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Mathematician’s Isle Adds Up
Samos, Greece

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Birthplace of Pythagoras, Samos has all the ingredients of the perfect escape, says Sarah Shuckburgh

We are woken by clanging church bells summoning villagers to mass. It’s another perfect day – sky and sea a startling blue, the horizon an auspicious blur. The sun is not yet too hot, so we sit outside for breakfast of creamy Greek yogurt and honey, cherries and apricots.

My friend Jane and I have deserted our families to spend a week on Samos in the north-eastern Aegean. Birthplace of Hera, mythical goddess of nature and fertility, this is a verdant island of vineyards, olive groves and pine forests. Our base is the unspoilt fishing village of Ormos, away from airstrip and crowded resorts.

Each morning, we drive into the hills or along the dramatic, indented coast, following a charmingly inaccurate map. The roads are steep and tortuous, and wayside shrines remind drivers of the perils of precipitous hairpin bends. The colours dazzle us: beneath an azure sky, deeply fissured cliffs gleam like nickel, topped with tufts of green; the orange soil is etched with chalky footpaths and terraced vineyards. The summer grass, bleached a pale russet, is strewn with silvery boulders, and smudged with grey-green olives and dark, slender cypresses. We stop the car by a gnarled olive tree with a trunk like tangled rope, and gaze at the barren heights of Mount Kerkis – a towering silver-grey ridge which brings the island welcome rain. The verge is fragrant with feathery fennel, bushy thyme, oregano, mint and rosemary. Below us, a scrubby landscape, dotted with red-roofed hamlets, stretches to the shimmering Aegean.

Samos suffered devastating forest fires six years ago, and today many hillsides are littered with the charred skeletons of pines. We see planes scooping up seawater to fight a fire further down the coast, and on parched slopes ancient fire engines are parked in readiness, with red-shirted firemen nearby, dozing in the shade.

We zigzag up to hilltop villages to explore ramshackle mazes of cobbled alleys, linked by flights of whitewashed stone steps, and shaded by unexpectedly huge churches. These are workaday villages, and many houses have been fitted with ugly plastic doors and windows. Other buildings are derelict, their lovely wooden shutters dangling from rusty hinges. At the heart of each village is a shady square with several tiny tavernas, each with chairs painted a different colour. Here we while away many hours, sipping sweet, milky frappés and Samos’s famously delicious spring water. Old men sit beneath plane trees, twiddling strings of beads. Women sweep whitewashed doorsteps and sluice the dust into shallow stone gutters, pausing to greet the priest as he stalks by, in tall hat and flowing robes. Skinny cats lounge beneath trailing bougainvillea, suckling even skinnier kittens. Swallows swoop under the eaves to feed trilling chicks. A farmer clops past, sitting sideways on his heavily laden donkey. Overhead, through a tangle of cables, towers Mount Kerkis’s sunlit summit.

One day, as we wander down a narrow alley, an old lady peeps from a low doorway. Like many village women, she wears a black dress and apron, black socks and slippers, and a white headscarf. Geraniums and dahlias bloom from olive oil cans on her doorstep.

We bid her good morning – “Kalimera” – and she returns the greeting, smiling toothlessly.

My friend Jane spent her teenage summers in Greece, and remembers some elementary Greek: “orea lathulhia” – beautiful flowers. The old lady is delighted, and beckons us into her cluttered scullery. Laundry is heaped in a china sink. Through a window, I glimpse a darkened room with bed, table and rag rugs. Our hostess pours orange juice and explains that she is over 80, with many ailments. Jane’s Greek proves inadequate, so the old lady hitches up her skirt to reveal scarred knees, beats her chest and sighs dramatically. For a moment there is silence apart from the stream gushing through a stone culvert in the alley. But suddenly the old lady’s blue eyes sparkle. “You must be sisters,” she says, as she pours more orange juice.

I fumble for some coins, but she flaps my hand away. “You are very welcome. Safe journey - kalo taxidi”.

