"Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked [...] in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known."
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, Colt Press, 1941.
Α kingdom of sensations
It is impossible for me to remain impassive as I write these lines about the Greek islands. Not after having watched the stunning sea view of the caldera in Santorini, twenty years ago, and nearly lost my breath. Not after that blazing noon in Hydra, when a million sun rays slid under my skin, dilating every pore, letting the soul fly in the dry air, bare and happy. And surely not after that intoxicating evening, in Corfu, last summer, when I was looking at a rising moon spreading its silver net over a dark blue sea, creeping between the foliage of a jasmine tree, emitting a perfume that still flows in my head.
The memories are too strong to keep my perception objective. All the better. We are talking about the Greek islands: a place where natural elements -the sun, the winds, the sea- invade one’s senses mercilessly, making one’s existence seem larger than life, timeless, beyond the limits of what can be conceived. Blessed with a beautiful climate and some of the most impressive landscapes in the world, the Greek islands invite their visitors into a kingdom of strong sensations.
The Greek-summer ritual
Those who have spent at least one summer on a Greek island will recognize the following ritual: At 5 o’clock in the morning your alarm clock goes off. You look outside the window: it is pitch dark. Despite this brutal awakening, deep down inside you don’t feel that bad: Greek ships lift anchor early in the morning, and so will you. The excitement starts to kick-in.
A couple of hours later, the sun is up and you find yourself at a port gate in Piraeus. You sip a cold espresso with eyes half-opened, waiting for your friends to join. Your suitcase weighs heavier after each step you climb as you are heading to the upper deck. As the funnels whistle in a deep, echoing sound, you know it’s finally time to leave everything behind. The boat is now sailing in the open sea and you can feel the north summer winds, so-called Meltemia, blowing away the stress that you carried along from the office. You take a look around to discover life on deck.
The deck is a sacred place for most Greek summer lovers. Like a floating pronaos -the entrance of an ancient temple preceding the main cult chamber-, the deck announces the opening of a daily sacramental rite to Helios, the sun God.
A meeting point between people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds, the deck is a small-scale representation of life in the Greek countryside. Many travelers have described this small, noisy world, but none has done it with more accuracy and humor than Jacques Lacarrière, a French writer who spent over 30 years exploring the landscapes and people of rural Greece, from the fifties to the seventies.
Life on deck
“During all my Greek years, I almost always traveled from one island to another on decks. I believe I must have boarded all ships -a euphemistic term for many of them- which served Cyclades and Sporades. There could be a novel, a chronicle or even a saga written about these dilapidated and indestructible vessels, floating arks, a true Exodus which, at the time, transported the nomadic half of Greece from port to port […]
I have kept memories of these journeys to Patmos, Ios, Amorgos, Folegandros, Serifos, Kos, Alonissos, Chios, Mytilene, which are even more vivid than those of my journeys through the land by bus. It is because the boats carry the same world of pale peasants, worn-out grandmothers, pot-bellied priests, poultry, mattresses, and parcels within themselves, but on scale this world is even larger and more revealing. Each green bus was a miniature image of a village; each white boat was the image of an entire island.”
L’été grec, Une Grèce quotidienne de 4000 ans, Plon Terre Humaine, 1976.
A patchwork of landscapes
If most Greek islands are well-placed to offer a thrilling experience to their visitors, the ways to get there can vary: their diversity in terms of scenery and ambiance is so remarkable that the traveler rightly finds himself asking for advice when choosing between islands. I usually respond with a question: “what kind of landscape moves you the most?”
The Cyclades are marked by stunning, world-famous architecture: their medieval pearly-white citadels, made of tiny cubic houses stuck close to each other, have become synonymous with Greece. Set at the top of the steepest rock cliffs to protect against the pirates who ravaged the Aegean coasts during the Middle Ages, these picturesque towns offer stunning sea views that are hard to forget. Within this group of islands, choices are plenty: you can opt for the cosmopolitan islands of Mykonos, Paros, or Milos; the quieter Andros, Tinos or Syros; others offer a refuge from the world, such as Folegandros, Anafi or Astypalaia -an island of magnificent natural beauty, which, although belonging to the Dodecanese archipelago in the southeastern Aegean Sea, it features all the typical traits of the Cycladic architecture.
Not far from the bare, gorgeous landscapes of Cyclades, nature enthusiasts are succumbing to more verdurous destinations: the waterfalls of Samothrace and Kithira are a paradise on earth; while on the islands of Corfu, Paxoi and Skopelos, cypresses and pine trees “drink water from the sea” (a clear, turquoise sea, may I add).
Architecture lovers will be surprised to discover impressive alternatives to the typical blue-and-white settings: the towns of Chania (Crete), Symi and Kastellorizo with their colorful houses -in ocher, green, sky-blue, or pink- evoke the playful ambiance of Italian islands, such as Murano in the Venetian lagoon, or Procida in the gulf of Naples. The finely preserved, medieval castles in Rhodes and Patmos are still echoing the swords of their Knights who were fighting there 800 years ago.
