How wonderful it was to have left the ‘Old Smoke’ (London Town) for a while and to be sitting once again on the terrace of my father’s house in Krios, Paros. The late afternoon sun cast its resplendent gold over the ancient land. In cinematographic jargon it’s called the ‘Magic hour’ or the ‘Magic minutes’. Perfect terminology.
I sat there looking out to the church of Aghios Fokas, the protector of the bay. Across the immaculate opal water I could see the classic white houses of Paroikia snuggled around the Church of Aghios Constantinos. The Notias ridge rose gently behind the town and then, there towards the sky, the crown of Paros, Mount Aghii Pantes. I’d driven many times to the highest point on the island via the simply beautiful village of Lefkes, but I’d never trekked up the mountain. I had just celebrated my fortieth birthday, so I decided it was high time I did – I grabbed a map, researched the old trails and paths of the hinterland and hatched a plan.
The next morning, armed with the map, three bottles of water, lunch and, of course, suitable footwear, I crossed the periphereiako, the main road which skirts the town of Paroikia – an extreme sport in itself in the height of summer! When I reached Audiophile, I turned into the lane that leads to Kakapetra and the valley below my target.
After half-an-hour or so I entered the charming and unspoilt terrain of the Peristeri foothills. The sun beat down relentlessly. Above the ravine of the now dry but still green and fertile riverbeds which meandered through this burnt and scorched land, the lane quickly turned into a goatpath or a long forgotten trail. The path divided into two and, taking the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Robert Frost, I took the one less traveled by. Putting away my map, I went ‘freestyle’. In the faraway haze the monastery of Aghios Ioannis watched over me.
Onwards and upwards, I came across an untouched orchard of intoxicating smells. Oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, wild white flowers and olive trees enjoyed the shade and the light breeze. The bees, butterflies and other insects danced, working their magic – it was as busy as any city. What a place to rest! No buildings, no people, pure beauty, pure peace in every sense. My children have to see this place.
After the marvelous ritual of crushing feta and tomatoes into bread, I reluctantly departed from this natural wonder. The barely visible trail took a turn straight up towards the rocky summit and again into the suffocating heat. Far below, the now distant hive of activity of the Bay of Paroikia came into view.
Suddenly, a few feet in front of me on the broken granite and marble path a large snake appeared. With a hit of adrenaline, I froze – a strange term to use in this Cycladic summer, I know. The snake was brown and emblazoned with ferocious colours. I had no idea whether it was poisonous or not, but thought best to err on the side of caution. This was not some coincidental meeting – this creature had known I was approaching; it could feel my clumsy vibrations through the rock. It had smelled my human odour – Mankind – a bad thing. Yes, this reptile had come out to greet me.
I didn’t panic, but then nor did the snake for that matter. I’ve met snakes before – to the east of Mwabungi in Kenya and in the aptly-named Rattlesnake Canyon in the foothills of Santa Barbara, California. I’ve nearly stepped on them, but luckily for me they have always kindly bolted. Not now, though, not this one. Why? Well, of course, this was a Greek snake!
I’m sure you all know about the Greek character and psyche – passionate, fiercely independent and proud of their heritage, coupled with an undeniable sense of cultural superiority. Did I stand a chance to pass... or even live? The stand-off continued. Having been raised in Birmingham in the seventies, I stood my ground. But it didn’t just stare at me, it looked around and threw me a look of disgust every now and again. And then it spoke – not literally – but through its eyes, it seemed to say to me:
“I know you, you down there, with your jet skis and marble floors, your plasma screens on your walls, and mint in your cocktails. Now what do you want? A villa, apartments, a high-terraced restaurant for power lunches, romance and sunsets? NO! Not this time, Pal, not up here! My family has been here as long as the Ekatontapyliani, and we’re not about to leave.”
At the mention of family I became a little nervous, because, as we all know, a lot of Greek children stay at home until they get married. I quickly looked down, scouting for the playful – and possibly feisty – young offspring. No immediate sign of them, but then the snake quickly got my attention again as he continued: “You, yeah, you with your lame tan and funny ideas, one day you’ll box yourselves in and wonder where the beauty went. You’re all so busy doing things that you don’t stop to think whether you should be doing it, or what effect it has. I mean, look at the telecommunications towers up there at the top, not exactly classic sculpture, is it? This is no future. Go away! No surveying here!”
Coiled and calm, he waited. I could tell he wanted an answer, or perhaps a heated debate, an argument. And I totally understood. For a fleeting moment I pondered what I would say, then I fixed the snake with an unflinching gaze. I wanted to be taken seriously, so I spoke out loud:
“I promise you, Snake.”
I looked around to see if anyone could hear me – to be honest I felt a little foolish – before I went on:
“I love this place, this isle. I have only ventured to this – sorry, your – mountain to enjoy the quiet valleys, the aromas and views, to rest and reflect. I will reach the top just to observe the land and I will take only pictures and leave only footprints. I will tell people what you have said, and you will be left in peace.”
Now he glared at me, a scrutinizing, hostile stare, surveying my soul – a look only a snake could command, or possibly an ex-girlfriend! Then, in a moment of sheer elegance and natural splendour, he headed off for the shade of a bush. I didn’t rush past – that would have been rude – I simply walked purposefully on.
A little while later, after a short, near-vertical scramble, I arrived at my destination – the summit of Aghii Pantes at 762 metres. I drank heavily – two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, that is. I savoured the inspiring vistas below and the magnificent spectacle of the surrounding islands that sat shimmering in silver and blue. Like the islands, I sat there for a long time, thinking deeply. Yet I had to depart from this prospect at some point and return to the world of people. Finally I rose, took a bearing down the other side of the mountain, and headed for an ‘ice cold in Lefkes’ and the bus home.
I’m not trying to sell you a moral, nor even some kind of propaganda. If you want to find meaning in my experience, then in the simplest terms it’s partly about ‘respect’ and partly about ‘the future’. You see, believe it or not, this is an absolutely true story. When I walked up that mountain days after my fortieth birthday on Paros, a snake ‘spoke’ to me; and when I replied, he let me pass. In some intangible, yet profound way, something shifted deep in my being and I was changed forever.