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Ioulis: Capital of Kea

Ioulida, Kea, ViewTo call Kea's main village of Ioulis 'unspoiled' is not entirely accurate. It is spoiled in a way. Kea was discovered by the artist Fasianos and he paved the way for an army of artists who followed him here. Then one of Greece's many millionaires built a house on the island which of course caused all the other Greek millionaires to want one here as well. This got the attention of anyone in Athens who had money to spend on an island house only two hours away from Greece's capital. In that sense it became like an Hydra for yuppies and middle-class Athenians who flood the island in the summer and warm weekends. Except in Hydra you can't build any more houses and in Kea entire neighborhoods are springing up on barren pieces of property. But in Ioulis where you can only restore and people must leave their cars at the entrance of the town, life is pretty much the way it has always been. So while on other islands you have to be vigilant and prepared to jump out of the way of speeding motorcycles piloted by sunburned tourists, in this main town in the center of the island you are safe and can relax. However you need to be alert so you don't get knocked over by the occasional passing donkey on one of the narrow back streets. Since the village is mostly made up of steps, all building material has to be brought up by donkeys and there is always some construction going on though with everything done by hand you probably won't hear it.

Ioulida, KeaThe town is really pretty spectacular and looks like a Pueblo village sitting on the slope of a couple mountains. You can wander around the streets and alleyways for hours and become completely lost in the jumble of streets and steps, or you can hang out in the relative security of several village squares, each one with restaurants and cafes, peopled by locals and Athenians and the occasional ambitious tourist on his way to see the smiling Lion. The influx of Athenian yuppies has its downside of course but on the bright side you can now get a pretty decent cappuccino at several cafes in the village which for some members of my household is necessary for survival. As the island becomes more popular I expect more cafes and restaurants will open up as people with ties to the island or visitors who fall in love with the island realize the potential and come up with a plan to secure their own survival.
Ioulis, Kea, Cyclades, Greece When you arrive in Ioulis the bus or taxi drops you off at the first square outside the gate of the town. Well it is more of a parking lot for the taxis and buses than a square but there is a cafe there and it is a great place to watch the sun set over the Cava d Oro the body of water that separates Kea from Attika and Athens. It is the resting place of the Britannic, the sister-ship of the Titanic which sank on a bright sunny day during WW.I when it hit a mine while serving as a hospital ship. This was the subject of a pretty bad made-for-TV movie that I was not quite able to get through despite my fascination with the subject. But if you can forget that this first platia is a parking lot (easy to do because only the bus and taxis park here and they are always busy) and order a drink and a snack from the cafe, you can take a picture as nice as this one or better. There is also a bank and a pharmacy here and even a couple tourist shops. If you think of Ioullis as a walled fortress city, which it is in a way, this is the entrance. If you have a vehicle, unless you are delivering something, you can go no further and even if you are, unless you are a very talented driver there is not much chance of you making it through the narrow passageway.
Yannis, Piatsa, KeaAs you walk through the archway you come to the small square known as the Piatsa and there is a small restaurant here which serves good food which is also called The Piatsa. Sadly, the legendary restaurant in the village called Argiris, has closed it's doors and is certainly missed. But the Piatsa Restaurant, also known as Yannis in the Piatsa, though small, is a great place to eat lunch or dinner and after a few glasses of their excellent wine, who cares about Argiris? Especially good (excellent actually) is their arni lemonato (lamb cooked in lemon) and their moscari (beef in tomato sauce). Great spaghetti too in case you have kids who have not embraced Greek cooking yet. Yannis is the owner, a terrific cook, and he makes the best cheese omelets and strapatsa (like scrambled eggs with cheese and tomato) I have ever eaten. In the off-season this is the coziest place on the island to have a nice meal and drink a little tsipuro and a couple liters of wine to pass the day. Often Mavromatis, the butcher, is holding court in the corner table, with people talking loudly and sometimes singing too. There is a cafe in the Piatsa as well and it is a fun place to sit and watch the little kids from the elementary school heading up to the main part of the village, especially if you have a kid or are a kid yourself. There is also a Pandapoleio which is a store that sells everything owned by Maria who speaks excellent English as well as several gift shops in the stegadi, the covered passageway that is the entrance to the village.
Kea, KastroIf you go towards your left you will come to the Kastro of the town, the oldest section with the ancient fortifications and acropolis and the remains of the Venetian wall. This was most likely the site of the temple to Apollo. Further below in the area which was once the ancient agora there are seats carved in stone and the chuch of Agia Paraskevis built inside a cave. There is also an old hotel on the rock with a restaurant and amazing views but it has been closed for years and who knows if it will ever re-open. The story is that it was owned by an old couple who rarely answered their phones or took reservations and finally left owing the town millions of drachma in back rent. If you are planning to stay in Ioulis this would be the place to be and hopefully one day it will be a hotel again. Like any high point in the village the views are spectacular whether you are looking across the island to the mainland or at the rest of the village on the adjoining hillside. This former hotel now serves as the temporary elementary school. If my elementary school had such a view I would have been an even worse student as unimaginable as that may sound to my former teachers. Strangely enough some of the most popular guidebooks still list this hotel though it has been closed for at least 15 years!

