Saturday, August 26, 2006

message on my hotel gate, Central Crete
The Mountains of Crete, near Axos
Potamos, Antikythera

Thursday, August 17, 2006

East Coast Kythera

Wreck of the "Nordland" off Kythera

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Excerpts from Notebook 3 – Kythira

Paddy asks if I would like to join him caving off the East Coast of Kythera. In this instance, “caving” is not some technical form of underground mountaineering as you would sedately expect down some hole in the Mendip Hills of Somerset but a Beeley test of visitor’s mettle as you are first warmed up with tales of conger eel (“nothing, really nothing”) and rising waves. I am none too keen to perhaps undergo this trial of my character but could never let on as I would never be let off the Beeley family hook for the rest of the days that my little footsteps could be heard wandering this earth.

Paddy calls to apologise that he has been delayed as he was asked to help mediate over a dispute between two neighbours and one of whom now owned a ravenous goat that had developed a passion for the other neighbour’s olive trees. So, an hour or so late, we meet on the long deserted beach that is our launch point for the Black Cave. In truth, I suspect that Paddy just got lost, as he always does and was making polite excuses as usual.

As ever, annoyingly jovial, Paddy dons a mask and flippers and with a torch we swim out from the shingled shoreline, hugging the rocky coast as we go, the swell slapping the rocks forcefully and rhythmically. Him like an otter, me like a struggling tug boat in a high sea. Perhaps, as we swim along, this is as good a time as we will find to tell you that swimming, and I mean swimming with a capital “S” is really not my thing. Splosh about in the sea or a pool (even better) is just me, but to swim, I mean pull away from a sinking ship stuff is just not me really. I cant do the crawl, my mouth fills up with water and after three strokes I am as good as dead as my lungs are half full of water and my mouth looks like a distended drowned plastic bag. Another couple of strokes and I am usually on my way to shake hands with Neptune’s housekeeper. So, we swim along and I am trying to convince myself that all this commando stuff is one long happy wheeze and all the long there’s Paddy chit chatting away as if we were on a bus.

Let me explain, that swimming in flippers and swimming without flippers is like racing a Ferrari in a bread van, so there I am , sedately breast stroking away while in the fast lane the classicist is talking some mumbo jumbo about gerunds, accusatives and ablatives and I am doing my best to, well, just stay afloat and, inconceivably,illogically, move away from dry land really.

At last, “this cave we call the growly cave because”, and this will shock you, “it growls at you” and so it was that we swam under a most impressive huge dark granite arch that would be the envy of any medieval cathedral architect. Black menacing it hung over us as in its presence we became inconsequential beings both in time and stature as it lorded its domain in the bay. Your every word bounces off the once volcanic nave and Paddy indicated two small darkened triangles to the rear of the gaping entrance that were intermittently obscured by the steady but unpredictable rise and fall of the sea. In we slipped.

Feeling our way with our hands along the smooth wave polished ceiling, we dived in under the water until, mercifully, up we came into an inner chamber, icy cold and dark the water slapping the cave in a thick porridge like thwack, no more the frivolous little waves of the bay in the tightened space of here. On, through another nook, we swim into a smaller chamber, the cave’s inner sanctum, just room for two little heads. Cramped, solemn, quiet, dark save one shard of light, confining it is not somewhere I would linger and, thankfully, Paddy neither. We swim out in a sort of treading water doggy paddle , the way lit by the light form without like some stage spot. was good to be out in the open, the feeling of liberation sweeping over me and to squint eyes in the brightness of the sea, like coming out into day after a matinee film at the cinema. Paddy, spurred on, declares that that was a taster and so “now, the Black Cave!” Damn, I should have practised my drowning routine in the shower beforehand. So, blithely on we press, or rather swim; Paddy like a small motorboat me like a pedalo with damaged paddles. Lucky I wasn’t on the Titanic and I think I now know why I didn’t join the Royal Navy. Fortunately, the adrenalin of the last little dive cancelled out the fatigue of the cold and distance we had swum and at this stage I was not in a position to give Paddy the pleasure of swerving at the last fence.

The Black Cave was a stupendous proscenium of ribboned sinister volcanic rock, vaulted like the ceiling of a castle’s banqueting halls it stretched back like an extrovert gymnast showing off, muscular, athletic and unforgiving. In its upper stories, I detect a hint of movement, an unevenous of colour that attracts my eye. There it is again. I clap my hands, the echo cracking about the space and three startled rock dove bolt their ledge looking like dusty miners leaving their seam after a day on the coal face. Even the sea in its mighty presence felt inconsequential in its presence. In the far corner of this macabre new world I found myself illogically swimming into an angled dagger of a crack sticking up like some ill thrust assault.

