and night life common on the larger, more accessible islands. For me this time, my knowledge of Greek served as an important bridge between my own experience and that of the local Greeks. However, speaking Greek was not a necessity. Most residents I encountered spoke English and many spoke other languages too.
In the years since my first visit, Greece had changed even though it remained whitewashed and flowered, sun-drenched and dreamy. It was now a source of gloomy news reports – financial crisis, political corruption, and personal hardship. Still, I was ready for a relaxing vacation and anxious to try out my Greek. This time I found a bit of hostility, primarily in Athens. I also discovered one of the country’s friendliest and least disturbed islands – Folegandros (Fo-LAY-gan-dros) – whose earliest inhabitants were political exiles and other “undesirables.”
An outdoor restaurant in Chora. Jeann Linsley
Folegandros barren tablelands during a day of island exploration. Ampelos
I left Athens for Folegandros on a Saturday morning via a fast, pre-dawn ferry from the port of Piraeus south of the capital. On its three-hour run, strong winds churned up hefty waves, jogging the craft back and forth. As we approached the island, the ruggedness of the place came into view. Folegandros has been called the “iron island” because of its barrenness. I wondered if this inhospitable landscape was the reason it was selected long ago for prisoners – a kind of Greek Alcatraz.
The small port of Karavostasis (meaning boat stop) was a welcome contrast to the ports of more traveled islands like Santorini and Mikonos, where much larger ferries – and cruise ships – deposit hundreds, even thousands, of visitors onto an island in a single day. The island breeze and that unmistakable Greek light greeted me on disembarking. The road to my hotel wound up steep, dry slopes of sage, dry brush, goat paths, and an occasional small stone building of unknown purpose. My little family-run hotel, Ampelos (meaning vine) is situated next to a sheep meadow on a slope with a picture postcard view.
Theo, the son of the owners, brought me a coffee while I waited for my room, and – impressed that I had bothered to learn Greek – he chatted with me in the language, telling me a bit about the island and the little village of Chora (pronounced “Hora”) that is the center of activity here. He also recounted stories about his family’s hotel, and about his melisses (bees). Like many other residents, Theo runs a beekeeping venture to supplement tourism and fishing income.
I spent my first evening just watching the sunset play against the backdrop of sheer cliffs and bright white buildings of Chora that stood out like a line of snow at the top edge of the cliffs.
Front door and porch of room at Ampelos Resort. Jeann Linsley
Folegandros is the most southern island of the western Cyclades: 12.5 sq mi/32 sq km, 8 mi/13 km in length and a little over one-quarter that in width. Only a small part of the land is cultivated, but its products are of high quality and excellent taste, including olive oil, famous wines, juicy figs and fine honey made from the wild flowers and herbs of this arid land. Folegandros is also an important migratory stop for a number of bird species flying between Africa and Europe in the spring and autumn.
Next morning I began exploring the island. I took the main bus route from Chora northwest to various beaches, and to Ano Meria a small rural village practically untouched by tourism. My destination was a remote beach called Ampeli, to which I descended by a steep and very rocky trail on a lonely, windswept slope, with only an occasional goat for company. The hardships of farming this land are apparent on slopes crisscrossed with stone walls and terracing to hold water in the dry soil.
Finally, the beach came into view – a small cove of emerald green water surrounded by a typically Greek pebbled beach. I had packed lunch and plenty of water, as many of the beaches have no tavernas or other services and many are low on shade. The island’s most famous beach, Katergo, literally has no shade unless you are there in the very late afternoon. In contrast, the one at Karavostasis is perfect, with many little tavernas and much more shade.
A steep climb down to Ampeli Beach. Jeann Linsley
I discovered the hard way that public areas can blend into the private homes very easily. One day on Karavostasis beach, I stumbled into a private dwelling, thinking it was a beach-house-style changing area or restroom facility. The resident was very gracious, simply saying speetee, the Greek word for “house”, when I self-consciously asked where I was.
Within Chora, built inside an ancient castle and encircled with protective stone walls, one enters the life of the village and the island: children running, playing inside and outside local shops, old men sipping coffee and talking at tiny tables, the voice of a priest filtering from inside a smallish church that is within earshot of outdoor restaurants, two men tending to an ailing farm animal.
After some wandering on the traffic-free cobblestone streets, I settled on a small taverna next to the bus stop. A typical Folegandros menu item is matsada, a pasta dish made with either rabbit or rooster in red sauce or there is lobster with spaghetti or liokafto, a sun-dried fish.
A row of private homes in Chora. Jeann Linsley
I spoke to the young waiter who enjoyed talking about local football, and about his primary wish to visit New York City. He tried to sell me on the matsada, but I opted for vegetarian and had a delicious artichoke casserole instead.
The last night of my stay, I was surprised to be half-awakened by loud crackling sounds. In the morning, I asked about what I had heard. “Gamos,” replied a hotel employee. Here, as in other areas of Greece, weddings can be active and colorful – with fireworks and occasionally, pistol or rifle-fire. In this case, it was only fireworks!
Public holidays, like Easter, can also be accompanied by similarly festive rowdiness. During Easter week in April, a procession of islanders, carrying the icon of the Virgin Mary, proceeds from house to house where householders offer food and drink to villagers following along. Finally the icon boards a boat at Karavostasis and circles the island, weather permitting.
Guests share stories and advice on the Ampelos Resort terrace. Ampelos
Next time, maybe I’ll punctuate the peace and quiet by participating in this unique form of Greek Island revelry.
For tourist information and good descriptions of hikes and footpaths, visit www.folegandros.com.
With 10 rooms and a small villa for guests, the Ampelos Resort, www.ampelosresort.com, often hosts classes and expert instructors who teach subjects ranging from Greek cookery and folk dancing to painting and yoga.
At the farming settlement of Ano Meria, visit the local Folk Museum, an interesting insight into the traditional peasant way of life. Ano Meria also has some of the most authentic tavernas on the island.
Ferry: Generally sailing every two days in the tourist season, the high-speed ferry from Piraeus to Folegandros costs about €60 (US$80). There is also a much slower government ferry sailing year round. Buy a ticket at the port about an hour before departure. See ferry options, www.openseas.gr.
Photo top right: Offered annually at Ampelos Resort, painting workshops encourage participants to venture into Chora, the countryside, and the port of Karavostasis for their subject material. Lone V. Petersen
Jeann Linsley is a former newspaper reporter who now works as a psychotherapist in New York City. Jeann has written for newspapers and for magazines including the Progressive, Ms. Magazine, Backpacker, Sea Kayaker, and National Wildlife. Email: email@example.com.