NASTASYA TAY + YIANNIS HADJIASLANIS
A version of this feature appeared in Business Day's Wanted supplement, published December 2013.
Beyond tourist season, after the summer hordes leave, Patmos is reclaimed by those who love it best.
The terracotta floor of the tiny Ekklisaki tou Stavrou is indented with the waves of the bay, a wriggle echoed again and again and again on the baked tiles. Tonight, the ripples are interspersed with sprigs of white mersinya and lemon leaves, footstep-crushed and fragrant, sweet and citrusy acidic.
The air is warm with yeast, freshly baked bread, enormous rounds stacked in a tower encrusted with sesame, mingling with the ylang-ylang perfume of holy oil and wax.
Within the one-roomed church with its flat roof and single bell, the faithful light their slender saffron candles and kiss renewed frescoes of Jesus and Mary.
At Stavros Bay, the church of the cross has stood for 500 years; and for 500 years, on this, the eve of the rediscovery of the crucifix, they file in, one by one, to crown faded wooden relics of their Saviour with jasmine and marigold, laying their lips to glass.
They speak of pirates and adventure and sacrifice, of the maidens who took refuge here, saved by a young musician who gave his life for the rescue.
The colours of pennant bunting, flags, old, new and Byzantine, fade with the approaching dusk.
The villagers have gathered where the smoke is rising.
An enormous man in a green Nike shirt is turning the souvla, floodlight backlit.
The taverna has run out of tables, so they have constructed more out of beer crates and tissue tablecloths. The feast spreads beyond the corrugated iron awning, across the dry grass, into the intoxicating waft of roasting meat and smoky coals.
Everyone is here for the music, to hear the band of local young men who have been practicing a 15-minute-long adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans.
They have already struck up: violin, bouzouki and two guitars. A barefoot drunk in blue checks and rolled trouser cuffs swings around the makeshift dance floor to rousing nisiotika, island music. A waiter scatters paper napkins from above, ridiculous confetti on the concrete, as another diner swings a leg over his head.
A whisper passes my ear. “When a man is dancing, the floor is his.”
The throaty young violinist with tattoed pinyin on his bicep smokes determinedly between sets.
As the music crescendoes, a balding punter in leather Mary Janes joins him in song, their voices meeting the sea breeze in unison.
The night ferry horn echoes across the bay.
Across the hills in Chora, on the flagstones outside the Pantheon taverna, a gingerbread coloured mutt with two names leaps to his feet and howls.
He is Simba when he sits on the feet of guests sipping iced tsipouro with Pantheon proprietor and Deputy Mayor Giagos Simantiris, with his stained blue apron and spatula.
He is Blue Star when he waits patiently at the bus stop in Chora, hopping on to meet his boat and set sail.
Giagos tells the story of how a short-legged dog with a scar on his right cheek found his way onto the Piraeus ferry, the red-eye to Athens. How he fell in love with the sea.
He is Blue Star Ferries’ most regular and beloved guest, riding the waves across the Aegean for more than a decade.
He knows all the sailors and has befriended the port master. He has never been denied passage: his fare waived in the face of his sea legs and nonchalance.
Clusters of cruise-goers continue to arrive, pilgrims in air conditioned buses, skirting the curves of the gum treelined slope, trunks whitewashed like the houses above.
They are here to see where God spoke to humankind and foretold the end of the world.
43 steps down from the road, the Cave of the Apocalypse, where disciple John came after the crucifixion and wrote, in 95AD, the Holy Book prophesising our doom.
Australian, British, French, German accents intermingle, floating in and out of trinket shops selling glazed evil eyes, stuffed donkeys and elaborately painted terracotta plates from other islands.
A black-robed Orthodox priest is wandering the streets dotted with squashed figs.
Up Chora’s wide steps, next to house number 276, the 15-metre-high pirate-raid-refuge-walls of the monastery climb toward four giant brass bells crusted with aquamarine rust.
Built ten centuries ago in honour of John the Theologian, the monastiri and its living community of monks still crowns Patmos, resplendent on its UNESCO heritage hill of chalk white houses and labyrinthine streets.
