Sarah Coles




From Chios, we board the Nissos Rhodos to Ikaria.  Smart, with two flights of escalators.   Off.  The boat trembles outside a minor port off Samos, then we go like a straining animal past sea walls to the dark flecked sea beyond. (I remember Samian IMG_3690ware, figured, dug out of the mud of the Medway all those years ago. It came from here …).  We arrive at the tiny port of Evadilos in Ikaria. Icarus fell into the sea at Ikaria.

IMG_3706Ikaria is a blue zone, one of the five places in the world where people live to ninety and beyond.  (Estate agents make use of this fact!).  Why, I asked the sweet exhausted woman at the badly run Atheras Hotel? Community & relationships, she says. Local food – pulses, veg, only a little meat. Gardening and exercise, Sleep. Alcohol, but not that much. Friends and chat. Her computer is driving this woman mad she says.

In the tavernas I am charmed by the fact that men are drinking & also several women – they are part of the scene.

A Byzantine site via a green fertile valley. Museum shut (we squint through the door panes) but find a coffee nearby, it’s just nice sitting here (we are getting quite Ikarian).

IMG_3714 (Edited)Next day a taxi which zig zags over the long spine of the island and takes us down to Agios Kirykos, and as we descend we can see along the sea wall a great metal sculpture of Icarus falling into the sea – this Icarus is a young boy, loaded with wings now broken and molten, they were too big, uncontrollable, no wonder a he could not help getting sucked towards the sun, and behind him boulders backing the sea wall pop up like spectators of the tragedy. Not hubris here, but a design failure by Daedalus.  Looking up, can see the long mountain spine, a vast fallen Icarus.

Had planned to stay atthe Hotel Maria Elena, where a guest who we thought was a porter helps with luggage up the steps, and enter RECEPTION – a huge room with heaps of laundry, a woman nursing a baby, women chatting, scampering toddlers and a mass of unwashed crockery and pans and a vast tin of Nescafe. One of the women says Would you like to see a room? Bob says I’ve seen enough. So we go along the front and sit down with coffee, and I then go to check out the Kastro hotel, high up overlooking the harbour via many steps. A welcoming Demetri (is he German? He asks me if I am, and he looks small and fair and seems nervy and twitchy in a north European way. He has a grumpy son, who looks dark and very Greek). Room will be fine, and he drives me in a roundabout route to the front where Bob waits with wheelie bags.

We ask Demetri where to eat, and he recommends a place – he wants to drive us there, but we walk down, find it and, via the kitchen, climb a narrow spiral staircase to the eating room. It is a pizzeria, which the Greeks are amazingly fond of, and we do not like at all. The cook must be a good friend for Demetri to recommend this dump.   Still, we have wine as well as indifferent pizza, and it’s full of locals including handsome young men drinking coca cola (in this island where Dionysus invented wine!) – surely talking politics, plenty of communists around, says our book, they were exiled here – and walk back in the dark, up the flights of steps to where worried Demetrios is sitting up for us.

IMG_3718Ikaria is famed for hot waters, and in summer thousands come, but now the season is over, and no buses, and we take a taxi to Therma where there are two places for taking the waters, apart from the sea. I go to the further one by the cliff, and enter and there’s a nice woman at the desk, and one or two others.   Only 7 euros.  For twenty minutes I sweat – in my swim suit – in a glistening cave dripping with hot water – it is dark, and uncomfortable. Beside me are a thin man and fat women with limbs like IMG_3725 (Edited)cooked sausages. Drip drip from the ochreous walls and ceiling as we sit on the damp bench. Then shower and lie in a shallow pool, this is better, also I can see what’s happening – people pop in and out, including Bob at one point and a dog who gives himself a good shake and noses around, it’s all very casual in a Greek IMG_3769 way. Then, I walk back along the cliff path which is up high, looking down where the midday sun creates a silver sea pool. The domed church has clothed IMG_3729 (Edited)itself in the sea, so has a little shrine, and the fennel is all herby with seeds, and beyond the Fourni islands – a walk too short – to Agios Kirykos with the harbour and Icarus falling, falling. B eating fish along the front, I join him.

