To those who plan to travel to Alonissos for a quiet holiday, under the impression that the island is just calm beaches, genteel walks and sleepy tavernas: I have news for you. Alonissos is now ubercool.
Yes, of course, you’ll find the peacefulness you crave, the uncrowded sandy beaches and the natural wild beauty you only guessed at by looking at the brochures – but there is also a feel good story waiting for you.
Many moons ago, Chester Smith, an advertising executive based in Eastbourne, fell in love with Alonissos on a package holiday and decided to buy a property. When he retired to the island with his wife, as planned, he brought along his other love: his guitar.
“I always played guitar at home, but never professionally,” he tells me while tuning up for an acoustic gig at Archondostasi, a cafe bar in Chora, the island capital. “ But I’d never done anything in front of an audience.”
So what happened?
“I met Chris.”
‘Chris’ is Chris Browne from Marlow in Bucks, an operations manager for a security company who had travelled all around the world. He, too, decided to retire to Alonissos. Also with his guitar.
“Chester encouraged me to pick my guitar up again,“ says Chris who is sitting nearby waiting for their gig to start. “I was playing on-off but it was not until I came here and met him that I became confident enough to play in public. Here, we inspired each other.”
And form a band they did: The Aloni Band. More expats joined and an augmented group of six started rocking the island every summer with their selection of popular tunes from the 1950s to the 1990s. Originally they played every Saturday night at Chora, but soon the people of Patitiri – the port and the other big village on Alonissos – complained that they were taking their clients away. So now they’re playing every Monday, creating an extra night out on the island.
It wasn’t long until their fame reached the mainland and Greek musicians started making the trip northwards for a jam. The audiences grew: 200-300 people per gig in August are now the norm.
Chester still seems perplexed by the incongruity of their success.
“We’re still amateurs at the end of the day and we play mostly for fun. We know our limitations and we work through them. But it’s good that all the music I grew up with has aged with me.”
He smiles awkwardly, as if to apologise.
“I’ll be 69 this year. I tell you it’s funny playing When I’m 64, when you’re 64.”
Tonight Chester and Chris are an acoustic duo. The season has just started and they’re itching to get going.
“We wanted to name our acoustic duo Age Concern,” says Chris, “but sense prevailed. We finally decided on Barefoot Blues..”
Let me guess.
“..‘cos we both play barefoot,”he adds with a wry smile.
And so they start: confident, gentle, whimsical, their guitars and voices complement each other perfectly – Chester playing Lennon to Chris’s McCartney. They sing anything from America’s Horse with No Name and Elton John’s Your Song, to Eric Clapton’s Before You Accuse Me interspersed with classics like Honky Tonk Women, The Sounds of Silence and even Wonderwall.
I have to pinch myself for these two are not retired musicians playing in front of me, but two guys who only got together ten years ago and only fulfilled their childhood ambitions in the twilight of their lives.
So whether with the bouncy Aloni Band or the acoustic effervescence of Barefoot Blues be sure to catch up with Chester and Chris and their group of defiant retirees. For there is magic attached to this remote end-of-the-line island in the Sporades, else how could they all have met?
[Barefoot Blues are playing every Friday at the Helios Bar in Patitiri and every Wednesday at Archondostasi, while the Aloni band gigs are a regular Monday night feature in Chora.]
John Malathronas is a versatile travel writer and photographer who has published three narrative travelogues on Brazil South Africa and Singapore, has written for popular newspapers and magazines and co-authored guidebooks for Michelin and the Rough Guides. He also writes in his own blog, The Jolly Traveller.