The isles of Greece splatter like errant batter in the deep azure of the Aegean. On some no trees grow, but elsewhere the castle walls of the Crusaders are sprayed with battlefield bursts of pink oleander. Some isles are lush only with the sun-bleached relics of civilizations now nearly 5,000 years old; and some are fishing villages with cubist houses that are whitewashed every week. Butterflies are the only clouds in the sky of one; but on many the white sails of windmills fill with the Aegean breezes and spin the sun-clear, sea-washed air, day upon day, as inexorably as love and evolution, coaxing the water up from the ancient earth, and as the legend insists, whispering to the departed sailors across the seas, "Come back, come back."
The white islands of Greece are perhaps a year or two away from discovery by the meandering travelers of the guidebook, the aching feet and the packaged tour. Athens is still four hours south and east of Rome, eastern outpost of the grand tour, short form. But for the knowledgeable, the inquisitive, the irrepressible, the pioneer and the romantic, there are all sorts of ways to do the islands—by plane, by yacht, by steamer and even by caique, that broad-in-the-beam barque of the Aegean waters, equipped with a dyspeptic phut-phut motor that sets the ship to shuddering like a bowl of Jell-O in a house by the tracks.
To inspire one's appetite for Grecian waters, if not for Grecian food, one need only sit, as I did on a recent summer's evening, at an open-air taverna on the edge of Passa Limani Bay, the port of the pashas on the outskirts of Athens. Here in the balmy night, where Turkish nobles once landed in great splendor, the circle bay was festooned with the rhinestone bulbs of the fish houses. Yachts bobbed gently in the harbor, and a lone rowboat that was a taxi, a light in its prow, lazied a few yards offshore waiting to take dreamers or yachtsmen out under the Grecian moon.
D√∂ner kebab, a cornucopia of sliced lamb packed horizontally on a skewer, turned slowly before a bed of charcoal embers. Waiters, summoned by a handclap or an unceremonious rap of china on the table, brought kokoretsi, a provincial hors d'oeuvres manufactured from such delicacies as liver, kidney and spleen all wrapped in intestines and baked until crunchy. We ate tiny clams which, to be fit to eat, must wriggle when squirted with lemon. We cracked lobsters and bought clusters of green lavender strands, which Greek housewives use for mothballs and which romantic foreigners are inclined to carry in some Oscar Wildean posture, sniffing them as they would exotic sachets.
August 21, 1955
The next morning I flew a Greek Airlines DC-3 to Rhodes to spend two days and wait for the Semiramis, the coastal cruiser, circling up from Melos and Crete.
On Rhodes the crickets sing and the windmills, each a circle of tricorn sails, spin in the sea-borne wind. Youngsters knee-deep in the Aegean Sea probe the harbor floor for snails and prickly sea urchins. It is said that 2,000 years ago in the same spot the Colossus of Rhodes straddled the entrance to the port, and barques sailed under its legs. The colossus was a giant statue to Helios, god of the sun, who endowed the island with great warmth and beauty coaxed from the southern soil. The statue is said to have tumbled in the earthquake of 224 B.C. Long years after, the Crusaders came, capturing the Dodecanese in 1309 and holding them until Suleiman the Magnificent and the Turkish hordes swept over them in 1522. The Turks lasted until 1912 when the Italians marched in; and the Italians lasted until early in World War II when the Germans arrived. The Germans lasted until Greek and British commandos put ashore, and Rhodes became Greek again in 1947.
In language and spirit the Rhodians remained Greek throughout. During their occupation the Italians did much to preserve the memory of the era of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who had made Rhodes their Crusader headquarters. Puffy billows of purple bougainvillea are blankets four feet thick on the old Crusader walls, and pink roses and peach trees grow in the moat of the ancient castle. Peasant women, still wearing high boots from the days when Rhodes was infested with snakes, clatter down the cobbles of the Street of Knights that leads to the castle, home of the grands ma√Ætres. Iron grillwork lanterns hang over the steep avenue where the knights lived in separate inns, according to their nationality.
