The seven substantial islands and four minor islets scattered off the Aegean coast of Asia Minor form a rather arbitrary archipelago. While there are similarities in architecture and landscape, the strong individual character of each island is far more striking and thus they do not form an immediately recognizable group, and neither are they all connected with each other by ferries. What they do have in common, with the possible exception of Sámos and Thássos, is that they receive fewer visitors than other island groups and so generally provide a more authentic Greek atmosphere. Yet the existence of magnificent beaches, dramatic mountain scenery, interesting sights and ample facilities makes them a highly attractive region of Greece to explore.
Verdant Sámos ranks as the most visited island of the group but, once you leave its crowded resorts behind, is still arguably the most beautiful, even after a devastating fire in 2000. Ikaría to the west remains relatively unspoilt, if a minority choice, and nearby Foúrni is (except in summer) a haven for determined solitaries, as are the Híos satellites Psará and Inoússes. Híos proper offers far more cultural interest than its neighbours to the south, but far fewer tourist facilities. Lésvos may not impress initially, though once you get a feel for its old-fashioned Anatolian ambience you may find it hard to leave. By contrast, few foreigners visit Áyios Efstrátios, and for good reason, though Límnos to the north is much busier, particularly in its western half. In the far north Aegean, Samothráki and Thássos are relatively isolated and easier to visit from northern Greece, which administers them. Samothráki has one of the most dramatic seaward approaches of any Greek island, and one of the more important ancient sites. Thássos is more varied, with sandy beaches, mountain villages and minor archeological sites.
Despite their proximity to modern Turkey, only Lésvos, Límnos and Híos bear significant signs of an Ottoman heritage, in the form of old mosques, hammams and fountains, plus some domestic architecture betraying obvious influences from Constantinople, Macedonia and further north in the Balkans. The limited degree of this heritage has in the past been duly referred to by Greece in an intermittent propaganda war with Turkey over the sovereignty of these far-flung outposts – as well as the disputed boundary between them and the Turkish mainland. Ironically, this friction gave these long-neglected islands a new lease of life from the 1960s onward, insomuch as their sudden strategic importance prompted infrastructure improvements to support garrisoning, and gave a mild spur to local economies, engaged in providing goods and services to soldiers, something predating the advent of tourism. Yet the region has remained one of the poorest regions in western Europe. Tensions with Turkey have occasionally been aggravated by disagreements over suspected undersea oil deposits in the straits between the islands and Anatolia. The Turks have also persistently demanded that Límnos, astride the sea lanes to the Dardanelles, be demilitarized, and in the last decade Greece has finally complied, with garrisons also much reduced on Sámos and Lésvos, as part of the increasing détente between the traditional enemies.
The straits between Sámos and Ikaría are speckled with a mini-archipelago – once haunted by pirates from various corners of the Mediterranean – of which only two are inhabited. Of these, the more westerly Thýmena has no tourist facilities but the largest of the group, FOÚRNI, has a growing reputation as a great hideaway. Unlike so many small Greek islands, it has a stable population, around 1600, as it is home to a huge fishing fleet and one of the more thriving boatyards in the Aegean.
Apart from remote Khryssomiliá hamlet in the north, reached by the island’s longest (18km) road, Foúrni’s inhabitants are concentrated in the port and Kambí hamlet just south.
“Craggy Híos”, as Homer aptly described his putative birthplace, has a turbulent history and a strong identity. This large island has always been prosperous: in medieval times through the export of mastic resin – a trade controlled by Genoese overlords between 1346 and 1566 – and later by the Ottomans, who dubbed the place Sakız Adası (“Resin Island”). Since union with Greece in 1912, several shipping dynasties have emerged here, continuing to generate wealth, and someone in almost every family still spends time in the merchant navy.
Unfortunately, the island has suffered more than its share of catastrophes since the 1800s. The Ottomans perpetrated their most infamous, if not their worst, anti-revolutionary atrocity here in March 1822, massacring 30,000 Hiots and enslaving or exiling even more. In 1881, much of Híos was destroyed by a violent earthquake, and throughout the 1980s the island’s natural beauty was compromised by devastating forest fires, compounding the effect of generations of tree-felling by boat-builders.
