The lord of the sea and the islands of the Harpies

A trip to the Strofadi islands, considered the home of the mythical Harpies, where today is stealing the beauty of an ancient hermitage, rich in history

A monk, the last survivor of an ancient monastery, goes off in a hot summer among the tourists of one of the most beautiful Greek islands. Not far away, the body of a saint removed from pirate raids has been in exile on this same island for 300 years: perfectly preserved, it is exposed several times a day to the adoration of the faithful, then each time locked up in its precious case. Both, the ancient and the holy monk, had voted for God in two paradisiacal islands, now inaccessible and unknown to most, lost in the heart of the Ionian Sea. On the largest, Stamfani, a unique monument and splendid for centuries has been a sentinel of the seas: it is now falling irreparably into ruin. Around this

building and these characters have flourished for centuries troubled events: of Orthodox metropolites and imperial shipwrecks, of hideous mythological beings and of tireless winds, of miraculous miracles and pirate raids. Until one fine day of this summer a handful of men, including an electrical technician with his briefcase, an orthodox metropolitan and young singers with their psalms, are transhipped down there, in the remote Strofadi, where beautiful and never seen birds elsewhere they fly in an almost impenetrable ‘jungle’. They go, respectively, to celebrate with their voices the liturgy of the Transfiguration, and to repair a jammed revolving mechanism: so that a beacon – of navigation and civilization – does not get tired of emitting its light and indicating the route to modern sailors.

It took me a few weeks before I could put my memories in order, to reflect with the due detachment on what I experienced on two incredible days of this August 2017: occasionally obliging, once in Italy, essays of modern Greek architecture or hagiographies in ‘katharevsa’ (the ‘pure’ language, complete with spirits and accents such as that of Plato, remained official until the time of the Colonnelli), concerning photos and mulling words.

It all began without me noticing it in the late afternoon, when a scorching sun beats the sidewalks of Zakynthos, or Zante, the island sung by Foscolo. At the end of a walk along the promenade I come under a grandiose monastery that rises before the port. On the high portal an inscription bears a surprising and fascinating name for me: ‘Strofadi Monastery’. I’m a little surprised, because the Strofades are not exactly here. I had just glimpsed them, those little islands, during a slow circumnavigation around the Peloponnese a dozen years ago; I remember them far away, flat and glistening in the sky of an equally infused afternoon. That appearance on the horizon had excited me leaving a bit of regret: I wonder if I could ever visit them.

Anyone who has studied a bit of epic knows that the Strofades were considered the home of the mythical Harpies, winged monsters symbol of the ‘rapinosi’ Winds (this means their name, in Greek), which attacked and threatened Aeneas and the other refugees from Troy as they stood exhausted in the Mediterranean crossing. Rarely, however, the notes to the editions of the Eneide add that the Strofades really exist, and that the smallest of them is called Arpya: two tiny lands (2.6 km² in total) over 40 nautical miles from Zakynthos, the southernmost Greek island inhabited by the Ionian. But also for a more personal reason I am attracted by the name read on that monastery: the Strofades are one of the last edges of the Hellenic archipelagos that I still have to visit. Since I arrived in Zakynthos, I asked in vain to all the shipping agencies how to get there: and unfortunately I learned that no scheduled boat, no day trip, no private boat is available for that crossing.

At this point, my face must reveal to the interlocutor, beyond the fascination that his words and images inspire, an intimate sorrow: because I understand that I will never be able to go there. But here comes words from the same voice in which I did not hope: “In a few days – you know? – is the anniversary of the Transfiguration, and the islands will be exceptionally visited the Metropolitan of Dodona, which is then the former Metropolitan of Zakynthos: he will celebrate the liturgical function in a still practicable church located not far from the monastery, accompanied by some singers.

I have wings on my feet when I enter the shady garden of today’s monastery, where the tradition of that other is kept lying solitary beyond the sea, and I become acquainted with the one who will then invite me, and host me, in a guesthouse built some time ago on the greater of the two islands, used only in exceptional cases. It is called Chrysostom, but all turn to him with the titles of ‘Saint (Metropolitan) of Dodona’, ‘Venerable’, or, more familiarly, with ‘Anzianissimo (Father)’.

Thanks to his hospitality, and, of course, to that of the current Metropolitan of Zakynthos, Dionysius, I spend two memorable days on the Strofadi. First of all, because the two islands are difficult to approach even physically. There is no port. The shallow waters infested with rocks on the water and the often rough sea near the steep banks, will force us to follow, slow transshipments on a small boat from the patrol boat with which we reach: instead, throws the anchor, prudently, to a hundred meters from the landing. In addition to the captain and his sailors, to land with me there is a handful of other visitors, including the technician who has to repair the lighthouse still active on the island, but which will not stop there for the night. While I await my landing shift I admire so calmly, for the first time, the imposing and gray building, sacred and warlike together, that it seems, indeed, the Lord of the Sea.

I think back to what I learned on the two islands in the few days before the start. For millennia, those who sailed between the West and the East of the Mediterranean, and in particular between the Adriatic and the Ionian and the Aegean, had to face the perilous tour of the Peloponnese. Always keeping in sight of the coast, but at the same time prudently far from it, it passed between this peninsula and the Strofades. They are lands almost invisible and very dangerous for the hulls, because very low and flat on the sea, boards measured only about twenty meters high on the surface of the waves: they suddenly appear and are difficult to spot during the day (at night there is precisely the lighthouse, to signal them).

Yet, for their strategic location are precious islands: among other things, they were and are rich in drinking water. All this explains many things: from the mythical stop of Aeneas and his, to the rise of the legend of the Harpies, up to the erection of a monastery that is also a fortress, because those tiny bases were sought after by those who wanted to control the sea passage. And finally, it explains not only how it was possible that dozens of people would get support and nourishment (even today they are partially cultivated, and to welcome us we will find some seasonal farmers who had been there for some weeks for the wheat harvest), but also because a large part of them is covered by the one that, a little jokingly, is called the ‘jungle’.

I do not have the time and space to tell everything I’ve seen and done in those two days. I only say that I have an almost enchanted memory, very bright, to which is added the invaluable sense of the immense quiet of the night (neither television nor even cell phone signal, down here), amidst panoramas of an absolute suggestion. A stay not without even a bit of uneasiness. “When we can return to Zante from these islands only He knows”: he tells me at the table, pointing the index upwards, the Metropolitan of Dodona when I ask him about our return. “You know, it depends on the conditions of the sea …”.