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Delos Diary

As reported earlier this week on Gadling, the Greek government recently announced that it has earmarked $2 million for the restoration of an ancient theater on the sacred island of Delos. That welcome announcement -- some rare good news emanating from that beleaguered country I love -- had special import for me, because one of the magical experiences of my early traveling life took place on Delos. Reading about the theater and the history of the island re-immersed me in that singular memory -- and inspired me to hunt through my journals and scrapbooks for an account I wrote shortly after my visit more than three decades ago. I offer it here not as a guidebook to the current conditions of the place -- I've never returned -- but rather as a snapshot of its spirit, and a celebration of the serendipitous bonds that travel can sometimes bestow.

***

There are no tavernas, no discotheques, no pleasure boats at anchor; nor are there churches, windmills or goatherds. Delos, three miles long and less than one mile wide, is a parched, rocky island of ruins, only 14 miles from Mykonos, Aegean playground of the international vagabonderie. Once the center of the Panhellenic world, Delos has been uninhabited since the first century A.D., fulfilling a proclamation of the Delphic oracle that "no man or woman shall give birth, fall sick or meet death on the sacred island."

I chanced on Delos during my first visit to Greece. After three harrowing days of seeing Athens by foot, bus and taxi, my traveling companion and I were ready for open seas and uncrowded beaches. We selected Mykonos on the recommendation of a friend, who suggested that when we tired of the beautiful people, we should take a side trip to Delos.

On arriving in Mykonos, we learned that for under $3 we could catch a fishing trawler to Delos (where the harbor is too shallow for cruise ships) any morning at 8 a.m. and return to Mykonos at 1 p.m. the same afternoon. On the morning of our fourth day, we braved choppy seas and ominous clouds to board a rusty, peeling boat that reeked of fish. With a dozen other tourists, we packed ourselves into the ship's tiny cabin, already crowded with anchors, ropes and wooden crates bearing unknown cargo.
At some point during the 45-minute voyage, the toss and turn of the waves became too much for a few of the passengers, and I moved outside into the stinging, salty spray. As we made our way past Renea, the callus-like volcanic island that forms part of the natural breakwater with Delos, the clouds cleared and the fishermen who had docked their caiques at the Delos jetty greeted us in bright sunlight.

At the end of the dock a white-whiskered man in a navy blue beret and a faded black suit hailed each one of us as we walked by: "Tour of Delos! Informative guide to the ruins." A few yards beyond him a young boy ran up to us, all elbows and knees, and confided in hard breaths, "I give you better tour. Cheaper too."

I had read the Delphic oracle's proclamation the night before and wondered what these people were doing on the island. I asked the boy, and he pointed to a cluster of houses on a knoll about a thousand yards away. "I live here. Family."

At first glance, Delos seemed the quintessential ruin: broken bits of statues, stubby pillars, cracking archways and isolated walls. Nothing moved but the sunlight, glinting off the fragments like fish scales scattered over a two-acre basin.

Other movements had once animated the alleys and temples before us. Legend has it that Delos was originally a roving island when Leto, mistress of Zeus, landed there racked with birth pains. Poseidon anchored the island in its present position while Leto brought forth Artemis and Apollo, the Greek sun god and protector of light and art. Apollo eventually became the most revered of the Greek gods, and religious devotion, coupled with the island's central, protected situation, established Delos as the thriving center of the Mediterranean world, religious and commercial leader of an empire that stretched from Italy to the coast of Asia Minor.

Wandering the ruins of this once-boisterous center, we found temples both plain and elegant, Greek and foreign; massive marketplaces studded with pedestals where statues once stood, now paved with poppies; a theater quarter with vivid mosaics depicting actors and symbolic animals and fish; a dry lake ringed with palm trees; a stadium and a gymnasium; storehouses and quays along the waterfront; and an ancient suburb where merchants and ship captains once lived: the haunting skeleton of a Hellenistic metropolis.

