Island-hopping in the Dodecanese… off the beaten track! #aegeanlikenoother
That’s it. Enough! All that writing about Greece was too much for us so we downed tools and headed off for a holiday of our own. It was late May, after all, the sun was already calibrated for summer, the sea was at its most alluring and – most important of all – we were ravenous. There was only one thing for it… Island-hopping in the Dodecanese. Obviously, we know a thing or two about each destination, so we set ourselves a challenge. We’d discover at least one new thing about each island, as well as soaking up the best of what each has to offer on the culture and beach front.
#1. The special spirit of Kos
We all know about Kos … the tall palm trees, the crazy choice of sandy beaches and the vibe. There’s a reason the Romans, Venetians and a whole bunch of medieval knights – at some point or other – all squabbled over the island. It was kicking back then, just as it is now. But there’s something spiritual about the May sunshine in Greece, so we were in the mood for some enlightenment. The sort that comes from just taking in the aura of Hippocrates’ Asclepeion, just 4km outside the main town. It’s easy to understand why the father of modern medicine chose this spot, on a verdant hill with a spectacular view, as the place to build his healing centre. You can just image the infirmaries, temples, hot springs and even the school for physicians. Quite uplifting. But we were also in the mood for another kind of spirit. We had heard that Kos is making a name for itself in wine. There are a number of wineries to visit – Hatziemmanouil in Linopotis, Triantafyllopoulos near Kos town and Volcania in Kefalos, among them. We learned that Kos was known in antiquity for melantanon wine. Today vineyards plant other Greek varietals – Athiri, Assyrtiko – and a range of international grapes. But we’ve got to leave you with a special tip. So get yourself over to Kos and ask for a Malagouzia. Hippocrates would have approved.
#2. The hidden depths of Leros
From Kos, the island-hopping options are plentiful, but our next hop was a 1hr 30min boat ride to the gorgeous island of Leros. There’s a word that comes to mind when you’re on Leros – authenticity. It’s everywhere. In the numerous hamlets that effortlessly blend with nature. In the ochre and terracotta-coloured houses that give Agia Marina its stately charm. And it’s definitely in the collection of windmills still presiding over Platonos, the island’s capital.
Leros is quite a big island, so renting a car isn’t a bad idea, but we were in the mood for a different kind of exploration. Our new experience on Leros was diving. Come on, who can resist the idea of discovering a sunken Junker 52 German transport aircraft? There are apparently other treasures down there –an Italian barge and a German landing ship, and there are caves with beautiful fauna and flora.
The point is that because Leros is a volcanic island, the visibility underwater is high. You can see clearly whether you’re diving to a depth of 30-45m or just snorkelling, so you don’t even need to be an expert diver. Just curious.
#3. A taste of heaven on Patmos
Patmos was our next stop, a short 50-minute boat trip away. This is the island revelation where St John the Divine wrote the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Apparently, he was exiled here (there are worse fates), where he became a teacher and lived a simple, spiritual existence in a cave overlooking the sea. It was here that he heard “a great voice, as of a trumpet” which led him to put pen to paper (or whatever the writing implement of the time was in 95AD). Yes, we visited his Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of St John the Theologian (you can’t possibly not) and we sat – as Richard Gere, David Bowie, Madonna and a whole set of celebrities have done – and marvelled at the cubist beauty of the main town. But as we said, we were ravenous so, to be honest, the most divine experience was the food. It was – pardon the expression – quite a revelation. No wonder there’s a gastronomy festival here in June. Patmos, we discovered, has a variety of traditional breads, sweets, drinks and savoury dishes. The kolokithoanthi courgette flowers stuffed with rice were exceptional. As for the fried poungia – little dough pockets or purses with a sweet filling of nuts and honey… quite simply heavenly.
#4. Magical, subtle and fragrant Astypalea
With a ferry connection back to Kos taking around 2hrs 20 mins, we could have left our island-hopping adventure here. But after posting so many images of the whitewashed homes and the crown-topping Venetian castle of Astypalea on Discover Greece’s social media, we were eager to head over. So from Kos, we boarded our last ferry and completed the 3hr 40min journey with eager anticipation. Besides, Astypalea also has an airport, which makes getting home from there very easy.
Picture perfect just doesn’t do Astypalea justice. And as for the beaches, let’s just say we visited a few: Agios Konstantinos, Vatses, Livadi, Steno, Psili Ammos … and a special stop at Kaminakia. There’s also a fantastic archaeological museum here, spanning pre-Mycenaean times through to the Middle Ages. Another thing that will keep your attention are the cheeses – Kopanisti, chloro and the oil-preserved ladotiri. There’s a whole range, soft to mild and spicy, courtesy of the island’s 20,000 goats and sheep.
But there was one final experience on the food front which took us by surprise and left us wondering what else we didn’t know about this island gem. Astypalea produces saffron and uses it in a number of local recipes. Our lasting memory was of the most magical, subtle and fragrant scent of one of the island’s characteristic sweet yellow cookies.
We’re hungry again just thinking about it.