It is hard to believe that a mere fortnight ago Nicholas and I were exploring the near-by volcanic island of Nisyros and waiting for a storm to blow out so we could take the ferry back to Kos and then Symi.
It was the Clean Monday long weekend, traditionally a time for Sunday carnival processions and Monday kite-flying and picnics to mark the start of Lent. The government had already announced that municipal carnival processions were banned throughout the whole of Greece as the first cases of Corvid-19 had been diagnosed on the mainland. The main story dominating the Greek news, however, was Erdogan’s decision to open Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria, triggering a wave of mass migration to Greek land and sea borders. It’s amazing how fast things can change.
Our trip to Nisyros was to celebrate our wedding anniversary and, looking at the calendar, appeared to be our last opportunity to get away before the spring maintenance schedule kicked in with a flurry of activity to prepare houses for Easter arrivals. Now we cannot travel for very different reasons and the likelihood of any Easter arrivals of any description diminishes by the day.
We caught the Wednesday evening Blue Star from Symi at the very civilised hour of 8 in the evening. It was the Blue Star Chios, a smaller vessel acquired from Hellenic Seaways, so no a la carte dining room but the self-service restaurant was a welcome surprise. After an excellent and leisurely meal followed by a celebratory glass of wine in the lounge we docked in Kos around 10 p.m. and headed for the Hotel Catherine. The one way streets were a bit confusing, as was the on-going work to rebuild the dock after the earthquake a few years back, but we found our destination in the end and were welcomed by the owners. A fairly modern hotel with acres of marble in the public areas, we enjoyed our overnight there and also stayed there for a night on our way back. By the way, although breakfast was not included as at that time of the year it was not worth their while opening the dining room there is a positively dangerous bakery just over the round where Nicholas bought coffee and pastries for us to eat on our balcony.
The next morning we visited the Archaeological Museum and the Casa Romana. Well, this is what classics graduates do. If we were beach people, we would probably have stayed in Durban! A big advantage of travelling out of season is that you can see everything in detail and take your time over looking at stuff.
In the afternoon we boarded the Panagia Spiliani, a small car ferry similar to the old Symi I, which plies the route between Kos and Nisyros. Panagia Spiliani is also the name of the main monastery on Nisyros and means Our Lady of the Cave. You can see a photograph of the monastery, perched above the jagged cave, in the photos above. It was a wet and bumpy ride and after a thorough soaking we gave up on sitting on the upper deck to watch the scenery go by.
Our hotel in Nisyros, the Hotel Haritos, was a small family-run hotel on the waterfront about 2 minutes from Mandraki, the main port on the island. The patriarch seemed to be running the show single-handed. We had a triple room with a balcony overlooking the sea and what, in the summer, is the main thermal swimming pool on the island. Our host was happy to boil us fresh eggs every morning which with a small loaf of fresh bread each, butter, honey, jam, fruit juice and good coffee set us up for the day.
As you can see from the photographs we had our car with us. This enabled us to explore every nook and cranny on the island, from the bottom of the steaming caldera to the precariously perched villages on the edge of the crater. Spring was in full bloom and the island was aglow with vivid yellow euphorbia. The last lingering almond blossom lit up hillside terraces. Once upon a time almonds were a major export crop for Nisyros and they still make a traditional almond cordial called Soumada.
Nisyros is not a beach island. Its attractions lie in the volcano and spectacular landscape. The island’s prosperity, however, lies in the off-shore island of Yiali which has been mined since ancient times for various minerals and rocks ranging from shiny black obsidian to gleaming white porcelano. Tourism is limited and tends to be fairly niche market. The abandoned mountain village of Emporio is getting a new lease of life from foreigners and Athenians restoring properties with spectacular 360 degree views. The hardship of the recent decade of austerity has largely passed the island by and the atmosphere is one of quiet prosperity.
There was one taverna open, O Vegos, and we ate there every evening. Our visit coincided with a convention of about 40 doctors who were staying at two other small hotels in Mandraki. As the doctors had to eat somewhere the taverna was open and had a more varied menu than one would usually expect in such a small place at that time of the year.
Our original plan had been to take the Panagia back to Kos on the Saturday morning and then the Dodecanese Seaways catamaran back to Symi on the Sunday afternoon. What actually happened was gale force winds on the Friday night and Saturday kept all boats in port so we had an extra day on Nisyros. We were only able to get off the island on the Sunday afternoon. This time was well-spent as the curator of the local archaeological museum opened up for us. In the 1980s, when the excavations were done to build the local sports field outside the town, a massive grave site was unearthed, covering several centuries of well-preserved Pre-Hellenic, Hellenic and early Christian burials and this forms the core of the museum’s collection. This tied in well with what we had seen in Kos and as each grave had been photographed and then the artefacts displayed within the context of the accompanying photo, it was a fascinating and exceptionally well documented display, giving a glimpse of how people lived – and died – thousands of years ago. Somewhere on Symi there is, or was, no doubt a similar site as Symi too has been in continuous habitation for millenia but Symi’s secrets are probably underneath the Chorio car park or children’s playground.
The ban on the official Carnival events meant that Kos was very quiet when we got there on the Sunday evening. We eventually found a place open to eat – a lively corner venue specialising in different kinds of mezzedhes. The staff were all dressed in drag and the place was cheerily decorated. The food was excellent and, as usual, we ate far more than we had intended.
The next day, as we had time to kill, we drove from one end of Kos to the other, going down the coastal strip to Kefalo at the south western tip and then back up via the mountain villages. It was just as well we had bought a large slab of lagana, the traditional Greek sesame flatbread that is only baked once a year, for Clean Monday, as there was no where open to eat in any of the places we drove through.
As we waited for our boat back to Symi we watched the Turkish and Greek Coastguard patrols face off between Kos and Bodrum. That, too, escalated in the week that followed.
On that happy note I will leave you as I am going for a walk. Might as well enjoy the glorious spring sunshine while we are still allowed to leave our homes!