I never imagined we’d be some of the passengers that missed a flight. Next scene…we’re swimming with one of them in Chalki’s emerald waters. A trip that contains many trips. Two days after we took the next flight to Rhodes – that was our original destination – we were approaching Emporeio (or Nimporio):
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time.
These lines from Ithaka* the poem-landmark by Cavafy (trs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), come to mind as we approach the harbour of Chalki, on the one hand because it’s the first time we view its stunning beauty, and on the other because we hadn’t planned this trip. “What do you think of our little island? Wasn’t I right telling you to come?” Magda Korpi asks as she welcomes us on the dock. Exchanging numbers at the Eftherios Venizelos airport, accepting the invitation to include Chalki in our travel piece was enough to…change life’s course.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” they say and Chalki seems to espouse this completely, charming the visitors arriving by boat cutting across the blue waters, as its colourful two-and-three-storey roof-tiled houses stand tall from up the hill till low by the sea. Everyone rushes to take photos. No one can resist her. While a bit later, as you walk around the beautiful settlement, a result of the island’s economic boom in the middle of the 19th century, due to the rise of trade, you can’t but be awestruck by the neoclassical architecture.
One of the typical examples of the architecture is the town hall, and its companion, the stone-built clock tower. While the church of Agios Nikolaos, the island’s patron saint, that was built in 1861 and whose pride is the imposing bell tower and the wooden altar, is also nearby. What impressed us even more was the pebble mosaic that graces the church’s large yard, portraying images inspired by Nature. The one with the cypress trees and the birds on their top was our favourite. These elaborate mosaics are called ‘chochlakia’ from the round pebbles they consist of and are a typical specimen of the island’s folk art, that can be found in many yards.
“Bread: kaput” we heard coming from inside, as we were waiting in the yard for a cheese pie. ‘Menios’, the island’s now famous bakery, first opened in the beginning of the ‘80’s and has become a household name through the years due to its quality products. “At this time, we provide around 180 kgs of bread daily. Mostly to the restaurants, as there’s great demand because of tourism,” Dimitris tells as, as he helps the next customer.
When we were still in Rhodes, we were told to go eat at the restaurant ‘Mavri Thalassa’ at the harbour, and Magda, who’s become our guide on the island, also recommended it, alas, we didn’t have the time, so we tell you to go there and try the seafood specials that change daily. “Another good option is the Italian restaurant ‘Remezzo’ and ‘Theodosia’ for dessert” our guide, who is not from the island but nowadays spends a large part of her year here, tells us. As time passes and it gets hotter, we ask her where to go swimming. “Wherever there’s sea. We’re in Chalki,” she responds and takes a dip, right next to the harbour, where the waters are just as good as at any of the best beaches in Greece. Soon enough we too are swimming in ‘Tsantou’ as the locals call the particular spot.
Pontamos and Ftenagia are the two beaches on the island that are accessible on foot and are about ten minutes away from the harbour. Pontamos is on the East, and it’s favoured by families with children as it has fine blonde sand and easy access to the sea. Ftenagia is at the West and it has small pebbles and rocks. There is a tavern at one side, for those who want to immediately satisfy the appetite the got after swimming. On both beaches umbrellas and sunbeds are available, and, of course, both have crystal clear waters and create a sense of holidays of times past, hard to find and wonderful, like the smile of an old lady sitting under a tamarisk tree teasing her husband as he offers her an ice cream cone.
“Do you want me to make you a coffee at my home, before continuing our tour of Chalki?” Magda Korpi asks and obviously our answer is yes. “This part, on the west of the hill, was where the less fortunate of the island lived,” she tells us as she serves us coffee on her balcony, that overlooks the harbour and the four restored windmills that make the hilltop more beautiful. “We bought this house a few years ago and we’ve slowly restored it, with respect to the island’s traditional architecture. We’ve received quite flattering comments from guests through the years, from every corner of the earth, mostly because it has a past century vibe both indoors and outdoors, with addition of course of the modern comforts and amenities. I cherish every moment I’m here, and I love Chalki so much that the long distance from Athens means nothing to me when I get the chance to come here,” she tells us and we agree, as we leave her wonderful house to head towards the harbour.
