Travelling Between The Islands In The Past

Reaching Greece

For the late twentieth century traveller the Cyclades are easy to reach. In the summer months there are international flights direct to Santorini and Mykonos. Otherwise the flight from London to Athens takes less than four hours. From Athens there are internal flights to many of the islands in the Cyclades, as well as ferries and hydrofoils. Travel was not so quick and easy for the earlier traveller. He had first to reach Greece, and then set about exploring that country.

In 1700 Tournefort travelled to Greece. He obviously did some sightseeing on the way. Without these stops the travelling time could have been cut down a little. However his journey does give some idea of the problems facing travellers of his day.

Tournefort left Paris on 9th March 1700 in the 'Flying-Coach' and reached Lyons in 7½ days. He then set off down the Rhone, reaching Avignon on 18th March, and Marseilles on 27th March. He left Marseilles on 23 April, and had to wait for a northwest wind to take him to Crete. He reached Crete on 3 May. Despite what seems to modern eyes to be a long journey, Tournefort said:

So quick a Voyage happens but rarely. We run 1600 Miles in nine days.

Leaving Athens for the Cyclades

When I fly into Athens I usually get out of the city as soon as possible. I come to Greece for fresh air and countryside, not city fumes and smog. I either catch an internal flight or go to Piraeus and catch the first ferry to an island I want to visit. I aim to get back to Athens a day or two before my flight home. If all goes well and I arrive back in Athens on time, I spend those days sightseeing in Athens. If I am delayed by a sudden storm, I have some time in hand so that storms are less likely to cause me to miss my flight home.

It is not only the tourists of today who are eager to leave Athens and reach the islands. Writing about a trip in 1892, J. Irving Manatt wanted to leave Athens, as

Under a fierce midsummer sun Athens is hardly a health resort and we were glad to turn our backs upon it for a season.

Pass boats

If guide books are up to date [written in mid 1990s]there are still a few small Greek islands (in the eastern Aegean, not in the Cyclades) that, to use the old expression, ferries 'touch at' but do not dock. Anyone wanting to go to or from one of these islands by ferry has to catch a pass boat. A pass boat is a small boat that carries passengers from an island out to a ferry at sea, and brings back from the ferry passengers who want to land. I have never travelled to an island at which the ferry I was
on did not dock, and I have never seen pass boats in use. I went to Sikinos in spring 1989, when guide books still mentioned the use of pass boats. I arrived at Sikinos to find a new harbour, with the date 2/89 scratched into the concrete.

Even when a ferry docks at a harbour, it is not always easy to see which ship you want to catch, especially when two or three arrive around the same time and leave quickly. Imagine the difficulties when the boat you want to catch hovers out of sight at sea, and you have to catch a small boat to meet up with it. And imagine jumping from a ship bobbing around out at sea into a small boat that will take you to shore. I am glad to have escaped these athletic aspects of island hopping.

Today hoards of passengers get on and off ferries at Piraeus. Imagine the chaos there would be if ferries could not dock at Piraeus, and instead passengers were ferried to and fro in pass boats. That was still happening as late as 1892 when J. Irving Manatt observed that at Piraeus there were no docks, and every passenger had to be rowed out to the boats, and rowed back.

In 1929 George Horton wrote about the difficulties of using pass boats.

You must know the name of the right ship, or island, and proclaim it loudly and vigorously, for you will be immediately pounced upon by a gang of piratical-looking boatmen, one of whom will yank the valise from your hand and disappear in the crowd. It makes no difference to him what ship he puts you on, his only interest being to row you somewhere and collect a fare.

At Tinos small rowboats were coming out toward us, to take off such of the passengers as wished to land. We wondered at the temerity of the boatmen, as their cockleshells balanced for one moment on a wave crest, and sank out of sight the next into yawning gulfs. We felt considerable anxiety as to our ability to get to land by such means. This is the usual way of embarking and disembarking in the Greek islands, however, and we soon found ourselves and baggage safely on the wharf. [George Horton]

And at Santorini in a heavy sea:

//A ladder was let down, and after considerable skilful maneuvering, one of the rowboats was got up beside it. Great care was exercised by the boatmen to keep his skiff near enough to the ladder for jumping purposes, yet far enough away to avoid being smashed. //

And now a remarkable thing happened; an old gray-haired woman scuttled bravely down the ladder, waited till the exact moment when the boat arrived at the crest of the wave, stepped quietly in and sat down. Her valise was pitched in after her. Like most of the islanders, she probably had in her veins the blood of Byzantine pirates and Venetian sea dogs. [George Horton]

Types of boat

Even the large motor powered ferries of today are susceptible to Aegean storms. In strong winds and rough seas the ferries stay in port. Before the widespread use of steam powered boats in the first half of the last century, sailors had a two-fold problem. If the winds were too strong or the seas too rough it was dangerous for the boats to put out to sea. If there was no wind, the sailing boats did not move. There were always oars.


