Braving the Winds on a Greek Isle

We arrived in Tinos at night and the wind hit us full blast. It was hard to breathe, like when you’re a kid and you stick your head out the back window of a speeding car. The rows of broom grass shrubs on the rental property pointed at us, horizontal. Airborne grains of sand and dirt stung our shins.

We had been expecting Tinos’s famous Meltemi, the seasonal and often fierce northern winds that blow through the islands in the summer, to cool us down after a heat wave suffocated Rome, where we live. But not this. We walked up to the house, struggling against the wind with the exaggerated steps of mimes.

“You get used to it,” the property manager who greeted us shouted over the gales. He also told me to repark the small yellow car we had rented, so that it faced the oncoming wind. This way, he explained, the gusts would not rip the opened doors off and send them flying into the Tinos night. “It could create some serious damage,” he said.

Inside, he informed us that he was a gym teacher, and he had a lesson for our kids — their hair mussed, their balance off — about the Meltemi. Tinos, known in antiquity as the “island of the winds,” was, he claimed, the birthplace of Aeolis, the Greek god who managed the violent storm winds. The wind needed to be respected, he said. The doors needed to stay shut. Don’t touch the windows.

Elena Horowitz, 12, and Luca Horowitz, 10, struggle to stay upright in the Tinos wind.Credit…Jason Horowitz

‘Mad dashes to the car’

Tinos is the third largest island in the Cyclades and has more than 60 villages, most still inhabited and folded into Aegean-facing cliff sides or valleys like spilled white paint. The water ringing its beaches is turquoise. Itsblood orange sunsets aresurreal. The home of a miracle-working church and countless sanctuaries, Tinos is, for Greeks, as renowned a pilgrimage destination as its heavy-breathing neighbor, the also windy Mykonos, is a mecca for hedonists. But with dining having replaced praying as the modern religious experience, the island has taken advantage of its rich soil, terraced by stone walls since the Bronze Age, to redefine itself as a foodie paradise.

With a wuthering force field protecting the island from overtourism, overdevelopment and overdoing it, we hoped Tinos would refresh us, that its restaurants would replenish us, that the rugged landscape would leave us blown away. We almost were.

Our daily ventures began with mad dashes to the car, where I opened one door at a time while my wife, Claudia, and the kids cowered behind the trunk. “Elena, get in!” I’d scream as I cracked it just wide enough for my 12-year-old daughter to dive through.

One morning, I had to take out the trash and the garbage bags swelled like sails, nearly lifting me off the ground. I imagined myself Icarus, floating across the island on plastic wings, dripping not wax but olive pits, capers and Nissos beer dregs into the sea.

Once we left the outcrop upon which our house perched, we quickly discovered that locals had for centuries built in spots protected from the passing Meltemi winds — and pirates. They had settled into nooks on the sheer cliffs or copper-colored inland valleys. Newer developments, like ours, eager to attract sunset chasers, seemed to perch in places exposed to the elements. Tinos’s towns, we quickly learned, were the places to be.

In Isternia, a town on a rugged mountain slope, locals greeted one another in the square and people looked down at the sea and ate breakfasts of yogurt or pancakes at the chic and pleasantly breezy Mayou All-Day Bar. Pyrgos, tucked deeper inside the island, is one of Tinos’s most developed towns. Home to a marble-sculpting school and a marble museum — the doors of which blew open as we learned about the importance of the crowbar in quarries — the town has several cafes and tavernas facing each other on steps still scaled by old women in black dresses. These towns are so quiet and untrammeled, you can hear doors opening, people approaching, TVs droning.

Pyrgos, one of Tinos’s most developed towns, is home to a marble-sculpting school and a marble museum.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times
The town of Volax, surrounded by car-size boulders.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

In nearby Loutra, Claudia felt a stiffness in her neck. A Roman, she worried that the wind had afflicted her with an epic case of colpo d’aria, the blast of air that many Italians blame for absolutely everything that ails them. But she loosened up in Volax as she looked around at the Martian terrain of car-size boulders. The town has busy cafes, some quaint shops and a little outdoor market where Elena picked out a print by a local artist.

“I put the tape because of the wind, you know?” Alexandros Fitsopoulos, the printmaker, said as he peeled the paper off the table. “They’re going to fly maybe.”

Volax has cafes, quaint shops and an outdoor market selling local art, among other things.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

The blue print was of a pigeon house. Hundreds of house-size dovecotes spot the island. The Venetians, who took control of the island after the Crusades, brought in craftsmen to build square warehouses topped with a second level that resembled a crenelated fort, adorned with rows of rhomboids and triangles. There the birds nested, apparently to feed the nobles or fertilize their fields. Some have been converted into luxury hotels, but most were for the birds. In Myrsini, we watched as a flock of white doves swooped around the tower, their flapping wings like a clean sheet beaten off a balcony.

At the end of the day, we drove back to the house, the kids eager to hit the small pool we had splurged on. But the wind made the water rough. An ocean spray of chlorinated water hit us as we approached. Luca, who is 9 and contractually obligated to cannonball into every pool he sees, took the leap and we struggled against the current, the wind driving waves into out battered, ecstatic faces.

