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The Little Cyclades

Mikrs Kykldes The Back Islands

By Marc Dubin

Kofonissi, Cyclades, GreeceI first heard about the Mikrs Kykldes (Little Cyclades, alias the Back Islands for being behind Nxos) from my rooms proprietor on Nxos in 1981. With a classically tragic tinge of pity and terror in her voice, she described them as being hors rvma, houn mno lmbes eke (no electricity, theyve only oil lamps). The junta, in one of its few worthwhile initiatives, had provided mains current to many benighted corners of Greece in the early 1970s including nearby Amrgos, which together with Nxos bookends these four islands but they only got it in 1982.

Intrigued by this intimation of primitivity, Id always wanted to visit, but I only got around to it in 2010 long after the golden years for this little group, according to aficionados, many of whom first arrived back in the oil-lamp days. But at least that means what youre reading is far more up-to-date than anything in a guidebook, or another website for that matter.

There are actually about a dozen baby Cyclades, but only four are inhabited in our times: Donossa, Pno Koufonssi, Skhinossa, and Irakli. They are strikingly different from one another, each with their particular clientele though none now rank as undiscovered, and all of them, given limited accommodation, are no-go areas from mid-July to September 1 unless you have a rooms reservation or are happy to camp out. Athens agencies are unlikely to be able to help with advance lodging reservations, except on Pno Koufonssi and Skhniossa which have some luxury complexes. Pno Koufonssi also has the best beaches, with Donossa not far behind; Irakli has the best walking, with again Donossa running second. Accommodation can be on the cheap side, but dining out is definitely not little islands do not mean little prices. While all four have a bank ATM apiece, best not rely on these but come equipped with plenty of cash.

DONOUSSA

Stavros, Donoussa, Greece Lonely Donoussa, second largest of the quartet, possesses exceptionally dramatic coastal scenery once youre away from the port. Besides two Caribbean-standard beaches (with tamarisks standing in for palm trees), there are good walking opportunities a virtue of necessity, as there are no scooters for rent but there is abus service. (The hopeful guy with bikes couldnt get a permit to keep petrol in jerry cans). The hiking should be great, better than Iraklis, but the islanders drove away their faithful walking clientele in 1998 by bulldozing the spectacular cobbled kaldermi between Stavrs port and Mersni hamlet to build the new main road, and damaging the old path from Stavrs to the other hamlet of Kalotartissa with a pointless, now-unusable jeep track, a textbook example of wasted EU funds.

Stavrs, home to most of Donossas population of 160, brackets the islands largest if not best beach, popular with families (so no nudism or camping). The only particular sight is the church (festival 1314 September). All island accommodation is here, which doesnt amount to much more than 100 beds. Among the better ones is To Iliovasilema (tel 22850 51570, www.iliovasilema-studios.gr) on the bays east flank. Eating out, best of the three full-service tavernas above the yacht quay is To Meltemi, though others prefer Captain George.The in-house diner of To Iliovasilema (May 10Sept 1 only) is probably your best bet both value- and quality-wise. Shops are surprisingly poor but there is a greengrocer's shop sellingfruit and vegetables.

BEACHES

Livadi, Donoussa, GreeceTaxi-boats to/from Stavrs are only reliable in July and August, so you should count on walking to/from the beaches otherwise.

Some 25 minutes walk east of Stavrs, beyond the helipad peninsula, lies Kdros bay, 150m of blonde, fluffy sand, beloved of naturists and free campers alike mostly Italians and Greeks, plus a few Scandanavians or Brits. Tents up to 200 of them in August are no longer allowed on the beach but are required to be in the scrublands beyondthe stone fence separating the beach from the snack barcaf here, adequate for salads, sandwiches and a daily special. At mid-bay in shallow water lies a wrecked World War II boat (German), though little remains of it other than some ribbing.

Kdros only rival, an hours walk east, is Livdi, fractionally bigger and more dramatically set, with the same fine sand but no facilities apart from five disused boat-houses, squatted by nudists and free campers who muster up to 70 tents in the vegetation just inland.

