“You’re spending five nights on Agios Efstratios?” Lucy said. “You’ll be bored!” she exclaimed. Sophia also concurred. Little did they know, the word bored doesn’t come into my vocabulary. My grandchildren are well versed in my response to them telling me that they are bored. I tell them that if they are bored it means that they are boring. I thank God that I am someone that can always find a myriad of things to occupy my mind, so much so, that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to achieve all of my ambitions. Sometimes, those ambitions may be to just sit and simply be. It doesn’t always have to be filled with frenetic activity.
When I travel, my one guiding light is curiosity. I don’t decide on a destination based on its touristic credentials. I pay no attention to approval ratings written by journalists more interested in selling their writing skills rather than promoting the positive virtues of a place. Nor do I care about the opportunity to fill Instagram with beautiful yet contrived images for likes and follows. From the moment the back of the ferry door options, I want to embrace every aspect of a new destination and try my best to soak up and feel the essence of a place. That’s why I no longer do the ‘hit and run’ approach to island hopping, something that I have been guilty of in the past. A few days on one island and a day or two on another just to tick a box to say that I’ve been there. Not anymore. It doesn’t provide me with any value to the experience.
Anyway, on Thursday evening the Aqua Blue arrived at the little island of Agios Efstratios. Just a handful of us stood on the car ramp as the ship opened her wide mouth to slowly reveal the entrance to the port. It was clear that I was the only tourist. Whilst I collected my suitcase from the luggage rack, others were taking cool boxes out of a chest freezer or dragging cardboard boxes from shelves, the result of a successful shopping trip elsewhere.
My host Aggeliki stepped forward as I exited the ship. “Stephanie?” I think that I was easy to identify amongst the locals that I’m sure she would also know by name. Aggeliki had kindly met me from the boat with her mama Katerina and her papa Christos in his car. I’m sure that the property would be within walking distance but as I thanked them for meeting me, she replied with a smile, “It is our job”.
The drive was a short distance and along the way, Aggeliki points out the taverna, the coffee shop and the mini market. Note the singular reference, which to be honest is what I expected.
They lead me into a ground-floor apartment which is up a short set of steps (for which I am grateful) and Aggeliki points out the essentials such as how to heat the water and how to open and close the doors and windows. That may be obvious to most but I did have an incident with a mosquito screen back on Lemnos that required some help to release!
So here I am on Agios Efstratios – or Ai Stratis to the locals, itching to get out and explore. But that will wait until tomorrow. The family bade me a good night and I threw myself straight into bed as this is way past my usual bedtime.
The following morning after a good night’s sleep I wake to the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and the early morning rays filtering through the white curtains of the balcony door. I can now appreciate the nice bright apartment that I’m staying in. It is a compact studio with a double bed and a patio door leading to a small balcony on one side and another by the front entrance. There is a small kitchen with all the necessary equipment you’d need to self-cater – though breakfast will be the only meal of the day that I will attempt to make. The bathroom is compact but modern and everywhere is immaculately clean. I think that I have chosen well. To Akrogiali sits at the other end of the bay to the port where it is quiet and a stone’s throw from the beach.
Finding accommodation on Agios Efstratios wasn’t easy. When I’d carried out an initial search on Booking.com, it hadn’t thrown up any results. I had to put on my investigative hat and delve deep into the recesses of Google. I start with Google Maps which will usually bring up the location of some accommodations. I actually found my accommodation To Akrogiali, on the Agios Efstratios local government website. It listed the contact details for my host, so I made direct contact with Aggeliki by phone and booked my stay several weeks in advance. Although most of this trip has been made up as I go along, I wanted to ensure that I had accommodation on Agios Efstratios because of the limited options. BTW I don’t often book with Booking.com. It’s useful to do an initial search and to find something at short notice but where possible I make contact with the accommodation directly.https://agios-efstratios.gov.gr/en/epixeiriseis/akrogiali-makou-aggeliki/: Arrival on Agios Efstratios and Initial Explorations
My initial explorations start back at the port. As I’d been whisked away in a car I wanted to retrace my footsteps as if I had just arrived by boat.
The port is large in comparison to the size of the island and I suspect that EU investment has in recent years seen its development. Along the concrete harbour wall are paintings depicting certain images including those of several notables that were sent to the island as political prisoners. These include Greek poets Kostas Varnalis, Tassos Livaditis and Ioannis Ritsos, Manos Katrakis.
Within the nearside harbour arm, there is a small marina with brightly coloured fishing caiques, and fishing nets piled up on the quayside. A good indication that fresh seafood will be available in the taverna. I read that the locally caught lobster is some of the best and available at a reasonable price.
