Why the Greek Island of Patmos Is a Perfectly Lovely Place to Hole Up During End Times
With its jet-set parties, picturesque beaches, and mountaintop mansions, it offers the sorts of Aegean delights beloved by sybarites and society folk — but in this place where the Book of Revelation was written, hedonism can take a slightly apocalyptic cast. Novelist Christopher Bollen, whose new thriller The Destroyers is set on the island, reveals why Patmos keeps pulling him back.
The Greek island of Patmos has stunning beaches and swimming coves, but it is probably best-known as the birthplace of the apocalypse. It was here, at the end of the first century A.D., that a man named John, exiled by the Roman emperor Domitian, turned a hillside cave into a writing room and conjured up the Book of Revelation. The four horsemen, the Whore of Babylon, the beast with seven heads — all got their start on this tiny, arid, goatbell-clanking island shaped like a sea horse. When I would tell those who know the biblical history of Patmos that I'd been spending my summer vacations there doing research for my next novel, I was usually met with some variation of Oh, wow, okay. Why bother with sunscreen, right?
Yet for those of us who have been lucky enough to step foot on Patmos, part of the Dodeconese archipelago, off the west coast of Turkey, mass annihilation is the last thing that comes to mind. Patmos is the Aegean Sea's holy island — by one count, there are 365 churches and shrines tucked among its swooping hills and valleys — and regular visitors are prone to lifting an unsteady hand and telling you with absolute conviction that the island "vibrates." I agree that it does, although in my case that might have something to do with late nights socializing with roving Europeans and Americans — actors, shipping heirs, children of shipping heirs, art collectors — in Patmos's historic hilltop mansions. Strangely, for a place so studded with crosses and religious iconography, Patmos has become a haven for the wealthy jet set. In recent decades, high season has begun to yield a scene that John might have appreciated: Greek Orthodox monks in thick black robes climbing up dusty trails, while lithe, attractive, partied-out royals descend on motorbikes for a morning on their yachts. In paradise there's room for everyone.
Well, everyone willing to commit to the journey. One of the pleasures of Patmos is its remoteness. There's no airport on the island, which has saved Patmos from the fate that has befallen its larger neighbors like Kos and Rhodes and Mykonos, where the nonstop infusion of tourism threatens to undermine the native character. To get to Patmos, you have to surrender to Greece's convoluted ferry schedules (it's an eight-hour trek on the Blue Star from Athens), or be fortunate enough to have a rich friend with a boat who is willing to take you.
This natural barrier to access may explain how Patmos has remained the preferred getaway for the affluent elite. It's low-key high society, the anti-St. Barts, with famous names and titles hidden behind the indecipherable whitewashed walls of its famous village. The gray Byzantine monastery of St. John, built in 1066, sits atop the island's central hill like a crown, and the labyrinthine village of Chora is built around it, a skewwhiff Jenga game of 16th to 18th century mansions laced with confusing passageways. Two plateias, or squares, sit on either side, one the home of municipal offices, the other a compact hub of restaurants and bars that after sunset transform into an outdoor nightclub where the moneyed summer folks drink off the sting of their sunburns.
When I've asked expat islanders how Patmos became so popular as a destination for bon vivants, most mention the late British painter Teddy Millington-Drake. If Chora has a secular deity, it is Millington-Drake, who in 1963 bought two mansions with sweeping gardens and, along with his friend, the brilliant designer John Stefanidis, turned the quiet isle into a nexus of artists, socialites, and pleasure hoppers. (Stefanidis still lives in Chora, in a home with a gorgeous, rambling hillside garden centered around a memorial plaque dedicated to Millington-Drake).
It would be disingenuous of me to claim that my fascination with the island has nothing to do with its summer extravagance. For my new novel, The Destroyers, I cast Patmos as the setting for a series of unfortunate events that befall a number of fortunate characters. While it may have been the shadow of Revelation that first drew my writer's brain to this setting, the accretion of wealth and society on its craggy peaks and smooth sapphire bays certainly adds plenty of essential human drama to explore.
Yet neither biblical apocalypse nor billionaire amusements can fully explain the pull of Patmos. I suspect what I love most about it is what anyone who keeps coming back returns for: the haunting, yes, vibrating raw beauty of the island, where, as Prince Michael of Greece put it to me one summer, "Nothing is soft and round, everything grows at a sharp angle, nature isn't lavish in that usual Mediterranean way."
My favorite place to stay isn't in Chora or near the island's main commercial port of Skala, where tourist gift shops, jewelry stores, and tavernas line the busy waterfront. I prefer the more secluded northern "country." I try to rent a cabin near the tiny seaside village of Campos, which offers not only solitude but also reasonable rates for those of us who aren't children of shipping heirs. Up north, even in August, you can motorbike for long stretches through goat fields and along mountain cliffs, the wind ripe with wild sage and oregano, without encountering a soul.
For me, the best beaches are also in the north — pebbled slivers the shape of horseshoes like Viaga Beach, near Campos, or the hard-to-spot Liginou Beach, with its twin beaches separated by a rocky promontory. When I do find a friend willing to take me out on their boat, we head eight nautical miles to a miniscule, mirage-like island called Marathi. A family-run restaurant named Pantelis at the end of the dock serves some of the most delicious seafood I've ever consumed.
Chora itself offers the gilded Byzantine murals and relics of the functioning monastery. But a lesser-known wonder in the village — do not ask me for directions, I have had to find it twice only by hours of rambling — is an Orthodox convent called Evangelismos. Inside its chapel is a golden icon painting of the Madonna and her child. An eerie third eye (which, legend has it, appeared magically) floats around Mary's left eyebrow, creating the visual effect of a vibration.
And then, of course, there is the Cave of the Apocalypse, lodged on the hillside halfway between Chora and Skala. For the €2 entrance fee, you enter the dark, cramped, incense-infused portal where John envisioned the horrors of the Second Coming. Every time I go to Patmos, I make a point of visiting, lighting a candle, staking it in a bowl of sand, and sitting in the ominous gloom of prophesies, feeling waylaid somewhere between the age of the millenialists (who believe that Revelation predicts future events) and the millenials (who increasingly believe in nothing).
I am under no fantasy that my Patmos thriller will be the Alpha and the Omega, or will even survive much longer than any novel has much chance of doing in this reading-averse age. I stay in the cave just long enough that stepping back out into the hot azure blues of the Aegean feels like a relief. I've always found it significant that Patmos is where John predicted the end of the world. However, it's not where he set the final site of the gathering armies. That's Armageddon, now Megiddo, Israel, which seems very far away.
Christopher Bollen's The Destroyers is out June 27.