As far away as one can get in the Saronic archipelago lies the island of Spetsai, a green island with a proud seafaring and boatbuilding tradition which dates back to the 18th century. To delve into Spetsai history would be to rub shoulders with such people as Lascarina Bouboulina, a strong Wiman who contributed to the defeat of the Turks in the Greek war of independance.
Horse drawn cabs clatter along the town’s virtually car free streets and create a relaxing, and rather magic atmosphere. It is an island in waiting, a green pearl in a glittering ocean, an island with a sense of atmosphere which moulds personalities.
At the beginning of the fifties, author John Fowles came here, and worked as a teacher at the island’s boarding school, Anargyrios College. Boys in ties and short trousers were trained here with strict discipline in the ‘English Manner’.
In the book "The Magus", which came out in 1968, the teacher Nicholas Urfe came to the island Phraxos. He flees from an unhappy relationship to this quiet island. During one of his rather restless walks, he comes upon an elevated white villa surrounded by pine trees. Thus begins his contact with Conchis, an egocentric man who inhabits the borders of dream and reality, at times like a stagesetter ... "the man who thought he was God" ...
My travelling companion and I had read this book, and being fascinated by it, decided to plan our annual holiday with this beautiful green island as the destination.
On the first day, we we had already asked our sprightly guide about the house where the novel was set. Oh yes, she had heard of the book, and she had understood that the house should lie on the other side of the island on a crest, surrounded by pine trees, just as John Fowles described it in "The Magus".
During the second day’s boat trip around the island, we discovered two candidates: white washed houses on a slope.. One had a flat roof, the other a one of tiles. Which one could it be?
We began to be taken by a dream, an obsession, to be able to come nearer the house to be able to feel a little of the atmosphere that Fowles communicated in his book. The magic, the twilight land, the mysticism which surrounded the house and the story, fascinated us greatly. We were convinced that the vivid narration, which had taken Fowles over ten years to write, must have been, at least partly, his own experiences.
In the town’s newsagents/bookshop, we found a copy of the book in English. The man behind the counter jumped from one language to another, almost without accent. His answer to our question as to whether the Villa Bourani existed in reality was an abrupt "No it’s only fiction!", but with a somewhat teasing glint in his eye.
Day three saw us, despite the heat, following in the footsteps of Fowles. We pedalled our hired bicycles northwards to the school where Fowles had done service as a teacher. The area was full of large, slightly delapidated bulidings. Window shutters banged in a tired manner in the wind, and notes from pupils’ exercise books lay like secret messages in the bushes. On the playing field lay tattered carpet, and the stands gaped their emptyness. One could begin to imagine the boys’ hardships, the strict discipline, (which Fowles disliked), homesickness, despondancy ... and success.
Behind the school grounds, the green slopes spred out where Fowles fled from his, as he saw it, meaningless teaching work, in solitary walls ... and here, somewhere on the other side of the island, after a couple of hours walk in the heat and accompanied by the ear deadening sawing of the cicadas, he meets Conchis of the book - and the charm of Villa Bourani.
The search for the house gave us no peace. In the evenings we wandered around town, had dinner at one of the tavernas, and felt as if we were in waiting, in a state of readiness. The whole town, even the whole island, lay in a careful, meditative awaitment, and we felt that the riddle we attempted to solve required its own time, its own space, its magic. It didn’t work to force into the open an answer to everything. We were forced to fit into the pattern, and in the spirit of the book and the island, find a piece of the puzzle a bit at a time, to attain, hopefully, the solution.
Day four, and we repeated our boat trip around the island. We jumped ashore on a tourist beach and then attempted to swim around the ochre coulored cliffs in order to catch a glimpse of the villa and see if there was some kind of path that led to "our house".
