The Island With The Split Personality
The essence of life in the Aegean is the delicate dance between extremes – East and West, Ottoman and Venetian, the sea and the land. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on Andros. The island is rich in running waters – thus green, lush, fertile, but with great barren mountains rearing up over it.
The eastern side has always had the wealth and adventurers, the western side the farmers. No other Cycladic island has had a class divide like Andros; traditional farming families occupy half the island, one of the wealthiest shipowning communities in Greece the other. Within the shipping community, stone-carved galleons on door lintels denote Old Money (from Venetian times). This was replaced by New Money – 19th century shipowners quickly understood the advantages of steam over sail. The peasants – of medieval Albanian origin and also from the Balkan Wars of 1912 – were on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Andros is beautiful, modest and discreet. There are no glitzy emporia or designer boutiques and few fancy restaurants. The neoclassical homes of the shipping dynasties (Embiricos and Goulandris amongst others) are filled each summer holiday season, but their style is low-key and philanthropic. There are world-class exhibitions in galleries in the main town of Chora hosted by the Goulandris Foundation. Who would ever expect to view works by painters like Picasso, Matisse and Braque or the sculptures of Henry Moore, Giacometti and Rodin, before hiking off on a mountain trail to swim at a wild, unspoiled beach all to themselves. International art in Andros? Rather like opera in Syros? Yes to both!
Traversed by four parallel mountain blocks with deep cultivated valleys, the hillsides are terraced with scattered farmsteads, orchards and vineyards. Oranges, lemons, figs, grapes, olives all proliferate (the island’s citrus preserves and liqueurs are famous). Dry-stone schist-slab walls, pack-bridges, watermills and low stone farmhouses as well as intricately decorated dovecotes sprinkle the landscape. There are even cows in green pastures. The more barren north-west is becoming popular with Athenians and foreigners who want a country or summer home. The rather bleak port of Gavrion is only two ferryboat hours from the mainland. The south and east have more sheltered and accessible sandy beaches.
Chora is a gem of a little capital, built on a pencil sliver of land jutting into the sea - full of neoclassical buildings, untouristy shops, art galleries and fascinating museums. Elegant and coolly understated. Fabulous sandy beaches - when the wind drops.
Andros is renowned for its strong winds mainly at the end of July and August, and guests flock to the beaches that are sheltered. It is only the local boatmen, who row and steer standing up, and turn their oars without breaking the surface who are really the masters of this sea.
Nature-lovers. Wonderful hikes, trails and strolls across heathery aromatic hillsides, through ravines bubbling with waters leading to picnic spots on pristine shores. Art buffs (see above). Foodies - Andros women are famously good cooks and also rather pretty. Poor island women travelled to rich households in Egypt or Constantinople as wet nurses for society mothers, and brought back culinary delights such as The Imam Who Fainted (layers of Aubergines and mince), meat, rice and mint balls in egg & lemon sauce, spiced kebabs in red-wine and tomato sauce, and exquisite sweets. Christian Albanians settled in the north-west in the early 15th century and still cook and speak their own way. Korthia and the south-west were settled by Greeks from Thessaly who have a tradition of delicious savoury pies.
Would Not Suit
Those who dislike driving, as Andros is large. Those who can't manage the wind. Those wanting a glitzy scene - Andros is on the conservative side.
Zorkos and Vitali are sensational off-the-beaten-track beaches in the north, each with a taverna run by farmers showcasing their produce, from lamb chops to local creamy cheeses and vegetables. The mineral springs at Apoikia are bottled for national consumption under the name Sariza. The most beautiful dovecotes are at Aidonia and Kaparia - their motifs are never identical but always favour the sun-wheel, the lozenge and the cypress tree. More artistry was lavished on these birdhouses than on the family home, as the dove is a sacred symbol of peace and love. The little maritime museum - Andriots established the near-monopoly of goods and emigrants bound for Ellis Island and America in the early 20th century. Also, the folk festival at Menites every August 15. A meal at Pertesis taverna in Strapouries.
Walking and exploring. The most gentle strolls are through verdant valleys at Apoikia, Messaria and Menites. Other more challenging hikes are well mapped. Batsi, a picturesque curve of a resort centre, which has mushroomed in the last 20 years, has organised watersports, bars and tavernas, caique-excursions to nearby beaches, plus car and motorcycle rental facilities.
Rampant development has been kept at bay. The island is one of the least touristy spots of the Greek Islands. Cars are banned in some parts of Chora.
Local community is strong and welcoming. Repeat visitors are those who love the outdoors and a simple relaxing lifestyle. You might even find yourself in an old-style sing-a-long in an ouzeri with an oldster reminiscing “the sea is my mother, my sister is the wave, my lovers are the little fishes of the seashore”!