Evening drink and watch the Fourni islands far out fade to a luminous pink, become transparent then merge with the darkness.

Find an excellent restaurant run by women who give us salad then fish and when B asks for a pudding, they look perplexed then bring us some wonderful hot quince and honey.

Next day we have to get a ferry, 2.30, to Syros, that’s the only one going. Demetri looks after our bags, and even Bob manages the walk to Therma along the cliff. He takes a taxi back, and I walk, I cannot have enough of this island. Demetri says there are seven Ikarias in the USA and they send back money to the island for good works, schools etc.


After lunch at Ikaria, we sit on the quay and the ferry looms up. Board, and it ploughs through the water, passing not a few but it seems hundreds of islands, sometimes stopping at a little harbour. Mykonos looks barren and overbuilt. Sun sinks into sea, and we arrive on Syros after dark. Where to stay? Diogenes Hotel is bang on the waterfront, and has a good room, all is well, and meal in a nearby restaurant with bulging cyclopean walls and massive ancient ouzo distillery all glowing copper.

Alas we cannot stay here, because it is time to head for the mainland and the weekly ferry to Labrio leaves at 2.30. Syros is in the centre of the Cyclades. It’s a sort of capital, with a court, where they send you when had up for murder or whatever. So, the whole place is a tad smarter than other island ports, with neat classical customs houses, statues to Liberty etc and a road at right angles by a monument to the rather grand Miaouli Square, with an imposing town hall approached by steps (how do the lame manage? Maybe there’s a lift somewhere).

Miaoulissyros[1]A fine statue of Miaouli in pill box hat and Ali Baba trousers.   A young man tells me Miaouli was a Syriot who set fire to Turkish ships in the 18th century – Syros, he tells me, has been governed by Genoese, Venetians and Napoleon, but never was it part of the Ottoman empire!  Slowly I get to grip with the sheer bittiness of the Greek scene – here and there controlled by various empires and dukedoms, divided by the sea and united only by the language and religion and feta cheese and honey (bit like the German states before unification, or Mercia, Wessex etc ditto). It’s a sun and café culture, but each island prides its uniqueness. Must be hard to govern – no great fertile plains making for easy agriculture, cities and maybe overseers, slaves and tyrants. No wonder Greeks are chatty and divided and argumentative.

Coffee here, and watch little children laughing and chasing the pigeons, who are every shade of white and grey, patterned perfectly and differently like varied outfits in a ballet.

The little archeological museum! Oh just beautiful ancient Cycladic art, curiously flat pregnant women, some not pregnant, and grave feasts in marble, so easy to relate to – Ben Nicholson, Picasso, Modigliani, have they seen them? Also, similar to my flat wooden Easter Island statuette. Sistrum, Isis, so much eastern here, so many snakes – they are associated with death in a kindly way. Because of earth and worms?  These are centuries before classical Greek art, and c2500 BC.


At 2.30 we are waiting on quay for the Artemis to Labrio. This is a worn old ferry, not sleek like the others. Again, pass rocky islands, watch little boats lolling in harbours. Look at swelling moving sea and wonder how many bones are beneath us. The sun is eaten, first a nibble, then a quarter, then half, then the luminous red vanishes in the maw of the pink sea. The sky is red and we look out to see if we can see Poseidon’s Temple at Sounion high on the black cliffs, there to welcome seafarers home.. We can’t.

We arrive in the darkness at a commercial shipping yard with acres of concrete and rusting hulks. No jolly harbour with bars and hotels. Ah, a taxi! A hotel please says B. Which hotel says the driver. Any hotel says B. This conversation is repeated several times, he has a word with his fellow drivers, and eventually takes us to a hotel miles away. We are the only guests, but a young man greets us with aplomb, takes us to an ok room, and dashes out to get some food to cook for us – chicken souvlaki on sticks which is fine.

Next day, after breakfast near the pool, a taxi is ordered. To the bus station please says B. The driver lifts in our bags, we get in, and all is pleasant chat (‘how we laughed last night, two old people, two sticks, two wheelie bags’ he chuckles), and we drive through the town, and then, out and beyond, into the dry countryside. I want the bus station says B. Our man drives on into miles of nowhere. I want the bus station roars B. The driver says nothing, except something about the airport – he no longer understands English – and goes on. Let me out screams Bob. Where you wanna go says the driver aimably.  Away from you shouts B. The driver stops, and we get out with our bags onto the dry dusty road. He asks for 20 Euros, B gives him 10, the man takes it, turns round and heads back to Labrio.

