14 September 2009 | Simi, Greece
The anchorage at Maltezana, a former Maltese pirate's lair, is practically perfect in every way. It is protected on all sides, the holding is good and the setting is postcard-picturesque. At night, the castle on the hilltop chora above the island's largest town glows in the distance, while a fantastic array of stars, undimmed by the ambient light found in more populated places, glitters against the inky sky overhead. At the wharf, well-tended fishing boats gleam with fresh coats of white, blue and red paint. The village has a tiny general store, a good bakery, a large church and three small restaurants (only two of which seem to be open for business in the off-season). If there are any clients at the large hotel on the hill or in the rooms and studio apartments in the village, we see no sign of them. A few goats graze on the brown hillside behind the harbour, but the streets are quiet. Yet unbelievably, in this tiny and remote village, we are receiving high-speed internet onboard, through our USB cell phone modem.
On Wednesday, our first day in the anchorage, I spend most of the day cleaning, organizing and answering emails, listening to CBC podcasts as I work., while Rick buzzes around the anchorage visiting the crews of the neighbouring boats. Rick comments that I am in a very happy mood, and I realize that it's partly because the temperatures have suddenly become deliciously cool. It feels almost like September in Nova Scotia, and the sounds of home on the CBC podcasts are also fuelling my general sense of well-being. On Thursday, a big surprise, it pours rain for much of the day. Now this really feels like Nova Scotia, but (halleluiah!) the salt is being washed off the rigging and the last of the Santorini sand disappears from the decks. Rick takes advantage of the cool weather to boil and marinate an octopus, using the recipe that Mina gave him in Galaxadhi. It's delicious- and the secret ingredient is the seawater it has been boiled in. I am feeling homesick because Katherine will be called to the Nova Scotia bar today and we are missing the ceremony, but I feel a bit better when we reach her on the phone and hear all the details.
On Friday morning, the sun is back. A German woman whose boat is tied at the dock has told Rick that it is only 5kms to the town, so we decide we will walk there to see the chora and the castle. We are part-way up the hill when we hear someone calling "Wait!". It is the German woman, who has run all the way from the dock to tell us that the walk to the town is much longer than 5km. "It's more like 12 km" she says, gasping for breath "and you've just missed the bus. You'll have to wait until 1130, unless you hitch-hike!" Hitchhike? We decide we will continue walking for a while and see if anyone comes along. A few minutes later, a small SUV appears around the bend. "Stick out your thumb" says Rick, and it works! The driver pulls over beside us. It's the local Orthodox priest, with bushy grey beard, dark robes and a square black hat, a string of worry-beads twined in the fingers that are grasping the wheel. He speaks very good English and chats with us on the brief ride into the town. We learn that he spent 12 years in the "Belgian Congo" before returning to Greece and taking up his post at one of Astypalia's three parishes. Three parishes on an island that has a population of only 1200 people! When I ask him what time the church services are held, he says "Every morning. It is my duty as a priest to say matins every day, even if there is no one there but me." He suggests a few sites for us to see on the island and lets us out near the port (known as Periyialo) that lies underneath the castle. The port looks like a pleasant place to tie up for a few days and several sailboats are moored stern-to along the dock.
The castle was built in the 13 century by the ruling Quiniri family of Venice. Through the centuries, the castle's occupants probably had more contact with pirates than with the Venetians, who reportedly showed up only once a year at tax-collection time. It's likely that not much changed when the Turks took possession of the island in 1522. In 1956, an earthquake (presumably the same one that devastated Santorini) inflicted severe damage on the castle. A sign at the entrance to the castle explains that the castle will gradually be restored, but initial efforts have focused on installing netting to ensure that loosened stones do not tumble onto the heads of the townspeople and on ensuring that the site is safe for visitors. We are about to get new insight into the definition of "safe" in Greece.
Although we are both fairly fit, my hamstrings are complaining during the steep walk up the hill to the castle. A laughing elderly man shouts something as we pass; and even though I don't understand a word, he is obviously saying "You've got a tough walk ahead of you!" We share the site with only three other people and about a million ants, which are so numerous that at times we are not sure where to step. It's a precarious walk up a treacherous stone staircase to reach the pinnacle of the castle -this site would be shut down in a heartbeat in a nanny-state like Canada-but it's worth a little vertigo and a few palpitations to see the view from the top. The beautiful stone church on the side of the hill is locked, but the streets around the castle are delightful. The narrow cobblestone alleys and staircases, tiny painted doorways, and waves of bougainvillea tumbling over walls remind us of the streets of the old town in Ibiza city. We slowly make our way back down the hill to the port, buy some fresh fruit and vegetables and another frozen octopus, then wait for the bus in a little café by the water.
