Amorgos is a pretty south Aegean isle in the Cyclades group with much in common with many Greek islands. Once, in the age before regular ferry communication, when inter-island travel was the sole province of the caïque or fishing boat, communities were self-supporting unless emergency struck. Imagine sending Petros in his boat twenty miles to fetch a doctor when you have a sick child.
On Amorgos, like other islands, nearly all signs of that essential self-sufficiency have sadly disappeared. Should there be an afterlife what would our forebears think if they were able to look down upon our modern times where their efforts have fallen into disrepair? To see the desolation would be heart-rending for folk that toiled all day, while the sun shone, building terraces of gardens climbing like broad stairways up once-virgin hillsides, all supported by dry-stone walls. The wall building ability still can be seen but now is generally one of the trades required by developers and speculators building Fernando’s hideaway or gracing an unused field, where once the people reaped what they sowed, with a cluster of twee white and blue-painted holiday villas. Here the hoi-polloi are tempted to spend their hard-earned fortnight’s holiday in a semblance of what life in a Mediterranean island means. It means quickly enjoying the view you have paid for, because if you should be naive enough to believe that change to the islands won’t affect you, think again. When you make your rebooking, next visit there is likely to be another villa a handshake away, ruining that idyllic view.
Our journey to Amorgos was an eight hour rodeo ride through heavy seas and gusting force 8 winds and even if Amorgos had turned out to be some developers’ paradise, I would have been happy to step ashore amidst their vandalism. Luckily, it has escaped the fate of other islands and remains a worthwhile destination for the discerning. However, we must recognise that the more popular a place becomes, the more demand there will be for accommodation and the attention of developers. It is an inevitable consequence of building a community of houses rather than houses for a community that we create 8 month-a-year ghost settlements. When the tourists have left, the community of houses stands as a testimony to a modern life where we spend 50 weeks grafting at a job we dislike, for a boss we dislike even more, for a company whose owners are hidden, doing things we wouldn’t want done to us, so that we may pay our mortgages and bring up our declining numbers of offspring. We are naturally pleased with ourselves that we may take a fortnight out of the nightmare and spend it in the same peace and tranquillity enjoyed by all those lucky Mediterranean people for whom graft must be a thing of the past.
In the time it has taken you to read this, I have ridden around Amorgos and seen the essential sights; I have seen the Chora on the hill with its narrow alleyways like a human ants’ nest. I counted 30-something churches before Saint Tedium suggested there were as many cafes and each would be more likely to deliver salvation in exchange for coins in their offertory box.
Across the island I stood in awe before a while slab of a monastery that had been built into a cliff face. I tried to imagine the devoutness and piety that would send a young man here for a lifetime’s incarceration in the service of his and his families’ god. I struggled to reconcile an afterlife earned in this service of the Lord when your whole life has been spent working for that unseen master. Even if the reward is eternal life, the prospect of an eternity of internship makes me cringe.
Yet fortunately, the island still has its human side, that wonderful filoxenia that awaits discovery. When the air in my scooter’s tyre decided it had had enough of lugging my portly frame around and went off with a bang, I found myself in a modest hamlet where there was no sign of any refreshments. The wind whistled around me, taunting me that the rescue phone number I was dialling from the hire contract could be a hoax. Then with the speed of an overweight polecat, I struck...just the slight opening of a door and a man’s shape appearing and I summoned up my best reserves of Greek to ask if, perchance, this might be the community’s kafenion. Obviously I knew it wasn’t, but ‘me the stranger’ (the filos bit) was showered with hospitality (the xenia component) in the shape of Greek coffee, a glass of heady sweet spirit and lashings of biscuits and cake to prevent my hidden emaciated frame from miraculously appearing in the lady’s most comfortable armchair.
I could easily have dropped off to sleep in the warm glow of all this pampering but my mobile phone was not cooperating and connected me with the rescue party that had found the scooter, entombed it in his Turkish-built Transit van and was searching for yours truly. I had no idea where I was, it seemed as near to heaven as I wanted to be right then, but I passed my phone to my hostess who obviously knew my rescuer and within minutes he, too, was in the house of his cousin’s girlfriend’s mother’s younger sister politely prizing me out of the armchair and into his van. I could feel myself dozing off as we wound around the hillsides and hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself and fall against Manolis the driver. The scooter in the back had no such qualms; tired of fighting with the restraints of its vertical position, it crashed suddenly on its side. Manolis shrugged as if to say, ‘It’s down there now’. I wonder if he would have been quite so philosophical had I crashed slumbering onto him.
