Read The Greek Islands Online

Authors: Lawrence Durrell

The Greek Islands

LAWRENCE DURRELL

The Greek Islands

*

Dedicated to Doctor Theodore Stephanides

The terms of reference accorded me in the making of this book were generous in the extreme; my choice was to be as
comprehensive
as possible, yet at the same time completely
personal
. The modern tourist is richly provided with guides and works of reference, particularly about Greece. The idea was not to compete in this field, but simply to endeavour to answer two questions. What would you have been glad to know when you were on the spot? What would you feel sorry to have missed while you were there? A guide, yes, but a very personal one.

I have fulfilled these terms of reference as best I could, but it would not have been possible to do it so well had I not been able to depend on the valuable guidance of friends admirably equipped to vet each section as it was completed, or to provide up-to-date information and suggestions. One of these friends, Kimon Friar, the essayist and translator, was particularly
helpful
; as a seasoned islomane he claims to have actually resided on forty-six islands – not just gone ashore for a couple of hours – which must be something of a record. More valuable still, he was able to put me in contact with poets, musicians and others at present resident in islands such as Naxos and Paros, which I have not visited for a number of years. With characteristic
generosity
they have kept me posted about current affairs and brought me up to date.

Meanwhile in London Dr Theodore Stephanides, who is still very actively with us, kindly agreed to examine the text and comment upon it, which he has done with great exactness.

Among standbys from my own small Greek library I was glad to refresh my memory and rekindle my enthusiasm by leafing through Ernle Bradford’s
The Companion Guide to the Greek Islands
(1963) as well as a number of other books recalling Crete and Rhodes and other magical places. Notable among such works I should mention my debt to J. C. Lawson’s admirable
Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion
(
c.
1920). I have
acknowledged
quotations as I proceeded, and do not feel any need to set out an elaborate bibliography for what is more a personal portrait than a detailed guide. There are more than two thousand Greek islands, very many of them mere humps of rock with not more than a field, in which once a year the shepherd pastures his flock having brought them in by water. The inhabited islands vary in size and population, from one tiny village of a hundred souls to a very large place such as Samos which has at least two big towns on it. Some of the tiniest lie in the domain of the small-boat owner; the average tourist will only see them by accident, as it were. Therefore some specially delightful small islands (like Mathraki north of Corfu) are not met with here.

Perhaps someone later on will provide a more complete, and rather different, guide for sailors.

One important question that will raise itself in the reader’s mind is why there is no mention of Cyprus, that most Greek of Greek islands; an island where the local peasant speech contains the most ancient Doric forms and where, at Paphos, Aphrodite was born. There is good reason. The present tragic situation has given its contemporary history a provisional nature which at any moment may be resolved or altered by fruitful
Greco-Turkish
negotiations. In order not to prejudice any such
negotiations
, or to envenom issues which have done enough harm already to the relationship between these two great countries, it was deemed best to leave the island out.

 

Lawrence Durrell. Provence 1977

The traveller, slipping southward along the heel of Italy, as if down a Christmas stocking full of small treasure-towns and unexpected monuments, first feels the intimations of a frontier coming to meet him a good way before he reaches the little terminal town of Brindisi.

Already the wilder southern parts have given place to a
collection
of charming green counties – a strange and picturesque land of
trulli
, as they call those funny yet quite elaborate
conglomerations
of clay pots stuck together anyhow which are the native dovecots of the Italian south. Manfredonia and its ominous-looking group of headlands, falls away to the left. And by now evening will be falling too, with its greenish exhausted spring lights. Our traveller is wise to choose the spring for the journey he has in mind, but it is a long pull down the stocking of Italy and night is beginning to overtake him. Whether by train or car it is the same. He empties the last of his wine, eats his last sandwich. Brindisi will replenish both and, if he is a motorist, will also provide him today with a comfortable ferry for the night journey. The little town marks the frontier – this time not a land frontier but a water frontier. Beyond it, will there be a change of element merely? He has no very clear premonition yet of the Greek islands waiting for him out there in the darkness, like hounds of promise. What will they be like?

