What sets the Greek islands apart from all other islands in the world is something that cannot be charted or accounted for in a gazetteer. It is something in the mind or in the imagination. It is the history men live by—unconsciously, since it all happened many centuries ago, when, in and about these islands, people began to dream that mankind one day might civilize itself. The Greeks made brave beginnings toward that dream, with their literature, philosophy and art, and if it remains a dream to this day, it is a necessary one, however remote (perhaps impossible) its fulfillment may be. They foresaw the failure of the dream, too, some of the ancients who lived near these restless waters. The waves breaking on the Cyclades still sound Matthew Arnold's "eternal note of sadness," in the same way
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean.
In the thousands of years since Greece's classic age, the Cyclades have kept the simplicity dear to its poets and architects. Here are no shades of color and tone, no green of woodland bounded by meadow and field, no flower gardens and gay-painted houses glimpsed through foliage. Here is only the clear-etched line of barren hill and mountainside against the blistering blue of sea and sky, clusters of houses whitewashed into brilliance as blinding as the spume on offshore ledges. Goats browse where the eye cannot spot a single spear of grass, bees produce honey from unshaded rock, wheat manages to find crevices to survive.
The people survive, too. They accept their need to make a living out of the earth and the sea. Their humble lives have a dignity worthy of the islands' distinguished past. They are proud of the classic ruins, but prouder of their lively present. They are friendly—and there is a pleasant logic in the fact that xenos, the Greek word for stranger, also means guest.
As I stepped aboard the 60-foot schooner Aegean in Passa Limani, the Pasha's Harbor, on the Athens waterfront, I at once felt more like a guest than a stranger. Aegean had begun life as Centurion, 20 years before. Her frames were made of Madeira from Abaco in the Bahamas, her planking of Florida long-leaf pine. A veteran of many Atlantic passages and a hurricane off Bermuda, Aegean had come into the ownership of an old shipmate of mine. This was Horace W. (Hod) Fuller, late of Boston, late a brigadier general in the U.S. Marines, with service from Guadalcanal to France, now of Athens. Hod Fuller had written: "Let me show you something different in the way of islands."
Now, as Aegean heeled, I was having my first taste of the meltem, the wind off Mount Hymettus, a wind as characteristic of the region as the trades of the tropics. And lingering on my palate was the flavor of ouzo, the smoky, licorice-flavored brew that is the national drink of Greece. I was having my first impression of another characteristic of Attica, too, the quality of the light. Clear in the afternoon sun was the Acropolis, crowned by the Parthenon, a sailor's landmark through the centuries. Somehow, I did not seem to be looking at it through several miles of intervening atmosphere, but up close, as in a reversed telescope. There was the perspective of distance without the haze of distance. This clarity underlines the simplicity of the Cyclades, making the noon sun harsh, sharpening each line of the islands. Yet the same clarity melts into many-shaded sunrises and sunsets and softly luminous nights.
Our course carried us southeastward, close under the shore. Even here whitecaps marched in close ranks, for the meltem blew fresh. As we passed Point Vouliasmeni the wind chopped from almost dead aft to forward of the beam. Standing amidships, I lamented the passing of oldtime ships. Three head-sails lifted from the sharply steeved bowsprit over a gilded figurehead, three more sails filled from masts set up with dead-eyes and lanyards, all mementos of another vanished age. Aegean, with her tanned sails of canvas, clipper bow, lubber's net, midships bulwarks and raised poop complete with rail, was herself an anachronism, a Cape Horner in miniature.
Spindrift plumed to leeward like smoke, the light faded slowly. Phoebus Apollo neared the end of his daily drive in the sun chariot. Astern, a new quality came over Athens, a soft glow, faintly rose, touching Mount Hymettus and the clouds above. The glow tinted the columns of the Parthenon, and then came that sunset miracle which recalled the ancient epithet of Athens, City of the Violet Crown.
As Athens disappeared, Cape Sounion lifted, last bastion before the open Aegean. According to the Sailing Directions, "This cape, well known to navigators, often delayed by difficulty in doubling it, was dedicated to Poseidon." At the summit stood a ruined temple to the god of the sea, and in the sheltered cove at its base huddled a fleet of caiques, the high-bowed, slab-sided ships of burden that have remained almost unchanged for 2,000 years.
From the heights clusters of tourists near parked buses gaped down as Aegean surged bravely past, ignoring the warning of the anchored caiques. Sounion is one of those capes that separate the seagoing goats from the harbor-bound sheep. We were no sheep—resolutely we stood forth into the wine-dark sea of Ulysses.