A NIGHT TO REMEMBER
After I had decided to go to Ikaria, I found that the father of the Papamichael brothers who own the fitness center in Boca Raton to which I belong, MICHAEL’S BODY SCENES (bodyscenes.com), is actually from Ikaria, and spends every summer in residence on the island. Small world. I was introduced to their father, Steve while still in the States via Skype. Soon after I arrived, one morning off I went on an adventure to the village of Kampos to find Mr. Papamichael. I walked to Armenistis, a village about 20 minutes from Nas, hitched a ride with some young tourists (Hitching rides is safe for women in Ikaria.) to the middle beach and then caught a taxi the rest of the way. After a brief search around the village, I not only found Fotis and Michael’s father but also their aunts, uncles, and cousins who all converge on the island every summer from different parts of the world from May to November. I also experienced my first island fete, the Festival of St. Sophia with the Papamichael family at their small village church high above the sea. We ate, we drank, we talked, and had a splendid time.
As I explained in my last post, Ikaria is 3500 feet high and because of the terrain, traversing the island is circuitous, to say the least, by car or by any other means. I am not a weenie, but I found after a ride across the island to the thermal baths and back that my inners were decidedly uncomfortable and whatever I ate after the ride home refused to settle in my stomach. Vomaford (a little pill I found in India to combat this sort of situation) - where are you now that I need you????
Around two in the afternoon on the day of the festival of St Stathis, Thea piled, Neal, Catherine and me, into her four-wheel drive. Pamela and Ludimula were in a small white rental, and Ilias chose not to ride with us although there was lots of room, and rode his motorcycle instead. Odd, I thought at the time but said nothing. If I thought the ride across the island and back from the thermal baths was a tough slog, I was about to be whipped to my knees with what the future had in store.
Ikaria is riddled with miniature churches, many the size of tiny Hobbit holes, only big enough for two or three supplicants at a time. Situated in what would be considered desolate places throughout the Island, scores are old and crumbly, obviously left over from by gone days of minimal transportation during a more insular time. They are named for saints, and St. Stathis was no different from the rest. Except that it was in good repair. However, unknown to Neil, Catherine and me upon our departure, St. Stathis church was located on the top of a mountain near no other edifice other than a long stone wall that meandered along the mountain crest.
|A view from a road above|
So off we went, a merry band of travel mates. We drove along the island road through a number of small villages and soon veered off the main road and began ascending a coiled snake-like road. Then at a circuitous switch back, we headed on to a narrow gravel byroad winding further up the mountain. Twisting and turning as we went, with Ilias in the lead. Eventually Pamela, driving her little rental, rushed on ahead. I had eaten almost nothing so my stomach was good – thank heavens.
“I have been to where we are going once before, but it’s been a long time.” Thea explained, as I peered across the edge of the cliff on my rider's side, down the steep valley below. The rough, road narrowed to a single lane and continued to spiral higher and higher into the upper reaches toward the sparsely clouded sky above. As we rode, I watched swirling bits of gravel slide from beneath the car’s tires and tumble down the mountain edge into the precipice below.
After a nerve-wracking forty-five minute ride, we
rounded a peak and the road changed again to a wide mountain knoll. We had finally
reached the pinnacle, the wind swept roof of the island. It was at this
juncture that Ilias parked his motorcycle and waved for us to stop.
|The upper road|
“Get out,” he called in his thick Greek accented English, “I want to show you something.”
|Neil standing behind the wall|
|Down island view to the west|
|Ilias and Thea|
|Pam and Ludimula|
|Athena watching Ilias walk on the wall|
|Misty fog rolling in|
Soon it was time to move on. Thea drove slowly just a few feet, and then down a moderate incline, where we again rounded a curve to converge on an area filled with cars scrunched together. We could see just the tip of the miniature church spire from where we stood. On an opposite hill we saw more parked cars and horses resting from what had probably been a rigorous ride up an opposite mountainside road.
Down a modestly steep path, we arrived at our destination St. Stathis, a charming well cared for whitewashed little chapel surrounded by a balcony filled with a massive number of tables, people, food and Greek music blasting out of a sound system mounted on the back of a truck at the end of the cement slap that surrounded the little church.