Civilisation is 20 minutes uphill from Kdros in Mersni, whose houses cling for dear life to a steep slope, staring out to Amorgs on the horizon. Free-ranging chickens far outnumber the 15 resident people, including owners of the two tavernas Tzi Tzi and Kori tou Mihali. Both have knockout terrace views, affordable starters but jaw-droppingly priced main platters.

Mersnis raison dtre and the campers source of water is a flowing spring just below, amidst a conspicuous oasis of plane trees, calamus reeds and orchards. The old laundry trough now has carp in it, and a festival takes place here each September 17, after liturgy at Aga Sofa church.

WALKING ON DONOUSSA

Kalotaritissa, Donoussa, GreeceRemedies for the damage to the island trail system are just beginning most notably dubbing the path to tongue-twistingly named Kalotartissa in the far north as Route #1. Follow red-and-white markers out of Stavrs to the ring road and a builders yard where the old trail resumes in earnest along the west side of a ravine. About half an hour out of town youre forced to adopt the newer track, though true path resumes after 15 minutes just before the summit of the route, with dramatic overlooks of your destination and soon, as the path describes a gently descending arc, spindly Asprokvos to the west. Getting to Kalotartissa, 1hr 15min from Stavrs, is definitely more than half the fun its ten houses and three shadeless nearby coves are hardly compelling, ditto its single overpriced taverna; try and hold out for lunch until reaching Mersni.

To continue southeast around the island perimeter, follow the dirt track from the southernmost cove 15 minutes to an oasis-with-well (potable, retrievable by bucket-on-a-rope) and the start of a stone-paved path remnant which climbs to the Kalotartissa-Mersni road. After a few minutes theres another stretch of old path on the right, but sadly youre forced onto the asphalt again about 45 minutes from the start, and must stay there for the 25 minutes more to Mersni.

Donousa Rules, GreeceFrom the environs of Mersnis spring, the path down to Livdi revamped in 2010 is pretty unmissable and somewhat pointlessly labelled as Path #3. The onward bit from Livdi to Kdros is trickier but perfectly feasible. At the west end of the beach, follow the cairned trail uphill 10 minutes to a stone wall, bear right for at most 20 yards, and then left over the brow of the hill, onto what quickly becomes a corniche route high above the Aegean. Soon this broadensinto a track which skirts a crumbled farmstead and curls around a canyon to just touch the asphalt road. Leave this almost immediately at another cairn to traverse a neck of land dipping gradually towards Kto Mlos, over terraces and through a fence-gate to intersect the old contour path hugging the coast. Bear west to follow this across the heads of two inlets to end up at the Kdros caf in under an hour from Livdi. Time for a Nxo-distilled rak (psimni with herbs and honey in the cooler seasons) and maybe a final swim before the tramp back to town.

From Kdros you can also walk most of the way to Mersni without hardly touching the road, using secondary paths and stretches of the old kaldermi that werent destroyed in 1998. Follow the dirt access drive inland to the paved road, and just past the gully bridge pick up the path signposted unless someones knocked markers down to largely desolate Messari hamlet. This is reached after some 35 minutes climbing, but sadly the onward path has been cut and one must descend to the road for a while before bearing down and right onto path resumption between the sharp ravine curve and a lone farmhouse. Once past a well and clump of trees, use old path extents to avoid being pushed up onto the road, forcing your way around wire-mesh fencing, to arrive at the car park by Aga Sofa chapel on the outskirts of Mersni some 40 minutes beyond Messari. All this is set to be properly waymarked and cleaned up in the near future.

For Hotels in Donousa see Booking.com's Donousa Page

PANO KOUFONISSI

With its beautiful people a-tanning, villas projects going up inland and luxury yachts anchored at Por bay, Pno Koufonssi is definitely the odd one out among the Mikrs Kykldes the most populated (around 300 souls) and commercialised, separated by a narrow strait from uninhabited Kto Koufonssi. no is a favourite with families owing to gently shelving, protected beaches, and overall a trendy babel: Spaniards, Italians, French, Scandanavians, a few Brits and Americans, and even Greek tour groups from the mainland. If youre looking for a calm bolthole, this isnt one, except in early June or mid-September. While there can be crowds, the island is blissfully free of motor scooters, and theres no bus one walks everywhere, rents a push-bike from one of two outlets (subject to caveats) or uses the taxi-boat service.

