The island of colors: Milos, Greece

 

We flew into Athens and stepped in line to board the SeaJets ferry for the three-hour journey from Piraeus Port to Milos, just a few stops short of Santorini. After a year of deliberating and planning, we were finally on our way to meet our old friends Theodoris, YuFang, Lucas, Sarah, and Allison’s brother Nate for a week-long reunion in Theodoris’s home country of Greece. Our destination was the humble volcanic island of Milos, the south-westernmost island in the Cyclades. Sitting in the middle of the Agean Sea, just 14 miles wide and 8 miles long, Milos is a quiet, laid-back and relatively uncrowded version of many of the more famous Greek isles, known instead for its rainbow-colored fishing villages, volcanic beaches, and traditional fish taverns.

Our ferry pulled into the horseshoe-shaped bay of Milos, a hollowed out crater that creates a natural harbor, and docked in Adamas port, a small town of a little over a thousand inhabitants that seems largely unchanged from the days before ferries and cruise ships. Behind and above Adamas on a large plateau sits the capital city of Plaka. As we stepped off the boat and away from the crowds continuing on to Santorini, gazing around at white buildings, churches with blue-domed tops, we became instantly subdued by the ethos of the island, our ambitions arrested by a large wave of island mentality. Everything slowed down. Even the car rental was delayed as Marco, our rental agent, analyzed my Arkansas license and then launched into a list of the various states he had come across before, “Ohio, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, New Jersey, but not Arkansas“, emphasizing the “sas” at the end. Acting as a cultural ambassador extending familiarity, I told him it’s the home of Bill Clinton. Now, sufficiently acquainted, he continued with the paperwork. Once in our car we set out across the island to the tiny fishing village of Pollonia, with only a few hundred residents, on the eastern corner of the island.

Our house was right on the beach, facing directly west across a sea that faded from brilliant turquoise to deep blue, surrounded by cliffs and studded with colorful brown, red, and tan rock formations formed by volcanic activity long ago. From here we could sit and gaze out at the sunset while sipping a glass of wine on the patio, or while sitting in the hot tub on the upstairs deck.

Pollonia had only one intersection consisting of a cluster of fish taverns and a small quaint boardwalk. These taverns were broken into two sections: a kitchen housed in a white stone building on one side of the street and a separate open seating area made up of a row of tables along the beach. This meant the waiters had to cross traffic to take orders and bring food. We picked up the keys to our house and immediately headed here for our first taste of Greek cooking. After a liesurely two hour lunch, we asked our waiter for the bill. He replied with “What’s your hurry? The beach has been here for three thousand years and will be there for a few more hours.” So we had an espresso and watched the locals enjoying the beach just a few feet away. We would end up passing this chaotic corner every day on our way to and from the beach, seeing our waiter from the previous day several times, sometimes with his shirt still unbuttoned exposing a round belly, propped against the bar of the restaurant.

fullsizeoutput_71a4fullsizeoutput_701efullsizeoutput_7022fullsizeoutput_7036fullsizeoutput_7058allison-and-chris-hot-tub-greece-rock-in-glassfullsizeoutput_7030Our schedule was simple, the days melting from one to the next: each morning we would wake up late, make a hearty breakfast of thick Greek yogurt mixed with honey, roasted hazelnuts, and sliced fruit, then go to the local bakery and pick up fresh homemade treats like tomato pie, baklava, and spanikopita for lunch. Rations gathered, we would pile into two twin Skodas and drive to a new exotic beach where we would spend the day swimming and exploring. Each afternoon, drained from the heat and salt water, we retreated back to the house for showers and naps before watching the sunset and enjoying a long hearty dinner, then we would all retreat upstairs to our rooms eager for sleep. The sound of a cell phone seemed foreign, replaced by the lapping of the ocean. The weight of a book in my hand seemed familiar. The week’s end felt like it would never come.

Half of the island is a rugged, mountainous natural preserve, giving the island an empty, uninhabited feel. The barren landscape is dotted with occasional bright patches of tropical flowers peeking out from someone’s garden. At the edges of this brown terrain, the land abruptly ends and steep cliffs plunge sharply down to the water, creating a stunning array of beaches along the coastline. That’s what we had sought out.

