In April, as I was hiking the lush mountain paths of Amorgos, I found myself wondering, “Is it possible to O.D. on Cycladicism?” Anyone who’s spent time on a Cycladic island knows what the word means: the unique ethos, lifestyle and natural wonders one can find here in the omphalos of the Aegean.
And Amorgos has distilled this oft-diluted product to a pure essence. It’s not just a Greek isle, but a secluded, tiny one with no airport and limited accommodations in the summer. It not only has centuries of history, but a unique tale of an icon that arrived mysteriously from Palestine by sea.
The landscape of Amorgos is unspoiled and so dominated by mountains that in the old days, there was no road connecting east and west and each village had its own currency. It produces the usual olives and wine, but also an abundance of indigenous herbs. The locals are intelligent, kind and full of kefi, and remarkably, there’s not much graffiti or litter in sight. Eighteen-hundred people live on the island, lots of donkeys and 25,000 goats!
Upon arriving by ferry at Katapola in the middle of the night, I was picked up and driven along snaking switch-backs to Aegiali bay on the far side of the island. The next morning, the ecstasy began to unfold. First our group hiked to a tiny church in the hills where the locals were gathered for a religious procession. The faithful drank souma and took turns ringing the bells, then the priests emerged carrying an icon of the Virgin Mary and took off on the stone path to deliver the icon to its next destination. Who knew that priests were so sure-footed and devoted to hiking, so accepting of tourists and their poking cameras?
Over the next few days, as the good vibrations intensified with the rise and fall of the sun, I wondered whether at some point I wouldn’t say to myself, Enough already with the white-washed churches, the just-blooming sage, the breath-taking views and the grinning locals! Haven’t these elements of Cycladicism become a cliché after thousands of years?
The occasion of my visit was Yperia, an annual conference for international journalists which took place from 9 to 12 April this year. We stayed at Aegialis, a gorgeous luxury hotel built on a hill overlooking the bay. Our hostess was Irene Giannakopoulos, who is manager of the Aegialis and president of the Women’s Cultural Association of Tholaria, one of the nearby mountain villages. After living in the U.S., Irene has a heightened appreciation for her native Tholaria and makes a point of promoting it to the world.
The Aegiali area consists of a long, turquoise bay surrounded by mountains. In addition to Ormos village on the harbour, three villages lie nestled in the hills: Potamos, Langada and Tholaria, all very traditional and particular about their white-washing. You could come to Amorgos just to hike those hills, but to appreciate the island, you must learn something about its unique history. To that end we took a bus trip to the Byzantine monastery of the Virgin Mary of Chozoviotissa, on the other side of the island.
The conversation on the bus was a dizzying mix of Russian, German, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French, though everyone spoke a little English.
“In Greece,” I heard one woman say to another, “there is a church in every desert, every nowhere where there is nothing.”
Then the bus parked and we got out and climbed the three hundred steps to the monastery, an imposing white structure built into the steep slopes of Mt. Prophet Elijah. Chozoviotissa, the religious centre of the island, has clung to these rocks since 1088. In the Middle Ages, as one story goes, a Palestinian woman placed two icons into small boats to protect them from the iconoclasts. One of the boats washed up at the foot of this mountain, carrying the icon of the Virgin Mary, and was discovered by a shepherd. According to another story, the monks sent it.
The arrival of the Panagia Chozoviotissa, considered a divine blessing, inspired the building of the monastery and is celebrated every year in November.
The monastery grew into a legend of its own. Over the years, it acquired vast property on Amorgos and other islands, according to “Amorgos,” a 2007 guide book by Tassos Anastassiou. During the Turkish rule, many people gave their land to the church, because the church didn’t pay taxes, Irene told us on the bus ride. Its wealth helped keep the island stable, and after the Greek War of Independence, the monastery provided funds for the first high school established in free Greece. In the twentieth century, Irene said, the church started renting its land to the villagers for cultivating crops.
Cultivation was the subject of our next lesson. After a walk through the mountain village of Langada, we entered a renovated stone house that is now the laboratory of Vangelis Vassalos, a therapist who specialises in herbal treatments.
“Come and have a smell,” he said, welcoming us inside. Then he showed off his distilling equipment and explained that he was in the process of distilling sage to make essential oil and flower water for use in medicine and cosmetics.
Vassalos explained that he trains people to pick and dry herbs, that it takes one hundred kilos of herb to produce two kilos of essential oil and that his most popular products come from sage and rosemary.
“But we have many princes and princesses,” he added. “Any herb that smells is bound to have volatile oil.”
In addition to using the herbs that grow wild on the island, Vassalos cultivates herbs such as lemon verbena, calendula, marjoram and mint, he said.
After studying neurophysiology and Chinese medicine in the U.K., Vassalos returned to his native Amorgos, he said in an interview later. About five years ago, he and and his wife started Iamata, a business that produces natural medicines and cosmetics.
“For me to work with herbs professionally was a calling,” Vassalos said. “Amorgos is a rock in the middle of the sea. This place is kept very natural. We haven’t built like other islands. There are eight villages and the rest is pure nature, as it always has been. There are six hundred species of flora that grow here. It’s like our big front yard!”
In between the educational sessions, the Yperia organisers took us to one taverna after another where the buffet tables were piled high with food. After visiting the distillery, we had lunch at Nikos' taverna in Langada where the roasted goat was accompanied by live music and dance. Another day we had lunch at To Limani, a fish taverna on the harbour in Ormos that served octopus, calamari and shark along with endless carafes of raki, ouzo and wine.
But perhaps the most impressive meal was a late-night dinner at Panorama, a grill house in Tholaria where the owner, Nikolaos Theologitis, regaled us with rhyming couplets he’d written for the occasion (in Greek), then sang raucously with a violin and bouzouki duo, encouraging everyone to dance. He looks about seventy and has the energy of a seventeen-year-old. Theologitis showed up at the conference’s farewell dinner the next night and gave us a return performance. His energy was contagious and kept us up late, even though we had to catch the bus to the ferry at 4 a.m. the next morning.
Apparently it isn’t possible to O.D. on Cycladicism — it’s just that when you eat, sleep and breathe it, you will never stop singing.