Late October. There was barely a scrap of cloud amid the endless blue sky, and the heat of the long, hot summer could still be felt in the glittering Aegean Sea. The summer crowds had all but dispersed, with just a few stragglers taking advantage of the cooler days to hike the island’s barren paths. I’d been invited to join one of my clients, Nissia Holidays, on the tiny island of Halki as they closed up for the season. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
An hour or so from Rhodes by ferry, Halki feels a world apart from the hustle and bustle of the largest and most popular Dodecanese Island. Despite living on nearby Tilos for seven months back in 2006, I’d never seen Halki and was excited to explore this quirky island and see for myself why UNESCO called it the ‘Island of Peace and Friendship’.
As the ferry chugged in we passed rows of striking Italianate houses, bathed in warm Mediterranean hues and stacked against the side of the barren hills that surround the harbour like an amphitheatre. Three sail-less windmills preside over the island’s only town, Emborio, from their hilltop vantage point, while the white wedding-cake spire of St Nicholas and silent clock-tower stand proud above the town roofs.
The story behind the silent clock tower says a lot about the essence of Halki. The bells once chimed, noisily, every 15 minutes until the people of Emborio cried, ‘no more!’ A decision was made to stop the clock and peace was restored, save the cawing of jackdaws that flock around the tower, coming to rest on the mute bells within. As someone who’s sensitive to noise and rather partial to a good night’s sleep, I wholeheartedly approve.
Emborio’s main church is, fittingly, dedicated to St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen. The gorgeous mansions lining the harbour illustrate the island’s wealth in the late 19th century, thanks to its thriving sponge-fishing industry. While those days are long gone, fishing is still an important part of daily life on Halki.
In the lazy days of late October, many of the tavernas had closed for the season, reducing the demand for fish and seafood. While the occasional boat puttered in and out to sate the appetite of the islanders, many of the boats bobbed silently, the water beneath so clear they looked like they were floating on air.
Every morning, I slipped in the water next to my house for a refreshing dip, gliding between boats as fishermen pottered onboard to close them down for winter. On my favourite morning swim, I was joined by a different sort of fisherman. A brilliant electric-blue-and-orange kingfisher darted past, looping around me twice as if to check me out before landing on the tree outside my house and peering at me curiously.
I followed my morning swims with a cheeky sunbathe, greedily soaking up the warmth of the late autumn rays until they left the cosy confines of my terrace. Later, I spent my time wandering slowly around Emborio, admiring the beautiful houses with their colourful shutters and marvelling at how even tumbledown buildings could be so beautiful.
On my final days in Halki, I left the peace and tranquillity of Emborio to explore the old village and a few of the pretty churches and monasteries dotted around its barren interior. As we puttered up the steep road out of town, we stopped at a viewpoint where I hopped off the bike to drink in the glorious view. From this vantage point just behind the small church of Stavros, I marvelled at how an island so close to Rhodes could be so different in character.
Huge thanks to Daffy, Meni & Steve at Nissia Holidays for inviting me to join them for their end of season party on Halki (it wasn’t a noisy party, don’t worry!), for their philoxenia (Greek hospitality) and island tour. Nissia Holidays are specialists in the unspoilt Greek islands of Halki and Tilos – I’ve been working with them over the past year under my copywriter’s hat, providing blog posts and rewriting parts of their website. I was invited to stay at the cosy Villa Nikos throughout my visit, so I could see for myself why this little island is so special.