Line discipline, or the lack of it, Calvin Trillin once said, tells you everything you need to know about the way a country and a culture organizes itself. Line (or rather “queue”) discipline in England is absolute: You get a place and keep it. In Italy it is unknown, replaced by a cheerful every-man-for-himself scrum with no start or finish—whoever pushes hardest ends up first. In America an elaborate system of apparent, even if inequitable, order has to be introduced; give Americans boarding cards and numbered zones and they will grudgingly advance as told. (The most eerily impressive queue discipline I have ever seen was on an Icelandair flight from Reykjavik; all the passengers, mostly Icelanders, had boarded the plane and taken their correct seats in a silent flowing consensus without a single announcement being made.)

The lure of the Greek islands hardly demands much digging—there’s sun and grilled fish and ruins. It isn’t like longing for, say, downtown Cleveland.

I was waiting for a ferry from the Greek island of Paros to Crete—with the wind blowing crisply at the dock and the sun high in a clear blue sky—when I first understood the Greek way with lines. First, a short one forms. Then an individual approaches, stands nearby, and has a conversation with a friend, and a new line forms, while the original line, seeing that it is being usurped by another, instead of protesting simply edges its way toward the front of the new line, partially fusing with it.

A couple arrive, greet friends waiting for the same ferry, and create yet another line. This process of fission and reabsorption perpetuates itself, so that by the time the ferry finally pulls up, always about a half hour late, there are five or six separate lines—which only then, at the last moment and reluctantly, turn into an Italian-style scrum.

The Greek ferry line, in other words, is one that forms and reforms at individual whim, creating small communities—islands in every sense—that then turn out to belong to a larger whole. Which is a slightly too intellectualized way of saying that satisfying my lifetime dream of going to the Greek islands provided me with two weeks of a special and somewhat unexpected pleasure, at once particular to certain places—the islands of Spetses, Paros, Antiparos, Crete—and general beneath a superintending and ancient tradition.

Paros ferry illo


The Paros ferry

Konstantin Kakanias

The lure of the Greek islands hardly demands much digging—there’s sun and grilled fish and ruins. It isn’t like longing for, say, the Falkland Islands, or downtown Cleveland. But if you had asked me in advance to explain the spell they held more fully, it would have involved some anticipatory sense of lines that formed and reformed and never settled—of a beautiful temporal disorder, of the present and of many pasts, of ancient myths and modern pleasures, including the modern pleasure of communing with ancient myths, all entwined. For anyone with an appetite for that interplay, a trip through the Greek islands offers a kind of hallucinatory fulfillment.

We think of Crete and imagine Minoan Knossos—but we also know that here lies the beach town of Matala, where not that long ago “the wind [was] in from Africa” and Joni Mitchell “put on [her] silver” to meet Carey at the Mermaid café. The Greek islands sing to us through both a remote poetic past, thousands of years old, and a more immediate bohemian carnival, only a few decades gone by.

Scenic View Of Sea Against Clear Blue Sky

Fokke Baarssen / EyeEmGetty Images

As we pass from one tempting, mysterious Aegean coastline to the next, I think of Odysseus’s ever-­wandering crew lingering near the lair of the Cyclops even after they should have had the sense to take to their heels and ship out—and simultaneously of my hero and fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen, whose hibernation on the island of Hydra in the 1960s is still legend and includes a besotted girl who leaped off the dock to swim after the ferry on which Cohen had just departed. (He seems to have helped her aboard, but he did not turn back.)

Not that my entire trip was spent in such sapient and chewy literary reflection. I like to look at things—especially books, old buildings, and menus—and there were lots of those to be looked at. I like to read books about the place I’m visiting, so in my suitcase were…books about the Greek islands: John Fowles’s once famous novel The Magus, set on a mythical isle that was a thinly disguised version of Spetses, where our trip would begin; Homer’s Odyssey, in a 1996 translation by Robert Fagles (if you count Calypso’s lair, where Odysseus is kept in bed, unwillingly, for seven years—or so he tells his wife—the majority of the action takes place in the Greek islands); and as many of British writer and soldier Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books on Greece as I could fit in my bag, especially those set in wartime on Crete, where our travels would end.