Until the late 1980s, the more powerful ship-owning dynasts, local government and the military authorities discouraged tourism and even now it is concentrated mostly in the capital or the nearby beach resorts of Karfás and Ayía Ermióni. Despite this, various foreigners have discovered a Híos beyond its rather daunting port capital: fascinating villages, important Byzantine monuments and a respectable, if remote, complement of beaches. English is widely spoken courtesy of numerous returned Greek-Americans and Greek-Canadians.
HÍOS TOWN, a brash, concrete-laced commercial centre with little predating the 1881 quake, will come as a shock after modest island capitals elsewhere. Yet in many ways it’s the most satisfactory of the east Aegean ports, with a large and fascinating marketplace, several museums, an old quarter and some good, authentic tavernas. Although a sprawling place of about 30,000 souls, most things of interest lie within a few hundred metres of the water, fringed by Leofóros Egéou.
The most popular boat excursions from the main port of Híos Town are to the nearby satellite island of Inoússes and to the Turkish coast, as Psará is too far for a comfortable day-trip. Trips to Inoússes usually depart twice a week, on Thursday and Sunday, at 8.30am, returning by 6pm at a cost of €20. The longer excursions to Turkey leave daily at 8am for the port of Çeşme, where an optional bus transfer takes you to the city of Izmir, returning by 7.15pm. Prices vary according to demand but are often as low as €35; Kanaris Tours at Leofóros Egéou 12 (kanaristours.gr) sell tickets for both.
Besides olive groves, southern Híos’s gently rolling countryside is home to the mastic bush, and the twenty or so mastihohoriá, or mastic villages. Since the decline of the mastic trade, the mastihohoriá live mainly off their tangerines, apricots and olives, though the villages, the only settlements on Híos spared by the Ottomans in 1822, retain their architectural uniqueness, designed by the Genoese but with a distinctly Middle Eastern feel. The basic plan involves a rectangular warren of tall houses, with the outer row doubling as perimeter fortification, and breached by a limited number of gateways. More recent additions, whether in traditional architectural style or not, straggle outside the original defences. Of the surviving villages, three stand out: Pyrgí, Olýmbi and Mestá.
The mastic bush (Pistacia lentisca) is found across much of Aegean Greece but only in southern Híos – pruned to an umbrella shape to facilitate harvesting – does it produce aromatic resin of any quality or quantity, scraped from incisions made on the trunk during summer. For centuries it was used as a base for paints, cosmetics and the chewable jelly beans that became an addictive staple in Ottoman harems. Indeed, the interruption of the flow of mastic from Híos to Istanbul by the revolt of spring 1822 was a main cause of the brutal Ottoman reaction. The wealth engendered by the mastic trade supported twenty mastihohoriá (mastic villages) from the time the Genoese set up a monopoly in the substance during the fourteenth century, but the demise of imperial Turkey and the development of petroleum-based products knocked the bottom out of the mastic market.
Now it’s just a curiosity, to be chewed – try the sweetened Elma-brand gum – or drunk as mastíha liqueur. It has had medicinal applications since ancient times; contemporary advocates claim that mastic boosts the immune system and thins the blood. High-end cosmetics, toothpaste and mouthwash are now sold at the Mastiha Shop in Híos Town.
IKARÍA, a narrow, windswept landmass between Sámos and Mýkonos, is comparatively little visited and sadly underestimated by many people. The name supposedly derives from Icarus, who in legend fell into the sea just offshore after the wax bindings on his wings melted. For years the only substantial tourism was generated by a few hot springs on the southeast coast; since the early 1990s, however, tourist facilities of some quantity and quality have sprung up in and around Armenistís, the only resort of note.