Today the term 'caïque' tends to be used for any small boat. The old caïques were sailing boats. Unlike modern yachts, these caïques were sailed from necessity and not for pleasure. , Until the invention of steam powered boats, the two choices were sails or oars. Even after the invention and widespread use of steam powered boats, their use in the more remote islands of the Cyclades may have been restricted because of the lack of any locally available fuel.

James Theodore Bent travelled from Folegandros to Ios by caïque. The ferries called at Ios, but not at Folegandros.

Next morning we left Pholygandros, and were surprised to find our boat, which hitherto had had a white sail, now with a rich coloured one; the boatmen had found some red mud, in which they had dyed it their favourite colour. Certainly it looked very picturesque, and contrasted well with the green boat. Another surprise awaited us in the shape of an old woman and a big box; we expostulated a little, saying that we had hired the boat for ourselves; but they said there was so little opportunity for her to get away that she should be treated as ballast, and so forth; so we made no further objection. They shoved her and her box on board with little respect, put her into a dark and stinking hold with our servant, and fastened the lid down. We heard nothing more of her until we arrived at our destination, except terrible yells and groans when it became rough, for the Greek island women suffer more audibly from sea-sickness than any people I am acquainted with.

One of Bent's aims in visiting to Mykonos was to hear the death-wails. Bent travelled to Mykonos by caïque.

We crossed over from Syra in the tricandira of a Hydriote fisherman; and good cause we had to be thankful that we had chosen these sailors and their trustworthy boat, for the sea was lashed angrily by a southern gale, and unpleasant thoughts occurred to us that our purpose in going to Mykonos to hear a death-wail was an ill-omened one, and might end disastrously to ourselves. But the boats from hydra are good; they have osier instead of canvas bulwarks - wattled osiers, the ëíãáñéá which grow in mountain streams, and which, I think, must have formed the bulwarks which Ulysses made for his two-decked raft when he left the charmed island of Kalypso. Two islands in the Ægean Sea (Hydra and Psara) still have these bulwarks, and these boats are the best. We had to take down our sail half-way, and put up a smaller one, which was an unpleasant process in a pitching sea;
but we had time to admire our primitive sail-rings, which were made out of cow's horn cut into rings. Elsewhere we had seen vine-tendrils used for this purpose; but they are not nearly so satisfactory, for whenever a good gust filled the sails one or two were sure to give way.

Our voyage was a very characteristic one in these islands. We planned to go to Antiparos, and we started with a favourable though slight breeze. This died away altogether before we got an hour on our way; the exceeding heat of the sun, and ominous clouds on the horizon, made our sailors anxious about the upshot. We said we would sail for Amorgos if possible, and started in that direction, for the breeze was freshening from the west. Before very long the breeze became too fresh, and our men insisted on running for Ios; but we found we could by no means go round the northern point of Sikinos, so we had to retrace our way almost back to the harbour of Pholygandros.

It soon began to blow with a vengeance; it was impossible to make for Ios. 'Let us run for Santorin,' we said, getting more and more disgusted at our fate. But no; hardly had we gone a mile than our captain said it would not be safe; we must put in to Sikinos, on the southern side. What horror! Were we again going to be storm-stayed at Sikinos? We thought of the demarch's damp house and the cold and misery of the place. We saw, to our delight, the Sikinos caïque put off and make for Ios. 'Surely,' we said, 'if that craft can go we can;' but it put back again almost immediately, and our hearts sank with us.

In our despair we implored our captain to make an attempt to reach Ios, and, the weather having taken a favourable turn, he promised to try. Though much tossed about and drenched with the waves, we reached our haven in safety shortly after 10 o'clock, after a day's bitter experience of the uncertainty of caïque-sailing. It is impossible to make any plans beforehand in the winter time; it is not where you will go, but where you can get, when amongst the islands where steamers do not touch.