What is it that gives a frontier its magic? Not the fact that it is a territorial or political boundary, for these are artificial,
dictated
by history. A sudden change of scenery may be sometimes
partly responsible, but often the change from one country to another is not accompanied by any change of flora and fauna (Italy to Greece, for example, France to Spain). Perhaps it is language that gives to the crossing of a frontier its definitive flavour of voyage. Whatever the answer, the magic is there. The traveller’s heart will beat to a new rhythm, his ear pick up the tonalities of a new tongue; he will examine the strange new coinage with curiosity. Everything will seem changed, including the air he breathes. In Greece it is … But let us not anticipate.

Reaching Brindisi at nightfall he will head for a dinner and a bath, for the old Internazionale where nothing has really changed since the epoch of Mussolini – the menu least of all. The same courteous head waiter who served one in 1938 is still there, still suave and youthful and kind, talking excellent
English
when necessary. The traveller is leaving a national territory in which Caesar was once the arch-hero, for one where the warrior who most resembled him in his disrespect for frontiers and inflexible thirst for conquest was Alexander the Great. No great difference, would you say?

Frontier-jumpers both, ready to burn their boats at the drop of a Rubicon. Yet they had both been preceded by heroes more ancient. The god-intoxicated young Alexander must have felt suitably chastened when, in the depths of the Scythian hinterland, he came upon an inscription concerning the exploits of one greater than he – the Queen Semiramis. Its poetry commemorates all such secret thirsts:

I ruled the empire of Ninus, which reaches eastward to the River Indus, southward to the land of incense and myrrh, northward to the Saces and Sogdians. Before me no Assyrian had ever seen a sea – I have seen four which none have approached, so far away are they. I compelled the rivers to run where I wished and directed their courses to places where they were needed. I watered the barren lands with my rivers. I built up impregnable fortresses. With iron tools I made roads across impassable
rock; I opened them for my chariots in places where even wild beasts had not been able to pass. Yet in the midst of all these occupations I found time for pleasure, I found time for love.

So says Polyaenus.

In the dark, harbour lights wink and there is the whisper and shiver of sea traffic and the light wind which smells of the open sea. You cannot go aboard until midnight, so the traveller passes his time playing solitaire or reading, wondering what lies in store for him once he has crossed over the water and found a dawn landfall in Corfu. If he has any Greek at all he tries to polish it up by glancing through his phrase-book against
whatever
he might be asked to do or say on the morrow. But the chances are that expectancy and the feeling that he must not doze until he goes aboard will be enough to send him out along the harbour front for a brief walk. And this he will not regret, for hard by the hotel is a little theatrical piazza with a flight of stairs up it and a big block of marble at the top. It bears an inscription. He is reminded that Virgil died here, in Brindisi, one hot September night – returning from Greece; and he
ponders
that by contrast we do not know where Homer died, nor whether he was really blind. This contrast reminds him once more that he is indeed at a frontier. There is a formidable
difference
between Rome and Athens, between Italian and Greek; and those with any classical knowledge are astonished to find how constant it is even today. On one side the Italy of finesse and often of finickyness – cherished and tamed by its natives into a formal sweetness. And on the other side Greece, a wild garden with everything running to ruin – violent, vertical and sky-thrusting … undomesticated. One thinks of Roman Italy for whom Nature was always wife, nurse and muse; whereas for Greece she was something wilder, something terrible and unbroken – mistress and goddess without mercy all in one. And their heroes have been different from time immemorial. The
traveller watches a tanker come in and make fast, while with half of his mind he wonders if in modern Greece he will come upon traces of Odysseus, the ancient hero. (It is nearly time to go.)

