The Magic of Skyros

Skyros 1-11 September

Sunset at Atsitsa

I returned to the gorgeous Aegean isle of Skyros on the first of the month for my second year of running a creative writing workshop – this time focussing on what I call ‘Life: Fiction’, my hybrid of life-writing and fiction-writing (where one ends and the other begins is often hard to say). I rode to Heathrow and parked up my ‘bike – before catching the BA flight to Athens. We were picked up by the distinctive purple Skyros coach, and guided to our hotel by Julian – the long-running member of staff, a skilled guide and consummate professional. Our brief stopover in the capital city was a chance to check out an attraction or two, as well as connect with fellow participants (& tutors). Before the respective parties went to either Skyros Centre (Writers’ Lab/Life Choices) or Atsitsa (various courses & activities) it was nice opportunity to forge a collective identity. We were all embarking on the adventure together. A group of 19 of us went out, looking for somewhere to dine – deciding to venture to the so-called ‘Anarchists’ Quarter’ to sample the local scene. The atmosphere seemed pleasant – with young black-clad Athenians hanging out, sporting long hair and lots of make-up (back home they’d be called ‘Emos’ or ‘Goths’). The food finally came – a barrage of starters, in true meze style. The cold bottle of Mythos went down a treat after a long journey, yet it wasn’t over yet. The following day, after a morning (which I used to visit the National Archaeological Museum) we set off – well, we would have done if not for the Student Protest which caused our street to the blocked off and the hotel barricaded up. We were stuck until they had passed, delaying the departure of the coach – but making for an interesting spectacle. The student protesters were far more civilised than their British equivalents – stamping and singing in good spirits. It felt ‘good-natured’ if earnest – they have true cause for complaint. The economic crash has hit Greece hard – there were a lot of beggars of the streets and lots of political graffiti everywhere, but I didn’t feel unsafe. However, there was a sense it was a powder-keg – and combined with the heat, noise and endless traffic – it was a distinct relief to leave the ugly metropolis. If nothing else, a night in Athens makes you appreciate the time on the island even more.

Graffiti in Athens

As soon as we reached the Aegean coast, things looked up. The ‘wine-dark’ sea (actually a dazzling turquoise at that time of day) was a sight for sore eyes; and soothing to the other senses also – to stand on deck of the ferry as it crossed over to Evia, feeling one’s body enveloped in a warm breeze – and then onto the Linaria from the other side. Due to the delay caused by the protest we nearly missed the last ferry – getting there with five minutes to spare. As we approached Skyros we were treated to a spectacular sunset. At the same time the maiden moon rose opposite. And it felt like we had slip through the Symplegades of reality and entered a realm of enchantment. This effect was somewhat challenged by the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ music blasting out as we entered the port of Linaria (something of a tradition – which the residents must love!). By now, after twenty four hours of travelling I was feeling rather spaced out and very glad to finally arrive at the Skyros Centre for a late dinner. With relief we were shown to our quarters. Despite a dripping tap, I slept well, dog-tired.

Courses started the very next day – straight after the breakfast community meeting. For the next eight days (with one day off halfway through) I ran a three hour writing workshop every morning from 10.30am. My group of participants was small (6) but the international cross-section and striking personalities more than made up for it (an Australian; a South-African; a Belgian; an American-Asian; & a couple of Brits). The group seemed to bond well and produced some good work. Every afternoon, after a delicious lunch conjured up by Vasso, (the near-legendary local cook) I enjoyed a siesta down on the lovely beach at Magazia – swimming in the warm clear seas and cooling off with a beer and a book. Bliss.

Life's a Beach - on Skyros

One day, while I was running my writing workshop on the terrace a British couple turned up who had met at Skyros twenty five years ago – got married and were celebrating their anniversary on the island. They were invited to join us for lunch – and a cake magically manifested from Vasso’s kitchen.

Great massages were on offer from Martha – our resident native masseuse – and Andrea offered a ‘personal styling’ drop-in in the evenings. It’s half-board at Skyros, so most evenings the participants took themselves off to the town or the beach to dine – and most evenings they seemed to end up on the terrace of the apartment block where I was staying, enjoying a ‘nightcap’ or three – usually courtesy of Peter’s generosity (he kept regaling us with bottles of wine and whisky in an ongoing ‘tasting’ session).

Terrace party

The Dionysian revelry was not sustainable – and folk started to flounder after a few late nights. I had learnt to pace myself quickly – and enjoying a few quiet ones in allowed me to be clear-headed most mornings – essential for my class! If the late night drinking was avoided, the life-style at Skyros was in fact very healthy – great food, plenty of exercise, rest, sun and early morning yoga – so my body soon started to ‘glow’.