Back on Samphire it was time to enjoy that crashed-out state before visiting one of the quayside restaurants that would charge me more than I wanted to pay for food I didn’t particular want to eat...but what choice is there with a loving belly and three spare tyres to support?
Still in the grip of darkness we slowly chugged towards Spinalonga Island at the north end of what is now called Elounda Lagoon. Eighty years ago it was called Marbella Bay by Imperial Airways as an evocative-sounding stopover point for their flying boats from the UK en route to the Nile near Cairo and ever onward to India...it seems hard to believe these massive beasts would do their take-off run in less than 5 minutes along the very same stretch of water we were labouring through now.
Nearly an hour later, we could pick out the shape of the old Venetian fortress, which in its latter life became one of Europe’s last isolated leper colonies. As we headed east, the sky was lightening and there wasn’t a breath of wind. The sun stuck a tentative red segment above the horizon but unlike us, it had no choice but to continue its journey. Without wind in the sails and our diesel thumping away on full power, we would just about push a path north towards the Cyclades at 5 knots. The nearest island, Anafi, is 65 nautical miles giving a potential arrival at 18.00 hours. Anafi is about 20 miles east of the much-visited tourist destination of Santorini (Thira Island) which is itself just too far away to be sure of a daylight arrival. Samphire stuck her boat-shaped ‘segment’ out into the open seas, but unlike the sun, now a cautioning orange and heavily clawing for the midday sky, we could have turned back...
When the sun became a searing white and reached its zenith, Crete, being the largest Greek island, with mountains 5000m high, still stood majestically. In fact its outline was still just visible in the distant haze as we approached Anafi’s harbour, or what masqueraded for a harbour in forgiving seas. It looked like a poor substitute for a proper harbour should winds blow up and the sea start to swell...such as well shown in the film made at Lyme Regis in Dorset, UK, The French Lieutentant’s Woman. However, not to worry, the harbour walls might be a mere groyne compared with Lyme’s towering buttresses, but the wind was gentle, the seas were flat calm and the usually reliable Poseidon weather forecast indicated no change throughout the night.
As we dropped anchor, we looked forward to a modest drop of wine and a good night’s sleep....unfortunately, we did have the wine but the good night’s sleep would be short-lived. Well before midnight declared its boredom with the dying day and long after my snoring must have echoed around the boat, fate in an impromptu test had decided to send a swell and it started to pour into our bay as if someone had opened a sluice gate into this sector of the Aegean.
The scrumptious red wine that we had carried from Crete’s best vineyard, had preceded sliding between the sheets…well, more like an involuntary backward high jump without the difficult part that wins trophies. I told myself through fractured wine-befuddled sleep that it wasn’t serious, it was nothing to concern us and it would pass by dawn. At 3am I was rudely awoken by a thumping on the hull and I knew, somehow, despite the entreaties of the wine, this was not the postman. The thumping continued and through the fug I realised the keel was bashing on the sandy bottom, and not far from sand at that depth was rocks. Out on deck the impending disaster was clear to see even in a foaming, thrashing sea; Samphire had moved on her anchor and was nearly doomed. Full revs and hard rudder saw her moving away from the rocks...now to raise the anchor and ready ourselves to drop it again a little further out in the bay of the harbour.
Job done, I crashed exhausted into my pit, but within an hour the boat was bobbing around like a rodeo steed and staying asleep was near impossible…try napping on one of the latest scream-curdling roller-coaster rides to give you a taste of what Grandfather Fate had sent to test us.
The anchor now held fast but each lurch, each snatch and each attempt by Samphire to pick up water with her gunwale edges made it clear this would be a long, maybe even an ultimate test. At 6am one of Greece’s large ferries put in on an adjacent berth and the captain wasn’t long in letting me know that worse was to come and we had two options, abandon ship and struggle ashore or put to sea and take our chances, ‘To hell with you Fate’, I shouted, ‘You’ll have to wait.’ With engine screaming and anchor barely stowed, we headed out into the storm, with a sky so black it could still have been midnight.
Samphire pounded us like a bucking bronco. It was impossible to go below for anything but with some directions from the Greek coastguard, bless them, we put into the sheltered harbour of Katopola on Amorgos island 8 hours later. Many yachting types were sheltering there and we were grateful for the willing hands that threw lines, moved fenders, shouted instructions and hauled us in to be finally secured.
Pontiff-like I was overjoyed to climb ashore and leave my lip marks in the swirling dust of the passing storm...by God did that dust taste good.