Gingerly, we swam through the angular opening, Paddy’s torch picking out the rock that shone in the concentrated beam like freshly spilt oil. The sea had gone quiet, just a meaningful powerful slurp as if it too was trapped and working out its own escape. Within, it is impossible to see so I swim close behind Paddy to benefit from the light of his torch beam which flicks across the rock face ahead and gets caught in the water from time to time turning it a weird split second milky golden green. Suddenly, Paddy yelps, “what was that?!” “Just me brushing your flipper”, I reassure him. He ducks his head under the water, mask and torch into the black below. I am quietly concentrating on just keeping close to the light and to the tenacious sliver of security that is Paddy given that he has been in this cave before.

A flick interrupts the beam. As quick as a bird crossing a headlight.

“Turn round and swim, Harry”.
“What do you mean?”
“Turn round and swim”. Quiet, suddenly authoritarian but without losing any of its charm Paddy was hard on my now kicking heels. It was clear by the insistent but calm tone of his voice that this was no time to discuss, just to do. I was suddenly conscious of the cold deep below me, I hadn’t a clue how far below the cave reached or quite how tight a chamber we were in, dimension became an irrelevance as I knew we just had to get out. Fast. We called to each other as we swam making sure neither was in difficulty. Fast, fast, I pulled away at the black wet before me with that renewed vigor and energy you can only find at testing moments like this. The light, reach for the light as it leapt and danced at me in the sea’s rise and fall teasingly in the short distance.

Now out in the main cave, sea all around us, glorious sea, refreshing sea, I was suddenly aware of a pungent smell of stinking fish and Paddy, gasping, confirmed my instinct, “Seal, big female with a pup, about the size of you and me together. Fishermen had told me that sometimes they use the caves but I have never seen one so close before. She could have given us a nasty bite. I am not sure who was more frightened, I expect she got out before we did and well below us”.

Sea weed wafted my shoulder. “Aargh” I leap, “Christ, what?!!” Paddy jumps. “Nothing, just sea weed” I relax back at him. We swim on rather silently, for once, and swiftly toward land, mercifully Paddy has had his fill of adventure swimming for the day.
Short of the beach, we tread water for a few minutes chatting quite nonchalantly as if in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, about this and that but nothing to let on that we had just had the living daylights scared out of us in the island’s darkened watery recesses.
Subconsciously, I suppose, it was our way of regaining composure before trying to stagger out of the water elegantly. Let me reassure those of you who have never swum off the sea at Brighton, trying to exit the water onto a pebble beach is never elegant. You could be Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev joined at the hip, Dacey Bussel and Adam Cooper in full flight and still make it look like you were losing the three legged race badly. General Macarthur would never have said “I shall return” if he was going to land on a pebble beach. So, despite regaining some breath, to the shore we staggered like two old drunk men after a good night on the town who had lost their sticks and swallowed their false teeth in the process. Soldiers of the Queen...


We are now heading out of the Ionian Sea toward the Sea of Crete, a tortuous journey which involves, for the sake of ease and simplicity on my part, a bus ride all the way East across Greece to Athens, and then South to the little port of Neapoli, on the very Southern most tip of the Peloponnese, where, after an over night stop, I will board a ferry and steam into the Sea of Crete, bound for the island of Kithera. Everyday moving further South and everyday moving towards the Aegean, the very heart of the Greek Islands.

The bus to Neapoli was about 7 hours in total. I had the dubious pleasure of sitting next to an elderly and scented man – scented form his armpits and scented from both his mouth and voluminous rear which seemed to work alternately and sometimes, suffocatingly, together. Bodily functions of which the old boy either didn’t know were malfunctioning or was too brazen to care. Whatever, I was getting the full benefit. Worse, the bus was full, I could nt move seat either. Through the lush broad fertile plains of Sparta, over steep mountain ridges, passing hillside monasteries, shepherds tending sheep and goats. Through vertiginous passes affording breathtaking vistas of wooded mountain scenery in the soft evening light, as we headed toward Sparta itself.

The journey to Kithera, involving an overnight stop to boot is almost medieval in its execution. Like changing horses at a coaching inn.
Neapoli & the finest dinner in Europe.

Nearly 11 that night we reached Neapoli – 13 hours on a bus in total from Zakinthos, 15 hours on the road and still not reached Kithera. I am exhausted. Neapoli, not unsurprisingly, has taken on a Nirvan-esque mantle as a consequence, like a haven for a tired swallow in need of rest on its migration. To me it seems a rather wonderful place, simple, unpretentious, unspoilt and very Greek. It is a friendly, sleepy town, on the water’s edge and full of character. After booking into the Hotel Aivali, an evocative little family run hotel with sepia prints of the little harbour in the 1930s and 1950s adorning the wall, I made my way out into the night to find something to eat – I could hardly walk I was so wrung out. Across the road, adjoining the beach was a tiny shelter of a taverna, O Volas where a couple of dark bearded hard’uns were having what looked to be the last beer of the evening before heading off into the darkness to seriously do someone over. I was bid to sit down and, a refreshing Heineken by my side, I suddenly realised I had left my book in my room. The old taverna keeper told me not to worry, he would put my beer and its glass back in the fridge for when I came back. To my shattered mind, it was such a genuine heartfelt gesture, a small act of kindness, trust and humanity. My much needed beer was even more refreshing on my return to the table for a meal of which I cannot remember what but one that was so revitalising and rekindling that I merely relay it for that simple act on the wonderful old boy’s part. A small token which has a significance in my memory out of all proportion: it perhaps goes to show that its not always the meal that counts, its as much the spirit and atmosphere within which it is served – ask me later when we reach Symi about a delicious dinner served with all the feeling and warmth of Uncle Fester and Frankenstein’s Monster.