Dimarchio- Town Hall KeaIf you back past the Piatsa instead and walk through the archway and up the main street you will pass the excellent archaeological museum on your right. As you continue up there is a nice bakery where they make fresh wood-oven baked bread daily as well as spapakopita and other pitas. Next is our souvlaki shop and a very nice little cafe called the En Lefko where you can sit in a beautiful shaded patio beneath the ancient walls of the city and drink the strongest, best tasting espresso that you will find on any island or watch your children play chess in Platia Delapizza with pieces as tall as they are. If you are here for the World Cup or the European Cup or any major sporting event they have a very large TV outside. The former town hall building in the main square is one of the most interesting neo-classic buildings in the Greek islands and was built by my wife's great grandfather Gregoris Jeromnimon in 1902. He built many of the fountains in and around the village and the large house he built which overlooks the Cavo d Oro is where we stay. He also built all the schools, the three main cathedrals and some of the smaller churches as well. He was mayor for over forty years and died on a couch in the old cafeneon which used to share the building. On the roof of the building are two clay statues, one of Apollo and the other of Hermes and inside the building are some artifacts from ancient Karthea.

Ioulida, SquareThe town surrounds the square like a big ampitheater and just like at Epidavros where you can hear a coin drop on the stage from the top row of seats, in Ioulis you can hear anything that goes on in the square, even a violin played through a PA system at four oclock in the morning. On Sundays the square is full of pick-up trucks because the farmers come in with their produce since they know that the villagers will all be around for church and socializing. On Saturday night the restaurants are full and children use the square to play while their parents eat and drink and enjoy the air of the village which is much cooler than the ports. The main square is where they hold the festivals and the weddings. Antonakis Zoulos, one of the finest violin players in Greece is the main performer at every event. Weddings in Kea can go on for days and nights with endless singing, playing and dancing. The celebration of the Panagia on August 15th is another night of food, wine, music and dancing. Ask in the town hall when the next wedding or panagiri is scheduled because if you are lucky enough to be there you will hear one of the most amazing musicians in Greece. I have been laying in my bed at 5 am while a celebration was still going on in the square below listening in total awe and hearing every note played by the legendary Zoulos. (For more on Antonakis Zoulos including some audio-video clips of him performing click here.)

Yiannis Taverna, KeaAs you walk through the square there is a taverna on your left called 'Yiannis' also known as the 'Oinozythestiatoriaon Kalofagadon' though of course nobody would waste their time calling it that. Its just Yannis in the Platia, not to be confused with Yannis in the Piazza. This is where I also spend a lot of time especially when the grill is fired up or a whole roast pig is turning on the spit. His main waitor is Nikos, one of the best in the business and second in charge is Frangisco, one of my young pals. The restaurant is owned by Yannis, the former bus driver and one of the finest cooks on the island, the God of grill in my opinion. This is the place to be, especially on Saturday night when they roast the pig on a spit. Order a kilo of that for you and your friends and a plate of kontosouvli as a starter and you may never want to leave the island. If you don't come early on Saturday you won't get a table and even if you do, with just two waitors serving everyone you can end up having to wait awhile. But the wait is worth it and the wine they serve will keep you patient and you must not be embarrassed about reminding them that you are waiting for your food. I used to drink the white but I mixed it with soda so I am not too drunk when the food arrives. Now I prefer he red  which is local and better and I don't even care if it is stronger too. If you come on a weeknight they serve the best paidaikia (lambchops) and if you are lucky they will have provatina which is paidakia but older and if done well, as Yiannis does, better. You can also have a good steak here too and the dishes that are cooked in the oven are also excellent, particularly their dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). Don't leave without desert and a tsipuro.

Rolandos in Kea In my opinion some of the best food in Greece can be found at Rolando's, the ouzerie-taverna across the street from Yiannis restaurant, and I should know, having eaten here about a hundred times in the last three years. Rolando is from Corfu, an island known for its cooking among other things. He married Chrissa, a girl from Kea, and has put together one of the best mezedes menus for drinking ouzo or having an entire meal. Be sure to order his kalamaraki(fried squid) and his marinated octopus. The pikilia (assortment) that he serves with ouzo is one of the best I have had, especially the keftedes (meatballs). His specialties the rooster with macaroni, goat with lemon sauce, the world's best mousaka and sofrito and goulash, two dishes you won't find at many restaurants in Kea or Greece. But best of all are his grilled and fried fish, the freshest you will find anywhere. Rolando speaks English so if you are shy about using your Greek you don't have to and he can tell you many things about the island. In the morning Rolando's serves as a cafeneon where the old men come for their coffee and he also serves breakfast, including his special omelet with mushrooms, bacon, ham, cheese, peppers and some other secret ingredients. His red wine from the Peloponessos is excellent and he serves Ouzo from Lesvos. I go here every night, sometimes for ouzo and mezedes and more often for dinner. I am often here for breakfast and lunch too. In fact if I get bored at the house I usually head to Rolandos where I know there will be at least one guy who will talk to me (Rolando).

