Nikitas Kairis is the owner of the Kairis bakery. At four thirty each morning he makes a short, strong Greek coffee before walking the short distance to his bread ovens. He usually starts with kritsinia, traditional Greek bread sticks coated in sesame seeds. It is customary at the Kairis bakery to offer the kritsinia to anyone and everyone who visits. The spend is not important, and whether you want them or not a few kritsinia will be bundled into the paper bag with your order. It is tradition.
After an hour or so the rest of the bakers arrive. They take over the kritsinia and bulkier loaves whilst Nikitas works on the pastries; classical French croissants and pain au chocolat but with a sweeter, yellower pastry - more characteristic of Greek sweets. The remaining bakes range from the traditional to the extraordinary. There are cheese and spinach pies made with local island sheep cheese, tomato stuffed flatbreads and twisted black olive rolls. Recently Nikitas added cream pastries to the counters. The Greeks enjoy their sweets and so too it seems do the tourists. Proud profiteroles sit like poised ballerinas in paper-case tutus alongside glossy eclairs filled with house whipped cream. It is very rare to find any of these fanciful bakes come 2.00pm so if you would like them it is a good idea to call ahead.
The bakery is the hive of the island. Its doors are the first to open, the last to close and the only ones in town that do not sleep for siesta. It is also the only place in town where one can buy cigarettes. Ashtrays dot the tables on the veranda between sugar pots and salt shakers and there is a ready supply of matches behind the tills.
The bakery has a particular rhythm of locals - perfectly in tune too for there is never an empty seat yet never anyone waiting. Not that anyone would mind waiting - the view from the veranda is postcard perfect and for almost as far your vison will stretch there is sea, sea, sea before your watery eyes sketch out the faint trace of the island across the bay. This is Leros, another magical place and another story to tell.
First in the morning come the mothers. They will chatter in the corner over long milky coffees and plates of date buns or sugar speckled brioche. Their faces are lined with life and whilst I sit swinging my legs off the cool stone balcony (a welcome seat after the hot walk into town) I imagine them to be talking of their children and grandchildren. Perhaps they are now doctors in Athens or just starting school. Often I saw them pull photographs from their pockets and although I couldn't quite understand by ear I had a warm understanding that these were pictures of family.
Always just a touch behind the ladies come the gentleman. They will perch themselves on the opposite side of the veranda like nervous school boys and occasionally you will catch them glancing over. Usually shirtless and wearing paint flecked shorts, they suck in their once firm bellies. Now a little slack, they remind me of well lived, well loved party balloons. They stare with little apprehension as the tourist’s climb clumsily up the stairs tripping over flip flops and loose clothing. But the gaze is soft, more inquisitive than anything, and usually comes with a cheerful ‘Kalimera’ or Good Morning.
The fishermen trickle in at about half past eight brandishing their catch to the hungry coffee drinkers and wide eyed tourists. The restaurants get first pick but after that the race is on and one must be quick to catch one’s supper. We managed to score two kilos of mullet once, purchased right off the boat. Our fisherman must have been at least 90. I remember thinking that he seemed so small in those large mustard waders and I was glad of the two younger men waiting for him at the harbour to help him onto shore. I asked if they were his children. They weren’t they answered, but he was family.
Backpackers and a handful of families with small children dip in and out of the bakery throughout the day. One morning we met a young travelling couple who were sleeping on the beach right under the stars. They’d been ferry-hopping the Dodecanese islands with just a backpack and each other. After stringing first glances and smiles into “hello”s we learned that they were from Verona and that this was their third trip of this kind (having travelled Croatia and Malta before).
Stung with a buzz for adventure we quizzed them on what they did for day to day necessities. Did they pack books, what about washing, food and warmth? Most memorable of their tales was their diary keeping - books were too heavy and finished too quickly so instead they packed lightweight journals. Every evening tucked up in sleeping bags or splayed on top (weather depending) they’d write down their accounts of the day before reading the extracts aloud to the other. It was fascinating hearing the same experience from someone else's perspective they told us, especially from someone that you love, “like sharing something and experiencing something new at the same time”.
We decided that we would go ‘star sleeping’ one day. Perhaps to another family of Greek islands. There are nearly six thousand Greek islands with roughly two hundred and twenty inhabited. That day as we walked back to the house, a loaf under each arm, we imagined our own adventure; perhaps we could stay on an island where we the only souls there. We could make it our very own island. The conversation weaved its way into the practicalities of the thing; how would we get to our island; possibly canoes or maybe we’d hitch a ride with a friendly fisherman. How would we name the island? What would we name it? Frederickos, Alexandros, Hallios and Dudlios had us in such giggles the only way to cool off was a jump into the sea.
Come lunch time the bakery shelves are replenished with sandwiches. Chicken, tuna, egg and local cheese wrapped tightly in cling wrap before being bundled into bags and thrown onto boats, trucks and children's back packs for an afternoon of fishing, building and learning. The Greeks like to take a long siesta so most places are closed from one o’clock until five o’clock but Kairis stays open - ready to whizz up a firework strength iced coffee at a moment’s notice. Most of the families eat supper together at home or have a little ouzo and octopus from Stevos’ tavern across the way during the evening. Although tourism accounts for much of Lipsi’s income it is still very slight here. There are no large hotels, in fact no hotels at all. Only little white washed apartment suites frequented with occasional young honeymooners or families. We were known as ‘the family’ whilst we were there. We were a group of 12 for the most part so quite a family indeed. Disimilar to the other Greek islands I’ve visited I saw no rivalry between the tavern owners. It seems that everyone had a part to play in the Lipsi tune.
After octopus and ouzo most of the island inhabitants will either stumble back home to bed or head back to Kairis. A word of warning: the drinks in Lipsi are strong. Ouzo is the drink of choice but they are a fan of the gin and tonic too. These arrive with little fizz and a good wedge of lime, the tonic more a splash of afterthought. Kairis bakery comes alive in the evening and from ten o clock until at least two in the morning it is once more the honey pot of the town. Double espressos and the bright orange of Aperol clutter the tables. The service is superb with waiters on high alert for any ashtrays approaching overflow, replacing them so swiftly it could be magic. The Kairis bakery make their own ice cream too. Nikitas likes to keep the flavours changing but there are a few house specials such as honey pistachio and apricot liquor. It was one of my favorite times of the day wandering along the harbour and looking at the fishing boats whilst eating my ice cream. My mother never had a sweet tooth but my father and I have always shared a taste for sugar. At home in Norfolk it would be rum and raisin or a mint cornetto but here it was the apricot liquor and toasted almond - boozy, creamy with a tooth sticking crunch.
As you’d expect people often bring back edible gifts from Nikitas’ bakery. Local honey, preserved figs, salted pumpkin seeds still in their white crunchy skins and pasteli; another local delicacy made from honey and sesame seeds. I must have bought something every other night as I remembered more and more people back home. My suitcase was filled to the brim with Greek delicacies and for the next week almost everyone I met was given a taste of Lipsi.