The island of Calypso
At the southernmost point of Europe
The Greek island of Gavdos is an insider tip for travelers who seek their ways off the beaten track. In addition to crystal clear water and beautiful beaches, the island is a unique experience due to its archaic originality.
Text: Sigrun Höllrigl published July, 14, 2017 by „Wiener Journal“
Off the coast of the South and West Crete, an island rises from the sea in the distance – Gavdos. For a long time I wanted to visit this island, especially since I heard there were beautiful beaches there. Gavdos marks the southernmost point of Europe in the Libyan Sea. The African north coast is only 260 kilometers away. The island can be reached by ferry from Paleohora and Chora Sfakion.
Gavdos welcomes me with the scent of wild thyme and oregano and immediately fascinates. Because the island shows how life in Greece was 40 to 50 years ago. Time seems to have stopped in the villages of Vatsiana and Ambelos. Stone houses with small windows, a few chickens, goats and sheep, a little vegetable and cereal cultivation and fishing, people have lived for centuries and do it today. Electricity is still not a given on Gavdos and is obtained on the island in many places by photovoltaic. Until the mid-90s, the island was only accessible by a small post boat. Since Gavdos is regularly called by car ferries, the island has awakened from its slumber. Tourism also came with ferry connections, albeit modestly. Even today, dangerous winds regularly paralyze these ferry connections. For a long time, Gavdos was considered an insider tip of alternative tourism. Only much later did the media discover the magic of the island. Discovery Channel has chosen a beach on Gavdos, Agios Ioannis, as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. CCN also brought a documentary about the island, and in 2012 a photographic exhibition on the people of Gavdos took place in the Utrecht Library.
What has been lost through civilization is shown to us by Gavdos as a self-absorbed kingdom. Peace, timelessness and the rhythm of the sea can all be felt on the island. In the pine and cedar groves that cover much of the island, Odysseus is omnipresent.
The history of the island has been written by the incoming ships for centuries. They also changed the naming. The biggest influence was the name Ogygia. A Greek myth says that the island on which the nymph Calypso lived was called Ogygia, and this Ogygia is associated with Gavdos. The nymph is said to have lived in a cave in the northern part of the island, in Lavrakas, where she stayed with Odysseus for seven years. Lavrakas was declared archaeological reserve due to numerous finds. As part of summer camps at the University of Crete, 63 excavations were carried out on Gavdos. It turned out that Gavdos was already inhabited in the Neolithic. In the Minoan period, the island was a strategic trading post on the voyage to Egypt. Gavdos was then known for exporting precious salt and cedar oil. Excavations also found settlement remains from Roman times, in which the soil was overcultivated, so that today everything must be forced out of it. In the Byzantine era, the island flourished again, got province status with episcopal see and counted up to 8000 inhabitants. In the 16th century, the most famous pirate of the Mediterranean, called Barbarossa for his red beard, sought protection on the island. Because the pirates sold the islanders as slaves, the island remained sparsely populated.
In 1928 Gavdos wrote history again as a penal colony for political prisoners. Communist rebels and idealists like Aris Velouchiotis, Takis Fitsos or Andreas Tzimas were exiled to Gavdos under military guard. Well-known writers such as Menelaos Loudemis and Themos Kornaros were among the 40 to 180 exiles of Gavdos. As many died in the cave-like dwellings, the exiles also obtained the help of outside help in renting a piece of land to build a house and grow vegetables. In 1931-34 the „palace“ as the prisoners called it was built in the Cretan style with cedar and stones. The building still exists today and is faithfully preserved by the Athens artisan Eleni Tsabitsanou under the name „House of the Exiled“. The rooms contain a library and a café and can be visited. In summer, Eleni organizes yoga classes as well as a literature and music festival. The penal colony on Gavdos existed from 1928 to 1941. When the German troops approached, a ship came from Crete and took the exiles with them to bring them to the Cretan resistance. Gavdos was occupied during World War II, and the locals were forcibly conscripted into labor services. One of the three stone houses of Ambelos served as a headquarters for the Nazis.
Copyright Sigrun Höllrigl