Bakshe Grocery, KeaThe best thing to happen to Ioulida since the arrival of Rolando has to be the opening of the Bakshe, a sort of epicurian grocery store that has a large selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, all sorts of nuts and herbs and spices, a large selection of wines from all over Greece as well as the local wines bottled by the farmers like Kostis at Red Tractor and Giorgo Paouris who both make excellent reds. Run by a young man named Adonis who speaks fluent English and is very happy to answer questions and even order hard to get items, the shop is a far cry from the old vegetable shop that seemed as if it was run by a woman who did not like vegetables. She also owned the computer shop but had her 90 year old mother working there and she did not know anything about computers or cash registers for that matter and whenever I wanted to buy something she never knew would it cost and would tell me to come back when her daughter was there and I would come back and the daughter was never there and finally they went out of business, thank God. So now we have a really good fresh grocery market and I would rather have no computer store than a bad one.

Giorgos, Kea butcherDiagonally across is the supermarket-butcher owned by Mr Tassos and Kyria Anna and their beautiful daughter, Irini who is an actress. The son Giorgos was one of the most colorful charactors of the village but he died in a car accident several years ago. His photo is mounted in the butcher section of the shop. This shop really is a Super-market. There are actual real supermarkets on the island that are the size of the supermarkets you may be used to. This supermarket has the same stuff crammed into about one tenth the space and also includes a butcher shop and a cheese shop. It is worth going in just to marvel at their organizational skills. If you are renting a house or living in Ioulida then this shop is essential for daily necessities. They also sell many canned and bottled traditional foods from the island and all the meat is local. Their freezers are full of fish, even octopus and barbouni. If you sit at Rolando's some nights you will be happily rewarded when a white van pulls up and you can watch Kosta, the Albanian butcher, carry an entire half a cow into the walk-in cooler, fresh from its trip from the slaughterhouse down the road. The restaurants in the upper part of the village buy their meat here, even the souvlaki shop. By the way we have another supermarket in the Piazza, which is like going back in time. You should visit on the way in or out of town. Maria, the owner speaks English and has kept the place looking very traditional, as an island supermarket should be.

Kosta's Zacharoplaastion in Kea If you take a left at the top of the platia and walk through the archway and up the steps you will see on your left the Zacharo-Plastion (sugar-shop) which has a balcony that overlooks the whole village and serves excellent deserts and coffee and is the last stop for many of the villagers after a night out in the tavernas. It is also jumping on Sunday after church. It could possibly be the best place to watch the sunset outside of Santorini. Beyond the zacharo-plastion as you continue up the steps you emerge from the center of the village and find yourself on the road with the village on your left and an expansive view on your right. This area, believe it or not is where the nightlife of the island used to be. Most people hung out at the Lion Bar but there were several other places for a drink as well and it could be pretty noisy here. Some of the inhabitants who came to Kea for its peace and quiet found their worst nightmares realized and left the island forever. The area now is home to the Albanians who have come to Greece because for them it is the land of opportunity and are now raising families and becoming an important part of the community. The nightlife that used to keep the neighbors up until 5am on weekends has now moved to the yacht harbor of Voukari and the Tastra Cafe in Galiaskari and the village has once again become quieter and more traditional. But there is a very nice little family run taverna here called To Steki, that like Rolandos and Yannis (either one) is worth the walk. I would not be too far off base in saying that most of the people on sailing charters who only stop here for one day wish they had an extra day to eat at all the good restaurants in Kea (or an extra stomach).

Lion of Kea By continuing along the road you will pass the Cathedral of Agios Spyridon and at the end of the village you will find yourself on the old stone road that takes you past the spring of Kounderis. The whole area is very green with olives and fig trees as well as fields on the terraced mountainside. A little past the cemetery and a small whitewashed church is the Lion of Kea, a huge statue carved out of granite from the 6th century BC. This is the journey that most foreign travelers take and well worth the walk which is level and quite easy to make on the old road. Not much is known about the Lion and why he is smiling, but they say in the old days Lions used to roam the hills and valleys which were at one time covered in trees. Beyond the lion is yet another spring, this one called the Spring of Benjamin, with it's troughs for the animals and marble columns. The path continues on to Otzias if you are the type who loves walking. In fact the walking is great in Kea since much of the old road network still exist as do the footpaths which go all over the island. They are numbered on the map and many have signposts that tell you the distance in minutes from the next village.

