My visual image of these famous islands was a collection of about 50 lush, green mountains rising out of the sea with dense villages in large clusters, bathed in warm sunshine and gentle breezes. In reality, it turned out to be the opposite. Literally, thousands of barren, volcanic rock cliffs jut out of the Aegean Sea in stark, brown beauty against the marine blue and turquoise water.
We’re spending the week in the cluster called The Cylades. Sailing through the straits we are never out of sight of three to six islands at any time. The sea breezes are constant and strong, 25-30 mph even in the leeward coves, causing some turbulent sailing. The vegetation on the islands is so sparse, that they had to build rock wall terraces throughout the entire surface in order to prevent the really poor soil from eroding. It had to be a Herculean effort that took decades, just to be able to engage in some modest farming. There are olive trees and not much else, although they are major producers of high quality honey. That and goats are are the key exports. Makes you realize just how important tourism is. And yet, most of the tourists to these smaller islands are Greek. The American visitors all go to Santorini and Mykonos.
As expected, the local residents are poor, but happy, warm and welcoming. They live in these tiny boxlike homes with flowering gardens that they carefully maintain. Their homes are built in clusters separated by narrow streets and alleys. The handful of restaurants on each island offer quality local cuisine, and some deliver wonderful dining experiences. The road system is primitive, precariously winding up the cliffs from the coast. Once behind the wheel or on a motorcycle, the locals ditch their charm and drive with a death wish. At the speeds they drive and pass on hairpin turns, guardrails are useless and non-existent. And every driver has taken the New York City course in horn blowing. There are no sidewalks and the roads are about as wide as a bus. You can imagine two vehicles passing with pedestrians present. The drivers act like the walkers don’t exist. We found ourselves constantly pressed against a building or diving into bushes. But it is all part of the adventure.