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Aegean Islands

The isolated bays, ancient mysteries and quiet whitewashed beauty of the island of Astypalea in the Dodecanese and its Cycladic neighbour Amorgos have enchanted Amy Egan and her partner Fergus Stothart.

It was the middle of a wild winter's night nearly 30 years ago when 11-year-old Fergus Stothart was thrown off a ship headed to Amorgos and caught by a fisherman on the windswept docks of the remote island of Astypalea. As the young Fergus (who is now this writer's partner) peered through the driving rain, he saw his sister flung from the heaving ship into the darkness too, followed by an equally terrified donkey.
The storms that plague this open stretch of the Aegean had blown the boat off course and huge waves prevented it from docking. Fergus's parents teetered along a makeshift wooden gangway to find the port deserted, apart from two very wet children and an extremely welcoming islander who had clearly been savouring the local ouzo. The Zorba the Greek-style stranger insisted it was perfectly acceptable for them to let themselves into the port hotel, before he disappeared on a huge motorbike, long grey hair blowing wild in the wind. Discovering the ground floor awash with flood water, they picked a key from a hook on the wall, went upstairs and went to sleep.
Waking up to a brilliant morning washed clean by the storm, the family found themselves in the tiny port of Pera Gialos, set on a shimmering bay overlooked by a hilltop town of whitewashed houses and a sturdy Venetian castle. More than a week passed before another boat ventured out to the island and by this time the family was entrenched. Their first visit lasted nearly a year, and Fergus has hardly missed a summer since.
Astypalea is a small butterfly-shaped island with a coastline of towering ochre cliffs and secluded beaches, a rugged, mountainous centre and a population of about 1100 people. It is the westernmost Dodecanese island, although it still lies closer to Turkey than to the Greek mainland. Despite a turbulent history marked by alternating periods of opulence, destitution and piracy, Astypalea is now known for its laid-back charm. It's often overlooked by foreigners for better-known islands, to the relief of the Athenians who cherish the tiny pebbled bays and majestic inlets. The same families appear each summer to parade in the beachfront cafés, to eat traditional, locally grown food in the tavernas and, above all, to leave their hectic lives behind.
I have been visiting Astypalea with Fergus for 10 years, but on this particular trip, we plan to move on before the place once again casts its spell. Our mission, three decades after Fergus and his family were thrown off course by the storm, is to finally reach the neighbouring island of Amorgos. So within 24 hours of reaching Astypalea, we board the boat.
On the eastern edge of the Cyclades, Amorgos is best known for the 11th-century monastery of Panayia Hozoviotissa, which clings to sheer cliffs a staggering 300 metres above the sea. We arrive in the early morning to find mist drifting across the hilltops and the coastal cliff-edged road that leads to the monastery. Built with Herculean effort and primitive tools, Panayia Hozoviotissa marks the point where an icon of the Virgin Mary is believed to have drifted miraculously from Jerusalem. The monastery is hidden from view until, as you climb the hundreds of steps cut into the rock, the glittering white façade appears suddenly, brilliant against the dark cliff face. A small staircase leads inside, revealing a labyrinth of narrow stairwells connecting intimate chapels where gold icons, silver chalices and sumptuous ecclesiastical tapestries are displayed alongside rare illuminated manuscripts.
Pilgrims visiting from around the world are guided by the handful of monks who still live here. Shafts of brilliant sunshine spill through windows set in metre-thick walls, breaking the sombre, monastic feel. It's an extraordinarily beautiful building, made all the more moving by the lonely, dramatic setting.
Much of Amorgos remains untouched by tourism, mainly because of its impenetrable mountainous terrain. While one road traverses the long, narrow island, connecting the four towns and several beaches, much of the interior is accessible only by walking tracks through pristine countryside. The fact that the island can be reached only by boat has also hindered development.
Despite its isolation, Amorgos harbours elements of surprising sophistication. In the maze of alleys in the Hora, the main town, hidden behind sprawling bougainvillea and ancient façades, are several excellent new restaurants and boutiques. In a leafy square alongside the 13th-century castle that looms above the town, we find a sturdy, sensibly dressed grandmother working her way through a sumptuous slice of millefeuille with a briskness that suggests it's worth trying.
The young waiter in the Loza café is proudly telling us his grandmother makes the sweets from family recipes, when his mother, Natassa Politou, whom we mistake for his sister, emerges from the tiny kitchen, followed by her husband and mother-in-law. They all, simultaneously, talk us through a display of cakes, pies and jellied fruits that wouldn't be out of place in a Parisian pâtisserie. Politou says the Hora has changed significantly since Loza opened 10 years ago. "There are more shops, more restaurants and the quality is better all the time," she says. "But the feeling, the colour of the Hora, that never changes."
After a day in which we travel the length of the island to swim in the idyllic Paradisia Bay, we return to the Hora to visit Tsagaradiko, a restaurant serving traditional island food made with local organic produce. Yiannis Prastianos, originally from Thessaloniki, fell in love with the island and returned to open the restaurant in a rambling square.
A cool breeze has brought the town back to life and the square, with its haphazard tables and relaxed crowd, is bustling. Children leap between the curved domes on the roof of a church set into the hillside alongside the restaurant. Gesturing out over the lively scene, Prastianos says it was "this feel, this energy" that drew him to Amorgos.
