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In Athens, swathed in the oppressive heat of an August evening, I’m drinking with a few ill-starred Greeks stuck in town for the holidays. Shops and restaurants are shut and most of the capital has fled to the sea. Breathing in the acrid city fumes, lukewarm beers in hand, my friends speak longingly of their favourite islands, exhaling the names like incantations; Samothraki, Donousa, Gavdos, Anafi. The Athenian night weighs heavier as they conjure images of the bluest waters, highest rocks and strongest winds, not to mention the best roasted goat. I sit and listen, praying for the slightest breeze, recalling my own week by the sea.

For centuries, the Greek islands have been a beautiful blue-and-white canvas on which to project the human desire to escape. From the 17th-century Grand Tourists to the architectural-ruin enthusiasts of the early 20th, travellers found on the islands a release from the pressures of urban living, and the promise of a simpler existence. Above all, they revelled in their geographic remoteness. Nowadays, foreigners can catch direct flights to at least a dozen of them, a development that somewhat erodes their unique selling point. Tellingly, the common thread uniting my friends’ most treasured islands is their inaccessibility: a nine-hour ferry ride is a small price to pay for paradise, or at least an island unmarred by mass tourism.

The Aegean seen from the mountainside above Chora, the capital of Amorgos, with Astypalaia island in the distance
The Aegean seen from the mountainside above Chora, the capital of Amorgos, with Astypalaia island in the distance © Robbie Lawrence
A fisherman mending nets at Xilokeratidi harbour
A fisherman mending nets at Xilokeratidi harbour © Robbie Lawrence

My own paradise is the easternmost island of the Cyclades, the mountainous Amorgos. After a windy night on the hard floor of the deck, the ferry draws slowly into the island’s natural southern port of Katapola. Ahead the mountains loom, their peaks obscured by a thin mist. Amorgos resembles a giant dragon in repose, its spine 32km in length, ranging from the southern tip of Kalotaritissa to the 820m-high summit of Krokolos in the north. The western stretch is made up of low inlets and bays, while the east is one vertiginous, wind-battered cliff.

Katapola and its northern counterpart Aegiali are the two largest settlements. Breaking up a harsh expanse of hills and ridges between them are a few smatterings of villages that, on mistier days, when the sky dissolves into the rocks, appear suspended by the winds. The largest is Chora, the island’s capital. In the Hellenic and Roman eras, island towns were built closer to sea level. But with the dark ages came pirates and invaders, and settlements moved into the hills.

Sunrise at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa
Sunrise at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa © Robbie Lawrence
An early-morning shot of local flora in Chora
An early-morning shot of local flora in Chora © Robbie Lawrence
Aimilios Sarapoglou, a performing artist/dancer who holidays on Amorgos every year
Aimilios Sarapoglou, a performing artist/dancer who holidays on Amorgos every year © Robbie Lawrence

Feet on dry land at last, I stumble a few hundred metres along the port to the Pension Amorgos, old Kyria Maria’s place. My top-floor room, with its alcove bed and pistachio- and violet-painted shutters, is modestly sized, but has an enormous, whitewashed terrace looking out over the water. I wake to the tap of mast wires from the sailboats that have moored overnight, and the laughter of children as they cycle up and down the port.

Katapola is full of family-run guest houses, surviving thanks to the scarcity of luxury hotel developments. Amorgos offers its own singular brand of luxury in the form of Vorina Ktismata, a boutique hotel that crouches low in the hills on the edge of Chora. Its elemental architecture is indistinguishable from the rest of the medieval village, but its interiors are cutting-edge, with large windows looking out over the expanse of rock and sea. Airbnb hasn’t caught on here with the same voracity as on other islands, but a number of houses are available to rent, replete with antique furniture, lace curtains and complimentary psimeni raki, the sickly-sweet local liquor.

Athlete Nektaria Ntasiou at the Amorgos Diving Centre
Athlete Nektaria Ntasiou at the Amorgos Diving Centre © Robbie Lawrence
The 4th-century BC tower of Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity), named after a nearby Byzantine church
The 4th-century BC tower of Ayia Triada (Holy Trinity), named after a nearby Byzantine church © Robbie Lawrence
A bather at Agia Anna, a rocky inlet that is a popular swimming spot
A bather at Agia Anna, a rocky inlet that is a popular swimming spot © Robbie Lawrence

Thanks to Instagram, we all have a notion of the quintessential Cycladic village: white sugar-cube houses, royal-blue domes and lashings of hot-pink bougainvillea. Strip this down, remove the frills, and you have the Chora of Amorgos. After the 10-minute drive from Katapola, and the same number of hairpin bends, I struggle not to stall my rented Fiat Panda as I park on a steep slope beside the town hall. Outside, groups of young Greeks in identikit bandanas and Birkenstocks wait for the lumbering bus that ferries them along the island’s three roads. Behind them the mountains fade into one another, disappearing in a sherbet haze.