My wife Martha, who enjoys having a change of outfit or two (or 12), had packed her own Greek-biased books—mostly poetry, from Sappho to George Seferis—along with her clothes, in a huge cream-colored trunk of the kind grand ladies traveled with in grander times, the kind once covered with six-inch oval stickers from grand hotels—though that was an era when, I pointed out, eager porters and native bearers could be found to shlep the trunks from spot to spot. Very cunningly, in her view, hers was mounted on four small wheels, which turned it, officially, from a wildly impractical steamer trunk into just another carry-on, albeit a carry-on you might have carried onto the SS Ile de France in 1927.

On our first day in Greece, by some kind of atavistic impulse implanted in luggage, two of the wheels dropped right off, turning it back into the steamer trunk it had always wanted to be. It became one more symbol of the entangled past, and I, for the next two weeks, became its eager and dutiful porter.

Remembrance of Things Past

Fortunately, our first stop couldn’t have been better suited to a lady, her porter, and a trunk, since Spetses is dominated by one of the last truly grand turn-of-the-last-century hotels in the islands. The Poseidonion, built on Spetses’s esplanade on the imposing French seaside model, is very much like the hotel Proust imagines on the northern coast of France in his fictional town of Balbec: sea-facing and windswept and immense, with curtains that billow when you open the window.

Always, one suspects, a little out of scale for this small island, it was built by a remarkable native, Sotirios Anargyros, who left Spetses as a boy, made his fortune in the American tobacco trade, and returned, determined to drag his home island into the 20th century.

Poseidonion Grand Hotel, Spetses
The Poseidonion Grand Hotel on Spetses

Konstantin Kakanias

The hotel (as well as a renowned boarding school, now abandoned) was an act of faith in a prosperous, modern Greek future, but it opened, alas, in 1914, just as that future started to recede. The Poseidonion was quite recently restored by another island figure, the shipping magnate Manolis Vordonis—who spent his childhood summers on Spetses—in a style of immense purity and sophistication: all dove grays, bright whites, wide-plank floors, and an original stone staircase made of ingeniously cantilevered marble.

Martha and I are easy to please on islands: We like to eat and we like to read and, within reason, swim. Martha likes to change clothes between eating and reading; I change only to swim. Fortunately, the beaches on Spetses, charmingly divided between the “unorganized” and the “organized” (the latter with thatched shade and loungers) are beautiful—fragrant, like the whole island, with the aromas of wild oregano and thyme (Spetses means “spices”) and fronting on perfectly warm and blue water.

Spetses island.
Spetses.

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The pleasures of an ordinary morning on the beach, simply reading and drinking Greek coffee and eating tangy Greek yogurt with cherry preserves, are somehow tripled or quadrupled if one is also staring at this impossibly ancient sea—which, of course, is neither older nor younger than any other sea but feels older because it has been sung and praised for so long. Unearned wisdom is the best kind, and I have never felt so wise for so little reason as I did staring out at the Aegean on Spetses.

If the spirit of ancient Greece fills one’s head, the facts of modern Greece fill one’s ears. The country’s history is in large part a series of struggles against invaders, and resentment of these ancient occupiers remains surprisingly profound. On Spetses one still feels the living spirit of modern Greece’s greatest national heroine, Laskarina Bouboulina, the Byronic admiral of the early-19th-century War of Independence who lived here. Her memorial statue—a stocky woman implacably staring out to sea—still dominates the esplanade, as she scans the horizon for signs of approaching Ottomans. Her house is still intact, and its tour guide is a direct descendant of hers.

Laskarina Bouboulina
Laskarina Bouboulina was a key figure in the Greek wars of independence.

Konstantin Kakanias

Continuities of all sorts count for so much here. On Crete I heard a woman practically sputter with indignation when someone innocently praised the Renaissance Venetians, who long occupied that island: “Venice? Civilized!?” A highly educated guide on Antiparos could not find sufficiently emotive words to condemn the hypocritical Athenians, who preached democracy but sacked the little island when it failed to pay tribute to the Athenian League—a too-familiar sin of democracy-preachers to this day, to be sure, but one that happened, in this case, more than 2,000 years ago.

