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Destination: Greece : THE SPARTAN LIFE : What the Rugged Cyclades Island of Anafi Lacks in Creature Comforts, It Makes Up for in Simple Greek Pleasures

July 24, 1994|BARBARA QUICK | Quick is an Oakland-based author ("Northern Edge") who is working on a novel set in Hungary and Romania

ANAFI, Greece — At first sighting, the Greek island of Anafi is nothing more than a naked rock jutting out of the sea with what looks like a dusting of snow at the bottom and over the top. But as our ferry from Athens drew closer, we watched the snow break apart and recompose itself into buildings. The ships' crew members were bleary-eyed and impatient after a 12-hour overnight passage. They herded The Aegean's 40-odd passengers--quite a crowd, we thought, considering the island's diminutive size--below decks , and we disembarked in a miasma of diesel fumes alongside young Italians and Greeks with their motorcycles and backpacks, trucks loaded with watermelons and cars stuffed with clothes. Standing on the wharf, to our left we saw a handful of whitewashed cafes trimmed in blue and, to our right at the water's edge, fishermen sorting out their nets at Anafi's little port of Agios Nikolaos.

We arrived in August of last year after hearing about the island from a UC Berkeley archeology professor, Stephen Miller, an expert on Greece who had described Anafi as the most appealing and least known of the Greek isles. The furthest inhabited island in the southern Cyclades group, Anafi, Miller reported, had beautiful beaches and even some interesting ruins.

Having spent two long, hot weeks in the Peloponessus, where my husband, John, was videotaping the excavation at Nemea, one of the four original sites of the Panhellenic Games, we were looking forward to relaxing and recovering. We knew little about what to expect in Anafi--guidebooks barely mention the island--and had no way of signaling ahead to book a room. Just 14 square miles in size, the island is the last port of call twice a week for the ferry from Athens and has little in the way of accommodations.

But an island away from the hordes of sun-worshippers, tourist hotels and nightclubs was just what we had in mind. We craved a stripped-down version of island life: simple food, cheap accommodations, silent, starry nights and the opportunity to live among Greeks in an environment not exclusively geared to foreign tourists. Ironically, Anafi sits just 12 nautical miles east of one of Greece's most visited isles, Santorini, where cruise ships unload passengers en masse during the summer.

Anafi is not yet on the American tourist circuit--most of the people who vacation here are Greek, although we also met Italians and a handful of French- and German-speakers, a few misinformed Irish bicyclists (there are no bike trails) and a couple of Swedes. Unfortunately, when it came to quickly snagging Anafi's few lodgings, most of these people were better prepared than we were. After being deposited ashore, we made the mistake of lingering at the beach rather than aggressively making inquiries in the port or taking the bus to the island's upper village, where the bulk of Anafi's rooms are found. As a result, we found ourselves facing the prospect of sleeping on the beach until the next boat arrived in four days.

With our son Julian, then only 9 months old, in tow, I was on the verge of panic when we ran across a summer resident, an Irish woman named Edel who took pity on us and found us a room at the house of Anafi's Greek Orthodox priest. "It's nothing fancy," Edel told us in her pleasant brogue, "but you'll have a roof over your heads."

There is only one village on Anafi, split into two parts. In addition to the handful of buildings at the port, a more substantial collection of homes, public buildings and businesses, called the Hora, is perched high on the cliffs overlooking the lapis lazuli-colored Aegean Sea. Called the Hora, the upper village can be reached by a bus that runs two or three times a day (depending on how energetic the driver is feeling) or a footpath consisting of a series of precipitous switchbacks that can be negotiated in about 40 minutes if you're unencumbered and in very good shape.

The Hora's main street is an interconnected series of steps and pathways traveled by tourists and donkeys and toothless old ladies swaddled in black. We passed two "mini-markets," which were nothing more than holes in the wall, a bakery, a school and several cafes before reaching the home of the priest.

The house was built into the side of the hill in a series of terraces. To reach our room, we walked down to the lowest level, past the mangers where the donkeys and chickens were housed. The only difference between our room and theirs seemed to be the straw on the floor. The bottom terrace was bordered by grapevines and had a spectacular ocean view.

Edel asked the priest, in Greek, how much we would be paying per day for our room. "Two thousand (drachmas, equal to about $8)," she relayed to us. "That's really rock bottom."

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