I arrived on the Greek island of Syros on the night ferry from Samos at 2:30 a.m., bleary-eyed and in need of coffee or a bed, maybe both. My sons, then 2 and 4, were still half-asleep, wondering why the hell we’d hustled them out of their tidy bunks in the middle of the night. We stepped over backpackers, most of them heading to Mykonos, Naxos or Santorini, who were still asleep in the corridors of the boat, and alighted in Ermoupolis, the cultural and administrative capital of the Cyclades island group.
I had heard that Ermoupolis was a thriving place, busy year round, but not touristy. But at 2:30 a.m. on a Monday night in early June the place was dead, with just a few cars there to greet the ferry – mostly locals picking up friends and relatives. I had reserved a room at a place called Lila’s Guesthouse and though she had promised to pick us up at no charge, I somehow doubted she’d be there. I booked a swanky looking one-bedroom loft with two balconies in a historic building that had once housed the French consulate for 60 euros. If I was Lila, I would have told me to take a taxi. But there she was with a little sign waiting to take us to our room.The drive up the steep hill above the port was a perfect introduction to our ancient neighborhood. The hotel is less than a mile up the hill from the port, and I could get there easily via a series of staircases, but if you told me to drive there, following Lila’s path in an out of a labyrinth of anorexic alleyways, I don’t think I could do it for a million dollars.
Lila’s turned out to be a revelation and so did Syros. Tourists flock to Mykonos, which is undeniably picturesque but can be a zoo – crowded, expensive and touristy to a fault. But hop on the ferry in Mykonos, fork over 8 euros and in an hour, you’re in Ermoupolis, a fascinating little city that is home to many of Greece’s wealthiest shipping magnates.
It’s a small island that attracts far fewer tourists, but it has pretty much everything you might want on a Greek island: seductive beaches, nightlife, history, old churches, a thriving port, and great food at reasonable prices. There are no large, beachfront resorts but it’s a great place to experience Greek culture and hospitality.
Tourism is manageable enough on Syros that you feel like the locals you meet actually have an interest in meeting you, in sharp contrast to busier islands, like Santorini, Naxos or Mykonos, where you can sometimes feel like the whole point of every interaction is all about buying and selling. We spent just four days on the island but on each day I met people whom I’ll never forget.
Dimitrios, Lila’s husband, was a businessman in Athens before they decided to move to Syros in order to live a quieter life. He was a jack-of-all-trades but what I found most interesting about the way he ran the hotel was how he made the place a magnet for neighborhood kids, who would pop by to talk about the latest soccer match or have a drink. It made me feel as though we were part of the neighborhood rather than just a bunch of transients in a tourist ghetto.
Dimitrios noticed that one of my shirts had a huge hole in it and he said he’d send it to be sewed. The next day it was as good as new for 5 euros. And when I asked him to recommend a laundromat, he said, “Why? I’ll do your laundry for you.” When I protested that we had a huge bag of dirty laundry, he waved me off, and within a few hours, all of our clothing was washed and folded into neat piles in our room. The charge? “No charge,” he insisted.
One afternoon, we were out taking a walk and my sons were fed up with the strong sun and all the hills, so we stood around trying in vain to find a taxi. I saw a woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she could call a cab for us. She got up off her chair, walked into her apartment, emerged moments later on the street where we were standing and then crossed to the other side.
I saw her walk a half block up the street and wondered what was going on until I saw her pull a phone card out of her purse and pop it into a pay phone. After she made the call, she came over to explain that she had no phone in her apartment because she was unemployed and didn’t have much money. She stayed to chat with us while we waited 10-15 minutes for our cab and we learned that she had gone to beauty school to become a hairdresser but had long ago given up trying to find work. I tried to give her a couple euros for the phone call but she wouldn’t take it.
The following night, we went up to Ano Syros, a fascinating 1,000-year-old Catholic neighborhood located high above the port that is filled with vistas and atmospheric tavernas and shops. We met a woman selling hand-painted souvenirs she made herself that seemed absurdly undervalued for how beautiful they were, and as she began to wrap them up in lovely little bowed parcels, she started telling us about what a mess Greece was in. She told us she was still proud to be Greek but started crying recounting all the people she knew who were struggling to get by.
“I don’t know what’s happened to our country,” she said, drying tears from her face.
Our last night in Syros was magic. We visited a tiny, picturesque little village called San Michalis, up above Ano Syros, and had one of the most memorable meals of our lives at a place called To Plakostroto (see photo above). There are only two men still living in San Michalis – Francesco and Giovanni – and we met them both, along with a host of their friends, who had dropped by to play cards.
Francesco played a tune for us on his goatskin tsabouna, we tried some of his homemade wine and as we looked out at a panorama that included six neighboring islands, I couldn’t help but feel as though we’d captured something elusive, a spirit, a feeling, something – that thing we look for on the road that makes a place dear to us. We found Greece in a ruined hilltop village with just two residents but these kinds of undiscovered edens are dotted all over the Aegean. All you have to do is just step off the ferry in the middle of the night, when everyone else is still asleep.
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]