What sets the Greek islands apart from all other islands in the world is something that cannot be charted or accounted for in a gazetteer. It is something in the mind or in the imagination. It is the history men live by—unconsciously, since it all happened many centuries ago, when, in and about these islands, people began to dream that mankind one day might civilize itself. The Greeks made brave beginnings toward that dream, with their literature, philosophy and art, and if it remains a dream to this day, it is a necessary one, however remote (perhaps impossible) its fulfillment may be. They foresaw the failure of the dream, too, some of the ancients who lived near these restless waters. The waves breaking on the Cyclades still sound Matthew Arnold's "eternal note of sadness," in the same way
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean.
In the thousands of years since Greece's classic age, the Cyclades have kept the simplicity dear to its poets and architects. Here are no shades of color and tone, no green of woodland bounded by meadow and field, no flower gardens and gay-painted houses glimpsed through foliage. Here is only the clear-etched line of barren hill and mountainside against the blistering blue of sea and sky, clusters of houses whitewashed into brilliance as blinding as the spume on offshore ledges. Goats browse where the eye cannot spot a single spear of grass, bees produce honey from unshaded rock, wheat manages to find crevices to survive.
The people survive, too. They accept their need to make a living out of the earth and the sea. Their humble lives have a dignity worthy of the islands' distinguished past. They are proud of the classic ruins, but prouder of their lively present. They are friendly—and there is a pleasant logic in the fact that xenos, the Greek word for stranger, also means guest.
February 6, 1961
As I stepped aboard the 60-foot schooner Aegean in Passa Limani, the Pasha's Harbor, on the Athens waterfront, I at once felt more like a guest than a stranger. Aegean had begun life as Centurion, 20 years before. Her frames were made of Madeira from Abaco in the Bahamas, her planking of Florida long-leaf pine. A veteran of many Atlantic passages and a hurricane off Bermuda, Aegean had come into the ownership of an old shipmate of mine. This was Horace W. (Hod) Fuller, late of Boston, late a brigadier general in the U.S. Marines, with service from Guadalcanal to France, now of Athens. Hod Fuller had written: "Let me show you something different in the way of islands."
Now, as Aegean heeled, I was having my first taste of the meltem, the wind off Mount Hymettus, a wind as characteristic of the region as the trades of the tropics. And lingering on my palate was the flavor of ouzo, the smoky, licorice-flavored brew that is the national drink of Greece. I was having my first impression of another characteristic of Attica, too, the quality of the light. Clear in the afternoon sun was the Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, a sailor's landmark through the centuries. Somehow, I did not seem to be looking at it through several miles of intervening atmosphere, but up close, as in a reversed telescope. There was the perspective of distance without the haze of distance. This clarity underlines the simplicity of the Cyclades, making the noon sun harsh, sharpening each line of the islands. Yet the same clarity melts into many-shaded sunrises and sunsets and softly luminous nights.
Our course carried us southeastward, close under the shore. Even here whitecaps marched in close ranks, for the meltem blew fresh. As we passed Point Vouliasmeni the wind chopped from almost dead aft to forward of the beam. Standing amidships, I lamented the passing of oldtime ships. Three head-sails lifted from the sharply steeved bowsprit over a gilded figurehead, three more sails filled from masts set up with dead-eyes and lanyards, all mementos of another vanished age. Aegean, with her tanned sails of canvas, clipper bow, lubber's net, midships bulwarks and raised poop complete with rail, was herself an anachronism, a Cape Horner in miniature.
Spindrift plumed to leeward like smoke, the light faded slowly. Phoebus Apollo neared the end of his daily drive in the sun chariot. Astern, a new quality came over Athens, a soft glow, faintly rose, touching Mount Hymettus and the clouds above. The glow tinted the columns of the Parthenon, and then came that sunset miracle which recalled the ancient epithet of Athens, City of the Violet Crown.
As Athens disappeared, Cape Sounion lifted, last bastion before the open Aegean. According to the Sailing Directions, "This cape, well known to navigators, often delayed by difficulty in doubling it, was dedicated to Poseidon." At the summit stood a ruined temple to the god of the sea, and in the sheltered cove at its base huddled a fleet of caiques, the high-bowed, slab-sided ships of burden that have remained almost unchanged for 2,000 years.
From the heights clusters of tourists near parked buses gaped down as Aegean surged bravely past, ignoring the warning of the anchored caiques. Sounion is one of those capes that separate the seagoing goats from the harbor-bound sheep. We were no sheep—resolutely we stood forth into the wine-dark sea of Ulysses.