Next to the marina is a cluster of traditional stone-built houses staggered on the side of the promontory. This is what remains of the original chora. It was all but destroyed during a devastating earthquake in 1968. There is no mistaking that these houses ooze charm. They have clearly been lovingly restored with sensitivity towards their original design.
A set of painted stone steps lead me up along the front entrances of the houses and I pass so closely in front of the doors and windows that it feels almost intrusive, but I continue on. Once above the houses, high walls made from neatly and intricately stacked volcanic stone, guide me further along until I reach the top and a viewing platform. With fantastic views like this over the village and the bay, the climb is worth it. The gentle breeze sweeps the aromatic scents of the surrounding landscape to my nose – thyme, fennel, fig and goat. Yes, goats are the only other company that I have up here.
Just beyond the viewing platform and visible on top of the hill wherever you are in the town is the local cemetery of Kyklikó Koimitírio – circular cemetery which is true to its name. I try to find a way to walk to it but several of the pathways leading out from the site are blocked off with no entry signs. I will find another way to get there. As I make my descent a small pathway and a couple of steps up, lead me to the remains of a church. There isn’t much left to show for it except a marble floor and a small altar. The earthquake had completely almost razed it to the ground. There is something quite eerie about standing in the midst of an abandoned village. A certain presence, though I know not of what or who.
Once back onto the main road leading away from the marina, I’m almost immediately at the main square. On the left is ‘the’ taverna called Artemonas. Built on a sturdy concrete platform, the elevated position of the taverna provides views over the harbour in one direction and the centre of the village in the other. Next to the taverna is the town hall, ATM and post office. There are a couple of interesting monuments in the square dedicated to the fallen of WW2. There is a stone sculpture which at first (viewed from the back) looked like a homage to ET. Viewed from the front its true beauty is revealed. Next to the town hall is the Church of the Birth of Jesus.
Across the road is a mini market and a small place called To Steki. The cafe called Candy Bar seems to be the meeting place for the locals. As I pass I can hear the clatter of dice as two elderly men play a game of Tavli under the shade of a plane tree. No matter what time of day, there are always people drinking coffee and chatting and I get the sense that this is a really tight-knit community. How could it not be?
Just beyond the church I reach a junction and decide to bear left where the road gradually begins to climb. I stop for a second and try to work out where it leads to. Before I continue, an elderly man comes to the edge of his terrace and points in the direction of the hill. Although speaking in very fast Greek I do pick up the word ‘Museo’ and his body language is telling me that the Museum of Democracy is up the street. I had planned to visit the museum at some point, but as I’ve been so kindly directed there, now is an opportune time.
Continuing up the hill I pass a row of beautiful old houses. Some have been restored and habited and others appear abandoned. They ooze charm and character and are adorned with the patina of time. Is that a ‘for sale’ sign I see on the door?
Just beyond these houses on the right is the Museum of Democracy housed in a small stone building. Unfortunately, it’s closed. There is a small handwritten notice on the window saying that it will be closed for a few days. However, when the sign was put up and what constitutes as a few days isn’t apparent. This is a question for Aggeliki which I will send her by text message later.
Whilst I’m here, a large, imposing building is enticing me to explore. This is the Maraslios School which was built in 1909 with funding from the Ai Stratis diaspora in Egypt. Although destroyed during the earthquake, it was restored with support from the Ministry of Culture. Between 1928 and 1963 Agios Efstratios was used as a place of exile for political prisoners. During this time the Maraslios School was used as a police station. Many communists were sent there during that period, including the world-famous political activist and music composer, Mikis Theodorakis, the actor Manos Katrakis and the poets Giannis Ritsos and Kostas Varnalis. I had read somewhere that the Museum of Democracy was housed in this particular building but it is apparent that it is undergoing some kind of renovation. Building materials are stacked up outside and although it is currently a construction site, I do take a peak inside the grounds – you know that old curiosity never wanes!
Once back on the road, I can see that this is the way up to the Kyklikó Koimitírio, the island cemetery. As I’m in the vicinity, I’ll continue on. At the top of the road, there is a helipad which also seems to double up as a sheep pen. Just beyond there are views down to another bay which must only be accessible by one hell of a hike or by boat. Because it’s windy today and I’m standing on the edge of a cliff, my vertigo begins to kick in so I gentlyease myself away from the precipice.
A gravel path takes me further up towards the church and cemetery. Again the views are pretty spectacular and worth the climb.
This is the first part of my explorations of Ai Stratis. Practicalities now take precedence and a small shop for basic supplies at the mini market is in order. Freshly baked bread, yoghurt, jam, peaches and a large bottle of white Lemnian wine for those sunset moments on my little balcony. I’m excited to explore further.