At the southernmost point of Europe
The Greek island of Gavdos is an insider tip for travelers who seek their ways off the beaten track. In addition to crystal clear water and beautiful beaches, the island is a unique experience due to its archaic originality.
Text: Sigrun Höllrigl published July, 14, 2017 by “Wiener Journal”
Off the coast of the South and West Crete, an island rises from the sea in the distance – Gavdos. For a long time I wanted to visit this island, especially since I heard there were beautiful beaches there. Gavdos marks the southernmost point of Europe in the Libyan Sea. The African north coast is only 260 kilometers away. The island can be reached by ferry from Paleohora and Chora Sfakion.
Gavdos welcomes me with the scent of wild thyme and oregano and immediately fascinates. Because the island shows how life in Greece was 40 to 50 years ago. Time seems to have stopped in the villages of Vatsiana and Ambelos. Stone houses with small windows, a few chickens, goats and sheep, a little vegetable and cereal cultivation and fishing, people have lived for centuries and do it today. Electricity is still not a given on Gavdos and is obtained on the island in many places by photovoltaic. Until the mid-90s, the island was only accessible by a small post boat. Since Gavdos is regularly called by car ferries, the island has awakened from its slumber. Tourism also came with ferry connections, albeit modestly. Even today, dangerous winds regularly paralyze these ferry connections. For a long time, Gavdos was considered an insider tip of alternative tourism. Only much later did the media discover the magic of the island. Discovery Channel has chosen a beach on Gavdos, Agios Ioannis, as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. CCN also brought a documentary about the island, and in 2012 a photographic exhibition on the people of Gavdos took place in the Utrecht Library.
What has been lost through civilization is shown to us by Gavdos as a self-absorbed kingdom. Peace, timelessness and the rhythm of the sea can all be felt on the island. In the pine and cedar groves that cover much of the island, Odysseus is omnipresent.
The history of the island has been written by the incoming ships for centuries. They also changed the naming. The biggest influence was the name Ogygia. A Greek myth says that the island on which the nymph Calypso lived was called Ogygia, and this Ogygia is associated with Gavdos. The nymph is said to have lived in a cave in the northern part of the island, in Lavrakas, where she stayed with Odysseus for seven years. Lavrakas was declared archaeological reserve due to numerous finds. As part of summer camps at the University of Crete, 63 excavations were carried out on Gavdos. It turned out that Gavdos was already inhabited in the Neolithic. In the Minoan period, the island was a strategic trading post on the voyage to Egypt. Gavdos was then known for exporting precious salt and cedar oil. Excavations also found settlement remains from Roman times, in which the soil was overcultivated, so that today everything must be forced out of it. In the Byzantine era, the island flourished again, got province status with episcopal see and counted up to 8000 inhabitants. In the 16th century, the most famous pirate of the Mediterranean, called Barbarossa for his red beard, was looking for protection on the island. Because the pirates sold the islanders as slaves, the island remained sparsely populated.
In 1928 Gavdos wrote history again as a penal colony for political prisoners. Communist rebels and idealists like Aris Velouchiotis, Takis Fitsos or Andreas Tzimas were exiled to Gavdos under military guard. Well-known writers such as Menelaos Loudemis and Themos Kornaros were among the 40 to 180 exiles of Gavdos. As many died in the cave-like dwellings, the exiles also obtained the help of outside help in renting a piece of land to build a house and grow vegetables. In 1931-34 the “palace” as the prisoners called it was built in the Cretan style with cedar and stones. The building still exists today and is faithfully preserved by the Athens artisan Eleni Tsabitsanou under the name “House of the Exiled”. The rooms contain a library and a café and can be visited. In summer, Eleni organizes yoga classes as well as a literature and music festival. The penal colony on Gavdos existed from 1928 to 1941. When the German troops approached, a ship came from Crete and took the exiles with them to bring them to the Cretan resistance. Gavdos was occupied during World War II, and the locals were forcibly conscripted into labor services. One of the three stone houses of Ambelos served as a headquarters for the Nazis.
Today, Gavdos is considered one of the few places in Greece where wild camping is still allowed and for that the island is well known in the scene. In the summer, the entire island is transformed into a tent camp. Young people flock from all over the world to live here like the hippies back then, especially many Greeks. In August Gavdos hosts up to 2000 guests. With camping and nudism, the island attracts dropouts and individualists. Of course, marijuana is smoked even if nobody wants to officially confirm it. The taverns and mini markets live from the short summer business. The local people depend on the campers. Until today there is hardly any tourist infrastructure on the island. Only 150 guests can be adequately accommodated in bungalows on the island. With the locals and the hippies I hope, it is going to stay like this.