Soon the full weight of the meltem caught us, funneling down the Mandri Channel between the narrow island of Makronesos and the shore of Attica. Short, steep seas began coming aboard in solid sheets, cold. They poured off the tacks of sails and sloshed deep in the scuppers, slowing us to bare steerageway. Phoebus Apollo called it a day. With the last light, we were back in the fold behind Cape Sounion, happily aware of the joys of harboring, sipping ouzo in tiny glasses, listening to the whine in the rigging as Aegean rolled gently to swells from her namesake sea, glad to be warm, cozy sheep rather than frozen goats.
We were awake and away from an empty anchorage at 6:30 next morning. The caiques had taken off like a covey of quail at the first light. The October air was nippy, but the meltem was a whisper instead of a shout, barely enough wind to fill sails against the sea still running. Powering into the path of the sun, we rounded the cape.
The Greek isles are divided both by geography and nomenclature into three main groups. The Ionian Islands are to the west, at the mouth of the Adriatic Sea, between the peninsulas of Italy and Greece. In the Aegean are the Cyclades, closest to the mainland, and the Sporades (which include the Dodecanese), an outer perimeter scattered carelessly by nature from the shore of Turkey to the far north along the Greek mainland. All, of course, are the tops of mountains lying on a submerged base, reflecting the rugged contours of the southern Balkans, which did not sink in the giant prehistoric convulsions. The Greek islands are easy cruising, deep water running close to shore, with few outlying dangers (well charted) and numerous harbors.
There is only one difficulty to sailing the Aegean. As the Red Sea and the surrounding deserts heat in the sun, a low-pressure area forms. Far to the north, the Black Sea and southern Russia are cool, creating a high. Air flows down this pressure gradient to spill out of the Dardanelles and sweep across the Aegean as the meltem, a wind which at times can attain gale velocities.
According to Hod Fuller, the ideal schedule would be to visit the easternmost islands of the Aegean in May and June. The meltem does not begin until summer, and then blows hardest and most regularly during July and August. This early start would allow travel along the Turkish coast from Lesbos to Rhodes, the Dodecanese, and from Rhodes a slant to Crete if desired, followed by a sail through the Cyclades to Spetsai and the Gulf of Athens. When the meltem began, the cruiser would pass through the Corinth Canal into the Adriatic, touching the Ionian Islands, ending at Corfu. Beyond this are the Dalmatian coast, Venice and other delights of the Adriatic. Then (still on the ideal schedule) the cruise could continue around the tip of Italy, before the Adriatic bora winds begin in September, with the whole Mediterranean ahead.
The best cruising time for the Aegean is spring, when winter rains have touched the islands with wild flowers and patches of green. The second best period is late August, September and into October, when the meltem slacks off but winter cold has not arrived. If only July and August are possible, stay behind Cape Sounion, spend your time cruising the Ionian group, or be prepared for occasional hard sails and days in harbor.
As we dropped Cape Sounion astern, the meltem did not return. Instead, the sea, first in the Mandri and then in the more open Kea Channel, lay surprisingly flat, dimpled by occasional crests and flaws from the surrounding mountain heights. Lazily we rolled along, Aegean as comfortable as an old mother hen. And gradually a harbor opened on the northwest corner of Kea Island, Port San Nikolo, toward which Hod had laid a course.
We slid into the embrace of the land, a whitewashed lighthouse to port, a whitewashed village to starboard. Dark-brown nets dried in the sun above the cobbled foreshore, fishing caiques were moored in water blue and smooth, a peasant rode a donkey down a rocky path, a tiny chapel perched on a hill. Aegean passed another point into another cove, a teacup of a harbor, with yet another and tinier village. Suddenly the anchor chain rattled through the hawsepipes, and there was the stillness following harsh sound when lesser sounds are magnified. We could hear goats and chickens, and from afar the rumbling of an unseen cart. A few pale trees stood near the water at either end of the village, but all else was barren, the hillside a pattern of boulders. The sun blazed down, as in the days when Kea boasted six temples to Apollo and two to his sister Diana; or the earlier era when a huge stone lion was hewn from the living rock of the island by men predating the Athenian civilization, Minoan rovers from Crete, who controlled the sea and its traffic—papyrus and gold from Egypt, copper from Cyprus, ivory from Syria, cedar from Lebanon, dye from Tyre.
That afternoon we ghosted out of the harbor and along the coast to the north point of Kea, where an increasing breeze took us in charge for Syros, 30 miles to the southeast. To port lay Andros, to starboard Kythnos and Seriphos. It was a sparkling day, and gradually we added every sail in Aegean's locker, so that the wake lay white and broad astern.
