It seems almost surreal that there would be an island close to Aegina, just one hour away from Athens, which, despite its exotic ambience and its proximity to the Hellenic metropolis, remains unknown to most Greeks. And, yet, this is the case of Moni – a mysterious apparition amidst the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
Half of Moni is rocky and barren, while the other half is covered with pine trees that stretch until the shore, where the waves chisel artistic designs on the rocks. The conical shape of the two-faced islet emerges, almost like a lighthouse, at the end of the cape of Perdika town, separated from the Aegina island by a narrow strip of water which the fishermen’s boats traverse in less than ten minutes.
Upon arrival, the visitor is not greeted by humans – who, anyway, do not reside on the island – but, instead, by several deer and peacocks that fearlessly approach the newcomers in a bold search for a treat. With the help of a bait made of some healthy snack, it is easy to caress the heads of the deer or even the majestic feathers of the male peacocks who, oblivious to the indiscrete presence of spectators, insist on performing their ritual dance in front of every passing female representative of their species.
There is limited written information on the island. It seems that it belongs to the Monastery of Chryssoleontissa in Aegina – hence its name, “Moni”, which in Greek translates into “monastery”. On the top of its triangular peak, a crumbling structure reachable only by a strenuous hike over boulders and shrubs is considered to be the remains of a World War II German watchtower. During the 1970s, the island served as an organised camping spot supported by the Hellenic Tourist Organisation, and several of the decaying constructions that still exist perched within the pine grove are remnants of that period. Today, Moni acts exclusively as a shelter for wild animals – deer, peacocks, squirrels, wild goats and Cretan Ibexes – while access to the island is restricted to only a few months per year through the small boats from Aegina, without the possibility for an overnight stay. There is just a bar that offers snacks and refreshments next to the jetty and the sandy beach, while the back side of the island, with its laced rocky shores and deeper waters, is preferred by those we choose privacy over convenience.
The old men in the traditional kafeneia(*) of Aegina though tell more stories of the island’s past. Their recounts include curses, inexplicable destructions, three fires, and an ongoing struggle between the Divine forces and human stubbornness. The boundaries that separate the myth from the truth are blurry – as they always are in such cases – but, after all, what we call “reality” is just a perception. Tales are still worth sharing, for, where would humanity be without them.
As per the local folklore, the island was private property, and, in the meta-Byzantine period, a small friary was built on its peak. The landowners wished to turn the island into a dairy farm, but the representatives of the Church were adamant in their refusal. A fire that broke out on a stormy night was perceived as an unequivocal message from God, though – and here, the old men lean forward and lower their voice – there was always the whispered suspicion of arson.
Despite the fact that the ground of the island was sanctified due to the prior presence of the church and, from time immemorial, holy lands are respected by all, even new religions, the owners managed to build their dairy farm on top of the burnt remains and, some say, the old buildings scattered on the islet date to that era. The business grew fast, so much so that it was covering the demand of the whole region and, soon, Moni was too small to feed the herds. Moving the business to a more extensive land turned into an urgent necessity when, suddenly, a new fire broke out – at this point, the old men lean forward again, and, with a whisper, they mumble of a curse cast on the land because of human disrespect and the inevitable Divine punishment. A third fire in the ‘70s, possibly caused by a camping accident, burned half of the island – the part which now stares barren towards Perdika town.
It is unclear when and from where the animals arrived since they are not native to the land. It is said that the peacocks were left by the initial landowners acquired during the golden years of the dairy business, while deer were brought by a young foreigner who had found a couple that had been rescued but could not be hosted anywhere else. Regardless of what is real and what is a plain myth, the bottom line is that nowadays Moni has turned into a haven for wild animals that multiply in peace and engage in friendly interactions with the occasional visitors.
The Aeginean residents are proud of their exotic sanctuary, and the fishermen act as impromptu guardians since there are no funds to pay for proper guards. A recent incident involving a stranger who arrived on his boat intending to kill one of the ibexes is an example of the concerted local effort to protect the island. Even though it was off-season, the fishermen heard the shots and rushed to the tiny port just in time to arrest the poacher who is still serving time in jail. Thankfully, no ibex was killed; however, their population became shyer and, hence, they were elusive during our visit. We spotted only a couple joyfully hopping at a distance.
(*) Coffee shops where, traditionally, only men would gather to drink coffee or ouzo with mezze, smoke, play cards or backgammon, and interact with their friends.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou except where mentioned otherwise.
Original post: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/moni-island-aegina/