Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Garden of Earthly Beauty: Two Islands in Greece


          If your luggage is too heavy to carry up to your room -- or pension, or house -- on the island of Hedra, the gem of the Saronic Gulf, you hire a donkey. You will not be able to take a taxi or even a motorcycle (or a tourist bus or even a minivan) because "all wheeled vehicles" are banned from Hedra. The resulting island ambience is a unique blend of beauty and pre-industrial silence.
            Many places in Greece are beautiful. Many are also peaceful. Set in the sunny blue water of the Aegean off of the ancient region known as the Peloponnese, Hedra is beautiful, peaceful and also quiet. It's a rare place, with enough international draw that people like Leonard Cohen keep a house there.
            To get there we took the ferry from the port of Tolo, a two and a half hour cruise through the Saronic Gulf with islands and mainland hillsides in view the whole way, passing the isle of Spetses (where we would also visit on the return trip). The cruise ship was comfortable and roomy, the sun-worshipers sat on the top deck. We sat on the main deck and tried to take pictures of the dolphins who lept and dove behind the ship on two occasions. Mostly I simply got the splash, though one effort (as you see in the second photo down) captured a bit of tail.
            The island features a photogenic port, white-walled houses with orange tiled roofs, rows of yachts and fishing boats, a steep geographic profile rising straight up from the shore, storefronts and houses built so close to the shoreline you have to assume there's hardly ever the fear of marine encroachment those of us who live by the Atlantic learn to call "storm surge."
            Despite the close-at-hand presence of all this ocean, the air is dry, the sunlight crystalline but soft, the insect life pleasingly absent, and the flowers bright and long-lasting. In this part of Greece, you always eat outdoors.
            Ship-building (according to the travel guides) in the 18th century led to the island's growth and development. Hedra was one the Greek Islands that played a significant role in the Greek independence struggle in the early 19th century, as did Spetses. Admiral Andreas Miaoulis commanded a Greek fleet when the island contributed 130 ships to a blockade effort during the war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, 1821-1829.
            The island of Spetses, while also very beautiful, is not so quiet. As if taking advantage of a pent-up demand for internal combustion engines caused by Hedra's proscription of motorized vehicles, the chief 'tourist" activity here appears to be riding motor cycles along the broad shoreline  road and threading them through the narrow twisting lanes, where the four of us traipsed both to escape from their noise and to admire the very white-walled villas with their walled-in gardens of fruitfiul trees and flowering trees, one of these packed with an almond, olive and orange tree all finding enough sunshine to go around.
            The great historical figure in Spetses is the 19th century sailor Laskarina Bouboulina, to whom both a museum and a substantial statue are dedicated. Her biography (recounted in online sources) was truly that of a swashbuckling heroine. She was born in a prison in Constantinople of a captive revolutionary father, built a fortune in maritime trade, raised a Greek flag she designed herself (on a ship she named, with a sure sense of nation pride, the Agamemnon), and joined forces with fleets from other islands in the revolt against the Turks.
            Here's a link to the full wikipedia account:
            Sailing to the Greek isles, these two at least, was a long but satisfying day. Odysseus, we know, had a full ten years of this stuff, with adventures for which the term "epic" was invented. We were happy to get back to our tourist apartment with time for a little nap before a superb dinner (prepared by somebody else).