Island Muse – Samos

I haven’t posted anything for a while. I have no excuses to add to that sentence. I have lived instead. Not lived in that righteous way one would proclaim loudly from the top of a mountain, in a yoga pose and hashtag in a way that grants meaning only in this time period (and on that note I’m positive historians will have a lot to say about now). I just mean lived as in existed in a regular line of unformed days and routines. In shadow and in light. Hesitant, steady and factual. 

Yesterday something magical happened. Ordinary non-magic things happened too. I returned to work peeling through the unread emails in my inbox, lying unchecked for over a week. I hear you work-harder‘s try-harder’s gasp at the shock of switching off. Yes, my out of office note meant what it said this time. I know I am better for it. For 9 days I was alone with no jibber jabber office chatter to distract. We had taken off on a North Aegean adventure – out to Samos, stopping onto Ikaria and then to Fournoi. Each island very different in both personality and place.

But before I get to all of that,  yesterday I met an octopus. Here in Kini, after all that travelling around and swimming, and sipping ouzo. Here it was just bobbing in the deep end of the bay. I swam my usual lap next to the buoy line and was just half way back when through my goggles I saw something move on the bottom of the sea. It was the colour of sand blobbing across the milky silt of the ocean floor, a master of disguise and trickery. The octopus pondered and hesitantly curled its tentacles around the rope which holds the buoys in order bobbing like a military parade. Its movements were swift, probably panicked thinking of his Kalamari friend’s fate after he noticed my huge human shadow. I think we shared a moment even though I had to keep bobbing up for lungfuls of new air. Eventually he (or she – how do you tell?) was bored of showing me his twirling tentacles and in mere seconds he went from a blobbing mass to become streamlined as a rocket as he shot off into the depths. 

I felt awestruck and amazed having never seen one before just wildly swimming around. All I could think about was can you hold an octopus? Would he be soft and slippery or calm and weighted? Could you have an octopus like a pet? Are octopus our loved ones reincarnated? 

Phythagorio, Samos

So the holiday. First stop Karlovassi, the old port town of Samos, we slinked off the boat smugly with our small backpacks – which did actually get bigger over the week. We disappeared into the port crowds to board a bus to Samos Town that waits for the often late arrival of the Nissos Mykonos. The bus sidles its engine and crawls next to a beach strewn with sun-loungers and bathing bodies lying on the pebble town beach. Old Karlovassi appears before us like time-bending feat of both renewal and abandon. Concrete skeletons of dreams jostle for space alongside glorious venetian mansions, resplendent reminders of the town’s fortunes once made in the tobacco and tanning trade, time may have passed but a different version of the trade still remain in operation – suntan and cigarettes. A few package hotels sit on front as we pass holidaymakers carrying plastic inflatables. Further up the coast things get more interesting as terracotta roofed warehouses crumble empty at the shoreline, we pass fields of vegetables and tiny wooden houses. The odd caravan parked under a pine tree.  Once off the coastal road, for sale signs jostle with resort signs and jewellery shops, then underneath the waving banner of the TUI smile the busses cause an impasse on the road forcing the KTEL driver to wait while the ‘island tour’ finishes its pick up.

Samos Castle Church

The road looks as if it cuts straight through the pine forest slicing the branches out to the deep blue sea as the bus takes the hairpin bends snaking across the coast.  It is impossible to mention Samos without mentioning refugees – it is a fact that 3,000 remain on the island in an overcrowded camp outside Vathy. The refugees are not forgotten, they are hidden. Islands like Samos and Lesvos sit at the front line and are woefully far from the hearts and minds of the rest of Europe. I understand only a little of the complexities and more needs to be done. You cannot pretend their lives are worth less than others. Parts of Samos they want you to notice; the view azure seas stretching out to Turkey, the white sand beaches and awe inspiring lush valleys. But shyly look away at the broken down cars rusting at the side of the road, the piles of rubbish uncollected, the widow dressed in black bending in the field collecting melons in a sack, the staring eyes of the man on the porch as we, the bus full of gawpers, go on our way. Eyeline to washing lines as the bus dawdles in Kokkari.

Changing buses in Vathy is a doddle, the driver tells us to wait for the next one and we mill around the pavement cafe that passes for a bus station. The capital of the island leans out across one long sweeping harbour, a tumble and jumble of buildings is various states of distress and rebirth. Fashion stores, kafenions and slick coffee places line up. It is eerily quiet in the mid afternoon slumber hours when stores are closed; a town in wait yet to wake. If ever.

