Sun 05 Sep, 2010

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent countless hours daydreaming about that quintessential Creek island getaway. You know the one where azure waters lap gently against sun-kissed shores, and life ambles along at a leisurely pace, with book in hand under a tree on the beach. But unlike the tourist-clogged streets of Santorini or Mykonos, let me tell you about a place that feels like it was plucked straight out of a traveler’s fantasy and yet remains blissfully under the radar: Anafi, the southmost island in Cyclades.

Our journey began with a ferry ride to Santorini, the main launchpad to this little wonder. My bright yellow Vespa, one of the very few circulating the streets of Athens in this color, was packed with Efie and a couple of bags. After a short stop in Athinios to switch boats for the one hour cruise to Anafi, where time seems to stand still and nature’s raw beauty takes center stage. As the island gradually came into view, its stark, craggy cliffs rising defiantly from the azure waters, I felt an immediate thrill of discovery. Anafi, unlike its more famous neighbors, doesn’t try to dazzle you with opulence. Instead, it charms with its simplicity and authenticity, offering a refreshing escape from the orchestrated experiences of more touristy locales.

Upon arriving at the port of Agios Nikolaos, the first thing that strikes you is the serenity. It is a postcard-perfect enclave with a few fishing boats bobbing lazily in the clear, blue waters. No throngs of camera-toting tourists here, just a quiet hum of locals going about their day, in other words, a promising start.

A short drive—or an invigorating hike, if you prefer—leads to Chora, the island’s main village. Perched high on a hill, Chora is a maze of narrow streets and whitewashed houses, each adorned with splashes of vibrant bougainvillea. It’s the kind of place where you lose your way, but instead of feeling lost, you feel like you’ve found exactly what you were looking for. Wandering through Chora, you can’t help but notice the timelessness of it all. It’s as if the village exists in a bubble, untouched by the relentless march of time. The locals are warm and welcoming, quick to share a smile and perhaps a tale or two about the island’s history. And history, it turns out, is something Anafi has in abundance. Legend has it that Anafi emerged from the sea at the command of Apollo, providing a refuge for the Argonauts. This mythological origin sets the stage for an island steeped in ancient lore and historical significance. Wander through the ruins of the ancient city of Anafi, and you’ll find remnants of a past that dates back to the early Cycladic civilization. The scattered ruins of temples and the remnants of ancient walls tell tales of a time when Anafi was a bustling hub of maritime trade and cultural exchange.

Fast forward a few centuries, and you’ll discover traces of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman influences, each leaving their mark on the island’s architectural and cultural tapestry. The Venetian Castle, perched high above Chora, offers a glimpse into the island’s medieval past, with its crumbling walls and panoramic views that once served as a lookout against pirate invasions. Throughout the island, tiny chapels and monasteries stand as silent witnesses to Anafi’s storied past, each with its own unique history and legends. Exploring Anafi is like peeling back layers of time, where every stone and pathway whispers secrets of a bygone era.

Then there’s Kalamos, a geological marvel towering at an impressive 460 meters. This monolithic rock formation on Anafi’s eastern flank seems to sprout directly from the Aegean Sea, like a giant’s tooth breaking through the earth. It is the second largest monolith in the Mediterranean after that of Gibraltar. Kalamos is not just a sight to behold; it’s an experience to be lived. The hike up to the summit is a test of stamina and spirit, at some points frightening, but every step is accompanied by spectacular views and the omni present scent of thyme and caper. We started our ascent at 6:20 am near the monastery of Zoodochos and arrived at the church of Panagia Kalamiotissa 75 minutes later, just in time for the sunrise.

Reaching the summit of Kalamos at sunrise is an experience that transcends the ordinary. As the first light of dawn begins to creep over the horizon, the entire landscape is bathed in a golden hue, casting long shadows and illuminating the rugged contours of the island in a warm, ethereal glow. The Aegean Sea, now a shimmering expanse of gold and blue, stretches endlessly before you, its surface dotted with the distant outlines of other Cycladic islands. Nothing short of breathtaking.

For those less inclined to hike, Anafi’s beaches offer their own brand of magic. More than ten beaches with golden sands and crystal-clear waters, for a perfect for a day of relaxation. Agioi Anargyroi, Katsouni, Megas Potamos, Klisidi. And of course, the most famous of all Anafi’s beaches, Roukounas, a sprawling stretch of golden sand where free spirits of 70’s gathered to bask in the sun, strum guitars, and exchange tales of far-off adventures. Until not too long ago, Roukounas was only accessible by boat from Agios Nikolaos, a favorite haunt for nudists and campers alike. Today there is a busy tavern and the hippies are gone.

Well almost gone, because there is always Christian. A regular of Margarita’s tavern, the last hippy, a remnant of the once lively 70’s flower-power community. A few facts are known about him: he was an artist in Dresden who escaped to Bonn during the cold war, where he spends winters until the annual spring calling to migrate. Margarita’s tavern is right next to Klisidi, my favorite beach, with tamarisks – armyrikia – that offer shelter from the scorching sun and the perfect place for reading that novel.

On the way back to Athens, we stopped over for a few hours and a quick swim in Santorini. I do not wish to spare any words on describing this travesty of the former paradise on earth. Back in the 80’s I thought that blessed is the man that will spent his last moments looking down the magnificent caldera. Today it is predominantly a tourist trap, a sad spectacle for those that had the privilege to experience what was arguably the most beautiful place on the planet.