Saturday, June 9, 2012

on the Island of Kea

The island of Kea lies to the east of the Attic peninsula, not far from Athens, and is reached by boat from the port of Lavrio.  Like so many of the islands, Kea had been losing population as people moved to the mainland in search of employment, while wealthy Athenians came to the island to buy land cheaply for vacation homes, a circumstance that did nothing to sweeten the disposition of the islanders, who had by the time of my arrival had acquired a reputation for unfriendliness.

After several days of low-level surliness around the port, I took up my backpack and walking stick and set off east, across the rocky island to a monastery I had read about.  In late afternoon, after a long day’s walk, I found myself on a desolate crag jutting out into the Greek Sea, at the Monastery of Kastriani.

I rang the bell at the gate and was admitted by an old Greek woman who was apparently the cook and caretaker, the monks being off on some monkish business.

After showing me to a room she fixed supper for me in the bright, tiled refectory, its thick walls decorated with religious pictures and old copperware, and its windows with cheerful curtains, and I remember thinking that monkish life didn’t look all that bad.  Afterward, she explained to me that she would be returning home for the evening and would be turning off the generator when she left, all of which sounded to me quite charming.

My room was properly monastic, with bare cement walls and a wooden plank door.  The bed was a low cot and there was a kerosene lamp on the table beside it.  I hung my clothes on a peg and sat on the bed with my copy of The Iliad and thought to myself how delightfully Greek the whole thing was.

About nine o’clock the power went off and I heard the heavy iron gate clang shut as the caretaker left for home.  I now had the monastery entirely to my self.

There had been a high wind all day, the weather still being cold and blustery.  People who visit Greece only in the summer think of it as a hot place, but it can be quite cold even into early spring.  The high winds rattled the window panes and shook the thin plank door of my room and made strange noises in the monastery that I had not heard when it was light.  The warm, friendly glow of the kerosene lamp beside my bed seemed to quiver and dim, as if an unseen door had been opened.  From my window I could not see the light of any human habitation.

In this lonely and melodramatic setting I thought of something I probably ought not have thought about.  I thought about vampires.

I knew that vampires were part of Greek folk tradition.  They are called Vrykólakas.  Lawrence Durrell described how, on Crete, he was present at the exhumation of a suspected vampire and how they found the body, though long buried, looked fresh and living, as vampires are well-known to be.

In Crete, I knew, there was a tradition of vampires, but I had read of nothing on these islands so close to Athens.  But sheep and goats do disappear.  Perhaps they fall off a cliff and are carried out to sea, or perhaps not.

It should be no surprise that in the isolated mountains of Greece a belief in werewolves and vampires might take hold and flourish.  With no light but wood fires or the pale glow of oil wicks it is very dark on a moonless Greek night, and even under a full moon the rocks and bushes seem alive with strange shapes and ominous suggestion.  And always one heard of people who had gone out at night onto familiar ground and never seen alive again.

But from my own experience I had concluded that God had often gone to great personal inconvenience to keep me safe, and I was sure that it could not have simply been to bring me to this desolate rock in the Greek Sea, that I might be fed to a vampire.  But if it was, it was a fine joke and I should enjoy it.  So I blew out my lamp and drifted off into untroubled sleep.

I was not unduly surprised to awake alive the next morning.


  1. Ahhhh - you actually STAYED in the monastery - I'm impressed! When exactly? I fell in love with the place when I went there. And the way your describe it here is perfect - what a lovely piece of prose.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.


  2. Bex, this happened in the long-ago year of 1983.

    I think my next post will describe what happened the next morning, when I found myself in a bit of a pickle.