Girls fix their windswept hair in the pharmacy window before disappearing past the church into the village, where the main drag, less than 2m in diameter, snakes up, forking left and right along narrow stairwells, packed tight with spindly tables. As the sun goes down, the walls seem to close in, and the warmth of the day emanates from buildings and bodies. I head out of the narrow streets – where social distancing is near impossible – to Arbaroriza, a restaurant in a small square on the edge of the village. Above, a line of squat, wind-battered windmills stud a dramatic ridge that extends north, overlooking the seething waves far below.

One of the derelict windmills above Chora
One of the derelict windmills above Chora © Robbie Lawrence
Local resident Frank, a German artist
Local resident Frank, a German artist © Robbie Lawrence
Chora at sunset
Chora at sunset © Robbie Lawrence

To this day, there has not been a single case of coronavirus reported on Amorgos. Curfew and gathering restrictions imposed on islands such as Mykonos when cases spiked in August seem unimaginable here. But that’s not to say locals were oblivious to risks. Earlier that day I overheard a group of older islanders tut-tutting during their morning swim about the crowds of young people in Chora. Tourists on Amorgos are chiefly French or Italian, with the odd German here and there. This year they are scarce but, despite the pandemic, the island is full of young Greeks on university break or annual leave. 

“I like the outsiders; they are more calm,” says Iliana, who runs Arbaroriza. “Greeks are loud,” she laughs. Born in northern Greece, Iliana first visited Amorgos when her elder sister was working in a restaurant for the summer season. She began working summers herself, and fell in love with her now husband, Markos, the son of a local farmer. Iliana cooks with local products, but embellishes with a little more spice, a nod to her grandmother’s Turkish heritage. The dishes are simple: baked feta and homemade peach jam; grilled pork and unreasonably crisp potatoes; and the ambiguous “chickpeas in the oven”, a local staple that melts in your mouth and hums with the flavours of a hundred unidentifiable herbs.

Katerina, the owner of Moonbar in Xilokeratidi
Katerina, the owner of Moonbar in Xilokeratidi © Robbie Lawrence
The mountainside above Chora at sunset
The mountainside above Chora at sunset © Robbie Lawrence

The lack of development on Amorgos coupled with its hostile climate make for an abundance of uniquely potent herbs that grow on the mountainsides. A few businesses harvest wild sage, mint, oregano and thyme, creating packaged teas and essential oils to sell across Greece. Just off the port-front of Katapola, through a low archway, is the Amorgos Botanical Park and bar, set up by two young locals on the site of an old junkyard. Under the shade of plum and orange trees, Marios waters his tomatoes as he points out the herb varieties labelled and planted around the edge of the garden. His friend Rosa makes me a Gin Basil Smash with wild mint. In the evenings, Marios and his partner organise live music nights and film screenings under the trees.

I planned to return for a concert by a jazz trio, but got caught up at the Moonbar Katerina in Xilokeratidi, the village on the opposite side of the bay from Katapola. Beneath the old Almiriki tree, with its spindly branches and salt-caked leaves, sit the tanned hordes, fresh from the sea. Picking at dakos salads and sipping from brown bottles of Mamos beer, they watch the boats sway off the shore and fishermen detangle nets all afternoon long. The loudest table is that of Katerina, the landlady, who first sailed to Amorgos in 1991, looking to start a new life far from the land-locked village where she grew up. Surrounded by her young patrons, she recounts the bar’s origin story, her brown elbows flapping, long sand-coloured hair flying about her shoulders.

A stray cat at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa
A stray cat at the Monastery of Hozoviotissa © Robbie Lawrence
An Athens musician who tours the island during the summer
An Athens musician who tours the island during the summer © Robbie Lawrence

When Katerina arrived on the island at the age of 24, she was viewed as an outsider, and a threat to the status quo. For weeks she sat alone in her bar with no custom, until Captain Michalis, a formidable old fisherman and pillar of the community, wandered in. Her voice cracks with emotion as she recalls how the captain used to knock on her window to wake her up in the morning to make his coffee. He came every morning for seven years, and the day he didn’t, she knew he’d died.

