Slightly smaller in size than neighboring Santorini, which is about 20 kilometers to the west, Anafi (pop 300) is at the extreme southeast edge of the Cyclades. It’s one of those less-visited islands that gives you an opportunity for a taste of what these islands were like before the tourist boom took them by storm beginning in the 1960’s. Some people believe that it rightly does not belong to the Cyclades, since it is not really part of the group of islands circling Delos (“Cyclades” = “encircling”), and is sort of a remote orphan of a rock, far away from every other island.
This triangular piece of pumice and volcanic ash-covered granite and limestone has an extension along its base, a sort of tail projecting eastward and ending in a massive promontory which looks a great deal like the rock of Gibraltar. It has very little in the way of paved roads, but is instead criss-crossed with a network of hiking trails. This serves the island fairly well, since it is only about 6km north to south, and 10km east to west.
It was a hippies’ favorite back in the 80’s and early 90’s- they’d come and do primitive camping on the beach for as long as months at a time. Once a dead-end stop for ferries from Santorini, the tourist trade has picked up quite a bit of late (but not too much to affect its unspoiled beauty), and now there are links to other islands in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese from Anafi.
There is still a fair amount of primitive camping going on, and just enough tourist infrastructure for those of us too old or soft to rough it for very long to make it a pleasant, quiet Cycladic destination. Anafi, like Santorini, is volcanic, and features a wild, cove-scalloped, cliff and steep peak-dominated topography.
For all intents, the island is barren of trees and large vegetation. A French visitor, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, in 1700 wrote that there was “not enough wood on the island to cook the partridges with which it abounds.” The island is also blessedly free of snakes, but has chameleon-like lizards which scurry about. There are some really nice beaches, mostly on the south coast. The beaches are not organized, so you need to bring your own shade, toys, and food in most cases.
But hold on a minute- you can visit Anafi without ever leaving Athens: “Anafiotika” is the most interesting neighborhood in the capital. This little collection of 45 Cycladic-style houses (there were more but a number were destroyed for archeological research) clings to the northeast face of the rocky base of the Acropolis.
Walking among its sidewalk-wide lanes and whitewashed steps which follow the steep grade of the lower levels of the Acropolis is just like being in the Cyclades. It’s even quiet like the Cyclades, because it’s a part of the Plaka, that old neighborhood wrapped around the north and northeast base of the Acropolis, just below Anafiotika. There is very little car traffic in the tight streets of the Plaka, which makes Anafiotika quiet enough to hear insects buzzing and birds chirping.
But of course once you raise your eyes from watching your step on the sometimes tricky descent and ascent paths, you’re instantly reminded that you’re in the middle of a 4-million population, polluted metropolitan center.
The builders of the houses were Anafiotes- masons and carpenters who had come to Athens from Anafi to help rebuild the capital, particularly the palace of the King, Otho, in the mid-1800’s. (The palace has since been taken over by the Greek Parliament.)
The Argonauts were having a tough go of it. The storm-tossed Aegean was threatening to capsize their sip, the Argo. They prayed to Apollo for rescue. Then, in the distance, an island appeared, newly raised up from the sea bed by the god, who bent his bow in the sky, marking the place where the island was with supernatural light. Thus, the approximately 1300 BC myth tells us, Anafi came into being.
The Argonauts then built a temple to Apollo, the sun god, who became the predominant deity worshipped on Anafi. The temple stood on the site of the present monastery of Panagia Kalamiotissa (Our Lady of Kalamos), built on the narrow tongue of land on the southeast coast, leading to the Gibraltar-like promontory, Mt. Kalamos. The monastery uses the ancient temple’s massive (2m long by 1m high) foundation stones as its own foundation.
Some think the island’s name comes from the Greek “anefinen,” i.e., “he made it appear.” There are some other theories of how the island got its name, as is the case with places that have been inhabited for thousands of years.
Jason and the Argonauts pre-date the Iliad and Odyssey. Another tradition of the island’s founding comes from the Odyssey, namely, that the island was the home of Aeolus, god of the winds, who assisted Odysseus on his way home with favorable winds.
Its first inhabitants were probably Phoenicians, and then, later, the Dorians. Athens established ownership of the island during the 5th century, BC. The Romans, when their turn came to run things, used Anafi as an exile island. The island passed into the hands of the Macedonian Greeks, then the Byzantines. The Venetians came in 1204. The Byzantines re-took it in the 1270’s.
After that it was one Italian clan or another for the next few hundred years. An important ruler during this era was William Crispo (1390-1463), who built the Castro in the village of Hora. He is also believed to have built the fortress on Mt. Kalamos. Crispi was the brother of the Venetian Duke of Naxos, James XII. Crispi was granted ownership of the island by his brother, leaving it to his daughter after he succeeded his brother as Duke of Naxos.
Later the Pisani family ruled Anafi until it was conquered, in 1537, by the infamous Turkish admiral and pirate, Heyreddin Barbarossa (Redbeard), who enslaved its one thousand inhabitants, completely de-populating the island. Eventually the island was re-populated, and, by 1700, the hand of Turkish rule grew very light: All the Anafiotes had to do was pay an annual tribute of 500 crowns, delivered up at Paros, and they never saw a single Turk as long as these payments kept up. This lasted until Russia’s Catherine the Great incited the islands to rebel in 1770.
