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Hymn to off-season Greece: goats, honey, octopus, calm… and more

The passengers struggle down, swaying on the rope ladder, rucksacks banging against the side of the ferry. They load awkwardly into a small boat which takes them – including me – to the pier. Big ferries from Piraeus had no docking facilities on the isolated, lovely, small island of Fourni in the eastern Aegean, but that was forty years ago. The disembarkation is much smoother this time round.

I first arrived in Greece, exhausted from a three-day train trip, fifty years ago. I have liked it ever since: visited much of it, lived in it once, come back every so often. It sent me off in a new direction for my life and I went eagerly. I am more tolerant of its faults than I am of my own.

Many of Greece’s island tourist destinations have changed radically but for those who don’t hanker after international cuisine or exotically-named cocktails, there are always islands to soothe urban nerves while absorbing the brilliant blue of an Aegean: one of them is Fourni. Both on the surface and underneath it remains quintessentially Greek, strongly attached to its traditions.

The main street is seductive; its narrow length is bordered both sides by mulberry trees, their lower trunks painted white. Their branches meet overhead shading the street but darts of golden sunshine get through. It is paved with irregular-sized, white-edged slabs of granite. Some small shops, a few coffee houses and a restaurant intermingle with the blue and white houses. Many old people, women – often in black- and men leaning their chins on the tops of their walking sticks, sit in front of their homes saluting passers-by: good morning, good afternoon – ‘kalymera, kalyspera’. I try some of my little Greek with them; they have the indulgence and time to listen. Elders continue to play a part in everyday life; there are no retirement homes here.

A man, wheeling a barrow, comes down the street shouting “psaria fresca”: fresh fish, fresh fish.

At the top of the street the one and only square is a small beauty. It is shaded by a huge plane tree. The leaves are beginning to wrinkle and brown in October but everybody knows they will return with the spring as they have done for the last three hundred years.

The delightful ‘kafenion’ facing the square is tiny inside; its walls are covered with framed and faded photos of family and long-ago village life. Its tables, some topped with Ikaria granite, are scattered about the square. Aspasia, also the name of Pericles’s wife, the founder of Athens, is the fifth generation of the family to run the business. I have a coffee sitting beside Aspasia’s grandmother who is talking to a friend: both are dressed in black. I remember her from long ago. The upper floor of the building, now boarded up, was the Turkish Police headquarters until 1912 when the island got its independence from Turkey – much later than mainland Greece; later it became the primary school of the village.

On another side of the square is a small fruit shop and bakery. Opposite, a large, marble sarcophagus from the Roman era – excavated nearby – reminds people of another epoch. It has flowers and an inscription carved into it. Lidless, it accepts gracefully the falling leaves from the plane tree. Facing the ‘kafenion’- a few steps up – sculpted in white marble from a local quarry-is a monument topped by the Greek eagle: homage to soldiers who died for Greece.

All this enchantment fits into a space of a little more than 100 square metres. I have sat here a number of times over the years but have never felt so strongly its charm and history. Maybe it is murmuring softly a goodbye!

The island, though it is basically a huge rock, is spectacularly beautiful- sombre colours, rocks and hard places. This sobriety is set off by the brilliant blue above and around. Its shape has been compared to a lobster with just one huge claw; it is pockmarked with small coves and inlets, nooks and crannies. Forty years ago it was almost impossible to explore the island with its one and only difficult gravel road. Now there are a couple of paved roads and scooters for rent. The ride takes you on a winding trip high up the rocks with spectacular views: sea and small islands on both sides. Off the paved roads there are some gravel paths with steep descents leading to small beaches. They will not be mistaken for Copacabana but the water is much more beautiful: translucent blue.

As I travel the island I look reflectively at the abandoned terraces on hillsides. When transport was much more difficult the islanders had to try to grow their own food. Now the terraces constructed with toil and the sweat are abandoned, spiny shrubs and thorny scrub – called ‘phrygana’ – colonise them as it does most of the arid hillsides; the terrace walls are crumbling. Fruit and vegetables come from outside, often from far away. Occasional orange and olive trees, cactus plants, a few vines -in sheltered niches are all that grow on the island now. Many hillsides, however, are partly covered with white and blue bee-hives. It is an important business; Fourni honey is much prized.

Of this group of thirteen islands, only three are inhabited: in total fewer than 1500 inhabitants. All are clustered around Fourni like chicks around a mother hen wishing to be under her wing.

The islands, with their hiding places, were notorious as hideaways for pirates. It was a vital crossroads for trade: east to west, north to south, so a place of rich harvest. Ships laden with goods or the money to pay for them took this route. Treacherous storms and hidden rocks led also to many a seafaring catastrophe. Divers have found almost sixty wrecks of ships and scattered cargo on the seabed around- 25% of all Greek shipwrecks have been found here. These date from about 500 BC to the middle ages. Many photos have been taken of these wrecks and, already, parts of ships and their cargoes are being recovered for an eventual maritime museum. How wonderful it will be, for the visitor, to be able to put the island into a historical context!

Many small blue and white caïques putt-putt out and in at strange times of day and night; most are small, large ones had to be destroyed under an EU directive-meant to stop overfishing in the Mediterranean. I love to watch and listen as they cut through their element; they represent, for me, a lovely blend of colour, style and practicality. I admire the boats and their crews. Fishing is very hard work; I know, I remember, I worked on one long ago.

There are many more goats than people on Fourni- two to three thousand looked after by five or six shepherds. I think I saw a shepherd one morning, striding over a hill; he carried a large wooden crook – not gilded in gold so I assume his mission was goats. Goats are income; outside breeding seasons their meat is eaten and much cheese is made from their milk. They were the best looking goats I had seen anywhere though their smell was no better than others. They seemed happy having all those rocks to clamber over and around and take shade under.

There are many women in black; I watch three pin a death notice to a village pole. Most women in black are old but not all: it is mourning for missing men – husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles… when for a husband, it is worn for life. Fortunately, most island people live long lives. A walk in the cemetery, with its spectacular view of the village, shows that a great majority live to between eighty and a hundred.

I sit on my small balcony, overlooking the port, the last night. I have had one of my favourite dinners: a plate of grilled octopus, a tomato- olive salad, a jug of white wine from neighbouring Samos. I am reprimanded by the owner for squeezing too much lemon onto the octopus; it harms the flavour he says. I will watch the big ferry which arrives about midnight, twice a week, from Piraeus. It is a pleasure seeing skilled seamen turn around a huge ferry in its own length in a small bay, unload, load and be away in fifteen minutes in a flurry of lights and churning water. I will take the same boat next day on its way back to Piraeus.

The village, indeed, the island, slumbers afternoons for several hours – as all of Greece did at one time – so people socialise late. The children who play late each evening have been called home. I listen to a group of young men and women shouting violently over a board game downstairs in the coffee shop; it’s midnight. If I didn’t know better, I might think a fight was about to explode, but then there is loud laughter and some mockery; it’s just the noisy Greek way.

The owner of the coffee-shop and of my small studio has said he wants to bring me breakfast in bed for my last morning. I feel somehow sad at moments like these.

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