Eventually I left Menelaus and set off down the valley. I needed to get a move on – I wanted to walk to Luboudi and swim and afterwards, if possible, climb up to the Italian House. Fortunately lunch was beginning to kick in, raising my energy levels, to say nothing of the half-litre or so of wine I’d drunk with it. The phrase ‘wings on one’s feet’ is overused and hackneyed, but that’s how it felt as I raced down the valley, my rucksack on my back, beneath a mottled grey sky whose gloomy appearance looked ready to confirm the forecast of rain at any moment.
Conditions, meanwhile, was uncannily still. Not a breath of wind stirred the air, which felt close and warm. The only movement that took place was up on the mountainside where miniature convoys of goats, spooked by my presence, staged subtle retreats. Visually, the valley was everything that I remembered and I feasted with hungry eyes upon familiar features – the meadows with the ruined buildings on the opposite slope, the oleander-choked watercourse that meandered along the bottom of the valley between high walls composed of solid blocks of grey limestone, the two huge eucalypt trees that marked a reliable spring, to name just a few.
Beyond the eucalypts the path dipped and narrowed. The stony ochre-coloured earth had been baked hard by months of unrelenting summer sun. It unfolded between a dense quilting of blue-green thyme, leathery sage and thorny genista that had been similarly burned and leached of body and colour. As I descended I was progressively able to see more of the beach below, the view opening with each rapid step that I took, until soon the whole length of it was visible and both headlands – each a stony prong of land, its steep flanks etched with the inevitable terraces, that rose to a bleak and stony peak before tapering gradually downwards to a narrow tip that shelved gracefully into the grey gelid sea. Looking out across the strait I could see no sign of Turkish Dacta, only a pall of misty white haze where I knew mountains and forest to be. Towards the bottom of the valley, adjacent to some walled fields overgrown with the all-encompassing phrygana, the path levelled out and turned to fine grey sand that yielded, squeaking, beneath my boots as it passed through a growth of shrubs with thin leaves of a dull green colour and tiny white flowers that exuded a cloying, honey-like aroma. Once, I remembered, I had asked Menelaus what these plants were called and he’d replied, ‘ylastros’, which sounded uncannily similar to the word for flower-pot, ‘ylastra’. I had to admit, I didn’t know what to make of that.
Moments later I was on the beach. For those who don’t know, Skafi is a gently curving expanse of red-ochre earth and white and grey pebbles. It is washed by reliably pellucid shallows which today were tinted iron-grey and dark turquoise and barely moved over its floor of variously-coloured pebbles. An assortment of sea wrack littered the tideline. Along with the inevitable silvery grey driftwood, there was an impressive trove of plastic containers which, to judge by the labels, seemed to have been washed up from all corners of the eastern Mediterranean – suntan lotion from Israel, shampoo bottles from Croatia, yogurt containers washed over from Turkey, a haloumi cheese packet from Cyprus – as well as bits of foam and plastic toys and many, many shoes of all shapes and sizes. At the end of the beach I came upon a couple of intricate shelters assembled by summer revellers from driftwood and faded lengths of fabric, now woebegone ruins as long forgotten as the summer itself. Further on the ghost of a path climbed over a low spur of land to another, smaller cove, with a red sand beach, tucked into the corner of the headland and backed by gently rising slopes. The sea here was, if anything, even more beguiling, although the sea wrack was formidable, the collection including even more shoes as well as a couple of car tyres lying half-sunk among the wooden debris collected at the bottom a watercourse that cut back into the mountainside.
It remained a wonderful place to swim, and I would have done so if I hadn’t had my heart set on Luboudi. I didn’t hang around, therefore, but crossed the beach and climbed up over the rocks at the far end, eventually gaining a faint path that ran, on and off, diagonally up the headland. It was a bit of a grind, the scrub thick at times, but in what seemed like no time at all I was at the top, gazing back down at the way I’d come, then out across the sea where the island of Nissyros was a ghostly presence veiled by a thin screen of haze. The sweat poured off me, drenching my shirt and soaking down into my trousers. Ah, now, this was the life.
Down the other side I went, following another very faint trail that doubled back down the headland. The way was steep and stony underfoot. It was not the kind of place to take your mind off things, but even so I couldn’t help looking down at Luboudi, the pale shingle beach cosseted by mountains which reared up behind it, giving way to a terrific view down the wild and precipitous east coast of the island. The opposite headland had been ravaged by fire the previous year – it climbed bald and exposed from the midnight blue sea, a discouraging blend of grey and red-ochre earth and rocks, devoid of any trace of green. By a happy contrast, the sea directly below me was a gorgeous spectrum of cool blues and greens, the colour of the water changing with the depth and according to whether it flowed over rocks or sand – both of which were thrillingly visible.
