Finding Korakonissi
The last time I looked at the odometer, I was 5 kilometers away from what could be called "civilization" only as a punchline. Three miles could actually kill me right now. Walking the distance isn't the problem, but rather the unforgiving, unrelenting heat. At 2 p.m., the sun in Greece is a bitch and a tyrant.
"On occasion, they find bones and clothes," my hostess had told me just the day before. The Greeks are smart enough to stay inside from 2 to 5. Only stupid Americans looking for hidden beaches along dirt trails get caught unprepared at this time.
One hundred degrees, no shade, and I was about 500 feet from the sun's surface.
And my bike refused to start.
Don't panic. Try it once more. Don't flood it. No throttle. Well, maybe a little throttle. If it doesn't work, don't try again, not right away, not under panic conditions. You will relax for a moment. How much water do you have? A couple sips. Fine, fine. You won't die. Put your shirt back on. Keep that hat on your head. You'll just leave the bike, backtrack along the trail, pay someone to come back with you.
Can you find your way back? You have no fucking idea where you are, do you?
Don't panic. Don't panic. Try it one more time...
Laganas is a small beach town on the south side of the Greek island of Zakynthos, the southernmost of the Ionian islands. It is also known as Yakynthos, its ancient name, and Zante, its name when the Italians occupied it, and you will find all its names in use. This is my first stop on a seven-week tour of Greece, my starting point before heading over to the Peloponnese, Crete and the islands of Cyclades. I will stay until Sunday morning, then hop on a ferry or bus to my next destination.
My hostess is Ada, the ex-wife of my friend Yannis, who invited me here with her blessing. Her house is about as beautiful as you can imagine. Perched at the top of a hill overlooking the still, serene Laganas Gulf, it is a modern construction using traditional techniques. White stones make up the walls. The floors, red tile. Every airy room leads gracefully into the next, and there's even a private bed and bath down the hill a bit, carved under the house proper. That's where I'm staying.
According to Yannis, the island was very poor until 15 years ago, when tourism became its primary business, and it's obvious from the moment one steps off the plane that business is thriving. I arrived on a small prop plane from the Athens airport, a brief 30-minute flight serving mostly as an unexceptional go-between for Greeks. On the tiny runway, there were two full-size jets, one letting off a gaggle of eager tourists, the other preparing to escort their sunburned hides back home.
This is a European vacation spot, catering mostly to Germans, Dutch and English. In Laganas, you'll see some families, but it's mostly for young people. Imagine every doofus you've ever seen on an MTV spring break clip, then imagine their European doppelgangers let loose on a small Greek town ready and willing to offer them karaoke, jello shots and motorboat tours through the breeding grounds of an endangered species (the loggerhead turtle). The main strip was described to me as a "goldrush town for tourists," but with all the neon and souvenir shops it seemed more like a Eurotrash frat party taking place in a Greek Tijuana.
For about $30, I rented a 50-cc Honda scooter for four days. I intended to spend some time visiting the "non-touristic" parts of Zakynthos. In a couple hours, I would be up in the west coast town of Kampi, where I was told to have lunch and look out over the Ionian Sea from the breathtaking cliffs. Ada recommended that I then cross the island and come back down the northeast coast, stop in Xygia for a swim and return to the town of Zakynthos where I could enjoy an early evening coffee in a port-side taverna.
"Ah, but your first swim in the morning should be in Korakonissi," she inserted. Korakonissi was marked on my map, but only in afterthought, and there was but a thin, scraggly white line leading to it. "In Kiliomenos, you must ask someone how to get there. I cannot remember. It is the most beautiful beach on all of Zakynthos, but only we go there." Meaning: no tourists at all. I'd only been in Laganas for two days, but I was already thirsty for a beach without all the drunken yahoos.
"Ask in Kiliomenos."
Thirty minutes outside of Laganas, I took a turn off the main road and headed for Agalas for no particular reason. A tiny hamlet of a town, Agalas has no claim to fame, no town center, nothing. Just houses and villas spotting the hills, maybe a beach down the way a bit. Wandering through, I found a hand-painted sign pointing to "Kiliomenos" and rather than backtrack along the asphalted mainway, I chose the chalky dirt road. For 45 minutes, I wound through the mountain, seeing nothing but olive trees, a few goats and stray dogs as I struggled to keep my little Honda on course and upright.
