Escaping The Crowds In The Greek Islands
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|July/August 2021
Thousands of alluring specks stud the Med, each with its own distinct scenic, cultural and historic appeal. We let UK travellers in on where the locals choose to go
Dana Facaros

Koula was to be my guide to the Athanato Nero – the ‘immortal spring’ – but first she had to milk her goats. We were on Ikaria, famous for its longevity, so it had not been impolite to ask her age: she was 92 – one of the young ones, she laughed, twinkling under her straw hat. The stillness of late afternoon was broken by a loud ‘ping-pingping’ as she directed the milk into her tin bucket. It was 6pm, but everyone was still napping; on such a summer night, even small children would be awake until well after midnight.

We were in Xylosirtis, on Ikaria’s less-visited south coast, a village of gardens and apricot trees gazing across the Aegean to Patmos, island of the Apocalypse. Ikaria’s most famous son is, of course, Ikaros (Icarus), who crash landed “just over there,” Koula pointed, as if it had happened yesterday.

The village has a beach, but I had spent the morning braving Ikaria’s vertiginous mountain roads to swim at the spectacular pebble-and-sand beach dubbed ‘Seychelles’, its turquoise water, straight out of the tropics, framed by forbidding granite cliffs and pale grey boulders as wrinkly as elephants. But the long drive back had been tiring; it was time, I decided, to seek the mythical spring.

After Koula finished milking her goats, I followed her down to the sea to the far east-end of the village. The meltemi wind that cools the Aegean was whipping up spray into dancing rainbows. It was all so beautiful that I was startled to see, at the end of the path, the immortal water flowing from a pipe in an ugly cement slab. At least it tasted good. “So is this water why Ikarians live so long?” I asked Koula.

“No – it’s because we never look at clocks!” she laughed. “Besides, we have too much fun to die.”

North Aegean

Ancient history, handsome hilly wanders and Mediterranean culture in Samos, Patmos and Ikaria

Best for: hiking, archaeology, Byzantine art & secrets of longevity

Duration: 17-18 days

Route: Samos, Patmos and Ikaria

Why? To explore World Heritage sites, hike lush mountains and laze on unspoiled beaches.

How? Fly to Samos from London or via Athens (from £130), then take a ferry to Patmos (1.5 hours) from Pithagorio, the port nearest Samos airport. Back on Samos, hire a car that you can drop off at Karlovasi port. Take a ferry to Ikaria (from 1 hour), hire another car, then fly back from Ikaria via Athens.

The unlikely location where the exiled St John dreamed of the Apocalypse and wrote the Book of Revelation, little Patmos still has a numinous, otherworldly feel unlike any other Greek island. This is partly because it’s just too rugged to build an airport on, although it’s only a short ferry hop of just over 90 minutes from Samos.

As you pull into the island’s main port, Skala, the fortress Monastery of St John the Theologian looms above you, skirted by the evocative, silent, pure-white old town Chora. Founded in 1088 by the blessed Christodoulos and paid for by Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos, the monastery was one of the richest and most powerful in Greece, with a wealth of frescoes and treasures displayed in a series of intricate, intimate rooms. Just beneath is the Cave and Monastery of the Apocalypse, complete with St John’s rock pillow. Together with the Chora, the two monasteries are designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Wander Chora’s narrow, flagstone-paved maze of lanes (designed to confuse pirates), lined with mansions built by sea captains and merchants; the freedom to trade was inscribed in the monastery’s charter. If any of its 40-odd churches are open, pop in to see their lavish interiors, the result of local families competing to out-endow one another. A row of picturesque windmills, three of which have been restored, stretch over the ridge above; access them via the path from the Monastery of the Apocalypse.

DID YOU KNOW?

Famous sons of Samos include Kolaios, reputedly the first person to sail through the Straits of Gibraltar, around 640BC; the philosophers Pythagoras and Epicurus; and the astronomer Aristarchus, who proposed that the Earth orbits the sun – some 1,800 years before Copernicus.

DON’T MISS

“Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!” wrote Byron in his poem ‘The Isles of Greece’ in 1819. A few decades after he penned these lines, the phylloxera parasite ravaged western Europe’s vineyards and the wines of Samos filled Communion chalices. At Malagari, west of Vathy, the local winemaking cooperative runs the Samos Wine Museum (www. samoswine.gr) where you can enjoy tastings.

