Folegandros: A secret worth keeping.
Imagine a place so isolated that insurgents of the state are sent there for exile. Now, make that place so inviting that some of the exiles choose to settle there.
This is Folegandros, a rugged Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
It is smaller than most Greek islands, only about 6 miles long and 2 miles wide. It is harder to reach than the more popular Greek islands of Mykonos or Santorini, requiring a slow ferry ride on rough seas. It has no airport and cruise ships don't stop here. It is harder to pronounce too… Foe-LAY-gan-dross, it doesn't have any major ruins, no famous statues have been found here, and there is minimal public transportation. The land is covered by ancient terraces and rock walls, there are as many goats and donkeys taking up residence as humans, and some parts of the island don’t have electricity. There are just over 600 residents, no bank, and there is really only one small town to speak of.
Most tourists never find their way to Folegandros.
Folegandros is left to those lucky enough to spot it on a map and decide to take a chance on something different.
I definitely feel lucky.
The morning view of Folegandros from our suite at Anemomilos is insanely beautiful. The sky is painted in blue, pink, and orange and I can see the church high on the mountain above and can see the deep blue sea below me. I feel like I am sitting on the edge of the world.
We were supposed to have 2 days on Folegandros, but because of the ferry debacle, we now have one day. We pick and choose the things we want to see the most and head to breakfast to fuel up.
Anemomilos gets my vote for best breakfast. Not only do they have bread and cake, they have the prettiest yogurt with fruit, eggs to order, and a savory “pie of the day.”
The only thing better than breakfast cake is breakfast pie WITH breakfast cake.
We have rented a quad (better known as a 4-wheeler in Tennessee) because Folegandros is so small that a car seems like overkill and we are simply too lazy to walk. And we don’t want to be searching everywhere for that one taxi.
Besides, we have heard that these things are so dangerous as rentals, being snatched up and driven by people with no business being on them, that within a few years they will probably be banned as rentals in Greece. Apparently, the English and French are fairly capable on them; the Italians think they know all about scooters and tend to fall off and injure themselves; and we Americans, who know nothing about them at all, are hopelessly unqualified and are guaranteed to crash and cause a multiple pile-up within seconds of getting out on the road.
This makes it exciting.
After breakfast, we decide to take the quad and head up to the church.
It has a commanding presence.
The hilltop church of Panagia sits high above us, a zig-zagging trail of switchbacks snaking endlessly to its gates.
As he looks at all of those switchbacks, Matt decides he’s taking the quad up.
“I don’t think you can do that,” I say, nervously. “I’m pretty sure it’s only open to walking.”
I was that kid in school. You remember the one. The one that would say, "I'm telling the teacher," the second the rest of you started drawing on the chalkboard while she was out of the room. I got regular milk with my lunch even though my mom would have never known if I got chocolate. I saved my Halloween candy. I rode my bike with the brakes on. I was in bed by 8:00 p.m. even if my parents weren't watching. I always cleaned my plate.
Breaking rules makes me nervous.
“I don’t see any signs that say you can’t,” he says as he keeps heading the quad up what I am 99.99999% sure is a footpath.
I'm starting to have heart palpitations. I feel just like I did that time my big brother set that box on fire in the back yard.
I am starting to feel like we are “those Americans.” You know the ones.
The kind that talk too loud, wear brand new white sneakers and American flag t-shirts, demand a non-smoking table in a restaurant without a non-smoking section, ask for hamburgers and ketchup everywhere, repeatedly snap photos with a flash while people pray in a church, and climb all over a 1000 year-old statue so that they can post a selfie on Facebook.
We are zooming up a footpath in a historic Greek city toward a church built on the ruins of the ancient sanctuary of Artemis on a noisy 4-wheeler like some kind of Duck Dynasty commandos. Seriously, it just doesn’t get any worse.
Thankfully, we only get about 30 feet before we encounter a gate.
A gate they probably erected for Americans.
Matt pulls the quad off the path onto the dirt and we head up on foot.
The rest of the trip to the church is peaceful. It is quiet up here (without the quad) and the views are magnificent. We can see the entire island from here.
After walking what I estimate to be at least 11,578 steps, we reach the church. It is not open so early in the day, but we are able to walk around, taking in the views. I can see why many call Folegandros the “island of peace.”
