2nd August 2005
Serifos to Naxos

One night in the Hotel Anna on the waterfront, the proprietor enthusiastic at meeting an Irishman, congratulating Peter on the Decommissioning. 45e aircon ensuite, sounded okay to us. A blue bedspread with daisies, a balcony over a flowery alley.

How to check out, though? Mine host not around.I went to buy ten postcard stamps, from the Post Office just around the corner, where my pidgin Greek was received (amazingly) with smiles. How easy everything is in Serifos, and how quiet and small. We had breakfast, tiny rounds of grilled bread, butter and honey, at Passagio restaurant, the pretty, sad waitress, maybe she just had a hangover... Spotted our patron in another bar and checked out, leaving the Vaio packed inside a rucksack for added (!) security. Buy postcards. I bought a scarf, which turned into a sarong. The bus stop on the waterfront. The busride across the centre of the isle turned out to be mainly for the use of tourists wanting to see a different beach, not many actual roads or actual settlements on this island (more going on in the north). We took pictures from the windows, of the parallel walls, the crisply browned terraces where once -in ancient times- wheat and grapes were grown. The iron mines and mine machinery everywhere, Serifos is rotten with the stuff. I don't know what I'll do with these photos, there's not much relationship between now and four thousand years ago, not even in the shape of hills and valleys in this earthquake zone but it's a ritual. It had significance. Alas, I won't get to the cave with the underground lake. Koutala beach, it's just another beach, rusty brown sand, a western facing bay, the bikinis and chiffon disembarked, we explained to the driver we'd only come for the ride.

Back at Xhora the wind blew us down the hill, we looked around again, found a meeting going on in the fancy 1908 town hall building (must have been their heyday) with the green-painted wrought iron griffin balconies: walked past the door and glimpsed all the people inside, talking in earnest voices. Not much choice for lunchspots. Too timid to return to the very arty café across the square, where the menu has Monet thumbnails and Cavafy poetry between the lattes and the cappucinos, we repaired to Manoulis, a cosy dive decked in pub oddments, puffer fish, football posters, plastic-backed tablecloths, strange mining and agricultural implements, strings of smoked pork. I had the chickpeas cooked in wood oven (not great). Nice service, including a power outage that gave people much amusement.

Are there shops? Not really; but there's a mining museum, very country, very Irish, lot of faded photos of straggling work teams outside black holes. Lot of tiny memorabilia items, lucky stones, shawls and skirts, old bottles. The minder-girls were drawing posters for another event. Really nothing now, but precipitous blue and white streets under a blue sky, and the little pink carnation which is native to this island growing in mounds along the walls. We take the rough road, long way round back to the port (Livadi) via the big reservoir. The cemetery, all on its own on the hillside, a silent walled field of the dead. Crispy maquis, gleaming mules with intelligent eyes watch us pass between their fields. Peter said, what's this thing on the map, this Stone Bridge? It looked impressive. So we went to see, and found, around the shoulder of the hill, just a valley, just a white-washed arch of stone, but beside the track there was a tank, a well-house and a spring. There was clear water running under the herbs, mint and fennel; and green green frogs, which we chased (inadvertantly and then deliberately) through the drainhole in the tank... Stone steps, white domed cistern, red dragonflies, a droning of bees. I climbed on the roof of the cistern to pick dark red cherry plums. Frogs! Most appropriate, and unexpected as we'd imagined the island would be a desert in August. Not mute, however.

On to the reservoir, where we cut down to the inlet which was formed by our frog stream coming in, and here, from the big tumble of sun-heated boulders, we watched the turtles, swimming up from dark weedy depths, poking their snakey heads out of the water, stretching their chequered throats at us, diving indignantly out of sight. Turtles! Definitely find of the day. Big biplane turquoise dragonflies, most ancient insects, and a painted lady on the hemp agrimony. Onwards across a dried flood-pan grown with eucalyptus scented scrub and cannabis scented hemp, where a very sinister looking scarecrow peered down over no crop that we could see... and thence to the tarred road, which we followed pretty well all the way back to the waterfront. Saw another tourist couple, and one man who must be local, he took a short cut by the vividly painted blockhouse (odd little building). The Yacht Club, greek coffees served the old way, in little brass pots and with a piece of loukum. We took out our books -one of the rare occasions when carrying the books turned out worthwhile- and spent the best part of two hours here, under the tamarisks, the young sailing-community beach bums also waiters watch the tourists come and go, the huge French party, all young and hip, but making an immemorial French business of ordering the drinks and snacks; the bigshots in fancy yachting gear, from that gangsta looking boat called The Magnificent Escape (later, Peter would spot the biggest cheese actually smoking his show-off cigar, in another bar).

