Spetses in June

Notes from a visit in June 2010 by Teresa Levonian Cole

Sunlight rained like diamonds on a sapphire sea, cheerful fishing boats bobbed in the tranquil waters, waiters balanced trays of iced coffee to convivial gatherings at cafés lining the harbour.  And dominating the scene, like some benevolent Duchess displaced from the Côte d’Azur, rose the imposing limestone and marble façade of the Poseidonion Hotel.

Such was the scene that greeted me as the hydrofoil approached Dapia, on the Greek island of Spetses.  Some two hours from Piraeus on the mainland, Spetses has long been a popular bolt-hole for fashionable Athenians.  But now Spetses’ alluring siren offers new temptation, singing of the long-awaited reopening of the historic Poseidonion Hotel – at which, it is rumoured, several Royal Families will descend for the impending nuptials of Prince Nicholas of Greece, in August.

Within, the revamped Poseidon is all light and air, lofty ceilings and sweeping staircase.  And in counterpoint to the cool monochrome interior, the magnificent, kaleidoscopic Italian coloured marble floor tiles have been painstakingly restored to their original splendour.  I threw open the shutters of my room onto a wrought iron balcony to let in the dazzling Mediterranean light.  Spread out below was the piazza, from which the statue of Bouboulina – the Spetsiot heroine who, in 1821, commanded her own battleship in the War of Independence against the Turks – gazes out to sea.

The hotel is a landmark on Spetses. “It was built in 1914 by Sotirios Anargyros, a tobacco tycoon, as a luxurious retreat for hunting parties” explained Petros Haritatos, who has written a book on the island. We were sitting over an indulgent breakfast on the terrace: fresh cheeses, home-baked breads, juicy tomatoes, crushed olives and fruits, all from the hotel’s organic gardens, virtue tempered by flutes of champagne and local almond cakes. Anargyros, it turns out, is largely responsible for the appeal of Spetses today.  “An early Conservationist, he purchased two-thirds of the island and planted 100,000 Aleppo pines, safeguarding against over-development” continued Petros. He also built the single road that circumnavigates Spetses and, with profits from the hotel, founded an elite boarding school modelled on Eton.  For literary sleuths, this is where John Fowles taught in the 1960s: his mysterious novel, “The Magus” was based on his experiences on this island.

Spetses is steeped in history and laced with charm. Cars being banned from town, I hailed one of the many horse buggies that congregate around the new harbour of Dapia.  Ilias sported blinkers decorated with bronze Byzantine eagles, a red scarf, and an amulet against the Evil Eye.  His driver, Petros told me, was the proud owner of a miraculous icon.  Feeling thus doubly-protected, I climbed into an elaborate wooden carriage which would not have been amiss in Paris circa 1880, and Ilias set of with jaunty high-trot along the waterfront towards the Old Harbour, where elegant yachts moor in front of the island’s trendiest restaurants, and the shipyards which built Bouboulina’s flagship Agamemnon, a 33-metre corvette, still ply their traditional craft.

It is a delightful place to wander, the air salty and fresh.  Past wooden skeletons of caïques, stopping for coffee at Mourayo – a characterful bar-restaurant which was once a pirates’ warehouse  – climbing narrow cobbled streets ablaze with oleander and bougainvillea, admiring beautiful houses tinged with Moorish or Venetian influence, their pebble-mosaic courtyards fragrant with jasmine and lemon trees. Grown rich through shipping, Spetses attained glory fighting off the Turkish yoke, and descendents of the revolutionaries still inhabit these mansions, some of which are now discreet hotels or, like Bouboulina’s house, museums.

I reached the 17th-century fortified monastery of St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Sailors, where Spetses’ “Freedom or Death” flag was hoisted in 1821, as a call to arms. Today it is a peaceful spot, with carved dragons crowning the gilded iconostasis, and candles flickering before the Saint’s icon, gratefully draped with votive offerings.  In a corner of the courtyard, a plaque marks the spot where the nephew of Napoleon, Paul-Marie Bonaparte, who died for the Greek cause, lay pickled for five years in a barrel of rum, before his remains could receive more decorous despatch.

The island’s most famous beaches, Aghios Anargyros and Aghia Paraskevi, lie on the far coast, served by buses and tourist boats during high season.  Still Spring, it felt too cool to take the plunge, but the call of the sea proved irresistible.  From Dapia, I took a water taxi around the island’s craggy shoreline, thick with Anargyros’ pines and indented with deep bays of clearest turquoise.   Tiny churches nestled in coves, and caves winked above the waterline.  Takis, my “taxi” driver pointed to a solitary white villa with Moorish arches standing proud atop a promontory:  “That is Yasemia” he told me. In this enchanted spot John Fowles once stayed, minutely reinventing the house in his novel as Bourani, the House of the Magus.

Back in town, as evening fell, people thronged into boutiques selling designer beachwear and hand-stitched beaded sandals; young blades and old salts gathered at bars to sip cloudy ouzo and nibble octopus; couples strolled hand-in-hand along the waterfront. I watched the happy hubbub as the sky streaked pinky violet to velvet black, then clip-clopped back to the Old Harbour, for dinner. Tarsanas, one of the island’s best fish tavernas, with simple tables perched a toe-dip above the water, was abuzz with yachties and life.  A delicious bottle of Strofilia wine materialised. And as a feast of seafood mezze and grilled black bream amassed before me, a small boat chugged into the harbour, stopped in front of the restaurant, and released a battery of spectacular fireworks into the starry night.  No-one batted an eyelid.  On a magical island, it seems, such is the stuff of life.

