Gavdos in 1990: Greece's life vanishes into the blue

In response to an inquiry from Joanne Cameron, Vassilis Zervakis wrote:

To the S. of Crete there is Gavdos : If you have ascetic urges, try it!!!

Well, here is what some non-ascetic folks wrote on the walls of Gavdos:


Mas cteilave oi nloutokpates

ctou Libukou thv ephmia

giati gupeyame to dikio

kai tou laou th leftepia


The plutocrats sent us

to the Libyan sea's wilderness

because we sought justice

and people's freedom


I am talking about the leaders of Greek communists that had been exiled to Gavdos--at about 25 miles south of Crete, the southernmost point in Europe, save for Cyprus--by the Metaxas dictatorship, of course; fascinated by their story and little poem, I became curious about Gavdos "at a young age" and decided to "stop by" when I had a chance to visit Crete in 1990.

While approaching the island, I noticed a few buildings on the north side of the island and thought that may be this is where the communists had been kept. It turned out that my guess was correct: one of those buildings, in a very beautiful bay called "Sarakiniko"--that bay was the usual landing place for the pirates (Saracens)--one house/tavern is still called "communists' house"; this is where some prominent Greek communists lived a peaceful and productive life--yes, they did cultivate fruits and vegetables that they "exported" to Crete, excelling in private enterprise :-))

The ship from Paleochora, Crete "docks" on the eastern side of the island. A couple of tractors have been turned into self-styled taxis--their drivers protected from the sun by an umbrella, which prompted me to change "he's got a wheel" ("diathetei roda") to "he's got an umbrella"--that take the courageous tourists to Sarakiniko, where most of the taverns and "camping facilities" are. After having a minimal meal at the "harbor" (consisting of a couple of houses and taverns), I hiked for about half an hour to Sarakiniko and for another hour to a secluded bay west of Sarakiniko, where I spent two out of my three nights on the island.

Next day involved swimming at Sarakiniko, which is a Florida-like beach, and hiking in the interior of the island, which is very green and dominated by cypress trees; I saw no running water on Gavdos, yet it is said that there exists a large aquifer right underneath. Upon arriving at Kastri, a village with about 10-15 houses, I met the island's doctor, a recent medical school graduate; his brother, a Physics doctoral student in the U.S., was helping him to set up a ... telescope (invaluable gift for those clear, lonely winter nights, I guess).

I decided to spend my last night at the island's only hotel, which boasts of their home-made ice-cream, the only one available on Gavdos; well, it was not really available at the time, because of lack of raw materials ... After a rather miserable coastal hike that started at the "harbor", I reached the hotel, ready for the "challenge of the day": a hike to the island's southernmost tip (yes, the island is small enough for a comfortable north-south hike in a single day, in fact even a round trip); this is best done by first reaching the village of Vatsiana.

After several misadventures and a rather arduous hike, I reached Vatsiana and started descending toward Gavdos' (and Greece's, and Europe's) southern end. From a distance, I saw a number of small boats that turned out to be not private sailboats, but fishing boats: upon arrival, the joy of swimming was tarnished by a fair number of dead fish floating around (dynamite fishing, even there!); well, all that was forgotten when I reached the actual tip, called Tripiti ("Punctured"?), because of its three arches, and the nearby sea-caves.

Back at Vatsiana I met an old man, apparently ill, who was running the village's grocery--basically, a room in a small, ancient house; he was delighted to hear that I was from Thessaloniki, where he had been for part of his military service. Also, I managed to find Father Emmanuel Bakogianakis' sister, who sold to me his book "Gavdos, Calypso's island"; financed by the Vardinoyianis family, it contains invaluable information about the island--I read it from time to time for "spiritual uplifting". Bakogianakis vividly describes the unique combination of hardship and talent that characterizes the island's survival through the ages: the perilous sails to Crete (occasionally lasting for several days!?), the raids of the pirates and the hiding places, the pottery and ship-building traditions, the mysterious murders of an icon painter and a lighthouse keeper, etc. Above all, he describes the island's abandonment by the Greek state and the real danger of it being deserted even by its remaining one hundred residents ("no, I do not leave my children here during the winter", said to me a Cretan woman married to a local man). Also, he writes about the island's antiquities, including the remnants of a temple devoted to Dionysos and a palace allegedly belonging to Calypso, etc. As for those three stereotypes on Gavdians (descendants of Ulysses and Calypso, consumers of as much wine as the entire Chania prefecture (one fourth of Crete), sexually active through very old age), he says that he is not sure about the first two, but the third one is certainly false; well said, Father -- amen!

On the way back to the hotel, I met a lone North European traveler ascending toward Vatsiana, where she was planning to spend the night; I would not associate her with particularly ascetic urges, Vassilis :-))) At the hotel, a local fisherman described how difficult it might be to be the island's only policeman : "what do you need this pistol for, do you see any Turks around?" Back on Crete, the next day, I met that same young couple that had traveled with me and stayed on Gavdos for only about four hours, as they figured out, upon arrival, that no travelers' checks were accepted there; I tried to console them by mentioning the lack of ice-cream :-)

[Posted on soc.culture.greek, November 1993]

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