Destination: Greece : THE SPARTAN LIFE : What the Rugged Cyclades Island of Anafi Lacks in Creature Comforts, It Makes Up for in Simple Greek Pleasures

<i> Quick is an Oakland-based author </i> ("Northern Edge") <i> who is </i> working <i> on a novel set in Hungary and Romania</i>

At first sighting, the Greek island of Anafi is nothing more than a naked rock jutting out of the sea with what looks like a dusting of snow at the bottom and over the top. But as our ferry from Athens drew closer, we watched the snow break apart and recompose itself into buildings. The ships’ crew members were bleary-eyed and impatient after a 12-hour overnight passage. They herded The Aegean’s 40-odd passengers--quite a crowd, we thought, considering the island’s diminutive size--below decks , and we disembarked in a miasma of diesel fumes alongside young Italians and Greeks with their motorcycles and backpacks, trucks loaded with watermelons and cars stuffed with clothes. Standing on the wharf, to our left we saw a handful of whitewashed cafes trimmed in blue and, to our right at the water’s edge, fishermen sorting out their nets at Anafi’s little port of Agios Nikolaos.

We arrived in August of last year after hearing about the island from a UC Berkeley archeology professor, Stephen Miller, an expert on Greece who had described Anafi as the most appealing and least known of the Greek isles. The furthest inhabited island in the southern Cyclades group, Anafi, Miller reported, had beautiful beaches and even some interesting ruins.

Having spent two long, hot weeks in the Peloponessus, where my husband, John, was videotaping the excavation at Nemea, one of the four original sites of the Panhellenic Games, we were looking forward to relaxing and recovering. We knew little about what to expect in Anafi--guidebooks barely mention the island--and had no way of signaling ahead to book a room. Just 14 square miles in size, the island is the last port of call twice a week for the ferry from Athens and has little in the way of accommodations.


But an island away from the hordes of sun-worshippers, tourist hotels and nightclubs was just what we had in mind. We craved a stripped-down version of island life: simple food, cheap accommodations, silent, starry nights and the opportunity to live among Greeks in an environment not exclusively geared to foreign tourists. Ironically, Anafi sits just 12 nautical miles east of one of Greece’s most visited isles, Santorini, where cruise ships unload passengers en masse during the summer.

Anafi is not yet on the American tourist circuit--most of the people who vacation here are Greek, although we also met Italians and a handful of French- and German-speakers, a few misinformed Irish bicyclists (there are no bike trails) and a couple of Swedes. Unfortunately, when it came to quickly snagging Anafi’s few lodgings, most of these people were better prepared than we were. After being deposited ashore, we made the mistake of lingering at the beach rather than aggressively making inquiries in the port or taking the bus to the island’s upper village, where the bulk of Anafi’s rooms are found. As a result, we found ourselves facing the prospect of sleeping on the beach until the next boat arrived in four days.

With our son Julian, then only 9 months old, in tow, I was on the verge of panic when we ran across a summer resident, an Irish woman named Edel who took pity on us and found us a room at the house of Anafi’s Greek Orthodox priest. “It’s nothing fancy,” Edel told us in her pleasant brogue, “but you’ll have a roof over your heads.”

There is only one village on Anafi, split into two parts. In addition to the handful of buildings at the port, a more substantial collection of homes, public buildings and businesses, called the Hora, is perched high on the cliffs overlooking the lapis lazuli-colored Aegean Sea. Called the Hora, the upper village can be reached by a bus that runs two or three times a day (depending on how energetic the driver is feeling) or a footpath consisting of a series of precipitous switchbacks that can be negotiated in about 40 minutes if you’re unencumbered and in very good shape.

The Hora’s main street is an interconnected series of steps and pathways traveled by tourists and donkeys and toothless old ladies swaddled in black. We passed two “mini-markets,” which were nothing more than holes in the wall, a bakery, a school and several cafes before reaching the home of the priest.

The house was built into the side of the hill in a series of terraces. To reach our room, we walked down to the lowest level, past the mangers where the donkeys and chickens were housed. The only difference between our room and theirs seemed to be the straw on the floor. The bottom terrace was bordered by grapevines and had a spectacular ocean view.


Edel asked the priest, in Greek, how much we would be paying per day for our room. “Two thousand (drachmas, equal to about $8),” she relayed to us. “That’s really rock bottom.”

The next morning, when I was trying unsuccessfully to get the shower in one of the two little water closets to work, I met Roland and Solveig Hellsten, a Swedish Evangelical clergyman and his wife who had also missed the first bus up from the port. They had taken lodgings in the converted stall next to ours.

“It’s all rather Biblical, don’t you think?” I asked them after giving up on the plumbing. Solveig was a nurse, which I found quite reassuring with my precious baby in these less-than-pristine surroundings. The Cyclades are arid islands, and the water supply at the house was far too scant to meet the needs of five people in an advanced state of grubbiness. We were only able to take short showers.

The next day we ventured down to the port via the footpath, and headed toward a beach called Klissidi, where many of the younger and hardier tourists were camping out. Klissidi has three tavernas that serve drinks and food and have a completely relaxed policy about letting people sit at their tables all day long. Near the sign on the beach that proclaimed, “No Nubbism Allowed,” a couple of nude bathers came up to commune with Julian, and told us in the course of conversation that they’d heard of rooms to let at the second taverna. They instructed us to ask for the proprietor, Margarita.

