08 February 2009

χταπόδι των Κυκλάδων

"The Greek earth opens before me like the Book of Revelations. I never knew that the earth contains so much; I had walked blindfolded, with faltering steps... The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being."
- Henry Miller, "The Colossus of Maroussi" (1941)

We took a ferry from the mainland. Deck passage. Threw our bags down in a heap, threw ourselves on top of them and hunkered in for the long, slow voyage. The Cyclades were the island group we were heading for, out of Athens via the commercial port of Piraeus. Our specific destination, the small island of Ios. Only 11 miles long and six miles wide with a population of about 1,500 - a hilly, arid island rising out of the sapphire of the Aegean Sea.

It was a foggy journey, small islands and rock outcroppings appearing suddenly off to the side or almost in front of us. Nervously, we trusted the Greek sailors who had been plying these waters since antiquity to see us through. We sat out on the bow cross-legged and shared a bag of pistachios. The fog muted the sounds and our senses. We napped.

Eventually we pulled into the small harbor on Ios, disembarked, and made our way up the twisting staircases to the main village of Chora - no vehicles here, just stairs, narrow walkways, and donkey paths. We checked into a small room at a cheap, but decent hostel, and set out to explore the village. It was a beautiful town of whitewashed stone houses with bright blue painted doors and windows. We felt like we were walking through a fairy tale - everything clean and bright and perfect.

One evening we stumbled across a small cafe, set at the very top of the village overlooking the houses and the bay. No one was around and we wondered if it was open. We poked around a bit and eventually a wild-haired man with a twisted beard, a tank top, and short short cut-off jeans appeared and asked if we wanted to eat. We asked if the cafe was really open, and he laughed and bade us to sit down. We took a table out on the small deck - the view was spectacular and the sun was just beginning to set. We could see a ferry down below in the harbor.

He had no menus so we asked if he had Greek salad and calamari. His eyes lit up and he explained that he went diving every morning for fish and calamari and he had some that were caught just hours ago. We both ordered a big plate of the calamari and Greek salads to start with. Also a bottle of the fantastic Greek resinated wine, Retsina.

Soon the salads arrived and we were in heaven. Such fresh produce, such thick ornery squares of fresh, handmade feta, locally pressed olive oil. The tomatoes and peppers were ripe to bursting with wholesome flavor and the romaine, onions, and cucumbers had a fresh crunch that was unequalled. The warm homemade pita bread pushed it over the top. Eventually the calamari arrived and we were treated to one of the best meals in my lifetime. We marveled at the juicy texture and light coating on the octopus. We were both fans of calamari, but neither of us had ever experienced anything like this. A squeeze of lemon and we were in heaven.

Crazyman cleared our plates and asked if we needed anything else. We looked at each other and I knew RJ was thinking the same thing as I was - how often would ever find ourselves in a position like this again? The setting, the warm breeze off the bay in the twilight, and the amazing food - we had to do it. We both ordered an exact repeat performance: another two Greek salads and another two orders of calamari. The man laughed and jumped around and ran off to start them. He brought us back some Ouzo and three glasses to which we all splashed a bit of water and lifted our glasses to each others health. The bitter anise-flavored liquor warmed our bellies and was a perfect apéritif to begin our second dinner as the stars began to burn in the night skies.

We stayed on the island almost a week, most days lounging on the beaches, swimming, snorkeling, hiking through the hills, and reading under the shade of the olive trees. The nights were a bit more hedonistic - the island a magnet for young travelers from across the globe. A few nights RJ didn't make it back to the room at all.

So enamored was I of the beauty of the Greek salads, that one day before we left I had one for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for dinner - that was all I ate all day, just Greek salads. It was bliss. Pure bliss.

KJT - Ios, Greece (1998)
(translation: Octopus of the Cyclades)

No comments: