First Visit to Ios

Chatting to my French neighbours on Anaphi, I had mentioned that I was going to sleep on Ios before trying to go on to Kimolos. "Sleep on Ios," they said in unison, "but no one sleeps on Ios." I was going to "passer le nuit" on Ios, I replied.

I did not really want to go to Ios, I had heard too much about its reputation as an island for disco goers. Ios did not sound at all my type of island. The ferry from Anaphi went to Santorini, Ios, Naxos, Paros, and Piraeus. I wanted to go to Kimolos. Santorini I vetoed. Expensive and full of well-heeled tourists and gold jewellery shops. In addition, the ferries dock at Athinios Port, the new Santorini harbour. I did not know if there was any accommodation down there, but even if there were, I would not choose to stay there. Athinios Port is only a boat stop. That would mean catching a bus uphill to town, finding somewhere to stay and then getting back down to the harbour. Too much like hard work. Naxos I had been to once on the trip and intended calling in again later. Naxos was out. Paros was getting too far off the route to Kimolos. Therefore, Ios it was. I intended staying down in the harbour. Ios has a real harbour village, not a mere boat stop. There were plenty of places to stay down there and with luck, the harbour would be quieter than the uphill chora or Ios village.

I arrived in Ios at 10.40 p.m. The passengers getting off the ferry all looked surprisingly unhippie like. Like me, they seemed to be looking around for all the resident hippies. There were none in sight. My first sight of Ios pleasantly pleased me; there were bars and restaurants around the harbour but none too noisy, probably quieter than Naxos harbour. I noticed that the shops were shut when I arrived, which may not sound unusual as it was nearly eleven at night, but the shops at Katapola on Amorgos were always open at that time of night. Boats were moored around the angled harbour giving the place a more intimate feel than the long straight boatless sea front at Naxos. My first priority was to find somewhere to stay. Somewhere off the harbour I thought, in case the harbour was noisy. I went half way round the harbour and down a side lane. "You want a room?" shouted out a voice from somewhere above me. Soon I was settling in to Zorba's Pension, in a large clean room with clean shared showers. It was not the sort of place I would have chosen for a long stay, my room had no balcony and the window looked out onto the entrance hall, but for my short stay in Ios it was fine. It was nearly midnight on Sunday. On the way round the harbour I had glanced at the ferry timetables and seen that there was a ferry going to Kimolos at nine o'clock on Tuesday morning.

I was hungry. I had eaten nothing since my crust of bread (no honey left) at Anaphi early that morning. I was pleased to be on Ios as I was more likely to find a bite to eat at that time of night on Ios than on less touristed islands.

After midnight, a number of eating-places were still open. I chose the Fisherman's Restaurant as it looked the busiest, and ate decent grilled chicken and chips. The waitress said that I would have to wait for the chicken to be grilled. A good sign showing that the food was cooked to order and not lingering around waiting for a mouth to come along and eat it.

As so often in Greece I was stretching at the seams of night and day, not because of seeking after nightlife but because of travel arrangements. No, not travel arrangements; travel no choice if I want to get to where I want to go. All the tourists in the harbour were respectable looking people looking bemused, as though they were all wondering "where is all this nightlife?" I wondered what was happening up in Ios Village. I could not hear any music coming from up there, was not even sure how far away the Village was

On Monday morning I awoke to the sound of music thumping out from one of the other bedrooms at Zorba's Pension (probably my neighbours cannot wait to get to the village uphill and a disco). At least I slept well and had an undisturbed night.

Going out to find breakfast, I discovered an excellent bakery at the corner of the lane and the harbour. The cheese pies were excellent and I munched my way through several of them during my stay on Ios. I was surprised to see how close Sikinos was to Ios. Strangely when I was on Sikinos a few years previously I had not realised just how close Ios was. Was this an optical illusion, or had I spent most of my time at a further flung part of Sikinos (do not be lazy Susan, get a map out and check). I can visualise the layout of all the islands I have visited but have great difficulty in jig-sawing all the islands into the correct position on the Aegean.

I had just one day on Ios. I wanted to see as much as I could, to get a feel of the island.

The mule path up from the harbour was splendid. On the way up, I passed Greek workman trotting up and down on donkeys, with working tools (spades, shovels and pickaxes) strapped to the old fashioned wooden saddles. They all said a cheery "jassou". This is the real Greece, I thought, not the Ios I expected to find. At the top, I found the start of Ios's disco-land; a warehouse sized disco night-club.

Diana Elena, a Roumanian girl I had met once on Amorgos, had asked someone on Ios where she could find Homer's Tomb. The person she spoke to thought that Homer's Tomb was the name of a bar!

