Colour of day: gray and white. A returning to painting. Silence of these things, of these images. Cubes.
– George Seferis, writing in his diary, circa 1939, in Hydra.
After a spectacular whirlwind tour of Northern Greece, I am eager to begin island hopping my way to Turkey. From the exclusive Saronics to the iconic Cyclades, from ancient Crete to sunny Dodecanese, the plan is not to have any but to follow island time. I am aware of the vast territory that I am moving through – over 6000 islands dotted throughout the infinite Aegean Sea – off season, with reduced sailings and very indirect connections. As my journey progresses, the number of islands keeps growing. To get from Mykonos to Ikaria, one has to sail through the entire archipelagos of the Cyclades and Dodecanese. What better way to get to know Greece, I tell myself! Then, storms, strikes, and inclement weather add further delay – and a great sense of adventure – to the point I imagine spending the rest of my life happily island hopping in Greece. Like the old Chinese saying, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For now, I just need to catch my first ferry to Spetses, a ten-minute crossing from Porto-Heli in Peloponnese. Easier said than done!
The storm that has been brewing since Delphi gathers full force in Nafplio. I begin my birthday morning with dramatic lightning and reach Porto Heli – via three buses! – only to be told the ferry never left Piraeus. I take a peek around through my steamed up glasses and see nothing. This would be a very minimalist birthday celebration, I console myself, standing there in the desolate pier till a fast boat materializes out of the surging sea. Lucky me! A few stranded locals had called for a private transfer. Birthday on Spetses, as planned. I am even greeted by a welcome sunset rainbow. What a big fat Greek present!
Lesser known than her neighbours, Spetses – meaning spices – is famous for its role in the Greek Revolution in 1821 in being the first in revolting against the Turks and raising the independence flag, a fact that Spetsiots are still proud of two centuries later. It also boasts a strong naval tradition, and shipbuilding continues to this date. Above all, the beautiful island has been home to many aristocratic families, writers, and artists. A stroll along the seafront takes one through magnificent Venetian and neoclassical buildings including the imposing Poseidonion Grand Hotel and many gorgeous captains’ mansions. Spetses feels worlds away from over developed Mykonos or Santorini, exuding class, old wealth, and exclusivity. What a gem!
The sea air, long strolls, and excitement only make my hunger grow. Alas, the famous three-generation fish tavern, Patralis, is closed for the season. My host kindly takes me on her motorbike up to To Pachni, a popular grill house. Make sure you order their lamb ribs! her husband says, pointing to his rib cage, waving us goodbye. Alas, that is closed, too. I sit on the back of Tatiana’s bike as she meanders through the dimly lit cobblestone streets that she knows like the back of her hands. The refreshing wintry sea breeze, dark shadows on old Venetian walls, the magic of the night under a crescent moon, and above all, legendary Greek hospitality make this birthday on Spetses a special one to remember by, regardless of where I end up having dinner!
Nychthemeron, by the waterfront, is open! Owner-chef Nektarios (what a name for a chef, of nectar!) greet me with a house red and begins his story. I was in Calgary way back, he says in surprisingly fluent English, and almost stayed in your city. A little meze? he asks. Fried calamari, I reply. Ah, a white would go much better with that! I was going to marry a rich old Greek lady, Maria, in Vancouver, but my mother called me back. My destiny is here in Spetses! What a character, this chef, straight out of a Greek drama!
My dad was in NYC before he returned and opened this restaurant, Nektarios continues, moving between the kitchen and the dining hall. Poor pa, blessed his soul, he died young, at 54, while dancing. Life is so good on Greek islands that one can actually die while dancing. The calamari arrives, so light and delicate that I compliment the chef on his cooking skill that matches every bit his colourful storytelling. We are actually a family of blacksmiths, he confesses. Nychthemeron means night and day, because that was what blacksmiths di, working all day all night. At 60, Nektarios looks younger than his age but complains of fatigue. It’s so much work to run a restaurant, he says, pouring me more wine. In the summer, it’s madness. I taste his signature dish, tender and juicy meatballs from his grandpa’s recipe, as he tells me about his wife and children. Just as I wonder what dessert would be befitting the special occasion, Nektarios brings out a surprise oven hot apple pie – with a burning candle on top – singing, Na zíseis, Jennifer, kai chrónia pollá/May you live, and many years…! What a sweet Greek fellow!
Hydra feels special even upon arrival. With tall, imposing captains’ mansions lining the harbour, seaside cafes, and an iconic clock tower, the gorgeous island leaves such a first impression on the visitor. Car-free and well preserved – the sole means of transportation is donkeys – the island has been a mecca for artists who are drawn here by the light, colour, and tradition. Hydra is a walkers’ paradise, with scenic coastal trails radiating from the port, taking one to the fishing villages of Kamini and Vlichos on the left and the fort ruins of Mandraki on the right. It is impossible not to succumb to her charm.
