Deep in its dungeons we looked up at small barred openings through which food was dropped to prisoners—perhaps galley slaves in Turkish and Venetian days—chained to rusty rings on the walls. Stepchild of the mainland, severed from sister isles by two centuries of Turkish rule, Levkas seems the most remote, primitive, and least Ionian of the islands. And in ways the most interesting.
Take its sunken gardens of Livadhi. In April when I first came upon this strange sink cupped in the mountains, it was a rain-filled lake. Returning in June, I found it green with crops. Descending to the valley floor, I met a farmer and his wife tending their vineyards.
“Is it true your vines were covered with water last winter?” I asked Nikolas Aravanis.
“Yes, ten feet of water,” he said. “But you see they are flourishing.
“Grapes are now too cheap,” he continued. “Only one and a half drachmas a kilo [about 2 cents a pound]—hardly worth the effort. My children don’t want to work in the fields. When my wife and I are gone, who will tend our vineyards?”
His wife finished hoeing, packed bundles of pruned branches on her donkey, and set off for home. Inviting us up for a taste of his wine, Nikolas got in the car with us. “I suppose Mrs. Aravanis will take a shortcut and get there before us,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s a long climb for her; we will be there ahead.” On the trellised patio of his stone house, Nikolas’s daughter Maria greeted us in English; she had learned it in school in Levkas, she told us proudly. She served us wine and crystal dishes of reddish sickle pear and quince preserves—delicious and refreshing in the heat.
“We crush the wine grapes with our feet,” Nikolas said, showing me the great vat in which the family stamps. After 40 days, the wine is ready to drink. Ten barrels get the family through the year—one liter for lunch, one for dinner. Just as we were taking leave of Nikolas and his daughter in her bright print dress and modish hairdo, Mrs. Aravanis, clad in somber brown and the ubiquitous head scarf, arrived hot and tired with her load of fuel.
One Lobster Provides a Feast
Back at Levkas harbor the wind was blowing a near gale from the south. But we doubled up our lines and were snug, and all turned in for a Greek siesta—the afternoon hours when vivacious voices are stilled and the sunbaked streets deserted. An hour later the wind had abated and we headed south for Sivota Bay, linked by some scholars to the story of Ulysses.
It was getting dark and steep seas were still running as we picked up the unmarked entrance to the bay. We headed in through an opening in the surf and found ourselves in a calm lagoon. I spotted a flickering blue-tinged light far ahead; through glasses I made out men in a taverna.