Gavdos: An island ‘in need of much work’

Gavdos’s magic lies in its age-old cedar trees, its sand dunes and the waters of the Libyan Sea. But life on the island, south of Crete, isn’t all magic. There are problems that are as basic as water supply and energy management, despite funds totaling over 5.6 million euros allocated to Gavdos from the Crete Regional Program for 2000-2006. It’s easier to get to New York or Tokyo than to Gavdos, which is equidistant from Sounion and Tobruk. Apart from the bad weather that isolates the island at times, there is confusion about how to get there and where to stay. Locals cite electricity, water and transport, as well as land use regulations as their main problems. The Public Power Corporation (PPC) began supplying the island with electricity just three years ago but only half the residents are on the grid, despite sufficient voltage. PPC says that Sarakiniko, the seaside (and most populated) settlement is illegally built. «What about all the other illegally built houses in Greece? Are they all refused power?» locals retort. Photovoltaic cells donated by Siemens are scattered across the island but have not been properly installed or maintained, so most do not function. Problems with water management mean that supplies are rationed. About 60 people live on the island year-round, in additional to seasonal residents, according to the local priest Manolis Bikoyiannakis. Among the permanent inhabitants is community president Stratis Lambakis, municipal secretary Stefanos Bikoyiannakis and the staff member of the newly established Citizens’ Service Center (KEP). The port of Karave is on the northwest coast, a shadow of the ancient port of Lavraka which was once a trading center and source of wealth for the island. Winters are harsh on Gavdos. Only two small boats a week link it with Palaiohora on the southwest coast of Crete, vehicles cannot be transported by sea and the sea is often too rough for any craft. Just four people live in Karave – the Tsigonakis family, along with a seasonally employed police officer. There is a cafe-restaurant that has a few rooms to rent. «Plenty of money is allocated to Gavdos,» says Manolis Tsigonakis, «but it is not properly used. The port is still exposed to the south winds.» The closest settlement is Sarakiniko, on whose beautiful beach the first tourists set up camp a few decades ago. Back in 1979, Savvas Arkalakis built the first canteen, little more than a shack, to cater to the summer trade. Other islanders soon followed, setting up tavernas and then rooms to let, literally right on the sand. Ownership disputes have raised complex issues, hence PPC’s refusal to supply power to the 18 or so inhabitants. «Need brought us here,» remembers Ioanna Arkalaki. «Before that we lived in Metochia,» she said, referring to one of the many now abandoned settlements. Spyridoula Lougiaki lives in Sarakiniko with her husband and four children, the backbone of the local primary school that has just six pupils. The only surfaced road is from Karave to Sarakiniko and on to Kastri, the seat of the municipality and home to about 10 adults and one child, 3-year-old Hippocrates. Like the other settlements on Gavdos, Kastri is unlike villages in the rest of Greece that are generally built around a church and central square. It consists of just a few houses scattered among new rooms for rent owned by Vassilis Papadakis and the community president. The island’s doctor and teacher live in the municipal hostel. The first post for both of them, they have been thrown in at the deep end. «The biggest problem is transport,» says Dr Maria Marinaki. «In an emergency, it takes at least four to five hours to get a patient to Hania on a patrol boat, on which the patient is bounced around. Helicopters can’t land at night as there are no landing lights.» Vatsiana used to be home to 60 families, but now there is only the priest and his wife, their grandchild and four elderly women who spend their time tending chickens and vegetable patches. Father Manolis is in favor of organized tourism. «But first of all some work needs to be done. Unfortunately, we islanders can’t do much on our own. We don’t have the financial means. That’s a job for the state; we have hopes of every government that it will help us.» Ambelos is the southernmost and perhaps the oldest settlement, now home to three people, Artemis, Christini and their son Giorgis Damorakis. «In the 1950s our village had 53 inhabitants. Before the war there were 300, but afterward many left,» he said. Instead of bringing the people closer together, isolation has strained relations «In the old days we helped each other,» says Artemis. «Now they drink a lot and fight. The next day they’re friends again.» However, the people of Gavdos do appreciate what they have. «What do I want with Athens? To see thousands of people every day? I’d be more alone than I am here with these people. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the sound of motorcycles passing,» said one. This is one of a series of articles on Greece’s border settlements that appeared in the April 7-8 issue, the result of months of research by staff and associates, of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine.

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