Thence to the harbour mole, via a last look around for 'Serifos, The Unknown Isle'. I bought the French version. Patience at the cattle gates. The bulldog and the poodle, the elegant little black and white cat curled in the wind's eye. And they're here. It's neck and neck, which will dock first? The mighty Hellenic Lines Afroditi, carrying on down to Thira, or the Panagia, which will take us across the open sea to Paros. In the end it doesn't matter, there's nothing in it. Ouzo 4 me, Mythos 4 Peter and we stand with our drinks by the rail, with the sun setting behind the island, and the lights of the Chora, (which stands on the hilltop in front of the ancient Chora) becoming visible in the twilight. A beautiful ride, ride of the day, the breeze stiff enough to make the C-Link Panagia lively, nothing too fierce. Antares burning like a beacon fire in Scorpio, down in the southern sky. We reached Paros about ten pm, it looks the same as it did, strolling crowds, carpet of lights in the dark, got off the boat, crossed the road, bought two tickets on to Naxos on the 11pm Naxos Blue Star (charged 1e each booking fee, shock horror). And a gyros portion for sheer greed, lovely heap of glistening grilled pork fragments, tsatsiki, tomatoes, chips; busy place right on the port with a funny landlord who teased our attempts to speak Greek, ooh, it's not ena bira sas, it's mia bira. Damn these gendered languages! But you try, he says, approving, all in good part, and only sorry we had to leap up and gallop for the dock-

We didn't really need to leap up, but never mind, better safe than sorry. Blue Star Naxos is a vessel without romance, not all the mirrored escalators in the world will give the fat creature a soul. But tonight, half empty, with the Meltemi blowing well above Beaufort Six, it was pretty good fun. Here's Naxos, and here's the dock where we spent so many happy hours waiting for the wind to drop, two years ago. Down the stairs, through the cordon of Port Authority police in their whites with their whistles. The starry, breezy dark, the touts offering us hotels and apartments and studios, The first taxi we came to agreed to take us to Kastraki. A shared ride, but we still pay 20 euros. Oh, shocking, indefensible, but what the hell. This summer we have a dispensation, we are allowed to ruin the game for other tourists rather than kill ourselves scrapping over £3.We've come up through the ranks, we can rest on our laurels for a while, same as everyone else does. So, anyway. First we go to through the town, familiar sights flashing by, amazing how much we remember, then we head out to Camping Maragas (Hello! We're back! But not going to pitch our flysheet under the figtree this year), where we drop the two young women. Then we take to unmarked, unpaved roads. In the dark. The taxi leaps and jumps, how the hell will we know where we are, we aren't approaching the locale from the right direction at all! Allow yourself plenty of daylight to find your way to the house...it says here. Oh well, too bad. Sand lanes between sheaves of rattling reeds, the Milky Way in blackness overhead. Oh! Hey! There's the baker's! Stasis! Drop us here! Drop us here!

Oh well, thinks the taxi driver, taking the money, scratching his head, not my responsibility.

So wired the packs on our backs were featherweight we trotted up and down, craning our necks to see the stars, stars, stars, the wealth of them, the riches of that glittering scarf. We are alone in the dark, it's one am, we are armed with a good torch, our directions from Gilly Cameron Cooper, three words of greek between us and two landmarks in a houseless, sea-murmuring farmland. The baker's, strangely isolated on its big lot, vaguely reminiscent of a pink Western saloon. And the 'building with the curved balconies', which we nail down after a couple of false starts. Down the track beside it, and here are the big green gates, here is the 'big' pine tree (not really big; this is a country without trees), tumbled over with white jasmine, sweet scented in the warm breezy night. The gates are open, the key is in the fusebox just as promised. We're in! This is our domain! The front door opens, the window shutters open. Looking good. Dump the bags, walk around. What a day. Has there ever been such a smooth day? Sweet,L sweet. Look, outgoing tenants left us the rough red wine of the country, in a plastic bottle. Tastes just fine cold from the fridge.

Oh, they left rather early, wonder why?


St Benno and the Frog

It was often the habit of the man of god to go about the fields in meditation and prayer: and once as he passed by a certain marsh a frog was croaking in its slimy waters: and lest it should disturb his meditation he bade the frog to be a Seraphian, whereas all the frogs in Seraphus are mute. But when he had gone a little way he called to mind the saying in Daniel: "O ye whales and all that move in the waters bless ye the Lord; O all ye beasts and cattle bless ye the Lord!" And fearing lest the singing of the frogs might be more agreeable to God than his own praying, he again issued his command to them that they should praise God in their accustomed fashion: and soon the air and the fields were vehement with their conversation

From: Beasts and Saints, trans from the Latin by Helen Waddell


The tradition about Serifos frogs being mute is attached to the story of Perseus and Andromeda: apparently Perseus son of Zeus was annoyed by the croaking of the frogs on the island of his fosterage, where he lived with his mother Danae and his foster-father Dictys, so he asked his old man to make them shut up. However, the frogs we met were not mute. Maybe they were more recent immigrants. Possibly the tradition is a late addition, and arose from one of those fertile confusions of folklore (one blogger points out that the frog was also a symbol of Argos, Daneae's ancestral home). Certainly this silver stater (530BC) dates from long, long after the first telling of the Perseus story.

Click on the image for more details, and a gateway to the huge Hellenic Ministry of Cutlure site.