Poor Ios. I tried to imagine the Chora as it would have been before the tourist invasion. I tried to filter out the less desirable elements. There were so many bars, shut in the morning or doing duty as daytime bars. In the midst of the bars, Greek islanders lived their normal lives. Amongst the bars there was the odd normal looking shop, grocers etc, and a good looking little taverna. I went into one shop that sold magazines and the odd book of tourist light reading. A shop like that must sell a map of Ios, I thought. There was not a map on sale. I did not manage to get far out into the Ios countryside and probably few other people did. Hence no maps. I later got a free advertising map from travel agent in the harbour. The bars are in old looking buildings with just a sign and shuttered doors and windows to proclaim what they are. A broken Amstel bottle lies on the floor near a bar. Nearby is a white plastic beaker with an 'Amstel' motif; are the customers up here not trusted with glasses?

The bars in Ios seem so prominent as they are in old buildings in the main streets. If they had been in non-conformist buildings they would not spoil the old building, yet would spoil the village more. There are an increasing number of bars in Amorgos Chora, and in even more in Naxos, but there does seem to be a higher density in Ios. Most of those in Amorgos and Naxos are not the sort of places I would choose to frequent, playing loud non Greek music, but I would feel safe going in a Naxos or Amorgos bar for a drink. Here on Ios I would not like to visit any of these establishments at night. Some bars open from 11-14 and 18-24.00; there could be others that only open in peak season.

What do the locals think of the transformation that has overtaken their village? Who profits from all this commercial activity? Is it the locals or outsiders? Are the outsiders Greek or foreign? What sort of planning laws are there in Greece that could have let this happen?

I found my way through the winding lanes up to the Castro above the Chora. Everything is so quiet and peaceful. Where are the hordes of disco goers? Are they still sleeping off the over-indulgences of last night? Or are there no hordes of tourists around at this time of year. The latter, I soon decided. There were just dribs and drabs of tourists.

I bought a frappe in a cafe bar that had caught my eye. It was opposite the cathedral, in the little square at the start of the village. Both the bar and the old couple who run it were charming and could have been from anywhere in Greece. Likewise, the locals could have been from anywhere in Greece. I pondered on the Jekyll and Hyde character of Ios. How do the locals cope? How do they manage to lead such apparently normal lives in the midst of the noise and hustle and bustle of Ios? It was nearly eleven o'clock when I heard the distant thudding of music. This was a foretaste of what would come in the evening, although I intended being down in the harbour well before the time the uphill nightlife got under way. At this time of the morning, there was no sign of any alcoholic intake. Other customers at the bar were drinking Nescafe and water. A girl tourist was lying down on a rug-covered bench outside the bar, a rucksack on the floor beside her. I soon decided that she was not sleeping off the effects of the night before but was a tourist sleepy from night time ferry travelling.

I saw lots of cats, dogs, and puppies in Chora. Did they sleep with their paws tucked over their ears?

I stopped for an Amstel at the Louis Café in Ios Main Square, the Plateia Valletta. In a guidebook, I had seen a reference to Maltese pirates. The sign said that the bar had been there since 1906. Looking at an advert guide book later I saw that the Louis Café was also one of the night bars. In late morning, the Louis Café was more like an ordinary bar than a nightclub open in the daytime. 1906. What was Ios like then? Could anyone have imagined what Ios would be like ninety years later? Anaphi today must be a little like Ios was then. For the first time ever in Greece, I found that I had to pay for the drink as soon as it arrived. Customers here cannot be trusted to pay after they have finished drinking. Perhaps so many are consumed that the staff lose count as well as lose sight of the drunken customer. I had not been asked to pay in advance at the old-fashioned bar by the bank. I hope no mean spirited tourists took advantage of the kindly old couple running that bar.

At midday in the Main Square, there were many people pushing barrows full of crates of beer bottles about. Were the bottles full, empty, or both? I saw five crates of empty Amstel bottles taken from the Louis Café. The Louis Cafe was womanned by a New Zealander. I later found that there were so few tourists on the island that all foreigners were assumed to be looking for jobs. The Ios Blue Bar opposite was open but quiet. There were a large number of different bottles on display and it seemed fairly upmarket and not just a drinking den. Two English speaking girls and two English speaking youths sauntered sleepily past, chatting about their drunken exploits of the night before. One of the girls said she had lost her key and had to sleep outside the door of her room. It seemed that they had cleaning jobs somewhere in Ios.

I wanted to see something of the Ios countryside. Paliokastro was 18 km from the port. Far too far to walk in that heat. I was wilting and stopping for refreshment just exploring in the relative shade of Ios chora. The only bus went from the port to the village and on to Milopotas beach and back. I did not want to travel by taxi or hire a vehicle. So, Milopotas it had to be. I just missed one bus and walked down.

