Sorry folks – this is going to be a long one! You better grab a cuppa!
I’m not sure if I can ever put into words why I quickly grew to love Tilos so much – but I did. I can’t claim it was the beautiful sandy beaches (they are covered in pebbles, not sand), and it wasn’t the amazing snorkeling (I couldn’t even bring myself to go for a quick dip as the water was too cold for this warm water wuss). It wasn’t the lush landscape (the hills are rocky and barren of trees). And it wasn’t for the party atmosphere (this island is so laid back its… well, almost lying down!).
Ultimately, it comes down to the people I met who really brought the island to life for me. Not the locals so much, although they were very friendly and kind, but an awesome group of Brits who have been coming here year after year – some for as many as 20-30 years, and coming for 1-2 months at a time. You would think that a group like this, who have known each other for many years, would have formed a clique that would mostly ignore the one-off short-term arrivals to the island. But that was far from the case, and for which I am most grateful. They were so inclusive – inviting me on hikes and to meals, treating me to a glass of wine, and even coming to see off me off on the ferry – twice! And they greeted me with hugs when I returned for a final few days. The sense of community here on this island was simply heart-warming – and I admit to shedding a tear when I left – both times!
Tilos is a small island, around 65 square kilometres and has somewhere around 350-500 residents.
The landscape is steep, wild and rugged. The mountains are barren of any real trees, but are covered in scrubby wildflowers and fragrant herbs. Walking along the mountain paths with the smell of thyme and oregano makes you constantly crave pizza! Wild goats inhabit the island and I lost count of the number of lizards I saw. And snakes – which I came across only one, thank goodness.
The majority of the people live in one of two main villages here: Livadia, the quietly bustling waterfront village where most of the accommodation and restaurants are based, and 7-8 kilometres away, Megalo Chorio (“Big Village”), the quiet pretty whitewashed stone village built into the hillside. It’s the capital of the island and is set underneath the remains of an ancient town and medieval castle.
A grey and dreary wet first day – but I was hooked
I originally planned to have 5 nights on Tilos but bad weather cancelled my ferry, so it was reduced to 4. The ferry from Rhodes arrived at night, so it was dark and there was nothing to see. And the next morning, when I opened the sliding doors to my terrace overlooking Livadia village and harbour, I was gutted to see that the weather had closed in. The sky was grey and it was drizzling with rain. But the view over the harbour blew me away and I could just feel that there was a good vibe about this place. Whilst the drizzling rain was frustrating, it didn’t dampen my spirits. I grabbed my umbrella and took off for exploratory walk up the hillside and around the headlands. It was beautiful and I couldn’t wait for the skies to clear up to really see what the island had to offer.
The weather gods didn’t disappoint – the next day I woke up to gorgeous clear blue sky. While having breakfast on the terrace, I talked to my neighbours whom I will call Bob and Maria. They’ve been coming here for over 30 years and if there is anything to know about Tilos or its people, they know.
Bob told me about a nice walk that I could do an ancient abandoned village, Mikro Chorio (“Little Village”), further up and along the road. He suggested that I take a shortcut, although it would be hard to find. At the end of our conversation, I thought he had offered to walk me up the road to the start of the shortcut – but he ended up taking me on the most amazing hike all the way up the village. And this was just the start of the kindness from Bob and Maria.
Hike to Mikro Chorio
The village is about 2 kilometres from Livadia, and we got there by walking up a steep rocky path which was once used by mules. Every so often the path disappeared due to weeds or rock fall obliterating it in places. It didn’t really matter – you can’t exactly get lost here as there are no trees to obstruct your view. You just keep going up
Mikro Chorio (pronounced Hore-ee-o, silent C) was established in the 15th century, and mostly abandoned after WW2, with the last of the residents moving out in the 1960’s. There’s not much there now aside from the stone shell of old homes.
It was fascinating to walk through the ruins, especially to think that although built in the 15th century, people were still living here in the relatively recent past – some of the locals that I met grew up in the village. They are now starting to restore the remnants of the stone buildings to their former glory – the church, at least one house and one of the chapels have so far been restored. Another building has been turned into a nightclub in the summertime, when then run buses from Livadia down below.
Maybe this could be a project for me in the future?
