The Greek Islands

pleasures and places


In a world as turbulent as ours, it is hard to imagine so pure and serene a world of islands as the Aegean contains. And there are so many of them, nearly 1500 (166 are inhabited): great strings and clusters of islands, each within an hour or two of the next, no two alike, each a strong presence set deep into history and myth. Stretching from Italianate Corfu all the way to the coast of Turkey, and halfway to Africa, the Greek islands are Europe‘s last major preserve of totally unspoiled natural beauty, of life naively and simply enjoyed.

The awesome relics of the past are as numerous and as fine here as on the mainland. Crete, Rhodes, Delos, Patmos — the very names of the islands speak of that ancient splendor. But after one has come to know the Greeks‘ past, one begins to like them for their present, for their friendliness and good manners, their eagerness and their insatiable curiosity, and nowhere are these qualities stronger and clearer than in the islands.

There is no ugliness here, no clamor, no traffic to speak of, no television, no advertising. There are trees and vine trellises shading the little harborside cafés; there are untouched beaches and fishing villages and hamlets hung on steep hillsides; there is music and the good Turkish coffee served with a sweet conserve and a glass of cold spring water. Refreshed, at ease with the islanders, not burdened by the chic or the fashionable, I found myself relishing these simple pleasures, as I did the sailing, the swimming, the walks past shepherds and monasteries and olive groves to lost temples, the voyages from port to port, island to island. And everywhere is that unsurpassed clear air, the scent of thyme and juniper, the deep blue of the fabled sea.

The approach, too, is simple and direct: a short voyage from Piraeus, and the rest of the world is left far behind. Except for July and August — and then only in a handful of islands — there is no tourist crowd. There are, with the possible exception of Mykonos, no tourist traps and no heavy machinery of tourism. Prices are very low. Still prevalent is the old-Greek sense of hospitality, of the honors due to the stranger and guest, for whom the Greeks have but one word, xenos. A good deal of English is spoken (as well as French and German), and in no time at all the islander will be asking personal questions, letting himself into the visitor‘s life as he lets the visitor into his. All is intensity; two weeks in these islands will almost always seem like two months. And given the new ease of access, both by air and by water, two weeks can be enough. These are strong reasons for choosing the Greek islands.

Another reason: the islands are no mere fringe of Greek travel; they are as solid and substantial a part of Greece as the mainland. Crete, for example, the fourth largest island of the Mediterranean, is a world in itself, with its Minoan treasures, its imaginatively reconstructed palace of Knossos, and its vigorous, fiercely traditional mountain people. It has snow on its mountains till May and a mild winter on its hundreds of miles of coast. Delos, core of the ancient island complex, is all ruins, as complete and as moving as any archaeological site on earth. Into the sheer pastoral beauty of Samos and Thasos and Samothrace, the delights of beaches and statues and ruins and wines and seafood are quietly blended. These are but samplings from a bewildering assortment of islands, whose landscapes range from the bare rock hills of the Cyclades and the volcanic fantasy of Santorin to the olive-soft slopes of Lesbos, and whose architecture includes everything from the tall handsome mansions of Hydra to the gothic streets and the mosques of Rhodes and the purely spontaneous folk creations of Mykonos, Siphnos, Folegandros.

Greece was until fairly recently an awkward place to reach. Now there is frequent jet service that goes from New York to Athens in about ten hours; and for the roundtrip fare of about $700, allows any number of stopover possibilities on the way back, either in Italy, North Africa, Spain, or Portugal on the southern route, or in such northern cities as Venice, Zurich, Brussels, Paris, or London. Service by sea, too, is much improved: both the Greek Line and American Export Lines offer fast comfortable voyages through the Mediterranean (from New York to Piraeus in about ten days), with stops at Spanish, French, and Italian ports, and sometimes a call at Cyprus or the Azores. Overland, the roads down through Yugoslavia and northern Greece are now quite adequate; and the new carferry services from Brindisi to Corfu, Patras, and Piraeus — a pleasant eighteen-hour cruise to three of the country’s more logical starting points — mean that Greece is now effectively linked to the main roads of Italy.

At first glance the approaches to the islands themselves may seem complicated. They need not be so. Talk to one of the many knowledgeable travel agents in Athens (the smaller the agency, the better); take a taxi to Piraeus (twenty minutes away; the drivers know exactly where to go); board one of the likable little steamers, and discover that Aegean travel is, in truth, a picnic. But beware that evil wind, the meltémi, which roughens the sea, impairs the view, and doubles the reasons for avoiding July and August, those windy, hot, and crowded months when the very mobile Greeks themselves are also on the move. The best times are March to mid-June and mid-September to December. Aegean winters are mild; the more southerly islands, Rhodes especially, have temperatures considerably higher than those of the French and Italian Rivieras, and flowers the year round.

