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Island of Serenity: Amorgos

by:

Bianca Wright

After a ten-hour boat trip, my first glimpse of the tiny Cycladean island of Amorgos made the weariness of those long hours fade away. At 2:30 in the morning Amorgos is alight with a twinkling glow. Its long and winding mountain passes are treacherous but they add to the beauty of an island that seems caught in a mix of old and new. The villagers - and Amorgos' towns are really just villages - live the simple life of a bygone age without the requisite hurry sickness that infects modern society.

Although there are a few pensions and small inns on the 33 km-long island, if you really want to enjoy your Greek island experience, the Aegialis Hotel which straddles the mountain above Aegiali Bay is the only place to stay. A beautiful modern resort hotel, Aegialis offers modern comforts in a tranquil and peaceful setting. Owner Irene Giannakopoulos and her delightful staff will make you feel welcome from the start. If you arrive at Katapola, one of two ports on the island, as we did, a short 25-minute drive through spectacular scenery will take you Aegiali Bay and the hotel. A hotel bus can collect you at the port.

The sun streams through the balcony window, beckoning me to open my eyes and enjoy the morning, despite the late night. Breakfast is rich - small pieces of chocolate and marble cake, deep-fried dumplings coated in cinnamon and sugar, Greek yogurt, honey and nuts share the table with extra strong Greek coffee. The Greeks seem to revel is sweetness, taking every opportunity to enrich an already rich dish. Delicious, but certainly not good for a diet.

Amorgos is the perfect place to soak up local culture and experience Greece as its residents do. Far from the tourist hotspots of Mykonos, Santorini or Athens, Amorgos offers everything these more well-known places offer - beautiful beaches, quaint villages, archaeological ruins - without the huge crowds and commercialism.

The village of Tholaria is just a few minutes' drive from the hotel. We wander around the winding streets, not wide enough for a car to pass through and enjoy the local culture. Our guide's grandmother invites us in for a chocolate from her secret stash and a tot of Raki, a locally brewed and rather potent aniseed and honey flavored spirit drink.

She waves us in with a smile, pointing at the Raki and saying, "Kala! Kala!" which means good. At 73, she lives alone in this mountain house with its steep steps - her husband died many years ago, but we can see the bonds of family still are strong when she hugs her grandson and draws him close for a photograph. Her house is neat, but cluttered and family photos fill every space on tables and walls. There's one of her parents on their wedding day and another of our guide Stamitis' mother and father on theirs.

There is still evidence of harder times at the house with old pump water holes, although most villages now have running water.

This glimpse into how the locals live is a must. The house, a picturesque bright white square with the requisite dark blue windowpanes and door, is a must-see. If you are lucky, as we were, you will be taken down into the basement to see the foundations of the hundred-year old dwelling as well as the large vats of oil and flour and wheat that are in every Greek villager's home.

The houses are small, not out of lack of space or money, but because every grain of sand, every brick, every sack of cement used to build on this island has to be carried up the mountain either on foot or by donkey - and there are some places even donkeys can't go. Space is at a premium, but the rooms reflect an idyllic way of life that exudes peace and calm.

Moving on to Chora, the capital of the island, I couldn't help but fall in love with the delicate steeples of the over 40 churches in the village and the picturesque town square which its heart. But it is the Byzantine Monastery of Horaviotissa that draws tourists here. A treacherous winding path takes you to its foundations and another four hundred stairs bar the way to its top. Worth the climb, though as the views are magnificent.

Those interested in the past can also visit the nearby ruins of ancient Minoa, little more than foundations now but still intriguing to those who want to delve into history.

Chora itself is a white and blue fairytale. If you can, go to Chora during the Pasteli Festival. Pasteli is a local dessert made by mixing sesame seeds and honey together over a hot fire. The resulting sweet is kind of like Greek peanut brittle and is served on lemon leaves (which are not eaten). Pasteli is very important to the people of Amorgos as it is eaten at weddings and funerals and other celebrations. Every year in August, there is a Pasteli making competition where every villager makes the sweet and offers it around the village to determine who makes the best Pasteli. A traditional Greek feast of roast stuffed goat follows this. We were treated to an early re-enactment of the festival, complete with feast - my first goat experience. It tastes like lamb.

