“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
The Greek islands shut down from November to March so they say, except of course they don’t. The majority of tourist-centric infrastructure does close, but what remains open is plenty to sustain the locals and handful of visitors.
I visited Karpathos late February and revelled in the absence of crowds, the empty roads and countless beaches with no-one around but the odd fisherman catching my evening meal, and little old me.
Spring was beginning as I arrived and the island was peppered with fields of yellow wild flowers adding some much needed colour to the khaki brown and green landscape. But the real beauty is just offshore – the Aegean waters are a striking array of rich mid to dark blues, as the island is a series of mountains and hills, there’s a sea view pretty much everywhere.
Karpathos is the second largest of the Dodecanese islands in the southern Aegean sea. 125 square miles with a population of just 6000 in winter, doubling to 12000 in the summer months with a few thousand additional tourists, it is never overwhelmed with people. The majority of the island is undeveloped so the air is fresh and the night sky crisp and clear.
I stayed with my friend Cathrine, a self employed Norwegian headhunter I met on a windsurfing holiday in Dahab – she loved Karpathos so much she moved there. She kicked off my visit with a walk up the coastal hills to the south of Pagadia (aka Karpathos town). Under cloudless skies the views of the coastline and tiny white domed churches against a back-drop of the glistening sea was breathtaking. 10km of hills later I could hardly move my legs but it was worth it.
I spent the weekend in Pagadia, the capital of the island but just the size of a small town. Friday harbour-side drinks chatting to the locals carried on into the small hours, Saturday saw a family festival set around a stone amphitheatre overlooking the water, with hundreds of people joining the party in fancy dress. Sunday we enjoyed dinner with Cathrine’s friend’s on their rustic terrace, warmed by a fire and lit by hanging tea lights under a vine covered pagoda, the familiar smell of garlic and roast meat in the air.
Karpathos is small enough to circumnavigate in three hours, so I rented a car to take a look. Hire cars are cheap but satnav is an anomaly here, this was a concern as my sense of direction is so bad I need Google maps to find my kitchen. After some discussion about the ‘crazy English girl with the satnav’, I was assured the 4 roads on the island and bilingual signage were adequate, luckily they were right and I set off with one of those old fashioned maps. Half the roads wind around narrow roads with hairpin bends and sheer drops, I’d say it’s nail-biting but both hands were firmly gripping the steering wheel. However after 15 minutes I was cornering like a pro and, with the lack of traffic, stopping regularly to admire the views and enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Olympos on the north of the island is isolated and maintains a traditional feel. The local women still wear traditional dress around the small village, a cluster of hillside pedestrianised terraces. It’s no wonder the Greeks live long lives – when they’re not toiling on their land they’re walking up and down steep hills while running a familial mix of businesses and communities. And of course there’s the healthy diet; the island produces olives, oranges, lemons and limes in abundance, and many residents grow their own veg to serve with their daily catch of fish or locally reared goat.
The island has plenty of beaches, many of them enticingly isolated. In delightful 20°C sunshine I visited Damatria and Amopi just south of Pagadia, beautiful coves with soft sand and crystal clear waters. Achata, just north of Pagadia is a stony beach in a lovely sheltered cove surrounded by hills and pine trees.
From Achata I cut across the island through the rustic hillside village of Othos to Arkasa. Centred around a grand white and blue Greek church, the ancient settlement is dotted with monuments and winding pedestrianised streets lined with crisp white and multi-coloured houses and restaurants.
We visited Cathrine’s friend Manolis at the Athanasia restaurant who put on his apron especially for us to prepare freshly caught calamares, Greek salad, bread and taramasalata. Greek salads taste different in Greece than anywhere else, the vegetables juicy and ripe, the feta cheese soft, tangy and fresh. And the hospitality was as warm and sincere as I’ve ever experienced.
By now I was comfortable enough with the winding roads to navigate them in the dark back to Pagadia. At Porto Paradiso, Antonis had one last lesson for me on Greek spirits, today’s was about Skinos. Made from the resin of the Mastiha tree on Chios island it can be sipped, taken as a shot or used in mojitos, but only in the summer when local fresh lemon and mint leaves are available.
Life is simple on Karpathos. On the down side this means the wine list is limited to red or white, sweet or dry, the indoor smoking ban hasn’t been fully enforced and toilet tissue can’t be flushed (usual in the Greek islands). On the flip side, tourism has been mindfully limited so even in season the island isn’t overcrowded and still maintains individuality and charm. Nature is far more prevalent than development, prices are delightfully cheap and there really isn’t anything to stress about. For a genuinely Greek experience and top class hospitality you’ll find a gem here.