Hydra, Fritillaries and the Monk
We heard him long before he came into view. He was riding a tough little mountain pony that seemed not much bigger than himself. The poor animal was so overburdened with kitchen utensils, olive oil drums and other paraphernalia that every laboured step it took set off a cacophony of clanging and banging that bespoke their arrival from halfway down the mountain. From a distance the priest cut a rather shambling quixotic figure but as he came closer he revealed himself to be a handsome young man, his long black hair, stovepipe hat and stubbly beard more in keeping with a gunslinger from a spaghetti western than an errant medieval knight.
A day earlier my walking companion and I had shot out of the port of Piraeus into the Saronic Gulf on a disintinctly aeronautical looking hydrofoil to search for three fritillaries that inhabit the nearby islands. Each of these has been given species status but some consider this a touch extravagant and prefer to think of them as a varietal jumble of just the one species, Fritillaria rhodokanakis. To my mind this is the most attractive of the three with its broadly flaring bicoloured bells in gold and mahogany. The other two, F. argolica and F. spetsiotica, whilst charming, lack the panache of the former and their reddish-brown and gold bells tend more towards stippled than bicoloured. F. rhodokanakis is endemic to the island of Hyda and it was there that I now found myself looking into the face of a man, so it seemed, from a very different world to mine.
Hydra is a huge rock that rises up sharply from the sea into the skies. Craggy mountain peaks cut the island neatly into two halves and great spurs of motley gray rock braid its steep slopes. In the spaces in between, patches of wild olives, pine and prickly oak cling on, a silver-green pastiche of patterns and shades. There are no fields, no vineyards . . . no agriculture . . . only the ubiquitous goat and some curious little discs of flattened land upon which are grown meagre crops of barley. These give a clue to something unique about the island and how life there is shaped.
There are no vehicles on Hydra, except for the garbage trucks, horses and donkeys remain the only means of transport. As a consequence there's a car-less calm and no motorbike buzz to break the tranquility so one can hear the rhythms of the day. All Hydriot life is compressed into the area around the tiny horseshoe-shaped port. Behind the harbor the town rises amphitheatrically, whitewashed homes with blue painted doors mingle with stately graystone mansions, each layer stacked one upon the other and all linked in an intricate maze of alleyways and jumbled steps. The whole unblemished setting is a throwback to simpler times.
The island's old worldliness attracts well-heeled travelers and invariably the cosmopolitan and the traditional bump up against each other in curious ways: ridiculously expensive super yachts moor alongside little local fishing boats in the harbour ; blinged-up jet setters totter on absurd heels behind pack mules employed to lug their over-burden of luggage and black-garbed priests sip coffee and chat on their mobiles alongside the revelers at the waterfront.
Priests are a highly visible group in the community living alongside their fellow Greeks as the public face of their faith. They are many things to them but most importantly they are experts in the art of worship. Whether it's singing the liturgy or leading the procession of sacred icons, they are the bridge between the profane and the sacred for a people still alive to the pomp and ritual of their orthodoxy.
It was my first trip to Hydra and I had been lax in preparations for I had brought no map and had not thought to ask anyone where I might meet with my prize. But despite these oversights it turned out I had no need for such things for once we entered into the higher parts of the mountain range F. rhodokanakis appeared in glorious abundance in almost every open space, their flowers dancing like clouds of jeweled butterflies. Most were bicoloured but very occasionally a pure yellow one would appear within their midst. In bud these looked like solid golden teardrops but as they opened into full bloom they had the exquisite delicacy of gold leaf burial jewelry.
The young man we had met on the mountain was not one of the priests from the harbour but a hieromonk, or monastic priest, bringing supplies up from the town to his monastery. Once the perfunctory exchange of greetings were out of the way, the priest, having sized us up as not the usuall visitors to his island, asked why we were meandering around mountain tops in the heat of the day and not at the beach. When we replied that we had been looking for, and found a special plant, and that we were going to photograph it, his perplexed expression and shoulder shrug suggested he thought us perhaps a little mad. Before we could ask him to reveal something of himself, to our astonishment, the tinny muffled strains of Kanye West's Good Life, burst forth in an unholy torrent from beneath his black raiment. It was the ringtone from his mobile on which he had a brief conversation and then, without a word, turned his pony around and clattered off back down the way he came. Had he left something at the bakery or was it a message from a higher source? Lost for words and none the wiser, we looked at each other . . . Maybe God does move in mysterious ways?
Many thanks to Susan Jarick, my traveling companion and resident artist, for the images of Hydra.