Sunday, March 25, 2007

Speedboats and masquerades

After spending the morning repacking and much of the early afternoon wandering around the ports at Pireás (just south of Athens proper), we hopped a boat to the Argo-Saronic island of Spétses – named for its famous pine forests. In high season, most of the Greek islands are serviced by ferries; in late March, when there are few tourists and frequent thunderstorms, the hydrofoil or “flying dolphin” is the foodie-traveler’s only option. Turns out, however, that these funny-looking little speedboats, all acquired from the former Soviet Union and repainted in patriotically Greek colors, were designed for cruising on placid eastern European rivers and not on the open Aegean Sea, making for an alarmingly bumpy ride. Stops at the idyllic ports of Póros and Ídhra were followed by a brief storm that necessitated slowing the boat to idle through the whitecaps.

When we made it safely to port, arms exhausted from gripping the seats for so long, we were met by our kindly hotelier, who led us up, up, up through the town to his simple pension and then directed us to the Taverna Lazarus for dinner, telling us it was particularly known for its barrel wines.

Greece has made wine for many centuries, of course, but it’s only recently that Greek wine has been accorded any recognition internationally. We’ve been drinking local wines, usually “from the barrel.” The most characteristic has been retsina, a white wine fermented with pine resin, which we sampled alongside roast goat in lemon sauce. The taverna owner told us that they import grapes from the mainland and then ferment the wine with Spétses pine pitch in the large barrels at the front of the room. It was slightly sweet, with a piney aroma and a juicy mouthfeel, and our hostess, trotting around the room with a giant aluminum pitcher full of it, treated us to an extra little jug after our dinner … “for the road.”

The next morning, we woke to the sort of glorious sunny day one expects on a visit to the Greek isles. We meandered through town and found a bike shop, where we plunked down 10 euros and headed out on the 25 km (and hilly!) ride around the island. Spétses is notable to us (although apparently not to anyone else on the island) as the setting of the English author John Fowles’ famous book The Magus (Tam says Magoos), in which a young English schoolteacher and aspiring writer takes a job on the island – lightly camouflaged as an imaginary place called Phraxos – and falls into the clutches of a wealthy Greek philosopher and two beautiful but enigmatic English twins, who prove to be conducting an elaborate masquerade game that he is unable to comprehend. We were pleased to discover the overgrown and nearly abandoned grounds of an improbable English-style boarding school where Fowles taught briefly and which matches his narrator’s description in every particular, and spent much of the remainder of the afternoon entertaining competing conjectures as to where the other events in the novel occurred. Sadly, much of the landscape has been altered dramatically since Fowles lived on Spétses; two forest fires in 199o and 2001 laid waste to more than half of the island’s pine forest. Still, the beaches and views to the other islands and back to the mainland were breathtaking, and we came across the occasional pine grove that made us look around for the mysterious masked figures that populate the pages of Fowles’ novel.

Before catching a ferry to the mainland on Sunday morning, we witnessed some of the revelry on the island as the locals celebrated the confluence of Greek Independence Day and the Feast of the Annunciation. The cafés were filled with musicians and children in traditional Greek costume. We blended right in.

Next stop: the Peloponnese!

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