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Travel

Modern “Akrites” on the Blessed Isle of Kastellorizo

KASTELLORIZO, GREECE – The renowned ‘akrites’, the border guards of Byzantium, were soldiers. Their forts long crumbled long ago, but their spirit lives in places where Greece and Hellenism are challenged – like the famed island of Kastellorizo, one of Greece’s most far-flung and picturesque islands where beauty, and danger sometimes intersect.

Just off the coast of Turkey, the island is in the crosshairs of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We are not afraid” said Alex Metollari, President of the Municipal Council. “When there is this kind of tension and activity, yes, something bad can happen. Ships and planes are controlled by people and mistakes be made,” but he believes that Mitsotakis government’s approach to the crisis is the right one.

The residents who spoke with The National Herald said they are satisfied with the support and protection of the Greek government and its armed forces, which have a small but visible presence on the island. Metollari declared, “we are ready for anything,” but Turkey is literally a looming presence, its mountains – rising sheer from the sea – towering over the island.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe the waters between those countries boil with animosity. Through the years, friendships and commercial relationships have thrived, with Greeks travelling to the Turkish coastal town of Kas and Turks coming to Kastellorizo, the municipalities jointly presenting cultural events. “It’s with their governments we have issues with,” hotelier Voula Pehlivani told The National Herald, “not the people” – a near universal sentiment on the island. “Erdogan has caused us to lose friends and customers,” she said.

Past crises with Turkey still cast their shadow. The distance from Greece and its economy sent many away for decades, and then Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 – Kastellorizans worried they were next – drove away more, turning many homes into modern ruins. But grit, heart, and soul is the very stuff of places like Kastellorizo, and many returned to rebuild and give back, so that in the past 10 years there was a tourism boom.

Pehlivani’s husband Yannis Doulgaroglou’s parents are from the island, and they moved there after their marriage and built the Hotel Kastellorizo, which welcomes people from all over the world. But Kastellorizo’s prosperity is grounded in the love of its diaspora. Drawn by stories they heard as children, she said, Kastellorizans from Australia and the United States visit often, bringing friends too for weddings, baptisms, and family reunions. Pehlivani looks forward to better days and invites all Greeks to return next year to celebrate the Feast of Prophet Elias and enjoy island specialties, like its unique sweet, Katoumari, and meals like stuffed onions, dolmadakia, and keftedes – and especially stuffed lamb at Pascha.

Margarita Kannis and her brother were raised in Australia – her mother Katerini was from the tiny island, her father from a somewhat larger one – Ireland. “But they are similar. Their strengths are their families, their religion, music and poetry, and their political passions,” she said.

Kannis told TNH, “I first came to Kastellorizo for the first time at 35 … It just grabbed my spirit and my heart … I knew it was the place where I would be…”

That became a reality, but “it was a big risk because I knew I couldn’t go back and return to my industry.” Margarita is a sports producer who won an Emmy with NBC covering the Athens Olympics. Her talented and patriotic family includes industrialist and THI Chairman Andrew Liveris. Arriving in 2000 – Kannis never left, taking turns travelling for work and beautifully renovating the family home.

The soul and future of a place are its children and Kannis is moved by the lives of Kastellorizo’s children.  “It’s a perfect upbringing. Every family has to work in summer, so the children are on their own and learn to look after themselves …they gain a self-confidence since they are left to be responsible for each other, but the adults take responsibility for all children.” Another way in which the islanders constitute not a polity but a family.

Kastellorizans do not feel cut off from Greece or forgotten – but there are challenges.

Kannis noted many teachers arrive after the school year begins and families often send their children to Rhodes and elsewhere for high school. Healthcare is also a problem. The New Democracy government is addressing the issues, increasing ships from two to eight a week, and budgeting infrastructure projects.                                                          

Greek island solitude in winter doesn’t affect Kannis, however, “You can go to a kafenio and see people inside. If you want company, you can find it, and if you like yourself and solitude, it’s a great place. I think this is paradise.”

Kastellorizo’s people-drain simultaneously creates opportunities for others. Metollari’s family fled Balkan strife and came from Albania in the 1990s. “My father first went to Rhodes, but during a visit, he liked it and found work here” and established the family bakery.

Antonis Patiniotis’ parents and grandfathers are Kastellorizans. He runs a boat service to the Blue Cave – a must visit for its otherworldly light – and with his wife Christina owns the Mandraki Paradise hotel.

He originally left for work in the hotel and cruise ship industry, explaining “it was very difficult here and the state didn’t help.” Patiniotis emphasized that “those who went to Australia and America, working with the locals, with our blood and sweat, renovated the homes, and the island took wings.”

Passionate, he urges the Kastellorizan diaspora to embrace a dual mission: “Those who own houses here, plant trees on the grounds, and also find a way – pay your homes’ caretakers to do it – to raise the Greek flag on national holidays” – like the renowned Lady of Ro, Despina Achladioti, who daily raised the Greek flag on the nearby islet where she ended her days, even when it was technically under foreign occupation. “So Turkey across the water knows this is Ellada,” he said. He also had a message for Greece: “show a little more love and respect for the Diaspora Hellenes” – only by working together can a New Greece can be built.

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