Ikaría, along with Thessaly, Lésvos and the Ionian islands, has traditionally been one of the Greek Left’s strongholds. This dates from long periods of right-wing domination in Greece, when, as in Byzantine times, the island was used as a place of exile for political dissidents, particularly Communists, who from 1946 to 1949 outnumbered native islanders. This house-arrest policy backfired, with the transportees (including Mikis Theodhorakis in 1946–47) favourably impressing their hosts as the most noble figures they had ever encountered, worthy of emulation. Earlier in the twentieth century, many Ikarians had emigrated to North America and ironically their capitalist remittances kept the island going for decades. Yet anti-establishment attitudes still predominate and local pride dictates that outside opinion matters little. Thus many Ikarians exhibit a lack of obsequiousness and a studied eccentricity, which some visitors mistake for hostility, making the island something of an acquired taste.
Except for forested portions in the northwest, it’s not a strikingly beautiful island, with most of the landscape being scrub-covered granite and schist put to use as building material. The mostly desolate south coast is overawed by steep cliffs, while the less sheer north face is furrowed by deep canyons creating hairpin road-bends extreme even by Greek-island standards.
Although bulldozers and forest fires have reduced the number of attractive possibilities, walking between Ráhes and both coasts on old paths is a favourite visitor activity. A locally produced, accurate map-guide, The Round of Ráhes on Foot, shows most asphalt roads, tracks and trails in the west of the island, as well as a loop-hike taking in the best of the Ráhes villages. The well-marked route sticks partly to surviving paths; the authors suggest a full day for the circuit, with ample rests, though total walking time won’t exceed six hours. The highlight is the section from Khristós to Kastaniés, which takes in the Hárakos ravine with its Spanédhon watermill.
Those wishing to traverse across Ikaría are best advised to keep on a “Round of Ráhes” sub-route from Khristós to Karydhiés, from where a historic path crosses the lunar Ammoudhiá uplands before dropping spectacularly southeast to Managanítis on the south coast, a generous half-day’s outing from Armenistís.
LÉSVOS (Mytilíni), the third-largest Greek island after Crete and Évvia, is the birthplace of the ancient bards Sappho, Aesop, Arion and – more recently – primitive artist Theophilos and Nobel Laureate poet Odysseus Elytis. Despite these artistic associations, the island may not initially strike one as particularly beautiful or interesting: much of the landscape is rocky, volcanic terrain, encompassing vast grain fields, saltpans or even near-desert. But there are also oak and pine forests as well as endless olive groves, some more than five centuries old. With its balmy climate and suggestive contours, Lésvos tends to grow on you with prolonged exposure. Lovers of medieval and Ottoman architecture certainly won’t be disappointed, and castles survive at Mytilíni Town, Mólyvos, Eressós, Sígri and near Ándissa.
Social and political idiosyncrasies add to the island’s appeal: anyone who has attended one of the village paniyíria, with hours of music and tables groaning with food and drink, will not be surprised to learn that Lésvos has the highest alcoholism rate (and some of the worst driving habits) in Greece. There is a tendency to vote Communist (with usually at least one Red MP in office), a legacy of the Ottoman-era quasi-feudalism, 1880s conflicts between small and large olive producers and further disruption occasioned by the arrival of many refugees. Breeding livestock, especially horses, remains important, and organic production has been embraced enthusiastically as a way of making Lésvos’s agricultural products more competitive.
Historically, the olive plantations, ouzo distilleries, animal husbandry and fishing industry supported those who chose not to emigrate, but when these enterprises stalled in the 1980s, tourism made appreciable inroads. However, it still accounts for less than ten percent of the local economy: there are few large hotels outside the capital, Skála Kalloní or Mólyvos, and visitor numbers have dropped noticeably in recent years, except for a mini-boom in Turkish weekenders.
In antiquity, Lésvos’s importance lay in its artistic and commercial connections rather than in historical events: being on the trade route to Asia Minor, it always attracted merchants and became quite wealthy during Roman times. During the late fourteenth century, Lésvos was given as a dowry to a Genoese prince of the Gattilusi clan following his marriage to the sister of one of the last Byzantine emperors – it’s from this period that most of its castles remain. The first two centuries of Ottoman rule were particularly harsh, with much of the Orthodox population sold into slavery or deported to the imperial capital – replaced by more tractable Muslim colonists, who populated even rural areas – and most physical evidence of the Genoese or Byzantine period demolished. Out in the countryside, Turks and Greeks got along, relatively speaking, right up until 1923; the Ottoman authorities favoured Greek kahayiádhes (overseers) to keep the peons in line. However, large numbers of the lower social classes, oppressed by the pashas and their Greek lackeys, fled across to Asia Minor during the nineteenth century, only to return again after the exchange of populations.
