“You’re going where?” friends asked when we told them about our house-sit on a Greek island. “Never heard of it.”
That’s what we love most about Andros. That it’s secluded and isolated—particularly in November.
This tiny rocky island in the northernmost region of the Cyclades is quiet at this time of year. So quiet, in fact, that goats sit in the middle of main roads, fully aware they won’t see a car for a while. The sky is brilliant blue, aromas of wild thyme drift across fields filled with abundant purple heather, and ripe olives drop like raindrops from the trees. It’s the perfect time to visit.
Andros is home to approximately 9,000 inhabitants, and measures 40 by 16 kilometers – a smidgeon smaller than Malta, but with 42,000 fewer people. There are no shopping centres, no theatres, no wild party scene, and not many shops.
Instead, there are goats. Hundreds of them. And stray cats peeking from rubbish bins. And steep, narrow roads winding like snakes through craggy mountain ridges, often with no guardrails. And hiking trails that go on for miles, meandering past stone walls, up sharp inclines, through enormous fields of olive trees and prickly, wild thyme.
And views. Spectacular vistas across tiny harbours, shimmering water and lush, sprawling valleys. From routes along rocky coastlines plummeting hundreds of feet, to dirt paths winding down the mountains ending at tiny, deserted beaches.
On clear days, you can see layer after layer of distant islands dotting the horizon, and on stormy afternoons, steely grey clouds race across the sky, and lightning punctuates the sky with fiery flashes.
In summertime, we’re told, it’s a different story. The population swells to 34,000 – mostly Greeks visiting from the mainland – and the tiny seaside town of Batsi becomes clogged with traffic and tourists. But it’s a far cry from the hordes of Santorini or Corfu, where more than 100 boats cross from Greece every day. In Andros, there are less than a dozen, and they only come from the port of Rafina. Why? Because the island is home to many of Greece’s wealthy shipping magnates who restrict boat passages in order to preserve the island’s quiet charm. It’s the second largest island in the archipelago (after Naxos), the closest to mainland Greece (two hours by ferry from Rafina), yet one of the least touristed.
It also has water, so much that some gets bottled for export to the mainland as Sariza mineral water. And the lush, green hillsides are sprinkled with cypress trees and the islands’signature white houses, complete with azure blue shutters.
Once the holidaymakers pack up for the summer, so does the island. Businesses close for the winter, so there’s only a handful of restaurants serving food. It’s the time locals love best. Roads are empty (we rarely saw more than five cars on half-hour drives), and the pace moves as slowly as Greek honey. Many days we strolled the marble-paved pedestrian street of the beautiful capital, Chora (population 4,000) and were the only visitors in local cafes. And in the tiny port of Gavrio (population less than 1,000), there were usually more cats than people.
While there may not be much going on, there are 300 kilometers to be explored. On foot. In 2015, the European Ramblers’ Association granted Andros’ hiking paths the title of “Leading quality trails – Best of Europe”. More than 25 trails crisscross the island – once stone-paved trails which were the main routes of commerce, communication, and transportation between the villages. There’s even an epic, ten-day 100 kilometer tour of the entire island that crosses the mountain range for intrepid folk ready to take on a challenge.
We walked some of the paths, following the ever-present red and blue route markers, and were treated to surprises every time: stone bridges, ancient ruins, gorgeous sea views, and Byzantine monasteries. One time, we bumped into a jovial Greek wearing a threadbare sweater who came over to chat and gave us pieces of chocolate for the hike. He introduced himself as the local priest. Another time we found ourselves surrounded by 16 cats, that curled around our ankles mewing for morsels of the cat food we carried.
And everywhere we went, people were welcoming, warm and generous. Restaurateurs gave us free desserts, tastes of their signature garlic salad, and complimentary glasses of tsipouro (the signature anise-flavoured brandy, similar to grappa). Shop owners stopped to chat. Strangers waved and greeted us with a cheery Yassas!
One of our new English friends who’s lived on Andros twelve years summed it up. “The first time I stepped off the ferry, I felt the stress roll away. And whenever we leave, we can’t wait to come back. There’s something haunting about the place. Each time we return to Andros I keep thinking the magic will have gone. But it never does.”