The shops are filled with Rhodian pottery and clay Rhodian deer patterned after the real types who live in the hills and are hunted in the fall. You can buy local perfume made of lemon leaves and lemon blossoms and roses of Rhodes. For the traveler, weary of bouncing the circuit of European capitals, there is the amplitude of the Hotel des Roses ensconced in the sand like a stout matron, its feet in the sea. Terraces look out to Turkey across the straits. There is a pebble beach set with seaside tables, flecked with umbrellas and staffed by white-jacketed boys who fetch cool drinks from the bar. An excellent Italian-tinged cuisine is served on a terrace, which at noon is protected from the sun by a red sailcloth stretched across the roof.
For those who would prefer the highlands to the shore, there are two small hotels on Prophet Elias Mountain known as Elaphos and Elaphina, which is to say, buck and doe. Captive deer do graze on the hotel grounds; and the cedars, the pines and the cypresses, not to mention the 2,500-foot elevation, provide a coolness especially appreciated by Alexandrian Greeks, who come to escape the Egyptian summer.
It is a short downhill drive towards the sea to Camirus which, with Lindos and Ialysus, was one of the three Rhodian cities mentioned by Homer. The ruins of Camirus, excavated in the Victorian era by English and French archaeologists, run dramatically down to a cliff that overhangs the sea. High on the rise are the columns of its acropolis; threading underground are the 3,500-year-old water systems; and casting shadows on the ancient floors are the walls of houses whose original owners claimed they could recall how Cassius came to punish the island for siding with Mark Antony, taking back with him 3,000 works of art. Some are now in the Vatican Museum.
Between Prophet Elias Mountain and the city of Rhodes nestles the island's strangest sight, Petaloudes. Here, down a narrow valley, a waterfall tumbles into a milky green pool. Lining the defile is a forest of zidia trees, a species of flora which smells to a butterfly like Eau de Cologne but like tincture of benzoin to everyone else. Guides will escort you over a rustic catwalk suspended across the milky pool, then up the hill past the waterfall, where they will scatter pebbles in the trees. Then butterflies fill the air like orange clouds till they tire and flit back to the zidias where they close their wings, remain camouflaged to the untrained eye, and inhale sweet eaude-benzoin, until the next tourist comes.
For the most magnificent view of Rhodes and of the Aegean, turquoise near the shore and deep blue as it stretches toward the purple ranges of Turkish Anatolia, one ought to travel up Mount Philermos just outside town. Here in the late Italian heyday II Duce built a cloister, installed it with monks and hung an outdoor pulpit on the building where the priests could hold al fresco services. The entrance leads up an avenue of cypresses and bougainvillea to the cloister and the ruins of a temple of Athena. Stunted pastel cedars form an archway like crossed swords leading to the belvedere. On the plain below was the old Homeric city of Ialysus, dating from about 1600 B.C., a bustling city of which Mount Philermos was the acropolis.
I left Rhodes in a Fitzpatrick finish at dusk aboard the Semiramis, the steamer that was making its regular five-day island excursion out of Athens. The sun was gone but there was a bluish luminescence in the sky, enough to silhouette the history of the island—the turrets and bastions of the Crusaders, the spires of the churches, the minarets left by the Turks, and the government buildings that had risen under the yeasty influence of II Duce.
REASONABLE EXCURSIONS, TOO
Although Ghiolman Brothers on Constitution Square in Athens can make all the arrangements for those who wish to charter a yacht, anyone limited by inexperience or the exchequer can do the islands handsomely and in comfort aboard the Semiramis, which each week from April to October makes five-day and two-day trips through the islands. Five-day excursions leave Piraeus, the port for Athens, each Monday evening, returning each Saturday morning; covering Melos, Crete, Rhodes, Delos and Mykonos. The two-day trip sails Saturday afternoon, covers Mykonos and Delos over the weekend and arrives back in Athens before anyone is up on Monday morning.