The opposite of our typical vacations, where most time is spent exploring the land with an occasional visit to the sea, nearly all of our time in Milos was spent looking up at the land from the water, reveling in the joy of escaping the immense heat by cooling off in the crisp water. Even with a week, we were only able to get to seven of the magnificent 41 beaches on the island. Four of the beaches were on the Southern coast, which we saved for the second half of the week when high winds were predicted to limit our access to the Northern areas.

The first beaches we visited were just minutes from our house on the Northern coast between the village of Pollonia and Adamas. Papafragas, set the tone for the trip – we set out with no expectations and discovered what turned out to be one of the most impressive beaches in Milos. Peering down from the parking area set on the cliff above, the beach was just a crack in the rock that had filled with seawater, reachable only by inching slowly down a narrow path carved into the side. Once at the bottom, we ventured out into the channel towards the open sea and discovered passageways through holes in the cliff walls that led to secret caves. The uneven surface of the cliff walls made it possible to climb up and, hanging like spiderman, dive off the side back into the crystal clear waters below.

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Sarakiniko, located down the road from Papafragas, was one of our favorite spots and also the most famous and most photographed beach on the island. The smooth white limestone has been eroded over time by wind and salt water creating a moonlike landscape that starkly contrasts the deep blue sea surrounding it. Like most of the beaches on the island, the water was so clear, the sand beneath so visible, that it gave the illusion that boats, from above, were actually sitting on sand instead of flaoting in shallow water. Only an occasional shawdow cast on the white sand below the water betrayed the optical trick. Along with being a complete marvel, the wavy cliffs were the perfect diving board for huge cannonballs into the ocean below, which we all took turns trying.

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There was no direct road leading from Pollonia down to the beaches on the Southern shore of the island. Instead, we drove inland and then cut back southeast on a series of small dusty roads, coating the skoda in a fine layer of dirt. Paliochori was our first destination on this coast. The beach itself wasn’t as remarkable as the others, but instead had a unique hidden geological feature: hot spots from thermal vents. This was an interesting surprise to stumble on while wading through the water, and has been taken advantage of by the restaurant along the shore who use the vents to cook their signature lamb stew by burying it over the heat in the sand and letting it simmer for a day. The cream colored rocks were stained orange, rust, crimson, ochre, and mustard from the sulphur and minerals.

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Another day we visited Tsigrado, a cozy beach surrounded by huge cliffs and accessible only by using a rope to climb down a very narrow, fairly steep path.  This led to a long line of people waiting not-so-patiently to pass in either direction, but was rewarded at the bottom by a small sandy beach and amazingly clear blue water.

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Our biggest excursion was on day five, a half-day sailing trip from Thalassitra port on the South shore around the to the western side to visit Kleftiko, the most famous cove in Milos, which is reached by boat. We parked at a restaurant on top of a cliff and filed down with our fellow passengers to an old rickety dock where we were shuttled in a small raft to the ship. An hour down the coast, we were greeted by yet another unbelievable landscape as we pulled in to anchor, parking near million dollar yachts. There was no beach, only massive smooth rock formations dotting the coast, where long caves had been carved out of the cliffs, connecting one cove to the next. We put on our masks and snorkels and dove off the boat into the cold sea from the boat, headed towards the caves. The water is refreshingly cold during after being on the boat in the hot sun for an hour. It was a surreal experience to swim through the long dark tunnels, the pristine water clear enough to see all the way to the bottom where the sand had settled in wavy lines, the occasional colorful fish swimming by. After a few hours we were summoned back to the boat with shots of Raki to warm us while we dried off under the hot sun.

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As if the beaches weren’t enough, the tiny island of Milos is home to an amazing variety of stunning villages and historical sites. In fact, several important pieces of art have been found on this island, including the Aphrodite in Paris, the Asclepius in London, and the Poseidon and the archaic Apollo in Athens.

We headed to the town of Plaka, a more traditional Greek island village of white houses and narrow winding stone streets filled with bustling boutiques and traditional cafes, set on a church-topped hill looking out over the neighboring islands. Twice we joined the crowds who flock there in the evening just to watch the sunset from behind a beautiful church steeple.

