‘Where in Greece you like better than Paxos?’ growled Spiros – the coffee I had ordered held tantalizingly out of reach.
It had been a long hot climb out of Gaios and we were thankful to find a small store with table and chairs where we could sit and sip – provided we gave Spiros the right answer.
In the years I have been in love with Greece, many of the islands have become tourist – ridden: chips with everything and incessant pounding of disco music reverberating round the hills where once only cocks crowed, donkeys brayed and goat bells tinkled.
The friendship of the people, the warmth of the seas, the majesty of the Samaria Gorge, Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae and the museum treasures all had left indelible impressions on me in the past.
All we wanted this year was peace, beauty, good swimming, eating, and walking together with mod.cons. Then we heard of Paxos which with Antipaxos is the smallest of the Ionian Islands: ten miles south of Corfu and about nine miles west of the mainland. The journey wasn’t easy in the late eighties. We flew Gatwick to Corfu and had a six hour delay, then a bus ride in Corfu to the Anna Maria which ferries you south to Paxos – weather permitting - in about three hours. Our trip was in pitch dark with rolling seas.
The first port of call is Lakka- a small fishing village with broom spattered hills contrasting nicely with the aquamarine sea. There is a sailing club where you can get sailing instruction and hire sailing modules and surf boards. Fifteen minutes later the boat lands at Loggos, an even smaller fishing village where time stands still and the same visitors come year after year. Finally we landed at Gaios, a comparatively bustling port, where in the peaceful square you can rest under the oleanders sipping an ouzo (beware) or sampling a plate of loukamades – a sort of Greek doughnut drenched in honey and cinnamon,watching the Greeks go about their business – very slowly. Nearby yachts from all over the world are moored at the edge of the square.
Paxos measures seven miles by three and it is possible to cover the length and breadth on foot, but the maps were very simple and it can be difficult to find exactly what you are looking for. In spite of the lack of road signs and English speaking natives it is unlikely that you would get hopelessly lost as the highest point is only 248 metres. You can recognise the east coast by the mainland and Mount Olympus and the north coast by the cliffs of Corfu. Tavernas were sparse away from the coast, so it’s best to travel with some sustenance and of course water.
Walking in Paxos is a joy: wild flowers abound, each footstep releases an aroma of wild herbs, and the ancient olive groves provide shelter from the relentless sun. A bus runs from Gaios to Lakka twice a day. Motor scooters are available and its good fun to hire a boat. We had an old wooden one - Samothraki, with a small engine which, coughing and spluttering took us to Loggos and back. There are more powerful boats available. Unless you are very experienced, it is prudent to stay in the harbours when white horses are on the sea- line. The boats are equipped with flares and lifejackets but there’s no point in being uncomfortable and scared.
There was no surface water on Paxos and the rains that fall from November to May have to last the people of Paxos all summer. Sternas are built under the house to store rain water; which is soft and considered to be pure. Nevertheless bottled water is best for drinking. One of the reasons the British are liked in Paxos is that in Victorian times British engineers built five stone cisterns behind Gaios, which are still in use. The villagers without sternas use three village taps which for a two hour period are in use three times a week. They queue with their tannikins for water which has to last three days. Obviously it behove us to be careful with water. Sometimes the electricity fails and the pump from the sterna doesn’t work so an emergency store is advisable
The beaches are mainly shingle, but a half- hour trip in a caique to Antipaxos reveals excellent sandy beaches. Swimming in the dazzling turquoise opalescence with the distant mainland dusky pink is an experience not to be missed. Be aware there is little shade and the tavernas at Vrika are a welcome oasis in the midday sun.
Back in Paxos we walked south to see the Triptos arch and south east to Mogonisi Island. A walk or a bus ride takes you to Magazia from where you can walk S.E. to the church of St Apostoli and see the awesome sight of the Erimitus cliffs from the church yard. We searched for the lost village of Vasilatika; we were frequently lost but found a coastal path with a splendid view of the Ipapanti caves. We guessed the tortuous path led to Vasilatika, but the previous day we had seen a rock fall near Loggos where a fifty ton boulder bounced close to where we were picnicking so we thought better of it. Turning east in the hope of reaching Loggos for lunch, we dropped into deep fern-covered valleys with deserted houses, rusted chains at the gates: their owners long gone to distant shores. At one stage we found ourselves locked in a ghostly estate but desperation and amateur orienteering got us to Loggos for a late lunch.
Paxos was everything we had hoped for; we enjoyed the many tavernas, strolling in the quays and squares in the balmy evenings, the only noise from the animals and the Greeks themselves who think nothing of carrying on a conversation at full volume across the bay. The language didn’t impede friendship. One day a man came in the café with his son slung over his shoulder in a dead faint; as he laid him on the floor I rushed over to take his pulse and make sure there was nothing constricting his breathing. Simultaneously the Greek wife of the owner came and threw a glass of water over him whereupon the boy sat up, to our intense relief. Ever after the Greek lady would greet us with a stream of friendly unintelligible conversation and frequently popped a delicious olive in my mouth.
By now Spiros had seated himself on one of the spindly chairs and joined us in our torpor, still waiting for an answer.
‘There’s nowhere better in the whole of Greece,’ I said with conviction ’Paxos is best!’
Footnote: oh how I envy you if you have yet to discover Paxos. There are bound to have been changes – but not too many I hope. Spiros told us the Greek Government was given money to build a small air strip on Paxos for internal flights to accommodate 18 people but, he said, they needed the money for something else. This was good news but what now? I’m relying on one of you at least to go and find out.