We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
– Giannis Ritsos, 1967, Our Country (written in Leros during his internment by the Greek Junta)
Midway through my Greek odyssey, I caught a cold somewhere around Paros that lingered till Santorini. It was one of those tests in a journey, but thankfully I crossed the threshold with the Dodecanese as my handsome reward. Situated in southeastern Aegean Sea, hugging the coast of Turkey, this remote pack offers such a variety. From bigger islands like Rhodes and Kos to smaller gems like Kalymnos, Lipsi, and Patmos, the Dodecanese are filled with colourful history and spectacular nature, many remaining unspoiled by mass tourism.
From Crete, I venture forth to characterful Karpathos where my ferry is once again cancelled due to another brewing storm. I fly to romantic Rhodes and take a succession of short ferry rides to sweet Symi, colourful Kos, climbing mecca Kalymnos and Telendos, little Lipsi, and end with a pilgrimage to Patmos. Three unforgettable weeks in eight Aegean wonders, celebrating spring equinox and Greek independence with signature Greek hospitality and gastronomy.
Sandwiched between well known Crete and magnificent Rhodes, Karpathos seems to have been forgotten for centuries. I heard of a remote village up North that has been cut off until recently. When is the bus to Olympos? I ask the stationmaster first thing in the morning. Yesterday, he says. And the next one? I ask. Next week! he replies. Olympos is hard to reach, that much I already know. And for Menetes? I ask. At 1pm, but no return! he replies. Lesson learned from the Peloponnese: to get from A to B, you have to travel to C, passing through D and E. Thanks to an antiquated public transport system, I get to know much of Greece! For now, I hop on whatever bus that is leaving that takes me up to the mountain as I frantically improvise a hiking route to see as much Karpathos as possible.
The school is in Aperi and the bus goes around the villages to pick up the kids. I get off in the one-street town of Volada and walk in the direction of Othos, hitching a short ride with Louis, a Greek American retiree from Chicago, to Pyles full of beautiful mansions and green lawns, a Greek American dream. The view of the western coastline is spectacular as I descend, figuring out the distance to the next towns. Lo and behold, Dino – who speaks zip English but beams the fattest Greek smile – gives me a lift till the junction from where the beautiful seaside villages of Finiki and Arkasa are just a short walk away. The return road to Pigadia goes through the village of Menetes where I follow my nose to see villagers prepare a local version of spinach-filled spanakopita just at lunch hour! Two, please!
The weather forecast announces rain for the next days and I still have to find a way to reach inaccessible Olympos. I decide to take the afternoon bus to Meschori, get off at Spoa, and try my luck to find a lift for the remaining twenty kilometres. Andreas, returning from work in Pigdia, comes to my rescue and looks with wild eyes as I recount my island hopping from Corfu to Karpathos. Thanks to you, I get to see Olympos! I exclaim gratefully. How are you getting back to Pigadia? he asks. I don’t know. Let me visit first and I will find a way! I reply. We twist and turn, hugging the entire eastern ridge, with absolutely nothing but trees and goats. Then, suddenly I see the mythical village of Olympos appearing at a distance like an apparition. Andreas sees the joy in my face and takes me all the way, reassuring, Well, I am in Diafani if you get stuck. You can get back to Pigadia tomorrow at six! What Greek hospitality!
Only poetry can describe Olympos, this living museum of ancient Doric customs. Other worldly and magical, the picture perfect town sits perched on a cliff face with colourful houses stacked upon one another. I meet beautiful, ageless Maria, the quintessential Olympos matron exuding love, warmth, and generosity who wraps my head in a traditional scarf she made and stuffs a free bar of olive soap, a bag of herbal tea, and an evil eye charm into my bag. It is pure joy to lose myself in the narrow lanes and windmills ruins, feeling the breeze from the immense Aegean Sea. I do not want to leave, but it is 4pm and thick clouds are zeroing in. In this northern part of Karpathos, there are only three towns – Avlona, Diafani, and Olympos – and for good 30 minutes, nothing comes in my direction until finally a pickup truck materializes. I jump onto the back, enjoying the invigorating wind and a bonus full rainbow. Big rain drops begin to fall and kind Bledi and Pedro, Albanian construction workers returning home, open the door to squeeze me in snug and cozy all 40km back to Pigadia!
The wind has been howling for days and my ferry to Rhodes is cancelled. When is the next flight? I ask the agent. Now! she replies. The art of improvisation and the joy of island living! I get a bonus aerial view of Rhodes, beginning with Prasonissi at the southernmost tip, beautiful Lindos, a long stretch of resorts on the eastern coast, magnificent Rhodes town, and the wild sandy beaches on the west before the pilot u-turns to descend.
