Donousa may be remote and barren but the islanders love it

We reached the island on the new subsidized service of Blue Star Ferries, which sails between Piraeus and Donousa twice a week. Another service is run by the Express Skopelitis but this has recently been reduced to three times a week so as to avoid delays at the other islands it serves. The island therefore has to depend on supplies shipped from Amorgos and Naxos. The reduction in ferryboat services is indeed a setback for the islanders, in particular in the winter when gale-force winds often prevent the ferryboats from sailing. Left to its own devices to fend against the strong winds that blow in the area, Donousa is more isolated than before. «Naturally I gave in my notice,» said the island’s president, Yiannis Prasinos, on his recent resignation from the Association for Cooperation and Development of the Amorgos Municipality and Communities of Donousa, Irakleia, Koufonisia and Schoinousa.» His wife, Chrissi Prasinou, said, «Donousa is barren, wild and harsh, but it survives.» Her words aptly described what we discovered on our arrival: waves, rain and wind. High season The island is now making preparations for the tourist season. Some are whitewashing the walls, the tavernas are getting ready to open and the works for the water supply network are moving at a faster pace. The first cash point (ATM) of ATEbank, recently installed, awaits custom. Michalis Prasinos and his brother Vassilis are organizing summer cultural events together with the islands of Folegandros and Sikinos. Nearly all of the island’s 120 rooms have been booked for the month of August. Gradually the rooms are also being taken for July. The islanders are well aware of the implications of tourist development. They do not like the numerous constructions and many are already unhappy with the two-story buildings that have sprouted on the island, which they see as a blot on the traditional one-story architecture. However it is difficult to earn a living from a little farming, stockbreeding and fishing. «Before the war there was a metal mine at Kedros and enough work. We did all the jobs then. We were construction workers, farmers and fishermen rolled into one. We were poorer then but it was better. We would all gather every Sunday here and celebrate,» reminisced Costas Kovaios. «Tourism is an easy solution,» the islanders maintain. Livestock breeding is still possible but many have abandoned farming because of insufficient rainfall. Giorgos Markoulis remembered when it rained continuously for three days 30 to 40 years ago and the water flowed down to the sea. «We used to produce 150 tons of onions. We sold the produce to Chios, Lesvos and Kalymnos but now we have to buy from Naxos. At Mersini, tons of peaches were grown.» The small dry plots that many of the islanders still cultivate are now for growing crops for their own consumption. Agritourism, however ideal it might sound to a community that has strong ties with farming traditions, does not appeal to the inhabitants because of the red tape. They worry about commissions demanded by middlemen and the lack of information. Thus every islander builds five rooms or opens a taverna and they all do what they can to bring up their children. Manolis Markoulis has chosen to follow his father’s profession, a fisherman on a small caique. «We go out at 5.30 in the morning and return at 8.» Athens and its frenetic life style is not for him. The young that have remained on the island are mainly men. The few women that do stay on Donousa often marry men from other places, enriching the list of surnames which are considered to be typical of Donousa, such as Markoulis, Sigalas, Kovaios, Venetsanos and Roussos. Dimitris Missiris from Athens has not regretted following his wife to live on Donousa: «In Athens I worked from 7 in the morning till 8 in the evening and could never put any money in the bank. Here I provide for my family, I run a store and I am gradually investing in the island.» The people on Donousa are calm, cheerful and tolerant. They have their disputes and problems but they manage. The island has even won over the doctor, Leonidas Zografakis. «On my very first day I had an urgent case to deal with. Because of the rough sea and strong winds I couldn’t find transportation for my patient. We managed to move the patient on a small boat from Amorgos and when I returned I wanted to hand in my resignation,» a common remark from doctors unprepared for islands such as Donousa. «Now the island has won me over and I have already applied to extend my stay by six months.» Child-centered Donousa has preserved classic Cycladic qualities: tranquillity, unassuming beauty, clean air and good food. The red mullet smells of iodine and the fishing boats are a perfect setting for a hot fish soup and fresh lobster. An ancient settlement of the Geometric period at Vathi Limenari is evidence that the island was inhabited as early as the 9th century BC. The century-old juniper trees, whose shade is much sought after by campers, add their own timelessness to the setting, while the graceful palm trees are striking. The play of light and shadow in the water at Fokospilia is also charming. The island is just 13.5 square kilometers and the only asphalt road starts from the port and reaches Kalotaritissa in the north. The village is inhabited by three or so old people. The village of Messaria was abandoned about a year ago. Mersini is the second-largest village on the island after Stavros, with a population of 13 people all of whom share two different surnames. Despite the villagers’ weather-beaten, sunburnt and deeply wrinkled faces they have a sparkle in their eyes. The houses are without railings and fences while there are verses by Elytis inscribed on the walls. At Mersini, the water spring and plane tree come as a surprise, for it is one of the few plane trees to be found on a Cycladic island. In a school environmental project all the primary school children wrote that they would not like to see it ruined. The children are at the center of the Donousa community. The whole island belongs to them and, without the restrictions typical of a city, play never ceases, offsetting any disadvantages encountered at the small primary school which has only five girls and one boy. In the junior high school the situation is more difficult: There are five pupils and there is one senior high school student. It is impossible to do group work and competition is lacking. During the university entrance exams they have to compete on unequal terms. «I lead a different life. I have always been alone at school,» said Evangelia Prasinou, who is in the second grade of senior high school. «It’s nice here on the island. But it would be better for me to leave and study elsewhere and then return.» None of the children want to leave Donousa for good. The children also help their parents in their tasks. Sofia Mavrou, the eldest in the family, has worked in the family’s grocery since the age of 8. «Then I used to do the sums on a calculator but now I use the cash register. I’ve got tired of it though. I see kids sitting around all day in the summer and I wish I could too, even for just a week.» Her friend, Sofia Skopeliti, helps out in her father’s taverna. They have both gone to the port to pick up new supplies from the Skopelitis Express, which hastens to leave for its other island destinations. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly color supplement, K, on June 19.

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