“You can take the fast boat and get there quicker, or take the slow boat and enjoy the day —take the slow boat”, so the advice from our neighbours. We followed their advice, and not only in the question of which boat would bring us to the islands.
People have always traveled the Cyclades, the group of islands east of the Peloponnese. Deep blue skies, white churches everywhere, turquoise waters and great beaches: famous features seen a thousand times in images and films. And not only since “Zorbas”.
But this trip found its trigger elsewhere. It happened in one of those dark February days in The Hague. It was in the beginning of 2012, when the Euro crisis in Greece was reaching its climax. The chatter around dinner was noisy and happy. Our Greek friends (and neighbours) and us were enjoying a good meal as we often did. The conversation navigated from the latest stories about our respective kids, to news at work to the confusing and sad reports about the crisis ridden economy in their homeland. “You should come this summer and visit us in Sifnos, support the Greek economy and enjoy good food and great venues” said Dimitris. And that was exactly what we would end up doing, except that we didn't stop in Sifnos, took advantage of the opportunity and embarked on some serious island hopping. “Sifnos, Milos, Folegandros. You got see those three islands, each one quite different from the others and they will fill you up with true Greek feelings. They are also a bit off the beaten tracks.” The trip plan was ready. We added Santorini for good measure, being so close and all. And so we came to visit the southern Cyclades, their magic and its people.
The second half of August is when the winds start to pick up in the Aegean, bringing highly wanted breezes to the heat beaten beaches and towns. Sifnos is where you get a chance to taste the summer Greek way of life best. Late nights (and also mornings) are not a cliché, but rather a lived state of mind that permeates society, it is where the pulse of networking takes place, where the life-old philosophy of accompanying family and business relationships with good food and service finds its roots. And, if you are lucky to know a few Greeks, you will experience plenty of that in Sifnos, especially in Apollonia in the summer.
Next stop, onto the south to the island of Milos, what turned out to be quite a sensational experience. Milos has treasures for landscapes, beaches and views, and it is fitting that it was here were the famous Venus of Milos (Aphrodite of Melos) was found.
Sarakiniko is one of those treasures. We had the good hunch of visiting it in the late afternoon, when the sun was setting. The white limestone rock appeared to glow in the dimmed light, creating a tranquil and soothing atmosphere. The beach is located a few kilometres north of Adamas, the main port, and not surprising, it is one of the most popular beaches in Milos.
Other popular destinations are the antique capital of Milos, Klima, with fisher houses directly located at the sea and the beach of Tsigrado with its easily accessible and stunning turquoise sea.
Speaking of turquoise waters, nothing we had seen so far on this trip prepared us in any way to what we would see in Kleftiko. Kleftiko is a bay surrounded by high cliffs reachable only by boat on the south coast. Is it the combination of transparent waters with the bright limestone that keeps you in awe of mother nature? Or perhaps the fact that the boat gently rocks you into trance? In any case, the experience leaves you wishing the day would never end.
Folegandros, the smallest of the islands we visited, is a jewel in itself. Not much to see, apart from a few exceptional views of the Chora, its main town, but plenty to experience. The medieval Chora develops its magic mainly in the evenings, when the buzzing open air restaurants and bars unfold the scents, colours and sounds of a huge family having dinner on an open terrace. If you have a hang towards walking, Folegandros will offer plenty of opportunities and great paths —just don't do it in August.
What can I say about Santorini, and specially Oia? Enough to say that it is a must destination of all cruise ships in the Mediterranean, that you can book a wedding package in Japan to take place here, that chances are you may have not heard the word Cyclades, but in all likelihood you have heard of Santorini. And it shows. It is the only place I know where you can book a sunset. Seriously. Everybody seems to be mad about getting a good spot to see the sun setting down, so businesses will offer you just that, perhaps accompanied by a drink or two. Crazy.
But, depicting Santorini alone as an oversized Disneyland doesn't do justice to the stunning views you get here. Nor does it to the unique caved rooms of Oia houses and hotels. Well, it is simply beautiful.
Crisis? Being foreigners we had to look deeper to find signs of it. Tourism had definitely not abandoned the Cyclades, that is, tourism from abroad. The Greek population on the other side was waging carefully their resources for vacations and many settled for a weekend trip instead of the customary two weeks at a beach in August. Many families have seen their income reduced to half since the beginning of the crisis, sometimes to a third. And, any conversation quickly converged around the uncertainty of what the future would bring. A year later, the time of writing these notes, the situation has improved noticeably —not yet fully out of troubled waters, mind you, but the outlook is less gray.
Back at home started the exciting process of developing the images I had taken. This is one of my favourite times and I usually look forward to it with anticipation and joy. Already before the trip some very special images had started to form inside my head. I wanted to test the use of yellow filters to create deep dark skies in black and white photography. I knew such skies would give a dramatic contrast with the ever white buildings, and was curious and excited to find out how the effect would look like. And I was not disappointed, the images turned out just the way I wanted them. For the record, I did end up using more orange than pure yellow filters though, mostly because they add some whitish tonality to soils and the ground.
A more comprehensive image compendium of this trip is available as a hardcover photo album here. There is also a free of charge digital iBook for iPad (35MB). You may want to also have a look at the other books I have made.