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Τετάρτη, 16 Ιανουαρίου 2013

Tzia (Kea), Cyclades Travel Guide

Tzia is only 2 hours away from the port of Lavrio, which with the shiny new Attiki Odos is only half an hour away from Athens, that all adds up to the perfect island for a weekend getaway! This trip to Tzia involved a small addition from the previous trips, an 18 month old baby, an opportunity to have a look at some of the island’s more easily accessible beaches and sites then!
Getting to Tzia

Ferry tickets to Tzia are a bit of a crap shoot. You can book the outbound tickets by telephone, but you need to be there an hour in advance to collect them, otherwise they get sold on. Return tickets are only available from the island, apparently to ensure that people booking the places are actually on Tzia and the places will be used. The ferries running the Lavrio – Tzia route are small, so this is probably not a bad thing. If you are only going for the weekend this means best to be booking your return trip immediately upon arrival in the port.

Word has it that a new larger ferry is being built to service the route, but this won’t be ready until 2009 at the earliest, and in the meantime rumour has it that one of the three ferries currently running will be decommissioned! So, book early if you want to head out there on a Friday along with the rest of the Athens crowd, mid week shouldn’t be a problem even in the middle of summer let alone the off season.

Arriving in Tzia

As always, we head away from the port of Korissia and up to the main village of Ioulida. We have had a number of pleasant stays in Ioulida over the years, but this is the first one with the baby. Let me tell you, if you have a baby that you need to carry… don’t stay in Ioulida! My knees are cracking like dry twigs, my back is aching, if anyone asks me now, I would say find some rooms closer to the sea and on flatter ground. Ioulida is great, no cars, fantastic view, but man those stairs.

The Lion of Tzia (Kea Lion)

What better thing to do bright and early on a Saturday morning than to take a stroll out to the famous lion of Tzia. I admit to actually never having gone to see it in person before, but it is the end of May, the weather is good and Ioulida is still almost deserted so off we go.

The Lion is reached by following the sign from the main square or asking directions (everybody know where it is). The narrow street takes you winding through the houses of Ioulida, past a café or two (still yet to open at this early time of the year) and suddenly without realising it you have left the houses behind and you are on an ancient stone paved track wandering through the blooms of the greek countryside in spring. The path itself leads you past a couple of churches, a refreshing spring and after about 15 minutes you see the lion below you across a small ravine.

I have to admit to being slightly perplexed by the Lion of Tzia. It is a great chunk of rock, carved to look more or less like a lion, but with a slightly cheesy grin reminding of a mix between the Mona Lisa and the cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz. Word has it that the sculpture dates to about 600 BC, but it sure doesn’t look like anything else you are likely to see from that period in Greece. Experts believe it is a tribute to the closeness the locals felt to nature and represents their animistic inclinations, I have yet to see a Lion elsewhere in Greece let alone on an island, but maybe things were different two and a half thousand years ago.

Regardless of the Lion’s origins or history, the walk out to see it is a great experience at this time of year. The sun is hot but not yet scalding, the flowers and trees are in full bloom and the birds are in song. On the way out we didn’t see a soul, and on the way back in passed only a couple of older residents with their donkey heading for the nearby church. If you would like to see Tzia without the crowds, May is definitely a good time to do it.

Day trip to Otzia

After our walk and a quick coffee to liven us up it is time for a trip to check out the nearby beaches of Gialiskari, Voukari and Otzia. These three beaches on the road heading north from Korissia are heaving in the summertime being both easy to get to and nicely protected from wind by their encompassing bays. Even at this early point in the season all three were busy enough with many out to enjoy their first swim of the year.

Gialiskari Beach

Gialiskari is a small beach with a lovely backing of tamarisk and eucalyptus trees giving dappled shade from the sun. The beach itself is sandy and has a number of man-made stands (read four poles and a thatch like roof) offering further shade closer to the sea. Unfortunately it is also home to a small beach café / bar on its southern edge which was pumping out some sort of beat even at this early point of the year. It had a bit of life around it, so obviously some were enjoying themselves, but not for us, so we continue on to Voukouri.

Voukouri Marina and Beach
Voukouri houses the main marina of Tzia, and the village itself has a definite marina feel to it. It is also the home of many of the island’s fishing boats and if you are looking for a feast of freshly caught fish this is the place to be. The road leading through the town is sandwiched between the sea and a host of small cafes, bars and tavernas which seem populated mainly by the sailing crowd. Shorts, shirts and deck shoes were de rigor wear with small groups of friends lounging around and discussing, well, sailing stuff. The beach is just a past the marina inside a lovely bay. It too is backed by Tamarisks and was pretty busy (no bar though!) but all the sailing folk had us spooked so we decided to head on for Otzia.

