Sparkling bays surround the Greek island of Patmos. (Chris Vlachos )
Reporting from Patmos, Greece — — The first time I arrived in Patmos, I was actually leaving.
At noon, I had boarded a ferry in Piraeus for a 12-hour sail to small, hilly Patmos, one of the Dodecanese, or Greek islands. I watched from the stern as we glided away from the Athens port city across a calm sea, dodging hulks of rusty and dismantled old wrecks.
I would be working on a book and staying at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, which would later become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On this voyage, I shared a cabin with a likable young Saudi named Shurief. After our introductions, we went our separate ways but met up again later. He invited me to join him for dinner.
We began a marathon exchange of ideas and then Shurief ordered a bottle of whiskey. Our discussions continued; we were neither drunk nor completely sober. Suddenly, I noticed some lights through a porthole. My watch said it was close to midnight. "Patmos!" I said.
As I walked along the deck, the harbor lights seemed to be going in the wrong direction. "Must be the whiskey," I said to myself. Then it hit me. We were leaving Patmos. Through the darkness, I could see my welcoming party, two black-robed priests, getting into a car.
That is how I ended up making a 350-mile detour (sailing back to Rhodes and then to Patmos) and arriving at midnight the next night. Some might accuse me of not knowing whether I was coming or going, and that might be true. But the greater lesson I learned was this: Friendships that begin under the oddest of circumstances and are sustained despite distances and language tend to endure.
I first came to Patmos in May 1979 and have returned half a dozen times. A decade had passed since my last visit, so in the summer of 2010, I paid another visit. It was this so-called Jerusalem of the Aegean calling, yes, but it was also the people I'd met who somehow had become threads in my life despite lengthy absences.
I was overjoyed as I stepped off the catamaran with 50 or so other milling passengers and heard, above the din, "Zephyros! Zephyros!"
In Patmos, I am Zephyros, "the spring wind that makes the flowers grow."
Zephyros blows in
How I became Zephyros remains a bit of a mystery. On my first visit, as I was exploring Patmos, I ran into three priests. They smiled and greeted me. My Greek was poor, and they didn't speak English. There followed a moment of awkward silence.
Then one of the priests spoke in French, asking me my name. "Ah," I said, relieved. "Je m'appelle Geoffrey."
"Zephyros!" one of the other priests responded.
"No, Geoffrey," I repeated.
"Zephyros," the same priest said emphatically.
"OK," I said with a shrug. "Zephyros."
I have been called worse.
And now I heard my name — my Patmos name — above the din. It was my friend Serafim, a priest, there to take me to the small Monastery of St. Christodoulos, overlooking the Bay of Alykes. My heart sang as we drove, surrounded by spectacular scenery on this 13-square-mile sprite of an island.
When we arrived, Prochoros, also a priest, was waiting. My quarters had a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Prochoros and Serafim have their own lodgings across the way next to the chapel.
And so I was back in Patmos, embedded in a remote patch of paradise. I lay back on the bed and let out a deep sigh.
Same place, same feeling. I recall seeing the landscape looking down from the Monastery of St. John on my first visit and thinking it was one of the most beautiful, rustic views I had ever drunk in.
A necklace of tiny bays surrounds the island. Outer islands shimmer blue and gold. Small fishing boats leave white wakes. Brightly colored red and blue flowers cascade over sun-dazzled, whitewashed walls. Goats scamper up and down the hillsides, their bells tinkling. Roosters crow.
When I heard the monastery bells peal for the first time, I looked up into the heavenly blue sky, which seemed to swallow my soul and make it whole.
Serafim's call to lunch broke my reverie. Nearly all the food comes from the garden: egg lemon soup with rice, salad with onions, peppers and blood red tomatoes. Hunks of feta cheese bathed in olive oil and covered with herbs. Goat meat, marinated and as soft as butter, with potatoes and zucchini.
"Would you like a glass of wine, Zephyros?" Serafim asked. It was wine from the grapes that grow on the vine just beyond my bedroom window. How could I not?
After lunch, I fell asleep to the drone of bees making honey in the wooden hives in the garden.
Exploring later, I realized Patmos hadn't changed in the important ways, although there are many more shops and tavernas and prices have risen. Yet it is still a beautiful island with breathtaking views. It's become a beach destination, but it has religious significance too: In 95, St. John was sent into exile here.
Apart from swimming in some of the clearest waters in the world, visitors should take time to explore. They can rent small cars or motorbikes in Skala. Or they can just walk, which is more conducive to meeting the residents.