Alea Apartments, Paros: Like you need 5 reasons to visit a Greek Island…

Paros is a Greek Island (64 sq  mi) in the Cyclades, about 100 miles south east of the mainland (south of Mikonos, close to Naxos). You can fly there in under an hour from Athens, or float over the Med in 3-4 hours by ferry. We travelled over at the end of May and were greeted by my ideal temperature; about 25°c (77°f) and sunny. In the high summer, you can expect temperatures to start from 25°c, heading closer to 35°c on a hot day.

It’s a trip we’ve been on before. Two years ago seven of us headed to Alea Apartments and had a fantastic time (read all about it). This time we were just four, which very much changed the dynamic, but for me the holiday was every bit as enjoyable – just different.

While the first visit was an adventure, this time it was much more about familiarity; but I think we all appreciated it as a chance to recharge the batteries. In the past when I’ve talked about Paros I’ve concentrated a little too much on the board games, which in hindsight is misleading and could potentially put people off. So in an attempt to redress the balance, and in a truer reflection of how we spent this holiday, I’d like to break down five very distinct reasons why everyone (not just gamers) should consider a holiday to this fabulous island, and in particular to Alea.

1) The trip

There’s no getting around it; England to a Greek Island is a day out of your life. However, travelling doesn’t have to be a chore and the best journeys become part of the experience, rather than simply going from A to B.

Flying from Heathrow with BA is about as easy as things get within Europe, while the metro from the airport to the port was nicer than the London Underground equivalent (I know, not saying much!). The best thing is that the the train drops you directly opposite the right berth for the Paros ferry, leaving a hassle free stroll to the last leg of the journey.

Travelling off-season left us one ferry option, but I wouldn’t take a different one anyway. The massive Blue Star ferry takes four hours; but when that’s on a carpet-like Mediterranean in balmy sunshine while the sun goes down, I have absolutely no complaints. And there’s a bar…

2) The town of Naoussa

The ferry drops you in Paros’ main port, Parikia. It’s a nice seaside town but for me it doesn’t have the personality of Naoussa (pictured), a sleepy fishing village just 15 minutes away by road. Hiring scooters seems to be de rigueur, but I’ll stick to the bus or a taxi thanks!

Naoussa is one of those great little places that, while being unabashedly touristy in places, gives off a sense of community rather than tackiness. It’s the kind of place that feels as if it’s open all year round, rather than closing when the Brits bugger off in September.

You only have to round a couple of lesser lit corners to arrive in pretty yet urban back streets, or before popping out into farmland and countryside. It’s also very friendly, with pretty much everyone having enough English for you to get by. Lazy? Sure, but I already know two languages (English and online game nerd) and I can’t remember another one.

Better still the shops, as well as having a bit of tourist tat, tend to offer some very high quality clothes, ornaments and jewellery. Naoussa attracts an interesting mix of people, but the relaxed, traditional feel of the place seems to help the the posh yacht sect mix easily with island hopping young ‘uns.

3) 10 minutes from the apartments

Alea Apartments is about a 10-minute stroll from the centre of the village – far enough to be nice and quiet.

You’re also about a five-minute walk from two beaches (one tiny and secluded; one lovely, pictured) and about the same distance from a decent supermarket (and some other shops, including the island’s best cake bakery).

The apartments themselves are average sized and pretty basic; but this is reflected in some very reasonable prices. There’s a basic cooker and a fridge, so you can be self-catering, plus air-con. There are 14 apartments, ranging from two to four person, with at least five having a sea view.

This certainly isn’t luxury living; there’s no pool and generally nowt fancy. There is a secluded private courtyard with tables, sun umbrellas and the odd deck chair which is nice for an afternoon chill – or an evening of board games, of course.

But this isn’t a place to come if you’re looking for a fancy resort; but the beach has a bar/restaurant and everything is within walking distance, which is good enough for us.