The impressive narrow rectangular building at one side of the port was used during the second half of the 19th century to store and process sponge, while for quite a few years now it houses the hotel ‘Aretanassa’, paying tribute to the ancient queen of Chalki. It’s right next to the sea, and its inviting garden with the tamarisk trees is ideal for endless relaxation. The fact that it is accessible to people with disabilities is one of the hotel’s pluses, as is its cuisine. Looking at this stunning building I was thinking of the course of things relating to Chalki’s history. That is, how the humble sponges resulted in the rise of trade and the economic development, that lead to the creation of Emporeio, and how this elegant settlement got listed, becoming the island’s main tourist attraction, giving it a new financial boost.
Most people think that Chalki owes its name to bronze (chalkos in Greek) that was found on the island from the ancient times, in fact there were bronze workshops since antiquity. But the most plausible origin of the name is that it comes from the Phoenician word ‘kalhi’ that was the word for Tyrian purple (or Phoenician red) produced by the sea snail shells that were abundant on the island and was traded by the Phoenicians when they travelled in the Mediterranean and the East.
The sea that brought the gifts to Chalki, determining its history also brough the pirates that plagued the Aegean sea, mainly between the 15th and 17th centuries, that’s why the people gathered high in the mountain. Chorio, the island’s deserted village, was inhabited from the middle ages until around 1870 when the pirate raids stopped. The view from up there is like a deep breath, it seems endless.
Such a vantage point location must have a castle;it dates from the 14th century, when the Knights of the Order of Agios Ioannis (St. John) from Rhode ceded Chalki as a fief to the Assanti family from the island Ischia in Italy. At the castle’s entrance you can still see the coat of arms of the Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’ Aubusson. As you wander around in the silence of the castle’s imposing history, don’t pass by the deserted church of Agios Nikolaos, as inside you can see murals dating back to the 15t – 17th century.
But let’s paint the tourist profile of the island to get a clearer idea: Chalki is 28 km² and has 220 permanentresidents. Each summer between 1500 and 1700 visitors arrive, in total more than 25.000 per year. There are 600 rooms available, and the tourists are mostly from Italy and England, while in the past few years there’s a rise in French and Belgian visitors. It’s an island ideal for travellers seeking peace, quiet and elegance.
We spoke to the deputy mayor Vasilis Roussakis about the plans for balanced development and about the effort to preserve the character of the island: “Chalki’s architecture is what we must protect at all costs. That is the direction we’re headed with many initiatives, like for example with the planning of undergrounding the cables. Also, we are trying to achieve energy autonomy by producing 1MW from wind turbines at a 20 acres area which won’t be visible. Finally, 5 of the 11 municipal vehicles will be replaced immediately by electric ones.”
Time passes quickly and since it would be a shame to leave Chalki without having had a boat tour of its beaches, we get on board Mihalis Patros’ boat: “I’ve been born and raised in Chalki, as was my father who was a fisherman. 25 years ago, this was my job, taking tourists to beaches. Things have changed since then, but here, on our little island, the waters remain always the same” he tells us full of pride. I lost track of time speaking with the captain and before I knew it we’d reached Kania, a small bay with tamarisk trees and crystal emerald waters inviting you to swim in them. In the water we smile like little children, perfectly happy.
I get out of the water to speak to Garifalia who owns the bar-restaurant on the beach and is also the daughter of the captain who brought us here: “’Kania Beach’ first opened in 2011 and in the past two years our main focus is food, with fresh fish being our specialty, like red mullets, swordfish, red porgy etc that we get daily from the island’s fish boat. You must try the yellowfin tuna”. “I’m afraid there’s no time, we’ll do it next time,” I tell her. “Excuse me one second, I need to take this call from my father,” she politely interrupts, and I hear her say: “What? You can’t be back in time? Yes, yes, I’ll see what I can do.” And to me: “My father says he has too many people from other beaches and won’t be back to get you to the harbour in time for the last boat to Rhode.” Silence. “Tell the girls to come quick. I’ll arrange for someone to take you to the harbour in the truck.” And just like that – Magda who was swimming, Claire who was taking pictures, and I who lived it in real time – we found ourselves at the back of the truck on the way to the port. Stress and laughter all mixed together. “You do know that this is the only beach you can also reach by car?” Magda tells us, “All of the others, Agios Georgios, Tracheia, Areta, Dyo Giali, Alimia, can only be reached by boat.” Did we catch our boat you ask? Yes, this time we made it, but I did secretly hope we’d miss it so we could stay in Chalki just a little bit longer.
*The great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy is extremely famous for his poem ‘Ithaka’, that has been translated into many languages and about which Jacques Lacarrière has said that “never before has a poem said so much in so few words.”