Andros: Greek island hike through unhurried villages to a millennium-old Monastery

Andros, the northernmost and greenest Cycladic island nearest to Athens still disembarks more Greeks than foreign tourists. Most of them are weekend beach loungers or savvy hikers. The Aegean island’s continuous 100km route of trails through alluring, quaint villages, fortified, centuries-old castles and Orthodox monasteries, plaster-clad chapels, Venetian watchtowers, pristine natural springs and small waterfalls next to up to over six millennia old archaeological sites is amongst “the Best of Europe” as recognised by the European Quality Certification Leading Quality Trails.

While Christian saints stopped by, the Cretans, Ottomans and Venetians once ruled here, and you can witness their presence with a chimeric touch of your own mind stirred by the architectural chronicles that survived the past wars and the rust of time.

Like its neighbour, the much smaller marbled and spiritually high island of Tinos, there are christian and orthodox monasteries, vineyards and self-sustaining agricultural farmland on the “Rocky One” as Andros is locally also known, next to other nicknames “Ydroussa” was another ancient title of this water-rich island. The most ‘contemporary’ name, Andros celebrates one of the successful Cretan kings, General of Radamanthys, who ruled over all the Cyclades [pronounce Kyklades] in antiquity.

ancient stone wallsAndros architecture

Some places are not what they seem to be, they hide their treasures

If you are like me, avoiding crowds on holidays, preferring to explore hidden gems or more authentic places unspoiled by the ubiquity of global tourism, you will enjoy the star-lit Andros. Particularly the further, south-eastern side, opposite from the Gavrio port where mega ferries ship daily hundreds of Peloponesans to its most accessible beaches like Batsi.

There are a few hotels on the island, but best is staying at one of the “suites”, small, locally-run homes and apartments. Some offer a plunge pool, own kitchenette, and overall tend to be more integrated within the local nature or architecture. I was above satisfied with my spacious living room cum kitchen, a white-washed simple bedroom and the lush valley of Eden opening terrace at Edem Suites ran by a young, very welcoming, anglophone and helpful Dimitrios and a lady who spoke a few words in English.

Greek Sunrise Greek sunsetstone walls in Greecexerolithes

Andros island hike and locally fished, grown and pastured meals

Even during the hot Greek summer you can hike on Andros. The wind now surprises unexpectedly even outside its reign in winter and August, mid-June it felt well alive on my refreshed skin. I stayed for six days in Chora, taking up the meticulously signposted paths either in the mid-morning around nine for about two hours or after my daily writing commitments were exhausted from five in the afternoon. Sunset tints the hilly landscape from its North-Western Athens side. In Chora, tucked behind the island’s highest peak this means a tad earlier. Well before nine late spring and early summer.

Usually, I would get back just in time for dinner at one of the local tavernas. My favourites were Endochora, Sea Satin in Korthi, and for a bit fancier, farm-to-table plates Dolly at Micra Anglia, the most deluxe hotel in Chora and the only restaurant accepting AmEx cards (which after exhausting all cash was my only dining option the last night).

best meals on AndrosEndochora restaurant food

I trialed all the trails starting in Chora, also known as Andros town as it is currently the most important municipality on the island. Not until their very ends except for one, but as some intersect I created my own, shorter circuits more suitable for my daily outings. I can confirm that the stone-paved path number “1” is indeed first in terms of diversity and natural shade provided.

A fig offers itself to my hungry lips

I take one longing to feel its island bliss

My hands soft youth like the Andros silk

And goats welcome with their milk

I pluck grass, seduced by the plant bounty

Turning to the sheep’s watchful uncertainty 

I ramble further along the olive path

Laced with chiseled silica rock laid

By countless muscular human hands 

To signpost pilgrims’ faith and mules’ trails

This hot summer morning the Meltemi blows hard

Showering my sweat away and kissing me

As in this revelry I welcome the rocky island

The first Aegean to enchant me

~RB

The most scenic trail from Chora

My lids opened with the mid-June sun tickling me through the hollowed window shutters around 5:30. Seduced by the peach horizon layered like the Velvet cake in soft, delicate hues, I savoured my first morning tea on my terrace. Wholesomely anticipating my only free day on the island, unaware that this Saturday would turn into more of a pilgrimage than just a regular hike.

Up with the cockerels, I packed, ate the last dried figs (grown and packaged on Andros with sesame seeds and bay leafs to keep them from sticking to each other, smart), the dense local goat yogurt, bread sticks dipped in a sesame paste, and swiftly checked out from my blissful accommodation before nine. A local taxi lady would meet me at 12:30 at the monastery with my luggage (one handbag, plus a gift bag with Chora boutiques bounty — silk, naturally-blue-coloured spirit, dried figs, sesame tahini, olives, more of the addictive bread sticks covered in crunchy sunflower seeds). The 11.5 km trek (without detours), guides say takes about 4.5 hours, but I am a fast hiker, so even with a number of intentional and rather unplanned strays it took me slightly over three. 