We drive past isolated farms where chickens peck beneath peach, plum, fig and lemon trees, and families gather in the dappled shade of vines. One morning, in a dusty barnyard, we creak open the door of a tiny chapel to find the damp walls aglow with peeling frescoes. Later, we stop at a breezy taverna perched above a deep, wooded gorge. The shrill buzz of cicadas is punctuated by a cock crowing, and by the distant putter of a scooter winding up the mountain road. The elderly proprietress sings as she prepares yellow courgette flowers, plucking leaves and snapping stems. Beyond her stretches a mesmerising vista, wild and beautiful, with tiny whitewashed chapels glimmering against lush green forest and cloudless sky. Soon two plump men arrive with armfuls of peppers and spinach. She stops singing to wave her arms and shout at them, and they argue back - but soon she is singing again, and her sons sit down to prepare the vegetables.

“Are you sisters?” they ask us.

We visit a mountain monastery, founded in the 15th century but now derelict. By chance, the beautiful chapel is being spruced up for a saint’s day. Youths on military service are whitewashing the porch, dusting icons and polishing the glittering gold and silver rood screen. At the altar, an elderly pony-tailed priest is ironing an embroidered cloth, his cassock tucked into his pockets.

There are few tourists in these hills, and tavernas have no written menus. For lunch, we are offered tomato salad topped with hunks of feta cheese, stuffed courgette flowers, cheese pastries, vegetable briam or succulent tomato keftedes - all smothered in dark olive oil. Local families make oil from their own black olives, cheese from their own goats, honey from their own bees, and wine from their own grapes, but few have thought to sell their produce to visitors. Everywhere, people offer us gifts – a bunch of mint or a taste of homemade honey - but will not take any money.

“Are you sisters?” they all inquire.

Western Samos is dotted with small beaches of pale pebbles or multi-coloured shingle, lapped by limpid waves. After lunch, we head for one of these bays and take a siesta under a bamboo sunshade or beneath a tamarisk tree, occasionally waking for a bracing dip in the sea. The prevailing winds and strong currents make this part of the Aegean shockingly cold. On our first day, our clothes blew into the sea while we were bathing, and we had to swim out to retrieve them. After that, we carefully anchor our possessions under hefty stones.

Every afternoon, I try to make sense of the island’s complicated history, but I never get further than the 6th century BC - the golden age of Polycrates and Pythagoras. One minute I am reading about marble paving, tunnels, harbours, musical intervals and the squared sides of triangles – and the next minute I am asleep, lulled by warm breezes and by the rhythmic scrunch of waves on pebbles.

Luckily, Samiots are keen to share their personal histories. The ticket boy at Tsabou beach shows us a photograph of the bay in the days before cars, and a sepia print of his great-grandfather Kostas Tsabos, who purchased the beach almost a century ago – an impressive moustachioed figure in turban, baggy trousers, collarless shirt and knee-high boots, who lived until 1972.

On Ormos beach one morning, we open an unmarked metal door, and are surprised to find ourselves among the giant soap-encrusted vats, furnaces and cooling tubes of Samos’s only olive oil soap factory. The owner, grandson of the founder, seems delighted to have visitors, and shows us his heaps of olive mush, hunks of rough, half-finished soap waiting to be minced and purified, neatly cut grey-green blocks (large for laundry, small for bathing) and dark, sludgy residue, sold as fuel. Each bar of soap is stamped by hand at an upstairs window overlooking the turquoise sea. “Are you sisters?” the factory owner asks, as he offers us samples of delicately scented soap.

In the evenings, we eat seafood and drink apricot-coloured Samian wine, made famous by Byron. The sky becomes a kaleidoscope of reds and pinks, finally turning to indigo as the inky silhouettes of neighbouring islands disappear into the dusk. Small fishing boats bob on the darkening waves, saved from peril by Pythagoras, who, locals believe, keeps a benevolent eye on them to this day, from the slopes of Mount Kerkis.

First published by the Telegraph

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