In the morning, searching for somewhere to have a coffee, we came across a small bar. It was pale and unassuming, the windows had wooden shutters and there was a canvas awning over the front entrance. An old man was sitting under the awning having a coffee and a cigarette. Inside there was a small round table surrounded by six older guys intently playing Gin Rummy. Money was changing hands and much discussion was being had over the intricacies of the game. A TV was playing MTV-style Greek music in the background while ceiling fans whirred gently overhead. The air was warm and smelt of cigarette smoke. We sat down at a table, ordered two Greek coffees, and immersed ourselves in an atmosphere of times past.
The barman, George, asked us if we smoked. We said no and he removed the ashtray from the table. “It is all illegal…”, he said, “…smoking inside, and gambling, but we do it anyway. It is all we have and there are much bigger problems than this. It is our way of saying fuck you to the establishment”.
George, who’d spent some of his previous years living in California, talked of politics, austerity measures in Greece, the refugee problem, the history of the island and various local sights. One of the places he mentioned was Melissani Cave which we visited later that day. It was only a half hour walk from our campsite on the other side of the village of Karavomylos. We had heard mixed things about it from guide books and various people who had visited it, so weren’t quite sure what to expect. We knew we didn’t want to get caught in a tourist trap so we approached with caution, ready to pull out at any second.
The entrance to the cave was not immediately obvious. It was virtually under the ticket office and accessed by a long ramp that descended underground. At the end of the ramp was a wooden row boat manned by a Greek oarsman who spoke very broken English. It soon became apparent that he had memorised a small collection of various titbits of interest about the cave in English, which he blurted out almost continually from the moment we stepped onto his boat. He would re-hash these snippets over and over, trying to match each one with any questions being asked by the boat’s occupants.
The boat was initially docked among several other vessels at the end of the entrance ramp which opened out onto a deep almost circular lake, incredibly blue and crystal clear. The lake was surrounded on all sides by steep rock walls that opened out to the sky above. The oarsman rowed us around the edge of the lake, pointing out various features. The walls were lined with stalactites and the magnificent blue water was up to 30 metres deep in places. Peering over the side of the boat, the white rocky bottom was clearly visible except at the very deepest sections. After circling the lake, we travelled through a narrow passage into a large cavern. It was lit from above and made the huge natural room glow a warm orange colour.
After returning us to the dock, the oarsman kept repeating facts about the cave. He said divers had followed small passages under the water for several hundred metres underground. He mentioned a natural tunnel linking this cave with an entrance point somewhere on the other side of the island, near Argostoli. It was all quite fascinating but difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. I noticed his younger colleague at the dock listening to this monologue and rolling his eyes. It was late in the afternoon by this stage and we disembarked from the boat and made our way back to ground level. Not long after, the two oarsman appeared as well. They’d just finished their shifts and quickly got on their motorbikes and sped off home.
The next day we would leave Sami on a ferry for Astakos on the mainland. We could easily have stayed longer for the town has a lot to offer; warm friendly locals and surroundings of inspiring natural beauty. We both seemed aware as well that we would be saying farewell for a while to the wonderful pleasure of swimming every day in the warm waters of the island’s sea.