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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | GREECE

Isle of Tranquillity

Little-Known Folegandros Island Is a Peaceful Oasis Where Greek Life Is Still Conducted in the Old Ways

April 19, 1998|SANDY MCCULLOCH | Sandy McCulloch is writing a book on the Cyclades Islands titled "A Glass of Water When We Are Old." He lives in Oregon

The ferry reaches Folegandros late on a cool October evening. The harbor, however, is simply a cluster of hotels, tavernas and summer homes with a winter population of perhaps five people. My destination is Folegandros Chora, a town that began as a fortified hilltop village built by the Venetians after the Crusade of 1204.

A small, crowded bus jolts its way from the harbor to the edge of a very dark, still village at the top of the hill. It is well after 8 p.m., and we grope our way down-slope perhaps 100 yards through narrow, dark lanes; we round a corner and--a brilliantly lit movie set! No, a village square so perfectly beautiful that the travel-weary mind at first cannot grasp the scene.

An acetylene-bright string of naked light bulbs stretches across the square. There are churches, new and old. An old man with a white mustache turns meat on an outdoor charcoal grill. Several other men are sitting at a cafe, and a flood of happy conversation pours out of a taverna. People come and go across the square.

In the morning I find a complex of three interlocking squares shaded by pepper and acacia and locust trees, lanes fanning out through rows of brightly painted homes and, towering over the town, a large white monastery on a mountainside.

*

Folegandros (pronounced pho-lay-gan-dross) is a beautiful, rough, wild island, about seven miles long, on the southern edge of the Greek Cyclades Islands. It lies about 30 miles northwest of Santorini, its more famous neighbor island. In the spring and fall, Folegandros is a lovely world. No cruise ships call here. There are no imposing Greek ruins. Psychological stress cannot be maintained; it is too quiet. In the summer it becomes hot and crowded for such a small place, but it is still a peaceful oasis compared to the more heavily toured islands of Mykonos or Santorini.

It is exactly this tranquillity that brings travelers to Folegandros. Like many people, on my first visits to Greece, I fell in love with well-known Paros and was overwhelmed by the physical beauty of Santorini. On later trips, however, I searched for less commercial places, where traditional Greek village life still exists. I found what I was looking for on Folegandros--a beautiful island with rocky beaches that is a wonderful place to spend a few days just walking, reading or simply sitting in the village square. There is not much else to do. This is a subsistence farming and fishing island, where about 600 residents still conduct much of life in the old ways. Instead of crowds, trendy restaurants and clubs, travelers to Folegandros make do with the company of kind, friendly islanders, excellent traditional food and nights filled with stars.

In his book "The Greek Islands," Lawrence Durrell suggests that the Greek village square has not changed much since ancient times. It has always contained the threshing floor, perhaps the prototype of the first theater, the bakery, the village spring, the cafe and, I would add, in more modern times, the taverna and the church. The squares of Folegandros have few variations on this theme: The bakery happens to be a block away from the main square, and a community water tap replaces the spring.

The main town on a Greek island is called the chora (pronounced HOR-a) and Folegandros' Chora sits on the edge of a cliff that drops away 600 feet to the sea. As it grew larger over the centuries, the Chora gradually spilled down the slope. It now houses several hundred people, and at its center are the three connecting squares. A few small hotels have sprung up around the periphery of the village in recent years, but in October of 1989, on my first of many trips to this wonderfully provincial town, I could see no services other than those for the local Greeks. Electricity came to Folegandros only in 1976; television arrived recently and does not yet seem intrusive.

There is one police officer on Folegandros. I ask Anne Papadopoulos, a Danish sociologist who runs the island's Cycladic School--featuring art, cooking and dancing classes--with her Greek husband, what the policeman's job entails. "What does he do? Oh, let's see, what does he do? Well, there's no crime on Folegandros . . . . Oh, yes! He checks the prices in the stores. The prices are regulated."

On another trip--this one in April--I discover that Folegandros is a springtime paradise. When I use this word with anyone on a beautiful morning, not the slightest blink of skepticism is expressed.

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