Postcards from Greece – David Green
Since discovering Lawrence Durrell as a teenager, I have been fascinated by his life and works, particularly the Mediterranean world in which he spent most of his life and wrote about in his island books, letters and essays on travel. In 2015, on a trip to Europe which I described in Postcards from Europe, we set out to visit Durrell’s houses in southern France where the author lived from 1957 until his death in 1990. In this we were successful, spending a few days in the region around Nîmes visiting the Mazet Michel as guests of the current owner who is himself a Durrell enthusiast. A subsequent trip to Sommières about twenty miles away took us to the famous ‘Vampire House’ at no. 15 Route de Saussines, where Durrell lived out his days and wrote the Avignon Quintet.
Of course, I knew of his other houses on Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus, so when Richard Pine, with whom I had been corresponding for many years, invited me to speak at the Durrell Library of Corfu’s Islands of the Mind symposium, my wife Denise and I decided to build a trip around these houses as well as other island settings such as Crete, Santorini and Paros. Given that Lawrence Durrell wrote so evocatively about ‘Spirit of Place’, we wanted to engage his Greek Island world as viscerally as we reasonably could. The following Postcards from Greece recount this journey.
David Green, October 2019
I – Bitter Lemons: Postcard from Cyprus
After an arduous travel day beginning in Istanbul at 7:15am and ending in Bellapais1, Cyprus at around 5:00pm, Denise and I were glad to settle into our Airbnb Turkish-style guest house (advertised as a traditional house from the Ottoman period, but more likely a Greek villa marketed by a Turk) complete with heavy wooden shutters, tiled floors and dark, cool interiors – with a pool. We were back in Lawrence Durrell country in a small, semi-rural village in the foothills of the Kyrenia ranges overlooking the Crusader Abbey and the soft, hazy blue water of the eternal sea. Lawrence Durrell: poet, novelist, travel writer and sometime diplomat lived here from 1953 until 1956. After a brief period of creative freedom, the purchase of a house and its subsequent renovations required him to work first as a school teacher and then as an information officer for the British colonial administration. This experience was later described in his Duff Cooper prize-winning book, Bitter Lemons. Durrell’s house stands at the end of a steep climb through narrow recently bricked streets up from the village square and the famous Tree of Idleness. A hand-painted sign on a corner shop points the way. The Tree of Idleness is no longer a free-standing shady space surrounded by little benches as it was in Durrell’s time. The tree is, apparently, the same one, but it and much of the former square have been incorporated into a low-key outdoor restaurant which acknowledges Durrell and serves very good steak. According to legend, those who sit in the shade of the Tree of Idleness become incapacitated for any serious work, the result being that the inhabitants of Bellapais were said to be the laziest in the island.
Readers of Bitter Lemons will know that Durrell and Sabri, the Turkish real estate agent, arrived for an inspection in 1953 during a torrential rain storm which turned the street into what Sabri described as “a bloody trout stream, my dear!” They were well out of breath when they got to the house, as were we after the 300-metre climb. The house, even today, is largely as described in Bitter Lemons, a simple two-storey peasant villa with a walled garden and the interior hidden by shutters; a private island on the edge of town, the perfect place for a writer cooking up a really big novel (Justine). Even in 1953 Durrell disparaged the encroaching urbanisation from Kyrenia, largely driven then by retired and dilapidated English types looking for someplace warmer than Bournemouth. He would barely recognise the Kyrenia plain today. Bellapais is now virtually an upland suburb. Although it retains a semi-rural feel, most locals and non-locals work in shops, bars and restaurants. The donkeys, peasants in baggy woollen breeches and goat herds of Durrell’s time, such as his neighbour, the cattle-driving Frangos, have been replaced by tourist buses and taxis who deliver a steady stream of visitors to the well-preserved ruined abbey through which they wander, have lunch, check out the tiny shops before returning to hotels and villas in Kyrenia. Despite the signposts to Durrell’s former home, few tourists make the steep climb to find it.
The biggest cultural change since the 1974 Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island is that the Greek population were forced south as Cyprus was clinically divided on ethnic lines. From Larnaka Airport on the Greek side of Cyprus we were driven by a Cypriot-born Turk to Bellapais in the northern Turkish sector. He told us that the roads were better on the Greek side, the economy better and that it would be a positive move economically if Cyprus became a one-island state again. Apparently, the ‘local’ presidents of north and south talk frequently and amicably but their hands are tied by Ankara and Athens, particularly by President Erdogan of Turkey who seems to have drawn a line in the sand and has placed 30,000 Turkish soldiers north of the border. The Greeks have 6,000 troops while the British maintain a post-colonial presence of about 8,000 military personnel.
