NEWS

The tiny island of Antikythera is a rough diamond set like a jewel in the heart of the Mediterranean

Nearly all the passengers on the ferry had disembarked two hours earlier on the island of Kythera. As the Myrtidiotissa docked in the small port of Potamos at three in the morning, just 10 passengers walked down the gangplank before the ship went on its way to Crete. Potamos, the capital of the small island of Antikythera, a rock jutting out of the sea halfway between Kythera and Crete, consists of just a few whitewashed houses. The community leader’s truck takes passengers to the guesthouse. A mixture of sea air, thyme and jasmine wafts through the night, as a full moon overhead welcomed us to this small island whose population of 55 consists mostly of men. By the light of day, it is clear that Potamos is a very small place indeed, but a strong pair of legs is a necessity here for those who have not brought their own transport with them. Dionysis Progoulakis, the community leader, promised to show us around on the first day, but after that «you’re on your own,» he said. Community records have 180 people registered but the permanent population in winter is no more than 25. «In winter, only the goats move about, but I like the quiet,» says Anna, who comes from Skala in Laconia and moved here this year with her husband, a building contractor. There are times in winter when the sea is too rough for ships to approach. «Last December, I was stuck on the ship for a week, going back and forth. In the end, I got fed up and went back to Piraeus,» recalls Maria Ploumidi, a pensioner and the youngest female inhabitant. The weather doesn’t bother the locals, who are used to the isolation and the slower pace of life. Most sit with a string of worry beads in their hands, whiling away the hours in the only two cafe-eateries in Potamos, drinking beer and appraising the merchandise that arrives from Kythera and Crete. «I get the smaller products from Kythera, fruit, vegetables and wine from Crete,» says Myronas Patakakis, the owner of the only store and a former seaman. «I open seven days a week, winter and summer. If I close for even one day, no one will be able to get anything, not even cigarettes,» he says as he stirs a large pot with the day’s menu: kid stew. Luxuries and shortages Progoulakis takes us inland, passing the solar energy park that boosts the island’s power supply, the old school, now empty, and the basketball court, also empty as there are no children living on the island. We stop at the church of Aghios Myronas. On August 17 and 18, the feast of Antikythera’s patron saint, the island’s population reaches a peak, everyone joining in the festivities. The rest of the settlements on the island comprise just two or three permanent homes, but everywhere are bulldozers and other equipment widening the road and digging trenches for water pipes. «It didn’t rain this winter, so please don’t waste the water,» said Progoulakis, as he pointed to two new water reservoirs added to the existing three. «I can’t complain,» he added, «They look after us in the prefecture. We get whatever we ask for – new roads, an extension to the medical center and cultural events from the mainland. At the end of the month, a band is coming from Sparta for a concert on the dock. It’ll cost 3,000-4,000 euros, but that is just a drop in the ocean compared to the publicity we’ll get from it.» The bouzouki group from Sparta might be just a drop in the ocean but the piles of garbage on the island’s two beaches are a disincentive to visitors. Locals have their own view on this. «Even if you clean it up, the next day it’ll be the same again. The sea washes it up when the north wind blows.» The same sense of futility might also be what has allowed locals to give up on their daily business. There is plenty of fish in the sea («You can catch lobsters with your bare hands,» says one local) but there is only one fisherman, who sells his catch off the island. «The vineyards have also withered, eaten by animals. In the old days, they used to make good wine from them, but now they get their wine from Crete,» remembers Moscha, who rides her donkey Milou into Potamos every morning from her home in Batoudiana and back again late at night. Nor fish, no wine, and unfortunately no longer any of the famous local sweet, xerotigana, was to be had. Marika gave us the recipe, but couldn’t be persuaded to make us some. «It’s too much bother to roll out the pastry, it takes too long,» she said. So we had to make do with cherries from Myronas and tsipouro which we exchanged with the members of the Archaeological Society working on the island, Haroula, Maria, Yiannis and Yioria, who have been volunteers on Kythera and Antikythera for three years, working on a project in cooperation with universities in Canada, the USA and Britain. «We have divided up the entire island into squares and are studying the soil for findings,» said Maria. «No, we are not digging. We only have a permit for surface exploration,» added Haroula, who like the others is flirting with the idea of buying land on the island one day. «We’ll see, because if you get into a major excavation project, you don’t see much pay – at best, a contract. Here, for example, they pay for our food and accommodation, but we don’t get a salary.» «It’s funny,» added Yioria. With the money that is available, all Greeks could get jobs as archaeologists.» At dawn the next day, we followed the team on their search for shells, shards and fossils. Yiannis showed me a small black pebble. «It is obsidian, a kind of volcanic glass seen only on Milos, dating from prehistoric times.» I leave them at their work as the sun climbs higher in the sky and head for the sea, making a stop at the Ornithology Station at Aleviziana. With a bit of luck and binoculars from Angelos, an environmental scientist and coordinator of the station’s projects, we might see a pair of eagles that has recently arrived on the island. A few hours later, having spied the eagles, we arrive in Kamarela, a magical cove where three powerboats have just arrived from Hania for spearfishing and swimming. At the end of the path that leads to the sea, Marco and Ludovica, students from Milan, play their instruments above the wide blue sea. It is the loveliest image one could possibly take away from the island. This article first appeared in K, Kathimerini’s color supplement, on August 12, 2007.