On the bus-ride, I am in sensory overload. An elderly woman, her thin hair pulled back severely from a once-beautiful face that is now thickened by age, has a huge bouquet of basil in her lap and large sacks of onions and potatoes at her feet. Each time we pass a church or chapel (several times on the short ride) she makes the sign of the cross. The man in front of her has a mega-size wagon wheel of flat-bread and several baguettes on the seat beside him. He is ignoring the chapels and talking to the driver. In a field beside the road, four goats are lined up against the wall of a small chapel, looking almost like a shadow painting- they must be seeking the coolness and shade provided by the whitewashed concrete walls. We pass rocky bays where the frothy water is deep navy blue in some places, aquamarine in others. But when we look closely, we see that the stiff breeze is blowing plastic debris against the northwest coast of the island. What a shame, we see this everywhere and it is a disturbing reminder of our poor stewardship of the planet.
In the evening, we decide to try out one of the restaurants on the village's waterfront, the Anagenis (Resurrection). Before leaving the boat, we prepare a note of thanks for the priest and enclose a small donation for the church, hoping we can find a way to deliver it while we are ashore. When we reach the restaurant, the priest is inside, watching the football match, so we give him our envelope and thank him again in person. "Did you see the church I told you about?" he asks. When I tell him that the church was locked, he offers to get the key and take us back there to see the beautiful (and miraculous) icon of the Virgin Mary, which is a copy of one on Mt. Athos. I tell him that unfortunately, we are leaving the next day. "The wind will be from the north tomorrow," he says. Everyone watches the wind here. "You can see the church if you come back next year. Come find me, I will be here " he tells me. He gives me his blessing by making the sign of the cross, then turns back to the football match.
The terrace of the restaurant overlooks a small beach, lined with tamarisk trees. The owner brings us plates of dolmades (tonight, the grape leaves are stuffed with both ground meat and rice) and calamari. The calamari is delicious, and the plate of dolmades is so large that we decide against ordering a main course. As we eat, people from the village trickle in to the restaurant. Three little girls cluster around a portable DVD player at the table beside us. An elderly woman dressed in a black dress and cardigan, obviously the proprietor's mother, smiles regally as she observes all the activity. The owner returns to our table and tells us that "The church man want to give you more wine!" The man sitting across from us has been to Canada many times and knows Halifax well. In his opinion, the Thousand Islands near Kingston may be the most beautiful place in the world. I tell him that he should come to visit Cape Breton some time. We ask him what it is like here in the winter. "A lot warmer than Canada" he says, "We don't know "minus" here!" The owner's wife appears with a large platter of crispy honey cakes and passes them around to everyone in the restaurant. I attempt one of the phrases we learned from Billy, "posto lane afto" (what do you call this), but I cannot master the long and complicated name of the sweet. We learn the Greek words for "very good" (poli kali) and we finally taste Greek ouzo. All in all, it is a delightful evening.
Why leave so soon? We could stay a while, see the miraculous icon, attend an Orthodox service in the village church, go for a run along the winding road, see the Roman baths... but it looks like tomorrow will bring us a nice Force 5 from the northwest to blow us a little closer to Turkey. Perhaps we will come back to see the icon next year.
Maltazana is well protected from the sea from all directions. The approach looks tricky on the chart as there are lots of reefs and rocks and it is a bit of a rolly slog when the wind is up but it's not difficult. The Meltimi blew hard while we were there and the largest wave we saw inside was about 6". Outside in the bay, we could see the whitecaps and waves breaking. The holding is good in sand, mud and weed. The depths are about 25'. Some cruisers were tied up at the wharf, side-to. There is water east of the wharf on the road in front of the beach, in a small white dome-shaped structure. We did not see it until our trip to the restaurant on the last night so we did not get to try it. There is a bus that goes to the town several times a day; the schedule is on the board at the entrance to the wharf. The market has a few staples but no fresh fruit or vegetables. The bread from the bakery is delicious!