The other thing to do, especially if cruise ships have disgorged their hordes in Skala, is wander; trails radiate out from Kambos to the north, the only other real village of Patmos, where each step reveals a different vista across its jigsaw-puzzle coast. Aim for one of the island’s peaceful beaches: Lambi (‘the shining’), among the prettiest, has glistening multi-coloured pebbles. And relish the stillness before heading back to Pithagorio and Samos.

Conveniently for visitors, the airport on the south-east coast is near the island’s UNESCO World Heritage site: the sixth-century-BC Heraion, commemorating the birthplace of Hera, goddess of marriage. Possibly the largest temple ever built in Greece, it’s now a glorious ruin, as is the monumental Sacred Way linking it to the ancient city of Samos.

Ancient Samos was re-named Pithagorio after hometown mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, he of the famous theorem. Pythagoras may have lived to see its other marvel: the 1,036m Tunnel of Eupalinos, a secret aqueduct begun around 550BC. The engineer Eupalinos had slaves dig with mathematical precision from both ends, then rewarded the survivors with freedom for a job well done. It’s a marvel to walk through – if you aren’t claustrophobic.

There’s an excellent archaeological museum in Pithagorio, and an even better one in the capital, Vathy, 11km to the north, starring an extraordinary 5.25m kouros statue, dating from 580BC and excavated on the Sacred Way, wearing the Buddha-like smile described by John Fowles as “having known divinity”. Some of the island’s best beaches are west of Vathy around Kokkari, a pretty resort with a picturesque curl of pebbles on an isthmus; Avlakia makes for a quieter alternative, while Agios Konstantinos farther west is backed by a thick plane tree forest.

Samos’s ancient nickname was the ‘Isle of the Blessed’; to see why, climb above Agios Konstantinos to the bucolic spring-fed woodlands on 1,153m Mount Karvounis, famous for nightingales and botanical diversity. Many of Samos’s 1,530 native plants grow here; of all the Greek islands, only Crete has more. Ancient donkey paths link the attractive mountain villages of Manolates, Vourliotes, Stavrinides and Ambelos (for maps, see Samos Hikes; samoshikes.com).

Just beyond the western port of Karlovasi, take in one more beauty spot: Potami Beach, starting point for an idyllic walk to three splashing waterfalls and a taverna. Bring swim shoes and wade upstream through a ravine lined with ancient trees.

It’s three hours by ferry from Karlovasi to Ikaria’s southcoast capital, Agios Kirykos, or a 75-minute ride to Evdilos on the north coast, where you’ll find most of the hotels; a ring road linking the two crosses the Aetheras mountains, rising to 1,037m. But the first thing to do on Ikaria is ask where the next panegyri (saint’s day festival) is happening: the island’s villages are famous across Greece for their Dionysian feasts of wild goat and wine, with music and dancing until dawn.

Besides beautiful ‘Seychelles’ beach in the south, swimming spots include hot springs bubbling in the sea at Lefkada near Agios Kirykos. In the north, you’ll find rarely crowded beaches around Armenistis, Gialiskari and Nas, backed by the mighty foundations of a Temple of Artemis. A dramatic trail leads up from Nas through boulders and woods to Christo Raches, a dreamy Brigadoon of a village, famously run on ‘Ikaria time’, where people take the longest naps and stay up all night.

Secret Cyclades

Wander tempting trails amid the classical sites and varied scenery of Andros, Tinos and Syros

Best for: hiking, architecture and culture

Duration: 10-14 days

Route: Andros, Tinos and Syros

Why? To explore the beauty and culture of three wildly diverse, lesser-known Cycladic islands.

How? From Athens airport, take the bus to Rafina port then the ferry to Andros, and hire a car. Ferries sail frequently to Tinos and Syros (get around by bus or taxi on both islands); from Syros, fly to Athens or sail to its port, Piraeus.

Northernmost of the Cyclades, Andros is a cradle of Greek shipping dynasties. Many are based in London (hence the island’s nickname, ‘Little England’) and have Neoclassical mansions in the island’s capital, Chora; it looks like no other town in Greece, piled on a narrow peninsula with a snazzy Museum of Contemporary Art, a ruined castle at the tip, and a lighthouse isolated on a sea rock like a wizard’s tower in a fantasy novel.

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