Our good friends at Ios were delighted at our return, having had a prognostication of it, and entertained us hospitably until the steamer came to carry us away.

Steam powered boats

The first steam powered boat was launched by John Fitch on the Delaware River in 1786. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the use of steam powered boats increased. In 1840 T. H. Usborne referred to a French government steamer that left Piraeus for Syros every eight days. The journey lasted eleven hours. Usborne described Syros as

the general rendezvous of the French and Austrian steamers, which branch off here to the different ports of the Levant.

One of Bent's sea journeys was on the Panhellion.

Though we had the very worst steamer of the Hellenic Company to take us to Ios, yet it was a steamer that all who travel thereon treat with respect, for it was none other than the Panhellion, which ran the blockade in the late Cretan revolution, and carried assistance to the Greeks struggling for freedom. A very little sentiment of this kind goes a long way on a rolling sea, and despite the celebrity of our craft, we were thankful to leave her when she entered the capacious harbour of Ios.

Motor powered ships

The internal combustion engine was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, and by the 1920s many ships were motor powered.

Yachting for pleasure

Sailing in yachts with a back up motor is a popular holiday activity in Greece. Two hundred years ago there was no choice but sail or oars.

T. Fitz-Patrick describes a cruise in the "Linda" in 1886. The "Linda"

//combines speed with extraordinary steadiness and buoyancy. Below decks she is exceedingly comfortable, possessing a spacious saloon and five excellent cabins - the after cabin being double, and capable, if need be, of accommodating four ladies. Generally she appeared a model of compactness, embracing within her moderate area, a spacious cooking galley, good quarters for her crew, larder, hen-coops, store-rooms, medicine-chests, and endless bunkers and cupboards for the stowing away of wine, beer, Apollinaris water, and other luxuries. //

There was on board

a most excellent and handy steam launch….which proved to be a very useful appendage on various occasions.

The calm blue sea

Tourist brochures picture the Cyclades as a paradise of white buildings and a calm blue sea.

Some of James Emerson's glowing prose published in 1829 would not look out of place in a modern holiday brochure.

It is seldom that the view of the Aegean presents any thing but a picture of calm repose; its blue unruffled waters sleeping undisturbed beneath the equally unvaried sky, or gently curling their rippling surface to catch the dancing sunbeams, and flash them back in mimic splendour"; and near Ios "Shoals of dolphins were sporting on every side, pursuing the flocks of flying fish, which ever and anon rose fluttering from the waves and sunk again exhausted as the evening breeze dried up the moisture of their tiny wings.

And Manatt in 1913 wrote

Next to whiling away delicious days on these islands is the joy of floating on this dreamy sea with isle after isle rising on the view to give body and background to its old, old story.

Drawbacks of the calm blue sea

Before the introduction of steam boats, wind was essential for sailing boats. A calm sea may look idyllic, but less so if your sailing boat is stationary for hours or days on end. Often it was a matter not of where you wanted to go, but where you could get to.


Even the large ferries operating today in Greece do not travel in bad storms. The smaller boats stop running in less stormy weather than the larger boats. Life at sea (or waiting to go to sea) was even harder for travellers in the past.

About travelling through the Cyclades, George Wheler (1682) mentions

a most furious North-Wind, that drove the Waters into such Heaps, as made them seem as if the Rocky Islands of those Seas had broke loose.

Tournefort had to change his planned route many times because of the weather, a problem not unknown to modern travellers in the Cyclades.

Manatt (1913) travelled on the "Mina" from Syros to Andros.

We stretch out on the benches of the bridge-deck under the twinkling stars, fearing no evil; but we have scarcely cleared the mole when Boreas bears down upon us in a howling rage and we are in for the worst storm of the season. There is a new man at the wheel who speaks English, but not of the kind that rules the waves. Fireman frantic keeps rushing up to reiterate that the coal-stores are flooded and fire going out. If we can only get across the channel under the lee of Tenos, we shall be all right, says the man at the wheel; but we are more likely to go to the bottom.

Manatt had found the Hotel d'Angleterre in Syros not particularly comfortable, but about returning to Syros for three days until the storm was over he wrote,

After four hours of that sea even the Hotel d'Angleterre seemed inviting.

Writing in 1929, George Horton recalled his first trip to Syros twenty years earlier. He travelled on a cable repair ship, the Levant, known as the Rolling Bill.