THE TOWN (HORA)

Koufonisi, GreeceLike Stavrs on Donossa (albeit on a much bigger scale), the Hra is divided by hard-packed mmos beach, with bathers segregated from the many anchored fishing boats, which also berth at Pariano bay in the far west though an energetic fishing fleet is no guarantee of seafood on your taverna platter. Still, theres an active boatyard above Loutr cove flanking town to the west, surmounted by a windmill thats become Koufonssis trademark.

The older quarter just uphill from where you disembark, dominated by gios Gergios church, is home to all shops and most restaurants, while the newer district straggling east of mmos for several hundred metres contains most lodging. Their proprietors tend to meet arriving boats in vans, though in cooler weather its not a big deal to walk there if lightly laden. If you just want simple, cheap domtia in the old center, head straight up from the jetty, past the Neo Remezzo taverna, turn right at the pharmacy, then look left. There are a few fancy hotels here as well, though somewhat uninspiringly positioned; for my (or rather, your) money, its better to be well on the way to the beaches, past the eastern edge of town at Prta cove.

Resort Hotel Paradiseis aconventional but attractive outfit with pool and sea views. I stayedfurther out, above Fnikas beach, at the mid-range Hotel Anatoli, all units here with verandas facing the knockout view of off-limits-for-archeological-reasons Kros Island. The Koufonisia Hotel is big enough to host Greek society weddings, and boastsfour-stars. Just 100 metres from Porta Beach, the newly built Portes Houses complex features stylish rooms, and a terrace with views of the Aegean Sea.

Incidentally, the island campsite at Harokpou has closed down, though a few tents still sprout free-lance fashion outside its fence.

Eating out on Koufonssi ought to be better than it is I had some uninspiring, overpriced meals best passed over in silence. The most normally priced establishment is ever-popular Karnagio at quayside on Loutr cove, an ouzer with a good line in pttes, properly grilled fish and rak from Nxos in season you have to reserve ahead (22850 71694). In the heart of Hra, Melissa is the oldest taverna on the island, and uniquely in town open for lunch, with good magireft dishes, seafood and psychedelic chair colours. If your accommodation doesnt do breakfast, an excellent solution is the self-serve beachside restaurant at Fnikas. The top caf, with much-sought-after tables in the lane or out on the terrace, is Kohyli, with desserts to die for anything (especially their brownies) can be ordered with a scoop of kaymki.

THE BEACHES

Koufonissi, GreeceAll the fabled beaches line the more sheltered southeast coast, facing Kros. In season, about 4 daily taxi-boats call between noon and dusk from the base of the town jetty. Fans marks the end of the paved coastal road; if you try to continue by bike you face a punishing hill between here and Por, or a hazardous, tire-risking trajectory along the onward coastal path. Few of the island beaches have any significant shade the foresightful come with pop-up shelters, which can be bought in Athens central bazaar.

First notable beach and first stop for the taxi-boats, Fnikas has its aforementioned restaurant, some tamarisks for shelter and an islet for the fit to swim out to. Fans, at the start of the coastal path, is longer and narrower, while Italda beyond is fatter and tolerates naturism. Beyond lies Plati Ponda headland, its margins indented with the fabled pisnes, sculpted inlets which occasionally do support small pools or even sea-caves, and much prized for their overhang shade they will all be spoken for by noon on a summers day. From Italda its about 15 minutes walk around the cape to Por, the most celebrated beach, with low dunes at the south end and some wind exposure. There are two snack-cafs here, though at my visit only the north-end one was operating, doing a decent job of light lunches and drinks at affordable prices.

Finally, there are about 5 daily taxi-boats to Kto Koufonssi, returning much later to allow folk to patronize the single, reportedly mediocre taverna here. A trail network leads to various swimmable if shadeless coves. I confess I didnt go was too busy staking out a hard-won spot in a pisna near Italda!