What to do? We stand on the edge of the dusty road. One or two taxis pass but they are full. Then we see a rickety hut, and a few women and children and an old man heading for it. A bus stop!  The bus is always late says a woman.  So glad it is! She talks about Cyprus, and how she still misses it. After 20 minutes, the bus arrives, packed, but villagers, a priest and his wife etc make way for us – and weaves its way via dusty villages to Athens bus station.

Don’t know where we are, can’t see a metro, so a taxi to Thisio, which we do know, with its little sunk holy church, where glassed icons are kissed. Ah, we remember, Jason Fleece Hotel and breakfast on the roof looking at the Acropolis, and the IMG_E3840greenery rising to its little plateau – and outdoor restaurants, the stalls, the Turkish baths, the holocaust memorial garden with stones placed like a broken Star of David, the synagogue – with a policeman now on watch all the time. Yes, they have a room, only two nights – and our room has a glimpse of the Parthenon surrounded by its usual machines & cranes. Looks better at night, when the clobber is unilluminated.

Hunt on iPad for a flight home. V expensive. So I find a travel agent – I am getting to know Athens quite well, and she finds me a cheaper flight, £250 for two, via Cyprus which is ridiculous, going backwards, but there we go.

Ah! A few more days in this magical city – not beautiful (pavements cluttered with cars and only occasional bollards to stop IMG_3816them, bins and sacks and scaffolding and electricity boxes and rubbish and ladders – it’s hard walking & easier on streets looking out for cars) but I love it.  This moment sitting in sun and up there is the Acropolis and the IMG_3830Erechthion, and just here  behind the railings where we sit drinking coffee, the temple of Hephaestus rising behind pencil cypresses, and B says to think they were building that when we were in mud huts. Beggar comes and I give her some coins (= about 30p) and she examines them carefully, and puts them back on our table, and walks away derisively. Many a mickle makes a muckle …

IMG_3857A morning at the archaeological museum, crammed with excitements, the IMG_3855IMG_3844c300 BC boy on a racing horse, ‘Agamemnon’s’ sinister gold mask, more Cycladic art over 5000 years old, with females with a neat pubic triangle with a dashed vulva (and curious the way that sometimes they’re abstract, more and more left out until they look like violins), we’ve been before and these are old friends. An IMG_3820exhibition with music of the IMG_E3878Odyssey – a ceramic ‘frying pan’ – many here – with a ship tossing on curly waves which are patterned and stylized, and at its base a female pubic triangle, which is Cycladic and way before Homer. Just fascinating for a moment to glimpse and guess the mind of this ancient world – does the vulva give birth to the cosmos?

IMG_3881Round the agora, the temple of Haephestos with labours of Hercules and travels of Theseus, the tritons with their lashing tails, and are these omphaloi?  A beautiful daisy drain cover.  Hadrian in symbolic finery.  Above and beyond the Acropolis, and the hill of the Areopagus where St Paul preached. Go again, to the stoa which looks as though it was built yesterday, which it was, by Rockerfeller reconstituted out of shining Pentelic marble, B is very rude about it, but it has a museum with little kylixes with female figures, so cleanly beautifully drawn, they IMG_3886IMG_3885(1)could have been created by Eric Gill. I am enchanted. This sense of familiarity all the while, with new and strange things..

Have to move to Stanley Hotel, which the manager finds for us. (Athens is packed.) Grandish (not the clientele) in the middle of nowhere, and a high up lovely view of the cubes of houses and the distant tawny pink mountains which change with the sun.

Airport – at the food centre I get jars of runny sour cherry jam which is perfect with ice cream. Also Lavender soap which turns out to have no lavender colour or scent at all. Security, plane, indifferent hot meal, Cyprus, security again, ditto hot meal with bottle of wine, and Heathrow, where Steve Mitchell meets us.




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