Saturday evening, after a day of beach hopping, sun and Aegean breeze, we stood on a pier at Porto Heli watching the sunset and waiting for a sea taxi to take us across to the island of Spetses. The sun had mostly gone when we set off, and I perched behind the driver in a spot that allowed me to poke my head out and catch the wind as we sped across the darkening water.
For some reason, I really love this part of being in a boat – and it was dramatic, with the last traces of daylight disappearing and the moon beginning to arrive. Traffic between Spetses and the mainland was heavy – water taxis with flashing lights and gigantic private yachts. I inhaled salty air and strained to make out music drifting towards us across the water. As we slowed down to approach the harbour, I realised I heard Greek folk songs! We disembarked and wound our way through the crowds to the stage, which seemed to be the centre of the evening’s festivities.
My aunt and uncle had booked a table for dinner with friends on the veranda of the Poseidonion Hotel, so we made our way there and sat down. The food was great, but was more of a side dish to the main event, and the reason we were there.
Time now for a historical interlude.. (can’t help it, I’m sorry..)
In 1821, there was no Greece, at least in the official sense. The Greek speaking world was one of many minorities of the Ottoman Empire, who dominated this area of the world for centuries. Greece had been occupied for somewhere around 400 years, when in 1814, a secret organisation was founded in Odessa, to unite Greeks around the common goal of overthrowing Ottoman rule. The war for independence began in 1821. The initial revolt was fragmented, but was never suppressed entirely, and eventual intervention from the Great Powers led to complete independence in 1826.
Throughout the war, fledgling Greek naval power was essential to the effort, and the war at sea was mostly supplied by the islands of Hydra, Spetses and Psara, already centres of a type of merchant marine. The islanders, wealthy from lucrative sea trade, outfitted and manned a fleet of ships that was, in reality, no match for the Ottoman fleet. (Fun fact – my great great great something grandfather was one of the admirals! He’s even mentioned on Wikipedia.) Rather than confront the full force of the Ottoman Navy, the Greeks opted to use fireships to sneak up on the Ottoman vessels and destroy them.
This strategy was ultimately effective, especially in raising morale during the early days of the revolt.
On 8 September each year, the island of Spetses celebrates their role in the revolution and the naval battle that occured just off the island on 8 September 1822. The festival, called ‘Armata,’ lasts for several days, culminating on Saturday night with a dramatic reenactment of the torching of a Turkish ship. It was for this that we found ourselves on the balcony of the Poseidonio hotel…
The folk dance performance ended, and the mayor of Spetses came up to make a speech. After several other dignitaries took the stage, the reenactment began with a very dramatic reading, complete with operatic soundtrack blasting across the harbour. Like the 28th of October parade, if I hadn’t been Greek I may have found it over the top, but I loved every minute of it. I think having a relative who had been directly involved made it that much more powerful, but I am still a sucker for dramatic music..
Anyway, the background to the story was read out, and the action began with a row of torches zigzagging through the harbour. The narration continued until we caught sight of the same torchbearers now floating somewhere in the bay. Right across from our vantage point was a ‘Turkish ship’ awaiting its fate, and we watched as the fireships got closer and closer. Eventually, they surrounded the hapless enemy vessel, and the highlight of the evening began. A single rowboat set off from the harbour, with torch aloft. As the music built up, the boat got closer and closer. It threw its torch onto the Turkish ship, and the other boats followed suit. Soon, the ship was fully engulfed in flames, at which point a spectacular fireworks show began from within the ‘Turkish ship.’ (Sidenote, in case my ironic style is unclear – thiswas a fake wooden shell built and painted to look like a boat, loaded with flammables and fireworks..)
The fireworks coming from the boat were followed by a real fireworks show from the pier, all accompanied by spectacular music. After the Trinity May Ball, my appreciation of fireworks shows has become a little skewed, but this was really good, even by those high standards. The fireworks signalled the end of the evening, and we wound our way back to the queue for sea taxis. Inspired by the evening and my ancestor the admiral, I spent the ride home facing into the wind, inhaling the salty air.
(interlude for dessert)