The excellent catering was occasionally supplemented by superb additions by the multi-talented Andrew – who co-runs the Skyros Centre with Julian. One morning he treated us to home-made bagels. And one evening a delicious curry for the staff (yum!).

Skyros Centre - all quiet for siesta time

Half-way through the session we visited the sister site at Atsitsa – a chance to swim off Dead Goat Beach, enjoy a drink at Mariana’s while watching the sunset, and catch up with our fellow travellers. The bold (or foolish) could try a bit of Greek dancing, although the ‘free-style’ to resident musician Tom’s drumming posse was more to my taste. Alas, taxis whisked us back to Skyros at eleven like a fleet of pumpkin coaches, yet the visit had provided a welcome ‘change of scene’. Both groups seem to decide that their place was best! In truth, both have their attractions – but a plus for Skyros is the experience of living ‘amongst the locals’ in traditional Greek dwellings, and so could be said to be a more authentic experience, culturally. You get to know the predominantly ancient locals, sitting on their porches, as you pass them everyday, calling out ‘Kalimera’ or ‘Yaisas!’

High Country - Skyros mountain walk

The day after was our official day off – making the most of the free morning I visited the local archaeological museum (its modest collection of local finds not quite matching the main one in Athens!) then went for a solo mountain walk after lunch with the Atsitsan guests. It was great to strike out alone – and enjoy some peace and space, after a few intense ‘people-rich’ days. I like good company – and my own! I need both to stay pleasant. The only company I had was a herd of wild goats – the sound of their bells is a familiar sound in the high country of Greece – and evokes an Arcadian idyll unchanged for centuries. One half expects Pan himself to step out from behind an olive tree, or to catch a nymph bathing in a sun-dappled pool (on the South Island, there is the Spring of the Nymphs below the Temple to Pan on a mountain top – amongst the tangled shade of a massive tree growing by the Spring goats gather, unwittingly conspiring in the mythic resonance of the place).

The magic of Skyros is palpable – in the vibrant colours; the air like warm honey; the golden evening light; in the vast star fields; the nocturnal chirrup of insects; the chiming of church bells in the distance; the heady scents of the night; the crowing of cockerels; the steady rhythms of work and prayer, siesta and socialising. At night the little cobbled streets of the town comes alive – young and old alike are safe until late. There appears to be no delinquency. Like the way the white ‘box’ houses hem each other into into a maze of passageways, so to does Greek society ‘hold’ everyone in place in a very community-focused way. It is a jigsaw puzzle of connections and consequences – a system that is both emotionally and physically ‘earthquake proof’ (when an earthquake hit the island – the monastery and castle were badly damaged, but the ‘sugar cube’ domestic buildings withstood it well).

Sunrise from the castle - Skyros

One morning I got up before dawn to watch the sun rise from Brooke Square – where a statue to the Dymock poet is dedicated (and to ‘classical poetry’). Last time I was here I visited his grave on the South Island (the actual ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’) and worked on a screenplay which is now starting to attract some exciting interest – I thanked the spirit of Brooke for any assistance he’s been giving!

I managed to do some light editing of a poetry manuscript – and a lot of reading – but after my class I was often too mentally tired to much other than blob out on the beach. Twenty four hours of teaching in 8 days is quite a lot (in effect, a 10 or 12 week course condensed into just over a week). But time and time again I was surprised and impressed by what participants shared. There was some good work created – and that is always the proof of the pudding. The final feedback was favourable too, and I ‘clocked off’ with some satisfaction. My work was accomplished. School was out.

My writers - on the terrace at the Skyros Centre

On the last night I hosted the centre’s ‘soiree’ – a chance for participants to share a party piece (song, poem, story, joke…) The ‘Skyros Singers’, coached by Kate Daniels, performed a choral world music song. Everyone seemed to pitch in something – either officially or unofficially! There was a great atmosphere and a lot of talent. My own offerings (a Greek myth and a smattering of poems) seemed to go down well. I closed with a Celtic blessing. Then Abba came on at full blast and everyone started to dance in a very silly manner – it was a hoot! There was a lovely sense of connection with everyone – tutors and participants all. Friendships had been forged; latent talents nurtured; new skills learnt; minds and hearts opened; and lifestyles changed or enhanced.

Hosting the soiree - on Skyros

The next morning we left at a civilised hour for the ferry (unlike the usual ‘stupid o’clock’). Again, this provided a nice chance to catch up with Atsitsans and ‘compare notes’. Everybody seemed to be glowing – the body language, expressions and tell-tale ‘twinkle’ said it all.

The magic of Skyros had worked once again!

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