SAILING THROUGH PARADISE: A Magical Odyssey
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
Sing, Oh Muse, of the winds that carry the ships Uranus and Spider to sun-drenched islands in the Cyclades. Tell of the Aegean adventure, the delectable epicurean dinners, the fine wines, the mystic toe-ring, the young lovers, the 'eye of the sea', the wise captain, the gazelle, and the journey on a sea of silver ribbons. Sing of the enchanted night when the orange sun and white moon shared the sky as the stars shimmered with excitement. Tell of the Cycladic islands and their awesome beauty. Tell of the magical journey from Piraeus, to Kea, Kythnos, Syros, Mykonos, and Paros. And begin at the beginning.
Some sitting in the cool breeze on the roof-top garden say it is a starless night in central Athens, while others see a few stars twinkling in the direction of the dark-shadowed Acropolis But all of those about to begin the sea journey agree that as the sun descends ever so slowly into a bed of soft, white clouds, the sky is brushed by violet-hued and rose-tipped feathers. Some spot the moon lurking behind moonbeams, impatient to make her entrance. Suddenly the Acropolis is bathed with brilliant light and the white-marbled Parthenon that crowns the ancient hill above the city shines with all the glory befitting a sacred temple to the gods. Has Athena, goddess of wisdom and patroness of Athens , orchestrated this drama as a welcome? Or is it a sign that she is offering her protection for the odyssey ahead?
Captain Antonios Kontaxis is a wily man of the sea who has befriended the winds and learned to read the stars. For how else can one explain his twenty years of wandering on seas that now obey him? How can one explain his heroic-conquering of the sea-god Poseidon's earth-shaking tantrums that would send an ordinary man ashore forever? Captain Kontaxis, a much-enduring man of the sea, is steady at the helm.
The Captain is a large man with a deep, sun-bronzed tan. A perfect host, he is amiable and knowledgeable not only about the sea, but about his country's history, culture, literature, poetry, and art. He is a man of many interests and accomplishments and his many-sided personality is revealed to us in bits and pieces during our journey.
Captain Antonios awaits at Piraeus to lead us on the odyssey into the Cyclades . He has chartered the course, but because he knows the winds so well he knows there will be some slight alterations. He tells us adventure-seekers, who will sail on two ships, to take our provisions on board, select our cabins, and then come back to the pier for an orientation and explanation of the course.
He explains we will sail first to Kea, the Cycladic island closest to Piraeus and, because today's winds are calm, the sail should take about three hours. Depending upon the temperament of the winds, the ports of call will include Kythnos, an island that lies between Kea and Serifos; Syros, a major port of call for all the other islands in the Cyclades; Mykonos, perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the Greek islands visited by celebrities from all over the world; and Paros, the island whose mountains have the finest white marble - marble that was used to carve the Venus de Milo and most of the masterpieces of Greek antiquity.
Captain Antonios then lifts a very large, securely-tied bag and holds it high for all to see. He explains that this will remain next to him at all times and cautions that at no time is anyone to open the bag. We are intrigued, but no one asks a question. "You will have a wonderful journey," he says, "but we must at all times respect the sea and the winds, and, above all, remember that we are in the land of the gods." He beams with pride as he says that Greece has a glorious history and rich mythology and says that, before sailing, he will tell a favorite story about Greece - the story of how the Aegean got its name.
"There was a great feud between Aegeus the King of Athens, and Minos, King of Crete. It began when King Minos sent his only son, Androgeus, to Athens as a guest of King Aegeus. Unfortunately, Aegeus unwisely sent the boy on an expedition to kill a dangerous bull and the boy was killed instead. In a rage, King Minos said he would destroy Athens unless he received a yearly tribute of seven Athenian maidens and youths who were placed in a labyrinth from which there was no escape and then devoured by a half-bull, half-man creature called the Minotaur.
"Year after year, seven maidens and youths were sent to Crete on a ship that carried a black sail to symbolize their hopeless fate as victims who would be devoured by the Minotaur. Distressed, Theseus begged his father to send him to Crete as a victim, saying 'I will slay the Minotaur and when I return, you will know I have succeeded because the ship will no longer have a black sail. The sail will be white.' King Aegeus reluctantly sent his beloved son to do battle with the monster. When Theseus arrived on Crete he and other youths were paraded before King Minos. The King's daughter, Ariadne, saw him and immediately fell in love. She conspired to help him find his way out of the labyrinth and gave him a string, instructing him to unwind it as he entered the maze. He was told to kill the Minotaur and get out of the maze by following the string back to where he entered. Theseus took the string, killed the beast, and after escaping from the maze, took Ariadne with him on the ship for Athens . (The Captain told us Ariadne never got to Athens , but said that is another story!!)
