Lifestyle & Culture

Christina Hudson in Athens: You need to know these four overlooked gems of the Aegean

With the COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out around the world, people are beginning to allow themselves to think about scratching their travel itch in the upcoming summer months. If you are craving some classic Mediterranean fun in the sun, take a look at these often overlooked gems of the Aegean Sea.

The Aegean Sea refers to the 214,000 square kilometers of the Mediterranean Sea located between Greece and Turkey. Most of the islands in the area have hot summers, mild winters and the some of the most enchanting sun-kissed beaches in the world.

You might want to consider travelling at least slightly off season for better rates and quieter boats and planes, as well as for slightly lower temperatures.

Alonissos

The island of Alonissos is a green vision located in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades. The Mediterranean Sea, though relatively small, hosts a very large percentage of the world’s biodiversity. One of the purposes of this marine park is to protect the adorable yet critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus).

The island’s old capital of Palio Horio, aka “Old Village,” was largely destroyed in a strong earthquake in the mid-1960s. Locals then built and inhabited today’s capital and bustling port town (and tourist accommodation center) of Patitiri. Palio Horio has since been restored and is a great destination for a wander, a meal and a surprisingly fantastic ice cream (locally made and beyond delicious).

If you are feeling ambitious and the temperatures allow it, you can walk along an old footpath from Patitiri up to Palio Horio and back down again. Another solution to keep you out of a vehicle at least one way is to take the local bus up to the old village and walk down to digest your meal (as well as any scrumptious gelato you may enjoyed).

For outstanding seafood (such as the world-famous Alonissos tuna) and wonderful swimming, be sure to visit the pretty little fishing village of Steni Vala, located just about 10 miles from Patitiri.

Alonissos is a verdant and vibrant island which often gets less attention than its busier neighbors to the west (Skopelos and Skiathos) but it is truly a unique treasure and many of its visitors come back time and time again.

Serifos

This tiny, rugged, gorgeous dream of an island is spotted with dozens of the most perfect beaches for every taste, from sandy to rocky and from remote to buzzing. You can also get to know the island’s underwater scene by scuba diving in its pristine waters. Serifos may be small, but it boasts both a lively port town (Livadi) as well as a seriously picturesque and traditional whitewashed main village (Serifos Town, aka Chora).

(Author’s note: “Chora” is what we usually call the capital or main village or old town of each island. Alternatively, the capital is sometimes referred to as ….. Town – for example, Serifos Town.)

Many accommodations are located around the port, but be sure to spend some time exploring the narrow streets of Chora, most of which lead to the very charming Aghios Athanasios Square. The Folklore Museum and the Archaeological Museum are both also worth a visit for the history buffs and curious explorers.

This remarkable island with its dramatic sea views also has a network of signposted hiking trails for the more active visitor (though the summer sun can be brutal, so be sure to schedule your treks accordingly).

The old mines at Megalo Livadi, where you can enjoy viewing an open-air historical site while lunching and swimming, should really be on everyone’s itinerary. The interesting and often dramatic history of the mines started in ancient times and ended in the mid-20th century.

Finally, don’t leave the island without sampling some of the local specialties, including the hearty revithada (baked chickpeas) and addictive amigdalota (soft almond sweets).

Folegandros

Folegandros was so remote for so long that, for a large part of the 20th century, this peaceful little island served as a place of exile for political prisoners. Folegandros is now much more well-connected to the mainland and indeed the world, but it is still an ideal place to see a more authentic Greece. (The island’s Ecological and Folklore Museum gives a good overview of the Folegandros of yore, but be sure to explore and interact with locals to get a sense of the real deal as it is today.)

Greeks who prefer their islands to be off the beaten waterways have been praising the supremely beautiful Chora of Folegandros for years now and the result has predictably been … more visitors. However, despite an uptick in tourist numbers, family hotels still prevail and nothing can beat the charm of the old (as in medieval) castle-town which is dramatically perched at the edge of a sharp cliff.

Hikers can enjoy springtime and early-summer trekking with the aroma of thyme and oregano filling the air over the island’s terraced fields.

Folegandros has an array of mostly quiet beaches and visitors can take a boat or hike to some of the lesser-known ones. FYI—the island is also known to be welcoming of naturists/nudists, so no need to pack a swimsuit if you feel encumbered by them!

Local bites not to be missed:

~Kalasouna (Local cheese and onion pie)
~Karpouzopita (Watermelon pie…Yes, watermelon pie! Try it!)

Symi

Just a stone’s throw from both Rhodes and Turkey lies tiny island of Symi, which packs a huge pastel-colored architectural punch. Much of its elegant architecture (which will take your breath away—no exaggeration!) dates back to the 19th century when worldly Symiot sponge traders travelled abroad for business and “soaked in” architectural inspiration and sourced building materials from faraway places such as France and Italy.

It is in large part thanks to Kostas Farmakidis, a local dentist with a passion for architecture, that many of these special buildings were saved from the bulldozing craze of the 1970s which hit neighboring islands (such as Rhodes) in an effort to accommodate more tourists.

In the main port of Symi – Yialos – be sure to spend some time enjoying the countless beautiful (often classic and wooden) yachts that dock here. Not to be missed is the Kali Strata, several hundred stone steps that take you around the port town’s atmospheric ruins and newly-restored neoclassical mansions.

As for Symi culinary specialties, locals won’t let you leave without trying Symiako garidaki (Symi shrimp) — tiny and flavorful shrimp, often simply prepared with just olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Another must is an unusual dessert called Misokofti, which is a flavorful prickly-pear pudding.

Pedi Bay is a super-sweet area to stay in if you would like a more laid-back alternative to the cosmopolitan main harbor. A short walk on a narrow footpath will deliver you from Pedi harbor to the lovely little beach of Aghios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas Beach), which is a tree-lined little slice of heaven.

Be sure to check out the many destinations for day trips around Symi, including the gorgeous and dramatic Aghios Georgios Beach (St. George Beach), located at the foot of a very steep cliff. This beach is only accessible by water taxi or excursion boat and is one you will surely remember for years to come.

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About the author:

A Pittsburgher by birth, Christina T. Hudson is also half Greek and has – so far – spent most of her life in Athens, the chaotic but captivating capital city of Greece. She studied Language and Literature at Moravian College and has worked as a teacher, an editor, a writer and a photographer.

You can see more of her work here at A Pixel for Your Thoughts.

You can see more of her posts here.

See more about Greece in Dispatches’ archive here. See our Athens archive here

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