The “naïve” painter Theophilos Hadzimihaïl (1873–1934) was born and died in Mytilíni Town, and both his eccentricities and talents were remarkable from an early age. After wandering across the country from Pílio to Athens and the Peloponnese, Theophilos became one of belle époque Greece’s prize eccentrics, dressing up as Alexander the Great or various revolutionary war heroes, complete with pom-pommed shoes and pleated skirt. Theophilos was ill and living as a recluse in severely reduced circumstances back on Lésvos when he was introduced to Thériade in 1919; the latter, virtually alone among critics of the time, recognized his peculiar genius and ensured that Theophilos was supported both morally and materially for the rest of his life.
With their childlike perspective, vivid colour scheme and idealized mythical and rural subjects, Theophilos’s works are unmistakeable. Relatively few of his works survive today, because he executed commissions for a pittance on ephemeral surfaces such as kafenío counters, horsecarts, or the walls of long-vanished houses. Facile comparisons are often made between Theophilos and Henri Rousseau, the roughly contemporaneous French “primitive” painter. Unlike “Le Douanier”, however, Theophilos followed no other profession, eking out a precarious living from his art alone. And while Rousseau revelled in exoticism, Theophilos’s work was principally and profoundly rooted in Greek mythology, history and daily life.
If you’re after a hot bath, head for the vaulted, well-restored Polikhnítos Spa complex (daily: April–Oct 9am–8pm; Nov–March 2–7pm; €4; hotsprings.gr) 1.5km east of the town of Polikhnítos; there are separate, warm-hued chambers for each sex. The water actually gushes out at temperatures up to 87°C, so needs to be tempered with cold.
No other Greek island is as dominated by olive production as Lésvos, which is blanketed by approximately 11 million olive trees. Most of these vast groves date from after a lethal frost in 1851, though a few hardy survivors are thought to be over five hundred years old. During the first three centuries after the Ottoman conquest, production of olive oil was a monopoly of the ruling pasha, but following eighteenth-century reforms in the Ottoman Empire, extensive tracts of Lésvos (and thus the lucrative oil trade) passed into the hands of the new Greek bourgeoisie, who greatly expanded the industry.
MYTILÍNI, the port and capital, sprawls between and around two bays divided by a fortified promontory, and in Greek fashion often doubles as the name of the island. Many visitors are put off by the combination of urban bustle and, in the humbler northern districts, slight seediness. However, several diversions, particularly the marketplace and a few museums within a few minutes’ walk of the waterfront, can occupy you for a few hours.
The road heading north from Mytilíni towards Mandamádhos follows a rather nondescript coastline, but offers startling views across the straits to Turkey. South of the capital, there are two fine museums at Variá and a couple of decent beaches further down the peninsula.
The northern part of Lésvos is largely fertile and green countryside stippled with poplars and blanketed by olive groves. Occupying the prime position on a promontory in the middle of the coast is one of the northeast Aegean’s most attractive resorts, Mólyvos, whose castle’s cockscomb silhouette is visible for many kilometres around. On either side of it, a number of coastal resorts offer superior bathing.
Bucolic Límnos is a sizeable agricultural and military island that has become positively trendy of late: there are upscale souvenir shops, old village houses restored by mainlanders as seasonal retreats and music bars during summer at nearly every beach. For all that, the island’s remoteness and peculiar ferry schedules protected it until the mid-1990s from most aspects of the holiday trade, and conventional tourism was late in coming because hoteliers lived primarily off the visiting relatives of the numerous soldiers stationed here. Most summer visitors are still Greek, particularly from Thessaloníki, though some Brits and other Europeans now arrive by charter flights.