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As a separate day trip, we set out for the traditional fishing village of Kilma, which lies just below Plaka. We caught a glimpse of this village from the ships coming in and were eager to explore it more thoroughly. It turned out to be one of the most unique and picturesque spots on the island, a town of fisherman, where boats are the equivalent of cars in suburbia. After painting their boats to keep them identifiable, the townspeople decided to use the leftover paint on the doors of their houses, painting a rainbow along the water with a matching boat out front of each one. Traditionally, these fishing huts served as temporary residences for the fisherman so they wouldn’t have to carry all of their supplies to their homes farther inland.  Now, the huts have been converted to two-story home with a parking area on the ground floor that is routinely flooded and a small living quarters above. We arrived around lunch time, walking along the one concrete path that leads past each house, inadvertently peering in as many families engaged in the couple-hour midday ritual of preparing and enjoying their lunch.

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Up above on the cliffs overlooking Klima we toured the Catacombs of Milos, a network of rooms and tunnels where early Christians held religious ceremonies and buried their dead. Dating back to the 1st century, they are among the most ancient worldwide and are considered a remarkable world monument for Christianity, together with the catacombs of Rome.

Exhausted after a hot day of beaches and villages, in the evenings we gathered on the deck for a drink before deciding whether to cook dinner at the house or walk along the beach to a local fish tavern. Both were unforgettable experiences. At home we were treated to such delicacies as traditional stuffed peppers, Spanish omelettes, and even a home-cooked fresh fish dinner when Theodoris and I got up before dawn one morning and headed to the harbor to purchase fish from the locals. We came away with a bucketful of small fish. Carrying our bounty back to the house, we cleaned them in the ocean below the house, scaling the fish, cutting the skin along the belly, pulling out the inerds, thumbing out any leftover debris and washing them in the ocean again. We finished while the sun was still low enough on the horizon that the air was still cool and the streets still quiet. Later that night, we roasted  them for dinner.

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Our group dinners at the fish taverns were a highlight of the trip. Each night we watched the fishermen bring over the day’s catch in ice chests from their docked boats in the harbour across the street to the taverns. Here, they were placed on ice in the main room, on display for customers to reserve their favorite fish for dinner. Later, the fish would be served roasted, whole, on platter with potatoes, lemon and olive oil. We realized just how fresh they were when, on our way home from the beach one evening, we stopped at one of the taverns and Theodoris and Nathaniel ran in to reserve our fish for dinner. The waiter described the flavor of each fish and noted that one in particular was very fresh – to prove the point, he poked the large grouper lying on the ice, apparently disturbing it from its cold slumber, and it jumped up and began to flop around.

Dinner out was an all-night event beginning around 10pm and lasting until one or two in the morning. We ate family style, passing large platters of spreads, salads, pastas and seafood around the table with copious amounts of wine until our lids began to droop. After each meal, the restaurants served a free housemade dessert like preserved oranges or a greek yogurt parfait. And the price for all of this was never more than $20 a person. A few dishes from Armenaki tavern  were among the best we have ever eaten: grilled cuttlefish with a balsamic and rosemary crust, fresh prawn and tomato pasta, and fresh greek salad with huge block of feta sitting on top waiting for us to break it apart with our forks. The tender stewed octopus and key lime Greek yogurt dessert from Armyra, across the street, were also delicious. Armyra is the Greek word for the salt that is left behind after seawater evaporates. Likewise, sitting at the table across from eachother, sunkissed and covered in salt, the memory of these shared meals will be what remains after this trip is over.

We ate our last meal at a meat tavern on a cliff in Plaka as we watched the sun set over the ocean, waiting for our ferry to arrive. Walking back to the car we gazed up at the brilliant stars sparkling in the dark sky and reminisced about how remarkable it was for this group of friends representing five different countries and languages to come together again for the first time since we all met in Atlanta. The ancient Greek word planet means wander, named because of their movements across the sky, and in many ways that phrase describes this group. As we wander the planet, sharing a home for a week with this international crew makes the world feel a little smaller.

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