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Gavdos Island, Greece: Timeless, Wild and Free

Sarenenko Beach

Sarenenko Beach, Gavdos Island

In Agia Roumeli, I spent countless hours staring across the Libyan Sea at the mysterious Gavdos Island.  I wondered what was there.  And now, finally, I am here to discover Europe’s southernmost point.

On the ferry, I am the only solo female, accompanied by many Greek men, unfortunately not one of which resembles a Greek statue.  Most are past middle age, round in the middle and talk so loudly and fast that one wonders how their tongues don’t get tied in a knot.  Or one wishes that they would.

I read a website explaining that I would need to catch public transportation upon arrival.  As the ferry, carrying a mere twenty people, pulls into the tiny harbor, I observe one bus waiting.  This is no Manhattan transit system, my friends.  The one bus reads “Gavdos Coach” and its driver looks more like a Jimmy Buffett devotee than a professional, his ragged straw hat shadowing bright blue eyes and one button straining to keep his shirt closed around his plump middle.  Seven people board, a red-headed solo male and three couples.  There is no announcement about our direction but I sense it doesn’t much matter. I am heading for Agios Ioannis Beach — from what I can gather one of the prettiest beaches. We leave the port on the island’s only asphalt road, constructed four years ago, and a sign of progress that many despise.

We stop at Sarenenko, a long beach with a grocery store and several tavernas and most get off here.  The beach is empty of people.  It’s just past noon and I conclude that people must be inside to avoid scorching.  We continue on, and I note how covered in vegetation this island is in comparison to the south of Crete.  Here, gnarled juniper trees and twisted low-lying pines cover the dry, cracked and sandy land.  It was the ancestors of these very juniper trees that provided the oil for ancient Egypt’s mummification rituals.  King Tut was likely wrapped in the oil from Gavdos’ junipers.

Walking to Agios Ioannis Beach

Walking to Agios Ioannis Beach to look for a camping spot.

Shortly, we arrive at Agios Ioannis.  I disembark having no clue where I’m going.  I carry the tent my ego purchased last year for this very trip.  You see, this is the second tent I’ve purchased since beginning my world tour and I have slept in a tent exactly zero nights.  But that doesn’t stop me from believing that I am the type of woman who will easily stake my tent and enjoy it.  I’m told that camping is not only free but encouraged on Gavdos, so this is the opportunity my ego has been waiting for!

And so, with an overloaded large backpack, a small backpack, and my tent I follow two others toward the sea and alongside it, traversing over sharp and jagged rocks and then sand.  There are markers which I conclude will guide me to the perfect spot where camping will seem delightful and a genie will erect my never-unfolded tent with ease.  But alas, after trudging in the blazing hot sand for a punishing hour looking for a perfect sheltered spot, I am defeated.  Like Goldilocks, this one is too big, that too small, but unlike Goldilocks, nothing seems just right.  Sweat drips down my back like a waterfall.  It’s oddly windless, and the sun punishes me for my folly.  I sit under an ancient juniper and consider my situation while watching the neon-blue Libyan Sea sparkle as if there is no problem.  Maybe I can get a hotel room for one night.  Then, tomorrow I will be the camper I think I am. This is a good solution, I decide.

And so I trudge back up the path, my shoes filling again with molten sand and arrive at Sofia’s Rooms with a crimson face and wet hair. She has a room.  I hear angels sing.  But it costs twice what I would like to pay.  It’s only one night, I reason, so I agree.

Entering the room, my feet are released from their sandy coffins and I delight in the cold tile beneath them.  The crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows call me and I am soon in a delicious cool slumber.

