Forget Mykonos, Try Syros, Your Friendly Neighborhood Greek Island

ermoupolis syros greeceI 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.
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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]

What’s It Like To Live On Pserimos, The Remote Greek Island With Its Own Gmail Account?

pserimosIt only takes a minute to buy a souvenir from someone on a beach but if you stop to find out about that person’s life, you might take away more than just the memory you’re holding in your hand. In May, while visiting the Greek island of Kos, I took an excursion boat to Pserimos, a tiny little island with just a few dozen inhabitants, and bought a handmade magnet (see photo below) from a local woman who spoke English with an Australian twang.

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I was excited by the fact that she spoke English because all of the other people I’d encountered on my brief visit did not and I was curious to know what it was like to live on a remote little island with a tiny population. But almost as soon as I bought the magnet, the skipper of our boat called us back onto the boat, so I lost an opportunity to find out what it was like to live on Pserimos. I know that I’d hate living on a remote island but every time I take an excursion boat to these kinds of places, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to not get back on the ship.

Weeks after my visit, I thought about the experience again and recalled that I’d seen a sign in Pserimos which read, “Welcome to Pserimos, Pserimos@gmail.com.” The fact that the island had its own Gmail account amused me, so I fired off an email to the address on the off chance that the person would be able to hook me up with my souvenir lady.

pserimos souvenirI received a reply right away from George Karaiskos, who, oddly enough, lives on the nearby island of Kalymnos, which is famous for its sponge divers. George wasn’t immediately sure of whom I was talking about, but he filled me in on his own interesting story. He was born in L.A., but at age 8, his father died in a car accident and his mother took him and his siblings and moved to Kalymnos, where he has worked for the municipality for the last 28 years.

A few days ago, George got back to me to give me the souvenir woman’s name and mobile phone number. Her name is Vaggelio Koukouvas and she’s 53 years old. She was born on Kalymnos and immigrated to Darwin, Australia, at 13. She married her husband, who is from Pserimos, in Australia and the couple returned to live on Pserimos in 1994. When I called her, she was initially surprised to hear from me. “Do you know you are calling Greece?” she asked. But once she understood the nature of my call, she was happy to share her thoughts on what it’s like to live on a remote Greek island. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Why did you and your husband move back to Pserimos?

We bought a sailboat, a day-trip boat and came back from Australia with our four boys, and started a family business. My husband grew up until age 10 on Pserimos, then moved to Kalymnos and then to Australia at age 17. He never forgot Pserimos for one minute when we were in Australia; every day he was talking about how much he loved Pserimos. So we saved our money to go back.

pserimosHow many people live in Pserimos?

About 35 people live here year round. Up until two years ago, we had a primary school here, but the kids grew up and moved on, so the school closed down. The nearest school now is in Kalymnos.

When your husband grew up on the island in the ’60s, were there more people living there?

When my husband grew up there, they had 150 kids. There were fewer houses than now, but everyone had a lot of kids – at least four. His grandmother had 11 kids, for example.

And your husband returned to look for work in Australia?

He left. We sold the boat because we got tired of it and there was too much competition in Kos with other boats. And you can only make a living doing that for five months out of the year. In Australia now, he’s working as a heavy machinery operator – something completely different. And my sons are all working in Australia, because there’s a crisis here and there’s no work at the moment.

I have my little business selling souvenirs that I make here in Pserimos and I don’t really want to leave because I’m happy. It was hard this year with the bad economy; even the tourists who are coming are really watching their money. It’s hard for me but I like this work. I’m fighting for my bread here but I want to stay.

Is it difficult to make it through the winter there?

In the winter, Pserimos is nice and quiet, especially if you’re a pensioner and have enough money to get by. But if someone gets sick, there are problems because we have no doctor on the island. No one has died though because we can always find a boat out to Kalymnos or Kos, but it isn’t always easy in winter. If the seas are bad, we can go two weeks without a way to leave the island.

resident of pserimosWho lives on Pserimos?

We have a priest, some fishermen, pensioners and me. Pserimos is known for producing sea captains – one family can have three captains in it. There are some families that have goats and sheep. That’s all you can do on a place like this. There aren’t very many young people.

How do people pass the time?

