Notes from a small Greek is­land

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

It was early May, I was on pic­ture-per­fect Halki and 60 min­utes of fame had come to call on my favourite Greek is­land. In the wake of last year’s pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter for Greek tourism, with in­ter­na­tional head­lines dom­i­nated by the coun­try’s eco­nomic woes and the hu­man tragedy of the mi­grant cri­sis, a na­tional TV crew had rocked up to re­dress the bal­ance. Sixty Minute Greece, a prime-time Greek travel pro­gramme, show­cases lesser-known is­lands or main­land re­sorts. And Halki, one of the small­est of the main Dode­canese is­lands, had been cho­sen for the spot­light.

It was clearly a great gig for the cam­era­men, who seemed to spend a great deal of time dis­ap­pear­ing in the lo­cal pri­est’s fish­ing boat and en­joy­ing cock­tails in Apos­to­lis’s wa­ter­front bar. For a lit­tle-known is­land, with a land mass of just 11 square miles and a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 300, the vis­i­ta­tion was some­thing of a mir­a­cle.

The is­landers rose to the oc­ca­sion. While most of the film crew con­cen­trated on Halki’s ex­quis­ite har­bour and hand­ful of small beaches, a smaller team had joined Vasilis Chi­mon­e­tos, the owner of the is­land’s new minibus. He’d gath­ered a group of 20 or so fam­ily and friends for a drive through the moun­tains to the iso­lated Monastery of St John. Halki’s breath­tak­ing in­te­rior, dot­ted with white­washed chapels and crum­bling stone goat pens, is near- bib­li­cal in its stark sim­plic­ity. It’s a glo­ri­ous trip.

As it was too early in the sea­son for there to be many gen­uine visi­tors, the bright idea was that ev­ery­one would pre­tend to be tourists. In­evitably, there were a few flaws in this plan. Be­ing blonde and can­dle-pale from our Bri­tish win­ter, I was, rather ob­vi­ously, the only cred­i­ble non-lo­cal. There was also the prob­lem that none of this was par­tic­u­larly new to the is­landers. They were thor­oughly en­joy­ing their day out, and ei­ther chat­ted blithely through­out driver Dim­itris’s gal­lant “tour guide” speeches or – worse – leapt in to

Beau­ti­ful, tran­quil and un­spoilt, Halki is of­fi­cially called ‘the is­land of peace and friend­ship’. Linda Cook­son can see why

cor­rect him. Old Pet­ros, dressed for the Arc­tic in thick den­ims and a huge orange wind­cheater, wan­dered so reg­u­larly into care­fully or­ches­trated set-ups with words of ad­vice that the film­ing was start­ing to bear all the marks of a sit­com.

But the trip was still a tri­umph, sprin­kled with inim­itable mo­ments of Halki magic. As the minibus snaked its way into the moun­tains, I no­ticed the road­sides were dense with trees stream­ing fronds of red berries. My new friend Sofia, sit­ting be­side me, ex­plained that these were na­tive adramithia trees, and that goats were es­pe­cially par­tial to their berries. As if on cue, when we rounded the next bend, a shaggy black billy goat was hang­ing, pup­pet­like, from a tan­gle of branches, his back legs dan­gling com­i­cally above the ground, his front legs tucked tightly around a bough while he snaf­fled the de­li­cious fruit. The film crew leapt out to cap­ture this.

Then, as we drove past fig trees and bee boxes on the ap­proach to the monastery, the bus pulled up by the road­side and Sin­drofios, Vasilis’s fa­ther, shuf­fled shyly to the front pas­sen­ger door and climbed out, along with a cou­ple of cam­era­men. He crossed to a sprawl of rocky pas­ture strewn with tawny boul­ders, raised cupped hands to his lips and blew. A hush fell over the bus as the cam­eras rolled. For a mo­ment, it seemed that the boul­ders them­selves had heard him. One by one, or so it ap­peared, the stones rose in an­swer to his call. Hun­dreds of hon­ey­coloured sheep, his fam­ily’s flock, had de­tached them­selves from the land­scape and were scam­per­ing to­wards him. Noses pressed against the bus win­dows, his grand­chil­dren shrieked with de­light.

I’ve been vis­it­ing Halki for many years, and it never fails to sur­prise and en­chant me. Beau­ti­ful, peace­ful and un­spoilt, it has be­come my own scrap of heaven, the per­fect place to un­wind and to soak up the warmth, not only of the sea and the sun­shine, but also of the is­land’s close-knit com­mu­nity. Filox­e­nia – lit­er­ally “the love of strangers” – must have been alive and flour­ish­ing on Halki long be­fore it was of­fi­cially des­ig­nated “The Is­land of Peace and Friend­ship” by the Greek gov­ern­ment in the Eight­ies. The gen­eros­ity of the wel­come ex­tended to visi­tors is hum­bling. It takes no time be­fore you feel part of the is­land’s fam­ily.

My visit this spring was a lit­tle ear­lier in the year than usual. Greek Easter fell quite late in the cal­en­dar (Easter Sun­day was on May 1), which gave me the per­fect ex­cuse to head Tele­graph Travel ex­pert Jane Foster, who splits her time be­tween Greece and Croa­tia, rec­om­mends Kou­fonis­sia for a tran­quil es­cape. Hid­den away be­tween the larger Cy­cladic is­lands of Naxos and Amor­gos, it is made up of two tiny islets, Ano Kou­fonissi and Kato Kou­fonissi, sep­a­rated by a 200-yard sea chan­nel. “While Kato Kou­fonissi re­mains un­in­hab­ited,” she says, “Ano Kou­fonissi, with its white­washed Cy­cladic cot­tages, has a buzzing com­mu­nity of 366. Lo­cals live mainly from fish­ing, there are no real roads and hardly any cars, so ev­ery­one

Halki’s ‘ex­quis­ite’ har­bour, above

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