Story for The Georgia Straight, April 17-24, 2003

Return to the Greek Islands: The Aegean Quartet
Scents and signts, possibilities and personalities, emerge to enthrall the attentive visitor to these isles
By Star Weiss
ALONNISOS, Greece.---As I walked along the old donkey path that climbs up the hillside past ancient, gnarled olive trees and rock walls built over the years by farmers piling stone upon stone, I had the feeling this journey was timeless. How many Greek islanders had walked this path, finding their way home by the moonlight, carrying tired children after a wedding celebration, laughing and jostling after a night at the taverna? For centuries, this trail was the main route from the port to the old town of Palia Alonnisos (known as the chora), and my husband and I were hiking up to get our first look at the tiny, dramatically situated hilltop town.

Agios Anarchi, Alonissos

A wild wind rattled the shutters as Russ and I walked past the shops and traditional two-storey houses of Palia Alonnisos. Then, abruptly, we reached the end of the road. There a taverna sat daringly perched beside a precipitous cliff, 200 metres above a panorama of green valley and turquoise sea, with steep, shadowed hills far in the distance.

We'd come here to watch the sun set over the Aegean, a daily event worthy of celebration. First, we went into the taverna to order, and were easily convinced by the friendly cook that we should try the local specialty, tiropita, a cheese pie prepared in a huge cast-iron fry pan. Hauntingly beautiful clarinet music was playing as we sat down at a table on the patio.

The server brought out the tiropita, and it was the flakiest, most mouthwatering cheese pie I'd ever tasted. It was like eating a sacramental wafer at a moment when life is reduced to the elemental: an ecstatic flash.

I've done a lot of thinking over the years about why the Greek islands exert an almost overpowering magnetism on my heart. Was I born Greek in another life? I'm not sure, but I do believe that to explore the Greek islands, in all their amazing diversity, is to explore the multifaceted aspects of my being, and maybe, to learn how to recognize and accept each part. My journey is only at midpoint---there are many islands to explore---but I've found elements of myself and moments of clarity on each island I've visited over the past 30 years. Recently, I've begun to think of the islands as a Greek chorus of women, each with a distinct personality and possibility.

Alonnisos (the Virgin) Fresh, sweet, pure---a Garden of Eden-­like quality permeates this most luscious of islands; virginal but sensual, innocent but erotic, combining the influence of the goddesses Persephone (the Maiden) and Aphrodite (love and beauty). When I arrived on Alonnisos, early in June, my senses were assaulted by a wildly intoxicating combination of scents and sights: the huge, heavy lemons hanging from the trees, the immense tangled growth of purple and fuchsia bougainvillea, the red and pink geraniums spilling out of oversize pots, the heavy scent of honeysuckle and roses.

Pine trees cover much of the island, their cool tangy scent almost incenselike, and Russ and I discovered shaded hiking paths, secluded beaches, even two tiny churches hidden behind trees and bushes at the very edge of a cliff. A luxuriant, profligate wildness pervades the island.

Dramatically situated church at Agios Anarchi, Alonissos

Lesbos (the Feminist) The enduring effect of the seventh-century BC poet Sappho, Lesbos's most famous woman, seems to have carried on right through the ages on this lush green island, located in the northern Aegean just across from Turkey. On Lesbos, the possibility of a full life centred on artistic pursuits seems achievable, for men and women, and the role of Lesbian (as in, from Lesbos) women has remained strong. Even back in the early 1980s, I noticed the significant impact of women here: the Women's Agricultural Society was running a large store on Lesbos then, and books of women's poetry, unseen on other islands, were noticeably for sale.

There is much speculation as to whether or not Sappho's erotic love poems are proof of her own lesbian (that is, same-sex) proclivities, but her birthplace of Eressos has become a place of homage for lesbian women in any case. Regardless of her sexual preferences, Sappho's creative outpouring seems to continue to influence life on Lesbos, especially in the town of Molyvos (or Mithymna), which becomes a sort of artists' colony each summer, drawing musicians, artists, and writers to the area.

One evening when I was there with my family, the teenagers of Molyvos held an open-air folk dance on the large playground field in town. When we arrived, a good-sized crowd ringed the area, and the dancers, dressed in traditional costumes, began their first sedate and formalized dances. Soon, however, the teens changed back to jeans and white shirts for the livelier numbers, and a swirl of dust rose from the field as the ancient rite of the dance was reenacted. The onlookers began to join in, and finally the whole crowd, including my two daughters, Russ, and me, were pulled into the action. Arms draped across each other's shoulders, we snaked across the field in a long line. Soloists, encouraged by their "second", who crouched nearby clapping and calling "Opa", danced alone, and then a Turkish beat moved the crowd to try hilarious versions of belly dancing.