From Milopotas Sikinos looms remarkably close. I had a very refreshing paddle in the lightly crashing waves. There was a huge expanse of beach with few people, but with facilities, bars tavernas and campsites) mostly closed in May, to cater for huge numbers of visitors in peak season. An attractive situation with the curved beach and backdrop of hills but with all the signs of commercialisation not a place I would choose to linger. I caught a bus back up hill, and walked back down to the port.

Strolling round the harbour I noticed a black cat sitting outside a patisserie and went up to stroke her and say hello. A very friendly cat, she responded with nudges and purrs.

The broad sweep of the bay on the northern side of Giaolos was built up with modern buildings. A stroll in that direction did not look inviting so I walked round the southern side of the bay and found a sign to Valmas Bay and taverna. I was surprised to find that the taverna was actually open. A Scandinavian girl was sunbathing in the nude on the beach. At first, I thought I had come to a nudist beach with a nudist taverna. I was reluctant to go fully dressed into a nudist taverna were nudism might be compulsory. This was Ios were anything (or nothing) goes. Then I realised that there was a middle aged Greek man running the taverna but modestly averting his eyes from the nudity on the beach. In the middle of the beach were two large covered wells. I wondered if the water in wells that close to the beach would be salty. I walked up to the taverna. The Nude Scandinavian wriggled into a skimpy bikini each time she went into the taverna.

"Perhaps you have Amstel?" I asked in Greek.

"This is Greece."

The taverna owner was cooking delicious looking small fish, barbouni perhaps. The beach was quiet, and the views were excellent. This was so unlike the Ios I expected to find.

On the way to Valmas beach I has passed the part of the Gialos harbour were fishing boats were moored and spotted a small, old-fashioned, nameless taverna. I went there for dinner that night. I sat at an outside table under a tree. Some locals were sitting inside, which had the atmosphere of a kafeneion. An excellent and cheap meal of meatballs with raw cabbage, fried aubergine and draft retsina. Afterwards I got talking to a local man who was the owner of the patisserie round the harbour. He had noticed me talking to his cat, and decided I would be a useful person to have around. He offered me a job washing up in the patisserie. I politely explained that I had not come to Ios to look for a job! He asked what I did in England and looked somewhat abashed when I told him that I was a lawyer. An English girl in the taverna was somewhat dejected, having come to Ios to work only to find that her employer was not opening until later in the year because there so few tourists.

The next day I went to Kimolos. Coming back from Kimolos to Naxos I changed ferries at Ios. I arrived in Ios in the late afternoon and headed straight for a travel agency that stored luggage. I had a choice of a 9.15 or 10.15 p.m. ferry. I plumped for the 9.15. I left my luggage in the luggage store. I was surprised to find that this was in a room next door to the travel agency, with no one on duty to check the luggage. I had read so much about the light fingeredness of some of the visitors that I did wonder about the security of my luggage. In the event, all was well.

I caught one of the frequent buses up to Ios Village. I intended browsing round, coming down the mule path as the sun was setting and having dinner in the old fashioned taverna before catching the ferry to Naxos.

I went to the old fashioned bar outside the cathedral in Ios village. The only other customer is a young woman sipping coffee and reading a Greek newspaper. Locals and tourists are passing through the little square. I am enjoying my ouzo and plate of olives. The birds are singing, there is the sound of chanting coming from the cathedral. The service ends and the priest comes out and chats to some of the congregation.

I walked down to the harbour and the old-fashioned taverna. The Australian waitress greets me like an old friend. The owner of Zorba's Pension passes by and greets me too. He asks what I have been doing, and seems interested even when I say I have a ticket for Naxos that evening. This is not the Ios I expected. The people I am meeting are charming, typically pleasant Greeks. Without wanting to sound immodest, I wonder if the Iotes are pleased to see a tourist like me who is interested in the real old style Greece, and does not want to come to Ios just to get drunk in a disco?

I was sitting at an outside table under a huge parasol. A bird cage was swinging under the parasol and the singing bird serenaded me throughout the meal. I had enjoyed my fried aubergine on the previous visit, and was tempted to order it again, when on the menu I saw "pikilia, = meatballs, croquettes courgette, dip." Unusually what I received was far better than the description: meatballs, vegetable balls, spinach and feta balls, fried courgettes, and Russian salad. Oh, and yes, some of that delicious fried aubergine. Sitting there looking over the harbour, sipping my half litre of retsina, I was sorry that I had to rush off and catch the 9.15 ferry to Naxos. Ios had its charms.

Susan Watkin


Greece in the News - Frederic Raphael's heaven on earth: Ios, Greece