A substantial and attractive island with a proud history, less than an hour from Pireás, ÉGINA (Aegina) is not surprisingly a popular weekend escape from Athens. Despite the holiday homes, though, it retains a laidback, island atmosphere, especially if you visit midweek or out of season. Famous for its pistachio orchards – the nuts are hawked from stalls all around the harbour – the island can also boast substantial ancient remains, the finest of which is the beautiful fifth-century BC Temple of Aphaea, commanding superb views towards Athens from high above the northeast coast.
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ÉGINA TOWN, the island’s capital, makes an attractive base, with some grand old buildings around a large, busy harbour. The Neoclassical architecture is matched by a sophisticated ethos: by island standards this is a large town, with plenty of shopping and no shortage of tempting places to eat and drink. Life revolves around the waterfront, where ferries come and go, yachts moor, fishermen tend their nets and kaïkia tie up to sell produce from the mainland.
The Markellos tower
The restored Pýrgos Markéllou, or Markellos Tower, is an extraordinary miniature castle which was the seat of the first Greek government after independence. Despite appearances, it was built only around 1800 by members of the Friendly Society and the local politician Spýros Márkellos. You can’t go inside except during the occasional special exhibition, but walking here, through the cramped inland streets, is enjoyable in itself.
Égina’s Folklore Museum is a lovely example of its type, housed in a nineteenth-century mansion. Its upper rooms are packed with fine old furniture, traditional costumes, and many of the trappings of island life a century ago, along with a small local historical archive. Downstairs are rooms devoted to fishing, with model boats and fishing gear, and to agricultural life, with a collection of the basics of village life.
The site of Ancient Aegina lies north of the centre on a promontory known as Kolóna, after the lone column that stands there. The extensive remains, centring on a Temple of Apollo at the highest point, are well signed, and some reconstruction makes it easier to make out the various layers of settlement from different eras. Near the entrance, a small but worthwhile archeological museum houses finds from the site, along with information on the island’s ancient history. Highlights of the display include a room of Minoan-influenced Middle Bronze Age pottery, rescued from a nearby building site.
On the north edge of town, between the port and Kolóna, there’s a tiny but popular beach with remarkably shallow water. This was the site of the ancient city’s harbour, of which various underwater remains are clearly visible. You can swim south of town, too, but there are more enticing spots further north – immediately beyond Kolóna there’s an attractive bay with a small, sandy beach, while other small coves lie off the road heading further out of town in this direction. Just a couple have any facilities, with loungers and beach bars; Kamares Paradise is among the more attractive.
The Temple of Aphaea
The Temple of Aphaea
The Doric Temple of Aphaea stands on a pine-covered hill 12km east of Égina Town, with stunning views all around: Athens, Cape Soúnio, the Peloponnese and Ýdhra are all easily made out. Built between 500 and 480 BC, it slightly predates the Parthenon, and is one of the most complete and visually complex ancient buildings in Greece, its superimposed arrays of columns and lintels evocative of an Escher drawing. Aphaea was a Cretan nymph who, fleeing from the lust of King Minos, fell into the sea, was caught by some fishermen and brought to ancient Aegina; her cult, virtually unknown anywhere else, was established on the island as early as 1300 BC. Two hundred years ago the temple’s pediments were intact and essentially in perfect condition. However, like the Elgin marbles, they were “purchased” from the Turks – this time by Ludwig I of Bavaria – and they currently reside in Munich’s Glyptothek museum. A small museum offers a great deal of information about the history and architecture of the temple. A well-signed path leads from the temple to Ayía Marína; an easy walk down, slightly tougher coming up.