Covered in white dust, I eventually emerged in the town of Kiliomenos, another tiny hamlet offering two cafes to the passing-through tourists on their ways somewhere else. I sat for a coffee and bottle of water. After leaving a generous tip, I asked the proprietor about Korakonissi.
"Ah, no, no, not on bike," he said, motioning to my faithful, plucky Honda. I suspect that had I pulled up in a car, he would've replied that this fabled, locals-only beach was accessible only on faithful, plucky Honda scooters.
But I'm from New York City! Give me another bottle of water. I'll find it myself.
I picked through dirt roads that made my previous dirt road from Agalas seem like the Autobahn. The asphalt had ended at the .0001 kilometer mark, and then the packed dirt soon turned into loose gravel and large, chunky rocks. Determined to find this sandy Shangri-la, I pushed forward for an hour...
And found myself at the top of a mountain in an abandoned rock quarry. The coast was several miles away, and unless Korakonissi was tucked behind those boulders, I was way, way off course. Forget it. Just backtrack to Kiliomenos. Pick through the gravel, sandtraps and rocks and...
Hey, what's THAT trail? I must've turned off too soon! Let's just go this way a bit and...
Four kilometers later, I stopped for a sip of water and a rest. My wrists and shoulders ached from the careful, arduous navigation, and my ass was numb from the vibration. My water bottle and map were kept under the seat, which locked automatically. Every time I stopped, I had to shut off the scooter to remove the key for the seat.
I was optimistic. The coast was still a mile or two away, but my dirt road clearly wound in that direction. It was 2 p.m., so I could be swimming in paradise by 3 o'clock.
Okay then. Back on the bike. Key from the seat lock, into the slot. Hit the ignition.
Hit it again.
Nothing again.
Try the kickstart. Nothing. Try again. Nothing.
Don't panic.
Water. Shirt. Hat. Hot sun. You will leave the bike. Do you remember the way back? You fucking idiot asshole arrogant American dick. Who the fuck do you think...
Just try once more...
Nice and easy. Watch the throttle. Turn. Click. Hit the ignition.
Forget Korakonissi. Just turn around, don't stop, don't stall. Get back to town and buy another bottle of water and go find a beach where there are a lot of topless Dutch women.
The next night, we had dinner in Kiliomenos at the Taverna Alidgerene, run by Andonis in a converted stone house. An "alidgerene" is the Greek word for Algerian pirates, who years ago would sack the island and kidnap residents to be slaves or hostages. According to Andonis, when he was renovating the kitchen, an elderly neighbor saw him covered in soot from the hearth and said he looked like an alidgerene. It stuck.
The taverna is a Greek institution, the backbone of dining. Typically, authentically, it is a small, family-run restaurant offering local specialties and homemade wines and breads. The word "taverna" is of course used everywhere. When you dine at a taverna in, say, Laganas, and hope for real Greek cuisine, you might as well be hoping for a good marinara at Sbarro's.
Ada knows everyone in the place, so we were joined by several people throughout the evening, including the house musicians, Dionysis and Yolgas. Hours later, drunk on Andonis' potent white wine, Ada announced that I wanted to go to Korakonissi.
"Yes, you must see it," Dionysis said.
With a real, live Greek in my pocket, I had been granted access.
"We go on Friday. I will have my truck," Yolgas offered.
Nods all around the table. Yes, we would go on Friday.
On Thursday night, Yannis got news that required him to return to Athens, and Ada got word of two friends coming to stay with her the next day. With my accommodation in jeopardy and having seen just about everything I wanted to see, I decided to leave with Yannis. I would take the bus with him as far as Patras, the third-largest city in Greece and the largest city in the Peloponnese. He would continue to Athens, and I would go wherever the winds and water took me.
Sadly, this left no time for Korakonissi. Yolgas called on Friday morning with word that, yes, he had his truck and was ready to go. Ada regretfully declined, promising that when I came back to Laganas, we would all meet again at the Alidgerene and make plans once again to visit the fabled local beach.
I would continue to Patras. I would turn off the main roads whenever possible. Six weeks is a long time, and Greece is a large, beautiful country. There must be another Korakonissi around here somewhere. If only they'll tell me where it is.