***

At 12:45 the captain of the trawler appeared at the end of the dock and whistled once, twice, three times, then waved his arms. He repeated this signal at 12:50 and 12:55. My friend left, but something about those deserted ruins held me, and I decided to spend the night on the island. I watched from the top of Mount Cynthus, the lone hill, as the boat moved away toward the mountains of Mykonos on the northeast horizon. Looking around, I felt at the center of the Cyclades: to the north, Tinos, to the northwest, Andros, then Syros, Siphnos, Pros and Naxos, and beyond them Melos and Ios -- all spokes in the sacred chariot of the sun god.

Below me the ruins were absolutely desolate, shimmering silently in the midday sun. A lizard slithered over my boot. The boat crawled father away. The wind sighed. Droplets of sweat seemed to steam form my forehead.

I walked down the hill to the shade of the tourist pavilion, the one concession to tourism (besides a three-room museum) on the island. I walked inside and asked the owner, a large, jolly man with a Zorba mustache, what he was offering for lunch. He looked surprised to see me. "You miss the caique?"

"No, I wanted to spend the night here."

"Ah." He looked beyond me into the glaring, baked ruins. "We have rice, meat, vegetables."

"Do you have any fish?"

"Fish? Yes." He directed me to a case in the back room, opened it and took out five different fish, each caked with ice. "Which do you want?" I pointed to one. "Drink?"

"A beer, please."

He nodded, pointed out the door to a terrace with tables and chairs scattered at random like dancers at a Mykonos discotheque, and said, "Sit, please," motioning me into a chair.

The heat hung in the air, folding like a curtain over the pillars and pedestals, smothering the palms and reeds. Occasionally a dusty-brown lizard would scuttle from one shadow into another. The owner moved from kitchen to terrace like a man who has never waited, never worried about time, wiping off the table, bringing a glass of cold beer, then fish, fried potatoes and a tomato salad.

Eventually, two old men dressed in the same uniform as the man who had greeted us that morning walked up carrying two pails filled with water. One went inside and began to talk animatedly with the owner. The other sat down on the edge of the terrace, dipped his callused hands and pulled out a white and black octopus. He rolled the octopus in a milky white liquid from the other pail, twisting and slapping its tentacles against the cement until he was satisfied it was clean. Then he laid it aside, and dipped in again, pulling out another slippery creature. He cleaned five octopuses in all, leaving them oozing in the sun, their tentacles writhing and their suction cups puckering.

At 4 p.m. a cock crowed. What is he doing here? I wondered. And, more important, why is he crowing at 4 p.m.? The sound broke the silence with an eerie premonition. I looked at the bottles, chairs, tables, heard the reassuring murmur of voices inside. Beyond the terrace, in the light and heart, seemed another world.

***

An hour later I walked into the ruins, following the wide central avenue (the "Sacred Way") toward the waterfront, the theater district and the hillside temples. On my way I passed columns carved with line after line of intricate symbols with no breaks between the words; sacrificial altars; huge cisterns for storing rainwater and oil; and vast foundations outlining meeting halls and marketplaces by the wharves. I explored the remains of private houses, passing from room to room, trying to imagine where their inhabitants had cooked, eaten and slept, awakened from my reverie only by an occasional spider web or lizard trail. As I walked on and the setting sun cast the halls and walls in an orange-pink light, the ruins seemed to take on a strange life all their own.

What had been eerie desolation became an intense timelessness, a sense of communion with other peoples and other eras. My boots crossed rocks other sandals had crossed; my hands touched marble other hands had touched. When I reached the mosaics, they seemed a living thing, green-eyed tigers and blue dolphins, flowers of every shape and color, the same to me as they were to the countless merchants and artisans who had admired them centuries before. I continued up the hill to the temples of the Syrian and Egyptian -- as well as Greek -- gods, and reflected how many different cultures had met in that silent hollow below.

While I was sitting in the temple to the Egyptian gods, a figure appeared walking up the hill toward me. It was not the owner of the pavilion, nor any of the fishermen I had seen previously. This was a man in shorts and a Western shirt with a satchel and a walking stick. We exchanged waves and wary glances until he came up and sat next to me. "You are English?"

"American."

"Ah, good." He stuck out his hand.