The property manager walked by and gave us a thumbs up.

“Tag us on Instagram!” he shouted.

The wind buffets umbrellas and makeshift beach shelters on a beach in Tinos.Credit…Getty

Flying books and beach beds

At night we discovered the great irony of our Wind Palace. The air whipped around us, bellowing like the Big Bad Wolf, but because everything had to be hermetically sealed, it was airless inside. When I opened a window in the middle of the night to gulp in air, our ears popped. Don’t touch the windows.

The next morning, still groggy from sleep and oxygen deprivation, Tinos seemed a dreamscape. Along with the small white sanctuaries, the white dovecotes scattered all over the stark landscape seemed from afar like sprinkled sugar cubes. When our mood darkened, they looked more like abandoned major appliances.

Goats wander freely on Tinos.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

We drove long, winding roads lined with wild marjoram and sage and dried-out pom-poms of woody fleabane through which unfazed goats looked at us with yellow eyes. The wind-borne clouds cast sporadic, aquatic shadows over the gray road. The sea itself, far below, was so churned as to seem snowcapped. Close up, the wind silvered the clear water’s surface, like light flashing over fish scales.

We plopped down on beach beds shielded by rustling, well-grounded thatched umbrellas. We read our books and took our dips at Isteria or on the beaches of Kardiani Bay or Agios Romanos. One gust sent flying two of the beds, an ice cream stick, Luca’s book. Other times a napkin spun like a Chinese star. Still, the water was cool and turquoise. The beer cold. The Greeks inexplicably chill.

We were slightly more uptight. First, having the combined complexion of a Kleenex, we required constant applications of sunscreen. Second, because we were constantly hungry. But, for a place known as a dining destination, eating wasn’t always easy, because there is often only one good taverna per town. On our first night, Claudia called one in the cliff-side town of Kardiani. We had previously booked for 8 p.m. and she asked if they could seat us an hour later.

“Better,” the waiter said.

“No food,” he said when we got there.

“But we would have come at 8 if we knew there was not going to be any food,” Claudia said.

“I didn’t know that then,” he explained, adding that more people than expected had shown up. I looked at the full tables, many filled with the French who have for decades made Tinos a favorite destination. I asked him why he hadn’t held the table and some food. “It wasn’t my choice.”

“Whose choice was it?” I asked.

“I cannot tell you that,” he said.

Tinos was a mysterious, windswept place.

Other eateries were more accessible. At Tereza, a grocery turned taverna, Maria Darmi, 33, served food from her family’s gardens and pig farms. We gorged on fried feta drenched in honey, rooster in red sauce and artichoke pies as wind blew over our bread basket and sent a branch flying, like an arrow, at the white wall beside my head.

“This year is strange,” Ms. Darmi said. “The previous year it was so hot and we said, ‘Oh, my God, we need wind.’”

Prayers and miracles

Tinos is a place where prayers — at least, culinary prayers — are answered. In Kounaria, a taverna in the town of Aetofolea, ours was a second portion of onion pie. On the outdoor patio of nearby O Ntinos, it was caramelized octopus, chick pea fricassee and views of Kardiani Bay. And at To Thalassaki, once a simple and beloved taverna on Isternia Bay that has fancified its kitchen, there was not only the highly esteemed and high-priced T-OINOS wine, but also bottles from the Vaptistis cellar, a newcomer that has set up a tasting balcony overlooking its vineyards in Steni.

“The traditional method of growing grapes is to leave them close to the ground to protect them from the wind,” Mary Skari, 28, the agronomist there told us, adding that while the wind blew away some pests it also presented some real challenges, especially this year’s extreme gusts. “This is a bit too much.”

Others around the island also said something strange was going on. The winds were cooler. More violent. More unyielding. The extreme weather we had fled in Rome had found us here, too.

“Nothing is usual anymore,” said Yiannis Souranis, who runs a rental car company and had worked on what he estimated was the 20th car door the wind had snapped backward this summer. “We never had winds like these, with these clouds,” he said. “This is not Meltemi. Meltemi are winds with clear skies. This is something else. We have destroyed everything. Nothing is as it was.”

But this was the only Tinos we knew. Elena learned to dry her long hair after showers by stepping out to face the wind, like she was in a Maxell tape commercial. At night, the wind sounded less severe, more like the lull of crashing waves. We were getting used to it.

The Monastery of Virgin Mary Evangelistria, near Chora, Tinos’s capital.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

One day we drove east to Chora, the capital and Tinos’s port. A road lined with souvenir shops selling tin votives, icons, plastic jugs for holy water, led up to the Monastery of Virgin Mary Evangelistria.

The faithful believed it had miraculous healing powers. We drove by a line of orange cones that I thought meant no parking, but which actually created a narrow corridor through which pilgrims, some in knee pads, crawled up from the port. I watched one ascend the crimson carpet on the church’s marble stairs and rise to weep in front of the shrine next to a collection of flickering candles. I asked an usher if the wind ever blew them out.

“No,” she hushed.

A miracle.

Tinos, at sunset.Credit…Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places for a Changed World for 2022.

Back to top button