‘Here, the heart of Hellenism beats strongest’
Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou had long expressed her desire to visit Gavdos, going back to the earliest days of her term. A few days before Christmas, a member of the presidential staff called the mayor of the island, Lilian Stefanaki, to inform her that Sakellaropoulou wanted to celebrate the Epiphany on Gavdos. “My first reaction? Enthusiasm. However, it quickly morphed into anxiety,” the mayor told Kathimerini in an interview. She recalled contacting the president’s office the very same day to list the various limitations presented by the reality of the distant island – the southernmost in Greece and Europe. “The few inhabitants (approximately 60 people) usually leave over the holiday season, there are limited supplies, and there is not even a taverna open to properly host a celebratory meal. The municipal authorities are a single employee in a room,” she told them. “Don’t worry about any of that,” they reassured her.
Early last week, everything was theoretically in place and ready. The mayor however was aware that apart from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there was another risk factor – the weather. Two days before Sakellaropoulou’s scheduled arrival, Stefanaki received some bad news. The Chinook helicopter that would be used by the president would not be able to fly. “Any official scheduling a visit to the island would in most cases cancel when such issues crop up,” Stefanaki explains. She was just about ready to inform all those participating in the ceremony’s preparations about the latest development when the president’s chief of staff called her. “You obviously don’t know her well! She’s determined to come, even if she has to do it by boat,” she recalls, laughing.
True to his word, at dawn on Thursday, the president set out on a five-hour journey. Sakellaropoulou flew to Hania on Crete and drove to the port of Sfakia, where she boarded a weathered ferry boat. The wind was whipping up the waves, which in turn were rocking the boat, and the president’s escort were all on high alert. Sakellaropoulou laughed and said: “You know, I have been on a boat before. I can stand on my own two feet.”
When she arrived on the island, she was welcomed by a military detachment that sang the national anthem, accompanied by the island’s four schoolchildren and the mayor. Stefanaki had up until that moment been looking for volunteers to participate in a traditional ritual of the Epiphany, in which people dive for a cross as part of the Blessing of the Waters. A local 18-year-old man and a member of the coast guard accompanying the president rose to the occasion.
After the blessing, Sakellaropoulou was made an honorary citizen of the island. She visited a house built by political exiles in 1931, led by Aris Velouchiotis (a prominent yet controversial member of the Greek resistance) and the island’s Satellite Altimeter Calibration Center. From there, she spoke with an official of the European Space Agency, who praised the scientific team from the Technical University of Crete on their pioneering project.
Before the celebratory lunch, the president wanted to visit the military outpost of Faro. There, she was handed the Greek flag that flew over Greece and Europe’s southernmost point. “In my office I have flags from Agathonisi, Strongyli, and now Gavdos,” she told them.
Sakellaropoulou first visited the island 10 years ago with a group of friends. Her return this year, in her official capacity as president, was particularly important for her because, in her own words, it is in remote parts of Greece that “the heart of Hellenism beats strongest. The importance of every act and every word is doubled.” The president spoke with the few inhabitants of the island on how their decision to live at the country’s borders is a decision of heroism. She recognized that they are there by choice and their desire to do so is a true act of patriotism, an act of great national significance. Her words, and her presence, on their island was particularly emotional for the residents, as it was for the president herself.
‘Disagreements’ over lunch
The president’s visit concluded with a lunch for all the island’s inhabitants. A taverna was opened for the occasion, with supplies and staff from Crete. It was perhaps the only disagreement between the president and the mayor – who would be providing the meal. The mayor acquiesced and, in her toast, thanked the president. “We may be far away, but you made us feel glad and safe, that we are under your protection,” Stefanaki said. The mayor then gave the president a traditional earthenware pot from the island, along with a more personal gift. A piece of embroidery that an aunt of hers had made using a traditional technique that has long been lost on Gavdos.
The two women also discussed pressing issues impacting the life of the residents. The lack of adequate personnel staffing government services, the inadequate medical provisions, and the unbearable strain of policing the island throughout the summer season when it is flooded with tourists. They also talked about the underutilized archaeological wealth of Gavdos, and practical issues like the lack of a solution for the high school education of two children who are finishing elementary school this year.