He was a physicist from Hungary on leave from a national research project for two weeks. "I have been saving my passes for this trip," he said. "Isn't this wonderful? Yesterday I examined all the ruins from there" -- he waved a finger toward the stadium at the distant end of the basin-- "to here. Today I have walked the circuit of the island." He paused to catch his breath, his cheeks as grainy as the rocks on which we sat. "There really isn't that much else to see."

The mountains were turning purple over the poppy-red water. The ruins were fading into shade. I wanted to explore further before darkness set in, so we agreed to meet for dinner.

***

When I entered the tourist pavilion, the owner greeted me like a long-lost friend and brought out three glasses and a bottle of ouzo. "We drink." The Hungarian appeared through another doorway that, I learned later, led to the pavilion's four "guest rooms," distinguished by the presence of a mattress and wash basin. We finished one bottle and began another, talking in Greek, Italian, French, German and English about everything and soon thereafter about nothing. When one language failed, we tried another, until we were all speaking in the universal tongue of Loquacious Libation.

In another hour or two the owner fixed us a feast of fish, lamb, fried potatoes, rice, tomatoes and cucumbers, with baklava and rice pudding for dessert. While we ate, the physicist and I talked. I learned that the cluster of houses I had seen earlier had been built by the French School of Classical Studies when it was digging on Delos in the 1950s and `60s. When the last archaeologists left, the curator of the museum moved in with his family. It was his son I had met that morning. The old man who had hailed our arrival was a fisherman from a local island who turned to guiding when the fishing was slow.

After finishing our second bottle -- compliments of the owner -- of sweet, resiny retsina, we drank a good night toast of thick Greek coffee. Then the physicist retired to his room, preceded by the owner's wife, who had drawn a pitcher of cold water for his use in the morning. I was traveling on a backpack budget, however, and when the owner offered me the use of his roof for 30 drachmas (under $1), half the cost of the guest rooms, I gladly accepted.

I walked up two flights of cement stairs to a cement roof enclosed like a medieval fortress with a four-foot-high wall. The stars glinted like a nighttime mirror of the marble ruins. I unrolled my sleeping bag in a protected corner, thankful that the lizards could not reach me at that height, and rummaged in my backpack for soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

"Could you use this?" The physicist held out his flashlight. "I've come to ask you to hurry in preparing your toilet. The owner wants to turn off the electricity."

After I had washed and brushed and stumbled back up the stairs to my sleeping bag, I heard a scuffling of footsteps; voices thundered back and forth through the blackness, and the lights went out.

The footsteps returned, a door squeaked and banged shut, chairs scraped. Then everything was silent. No machine sounds, no human sounds, no animal sounds. Absolute silence. I lay in my sleeping bag, and the ruins encroached on my dreams -- the swish of the lizards scrambling over the rocks, the moist coolness of the marble at sunset, the languid perfume of the poppies dabbed among the fluted white fragments.

***

Streaming sunlight awakened me. I turned to look at my watch and disturbed a black kitten that had bundled itself at my feet. In so doing, I also disturbed the ouzo and retsina that had bundled itself in my head, and I crawled as close as I could to the shadow of the wall -- 6:45. I pulled my towel over my head and tried to imagine the windy dark, but to no avail. The kitten mewed its way under my towel, where it set to lapping at my cheek as if it had discovered a bowl of milk.

I stumbled down the stairs and soaked my head in tepid tap water until at last I felt stable enough to survey the surroundings. Behind the pavilion a clothesline ran to the rusting generator. Chickens strutted inside a coop at the curator's house. Rhenea stirred in the rising mist.

Again I wandered through the ruins, different ruins now, bright with day and the reality of returns: The tourists would return to Delos, and I would return to Mykonos. I ate a solemn breakfast on the terrace with the physicist, then walked past the sacred lake and the marketplace to the Terrace of the Lions. Standing among the five lions of Delos, erected in the seventh century B.C. to defend the island from invaders, I looked over the crumbling walls and stunted pillars to the temples on the hill. Like priests they presided over the procession of tourists who would surge onto the island, bearing their oblation in cameras and guidebooks. As the trawler approached, a bent figure in a navy blue beret hurried to the dock, and a boy in shorts raced out of the curator's house past the physicist, past me, and into the ruins.

[flickr image via Alex Healing]

Filed under: Stories, Europe, Greece

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