Otzia Beach

Otzia also has a lovely beach, sandy, Tamarisks, nicely protected inside its bay (are we seeing a pattern here?). It too is busy enough for the time of year, but the road that follows on to Kastrianis Bay is not fully paved and a hot bumpy ride with the kids is not what we are after. We camp out under a shady pergola, the adventurous jump in for a (not so chilly) swim and the kids have fun building a sand castle or two and splashing in the shallows.

The beach has a taverna behind it offering a decent enough fare, although I can’t say I was raving about it. Prices were pretty steep (read Athens like), but then, Tzia is bordering on being a suburb of Athens in this respect, so don’t expect to eat cheaply.

Back to Ioulida via Agia Irini

Stuffed with food and wine we wind our way back home making a quick trip out to see the ancient ruins at Agia Irini. They appear closed, but those interested in seeing the most impressive finds are urged to go to the main Museum in Ioulida, it is well set up and the finds are truly beautiful.

I like Tzia (also known as Kea), because we always have a friend's house to stay in when we visit, and also because it is so easy to get to from Athens, yet retains a certain off the beaten track charm if you choose to head away from the main towns. On the island's east coast in particular, a selection of walking paths and semi secluded beaches offer a variety of lazy day trips for those who enjoy exploring on their own.
The port of Korissia

The main port of Tzia is Korissia, a busy little town which can get a bit annoying on the weekends what with the Athens crowd filling up the bars and restaurants. Its better during the week, but August is prime holiday time no matter where you are in Greece, and while Korissia has various hotels, pensions and rooms it also has cars and loud music and I much prefer staying in Ioulis (Ioulida) and save Korissia for a night out.
Ioulis (Ioulida)

Ioulis is about 5 kms southeast of Korissia and built in an impressive natural amphitheatre offering superb views of the surrounding area and amazing sunsets. It also has the added bonus of no cars, its stone paved streets are more or less engine free with buses and taxis dropping passengers off at the main square below the town where one then enters through the main gates. The town itself has a few shops selling most necessities including a news agent, grocers and pharmacy.

Be prepared, Ioulis is all up or down with very little sideways. Those with their own car and a room towards the top of the town can park on the upper road, but don’t forget anything; the thought of climbing back up those steps at the end of a long day to get the forgotten mobile, map or whatever can bring tears to the eyes.

Things to do in Ioulis

We use Ioulis as a base for day trips to more out of the way areas of the island, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do there. Simply wandering the steep streets is enjoyable (if a little tiring), and the famous Lion of Tzia, a large granite sculpture from the 6th century BC is a 10-15 minute walk northeast of the town (simply ask or follow the signs).

The archeological museum on the main street is well laid out and has impressive exhibits detailing the island’s ancient and byzantine history with a wealth of local finds mainly from Agia Irini, a Minoan palace uncovered near the town of Vourkari on the island’s northwest tip.

Of course the ultimate greek pastime of eating, drinking, or sipping coffee and watching the world go by is amply provided for with a number of tavernas and coffee houses around the main square and a few more offering better views scattered around the upper areas of the town.

Last but certainly not least there is the summer cinema, set up in the old school building which is beautifully lit at night. Outdoor cinemas are one of summertime’s greatest joys here in Greece. Nothing beats catching a movie after a long day spent exploring with the scent of summer jasmine swirling around you and a frosty bottle of beer on the table in front of you. Most films are in English with Greek subtitles and the film being shown is changed several times a week.

August 15th Festival of the Virgin Mary

August 15th is a major holiday in Greece that celebrates the Virgin Mary. On Tzia the largest celebrations take place in Ioulis where the main square is filled with tables which slowly start filling up from about 9pm and onwards. By the time midnight comes around there is not a seat to be found and the live traditional music has reached a deafening volume. As the night goes on there will be lots of food, ouzo, dancing and hollering, everything you need or want from a greek style celebration! Depending on how strong you feel you can easily keep going until the sun comes up, most years the music winds down and the last revelers head to bed at about 6 in the morning.

Around Tzia

The best way to explore Tzia is by car or motorbike. Rentals are available in Korissia, but for cars it might be safer and easier to bring your own on the ferry. The island’s most popular areas are on the north and west coasts.