Local footie: Tilos –v- Rhodes
Bob and I made our way back down the stony path, losing the path for most of the way, and coming out on to the main road. There was a soccer game on Megalo Chorio, a major inter-island event which is attended by both the locals and the long-time visitors. Today’s game was Rhodes v Tilos, and Bob wanted to catch the game. So we started the 2-3km walk along the main road and it wasn’t long before an old van came along and offered us a ride. It was the village baker, and he was also heading to the game. Football really isn’t my thing but I just loved how my unplanned day was turning out!
It was at the footie match that I was introduced to some of the other locals and expat regulars. And I learned quite a bit about the locals. About the island paramedic who today was the goalie, so the builder stepped in to be the game paramedic. Luckily his job was limited to carrying a bag of ice on the field to treat one injury. Antonis, my apartment landlord is getting married later this year and is also standing for the local elections. Pavlos the bus driver is the subject of a documentary that was produced this year. There is the Fisherman, the Boatman, the Goat Herder who can’t speak or hear. I heard about them all. The island is big on story-telling and gossip, and I suspect that there aren’t many secrets held here. I learned that they have had one hair dresser, one bank, one petrol station, one baker – but they have never had them all at once. The one and only ATM machine is broken and has been since last year. There have been promises to get it fixed – currently for this month of May. In the interim, people have to hop the ferry to Rhodes to get their cash. But there doesn’t seem to be any outcry – people just shrug their shoulders and say that’s how it is.
After the footie game, Marina, the grocer gave us a lift back to Livadia. No one had to walk back – the locals made sure everyone had a ride. It’s that kind of place.
That night, Bob and Maria invited me to join them for drinks and dinner in the village with another couple, who I will call Carol and Geoff. I met a few more locals and a few more of the regular visiting Brits. I was introduced as ‘the stray that we picked up’ and as soon as they said I was from NZ, people’s eyes lit up and I was given an extra handshake and a welcome. I had only been here for two days and felt so at home. After that, each time I walked along the waterfront or to the town square, I had people stopping to talk, or just waving hello. And they even remembered by name. It’s that kind of place.
A road trip
I wanted to hire a scooter to get around the island, but because they drive on the right side of the road, I decided that I would be safer in a car on these unfamiliar roads. Good move, as it turns out. It was scary enough in a car at times. When I picked up the car, I was warned to keep an eye out for the goats. If I hit one, I was to bring it back so that they could cook it up. I think he was serious!
I first headed out to the monastery to the far western side of the island. It was only maybe 8 kms away, but lack of familiarity and driving at about 30km/hour along the incredibly steep and windy roads, it seemed much further. I’m not a nervous driver normally, but this had my heart thumping a bit faster than normal. Each time I’d come around yet another hairpin corner, I dreaded running into the local bus as I’d be on the cliff side we passed each other – and it was a bloody long way down. But the views were sensational, and each time there was a slight pullover area, I stopped to take another bunch of photos.
I eventually got to the monastery only to find the gate closed but there was a friendly dog there at the gates to greet me. I wasn’t sure about protocol – was I allowed in or not? I erred on the side of caution and didn’t go in. Never mind – I still had an amazing drive up.
I decided to try and video a bit of the drive back. Don’t worry, I was going slow, and at that point, hadn’t passed a single car for a few hours.
(There is no sound on this one)
After stopping for lunch at Agios Andonis, a tiny beachside village, I drove over to the other side of the island – which was even more spectacular and frightening to drive. The winding road just went on and on, higher and higher, often with no guard rail.
Here’s some more quick videos to give you a glimpse of the amazing scenery:
I got to a fork in the road with one road heading up the Amira, the peak. I really wanted to go all the way up, but nerves finally overtook me. There was an increasing amount of rock fall on the road, and although I hadn’t passed a car for hours outside the two main villages, it would be my luck to come across someone coming the other way – and there is no way there would have been enough room to pass at that point, and I didn’t want to be reversing down these roads.
So I took the other turnoff.
I expected to come to another village at the end – I mean, why else would they have built several kilometres of paved road? But no, the road let to rubbish / recycling plant – miles away from anything else. It’s been closed for a few years, abandoned. According to my new Brit friends, this is a bit of a sore point. It’s another example of the Greeks using EU funds for something that is either ridiculous, never completed, or never used. So now, they have rubbish trucks that come through the villages daily, and dump them down a hillside which the rubbish treatment plant sits unused. So it was literally a long drive to nowhere. But it was a fascinating, if not rather scary, drive!
