A Swim Around Samos

Feature by Willard Manus

Samos's port town of Vathy sits in the northeastern corner of the island, surrounded by red earth hills. It is a modern town, strangely un-Greek in appearance. Not that we saw much of it when we first arrived--at midnight, our ferry-boat from Tinos having been two hours behind schedule.

On the dock we were importuned by a tipsy sailor and his gypsy-looking wife, who swore they had cheap but clean rooms just a two-minute walk away. We followed them dutifully as they led us out of the harbor and through the darkened town. Two minutes went by, then twenty, and still we kept walking, staggering under the weight of our heavy bags.

Finally we reached a flight of steps that corkscrewed up to the Old Town, built by the island's first settlers some three thousand years ago.

"How much further?" my wife wanted to know.

"One more minute," came the reply.

Up and up we climbed, right to the top of Vathy, whose tightly packed houses towered over the harbor like a castle without walls.

At long last we reached our pension. Gasping for breath, bodies throbbing with pain, we fell into bed and slept until ten the next morning.

Our good spirits returned when we took breakfast on a patio with a sweeping view of Vathy and the royal-blue sea beyond. The light was so clear and bright we could see the hulking mountains of Turkey, just two kilometers away.

We set out to investigate Vathy, on foot of course. With its wide streets, modern buildings, brisk traffic and air of prosperity, Vathy was unmistakably bourgeois, a town of shopkeepers, traders and engineers. The town's coffee houses and tavernas were already stuffed with people, both Greeks and foreigners alike. Their expressions seemed to be uniformly cheerful and alert.

The Byzantine and Archaeological Museums were worth visiting. They contained relics and leftovers from Samos's glory days, when it was famous for its wine, sculpture, jewelry design and construction feats. Polycrates, the "tyrant" who made Samos a maritime power in 535 BC, was not only a warrior and patron of the arts but a master builder. It was under his tenacious rule that three of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient Greek world were carried out. The first was the breakwater that still protects Vathy's harbor; the second was the mile-long, eight-foot-high tunnel that brought water to the capital; the third was the Temple of Hera which stood on a headland called Cape Colonna (but is now little more than a pile of rocks).

We also enjoyed visiting Vathy's Municipal Garden with its two hundred varieties of flowers. But after just a couple of days of sightseeing, we decided to move on. Vathy was a little too sterile and yuppyish for our taste.

In search of a more authentic Greek experience, we rented a car and drove to Pythagorion, having heard that it still retained some of its charm and character.

Formerly the capital of the island, the port of Pythagorion proved to be disappointing as well: a once-beautiful village overrun with tourists, mostly off the private yachts crowding the marina. More French than Greek was spoken here, especially in the bars where the "yachties" spent most of their time, knocking back the wine and champagne. Nothing wrong with that, but it just wasn't what we were looking for.

A waiter who split his time between Samos and Belgium sent us to his nearby village of Psili Amos ("fine sand"), but we found it to be even more depressing than Pythagorian. Unfinished houses and "studio apartments" stood everywhere, showing raw-cement facades with steel construction rods jutting up like a punk rocker's hair.

We hit the road again, driving through undulating fields burgeoning with olive, citrus and grape groves, always within sight of Mount Cercetus, the island's 5000-foot-high backbone. We stopped off at several well-known archaeological sites, such as Ireon, one of many temples built by Polycrates, and the castle of Lycurgus, erected about a hundred years ago.

Serendipity brought us to Akti Possidonos, a tiny fishing village on the east coast of the island, reached by a dirt road that was as steep and narrow as a ski trail. There we found a cluster of houses, a dozen-odd fishing boats snuggled like children up against a mothering stone quay. At the tip of the quay was a small taverna with a fresh-caught octopus pinned up in the sunlight. The pine trees cascading down to the water's edge exuded a light, sweet smell, like retsina.

We inquired after rooms and discovered they were hard to come by. Finally, we were directed to a row of one-room bungalows set back from the sea. The landlord's name was Kosta, but he was absent. Business affairs had been left in the hands of his 12-year-old daughter.

"Any beds for rent?"


"Are you sure?"

"You can check with my father."

"When's he coming back?"

"I don't know."


"I don't know."

Pause. Then my wife Mavis took over. "It's very beauiful here, the most beautiful village we have seen on Samos. We would very much like to stay here for a week or so."

The girl brightened. "Well," she said, "maybe you can have that one."

"It's free?"

"I think so."

"Can we take it?"

"You want me to decide now?"

"Yes, please."

"I'm not sure what to do."

As if on cue, a Toyota pickup came down the hill and stopped beside us. Kosta, the girl's father, began unloading baskets of tomatoes. He was stocky and sun-tanned but had light-brown hair and blue eyes, a Samiot male characteristic.

"It's okay about the room," he said. "You can fix the price with my wife when she comes."

Then he turned, picked up a stack of fishing nets, and headed to his nearby caique.

* * *

Akti Possidonos was blissfully quiet and restful. We were the only foreigners on the scene. The two-dozen-odd villagers fished, worked their fields and tended their flocks. Every morning one of them brought his goats down to the water's edge for a drink. Another family kept ducks and the cry of the matriarch calling across the bay for her brood to return became part of our consciousness.

Things changed on the weekend, though, when middle-class Greeks from Vathy and other Samiot towns arrived with relatives and speedboats in tow. The men began roaring up and down the bay mindlessly, burning up gas, showing off.

Apostoli, one of the speedboat-racers, had spent time on Long Island. In fact, he'd bought his Chris Craft there and had it shipped to Greece. He offered to take me out diving.

Apostoli also introduced us to some of his friends. They were young, gregarious and fun-loving--taverna parties every night, much singing, dancing, laughing and smashing of plates.

When things got too boisterous and drunken, Mavis and I walked up the hill to the small chapel of Agios Nikolaos and sat gazing over the sea to the Turkish coastline, about three miles away. The cluster of twinkling lights belonged to the town of Cesme.

Midway in the channel between Akti Possidonos and Cesme was a lighthouse. "That's where you should spearfish," Apostoli advised. The next day he took me out there, only to stop abruptly, about five hundred yards from the lighthouse.

"What's the problem?"

Apostoli pointed to the large, red Turkish flag flying from the lighthouse, yellow crescent moon gleaming brightly in the sunlight.

"I'm afraid to enter these waters," he said. "The Turkish patrol boats sometimes come here."

"So why did you bring me here?"

"If the Turks arrive and challenge you, just tell them you're an American. They'll let you go."

It was a foolhardy decision to take, but I decided to go through with it. I jumped into the sea, speargun in hand, and started paddling toward the lighthouse. Apostoli put his engine into reverse and backed off a bit, eying me through binoculars.

I swam and swam, kicking away with my flippered feet. But when I pulled my head up to check my location, I discovered that I hadn't made much progress. In fact, so powerful were the cross-currents that I had been pushed backwards!

I tried my best to fight my way out of the whirlpool, without success. Finally, when my legs began to cramp up, I surrendered and waved for help. Apostoli chugged close and scooped me up.

"It's just as well that you didn't try to fish in the waters around the lighthouse," he said as we sped back to Akti Possidonos. "You might've ended up in a Turkish prison."