A short drive northeast from Korissia takes you to the beach at Gialiskari, the closest thing Tzia has to a Mykonos style beach with a beach bar, loud music and plenty of loud tourists. The beach itself is nice enough, so if you like this kind of thing it is not a bad choice. Following the road leads you through the village of Vourkari with the nearby Minoan ruins at Agia Irini and on to Otzias with its long sandy beach backed by Tamarisk trees offering dappled shade to the early birds that stake their claim before the main crowds arrive. There are plenty of tavernas offering man-made shade to those arriving later.

South from Korissia are a number of pleasant beaches including the unfortunately named Pisses which is located at the end of a beautiful green valley. There are a number of pensions and tavernas here and the island’s only campsite is also located near the beach at Pisses and is not a bad deal if you enjoy camping and want to be near the sea.

Further on down the coast are a number of beaches in and around Koundouros all of which are sandy, relatively sheltered and popular with residents and tourists alike. All the beaches on the west coast benefit from the warmth of the setting sun in the late afternoon, something that is not so important in August, but certainly nice in the late spring or early fall. They are also a pretty good place to go if you like looking at large, expensive motor yachts which show up on masse every weekend from Athens.

Walking paths of Tzia

Tzia has a fantastic network of relatively well maintained and signposted walking paths dating back to ancient times. The best paths are those running from Ioulis to the south and east of the island, taking you further away from the bustle of the main beaches and towns and leading to small out of the way churches, ruins and beaches by way of inland fields, valleys and lovely oak forests (a surprising sight on a Cycladic island, the oak trees were for many years a large source of income for the island with the acorns being used for a variety of things including dying leather). Routes are varied and can be combined to last anywhere from an hour or two to all day. Decent maps are available from Ioulis and show the footpaths as dotted lines and include topographic lines so you can get an idea of the terrain (like most of Tzia, be prepared for a fair amount of up and down, especially if heading for one of the east coast beaches.
East coast beaches and sites of interest

Leaving by car from Ioulis and heading on the main (read only) road leading east takes you through some gorgeous island countryside while winding through a number of small villages and if followed to its roughly surfaced end all the way down to the Agios Nikolaos lighthouse at the island’s southern tip. This road intersects with many of the footpaths making what would be an all day hike from Ioulis a much shorter trek to a variety of sites and beaches.
The beaches

The beaches on Tzia’s east coast are much more secluded than those on the west for a number of reasons. One is that they are often more pebbly than sandy, which is great because this alone keeps away most of the weekend warrior type Athenians who only want to play racquets, drink frappes and smoke cigarettes while their kids scream and yell for more ice cream. They are also not so easily accessible. Many can be reached by car or motorbike if you are brave and are confident in your driving skills, but be careful and take it slowly, most of the roads are unpaved and conditions vary. Alternatively you can identify one of the footpaths leading towards your desired beach and go for a nice relaxing hike (going down is the easy part). Walking has a number of benefits; firstly it takes away the risk of damaging your car on those dodgy unpaved roads, and secondly, it allows you to pass through beautiful scenery that you would never see and enjoy unless you get out of that car and walk a little bit.

Ancient Karthea

A great walk is the trip from Agio Nikolaos down to the twin beaches of Mikres and Megales Poles. Park your car at the village and head onto the path which takes you along a lovely valley which drops down until you meet the sea about an hour or so later. Just before you reach the beaches you will come across the ruins of Ancient Karthea with its temples and a small theatre. You are free to wander around the ruins wherever you like, there are no fences and no guards, but be sure to treat the site with the respect it deserves. As with all trips along the footpaths, be sure to take plenty of water as there are no shops or tavernas on the east coast beaches and don’t forget that it takes longer to get back up from the beaches than it does to get down to them!

Other east coast beaches

Other beaches on the east coast include Orchos at the end of a quite torturous road, and the beaches at Spathi and Sikaminia. All are a good choice even in August if you want to get away from the crowds and enjoy a little bit of peace and quiet. Even on weekends there were usually only a handful of people on each beach. If however a handful is still too much and you don’t mid roughing it, head all the way down to the southern tip of the island where you will find the Agios Nikolaos lighthouse, built in 1893. A small path leads you down to a lovely area of slab like rocks perfect for diving into the small inlet below. You are almost guaranteed to not see another soul, perfect for a little bit of bathing in the buff if you know what I mean!

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