Towards the end of dinner the nice couple from North London told us how to find the lost city. You take a small car ferry to a neighbouring island, pick your way down a perilously narrow jetty and follow a narrow track west, past an elderly woman in a little white house, until you reach a bay. Then it is just a question of wading in with a snorkel. Archaeologists had never excavated this ancient submerged metropolis, but it was there all right, for anyone with a bit of pluck, a hire car and a day to spare.
This conversation took place on the island of Milos.
Milos lies at the edge of the Cyclades archipelago. Its tiny airport cannot handle jet aircraft and the ferry from Athens takes up to eight hours. The open-cast mines may put people off, too, though these are limited to a few corners of the island and are fabulous to drive through: a landscape of blue and red rock pyramids and amphitheatres. The mines have made the island wealthy; if it is not particularly touristy, that is because it does not need tourists.
Even the island’s 1st-century catacombs, the second most important early Christian burial site after those of Rome, were displayed without any unnecessary ceremony.
“I security,” said the burly woman who led our group into an ancient chamber. “I not guide.” She repeated the statement like a mantra to protect herself from further questions as we stared at the rough hollows dug by a community of zealots awaiting the end of the world.
The ferry that brought us to Milos also deposited Greek and Italian families, a few backpackers and a black-robed bishop.
We stayed in a converted windmill above the hill of the catacombs. The only real disadvantage to sleeping in a windmill is that it can get rather windy. All night the wind howled and moaned, and our windmill groaned back. A large white church stood below, its bell tower level with our window. Every half hour it rang a loud accompaniment and this symphony of howls and clangs kept up until five in the morning, when a colony of roosters in the churchyard awoke and joined in.
The views, meanwhile, were stupendous. Milos is a horseshoe-shaped island formed out of a series of volcanic eruptions. Beneath our windy spur was a majestic bay and on the far side barren mountains and a slender arm of land reached out to sea. The island has one of the finest mixes of beaches in Greece. The variety is impressive: there are golden sands, pink and yellow stone beaches, and beaches where sulphur bubbles through the sand and heats the shallow water. Sarakiniko, the most startling of all, lies within a coastland of bare white rock, sculpted by the wind into flutes and arches, as if it were composed of Mr Whippy ice cream.
Our guide to the beaches was Mirena Kampouri, a lovely, no-nonsense woman who worked at a bakery between Adamas and Tripiti, famed for its pies. “If wind comes from north, you go south; from the south, go north,” she told us, adding: “I’m fed up saying what’s in all these goddam pies. If anyone else asks I’m gonna explode.”
We could have spent the entire week tripping from beach to beach fortified by Kampouri’s cheese pies, but at some point we struck out for the far side of the island and the 800-year-old monastery of St John of Patmos.
We rented a car from a man named Sophocles, a tiny white vehicle that was ideal for negotiating the narrow streets. After an hour we were lurching down the side of a mountain. The road was no longer paved — we were no longer sure it was a road at all. Emerging on a terrace of mountainside high above another splendid beach, we saw an oblong complex of whitewashed stone, empty but for a party of workmen in jeans and T-shirts.
Out of their paint-flecked ranks strode a Greek from central casting, a brown and weathered Odysseus with broad shoulders and luminous blue eyes. His name was Babis Haralabos, a carpenter, and he and his colleagues were restoring the cloisters for the feast of St John, when the whole island would converge on the monastery.
They talked of Mother Mary from the Sea, a miraculous icon found floating upright by a local fisherman and placed in one of the churches. Haralabos explained that pirates had laid siege to the monastery and, by the intercession of St John, the wooden door had turned to iron. When a pirate on the roof attempted to fire his gun through a skylight, his hand fell off.
Remains of the pistol are in a wooden box at the altar and beside it is another strangely martial relic. During the Second World War a British warship bombarded a German post above the monastery and a shell bounced through the door of the church and buried itself in the wall. Part of it was removed, defused and placed at the altar; part of it remains in the wall.
With every passing day we, became more attached to the place, with its extraordinary beaches and whitewashed towns wrapped around mountains like scarves. A restaurateur told us of a lost city, ransacked by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian wars. From Klima, a village of fishermen’s cottages carved into the cliffs, “you swim out and a little to the right”, he said. “You will see the ruins.”
On the final day we returned our car to Sophocles, leaving it outside his office, unlocked with the keys in the ignition, as instructed. “There is no crime on Milos,” Mirena Kampouri said as she sold us our last cheese pies. We told her that we were sad to be leaving.
“It is a good thing,” she said, pointing at me “If he keeps eating these pies, he would get very fat.”