Since our arrival in Cyprus the weather had been rather hazy, the outlines blurred a little with, at times, no clear border between the sea and sky and in general a rather dusty aspect to this warm dry island which, in large spaces across the Mesasoria plains, resembles Australia; straw dry fields lined with acres of baled hay which is clearly a major product of the island. However, one night in Bellapais, we attended a concert in the old abbey given by four accomplished cellists doing a scenario from Bach to The Beatles. A light thunderstorm followed by cleansing rain brushed in and a cool night wind cleared away the miasma and we awoke to the true Mediterranean blue with white crested waves off Kyrenia. The geraniums glowed and the high pines sighed in a purer air. Durrell loved this sort of weather.
Three days earlier we received a Ford Focus from a hire company and drove down to old Kyrenia to tour the ancient harbour, the Venetian fort and see if we could find Clito’s tavern, where Durrell had his first wine-fuelled encounters with local Greek Cypriots keen on Enosis (union with Greece). It was a small hope. Our research indicated that Clito’s wine shop, carved into a cave, is long since gone or repurposed into one the many bars and restaurants that line the harbour like sea anemones waiting for a catch. A few places were suggestive, but no, Clito’s tavern is no more, like the Greek population Durrell knew so well.
The traveller to Northern Cyprus will not only be struck by the rugged mountain ranges and broad yellow plains, but also by the large number of unfinished or abandoned buildings which include shopping complexes as well as private houses. The overall impression was of some great economic collapse creating a semi-third-world landscape. Drinks at the Tree of Idleness one evening put the matter to rights. We met an English couple who have a villa along the Kyrenia coast and knew the local scene well. They told us that many houses were abandoned when the Greeks were forced south after 1974; families often build houses slowly, a storey at a time, often on a generational basis; and that the mainland Turkish government, as part of its colonisation programme, provides start-up money for houses and businesses which are eagerly taken by the locals, but the moment the money stops not another brick is laid. Lastly, there is genuine poverty. The Turkish government props up North Cyprus because no other nation recognises its existence and the only country with which it can trade is Turkey, though it appears very much to be a one-way street. Concrete towers thrust out of dry fields, little boxes on the hillside, and tourist villas and hotels sprawl along the coast like a malignant cancer; cement pours over olive groves amid dust and rumbling trucks. You have to get away from the coast into the hills and mountains to find any semblance of the rustic country Durrell knew so well.
Soaring above Bellapais like vast, grey bastions of repudiating stone are the sheer Kyrenian ranges which tower up to 1200 metres above the sea not far from the coast. Little did Denise and I realise as we set off one fine morning for the Karpas donkey peninsula that we would get lost in this towering, precipitous pine-scented world. As we ascended the heights towards Buffavento Castle in a steady stream of morning traffic heading for Nicosia we realised we had missed the coast road to Karpas. Turning around was impossible. But Denise figured that if we cut left at the end of the descent we could get back over the mountains to the coast road. So, we turned left and immediately found ourselves on a potholed road surrounded by armed Turkish soldiers and miles of razor wire protecting a military training area from which the odd ominous explosion could be heard. For a brief moment I thought we were going to be ordered out of the car at gunpoint and strip searched, but on closer inspection, They seemed fairly at ease. “Is it OK to use the road?” we indicated. The NCO in charge (he wore a pistol) waved us on. Phew. But as we soared into steep sided mountains on a crumbling road with the odd fallen boulder here and there and cavernous drops (no barriers) swooping away alarmingly right and left during our zig zag ascent, the idea came to us that the soldiers were probably by now pissing themselves laughing at our expense.
It was with a sense of relief that we reached the summit, to be amply rewarded with green Cyprus pine forests, thick scrub, flowers in bloom and not a soul around. It was the sort of Arcadian scene that conjured up images of Pan or Eros or goat herds tending their flocks. We stopped in a shady picnic area and took stock. To allay my palpitations, Denise decided to drive and arming our navigation app ‘Roger’ with the details we set off on a slightly less precipitous descent to the coast and I’m glad we did, for we passed through unspoiled remote villages, pine forests, olives groves and little farms that were far more in tune with Cyprus Durrell knew than the miles of neo-Mediterranean villas along the coast.
But tourism and vacations are the main business now. Agriculture has been mechanised and peasants are few and far between – we point them out to one another like tourist attractions. But the Karpas peninsula is dotted with small villages, olives groves, chook runs and garden plots. Sadly, many are in almost third world condition, the roads are crumbling and a general air of neglect hangs over the scene. The Donkey ‘national park’ barely deserved the name. It was just scrubland in which the decommissioned donkeys and their offspring appear to have been dumped to fend for themselves. This scene was made more desolate by the presence at the park’s entrance of disused or half-built hotel blocks: hard to say which. However, the Karpas peninsula is rather remote and there are long sandy beaches and areas where you can camp and swim as Durrell and his friends did back in the 1950s. And it was here, in a secluded bay, that we enjoyed our first dip in cool waveless waters, European style, breast stroking out and then just floating about in this almost tideless sea.