I remembered the Odyssey and what Ulysses, when he was home in Ithaca, had said of some incident of his long voyage: "The wind was fair, a fresh northerly, and we speeded along as if we were running downstream in a river." A pleasant meltem like this one, no doubt.
It was nearly dark when we crept close to the shore of Krasi Bay, so it was not until next morning that I looked down through water as clear as in the Bahamas or Tahiti to grass on the bottom three fathoms below, and watched little fish nose the anchor chain. Ashore, fishermen spread nets to dry after their night of work as we swam and began our day.
Outside, I decided the Aegean is actually a deeper blue than water elsewhere, almost in certain lights the wine-dark sea of Homer, which suggests purple overtones.
The bow swung toward Vare Bay, on the far side of Syros, and I walked aft to Hod at the wheel. "Bread," he said. "We can get some from the monastery on the hill." The anchor splashed down at the head of the cove, and fishermen squatting in the shade of a beached caique looked up. Hod called in Greek, pointed and one of the men began to climb the path, returning at last with two thick, round loaves. He launched a boat and rowed alongside, and there was a rapid rattle of Greek, the cook poking his head through the fo'c'sle scuttle to join. Voices raised, hands waved and the argument seemed to grow heated, before money was passed and the man rowed smilingly back to his friends. Robber, I thought, remembering experiences in various parts of the world: rapacious taxi drivers, piratical waterfront bums and cutthroat characters who demanded largess for petty favors. "How much did he want, Hod?" I asked.
"Nothing," he replied. "He took money for the bread but I couldn't get him to take anything for himself. Said we were xenoi and he was glad to help."
Outside again, we sun-bathed under a cloudless and windless sky, the diesel kicking us along over a calm sea. Lazily on our way to fabled Delos, we talked and read, until suddenly Reneia was alongside, once an island of life and death. In 426 B.C. Athens had decreed it forbidden to be born or die on Delos; expectant mothers and the ill were transported across the narrow gap of water to this adjoining isle, Reneia, a sad and savage footnote to a glorious culture.
Delos comes closest of the Greek islands to re-creating the look and feel of the past. Since 1873 excavations have gone on without cease, until much has been restored of a golden-age city. Here are shrines sacred to Apollo; here are shops along stone-paved streets, and the ruins of houses; quays for ships, with warehouses and taverns behind; and even "foreign colonies," for among the ruins archaeologists have discovered the gods and household furnishings of Egyptians, Syrians and, later, Romans.
It must have been a gracious and spacious city, beautifully situated, looking out over water on three sides, with gleaming marble temples crowning the hilltops behind.
Delos in many ways is a summation of the tragedy of Greece. The Cyclades group takes its name from being arranged in a cycle, or circle, around Delos, and in ancient times it was a religious arid commercial center. Through its history it was preyed upon by successive waves of covetous outsiders: first the Egyptians; then Athens in the days of rival city-states; then the Romans, followed in turn by barbarians from the north; the Knights Hospitallers of St. John during the Crusade of 1333; the Venetians; the roving sea pirates in every age; and finally the Turks—all pillaging and stripping and carrying away, until Delos was reduced to the level of a goat pasture. Everywhere relics of the great era—the marble columns, the ruined temples, the walls patterning the hillsides and the terraced stone platforms of forgotten fields—are as stark as skeletons in the desert.
Silently we walked the silent streets. Beside us strode the sandaled past, while offshore Aegean swung in waters that had borne every successive marine vehicle since the dawn of time. Yet if Delos is an island of ghosts, before dark we had arrived at a place very much alive—Mykonos, the Capri of the Aegean, less than 10 miles away.
Even from the sea Mykonos looks gay. Beyond a breakwater the town rises, tier on tier, ivory-white, dotted by the red and blue domes of churches, while tiny chapels perch on every prominent hilltop. There are 365 places of worship on the island, "one for every day of the year," many built by sailors who had taken vows during storms.
Tiny tables like those of a Parisian sidewalk café rim the waterfront, and natives and visitors sip ouzo or thick black coffee in tiny cups while watching the harbor pageant and passing throngs. Narrow streets and alleyways twist up a natural amphitheater of hillside, nowhere a straight line, donkey trails lined by houses. Each turn brings an architectural delight, a flight of steps and a doorway, chimneys and dovecots like cameos against the sky, a glimpse into a courtyard. By sunlight or moonlight all is dazzlingly white; in Mykonos not only are the houses whitewashed, but the cobbled streets as well.
