The writer’s fugitive Russian billionaire ex had overshadowed her life for too long but she was determined 2021 would be different
Like everyone else, 2020 was truly my annus horribilis – my travel business, leading riding adventures across the Tien Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, came screeching to a halt and I was homeschooling three children as a single mother, whilst simultaneously trying to run a newly established antiques and textiles business.
Then came the eviction from our Chelsea home with two weeks’ notice, just as the first lockdown ended, which felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. After everything we’d been through over the past year I was desperate to take the children away for a break and a little restorative sunshine this summer and began researching an escape. But how had it come to this?
Alexandra and her then-partner Sergei back in 2010
In 2015, the father of my children, Sergei Pugachev, fled the UK without warning and incognito. It sounds dramatic and it was – a former Russian oligarch who was once one of Putin’s closest confidants, Sergei was under a High Court order not to leave the UK during court proceedings that the Russian government had filed against him, accusing him of siphoning off over a billion dollars from the bank that he owned in Moscow.
Sergei had begun to lie in court and the judge suspected him of planning on fleeing the jurisdiction – it turned out that prediction was spot on and a year later, having fled to France, he was charged with contempt of court in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison. Consequently, he has never returned to the UK and resides in the luxury of his exquisite Belle Epoque chateau on the Cote d’Azur, with his fifth ‘wife’ and third or fourth set of children. What had been the most passionate love story had descended into a quagmire of unhappiness.
While Sergei tried to cajole and then force me and the children into following him to France, after years of living in fear of him I knew I couldn’t put myself or my children through that again, locked up in a chateau far away from my family and friends. He cut us off financially and having prevented me from working for eight years, I was ill-equipped to cope alone.
Alexandra and her daughter Maria in Mykonos
The anxiety nearly broke me, but nothing would make me question my decision and when my children were sued by the Russian government – our home had supposedly been put in trust for them by Sergei – I knew that deliverance from an atmosphere of tyranny was the best thing that I could do for all of us.
To my horror, we lost the court case – the trust was deemed to be fake and merely a means for Sergei to hide his money – but Covid meant that evictions had been made illegal. We were safe, or so I thought, until the lockdowns were over, and then I could resume my travel business and focus on other lines of work while the children went to school.
I will never forget opening the email in late May 2020, telling me that we had to vacate our house within two weeks. I could do nothing but cry, the situation felt so hopeless.
Looking out towards the pool at Villa Skafos on Mykonos
Fast forward a few months and a terribly peripatetic summer living out of bags and camping with kind friends, I sold most of our furniture and antiques through Christie’s and rented a home in Battersea. I look back and feel shaky at what the children went through, but we did it and are now happy and secure, no longer at the mercy of others.
Moving house has been the means to properly establish my interiors business, The Tolstoy Edit, and – most importantly for the children – get a dog. I vowed to myself 2021 would be a better one, and I spent more than a few of the long, dark days of the winter lockdown dreaming up summer plans.
I have always adored Greece and been exploring different islands since I was 18. I’d never been to Mykonos and still thought of it as a party island but was persuaded by rental company onefinestay, who had a gorgeous house there with availability the week we wanted to go, that there was much more to it than that.
A calming and minimalist white bedroom at Villa Skafos
Given the choice, I prefer to go to a private home than a hotel or an anonymous villa and that’s what onefinestay specialises in. The 5-bedroom Villa Skafos was everything you could dream of in a Greek home-from-home – a spacious, low, white, organically-curved house set into a dramatically rugged hillside overlooking the bluest of seas.
On the eastern side of the island, which is given over to a labyrinth of dry-stone walls and hordes of goats, the setting of our house was as wild and raw as anything I had encountered on my decades of travel in Central Asia, and yet we were just twenty minutes from the civilisation of Mykonos Town, with its charming bougainvillea covered blue and white alleys, endless churches and Venetian waterfront.
Aesthetically, it was a wonderful break from my professional world of layered antiques, colours and textures to live in this white simplicity. We spent entire days happily scampering between the house and the pool, the famed Mykonian winds taking the edge off the heat and the sounds of the children diving, splashing and shouting only broken by the goats’ bells.
The shaded al fresco dining area at Villa Skafos
Before leaving the UK, I had challenged onefinestay’s concierge to come up with a few off the beaten track experiences. While this was not the holiday for an action-packed adventure, I nevertheless always want to connect with a place by learning about its history and experiencing something new.
So, after a restorative day of swimming, kite flying and doing a terribly complicated puzzle, we set off aboard a glamorous, James Bond-style motor yacht that onefinestay had chartered for us through a local company, for the uninhabited island of Delos, where Apollo is said to have been born, and home to one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece.
We sailed past ruined temples and on to a deserted inlet, save for a whitewashed fisherman’s hut. On the neighbouring island of Rineia, we swam in the clearest waters and ate the most delicious lunch prepared by the crew. The children voted it one of the best days of their lives, capped by bouncing through the waves back to Mykonos.
Exploring with the family
Our trip coincided with the Greek celebration of Assumption – as Russian Orthodox believers we celebrate it later, but it was a wonderful opportunity to visit the nearby village of Ano Mera – much less of a tourist destination than Mykonos Town – and its sixteenth century Panagia Monastery.
Full of local Greeks joyfully celebrating, the church bells rang out all over the little village square and we left the incense and fabulously baroque iconostasis to enjoy a breakfast of strapatsada – scrambled eggs with tomato and feta – in one of the many cafes.
We didn’t quite muster up the courage to walk over the hills to our nearest beach, visible from the villa, but my guilty sense of laziness was assuaged when my daughter found a snake’s skin shed on the edge of the road.
Dinner by the pool at Villa Skafos
We did, however, spend a day – possibly the best of the holiday – on the glorious Kalafatis Beach, which we reached by taxi. It was delightfully peaceful and home to a little water sports centre that kept my children happy. On the way home we popped into our new favourite bakery in the pretty, inland village of Ano Mera, stocking up on baklava and spinach and cheese pies to eat back at the house as the sun went down.
Onefinestay offers Villa Skafos from £1,119 per night.