It seems odd to us now, when most people visit Greek islands precisely because of the sea – to swim in, sail on or just gaze at – but centuries ago many Greek islanders turned their backs on the sea. They were escaping bloodthirsty pirates, power-hungry invaders and draconian rulers. The island of Spetses, however, embraced it with huge enthusiasm, and in return the sea brought prosperity and fame. Sea-captains’ mansions are the most visible evidence of this for today’s visitors.
Spetses is the southernmost of the Saronic Gulf islands, 53 nautical miles south of Piraeus and a stone’s throw from the east coast of the Peloponnese. Instead of the steep and dramatic cliffs of neighbouring Hydra, here there a low, pine-clad hills. This small and seemingly strategically and economically unimportant island, like neighbouring Hydra, failed to attract the attention of the ruling Ottomans, making it a refuge for Greeks from the Peloponnese in particular.
Shipbuilding and shipping flourished, and it became a major naval power. It played a key role in running the British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and ist ships and crews were prominent in the Greek War of Independence. Among them was Laskarina Bouboulina, probably the world’s only female admiral. Once freedom was won, Spetses town became a lucrative free port. Architecturally this resulted in the foundation of a large number of well constructed mansions called arhontika.
The sea-captains’ mansions were built of rubble and stone, much of it grey rock from the nearby island of Dokas. The ground floors were nearly always of stone, as were the corners (quoins). The structure was plastered and whitewashed once construction was finished.
Courtyards are a key feature and played an important role in the social life of islanders. They were often positioned so as to maximise sun and minimise wind. The floors were covered with votsaloda, or pebbled flooring, the black and white stones arranged in a variety of patterns. A solid stone staircase, or in large houses two staircases, led up to the first floor.
Gardens surrounded the larger arhontika, with a pebbled path, edged with low walls, leading up to the front door. Lemon trees – popular because the fruit helped prevent scurvy on board ship – were planted in the gardens, which also contained the underground cistern fed with rainwater channelled down from the roof. The first rains after the long, dry summers were not collected, but allowed to run through to flush out the system. Some familes kept an eel in the cistern water: the creature was said to ensure the water stayed clean.
Out-buildings housed kitchen, toilet, laundry and storage facilities. Roofs were hipped and tiled, but did not extend far over the walls. Spetsian chimney pots are a delight: almost every house has a different design.
Early houses were of a long rectangular shape (some locals say they were built to the dimensions of ships, so the same timbers could be used), with two floors. A family’s living arrangements changed with the seasons: warmer winter quarters were on the ground floor, while in summer everyone moved up to the top floor, which frequently comprised one large room, the many windows left open to catch cooling breezes. In some houses, inhabitants lived upstairs year-round, the ground floor being used as storage for fishing and boat equipment, as a warehouse, workshop or shop.
These long, narrow houses gave way to a more square shape, with a gable at the centre of the long, front facade, following the neo-classical influences of other parts of Greece. A more symmetrical arrangement of windows and doors became popular, too.
But one distinctive Spetian characteristic remained: the two-colour scheme of the windows. The outer frame and bars were in a colour, generally pale blue, dark blue, black or grey, with the inner sections painted white. The bars formed a criss-cross pattern, with the horizontal set running through holes in the vertical poles, making them stronger. These were part of the security features of the houses against raids by pirates: for the same reason, early structures were without balconies. Shutters were fitted to the insides of the windows to accommodate the bars.
The exteriors may have lacked the marble cladding and embellishments of other substantial Greek houses, but the interiors were elaborate. Wood was used extensively for ceilings and covings as well as for built-in cupboards and corner cupboards. Ceilings featured paintings of mythical scenes, and friezes adorned the walls.
Many of the most notable and noble arhontika are located around the harbour. Among them is the Douka family house built in 1831. At one time, steps ran from the house directly down to the water, though a harbourside road has since cut this access off. The gate on the other side of the house is typical of Spetses: double wooden doors set in a stone wall.
What marks this mansion out, however, is the magnificent double-headed eagle on the votsaloda pavement. More pebble patterns, including animals and anchors, adorn the courtyard.
Set back from the sea is the mansion that belonged to Vasilis Iagaron Orloff, a blockade runner and fighter during the Greek revolution. When I visited in 2002, his great grand-daughter Virgine Prokopis and her family were living there.
It was built as a long, narrow, three-storey house, with two-storey wings added later. A path featuring a criss-cross votsaloda runs from the gate to the front door on one of the narrow facades. Its best feature, however, is the room that occupies the entire top floor of the main section. It has 12 windows – four on each of the long sides and two on the narrow ends – offering 360-degree, panoramic views over the island and sea.
Spetses is a popular holiday destination, and, unfortunately, rampant development has resulted in a number of ugly, inappropriate structures. Happily, the authorities have implemented regulations covering building style and materials. Window frames, for example, must be made of wood and not aluminium, while roofs must be tiled and cannot be flat. Environmental considerations, however, have ruled that builders must not take pebbles for beaches for votsaloda pavements.
My thanks go to the Prokopis and Douka families for inviting me to look around their houses and answering all my questions!