If you have animals to care for, there is always something to do. The old people watch T.V., talk to each other, and have coffee. If we get bored, we go to Kalymnos.

But you have to be careful not to make enemies on a small island, right?

(Laughs) That’s true. Almost everyone here is related in some way by blood.

And do you all get along?

We have arguments sometimes. And there’s gossiping too, just like any small village. But this makes life a little more interesting, doesn’t it? Otherwise, we’d be really bored.

But if you get into an argument with someone on an island with only 35 people, it’s pretty hard to avoid them, isn’t it?

You can’t avoid anyone here, that’s for sure, so we do have to get along. People are busy and our houses aren’t that close to each other though, so in some ways, we are on our own, especially in winter.

pserimosI didn’t see much in the way of shops. Where do you buy food?

There is no supermarket, that’s for sure. We have a minimarket that’s open in the summer. In summer, the boats come every day from Kalymnos, so there’s plenty of food available. In the winter, the boats come three times a week, or less if the seas are bad, so it’s harder to find products – that’s why people stockpile food here.

Is it lonely living there on your own?

Yeah, it is sometimes. Now, it’s September and it’s already quiet. Most of the tourists are all gone. Sometimes I go down to the beach and I feel like I’m the only one living on the whole island. It’s really quiet – people come out of their houses when the boat arrives from Kalymnos to see what’s going on.

Is your husband planning on coming back to Pserimos?

He does come back to visit and he’ll return. He’s in Australia for work – a lot of men do that now, because there’s not much work here. He’ll come back one day because he loves it here.

How has the crisis in Greece affected Pserimos?

A lot of the people who live here are pensioners and their pensions have all been cut. And they used to get a bonus in their pension, an extra 50% payment that would come at Christmas and Easter but that’s gone now. It’s hard to live on what they get now – impossible I would say.

What do you like about living on Pserimos?

Every day is a new day. It’s quiet. It makes me happy to see the sea. I don’t care if there are people. I enjoy it here. Everybody loves Pserimos. If people could make a living here, we’d have so many more people living on the island.

During the summer season, how many hours a day do you work selling the things you make to people that arrive on the excursion boats?

About 12-14 hours per day, seven days a week. I start at 6 a.m., making the items I sell, and getting my stand ready. I’m there in the sun, the wind, with the sand blowing in my face all day. By the time I get to sleep, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. This is how I make a living for five months of the year. People think it’s fun, but it’s not.

Will you go off to Kalymnos to look for work this winter?

I might, but there’s not much work there. If I can clean some houses that would be good but I need time to make the items I sell to get ready for next summer. You always have to be ready.

I love the little souvenir I bought from you because I can look at it in my home here in Chicago and it transports me back to Pserimos.

That’s why I make these things. I don’t make much money, but I don’t care because life isn’t just about getting rich. I know that people like the things I make and that makes me happy.

[Photos of Pserimos provided by Phillip Roberts Photography, Venetia Koussia, Fotograaf John, The Sparkly One, and Marite 2007 on Flickr]

The 25 Best Contemporary Travel Books


The only thing that can get me through periods of inertia when I can’t travel is a good book. Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. Over the years, great books have inspired me to travel but have also filled in my gaps in knowledge about places I’m probably not brave enough to visit, like Congo or Afghanistan.

For $20 or less, I can sit back and enjoy reading about someone else’s discomfort, and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. What follows is a highly subjective list of my 25 favorite contemporary travel narratives. Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments section.Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar- This classic ’70s account of Theroux’s epic train journey across Europe and Asia was Theroux’s first travel narrative and it’s still one of his best works. But he paid a price: when he returned home from the trip, his wife had taken up with another man.

The Old Patagonian Express– In this vividly reported, often humorous book, Theroux rides the rails from Boston to Patagonia, save for a flight across the Darien Gap. Last year, Rachel Pook, a Theroux fan, blogged about her in the journey retracing Theroux’s trip.

The Happy Isles of Oceania– In the wake of a divorce and a health scare, Theroux traveled via collapsible kayak to 51 islands in the South Pacific. As always, Theroux tells the story of his own voyage intermingled with tidbits on the local culture and vignettes about notable South Pacific expats, like Paul Gauguin.

Dark Star Safari– Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic.

Jeffrey Tayler

Siberian Dawn– This is a beautifully written, addictive adventure story about a daring road trip across Siberia.