An insightful conversation took place one afternoon after we had returned from Famagusta. I went to get some supplies in the village and one of our new friends who hawked from his establishment on the main street indicated that I should sit, drink tea and talk in the front door of the shop. His English was ok. He was off to Canada in a few days, though he was worried about the US dollar and the price of cigarettes there.
We spoke a little about the political situation in Cyprus and he said: “I am Turkish Cypriot. Before, Greeks and Turks all get on. But after 1974 everything changes. Many Turks are now brought over from the mainland. They are different. We are European and like to drink!” The mainland Turks appear to appreciate little of the original history and culture of the place and you hear the ‘duff duff’ of patriotic Turkish music with its distinctive Middle Eastern beat. Reading between the lines, it appears the more easy-going Cypriot Turks resent the influx of Islamist Turks from the mainland. A young Turkish Cypriot said this to me about Ramadan: “Eleven month playboy, one month prayboy – pft.”
In 1960 the British helped negotiate an independent Cypriot state. The Turks claim the Greeks did not keep to the bargain and invaded in 1974. Then all Greeks had to move to the south and similarly Turks to the north. There is a hard border with soldiers, wire and machine guns. In our whole time in the north there we met no Greeks and all the original Greek place names have been overlaid with Turkish ones – Kyrenia/Girne, Bellapais/Beylerbeyi, Famagusta/Gazimagusa.
Though seemingly popular with the everyday people, particularly those who remember the way it used to be, the idea of a united island is being thwarted by the nationalism of Ankara and Athens. The Greeks in particular have a raw nerve over the 1974 invasion. There are soldiers, barracks and training camps on both sides of the fence. Nicosia is the last divided capital city on earth. The northern section of the city has even been renamed – Lefkosia. Whilst the leaders of North Cyprus and South Cyprus are apparently talking about union, I can’t see the current Turkish president accepting it.
A comment on many of the ‘museums’ we have seen, such as the Venetian forts at Famagusta and the old Christian/Orthodox churches – they are not well-maintained. Little is invested in them and you can visit for a few lire, but you won’t find extensive exhibits or much beyond a brief outline on a tourist board. There are, however, plenty of bright, new mosques.
An exception to this rule was a small museum of ancient artefacts in Iskeli, near Famagusta. Here we viewed some of the best-preserved items from the Neolithic period to Roman times I’ve ever seen; vases and vessels with original paintwork from the Hellenic period, carved Persian heads in as-new condition; earthenware, tools, domestic items and adornments. The dry climate must have helped with the preservation. Sadly, we were the only people in the museum.
But three days on the road was enough. We returned the car and spent the last two days enjoying our spacious, cool house while casually exploring the village of Bellapais, certainly the prettiest locale we encountered. A change came through, the air turned clear and blue, and great views of the mountains behind and the sea to the front presented themselves, including Buffavento Castle atop the Kyrenian range. Durrell claimed he could see it from his house. We had been doubtful – until that day.
We re-visited Durrell’s house, determined to get in. And we did – through a side gate to the courtyard garden which we soon discovered had been left open deliberately for tourists like us. For it was evident the owners were absent and the house locked up. They had also left shutters open so we could peer into the interior spaces. Above the backdoor on the lintel sat a copy of Bitter Lemons, a simple homage to the author. A French couple were also looking around. We spoke briefly. The man said, “I don’t know this writer.” When I told him Durrell had lived in France for many years and was admired there, he said he must now read some of his books.
Back home I did some further online research into the Durrell house. In 2000, Guardian journalist Peter Lennon stayed there. He comments: “The villa now has a number of luxuries that Durrell did not enjoy, including a pool in the leafy courtyard.’ At Guthrie’s Bar, Lennon was fortunate to meet the owners who remembered Durrell from when they were young. Deirdre Guthrie would often visit him down the road. She recalls: “He would talk for hours, but mostly about himself.”
More recently, Mark Cocker, an English author and naturalist, paid a visit and wrote a pertinent paragraph. “Bitter Lemons is no longer a meaningful guide to the physical characteristics of Cypriot life, given that the community has been so terribly mauled by civil war and now entirely separated along ethnic lines … The quaintness of their backwater existence has also been further deluged by a tsunami of tourist development. Apparently, this is far more pronounced on the Greek side.”