But Mykonos has been discovered. Boatloads of trippers arrived regularly, shops were consciously quaint, arty characters in baggy slacks lounged at the waterfront tables.
Yet all the artificial seemed to fade away as Hod told me the saga of Petros, Peter the Pelican, who had been brought back from Florida by a returning sailor. At first a great curiosity as the only pelican on the Aegean, Petros soon became the town pet. Fishermen tossed him fish, until he became so fat and lazy he could barely rise from the water. As Hod talked, Petros was lifted from the cobbled beach, perched on the stern of a dinghy by a villager, who then tossed him scraps. But the idyllic life of Petros once was interrupted by fishermen from the nearby island of Tenos, who then declined to give him back. Enraged, the town fathers of Mykonos sent a telegram to the prime minister of Greece, refusing to vote in the coming national elections unless redress was made. Without waiting for a reply, fishermen, armed with antique hammer shotguns, piled aboard caiques, surrounded the house of the mayor of Tenos, forced the liberation of Petros and returned triumphantly to Mykonos.
Mykonos had been decided upon as the most northerly and easterly point of our cruise, as I wanted in the time available to visit Spetsai and other islands fringing the Peloponnesus and see something of the Gulf of Athens. So after a morning ashore and lunch aboard we began the 20-mile run to Paros, arriving to anchor at sunset in the completely landlocked harbor of Naussa.
Early in the morning we were away for Port Paroikia, the principal town of Paros. Even from the water I was enchanted: a long crescent of beach, nets drying on the sand between gay-painted boats pulled up on rollers, a centuries-old circular marble lighthouse on the quay. It was Sunday, and ashore we found the town crowded with peasants dressed in their best. Across from Hotel Meltemi at the edge of the sea was a donkey parking lot. As each group came down the path from the hills, the donkeys were driven into a shaded enclosure by an attendant, while papa and mama and the children walked the rest of the way.
It was a simple and friendly people who sauntered the streets. Stores, barbershops and tavernas were busy. As in Mykonos, each turn of every narrow cobbled lane brought a new vista, but here all was softened by foliage. Bunches of grapes hung from balconies, and there were purple splashes of morning glories and red blazes of hibiscus against the whitewashed walls. Palms could be glimpsed through arched gateways. Of the Cyclades, Paros was the greenest. Although perhaps less picturesque than Mykonos—the whitewash is not so dazzlingly bright, there are less up-and-down and twist to the streets, and fewer architectural gems—I found Paros less touristy.
By late afternoon we were away. The sun had set when Aegean ghosted into Port Livadhi on Seriphos. We rowed ashore in the dusk to have a drink at the taverna. Typically, it was a plain, bare room, with a few tables and chairs on a cement floor, lighted by kerosene lamps. Two fishermen playing backgammon in a corner murmured a greeting as we entered, and the proprietor and his wife saluted Hod as an old friend, putting out the best ouzo and a bowl of Amphissa olives, purple as grapes and wrinkled as prunes.
Later, back aboard Aegean, we sat in the cockpit while the moon lifted above the encircling peaks. Softly over the water came a voice singing a lament in the thin high monotone of the East, a sad sound, yet lovely. We watched the village on the hillside above. It had suddenly been illuminated by the rising moon, tiers of houses hanging on a slope steep enough to tax a goat.
Hod had warned me that Aegean weather could change swiftly, but my last look at the serene sky did not prepare me for awakening to rain pattering on deck and whistling gusts through the rigging. At 6:30, when we got under way for the longest open-water passage of the cruise, lead-dull clouds were masking the sunrise. Clad in oilskins, we poked around the sheltering point into a small but lumpy sea.
We found only a moderate southerly. Sails were added one after another until Aegean romped along. Astern, the dropping Cyclades merged with distant rain squalls, and the 65-mile passage vanished in water tumbling under the broad quarter. By midafternoon Aegean slid into the snug harbor of Spetsai.
Spetsai is like a place in the Mediterranean, perhaps a French Riviera town or an Italian island. It is much greener than anything in the off-lying Aegean archipelago, and much more sophisticated. From the deck, as we approached, could be seen tall Lebanon cedars, dark against the paler green of palms, pines and olive trees. The houses, in a long crescent facing the sea, were shuttered and imposing, obviously the part-time residences of people who worked elsewhere and came to Spetsai to enjoy a leisured life. Spetsai is a resort, the summer home of wealthy Athenians. Sidewalks and approaches to the villas are intricate mosaics of black and white pebbles, usually nautical in motif—anchors, crossed cannon, compass roses, even full-rigged ships. Yachts cluster in the inner harbor, and fishing boats nestle behind a protecting breakwater off the central square, overlooked by the outdoor tables of the tavernas.
