Just before we begin, I should explain that some of the narrative below is in the present tense and some of it's in the past tense. This is because I typed it in real time as we were making the voyage. Some of the narrative involves me talking about things as they were happening on board the boat, and some relates to events in the immediate past. Hope it doesn't confuse...
Thur 19th April. Set out from Rhodes commercial harbour at 08.30am sharp.
9.30am: Pulled into Symi, just an hour after the prompt departure from Rhodes. It was strange standing there on the upper outside deck of the Dodekanesos Express, scanning the harbour area for the modest little traditional apartment where we'd stayed many years ago. The sky was still leaden, although there were tiny cracks of blue appearing among the clouds overhead. Restaurant terraces were still enclosed with their polythene curtain walls and there was a distinct lack of pleasure vessels tied up around the harbour area.
The boat stayed quayside for only five minutes while passengers streamed off and some others streamed on board. We watched as our old friend Haralambos disembarked. We'd spotted him in the passenger lounge only minutes after boarding at Rhodes. Haralambos is probably nearer to 70 than he is to 60 now, and we have fond memories of his kindness going back years. When I used to do the Symi excursion, every week during the season for probably more than five years, I'd often sit in his harbour-front café-bar and enjoy a drink while waiting until it was time for our boat to depart for the return to Rhodes. I was never once allowed to pay for a drink. Even when on occasion Yvonne-Maria would come too, he wouldn't hear of us paying him, although only now and then would any of my guests come in to join me or us.
About ten years ago now, we spent a few days over there during November with our good friends Timotheo and Sylvia. We'd stayed in a tiny hotel half-way up the Kali Strata, run by relatives of Sylvia, and we'd watched from our balcony as the whole width of that steep, stone stair-walk had turned into a cataract, as torrential rain had fallen during one of the days we were there. We'd waited in Haralambos' bar early on our last day for the ferry taking us back to Rhodes and, even then, while we were effectively on a short holiday, this kindly man wouldn't let us pay for our hot chocolates and croissants. We still remember the reason why he seems in a perpetually melancholy mood. He lost his wife while she was still quite young and he never really got over it. He has a beautiful daughter, whom we'd met once or twice while she was assisting in the bar, but it's quite clear that he'd had a good marriage. He'd been deeply in love with his life-partner and has never ever taken up with anyone else.
When we boarded the boat at Rhodes and caught his eye, even before we'd found ourselves a couple of seats, he'd smiled and nodded, at least 'smiled' to the extent that he is able. My wife went over to talk to him while I deposited our bags on a couple of seats and she asked if he realised who we were were. After all, we hadn't seen him in probably nine or ten years.
“Of course,” he replied, “Of course.” I asked him about the serious floods and mudslides that Symi had experienced early this past winter and he told me that 15 cars had ended up in the water around the harbour area. As I stood up on the top deck and scanned the natural amphitheatre that is Gialos, with the flat calm waters not even lapping at the stone quayside, as I took in the beauty of the neo-Venetian, pastel-coloured shuttered houses, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like, because now it all looks just as it always did to me; only with an air of expectation. The season is just awakening, the blue umbrellas are already in place on what we used to call Nos Beach, but which I believe nowadays has been renamed I don't know what. Several of the waterside tavernas are still all closed up, the terraces where they will soon position their tables and chairs looking forlorn, wintry, bereft. But soon now, all will be vibrant again, with bronzing bodies and rattling souvenir stands, with taverna staff doing their thing and trying to get passers-by to take a seat and partake of their fayre.
Soon the leather shops, the sponge shop and the jewellers will all be explaining why their wares are so worth purchasing and I found myself thinking, as the klaxon sounded and we slipped quietly away from the quay, it is good. The islanders will soon be earning their living again.
I also found myself thinking, as we headed north for the next stop, which would be Kos island, “I wonder if we'll be harassed by any Turkish gunboats on this trip.”
10.45am: Approaching Kos. At the risk of offending some, I was never much taken with Kos. Many years ago we took a last minute holiday there late in the season. The weather had been perfect, but the apart-hotel where we'd stayed was just a tad too 'touristy' for us and its location nothing to write home about. Maybe that was why we hadn't liked the island very much. We had hired a car and gone exploring, and yet we'd never found quite what we usually look for on a Greek island.
|The wind was warm, but very strong as we approached Kos. These are some of the students referred to in the narrative.|
|Kos harbour. No protection from the elements it seems.|
|Just about to tie up at Kos.|
There were one or two positives though. We discovered a rather nice café-bar in the corner of a large square at the back of the main town, some way away from the harbour area. Here was where the local youth and young business-types would sit and, even back then, tap away on their phones while their fredo espresso sketos sat, expectantly perspiring condensation on the tables in front of them. On the far side of the square from this bar was the market, where all kinds of dried herbs and spices could be bought. There was also a small taverna, which was kind of like a house with a walled courtyard, situated half a kilometre or so up a lane behind the town, where one of the delicacies were courgette flowers, deep-fried in a kind of batter. We only discovered it because a couple of friends who'd holidayed on Kos a year or two before we went there recommended that we seek it out.
