So far, on Skopelos I have traveled almost exclusively on foot. It’s given me a chance to observe the plant life, the shrines in front of people’s houses, and the litter. The plant life has been interesting. Tiny cyclamen are popping up on banks everywhere and it is just now blackberry season in Greece. I stop often to partake. Much of what grows on Skopelos seems to be edible. The road sides are thick with the anise-flavored weed that looks like dill. A Skopelitan told me it is wild fennel. There are huge fig trees with trunks like oak trees that seem to grow wild, and of course olive trees everywhere. Lemon trees abound.
I have a passion for interesting litter that I gather and use for assemblages. The prize from this past week was a rusted, braided circle of wire with many projecting fingers. It immediately brought to mind the crown of thorns. My young Greek friend said it reminded her of a kotina–a laurel wreath.
Today I have a rental car and the aspiration to see the whole island. I feel like an ancient Skopelitan who has only seen as far as the edge of her village and has no idea what is on the other side of the mountain. So far I’ve stopped at three hardware stores. For me, they show how a people really live. Here I find a proliferation of tools designed to deliver mortar to stone, and to cut stone and tile. There is a lot of nautical hardware as well.
Beyond Skopelos Town, on the other side of the island, pine trees present a new color to my palette. They are a brilliant yellow-green unlike any of the greens I have seen anywhere else. I stop in a beach town for a coffee and to visit a church with 11th century fragments. Then, I take the turn for Skopelos’ most famous church. Driving through the sparsely populated hills that lead to it, I’m beginning the process of being awestruck.
There are a few scattered and lovely villas, marked by the sharp verticals of cypress trees. Their olive groves are perfectly tended, their ancient stone terrace walls in perfect order. The roadsides are dotted with cyclamen, and the road wraps around the hillsides to reveal the sea. When I finally see Agio Ioannis perched on its high stone outcropping, surrounded by massive marble faces and emerald water I know it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I take a dozen photographs of the water, the stones, the church and then I attempt the ascent.
Though there are cobbled steps all the way to the top, and at the narrowest and most dangerous parts, a stainless steel handrail, I start to panic. I manage three sections of the ascent when I stop. I have a serious phobia where heights are concerned and the fact that all I see to the left of the handrail is turquoise ocean makes it somehow worse. Being a person of great determination I seldom give up. When the panic sets in I manage most of another flight on my hands and knees, like a penitent. At some point I start to fear that the descent will be worse than the ascent so I stop and — take a deep breath– and give up. I content myself with the fact that this is still the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and slowly I make my way back down, convinced I would have not been able to handle the views from the top. I forgive myself– I who have always valued courage. This is PHOBIA I tell myself, not ordinary fear. Phobia is fear squared and doubled back on itself. Phobia is fear with a vivid imagination and sweaty palms. I visualize myself magically whisked off the stairs, over or through the handrail and cast into the rocky sea. That scenario is as clear as day.
I find a taverna in a cove for lunch and a rest. Then I explore the roads that lead to incredible monastaries. Staying on roads that have two whole lanes keeps me feeling safe, but when the road becomes a lane and a half and my share is graded toward the sea far below I turn around again and find another beach. Returning home the wind starts to whip up like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Crates and boxes have blown into the streets. Back at the studio the shutters are banging and windows have blown open. I’ve decided maybe I’m not tough enough to be Greek.