THE tourist liners do it neatly, arriving at each island on a schedule that allows the passengers to spend a couple of hours viewing ruins, to swim, lunch at the best hotel, trot through the local museum, and get back aboard in time to change for dinner. The regular interisland packets, however, rock along at the whim of weather, cargo, and fate. They are usually late. The one I took out of Rhodes for Kos arrived on time but obligingly waited while a stout, pretty young woman had hysterics on the dock.
Her laments attracted ship’s officers, a policeman, the longshoremen, a crowd of friends and relatives, uncountable children, and a handcart porter with bare feet and a sweater of coarse tobacco-brown wool. She lay on the dock, a small mountain of bright blue-and-white print, and wailed. A thin, dust-colored man who appeared to be her companion hauled her to her feet. It was a remarkable accomplishment, considering their relative sizes, but useless, for the instant he let her go, the damsel fell flat again.
Was she going to Australia, or to jail, or merely to Athens? Wherever it was, she went, for she finally made the mistake of fainting and was heaved aboard like a trunk by the hovering ship’s mates. Her silky black pigtail trailed on the deck, her long black eyelashes twitched slightly, and her expression indicated satisfaction at a really effective exit. The two old ladies who were seeing off a young kinsman bound for Brazil to make his fortune blinked through their tears with a mixture of envy and disapproval.
With the last passenger accounted for, we sailed in a roar of farewells and whistle tootings. A perky little Turkish vessel with cut-down mast and an asthmatic engine beat us out of the harbor, flaunting a fine carved stern rail. It soon left us, headed home, and we plodded north alone across a sea the color of frosty Concord grapes.
The island of Kos lay low under wind and the cloudy afternoon light, the town strung along a sickle-shaped harbor stretching between the fortress of the Knights of St. John at the south and the new tomato juice factory to the north. Two minarets rose above the flat roofs, and behind the town the Hills ran up in a patchwork of yellow fields and black cypress groves.
A fleet of lighters buzzed out in response to the ship’s whistle. Balancing casually on gunwales and fenders, the lightermen held their little boats steady against the ship while they collected an astonishing assortment of passengers and freight. Greek women make no sartorial concessions to ships, either because their men are great sailors or in spite of it. Half a dozen ladies in high heels and narrow skirts wavered down the gangway and were hoisted into the boats, their husbands bellowing advice which the lighter crews ignored. An old woman with wool boots poking out below her long black skirt leaped down the steps like a deer, unhampered by seven makeshift boxes. A baby carriage was loaded complete with infant. Mailbags, enigmatic bundles, and twenty kinds of baskets followed the passengers. Mounds of crates were slung out fore and aft, and the island’s supply of beer came off in a lighter all to itself.
THE shipping office in Rhodes had insisted that hotel reservations are not necessary in Kos in early May. This was true, for runners from the hotels were lined up at the dock shouting hopefully for customers that they did not expect to get. The hotel I picked, because it had been recommended by someone who I later suspected was a cousin of the manager’s, was flabbergasted by my arrival. The establishment was not really prepared for business, and the housekeeper was ironing sheets in the lounge.
Small, bare, malignantly clean, the place would have been pleasant enough in the heat of summer, for it had a pretty little garden and the beach was just across the road. But with the north wind rattling the shutters and oozing through the south windows and the water pump out of action, it offered no comfort except blankets, coffee, and an angel-wing begonia nine feet tall.
The manager had no English, but he did have a map of Kos and a guidebook. These he laid before me, pointing out a passage in the book. This book was some fifteen years old, and the pages in question described, with passion, the sufferings that a traveler must expect to endure in provincial Greek hotels. The conditions the author complained of no longer exist to any extent worth mentioning, for the Greek authorities, wishing to attract tourists, have made a great effort to ensure reasonable accommodations. I never found out whether my host offered me this out-of-date libel as an apology for his water pump, or whether some unwashed humorist had misinformed him as to what that text meant.
