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Folegandros: The inside track
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Courtesy: Antonia Quirke | News Source: cntraveller.com

The blistering-white island fleck of Folegandros is small in scale but immense in atmosphere, a remote and sun-drunk Cycladic secret that thrums with curious tales

WHERE TO STAY ON FOLEGANDROS

This article was first published in the July/August 2019 issue of Traveller magazine

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Anemi Hotel

Anemi Hotel is a short walk from the port, with its clutch of cafés and glassy sea. Near the pool, guests sit at a cocktail bar edged in mint and cranesbill. The colours are white and slate, light hitting linen and wood in bright plumes through woven awnings.

Address: Anemi Hotel, Folegandros island, Cyclades, 84011, Greece

Telephone: +30 22860 41610

Website: anemihotel.gr

Price: Doubles from about £190

THE BEST RESTAURANTS ON FOLEGANDROS

Ana Lui

Pounta

In Hora, Pounta’s tables are dotted throughout a shaded back garden. Order courgette fritters or stews of rabbit and white onion. Crockery is often for sale, people dropping in for a pastry and leaving with four hand-turned plates.

Address: Pounta, Chora - Folegandros, 84011, Greece

Telephone: +30 2286041175

Website: pounta.gr

Kalymnios Restaurant

At portside Kalymnios Restaurant, tables are positioned as balm to the people reluctantly heading home on the ferry. Stuffed squid, sardines and gilt-head bream are served with white beans the size of scallops.

Address: Kalymnios Restaurant, Karavostasi, Karavostasis 84011, Greece

Telephone: +30 694 422 3808

The first thing I see is Achilles. Chalked onto the stone pontoon of Folegandros’s port as I scrabble off the boat, a drawing of the Trojan war hero done in the style of a Jean Cocteau sketch – lips set like patience, far-shooting eyes. When I ask Angelika, a waitress in one of the cafés on the sand beyond the vessels, who drew it, she shrugs, her young face glowing pink in the lunchtime heat. ‘This morning he was just there!’ The island’s lone taxi is parked up outside a shop selling inflatable bananas that nobody buys and local olive oil leaking dark-greenly out of plastic tubs. Angelika hugs her tray. ‘Nothing happens around here,’ she glooms, expression now teenagerishly solemn. ‘Nothing, just nothing…’

Which isn’t quite right. But that doesn’t make her wrong, exactly. Being a mere 12 square miles and not much visited, Folegandros is often compressed into a paragraph in otherwise expansive guides to the southern Cyclades. Sometimes it can feel as if the place exists more in the mind. Or in some dreamlike dimension because, among other things, it’s peculiarly hard to get to given it’s technically only an hour on a fast ferry from Santorini. But those don’t come very often, and other boats can take up to 12 hours and some are vigorously promised, but don’t seem to materialise. Nevertheless, once here, you can read into Folegandros’s landscape a whole rapturous history of Persians and Byzantines and worshippers of the goddess Artemis. Eighty-five Greek Orthodox chapels sit dim and cool and misted with incense, lit by small lamps of sparkling bronze. Coins have been found stamped with the bull of Minos. Venetians, in the 1200s, built a magnificent castle in the main town, Hora.

I take the island’s one bus there. A donkey laden with water bottles picks its way through a field, and a scooter toils past in a rattle of pebbles dragging beach paraphernalia. Around 660ft up on the sheer edge of a cliff, the town is so white it blazes. The meltemi – the strong, dry north wind of the Aegean – faintly whistles, and from somewhere plucks the sound of slightly sorrowful Greek music. I maunder down the thousand-year-old lanes, some overhung with oregano and scrupulously maintained brick stairs winding up, the houses hugger-mugger. During summer evenings these streets feel like an eruption.

Terrace at Anemomilos Apartments, Hora

The town’s small squares, three of them in a row, are rammed with tables; waiters weave round diners with stubby raki glasses stacked into leaning towers, passing bowls of rabbit stifado stew bristling with bay leaves. But for now, along the narrow walkways, a post-lunch silence. Vertical in a featureless sky, the sun: an immense, copper eye. In a basement room, a child sings, imitated with a soft urgency by a lilac-tinged bird in a cage, a laughing dove. Not for the first time it feels as though Aesop is arranging things – or Apollonius of Rhodes, imagining places for Jason to stop on his way to find the golden fleece.

The island strikes precisely such an atavistic chord, but never more than when seen from the sea, trembling on the water. It emerges through a plumbago haze. One early morning I go out in a boat hugging the coastline. The sky is blue as ever, stunning me into a stupor, and the high cliffs are so massive and contoured that pirates called this ‘the island of iron’. Up the eye climbs to the gleaming white Hora. Beneath, saw-toothed black rocks, violet earth, golden thistle. Speedwell and buttercup. Cranesbill and pimpernel. The reek of diesel, and the mew of buzzards. Wind tears boisterously off the sea and caves on the shore echo the swirl of water as I chug along. Now and again, beaches appear as though savagely bitten out of the cliffs, falling into half-moons and pretty crooks of yellow sand.

Serfiotiko, with its string of tamarisk trees studded with the hats and scarves of bathers, colourful as gypsy bracelets. Vorina; fat babies sitting on tide-smoothed pebbles, their older siblings cutting confidently through the water beyond. Agali, a bright smattering of low-built guesthouses. Agios Georgios, where my friend Balthazar says a rare campanula Graca with ragwort leaves produces its bright purple flower only once a year, at Easter. He has a picture on his kitchen wall. And Hohlidia beach, by the port. On the sand are cottages with tumbling porches as blue as agapanthus, rusty push-bikes leaning against Judas trees and wooden chairs propped up with old books, their pages swollen with salt. At night, lanterns are lit all along the sand as though guiding you to bed, or to an Indian temple. And at dawn, just the sound of collared doves and water swirling on stones, the vague light at the horizon becoming form, and spreading lush and fast and almost green.