A Fish Story

If Spetses is the Greek idea of a Greek island, the place where Athenians themselves like to go, then Paros is the American idea of a Greek island, the one that comes almost too close to the platonic ideal we carry in our heads. White and bright blue, spare and austere, Paros was famous in antiquity for its soft, glowing marble. The marble has long been quarried out, but the look of a marble-made island remains; its two bigger towns, Parikia and Naoussa, are so “characteristic” they seem like MGM recreations of Greek island villages. One keeps looking around for the camera and the mic boom and Melina Mercouri doing another take. The streets are winding, the boutiques sell colorful cotton dresses and crisp linen shirts, and emanating from here and there is distinctly Greek pop music, full of trebly bouzouki sounds and minor key warblings.

The dream of a faraway island always becomes the dream of the next island over. And as perfect as Paros seems, in recent years its smaller satellite, Antiparos (the name is a little absurd, almost comical, like antimatter), has become still more fashionable, a haunt of American rock and movie stars. (Bruce Springsteen was spotted a few summers ago improvising at the one local rock bar.)

Europe. Greece. Antiparos Island. Orthodox Church Europa. Grecia. Isola Di Antiparos. Chiesa Ortodossa
An Orthodox Church on Antiparos.

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Antiparos provided the single happiest afternoon I have ever spent anywhere. We had the good luck to get a tour, on the tiny adjacent islet of Despotiko, of a recently excavated 6th century BC temple to Apollo, the highlight being the beautiful small statue of the god, which was designed for expiatory offerings that islanders long ago deposited at its feet to ask for protection and healing. Afterward we climbed one of Antiparos’s high hills to look out over the bay and had lunch in the harbor on fresh-caught fish, ancient rituals and present flavors entangled in the shade.

Antiparos provided the single happiest afternoon I have ever spent anywhere.

No matter how much one might wish to bathe only in the “timeless” beauty and charm of the islands, the one subject that cannot be avoided in Greece is the Greek Crisis, which diminished the country’s GNP by a full 25 percent and brought its ­unemployment rate to a similar unprecedented level. Part of the larger worldwide economic crisis of 2008, it was made more severe in Greece by the extent of the country’s unpayable sovereign debt—and also, as any Greek will tell you, by Germany’s insistence on budget “austerity,” the refusal, in effect, to allow Greece to write off its debt as a means of preventing the “moral hazard” of the rest of Southern Europe cheerily defaulting too.

There are two ways of seeing the Greek crisis, and both can be heard and discussed endlessly with Greeks in the taverns and restaurants. The first is tragic. Greece has become the frontline in the worst international disaster since the 1930s: the immigration debacle, which afflicts Europe generally and is centered on the beautiful island of Lesbos, now in effect an immense refugee camp.

The debt crisis itself is evident on some of the other islands, most clearly in the concrete carcasses left from overbuilding. The price of both crises is yet one more crisis—a permanent brain drain that draws ambitious and educated Greeks across the oceans, exactly as it did a century ago. The inability of successive governments on the right, left, and far left to find solutions suggests even that the Greek state has “failed” and can no longer actually govern a country whose economics are dictated by the Germans and whose immigration policies are dictated by history and the sea.

The other view, offered in a tone more of mordant irony than of emphatic optimism—but still offered—is that the relative stability of Greece now (despite the turmoil, civic violence has been minimal compared with, say, France, a far richer country) is a reflection of the strength of the underlying cultural continuity that one senses everywhere. The social capital, or civil society, of Greece is sufficiently rich, this argument runs, that even if state failure threatens, the forces of Hellenic institutions and traditions, of clan and family, of clubs and taverns, of intersecting interests—so overwhelming to a pilgrim from a more shallowly rooted culture—have allowed it to survive and guarantee its future.

The arguing about these two views continues over dinner, something I am always acutely interested in. In fact, my dream of the Greek islands includes (some people who are unduly cynical about my Hellenic literary infatuation—i.e., my children—would say begins and ends with) food: grilled fish and feta salad and that sweet black coffee, the grounds still in the cup, to follow. I was trained in what I thought of as good Greek food at New York restaurants, but it turns out nothing is more emblematic of the difference between a living ritual and a remembered transoceanic rite than the business of picking a whole fish to eat.

Selling fresh fish at a street stall on Spetes
Selling fresh fish at a street stall on Spetes.

