April in Greece, part 2: Iraklia

As the saying goes, you always end up at your destination.

My plan was to take a ferry on April 8 from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Heraklion, the capital of Crete. One thing I soon discovered about Greek words in English is the wide variation in spelling.

Heraklion is also spelled Iraklion, Iraklio and sometimes Irakliou. I bought ferry tickets on FerryHopper for Iraklia, believing it was in Crete. One character in a word can make a world of difference.

The timetable said I would arrive about midnight. At 1.15am my ferry, the Blue Star Naxos, announced via the tannoy (but only in Greek) that we would soon arrive at what I heard was Iraklio (remember, I was still under the delusion of going to Crete). I checked with the bursar and he assured me it was the next stop and insisted I hurry.

The only other people who got off were a family of five who completely occupied a tiny car parked at the port. I asked them if I was in Heraklion and they waved their hands about and shook their heads. I looked back to see the ferry disappearing into the night. Oh dear!

Thus at 1.30am I found myself alone on a deserted ferry port with just a quarter moon for company. Neither of my mobiles could get a signal.

A hand-painted, dilapidated sign offered some numbers under the heading of “rooms”. At random I chose Angelo’s and walked in darkness until I could get a signal. I spoke with a sleepy Dimitry who asked me to call back. When we talked again, close to 2am, he said he had one room and would collect me.

Thus I spent three days on the island of Iraklia, about 11km south-east of Naxos in the area known as the Minor or Small Cyclades. I had to wait three days for the next ferry. That tells you this island is not on the tourist map. Most of my time was in Agios Georgios, the main village and port.

Only about 80 souls live on Iraklia in winter. It hibernates until July when it welcomes perhaps a few hundred mainlanders for a couple of months, and then returns to sleep. The 2020 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to the Greek Islands runs to 624 pages. Iraklia gets a page and a quarter.

Only one restaurant was open on the island, To Steki in the village of Panagia about 4km away — an uphill walk almost all the way. Dimitry gave me a lift and said the restaurant owner Fotis might bring me back.

I drank a half litre of red with my scrumptious meal: Greek salad, lightly-fried zucchini slivers and grilled Naxos sausage with chips from local potatoes.

Locals make wine but only for home consumption, so most restaurant wine comes from the nearby island of Naxos, usually in bulk. The only wine bottles I saw during my stay had been filled from bulk containers.

The photo above shows the style of vineyard on Iraklia, with vines planted low to the ground in sandy soils. I found many seashells in the soil, suggesting this area was under water millennia ago.

If like me you don’t enjoy discos and bars, Iraklia is a delight. I was one of three tourists. The others were a delightful couple, Paula and Martin Broeke from the Netherlands, who have been coming to the island — often twice a year — for the past two decades. We sipped ouzo in the evening outside the mini-mart / travel agent run by the Gavalas family — the only place open most days.

At To Steki restaurant I took this photo of Mitsos and his daughter. They are friends of Fotis. Mitsos bought me a half litre of red as a thank you. Late that evening after I went outside for air I found a third half litre on the table, a gift from Fotis.

The wine gave me enough courage to accept a lift on the back of his scooter. The only light came from the moon, and the torch that Fotis gripped in his mouth as he drove because the light on his scooter did not work.

The stars were exquisite and the ride exhilarating. No helmets, of course. This is Greece.

People who have read my articles about the Languedoc in southern France know about “garrique”, that sensuous aroma that fills the air and tells us that the land is clean and healthy. Iraklia has garrique in abundance. It is the sweetest and most pleasant air I have breathed for decades.

In a few minutes’ walk from the main village, the port of Agios Georgios, you can be in the countryside. The ocean is an all-surrounding blue and wildflowers are at their best in April. They seem to be everywhere alongside the dirt roads.

Goats stand on rock fences to observe visitors. The tinkle of the bells around their necks is like a song from heaven.

Small vineyards appear amid the rocks as you explore the hiking trails. Gentle breezes caress one’s face. And that gorgeous aroma of garrique almost overwhelms the senses.

The water around the island makes the phrase crystal clear seem inadequate. I did not know so many hues of blue existed. White buildings dominate the landscape, some with blue trimmings. It seems that the blue wants to commune with the architecture.

I presume the locals are religious because I counted at least seven churches in Agios Georgios alone.

All are painted a pristine white and on a sunny day they seem to glow against the blue of the sky. You really do come to appreciate how blue and white have become associated with Greece.

While walking on the beach — I was the only person there — I noticed a truck arrive, pulling a small boat.

The movie below shows how locals launch their fishing boats. The driver turned out to be Mitsos, the man whose photograph I took with his daughter at the restaurant in Panagia. Small is beautiful on Iraklia. And to think it was all because of a mistake over one character. Maybe these events build character.

This is how fishing boats are launched on the island of Iraklia in Greece.

Travel tip: The big ferries that transport vehicles tend to arrive and depart on time. But the smaller passenger ferries are less reliable. They sometimes arrive much earlier than scheduled. Best to arrive half an hour earlier than the scheduled time in case the ferry arrives and then departs early. My ferry to Naxos, scheduled for 11.40am, departed at 11.28am. I would have missed it had I arrived close to the scheduled departure time.

Categories: Greece, Not home

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