Santorini (the Siren) We were driving back to the tiny town of Oia (also spelled Ia) one dark night, on the dangerous road that curves its way across the spine of Santorini, when I suddenly had the weirdest feeling. I sensed some sort of black shadows: malevolent spirits flitting in and out of the womblike cave house we had rented for the week. When we arrived "home" and walked down the 120 steps to our cliffside dwelling, all seemed undisturbed, but I still felt that something had changed. Only much later did I read Lawrence Durrell's description of Santorini in his book The Greek Islands ("it smells of the devil" and "glimmers like the City of the Dead" at full moon) and learn that Santorini is well-known as the home of vampires. Many homes have garlic hung on the front door as protection. It seems fitting that most beaches here are black, comprising a volcanic pumice-sand that can get painfully hot.
And yet, I was irresistibly drawn to this most dramatic, most stunning, most frightening, of islands. Santorini seems to represent the duality in all of us, the battle of good versus evil. The island reflects both the classic beauty of Greece at its best and the devastation and destruction of nature at its worst. Two events have unalterably marked its history: the first, a huge volcanic eruption in about 1500 BC, caused the midsection of the island to collapse and fall into the sea, leaving only a strange crescent-shaped rim surrounding the resulting caldera. Some still believe this caldera contains the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. Second, a major earthquake in 1956 destroyed so many homes that half of the population simply got up and left. Those who remained, however, seem to thrive on the precariousness of life on the edge. Even today, dazzling new whitewashed hotels and homes are juxtaposed next to the crumbled destruction of houses that have never been rebuilt.

Yet, when you look at postcards of the typical blue-domed churches and white cubist houses of Greece---the Greece that beckons us, the Greece we most desire---nine times out of 10 you are looking at images of Santorini, in all its spectacular seductiveness.This island teases, tantalizes, overwhelms, and reaches us at some deep level of consciousness. Wicked, wild, wonderful, it seems to encompass all human impulses in its extraordinary spirit of place. I think I felt more compellingly alive on Santorini than on any other spot on earth.

Skiathos (the Golden Girl) I have been to Greece five times, but the only island I've visited on every trip is Skiathos, gem of the Sporades island group, home of some of the most gorgeous beaches in Greece. Skiathos has matured and changed over the years, just as I have, not always for the better. And yet, I will forever go back.

When I first arrived on Skiathos more than 30 years ago, as a neophyte on Hellenic turf, I was immediately welcomed into a "company" comprising a group of local Greek men and a smattering of tourist women. The men were natives of Skiathos, anxious to give us a course-by-course taste of authentic Greek island life, starting with a boat ride to what they referred to as "the most beautiful beach in Greece, Koukounaries". We set out in a small boat and arrived at the most perfect sand beach I had ever seen.

Lalaria Beach, Skiathos

It was on Skiathos that I first became a philhellene, drawn to the music, culture, food, and, most of all, the people of Greece. Part of this, I know, was because of my experience in the "company" of friends, who thought teaching me to dance the hasapiko was as important as introducing me to the acquired taste of retsina, who wanted me to learn Greek and to love this island like they did.

Over the years, the "company" went separate ways, but one member, my friend Vassilies, remained on Skiathos. He and his wife, Regina, own and operate the San Remo Hotel and have welcomed me and my family back with typical warmth and generous Greek hospitality each time we have returned.

On Skiathos today, too many of the tavernas have been replaced by bars and discos, all playing rock music. Koukounaries is crowded with hundreds of well-oiled bodies under endless rows of beach umbrellas. Jet planes fly directly to Skiathos from Europe; the nightlife draws thousands of 20-somethings; and the motorbikes never sleep.


And yet, when I last visited the island, at the height of the summer season, it was still possible to find the "old" Skiathos. Just a 15-minute walk away from the crowds of Koukounaries, on a path through the pine trees, I swam at the nearly deserted beach of Mandraki, with golden sands, sparkling waters, and two sleepy little beachside tavernas. The maze of back streets above the waterfront commercial strip is still quiet and peaceful, with tiny bakeries that welcome you with fresh-baked bread. Skiathos, as it finds a way to accommodate to change, reminds me that century after century, the Greek islands have been able to maintain their ability to delight, to reach beyond tragedy, confusion, or darkness and illuminate that which is essential or rapturous within us. That's why I go.

ACCESS: We flew to Greece on an Air Canada-­Lufthansa flight from Victoria ( The main ferry terminal to the islands is in Piraeus, outside Athens. For Skiathos or Alonnisos, which are both in the northern Sporades, you'll want to bus to Konstantinos or Volos and take ferries from there. Flights to Lesbos from Athens are not too expensive. A helpful book is the Independent Traveller's Greek Island Hopping (Thomas Cook), and I like the Lonely Planet Greece for basic island info. If you go to Alonnisos, buy Alonnisos on Foot, a walking and swimming guide. Alonnisos is the least expensive island of the Sporades, and our spotless double room with kitchenette, private bath, and balcony overlooking the harbour cost us about $28 per night, since we arrived before high season. A good Web site is