Santorini 1: Oh, Greece

“Oh, Greece”, I cry with my arms outspread in prodigal welcome and heartfelt love of your wine-dark Aegean under your flawless turquoise sky, love of your good-humoured folk with their seductive gift of gab fronting for their fundamental generosity of spirit.  My cry is tinged with despair and nostalgic regret at the invasion of American music and Anglophonic Europeanism into your unique corner of the world.

We are but a mile or two from our arrival spot, a jetport on the ancient island of Thira, known to all now as the island of Saint Irene – Santorini.  I have never visited here before, but I have visited dozens of islands just like it here in the Cyclades, so it feels like a homecoming.  And a homecoming one both welcomes and holds one’s hands against – the tiny fishing village of the 60’s that would have had a pension with a couple of rooms for the few Germans intrepid enough to cross the island by donkey is now a distended strip of tourist restaurants, with menus in English and French, everything written in the Roman alphabet.  Restauranteurs solicit the tourists like touts, with a bit of the old Greek insouciance, but a tiredness and desperation that speaks of a Johnny-come-lately to the European Union grasping for euros in place of the old drachma, no longer the proudly independent inheritors of the cradle of Western civilization.  Now they’ve inherited the printed towel maps and the crappy tourist dreck that follows the money everywhere.

This morning I stirred at 7 to find a cloudy day.  I slipped from our bed and put on my sneakers to climb through the village to the switchback road that led up through the olive groves to the pass between two mountains. It was an hour’s upward walk, getting wilder and windier as I rose above the beach and town.  The winds were flaring down off the slopes across the sea, cat’s paws and williwaws among the few caíques moored offshore.  By the time I get to the crest of the pass, the tops of the mountains on either side are shrouded in swirling cloud, the wind so strong that I am being pelted with small stones as I stood leaning into it and looking down to the similar beach town far down on the other side of the island.

On the way down, loath to take the same route home, I followed a little path across the steep slope just to see where it would lead, and ended up at one of those ubiquitous Greek shrines – a little building of blue and white so small I had to duck as I entered.  I cross myself not in homage to the Olympian gods or God of the Book, but to the Greeks and their orthodox faith.  The tiny building is full of icons to St George, St Nicholas, and the Virgin Madonna, and incense and candles and spent matches and little burners for the faithful who make the climb to this altar nestled into the rocks in the side of the cliff.  A little more investigation and I find out why it’s here in particular – a cave snakes into the hill from behind the building, and deep within, my eyes adjusting to the trickle of light, is a trickle of water that has made, over centuries, strange-lipped pool formations in the cave.

The water is presumably consecrated in some way; people use it for offerings.  I suspect, as in England, this little church is a Christian overlay on a pagan sacred site, an intuition later confirmed: this was a sacred source of water for the ancient Thirians priests who had their acropolis fort at the top of the hill. Putting thoughts of bat-shit and snakes aside, I scramble into the dark, following the sound, and drink the sweet water, tangy with the mineral earth.

As I descend the smaller switchback path, braking myself with my jelly-like quads, the peculiar heaviness, almost grief, that comes from descending back into the human world from an accomplished height accompanies me back to the sea-level hotel.  The town of Kamari is now up and moving – cleaning the streets, opening the stores, setting out the racks of postcards, and the early tourists out to get their sun cream and plan their days, overfilling them as they do at home, spreading their endless money indiscriminately among these ever-more impoverished people – in my opinion, having known them when they were really poor but still rich in culture.  Blessed, sayeth the Lord, are the poor in spirit.

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