During the storm Bill rolled so much that the chairs went pitching about promiscuously, climbing the side-walls and even striking the roof……..I mention this incident to disabuse the reader of the idea that cruising among islands necessarily consists in purring through pellucid seas.

Horton travelled from Piraeus to Tinos on the Nicholaos Togyas:

There was a big sea rolling and the Nicholaos pitched like a child's rocking-horse.

On board ship

Ferries in Greece today are increasingly alike. Standards vary between companies, and a lot depends on the design of the ship and how if at all it has been refitted and adapted for use in Greece. A ship built for northern climes may have less deck space than one would expect on a ship built for use in Greece. There is more variation in the smaller boats making shorter journeys between the islands and not venturing as far as Athens. Tourists tend to prefer the deck. Greeks tend to prefer the inside of the ship, even in good weather.

One feature of ship board life today is the camping out. Ferries often travel at night. Passengers are sleepy, if not through the length of the journey or the time of day, perhaps because they have been travelling to Greece overnight. Sleeping bags and blankets are spread out on benches or on the floor, and slumbering humanity lies within. In the past ships were slower, and journeys longer, and passengers also camped out.

J. P. Mahaffy, author of "Rambles and Studies in Greece" describes a trip by boat from Piraeus to Epidauras in 1884

The very journey to this place is worth making, on account of its intensely characteristic features. You start from Athens in a coasting steamer full of natives, who carry with them their food and beds, and camp on deck where it pleases them, regardless of class. You see all the homeliness of ordinary life obtruded upon you without seeking it, instead of intruding upon others to find it, and you can study not only the country, but the people, at great leisure. But the ever-varying beauty of the scene leaves little time for other studies. [English Illustrated Magazine, 1883-4]

Bent's first visit to Tinos was at the time of a pilgrimage.

Perhaps the scene on board the old ship 'Theoria,' which annually went to Delos full of pilgrims from Athens, the ship which tradition said had brought Theseus from Crete, was not so very unlike the scene on board the steamer 'Peneios,' which took me from the Piraeus to Tenos. There were 1,200 pilgrims on board, all in their holiday attire - women with their sack-like coats, gaudy petticoats, and coloured frontlets, that is to say, with the Athenian plait and the knotted ragged kerchief on their heads; men with their fustenella of snowy white; each and all with their beds and their carpets, which they spread for their families on deck, and prepared for an al fresco night on board. sardines in a box are not more tightly compressed than was the cargo of human flesh on board the 'Peneios.' 'Öáíáôéêïò¡ ëáïò,' sneered the captain as we looked down upon them from the bridge.

Music was played by performers on every species of rude instrument, from a óíñáýëéïí, the primæval panpipe, to a barrel organ with its dancing marionettes. The raki drinkers were noisy now, laughing, shouting, blaspheming; women were chatting, children playing; but before long we rounded Cape Sunium, and no more merry-making was heard; a death-like silence for while pervaded the ship, and then groan succeeded groan in quick succession. Poseidon, the physician, was intent on a desperate cure!

'Æùç ìïõ!' groaned a woman close to me after each paroxysm had past. If I felt inclined to retort óáò áãáðù, circumstances forbade.

This is Manatt's description of a trip in 1913.

The very boat, though built on modern lines by a Scotch firm at Piraeus, is a floating spectacle - a promiscuous huddle of humanity with their motley gear, all deck passengers, for the cabin is neither spacious nor sweet. A dressed pig in a poke swinging astern serves as a wave-vane; and to the fore ruminates a black cow with crumpled horns. barring locomotion, pig and cow enjoy all the privileges of first-class passengers along with the silk-robed abbot from his island monastery, the jaunty midshipman from the naval academy, the Athenian grande dame with the Court air, the fustanellaed gentleman of the old school, and picturesque islanders of every age, sex, and condition.

Guide books often mention livestock being carried on ferries. When I first went to Greece I expected to see flocks of cattle, sheep, and donkeys and hens wandering round the deck. The reality is different. I have seen lorries packed with sheep, especially just before Easter. And individual sheep, alive, or wrapped in polythene, taken home for the Easter feast. And little else, apart from dogs and cats.

Scheduled boat or hired boat

Today most people travel by scheduled ferry services. A few people make short trips by motor boat. Anyone travelling by yacht does so for the pleasure of travelling by yacht. In the past there were fewer scheduled boat services. Often to reach a smaller island that is called at today by the large car ferries, travellers in the past had to reach a nearby large island at which a ferry called, and then manage to make whatever arrangements they could to reach their destination on a smaller island.

