While the austerity crisis continues in Athens, expat Jennifer Barclay reveals life goes on as normal only a day's boat ride from the capital on the island of Tilos
Last night was full moon, the biggest of the year, and the moonlight was so silvery-bright that you couldn’t see the millions of stars and the Milky Way that’s usually clearly visible on this side of Tilos at night. I walked out onto the sands of Eristos beach to see bright light shimmering on the water, while back in the shadows of the shoreline lanterns and a couple of small flickering fires showed where people were sitting…
Every summer on this little island in the South Aegean, the kilometre stretch of wild Eristos beach transforms. Found at the end of a farming valley, between cliffs streaked with red and blue/green radiolarite from nearby volcanoes; in the spring I had the place to myself when I walked down from my house. The winter storms had broken some of the tamarisk trees and washed stones right up to the top of the beach.
But gradually, from June onwards, the ferries and buses have dropped off people in ones and twos and families, old and young, with their backpacks and tents and little dogs. Eristos is, according to a group of Athenian literature students who were here last month, listed on a Greek website as one of the top ten free-camping beaches in Greece.
So people come and they put their Indian-print sheets up in the trees, and their hammocks, and they build shelters out of palm fronds and floors out of stones, and put eco-friendly lights in the sand, and they stay for anything from a week or two to the whole summer. A hippie vibe takes over. It’s not approved by the government, but it’s tolerated, and people come back year after year. Antonis with his long silvery hair has been coming here for 23 summers and can’t imagine life without it.
Tilos, in the middle of the Dodecanese islands (on one side of the island, your mobile phone will switch from Greek network to Turkish), bakes in the sun from May to October. Decades ago it was designated a wildlife conservation area with no hunting allowed, so the scrub hillsides are filled with partridges, overhead you see rare species of falcons and eagles, and the clean waters around the island are home to dolphins, seals and turtles. The permanent population of about 400 is outnumbered vastly by goats. The bones of the last elephants in Europe were found in a cave here, and many ancient gravesites and medieval castles are largely still unexcavated.
Tilos is one of the least well known of the Greek islands. Although it's only a day’s journey from Athens or an erratic ferry service away from Rhodes airport; and that’s one thing that keeps it special and ensures that people who come here keep coming back.
Stephanos is in his 70s and arrives from Athens early in the summer to set up under his favourite tree. He cooks chick peas with garlic and onions in his ersatz kitchen, and eats in a proper dining room in the shade, cycling up the road to the local farms to top up on supplies.
It takes a lot for this big stretch of beach on Eristos bay to feel busy. But slowly-slowly the good shady spots under the trees fill up with tents. Visitors must be wary of scorpions and snakes – but there have been no reports of any bites yet this summer.
For a while a group of Belgian thespian types were here, and a white-skinned girl with red hair did perfect handstands endlessly where the waves lapped the shore. A quiet Austrian couple pass through for a while, Italians with diving equipment, a guy from Iceland travelling around the islands, people who have done busy places and now want nothing more than to dive into the big blue bay every morning when they wake up, and chill out with a few beers. Like Alekos and his girlfriend who just came to ‘recharge’.
I stop at one of the farms on the way down for three kilos of tomatoes and one of peppers, picked that morning, or a juicy watermelon. Stelios and I have been running the kantina on the beach this summer, making sandwiches and juices and coffees. When the mist rises off the trees, people wake up with a dip in the sea and then an iced coffee and a toasted sandwich. Some afternoons, all the chairs (made out of driftwood) are filled with guys playing backgammon. Children come by for ice creams. Local families use it on the weekends or afternoons; the kantina is an ideal place for baba to watch the children playing on the beach while he relaxes in the shade with a cool drink.
The lovely young couple who come for their toast every morning ask sheepishly, ‘Can we sit in the hammock for a while?’ They sit romantically, limbs entwined in the hammock, her long hair hanging loose in the light breeze. She’s so petite, her ankles tucked around his waist. Other mornings, when I come to open up, Rania is sleeping in the hammock and stays fast asleep through to mid-morning, blissfully unaware of the chap having an early pick-me-up while he teaches his little girl to play chess.
Occasionally in the morning you notice someone slipping out of someone else’s tent in the morning, perhaps dressed as they were the night before… But that’s a secret, naturally.
Jennifer Barclay lives on the Greek island of Tilos and is currently writing a book about her love of Greece. Trouble is, there's a lot of material... Which gets featured on her blog: An Octopus in my Ouzo: Life on a Greek Island.
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