"As the ship approached the coast of Attica , King Aegeus watched from the Acropolis. But woe to all, Theseus forgot to lower the black sail and hoist the white sail. When the black sail came into view, the King took it as a sign that his son had died and in grief he ran to a rocky cliff and threw himself into the sea - a sea which forever after was called The Aegean in his memory."
With that bit of history, the two ships set sail. Captain Antonios skippers the lead ship, Uranus, and keeps the mysterious, securely tied bag close to him at all times. The second ship, the Spider, is captained by Mike Chaney of Fort Worth, a man with ten years experience at the helm. On board Mike's ship are his wife, Sally, a retired school teacher, Charlie and Jane Anderson (he is a retired Army Colonel, she is with US Airways) from Alexandria , Va. , Carol Nokes, of Littleton , Colorado , another teacher, and young Kostas Anagnostopoulos, from Athens , First Mate. I am on Captain Antonio's ship along with Laura Carroll and Wade Simmons, young lovers from California , and also Pat and Dick Janiszewski, business owners from New Jersey who have been sailing for many years. Dick is former Commodore of a Yacht Club in New Jersey and he and his wife are members of the International Order of Blue Gavel, a prestigious organization dedicated to "promoting the customs, ceremonies, and etiquette of yachting." We have all chosen to be part of a sailing cruise organized by GPSC Charters called the "Staff's Choice Gourmet Cruise." It will take us to five islands in the Cyclades and feature lavish feasts on each island.
Captain Antonios plans the itinerary and chooses the restaurants where we dine, based on his many years of experience in sailing to these islands. He knows who are the best hosts and who on each island prepares the most delicious feasts. He is assisted in the planning by Paris-born Kostas Anagnostopoulos who is also First Mate on the Spider. Kostas, darkly handsome and athletic with a worldly sophistication beyond his years, is a student at the University of Indianapolis in Athens where he is studying English literature and philosophy. He is fluent in three languages and is an accomplished artist who has produced more than 100 works of art. His works may be exhibited soon on various islands. He works as a captain in the summer for GPSC Charters and moves about the ships fluidly with graceful agility. He considers the sea his element.
We stay two nights at some of our ports of call and have the opportunity to explore the islands during the day, swim and sun bathe, or visit the mineral spas.
We stay together as a group, except for Laura and Wade, the young lovers, who constantly disappear, come late to dinner, and find secluded places to swim and sun-bathe, as lovers should.
The port of Vourkari on the island of KeaGourmet meals are served at the islands' best restaurants and it seems that our hosts try to outshine each other with the quality and quantity of ambrosia and nectar. No one ever leaves a dinner table hungry and unique deserts constantly surprise and delight us. On Kea we dine on a sumptuous meal of wonderful fish soup and grilled fish in a small taverna on the port of Korissia called Nikos. It is apt that our first meal together in Greece is the freshest of fish at a romantic spot close to the sea. Our second port is Kythnos and here we are taken by bus up the hillside to Katerina's where the view of the island is breath-taking. We eat family-style with barely enough room on the tables for the marvelous mezdes and lavish main courses of fish and meat. On Kythnos we dine also at the lovely seaside restaurant called Ostria for some of the best lamb any of us has ever enjoyed. I could return again and again to Ostria. On Syros our hosts are the owners of the Acapulco Restaurant near the main port and here we enjoy wonderful grilled vegetables and mezdes along with lamb and pork. On Mykonos we are treated to two marvelous evenings of meals where we have a choice of either of pork shanks or racks of lamb at Taverna Matthew, a relatively new restaurant near Mykonos ' recently built New Port. If tourists on Mykonos have not yet discovered Matthew's, which must be reached by bus or taxi from the main town, they soon will because word is traveling quickly about the marvelous food.
The mornings before each sail are quiet times between us, the gentle sea, and the rosy-fingered dawn. Slowly, we cook our own breakfasts and make coffee before setting off. During these magical moments, we often ask Captain Antonios to tell us about his life, but he is vague, except to say that he "wanders about." But when we ask him to tell us more stories about 'the land of the gods,' he always obliges and one morning he tells the story of Alexander and the mermaid.
"I will tell you now the story of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, one of history's most glorious heroes. He was born in 356 B.C. and after becoming King at the age of twenty, he took his armies over the Hellespont into Persia and the border of India to capture the world as he knew it. He accomplished all this as a young man and had an untimely death at the age of just thirty-two.
"His mother told him he was a descendant of Achilles and Heracles and that it was Zeus himself, the supreme god, who impregnated her. As a young man he talked about his divine mission to spread Hellenism throughout the world and today Western Civilization is based on the Hellenic ideals first taught to Alexander by the philosopher Aristotle.