Fountains of Kea There are several ancient springs in and around the town and these are now the fountains you see where man and beast both drink from. The water is quite pure and better than any bottled spring water you will find on your dinner table. It is most likely because of these springs that the town was built here in the first place. The biggest is just below the entrance of the town and is called the Spring of Rokomenos. The spring of Kourendis on the road to the lion is considered to be the best tasting of them all. It is not uncommon to come upon a herd of sheep, horses or cows drinking at these fountains on the outskirts of the village though you need no worry about disease since they use the the tubs where the spring water runs off and the humans use the spring itself. These springs and fountains also attract butterflies, dragon flies and an occasional bee or two since one of the main products of Kea is honey. Kea is also known for the quality of it's milk and cheese as well as the excellent quality of it's pork. The animals are kept far from town in the terraced fields and on Sunday after church the farmers who come into town to hang out wth their friends in the cafes can create quite a commotion. The best cafeneon in the village which was in the back part of the town hall has closed, but in the years past you could hear the farmers in the cafe, talking, drinking and singing sometimes even being joined by the village priest. Now they hang out at Yannis, drinking enough to make driving their pickups back down through the village an adventure.

Ioulida, Kea, dimarchio Just above the Rocomeno Health Center, near the Piatsa entrance of the village and the parking lot where everyone leaves their cars, is the old school, which is now the town hall of Kea. The building was built by Andrea's great grandfather in the neo-classic style and is considered to be one of the most elegant examples of this type of school building in Greece. Behind the old school-new town hall is the outdoor movie theater which usually opens in July and shows movies nightly until the end of August. There is a small spring right behind the building and you can follow the path in front of it to Tria Pigadia spring and some of the farms in the area, notably those owned by Mavromakis, the charismatic butcher who keeps his cows, sheep and goats up here and can sometimes be seen herding them down the path towards the slaughterhouse.

Kea, Ioulida, ViewBecause there are no hotels in the village most tourists come up during the day. But there are plenty of taxis and buses in the summer so a nightime visit for dinner is possible if not preferable. The best thing to do is time it so that you get here about 7pm and walk through the village to the lion and then come back, have a drink or an ouzo and meze and then have dinner at one of the restaurants here. They will arrange for a taxi to pick you up in the piazza when you are ready to leave. If you want to stay in the village in the last couple years the Hotel Serie has opened on the road a couple hundred meters from the entrance of the town. Kea Villas at the top of the village are an option though walking home after a big meal at Rolando's may have you wishing you had found something closer. Still you can always take a taxi to the top of the village and if you have a car it is actually a convenient place for getting most anywhere on the island and the view is amazing. Your best option if you want to be close to the fun is probably what I call Villa Isabella, but is more popularly known as Isabella's house, a big old historic home owned by a famous Swiss writer who rents it to families and groups for reasonable rates. It overlooks both Rolando's and Yiannis' taverna and has a spectacular view of the village and the sea all the way to Athens.  

There are a number of stores in the village and if you look hard enough you can find just about anything you need. Kyria Eleni, widow of Stelios, the old shoemaker, sits in her show shop below the rooms she rents upstairs. There are only two rooms, no AC and the bathroom is down the hall and she speaks no English but since few people know about them you have a good chance of finding them empty. (22880 22057) The bakery below the main platia has fresh bread every day and a wide selection of pastries, cookies and cakes.

Dellapissa, KeaIoulis is also the home of the painter Del (or Dellapizza) who may be the heart and soul of the village. He is the one who used to keep the streets clean, white-washes the walls and steps, frees the ancient pathways from years of over-growth and kept all the plants and trees healthy. The reason Ioulida looks so beautiful is because of Dellapizza and one day there will be a statue of him in the platia. He is also a wonderful artist whose work is an amazing look into the personalities and politics of the island. During the summer of 2007 Dellapizza decided to fix up the abandoned lot that had stood for several years after they tore down the building that used to house the butcher and the electric shop. For weeks he worked to create this beautiful and colorful garden and platia which he used to show an exhibit of his paintings on August 15th. It now has an almost life-sized chess-set where you can actually play by lifing up the giant pieces and moving them around the board. It will give you a whole new perspective on the game of chess. Del's studio was a cave carved into the wall by his garden. (They say that because Ioulis sits on top of the ancient city you can get from the top of the village to the very bottom through underground caves and passageways.) Unfortunately with the cutbacks due to the economic crisis Del lost his job and his pension. But he can still be seen around the village on his way to and from various tasks. 

For more about Dellapizza see The Art of Dellapizza.

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