The Cyclades star in tourist brochures but locals lobby for better transport, schools, healthcare

You know the Cyclades, the jewel of Greek island life. They comprise a cluster of 24 islands, including the big headliners, such as Myconos and Naxos, and the small pearls, such as Anafi and tiny Sikinos. In the summer, the Cyclades belong to summering Athenians and tourists. In the winter, they belong to the island’s year-round residents. But during those long and low-profile months, there are often problems. The biggest one involves transportation from island to island, something that affects everything from children’s education to just paying the bills. In the summer you can go to Folegandros in four-and-a-half hours; in the winter, it takes 12. In the summer, you have a choice of vessels for travel; in the winter, you must settle for an old little boat that stops at eight ports before it reaches your destination. We spoke with mayors and community leaders from all around the Cyclades. They all agreed on one thing: Their region needs better connections with the rest of the Greek islands. They especially would like to see more regular ferry or boat service that would not inconvenience passengers by, say, going all the way back to Piraeus on a journey from a smaller Cycladic island to Syros. High-speed ferries often sit out the winter months because they are are expensive to operate and not made to travel in high winds. Inevitably, traveling with other vessels takes longer. Paros, Naxos, Ios, Thera (Santorini) and Syros have daily service by high-quality boats such as those of the Blue Star line, while some of the smaller Cyclades are ports of call once or twice a week. But that isn’t the case for the rest of the islands, which are serviced by old vessels that are often poorly maintained and riddled with problems. Needs unmet In many cases, sea transportation can affect the economics of local residents. For instance, some islands have no banks, which forces residents to travel by boat to the closest island to do any financial business. Three islands – Donousa, Irakleia, and Anafi – don’t even have automated teller machines (ATMs). Post offices take over some banking duties on the smaller Cyclades, but often these services are not enough. On Kythnos, the bank is open only twice a week. On Koufonissia, if people want to pay a bill, they must go to Naxos, which will cost them money in transportation and takes an entire day. During medical emergencies, islanders must resort to helicopters for transportation to major hospitals, often in Athens. The local doctor on Folegandros says that can happen any time of the year. Small islands do not have enough medical personnel and, during the summer months when the island’s population balloons from 400 to 6,000, medical care can be tough. Six Cycladic islands rely entirely on local doctors, who also order and sell medicine, since some of the islands do not have pharmacies. On larger islands, there are hospitals with at least one specialized doctor and health centers. Syros, the seat of governmental power for the Cyclades, has its Municipal Hospital, where many of the country doctors are trained. But if smaller islands need general practitioners, these positions are never filled. Primary and secondary schools operate on most of the Cyclades, if there are enough students. Often, however, students must travel from island to island to go to class, especially in the upper levels. On Antiparos, for instance, students must finish high school on the closest island – in this case Paros – since the middle school on Antiparos only has a class for the first year of high school. Daily transportation by boat, especially during winter months, is a serious problem. Students must depend on the sea, which can often turn wild and make travel impossible. The local mayor of Antiparos says he recalls at least 18 times during the last school year when the island’s students had to miss class on Paros because the sea was too rough for travel. Time for relaxation Residents of the smaller Cyclades say they cannot depend on much of what big-city residents take for granted. But they aren’t unhappy. They say life on the islands is beautiful. «It’s just that our lives are different and many times much better than the lives of people who live in the big cities,» said Panayiotis Krontiras, mayor of the greater area of Tinos. «Those big-city residents should be jealous of us, not the other way round.» During the winter, life on the Cyclades rolls along slowly, and people are less stressed than in the busy high-season months of summer. Residents use the long winter to recharge for the intense summer – relaxing, taking vacations, playing with their kids, and immersing themselves in their hobbies. Cultural and intellectual offerings vary from island to island: Often, the smaller the island, the fewer the opportunities for arts and culture. However, some islands work together to organize cultural events or celebrations. Construction work also takes place during winter. Construction is now a familiar force on all Greek islands – on small islands which have not yet been developed for tourism, on islands close to Attica which have become popular summer residences for urbanites, and even on islands that are perennial favorites for tourists. Unique touches Each island of the Cyclades distinguishes itself through its history, customs and natural resources: Syros, as the capital, has most of the public services in the Cyclades and also serves as a main clearinghouse for maritime-related businesses; residents from the smaller islands often take boats there for repair. Kythnos has the largest family of anglers in the Cyclades, with 26 fishing boats. In the community of Panormou on Tinos, residents mine marble and put it to practical and artistic use. Sifnos has its potters and Andros its sailors. Kimolos and Milos have ore mining, while Naxos has cheese factories – and in its mountain villages, its emery. Ios has ranches which hold some 5,000 animals. Thirasia has a bevy of retired sailors, who, according to the community’s president, «have finally found the peace and quiet they have always wanted.» And Santorini and Myconos are immersed in their thriving tourism trade. (1) This article first appeared in the February 5 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.