Since 1974, all imports must come from mainland Turkey and water is piped in from there. The government in Ankara bolsters the north with $500 million a year plus 30,000 troops – 10% of the North’s population. Turkish planes cannot use Greek air space, one cannot travel directly from Turkey to South Cyprus and our local waiter told us he has never travelled there as he is not permitted to do so. We could not take a hire car across the border. While there would be economic and social benefits for a reunion, international and domestic politics are problematic. The Turkish president, Erdogan, has pledged to hold the line in the Aegean. There is competition for newfound gas reserves and Cyprus remains a strategic NATO location.
The morning before our departure, I ventured to the village square to procure the daily wine ration. The locals now high-five me on the way. Duma, a mainland Turk from whom we had purchased (amid great theatrics and bargaining – one must) two pairs of shoes a few days earlier, was sitting outside his shop in the shade. On the day of the sale we vowed to drink raki together. This never happened. It was Ramadan.
Duma says “sit and have tea.” His English is not good but we talk a bit. “Ah, you go to Greece? Greek side no good.” “Of course, you’d say that, Duma,” I reply. “Of course!” He smiles and lights a Marlborough. “Many tourists today,” I say. “Yes, but none buy.” An elderly English couple strolls by and Duma tries to get them into the shop. They decline politely, but firmly. During the banter, Duma says to them: “Turkish make the best tea; is Turkish Viagra, Germans the best cars, Italians the best wine and Russians … the best women.” Taken aback, the couple moves on. So, I say goodbye to my Turkish friends and thank them for their hospitality. Duma is happy. He got 600 Turkish Lira from us (about $140).
Oleander and geraniums glow in brilliant sunlight under spreading vines and an archetypal azure sky. Set in straw dry fields, olive and pine trees stand sifting seaborne air that cools through open shutters as we prepare to leave the Beautiful Peace (Bellapais) and take the sky road into Greece.
II – The Marine Venus: Postcard from Rhodes
After our immersion in North Cyprus, the Lawrence Durrell trail took us to Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands and one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Here, the author spent two blissful years with his second wife, Yvette Cohen (the dark eyed E), a Jewish Egyptian he’d met in Alexandria during the war and the inspiration for Justine, the heroine of his novel of the same name. In 1945 the British took control of the war-devastated island and began a programme of reconstruction. Durrell was posted to Rhodes as a press officer and charged with running newspapers in English, Greek and Turkish, a precursor to the role he later had on Cyprus, “lying abroad for his country” as he put it. With relatively light duties, he was free to explore the island and its inhabitants in detail. His impressions are recorded in his second island book: Reflections on a Marine Venus, a Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes. First published by Faber in 1953, this book combines history, folklore and slightly fictionalised personal experiences with a poetic and often humorous evocation of the land and its people.
After a brief stay in the big art deco Italian hotel (now a Casino) in Rhodes Town, Larry and Eve moved into a nearby cottage in the garden of a small mosque with attendant graveyard. Although Durrell rather grandly called it the Villa Cleobolus, after an ancient Greek poet from Lindos, it’s little more than a three-room peasant house, described by Durrell’s friend Ray Mills as kiosk-like, but cosy enough for two young lovers. The cottage is set in a large garden of shady eucalyptus trees enlivened by oleander and hibiscus bushes which were well maintained when Lawrence and Eve lived there but, as we found, is now rather neglected. However, the little house, currently painted yellow, is being used by a local literary and arts society and looks fairly well cared for.
Finding the cottage was part of a big day out in the old town of the island’s capital – four hours on foot in the blazing sun, weaving through hordes of tourists recently released like a tidal flow from a mammoth cruise liner. Some were so infirm that even waddling up the relatively slight incline of the Street of the Knights to the Palace of the Grand Master proved too much for them and they retired to the ship for their pre-paid lunch. But Rhodes Town is well worth the visit, the old city walls are in good shape (and heritage listed) as is the old harbour, the inevitable Venetian fort and the famous windmills near the harbour mouth. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes, built by the Rhodians in 280 BCE to commemorate their victory over Demetrius of Macedon and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is said to have straddled the harbour entrance so that seaborne visitors to the town would have to pass under his mighty nether regions. Even the highly imaginative Durrell thought this story improbable. At 33 metres tall, impressive enough for its day, the great statue to the god Helios was simply not tall enough to plant a leg on both sides of the harbour without suffering from a major case of the splits. Brought down by an earthquake in 226 BCE, it was never rebuilt. Apparently, it lay about in the grass and scrub for centuries before being turned into scrap, pilfered or flogged off.
The Colossus may be long gone, but the statue ‘Marine Venus’ (Aphrodite) remains, her white form and sea-sucked ‘jube’ of a face, as Durrell described it, standing modestly in the Archaeological Museum with the strange ‘love bite’ above her right bosom. Raised from the depths of Rhodes Harbour early on in Durrell’s time there, this sensual figure became the muse for his Rhodes book. He called her “the presiding genius of the island” – but Larry was prone to statements like that, especially when rather in love with his own Venus.
