When you think of the Greek islands, Alonissos doesn’t come immediately to mind, which suits me just fine. I love Greece somewhat off-the-beaten-track, and Alonissos certainly takes a proper journey to get there. I flew to Skiathos with its heart-in-mouth runway (a Facebook friend told me the landing was less alarming since the runway was lengthened, but I still found it interesting, to say the least), and spent a pleasant afternoon on the harbour-front there indulging in the quintessentially Greek pastime of waiting for a boat. The boat was late (why do transport delays seem to matter much, much less in Greece than they do if you’re waiting for a London-bound train or are stuck in miles of traffic on the M4?) but eventually we boarded a sea-cat which took us via Skopelos (which I fictionalised in part for the setting of The Whispers of Nemesis, long before the Mama Mia film crew arrived) to Alonissos.
In ancient times, Alonissos was known as Ikos, and the Greek myths say its first inhabitant was Stafylos, son of Dionysus, god of wine, and Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. For those who know the Greek language, Stafylos plainly gave his name to the modern word for grapes (σταφύλια /stafilia) and ancient Ikos was indeed famous for its wine, with amphorae bearing the stamp IKION being exported all over the known world. Sadly, little evidence remains of Alonissos’s vinicultural heritage since most of the vines were killed by blight in the mid-20th century, and the island now relies for its income on tourism and fishing.
We lodged at the Paradise Hotel in Patatiri, a place which supplied excellent coffee and cold Mythos, a pool surrounded by scarlet hibiscus and scented jasmine and offered wonderful views of the sapphire Aegean and the sea-borne traffic in and out of the harbour – visiting yachts, cargo ships, tourist boats and ferries bound for Volos and the surrounding islands, all running on GMT: Greek Maybe Time.
What more did we need? The temptation to spend the week relaxing on a sunbed was strong, but there was work to be done. I wanted to scout out Alonissos as a possible setting for a Hermes adventure.
And so we rented a quad-bike – so much more fun than a rental car, and able to go places a Nissan Micra would never reach. We headed first out of the port area up to the old town of Chora, the island’s main habitation until it was seriously damaged by an earthquake in 1965. Chora has largely been restored to picture-postcard prettiness, with stone-flagged lanes of pastel-painted houses, galleries, tavernas and gift-shops. A Greek idyll, it seemed – and yet I had picked up rumours that beneath the sleepy exterior, trouble was brewing alongside the coffee. I sat and sipped my frappe (metrio me gala), watching the world go by and making lots of notes…
We headed north from there, detouring down dirt roads where they looked interesting, stopping to admire spectacular views, until we reached Gerakas. There we found a stony beach, a jetty and a transit van converted into a cantina owned by Costas, a man undoubtedly made what he is today by a truly relaxed attitude to life and a steady intake of tsipouro.
When asked if he had fish, he reached into a vintage fridge and showed us the mercury-scaled dorado he had netted overnight. We asked for two, and took seats at rickety tables alongside a family of Bulgarians and a pair of French matrons.
Costas didn’t do the cooking. His job was front-of-house, plying the Bulgarians with alcohol and flirting with the French ladies. The chef was his long-suffering wife, who in that tiny van cooked a lunch fit for royalty: the fish baked with olive oil and oregano, a taste-of-summer salad of tomatoes from their own garden, a plate of crisp, golden chips, and for dessert, melt-in-the-mouth honey biscuits.
I have much more to say about Alonissos’s food – that’s another blog all by itself. But needless to say there was bougatsa, bought from an excellent bakery, heavily snowed with cinnamon and icing sugar and served in a wonderfully retro wrapper. Hermes to an absolute ‘T’.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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