I did not prepare with guidebooks, nor did I overwhelm myself with Internet searches on what to do and where to go. That wasn’t the kind of trip my husband and I had in mind. The only thing I did was to book the flights and make hotel reservations based on a couple of recommendations. Too much of life is already planned out for us—why constrain ourselves more than necessary?
In the off-season of late March this year, we made our way to Greece from Prague. We landed in Athens and spent one night there. Our hotel, conveniently located near a metro stop and with a terrace view of the dazzling Acropolis, was priced just right for what it was—a place to lay our heads after a night of wandering narrow alleyways and sharing the sidewalks with easygoing pedestrians and anxious scooters.
The ancient city of Athens was very much alive, a cosmopolitan crush of people, cars, and scooters. We were instantly drawn into a warehouse-sized market, one of the largest and oldest in the city, where the vendors had been selling their wares for generations: creatures from the sea, carcasses of pig, lamb and cow, burlap sacks of different pistachio varieties, buckets of gigantic olives, and even more gigantic blocks of feta cheese. As we spun out of the dizzying, pungent, market air, I heard music across the street. A dozen men dressed in white shirts and black vests formed an enthusiastic musical group, adding their own pleasing rhythms to the city’s rumble.
What we were really looking forward to, however, was the next two days and nights of our retreat to the small island of Poros.
Before our ferry arrived, we sunned in the twilight at the edge of the port of Pireaus. We felt tiny compared to the oversized bodies of cruise liners that waited silently for their passengers before making a slow getaway into the open sea. The smell here was less fish and more diesel—the scent of modern Greece.
In less than two hours, our well-worn Flying Dolphin ferry docked at Poros Island. As we walked toward the hills where our bed and breakfast awaited, we passed variously-sized sail boats, yachts, fishing boats, all clinging to and bobbing against the curving harbor. The sun was beginning to set. We moved inland slowly in awe of the postcard-like quaintness we had landed in. There was a preponderance of scooters over cars (most of which were taxis). Beautiful bungalows rose in steps, leaning against the old hills. The walk took about 15 minutes, but our surroundings so mesmerized us that we were unaware of the passage of time. It seemed that Athens, that we had left behind just two hours ago, was thousands of miles and many hours away.
Here was a peace made of orange and lemon trees, children playing football on a small dirt pathway, and then, a most humble and sincere Greek woman greeting us at the doorstep, so happy to meet us, as if we were long-lost relatives. We did not pay upfront, and in fact were told to simply leave the cash in the room on the morning we left. She told us that most of her guests had been coming back for years. We knew that we would be one of those.
The second-floor room held us speechless as we entered, spacious but charmingly cozy with warm rust-colored marble floors, a kitchenette and attractive square-top dining table with yellow and white checkered tablecloth, and finally, the cherry on top of it all: a balcony with a view to end all views. As I gingerly stepped out upon what was now “our” balcony, I felt that I could easily sit here every day for hours, watching the boats sail in and out of the harbor, the sun rise and set, the sea run a gamut of color
s. And somehow, I could be productive, writing many pages each day. This was prime writing territory.
The atmosphere easily shaped and molded itself to the dreams of each eager hotel guest, and the balcony was transformed into a sacred writing space. But I couldn’t possibly sit with my head down, nose pointed at a blank page in my notebook, hand unattached from my camera. No, it wasn’t that kind of trip, and we didn’t have that kind of time. But life became suddenly a little more lucid: I was only working for moments such as this one, seeing myself projected like a hologram, doing what I loved, with a most heavenly sliver of the world before my eyes.
Coming to Greece in the last week of March had been a wise decision. We felt that we owned the roads, as no one else seemed to pop out of the charming, boldly painted little homes along the seashore. Most of the bed-and-breakfasts on the narrow dirt or paved streets nearby were shut down till tourist season began, although once in a while we could see a slightly hidden figure sitting on a corner balcony, partaking of coffee and the stunning view. We wandered down the edge of the island, shedding the hard lines of city thoughts into jade green water, a friendly stranger inviting us to let go and simply watch life ease by.
The few people we did encounter were either locals or weekenders. And it was amusing to observe these Athenian and Italian weekenders, strolling along the water bundled in cashmere scarves, heavy coats, gloves and boots. We, on the other hand, wore only t-shirts, shorts, and sandals. Coming from a long Prague winter, this was the tip of summer, not the beginning of spring, as it was for those lucky Mediterraneans.
We spent two days and nights in quiet awe of our surroundings, doing nothing but walking and looking into the clear water, pure and full of forms of life we rarely had a chance to observe and whose existence we did not usually consider. Peace and calm descended over us on this small, unassuming island and stayed with us our entire visit. We were wading in a stream of quietude, suspended in the gap between actions, between our usual habits and routines, between thoughts. We were finally allowing ourselves to enter the silent in-between.
At 5 a.m. on Monday morning, we dragged ourselves away from the sanctuary of our room and made our way back to the ferry landing. It was time to leave. As the enormous boat pulled out an hour later, the several dozen passengers, seated inside what looked like a middle-grade hotel lobby of semicircular couches and little square tables, began to light up their cigarettes. It was something we were used to, having lived in Prague (still a smoker-friendly city). Cappuccinos in hand, we returned to our seats to people-watch and hope that the people who had just found seats next to us would not light up as well. Of course, they did. I finished my coffee and, with my husband absorbed in a book and responsible for watching our bags, I threaded my way through the thickening air and half-asleep cluster of people toward the door that would put me on the deck. Strangely enough, the air was just as thick outside, with an early morning mist over the looming sea beyond which nothing could be seen. Once in a while transparent purple outlines appeared as we slid by a gathering of hills on a tiny island. The fresh sea air was dabbed here and there by the acrid scent of diesel exhaust from the ferry. This inhalation made our island departure a reality: we were re-entering urban life after our mini-escape to an idyllic merging of land and sea, all the more magical because we had traversed the deep dark waters of the Aegean Sea to get there.
The mad rush of water below as it splintered against the ferry’s body hypnotized me. By now I was sure the island had silent powers, and I was still in its grip. Arriving in Athens signaled our impending return to Prague, the swarming urban life, and I would be a scheduling, calculating city citizen once more. On this ferry, I was still journeying through Poseidon’s territory, watching mermaids instead of dolphins, visible in dips and dots across the velvet ribbons of violet-black water. Vague purple hills grew before my eyes into mountains, ancient volcanoes, quietly holding their breath as we humans passed determinedly by. The gods and goddesses of Olympus seemed to whisper in the wind. Strands of my hair lifted in a rush of air as the ferry moved its weight swiftly onward. Onward, but not yet arrived.
Suchi Rudra Vasquez is a writer and journalist living in Prague with her husband.