When the bus turns up we are joined by teenagers pointing at a poster for a music festival in a town beyond Pythagorion where we are headed; the ticket man walks down the aisle while the teenagers ask him questions in different accented versions of English. Some are scrolling through their phones trying to show him the address of the hotel complex they need to find. He is patient with us all, even the irate women who seems upset at having to get the bus at all. She who threw her hands up exasperated when the bus showed up 3 minutes past the hour it was due. Not quite understanding this was on time for Greece. The bus whisks us along another new surfaced road and then we reach Pythagorion – I quickly name it, the land time forgot, or time the land forgot. But don’t see that as me casting a criticism, I celebrate it. Perfection in a long street leading to the harbour jumbled with shops selling every touristic item you may ever desire – bakeries, ice cream parlours, artisan wineries. At the harbour yachts and day trip boats are lined up bobbing in the blue hour after sunset when the lilac light sweeps across the sky. The chatter of waiters and bar staff waiting to greet you, see what you like, take a look at the menu they wink and preen. Pretty teenagers employed to entice you in.  An excursion boat has a pet kid-goat on the hull which makes me feel sad more than anything – but I see a fisherman slicing open fish and tossing pieces to the cats around him which seems to redeem the scene. We stay for 3 nights in a tiny hotel up at the back of town opposite the Archeological Museum, which is worth a visit. 

Pythagorion Harbour

Away from the harbour at night, we pick out tavernas and gorged on feasts like kings. All the classics, we say, tucking to lamb kleftiko, moussakas, souvlaki. Local Samos wine from the barrel.  The chatter of tourists and transactional comfort you find in touristy places is fun. The voices are mostly Dutch, German, Italian, a few English but not many Greek visitors at all. I must say, compared to Syros when you often find non-Greeks in the minority of visitors, it kind of makes a nice change.

Samos reminded me of the long resigned to history ‘Holidays in Greece’.  I half expected Judith Chalmers to pop out. The place that still has a perpetually mid-90s vibe, timeless tavernas with mama’s cooking and shops selling friendship bracelets where everyone has a smile and a welcome for you. The island was an early adopter of the tourism boom with its long sandy, pine forests and azure seas it had all the natural assets. And thankfully still does have them. We stayed in a busy area but seems to handle its influx of visitors well so never feels crowded,  beaches have free sunloungers even in the peak of mid-afternoon. Unlike Syros, with its smaller beaches and relative land size, can feel crowded in peak summer. After all isn’t that why I’m here again and again, bitten by some bug that there is no cure. It is deeper than the superficiality of a holiday. It’s something in the wilderness of the land itself, no matter what dreams have been built upon it since, there remains an essence something wilder, maybe the ghosts of mythic legends like Hera and Aesop.  

We swim in strangeley chilly water with soft white sand under our toes and walk up into the hills. Visiting the Eupalinos Tunnels we find ourselves awestruck at how they managed such an intrepid engineering feat in the 6th Century BC of Polycrates reign to build a complex aqueduct. Over walkways perched over 50ft gaps in tunnels that scale 2kms into the hills, it’s not for the nervous or feint hearted. It’s worth visiting on a guided tour, which they offer several every day. On the way we visit the cave that houses the Spillia Pangia. Here our breath steams visible in the cold cave air. Walking outside again was like stepping off an aeroplane in a new country when the heat and humidity hits you and your glasses steam up squinting in the sunlight.  

Panagia Spilliani (the church of virgin mary in the cave)

When night fell towns in the distance appeared and twinkled as heat rose from the trees. Oh the trees! Giving off that distinct sugary burnt scent of pine as the wind blew its sticky way towards us. The headlights in the distance swooped and swung around bends spinning into dark green ravines where lights were shielded until another bend revealed them once more – each dip a dark place on the road we didn’t know. But under each twinkling, I could learn the difference between the lights on the land – fixed on streets and things made by man, waving outside houses creating ghosts and shadows, and the moving lights of cars, mopeds, taxis and busses. It made me think about how islands can be a muse inspiring little creative moments. 

There’s a long history of literature and music being inspired by Greece. Songs like So Long Marianne – written on Hydra for the gilded muse waiting in the wings holding a plateful of barbiturates for Leonard Cohen. There is a new Nick Broomfield documentary out now, Marianne and Leonard. I haven’t seen it yet but want to, as it examines the relationship between them on Hydra where the counter-culture literati gathered in the 1960s. A time that transformed him from a little-known  fiction writer into a world famous songwriter and how Marianne plays (by choice or otherwise) the role of muse to Cohen’s creativity. Although Hydra has changed since Cohen’s time, softened by the layers of change and progress, it cannot be preserved in aspic.

But maybe some of the magic Cohen famously wrote about in these lines still remains; 

Greece is a good place

to look at the moon, isn’t it?

You can read by moonlight

You can read on the terrace

You can see a face

As you saw it when you were young 

Greek Islands are fascinating because of their quiet contradictions, and not in spite of them. Political, industrial and agricultural changes, discarded life-vests on the shore and the financial need for a tourist filled summer, a village of crumbling stone houses, a pristine infinity pool and an instagram pose on painted blue chairs against a whitewashed wall, wild valleys and deep ravines. Churches and wilderness. Crisis and hedonism. 

These near-uninhabitable jutting rocks of islands can never an absolute place. They end up being a place that exists in different versions, more so for the people that live there than the people that pass through as visitors. Yet they still come to bask in the light, the beauty, the kind words of people, the food, the wilderness, the lifeline it provides. The whisper of ghosts along the way.