Island hopping

Today was Easter, and as a treat, I took Big Boy T on a cruise around the Saronic Gulf. A cruise is not my idea of fun: I suffer from sea sickness (although I can deal with the Aegean on a good day) and I rarely find on-board entertainment, well, entertaining. I did, however, really enjoy this day, and so did T. This was in great part due to a rather formidable guide who was full of excitement (everything was beautiful, wonderful, and special); re-baptized T ‘Robert’ (pronounced both the English and the French way); and could speak four foreign languages with a fluency that I envy (Spanish, Italian, French and English on top of Greek). While I did not particularly enjoy the demonstrations of Greek dances, I found it delightful to note that the guide said ever-so-slightly different things in every language. Some of the differences were probably unwitting, but others – I am quite sure – were deliberate. For instance, in French, she stressed that the Corinth canal had been started by the French, but completed by the Greeks.



Our first stop was on the island of Hydra, where cars (apart from rubbish vans and an ambulance) are not allowed. I would quite like to spend a proper holiday there, as the hills looked like prime hiking material, and the sea was turquoise. However, we only had time for a little tour, on which, for some reason, there were only English speakers: a delightful Indian couple who had come to celebrate the lady’s sixtieth birthday and who insisted on photographing everything and everyone; a young American who was

working in Munich for a year and who was travelling on her own; and the two of us. T had the opportunity to visit an extremely ornate Orthodox monastery – rather a shock to the system for one who is used to Methodist austerity. We were also treated to a visit of – allegedly – the oldest pharmacy in Europe. What that meant exactly, I am not sure, but that pharmacy was certainly quite special. It did have nineteenth-century furniture, on which the names of herbs, preparations and spices were written. These were, interestingly, in French. I would have expected Latin.

The temple of Aphaia on Aegina

The temple of Aphaia on Aegina

The second island was Poros, here we only had time for a quick climb up the tower hill. The third island was Aegina. Now, had Aegina not been on the tour, I would probably not have gone. But it was, and it certainly made my day. We went to see the temple of Aphaia, which stands on top of a hill, where from there are beautiful views of the Saronic Gulf. That was, of course, great. But I think I was even more impressed by the flora of the island. Aegina must benefit from some sort of microclimate. That climate, and I guess also the nature of the soil, is particularly suited to the culture of pistachio. T never had had pistachios, and he really loved them.

A pistachio tree next to a citrus tree on Aegina

A pistachio tree next to a citrus tree on Aegina

Pistachio culture on Aegina is relatively recent. These trees and their fruits are not often mentioned in ancient texts. Pliny notes that they were imported into Rome in the first century CE. And, as far as I know, the first mention of the dioecious nature of pistachios is to be found in Palladius, a fourth-century CE Latin agricultural writer.  ‘Dioecious’ means that some trees are ‘male’ and others are ‘female’ (in many plants, male and female reproduction organs are to be found in the same individual). In order for the female pistachios to bear fruits, they must be fertilised with pollen from male trees. Now the ancients did not understand pollination as we do, but they had noticed that, in the case of the fig tree and the palm tree, only ‘female’ trees bore fruits, while male trees assisted them in bearing these. The ancients talked of the love the female palm trees felt for the male trees: without their presence, and their touch, the female would wither and die of longing (the case of the fig tree is slightly different – I may discuss it on another occasion). There are no such stories for the pistachio, which seems quite unfair. Beginning of April, the pistachio does seem a bit of an ugly duckling. It is still bare and looks quite sad when found next to a beautiful agrume tree in fruit.

A wild iris near the temple of Aphaia on Aegina

A wild iris near the temple of Aphaia on Aegina

I wish I had had more time to look carefully at the flora of Aegina, but we could not miss the boat. Fortunately, I just had enough time to spot wild irises growing all around the temple of Aphaia. It seemed to me the nymph was smiling at me!

Note: this is what we did on Sunday 5th of April. I could not post this earlier because of very poor internet connections in our hotel.

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