Tournefort chose to wait for a French 'bark', or sailing ship, rather than travel on a Greek ship.

It is so dangerous going from Candia to the Isles of the Archipelago on board the Shipping of the Country, that we durst not attempt it: the Passage is a hundred miles, and these Vessels or 'Boats' , not above fifteen foot long, are presently overset with a sudden Gust of the North Wind. Besides, there is no Sheltring-place on the way, which is a grievous misfortune at Sea, when a tempest threatens.

Tozer hired a boat to reach places he could not get to by scheduled services.

We were now (April 2) about to enter on the third portion of our expedition, that is, to visit the southern Cyclades, and the neighbouring Sporades. Accordingly, having hired a tolerably large and partly decked boat, which could safely make the voyage to the outlying islands, with three sailors to manage her, we started in most lovely weather, a continuance of which our boatmen augured from the porpoises (äåëöéíåò) which were playing about us. It was a dreamy, hazy day, and for some hours, during which we were becalmed and had to use our oars, the heat was great; but in the late afternoon a fresh breeze sprang up, and sped us on our way towards Naxos.

Today there is a sturdy looking small boat doing a regular trip between Kimolos and Milos. Bent says

Between Kimolos and Melos the strait is only about half a mile wide, but we had the greatest difficulty in crossing it. There is a regular boat which is supposed to cross when travellers require it, but there was a little breeze, and the boatmen affirmed that their craft was rotten, and only sailed when the sea was calm; and if it had not been for a soldier, whom the eparch had given us as an escort, and who wished to carry a basket of fresh eggs he had with him for sale at Melos, we should probably have had to pass the night in a tiny church which is used as a signal-box for those who travel between the two islands.

Arrival at destination

One of the hazards of travel in the Cyclades today is arriving on an island at the dead of night, and not knowing if any accommodation will be available. Or not knowing if there is any transport to the uphill Chora that might possibly, just possibly, have accommodation. In peak season there is also the possibility that there will be a lot of other people literally all in the same boat, and there may not be enough accommodation to go round.

At least today we usually know where the ferry will dock. Before large modern quays were built on the islands, boats sometimes docked at different ports, depending on the weather conditions. As well as the pass boat problem, when leaving an island you needed to know which port the ship would be using. I have read of a bus on a hill top, the driver scanning the horizon for the ship, and to see where it was heading.

The ship could dock at a port some way from the usual port and main village. Bent says this of his landing on Sikinos.

We had our misgivings when the caïque which had brought us from Ios left us alone on the shores of Sikinos, some two hours' distance from the town.

There is no harbour in Sikinos,' said our captain when we remonstrated and wished him to stay, and when we remarked that if he did not come back for us at the appointed time we should take another caïque he only laughed at us and told us that there was only one caïque belonging to Sikinos, and this was now at Ios.

It was a fact; we found that Sikinos had only one caïque and four rotten fishing-boats which will never venture in winter time a hundred yards from the shore; it is likewise a fact that the solitary caïque and the four rotten fishing-boats have to be drawn up on the beach every night, for there is no harbour. And a proverb belonging to this island aptly describes the position, 'If an army of rats tried to land on the north shore of Sikinos not one would be saved.' There is an indentation called a bay on the southern coast line into which the solitary caïque can run, otherwise Sikinos is a mere rock running down sheer into the waves, about eight miles long by two wide.

When our caïque had left us we sat down on the rocks on which we had landed and ate our food, thinking kindly of the Lorenziades as we did so; then we despatched our servant to the town for mules, and sat guarding our luggage in one of the most solitary places I ever was in for four hours and a half. It was a bleak, barren, weird-looking spot, with grey marble rocks towering high above us, and nothing to be heard except the cry of the red-legged partridges and the occasional shriek of a sea bird. And as the wind began to rise, and gloomy clouds appeared, we looked regretfully across the narrow and now rough strait which separated us from Ios, the steamer, and the world, and wondered whether we were quite wise in visiting Sikinos at this season of the year.

Bent intended spending two days on Sikinos, but was storm-stayed and remained for five days.

Leaving an island

Horton writing in 1929 commented that

You might be obliged to remain a week in one of these places, for it is often easier to get on a Greek island than to get off.

A modern storm-stayed tourist would agree.

© Susan Watkin