Curving tightly against the Turkish coast, almost within hailing distance of Anatolia, the Dodecanese (Dhodhekánisos) are the furthest island group from the Greek mainland. They’re hardly a homogeneous bunch. The two largest, Rhodes (Ródhos) and Kos, are fertile giants where traditional agriculture has almost entirely been displaced by a tourist industry focused on beaches and nightlife. Kastellórizo, Sými, Hálki, Kássos and Kálymnos, on the other hand, are essentially dry limestone outcrops that grew rich enough from the sea – especially during the nineteenth century – to build attractive port towns. Níssyros is a real anomaly, created by a still-steaming volcano that cradles lush vegetation, while Kárpathos is more variegated, its forested north grafted onto a rocky limestone south. Tílos, despite its lack of trees, has ample water, Léros shelters soft contours and amenable terrain, and further-flung Pátmos and Astypálea offer architecture and landscapes more reminiscent of the Cyclades.
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Major Dodecanese attractions include the beaches on Rhodes and Kos; the wonderful medieval enclave of Rhodes Old Town; the gorgeous ensemble of Neoclassical mansions that surrounds the harbour on Sými; the rugged landscapes of Kálymnos, Kárpathos and Níssyros; the cave and monastery on Pátmos, where St John had his vision of the Apocalypse; and the hilltop village of Hóra on Astypálea. Each island has its own subtler pleasures, however; every visitor seems to find one where the pace of life, and friendly ambience, strikes a particular chord.
Thanks to their position en route to the Middle East, the Dodecanese – too rich and strategic to be ignored, but never powerful enough to rule themselves – have had a turbulent history. The scene of ferocious battles between German and British forces in 1943–44, they only joined the modern Greek state in 1948 after centuries of rule by Crusaders, Ottomans and Italians.
That historical legacy has given the islands a wonderful blend of architectural styles and cultures; almost all hold Classical remains, a Crusaders’ castle, a clutch of vernacular villages and whimsical or grandiose public buildings. For these last the Italians, who held the Dodecanese from 1912 to 1943, are responsible. Determined to turn them into a showplace for Fascism, they undertook ambitious public works, excavations and reconstruction.
Italian architecture in the Dodecanese
The architectural heritage left by the Italian domination in the Dodecanese has only recently begun to be appreciated. Many structures had been allowed to deteriorate, if not abandoned, by Greeks who would rather forget the entire Italian legacy.
Although the buildings are often dubbed “Art Deco”, and some contain elements of that style, most are properly classed as Rationalist (or in the case of Léros, Stream Line Modern). They drew on various post-World War I architectural, artistic and political trends across Europe, particularly Novecento (a sort of Neoclassicism), the collectivist ideologies of the time, and the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. The school’s purest expressions tended to have grid-arrays of windows (or walls entirely of glass); tall, narrow ground-level arcades; rounded-off bulwarks; and either a uniform brick surface or grooved/patterned concrete. As well as in Italy and Greece, examples can still be found as far afield as Moscow or London (underground stations and blocks of flats), Los Angeles (apartment buildings) and Ethiopia (cinemas).
Italy initially attempted to create a hybrid of Rationalist style and local vernacular elements in the Dodecanese, both real and semi-mythical, to evoke a supposed generic “Mediterranean-ness”. Every Italian-claimed island had at least one specimen in this “protectorate” style, usually the gendarme station, post office, covered market or governor’s mansion, but only on the most populous or strategic islands were plans drawn up for sweeping urban re-ordering.
The years from 1936 to 1941 saw an intensified Fascist imperial ideology, an increased reference to the heritage of the Romans and their purported successors the Knights, and the replacement of the “protectorate” style with that of the “conqueror”. This involved “purification”, the stripping of many public buildings in Rhodes (though not, curiously, in Kos) of their orientalist ornamentation, its replacement with a cladding of porous stone to match medieval buildings in the old town, plus a monumental severity – blending Neoclassicism and modernism – and rigid symmetry to match institutional buildings (especially Fascist Party headquarters) and public squares across Italy.
The little island of Hálki, a waterless limestone speck west of Rhodes, continues to count as a fully fledged member of the Dodecanese, even if its population has dwindled from three thousand to barely three hundred in the century since its Italian rulers imposed restrictions on sponge-fishing.
While visitation has brought the island back to life, except at the height of summer Hálki tends to be very quiet indeed. That said, in the middle of the day in high season, when day-trippers from Rhodes vastly outnumber locals in its broad quayside-cum-square, Emborió can feel more like a stage set than a genuine town.
