Astypalia 1995
Astypalia is not one of the Cyclades, but is sometimes (depending on ferry schedules) most easily reached from Amorgos. In spring 1995 there were fairly regular ferries from Amorgos to Astypalia (I have not seen them run so frequently since then). Sometimes the ferries terminate at Astypalia, other times they go on to the further Dodecanese, such as Rhodes. In autumn 1995, there was a twice-weekly ferry from Kalymnos to Astypalia. In 1996 a ferry was doing a circular route from Naxos to some of the small Cyclades and Astypalia, and fitting Donoussa in on the way back to Naxos. In 1997, a ferry was linking Astypalia and Anaphi, ending the dead-end status of Anaphi as a ferry terminus. Also in 1997 a ferry that used to call at Amorgos before going on to Astypalia and back, started going from Amorgos to Piraeus via Astypalia. With no call in at Amorgos on the way back, this added many hours onto the trip for anyone wanting to travel from Amorgos to Piraeus. In the Cyclades, it is a matter of visiting an island when the opportunity arises. In spring 1995, the opportunity arose to visit Astypalia.

We had long wanted to visit Astypalia. On previous visits, there had been only two ferries a week from Naxos to Astypalia. Both ferries left Naxos on Sunday evening or the very early hours of Monday morning. We always seemed to arrive mid afternoon on Monday. Therefore, Astypalia remained unvisited by us. In 1995 we found a number of ferries were running from Amorgos to Astypalia, and, we were told by our old beret wearing friend at the ferry-ticket agency in Katapola, back again. The departure boards on an island show the times ferries leave (rather, are scheduled to leave) from that island. The boards do not show where the ferry has come from. A ferry could, for example, go from Amorgos to Astypalia and on to Kos, Rhodes, etc, but come back to Amorgos by a different route. Departure boards do not show where a ferry has come from. We had to rely on the ticket seller's word that we could go to Astypalia, spend a night in Astypalia and come back the following day.

The sea-approach to Skala, the port of Astypalia is very striking (it is referred to in a well-known Greek folk song, "To Kastro tis Astipalaias ehei kleidi kleidonei…"). The ferry crawled round the steep cliffs of the north-western coast of Astypalia (but by no means as precipitous as those of north-eastern Amorgos, passed about an hour earlier). Suddenly as we rounded the headland of Heliou, we saw the steep peninsula of Chora, the ochre walls of the Kastro and the white dome of the church of Panayia tou Kastrou rising above them. The scattered clouds were clearing slowly and the domes gleamed in the early morning sun.

Would Astypalia match this spectacular approach? In fact, we were a little disappointed with what we found, but I am anticipating, and in a day, we did not have time to do the island justice. Part of the disappointment was that because we had waited so long to get to this at times inaccessible island, the reality did not live up to our (perhaps unrealistic) expectations.

As we stood on the Astypalia harbourside, circled by high-speed motor cyclists, watching the ferry leaving I had my doubts as to when we would see a ferry to take us away! Skala harbour is not one of the more attractive I have seen; it is bitty, straggly and does not form a cohesive whole. Chora extends down to the Skala, or Skala extends up to the port, whichever way you want to look at it.

The quayside was busy when we arrived as large numbers of people had come down to await the arrival of the ferry but they disappeared as quickly as the ferry. We arrived at around eight in the morning. At that time of morning in Katapola, there would have a bustle of activity. A cluster of people around a fishing boat buying freshly caught fish. People (both locals and tourists) shopping at the shops fronting on the harbour. Fishermen mending fishing nets and fiddling with boats, etc. So quiet was Skala that we wondered around for some time looking for somewhere to stay. The only hotel that seemed to be open was the Hotel Paradissos. Even the Paradissos was not fully open; the hotel was deserted. We enquired at the OTE office on the ground floor of the hotel building, and one of the OTE staff was kind enough to telephone the hotel owner. A modernised old-fashioned hotel, with rooms overlooking the harbour (very convenient as we could stay on the hotel balcony watching for the ferry to round the headland). The hotel owner, Franciscos Angelides, was a busy chap, not only running the hotel but also running a travel agency (very useful for checking our departure times) on the ground floor and an agent for the Ionian Bank.

We never did get the hang of Astypalia buses, and I suspect that at that time of year they only ran to meet boats but then we were busy looking for somewhere to stay. We saw buses coming and going but could find no bus timetable, so we walked everywhere.