In the remote village of Lagada, in the north of Amorgos, we meet another passionate local. Vaghelis Vassalos left the island when he was 12. After studying neurophysiology and Chinese medicine in the United Kingdom, he returned to set up shop in the house where he was born. At Iamata, Vassalos and his wife Heleni provide treatments for tourists looking for holistic health holidays, which are popular year-round, and also offer medical services, mainly to locals. "I treat them with the herbs that their parents and grandparents used as medicine," Vassalos says. "People haven't lost their trust in these traditions, they have just lost contact with them."As we look out over the valley that drops away at the foot of the village, the sun sets over the ancient terraces stretching down to the water. The potent aromas of herbs from Iamata mingle with those of the bustling Nikos Taverna next door. Here, one of Vassalos's brothers cooks the organic produce which is farmed by yet another brother nearby; it's easy to see why Vassalos has come home.
"My daughter has the whole island as her playground," he says. "As a family we can live a very balanced life here. And it is a privilege to work with the plants here. There are about 600 growing on the island and they are very high quality. The island is a rock in the middle of the ocean - the air is incredibly pure."
We're tempted to stay for weeks to breathe it all in, but it is time to return to Astypalea, where we've arranged to eat at our favourite taverna. Linda's stands alone on the horseshoe-shaped bay of Kaminakia. Linda Koulourioti and her husband Tassos live here on one of the most isolated points of the island, serving superb meals from fish they catch themselves, their own goats and a thriving vegetable garden. This is home-grown organic food, but this is taken for granted here. While the rest of the world is returning to its organic roots, the Astypalites have always cooked and eaten this way.
A breeze blows up from the water as Koulourioti pulls up a chair to tell us what she's cooked today: goat baked slowly in the oven with tomatoes; pasta with crayfish Tassos caught that morning; bread salad with the cheese and dried aniseed bread they make during winter; delicate fried chickpea balls flavoured with spearmint; freshly rolled dolmades; just-baked bread.
In a typically roundabout conversation, she rem­i­nisces about why they chose this land for their home. "We liked the beach," she says with the understatement born of living on a beautiful island. There was no road, so they came on mules, carrying their children in baskets on the saddles. "We built most of the house ourselves," she says with a nod towards Tassos, who looks strong enough to have done it single-handedly. The family has known Fergus since he was a child - he and his sister are still known as "the kids" from Mouros, the little bay where we spend our summers. Someone wanders in asking if they will cook the fish he just caught. Children run up and down from the beach. We have another coffee and swim out to one of the tiny bays as the sun goes down.
The appeal of Astypalea seems somehow to be more than the sum of the natural beauty of the island, its manageable size, and the islanders' warmth. What sets it apart is its ability to slow even the most overwrought visitors down to the local pace, allowing them to stop long enough to enjoy its lost-in-time charm.
That's not to say the island hasn't moved on. A tiny airport now offers a 60-minute alternative to the 12-hour boat ride from Athens. New roads have improved access to the beaches, although plenty remain for those happy to clamber over rocks for the sake of a private bay. Smart cafés now line the port and Livardi's bustling beach, and discreet boutique hotels have recently sprung up.
Yet the same routines still mark out life here. Rooster crows drift through every window at sunrise. Elderly widows swim each morning, their voluminous black bathers drifting out like lily pads as they form tight gossiping groups bobbing in the water. You can set your clock by Maroula who rides her mule across the island to her orchard. Eleni and Yorgo still sell figs, tomatoes, potatoes and Mikali's honey (the island's finest, from bees fed on local thyme) from the back of a truck in Livardi every afternoon. The Nissos Kalymnos still limps into the harbour and any delay in the boat's arrival sparks a barrage of supposition.
Annual events bring even keener anticipation. A calendar of religious festivals culminates in mid-August in the Hora's church of Panayia Portaitissa. The islanders provide a feast for visitors and celebrations include the much-anticipated greasy pole, where foolhardy youths launch themselves along a fat-smeared pole dangling over the water, and try to reach the rooster hung in a basket at the end. It's an emotional affair, with the island's doctor in nervous attendance and medals presented by the priest, who kisses each young champion in turn.
These chaotic celebrations capture the vitality of island life, but when I'm away it's the quieter aspects I miss: the stark, silent interior and hillsides thick with thyme and oregano. You can walk for hours in solitude, and the staggering scale of the mountains and empty swathes of land, marked only by ancient terraces, abandoned settlements and maybe a handful of goats, a cluster of beehives or a lonely church, gives a sharp sense of human frailty. There's also something unforgettably peaceful about the Hora's quiet labyrinth of whitewashed houses. The odd open door gives a glimpse into cool tiled rooms, the sea beckoning from every window.
All roads eventually snake their way towards the castle, and each year we make a pilgrimage here. An earthquake destroyed parts of the castle in the 1950s, but it is being slowly restored. Massive walls cut with tiny windows look out towards tiny islands, and while stray cats have long since taken over, it's easy to imagine a time when the entire population lived within these walls to shelter from pirates.
From the castle, we wander down to the port to Astypalea's archaeological museum - a powerful reminder of just how much life has been lived on this tiny island. Finds date back to the Bronze Age, while coins, statues, tombstones and pottery found hidden in caves and scattered on the hillsides make you wonder how much is still to be discovered. We are told that just five years ago an archaeologist doing a routine inspection discovered the remains of a temple dedicated to Eileithyia, the goddess of child birth, and hundreds of the clay pots in which babies were buried have since been uncovered.
It is an astonishing discovery, but just one of many, and the museum attendant is moving on. Soon she is telling us about the mosaics in the nearby town of Maltezana. "If you swim out, you might see them under the water," she says. We hire a boat and drift towards Maltezana. From the water, you can see the history in the ancient terraces and the looming castle and the pristine white houses trickling down the hill. You can still find isolated bays and hidden caves that can't be reached from the land, and here, looking out over impossibly deep water, it seems nothing has changed in centuries.