14 March 2012

Fourni, Our Own Little Islands

We arrived on Fourni Island in the dark and drizzle. We stepped off the ferry feeling a little lost. Two small groups met there on the pier, those arriving and those leaving. They were all residents of the island, it seemed, and they said hellos and hasty goodbyes all together, a mixing of people under the dock lights.
"Are you Merlin?" a woman said in a heavy accent. She was standing under an umbrella, waiting for someone who didn't belong. As she walked us to her hotel - the only real hotel, though there are some guest rooms - she seemed excited. "You're the first guests," she said. "The first guests of the year."
(Click on the image to see it in full size - the panorama thing looks a little dinky on the blog...)
Covered in thyme and oregano, sea grasses and salt-corroded cars, Fourni is a tightly-bunched archipelago that's treated like one island by the Greeks. In the space between Samos and Ikaria (if that name sounds familiar, see our adventures with Kolokassi), not too far from the Anatolian mainland, the place has been mostly forgotten by everyone. We trekked over the main island for two days, returning to town each night having seen only a handful of people in the hours since we left. It's lonely in a perfect, empty way, where the land hasn't been disturbed much on its way up out of the waves.
Above, old windmills on a crag above town.
Food was one of the reasons we came here. The craggy ocean floor around Fourni is supposed to be crawling with crustaceans, and the local dish is an oregano-heavy lobster pasta that sounded good enough to warrant the journey. When we told Niko, the affable owner and cook at Niko's restaurant, that we wanted to try it he looked crestfallen. "No," he said. "The men cannot go out for lobster because of the weather." His despair lifted as he had an idea - "I can make it for you with big shrimps!" he said, holding his fingers seven or eight inches apart to illustrate the size of the prawns.
It was one of three meals we had there, the only open restaurant in town. For a while we thought that there was a second one - a man told us to go to "Jenny's," but Jenny turned out to be Niko's wife.
The fishing boats were on blocks in the harbor, their hulls being patched up and re-painted. It's cold in Greece right now, and the spring winds have kept the fishermen away from their nets and traps. We took a few long walks over the spine of the narrow, main island and had to fight a stiff breeze off the sea wherever we went. The taste of salt stuck to our skin, our faces got windburned and red. At night it rained, during the day we had fitful sun. It felt like maritime spring, when weather comes at you fast and the sky changes in an instant.
We might have been disappointed about the scarcity of seafood - it was hard to scare up fresh fish anywhere, and Niko was too honest to sell us frozen stuff - but we were too in love with the Fourni experience to care. Everywhere we went, people waved. They knew we were there already, news had spread. There are only about 1,600 people on the three inhabited islands, most of them concentrated in Fourni town. Of the twelve official settlements, nine are populated by less than forty people. Plagia could barely be called a hamlet, with only four citizens. Agios Minas is even smaller. Population: three.
Above, a roadside shrine for a local resident.
The ferry comes rarely, especially in the winter. It can be days between boats, or even - if the weather is truly bad - weeks. The islands aren't big enough to have an airport, like most of their neighbors, so life here can feel very much cut off. In some ways, it felt like one of the most remote places we'd visited. Finding a community this closely knit is difficult - the archipelago's website offers a biography about many of the shopkeepers - about the hairdresser's: "Regrettably Kostas Spanos succumbed in april 2004 suddanly to a heart disease. In the meantime Maria Amorianou inherited the barbershop. Maria learned her trade in Pirea and she approaches the regular customers of Kostas as well as the youth."
In the Mediterranean, there's both a sense of inescapable overdevelopment and the hope that something pristine lies just around the corner. Fourni represents that promise of quietude and tradition, where things haven't changed in centuries. Beehives dot the hills. Tiny, whitewashed churches are strung out along the empty road, sitting unlocked with candles burning inside. Goats poke their heads up from behind stone walls and tiny flowers bloom in the weak, march sunlight. This is it: the place untrammeled, to be breathed in like the freshest of air.
Of course, we didn't stumble upon Fourni, it took us a daylong journey by plane and ferry to get there from Athens. Without meaning to make the trip, nobody arrives in that little port - which is what's kept the place as sleepy and wonderful as it is. Closer to the tourist hubs, it would have been gobbled up long ago. It's not a place that's easy for a weekend. There's no clubbing once you're here.
And though the plane helped get us close, it meant more to step onto land with rolling legs and the sound of waves in our ears. An island, after all, should feel like part of the sea.
We left Fourni the day after we were supposed to, getting onto the ferry at six thirty in the morning after an overnight hold because of wind. One cafe was open on the waterfront, its tables semi-full with a collection of departing islanders and bored fishermen.
The night before, everyone knew about the hold. Nikos was expecting us, though we thought we'd said goodbye for good the previous evening. He'd made us tomatoes stuffed with rice, a light and creamy fava and a big plate of steamed broccoli. No boats had gone out to fish. It didn't matter, dinner was delicious.

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