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The Tilos taxi

Megalo Chorio. Tilos.

Megalo Chorio. Tilos.

The little island of Tilos is reachable only by boat and, out of season, only infrequently. I could stay there for twelve hours or four days, that stay being too long for my itinerary. Therefore I made a visit « Japanese style ». Arriving at 5pm, I was obliged to leave at 6am the next morning. I called the island’s only taxi, in which I was taken around for more than an hour.

Iconostase in the monastery's church.

Iconostase in the monastery’s church.

Monastery of St Panteleimon. Island of Tilos.

Monastery of St Panteleimon. Island of Tilos.

The driver, a man of my age, after having worked for 25 years in Athens, had retired to the island of his birth. Myself, having driven only once in the capital, vowed never to risk it again. I told him how I was nearly crashed into three times and was insulted by one of his ex-colleagues because I did not get out of the way quick enough at a junction. What a contrast with the half deserted roads of the islands, where the only obstacles are the goats lying across them ! He showed me the interesting places : Megalo Chorio, at the foot of a cliff crowned by a Venetian fortress, Mikro Chorio, an abandoned village where the inhabitants left accompanied by their stone roofs, and the beautiful 15th century monastery, Saint Panteleimon ( the «All charitable » ), perched on a cliff plunging into the sea. Devoid of monks it was closed : thanks to my driver, who had the key, I was able to have a leisurely visit and admire the frescos and its iconostase.

We discussed the economic situation in Greece, and when I expressed; astonishment to see so many wild goats roaming freely, he said with a resigned air : « At Tilos we have nearly five thousand goats and we don’t produce a single litre of milk. Rather than tire themselves out doing the milking, the young would rather sit in the bistros awaiting the subsidies from Brussels ! »

Olympos, the village out of this time

Art-deco. Theatre-cinema of Leros.

Art-deco. Theatre-cinema of Leros.

Village of Olympos, Karpathos.

Village of Olympos, Karpathos.

I finished my trip to the Dodecanese, « the twelve islands », with that of Karpathos, placed like a hyphen between Crete and Rhodes. In contrast with those, it is, up to now, neither concreted nor invaded. As in all of the archipelago, the Italians chased away the Turks in 1912, and these islands were the last territory to become Greek, only in 1948. They have kept some «Art deco» buildings from this occupation. The most numerous are on the island of Leros and at Rhodes (Thermes of Kallitea in particular) but Pigadia, the capital of Karpathos, also presents a fine collection, town hall-museum-police station.

Police station of Pigadia at Karpathos.

Police station of Pigadia at Karpathos.

Traditional interior at Olympos.

Traditional interior at Olympos.

Above all I wanted to discover the village of Olympos, 17 km to the North, famous for its windmills. Until recent times it was only accessible by a bad road carved into the side of a mountain. That evening I took the new road ; the wind blew a gale and the clouds galloped over the peaks, giving the scenery a sinister air. Suddenly, leaving a bend, there appeared in a shaft of sunlight a cascade of white houses. I stopped at the entrance of the village, impassable for vehicles. I was at the end of the world, the only tourist that evening. Strange vision, a woman was going out to throw away her rubbish bags, in traditional costume. Here all the women of mature age still wear it. When I asked her for the Hotel Astro, she told me that she was the owner. I accompanied her along steep narrow alleyways. At the entrance, I encountered an Albanian mason ( his compatriots do everything the Greeks don’t want to do ), who had been living at Karpathos for five years and who showed me with pride the improvements he had made. I had read that, in this village, the women still make bread once a week in a communal oven. But times change, and one of the women told me that nowadays each of them makes bread on whichever day suits them.

The next day the hotelier showed me the interior of her house, very characteristic. For breakfast she gave me a delicious cheese made by her daughter, who did not begrudge running after the goats on the mountain ! The inhabitants of Olympos in former times hid themselves very high, out of range of the pirates ; they no doubt bequeathed to their descendants the capacity to rely on nobody but themselves.

The forgotten heros

Chora. Astypaléa.

Chora. Astypalea.

Astypalea, an island of the Dodecanese but more akin to the Cyclades in architecture and landscapes, has a « capital » well worth a detour : a cascade of white houses descends from a peak crowned by a Venetian fortress and plunges into the sea. It’s still off the beaten track, but pay it a visit before it becomes fashionable ! The rest of the island is amongst the most arid, not a single tree; but with a rocky coast highly indented and surrounded by islets, the overall effect is very attractive.

A well-protected bay was the scene of a forgotten sacrifice. In 1823, a French boat had to take refuge there to escape a storm. The bay is called Maltezana. It was the base of Maltese pirates, who, like all their types, whatever their nationality or religion, had ceaselessly scoured the Aegean Sea since Antiquity.

Monument to Hippolyte Bisson. Bay of Maltezana. Astypalea.

Monument to Hippolyte Bisson. Bay of Maltezana. Astypalea.

So this ship, led by the very young Breton captain, Hippolyte Bisson, had the specific job of pursuing pirates and also help the Greeks in their all-out war of independence against the Turks. Attacked during the night by the bucaneers, disturbed in their hide-out, the crew of 13 valiantly resisted 140 adversaries. The captain, having lost several sailors, ordered the others to escape by swimming, then blew up the ship, thus ridding the planet of a band of scoundrels which infested it.

Only the Greeks, in their gratitude, erected in honour of Bisson a little monument on the shore. His compatriots have never heard of him, nor other French officers, Fabvier, Maison or De Rigny who led the “philhellènes”, many of whom died for Greek independence. It’s very unfair that history has remembered only Lord Byron’s name, considering that he didn’t even die in combat !