A pause before Paros

Sometimes it is essential to pause, to take a break from something and continuing a journey sometimes takes longer than anticipated.  The journey to Paros from Naxos was not a long one, it has just taken longer to tell it. Paros is typical of many of the islands in the Cyclades, peppered with whitewashed buildings, blue domes and Taverna tables. It is one of the lesser known and comparatively  quieter islands but its hub at Parikia is a vibrant port, a key transportation route and fishing base for the island.

It was down the road from here, close to Livado beach,  that I stayed in a modest but beautiful boutique hotel, owned and managed by two brothers and their father who had fished the seas around Paros for over 30 years. He still dressed in the uniform of the seas and every morning as he served breakfast he looked like any minute he was off to captain a boat.

 

I should have known that with his experience and probably his sons too, their understanding of what might be regarded as choppy seas might be different from mine. I do not have good sea legs but I wanted to take the opportunity to see other islands. The short boat ride to Anti- Paros had probably lulled me into a false sense of security. But still I found myself  making my way to Naoussa for a ‘cruise’ to Delos and Mykonos.

The boat looked substantial which reassured me and as we sailed away from the harbour I took comfort from the gentle waters.  Inside the music played as we lounged in something reminiscent of the 1970s Loveboat. As we took to sea though, the calm changed as we crashed over the seas. Soon the sick bags were out and I was hoping for the destination to arrive quickly. It truly was a surreal moment as Zorba the Greek played through the boat and a Mr Bean film played on the TV.

Delos, the first stop for the boat was an island that felt like a living an evolving museum, a place of artefacts and emerging excavations. In its heyday, the houses would be filled, the markets full of traders, theatres packed during celebrations. Now it has no inhabitants, just a steady flow of archaeologists and the curious. If this was as an island of celebration of Apollo in years gone by,  its nearest neighbour Mykonos is now an island for present parties. It was a pleasant place for lunch and a few hours but I was glad that I had stayed on the more authentic Paros.

Naxos

There is something beautiful about arriving to an island by boat. Obviously flying into Santorini was stunning, the island spilling out beneath me as we came into land.

Naxos appeared in the distance,  its white buildings lifting from the sea. As we got closer my eyes were drawn to the monument of Portara.

naxos sunset

Portara is a huge doorway  (and its literal meaning)  made of blocks of stone. An entry to a temple that was never complete, facing towards the island of Delos.

Its emotion is in the story of ambition which never quite reached fruition. Its beauty is in its framing of the island,particularly in the evening,  the sunset and sea on one side and the lights of the harbour restaurants and bars on the other.

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The harbour itself is busy, working from the fisherman of first light. If you go at various times of the day you can almost see the circle of fish from sea  to restaurant to table, including the sight of octopus legs hung to dry in the Greek sun.

It is the starting point for some winding walks to the old town. It appears from some of the history that these pathways would have been dangerous in times past, the castle at the top of the island offering warning of, and refuge from,  invaders. Now though, the only danger is the slip after a cocktail on the shiny cobbled walkways or the temptation of ice cream. They wind and you duck  beneath the stone archways and at every turn there is something else to explore.

naxos octopus

The excess can be slept off the next day on any of Naxos’ beaches. I stayed close to one for all but one of the nights I was there. I forgot to book one nights accommodation but error became advantage as on the last night I booked into a hotel on the harbour and sat on the baclony, drinking and thinking of the days ahead.

Santorini Sails

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At any point in time, around the blue waters of the Greek Islands, boats and ships sway, bob, glide and course. All sizes, two men craft, fishing boats, pleasure cruises, luxury yachts up to the superfast ferries and catamarans. But it is the Blue Star ferries of Greece that are the majestic kings of these waters. Their grace as they move 20-30 knots through the water, their paths the veins and arteries of the Aegean, the lifeblood. I had always wanted to ‘island hop’ on any scale here and now I had the chance.

There is of course the opportunity to do significant journeys around these islands. Many start the adventure at Athens as the gateway by boat to the islands. My plan was more modest, focused on the islands of the Cyclades. I flew straight to Santorini from where the journey began.

