Tejal Pandey may live in the city of Mumbai today, but deep within her lies the calm and serenity to be discovered in an instant during a stay on the Greek island of Paros.
The Aegean Sea on a bright sunny day is the colour of deep sapphire – a shade of blue like I had never seen before. Four hours on the Blue Star ferry from Piraeus, the ancient port at Athens was good enough time, we were told, to condition our minds to island life. Paros, with its spangle of white homes dotting the port against the shimmering waters seemed like the quintessential Greek island that’s often seen on postcards and in magazines. But what had us awestruck was the brilliance of this particle-less light filling up the camera frame as we drew closer to dock. Everything seemed a hundred notches clearer and brighter than usual, as though someone had wiped a film of dust off our eyes. It was only later that we would find a reference to this magical Greek light in The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, where he talks about how the light opened his eyes, penetrated his pores and expanded his whole being.
In Parikia, the island’s main town, our first fully fledged Greek dinner was at Aroma (Parikia Peripheral, Parikia 84400, +30 22840 21985), which serves delicious traditional cuisine. The island also has a number of smaller eateries for a quick gyro (meat and vegetables wrapped in pita bread) or souvlaki (meat and/or vegetables on sticks). Another must-try is a palm-sized fish called gavros, crispy fried and to be had whole – head and tail intact. One place that we ended up emptying our pockets was the local bakery. Don’t even think of leaving the island without savouring some of the mouth-watering baklava, orange cake and unforgettable honey-soaked biscuits called ‘melomakarono’.
Since cake and coffee go hand in hand, Micro Café (Parikia, 84400 Paros, Cyclades Islands, +30-22840 24674) was our regular haunt for our daily dose of hot beverages. Filled with books and music through the day, it transforms into the cosiest bar after sundown. Come Thursdays, which are official quiz nights, half the town converges here to play and mingle. Tucked away in an alley a few feet from Micro we found a go-to place for a quick lunch. A meat pie, a sunspot, and a cat for company fit right into the time we had between two classes. As a vegetarian option, there was always the spinach pie, traditionally known as ‘spanakopita’; crunchy outer layers stuffed with juicy spinach interspersed with cheese.
But as we soon find out, the near-empty streets and wide, calm island expanses are overwhelming and starkly different from the constant buzz of crowds and vehicles back home in Mumbai. The silence, strange at first, gets magnified during the siesta in the afternoons when practically all businesses shut down for a few hours of rest. Even the dozens of cats that noiselessly flit around like shadows through the day could be found snoozing away during siesta.
Parikia is also home to some ancient ruins and the popular fourth-century Byzantine church Panagia Ekatontapiliani – the Church of 100 Doors (that’s very close to the harbour) built by the Roman emperor Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena. The Byzantine Museum is housed in the same compound as the church.
Buses leaving from the port take about an hour or less to get to neighbouring towns such as Lefkes or Naoussa. Hike up through the hills and valleys from the point the bus drops you off. Trudging through winding roads, uneven valleys and dried-up riverbeds, if ever we felt a small pang of exhaustion all we needed to do was stop and stare at what was around us. Usually, it would be breathtaking views of the Aegean in the distance that would make all the effort worthwhile.
One such challenging hike was on the neighbouring island of Antiparos where we scrambled up a steep hillside to the highest point from where you can see and feel the entire Greek archipelago opening up before you. Sit and gaze into the never-ending blue that you know you will remember for a long, long time.
Need to know
Gulf Air flies to Athens via Bahrain, from Dhs2,267 return.
From Athens, take the Blue Star ferry from Piraeus port to Paros.