After our swim, we found a little taverna above the beach, and there we met Tassos, a small man with a Zorba like charisma and the impish glint of a youngster. It didn’t matter that his English was poor, when his face and the whole of his body was so full of life and expression. A good contact was made and when the next day we came back, he served us with quenching cold beer before we had time to sit. Then we asked him if he knew about Villa Bourani.
Rather nervously we glanced at his face working; would we get a negative answer even here? "Nice villa. Big dog!". He emphasised his exclamation with vast gestures. We thanked the Lord that we hadn’t begun to traipse up to the house unannounced.
We found an important piece of the puzzle that day. Tassos was able to tell us that a recently widowed woman from Athens was living in the house with her daughter. He could even give us her surname. That evening we were convinced that we would meet that woman; after all she couldn’t live alone in the villa all the time. Most likely she came to town to shop or to dine out.
Next morning we walked down to the town’s little telephone office. After an unsuccessful search for a telephone directory, we were forced to ask two assistants, who were clad in shirts with rolled up sleeves. They aearched together, but when they aked for the subscriber’s christian name, we could only look blank. The episode ended with the receipt of a slip of paper with three phone numbers on it.
We went immediately to one of the evil smelling telephone booths and with thudding hearts tried the first number on the list. The connection was made , but no answer. We tried the second number, but no answer here either. It was the same with the third number. We looked at each other questioningly, really disappointed by the fact that our great idea (we thought) hadn’t worked.
We travelled to the beach on the other side of the island this day too, and to our new friend Tassos. It was here that we felt closest to "our" Villa Bourani. Tassos was in very good humour, and had the help of his son Paris in the taverna. We found that Paris was much better with the English language than his father, and we could converse really well. On an impulse, we asked for his help with the number to the villa. "Sure! Out of his little telephone book he picked out a number, which he wrote down on a scrap of paper. It was a number which we had not been given at the telephone office. (A fourth number!) We thanked him, and did all that we could to subpress our delight. Now, we felt, this scrap of paper had the correct number!
We used the telephone in Tassos’ confined kitchen. The fingers shook a little as they sought after the correct numbers on the dial. Would we make contact with the villa? What happens then? The connection was made, and we held our breath. Eventuelly ... a click and then a woman’s voice, which spoke in Greek. I swallowed a couple of times before I could come out with "Milate anglika?" (Do you speak English?)
After I had received a positive reply I tried to explain, politely, who my friend and I were. I told of our interest in the book and asked if it would be possible to come and take a look at the house, to see if description tallied. The woman listened, throwing in several sentences in Greek, (of which I didn’t understand a word) presumably to test me. When my rather lengthy explanation was concluded, the lady replied in rather a short manner that it was not a good idea as she was on her way to her beach to bathe, and then she was flying to Athens. "Maybe some other time. Goodbye!" Disappointed we went back to our table in the taverna.
It was still morning, but already the heat outside the taverna’s shade was oppressive and the cicadas’ song deafening. We refused to accept that we had been rebuffed, especially now, now that we had made contact. At the same time we could understand her - understand that she was suspicious, perhaps frightened and alone.
We rang the number again. Rather carefully i said that we perhaps could come to her beach and meet her, and there, surrounded by other people, we could (perhaps) ask some questions about the house. "No, but if it is the house you are interested in then come to the gates at four o’clock." We looked at each other ... would we be able to go, be near the house, feel the atmosphere? Fantastic! We went and sat down, suddenly feeling tired after all the excitement.
Was this the end to our waiting? Was this the reward for our pains? Would we see the last piece of the puzzle fall into place? Expectantly and lightheaded, we wondered how we should get to the villa on the crest in this heat! We wondered too, how we could get back to the town, when the only boat returned there at four o’clock. But hese questions seemed unimportant. What mattered was our meeting with Villa Bourani!
Several minutes later Tassos came to our table and gesticulated that the lady from the villa had rung to change the time to three o’clock. We nodded and understood that this was a way to check up on us. She had probably questioned him about us.
