A lifetime ago, John Fowles’ The Magus sent me searching the islands of Greece for a lost Eden. Eventually, I discovered Alonissos, in the Northern Sporades. Last summer – 40 years on – I went back for the first time.
IF YOU ACCEPT the proposition that the Greek islands have the power to seduce the most jaded traveler, imagine discovering them on a dazzling April morning as a 20-year-old – one who’d just escaped his university studies and months of gray English winter.
But to be completely honest, it was a novel discovered shortly after that visit, John Fowles’ The Magus, that made me fall irrevocably in love with them.
Fowles’ story chronicles the adventures of Nicholas Urfe, a charming but callous and narcissistic Oxford graduate who, fleeing a love affair in London, accepts a teaching position at an elite boy’s school on the Greek island of Phraxos. There, on one of his many solitary hikes through the island’s pine forests, Nicholas encounters the enigmatic Maurice Conchis and quickly finds his life turned upside down by a series of increasingly bizarre and fantastic mysteries in which he suspects Conchis’s hand. Photo: Tourkaneri beach.
To say much more would be to spoil the story, but that summary barely hints at the novel’s ambition and scope. Shortly after the book’s publication in 1965, The New York Times described it as “…a pyrotechnical extravaganza…a dynamo of suspense and horror, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness… a sophisticated account of modern love, [and] a ghost story that will send shivers racing down the spine.” I’m often surprised when people tell me they don’t know of it, or haven’t read it.
Best of all is the lovingly detailed and indelible island setting – a primary character in its own right. “Phraxos was beautiful,” Nicholas recalls. “There was no other adjective; it was not just pretty, picturesque, charming – it was simply and effortlessly beautiful. It took my breath away when I first saw it, floating under Venus like a majestic black whale in an amethyst evening sea, and it still takes my breath away when I shut my eyes now and remember it.”
Any newly-minted literature major, as I was in those days, would have immediately set off to discover what served as the model for Phraxos. But by then – 1976 – Fowles himself had answered the question in his preface to the book’s second edition. Phraxos, he revealed, was Spetsai, one of the Saronic islands. It lies some 80 miles southwest of Athens, just off the Peloponnese coast. The author had taught there briefly at a private boarding school in the early 1950s. Photo: Hora, the ‘Old Village’, Alonissos.
Captivated by the mysteries set for Nicholas on this lost Eden, I set out to find some of my own. Not on Spetsai, mind you – that belonged to someone else. But over the next few years, I traveled through the Saronics, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the Northern Sporades, seeking out those places with only the briefest of guidebook entries. Many of the islands were special and compelling, and some were stunning, Folegandros and Skyros among them. But my favorite – that which came closest to the magic and tranquility that Fowles captured – was Alonissos, in the Northern Sporades.
Last summer, almost 40 years after that visit, I took my family to Alonissos, to show them the Greece with which I had fallen in love – indeed, to see if that Greece still existed.
The End of the Line
To get to Alonissos in 1979, I took a bus to Volos, 200 miles northeast of Athens, then travelled by ferry another 70 miles. Even today, it still takes some effort to reach. The Northern Sporades comprise 24 islands flung widely across the central Aegean – ‘Sporades’ means ‘scattered’ – and with the exception of Skiathos, access is still exclusively by sea. Only four are permanently inhabited: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros. If you opt to fly from Athens to Skiathos, as we did, you’ll still need half a day by ferry to reach Patitiri, Alonissos’s port and main town. Patitiri is the last stop for scheduled maritime services, reached only after calling at the island of Skopelos, where most passengers disembark.
‘Beautiful’ is not the first word that comes to mind on the approach to Alonissos (often transliterated as ‘Alonnisos’). ‘Dramatic’ would be better. The island rises sharply from the sea at its southwestern end, daunting and aloof. Palio Chorio – also known as Hora and, more commonly, as the Old Village – sits high on the crest of one of those steep hills, looking down in all directions like a fortress, which, indeed, it essentially was for much of its history. But as the ferry rounds the southwestern headlands and makes for Patitiri, the landscape softens, the island’s southern side revealing green, wooded slopes that run down gently to the sea. Alonissos – like Spetsai — is unusual in the Aegean for its thick, Aleppo pine forests. They cover much of its 50 square miles, and the description of them was part of what originally drew me to the island.
Although I was reeling from jetlag – we’d been traveling from Boston for more than 24 hours straight – the changes to Patitiri were hard to miss. The harbor, although still modest, seemed twice as big as I remembered, and was now full of chartered sailboats alongside the local caiques. (It was twice as big, I later learned, having been enlarged over the years to accommodate larger, faster ferries.) I can recall only one waterfront café from that first visit, but today at least a dozen or more bars and restaurants front the harbor, side by side. Pastel-colored homes, small hotels and rooming houses push at the cliff edges above town. My memory was of a more modest harbor front, on one level, and in one universal color: sugar-white. Yet Patitiri was peaceful – sleepy, even, on this Friday afternoon in July, nothing like busy Skiathos.
In 1979, and for many years after, I traveled solo. This time we arrived in force: my wife; our three boys; Declan, our middle son’s best friend; and my brother- and sister-in-law. We were headed to a villa I’d found and booked months before on VRBO.com. A 15-minute drive northeast from town, the house perches on a hill overlooking the turquoise and cobalt water of Tzortzi Ghialos bay – arguably the most beautiful bay on an island that offers a seemingly endless parade of them. Photo: the Villa Ioanna, on Tzortzi Ghialos bay.
That initial drive to the villa proved vaguely disheartening. It wasn’t the blind curves, the questionable drivers (fast taxis, unpredictable tourists), the steep drop-offs or the stunning and distracting views, all of which prompted Brigid to quickly nix my plan to hire scooters for the boys. That didn’t bother me – nor them, as it turned out. I was worried about how much I really remembered, because little looked familiar.
Had I really wandered among the ruined homes and deserted streets of what had been the Old Village? Hired a boat to visit the monastery on the offlying island of Skantzoura, the sea so rough that day that I huddled in the forepeak, re-reading Great Expectations, to avoid getting sick? In truth, my memories of Alonissos were like a very small box of old Polaroids, limited in number and fading quickly at the edges. I was starting to wonder why they’d retained such a hold.
Pirates, Phylloxera and an Earthquake
If geography and accessibility are instrumental in keeping over-development and mass tourism at bay, history, too, can play a significant role. Alonissos sits on what was once one of the busiest sea lanes in the Aegean. Its waters, especially the channel between the southern shore and the neighboring island of Peristera, are reputed to harbor a vast wealth of wrecks. Pirates were a perennial scourge to both local shipping and the islanders themselves, who built Palio Chorio up high, with warren-like streets and alleys, as protection against them.
It didn’t always work. In 1538, the infamous Barbary pirate Barbarossa caught the residents unawares, slaughtering or enslaving the entire population and burning the 12-mile-long island from end to end. Alonissos wasn’t repopulated until the end of the 16th century.
Known since classical times for its fine wines, Alonissos had in recent years established viticulture as its economic mainstay. By 1950, the island produced more than 257,000 liters – Patitiri takes its name from the wine presses, ‘patitiria’, once located there. But within three years, phylloxera, having already laid waste to vineyards on nearby islands, had completely decimated Alonissos vines as well. Islanders looked outward for opportunity, to Athens and abroad, and many left for good. Even today, full-time island residents number a mere 2,200. Photo: Kokkinokastro beach.
The island was devastated once again in 1965, this time by earthquake. Palio Chorio suffered the greatest damage from the 6.4-rated tremors. Over time, the villagers relocated to government-subsidized housing in the ‘New Settlement’ outside Patitiri; by 1978, water had been cut off and the village school had finally closed. When I visited the following year, Palio Chorio was all but deserted, my only companions a few stray cats and a warm wind whistling through rubble and cracked walls.
The Old Village today is practically unrecognizable from my visit 40 years ago. Nearly all of the ruined houses have been purchased and rebuilt over the years by foreigners and mainland Greeks, and numerous new ones constructed. Gift shops and galleries line the narrow streets and alleyways, and a magnificent view over the island and water is offered at nearly every turn. Patitiri is the island’s nucleus, but the Old Village is once again its destination point.
Yes, there are far more tourists to be found than in 1979 – some 60,000 visited the island last summer. But by comparison, Skiathos saw 150,000 in August alone, and Santorini hosted two million in 2018, excluding cruise passengers, and yet is a little over half the size. By many measures, Alonissos remains an island out of time.
‘Favored by Naturists’
Some days I would manage to find a bit of time between family beach and boating trips, taking the scooter or car to explore various corners of the island on my own. It was in those moments that I would occasionally catch the remains of a remembered Greece and be reminded of everything that drew me to it: the azure water, the smell of pine forest, the arc-light intensity of sunlight, the solitude.
Away from Patitiri and the Old Village and a few of the busier beaches, Alonissos can still feel untouched, pristine, the passage of time immaterial – a place minted solely for whomever is fortunate enough to behold it. Photo: Hora, or the ‘Old Village.’
