In Patmos, a 13-square-mile island in Greece’s Dodecanese archipelago, visitors are greeted with the chic simplicity and spirituality of a place that’s remained unchanged for centuries. That is, the few visitors who are lucky enough to know about it—and who are willing to make the seven-hour ferry trip for a destination without the slightest trace of luxury.
Long disregarded on commercial-travel routes, the polar opposite of nearby Mykonos and Santorini, Patmos is still what it used to be: whitewashed walls that meander alongside labyrinthine streets, cobbled roads lined with violet flowers streaming around the blue doors of houses, and black-clad monks milling about St. John the Theologian’s 11th-century fortressed monastery. Silence reigns, the skies are clear—September on the island rarely brings a cloud—and the monks’ long beards recall a different era.
Legend has it that Zeus pulled Patmos out from the depths of the sea as a gift to his daughter Artemis. Shaped like a seahorse, Patmos lies in a bath of impossible blue with Chora, the capital, sitting at the top of its cracked earth. After his exile from the Roman Empire, around 95 A.D., John the Theologian, first disciple of John the Baptist, hid in a Patmian cave, sheltering from the Aegean winds to write the Book of Revelation. Since then, the Epiphany site has attracted pilgrims from around the world. The monastery, one of about 20 convents and monasteries on the island, is still funded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Bartholomew I, the archbishop, has been known to spend months concealed within its centuries-old Orthodox library. In the 12th century, Patmos became a popular trading post for shipments between Europe and Asia Minor, and shipping magnates began to settle there, bringing with them prosperity, neoclassical style, and bits of culture from their home countries of Austria, Egypt, and Russia.
The island’s coexistence with an eclectic crew of visitors drawn to the locale’s spiritual history and sparseness dates back to the 1960s. After it was returned to Greece, in 1947—the Italians had controlled Patmos and its surroundings since 1912—the island started to attract the few who understood it, including the eccentric English nobleman and artist Teddy Millington-Drake, who arrived when garbage was still collected by a single man and his donkey.
I visited Drake’s former partner, interior designer John Stefanidis, at the 17th-century house they acquired in 1963—where, later, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be among the habitués. As Stefanidis told me one night, sitting under olive and cypress trees in candlelight, “When the island didn’t have as much as a road, Teddy and I found our way here, stepping off a boat that carried merchandise, chickens, and crying women fleeing Athens.” Stefanidis restored the house with the help of a single electrician and a carpenter brought over from the mainland. That first summer, rainwater was collected in cisterns, and the pair used oil lamps to illuminate the house’s derelict walls after nightfall.
A couple of years later, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who would serve as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 1966 to 1977, ended up on the island when his motorboat broke down nearby. Khan fell in love with Patmos and bought a house there, starting what became a yearly summer community of artists, models, aristocrats, actors, and musicians (David Bowie, Rita Hayworth, Richard Gere, and Julia Roberts among them). Though Sadruddin died in 2003, his family continues to visit the island and are known for their privacy. A plaque on the blue door of the home belonging to Khan’s nephew, Amyn, reads, Attention, chien en psychanalyse (Warning: Dog in Psychoanalysis).
In the 70s and 80s, with the construction of roads and aqueducts came more visitors seduced by the island’s character, such as the writer Prince Michael of Greece and Denmark, who bought a house in Chora in 2000; he says Patmos has said “la plus belle lumière du monde.” Contemplating fiery sunsets, he writes short stories about the island’s mysteries. His daughter, Princess Olga of Greece, was married to Prince Aimone of Savoy-Aosta at Panagia Diasozousa church in 2008. In typical Patmos style, the wedding was familial and understated yet breathtakingly beautiful.
In the 60s, garbage was still collected by a single man and his donkey.
Today, there are few hotels on the island, and houses are hard to come by. Still, Teddy’s crowd is immediately recognizable: a sweep of a long dress on the back of a motorbike, a linen shirt tucked into same-color trousers. But their sprawling mansions are often concealed, recognizable only by cypresses that shoot up above modest doors. Interiors are exquisite, often comprising objects from the Byzantine, Italian, and Greek empires. And where there is beauty there is always fashion: Luisa Loro Piana (wife of the late Loro Piana vice president Sergio) and Diego Della Valle (chairman of Tod’s) are known to stop by on their respective boats every year, while designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Luisa Beccaria and Vogue’s Hamish Bowles are regulars.
I met with Beccaria in the town square one evening, at a table with a view of the full moon. “Patmos inspired my early collections. It taught me to appreciate imperfection,” she told me. “The houses here used to belong to tradesmen—they are rustic. But it is their small flaws that make them special. I learned how important mistakes are in aesthetics.” Bowles echoes the inspiration that comes with the island: “The light, the views that change at every hairpin bend in the road; the houses, one more charming than the next—Patmos is undoubtedly a place for aesthetes and one that I find both visually and spiritually nourishing.”
There is something powerfully irresistible and real about glamour with a religious backdrop, and it’s this spiritual atmosphere that has left the island’s authenticity untarnished. Too quiet to attract nightlife crowds, too far away for lazy travelers, and too windy for boats to dock at for more than a few days at a time, Patmos remains a commitment. Somehow, the ever present wind has preserved the island, sweeping away ambivalent travelers and their yachts.
Those who make it can enjoy the solitude and unfettered freedom that come with empty bays, leisurely lunches at Greek tavernas, and blazing sunsets at the Profitis Ilias mountaintop. September is the time to go, for the winds die down and the island slowly empties, leaving behind only the most dedicated of regulars. Patmos becomes an oasis for reading, writing, and embracing beauty.
Elena Clavarino is an Assistant Editor at AIR MAIL