Aegean Sea

Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis

For my birthday, in October 2013, I was given a book. I had just made a career change into travel publishing and had decided that my speciality would be exploring. The present was a translation of a German book, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. An azure, non-plastic coated cover, with a black canvas binding and tangerine orange page edges, depicting three small mountainous, nameless islands. In October 2015 I looked out that book, opened it, and thought that two dots in the Mediterranean were missing, one for Andros and one for Tinos. Two dots that I would add, counter to all the sense contained in that book. And I’d be proud to be able to say that yes, you can get to these islands, I reached them quite easily even. Just a day-long crossing from Athens and the obsessive thought that, in the same time, by plane, I could have landed in Los Angeles or Cape Town, places I miss still.

That summer just behind us, I would learn that on Andros and Tinos the days pass by in a simple fashion. Living on those smaller islands was like diving into the best of the 1960s, a time I hadn’t experienced first-hand, with the faded rainbow sunshades, one-piece costumes and knee-length shorts, straw mats on the sand, sweet currant tarts or savoury goat’s cheese flans cooling down in the eleven o’clock sun, the village people. And what in my Italy mightn’t exist anymore, or maybe I just don’t look for it, does instead exist in at least two islands of the southern Aegean, oblivious to low-cost airlines and modern tourism. Not ashamed of showing their true nature, the islanders’ hands dyed the red of ripe strawberries and green of tomato fields, rustic, rural and seafaring all at the same time, small lands completely surrounded by water, with marvellous little people. That summer I fell in love with Greece and all that is still honest and kind. 

One: Tinos

I only went into town – the Hora Tinos of the coachloads of miracle seekers – for the shop. On the right-hand side of the street going up the hill straight as a ruler, with the faithful on their knees making their vows at one end and the monastery at the other, that shop, a Greek bakers, realm of the sweet, homemade breakfast, seemed real. The type you couldn’t find in the small villages in the hinterland, but tiny and genuine just like them. I had decided that I’d go back every day, like a regular, abandoning my car for a couple of minutes, purse in hand, quick, cheeky, like a young local. I was by no means the baker’s best customer and although when I went – seven o’clock on a September evening, just as the sun was going down – we were the only ones in the shop, he demonstrated a good-natured annoyance over my presence, my smile, my compliments in a foreign language for each delicious mouthful I tried. From the street, through the square window, you could hardly see him, sitting on a chair that was too low, on the other side of the counter with the loose, sweet bread. He only got up when I had decided, which always seemed too late for him. 

Mounds of crumbly cardamom twists, pan brioche with the almost alcoholic scent of raisins, simple sponge cakes, brown wholewheat buns. My quantities were birdlike, my money never precise. And he huffed and puffed, but in a way that made me want to go back and make him understand that I only bought my supplies from him. 

Manos had taken a few days to approach us. We were neighbours, our houses’ smooth stone walls were on the outside edge of the village of Loutra, a village with no foreigners, no taverna, only houses, scooters, the Ursuline nuns’ convent, the Museum of Folk Art, closed this year, perhaps for good. And then there was Manos. We would stand talking in the courtyard of our houses, us under our little olive tree and him on the other side of the stone wall, in front of his little gate. Every day he brought us something, like a shy suitor. Making friends at the village limits. And so we always had something at breakfast, to accompany the sweet buns from our moody baker: a handful of ripe strawberries, an empty white margarine tub filled with plump green baby tomatoes still on their stalks, a giant cucumber from the vegetable patch. The strawberries were pristine, the tomatoes shone like mirrors, cool from the running water, Manos’s hands dyed the purple of strawberry juice or the silky green of the tomato field.  

Food was not in short supply. Every day in the villages above Hora Tinos we found hands repeating classic seasonal recipes. And yet the fresh artichoke flan, crispy triangles of home-made filo pastry with fresh feta, courgette and wild fennel fritters, stuffed tomatoes, pickled artichokes and fresh capers never tasted the same twice. Everything grew on the island and every day we liked it in a new way. “Say that you live next door to Manos and Marieta. Maria is a friend of ours and her cooking really is something special: all those hot and cold nibbles pouring out one after another are fantastic.” Maria ran the bar on stilts on Kolimpithra beach. The surfers’ second favourite, it’s a small sheltered bay with couples of pensioners in oversized costumes floating in the salty water for hours as if they were in a spa, on a Sunday as they probably did every day at the end of September. 