Separated by only a narrow strait is Spetsopoula, the private domain of Stavros Niarchos, Greek shipping magnate. Going ashore by invitation, we were overwhelmed by a gigantic works program. Dredges, divers and barges were busy on a breakwater forming a harbor for Creole, at 190 feet overall one of the largest sailing yachts afloat, and lesser vessels of a private fleet; bulldozers and grading equipment constructed roads; a small army of craftsmen transformed and enlarged a villa. Gamekeepers supervised a battery of pheasant-breeding pens, and at adjoining kennels trainers exercised dogs. Deer roamed the heavy underbrush, while over the trees towered a radio antenna.
Awed, Hod and I were content to anchor for the night in a deserted cove at the western end of Spetsai called Zoyioryia. Cannon buried at the water's edge to take the hawsers of vanished ships testified to departed importance. Around us grew olive trees, pale and silvery, and spears of sisal, almost tropic in aspect, but above on the hillside sighed the heavy dark pines of temperate latitudes. We seemed a thousand miles from the stark Cyclades. Rain fell during the night as the wind swung, but Aegean lay snug in her rock nest.
We awakened to a fresh meltem that had swept the sky clear of cobwebs. It was a crisp morning of dancing whitecaps and glittering spray as Aegean beat through Petasi Strait. To port extended the shores of the Peloponnesian peninsula, to starboard Hydra Island. Looking at the chart and at the shore, nowhere was a straight line. It was a reminder that the coastline of Greece is one of the longest in the world in proportion to the area of the land, 18 times that of France, and 4½ times longer than England's.
Behind the stone breakwater of Port Hydra was a log jam of caiques being made ready for winter, dinghies wedged like kindling between gaps. Villagers sat placidly sipping coffee at waterfront tables, descendants of sturdy fighting men who had had a major part in the battle against Turkish occupation, a struggle that was fiercely waged during 1821-29. In 1821 Hydra boasted a population of 40,000 and a fleet of 150 ships. It was a base of marine guerrilla warfare that not only raided commerce but launched hit-and-run attacks against the sprawling Ottoman Empire. The leading families made great fortunes from plunder but put them back into the war of liberation. Nothing remains now but a village of less than 3,000, drowsing in its memories.
Lingering, we sipped ouzo until after sunset and moonrise over the mountains. Dinner was leisurely. We were giving the meltem time to drop, as it does most nights. Outside, Aegean drove through a short steep sea to Poros, again wholly different from anything we had visited. Behind a headland extended a long narrow inlet. At the far end was the port, caiques moored bow to stern along the quay. Across the narrow cobbled street stood shuttered houses, looking like miniature fortresses, but relieved of grimness by the Christmas-tree effect of street lights running up the hillside to a single narrow peak.
Instead of stopping off the town, Hod passed through another gap into an inner harbor. I had been told it resembled an Italian lake, and it did, even in moonlight. In bright sunshine the next morning the effect was even more startling: the same blue water, the same green hills lifting to high mountains purple in the haze of distance, the same dark spears of cedars, white villas with red-tile roofs, patterns of villages in the distance, and lace-handkerchief clouds, much softer-textured than those that hang over oceans.
There is always a reluctance to come to the end of a cruise. This time the gods tried to compensate by providing perfect conditions. We hoisted sail in the salt lake and sailed for the pure joy of sailing, "nothing to hit except shore with your bowsprit," as Hod said, before passing out through a rock-bound cut into the Gulf of Athens. A steep little sea greeted us, but within two hours the anchor was down inside the harbor of Aegina. After the quiet ports astern, it seemed active as an anthill. Caiques awaited turn to unload at the quays. Small commuting steamers laden with passengers maneuvered off the central square.
We rowed ashore. Some fishermen mended nets on the cobbles, fingers and toes following the intricate pattern, while others daubed paint on scarred caiques. There was a feeling of fall in the air. The tavernas had taken in their awnings, houses and shops stood shuttered.
In the afternoon we were away to a dying meltem. By the time we neared Athens the sun was low over Salamis Island. A full moon lifted over the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Lights winked from naval vessels offshore. Their reflections in the city rippled in tiny dots up the hillsides. As Aegean moved through the breakwater in the wake of so many ghostly ships, there was suddenly the purple afterglow, the violet crown, miracle of beauty to returning sailors through the centuries. Then it was night, and in the moonlight gleamed the Acropolis, loveliest creation of man.
Route of Aegean