"When Alexander died, it was as though a god died and his followers could not accept it. Legends grew and many stories were told about sightings of Alexander. One famous story concerns fishermen on the stormy seas of the Aegean . At the height of the storm, a mermaid appears and asks the fishermen "Where is Alexander the Great?' If they answer, 'Alexander the Great lives and is King,' the seas become calm and they proceed safely on their journey. If they do not respond or give the incorrect response, the sea takes their ship and the fishermen with it."
The Captain then walks about the port and studies the wind to determine if we will sail that day or stay another night. When we sail from island to island, the trips are usually three to four hours on a calm sea of shimmering, silver ribbons. The exhilarating feeling of freedom as we sail into the seas' deep vistas is extraordinary and although the rays from the orange sun are unforgiving, the cool winds envelope and sooth us. The journey is basically calm and there are seldom other boats in sight, increasing the sense of isolation. When the sea is still, we go below for snacks or drinks. Some of us sun-bathe on the bow of the boat and others swim when the captains of the two ships drop anchors.
Captain Antonios seldom leaves his ship and the bulky bag never leaves his side. At night he sleeps on the deck with his arms cradling the bag and when he leaves the ship, the parcel is slung over his shoulder.
Captain Mike Chaney, piloting the Spider, has been a skipper for the past ten years and is certified in basic bare-boating. He attributes his many years of enjoyment sailing the lakes of Fort Worth, Texas , to the toe-ring worn by his wife, Sally. "That ring is my good luck charm," Mike says, "because when Sally wears that ring, it is always a smooth trip."
In Greece there is the phenomenon of "the stranger who comes to call," and if one understands this, the visit to the islands becomes more meaningful. . For islanders, it is the stranger who brings news of the far away world to their isolated habitat and, by tradition, many questions are freely asked. At Kea, the first port of call, a fisherman working his nets calls to me as I walk past and asks what ship brought me to his island. " Uranus," I say. "Who is your captain?" he asks and I reply "Captain Antonios." "Oh," he says, "the wise one. They say he was the skipper for Aristotle Onassis." On Kythnos a woman who sells me a special Greek coffee asks me if I am buying it for our skipper and if he is Captain Antonios. "Yes," I reply and ask if she knows him well. "Everyone here knows the wise captain," she says. "Some say he was the skipper for the Aga Kahn." I enjoy talking to this woman, but I remember that the Captain told us before we strolled about the island that we should not tarry.
I arrive at the pier just in time. Captain Antonios stands between the ships and determines that we must leave immediately for Syros because the winds are restless. He gives the orders to board and to quickly find Laura and Wade. He and Captain Chaney take the helms of their respective boats. The Captain goes aboard the Spider to check the rigging and when he is gone someone falls onto the mysterious, bulky bag, causing the strings to loosen, but with no harm, (or so we think.!!).
Our skipper returns and the two ships set sail with Uranus in the lead. About one-half hour into the journey, strong winds suddenly slap the sails and both captains shout orders. "Lower the sails." "Pull hard on the ropes." "Today!!"
"Today!!!""Pull, Pull." "I said today!!!" All hands work quickly to pull the ropes, lower the sails and secure the rigging. The winds persist and our Captain appears perplexed. He looks at his bag and is alarmed to discover that it is almost flat. Whatever was in there is gone!!
Captain Antonios, the wise one, the man of the sea, knows that the bag contains the four winds - Boreas, Zephyr, Notus, and Eurus - along with Aeolus, King of the Winds. and that they have escaped!! But he does not dare tell us. He stays steady at the helm as does Captain Chaney and his first mate, Skipper Kostas.
The angry winds whip the sea and soon twenty-foot waves are beating the ships. The captains order us to sit down in the cradle of the deck with our backs and feet placed securely against the sides. The waves wash over us as the ships rock with the rhythm of the sea. No other vessels are in sight and if land is nearby, it is covered in mist.
From the vastness of the sea, a woman's voice is heard. It is high-pitched and eerie and sounds as though it is in an echo chamber. We cannot hear what is said, but we know it is a woman's voice. Suddenly Captain Antonios stands tall, turns toward the sea and shouts, "Alexander the Great lives and is King." Immediately, the winds subside and the ships sail on calm seas to Syros where we arrive just an hour behind schedule.
Captain Antonios says the sudden winds have nothing to do with the opening of the mysterious bag. After all, he says, it is just a myth that winds can be secured in a bag and released at will. He says his shout that "Alexander is alive and well," was instinctive and not a response to a mermaid, yet all of us know we heard a woman's voice, although we could not hear the question asked. Captain Chaney says the bad weather had nothing to do with the fact that his wife, Sally, took off her mystic toe ring to show it to a curious islander and then forgot to put it back on. But how do you explain that nothing had ever happened at sea in the ten years that Sally wore the ring?
