There is a secret hunger, nostalgia in almost all westerners to visit Greece. A wish to have at least a once in a lifetime pilgrimage, a Haj. Perhaps is in our education, in the roots of our beliefs, traditions, an in our language-dotted with Greek words- which fire our imagination and shape our early fantasies, we feel like ancient land animals yearning the sea. And when there, a quickening soon seizes one, an excitement, an intense feeling: to run, to go, and to visit the places where it all began and still exists. The roots!
The modern things are there too, scabs on the wounded ancient land; the endless number of smoking cars, the dust, the smog, the electric wires, the haphazardly built ugly structures. And then there is the teaming humanity of modern Athenians Poloi (Gr. ancient, for common citizens): short, swarthy, wiry, often irritable, mostly gregarious, quick-minded, effervescent, yet with a touch of melancholy (the latter perhaps the price for having an acute awareness of their sentiments and life in its immediacy) mingling with the parade of half glad tourists. But that is only in downtown, modern Athens, an “overwhelmed-by environmental adversities” city, worthy now only of a short stay to visit the Parthenon/Acropolis and the magnificent Archaeological Museum. And yet there is plenty of Greece left still unscathed and magic.
Forty-five miles northeast of Athens, across the Attica peninsula adjacent to the mainland, easily accessible and yet often bypassed by tourists, lies an Island, long and narrow. It is the Island of Euboea. In its southern most part, the bay of Karystos opens suddenly down below. The surrounding mountains- themselves tortured and bare, made of broken marble-slate mixed with basalt/gneiss, form the rim of a caldera of an ancient volcano, its southern portion open to the sea. The water far below quivers in the sun like the silvered leaves of olive trees in the time of vespers; open, welcoming – its colors, light blue with patches of “dark-wine” here and there. The steep, winding, narrow road is choked on either side with bushes of oregano, thyme, holly, mountain laurel, savory, peppermint, yellow sparta and red poppies. The foothills are covered with centuries old olive trees, their trunks gnarled; the sunlight is plentiful, blinking, reflecting from the broken marble outcrops, hallucinatory; the shadows, sharp and dark, like wrought iron.
One’s mood now shifts; the gladness of visiting the ancient land is once restored. The town of Karystos by the sea has perhaps 2000 permanent residents; the houses, small, square, low-roofed, white-washed. The town is squared, well planned by Bavarian architects at the time of Greek liberation form the Turks in 1821.
The people are engaging, warm, cosmopolitan- a sizable portion of them are retired merchant marines- they are interactive, even intrusive, forever ready to quickly start a prolonged, often heated, yet friendly conversation over ouzo and sun-dried and then broiled octopus, in almost any language you may choose. The interaction is called “syzitisi” (Gr. =searching together); i.e. rapping over current events or eschatological questions- a very ancient and worthy ritual of ancient times taking place in Agora. (They still call their downtown place of gathering and enterprise, just that.)
The tables of the cafe and restaurants lined up by the Apovathra (Gr. =wharf) next to lovely rows of Caique, i.e., oversized wooden transport boats often doubling as fishing trawlers, very similar to the dowds of the Arabian Seas. They have a festive look, painted in light blue, white, yellow and red with names on their bows of saints like St Anthony, St. Nicholas, Panagia (Gr. = Virgin Mary) or of their beloved ones like Katerina, Rinoula, Maria, Koula or Eleni. They are meticulously clean with their nets tucked away. Barefooted crew and captains, sitting on the ground nearby under the mulberry trees’ shade, mend their nets using skillfully both their bare toes in tandem with their hands, ready to start syzitsi on the spot, while working feverishly.
Karystos, a place we came to love and call it home once a year for over two decades is an ancient place, inhabited since 500 BC, far from the foreign tourist’s path and a well-kept secret of the visiting Athenians. Greece is considered famous for its roasted kid, fresh fish broiled over charcoal, olives, cheese, and mountain water. The bread baked throughout the day in the dozen bakeries, eaten hot with melted Kasseri (Gr. = local cheddar), washed down with the plentiful local aromatic white wine faintly smelling of pine trees- not the heavy Athenian Retsina (the latter loaded with turpentine.)