Hal BeralGetty Images

In Greek restaurants in America it feels dutiful, mechanical, usually executed with a rushed nod, a grab, and a red snapper pulled off the shaved ice. At Tarsanas, in the old harbor on Spetses, or at Barbarossa, on Paros, the owner (or, on Spetses, the owner’s daughter) looks over the fish, considers the fish, names the fish (Greek fish having names different from ours; I once ate a delicious creature called a “dentex”), briefly contemplates another fish, wrestles the first fish into the air, lets the diner-to-be handle the fish, slimy and good, and then finally takes it off to be grilled on charcoal or roasted in a salt crust.

On Spetses, six or so thirty­something Greeks come in, Athenians apparently, take a table, and then order at endless length, the waitress calling out each new fishy possibility with an evaluating shrug. At last she comes over with a giant fish, a monster fish, for them to share—“a white grouper,” she says proudly, showing it off to the entire restaurant. “It’s beautiful,” an American diner says. “It was more beautiful in the sea,” says one of the Greeks about to eat it. This somehow seems like a very Greek remark, disabused fatalism being a keynote, one soon learns, of Greek jokes, just as it is of conversations about the Greek crisis.

Epiphany at the Ekatontapiliani

If Spetses is the Greek idea of a Greek island, and Paros the non-Greek idea of a Greek island, Crete, our last destination, the one that the ferry from Paros was taking us toward, is the Greek island’s idea of a Greek island. Though full of visitors, it has the least touristy flavor and seems most its own place. For Crete is an island only in the sense that Manhattan is an island, or Australia for that matter: large enough to have real cities, a long and bloody history, and hourlong drives to get to the good places.

The two old Cretan cities of Rethymnon and Chania are testaments to the 400-year possession of Crete by the Venetian empire. The towns do not merely resonate with Venetian influence, they look just like Venice, only without the canals. If I were recommending a surprising destination for a honeymoon, these two towns—oleander arbors overhead and lovely slanting narrow alleys with little tables lined up outside open-doored cafés—would be it.

fish on plate
“My dream of the Greek islands includes food.”

Konstantin Kakanias

The food on Crete is excellent, but less expected, derived more from shepherds’ labors, goat and lamb, than from fishermen’s (the island, it is said, was besieged for too long to allow the development of a normal fishing fleet). We ate night after night at Avli in Rethymnon, a kind of auberge with bedrooms and a garden to eat in, and had no need or appetite to go elsewhere. Run by the Alice Waters of Greece, Katerina Xekalou, Avli specializes in Cretan food with a slight French accent, the same way Chez Panisse does with American fare.

Xekalou is another one of those extraordinarily resourceful Greek islanders. With no gastronomic experience except a deep affection for her grandmother’s table, where she and her entire Athenian family gathered, summer after summer, around the simplest kinds of mountain peasant food, she launched Avli when she was 19, making the place one of the most reliable purveyors of true island food in Greece and championing the surviving artisanal crafts of local foodmaking.

Few cultural experiences could be more intense than going with her to visit the one baker on Crete who still hand-rolls Greek phyllo dough. Tears come to her eyes as she watches him pull the pastry by hand out over white linen on flour-brushed marble in the midafternoon, rendering it paper thin by the sheer knowing pressure of his hands. “Keeping this kind of thing alive is a life’s work,” she says, truthfully.

Bull Fresco in the North Entrance of Knossos Palace
Ruins at Knossos.

Photography by Jeremy Villasis. Philippines.Getty Images

The highlight of any tour of Crete is the excavated palace of Knossos, where the Minoan civilization flourished from 2700 to 1100 BC and where the oldest road in Europe can still be found. Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who excavated Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century, has been in bad repute for a while—the Art Nouveau look of the ruins, which so astonished people a century ago, is now often put down to the convenient presence of a couple of Art Nouveau painters who were responsible for the extravagant “re­creations” of the fragmentary murals and mosaics Evans uncovered.

It is, yes, a bit crushing to see, in the excellent nearby archaeological museum, the disconnect between the tiny shards of actual remaining painted surface and the suave Edenic inferences of Evans’s team in the “restored” frescoes. A beautiful ­composition of leaping dolphins turns out to be an extrapolation from a handful of blue fragments. More persuasive of the continuities of civilization is the presence in the museum of small votive figures, including, bizarrely but beautifully, ­offerings in the form of terra-cotta rhinoceros beetles, long ago dedicated to some god for some healing purpose, and still here.