After a leisurely start the next morning, we walk down to the beautiful little coastal town of Aegiali Bay, a 20-minute trek cut short by a fortuitous lift. The Bay town is quintessentially provincial Greek. The darkly turquoise waters lap the pier where small fishing boats are moored. Gulls drift through the air above the water, cawing and diving down to earth.

As I wander through the narrow twisting lanes, the calm of the place envelops me. No noisy traffic to interrupt this peace, no busy executives, mobile phones in hand, scuttling to and from meetings. I idle into a little bookshop boasting "international press magazines" (read porn magazines) sold by a little old lady who speaks no English. A pharmacy is across the street. It sells up market (and pricey) cosmetics as well as medicines. Shopping is limited in Amorgos, but wandering the streets is an ideal way to soak up local culture and get a real feel for the place. Local arts and crafts are on sale in souvenir shops along with postcards of scenes you will live.

We lunch at one of the fabulous bayside cafes that edge the water. Shwarmas (pork not goat), pizza, Greek salad (the best I've ever tasted), tsatziki and taromasalata form the feast we are fed. Greek food is fresh and tasty, but cholesterol-laden - dieters beware!

After that there is time for a slow walk along the beach before returning to the hotel for an afternoon siesta Greek-style. Book in hand, I stretch out on the chairs on my private balcony and soak up the deliciously warm sunshine. In this quiet haven you can meditate on your day's adventures, relishing the serenity that inhabits every part of the island.

And after a refresher like that, what better way to enjoy your evening than with a Greek feast (you'll see a pattern developing here) and Greek dancing. Courgette battered and deep-fried shares the table with melidzanesalata (a pureed aubergine and garlic dip) and the requisite lush Greek salad, tsatziki and taromasalata. Chicken, the first we've tasted on the island, is simply prepared with lemon juice and served with a potato salad, pasta with tuna, and rice (Greeks love their carbohydrates - veggie lovers will be left disappointed). This is followed by a sweet, but tasty custard dessert almost like a crème caramel, but more mousse-like. The Hotel serves a mix of traditional Greek and western food.

After such a repast, I wonder how the locals can even stand let alone dance, but dance they do and with gusto. It seems every old man on the island can sing and joyously joins in with the band as Greek tunes fill the air. Then a circle of dancers forms, with the Greek people beckoning for us foreigners to join in. Greek dancing is lively, breathless and above all fun. You cannot help but laugh as you whirl and twirl faster and faster round and round, gripped by strong hands that pull you in almost the right direction. You don't have to know the steps, just enjoy the music and have fun.

Surprisingly, we still have energy after that dancing marathon and some of the younger set decide to move the party to Corte, the hotel and the island's only nightclub. It's a trendy bar-style place with disco lights and too many mixers. The music is a mixture of popular Greek tunes, new English releases and English favorites that have been translated into Greek. It's vibey and fun and is certainly the center of youth culture on Amorgos. Worth at least one night of all-night partying.

Overall, Amorgos is the perfect getaway break for those looking for peace and quiet. Romantic and friendly, the island is an ideal honeymoon spot and destination weddings can be arranged, whether on the beach or on a mountaintop.

I loved Greece and Amorgos especially. The locals are friendly and inviting, the views spectacular, the food heavy but tasty and the calm alone makes it worth the trip (despite a 25-hour return journey!). With the Olympics in Athens in 2004, travelers would do well to add an extra three or four days to their itinerary and visit Amorgos.

For more information on Amorgos and the Aegiali Hotel, please visit: http://www.amorgos-aegialis.com

Or contact Irene Giannakopoulos at:
Phone: +30 228-507-3393
Fax: +30 228-507-3395
Email: aegialis@aegialis.com  

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Bianca Wright is a freelance travel writer based in South Africa whose passions include fine dining and even finer theatre, preferably of the musical variety. Her travel writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Wedding Solutions, Brides and Homes and ComputorEdge. She also specializes in business and marketing writing. (More about this writer.)

Email:  bmt@icon.co.za (Bianca Wright)
Web: http://www.icon.co.za/~bmt 

 

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