As little as five years ago, a decent steamer on a reasonable schedule was as scarce as a good hotel. But a massive effort by the Greek government has changed all that. The island steamers are trimmer and more frequent every year; air service is much improved; and a once hopeless lack of decent accommodation has been remedied in a variety of interesting ways, most important among them the system of governmentsponsored hotels called Xenia, small, modest, tasteful places where the service is of the very high Greek standard and the food, often good if one concentrates on seafood, is never less than reliable. (When the staple taverna diet of moussaka and kabobs begins to pale, this counts as a real blessing.) By such means, then, new travel ground of surpassing beauty and freshness has been opened up. But the islands are small, and development continues; it is the beginning of the end of an era. The traveler who would see the islands pure and simple should see them now.

Clearly, all this is not meant to be regarded as a brief appendage to a mainland itinerary; its great attraction lies in leisurely exploration, the savoring of contrasting atmospheres, the continual surprise of island after island. If time does press, there are the basic fourand five-day cruises of the Delos and the Semiramis, well organized and scratching more of the surface than would seem possible. More penetrating are the efficient domestic services of Olympic Airways, which carry the traveler in an hour or two to Crete and Rhodes (the islands most distant from Athens, both large and full of interest), as well as to such strategically located island centers and coastal stopping-off points as Corfu, Lemnos, Lesbos, Salonika, Kavalla, and Alexandroúpolis.

Thus, for example, by jumping quickly to Crete, sailing or flying thence to Rhodes, and returning by sea — with stopovers, perhaps, at Kos, Kalymnos, Mykonos, Delos, or Tenos — the traveler limited to a week or two can easily go well beyond the standard Hydra-MykonosDelos itinerary. Even if there were no time to stop over on the return trip from Rhodes to Piraeus, this twenty-two-hour voyage would supply both insight into and a panoramic view of the bright Aegean mosaic. The views from the air on the flights to Crete and Rhodes are, in their own way, equally rewarding.

The master keys to Greek island travel are the regularly scheduled steamers which serve to link the various island groups to Piraeus and to each other, with some sixty sailings a week along thirty different itineraries. Some are luxurious, some serviceable, others only adequate. There is a choice of vessels to most destinations; the first essential is to make this choice with the help of a travel agent who knows the ships at firsthand; the second, never to settle for anything less than first-class, preferably in a top-deck cabin, which, like so much else in the islands, is a bargain: the ticket to some midway point in the Cyclades costs about $5, and to some faraway place like Lesbos or Samos, so near the mountainous and mysterious coast of Turkey, about $9. Air fares are comparably low. Here again, the summer traveler is at a disadvantage. He may very well not be able to get t be boat and cabin (or flight) he wants when he wants it; at any other time of year, the problem is nonexistent.

The steamers themselves are perfectly suited to their task: small enough to preserve the sense of intimacy and adventure, large enough for leg room, for dreaming in solitude along the rail as remembered myth gives rise to vision, and vision to yet another lovely island. The shipboard atmosphere is easy and congenial; the forever-traveling Greeks, whether in steerage or the first-class saloon, are proud of their islands and eager that the visitor should see and take pleasure. If they should invite you home, accept; they are in earnest, they sincerely like foreigners. Another valuable resource is to be found among the well-informed, leisurely, and accessible ship‘s officers, a cosmopolitan breed, always ready for conversation; and the first-class bar and dining room are usually something more than functional.

No matter how many calls the ship makes, every arrival and departure is a festive occasion; and in these small island ports where the dock, the promenade, and the cafés are often side by side, the hour or two needed for loading and unloading of cargo provide opportunities for a stroll, a coffee, a look at a church, a windmill, a marketplace, fishing boats, or painted carts. One falls quickly into the mood of this open, uninhibited life; if the attraction is strong, an impromptu stopover is easily arranged, and there will almost always be another boat in a day or two. Or, if one sailed the Aegean only for the sake of the sunrises and sunsets, on orange limestone cliffs, on ink-blue sea and distant lion-colored hills, on sky-hung monasteries and dove-white highland villages, this would be enough.

Perhaps it is the ever varying juxtaposition of such vivid elements that makes this the most satisfying of holidays. Almost without knowing it, the traveler changes pace, creates for himself a civilized balance of leisure and activity, moves easily and naturally from archaeological site to bathing beach, from museum to monastery to taverna, from sea to land, and back to sea again. After the rich feast of Rhodes (its fine walled town and the magnificent acropolis of Lindos should not be missed), the voyage to Crete, for instance, enforced upon me a blessed pause, a chance to catch up on all the detail in Hachette’s Guide and Fodor’s Greece, to make plans, recondition my feet, write postcards, review the gift list, and to rest.