In his studio a few doors down, Andreas Kalatzis has painted a likeness of the former Igoumenos, the revered monastery head cleric.
In pencil and acrylic, he is gorging on fish at a table heavy with wine, set with his direct phone line to God. Above the money safe in the corner of the canvas, the hands of heaven reach down to bless and beg simultaneously, recompense for redemption.
Down in Skala, a grey-robed Dutch monk is eating souvlakia, his brass cross dangling over salted chips. Wiping grease from his fingers, he hops on a rented scooter and heads for the beach.
All is calm in the old trading port.
It is a time of year to play endless backgammon in the alleyway outside Andreas’ art bar, and drink his vodka sours in heavy-bottomed glasses with salt in your hair.
A time to slowly feast on platters piled high with local lamb chops and homemade keftedes, grilled liver and bifteki at the Netia Taverna on the marina, paired with blanched bitter vlita and lemon-drenched zucchini.
To savour creamy cones from the gelateria in chocolate and pepperoncino, ginger and cinnamon, and return to perch at Andreas’ counter, listening to this boy-faced long-haired Italian play end of summer songs, next to a painted dancing donkey.
The sacred is everywhere.
At Livadi tou Geranou, the crisscrossing ripples across the curve of the bay pay quiet deference to the chapel on the craggy island, nexus of the pebble bight.
Sunglints dance across the sea floor, through water unsullied by sand, across drifts of kelp, losing themselves in the shadows of fishing boats moored along the rocks, their owners paddling half-dressed in the shallows.
It is a time of year when evening swims to the chapel, breaststroke through the chilly water; when the moon rises before the sun goes down.
Where the dirt road meets tar, there is a little cantina with no name.
The proprieters hand cold Alpha through their wood-varnished kitchen facade, to be drunk at rope spool tables under an awning of sun-bleached bamboo, with a view over the Didymes’ twin beaches.
It is a place to eat tender boiled octopus and simple horiatiki salad, the tangy tomatoes a perfect counterpoint to the tiny marida fish, light and crisp and salty, accompanied by the sweetness of smashed fava, drenched in olive oil and topped with diced red onion and wedges of lemon.
On the gate, a pumpkin head painted blue, next to a wooden plank pointing the way to the water.
The coast road back to town forks at Vagia.
Left drops to the sea. Wade in barefoot, around to the right into a rocky cove, and nap amid the debris of urchin feasts past.
Or follow it right, where it dips into Kambos, runs past the trendy crowd on sun loungers at George’s Place where half-Swedish tattooed Andreas runs the watersports tent. Past late lunch tables laid on dusty pine needles. Up the slope and inland, heading south.
Speed through Skala’s port, climb to Chora’s summit. Skirt left and follow the signs to Stavros Bay.
Then walk: twenty minutes through limestone-topped slopes covered in olive brown shrubs, dry dandelion prickles next to branches of dusty raspberry-coloured berries, furry-leaved local lavender and bushes seemingly entirely composed of thorns.
Sprawl on the sand, a reward for the effort of the journey.
Lie on your back in the water at Psili Ammos and look north. Find the rock sphinx staring out to sea.
Sunbaked spice and sweat and salt hang stagnant in the afternoon heat.
On the hill across the bay, beneath the church of St Elias, shadows elongate up the rough-hewn steps with its balustrade of ancient whitewashed mortar.
A breeze from across the Dodecanese blows away the stale heat of day as the western walls of Chora turn rose gold.
On a neighbouring peak, the silhouette of a black billy goat is watching the sunset too.
A misshapen moon is rising above Icaria.
It is rising above the sun-bleached sheets forgotten in the dusk on rooftop washing lines, above the holiday housekeepers shouting gossip across Chora’s twisty pirate-swallowing alleys, above a mandarin watercolour horizon and the purple monolith across the waves.
Only a few thousand residents are left after the summer onslaught. Their quiet lives continue, behind the porticos embellished with limp-wristed brass door knockers, behind the exuberant bougainvillea.
A bird of prey glides above the monastery, as 3-year-old Maria calls through the kitchen flyscreen after Maraki, the tiny stray kitten she has named after herself, scampering down the lane.