We make our way back to our quad, hoping to dislodge it from the ditch we have stowed it in and quickly make an exit before anyone else approaches and realizes our serious faux pas.
We are not that lucky.
A group of about 15 locals is coming our way in track gear, apparently a running club. I brace myself for a serious tongue lashing, or at least some disgusted glances thrown my way.
I feel like blurting out, "We are American," which I have learned in the past few days can explain away any odd behavior, faux pas, or legal violation. It's practically a Get Out of Jail Free card.
But the Greek people once again show us how kind and gracious they are.
They see our plight, laugh, and toss their hands up and say, “It happens!”
The path is so narrow and the quad is so entrenched in the ditch that we literally have to lift it up, spin it around, and put it back on the path facing the opposite direction before we can make our escape.
Thank goodness I ate that extra piece of pie.
With the Humiliation at the Church of Panagia behind us, we motor down the hill and park at our hotel so that we can explore the main town on Folegandros.
Chora, pronounced Hor-ah, teeters about 200 meters above sea level, the white-washed Cycladic buildings tumbling down sheer cliffs as narrow slate-paved alleys wind through a maze of shops and cafes, suddenly opening into squares filled with children playing and people having their morning coffee. No cars are allowed inside Chora, so it’s easy to wander through the labyrinth of buildings and enjoy the quiet streets beneath the shade of the trees. (Unless you are American, in which case, you'll probably try to take your Quad in there).
Massive bougainvillea are blooming in the late summer sun and they sprinkle random splashes of fuchsia against the white buildings and blue sky.
I feel like I am peeking through to a world that remains untouched by modern trappings and I want to be a part of it.
Chora is inviting us in. The town is charming, authentic, and delicate. Cats bathe themselves in the sun, women are chatting on the threshold of their little houses, young girls hang fresh linens out to dry, men are sitting cafes reading the newspapers while drinking coffee in the dappled early morning light, little boys play games in the square.
We realize that time flows slowly in Folegandros, as if people are still able to savor every moment of their day. Far from the hectic city life, I felt like I am submerged in a different time, and I feel light and happy.
This town is a quiet footstep that has been left behind to remind us how simple and sweet life can be.
Back on the quad, we head down the narrow two-lane road that runs the length of Folegandros. We see miles of terraced farms covered with an impossible network of hand built stone walls. There are endless goat paths leading across hills of silvery green sage and chamomile.
We see a local farmer riding his donkey down the small highway, his arms tanned dark by the sun. As he smiles and waves, his eyes are buried in wrinkles that tell stories of hard work and a full life.
We take the turn to Angali Beach. The steep, curvy trip takes nerves of steel, but we eventually reach the end of the road.
Angali is the closest beach to Chora and is considered by some to be one of the best beaches in Folegandros. The sand is golden and it is surrounded by steep, rocky hills. The surf is up and waves angrily pound the shore. A few tavernas with bright yellow chairs are scattered about.
We head for the stairs on the right side of the beach which we know will lead to a hiking path to nearby Agios Nikolaos beach. Golden and sandy, the beach is about a 15 minute walk along the exquisite coastline. It’s named for a small church that is built on top of a hill near the beach. There is also supposed to be a hilltop taverna with an expansive view above the beach.
I realize quickly that I am not properly attired for a hike. Expecting a leisurely stroll, I am wearing my cute sandals again. It is immediately evident that this is a proper HIKE.
The path is rocky and narrow, winding through dry terrain high above the ocean below. It is also very hot. I am in cute sandals and I have no water.
As we walk, I am pretty sure I see a tumbleweed blow by and I can hear that music from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly playing in my head. I’m starting to have second thoughts. I have no idea how far it is or what’s really even going to be there when we arrive.
But it is too late to turn back now. Matt has forged on ahead and by the time I catch up to him, I'll practically be there. I think.
We continue to climb and descend along the dusty path, my cute sandals slipping on the sharp volcanic stone. The 15 minute walk turns into 20 minutes.
20 minutes turns into 25 minutes.
We come to a small beach that I know isn’t THE beach. There are a few people scattered about, no doubt other innocents who started this trek and decided to abort before they died of dehydration or fell to their death by slipping off the loose stone and plunging into the ocean far below.