The weather is so balmy it feels like Hawaii! The largest of the Dodecanese and one of the most fertile Greek islands, Rhodes boasts 300+ sunny days in a year and a rich multicultural history. The Minoan, Mycenaean, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Italian periods all leave their mark on the city. The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem who ruled Rhodes from 1309 to 1523 built a magnificent fortified city with one of the most impressive urban Gothic ensembles in the world before the city was captured by the Turks. From Saint Athanasios Gate, I walk along the 4km-long city walls and make my way through the landmark buildings – the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights, Clock Tower, Suleiman Mosque, and Street of the Knights – before venturing out to the ancient Acropolis. On a quiet March Sunday, what a blessing to experience Rhodes at its best, sans crowds!
Out of the three city-states – Lindos, Lalyssos, and Kameiros – that formed the modern Rhodes town (480 BC), the ancient Acropolis in Lindos is the most impressive and best preserved. Climbing a steep path from the whitewashed town, one finds the magnificent ruins of the Temple of Athena and a 20-columned Hellenistic stoa silhouetted against a perfect blue sky and the infinite Aegean Sea with Lindos beach on the left and St. Paul’s Bay on the right. A spectacular sight!
Barely an hour from Rhodes lies a picture perfect island called Symi. Famous for sponge diving in the 19th century, the island prospered until sponge beds were depleted and divers migrated to as far as Florida and Australia. Boasting one of the prettiest harbours in Greece, Symi makes such a striking impression as the ferry enters the bay lined with neo-classical villas in terracotta colours. It was here that the Germans signed its surrender to the Allied Forces at the end of WWII, liberating all the islands in the Dodecanese.
From the port, I climb the steep kalistrata (only 300+ steps!) to upper town, Ano Symi, where a spectacular vista opens up to as far as Turkey. En route to the old mills, I stop to chat with Pantelis, a Greek French tending his garden who regales me with his colourful family story. From Symi to Argentina to France, he is part of the 20th century Greek diaspora in search of opportunity. Today, we are 3000 Symiots here but 50,000 in Marseille! Pantelis exclaims. Come, let me show you my ancestral home. Every Symiot family has this kind of old komó/chest that money cannot buy… What endearing Greeks! So hard to leave!
I arrive in Kos on Greek Independence Day and get to enjoy a bonus parade along the beautiful seaside promenade. Women dress in colourful folk costumes adorned with elaborate headscarves while men wear fustanella skirts and photogenic tsarouchi, the flat, hard-soled shoe with a signature pompon traditionally worn by Greek warriors. It is that time of the year to enjoy decadently sweet loukoumades, watching locals perform exquisite traditional Greek dance with intricate kicks and turns. Pure joy!
Kos town is small and compact but packs a punch for history. Each ruling power left an architectural imprint: a stunning ancient Greek and Roman agora in town, a handsome Knights fortress by the sea, plenty Ottoman fountains and mosques, and classy Italian palace, villas, and cinema. Kos being the birthplace of Hippocrates, the famous physician of ancient Greece, there is an impressive 500-year-young tree that supposedly has roots dating back 2500 years. I will soothe the pain of anyone who needs my art…
Kos is famous for Asclepius, the god of medicine, and an impressive sanctuary was dedicated to him in the 3rd century BC. I climb 113 steps to three successive terraces, from the propylaeum to the baths and the Temples of Asclepius and Apollo. The treatment by sleeping among non-venomous snakes was unconventional, but nothing to worry. The sanctuary was destroyed by an earthquake in 554AD!
Climbing Mecca Kalymnos & Telendos
Time to put down my pack and head to the crags in Kalymnos, the climbing mecca of Greece! Boasting 4,000 secure, bolted climbing routes for all levels, the island attracts over 10,000 climbers every year. From Skalia to Mirties, the entire North Western coast is a climbing field. Where else in the world can you tackle adrenaline-filled six, seven, eight, or even nine routes before taking a plunge in the Aegean Sea? My pals study the climbing bible before deciding to head to the Odyssey sector in Masouri for me to try a beginner’s 4a route. This being Greece, the climbing is almost just a pretext to enjoy a wholesome dinner starting with saganaki flaming cheese dipped in honey and ouzo and ending with home brewed limoncello. Life is steep and sweet on Kalymnos!
For those who prefer firmer ground, there is the Chorio old town with an impressive 15th century castle. Pothia is lively even off season, and from there, the road winds through scenic beaches in Platys Gialos and Arginonta, passing hilltop monasteries, castle ruins, and remote villages of Emporio and Palionissos. The neighbouring island, Telendos, is just a five-minute ferry away where you can walk up a crag and climb some more before peeling off to swim undisturbed in a nudist beach.