A fondness for mythology and folklore is perhaps a handicap when one visits classical sites. It is unwise to spend too much time contrasting the present with the past, since it leads
inevitably
to dissatisfaction with the present for not being romantic enough. A bell rings and there is a stir in the hall of the hotel where passengers are assembling, some to take possession of their cars, to seize their bags and knapsacks before crossing the dark piers to where the ferry has now made fast – opening its vast hangars like some modern Trojan horse to welcome them into its bowels. By chance it is the Greek ferry too, not the Italian, so that the traveller’s first Greeks are there to meet him. He sees already their curly heads and long noses, their bright eyes and flying fingers. They seem alert, vital, mercuric –
gesture
is copious, but illustratory rather than theatrical like the Italian. The language too is crisp and melodious, full of
pebble-like
dentals, which give it a lapidary feel. In the clang and clatter of the embarkation he hears words he almost understands. A sailor shouts to another ‘Domani, domani.
AVRIO
!’ It is like the Rosetta Stone yielding up its secrets. For ‘avrio’ must mean ‘tomorrow’! A beautiful word! He repeats it once or twice. A maroon sounds on the darkness and with a clang of doors closing the huge creature stirs under him and begins to glide out across the night, out into the new world which is awaiting him. Avrio!

The little lighted piazza is already fast diminishing in size. First it becomes an empty stage set and then, more diminutive still, a room in a dark doll’s house. Brindisi – the jumping-off point for all the armies of Imperial Rome – dissolves into the darkness which is now all about the vessel. The ocean breathes
calmly and regularly, and the prow echoes the rhythm with its slow
sha sha sha.
The traveller buys himself a drink – perhaps his first
ouzo
, that strong anisette which in Greece does duty for Egyptian
zebib
, Lebanese
arak
, French
pastis
. It is superior to them all in strength though a trifle coarse. Then to sleep, either in the shelter of a bunk, or shrouded in a deck chair in the shelter of the funnel. It is the old complaint – one fears to miss something by going below. But finally the darkness and hushing of water and the drum of the engine send him away into a deep doze which will at least serve to refresh him.

When he awakes it is already dawn, with land ahead of him and one shoulder of an island hunched up to the right of the vessel. It is an easy island to identify – those polished great fruity-looking mountains are Albanian. They are spacious and bare, and warmly painted in by the sun as it struggles up to shine over their shoulders on to the sea. Corfu lies like a sickle beside the flanks of the mainland, forming a great calm bay, which narrows at both ends so that the tides are squeezed and calmed as they pass into it. So much is clear from the map. But for the moment the great ferry simply forges straight ahead, apparently going to crash straight into the screen of golden mountains before them. The northern shoulders of Corfu belie its reputation for luxurious beauty; they are craggy, penurious and empty of villages – dull limestone, covered in scrub and holm oak. The traveller eyes them in some dismay, wondering if the stories he has heard of verdure and beauty were really fables. But gradually the main channel comes into view, and with it the old Venetian sea-mark which warns of shoals. Now the ship turns abruptly, as if on its heel, and heads due south, leaving Albania on her left. To the right is the channel, so narrow that the first few villages are, or seem to be, but a few hundred yards away. In fact, at its narrowest point the northern end of Corfu is only separated from Albania by a stretch of sea
two kilometres broad. The general configuration of things becomes clear. The great serene bay is like a punch-bowl. The land mass is dominated by a big domed mountain called Pantocratoras from which, later, he will be able to stare out upon the two seas and upon a number of islands.

The maddening, yet reassuring, thing is that that rosy old satin dawn, sending its warm pencils of light through the ravines of the hills towards the island is really and truly ‘
rosy-fingered
’. ‘Damn Homer!’ he thinks, determined to stay in the twentieth century. It is at this early point that the traveller begins to recognize the distinctive form and signature of things Greek. As the vessel bowls softly across the smiling bay, as the coast with its dense luscious lagoons unwinds in the fashion of a spool, he sees the famous town coming up at him with its small screen of decorative islands. The journey has not taken as long as he thought – they will dock slightly before seven o’clock, and climb up on to romantic quays lined with as yet empty cafés, where yawning
douaniers
await them with their bills of lading and maddening questions. There is a string of moth-eaten
fiacres
lined up and waiting for him, with their horses wearing characteristic straw hats that are pierced to let the ears of the animals pass through. Hats which give them an arch and rather drunken appearance. But the beauty of the little town! He has been warned that he will not find a prettier in Greece and as time goes on this will become more and more evident. At the moment his only ambition is to step ashore and into one of those carnival
fiacres
which will draw him through the coils and loops of the old Venetian fortress into the town of Corfu – where, doubtless, rosy-fingered waiters will be waiting to ply him with breakfast.

