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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 January 2008, 14:41 GMT
The Med's 'forgotten' island
By John Pickford
BBC, Gavdos

It is hard to imagine a more spectacular edge of a continent.

A photograph of Gavdos showing the sea
The island of Gavdos is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey
On the crest of a 1,000ft (304m) ridge, stupendous cliffs dip to the Libyan Sea. Africa lies 180 miles (289km) to the south, closer than Athens. To the north loom the Cretan mountains.

Sperm whales are sometimes sighted off Gavdos, in what is one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean, and from its southern cliffs you see an endless traffic of container ships and tankers, plying the sea lanes between Suez and Europe.

But Gavdos feels by-passed by this global trade. Homer described it as "a world apart" and 27 centuries on that still seems right.

Gavdos for decades has been haemorrhaging people
It was the scene, he tells us, of the shipwreck of Odysseus on his way home from Troy.

He was rescued by the alluring goddess of the island, Calypso. She warmed him beside a fire of cedar wood and held him in pampered imprisonment for seven years.

Population decline

And Gavdos, as the myth suggests, does have charm.

A stone building on Gavdos
Gavdos population has fallen from 500 to 100 in the last century
It is a small island about 10 square miles and looks surprisingly green given the harshness of the climate. Summer temperatures of 40C (104F) are a regular occurrence.

The greenness comes from a carpeting of pine trees and scrub, but beneath it lies a lost world, as abandoned terraces built up by peasant families through centuries of toil revert to wilderness.

Gavdos for decades has been haemorrhaging people. The 500 or more on the island at the beginning of the last century has fallen to fewer than 100 today.

By the time the ferry's docked in the little harbour of Karabe, half the island, it seems, has arrived
At the last census in 2001, the biggest village - Kastri - had just 23 residents.

Numbers do swell with an influx of young visitors in July and August, drawn by free camping, nude bathing and unstructured hedonism on the island's beaches. But the kind of organised tourism that has transformed - and in some cases wrecked - other Greek islands has so far passed Gavdos by.

Vivid procession

What is more remarkable, perhaps, is not the people who have left but the ones who have stayed, and who have kept some kind of economy going that has traces still of the old island life.

You see this vividly when the ferry turns up. In winter, there is only one a week and it is often delayed by bad weather.

A map of Greece showing the island of Gavdos
The first sign of its approach is an amazing procession of battered, wheezing vehicles assembling on the harbour front. By the time the ferry's docked in the little harbour of Karabe, half the island, it seems, has arrived.

There is the grey-bearded Greek Orthodox priest playfully poking a farmer in the back as he swings a fertiliser bag onto his shoulders. That is the tousle-haired island baker collecting his flour.

There is the young doctor in his white van. Fresh graduates from medical school can do a six-month stint on Gavdos in place of military service.

There is the Earth Mother of the island, Evangelina Tsigonakis, whose solitary taverna in Karabe is the one place out of season where you can be sure of finding food, drink and other people.

And that man wheeling a lorry tyre onto the boat is surely the one who passed me the other day on his moped with a shotgun over his shoulder.

They are a resilient and, on the whole, a cheerful bunch.


And, in fact, these stalwarts of the island have more reason now to be optimistic than for many a year.

Two extraordinary developments in the wider political world have combined to put Gavdos on the map in a way that no-one could have predicted.

First in 1996 during the planning of a Nato exercise south of Crete, Turkey suddenly announced that Gavdos should be kept out of the exercise because it fell into a "grey area" so far as its sovereignty was concerned.

This bombshell rocked the whole of Greece, but so far the outcome for Gavdos has been benign.

The Greek prime minister actually paid a visit, and over the past seven years funds from both the Greek government and the European Union have poured in.

New arrivals

Gavdos at last has a few metalled roads. It has a reliable electricity supply, an impressive new harbour, a heliport and even an open-air theatre.

Then in 2002, it was discovered that a leading member of the November 17 terror network - based in Greece - who had just been arrested, had been living on Gavdos more or less openly for years.

The islanders were astonished. They had known him as an amiable beekeeper.

This second bombshell brought more publicity and a new kind of tourist: fashionable Athenians who come in the searing heat of August to sample an exotic curiosity, the forgotten island on their doorstep.

The most positive consequence of all this attention must surely be the re-opening of the primary school.

It now has nine pupils and a new school building in a breathtaking location. There it sits on top of the ridge in the centre of the island, Africa to the south, Europe to the north, sea views all round, on the edge of a continent.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday ,24 January, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Greek terror group found guilty
08 Dec 03 |  Europe
Country profile: Greece
08 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
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04 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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