50 Years in the Greek Islands

An American who made Greece her second home, travel and food writer Diana Farr Louis looks back at treasured moments.


Alonissos, Summer, early ‘90s

Just call me “Swims With Seals”

I was in the water off Alonissos with an Italian film crew waiting for Thodoros, an orphaned seal who’d been released into the wild from the Monk Seal Refuge at Steni Vala but who seemed to shun solitude. He arrived on schedule around 15:00, happy to find playmates. We dove with him and stroked him for hours. Eventually, starting to shiver, I swam towards shore. Thodoros followed. He was no longer a pup and I was a bit alarmed. As I climbed the few rungs to the dock, I felt a sharp nip on my right buttock. I whirled around and there was Thodoros, treading water and scolding me for leaving the party. He didn’t mean to hurt, just to show his disapproval.

Aegina, Winter 2015

Not quite antiquities

Aegina was always a favorite winter day trip. We’d pop over to visit the Temple of Aphaia or explore the neoclassical town, its fish market and delightful ouzeris (restaurants specializing in seafood meze and ouzo). However, not until a friend who lived there took us to the olive grove above Marathonas did we dip below the surface. Billed as “ancient,” the trees may be no more than 500 years old, but with their twisted trunks, some virtually hollowed out and others bulging grotesquely, they look truly mythical. A fishy lunch at a seaside taverna made us nostalgic for a more recent past, as we emptied countless liters of the taverna’s own barrel-aged retsina, a taste I hadn’t enjoyed for at least three decades.

Andros, March 1993

A winter’s tale in a summer playground

It started to snow as we climbed from Andros Korthi Bay up to the wind-ravaged Venetian castle and down the watermill-lined gorge to Sineti. The next day, we took a steep path to the Panachrantos Monastery, founded in 961. The abbot cooked us spaghetti with tomato sauce and entertained us with stories of visiting London with the Goulandris shipping family.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“New York.”

“Ah, I’ve heard there’s an American with a house at Ano Mermigies.”

“That’s me,” I said.

The next day we trudged through deep snow on the ridge of the mountain in our shirt sleeves, and having lost the path, slid down to the main coastal road by following the pylons.

Corfu, October 2016

Sniffing at the hem of celebrity

I’d been invited to Corfu to advise a newly renovated hotel on attracting food tourism. At breakfast, an older woman asked, “Are you British?”

I replied, “No, American.” I positioned myself closer to her, hoping we could talk. It was Leslie Caron, in Corfu to film “The Durrells,” and she invited me to join her at every meal. She told me about being “discovered” by Gene Kelly, braving Hollywood as a shy teenager, and how, even after she became a star, she still had to deal with a mother who told her, “Yeah, you’ve done pretty well, but you’re not as good as Audrey Hepburn!”

Folegandros, July 2007

Time-traveling back to the sixties

So many images linger in the memory from Folegandros: the view, from inland, of ridge-hugging Hora stabbing the sky like a scimitar blade, and, from the Church of Panaghia above, of its white houses poised on the brink of the cliff like lemmings; lemon trees enclosed by high stone walls for protection against the wind; turquoise coves with jade rocks; Hora’s connecting squares graced with gleaming churches and empty by day but a party scene at night. Most of all, I remember the people: Mitsos offering free rakomelo (raki pomace brandy laced with honey) the second time we went to his kafeneio; strangers stopping to chat with us on the street; making friends over breakfast in our hotel. We had, it seemed, returned to the Greece of the ‘60s.

Kastelorizo, July 30, 1980

A special day at the end of the Aegean

That morning, a boatload of young men singing mantinades (folk songs) to their friend’s fiancée had woken us before dawn. After breakfast, we were taking a stroll along the waterfront lined with faded two-story houses when a priest and a few young men attempted to throw us into the sea, a bizarre local tradition on the feast day of St Elias. That evening, we joined the whole island at a wedding dinner – the waterfront turned into one big taverna – even though we were total strangers. The next day, we took a small outboard boat to Kaş in Turkey, a half-hour away, and lunched on lobster for under 1000 drachmas (about 20 dollars).

Kea, Mid ‘70s

Recipe for a quick adventure

“Take the ferry from Lavrio to Kea and get a taxi at the port to take you to the convent at the eastern tip of the island. Spend the night in its spartan rooms, have a light breakfast, admire the view and then set off for the main town via a mountain path where you’ll pick blackberries and come across an Archaic statue of a grinning lion. By noon, you’ll be strolling through the town and down to the sea, where you’ll plunge into the harbor for a refreshing swim, have a wonderful taverna lunch and finish just in time to take the ferry back.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a better tip.

Naxos, Late ‘70s

When yachtsmen became hikers

Leaving the boat in the port, we took an extended walk into the Naxos hinterland. It was a gentle hike through gorgeous green countryside speckled with white churches and imposing stone tower houses. Just when we were getting seriously hungry, we stumbled upon a taverna. It was closed, but the owner graciously rustled up what he had: fried eggs, fried potatoes, a salad with delectable local cheese, and kitro, a pale yellow lemony liqueur more suitable for after dinner than during lunch. Nonetheless, we emptied several carafes and got a taxi back to the boat. All four of us remember it as one of the best meals we’ve ever had.

Pserimos, Mid ‘70s

Three days of unforgettable memories

We first heard of this tiny sponge divers’ island lying between Kos and Kalymnos when we were on the latter, and it was from there that we took a caique for our trip into the unknown. On Pserimos, we slept on a pile of blankets instead of a bed and ate our meals at the only shop on the island, a general store/café/post office. One night, the owner, one of only three men on the island, pressed me into service making omelets for his clientele while he enthralled us with non-stop stories. Another time, we shared fish soup cooked on the beach by fishermen who’d almost caught us bathing nude. When, after three days, we hired the caique to take us on to Kos, the whole island joined us for the ride. On the way, a woman cried out to my husband, “I know you! You’re a doctor at the hospital in Voula (in Athens).”

Symi, 1997

First port of call after a cruise in Turkey

Who knows just where Greek waters start? Perhaps the light was a clue. Every fold and crevice in Symi’s bald rocks and sheer cliffs stood out in sharp relief, while a tiny church or two, grafted onto impossible heights, reminded me of how much I’d missed the Greek mountains and their white chapels. In Turkey, there are no mini mosques to take their place. The church bells rang out as we sailed into the sheltered Panormitis Bay, a pleasant tintinnabulation not heard for days, but the booming conversations and shrill whines of the kids at the taverna later were an even more penetrating reminder that we were really home again.

Tinos, Spring, mid ‘90s

Ambling across the other side

We ignored the classic route from the port to the Panaghia Evangelistria Tinos (The Church of Our Lady of Tinos) and instead rambled down cobbled paths for three days, through green valleys sprinkled with white dovecotes and across arched stone bridges. We explored a ruined Venetian castle called Xobourgo and traipsed through a surreal landscape littered with immense round rocks that could have been the cannonballs of gods. In the immaculate villages, each with a central fountain, every house bore delicate marble decorations above windows and doors, and occasionally their occupants would invite us in for some sweet preserves or a tumbler of raki. Was this really the Lourdes of Greece, where the pious flock in search of miracles?

About the Author

Diana Farr Louis is a food & travel writer. Her book, Feasting & Fasting in Crete: Delicious Mediterranean Recipes (Kedros, Athens, 2001) is available from the publishers at: kedros.gr



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