YOU may not have heard of the city of Olympos. Not many Australians have. We wouldn't have either if we hadn't been sitting on a balcony sipping a glass of retsina in a higgledy-piggledy hotel above the port of Pigadia on the Greek Island of Karpathos.
Our balcony connected with that being used by the person next door. She was a regular Karpathos visitor. We were first-timers. She knew everything about the island.
“You must visit Olympos,” she told us as we sat a mere metre away from her, our closeness forcing us in to conversation.
“It was only discovered in the 70s,” she continued. “It was cut off from the rest of the island by a lack of road and the people lived without contact with the outside world. It didn't even have electricity until recently. The Olympos people speak a 2000-year-old dialect. It's a matriarchal society. The women rule there.”
We liked the sound of all that, especially the last bit.
So we left the buzz of Pigadia with its pretty taverna-lined harbour and bobbing fishing boats and set off in our hire car to find this forgotten city of Olympos.
It would have helped if we'd done a little research first, but we're not like that. We were just told it was “about an hour-and-a-half drive in the north”.
What we were not told was that the drive would take us over a stupendous mountain spine dissecting the narrow tip of the island. And that the road was not a road at all, rather a mere slash cut into the massive bulk of the mountains.
It was a terrible drive over those bare, brown mountains as they rose higher and higher with each slow kilometre. At every tight turn, colossal russet peaks soared to a brilliant blue sky. We were forced to drive at 15km/h, the trail so narrow in parts it was barely wide enough for two small cars. Not that we saw another vehicle. Or person. Not even a goat. The edges of the track were without barriers and looked down hundreds of metres on both sides to the glinting ocean far below. It was dangerous, isolated and so harshly beautiful it hurt the eyes.
After several hours alone and high on the mountains we drove into a swirling fog so thick we couldn't see a metre in front of us. Inching along the narrow track with those precipitous drops on each side, we shook with terror. Just when we thought it might be best to stop the car, lie down on the back seat and perhaps pray, Olympos suddenly loomed through the misty swirls.
Fear was instantly forgotten. After the austerity of the mountains this was breath-sapping. Tightly clustered pastel houses huddled prettily down the peak, delightful gelati colours against the stark brown of the earth.
We parked the car, raced in to Olympos like children to the tree on Christmas morning.
The locals might have been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, but they had now embraced tourism with impressive enthusiasm.
Every person now living at Olympos – most people took off when they discovered they could – had turned her home into a little B&B, shop or cafe. They beckoned to us in good English to buy their olive oil soap, lavender bags, postcards and cheap souvenirs. So much for the 2000-year-old dialect.
But there were signs of old traditions being upheld: an elderly bent woman carrying a huge bundle of sticks on her back; a weathered old man sitting in a doorway playing an instrument that looked like a sheep's bladder and sounded like a cat in torment.
We strolled the narrow alleys, inspected the small church and bought items we didn't want because we like to be responsible tourists. We stopped at a window where a cheerful woman wearing a black bolero was rolling gnocchi dough, a tray of freshly-picked zucchini flowers beside her.
“My restaurant is the best in Olympos,” she told us in perfect English, indicating the space behind her. Her ‘restaurant' consisted of a small room with tiny balcony hanging out over the mountain. “Go, wander, but come back to my place for lunch,” she said, and we promised we would. Her zucchini flowers were silently tempting.
We talked to the locals, we learnt. Olympos was first built down on the coast between the 7th and 9th centuries. The inhabitants, fed up with raids from pirates, took off up the mountain around the year 1400. They built houses and then a castle around them for protection. They were isolated, but safe. When the village grew, they built outside the castle, down the mountain.
But they kept themselves cut off from the rest of the world; nothing changed over the centuries. Now Olympos is mix of medieval and modern, a living museum. It was once a strictly matriarchal society, but not so much now.
Finally we went back to the woman cooking in the window, sat out on her little platform in the sky and asked for her zucchini flowers. They came not stuffed with ricotta, dipped in a tempura batter and lightly fried to golden crispness, but filled with plain rice, folded and folded into tiny yellow bits of squish smaller than half the size of a postage stamp – and boiled.
Our disappointment was total, but hey, we'd spent an interesting day in the forgotten city of Olympos. All we had to do now was make the terrible journey back over the mountains.
The next day we found out we could have reached Olympos by boat from Pigadia and driven a few of kilometres up from the port in a courtesy bus over a wide strip of bitumen road.
IF YOU GO
Karpathos lies between Rhodes and Crete in the Dodecanese in the South East Aegean Sea.
More information about the island on www.karpathos.org.
Take a tour boat from Pigadia to Olympos. Do not drive over the mountains.
Emirates flies regularly from Brisbane to Athens with easy connections in summer to Karpathos.
More information on Emirates visit www.emirates.com.au.
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