We stayed in every little village on the hill. Loutra, Ktikados, Stene and Agapi. As soon as we disembarked, we quickly left the port behind us and gained altitude. “Forget about the port and the town straight away, the island’s up there and it’s fantastic,” Nelly had told us. She and her architect husband lived in Athens and they’d been here a few times, by the short ferry crossing from Andros. Tinos is not the island where all the mainland Greeks have been, while Andros is a hop, skip and a jump from Rafina, and Mykonos, well, it’s Mykonos. Of them, Tinos is the small, unusual, silent, mystical one, the one you gently get to know. At night dark streets are illuminated by the electric blue of the crosses on the Orthodox chapels.  

Two: Andros 

Four days before we had hurriedly left the Athenian port of Rafina, the ramp of the Rafina-Andros-Tinos-Mykonos ferry swallowed us and our runaround plus a few other off-season Greek tourists, the luckiest ones, before dropping us in the large northern island of the Cyclades on a calm, dark evening. We would drive from east to west, up into the mountains, through the tiny hamlet of Arni, until the junction where the main road and the dirt road met, without understanding much about that island. There George would ask us to park our car and drive us into the night in his off-road vehicle to Ahla beach, Onar. We didn’t have any alternative, they’d been quite clear. The unexpected rain in the last 72 hours had transformed the road into a gaping ravine, but George could take us to Onar, where they were waiting for us with open arms. “That’s Onar,” he said to us at a certain point, indicating the natural hiding place that Onar had chosen for itself. At that moment Onar was just ten little, warm lights in the dark vegetation, like a roped party of explorers moving around in tents in the wilderness of the African savannah. The sea in Ahla bay could only be made out as the slightly lighter blue in that intensely blue night. It seemed that all too often we had to arrive in the most distant corners of this earth at night, only to understand what had brought us there as the days went by. We were dazed, exhausted, and once we got down from the vehicle our host knew it was the moment to give us a hug. 

“Welcome to Onar, we were expecting you.” The young man waiting for us in the dark was called Panagiotis and without asking us he hugged us tight, gently one by one, George included. “It’s late, it’s rained a lot, it doesn’t even feel as if we’re in Onar. There was no way we could set out the table under the plane trees. There’s water everywhere. But you’re here, come and sit with us and enjoy your dinner.” Everything spoke of the sea and summer, nostalgically but with no hint of sadness – the big outdoor family table, the wood and canvas boats hanging from the stone wall, the hot fried food in the yellow paper, the fish from Andros’s fishermen, our young host’s blue bermudas and flip-flops, the iPod and The Beatles. Onar was the most sincerely happy place we remembered and the managers didn’t hide the fact they felt very lucky to have to run that little dream. “Even the riverbed has some water in it so tomorrow morning after breakfast you’ll follow its course; you’ll have to take your shoes off and cross it, there’s no other way of getting to the beach. It’s just ten minutes, you have to go if the rain stops.” 

The Ahla wetland was a virgin and protected place, a mysterious summer woodland; the river was then blocked by high canes, becoming a clear marsh before it finally entered the sea. The beach was incredible: a green-blue half-moon shape, a tiny church as the breakwater. I was looking at the cool river, lifting my skirt up so it didn’t get soaked, when the first sun of the day came out, and with it Panagiotis arrived on the beach energetically bidding us to stay. “So, how’s it going? How’s the beach? How’s the day going? You’ll have to go up to the lighthouse, have lunch with us, come back to the beach. You can’t go if it’s sunny, just take a look around you here.” “They come to Onar to stay, usually they start off here, leave everything and live as simply as can be. Good sleep, good swimming, good lunch, good company. A few days like that and you’ll be ready to leave again to go and see what’s out there on Andros, but you won’t find anything like Ahla beach. So, stay another night, Onar’s the place to stay. Look, everyone’s going down to the beach.” Everyone would be the handful of guests that Onar could host, making this little natural valley our ideal holiday destination: happy, laid-back, summery, private. It was like living in a layman’s monastery in nature, with just a few stone cottages, folkish hammocks, a vision of beauty and biodiversity.