Sunset on Gavdos Island

Sunset on Gavdos Island

When I wake I walk to a local taverna where I have a “frappe” coffee.  Now, this is where I would like to discuss the Greek love affair with God-awful Nescafe Instant Coffee.  It seems unfathomable that a country aware of the delicious, deep and robust qualities of Greek coffee would so loyally prefer the abhorrent Nescafe instant coffee which is insipid and bitter with a cloying aftertaste.  But they do.  The frappe’ was invented by a Greek Nestle employee in 1957 and its popularity has grown since then. I can only surmise that millions and millions of dollars in advertising has led to the brainwashing. So, my frappe, made of course, with Nescafe instant coffee was God-awful.  They are every time.  But I keep trying.  There is little choice.

My frappe is followed by a Greek Salad made with sea-faring vegetables as few crops can be grown on Gavdos because of the lack of rain (the average precipitation is far less than an inch a year).

The next day I am determined to make it to Agios Ioannis Beach which has in recent times been written about as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Following the same path as I did on my camping-site-scouting mission, I pass numerous campsites which are nearly hidden.  Due to the fierce wind and sun, it is imperative to have protection from both and so the ideal spots are inside a circle of junipers or pines with a rock wall built up on the north side for wind protection.  It is clear that some folks have been here for awhile with constructed furniture and canopies, clotheslines and Nepalese prayer flags.  Now, I see Nepalese prayer flags as a sign that white people with dreadlocks are in the vicinity and I discover that I am not incorrect.  There seems to be a disproportionally high number of those people here.  And other eccentrics.  But I’ll get to that.  This article explains some of it.

Agios Ioannis Beach

Agios Ioannis Beach

When I arrive at the beach I find that the few people there are entirely naked.  And why not, really?  Having been through the fire last year, burning off 44 years of puritanical American conditioning, I am ready for this.  My clothes come off, and with nobody around to care, it feels delightful.  The sun is intense but a delicate wind mimics a light blanket being pulled over me repeatedly so exposure does not feel so — exposed.  You know that expression “Shove it where the sun don’t shine”?  I am now immune to that expression as the sun has shown everywhere.  My albino skin, as white as a marble, quickly takes on a kiss of pink.

After two hours of turning like a rotisserie chicken, I am done.  I head up the dunes and set up under a cypress tree to read. And by “read” I mean fall into a half-sleep with book in hand. And by “half-sleep” I mean that lovely place of being where you are aware that you are resting and hearing is improved and you can observe your mind spinning and spinning and spinning with fragments of thoughts spinning off by centrifugal force and floating away like clouds.

As I walk back, there are no sounds except for the sea and the cicadas.  The sound of cicadas always makes me feel uneasy.  Their song is a dead and lonely one best suited as the opening track for a horror movie.  But besides them, I believe this is the quietest place I’ve ever been.

But it has not always been this way.

Beetle tracks

Beetle tracks in the sand.

Gavdos has a rich and sordid history.  Recent finds have included tools that are dated all the way back to the Paleolithic Period (100,000 years ago).  Plentiful archeological evidence shows the island being inhabited since at least the 4th millennium BC.  There is still much to be discovered.

For the mythology nerds, Gavdos is thought to be “Ogygia” where Odysseus (aka Ulysses) shipwrecked and was captured by the nymph Calypso who held him prisoner for seven years.

In the Bible, (Acts 27) the island is called “Claude” and St. Paul ran aground here whilst being taken to Rome to be tried during Roman persecutions.

The Romans were here between the 1st and 4th Century A.D. and built a mine for iron ore as well as deforested the island.  Good one Romans.  The erosion that began then continues now.

Later, Arabian pirates ruled having captured all the residents and sold them as slaves.

The population peaked during the Byzantine period (approximately 1200 A.D.) when some 8000 people lived here.

From the 1600’s to 1895, the Turkish controlled the island and the population dropped to only 500.

In the 1930’s Communists were exiled here.

