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Kea, or Tzia, the island with a thousand faces

The island of Kea, better known as Tzia, lies just 16 nautical miles off Lavrion – the nearest port on the coast of Attica and just an hour’s voyage by sea. First-time visitors usually come at the prompting of friends who have holiday homes there, or else simply because it’s so close to Athens. They return in order to discover more of this island’s many faces. The island is a popular spot for many people. People in their 30s go there to escape the city and enjoy clean beaches and a relaxed nightlife. Art lovers go to see the work of Alekos Fassianos or for Nikos Vourkariani’s art gallery. Hikers explore its 36 kilometers of trails (most of them mapped and stone-paved). Celebrity groupies go there to spot their favorite stars. Yacht enthusiasts also go there. «The fashion for pleasure boats came here in the 1980s, when the industrialist Dimitris Karellas arrived with a cruiser as big as the local passenger ferry. He would invite everyone you could think of,» says Katerina Marouli, a restaurant owner in Vourkari. «The rest would follow Karellas. It’s not the same now that anyone can hire a yacht. At that time, there were very few. Our restaurant was just a little fishing tavern. The island economy was based on livestock breeding and an enamel factory. Then the yachts came. The island became famous and slowly people began to buy land. They were people with means. Tzia has never been a place for caravans or holiday ‘shacks’.» Whatever the attraction of Tzia, sooner or later, everyone goes to Vourkari to try the Marouli family’s famous lobster pasta, gaze at the yachts moored at the pier, visit the Vourkariani art gallery (now in its 33rd year), or have a drink one evening at the Vinylio or one of the other few bars along the beach. «You don’t come to Tzia for the night life,» say Yiannis and Christina, who come here at least one weekend a year. «You come to relax. But you shouldn’t come without booking a room, as demand outstrips supply. High season in Tzia is Friday to Sunday every week from Easter until the end of September.» The Kastriani Monastery is a world away from Vourkari. A narrow winding road leads to the entrance, where Father Lefteris is expecting us for coffee. «Until last year it was a dirt road, so you are lucky!» he tells us. «No Tzia resident would dream of coming to the island without at least one visit to Kastriani.» In ruins until 20 years ago, Kastriani came to life again during the 1980s after the arrival of Father Lefteris. The 11 cells were renovated and rented out in summer, mostly to the families of bridal couples who chose to marry at the monastery. «We didn’t have tourism in our blood. We used to think it was a sign of destitution to have paying guests in one’s home. And we weren’t a sea-going people, we were farmers. If a bride’s father didn’t like his son-in-law, he would give him a house overlooking the sea, the old people used to say,» he explained. Upmarket Tzia But times have changed. Koundouros, with its mill houses built of stone, is known by locals as the «Ekali» of Tzia, after the northern suburb of Athens. It’s where the most expensive holiday homes on the island are built and where the rich and famous of Athens congregate, says architect Lakis Yiannakopoulos. «The island has several special characteristics because of its archaeological sites, its forests and road network which makes access to some areas difficult. That is why there is such a wide range of prices for land, from about 9,000 euros to over 45,000 euros per ‘stremma’ (0.10 hectares),» he said. Construction is going on everywhere, nearly every holiday house has a swimming pool and dozens of cars are parked along the country lanes at weekends. If you aren’t attracted by the Myconos atmosphere of the beach at Koundouros, get out your map and head for Sykamia or Spathi, with its seaside tavern Kaikas. Don’t forget to visit the island’s capital, known as Ioulida and Chora. The capital is built on a rock on the site of one of the island’s four ancient towns. It’s characterized by its typical island architecture in ochre and white, and covered archways at the entrances. The artist Alekos Fasianos chose to live in Ioulida and Xyla. There is no room for cars – Ioulida’s secrets are to be discovered on foot. Exploration of its narrow alleys and stairways cold take hours, stopping off at the Panorma for «galaktoboureko» made, we are told, from local fresh milk. «Once, the town only came alive at weekends, when the men would ride back to town from their pastures. The rest of the time would be spent in houses out in the fields,» recalls Vasiliki, a local woman. «Now that the younger people are building their houses out in the fields, the older ones are coming to live in town for the company.» At the little taverna in the «Piazza,» the oldest square in Ioulida, hikers meet before heading off along the Aristaio route that cuts through eastern part of the island, through the ash forest and the paved path to Profitis Ilias that leads to ancient Karthaia. The road passes by the home of Kyriakos Paouris, high up in Ioulida, who along with Father Lefteris in Kastriani belongs to a small group of people trying to preserve the musical tradition of the tsambouna, which «the young people look down on because they don’t know any better.» At the small workshop owed by Kyriakos, who used to be a saddler in his youth, his grandson is learning the secrets of this traditional instrument. Kyriakos takes up a finished instrument and begins to play, sitting beside an old fuel heater. As the light fades, he puts away his tools; his eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. It’s almost time for the lobster pasta in Vourkari, the hikers are heading back and the lights are coming on around the swimming pools in Koundouros. On Tzia, there is something for everyone. This article first appeared in the August 21 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.