Despite that frosty reception, Katerina respected the unwritten rules that govern the island. She explains that customs here are rooted in tradition, in the land, the sea and the church, not in politics or ideology. As the sun sets, its red reach smouldering on the horizon, Katerina beckons me inside and pours us each an unidentified concoction, covers the glasses and slams them against the bar. We toast, and she promises me more stories on my return. I ask what we just drank, and she replies, “You’ll feel it in an hour.”

Rosa, a bartender at Amorgos Botanical Park
Rosa, a bartender at Amorgos Botanical Park © Robbie Lawrence
Chora seen from the site of an ancient Minoan settlement
Chora seen from the site of an ancient Minoan settlement © Robbie Lawrence

Above Katapola looms a hill on whose summit once sat an ancient Minoan settlement, believed to be King Minos’s summer palace in the days when Amorgos was under Cretan rule. A single track snakes up the hill, from the top of which you see the western coast unfurl, its southern point faint in the distance. Apart from some rusting fences and a trestle table laden with pottery fragments, there is nothing to indicate the historical significance of the site. The crumbling walls, once a mighty complex of baths, temples and halls, are abandoned to the elements. To one side of the structure lie two enormous marble steps, leading up to a statue of Apollo. Only the sweeping robes of the sun god’s lower half remain. But as the sun beats down it’s easy to picture the steps gleaming white and new again, pillars and roof restored to shelter the lonely figure.

Over an eye-wateringly sweet confection of nuts, honey and pastry, I ask Popi Despotidi, the island’s deputy mayor for culture and tourism, about preservation of the ancient sites. She explains that among locals there’s a laissez-faire attitude towards remains of civilisations past. Those who do care are powerless to take action. Greece’s antiquities are managed by regional Ephorates, which are in turn overseen by a central office in Athens. Despotidi and her colleagues have had multiple meetings in the capital, but the pandemic scuttled any plans for archaeological surveyance.

The best preserved historical site on the island is the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, an architectural feat built into the cliff face 300m above the sea. Constructed in 1017 by a Byzantine emperor, the bright white structure is only visible from the sea, suspended between the water and sky like some surrealist dream. After 320 steps, I reach the entrance, where a local volunteer leads me further up a narrow tunnel-staircase into an antechamber whose walls are obscured by icons of Greek orthodox saints. Up another flight is the chapel itself, an Aladdin’s cave of gilt and gold. One display case is full of Casio watches. I look inquiringly at my guide. “Offerings,” he says simply. A small door leads to a tiny terrace, the view from which is sun-bleached; stepping out, I’m blinded by the high white walls and dazzle of the Aegean. The blue is endless, its aspect always shifting as though a wall of water were thundering towards me.

An abandoned car on the road between Katapola and Chora
An abandoned car on the road between Katapola and Chora © Robbie Lawrence
The line of old windmills above Chora
The line of old windmills above Chora © Robbie Lawrence

I leave as quickly as is polite and drive the steep descent to Agia Anna, a rocky inlet beneath the monastery, and a popular swimming spot among locals and nudists. From above I see the tanned bodies sprawled across the rocks, arms and feet protruding here and there from caves and boltholes offering precious centimetres of shade. A group of girls swim to an islet a few hundred metres out, climb to its highest point and issue siren calls to the boys perched above the rocky beach.

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This is what we all longed for, back in the suffocating heat and fumes of the Athens night: hours slinking lizard-like from sea to rock and back until the sun disappeared behind the cliffs and the island’s eastern shore was thrown into shade. As long as you can stare uninterrupted into the blue with the sun warm on your back, which island you choose is academic. Paradise is in the depth of the sea, the height of the rocks, the strength of the winds, and how far you are from home. 

Ferries travel to Katapola from Piraeus on the mainland and Mykonos (directferries.com). Pension Amorgos, one of many family-run rooms in Katapola, has double rooms at €80 a night (pension-amorgos.com). Vorina Ktismata in Chora has similar rooms and suites with kitchens for €210-310 (vorinaktismata.com). Larger properties, such as Tsalikas in Chora, are available to rent through Airbnb.

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