Chora seemed a long walk up the stone stairs (motor traffic went up a more circuitous route), but once reached did not seem that high up. The main feature is the kastro, the centre in ruins apart from some renovated churches, but very pleasant to explore. The kastro is magnificently placed, and what remains is impressive. On the landward side, the walls are well preserved, but most of the seaward walls have gone (demolished in the 1956 earthquake) and the houses that formerly stood within the kastro were demolished for building stone. Standing within the flowers and butterflies of the ruins, I tried to imagine what the kastro would have been like when intact. The Astypalia kastro must have been something like the kastro on Naxos.

I had thought of Astypalia as “Butterfly Island” because of its shape; up in the kastro I found many butterflies. Outside the Chora, the diamond patterned wooden balconies and stair sides were a particularly striking feature.

The locals do not drink Amstel, as we were told it was only available in August! The Dodecanese is a duty free (or duty reduced) zone, and we found evidence of this in the souvenir shops dotted around Skala. Many of the shops were closed and all we could do was peer through the windows (not that I wanted to buy any of the souvenirs, but i do like to nose around what is on sale). I wondered who came to Astypalia to buy these electrical goods, and kitschy porcelain figures of Far Eastern origin. Someone must have, or these items would not have been on sale. Or were the closed shops stocked with the remnants of the previous season that no one wanted to buy? Perhaps the shops, like the Amstel, were only available for consumption in the peak tourist month of August. All we wanted to buy was a bottle of wine, and that was no cheaper and may have been more expensive than elsewhere in Greece.

In guidebooks I had read that Skala is dominated by a power station right in the centre of the village, but by the time we had arrived it was closed. The eyesore (unfair to call it that as I expect electricity to be on tap, or at switch wherever I go) had gone from the village. We found the replacement eyesore, a brand-new sea side power station, on our work round the coast in the direction away from Chora. We walked to the wide beach before Malatazena, but did not reach Malatazena, as the coastline (where the two wings of the butterfly meet) was deceptively long). Not only did our walk take us past the large generating station, but we also saw huge quantities of litter on the beaches, some apparently tossed ashore by the sea but mostly tipped down the hillside. We often notice that there is a side to an island that is particularly prone, because of the prevailing winds and tides, to litter. On Astypalia, we had found it - first time unlucky that day. On beaches, generally we usually find they are mainly oil free, with just the odd lump of oil (often the size of a donkey dropping). If you tread in the oil a little can go a long way, though. Elsewhere in Greece, we had seen evidence of civic pride, such as the beach cleaning on Koufonissi.

Like Mykonos, Skala had a resident pelican, Carlos. Carlos was a real character. At a bar down by the harbour, he was trying to wrestle tins and empty cigarette packets off a table. I did not like to put my hand too near his beak, as I wanted to leave Astypalia with as many fingers and thumbs (and arms and legs and ears etc) as I had arrived with. One of the fishermen pulled some glasses and other breakable items out of Carlos's reach. Strange, but pleasant, the way the fishermen treated Carlos as a slightly backward child.

We came back on the Olympia Express; she is an ex-Channel Island ferry and in her lounge, we found evidence of her Channel Island history, such as the Lillie Langtry lounge.

We came away with the impression that Astypalians are an apathetic bunch. They cannot be bothered to dispose neatly of their rubbish. They are not bothered if their buses run. They are not bothered about the general appearance of their island. They are not bothered about the condition of the quayside WCs (described in one book as 'mind- boggling' and ‘indescribable’, I did not investigate myself). Were Dodecanesians different to Cycladians? If the Astypalians do not want visitors, that is fine, but they do seem to be fouling their own nest. Some of the people we met were fine, but we got the impression of an odd mix of apathy and money grabbing, and not at all the relaxed atmosphere we had found in the Cyclades. I wondered who takes the lead in deciding the way an island goes. What makes a Mykonos a Mykonos, an Ios an Ios, a Naxos a Naxos, an Amorgos an Amorgos? Is it by chance, or is there some conscious planning process? I wondered, and wondered about Astypalia. Did it know where it was going; it was drifting, drifting between the Cyclades and Dodecanese. I wished it well, whatever way the inhabitants, or whoever decides, want it to go.

Such were my thoughts as we left Astypalia. Today, after having visited more Greek Islands, I think of Astypalians as being typical Greek islanders!

Carlos the Astypalia Pelican

Like Mykonos, Skala in Astypalia had a resident pelican, Carlos. Carlos was a real character. At a bar down by the harbour, he was trying to wrestle tins and empty cigarette packets off a table. I did not like to put my hand too near his beak, as I wanted to leave Astypalia with as many fingers and thumbs (and arms and legs and ears etc) as I had arrived with. One of the fishermen pulled some glasses and other breakable items out of Carlos's reach. Strange, but pleasant, the way the fishermen treated Carlos as a slightly backward child.