He usually has a bundle of keys clutched in one hand and a sprig of jasmine or basil tucked behind an ear. Although 70 years old he is quick on his feet and I had trouble keeping up as he strode up the steep cobbled streets of Sikinos. Markos Zagoraios is the island’s traditional builder and the locals love him since he has built or renovated pretty much all their homes, and he even looks after them during the winter as if they were his own. I first met him in 2017 and we have been friends ever since.
He is a rare breed of person, one who has learnt to build using natural materials and in absolute harmony with nature. “Listen how a good builder works,” he explains. “First of all, I don’t only work when I am awake but also during my sleep. I go to bed and think. What does the land look like? Where will I put the house? How will it be oriented so it can have natural ventilation and protection from the wind and sun? In doing so, I sort everything out in my mind, so when I get to work there are no questions. Today everyone works with plans. I don’t get that.
“The most important rooms in a traditional Cycladic home are the bedroom and the kitchen. The first is so people can get a good rest, to calm down and have the energy to get to work the next day. And the kitchen is also important. If the wife is unhappy when she is cooking, then the husband will be unhappy too. Then come all the other rooms, if they are required – because back in the day we only had those two, plus the bathroom. For us who remember the Cyclades before tourism, we know that building a home is done to cover your needs and not to have pointless floorspace. A house would expand if, for example, the daughter got married and bedrooms were added onto the old house for the couple and their kids. Now I see monstrous homes on some islands, and I ask myself, ‘What do people do in there?’ Have they not realized that the extra space is useless? Maybe they have forgotten a saying we used to say here: Home as much as you can fit and land as much as you can see.” Before leaving, Markos gave me a jar of capers and handpicked salt, “to get you through winter.”