The tariff for the five-day ride runs anywhere from 1,100 to 7,000 drachmas ($37-$233) and includes berth, wholesome dining-car meals in a family style dining salon, most ground excursions, and the services of a guide. I came to know our guide, once we had landed on Delos the next morning, as a lady brimming with mythology, memorabilia and erudition.
In the night we crossed from the Dodecanese to the Cyclades. Delos arrived with the sun. It proved a graveyard; a trackless, treeless, three-mile flatland (except for a hill 350 feet high) bare of roads or population. But Delos once was mighty, a seat of religion and commerce.
Zeus, the philanderer, had gotten Leto with child. When Zeus's legal wife heard the news she forbade Leto any land on which to give birth. But Leto was finally aided by the roaming island of Delos which agreed to let Leto have her baby there if the island could obtain a permanent location. Poseidon anchored Delos in the Cyclades, and as Leto held on to a palm tree she gave birth to Apollo, god of the sun. Swans came to sing and the island was covered with flowers. So it came to be that the Night, symbolized by Leto, clung on to the Dawn (the palm tree) to give birth to the Sun.
The legend of Apollo's birth there made the island a religious capital for all Ionia, and in time the richest and most cultural center of the Greek world. Magnificent mosaics are still inlaid in the mansions of the wealthy. A Greek theater still sits among the weeds, complete with stone armchairs added by the Romans. Near the theater are the remains of an ancient hotel for transients with forty rooms. Phallic carvings, symbolic of strength and life, stand on pedestals and are photographed by tourists. Remnants of a mammoth statue of Apollo lie in the tall grass. Part of one foot is in the British Museum. A lone palm planted by the French archaeologists is the only tree on Delos. The only animals, save for an occasional lizard, are the row of stone white lions, lean and taut, put up by the Naxians in the fifth or sixth century B.C. and found again in 1906. And the island's only people, summer people, scramble omelets in the little pavilion, sell wide-brimmed straw hats against the fiery sun of the shadeless isle and dried sea horses which can be taken to Athens to be silvered and worn as jewelry.
Mykonos, whence I was delivered in a shuddering ca√Øque, rises bright white out of the blue sea. Its houses that grow up the hillside are whitewashed every week. The walks in front of its churches—it has a reputed 365—are whitewashed too. Most of the churches are tiny chapels given as thanks by the island's many seafaring men who were delivered safely from perilous storms. On the hills above are thatch-topped white stone pillars of the windmills, sails spinning in the breeze, calling the seafarers home.
In the soft curve of the harbor the orange hulls of fishing boats skitter through the blue. Fishermen sit on the flagstone stretching their nets between teeth and toe, repairing the knots. Low-slung handbags and bright striped shirts with bandannas to match, made on Mykonos for island visitors, are hung up for sale on the hulls of old barques pulled up on the beach. And in the village square, inscrutable in white marble, is the bust of a lady general who led the island forces in the war against the Turks in 1829.
There is a small beach in the harbor, but a ca√Øque will take you in 15 minutes to the great sand crescent of St. Stephanos, one of the best beaches in Greece. There are lockers to change in, soft warm sand to sleep on, an incredibly buoyant sea to float in, and a tiny taverna where you can sip an ouzo and munch anchovies on coarse bread before the ca√Øque splutters back to the harbor.
A PALETTE OF SENSES
Mykonos has a delightful new hotel called the Lito, and as you sit on its harborside terrace at sunset surveying the huge oleander bush that erupts on the lawn like the pink spray of a Roman candle, the fishermen pull up in their orange hulls and wade ashore with a string of fish. Gulls cry, and nightingales that live on an island without trees are yet happy enough to sing. A waitress presents dinnertime's handsome fish, and when you ask the patroness what it is called she smiles and says, "One of the most noble families of the sea—the synagrida."