The Hotel Aivali is full of character and charm. At breakfast the owner comes to me, puts his hand on my arm and asks me what I want for breakfast, showing me the Kithera ferry at rest at her mooring across the bay. “We will wait to see if she comes round”. I ask what happens if she doesn’t “come round”. “Taxi?” “No, there is no taxi, I find something for you, but now we wait and sea if she gonna come round.” Over my coffee, I could see the ferry dithering in the bay, almost teasing the passengers with their bags, cases, boxes, crates, freight & cargoes destined for Kithera. First she was stern in, then stern out, starboard on, starboard off, then …will she, wont she come over to the main quay or do we all have to run for it. The Patron didn’t seem remotely bothered, she is probably just doing her usual showing off before finally making her mind up. At last the Captain gains a spurt of confidence, he has made his mind up, and she speeds her way toward the main quay.

A smart compact little ship, the Andreas II. Her officers were the smartest dressed I had come across so far, immaculate in brilliant whites and forage caps as they processed and marshalled us on board. I, it appeared, was the only foreigner to embark that morning. The steward at the bar is King Juan Carlos of Spain, either that or there has been a terrible mix up in Madrid somewhere along the line. He pours coffee in a regal manner with pomp and ceremony: careful, measured, deliberate little moves.


Crossing busy shipping lanes with groaning container ships and white decked bulk carriers plying their way to and from the Aegean, after an hour or so, we make Kithera’s tiny “port” of Diakofti. Diakofti is hardly a port, it is a taverna, slab of concrete and a clutch of fishing boats sheltering behind a breakwater. As if to serve as a reminder of the treacherous nature of the waters around Kithera, near Diakofti’s entrance sitting at a very awkward angle is the a large menacing dark hull of a wreck, the “Norland”. Its bow stuck high in the air like an attacking shark’s nose, tired derricks hanging down from its near vertical deck, redundant anchor cables flap loosely in the water. It is a sinister monument and sends an eerie shiver down my spine.

At the port, I am met by Paddy Beeley. Paddy, a former officer in the Irish Guards, is a tall refined looking figure with simply enormous feet. If Paddy took his shoes off you could use them as a school bus: one for each end of the island. His feet are so large he has had to send to England for some special gardening boots which he jubilantly receives in a sort of mini ship container from the post office. Hardly fashion accessories, he, later, insists on wearing these tug boat things as long as I promise not to tell anyone. I promise. I forget to tell him I cant keep secrets.
Paddy moved to the island about three years ago with his delightful ramshackle tumbling and playing family and, of course, “Buster” the equally ramshackle and dishevelled dog. A “child of love” best describes Buster’s breeding. If Buster were a human being, I think he would be along haired far out heh man hippy. Paddy, now a consultant working to the City of London, I have inadvertently scrambled from his bed as, poor man, he only got in from London late last night. I note he hasn’t shaved, moreso because I shaved my four days growth in particularly precarious conditions that morning especially to meet him. Paddy concedes that he had meant to shave but as I had woken him up it was either a question of his shaving or being late – we roar with laughter.

Before Kithera, I had never met Paddy. His mother, who I last saw as I left Venice for the Ionian Islands, is my sister’s godmother, so I had some leverage in this instance. A Cambridge classicist and former officer in the Irish Guards, he is a fund of knowledge – some useful, some totally inconsequential and utterly useless. A wealth of amusing anecdote, he simply cannot stop talking – in this respect we are too alike and I quickly detect that the next few days on Kithera are going to be a refreshing tonic after my stultifying experiences on Zakinthos.

Kithera is XYZ km across and at one point in the Middle Ages had a population of about 15,000. The resident population now is about 3000. The majority of the 15000 were slaughtered mercilessly by the pirate Barbarossa in a dastardly raid on the now deserted island capital of Paliochora from which numbers never really recovered. The Venetians, in the Northern end of the island typically did little to help the beleaguered islanders in their plight and merely watched on while Barbarossa and his men threw most of the men and women off the cliffs to their deaths. It is a special island which is a secret the Greeks keep to themselves, you almost feel as if you are intruding on a private party.

Everyone here seems to know everyone and Paddy, when not talking to me, or at me, spends the rest of his time yassooing, waving and nodding at the rest of the islanders even I suspect when they have never met. Admittedly, this is quite hard for an island of this size.