One afternoon I try to navigate by memory the way to Balthazar’s house in the oldest part of Hora, called Castro. He’s lived on Folegandros for 70 years, all through the winters, when just 765 islanders look after olive groves and small herds of goats and sheep and pigs. He knows all the stories. Everything about the plants and rocks, the minerals and comets. Lost in the labyrinth on the way, the narrow lanes are occasionally licked with periwinkle paint and covered in bright stabs of hyacinth. On one wall, there’s a chalked image of a dryad done in the same mystery hand of Achilles at the port, her hair drawn to look like falling myrtle leaves. And when I do finally look through the right window, I find Balthazar yawning with a bottle of black wine and a packet of Greek Sante cigarettes – now discontinued – that he paranoidly hoards in preparation for the end of civilisation. ‘I will tell you…’ he laughs when I ask him to tell his favourite story, about the first night he spent on the island, sometime in the unrecoverable 1950s. It was December and the streets were full of shadows.

The boat to Piraeus wouldn’t be back until spring. ‘I wasn’t scared,’ Balthazar insists, ‘I have never been scared on Folegandros.’ His rolled-up sleeves reveal forearms dipped in a thousand freckles and sunspots. Some parts of the island still don’t have electricity, he says. And there’s never been a cinema here – although the Athenian director Dimitris Kollatos once turned up and projected Mickey Mouse on the side of a wall for the children. Most of the oldest people on the island have never seen a movie. ‘They are very pure, very pure,’ Balthazar says, the day and the wine fading, and his senses thickening with delight, and power. He thuds the table. ‘We are the remains of antiquity! Our superstitions trigger things in people.’

At Agios Nikolaos beach (pictured above), the water is the bluest blue and the painted colours of boats flash in the sunshine. A little bar sits on the sand; a chapel, festooned with creepers trailing down to the water. Kids doze in the warmth, cheeks pillowed on folded sarongs. A party of twenty-something girls from Mykonos tie up their hair and head into the water, the gentle slop of waves cooling their upturned faces. It’s lunchtime and I clamber round the side of the chapel and up steep stone steps to a restaurant, Papalagi, that sits almost like a treehouse far up on the rocks, entirely open on all sides, big tables laid upon wooden planks, huddles of diners emitting moans of greed as the owner brings out melopita pie stuffed with cheese and honey, and platters of grilled octopus, tendrils thick as sausages.

Plant at Anemi Hotel on Folegandros

Everybody eats to the sound of wine and napkins and vegetables being winched up to the chef from boats below, on a wire, the hours passing and the light thinning to a daring purple arc right through to the floor of the Aegean, stretching off towards the island of Milos. The immensity and composure of the view is hard to take. And yet it’s as peaceful as being in an orchard. On the side of a little boat far below, there’s another painted image – this time of Odysseus, his eyes staring out across the water having a million indecipherable thoughts from the ancient world. By now someone had told me that French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac was on the island, and had been moved to graffiti such heroes on anything from lampposts to stone lintels where they will doubtless preside until the decades wipe them out, mythical figures slowly disappearing into wind and air.

Walking back to my hotel through Hora comes the Folegandros magic trick: the town wakes. In what feels like a jump cut, the night springs fully into a festival. All of a sudden the tables in Kontarini square are filled with people drinking wine from jugs and eating gobs of souvlaki. The sky is drenched in starlight. Round the corner comes an ecstatic young bride in a white dress cut to look as though it’s been sewn from lace rags, marching arm-in-arm with her bridesmaids – groom left dawdling behind, with someone’s sleepy child hanging off his shoulders. The moon is full and smoky and the fairy lights strung all about are crowded with delicate white moths, the gossip ballooning like a soufflé, and the buildings all around seeming older and even more dignified, with a kind of grandeur that has more to do with character and mystery than mere scale. Happily among the hubbub, father Panagiotis sits at the open door of the chapel Stavros – there’s no division between the church and the nightlife here, between soul and noise and spirit. The gold of candle-lit icons seems to be always catching your eye wherever you walk or sit in Hora, so the whole town feels sacred, all the eating and dancing, like everything’s been blessed.

When I dip into nearby church Saint Antonios – in the middle of the fray – I find it lined with the silhouettes of Christian saints and dark with incense, a crypt-like, Byzantine world with a dazzling carving of a powerfully living Jesus suspended by hissing serpents. It’s full of women who’ve dropped by for prayers, sitting with their fans and talking; checking in with God. And when father Panagiotis makes a visit, wearing his black robe and enormous sandals, he heaves through the door onto 18th-century tiles and nods hello, patting the heads of children in the pews rummaging in coin purses for ice cream money. With one sweep of his hands, he tidies the pile of beeswax votary candles, shaped like the most lender arrows and coloured Jurassic amber. Later, in Kontarini square, I pass the bride and groom and all their guests. They’ve stopped to toast the day with spiced raki brewing in a pot at the Astarti bar, where they’re playing old songs of Crete on a loop, and singing, and hauling bags of ice through the door to make Whisky Sours, rattling shakers and filling glasses, passing one after the other out onto a window ledge piled with peaches and wind-smoothed stones, and geraniums white as unexpected snow.

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