THERE IS only one taxi on the island of Folegandros so we arrange for our hotel to send a car to the port.
The mid-morning sky is watercolour gradient of pale-grey and blue. The heat of the September sun is unexpectedly intense, eased only slightly by the dry Cycladic breeze which gently rocks the neat rows of multi-coloured fishing boats in the harbour.
We’ve chosen Folegandros as an escape. A hideaway from a world seemingly ridden with tension and turmoil – there are no direct flights here and no package holidays – and as our vehicle climbs through steep, arid valleys it’s easy to believe we’ve landed on a different planet completely.
The landscape is Martian. Dry, red earth dotted with twisted thyme bushes.
Lonely chapels huddled to the hillside, waiting for the faithful.
Donkeys scouring the ground for some form of nourishment.
Their bony frames suggest little sustenance is available here, for them at least, but my soul already feels replenished as we pull into the quaint village square and up the hill.
This is Chora, the island’s capital. A network of enchanting whitewashed streets and sugarcube houses, where the air swirls with the heady scent of grilled meats and salty sea air, beneath gnarled canopies boasting proud bursts of magenta flowers.
The entire town perches perilously on the edge of a cliff 200 metres above the sparkling Aegean Sea, in the shadow of the Church of Pangia.
It’s a dramatic landscape riddled with an equally as dramatic history. Folegandros, which is home to just 650 people, was used as a place of exile for political prisoners centuries ago. Today, however, the island is fast becoming a place where many seek a more voluntary form of escapism, away from a hectic existence back home.
We’re staying at the Folegandros Apartments, a charming collection of typical Cycladic white buildings, trimmed with intense hues of blue. A path zig-zags up the hill to the famous church behind and, just a few metres from the hotel front, you can stare out across the sprawling sea, the islands of Sifonos and Antiparos beckoning on the horizon.
Every turn on this tiny island presents a vista worthy of a million postcards, yet in mid-September, as we spend five blissful days exploring dirt tracks that trickle down hillsides to hidden beaches, we pass only a handful of vehicles and the occasional hiker or two.
It’s easy to imagine you’ve travelled back in time on Folegandros, as if the world’s not yet woken up to the raw beauty Greece has to offer.
Yet if you speak to the locals, the tourism giant is stirring.
“The number of tourists here this September is double that of last year,” a waiter tells me during our visit to Karavostasi.
He places two ice cold bottles of Mythos on the paper tablecloth, followed by a plate of mixed seafood – plump mussels, juicy prawns and charred octopus – all caught just steps away, in the harbour we overlook.
“People are coming here to get married, they bring their friends and they see the island, and then they come themselves,” he says.
I ask him if he thinks it’s a good thing but he just shrugs and laughs, “It helps us pay the high taxes I suppose.”
He’s unsure whether the tranquillity of this still somewhat hidden gem he calls home is worth compromising in exchange for crowds of cash-rich tourists.
And, as we tuck into our lunch while watching fisherman gathering their nets, throwing scraps to the scrawny cats that dash in and out of the shade, I understand his quandary.
People come here in search of their portion of peace, looking for the ‘true’ Greek island experience – as we have – and they get it.
The shimmering turquoise seas, the blindingly white cuboid houses that trim the cliff top like a frosting of snow, it’s all here. But then we leave and we tell others, as I am now, so who knows what Folegandros will look like in ten or twenty years?
In a perfect world it will be no different, even if there are more people. The key is to appreciate the island for what it is and expect no more.
Indulge in the homely local delicacies of Matsata – a locally made pasta served with rooster, and expect no English fry-ups or fish and chips.
Wander the perilous paths that teeter on sharp edges, and (carefully) appreciate the natural beauty of the abyss below, without wondering where the safety barriers are.
Stretch out in the warm rays of the Aegean sun under an olive tree in a hidden cove. And don’t ask why there are no sun loungers or cocktail waiters on hand.
If we appreciate Folegandros for what it is – a haven of startling natural beauty, with a true passion for authentically Greek hospitality – without demanding the comforts of modern-day tourism and all the negatives that come with it, then the island’s tourism industry may just be able to flourish without compromise.
We travelled to Folegandros from Santorini in September 2017, flying from Manchester to Santorini with Easyjet and by SeaJet 2 to Folegandros.