There’s a beautiful gem of an island in the Ionian sea, called Paxos. It’s accessible via catamaran from Corfu Town. The 60-minute journey takes you south along Corfu’s eastern coastline, and continues 11km onwards from its southernmost tip.
It’s an island not many people have heard of, and even fewer have been to. Yet when I started dating a former boyfriend of mine back in 2008, and I learned that his parents lived there, said ex-boyfriend was surprised that I was not only familiar with his parent’s residential retreat, but that I had actually set foot on the island.
I was 16, it was the last holiday I took with my parents, and the first time I’d ever flown. It was the beginning of a love affair I developed for Greece, which lasted some years, and part of this holiday was a day trip over to Paxos – which incidentally is how most tourists initially become acquainted with this tiny island.
Paxos is just 8km long and 3km wide, so it can very easily be explored within the window of a few days. However I spent more than 6 weeks here over a period of 3 years.
Through the medium of becoming friends with 2 of the island’s residents (who incidentally had been living on Paxos for around 8 years when I first visited with my former boyfriend, Alec), I was able to learn a little bit about the experience of living on an island which in many ways is very far removed from urbanisation, modernisation, and from services we take for granted in the little western bubble of our everyday life.
Paxos is so small that it’s not unusual to have any one of the island’s recognised beaches, to yourself – just outside the height of summer. What’s more, even in July and August, the majority of tourists visit Paxos on a day trip from Corfu, and don’t tend to venture much farther than Gaios – Paxos’ capital town. So the island’s other villages, Lakka and Longos – and all the other settlements in between – are wonderfully devoid of tourists.
However the flip side of living on an island so small is that if you’re unlucky enough (although the concept in itself was very appealing to Alec’s mother), you can have a ride in a Chinook, because there is no hospital on Paxos; only a single Health Care Centre. So if you need urgent medical treatment, the American twin-engine helicopter will fly you over to the hospital in Corfu Town.
There is also no Veterinary Surgery, so many residents fail to get their dogs and cats neutered, and will simply abandon their offspring because they simply do not have the money, resources or inclination to look after so many animals. Alec’s mother and step-father have cared for a menagerie of cats and dogs over the years, two of which they found whimpering inside a bin bag when they dropped some rubbish off at the local skip. One of the dogs they rescued had been found tied to a tree, barely alive due to days – possibly weeks – without food and water.
When they moved to Paxos 8 years previously, they brought Muppet with them, a gorgeous little brown and white Spaniel who was still a puppy then. When I first visited, she was an ageing dog with a gammy foot, but still retained her playful tendencies. She never tired of running after the permanently soggy, slightly battered tennis ball, despite the pain she clearly endured by doing so, and she would incessantly bark at you and look at you with those big endearing brown eyes, until you threw said ball – time and time again.
Over the years preceding my visit, Muppet had been joined by numerous other canine and feline companions, most under similar circumstances to those I’ve described. Alec’s mother and step-father are self-confessed animal lovers and couldn’t bear to see a needy animal left on the street to die.
Life on Paxos is also expensive because many foodstuffs, and other essential and non-essential items have to be brought over from Corfu or the mainland. Alec’s step-father was lucky enough to retain his job in the U.K as a Graphic Designer, as he now works from his office at home on Paxos.
However even that’s not as advantageous as it sounds: his company seem to be under the impression that because he lives on an idyllic Greek Island, he is evidently always on holiday. So he finds himself inundated with work and struggling to meet strict deadlines.
On the 3 occasions Alec and I visited, at the most he was able to take 3 days off within the 2 weeks we were there. Considering this is the only 2 weeks of the year that he has the opportunity to spend time with his step-son, you can begin to understand just how hard he has to work for his money.
Alec’s mother on the other hand was working 3 jobs at one point, just so as they could make ends meet. Her main job was as a tour guide/representative for a local travel company, but she was also employed at a restaurant a couple of nights a week, and did some casual cleaning work at some nearby holiday villas/apartments.
The problem being that these types of jobs are seasonal, so over the summer months you have to work enough hours to have the money to tide you through the winter. Although both of them speak Greek and are well liked and well respected by the locals, it is nigh on impossible to get any other kind of work on the island.
But there is a reason they have chosen to remain living on Paxos for so long. They love the friendliness and hospitality of the people, the uncomplicated, unhurried, and tranquil pace of life, the warm Ionian sunshine, the traditional Greek lifestyle, and the beautiful scenery that constantly surrounds them.
Whilst Alec’s mother and step-dad were working during the daytime, we would hop on one of their scooters and – with the help of “Landscapes of Paxos” (published by Sunflower books) – we would do our best to explore every inch of this beautiful island.
We’d take endless walks through olive groves and deserted villages, along cliff tops and goats’ paths, we’d pass roadside shrines, abandoned vehicles, ancient churches, colourful flowers, we’d spot goats, donkeys, lizards, snakes, countless cats and dogs, crabs as they climbed the rocks beside the harbourside cafe at which we’d stopped, we’d sip frappes and munch on Greek salads loaded with Feta, we’d snorkel in the beautifully clear waters of Paxos’ numerous beaches, we’d follow unmarked tracks to an elusive windmill, a crumbling Venetian manor, or a stunning viewpoint, and we’d be constantly surrounded by the aromas of oregano, mint, jasmine, and the smell of the sea.