But Edenic extrapolation from the very foundation of Greek island civilization is in itself a saving principle. Of the ­countless memories and images that remain from our two-week journey, the most powerful is that of the interior of Panagia Ekatontapiliani, the “Church of a Hundred Doors” in Parikia, on Paros, an intimate, appealing bricolage of ancient and Byzantine and even Ottoman parts. (Myth has it that 99 of the church’s “doors” have been identified, and that when the 100th is discovered, the Greeks will retake Constantinople, the loss of which is the worst and oldest of Greek grievances still alive.)

Panagia Ekatontapiliani, Parikia, Paros
The Panagia Ekatontapiliani (“Church of a Hundred Doors”) in Parikia, Paros.

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When we visited the church, a baby girl in a long white dress was being christened in the Greek Orthodox rite. All around her, fringing every icon, tied by silk ribbons, were modern votive offerings: tin or stamped metal tokens of arms and legs and ears and mouths, appealing for healing for a diseased or damaged human part. Tama, they are called, and in every chapel into which one wanders they are interspersed among candles lit to draw the saints’ attention to them.

The first response, for an American accustomed to more puritanical forms of worship, is bemusement at the Pop Art look of all the neatly severed and articulated stamped metal votives. There are profiles of men who look like Don Draper and some of girls who look like Jane in a “Dick and Jane” book. But soon the emotion passes over into what I can only call awe—at the unchanging cycle of belief in the holy power of artifacts. An invisible line stretches from these votives to those in the rediscovered temple of Apollo on Despotiko, and, further still, to the ones in the museum at Knossos.

All that truly deserves the name sacred, I realize in the Ekatontapiliani, is the continuity of human suffering and of hope for its relief. Mediterranean culture is a continuous wave, not a choppy current, supported by the persistence of our belief in the ability of man-made objects, be they terra-cotta beetles or tin limbs, to somehow please the gods. Those of us who come from stormier cultures rediscover on these islands the Greek paradox, which is that the perpetual forming and reforming of lines is the dance of the past becoming one with the present.

As a sign of our own will to take part, this summer we have rented a little windmill high up on a hilltop on Antiparos for a week, where we will take our two children and their partners. We are forming our own Greek line. The wheels are back on Martha’s trunk, and I plan to gratefully pull it up the hill toward home.

The Perfect Greek Island Itinerary

The Greek isles can be confusing— just ask Odysseus. Here’s how Adam Gopnik did it.

Our trip was organized by Christos Stergiou of True Trips, who knows his country inside and out (christos@truetrips.com). We wanted to avoid anything too touristy, so we let him steer us away from Mykonos and Santorini. (Hydra and Patmos remain intriguing destinations for another day.)

STOP 1: ATHENS

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens
Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens

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We spent one night at the Hotel Grande Bretagne. If there is a richer experience than dining on the roof, with its view of the Parthenon, I haven’t encountered it.

STOP 2: SPETSES

This is where actual Greeks like to holiday. Rather than taking the ferry from Athens (3 hours), we were driven to quaint Kosta Harbor in the ­Peloponnese (2.5 hours, but with much to see along the way). From there Spetses and its amazing Poseidonion Grand Hotel are just 15 minutes by water taxi.

STOP 3: PAROS

This is the austere white and blue island of all our Med fantasies. The most efficient way of arriving here from Spetses is to drive back to the Athens airport and take the 40-minute flight. We stayed at what Homer would have called “the pleasant, ever breezy” Yria Hotel Resort and hopped over to Paros’s beautiful, diminutive neighbor, Antiparos, and the even smaller, uninhabited Despotiko, a must for its temple to Apollo, still under excavation (Stergiou will arrange special access and an excellent guide).

STOP 4: CRETE

Rethymnon, Crete

Greece’s biggest island is best reached from Paros by ferry (4 hours). We spent a perfect food-and-wine-infused second honeymoon at Katerina Xekalou’s auberge and restaurant Avli in Rethymnon, before flying back to Athens (50 minutes) and, once again, the Grande Bretagne.

This story appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW



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