Most of the ruins around the town of Kos are late — Hellenistic or Roman. The remains of the forum lie just off the waterfront, behind a row of shops. A few columns have been disentangled from the general wreckage and set up on patched bases, but the place still looks like a dump for old rocks. Long grass, weeds, and wild poppies blow in the wind, thistles grow through fragments of marble paving, little paths wander at random, and children play house under the slanting stones. No caretaker was visible, and no signs forbade theft and revelry.
A worn coat and a basket lay on the corner of some disarranged steps. Their owner was around on the other side of the rock pile, cutting grass with a sickle and stuffing it into panniers on a donkey who was busily stuffing himself. The man looked up, grinned, and asked, “Do you like Kos?” Assured that I did, he explained that he was cutting hay to take home to his animals. He lived a couple of miles up in the hills, in the Turkish village. He had worked for the Italians during the various archaeological excavations conducted during their possession of the island (I must be sure to visit the Asklepeion tomorrow) and had enjoyed it. Being a Turk, he did not share the general Greek opinion of Italians. They were, he thought, good people who kept busy. “Things are too quiet here now — no digging, no work, nothing.” Had I seen the ruined mosque and Hippocrates’ tree? “Right over there — very interesting. Hippocrates planted it himself.”
If Hippocrates planted that plane tree, it is some two thousand years old, and while it looks every dav of that, I have doubts. It stands on a low knoll in what seems to be a small park, but since every spare inch of the Kos waterfront is planted with ornamental trees and flowering bushes, it is hard to tell whether this section is really a small park or merely part of the general one. The top of the tree is long gone. What remains is an enormously thick trunk — forty-six feet around, according to the guidebook — with one layer of sagging limbs propped up by poles and cement piers. The arrangement is surrounded by a retaining wall, since the general ground level is lower than the spot where the tree stands.
The whole section, park, tree, and forum, was cleared fairly recently. A bad earthquake knocked down the larger part of the town in 1933, and the Italian authorities seized the occasion to dig out the old city. The tree, of course, could not be moved, and there it stands, looking, with its various canes and crutches, rather like a short banyan. Hippocrates not only planted this remarkable object; he held consultations under it, proving that the climate of Kos, being exceptionally healthy for man, beast, and tree, is indeed suitable for a hospital.
The deserted mosque stands a little way inland, between tree and forum, where its minaret makes a useful landmark for travelers lost in that stony waste. The building is locked, but I climbed the steep outside stair, admiring the carvings of rosettes and arabesques on the marble balustrade, and peered through the door. Fragments of colored glass clung to the window frames, pigeons sat on the cornices, the floor was cracked, ridged, littered with fallen plaster and woodwork, and the painted pillars leaned tipsily. A marble structure resembling a pulpit, ornamented with the same delicate carvings as the staircase, rose out of the debris like a misplaced wedding cake. It was a sad sight but presumably inevitable. There are not enough Turks left on Kos to repair this earthquake-damaged building, or to support it in addition to the second mosque in the center of the town.
AT SEVEN o’clock the next morning, the repaired water pump sprang into action with merry screams and guttural curses. The wind still rattled, the sea mumbled and gibbered on the stony beach, and an inexplicable clatter of castanets arose from the street. An old farmer was riding to market. He wore a white boater, a dark tweed jacket, and the old-fashioned short, baggy trousers which look as though the wearer had cut holes in the corners of a wide sack, stuck his legs through them up to the knee, and reefed in all the slack over his navel and his spine. They are undoubtedly good trousers for riding, and the old man was astride a very small donkey. His bare knees, amber brown in the early sun, stuck out between boot tops and trouser bottoms. He carried a braided whip straight up, like a battle standard, and he was proceeding with the dignity of a royal procession. Two baskets of greens were slung across the donkey’s shoulders.
When I asked for a taxi to drive me to the ruins of Hippocrates’ hospital and medical school on the hills behind the town, the hotel manager was horrified. Taxi to the Asklepeion? Ridiculous. Come with me, he said firmly, and led me into the yard, where a motor scooter stood under a tree.
