So What’s the Deal with Spetses

Loukas the taxi driver was interested in my long term plans in Greece. Surely, I was going to the islands, not just staying in Athens. Yes, I was. Which island? Oh! But you MUST go to Spetses. This was the automatic reaction every time I revealed my dirty little plan to just stay on Hydra. Hydra is nice, yes, but you have to see Spetses, surely, you simply have to, said friends, acquaintances, taxi drivers, waiters, and the tourist board of Greece. You gotta see Spetses! Alright, I said, I will. I should have known, though, that nothing good ever comes out of seeing Spetses. Just like nothing good ever came out of seeing the baby.

Even before having the confirmation that Spetses is a cognate of the Italian spezia (the current name was bestowed on the island by the Venetians), spice, I had an intuition that this might be so. Spetses, the land of exotic ingredients, the land of milk and honey. The promised land. A palm of the promised land in fact, 27 square kilometres off Porto Cheli on the Peloponnese peninsula, connected to the mainland by ferries but mostly by hyperactive sea taxis, small orange boats in frantic progress from the island to the continent and back. In the dark depths of time, sea taxis would not have been needed, in the Mesolithic, Spetses was locked to the mainland by an isthmus, an umbilical cord now swallowed by the sea. To its northwest lies the Argolic gulf, at its Northernmost tip, the city of Argos, Europe’s oldest continually inhabited settlement. Sunken in the mists of time, unfathomable 7000 years of history written in stone, sea, and sky. The latter strangely fickle, like shapeshifting ghosts.

The Alpha Lines Speed Cat set out from Hydra port through a steady blue of water and sky, passing the lonely, desolate island of Dokos, uninhabited and abandoned in the midst of the crystal vastness of the Aegean. Both Alpha Lines and Hellenic Seaways connections zig-zag this busy area several times a day, throbbing arteries of life around the Peloponnese, the peninsula extended like a palm probing the endless warmth of this sea of seas, sea between lands, sea of dreams and quests. The disembarking Argonauts were not asked for COVID certificates, but we had to present ours every step of the way. Arrival on Spetses meant departure for some, the boat bound for the mainland awaited its transit passengers patiently at the end of the quay.

I harboured high expectations, scanned the whitewashed houses for signs of mystery and revelations. But there were none. The kapheneions around the port were nondescript, plastic chairs and crooked tables leaning on decorative cannons, once instruments of war, now mere echoes of a heroic past swallowed by the rumble of the waves. Scanning the horizon, the statue of Laskarina Bouboulina, embodiment of all those Greek heroines tantalizingly breaking the borders of what women are wont and meant to do. She didn’t have time to hesitate over such questions. Her husband dead, she led armies because she had to. Killed in a convoluted feud, she remains a hero of that war of Greek Independence that the mighty fleets of Hydra and Spetses sacrificed themselves for. Their brilliant ships lost to battle, the islands never regained the riches and might of their halcyon days.

Where Hydra is a land of quiet and stillness, Spetses is filled with the rumble of everything that is not a car. Mopeds, motorcycles, scooters, quads, rush in a crazed frenzy through the narrow, vine heavy streets, fragrant with jasmine and bougainvillea. Churches jut out like geometric surprises, houses overgrown with vegetation let their facades crumble, forgotten stories written in some ancient, forgotten book. John Fowles landed on Spetses, taught in the English school, and wrote The Magus, set on an island very much like Spetses, a noveI I haven’t yet read, mostly out of spite and contrarian pigheadedness, but passed an exam with flying colours improvising about it and what it means. Unbeknownst to me, I have always been the stranger who comes from another island and thinks she knows better.

Spetses is a two faced Janus of an island, a shiny veneer on top, whitewashed houses, lavish gardens, and neat beaches with rows of designer umbrellas and expensive drinks. But take a few steps, and you’ll find scrawny cats in tumbledown garbage bins behind the rusty gates of abandoned mansions, lying in disrepair and oblivion. There is unescapable whiff of decay and ruin in the air. The ancient isle of Pitioussa forgotten forever. The battleship Spetsai, sunk in a battle against the powers that be. Narrow, winding streets across the spine of the island. Olives, prickly pears, lush, overflowing blooms with the heady scent of night nectar. Church bells tolling for salvation, meeting the echoes of a silent God. Our beach is called Paradise, but it is more of a Purgatorium with comfortable cushions and a clean toilet, where waiters never come for your order, and when they do, they belatedly return to ask what you wanted, as they’ve already forgotten.

Over in the port, the Poseidonon Grand Hotel looms large above the promenade, Neoclassic rigour among the palm trees. Modelled on the Carlton in Cannes and the Negresco in Nice, it knew a second golden age in the 60s, when the Greek riviera suddenly became the comfortably exotic summer escape destination of the jet set. While poets, writers and painters were bohemian but often hungry on Hydra, the Poseidonon welcomed Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and assorted Kennedys. Walking southwards from the port, we dodged horse drawn carriages, passed shuttered stores and bars and the sort of asphalt covered beaches that are only ever charming in arty overexposed pictures shot for expensive travel magazines. Appreciative as ever of a solid pun, I chuckled when seeing the Souvlucky food bar, but didn’t necessarily feel the urge to visit it- to be fair, its reviews are in fact quite positive, I simply didn’t feel hungry enough at that point.

There was something eerie in the air that made everything feel slightly transitory. Perhaps it was the port, so full of light boats coming and going, or the streets heaving with small vehicle traffic. The rumble of a moped became ominous after the calm and silence of Hydriot streets. Spetses is just any old Greek island, an interchangeable backdrop to your holiday shots. Perhaps if one stays longer, there is one point when the magic is revealed. Until then, the most I can say of Spetses is that it’s a perfectly decent place to embark on the ferry to Hydra.

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