Encouraged by the sight I sped downwards, my boot-soles trampling bushes and clattering over stones. It felt amazing to be moving so well and quickly, to feel so gloriously free, and no doubt because of this I ignored the little voice in my head that whispered that I was going too fast and it might be wise to slow down. Pride comes before the fall, they say, and the fall, when at last it came, was sobering. It happened as it always did – my boot striking a stone that happened to be loose and which slid out from beneath me, sending me flying backwards, with little to think anything more than ‘Oh shit’ before I landed with a thud on my arse, quite unhurt except for a hand full of thorns courtesy of a genista bush that I had managed to locate in trying to break my fall. Climbing to my feet I dusted myself off, looked ruefully at my grazed and prickled palm and, feeling incredibly grateful that there was nobody around to witness my humiliation, laughed out loud.
Moments later I was on the beach, my boot-soles crunching on the shingles. All around me the slopes climbed upwards beneath an etching of terraces. It was like a rustic amphitheatre, with a little stage of beach that invariably felt delightfully private and secluded. Three-quarters of the way across the beach I stopped, threw down my rucksack and, stripping off, plunged into the sea and struck out towards the centre of the bay. The water felt glorious, cool and refreshing after the cloying heat. Revelling in my nakedness, I behaved like a seal, diving into the alluring turquoise depths, resurfacing, then diving again – all the while thanking my stars that I was back here in this sea. Now and then between dives I paused and looked up at the mountains, which stood high and impressive against a sky that was growing increasingly dark and portentous. I thought again about rain and considered that if I wanted to get to the Italian House I had better hurry, but did nothing about it, deciding it could wait. I dived again and resurfaced and it was then that a strange thing happened – suddenly tears were pouring down my cheeks, tasty hot and salty when I licked them from my lips. I was laughing at the same time, a little crazily, aware of how odd it was to be in the sea, at Luboudi, and crying like a child. So then I swam some more and the crying stopped, leaving the tiniest residue of sadness that persisted long after I had left the sea and was climbing upwards over the bare burned headland, moving quickly, winding my way between jutting lumps and blades of pale grey limestone.
Here and there the twisted roots of bushes, charred black by fire, protruded from the ground. I also saw, miraculously, tentative green shoots – the vanguard of a process of regrowth that would take years to complete. After a couple of hundred metres or so, the phrygana resumed suddenly and the ascent began in earnest as the ground tipped upwards towards the distant and lofty ridge. In this part of the island there was no set course. Old paths did exist, fragile and overgrown – but they ran horizontally, following the line of the terraces around the bulging flanks of the mountains. Vertically there was nothing, which meant charting the best possible course through thick scrub and over crumbling terrace walls. It was hard work and the sweat was soon running again. To keep myself going I sang some old revolutionary songs from Crete that not only bolstered my resolve but had a startling effect on the handful of wild goats I encountered up towards the ridge.
I also exulted in the view, which was magnificent. While Luboudi receded away to the north, I was now directly above the smaller, neighbouring bay of Angistro, able to look down over cascading ranks of terraces at the little square of white sand, still littered with the shattered remains of a Turkish gulet – one of the first people smugglers’ boats to arrive on Tilos, which had been scuttled there some years before. Terraces coiled away in every direction, epic in the gloaming light. As I climbed higher, clambering over the jutting bastions of limestone that guarded the ridge, the view opened further to the north enabling me to gaze down into the Skafi valley with the mountains rising beyond. Tilos looked like a different island from up here, higher, wilder, with the shattered stub of the castle above Megalo Horio appearing like something out of a fairy tale, romantic and remote, and the chiselled iron-grey bulk of the Profitis Ilias massif beyond it assuming an otherworldly cast. Shadows lay thick in its folds and ravines, while the limestone peaks, cut loose of the lowlands that would have given them perspective, loomed huge and severe against the ominous sky. Then, gradually, the lowlands came into view, and seeing the village of Megalo Horio, its houses spilling whitely down the mountainside, and the verdant expanse of the Eristos plain leading to the sea, reality kicked back in. I was on my way to the Italian House.