CULTURE

Saronic Gulf’s suburbanization

Long before the suburbs of Athens began to spread out onto the Mesogeia plain, some Athenians, tired of the city, had begun to settle on the island of Aegina, particularly the self-employed who could afford a day off – or who could work from home – on the rare occasions that gale force winds prevented ships from leaving the island. Among the new settlers were a number of artists and writers, as well as teachers and other civil servants who eventually decided not to ask for a transfer back to the city. Although Aegina is about the same distance from the center of Athens as the city’s outer northern suburbs, life moves at a less stressful pace. Then there is the magical feeling of being on an island. Irini Korkovelou, a public school teacher, was posted to Aegina from her home in Piraeus about 11 years ago. She still lives there with her husband, an accountant who commutes to and from Piraeus every day, and her teenage son, who has benefited from the greater freedom enjoyed by children in rural areas generally. At first I decided to try it out for a year to see if I liked it. A few friends have also moved here since then as well, she said. Although the swelling ranks of new settlers, including a large number of artists, have brought some of the problems of the city along with them, such as parking problems in the main port, the quality of life is what they came for and to a great extent it has been maintained. When I first came here, there were hardly any cars. Now, not only during holidays, but all year round there are parking problems, said Korkovelou. Then there is the dearth of cultural life. In the summer, there are three cinemas but in the winter none at all. About a year ago, a group of residents decided to band together to set up a kind of cinema club, bringing the occasional film from Athens. There are also a few music groups and an amateur theater group, as well as the hospital for wild animals, run with the help of volunteers, and other animal welfare groups. But the tightness of the social fabric that has long disappeared from most districts of the city is still much in evidence and includes the newcomers who feel very much a part of their new community. Here, there is still the feeling of being part of a neighborhood, said Korkovelou. ‘Like Greece in the 1960s’ Greek-American artist Rena Pappa moved about eight years ago to Pahia Rahi, a village right in the center of the island that in 1996 was declared a protected traditional settlement. Pappa liked the ambience of Aegina, which she said reminded her of her childhood summers on Rhodes, where her family originally came from. Aegina hasn’t lost its island touches. You still find little ports where you can buy fish right off the fishing boats, you can go shopping without your wallet and even leave your home unlocked. It’s like Greece in the 1960s, she said. And it has the added advantage of being close to Athens, although Pappa said she hardly ever feels the need to make the short trip across the water. I sometimes miss going to a theater now and then, but if you look, there are plenty of things to do here, she added. Three years ago Pappa became president of the Pahia Rahi Cultural Association that has refurbished the old primary school (unfortunately no longer needed) into a cultural center, with the help of the Costopoulos Foundation, retaining its original structure and style. Several stone houses in the village have also been beautifully restored. Sprays of bougainvillea brighten walls, and potted plants decorate hidden courtyards. The village looks down across the strait to the Peloponnese and to the island’s mountain, simply called Oros (mountain). Until the middle of the 20th century, Pahia Rahi was the largest village in the area; until about 1950, there were 55 families living there. Now there are only about 20 permanent inhabitants. Many of the homes are only occupied during the holiday season. About half our permanent population are locals who were born here and the other half are Greeks who have come from other parts of Greece or abroad, some of whom are retirees. Among the part-time residents are a few people from abroad, says Pappa. Pappa likes the fact that there are people of various nationalities on the island. It has a very European feel to it. And you have all the advantages of living on an island without feeling completely cut off from the rest of the world, she said. Walking trails and archaeological sites Pahia Rahi is a good starting point for hikes on the island around or up to the 532-meter peak of Oros, about one and a half hours’ uphill climb to the cone-shaped peak where there is an ancient shrine to Zeus. The best-known ancient landmark on Aegina is the Temple of Aphaia, in a striking location in the northeast of the island near Aghia Marina, and built about 500 BC. Sculptures and reliefs from the temple are in the island’s Archaeological Museum, along with the statue of Hercules from the Temple of Apollo and the famous marble Sphinx of Aegina. The kolonna, the sole column left standing from the Temple of Apollo, where the acropolis of the ancient city once stood, can be seen from the sea on the coast to the left as one enters the port. To the south of the island are the Greek steps, actually a broad, stepped road alongside a terrace that is thought to be the base of a temple and probably dates from the second century BC. The monastery of the Virgin Chrysoleontissa, on the road to Marathon, dates from about the 1600s. Near Aegina are the islets of Angistri, a popular summer holiday destination, and Moni, uninhabited apart from herds of Cretan wild goat and deer. The fastest way to get to Aegina is by hydrofoil, a voyage of about half an hour. There is regular service throughout the day from the main port of Piraeus. For a more leisurely trip, or if you want to take the car, there is a ferryboat service from Piraeus, taking just over an hour.