You can find hotels and rooms in Koufonissi on Booking.com's Koufonissia Page

SKHINOUSSA (SCHINOUSSA)

Halfway between Kto Koufonssi and Irakli, jagged-outline Skhinoussa is accordingly popular with yachts and has some spectacular seascapes around even smaller islets to the southwest. This is the one baby Cyclade I havent personally been to; I was put off the idea some years ago by a travel journalist for one of the Athens weekend papers, who claimed the island had been ruined by yacht-borne posers (mostly Greek) slumming it here from Mkonos and driving up prices. I think he possibly got it mixed up with Koufonssi, and other Greek acquaintances have assured me Skhinossa is quite normal ambience- and cost-wise. But its true that there is at least one stiffly priced nouvelle taverna (Margarita) and that access to two bays is blocked by locking gates to accommodation grounds or large private villa complexes.

Boats dock at Mersni, from where its a one-kilometre uphill walk (or a van shuttle) to attractive Hra (aka Panagi), home to most tourist facilities, including the aforementioned Margarita.

There are claimed to be 16 beaches around the islands convoluted perimeter, but some are exposed and/or flotsam-strewn; by consensus the best (and sandiest) are Tsigori, closest to Hra; Alygari in the far south; Almyrs on the east coast; and Psil mmos in the northeast. None are more than 25 minutes walk from Hra, mostly along dust-tracks.

You can find hotels and rooms in Schinoussa on Booking.com's Schinoussa Page

IRAKLIA

Iraklia, GreeceThe most southeasterly, and largest, of the inhabited Back Islands (population 120), Irakli has two substantial villages, and a seasonal minibus service. In the past it was the most traditionally agrarian of these islets, though events have conspired against that. Theres little enough of the excellent local thyme honey in good years and none at all if the spring rains dont come; the vineyards have mostly fallen victim to large flocks of untended, abandoned goats; and squadrons of greedy crows hundreds strong devastate most attempts at agriculture. Under the circumstances, tourism has proved a life-saver, and the locals have remained exceptionally friendly. EU funding has seen to signage and maintenance of some meaty walking trails, numbered from 1 to 8 and best tackled in spring or autumn. Beaches are scarce, and on the functional side.

Boats call at gios Gergios, where most tourist facilities are. Its a pleasant settlement draped on either side of a vegetated ravine descending to the smallish but sandy harbour beach; gii Anrgyri church at the rear of the village is the only real sight. There are theoretically scooters to rent but I saw nobody using them.

Compared to Skhinossa, theres a fair amount of accommodation see all the choices on Booking.com's Iraklia Page though still scarce in mid-summer. I stayed at the Gavalas familys basic but very quiet Sohoro Rooms (tel 22850 71565), at the start of the path system. Among several tavernas, To Perigiali is ace for fish washed down by good, cheap Parian bulk wine, and one platter of chips feeds two; To Syrma, overlooking the beach, is popular for lunch and quite okay with nice touches like chilled beer mugs, though portions could be bigger. Theres also the long-running Mastrali, with a view terrace, and the very popular Ypovrihio ouzeri which also does cheap souvlki.

WALKING ON IRAKLIA

The best hike crosses Irakli to the cave of gios Ionnis, largest in the Cyclades; head out of gios Gergios following Trail #7 markers. Some 10 minutes along, this becomes a fine, broad kaldermi, clearly once the islands major thoroughfare. Turn hard right upon reaching a cluster of cistern-wells, where the lone local cowherd may be watering his charges, and climb slightly to the nine houses of gios Athansios hamlet, with just three inhabited; go past the last one to find the start of onward Trail #4. Just over an hour along, this reaches the high point of the route with great views over Nxos and other Back Islands, a major trail junction indicated by a veritable forest of signs.

For now, descend on Trail #3, with great views over Vourkari bay towards os, to the celebrated cave, reached 90 minutes out of the port. Its the right-hand one, not the shallow livestock overhang to the left (the so-called Polyphemos cave); you have to stoop to enter through a low entrance, with cheap throw-rugs provided against the dirt. The interior proves long and narrow, with more stalagmites than stalagtites, a little ikonostsis on one side, and hundreds of flat votive candles left behind. Candles or no, youll need a good flashlight to see much.

