The Poseidonion guide to Spetses

This is the English-language text of a booklet written by Petros Haritatos and produced by the Poseidonion Hotel for its visitors and friends. It is also available in .pdf format on the hotel’s website.

Petros Haritatos

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POSEIDONION AND SPETSES

Isn’t this an unusual hotel, for a Greek island? The Poseidonion Hotel was built by Sotirios Anargyros, descendant of a great 18th century Spetsiot shipping family. His branch of the family had fallen on hard times and he emigrated as a young man in 1868, when Spetses was declining as a maritime center. In 1899 he returned from the USA, now a wealthy tobacco tycoon and started to transform the island of his youth. He built an impressive mansion and met with the rich Athenian hunters who visited Spetses from August to October, to hunt the turtledoves and quail migrating between Africa and Europe. He saw the need for a comfortable hotel and built the Poseidonion in the style of its models, the Carlton in Cannes (1911) and the Negresco in Nice (1912). The hunters could now bring their wives and children to enjoy the comfort, the spa, the donkey rides, dancing to the orchestra in the evening and mixed bathing on the beaches across the channel. The Poseidonion rapidly became the favorite vacation spot for high society, royalty and the rich Athenians who came to enjoy a small slice of the grand life.

Did this satisfy his ambition? Anargyros also started buying up the farms, vineyards and orchards and ended up by owning about 40% of the island, where he planted about 100,000 pine trees. This move was symbolic, because in antiquity Spetses was known as Pityoussa, “the pine-covered one”. It was also practical, since the forest gave refuge to the birds and an agreeable shelter to the hunters. He devoted another part of his fortune and energy to an ambitious boarding school, modeled on Eton and Harrow, which functioned in Spetses from 1927 to 1983.

Why is Spetses famous? In two words: wealth and glory – achievements not usually linked with small places. For about a century, starting around 1750, its shipowners built hundreds of large sailing ships that carried wheat from the granaries of Russia and Romania on the Black Sea to Italy, France and Spain. But while other nations had warships to protect their merchant vessels, the Greeks were helpless against the Maltese and Barbary pirates who preyed on the sea routes. But a weakness can be turned into a strength. The shipyards in Spetses – which you can still see in the Old Harbor – designed ships that carried both cargoes and cannon. They were large enough to be profitable and fast enough to outrun the pirates. With their trading profits, the shipowners built the mansions which are a hallmark of Spetses, for example that of Hadjiyannis Mexis (now the state museum) and of Lascarina Bouboulina (now the Bouboulina museum). But the truly great fortunes were made by running the British blockade of Napoleonic Europe. Spetses thus became a wealthy island with a well-armed fleet, as witnessed by Auguste de Jassaud, French Consul in Constantinople, who reported in 1808 that it had 90 large ships with 1000 cannon and 9000 sailors. Wealth was followed by glory, thanks to the War of Independence which began in 1821. Spetses joined the revolution and fought the Turks in several sea battles, with numerous heroic attacks by the nimble Greek ships against their much stronger enemies.

So what can I see if I walk around? Spetses has two ports which belong to two different eras. Two hundred years ago you would have arrived at the Old Harbor. Today, visitors usually arrive at the new port, Dapia, which means “fortification”. The town center is nearby with shops, grocers, pharmacies, newsvendors and cafes with WiFi where everyone meets their friends.

Just behind the Dapia is the neoclassical mansion built by Sotirios Anargyros in 1904. He instructed the architect «to build a mansion similar to an ancient Egyptian palace or temple» and named it “Neith”, after an Egyptian divinity which was self-generated and owed its existence to none other but itself. The mansion is guarded by two Egyptian sphinxes flanking the entrance; a strange and exotic note for a Greek island.

On the right of the square, opposite the house of Anargyros, is the Mansion of Laskarina Bouboulina. She was a rare person, a female heroine who devoted her huge fortune, her ships and her life to the revolution against the Turks. Her descendants still live on the ground floor whilst the remainder of the building houses the Bouboulina Museum. There, during the forty minute guided tour, you can hear the story of this legendary Lady Captain and see weapon collections, old books, fine porcelain collections, letters and documents of the Revolution, paintings, a scale model of her flagship, Byzantine icons, her personal belongings, maps, embroidery and of course the superb Florentine ceiling in the grand salon. The mansion was restored and is maintained with the proceeds from the tickets purchased by the thousands of visitors who come every year. The times of the tours are displayed on notice boards at the entrance to the Museum and at various points around the Dapia harbor.

What about the Old Harbor? This was the home of the sailing ships which brought wealth to the island. The walk there is about 2 km and worth it. You can also take a horse buggy. First, you will see, after the small church on the promontory, a row of imposing mansions which stretches along the coast. These mansions, one of the most-photographed views of Spetses, were built by wealthy shipowners after the War of Independence. This is where they entertained the ministers, deputies, courtiers and ambassadors from the new capital, Athens. The shipowners were used to governing their own affairs before the Greek state was established, but now they were obliged to negociate with the power brokers in the capital, and needed discreet yet impressive surroundings. Today, these mansions are among the most expensive properties in Greece.

The last part of the coastal road, up to the lighthouse, takes one around the Old Harbor where the sailing ships were so densely packed – it is said – that one could cross the harbor by jumping from one deck to the other. The vessels were all built at the shipyards which still line the coast. The skills are transmitted from one generation to the next, and one can still buy beautiful caiques, built in the traditional manner, from the local shipyards.

From the coastal road, a short path leads upwards to the monastery of Saint Nicholas, built around 1700, to offer prayers for the sailors. Their mothers and wives, whenever there was a storm, would take oil from the monastery’s oil lamps and pour it on the sea to calm it down. This is also where the governing council used to meet, and where the people of Spetses raised the revolutionary flag in 1821.

Why was there a revolution? The Ottoman empire governed what is now Greece for about four centuries. Then in 1821 the Greeks rose against it, mainly in the Peloponnese, in southern Greece, and started to besiege the Turks in their strongholds. The siege was by land and also by sea, where Spetses played a decisive role. In 1822, an Ottoman fleet tried to sail through the channel in front of you, between Spetses and the Peloponnese mainland, to lift the blockade of the fortress at Nauplion. The Greek fleet put up a stiff fight, together with the cannon batteries near the lighthouse, and the Turks abandoned their plan. The people of Spetses celebrate this victory with the “Armata”, a great feast which is held every year on the first weekend after the 8th of September.

An unintended victim of the revolution was Paul-Marie Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who joined the British fleet cruising outside Spetses, and who was fatally injured when his pistol went off accidentally. According to a plaque in the courtyard of Saint Nicholas, his remains were carried here and stored in a barrel of rum until his family could come to claim and bury him.

Can I visit a sea-captain’s mansion? The grandest of the mansions, built around 1795, is now the state museum, uphill from the Dapia. It covers over 5,000 years of history in Spetses, starting with pottery from the 3rd millenium B.C. and continuing down the centuries to the exhibits contributed by wealthy shipping families: paintings, weapons, porcelain and impressive ship figureheads. At some point the museum will be closed for repairs, so please check first.

Summer 2009

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