From September on Gavdos it will be very quiet again. If you want to get out of season on the island, take the school bus, which brings the four remaining children to school crossing the entire island. This special way of getting around has its own charm.
Many visitors to the island tell of a specific kind of perceived isolation that can only be experienced on this island in this form. On the horizon, the snow-capped peaks of the mountains of Crete rise into the sky. The scenario seems unreal, as if the mountains were papier maché of a theatrical scenery. At the same time you can not get enough of this scenery. It´s magic. The 60 kilometers distance seem shorter than they actually are. Even though Gavdos seems to be behind the world, separated only by the sea, and the real world, which looks like an illusion, seems within reach. Of the 100 inhabitants remain only 30 on the island in winter. Everyone else hibernates in Athens or Crete.
Manolis Vailakakis is one of those who live on the island even in winter. He was born on Gavdos and also went to school here. His parents ran a small farm in Ambelos. At the age of 14, Manolis was sent away by his father and spent a decade working in the Mediterranean as a car mechanic, naval mechanic or as a heavy construction equipment operator. At that time he dreamed of his own tavern in his homeland. His friend Petros left the island at the age of twelve to work in the port of Piraeus. There was no work on Gavdos back then. How hard everyday life was can still be seen clearly today. All you have to do is drive to the villages of Kastri, Ambelos or Vatsiana to experience the barren life in the rectangular stone huts.
At age 25, Manolis, with his savings and the money of the family, bought fallow land on the beach of Sarakiniko. The tavern and guest rooms he built by hand. When he traveled Europe in the winter months, he met his wife Gerti in Vienna, from whom he now lives separately. His son Nikos is currently attending tourism school in Vienna. Manolis has fulfilled his dream of freedom with the tavern on Gavdos.
Early in the morning at six, very often at night, he goes fishing with his boat. A day at sea is a nice day, he says. He lives here because life on the island fills him. Elsewhere, he would feel empty. What he found out on Gavdos was more than a study in Athens would have given him. Even without electricity, with candlelight, he would be happy here on the island. You do not need and do not want business on Gavdos, no people with money or hotels. Gavdos should just stay as it is. Like many Greeks, Manolis chose Alexis Tsipras and was disappointed that Greece remained in the EU. Basically, he does not think much of politicians and government employees. These people would not know, what it would be like to live without electricity in Gavdos with a family 50 years ago. What counts on the island is work with the hands. To believe in God is good, says Manolis, but life must be worked out and regulated. Less stress, that is the message that Gavdos passes on to his visitors.
In addition to locals like him, some individualists and intellectuals have settled on the island, looking for their paradise on Gavdos, as well as Eleni Tsabitsanou. In the main town Kastri Stavros Ioannidis, an archivist, lives and runs the municipal office, looking for ways forward into the future on the trail of Krishnamurti. A group of Russian nuclear physicists live near the village of Vatsiana. Their leader Andrej has been contaminated in Chernobyl and is looking for Gavdo’s healing. Because they make themselves useful and repair old engines and all sorts of equipment, they were included in the island community. Also radio journalist Vassilis has traveled and settled on Gavdos. Single-handedly he operates Radio Gavdos 88.8 FM. If necessary, Vassilis Tzounaras climbs onto the mast for radio broadcasting.
However, Gavdos enchants above all through its untouched nature. The fauna is unique, as African and European plant species occur together. The island is home to over 50 species of rare migratory birds stopping off on their way between Europe and Africa. In the spring, they roam the ancient juniper, pine and cedar forests in swarms. Some striking places such as Tripiti, the southernmost point of Europe, can only be reached on foot. Gavdos is considered an island for hikers.
Below the surface of the water, life pulsates because of the sea grass. Sea turtles, four different types of dolphins and sperm whales can be found near the island. Between Gavdos and the uninhabited neighboring island Gavdopoula lies the place where the whales gather, mate and multiply. Even the almost extinct monk seals can be observed on Gavdos in remote bays while sunbathing on the beach. And even the moon is closer to Europe’s southernmost point than anywhere else.
Copyright Sigrun Höllrigl