Up on the hill the windmills are motionless in the windless evening. Down along the harbor guitar music and song well up from the waterside tavernas. From the tiny, white back alleys come the shouts of the Greek children who have eyes like Greek olives. Out on the horizon the masts of schooners bob gently against the gray ridges of the islands beyond. Mykonos is a hard place to leave; but I left it in a row-boat, paddling out to the Semiramis in the placid, blue-green lake of a bay, with the music of the tavernas reaching out over the water until it was drowned by the heavy heartbeat of the ship's motors, and all that was left of the island was a glow on the horizon.
A few days later I tried Greece by yacht, sailing out from Turkolimano harbor on a brilliant Sunday morning aboard the 87-foot ketch owned by John Goulandris, the young Director of the Greek Line. Built in Scotland and designed to sleep five in cabins and three on sofas in the dayroom, the Zephyros had been adapted by Goulandris to fit Greek waters and Greek hospitality. We were making for the Peloponnese and the Greek theater at Epidaurus with a guest list of 23.
The 50-year-old ship, winner of Atlantic sailing races, takes the Goulandris clan each summer to the family birthplace on Andros, a verdant isle of lemon trees and mulberry bushes in the northern Cyclades. The crew spread a white awning over the deck, and a bouillabaisse boiled in a great cauldron in the galley as we slipped south and west towards the harbor at Nauplia. Schools of porpoises played across our bow; and when it grew hot we stopped to swim.
By late afternoon yachts of all descriptions were storming the harbor at Nauplia, including the two-starred powerboat of an American admiral. We rowed ashore in the dinghy, boarded a bus to Epidaurus and rode through the groves of lemon trees and slender cypresses. At Epidaurus, the Greek theater rose steeply out of the stage, and was filled to its hilltop brim with 14,000 spectators—a sprinkling of Wehrmacht hats here and there on peregrinating Germans, Americans popping flashbulbs, Englishmen in khaki shorts. Just as the sun dropped behind the gray circle of mountains, a fanfare sounded stridently; and presently the Greek chorus marched out in their hesitating cadence, and Katina Paxinou came on to moan the dismal tragedy of Euripides' Hecuba.
Back at Nauplia after the theater, the Greeks bought broiled intestines skewered on sticks and ate them as an appetizer. We rowed back to the Zephyros and had dinner by lantern light. Then we wrapped in blankets and fell asleep on foam rubber mats laid out on the deck. Through the long night the ketch slipped out of the Peloponnese harbor, then veered north towards Athens. When I awoke the next morning the sky was light, but the sun had barely began to rouse itself from its bed below the horizon. The water was still as tea in a cup and soft as corn silk to behold. Athens loomed off the portside and to starboard fishermen were spinning a wide circle with their seining net around a school of fish. Synagrida, probably. One of the noblest families of the sea.
LUXURY BOATS IN THE ISLES
Craft of all shapes and sizes can be chartered for Aegean cruises. Among the most luxurious are the five below, which hire out through agencies in New York and Athens at rates up to $4,500 per month.
This 96.6-foot yacht makes nine knots under power. Sleeping space for 15 includes: one four-berth and three two-berth cabins, lounge, dining room, two toilets, bathroom, kitchen, refrigerator; for $4,500 per month.
For $80 per weekend five can be accommodated in ease on the 42-footer's four-berth cabin with bar and icebox and one-berth cabin with toilet, shower. Sleeps an additional six, and cooking can be provided.
Outfitted for eight, the recently launched 56-foot yacht offers: double cabin with toilet, shower; two single cabins, four-berth dining room, another toilet with shower, kitchen, refrigerator. She costs $85 a day.
This 85-foot yacht is air-conditioned; has six two-berth cabins, six-berth dining room, two toilets with showers, kitchen, refrigerator. She makes nine knots and costs $100 per day, wages, and food of crew included.
At eight knots under power this new boat holds 12 in cabin with single and double berth, two cabins with two singles, one single berth, four-berth stateroom, kitchen, bathroom, toilet, refrigerator. $100 a day.