By mistake, or you could say happy coincidence, we booked accommodation in Lindos, an ancient town mid-way down the eastern side of the island of which Durrell spoke highly. For this reason, I responded assuredly with “Lindos” when Denise asked me where Larry lived when in Rhodes. With her usual promptness Denise nailed down a non-refundable house there – and a fortuitous mistake it was. With its towering acropolis, ancient ruins, yet another Venetian fort and superb harbour, the white washed town proved to be a great base of operations and the tricked-up peasant house above the town, a quiet and secluded haven. Given its location about half way down the east coast, nothing on the island was more than an hour or so away by car. So, with our little red Rhodos rental we sallied forth each day to visit places mentioned in Durrell’s texts. This proved to be a great way to see the more remote & scenic parts of the island where hopefully a few peasants might remain.
Rhodes is the third largest Greek island and away from the tourist villa’d and hotel’d east coast where little England thrives along the calm well-lagered shores, the inland is mountainous and forested with pines and thick undergrowth. Narrow, winding roads take you through olive groves, vineyards and small villages where good cheap meals can be had at local tavernas such as the Panorama Taverna at Apollona, and almost every seaside spot is swim-worthy. Over the centuries Rhodes was deforested for firewood, shipbuilding and timber exports, but with the shift to electric power, concrete and steel construction, and the decline in peasant agriculture, the trees are growing back, recolonising the valleys and climbing slowly up the rocky mountain slopes. We have discovered that the secret to avoiding tourist crushes is to either visit museums or go inland. We met a young couple from Israel at a bar in Lindos who were unaware of the island’s history and significance. They, like most, were there for sun, sand and the odd dip in the limpid Med.
Visiting old castles, churches and ancient ruins isn’t everyone’s glass of beer, but I do recommend the ancient ruins of Kameiros on the west coast. Set high on a commanding bluff overlooking the broad blue Aegean, circled with pines and in remarkable condition, the ruins are testament to the long history of the island dating back to the Mycenaean Age. Durrell visited the newly excavated site just after the war and was enchanted:
“Cameirus is beautiful in a way that persuades mere ugliness to conform to its grace of air and situation; even the curator’s Nissan hut, now crammed with verminous filth, smashed bottles, shed equipment, and bandages – even this cannot intrude upon the singing beauty of this ancient town uncovered by the spade of the archaeologist.”
Two folk museums, one at the unfortunately named village of Lardos (lard arse as we called it) and the other at Apollona, gave us great insights into the lost life and relatively recent culture that Durrell wrote about so wonderfully, and truthfully, in his island books: the traditional costumes, the simple, practical houses, the hard work leavened by community effort and ritual, the diet of coarse bread, olive oil, vegetables and local wine. Bread was always baked on a Saturday and had to last all week. It was hung from the ceiling so that the children couldn’t steal it. Firewood was scarce, so big cook-ups were rare. In his small but well-supplied museum, the Curator at Lardos, a true Rhodian and patriot whose stentorian voice told us when to listen and exactly where to stand in no uncertain terms, said that three factors helped the Greeks survive over the centuries of invasions and changes: the Greek language, the religion and the family/community unit. The Greek language and alphabet have barely changed since the days of Homer. Rhodes has been occupied by the Hellenes, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Saracens, the Venetians, the Ottomans and most recently the Italians who occupied the island from 1912 until 1939. Although the Italians invested in reafforestation and agriculture, they also tried to remodel the local culture, make everyone speak Italian and salute Il Duce (Mussolini). Apart from a few buildings and trees, little of their time here survives. In 1943, after the Italians characteristically changed sides, the Germans invaded and inflicted a brutal regime on the island until the British took over after the Nazi surrender in May, 1945. The British wanted to stay, but the anti-colonial UN, dominated by the USA, ordered them out in 1947.
Times have changed and the world Durrell knew has almost gone. Our eccentric curator told us: “Before the girls marry at 14 or 15 and make home and make beautiful clothes. Now they want to be Lady Gaga. Before, their competition was embroidery, now it is in their nails.” The guide at Apollona, a retired goldsmith who makes olive oil, carves wooden signs and looks after the little museum remembers when the women of the village would take all the children to the stream on washing day. While the children played, the women sang and gossiped as they got the laundry done. The men of course were tending the vines, the olives, the chooks or maybe sitting around at the taverna smoking and playing cards as they still do. Now the young move away – to the coast, to Athens or abroad. Who can blame them? It was a tough life up in these rugged, stony hills. Of the old Greece, a few old black-clad yiayias [grandmothers] can be seen, but for how much longer? We saw a couple of them sleeping on the ferry; gnarled old peasant women, tough as olive trees. They seem from another age and time, another planet. The modern peasants, such as they are, ride tractors and motor bikes and wear trousers and T-shirts. Durrell’s Greece can be found, but you have to look hard for it.