As it turned out, Margarita Kalogeropouloy’s family owns a new and beautifully built two-family villa on a hill overlooking the beach at Klissidi. Margarita, who speaks excellent English, told us that the present occupants of both flats would be leaving with the next boat from the mainland. So after four days on Anafi, we went from what was probably the humblest lodging on the island to the creme de la creme-- still a bargain at $30 a day. In addition to the ocean panorama from the patio that ran along the entire length of the villa, our flat had a kitchen and bathroom and--oh, bliss!--lots of fresh water.

We mostly ate in, hiking down our private trail at least once a day to the three tavernas, where the proprietors sold us tomatoes, onions, zucchini, farm eggs, bottled water and melon. John trekked up to the village bakery with Julian in the backpack almost every morning to buy fresh bread and the delicious local yogurt that had the consistency of sour cream. We each took turns snorkeling around the rocky point to the next beach, or to the port. There wasn’t a great variety of marine life, but the water was clear and just the right temperature for swimming.


On our second day at the villa, Roland and Solveig suggested an outing to one of Anafi’s two ruins of note, the 18th-Century Monastery of Panagia Kalamiotissa, built on the ruins of a temple of Apollo. According to a hand-drawn map on the wall of Margarita’s taverna, it would be about a nine-mile hike each way.

Our first destination was the beach at Roukanas, about two hours from Klissidi. We followed goat paths and the remains of a Roman road. Wild grasses brushed our shoulders and cicadas drowned out all conversation. We came across a perfectly lettered sign in English that said “Selling Fruits.” But the sign had an arrow pointing north, which was out of our way.

Since there was no path, we simply aimed at the section of coast where we thought Roukanas might be and followed the straightest route possible, which was not very straight at all. The seasonal wind, the meltemi , blew so hard that we had to tie our hats onto our heads.

Near the beach, we hung our shoes around our necks and rolled up our trouser legs to thread our way through an eyelet of rock jutting out of the surf. After a swim, we walked straight up from the beach to the spot where we could see the thatched roof of a taverna.

Like the other tavernas on Anafi, the one at Roukanas has no menu. One simply walks into the kitchen and peers into stove pots at the choices--usually lots of savory-looking medleys involving various combinations of chicken or fish, tomatoes, zucchini or broad beans.

By the time we climbed the final stretch of rocky paths at about 6 that evening, the monastery was shut down. We could only peek through the locked gates into the courtyard--although we were able to examine remains of the original temple columns. We walked overland on the way back, and it was nearly dark by the time we decided to follow the “Selling Fruits” sign up a steep canyon to a farmhouse, where we bought black figs, peaches, nectarines, grapes, honey and exquisitely ripe little pears. The farmer’s wife, a baby-lover like every Greek we’d met, plied Julian with fresh-squeezed orange juice and little plates of homemade marmalade while her husband weighed our purchases on a hand-held scale.

We walked the rest of the way by moonlight, silhouetted in single file along the palisades. Julian had fared liked a trooper throughout and sang happily in the darkness. The lights of the three tavernas at tiny, isolated Klissidi seemed incredibly jarring--it was like being out in the wilderness and stumbling upon civilization.


After our blisters healed, John, Julian and I made the trek to Anafi’s other ruins, the site of a medieval Roman town called Castelli, which we’d heard about from Miller, the archeology professor. After another nine-mile hike up a bleak mountainside where we were battered again by the meltemi , we made our way up a series of crumbling stone terraces and fortifications that gave us high hopes that an ancient city would spread out below us when we reached the peak.

But these were not the sort of ruins encountered at museums. There are statues in abundance, but most of them are overturned in ditches or toppled into caves, half-buried or pitted by wind and weather.

We found an intricate network of caves that were evidently used at one time as goat pens, but seemed to be part of Castelli’s original fortifications. Everywhere, the wind blew hard and mercilessly. It felt as if the statues, like the mortals in Greek mythology who were turned to stone, might be plain rock again by the time we’d made our way back to Klissidi.

GUIDEBOOK: Rock of Ages

Getting there: From Athens’ port of Piraeus, ferries stop twice a week at Anafi. (Schedules change weekly, making it difficult to plan in advance.) Contact Agapitos Express Ferries in Athens (local telephone 412-5249 or 412-3159). The Express Olympia is a newer, cleaner ship than the Aegean ; round-trip fare about $70. You can also fly from Athens to Santorini and take a ferry from there. As on all the Greek islands, August is peak season; spring and fall are less crowded. Most tourist facilities close Oct. 1.

Where to stay: Anafi has only 100 rooms or so available and most of these are Spartan. Don’t expect air-conditioning or ice machines. There is no centralized booking agency; most rooms are rented out by families. Snag accommodations immediately after debarking the ferry at the port, or catch the first bus to the upper village for one of the nicer rooms there. Some lodgings have kitchens. For those who don’t mind a 15-minute hike from the port, the flat we rented is available by writing Margarita Kalogeropouloy, Anafi-Cyclades, Greece (tel. 011-30-286-61237; about $40 per day for an ocean-facing apartment). While Anafi has no official campgrounds, people do camp wherever there’s a beach with a taverna nearby.

Where to eat: Go for the simplest Greek dishes possible at the handful of cafes and humble restaurants. A dinner tab for two never runs more than about $30, including wine.


For more information: In Athens, contact the Greek National Tourism Organization, 2 Amerikis street; local tel: 322-3111; or the Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 W. 6th St., Suite 2198, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 626-6696.