For the next 5 years the Russians ruled the Cyclades. The Russians used it as a naval base during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74. During the following century, Anafi supplied some men and boats to the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). After the war, as has been already mentioned, many men left the island to help re-build Athens, building, as well, their little Cycladic community at the foot of the Acropolis.
Anafi was again used as an exile island during the 1920’s and later. An electrical power plant was built in 1974, which helped kick start the tourism industry, which was further helped along with subsequent harbor improvements and the building of a paved road from the port of Agios Nikolaos to Hora, the capital.
The Island Today
Anafi is a walker’s island. The 18km trail network is very old, since for a long time there were no roads. There are some good trail maps with routes, times, and points of interest marked out that. The trails themselves are well signposted.
The island’s port, Agios Nikolaos, is essentially a mole built into the water to allow ferries to dock. There are a few buildings there as well where you can buy supplies or a meal. The island’s only paved road leads up to Hora, the only village, about a 4 winding kilometers inland (and less than a kilometer in a straight line), and 200m in elevation. The town is built around the upthrust of stone on which the medieval citadel or “castro” is built.
Hora has the traditional cube-shaped, whitewashed houses common to the Cyclades, although a lot of them have more earthquake resistant barrel-vaulted domed roofs rather than flat terraces. Many of the houses have large ovens in their yards, a tradition dating back hundreds of years and designed to keep the house cool during the summer. The pedestrian-only village has narrow lanes, and lots of little hidden surprises, including small cafes, restaurants, and bars. There is a small archeological museum housing artifacts found on the island over the years.
Hora is the place to go if you desire a quieter sort of holiday. It offers about a dozen different places to stay. Hora has wifi, as well, for those who absolutely need to be online. There are good ferry connections from nearby Santorini, which is clearly visible from Anafi.
Things to See
The most interesting places to visit are all near that little eastern extension of the base of this triangular island. The monastery of Zoodohos Pigi (Lifegiving Spring) about 100m in elevation, is built just about where the southeastern tip of the island’s triangle would be if it didn’t have that little tail-like eastern projection. This 10th century monastery is one of the oldest in the Cyclades. It’s built on the foundation of the ancient temple to Apollo that mythology says was raised by the Argonauts in gratitude for their delivery from the storm-tossed sea by that god. Remnants of a paved Iera Odos (Holy Way) can still be seen here and there leading to Hora.
The monastery uses the ancient temple’s foundation and other parts of it quite unapologetically; the peribolos (wall-closed courtyard) of the temple is now incorporated into the church and its cloister buildings, and the cella (central interior space) is the refectory. There are foundation stones of other temples besides Apollo; to Aphrodite, to Asclepius, and others. In the ruins is a wall with inscriptions of representatives to Anafi from other city-states; one from Thessaly, from Mykonos, Paros, Chios, Siphnos, and others- which testify to the important position Anafi once had relative to its neighbors.
There is a resident caretaker of the monastery, described by one visitor in 2012 as “surly, and the only unfriendly person I met on the island,” so be forewarned.
After visiting the monastery, a trek to the top of the Gibraltar-like Mt. Kalamos is in order. It’s about an hour to the top, where you will find the now-deserted 18th century monastery of Panagia Kalamiotissa (Our Lady of Kalamos), open only on its September 8th feast day. The sparkling white church, with its sparkling white (as opposed to the traditional heaven-like blue) dome offers a stunning view of the island and the surrounding sea fading off into the mists of the far horizon from its 300m height.
Generally speaking, there are some really fine beaches all along the southern shore of Anafi, but just about all of them are unorganized, so you have to bring your own beach stuff. The Harbor Beach at Agios Nikolaos is just to the east of the mole. There are some rooms for rent right on the beach, which has nice sand, backed up by cliffs. Not too bad, and convenient if you just got off the boat.
Kleisidi beach is just 2km south of Hora, or a 20-minute walk from the port to the east. It’s a very nice, sandy beach with some palm trees nearby, and some places where you can say, and some places to eat. There’s a nice taverna here as well. A 15-minute walk further to the east takes you to Katsouni beach, another nice, sandy spot that is more private.
If you follow the trail system to the east towards Mt. Kalamos, you’ll come to Roukounas beach after about an hour. It’s the longest stretch of sand on the island. There are showers and toilets, and primitive camping is allowed. There is a small taverna, the only one on the island away from any population center, which also has rooms for rent.
To the east of Roukounas beach the shoreline is scalloped with a number of sandy coves and little bays known collectively as the Katalimatsa, the nicest of which is Agioi Anagiri, which is the name of the chapel perched dramatically on a rock cliff a few meters above the beach, with the looming bulk of Mt. Kalamos in the background like a massive storm cloud.
Anafi is not for everyone; if your idea of a Greek island holiday is partying all night long and roasting in the sun during the day, don’t bother. But if you want a quiet, slow, peaceful stay, friendly locals (except for that caretaker), some interesting archeology, great hiking trails, and private beaches, I can’t think of a better place to go.