We are now at Syros in a relatively shipless-harbor. This time the gangplanks are steep and a challenge to ascend. Tall and slender Kostas helps us up, telling us to walk out the kinks from our cramped sail. He remains behind to secure the rigs on both ships. Exhilarated by our sailing adventure, he moves with graceful ease from ship to ship by leaping, like a gazelle, on the ropes that secure the vessels to the docks onto the ships. We watch him as he stands poised on the port, raising his arms for balance, then leaping, aiming one foot onto the thick, six-inch rope and the other onto the deck.
Hermoupolis the port in Syros and the capital of the CycladesSeveral hours later, other ships begin arriving at the port and the sailors tell stories of strong winds during journeys that took eight hours instead of three or four. The Uranus and Spider traveled on the same waters, but experienced strong winds for only a short time. How did the Uranus and Spider escape the storm? Captain Antonios stands with the skippers of the newly arrived vessels and listens intently to the stories, but is silent. One of the skippers is heard to ask another, "Is that the captain they call the wise one? Is he Captain Antonios?"
Our skipper tells us to walk around the island before dinner and enjoy this special place, saying, "It is a shame that Syros is known primarily as a major port of call to all the islands because it is one of the most beautiful and haunting islands. It is one of my favorites." He tells us to find Laura and Wade and take them with us.
It is said many wealthy Athenians have homes on this island and the Captain arranges for a bus to take us on a spectacular ride to the island's highest points to see the enchanting homes. We disembark and I walk through the winding streets, thoroughly enjoying the distinctive architecture. At a taverna on a steep, secluded pathway, I pause for coffee. A woman approaches me to ask how I came to the island and I say I came on Captain Antonios' boat. "Ah," she says, "Captain Antonios, the wise one. He knows the secrets of the seas and the winds. They say his home is in Ithaca and that he will return there one day when he leaves the sea."
I am awed by the hillsides of Syros and the narrow, maze-like paths that make turning each corner a surprise. I promise myself I will return to this enchanting, frozen-in-time fairy-land, but for now I must return to the ship.
The bus brings us back to the port and Carol Nokes, who is with the party on the Spider, wanders down to where the fishermen are preparing their boats for the night's fishing expedition. If Carol had been born Greek her name would have been Zoe, the Greek word for "life," because she is vivacious, adventuresome, and determined to live life to the fullest. In the Greek tradition of greeting strangers, a fisherman asks her how she came to the island, where she had been before arriving, and where she is going next. In her engaging, gregarious way, Carol tells him about our adventure with the winds and the mysterious voice from the depths of the sea and the fisherman suddenly says, "Wait here."
He disappears into the boat and comes up cradling something small. He hands her a small stone, saying, "Take this and make a pendant of it. Wear it with pride." And then he disappears into the cabin of his boat.
That night at dinner Carol shows the stone to Captain Antonios and tells him of the fisherman who gave it to her. It is difficult for the captain to control his astonishment. " Did you tell the man of our adventure? This is very rare and precious," he says, "it is called the 'eye of the sea.'"
"Why did the fisherman give it to me," Carol asks. The captain explains, "Because after our adventure, you earned it. You are now of the sea, and the fisherman knows that. When you wear it, people will know you are 'of the sea.'"
There are two more ports of call in the journey - Mykonos and Paros - and the remainder of the sailing trip is calm and beautiful. We sail now with greater respect for the sea and the winds and we think we know what it means to sail in the 'land of the gods.' We are at the end of a wonderful odyssey. It was a transcendent experience. For seven magical days we escaped from our bodies and we looked down upon mortals pretending to be us. We now understand the spectacle that unfolded before us that first night in Athens and we know that the drama of the moonbeams and rosy-fingered sky was orchestrated by Athena, goddess of wisdom and protector of Athens . She was with us on our journey. She was our protector.
We ask Captain Antonios if he thinks Athena was with us, if the mysterious bag that never left his side indeed held the four winds and Aeolus, King of the Winds; if a mermaid called to him at sea; if the toe-ring had mystical powers; if the "eye of the sea" was really a badge of honor; and if the winds and the sea were controlled by the god Poseidon?
Captain Antonios, the wise one, smiles. "This is the land of the gods," he explains, "and sometimes there is no explanation for the mysterious. I have experienced many mysteries in the years I have been at sea."
"Where will your journey end, Captain Antonios, " we ask? "Where will your journey take you?"
Eyes twinkling, the wise one replies, "My journey will take me to Ithaca . But I pray that my journey is long."
Photo of sailing in Santorini from MagicalJourneys.com
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