There is a determined, eternally optimistic pedagogue lurking in every Greek, which leads him to believe that a little instruction will cure foreigners of their follies. It is impossible to make an idiot of oneself for any length of time in the country without having some Greek mention the fact with blunt good humor, and suggest reform. I was an idiot to want an expensive taxi when a cheap motor scooter was at hand, as the manager explained to me with severity.
At home, I would walk twenty miles sooner than touch one of these machines, but travel weakens the character. Bewitched by Greek rhetoric, I straddled the pillion, clutched the manager’s coattails, and shuddered with horror as we reeled down the street at the suicidal speed of fifteen miles an hour. A little girl with an ice cream cone ambled into the road. A bicycle made a wide sweep to her left. The scooter made a wider sweep to her right. An approaching car stopped dead. There was no other traffic. The transport problem was studied with sober interest by three old fellows mending nets on the dock. They huddled in the lee of a blue and orange fishing boat, and all wore rough, heavy sweaters with geometric designs knitted into the mottled brown wool. It was evidently unbleached and also, probably, no more than half washed. I saw similar sweaters shedding rain in Rhodes.
The manager was a good guide, the kind that leads his charge to an object of interest and then gets out of the way. He showed me the small, handsome theater with the remains of dressing rooms and workshops underneath the tiers of seats. Off to one side lay a mosaic floor, one of the few still in place. The building it had belonged to was utterly gone, and the paving was overhung by a tree loaded with oranges and flowers.
At its high point, the Asklepeion was an enormous complex of temples, stoas, treatment rooms, and dormitories for the patients. Hellenistic princes contributed buildings, the Ptolemies refusing to be outdone in extravagance by the Seleucids, and ornamental colonnades eventually ran thick over three huge terraces cut out of the hillside. All this glory was at last upset by an earthquake, and little is left beyond low stonework and a fine sweeping view over the town and the strait to the blunt, barren Turkish hills. A white dot on the Turkish coast is the town of Bodrum, a spongefishing center built on the site of the great and vanished city of Halicarnassus. North up the strait, invisible in the flashing dark-blue water, is the infinitesimal island of Yassi, with a reef off its western side. This reef has been a ship killer since the beginning of navigation. Several years ago, Peter Throckmorton, an American traveler with a passion for skin diving, went out to the Yassi reef aboard a Turkish sponge-fishing boat, intending to indulge a casual interest in old pots. He found a ships’ graveyard, and the salvage gossip he picked up from his Turkish hosts led him to Cape Gelidonya down the coast and the oldest wreck yet discovered.
Mr. Throckmorton, turned archaeologist almost in spite of himself, was presently guiding a formal undersea expedition which brought up tools, potsherds, weapons, and masses of bronze ingots, the cargo of an unlucky trader that struck and went down like a stone about the time of the Trojan War. (His own detailed accounts of the expedition appeared in the National Geographic in May, 1960, and May, 1962.)
Chisels and broken jugs may not sound exciting to anyone but an archaeologist, compelled by his profession to love everything that’s old, but a Bronze Age ship is a remarkable survival, and underwater finds are the main hope for retrieving any quantity of bronze sculpture. The great bronze Poseidon, pride of the National Museum in Athens, came up from the sea bottom, saved by drowning from being melted down for medieval hardware. He is much tougher, wirier, and fiercer than his marble contemporaries of the fifth century, for bronze can be worked fine and balanced like living bone and muscle, where stone would break of its own weight. With so much of the best classical and Hellenistic marble scattered over Northern Europe, the Greeks can hardly be blamed for gloating over their superb bronze and yearning for more.