The southernmost Dodecanese island, less than 48km northeast of Crete, KÁSSOS is very much off the beaten tourist track. Ever since 1824, when an Egyptian fleet punished Kássos for its active participation in the Greek revolution by slaughtering most of the 11,000 Kassiots, the island has remained barren and depopulated. Sheer gorges slash through lunar terrain relieved only by fenced smallholdings of midget olive trees; spring grain crops briefly soften usually fallow terraces, and livestock somehow survives on a thin furze of scrub. The remaining population occupies five villages facing Kárpathos, leaving most of the island uninhabited and uncultivated, with crumbling old houses poignantly recalling better days.
Stranded midway between Kos and Rhodes, the small, usually quiet island of TÍLOS is among the least frequented and most unpredictably connected of the Dodecanese. For visitors, however, it’s a great place simply to rest on the beach, or hike in the craggy hinterland.
Tílos shares the characteristics of its closest neighbours: limestone mountains like those of Hálki, plus volcanic lowlands, pumice beds and red-lava sand as on Níssyros. With ample groundwater and rich volcanic soil, the islanders could afford to turn their backs on the sea, and made Tílos the breadbasket of the Dodecanese. Until the 1970s, travellers were greeted by the sight of shimmering fields of grain bowing in the wind. Nowadays the hillside terraces languish abandoned, and the population of five hundred dwindles to barely a hundred in winter.
While recent development has turned the port of Livádhia ever more towards tourism, Tílos remains low-key. This is still a place where visitors come to get away from it all, often for extended stays. If you’re here to walk, little may seem striking at first glance, but after a few days you may have stumbled on several small Knights’ castles studding the crags, or found some of the inconspicuous, often frescoed, often locked medieval chapels that cling to the hillsides.
The volcanic island of Níssyros is unlike its neighbours in almost every respect. It’s much lusher and greener than dry Tílos and Hálki to the south, blessed with rich soil that nurtures a distinctive flora, and it supported a large agricultural population in ancient times. In contrast to long flat Kos to the north, Níssyros is round and tall, with the high walls of its central caldera rising abruptly from the shoreline around its entire perimeter. And Níssyros conceals a startling secret; behind those encircling hills, the interior of the island is hollow, centring on a huge crater floor that’s dotted with still-steaming vents and cones.
For most visitors, the volcano is Níssyros’ main attraction. It’s easy enough to see it on a day-trip from Kos, so few bother to spend the night. That’s a shame, because it’s a genuinely lovely island, very short on beaches but abounding in spectacular scenery. The port and sole large town, Mandhráki on the northwest coast, is an appealing tight-knit community with some fine ancient ruins, while two delightful villages, Emboriós and Nikiá, straddle the crater ridge.
These days, much of the island’s income is derived from the offshore islet of Yialí, a vast lump of pumice, all too clearly visible just north of Mandhráki, that’s slowly being quarried away. Substantial concession fees have given the islanders economic security.
Níssyros also offers good walking, on trails that lead through a countryside studded with oak and terebinth (pigs gorge themselves on the abundant acorns, and pork figures prominently on menus).
If you’ve come to Níssyros to see the volcano, you’re already there – the whole island is the volcano. Beyond and behind the steep slopes that climb from the shoreline, the entire centre of the island consists of a vast bowl-shaped depression. The hills end in a slender ridge that’s the rim of the caldera, meaning that the two hilltop villages that survive, Emboriós and Nikía, are long thin strips that enjoy stupendous views both out to sea and down into the maw. The interior is etched almost in its entirety with ancient agricultural terraces, mostly long abandoned but giving a very real sense of the much greater population in antiquity. A side road just beyond Emboriós offers the only road access, and continues south to the craters at the far end.
Hiking on Níssyros island
Níssyros is a fabulous destination for hikers, with enticing trails to suit all abilities. The one drawback is that hiking to and from the volcano from Mandhráki is for most walkers too much to attempt in a single day. It’s not so much the distance that’s the problem as the fact that you have to climb back out of the island interior on your way home. SKAI publish a good topographical map (shop.skai.gr).
Were it not so close to Kos and Kálymnos, the little island of PSÉRIMOS, filled with remote beaches, might be idyllic. Throughout the season, so many excursion boats arrive that they’ve had to build a second jetty at little AVLÁKIA port. In midsummer, day-trippers blanket the main sandy beach that curves in front of Avlákia’s thirty-odd houses and huge communal olive grove; even during May or late September you’re guaranteed at least eighty outsiders daily (versus a permanent population of 25). Three other beaches are within easy reach: the clean sand-and-gravel strand at Vathý is a well-marked, thirty-minute walk east, starting from behind the Taverna Iy Psérimos. It takes 45 minutes of walking north along the main trans-island track to get to grubbier Marathoúnda, composed of pebbles. Best of all is Grafiótissa, a 300m-long beach of near-Caribbean quality half an hour’s walk west of town.