In the opening pages of Prospero’s Cell, Durrell’s book about Corfu, the author writes:
“You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you over those blue miles of water as of a climate … the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and everywhere you look, the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.”
This description proved to be so true in Rhodes too. The hazy blue of the Med with its often-blurred interface between sea and sky can make you unsure of whether you observe islands or clouds on the horizon – or mirages. All are possible. One morning in the carpark above Lindos we were chatting to a Greek Australian artist who splits his time between Lindos and Wagga Wagga. He told us the islands on the horizon, which we didn’t recall seeing the previous day, were in fact mirages. I was sceptical. They looked very much like islands. But the next day they were gone. Google Earth confirmed that east of Lindos the sea plunges to a depth of ten thousand metres and there are no islands until you get to Cyprus many miles away.
A visit to Lindos would not be complete without a swim in St. Paul’s Bay, whose pristine azure waters lie enticingly within snug rocky confines beneath the soaring edifice of the old acropolis. The photos we took failed to do justice to this tranquil blue pond sanctified by the little church on the far shore. And so it was, that after two long hot days on the trail, we picked our way down to the little beach and dived in. The cool, clear water revived our spirits like a nip of neat gin. As I over-armed out into the bay, I wondered whether many Europeans were taught to swim this way. They either gently breast stroke about or, more typically, just bob about in the waters. The main thing seems to be to lie in the sun and slowly fry. To this end you can pay €10 for a banana bed and umbrella above the beach or €15 for the same set up on the beach. When we told the attendant that the beach was free in Australia, he said, “I want to move to Australia”. We didn’t tell him that in some Sydney metropolitan locations you have to pay rather steep parking fees to get anywhere near the foaming brine.
NOTE: The English are a funny lot. We went online to research a possible ascent of the famous Lindos Acropolis and encountered salvos of comments to the effect that it was a waste of money (€12) and not worth the climb (which is very steep). But the Brits will happily pay €10 to €15 for a sunbed at St. Paul’s Bay. As for us, we didn’t attempt the acropolis. We had the real deal coming up in Athens, you know the really big bastard up above Piraeus, and we’d seen enough Venetian walls already. In fact, Denise is working on a poem in pictures called Ode to a Venetian Wall. And we would see a lot more before the big, silver bird would take us home. Those Venetians, they sure got around and they loved getting poor bastards to finely chip cannon balls out of marble. Marble cannon balls! It would be a world-weary traveller indeed who did not reflect upon such a senseless waste of flooring material.
On the last page of Reflections on a Marine Venus, Lawrence Durrell wrote rather poetically:
“Ahead of us the night gathers, a different night, and Rhodes begins to fall into the unresponding sea from which only memory can rescue it. The clouds hang high over Anatolia. Other islands? Other futures? Not, I think, after one has lived with the Marine Venus. The wound she gives one must carry to the world’s end.”
To which I say:
Larry, mate, she’s only a bloody marble statue with a face like a half-sucked jube and a flaming big birth mark on her tit. There’s plenty like her walking around in cut-off shorts. What’s the big deal? And as for Rhodes, it’s just a big bunch of rocks, olive trees, ordinary beaches with no waves, inhabited by wanna be Lady Gagas and folklorists going on about how great the old days were; oh, and sunburnt English holiday-makers complaining about the tea and the price of acropolises. I’m off to Santorini for the spectacular views, endless bloody sunset photos, miles of tacky tourist shops, overpriced … everything, but at least Santorini had the decency to blow itself up when it got too full of itself.
III – Caldera of Tourism: Postcard from Santorini
And blow up she sure did. What you see now at Santorini are the fragments of a much larger island that basically became airborne in 1632 BCE due to possibly the largest volcanic eruption in history. Four or five time the magnitude of Krakatoa in 1883, equivalent to several large nuclear bombs, the explosion generated immense tsunamis and ash clouds which had a major impact on the ancient world, burying the ancient capital of the island for centuries until a chance discovery in 1961. Since then archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a large city near the modern village of Akrotiri which you can visit for a few euros. The dig, which is ongoing, is covered by a large roof to protect the site from the elements and affords a similar benefit to the tourist seeking to escape the bright Aegean sun. The impressive thing is, the archaeologists reckon that they have only uncovered a fraction of the city (around 3%) which lends support to the theory that a major centre of civilisation, possibly the lost city of Atlantis, once graced this island. The site has yielded many artefacts which can be viewed at the museum in Thira, but no human remains. One idea is that the rumblings of the volcano convinced the Atlanteans to leave before the big kaboom. Whether or not they were swamped by the tsunami that followed we will probably never know.