4) The Varrias Family

People so often make the difference to a holiday and you simply can’t fault the Varrias family as hosts. On both of our trips they’ve picked us up from the port and this time also drove us back. They were a constant font of knowledge when we needed it, offering us all kinds of trips around the island and tips for food, drinks etc. The main point of contact are the two sons, Dimitris and Simos. They’re friendly and intelligent people (a teacher and a doctor) who have been brought up on the island, but have good experience away from it as well. They’ve always been around for us as much as they can, joining us for drinks, games and even meals – actually becoming part of the group (although I’m sure this isn’t compulsory!). Mum Maria provided regular home cooked treats and coffee in the mornings, and while she only has a few words of English she exudes such personality that it’s always great to see her at the start of your day. Dad Aristides is a renowned Parian marble sculptor and while not involved in the day-to-day of the apartments, he gave us a fantastic tour of the old marble mines and a local church on our previous visit.

5) Playing Cyclades in the Cyclades

And finally, yes, there are some 500 board games in reception. They range across the scale from silly, short dexterity games up to hugely involved four to five hour epics.

Any taste is catered for here and the guys are often around to teach games when they can. They love to play, so if you’re into games it’s a bonus.
I’m a self-confessed board game addict but on this trip, I barely played two games a day.

Our days soon became very uniform; stagger out of bed at 10ish, go to the beach for a swim, get some lunch then chill out in the afternoon, go out for a meal in the evening then head back for some more wine and some games.

The fact is that the games aren’t really notable in the price; it’s just an added extra you can take advantage of if and when you like. You can comfortably bring people along who simply aren’t into games – it’s just a nice place to be.

And if you just so happen to play board games 14 hours each day while they top up their tan, so be it…

Sun, sea and strategy: Alea Apartments, Paros, Greece

Who hasn’t sat in the pub one night, shooting the breeze, coming up with ideal jobs and hair-brained schemes that will either make them happy, or make them rich?

Alea Apartments, Paros

We all love to dream, but few of us wake up the next morning and put those ideas into practice. Thankfully, the Varrias family did.

When you think about it, the idea makes perfect sense. Take a beautiful, sunny and relaxed tourist destination and instead or relying on a sea front position or swimming pool, pitch at a niche market: in this case, board gamers. It’s a growing market, while players tend to be educated and well behaved, as well as sociable (at the least within the confines of their chosen hobby).

So, last summer, the Varrias family opened the doors of Alea Apartments for the first time. It’s a block of around 15 apartments (some with sea views, as pictured above) which all have small kitchenettes, bathrooms and two well lit and shaded gaming areas – plus a collection of more than 300 board games to drool over.

Parikia, ParosWhen I read reports from Board Game Geek reviewers late in the summer, I had to go. By the end of October, a group of seven of us were booked in for an early June 2012 visit.

I’d not been to the Greek Islands before, as I’m not a hot weather fan – hence booking off-peak (coinciding with half term from the school Zoe works at).

I booked flights to Athens, thinking we’d be fine to sort out local connections nearer the time. If you’re thinking of doing the same, be warned: off peak, this can be a chore: ferry services to the islands are running at a minimum and timings can be tricky. It’s definitely worth checking into options available from closer international airports (Mykonos and Santorini), or considering staying a night where you fly into to break up the travelling a little.

That said, on the way out, the trip was 100 per cent smooth (if a little long!). The flight and connection to Athens’ Piraeus Port went smoothly, while the four-hour ferry to Paros was smooth, comfortable and blessed with a beautiful sunset.

If you’re not keen on long ferry rides, there are much shorter options from the other two airports (you can get them lasting under an hour), while quicker ferries and also internal flights are available from Athens if you can time them right.

We were met at Paros’ port (Parikia) by Simon and Maria Varrias, who had generously offered to pick us up once we found out the bus service would’ve stopped for the night before we’d arrived. This seems the perfect time to talk about these guys, as they’re an integral part of why it was such a fantastic trip.

Alea Apartments are owned and run by the Varrias family: parents Aristides and Maria and sons Dimitris and Simon (there may be more of them, but these are the ones we had contact with).

They are all incredibly well educated and unbelievably friendly and welcoming, giving their time freely throughout the trip well above and beyond our expectations. All the guys have great English too, and what Maria lacks in language skills are more than made up for with enthusiasm and baking ability!

Simon (half of him expertly photographed by me on the right here) was our main point of contact throughout the trip and essentially became part of our group. We were lucky, as it was the first week of the season and we were the only group booked in, so he could give us his full attention. But even so, we couldn’t have expected the level of service we got: being driven to the beach, taken on swim/fishing trips and a tour of “the church of 100 doors” in Parikia (and this was a fraction of what was offered).