Apart from that, though, we had no desire to re-visit the island.
As the boat approaches and I'm typing this, there is traditional music playing on the ship's tannoy and a bunch of young male students are getting into the spirit of the thing by linking arms over each others' shoulders and dancing in the aisle. This sizeable party of teenage boys and girls boarded along with us at Rhodes and it looks, from the way they're preparing themselves, like Kos is their destination. They're a boisterous, enthusiastic crowd who, like most groups of Greek young folk, are always eager to show respect to others. Pass a few of them on the stairway, for example and they'll defer to you, or always thank you if you allow them to pass first. Greek students and school kids don't wear uniforms, they wear whatever they want, which usually means blue jeans which seem to have been sprayed on (and that includes the boys these days) and, in the case of the girls, skimpy low-cut tops that would have had a British teacher in a lather and sending them home to change into something much more appropriate for a day's learning in the classroom.
Just to illustrate how polite the Greek students are: there was a sizeable gaggle of them in my way, as we approached the rather bleak, seemingly exposed and, as a consequence, rather unwelcoming quayside at Kos, thus preventing my getting up the stairs so that I could go out on deck and watch the proceedings as they all disembarked and the next load of passengers came aboard. I had to ask four or five boys and girls to make way for me to squeeze through. I never worry about such situations, because they were all (as I expected) only too quick to hand each other out of my way with plenty of “by all means” and “sorry sirs” as I passed among them with a few polite “excuse mes”.
Although it's very early in the season, it's nevertheless amazing how many languages we heard being spoken by the newly embarked passengers. We heard Italian from what was evidently a group of keen cyclists (of course they were wearing all the correct 'gear'), German, French and even a couple of American “Oh, my Gods” were in the mix, as people came and stood in the aisle, scanning for potential places to sit. There was no lack, since the main salon had only just been vacated by the large student party.
Then, once again within five minutes, the ramp was up and we were on our way to Kalymnos.
|The mysterious case of the Kalymnos man who has a package for a head.|
|Kalymnos, during the approach.|
|The flag on the hillside - just in case anyone wondered which country they were in.|
|Kalymnos gets ready to 'bustle'.|
11.45am: Kalymnos. Now this is more like it. Kalymnos harbour and town is so much more cozy and welcoming than Kos. You sail deep into a protected harbour with a huge breakwater and the two sides of the town, built around the base of some impressive hillsides, shelter you, much like Symi only on an altogether grander scale. Once the ramp goes down, all hell breaks loose yet again. People stream on and off (once the crew-member standing on the end of the ramp gives the signal) and three-wheeled pickups do six-penny turns on the apron, leaving black rubber curves behind them, one heading off with a cellophane-wrapped sofa balanced precariously on its only-just-big-enough flat bed.
Looking up at the hillsides above the town, you catch sight of a huge Greek flag painted on to the bare rock a couple of hundred feet above the rooftops. The Greeks don't want any chances taken. This is the front line with Turkey and, in view of the current ratcheting up of tensions by the Turkish government, which is currently hell-bent on provoking their near neighbour over sovereignty disputes about lots of the islands in this area, they want everyone to be sure about which country you're in.
The Greeks, rather like the Americans, have always been keen on hoisting the national flag anywhere and everywhere they deem it appropriate. I have to say, though, that I get the distinct impression currently that there are even more of them dotted about the place than normal. As in the USA, many Greek homes sport the flag hanging from a pole attached to the corner of the building, or springing upwards from the garden wall, but I see them appearing on harbour walls, on hotel roofs, in fact lots of places where perhaps in the past they might not have bothered. You can put this down to the Turkish provocations, that are rumbling ever on and on and getting ever more aggressive in the process.
Once again, after a very quick turnaround, we were off again. Next stop will a favourite island of ours, Leros.
|Coming in to Agia Marina, Leros.|
|Agia Marina, Leros. The blue building is where we stayed many years ago.|
There is a video to go here, but 'blogger.com' said it was too large to upload.
So I've posted it here instead. the caption would have been: "The Italian cyclists decide it's easier cycling on dry land than at sea..."