They weren’t kidding about the goats. (Get it?!)
Tilos is a small island which a very small population, but they have something like 300 chapels. That’s like one chapel for every 1-2 people. They are found everywhere – on the roadside, or up incredibly steep hills in the middle of nowhere. Some have been restored and are actively used; others are nothing more than a pile of rocks. They are so tiny that you have to duck down to enter. Some are completely covered in detailed painted frescoes inside. I saw one where all the faces had been gouged out – the work of the Turks in the distant past.
I was surprised at how many had burning oil candles inside – someone must be making the effort to get to them. I asked why there were so many and was told because often the goat herders had nothing else to do. The stones were scattered around the hillside, so were put to good use. Each one represents a different saint and on that Saint’s special day, people go to the chapel to pay their respects to the Saint.
Another cross-country hike
Bob and Maria invited me on another hike, a relatively short one from the old village of Megalo Chorio to the tiny beachside village of Agios Andonis. Another lady staying at our apartment complex came along as well. The walk was relatively easy but incredibly scenic.
Arriving at the beach, we rewarded ourselves with a healthy Greek salad for lunch which made us feel quite virtuous after our walk.
While having lunch, we were joined by a young German girl, Sybille, who has lived on the island for several years now. She recently made a documentary film called ‘The Island Bus’ which is due to be released for its first screening at the Krakow film festival at the end of May this year. It features many of the locals and their stories. I watched the trailer today, and got quite a kick out of the fact that I actually had met a few of them, and certainly recognised many of the rest.
If you are interested in seeing the trailer, you can check it out on Sybille’s vimeo page.
Back in Livadia – some random stuff
I could keep going on and on, waxing lyrical about my time on Tilos. Several people said to me, you either love it or hate it. For whatever reason I really felt I connected to the island, and to the people here.
Each day, after doing a walk of some sort or another, I’d sit on my terrace with my Kindle and soak up some of the afternoon sun. It was incredibly peaceful. I could stare out across the water, or across to the hills and not hear a single sound except birds and the occasional bleating goat. I appreciated the fact that I was so quickly embraced by the regulars and the locals. I came for 5 nights (reduced to 4 after the cancelled ferry), but I ended up extending it to 9 by forfeiting my planned stay on Chalki island. I did move on to Nisryros, another small island where I was to stay for a week (that’ll be my next post), but I cut it short so that I could spend two more nights at Tilos before leaving Greece. I had told Andonis the landlord that I might come back, but I’d email to confirm and to see if he had a room.
When the ferry arrives, it’s a big event. People are arriving, and people are leaving. On Tuesday, the ferry brings fresh veges to the island so there is a mad rush by everyone to stock up. When my ferry pulled in, I was warmly greeted by a couple of people saying ‘’You came back! We knew that you would”. I walked up to the town square where Andonis ran his grocery shop. He saw me from a distance and waved. When I got closer, he said “Your room is ready. The key is in the door. You can have the same room”.
“Oh good, you got my email then?” I asked.
‘No”, he said and just shrugged as if to say ‘Well, of course you’d be back”.
I walked up to the apartment, ditched my bags and went down to the waterfront for a walk along the promenade. I felt like I had returned home and couldn’t stop grinning. I was greeted by no less than 8 people welcoming me back. I had remind myself that I had really only known these people very briefly, but they were treating me like a long lost relative. It’s that kind of place.
The first time I left the island, Maria came down to the ferry to wave me off. I boarded the boat, went to the back where I could wave to them – and noticed Carol and Geoff high up on the hill in their apartment, also waving to me. That felt pretty special.
Today, I was leaving again, this time to make my way back to Rhodes, and then back to Turkey. Carol and Geoff were leaving as well this time, to return to England. Bob and Maria were there to see us all off and a few other locals that were there to get their veges, friends or guests also came up to say goodbye. I actually felt a bit teary eyed leaving this time – so much so, that I had to hide behind my sunglasses!
Tilos – thank you so much for showing me your incredible, rugged beauty and kind hospitality. I WILL be back – that’s a promise.
On a personal note to my parents who are leaving for a European cruise today: Bon Voyage! Enjoy your trip and I look forward to lunch in Budapest. It’s your treat, now that I’m the unemployed vagrant in the family! 🙂