Greek island villageGreek village

white and blue Greek architectureGreek village

If you do not have entire day to snail along the number 1 route there and back the same way (which I admit I do not love doing, too repetitive, too little time to explore more), after reaching the monastery you can take the 18 route (that spits from 1 in about 1 km) back to Chora. This way is about half the distance compared with crossing over to the opposite valley. Andros Routes, a website dedicated to inform on the condition of the trails, highlights unmissable sights along with tips for refuelling and potential detours so you can plan ahead. I am a vaguer planner. I prefer to roam, savour and fly free like a bird when traveling alone. I set a window in my day, the final destination with multiple options for discovery, one goes with the flow of the changing weather (wind in the case of Andros, because once it stops in summer, you roast like a potato and sausage on a pan glued with eggs, the local specialty).

rural Greek lifeGreen almondsHorsePomegranate blossom and fruit

Leaving Chora downhill into lush farmland, horses gazing, donkeys lazying, sheep and goats grazing the verdant carpets watered by naturally-endowed wells, a wild goat jumped ahead of me. Startled with a wide smile, I trod the stone-set pathway in an awed spirit. Fig trees, cypresses, oaks, planes, almond, lemon, olive, pomegranate and walnut orchards, shaded my head high with fragrant air. Abundant springs (wait till the beautifully lion-headed Menites springs for the safest bottle refill with drinking water) feed the flora and encourage animals to procreate. I felt like in the Portuguese countryside.

Connecting the the hillside villages, the shist and slate xerolithies of stone walled paths on Andros are unique to the Cycladic islands in Greece. I climbed into the first white-clad, terraced village, Ypsilou. Here, the local rachitic cats (they are the pickiest eaters I learned, give them bread and they rather skip a meal) were napping on the late morning sun, guard dogs barked from behind the fenced of gardens, jolting me anyway. I passed a sign for over a century old spring, but my Google Lens translator did not pick up “drinking water” so as a general rule I waited for a more elevated source to refill my thermos.

Greek fountainfresh water springabandoned school on Androsstar map

After the first path split, in Koumani village, route 10 met mine. I saw the first hiking group exploring a walled in building so I ventured inside, surprisingly finding an abandoned school. The post-independence edifice still fancied worn down posters of constellations, sea-centric map of the world (Andros’s history abounds with seafaring tales), drawn pictures of Andros fauna and flora with poisonous danger alerts attached. A very practical local education, I thought. Skipping over the elderly group I continued through the village, distracted by ripe apricots fallen onto my path, so with a full mouth picking one after another, delighted, energised but a bit lost, I strayed off the signed route. On the less-trod dirt road I was drawn to abandoned relics of cars that would fit perfectly in modern museums.

apricotripe apricot in Junevintage cars

Inner journey connected with symbolic surroundings

As desires and appetite seduced me away for my first detour, my walk turned inwards. Musing, is it something leading me or is it rather some deep layer of my heart that calls up from the abyss of unfulfilled longings from my past? So far in fact that I cannot recall any repressed cravings, suppressed truths or injuries to my soul. From Jungian psychology I learned that symbols speak to us universally, collectively, but I also suspect that some connection between our individual past and it form the current representation of that object. Like triangles. I was drawn to them on the Bermudas, here on Andros as at most Cycladic islands, the triangular shape adorns the traditional homes on rooftops, engraved decoratively around and attached to the doors. Most commonly, a collective symbol of the Holy Trinity, but for an individual there may be more to explore in one’s awakened consciousness.

Menites springspomegranate tree over a springMenites springs

From healing springs around Haunted bridge

My self-analysis got exhausted with no water left in my flask, so I practically decided for an additional detour. Following the Menites Springs circular route after just a mile the refreshing gushing sources off the mouths of carved out lions set into green-clad wall blessed me for the hotter half of the route. Water tastes best when you are thirsty. Sweeter as my salty sweat made it seem so. As I replenished and got my kidneys back to work, the euphoria distracted me on the main road to Mesaria village spreading across a fertile valley splitting the North and Southern hills by two highest island peaks.