It is probably the most iconic and most photographed of all the islands thanks to the stunning landscape of the caldera, particularly from the observation point of the main Island, Santorini. The pathway from the main town of Thira up to the northern point of Oia frames this stunning view. The view can be enjoyed simply, intermittently there are benches to sit at along the route or expensively sipping drinks at one of the many bars that spill over the edges of the white cliffs. The classic time to observe the natural theatre of this place is at sunset, as the colours run across the darkening sky. A slower golden Greek version of the Northern lights.

The town of Thira itself is touristic with shops and bars dominating the cobbled streets. Further inland is the islands main bus depot where you can journey to some of the beach areas such as Kamari and travel north to Oia, again a beautiful place to observe the sunset.

A cable car or a donkey will take you down from Thira to the main harbour. It is at this point that passengers from many of the cruise ships land on small boats as their ship anchors between Santorini and the volcanic island of Nea Kamini. Further along the coastline is the ferry terminal and it is here that the journey to the other islands begin.

In the town of Thira, at the ticket office, on a chalk board the weeks sailings are listed, days, routes, lines. It is take your pick time and the options are universally wonderful. Santorini for me was a place of great beauty and anticipation. Another new beginning. Another adventure.

The sense of excitement as I waited a day later to board the ferry was huge. Lines meandered  as people waited for the Ferry’s arrival. On the horizon, the outline of the boat got bigger and clearer and before longer its height and scale lifted my head, eyes squinting in the sun. With remarkable efficiency, hundreds of passengers spewed out and I ran on. Before long I was at my seat on the top deck as the boat turned and started on its way.

Infused by Lisbon

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I got to the apartment block I was staying in in Bairro Alto, Lisbon to find the door locked and a sign directing me to call the manager. My phone battery had died on the train from Coimbra and faced with a trek to a supportive coffee shop to charge and call, I banged on the door. I heard the lock on a door click and an elderly woman appeared in the hallway.

She opened the front door and beckoned me in. Once inside she smiled and looked me up and down. Guessing I wasn’t there to take an electric meter reading she pointed at the wall and a copy of the same sign I’d seen outside. I pointed at my dead phone, she chuckled and went back into her apartment, emerging with a cordless phone. No sooner had she started dialling than the main door opened and, I presumed, the manager walked in. A few words in Portuguese, a thank-you from me and she disappeared.

On this trip I was booking as I went, searching for somewhere to stay ahead after deciding where I was going. In Porto and Coimbra it was budget hotels. This time I chose a ‘budget’ apartment and was delighted to get the keys to a 2 bedroom modern duplex apartment. With a balcony overlooking the cobbled streets it was a great location for 3 days.

As someone who likes to walk a lot around cities, I love the way neighbourhoods interact and mesh together. Lisbon doesn’t disappoint in the interest in its streets from the grid street layout of the Baixa and its magnificent boulevards and squares to the winding climbing streets of Alfama. If Baixa is wide and open, proud and on display, Alfama is a place to hide and this is probably what a lot of people did years and years ago as it has the reputation of being the place where crooks hid in houses of ill repute. Now of course it is a gorgeous mix of small bars, shops and restaurants leading up to the castle. Baixa is the grand centre of Lisbon where many of the attractions sit and you can find collections of shops selling the wares of trades on streets named after them. The Santa Justa lift, an iron elevator in the centre of Baixa lifts you to Carmo Square and one of the many points in the city where you can start to see the stunning views Lisbon offers.

Away from the intensity of the immediate city, there are opportunities to get some space in the city, a walk along the Tagus River and a tram out to Belem is a beautiful opportunity to be quiet and enjoy the stunning architecture and views

Bairro Alto in my experience was not a place of great quiet, but I loved the social aspect of this neighbourhood. There are fantastic places to eat where you can sit outside and enjoy beautiful food and of course drink. Lisbon is where I discovered Ginja, a gorgeous syrupy liqueur made from the cherry like ginja berries. I liked it so much I bought bottles of it for the apartment, a fantastic way to end the night on the balcony watching the drinkers below spill out on to the street from the tiny bars. What I would say is in some of the areas of Bairro Alto it really starts to come alive at 1-3 am. Many nights as I’d decided to head to bed I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of laughter, music. Most nights I decided if you can’t beat them, join them. Drink in hand I had the perfect vantage point for the party.