Salamina, so near yet so unknown

As the ferry boat approaches Paloukia, the port on the island of Salamina, just a short voyage across the strait from Perama on the mainland, the first landmark one sees is the naval station off to the right, with its armada of gray battleships. Straight ahead is the port, houses crowded together all the way up the hill as far as a bulldozer could reach. Balconies look onto other balconies, plants in oil tins sit among satellite dishes. Salamina is not the island of postcards, endless blue horizons and picturesque lanes. Otherwise known as Koulouri, Salamina’s population rises to 300,000 every summer – three times that of Myconos at its high season. Yet no money has been spent on promoting it or on developing its infrastructure – of the four hotels, only one has been renovated recently. It is the closest island to Athens yet has no sewer system, but it has something much more important – a pine forest on the south side of the island, which although frequently the scene of forest fires is perhaps the only one of its kind in western Attica, and is deeply appreciated by those who spend their holidays on the island. These range from families whose breadwinners commute daily to Athens so that their children can get some fresh air to pensioners who have moved permanently into their holiday homes. These people were not counted among the island’s permanent population of 31,000 in the latest census, since most new residents have not bothered to register with the municipality. Their holiday package consists of fresh, cheap fish and octopus the way they grill it in Koulouri, and above all «fresh air.» That is why every day people jam onto the ferry boats that cross the Salamina strait 200 times a day. The strait was the route taken by the Athenian fleet to escape Persian troops shortly before they encountered Xerxes fleet off the islet of Psyttaleia. It was through here that the Athenians fled to escape Turkish raids on the city. It has also been the escape route for countless others seeking refuge. There are three ways to approach the island that the mythological hero Ajax hailed from. The first is by boat from Piraeus and the second by ferry boat from Megalo Pefko, but neither of these gives you a real idea of why it is off the tourist track. Only if you drive through the concrete canyons of Nikaia and Korydallos down to Perama and the polluted sea, do you realize why Salamina is a natural escape for those who live on the mainland opposite, and why it is not as bad as it seems. On the waterfront in Perama are crowds of people of all ages seeking shade under a tree or a sea breeze. Grandmothers heading for the monasteries of Aghios Nikolaos of the Lemon Trees, youths armed with spearguns heading for Salamina’s southern shores at Kanakia and Peristeria, children who will spend the day at public beaches playing under thatched umbrellas, teenagers planning to lounge around in cafes by the sea, and pensioners and office workers dreaming of a dip in the sea. Nowadays most places on the northern side of the island across from Piraeus do not look anything like a refuge, but are the result of an invasion that began in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s. Back then, water was trucked in and there was no electricity on the island. It was then that hundreds of people arrived from Piraeus bearing sales contracts for housing plots – and when the locals (mostly Arvanites from Argos and Thebes) discovered the value of their land. From being fishermen (the island’s fishing fleet was once the second largest after Kavala’s), tar workers and gatherers of resin for boatbuilding, the locals suddenly became rich landowners on properties of just 3,000-4,000 square meters. One thousand square meters could be divided into up to four housing plots, thanks to a legislative amendment during the dictatorship. «It was the only golden age. Then, anyone with a brain could get rich,» said Nikos, who was eating his lunch alongside us in Selinia, the island’s most aristocratic district, where the rich of Piraeus built villas in the early 20th century, the only fine houses on Salamina, and which raised the image of the pretty fishing village opposite the islet of Psyttaleia (which now hosts Athens’s sewage treatment plant). It was here that once upon a time about 20 caiques would bring day-trippers from Piraeus. Now apartment buildings are being built. But one rarely sees anyone swimming there, despite official assurances that the sea is clean. Selinia is the only place on Salamina with a town plan. The rest of the buildings on the island, apart from newly constructed areas at Aianteio (known as Salamina’s «Ekali»), have been built without any permits or plans. The northern and eastern coasts can boast having perhaps the greatest plague of overdevelopment ever seen in Greece. Houses are everywhere – including small makeshift shelters spilling over the rocks and with a view of the sea in front of a coastal road strewn with garbage. Every year about 5,000 cheap mattresses are dumped on the beaches here. «They buy new mattresses in Athens, bring their old ones to Salamina and throw the even older ones they had here onto the beaches,» said Mayor Vangelis Agapiou. The biggest problem, apart from garbage, is sewerage. A funding package from the European Union’s Cohesion Fund is expected to provide a solution by 2008. In 1975, seaman Yiannis Spetsiotakis received a letter from his wife telling him about the purchase of a plot of land at Kanakia, on the south side of the island, where there were just 50 houses at the time. She had to drive along a dirt road every day to bring back ice and liquid gas canisters. Today, Kanakia has over 500 holiday homes, many of them inhabited year-round. Spetsiotakis’s son Costas works in a restaurant in the port which stays open in winter months on weekends. «If you had seen Salamina 10 years ago it would have seemed much worse,» he said. Until about 1995, no foreigner was allowed to live here, and I don’t mean immigrants, but Westerners weren’t even allowed to buy land here, because of the naval station. It was considered a war zone.» «Those of us who inherited homes here are trying to improve them. The last five years have seen many improvements,» he added. Some of these improvements include cleaning up the public beaches and the renovation of the house once lived in by the poet Angelos Sikelianos, across from the Faneromeni Monastery. Yet a first-time visitor can’t see what the improvements are compared to the past. Nikos at the cafe in Selinia added his opinion about what is to blame for the current state of the island. «We ourselves are partly to blame, but so are those people who want to make us into another Perama. We may have built houses in our forests, but we also pay taxes for them.» This article appeared in the September 3 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.