This is not a recommended “shortcut”, but a way taking you on the busy car road across the island. Trailing back towards the picturesque Chora, I missed one of the sights on the mapped route One, the “haunted” Stoicheiomeni bridge. With a hindsight, I am thinking perhaps the arched stone bridge is indeed haunted and I was not supposed to get close to it. Well-wishing is a good self defence in whimsical situations like this. Anyway, my chosen route guided by my “smart” phone was not rewarding either. Do not trust Google maps! After a few blind cross paths, I got angry guard dogs barking my heart away, hit a fence and mulched through a hill of dry bushes. After a couple of annoying failures, I found a connecting road turning me back down the valley gorge into the village at the foot of Gerakonas, the second highest mountain range of Andros. Extra mile or two. A pack of geese trodded before me on the concrete road before I turned across a creek over a stone bridge to my final climb.

PANACHRADOS MONASTERY

Snaking up, the mostly staircase path higher up scented with golden weaver’s broom flowers felt as if I was going away from the castle-like structure of the monastery above me. The xerolithies guided me during most of the final ascent. Some of the monasteries on Andros are uninhabited and only during specific festivals interesting or open to visit and experience. Panachrantou Monastery is not only the most friendly to welcome outside visitors, but also offers head-turning sea view from its cliffside height. Towering above Fallika village, the 10th century monastery engages with the followers of the Orthodox Church in sacramental festivities as I witnessed after climbing up just around noon. Inside, all gilded decadence typical for Greek Orthodox interiors, a precious sacred icon of Virgin Mary allegedly painted by St Luke was adorned by sacramental gifts.

Eleni, the friendly lady for my pre-arranged multi-stop transport back turned up knowing all the monks. Her family farm house is in the village just bellow, so she spent her entire life visiting the amicable group of priestly men. She showed me around the monastery, even the kitchen where she offered me from one of the silver bowls the chewy fruit and rosewater loukoumi sweets made by in the monastery, and I refilled my flask from the lion-mouthed spring on the premises.

She drove me across the yellow and purple covered hills down to Korthi. The wind battered the car so strongly that unused to the Cycladic Meltemi one worries about falling down the steep cliffs. Down by the sea, we lunched with our frothy coffee fredos (shaken iced espresso) at her local favourite Sea Satin. While we waited for the relaxed-pace waiter, she told me of her 102 years-old grandmother also living off the family’s own organic farm just under the ‘blessed’ monastery. The island is a village. She seemed to have known many people around. The sublime Kretan salad composed from the freshest local vegetables, pickled Andros capers, Greek samphire, olives, bread rusks and the sweetest plum tomatoes was by far the best I had on this for two weeks lasting Greek trip. With some extra bread and olive oil, refuelled, I could walk some more.

Wild capersGreek ceramics

As per my interest in archeology, she drove me north across to the open Zagora site. The winds messed our hairdos and the car doors were an additional workout to close firm! Finding that, there is not much to see along the route 7 through the over six millennia old Zagora, she drove North to my ferry in Gavrio. Attentively pointing at the best sunset viewing spots, I was allured to return to Andros soon! Still, so much to explore in the relaxed, slow-life pace the Greeks do so well. Kalimera!


Greek street art in Athens is rising in time of austerity

When you hear about Greece these days the echo beats the Greeks protesting against the austere measures imposed by its heavily indebted Government or the cries of the refugees swimming for their lives across the Mediterranean. On the shores of the mythical islands and on a larger scale in its capital something else has been bubbling up in the recent decade: the street art in Athens. Rising in the austerity as a positive side effect of the economic struggle and for some even a bare survival. “The financial crisis was an influence for artists in general; since then you were able to see that some graffiti artists started to relate their work’s concepts to this economic phenomenon. This means that the street art you could see would be more linked to our everyday reality. This makes the quality of street art better as concepts were more linked to our everyday political, financial and social life“, confirms Nikos Rude, a local guide and insider in the Athens street art scene.
He works for Alternative Athens, a group of local touring experts on diverse facets of the Greek Capital. The tour of current street art in Athens is one of its strengths.
The quality and scale of the art freely available to any passerby to enjoy in Athens is mesmerising when considered on a European scale. Perhaps, only Berlin in Europe, Melbourne in Australia and the wowing murals, elaborate stencils and raw graffiti in the politically disrupted Latin America (my street art reportage from Buenos Aires) can match up to the public spectacle of the rugged neighbourhoods of Athens. Nikos adds: “The Greek street art scene started in late 80’s to early 90s’, when it was known as graffiti. The past decade has been renamed street art, because it includes other influences apart from the traditional graffiti.”

Politically charged, but also emotional street art in Athens attracts internationally renown sprayers

Internationally recognised Greek and some foreign artists (such as Osgemeos from Brazil, Bali [WD], America [Martinez],…), who exhibit their paintings in galleries, install contemporary sculptures around the world’s major cities, and practice art full time were commissioned either by the city, the Government or some private businesses to paint the walls with something more captivating than crumbling facades. Alexandros Vasmoulakis is one of them. His massive collages now appear anywhere from his home country, Berlin, Portugal, Tel Aviv to the industrial cities in China. His work has also appeared in print like The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti by Rafael Schacter and John Fekner and in a book by TASCHEN Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art, Street Art Calendars. In Athens, the widely popular Superman (pictured bellow) was painted in 2011.
Some street art serves as public advertisement such as the Batis Art shop that supplies painting material. The colourful tribal theme above the heart image is one of such creative ads. Under it nests a covered temporary bed for a homeless person.

The street artists do not have a glamorous lifestyle in Athens. Nikos says: “Usually it is hard to make a living from street art, though I’ve met a couple of artists. The people that are producing street art are mostly working in creative jobs such as tattoo shops, graphic design, architecture. That doesn’t mean that these kind of jobs are always available when Greece is under a financial crisis.”

INO is another internationally commissioned artist making some money from his rugged walls beautifying activity. Nikos clarifies why; “Apart from the talent they have a great background in street art but also most of them own a degree in arts. This shows the level of the artists who are commissioned. They have gained a lot of fame from exhibitions, street art and other commissioned work.” Although anonymous, INO worked for National Geographic, Coca-Cola, the Onassis Cultural Centre, Story Nightclub Miami, Dj Avicii, and many others globally.

The US-born international artist Alex Martinez, also known by his tag name SHINE, worked as an illustrator and muralist in Greece and in London where there are many commissioned works of his. He even worked for an exhibition at the world-famous Madame Tussauds Museum. With them, the past decade saw these wall artists emerging in Athens: Bizarre, Bleeps, Heroes, STMTS (Stamatis), SHK, HIT, Sive, Ozone, Blaqk (in the gallery above the beautiful graphic black design), Simple Gee, and others like the skateboarder Billy Gee. The later utilised his degree in Graphic Arts and Realistic Design in his large colour-packed work based on realistic imagery. One of his most popular works on the streets of Athens is Loukanikos, in the above gallery the leading image of a stray dog that became a common sight during the austerity protests.

Art that provokes, does not support violence and promotes love

WD (Wild Draw­ing) creates organic murals that often melt into the surroundings as if they were just another reality inserted into the streets of Bali, Berlin, France, Malta, Sweden and much of it around Greece. Born in Bali, pocketing degrees in Fine Arts and in Applied Arts along the way WD started off as a street artist in 2000 and currently is based in Athens. Some of his murals are colourful like the female character we saw in the Psiri district, while others are more elaborate black and white strokes based gigs. Eyes, owls, masks and some mythical characters are WD’s frequent subjects. You can watch some videos of his creative process on WD street art website.

Cacao Rocks aka IASON (Jasone), who often uses a specific bright shade of blue and political motives in his art, provokes with a slogan “This is a great hipster Instagram opportunity” just around the corner from perhaps the most visited street art alley in town – Riga Palamidou in Psiri.

Collaborative works are common in Athens. Carpe Diem collective and TXC group are one of the strongest ones.

Perhaps because of the inherent vulnerability of graffiti “female artists were always around but less in number“, says Nikos. Street creativity blossoms in rough areas and these are usually even more dangerous for women than most young male artists. Still, there are some artists from the delicate gender such as Simoni involved in the Greek street art in Athens. As I witnessed in Buenos Aires, in Greece the legality of street art has also a fine line: “Police is most of the times stopping artists to paint in public spaces. They become just viewers only when there is a permission.” Yet, Nikos adds: There are areas which are already painted too much and the public won’t be bothered to have just one more painting, like Exarchia, Psiri and Exarchia.

Like everywhere else the ephemeral nature of street art allows for a constant supply of fresh ideas, but the negative side is that what you see during one tour may not be there on your next viewing. The fragility of the art freely shared on the street walls makes traveling more exciting though. With an increasingly similar world, street art is the most free expression of the contemporary, often mostly local emotions. I toured the street art in Athens while visiting Documenta, the contemporary art show that for the first time in its history has moved outside its home in Kasel, Germany, and must admit that I enjoyed the local creativity more on the streets than inside the city galleries and lofty exhibition spaces.

NOTE: There is plenty of misinformation or incomplete description online about the street art in Athens. I caught even the usually meticulous British Guardian paper being too hazy (and lazy) in their reporting. Nevertheless, I found this post by Widewalls very informative and enriching my content with some older examples of street art in Athens. There is also Facebook page titled Graffiti in Athens with regularly updated content, but for the best experience you must walk it and see it yourself live in Athens. I did not receive any benefits or payment from Alternative Athens, I paid for the tour and can highly recommend using them to anyone visiting the Greek capital.


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