Archilochos, by Aristides Varrias, in ParikiaThe church tour was given by father Aristides Varrias (pictured above), a sculptor particularly renowned for his work with Parian marble (translucent and flawless, it was used to make masterpieces such as the Medici Venus).

After visiting the church they took us to the old mines where the marble used to be brought up, before taking us back to their family home for coffee and a look at his workshop – well beyond the call of duty. He also talked us through this beautiful sculpture he was asked to create by the council of Parikia, which stands proudly in the central square (right).

During the day, when not on excursions, we simply enjoyed the town of Naoussa and its wonderfully named local beaches, big and little pepper. In high season it’s a bit of a clubber destination, but during the day and early evening it’s a pretty, tranquil and relaxed traditional Greek Island town with some great jewellery shops and restaurants.

'Big Pepper', Naoussa, ParosWhile not spectacular, the beaches were more than adequate for us and there were many more around the island (both more popular and secluded, depending on your tastes) for those who wanted to seek them out (car and bike hire, alongside taxis, were all simple options).

I hadn’t been in the sea for years (OK, decades), but despite a bit of an early June heat wave (it got up to 35 centigrade in the sun while we were there) I managed to get in there three times. Even an unfortunate dumb ass moment with a sea urchin (I’ll be picking bits out of my fingers for weeks) on my first swim didn’t dampen my spirits. It really was lovely.

When not in the sea, and often while others were sunning themselves on the beach, I could be found back at the apartments in the shade reading board game rule books (nerd, me?!).

I won’t go into much detail about the board game collection here, as I’ll save it for a Geek List over at BGG (link to come once it’s finished). But as it’s one of Alea Apartments’ main USP it certainly merits a mention.

Unfortunately due to a very blurred image, I can’t show you the main wall of games, but this at least gives an idea of the extent of the collection which has been constructed mostly by Dimitris (sadly we did not get to meet, as he was away doing medical exams – next time!).

This part of reception holds mostly the smaller card games, a wall to its left holds about 150 big box titles, while other games are stored elsewhere. And you don’t have to be a board game enthusiast to enjoy the collection. There are simple games, party games, drinking games, brain games, all sorts – and Simon was more than happy to teach us the ones he knew.

If there is something specific you want, it’s worth mentioning it in advance so they can have it on site when you arrive. It might also be worth getting them to check which languages the rules are in too – several games I opened up were only in German or Greek. Simon was happy to teach games he knew, or to try and find rules online, but having them pre-printed would’ve been useful.

ParosWhile I’m talking negative, there were two very small niggles with the trip: the Wi-Fi and the kitchen facilities. Describing the Wi-Fi as ‘intermittent’ would be generous, while the kitchenware on offer was sparse at best (have you ever tried flipping fried eggs with a table spoon? It’s an art, I tell you). However, that’s as bad as things got.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m giving the Alea Apartments on Paros a massive thumb’s up. The Varrias family set out to offer two things beyond the normal: an impressive board game selection and hospitality above and beyond the norm. I’m happy to say they achieve both of those things with flying colours. All seven of us have vowed to return, most next year and the rest probably the year after, which speaks volumes.

One of the most glowing recommendations came in the fact that Zoe didn’t even try to turn the TV on during the entire time we were there – fact!

Of course, even if you don’t end up going and simply want to support this great idea for a holiday destination, you can simply go and give them a ‘like’ on Facebook.

I’ve already started plotting next year’s trip, and with lots of new games promised to add to its already impressive collection, I look forward to building on the nine new games I learnt this time (several of them taught to us by Simon – cheers mate!).

Parikia, ParosBut before then is the Cambridge Folk Festival; a bank holiday weekend in the New Forest, Hampshire; my first trip to the world’s largest board gaming fair in Essen, Germany; another visit to Devon; a weekend in Goteborg; plus at least one Tesco Clubcard/Avios fuelled city break in an as yet unnamed European city.

But I can safely say that, already, the trip back to Paros and Alea Apartments is the one I’m really looking forward to. And hey, Simon – I expect you to have learnt the rules to Twilight Struggle by the time we return!