There is perhaps no better way to see the Aegean Greece islands which Durrell described as ‘smoke-grey, volcanic turtle backs lying low against the ceiling of heaven’ than by the ferries which operate, sometimes erratically, between the various islands, one of which we took from Rhodes to Santorini via several destinations. The dawn arrival at Santorini was impressive. As you round the southern cape and enter Caldera Bay, the volcano and the high settlements of Thira and Oia, capping the towering cliffs like snow, loom poetically out of the early light and you can see why it’s popular: the classic white and blue-domed towns set over 300 metres above the hazy soft sea provide epic views of the bay and the islands that remain as stark reminders of the great explosion of 1632 BCE. However, according to our driver, who transferred us up the steep zig zag road filled with huge buses and taxis almost nudging each other like herd animals, the town is overpriced and overrated. Yes and no. Certainly more expensive than Cyprus or Rhodes but I guess you pay for the views and the island’s popularity.
Pool water marbling in sunlight
As gulls glide above volcanic layers
And domed churches pray above
The silent sea and island fragments.
Is there are better place to be
Than here amongst these blue and white
Villages capping capes like snow above
Way too many cruise ships riding the
Ancient waters below?
Ah, the Santorini sunset. It’s what the folks come here for and should be witnessed at least once in your life, if at all possible. Every evening the little terraces, bars and restaurants, perched high above the caldera, pulse with happy sounding people watching the red gold orb of Helios descending into the Homeric ‘wine dark sea’. Gulls soar on breezy up-drafts, the breeze is cool and the changing light enhances volcanic hues in the steep and ancient cliffs. One sees the appeal: the endless photos, selfies and wedding pics, yes for sure – and we saw it every evening and never grew tired of it; the egg yolk sun dropping below the hazy violet horizon. But each day between two and six, cruise ships drop anchor in the deep blue bay and offload hordes of mainly American tourists into the classic whitewashed towns of Thira or Oia which are largely given over to shopping and restaurants – miles of it. I’m not sure how many locals actually live in Thira. Not many I suspect. Apart from the manager at Hotel Atlantis, no one else on staff did.
Speaking of the Hotel Atlantis, Lawrence Durrell mentions it favourably in his chapter on Santorini in The Greek Islands which we have been using as a travel guide. In his day, it had a more formal Edwardian décor and had to be reached by donkey or mule from the old port far below. Now it is all white walls and turquoise marble with a rather more spare and functional modern presentation. While not a house as such, we can say that our trail has led to yet another place in which Durrell stayed and about which he wrote:
“It is hardly a matter of surprise that few, if any, good descriptions of Santorini have been written; the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind … sunset and sunrise here put poets out of work.”
His chapter, as well extolling the indescribable views, also mentions that a vampire cult existed on the island. This was confirmed in the folklore museum. But that superstitious past, like the peasants who believed in it, has long since passed into legend or been buried under holiday villas.
The local mayor, who just lost the recent election, had been trying to curb development and limit the number of visiting cruise ships and ‘manage’ the volume of tourists more effectively. But he and his successor have their work cut out for them. Santorini has two main industries: tourism and winemaking, the best white wine in Greece – due to the volcanic soil – and yes, we had plenty made from the Assyrtiko grapes. But you can guess which industry makes the most money. The problem: the more villas and hotels, the less room for vineyards. Then there is water. Rainfall is low and the ground water limited and salty. Desalination is expensive. All drinking water is imported in plastic bottles. A conundrum indeed.
Mid-stay we hired a Fiat 500 coupe convertible for a day. We toured the island and managed to avoid being run off the road by humungous buses on narrow roads, hit by cars overtaking on double lines or running over motor cyclists zipping everywhere (the other type of cyclist was rare), oh and quad bikes driven by shirtless macho American men or the female equivalent in tank tops and shorty shorts. Fortunately, we managed to find a quiet corner near the southern tip of the island where we had lunch at a little fish restaurant with spectacular views and the best octopus I’d had so far. Here we met a French couple hiding from the tourist mania of Thira and Oia. A conversation in Fronglish ensued in which we agreed that trying to get into Oia when six cruise ships and multiple ferries were parked off the island was “une catastrophe”! Nice though the little car was, we were glad to return it, especially after our hair-raising ascent up mount big bastard with sheer drops to certain death but feet away, seat belt or no seat belt. OK, the view was pretty good even if it did confirm from 1200m the rapid urbanisation of the island, but I don’t think it was quite worth the trauma.