Luckily, for the man who wants to see it all, the islands are mostly small; where they are large, there are cars, with driver, to hire, or local buses from village to village, or the omnipresent boatman who will take you around the island and to beaches unchanged since the day Ulysses’ men came ashore for water. The most flexible means of travel is the chartered yacht, and here again the facilities are ample: from the small auxiliary caique at $25 a day to the luxury yacht at $400. The averagesized yacht, sleeping six to eight people and including a crew of six, costs about $100 a day; these are heavily in demand and should be reserved several months in advance. Except for the meltémi months (July and August), the Greek islands are easy cruising, with deep water running close to shore, few outlying hazards — and those well charted — many harbors, and a recent proliferation of marine service stations sponsored by the National Tourist Organization. The best time is April. May, and June, when the winter rains have brought wild flowers and green to the hills; the second best, late August to early October. Many of the travel agencies have charter-cruise departments; among the specialists in this enterprise are B. Koutsoukellis, 3 Stadiou Street, Athens, and Horizon, 13 Aikis Street, Athens, and the yachting department of the National Tourist Organization.

Though the regular steamers go almost everywhere, their individual routes, taken separately, do not provide a really comprehensive itinerary. To achieve this, and particularly to avoid much backtracking to Piraeus, the novice needs a travel agent who will show him how certain of the more interesting routes can be linked to allow a fair sampling of the more important islands. For example, a close look at the rather complicated timetables shows that the steamer Marilena goes to Samos on Thursdays by way of Syros, Tenos, Mykonos, and Ikaria, and returns the same way, as do, unfortunately, the three other ships to Samos. It takes an expert to point out that by debarking at Syros, the strategic island port, on the return trip, one can make connections with the Ionion for a continuing voyage to three of the more appealing of the Cyclades group — Paros, Naxos, and Santorin. From Santorin, there are boats that circle its drowned volcano and continue to the littleknown islands nearby, Anaphe and then Amorgos, where a journey through high mountains and a charming little capital leads to Khozoviótissa, the most dramatically situated monastery in Greece. Another possibility is to wait for the Pandelis at Syros, Tenos, or Mykonos in order to go on to Kalymnos, Kos, and Rhodes, thus exploiting the rare link between the Cyclades and the Dodecanese.

Within the various island groups, there exist networks of smaller-boat services that are, for the most part, hardly known of in Athens. These supply the seemingly missing links between such close neighbors as Mykonos and Delos, and Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, but are useful mainly for the hardy and not overly fastidious sailor. If the link is missing, it is almost always possible to find a local boat that will take you where you want to go, for a price that would not seem believable anywhere but in Greece. There are shipping agents in the larger ports who will facilitate such arrangements.

Information on these less-routine matters and on off-track islands is not easy to come by in Athens. The services of the National Tourist Organization (4 Stadiou Street) make a good beginning, but once on the scene it is best to go beyond these and to seek out, through the N.T.O., a travel agent who knows the particular islands one wants to see. A good example is the small agency called Aeolian Travel, whose director is a native of Lesbos and can offer exact data on that little-visited island. In the islands, aid and comfort are always forthcoming from the Tourist Police or, better still, the mayor’s office. The best overall job of advice, on a thoroughly intelligent, individual basis, is to be had from the Royal National Foundation at 9 Filellinon Street, Athens.

This is the organization sponsored by the royal family that has done so much to revive Greek handicrafts (at their best on Skyros, Crete, and Rhodes) and has originated the admirable scheme called Village Guesthouses. This is a nationwide plan to provide simple but livable accommodations in the homes of villagers in some of the most appealing but neglected travel areas. It is not designed for the visitor who cannot survive without hot running water, but given the remarkable hospitality of the islanders, their passion for cleanliness, and the wise guidance of the R.N.F., it does supply a rare and fruitful entrée to the island life. Certainly there is no more economical travel arrangement anywhere in Europe: a room for two, which will usually contain, in addition to the basic furnishings provided by the R.N.F., some of the local decor, costs less than $1.50 a day. And, unless my experience was unique, the host will be so solicitous, so generous that it is a wonder that he can profit at all. Perhaps he does not, but he is honored by his guest‘s visit, and will think of him as a friend forever after.



Contemporaries who dislike you,
Who unremittingly resent you,
Who hatch ingenious ways to spike you,
Who stay up nights to circumvent you,
Who spread canards to undermine you,
Who seek to mortify and bait you,
Who mock, belittle, and malign you,
Who loathe, despise, and execrate you,
Will readily forgive you
The moment they outlive you.