Gavdos Snail House

Gavdos Snail House

Today, it’s year-round population is said to be under 200 people, however, there are literally countless people in hiding.  The population count does not include many who have left their previous identities behind to live in simplicity and anonymity. Like the Russian scientists who escaped Chernobyl to set up camp here where they work on becoming immortal.  The place seems to attract an eclectic crowd and it’s understandable.  It feels a world away from the world. And yet here is is, right smack in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, just 165 miles from the shores of Libya, 420 miles from Alexandria, Egypt, and 270 miles to the shores of Turkey, making it an island of strategic importance so much so that in 1996, the then ex-President George Bush came to stomp his cowboy foot (along with a then-retired Colin Powell), explaining that the visit was for relaxation, although it just happened to coincide with Turkish suggestions that the island might be their territory.  How ’bout a li’l Texas-style intimidation for y’all Turks?  The Turkish dropped the idea after that.

In the evening I watch the full moon, golden and bright rise over the mountains.  Simultaneously, in the west, the sky is brilliant pink as the sun sets, its arms like a lavender jellyfish sweeping across the sky.  Quite lovely. And then stars sparkle purely, their intensity washed out by only the moon.

Marble left behind.

Marble left behind.

Today, I walked from Agios Ioannis to Sarakinikos to buy some food.  The walk revealed how desolate this island remains. Fragments of ancient stone terraces and walls can be seen. Evidently, once these terraces were filled with figs, grapes, and olive trees. A few newly-constructed houses sit empty with nobody to enjoy their ocean view.

As I approach the beach I am beckoned by a small altar which is dedicated to the Saints Kostadinos and Eleni. It’s clean white exterior contrasts sharply with the blue sea. Inside, I place a marble as I have done in remote places throughout the world.

I see one person on the beach.  My shoes, again so filled with sand that my toes curl under, become more hindrance than help. I remove them and walk along the shore which is piled with seaweed that resembles strip-shredded paper.

I arrive at a taverna longing for a coffee, only to find their specialty is…Nescafe frappe.

Some describe Gavdos as paradise.  My idea of paradise is more lush, wet and colorful.  But if I had Attention Deficit Disorder and needed to write a book, wanted to retreat, hide, run from the law, or needed quiet above all else, then yes, it would be paradise.  For me, it feels like a place where I would quickly lose touch with reality.  The heat alone is too much.  And it’s June, not August.

How long it will stay in this undeveloped state, who knows?  History suggests there are more changes on the horizon.

My intention yesterday was to walk further.  And the following day the same.  But in a matter of days it all seems rather futile.  Nothing seems to matter much.  The cicadas keep singing their lonely song.  And my tent never does get put up.  And time keeps slipping by.  On timeless Gavdos Island.

 

Book a hotel on Gavdos Island

12 Comments

  1. Very nice story thanks for the pictures I am planning this month to visit this island and to enjoy in freedom alone. How is it in June? Is it crowded?

    • I’ve only been there in late May and it was not crowded at all. I can’t imagine that it ever gets crowded because it is so difficult to get to. Have a good trip!

  2. Love your writing as always, it is stellar. That is on BIG sand Beatle.

  3. What an amazing place with an incredible history! Love the photos!

  4. Gotta admit Laura, this place sounds really nice. Never been to Greece and want to start by walking Corfu. Now I have another destination. When? Who knows.

    I always carry my coffee with me. In Pamplona (where I am now) you can geta bag of 28 little one cup satchets for less the 3 Euros – just drop one in the hot water. Maybe they something similar there too.

    • Thanks for reading Ted. There are lots of trails on Gavdos too which I didn’t cover because I didn’t walk them. The sun was just too oppressive for me. Crete also has incredible trails – including the European long-distance trail. Good coffee tip.

  5. Wow…I just love reading your blog and those pictures are amazing. Be safe and have a wonderful time 🙂

  6. Another super enjoyable blog, Laura! Not until I saw on Bear’s fb channel that you took off for this trip did I check my email and find this blog. Your storytelling is such an enjoyable one….I love your writing talents. Yes, we travelers need to take off every few months….I’m the same. Greece is on my short list. Thanks for a wonderful blog!!! 🙂

    • Thanks Linda! Thanks for reading and commenting. Greece is wonderful!

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