It’s now been about 30 minutes.
I’m getting hotter and I am thirsty. I am starting to sweat in my cute, beachy-flowy dress. This is not how it’s supposed to be. I am supposed to be gliding along the cliffs like a goddess in a Greek yogurt ad. Instead, my face is melting, my feet are dirty, and I think I might have pit stains.
I distract myself with the views, which are unbelievable.
We finally arrive at the hilltop taverna and see a sign pointing down the hill. We can almost see the beach below and just have to walk around the church and make one final rocky descent.
I am looking forward to a long swim in the cool, inviting water and some shade. Maybe the taverna has some chairs for rent. I’d pay 20 euro for an umbrella, a chair, and a cold bottle of water right about now. I am sweating like a fat guy in leather pants running a 5K.
As we walk over the rise and look down at the beach, my heart sinks a little. There are no chairs. No umbrellas.
No matter. We’ll throw our stuff down in the sand European-style (I have notice Europeans tend to lay in the sand even where there are extremely cheap, or even free, chairs to be had) and have a swim before heading back up to the taverna for some drinks and food.
Besides, who could be sad when faced with such an incredibly beautiful beach?
We finally reach the beach and I begin looking around for a scrap of shade. There are a few scattered bits of shade on the beach, but I can tell that what few there are have already been claimed and are consumed with the towels of beach goers who arrived earlier than us. There is no shade for newcomers, so I busy myself with setting up our things in a little spot on the end of the beach where we entered.
I take off my sweaty dress and Matt looks at me funny. He smiles and says, “Did that bikini come with a pocket or is your swimsuit on inside out?”
I look down. Dammit. I crouch in about 3 inches of space behind a shrub while he holds up a towel and get myself righted.
Finally ready, we slip off our shoes.
And the skin is immediately burned off our feet. I feel like those guys in Indiana Jones when they opened the Arc and their faces melted off. I am pretty sure that has just happened to my feet and if I look down, there will be nothing left but charred bones. I have never encountered sand so hot in my entire life. Not even at the volcano beach on Milos.
We run to the water and plunge in.
It’s only when we come up out of the water that we have a good look around us. Until now, we have been distracted by a search for non-existent shade, trying to fix the fact that I don’t know how to dress myself properly, and running from our scorching feet.
About 10 feet in front of us is a man in a very small motor boat. He is standing, but he is pumping his entire body up and down as he tries to discharge water with some sort of small hand operated pump. What catches our eye, however, is that he is completely naked.
And he is fervently pumping, up, down, up, down. Bending at the waist, not the knees.
I quickly turn away, toward the beach and realize I am staring right at a woman who is lying spread eagle on the beach facing me and she is ….completely naked.
Having just seen a view that should only be reserved for one’s gynecologist, I slowly turn a circle and realize that pretty much everyone on the beach and in the water is completely naked.
Matt and Vicki are on a nude beach.
This gives The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a whole new meaning.
Matt looks mortified. I am mortified. We don’t know where to look so we just stare at each other.
“I think I’m ready to go,” he says quietly.
“Don’t you at least want to swim for a while,” I plead, thinking of my sweaty dress and that hot hike back up the hill to the taverna.
That’s when “pump guy” starts pumping up and down again, his bits and pieces dangling and flopping awkwardly in the breeze.
“Never mind,” I say as we hurry out of the water.
We both agree that this has been an “experience,” but one that we don’t need to prolong any further. We gather our things and start up the hill.
We don’t look back.
The taverna is simple and neat, with tables scattered about under a roof, the sides open to the ocean. The views go on forever.
The proprietor brings us a small pitcher of wine and two little glasses.
We like the wine, but I needed a proper cocktail. I mean, I have walked at least 15 miles. Okay, it was more like .5 but I did it in cute sandals so, that’s pretty much the same as 15. Add to that the 4-Wheeler Humiliation at the Church of Panagia, the Hike Through the Desert of Fire, and the Eye Assault on Agios Nikolaus Beach….Wine be damned. I need something stronger.
We see Caipirinhas on the menu, so we order two and a grilled tuna salad. After waiting for about 30 minutes, we look around at the only other two patrons and realize that, like most places we have found in Greece, this taverna runs on GMT, “Greek Maybe Time.”