Returning to the Seldi junction-saddle takes about almost half an hour a stiff climb not for July or August and then its nearly as much again to the sleepy inland village of Pno Hori (Panaya). The main attraction here is the central taverna To Steki tis Annios, with great views from the upper terrace and small-portioned dishes like xinomyzthra cheese and stuffed goat. Theyre open year-round; youll need to reserve peak season by phoning 22850 71596. The big local panigri is 28/29 August, including a liturgy in the cave and events in the village; outsiders are most welcome and not considered a nuisance as on some larger islands.

From Pno Hori you must road-walk to Livdi or Tourkopgado beaches.

BEACHES

About 1500m southeast of the port, Iraklis best beach is Livdi, 300m of gently shelving sand, though with some rock in the shallows. The far end is naturist, and you have a reef to swim over. Oddly, theres no taverna, only a single rooms establishment and an official campsite inland (MayOct, French management) rather ignored by knots of rough campers. Overhead is a small medieval castle to explore.

Flanking gios Gergios on the southwest is the almost landlocked bay of Vorin Spili. Trail #8 goes there, from just beside the villages last, big house with cars and a boat in the fenced front yard. Its about 25 minutes hike down to the bay; what lovely water and sand, and what a mountain of washed-up garbage on the beach that the locals cant be bothered to collect. All it would take is one or two boat trips a month.

The third beach is pebbly Tourkopgado, east of Panaga. The summer-only, free minibus ends its run from the port here. Alimni, beyond gios Ionnis cave, has a sandy bottom and the remains of a crashed World War II plane.

You can find Hotels in Iraklia on Booking.com's Iraklia Page

Helpful Information

RECOMMENDED MAPS

Church in Stavros, DonousaTheres just one commercial map available, at 1:25,000 scale, for all four islands, issued by Terrain (www.terrainmaps.gr). Coverage ranges from tolerable for Irakli to poor on Donossa, where a wall-mounted placard-map just below the bakery gives a far better idea of the surviving trail network. An accurate topographical placard map of Irakli is also posted at several points on the island, but again its unavailable for distribution click on our photo of it to enlarge and print out.

GETTING TO THE MIKRS KYKLDES

All four islands are well served by ferries based on Nxos, Amorgs, Sros and Piraeus, albeit Donossa less frequently due to its somewhat inconvenient position off towards Ikara. From Piraeus, Blue Star Ferries call most of the year several evenings weekly (leaving at 5.30pm), via Pros, Nxos sometimes Sros and arriving at Donossa (2 to 3 weekly) or the other three (2 to 3 weekly) between 12.30 and 1.20 am pre-book your room and proprietors will fetch you. The same boat continues to Amorgs and Astyplea before turning around immediately at 4am, so thats the Dodecanese connection.

Twice a week, a conventional ferry leaves Sros at 7am, calling at Pros and Nxos before cycling through all four islets. Once or twice weekly a high-speed catamaran stops at Koufonssi, but these are expensive and tend to call absolutely everywhere in the Cyclades before ending up back at Sros or Piraeus.

Finally, the little Skopelitis Express leaves Nxos most days between 2 & 3pm, bound for most of the Back Islands (but Donossa only 3 times weekly), en route to Amorgs, whence it returns early the next morning. Its cheap and reliable, but slow and nicknamed the skylopnkhtis (dog-drowner) by the unkind owing to a buckety ride in rough seas, more common than not hereabouts. Arrive in a big boat if you can, or just use Skopelitis for short inter-island hops within the group.

There are few travel agencies that can assist you with booking these islands but times change and it is worth asking a recommended travel agency in Athens. See www.athensguide.com/agency.html

Marc Dubin first visited Greece in 1978, fell in love with it, and returned almost yearly until he began living much of the time on Samos in 1989. He has written for numerous travel publishers notably Rough Guides and Insight Guides and on a variety of topics ranging from renovating old Greek houses and Greek cuisine to back-country trekking and Greek music. Marc has also compiled two CDs for World Music Network, Rough Guide to Rebetika and Rough Guide to Greek Caf. He is an accomplished photographer and most of the pictures accompanying the articles on greecetravel.com are his. (You can click on his photos above to see them full size.) To contact Marc with offers of writing jobs or praise you can e-mail him through matt@greecetravel.com

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