Idyll on a Greek isle

Measuring only 6 by 8 miles, the tiny island of Aegina sits like a fat brown turtle along the southern coast of Greece. It's an iconic Greek island in the Saronic chain that, like a glass of ouzo, gives your senses a jolt.

The harbor is circled by blue tables and umbrellas that dance in the wind. Bobbing sailboats and fishing skiffs are loaded with octopus and eel, and the strains of a Zorba tune float along the quay.

The Saronic Islands are a chain of rocky outcrops stretching into the Argosaronic Sea and just 35 minutes by hydrofoil from Piraeus, Athens' premier passenger port. Curling like a cupped hand around the bottom of the Peloponnesian peninsula, the scattering of mountainous islands — Hydra, Poros, Spetses and Aegina — are all worthy of starring in a glossy Greek guidebook.

Tourists may flock to the better known destinations of Mykonos, Santorini and Hydra, which are postcard-perfect with nightlife aplenty. But reticent-seeming Aegina boasts its own treasures: exquisite beaches, an ancient temple rivaling the Parthenon, and its very own saint.

Saints and sunbathers

A visit to Aegina propels a visitor into village life. People are friendly, curious about your children, your work, and if you're a woman, your taste in men.

On this day, women sweep dust from their front steps, while, Maria, a husky-voiced vegetable seller, spreads racks of fruits and vegetables from her houseboat onto the sidewalk of the quay. With a wink she will plop extra figs and pears into a buyer's sack and wag a finger at her daughter, who is fingering the grapes.

It was in Aegina that during the early 1920s, the last proclaimed saint of the Orthodox Church, Nectarios, lived and worked. One of the largest monasteries in the Balkan world, built in his honor, overlooks the ancient seaside village of Paliachora, minutes into the hills above town.

Sophia, the young proprietor of what is now the Mykonos Hotel, likes to show the room where Nectarios lived. His miracles, she says, send her to the spare, white-washed monastery named for him. There she kisses his image and lights candles each day, in hopes that her wishes will be heard.

As the centuries rolled over one another, Aegina, which once rivaled Athens in maritime might, succumbed to the Franks, the Catalans, the Venetians and the Turks. Even pirates picked at the island's spoils. Enjoying a brief resurrection as Greece's first capital after the Turks were expelled, Aegina relinquished power a last time to Athens, and now seems comfortably content to bask in the sun or slumber beneath the shade of a pistachio tree.

Pistachio delights

There is no place better to sample this Mediterranean specialty. On a cool street splashed with lavender shadows and bougainvillea buds, a pistachio merchant named Kostos Ganas extols the varieties of Aegina's most famous export.

"Honeyed pistachios, salted ones, glazed. Pistachios in custard, jellies, ice cream or covered with sesame seeds and kept in your pocket all day long! Pistachios will bring you health and long life," he says. He points to black-and-white photos of elderly women, his grandmother and aunts, seated in a grove of trees sorting nuts.

Just then, a woman dressed in black with curly white hair comes in. Kostos introduces her as his aunt. She has just come from a coaching session with young village girls, whom she is teaching the traditions of the island.

Today, the lesson is on the September ''burning of Leidinos." This ritual is a goodbye to the easy living of summer, and Kostos' aunts hope the story will teach the young girls about how winter was a time of scarcity.

With that, the elderly woman begins to sway, slowly snapping her fingers, and with a look of feigned sadness, twirls in the tiny shop. Suddenly, she stops, laughs out loud, and tells her nephew, "Yes, the old is good, we will never lose it, but today, a glass of retsina, some salted pistachios, and the blessing of a saint, on Aegina, these are best!"

But you'll know that only if you experience the island for yourself.

Marina Brown, a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times, is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee.

If you go
Visiting Aegina

Spending a few days in Athens visiting the Acropolis and Platka before opting for the serenity of the Saronics makes perfect sense. Combining island
tranquility with the bustle of Athens is a good yin-yang combination.

Shuttle buses leave Athen's Eleftherios Venizelos airport every 30 minutes around the clock to the port of
Piraeus. The hourlong ride is about $5, versus more than $45 for a
taxi.

Tickets on the high-speed Flying Dolphin hydrofoils or one of many ferries to Aegina are inexpensive and a glorious introduction to the stark and dramatic scenery of the Aegean.

Once at the ferry's terminal in Aegina Town, buses, rented bikes or scooters, or horse-drawn carriages will take a visitor to any of the hotels on the island. In the town or marina area charming hotels can be had from 65 euros ($96) for two, with breakfast, or 6 miles away at one of the five spectacular beaches, from 40 euros (about $60) for two.

Special rates and discounts are available, especially in the off-season, when you can still cuddle and dream on a Greek beach while watching the sunset beside a roaring fire. For more information, go to www.aeginagreece.com.

Idyll on a Greek isle 09/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2008 1:51pm]

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