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Footloose in Patmos

Settling Down on a Poor but Pretty Languorous Greek Island

August 23, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

PATMOS, Greece — Finding this island may not take you the 10 years it took Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, but then again it might. Our recollections of such an odyssey, made a decade ago, bring to mind the ship schedule kept on a blackboard near the quay, arrival and departure times changed constantly by days rather than hours.

Ten years later they're still scrubbing away at what appears to be the same flimsy blackboard. Planes don't land here, cruise ships make only a hurried stop and if the pace of life has changed at all, it has slowed down a notch.

Yet Patmos, a poor but pretty island, has been drawing visitors and pilgrims since AD 95 when St. John the Divine was banished here by Romans and wrote his Revelation in an island grotto. In 1088 a monastery was built in reverence to him, a massive castle-like structure crowning a hill above town. It is second only to Mt. Athos as a repository of Byzantine icons, illuminated manuscripts, rare parchments and other religious treasures.

So if you're looking for the sunny skies, blue water and languorous life of a Greek island, enjoyed along with good food and accommodations at a pittance, book ferry passage here from Athens or a nearby island and, who knows, it might even arrive on time.

Here to there: Fly TWA or Pan Am to Athens or any number of domestics to New York and connect with Olympic's daily nonstop. Take Olympic Athens-Rhodes and a ferry onward, or check with Sun Line, Epirotiki and other cruise lines for their Aegean ports of call.

How long/how much? A day or two will take in all the sights, but, as with all the Greek Isles, your body and mind may shift to Greek time and call for another few days of languor on the beach or beneath the umbrellas of a cafe. Lodging and dining costs here can only be described as cheap, as they are throughout Greece.

A few fast facts: The Greek drachma was recently valued at .0074, 135 to the dollar. Weather is glorious most of the year, but ferry schedules slack off in winter.

Getting settled in: Hotel Patmion ($15 U.S. double, $1.50 U.S. for breakfast) is right on harbor with room balconies looking out on quay. Whitewashed top to bottom outside, as are most places in town, neat but basic rooms, breakfast only. Anna and Georgios Tzamalis have kept the Patmion a modest but inviting little hotel for years.

Hotel Cris next door ($22 B&B double, less from October to mid-June) is more of the same, another bright spot with a dozen of its rooms having balconies facing the water. Spotless rooms, tiny bar, the same warm Greek welcome you get in most of the country's hotels.

Skala ($40 B&B, $30 off season), only 4 years old, is still expanding around a courtyard dripping with bougainvillea, fuchsias, geraniums and a pomegranate bush. There's also a pond and outdoor barbecue, Restaurant Skala where lunch or dinner is fixed at around $8, and you may have a half-pension arrangement. Handsome lobby and bar, the Grillis family doing a good job with the Skala.

Regional food and drink: Nothing in particular to set Patmos apart from other Greek islands, which means you'll still find anything from the sea served hours fresh.

The arid soil of Patmos yields very little in the way of produce and wine, with much of the local needs brought in from nearby islands. So it's always a good idea to visit the kitchen before ordering, as most Greeks do, to see what is most appealing and fresh.

Greek hors d'oeuvres are called mezes and the variety is endless. Three of the best are tzatziki, a thick sauce of cucumber, yogurt, garlic and oil; taramosalata, a paste of mullet roe and oil, and dolmadakia, grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts and herbs, all served cold, refreshing and delicious.

We tend to live on sea bream, bass, squid, octopus and red mullet when in the islands, the last called barbounia and a nightmare of tiny bones but with exquisite taste.

The choice of retsina or aretsinato wines, either with or without the resin flavor, is up to you, but the former seems to go better with the hardy flavors of Greek food. And the anise-flavored ouzo aperitif gets any meal off to a joyful start.

Moderate-cost dining: Our memories of Taverna Pantelis (on small alley running behind port) go back to a long-ago visit, and the place hasn't changed at all. Same tatty nautical decor, oilcloth on tables, indifferent lighting and a few Greek Orthodox priests dining quietly at corner tables. Yet the place has an immediate appeal, the freshest of seafood and prices to warm your heart: fried squid as a meze for $2, lamb roasted or grilled at $3, good beer for 60 cents. A few small tables in the narrow alley outside.

Restaurant Skala is a little more expensive, the cafe at Hotel Astoria on the harbor the place to meet for a coffee or ouzo, while we heard good reports on Taverna Grigoris for meals.

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