Greece #4 – A Ferry Ride

Misty with the cliffs of Aegina

In the 1970’s, when I first came to Greece, the only way to get to any of the islands was by ferry.  I first saw Greece from the deck of a ferry, as dawn broke after a long night pitching across from Brindisi, Italy.  Kerkyra (Corfu) lay still in the ‘wine-dark sea’, looking like Zeus lying on his back in the water.  I fell in love with Greece at that moment, and have never forsaken her.  Now we are about to zip to Thera on an airplane (though zip is a funny word for a process that will take less than an hour in the air, but requires six hours – only one hour less than the ferry – to effect, between getting all the way out to the airport, waiting, securitizing, boarding, and getting back in at the other end).

But meanwhile, I wanted Misty to have something of the ferry experience I had back in the day, so we wandered down to the tiny sook-like streets of lower Plaka and booked a 3-island cruise via Manos, the kindly but opinionated agent we found in a messy upstairs office – that, at least, has not changed since my day – smoky offices with inefficient phones and telexes, though now they have upgraded to inefficient computers.

The cruise required turning to early, and walking a cold and echo-y street.  The van that came to waft us to Pireaus was only 8 minutes late, a Greek record.  The port of Pireaus really is amazing, having been a working port steadily for more than 3000 years.  Our boat was not dissimilar to the ferries of my youth, but cleaner, and the whole feeling of being handled was more professional and less chaotic.  Instead of hundreds of European hippies carrying satchels and backpacks, our shipmates were Japanese and Chinese and Spanish tourists, but that was really ok.

The ferry experience, I explained to Mist, was really something different: on the way to Kriti we slept out on the deck, used even more horrible toilets, and could find no food worth eating, and learned to bring what we wanted.  There was a lot of back in forth between the intrepid travelers, and between the travelers and the crew.  In one game, you stood with your back to a semi-circle of players, with your left hand, palm out, against your right ear (try it).  One of the crowd behind you whacks you up side o’ de head, and is back in line before you recover.  If you correctly identify the attacker, he goes into the hot seat.  If not, you stay there for another hit.  Eventually, I ventured a whack or two, and I was duly identified. My first two hits, I couldn’t recover fast enough to identify the striker, but on the third try, I received such a blow that I knew it could only be the sailor with the Popeye arms, and I retired gratefully if not gracefully.

Our ferryboat in Hydra

The crew for this cruise was impressive not for their muscles but for their polyglot talents.  Every announcement came in Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, as well as English.  Our most beautiful stop was the first, Hydra (ee’-dra – apparently the un-named island in John Fowles masterpiece, The Magus), where there was a sea-blessing ceremony that involved incessant ringing of church bells, followed by cannon fire, and a bunch of teenaged boys jumping into the winter sea after a flag and a cross, I believe – it was a little far to see properly.  Mist and I followed a path up to the battlements on a pinnacle above the town with a spectacular view, befriended a burro (not so hard, but it would have been better if we had had more food), and sensed our way through goatpaths back to the town before our boat hooted and left.

The food was not spectacular, we were paired for lunch with a couple of airheads from LA, and we made no new friends on the trip, but we did get to see Greece looking at the land from the sea, which, like Maine, is an essential part of the experience.  All day, as we worked our way upwind from Hydra to Poros, and on to Aegina, the wind blew steadily from the north, sometimes working up some white horses, but mostly a desultory breeze that would have been perfect for sailing.

The island scenery looks like Santa Fe – low pines and chapparal – but they rise from the water with dramatic white cliffs, islands and rocks of every size and shape, with the welcoming arms of the harbors waiting to take you in.  Oh, to have a sailing boat in Thessaloniki, and work your way down through the islands on these boreal winds!  And then ride the Meltemi back north again in the summer – it still would work, after all these years and the Euro and all the development, the islands are still the islands.

I did this once, sailed among the islands – twice actually, but on the same boat.  In 1979, I was playing guitar in a restaurant in Bodrum, Turkey, for a meal and tips.  A European foursome came in, clearly off a boat.  The restaurant was nearly empty – the tourist season was over – so I naturally played for them.  I didn’t get much of a tip, but I sailed with them the next morning, and for the next few days we plied desultorily around Patmos (where John crawled into a cave and came out with Revelations, and the captain, Alexander, and I climbed the hill to the church over the cave to have a mass said for his Uncle John, a Greek orthodox priest who had essentially given him his boat).

We also had a helluva storm to contend with trying to get to Mykonos, and ended up being blown to Ikaria (where Icarus fell from the sky when his wax wings melted – history is everywhere here).  The next summer, I and a few friends chartered Alex’s boat again, and we sailed back and forth between Turkey and the Greek isles.  It was idyllic – the Anatolian coast was as yet undeveloped.  The Turkish fishermen would see us sailing in, come over in their caiques and hold up their catch.  We would point to one, and they would give their characteristic nod, and spin away.  At first I turned to Alex, puzzled, but I soon learned: He brought our fish to the only restaurant in the harbor where we were heading.  The restauranteur watched the boat to see when we climbed into the dinghy, and put the fish on the grill then.  It wasn’t a matter of ordering; he served what he had, and man, it was good.

Sunset at Aegina

We never met anyone on our paths with whom we could share our food, so we ended up on Aegina having salami and feta rolled in pita as the sun sank into the sea on a little beach under the remains of a temple to Zeus that we couldn’t find a way into.  It served as dinner, as we the day on the boat was strangely tiring, and we never made it out of the hotel that night.

Ferries in the 70’s, sailboats in the 80’s, but in the 21st century the planes have invaded, and the ferries are pretty much left for the poor, the nostalgic, and – as with us today – the Asian tourists seeking a ‘genuine’ experience.  Of course, Lord Byron, fighting with the Greek war of independence in the 1820’s, would have said I already missed it.  Byron – a roué in England but a fully fledged hero in Greece – has my vote when he can write this about a friend:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of

(That’s pronounced ‘bosun’, you landlubbers.)


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