I have come to believe I have stared Death in the face too many times. Yesterday he came close to winning. Whether there is a god is a matter of personal choice, but I defy you to pour scorn on fate. In fact, I honestly believe the more you are a disciple of Lady Luck the more likely Grandfather Fate will send his emissary, Father Time, to throttle the last vestige of luck and maybe life from you.
Had he tried just a little harder, this blog could have been so very different and better entitled ‘Inside the Tragic Circle’. What had started out as a straightforward notion to set sail around a cluster of some two hundred islands in the Greek Aegean Sea, very nearly resulted in just one of the around 30 inhabited islands being visited. The signs could not have been clearer as Old Father Time, who I fervently believe had once been an Englishman and a cricket enthusiast, to boot, gave me fair warning that if I didn’t reconsider my planned folly, he would mete out a far greater punishment than those my schoolmasters had visited upon me when waywardness often got the better of me.
We had set out in Samphire, a renamed 34 foot mature sailing vessel, that had once been owned by a Greek shipping magnate who suddenly lost his money-magnetism with Greece’s troubled times and was forced to sell. Towing our inflatable dinghy alongside, it had been planned to reposition it by tethering rope at Samphire's stern, once the marina had been cleared. However, out of sight, out of mind and in my haste to raise some sail and dispense with fossil-fuel propulsion, the boat-shaped, air-filled rubber bag was forgotten, until the weather suddenly changed.
The weather transformation was not one of those protracted affairs that give time for preparation as in putting on a raincoat or raising an umbrella, but an instant increase in wind speed that nearly wrenched the foresail from Samphire’s nose. So busy was I taking the wind out of the sail and reefing in, I missed the dinghy’s tenuous hold on the side rail being loosened by fate so we didn’t even see the going of it. Here we were, embarking of a 300 nautical mile cruise without the safety net of a dinghy, let alone a means to reach the shore of an idyllic island from a mooring out in the bay. As we rounded a headland and swept past the ancient fortress of Spinalonga Island, it was fast approaching the hour to ‘phone a friend’. Not a friend to dissuade us from the foolhardiness of our journey, but one I knew had a spare inflatable dinghy to replace the one that was now scratching its bottom on some deserted beach, perhaps to be found and commandeered by a tourist family who would consider it to be too old and dilapidated to be other than purposely abandoned.
It was approaching dusk when we dropped anchor just north of the tourist honey-pot of Elounda, sensibly further from the shoreline than would have been normal in daylight hours and too damned far to swim with clothes crammed in a waterproof sack. Oh well, an evening meal of ‘catch-as-catch-can’ onboard instead of the promised slap-up meal in Elounda’s floating restaurant where a good friend is the chef.
Yet every cloud, well maybe some clouds, have a silver lining and as we munched biscuits and cheese, the would-be seller of a replacement dinghy phoned to say, in a much-appreciated bout of self-deprecating honesty, that a fisherman had seen our dinghy make its escape and had rounded it up and placed it into the hands of Agios Nikolaos’ harbourmaster who was insistent that he would only release it to the yacht’s new lawful owner on presentation of all the paperwork that had accompanied the magnate’s distress sale.
Those of you that have never engaged in anything quasi-official in Greece, will not have realised that the country’s desperate financial straits are not entirely due to the submarines and tanks sold to them by Germany once their entry into the euphoric euro had been achieved, but more to the reams of paperwork that accompany every transaction, great or small. Thus, having signalled our dilemma to a nearby yachtsman, who kindly took us in his dinghy to the shore, we caught a bus to the city and the harbourmaster’s office weighed down with paperwork that would lead to the generation of more paperwork in exchange for paper-money and the release of our dinghy.
Back in Elounda looking deflated (the dinghy that is) we set about pumping it up again then cadged a tow from our neighbour. All was set for the next day’s departure for the Cyclades...or so we thought. As the sky started to turn red with the approach of dawn we went to raise the anchor in preparation for our twelve hour sail to Anafi Island, the closest Cycladic Island to Crete, and wow did we raise some anchor!
The windlass (the anchor winch) shuddered to a stop and we were drifting. The anchor’s chain was released manually and it went crashing back to the bottom. What to do? Oh what to do. The answer should have been get the message and abandon trip, but no...it was 'phone that friend' time again and two worthies showed up a couple of hours later to help disentangle a huge ship’s anchor from ours...the sort of anchor depicted in tattoo form on Popeye’s forearm!
Still refusing to accept the myriad of warnings, at 5am the next day we set sail, well we would have had there been any wind, which was taking a temporary holiday...hah!
So with diesel banging away we motored ever onward into the magic, perhaps tragic circle...!
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