I asked the breakfast waiter at the Hotel Atlantis about a good place to eat: decent food and not too expensive. He wrote down the name and it was just up the road by the cathedral. The food was good, not too expensive and the staff friendly. We ate there most days and made friends with Darius who greeted us warmly on each occasion. I called him the King of Persia. (King Darius III of Persia ran into Alexander the Great at the battle of Issus in 333 BC and despite having superior numbers was outflanked and crushed by the young Macedonian king and his pike-wielding men in skirts.) Our Darius, who knew his history and laughed at my reference, lives down the road in a small village and commutes by motorbike to ensure he can weave through the traffic and get to work on time. He said most locals can’t afford to live in Thira anymore. Those who can, Airbnb their houses out to wealthy tourists. Some workers even live in a camp-ground for the May to October tourist season. Wages here in the tourist industry are low – €3 to €5 an hour – and prices high.
As the sun sets over the deep violet bay, most of the effervescent voices you hear enlivening the evening cool are English speakers mainly of the US persuasion. Farewell Santorini. Your beauty is beyond compare – unless you are stuck in traffic or shitting yourself on a narrow mountain road 1200 metres up with a huge tourist bus bearing down on you like some vast behemoth of ancient legend.
On the last afternoon we took a transfer bus from the Hotel Atlantis for the port of Thira. We were to board the ‘Caldera Vista’ for the short sea journey to Heraklion at 4.50pm. As required, we had collected our tickets some days earlier and had phoned on the morning of departure to check the schedule – all good, though our transfer companions argued over the sailing time. One couple said it was to be 5.10, the other 5.15. Whatever. When we arrived at the port we were surprised by the sheer number of travellers – some, blindly following their tour leaders’ flags like lemmings to board their vessels, others, like us, wandering around somewhat dazed.
The Canadians we’d met on the transfer bus told us they’d heard the Caldera Vista had broken down, another vessel was to be deployed and that we should consult the ferry line’s office in another half an hour to ascertain the name of the replacement vessel and the revised departure time. There was nothing for it but to sit in the canopied shade of one of the ten or so tavernas lining the port, clearly capitalising on such regular events, and order ice-cold beer.
Once settled (with enough baggage to rival King Darius’s caravan) Denise ventured into the office to attempt to clarify the situation. There she encountered nothing short of a Greek tragedy, complete with wailing chorus and almost farcical chaos. Voices were raised in at least four languages as tourists shouldered one another trying to get an explanation as to the fate of the Caldera Vista and its stranded passengers. ‘Stop’, shouted a harried official. ‘I speak only English to you. Come inside, all of you, and I explain one time, ok?’ Once he’d corralled everyone and managed to calm them down he said: ‘The Caldera Vista is kaput. No more. You go now on ‘Santorini Palace’ at 5.30 to Paros.’ There was an uproar. ‘To where? To Paros? No, we want to go to Heraklion!’ ‘No, no, I mean Heraklion,’ assured the unfortunate employee. ‘I repeat, 5.30 on Santorini Palace – departure gate 4. Heraklion.’
Another beer later and another vessel arrives. She is not Santorini Palace but we notice some of our newfound friends heading for departure gate 4. Could we have it wrong? Denise ventured again into the office to find an even more hysterical crowd than before. ‘No, no. This is NOT ferry for Heraklion. Everyone be quiet and come inside. I tell you all together.’ He pointed to a picture of the Santorini Palace on the wall. ‘Does this boat at gate 4 look like the Santorini Palace? No! See? It is not for you. You go on the Santorini Palace at 5.30 from gate 4. Get it?’
Another beer. It is around 5.00. We look up to see the Caldera Bloody Vista arrive. Bang on schedule for its original departure for Heraklion. Now there is a storming of the office. By now, the office employee has his head in his hands. ‘Shut up, you all. And come inside from the sun.’ ‘But it’s the Caldera Vista and it’s at gate 4,’ cried the crowd. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘No! The Caldera Vista, it now goes to Paros. The Santorini Palace, it now goes to Heraklion at 5.30 – gate 4.’ ‘But why?’ A reasonable question, given they are different shipping lines and it was originally meant to be the other way around. ‘Because, it is!!’ The official turns to a woman with a baby in a pram and a pregnant woman (the Canadian). ‘You two – you get priority. Come in the air-conditioning. Rest of you, go away.’
And so, the Caldera Vista sailed away into the distance – and yet, we couldn’t help thinking that maybe we should be on it. Then, sure enough, at 5.30, at gate 4, the Santorini Palace backed in. The ensuing embarkation was like an evacuation (perhaps the volcano was about to erupt?). Hundreds of barely reassured travellers surge aboard, there is only a perfunctory checking of tickets and a mad scramble for available seats. We were, at last, on our way to Crete, or so we hoped.
1* the traditional name for the village was Bellapaix, French for ‘beautiful peace’
Issue 3 of C.20 will feature David Green’s “Postcards” from Crete and Corfu.