The business of exported antiques is a sore point all over the country. Athens complains of the removal of the Parthenon frieze to London; Mycenae complains that all her golden relics have been taken to Athens. Rhodes mourns for sculptures and inscriptions carried home to Copenhagen by a Danish archaeological expedition in the days of the Turks, who didn’t care what was lugged off provided it was paid for. Kos regrets the removal of mosaics to Rhodes. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizen who finds a funeral jar when he starts digging a new well is quite likely to destroy the thing, for reporting it to the authorities, as required by law, will result in the upheaval of his entire farm. The well digging will be delayed for months, the whole place will be rooted up, the police will ask crossly, “Where are the gold coins that were in this jar?” Consequently, if the jar is not smashed on sight and the pieces buried, it is likely to go on the black market, which continues to flourish like bootlegging in Prohibition.
Although the walls of the Asklepeion are gone, foundations stand in the thick green grass, revealing the outlines of oil room, steam room, and bath. Two worn black stones were once a hand mill for grinding drugs, and a shallow marble tray served as a mixing bowl for medicines. The upper terrace is supported by a heavy retaining wall, broken by a great stairway flanked by fountains, where water tinkles into shallow basins fringed with ferns and spangled with goldfish. Mineral springs were the basis of the whole enterprise, and the hillside still whispers with running water.
A few columns have been restored on the upper level. Otherwise the site is open, a sweep of windmottled grass dotted with pale stone and dark cypress. We came on the upper section of a huge column, standing five feet high under its capital. My amateur guide waved airily at the thing and with no further negotiation grabbed me like a sack of potatoes and heaved me up to sit on it. Then, panting, he held out his hand for the camera.
There is no use arguing with the conviction that all tourists like to be photographed sitting on bits of old temples. The Greeks have too much practical evidence to the contrary. I was photographed, jumped down with thanks, and mentally added to my hotel bill charges for treatment of the manager’s sprained back.
It was a mystery to me, in fact, that the man still lived, but he seemed in normal health as we chugged back to town. I left the scooter with pleasure and retired to the museum.
THE Kos museum is small but well designed and well lighted. Nothing is labeled. The man in charge spoke Italian, slowly, clearly, and with gestures. I don’t know a word of the language, but it was no matter. A Patagonian could have understood him. In addition to the usual marble divinities, the museum contains a statue of Hippocrates, represented as a sad, overworked man with the faintly insane air of one listening for the voice of his god, and a little Athene carved out of coal. She is black and savage — clearly no goddess to trifle with.
Outside the museum the guide lay in wait with his terrible vehicle. We were going to a festival, he told me, insisting that we must go because, at this out-of-season date, there was nothing else to do on Kos.
The festival took place at a church, otherwise little used, five or six miles up a crooked, stony, rutted single-track road. The scooter bounced its way among cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, bicycles, and donkeys while dust rose in white clouds and everyone yelled greetings back and forth. The church proved to be a small white building with a barrel roof and a walled courtyard in which people were picnicking or dancing, both occupations occasionally taking place on the same spot.
There was a distinct class structure to the dancing. The best band, which included an accordion, had the only tree and a most elegant dance leader, a slender, fine-featured old man in a well-tailored suit and polished oxfords. He seemed to float an inch above the rough sunburned grass as he led his line of dancers in intricate loops around the band, the tree, and somebody’s roast lamb. Every move, from the lightning, weightless shuffle of his feet to the fluttering gestures with the handkerchief in his free hand, was a masterpiece of stylized grace.
The lesser band consisted of a fiddle, played fast and hard, square-dance style, and two instruments resembling mandolins. The dancer was another old man, wearing a worn tweed jacket, riding breeches, and boots. He danced alone, lifting his knees high and making great leaps, ankle slappings, heel clickings, and foot stampings. His finger snappings rang like gunshots. He seemed about to lose his balance on every bound but never did, landing and pivoting like a cat even when a couple of mischievous brats threw firecrackers under his feet. He was surrounded by a crowd who stamped, clapped, snapped their fingers, and yelled “Oúpa!”
Both dancers had glazed eyes and fixed smiles like those of archaic statues, and yet the man in the suit managed to look gentle and worldly while Boots looked mad, sweet, and wicked. They were possessed, figuratively and probably literally, by Dionysus.