The island has often been the focus of disputes between the Greek and Turkish governments, with frequent posturing over invaded airspace, although the détente of recent years has seen such incidences cease. As a result, Límnos’s garrison of 25,000 soldiers – at the nadir of Greco-Turkish relations during the 1970s and 1980s – is now down to about 6000, and set to fall further if, as expected, the remaining bases close.
The bays of Bourniá and Moúdhros, the latter one of the largest natural harbours in the Aegean, divide Límnos almost in two. The west of the island is dramatically hilly, with abundant basalt put to good use as street cobbles and house masonry. The east is low-lying and speckled with seasonal salt marshes where it’s not occupied by cattle, combine harvesters and vast corn fields. There are numerous sandy beaches around the coast – mostly gently shelving – and it’s easy to find a stretch to yourself.
Like most volcanic islands, Límnos produces excellent wine – good dry white, rosé and retsina – plus ouzo. The Limnians proudly tout an abundance of natural food products, including thyme honey and sheep’s cheese, and indeed the population is almost self-sufficient in foodstuffs.
Nearly all the tourist amenities are concentrated in the western third of the island, mostly in and around the coastal stretch between Mýrina and the vast Moúdhros Bay. This area includes many of the best beaches and most picturesque inland villages.
Beyond Mýrina’s respectable town beaches, the closest good sand lies 3km north at Avlónas, unspoilt except for the local power plant a short way inland. Just beyond, the road splits: the right-hand turning wends its way through Káspakas, its north-facing houses in neat tiers and a potable spring on its platía, before plunging down to Áyios Ioánnis, also reached directly by the left-hand bypass from the capital. The furthest of its three beaches is the most pleasant, a curved cove punctuated by a tiny fishing harbour and offshore islet named Vampire Island.
Six kilometres northeast of Mýrina, the old Ottoman baths at Thérma, complete with calligraphic plaques, have been restored as an eye-wateringly expensive contemporary health spa, with all conceivable treatments available – or you can just have a hydromassage soak (€12). Unusually for a hot spring, the water is non-sulphurous and is the tastiest on the island, so there is always a knot of cars parked nearby under the trees while their owners fill jerry cans with warm water from a public fountain, which has a bilingual Greek/Ottoman Turkish inscription.
Just south of Thérma is the iconic poster image of Límnos: the chapel of Panayía Kakaviótissa, tucked into a volcanic cave on the flank of Mt Kákavos (360m).
Some 7km north of Thérma, SARDHÉS is the highest village on the island, with wonderfully broody sunsets and a celebrated central taverna. The handsome local houses are typical of mountain villages on Límnos in having an external staircase up to the first floor, as the ground floor was used for animals.
Beyond Sardhés and 5km below Katálakkos lies the spectacular, well-signposted dune environment at Gomáti, one of the largest such in Greece. There are two zones, reached by separate dirt tracks: one at a river mouth, with a bird-rich marsh, and the other to the northwest, with a beach bar and sunbeds. The latter portion especially is a popular outing.
PLATÝ, 2km southeast of Mýrina, has had its traditional profile somewhat compromised by modern villa construction, but it does have two nocturnal tavernas. The long sandy beach, 700m below, is popular, with non-motorized watersports available at the south end through Babis, below the Lemnos Village complex.
THÁNOS has more architectural character than smaller Platý, 2km southeast. Paralía Thánous, 1.5km below, is among the most scenic of southwestern beaches, flanked by volcanic crags and looking out to Áyios Efstrátios island. Beyond Thános, the road curls over to the enormous beach at Evgátis (Áyios Pávlos), reckoned the island’s best, with more igneous pinnacles for definition and Áyios Efstrátios on the horizon.
Eleven kilometres east of Mýrina, KONDIÁS is the island’s third-largest settlement, cradled between hills tufted with Límnos’s biggest pine forest. Stone-built, often elaborate houses combine with the setting to make Kondiás an attractive inland village, a fact not lost on the Greeks and foreigners restoring those houses with varying degrees of taste. Cultural interest is lent by the central Balkan Art Gallery (daily except Fri 10am–2pm & 7.30–9.30pm; €2), featuring works by prominent painters from across the Balkans – especially Bulgarian Svetlin Russev. Tsimándhria, 2.5km further east, has better dining options.
