Notes from a small Greek island
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