The Grand Tour
From the era of the Crusades, marked by pirate invasions and missionary expeditions, to the Grand Tour of the French and English intellectuals in the 19th century, Greek islands have been a constant pole of attraction for historians, archeologists, naturalists, philosophers and writers. The selected travel notes below describe landscapes and lifestyles which are not only unique to each island, but were also able to resist the wearing effect of time.
In Corfu, for example, you will explore the frivolous and light-hearted spirit of the locals; centuries-old joie de vivre that finds its expression in their generous spirit, a closeness with their neighbors, and a passion for music. In Ermoupoli, capital city of Syros, you will discover elements that confer an air of metropolitan elegance at the heart of this cycladic island. Diplomats and writers observe the surviving marks of the 19th century -Syros’ golden era-, when a handful of emigrants built shipyards, designed mansions, founded schools, introduced Shakespeare plays in new-founded theaters and foreign newspapers in English-style Clubs. In the citadel of Naxos island, a 19th-century French diplomat unlocks doors whose keys once belonged to Knights and Dukes; he takes us inside houses with Florentine furniture and coats of arms carved above the doors, still visible today.
The Greek light
As the day drew to an end and I was writing this closing note, a stream of memories started filling my head, like sirens: the cold touch of a patio under my feet as I was gazing at a pale dawn; the taste of salt on my shoulders; an angry wave smashing against the rocks; a sea painted orange by a flaming sunset… I closed my eyes and smelled lavender-soaked sheets drying on laundry ropes; listened to ladies chattering through opposite windows and troubadours singing under an amber moon; I saw decadent knights polishing their signet rings; I imagined pirates, missionaries and merchants. As I was going through pages of histories, anecdotes and travel notes spanning over centuries, I wondered: in this old, Greek patchwork made of different pasts, influences, architectures and cultures between islands, is there a timeless, federating element? I figured that only the Greek light can bridge the gaps.
The violent, blinding, unmistakable light of the Greek sun. “The naked eyeball of God” as English writer Lawrence Durrell used to call it. With its intensity, the Greek light is capable of casting out bad spirits. Truthful and candid, it becomes the mirror that exposes a man to the meaning of his existence.
How many times haven’t I felt inspired to make life decisions under the spell of this light? How many times hasn’t the solvent property of its rays cleared out my doubts? This sensation of warmth enveloping the body invites us to put fear aside and be honest with ourselves. In this brief moment of lucidity, one can see more clearly the big picture, and reconsider values and priorities, friends and foes. An illumination -to use the words of Henry Miller- that the Greek light offers to those who are willing to listen.
“Everything here speaks now, as it did centuries ago, of illumination, of blinding, joyous illumination. Light acquires a transcendental quality: it is not the light of the Mediterranean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known. No analysis can go on in this light: here the neurotic is either instantly healed or goes mad.”
The Colossus of Maroussi, Colt Press, 1941.
Less is more
The best way to discover the Greek islands is to take things slow: avoid adding too many islands on one single trip, or making too many plans in one day. The dazzling sun of Greece, its waves and buzzing winds can do miracles when you slow down and let yourself be enchanted by the gracious gifts of nature. Pack light, and, if you’re into litterature, I vividly recommend taking the poetry of Odysseas Elytis with you: one of the greatest poets of all times and Nobel-prize winner, Elytis captures the essence of Greek summer and wraps it in divine colors, whispers, and sensations like no other.
The beauty of Greece lies in its simplicity; you can find it at the humblest places: in a glass of table wine, under the shade of a straw hat, in the warmth of a smile.
It may patiently wait for you in a bare room with a low ceiling and a view to the sea. And when everyone is asleep, you will sneak out to the veranda overlooking the blue horizon. The rhythmic sound of the cicadas will guide your daydreaming; there, during a moment that seems suspended, you will be ready to let your travel begin -the one that takes you into the depths of your soul.
Body of summer
“A long time has passed since the last rain was heard
Above the ants and lizards
Now the sun burns endlessly
The fruit paints its mouth
The pores in the earth open slowly
And beside the water that drips in syllables
A huge plant gazes into the eye of the sun.
Who is he that lies on the shores beyond
Stretched on his back, smoking silver-burnt olive leaves?
Cicadas grow warm in his ears
Ants are at work on his chest
Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits
And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly
Sent by the little siren that sang:
‘O body of summer, naked, burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
Body of rock and shudder of the heart
Great ruffling wind in the osier hair
Breath of basil above the curly pubic mound
Full of stars and pine needles
Body, deep vessel of the day! […]’
Sun the First, 1943.
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philp Sherrand in Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.
Manchester of the Aegean
At the shipyard of Syros, Greece was reborn from its ashes: a handful of merchants turned the island into the greatest commercial and industrial hub of the Eastern Mediterranean –a Manchester of the south.
Nobles and popolo
Half-way between Italy and Greece, the Corfiots still remember their noble grandparents taking Sunday walks on marble pavements with Venetian parasols and monocles, whistling Verdi arias.
A town of roommates
At the Kantoùnia, Corfu town’s alleys, the locals live like roommates. The have learned to share everything with each other: their laundry ropes, their lunch, even their sorrows.