—–

Spetses in June 2010

by Teresa Levonian Cole

Sunlight rained like diamonds on a sapphire sea, cheerful fishing boats bobbed in the tranquil waters, waiters balanced trays of iced coffee to convivial gatherings at cafés lining the harbour.  And dominating the scene, like some benevolent Duchess displaced from the Côte d’Azur, rose the imposing limestone and marble façade of the Poseidonion Hotel.

Such was the scene that greeted me as the hydrofoil approached Dapia, on the Greek island of Spetses.  Some two hours from Piraeus on the mainland, Spetses has long been a popular bolt-hole for fashionable Athenians.  But now Spetses’ alluring siren offers new temptation, singing of the long-awaited reopening of the historic Poseidonion Hotel – at which, it is rumoured, several Royal Families will descend for the impending nuptials of Prince Nicholas of Greece, in August.

Within, the revamped Poseidon is all light and air, lofty ceilings and sweeping staircase.  And in counterpoint to the cool monochrome interior, the magnificent, kaleidoscopic Italian coloured marble floor tiles have been painstakingly restored to their original splendour.  I threw open the shutters of my room onto a wrought iron balcony to let in the dazzling Mediterranean light.  Spread out below was the piazza, from which the statue of Bouboulina – the Spetsiot heroine who, in 1821, commanded her own battleship in the War of Independence against the Turks – gazes out to sea.

The hotel is a landmark on Spetses. “It was built in 1914 by Sotirios Anargyros, a tobacco tycoon, as a luxurious retreat for hunting parties” explained Petros Haritatos, who has written a book on the island. We were sitting over an indulgent breakfast on the terrace: fresh cheeses, home-baked breads, juicy tomatoes, crushed olives and fruits, all from the hotel’s organic gardens, virtue tempered by flutes of champagne and local almond cakes. Anargyros, it turns out, is largely responsible for the appeal of Spetses today.  “An early Conservationist, he purchased two-thirds of the island and planted 100,000 Aleppo pines, safeguarding against over-development” continued Petros. He also built the single road that circumnavigates Spetses and, with profits from the hotel, founded an elite boarding school modelled on Eton.  For literary sleuths, this is where John Fowles taught in the 1960s: his mysterious novel, “The Magus” was based on his experiences on this island.

Spetses is steeped in history and laced with charm. Cars being banned from town, I hailed one of the many horse buggies that congregate around the new harbour of Dapia.  Ilias sported blinkers decorated with bronze Byzantine eagles, a red scarf, and an amulet against the Evil Eye.  His driver, Petros told me, was the proud owner of a miraculous icon.  Feeling thus doubly-protected, I climbed into an elaborate wooden carriage which would not have been amiss in Paris circa 1880, and Ilias set of with jaunty high-trot along the waterfront towards the Old Harbour, where elegant yachts moor in front of the island’s trendiest restaurants, and the shipyards which built Bouboulina’s flagship Agamemnon, a 33-metre corvette, still ply their traditional craft.

It is a delightful place to wander, the air salty and fresh.  Past wooden skeletons of caïques, stopping for coffee at Mourayo – a characterful bar-restaurant which was once a pirates’ warehouse  – climbing narrow cobbled streets ablaze with oleander and bougainvillea, admiring beautiful houses tinged with Moorish or Venetian influence, their pebble-mosaic courtyards fragrant with jasmine and lemon trees. Grown rich through shipping, Spetses attained glory fighting off the Turkish yoke, and descendents of the revolutionaries still inhabit these mansions, some of which are now discreet hotels or, like Bouboulina’s house, museums.

I reached the 17th-century fortified monastery of St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Sailors, where Spetses’ “Freedom or Death” flag was hoisted in 1821, as a call to arms. Today it is a peaceful spot, with carved dragons crowning the gilded iconostasis, and candles flickering before the Saint’s icon, gratefully draped with votive offerings.  In a corner of the courtyard, a plaque marks the spot where the nephew of Napoleon, Paul-Marie Bonaparte, who died for the Greek cause, lay pickled for five years in a barrel of rum, before his remains could receive more decorous despatch.

The island’s most famous beaches, Aghios Anargyros and Aghia Paraskevi, lie on the far coast, served by buses and tourist boats during high season.  Still Spring, it felt too cool to take the plunge, but the call of the sea proved irresistible.  From Dapia, I took a water taxi around the island’s craggy shoreline, thick with Anargyros’ pines and indented with deep bays of clearest turquoise.   Tiny churches nestled in coves, and caves winked above the waterline.  Takis, my “taxi” driver pointed to a solitary white villa with Moorish arches standing proud atop a promontory:  “That is Yasemia” he told me. In this enchanted spot John Fowles once stayed, minutely reinventing the house in his novel as Bourani, the House of the Magus.

Back in town, as evening fell, people thronged into boutiques selling designer beachwear and hand-stitched beaded sandals; young blades and old salts gathered at bars to sip cloudy ouzo and nibble octopus; couples strolled hand-in-hand along the waterfront. I watched the happy hubbub as the sky streaked pinky violet to velvet black, then clip-clopped back to the Old Harbour, for dinner. Tarsanas, one of the island’s best fish tavernas, with simple tables perched a toe-dip above the water, was abuzz with yachties and life.  A delicious bottle of Strofilia wine materialised. And as a feast of seafood mezze and grilled black bream amassed before me, a small boat chugged into the harbour, stopped in front of the restaurant, and released a battery of spectacular fireworks into the starry night.  No-one batted an eyelid.  On a magical island, it seems, such is the stuff of life.

—–

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