Throughout a Cyclades summer the meltemi wind is both friend and foe. She breathes relief, pacifying the fearsome Aegean heat, yet is sometimes so penetrating she’ll pick the wallet right out of your pocket.  Yet it’s another wind, a wind of change, that has swept across Greece this summer. 

During 10 insouciant days island-hopping in the Cyclades, I found coronavirus has more-or-less emptied the islands. Hotels and ferries, shorn of international arrivals, have operated way under capacity, and prices have tumbled. Now, with Greek summer vacations over, the Cyclades is desperate for international travellers to return to catch some late sunshine throughout September and October. And the islanders will tell you, it’s like seeing the Cyclades as it was, twenty or thirty years ago. 

Travelling shortly after Greece permitted UK arrivals back in mid-July, I never felt anything less than comfortable throughout my four-island odyssey. My flight on Wizz Air was half-empty, allowing plenty of room to social distance. I was tested upon arrival. And sea transportation, from the moment I left Piraeus for a 9 hour voyage to mountainous Amorgos, operated on a reduced capacity. At every bar and restaurant I entered, staff dutifully wore face-coverings.

Blue Star ferry from Athens to Amorgos Blue Star ferry from Athens to Amorgos

At Katopolo Bay, Kordylia Panagahi waited to take me to her family-run, Hotel Aqua Petra.

“It’s been very slow,” she confessed. “We didn’t open until early July”. She confirmed Amorgos has had no cases. Yet she was trapped in Athens after taking her grandfather for medical treatment just before lockdown. “It was very strict there. We could not go out without receiving permission by text. I missed Amorgos”. 

I take a bus one morning from Kordylia’s hotel along the spine of the island, to the whitewashed hilltop town of Chora. There’s a smattering of visitors, mainly Greek, exploring the mazy lanes filled with tiny churches and dashed with the extravagant hues of bougainvillea. 

French tourists, in particular, know the island as the location for a cult 1988 Luc Besson movie, the Big Blue. To reach this mythical beach I hike from Chora, descending a zigzagging track to the eponymous Big Blue beach. At times the meltemi shoves me backwards. But the rocky beach below is surrounded by sea the colour of sapphires. 

 

'Big Blue' beach, Chora, Amorgos 'Big Blue' beach, Chora, Amorgos

Yet Amorgos’ true wonder lies a further hike along the coast, Chozoviotissas, an ancient monastery hewn from sea-cliffs. 

Orthodox monks can look rather intimidating, full-bearded and clad in black. Yet Chozoviotissas’ three monks are welcoming. When I arrive, I’m offered a glass of homemade raki and I watch Greek visitors queue to kiss the hand of a senior grey-bearded monk. “Isn’t that bit risky given coronavirus,” I asked? A monk shrugged. “The Virgin Mary protects us,’ he said confidently.

“When will you Brits return,” wondered Konstantinos Makkas, shortly after collecting me in Karavostasi on the diminutive Folegandros Island. The Sea-Cat service had taken two-and-a-half hours via Santorini, which is forecast to have a dire summer with the loss of its Chinese and American tourists. 

I couldn’t answer Konstantinos, as I settled into my endearing room, which reminded me of a ship’s cabin, at his Folegandros Apartments. He told me there are few bookings for September and October. “Normally this time of year you could not move in Chora but now it is virtually empty”.

 

The ancient monastery of Chozoviotissas, Amorgos The ancient monastery of Chozoviotissas, Amorgos
Folegandros Apartments, Folegandros, Cyclades Folegandros Apartments, Folegandros, Cyclades

Chora (a common name throughout the Cyclades) oozes charm: three adjoining squares sit below the fortified ‘Kastro’, and I dine al-fresco trying island specialities like baked chickpeas from the oven. 

Yet in coronavirus times when we are seeking personal space, it was discovering the islands’ ancient paths on foot that offered my greatest solace. 

One morning, at 7am, the sun fell upon a sweep of now arid terraces, outside Chora. The vegetation is spiny like pincushions, and the stony track I hiked along was sometimes fragrant with herbs, like rosemary. 

The path took me to Angali where I swam then had breakfast upon a thick Greek coffee and fresh fruit with sweet thick yoghurt. The tavern owner doesn’t have change for my €20 note. “Please,” he insists. “Have this on me. I’d pay to see a foreigner here”. 

 

Chora, Folegandros Chora, Folegandros

A high-speed catamaran later hurried me to Milos for a further two-nights. There’s a heat haze circling over this simmering volcanic outcrop, a living geological lab, an islander told me. The calamine-hued cliffs are streaked with sulphur and jet-black volcanic intrusions, like a singed marble cake, left too long in the oven.

“We’ve had no cases of covid-19 on Milos,” explains Leonidas Foteinos, a tour-operator greeting at Adamantas Port, repeating a now familiar mantra. “There’s no reason to feel unsafe in the Cyclades. We’ve had a rise in cases on the mainland and nothing can be guaranteed but the islands here are well prepared and clean,” he adds. 

It should have been a huge year for Milos tourism, celebrating the islands cherished Aphrodite – the Venus de Milo. Fogged by the shenanigans of rival collectors from Istanbul and Paris, she was discovered here 200 years ago in 1820 by a local peasant. 

Milos, Cyclades Milos, Cyclades

Encyclopaedic local guide, Marinos Poutnides, came with me in frazzling heat to explore an island that has seen many major civilisations come and go. We see fragments of fortifications destroyed by the Athenians in 416BC and Roman catacombs and amphitheatres. Meanwhile pretty towns, like Klima, where brightly coloured houses are built into the cliffs at sea-level, the gentle Aegean knocking on the resident’s front doors.

A simple plaque marks where Aphrodite was found. Could she ever have known she might end up in Paris, at the world-famous, Louvre, adored and subjected to a million selfies? She might never have been revealed, however. “The farmer who discovered her was shocked when he saw her breasts and covered her up. They were very conservative back then,” laughed Marinos. 

 

Nearby Sifnos is my final port-of-call, has its own wonder. It’s work of art is arriving into Kamares, the port town, amphitheatrically by formidable mountains and fronted by a long curved sandy beach. By now it’s 40°C. Where was the meltemi when I needed her to cool me down? I find refuge from the sun on my delightfully shaded terrace watching half-empty ferries and sea-catamarans sweep into the bay.

Yet when the heat abates, I’m drawn into the populated interior, where Sifnos offers the Cyclades’ finest hiking, with over 100km of well-maintained trails. From the twin towns of Apollonia and Artemonas, two whitewashed Cyclades beauties, I followed rough tracks passing by fruit and olive orchards and skirting along craggy coast towards the impregnable-looking fortress town of Kastro.

In truth, I didn’t want to stop. There were other islands to explore in the royal-blue Aegean. All different yet, from my observations, united in their determination to provide a safe and welcoming experience for travellers in these coronavirus times.

 

Mark Stratton

Kamares, Sifnos Kamares, Sifnos
Coastal hike on Amorgos, Cyclades Coastal hike on Amorgos, Cyclades
Klima, Milos Klima, Milos
Sifnos Sifnos

Sunvil has offered holidays to Greece since 1975 and, we believe our knowledge of the country is unrivalled. This document contains the latest information about the protocols, preventative measures and changes adopted in Greece in response to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

The Sunvil Family

By The Sunvil Family

8th September 2020



The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family
The Sunvil Family

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