Josephine Balmer visits Sappho's Lesbos.
"There, far away beyond the apple branches, cold streams
murmur, roses shade every
corner. and, when the leaves rustle, you
by a strange drowsiness..."
It sounds like Paradise - a place of sensual pleasure and spiritual calm. Yet unlike its parallel sister island, that "unspoilt" holiday destination in the eastern Mediterranean, Sappho's Lesbos is rarely visited.
Over the centuries, even parties with an apparently vested interest - scholars, commentators, teachers - have studiously shunned its charms. There are no guided tours in standard textbooks, no enthusiastic entries in gazetteers or cultural round-ups, and any educational cruise that drifts too near those dangerous shores soon steers away, back towards the calmer seas of Athens or Troy.
Of course, we all know why. Sappho's Lesbos has a reputation wilder than any Club Med resort's as a destination fit only for the perverted or the voyeuristic, and certainly not suitable for impressionable young minds. But anyone expecting an orgy of depravity will be bitterly disappointed. Flip through its promotional literature and the worst - or best - you'll find is one brief half-line about young girls "satisfying their desire . . . on soft beds", plus a scrap of paper which may or may not have the word "dildo" scrawled across it.
So what is so terrifying, so threatening, about Sappho's Lesbos? Whisper it softly. This is an island almost completely devoid of men. From Tithonus shrivelling away into a cicada, to the warriors' shields glinting far away on the distant mainland, the male of the species is only ever glimpsed in passing.
Nevertheless, as in Beirut or Sarajevo, there will always be a few tourists lured by the vicarious thrill of danger - an attraction which dates back almost to Sappho's own time. Around 500BC, the poet Anacreon dropped anchor, bewailing his love for an unresponsive young woman of Lesbos far too busy "gaping after another girl".
Greek comic dramatists were the next to arrive, coining the verb lesbiazein for women who displayed an expertise at certain (hetero)sexual practices perhaps best left to the Board of Censors.
But like all desirable destinations, Sappho's Lesbos needs to attract the right sort of tripper. And, as any self-respecting tourist board will tell you, the right tripper requires the right image. So forget steamy exoticism or seedy degeneracy. What the discerning traveller will find instead is a world of poignant memory and aching desire, of poetry and possibility. A place where Aphrodite, the playful goddess of love, rules supreme and all the humdrum concerns of ancient (and modern) society - politics, business, commerce - are swept away.
Sappho: Poems and Fragments, translated by Josephine Balmer, is published by Bloodaxe.