12.40pm: Leros, Agia Marina. It was lovely to tie up here again, albeit for a very brief moment. Leros is a truly hidden gem, largely because of the time it takes to get here if you're travelling from another country. We took a couple of holidays here some years ago and I talked a little about it in the first “Ramblings” book, “Feta Compli!”. The accommodation in which we stayed was easily visible from the boat and fond memories came flooding back.
Of course, tell a Greek you're going to Leros and he or she will immediately assume that you're either quite bonkers or you have a relative who is. Leros is home to the most famous “trelokomeio” in Greece. The word means 'madhouse'. In decades past it was a disgrace and a shame to the country, owing to the awful conditions in which the patients were forced to live. When we went there for our holidays, however, which would have been around the early 'noughties', we had a few long conversations with a guy called Nikos, who worked in the hospital as a male nurse. He also doubled as a waiter in a taverna, which was how we came to know him.
Nikos told us how they'd campaigned for years for more funding and the right to clean up the place, and give the patients more dignity. He said that much had improved and there were already in place, even then, activities to help stimulate the mental powers and abilities of the patients. If you go there for a holiday you'll be hard-put to find out where the place is though, because even now they tend to keep its location a secret. This is primarily because of the stigma that mental illness still carries within traditional Greek communities. You can imagine, with the in-breeding that goes on in small communities on small islands there is a naturally higher incidence of mental and physical disabilities than in a larger community with a more extensive gene pool.
When we took a holiday on Samos once, we decided to take a day-trip back to Leros, for old time's sake. The girl behind the counter in the booking office in Pythagorion, on Samos, looked at us incredulously when we said we wanted tickets for Leros.
“What do you want to go there for? Are you both mad?” She asked, with a deadly serious look on her face.
Frankly, in my opinion, if you're a true Grecophile, you'd be quite mad not to want to sample Leros.
Anyway, it's Lipsi next, and then our destination, Patmos, with an ETA of around 1.20pm. Judging by the trip so far, we'll be getting off this boat right on time.
|Hmm, little Lipsi didn't light our candle.|
1.10pm: Lipsi. Yes, it's very small, yes it's sleepy. To be honest, though, looking at the waterfront on Lipsi, we both decided that we could probably forego the experience of a day trip here. Maybe we were misjudging it, but the place looked to us to be sort of, all right, but not spectacular, and thus we said to each other almost in unison, “Nah, maybe we'll give it a miss.” Perhaps the very picturesque waterfront at Halki, which is not a stone's throw from where we live, spoils us for other tiny islands.
|Patmos, from our balcony at Suzanna Studios.|
|Decidedly rickety, yet quite picturesque jetties, Skala bay, Patmos|
1.25pm: Patmos. Just a few minutes late and after a fairly choppy crossing, we docked at Patmos and were met on the quayside by not only some bluer skies and bright sunshine, but also by our host, the welcoming Suzanna, and her daughter Sylvia. They led us to their modest old hatchback and we were soon loaded up and on our way the extremely short drive long the front to our accommodation. Arriving as close as one could get in a vehicle, we were led up some steps a short way to the gate which gave into their courtyard, and then up the steps to our very own and completely private balcony. Yup, we'd died and gone to heaven.
|Our rooms are right there in the middle.|
|That's our private little balcony (which nevertheless has a substantial table and 4-chair dining set on it), up the steps.|
Suzanna had left some homemade cheese in the fridge for us, along with half a dozen eggs, a bottle of water and a couple of cans of beer. No sooner had we deposited our cases on the bed in the bedroom, than she'd offered us both a frappé and also pointed out that sitting on a dish on the kitchen worktop in our apartment, there were four of her very own homemade cheese tarts, under some clingfilm. I say 'tarts' because, although they're savoury, they resembled a sweet pastry to look at, and not the traditional tiropita that the words 'cheese pie' would bring to mind.
|A welcoming frappé and nibbles from our lovely host, Suzanna.|
The apartment is wonderful. Exactly what we'd hoped for, and the view from the balcony (which is private enough to sunbathe in the 'nuddy' if one so desired) is to die for. The kitchen is fully equipped with everything we're going to need, including decent sized fridge-freezer, a kettle, a toastie-maker and plenty of glassware, cutlery and crockery.
While the better half took a nap, I found that I couldn't sleep (maybe owing to having imbibed a frappé after midday), so I took off for a reccy. First impressions of Patmos? Simply wonderful. Everything that we look for in a Greek island for a getaway break. These photos don't show much human presence, but then they were taken during siesta time, and it is still only April...
|Pantelis Taverna, where we enjoyed our first evening meal much later. More next post.|
We've landed on our feet.