The third band had no dancers at all. Two gnarled ancients sat on wooden chairs playing for their private pleasure. One had an instrument shaped like a rebec and strung with wire. (It is called a lyra, I was told in Crete.) He braced the point on his knee, wedged the head in his ear, and fiddled furiously with a stick bow wound with blue rags and hung with tiny round bells. The thing produced a harsh, brassy wail, not melodious but far from unpleasant and better suited to the rocky hills and the glaring sunlight than the purrings of the accordion. The second ancient clapped an accompaniment. These musicians were surrounded by admirers as old and gnarled as themselves, all too stiff or too fat to dance but vibrating with the strange, cranky tune that snarled back and forth over no more than five notes.
The hotel man seemed to know everybody at the party. We drifted about and were offered a hard-boiled egg here, a piece of feta cheese there, a handful of olives, a drink out of the family wine glass. The wine was light and rather sweet, the olives dark and ferocious. Having collected hospitality, my guide dispensed it, passing out a formidable succession of beer bottles from the nearest improvised bar. The bar also carried cheese, olives, eggs, bread, boiled greens, and a bag of salt.
Not everybody was inside the court. Between watching the dancers and cracking eggs, I discovered that the crags around the church were well sprinkled with people, all of them seemingly determined to roost on the highest rock in sight. A group of young men were noisily exploring the depths of a nearby ravine.
By late afternoon, the party showed no signs of stopping. The bands still played, the dancers, freckled with splashes of sunlight, still circled under the tree. Two solemn boys stamped a duet while Boots refreshed himself with beer. The scooter fought for the road against a tide of latecomers on their way up the hill.
Dinner at a waterfront taverna was an anticlimax, despite the management’s endeavor to stir up a little action with the jukebox. When the contraption launched into a particularly soggy American ballad, a burly fisherman arose and pulled the plug out of the wall. He was a sensible fellow. The hotel manager drifted in, without his scooter, and ordered drinks for the house, but three rounds merely produced louder conversation. He was disappointed. In the summer, Kos holds a great dance festival, and it was evidently fixed in his mind that any visitor to Kos expects dancing at all hours. The fishermen would not budge from their chairs, arguing rightly that no dance festival was in progress and they were not geared up to make a tourist-amusing display. Since the argument showed signs of becoming warm, I polished off my last crisp little fish and left. The hotel man refused to let me pay the bill.
The walk back to the hotel was interrupted by three runaway sheep. They still wore red topknots, dyed for Easter, and they were cavorting under the streetlamps, ropes trailing from their necks. A puffing girl chased them, steadily losing ground. A man walking from the other direction took a hand in the affair. He shooed sheep. I shooed sheep. Sheep took refuge in the garden of a caffeneion. The proprietor, a stout man in shirt sleeves, popped out and tackled one of the dragging ropes. One sheep down, two to go, which they did, bounding into the caffeneion’s vegetable patch. The owner stoned them out, and the chase vanished up a dark alley.
The Rhodes boat was due early, and I was awakened in time by the pump, once more under repair and complaining about it. The same man clicked by on his way to market with two baskets of greens. Believing the boat schedule, foolishness in view of my previous experience with it, I rushed downstairs, demanding the bill. I fully expected to be charged for lunch, dinner, scooter gas, and the manager’s time, all of which would have been reasonable, and I rather suspected that beer for the county would be worked in as well.
The bill came to half the rate posted for the room, and no argument would alter it or add a single item. When I mentioned gasoline, the manager countered with water pump. It was hopeless. I gave him the trivial sum he wanted — it was well under three dollars — and went off to get the boat. It arrived a comfortable hour late — time for three coffees and a view of the archaeological dump under the castle wall, and also time for the whole town to get down to the dock.
The last I saw of Kos was the hotel manager perched on a lighter, hopefully scanning the deck of the ship for another customer. It seemed to me that customers, for a hotelkeeper of such impractically hospitable habits, must be ruinous, but if they make him happy, may he get hundreds.