Facing the Congo– What sane person takes a wooden pirogue and a series of barges up the Congo River? Tayler does and lives to tell about it. To his credit, Tayler took this trip and the Siberian Dawn adventure out of desperation, with no book deal in hand.

Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing– In this perceptive, funny book, Tayler travels through obscure corners of Russia and China, shedding light on places few Western writers bother to visit.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel- Tayler’s adventures in the Sahel provide insights into an overlooked but fascinating part of the world.

Others

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Round Ireland with a Fridge, and One Hit Wonderland– Tony Hawks- All three of these books describe journeys taken to fulfill gimmicky bets: could Hawks track down and beat all the Moldovan national soccer players at tennis, could he hitchhike around Ireland with a small fridge, and could he write a song that charts somewhere in the world. They’re all completely contrived, but great fun nonetheless.

Lost Continent– Bill Bryson- Bill Bryson’s search for the perfect small American town. His first travel book is still probably his best and certainly his funniest.

Four Corners- Kira Salak- A page-turner about a bold trip in the footsteps of British explorer Ivan Champion through Papau New Guinea. An impressive journey for anyone to undertake, but particularly gutsy for a single female traveler.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals– J. Maarten Troost- Troost tags along with his wife who got a job on a remote Pacific atoll and the result is perhaps the funniest travel book ever written.

A Way to See the WorldTom Swick– A terrific collection of travel stories from Tom Swick, a great writer who can capture the essence of a place in a few pages while making just about any place seem interesting.

The Village of Waiting– George Packer- If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote African village, look no further than this great read.

River Town– Peter Hessler- Hessler’s outstanding, often hilarious account of life as a volunteer (Peace Corps) English teacher in a provincial Chinese city reveals a lot about China and Chinese culture.

Hokkaido Highway Blues– Will Ferguson- Ferguson has a great sense of humor and this account of his hitchhiking adventure across the length of Japan along the trail of the blooming Cherry Blossoms is one of my all-time favorite travel books.

Sean and David’s Long Drive– Sean Condon- A riotously funny account of a lad’s road trip across Australia.

Stealing from a Deep Place– Brian Hall- This 80’s classic recounts Hall’s bike trip across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the waning days of the Soviet Empire.

The Places In Between– Rory Stewart- A superbly written account of a ballsy walk across Afghanistan written by an adventurer turned diplomat.

The Summer of My Greek Taverna– Tom Stone- Brilliant, funny tale about what happens when an American partners with a local taverna owner in Patmos.

Travels In SiberiaIan Frazier- You might not want to visit Siberia after reading this book, which is about a series of trips Frazier took spanning over a decade, but you won’t want this book to end.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu- Mark Adams– Adams shows us that there’s more to Machu Picchu than what one can find on the Inca Trail. A great read.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto– Pico Iyer- Iyer quit his job with Time magazine in New York and went to live in a monastery in Japan. He only lasted a week, but his observations about Kyoto and Japanese culture are fascinating.

Blood River- Tim Butcher- I read this book and still have no idea how Daily Telegraph reporter Tim Butcher made it out of the Congo alive. This is a must read.

Should Greece lease the Acropolis?

lease the Acropolis
Greece has been hit hard by the recession. According to EU figures, it has 18.8 percent unemployment, the second highest in Europe and more than twice that of the United States. Last year it saw its economy shrink by 5.5 percent.

Now former deputy health minister Gerasimos Giakoumatos has suggested a controversial plan to get Greece some quick cash–lease the Acropolis and other famous sights. According to the China Daily, Giakoumatos, who is a minister of parliament and a member of the conservative New Democracy party, said the move would save Greece from bankruptcy.

He said there’s no shame in leasing out Greece’s heritage, and that the real shame is that regular protests against austerity measures keep shutting the sites down. Giakoumatos said the money could go to save the government from having to slash pensions and wages.

Even with the current economic woes, tourism accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP and is worth tens of millions of euros each month. While Giakoumatos’ suggestion carries no weight of law, it may be given some consideration because of the huge amount of money that could be earned.

What do you think of a nation leasing out its heritage in times of trouble? Tell us what you think in the poll and comments section!

Photo courtesy Roger Wollstadt.

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