Small island took on Ottoman Empire, inspired early luxury travel and English writer
The villa on the hill looks as un-Greek as I expected from the quote of its most famous guest, an English author once declared to be one of the most important writers in the English language. The building is too far from the road to see in detail, yet I find myself trying to discern the distant music of a virginal coming from the abode of a mysterious man who seemingly posses inner knowledge of and power over humanity's dark side.
Many Greek islands are linked in the popular imagination with famous works of fiction. Crete has Zorba the Greek, Corfu is the island of the Durrells, and the whole Med is cemented in the verses of Homer. Spetses, an island in the Argolic Gulf of the Peloponnese inspired John Fowles's The Magus, a 20th century classic. And yet there are no throngs of people at the gate of the villa where, in The Magus universe, lives the enigmatic and manipulative Mr Conchis. The Greeks that brought us here were oblivious of The Magus existence. It is probably because few people brave a book that contains words such as "virginal." Or it could be because Fowles was rather unsparing with his description of the island, "supremely beautiful," but "hostile," that "seemed to corrode, not cleanse."
Supremely beautiful Spetses is, and hostile it is not as is evident by the fact that it is enjoyed by some of the most demanding tourists, the rich and the famous. They have done this since the early 20th century when a local man, Sotirios Anargyros, returned from the United States with big money and big ideas. At the time, Spetses was struggling.
Spetses's old harbour is where you can have a walk along a nice promenade and then dine in one of the many restaurants, if you can afford it. Ships bringing fresh water to the island also dock here
Once, the island used to be rich due to its location along the Mediterranean spice route. By the early 19th century its captains were even able to fund the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire. The best known of them was a woman, Laskarina Vouvoulina. Her house in Spetses town is now a museum.
The fortunes lost during the independence war were never to return. Emigration ensued.
Sotirios Anargyros turned bad luck around, with an innovative idea. Spetses was close to the eastern Peloponnese and Athens, and its verdant forests teemed with game and foul. Both made the island a perspective playground for the new Greek elite. The island only lacked infrastructure. So, Sotirios Anargyros opened a luxury hotel. Poseidonion Hotel is still working, and still luxurious. Spetses remains a darling of the rich and the famous, with food and accommodation prices to match. A ban on non-resident cars helps the island to preserve its laid-back atmosphere.
Besides the Poseidonion, Sotirios Anargyros left on Spetses a boarding school for boys, modelled on Eton.
In 1951, a new English teacher arrived at the Anargyros and Korgialeneios School of Spetses. John Fowles left the job and the island two years later, but what he experienced on Spetses and its school left a lasting impression, forming the core of his second novel, The Magus.
The Anargyros and Korgialeneios School was founded to provide top-quality education to Greek boys. It is now open for summer educational camps
For the literary tourist, Spetses is a delightful mosaic of real and imagined places and allusions from The Magus, waiting to be identified and compared to their fictional doppelgänger. The Poseidonion hotel is one of those and so is the school, which was shut down after the military junta but is now open for summer educational camps. The Ayia Paraskeví and Ayii Anaryiri beaches on the island's south shore are packed with parasols, and yet look eerily similar to the ones where the novel's protagonist slowly succumbs to a new, and strange, relationship.
And there is the villa. In Fowles' times it was owned by Petros Botassi, who befriended the young writer-to-be and was turned into the fictional Mr Conchis. In the decades after the publication of The Magus, the villa remained the property of the same family, preserving the history of the clan and of its most famous guest.
Nowadays the villa looks barely changed, but, just like in The Magus, appearances are deceptive. Recently, the mansion was renamed to The Magus. It is now open as a holiday and wedding venue.
The villa that inspired John Fowles
Uncharacteristically for the Greek Mediterranean, Spetses is covered in lush greenery. A number of rare and endemic plants live on the island
The Peloponnese, the Dokos and Hydra islands in the distance