After finding a space to sit, we all contributed to the purchase of an immense fare: goat’s meat, Greek salad, French fries, veggies, and large bottles of water to wash down the strong homemade Ikarian wine. We ate; we drank; we danced. We drank; we danced; we ate. We drank and we danced. We ate sumptuous desserts. Then we danced and drank some more. It was only the water chasers that kept us sober. Inside the little chapel, a small child made it her job to pass out candles for us to light and fill with our prayers. An aura of familiarity among the crowd created a brief moment when the magic spirit of one small island in the world came together in heartfelt celebration. A celebration of life. A celebration for its own sake! The music and energy created an atmosphere of a people in unison in their dance with each other and the universe. I learned the steps quickly and danced with Athena, the Thea’s Inn cook. Yet I was amazed at the complexity of the steps in the Greek circle dance. In the past, I had done the horah at Jewish fetes, but these steps were much more complicated. Although the wine was served in very small glasses, my mind may have been too muddled to quite get the hang of it. (Guess I have to return to Ikaria just to learn how to dance!)
|Ilias and Paul|
I often get bored at parties and generally have a short staying power. But on this night fun had a way of snaring time, and as if suddenly, it was time to go. Nine o’clock. Six hours later and it was as if we had just arrived. As our small group of revelers moved up the hill away from the bright lights, music and party below, we found that the earlier mist had become a mantle of thick fog. It was as if the blackness of night had coupled with an imprenetrable wall of opaque mist to block our way. We were enshrouded in it. Even by using our flashlights, the fog was so dense we could barely see our feet, or for that matter, where we were stepping. We clung to one another. Finally, after much groping about, we eventually found Pamela’s white rental, Thea’s SUV and Ilias’ cycle. Our engines revved in defiance to the wall of Mother Nature’s beastly challenge, to drive back down these treacherous mountain roads without going over a cliff in this menacing pitch. A risky venture.
|A candle for my prayers|
Thea headed out in fits and starts, stopping every few feet to get her bearings. The fog, our menacing enemy, was so thick we could see neither the cliff edge of this narrow road on our left, nor the wall like mountain on the rider’s side on our right. Thea drove at a crawl, and other than an occasional intake of breath or soft gasp, there was stone silence from Neil and Catherine in the back seat. The sound of the engine and the crunch of gravel under the wheels filled the void. Ocasionally the bouncing sounds of rocks tumbling over the edge of the mountain penetrated our dreaded silence inside the car. Once Thea made a sudden stop. The left front tire of the SUV seemed to spin. The edge? A foreboding hushed stillness surrounded us. I felt a spine tingling shiver down my back and dug my nails into the door rest in fear. Did I imagine it or did Thea turn the car wheels slightly inward. To nick the wall was a better choice than careening over a cliff. Twice Ilias deserted the lead and rode back, placing himself between Pamela’s small white rental and Thea’s SUV. He drove so closely to the SUV that our bumpers nearly touched as his cycle’s small taillight guided us at a snail’s pace down some of the of loops and twists of the narrow gravel lane.
The dasterdly fog continued to wrap itself around us. And then it happened, a car full of what Neil, Catherine, Thea and I believed must be full of ‘crazies’ was heading upward and wanted to pass. As if by St. Stathis’s guidance their headlights reflected a small indentation in the rock face that gave Thea just enough space to pull the SUV over and let the car pass. As we descended, the fog slowly dissipated and we were able to at least make out the confining edges of what we were about, the cliff edge and mountain’s side. As we headed further down, a sigh of relief passed my lips as the thinning fog became a misty haze and finally at the sharp turn onto the paved road, it vanished completely and we only had to deal with the pitch black of the night.
“How’d you like to stop and have drinks? I think I would.” Thea suggested – as if we had not had enough already. I was ready to just give it all up for a warm bed and a long relaxing rest but that was not to be just yet. Thea, with Ilias on his cycle leading the way, turned onto another road heading away from our homeward destination and soon we arrived at another of those Lilliputian sized villages that riddle Ikaria with its cozy bar terrace packed with customers sitting under the trees that filled its outside courtyard. And drink everyone did (except me), one last one or two for the road home. Hard stuff. I didn’t even know what many were drinking but everyone was happy and convivial. Many of the patrons like us had arrived from the St. Stathis fête. They too had traversed the mountain road to arrive before us and looked none the worse for their ordeal. The locals all conversed while I just rested under my tree-shaded seat and thanked heavens for the everlasting memories I had garnered from a remarkable evening. It was indeed a night to remember.
What was your night to remember???