Geographically, historically and architecturally, Astypálea really belongs to the Cyclades – on a clear day you can see Anáfi or Amorgós far more easily than any of the other Dodecanese. Its inhabitants are descended from colonists brought from the Cyclades during the fifteenth century, after pirate raids had left the island depopulated, and supposedly Astypálea was only reassigned to the Ottomans after the Greek Revolution because the Great Powers had such a poor map at the 1830 and 1832 peace conferences.
Astypálea’s main visitor attractions include a beautiful old citadel – not just the castle itself, but also the whitewashed village of Hóra beneath it – as well as several good, easily accessible beaches. The island may not immediately strike you as especially beautiful: many beaches along its heavily indented coastline have reef underfoot and periodic seaweed, while the windswept heights are covered in thornbush or dwarf juniper. Hundreds of sheep and goats manage to survive, while citrus groves and vegetable patches in the valleys signal a relative abundance of water. Besides the excellent local cheese, Astypálea is renowned for its honey, fish and lobster.
There is no package tourism on Astypálea, and its remoteness discourages casual trade. During the short, intense midsummer season (mid-July to early Sept), however, visitors vastly outnumber the 1500 permanent inhabitants. The one real drawback is that transport connections are so poor.
The shape of Astypálea is often compared to a butterfly, in that it consists of two separate “wings” joined by a low narrow isthmus. The only major population centre, made up of the built-up strip that joins the waterfront villages of Péra Yialós and Livádhia by way of hilltop Hóra, is on the southeast coast of its western half, well away from both the ferry port and the airport.
The largest, most interesting and most populated of the islets north and east of Pátmos, LIPSÍ also has the most significant tourist trade. Returning regulars make showing up in peak season without reservations unwise. During quieter months, however, Lipsí still provides an idyllic halt, its sleepy pace almost making plausible a dubious link with Calypso, the nymph who held Odysseus in thrall. Once a dependency of the monastery on Pátmos, Lipsí is still conspicuously sown with blue-domed churches. Deep wells water small farms and vineyards, but there’s only one flowing spring, and although plenty of livestock can be seen, the non-tourist economy is far from thriving.
Roughly two-thirds the size of Lipsí, ARKÍ is a far more primitive island, lacking proper shops or a coherent village. A mere fifty or so inhabitants eke out a living, mostly fishing or goat/sheep-herding, though servicing yachts attracted by the superb anchorage at Avgoústa Bay – named for the half-ruined Hellenistic/Byzantine Avgoustínis fortress overhead – is also important.
Excursion-boat clients swim at the “Blue Lagoon” of Tiganákia at the southeast tip, but other beaches on Arkí take some finding. The more obvious are the carefully nurtured sandy cove at Pateliá by the outer jetty, or tiny Limnári pebble-bay (fitting five bathers at a pinch) on the northeast coast, a 25-minute walk away via the highest house in the settlement.
The small, steep-sided, waterless islet of AGATHONÍSSI is too remote – closer to Turkey than Pátmos, in fact – to be a popular day-trip target. Intrepid Greeks and Italians form its main tourist clientele, along with yachts attracted by excellent anchorage. Even though the Nissos Kalymnos (and a summer catamaran) appear regularly, schedules mean you should count on staying at least two days.
Despite the lack of springs, the island is greener and more fertile than apparent from the sea; lentisc, carob and scrub oak on the heights overlook two arable plains in the west. Fewer than a hundred people live here full time, but they make a go of stock-raising or fishing (or rather, fish-farming), and few dwellings are abandoned or neglected.
Most of the population lives in Megálo Horió hamlet, just visible on the ridge above the harbour hamlet of ÁYIOS YEÓRYIOS and at eye level with tiny Mikró Horió opposite. Except for a small shop and two café-restaurants working peak-season nights only in Megálo Horió, all amenities are in the port.
With no rental scooters, exploring involves walking along the cement-road network, or following a very few tracks and paths – bring plenty of water. If you won’t swim at the port, home to the largest sandy beach, hike ten minutes southwest to shingle-gravel Spiliás, or continue another quarter-hour by path over the ridge to Gaïdhourávlakos, another gravel cove.
Bays in the east, all reached by paved roads, include tiny Póros (45min distant), fine sand with lentisc-tree shade at the back; Thóli (25min further) in the far southeast, with good snorkelling and some morning shade; and Pálli across the same bay, a small but pristine fine-pebble cove reached by a fifteen-minute walk down from the trans-island road.