CHAPTER 3 excerpt
Artemisia’s Swim – Plaka to Spinalonga
This swim from the town of Plaka to the Venetian fortress of Spinalonga (also known as the island of Kalydon) qualifies as an “insider’s swim” given that my mother’s side of the family came from the town of Plaka, and my grandmother Artemisia (1902–1952)—a talented swimmer in her own right—swam this course over a century ago.
Sometimes I wonder if she was drawn to the sea because of another Artemisia who lived 2,500 years ago and became the most famous and accomplished female naval commander in history. Allied with Xerxes I, she wowed everyone with her brilliance and valor in the Battle of Salamis between the Persians and the Greeks. My grandmother Artemisia Drettakis (née Papastefanakis) is now buried at a small church (Agia Marina) a stone’s throw from Plaka’s shoreline along with my great grandfather Panayiotis Papastefanakis, from the nearby village of Louma, and great grandmother Maria (née Grammatikakis), from the nearby village of Fourni. I think Artemisia would be delighted to know that her grandson and great grandchildren are continuing the family tradition—she might say that the sea water flows in our veins. (Το θαλασσινό νερό ρέει στις φλέβες μας.)
Studying a map of Crete, one notices that the beaches both north and south of Agios Nikolaos are protected from the prevailing westerlies and north westerlies. Indeed, a sea plane called the Short S. 17 Kent Flying Boat used to land in these waters, called Mirabello Bay. However, at the north end of the bay where Plaka is located there are strong winds that can pick up unpredictably. Thus, when I previously wrote that the northern cove of Hersonissos had the most protected swim on the north coast of Crete it was because the Plaka area, even though it appears equally protected, nevertheless has some strong winds that come and go, adding greater risk to the swimmer.
The entry point for Artemisia’s Swim is at the northernmost beach (35°18'07.1"N 25°43'36.6"E) of the northernmost village of Plaka. From Agios Nikolaos one drives north past Elounda and keep going along the shoreline, passing through Plaka, until you get to a dirt parking lot along the shoreline. If you drive any further than that the road will curve left, and you will start ascending into the mountain.
The swim is 1 km east-southeast from the beach (which has large rounded rocks) to the Venetian fortress which in recent history (1903–1957) served as a leper colony. The nice thing is that you can get out of the water at an unused pier of Spinalonga (35°17'52.9"N 25°44'12.2"E), and if you are properly prepared you can enter to tour the place.
As noted in Chapter 1, Spinalonga is the island featured in the modern novel called The Island by Victoria Hislop and the location of the 2010 television series To Nisi which is Greek for “The Island.” Hislop writes that the distance to the island is a “500-metre journey” when in fact it is no less than 700 m. So the swim is a bit farther than what the book says, yet the experience of Artemisia’s swim is greatly enriched by having a wonderful novel to go along with it.