I am awakened by church bells and grab my coffee to head to the rooftop at daybreak to see the light descend onto the valley. First, gentle rays appear on the imposing mansions at the very top of Kiafa, upper town, before the packed white houses along the slopes come slowly into focus and the harbour glistens with a thousand reflections. I walk in island time, making my way through old town, being transported back centuries and feeling like a child in wonderland, snapping shots of sleepy cats, early donkey jockeys negotiating narrow cobblestone streets, and residents enjoying their freddo cappuccino by the sea. There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra, Leonard Cohen said, over half a century ago. Amazingly, it still rings true today.
I am so enamoured with Hydra that I feel I could see nothing else. Climb to the hilltop! Alexandros, the local hotel manager in Poros, suggests. He is right; the view of old town, the bay, and the eastern shore of the Peloponnese is stupendous. From there, a steep path leads one directly the to seafront promenade dotted with beautiful mansions owned by families for centuries including the former residences of Greek kings. Though eclipsed by her glamorous neighbour, Poros exudes her own charm with lush vegetation, beautiful beaches, and a particular vintage aura.
Ariving in Aegina, the last of the pack in the Saronic Gulf, on a Sunday is a total shock. Throngs of weekend holidaymakers from Athens loiter around the busy port. Restaurants are open, buses run. The proximity to the capital – reachable by hydrofoil in under an hour – makes it a popular destination for a quick island getaway. The magnificent Temple of Aphaia (5 thcentury BC) is the main draw here, famous for being a point in two imaginary isosceles triangles: with the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio in one, and with the Temple of Apollo in Delphi and the Acropolis’ Parthenon in the other. Energy hotspot aside, the island has plenty to offer any visitor. From the exquisite Temple of Apollo (6th century BC) to the lighthouse of Bouza, I follow the footsteps of Nikos Kazantzakis who chose to settle here after his long travels and gave us some of his best prose out of Aegina.
This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
I have gazed so much on beauty that my eyes overflow with it.
– Constantine Cavafy, Walking in Athens with Constantine Cavafy
After hectic island hopping in the Saronics, I am excited to arrive in Athens, the oldest capital in Europe, cradle of Western civilization, and birthplace of democracy. No superlatives seem enough to describe the beautiful and vibrant city. Above all, it is revisiting Athens of my youth where I first fell in love with Greece – and a Greek – as a young backpacking student. For a week, I follow Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, to the heart of the city. From Areopagus Hill, the high court of appeal in ancient Greece with an unparalleled view of the Acropolis, I wind my way down the photogenic old neighbourhoods of Anafiotika and Plaka. From Syntagma to Monastiraki, Psiri to Exarchia, I go down a memory lane, with the new and the old, the constant and the change…
It is first Sunday of the month and most of the sites are free to visit. What a bonanza! Inga, a fellow long distance traveller, and I awake early and make a beeline to the Acropolis entrance. Despite the lacklustre weather, we are both giddy with excitement to revisit the magnificent ruins. From the monumental Propylaea, we inch our way towards the glorious Parthenon – under perennial scaffolds – before reaching the Temple of Erechtheion and Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone Roman theatre where I attended an unforgettable summer opera performance years back. From there, it is all within an easy stroll to the Roman Agora, exquisite Museum of Byzantine Art, Ancient Agora, Kerameikos, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. You don’t even have to be a history or art buff to appreciate any of these. At once a citadel, home to kings, and the mythical abode of the gods, the Acropolis was the epitome of ideals in Greek thought and architecture. Like Cavafy wrote, I have gazed so much on beauty that my eyes overflow with it!
Athens is the new Berlin! For the rest of the week, I take my time to stroll through neighbourhoods old and new to survey the exciting street art scene. Some of the best murals can be found in the gentrified district of Psiri while Exarchia with its street politics has become ground zero of tagging and more. The 2008 financial crisis, debt emergency, and subsequent austerity measures put many Greeks out of their homes. At the same time, Greece has become a popular destination for migrants via the Balkan Route, with upwards of a million entering Greece between 2015 and 2016. Exarchia became a centre of refugee squats and activism, turbocharging a graffiti scene filled with political slogans and symbolism. The Greeks, of course, have always been known for their unique sense of black humour (watch classic films like The Idlers of the Fertile Valley, Dogtooth, and the Small Fish). Little wonder ongoing the political and economic situation makes Athens a hotbed for art activism.
Before I leave the mainland, I make one more side trip to ancient Corinth, not only to visit the majestic ruins of the former capital in Ancient Greece, but to pay homage to St. Paul, the namesake of my high school in Hong Kong. The Apostle arrived here around A.D. 51 and stayed for a year and a half, preaching the now famous Letters of Paul to the Corinthians: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Was it Homer who wrote, If only the gods are willing… They’re stronger than I to plan and drive things home.
But you, brave and adept from this day on . . . there’s hope that you will reach your goal . . . the journey that stirs you now is not far off.
– Homer, Odyssey
This is part of a four-blog series on my three-month journey through Greece and the Aegean Sea.
Part I: Northern Greece
Next: True Greek Blue: The Cyclades!
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan