Sunlight dapples the water in glittering flashes. A wooden rowing boat bobs from side to side. A seagull protests as another grabs a fishy delicacy from the deck of a fancy yacht. A trio of white ducks troops out of the water and off down a stony lane. The rich and tempting smell of barbecuing meat drifts across from a nearby garden. All around is colour and light and warmth and an almost indescribable feeling of tranquility and harmony.
I am sitting on a simple little bench at one end of curvaceous Ornos beach, on Mykonos in the Cyclades, a scattering of Greek islands that epitomise the essence of what we imagine as holiday Greece. ‘The Cyclades is one corner of the map where the word “seduction” applies with more appositeness than anywhere else on earth.’ (Gobineau)
A couple of hours earlier I had left the comfort of luxurious cruise ship ‘Celebrity Reflection’ and joined the throngs of visitors surging into the tiny white-washed, crazy-paved streets of this popular island honeypot. As politely as possible, I had pushed my way through crowds, many off on trips to ancient Delos, a few miles and another world away. I was determined to escape and find what I dearly hoped and yes, expected, to be somewhere beyond the touristic scenes.
Many years ago I had lived in Greece and it is my spiritual home. I love the country’s diversity of place, its people, its history, its culture, its food (yes, even luke-warm moussaka), its scent, its craziness and its passionate, enduring and generous personality. I had not been back to island Greece or Mykonos for a long time and I wanted to find a quiet place to simply sit, relax and enjoy being ‘back home’.
One of the ship’s helpful team of shore excursion advisers had given me a map and suggested I go to one of the beaches out of the town. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time travelling so had decided to get a bus to Ornos Beach, only fifteen minutes away. Finding the bus station was not easy; Mykonos Town is a maze of little lanes, zig-zagging off at acute angles, apparently originally designed to protect its inhabitants from the wind and foil marauding pirates. Eventually I found the right bus stop, bought a souvlaki to keep me going and took the trundling route from bustle to peace.
The bus dropped me off in front of the crescent bay of Ornos, a sandy beach dotted with palm-fronded umbrellas and faded sun loungers. It’s a popular place and can get very busy in the summer. It was English autumn half-term so there were a few pale British families swimming and sunbathing, plus a smattering of locals wrapped up in the October sun having a coffee and chat at cafes and restaurants along the beach.
I set off to the right along the sand, taking off my shoes to paddle in the warm Aegean sea. I needed to get away from the main tourist section to find that special place, but the walk right round to the end of the path led me to rocks and no way on. I perched on the wall of a deserted villa and looked out across the water. It was lovely – but not what I was searching for.
Heading back around the bay, a light breeze played counterpoint to the warmth of the sun, creating an ideal temperate balance. A hand-written sign hanging from a tamarind tree gave times of water taxis to other Mykonos beaches and cruises to Delos, with its air of time-worn melancholy and line of ‘lean Mycenean lions which pose themselves for a leap in the harsh glare of the sun.’ Lawrence Durrell. On another occasion it would have been fun to get a little boat and pootle off round the shoreline to explore its coastal nooks and crannies.
The Ithaki Restaurant* was starting to fill up. It was Oxi Day, a national holiday and many who lived in Athens had returned to their island home to celebrate with family and friends. Tables were temptingly laid out on the beach and I promised myself I’d have a late lunch there before returning to the ship.
A bit further on a mountain of wooden chairs was a reminder that, in spite of this wonderful weather, the season is ending and winter is just around the corner. Perched up above the shore are cuboid, decorative pigeon houses with triangular openings and crenellated roofs. Modern holiday homes and a couple of hotels provide tourist accommodation. An old windmill projects its circular wheel into the sky and a white-washed chapel adds another element to the mish-mash of architectural style.
As I passed fishing boats moored alongside the jetty, an old man looked up from mending his orange nets and smiled, “Kalimera“. I still hadn’t found the ‘sweet spot’ and knew that if it wasn’t at the end of this curve I would have to give up, go back to the restaurant and simply enjoy the rest of the day without it.
But then, beside a little slipway, I see it. Three pieces of blue wood nailed onto a metal frame, settled on a rocky outcrop, welcoming and just where it ought to be. It reminds me of another favourite little bench overlooking Rydal Water in the Lake District, somewhere to just ‘be’.
As I sit here remembering times gone by and absorbing that indefinable sense of wonder that Greece can give those who choose to feel it, music drifts out across the sea. It gets louder and I vaguely recognise the tune – then it hits its stride and it’s ‘Footloose’, a song from 1984. From a film of the same name, it was also the soundtrack to many of our Athens parties and a life long gone but never forgotten … This truly is a place where, as Lawrence Durrell said, ‘your imagination feels rocked and cherished by the present and past alike …’
* Sadly the Ithaki Restaurant closed in summer 2014 but hopefully another equally lovely one will take its place. The setting is perfect.