In the evenings we’d enjoy meals at Alec’s parents’ favourite restaurants on the island. We’d be welcomed with open arms by Yannis at Nionios’ (a good friend of theirs with whom they’d socialise outside of work but with whom Alec’s step-dad had also worked, on the restaurant signage), and we’d always look forward to his exuberant, passionate and well-rehearsed tour of all the dishes on the menu that evening.
He always had an infectious energy about him, and was constantly smiling – despite being the only waiter at what appeared to be the busiest and most popular restaurant on the island.
We’d go for sunset picnics at Plani beach or Kastenida cliffs, or we’d stoke up the barbeque at home, and wash fresh fish and salad down with copious amounts of red wine, we’d sit outside by the harbour after dark, at the bar where Igiri once was resident, and listen to the waves gently lapping up on the rocks, we’d share laughter and stories, we’d gain knowledge and understanding, we’d learn a little more of the language with each day that passed.
I began to appreciate both the beauty of the place that Alec’s parents now call home, and the lure of the lifestyle here. Asked if they’d ever go back, I was met with a resounding “no!”
Agreed, Paxos is not somewhere to come for its architecture (there are no historically recognised monuments here), or its nightlife, and it’s distinctly lacking in sandy beaches (there is one man-made one at Moggonissi; the rest are shingle), but for me its appeal far surpasses the need for any of those.
Here are a few of my favourite things about this lesser-known Greek island:
1. Tripitos Arch
Tripitos is my favourite spot on Paxos, partly because of its inaccessibility (it’s not somewhere you would simply stumble upon; even boats don’t venture much around this windy side of the island, with it’s rocky shores and strong currents), and partly due to the stunning turquoise waters that surround it, and the contrasting sense of freedom and isolation you feel by being here.
What makes Tripitos so dramatic is the fact that – as you approach it – the towering limestone rock appears to be joined to the island by an incredibly thin arch. It looks incomprehensibly narrow until you are actually crossing it. So as Alec was crossing it for the first time, my heart was in my mouth – until I followed his path and did the same.
2. Limestone Pavements
Again, this is not somewhere you would just stumble upon, and neither is it signposted. None of the best sights on Paxos are signposted, which is a huge part of their appeal; it really makes you feel as if you’re treading where few have trodden, and discovering hidden treasures. The limestone pavements are accessed via a donkey path, walled on either side, and are one of the first sights that Jenny and Grant introduced me to. It is likely that the small stone structure outside the derelict house (above) is an old donkey trough.
As you follow the shooter’s track on to the cliff tops, you are surrounded by the aromas of mint and oregano, from the abundance of plants growing along there. The pavements afford some spectacular views down on to Avlaki Creek: a lovely secluded little cove, and somewhere it’s not unusual to see goat herders at work along the track which leads there.
3. Sunsets at Kastenida cliffs
According to Alec’s parents, this is the best spot on the island to watch the sun set. We’d bring wine and a mini picnic, pose for some amusing sunset photos, and then perch on the wall and wait for that beautiful orange sphere to finally disappear behind the horizon.
4. The Abundance of Cats and Lizards
Okay so you may argue that cats and lizards can be found in countless locations around the world, and you’re not wrong.
I remember the streets of Dubrovnik being filled with adorable felines; one of whom sat expectantly beneath the table at which I was eating, licking its lips after each strand of spaghetti it willingly accepted from me. I remember spotting some of the biggest geckos I’ve ever seen climbing the hostel walls over various locations in Cambodia.
However, the abundance of these creatures on Paxos is definitely one of my favourite things about spending time here. I find it comforting to fall asleep to the sounds of the geckos chattering away on the ceiling, and lunchtimes somehow aren’t complete without the presence of a cat beside the table, or roaming around the vicinity somewhere. During the many walks we’d take around the island, I’d never tire of a new cat or lizard sighting.
5. The Food & Dining Culture
Second to Thai food, Greek is definitely one of my favourites. Olives, Eggplant (Aubergine), Zucchini (Courgette) Feta, Hummus (ok, so arguably its origins are middle-eastern but it’s eaten abundantly all over Greece due to the sheer number of olives trees and thus the huge quantities of olive oil produced), and a plethora of fresh fish and seafood are a combination of the reasons I fell in love with Greek cuisine.
The traditional Greek Salad (so simple yet so tasty) is one of my favourite dishes, along with Prawn Saganaki, Briam and Dolmades (the non-meat version!)
On Paxos it’s not solely about the food and the flavours though; the dining culture in itself is an enticing part of the cuisine for me.
The experience of eating fresh fish and seafood by the harbour’s edge, whilst the refreshing, calming smell of the sea permeates the air, and boats rock gently upon the water, is what life on Paxos is all about.
Yes, its residents work hard for the life they lead, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.