SAMOTHRÁKI (Samothrace) has one of the most dramatic profiles of all the Greek islands, second only to Thíra (Santorini): its dark mass of granite rises abruptly from the sea, culminating in the 1611m Mount Fengári. Seafarers have always been guided by its imposing outline, clearly visible from the mainland, and its summit provided a vantage point for Poseidon to watch over the siege of Troy. Landing is subject to the notoriously unpredictable weather, but that did not deter pilgrims who, for hundreds of years in antiquity, journeyed to the island to visit the Sanctuary of the Great Gods and were initiated into its mysteries. The sanctuary remains the main archeological attraction of the island, which, too remote for most tourists, combines earthy simplicity with natural grandeur. The tourist season is relatively short – essentially (late) July and August – but you will find some facilities open as early as Easter and one or two all year round.
Hidden in a stony but thickly wooded ravine between the tiny hamlet of PALEÓPOLI – 6km northeast from Kamariótissa, and 3km directly north from Hóra – and the plunging northwestern ridge of Mount Fengári, lie the remains of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. From the late Bronze Age (around the eighth century BC) until the early Byzantine era (fifth century AD), the mysteries and sacrifices of the cult of the Great Gods (see box, p.658) were performed on Samothráki, in ancient Thracian, until the second century BC. Little is known of this dialect except that it was a very old Indo-European tongue, related to and eventually replaced by ancient Greek. The spiritual focus of the northern Aegean, the importance of the island’s rituals was second only to the Mysteries of Eleusis in all the ancient world. The well-labelled site strongly evokes its proud past while commanding views of the mountains and the sea.
Just 12km from the mainland, Thássos has long been a popular resort island for northern Greeks, and since the early 1990s has also attracted a cosmopolitan mix of tourists, particularly Germans and Scandinavians on packages, as well as an increasing number of people from eastern Europe. They are all entertained by vast numbers of bouzoúkia (music halls) and music tavernas, while nature-lovers can find some areas of outstanding beauty, especially inland. Moreover, the island’s traditional industries have managed to survive the onslaught of modernity. The elite of Thássos still make a substantial living from the pure-white marble that constitutes two-thirds of the landmass, found only here and quarried at dozens of sites in the hills between Liménas and Panayía. Olives, especially the oil, honey, nuts and fruit (often sold candied) are also important products. The spirit tsípouro, rather than wine, is the main local tipple; pear extract, onions or spices like cinnamon and anise are added to home-made batches.
Inhabited since the Stone Age, Thássos was settled by Parians in the seventh century BC, attracted by gold deposits between modern Liménas and Kínyra. Buoyed by revenues from these, and from silver mines under Thassian control on the mainland opposite, the ancient city-state here became the seat of a medium-sized seafaring empire. Commercial acumen did not spell military invincibility, however; the Persians under Darius swept the Thassian fleets from the seas in 492 BC, and in 462 BC Athens permanently deprived Thássos of its autonomy after a three-year siege. The main port continued to thrive into Roman times, but lapsed into Byzantine and medieval obscurity.
Sadly, the salient fact of more recent history has been a series of devastating, deliberately set fires in the 1980s and 1990s. Only the northeastern quadrant of the island, plus the area around Astrís and Alykí, escaped, though the surviving forest is still home to numerous pine martens.
ALYKÍ hamlet, 35km from Liménas and just below the main road, faces a perfect double bay which almost pinches off a headland. Uniquely, it retains its original whitewashed, slate-roofed architecture, since the presence of extensive antiquities here has led to a ban on any modern construction. Those ruins include an ancient temple to an unknown deity, and two exquisite early Christian basilicas out on the headland, with a few columns re-erected.
Of the beaches, the sand-and-pebble west bay gets oversubscribed in peak season, though you can always head off to the less crowded, rocky east cove, or snorkel in the crystal-clear waters off the marble formations on the headland’s far side. Alternatively, head for secluded Kékes beach, in a pine grove 1km further southwest.