Everything is indeed open, in spite of the early hour. The pavements are being hosed down, and the warm earth releases choice odours of lemon and wet dust. The old town is set down
gracefully upon the wide tree-lined esplanade, whose arcades are of French provenance and were intended (they do) to echo the Rue de Rivoli. The best cafés are here and the friendliest waiters in all Christendom. They will even pay for your drink with pleasure if you have no money or have forgotten to change any. This early morning animation is somehow an indication of the tempo at which Greece lives; you rise each morning to a new day, a new world, which has to be created from scratch. Each day is a brilliant improvisation with full orchestra – the light on the sea, the foliage, the stabbing cypresses, the silver spindrift olives …

Naturally the traveller, letting the eyes of his mind loose to browse among these bewitching shapes and colours, will find much to remind him of such other momentous places as Orta or Taormina. The tall, spare Venetian houses with their
eloquent
mouldings have been left unpainted for centuries, so it seems. Ancient coats of paint and whitewash have been blotched and blurred by successive winters, until now the
overall
result is a glorious wash-drawing thrown down upon a wet paper – everything running and fusing and exploding. But more precise, though just as eloquent, are the streets between the houses, each a deep gully made brilliant with washing hung out to dry from every balcony – bright as bunting. This great spread of colour moves and sways in the light dawn breeze in a way that reminds one of tropical seaweed. The red dome of the Church of St Spiridion shines aloft with its scarred old clock face; the church which houses the mummy of the island’s patron saint. If he knows what is good for him, the traveller will make an indispensable pilgrimage to this dark fane, whose
barbaric
oriental decoration smoulders among the shadows like the glintings of a fire opal. He will kiss the sacred slipper or a suitable icon and light a candle to place in the tall sconce as he utters a prayer – the subject of which he will confide to nobody.
In this way his journey will be under good auspices and the whole of Byzantine, modern and ancient Greece will be waiting with open arms.

Coming out of the dark church into the market he will be almost blinded by the light, for the sun is up; and it is now that the impact of this extraordinary phenomenon will begin to intrigue him. The nagging question, ‘In what way does Greece differ from Italy and Spain?’ will answer itself. The light! One hears the word everywhere, ‘To Phos’, and can recognize its pedigree – among other derivatives is our English word ‘
phosphorescent
’, which summons up at once the dancing magnesium-flare quality of the sunlight blazing on a white wall; in the depths of the light there is blackness, but it is a blackness which throbs with violet – a magnetic unwearying ultra-violet throb. This confers a sort of brilliant skin of white light on material objects, linking near and far, and bathing simple objects in a sort of celestial glow-worm hue. It is the naked eyeball of God, so to speak, and it blinds one. Even here in Corfu, whose rich, dense forestation and elegiac greenery
contrasts
so strangely with the brutal barrenness of the Aegean which he has yet to visit – even here there is no mistake about the light. Italy has no such ray, nor Spain. Flowers and houses and clouds all watch you with a photo-electric eye – at once substantial and somehow immaterial. Each cypress is the only one in existence. Each boat, house, donkey, is
prime
– a Platonic prototype of a sudden invention; maybe an idle god’s quite
arbitrary
invention, as if he had exclaimed, ‘Let there be
donkey
.’ And in each donkey (by now they are braying all along the Esplanades, waiting for their children) one sees the original, the archetypal donk: the essence, the quiddity of the
idea
of donk.

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