We indicated to Tassos how nervous we were about getting to the villa. Our glad new friend invited us to travel in his van ... if ... if there weren’t too many people at the taverna then. We expressed our thanks and went out to the beach for several hours of cool bathing before our magical expectation reached its crescendo ...
Around three o’clock and Tassos’ place was chock-a-block with people; siesta time with the satisfying long multi-course meals. Tassos had sweat on his upper lip. With one or two exceptions he hadn’t even time to joke with his guests, and there was an intensity in his eye we hadn’t seen earlier.
Sighing we sat down at one of the few remaining tables. We understood that there was no chance that he could remove himself from this intensive activity. We tried to catch Tassos’ eye, but he avoided us or at least gave no attention to us. It looked as though we could lose the last piece of the puzzle! Would all our work, all the waiting, have been in vain?
Suddenly there stood the son Paris at our table. He rattled the car keys ... HE would drive us there!!
We jumped into the van and sat amongst newly plucked spice twigs, the hidden wealth of the mountains. The heat was almost unbearable and we perspired prolusely as the van began the torturous climb up the dry stony donkey path. Paris drove carelessly, and the vehicle groaned up the steepest ascents.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived on the plateau where the air danced in the heat of the afternoon. Way below us, between the pines, we could discem the azur of the sea. Ahead, along the road, we saw a white-washed wall, and the van carreredat speed through the open gates. It became very quiet as Paris turned off the engine next to the villa - Villa Bourani ... the goal we had dreamed of, the place we had striven to reach!
In the next instant, a beast of a hound rushed barking towards us with its teeth bared! Paris wound up the window as fast as he could, and we were forced to sit waiting in the van. Outside was the beast and behind him stood Villa Bourani with its white-washed arcades and terraced roof, with its history.
The cry of a woman and the dog was quiet, and a moment later the owner of the villa, dressed in a cool garment, appeared. The big dog (whose name turned out to be Balthasar), reassured by his mistress’ voice and the reception of her guests, rubbed himself against our legs in an affectionate greeting. The woman exchanged a few words with Paris before turning to us.
We shook hands with each other, commented on the heat and then she made an inviting gesture towards some wicker furniture in the archade which followed the perimeter of the house. Between the white arches both the sea and the sky became intensely blue, and we were struck dum by the beauty of the view, and by the fact that we had actually reached our goal ... that we could complete our puzzle.
The lady started pleasantries by saying that she had difficulties in running the house alone, since her husband died the previous year. It was, in fact, her husband’s parents who had previously owned the villa.
Then she invited us into the house. We came into a hall, then continued until we reached what we understood was "the Music Room", a room which plays an important part in the novel "The Magus". Over the mantel piece we met the eye of a well built man with poise. It was a portrait of the woman’s late husband.
Was this man Conchis of the book? Hardly! More probable was that her father-in-law was that individual, as John Fowles’ signature was in a guestbook from the husband’s parents’ time. Fowles had, at least, been here.
The woman continued with her tour of the ground floor. Because of the book’s description of the house, we knew where the dining room and the kitchen should be, and even into these rooms we were escorted. We went into that which we knew to be Conchis’ den, and went out onto the flake-white terrace, to be struck once again by the heat and the breathtaking view. Continuing we stepped into a guest room where the book’s main character spent many mystical nights. Villa Bourani really was spellbinding.
We thanked the lady for her generosity, and saw in her eyes that, through our fascination with the book with the atmosphere of the house and the place, she had seen her villa with new eyes; not just as a practical problem, but as a place of inspiration, peace and beauty. We had, at the very least, been participants in an encounter which had given us both thoughts and feelings to carry with us.
We were quiet in the van on the way back down to the taverna, occupied with our meeting with the woman and the villa. The pieces of the puzzle were almost all in place - we had attained the goal for which we had striven. All that was left was the enigma of John Fowles himself. That perhaps is a completely new puzzle on its own, but that is another story - and another journey...