You get it when you get it.
The drinks arrive and they are….odd. For one thing, they are very tall. Caipirinhas are very short because they are nothing but limes, sugar, and cachaca. The drinks also have little green tidbits floating about.
I take a sip and laugh.
“It appears to be a bastardized caipirinha-mojito hybrid,” I tell Matt. “Not that bad really.”
Lunch is breezy and relaxed, and we are thankful that the restaurant doesn’t have a view of the beach below.
Having put it off as long as we can, it is time to hike back to the quad. The only thing worse than hiking on hot hilly cliffs with slippery rocks in cute sandals is hiking on hot hilly cliffs with slipper rocks in cute sandals when slightly tipsy.
Only Matt and I would think a drunken cliff hike was a good idea.
Somehow, we make it back intact.
Because Folegandros is only a few miles long, we drive all the way to the far end of the island, taking in all of the views.
It’s early afternoon when we arrive back at Anemomilos, so we hit the pool and spend the afternoon giggling over cocktails about our ill-fated beach trip.
Earlier in the day, we noticed a cute restaurant with a beautiful garden just outside our hotel. It’s about an hour before sunset and we had a light lunch, so we decide to walk over for some afternoon “mezes.”
Mezes are small dishes that are not part of a meal, but are eaten on their own, typically with wine or ouzo. Unlike an appetizer, which is to whet the appetite for the meal to come, mezes are simply designed to provide a vehicle for a social moment. Mezes are intended to be shared along with conversation, laughter, and a drink.
I like food. I like drink. I like laughter. I’m all about the mezes.
We walk over to Pounda and find a small table underneath a massive bougainvillea. Three kittens are sitting on a low rock wall next to us. This place just oozes charm. Every day I feel like I am on the set of some elaborate play; this place is too perfect to be real.
Pounda makes its own ceramics and our wine is brought to us in a beautiful ceramic jug along with two delicately painted cups.
We are given a small, complimentary bowl of olives and the owner proceeds to tell us that they are olives “of his own production.” He noticed some unharvested olive trees nearby and decided to make a small batch of marinated olives.
They are very good.
When Matt eats them in a nanosecond and then asks for another bowl, I see the little man stare in disbelief and realize we are, once again, being “those Americans.”
However, he kindly brings us another bowl, after which I slap Matt’s hand and tell him to appropriately SAVOR the little man’s special olives.
We order a local cheese plate and some grilled shrimp and spend a leisurely hour in the garden before sunset.
Sunset on these Greek islands, we have learned, is not a moment – it is an event. Every evening, at the same time, everyone begins chasing the sunset.
No matter where you are, everyone gathers on an outdoor terrace with a view of the sunset and a cocktail, and for good reason.
The sunsets are mesmerizing. They are romantic. They are epic.
We find that the balcony of our suite at Anemomilos has a perfect view of the sunset, so we grab drinks at the hotel bar and settle in for the magic moment when the sun dips into the sea and bathes the world in golden light.
After another sunset has come and gone in colorful splendor, we go in search of dinner.
If the island of Milos is renowned for its beautiful beaches, then Folegandros is known for its food. It is said to have some of the best food in the Cyclades. I consult my travel notes and see this: “The traditional "must eat" food on Folegandros is a kind of thick pasta called matsata, which you will find in most restaurants, and which is usually served with meat in red sauce. There is also a fair quantity of fried goat meat to be had.”
Really? Who puts thick pasta with red sauce in the same sentence with fried goat meat?
We head into Chora to find a restaurant where we can sample some matsata, hold the fried goat meat, please.
We choose restaurant Chic because it has the most beautiful little tables strewn about a courtyard filled with twinkling lights. The warm glow draws us in.
We pass on the matsata. Instead, we order tangy olive dip, fried cheese balls, savory chicken souvlaki, and tender roast pork. Of course they come with the ever-present french fries.
It’s been a very long day and if I look half as tired as Matt, I know it’s time to turn in.
Yeah, I look tired.
We only had one day, and we made the most of it.
Just as Milos stole our hearts, Folegandros has amazed us.
I can’t imagine how Santorini can possibly follow these two incredible little islands.