Leros is a living museum. Mussolini dreamed of building a fascist utopia and a naval base – “the flagship of Rome” – in the Mediterranean and commissioned two great Italian architects at the time, Rodolfo Petracco and Armando Bernabiti, to create a new town in Lakki Bay. No other Greek island has as many Art Deco buildings as Leros, many needing a little love, adding even more texture to the place.
The Battle of Leros – captured in the classic epic, Guns of Navarone – reversed the course of the Dodecanese campaign when the Germans seized the island from the Allied forces in 1943. Walking in Lakki feels like a history lesson, not counting what lies underneath on the seabed with warship and plane wrecks galore, making Leros an exciting diving hotspot.
I take a morning bus from Lakki to Alina and walk towards Agia Marina, the quaint capital of Leros. A footpath takes me to the imposing medieval Panteliou Castle (10th century) and the picturesque windmills along a scenic coastal road leading down to the town of Panteli famous for her fish taverns.
Where is Mussolini’s villa? I ask a cafe owner on my last morning in Leros. I must have missed it in my walk from Xirokampos to Lakki. Monique and Roger, two French residents, kindly show me their quiet village of Isidora before taking me to the now abandoned Mussolini’s villa. Next to it stands a controversial psychiatric hospital, dubbed “the colony of psychopaths”, one of the biggest in Europe that housed over a thousand patients, guarded naked by fishermen and shepherds between 1958 and 1995. When migrants began arriving in Leros, the government built a detention centre there before moving it further uphill. The history of Leros continues to unfold…
Lipsi is a one-town island with 650 inhabitants. When my ferry arrives at two in the morning, Taxiarhia, the pension owner, is standing there waiting for me in the cold. What Greek hospitality! The wind is picking up again and I make a hasty visit of town the next morning before beating a retreat in a downpour, meeting a team of ornithologists from the Natural History Museum of Crete. What a cool job bird watching and cruising along the Dodecanese! Taxiarhia who observes Lent – no meat! – prepares us a delicious octopus stew before the biologists head out to the northwestern coast to tag the birds with a GPS while I head up to the old windmill for a marvellous view of Lipsi 360. I descend to Kampos and return to enjoy a Nescafe with Taxiarhia. Why only one day in Lipsi? she asks me. Why indeed? I wonder, too. Because there is a real risk of turning my Greek odyssey into a permanent stay!
Pilgrimage to Patmos
Last but not least, Patmos is pretty, Patmos is old, and, above all, Patmos is holy. Called the “Jerusalem of the Aegean Sea,” the island has attracted Christian pilgrims for centuries. Approaching from the sea, the first thing one spots is the imposing hilltop Saint John Monastery. Nearby lies the cave where the exiled disciple had a series of apocalyptic visions that he recounted in the Book of Revelation. I am… the Beginning and the End.
But Patmos is far more than just a pilgrimage destination. Chora, the medieval old town, is one of the most beautiful in all of Greece with whitewashed houses, Byzantine chapels, and old windmills. From atop, the vista extends to as far as Ikaria on the left and Turkey on the right. The light is divine, the shadow subtle, and the colours purely Greek. What Patmosphere!
The Dodecanese have been such a gem of a discovery. Remote villages and medieval masterpieces, beautiful harbours and old choras, action-packed islands and spiritual destinations. As always, it is the people who make a journey memorable. For three blessed weeks, I have been nourished not only by the abundant sun and sea, but literally fed with awesome sweets by generous locals as well as spiritual sustenance by fellow seekers. As winter turns to spring, I dread the impending end of my Greek odyssey where the last leg of the journey takes me to Ikaria and Samos to celebrate orthodox Easter – and rebirth.
You have changed. You have grown. You have healed. Even if it feels like nothing has progressed the way you expected it to, you know that you are reacting differently. You look at yourself differently. You act differently. Something has shifted… You have gone to the depths of yourself. You’ve got you this time. Don’t worry too much. Let yourself flow. Let yourself become the next iteration of yourself. Be proud of you. This hasn’t been easy, but now you know the strength of your resilience, the depths of your courage. And that is worth everything.
– Jamie Varon (shared by a fellow traveller, Margit, on Easter Sunday)
This is part of a six-blog series on my three-month journey through Greece and the Aegean Sea.
Part I: Northern Greece
Part II: Athens and the Saronic Islands
Part III: True Greek Blue: The Cyclades
Part IV: Crete
Next and last: Farewell to the Aegean: Ikaria and Samos!
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan