Tuesday, May 29, 2012


What is it about islands?

British writer, Lawrence Durrell, used the term “islomania” in his memoir, Reflections on a Marine Venus, about the time he spent on Rhodes after World War II. He wrote of an obsession with islands, an inexplicable enthusiasm for these chunks of land detached from the rest of the world. As far back as Plato’s story of Atlantis, written 2,500 years ago, the allure of islands has endured as a human passion and captor of our imagination. I once knew a man, a fellow travel literature book club member, with a manic attraction to islands, which led him to limit his travel to only these, both large and small, whenever he needed to get away. Durrell was also a confirmed islomane and at every opportunity fled to one of the many island paradises in the Mediterranean. The fantasy of the island as tranquil retreat for harried, frantic souls has long been around and it may be that the idea is as appealing as the reality. Yet there’s no denying that the stirrings of a deep physical response emerge as the shadow in the sea off the bow first comes into view, particularly in the half-light of dawn. What is at first indistinct soon clarifies into the detailed silhouette of a place filled with possibility, a source of fascination, inspiration and delight. There’s something about islands that taps into a fundamental desire for tranquility, for space and for solitude in a world where such are often rare commodities.

Must our idyllic, month-long retreat to the Greek isles really come to an end? Kos is the final island we visited independently (our upcoming cruise includes brief stops at Ithaca and Corfu) and we had a hard time accepting that we would soon have to leave. The most famous native son of Kos is Hippocrates, father of Western medicine and born on the island in 460 BC in the age of Pericles. Until we’d eaten during our month in Rome at a restaurant which shared the first modern doctor’s name and whose owners were from Kos, we’d never before heard of this particular Greek isle. The guidebooks describe it as a lovely place with a lively harbor and so we decided to give it a try. We booked a dirt-cheap hotel about a mile from town ($31 a night for a clean room with Internet, a basic breakfast and a pool) that was overrun by raucous, inebriated, young Australians (and they say Americans are noisy). We at long last met one US compatriot at the budget hotel: a college student from Kansas studying at a program in Athens who’d come to the island on her way to Patmos to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse in which St. John is said to have received revelations from God.

Kos was quite an international place, save, once again, the almost complete absence of Americans. There were scores of British, Scandinavians and Australians vacationing in the casual, beachy neighborhood in which we found ourselves with wall-to-wall seaside tavernas, bars and purveyors of every type of colorful beach gear imaginable. We saw the most beautiful rose displays in gardens that lined our daily walks into town – big, brilliant blooms in red, yellow, peach and pink on healthy, well-manicured bushes and strong, rambling vines. The harbor was indeed spirited, just as the travel guides had described, with ferries, luxury cruisers and fishing, excursion and pleasure boats coming and going alongside the massive fortress of the Knights of St. John. At the head of the harbor is the Tree of Hippocrates, a sprawling plane, reported to be the oldest in Europe (while the current tree is only about 500 years old, it is said to have sprung from the original which stood in the same spot on the square) and under which the master taught his students about modern medicine. Well-used bike lanes lined the harbor and ran all along miles of waterside. We had to carefully watch our way as we crossed back and forth and felt a bit like we were back in Amsterdam as we dodged the two-wheeled traffic.

While quite mountainous, Kos is significantly more verdant and less rocky than all the other islands we visited. We’d planned to rent a Vespa to make the circuit and explore its hidden coves and beaches but we soon discovered that when it came to motor vehicle regulations, not all islands are created equal. Smiling, gregarious Angelos was all set to hand us the keys to a shiny motorbike until we told him we didn’t have an international driving permit. We’d rented ATVs and cars on other islands with Joe’s Maryland license vouching for his driving ability but the insurance companies and police force of Kos demanded more. I’m not sure which I was more disappointed about: that my romantic vision of cruising around the island, my arms wrapped securely around Joe’s waist, would not become a reality or that we were unable to give Angelos our business. We ended up talking with him for a half hour about the failing Greek economy and the country’s complicated politics. And while our attempt to see the island in-depth was foiled by mundane indemnification details, we left Kos once again reassured that the fact that the Greek word xenos can mean both foreigner and guest is not a coincidence. Both are regarded in the same manner and are given warm, collegial welcomes; to be a foreigner in Greece is to be treated as a friend with all the respect of an honored guest.

We enjoyed the Dodecanese and met so many more people we can add to our list of kind-hearted Greeks (we’ll always have a soft spot for the Cyclades, however, perhaps because they were our first). Retracing your footsteps to places whose magic you so clearly recall can often disappoint – they’ve changed or you’ve changed or you so sadly discover that their particular allure was evanescent. The delight you first felt was fleeting – it belonged to a moment in time, locked away, safe in your memory. Not so with the Greek Isles. For us, their charm, their beauty and the unique romance they impart have endured. They were there then and they are still there now.

Am I an islomane? Without question, when it comes to the islands of Greece.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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