Late one afternoon I turned north off the main road outside Patitiri and drove toward Meghali Ammos Bay, looking for the seaside chapels of Aghii Anarghyri. The road turned rough, then to dirt. After half an hour, thoroughly confused by the forest tracks criss-crossing the steep hills, I finally noticed a small, white hand-painted sign. ‘Tourkaneri’ it said, with an image of a beach umbrella. It pointed downhill toward the water. I remembered the name and the brief description the villa owner had given us: ‘Favored by naturists.’
I parked the car and wandered a quarter-mile or more down a rocky, rutted road surrounded by thick pine forest. Several villas were visible on the hills across the bay, but they sat silent, empty. The only sound was the clicking of cicadas. I was utterly alone on the island, or so it felt. A remark that Fowles had once made about Spetsai came back to me: “In no place was it less likely that something would happen; yet somehow happening lay always poised.”
The small, rocky beach was empty of people; only a few curious goats watched me undress and wade out into the cool water. I swam out, far beyond the turquoise, floating on my back in a sea the color of sapphires. Years washed away, and with them, for a while, the concerns of age: retirement, purpose, that diagnosis of Parkinson’s.
As I returned to the car, a woman in sunglasses, perhaps 35 or 40, long brown hair swinging, was busy unloading a beach chair from her red sedan. “Hello!” she said, in a Dutch, or German, accent – I wasn’t sure which – and beamed a smile. But her look said much more.
Why are you leaving? she seemed to be asking. I only just got here.
“Sorry,” I replied as I eased the car into gear, though whether to her for my having taken all the parking space, or to myself, I’m still not sure.
One more line from the book came back to me, unbidden: “Between skin and skin there is only light.”
I have long accepted that The Magus is fundamentally a young man’s book – a bildungsroman – set with moral dilemmas, the occasional guidepost and, providing one remains open to it, the promise of adventure.
But even after all these years, the story and, most of all, the promise, continue to sustain me. ●
If You Go…
Island travel in 1979 was by foot, thumb and the occasional bus; it was 1980 before a taxi was first introduced. No longer. Our fleet last summer included two small Hyundai sedans, one scooter, and a boat, a 16-foot outboard chartered through Alonissos Boats.
The boat opened up not only the whole of the Alonissos coast– many of its north-shore beaches are only accessible by sea – but also the small coves and pocket beaches of nearby Peristera. Our favorite expedition by boat, though, was ‘cave swimming’, as Brigid dubbed it – snorkeling into the nearly hidden grotto near Lalarias Beach, on the island’s northeast corner. It lies around a headland just beyond the well-advertised and often visited Blue Cave. On both occasions we had the beach and grotto entirely to ourselves. Photo: Returning from ‘cave swimming.’
Your own boat is by no means a necessity, however. A variety of day charters are available from the Patitiri waterfront, offering beach-going, scuba diving, trips to the Blue Cave, dolphin-spotting and other eco-tours, to name a few. Alonissos and half a dozen of its offlying islands, including Skantzoura and Peristera, comprise the 850-square-mile National Marine Park, which was founded in 1992 as a nature reserve to protect such species as the Mediterranean monk seal. The seal has since become something of an unofficial mascot for Alonissos, and even has a small education center in Patitiri dedicated to it.
A day on Alonissos means a day at the beach, of which there are more than 70 by my count. There are beaches for families (Chrisi Milia, Tzortzi Ghialos…); beaches for naturists (Mikros Mourtias); beaches for harbor swimmers (Votsi); beaches for loners (almost any on the north shore); and beaches for the truly indolent, where €5 will secure you a chaise lounge, umbrella and refreshments delivered from a casual beach bar (Kokkinokastro, Aghios Dimitrios…). When I visited Aghios Dimitrios 40 years ago, I had it nearly to myself, with nary a cappuccino freddo in sight. I think I like it better today.
Alonissos is also an island for hikers, with numerous marked trails, many following old donkey and goat paths. Accessing them is easy, thanks to the availability of excellent maps, and guides such as Alonissos on Foot. Many of the trails lead to secluded beaches. One, tackled by Brigid and Charlie, our oldest son, leads up through maquis scrub to the top of Kouvouli, the island’s highest peak at 1,558 feet. From there one can see Alonissos in its entirety, stretching out along its southwest-to-northeast axis.
So went our days: boat, beach, occasionally a trail. We never visited the island’s Historical and Folklore Museum, or the renowned International Academy of Classical Homeopathy. And we were too early for the annual August 15th traditional wedding revival festival.
But we can tell you where to find the best gyro – Red Rooster, in Patitiri – and our favorite restaurant, Dendrolimano , on Votsi Harbor.