The colorful restaurants are in rows by the seashore with ready to serve tables, which are arranged under the mulberry trees and acacias. The customer is invariably invited to visit the kitchen in the back and point out the available dishes that his heart desires, i.e., roasted kid with artichokes or orizo (Gr. = rice), with side dishes of boiled dandelions, along with real Greek salad of plain sliced tomatoes and onions bathed in olive oil and of course sliced feta covered with oregano, as well as fish of many sizes and unfamiliar shapes.
At dusk the town’s people- seemingly everyone of them- dressed in their best, walk endlessly up and down by the promenade next to the water in two’s, arm in arm locked gossiping and staring at those coming from the opposite direction. The elders sitting in the open air pastry shops sipping their heavy aromatic Turkish coffee or eating “pasta”- a delicious pastry in various shapes and color filled with an endless variety of mousse- they survey the scene.
In the mornings in the smiling sun’s blinding light, walking the town, visiting the little shops, bakeries, small family groceries, shops of local artifacts, small fish markets next to tiny butcheries and little taverns are delights to cherish. People doing syzitisi on the street corners standing up while the heavily laden donkeys with colorful ribbons on their heads constantly bring supplies from the surrounding mountains. One feels the morning ambience invigorating and happy.
Well worthy of a visitor’s attention include the City Hall- a lovely, well-proportioned, elegant structure with terracotta tiled roof- a replica of Athensís oikos from the Golden Age and the Bourzi- a preserved Venetian fortified watchtower by the sea connected underground to the Castro-Russo now half ruined up the mountain, both of the 13th century. Blocks of marble commandeered from the nearby Temple of Apollo were used to build it.
On either side of Karystos, miles and miles of beaches with bewitching small coves invite the adventurous for swimming, snorkeling, wind-surfing or going for ostraka (yes, of ostracism fame)(Gr. = clams whose delicious contents are eaten there and then with a whiff of lemon.) all along free roaming flocks of small, semi-domesticated, black goats browse with enthusiasm the sea-salt on the evaporated, rocky puddles by the surf.
A twenty-five minute hike (seven minutes by taxi) up the foothills of the overhanging five thousand feet high mountain, approximately twelve hundred feet high, there lies a village with the improbable for even Greek ears, name of Mekounitha, of perhaps twenty houses, attached there to the ancient rocks like limpets for centuries. The vie, en, enormous, exhilarating; a place prompting one to give thanks to the heavens for being alive and his eyes fully open. Our two feet thick walled house, is white-washed with the ubiquitous Greek white-wash (i.e. calcium hydroxide mixed with water, a little added indigo to modify the blinding whiteness.) The houseís shape and properties, worthy of inspiring Frank Lloyd Wright, being in consonance and harmony with the environment with enormous ancient clay pots and other artifacts properly in place. We have named it Petalitha (Gr. =limpet). It has been there for ages, and one bedroom is even chiseled out of the very rock. The bourgavillia, rosemary and mulberry trees protect the house from the relentless sun. Just the same, only lizards and tourists walk about in the midday brilliant Greek sun. The locals holed inside (thick walls keep the houses surprisingly cool), take their afternoon naps till the heat subsides and the evening sea breeze brings relief and the night exodus begins.
From the upper terrace far in the distance like cormorants, sitting on the light blue expanse of the sea are the Islands; Kea, in front, Andros, Tinos, Mykonos on the left, an extension of the mountain chain of Euboea itself. The Islands are easily accessible from Rafina or Karystos. At night the bells of the leading he-goats keep the hours along with the night birds and the owls hooting, the night air; cool, aromatic, almost sensual, while one rediscovers gazing at the mystery and awe of the night sky, free from the city glare with stars like pinheaded luminous opals of various colors.
The mountain Ohi overhanging Karystos is a four hour hike to the top, where a megalithic structure of five thousand years, appropriately called Dragon house, is used as an overnight shelter for the hikers to witness the sunrise in the morning, an experience to remember and cherish.
At the end of the time when the Meltemi (Gr. = a periodic North wind often very annoying, similar to the Mistral rushing in from Norway to Africa) visits the place more frequently, we once again board the ferryboat on our way for the long trip back home. “Next year, our little ancient place in the sun,” we murmur, as the ferryboat turns around the rocky promontory bounding the bay on the right and Karystos once again disappears from view.